Phantom: caverns of the killer by Brandon Coker [Comp05]

IFDB page: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer
Final placement: 31st place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right up front this game starts sending out the red flags. There’s the fact that its title isn’t in title case. There’s the fact that the debugging verbs are left on. (Not that I remember how to use them decades later.) And then there are the opening sentences:

Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the military ranks faster that any other.

So, whew, just very rough right away. I dialed my expectations down, way down, and kept playing. Here is an advantage to playing the comp games outside the comp period — it had been about 6 months since I played Dreary Lands. Consequently, my patience account had built back up, enabling me to battle through the terrible writing and nonsensical milieu, looking for some things to appreciate.

The impression I got was of a very, very young author (or at least one who hadn’t done a lot of writing or received a lot of feedback), more attuned to the programming part of IF than the writing part. This is a demanding medium, in that it requires authors to be skilled in two traditionally separate areas — prose storytelling and coherent code. Phantom has its problems with the latter (though much less so than, say, Dreary Lands), but falls down very badly on the former.

The result is a game that tries to horrify, but keeps stumbling into unintentional comedy. Horror in particular is a tough genre for an author lacking basic skills, though it’s apparently an attractive one for such authors as well — see Exhibit A, Rybread Celsius. In order for a reader to be scared or creeped out by a fictional world, she’s got to be able to suspend disbelief about that world, and under an avalanche of prose errors, it’s pretty difficult to suspend disbelief.

Another obstacle to believing in Phantom‘s world lies in the weird numbers that occasionally pepper the text. For example:

>open black box
The box opens but a hand comes out grabs your face and squeezes the blood from your veins.1

“1”? I mean, the death message is a little comical as it is, what with the way a hand to the face somehow causes circulation problems, but the “1” afterwards is clearly just a mistake, or maybe a debugging leftover. Given that there’s a “2” that appears after the winning ending, I’m guessing this has to do with the game setting Inform’s death message flag, and maybe printing it out either by mistake or as a way of making sure the right message prints, or something.

Then again, it’s not just death messages — there’s also this:

You can see a Large emerald here.
1

>x 1
(the Large emerald)
A very large finely cut emerald.

Really not sure what’s going on here, but it did give me a good chuckle.

In any case, Phantom seems like a well-intentioned attempt by someone who does not have control of his tools. I’d prescribe some intense focus on learning basic English mechanics, hopefully with instructional support, and a lot of beta-testing to root out weird code behavior, in order to produce a much improved next game. Or at least, that’s what I would have prescribed 17 years ago — I guess now I’ll just call it general advice.

Rating: 3.6

Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bĂȘte noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

>X MARK
"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>blue
There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

>carved
Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

Dreary Lands by Paul Lee [Comp05]

IFDB page: Dreary Lands
Final placement: 29th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are lots of different ways to write a bad comp game. There’s the Rybread special — terrible spelling and coding in a bizarre world. There’s the dreaded bad homebrew. There’s the obnoxious bad “joke” game where the joke is on you for playing. There’s the promising but badly unfinished (or broken) game. There’s the “here’s my apartment” (or house, or school, or aero club) game. There’s the simpleminded bad religious evangelism game. There’s the “first game” that seems intent on making a bad first impression. There’s the game with puzzles so broken they can’t be solved without a walkthrough. There’s the exasperating “I’ve never heard of spellcheck and can’t write in English” game. And of course, there are the games that check more than one of these boxes. I’ve played all the flavors, many times over, but sometimes I get fooled as to which is which. Dreary Lands, for example, looks at first like it’s going to be a surreal Rybread whirlwind, but turns out to be a first game not only broken in English and puzzles but also seemingly attempting some clumsy evangelism as well.

Sure, the writing is bad, and I mean awful. Here’s a sampler, in response to the command “CLIMB TREE”:

You lock your legs about the wet distusting trunk; but it is far to slippery to get a hold on, and you fall backwards into the marsh, getting soked in the vile mire a bit more than you’d have thought acceptable.

When I first started playing this game, I was noting all the blatant writing errors — in this case “distusting”, “to slippery”, and “soked”. I had to stop almost immediately because those errors are constant. Even where we get past spelling/typo issues, there are questions like, “exactly how much ‘soking’ in the vile mire would I have found acceptable?” Some games with terrible writing feel like they’re produced by someone for whom English is a second (or later) language. Dreary Lands didn’t really feel like that to me — it has more of a “very young writer who has a lot to learn about proofreading” vibe, combined with a generous helping of “can’t really express myself articulately yet.”

The coding errors aren’t quite so constant, but when they happen, oh boy are there some doozies. Here’s my favorite:

You can also see (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning. and (which is currently burning. here.

I have no idea what is supposed to be happening here, nor what went wrong to turn it into what it has become, but wow. I know I just used a “literally” joke in my last review, but it is hard to avoid thinking of this as the flaming wreckage of some poor attempt at Inform code. What’s definitely true about it, though, is that it presents a puzzle that’s pretty much unsolvable without the walkthrough, concealing as it does an object crucial to that solution.

I used the walkthrough to get out of that jam, and then tried to continue on my own but almost immediately became ensnared in other illogical object behaviors, so between the writing and the coding I decided to just type straight from the walkthrough the rest of the way. Even then, I had to restore from an earlier point because somehow I’d gotten the game into an untenable state. With the help of the walkthrough, though, I was able to finish the game, which is how I figured out it was trying to be sneaky evangelism.

Mind you, I understand that all games evangelize something, consciously or not, and usually a whole raft of things. This game, for instance, argues against the value of comprehensible writing, promotes D&D-style medieval cliches like walking around with a sword, shield, and bow, and makes the case that games should be entered in the comp whether they work or not. But alongside all that, it starts to introduce religious imagery that by the end shows a clear proselytization agenda. When it turns out you’re fighting a fallen angel (rebelling against both Satan and God) and that your sword-strike against it gets a little boost, “Footprints in the Sand”-style, by “two more hands, large and mighty, cupped around your own”, it seems pretty clear that the game is arguing for the Christian beliefs.

And just like Jarod on his Journey, its alignment with those beliefs lets it feel super-smug towards the rest of the world, so that the PC can wander out into traffic and then shake his head at “the poor frenzied soul driving the pickup” that nearly ran him down. Tsk tsk mister driver, can’t you see I’m elevated? But this game to me was more like that pickup driver, “a big middle finger… shoved toward you,” and after its absolutely dismal presentation its smugness is deeply, deeply misplaced.

Rating: 2.9

A Light’s Tale by Zach Flynn as “vbnz” [Comp04]

IFDB page: A Light’s Tale
Final placement: 32nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well. This one has many problems. Many serious problems. Let’s start with the writing. I’m guessing that this game is the work of a non-native English speaker. Something like “your mind… flys far, far away” could just be a typo, but when the game describes a dump as “full of unnumbered amounts of trash,” I begin to get the strong feeling that the translating dictionary has come calling. The prose is just littered with writing errors, many of which are too simple to be blamed on translation. For instance, a death message:

The guard calls out: “What are you doing there?” He runs over and sticks a bullet in your side you die.

Maybe the bizarre diction “sticks a bullet in your side” could be explained by translation, but there’s no such excuse for failing to provide either a conjunction or a full stop before “you die.” Also, the game is just littered with redundancy. Whether it’s describing the dump as “[an] extremely dirty, messed-up dump,” or calling the PC “a rather overweight chubby character” or naming an NPC “the big, large rather muscular mouse,” Light’s Tale hates to say once what it could say twice instead.

However, as problematic as the writing is, the coding is worse. Take that big, large mouse, for instance. He’s got one of the most ungainly short names I’ve ever seen in an IF object:

>give mirror to george
The big, large rather muscular mouse who looks to be a pretty good mechanic, for the right price rejects the offer.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure his short name is “the big, large rather muscular mouse who looks to be a pretty good mechanic, for the right price.” Implementing an object in this way demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of how an IF engine works. Sometimes there are even full stops embedded in object names. Here’s another problem: the game completely chokes on any attempt to show anything to anyone. The command always results in “[TADS-1014: ‘abort’ statement executed]”. Another pervasive issue is the game’s recurring failure to mark dialogue with quotation marks, resulting in exchanges like this:

>ask bruno about bar
Why would I want to talk to you?

Well, because you’re the parser. You’ve been talking to me the whole game. Oh, unless that’s Bruno talking, in which case there really ought to be some quotation marks. Sorry, but that’s just plain careless. Even the hints are buggy; they keep referring to somebody named “Robert”, when nobody of that name resides within the game. Thank goodness for the walkthrough, or I’d have gotten absolutely nowhere with A Light’s Tale.

Which, saving the worst for last, brings us to the design. Over and over, I found myself resorting to the walkthrough, a refugee from the game’s bizarre assumptions. Light’s Tale is certainly one of those games that assumes you’re going to traverse it in the same order that the walkthrough does. Routinely, the game would refer to objects I didn’t have, or kill me immediately after rewarding me for solving a puzzle. There are far too many “read the author’s mind” puzzles, including a real doozy at the end.

The game starts out as science fiction (the intro mentions a starship, anyway) for no apparent reason — it would play out exactly the same way if the setting were an airplane, or a steamship, or just about anywhere, really. There are talking animals throughout the game (unless the animal descriptions were meant as metaphor, but I don’t think they were), including in scenes advertised as “the real world at last.” The parser keeps referring to itself as “I” and “me”, and then suddenly becomes a character in the game, personifying itself as some kind of freaky supervillain.

Let me tell you, it’s a weird, wild ride. Some parts approach Rybread-level peculiarity. There were parts that I enjoyed, and there were many more parts that had me cursing heartily. It may be worth a trip through with the walkthrough close at hand, but not if you care about strong writing or strong coding, and even if you don’t, you shouldn’t really expect to understand it too well.

Rating: 4.7

About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

>INVENTORY started as a pandemic project. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to get my many comp reviews, and various others, off of my student website, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that I found myself with the time and motivation to get this site started. My son Dante was 14 at the time, and all these new reviews, brought into the light, piqued his interest.

So he started reading, and learning about the 1990s IF cast of characters — Graham, Zarf, Rybread, and so forth. He also learned about IF history as it stood up to that point, and in particular how Infocom loomed large for all of us at that time. We’d talked about Infocom before — in fact, when he was five we played Zork together for about 45 minutes, resulting in much cuteness.

Meanwhile, revisiting those old reviews started to give me a hankering to spend some time in the Infocom worlds again. So I decided to replay some Infocom games, and Dante decided he’d like to join in. Because we (and a whole lot of IF-ers) started with Zork, I thought that’s where we could restart. I listed out what I think of as the 9 Zorkian Infocom games:

  • Zork I
  • Zork II
  • Zork III
  • Beyond Zork
  • Zork Zero
  • Enchanter
  • Sorcerer
  • Spellbreaker
  • Wishbringer

Then, to make it a nice even list of 10 games, I added Moonmist, more or less at random. It was a game I’d never finished, it seemed like it was going to be on the easier side, and it had a little historical significance, apparently, for being one of the first games featuring a lesbian character. Dante is an LGBTQ+ activist, so I liked that connection, though as it turns out the depiction is very slight indeed.

Even before I embarked on this replay project, Dante had been exploring newer corners of the IF world — Lock & Key, Counterfeit Monkey, Steph Cherrywell’s games, and some others. So he was familiar with the basic idiom and mechanisms of these games. Essentially, he was right about where I was at his age in 1984, except that his primary text game experiences had been with 21st-century interactive fiction. Plus, he’d been playing video games of all sorts pretty much since he could talk, as opposed to me whose only other video gaming came at the pizza parlor, skating rink, or occasional arcade. Oh, and those friends’ houses lucky enough to contain an Atari 2600.

A vintage Infocom advertisement, with an image of a brain and the caption "We unleash teh world's most powerful graphics technology".

So our Infocom odyssey was a combination of me revisiting childhood memories, with dim recollections of puzzles and landscapes, and him seeing these vintage games through fresh eyes, his expectations shaped by a far more evolved version of text games and computer games in general. I’m still the faster typist between us, so I sat at the keyboard and read aloud, while he directed the action. We transcripted all our interactions, so that I could remember how they went when I wrote the reviews. We also used the invaluable Trizbort to map our progress, generally starting out with the automapping and then inevitably abandonding that when some mazy thing confused its relatively simple algorithm.

If I remembered a puzzle’s solution, I’d try to keep my trap shut and give him the pleasure of solving it for himself, though sometimes if we crossed the line between fun flailing and ragequit flailing, I might drop a subtle hint. More often than not, I didn’t remember the puzzle either, so we could genuinely collaborate on solving it. When we got really stymied we’d turn to the invaluable .z5 Invisiclues at the Infocom Documentation Project, but that wasn’t terribly often.

So as I write about these games, I’m writing about that experience. I’m not trying to write the definitive history of an Infocom game — for my money Jimmy Maher has got that territory 100% nailed down. Instead, I’m presenting an idiosyncratic and personal account of how Dante and I experienced those games — how I felt upon returning to those oft-trod trails and how Dante’s insights illuminated them for me like a trusty brass lantern.

We started Zork I on August 5, 2020, and finished Moonmist on December 20. Given sufficient time and interest, there may be more to come! Note that all of these reviews will be spoiler-laden — they aren’t written to promote a game but rather to analyze an experience, so I won’t shy away from getting specific.

The Newcomer by Jason Love [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Newcomer
Final placement: 49th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

This is a joke game, right? Please say it’s a joke game. I mean, just add a few misspellings, subtract the setting, shake well, and you’ve got Comp00ter Game. I’m not kidding. Look, here’s one of the room descriptions: “$$$”. Or how about this dazzling piece of interaction:

>s
You can't, since the iron door is in the way.

>x iron door
You can't see any such thing.

I think that was in Comp00ter Game.

Oh, but the game isn’t unwinnable. As I found out from the newsgroup, there’s a Rybread-style solution available if one performs actions that make pretty much no sense in the context of what story there is.

The sad thing is, I don’t think it’s a joke. Or if it is a joke, it’s subtler and even less funny than Comp00ter Game and Asendent. But if it’s not a joke, how could anybody think this game is ready to be played? No, it has to be a joke. A lame, unfunny joke, but a joke nonetheless. It is a joke. Isn’t it?

Rating: 1.4

The Djinni Chronicles by J.D. Berry [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Djinni Chronicles
Final placement: 14th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

A favorite trick in Interactive Fiction, especially short works like those that appear in the comp, is to make the PC some kind of unusual or non-human creature. We’ve seen it with animals, as in Ralph and A Day For Soft Food. We’ve seen it with monsters, as in Strangers In The Night or Only After Dark. We’ve seen it with children, as in The Arrival and On The Farm. A Bear’s Night Out did it with a plush toy. In the freaky realms of Rybread, we’ve even seen it with things like car dashboards.

When the game is written competently and sufficiently debugged, this trick often works remarkably well, even better than its static fiction equivalent might. Why is that? I think it’s because IF has an advantage over static fiction in the area of character identification. When you’re reading a book, you may read third-, first-, or even second-person accounts of a particular entity’s exploits, and with sufficiently effective writing and characterization, you may even identify with that entity quite strongly despite its non-human traits, but no matter what you are still watching that entity from a distance. IF, however, literalizes the process of identification one step further. Not only does the prose put you in someone else’s head, you actually have to guide the choices of that someone.

I’d submit that when a reader is compelled to guide a character’s actions, especially if there are puzzles involved, that reader will try to think like that character would think. When this happens, the identification process has reached a place where static fiction can rarely take it.

It is exactly this place that The Djinni Chronicles limns with skill and imagination. The game puts the player in charge of a succession of spirits, each of whom has a unique method of interacting with humans and the physical world. These spirits perceive reality quite differently from corporeal beings like ourselves, and the game leaves it to the player to figure out just what those differences are. Luckily, it provides enough clues (and sometimes even outright explanations) that if you’re paying attention, you should be able to get the basic gist of how the system of djinni magic works.

This system is ingenious in several ways. First, it is quite alien from conventional portraits, which only makes sense, since those portraits have always been from the point of view of the summoner rather than the summoned. Second, despite its unfamiliarity, it makes perfect sense, or at least it did to me, as a plausible explanation for spirit magic. It uses the logic of “undercurrents”, in the game’s terminology, to explain things like why a djinn’s blessing can so often be accompanied by a curse — humans always ascribe a malevolent motive to such curses, but the game suggests that this may be just because we’ve never known the djinn’s side of the story. Finally, the system works well on a gaming level — Djinni Chronicles tells an interesting story that fits many folktale motifs, but doesn’t forget to be a computer game at the same time.

If it sounds like I was impressed by the game’s magic system, that’s because I was. To my mind, it did an excellent job of combining story and game into a seamless unit, providing fertile ground for puzzles that always made sense within the context of the story. Best of all, the system really made me feel like I understood what it was like to be a magically summoned spirit, and also why it is so difficult for humans to understand why such spirits so often bring more misery than happiness to their human summoners. The writing helped further this character identification, such as in this passage:

Vault Entry Room
The location of my summoner was a room between the surface of the
world [physically west] and a complex of vaults [physically east].

The room was a trap for physical beings. On one side of the room, a
portcullis barred the way to the outside. To the other were the
vaults for storage. A patterned stone wall blocked their unauthorized
access.

This description does a lovely job of tracing the outlines of a location, because the spirit wouldn’t care about the details, while still giving its human reader a fair impression of the location’s real purpose. The game also indulges in judicious use of made-up synonyms for familiar concepts, thereby deepening our sense that the djinn population sees what we see, but through very different eyes.

I mentioned that the puzzles are integrated well into the story — they are also pitched at just the right difficulty level, or at least they were for me. I often found I had to think carefully, to think like the djinn I was directing, and that when I did so, I was properly rewarded. This experience added further to my sense of immersion in the PCs, since I never had to break the spell by consulting the walkthrough.

The game wasn’t perfect — a few typos lurk here and there, a section of verse has badly broken meter that jars against the elegance of the spirit world, and the routine that causes death when a certain point score drops too low is always one turn behind. Overall though, Djinni Chronicles puts a new spin on a well-loved IF gimmick, and makes it work like a charm.

Rating: 9.4

Asendent by Nate Cull and Doug Jones as Sourdoh Farenheit and Kelvin Flatbred [Comp00]

IFDB page: Asendent
Final placement: 51st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s the little things in life that help me keep my sense of irony. Like this: right after I finish a game that pays tribute to Graham Nelson, I get this game, which is apparently a tribute to Rybread Celsius. A tribute to Rybread Celsius. The world never ceases to baffle me. As I’ve written before about Rybread, he seems to have a devoted cult of followers, but I’ll never be one of them. I guess I’m just old fashioned enough to like my games with error-free prose and code, and I also sort of like them to, y’know, make some kind of sense. Asendent is, if anything, actually worse than anything Rybread ever produced. Certainly the spelling is worse, especially compared to the later Rybread (see L.U.D.I.T.E.) The code is also quite horribly buggy, though it thankfully leaves the debug verbs available, so players can be sure they’re not missing anything.

As with Comp00ter Game, Asendent looks like it might have some point to make, but just like Comp00ter Game, that point was lost on me. To me, it just seemed like a really horrible game. What’s the point of producing such a thing, especially on purpose? The intro seems to suggest it’s hallucinatory, and Rybread games certainly are that, though they don’t tend to trumpet the fact themselves. But it’s not the terrible spelling that makes them hallucinatory. It’s the imagery. Asendent can’t compare to a real Rybread game when it comes to startling images, and its imitation seems pale indeed. The purpose of its imitation is a mystery. A tribute to Rybread Celsius. People are so odd.

Asendent took me about 10 minutes, at the end of which I shook my head and got ready for the next entry. Hey, just like a real Rybread game!

Rating: 0.8

Lurk. Unite. Die. Invent. Think. Expire. by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp99]

IFDB page: Lurk. Unite. Die. Invent. Think. Expire.
Final placement: 35th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Nobody has entered the IF competition every year for all five years of its existence. Only one person has entered every year for the last four years. That’s right: Rybread Celsius. When he entered with two games in 1996, he was a mere 15 years old. Now, three years later, you’d expect his work to have grown along with him. In a way, it has. Last year’s Acid Whiplash was much more fun than anything he’d released before, though I suspected at the time that much of the difference was due to the presence of Cody Sandifer as co-author. L.U.D.I.T.E. confirms that suspicion. I don’t mean to suggest that there haven’t been some signs of improvement. This most recent game is free of misspelled words, which is quite a milestone. Actually, I should be more clear: it’s free of words that don’t exist. Rybread still has some trouble with homophones, as in the following sample phrase: “The room’s loan feature is a big door on the eastern wall…” I tried “BORROW DOOR”, but it didn’t work, so I can only assume that the door is really the room’s lone feature. Perhaps I should ascribe this problem to the “Ten Thousand Monkeys on Typewriters” to whom he credits the text, but after playing Pass The Banana I feel like giving the monkeys a rest.

So yeah, things are spelled right. And probably there will be some people who love this game. But me, I just don’t get it. None of it really makes much sense to me, and its hallucinatory qualities only hold my interest for a few minutes. I thought at first I was just stuck on the door puzzle, and I was going to present L.U.D.I.T.E. as Exhibit B for the argument in favor of including walkthroughs or hints with comp games. Then I noticed that Rybread had left the debug feature on, so I just looked at the game’s object tree to see if I was missing anything. Turns out I wasn’t. I tried jumping to a couple of other objects that looked like they might be rooms, but those objects lacked description properties. So what you see is, more or less, what you get. And what you get is not much, and what there is of it is really weird.

So hats off to Rybread for his persistence. I admire that. A game like this probably doesn’t take long to put together, but at least he’s still out there trying, and experience has shown that he does have a fan base. As usual, I’m not part of it. Oh well — there’s always next year.

Rating: 1.6

Acid Whiplash by Anonymous (a.k.a. Rybread Celsius Can’t Find A Dictionary by Rybread Celsius and Cody Sandifer) [Comp98]

IFDB page: Acid Whiplash
Final placement: 23rd place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

“This is terribly, terribly unfair. I’m really sorry. But I just started laughing hysterically, and it’s not what the author intended. In the middle of an intense ending sequence, I read the line:

‘My blood pumper is wronged!’

I just lost it. It’s a very ‘Eye of Argon’ sort of line.”
— Andrew Plotkin, reviewing “Symetry”, 1/1/98

“It takes guts to do *anything* wearing a silver jumpsuit.
My point:
I bet Rybread wears *two* silver jumpsuits while he writes IF.”
— Brad O’Donnell, 1/6/98

I hope my title line isn’t too big a spoiler. I guess I can’t feel too guilty about giving away something that’s revealed in the first 3 seconds of the game. Anyway, it would be impossible to talk about this game without talking about Rybread Celsius. Yes, Rybread Celsius. The man, the myth, the legend. There are those who have called him “A BONA FIDE CERTIFIED GENIUS” [1]. There are those who have called him “the worst writer in interactive fiction today” [2]. There are even those who have called him “an adaptive-learning AI” [3]. Whatever the truth behind the smokescreen, opinion is clearly divided on the Celsius oeuvre. He appears to have an enthusiastic cult following who look at his works and see the stamp of genius, paralleled by another group who look at those selfsame works and see only barely coherent English and buggy code. I have always counted myself among the latter. Works like Symetry and Punkirita Quest set my English-major teeth on edge. I have never met a Rybread game that I’ve liked, or even halfway understood. But Acid Whiplash is different.

First of all, I need to say that I’m going to call it Acid Whiplash, for several reasons:

  1. I’m not sure what the game’s real name is supposed to be.
  2. The other name, while it may be (is!) perfectly true, is just too long to write out.
  3. Acid Whiplash is just such a perfect name for this game.

I’ve never dropped acid myself, but I’m guessing that this game is about the closest text game equivalent I will ever play, at least until my next Rybread game. The world spins crazily about, featuring (among other settings) a room shaped like a burning credit card (???), nightmarish recastings of Curses and Jigsaw, and your own transformation into a car dashboard. Scene changes happen with absolutely no warning, and any sense of emerging narrative is dashed and jolted about, hard enough and abruptly enough to, well, to give you a severe case of mental whiplash. Sounds like a typical Celsius game so far, right? But here’s the best part: stumbling through these hallucinogenic sequences leads you through a multi-part interview between Cody Sandifer and Celsius himself, an interview which had me laughing out loud over and over. Sandifer is hilarious, striking the pose of the intensely sincere reviewer, taking each deranged Celsius word as gospel, and in the process manages actually to illuminate some of the interesting corners of his subject, and subject matter. And Rybread is… Rybread, no more or less than ever. Perhaps being changed into a dashboard while listening makes the whole thing funnier — I’m not sure.

As usual, my regular categories don’t apply. Plot, puzzles, writing — forget about it. Acid Whiplash has no real interaction or story in any meaningful sense. (There is, however, one very funny scene where we learn that Rybread is in fact the evil twin of a well-known IF author). If you’re looking for a plot, or even something vaguely coherent, you ought to know that you’re looking in the wrong place. But if you aren’t familiar with the Way of the Rybread, or even if you are, I recommend giving Acid Whiplash a look. It might shed some light on what all these crazy people are talking about… but don’t expect to understand the next Celsius game.

[1] Brock Kevin Nambo

[2] Me. (Nothing personal.)

[3] Adam Thornton

Rating: 5.2 (This is by far the highest rating I’ve ever given to Rybread. In fact, I think it beats his past 3 ratings from me put together!)