Who Created That Monster? by N.B. Horvath [Comp04]

IFDB page: Who Created That Monster?
Final placement: 25th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Who Created That Monster seems to want to be several different things all at once, but it doesn’t really succeed at any of them. At first, I thought the game would be some kind of trenchant political satire or commentary. After all, it’s set in Iraq, 22 years in the future — what better premise to examine the complex situation in Iraq today? Indeed, there are some moments that seem to be clearly satirical, such as this statement by an American TV commentator in the game:

“For the longest time, the Arab world insisted on calling America ‘The Great Satan.’ What’s really insulting about that is the way it lumps the entire United States together into one monolithic entity. In reality the US is a nation of 400 million people, with a wide variety of ethnicities and points of view. Keep that in mind, Arab world.”

That’s certainly satire, and not the most subtle satire at that. But aside from a few moments like these, the game seems oddly reluctant to actually adopt a point of view. I kept waiting for some kind of twist that never came.

For instance, throughout the game, the PC finds himself confronted by terrorists, and he must kill them or be killed by them. These threats are announced with the sentence, “A terrorist enters the area,” as if the PC can immediately identify an “evildoer” by sight, even in a world where everyone, including investigative reporters, carries around an assault rifle. I kept expecting some revelation from the game — maybe the PC accidentally kills someone he thinks is a terrorist but who is actually a national leader, or maybe someone identifies the PC as a terrorist and starts taking pot shots at him — something to break down the PC’s painfully simplistic and artificial point-of-view. But no. The terrorists are never developed into anything but simple wandering monsters. They might as well be orcs.

So okay, forget political commentary. Maybe WCTM is just supposed to be an exciting science fiction thriller. Here, too, it misses the mark, this time due to its unenthusiastic writing. Here’s a perfect emblem:

>x mysterious note
It looks like an ordinary mysterious note to me.

Yawn. If the game can’t be bothered to provide some detail about the objects in its world, how am I supposed to become immersed in that world? Granted, there are some nice touches, like the surveillance spheres that float everywhere, or the occasional holographic advertisements that pop up in front of the PC’s eyes. These fillips are sf clichés by now, but they still provide a nice futuristic feel.

Then again, some of what might be intended as science-fictional is so underexplained as to appear magical. For instance, when you shoot a terrorist, it vanishes “in a puff of smoke.” Now, this might be the result of some kind of advanced disintegrator bullet technology or something, but even if it is, the game never mentions that. Instead, the result is more or less equivalent to what happens to the troll in Zork (albeit less compellingly described), which only adds to the feeling that the terrorists are lazily imagined wandering monsters.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the game is the way that it occasionally decorates the action with a blurb about the past or future history of Iraq. Even these, though, suffer from prosaism:

1920 . The history of Iraq begins when British mandate is declared.

What? This statement makes it sound like the British issued a mandate in 1920 stating “Today the history of Iraq shall begin!” We need a little more.

The satirical and speculative elements fall away from WCTM like flakes of dry skin, leaving only a bog-standard IF “collect the gems” game. Sadly, even this falls prey to some truly bizarre design decisions. For instance, there are four different buildings in the game, all of which have the same basement. Not just four identical locations — one location, to which the DOWN command leads from all four buildings. No explanation whatsoever is offered for this behavior, but it’s not a bug. In fact, one of the puzzles hinges on this extremely strange geography.

In another spot, the game is terribly heavy-handed with its cueing, robbing players of the opportunity to put the pieces together themselves. Finally, WCTM seems to have trouble keeping track of what and where its objects are. A manila dossier becomes, in some scenes, a green dossier. A building is reported as being to the southwest when it’s actually to the northwest. Between its bugginess, its bizarre design, and its apparent unwillingness to put much craft into its world-building or its futurism, WCTM ends up being a pretty dull game.

Rating: 4.6

Ninja v1.30 by Paul Allen Panks [Comp04]

IFDB page: Ninja
Final placement: 36th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

You know, for all the newsgroup fuss and furor that Paul Allen Panks has created over the years with his obsessive marketing and subsequent defenses thereof, I’ve never actually played one of his games. I’ve been wishing for years that somebody would review Westfront PC for SPAG, but so far, no takers. Of course, what I’ve gleaned about that game is that it contains hundreds of fairly samey rooms and a bunch of randomized combat, so I can’t say I’m terribly surprised not to have received a review. Heck, the SPAG standards say that reviewers must finish a game before reviewing it, so maybe somebody started in on it the first time I made the request (in 2000) and still hasn’t gotten through it yet.

At any rate, Ninja v1.30 is Panks’s first comp game, so I was interested to see how well he presented himself. The answer: not very well. It’s bad. Really bad. For one thing, it is so primitive as to lack almost any IF conveniences. There’s no “X” command, no “L” command, and no “I” command. It goes without saying that there’s no SCRIPT or UNDO or anything handy like that. Despite the fact that it contains only four rooms and one puzzle (which is so heavily clued it can hardly be called a puzzle at all), to detail all its failings would be a pretty mammoth undertaking. So let me just pick a few choice ones:

  • The sudden-death endings, which frequently hit out of nowhere. Note that these are particularly annoying in an environment without UNDO.
  • The utterly arbitrary restrictions. For instance, this:
    You are within the shinto shrine. The room is lit by only the light from a nearby window. All else is darkness. You may 'exit shrine' to the south, or head west out the window.

    ? s
    Your path is blocked. Try 'exit shrine' instead.


  • The maximum score, different every time the game ends. (Well, I guess the second number in the score might not be the maximum, but if so it’s left completely unexplained.)
  • Terrible writing. For a game that probably has less than 300 words, it’s amazingly well-populated with comma splices, redundancy, and awkward phrasing.
  • Bugginess. For instance, at one point the game started printing “>20” after every command, inexplicably.

Okay, enough of that. It’s just really not good at all. But there is a way to enjoy it, at least for me. See, I like to think that there exists a tiny sliver of possibility that Panks is actually just a satirist with a very, very, very dry wit. I mean, really — if IF were a Christopher Guest movie, Panks would just have to be a character. It’s almost as if he’s playing a character all the time in his postings, and this game works perfectly as reductio ad absurdum interactive fiction. Look at it as a parody, as perfectly straight-faced and utterly ridiculous all at once, and it may provide a moment’s entertainment. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’d give it a high score in the comp or anything.

Rating: 2.4

Scary House Amulet! by Ricardo Dague as Shrimpenstein [Comp02]

IFDB page: Scary House Amulet!
Final placement: 31st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game’s title captures its tone, right down to the exclamation point. The only way it could be better is if it incorporated some bold text and called itself Scary House Amulet! or some such, because about every seventh word in this game is bolded. At first, I thought this emphasis was serving an interface purpose, highlighting those nouns and verbs that the game implements. I thought that this was a very cool idea — one quickly gets used to the bold text, and the emphasis could help to avoid lots of those annoying “You can’t see any such thing” messages that pop up for unimplemented nouns.

As it turned out, however, the game wasn’t doing any such thing, and was instead sprinkling bold text throughout itself like salt onto french fries, as well as ending nearly every single sentence in at least one exclamation point. In addition, SHA occasionally gets extremely adjective-happy, as in this sentence: “It leads into an evil, scary, putrid dark stillness which makes the hair on your neck prickle!” As a satire of horror, this mock-gothic tone ended up working for me, and I laughed out loud several times during the game. Probably my favorite response, after finding a hole in the ground:

>look in hole
You find nothing... but evil!

The humor of the writing went some way towards compensating for the game’s many irritating design choices, most of which were lifted directly from the Zork playbook. There’s a light source puzzle. There’s a sequence where something comes swooping in and transports the PC to another location. And there are not one but two mazes.

Granted, none of these obstacles are made particularly diabolical, but they give the game’s design a fairly tired feel. It doesn’t help matters that pretty much all the other puzzles are of the “use x on y” variety, with x and y more or less unrelated to each other, prompting the player to just go through every object in her inventory until finding the one that happens to be right for the obstacle she faces. Even the puzzles that don’t fit this pattern don’t appear to have any particular logic behind them.

Still, this is not a shoddily crafted game. I found no bugs, and hardly any spelling or grammar errors. It’s got a clean, functional adaptive hint system, a thorough implementation of first-level nouns, and although the game credits no beta testers, it has a polished feel. It’s even got some great verbs added for fun:

The bat shrieks, "You must fear me! Fear me!"

>fear bat
You do fear the horrible bat!

There were a couple of areas where the writing felt a bit adolescent (particularly in its excoriation of Pepsi), but generally the over-the-top horror bit was pulled off with cleverness and panache. So at the end I was left scratching my head, and not just because the ending doesn’t really make any sense. Why would such a skilled implementor create this game, with its aggressively clichéd setting and puzzles, and no particular virtue except its entertaining writing? I don’t know. I laughed many times while I played SHA, but now that it’s over, I still feel like I didn’t get the joke.

Rating: 6.4

The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang by Neil DeMause as Anonymous [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm und Drang
Final placement: 13th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel comic at age six, I’ve always been a fan. Even now, well into my twenties and possessing a Master’s degree in English Lit, I still make sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though really, who cares about plausibility? We’re talking superheroes, here!) And yes, I’m disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized bodies (especially women’s bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it’s still a pleasure.

Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and gave a small cheer when Comp97’s magic shuffler put it towards the front of the line. I’ve always thought that the whole superhero genre would make a great one for IF — if it’s a great power fantasy to watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv, whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow’s headlines, and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality, from the characters’ dialogue with one another to the snappy responses provided for some unlikely actions (“>GET HOUSE” brings “You can count the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an entire house with one finger.)”) It’s hilarious.

Sadly, there are some problems as well. For lack of a walkthrough, I was unable to complete the game, and this frustrating experience revealed most of the game’s shortcomings. First of all, I was disappointed that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my “super Improv power” to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player) developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I’m afraid. In addition, the game did not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even this setup, because it did not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds (cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the verb (“You can’t see any bite here.”) or “That’s not really possible in your current state.” I got the impression that the author hadn’t really thought about all the clever things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the one clever thing that would solve each puzzle. Finally, there were a number of just plain bugs in the game, which always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However, interface design and implementation are too important to be treated the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I’m still waiting for the game that does superheroes just right.

Prose: As mentioned above, the prose was excellent throughout all of the game that I saw. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team was sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the character’s mental state) were both concise and vivid. Even some of the most everyday IF responses were considerably enlivened by the superhero treatment — for example, saying “Down” in a locale where that direction is not available evokes the response “Sadly, you’re not equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground.”

Plot: Since I wasn’t able to complete the game, I can only report on as much of the plot as I saw, which was basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero cliché. Since this was a spoof, of course, clichés were a good thing, and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the supervillains’ hideout) were quite funny. The landscape, the premise (SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound heroes, etc.) were all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I’ll discuss those below.

Puzzles: In fact, I’ll just discuss them right here. The puzzles were a weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in the game. One group was the puzzle based on extremely contrived circumstances — for example, the door to the villains’ hideout uses a “guess-the-big-word” lock, and what do you know, I happen to have someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me! The other type of puzzle was supposed to have drawn on my character’s superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since this power wasn’t implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of which have already been discussed above.

Technical (writing): I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game.

Technical (coding): I think the main failure of the coding was the one I’ve already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for inventory items. When a game’s main character is someone whose primary trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible. Frenetic Five fell well short in this regard. The game also had a few regular bugs, including the most egregious occurrence of the typical TADS disambiguation bug I’ve ever seen — when I and my team members were tied up, and I tried to do something with the ropes, I was asked “Which ropes do you mean, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, or the ropes?”