Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye Of Wossname by David Fillmore [Comp99]

IFDB page: Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye Of Wossname
Final placement: 25th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

The 1996 IF competition was won by a Graham Nelson game with the highly improbable name The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. Since then, every year we’ve had at least one entrant with a long, silly name. In 1997, there was The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf and Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza. In 1998, we had I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel. And this year, David Fillmore brings us Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye of Wossname. Is there a causal relationship here? Probably not. More likely, a long and goofy title allows the author to set up some basic expectations about the work at hand. In essence, titles like this say: “Check me out! Boy, am I wacky! Prepare to be taken on a zany and madcap adventure through an absurd universe!” However, the comparison with Meteor is instructive in the following way: having set up the above expectation, Nelson subverted it by using a silly and comedic scenario (riding an elephant next to an aristocratic airhead) as the entry point into what became a rather atmospheric and austere cave adventure. The surprise value of this shift lent strength to the sense of wonder that the game worked to impart. His successors, on the other hand, have struggled vainly to live up to the wacky promise of their titles, providing a few funny moments along the way but generally falling far short of the joy of coherent absurdity. Wossname, sadly, is no exception.

The game certainly does have its funny moments. Its introduction effectively parodies the genre of Enchanter, Beyond Zork, and Path to Fortune with lines like this: “Another champion must be sought; an idiot unskilled in anything but adventuring…” The title page pulled off a good joke by presenting the game with a dramatic flourish, crowned with a grand-looking box quote from Shakespeare, a quote which turned out to have no relevance at all to the game, and very little meaning in general. (“It is an old coat.”) Finally, typing “Zork” leads to one of the best easter eggs I’ve ever found in a competition game. Go on, try it — I won’t spoil it by trying to describe it. But for every funny moment, there were several more that just fell flat. The “full” score listing might have been funnier if not for the fact that last year’s Enlightenment did the same thing with much more panache. Several allusions to various sources (the Zork games, Indiana Jones) were so obvious as to belie any cleverness. Lots of other attempted jokes were just, well, not that funny, and little is more tedious than unsuccessful attempts at humor (as anybody who has watched a lame sitcom can tell you.)

Adding to this tedium is the fact that the game is plagued with a number of errors, both in writing and coding. Now, the writing errors were much less frequent, and many had to do with formatting — strange line breaks, random strings of spaces and the like. Misspellings and grammar errors were relatively few, though at one point the game does manage to misspell the name of its own main character. Coding errors, however, were abundant. For example, every time you climb a particular object the game dutifully reports that you clamber onto it, reprints the room description with additional information now available to you, then inexplicably protests that you’re already on the object. At another time, the ceiling falls in, but this cataclysmic event has absolutely no effect on anything sitting on the ground. “Drop all” just doesn’t seem to work. Most egregious, though, is the fact that the final puzzle hinges on an item which, as far as I can determine, is never mentioned in any description. I only found it accidentally, through the fact that the parser includes scenery objects in its response to commands like “get all”. I felt clever for solving the puzzle by tricking the parser, but it didn’t make me any more impressed with the game. What’s more, I spent the half-hour before that floundering around in circles, trying to figure out what in the hell I could possibly be missing. Normally I ascribe this sort of thing to lack of beta-testing, but the credits indicate that no less than seven people tested the game, so I don’t know. Perhaps the time it took them to read the title preempted their ability to test the whole game?

Rating: 5.2

Travels In The Land Of Erden by Laura A. Knauth [Comp97]

IFDB page: Travels in the Land of Erden
Final placement: 14th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erden is a sprawling, ambitious game which probably does not belong in the competition. This isn’t to imply that the game is without merit; on the contrary, it seems to have the potential to become an enjoyable fantasy excursion. However, the game is huge — I played for two hours and I didn’t even visit every location, let alone solve many puzzles. Moreover, Erden could use another few rounds of testing; I found several coding bugs and a plethora of grammar and spelling errors. In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to this game is thorough testing and proofing, then release in the spring of 1998, when we’ve all recovered from our competition hangover and hunger for substantial new adventures.

I can see why there’s a temptation to submit longer games to the competition. For one thing, there seems to be ongoing debate about the meaning of the “two-hour” rule: is it that your game can be any size but will simply be judged after two hours of play, or does it mean that your game should be winnable in two hours? And if it’s the latter, what do we mean with an imprecise term like “winnable?” Hell, with a walkthrough and a good headwind even Curses is winnable in two hours — that doesn’t make it a two hour game! Then also there’s the fact that historically, the games that have won or placed high in the competition (Weather, Sherbet, Delusions… the list goes on) have strained or outright flouted the two-hour convention. According to Whizzard, the idea behind the rule is to prevent new authors from having to be intimidated by the prospect of going up against a Jigsaw or Christminster, an epic game with a huge scope, and I think that this rule still has value, despite the beating it’s taken over the years. I tend to be of the opinion that the ideal size for a competition game is something that I (an experienced IF player, but no great shakes as a puzzle solver) can see 90-100% of in a two-hour sitting. I designed Wearing the Claw this way, and I appreciate competition games that do the same. However, the way it’s worked out in practice is that the large-scope games still slip in — perhaps not epics, but much more than vignettes, and they often succeed. And perhaps that’s for the best; after all, in a competition like this one (where the works are labors of love and the financial stakes are rather low) it’s better to have fewer rules and more flexibility, thus to encourage more entrants.

Still, what Erden demonstrates is that there is another advantage of keeping your competition entry small: focus. I don’t have an accurate idea of how big Erden is (since I didn’t see the whole thing, probably not even half of it, in my two hours), but it seems to me that if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted. In addition, she’d have had the opportunity to implement a taut and crystalline design structure, which is beneficial to any game writer. I think that after serious and detailed revision, Erden could be a fantasy odyssey on a par with Path To Fortune; at the moment, however, it is neither that nor a particularly thrilling competition entry.

Prose: The prose in Erden is often awkward, and can be difficult to read. Misplaced modifiers, unmarked appositives, and endless strings of prepositional phrases abound. The author also seems to have a particular dislike for commas, stringing clause after clause breathlessly together. I often reached the end of a sentence and found myself wondering how it had started. There are times in which this turgid prose style makes for some nice effects, as it gives a baroque feel to some of the game’s ornate artifacts. Other times, it’s just confusing. Overall, Erden could be made a much more evocative game with the help of some serious editing.

Plot: One interesting aspect of Erden‘s plot is that it feels much more “in medias res” than most interactive fiction. You enter the mysterious fantasy land after the dragon has already been vanquished. Of course, there are other quests to be undertaken, but the absence of the dragon helps to give the milieu a satisfying sense of history. That being said, I’m not sure that I gleaned much more about the plot. Certainly the retrieval of a mystical ruby is your main goal, and several subquests pop up along the way, some of which I didn’t even begin before my two hours ran out. However, what the meaning of the ruby is, or whether the plot offers any twists, turns, or even character development of any kind is still opaque to me.

Puzzles: I spent enough time traversing the land that I’m not sure I even encountered any puzzles. There’s apparently a lantern to be obtained, but the parameters of doing so were so broad that I have no idea how long it would have taken to succeed. I collected several objects whose use was not immediately apparent, but I’m not sure if they ever come in handy or not. There was one area of the game that seemed pretty clearly to hide a gateway to underground caverns, but once I thought I had found the answer to opening the gate, the parser was stubbornly unresponsive to my ideas. So I have no idea whether what I was seeing was an unsolved puzzle or a red herring. What’s more, the game lacked a scoring system so I wasn’t ever sure when I had done something important, but let me put it this way: I didn’t feel like I had done anything clever. Because of all this, I can’t venture much of an opinion about the puzzles in the game.

Technical (writing): There were dozens of writing errors in the game. Beyond the awkward, overloaded prose there were any number of misspellings and misplaced modifiers.

Technical (coding): Erden suffered from many niggling coding errors, especially missing or added new_lines. Some important scenery objects are missing (for example, the game describes huge hieroglyphics carved into a cliffside, the examination of which returns “You can’t see any such thing.”). Like the writing, the coding would benefit from an attentive overhaul.