For A Change by Dan Schmidt [Comp99]

IFDB page: For A Change
Final placement: 2nd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had to take a long break and read some regular English before I could start to write this review. If I hadn’t, no doubt my sentences would have sounded something like this: “The game approaches jigsaw, laying out words and concepts end to end, but skew. It moves whirling, lifting gazes into a rarefied and unknown sphere.” Even now, my language feels highly self-conscious, like a drunk trying to walk a straight line. I’m in this discomfiting circumstance because For A Change put my head into a very weird space through its use of words. The entire game uses an English that, while it makes sense, is just a few degrees off-center. For example, one location is described thus:

In the Shade
The land increases towards your head to the south, and decreases away
from your feet to the north. Mobiles lead accordingly in both
directions. The High Wall may also be approached to the east. A long
walk to the west is a tower, dwarfing your form, and dwarfed in turn by
the wall.

Out of context, it seems almost incomprehensible, but once you’ve been playing the game for a while, you realize that all it means is that you’re standing on sloping ground which rises to the south, alongside a north-south road. At first, I found this linguistic displacement affected and annoying, but as it became more transparent to me, it acquired an intoxicatingly immersive effect. It was like watching a foreign film with subtitles — by about halfway through, the mechanical nature of the device was submerged and I felt fully involved in the milieu.

For me though, there was a downside to this approach. After I had finished the game, I marveled at the cleverness of its linguistic contrivance, and the consistency with which it was implemented, but the pleasure was solely on a cerebral level. Even though the experience of playing the game was interesting, I never cared very much about the story, I think because I found it too difficult to make an emotional commitment to a setting and character that were so completely alien. Consequently, I ended up observing myself a lot, which is a very distanced, passive way to go through something like interactive fiction. Then again, I’m not a person who gets passionate about abstract painting or experimental fiction like that of William Burroughs, so my lack of reaction to the game may be due more to my own idiosyncrasies than any particular flaw in the work.

The other thing I found interesting about For A Change is that it is the product of Dan Schmidt, who, though he doesn’t tend to shout about it, was a member of the team that produced Ultima Underworld I and II. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time that a competition entry has been authored by someone from the professional computer game designing community. Well, actually I suppose that’s not quite true — I know Andrew Plotkin contributed to at least one professional game for the Mac. Still, I found it fascinating, and very encouraging, that a writer of such high-profile games entered the competition, and that he did it with a game that is so thoroughly uncommercial. What’s more, the things that make For A Change special are only possible because it is a text game; even if by some bizarre circumstance a software company wanted to put out a graphical version of the game, that version simply could not capture the very specific flavor that For A Change achieved with its distinctive use of words. How fascinating it might be, then, to see the IF competition become a place where game-writing pros came to fulfill their most unrestrained artistic ambitions, creating pieces of text which would never see the light of their day jobs.

Rating: 8.0

The Edifice by Lucian Smith [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Edifice
Final placement: 1st place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

You’re an ape, spending your days hunting for Food and fleeing from Enemies. You have these little thumbs, too, that set you apart from the Others. Suddenly one day, a huge black Edifice appears before you, arousing your wonder and suspicion. I can almost hear “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in the background: Daaaaaaaa, Daaaaaaaaa, Daaaaaaaaaa….. Da-Dummmmmmm! However, from this highly derivative beginning, The Edifice ventures quickly into much more original territory. It seems that once you enter the monolith, you find yourself able to enter various stages of human development, from the discovery of fire to protecting your village against plundering marauders. The idea works very nicely, putting the player into puzzle-solving situations which blend very naturally into the game’s environment and using the edifice itself as a sort of frame around the smaller narratives as well as a hinting device.

One section of the game in particular I found really remarkable. On the second level of the edifice, you find yourself as a very early human, living in a family unit in the woods. Your son has a fever, and to cure him you must find the Feverleaf, which can be made into a healing tea. However, no Feverleaf seems to be available anywhere, until you stumble across a Stranger. Unsurprisingly, however, the Stranger does not speak your language, and so you are faced with a problem of communication. The game does an incredible job with simulating this situation. I was astonished at the level of realism which this character was able to achieve, and at the care that must clearly have gone into fashioning this interaction. I’ve rarely seen such a thorough and effective establishment of the illusion of interactivity. The Stranger did not of course respond to English words in understandable ways. However, you could point to objects, or speak words in the Stranger’s language, and gradually the two of you could arrive at an understanding. It was an amazing feeling to be experiencing this kind of exchange in IF… I really felt like I was learning the Stranger’s language. It will always remain one of the most memorable moments of this 1997 competition for me.

I spent a lot of time on this one encounter, but I spent more time on the first level of the edifice, where you learn how to fashion a spear, how to hunt, and how to cook your meat over a fire. All of the puzzles in this section were logical, and the implementation was characteristically thorough and rich. However, this level is also where I ran into the game’s one major flaw: its scoring system. Upon typing “score”, you are told something along the lines of “You have visited two levels of the Edifice and solved none of them. You are amazingly discontent.” However, sometimes “amazingly discontent” changes to “very content.” for reasons that aren’t at all clear. Moreover, I did everything that the etchings indicate on that level, but the game still insisted I had not solved it. I worked on this until I got so frustrated with it that I just went up to the next level. I’m not sure whether these irregularities in the scoring system were intentional or not, but I found that they were the only significant detractions from an otherwise excellent game.

Prose: The author did a superb job with the prose. Objects and rooms were described carefully and concisely, and in fact their descriptions often changed to reflect the character’s expanding knowledge. In the beginning, words are simple and their meanings often archetypal: Rock, Enemies, Others, etc. As the game progresses and the character continues to evolve, the diction becomes more complex and the meanings more specific. This is the type of effect that a graphical game could never achieve, since it arises from the nature of the prose itself. That the game can achieve this effect shows that it is very well written indeed.

Plot: I didn’t finish the game, so I’m not sure whether the mystery behind the edifice is ever revealed. From what I saw, the game’s plot was a clever device to put the player into various moments in the history of human development. Its central device is rather clearly lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but other than that it’s an excellent frame story around fascinating vignettes.

Puzzles: I think the language puzzle was the best one I’ve seen in interactive fiction this year. Certainly it was the best in the competition — it advanced the narrative, developed the character, achieved a new kind of IF character interaction, and packed a powerful Sense of Wonder. The other puzzles I encountered were also very good, arising quite intuitively out of the game’s situation and objects. My only frustration was with the elements of the game which suggested I had more to solve but never seemed to indicate what those things were.

Technical (writing): The Edifice‘s prose was quite error-free.

Technical (coding): Aside from the problems with the scoring system, the coding was outstanding. Synonyms abounded, and almost all logical or intuitively available actions were accounted for.