Purple by Stefan Blixt [Comp98]

IFDB page: Purple
Final placement: 15th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The world is ending. It’s not immediately apparent at first, because you and your brother are living out on the remote island of Lino Kapo, quite isolated from the political troubles of your future Earth(?), whose nations have names like “the Kollagio Antarktika” and “the Oceanic Republic.” But listen to the TV. (The nations have morphed so much that people are living in places like Antarctica, but we still get our information from the TV. Some things never change.) Political battles between the nations have led to the use of the deadly K-bomb, which releases, unsurprisingly, deadly K-radiation! (Where are you when we need you, Lane Mastodon?) This radiation turns the sky a disturbing purple, and threatens to choke out humanity in its menacing clouds. (By the way, the color of the sky is the meaning behind the game’s title. Hallelujah, a title that makes a little sense!) Lucky for you, your brother is a bit of a tinkerer, and has come up with this device called a Phoenix Nest, into which you can climb and sleep away the death of the world in suspended animation. The Nest wakes you up when the levels of K-radiation have dropped enough for humans to be safe. So in you climb, as the world ends, to await its rebirth and greet it with your own. Now, I know I’ve made a bit of sport with the plot here, but details aside I like this premise. It has a drama and immediacy to it, it creates a perfectly plausible reason for the world to be basically deserted, as it so often is in IF, and it gives the author a blank slate onto which a compelling alternate world can be drawn. Not to mention the fact that the mysterious “K-radiation” can be an excuse for almost any biological oddity you care to dream up.

The good news is that from this imaginative premise, Purple takes several very creative steps. The flora and fauna of the post-apocalyptic world are pleasingly exotic and interesting. The landscape is convincingly changed, and the language used to describe the new reality can be quite vivid. The bad news is that these good ideas are very poorly implemented. Let’s start with the writing. Purple isn’t exactly riddled with errors in the same way that, say, Lightiania was. However, there are enough mechanical (spelling & grammar) problems to be a serious irritant. Many of these problems aren’t exactly errors, but rather awkward turns of phrase that make the game harder to read. Purple‘s descriptions often sound as if they were translated from another language into English, by a somewhat inexpert translator. The awkwardness throws off the rhythm of the game’s prose, and I found myself frequently reading text more than once in order to figure out what it was saying. Then there are those sentences that really don’t make sense, like this one: “Urging to cover your eyes from the bright light, you still can’t move a finger.” I think that what this means is that you have the urge to cover your eyes, but you can’t because you’re paralyzed. I figured this out, but it took a minute, and for that minute I was thrown out of the story; in a text adventure, where prose is all there is, being thrown out of the narrative like this is problematic. Add a few outright spelling and grammar errors, and the game starts to feel more like work than fun.

Compounding this problem are some trouble spots in the code. There were several instances of disambiguation troubles, almost enough to make me feel like I was playing a TADS game. Scenes like this were not uncommon:

Which do you mean, the up, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

To make matters worse, I also came across several run-time errors of the flavor ** Run-time error: [Name of object] (object number 211) has no property to read **, and in fact once crashed WinFrotz altogether with a “No Such Property” error. Besides these basic errors in the code, there were also a number of problems with the way objects were implemented. For instance, you have half of a tool that you have to complete by improvising the other half, and putting one piece into the other. Unfortunately, unless you choose the right piece to insert, you are told that the other half “can’t contain things.” I also had trouble with a number of the puzzles, and was unable to figure them out without a walkthrough, but I can’t tell if that’s because of the stumbling English and buggy code, or the difficulty of the puzzles, or just my own denseness. On balance, I’d say that Purple is a very rough version of what could become a good IF vignette. After it’s undergone a few vigorous rounds of beta-testing, you might want to give it a try.

Rating: 4.1

Lightiania by Gustav Bodell [Comp98]

IFDB page: Lightiania
Final placement: 22nd place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

After most of the reviews were submitted for the 1997 competition, there was the usual firestorm of controversy about what an IF review should do. Every time the subject of criticism comes up, there is a certain segment which asserts the idea that criticism should never be too negative, that it should nurture the developing author rather than blast the substandard game, and that reviewers shouldn’t treat their subjects as they would a professionally produced movie or book, but rather as the amateur product of an amateur author, and make generous allowances for any problems in the work. Now, I don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to these notions — I actually think that honest criticism of a work’s flaws is the best way to make sure that author’s next work (or even the next revision of the current work) will be free from those flaws, creating better interactive fiction for everyone. However, I do believe in constructive criticism, and I certainly don’t want to discourage anybody from writing IF, no matter how problematic their previous creations may have been. Some of the reviews for the 1997 competition were significantly harsher than mine, and I think (or at least I hope) that they were the primary spur for the subsequent criticism controversy. However, looking over my reviews from that year, I had a bit of a guilt attack, and posted a message apologizing for anyone’s feelings I might have hurt with my reviews, and assuring all authors that reviews are not personal rejections, but rather that they are about the work itself and that no one should be discouraged from further writing by a negative review. I also promised myself that I would try to have a lighter touch in my 1998 reviews.

Therefore, I tread lightly. But some reviews are harder than others to write. This is one of the tough ones. Lightiania is a very deeply troubled game, which will take a lot of work before I can really consider it a quality piece of interactive fiction. Therefore, in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are some of the things that would really improve Lightiania. First on the list has to be correct English spelling and grammar. The mechanics of the writing in this game are just abysmal — the nature of the errors lead me to suspect that perhaps English isn’t the writer’s first language, which would certainly make the problems understandable. I’ve taken some Spanish classes, but if I tried to write a text adventure in Spanish, you can be certain that the result would be nigh-unintelligible to a native speaker. However, due to my lack of ability I would recognize the need for a proofreader. This is the step that hasn’t been taken in Lightiania. As a result, the language is so mangled that it sometimes doesn’t even make sense. A sample sentence: “You get VERY supprised [sic] when you, after a smaller blackout, [no mention of blackouts before this point. Is this electricity, or drinking, or what?] realises [sic] that is [sic] is in fact a quite big space craft that has crashed in the middle of the meadow.” The first step to take, and one that would improve the game a lot, is major, major proofreading.

The next thing that needs to happen is that some very basic design points need to be changed. Right now, Lightiania is a very simple game, with really only one puzzle, and virtually no plot. The plot (such as it is) is this: You are an inventor, and a flying saucer has crashed a few miles away from your house. You try to get this ship flying again. Why does it matter that you’re an inventor? Where are the aliens? Why would you try to get the ship flying before finding the aliens? What does “Lightiania” mean in the first place? These questions, and many others, go unanswered in the game. What’s worse, the game’s one puzzle is virtually unsolvable without a walkthrough. It requires you to find a piece of a lock-and-key mechanism by LOOKing UNDER a piece of scenery. No problem, right? Well, the problem is this: that piece of scenery is never mentioned in the game. Until the walkthrough told me to “LOOK UNDER WARDROBE” (not the real solution, but analogous), I had no idea there was a wardrobe in the room. These are very serious problems. Many would be fixed by a good proofreader, or beta tester, or (dare I dream it?) both. I’m not saying these things to be harsh, and I definitely believe that someone with the imagination and enthusiasm displayed in this game should write again. But please, please: don’t release it until it’s in English and it makes sense.

Rating: 1.1