Poor Zefron’s Almanac by Carl Klutzke [Comp97]

IFDB page: Poor Zefron’s Almanac
Final placement: 7th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right about the time that Poor Zefron’s Almanac (hereafter called PZA) starts feeling like another humdrum sword-and-sorcery game, it executes a nice surprising twist. To say too much more would be to give the game away, but the fact that the author bills PZA as “an interactive cross-genre romp” is a clue toward its direction. This twist made the game refreshing and fun again, especially after the frustration it caused me when I began playing it. More on that later. PZA does several things very well, one of which is its eponymous book, a tome owned by your wizardly master Zefron and left behind after his mysterious disappearance. This almanac contains a feature unique to all the CONSULTable items in IFdom (as far as I know): it can be BROWSEd. Browsing the almanac brings forth a random entry from within its pages; not only is it great fun to read these random entries, it also gives a sense of how thoroughly the almanac has been implemented. This device would be most welcome in other IF… how I’d love to browse the Encyclopedia Frobozzica or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! Just having the book at hand lent a sense of scope and excitement to PZA.

Unfortunately, my first 45 minutes or so of playing this game were extremely frustrating. PZA suffers from a couple of serious design flaws, the gravest of which is its repeated violation of the Fifth Right (from Graham Nelson’s “Player’s Bill of Rights”): not to have the game closed off without warning. Because of a fairly flexible (but extremely temporary) magic spell that becomes available at the very beginning of the game, I found myself repeatedly stranded, unable to proceed and forced to RESTART. This happened again later on in the game — I committed a perfectly logical action and found out hundreds of turns later that this action had closed off the endgame. This is a frustrating experience, and one that could easily have been avoided with a few minor changes to the game’s structure, changes which would not have had any discernible effect on puzzles or plot. In addition, there are a few areas in which the player character can be killed without warning, always an unwelcome design choice. PZA is (as far as I know) Carl Klutzke’s first game, so chalk these flaws up to education. I look forward to playing another Klutzke game as well-implemented as PZA, but designed more thoughtfully.

One nice element of PZA was its facility with IF homage. The game’s “cluple” spell not only had a name that sounded straight out of Enchanter, it was virtually identical to that series’ “snavig” spell. The almanac itself (as well as a number of other features) was a skillful allusion to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Finally, the XYZZY command response is one of the more clever I’ve seen in a while. Clearly PZA‘s author is a devotee of the old games, and his devotion shows in his work. I am hopeful that his next piece of IF will live up to his worthy aspirations.

Prose: The prose in PZA is generally very good. Rooms, objects, and random events are described concisely but with attention to detail. Some of the locations are rather sparsely treated (for example, the town consists of one location), but such skimping is always done in service of the plot, and more detail would serve to distract rather than to enrich.

Plot: This is definitely the strongest point of PZA. The game starts out with an engaging hook, and after the twist I was definitely enjoying the direction of the story quite a bit. In addition, the author has manipulated the scoring system in such a way as to give the feeling of multiple endings. Granted, many of those endings amount to one version or another of “*** You have died ***”, but not all of them. There are more and less successful solutions to the story, and they are integrated so naturally into the endgame text that they almost escape notice. One of the nicest implementations of multiple endings in the competition.

Puzzles: Here there were problems. What happens to PZA is that its individual problems are well-considered, and their solutions are perfectly logical. However, when the actions that comprise those solutions are attempted in other areas of the game, they all too often drive the narrative into a blind alley from which there is no escape. It’s one of the hardest balancing acts in interactive fiction: how to have sensible puzzles logically integrated into the game, without making the narrative too linear, which in their elements create no dead ends for the player. PZA doesn’t pull it off.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): Once I played PZA on WinTADS, I had no problems with it. I started out trying to use it on my old DOS version of TR, and before I could even get one command out it was giving me TADS “Out of Memory” errors. Whether this is a bug in the program of the interpreter, I don’t know enough about TADS to say.