IFDB page: The City
Final placement: 13th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition
The City gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. So many parts are hauntingly familiar. Here’s the story: You wake up, not knowing who you are, where you are, or why you are wherever you are. Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s more: You seem to be trapped in a surreal and inescapable institution. (This institution is called “The City”, hence the name of the game. Yes, that’s right. It’s not about an actual city.). Does this ring any bells? OK, here’s more: your situation is iterative, bringing you back to the same point over and over again. No? Well, how about this: at one point during the game, when you give a command that goes against the narrative’s wishes, the parser replies, in bold letters: “That’s not how you remember it.” This should definitely sound familiar to anyone who’s played the latest Zarf offering. Plotwise, it’s as if somebody chopped up Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves (another escape-from-the-institution game whose name had only tenuous relation to its contents), added two tablespoons of Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, garnished with a sauce of Greg Ewing’s Don’t Be Late, threw in a pinch of Ian Finley’s Babel, put the mixture into a crust made from tiny pieces of various other text adventures, stirred, baked for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and served it up for this year’s competition. Now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. I think that lots of great works of art, interactive fiction and otherwise, are really just inspired melanges of things that had come before, so I’m not particularly opposed to such derivation on principle. For me, though, some of the derivative aspects of The City didn’t work particularly well. This was especially true for the Spider and Web stuff — I felt that the game crossed the line between homage and rip-off, heading the wrong direction. In addition, the convention of waking up with no idea of who you are or where you are, despite how well suited it is to IF, is starting to feel very tired to me. Perhaps I’m just jaded, or burnt-out, but when I saw the beginning I said “Oh, not another one of these!”.
Now, this is not to say that the entire game was derivative. The plot certainly didn’t break any new ground, but certain aspects of the interface were imaginative and innovative. The City does away with status line and score, not to mention save and restore. Abandoning the first two precepts did lend the game a greater sense of rawness, of the interactive experience being immediate and unmediated by any artificial tracking devices. The absence of save and restore, on the other hand, was a pain in the neck. See, as much as IF might want to emulate real life, it’s never really going to be real life. Consequently, there will be times when I only have 15 minutes to play a game and want to at least get a start into it. Or when a fire alarm goes off and I have to shut things down. Or when my wife wants to go to sleep, and I need to turn off my computer (which is in our bedroom.) You get the idea. At those times, I want to preserve the progress I’ve made. I don’t want to have to start from scratch, and I don’t care how short the game is, I don’t want to waste my time typing in a rapid series of commands to get to where I was when I had to leave the game last time. Especially since with my memory, I’m likely to forget one or two crucial actions which will then oblige me to start over again. Here is the lesson for game authors: please do not disable interface conveniences in the name of realism. It will not win admiration from your players, at least not from this one.
One innovation I did like in The City was its expansion of the typical IF question format. The game allowed not only the typical ASK and SHOW constructions, but also questions (both to the parser and to other players) like “Why am I here?”, “Where am I?”, or “Who are you?” Now, it didn’t allow question marks, which made the whole thing look a bit strange syntactically, but I found it did have a pretty good record of responding realistically to reasonable questions. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this feature, and I think it really made a difference — I felt much freer to question NPCs in a much more lifelike way. Even when I bumped into the limits of this realism (with questions like “what is going on here?”) I still felt outside of the bounds of traditional IF. Unfortunately, the energy that went into this innovative question system must have been leached out of other technical parts of the game. There were a number of bugs in the game, including one that rendered the game completely unwinnable, forcing me to, you guessed it: restart. Since I couldn’t save, and since the bug happened about 2/3 of the way through the game, I had to completely restart and type in all the commands that had brought me to that point — you can be certain I was grinding my teeth the whole time. In a non-competition game I almost certainly would not have bothered, choosing not to finish rather than to waste my time in such a manner. If anybody needs another reason not to disable save and restore, it’s this: when bugs in your code force the player to go backwards, that player will not appreciate having to back all the way up to the beginning. In addition to the bugs in the game’s coding, there were also a number of mechanical errors with its writing as well. These were not egregious, but they were there, and wore on what little patience remained after the bugs, the disabled conveniences, and the ultimately frustrating nature of the plot itself. I think the question system from The City is a valuable tool that could be well-used elsewhere (though I’d appreciate the ability to punctuate my questions with question marks). I would be very happy to see that system integrated into a game with an original plot, working code, and error-free English.