Hercules’ First Labor by Bob Brown [Comp03]

IFDB page: Hercules First Labor
Final placement: 26th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

For me, the comp game experience begins from the moment I read the game’s title and blurb in Comp03.z5. What that meant for Hercules’ First Labor was that I was out of sync with it from the beginning. Not from its title, which is fine, but from its blurb:

My introduction to computers was the Scott Adams series of adventures
with the simplistic Verb/Noun parser and this game is in that vein.

I know that there are these people who have lots of nostalgic feelings about Scott Adams games, but I’m not one of them. I’m an Infocom guy, and have been since the beginning of my involvement with IF. Consequently, Scott Adams games tend to feel like cave paintings when what I’m really looking for is Degas and Monet, or at least Jack Kirby. I come to IF more for the fiction than the interaction (though they’re both important, of course), and my favorite games all have excellent writing in common. So, predictably, I’m not a fan of room descriptions that look something like “I’m in a Hotel Room by Door.” The “simplistic Verb/Noun parser” also feels like a straitjacket to me, and it’s that much worse when I don’t have access to the metacommands I’m used to, like UNDO, AGAIN, and, well, SAVE.

So I’m really not in the target audience for this game. Now, that being said, HFL pulls off the Scott Adams feel quite well, and the fact that it’s apparently coded in JavaScript makes the whole Verb/Noun thing a little more understandable. The presentation is attractive in the browser window, and even though it was frustrating not to be able to generate a transcript of my game sessions, I found the split-windowed interface (one frame each for status line, room description, parser responses, and input) effective and intuitive. The parser worked tolerably well (with some problem inconsistencies between “read” and “look”), though “pretty well” for a two-word parser is still pretty darn poor by today’s standards. The bare-bones nature of the setting made the puzzles very straightforward indeed — just use the very few verbs at your disposal to interact with the handful of objects you encounter and you’ll be finishing the game in no time. The verb USE is your friend. Similarly, there’s not much to say about the writing, because there just isn’t much of it.

“Homemade” competition games tend to be notorious for having underimplemented parsers, and for lacking some of the basic functionality that we take for granted in games produced by top-tier development systems; the homemade games I’ve encountered so far in this comp are no exception. However, this time around, new approaches have tried to turn these shortcomings into advantages. The way Sweet Dreams did it was to throw out the parser altogether, replacing it with a low-res avatar in a graphical environment. Thus was the whole parser problem avoided entirely, and this approach worked for me. The homemade interface still had its bugs and frustrations, but I found Sweet Dreams to be one of the least irritating comp games ever made outside of a mainstream IF development system. (That’s not to damn it with faint praise — I liked it well enough.)

HFL avoids the problem in a different way, by setting the player’s expectations from the very beginning, and enlisting the aid of nostalgia to make its simplistic parser actually seem like a feature rather than a bug. I’ll bet that for people with fond memories of playing Scott Adams games, the trick works really well. For me, though, it felt like just another substandard homemade parser, albeit ameliorated a bit by the fact that its simplicity was matched by that of the environment. So, while I acknowledge it as a good try, HFL left me cold. It did inspire me to my first comp game anagram, though. (“SA flirt’s core blur, eh?”) That’s worth a little something.

Rating: 3.7

Remembrance by Casey Tait [Comp99]

IFDB page: Remembrance
Final placement: 27th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Unlike all the other entries in this year’s IF competition, Remembrance isn’t a story file or program. Rather than the product of an IF language, or even a standalone executable written from scratch, the game is a collection of web pages, each one leading to the next. At the bottom of each web page is a little piece of JavaScript, sometimes just a button reading “Continue”, other times a pull-down combo box with a list of possible actions (never any more than three) and a “Try Action” button. Many attempted actions bring up input boxes, asking for further clarification (e.g. “What would you like me to get?”). Once the command has been fully entered, the page will do one of two things. One possibility is that the browser will display a JavaScript message box indicating the results of the command, either the generic failure message “Your action has no effect” or some longer response which advances the plot. The other option is that the browser will simply bring up the next web page in the sequence. This web implementation has some advantages. Guess-the-verb problems are entirely eliminated, and for one particular puzzle in the game that is a distinct benefit. The web-based approach also allows the author all the traditional advantages of a web page — colors, pictures, fonts, etc — though I can’t say that the game did much with the possibilities. The plot concerns World War I, and the pages do have a color scheme which matches (black on olive drab), but that’s about as fancy as it gets, aside from the JavaScript parts. In addition, there were some serious problems with the web-based approach. For one thing, I found that the chosen color scheme made the text pretty difficult to read. Also, the pages are hosted by tripod.com, which generated an inexpressibly irritating pop-up window every time the game moved to a new page. On top of that, whenever the JavaScript message boxes would appear, my browser would sound a chord; this is the same chord that Windows 95 sounds for urgent warnings and notifications that the hard drive is about to melt, so hearing it over and over was a pretty unpleasant experience.

But the biggest problem with the web approach is that the interface itself dramatically curtails interactivity. At its worst, the interactivity is limited to a “continue” button, which is about as interactive as turning the page in a book. At its best, the interface is reminiscent of the “command menu” interface of some point-and-click commercial adventures, only with a drastically limited menu. Compounding this problem is the highly linear design of the game itself. Not only is there just one path through the game, but there is really only one path through each substep of the game as well. For example, in the opening sequence there are three commands which must be entered in order. It isn’t tough to guess which three, because the combo box at the bottom of the screen only contains three options. Nonetheless, choosing the wrong command to start with, no matter what further explanation you put in the input box, just gives one response: “Your action has no effect.” Choosing the right command, but putting the wrong thing in the subsequent input box just gives the same terse (and improperly punctuated) hint line every time. Once you get the first command right, the process starts again for the next command. After a few iterations of this process, it becomes eminently clear that Remembrance is less interactive fiction than it is forced-participation fiction. That is, to see the next page of the story, you have to enter the magic word. There is no possibility of exploring the landscape, no opportunity to attempt other routes, and very few things to even try along the way. To further enforce its boundaries, the game uses the technique of regularly shifting viewpoints and settings, a la Photopia.

In fact, the comparison between Remembrance and Photopia is a fruitful one. Remembrance feels very much like it wants to emulate Photopia, changing Alley to Alex and the dangers of irresponsible driving to the dangers of trench warfare. You might even say that it starts down the trail blazed by Photopia and walks it all the way to its logical conclusion: highest level of tragedy, lowest level of interactivity. However, there are some important differences between the two as well. Foremost among these is the writing. Where Photopia maintained a consistently excellent level of prose, Remembrance is more uneven. The bulk of the writing is clean and well-done, but there are also a number of misspellings, punctuation errors, and awkward phrases. In addition, where Photopia‘s scenes are non-sequential both chronologically and in terms of point-of-view, in Remembrance it is only POV that shifts, with the exception of a short prologue. This difference probably contributed to the fact that the twist in Photopia is quite surprising the first time through, whereas in Remembrance the climactic event is visible several miles off. However, all that aside, I still found Remembrance touching. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for World War I stories ever since I saw Gallipoli, and certainly the type of tragedy depicted in Remembrance is an easy target for a tearjerker, but the interplay of letters and scenes, encompassing the trenches, the planning rooms, and the homelands, made for a nicely affecting overall presentation. It’s not the sort of thing I’d want to see very much of, but it was definitely worth my time once through.

Rating: 6.7