Halothane by Ravi P. Rajkumar, as Quentin.D.Thompson [Comp99]

IFDB page: Halothane
Final placement: 6th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Halothane is an intriguing, ambitious mess. First of all, it’s way too big for the competition. I spent two hours with the game and didn’t even score half the points. This review is based on those two hours. Maybe the game pulls everything together at the end — I’ll never know, because what I saw in the first two hours didn’t interest me enough to make me keep playing. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about the game. It reveals glimpses of an interesting premise: when an author abandons a work in progress, the characters live on. They must try to continue their lives without the structure of a planned story to support them; they sometimes even drift into works by other authors, still carrying the burden of their former backstory. Some of the settings are interesting, and there are some devices here and there that are fun to play with. The problem is that all these interesting snippets are just fragments, floating free in search of a consistent plot. The game moves you from location to location as if you were on rails — in fact at one point the PC is literally bound and gagged to have the plot shouted at him. Unfortunately, the rails don’t seem to go in any particular direction, and Halothane starts to feel like a story that can’t make up its mind what it wants to be about. Adding to the disarray are an unedifying prologue and a few “interpositions” which seem altogether orthogonal to the main story, such as it is. Oh yes, there are also a few in-jokey text adventure allusions, though they seem to have little impact on the plot. Then again, most things seem to have little impact on the plot — it just rolls along, whisking you to the next chapter when you simply move a certain direction, or sometimes even when you just sit around doing nothing.

Player freedom of action is unreasonably constricted in Halothane. The game is constantly giving available directions in room descriptions, then preventing travel in those directions with one of a hundred variations on “You don’t really want to go that way.” Moreover, the game logic is inconsistent. For example, I got in the habit of looking under every single stick of furniture, because about 15% of the time I’d find something and score points for having done it. But some of the other times the parser sniped at me. We actually had this exchange at one point:

Suspicious bloke, aren't you?

That was a rhetorical question.
That's not a verb I recognise.

As Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons might say, “Ach! Good comeback!” Anyway, the writing is similarly uneven. One significant flaw is that every character seems to talk as if they have an M.D. A portion of a letter that you find reads thus:

The doctor came and gave me three hundred minims of pyrazinamide,
and I was sick the whole day. Beastly, unfeeling physician! The
haemoptysis seems to have cleared up, but the laboratory pathology
report says that my sputum smear is still ++++, which I assume is
good. They're considering a repeat biopsy, because they didn't find
any Langhans giant cells the first time.

I found the “which I assume is good” particularly funny. First of all, it’s set in opposition to saying that something “cleared up”, despite the fact that (I would think) the “clearing up” is good too. That’s just bad sentence structure, but also I found it very difficult to believe that somebody who casually refers to “minims of pyrazinamide” and “Langhans giant cells” would be in the dark about the meaning of test results. For all I know, that may happen in real life, but it certainly didn’t feel real to me, which after all is what fiction aims for. In addition, one character thinking or speaking this way is fine, but even the PC does it! At one point, the parser tells you, “If this heat continues any longer, you’ll soon have first-person knowledge of what the proteins in a boiled egg actually undergo.” Really, doctor? Even the game’s title and opening screen are guilty of this fault. On the other hand, when the plot pauses a moment to take a breath, the writing can manage to set an effective scene. One good sequence occurs when the PC (after a POV shift… don’t ask) comes upon her house, dark and empty. The game creates an effective atmosphere of mystery, so that when surprises jump out they’re good for a little thrill.

Oh, hell. This review probably makes it sound like I thought Halothane was just abysmal, and I didn’t, really. The overall impression that I got was that the game is just sort of… half-baked. I don’t mean this in an offhand sense, nor is it intended to be derogatory. I just felt like I was playing a game that was not suited for the competition, nor fully realized by the time the deadline arrived, but was entered in the competition anyway, for who knows what reason. Lord knows I’ve played a lot of games that are worse, even in this year’s comp entries. But it’s a pity to see the potential in a game like Halothane squandered so. Put that sucker back in the oven and wait for it to rise.

Rating: 4.6