The Realm by Michael Sheldon [Comp04]

IFDB page: The Realm
Final placement: 27th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Realm feels like an old-school IF throwback. I mean, for one thing, it’s about a knight on a quest to obtain the head of a dragon. It’s set in the usual faux-medieval milieu — a castle, a king, a tavern, and so forth. There are the typical old-school IF anachronisms, such as a monk who gets a “Habits’R’Us” catalog, and library with a book by Charles Perrault, who lived several centuries after any knights were running around any castles. Then there are the mimesis-breaking in-game instructions, in the form of a pamphlet object that teaches players about the basic commands of IF.

Oh, and let’s not forget the red herrings. The Realm delights in offering tons of puzzling objects and blocked directions that serve no purpose in the game but to send the player spinning off on futile chases. Most of the puzzles consist of giving an NPC something they want, and getting something in return from them, so I suppose a few red herrings are probably necessary to keep player interest alive.

Still, the old school has its charms. Once you stop expecting an interesting story or a logically consistent world, The Realm can be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two. It attends to some implementation details well; animals can be petted and doors can be knocked on, which I greatly appreciate. A couple of the NPCs have some funny shtick, and the ending was fun, if a bit predictable. The red herrings can get a little frustrating — I often found myself thinking of alternate solutions that would work perfectly with the game objects, but that weren’t implemented because those objects were meant only to mislead.

On the other hand, according to the walkthrough, one puzzle has a very entertaining alternate solution that never even occurred to me. The description is never going to win any writing awards, but it’s not overly confusing either. There was one really annoying “guess the noun” puzzle, but the rest were okay, though not terribly inventive. I guess it sounds like I’m damning the game with faint praise, and maybe I am — the sum of my feelings about The Realm are that it was inoffensive and enjoyable enough, which is not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. Then again, in the IF Comp, “inoffensive and enjoyable enough” can be a very good thing, since plenty of comp games fail to achieve one or both of those marks.

What did bring the game down was the too-frequent clumsiness of its prose. Comma splices seem to be a particular problem, as in the second sentence of the game’s introduction:

Realizing this you become suddenly very alert, rushing on your clothes you spring to your feet.

These two sentences are fused like tragically conjoined twins, so let’s try a little surgery. The first thing that needs to happen is that the comma should be replaced with a period. However, even on their own, each clause would have some problems. The comma after “alert”, whose job we just outsourced, should migrate over to the end of “this”, since “realizing this” and “you suddenly become alert” are two separate pieces of verbal logic.

As for the second clause, “rushing on your clothes” brings to mind running a naked 100-yard dash on a track made of trousers. The problem is the preposition: you may rush into your clothes, but you don’t rush on them. In addition, “rushing” isn’t the most felicitous verb to use there — perhaps “hurrying” instead. That second clause could also take a lesson from what we did to the first, separating the sequential logical pieces with a comma. So, as they come out of anesthesia, here are our newly split twins:

Realizing this, you become suddenly very alert. Hurrying into your clothes, you spring to your feet.

I’m happy to announce that the operation was a success. The patients will live, although it may not be a very normal life — they’re too similar and too close together, leading to a choppy flow. Still, they can’t help it — they are twins, after all. There were a few little problems in the code, too — the occasional hiccuped bit of text and so forth. Ironing out these kinds of problems will help The Realm be the best old-school throwback it can be.

Rating: 6.3

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