The Realm by Michael Sheldon [Comp04]

IFDB page: The Realm
Final placement: 27th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Realm feels like an old-school IF throwback. I mean, for one thing, it’s about a knight on a quest to obtain the head of a dragon. It’s set in the usual faux-medieval milieu — a castle, a king, a tavern, and so forth. There are the typical old-school IF anachronisms, such as a monk who gets a “Habits’R’Us” catalog, and library with a book by Charles Perrault, who lived several centuries after any knights were running around any castles. Then there are the mimesis-breaking in-game instructions, in the form of a pamphlet object that teaches players about the basic commands of IF.

Oh, and let’s not forget the red herrings. The Realm delights in offering tons of puzzling objects and blocked directions that serve no purpose in the game but to send the player spinning off on futile chases. Most of the puzzles consist of giving an NPC something they want, and getting something in return from them, so I suppose a few red herrings are probably necessary to keep player interest alive.

Still, the old school has its charms. Once you stop expecting an interesting story or a logically consistent world, The Realm can be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two. It attends to some implementation details well; animals can be petted and doors can be knocked on, which I greatly appreciate. A couple of the NPCs have some funny shtick, and the ending was fun, if a bit predictable. The red herrings can get a little frustrating — I often found myself thinking of alternate solutions that would work perfectly with the game objects, but that weren’t implemented because those objects were meant only to mislead.

On the other hand, according to the walkthrough, one puzzle has a very entertaining alternate solution that never even occurred to me. The description is never going to win any writing awards, but it’s not overly confusing either. There was one really annoying “guess the noun” puzzle, but the rest were okay, though not terribly inventive. I guess it sounds like I’m damning the game with faint praise, and maybe I am — the sum of my feelings about The Realm are that it was inoffensive and enjoyable enough, which is not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. Then again, in the IF Comp, “inoffensive and enjoyable enough” can be a very good thing, since plenty of comp games fail to achieve one or both of those marks.

What did bring the game down was the too-frequent clumsiness of its prose. Comma splices seem to be a particular problem, as in the second sentence of the game’s introduction:

Realizing this you become suddenly very alert, rushing on your clothes you spring to your feet.

These two sentences are fused like tragically conjoined twins, so let’s try a little surgery. The first thing that needs to happen is that the comma should be replaced with a period. However, even on their own, each clause would have some problems. The comma after “alert”, whose job we just outsourced, should migrate over to the end of “this”, since “realizing this” and “you suddenly become alert” are two separate pieces of verbal logic.

As for the second clause, “rushing on your clothes” brings to mind running a naked 100-yard dash on a track made of trousers. The problem is the preposition: you may rush into your clothes, but you don’t rush on them. In addition, “rushing” isn’t the most felicitous verb to use there — perhaps “hurrying” instead. That second clause could also take a lesson from what we did to the first, separating the sequential logical pieces with a comma. So, as they come out of anesthesia, here are our newly split twins:

Realizing this, you become suddenly very alert. Hurrying into your clothes, you spring to your feet.

I’m happy to announce that the operation was a success. The patients will live, although it may not be a very normal life — they’re too similar and too close together, leading to a choppy flow. Still, they can’t help it — they are twins, after all. There were a few little problems in the code, too — the occasional hiccuped bit of text and so forth. Ironing out these kinds of problems will help The Realm be the best old-school throwback it can be.

Rating: 6.3

Marooned by Bruce Davis [Comp00]

IFDB page: Marooned
Final placement: 45th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Marooned was the first ADRIFT game I’ve ever played. Anytime I review a game whose system is new to me, that review can’t help but be partly about the system as well as the game itself, since it’s often difficult to disentangle who is responsible for what in the overall playing experience. Unfortunately, what with all the growling on the newsgroups from ADRIFT advocates who feel their system isn’t getting a fair shake, it’s a little tough to advance an opinion on it — anything less than unadulterated praise runs the risk of getting me labeled a “snob” or an “elitist” or something. Nonetheless, I shall brave the waters, and try to discuss the entire experience of playing Marooned, starting with the things for which I suspect ADRIFT was responsible, then moving on to those things that I’m guessing were done by the game’s author. In the interest of diverting the WOAA (Wrath of ADRIFT Advocates), I’ll even begin with the things I liked about the interface.

The ADRIFT runtime has a clean environment with two windows: one for the command line and one for the game text. The overall presentation was attractive and aesthetic, though the text window used a few too many newlines for my taste. One particularly interesting feature is that clicking on any word in the text window will insert that word into the command line. I’m too much of a typist to be messing with the mouse in that fashion, but I can see where it could be a really cool feature, especially after one got used to it. (I was so unused to it at first, unaware of it in fact, that when I clicked back onto the interpreter window after doing something in another window, I accidentally clicked on a command word and couldn’t figure out why the game seemed to be executing commands without my typing them!) A similar convenience is the “auto-complete” option, which allows you to just type a couple of letters from any dictionary word and attempts to guess what you mean, Microsoft-style. This option was a little wonky at times — for example, you find a “dented gas can” at one point which the game will auto-complete if you start typing “gas”, but not if you start with “dented” or “can”. Still, quirkiness aside, this was a great time saver, because it also shows you right away which nouns in the descriptions haven’t been implemented.

Some other cool options are available from the menu bar, most notably an excellent automapper, which operates in a separate window but creates a lovely map of the game’s landscape. This is an innovation for which many people have been clamoring, and it was especially welcome in this game, where many of the locations have the exact same name. There’s also a “control panel” which can execute common commands for you, even a “goto” command which gives you a listbox of discovered locations and sends you there via the best path. Finally, I must mention that I appreciated the inclusion of “Verbose” as a menu option, something I can just leave turned on for all games rather than having to explicitly request it each time.

OK, so there are a substantial number of things I liked about the ADRIFT interface. Sadly, there are also a number of things I really hated. First and foremost is the problem of the parser. ADRIFT’s parser violates all three of the current tenets in Paul’s Parser Manifesto (which I made up in response to another nonstandard parser, the one in last year’s homebrew game Lunatix.) Those tenets are as follows:

  1. Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.
  2. Parsers must not give smarmy, unhelpful error messages.
  3. Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer.

Well, I’m not actually sure it breaks #3 — I got too angry to try it. The exchange went something like this (I’ve inserted prompts before my commands for clarity’s sake — ADRIFT doesn’t put command prompts in its text):

> look in it
(the first aid kit)
This is a standard issue first aid kit. The first aid kit is open.
Inside the first aid kit is a small bottle.

> x bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is closed.

> open bottle
You open the small bottle.

> look in it
(the small bottle)
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> x bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> look in bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> empty bottle
I don't understand what you want me to do with the small bottle.

> get all from bottle
You are not holding a small bottle.

> get it
(the small bottle)
You are not holding a first aid kit.

> get kit
Take what?

> ^%$# you! [Expletive removed to protect the easily offended]
I really don't think there's any need for language like that!

Frustrating exchanges like this were not uncommon, but even more infuriating were ADRIFT’s violations of tenet #2. Probably the worst offender was this one:

I can't undo your blundering.

Let me tell you an easy way to get me angry fast: give me an insulting message in response to a reasonable command. This one broke all previous speed records. Finally, there were the violations of tenet #1, most obvious when you type “x [anything the parser doesn’t understand]” — instead of telling you it didn’t understand you, it just says “Nothing special.” I hope that Santa will still bring me presents this year despite the fact that I couldn’t resist typing “x adrift.”

All these parser problems more than blew away any pleasure I derived from ADRIFT’s other innovations, because the parser is more important than the nifty features. Let me say that one more time, and listen up, system authors: THE PARSER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NIFTY FEATURES. Further crippling the ADRIFT experience was the sublimely aggravating policy that there is no scripting option as such — only a menu command that will record a transcript of the game thus far, a command that is naturally unavailable after a game ends! Who uses scripting, you ask? I do — I use it to write reviews.

Because I didn’t find my way around this misfeature until I’d been playing Marooned for an hour or so, it’s difficult for me to assess my experience with much accuracy, except to say this: Marooned is not the game I’d use to champion ADRIFT. To the problems in ADRIFT’s parser, this game adds its own irritations. For one thing, there’s a starvation puzzle. Game designers, please quit it with the starvation puzzles. Like mazes, they were interesting long ago, but no longer. They’re not clever, they’re not challenging, and they’re not fun — they just suck. This one was especially offensive because none of the food you find actually staves off starvation, and a couple of perfectly legitimate food items aren’t edible, according to the game.

Compounding this problem is the fact that there are tons of red herrings in the game, which means that you waste your time trying to figure out how to use something that’s actually useless, and consequently you keep dying over, and over, and over again. Dull, dull, dull, and ultimately rage-inducing. The premise of the game was fine, but it’s hampered by severe design problems, as well as the more fundamental weaknesses of the ADRIFT interface. All in all, I’d rather play Guess the Verb again.

Rating: 3.6