Slouching Towards Bedlam by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto [Comp03]

IFDB page: Slouching Towards Bedlam
Final placement: 1st place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: Because STB is one of those games whose entire point is to figure out what’s going on, some parts of this review could be considered spoilers.

For me, Comp03 has been Homecoming Year. First Mikko Vuorinen, then Stefan Blixt, and now, of all people, Dan Ravipinto, whose great, ambitious game Tapestry made a huge splash in 1996 by using the IF medium to explore ethical choices, allowing multiple paths through the game without attempting to privilege any one path as the “proper” one. Ravipinto then proceeded to utterly disappear from the face of IF, seemingly never to return. All is not as it seems, however, for here he is again, having enlisted the aid of a friend to produce another game of multiple paths, this time set in a steampunk universe with Lovecraftian overtones.

All is not as it seems in STB either, which makes reviewing it rather difficult. As I say above, the point is to figure out what’s going on (and what you’d like to do about it), and what’s going on is really quite complicated, but at least part of it involves the IF interface itself. Integrating interface and story has long been an interest of mine, which played itself out somewhat in LASH‘s “remote robot” conceit; STB takes a rather different tack, finding a completely dissimilar and ingenious explanation within the plot for the PC’s inevitable amnesiac and kleptomaniac traits, as well as the ability to jump about in time via RESTART, RESTORE, UNDO, and the like. Even stranger, you encounter tales of others in the story who have those same unusual powers.

I only figured all this out gradually, and some of it I didn’t figure out at all, having turned to the hints in order to see the end of the game. Or rather, an end to the game. Like Tapestry, STB offers an array of choices while attempting not to prefer any of them over the others, and these choices lead not only to a variety of endings, but to significant differences in the entire third act of the game. Now, I suspect that most of us, having been raised with pulp narratives about saving a threatened humanity, will find ourselves striving towards a particular ending as the “right” one, but STB rather slyly requires some extremely distasteful acts to progress on that particular path, which balances things out somewhat.

In the end, I felt that there really were no good choices, and the idea of doing the least harm to the least number still depended distinctly on who was doing the counting. Still, ultimately most of us are likely to be loyal to our own species, and so just as with Tapestry, even though multiple paths were available, there was still one that felt much more right to me than the others. That’s the brilliance of these games, though. If The Erudition Chamber is like a “What Kind Of IF Player Are You?” quiz, then Slouching Towards Bedlam is more like a “What Kind Of Person Are You?” quiz.

I guess I’ve written a lot about this game, but not much yet about what I thought of it. Well, I liked it very much. The story really drew me in, and I love the way the plot flowed smoothly from puzzle to puzzle. Even though there was quite a bit of inevitable infodumping, the wonderfully intense atmosphere of the hospital and other parts of London kept my unflagging interest. In fact, there are some parts of the game — the opening scene, the first major signs of strangeness, and the case file, for example — that I found purely spellbinding. The writing, too, was strong, keeping a Victorian mood without descending much into caricature.

There was one problem with the prose, though — for its own reasons, the game chooses to express player action predominantly in the passive voice, avoiding the word “you” as much as it can. It transfers agency to outside objects wherever possible, but sometimes it must describe the PC doing something, and here it occasionally trips, with descriptions like this (very minor puzzle spoiler ahead):

>look under blotter
Beneath the blotter is a small key, easily taken. It carries a small
tag labeled '2D'.

“Easily taken” doesn’t tell me that the PC has picked up the key, just that it would be easy for the PC to do so. Nevertheless, a subsequent inventory check reveals that the PC has indeed taken the key. From time to time, STB‘s passive voice emphasis afflicts it with this sort of muddiness.

That quibble aside, the writing worked really well, and the coding was similarly solid — I found no bugs at all. In fact, between the game’s puzzlebox premise and its lack of flaws, I’ve found this review rather hard to write, so I’ll just close by saying this: play Slouching Towards Bedlam. Your time will be well-spent, and you may find that it remains with you in entirely unexpected ways.

Rating: 9.6

And The Waves Choke The Wind by Gunther Schmidl [Comp00]

IFDB page: And the Waves Choke the Wind
Final placement: 16th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

ATWCTW is, as far as I can remember, the first competition game that shares its fictional “universe” with a previous competition game. Last year’s Only After Dark featured the same protagonist, namely one Ranil Kuami, dreadlocked seventeenth-century sailor and ex-slave, a man who has the misfortune to run into one horrific situation after another. When I reviewed OAD I said, in the course of lamenting what I saw as the game’s excessive linearity, “I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.” This year, I got my wish.

Well, sort of. Apparently, the version of ATWCTW that was entered in the comp this year, despite the fact that it’s 173K and in .z8 format (a combination I confess I don’t quite understand), is actually only a preview of the real ATWCTW, which I assume is forthcoming sometime. Still, even though it ends rather abruptly, as many adventure game demos do, this version is a substantial chunk of adventuring all on its own.

For one thing, it has clearly been coded with a great deal of care. ATWCTW feels almost like a commercial graphic adventure game in terms of the number of features it offers for players. In fact, I rather got the feeling that in some spots it wished it was a commercial graphic adventure game. For instance, the game features cutscenes in several spots, all of which are nicely formatted and can be replayed at any point. It calls these cutscenes “movies”, which of course they aren’t — they’re all text. The choice of words made me wonder if ATWCTW wished it had the resources to become a graphical adventure game.

I’m glad it isn’t. Although the game might gain something from a transition into graphical mode, I think it would lose some things as well, such as the excellent options it offers at the text prompt. ATWCTW gathers nifty features from lots of previous IF games and offers them all. NOTE displays the game’s occasional footnotes. HINT offers context- sensitive hints. (Well actually, it doesn’t, apparently because this is just a preview. The game promises that this command will be available in the full version.) MOVIES brings up a list of cutscenes shown already, any of which can be replayed on command. WHAT IS and WHO IS are available, though they generally don’t offer much (with some important exceptions.) EXITS prints a list of exits from the current location.

Sure, all of these could be worked into a graphical game, but even beyond this, there’s that great sense of openness that a text parser offers. Granted, there are plenty of verbs the game doesn’t recognize, but there are lots that it does recognize, and I found, especially in the first puzzle, that most of the things I thought of doing, the game was equipped to handle.

That first scene is right out of a pulp adventure, and I had a great time solving the puzzle just the same way as any swashbuckling hero would have. Moreover, because of the particular genre of the game (the ever-popular Lovecraftian horror), text has some important advantages over graphics. A good description of horrific sights that defy the laws of nature will always be more powerful than a good movie of the same thing, both because good descriptions can involve all the senses, and because the imagination can encapsulate the idea of a sanity-shattering thing without having to constrain it to any specific visual image.

With all this going for it, I’m sorry to say that ATWCTW doesn’t quite reach its full potential. My experience may have been worse than many others’, because I played the game on my creaky old 386 laptop using DOS Frotz in monochrome mode (the machine doesn’t have a color screen.) About two-thirds of the way through the game, the entire thing apparently broke — I could see the bold header for the room description, but all other text was invisible. Experimentation demonstrated that the prompt was still there, so I restored and tried a different route into the scene, with the same result. Finally, I quit the game and looked at the transcript I had made, learning that text had in fact printed, but I couldn’t see it.

Playing a hunch, I started up the game in color mode, and discovered that not only was I now able to see the broken scene (albeit faintly), there were lots of other things I had missed in monochrome mode as well, because the game presents them in color. However, unlike other color games (such as Varicella), ATWCTW failed to test for color usage or even to warn me that it planned to use color. This failure was disappointing, especially given the level of quality attained by the rest of the game.

There were a few other flaws, such as the occasional awkwardness of the game’s prose: “And suddenly, as if a fog lifted from your eyes, you are totally clear.” The word “clear” here might be trying to convey alertness, wakefulness, visibility, invisibility, sobriety, comprehension, or a number of other things. As it is, however, the meaning is (pardon the pun) unclear. In addition, the plot up to this point still doesn’t offer that many options, its geography quite linear and many of its events quite unavoidable. Still, the preview of ATWCTW is an enticing peek at a game that shows every indication of being a major work. If its main objective was to get me interested in the full version, mission accomplished.

Rating: 8.5

The HEBGB Horror! by Eric Mayer [Comp99]

IFDB page: The HeBGB Horror
Final placement: 16th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Patti Smith. The Talking Heads. Blondie. Television. The Ramones. While the Sex Pistols and the Clash were spitting in the face of the bloated English rock establishment, the artists named above were leading a concurrent American punk revolution in New York City. The nerve center of the movement was a club called CBGB (standing, ironically, for Country, Blue Grass, and Blues), where all of these artists got their start before being launched on the national stage. This is the scene to which Eric Mayer pays loving tribute in his competition entry, an ALAN game called The HeBGB Horror!. You play Phil Howard, a musician dreaming of hitting the big time in NYC. You’re down to your last few bucks, and ready to take the bus back home, when you spy a chance to see the reunion of legendary (fictional) punk band The Laughing Kats at their famous stomping grounds, HeBGB. It sounds great, so why can’t you shake this feeling of nameless dread? The game combines the trappings of the Seventies New York punk rock scene with the sort of Lovecraftian pastiche that seems to have become all the rage in IF since the success of Anchorhead.

I’m an avid rock music fan, so the former theme grabbed me immediately. The Lovecraft stuff, on the other hand, gets old pretty fast. Mayer obviously knows and loves the music, and the emphasis is on the New York punk scene — these themes could have sustained a game easily on their own. As I played through The HeBGB Horror!, I found myself really enjoying the punk parts, and wishing that the various “eldritch horrors” and such could have been edited out. I’m not sure how much the game wanted to parody CBGB, or how much of an homage it intended for the Lovecraft bits to be, but I think it may have achieved the opposite of its ambition, as the music parts felt mainly like homage, while the Lovecraftiana, with its various generic rats, tentacles, and gibbering masses, felt more like a parody.

But hey, as the game itself reminds us at several points, it’s only a “three-chord” effort. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about HeBGB is the way it evokes the D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) spirit of punk, making a joyous noise even though it’s no virtuoso. The author reinforces this viewpoint by cautioning us in the credits that HeBGB “does not represent the real capabilities of the Alan Language but does demonstrate Alan’s amazing ability to allow someone who has never done an iota of computer programming of any kind to produce SOMETHING within a few weeks!” This is a very nice thing to say about a programming language, and in fact HeBGB is quite playable despite a lack of programming polish.

However, there are a number of things missing from the game that the average game programmer shouldn’t have to worry about at all. For example, the game offers no “undo” function, nor an “oops” verb. Some simple things run contrary to convention, such as a “” prompt that accepts only the Enter key, rather than the space bar or any random keypress. Some fairly basic verbs are missing, such as “throw”. I attribute these flaws to deficiencies in the ALAN libraries (or perhaps, in some cases, the ARUN interpreter) rather than a failing on the author’s part. It’s unreasonable to expect every game author to program conveniences like “undo” on their own. That’s what libraries are for, and by being such a complete game in lots of other ways, HeBGB demonstrates the limitations of ALAN — not the language, but the default shell given to potential authors.

What the author can control he provides quite well. Despite a few spelling and formatting difficulties, the prose in HeBGB (especially when it’s not doing a Lovecraft parody) combines a snappy sense of humor with strong descriptions. The plot is clever, allowing a good deal of exploration while never opening so wide that the story feels aimless. There are a number of good things about the design, including the fact that the game is carefully structured in such a way as to allow players a second or third chance to obtain items that they may have failed to notice or pick up the first time around. These chances are always well-integrated within the game, and feel natural rather than gratuitous. This design choice allows HeBGB to close off early sections of the map once their purpose is served while avoiding the trap of making the game unsolvable once those sections are unavailable to the player.

The puzzles, for the most part, are quite good, maintaining a high level of originality and (with one exception) escaping “guess-the-verb” syndrome. The one qualm I did have about the puzzles is that at several points, you must return to apparently unfruitful locations to obtain an object that wasn’t there before. The reasons given for the appearances of the objects certainly make sense, but from a gameplay standpoint it’s not very logical for a player to assume that visiting and revisiting empty locations will be rewarded. Moreover, some of the actions required to make the object appear in the empty location don’t seem to have very much causal influence. In other words, the action which puts the object in the formerly empty spot gives players little reason to guess that visiting that spot again will be worthwhile. These quibbles aside, I enjoyed HeBGB quite a bit, and while I was wishing for the conveniences granted by more sophisticated libraries, the roughness of the game was in keeping with its topic, and that resonance lent it an unexpected charm.

Rating: 7.7