Wrecked by Campbell Wild [Comp00]

IFDB page: Wrecked
Final placement: 39th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are several points in Wrecked where the game collars you to proclaim just how awesome its development system is. For example, you meet someone who (surprise surprise!) just happens to be coding an ADRIFT game on a nearby computer. Ask her about it, and she’ll say to you, “I’m making an ADRIFT adventure. I’ve tried using Inform, TADS and Hugo, but I’d say ADRIFT is by far the best.” In another location, you can gain some points with the command “write graffiti,” something I would never have thought to do without the handy walkthrough to prod me. The graffiti the game chooses to write? “ADRIFT rocks!”

Apparently, Wrecked suspects that its own merits are not enough to convince you of ADRIFT’s supremacy, but that if it just shouts slogans at you once in a while, that might do the trick. For me, the former was true, but the latter, predictably, was not. I’ve already catalogued the shortcomings of ADRIFT in my review of Marooned, so I don’t see the need to rehash them here — the bottom line is that ADRIFT isn’t a bad system overall, and has some nifty features to recommend it, but its parser (which is MORE IMPORTANT THAN NIFTY FEATURES) is substandard, its model world needs work, and it’s still lacking in key functions like UNDO and SCRIPT. A random NPC might think it beats Inform, TADS, and Hugo, but a quick conversation with this NPC demonstrates that her powers of discernment are, after all, rather limited. The game’s self-hyping moments are offputting, as it would have been if Graham Nelson had chosen to have “Inform RUELZ!” scribbled on the side of the house in Curses, or if the spaceship in Deep Space Drifter had been named the USS TADS Is Supreme.

On the other hand, Wrecked is definitely a better showcase for ADRIFT than is Marooned. Those extraneous newlines that I blamed on the ADRIFT system in my review of Marooned turned out to be that game’s doing — they’re nowhere to be found in Wrecked. Many more first-level nouns are implemented, making the auto-complete option work much better, though it still doesn’t work flawlessly. Also, there’s no starvation puzzle in Wrecked, which sets to rest my fears that such a puzzle is standard issue in every ADRIFT game.

However, just being a better game than Marooned doesn’t make Wrecked a great game in itself. One part of the reason why I didn’t care for Wrecked is that it just feels very dated to me. It’s an old-school adventure, something that might have fit comfortably into the mainstream circa 1983 or so. You know the kind: you find a bowling ball with a button on the side, and when you push the button, the ball opens up to reveal a sapphire bracelet, which you then give to the sailor on the dock, who will reward you with a chicken pot pie that you can feed to the vicious warthog, allowing you to sneak into his lair and retrieve the bag of marbles, etc. etc. Everything is pretty much thrown together without any rhyme or reason, loosely grouped together under a threadbare rubric of plot and setting. Like I said, old-school. Unfortunately for Wrecked, the old school of IF lost its accreditation some time ago. To my mind, senseless grouping of stuff without any indication of internal consistency is something IF has outgrown, like mazes and starvation puzzles. Seeing it in a year 2000 competition entry isn’t going to score a lot of points from me.

However, even if I were willing to set aside the deep flaws in both the parser and the design of the game, there would still be the matter of the bugs. Most severe among these is the game-killing bug I encountered about an hour and 45 minutes into the game: despite all conditions being correct, I was unable to complete a critical puzzle, even though I knew from a previous play session that it was possible to complete this puzzle. Because ADRIFT makes a habit of overwriting old save files with the current save unless you explicitly tell it to do otherwise (by selecting “save as” from the menu bar — typing “save” will overwrite without prompting), I would have had to start from scratch and wind my way once more through all the nonsensical contortions required by the game’s plot, and there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t encounter the same bug again.

That bug ended my dealings with Wrecked, but there were other errors along the way. The voice was in first person, but would occasionally slip into second person. Sometimes the game failed to recognize rather important objects. In one supremely frustrating section, the game adamantly refused to recognize the word “keyhole,” despite a promiently featured keyhole in the location; it responded to all commands along the lines of “put key in keyhole” with “I can’t put anything inside the small key.” In short, between the bugs, the parser, the hype, and the lack of any kind of logic, Wrecked wasn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not likely to win many converts to ADRIFT. No matter how many times it insists that ADRIFT rocks.

Rating: 4.0

Marooned by Bruce Davis [Comp00]

IFDB page: Marooned
Final placement: 45th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Marooned was the first ADRIFT game I’ve ever played. Anytime I review a game whose system is new to me, that review can’t help but be partly about the system as well as the game itself, since it’s often difficult to disentangle who is responsible for what in the overall playing experience. Unfortunately, what with all the growling on the newsgroups from ADRIFT advocates who feel their system isn’t getting a fair shake, it’s a little tough to advance an opinion on it — anything less than unadulterated praise runs the risk of getting me labeled a “snob” or an “elitist” or something. Nonetheless, I shall brave the waters, and try to discuss the entire experience of playing Marooned, starting with the things for which I suspect ADRIFT was responsible, then moving on to those things that I’m guessing were done by the game’s author. In the interest of diverting the WOAA (Wrath of ADRIFT Advocates), I’ll even begin with the things I liked about the interface.

The ADRIFT runtime has a clean environment with two windows: one for the command line and one for the game text. The overall presentation was attractive and aesthetic, though the text window used a few too many newlines for my taste. One particularly interesting feature is that clicking on any word in the text window will insert that word into the command line. I’m too much of a typist to be messing with the mouse in that fashion, but I can see where it could be a really cool feature, especially after one got used to it. (I was so unused to it at first, unaware of it in fact, that when I clicked back onto the interpreter window after doing something in another window, I accidentally clicked on a command word and couldn’t figure out why the game seemed to be executing commands without my typing them!) A similar convenience is the “auto-complete” option, which allows you to just type a couple of letters from any dictionary word and attempts to guess what you mean, Microsoft-style. This option was a little wonky at times — for example, you find a “dented gas can” at one point which the game will auto-complete if you start typing “gas”, but not if you start with “dented” or “can”. Still, quirkiness aside, this was a great time saver, because it also shows you right away which nouns in the descriptions haven’t been implemented.

Some other cool options are available from the menu bar, most notably an excellent automapper, which operates in a separate window but creates a lovely map of the game’s landscape. This is an innovation for which many people have been clamoring, and it was especially welcome in this game, where many of the locations have the exact same name. There’s also a “control panel” which can execute common commands for you, even a “goto” command which gives you a listbox of discovered locations and sends you there via the best path. Finally, I must mention that I appreciated the inclusion of “Verbose” as a menu option, something I can just leave turned on for all games rather than having to explicitly request it each time.

OK, so there are a substantial number of things I liked about the ADRIFT interface. Sadly, there are also a number of things I really hated. First and foremost is the problem of the parser. ADRIFT’s parser violates all three of the current tenets in Paul’s Parser Manifesto (which I made up in response to another nonstandard parser, the one in last year’s homebrew game Lunatix.) Those tenets are as follows:

  1. Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.
  2. Parsers must not give smarmy, unhelpful error messages.
  3. Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer.

Well, I’m not actually sure it breaks #3 — I got too angry to try it. The exchange went something like this (I’ve inserted prompts before my commands for clarity’s sake — ADRIFT doesn’t put command prompts in its text):

> look in it
(the first aid kit)
This is a standard issue first aid kit. The first aid kit is open.
Inside the first aid kit is a small bottle.

> x bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is closed.

> open bottle
You open the small bottle.

> look in it
(the small bottle)
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> x bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> look in bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> empty bottle
I don't understand what you want me to do with the small bottle.

> get all from bottle
You are not holding a small bottle.

> get it
(the small bottle)
You are not holding a first aid kit.

> get kit
Take what?

> ^%$# you! [Expletive removed to protect the easily offended]
I really don't think there's any need for language like that!

Frustrating exchanges like this were not uncommon, but even more infuriating were ADRIFT’s violations of tenet #2. Probably the worst offender was this one:

I can't undo your blundering.

Let me tell you an easy way to get me angry fast: give me an insulting message in response to a reasonable command. This one broke all previous speed records. Finally, there were the violations of tenet #1, most obvious when you type “x [anything the parser doesn’t understand]” — instead of telling you it didn’t understand you, it just says “Nothing special.” I hope that Santa will still bring me presents this year despite the fact that I couldn’t resist typing “x adrift.”

All these parser problems more than blew away any pleasure I derived from ADRIFT’s other innovations, because the parser is more important than the nifty features. Let me say that one more time, and listen up, system authors: THE PARSER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NIFTY FEATURES. Further crippling the ADRIFT experience was the sublimely aggravating policy that there is no scripting option as such — only a menu command that will record a transcript of the game thus far, a command that is naturally unavailable after a game ends! Who uses scripting, you ask? I do — I use it to write reviews.

Because I didn’t find my way around this misfeature until I’d been playing Marooned for an hour or so, it’s difficult for me to assess my experience with much accuracy, except to say this: Marooned is not the game I’d use to champion ADRIFT. To the problems in ADRIFT’s parser, this game adds its own irritations. For one thing, there’s a starvation puzzle. Game designers, please quit it with the starvation puzzles. Like mazes, they were interesting long ago, but no longer. They’re not clever, they’re not challenging, and they’re not fun — they just suck. This one was especially offensive because none of the food you find actually staves off starvation, and a couple of perfectly legitimate food items aren’t edible, according to the game.

Compounding this problem is the fact that there are tons of red herrings in the game, which means that you waste your time trying to figure out how to use something that’s actually useless, and consequently you keep dying over, and over, and over again. Dull, dull, dull, and ultimately rage-inducing. The premise of the game was fine, but it’s hampered by severe design problems, as well as the more fundamental weaknesses of the ADRIFT interface. All in all, I’d rather play Guess the Verb again.

Rating: 3.6