A Good Breakfast by Stuart Adair [Comp97]

IFDB page: A Good Breakfast
Final placement: 23rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

This one was a tough decision. It’s a good game in many ways, but the version initially submitted for the competition has a serious bug which makes it unwinnable. The author submitted a fixed version in November, more than a month after the contest began, and moderator Kevin Wilson left it up to each judge to decide how to assign ratings in light of the situation. It’s a hard choice — obviously the author worked hard on the program, so perhaps it’s fair to allow him to correct such a gross mistake so that the entire game would be available for review. On the other hand, the contest did have a deadline, so is it fair to allow authors to evade that deadline, especially if the decision is made based on the enormity of the flaw in the original submitted game? As I understand it, the bug was not due to any error on Kevin’s part, but rather to authorial oversight: can it be ignored?

I gave it some serious thought, and my decision was: no. The deadline is part of the challenge: you must submit the best current version of your game as of the deadline, and the judges will make their decisions based on the version you submit on that day. “The best current version” means completed, proofed, and playtested (and played through at least once to make sure it’s winnable, thank you.) Wearing the Claw was thoroughly tested and debugged last year before I entered it, and even then the competition release had a major problem which I would dearly love to have fixed. But I didn’t even ask, because it was after the deadline, and I felt that it would have been cheating to ask that a fixed version of my game be judged when everyone else’s had to stand on its own merits as submitted. Consequently, I’ve decided to rate A Good Breakfast (hereafter called AGB) in the version that I downloaded, right along with all the other games, on October 9.

Even in the broken version, there’s a lot I liked about this game. The bug simply stops forward progress about 2/3 of the way through the game, so I did see a majority of it before being forced to quit. Basically, the premise of AGB is based around a simple, long time limit. You’ve just awoken, famished, after a long night of drunken revelry. You must comb through your demolished house and put together, as the game’s title suggests, a good breakfast. Eventually, if you don’t eat, you die. Now, a great deal of logic gets sacrificed along the way to this goal. Elements occur in the plot which are highly contrived and very obviously only there to drive the narrative. However, the situation is delivered with a great deal of panache, and some interesting side roads to explore on the way to finding that sought-after bowl of cereal. In addition, there are a couple of good puzzles to be found in the game.

Interestingly, aside from the serious, game-killing bug, the code wasn’t all that buggy. There was a television that wasn’t implemented properly, but there was also a much more complicated computer and robot which were bug-free (as far as I could tell, anyway). The author seems to have some proficiency in Inform, so I’m betting that the game didn’t go through much beta testing. Once it does, it will be an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Prose: The prose is one of the better features of this game. It’s generally judiciously chosen, and often quite funny. AGB memorably captures the feeling of waking up in one’s house after a wild party has occurred there, from the TV set festooned with silly string to the strange inability to find one’s clothes. Suzy the robot is sufficiently endearing, and the computer exaggerated to the right point for laughs. The game’s prose has a distinctly British flavor (more so than many other games submitted by UK residents) which also adds to its charm.

Plot: AGB uses the typical, simple adventure plot of constructing a desired object from various widely scattered parts. The post-party setting provides just barely enough plausibility for this scattering, and adds a touch of absurdity that makes questions of plausibility seem less important anyway. Of course, I didn’t reach the end of the game, so I can’t report on the plot in its entirety, but from what I saw, the plot (like those of many competition games) was very simple and served its purpose more than adequately.

Puzzles: On the whole, the game does a very nice job of blending its puzzles with the main narrative flow, allowing them to naturally arise from the setting and situation. Examples of this are the dirty bowl and the high shelf. Other puzzles, like Suzy’s game of “onny-offy”, are more arbitrary, but still quite forgivable. Then there are puzzles which seem quite gratuitous, adding a layer of pure contrivance to the plot, and which probably would have been better left out or redesigned (I’m thinking here of the milk puzzle). On balance, the majority of the game’s puzzles are well-designed and competently implemented.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): As I mentioned above, the game’s major downfall is that it has a bug so serious that it prevents players from being able to progress past about 2/3 of the way through the game. The author has obviously already caught this bug, and so it shouldn’t be a problem in future versions of AGB. Beyond that, there are definitely some bugs in the game, but in proportion to the game’s size they are few in number.


Aunt Nancy’s House by Nate Schwartzman [Comp97]

IFDB page: Aunt Nancy’s House
Final placement: 33rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I began learning Inform, one of the first things I did was to put together a little simulation of the cottage I was living in at the time. It was great fun making a text adventure out of my current environment, adding both magic and realism as I saw fit. That Inform program would have easily been finished in time for submission to the 1995 IF competition, but I didn’t submit it. My reasoning at the time was that even though it was fun for me to walk around my virtual cottage, it would be really boring for other people. Now that I’ve played Aunt Nancy’s House (hereafter called ANH), I know I made the right decision.

According to its author, “Aunt Nancy’s House is actually based on my aunt’s (soon-to-be-former) house, and was created as a way of teaching myself Inform. There are no puzzles, the idea is mainly to wander about in an interactive environment and have fun.” Well, “wander” was certainly there, but “fun” wasn’t, at least not for me. Basically ANH simulates an empty house. That’s it. I have no doubt that creating this simulation was pretty exciting for the author, but without that connection to the subject material, other players are going to be bored.

ANH taught its author how to use Inform — I look forward to when he applies that knowledge to the creation of a game.

Prose: The game’s prose wasn’t outstanding, but it served its purpose.

Plot: ANH has no plot.

Puzzles: ANH has no puzzles. (Hey, puzzleless IF!)

Technical (writing): I spotted a few grammatical errors in the game, which I’ve passed along to the author.

Technical (coding): ANH has a number of bugs, which I’ve also forwarded to the author, but for a first exercise in learning Inform, it was put together pretty well.


[Postscript from 2020 — This game inspired one of my favorite reviews ever from Andrew Plotkin, one I still recall to this day. Relevant excerpt: “…somehow I get the impression that the author has spent a lot of time being bored in this house. I mean — I wandered around, I turned on the tv and the video game machine, I turned them back off, I poured myself a soda. Then I went back upstairs. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time at relatives’ houses that way.”]

The Tempest by Graham Nelson as William Shakespeare [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Tempest
Final placement: 25th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

“Yet look, how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.”
— William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice III.ii.126-129

The Tempest attempts a great deal, and achieves much of it despite being somewhat flawed. The work presents itself not as a game, but as an “interactive performance” which asks the player to perform as the magical will of Shakespeare’s Prospero, guiding the spirit Ariel (a.k.a. the parser) through the plot of The Tempest (the play), though not necessarily in the order in which Shakespeare wrote it. Remarkably, this complicated positioning of subjectivity works quite well (and opens some unexplored territory for the mixing of first, second, and third person forms of address in IF). It is blended with a new approach to dialogue which prevents the player character from speaking at all but presents many screenfuls of dialogue between other characters (and sometimes including Ariel himself), the exchanges broken up by pausing for keystrokes between each character’s lines. In a sense, the player’s commands to the parser become essentially stage directions issued to an onstage persona via a magical conduit. This idiom also works beautifully, bestowing the game with a powerful aura of theatrical performance. The Tempest is entertaining and innovative; it often feels quite magical to inhabit the Prospero/Ariel connection, and to take part in a groundbreaking interactive experience. I think that the game also has great potential as an educational tool, allowing readers to experience Shakespeare’s language in a new and thrilling way.

All this being said, however, The Tempest is not without its problems. Actually, perhaps the game just has one major problem which manifests itself in several ways. Although the author does an excellent (sometimes astonishing) job of rearranging Shakespeare’s scenes and lines to fit the interactive mode, the fit is not perfect. Several times during the game I felt faced with responses which, if not complete non sequiturs, were certainly only tenuously connected to the command I had typed. The author wrenches in bits and pieces of dialogue from all over the play for various purposes, pressing them into service as room descriptions, parser rejoinders, and other sundry purposes. Sometimes they are perfectly suited to their purpose and sometimes less so. When I was on the wrong end of this continuum, my relationship with the game became strained — the parser’s responses were beautiful, but didn’t make enough sense, and not because of any opacity in the Elizabethan English. This situation creates a problem with the game’s puzzles: usually interactive fiction prose can be written in such a way as to suggest subtle hints to the problems facing the player. However, when control of the prose escapes the author, those hints become harder and harder for a player to come by. It is to this difficulty with the prose (and, of course, to the lack of any hint system or walkthrough) that I ascribe the problems I’ve seen players having, often with the very first puzzle of the game. With a typical piece of IF, the author could simply tailor the game’s responses to help the player along — The Tempest often achieves this goal, but all too often it falls short.

Before I played The Tempest, I was unlucky enough to run across a USENET conversation which suggested that Graham Nelson is the game’s author. I thought this was a spoiler, and I admit that it did set up a bit of preconception for me before I had even seen the first word of the game. Having said that, several things about the game do have a strong air of Nelson about them. The author’s erudition is clear, from the simple choice of subject matter to the deft interweaving of other Shakespearean and Renaissance phrases into the play’s text when necessary (for example, to the command “throw x at character” the game responds “I have no aim, no, no chance of a palpable hit.”, a phrase echoing Hamlet). Such attention to scholarly detail recalls some of the finer moments of Nelson’s epics, especially Jigsaw. Moreover, the game’s help menu (which it calls its frontispiece) contains fascinating blurbs on lost islands and the play’s history, as well as notes on the game, its creation and characteristics. Such additions are strongly reminiscent of the diplomatic briefings in Nelson’s 1996 1st Place game The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. Finally, the author’s technical skill and innovations with Inform are tremendous, and who better to code so well than the language’s inventor? It may be that Nelson is in fact not the author of the work (in which case the author should take the comparison as a compliment of the highest order), but even if that is so, the talent behind this game is clearly a major one. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play, and as such carries a distinct air of finality — I only hope that whoever authored this work will not allow it to be his or her last as well.

Prose: I suppose this is where I ought to weigh in on the debate over the originality of a work like the IF version of The Tempest. It’s my opinion that the IF Tempest is absolutely a different piece of work from The Tempest, the play. Yes, the author uses almost the entire script of the play, but I would argue that such usage is not plagiarism, because whatever Shakespeare’s intentions, I think it’s safe to say that the play was not written to be adapted into interactive form. Consequently, I don’t see the IF Tempest as any less an original work than Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility or, for that matter, Shakespeare’s MacBeth (whose plot was lifted from Holinshed’s histories.) Yes, the seams do sometimes show between the author’s additions and Shakespeare’s text — these are the work’s weaker moments. However, in judging The Tempest‘s prose, I judge not the quality of Shakespeare’s writing, but the quality of its usage in its new medium — on that basis, more often than not, it succeeds.

Plot: I predict that a certain contingent of voices will raise the hue and cry over what they perceive to be The Tempest‘s lack of interactivity. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (far from it, in fact — I got only six points, another example of an excellent competition game which breaks the two-hour rule), but the parts I saw made it pretty clear that the game leads you along rather carefully from one plot point to the next, allowing for very little branching. My own opinion is that this structure is not a problem — after all, the piece bills itself as “more a ‘performance’ than a ‘game’,” and as such it’s perfectly appropriate for The Tempest to enforce a certain degree of rigidity to accommodate the exigencies of its plot. In fact, what this achieves is the inclusion of a much more complicated plot than is common in interactive fiction; by limiting the player’s ability to affect the narrative stream, the game allows the complexity of Shakespeare’s plotting to shine through even in this challenging new form. I’m satisfied with the trade-off.

Puzzles: As noted above, this is where I identify the major weakness of The Tempest. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I cite as an example the first puzzle of the game, where Ariel must blow a storm to upset the boat and set the plot into motion. The reason that players are finding this puzzle so difficult is that it requires rather close knowledge of the play (and not just of the play’s first scene), which most players, even very well educated ones, are not likely to have at their fingertips. No hint is given of Ariel’s powers or of his purpose in regard to the ship. [SPOILERS END] Now, in a typical IF game, there might be a sentence or two in the introductory paragraph which introduces the idea and sets players on their way. However, because of the constraints imposed by using a collage of prewritten text, these hints are unavailable and thus players flounder in a “read-the-playwright/designer’s-mind” sort of puzzle. It won’t be the last time.

Technical (writing): The prose did an excellent job with handling a number of difficult technical tasks with regard to writing and using Elizabethan English.

Technical (coding): I found only one bug in The Tempest (at least, I think it was a bug), among a thoroughly reworked library of Inform responses and the introduction of a number of excellent devices for the presentation of dialogue and clarification of the plot.


Coming Home by Andrew Katz [Comp97]

IFDB page: Coming Home
Final placement: 34th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Coming Home is an unremittingly awful game, one which never should have been released publicly. It’s hard to think of it even as an exercise for the author to learn Inform, so buggy and illogical are its basic design and implementation. Perhaps it could be considered a first step toward learning the language; in my opinion, such bumbling, poor initial efforts have no place in a public forum, let alone a competition. It’s not much fun wandering through somebody’s ill-conceived, cobbled-together, inside-joke universe. In fact, playing Coming Home is a kind of Zen torture, an experiment in just how unpleasant interactive fiction can possibly be. Perhaps it’s what IF is like in Hell.

Frankly, I don’t feel like putting much effort into this review, since the author obviously put so little effort into creating a quality game for the competition. I know it wasn’t a personal affront, but I felt insulted that he thought this jerry-built piecework was worthy of anyone’s time. It certainly was a wasted 15 minutes for me before I turned to the hints, and another wasted 15 minutes before I decided to just let the recording show me the rest of the game.

I want to encourage anyone who is interested in IF to contribute to the medium by writing a good game. But please, until it’s good (Lord, at least until it works)… keep it to yourself.

Prose: Coming Home doesn’t waste much time on prose. Which is unfortunate, since it’s supposed to be a text game and all. What’s there is really bad — not fun bad or silly bad like Detective, just bad. I think even the MST3K crew would get bored with this one.

Plot: Like the rest of the game, the plot is unclear, and what can be discerned doesn’t seem to make much sense. Apparently you’re a very small person (a child?) who has been away from home for a long time, can’t survive without eating and going to the bathroom every few minutes, and lives in a haunted house where doors close and lock of their own accord, people behave like furniture in some rooms and mysterious forces in others, and the bathrooms are smeared with urine and feces until you tell Mom to clean them up to a nice sparkle.

Puzzles: Puzzles? How to interact with the parser. How to move from place to place as directions randomly disappear. Why people appear and vanish, apparently magically.

Technical (writing): The writing didn’t have terrible mechanics (nothing like Punkirita from the 1996 competition, for example), but it sure wasn’t good either.

Technical (coding): To even try to summarize all the problems with the coding would take more time than I’m willing to give to this game. If you’ve read this far, you probably have a basic idea.


The Town Dragon by David A. Cornelson [Comp97]

IFDB page: Town Dragon
Final placement: 24th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Town Dragon is a game with a lot of problems. The fact that the game is confusing was evident from the very start: after a few turns, I was told “Peter is following, looking at you strangely.” I thought, “Following? But I haven’t gone anywhere!” Turns out that when somebody is following you, the game tells you so every turn. This type of sloppiness occurs throughout. There are numerous grammar and spelling errors, so many that I stopped keeping track of them. The game’s prose is often terse and uninformative, reducing room descriptions to simple lists of exits and object descriptions to brief lines like “They’re copper and few would trade on them” for a handful of coins. In addition, the game suffers from a number of technical bugs, including failure to properly define a short name for objects and failure to respond to player commands at certain points during the game.

In fact, the game reminded me of nothing so much as an early piece of homemade interactive fiction, perhaps vintage 1982 or so. What’s amazing about this is that it was made with Inform, a very sophisticated tool. I found myself marveling that something with such a primitive feel could be constructed with materials so obviously intended to allow a programmer to avoid this kind of aura. I suppose that the experience once again brought home the knowledge that even the highest quality tools do not automatically confer high quality upon their product. From time to time the argument comes up that games with “from scratch” parsers are somehow more pure or have more integrity than games made from prefab libraries, on the grounds that the prefab games can’t help but be good. I think that what The Town Dragon shows us is that sophisticated parsers and libraries are of no use unless they are put to a sophisticated purpose.

Still, with all these problems, I enjoyed the game for what I felt were its merits: sincerity and consistency. The Town Dragon impressed me as a game written by someone who cared about his story but didn’t have much skill with prose or with Inform. This doesn’t make for a great product by any means, but I enjoyed it a tiny bit more than the last game I played (Zero Sum Game) a piece with good writing and coding but a very cold heart. With an improvement in prose quality and code, this game could be enhanced into a fair example of standard fantasy IF. I could see that potential, and it helped to mitigate the game’s other disappointments.

Prose: Even aside from the grammar and spelling problems, the game’s prose leaves a lot to be desired. Several important locations were described in 20 words or less — not much on which to hang a mental picture. The milieu was not well or thoroughly imagined, and some descriptions actually left out crucial pieces of information. People and objects also were not well-described, with many descriptions turning on some variation of “looks ordinary.”

Plot: The plot worked to drop a few clues and build to a climactic revelation at the end, with mixed results. Certainly there was some degree of building the mystery, and there was a revelation at the end. However, some pieces of the game (especially the daughter’s responses) gave the secret away rather too easily, and the crippled prose was unable to create tension or emotional investment effectively.

Puzzles: Puzzles suffered from the same afflictions as the rest of the game. The prose was sometimes too ineffective to convey sufficient information to solve the puzzle logically. The buggy programming hampered my confidence as a player that I would be able to tell the difference between puzzles and bugs. In addition, the game broke several commonly held “players’ rights”: An arbitrary time limit was imposed, a couple of gratuitous mazes created frustration (especially since there were too few inventory items handy for the ‘drop and map’ method), and information from “past lives” was often necessary to avoid disaster.

Technical (writing): The game was littered with grammar and spelling errors. These errors ranged from the simple (“vegatation”) to the subtle (a room description read “To the southeast you see a supply store and roads in all major directions,” implying that all the major roads were to the southeast.)

Technical (coding): There were several coding errors as well. Again, some of these were simple errors like missing new_lines. Others were more difficult to deal with, like the lack of a short name for the volunteers who follow the player.


Tapestry by Daniel Ravipinto [Comp96]

IFDB page: Tapestry
Final placement: 2nd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I thought this was really an impressive piece of work. Yes, it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and probably a little too derivative of Neil Gaiman’s visions of Fate and Evil in his Sandman cycle. But nonetheless, I found the situations compelling, the dilemmas convincing, and if a work is going to be derivative of someone, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Gaiman. I sometimes resented having my emotions so blatantly manipulated (somewhat akin to my feelings in a few Spielberg films) by the Dickensian drama of the mother and wife with wasting illnesses, the struggling family business on the edge of ruin, and the innocent “victims of inexorable fate” in the form of an onrushing car. Still, the fact is that the work succeeded in pushing my emotional buttons, and I was moved by the story. Tapestry is an ambitious piece, and both its successes and its failures are due to its exploration of the possibilities of interactive fiction. For example, the feeling of not being able to control the car despite what you order the character to do is an extremely chilling one, and it is an effect that would not pack the same potency were it attempted in static fiction. By the same token, though, exchanges with the wraith seemed a bit forced due to the limits of the medium — often complex points were reduced to the level of trying different versions of “tell wraith about x”. I have to admit, even though I’m educated enough to recognize “Morningstar” as Lucifer (the author even whispered in my ear to tell me so), I still chose his path my first try through the game. At the endgame, I was forced to think about my choices, and to recognize that I had been (and therefore could be) manipulated into making a choice that was wrong for the character, even if it wasn’t morally wrong, even if it is the choice I myself would have made under the circumstances. It wasn’t a nice feeling.

Prose: The prose tended toward the histrionic at times, and unfortunately this actually occasionally diluted the emotional impact of the situations. However, my experience of those moments was that they stuck out from the general trend of the writing, which was quite craftily done, and in fact sported some moments of real intensity and poignancy despite the occasional cliché.

Difficulty: I didn’t find the game too difficult to get through, but then again it wasn’t particularly puzzle-oriented. In fact, the path of Morningstar required a great deal more puzzle-solving than the path of Clotho (which is the other one I tried). Is there a message here?

Technical (coding): On the whole the coding was quite proficient. I was a little unhappy with what I perceived as some shortcuts (for example, a medicine bottle not implemented as a container), and the author’s realistic setting caused a few problems with Inform‘s standard responses. (Examples: entering “DIAL 911” and being told “You don’t know that phone number.”, and being told that I really should clean the soot that’s collected on my carpet, yet “CLEAN SOOT” receives a reply of “You achieve nothing by this.”) Apart from these details, the coding was accomplished quite handily.

Technical (writing): Grammatical and/or spelling problems and typos were not entirely absent, (I remember noticing an “a” used in place of an “at” or some such) but they were very few and far between.

Plot: I found the plot quite compelling. The prologue worked quite well for me, (though I did appreciate the “begin” command after my first time through) and the mutually exclusive endings were well planned. Ultimately, the game’s plot boils down to the idea that moral dilemmas can be extremely powerful in the medium of interactive fiction. I think this is a very, very good idea indeed.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, this work wasn’t really very puzzle-oriented. The puzzles that were included were integrated well with the game — no gratuitous grafted-on “crossword” elements — and this was both a strength and a weakness. The strength: nothing interrupted the suspension of disbelief created by the game’s dramatic scenarios. The weakness: character-driven puzzles (which most of these were) all too often boiled down to how to fill in the blanks on “tell ____ about ____.”


Piece of Mind by Giles Boutel [Comp96]

IFDB page: Piece of Mind
Final placement: 16th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This story seemed to struggle to find its voice, vacillating between the chilling (the voice in the boxes), the satirical (the copyright man), and the bubblegum epic (participating in the adventures of Jeff Steele, Galactic Hero, and battling the Chromium Knight). The writing never seemed to settle into one style, and as a result the entire work felt disjointed, as it was not the result of a unified vision, but rather a collection of “wouldn’t this be neat?” concepts, halfheartedly strung together. The other lasting impression left by the game is one of frustration, since a bug prevents players from winning. Consequently, although Piece has some interesting moments, it fails as a whole.

Prose: Lots of the writing was really quite winning, and provided several nice moments of humor (the improvised songs) and drama (the opening sequence). I just wish the story could decide what it wanted to be, because the amalgam lacked an overarching purpose. One final note about the prose: I found several of the puzzles quite difficult because the room description seemed to belie the character’s willingness to do the action necessary to solve the puzzle. Examples are smashing the television and touching the computer screen. I think that room descriptions play a very complicated role in defining the character’s traits, and while the contradicting room descriptions were an interesting experiment, they didn’t work for me in this case. Perhaps if I’d gotten more sense of desperation, or if the character-defining traits (“I’ve managed to avoid smashing it so far.”) were described in less of an offhand way, I’d be more inclined to lead the character to do things that it is described as wanting to resist.

Difficulty: Due to the phenomenon described above, I found myself consulting the walkthrough quite often. Of course, then there’s the separate issue of the game’s unsolvability. Frustratingly, this bug sets the difficulty at “impossible.”

Technical (coding): Having a game-killing bug prevents Piece from getting a high score on coding. Apart from the fact that the game is unwinnable, I found the coding to be pretty smooth, although I think Inform is capable of handling things more smoothly. For example, when walking into the copyright office without clothes, the game should prevent the player from entering rather than allowing entrance only to revoke it.

Technical (writing): The writing was relatively free of typos (though I think I noticed one in one of the box quotations, unless the author is playing subtly on the meaning of the = sign.) and grammatically correct.

Plot: Well, I’m not sure I ever really understood the plot, since I never got to see the endgame. The concept of a character who is aware it is being controlled is an interesting one, and I think one with great potential. Unfortunately, that potential is not realized here, due to the game’s schizophrenic approach.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, the structure of the room descriptions made some of the puzzles quite difficult. Others, though, had their share of wit and pizzazz. I especially enjoyed the copyright man.


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.


Lists And Lists by Andrew Plotkin [Comp96]

IFDB page: Lists and Lists
Final placement: 11th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, Andrew Plotkin is nothing if not inventive. The implementor of Z-Machine Tetris brings us another novelty — a programming language and interpreter set up entirely within the z-machine run-time. Andrew’s Scheme implementation is interesting and even, to a point, fun. I definitely look forward to sitting down with it for a longer period of time and working at learning what it has to teach. (I never thought a text adventure could help me build my resume!) However, after a certain point the problems stopped being fun and started being work — I’m already working at learning two languages; learning a third is definitely worthwhile, but not my idea of leisure time. And thus I discover a criteria I didn’t even know I had for the competition entries — I want them to be an escape from work, rather than (pun intended) “Return to Work”

Prose: Very little of it, but of course it conforms to the high Plotkin standard of quality.

Difficulty: I found Lists to be quite difficult going, but then I’m just working on learning C++ and Inform now, so Scheme was a bit of a leap in abstraction for me. The feeling was reminiscent of just beginning to learn UNIX after years of working on DOS (and, to a lesser extent, Macs and Windows).

Technical (coding): Andrew is the god of Inform coding. All hail Andrew.

Technical (writing): Well, of course the main place this came up was in the online manual for the language, which naturally had no errors in spelling or grammar, and in fact was written in a fun jocular style.

Plot: No. No, not really at all.

Puzzles: Well the problems were definitely puzzling, and certainly not your standard Interactive Fiction type of puzzle, either. Lists certainly gives a mental workout, but then again so does Calculus I.


Introducing >INVENTORY

I started writing reviews of interactive fiction games in 1996. I think it’s only old people who start stories with, “In those days…”, but apparently the shoe fits, so in those days, the IF community was small, cohesive, and centered in a couple of Usenet newsgroups: rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction. For those who weren’t there, newsgroups were essentially discussion forums, consisting wholly of text — posts and threads. “Arts” was about creating IF, and “games” was about playing it. (“Rec” meant “recreation” — there were various top-level hierarchies that… you know what, it doesn’t matter.)

The text-only medium of newsgroups was perfect for text adventure aficionados, and while they thrived, those groups were the fertile soil from which sprung many of the pillars that support even today’s IF scene: Inform, TADS, the IF Archive, and most importantly for my purposes, the Interactive Fiction Competition.

The comp, as it was affectionately known, started in 1995 as a way to spur the creation of more short IF — see in those days most authors were trying to ape Infocom by writing long, puzzly games that would have fit nicely onto store shelves in 1985. The comp changed that, dramatically. Kevin Wilson, founder of the comp, gave it just one rule: every game had to be winnable in under two hours. The first year saw 12 games entered. The next year: 26. And it took off from there.

Opening screen of Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather
A Change In The Weather, winner of the first IFComp, Inform division

I was on fire for IF in those days. I couldn’t get enough of the newsgroups, the games, the languages. I spent my nights immersed in learning Inform, creating little worlds and gleefully walking around in them. The competition was the perfect opportunity for me to actually finish one of these virtual puzzleboxes and send it out into the world in hopes of feedback. That first attempt was called Wearing The Claw, and while I find it rather cringey to look back on now, it did at least land in the upper half of the 1996 comp — 8th place. And boy did I get a lot of feedback on it!

In those days, you see, there was a strong culture of feedback in place, and the comp helped that culture grow explosively. Tons of people would review the comp games, and as an author, you could get a cornucopia of input that would help you understand where you went right this time and how to do better next time. It was invaluable, and I wanted to be part of it, so I reviewed every 1996 comp game.

Then I reviewed every comp game (with a few exceptions) every year all the way up through 2004, which not coincidentally was the year before my son was born. I also wrote reviews of various other IF and IF-adjacent games, and spent several years editing a text adventure webzine called SPAG.

For a couple of decades now, those reviews and writings have been housed on the personal web site I created back in the 90s with my trusty copy of HTML For Dummies. However, my crystal ball tells me that this web site’s days may be numbered. It lives on a legacy server at the University of Colorado (where I still work), and nobody is super excited about hosting old student websites from the 20th century anymore. Plus, those old reviews are absolutely festooned with dead links and ugly typography.

Enter >INVENTORY. This blog will eventually house all my writing about IF, including every comp review, every IF-Review entry, every XYZZY Awards solicited review, and everything else I can think of. >SUPERVERBOSE will remain my primary blog, and new writing about IF will go there as well as here, but >INVENTORY, as its name suggests, will house the exhaustive trove that currently lives on my old web site.

As time permits, I’ll be transferring comp reviews into this blog, where they can be searched, indexed, googled, and so forth. Once that project is done, I’ll start on all the other IFfy stuff I’ve written over the years. It’s quite possible I’ll append some of it with reflections or current thoughts as the mood strikes me.

In my first innocent post to rec.games.int-fiction, I called myself “a major devotee of IF.” While many other passions have laid their claims upon my time, that fire still smolders inside me, and I look forward eagerly to revisiting the many happy hours I spent with IF games and IF arts. As with everything I write, I hope it proves enjoyable and/or useful to somebody else out there too.