Bio by David Linder [Comp03]

IFDB page: Bio
Final placement: 25th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: I’m going to be spoiling the first puzzle, but don’t worry, you’d never have solved it without the walkthrough anyway.

Somebody please MST this game. It’s just so perfect for it — terrible but in very entertaining ways. Take, for instance, the first puzzle. You awaken inside your room in the scientific complex (yes, it’s a scientific complex game. I was so worried Comp03 wouldn’t have more than one!) to find gas seeping in under the door. What kind? Hard to tell when the game doesn’t know the word “gas”. There’s a bandage handy, but the bandage can’t be stuffed under the door (“I don’t see any door here.”), nor can it be worn on the face, mouth, or nose (because the game doesn’t know any of those words.) Simply entering WEAR BANDAGE yields the mystifying response, “You put the bandage on your arm and wrap it around the cut.” Cut? X ME shows no sign of injury — turns out that you acquire the cut much later in the game, but the bandage always assumes you have it already.

Anyway, back to the gas problem. Here’s the room description:

Your Room
Your standing in your room or apartment (whichever you want to call it). It's about the size of a large bedroom, complete with all the furnishings. There's a small bed in the southwest corner with a nightstand next to it. On the other side of the room is a small TV. There is a dresser along the west wall. The exit lies to the north.

Rather than focus on the non-contraction in the first word, I’ll try to concentrate on the puzzle. “I don’t know the word ‘dresser'” tells us that the dresser isn’t implemented. The nightstand and bed are no help. Examining the TV gives us this very amusing response:

>x tv
On the screen, you can see that it's a Fastlane rerun. Since it's
your favorite episode, you watch for a few minutes.

The room is nearly filled with gas!

Man, the PC must really love that show! HOLD BREATH predictably fails. (“I don’t know the word ‘hold’.”) Oh, and just walking through the exit engulfs the PC in a cloud of lethal gas. Well, guess we’d better consult the walkthrough.

Hey, the first command in the walkthrough is OPEN ARMOIRE. Now, the question must be asked: WHAT FREAKING ARMOIRE?! It wouldn’t be this dresser, would it? No, of course not, since the game never refers to it as an armoire. The PC must just be so familiar with the armoire that he no longer notices it when he looks at the room, instead just thinking of it as “all the furnishings,” and therefore it is known only to those players who have read the walkthrough. Those lucky people can open it and find — how convenient! — a gas mask. No clothes or anything, but sure enough, this janitor is well-prepared for gas attacks, thanks to the gear he keeps inside the rustic antique that he’s somehow hauled into his onsite living quarters, which presumably are necessary due to the remoteness and/or secrecy of the scientific complex, 25 long miles away from the nearest town.

Later we find out that somebody else in the complex also has an armoire. Maybe this complex devotes itself equally to scientific discovery and antiquing. Anyhow, that entertaining exercise in puzzle-solving is entirely emblematic of the level of gameplay on offer in Bio, where slipshod coding, dreadful spelling, simplistic themes, juvenile imagery, and ghastly design all jostle for pride of place at each moment.

I dunno, though. Compared to some of the games in this comp, Bio just charms me a little. I mean, yeah, it’s sort of fascinated with blood and disease, and heaven knows it’s loaded with clich├ęs, but it’s not outright nasty like Lardo was. And yeah, maybe its prose is in serious need of proofreading, but it’s nowhere near as dire as that of Amnesia. It’s at least nominally interactive, unlike RPG, and has a modicum of story, unlike Little Girl.

It’s the right size for the comp, and while it certainly lacks any sort of testing, it is finishable (with the walkthrough, anyway.) Don’t get me wrong, Bio is nothing like a good game, but it feels well-intentioned to me, more or less. I think it’s possible that some future work from this author may end up being pretty good. That’ll go some ways towards living down the hilarious MSTing of this game that simply must happen.

Rating: 3.5

Little Girl in the Big World by Peter Wendrich [Comp03]

IFDB page: Little girl in the big world
Final placement: 24th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: Based on the readme file, the author wishes to keep the PC’s identity unspoiled for people who haven’t played the game. I don’t really see the reason for this, since the identity doesn’t really make a lot of sense, so I’m going to be spoiling it in this review. Consider yourself warned.

Little Girl In The Big World must be titled ironically, because the game’s world is anything but big. It’s just five rooms, three of which are pretty much bare. Not only that, the entire thing takes place in a standard house, and leaving the house (to go out into the big world) ends the game. I wish I could say that some interesting stuff at least happens in this little gameworld, but… not really. There’s no particular plot to speak of, and the whole thing can be finished in 20 minutes, easy.

The ABOUT text suggests that the game was written as “proof of concept of a new virtual machine,” and indeed it’s kind of cool, from a programming perspective, that this virtual machine (called StoryFactory) can work both as a Windows executable and as a JavaScript runtime inside a web browser. As a story, though, LGITBW offers very little.

Even from a coding viewpoint, the StoryFactory parser and world model has lots of serious problems, or perhaps just blatant deficiencies compared to established first-tier systems. It’s got a leg up on many homemade games in that its error messages are not snide, but they are sometimes unhelpful. For instance:

> get key
[ I will get the rusty key ]
That didn't work.

“That didn’t work” doesn’t really tell me enough of what I need to know, and it’s the game’s standard failure message. The text in brackets at least signals that my command was understood, but I need much more specific feedback when a command fails. Happily, the parser politely and willingly admits when it doesn’t understand something, and doesn’t ask any questions it isn’t prepared to answer (it doesn’t ask any questions at all), but its ability to understand input is quite minimal, it usually chokes on commands of three words or more, and it doesn’t seem to have any concept of pronouns at all. Oh, and there’s no SAVE or RESTORE functionality, which is a minor drag in this game and would be a major problem in a larger one.

As for the world model, a couple of its most serious flaws are its lack of basic IF concepts, such as inventory, and its irritating habit of only printing the room description after a LOOK command. Even at the very beginning of the game, or when the PC moves into new territory, StoryFactory doesn’t care to tell the player anything about the location. Add to these issues the fact that the prose is hampered by a considerable number of spelling and grammar problems (English isn’t the author’s first language, so it’s understandable but no less unsatisfactory) and you have a game whose implementation is seriously troubled.

LGITBW does have one interesting aspect, which is the fact that it has a strange sort of split PC. You play, apparently, a rat who is living with a little girl named Alice. However, most of the time Alice is with you, the parser will interpret your commands as orders to her, which she will usually carry out. You can specify the actor before the command in order to remove any ambiguity — I EAT THE CHEESE or ALICE EAT THE CHEESE. Now, because it’s a rat and a little girl, my personal inclination is to find this somewhat creepy, especially since Alice is so lifeless an NPC that she seems to behave as some sort of Stepford automaton, eerily under the sway of her pet rat’s will. I dunno, maybe it’s just too close to Halloween.

Anyway, creepiness aside, it’s a noble attempt to provide a team PC. Alice can do things the rat cannot, though the reverse isn’t true (not when it comes to anything useful, anyway.) There’s more ground to be broken in this area, and indeed I hope to break some of it, but LGITBW at least provides a signpost. Pity it does so ensconced in such a poor parser and inconsequential game.

Rating: 2.6