Ruined Robots by Nicholas, Natasha, and Gregory Dudek [Comp04]

IFDB page: Ruined Robots
Final placement: 34th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, I’m not sure how to review this game without sounding like an ogre. Per the credits and a quick perusal of the web page, it looks like Ruined Robots was written by two kids and one adult, so I hardly want to come off like a big bully, but there’s just no getting around the fact that this game is terrible. Being charitable, it feels like a child’s drawing that’s been taken off the refrigerator and entered into a competition filled with talented painters and sketch artists. In one context, it’s something to be proud of, but in the other, it can’t be anything but bad. I mean, there are a couple of cool features — some of the ambient sounds are nice, and the little “common commands” toolbar could be useful to players with a different style from mine. But the crux of the game — the writing and the coding — is just really poor.

Detailed analysis of everything wrong with Ruined Robots would be belaboring the point, and though point-belaboring is one of my hobbies, I’ll try to steer clear of it this time, and instead just mention a few ways in which this game could be improved:

  • Get rid of the hunger timer. It is pointless. (By the way, what is it with TADS and hunger puzzles? Are they the default in the TADS library or something?)
  • Figure out what’s causing the freaky line of double-strikethrough letter Ys next to all the room titles, and fix that.
  • It’s = it is. Its = belonging to it.
  • Proofread in general. Pretend you’re turning it in for school and will get marked down for every English error or something.
  • Get your game beta-tested. If your testers can’t figure out the puzzles, decipher the prose, or finish the game without your help, fix whatever’s confusing them.
  • Try to have the puzzle-solving actions make sense. You can’t expect players to perform some random action you’ve given them no reason to try.
  • Speaking of randomness, cut it out with the million-and-one random objects that break mimesis and serve no purpose. If there’s a snowman on the lawn in the middle of spring, for instance, there’d better be a good and interesting reason for that. I don’t want to hear, “The snowman isn’t important.”

Finally, if you’re going to provide a walkthrough, please make sure it actually works to solve your game with. Otherwise, you’ll have judges who decide that your game is totally unplayable and deserves a 1.

Rating: 1.0

Domicile by John Evans [Comp03]

IFDB page: Domicile
Final placement: 18th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

For last year’s comp, John Evans submitted a game called Hell: A Comedy of Errors. That game started out very cool and interesting, but after playing for about an hour, it became quite apparent to me that the coding wasn’t finished. Well, some things don’t change. I mean, the ABOUT listing for this game includes the admonition, “for known bugs, type BUGS.” Known bugs? Listen, if you know there are bugs, especially basic ones like those in this list (“hints not done yet”), that means your game isn’t ready for release. So, hey: DON’T RELEASE IT!

Like Evans’ previous game, this game has some pretty cool stuff in it — there’s an interesting magic system, some good puzzles, a nice sense of expanding possibilities. The problem is, it’s not finished. I played for a while, found some of the cool stuff, and solved a few puzzles. I also found a ton of bugs (not on the “known bugs” list), which forced me into checking the hints a lot from early on — there were a number of synonym problems, some sloppy coding, some Vile Zero Errors. Then got I totally derailed by a game-killing bug (again, not on the “known bugs” list) that spat out a Zero Error and trapped me in a dead-end. So, back to the hints. I restored, tried another method, ran smack into another game-killing bug (that’s right, not on the list) that refused to acknowledge when a puzzle had been completed. So then I said, “Okay, you know what? You get a 1.”

I’m in a bad stretch, here. Three out of the last four games I’ve played have been, in my opinion, not even close to ready. This one is maybe the most aggravating of all, because it seems like the author has this problem repeatedly, so I’m going to do something I rarely do, which is to address him directly. John, your games could be really good. Really. But man, you have got to follow through! You have got to finish what you start. Polish it, test it, get the bugs out, make the code smooth. You know: finish.

Listen, I have a half-finished game on my hard drive too, and I could have slapped an ending on and released it to the comp, but I didn’t, because of this idea I have about comp courtesy. I would prefer to do the right thing by the people I’m asking to spend time on my stuff, so I won’t give it to them until I’ve done all I can to make sure they’ll actually enjoy it. If you get too bored with something to finish it, or the deadline comes before you’re ready, DON’T RELEASE IT. Releasing half-done, bug-ridden games is indefensible, because no matter how much potential they may seem to have, until they’re finished, they’re CRAP.

Instead of starting a new game for next year’s comp, polish and fix this one, so that you can actually have something good to your name. That’s just my advice, which I’m sure doesn’t mean much to you. If it did, you’d have gone back and finished Hell: A Comedy Of Errors. But you won’t be getting much respect as an author until you show that you can actually write a good game instead of a good half-game.

Rating: 1.0

Hell: A Comedy Of Errors by John Evans [Comp02]

IFDB page: Hell: A Comedy Of Errors
Final placement: 23rd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

So here we have the Fine-Tuned of Comp02. That is to say: Hell starts out with a great premise — you’re a newly-created demon, and your business is to go about torturing souls and extracting the maximum possible penance from them. There are some fun role-playing elements to choosing your form, your wings, your color, and so on. In fact, much of the game’s setup is RPGish in a good way — you can purchase various implements of torture (all rather lighthearted, e.g. “documentary crew” or “lizards with pointy sticks”) and carve out your own personal infernal landscape of punishment rooms. Getting penance from damned souls results in further credits for further purchases, and opens possibilities of further demonic avenues such as helpers and peddlers.

Hell then completely squanders the promise of this great setup by being so very incomplete. The documentation suggests that some souls give up more penance depending on their particular characteristics, but damned if pretty much every soul in the game doesn’t look exactly identical. So, inevitably, you run out of money and then wander around wondering what to do next. I get the sense that in the finished version, each soul will have its own personality, and the puzzle will be to match it up with the environments and tortures that best suit it. In the current version, it’s pretty much a crapshoot.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m wrong about this. Maybe I’m missing some critical clue that would make it clear how to proceed. Given that the game provides neither hints nor walkthrough, it’s impossible to be sure that this isn’t the case. Nevertheless, what seems quite clear is that Hell doesn’t do what it says it will, and consequently I have no choice but to regard it as an unfinished game. Please don’t submit these to the comp.

Rating: 1.0

Blade Sentinel by Mihalis Georgostathis [Comp02]

IFDB page: Identity Thief
Final placement: 38th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

On the plus side, this is a superhero game. I like superheroes. On the minus side, well, everything else. Quest is just about the same as it was the last time I played a Quest game, which was last year. I talked about its shortcomings in my review of Comp01’s Lovesong, so I won’t rehash that.

I will, however, complain about the fact that apparently Quest savegame files have the directory path of the original game file hardcoded into them. Consequently, when I played the first half of Blade Sentinel on my lunch hour at work and then took the save file with me to finish the game at home, the restore failed miserably, since it was looking for my work machine’s directory structure.

So I loaded the savegame file into a text editor, found the directory path and changed it, and managed to do my restore, only to discover that Quest is terminally broken under Windows XP, showing no input line. You would think that the “handful-of-verbs, mouse-interface” problem might cancel out the “no input line” problem, but apparently only most of the game’s verbs are available via mouseclick. Two or three must be typed in, which is tough to do without an input line. So I took it to my WinME machine, got it working, and discovered that the game is fatally bugged and unfinishable. So that makes rating it easy. Oh, and the English is really, really terrible.

Rating: 1.0

Fine-Tuned by Dennis Jerz as Dionysius Porcupine [Comp01]

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

Dammit, people, stop this! I played Fine-Tuned for an hour, and loved it. Aside from a few spelling mistakes and stray bugs, it was a delightful game with terrific writing, fun characters, and a great plot. But the further we get into that plot, the more broken the game becomes, until it finally implodes with a fiery crash that can even bring down the whole interpreter. Naturally, this happens at a climactic point in the story.

This experience SUCKS. It makes me wish I could give negative ratings. It’s much worse playing a game that would be great except for how horribly broken it is than it is playing a game that’s weak but bug-free. It’s IF interruptus.


Rating: 1.0

Stick It To The Man by Brendan Barnwell as H. Joshua Field [Comp01]

IFDB page: Stick it to the man
Final placement: 40th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh man, what a bummer. Here’s this game — I’m playing it, exploring the first scene. It doesn’t take me long to realize that I love the writing. I only wish I could write dialogue and point-of-view descriptions that sound as natural as this. So I spend about a half hour exploring that first scene as thoroughly as I can: checking out all the rooms, talking to all the characters, really digging it. My IF time is up for the night, so I save my game.

Next day, I restore. Things seem a little stranger. Some paragraphs are repeating, weirdly. Some of the dialogue doesn’t exactly seem appropriate to the scene, and some of the scenes appear to lack the appropriate dialogue. About then is when I choose an option and — bang. Interpreter crash. Oh, no! So I restart, try another route. Another crash. Another restart. El crasho.

Oh, NO! Oh, yes. Oh, man. Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

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

Cracking The Code by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp00]

IFDB page: Breaking The Code
Final placement: 53rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Thank god for Stephen Granade. Without him, not only would I think that Cracking the Code is completely pointless, I’d also be totally confused as to what it’s even about. However, thanks to a handy post he wrote on his IF site, I’ve been educated on the controversy surrounding the DeCSS code for decrypting DVD output.

For those of you not in the know, apparently eight big movie studios won a lawsuit against a hacker newsletter for posting code known as DeCSS, code that allows you to decrypt the data on a DVD. This code allows you to write your own DVD player without paying royalties, and to copy the information on a DVD. The law that supported the suit is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which forbids dissemination of information about how to bypass copyright security. According to the judge, you can’t post the code or even link to the code.

Lots of people are up in arms about this perceived restriction of free speech. Somebody even wrote a very funny song about it, with the code in the lyrics — the argument goes like this: if the US First Amendment protects freedom of expression, doesn’t that take precedence over the courts’ suggestion that the code is illegal under the DMCA? And if so, isn’t it legal to spread the decryption code via a legally protected form, such as songwriting?

I suppose the argument goes the same way for this “game”. Really, though, this piece of work does virtually nothing to wrap any kind of creative content around the DeCSS code. It’s more or less an unadorned room with a stub description, containing two pieces of paper that have the code written on them. That’s it. Other than what I just mentioned, it’s an Inform shell game. Minimalist, yes. Entertaining, no.

It’s hard to even call CTC subversive, as it is so clearly uninterested in IF and therefore fails to subvert IF in any interesting way. In my opinion, it also doesn’t do much for making the First Amendment case. I mean, at least the song had a tune, and some lyrics outside the code, and whatnot. CTC, on the other hand, offers nothing at all in the way of IF. It’ll come in handy, though, when I decide to write my own DVD player. That’s on my list right behind sewing my own clothes and authoring an IF game with a homebrew parser.

Rating: 1.2

Asendent by Nate Cull and Doug Jones as Sourdoh Farenheit and Kelvin Flatbred [Comp00]

IFDB page: Asendent
Final placement: 51st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s the little things in life that help me keep my sense of irony. Like this: right after I finish a game that pays tribute to Graham Nelson, I get this game, which is apparently a tribute to Rybread Celsius. A tribute to Rybread Celsius. The world never ceases to baffle me. As I’ve written before about Rybread, he seems to have a devoted cult of followers, but I’ll never be one of them. I guess I’m just old fashioned enough to like my games with error-free prose and code, and I also sort of like them to, y’know, make some kind of sense. Asendent is, if anything, actually worse than anything Rybread ever produced. Certainly the spelling is worse, especially compared to the later Rybread (see L.U.D.I.T.E.) The code is also quite horribly buggy, though it thankfully leaves the debug verbs available, so players can be sure they’re not missing anything.

As with Comp00ter Game, Asendent looks like it might have some point to make, but just like Comp00ter Game, that point was lost on me. To me, it just seemed like a really horrible game. What’s the point of producing such a thing, especially on purpose? The intro seems to suggest it’s hallucinatory, and Rybread games certainly are that, though they don’t tend to trumpet the fact themselves. But it’s not the terrible spelling that makes them hallucinatory. It’s the imagery. Asendent can’t compare to a real Rybread game when it comes to startling images, and its imitation seems pale indeed. The purpose of its imitation is a mystery. A tribute to Rybread Celsius. People are so odd.

Asendent took me about 10 minutes, at the end of which I shook my head and got ready for the next entry. Hey, just like a real Rybread game!

Rating: 0.8

Skyranch by Jack Driscoll [Comp99]

IFDB page: Skyranch
Final placement: 37th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

In my head, I’ve started this review a dozen different ways and discarded them all. The unused versions were rejected for being too caustic, too angry, or too harsh. During this current attempt, I will try to keep a leash on these energies, though they’re chomping at the bit (if I may mix my animal metaphors.) I want for these reviews to be helpful, not hurtful, and I want to keep my criticisms constructive. In that spirit, I offer a couple of changes that could (and should) be made to make Skyranch a playable game:

The game should be reprogrammed until it meets a minimum level of coding quality. I would put this minimum level right around the functionality provided by, for example, an Inform shell game (i.e. the bare-bones version of the library before the game author has added any real code.) To detail all, or even many, of the ways in which Skyranch fails to meet this standard would take more time than I want to devote to this game. One example: the game should recognize verbs like “ask” and “examine”. The game’s error messages should be helpful, rather than flippant parser responses like “What?” or “So… what are you saying?” Many authors meet this minimum standard by using a text adventure creation tool such as Inform, TADS, Hugo, ALAN, etc. to create their game. This isn’t strictly necessary, of course, but if a game is programmed from scratch, it had better be at least as good as one that was created with such a tool.

The prose should be rewritten until it consists of correct English sentences. The current writing in the game is pretty abysmal. Mistakes are so legion that the text is often confusing, sometimes completely incomprehensible. Until a text game is written in English, it won’t be any fun for me to play, because English is the only language I read fluently.

Until these two basic conditions are met, Skyranch won’t even be worth discussing, let alone playing.

Rating: 0.9