Sophie’s Adventure by David Whyld [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sophie’s Adventure
Final placement: 16th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here are some things about this game: It is cute. It is buggy. It is huge.

About “cute”: the whole thing is written from the perspective of 8-year-old Sophie, the daughter of a couple of retired magic-users, both of whom seem sunk well into strangeness now, but then again perhaps they’d look a little different through someone else’s eyes. There were many moments in the game that brought a smile or a chuckle, and much of the writing found a place between overly edgy and overly twee. Sophie has a rather hardheaded perspective, or so she seems to think anyway, and while she’s really rather spoiled, she does have some valid points about the foibles of those around her.

For instance, her mother has an inexplicable predilection for decorating in bright colors, and Sophie quite reasonably finds things like her painfully bright quilt rather difficult to stomach:

> x bed
It's hard to look at your bed with the colourful quilt lying across over it like that but you know there's nothing very interesting in it because you were lying there only a few minutes ago. You remember when you were a kid (well, a younger kid than you are now anyway) you used to worry that there was an evil gremlin that lived under the bed who would creep out after nightfall and eat you. But when you got a bit older you realised that no self-respecting gremlin would be seen anywhere near a bed with a quilt like that.

> look under bed
You look under the bed, searching for the gremlin you were convinced as
a child was under there.

Nope, no sign of him.

Writing like this lends a wonderfully strong personality to Sophie as a PC. The NPCs, too, are distinctive and interesting, and the menu-based dialogue can be a source of great amusement. On the basis of the writing (leaving out, for now, the issues of “buggy” and “huge”), I’m strongly inclined to recommend this game for kids, except for the fact that there are several parts that are outright gruesome. Sophie encounters gory battlefields, piles of corpses waiting to be burned, and dead bodies lying in pools of blood.

Now, I don’t have kids, and haven’t read children’s books for a while, so I don’t have a good sense of what are considered “appropriate” levels of gore and violence in those stories. I’m also a believer that what’s appropriate for kids isn’t so much determined by their ages as their personalities. Nevertheless, just because Sophie is 8 doesn’t mean the game would be great for any 8-year-old. Personally, I was able to ignore the gore, and so found it charming, though it would have been a lot more charming were it not so buggy and huge.

About “buggy”: Sophie’s Adventure breaks frequently, and often in the most unexpected ways. For instance, this exchange:

> n
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> north
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> go north
You move north.

I’ve had games forget to implement exits before, or forget to mention them in the exits list, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that forgets in one place to make the directional abbreviations available. I’m surprised ADRIFT even makes this possible — I can’t think how it would happen in a more robust development system. Speaking of ADRIFT, all its parser deficiencies are still hanging around like unwelcome guests: the way it pretends to understand more than it does, the way it asks questions but doesn’t listen to the answers, and the way it totally ignores prepositions (LOOK UNDER = LOOK BEHIND = LOOK IN = EXAMINE, except when it doesn’t.)

Another bizarre way that Sophie’s Adventure frequently breaks is in its menu-based conversations; once out of every 20 or so times, the game just wouldn’t understand when I’d enter a number to choose a menu option. There wasn’t any pattern to this that I could discern — the broken choices might be first, middle, or last entries in the menu. It was always very aggravating when it would happen. The game is broken in larger ways, too, or at least it seemed so to me. Several times, I’d get information that suggested a roadblock puzzle — you know, the old “you can’t go this way until you perform this task for me” routine. However, if I simply walked in the forbidden direction: success! No puzzle-solving required. This is either a bug or head-scratchingly odd design. There are also tons of typos throughout the game, some quite hilarious (“It also looks remarkably similar to Golem in Lord of the Rings.”) All in all, the game is a couple of betatesting rounds away from being ready for release, and maybe more, given that it’s probably difficult to test because it’s so huge.

About “huge”: there’s no maximum score listed in Sophie’s Adventure, so I’m not sure how many points are possible, but after two hours with it, I’d scored two points. There’s also apparently a “niceness” score, which not only never changed, but never even seemed to offer any opportunity to change. Also, even after circumventing quite a few puzzles via the bugs mentioned above, I still think I’d only seen a fraction of the game’s locations. I already gave my spiel on too-big-for-the-comp games in my review of Risorgimento Represso, and most of those points apply here as well. However, where that game felt disappointing because I hated to rush through something created with such skill and care, Sophie’s Adventure evinces sort a flip side to that problem, which is that gigantic games are much harder to get right.

I boggle at the amount of work that must have gone into this game, and so I don’t mean to badmouth it, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel it would be a much better game if it were much smaller in scope. Fewer locations, fewer puzzles, fewer things to go horribly wrong. It goes without saying that this game is totally inappropriate for the comp because of its size, but I wonder if it’s simply the wrong size full stop. I say this because frequently, object and room descriptions seemed freighted with resentment for even having to be written:

As cracks go it's not a very interesting one and you kind of wonder
why you're even taking the time to examine it.

Somehow you doubt the fate of the world relies on you examining rat

East Road
The land from here on eastwards is desolate to the point of having a
not-very-finished look to it. If anything, it looks like whoever was
given the job of designing this landscape got bored and decided to
just scribble in a few trees and bushes and leave it at that. [...]

There’s the straightforward problem with these that I don’t know whether something is interesting until I examine it, so would rather not be chastised for wasting my time, but there’s also this: when the descriptions themselves start complaining about being boring, there’s probably too much stuff in the game.

I think the best thing that could happen to Sophie’s Adventure would be if it were scaled back considerably (say to a size that is finishable in two hours), tested and proofread much more thoroughly, and entered in the comp in that tighter and stronger form. Too late for all of that now — I won’t be returning to this game after the way it aggravated me — but these lessons can be learned for future games, by this author and others.

Rating: 3.0

Risorgimento Represso by Michael Coyne [Comp03]

IFDB page: Risorgimento Represso
Final placement: 2nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first things first. It’s time to welcome a talented new author. Michael Coyne has made a great game, so well-written and well-implemented that it’s almost always a joy to play. It’s on a par with most Infocom games, and exceeds them at many points. There’s cleverness and panache to spare, and the puzzles are mostly interesting and fun. It’s not perfect, of course. There are a couple of under-implemented commands (like LOOK BEHIND), a hackneyed puzzle or two, and some jokes (like the cheese one) are pressed rather too hard. It also could use a more compelling title.

Still, on the whole, this is a satisfying and enormously fun game. Well, what I saw of it, anyway. And therein lies the problem. I spent the last review (of Domicile) bemoaning games that are entered in the competition when they’re unfinished, undertested, and unproofread. Now, of course, I’m immediately hit with the opposite problem: a game that is exquisitely finished, betatested, and error-checked, but is still inappropriate for the competition, because it does not even come close to fitting within a two hour play session. When my two hours with RR ran out, I think I was maybe a third of the way through, and that was with a lot of leaning on the hints towards the end. Sure, it was fun while I played it, but I knew almost from the beginning that there was no way I would solve it in the allotted time, and I felt annoyed and disappointed by that. In my opinion, this game is no more appropriate for the competition than was the unfinished Atomic Heart, or the excruciatingly poor Amnesia. It’s too big. It is just too big.

I’ve written out and rehearsed my objections to overlarge comp games so many times that they almost feel self-evident to me now. But I realize that my experience doesn’t match with most people’s, so for those just tuning in, here are a few of my problems with giant comp games. First of all, the comp is a high-pressure playing time. I really try to finish all the games in the judging period, and to write a substantial review after each game. Plus, I have a life, so that means that my IFComp time is squeezed in at the edges of my life — lunch hours, laptop time on the bus to and from work, or late nights after my wife has gone to bed. It’s frustrating to carve out this time and then realize that it’s still not even close to sufficient for the game I’m playing.

Secondly, there’s a more insidious problem with trying to squeeze a big game into two hours. When I had only a half-hour left and huge swaths of the game left undiscovered, I turned to the hints. I did this not because I couldn’t have solved the puzzles on my own. Maybe I could have. But not in half an hour, and I wanted to see more of the game. Turning to the hints, though, does a disservice to a game like this. Well-constructed puzzles ought to be experienced fully, relished, and a well-written world should be enjoyed at leisure rather than rushed through. Trying to play this game in two hours will ruin it for many players, players who could have enjoyed it to its fullest potential were it released outside the comp.

Moreover, how many people are likely to come back and finish the game after the comp period is over? For all the comp games I’ve meant to do that with, I’ve almost never followed through, because after the comp is a frenzy of reviewing excitement, and then come the holidays, and busy times at work, and… whoosh. The game is well off my radar by the time I actually have time to play it. Then there’s the fact that I find it difficult to give a reasonable evaluation to a game that remains mostly unseen by me — it’s like trying to review a movie after watching the trailer and the first 20 minutes. These aren’t the only reasons I don’t like huge comp games, but that’s enough for now.

Still, with all that said, can I understand why somebody, especially a first-time author, would enter their huge game in the comp, even knowing all of the attendant problems? Of course I can. The fact that RR is a comp entry perfectly illustrates the problem with the current IF scene. The annual IF Competition is simply too important, too powerful. It’s become a cynosure whose glare eclipses everything else in the IF world. I love the competition — I think that much is clear from my ongoing participation in it — but I have come to really hate the way it’s turned into a gravity well for games. If you enter your game in the competition, it’s bound to get at least a dozen reviews, be played by the majority of the community, and maybe even become a talking point in IF discussions for years to come. Widespread familiarity in the community also may give it an edge in the XYZZY voting.

If you release your game outside the comp, what happens? Usually, almost nothing. Some games get released to not even a single, solitary post in the newsgroups, let alone reviews or discussion. Even humongous, excellent games like 1893, the products of hundreds of hours of work, sometimes cause hardly a ripple. So of course tons of games get into the competition that aren’t finished, or are way too big. How else to reap in attention what you’ve sown in work? I try to remedy the situation somewhat by continuing to release SPAG and hassling people to write reviews for it, but games routinely go a year or more without a SPAG review, and some games (Bad Machine comes to mind) seem never to get reviewed at all. It’s maddening to me, and I don’t know what to do about it, but I have to say I’m at the point where I’m seriously considering no longer writing comp game reviews, turning my review energies instead to non-comp games so that they’ll at least get attention and evaluation from somebody.

For this year, though, I’m committed, which brings me to the problem of score. From what I saw of this game, I thought it was outstanding, worthy of a 9.5 or above. But I just cannot bring myself to give it that score, if for no other reason than because I don’t want games that shouldn’t be in the comp to do well, since all that will do is encourage more of them. On the other hand, can I really justify giving a low score to such an obviously high-quality product, especially when I’ve already given Scavenger, another too-big game, a high score? Well, the difference between this and Scavenger is that with Scavenger, I felt like I’d seen the majority of the game, that the major puzzles were solved or almost-solved, and that most of what remained was denouement. With RR, though, I felt like I’d eaten the appetizer but had to leave before the entree.

My compromise is this. I’ll make it clear in my review that this is a great game, worthy of any IF devotee’s attention. Play it sometime when you can really enjoy it, linger over its many pleasures, and let the puzzles percolate in your head. Play it without a time limit. Savor it like I couldn’t today. Don’t let my low score fool you — it’s eminently worth playing, but I saw a third of it, and so I’m giving it a third of the score it probably would have gotten from me had it been the right size for the comp.

Rating: 3.2

About my 2003 IF Competition Reviews

For me as an author, 2003 was a frustrating year. I had entered part 1 of a trilogy into the 2001 competition, and (amazingly) won the 2002 competition with part 2. I had every intention of completing the set with a 2003 entry, and in fact even publicly announced that I would do so. By June, though, it was very clear that I wouldn’t make it. There were a few different reasons for this, from accelerated real-life demands to a ballooning project scope caused by more ambitious design goals, but nevertheless it was a very disappointing outcome to me. I had really wanted that unbroken run.

For me as a critic, 2003 had different frustrations. The IF Competition had become a massive center of gravity in the community, which meant that it sucked up all the energy and feedback, certainly for the few months it took place, and pretty much overall for the year as well. The perfect emblem of this dysfunction, to my mind, is the 2003 comp entry Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne.

RR is a fantastic game — sumptuously implemented, brilliantly designed, beautifully written. It is also a full-length game. There’s no way anybody finishes it in 2 hours, at least not outside of just charging through the walkthrough. So I played it, and loved what I saw of it, but did so in the context of six weeks where I’m trying to play and review 29 games, and cut each one off after two hours. As it became clear that RR was much bigger, I turned to hints so that I could see more of the game. I would have enjoyed it more without doing so, but it was a choice between more enjoyment or more exposure, and I wanted to be able to review the game with as broad a perspective as possible. So I sacrificed enjoying a work that its author had surely labored over creating.

I hate being placed in this position, so in my review I let the game have it with both barrels, estimating that I’d seen a third of it, so only giving it a third of the score it deserved. As it turned out, RR placed second, and in my capacity as SPAG editor I routinely interviewed the top three placing authors from the comp. I was a little abashed at doing so with Michael, having lambasted his game for its length, so I went straight at the topic in my interview:

SPAG: Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest complainers on that point, it’s only fair you should get to air your side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I’m not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn’t seem reasonable.

So there you have it. The competition pulls in games that don’t belong in it, because if you release those games outside the competition, even a month or two beforehand, you may as well not release them at all. I found this a deeply discouraging place to be. I tried to do my part in counteracting it — encouraging SPAG reviews of non-comp games, and even releasing a full-length non-comp game myself — but the immensity of the comp had gathered a momentum all its own. My banging against it affected me more than it affected the situation, I suspect.

However, while the downside of the comp’s centrality was that it gathered everything to it, the upside was that it gathered so many good things to it. The 2003 games had some fantastic experiences among them, even besides Risorgimento Represso. The winning game, Slouching Towards Bedlam, was stupendous, and made me a little bit relieved I hadn’t managed to finish part 3 of Earth and Sky for that year’s comp. Other highlights included The Recruit, Scavenger, and Episode In The Life of an Artist.

I also benefited from my history with the comp, as I got to enjoy the return of many a previous entrant. Mikko Vuorinen was back with another goofily incongruous exercise in icon-subversion, Mike Sousa brought a bunch of veteran authors into a group-writing exercise, and Stefan Blixt and John Evans returned with more half-baked entries in the line of their previous ones. Well, those last two weren’t so much fun, but best of all was the reappearance of Daniel Ravipinto, whose last game was in 1996 and who excelled once again. He brought with him a wonderful co-author named Star Foster, whose horribly untimely death in 2006 is one of the saddest stories in amateur IF.

I posted my reviews of the 2003 IF Competition games on November 16, 2003.