Volcano Isle by Paul DeWitt [Comp01]

IFDB page: Volcano Isle
Final placement: 42nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m hitting that point. It’s late in the judging period. I’m tired. I’ve just finished playing 47 other games, some of which were great but far too many of which were just sub-par. So I open up my 48th game, which has no introduction, no scene-setting, and apparently no real plot of any kind, instead dumping the PC unceremoniously on a beach with a boatload of inventory and no particular explanation about why it’s there. Most of this inventory is described as “It looks like an ordinary to me.”

There’s an ocean, but the game doesn’t know the word “ocean”. There’s a volcano, but the game doesn’t know the word “volcano”. Worse yet, I just did a long rant on sparseness in the previous review (of Crusade), so I can’t even use these problems as the theme of my review. Then the game prints, “The suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.” Wait. What suspicious-looking individual? Let’s talk for a moment about definite and indefinite articles in the context of first and subsequent mentions of an item or person. The indefinite article (“a” or “an”) should be used the first time a noun is mentioned, like so:

A suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.

Subsequent mentions can and should use the definite article (“the”), as in the following:

The suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.

Using the indefinite article all the time would imply that perhaps a different instance of the noun is at hand in each mention — in the case of this example, it would imply that the island might be crawling with suspicious-looking individuals. However, using the definite article each time, as this game does, is rather worse, because it insists that the noun has already been mentioned, as if the suspicious-looking individual has already been introduced (perhaps in the mysteriously absent introductory text) and that some kind of bug has prevented that mention from displaying. It is by such small omissions that sense erodes.

All that is to say: please forgive me if I seem a little impatient. It’s been a long comp, and has felt even longer than usual because I’m an entrant this year and thus have the added anxiety of worrying about how my own work is faring. Consequently, Volcano Isle, with its sparse implementation, mindreader puzzles, maze, and inventory limit, annoyed me greatly.

The game clearly wants to pay homage to Zork — that suspicious-looking individual carries a “vicious-looking stiletto”; there are various treasures to collect, and a place to deposit them; there’s a tree to climb, a rope to descend, and, of course, a maze. Unfortunately, the whole thing ended up feeling like an amateurish copy of something that was a) more than the sum of its parts because of quality implementation and writing, and b) interesting because it was doing some of these things for the first time rather than the 500th. Volcano Isle is neither. In addition, it is plagued by random messages that print every 25 turns or so in the form of “visions” supposedly experienced by the PC. There are probably two or three of these, and each is interesting the first time, then increasingly irritating on every repetition thereafter.

Just so I don’t trash the game entirely, let me point out one thing that I really liked a lot. The game puts the background color capability of HTML TADS to moderately creative use throughout, but by far the best is when the PC enters a pitch-black room. The background goes black and so does the text. The effect feels remarkably similar to what it’s really like to be in a pitch-black room — you know you’re doing something (like typing “turn on light”) and it’s having an effect, but you can’t see it happening. Then, when the action is successful, the evidence of activity is visible once more. I thought this was a pretty neat effect.

The game was also fairly free of bugs and writing errors, and has at least one entertaining puzzle. So it’s a partial success, I suppose — certainly far better than some of its competitors this year — but wasn’t what I needed to give me that burst of energy as the finish line appears.

Rating: 4.3