Scavenger by Quintin Stone [Comp03]

IFDB page: Scavenger
Final placement: 3rd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, here’s what’s not good about this game. First of all, the setting and characters are quite clichéd. It’s your standard-issue post-apocalyptic world (a nuclear war apocalypse, even), with bandits, scavengers, armed provisional-government thugs, and frightened orphans, all straight from Central Casting. The author mentions that the setting originated with a MUSH that then morphed into an Unreal Tournament full conversion mod, and this makes perfect sense — it feels more like an excuse for a background than a fully realized fictional world.

Secondly, there are some moments of shaky design, particularly a “learn-by-dying” puzzle that occurs near the midgame. Now, I’ll certainly acknowledge that the game includes some important details that hint toward the solution, and it could be argued that it’s possible to solve this puzzle without dying first, but to do so would still take a pretty remarkable amount of foresight, not to mention willingness to give up an item that you might need later. Finally, Scavenger isn’t a two-hour game, or at least it wasn’t for me. Maybe somebody who was a sharper puzzle-solver, or relied more on the hints, might have solved this game in two hours, but I found myself only about two-thirds of the way through once time ran out. Since I was at least past the halfway point (and perhaps further than I thought, depending on how fast the points mount up in the endgame), I’m not as indignant about it as I might be, but the fact remains that if I’m not able to finish the game within my two-hour playing slot, my playing experience ends up unsatisfying.

Right. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what’s good about this game: everything else. With just a few exceptions, the implementation is nothing short of outstanding. Almost everything I ever wanted to examine was described, and described well, which created a great sense of immersion. Despite the fact that the basic concepts of the setting are rather hackneyed, the actual writing is strong, with exposition cleverly worked into object and room descriptions, and some very nicely judged details included. The writing not only creates a vivid sense of place, it’s also pretty much entirely free of spelling and grammar errors, with just a few typos marring the prose on occasion.

Scavenger‘s parser is similarly well-crafted. I remember several fantastic moments where I tried a non-standard verb that made sense in the situation, and the game handled it beautifully. It’s not perfect — for instance, I had a flashlight that the game wouldn’t let me point at objects — but those lapses were much more the exception than the rule, and that completeness made Scavenger a real pleasure to play. The hint system was quite good too, a context-sensitive setup that doled out gentle nudges ramping up reasonably gradually to outright solutions. The context-sensitivity failed at a couple of points, offering hints for puzzles I’d already solved, but the system came through where it counted: I always had a hint available when I needed one for the puzzle I was stuck on. Altogether, this is a very professionally implemented game. The credits list no fewer than eleven testers, and their influence shows through again and again.

Along with implementation, design was another of Scavenger‘s strengths. First of all, casting the PC as a scavenger, somebody who survives by exploring unfamiliar territory and taking everything that isn’t nailed down, is a brilliant way of working basic IF conventions into a coherent fictional concept. When encountering the game’s puzzles (most of which were quite good, sometimes involving multi-stage solutions, every step of which made sense), every action I took to solve them felt perfectly in character, which makes for a great IF experience. Objects are sometimes useful in more than one place, and conversely, places sometimes show potential to have more than one important facet — whenever a game can pull this off, its reward is a much stronger sense of realism.

In addition, the basic structure of the game includes a rewarding multiple-solution setup, involving a selection of resources during the prologue. Scavenger presents you with a store where you can buy certain items that may be useful on your journey, but you can’t buy them all. The way you solve subsequent puzzles will depend on which resources you’ve chosen, and alternate solutions are available even when you don’t have the item that facilitates the more obvious choice. The other nifty feature of this limited-resource arrangement is that the game makes sure that most of these resources must be used up fairly early (for example, a grenade that must be thrown to remove an initial barrier), thereby eliminating the combinatorial explosion that their presence would cause in later sections of the game. I think this multiple-solution design will make for great replay value, though of course I can’t say for sure since as of this writing I haven’t even managed to play through the game once.

One more design note: on several occasions, Scavenger gently shepherded me in the direction of the plot, always doing so in a way that made perfect sense for my character. Every time this happened, I smiled with appreciation. In fact I was smiling a lot during Scavenger, and my notes are full of little comments that read “VERY NICE” or something similar. It would have been improved by a few puzzle tweaks, a more original setting, and either being released outside the comp or streamlined to a more reasonable two-hour size, but I can still enthusiastically recommend it.

Rating: 9.1

Vicious Cycles by Simon Mark [Comp01]

IFDB page: Vicious Cycles
Final placement: 6th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Note: Because Vicious Cycles gives so little away upfront about its content, this review could be considered a wee bit spoilery. If you’re terribly averse to that sort of thing, go play it first. It’s worth playing.]

Timing can really be a bitch sometimes. Vicious Cycles takes terrorism as one of its subjects, and isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the terrorist in question. This choice was almost certainly made before 9/11, and before that date I think I might have been much better able to make the emotional leap that the game encourages. Today, though… having been inundated with news of the real people whose real lives have been affected by terrorism, and felt the consequent wrenching emotions, I found it difficult not to project those emotions onto the game’s fictional scenario, and that made me a lot less receptive to the story than I probably should have been. That story was a good one (though perhaps just a trifle hackneyed in its presentation of a dystopic future where corporations rule the world and advertising is all-pervasive), but I just wasn’t the best audience for it today. Still, even taking those reactions into account, there is a lot to appreciate about Vicious Cycles.

The game’s best feature is its central concept, which is a great riff on the nature of IF. You play a character hooked into a “time-shunt” and trying to prevent a disaster from occurring. The way the device works is that it sends your consciousness back in time, to inhabit the body of a bystander, whose actions you may then control in your attempt to prevent the disaster. If you don’t manage to stop the catastrophe, you’re shunted back to the beginning of the scenario, to try again with a different sequence of actions. In Groundhog Day, a similar concept was played for laughs, but here the iterations are deadly serious, a race against time with horrible consequences.

I thought this sequence was very well-designed indeed, going against the typical IF grain to fine effect. Here, not only do you learn from each death, but you actually must learn from your deaths in order to make progress on the problem. Having just finished (and loved) Planescape: Torment, where the main character is immortal and death is sometimes a necessary puzzle-solving component, I appreciated this twist very much. The overall puzzle is intricate and satisfying to solve, and the game does an excellent job of slowly doling out information as the PC gets closer and closer to completing the scenario.

Unfortunately, bad timing isn’t the only thing that drags the game down. The author credits testers, and I’ve no doubt that the game has received at least some testing — the main sequence hangs together well enough. However, either the author ran out of time to fix all the problems, or further testing is necessary, because little glitches abound. These bugs range from things like typos and misspellings to responses printed on the wrong turn, and in one case even a death that didn’t restart the time-shunt cycle. Troubles like this happened frequently enough that I was often jolted out of an otherwise absorbing story by their presence. I sincerely hope the author puts out a post-competition version of the game, with the final polish complete; when and if that happens, Vicious Cycles will be a sparkling IF experience, at least for an audience not overly sensitized to the terrors of terrorism.

Rating: 8.6