The Isolato Incident by Anya Johanna DeNiro as Alan DeNiro [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Isolato Incident
Final placement: 22nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first: When I say “Alan” in this review, I’m referring to the programming language, not the author. Second: it’s always bugged me that Alan provides no scripting capability, but it’s never annoyed me more than it did for this game. That’s because this is the first Alan game I’ve encountered that’s been more about language than interactivity, and I desperately wanted to keep a copy of my interaction with the game so that I could refer back to its language when I wrote this review. I finally ended up hacking together a solution by periodically opening the scrollback buffer (thank you Joe Mason for porting Arun to Glk!) and copy-and-pasting the contents into a text file. Now that I’ve got that text file to peruse, I’m becoming even more aware of the strangenesses in the game’s use of words.

The main gimmick is obvious from the start: the entire game is written in the first person plural voice — as in, “Wait, we must stop.” Sometimes an approach just makes me sit back and say “wow, never seen that in IF before” and this was one of those times. The game is apparently from the point-of-view of a monarch, and therefore it’s fairly easy to assume that all this plurality is due to the use of that kingly favorite, the “royal we.” However, there are hints here and there that the “we” doesn’t just refer to the monarch and his subjects, but to some sort of actual multitude. For example, the narrator offhandedly mentions that “We like to coif our hair into shape, exactly like each other.” Each other? Granted, this could refer to the hairs themselves, but that’s not the only reference to multiplicity. For instance, in the first room description, we (that would be the “reviewer’s we”, dontcha know) see this:

Cozy Throne Room.
This is where we rest, tarry, and make our fears vanish. There is
enough room for all of us here.

Is this monarch of such tremendous girth that most rooms fail to hold him? Well, probably not, given the reference to “razorthin hips” in the response to “X US” (the game cleverly replies to “X ME” with “‘me’? We’re not aware of that word.”, thereby deftly employing a parser default response to further delineate the main character.)

All this would be quite enough to take in, but the game has other plans up its sleeve, too. To confusion of voice, The Isolato Incident adds a pile of words whose meaning has simply been displaced. Take this sentence: “We watch our bees, smear their history on our arms and legs.” That’s not some sort of metaphor about honey; instead, it’s a recontextualizing of the idea of bees and the idea of history into an entirely new grid. All this, and we haven’t even left the first location yet! After spending some time with the game, I started to figure out why my response felt familiar: it resembled my reaction to Dan Schmidt‘s 1999 entry For A Change. I’d look at a passage like this:

The Crux Of Our Landscape.
Still, there is much to be admired here. The green slopes are
flatter; thus, the cleft of the wind is much stronger. There are also
choices etched in the road. South leads to the nearly endless royal
road, and to the east of us is the bonegrass field and (further east)
the treasury. We can also pitter-patter back to our hut to the north.

and run it through my hastily-constructed mental filter. “Okay, ‘cleft of the wind’ probably just means a breeze. ‘Choices etched in the road’ is probably indicating that this is a crossroads.” This filter felt more natural as the game progressed, but I never stopped feeling at a distance from the PC, and therefore unable to invest any particular emotional commitment into his struggles.

The game’s not-terribly-surprising twist ending might have removed this barrier, but as it happens, I still felt just as distanced from the game even after it revealed another layer of itself to me. I think this occurred because even after the twist, the game didn’t do much to connect with any particular reality to which I could relate. In the interest of not giving away the surprise, I’ll refrain from going into detail, except to say that the ending happened suddenly enough, left enough context unexplained, and raised enough further questions that it didn’t give me much of that feeling of satisfaction that we tend to expect from the ends of stories. For me, a narrative layer a little more grounded in reality would have done wonders for my emotional connection to the game. As it was, I could admire the prettiness of the words, but only from a remove.

Rating: 7.5

[Postscript from 2020: In the context of 2001, The Isolato Incident wasn’t submitted pseudonymously. However, as of 2020, the author has transitioned to using the name Anya Johanna DeNiro. I wrote Anya, asking whether I should credit her as Alan or Anya. At her request, I’m crediting the game to her as Anya, but noting that she wrote as Alan at the time.]

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit by Ian Ball and Marcus Young [Comp97]

IFDB page: Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit
Final placement: 17th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit (hereafter called MmeLTS) is a frustrating game, because it builds such a slipshod house upon a very promising foundation. The game is riddled with what I would guess are at least a hundred grammar and spelling errors. It flipflops seemingly at random between past and present tense. It can’t seem to decide whether to address the player in the second or third person. It consistently causes a fatal crash in at least one interpreter (WinFrotz). All this would be easy to evaluate as simply the product of incompetent authors if it didn’t take place in a game that starts with an interesting premise, executes a number of great interface decisions, and manages to unroll a complicated mystery plot along the way. As it is, MmeLTS is a great mess that could’ve been a contender if only it had been written with more care.

One area in which the game does succeed is that of the innovations introduced by its authors, especially in the area of navigation: MmeLTS combines the direction-based locomotion of traditional IF with the more intuitive “go to location x” type of travel used in games like Joe Mason’s In The End. The title character (a “spiritualist detective” who is also the player character) can travel to various locations around Sydney with the use of the “travel to” or “go to” verb. However, once she has arrived at a particular location she uses direction-based navigation to walk from place to place (or room to room, as the case may be.) Moreover, the authors often write direction responses as a simple set of actions performed by the title character rather than implementing entire rooms which serve no purpose. These methods of navigation combine the best of both worlds, providing a broad brush for cross-city or cross-country travel but not taking away the finer granularity available to the direction-based system. A related innovation concerns Madame L’Estrange’s notebook, in which the game automagically tallies the names of important people and places which come up in her investigations. This notebook (similar to the “concept inventory” used in some graphical IF) provides a handy template for travel and inquiry, and would be welcome inside any game, especially those involving a detective.

One other point: MmeLTS takes the character all over Sydney, and in doing so provides an element of education and travel narrative along with its detective story. The medium’s investigations take her from Centennial Park to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo to the University of New South Wales. Locations are often well-described, and after playing the game for two hours I felt more knowledgeable about Sydney than when I started (I hope the game’s locations weren’t fictional!) As an American whose knowledge of Australia is mostly limited to Mad Max movies, I can attest that the travel aspect of the game is a lot of fun.

Prose: It’s not that the game’s prose was terrible of itself. The game is quite verbose, outputting screensful of text as a matter of course, and much of this text is effective and worthwhile. As I mentioned, many of the descriptions worked quite well, and the game does manage to clearly elucidate its plot as events happen. It’s just that the mechanics of the prose are so bad (see Technical/writing). When technical problems are so pervasive, they can’t help but have a tremendous negative impact on the quality of the prose.

Plot: The game’s plot is actually quite interesting. Mme. L’Estrange is presented with two apparently unrelated mysteries: strange wildlife deaths ascribed to a mysterious beast loose in Centennial Park, and the apparent suicide of a marine biology worker. As one might expect, these two situations eventually turn out to be linked. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (in fact, I only scored five points out of 65 in that time, which makes me wonder just how much of the game I haven’t yet seen), but what I saw makes it clear that the game is well-plotted. I was interested in seeing its mysteries unfold.

Puzzles: I didn’t really find many puzzles as such — the game is mainly focused on exploration. Those puzzles which I did find were quite soluble as long as enough exploring had been done. What took up most of my time was visiting locations, talking to characters, and “tuning in” to the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the dead or learn more about a place’s spiritual aura. This kept me busy enough that I didn’t really miss the lack of puzzles.

Technical (writing): The mechanics of the writing are just horrible. Sentences constantly lack periods or initial capital letters. Words are constantly misspelled. Typos are everywhere. The tense shifts back and forth at random between past and present; either one would have been workable and interesting, but the game seems unable to make up its mind. A similar phenomenon occurs with the voice, which vacillates between second and third person address. This avalanche of mechanical problems cripples what could have been an excellent game.

Technical (coding): The jury is still out on how well the game is coded. When I was using WinFrotz to play the game, I encountered Fatal errors repeatedly, but I’m not sure whether they were the fault of the designer or of the interpreter. JZIP presented the game with no problem, but again that could be because the interpreter was ignoring an illegal condition. Several aspects of the coding, such as Madame L’s notebook, were quite nifty (unless that’s what was causing the problem with WinFrotz crashing), and the implementation was solid overall.


In The End by Joe Mason [Comp96]

IFDB page: In The End
Final placement: 15th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Hmmm. The first character I’ve been totally unable to identify with — the author shows us an interesting world with friendship, intellectual interest, potential for love, and incredible technological comfort, and wants us to believe that the foremost desire one could have in this world is for suicide. I just can’t buy into the idea of convenience creating a lethal level of ennui, if indeed this is the reason for the main character’s suicidal urges. I’m reaching, because no good reason is given. In fact, nobody in the story even seems particularly (or at least specifically) unhappy, and several characters (the shopkeeper and bartender come to mind) seem genuinely to enjoy their lives and feel fulfilled. So what is this character’s problem? I suggest that his problem is the story’s problem — an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic without any of the logic or backstory that give real drama its tension and emotional weight.

Prose: Often rough, but often rather touching. The world whose picture the author paints has some very charming aspects, and the prose brings this across nicely. Unfortunately, the skill with which this is accomplished serves only to further undercut the notion that your goal in this world should be to leave it.

Difficulty: Well, a goal-oriented word like “difficulty” is a bit of a mismatch for a game like this which has no way to win. How difficult is it to finish the story? Why, not at all. One only has to wait 7 turns, step outside, and type “kill me” and that’s all, folks. The concept of “difficulty” doesn’t really seem to apply to this story though — what’s really difficult is figuring out why the goal is what it is…

Technical (coding): This is where In the End really shines. Its interface (with its lack of compass directions) worked quite spectacularly (for me, anyway), giving the world a wonderful real-life feel. I never realized how much compass directions undercut the simulation aspect of IF until they were removed — after all, who goes around thinking about which direction they’re bearing? (Except, perhaps, for spelunkers 🙂 ) I was also impressed with many of the responses that had been anticipated for NPCs (WOMAN, TELL ME YOUR NAME was especially appreciated), though some could still have used some polishing (SHOPKEEPER, TELL ME ABOUT HOPSON elicited no response, but SHOPKEEPER, TELL ME ABOUT MR brought about the correct reaction). And I apologize for continuing to harp on this point, but when the interface is exciting and the world seems to offer so many possibilities, the dead last (no pun intended) thing I wanted to do was commit suicide.

Technical (writing): The initial box quote jarred me, because I’m used to seeing “whimper” spelled with an “h”. However, I’m not near my copy of Eliot right now to see if it’s simply a transcription of one of the poet’s intentional alterations, so I’ll call that one neutral. Other than that, the writing seemed quite technically proficient.

Plot: A frustrating one, and although it’s true that such a device is new to interactive fiction, it felt gimmicky and hollow, so its absence up until now is quite justified, to my way of thinking. And beyond the final goal of the game, there really is no plot. I even checked the walkthrough just to make sure I wasn’t actually doing something stupid and overlooking or short-circuiting a plot that was waiting to be discovered. No such luck. I just keep thinking, what a pity.

Puzzles: Well, this was “puzzle-less IF” alright. But then again, it also had no plot. So its lack of puzzles was logical, but did nothing to improve the work.