Rape, Pillage, Galore! by Kristian Kirsfeldt [Comp03]

IFDB page: Rape, Pillage, Galore!
Final placement: 30th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Only the most generous of spirits could call this interactive fiction. I’m not one of those. I call it a random text generator, which only responds to two (or maybe three) commands.

The text it generates, in mock-medieval style, is one account after another of the adventures of “Sir Algebrah”, who wanders around killing some things and having sex with other things. That’s why the two commands RPG responds to are SLAY and LAY. If you enter any other command, or indeed no command at all, the program interprets your input as a “battle-cry” and then proceeds to print whatever it wants to.

It’s a reasonable, though wafer-thin, parody of fantasy CRPGs, and as such it’s entertaining for about 60 to 90 seconds. After that, it’s dull, and at no point is it any sort of interactive fiction.

Rating: 1.4

Fusillade by Mike Duncan [Comp01]

IFDB page: Fusillade
Final placement: 18th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In my review of Prized Possession, I mentioned that the game felt like a long series of opening sequences. Fusillade does it one better, stringing together an even longer series of vignettes, each of which only lasts a couple of dozen moves at most before it shifts radically, changing not only time period, but character, plot, and milieu as well. Fusillade is certainly an appropriate name for such a work — there’s never any time to settle into a particular character or story, and the effect is rather like being bombarded with prologues: eyeblink IF.

The problem here is that, like many prologues, none of these sequences offers much interactivity at all. Each sequence is quite straitjacketed, and although it might allow other input (or it might not), its responses will be minimal until it gets the magic word it’s looking for. At times, this is rather transparent, as the situation is enough to compel most players into typing the right thing without much prompting. At other times, it can get a little frustrating:

>go to house
A fine idea. You can crawl, walk, or run.

For once you're tired of struggling on your elbows. You want to walk.

Walk? Why walk? These fields are endless and the world is yours. Run!

In a sudden frenzy of insanity, you hold onto your dress and run like
the wind toward the house. [... and another paragraph after that]

This exchange occurred after I had already gotten long responses from “crawl”, and then from “walk” (very necessarily in that order.) But the game still tells me I can “crawl, walk, or run”, when in fact it’s only prepared to offer me one of those choices at a time, at which point it ceases to make much sense to even talk about them as choices.

This problem reaches its zenith a few scenes in, and I’m going to give a direct spoiler now, because in my opinion it’s a scene that potential players should be warned about. I certainly didn’t appreciate having it sprung on me without warning. But if you’re adamantly anti-spoiler, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. Warning over.

The scene I’m talking about is a rape scene. You’re thrust into the POV of the victim (not that it’d be any better if it were from the rapist’s POV), and there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect the scene in any way. I tried leaving. I tried dropping what I was carrying, which the narrative voice told me I was supposed to give to the rapist. I tried biting. Hitting. Killing. I tried pouring water on him, given that I was supposedly carrying a jug of water, and the game appeared not even to have implemented the water. So Fusillade threw mocking prompts at me, even though it didn’t matter what I did at those prompts — the rape is inevitable.

Once this became clear, I got angry, and emotionally disengaged from the game. I don’t mind short scenes. I don’t mind brief stretches of non-interactivity, or even long stretches if there’s some point being made, as in Rameses. I don’t even particularly mind violence, as long as it’s also in the service of some sort of useful storytelling, though I prefer that violence of this level be flagged with some sort of warning upfront. But when you put me through a rape scene, for no apparent reason except that it’s “just another scene”, and offer no real interactivity, despite the appearance of choices, I find that unacceptable. From that point forward, I was going through the motions, not about to engage with another character, in case the game had any other nasty surprises up its sleeve.

The other thing that becomes apparent after a while is that these scenes just keep coming. The idea might have worked over the space of 5 or 10 scenes, but this game just keeps bringing them on and on. Between the non-interactive nature of each scene and the emotional disengagement I was already experiencing, this endless procession of vignettes started to feel grindingly tedious after a while. When the end came (and the first real option in the game, though it only makes a few paragraph’s worth of difference), I was relieved.

I’m not sure if this is the response the game intended, but I doubt it. The whole thing ended up feeling more like a way for the author to show off his (admittedly impressive) MIDI composing skills than any kind of attempt at actual interactive fiction. So despite the fact that the game is pretty well-written and well-implemented (though there are a few glitches here and there), I ended up not enjoying it too much. It’s fine for a while, but one scene had a devastating effect on my emotional engagement, and there was way too much to get through after that. Perhaps one of these scenes really will become the prologue to a full game of actual interactive fiction (rather than just prompted fiction) — I think I’d enjoy that, as long as it isn’t that one horrible scene.

Rating: 5.8

What-IF? by David Ledgard [Comp00]

IFDB page: What-IF?
Final placement: 52nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

What-IF? is an excellent name for this zcode file. The only one I can think of that would fit as well would be “Where’s the IF?” Here’s what happens when you run this file: you get a menu, asking you to select an “alternatate” history from a list of seven choices. When you make a selection, What-IF? spits out several screensful of text and then brings you back to the menu. That’s it. No prompt (other than the menu prompt), no PC, no locations, no objects, really no game at all. Talk about your puzzleless IF!

Twisting the knife even further is the fact that all of these paragraphs are very, very badly written. Missing commas, misspellings, incorrect words, sentence fragments, misplaced modifiers, and many more errors make appearances over and over and over again. Here, I’ll choose an example at random: “If knowledge of how the Chinese navigated had reached the West research in this field may not have preceded.” Even if we ignore the fact that there should definitely be a comma between “West” and “research”, we are still left with the question: preceded what?

This file has nothing to offer as IF. Its writing is difficult, sometimes impossible, to understand. It might make an interesting pamphlet, if somebody who is fluent in English gave it a major editorial overhaul. What it’s doing in an interactive fiction competition remains an unanswered question.

Rating: 1.1

1-2-3… by Chris Mudd [Comp00]

IFDB page: 1-2-3…
Final placement: 42nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past few years, each competition has had one game that I found unremittingly unpleasant, a horrible experience from start to finish. Last year, it was Chicks Dig Jerks, with its pounding misogyny and seething nests of bugs. The year before that, it was Cattus Atrox, whose relentless but shallow horror and totally logic-free plot I found impossible to stomach. I was beginning to think that I’d make it through 2000 without such an experience, but no such luck: 1-2-3… wins the prize for Most Repellent Comp Game, hands down.

It doesn’t suffer from bugs, though — it doesn’t really get the chance, because it is as linear as a short story. Basically, the game is one long string of guess-the-noun or guess-the-verb puzzles. In fact, for most of the game, each move is in itself one of these types of puzzles, since the game will allow no other action than the one it’s waiting for you to guess. The most freedom it ever allows you is when it spreads seven or eight guess-the-noun puzzles in front of you, which you can do in any order, but all of which must be done before the story can proceed.

Actually, I use the word “puzzle” but that’s being rather generous. Really, the situation I mention above is that you have a couple of NPCs, both of whom must be ASKed ABOUT three magic topics each before the game will continue. These NPCs are so minimally implemented (as is pretty much everything in the game) that they only answer to those three topics — all others will provoke one of three random default responses. As if this extremely minimalist implementation didn’t make guessing the noun difficult enough, the topics you’re expected to type in sometimes verge on the ridiculous. If a character doesn’t respond to ASK HIM ABOUT ADVICE, why would I expect him to respond to ASK HIM ABOUT WHAT HE WOULD DO?

Of course, the game gives me an unsubtle shove in the right direction by having the character say, “Do you want to know what I would do?” But this is a pretty desultory form of interactivity. The game may as well just tell you what your next command should be, since it has no plans to respond to anything else anyway. If you think that’s interactivity, you probably also think ventriloquists’ dummies come up with their own punch lines.

Non-interactivity is annoying enough, but consider the context: 1-2-3… is about a serial killer. It puts you in the role of this serial killer. It won’t let the game continue until a murder is committed, then another, then another, and these murders can be triggered by rather innocuous (if unintuitive) commands. Now how much does it suck to have no choices?

The killings are horrific, misogynist gorefests, with nauseating specifics lovingly enshrined in detailed descriptions, capped by attempts at psychological pathos that would be laughable if they didn’t follow such revolting excesses. The first murder scene made me feel literally sick to my stomach, and I seriously considered quitting the game there and then, abstaining from rating and reviewing it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t do that — perhaps some overactive sense of fair play among the comp entries, perhaps a misplaced hope that the game would produce some artistic justification for its ultraviolence. In the end, I had such a horrible experience playing 1-2-3… that I almost wish I hadn’t played it, but since I did, I want at least to give others the warning I didn’t get.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t keep you in the serial killer’s role throughout. You are privy to a couple of other viewpoints, most prominently the police detective whose mission is to find and apprehend the killer. Unfortunately, the scenes from the detective’s POV are no more interactive than those from the killer’s. You must follow, more or less lockstep, exactly what the game has in mind for you, if you want to finish the story.

Is 1-2-3… a psych experiment of its own, a kind of test to see how much gag-inducing content a player can take before switching off the computer and (to steal a line from Robb Sherwin) switching her hobby to “Scattergories”? Is it the IF version of Lisa Simpson testing to see how many times Bart will grab for the electrified cupcake? Maybe it is, and if so I certainly seem to have failed the test, because I played through to the end. But my emotional engagement with the game had ended long before that, having suffered multiple stab wounds from the vicious, senseless violence that permeates the game. I was taking every one of the game’s cues, typing in what it told me to and letting the text scroll by in the vain hopes of some Rameses-like epiphany. None was forthcoming. Now excuse me — I have to go take a shower.

Rating: 2.5

A Moment of Hope by Simmon Keith [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Moment Of Hope
Final placement: 18th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Remember how one-room puzzlefests were the big trend of the 1998 competition? Well, I think I’m getting a handle on what it is for ’99: non-interactive fiction. It’s the legacy of Photopia, I suppose. But how little we knew, when we played that one short, brilliant Red Planet section of Photopia where every chosen direction advances the plot, that in a year we’d be playing entire games that operate like that. So far I’ve seen Halothane, which enforces its plot fairly rigidly; Remembrance, which limits the player’s options severely by restricting them to a very short menu; and Life on Beal Street, which is no more interactive than a book. Perhaps the worst offender yet, though, is A Moment of Hope. At least Beal and Remembrance didn’t pretend to be anything but linear roads with no detours available. At least Halothane allowed some freedom of action. Because A Moment of Hope is a TADS game with the appearance of an unrestricted parser, it gives a very believable facade of interactivity, when in fact it’s anything but. Here’s a sample from towards the end of the game:

You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep.

Turning to your other side, you give it another try.

You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your

In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head
with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work.

You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.

This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location — even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of “Not right now, you’re busy.” Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.

Let’s take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn’t much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the “fiction” side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there’s also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I’ve quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley’s responses, and the player’s input really Wendy’s participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section’s plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won’t find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game’s responses and player’s input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley’s trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we’re not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won’t lose us.

The game doesn’t take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can’t afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC’s deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn’t fit the story. Wouldn’t fit the character. So it’s not allowed. But a player can’t help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It’s written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn’t much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn’t it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn’t so mysterious after all…

Rating: 3.8