Clock by Cleopatra Kozlowski [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Clock
Final placement: 38th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There’s a long tradition in IF of Average-Joe protagonists who are thrown into a world where the normal rules no longer apply. Clock partakes of this tradition. Unfortunately, it also partakes of another, less pleasant IF tradition: the game where nothing really makes any sense. We start out with a fine, if somewhat fuzzy, premise: you’ve been asked by your friend Kitty to do some house-sitting and cat-sitting for her while she takes care of some urgent business. Being kind-hearted, you agree, but you soon find out that Kitty’s house is a strange clock-tower, and her cat is on the unusual side as well. Okay, great. To get much further, though, you’d better hope that your authorial telepathy is working really well.

For example (I am now going to spoil a puzzle that I can’t imagine anyone guessing for themselves): at one point, you find a “fairy coin”, which you’d think you might be able to use to buy something at the fairy shop you find later. Nope. The old woman who runs the shop says (without quotes, so it looks disconcertingly like a parser message) “This isn’t enough. I need proper paper money.” Alright, fair enough. Sadly, there’s no paper money to be found. So what do you do? Well, unexpectedly enough, you plant the coin in soft ground, water it, and a money tree grows! Now, it’d be one thing if there was some clear hint, like a reference to fairy money trees in one of the many reference books you find lying around, or if the old woman said “This is just seed money,” or something like that. The only hint we get is that on one of the TV stations (if you were diligent enough to watch every message from every station) an economic adviser says at one point, “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Sorry, but that’s just not enough of a hint. The only reason I’d connect this comment with planting the coin is if I was thinking, “Now why would the game include that comment?” When I play IF, though, I’m not thinking like that. I’m trying to put myself in the mind of the character, not stepping outside and thinking about how the game is constructed. If I have to puzzle out apparent non sequiturs and try to parse them as hints, then the game has failed me, as far as I’m concerned.

So the first thing that Clock needs to be reasonably solvable is much clearer hints. The next thing it needs is a much richer implementation. As with Punk Points, many areas in Clock suffer from the weakness that the only things implemented are the solutions. Look, that’s just not enough. For instance, several puzzles in the game depend on the construction “ASK <animal> ABOUT <object>.” Now, without a doubt, these solutions suffer from the problem I describe in the first paragraph — with absolutely no clues about talking animals, why in the world would anyone think to ask an animal about anything? However, let’s set that aside for a moment and pretend that you’ve somehow taken it into your head to ask an animal about something. If you ask about anything but the topics necessary to solve the puzzle, you get a stock response like “The cat meows” or “The frog croaks.” When I get a response like this, I take it as a very clear signal from the game that the animal doesn’t talk, doesn’t understand me, and that trying to have a conversation with it is useless. When just the opposite is true, I can only conclude that the game has no idea how to communicate clearly.

There’s another issue at hand. At the very beginning of the game, you find a note from your friend instructing you very strongly not to touch anything. After reading the note, the game tells you “You decide to do pretty much as she says – but surely it couldn’t hurt to look around a bit, so long as nobody finds out!” So that’s what I tried to do — look around a bit, but do pretty much as she says and not touch anything. I sort of expected that something would happen where I’d be in danger, or the house would, or the cat, or something, and I’d have to break the rule and start rummaging through my friend’s belongings. Nothing happened. The clock stopped, but that’s about it. The dilemma I found myself in is whether I should behave like a standard text adventurer (search everything, take anything that isn’t nailed down, etc.) or like the character the game was shaping for me.

It soon became apparent, however, that the latter choice was pointless, because if I follow it, the game goes nowhere. Consequently, I had to start pillaging. I didn’t like it. What Clock didn’t seem to grok is that lots of players take their behavioral cues from the character the text suggests. If you have to deliberately break character in order to succeed in the game, then the game has basically shot itself in the foot. For this reason, and the others described above, I turned quickly to the walkthrough, finished the game, and didn’t have much fun. But none of those things were the worst part. The worst part is that there were two starvation puzzles (you have to feed yourself and something else) along with a pointless sleep timer. Authors, please. I beg you. I implore you. STOP IT with the starvation puzzles!! Stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it! Thank you.

Rating: 3.4

Punk Points by Jim Munroe [Comp00]

IFDB page: Punk Points
Final placement: 22nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: this review has a bit of profanity here and there.

Here’s a thesis: the method for making a great punk rock song is antithetical to the method for making a great IF game. See, when you’re making punk rock, the main thing is emotion. It doesn’t matter if you play the wrong chord, or sing the wrong note, or say the wrong words — those are details, and they aren’t important. The point is that you get the spirit across, that you communicate that great fucking barbaric yawp, as Walt Whitman might have said were he a punk rocker. But great IF doesn’t get made like this. The best IF authors are less like Sid Vicious or Jello Biafra and more like Todd Rundgren or (to take a really non-punk example) Mick Jones of Foreigner. That is to say, they are studio wizards who put endless attention into the details.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t communicate emotion, too, but it works differently, because we receive IF differently from the way we experience punk rock. Listening to punk rock is a passive experience, not because you don’t get involved emotionally — you certainly do, or at least I do — but because the band throws the song at you, and you have to catch it, and you’re not doing anything to influence them, at least not anything direct (and if you’re listening to a recording rather than a live performance, not anything at all.) Playing IF, on the other hand, is all about shaping the work. In addition, we receive IF one piece at a time, whereas music is more of a gestalt experience. Consequently, IF players spend a ton of time poking into the details, and they can be counted on to stray from the path of the plot. If some studio wizard hasn’t made sure that most of those odd steps are accounted for, and removed all the bugs that might trip an unwary player, the game is unlikely to get its yawp across.

By now you probably know where I’m going with this analogy. Punk Points is put together like a great punk rock song, which unfortunately makes it pretty much middling poor IF. The writing is spot-on, doing an excellent job of capturing a Catholic boys’ high school in 1985, crystallizing a portrait of the PC as 13-year-old malcontent rebelling against the school’s repressive system, and offering convincing characters with great dialogue. The coding, on the other hand, falls down rather badly, which takes pretty much all of the punch away from the writing.

See, in IF it’s not enough just to have a great song — you have to play all the notes right, sing on pitch, and remember all the words, too. Otherwise, you end up with players like me wandering around carrying an object that wasn’t supposed to be takeable, and banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to do next, unable to do so because the answer involves a logical impossibility once I’m carrying the object. (Problems like this were intensified by the lack of hints, which the game asserts “are for fucking posers.”) The game has tons of errors like this — most not quite so game-killing, and some quite humorous (try putting your middle finger on something and walking away), but all of which take you right out of the immersive world that the writing has worked so hard to create. There are a ton of cool ideas in Punk Points, but after spending most of my time beating my brains out against its bugs and sparse implementation, I didn’t come out remembering any of the cool stuff — just the frustration.

The other big example of this problem is in the game’s characters. In the cut-scenes, these characters positively sparkle with reality. The dialogue in those scenes is crisp and believable, and their actions fit in well with their words. Once we get to the interactive scenes, however, it’s another story. These NPCs are just barely implemented. Nobody moves, nobody does too much except two or three random pieces of business, and worst of all, nobody has much of a response to anything, except the one crucial thing you’re supposed to ask them about. But see, when 9 out of 10 things get a default response, or no response at all, I’m not likely to get to that 10th question. I just figure that the NPC isn’t important, because obviously not much work was put into implementing it.

This reasonable but incorrect assumption tripped me up on a number of the game’s puzzles, especially those in the second act, several of which hinge on guessing the right noun in “ASK ABOUT”. When they don’t answer to pretty much anything else, why should I keep asking them about things? Stuff like that may be details, but lack of attention to the details just kills an IF game. Maybe that kind of meticulousness would make Punk Points less punk, but it sure as hell would make it a better game.

Rating: 5.8