Blue Chairs by Chris Klimas [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blue Chairs
Final placement: 2nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Chris Klimas! Now there’s a name from out of the mists. Klimas released a game called Mercy in 1997 that garnered rave reviews for its writing and its pre-Photopia puzzleless design. (In fact, it was nominated for that year’s Xyzzy awards in both story and setting.) Then, he contributed a little fable called Once to the Textfire hoax, and disappeared shortly thereafter.

Now he’s returned, and what a welcome return it is — Blue Chairs is not only his best work, it’s the best game I’ve played so far in this comp. Klimas has a hold of something very powerful — interactive fiction steeped in surrealism and symbolism. This sort of thing has been tried before, but Blue Chairs is the best realization of it that I’ve seen. At the beginning of the game, the PC ingests a powerful hallucinogenic drug. True, you have the choice not to do so, but if you make that choice, the story winds up in a dead end, albeit an intriguing and well-executed dead end. This sort of thing always feels a bit like a sucker punch to me, especially when the only real choice is followed up with a “why in the world did you do that?” sort of message as it is here, but the game is so wonderfully crafted that I forgave it immediately.

The z-code “special effects” that Blue Chairs uses to represent the drug taking hold are very trippy and extremely effective, and from that point forward the game slides brilliantly between dream and reality. IF is an amazingly powerful vehicle for this kind of writing, because you’re not just reading about someone’s reality shifting around him — in a certain sense, those shifts are actually happening to you as you traverse the game’s world. Blue Chairs got so deeply into my head that when someone interrupted me while I was playing, I felt as if I was the one dreaming, as if the intrusion of reality into my game session was just as sharp and unexpected a lurch as the sudden hallucinations that happen to the PC. What makes these hallucinations so powerful, I think, is the fact that they’re full of compelling symbols and archetypes, mixed with totally ordinary objects. In this way, they really do feel like dreams. Blue Chairs‘ heady blend of symbol and story got its hooks deep into my psyche. It blew my mind. I love when that happens.

The psychedelic design was my favorite thing about the game, but a close second was the writing. Blue Chairs does an outstanding job of creating an utterly convincing PC, showing us the world as described by that character, then fracturing his world all to hell, capturing the interrelated parts of his personality like collecting hurricane-blown leaves. At the end, I felt like I really knew Dante. (Yeah, the PC’s name is Dante Hicks, and not only does he share a first and last name with the lead character in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, he also spends the entire game searching for a girl named Beatrice, a beautiful collision of high and low allusion.)

I don’t know that I had too much respect for Dante, but more on that a little later. There were so many sublime turns of phrase, so many funny moments, that my game transcript is littered with “ha”s and “whoa”s and “very nice”s. The game’s implementation was strong, too. Most actions were reasonably anticipated, often with hilarious or terrifying results. I only found one problem, but unfortunately it was quite a doozy. Late in the game, I was working on a puzzle and had come very close to the solution, but not quite hit it. A look at the in-game hints set me straight, and off I went to solve it. Except… the solution didn’t work. Near as I can tell, some kind of bug makes that puzzle unsolvable, which came as a crashing disappointment to me. In a game as strong as this one, a serious bug is all the more unexpected.

Luckily, Blue Chairs‘ design is open-ended enough that even an unsolvable puzzle didn’t prevent me from finishing, though the time limit nearly did. I just barely got done within the two hour window, and towards the end I was opening hints liberally, because I very much wanted to complete the game before rating it. There are multiple endings, too, though they’re nowhere near simple enough to be classified as “winning” or “losing.” (I’m about to discuss those endings in general terms — nothing too spoilery, but you might want to skip the rest of this review if you’re particularly spoiler-sensitive.)

By the time I saw the endings, I was feeling pretty ambivalent about the game’s main character. Right after Dante swallows the drug in the game’s first scene, here’s what it says:

It seems like now would be an excellent time to reflect why you, once a consistently above-average student full of ambition and love, just bought an unknown but almost certainly illegal substance from a stranger and drank it without a second thought.

A fine question indeed, and the game resists the idea of an answer, insisting that there’s nothing in Dante’s life to explain his rootlessness and ennui, that it “just happened, one second at a time.” That being the case, the sort of slacker malaise that Dante exudes is all the more unsympathetic — it’s tough to feel sorry for somebody who has led an incredibly privileged life, free of hardship, but still manages to be desperately unhappy just because he thought things would be so much more shiny, so much more interesting.

Blue Chairs calls itself “a chance to change,” but leaves it up to us to decide which ending really constitutes the change. I think it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s not the one where a soft-focus lens suddenly snaps onto Dante’s life, where the whole thing turns into a Thomas Kinkade painting. That one felt like the ending of Rameses to me, an insistently perfect fantasy that fulfills the PC’s wishes, wishes that have been unrealistic from the start. I’m not sure the other one is any better, though. There’s a kind of letting go to it, but I’m not sure that it’s letting go of the right thing.

Dante comes to a kind of peace with his inaction, but I’m not convinced he’s dropped the binary thinking, the idea that there’s something perfect just beyond his grasp, and that without it, everything is worthless. I think he still may be lost, because as long as he’s locked in that stark dualism, the next illegal substance from a stranger won’t be that far away. Like I said, I rushed through the end — maybe there are other paths I didn’t find. But from what I saw, Dante may not have a chance to change after all. Anyway, that’s just what I thought. You should really play Blue Chairs and think about it a while yourself.

Rating: 9.5

[Postscript from 2021: Blue Chairs was the last parser game Klimas wrote, but he wasn’t done with IF yet, not by a long shot. In 2009, he created Twine, a parser-less IF authoring tool that has arguably had the biggest impact on the IF Comp, and indeed the broader interactive fiction world, of anything since Inform. He’s created a number of other games too.]

Constraints by Martin Bays [Comp02]

IFDB page: Constraints
Final placement: 19th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m far from the first person to make this claim, but I think every piece of art is, to some greater or lesser degree, about the art form itself. Every novel is at least a little bit about the novel, every film is at least a little bit about the cinema. And every text game is at least a little bit about IF itself. Then there are those that are very much about the form. Constraints is one of these. It disarmed me by admitting upfront, in fact brandishing, the fact that it was going to consist of constrained interactions. It then sets out to explore not only the idea of constraint, and the ways that interaction in a text game can be constrained, but how to make those constrained interactions effective, and even fun.

Of course, it’s not the first game to tread this ground — Photopia and Rameses have famously drawn from the same well — but it’s the first one I’ve seen that devotes itself so purely to the concept, free of any particular narrative or character. However, because of the way it’s structured, it’s rather difficult to talk about without giving too much away. What I can say, though, is that although at one point it enumerates the types of constraints it claims to employ, there is one that it doesn’t include in its list but which features prominently throughout the game.

I’m referring to the fact that although you have the opportunity to play several characters in Constraints (all of whom are in some restricted situation, natch), they all share a common trait: the desire not to be constrained. In each scenario, I struggled for a bit against the circumstances, but then tried doing things that would indicate a certain peace with the situation. Each time, I was rebuffed, instructed that the character’s desire outweighed whatever notions I might have about graceful acceptance. I’m not complaining about this. It’s quite legitimate to instruct a player about how to behave in character when a character is specified, and in a game this skillfully done, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the additional level of constraint was quite intentional.

The idea intrigues me, though. How much of what we call constraints in our lives are simply produced by our own desires, more or less independent of our circumstances? When we feel held down, held back, would the feeling disappear if we decided that we no longer wanted whatever lay on the other side of the barrier? For that matter, can a constraint even exist without a corresponding desire to define it as such? In this game, the question is moot — there’s no way of changing the characters’ desires — but I really like it that the experience of playing made me think about such a philosophical issue in my own life.

It helps a lot that Constraints is quite exquisitely implemented. It’s clear that this game has been tested thoroughly — not only did I find no bugs, but several times throughout the game, I had the exciting experience of trying a fairly unusual action, and seeing that the game anticipated it and handled it expertly. The game uses the z-machine’s color capabilities quite nicely (thereby giving me another reason to be thankful to David Kinder for the new WinFrotz 2002 interpreter), and in another section commits an impressive (though not quite unprecedented) z-machine abuse.

For the most part, the writing hews to the same high standard, though there are several instances of rather strange word choices. I’m not sure whether these were simply typos, or whether they indicate that perhaps English isn’t the author’s first language. If the latter is true, then Constraints is to be commended all the more for the level of mastery it does attain. Despite all this, I can’t quite bring myself to rate the game a 10. Even though it was thought-provoking and nicely crafted, in the end I didn’t find it terribly enjoyable; I don’t really like being constrained. Nevertheless, this is an excellent work of IF, and a fascinating metatreatise on “puzzleless” IF in general.

Rating: 9.3

Jane by Joseph Grzesiak [Comp02]

IFDB page: Jane
Final placement: 10th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: Because strong language and themes of domestic abuse appear in this game, they will also appear in this review.

A couple of years ago, I released a game with some pretty intense themes, including rape, murder, and slavery. Aside from whatever other ways my game succeeded or failed, people’s reactions to encountering this sort of thing in a work of IF varied a lot. Some people really appreciated it, others… not so much. One player rather memorably described it this way: “After playing, my head felt like someone had been hitting it very hard with a solid metal thing.” After playing this game, I understand a little more where that guy was coming from.

Jane takes on the topic of wife-beating, portraying it from the perspective of the victim, the abuser, and a few others besides. The experience of playing through a story in IF form, as opposed to reading it on the page, really intensifies my identification with the characters, and there were moments during my time with Jane that I started feeling physically ill, and dirty, involved in something I did not wish to be a part of. I don’t mean to sound disapproving — those moments were quite powerful and dramatic, and the game did give a clear warning about its subject matter before it began. Indeed, the times when I was feeling the most upset were when I was admiring Jane the most; its writing and its implementation occasionally managed to affect me quite strongly.

On the other hand, that effect was only occasional, for several reasons. First of all, though I applaud it for its ambition in getting inside the heads of abuser, victim, and onlookers, the characterization frequently fell a bit flat for me. The dialogue and actions of the characters sometimes rang quite true, but other times felt fairly stock, as if pulled from one of those movies that always seem to be running on the Lifetime channel. Another, more severe issue is that presenting a story like this interactively is a major challenge, and the game wasn’t always prepared to meet that challenge. At its worst moments, the clash between the intense action of the story and the standard Inform library responses evoked by my actions was outright comical, completely defeating the drama:

"You'd have nothing!" he shouts, continuing his rant. "No one would
ever want you. You're of no use to anyone. You'd be nothing."

>get vase
That's hardly portable.

John's lost in his mind again. "You ARE nothing!" he shouts again. He
steps forward quickly and shoves you back, causing you to stumble to
keep your balance. "You're useless! You're so fucking useless!"

>push john
That would be less than courteous.

Those library messages, quite suitable in the majority of IF situations, are laughably inappropriate here, and either the author or the testers should have caught them. The debugging verbs should also have been turned off — the effect of these things together was that Jane had a fairly rushed feel. Even more damaging, by failing to account for fairly reasonable actions, the game makes itself too vulnerable to ridiculousness, which is poison to the kind of tragic storytelling it attempts.

Even when it does properly account for the player’s input, though, Jane usually feels quite straitjacketed. In fact, although the game borrows heavily from Photopia by using multiple perspectives (albeit a chronologically intact story) and a virtually identical approach to conversation, it reminded me less of Photopia than of Rameses. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the brilliant subversion of IF and storytelling that Rameses was, both because that game arrived first and because in its very use of multiple viewpoints and linear chronology, Jane dilutes the best rationale for its linearity.

I can see a viable argument that Jane (the NPC, not the game), and perhaps even her abusive husband, should present few real options to the player. They’re locked into the cycle of abuse, and the player’s frustration could mirror that of the characters as they try and fail to break out of their long-established patterns. However, that’s far less true for other characters, who lack such a reason for being bound to any particular course of action. In addition, as the intensity of the rising action builds, the characters should have more freedom available, as desperate measures become more and more plausible.

Since I experienced the story in accurate chronological order, I expected that at some point I’d be able to find my own way out of the ugly tangle of that relationship. Instead, what I found was that I had to follow the game’s singular path through it, and that meant enduring just as much abuse as the game decided it ought to commit. In my own way, I felt a little battered by the time I finished. I did finish, though. I didn’t quit. I guess I was asking for it.

Rating: 6.5

Fusillade by Mike Duncan [Comp01]

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

In my review of Prized Possession, I mentioned that the game felt like a long series of opening sequences. Fusillade does it one better, stringing together an even longer series of vignettes, each of which only lasts a couple of dozen moves at most before it shifts radically, changing not only time period, but character, plot, and milieu as well. Fusillade is certainly an appropriate name for such a work — there’s never any time to settle into a particular character or story, and the effect is rather like being bombarded with prologues: eyeblink IF.

The problem here is that, like many prologues, none of these sequences offers much interactivity at all. Each sequence is quite straitjacketed, and although it might allow other input (or it might not), its responses will be minimal until it gets the magic word it’s looking for. At times, this is rather transparent, as the situation is enough to compel most players into typing the right thing without much prompting. At other times, it can get a little frustrating:

>go to house
A fine idea. You can crawl, walk, or run.

>crawl
For once you're tired of struggling on your elbows. You want to walk.

>walk
Walk? Why walk? These fields are endless and the world is yours. Run!

>run
In a sudden frenzy of insanity, you hold onto your dress and run like
the wind toward the house. [... and another paragraph after that]

This exchange occurred after I had already gotten long responses from “crawl”, and then from “walk” (very necessarily in that order.) But the game still tells me I can “crawl, walk, or run”, when in fact it’s only prepared to offer me one of those choices at a time, at which point it ceases to make much sense to even talk about them as choices.

This problem reaches its zenith a few scenes in, and I’m going to give a direct spoiler now, because in my opinion it’s a scene that potential players should be warned about. I certainly didn’t appreciate having it sprung on me without warning. But if you’re adamantly anti-spoiler, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. Warning over.

The scene I’m talking about is a rape scene. You’re thrust into the POV of the victim (not that it’d be any better if it were from the rapist’s POV), and there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect the scene in any way. I tried leaving. I tried dropping what I was carrying, which the narrative voice told me I was supposed to give to the rapist. I tried biting. Hitting. Killing. I tried pouring water on him, given that I was supposedly carrying a jug of water, and the game appeared not even to have implemented the water. So Fusillade threw mocking prompts at me, even though it didn’t matter what I did at those prompts — the rape is inevitable.

Once this became clear, I got angry, and emotionally disengaged from the game. I don’t mind short scenes. I don’t mind brief stretches of non-interactivity, or even long stretches if there’s some point being made, as in Rameses. I don’t even particularly mind violence, as long as it’s also in the service of some sort of useful storytelling, though I prefer that violence of this level be flagged with some sort of warning upfront. But when you put me through a rape scene, for no apparent reason except that it’s “just another scene”, and offer no real interactivity, despite the appearance of choices, I find that unacceptable. From that point forward, I was going through the motions, not about to engage with another character, in case the game had any other nasty surprises up its sleeve.

The other thing that becomes apparent after a while is that these scenes just keep coming. The idea might have worked over the space of 5 or 10 scenes, but this game just keeps bringing them on and on. Between the non-interactive nature of each scene and the emotional disengagement I was already experiencing, this endless procession of vignettes started to feel grindingly tedious after a while. When the end came (and the first real option in the game, though it only makes a few paragraph’s worth of difference), I was relieved.

I’m not sure if this is the response the game intended, but I doubt it. The whole thing ended up feeling more like a way for the author to show off his (admittedly impressive) MIDI composing skills than any kind of attempt at actual interactive fiction. So despite the fact that the game is pretty well-written and well-implemented (though there are a few glitches here and there), I ended up not enjoying it too much. It’s fine for a while, but one scene had a devastating effect on my emotional engagement, and there was way too much to get through after that. Perhaps one of these scenes really will become the prologue to a full game of actual interactive fiction (rather than just prompted fiction) — I think I’d enjoy that, as long as it isn’t that one horrible scene.

Rating: 5.8

1-2-3… by Chris Mudd [Comp00]

IFDB page: 1-2-3…
Final placement: 42nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past few years, each competition has had one game that I found unremittingly unpleasant, a horrible experience from start to finish. Last year, it was Chicks Dig Jerks, with its pounding misogyny and seething nests of bugs. The year before that, it was Cattus Atrox, whose relentless but shallow horror and totally logic-free plot I found impossible to stomach. I was beginning to think that I’d make it through 2000 without such an experience, but no such luck: 1-2-3… wins the prize for Most Repellent Comp Game, hands down.

It doesn’t suffer from bugs, though — it doesn’t really get the chance, because it is as linear as a short story. Basically, the game is one long string of guess-the-noun or guess-the-verb puzzles. In fact, for most of the game, each move is in itself one of these types of puzzles, since the game will allow no other action than the one it’s waiting for you to guess. The most freedom it ever allows you is when it spreads seven or eight guess-the-noun puzzles in front of you, which you can do in any order, but all of which must be done before the story can proceed.

Actually, I use the word “puzzle” but that’s being rather generous. Really, the situation I mention above is that you have a couple of NPCs, both of whom must be ASKed ABOUT three magic topics each before the game will continue. These NPCs are so minimally implemented (as is pretty much everything in the game) that they only answer to those three topics — all others will provoke one of three random default responses. As if this extremely minimalist implementation didn’t make guessing the noun difficult enough, the topics you’re expected to type in sometimes verge on the ridiculous. If a character doesn’t respond to ASK HIM ABOUT ADVICE, why would I expect him to respond to ASK HIM ABOUT WHAT HE WOULD DO?

Of course, the game gives me an unsubtle shove in the right direction by having the character say, “Do you want to know what I would do?” But this is a pretty desultory form of interactivity. The game may as well just tell you what your next command should be, since it has no plans to respond to anything else anyway. If you think that’s interactivity, you probably also think ventriloquists’ dummies come up with their own punch lines.

Non-interactivity is annoying enough, but consider the context: 1-2-3… is about a serial killer. It puts you in the role of this serial killer. It won’t let the game continue until a murder is committed, then another, then another, and these murders can be triggered by rather innocuous (if unintuitive) commands. Now how much does it suck to have no choices?

The killings are horrific, misogynist gorefests, with nauseating specifics lovingly enshrined in detailed descriptions, capped by attempts at psychological pathos that would be laughable if they didn’t follow such revolting excesses. The first murder scene made me feel literally sick to my stomach, and I seriously considered quitting the game there and then, abstaining from rating and reviewing it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t do that — perhaps some overactive sense of fair play among the comp entries, perhaps a misplaced hope that the game would produce some artistic justification for its ultraviolence. In the end, I had such a horrible experience playing 1-2-3… that I almost wish I hadn’t played it, but since I did, I want at least to give others the warning I didn’t get.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t keep you in the serial killer’s role throughout. You are privy to a couple of other viewpoints, most prominently the police detective whose mission is to find and apprehend the killer. Unfortunately, the scenes from the detective’s POV are no more interactive than those from the killer’s. You must follow, more or less lockstep, exactly what the game has in mind for you, if you want to finish the story.

Is 1-2-3… a psych experiment of its own, a kind of test to see how much gag-inducing content a player can take before switching off the computer and (to steal a line from Robb Sherwin) switching her hobby to “Scattergories”? Is it the IF version of Lisa Simpson testing to see how many times Bart will grab for the electrified cupcake? Maybe it is, and if so I certainly seem to have failed the test, because I played through to the end. But my emotional engagement with the game had ended long before that, having suffered multiple stab wounds from the vicious, senseless violence that permeates the game. I was taking every one of the game’s cues, typing in what it told me to and letting the text scroll by in the vain hopes of some Rameses-like epiphany. None was forthcoming. Now excuse me — I have to go take a shower.

Rating: 2.5

Rameses by Stephen Bond [Comp00]

IFDB page: Rameses
Final placement: 13th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I was all set to slag off this game as another totally non-interactive self-pity festival with an insecure, pathetic PC, as kind of an Irish version of A Moment of Hope. But I finished it sort of quickly, so I decided to play it again, just to see if there were more choices than I found on my first time through. There aren’t, but in the process, something strange started happening to me. My first instinct about the game was being stretched, reshaped by things like the long, involved speech that one of the characters makes about free will.

I already knew that Rameses was well-written, so I had just assumed that its non-interactivity was an instance of an game that wanted too much control and wasn’t willing to create an experience where the player could take the lead. But if this was the case, what are the chances that it would make a point of having one of its characters pontificate on free will, a lecture whose irony is unmistakably manifest in this very constrained game? The more closely I looked, the more strongly I suspected that there is more to Rameses than meets the eye. As my second play-through went on, I again encountered the main character’s anguished words at the climax:

It’s just that… I can’t… do anything! I can’t do anything!” I scream at last. “It’s like I’m trapped inside and can’t get out and can’t be myself and… I’m stuck….

The first time I read these words, I just blew by them. I was too annoyed with the game’s steel restraints and its horribly wretched PC. The second time, though. The second timeā€¦

The second time I finally twigged to what the game is up to. Rameses uses non-interactivity for the purpose of deepening character rather than, as with most other non-interactive games, for the purpose of furthering the plot. Alex Moran, the PC, is an insecure, depressed college student who can’t ever seem to stand up to the bullies in his life, or to comfort their victims. Consequently, his only “friends” are smug, self-important blowhards who only want him along because they know that he’ll be a receptive (if resentful) audience for their grandiosities. He spends most of his time nostalgically dreaming about a childhood friend named Daniel, fantasizing about his reunion with that friend, despite the fact that he has totally cut Daniel out of his life due to his own inability to communicate.

Playing this character is an exercise in frustration. Every command you enter that might stand up to a bully, or leave a bad situation, or just let the PC take charge of his life in any way is wistfully brushed aside with a message like “Yeah, that’d be great, wouldn’t it? But I’ll never do it.” Annoying, yes, but it’s also the very soul of the character, and the very point of the game. In a sense, Rameses turns you into Alex’s real self, struggling to get out and be heard, struggling to make a difference, only to be smacked down by fear, insecurity, and sometimes outright paranoia. In his climactic speech, the PC voices the exact torment that the player feels at every prompt — it’s an agonizing experience, and that’s the point.

(I’m about to talk about the game’s ending — I don’t think I really spoil too much, but be advised that I’ll be analyzing how I think the last paragraph worked.) It’s pretty depressing stuff, and it’s made even more depressing by the fact that I don’t think the PC ever gets out of it. Rameses‘ ending left me a little uncertain, but the more I think about it, the more sure I am that the ending paragraph is a fantasy scenario. For one thing, it comes so abruptly after the PC has fled the scene of what might have been his redemption — without any transition, it feels more like a wistful reimagining than an actual event. Add to this the fact that the game begins with a fantasy scenario, one which ends with the very same words that end the closing paragraph. No, that final scene doesn’t happen — it’s just a way to open the next chapter of Alex’s life, another dream to focus on even as he lets it slip away. And as well-done as Rameses was, I hope that next chapter never becomes IF. Once around that track was more than enough for me.

Rating: 8.9