Being Andrew Plotkin by J. Robinson Wheeler as Celie Paradis [Comp00]

IFDB page: Being Andrew Plotkin
Final placement: 3rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I was the perfect audience for this game, or near-perfect anyway. I’ve seen and enjoyed Being John Malkovich, the film by Spike Jonze. I’ve hung around the IF scene for a long time. I’ve played every Plotkin game, even Inhumane. I’ve also played every Infocom game, which turns out to be helpful as well. Even with all that, I’m not sure I caught every reference (especially given the prodigious list of such references provided by the author in the endnotes), but I think I caught a lot of them. Consequently, I’m not sure how somebody who doesn’t fulfill some or all of the above criteria would react to BAP, but I can tell you this: I thought it was a delight.

In fact, even as I was reflecting on what a rockin’ great start to the competition this game gave me, I was also regretting how small its target audience surely must be. No doubt somebody familiar just with the IF newsgroups, or just with Zarf (that’s Andrew Plotkin’s nickname, for those of you not in the know), or just with Jonze’s movie would find some entertainment value here, but how much more they would derive if they were, well, me. And believe me, there is a lot here to be appreciated. The game is gleefully deft at playing with the identity themes so memorably plumbed in the movie, and it does so in ways that are wonderfully appropriate to the medium of IF and to the specific project of exploring Zarf’s head. On top of that, it throws in lots of nifty IF references and generally has a hell of a time exploring some dark and unmapped corners of the form. In short, it works as a riff on the movie, as a riff on Zarf, and as a riff on IF itself.

The writing is, at times, a bit wobbly. I admit to being a little worried when I saw the first sentence of the game: “At last, your troubled fortunes seemed to come to an end.” The use of the past tense rather than the more traditional IF present tense, as well as the awkward phrase “troubled fortunes”, confused me. It felt like there was an initial paragraph missing, or perhaps that the PC had just died (which is how most people’s fortunes, troubled or not, tend to come to an end.) I think if the game had started out with “At long last, your troubles seem to have come to an end,” I could have swung with it, but as it was, it took me about a hundred moves to turn off the little editor in my head (apparently we all have a cast of characters capering around inside our skulls) and go with the flow. Once the game got rolling, though, there were some fantastic bits of writing. Particularly evocative and exciting were the effects generated by the various shifts in perspective that the game executes.

Those perspective shifts are some of the most intriguing things that happen in this game, or in any comp game I’ve ever seen, for that matter. I don’t want to give away spoilers here, so I’ll just say that the game explores some more or less uncharted IF territory by doing quite a bit of “head-hopping”, in both the literal and figurative senses. And of course, the fact that it is both literal and figurative is just one of the many fun things about this game. I love it when I’m still thinking about a game long after I’ve played it, still having little “aha!” moments making connections and grokking references. Yes, it’s true that the text probably could have used another round or two of revision. It’s also true that there are a few bugs remaining here and there, though there were other moments when I was pleasantly startled by the depth of implementation in some areas. The author confesses at the end of the game that “He began coding it on 2 September 2000 at 7:04am, and raced like the wind to finish it in time,” and in places, the rush shows. On the whole, however, the game is a whole lot of fun, and very thought-provoking, too. Being Andrew Plotkin is an experience not to be missed.

Rating: 9.0

Thorfinn’s Realm by Roy Main and Robert Hall [Comp99]

IFDB page: Thorfinn’s Realm
Final placement: 28th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

For someone who has always loved playing IF, the first few attempts at programming it can be a giddy thrill. The smallest achievements can provide boundless amusement: “Look! I made some rooms that link together in crazy ways!” That’s why many IF authors, especially those who started programming IF during their adolescence (or even before) go through a stage of writing games that do all kinds of really crazy, annoying things. These games are usually brimming with smarmy, smart-assed responses to various fairly ordinary commands, because smart-assed responses are one of the easiest, most fun things for a novice to program. The games often do really annoying things, from a gameplay standpoint, just because those are things their author has just figured out how to do. Mazes are common, as are insta-death puzzles, silly objects/rooms, in-jokes, and self-referential appearances by the author.

Design isn’t a big consideration, and for that matter neither are consistency, logic, realism, or correct grammar and spelling. All these things take a lot of patience, and the fledgling IF author is way too eager to write the next snarky response to bother with them. Of course, many of these early efforts never see the light of day, something for which their authors find themselves very grateful five or ten years down the line. But some find their way out. Some authors even take the trouble of porting their old efforts so that the games can reach new audiences (Andrew Plotkin‘s Inhumane is a case in point). I don’t know whether Thorfinn’s Realm is the product of novice programmers (or a port of such.) It may not really belong to this category of game, but it certainly feels like it does. It’s a game that does many things wrong, and has lots of irritating misfeatures and errors, but is still endearing nonetheless for its abundant energy and enthusiasm.

The plot is a goofy contrivance for a treasure hunt, something about time-traveling back to the 10th century to join a time-travelers club. Of course, the introduction is careful to explain, the club has gone ahead of you to set up a few “surprises”, a rationalization which serves to explain any strange anachronisms you might find, such as oh, say, flashlight batteries lying around. Hung on this framework is a string of lots of the most irritating puzzles/features from the earliest IF games.

There’s a 4 item inventory limit. This limit can be contravened with a rucksack later in the game, but even the rucksack has a limit. There’s a maze, almost at the very beginning of the game. There’s a “replace the light source” puzzle, which basically entails saving and restoring to replay the first 200 moves over and over until you’ve found the aforementioned flashlight batteries. At times I felt like I was having an extended flashback to the early 80s — I’m thankful there was no starvation puzzle or I might have permanently lost my mind.

Along the way there are a host of misspellings, objects missing descriptions, lapses of logic, and lots and lots of smarmy parser rejoinders. Take, for instance, the following:

Captain's log, stardate 950 AD. Some idiot is poking around in a fireplace.

I can almost picture the programmers chortling with glee, savoring the oh-so-clever wordplay and hoping some suckers examine the logs in the fireplace so that they can be the target of that zinger. The player who finds it, on the other hand, grimaces for a moment and then moves on (or at least that’s what I did). Who had more fun in this scenario? Thorfinn’s Realm is full of moments like these, things that are aggravating for the player but which were presumably fun for the authors to create.

Now, let me back off a few steps. First of all, I recognize that I’m setting up a strawman in the above paragraph. It is certainly possible that the scenario I describe above is very far from the truth, and that the authors genuinely thought that the in-jokes, self-references, light source puzzle, etc. etc. would really be fun for the player. Not probable, I admit, but possible. Secondly, I can’t stay mad at Thorfinn’s Realm for long, despite its many flaws. For one thing, in spite of its cracked design and sometimes wobbly English, the game is coded pretty competently. I found very few bugs, aside from the occasional elided description, and lots of verbs and nouns are accounted for in the parser.

But more importantly, there’s just such a verve to the whole thing. It’s a quality much more difficult to put into words than the game’s problems are. Something about the gestalt of the whole package — puzzles, setting, prose, and the rest — conveys an infectious enthusiasm for the medium of interactive fiction. Come to think of it, that’s another quality that Thorfinn’s Realm shares with the earliest IF, but a good quality. Those early games had many characteristics whose passing is unlamented, but they also had the bright-eyed excitement of explorers mapping uncharted territory. In capturing the feel of the early days of IF, Thorfinn’s Realm finds not just its curse, but its blessing as well.

Rating: 6.4