Lock & Key by Adam Cadre [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2003.]

IFDB Page: Lock & Key

Death Becomes You

[NOTE: Lock & Key has a twist right at the beginning, and I’m going to give it away because it’s not practical to discuss the game without doing so. So if you haven’t played it yet and you want to be surprised, go play it before reading this, at least up to the twist anyway.]

I love editing SPAG, but the job does have its down-sides. For instance, I’m frequently obliged to read reviews of games I haven’t played yet. Most of the time, this isn’t much of a problem, since SPAG reviews are required to be spoiler-free. However, there is a small, occasional section of the ‘zine called SPAG Specifics, wherein reviewers are allowed to spoil as much as they like in the interest of promoting specific, detailed discussion about particular games. When I get a review for this section, I need to read it whether I’ve played the game in question or not.

That’s exactly what happened to me with Lock & Key — I’d played the game enough to get beyond the initial twist, see the setup, say “Cool”, and vaguely resolve to play it whenever I found the time. Shortly afterward, Eytan Zweig submitted a thoughtful, fairly critical review of the game for SPAG Specifics, and I decided that I wanted to wait a while to play the game after that, so that the review would fade enough in memory that it wouldn’t color my perceptions. Now it’s been about a year since that issue, Lock & Key has just won a handful of XYZZY Awards, and I have a new laptop I needed to test this past weekend; the stars were aligned, and I finished the game.

I wasn’t disappointed. Cadre’s writing shines as usual, as does his knack for giving every game a fresh angle. In this one, you play a prison designer and security expert in a mildly jokey pseudo-medieval milieu. Your job is to craft the perfect sequence of death-traps for the King’s dungeon, enough to defeat even the hardiest adventurer who might try to escape it. If you succeed, you’ll make a fortune and be able to retire. If you fail, well, you get beheaded. Those medieval managers really knew how to motivate their employees.

The meat of the game is its one and only puzzle, the one for which it earned the XYZZY for Best Individual Puzzle: setting the traps. It’s not that setting the traps themselves is all that difficult, but choosing the right ones… ah, that’s another matter. See, once you’ve finished constructing your ideal dungeon, it is put to the test by Boldo, a thick-thewed adventurer who, in the best IF fashion, seems to have an endless inventory of items that happen to counteract your traps perfectly. Every time he encounters a death-trap, you get to see exactly how he defeats it, and this in turn allows you to begin scheming about how you might deprive him of that method. Like Varicella, the game is highly iterative — the chances you’ll beat it the first time through are virtually nil, and this is by design. Instead, Boldo’s many triumphs allow you to make your own advances towards building the perfect dungeon upon restarting.

It’s a deeply rewarding puzzle of marvelously interlocking elements. Not only does it operate on several levels to begin with, it builds on itself to make lots of little “aha!” moments combine into a greater experience of overall insight. In addition, the game’s use of graphics do it a great service, presenting a clean and attractive game board to help players to see exactly what choices they’ve made.

My favorite part of the puzzle, though, is the hinting. The prose that describes Boldo conquering your traps is funny and enjoyable to read on its own merits, but it also frequently contains wonderfully subtle hints about how the dungeon might be better constructed. For the sake of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t quote any of those hints here, but I will say that they capture the feel that Infocom at its best was able to provide, of prose that is just as good on a game level as it is on a story level.

So Lock & Key wholly deserved its XYZZY for Best Puzzle. The other awards, I’m not so sure about. At the end of the XYZZYs, Lock & Key went away with the prizes for both Best Individual NPC (Boldo) and Best NPCs in general. The fact that it won these accolades for NPCs with whom (for the most part) the player cannot directly interact AT ALL is rather astonishing. I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps writing is just much, much more important than coding when it comes to NPCs, at least as far as the XYZZY voters are concerned. Certainly Boldo reacts to the traps placed by the player, and the descriptions of his reactions are all great and funny, but that’s a very limited sort of interaction, nothing at all like the dozens and dozens of responses that make up the typical fully-fleshed IF NPC. I wonder: can great writing alone make a great NPC?

Maybe sometimes it can, but I’ve yet to see it. Certainly this game’s excellent writing didn’t make Boldo an excellent NPC. He’s simply a cipher, an intentionally broad cliche whom the PC never meets, instead only watching cut-scenes of him on a sort of magic TV. He’s entertaining enough for the purpose he serves, but he hardly feels like a deeply implemented NPC, though he’s the deepest of the bunch. The other NPCs — the King, a gladiator named Musculo, and a host of others who appear in brief cameos — are present only in cut-scenes. The only exception to this, the only NPC who even responds to “ASK”, is the guard at the beginning. His response: “No talking in the dungeon!”

I would contend that the really remarkable character in Lock & Key is the player character. What’s remarkable about him? [1] Why, his cleverness, of course — his ability to string together just the right combination of traps to defeat Boldo. More to the point, what’s remarkable is the way in which the game constructs this cleverness. Like Primo Varicella, the PC of Lock & Key is what I’ll call an accretive PC, meaning that he becomes more and more himself with each iteration of the game, as the player’s knowledge accretes.

In most IF games, your character will never live up to you — it will never be able to do most of the things you can think of, nor say most of the things you can say. This is still true of Lock & Key and Varicella, but in an important way, what’s also true of those games is that you must live up to your character. You’re told a salient quality about the PC at the outset of the game — his expertise in dungeon design, or his Machiavellian plan to take over the regency — and then you must take him through one iteration after another until you yourself have attained enough of that quality to guide the PC to a successful conclusion. When you finally do reach that conclusion, it’s as if you’ve finally learned the real story, and all the failed attempts leading up to it exist only in shadowy parallel universes. This is who the character was all along — it just took you a while to catch up with him.

Of course, the case could be made that all IF PCs are like this to some degree. That may be true, but then again it’s de rigueur in most other IF to avoid game designs in which the PC must learn something by dying. Graham Nelson even made it Rule Number Three in his Player’s Bill Of Rights. [2] Of course, when a player must be able to step successfully into the PC’s viewpoint without any previous knowledge whatsoever, it becomes rather hard to give that PC any sort of expertise in the game world, which is why we so frequently see PCs who suffer from amnesia, or are fish-out-of-water, or other such tricks. Lock & Key and Varicella break this rule so brilliantly that it doesn’t even seem like a valid rule anymore. Why shouldn’t the player learn from past lives? After all, unless the PC is placed in some sort of contrived situation to deprive her of all her natural knowledge, she’ll inevitably know more than the player does the first time that player begins the game.

After a while, the requirement to match the PC’s knowledge with the player’s can begin to feel like a bit of a cage, and the most common contortions an IF game goes through to live inside it (such as amnesia) have long since lost their appeal. Even the freshest ones can still feel a bit tired and gimmicky unless done exactly right. The accretive PC is one key to this cage — it’s wonderfully refreshing to play a character who’s really good at something, and even better to become good at it yourself. Of all the jail-breaks that happen in Lock & Key, this one is the most satisfying.

[1] I’m referring to the PC as a male for convenience’s sake — I don’t recall its gender ever being specified in the game.

[2] See his excellent article The Craft Of Adventure, available in the info directory of the IF Archive.

Interview from SPAG [Misc]

[Duncan Stevens interviewed me in SPAG #31, the 2002 IF competition special. It’s rather odd to be interviewed in one’s own zine, but SPAG has a tradition of interviewing the top three finishers in the IF comp, and I won that year. However, when I won the next time, SPAG interviewed finishers 2-4. As with the other interviews, I’ve edited the text and added links as appropriate. The first paragraph is in my voice.]

For the annual competition issue, SPAG traditionally interviews the highest-placing authors in the comp, but I faced some rather unprecedented challenges when putting together this issue’s interviews. For one thing, since I won the comp, there really ought to be an interview with me, but for me to interview myself would be a little… unseemly, as Primo Varicella might say. As he has so often in SPAG‘s history, Duncan Stevens came to the rescue, crafting a set of interview questions which I could then answer without feeling too much like I had multiple personality disorder. Thanks, Duncan…

Paul O’Brian, author of Another Earth, Another Sky

SPAG: Well, you often ask SPAG interviewees to tell a bit about themselves, but SPAG‘s readers may not know much about you, so — out with it. Name, rank, and serial number?

PO: Okay, fair enough. I’m 32, which put me in my teen years during the Infocom boom — just about the perfect age to be, since I was old enough to understand and succeed at the games and young enough to have lots of free time to devote to them. I’ve lived in Colorado all my life, save for one ill-starred year in New York City, and I currently work in Boulder at the University of Colorado, where I got my degrees. My job there is in the Financial Aid office, as an “IT professional,” which basically means that I do all sorts of technical stuff, from programming to maintaining the network to creating queries that pull data from the university’s mainframe.

I’ve been married for a little over six years, to someone who isn’t an IF aficionado but who is wonderful about supporting my work and my ambitions. I’m very verbally oriented (you may have noticed) and love the complex uses of language. I also really enjoy programming, so of course I’m a perfect candidate to love IF. Aside from that, my other passions are music and comics, the latter of which has made the Earth And Sky series such a fun project to do.

SPAG: How did you get interested in IF, and what led you to start writing your own IF?

PO: The long answer to this question is the editorial I wrote for my first issue of SPAG, number 18. In a nutshell: my dad is a computer enthusiast, and we were sort of “first on the block” with a home computer — initially an Atari 400, then upgrading to the sooper-big-time Atari 800. The first games I played on those machines either came in cartridge form or on cassette tapes, but shortly after he acquired a disk drive, he brought home Zork I for us to try together. He loves to bring home the coolest new things, and that was especially true when I was a kid; at that point the cool new thing was Zork. He lost interest in it before too long, but I was enchanted, and became a major Infocom devotee for as long as the company existed.

I learned about the Internet right around the same time I was writing a paper about IF for a graduate class, and so of course some of my first Gopher searches were on “Infocom” and “interactive fiction.” That led me to Curses, and once I figured out that there was a freely available language that would let me write Infocom-style games, suddenly a childhood fantasy was within reach. Being an Infocom implementor is still my dream job — pity about living in the wrong time and place for it.

SPAG: You’ve written four games now. What keeps you writing IF?

PO: Well, in the case of the last game and the next one, it’s the fact that I’ve made a promise to myself and to the audience that I won’t leave the storyline hanging. Other than that, I suppose it’s just the fact that I seem to have an unflagging interest in the medium. My first game was written to fulfill my dream of writing an Infocom-ish game, as I said above. LASH was just an idea that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, and I knew that IF was the perfect medium for it. A lot of the drive to write the Earth And Sky games has to do with the fact that I really, really wanted to play a good superhero game, and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any of the ones that had been released up to that point. So I wrote it because I wanted to play it.

SPAG: Another Earth, Another Sky is the second in a series. What led you to make a full-blown series out of this story, rather than a single self-contained game?

PO: One of the things I loved about superhero comics as a kid was their episodic nature. I really dug the way the stories just kept going and going, with characters and themes woven through the whole thing, disappearing and reappearing as the saga unfolded. Now, with the emphasis on story arcs that can be collected into trade paperbacks, that’s becoming less true in comics, but when I decided to write a superhero game, I knew it needed to be episodic. Besides, I really wanted to take another shot at the competition, and didn’t want to write something so big that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the comp. Also, as a corollary to that, I guess, I really wanted more and faster feedback than writing the whole thing as an epic would have given me. LASH took a very long time to write, and I wanted my next piece to be a bit smaller in scope.

SPAG: The first installment was essentially a superhero game, but Another Earth, Another Sky has sci-fi elements along with the superhero aspect. Is the series becoming a sci-fi series, or are there more genre twists ahead?

PO: I wouldn’t say it’s becoming science fiction, really, and I didn’t set out to do any genre blending with this game. What is true, though, is that these games are heavily influenced by the old Marvel comics from the 1960s, particularly The Fantastic Four — one of the reasons I chose “Lee Kirby” as my pseudonym for the first game was to acknowledge my debt to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who wrote many of those early comics. The tropes of alien invasion and Big Science were intrinsic to many of Lee and Kirby’s stories, probably as an outgrowth of the science fiction comics that preceded that period’s big superhero revival, so that’s why you see those themes reflected in my games. Ultimately, though, I see superheroes as more a subgenre of fantasy than of science fiction, if the division has to be made.

SPAG: There seem to be allusions to other IF games here and there in AEAS — the setting for a large part of the game is reminiscent of Small World, the dome in the desert evokes So Far, the underwater scene has echoes of Photopia, and the touchplates reminded me of Spider and Web. Or am I imagining these connections?

PO: I wouldn’t say you’re imagining them, but I also didn’t consciously try to pay homage to any of those games with the elements you mention. However, I have played all of them, and there’s no question that everything that goes into my brain has an influence on me. Lots of people have mentioned the Small World connection, and I certainly remember feeling delighted with an IF landscape that formed a sphere, but the idea of having the PC be able to travel between disparate locales by means of superhuman leaps came more from old issues of The Hulk than from any particular IF game.

SPAG: The game is sprinkled with Emily Dickinson quotes. Any particular reason for relying on that particular poet?

PO: Well, aside from the fact that she’s pretty much my favorite canonical poet, Dickinson was also part of the genesis of the series. I went through a period where I decided to read every Dickinson poem, but I found it too exhausting to just read them one after another, so I interspersed them with comics. Indulging in this weird combination while thinking about what I wanted to write next gave birth to this superhero series where the codenames are some of Dickinson’s favorite touchstones, and the protagonists are named after the poet and her brother. The title and part of the inspiration for Another Earth, Another Sky came from the Dickinson poem that begins “There is another sky.”

SPAG: Will the third installment wrap up the series?

PO: That’s the plan at this point. I love writing these games, but it’s a little disheartening to realize that each episode takes about a year to complete. I certainly wouldn’t rule out further Earth And Sky games somewhere down the line, but I’ll be ready for a break from them once the third episode is finished.

SPAG: Any other plans for more IF writing?

PO: Beyond the third Earth And Sky game, I’m not sure. I think I’ll probably want to turn towards writing static fiction for a while, but I plan to keep editing SPAG, and I don’t see myself leaving the IF community unless it seriously deteriorates. So I’d say there’s an excellent chance I’ll find myself struck with some great IF idea and banging out code again sometime in the future.

Sting of the Wasp by Jason Devlin [Comp04]

IFDB page: Sting of the Wasp
Final placement: 4th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Assuming that “Jason Devlin” isn’t a pseudonym for an experienced author, we have a very satisfactory debut on our hands. Sting Of The Wasp brings one of the year’s nastier PCs in the person of wealthy socialite Julia Hawthorne. In the grand tradition of Primo Varicella, Julia is a vain, preening snob who looks with utter disdain at almost everything around her, including the country club in which the game is set. However, unlike Primo, her schemes don’t run to power grabs — instead, she just wants to find out who took a photo of her in a compromising position with the local golf pro.

It seems that Julia’s wealth comes by virtue (a term probably misapplied here) of her marriage, and because wealth is the most important thing to her, she must guard that marriage zealously. Such guardianship doesn’t appear to include the actual avoidance of adultery, but it certainly encompasses heroic efforts to destroy any evidence of those indiscretions. SOTW is one of those games that let you gleefully and maliciously wreak havoc on a wide variety of places and characters, all in the service of advancing a thoroughly rotten character. As I said, the most prominent example of this sort of game is Varicella, but this game is Varicella played purely for laughs — very few darker undertones burden the spree of unrestrained villainy.

There are a few things that SOTW does particularly well. One is dialogue; the country club is populated with a wide variety of rivals who come in various shades of shrewish and desperate, and Julia’s exchanges with these characters often made me laugh out loud. Many of their remarks come at Julia’s expense — her affairs are an open secret at the club, and they provide the perfect fodder for nasty remarks, such as when Julia happens upon an NPC in the garden:

As she sees you enter, she looks up and grins impishly. “Oh, Julia,” she says, closing her book for a moment. “I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you preferred to do your hoeing in the basement.”

In addition, the NPCs have some great incidental business, and provide the game lots of opportunities to replace standard library responses with something more fun. One of my favorites was this replacement for “You can’t go that way.”:

“Oh dear,” Cissy says as you bump into a low wall. “Julia, you really should try some Ginkgo biloba. I’ve been taken it for months now and I hardly ever crash into walls anymore.”

Okay, so it has a pretty egregious grammar error. I still laughed. The parser, too, gets off plenty of zingers:

>search beverly
You're not a lady cop, and this isn't Cinemax After Dark.

Okay, enough quoting. My point is that SOTW is a funny game, and it’s worth playing just for the humor. Moreover, many of its puzzles are logical and seamlessly blended with the game-world, and its story moves smoothly and sensibly to a dynamic climax. The game makes especially good use of triggers to move the action along. Unfortunately, there are some flaws to contend with as well. For one thing, while the humor is marvelous, there are a number of places where the prose stumbles due to awkwardness or simple mechanical errors. For example:

>read board
Although seemingly impossible, somehow this cork bulletin board, with its oak border and brass inlay, manages to appear elegant. I guess all it takes to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear is money. A fact illustrated by many of Pine Meadows's patrons. On the bulletin board is an announcement.

First there’s a misplaced modifier, attaching impossibility to the cork bulletin board itself rather than its elegance. Next, there’s a voice mixup, as the parser suddenly takes on an identity and asserts itself with “I guess.” If Julia is “you”, who is the “I” speaking in this scenario? Finally, a sentence fragment brings up the rear. A significant number of these problems mark Sting Of The Wasp as the work of a beginning writer.

In addition, while the game is clearly tested and for the most part bug-free, there are still some glitches in implementation. A waiter hands you a glass that never appears. A description mentions exits southeast and south, when in fact they’re south and southwest, respectively. The game would benefit vastly from the attention of a skilled editor and from one more round of testing. These things aren’t too hard to do, and once they’re done, SOTW‘s nasty pleasures will be even sharper than they are now.

Rating: 8.5

Chaos by Shay Caron [Comp99]

IFDB page: Chaos
Final placement: 19th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Most interactive fiction games use the second person voice, and make it clear from the outset that this is their mode. Think of “You are standing in an open field west of a white house,” or “You are Primo Varicella.” Chaos appears to follow in this tradition, describing a character named Captain Chaos but using the second person form of address several times in asides like “You know what I mean” or “you guessed it.” Admittedly, the “I” in the first phrase throws a bit of a spanner into the works, and a player might well have cause to wonder who the “I” is that’s apparently speaking. The parser? The author? Some sort of in-game narrator? For me, though, it went by so fast that I allowed myself to suspend that question. From the introduction, I presumed I was Captain Chaos’ sidekick, there to help him with a sudden power failure on his jerry-built hovercraft. But then I typed in my first command, and this is how it went:

> I

Chaos has a Evil Overlord list.

What? But what’s in my inventory? After a few commands, I slowly began to understand that the game was responding to my commands as if they were guiding Captain Chaos himself, then describing the results referring to the Captain in the third person — “Chaos walks south”, “He picks up the screwdriver,” etc. What’s more, from time to time the Captain Chaos character will offer some commentary on the command chosen, relating tangential or backstory facts about the parts of the environment he encounters while being guided by the player’s commands. The more of this that goes on, the more prominent one question becomes: Who is the PC of this game? Apparently the introduction was addressing me — me the player, not some avatar within the story with whom I am expected to identify. And who is Captain Chaos addressing with his asides? Again, it’s the player. In a real sense, the player is the PC in Chaos. You, the player, control Captain Chaos with your commands, but he is aware of your presence, at least enough to make the occasional remark to you. And if all that’s not complicated enough, wait until he finds (or you find, or something) the technology that allows him to control another entity remotely.

This is all rather haphazardly done in this particular game, as evidenced by my confusion at the first few prompts. I found myself bumping into unexpected forms of address, and having to puzzle out exactly what was supposed to be happening, or at least what it seemed like was supposed to be happening. Moreover, many of the questions raised by these narrative choices, such as those I mentioned about the use of “I” in the introduction, are just never answered. In fact, there is no announcement of any kind — subtle, blatant, or otherwise — that Chaos will overturn a fundamental IF convention, and the result is a rather jarring feeling of displacement. The creation of this feeling doesn’t really seem to serve the story, at least not in any specific way I could determine.

Nonetheless, I found it quite interesting. I was reminded of other competition games which have fiddled with the narrative voice, such as Christopher Huang’s Muse and Graham Nelson’s Tempest. Both of these games took a slightly different approach, having the parser itself take on a character, speaking to the player in the first person and executing the player’s commands as if they were that character’s own actions. Tempest even complicated matters further by explaining that its player’s role is as “the magical will” of Shakespeare’s Prospero, guiding Ariel (the parser’s character) through the various scenes of the play. These tactics have a bit of a distancing effect on the player, setting identification at one remove and shifting the action from the player character to the parser character. Chaos, though it explains nothing of its strategy, actually creates one further remove by allowing neither a player character nor a parser character but another character altogether to be the focus of the action. Yet when this third character (third person, you might even say) speaks outward in the second person voice, it addresses the player (in a “Dear reader” sort of way) and brings the game and player closer together than almost any other IF I’ve seen.

Orchestrated strategically and used creatively, these techniques could make for a masterful, groundbreaking work of IF. Chaos isn’t that work, but its experimentation does open up some very interesting, and mostly unexplored, territory. Beside this, the plot of the game seems quite inconsequential. There’s a ship to be repaired, and various puzzles to solve, some required and some optional. These puzzles are decent, and the writing is passable, and although there are a number of coding problems, the game is at least finishable. It’s a bit of a throwaway, though, a mediocre competition entry except for the unique approach it takes, almost offhandedly, to forms of address in IF. I enjoyed thinking about Chaos more than I enjoyed playing it, but if the author’s next game explores the techniques employed here in a consistent, systematic, and clear way, the result will be well worth a few false starts.

Rating: 6.6