Scavenger by Quintin Stone [Comp03]

IFDB page: Scavenger
Final placement: 3rd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, here’s what’s not good about this game. First of all, the setting and characters are quite clich├ęd. It’s your standard-issue post-apocalyptic world (a nuclear war apocalypse, even), with bandits, scavengers, armed provisional-government thugs, and frightened orphans, all straight from Central Casting. The author mentions that the setting originated with a MUSH that then morphed into an Unreal Tournament full conversion mod, and this makes perfect sense — it feels more like an excuse for a background than a fully realized fictional world.

Secondly, there are some moments of shaky design, particularly a “learn-by-dying” puzzle that occurs near the midgame. Now, I’ll certainly acknowledge that the game includes some important details that hint toward the solution, and it could be argued that it’s possible to solve this puzzle without dying first, but to do so would still take a pretty remarkable amount of foresight, not to mention willingness to give up an item that you might need later. Finally, Scavenger isn’t a two-hour game, or at least it wasn’t for me. Maybe somebody who was a sharper puzzle-solver, or relied more on the hints, might have solved this game in two hours, but I found myself only about two-thirds of the way through once time ran out. Since I was at least past the halfway point (and perhaps further than I thought, depending on how fast the points mount up in the endgame), I’m not as indignant about it as I might be, but the fact remains that if I’m not able to finish the game within my two-hour playing slot, my playing experience ends up unsatisfying.

Right. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what’s good about this game: everything else. With just a few exceptions, the implementation is nothing short of outstanding. Almost everything I ever wanted to examine was described, and described well, which created a great sense of immersion. Despite the fact that the basic concepts of the setting are rather hackneyed, the actual writing is strong, with exposition cleverly worked into object and room descriptions, and some very nicely judged details included. The writing not only creates a vivid sense of place, it’s also pretty much entirely free of spelling and grammar errors, with just a few typos marring the prose on occasion.

Scavenger‘s parser is similarly well-crafted. I remember several fantastic moments where I tried a non-standard verb that made sense in the situation, and the game handled it beautifully. It’s not perfect — for instance, I had a flashlight that the game wouldn’t let me point at objects — but those lapses were much more the exception than the rule, and that completeness made Scavenger a real pleasure to play. The hint system was quite good too, a context-sensitive setup that doled out gentle nudges ramping up reasonably gradually to outright solutions. The context-sensitivity failed at a couple of points, offering hints for puzzles I’d already solved, but the system came through where it counted: I always had a hint available when I needed one for the puzzle I was stuck on. Altogether, this is a very professionally implemented game. The credits list no fewer than eleven testers, and their influence shows through again and again.

Along with implementation, design was another of Scavenger‘s strengths. First of all, casting the PC as a scavenger, somebody who survives by exploring unfamiliar territory and taking everything that isn’t nailed down, is a brilliant way of working basic IF conventions into a coherent fictional concept. When encountering the game’s puzzles (most of which were quite good, sometimes involving multi-stage solutions, every step of which made sense), every action I took to solve them felt perfectly in character, which makes for a great IF experience. Objects are sometimes useful in more than one place, and conversely, places sometimes show potential to have more than one important facet — whenever a game can pull this off, its reward is a much stronger sense of realism.

In addition, the basic structure of the game includes a rewarding multiple-solution setup, involving a selection of resources during the prologue. Scavenger presents you with a store where you can buy certain items that may be useful on your journey, but you can’t buy them all. The way you solve subsequent puzzles will depend on which resources you’ve chosen, and alternate solutions are available even when you don’t have the item that facilitates the more obvious choice. The other nifty feature of this limited-resource arrangement is that the game makes sure that most of these resources must be used up fairly early (for example, a grenade that must be thrown to remove an initial barrier), thereby eliminating the combinatorial explosion that their presence would cause in later sections of the game. I think this multiple-solution design will make for great replay value, though of course I can’t say for sure since as of this writing I haven’t even managed to play through the game once.

One more design note: on several occasions, Scavenger gently shepherded me in the direction of the plot, always doing so in a way that made perfect sense for my character. Every time this happened, I smiled with appreciation. In fact I was smiling a lot during Scavenger, and my notes are full of little comments that read “VERY NICE” or something similar. It would have been improved by a few puzzle tweaks, a more original setting, and either being released outside the comp or streamlined to a more reasonable two-hour size, but I can still enthusiastically recommend it.

Rating: 9.1

Purple by Stefan Blixt [Comp98]

IFDB page: Purple
Final placement: 15th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The world is ending. It’s not immediately apparent at first, because you and your brother are living out on the remote island of Lino Kapo, quite isolated from the political troubles of your future Earth(?), whose nations have names like “the Kollagio Antarktika” and “the Oceanic Republic.” But listen to the TV. (The nations have morphed so much that people are living in places like Antarctica, but we still get our information from the TV. Some things never change.) Political battles between the nations have led to the use of the deadly K-bomb, which releases, unsurprisingly, deadly K-radiation! (Where are you when we need you, Lane Mastodon?) This radiation turns the sky a disturbing purple, and threatens to choke out humanity in its menacing clouds. (By the way, the color of the sky is the meaning behind the game’s title. Hallelujah, a title that makes a little sense!) Lucky for you, your brother is a bit of a tinkerer, and has come up with this device called a Phoenix Nest, into which you can climb and sleep away the death of the world in suspended animation. The Nest wakes you up when the levels of K-radiation have dropped enough for humans to be safe. So in you climb, as the world ends, to await its rebirth and greet it with your own. Now, I know I’ve made a bit of sport with the plot here, but details aside I like this premise. It has a drama and immediacy to it, it creates a perfectly plausible reason for the world to be basically deserted, as it so often is in IF, and it gives the author a blank slate onto which a compelling alternate world can be drawn. Not to mention the fact that the mysterious “K-radiation” can be an excuse for almost any biological oddity you care to dream up.

The good news is that from this imaginative premise, Purple takes several very creative steps. The flora and fauna of the post-apocalyptic world are pleasingly exotic and interesting. The landscape is convincingly changed, and the language used to describe the new reality can be quite vivid. The bad news is that these good ideas are very poorly implemented. Let’s start with the writing. Purple isn’t exactly riddled with errors in the same way that, say, Lightiania was. However, there are enough mechanical (spelling & grammar) problems to be a serious irritant. Many of these problems aren’t exactly errors, but rather awkward turns of phrase that make the game harder to read. Purple‘s descriptions often sound as if they were translated from another language into English, by a somewhat inexpert translator. The awkwardness throws off the rhythm of the game’s prose, and I found myself frequently reading text more than once in order to figure out what it was saying. Then there are those sentences that really don’t make sense, like this one: “Urging to cover your eyes from the bright light, you still can’t move a finger.” I think that what this means is that you have the urge to cover your eyes, but you can’t because you’re paralyzed. I figured this out, but it took a minute, and for that minute I was thrown out of the story; in a text adventure, where prose is all there is, being thrown out of the narrative like this is problematic. Add a few outright spelling and grammar errors, and the game starts to feel more like work than fun.

Compounding this problem are some trouble spots in the code. There were several instances of disambiguation troubles, almost enough to make me feel like I was playing a TADS game. Scenes like this were not uncommon:

>X CEILING
Which do you mean, the up, the ceiling or the hole?

>HOLE
Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

>CEILING
Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

To make matters worse, I also came across several run-time errors of the flavor ** Run-time error: [Name of object] (object number 211) has no property to read **, and in fact once crashed WinFrotz altogether with a “No Such Property” error. Besides these basic errors in the code, there were also a number of problems with the way objects were implemented. For instance, you have half of a tool that you have to complete by improvising the other half, and putting one piece into the other. Unfortunately, unless you choose the right piece to insert, you are told that the other half “can’t contain things.” I also had trouble with a number of the puzzles, and was unable to figure them out without a walkthrough, but I can’t tell if that’s because of the stumbling English and buggy code, or the difficulty of the puzzles, or just my own denseness. On balance, I’d say that Purple is a very rough version of what could become a good IF vignette. After it’s undergone a few vigorous rounds of beta-testing, you might want to give it a try.

Rating: 4.1