Best of Three by Emily Short [Comp01]

IFDB page: Best of Three
Final placement: 7th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s a common conceit in romance novels: Girl meets Boy; Girl takes an Immediate Dislike to Boy because he’s aggressive, arrogant, insufferable, etc.; under Girl’s influence, Boy sheds his Gruff Exterior; Girl falls for Boy and they end up Happy Together. I love Pride and Prejudice as much as the next Jane Austen fan, but I’ve always had a few problems with this structure, since it seems to reinforce the idea that jerky guys are really sweethearts underneath, so long as they meet a sufficiently [sweet/nurturing/independent/fiery] woman — these fantasies rarely come true in real life, despite the people who go through their lives trying to make that story happen to them. Maybe having the Girl fall for somebody who was kind from the beginning might make for a duller story, but it’d be a less pernicious story, too.

No doubt these objections all arise from my own High School Issues, but this is the mindset I brought to Best Of Three. In this case, we see the Boy being an ass at the very beginning of the story, only to learn later that he was the Girl’s high school crush, both of them now having graduated and, theoretically, put the past behind them. The game consists mostly of an extended conversation between these two, with the Girl as the PC, and although the text kept prompting me to feel charitable and affectionate feelings towards the Boy, it was a hard role to step into. It probably didn’t help that I found the Boy himself to be a rather pretentious, pompous git, and I distrusted him, even after he apologized, even after he revealed his own demons to me, and even after his Gruff Exterior was history. What the experience reminded me is that in IF, things the player actually experiences happening to the PC are orders of magnitude more powerful then things the player is told that the PC is feeling.

Of course, the beauty of IF, especially that written by Emily Short, is that there really are choices available. In a romance novel, the Girl has no choice but to tread the path that has been prescribed for her by the author, but IF offers the dizzying freedom to say exactly what we wish we could say to the story’s haughty twit, or at least to find a closer approximation to it. The first time I played through this game, I meekly obeyed its prodding, making nice with the Boy and moving to rekindle the romance between the characters. Even then, I found myself having the PC speak much more bluntly and honestly than she was comfortable with, and the Boy reacted with predictable standoffishness. Still, at the end, the spark had been fanned, but the result felt strangely hollow to me.

So I restarted the game — it doesn’t take long, perhaps 45 minutes at most — this time ignoring its tenderhearted hints and pulling out the reactions I had wanted to take the first time around. In a testament to Emily Short’s formidable skills as a designer, the game handled this direction with considerable grace and flexibility, despite its being against the fairly obvious grain of the text. I arrived at an ending that the game clearly didn’t view as optimal, but that, thanks to some exquisite writing, felt far more satisfying to me, and even let the PC off the hook somewhat in its final words.

Having had both of these experiences made me appreciate the game much more than I would have had I not replayed, and there is much to appreciate here. The game’s goal — to create a conversation that feels authentic, and that moves the player, the PC, and the NPC to new emotional states — is an ambitious one, but one well worth chasing. On several levels, the game succeeds. At many points, the conversation does indeed feel authentic, and it’s clear that the underlying code is quite sophisticated; I noticed, for example, that the NPC would observe and comment when I’d change the subject, or be taken aback if I said something he wasn’t expecting.

There are still a few bugs in the system. Some of the same problems I noticed in Pytho’s Mask were present here as well: there were times when the conversational options didn’t seem to fit the situation, for example replies offered when no question had been asked; there were times when the game didn’t respond to a command at all, just printing a blank line; there were times when the NPC responded to my change of subject, then brought the conversation back to his own interests, resulting in a seeming non sequitur (well okay, maybe that’s a good simulation of real life. 🙂 ) Still, glitches aside, the conversation felt real more often than it felt artificial, and that is a significant achievement. The writing is superior throughout, and achieves pure brilliance on occasion. I may have had some issues with the storyline, and I may have encountered some bugs, but I enjoyed Best Of Three very much nonetheless.

Rating: 8.8

Masquerade by Kathleen Fischer [Comp00]

IFDB page: Masquerade
Final placement: 8th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Romance has always been a rather underrepresented genre in IF. Lots of people praise Plundered Hearts, but few authors have stepped forward to create more IF romances. One of those few, though, is Kathleen Fischer, whose IF Art piece The Cove was ostensibly just an interactive landscape, but whose viewpoint character was straight out of a historical romance novel. Now that character returns in a work that further embraces (pardon the pun) the conventions of melodramatic genre romance — the woman in distress who passionately fights against the men who oppress her, the moustache-twirling villain who threatens to destroy the woman’s livelihood unless she marries him, and the mysterious stranger who takes an unforeseen interest in the situation.

If setting is the star of science fiction, and plot is the star of mysteries, then surely character is the feature attraction in a romance. Character, however, is not the strongest point of IF, and the game makes a number of clever choices that help smooth what could be a very difficult blending. For one thing, the conversation system is neither ask/tell nor menu based; if you want the PC to talk, just type “talk” (or “talk to ” if there is more than one in the room) — the game will fill in your words for you. In this way, Masquerade can construct the heated dialogues necessary to demonstrate its characters’ interactions without having to cobble together meaningful exchanges from conversation commands that are necessarily quite simplistic. Another smart choice is to reduce the number of takeable objects, which takes the focus off of trying to figure out what MacGyverish feat to perform on inanimate obstacles and places it on trying to figure out how best to deal with the other characters. Finally, like The Cove, this game implements nouns to an impressive degree of depth, creating the illusion of a fully fleshed-out world in which the characters move. Not only that, the descriptions of various characters (and yourself) change as their relationships to one another shift, a technique which breathes a great deal of life into them.

These choices, especially the first two, step away from the conventions pioneered by games like Zork and Adventure, and the gains that they provide in character and plot are taken out of interaction. In some cases, the tradeoff is handled with so much skill that I didn’t even realize how little interaction was really available until my second play-through. In others, the seams showed rather more.

The game provides the player with a number of yes/no decision points, but few of them seem to make much difference. In addition, there appear to be some places in which the right thing to do is far from obvious — I was never able to get to one of the game’s successful endings because my ability to interact with the characters was so limited, and manipulation of the environment so curtailed, that I was unable to guess the proper action, and therefore never found happiness for the PC. It didn’t help that the game’s meager hint system almost always came up with the response “You ponder your situation, but nothing comes to mind.”. This is one case in which a bundled walkthrough would have helped me a lot — it may have just demonstrated that I wasn’t reading the author’s mind properly, but on the other hand it may have demonstrated that I was being incredibly dense and overlooking an obvious clue.

Instead, I was exhorted to email the author for help. I did so, and eight hours later I haven’t heard back, so I’m going ahead with this review. Authors, allow me to suggest that not providing hints or a walkthrough with a comp entry is detrimental to your chances of doing well in that competition. I’ve only got a few days left, and several more games to get through — I don’t have time to wait around for a reply, and I think many judges are in the same boat. In a non-comp game, omitting the walkthrough can prompt players to post hint requests, or to email you, and this is a good thing. In a competition game, though, when the players are under time pressure and are committed to playing as many of the games as possible anyway, this strategy only ensures that they will be delayed and annoyed if they get stuck. Not the recipe for a high rating.

Even if I had been able to win the game, I still would have had to contend with the numerous bugs that appear in it. At various points, the game referred to an object that wasn’t there, or allowed me to take objects that should have been unavailable, or absconded with one of my possessions after I dropped it, or permitted travel in a direction that should have been forbidden (putting me in a room with the description “.”) Each one of these instances threw me out of the immersive world that the other aspects of the game work so hard to sustain. According to the credits, the game has been tested, but I was left wondering if that testing process was perhaps more rushed than it should have been due to the competition deadline.

Between the bugs and my inability to get anywhere with the puzzles (or even find them), I didn’t enjoy Masquerade nearly as much as I wanted to. If you haven’t played it yet, wait for the next release — the author has always shown a strong commitment to fixing problems, so I’ve no doubt there will be one. Once the bugs have been fixed and better hints are available, Masquerade will have a great deal to offer fans of genre romance. In this incarnation, though, I’m afraid it was a bit of a disappointment.

Rating: 7.3

Desert Heat by Papillon [Comp00]

IFDB page: Desert Heat
Final placement: 28th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Desert Heat made me realize something. In the first five years of the IF Competition, I don’t think a single “true” Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style branching narrative has been entered. Sure, we had Human Resources Stories, but despite its title, that game had no story — it was just a weird quiz. We also had Life On Beal Street, but that game didn’t really offer any choices, unless you count “quit” and “don’t quit” as legitimate story branches, which I don’t. So along comes Desert Heat, a true CYOA story, forcing me to decide what I think about such a format for a comp game.

Here’s what I ended up with: I have nothing against CYOA; in fact I like it, and nurture fond childhood memories of CYOA books by the likes of Edward Packard, R.A. Montgomery, and the amusingly pen-named D. Terman [Which turns out not to be a pen name at all. Guy was actually named Douglas Terman. — 2020 Paul]. However, in an interactive fiction competition where its competitors boast full-blown parsers, maps, and the like, it just doesn’t feel very interactive. Desert Heat does an excellent job of presenting its milieu, but I kept wishing for many more choices than the story offers.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the game’s narrative doesn’t actually offer that many real options. Most of the branches aren’t branches at all. Instead, they generally do one of three things: one, they reveal themselves to be dead ends, forcing you back to a previous node; two, they only offer the illusion of choice, because every option leads to the same node; or three, they result in an abrupt ending. Endings are plentiful in Desert Heat, but branches aren’t, and that probably accentuated the feeling of restriction I was already experiencing as a result of dropping from the wide-open ambiance of a text adventure into the more streamlined mode of CYOA. Consequently, I found that I was having less fun with Desert Heat than I had with the good parser games I’ve played so far, though to be fair I did find it more fun than the bad parser games, so format isn’t the only thing at work here.

The other unique thing about DH is its genre. It calls itself “A Romance Of Sorts”, and because I’m not a reader of romances, I couldn’t say how closely it hews to the conventions of that genre. I can say that it was written well, proofread well, and programmed well (though the programming chores are obviously more minimal when it comes to CYOA, and the author apparently had help from Mark Musante’s CYOA library for TADS). The Arabic, desert milieu is one I haven’t seen very often at all in IF (the only other one I can bring to mind is a section of TimeQuest), and it feels fresh and interesting. The characters are believable, the intrigue plausible, and there are even some quite subtle moments of humor. (Read the descriptions closely if you ask one of the characters to dance.)

As the author’s warning suggests, there are some sexual scenes available, and in fact the options to include or exclude these scenes represent some of the most significant choices available in the game. Again, I’m not sure what the conventions of the genre are when it comes to this kind of scene — some of them made me a little queasy, but I only encountered these when I was systematically going through the game looking for text I had missed (the inclusion of “undo” was much appreciated.) They didn’t appear in my first few plays through the game, which probably says something about how I tend to play a character.

In the end, while I appreciated Desert Heat for its experimentation with an untried format for comp games, and while I enjoyed its presentation of an unusual setting, I just couldn’t get very into the story. This is no doubt partly just because romances like this aren’t really my cup of tea — I’d never seek one out for pleasure reading. Also, there are some continuity slips in the game, highlighting the fact that although CYOA takes the burden out of coding, it places much more stringent demands on plotting — characters shouldn’t seem surprised to discover something that was already revealed in a previous node, or by contrast claim knowledge of something that hasn’t been revealed yet in this particular narrative trajectory, and those things sometimes happen in Desert Heat.

In the final analysis, it was probably a combination of factors that made me say, “Nice try, but it didn’t really work for me.” I still think a CYOA could work in the comp, but the lesson of Desert Heat is that such a game would not only have to be well-written and very well-plotted, but also wide enough and with enough available choices to provide a feeling of freedom at least somewhat comparable with parser games.

Rating: 5.4