I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel by Michael R. Eisenman and Andrew J. Indovina [Comp98]

IFDB page: I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel
Final placement: 24th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

If you enjoyed Dan McPherson’s My First Stupid Game, you’re sure to love I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel. Yodel is much larger and better programmed than My First Stupid Game, but the writing and the puzzles are at about the same level. For example, McPherson’s game featured a time limit imposed by the need to pee — in Yodel, unhappy bowels are the feature attraction. However, where the former ended once you had relieved yourself (onto a picture of Barney the dinosaur, no less), the latter is just beginning. Flushing a toilet is the gateway to sprawling vistas of strange riddles, terse descriptions (interspersed with broad cut-scenes), and mostly-nonsensical plot developments. I’m generally not a big fan of the kind of “Dumb and Dumber” humor with which Yodel is permeated. In addition, I found the first puzzle both irritating and illogical. (A key falls off a bookshelf, but it’s not on the floor! Where is it? In the next room! Why? Who knows?) Consequently, I gave up and started using the walkthrough about 15 minutes into the game. I’m happy to say, however, that I’m not altogether sorry that I did.

For one thing, let’s give credit where it’s due: the authors have programmed a text-adventure engine in (according to them) a combination of Modula-2, C, C++, Garbano, and (Intel x86) Assembler, and their simulation of the Infocom interface is not half bad; they even included a free implementation of Hangman. Unfortunately, in the era of Inform, TADS, and Hugo, “not half bad” is really not that great. The engine is missing a number of conveniences, among them the “X” abbreviation for “EXAMINE”, a “VERBOSE” mode, and the “OOPS” verb; I think these conveniences should basically be considered de rigueur for any modern text game. Moreover, while the game was relatively bug-free, the ones I did encounter were doozies: at one point the game crashed completely when attempting to go into Hangman mode, and at another point the “key found” flag was apparently not reset on a restore, making the game unsolvable. Still, despite these flaws, I salute anyone with the energy and the skills to code, from scratch, an Infocom-clone with Yodel‘s level of sophistication. Also, the program had a couple of touches that I thought were pretty cool — at several points during the game, an inset sub-window popped up which presented a parallel narrative thread (“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”). This technique worked quite well, and I think it has a lot of potential for expanding the narrative range, and breaking the limitations of the second-person POV, to which IF usually limits itself. The gimmick was also used at the end of the game to provide a fairly enjoyable epilogue describing the eventual fate of every character you met along the way, a la Animal House. Finally, I did enjoy the free Hangman game, though its puzzles and its insertion into the game were just about as illogical as everything else in Yodel.

Which brings us to the plot. I won’t give away too much about the plot in Yodel, mainly because I didn’t really understand what little plot there was. All I’ll say is this: don’t expect anything to make any sense. There are several moments in the game that I found quite funny, but they are swamped by long stretches of bizarre, inexplicable, or adolescent japes. I would be very surprised if anyone (outside, perhaps, of the authors’ circle of friends) is able to solve the game without a walkthrough. Many of the riddles (and yes, there are many many of them) left me baffled, even after I knew the solution. Moreover, the abrupt, patchwork nature of the game gave me the impression that in several situations only one action would do, and how anyone would guess that action is beyond me. By the way, if you’re offended by descriptions of “swimsuit babes acting out your wildest fantasy” or borderline-racist, stereotypical depictions of Indians (Native Americans, not Bengalis), then Yodel is probably not the game for you. If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for something lowbrow, then grab a walkthrough — Yodel is not entirely without its rewards.

Rating: 4.0

CASK by Harry M. Hardjono [Comp97]

IFDB page: CASK
Final placement: 31st place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, a game subtitled “my first stab at Interactive Fiction” doesn’t inspire much confidence. CASK is another one of those “I wrote this game to learn Inform” games that seem to be so popular this year. None of the other languages, even AGT, have inspired this particular genre of competition entry this year (with the possible exception of Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves, written in ALAN), and I think it’s worth ruminating on the reasons for that. Inform is a sophisticated system, and there certainly have been no dearth of complaints on the IF newsgroups about how difficult it is to write programs with its C-like, object-oriented structures. Nonetheless, many people (including some of the people complaining on the newsgroups) have been able to use Inform well enough that they felt the results of even their first efforts were worthy for submission to the competition.

I think that part of the reason for this is that Inform’s libraries are comprehensive and detailed enough that even the barest shell .z5 game seems rich with possibility — dozens of verbs are implemented and ready to use, and creating simple rooms and objects is quite easy. The depth to which the Inform libraries are crafted allows even a designer’s first efforts to seem, at first blush, on a par with simpler Infocom adventures. Moreover, Inform enjoys a special place in the ftp.gmd.de hierarchy: besides being lumped in with all the good, bad, and indifferent systems in if-archive/programming, it also resides in if-archive/infocom/compilers. Consequently, anyone who came to IF by way of Infocom can stumble upon it in their first visit to the archive, simply through connecting to the most familiar word and then saying “Wow, the Infocom compiler is here?” I know that’s how it happened for me. Inform’s .z5 format is a nice piece of wish-fulfillment for all of us who wish that we could still get a job at Infocom. So just because Inform is granted this privileged association with Infocom, does that mean that a certain set of its users feel that their first efforts are on Infocom’s level, without a substantial amount of effort on the part of the author? Perhaps, but all these pieces combined don’t explain the trend I’ve seen this year. I’m not sure what the rest of the explanation is, but I do know this: I hope the trend won’t last. It doesn’t add a lot of quality interactive fiction to the archive, just a lot of shoddy Inform examples.

Which brings me up to CASK. The idea here is that you’re trapped in the basement of a winery, abducted for no apparent reason by your new employers. You must use your wits and the objects about you to make your escape. However, the real truth is that you’re trapped in a below-average interactive fiction game, which was entered in the contest for no apparent reason by its author. You must decipher vague prose, evade coding bugs, and defy logic to escape. Luckily, it doesn’t take too much time as long as you have help. Bring your walkthrough! CASK helped its author learn Inform. Let’s see that knowledge applied to the creation of a quality IF game.

Prose: There were a number of areas in which the vagueness of the prose contributed rather unfairly to the difficulty of the puzzles. [SPOILERS AHEAD] For example, at one point in the game you find a rusty saw, whose description reads “It is a rusty saw.” (Oooh! Now I understand! Glad I examined that!) When you try to cut something with the saw, the game tells you “You cut your fingers on the saw. Ouch!” Now, I’m no genius, but I do know which end of a saw to hold. It’s the handle, right? There’s nothing in the description suggesting that this saw doesn’t have a handle, so how would I cut my fingers? Is the handle sharp? Turns out you have to wrap a cloth around the saw then cut a hole with it. Though it seems to me a saw with a cloth wrapped around it isn’t going to have much cutting power. [SPOILERS END] Dealing with prose like this makes me feel like the character is supposed to be woozy and probably blind and pretty clueless as well. I hope the effect is unintentional.

Plot: Oh, I’m sorry. I gave away the plot earlier. You have to escape from a basement.

Puzzles: There are really only a few puzzles in this very short game, several of which involve having a switch in the right position (though figuring out which position is right is largely a matter of guesswork. Luckily the switch has only two positions, so even the brute-force solution doesn’t take long). There’s also a bit of outfox-the-parser, some find-the-bug, and a good deal of figure-out-what-the-hell-the-prose-means.

Technical (writing): The writing featured several entertaining errors. In one room (of the three total in the game) you can see that the room “has relatively few noteworthy” aside from “an old heavy machinery”.

Technical (coding): This game could definitely have used a great deal more testing. Object descriptions repeat when they shouldn’t, and some trapped responses behave in bizarre ways.

OVERALL: A 3.1

About my 1997 IF Competition reviews

Playing and reviewing every game from the 1996 competition was a bit of a journey for me. At first, I was checking them out with an eye toward assessing the competitors to my own entry. That faded pretty quickly after I played Delusions, which was so much better than Wearing The Claw that I gave up all hope of winning then and there.

Delusions remained my favorite game of all the entries that year. It just blew me away. Once I played it and wrote about it, I knew that I wanted to share what I’d written, and in the spirit of fairness I committed to playing and writing about all the games. (The spirit of fairness did not extend so far as to rewriting the notes-y reviews I’d already completed. The deadline was a tough one.)

Some of my other favorites came toward the end of that queue, including Tapestry, Small World, and the ponderously named eventual comp winner The Meteor, The Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. I had started playing these games to check out my competition, but I finished them in love with the competition. Sure, there were clunkers, and some outright painful experiences, but for a kid enchanted by Infocom, there was also this bouquet of brilliant new Infocom-like games, and even more thrilling, some games that opened up territory that Infocom had never touched.

So well before the 1997 comp, I was excited to play all the games, and write much more definitive reviews of each one from the outset. I settled on a format of three paragraphs, plus a similar breakdown to what I’d provided in ’96 — sections on prose, plot, puzzles, and technical prowess for both writing and coding. I discarded “difficulty” as a category, because it had proven irrelevant for so many of the Comp96 games.

Well, I bit off a little more than I could chew. By the time I got to the end of the judging period for all 34 comp games (10 more than I’d reviewed the previous year!), that format had beaten me up pretty well. But again, out of a sense of fairness, I didn’t want to alter it midway through the journey. I knew, though, that I’d need to take a more scaled-down approach in the future. I also grappled a lot with how to handle spoilers in my Comp97 reviews. I kept finding myself wanting to reinforce my points with specific evidence from the games, but doing so meant spoiling puzzles or plot.

As I revamp these reviews for >INVENTORY, I’ve taken out some spoiler tags that seem overly cautious to me now, but I’ve left quite a few in. Where there’s danger of spoiling major plot or puzzle points, I either provide a warning in red declaring “spoilers from here on out” or some equivalent, or I blank out the text of the spoiler and put red begin and end tags on it. Where I do this, you can highlight the text to see the spoiler. Fair warning, though: if you’re using a screen reader to read these posts, such color trickery obviously won’t work, so you’ll need to rely on the “spoilers begin” and “spoilers end” tags. Apologies for this — I got better over the years.

1997 was also the first year of the cool comp randomizer, meaning that rather than playing the game in filename order, I played them in an entirely random order. As always, I’ll post the reviews in the order that I played the games, since I often find myself referring back to previous reviews in the course of writing new ones. Finally, I apparently found it necessary to post an apology for my occasional irascibility, alongside some further explications of my opinions about unfinished games and cliched settings.

For the 1997 IF Competition games, I’ll provide:

  • IFDB page
  • Final comp placement
  • 3 paragraphs of overall discussion
  • Assessments of the following attributes:
    • Prose
    • Technical achievement, split into writing and coding subcategories
    • Plot
    • Puzzles
  • Overall score

I originally posted my reviews for the 1997 IF Competition games on January 1, 1998.

The Land Beyond The Picket Fence by Martin Oehm [Comp96]

IFDB page: The Land Beyond the Picket Fence
Final placement: 14th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Picket is a gently whimsical fantasy without much of a plot, whose main interesting feature is its interface. I haven’t played much DOS executable IF before (Inform, TADS, and Infocom games seem to monopolize my time), and it was an interesting experience to play a piece of IF in different colors from my normal white letters on blue background. The different colors of background and text lent a distinctive mood to the piece, and the effectiveness of this technique makes me realize some of the special effects we sacrifice in the name of platform independence. A small sacrifice, perhaps, but a pity nonetheless. As to the content of the game, it was basically average — nothing too irritating or pointless, but nothing astounding or groundbreaking either. It provided a pleasant hour’s entertainment, with a few jarring moments where the prose deviated from standard English. All in all, an enjoyable if unspectacular game.

Prose: There were a few moments in the prose where it was clear that the writer did not speak English as a first language, but the fact that those moments were noticeable as exceptions to the general trend means that overall the writer did a fine job of writing in an unfamiliar language. The descriptions were sometimes a little thin, especially with the game’s two NPCs, but in general the fairytale fantasy mood was well-evoked by the writing.

Difficulty: I found this game’s difficulty to be pitched a bit below average. I never needed to look at the hints, and felt that I progressed through the narrative at a satisfactory pace. I finished the game in a little under an hour, which may mean that it was a little too easy if a two-hour playing time was intended (I’m certainly not the quickest IF player, as earlier reviews may indicate). However, I never felt disappointed with anything being “too easy” — easier than usual, perhaps, but never to an annoying degree.

Technical (coding): There were a few coding problems, and in fact one fatal bug which first made some of my possessions disappear after a restore and then kicked me out of the game altogether. Also, some fairly common verbs (“throw”, and the “character, command” mode of interaction) were not implemented, which was a little disappointing. Aside from these problems, the coding was smooth and relatively bug-free.

Technical (writing): As I mentioned above, there were a few instances of awkward grammar which indicated that the writer was not quite comfortable enough with English to sound like a native writer. The problems were relatively infrequent, and had less to do with spelling or grammar errors than with awkward or unusual constructions.

Plot: Well, the only plot here was a basic “find the object” quest, though cast in much less epic/heroic terms than usual, which was refreshing. There wasn’t much of a sense of unfolding narrative, and many objects were either totally unexplained (the key to the gnome’s treasure room tied around a swan’s neck with a red ribbon? How did that happen?) or so convenient as to be ridiculous (how handy that the scientist just happens to have a powerful fungicide that can kill the problematic mushrooms!), causing the game to feel less like a plotted story than an excuse for stringing puzzles together.

Puzzles: The puzzles were rather average pieces, some quite derivative (the “key tied around an inaccessible animal’s neck” is of course a direct crib from Zork II.) The ordinariness of the puzzles contributed to the game’s low level of difficulty — they weren’t too difficult to solve, because they seemed quite familiar, and those that weren’t derivative were of the “just-happen-to-have-the-perfect-item” type.

OVERALL — A 6.7

The Curse Of Eldor by Stuart Allen [Comp96]

IFDB page: Curse Of Eldor
Final placement: 21st place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, this is a case of what could have been. What could have made for a fun, enjoyable game was brought down by a few fatal flaws: buggy coding, poor writing, and some clichéd settings and puzzles. I gave up on the game after about an hour, looked for the walkthrough and couldn’t find it. (I’m assuming there was one and I’m just too blind to figure out where it was. However, I didn’t appreciate the fact that the help info said to type “HELP” and then the topic I needed help with, but didn’t ever seem to respond to that command structure) Looking at the source code, I see there was a councillor who gives me the details of my mission — unfortunately, this councillor never showed up when I ran the game. Also, while I commend the author for writing an engine that comes as close as it does to emulating Infocom, it was missing some key features, such as “verbose”. Fix up the code, proof the writing, and you could have yourself a playable game. Unfortunately, the version that was entered in the competition is no such animal.

Prose: Once in a while the prose would reach a level where I enjoyed reading it. All too often, though, it was simply one trite cliché after another (A dragon regards you sleepily, the men are gathered around the roaring fire, etc.) The other problem with the prose was its uneven level of detail. Some things in room descriptions were described at length — some other obvious features (a twelve foot pit, for example) were not described at all. Also, some simple errors (a room description which tells of an exit leading east when the exit really leads west) lead me to believe that the game was not well beta-tested.

Difficulty: Well, considering that from the outset something I needed to complete the game was hidden by buggy coding, I’d rate the difficulty right at “impossible.”

Technical (coding): As I’ve said, quite spotty. Not to take away from the author’s accomplishment of creating a free-standing text adventure engine — this is obviously quite respectable. However, it’s not all that respectable if it doesn’t work. Example bugs are (of course) the councillor, the “help” command that doesn’t help, and the fact that basic commands like “verbose” and “again” are unavailable.

Technical (writing): Unfortunately, the writing was littered with quite a few errors, especially spelling errors and simple grammar errors. For example, lots of it’s/its errors, which is a pet peeve of mine. Clearly this work was not proofread (at least, I hope it wasn’t proofread!).

Plot: I found it too difficult to get past the bugs to find the development of anything I could reasonably call a plot.

Puzzles: Once again, the real puzzle was figuring out where the bugs are in the game’s code. From looking at the source code, the puzzles I looked at were fairly well-worn (picking a lock with a wire, making an animal sneeze). However, to be fair I didn’t come across all that many puzzles on my own, so there may be some better ones that I missed. Gee, a walkthrough or hints would have helped!

OVERALL — A 2.2

Delusions by C.E. Forman as Anonymous [Comp96]

IFDB page: Delusions
Final placement: 3rd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Incredible game. Basically excellent in every respect — brilliant idea, (almost) flawlessly executed, great plot, well-thought-out puzzles. Just a gem in every respect. The only drawback (and I admit this is a quibble) is that the author’s notes tend to get a little irritating. The overall level of quality is stunningly high (though a bit depressing — after playing Delusions, I became certain that my entry was not going to win the competition.) The game was so good that it almost made me wonder if the anonymous author was a former Infocom implementor in disguise. I’m looking forward with great eagerness to completing the game (which I wasn’t able to get through in two hours)!

Prose: Infocom-level prose — not at classic literature level but more than sufficient to get one’s heart racing and chills mounting. The descriptions of virtual reality entrances and exits skirted the edge of histrionics but always came down on the right side. And the level of detail was a terrific kick — I especially loved the futuristic game of Jeopardy!.

Difficulty: I didn’t find the game terribly difficult, but found myself checking the hints quite a bit simply because I wanted to see as much of the game as I could in the two hours allotted. The excitement of seeing the second act unravel left me with little patience for struggling with puzzles. If I had not been in a time limit situation, I’m sure this would not have been true.

Technical (coding): One of the best coding jobs I’ve ever seen. The shifting responses to “examine” and the number of objects and possible combinations of those objects gave the world a stunningly rich level of verisimilitude.

Technical (writing): Basically flawless. I didn’t find one single grammar or spelling error.

Plot: First-rate. Extremely clever ideas masterfully revealed. The idea of Satan as a virus, the world as a VR construct, and God as a blind, black, bitter woman may be a little skewed theologically, but it made for totally engrossing IF. I look forward to the endgame with great anticipation.

Puzzles: I found Delusions to have exactly the right kind of puzzles for my taste in IF. Nothing arbitrary, nothing typical, and absolutely consistent with the described world and the advancing plot. The game proves that story-oriented IF does not have to be a cakewalk.

OVERALL — A 9.8

About my 1996 IF Competition reviews

The 1995 IF Competition knocked me out. That year, the comp was split (for the first and only time) into two divisions: Inform and TADS. Both of the winning games were fantastic, and the “finishable in two hours” rule broke them out of the Infocom mold that had thus far dictated almost all amateur IF.

The Infocom canon still dominated my own mindset and outlook on IF at that time. I’ll break out phrases like “Infocom-level prose”, and reference various Infocom games to provide a frame of reference for my views on the comp games. 1996 was also the year that Activision released Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom, a CD-ROM collection of every Infocom game plus the top 6 games from the 1995 IF Competition. The fact that those amateur games could get the “official” Infocom imprimatur took my breath away. I wanted in, badly.

In 1996, I submitted my own game to the comp, Wearing The Claw. I also decided I’d play and submit scores for every game that had been entered. I did so, running through the games in alphabetical order by filename, which worked out to almost alphabetical order by game, but not quite. So that I could decide what scores to give, I took notes during gameplay, tracking how well the game measured up in categories like prose, puzzles, plot, technical achievement, and so forth.

Having seen reviews posted for the 1995 games, and hoping for a lot of feedback on my own work, I decided quickly to turn my notes into “reviews”, but as the scare quotes should tell you, they’re not exactly worthy of the name, especially the early ones. Even through the process of writing about the games, I was learning how I wanted to write about the games, which was sadly a little inequitable for the games that fell in the early part of the alphabet, and especially for the one that started with “Aa”. Sentence fragments abound, and much of what I wrote was more for myself than anyone else.

By the time I got to the final game, Tapestry, which was brilliant and ended up taking second place, I’d developed a more coherent approach. That approach would also change over the years, but at least it didn’t shortchange Daniel Ravipinto the way that it had Magnus Olsson, author of Aayela. That said, I’ve cleaned up these reviews a little, at least standardizing the punctuation and capitalization.

For the 1996 comp game reviews, I’ll provide the following:

  • IFDB page
  • Final comp placement
  • Intro sentences
  • Assessments of the following attributes:
    • Prose
    • Difficulty
    • Technical achievement, split into writing and coding subcategories
    • Plot
    • Puzzles
  • Overall score

I originally posted my reviews for the 1996 IF Competition games on December 3, 1996.