Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bête noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

>X MARK
"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>blue
There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

>carved
Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

Future Boy! by Kent Tessman [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2005.]

IFDB Page: Future Boy!

Hugo’s Heroes

Kent Tessman is both a filmmaker and a game author, and his latest game, Future Boy!, seems to have started life as a screenplay. I say “seems to” because while there are a lot of references to the “original Future Boy screenplay,” I never found any place in the game or its accompanying documentation that actually explained the story of how it came to be, why it didn’t get produced, and how it morphed from a movie idea into a game idea. Instead, the game just cruises along as if we know what it’s talking about, which we don’t. At least, I don’t.

So the characters and story started out aimed at the silver screen. How do they survive the transition onto the monitor screen? Pretty well, I’m happy to say. There’s plenty of fun to be had in Future Boy!‘s rich and well-implemented world, and the game’s multimedia content is easily the most impressive I’ve ever seen in an independently produced text adventure. If Future Boy! were free, it would be one of the best amateur games ever. However, it isn’t free — Tessman sells it for $25 (or $20 if you’re willing to forego the CD jewel case and booklet), and for me, that price tag demands a higher standard of testing and design, a standard that the game doesn’t always meet. I feel uncharacteristically reluctant to level any aspersions whatsoever at Future Boy!, since it’s so obviously the product of immense craft and dedication by a small cadre of artists. However, the fact remains that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it, especially its later sections, and despite all the care and attention it obviously received, this game is still a flawed gem.

Still, I come to praise Future Boy! before I bury it (or maybe just toss a few shovelfuls of criticism onto it), so let’s talk about the multimedia, which is just awesome. Future Boy! splits the screen horizontally, with the bottom half dedicated to traditional text output, and the top half occupied by various hand-drawn pictures, some animated and some not. These pictures can be of the current location, as is the case with most multimedia IF, but they also serve to illustrate important objects and NPCs, and they sometimes show animated cut-scenes as well. The art feels enjoyably comic-booky, though amateur — artist Derek Lo is no John Romita, but his drawings do a nice job of evoking both the comedic and the adventuresome elements of the game, effectively strengthening its tone. Moreover, Tessman enhances the comic-book feel by displaying these pictures as independently floating panels rather than trapping them in static frames. The animations are especially cool, combining moving images with sound to marvelous effect, and providing a real reward for the act of puzzle-solving or exploration that triggers them.

Speaking of sound, the game’s sound design is as solid as its visual appeal. There’s zippy original music, written by the multitalented Tessman, who also does voice-acting for one of the characters. All the NPC voice-acting is pretty good in general, and occasionally inspired. Future Boy! reinforces the voice actors’ character-building with color-coded dialogue — red for the red-haired woman and so forth. These multimedia touches lend the NPCs much more distinctiveness and nuance than appears in the typical text game. The one minor quibble I’d make with the game’s sound is its insistence on inserting odd little musical cues and stings at scattered points throughout the interaction, sometimes seemingly at random. These cues make for an interesting experiment in mood-building, but they’re distracting as often as they’re dramatic. Still, they can be turned off, so no real harm done there.

In fact, Future Boy! provides a wealth of options like that, allowing player control over not only traditional things like verbose or brief descriptions, but also over its use of color, images, sounds, conversation menus, footnotes — virtually every special feature it provides. Controls like these are emblematic of the care that went into this game’s implementation, which is quite thorough overall, especially in the earlier sections of the story. One way in which the game wisely supports its location-depicting graphics is to implement all the objects shown in those graphics but not mentioned in the room description, even if only with a “that’s not important” type of message. Loads of other good ideas are put into action here, such as the entertaining plot recap provided after every SCORE and RESTORE command. I also appreciate the friendly “you can’t go that way” messages, which make sure to tell you what exits exist in the current location, and the nifty change in look and feel that occurs during a section of the game that involves hacking into a computer. Perhaps the coolest feature of all is the DVD-style “commentary” option which allows you to play through a version of the game where Tessman and Lo interject various musings and anecdotes on the making of the game at various points in the play session. If any question still remained, Future Boy! should eliminate all doubt that Hugo is absolutely a top-tier system for creating IF, possessing a solid world model and parser, and capable of achieving some really cool effects.

Future Boy!‘s story is pretty cool too. It shouldn’t give away too much to say that you play the roommate of a superhero living in Rocket City, a sort of stylized fictional mixture of New York and L.A. Future Boy (or Frank, as he’s known to you) has powers that are never quite defined but are vaguely Superman-like. However, he acts more like a typical roommate than a typical superhero, sometimes preferring to hang out on the couch watching TV rather than motivate to get the bad guys. So when supervillain Clayton Eno (who seems to have no powers at all besides a host of goofy Get Smart-ish devices and the ability to raise his eyebrows ominously) goes on a rampage, you find yourself drawn like Jimmy Olsen into the plot, and eventually it’s up to you to save the day, with a little help from some NPCs you meet along the way.

These NPCs are an entertaining bunch, with some very funny lines and incidental business for each. I particularly like Gorrd, a giant green — well, play the game and you’ll see. Dialogue occurs via a hybrid conversation system that combines menus with Infocom-style ASK and TELL commands. This system works pretty smoothly for the most part, though I did get seriously tripped up by it once, when a plot trigger was nestled in a menu option; I was forgetting to use the menus due to my old ASK/TELL habits. If the game seems to want to proceed but you can’t figure out how to nudge it along, my advice is to TALK TO everybody. Then TALK TO them again.

Future Boy!‘s heroic (or maybe sidekicky) premise makes for a fun world, and Tessman’s writing helps the fun along. The prose doesn’t particularly call attention to itself, though it’s certainly pretty good adventure game writing — adequate description with a hint or two smuggled in, as well as some good jokes. What makes it such a pleasure is the tone, which stays pretty much perfect throughout the game. Future Boy! is neither high drama nor low comedy, but a pitch-perfect funny adventure in the LucasArts tradition, with aliens who act just like cranky film noir characters, a superhero who spends most of his time slacking, and a villain whose ridiculousness never stops, from his name to his nefarious plans. One of my favorite Eno lines, after he gets knocked to the ground:

Mess with my evil plans, will you? What, did you think I was just going to lie down there on the sidewalk whistling the theme to Three’s Company? Mess with my evil plans, Future Boy. Come and knock on *my* door.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the spelling and grammar are almost flawless; what errors remain seem like typos rather than genuine mistakes.

The game’s design does an excellent job of gradually opening up new plot and world terrain, and of introducing new complexities as the story goes on. The terrain itself feels convincingly urban — Future Boy! provides the feel of a large city without implementing a thousand locations by setting up several different areas of the city, linked by taxi and subway rides. Also, there’s an optional introductory section, which is very good at establishing the world and giving a sense of how the puzzles will go. In fact, Future Boy! contains a number of newbie-friendly features, such as a GOALS verb to list the PC’s current objectives, and the occasional parenthetical cueing that pops up when the PC seems to have wandered too far afield of those objectives, along the lines of “(Shouldn’t you be getting to work?)” Of course, that cueing can be frustrating if you know what you need to do but not how to do it, but it’s still a nice touch.

Should you find yourself thus stuck, Future Boy! provides an excellent set of in-game hints. These hints are in the classic InvisiClues style, starting with gentle nudges and advancing to outright solutions, depending on how many hints the player chooses to reveal. Also following the InvisiClues style, the hints are liberally strewn with red herrings; in this, they mirror some excesses in the game itself, about which a bit more later. For now, it’s enough to say that the hints are generally well written — with only one exception (when a subject heading wasn’t clear enough, leading me to ignore the hints that I needed) they gave me just enough help to get me unstuck. In any case, I tried to use them as little as possible, so that I could derive maximum enjoyment from the puzzles.

Many of these puzzles are quite enjoyable indeed. Most of the obstacles in Future Boy! offer a reasonable challenge without unreasonable frustration, and a few of them are highly pleasurable and original. Bypassing the security camera and getting the antidote formula are good examples of this, but I think my favorite was obtaining the helicopter key. This was one of those puzzles that I worked on for about a half-hour, set the game aside for a while, then had a flash of inspiration at 2am, fired up the laptop, tried my solution, and it worked. The IF experience doesn’t get better than that.

Other puzzles weren’t so hot, though, and generally the problem was down to a lack of feedback. There’s one puzzle where a critical item for the solution is never mentioned directly in its location’s room description. It’s possible to infer that the item is there, but it was rather too far a logical leap for my tastes. This issue would be solved by just a bit more suggestion in the room description (or possibly an action description) that the item is present. Another puzzle frustrated me by failing to account for some overlaps in its design — there’s an item that demonstrates a particular and significant behavior when taken to certain locations or placed in certain containers. However, placing the item in one of the special containers while standing in one of the special locations should produce another message about that behavior, and it doesn’t. This flaw led me to conclude that the container was ordinary, when in fact it wasn’t. Again, simply providing more sophisticated feedback would eliminate this problem.

Something else that makes Future Boy! more irritating than it should be is its abundance of red herrings. To some degree, these are a side effect of the game’s thorough implementation. Rocket City is a rich environment, with lots of fun jokes and easter eggs, and Future Boy! is designed like an old-style adventure game, meaning that your inventory quickly fills with tons of objects that might or might not be useful. However, there are plenty of purposeful red herrings inserted as well, throughout the game, and because the story is large, by the final scenes it really is too much. The problem becomes especially clear in those final scenes, because the game clearly seems to want a fast-paced climactic conflict, but the overwhelming number of misleading things to try and false trails to follow built up by that point makes it rather unlikely that the endgame will move along quickly.

Similarly, locations can change throughout the game, displaying new properties or objects as the plot moves along, and while this is a fine technique, it later begins to function as another burdensome red herring, when a stuck player travels desperately from one location to the next in hopes of finding something new. I’m not an anti-red-herring guy — I think a few blanks left unfilled at the end of the game lends a pleasing verisimilitude, but as I played through Future Boy! the second time, I was dumbfounded at just how many parts of it ended up having no function in the game’s true solution. In my opinion, scaling back on these would have brought a greater feeling of balance to the game, and made it more fun to play, especially towards the end.

Other weaknesses in the game spring from infelicities in Hugo’s world model and parser. Don’t get me wrong — for the most part, these things are on a par with the best in the genre, and I don’t hesitate to put Hugo on the same level with Inform and TADS for world model and parser quality. However, all systems have their quirks, and one of Hugo’s seems to be a peculiar disregard for scope. I frequently had interactions like this:

>x trash
You don't see him.

or this:

>turn around
You don't see him.

or this:

>ask coop about fire
Coop doesn't seem to have anything to say about van stuff.

What seems to be happening here is that Hugo’s parser is taking the noun it’s given and comparing it to every noun in its dictionary. When it finds a match, the parser gives the response appropriate to the noun matched, even if that noun’s object is nowhere near the player at the time. For instance, “ask coop about fire” is meant to be a question about a concept or event, but the game sees that “fire” is a synonym for “fire extinguisher”, one of the nouns it implements as scenery in the van location, and responds as if I were asking Coop about the fire extinguisher in the van. The problem isn’t quite as clear in the “You don’t see him” responses — all I can surmise is that “trash” and “around” must be synonyms for some NPC. “X traxh”, for instance, gives the response “You don’t need to use the word ‘traxh'”, which is Hugo’s standard response for a word it doesn’t recognize, so it must be that it thinks I’m trying to refer to some character. While I applaud this game’s efforts to provide lots of synonyms for everything, when that technique combines with Hugo’s strangely global scoping rules, the results can be quite disconcerting.

Another parser gripe: the disambiguation could be smarter, though perhaps this problem is just another permutation of the scoping issue. For instance, here’s a response I got while in Frank’s bedroom:

>make bed
Which bed do you mean, Frank's bed or the bunk bed?

>frank's
It's Frank's bed -- you don't have to make it. Frank probably wouldn't recognize it if you did.

>x bunk
You don't see that.

There’s no bunk bed in the room. There’s a bunk bed in the game, but it’s in a totally different location and plot section. Hugo should be smarter than to ask a question disambiguating between one thing that’s present in the current location and another thing that isn’t. If there’s only one object in the area that matches the noun used, the parser should just assume that this is the object intended.

These points are quibbles compared to the game’s most significant problem: it just falls apart towards the end. Well, maybe “falls apart” is too strong, but there’s a noticeable drop in quality in the later parts of the game. For instance, the first two-thirds of the game is roughly broken into chapters, and the appearance of a new chapter title is always cause for excitement, and a feeling of accomplishment. However, in the final sections, the chaptering just stops, with even major accomplishments going unmarked. In addition, the bugginess quotient is considerably higher in the last half of the game than it is in the first half. For that matter, I found it rather too high in the first half, at least for a commercial release. What it feels like to me is that Future Boy! just runs out of steam a while before it ends. As a game author, I can relate to this syndrome (boy, can I ever), but it’s still quite disappointing, especially (again) in a game I’m paying for.

Along with some critical bugs in the final puzzles, at least one of these puzzles has, in my opinion, and extremely implausible solution. Elsewhere, game-logic that has held since the beginning suddenly deteriorates or even reverses itself at the end. These bugs and design flaws, combined with the game’s wide and open geography and its severe propensity for red herrings, created a real flail-a-thon for me as I struggled toward its conclusion. Needless to say, the excitement that should have been racing through me as I reached the story’s climax and conquered the last obstacles was drained and deflated by the time I finished them.

I guess the bottom line is that I expect more when I pay more. If I downloaded a game like this from the archive, I would be both more impressed and more forgiving, because this would be one hell of a game to get to play for free. When I’ve paid, though, I find myself looking through “customer’s eyes,” and I expect to see no bugs or serious design flaws. As good as this game is, it doesn’t reach those standards. It’s probably true that Future Boy! is superior to many games that were commercially released at twice the price, but that doesn’t let it off the hook. (It just means that those other games deserved, and probably got, even sharper criticism.) But because the author of this game belongs to a small, friendly community of which I’m a part, I find myself asking whether it’s fair to apply those standards in this case.

In the end, I’ve decided that it is, but I hope I’ve drawn enough attention to this game’s many strengths to make it clear what an impressive accomplishment it is, despite its problems. Tessman continues to release patched versions of the game, which makes me hopeful that many of its bugs will eventually be squashed. For adventure game fans, Future Boy! may be a little pricey, but it is worth playing.

Interview from Terra d’IF [Misc]

[I was interviewed in 2004 for Terra d’IF, an Italian interactive fiction zine. Roberto Grassi was the interviewer. I’ve cleaned up the text and added some links as appropriate.]

Head shot of Paul O'Brian from 2004

(Me in 2004!)

> ASK PAUL ABOUT PAUL

I’m a 34-year-old computer programmer and father-to-be, living in Colorado and working for the local university. I’ve been married for 8 years, to a woman who isn’t an IF enthusiast herself but is unfailingly supportive of me and my kooky hobbies. I guess I’ve been hanging around the IF scene for about ten years now. Wow. I have very strong interests in writing, gaming, and programming, and since IF lies at the crescent between these, it’s a natural fit for me. The fact that I have warm memories of 1980s Infocom doesn’t hurt, either. My other interests include comics (as players of the Earth And Sky games have no doubt surmised), music, and trivia.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT HIS IF (with particular reference to IFComp Winning)

Of course, I’m thrilled and proud to have won the competition. It’s been interesting to watch the mini-controversy that the win has caused on the newsgroups, with some people voicing the opinion that my game didn’t deserve to beat its closest competition. To some degree, I can sympathize with this point of view — Luminous Horizon‘s writing doesn’t measure up to the dazzling prose and evocative themes of Blue Chairs, and its puzzles feel pretty desultory next to something like All Things Devours.

I don’t think it’s for me to say just what qualities enabled the game to win despite these shortcomings, but I can tell you that I really try to put a lot of craft into my work. Part of why it takes me so long to produce each game is that I pour a great deal of effort into providing dozens and dozens of NPC quips, unusual parser responses, and situation-appropriate text. I like to think that effort makes a difference in how people receive the game. In addition, I try to make each game I release an improvement over the last one, which is why Luminous Horizon lets you switch between PCs and contains an integrated hint system.

As for my earlier stuff, I still get nice email about LASH, and overall I’m happy with the way that game turned out, though of course with another four years of experience, I now look back at some parts of it and wish I’d done them a little differently. This is even more true of Wearing The Claw, my rather cliché-ridden debut. At that point, I was so excited to even be able to produce IF at all that I wasn’t paying enough attention to producing interesting writing, though given my nascent writing skills at the time, I’m not sure I’d have been able to do much better even if that was my focus. Lately, I seem to have stumbled into a groove for producing games that have a fairly broad appeal, and I’m pleased that lots of players seem to be having a good time with them.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT OLD IF

The first game I ever played was Zork, and it’s still one of my favorites. However, I played its predecessor Dungeon a few years ago, and found myself going crazy with frustration. Some parts of Zork may seem capricious, but compared to the way Dungeon tangles its map connections, snuffs light sources, and gleefully confounds the player at every turn, Zork feels infallibly logical. This experience gave me some insight into what I see as one of the most important shifts that’s happened in IF development: the shift from antagonism to collaboration.

Old-school IF does everything it can to undercut and frustrate the player, and the pleasure of playing it comes from the challenge of triumphing over all these obstacles. As time has gone on, though, we’ve seen more and more IF that tries to work with the player to create an experience of fun or drama. That’s why things like mazes and hunger timers have fallen out of favor — the few current games that include them tend to be strongly informed by the games of fifteen or more years ago. Of course, both approaches can be useful, but personally, I find participating in a story much more pleasant than slogging through restart after restart to overcome arbitrary barriers, so I prefer that even puzzle games eliminate the tedious parts to let me focus on the interesting parts. All Things Devours is a great example of a game that does this.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT CURRENT IF

I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I have difficulty finding the time to play most current IF. I’ve managed to keep up with the competition, both because it only takes place once a year and because I know I won’t be spending more than two hours on any given game. However, given that next year at competition time I’ll have a four-month-old child around the house, I’m trying to shift my focus to non-comp-games, which I can approach under a little less pressure. I got a copy of Kent Tessman’s Future Boy! for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to playing that and Andrew Plotkin’s The Dreamhold soon. Of course, I’ll have to balance them with work on SPAG and on updating the Earth And Sky games, not to mention the other demands of actually having a life. Sigh.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT FUTURE IF

I’m not much of a prognosticator, so I don’t have any grand predictions about where IF will go in the next ten or twenty years. I don’t even have a wish list, really. I do think that right now, several different strands of IF are healthy and growing, from outright literary games to sophisticated puzzlers, and I don’t expect general IF development to lurch suddenly towards one side or the other. The use of pictures and sounds in IF is growing too, and that may continue to expand as the tools to produce multimedia content get easier and easier to use. I guess my basic expectation is that IF will continue to thrive as an underground niche hobby, with occasional eruptions into tributaries of the mainstream.

> ASK PAUL ABOUT HIS FUTURE RELEASES (and commitments, i.e. SPAG for instance)

I don’t have any new games on the drawing board at this point. I do plan to continue with SPAG for the foreseeable future — the 2004 comp issue will come out as soon as I receive the last interview I’m waiting for. Aside from that, my first priority is to update my rather dusty web page, then to produce an updated version of Luminous Horizon that takes into account all of the feedback I’ve received during and since the competition. Then I want to go back and update the first game to include the same kinds of graphical sound effects that the other episodes use, and from there I’m thinking of trying to package them in some quasi-seamless way and maybe promote them a bit beyond the IF world. I really have no idea how long all that will take, so I haven’t really formed any plans beyond that point.

Paul O’Brian’s games are here. [I took the liberty of replacing a defunct link to Baf’s Guide with one to the IFDB.]

Down by Kent Tessman [Comp97]

IFDB page: Down
Final placement: 20th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Because it’s hard to discuss Down without discussing its premise, this entire review should be considered spoilery.

Well, Down is the first Hugo game I’ve ever played, so I know that many of my initial reactions to it were actually reactions to the Hugo engine and interface itself. These first reactions were mainly positive. I used the DOS version of the Hugo engine, and found that its presentation was clean and asethetic. There were some nice effects available from using colored text, and an attractive menu system. Room descriptions looked good, with bold titles and slight indentations at the start of their descriptor sentences. Having sized up this interface and found it good, I was ready to enjoy Down, a game written (as I understand it) by the same person who created Hugo itself.

Unfortunately, I ran into difficulty right away. The game presents a puzzle within the first few moves, announcing that the player character’s leg is broken, making walking impossible. OK, so what’s the logical solution? How about crawling somewhere? Regrettably, “crawl n” brought the response “You’re not going to get anywhere on just hands and knees–you’ll have to try and figure out some way to walk.” OK, shoot. So I can’t crawl anywhere either. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to figure out how to leave the initial location. Finally, frustrated to the breaking point, I turned to the walkthrough, only to find out that what I needed to do was “crawl west.” Hey, wait a second! I thought I wasn’t going to get anywhere on my hands and knees! I guess I can after all. The game has several instances of this kind of problematic prose, making it difficult to progress without a walkthrough.

However, the story is worth experiencing, walkthrough or not. The author presents a very realistic and highly compelling puzzle-solving situation: you are the survivor of a plane crash. You must help your fellow passengers and somehow prevent the plane from killing you all when it explodes, as it inevitably will. This situation is a natural one for interactive fiction: you must traverse a limited area, under pressure from a time limit, solving very real puzzles with dozens of lives in the balance. Even though there are some problems with the prose and puzzles, it’s still a memorable feeling to crawl through the wreckage, a situation made even more evocative by the fact that it really could happen to most anyone.

Prose: The prose often does a nice job, especially with broad, sweeping tones such as setting up the feeling of urgency associated with the plane and with rendering the human tragedy caused by the crash. It’s in smaller moments that it fails, and the failure is not so much one of tone or voice as it is one of diction. The words chosen are simply not the correct ones to convey what turns out to be the case. For example, a seat is described as “almost against the wall,” but when you look behind it you see a small boy. Well, to me when something is almost against the wall, the distance in between is a matter of inches, certainly not something a child could fit into. Down would have benefited from words more carefully chosen.

Plot: The plane crash is definitely a very strong foundation upon which to build a plot, and Down exploits many things about that situation quite well. Interestingly, however, there are some narrative hooks on which resolution is never delivered. For example, I fully expected to be able to radio for help from the cockpit, so that my fellow survivors and I could get the medical attention that we need. Instead, there wasn’t even a radio mentioned. Also, you meet two passengers (husband and wife), one of whom is injured and bleeding badly. I thought perhaps this was a puzzle, and that I needed to help stop the bleeding. Not the case — apparently they were just there for scenery. The man never gets help from his wound, even at the end. I found this ending unsatisfying, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense that even after serious heroics, survivors of a plane crash would still find themselves in a very difficult situation, but it’s not the kind of resolution I’m used to.

Puzzles: The puzzles in general didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I liked the splinting puzzle, since it was logical and fit well into the story’s flow. However, other puzzles like that of the tree lodged in the plane didn’t ring true to me. Would you really set a huge fire inside something that you thought might explode? Wouldn’t you spend your time helping other passengers take shelter in the woods instead?

Technical (writing): I found no errors with the writing.

Technical (coding): The game’s implementation was solid as well.

OVERALL: A 6.3