Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me! by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold [Comp02]

IFDB page: Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me
Final placement: 2nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, hallelujah. All through last year’s comp, I kept waiting for a game to come along that I loved enough, and found few enough flaws in, that I could rate it 9.5 or above. It never happened. While there were some excellent games last year, none of them felt to me like they’d entered that rarefied air occupied by past games like Shade, Babel, or Delusions. This year, after going through 25 games, the same thing was happening. Until now.

Despite its somewhat unpromising title, TDMAMOOM is a fantastic game through and through. How do I love this game? Let me count the ways. Okay, first, there’s the writing. Frankly, I could spend the entire review talking just about the writing, it’s so great, so I’ll restrict myself to just a few examples picked more or less arbitrarily. There are numerous instances of excellent foreshadowing, whether of themes or puzzles — in the former case, they add great pleasure on re-reading, and in the latter case they operate as a delightfully subtle but effective hint system. The room descriptions are masterfully done, drawing from an endless well of cleverness to make the typical exit listing sound fresh and interesting. Best of all, the writing in this game is just flat-out funny, sometimes howlingly so. Just one example of many — looking at a palm scanner after you’ve switched bodies with an NPC:

>x panel
Flat black glass, a panel that uses all manner of fancy beams to read
over your palm-print and check you are who you think you are.
Unfortunately, it's not clever enough to realise you now think you
are someone that you actually aren't. Or you think you are someone
who you're not, but really are. Or something like that. Anyway, it's
a pig-ignorant machine.

I love it when an IF game makes me laugh out loud, and that happened frequently in this game.

Then there’s the coding. This coding is good. Really good. A raft of nonstandard verbs get recognized and handled. There are a variety of special commands provided, such as “R” or “REVIEW”, which repeats the room description without using any game time. Descriptions of rooms, objects and events alter themselves in various subtle and blatant ways, depending on what’s come before. Timed events, even events where a huge amount is happening at once, run smoothly along their tracks with nary a glitch. There’s a very fine adaptive hint system, quite sensitive to situation and even possessing a self-destruct capability that removes the blatant walkthrough answers after the comp period has ended. Library messages adapt seamlessly to the PC’s situation and point-of-view.

Oh, and how could I forget the special effects? TDMAMOOM takes control of the interpreter to create a beautiful Infocom/Inform-style look-and-feel; people who don’t care for the general appearance of TADS games should definitely try this one. The game even features a little bit of sound, throwing in a system beep at an appropriate time.

Working with the coding and the writing to propel this game to greatness, the story is killer, a wild thrill ride through surprises small and large. Like its predecessors Delusions and Babel, TDMAMOOM takes place in that most favored of IF locales, an isolated scientific research station. I won’t even get into the plot here, because players should experience it for themselves with as few spoilers as possible up front, except to say that it all fits together very nicely, and every time I had doubts, the game anticipated them and tied up the loose ends.

Along with all this, just a quick word about the puzzles: many of them are not only inventive but pitched at just the right level of difficulty, providing several of those wonderful “aha!” moments for me. Some of them are rather complicated, but they’re always scrupulously fair. I ended up turning to the hints so that I could see more of the game before time ran out, but I think if I’d had the time available, this game’s puzzles would have rewarded me for spending it.

So we’re talking about a pretty phenomenal game, here. In fact, almost depressingly so, given that I’m an entrant this year and TDMAMOOM is miles better than my game. It’s not perfect, mind. I found a few spelling and grammar errors, and there were times I wished for clearer descriptions of events and objects. But those flaws are minor and cosmetic, and they do nothing to change the fact that this is a damn good game. Bravo.

Rating: 9.8

Babel by Ian Finley [Comp97]

IFDB page: Babel
Final placement: 2nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Babel is not only one of the best competition games I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story. The work of exposition and plot development is performed through the protagonist’s enhanced powers of tellurgy, which the game defines as “the ability to experience past events by touching objects present when the event occurred.” The clarity of these visions varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly other games (most notably Zork: Nemesis) have used this device in the past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an awareness of the character’s identity, and how he came to be in his amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific arrogance and attendant disasters.

Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades: they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the universe or some version thereof, or basically self-interested seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim, then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own undoing.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that after playing only three games from the ’97 competition, I’ve already seen two that deal with a metallic research station where the player discovers the frightening results of unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. The meaning of this thematic fascination in a community devoted to the supposedly “archaic” text form is a speculation for another essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of the best I’ve ever seen in any medium anywhere.

Prose: Babel‘s prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were vividly rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the tellurgic visions was sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist’s eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole.

Plot: The game’s plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a calendar on which he “instinctively” jots down the date of each occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and greater: the unfolding mystery of the character’s origin serves to heighten the power of the story’s eventual climax. Some of the Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness.

Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn’t the point of this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right.

Technical (writing): The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game.

Technical (coding): Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of this game.