The Adventures of the President of the United States by Mikko Vuorinen [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Adventures of the President of the United States
Final placement: 21st place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s been a long time since I’ve played a Mikko Vuorinen game. The last one was his 1999 comp entry King Arthur’s Night Out, which bizarrely recast King Arthur as a henpecked husband in a domestic farce. Some people, like Adam Cadre, apparently found this hilarious, but it mostly left me cold. Still, I was pleased to see Vuorinen’s name on a comp entry this year, and playing TAOTPOTUS felt like a reunion with a seldom-seen relative — even though its behavior was often exasperating, I couldn’t help feeling a certain fondness for it, both because of its reliably predictable traits and because of my sense of shared history with it.

Vuorinen hasn’t lost his affection for putting iconic figures into strange and comical circumstances, and indeed one of the most charming things about TAOTPOTUS is its gleeful disregard of realistic IF conventions. Consider, for example, this bit of game territory:

The United States of America.
Good old USA, in your mind the greatest country in the world. Home of
you and millions of other fellow Americans. The White House is a
magnificent place, but once in a while it's good to see the real
world. As you know, Canada is to the north and Mexico to the south.

> n
O Canada.
Their home and native land.
Lots of trees and that's about it.

To the west is Alaska and to the south the rest of the United States.

Next to you is a particularly tall maple tree.

This isn’t any kind of carefully worked-out fantasy trope — it’s not as if the President is suddenly a literal giant, walking across the continents in state-spanning strides, though at times it’s hard to avoid that mental image. Instead, it has the childlike feel of marching an action figure around a big map of the world, having little adventures in different places without much regard for any sort of fictional coherence. I mean this in the best possible way. I loved feeling like I was part of an innocent “let’s pretend” session, miniature toys tromping across a world-themed game board.

From the game’s title, I was wondering if it would be a political satire, but as close as it comes is to suggest that perhaps our President really does see the world in terms as abstract and simplistic as these. Then again, maybe that’s plenty. There are some moments that suggest a gentle satirical agenda, such as when you try to go south from Russia and are told “You don’t want to go to the Middle East. Some people there might not like you.” There are also some moments that that made me laugh out loud, such as when I typed HELP and was told, “You do not need any help. You are the President of the United States of America.” I tried to STOP THE WAR, but sadly the game informed me that the word “war” is not recognized. If only that were true.

Unfortunately, fun with icons wasn’t the only Vuorinen trait that made it into this game — there are also a handful of good old guess-the-verb puzzles as well, along with the typical admonishment in the walkthrough that there are no guess-the-verb puzzles, and that the game should be simple enough for anyone to finish without clues. I got stuck on the very first puzzle, and discovered from the walkthrough that, just like in King Arthur’s Night Out, there’s an item that needs to be SEARCHed, even though examining it yields a dismissive response. Some of the puzzles made sense to me, but there were others that really felt like an exercise in reading the author’s mind.

The environment (what there was of it) was reasonably well-implemented, though there were several bits of dodgy English, and I struggled from time to time with the deficiencies of the Alan parser. I also need to take a moment here to grouse about the typically feeble Alan game engine, which fails to include such essential bits of functionality as UNDO, AGAIN, and especially SCRIPT. I really dislike having to periodically copy the scrollback buffer into a text editor in order to keep a record of my interaction with the game, especially since I only belatedly remembered that this buffer keeps a rather paltry amount, and consequently I lost the transcript from my first 15 minutes or so with the game. Okay, I feel better now that I’ve vented. Overall, TAOTPOTUS is brief and kinda fun, and if you’re a Vuorinen fan, you’ll probably like it a lot.

Rating: 7.5

King Arthur’s Night Out by Mikko Vuorinen [Comp99]

IFDB page: King Arthur’s Night Out
Final placement: 22nd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game depicts King Arthur in a way I’ve never seen him before. Instead of tragic hero, noble warrior, or eager wizard’s apprentice, it’s King Arthur as… henpecked husband? Yes, you as King Arthur just want to head to the pub for a pint or two with “Lance” and the boys, but your wife, the uncharacteristically shrewish Guinevere, wants you to stay home while she sits on the bed, knitting. The puzzle, then, is how to get out without her knowing. It seems to me that this plot could have easily taken place in a suburban house rather than Camelot. Yes, Excalibur makes an appearance, but even with that addition the game is still a rather pedestrian affair with a superficial sheen of Arthurian trappings laid on. I’m not convinced that this sheen improves the game. There’s an element of the unexpected, I suppose, in seeing Arthur cast in such a strange way, but the surprise does little to illuminate either the Arthurian mythos or the game itself. In addition, the henpecked husband stereotype has never been one that I’ve found all that compelling, so mixing it in with the legend of King Arthur shatters the power of the legend while doing little to enliven the stereotype.

King Arthur’s Night Out suffers in several places from “guess-the-verb” weaknesses. There is an item that, when SEARCHed, will yield an important discovery. However, if you look in, shake, push, open, or examine it, you won’t find a thing. In another spot, you must retrieve an item from underneath something else. However, you can’t crawl under this thing, nor lift it, nor just get the item from underneath it. The puzzle has a logical solution, but because such a specific wording was required, I didn’t find that solution until I checked the walkthrough. I felt annoyed when I discovered the answer, because it was no more complicated that the things I had been trying, things which got no response. How was I supposed to know that this particular method had been implemented, I wondered, when 5 others weren’t? I think my experience contains a lesson for me as an author — puzzles shouldn’t consist of hunting around for the one method which the author anticipated. The author should anticipate three or four methods of solving a puzzle, and implement them all, either as alternate solutions or as dead ends which will help point the player toward the correct method.

Having griped about that, I will say that the game was coded quite well overall. Many actions were accounted for, especially in areas which weren’t puzzles. I found no bugs in playing the game, and only a very few errors in the prose mechanics. I still didn’t have a particularly great time playing the game, but a large portion of that reaction is due to the fact that I didn’t find the premise very interesting. Perhaps people who enjoy broad domestic farce would like it more. In addition, if a second edition of the game emerges that implements the puzzles a little more robustly, King Arthur’s Night Out will be a solidly coded, if a little bit odd, piece of interactive fiction.

Rating: 7.2