Aftermath by Graham Somerville [Comp00]

IFDB page: Aftermath
Final placement: 37th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes a comp game can be summed up in one word. Of course, that never stops me from going ahead and writing three paragraphs about it anyway, explaining why that word fits, but for those with a distaste for verbosity, that one word can be a handy precis. Aftermath is such a game, and the word, I’m sorry to say, is “dismal.” The game’s topic is war, and not the glory of triumph in battle or the allure of military machinery, but the dismal, dismal existence of lone soldiers on frost-covered battlefields, struggling out from under heaps of bodies and fighting off the human vultures who scavenge through the corpses’ belongings.

This topic, by itself, is quite a downer, but still could be the basis of an excellent game. Unfortunately, Aftermath‘s dismal characteristics don’t stop there. The writing is dismal, the grammar is dismal, the spelling is dismal, the coding is dismal, and the puzzles are beyond dismal. Run-on sentences and other grammar bungles are everywhere, programming errors are legion, and there are as many spelling mistakes as dead bodies. (And with this game, that’s really saying something.) In fact, after I finished the game (with an inexplicable 120 out of 100 points) and received the ending message, I found myself still at the prompt. When I typed “L”, the game said “It looks like an ordinary to me.” I still had all my possessions (including “a apple”), but was trapped in a bizarre post-game limbo. It was almost as hard to figure out as some of the game’s puzzles.

Oy, those puzzles! From the very beginning of the game, I quickly determined that guessing the verb, as well as the noun, was going to be necessary in numerous cases. On top of that, several times very particular objects (or sub-objects) must be examined before the game will reveal things that, by all rights, should be dead obvious (pardon the pun) to the PC. Sadly, that’s not even the worst of it. There’s one puzzle in particular that made me say to my monitor, “How in the hell was I supposed to know to do that?” My monitor never answers me when I ask it that kind of stuff — probably for the best, since it’s not the kind of question that really has a good answer. I’d be quite surprised to learn of anyone who solved all the puzzles in Aftermath without the walkthrough, because not only do they require reading the author’s mind, but they occasionally fly in the face of all logic and sense as well.

The real shame is that an IF game in the war genre could be so good, and Aftermath falls so short of its potential. Heaven knows there’s a ton of inherent drama in war, drama that works from Henry V to Platoon have mined to spectacular effect. What’s more, it’s the kind of genre we don’t see very often in IF, which tends to be more or less dominated by science fictional and fantastic themes (a trend to which I’ve made my share of contributions.) Once and Future starts out in a war, but quickly shifts into Arthurian Fantasy mode. Remembrance delves into WWI, but in a way that could hardly be called interactive. In fact, the only memorable IF game in the war genre I’ve played is Persistence of Memory, which leaves great swaths of territory still untouched.

Aftermath, unhappily, can only manage to come up with gratuitous gore and relentless dreariness, sprinkled throughout with wince-worthy histrionics and unintentionally funny English and TADS errors. It’s all the more disappointing, because the game could have been so moving. Aftermath has a very solid theme, and its basic plot engine, the idea of a character who is the sole survivor of a battle and is obsessed with building a monument to the dead, could have made for a dynamite story. Aftermath isn’t that story, though. Instead its only success, as well as its disappointing failure, lies in the fact that it is just so dismal.

Rating: 3.1

A Moment of Hope by Simmon Keith [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Moment Of Hope
Final placement: 18th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Remember how one-room puzzlefests were the big trend of the 1998 competition? Well, I think I’m getting a handle on what it is for ’99: non-interactive fiction. It’s the legacy of Photopia, I suppose. But how little we knew, when we played that one short, brilliant Red Planet section of Photopia where every chosen direction advances the plot, that in a year we’d be playing entire games that operate like that. So far I’ve seen Halothane, which enforces its plot fairly rigidly; Remembrance, which limits the player’s options severely by restricting them to a very short menu; and Life on Beal Street, which is no more interactive than a book. Perhaps the worst offender yet, though, is A Moment of Hope. At least Beal and Remembrance didn’t pretend to be anything but linear roads with no detours available. At least Halothane allowed some freedom of action. Because A Moment of Hope is a TADS game with the appearance of an unrestricted parser, it gives a very believable facade of interactivity, when in fact it’s anything but. Here’s a sample from towards the end of the game:

You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep.

Turning to your other side, you give it another try.

You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your

In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head
with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work.

You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.

This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location — even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of “Not right now, you’re busy.” Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.

Let’s take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn’t much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the “fiction” side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there’s also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I’ve quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley’s responses, and the player’s input really Wendy’s participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section’s plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won’t find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game’s responses and player’s input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley’s trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we’re not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won’t lose us.

The game doesn’t take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can’t afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC’s deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn’t fit the story. Wouldn’t fit the character. So it’s not allowed. But a player can’t help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It’s written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn’t much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn’t it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn’t so mysterious after all…

Rating: 3.8

Remembrance by Casey Tait [Comp99]

IFDB page: Remembrance
Final placement: 27th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Unlike all the other entries in this year’s IF competition, Remembrance isn’t a story file or program. Rather than the product of an IF language, or even a standalone executable written from scratch, the game is a collection of web pages, each one leading to the next. At the bottom of each web page is a little piece of JavaScript, sometimes just a button reading “Continue”, other times a pull-down combo box with a list of possible actions (never any more than three) and a “Try Action” button. Many attempted actions bring up input boxes, asking for further clarification (e.g. “What would you like me to get?”). Once the command has been fully entered, the page will do one of two things. One possibility is that the browser will display a JavaScript message box indicating the results of the command, either the generic failure message “Your action has no effect” or some longer response which advances the plot. The other option is that the browser will simply bring up the next web page in the sequence. This web implementation has some advantages. Guess-the-verb problems are entirely eliminated, and for one particular puzzle in the game that is a distinct benefit. The web-based approach also allows the author all the traditional advantages of a web page — colors, pictures, fonts, etc — though I can’t say that the game did much with the possibilities. The plot concerns World War I, and the pages do have a color scheme which matches (black on olive drab), but that’s about as fancy as it gets, aside from the JavaScript parts. In addition, there were some serious problems with the web-based approach. For one thing, I found that the chosen color scheme made the text pretty difficult to read. Also, the pages are hosted by, which generated an inexpressibly irritating pop-up window every time the game moved to a new page. On top of that, whenever the JavaScript message boxes would appear, my browser would sound a chord; this is the same chord that Windows 95 sounds for urgent warnings and notifications that the hard drive is about to melt, so hearing it over and over was a pretty unpleasant experience.

But the biggest problem with the web approach is that the interface itself dramatically curtails interactivity. At its worst, the interactivity is limited to a “continue” button, which is about as interactive as turning the page in a book. At its best, the interface is reminiscent of the “command menu” interface of some point-and-click commercial adventures, only with a drastically limited menu. Compounding this problem is the highly linear design of the game itself. Not only is there just one path through the game, but there is really only one path through each substep of the game as well. For example, in the opening sequence there are three commands which must be entered in order. It isn’t tough to guess which three, because the combo box at the bottom of the screen only contains three options. Nonetheless, choosing the wrong command to start with, no matter what further explanation you put in the input box, just gives one response: “Your action has no effect.” Choosing the right command, but putting the wrong thing in the subsequent input box just gives the same terse (and improperly punctuated) hint line every time. Once you get the first command right, the process starts again for the next command. After a few iterations of this process, it becomes eminently clear that Remembrance is less interactive fiction than it is forced-participation fiction. That is, to see the next page of the story, you have to enter the magic word. There is no possibility of exploring the landscape, no opportunity to attempt other routes, and very few things to even try along the way. To further enforce its boundaries, the game uses the technique of regularly shifting viewpoints and settings, a la Photopia.

In fact, the comparison between Remembrance and Photopia is a fruitful one. Remembrance feels very much like it wants to emulate Photopia, changing Alley to Alex and the dangers of irresponsible driving to the dangers of trench warfare. You might even say that it starts down the trail blazed by Photopia and walks it all the way to its logical conclusion: highest level of tragedy, lowest level of interactivity. However, there are some important differences between the two as well. Foremost among these is the writing. Where Photopia maintained a consistently excellent level of prose, Remembrance is more uneven. The bulk of the writing is clean and well-done, but there are also a number of misspellings, punctuation errors, and awkward phrases. In addition, where Photopia‘s scenes are non-sequential both chronologically and in terms of point-of-view, in Remembrance it is only POV that shifts, with the exception of a short prologue. This difference probably contributed to the fact that the twist in Photopia is quite surprising the first time through, whereas in Remembrance the climactic event is visible several miles off. However, all that aside, I still found Remembrance touching. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for World War I stories ever since I saw Gallipoli, and certainly the type of tragedy depicted in Remembrance is an easy target for a tearjerker, but the interplay of letters and scenes, encompassing the trenches, the planning rooms, and the homelands, made for a nicely affecting overall presentation. It’s not the sort of thing I’d want to see very much of, but it was definitely worth my time once through.

Rating: 6.7