Baluthar by Chris Molloy Wischer [Comp03]

IFDB page: Baluthar
Final placement: 8th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

When looking at an IF Comp author’s name, there’s always the risk of being gulled by a pseudonym, but I’d be willing to bet that Chris Molloy Wischer really is a first-time author. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — it’s just that several things about Baluthar suggest that it’s the product of a less experienced creator. For one thing, GET ALL lists every object in the area, scenery or no, which is a classic rookie mistake for Inform authors. Of course, it’s possible that this was an intentional choice, but even if so, it’s a bit questionable. Sure, it’s a handy way to see what’s been implemented, and that’s certainly what I used it for, but it’s not exactly the most mimetic way to handle a player’s request to take everything available for the taking, since it results in responses like this:

wind: The wind resists your clumsy efforts with the mad energies of
its eternal youth.
your hand: Your hand is stuck to you already.

Aggravating the problem is the fact that every time GET ALL executes, the game assumes that you want to open all closed containers and take their contents too, resulting in a particular puzzle solution getting unraveled over and over again.

Another basic coding pitfall in Baluthar has to do with disambiguation. There are a couple of instances where the game, presented with several choices for how to interpret a noun, chooses the least obvious or least useful option. For instance, at one point the game describes a figure whose hand is clutched in a fist. So the obvious action is EXAMINE FIST, right? Observe:

>x fist
(your hand)
Your hand is very muddy.

No, not my hand! The thing that’s so specifically called a fist! A little ChooseObjects or parse_name trickery would go a long way here, and that’s just the sort of trickery that an inexperienced author is unlikely to have available.

As is evident from the “TAKE WIND” response above, the prose has its share of problems too, tending strongly towards the florid and even turgid. Even aside from the fact that the gross-out level stays very high throughout the game, and that every description of emotion tends to hit the drama extremely hard, there are some simple structural problems that keep the writing earthbound. For instance, a sentence weighed down by too many prepositional phrases strung together:

A nine-foot statue of a deity scowls down at you from the top of a
large boulder near the hut.

Instead of dancing or even stepping cleanly, the sentence puts one foot forward, then drags itself across the ground, piling on one modifier after another. Consider if instead it had read, “Atop a large boulder, a nine-foot statue scowls down at you.” We don’t need to know it’s near the hut, because we know we’re standing outside the hut — the simple presence of the object in this location tells us it’s near the hut. Save the fact that it’s a deity for the statue’s description, and separate the remaining prepositional phrases by moving one to the beginning of the sentence, shortening “from the top of” to “atop”, and now we have a much more concise and compelling description.

Another chronic problem in the prose is “adjectivitis”:

The white-lined faces of the densely-packed leaves give the
unsettling impression of a ghostly crowd of fish bones which
stretches endlessly around and above you.

Ack! “The [adjective noun] of the [adjective noun] give the [adjective noun] of a [adjective noun] of [adjective noun]…” This repetitive structure gives the prose a lumbering, choppy feel, no matter how vivid the words may be. Again, this sort of thing is the mark of a novice writer, whose focus is more on providing a full description than on communicating it gracefully.

So enough about that. Every author is a rookie once, and only once, and those who can learn from their mistakes and try again will inevitably produce a better game next time out. There are some things about Baluthar that showed promise. The hint system was nicely implemented, a menu-based setup that gave nudges at the right level without ever giving away too much too fast. Also, even though it had some structure and diction problems, the writing had very few grammar and spelling errors, and in fact the game in general felt like it had been tested and proofread, always something I appreciate in a competition entry.

In addition, the first puzzle was intriguing in that the obstacle it presented to the PC was emotional rather than physical, and consequently the puzzle and its solution not only advanced the plot but established some basic facts about the character as well. Finally, the story itself, while a bit over-the-top and melodramatic, presents a plausible emotional arc for the main character and provides an ending with symbolism that’s heavy-handed but effective. I’ll be interested to see what sort of improvements occur when and if the author produces another game.

Rating: 6.7

Zork II [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork II
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork II, and some for Zork I as well. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Dante and I fired up Zork II right after finishing Zork I, and yep, it’s another text game from the early 1980s. There’s still no “X” for “EXAMINE”, still lots of obviously amazing things described as “nothing special”. We were more ready for that this time, which perhaps threw more light on the next layer of dissonance between that era of text adventures and the mid-’90s renaissance: the specific affordances introduced by the Inform language and libraries.

>COMPARE INFORM TO INFOCOM

Dante cut his IF teeth on Inform games, so he found interactions like this pretty annoying:

>put string in brick
You don't have the black string.

>get string
Taken.

>put string in brick
Done.

Inform would have simply handled this at the first command with the bracketed comment “[first taking the black string]”, then moved right on to “done”. (Some later Infocom games took initial steps down this road too.) Furthermore, we couldn’t refer to the resulting compound object as a bomb, even though it was clearly a bomb — granted, that’s not something Inform would have done automatically either, but it is a pretty frequent occurrence in modern text games.

Another instance Inform handles nicely but Zork II does not:

There is a wooden bucket here, 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high.

>in
You can't go that way.

>enter
You can't go that way.

>enter bucket
You are now in the wooden bucket.

Again, Inform would have simply filled in the blank with “[the bucket]”, unless there were multiple enterable objects or map vectors in the player’s scope. And even then, it would have asked a disambiguating question rather than simply complaining, “You can’t go that way.” In fact, we could go that way.

Finally, Inform provides authors with a couple of easy facilities for avoiding “I don’t know the word [whatever]” when the player tries to reference nearby nouns. Those two magical tools are scenery objects and aliases. Thus, where Zork II gave us this:

Cobwebby Corridor
A winding corridor is filled with cobwebs. Some are broken and the dust on the floor is disturbed. The trend of the twists and turns is northeast to southwest. On the north side of one twist, high up, is a narrow crack.

>examine cobwebs
You can't see any cobwebs here!

Inform would have allowed an author to create a scenery object called “cobwebs”, and give it aliases like “webs”, “broken”, and “cobs”, so that even if she didn’t want to write a description of them, references to any of those nouns would result in a message along the lines of “You don’t need to refer to that in the course of this game.” That object could appear in multiple rooms, which I’m guessing is the flaw Zork II ran into here, since it clearly knew the word. I should also mention that it’s not just Inform that helps with extra objects, but the more relaxed memory constraints of the .z5 and .z8 formats (not to mention Glulx) compared to the .z3 that Zork II inhabits. Those early Implementors were trying to fit so many clowns into one tiny little car.

In any case, it’s worth a moment to just meditate in gratitude to Graham Nelson and his helpers for creating so many little helpful routines to smooth out the IF experience. Text adventures are forever changed, for the better, as a result of that language and its libraries. (That’s not to take anything away from TADS or Hugo, of course — I’m just thinking of how z-machine games specifically advanced.)

Box cover from Zork II

While the early z-machine had some pretty austere limits, some other limits were built into the Zork II experience by design. I’m thinking here of the inventory limit and the eternally damned light limit, which was even more frustrating here than in the previous game. I dunno, I suppose it’s possible that there was some technical root for the inventory limit, but it sure feels like it’s imposed in the name of some distorted sense of “realism”, a notion which flies out the window in dozens of other places throughout the game. Even if we accept the magic, the fantasy, and the allegedly underground setting (with features that feel less and less undergroundy all the time), there are just many things that make no physical sense, like easily scooping a puddle into a teapot. We can do that but we can’t carry however many objects we want to? (Again, Inform rode to the rescue here with the invention of the sack_object.)

That light limit, though. There’s no technical reason for it, and it caused us to have to restart Zork II TWICE. Not only that, it’s even crueler than its Zork I version, both because there is no permanent source of light in the game (unlike the lovely ivory torch from part 1) and because there are so many ways in which light can be randomly wasted by events beyond the player’s control. Chief among these are the Carousel Room and the wizard.

Zork I had a Round Room too, and it was entirely harmless. The Carousel Room is another story. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like a fun way to confound players, and it is, but in the case of my playthrough with Dante, we didn’t defeat it until very late in our time with the game — probably about the 75% mark of the time we spent on the game overall. That means a lot of our transcripts consist of us trying to go a direction, failing, trying again, failing, rinse, repeat, all the time ticking through that light limit, since of course all the rooms involved are dark. And it’s not as if the game makes it obvious what or where the puzzle to stop the room even is.

By itself, this direction-scrambling behavior would be quite annoying. When coupled with the fact that our light source is on an unalterable timer, it’s infuriating. Now add to that an NPC who can come along and waste your time with spells like “Float”, “Freeze”, or “Feeble”, all the time wasting yet more light, and you have one deeply frustrating game mechanic. This is that hallmark of early text games, where forced restarts were seen as adding to the “challenge.” A challenge to one’s patience, certainly. As before, Dante sat out those replay sessions.

>EXAMINE WIZARD

Since we’ve arrived at the topic, let’s talk about the Wizard of Frobozz. As has been extensively documented, Zork began life as a mainframe game, too large to fit into the microcomputers of its day, so when its implementors formed Infocom to sell it on the home PC market, they had to split up the mainframe game into pieces. That meant that the nemesis of the original game, the thief, appeared and was dispatched in the first installment of the home-version trilogy.

The thief was compelling. He could pop into your world at the most inconvenient times and create havoc, but you also couldn’t finish the game without him. With him gone in the first game, who would serve as the new adversary? Enter the Wizard. Dante was excited the first time the Wizard showed up — “It’s the title!” he said. The Wizard is a compelling character too — unpredictable like the thief but with a much larger variety of actions. He can cause a wide range of effects, but sometimes he screws up and doesn’t cause anything at all. Other times, he thinks better of meddling, and instead “peers at you from under his bushy eyebrows.”

When the wizard would show up, and the game would unexpectedly print out a stack of new text, our pulses would quicken, thinking that we’d stumbled onto something exciting. This effect reminded me to tell Dante about the days of external floppy drives — when I first played Zork II, the entire game couldn’t fit in the computer’s memory, so whenever something exciting was going to happen, the game would pause and the disk would spin up, so that the new data could be read into memory before it was displayed to the player. The excitement that accompanied that little light and whir — for instance, when leading the dragon to the glacier — was equal to any thrill I’ve subsequently gotten from a video game.

Map from Zork II

Of course, in the case of the wizard, it would turn out that nothing cool was happening. In fact it was just the opposite — we were generally about to get stymied in some amusing but nevertheless aggravating way. The wizard obviously gets more frustrating as he keeps repeating and repeating, but the variety and comedy in his spells, not to mention that sometimes he fails completely or casts something you don’t hear, really helps temper the annoyance. That said, this game is rich enough to encourage a flow state, and when the Wizard shows up to somehow block your progress, it really disrupts that flow.

Those blockages are ultimately detrimental to the game, on a level I doubt its authors were even thinking about. Parser IF is full of pauses — an indefinite amount of time can pass in between each prompt. However, the player is in control of these pauses’ length, and when we’re barreling through a game, either replaying old stuff to get somewhere or carried on the wings of inspiration, the pauses hardly feel like pauses at all. It’s more like an animated conversation. When the Wizard comes along, though, he’s a party-crasher who grinds that conversation to a halt. Suddenly we are being forced to pause, and cycle through more pauses to get through the pause.

Perhaps in some games, such a forced break would create contemplation, or an opportunity to step back and think of the bigger perspective. That wasn’t the case in Zork II, at least not for us. It just felt like our conversation had been interrupted, and we had to wait for the intruder to go away before we could continue having fun. This feels qualitatively different from the thief, whose arrival would shift the tension into another register, and whose departure may have resulted in loss of possessions, but never in paralysis that simply drained precious turns from an implacable timer.

On the other hand, the wizard has some excellent advantages over the thief. Infocom didn’t make the wizard part of the solution to a puzzle, the way the thief was, since that would have been redundant. In Zork I, the thief would foul up your plans, and had to be eliminated (though not too soon) in order to progress. Instead of this, Zork II themes its entire late game around fouling up the wizard’s plans. This conveys the sense that unlike the thief, the wizard has a separate agenda, one that isn’t centered around the player. That adds a small but significant layer of story to this game that isn’t present in its predecessor.

The way we frustrate the wizard is by getting into his lair, and doing so is one of the game’s most satisfying puzzles. The locked, guarded door to the lair starts with an arresting image: “At the south end of the room is a stained and battered (but very strong-looking) door. […] Imbedded in the door is a nasty-looking lizard head, with sharp teeth and beady eyes. The eyes move to watch you approach.” Getting past this door means disabling both the lizard and the lock, and each requires solving multiple layers of puzzles. For the lizard, it’s solving the riddle room, then finding your way to the pool, then figuring out how to drain it. For the key, it’s getting rid of the dragon, then rescuing the princess, then figuring out that the princess should be followed to the unicorn.

Then, of course, there’s the step of determining that the key and the candies are the necessary ingredients for the door. We tried many things before that! (In the process, we found one of the weirdest Infocom bugs I’ve ever seen — more about that in a moment.) And yet, even after solving it, we didn’t even have half the points! Experiences like this are what make Zork II feel so rich. Layering of puzzles, and then opening up an even bigger vista when they interlock, makes for a thrilling player experience.

Okay, so as promised, the weird bug with the lizard door:

Guarded Room
This room is cobwebby and musty, but tracks in the dust show that it has seen visitors recently. At the south end of the room is a stained and battered (but very strong-looking) door. To the north, a corridor exits.
Imbedded in the door is a nasty-looking lizard head, with sharp teeth and beady eyes. The eyes move to watch you approach.

>look through mouth
You can't look inside a blast of air.

>examine air
There's nothing special about the blast of air.

A blast of air??? What in the world is this? Dante and I never figured it out. There’s never a blast of air anywhere in the normal course of gameplay that I can find. Yet there it is in the Guarded Room, invisible but waiting to be found, apparently as a synonym for “mouth”. It gives all the usual stock responses — e.g. “I don’t think the blast of air would agree with you” as an answer to “EAT AIR”, but is simply inexplicable. Stumbling across it was one of the weirder moments I’ve ever had with an Infocom game.

There were some other amusing bugs as well:

>put hand in window
That's easy for you to say since you don't even have the pair of hands.

>roll up newspaper
You aren't an accomplished enough juggler.

>throw bills at curtain
You hit your head against the stack of zorkmid bills as you attempt this feat.

>put flask in passage
Which passage do you mean, the tunnel or the way?

We played the version of the game released in Masterpieces of Infocom — at the time that compilation was released, Zork II was 14 years old, and had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The fact that these bugs remain is a consolation to every IF author who eventually abandons a game, its final bugs unsquashed.

Screenshot from the opening screen of Zork II

>EXAMINE PUZZLES

Blast of air notwithstanding, that lizard door isn’t the only great puzzle in Zork II. The hot air balloon is another all-time winner. Figuring out the basket, receptacle, and cloth is fun, but once the balloon inflates, its ability to travel within the volcano feels magical. That balloon/volcano combo is one of the most memorable moments in the entire trilogy, and the whole section — including the bomb, the books, and the way it ties locations together — is a wonderful set piece.

The dragon puzzle is another great one. For us, it wasn’t so much a “How can we lead the dragon to the glacier” as it was a “Whoa, the dragon is following us. Where can we go?” I quite like that Zork II allows both of these routes to arrive at a solution. The placemat/key puzzle, while less flexible, is brilliant too, though it feels rooted in a time when people would have seen keyholes that a) could be looked through and b) might have keys left in them. Such a real-world experience was simply not in Dante’s frame of reference. In fact, I remember struggling with that puzzle when I was a kid, too — my dad stepped in and helped me with it, possibly aided by having lived in the kind of house where this could be a legitimate solution to an actual problem.

There are also some lovely structural choices in Zork II. The sphere collecting and placement is a great midgame — getting each one is exciting, and putting them on the stands feels appropriately climactic for the end of the second act. Similarly, the demon is a good creative variation on Zork I‘s trophy case, one who offers a marvelous sense of possibility once he’s satisfied.

We tried a variety of things with his wish-granting power, some rewarded and some not. We focused at one point on the topiary, one of the most enticing red herrings in the trilogy. We kept thinking there must be something to do with it. But “demon, destroy topiary” and “demon, disenchant bushes” got us nowhere. On the other hand, “demon, kill cerberus” was rewarded with comedy, if not progress:

“This may prove taxing, but we’ll see. Perhaps I’ll tame him for a pup instead.” The demon disappears for an instant, then reappears. He looks rather gnawed and scratched. He winces. “Too much for me. Puppy dog, indeed. You’re welcome to him. Never did like dogs anyway… Any other orders, oh beneficent one?”

Our first successful try was “demon, lift menhir”, which certainly got us where we needed to go, but much more wondrous was the notion of the demon granting us the wizard’s wand. Several times, Zork II had given us that wonderful IF experience of a broad new vista opening in response to overcoming some obstacle — the balloon and volcano is a prime example, as are the riddle and the Alice areas. When we obtained the wand, it felt like another whole range of possibility opened up. This sense eventually shrank, of course, but it didn’t fully go away either. For one thing, just the ability to “fluoresce” things and end our light source torture felt like a miracle. Of course, it screwed us up for the final puzzle, but more about that a bit later.

We also tried “demon, explain bank”, which didn’t work, but I sure wish it would have. As had many adventurers before us, we struggled mightily with the Bank of Zork. We eventually blundered around enough to get through it, but at no point did we feel a flash of insight about it, or an epiphany of understanding. I hesitate to call this an underclued puzzle. I think it’s just bad — maybe the worst puzzle in the trilogy. Dave Lebling later revealed that even other Infocommers couldn’t keep it straight.

The oddly-angled rooms are another infamous Zork II puzzle, in this case infamous for requiring knowledge of baseball in a way that excluded non-Americans. I contend, though, that this isn’t even the worst part of the puzzle. Even if you do understand baseball, and even if you do make the connection between those rooms and a baseball diamond, the puzzle is still unreasonably hard to solve. Say somebody told you in advance that this is a baseball-themed puzzle, and that to solve it you’d have to traverse through the rooms like you’re running the bases. What would you do? If you’re anything like me, you’d envision the typical diagram of a baseball diamond. It looks like this — the first hit on a Google image search for “baseball diamond”:

Diagram of a baseball diamond

If you conceive this diagram as an IF map, the pitcher’s mound is north of home plate, and the other bases extend in cardinal directions from the mound. So starting at home plate, to run the bases, you’d go: NE, NW, SW, SE. Right?

Well Zork II, for reasons I don’t understand, tips the diamond on its side. To run the oddly-angled bases, you have to pretend that home plate is west of the pitcher’s mound, and therefore travel SE, NE, NW, SW. That reorientation delineates the difference between “Oh, ha, it’s a baseball diamond!” and “How in the hell is this a baseball diamond?” So take heart non-Americans (and Americans who don’t know the first thing about baseball) — that “inside baseball” knowledge isn’t nearly as helpful as you might think.

The other puzzle that really stymied us was the riddle. For those who haven’t played in a while, the riddle is this:

What is tall as a house,
round as a cup,
and all the king’s horses
can’t draw it up?

This was an interesting one for me to observe. I remember solving it quite readily when I played Zork II as a kid. For whatever reason, the words just clicked for me. Dante, on the other hand, really grappled with it. He took about thirty different guesses over the course of our playthrough before I started feeding him hints. The guesses fell into a few different categories:

    • Contrived answers: a gigantic egg, an osmium sphere (because osmium is so dense)
    • Jokey reference answers: the Boston Mapparium (an enclosing stained-glass map globe that he learned about from Ken Jennings), an enemy city support pylon (referencing The City We Became by his fave author N.K. Jemisin), a geode (from the same author’s Broken Earth trilogy)
    • Logical guesses, albeit not very Zorky ones: power pole, pipe, subway
    • References to this game or the previous one: rainbow, tree, menhir, dragon, xyzzy, the letter F, barrow, glacier, carousel, lava tube, gazebo, cerberus, balloon, hot air balloon, cave, carousel room, mine, coal mine
    • Just off-the-wall pitches: hill fort (a Celtic thing inspired by “barrow”), tentacle, squid, octopus

Finally I started hinting around pretty heavily to think about holes in the ground, but even then he said “hole”, “bore hole”, and “quarry” before he got to “oil well”, which wasn’t even the game’s intended answer but which still provoked the success response because it contained the word “well”.

Riddles have a big risk/reward proposition as an IF puzzle. If you solve one, you feel so chuffed and clever. But if you don’t solve it, you may just be stuck, especially in the absence of any other hinting mechanism. Perhaps in the days where players were willing to sit with stuckness for extended periods of time, the calculus was a little different, but now puzzles like this flirt with ragequit responses, which I would argue has turned into a failure on the game’s part.

The final puzzle of Zork II felt like a mixed bag to us. It’s intriguingly different from Zork I, which basically led you to the ending after you’d deposited all the treasures. In Zork II, you can get all the points but not be finished. Indeed, the response to “SCORE” at this point is:

Your score would be 400 (total of 400 points), in 753 moves.
This score gives you the rank of Master Adventurer, but somehow you don’t feel done.

There’s one more puzzle to solve, and for us it was difficult enough to require a hint, something we’d managed to avoid for the rest of the game. Nevertheless, we ended up satisfied, feeling that it was tough but fair — essentially it requires being lightless, something that willingly surrenders in the battle we’d been fighting the whole game. We completely missed the hint — a fairly obscure phrasing on a can of grue repellent — and therefore floundered.

For us, the barrier to solving this puzzle was the flip side of the sense of possibility that the wand allows. For example, the ability to make things fluoresce with the wand so fascinated (and relieved) us that we never walked in there without light. Our continued frustration with light limits also made this behavior very enticing. On top of that, it seemed like no coincidence that “Feel Free” was a double-F, like a more powerful version of the wizard’s spells. Oh the number of places where we pointed the wand and incanted “Feel Free”, to no avail. On the other hand, having solved this puzzle with hints prepped us to solve on our own a very similar puzzle in Enchanter, but that’s a topic for another post.

I think I’ve spent more time in this post criticizing Zork II than I have singing its praises, so it may be surprising when I say that this is my favorite game of the trilogy. I have plenty of affection for parts 1 and 3, but to me this is where the best parts of Zork fully jelled. The humor works wonderfully, the imagery is fantastic, and the structure mixes richness and broadness in a way that makes for wonderful memories of gaming excitement. And sure, its bad puzzles are bad, but its good puzzles are great — deeply satisfying and marvelously layered. Zork I established the premise, and Zork III deconstructed it, but Zork II fulfilled it, and in the process provided me with many happy hours that I loved revisiting with Dante and his fresh eyes.

TOOKiE’S SONG by Jessica Knoch [Comp02]

IFDB page: Tookie’s Song
Final placement: 7th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Apparently, it’s the Year Of The Squid. When I wrote Another Earth, Another Sky, I was pretty pleased about the squid. “How many other comp games,” I might have thought to myself, “are going to include a squid?” Turns out there’s a freaking avalanche of them. Well, maybe not an avalanche, but two others besides mine, in a field of 38 games, really is rather a lot. The squid in Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me! is essential to the plot, though, while the one in this game is more or less decorative, so I have to say that TDMAMOOM wins on Squid Points. On the other hand, Squid Points don’t figure into my ratings, nor, I believe, anyone else’s, so who cares?

Besides, this game has plenty of charming and wonderful assets of its own to recommend it. First of all, and still my favorite, are the altered library messages. I hereby nominate the following for Comp02’s most delightful response to X ME: “You are, and I say this in all honesty, as good-looking as you have ever been.” There are plenty more where that came from:

>break it
You raise your hand to strike, but something mysteriously holds you
back. It's as if a voice inside your head is telling you that random
violence is not the answer to this one.

TOOKiE’S SONG takes most of the standard Inform messages and, without substantially changing their content in most cases, tweaks their tone so that they fit in perfectly with the game’s lighthearted world. In those cases where the game does change the message substantially, it’s for the better, such as its replacement of “That’s not a verb I recognize” with “That’s not a verb you need to rescue your Tookie.”

“Your Tookie” is the PC’s beloved pet bloodhound, captured by rascally alien felines. These diabolical outer-space cats have, as they so often do, placed the PC in an artificial environment with a bunch of puzzles, promising that if those puzzles are solved, maybe they might consider freeing the dog. This premise is utterly arbitrary, and the game knows this and revels in it. The writing is joyful and funny throughout, and many of the puzzles are rather clever.

TOOKiE’S SONG (really don’t understand what’s up with that capitalization, but whatever) hangs out near “pure puzzle game” territory for much of its duration, with themed areas (after the seasons), themed treasures (different-colored gems), and parallel puzzles in the various areas. Design is generally strong, with alternate solutions provided for many puzzles, interesting connections between the areas, and a fun ending that provided more evaluation of my actions throughout the game than I had been expecting. The game also takes care to provide lots of extra flourishes, such as an EXITS verb, which lists available exits in a room, and a terrifically complete HELP/HINTS section.

Unfortunately, I can’t praise the coding uniformly, because I encountered a number of problems during my time with the game. Most severe among these had to do with the “story problem” puzzle. Yeah, that’s right — one of the game’s puzzles is a math problem, couched in the old standard form: “Alice leaves city A at 9:20 a.m., traveling east toward city B at a speed of 60 miles per hour…” and so forth. For the word-problem-phobic, there is an alternate solution available, but I’m not particularly in that group, so I worked it out for myself. Unfortunately, the game was unwilling to accept my correct answer, no matter how I tried to express it. I tried saying (answer changed to prevent spoilage) “5:00”, saying “five o’clock”, writing them on a sheet of paper and handing them to the puzzler, but no dice.

After employing the alternate solution, I learned that the game was looking for “FIVE P.M.” I really dislike being told I have the wrong answer when I actually have the right answer — call it residual math class trauma. There were other difficulties too, mainly with objects used in unexpected ways, or error messages that were either too strange to be right, or too vague to be helpful. Happily, the author seems quite dedicated to collecting bug reports, so I feel fairly confident that there will be post-comp releases that take care of these problems. Once those bugfixes are complete, I would recommend TOOKiE’S SONG without hesitation.

Rating: 8.7

MythTale by Temari Seikaiha [Comp02]

IFDB page: MythTale
Final placement: 11th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

MythTale is a mixed bag, with weaknesses alongside its strengths in every area. The writing, for instance, can be effective — the opening scene, of a PC struggling up a freezing cold mountainside, works well, involving the senses and evoking the feeling of numbed exhaustion. There are a number of good jokes, and several places where well-chosen words made me smile in appreciation.

In other areas, the prose is far worse. Punctuation seems to be a particular problem, with comma splices rampant and periods frequently missing from the ends of sentences. There are plenty of other mechanical errors, too. Then there are those troubles that may be cultural, but are quite confusing nonetheless. Foremost in my mind among these is this sequence, found outside the PC’s house in a vegetable patch.:

You can see a bonfire and a metal barrel here.

>x bonfire
A tumbled pile of hawthorn branches. Odd though, in the middle of the
bonfire is something that appears to be your coolbox!

Now, for me, a bonfire is a big, raging fire, used to burn lots of items or to light up the night in a celebration of some sort. Consequently, I was quite surprised that the PC left a huge fire burning just outside his house. Then I read the description, and figured that the “coolbox” was either a freezer or an air-conditioner of some sort, and that it had shorted out and set fire to the pile of branches. Strangely, though, even though the metal barrel is full of water, pouring water on the fire doesn’t seem to put it out, just dampen the branches.

After a while, I finally figured out that when the game says “bonfire”, what it actually means is “pile of fuel for a bonfire, not actually burning.” For me, it was one of those instances when a game’s language is so opaque that figuring out what the heck the words meant became a puzzle in itself. I don’t really enjoy those sorts of puzzles too much.

The coding was similarly uneven. For one thing, the game is full of cats, but it doesn’t understand the command PET. This may be another cultural difference, because it does understand STROKE. Nevertheless, I hereby serve notice that I am officially sick of games that offer dogs and cats that can’t be petted. Game authors, if you’re going to give us a cute, fuzzy animal, let us pet the animal. Thank you.

Also, just a little reminder here to Inform authors: turn off the debugging verbs. To do this, compile with -~S -~X -~D set. Otherwise, your game will do things like this:

>tie
What do you want to tie?

>tree
[game lists out every single fricking object it contains]

Speaking of tying, if you implement a rope that you want me to use to tie something to something else, please implement the syntax “TIE <object> TO <object>.” This seems only sensible, especially compared to MythTale‘s method, “TIE ROPE TO <object>. TIE ROPE TO <other object>.”

Glitches like this aside, the game seemed pretty well-tested, and there was a good hint system for the inevitable times I got stuck. I didn’t find anything that was just broken, and lots of nicely judged custom responses were present, especially when dealing with the cats.

Those cats provided some of the game’s best design moments. There were a couple of puzzles that were both logical and entertaining, and the entire conceit of searching the house for items hidden by the cats was one I enjoyed quite a bit. Also, some of the re-enactments of Greek myths were good IF vignettes, bringing the stories to life in an exciting way. I liked the concept of the multiple endings, too, though the game’s implementation underwhelmed me enough that I wasn’t interested in exploring them.

Predictably, alongside these good design choices, there were some pretty bad ones too. One puzzle is just excruciating, a fiddly device whose workings are not only boring to test and extremely tedious to solve, but which also requires some pretty farfetched guesswork to even arrive at the correct answer. You’ll know the one I mean when you get to it — I recommend turning to the hints without hesitation. Also, some of the puzzles require fairly unmotivated actions, forcing the player to get in a text-adventurey frame of mind rather than acting in character. Overall, despite the fact that it has some fun moments, MythTale is pretty much hit or (must… resist… cheesy… pun…) miss.

Rating: 6.3

The PK Girl by Robert Goodwin [Comp02]

IFDB page: The PK Girl
Final placement: 6th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I like comics, and I like animation, but I’ve never really read much manga or watched much anime. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding these forms, but rather that I haven’t happened to explore them yet. I’m a little bit familiar with the concept of hentai, because of the subculture of hentai IF that seems to be out there, which was brought to the attention of the newsgroups a few years ago, primarily by the efforts of a reviewer named Craxton.

Because of my unfamiliarity with Japanese comics and animation, I think I lack some context for evaluating The PK Girl, a text adventure with a deep manga influence. First and foremost, I’m not sure what to make of the game’s extreme, almost comical insistence on rigid and stereotyped gender roles. Whether this is a convention of manga, something particular to this game, or even just a quirk of the PC I don’t know, but while I found it at first just distracting and silly, it quickly graduated to annoying and even offensive. The game puts you in the role of a male PC, and quickly demonstrates that you have some pretty sweeping assumptions about femininity, and a fair amount of anxiety about maintaining the image of your own masculinity. The former becomes apparent in the description of the first female NPC you encounter:

The girl is clothed in a silky blue dress. Long vibrant hair cascades
over her shoulders and down her back. Her countenance seems to
reflect all feminine virtue, inclusive of kindness, submissiveness,
empathy, and consciousness of time and place.

So “submissiveness” is a feminine trait, in fact a feminine virtue? And kindness and empathy are outside the male domain? Certainly the female characters don’t have a lock on self-consciousness, as evidenced by the PC’s reaction to entering a women’s clothing store:

Why did you come in here? There is nothing terribly exciting here by
any male’s estimations. To a female, this could well be a lesser
incarnation of paradise. A wealth of clothing is available on
circular racks situated in aisles throughout the store, for trying on
and for purchase. The exit is west.

Yes, we know that all women love clothes-shopping. And men have no interest whatsoever in women’s fashion, which is why all fashion designers are women. Oh, wait. At its worst moments, the game spits out statements that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Victorian behavior manual:

GET PLATE
You don't need to take the plate; There are females here to clean up
after you.

Give me a break! If this is a manga thing, I don’t think I’ll be reading manga anytime soon.

On the technical (and more positive) side, The PK Girl is the long-awaited game that rises above ADRIFT‘s initial limitations to take a place among games created by the top-tier development systems. An unbelievable amount of care has gone into crafting this game. First of all, it addresses all the flaws in the ADRIFT parser that I’ve railed about in previous reviews. The game handles conversation very smoothly indeed, blending the ASK ABOUT approach with a menu-based approach in a somewhat similar fashion to my Earth And Sky games. On the rare occasions when the parser asks a question, it’s almost always prepared to handle the answer. SEARCH works, and in fact it works better than in most games, because the game explicitly assumes that it includes looking under and looking behind an object, and says so. Best of all, I never encountered the generic “Nothing special” message for an unrecognized noun, partly because the game changed the default message to be more Inform-like, but mostly because nouns are implemented in exquisite depth.

For that matter, not only are almost all nouns described, but a prodigious number are included in the first place. I didn’t come close to finishing this game in the two hours allotted, but I must confess that may be my own fault, because I frequently deserted the plot in order to wander around the game and marvel at the level of detail included. For this virtue alone, The PK Girl is one of the most immersive games in this year’s comp. In addition to its significant improvement on the standard ADRIFT parser, the game also includes professional-looking illustrations and an enjoyable MIDI soundtrack. This latter can get a little grating after a while, and I sometimes wished that a piece of music would play once and stop rather than continuously looping (or that I at least had the option of making the game behave that way), but it did enhance the scenes’ mood quite effectively.

As for the story itself, I found it pretty entertaining. After a fairly tranquil opening, the plot kicks into high gear with a dramatic incident, and events follow sensibly upon each other from there on. NPCs help propel the story forward by sometimes continuing about their business without waiting for the PC, thus forcing the player to keep up or lose the plot entirely. As I said, I didn’t get all the way through the story, but the portion I saw delivered excitement and fun, even if the writing sometimes had an oddly elevated tone which worked counter to the brisk pace. There were some problem spots in the writing, phrases that didn’t make much sense or that suggested with their awkwardness a few lapses in English skill. Still, for the most part they didn’t get in the way of the game’s ability to tell a good story.

Because its story is fun and quite chaste, The PK Girl might make a nice IF selection for kids, though perhaps it ought to be counterpointed by something rather less sexist. In fact, although I’m clueless about anime, the game reminded me distinctly of another branch of animation, the Disney feature film: technically impressive and proficient while remaining on the political level utterly, utterly reactionary.

Rating: 8.4

Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me! by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold [Comp02]

IFDB page: Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me
Final placement: 2nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, hallelujah. All through last year’s comp, I kept waiting for a game to come along that I loved enough, and found few enough flaws in, that I could rate it 9.5 or above. It never happened. While there were some excellent games last year, none of them felt to me like they’d entered that rarefied air occupied by past games like Shade, Babel, or Delusions. This year, after going through 25 games, the same thing was happening. Until now.

Despite its somewhat unpromising title, TDMAMOOM is a fantastic game through and through. How do I love this game? Let me count the ways. Okay, first, there’s the writing. Frankly, I could spend the entire review talking just about the writing, it’s so great, so I’ll restrict myself to just a few examples picked more or less arbitrarily. There are numerous instances of excellent foreshadowing, whether of themes or puzzles — in the former case, they add great pleasure on re-reading, and in the latter case they operate as a delightfully subtle but effective hint system. The room descriptions are masterfully done, drawing from an endless well of cleverness to make the typical exit listing sound fresh and interesting. Best of all, the writing in this game is just flat-out funny, sometimes howlingly so. Just one example of many — looking at a palm scanner after you’ve switched bodies with an NPC:

>x panel
Flat black glass, a panel that uses all manner of fancy beams to read
over your palm-print and check you are who you think you are.
Unfortunately, it's not clever enough to realise you now think you
are someone that you actually aren't. Or you think you are someone
who you're not, but really are. Or something like that. Anyway, it's
a pig-ignorant machine.

I love it when an IF game makes me laugh out loud, and that happened frequently in this game.

Then there’s the coding. This coding is good. Really good. A raft of nonstandard verbs get recognized and handled. There are a variety of special commands provided, such as “R” or “REVIEW”, which repeats the room description without using any game time. Descriptions of rooms, objects and events alter themselves in various subtle and blatant ways, depending on what’s come before. Timed events, even events where a huge amount is happening at once, run smoothly along their tracks with nary a glitch. There’s a very fine adaptive hint system, quite sensitive to situation and even possessing a self-destruct capability that removes the blatant walkthrough answers after the comp period has ended. Library messages adapt seamlessly to the PC’s situation and point-of-view.

Oh, and how could I forget the special effects? TDMAMOOM takes control of the interpreter to create a beautiful Infocom/Inform-style look-and-feel; people who don’t care for the general appearance of TADS games should definitely try this one. The game even features a little bit of sound, throwing in a system beep at an appropriate time.

Working with the coding and the writing to propel this game to greatness, the story is killer, a wild thrill ride through surprises small and large. Like its predecessors Delusions and Babel, TDMAMOOM takes place in that most favored of IF locales, an isolated scientific research station. I won’t even get into the plot here, because players should experience it for themselves with as few spoilers as possible up front, except to say that it all fits together very nicely, and every time I had doubts, the game anticipated them and tied up the loose ends.

Along with all this, just a quick word about the puzzles: many of them are not only inventive but pitched at just the right level of difficulty, providing several of those wonderful “aha!” moments for me. Some of them are rather complicated, but they’re always scrupulously fair. I ended up turning to the hints so that I could see more of the game before time ran out, but I think if I’d had the time available, this game’s puzzles would have rewarded me for spending it.

So we’re talking about a pretty phenomenal game, here. In fact, almost depressingly so, given that I’m an entrant this year and TDMAMOOM is miles better than my game. It’s not perfect, mind. I found a few spelling and grammar errors, and there were times I wished for clearer descriptions of events and objects. But those flaws are minor and cosmetic, and they do nothing to change the fact that this is a damn good game. Bravo.

Rating: 9.8

Jane by Joseph Grzesiak [Comp02]

IFDB page: Jane
Final placement: 10th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: Because strong language and themes of domestic abuse appear in this game, they will also appear in this review.

A couple of years ago, I released a game with some pretty intense themes, including rape, murder, and slavery. Aside from whatever other ways my game succeeded or failed, people’s reactions to encountering this sort of thing in a work of IF varied a lot. Some people really appreciated it, others… not so much. One player rather memorably described it this way: “After playing, my head felt like someone had been hitting it very hard with a solid metal thing.” After playing this game, I understand a little more where that guy was coming from.

Jane takes on the topic of wife-beating, portraying it from the perspective of the victim, the abuser, and a few others besides. The experience of playing through a story in IF form, as opposed to reading it on the page, really intensifies my identification with the characters, and there were moments during my time with Jane that I started feeling physically ill, and dirty, involved in something I did not wish to be a part of. I don’t mean to sound disapproving — those moments were quite powerful and dramatic, and the game did give a clear warning about its subject matter before it began. Indeed, the times when I was feeling the most upset were when I was admiring Jane the most; its writing and its implementation occasionally managed to affect me quite strongly.

On the other hand, that effect was only occasional, for several reasons. First of all, though I applaud it for its ambition in getting inside the heads of abuser, victim, and onlookers, the characterization frequently fell a bit flat for me. The dialogue and actions of the characters sometimes rang quite true, but other times felt fairly stock, as if pulled from one of those movies that always seem to be running on the Lifetime channel. Another, more severe issue is that presenting a story like this interactively is a major challenge, and the game wasn’t always prepared to meet that challenge. At its worst moments, the clash between the intense action of the story and the standard Inform library responses evoked by my actions was outright comical, completely defeating the drama:

"You'd have nothing!" he shouts, continuing his rant. "No one would
ever want you. You're of no use to anyone. You'd be nothing."

>get vase
That's hardly portable.

John's lost in his mind again. "You ARE nothing!" he shouts again. He
steps forward quickly and shoves you back, causing you to stumble to
keep your balance. "You're useless! You're so fucking useless!"

>push john
That would be less than courteous.

Those library messages, quite suitable in the majority of IF situations, are laughably inappropriate here, and either the author or the testers should have caught them. The debugging verbs should also have been turned off — the effect of these things together was that Jane had a fairly rushed feel. Even more damaging, by failing to account for fairly reasonable actions, the game makes itself too vulnerable to ridiculousness, which is poison to the kind of tragic storytelling it attempts.

Even when it does properly account for the player’s input, though, Jane usually feels quite straitjacketed. In fact, although the game borrows heavily from Photopia by using multiple perspectives (albeit a chronologically intact story) and a virtually identical approach to conversation, it reminded me less of Photopia than of Rameses. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the brilliant subversion of IF and storytelling that Rameses was, both because that game arrived first and because in its very use of multiple viewpoints and linear chronology, Jane dilutes the best rationale for its linearity.

I can see a viable argument that Jane (the NPC, not the game), and perhaps even her abusive husband, should present few real options to the player. They’re locked into the cycle of abuse, and the player’s frustration could mirror that of the characters as they try and fail to break out of their long-established patterns. However, that’s far less true for other characters, who lack such a reason for being bound to any particular course of action. In addition, as the intensity of the rising action builds, the characters should have more freedom available, as desperate measures become more and more plausible.

Since I experienced the story in accurate chronological order, I expected that at some point I’d be able to find my own way out of the ugly tangle of that relationship. Instead, what I found was that I had to follow the game’s singular path through it, and that meant enduring just as much abuse as the game decided it ought to commit. In my own way, I felt a little battered by the time I finished. I did finish, though. I didn’t quit. I guess I was asking for it.

Rating: 6.5

Screen by Edward Floren [Comp02]

IFDB page: Screen
Final placement: 29th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

For a rookie outing, Screen really isn’t too bad. That is, of course, if it’s really a rookie outing. In the comp you can never really be sure that anything is what it appears to be, and for all I know “Edward Floren” is a pseudonym for somebody who’s released a half-dozen games. But I don’t think so. There are a number of errors that experienced Inform coders are less likely to make, such as “You have so far scored 0 out of a possible 0, in 36 turns” in response to SCORE. The more familiar you are with Inform, the more likely you have encountered Andrew Plotkin’s web page of tips and tricks that gives the solution to eliminating this untidy message, or for that matter figured out how to eliminate it yourself.

For another thing, there’s the fact that although there are plenty of scenery objects (and I know this because typing GET ALL listed them out — another rookie mistake), many of them aren’t implemented at all. It doesn’t take very many “You see nothing special about the <whatever>” messages for immersion to fall by the wayside. On the other hand, some other aspects of the game are coded rather nicely, such as the custom cant_go messages and the room descriptions that change depending on whether you’re seeing the room for the first time or not.

The prose quality is a similarly mixed bag. Much of the writing successfully evokes a sweet nostalgia as it depicts Jordan the PC’s return to the scene of his childhood games. Riffs on Baby Boomer pop culture are handled lovingly, with a light enough touch to let them feel touching without being cloying. On the down side, this game would definitely have benefited from another round of proofreading.

Consider the flashback to Jordan’s first kiss, where he stares at the girl he likes and the narrator tells us, “She looked so sweat.” This is one of the worst sorts of English errors to have in the public release of your game — not only does it miss its intended meaning, but in fact it squarely hits another meaning entirely, and a rather comical one at that. Certainly it’s an understandable error — it’s only one letter off the correct spelling, and could even be a typo, and for that matter “neat” and “beat” have the intended phoneme. Then again, the word “sweating” is used only three sentences later, which makes the error a little less understandable. In any case, it’s a bad, bad mistake that entirely punctures the otherwise poignant scene. And lest it seem that I’m pouncing on the whole game for one little mistake, I hasten to add that little errors like this (though none worse than that) are present throughout the game, and should have been eliminated before its release.

The prose errors didn’t stop me from enjoying the game overall, though. For the most part, it’s a short and sweet little romp through childhood memories and favorite TV shows. The puzzles, too, are mostly straightforward, though I was unfortunate enough to trip repeatedly on a rather tightly timed puzzle towards the game’s end. The problem there was that although I had figured out the elements of the puzzle, the solution required an extra step that, as near as I can tell, was completely unclued.

Dear me, every time I start to praise this game I end up criticizing it. Overall, Screen is a nicely sketched vignette. Even if it feels rather aimless and disjointed at times (man, there I go again!), I didn’t want my 45 minutes back after I finished it. It’s a nice start at the IF craft, and I look forward to the author’s next work.

Rating: 8.0

Rent-a-Spy by John Eriksson [Comp02]

IFDB page: Rent-a-Spy
Final placement: 15th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Actually, in terms of design, Rent-A-Spy is pretty good. If you think I sound surprised, you’re right, because in plenty of other areas, this game seems thrown together rather carelessly. For instance, it leaves the Inform debugging verbs turned on. Now, granted, ever since Inform started keeping them on by default, it takes a more conscious effort to avoid this problem, but on the other hand, Stephen Granade did send an email to all authors reminding them to turn these off, and explaining exactly how to do it. As he said in his message, “there’s nothing quite as fun as being able to purloin like a madman in a competition game.”

Consequently, seeing those verbs left on is usually a telltale sign of a bad game. There were other portents, too. The introduction is lumbered by some awkward writing, and the whole “rent-a-spy” premise feels shaky, an uneasy mix between the espionage and private eye genres. Also, the game is compiled to .z8, even though it’s only 140k (and that’s with strict mode left on!), which is really rather odd.

Having seen these signs at the beginning, my expectations for the rest of the game were rather low. Perhaps that’s why I felt so pleasantly surprised by the first puzzle, an interesting, realistic bit of infiltration, broken up into several believable steps. Several of the other puzzles felt pretty fresh to me, too. I especially enjoyed the way the PC must cover her tracks as she progresses in order to achieve the best ending. Opened doors must be closed, keys stolen must be returned to their original spot, documents are duplicated rather than filched, and so on. I thought this was a fun twist on the usual adventurer tendency to rummage through the landscape looking for treasure, leaving everything a shambles behind him.

Of course, many of these puzzles were quite thinly implemented. There were some extremely severe guess-the-verb problems, and plenty of other areas where clues were minimal or absent, and the environment too sparsely described. Consequently, lots of Rent-A-Spy‘s good ideas are badly obscured by its lack of polish.

I can’t help but wonder if this was a situation where the oncoming deadline prevented the game from being as complete as it could be. This is the very situation that Adam Cadre’s Spring Thing is meant to address, and I hope that for every unfinished game I’m seeing in this comp, there are two more whose authors are holding back in order to make sure that the games are as good as they can be before releasing them.

For this game, it’s too late to enter any more comps, but I still hope it sees a subsequent release. With some editing, further testing, and some premise doctoring (perhaps making the PC something like a reporter, which would be quite a bit more believable than a spy you can look up in the phone book), this could be a pretty enjoyable piece of IF. For now, it’s more an example of unfulfilled potential.

Rating: 6.1

Sun and Moon by David Brain [Comp02]

IFDB page: Sun And Moon
Final placement: 21st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sun And Moon is a strange beast. It certainly isn’t a text adventure, not even one of those multiple-choice web text adventures we’ve seen in previous competitions. Instead, it’s something altogether more interesting. After the manner of the ingenious online promotional campaign for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I., Sun And Moon draws us into its story through a conglomeration of web sites — diaries by fictional characters, press releases by fictional companies, and so on. To a degree, this works pretty well. The weblog really looks like a weblog (it’s even on angelfire.com, pop-up ads and all), and the personal websites of the other characters are convincing too. They all mix links to actual sites with links that extend the fiction, thereby significantly blurring the boundary between the story and the world.

The game even provides email addresses for the characters. I tried writing to these to see if I’d at least get an autoresponse, but alas, it wasn’t to be. The company web site stretches credulity a bit, especially the “here’s where I’ll bitch about the boss, because I’m sure he’ll never read it” section — only the very confrontational or the very stupid would actually do such a thing on their own company’s website. Still, the overall effect of these narrative elements is absorbing; the fictional pieces of Sun And Moon are strong.

The interactivity is another matter. Certainly, there’s a degree of interactivity to following links from one web site to the next, but given that pretty much all the fictional content of those sites is just static text, that interactivity is only a shade greater than turning the pages of a book. Instead, Sun And Moon provides the vast majority of its interactivity in puzzles that bear almost no direct relationship to the story itself.

It seems that several of the characters in the story are puzzle enthusiasts (mazes and cryptic crosswords), and offer puzzles of their own creation via their web sites. Oh sure, some small element of the solution to these puzzles relates back to the story, but for the most part they are puzzles for their own sake. One could certainly argue that there are plenty of text adventures for which the same is true, and it’s interesting to think about where this game sits on the interactivity spectrum when compared to pure puzzle games like Color And Number. Nevertheless, it was my experience that the story and the interactivity in Sun And Moon sat alongside each other in ungainly halves, a narrative quite literally alongside a crossword, joined by tendrils that were tenuous at best.

Centaur works like this certainly add spice to in the ongoing debate about defining the term “interactive fiction.” In fact, I’m inclined to predict that Sun And Moon will spark a bit of a debate over just what sort of works belong in the competition. Personally, I wouldn’t bar works like this one from the comp — I’d rather have a wide definition of IF than a narrow one, and at several points in the game I was excited not just by its content but by the possibilities its form suggests. Then again, it doesn’t have all that much in common with a regular text adventure, and it almost seems unfair to rate it alongside TADS and Inform games.

So I’m in a quandary. On the one hand, my ratings tend to be based on how much I enjoyed the experience of a particular game, and I enjoyed the experience of Sun And Moon a fair amount. On the other hand, much of that pleasure wasn’t due to Sun And Moon itself, but rather because it introduced me to the fascinating form of cryptic crossword puzzles, and because it inspired me to think about what sort of stories might be created using these media. In addition, for me there is no way this game could have fit into two hours (though some portion of my time was devoted to teaching myself about cryptic crosswords), and consequently there’s a great deal of it I haven’t seen or solved.

What I did see provided an interesting story and some neat puzzles, but not what I would call an immersive fictional experience. Rather than being a fully realized piece of web IF itself, Sun And Moon feels more like a signpost to some very interesting territory ahead.

Rating: 7.3