Withdrawal Symptoms by Niclas Carlsson [Comp00]

IFDB page: Withdrawal Symptoms
Final placement: 36th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I saw the title of Withdrawal Symptoms, I wondered whether it would be a sort of follow-up to the drug themes in Nevermore and The Trip, an intense tale about a junkie’s triumph over addiction. Nope. The title actually refers to a bank withdrawal — it seems your recently deceased aunt left you the key to her safety deposit box at the bank. You’ve brought the key to the bank’s lobby, and now all you need to do is find your way through a few fairly contrived problems to discover what’s in that deposit box. WS is a short, inoffensive, and moderately enjoyable game based in the “real world”, or at least the real IF world, where you’re allowed to pick up and vandalize things that don’t belong to you, and where obstacles to your progress hinge on some highly dubious connections.

I guess that sentence ended up sounding like kind of a slam, but I don’t mean it to be. Once you’ve set aside the notion that you or the world will have to behave in more or less realistic ways, you can have a lot of fun with WS. I didn’t have much trouble reaching this conclusion, but I can see how somebody without much IF experience might balk at some of the actions required, or in fact might not figure out some of those actions at all, especially since the game takes place in such a quotidian setting. My own deductions weren’t based so much on the “What would I do in this situation?” model, but rather on the “I haven’t done anything with that implemented object yet, so I bet it’ll help me get past this problem” model. Once I moved into that mode of thinking, I found the puzzles in WS pretty enjoyable, aside from a bit of hunt-the-verb here and there. There weren’t very many of these puzzles, and they led to an ending that was kind of funny, though (like the rest of the game) nothing particularly memorable.

Man, there I go getting negative again, so let me be clear: I enjoyed playing Withdrawal Symptoms. The code was bug-free, or at least I didn’t find any bugs in my session with the game. The English had a few errors here and there, mainly misspellings and awkward phrasings. Based on the fact that the author’s email address ends in .fi, I’m guessing he’s not a native English speaker, and considering that, the prose holds together pretty well. I particularly appreciated the fact that although many first-level nouns were implemented by the game, a number of them simply gave the message “That’s not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.” That’s all I need to hear, really — it certainly beats “You can’t see any such thing,” which I always found a fairly irritating response for examining something that’s clearly mentioned in a room description. Of course, ultimately I prefer that all nouns ever mentioned anywhere in the game get their own description, but I think that would have been overkill for this game, and could have even created some possible red herrings and confusion. It’s not the harrowing, David-Crosbyish journey through hell I expected when I saw the title, and after I finished playing Withdrawal Symptoms, I actually preferred what it turned out to be.

Rating: 7.5

Nevermore by Nate Cull [Comp00]

IFDB page: Nevermore
Final placement: 7th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Nevermore calls itself “An Interactive Gothic”, and lives up to its billing with aplomb. A loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, Nevermore builds on the foreboding and melancholy of Poe’s poem, injecting elements of alchemy, forbidden magic, and thematic whispers of Shelley’s Frankenstein. You play the speaker of the poem, a dejected wretch pining for his lost love, “a maiden whom the angels named Lenore.” The difference between the PC and the protagonist of Poe’s verse is that this PC is willing to challenge Death itself to retrieve Lenore, and has the mystic lore, the alchemical elements, and the dread hubris to bring about her resurrection. I thought this was a fabulous premise, and the game succeeds admirably at delivering that frisson that is an indispensable part of eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic literature. To Poe’s already powerful imagery, Nevermore adds the illicit thrill of cocaine and opium, the dark power of occult magic, and the appropriate hints of colonialism and oppression. For me, the combination worked very well at evoking the rich purple feel of novels like Frankenstein, The Monk, and the template gothic novel, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

The game’s writing and coding don’t let it down either. In fact, in some spots the detail is so rich that it feels like almost every noun mentioned in any room description or object description is accounted for with a description of its own. Nevermore uses Inform‘s “box quote” feature to bring up excerpts from the poem at various appropriate points in the plot, and this device adds considerably to the game’s atmosphere. Also adding to that atmosphere is the writing style of the various books discovered by the PC. These books, while not burdened with Middle English spellings like the alchemical quotes in Christminster, do an outstanding job of conveying the spooky and arcane feel that such forbidden texts should have. All in all, Nevermore builds a magnificent gothic atmosphere with a combination of well-judged plot, good writing, and bug-free code.

What a pity, then, that it all comes crashing to Earth, victim of its horrendously flawed design. For one thing, the game features the equivalent of a starvation puzzle in its first few moves. This puzzle is no less forgiving, and perhaps even stricter, than the one that used to be a standard feature of TADS games (check out something like Deep Space Drifter if you don’t know what I’m referring to.) What’s more, the “starvation” problem (it’s not really starvation, but it might as well be — it’s a timed necessity for action that kills you off if not appeased) continues to occur throughout the game, cropping up every twenty moves or so. Even if starvation puzzles didn’t bother me, this one’s fuse is way too short.

Beyond that annoyance is the far greater problem of the game’s main puzzle. This puzzle involves following a highly complex alchemical ritual, requiring dozens of steps and fairly precise actions. Multi-step puzzles in and of themselves aren’t a problem, and certainly it makes sense within the context of the plot that the PC’s actions should involve complicated magical rituals, but the way this puzzle is implemented is deeply problematic. Nevermind the fact that one particular object is required for at least four of the steps, one of which destroys it. Nevermind the fact that the instructions for the ritual are couched in highly figurative language, language that is open to multiple interpretations. Let’s even forget about the fact that some of the necessary steps aren’t particularly discernible without glimpsing into the author’s mind — the thing that sent me over the edge about this puzzle is the fact that its instructions (the figurative, abstract ones) are spread over six different books, books which only reveal their contents randomly.

That’s right, each book contains between four and ten critical pieces of information, but each time you type “READ BOOK” you get a random selection of one of those pieces. Consequently, not only can you never be sure if you’ve obtained all the information you need, you have to perform the same command over and over again, wading through dull repetitions of already-printed information in the hopes that you’ll turn up something new. Once I figured out what was going on, I turned to the hints and never looked back. This tactic allowed me to get through the game (though even that required several restarts, due to the “destroyed object” problem), but the fun had long since drained from the experience. Nevermore is IF with marvelous writing and a chilling gothic atmosphere, but until its fundamental design problems are repaired, it will remain as lifeless as Poe’s lost Lenore.

Rating: 7.4