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

The HEBGB Horror! by Eric Mayer [Comp99]

IFDB page: The HeBGB Horror
Final placement: 16th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Patti Smith. The Talking Heads. Blondie. Television. The Ramones. While the Sex Pistols and the Clash were spitting in the face of the bloated English rock establishment, the artists named above were leading a concurrent American punk revolution in New York City. The nerve center of the movement was a club called CBGB (standing, ironically, for Country, Blue Grass, and Blues), where all of these artists got their start before being launched on the national stage. This is the scene to which Eric Mayer pays loving tribute in his competition entry, an ALAN game called The HeBGB Horror!. You play Phil Howard, a musician dreaming of hitting the big time in NYC. You’re down to your last few bucks, and ready to take the bus back home, when you spy a chance to see the reunion of legendary (fictional) punk band The Laughing Kats at their famous stomping grounds, HeBGB. It sounds great, so why can’t you shake this feeling of nameless dread? The game combines the trappings of the Seventies New York punk rock scene with the sort of Lovecraftian pastiche that seems to have become all the rage in IF since the success of Anchorhead.

I’m an avid rock music fan, so the former theme grabbed me immediately. The Lovecraft stuff, on the other hand, gets old pretty fast. Mayer obviously knows and loves the music, and the emphasis is on the New York punk scene — these themes could have sustained a game easily on their own. As I played through The HeBGB Horror!, I found myself really enjoying the punk parts, and wishing that the various “eldritch horrors” and such could have been edited out. I’m not sure how much the game wanted to parody CBGB, or how much of an homage it intended for the Lovecraft bits to be, but I think it may have achieved the opposite of its ambition, as the music parts felt mainly like homage, while the Lovecraftiana, with its various generic rats, tentacles, and gibbering masses, felt more like a parody.

But hey, as the game itself reminds us at several points, it’s only a “three-chord” effort. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about HeBGB is the way it evokes the D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) spirit of punk, making a joyous noise even though it’s no virtuoso. The author reinforces this viewpoint by cautioning us in the credits that HeBGB “does not represent the real capabilities of the Alan Language but does demonstrate Alan’s amazing ability to allow someone who has never done an iota of computer programming of any kind to produce SOMETHING within a few weeks!” This is a very nice thing to say about a programming language, and in fact HeBGB is quite playable despite a lack of programming polish.

However, there are a number of things missing from the game that the average game programmer shouldn’t have to worry about at all. For example, the game offers no “undo” function, nor an “oops” verb. Some simple things run contrary to convention, such as a “” prompt that accepts only the Enter key, rather than the space bar or any random keypress. Some fairly basic verbs are missing, such as “throw”. I attribute these flaws to deficiencies in the ALAN libraries (or perhaps, in some cases, the ARUN interpreter) rather than a failing on the author’s part. It’s unreasonable to expect every game author to program conveniences like “undo” on their own. That’s what libraries are for, and by being such a complete game in lots of other ways, HeBGB demonstrates the limitations of ALAN — not the language, but the default shell given to potential authors.

What the author can control he provides quite well. Despite a few spelling and formatting difficulties, the prose in HeBGB (especially when it’s not doing a Lovecraft parody) combines a snappy sense of humor with strong descriptions. The plot is clever, allowing a good deal of exploration while never opening so wide that the story feels aimless. There are a number of good things about the design, including the fact that the game is carefully structured in such a way as to allow players a second or third chance to obtain items that they may have failed to notice or pick up the first time around. These chances are always well-integrated within the game, and feel natural rather than gratuitous. This design choice allows HeBGB to close off early sections of the map once their purpose is served while avoiding the trap of making the game unsolvable once those sections are unavailable to the player.

The puzzles, for the most part, are quite good, maintaining a high level of originality and (with one exception) escaping “guess-the-verb” syndrome. The one qualm I did have about the puzzles is that at several points, you must return to apparently unfruitful locations to obtain an object that wasn’t there before. The reasons given for the appearances of the objects certainly make sense, but from a gameplay standpoint it’s not very logical for a player to assume that visiting and revisiting empty locations will be rewarded. Moreover, some of the actions required to make the object appear in the empty location don’t seem to have very much causal influence. In other words, the action which puts the object in the formerly empty spot gives players little reason to guess that visiting that spot again will be worthwhile. These quibbles aside, I enjoyed HeBGB quite a bit, and while I was wishing for the conveniences granted by more sophisticated libraries, the roughness of the game was in keeping with its topic, and that resonance lent it an unexpected charm.

Rating: 7.7