Silicon Castles by David Given as Jack Maet [Comp01]

IFDB page: Silicon Castles
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Silicon Castles clearly owes a debt to Andrew Plotkin’s Lists And Lists. Like that game, Castles prominently features a genie, one who boasts voluminous knowledge on one particular topic. Like Lists, Castles is a very impressive technical achievement. And like Lists, Castles isn’t really interested in being interactive fiction. Where Lists and Lists was an ingenious implementation of Scheme in the z-machine, Silicon Castles is an ingenious implementation of Chess in the z-machine.

I suppose it was inevitable — every year, a few more z-machine abuses come out, many of them raising the stakes for complexity and ambitiousness, and Silicon Castles may be the most ambitious yet. When a match is underway, the game neatly expands the status line window to display the board, a key to the ASCII codes in that display, a score, the game status, and what moves the genie is considering. Unlike Zugzwang, the PC is a chess player rather than a chess piece, and can type in moves as “move knight to C3” or just “move b1c3”. The genie has an adjustable setting for how many moves it can look ahead, and the game even has the option of setting up custom board layouts before play begins. It’s all very cleverly done.

Now, here’s something about me: I suck at chess. When it comes to computer chess games, well, I’m a great text adventure player. I can see, in an abstract sense, the beauty and elegance of it all, and in the right mood I can appreciate the intellectual rigor of chess problems, but for whatever reason, my turn of mind doesn’t lend itself to such strategic amusements. Consequently, I really don’t enjoy computer chess that much, and that held true for this game as well.

Moreover, even if I did enjoy computer chess, I don’t think the z-machine is a particularly good environment for it. A drag-and-drop mouse interface is about a thousand times easier and more logical than “move b1c3”, and while the little IF touches like the genie and the object descriptions are fun, they don’t do much to improve the clumsiness of the main experience. In fact, there are some problems with even the minimal IF content of this game — there’s not nearly enough cueing for the transition between IF and chess match, making that transition into a rather pointless puzzle.

Finally, there are some serious flaws to the chess section as well — I don’t think it’s completely functional. One of the command styles described by the game, “move <piece><space>”, as in “move nc3” (move knight to c3) doesn’t appear to work at all. In addition, although the game described how to perform castling, I couldn’t get it to respond to the command it suggested (“move O-O”). So although I was impressed as hell with Silicon Castles‘ technical achievements, I found it a rather unsatisfactory experience. As chess, it’s not bad, but its interface is clunky and it appears to be missing some critical functionality. As interactive fiction… well, it’s pretty much absent.

Rating: 7.2

an apple from nowhere by Brendan Barnwell as Steven Carbone [Comp01]

IFDB page: an apple from nowhere
Final placement: 37th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Last year’s comp gave us Stupid Kittens, which I called dadaist IF. an apple from nowhere (caps intentionally omitted, as they are in the game) is perhaps a cousin to that game. It’s avant-garde, certainly, but where Stupid Kittens‘ stream of non sequiturs was snide and aggressive, this game’s barrage of scenes feels more distinctly dreamlike, less a pointed attack than just the random firing of synapses, aggregating elements from life to stretch them and collide them.

The game skirts some taboo areas, drug use and pedophilia among them, but it seems to do so more out of an attempt to directly channel the subconscious than out of an explicit desire to shock. Perhaps I’m giving it too much credit — there is an awful lot of in-your-face subject matter here — but the dreamlike atmosphere felt genuine, if overly charged. Perhaps it’s the dream world of a somewhat mentally ill person.

The question it brings up for me is this: what happens to IF when logic is removed? There are plenty of bad games that lack logic unintentionally, and some of these can be as surreal as anything in apple, but they are unsatisfactory, because we can sense that their incongruencies are a bug rather than a feature. When the illogic is intentional, the IF prompt carries a different sort of subtext. Normally, the presence of interactivity tells us that the game wants to shape itself around our commands, and challenges us to enter into a dance with the text whereby we both lead and are led. When a game makes it clear that its responses to our commands may only be tangentially related to what we type, and may not be related at all, it has taken the lead in that dance and turned it into more of an amusement park ride. Now, amusement park rides can be a wonderful thing, and I’d even suggest that there is some room for exploring the ways in which participation can enhance surreality — Shade is an excellent example of this sort of thing done right.

apple, however, has a different agenda than Shade. At the core of Shade, there was still a story being told; all its unreal occurrences were very clearly included with a purpose in mind. In this game, such a purpose is harder to discern. It’s awfully brief, for one thing, so we don’t get much of a chance to make the connections that might lead to a story. For another, it jumps, Fusillade-style, through a variety of characters, settings, and even writing formats (a few scenes are written as a sort of interactive screenplay.) It was well-written enough, and certainly well implemented. There was very little interactivity, but that’s hardly the point in a piece like this.

Ultimately, I think it was apple‘s lack of cohesion that failed me. When I reached the end of this game, I blinked, and then I shrugged. Some people can look at a Pollock and see emotion made visible. Other people just see chaos. This game may be similar, and while I enjoy surreality and even randomness, I don’t think there’s much here that will be sticking with me.

Rating: 7.1

You Were Doomed From The Start by Jeremy Carey-Dressler as Noob [Comp01]

IFDB page: You Were Doomed From the Start
Final placement: 51st place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I hate to say it, but once I saw the author’s name, I knew the title couldn’t be more appropriate. Doomed is like a very stripped down, simplified version of The Last Just Cause, and is put forth by the author as “more of a ‘Example work’ to teach programmers how to program a Text-based game more that [sic] a full game.” This is too easy a target, so I’ll just say this: people interested in writing a text game should evaluate a few different games, perhaps sampling among the systems used in this competition, and decide which ones they’d most like their game to resemble.

In some ways, the fact that this game is even more primitive (amazing as that is) than TLJC, is actually a good thing. For one thing, the supremely irritating combat engine is absent, as are the zillions of rooms and nonsensical puzzles. On the other hand, they haven’t really been replaced with anything much. There are a few rooms to go through, a key in each one. Unlock the last room with all the keys, get the key from that room, and that’s it. The ending of this game is just as mocking and irritating as anything from TLJC, but at least it’s over quickly.

This game also shares with TLJC the hallmarks of nonsensical world design and in-jokey object descriptions. The fact that there are fewer of them counts for a little, but only a little.

Rating: 2.5

The Beetmonger’s Journal by Scott Starkey as Aubrey Foil [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Beetmonger’s Journal
Final placement: 5th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I wrote LASH, one of the things I had some fun with was splitting up the functions that we traditionally assign to the PC. The conceit of the game was that the player was controlling a robot via the IF interface; the robot reported its experiences in a first person, present tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:

>x me
I cannot see you. We are only connected by a satellite link.

The Beetmonger’s Journal takes this sort of complexity one step further. The game begins, told in the first person voice by the Dr. Watson-ish assistant to Victor Lapot, famous archaeologist. However, unlike Infocom’s Sherlock, where Watson actually was the PC and Holmes just tagged along, in this game it is Lapot whose actions are controlled by the player, even as the results continue to be reported by the assistant in a third person past tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:

>x me
Lapot looked over in my direction. I stood close by, available to
offer my assistance in any way possible. Just in case, I kept my
possessions handy: a shovel, a pick-axe, a canteen, a steno notebook,
a pencil, a package of "gorp", a 50' length of rope, a compass, a
pistol, and a clean pair of undies.

I thought this response in particular was lots of fun — not only did it immediately make clear that the voice of the parser and the object of the commands were two different characters, but it also subtly provided a pretext for compass-based movement, lent plausibility to the two characters as a legitimate archaeological expedition, and poked a bit of fun at the voluminous inventories of typical IF PCs. And to put the cherry on top, the Watson character’s name was Aubrey Foil — the same as the author’s comp pseudonym, thus reeling the various character layers neatly back into the matrix of a memoir written by a famous scientist’s close companion.

Even better, a little ways in, the game does a POV shift that adds yet another narrative and character layer, and this shift is handled as neatly as can be. The background color changes, the tone of the writing alters a little, and little touches like an epigram, a printed date, and and a cleared screen smooth the transition handily. The voice remains third person past tense, but the parser’s voice and the object of commands have dovetailed back into one character, a different character from the two introduced in the frame story. Then, at intervals, we get glimpses of what’s happening in that frame story, and those bits are literally enclosed in a frame, backgrounded with the appropriate color from that narrative layer.

I have to say, I was quite impressed with all this POV manipulation — I think it was the best part of the whole game. I got excited just thinking about the possibilities for parallel action and dramatic irony that this technique opens up. This particular game doesn’t take much advantage of these possibilities, but it does a fine job of breaking new ground on the trail blazed by games like Being Andrew Plotkin. There were some other nicely programmed conveniences as well. For instance, one puzzle involves an action that the player will have to repeat several times throughout the game; The Beetmonger’s Journal implements this by requiring that the proper action be entered the first couple of times, then handles it automatically from that point forward. This sort of sophistication requires extra work from the programmer, but it really pays off in the player’s experience, and this game extends that kind of thoughtfulness to the player throughout.

Amidst this smooth coding, there were a few flaws. Typos, factual errors, and formatting problems were infrequent, but far from absent. In addition, there were a few places in which the game sported outright bugs. The most glaring problem, however, was with a puzzle. It’s not a puzzle everyone will encounter, because at a crucial decision point the game bifurcates into two separate plot paths, and this puzzle is only on one of those paths. However, that was the path I chose, and this puzzle tripped me up enough that I was forced to go to the walkthrough, which is unfortunate, given how smoothly the game had delivered hints up to that point.

Basically, there are two problems with this puzzle — I’ll discuss them in fairly vague terms to avoid spoilage. First, the clue for the puzzle seems to be embedded in an environmental “atmosphere” message that only prints randomly. This setup has the dual disadvantage of fading into insignificance after several instances and possibly not printing when the player most needs to see it. A crucial clue whose absence will stop the player from progressing probably shouldn’t be random. The other problem is that the correct response to this clue entails the use of a verb that’s both logically unlikely and undemonstrated anywhere else in the game. Consequently, even if I had seen the clue when I most needed it, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to use the necessary verb — I just would never have thought it would work, because it’s rather unusual and because it’s a bit implausible.

These problems are a bit of a letdown within a game containing so many excellent portions, but they don’t detract enough to take away the essential fun of being enveloped by all those wonderful layers.

Rating: 8.8

Mystery Manor by Dana Crane as Mystery [Comp01]

IFDB page: Mystery Manor
Final placement: 43rd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I played this game on Halloween. I was alone in the house. The lights were off. There was a full moon outside. I was experiencing an eerie lull in the trick-or-treating. I could not have been more primed to be creeped out, frightened, and made into a paranoid wreck. Sadly, even when conditions are perfect, this game falls far short of effectiveness in the creep-out arena. The only thing that’s really scary about it is its writing. Observe, IF YOU DARE:

A swirl of icey air rushes past you, with bringing the sound of a womans screams. Just as you are about to make a run for it , the bloody decapitated body blocks your way. Holding her head in front of your face, so she may get a good look at you, the bloody head whimpers, “You are not the one” with that the ghost flees with a ear piercing scream.

Hmm, let’s see. “Icey” instead of “icy”. “With bringing the sound”? “Womans screams” instead of “woman’s screams”. Bizarre space before the comma (following “run for it”.) “The” bloody decapitated body? It was never mentioned before this. “Holding her head… the bloody head whimpers” — very funny misplaced modifier. “With that” should begin a new sentence, and there should be a period after “the one”. “A ear piercing scream” instead of “an ear-piercing scream”. And that’s just three sentences! It’s too bad this game didn’t give out points every time I spotted an error, because if it did, I think I’d have earned 524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.

Oh, or how about this: forget the writing errors — what if the game gave out points every time I spotted an implementation error! Man, I’d have scored big-time during scenes like this:

You are in the dining room [...] The room is dark, lit only by
reflections from lightning outdoors.

This is a nostalgic oak dining table. The surface reflects the
overhead lighting. It has a beautiful oak finish.

So the table’s surface reflects the overhead lighting, even when there is no overhead lighting! Oooh, spooky! Elsewhere, a whiskey bottle contains more spirits than just the alcoholic kind:

You open the bottle of whiskey.

I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist.

The bottle of whiskey is already open!

I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist.

I keep opening it, but some invisible force stops me from drinking it! Don’t look now Scooby, but I think that whiskey bottle is… HAUNTED! Too bad, because I could really have used a belt at that point.

Then there were the numerous problems that were probably ADRIFT‘s fault rather than the game’s. There’s the famous “Nothing special” line whenever you EXAMINE <any word the parser doesn’t know>, including EXAMINE PARSER. Always a pleasure. There are the pop-up graphics that I think failed to pop up. (I’m guessing this based on the fact that I had files like “UfloorPL.bmp” in my directory, yet X UPPER FLOOR PLAN yielded no graphics.) There are the “cannot draw map — too complex” errors that the mapper gave me EVERY SINGLE FREAKING TURN after a while. There’s this sort of interaction:

It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
smudges on it. The refrigerator is closed.

You open the refrigerator.

It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
smudges on it. The refrigerator is open.

Yes, I know it’s open, but what’s inside it? Apparently the ADRIFT parser searches on keywords and just ignores those other tiresome words that might happen to surround the keywords, thus neatly avoiding pretty much the entire concept of prepositions. My favorite extreme example of this tendency (from this game anyway):

Take what?

“Hey man,” says the ADRIFT parser, “I don’t care what else you say — as long as you type “GET” anywhere in there, I’m going to ask, ‘Take what?’ Um… not that I’ll be able to handle it if you actually answer me.” Okay, one more example then I promise I’ll quit:

You can't lie in the bed.

You can't lie on the bed.

You lie down on the ground.

I don't understand what you want me to do with the bed.

You stand up.

You stand on the bed.

Yay! Endless hours of fun. Not the sort of fun that the game seems to expect me to be having, but still. The endless well of humor from a terrible game was just the thing to lighten up a potentially scary Halloween night. Too bad that sort of thing doesn’t factor into the rating.

Rating: 2.3

A Night Guest by Valentine Kopteltsev as Dr. Inkalot [Comp01]

IFDB page: A Night Guest
Final placement: 16th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s a new approach to interactive poetry: write the poem in advance, and then create the game as a sort of adaptation of the poem. I’m reading lots of Dickinson these days, and that’s what I tend to think of when I think about poetry — short, rather abstract verses, capturing an image or making an observation in compact, dense language. This sort of poem would be ill suited to the adaptation approach, but there are other poetic traditions, one of which is the grand narrative poem, as practiced by Renaissance poets like Spenser, as well as Pope, Tennyson, and more modern versifiers such as, well, Dr. Seuss. This sort of poem tells a story, and presumably that story can be adapted to an interactive form using the same techniques one might use to adapt a prose story.

Of course, the danger of adapting any story is that it’s difficult to inject interactivity into an already extant plot structure, since plots are full of dependencies that are weakened every time a choice is given to the player. Consequently, the temptation is to give the interactive form nearly as rigid a structure as the non-interactive one, and that’s certainly what happens here. Because the game has the poem preconceived, the player has no choice but to follow its path. Consequently, what passes for interactivity is a series of one-choice nodes, where the player keeps trying various things until she hits upon what the game wants her to type. When the magic command is found, the game rewards the player by displaying the next section of verse.

The verse itself is more or less doggerel, a mock epic in Seussian meter, though without the nonsense words or moral messages we tend to associate with Dr. Seuss. The story it tells is a brief one, almost like a fable, except that its rogue hero is never redeemed, and the moral is muddy at best. Still, not every poem needs to be sublime, nor every story uplifting, and the poem (as a poem) had its pleasures. There were some rather clever rhymes, and some nice bits of characterization. The meter mostly kept a pleasant, singsong pace, though there were times it stumbled quite badly, usually on the last line of a stanza.

The illustrations, similarly, were not of the highest quality but some of the better ones definitely made a positive contribution towards enhancing the game’s mood. One well-used feature was the way the game changed to centered text and a monospace font when displaying the poem, but stuck with left-aligned proportional text for the actual interaction. This formatting choice set off the poem nicely, though it did emphasize the schism between poem and game, thus making it plain just how much the latter was grafted onto the former.

That’s basically the problem with A Night Guest. It’s an amusing poem (what there is of it, anyway — the whole thing is quite short), but it’s very clear that the game was built around the poem rather than vice versa. Thus, it feels rather like reading a book that forces you to say a magic word before you can turn the page. The “puzzles” (really just figuring out how to respond to the game’s cues) don’t add much, and I was left with the feeling that the whole thing would have been much more pleasant had it been just an illustrated chapbook rather than a narrative poem pretending to be interactive. Of course, I recognize how amazingly difficult it would be to create a game that actually expressed itself in verse but was a game first and foremost. No doubt that’s why it hasn’t been done yet.

Rating: 5.3

The Last Just Cause by Jeremy Carey-Dressler as Noob [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Last Just Cause
Final placement: 50th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Hoo boy. I’m not sure how to approach this one. OK, let me start here. If I had downloaded this game by itself from, I don’t know, or something, I think I would have approached it differently. I might have taken, for example, its more or less complete lack of a parser more in stride. However, this is my 20th text adventure in 17 days, and all the others — even the homebrewed Windows ones — at least made some pretense at approaching the ability to understand basic language input. Consequently, I approached TLJC like another text adventure. It isn’t. This game doesn’t even come close to the level of understanding displayed by even something like Angora Fetish. I typed “x lantern”, and here’s what happened:

You have used 0 turns... What do you want to do next? x lantern

That might be foolish, try something else...

Your HP is 104 percent. You're in room 1. Your MP is 44.
You have used 1 turns... What do you want to do next?

That might be foolish, try something else...

Your HP is 104 percent. You're in room 1. Your MP is 44.
You have used 2 turns... What do you want to do next?

What I determined, after a bit more confused thrashing about, is that the game only understands one word at a time, and that its vocabulary is limited to a couple dozen words. After being immersed in modern, sophisticated text adventures, this game suddenly made me feel like I had time-warped back to 1982, and that one of my 12-year-old colleagues had just unveiled their rockin’ new game to me.

I just keep coming back to it: programming an IF game from scratch may make for a better (or at least more educational) experience for the programmer, but it almost always provides a much worse experience for the player. Not that this game would necessarily have benefited greatly from being written in an advanced IF language. Its shape is extremely simplistic, it has very little story, its writing lacks coherency (as well as a number of other virtues), and… well, I could go on, but what’s the point?

TLJC (which, by the way, never mentions causes of any kind, be they just or unjust) has the feel of a bad early-eighties console game, with very primitive action, only a few items, and rooms that vary for appearances’ sake only, with no regard whatsoever to creating a believable or even consistent gameworld. It also falls into what I’m beginning to recognize as a standard trap of beginning IF authors: mocking the player for no good reason. The very first room gives us this:

You are in a cave... Now that you have light, you see there is a
spider on your leg you go screaming like a little child!

Okay, setting aside the egregious punctuation problems for just a second, I still have to ask just what this wants to accomplish. Is the game giving me some bit of characterization about the PC? Is it trying to establish that the narrative voice will be a harsh, unfriendly Hans-and-Franz kind of presence, mocking the little girlyman throughout the game? Nah, it’s just there — it seems to be little more than free association.

TLJC is one of those games that it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying who isn’t the author. It doesn’t offer good writing. It doesn’t offer interesting technical achievements. Lord knows it doesn’t offer fun gameplay, instead serving up mind-numbing tedium of battle after battle with one (undescribed and made-up) monster, all of which feel like waiting around while various dicerolls happen without you. (Although I did greatly enjoy when the game asked if I wanted to use the “lighting” spell, and upon my assent cried “I call upon the Power of lighting!” That’ll make an excellent line for turning on lamps.)

Its puzzles (such as they are) make very little sense. Oh, there is an implementation of blackjack that felt like it had received the most care and interest of any feature in the game. I guess that goes to show that as sheer programming exercises go, it’s probably better to make card games than interactive fiction. It’s hard enough to make good IF even when you have every advanced tool in the world on your side. It’s a problem that encompasses design ability, writing ability, and programming ability too. With a card game, the first is taken care of, and the second is irrelevant, so it’s only the third that gets challenged. I think I’d have a lot more fun playing a first-time programmer’s version of blackjack than I would playing their homebrewed IF. That was certainly the case this time.

Rating: 2.4

Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country by Adam Thornton as One Of The Bruces [Comp01]

IFDB page: Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country
Final placement: 30th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: If you’re offended by obscenity, profanity, depravity, and what have you, please don’t read this review. In fact, if you are such a person, please avoid any further encounters with anything that has the word “Stiffy” in the title, up to and including this review and (for God’s sake) this game.

The original Stiffy Makane, a game authored by Mark Ryan and occasionally known by its full title, The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane, earned its place in the annals of… er, in the history of IF by being fairly vile in subject, extremely terrible in execution, and very (unintentionally) funny. It became the standard by which all other awful, poorly implemented, ridiculously puerile “adult” IF is measured. It even inspired a MSTing co-authored by one “Drunken Bastard” who, one gathers, may go by a number of other aliases as well.

In short, this was not a game crying out for a sequel. Yet, here we have it. SMTUC is extremely vile in subject, fairly good in execution, and very (intentionally) funny, which makes it a real treat for anybody who can stomach an extremely vile game for the sake of humor. For those of you in this category, I’m loath to spoil any of the game’s wonderful, awful surprises, and I encourage you to heartily ignore any whispers of “moose cock” and suchlike that you may hear around the less reputable corners of the newsgroups. At least, ignore them until you play the game, and then don’t hesitate to join in. For those of you not in this category: listen, I already warned you once, so just stop reading already!

SMTUC opened my eyes to several things that I could have happily lived my entire life without seeing, and put several images in my head that will no doubt haunt me to my grave, but it was a good time for all that. For one thing, it lovingly parodies not only the original Stiffy (not a tough target), but also an entire subgenre of games, the redheaded stepchild of IF: “X Trek” (also not a tough target, but what the hey.) These would be pornographic pieces of IF, mostly written in AGT, devoted to detailing the sexual adventures of Star Trek characters. Such things, I’m told, exist — I’ve never sought or played one, due no doubt to my timid and puritan spirit.

In fact, there’s even an entire newsgroup devoted to them, I’ve never visited (see above for reasons), but rumors have filtered down to me that it’s become a hotbed… er, a haven for attempts to write legitimate IF erotica, a form of which I have never seen a successful example, though I’ll grant I haven’t looked very… er, searched with much diligence. SMTUC is not an attempt at erotica, but rather a gleeful poke (okay, I can’t keep avoiding it — double entendres ahoy from this point forward) at “adult” IF as it stands. There’s the requisite Horny Chick, whose uniform is just ever so “hot and chafey”, and who, when coaxed out of it, is more than happy to perform the most obliging acts on the PC. One of my favorite lines of hers:

>feed rohypnol to terri
"No thanks, I already took some."

There’s the aptly named Hot Chick, whose function the game makes clear:

The Hot Chick here is, as you have come to realize after innumerable
runs through the holodeck, the reward for your puzzle. The logic is
simple and always the same: jump through some hoops, get to fuck the
girl. If only real life were so easy!

Indeed. Up to this point, the game is a standard, serviceable parody of AIF, with a few gleeful jabs at people on the periphery of the r*if community, such as Espen Aarseth, Chris Crawford, and Brandon Van Every. I’m not sure which I liked more, the IF-related parodies or the AIF-related ones.

However. The game does continue beyond this point, and it’s here where we really cross the boundary into “the undiscovered” (at least by Stiffy, anyway.) I hate to spoil anything (and the following will be a medium-level plot spoiler, for those of you who care), but it’s essential to the point I want to make that following these two fairly standard AIF bangs, Stiffy fucks (and is fucked by) a giant, hairy, male Space Moose. This Moose is Stiffy’s mentor in the brave new world of homoeroticism, and thanks to the adroit manipulations of a not-at-all-neutral author, Stiffy has no choice but to enjoy it.

And so we come to the thing I liked best about SMTUC: the game’s (brace yourself) feminism. Yes, we get two scenes of the standard AIF objectification of female sexuality, though even these are subverted somewhat, given that one of the “women” is actually a rather unenthusiastic robotic hologram, and the other expresses strong dissatisfaction with the experience (“Barcelona sighs deeply, pushes you out into the hallway and snarls, ”Scuse me. I gotta go tickle the Elmo. Bye now.'”) After this, though, the Moose makes Stiffy his bitch, and suddenly the predatory PC gets scored upon rather than scoring. (Well, he still scores — one point, to be precise — but you know what I mean.)

By upending the traditionally male exercise of porno IF and making its PC the object as well as the subject of penetration (and penetration by a moose, no less), SMTUC takes a sly swipe at what’s really offensive about most AIF: the fact that it takes one of our most intimate, personal human behaviors, and reduces it to an exercise in hoop-jumping, involving thoroughly dehumanized players. Honestly, I have no idea whether this was at all Adam’s (oh sorry, “Bruce’s”) intention, but that’s how it struck me. Is it some kind of revolution or great step forward? Nah, but it was fun to see (and hear, and read about) Stiffy hoisted, as the saying goes, by his own petard.

[Oh, I’m out of paragraphs and forgot to mention the music and graphics. So: Yay music! Yay graphics! (Well, except for one particular graphic that, however appropriate it may have been, I just can’t say yay to. You know the one.)]

Rating: 9.2

Fine-Tuned by Dennis Jerz as Dionysius Porcupine [Comp01]

IFDB page: Fine-Tuned
Final placement: 18th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Dammit, people, stop this! I played Fine-Tuned for an hour, and loved it. Aside from a few spelling mistakes and stray bugs, it was a delightful game with terrific writing, fun characters, and a great plot. But the further we get into that plot, the more broken the game becomes, until it finally implodes with a fiery crash that can even bring down the whole interpreter. Naturally, this happens at a climactic point in the story.

This experience SUCKS. It makes me wish I could give negative ratings. It’s much worse playing a game that would be great except for how horribly broken it is than it is playing a game that’s weak but bug-free. It’s IF interruptus.


Rating: 1.0

2112 by George K. Algire as George K. George [Comp01]

IFDB page: 2112
Final placement: 24th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Unlike the other game at the IF Archive by this title, 2112 is not an adaptation of the 1976 Rush song. There are no Red Stars of the Solar Federation, no Temples of Syrinx… really, no Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian sci-fi whatsoever. Instead, this game just happens to be set in the year 2112, and casts the PC as a middle school student taking a field trip to humanity’s scientific outpost on the planet Mars.

The futuristic trappings are there, but I wouldn’t exactly call this game science fiction. Its vision of the future is more or less a straight transplantation of present-day life into a century from now, with very little extrapolation for change. The students travel to Mars in a Boeing 797, and upon reaching the planet, the PC finds a Starbucks, a Gap, even a “2113 Dodge Aries Planet Hopper.” As the author jokes in the readme, “It’s a shame they don’t offer a prize for most corporate name-dropping in a single work.” The game reserves a little sneering for the various corporate presences, but I’d hesitate to call it satirical — the swipes are rather too blunt to deserve that label. Of course, the game was so large that I didn’t reach the ending in two hours, even after I spent the second hour more or less typing commands straight from the walkthrough, so there may have been a stinger that I missed later on in there, tying the whole thing together and making some kind of point. More on the size a little later.

This not-quite-science-fiction, not-quite-satire game was also written as a Windows executable, using a homegrown parser. Every year, the IF competition seems to attract one or more of these, and I have to say, I find it rather interesting that there are enough people willing to write their own parsers and world models to actually provide a number of new creations, all with their own from-scratch code, for each and every annual IF competition. I’ve mentioned before that the urge to keep reinventing the wheel is quite a foreign one to me, and that I tend to dread these homegrown entries, as their parsers are much more likely to be problematic, snide, and annoying. Due credit, though: 2112 has one of the best homegrown parsers I’ve ever seen. Yes, it still breaks rule #1 of Paul’s Parser Manifesto: “Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.” One small favor is that its violation applies only to verbs, as in the following exchange on the occasion of finding a stuck hatch:

>pry hatch
You don't figure doing that would help you much.

Well actually, I did figure doing that would help me. That’s why I typed it. Turns out the game would have responded exactly the same way if I had typed “rpy hatch.” However, on the positive side, the parser has a very useful and ingenious way of disambiguating. For instance:

>drop note
. . . note
Which of the following do you mean? 1) the small yellow note, 2) the
pile of notebooks? Just hit 3) to forget it.

After issuing this question, the game disables all keys except 1, 2, and 3, thus preventing accidental input while preserving (through the last option) player freedom. I thought this was a great way to prevent the pernicious “Let’s try it again: Which do you mean, the note or the note?” problem. 2112 also had several fun features available, such as a customized game window, appropriate (and sometimes startling) sounds, and multicolored text. It even provided most of the features I’ve come to expect from IF, such as scripting capability and undo, though I was hesitant to use the latter because it required restarting the former.

Usually my screed on homegrown games is that nifty features don’t matter as much as a solid parser. 2112, though, has both. You’d think I’d be satisfied. Well, it turns out that reasonable game design is nearly as much of a must as a good parser, and it’s here that 2112 doesn’t quite make it. I’d played the game for about an hour and couldn’t figure out what to do next — the game was telling me I was still in the preface, despite my having explored a couple dozen rooms and solved a variety of puzzles. So I checked out the walkthrough, and guess what? I’d failed to find a vital item in the first 10 moves of the game, and there was no way to recover that item, nor to substitute its use in the puzzles that involved it. I had to restart, and let me tell you, I was gritting my teeth.

From that point, I was going straight from the walkthrough, and although I did this for a straight hour, I still wasn’t able to finish the game. What this means to me is that 2112 is in no way a two-hour game. Consequently, it dodged the pet peeve I expected it to hit (shoddy homegrown parsers) and ran smack into two others (games inappropriately large for the competition, and games that close off without warning.) Oh, I almost forgot to mention: the game suffers from a number of spelling and grammar errors, too. Make that three pet peeves. 2112 is a slick piece of work, and it didn’t need TADS or Inform in order to be as richly interactive as it needed to be. What it did need, however, was to take a few lessons from the game design ethos that the IF community has evolved alongside its development systems.

Rating: 6.6