Scary House Amulet! by Ricardo Dague as Shrimpenstein [Comp02]

IFDB page: Scary House Amulet!
Final placement: 31st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game’s title captures its tone, right down to the exclamation point. The only way it could be better is if it incorporated some bold text and called itself Scary House Amulet! or some such, because about every seventh word in this game is bolded. At first, I thought this emphasis was serving an interface purpose, highlighting those nouns and verbs that the game implements. I thought that this was a very cool idea — one quickly gets used to the bold text, and the emphasis could help to avoid lots of those annoying “You can’t see any such thing” messages that pop up for unimplemented nouns.

As it turned out, however, the game wasn’t doing any such thing, and was instead sprinkling bold text throughout itself like salt onto french fries, as well as ending nearly every single sentence in at least one exclamation point. In addition, SHA occasionally gets extremely adjective-happy, as in this sentence: “It leads into an evil, scary, putrid dark stillness which makes the hair on your neck prickle!” As a satire of horror, this mock-gothic tone ended up working for me, and I laughed out loud several times during the game. Probably my favorite response, after finding a hole in the ground:

>look in hole
You find nothing... but evil!

The humor of the writing went some way towards compensating for the game’s many irritating design choices, most of which were lifted directly from the Zork playbook. There’s a light source puzzle. There’s a sequence where something comes swooping in and transports the PC to another location. And there are not one but two mazes.

Granted, none of these obstacles are made particularly diabolical, but they give the game’s design a fairly tired feel. It doesn’t help matters that pretty much all the other puzzles are of the “use x on y” variety, with x and y more or less unrelated to each other, prompting the player to just go through every object in her inventory until finding the one that happens to be right for the obstacle she faces. Even the puzzles that don’t fit this pattern don’t appear to have any particular logic behind them.

Still, this is not a shoddily crafted game. I found no bugs, and hardly any spelling or grammar errors. It’s got a clean, functional adaptive hint system, a thorough implementation of first-level nouns, and although the game credits no beta testers, it has a polished feel. It’s even got some great verbs added for fun:

The bat shrieks, "You must fear me! Fear me!"

>fear bat
You do fear the horrible bat!

There were a couple of areas where the writing felt a bit adolescent (particularly in its excoriation of Pepsi), but generally the over-the-top horror bit was pulled off with cleverness and panache. So at the end I was left scratching my head, and not just because the ending doesn’t really make any sense. Why would such a skilled implementor create this game, with its aggressively clich├ęd setting and puzzles, and no particular virtue except its entertaining writing? I don’t know. I laughed many times while I played SHA, but now that it’s over, I still feel like I didn’t get the joke.

Rating: 6.4

Goofy by Ricardo Dague [Comp01]

IFDB page: Goofy
Final placement: 46th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In most competition games, a room that completely lacks a description is a bug. In a Ricardo Dague game, a room that completely lacks a description is… just another descriptionless room. I first encountered this minimalism in his Comp98 game Fifteen, whose main feature was a fifteen-puzzle and a couple of others. Goofy follows in that game’s footsteps by pretty much omitting the entire concept of room descriptions. A typical room looks like this:

First Floor, by desk
An exit is north.

This sort of thing just doesn’t really do it for me. That’s purely a matter of taste, I suppose, since there isn’t anything particularly wrong with omitting the room description, especially since the game isn’t really trying to tell a story. To me, it just feels like wandering around in somebody’s unfinished prototype. Your mileage may vary.

What would be good is if the few words that are present were properly proofread. Even with the dearth of prose in this game, I still ended up finding things like an “electrionic scale” or a mouse that spends its time “examing” the things around it. Prose problems aside, the game is implemented competently enough. The puzzles are mostly rudimentary, but sorta fun. I made the final puzzle harder than it needed to be, because I failed to find a crucial inventory item until I’d spent considerable frustration on the puzzle. After that, I solved the puzzle, though I never did quite figure out how I was supposed to do it without liberal use of UNDO.

The other noteworthy thing about this game is that it is implemented entirely as a Java applet. Consequently, its verb set is very limited, and save/restore is absent due to the lack of file I/O. Because of the nature of the game, these things aren’t as big of a problem as they might be. Goofy is a very small game, so although it was a pain in the neck to have to play it through rather than restoring, the process was relatively quick. Similarly, when the gameworld is as spartan as this one, not many verbs are required. Then again, such a bare-bones experience doesn’t produce much fun, at least not for me.

Rating: 5.0

Fifteen by Ricardo Dague [Comp98]

IFDB page: Fifteen
Final placement: 25th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Is there a genie at work? No sooner did I wish (in my review of In the Spotlight) for a “storyless” game which strung together a number of logic puzzles, than along comes Fifteen. Fifteen takes its name from the traditional slide puzzle, with fifteen tiles arranged in a 4 x 4 grid, with the sixteenth spot left empty for tiles to move into. Fifteen also includes an odd-even puzzle (similar to the sentient stones in Spellbreaker) and a more traditional IF puzzle of rescuing a cat from a tree. All the puzzles are quite well-implemented, and the slide puzzle is done especially well; its interface allows for commands which string a number of moves together quickly and easily. This was much appreciated. In fact, Fifteen is almost the sort of thing I was musing about enjoying in my previous review.

Still, I finished the game feeling like I ought to be more careful what I wish for. See, Spotlight was “storyless IF” in the sense that there was really no plot, just a puzzle. However, what little prose there was in the game was richly written, and often funny. Contrast this with Fifteen, which (according to its author) takes its cue from Scott Adams’ Adventureland. Adams’ games are models of brevity, and Fifteen is just as terse, if not more. Here’s a typical room description: “Kitchen: Exits are south, east and north.” Now that’s brief. Don’t get me wrong — I recognize the nostalgia value of such an atmosphere, especially if you were raised on Scott Adams adventures, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I like to have at least a little feeling of immersion in my IF rather than unadorned puzzles. I find it very telling that even though Fifteen includes many more rooms and several more puzzles than Spotlight, the Inform file for Fifteen is actually 8K smaller than the Inform file for Spotlight. Fifteen is basically raw puzzles; it’s all the way over at the extreme end of the puzzle to story spectrum, and that’s too far for my taste.

Nonetheless, Fifteen is clearly quite well-done, for what it is. I found no bugs in the code, and what little prose there is is error-free. The puzzles, as I said, are implemented well, and the author’s ability to make me feel like I’m playing a Scott Adams game is nothing short of remarkable. But Fifteen is still not that all-puzzle game that I’m looking for — it’s too spare and empty, and because of this it fails to create the interest needed to sustain its intense puzzle-orientation.

Rating: 6.2