Distress by Mike Snyder [Comp05]

IFDB page: Distress
Final placement: 4th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Say you’ve got an idea for a story. It’ll be thrilling, fast-paced, and ingenious. Say, just for illustrative purposes, it’s a story about the survivor of a crashed spaceship, who has to help injured crew members, signal for a rescue, and figure out why the ship crashed in the first place, all while being hunted by a hostile creature on the unexplored planet. You know what all the beats are, and how your protagonist gets from beginning to end by making clever use of nearby resources and surviving tightly timed encounters like chases and medical emergencies. You know there’s going to be a twist at the end, how you’ll foreshadow it, and how it will finally manifest.

Now, you could just go write that story! Who knows if it’d get published anywhere — it’s pretty cliché-heavy — but if you wrote it you’d be able to shape it exactly to how you imagined it. But what if you wanted to make that story into a game? It would seem to fit an IF milieu pretty well, with the protagonist being alone in an unfamiliar landscape, and having to piece together information and objects to get to the best ending. How do you take your story, which is specific and clear in your head, and turn it into an interactive experience that is — and this part is important — fun and enjoyable for players?

Well, this is where things get dangerous. When you make a story interactive, you are now obligated to create sufficient margin around the ideal plotline that players can experience the game’s world and its events without feeling like they’re inside some kind of narrative lab experiment where electric shocks are applied anytime they step off the prescribed path. At one extreme of this continuum, any command that doesn’t adhere to the ideal walkthrough results in a losing ending. At the other end, the player could depart from the story entirely and still be supported by the game to eventually reach a satisfying conclusion.

Guess which end of this continuum is easier to code? Lots of authors fall into the trap of forcing their players to adhere too closely to a specific string of commands, either by failing to implement anything outside of it or by lowering the boom immediately on any deviations. Very few authors create a world so rich that new and different stories can emerge from it autonomously, because doing so is unbelievably difficult. Finding a satisfying middle ground between these extremes is the essence of the IF designer’s craft. That’s why it’s often said that the best IF doesn’t offer unlimited interactivity but rather a very convincing illusion of unlimited interactivity.

So back to our crash survivor story, which, yeah, is the plot of Distress. You might implement this by creating lots of ways for the protagonist to survive, and in some ways, Distress attempts this. However, its flexibility tends to be around more trivial tasks such as what verbs can be used for one step of a first aid process. It has zero flexibility on more important things, like how many turns you have to complete that first aid process, and heads up — if you don’t complete it correctly, you are locked out of a winning ending without knowing it.

Some games might handle a situation like this by providing a generous time limit, and ending the game upon failure to complete the task, which would cue players that this is a puzzle whose outcome is crucial to success. Other games might give you clearer and clearer nudges towards the right solution, and then end the game on a failure, or even outright force a success. Distress, on the other hand, makes it seem like the failure is a valid outcome, and maybe even inevitable, only to silently prevent success even after many more steps are completed.

The author makes a telling comment in the text file accompanying the game: “To some degree, I think we as IF players have grown soft.” This comment suggests a view of interactive fiction in which the players battle the authors for dominance over the experience, and longs for the good old days in which authors would sharpen their knives and players would hope not to bleed too much. That’s one view of this medium. It’s not mine. I play IF because I want to experience a world and a story, and while I enjoy a challenge, I do not enjoy repeated electric shocks.

So it was with Distress, whose name seemed more and more apt the longer I played it. The writing is good, the coding is strong, and the premise is solid, and I found it fun and compelling at first, but it quickly became apparent that there was many an electric shock to be had. I lost over and over and over again. Finally I turned to the hints, and despite following their cues, even the one that “solved the puzzle”, I still lost. Then I turned to the walkthrough, and lost. Then I started over, adhered closely to the walkthrough, and finally got past the point that had been battering me. Was I having fun? Reader, I was not.

Distress set out to punish me for my deviations from its ideal route, and it certainly succeeded, but repeated punishment is not my idea of a good time. Even valid ideas for how to solve a puzzle, even ideas that actually are the solution to that puzzle, aren’t allowed unless you carefully shepherd the PC’s mindset through them. So, for example, there might be a battery to be found right next to you, but you’re not allowed to find it until you demonstrate to the PC that a battery is needed. To make matters worse, the many tightly timed sequences pretty much guarantee you’ll be replaying parts of the game many times, so while you learned about the battery problem 10 playthroughs ago, you still have to pretend it’s your first time.

Distress may well appeal to a certain kind of player, one who agrees that we’ve all gotten too soft. It wasn’t for me.

Rating: 6.8

Snatches by Gregory Weir [Comp05]

IFDB page: Snatches
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Snatches is a very ambitious game whose reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. It’s got some great things going for it: a compelling structure, vivid writing, and powerful drama. Unfortunately, it also has an uneven and railroady design, and it’s generally underimplemented, lacking the commitment to fully execute on its premise. Consequently, I kept wanting to be engaged by the game, but generally ended up frustrated instead.

The game starts off immediately arresting, with a distinctly IF version if in medias res — the parser prints out the response to the command it was just given, albeit not by the player: “Taken. The scotch inside the glass glows golden.” I thought this was quite cool, and only later did I realize that it also sets the stage for the lack of choice to come. Turns out the game does not want to let you leave the room until you drink that scotch. I tried to avoid it, because I’m contrary like that. I spent lots of time examining things, including some curtains which seem to just be hanging on a blank wall, because when I tried to examine the window I was told I couldn’t see any such thing. I tried to smash the glass, but was stymied. I tried pouring out the scotch but the game didn’t know the word “pour.” I tried another tack:

>empty drink
You toss the scotch back, and it burns as it goes down. Now you're ready to head to town.

Ha! If only Inform had printed “[into yourself]” that response would have been perfect. Anyway, having alcoholically unlocked my prison, I moved into quite a large landscape — a manor house with lots of rooms and hallways. I explored all over, but most things seemed pretty locked and deserted. Still, I wandered around examining and moving things for about 30 minutes before concluding that the game was patiently waiting for me to do the one thing that would results in my character’s demise, and that there was nothing else I could do.

So I did that thing, the character died, and things got wilder – suddenly I was another character, seeing the aftermath of another just-completed command. The same pattern played out again, but with much less exploration this time — I stumbled into death pretty quickly. Then it happened again, and again, and again many times over, a different character each time. The game’s writing really shone in these sequences — it very deftly employed the multi-POV IF trick of describing the same set of locations in completely different ways to illustrate a character’s viewpoint. Brief as my encounter with each character was, I frequently found myself caring about them, and that’s down to the strength of the writing.

Sadly, that was also what made the game frustrating, because there seems to be no way to save any of these characters from their fate. So the game continues repeating the pattern of thrusting you into a PC’s shoes, making you care about that PC, then disposing of the PC. Well after it’s clear what’s going on, it’s also clear that there’s no fighting it, even though the game also jumps around in time, giving you (what would logically be) opportunities to prevent the whole thing from happening, if not for the fact that the parser curtly shoves back at any attempt to do so. In this process, I kept trying things that made sense from a world-modeling point of view, but just weren’t implemented, much like that absent window in the first room. I couldn’t even SCREAM. (Really, a horror game that doesn’t implement SCREAM?)

So the experience of the game is of failing over and over, until you finally get incarnated into the one character who has any real agency. By that time, with the various frustrations of the game having piled up, it’s pretty hard to care anymore. I somehow found myself able to kill off the scary menace that had picked off all my earlier selves, but it felt like a pretty pyrrhic victory. I then followed the walkthrough to a different ending, which was also pretty unsatisfying. Maybe there’s an ending out there that lets you revive the victims and see the sunrise on a hopeful new day, but after struggling against the game’s tight restrictions for a couple of hours, I really didn’t feel like seeking it.

Rating: 7.6

Blink by Ian Waddell [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blink
Final placement: 21st place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Blink claims to have multiple paths. According to its ABOUT text, there are “several instances throughout the game where you can quickly switch to a different path by saying something different or doing something else.” This is simply not true, at least not as I understand and define the idea of multiple paths. Yes, there are a couple of conversations whose outcomes can be altered by various menu choices. However, none of these alterations have any impact whatsoever on the story, which is quite linear. There aren’t even any points where the game offers more than one goal at a time — everything is very much on rails, and any deviations from the path result in either gentle rebukes from the parser or a little bit of scenery description.

I know this, because after one trip through the game, I went through it five more times looking for the alleged paths, only to find myself always in the same sequence of scenes, each of which has only one exit. Finally I ran it through TXD and looked at all the game text, and sure enough, I’d pretty much seen the whole thing. The experience led me to think about what we mean by “multiple paths.” In a sense, there are multiple paths through even the tiniest IF game. Even in an Inform shell game, you can, say, SING and then PRAY, or PRAY and then SING. Strictly speaking, these are two different paths. However, since both of them simply result in default parser responses, neither of which affect the game world or the PC, they are functionally equivalent. That’s the way Blink is — sure, there are different ways to go through it, but none of those differences are significant. The game’s story, and its ending, are identical no matter what you do, and thus I would contend that it only has one meaningful path.

Even that path is a short one — Blink is a small game, and that’s another one of its problems. Not that smallness is a problem in IF per se, of course, but Blink‘s main project seems to be to provoke an emotional response in the player, and it’s just too bare to provide the necessary connection. The specifics are too spoilery, but at its base, the game presents a PC who is confronted with the specter of loss, and thus must reevaluate some of his past decisions. However, when we barely know any of these characters, all they can be is unadorned archetypes, and those aren’t enough to create character identification. Plenty of affecting stories boil down to something like “boy meets girl, boy loses girl”, but if the actual story is just those six words, then it’s not going to affect anyone. Of course, Blink isn’t this extreme, but it’s still insufficient in the end, and consequently its methods feel hamfisted and overbearing.

Additionally, there are a few places in the game that are hampered by awkward diction or bad coding, and in a game this size, those problems loom large. For instance, there’s a conversation that starts with a question, and then when you try to TALK TO the character, the parser tells you that you have nothing to say, even as the conversation continues. An example of the diction problems is the creek is described as the “epicentre of the entire forest.” Aside from the peculiarly British spelling from what is clearly an American PC, “epicenter” is a term that refers specifically to the center of an earthquake’s shock waves — it’s not just a synonym for “center.”

Still, there are things to like about Blink. The implementation is thorough, with all first-level verbs implemented carefully. The plot’s rails are constructed well — that is, whenever the game prevents the PC from taking a divergent path, it generally provides a pretty good reason. The story coheres well enough, and I liked the fact that the PC begins geriatric, and then progresses backwards through his life via flashback. In fact, there are the seeds of an excellent game in Blink. If it really had offered multiple paths, it could have been a compelling presentation of difficult choices, a la Tapestry. Even if it had remained on rails but its story and characters had been better fleshed out, it might have made a pretty moving character study. In its current state, though it’s nicely implemented and it hangs together okay, it feels falsely advertised, and there’s just not enough meat on its bones.

Rating: 5.5

Only After Dark by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp99]

IFDB page: Only After Dark
Final placement: 17th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Seems like just a few reviews ago I was positing that the trend of the 1999 competition is non-interactive games, those games which give you only one choice of how to proceed, whether subtly or overtly. And now, as if only to vindicate my trendspotting ability, here comes Only After Dark. This game moves along like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift — lurching forward, then halting, then lurching forward again. The lurches are at points where the game shoves you into the plot without giving you much choice in the matter, and the halts are when it waits for you to find the one and only way out of the situation it just forced you into. Now, to be fair, I should say that the game is a little more interactive than, say, Life on Beal Street or A Moment of Hope. It does have a parser. There are no moments (at least, not as far as I could tell, anyway) when it just flat-out ignores what you type. However, there are several scenes where the game absolutely will not let you do anything but what the rigidly linear plot calls for.

Actually, this description fits almost every moment in the game — the advancement of the plot is enforced by meeting any deviation with either an abrupt ending to the game (usually via the death of the PC) or with some variant of “You can’t do that.” For example, there is one scene where the PC is in jail. The plot calls for him to go to sleep. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing you can do but go to sleep. Every other attempt at action is blocked, and the game gives intermittent hints along the lines of “There’s nothing else to do but go to sleep.” Mess around long enough, and the game puts the PC to sleep by force. Now, my question is this: if all I was going to be allowed to do is sleep, why even give me a prompt at all? Why not just say “You’re hustled into a jail cell, and although you attempt to escape, your attempts are thwarted. Deciding there’s nothing to do but sleep, you settle down into the uncomfortable bed, awakening the next day to a very strange scene…” Sometimes there’s a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, something along the lines of wanting the player to identify with the PC’s sense of imprisonment. But when every scene plays like this, and the game forces the player into really stupid decisions because it has made no provision for alternatives, the whole story starts to feel like a prison.

The other way in which the game enforces its plot is to present the player with situations in which there is one correct move, and any other action leads to death. Again, this sort of thing has its place as a technique, and can often be effective when used wisely. However, its vulnerability is that it tempts the designer toward guess-the-verb situations and save-and-restore puzzles — sometimes even both at once. Just as vexing is the fact that dying over and over again fails to be entertaining rather quickly. Only After Dark, sadly, neither resists the temptation nor finds a way around the boredom. Take the initial puzzle, for example. I won’t give away the situation or the solution, but the structure is this: the PC’s life is in danger. There’s only one thing he can do to save himself. If he doesn’t do that one thing he will die. You have one move to make the correct choice. The action is vaguely clued before the choice must be made, but I still ended up with a dozen death messages before I hit on the solution, simply because there is so little time to solve the puzzle. Reading the same death message ten times is pretty dull. Later on, there’s a puzzle in which a certain verb must be used, and the only way I could determine to figure out what that verb ought to be was to closely scrutinize the death message that comes from using the wrong verb. This is the worst of both worlds in IF puzzles.

All this bitching probably does very little to explain why I gave Only After Dark a higher rating than some of the other non-interactive entries in this year’s comp, so let me try to clear that up. First of all, the writing and coding were error-free, which I am really appreciating recently. Yes, the game may railroad you through the plot, but at least it does so correctly. Also, the subject of the game is lycanthropy, which is a fascination of mine. I really enjoyed the malleable aspect of the PC, and while this isn’t the ideal werewolf game, it’s a much better werewolf game than, say, Strangers In The Night was a vampire game. I thought the milieu was interesting, if a little confusing, and there were some nice little touches, like the game’s occasional use of color. Perhaps the only reason it was so linear was to fit the short format of the competition. If that’s so, I dearly hope that an expanded version is forthcoming. I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.

Rating: 6.3