Sweet Dreams by Papillon [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sweet Dreams
Final placement: 20th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Ooh, it’s always so exciting to start into a new bunch of competition games, and what a start this was! Sweet Dreams has to be one of the more surprising comp games I’ve ever seen, because it’s not a text adventure. Instead, it’s more or less in the style of early LucasArts games like Maniac Mansion or the first Monkey Island — a fully graphical experience whose pixelated protagonist wanders around the landscape, picking up and using items, solving puzzles, and chatting with NPCs via a “TALK TO” sort of system. Over the years I’ve heard rumblings about work on a LucasArts type of engine for amateur games, and I’m not sure if this is the product of that effort or something Papillon did all on her own, but whatever the source, the product is fairly impressive.

I thought the graphics were pretty attractive in a low-res way, the music enhanced the setting nicely (although it tended to halt and restart abruptly rather than fading out and back in when it looped), and the interface was intuitive enough that I was able to use it right away without much attention to the instructions. Aside from a couple of irritating technical glitches (about which more later), I’d be very excited indeed to see more games of this type and quality. In fact, there was one moment, when I maneuvered the PC to a bookshelf and took down a book to read, that I got a jolt to my spine, feeling magically transported to those happy days I spent playing LucasArts’ Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, pulling down one hilarious joke after another from its bookshelves. That is, until I started reading the books in Sweet Dreams, which mostly tended to be something like this:

The Human Battery: How the power of positive thinking can be put to
work not only to cure disease but also to solve the energy crisis.

Or they were about fairies, or crystals, or the zodiac… et cetera. And there we have the factor that’s going to limit the appeal of this game. The characters, plot, and setting are all feather-light and sweet verging well into treacly. It’s set in an adorable little cottage, with adorable portraits of fairies and unicorns hanging on the wall, and serving as a tiny private boarding school to four adorable little girls. Actually, these girls are supposedly adolescents, but they look all of eight years old, save for the bizarre breastlike protrusions that they display in profile. The story involves giving your wonderful best friend a beautiful present for her sixteenth birthday, then making a magical journey into an enchanted land of dreams filled with colorful flowers and friendly animals and… well, some people are bound to find the whole thing just unbearably twee. I have a pretty high sugar tolerance myself, and was able to swing with the tone and enjoy it for the most part, but even I felt myself on the edge of diabetes too often. On the other hand, it would certainly make a great game for kids, so long as a couple of its major technical problems got resolved.

Primary among these problems is the main character’s unfortunate tendency to get stuck while exploring narrower parts of the geography. The first time it happened, I spent a frustrating five minutes trying to get her to budge from behind the piano, until I finally realized that the secret was to try to maneuver her using the arrow keys instead of the mouse. Three directions would fail, but one would get her to run in a tiny circle, and if I interrupted this circle fast enough, I could break her out of her self-imposed cage. This running-in-circles thing is something she does a lot, usually when you’re trying to maneuver her close to a boundary, and when it happens she seems more like a trapped insect than a charming little girl.

These boundary difficulties exacerbated the other problem with the game engine: its insistence on the PC being right next to an object before she can interact with it. Sure, it makes perfect sense that you can’t pull a book from the shelf if you’re across the room from it, but I’d have much preferred it if any command to interact with an object on screen was treated as meaning “walk over to the object and then…”, so that I could avoid the numerous times the game told me “You’re not close enough to it.” As for the rest of the game, I’d say it was above average. There were a couple of very satisfying puzzles, a couple of so-so ones, and a couple that just seemed arbitrary. The one I had the most difficult time with was one that exposes the limitations of graphical games — it was relying on somewhat subtle color shading differences, and my laptop monitor wasn’t making a clear enough distinction between them. The story was, of course, cute, and despite the rather cloying nature of the game as a whole, I ended up mostly enjoying it. Once it gets a bit more technical polish, and so long as you don’t mind a very high sweetness level, Sweet Dreams will make an outstanding piece of amateur graphical IF.

Rating: 8.2

Triune by Papillon [Comp01]

IFDB page: Triune
Final placement: 9th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

The more years I write reviews for comp games, the more convinced I feel that my reaction to a game is strongly influenced by where it happens to fall in the random lineup chosen for me by CompXX.z5. I still remember how it felt in 1998 when I opened up Little Blue Men right after finishing Human Resources Stories — I suddenly had this horrible vision of legions of IF authors sitting in dark, cramped basements, writing little opuses that allowed them to spew hatred at their day jobs. Similarly, as soon as I was a little ways into Triune, I thought to myself, “Oh dear, another dream game.” This most likely wouldn’t have happened had I not just finished The Cave of Morpheus, whose hallucinatory qualities covered over a multitude of design and implementation sins.

The dreamlike sequences in Triune are much more powerful than those in TCOM, because Triune borrows liberally from fairy tale elements, squeezing all the Jungian, archetypal, collective-unconscious juice from them that it possibly can. On the one hand, the inclusion of these elements makes for potent storytelling, but on the other, it calls for a degree of control that the game doesn’t always display — sometimes the power of the symbols isn’t harnessed as well as it could be, and they end up working at cross purposes. The effect, at the end of the game, is of an experience that offers some very strong moments, but doesn’t quite all hang together.

The narrative frame of Triune gives us a teenage girl in an unbelievably abusive household, who escapes (perhaps literally — the game leaves it unclear) into a fairy-tale world; that is, fairy-tale in the bloody, brutal Brothers Grimm sense, not the bowdlerized sweetness of a Disney flick. I’m not using that word “unbelievably” as a casual intensifier; the father comes across as such a caricature of an abusive alcoholic that it’s difficult to believe in him as a real person. (The fact that some people no doubt act exactly as this father does, while a sad reality, does nothing to make him a stronger character, since stories are more about what feels real than what actually is real.) In fact, the whole thing feels a bit over-the-top: in the flashbacks and non-dream bits, there tends to be some adult who is being either amazingly wonderful or amazingly awful.

The fairy-tale bits can tend towards the ham-handed: there’s a serpent, a Tree of Knowledge, a character named Lilith, etc. Now, arguably, I’ve been guilty of this sort of excess myself, so I can understand how it gets into a game, but I still found it a little grating. It’s true, though, that the circumstances of the narrative frame — the fact that it’s seen through a teenager’s eyes, the fact that the archetypal forest invites archetypal dwellers, and the general sense of unreality about the whole thing — mitigate these problems to a significant degree.

From an IF standpoint, Triune is a mixed bag. There’s some fairly rich plot-branching — the fact that I played through a session with the game that differed wildly from the walkthrough but still felt satisfying indicates how much the story space has to offer. On the other hand, while the implementation is generous in some places, it’s quite sparse in others. It’s fine that the game more or less only implements what it’s interested in, but there needs to be some minimum degree of coding polish to avoid exchanges like this:

The door is locked.

I don't see any door here.

In addition, there were some definite lexical problems, such as the books who displayed their contents when EXAMINEd, but were stubbornly unavailable to READ. The jpeg image feelies provided with the game are excellent, again dipping into the well of ancient patterns, along with evocations of childhood, to set a dramatic scene. As an examination of femininity and how it works in culture, Triune is partially successful, offering some moments that are quite moving indeed, and bringing mythical elements into some interesting collisions, though not always as coherently as might be hoped. As a game, it’s got some serious flaws, but is still worth exploring.

Rating: 7.7

Desert Heat by Papillon [Comp00]

IFDB page: Desert Heat
Final placement: 28th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Desert Heat made me realize something. In the first five years of the IF Competition, I don’t think a single “true” Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style branching narrative has been entered. Sure, we had Human Resources Stories, but despite its title, that game had no story — it was just a weird quiz. We also had Life On Beal Street, but that game didn’t really offer any choices, unless you count “quit” and “don’t quit” as legitimate story branches, which I don’t. So along comes Desert Heat, a true CYOA story, forcing me to decide what I think about such a format for a comp game.

Here’s what I ended up with: I have nothing against CYOA; in fact I like it, and nurture fond childhood memories of CYOA books by the likes of Edward Packard, R.A. Montgomery, and the amusingly pen-named D. Terman [Which turns out not to be a pen name at all. Guy was actually named Douglas Terman. — 2020 Paul]. However, in an interactive fiction competition where its competitors boast full-blown parsers, maps, and the like, it just doesn’t feel very interactive. Desert Heat does an excellent job of presenting its milieu, but I kept wishing for many more choices than the story offers.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the game’s narrative doesn’t actually offer that many real options. Most of the branches aren’t branches at all. Instead, they generally do one of three things: one, they reveal themselves to be dead ends, forcing you back to a previous node; two, they only offer the illusion of choice, because every option leads to the same node; or three, they result in an abrupt ending. Endings are plentiful in Desert Heat, but branches aren’t, and that probably accentuated the feeling of restriction I was already experiencing as a result of dropping from the wide-open ambiance of a text adventure into the more streamlined mode of CYOA. Consequently, I found that I was having less fun with Desert Heat than I had with the good parser games I’ve played so far, though to be fair I did find it more fun than the bad parser games, so format isn’t the only thing at work here.

The other unique thing about DH is its genre. It calls itself “A Romance Of Sorts”, and because I’m not a reader of romances, I couldn’t say how closely it hews to the conventions of that genre. I can say that it was written well, proofread well, and programmed well (though the programming chores are obviously more minimal when it comes to CYOA, and the author apparently had help from Mark Musante’s CYOA library for TADS). The Arabic, desert milieu is one I haven’t seen very often at all in IF (the only other one I can bring to mind is a section of TimeQuest), and it feels fresh and interesting. The characters are believable, the intrigue plausible, and there are even some quite subtle moments of humor. (Read the descriptions closely if you ask one of the characters to dance.)

As the author’s warning suggests, there are some sexual scenes available, and in fact the options to include or exclude these scenes represent some of the most significant choices available in the game. Again, I’m not sure what the conventions of the genre are when it comes to this kind of scene — some of them made me a little queasy, but I only encountered these when I was systematically going through the game looking for text I had missed (the inclusion of “undo” was much appreciated.) They didn’t appear in my first few plays through the game, which probably says something about how I tend to play a character.

In the end, while I appreciated Desert Heat for its experimentation with an untried format for comp games, and while I enjoyed its presentation of an unusual setting, I just couldn’t get very into the story. This is no doubt partly just because romances like this aren’t really my cup of tea — I’d never seek one out for pleasure reading. Also, there are some continuity slips in the game, highlighting the fact that although CYOA takes the burden out of coding, it places much more stringent demands on plotting — characters shouldn’t seem surprised to discover something that was already revealed in a previous node, or by contrast claim knowledge of something that hasn’t been revealed yet in this particular narrative trajectory, and those things sometimes happen in Desert Heat.

In the final analysis, it was probably a combination of factors that made me say, “Nice try, but it didn’t really work for me.” I still think a CYOA could work in the comp, but the lesson of Desert Heat is that such a game would not only have to be well-written and very well-plotted, but also wide enough and with enough available choices to provide a feeling of freedom at least somewhat comparable with parser games.

Rating: 5.4