Jesus of Nazareth by Paul Allen Panks as Dunric [Comp05]

IFDB page: Jesus of Nazareth
Final placement: 33rd place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Between this game and Panks’ previous comp entry, Ninja v1.30, one year elapsed. Between that review and this one, the better part of 18 years has elapsed. In the interim, some things have happened, including the author’s death in 2009, just shy of his 33rd birthday.

Panks contravened many of the social norms in the IF community, and for that reason provoked reactions ranging from shunning to outright hostility. Jason Scott sums it up as well as anyone in the blog entry he wrote shortly after Panks’s death, and the comments from that entry (one of the few times I actually recommend reading the comments) flesh out the picture further.

Many things have changed technologically in those 18 years as well, which meant that I couldn’t just double-click the game file in order to run it the way I might have been able to in 2005. Jesus of Nazareth is a Windows executable, and Windows 10 wants nothing to do with it. I had to fire up a DOSBox instance to run it, and even once that succeeded there was certainly nothing like a scripting capability available, so I was reduced to taking the occasional screenshot so that I could remember notable moments in the experience of the game.

I wasn’t certain I really wanted to go through the bother, because I did not expect the game to be good, and it wasn’t. And if DOSBox had failed, I’d probably have given up. But when it succeeded, and I could at least play the game, I felt like I should at least give it a try, and in light of the author’s short and difficult life, I’m not inclined to be hypercritical.

Nevertheless, what we have here is not great. It’s a homebrewed parser game — one of Panks’ specialties — which is deeply player-unfriendly. Most anything the parser doesn’t understand (which is most things), it responds to with “You cannot do that here.”, giving a “Hello Sailor” feel to the proceedings minus any of the humor or sense of distant potential. In the very first scene, there’s a note, and if you try to read it, you’re told “You can’t make out the note.” If you type “x note” (not “X NOTE” because the parser can’t handle capital letters)… you read the note. You meet a centurion who is holding a spear, helmet, and shield. If you try to examine any of those things, you’re told, “That isn’t here.”

Technical flaws aside, the premise of this game made me smile. You play — not surprisingly — Jesus of Nazareth, and your goal is to get followers. The game knows and relies upon the command “convert”, as in “convert matthew.” The “score” command tells you this, at the beginning of the game:

Your goal is to convert at least 4 disciples to your cause.
Thus far, you have converted:
You still have 6 disciple(s) left to convert.

If you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, this seems like a pretty logical way to keep score! On the other hand, if you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, the parser should probably know the word “forgive”. See, I hadn’t wandered too far when I found myself trapped in a location with the aforementioned centurion, who was insisting on seeing my papers, and wouldn’t let me leave. I had no papers — no inventory at all. Talking didn’t work. Converting didn’t work. Forgiveness wasn’t even an option. And there is no walkthrough.

So I quit, and forgave the game its trespasses.

Rating: 3.5

Xen: The Contest by Ian Shlasko as Xentor [Comp05]

IFDB page: Xen: The Contest
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, it took eight games, but I’ve finally hit the classic “game too big for the competition” issue. After two hours of Xen: The Contest, I had 29 points out of 63, so about halfway through the game I guess. It was enough for me to encounter the big (heavily telegraphed) plot twist, but not enough for me to understand how that twist changed the story. As usual, I’ll be reviewing the game based on what I saw of it in two hours.

What I saw, mostly, was your standard “implement a college campus” game, overflowing with stereotypes seemingly lifted from a paonply of 1980s movies, overlaid with a plot in which the PC gradually discovers he has superpowers and why. First, a word about the college stuff. I’ve had a 27-year (so far) career in higher education, moving from administrative assistant, to financial aid counselor, to Java developer, to manager and now associate director in the IT office. For a good chunk of that career, I’ve been in charge of the student portal, which has brought me in contact with nearly every part of the university, so it was with an insider’s perspective that I received the game’s treatment of the college experience.

Reader, it was not good. This game hates college. It hates the faculty. It hates the administration. It hates the students (well, the student athletes anyway.) It hates the grill chef. It hates the bookstore clerk. For crying out loud, it hates the receptionist at the student health center:

>x receptionist
Yet another minimum-wage employee who has been corrupted by the meager authority bestowed upon them, the receptionist has a permanent sneer on her face from looking down on all in her presence. In simple terms, she's a real [expletive].

(Note that the “[expletive]” is the game’s censorship, not mine.) Mind you, the PC is a freshman who has literally never walked into the University Hospital before. But for somebody who’s just showed up, boy does he have a lot of preconceived notions about everyone and everything. The snarling disdain for everything around him is evident in the majority of room and object descriptions. What’s more, there’s quite a bit of disdain set aside for the player and the basic mechanisms of IF as well. Many an object description ends with a “duh” statement, like so:

>x backpack
This is your backpack. You put things in it. Novel concept, huh?

One time, this kind of understatement can be a little bit funny. Over and over, for description after description, it communicates a resentment for even having to write descriptions at all, which causes me as a player to wonder why I’m playing this game that the author didn’t want to bother fully implementing. By the way, do you find anything in that description to suggest that the backpack would be better at extinguishing a fire than, say, a blanket? I sure hope so, because if you use the blanket to smother a fire you die, whereas the backpack is a big success!

That’s the other fundamental problem with snide non-descriptions. Not only is their tone grating, they also actively impede the play experience by failing to provide key facts that the player needs to succeed. Taken together, these qualities add up to a game that feels like a bully, calling you dumb for not knowing information that it intentionally withheld from you.

When it wasn’t making me learn stuff by dying, Xen was making me guess triggers. This is one of those games that waits for a particular command, then dumps out plot or exposition when the player enters it. These aren’t puzzles, really — most of the time the command is something like “sleep” or “sit”. When a trigger system like this is working smoothly, as it does for the majority of Xen, it can feel like traveling effortlessly through a story — just follow the very logical cues and you will make the plot happen. When it’s working badly, as it does sometimes, it can feel like wandering around in the wilderness, trying to guess the magic word that will unlock the only possible path forward. At no point does it feel like you have a choice of actions — scenes are strung together in a single linear path, and until you figure out the trigger that advances you along that path, you will make no progress in the game.

Between its truculence around describing things and its insistently single-track design, Xen: The Contest feels like a prose story whose author decided it would get more attention as an IF game. That may have been true, but it wasn’t a lot of fun for me as a reader or a player, especially given the fact that in two hours, even when resorting to the walkthrough several times to unearth a hidden trigger, I only saw about half. I suppose in a way this is the old “the food is terrible and the portions are so small” joke in action again, but I wasn’t really laughing.

Rating: 4.5

Chronicle Play Torn by Penczer Atilla as “Algol” [Comp04]

IFDB page: Chronicle Play Torn
Final placement: 22nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

The readme for Chronicle Play Torn issues a warning:

Now a few comments about the dark side of the game: its testing was done in a hurry, it is very likely that you will find irritating bugs in the prose, and the working of the game.

I’m somewhat innocent in the former one; I’m from the non english speaker part of the world, and thus writing prose for me is like walking without light in an Infocom product: I never know, when does a grue find me (and if it does, I don’t even notice it).

This warning encapsulates both what’s good and what’s bad about the game. As even the readme demonstrates, the author’s English is far from perfect, and can frequently be a major roadblock to understanding. Even the title shows this — it feels like three words randomly drawn from a magnetic poetry set. In addition, the rushed testing job shows; CPT isn’t a relentless bugfest, but its code has some serious issues. However, like the readme, the project as a whole is well-intentioned, good-natured, and more fun than I expected it to be, given its acknowledged flaws.

I do want to talk a little more about the idea expressed above, that authors who don’t speak English natively are “innocent” when it comes to problems in their prose. Sorry, but no, they aren’t. I grant that English is a difficult language. I grant that the IF audience is tiny already, and that the majority of it communicates in English, making the choice of writing IF in one’s native language so audience-limiting as to feel like no choice at all. I grant that the majority of IF tools and parsers are in English. I grant that if I tried to write a game in Hungarian or Russian or Swedish or even Spanish, the language I studied in high school and college, the results would be far worse than even the worst translated game in this comp. I grant all these things.

But ultimately, the fact remains that whatever the circumstances, good games have good prose. When you write a story, you are responsible for every word in it. Who would try to write a novel in a language in which they weren’t fluent? What publisher would take it? Just because you’re writing an IF game doesn’t mean that you’re any less responsible for your words, no matter how strong the coding is, and no matter how tough you find English. In the end, I want to read good stories, not understandable excuses. Native speaker or not, if the prose in your game is littered with problems, your game will suck. Period. By the way, it did occur to me that the author may not have understood the connotation (or even denotation) of “innocent” when making the claim above. However, if that’s true, it only underscores my point, which seems well worth making in a competition where a full 15% of the games I’ve played thus far suffer from some amount of broken English.

So, that point made, how’s the rest of the game? Well, mixed. On the negative side, my game experience was diminished greatly by the presence of a bug so severe that it crashed the entire interpreter, which is an IF experience I haven’t had for a while. I checked it out, and the bug is reproducible — I think the game is trying to dynamically create objects that it hasn’t properly set up. There were some other bugs too, though none as bad as that one. In addition, I found the game too long for the competition; by the time my two hours had run out, I’d estimate I was about 75% done. Of course, having to keep restarting my interpreter didn’t help matters in that department.

In the positive column, CPT features some entertaining imagery, including a few parts that capture the Lovecraft feel quite well. Also, the game’s story is fun, kind of a jumped-up version of Uncle Zebulon’s Will. The hint system is very helpful, but most of the puzzles are crafted sensibly enough that I didn’t need it often, though I did turn to it as I was running out of time, or when I found the game’s prose just too impenetrable. Finally, what I appreciated the most about CPT is that its heart really seems to be in the right place. Despite its serious problems, it’s written out of a deep affection for both its medium and its themes, and while I can’t recommend the game, I applaud the effort, and I hope that the author improves it and continues to write more.

Rating: 4.4

Trading Punches by Mike Snyder as Sidney Merk [Comp04]

IFDB page: Trading Punches
Final placement: 10th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Trading Punches is a lovely piece of work, with a good story and a fine design. It’s also got some flaws, so let me tackle those first, and then I’ll move on to the loveliness. The first problem I had with the game may be more just an idiosyncratic reaction: I found much of its prose rough going. It’s not that the writing was error-laden or terribly awkward — it’s just that I kept finding myself wanting to skim over it, and having to concentrate to actually read it. The problem was most severe in long room descriptions and infodumps, of which the game has many. I’m not sure whether the prose was just too dense for me, or whether it was some question of style, or what. I know that’s an unhelpful reaction, but it was my reaction nonetheless.

One definite problem with the style is that the game goes way overboard on a particular gimmick for making things sound SFnal: word-mating. Thus, the PC wanders around a landscape of “mossgrass” and “elmpines”, watching the “peacrows” and then later drinking some “brandyrum” and “whiskeygin”. Yeesh! A little of this strategy goes a long way, and Trading Punches had way more than a little; it sounded pretty silly in short order. Finally, though the game was obviously tested, a few significant bugs made it into this version. For one thing, certain commands, like “score”, draw no response at all from the game. Even more seriously, there’s a class of locations with one exit that consistently thrusts the player into a formless void from which there is no escape. At first, I thought this effect might be intentional, but further experimentation demonstrated that it’s almost certainly accidental.

So yes, Trading Punches has some problems, but I still ended my play session feeling very happy with it. Why? Well, for starters, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, and aside from the excessive word-mating, the setting felt nicely realized as well. In general, the plot and the game-world felt reminiscent of the work of Orson Scott Card, which I like very much. I don’t know if the author of Trading Punches is familiar with Card, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that influence on this game. It’s got plenty of Card’s hallmarks: bitter rivalry within a family, affecting the larger world and universe on a grand scale; a gifted protagonist with a strong moral center who has a significant impact by helping (or trying to help) others; and strong familial bonds offsetting the deep familial schisms elsewhere.

The aliens in the game feel original and well-imagined, and lend themselves to symbolic use as well. I also appreciated the design of the game — its central story of sibling rivalry is told through chapters that don’t hammer the point too hard, but still make it quite clear how the enmity grows between the two brothers. By skipping forward in time to the most important incidents in their relationship, the game develops the character of both the PC and his brother quite satisfyingly. Situating the chapters within a frame story works very well to knit the disparate pieces, and the game does an excellent job of weaving revelations about the frame story into the content of the chapters and vice versa. Unfortunately, two hours wasn’t quite enough time for me to get through it, partly because of my denseness around one of the puzzles. However, a glance at the walkthrough shows that I was most of the way through, and I felt regret at having to stop the game and write this review, which is clear evidence that the story had me hooked.

Even aside from the story and the design (and its bugs and prose tics notwithstanding), Trading Punches boasts an impressive amount of craft. Especially noteworthy are the game’s cool multimedia components. Each chapter (and each return to the frame story) begins with a full-screen graphic. These graphics are quite lovely, and do an excellent job of establishing the landscape. I found this especially helpful as I struggled with the dense prose’s attempts at scene-setting. The illustrations look as though they were created in some kind of graphics rendering software, and consequently have a bit of a Myst-like feel to them, which is a good thing.

Also effective is the game’s music, a synthesized soundtrack which loops constantly in the background. The music is generally quite effective at enhancing the mood of a particular scene, though some of the musical pieces don’t have enough melody or complexity to withstand the constant looping. No matter how good an eight-bar tune is, it’s bound to get a little grating on the hundredth repetition. The game itself is quite solid, too — it’s clear that a whole lot of effort went into this project. Aside from the few bugs I mentioned in the first paragraph, I found the code pleasantly error-free, and the same goes for the writing. The puzzles worked well for me, and the game did an excellent job of providing cues to help me know what I ought to try next. One item in particular was not only quite well-implemented, but also provided an excellent emotional through-line for the story.

Trading Punches still has a few details to clean up, and the word-mating has to go, but I’d recommend it without hesitation, especially to fans of dramatic fantasy games like Worlds Apart.

Rating: 9.2

PTBAD 3 by Jonathan Berman as “Xorax” [Comp04]

IFDB page: PTBAD 3
Final placement: 35th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I saw the title, I thought this game was going to be a sequel to Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. Because the acronym seemed to be missing a number of letters, I thought it was going to be a badly-done, amateurish sequel, but a sequel nonetheless. For those unfamiliar with this long-standing IF in-joke, in 1996 Rob Noyes released a very simple game called Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. The title is more or less also the walkthrough.

There are other ultra-minimalist joke games, but PUTPBAD attained iconic status because of the humor of its writing and the sheer ludicrousness of its premise. The joke inspired one sequel by Noyes, which fleshed out the simplicity of the original by adding some more funny stuff. It also inspired a much better joke, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Aisle, in which a huge number of IF authors collaborated to combine the original with the “one-move IF” concept pioneered by Sam Barlow in his game Aisle.

Well, if this game was meant to connect to any of those, it fails completely, and consequently, I have no idea what the title is supposed to represent. In fact, representation is a vexed issue for the entire game, which bears more resemblance to gibberish like Comp2000’s Stupid Kittens in that all of it seems like offhand, random, unconnected thoughts that make no sense whatsoever. To borrow a phrase from the game itself: “Rather disgusting dada surealist [sic] foolishness.” PTBAD 3 offers a badly-spelled, creakily-coded trip through what purports to be someone’s mind, perhaps someone who was the victim of a severe closed head injury. It’s got a maze, toilet humor, and a complete lack of proofreading. It’s quite a waste of time, though it’s short enough that it at least doesn’t waste much of it.

I wonder, though: why does PUTPBAD work when this game doesn’t? After all, in Baf’s Guide, Carl Muckenhoupt dismisses the original PUTPBAD in almost the same terms (“Would be a waste of time, were it not so short as to be almost nonexistent.”) They’re both tiny, nonsensical games that discard nearly all IF conventions. The difference, I think, is craft. Even though it only consists of maybe 200 words beyond the standard Inform libraries, PUTPBAD is clever, solidly coded, and impeccably written. PTBAD 3, on the other hand, seems as though it couldn’t care less about its prose or its code. And because of that, neither could I.

Rating: 2.9

A Light’s Tale by Zach Flynn as “vbnz” [Comp04]

IFDB page: A Light’s Tale
Final placement: 32nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well. This one has many problems. Many serious problems. Let’s start with the writing. I’m guessing that this game is the work of a non-native English speaker. Something like “your mind… flys far, far away” could just be a typo, but when the game describes a dump as “full of unnumbered amounts of trash,” I begin to get the strong feeling that the translating dictionary has come calling. The prose is just littered with writing errors, many of which are too simple to be blamed on translation. For instance, a death message:

The guard calls out: “What are you doing there?” He runs over and sticks a bullet in your side you die.

Maybe the bizarre diction “sticks a bullet in your side” could be explained by translation, but there’s no such excuse for failing to provide either a conjunction or a full stop before “you die.” Also, the game is just littered with redundancy. Whether it’s describing the dump as “[an] extremely dirty, messed-up dump,” or calling the PC “a rather overweight chubby character” or naming an NPC “the big, large rather muscular mouse,” Light’s Tale hates to say once what it could say twice instead.

However, as problematic as the writing is, the coding is worse. Take that big, large mouse, for instance. He’s got one of the most ungainly short names I’ve ever seen in an IF object:

>give mirror to george
The big, large rather muscular mouse who looks to be a pretty good mechanic, for the right price rejects the offer.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure his short name is “the big, large rather muscular mouse who looks to be a pretty good mechanic, for the right price.” Implementing an object in this way demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of how an IF engine works. Sometimes there are even full stops embedded in object names. Here’s another problem: the game completely chokes on any attempt to show anything to anyone. The command always results in “[TADS-1014: ‘abort’ statement executed]”. Another pervasive issue is the game’s recurring failure to mark dialogue with quotation marks, resulting in exchanges like this:

>ask bruno about bar
Why would I want to talk to you?

Well, because you’re the parser. You’ve been talking to me the whole game. Oh, unless that’s Bruno talking, in which case there really ought to be some quotation marks. Sorry, but that’s just plain careless. Even the hints are buggy; they keep referring to somebody named “Robert”, when nobody of that name resides within the game. Thank goodness for the walkthrough, or I’d have gotten absolutely nowhere with A Light’s Tale.

Which, saving the worst for last, brings us to the design. Over and over, I found myself resorting to the walkthrough, a refugee from the game’s bizarre assumptions. Light’s Tale is certainly one of those games that assumes you’re going to traverse it in the same order that the walkthrough does. Routinely, the game would refer to objects I didn’t have, or kill me immediately after rewarding me for solving a puzzle. There are far too many “read the author’s mind” puzzles, including a real doozy at the end.

The game starts out as science fiction (the intro mentions a starship, anyway) for no apparent reason — it would play out exactly the same way if the setting were an airplane, or a steamship, or just about anywhere, really. There are talking animals throughout the game (unless the animal descriptions were meant as metaphor, but I don’t think they were), including in scenes advertised as “the real world at last.” The parser keeps referring to itself as “I” and “me”, and then suddenly becomes a character in the game, personifying itself as some kind of freaky supervillain.

Let me tell you, it’s a weird, wild ride. Some parts approach Rybread-level peculiarity. There were parts that I enjoyed, and there were many more parts that had me cursing heartily. It may be worth a trip through with the walkthrough close at hand, but not if you care about strong writing or strong coding, and even if you don’t, you shouldn’t really expect to understand it too well.

Rating: 4.7

Getting Back to Sleep by Patrick Evans as “IceDragon” [Comp04]

IFDB page: Getting Back to Sleep
Final placement: 33rd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh boy. Its time for one of my least favorite comp traditions: the homebrewed game. Traditionally, these games have parsers which lack the amenities provided by any major IF development system, and Getting Back To Sleep is no exception. What does it lack? Well, SAVE and RESTORE, for starters. Oh, and SCRIPT, which means that you’ll be seeing no quotes from the game in this review. Rather than making notes at the prompt as I usually do, I had to keep switching to a separate file to keep my notes, and felt slightly annoyed each time.

Let’s see, what else? UNDO, OOPS, and lots of other modern features, and by “modern” I mean “standard as of 1985 or so.” Those weren’t there. Nor was VERBOSE mode, which sucked for me, since I always play in VERBOSE mode. Instead, I had to keep typing L every time I wanted to look at the room description. Except that L doesn’t work either! Yeah, you have to type out LOOK each time. You also can’t abbreviate INVENTORY to I, though at least you can abbreviate to INV. Why one abbreviation is present and not the other continues to mystify me.

Here’s a good one: the parser is case-sensitive. It understands “look” but not “Look.” For a long, scary moment, I thought there was no way to see room descriptions a second time. The parser also breaks my Third Law of Parsing, which is “Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer.” GBTS is guilty of asking questions that look like disambiguation (“What do you want to get?”) without being able to handle a one-word answer at the next prompt.

It’s not that I think creating a homebrewed system would be easy. I’m sure it’s a hell of a lot of work. But why you’d put in all that work, coding (according to the readme) over 10,000 lines of C# in a state-of-the-art programming environment, to create something that wouldn’t have even passed muster as a text adventure twenty years ago… that escapes me. I could see trying it if that was your only choice, but there are multiple very good IF development environments, all of which produce output that’s playable on way more platforms than GBTS is, all of which offer all the features I described in my first paragraph “right out of the box”, and all of which are completely FREE!

It kind of feels like building your own piano while Steinways are being given away around the corner. It’d be one thing if your piano was going to be just as good as the free ones, but when yours has only 20 keys, no pedals, no black keys, and is wildly out of tune, how can you expect your performances to be any good? One of the sadder parts is that the readme proudly states that this homebrewed system has “the flexibility and freedom to accomplish what no other interactive fiction system can do: the game lives in real time.” Well, I can’t speak for TADS or Hugo, but Inform most certainly can do that. Hell, ZIL could do it. Border Zone had it in 1987.

Of course, GBTS would have its problems even if it were created with an IF development tool. It’s one of those games where you might see shelves full of stuff, and X SHELVES would give you a dull description about the stuff being a lot of supplies and junk. X SUPPLIES gives you the same description and X JUNK isn’t even implemented, so you move on, only to find out later (from the walkthrough) that SEARCH SHELVES would give you a special key for one of the game’s many locked doors. Many many first-level objects are unimplemented. Its/it’s errors infest the prose. There’s a sorta-maze, with a randomly appearing object that is vital for solving a puzzle. There’s tons of stuff like that. The story itself is fine, though highly derivative of Planetfall. But the game is an experience to be missed.

Rating: 3.2

Amnesia by Dustin Rhodes as crazydwarf [Comp03]

IFDB page: Amnesia
Final placement: 27th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Wow. Well. This one was… painful. Just abysmal. Really, really bad. When I played Curse Of Manorland, I kept having the urge to MST it in my comments, but my comments for this one mostly just looked like, “Aaaahhhh! The PAIN!” I mean, I don’t even know where to begin. It seemed almost like one of those joke games, you know, the ones where the joke is, “Look how bad this game is! Isn’t that hilarious?” I never really thought those joke games were very funny, but I don’t think this one is even joking. Here’s the first room:

A cool beach where you should have washed ashore and not have been
able to remember anything because you where supposed to have amnesia,
which you didn't, which completly ruins the whole storyline this game
was going to have, so now the auther will have to make a game up on
the spot, enjoy. By the way if you want to learn about me just type
about. Their is a huge rock sitting here innocently.

See what I mean about not knowing where to begin? The author says he’s in high school, and in fact writes, “I might I win the award for youngest IF writer, maybe that will get me a couple of points from the voters.” Sorry, dude. David Glasser wrote VirtuaTech at 14, and it’s miles better than this. Hell, Ian Finley wrote Babel at 17. Besides, my reaction to this game wasn’t “Oh, it’s pretty good for a high schooler,” but rather, “Holy crap, something this subliterate came from somebody who’s made it all the way to high school??”

Here are some things this game needs: Spell-check. Proofreading (to catch things like “Their is a huge rock,” which spell-check will miss.) Descriptions that care enough to actually, y’know, describe, and to write out their words instead of “the center of the town with houses NE, NW. To the W is a volcano, to the N is a mountain, and to the E is a jungle.” Even the game itself knows it sucks, because it mentions the fact every couple of rooms. Well, games that suck… suck. They shouldn’t be released. Show a little self-respect, and a little respect for the people you’re asking to spend time on your work. Damn.

Rating: 1.6

Janitor by Kevin Lynn and Peter Seebach as “Seebs” [Comp02]

IFDB page: Janitor
Final placement: 5th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: Janitor is one of those games where you figure out what you’re supposed to be doing as you go along. It doesn’t take a terribly long time to reach this conclusion, but I’m going to talk about it, and that could quite reasonably be seen as a big spoiler.

We’re in the 8th year of the IF competition, and we seem to be at the point where we’re officially recycling stuff. Having just finished a game (Coffee Quest II) that often feels like a cut-rate knockoff of Michael Gentry’s Comp98 entry Little Blue Men, I discover Janitor, which more or less recapitulates the gimmick from Comp97’s Zero Sum Game, by Cody Sandifer. That is to say: an adventure has just happened, the score is at full, and the PC’s job is to go around unwinding all the accomplishments and setting things back to how they were.

Janitor seems more or less unaware of Zero Sum Game and its “game over” successors like Comp98’s Enlightenment and Comp99’s Spodgeville Murphy — for example, it doesn’t do anything entertaining when asked for the FULL score tally — but happily, it implements the unwinding idea in a more fun way than ZSG did. I was pretty turned off by ZSG‘s callousness towards PC, NPC, and player alike, and the way it motivated the PC to undo everything (the PC’s mother didn’t approve of killing or stealing) was undercut by the game’s taunting of the PC as a “mama’s boy” (or girl). Janitor‘s more sensible approach is to cast the PC as an employee of a text adventure company who must reset the game world so that the next player will find all the puzzles unsolved and the treasures in their original locations.

To accomplish this, the PC can use magical “access corridors” that connect to various rooms in the “proper” game scenario, along with a “mimesis disruptor” that’s good for quite a bit of nifty description-switching. The locations and objects are described with a great deal of humor, and the layout and puzzles are imaginative and clever. I wasn’t able to finish the game in the two hours allotted, which disappointed me, because it looked just about ready to open up into a new and fascinating level. I’d recommend this game to those who enjoy puzzles and IF metalevels, but I’d also recommend waiting to see if there’s a debugged post-comp release.

I say this because unfortunately, Janitor‘s implementation doesn’t quite match up to the wit of its premise and its writing. For instance, there’s a puzzle that can be solved over and over again, bringing the player’s score down to zero in a flash (which is the goal) without really accomplishing much. There’s a bucket that is supposedly full of water, but is also described as empty. What’s more, this bucket ends up being the game’s sack object, which really makes very little sense — why would I automatically store stuff in a bucket of dirty water?

In addition, there is a thin but even layer of punctuation and spelling problems in the prose, and the writing sometimes fails to mention certain critical actions that the game undertakes on behalf of the PC; I went a good long time thinking an object had disappeared, when in fact the game had actually moved it to my inventory without ever saying so. Perhaps most irritating of all, the first portion of the game doesn’t tell you what your goal is supposed to be, except for the rather vague explanation that it’s your first day as a janitor. This would be fine, except for the fact that it fails to respond well to your attempts to actually clean stuff — most such actions are either unimplemented or met with a discouraging message. I’d much rather have seen the game obligingly handle every request to clean something, and let the score mechanism clue the player in to the larger goal.

Also, while I certainly appreciated the effort put into the hints, I was frustrated by the fact that they didn’t go so far as to lay out all the necessary tasks. Consequently, I was left wandering around the game with 4 points out of 100, unable to progress to the next stage because I couldn’t figure out the last lousy task the game wanted me to perform. The hints’ reassurance that “our beta testers consistently beat the game” was the opposite of reassuring, helping me instead to feel stupid as well as aggravated.

I can most certainly appreciate the impulse to avoid giving the game away in the hints — I didn’t even include any hints or walkthrough in my entry last year, foolishly thinking that anybody would be able to stumble through it. Even this year, I wanted to just include hints and no walkthrough, but thought better of it. When somebody only has two hours to play my game, I want them to be able to see as much of it as they can, and it’s really not my place to police their “fun level” by making sure they do it the hard way.

Despite its problems, Janitor was interesting and amusing, and I wish I could have seen it through to its end in the space of two hours. A walkthrough or more explicit hints would have allowed me to do that. Instead, I’m left wondering what I missed, in more ways than one.

Rating: 8.2

Scary House Amulet! by Ricardo Dague as Shrimpenstein [Comp02]

IFDB page: Scary House Amulet!
Final placement: 31st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game’s title captures its tone, right down to the exclamation point. The only way it could be better is if it incorporated some bold text and called itself Scary House Amulet! or some such, because about every seventh word in this game is bolded. At first, I thought this emphasis was serving an interface purpose, highlighting those nouns and verbs that the game implements. I thought that this was a very cool idea — one quickly gets used to the bold text, and the emphasis could help to avoid lots of those annoying “You can’t see any such thing” messages that pop up for unimplemented nouns.

As it turned out, however, the game wasn’t doing any such thing, and was instead sprinkling bold text throughout itself like salt onto french fries, as well as ending nearly every single sentence in at least one exclamation point. In addition, SHA occasionally gets extremely adjective-happy, as in this sentence: “It leads into an evil, scary, putrid dark stillness which makes the hair on your neck prickle!” As a satire of horror, this mock-gothic tone ended up working for me, and I laughed out loud several times during the game. Probably my favorite response, after finding a hole in the ground:

>look in hole
You find nothing... but evil!

The humor of the writing went some way towards compensating for the game’s many irritating design choices, most of which were lifted directly from the Zork playbook. There’s a light source puzzle. There’s a sequence where something comes swooping in and transports the PC to another location. And there are not one but two mazes.

Granted, none of these obstacles are made particularly diabolical, but they give the game’s design a fairly tired feel. It doesn’t help matters that pretty much all the other puzzles are of the “use x on y” variety, with x and y more or less unrelated to each other, prompting the player to just go through every object in her inventory until finding the one that happens to be right for the obstacle she faces. Even the puzzles that don’t fit this pattern don’t appear to have any particular logic behind them.

Still, this is not a shoddily crafted game. I found no bugs, and hardly any spelling or grammar errors. It’s got a clean, functional adaptive hint system, a thorough implementation of first-level nouns, and although the game credits no beta testers, it has a polished feel. It’s even got some great verbs added for fun:

The bat shrieks, "You must fear me! Fear me!"

>fear bat
You do fear the horrible bat!

There were a couple of areas where the writing felt a bit adolescent (particularly in its excoriation of Pepsi), but generally the over-the-top horror bit was pulled off with cleverness and panache. So at the end I was left scratching my head, and not just because the ending doesn’t really make any sense. Why would such a skilled implementor create this game, with its aggressively clich├ęd setting and puzzles, and no particular virtue except its entertaining writing? I don’t know. I laughed many times while I played SHA, but now that it’s over, I still feel like I didn’t get the joke.

Rating: 6.4