Beat The Devil by Robert M. Camisa [Comp99]

IFDB page: Beat The Devil
Final placement: 9th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

If you grew up in suburban America in the 1980s or 90s, what would be your vision of Hell? Where would you least like to spend eternity? Where does it already feel like an eternity when you’re there? That’s right: a shopping mall! In Robert Camisa’s Beat The Devil, Lucifer is building an addition to Hell, and you’re his betatester. He overheard you mumbling about how you’d sell your soul for a chance with the object of your affections, and, being surfeited with souls already (“Washington and Hollywood provide me with all the souls I’ll ever need to buy.”), makes you this alternate offer: wander through this Stygian mall and defeat the incarnations of the seven deadly sins, and that date is yours.

It’s a fun concept, and Beat The Devil gives it an energetic, cartoonish implementation. There are a number of funny spots, though the humor tends to lean a little too far in the direction of over-the-top junior high style exaggeration. For example, to make fun of stores whose decor is all white, there’s a store in the Hell-mall whose shelves are so white that they’re blinding. There are a number of choices like that, which puts the humor at the lowest common denominator. Still, on the whole the game remains pretty funny, just because by being such a detailed working-out of its concepts, it manages to satirize both malls and typical depictions of Hell.

The game is clearly the product of a novice IF author, and while the writing and coding are both fairly good, each has a number of errors easily identifiable as beginner’s mistakes. On the writing side, there are a number of punctuation problems: sentences missing periods, contractions missing apostrophes, quotes missing quotation marks and the like. The grammar and spelling are better, though an occasional glitch will slip through on those as well from time to time.

On the coding side, there are a few little oversights such as some objects missing short_names, disambiguation problems caused by objects whose names are too short, and a number of unimplemented first-level nouns. More interesting is another slip-up. Searching the shelves in one store yields this:

Yada yada..blow dust..yada yada..small white packet.. yada yada...
again with the no gold or jewels. Sigh.

The description didn’t make much sense to me until I reached another store, searched its shelves, and found this description:

You blow dust off the shelf, almost choking yourself from the resultant
cloud, but you uncover a pair of pliers, which you pocket. Personally,
I'dve preferred gold or jewels, but beggars can't be choosers.

Clearly, the game assumed I would search the shelves in the opposite order that I did. This is an easy mistake to make, especially if you’re concentrating on making sure your game is winnable by focusing on a particular walkthrough path. Vexingly, it’s also the sort of thing that your betatesters won’t always find — if they go through the game in the same order that you envisioned, no problems will be apparent. Writing text that is dependent on some other text already having been displayed is very tempting in IF, but you have to be careful that you take account of what happens if that text hasn’t yet been seen.

These are minor mistakes, and can be cleaned up easily in a subsequent release of the game. They don’t much interfere with enjoyment. The same could be said of the puzzles. While there are a couple of sticky spots, most of the puzzles are either pretty obvious or rather clever. The “obvious” part of that evaluation may sound like an insult, but I don’t intend it as one. I’m a fan of obvious puzzles — they’re a lot better than “guess-what-the-author-is-thinking” puzzles, and in an author’s first game you’re more likely to find the latter than the former. The clever ones include a nifty device reminiscent of the “T” remover in Leather Goddesses.

The one real clunker is flawed in a way that, again, marks it as a beginner’s error. There’s an object in the game that will destroy anything put into it. When you try to put anything into it, you’ll see a funny default message about how destroying something you may need later is a dumb thing to do, and the game won’t let you do it. However, there is one object you must destroy in such a way in order to win the game. Based on the default message, there’s no way of knowing that the destroyer will react differently to one particular thing. This isn’t a problem with the puzzle so much as the way it is implemented — it’s like a hungry troll saying “I don’t want to eat!” when offered the wrong kind of food, rather than saying “I don’t want to eat that!” If the default message were worded slightly differently, the player could twig to the fact that although the attempted action is wrong, a similar one might be right. This is the sort of thing you learn with experience, either of writing a lot of IF or playing a lot of it, or both. Beat The Devil is an auspicious start, and I look forward to the author’s next game.

Rating: 7.5

Sins Against Mimesis by Adam Thornton as “One of the Bruces” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sins Against Mimesis
Final placement: 9th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Few things are more unfunny than an in-joke that you’re not in on. On the other hand, an in-joke that you are in on can be hysterical, as it provides not just the pleasure of humor but also the feeling of community that comes from shared experience. Sins Against Mimesis is definitely a very in-jokey game, and consequently not for everyone. However, having been a longtime (since 1994) lurker and sometime participant in the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups, I was part of the audience at which the game was aimed, and I have to admit that I found a lot of the in-jokes really funny. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the game was to play name-that-reference — kind of the IF equivalent of listening to a World Party album or a Dennis Miller routine. Of course, the nature of the game (and the fact that it was written pseudonymously) also invites us to play guess-the-author. I’m casting my vote for Russ Bryan. I’m not sure why — something about the style just struck me as a little familiar and rang that particular bell in my head. Or maybe it’s just a masochistic desire to humiliate myself publicly by venturing an incorrect guess. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.

If you haven’t played much IF, and in fact even if you haven’t spent much time on the IF newsgroups, most of this game is going to mean very little to you. Even its title is an allusion: to Crimes Against Mimesis, a well-crafted series of articles posted to the newsgroups by Roger Giner-Sorolla (whatever happened to him, anyway?) a year or so ago. The rest of the game continues in that vein. The opening paragraph alludes to Jigsaw. The score of the initial part of the game is kept in IF disks which magically pop into the player’s inventory every time a correct move is made. In some ways, this familiar, almost conspiratorial approach is a weakness. Certainly in the context of the competition it won’t endear Sins to any judge who stands on the outside of the privileged circle at which the game aims itself. Even for an insider, the constant barrage of “if you’re one of us, you’ll know what I mean” references can start to feel a little cloying. However, the game is cleanly coded and competently written, and on the first time through I found it quite entertaining.

There aren’t many games which I would highly recommend to one group of people and discourage others from playing, but Sins is one of them. If you’re an raif and rgif regular, I think you’ll find Sins quite funny and entertaining. If not, forget it. It’s bound to be more baffling and irritating than anything else.

Prose: The prose is generally somewhere between functionally good and rather well done, with occasional moments of brilliant hilarity. The best one has to be when the game is in “lewd” mode and the player amorously approaches the plant: “Your embrace becomes hot and heavy and you surrender to the delights of floral sex.” An LGOP reference and an extremely bad pun at once! Can it get any better?

Plot: The plot is based around several clever tricks which are quite funny at the time, but aren’t worth repeating. If you’ve already played, you know what they are, and if you haven’t played yet I won’t give away the jokes. Like the rest of Sins, the plot is funny the first time through but won’t wear well.

Puzzles: Actually, this was the weakest part of the game. Many of the puzzles can be solved by performing extremely basic actions, which of course hardly makes them puzzles at all. Others, however, depend either on extremely specific (and not well-clued) actions or on deducing something about the surroundings which is not included in object or room descriptions. For a game so adamantly self-aware, it’s ironic that Sins falls into some of the most basic blunders of puzzle design.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Sins‘ writing.

Technical (coding): I found no bugs either.