The Masque Of The Last Faeries by Ian R. Ball [Comp00]

IFDB page: Masque Of the Last Faeries
Final placement: 31st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Yet another entry in the category of “cool idea with lame execution” comp games, The Masque Of The Last Fairies is all the more frustrating for the glimpses of quality visible beneath its very rough exterior. At first, the problems appear to be rather superficial: formatting weirdness, grammar blunders, and such. Now don’t get me wrong — these things matter, a lot. It’s a source of constant puzzlement to me that games get released to the public while they’re still swimming with mechanical errors in their writing. You know, in some kinds of games, English errors wouldn’t matter very much, if at all. If you’re writing a new version of Quake or Space Invaders, who cares if your code comments are littered with its/it’s errors? But these are text adventures. In order for a text adventure to be good, the text has to be good.

To me, this seems blatantly self-evident. Apparently, though, it isn’t, not when I still end up playing games with sentences like this: “A grand staircase leads up although a row of potted shrubs act as a barrier at it’s base.” Quick lesson: “it’s” is a contraction of “it is,” as in “It’s alive!” “Its” is the possessive form of “it”, as in “a barrier at its base”. Like “his”, “hers”, and “ours”, “its” has no apostrophe, and it never will. If it’s possessive, don’t give it an apostrophe, lest you mangle its meaning. See how easy that is? Similarly, please print a newline before a prompt. Please don’t put more than one blank line between pieces of text unless you’ve got a damn good reason. A mediocre game with correct grammar and correct formatting is still much more immersive than an imaginative, interesting game with really broken grammar and formatting, because every time I have to stop and figure out what a sentence means, or readjust my eyes to figure out what text printed after the prompt because there’s no newline between the previous text and the new text, I get thrown out of the story for a moment. Those moments add up.

Still, if cosmetic problems were the extent of this game’s flaws, I’d probably still be able to have a fairly good time playing it. And indeed, up through the first three acts, this appears to be the case. However, after that I learned that it’s apparently impossible to score all the points, due to the fact that one of the things the hints suggest seems to evoke no response from the game at any point. Moreover, as the game goes on, Masque succumbs to what I’ll call “Harvey Syndrome”, after Elwood P. Dowd’s lapine companion who was inexplicably invisible to the rest of the world. A game suffering from Harvey Syndrome talks about objects which are strangely unavailable for examining, taking, or in fact any kind of interaction at all. I’m not talking about scenery in room descriptions here — I mean major NPCs and objects ostensibly in your inventory. When somebody hands you something, you ought to be able to examine it rather than being told “You can’t see any such thing.” If there’s a character speechifying next to you, you ought to be able to examine that character. In Masque, these people and objects show up in action descriptions but, Harvey-like, are unavailable in any other way.

It’s so sad, too, because there is so much to like in Masque. The plot is composed of a number of intriguing layers — you’re a guest at a masquerade party where you’ve been asked to take on a specific character and participate in the drama that will be part of the evening’s entertainment. However, just as there are community members behind the party masks, there is community turmoil behind the masque itself, and you may find yourself inexorably drawn into that turmoil. The structure and pacing of the game work well, introducing puzzles one at a time (some oriented to the PC’s masque character, some to the PC itself), and ushering in a new “Act” when a puzzle is solved. Moreover, the game makes the ambitious choice to have all the masque action (which is considerable) take place in verse. Some of this verse has grave weaknesses in meter and rhyme, but I still salute the game for setting its sights so high. What Masque ends up showing us, though, is that it doesn’t matter how high you aim — if your basic mechanics fail, you’ll never hit what you’re aiming at.

Rating: 5.9

VOID: CORPORATION by Jonathan Lim [Comp00]

IFDB page: Void: Corporation
Final placement: 41st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I like cyberpunk, though I prefer it in small doses. I’d never go on a cyberpunk reading jag, but I thoroughly enjoy the occasional William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, or Pat Cadigan novel. I also think that IF in the cyberpunk vein could be really cool — after all, if cyberpunk has one defining characteristic, it’s a certain atmosphere, and atmosphere is something that IF does very well. There is a danger, however: with IF conventions having been shaped out of a stock fantasy/D&D tradition in games like Adventure and Zork, the temptation might exist to just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes and call it good, when good is something it very probably wouldn’t be.

It’s exactly this trap into which VOID: CORPORATION falls. Instead of a shiny silver key to open a locked door, we find a “silver slab” imprinted with microcircuitry. A pistol instead of a sword, a cube with liquid metal software instead of a spell scroll, et cetera. And instead of wandering kobolds and bugbears and such, we get wandering FMI (Federal Military Intelligence) agents and “cyberpunks.” (It works much better as a label for a genre rather than for a group of people, by the way.)

Let’s talk a little bit more about those wandering monsters. Ask any Quake or Half-Life player this question: “How would it be if every time you fragged something, you dropped your weapon, and had to explicitly pick it up again before you could frag something else?” I think we both know that their answer would certainly be some variation on “It would SUCK! A lot!” Yet this is exactly how things work in V:C. At the beginning of the game, we are told this about the PC: “more people have died at his hands than braincells at a ‘Silver’ party.” Unfortunately, the guy seems to be more butterfingers than trigger-finger. Even worse, the game doesn’t even tell you that you’ve dropped your weapon — it was quite a surprise the first time I tried to shoot somebody and was told, “You don’t see any gun here.” Strange enough that the game seems to want to emulate the random-stream-of-bad-guys dynamic of action games, despite the fact that typing “kill cyberpunk” carries absolutely none of the visceral thrill of an FPS frag. But for god’s sake, why why why would this trained professional killer drop his weapon after every single kill? (Nevermind the fact that these kills happen on crowded streets and shops where nobody seems to bat an eye at gunplay.)

Adding to the irritation is the fact that certain monsters can only be killed by certain specific weapons, even though both weapons are basically guns. For example, if you try to kill a “mean-looking cyberpunk” with your shotgun, you are told “You strike at the cyberpunk with the shotgun, but your weapon bounces off it harmlessly”, almost as if you tried to clobber the guy with the stock rather than the far-less-strenuous effort of pulling the trigger. Yet a pistol takes him out without fuss? What could the difference possibly be? This bizarre behavior, coupled with the fact that every dead bad guy disappears in “a cloud of red smoke” made me feel sure that at some point the game would have the PC “discover” that he’s in a VR scenario. But no, that never happened, and the only explanation I’m left with is that some serious slippage into fantasy has occurred in these portions of the game.

Some of this behavior may be due to the fact that the game is written in AGT. I haven’t played many AGT games, since most of them seem to have came out between the fall of Infocom and the release of Lost Treasures, which is a period during which I had given IF up for dead. However, I have vague recollections of people asserting that the wandering monster stuff is default behavior in AGT, and that it has to be explicitly removed for a game not to have it. Or maybe I’m thinking of GAGS or something — they all sort of blend together for me.

In any case, there are problems in this game that definitely cannot be blamed on AGT. For example, one of the critical puzzles in the game depends on the PC going in a direction that is not indicated as available in the room description. This, mind you, when every single possible exit is listed in every other room description. Hasn’t the UN passed a resolution or something against games behaving like this? In fairness to the game, it’s true that a hint toward this action is given at one point, but in fairness to me, the descriptions do little to indicate in what location the hint is applicable, and in any case that’s still no excuse for leaving an exit unlisted when all others are. This is definitely the worst offender among the puzzles, but every aspect of Void, from the design to the writing to the plot to the coding, is tarnished with flaws. Some of these aspects have a genuine spark of excitement, or at least the possibility of such, but in the end, VOID: CORPORATION is a game that promises far more than it delivers.

Rating: 4.4