Square Circle by Eric Eve [Comp04]

IFDB page: Square Circle
Final placement: 5th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’ve been an IF Comp judge for a long time now, and the autumn events of my last ten years are all tied up with comp games. I’m pretty much always playing an IF game on Halloween — I particularly remember the supremely un-spooky Mystery Manor. Similarly, I have a strong memory of playing and reviewing Castle Amnos on Election Day 2000. Now it’s November 4th, 2004, two days after an election whose results disappointed me very much, and the game that marks the occasion is Square Circle.

It’s fitting, really, because the game’s theme feels both political and timely. The PC awakens in a cell, his memory wiped clean (yes, it’s YAPCWA, Yet Another PC With Amnesia), imprisoned for no reason that he can remember. Further exploration reveals that in the PC’s world, criminal justice has adopted a Kafkaesque tone: criminals are defined as those people being punished for a crime, and therefore if you are in jail, you are by definition a criminal. With my government using a holding pen on foreign soil to detain alleged “enemy combatants” who have been charged with no crime and who have no access to due process, and with the authority behind this plan having been swept back into office by the popular will, the game feels eerily relevant.

The difference, of course, is that the Guantanamo prisoners won’t win their release with puzzle solutions, no matter how clever. Then again, the game’s “justice” system is meant to be based on pure rationalism (though of course it’s a through-the-looking-glass kind of rationalism), and nobody ever accused George Bush of being overly beholden to rationality. In any case, Square Circle ties its themes together quite neatly, with the emphasis on rationalism gone horribly awry reflected both in the PC’s imprisonment and in the paradoxical geometry puzzle that holds the key to his escape.

The game’s design is similarly good overall. The geometry theme carries over into the design of rooms and objects, with squares and circles repeating all over the place, not to mention cubes and spheres. The rhythmic echoing of these shapes helped me begin to wrap my mind around the game’s titular problem, and while I stumbled into the beginning of my solution by dumb luck, I was thrilled to figure the rest of it out by myself. I was even more surprised to discover that I hadn’t solved the game’s central puzzle, but in fact opened up a much larger vista of puzzle and story. Many of those puzzles had multiple solutions available, all of which made at least some sense. Options like that always make a game more fun.

The plot unfolded satisfyingly, teasingly doling out hints about the PC’s identity. By now, the amnesiac PC is a hoary cliche, but Square Circle felt a bit fresher than the average YAPCWA game by virtue of a couple of little plot twists. Unfortunately, one weaker puzzle undermined the game’s totalitarian feel by enlisting the elements as co-conspirators against the PC. It’s one thing when other people create a maddening environment for a character, but unless those people have a weather-control device, bringing something like the wind into the equation is a dirty trick.

The other serious issue with the game’s design has to do with one of its dead ends. I quite liked the way that Square Circle allows you to do utterly dumb things, and the consequence is generally instant death. However, there’s one path that puts you into an unwinnable situation which does not announce itself as unwinnable in any way, and in fact teasingly offers a repetition of the solvable opening scenario. I wasted precious time flailing around here before turning to the hints and finding that I needed to restart. I don’t care for this sort of design — if you’re going to end my game, just end it.

Speaking of that hint system, it was generally quite well-done. The hints were menu-based and Invisiclues-style, with enough contextual awareness to only offer hints on the problems currently facing the PC. I certainly leaned on the hints quite a bit, and found them quite adept at providing just enough nudge. Unfortunately, I did run into a problem at the very end of my game session, where I was faced with a roadblock and the game failed to offer me any hints about it. A couple of other glitches afflicted the game, too, including some typos, and a bit of freaky parsing:

>draw square around circle
What do you want to draw that on?

What do you want to note?

>get note

What just happened? I still don’t know. On the other hand, the game pulls off some amazing parsing tricks when it gives the PC a marking pen and some paper. In his attempt to create a square circle (as demanded by the entity holding him prisoner), the PC can draw a square, and a circle. Even better than that, he can draw whatever he likes. For instance, the game responds to DRAW CARTOON with “You draw a cartoon on the note,” and from that point forward, CARTOON becomes a synonym for NOTE. I thought that this was really an amazingly cool bit of parser trickery.

Lots of other little conveniences were on hand as well, though I suspect many of the ones that reach for player-friendliness are already built into TADS 3. I particularly liked X WALLS, which provided an actual description for each wall of a room, creating a wonderfully complete feeling for the game’s world. In fact, some of the game’s description levels go intoxicatingly deep:

>x guardian
The guardian is a lithe, athletic-looking man in his mid-thirties,
with short fair hair and a hard, unsympathetic face. He’s dressed in
a pale grey uniform [...]

>x grey
It’s a drab, though reasonably smart, uniform consisting of pale grey
trousers and a tunic of the same colour. The tunic has a pair of
breast pockets, with a badge above the left one.

>x badge
The badge bears the inscription NEW ENLIGHTENMENT PUNISHMENT SERVICE
and depicts a set of prison gates and a sword.

>x sword
The highly stylized sword is depicted hilt up and to the left, with
its blade interlacing the prison gates.

Wow. I mean, wow. I just adore that kind of thing. I also love when that kind of largesse is applied to a game’s overall design, providing a nice long playing experience… except when the game gets entered in the comp. Square Circle suffers from being oversized for a comp game — not heinously so, but I think I was only about 75% through when the two-hour bell rang. So that’ll hurt its rating with me. Otherwise, though it’s a little unpolished in places, this game offers an intriguing scenario and some enjoyable puzzles, and I recommend it, especially if it sees a revised post-comp edition.

Rating: 8.1

Mystery Manor by Dana Crane as Mystery [Comp01]

IFDB page: Mystery Manor
Final placement: 43rd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I played this game on Halloween. I was alone in the house. The lights were off. There was a full moon outside. I was experiencing an eerie lull in the trick-or-treating. I could not have been more primed to be creeped out, frightened, and made into a paranoid wreck. Sadly, even when conditions are perfect, this game falls far short of effectiveness in the creep-out arena. The only thing that’s really scary about it is its writing. Observe, IF YOU DARE:

A swirl of icey air rushes past you, with bringing the sound of a womans screams. Just as you are about to make a run for it , the bloody decapitated body blocks your way. Holding her head in front of your face, so she may get a good look at you, the bloody head whimpers, “You are not the one” with that the ghost flees with a ear piercing scream.

Hmm, let’s see. “Icey” instead of “icy”. “With bringing the sound”? “Womans screams” instead of “woman’s screams”. Bizarre space before the comma (following “run for it”.) “The” bloody decapitated body? It was never mentioned before this. “Holding her head… the bloody head whimpers” — very funny misplaced modifier. “With that” should begin a new sentence, and there should be a period after “the one”. “A ear piercing scream” instead of “an ear-piercing scream”. And that’s just three sentences! It’s too bad this game didn’t give out points every time I spotted an error, because if it did, I think I’d have earned 524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.

Oh, or how about this: forget the writing errors — what if the game gave out points every time I spotted an implementation error! Man, I’d have scored big-time during scenes like this:

You are in the dining room [...] The room is dark, lit only by
reflections from lightning outdoors.

This is a nostalgic oak dining table. The surface reflects the
overhead lighting. It has a beautiful oak finish.

So the table’s surface reflects the overhead lighting, even when there is no overhead lighting! Oooh, spooky! Elsewhere, a whiskey bottle contains more spirits than just the alcoholic kind:

You open the bottle of whiskey.

I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist.

The bottle of whiskey is already open!

I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist.

I keep opening it, but some invisible force stops me from drinking it! Don’t look now Scooby, but I think that whiskey bottle is… HAUNTED! Too bad, because I could really have used a belt at that point.

Then there were the numerous problems that were probably ADRIFT‘s fault rather than the game’s. There’s the famous “Nothing special” line whenever you EXAMINE <any word the parser doesn’t know>, including EXAMINE PARSER. Always a pleasure. There are the pop-up graphics that I think failed to pop up. (I’m guessing this based on the fact that I had files like “UfloorPL.bmp” in my directory, yet X UPPER FLOOR PLAN yielded no graphics.) There are the “cannot draw map — too complex” errors that the mapper gave me EVERY SINGLE FREAKING TURN after a while. There’s this sort of interaction:

It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
smudges on it. The refrigerator is closed.

You open the refrigerator.

It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
smudges on it. The refrigerator is open.

Yes, I know it’s open, but what’s inside it? Apparently the ADRIFT parser searches on keywords and just ignores those other tiresome words that might happen to surround the keywords, thus neatly avoiding pretty much the entire concept of prepositions. My favorite extreme example of this tendency (from this game anyway):

Take what?

“Hey man,” says the ADRIFT parser, “I don’t care what else you say — as long as you type “GET” anywhere in there, I’m going to ask, ‘Take what?’ Um… not that I’ll be able to handle it if you actually answer me.” Okay, one more example then I promise I’ll quit:

You can't lie in the bed.

You can't lie on the bed.

You lie down on the ground.

I don't understand what you want me to do with the bed.

You stand up.

You stand on the bed.

Yay! Endless hours of fun. Not the sort of fun that the game seems to expect me to be having, but still. The endless well of humor from a terrible game was just the thing to lighten up a potentially scary Halloween night. Too bad that sort of thing doesn’t factor into the rating.

Rating: 2.3