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!)

About my 1998 IF Competition reviews

When the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition came around, the indie IF scene in rec.*.int-fiction was well-established, and me in it. By that time, I’d written a game, written lots of reviews, and become a regular in newsgroup conversations. The groups themselves had established clear dynamics, with authorities, troublemakers, helpers, jesters, you name it. The community even pulled together a massive April Fool’s joke called Textfire, a fake IF sampler from a fake IF company. Comp98, though, brought us all up to a new level.

It kind of blows my mind to reread my reviews from that year, knowing the future as I do now. I’d love to tell my 1998 self that decades on, I’d hike in the Grand Canyon with one of the authors, see the sights of Austin with another, collaborate on a game with a third (for a company created by a fourth), and so on. I have relationships with some of these folks going way back to those formative days, thanks especially to the IFMud, founded the year prior. One Comp98 author even became a professional game designer, scooping up a bunch of BAFTA awards a few years ago.

The competition itself had by this time evolved its own set of tropes. Rybread Celsius was one of these, a surprisingly beloved figure with a cult following I never quite grasped. Another was the prevalence of Inform, followed closely by TADS, alongside the “first attempt” and homebrew games that appeared in every comp. The competition itself had become an institution by this point, inspiring lots of mini-comps throughout the year — Chicken-comp, the IF Fan Fest, etc — and these in turn fed into the main competition.

My own reviewing style reached maturity this year, settling into the format I kept for the rest of my comp reviews: basically three paragraphs and a score. Sometimes more, if the mood struck, but my comp reviews had evolved from basically filling out a form to writing a little mini-essay about each game. I more or less took my Comp97 review format, got rid of all the bold headings, and massaged those categories (plot, puzzles, prose, technical writing/coding) into the rest of the review. The artificiality of the headings still sticks around to some extent — sometimes I can see myself going out of my way to cover each base — but my voice was getting more natural the more I wrote.

I also evolved in my approach to spoilers. Where tons of my Comp97 reviews had spoilers in them, always flagged with big capital letters, I managed to mostly avoid them in the Comp98 reviews. There are a couple of exceptions, where a point I was making really demanded a concrete and accurate example, but more often I’d file the serial numbers off the game’s specifics so that I could provide an example that fulfilled the spirit of my point without giving away any of the goods.

Finally, I worked to keep in the front of my consciousness the fact that this is an all-volunteer endeavor, done by enthusiasts who should be rewarded for their enthusiasm wherever possible. I tried to find something to appreciate even in games I really hated, or at least offer some constructive criticism for how the next one could be better. It didn’t stop the occasional flame, but that was reserved for when I felt like a game really should have known better.

I originally posted my reviews for the 1998 IF Competition games on November 16, 1998.

Symetry by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp97]

IFDB page: Symetry
Final placement: 32nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, man. When I saw the title, one misspelled word, I began to feel the familiar dread. When I read the tortured sentences of the introduction (“Tonight will be the premiere of you slumbering under its constant eye.”) the fear built higher. And when I saw the game banner, I knew that it was true: Rybread Celsius has returned! Yes, the infamous Rybread Celsius, author of last year’s stunningly awful Punkirita Quest One: Liquid and only slightly less awful Rippled Flesh. Rybread Celsius, who announced to the newsgroups that his games would suck, and proved himself extravagantly correct. Rybread Celsius: I hope it doesn’t hurt his feelings if I call him the worst writer in interactive fiction today.

See, he just doesn’t write in English. Sure, it may look like English, but on closer inspection we find that the resemblance is passing, perhaps even coincidental. Misspellings and bad grammar are just the tip of the iceberg. The sentences often just don’t make sense. (For example, “A small persian rug sits as an isolated in the center of the room…” I’m not making this up. In fact, this all comes before a single move can be made in the game.)

But OK, say you were smart and had a good translator, and could understand what the game is talking about. Then, my friend, you would have to deal with the bugs. The game world makes almost zero sense, even if you can get past the prose. Simple commands like “get in bed” thrust you into darkness, at the same time insisting “But you’re already in the Your Bed.” (you weren’t.) Perhaps you’d turn to the walkthrough in such a situation. No luck. In fact, the (twelve-move) walkthrough includes a command which isn’t even in the game’s vocabulary. The best you can achieve is “A Phyric Victory” (I think he means “Pyrrhic.”)

I don’t mean this as a personal attack. I really don’t. I would love to be proved wrong, to see “Rybread” come up with a great game, or even an understandable one. But I’m not holding my breath. Go ahead, play Symetry. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Prose: … oh, forget it.
Technical (writing):
Technical (coding):

OVERALL: A 1.4 (you’ve got to give the guy credit for persistence.)

Rippled Flesh by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp96]

IFDB page: Rippled Flesh
Final placement: 24th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Having already played the author’s other competition entry, I sincerely dreaded playing this one. Probably my low expectations contributed to my feeling that this game was actually slightly better than Punkirita Quest. Sure, the writing is still riddled with errors, and sure, the plot and premise still make absolutely no sense, and yes, the coding is very poor and the design even more so, but at least this time I had some faint grasp of what was supposed to be happening. Perhaps this derives from the fact that Flesh takes a more realistic setting and thus less needs to be explained by the author’s inadequate verbal skills. Of course, that doesn’t mean I liked it — just that it was less painful than the other game. Progress? Perhaps — I’ll just try to judge the game on an objective basis rather than on its dubious achievement of being a better piece of work than Punkiritia.

Prose: The descriptions were weak, and the overall feel of the game evoked walking through the brain of a mental patient — a series of non sequiturs, loosely tied together by an irrational framework. The writing suffered under so many errors that they seriously occluded the author’s ability to communicate, and this problem was compounded by the fact that many (most, actually) of the objects and rooms in the game seemed to have no real purpose or function.

Difficulty: I found it possible to move through the game without much trouble, which is a good sign; at least the language problems didn’t render the game so opaque that it was simply impossible to complete without a walkthrough. Mainly the point of the game simply seemed to be finding one’s way through a maze of rooms — the one real puzzle (the wardrobes) had its effect spoiled by the fact that one didn’t really gain much of anything by solving it.

Technical (coding): Coding problems abounded. Nothing fatal, but certainly plenty of the nonsensical and downright baffling. For example, how about those lights that get turned on so brightly that they blind the character, yet in the next turn the room is still dark?

Technical (writing): Really quite terrible. My only hypothesis is that the author is a student (rather than a speaker) of English, and a rather poor one at that. A dictionary and a spell-checker would improve things immensely — then the proofreading can begin.

Plot: No, there wasn’t one. A bunch of random events tied together by a whacked-out ending does not a plot make.

Puzzles: I mentioned the game’s only real puzzle above. Other than that, the game’s “puzzle” was just walking through the exit in each room until finally arriving at the “win game” room. Nothing much made sense, and so the whole experience ended up being unsatisfying. The real brain-twister is why the author chose to enter this piece into the competition in the first place.


Punkirita Quest One: Liquid by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp96]

IFDB page: Punkirita Quest 1: Liquid
Final placement: 25th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, this is without question the worst writing I’ve ever seen in a piece of interactive fiction. The only thing I can think is that the author is 1) not a native English speaker and 2) incapable of or unwilling to find a fluent speaker to proof his work. The result is a piece of work which is only barely understandable. The piece also had a number of other weaknesses including incomprehensible in-jokes, a confusing magic system which drives the game’s sole puzzle, and the fact that the majority of the world’s features are unexplained except in the solution file.

Prose: The mangled grammar and spelling in the writing are so severe in this game that they are nearly inseparable from the content. The author’s inability to write clearly in English obscures whatever good ideas he may have. This is a work that could only have been published on the Internet — any medium in which editors keep the gate for published work would have sent this prose back for major revision — even a spell-check would have done a world of good.

Difficulty: The most difficult thing was discerning meaning from the tortured writing. After that, the greatest difficulty arose from deciphering the logic behind the game’s baffling magic system and world rules. I went for the hint file right away, but I confess I didn’t try very hard on the puzzle before doing so; at that point I felt quite sure that the writing was bad enough that it would block my ability to figure things out on my own.

Technical (coding): The game was small enough that not much coding would have been required. There were very few objects to interact with each other. In the portions I played, the coding was creditable. (One exception was the fact that the game referred to footnotes without providing them — there should have been a response to the verb “footnote” or “note” which explains that the notes are to be found in the solution file.)

Technical (writing): As I said earlier, the only word is atrocious. Unbelievably poor spelling and grammar — so bad that it made the work almost totally incomprehensible. Apparently the author either didn’t have a spell checker or an English dictionary available, or had them available but didn’t care to use them.

Plot: From what I could make out, the plot was fairly minimal. However, there may have been more than I could figure out from the writing.

Puzzles The only real puzzle didn’t make any sense to me, but then again that could also have been the writing. The solution requires a knowledge of the “glow” power of the hero (which apparently generates not only light but heat as well) which may have been conveyed by the text in a part I skipped over as unreadable.