Caffeination by Michael Loegering [Comp03]

IFDB page: Caffeination
Final placement: 14th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Caffeination (it can’t seem to decide whether it wants the middle “n” capitalized, so I’m going to forego it) starts out like a more intelligent version of last year’s Coffee Quest II. The setup is nearly identical: you’re a depressed, sleepy office worker in an oppressive, cubicle-filled corporate environment, and your object in life is to get a really good cup of coffee. Happily, the literacy level of Caffeination is several steps above that of CQ2, and at first the game seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Alas, it quickly sinks into a bog of misguided design, buggy code, and error-laden prose.

In addition, rather than presenting any kind of sharp or thoughtful satire of office culture, the game instead tends towards the hackneyed and the juvenile. For instance, the boss’ name is “Mr. Norom.” Ooh, “moron” spelled backwards! There’s wit for you. Norom is a walking (well, sitting) “evil boss” stereotype, and the clich├ęs continue from there: the bimbo coworker hired strictly for the boss to leer at, the depressing and decrepit building fixtures, even the sleepy, slackerish PC himself. Instead of giving us a fresh, fully-imagined setting, Caffeination just shows us the same dull office we’ve seen a hundred times before. What’s fun about that?

This game also suffers from the same syndrome that seems to plague many entries in this year’s comp: a lack of sufficient feedback and cueing. I struggled against the constraints of the first major puzzle for quite some time before turning to the hints, but these were much less helpful than I thought they’d be. The game has a hint system with great potential — you find a notepad left by a former co-worker who had allegedly amassed all sorts of interesting tidbits about the office. Unfortunately, CONSULTing the notebook about nearly every topic gives you either no information at all (“Bill left some detailed notes, but you cannot find any info on that.”) or no more information than is present in simple object and location descriptions. A hint system in a consultable object is a great idea for integrating metagame activity into ingame mechanics, but to succeed, it must be much more deeply implemented than this.

So finally, I turned to the walkthrough and was astonished to discover that there are no fewer than three different solutions to it. The problem is that all three solutions rely on extremely improbable actions, ones I’d certainly never have thought would work, given the fairly limited implementation of most game objects. For instance, one path involves finding out about a particular bit of office intrigue through dialogue, but even very direct questions about this exact topic elicit no response whatsoever from the NPCs. In fact, most questions to the NPCs elicit the default response, which leads one to stop asking questions in fairly short order. Another path requires discovering an object hidden in a cubicle. However, an object mentioned in the room description that should be in roughly the same spot as the hidden object not only doesn’t lead the player to discovery, it isn’t even implemented, which certainly leads one to believe that searching that area of the cubicle won’t be fruitful. It’s all well and good to provide interesting and unusual solutions, but you can’t expect players to read your mind to get to them. You have to provide cues, feedback, and evidence that will lead the player in the right direction.

In a similar vein, if a game’s coding is focused on its solution path(s) rather than on making a fully interactive environment, it will almost certainly be extremely buggy to anybody who isn’t strictly following the walkthrough. I associate this problem most strongly with Robb Sherwin‘s earlier comp games — if the game was a story, it’d go pretty well, but IF isn’t a story so much as a place, and when an incomplete place tries to be a story, problems ensue — even though Caffeination provides multiple solutions to each of its puzzles, they’re all pretty hard to guess, and exploratory moves towards them founder in a morass of bugs.

This may be a problem that deserves its own category: the “walkthrough-driven game”. These games end up making me feel like one of the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” terrified to step off the path lest everything around me be screwed up forever. That’s certainly what happens with Caffeination. Especially after the first puzzle, I found myself confronted with one bug after another when I tried things that the game didn’t expect.

Now, like the bugs in Sophie’s Adventure, many of this game’s bugs were beneficial to me, including one that allowed me to win without solving any of the coffee shop puzzles at all. I’ve been surprised by the games in this comp that go to great lengths to explain the obstacles to you, but then don’t bother to actually use those obstacles to prevent winning actions. Still, winning lacks its usual pleasure when it’s done by exploiting a bug. I was happy enough to have the game overwith, but I wish it could have been different.

Rating: 5.5

Little Blue Men by Michael S. Gentry [Comp98]

IFDB page: Little Blue Men
Final placement: 7th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

WARNING: Because Little Blue Men uses obscenities in its text, that language will also appear in this review.

Well, the first thing I have to say is that starting Little Blue Men right after finishing Human Resources Stories was quite mind-bending. The game starts with a character who is sitting at his desk thinking of his job as “another day in the trenches,” looking at his corner as his “own little slice of the shit pie those sons of bitches call an office.” I had this sudden vision of IF authors as angry loners, driven by their misanthropy and lack of social skills into highly solitary hobbies like writing and programming, friendless misfits who hate their jobs, hate their lives, and generally hate people, and who write supposedly entertaining games that are really about how much the world sucks. Luckily, the vision passed as the game underwent a curious transformation. First of all, the game’s disclaimer assured me that “at its most fundamental level, this game is about learning to love yourself.” OK, maybe we’re not loving anybody else yet, but loving yourself is at least a little positive. Next, I entered a few commands, the first ones that came to mind, really, and… won the game. Or did I? My final message said “*** You have learned to love yourself ***”, which is what I was told the game was about. So I won, right? In 10 moves? I wondered how in the heck a game whose .z5 file was 171K could end up being so short. I wondered, in the game’s words, “What the hell…?!”

It turns out that although LBM may be about learning to love yourself, if you do the things that help you reach that goal too quickly you end up missing the entire story. That story consists of scheming ways to kill or otherwise waylay your co-workers, destroy the things that aggravate you, discover the secrets hidden behind the bland office walls, and figure out just who or what your boss, “that bastard Biedermeyer”, really is. In short, it consists of getting an unpleasant character to do unsavory things, in service of a plot that grows more and more metaphorical and surreal as you progress through it. When I finally got to the end, I wasn’t sure that I was any more satisfied with the “real” ending than the one I got to in 10 moves. In his postscript, the author tells us that he wants the story’s structure to help us question to help us analyze some of our assumptions about IF. For one thing, we should think about what really is the most “optimal” ending of the game, and whether it’s worth it to actually play through a game if it’s possible to reach a positive ending at the beginning, and/or if the motivations of the character are twisted and repugnant? Now, these are not new ideas. Andrew Plotkin‘s A Change In The Weather offers a similar situation at its outset — if you rejoin the picnic, you end up having fun after all, but you also miss the story. To go back earlier, Michael Berlyn used a related technique in Infidel by making the main character a shallow, exploitive greedhead who probably deserves a desert demise, then asking you to solve puzzles and find treasure on his behalf. Little Blue Men, though, makes these propositions starker than ever before by making its main character thoroughly repulsive and an optimal ending immediately reachable.

Now, my answer to this question in its abstract form is that responses will vary depending on the player. Some people probably have no interest in playing a repulsive character, and so will just delete the game. Others might be driven by curiosity to complete the game even though they find the experience unpleasant. Still others will view it as a chance to get a glimpse into abnormal psychology, or to have some fun playing a villainous character. In this way, playing such a game is akin to watching a movie like Natural Born Killers, or reading a book like In Cold Blood — it may be very well-done, but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and that’s fine. Consequently, I guess I don’t view the question as all that interesting, maybe because any assumption I might have had about IF characters having to be good was eliminated as soon as I finished Infidel (in 1986). But even though I feel this way, LBM still didn’t work for me, not because of its main character but because of its choices of setting, imagery, and metaphor. The game invokes the movie Jacob’s Ladder a couple of times, which is a movie I loved. That film was by turns profound, chilling, and inspiring. LBM only achieves glimpses of these things, and I think the reason is because I found its imagery muddled and incoherent. The game is obviously taking place on some metaphorical level, but it was never at all clear to me what the metaphors were supposed to be representing, and as they stack up it only becomes more confusing. In addition, there was basically no connection with reality, which left the game’s symbols floating unanchored. Some flashback scenes, some glimpses of reality, some type of explanation for the heaven/hell dichotomy the game presents would have gone a long way toward connecting its symbolism with something more meaningful than just other symbols. There’s a lot to like about this game. It is written well, and although it doesn’t achieve an overall arc, it does contain moments which can be quite moving or frightening. Technically I could find very little for which to fault it, both in its writing and its coding. Its puzzles may have had some unpleasant content, but they were clever and engaging, and generally quite well integrated with the storyline. But for me, it did not succeed as a work of art. Nonetheless, I respect it for being an ambitious but flawed experiment — I’ll take that over competent repetition any day.

Rating: 6.3

Friday Afternoon by Mischa Schweitzer [Comp97]

IFDB page: Friday Afternoon
Final placement: 16th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

You work in a cubicle. When the printer breaks, you’re called upon to fix it. You write programs and then write the documentation for them. But you’re not a nerd! This is the premise behind Friday Afternoon (hereafter called Friday), Mischa Schweitzer’s game set in corporate cubicle culture. Friday isn’t Dilbert by any stretch of the imagination — it’s less a spoof on that culture than it is a puzzle-solving game using the cubicled workspace as its backdrop. It starts with a relatively simple goal (finish the items on your to-do list), throws in a few puzzles to complicate things, and goes from there. These puzzles are well-done — they don’t serve to advance the plot very much (since there is no plot to speak of), but they feel natural to the setting, and their solutions are usually sensible and intuitive. In fact, several puzzles can be solved by relatively mundane actions, but the feeling of putting together the logic to find the right mundane action is quite satisfying.

A less pleasant part of Friday is its construction of yet another annoying player character. This character’s main motivation seems to be a desire to prove the fact that he (see below) is not a nerd, by way of going on a date. Now, maybe many people do struggle with this kind of identity crisis, but for the narrative’s purposes it makes the main character seem shallow and unappealing. The character’s gender is never specified by the game, but one section in particular shows that the character is very probably a male, and very definitely a sexist. The unfortunate thing about this is that none of it is really necessary. The sexism demonstrated by the calendar puzzle could just as easily have been pushed off onto other characters without touching the main character. The date doesn’t have to prove that the character isn’t a nerd — it could just be a date, like regular people go on without having to prove something to themselves. As it is, Friday contributes to some rather unattractive stereotypes about the type of person who works in a cubicle.

Of course, this is not to say that the game sets out to make a grand point — I’m quite sure that it doesn’t. According to the author, the game started out as a light satire of his own office. I have no doubt that this early version was a great success, since the core of the game is entertaining and clever. For the competition version, he added a couple of puzzles, and removed all the inside jokes and Dutch words. The result is definitely generic enough to feel like it applies across the board. I work in a financial aid office as a counselor, but several of the puzzles still felt like they could have happened to me. Overall, Friday Afternoon is an enjoyable game and a nice utilization of an underused subgenre in IF. (What happens when the protagonists of college games graduate? They become the protagonists of office games!) It’s flawed by some problems with the player character, but is aided by fine characters, very good puzzles, and solid implementation.

Prose: The prose in Friday definitely has an odd feel to it, as if something is just a bit off. I attribute this to the fact that the author is not a native English speaker — the awkwardness is probably due to a very slight discomfiture with the language. Of course, this is not to say that the prose is bad. It usually does its job quite well, conveying humor and frustration effectively. There’s just a slight unnatural feeling to it.

Plot: There isn’t much of a plot in Friday. It’s basically yet another variation on the “check items off of a list” flavor of IF. Of course, the great thing about Friday is that by placing the to-do list in an office setting, the game gains a very realistic feeling. I really do deal with situations every day where I have a list of things that need to be completed before I can leave work, and so the logic of a game written around such a list feels quite genuine. This device allows the game to escape the aura of contrivance that mars other “recipe” games.

Puzzles: The best feature of Friday is definitely its puzzles. They fit so seamlessly into the setting that I’d be willing to bet that the author has faced several of them in real life. Puzzles like repairing the glasses require several steps, wherein each step is logical and natural but also requires a bit of resourcefulness. Solving puzzles like these provides a feeling of accomplishment that no simple mechanical or lock-and-key puzzle can give.

Technical (writing): There was a slight flavor of awkwardness to the writing, but to the author’s credit it didn’t often manifest itself in outright errors.

Technical (coding): I found no bugs in Friday.

OVERALL: A 7.7