Kurusu City by Kevin Venzke [Comp04]

IFDB page: Kurusu City
Final placement: 20th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I noticed the Japanese (or at least Japanese-sounding) names in Kurusu City, I wondered if this was maybe one of those IF games that’s heavily influenced by anime and manga, like The PK Girl from a couple of years ago. One look at the PC’s identification card removed all doubt:

>x id
   Huge eyes, rather angular features, and messy hair stare at you
   blankly from a faded image.  Text to the left and below reads:

      49 BUECHE APTS

   Age:  15 Sex:  F Hair:  BRN Height:  5'0"

A five-foot-tall, fifteen-year-old girl with huge eyes and angular features? That’s anime, alright. The only piece missing was for her hair to be purple or blue or some color like that, but a purple-haired character comes along later to supply that element. Also like The PK Girl, there’s a distinctly odd quality to the PC’s point of view, but where in The PK Girl that element was sexism, here it’s just sex. There’s this weird, lascivious edge to much of the text, particularly in descriptions of the NPCs. Examine an NPC and you’re likely to hear that she (they’re pretty much all female) is “curvy” or is “wearing a tight pair of blue jeans.” At one point while interacting with an NPC, the PC feels “rattled and uncomfortable” due to the NPC’s “unbridled femininity.”

So the PC is an adolescent and a budding lesbian, who often thinks of others in terms of their sexuality. Fair enough, but the game doesn’t stop there. At one point, I happened into an instant-death ending that involved a horrifying and completely unexpected incestuous rape. The game’s ongoing fascination with the PC as a sexual subject (or object) felt rather distracting, and frequently a little creepy.

The main story winds around the game’s setting, a future (or alternate) world where robots govern humanity. For instance, when the PC decides to skip school, she finds that robot enforcers have been sent to fetch her back. Her goal is to take down the robocracy once and for all, and to do so she must wander around and talk to a lot of sparsely implemented NPCs. Actually, I have no earthly idea how she’s supposed to do it, because after an hour spent solving a couple of puzzles and restarting a whole lotta times, I found myself totally stuck. I turned to the hints, doling them out to myself slowly, but failed to progress further.

Finally, I looked at the entire hints file (it’s rot13 encoded), but still found no joy. The hints seemed to assume that I’d seen things that either I’d never seen or was too dull-witted to recognize. A scan of the newsgroups reminded me that this was the game where the author had released a better set of hints after the September 30th deadline had passed. Well, I guess I’m a bit of a comp stickler, because I think that’s cheating, or at least finessing the rules. My feeling is that you’re judged on what you submit as of the comp deadline. Whatever you release afterwards, whether it be hints, a patch that fixes a game-killing bug, or what have you, is not eligible for consideration, at least not by this judge.

So I continued to muddle through, and with about 20 minutes remaining found something that broke the game wide open for me. Unfortunately, at that point I only had 20 minutes left, so I wasn’t really able to see a huge amount of new material. My advice to struggling players is to revisit all locations frequently — though most of them remain completely static, at least one can change significantly during your absence.

Besides helpful hints, a few other things seem missing from the game. At one point, I examined a game object and was told “(This is the comic book that was mistakenly included in your game package.)” Actually, I think what you mean there is “mistakenly not included.” It may have been intended as a joke all along, a satire of Infocom‘s in-game feelie object messages, but if so, it’s too weak to really work.

There are a couple of other elements that might be intentional but come off as bugs. For instance, at one point I suddenly got a huge boost to my score and found myself with “a score of 27 points out of a possible 7.” The resultant rank was “Nice Sister”, which matched the action that had given me the huge score boost, but if this is a joke, it’s done so confusingly that not only is it not funny, it actually seems like a mistake.

I seem to have spent most of my review commenting on how strange and/or incomplete Kurusu City felt to me, so let me finish up by pointing out some well-done parts. There’s a nice feature in the game’s inventory code which prints out the results of an X ME before printing the inventory on the first time it’s used. Subsequently, it just prints the inventory. I thought this worked so well that I’d like to see it become an IF standard. Also, there’s a game-within-a-game that serves as an entertaining satire of the medium itself. There’s a nice multi-stage puzzle involving gaining a credential, and I found the story interesting enough that I felt sorry when time ran out. Mostly, though, my reaction to Kurusu City was a puzzled shrug.

Rating: 7.2

The PK Girl by Robert Goodwin [Comp02]

IFDB page: The PK Girl
Final placement: 6th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I like comics, and I like animation, but I’ve never really read much manga or watched much anime. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding these forms, but rather that I haven’t happened to explore them yet. I’m a little bit familiar with the concept of hentai, because of the subculture of hentai IF that seems to be out there, which was brought to the attention of the newsgroups a few years ago, primarily by the efforts of a reviewer named Craxton.

Because of my unfamiliarity with Japanese comics and animation, I think I lack some context for evaluating The PK Girl, a text adventure with a deep manga influence. First and foremost, I’m not sure what to make of the game’s extreme, almost comical insistence on rigid and stereotyped gender roles. Whether this is a convention of manga, something particular to this game, or even just a quirk of the PC I don’t know, but while I found it at first just distracting and silly, it quickly graduated to annoying and even offensive. The game puts you in the role of a male PC, and quickly demonstrates that you have some pretty sweeping assumptions about femininity, and a fair amount of anxiety about maintaining the image of your own masculinity. The former becomes apparent in the description of the first female NPC you encounter:

The girl is clothed in a silky blue dress. Long vibrant hair cascades
over her shoulders and down her back. Her countenance seems to
reflect all feminine virtue, inclusive of kindness, submissiveness,
empathy, and consciousness of time and place.

So “submissiveness” is a feminine trait, in fact a feminine virtue? And kindness and empathy are outside the male domain? Certainly the female characters don’t have a lock on self-consciousness, as evidenced by the PC’s reaction to entering a women’s clothing store:

Why did you come in here? There is nothing terribly exciting here by
any male’s estimations. To a female, this could well be a lesser
incarnation of paradise. A wealth of clothing is available on
circular racks situated in aisles throughout the store, for trying on
and for purchase. The exit is west.

Yes, we know that all women love clothes-shopping. And men have no interest whatsoever in women’s fashion, which is why all fashion designers are women. Oh, wait. At its worst moments, the game spits out statements that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Victorian behavior manual:

You don't need to take the plate; There are females here to clean up
after you.

Give me a break! If this is a manga thing, I don’t think I’ll be reading manga anytime soon.

On the technical (and more positive) side, The PK Girl is the long-awaited game that rises above ADRIFT‘s initial limitations to take a place among games created by the top-tier development systems. An unbelievable amount of care has gone into crafting this game. First of all, it addresses all the flaws in the ADRIFT parser that I’ve railed about in previous reviews. The game handles conversation very smoothly indeed, blending the ASK ABOUT approach with a menu-based approach in a somewhat similar fashion to my Earth And Sky games. On the rare occasions when the parser asks a question, it’s almost always prepared to handle the answer. SEARCH works, and in fact it works better than in most games, because the game explicitly assumes that it includes looking under and looking behind an object, and says so. Best of all, I never encountered the generic “Nothing special” message for an unrecognized noun, partly because the game changed the default message to be more Inform-like, but mostly because nouns are implemented in exquisite depth.

For that matter, not only are almost all nouns described, but a prodigious number are included in the first place. I didn’t come close to finishing this game in the two hours allotted, but I must confess that may be my own fault, because I frequently deserted the plot in order to wander around the game and marvel at the level of detail included. For this virtue alone, The PK Girl is one of the most immersive games in this year’s comp. In addition to its significant improvement on the standard ADRIFT parser, the game also includes professional-looking illustrations and an enjoyable MIDI soundtrack. This latter can get a little grating after a while, and I sometimes wished that a piece of music would play once and stop rather than continuously looping (or that I at least had the option of making the game behave that way), but it did enhance the scenes’ mood quite effectively.

As for the story itself, I found it pretty entertaining. After a fairly tranquil opening, the plot kicks into high gear with a dramatic incident, and events follow sensibly upon each other from there on. NPCs help propel the story forward by sometimes continuing about their business without waiting for the PC, thus forcing the player to keep up or lose the plot entirely. As I said, I didn’t get all the way through the story, but the portion I saw delivered excitement and fun, even if the writing sometimes had an oddly elevated tone which worked counter to the brisk pace. There were some problem spots in the writing, phrases that didn’t make much sense or that suggested with their awkwardness a few lapses in English skill. Still, for the most part they didn’t get in the way of the game’s ability to tell a good story.

Because its story is fun and quite chaste, The PK Girl might make a nice IF selection for kids, though perhaps it ought to be counterpointed by something rather less sexist. In fact, although I’m clueless about anime, the game reminded me distinctly of another branch of animation, the Disney feature film: technically impressive and proficient while remaining on the political level utterly, utterly reactionary.

Rating: 8.4