Splashdown by Paul J. Furio [Comp04]

IFDB page: Splashdown
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Apparently, malfunctioning slower-than-light starships with passengers in cryogenic sleep have replaced isolated scientific complexes as the go-to comp game setting this year. Of course, in fairness, we did have a scientific complex in All Things Devours, though it wasn’t underground or in Antarctica or anything. Oh, and I guess my own entry could be considered an “isolated scientific complex” game, sort of. Still, the malfunctioning starships are making a strong showing this year. Happily, Splashdown is leagues ahead of its competitor, Getting Back To Sleep, though they both feel rather too much like Planetfall knockoffs.

One refreshing difference is that at least Splashdown acknowledges its debt to Steve Meretzky, not to mention the fact that its implementation is (pardon the pun) light-years ahead of GBTS‘s creaky homebrew. The game even provides a nifty PDF feelie that rivals Infocom in quality. Nevertheless, there are times when Splashdown feels just too derivative, especially when it introduces a cute little robot companion who follows the PC around, spouting random funny dialogue and helping out with the occasional puzzle. Sound familiar?

Besides that, there’s the fact that the crux of the story really doesn’t make much sense. Apparently, the ship is heading off to colonize a distant planet, but something goes wrong, so its computer picks a random colonist to reanimate, in hopes that this person can address the problem. This random colonist is the PC, natch, and if it were me, the colonists would be doomed, because I certainly didn’t win the game my first time through. Isn’t this an unbelievably dumb disaster plan? Why in the world wouldn’t there be a designated person to reanimate in situations like this? Putting the fate of 500 (or maybe 300, depending on whether you believe the game or the hint files) people in the hands of some randomly selected dude isn’t a strategy I can see even the most dunderheaded government or corporation assaying.

That complaint aside, Splashdown presents an entertaining story and a believable setting. I particularly enjoyed figuring out the reason why the ship malfunctioned, a comic situation worthy of Meretzky. There are a nice variety of puzzles, and they’re blended pretty seamlessly into the story, which I greatly appreciate. Somehow, though, many of these puzzles felt rather counterintuitive to me. Looking back at my transcripts, I see a few different root causes for this problem. One issue is that the game’s description of certain objects doesn’t really jibe with my understanding of how those objects ought to work in real life. In particular, I don’t expect a spigot to do anything useful unless I turn a faucet or turn on a pump or something, and if I do so, I expect that spigot to start spouting whether or not it has anything attached to it. These assumptions played me false as I was flailing around Splashdown‘s ship, trying to figure out anything to do that would make any sense at all.

Another issue is that I had the sense that I was missing just a little bit of documentation. In one or two of the final puzzles, I only knew what I needed to do because the hints told me so, not because of anything in the game that gave me the clue. This may be down to a case of me being slow on the uptake, or it may be that the game makes a few too many assumptions about how familiar players are likely to be with its setting. Finally, in some situations, too few verb forms are implemented. Particularly on one of the initial puzzles, I grasped the concept of what needed to be done, and tried a few different ways of expressing it, only to be rebuffed each time. Consequently, when I saw the solution in the hints, I felt annoyed rather than relieved.

Actually, the lack of synonyms and alternate verbs plagued me outside of the puzzles as well. For instance, there are cryotubes in the game that can’t be called “tubes.” There is no good reason not to provide those sorts of synonyms. In addition, one section of the game requires a lot of talking to the computer, using syntax along the lines of COMPUTER, DISPLAY HELP SCREEN. You can’t call the computer COMP or anything like that, and you can’t just say, for example, DISPLAY HELP, or better yet, HELP. Given the number of times I had to type out commands like this, I was mighty annoyed at the lack of abbreviations after a while.

On the other hand, the implementation is almost comically rich in a couple of areas, particularly the cryotubes themselves. There are 125 of these implemented, each with its own personalized nameplate. I was so gobsmacked at this that I had to examine each one, and was rewarded with occasional jokes and geeky insider references. And so the ship’s systems gradually failed as I went around autistically reading nameplates, but I loved it. Despite the occasional moment of breathtaking implementation, though, Splashdown feels like it’s not quite out of beta yet. There are a considerable number of typos, and sloppy formatting is rampant, especially when it comes to the robot companion’s random dialogue. In addition, I encountered a few minor bugs and glitches here and there. I hope very much that the author takes reviews and feedback to heart and releases a post-comp edition of this game. With some polish, I think it could be a really fun Infocom-style ride.

Rating: 8.0

Trading Punches by Mike Snyder as Sidney Merk [Comp04]

IFDB page: Trading Punches
Final placement: 10th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Trading Punches is a lovely piece of work, with a good story and a fine design. It’s also got some flaws, so let me tackle those first, and then I’ll move on to the loveliness. The first problem I had with the game may be more just an idiosyncratic reaction: I found much of its prose rough going. It’s not that the writing was error-laden or terribly awkward — it’s just that I kept finding myself wanting to skim over it, and having to concentrate to actually read it. The problem was most severe in long room descriptions and infodumps, of which the game has many. I’m not sure whether the prose was just too dense for me, or whether it was some question of style, or what. I know that’s an unhelpful reaction, but it was my reaction nonetheless.

One definite problem with the style is that the game goes way overboard on a particular gimmick for making things sound SFnal: word-mating. Thus, the PC wanders around a landscape of “mossgrass” and “elmpines”, watching the “peacrows” and then later drinking some “brandyrum” and “whiskeygin”. Yeesh! A little of this strategy goes a long way, and Trading Punches had way more than a little; it sounded pretty silly in short order. Finally, though the game was obviously tested, a few significant bugs made it into this version. For one thing, certain commands, like “score”, draw no response at all from the game. Even more seriously, there’s a class of locations with one exit that consistently thrusts the player into a formless void from which there is no escape. At first, I thought this effect might be intentional, but further experimentation demonstrated that it’s almost certainly accidental.

So yes, Trading Punches has some problems, but I still ended my play session feeling very happy with it. Why? Well, for starters, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, and aside from the excessive word-mating, the setting felt nicely realized as well. In general, the plot and the game-world felt reminiscent of the work of Orson Scott Card, which I like very much. I don’t know if the author of Trading Punches is familiar with Card, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that influence on this game. It’s got plenty of Card’s hallmarks: bitter rivalry within a family, affecting the larger world and universe on a grand scale; a gifted protagonist with a strong moral center who has a significant impact by helping (or trying to help) others; and strong familial bonds offsetting the deep familial schisms elsewhere.

The aliens in the game feel original and well-imagined, and lend themselves to symbolic use as well. I also appreciated the design of the game — its central story of sibling rivalry is told through chapters that don’t hammer the point too hard, but still make it quite clear how the enmity grows between the two brothers. By skipping forward in time to the most important incidents in their relationship, the game develops the character of both the PC and his brother quite satisfyingly. Situating the chapters within a frame story works very well to knit the disparate pieces, and the game does an excellent job of weaving revelations about the frame story into the content of the chapters and vice versa. Unfortunately, two hours wasn’t quite enough time for me to get through it, partly because of my denseness around one of the puzzles. However, a glance at the walkthrough shows that I was most of the way through, and I felt regret at having to stop the game and write this review, which is clear evidence that the story had me hooked.

Even aside from the story and the design (and its bugs and prose tics notwithstanding), Trading Punches boasts an impressive amount of craft. Especially noteworthy are the game’s cool multimedia components. Each chapter (and each return to the frame story) begins with a full-screen graphic. These graphics are quite lovely, and do an excellent job of establishing the landscape. I found this especially helpful as I struggled with the dense prose’s attempts at scene-setting. The illustrations look as though they were created in some kind of graphics rendering software, and consequently have a bit of a Myst-like feel to them, which is a good thing.

Also effective is the game’s music, a synthesized soundtrack which loops constantly in the background. The music is generally quite effective at enhancing the mood of a particular scene, though some of the musical pieces don’t have enough melody or complexity to withstand the constant looping. No matter how good an eight-bar tune is, it’s bound to get a little grating on the hundredth repetition. The game itself is quite solid, too — it’s clear that a whole lot of effort went into this project. Aside from the few bugs I mentioned in the first paragraph, I found the code pleasantly error-free, and the same goes for the writing. The puzzles worked well for me, and the game did an excellent job of providing cues to help me know what I ought to try next. One item in particular was not only quite well-implemented, but also provided an excellent emotional through-line for the story.

Trading Punches still has a few details to clean up, and the word-mating has to go, but I’d recommend it without hesitation, especially to fans of dramatic fantasy games like Worlds Apart.

Rating: 9.2

Evacuate by Jeff Rissman [Comp02]

IFDB page: Evacuate
Final placement: 19th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I wanted to love this game. Oh man, did I want to love this game. And there’s really a lot to love, too. It’s got a classic storyline: you’re a passenger on a luxury starship which has been attacked, and having just returned to consciousness after everyone else has evacuated, you must find your way to safety. There’s also a great feel to Evacuate, a combination of writing and implementation that evoked Infocom for me more than any game since Comp2000’s YAGWAD. Room and object descriptions are very nicely judged, and some of the puzzle clueing is just superb.

In the course of my two hours with the game, I had several moments where I would look more closely at an object, or really notice a particular word for the first time, and a crucial piece of information would click into place. That feeling is such a pleasure, on a par with those times where inspiration would hit in a flash, I would try my idea, and it would work. Evacuate provided me with both those experiences, and although there are a few spelling mistakes here and there, after my first hour with the game I was feeling buoyant, sure I would finally be able to give a game in this comp a score in the high 9s.

Then came the second hour. Early in the second hour, I discovered the starvation timer. The game kills you after 400 moves if the PC hasn’t eaten yet. I hate this. It’s pointless, unrealistic, and really adds no challenge. But if food is readily available, or if the time limit is generous enough, a starvation puzzle alone isn’t enough to kill the fun of a good game. In Evacuate, the time limit was much too short, and food isn’t available until after you’ve done a bunch of stuff, most notably navigate the maze.

Yes, the maze. As mazes were falling out of fashion in adventure games, the genre went through a period where games would still include a maze, but there would be some special gimmick that would make the maze solvable outside the normal, painstaking methods. This wasn’t a bad compromise, since it retained the nostalgia appeal of an adventure game maze, but allowed an escape from the tedium of drop-and-map maze navigation. After a while, though, even gimmicked mazes became a cliché, and they fell out of fashion too. Evacuate goes the opposite direction, adding a gimmick to its maze that actually makes the maze harder rather than easier. Yes, there’s a way around this gimmick, but even when you’ve found that, you’re still in a maze puzzle.

I didn’t enjoy this, and I especially didn’t enjoy it when there are several things to accomplish in the maze, none of which involved any food. I’d be very impressed if anyone got past the hunger timer without hints or restoring/restarting at least a half-dozen times. When I finally looked at the walkthrough, I was gobsmacked at how much of the game I still needed to get through before I could get anywhere near the food, and that brings up another problem, which isn’t really a problem with Evacuate itself but did affect my experience: for me, this just was not a two-hour game. Even without the incessant restores and restarts brought about by the hunger puzzle, there’s just too much here to squeeze into a two-hour space.

The really amazing thing is that even after Evacuate squarely hit three of my biggest comp game peeves (starvation timer, maze, too big for 2 hours), I still want to give it something around an 8. That’s a testament to how much is outstanding in this game, how many wonderful moments it offers up in exchange for its annoying characteristics. It’s so close to greatness.

Just add a few more custom responses for sensible actions (prying something with a screwdriver, using a scarf as a rope.) Just remove the hunger puzzle (it’s entirely non-essential anyway). Just, at the very least, tone down the maze to eliminate the constant randomizing elements. Just release it outside the bounds of a structure that dictates a limit on playing time. If these things happened, Evacuate could be a cracking good piece of IF. Right now, for all its wonderful qualities, it falls tantalizingly, achingly short of the mark.

Rating: 7.9

Bane Of The Builders by Bogdan Baliuc [Comp01]

IFDB page: Bane of the Builders
Final placement: 28th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In what is either a shameless rip-off or an unwitting duplication of the Heechee backstory behind the Gateway games (and novels), this game posits a “mysterious race known as the Builders [who] had left many traces and artifacts throughout the galaxy.” The game opens as a planet has been discovered that might yield the secret of the Builders’ demise, though it’s unclear how the simple existence of “an energy source” would promise such vital information. No doubt the answer could be supplied by the foremost expert on Builder civilization, a fellow known only as “the Professor.” (I was torn as to whether to picture him as the Professor from Futurama or the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.)

The PC’s role is that of a starship ensign who has become “quite friendly” with the Professor (though apparently not friendly enough to learn a first or last name), and who is sent down to accompany said Professor on his investigative mission in this Builder artifact. Now, it can fairly be said that this scenario is rather illogical — would a lowly ensign really be the only one to accompany a scientist on such an expedition, and if so, would he really be asked to wait around in the ship instead of providing armed support, and would he only start worrying after the Professor goes missing for almost a day?

However, such objections aside, I enjoyed the setup of this game. It felt pleasurably reminiscent of sci-fi juveniles from the 1940s and 50s, right down to the cheesy idioms uttered by the characters. (“Thank Space you’re here!”) I especially enjoyed how Star Trek and its clones have become so ingrained in the culture that when the game provided a blaster “set to kill”, I knew that “SET BLASTER TO STUN” would work, even though the game provided no explanation of the blaster’s settings. It worked. Unfortunately, letdowns occur throughout the game that prevent it from being a fun romp through Golden Age and TV sci-fi tropes.

The problem isn’t with the writing, which is pretty serviceable throughout, even earning extra points from me for using “its” and “it’s” correctly the entire time. The formatting is fine too, although it seems to miss a few blank lines here and there. The implementation, on the other hand, is a bit more deeply troubled. Several times, the game seemed to want to produce the effect of the room’s contents shifting in front of the PC’s eyes; the room description would print, then a line reading “The world around you suddenly shimmers and changes…”, encased with blank line or two on either side, and another room description would print. So far, so good.

Except that sometimes, the descriptions were identical. Other times, a third room description would print after the second one, with the “shimmer” line printing without blank lines preceding it. I doubt this was intentional — it’s a feature that needed more testing before the game’s release. Another serious problem is that in a climactic scene, the most important object is unimplemented. I was more than a little nonplussed to be told about a Nasty Evil Menace by the game, but to be told, “You can’t see any such thing” when I asked to examine the Menace.

The biggest problem, though, is the puzzles. First of all, there’s a maze. There’s no redeeming twist to make it interesting or better — in fact, the only twist makes it worse: the maze doesn’t use compass directions, instead relying (quite arbitrarily) on “left”, “right”, “forward”, and “back” instead. Consequently, you not only need to keep in mind where you are in the maze, you have to keep in mind which way you’re facing. This is the sort of thing that feels a lot more like work than fun to me in a game.

Perhaps even worse are a couple of authorial telepathy puzzles, which demand highly implausible or even nonsensical actions to solve, and offer no clues whatsoever as to these solutions. I’m not sure whether I object more the puzzle whose solution seems impossible based on its object’s description, or the one whose solution is just totally illogical. Either way, having them both in the same game is not a good thing. I have sympathy for people who struggle with puzzle design, because I’m one of them. But it’s better to have no puzzles at all than puzzles that aren’t any fun.

Rating: 5.2

2112 by George K. Algire as George K. George [Comp01]

IFDB page: 2112
Final placement: 24th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Unlike the other game at the IF Archive by this title, 2112 is not an adaptation of the 1976 Rush song. There are no Red Stars of the Solar Federation, no Temples of Syrinx… really, no Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian sci-fi whatsoever. Instead, this game just happens to be set in the year 2112, and casts the PC as a middle school student taking a field trip to humanity’s scientific outpost on the planet Mars.

The futuristic trappings are there, but I wouldn’t exactly call this game science fiction. Its vision of the future is more or less a straight transplantation of present-day life into a century from now, with very little extrapolation for change. The students travel to Mars in a Boeing 797, and upon reaching the planet, the PC finds a Starbucks, a Gap, even a “2113 Dodge Aries Planet Hopper.” As the author jokes in the readme, “It’s a shame they don’t offer a prize for most corporate name-dropping in a single work.” The game reserves a little sneering for the various corporate presences, but I’d hesitate to call it satirical — the swipes are rather too blunt to deserve that label. Of course, the game was so large that I didn’t reach the ending in two hours, even after I spent the second hour more or less typing commands straight from the walkthrough, so there may have been a stinger that I missed later on in there, tying the whole thing together and making some kind of point. More on the size a little later.

This not-quite-science-fiction, not-quite-satire game was also written as a Windows executable, using a homegrown parser. Every year, the IF competition seems to attract one or more of these, and I have to say, I find it rather interesting that there are enough people willing to write their own parsers and world models to actually provide a number of new creations, all with their own from-scratch code, for each and every annual IF competition. I’ve mentioned before that the urge to keep reinventing the wheel is quite a foreign one to me, and that I tend to dread these homegrown entries, as their parsers are much more likely to be problematic, snide, and annoying. Due credit, though: 2112 has one of the best homegrown parsers I’ve ever seen. Yes, it still breaks rule #1 of Paul’s Parser Manifesto: “Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.” One small favor is that its violation applies only to verbs, as in the following exchange on the occasion of finding a stuck hatch:

>pry hatch
You don't figure doing that would help you much.

Well actually, I did figure doing that would help me. That’s why I typed it. Turns out the game would have responded exactly the same way if I had typed “rpy hatch.” However, on the positive side, the parser has a very useful and ingenious way of disambiguating. For instance:

>drop note
. . . note
Which of the following do you mean? 1) the small yellow note, 2) the
pile of notebooks? Just hit 3) to forget it.

After issuing this question, the game disables all keys except 1, 2, and 3, thus preventing accidental input while preserving (through the last option) player freedom. I thought this was a great way to prevent the pernicious “Let’s try it again: Which do you mean, the note or the note?” problem. 2112 also had several fun features available, such as a customized game window, appropriate (and sometimes startling) sounds, and multicolored text. It even provided most of the features I’ve come to expect from IF, such as scripting capability and undo, though I was hesitant to use the latter because it required restarting the former.

Usually my screed on homegrown games is that nifty features don’t matter as much as a solid parser. 2112, though, has both. You’d think I’d be satisfied. Well, it turns out that reasonable game design is nearly as much of a must as a good parser, and it’s here that 2112 doesn’t quite make it. I’d played the game for about an hour and couldn’t figure out what to do next — the game was telling me I was still in the preface, despite my having explored a couple dozen rooms and solved a variety of puzzles. So I checked out the walkthrough, and guess what? I’d failed to find a vital item in the first 10 moves of the game, and there was no way to recover that item, nor to substitute its use in the puzzles that involved it. I had to restart, and let me tell you, I was gritting my teeth.

From that point, I was going straight from the walkthrough, and although I did this for a straight hour, I still wasn’t able to finish the game. What this means to me is that 2112 is in no way a two-hour game. Consequently, it dodged the pet peeve I expected it to hit (shoddy homegrown parsers) and ran smack into two others (games inappropriately large for the competition, and games that close off without warning.) Oh, I almost forgot to mention: the game suffers from a number of spelling and grammar errors, too. Make that three pet peeves. 2112 is a slick piece of work, and it didn’t need TADS or Inform in order to be as richly interactive as it needed to be. What it did need, however, was to take a few lessons from the game design ethos that the IF community has evolved alongside its development systems.

Rating: 6.6

Purple by Stefan Blixt [Comp98]

IFDB page: Purple
Final placement: 15th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The world is ending. It’s not immediately apparent at first, because you and your brother are living out on the remote island of Lino Kapo, quite isolated from the political troubles of your future Earth(?), whose nations have names like “the Kollagio Antarktika” and “the Oceanic Republic.” But listen to the TV. (The nations have morphed so much that people are living in places like Antarctica, but we still get our information from the TV. Some things never change.) Political battles between the nations have led to the use of the deadly K-bomb, which releases, unsurprisingly, deadly K-radiation! (Where are you when we need you, Lane Mastodon?) This radiation turns the sky a disturbing purple, and threatens to choke out humanity in its menacing clouds. (By the way, the color of the sky is the meaning behind the game’s title. Hallelujah, a title that makes a little sense!) Lucky for you, your brother is a bit of a tinkerer, and has come up with this device called a Phoenix Nest, into which you can climb and sleep away the death of the world in suspended animation. The Nest wakes you up when the levels of K-radiation have dropped enough for humans to be safe. So in you climb, as the world ends, to await its rebirth and greet it with your own. Now, I know I’ve made a bit of sport with the plot here, but details aside I like this premise. It has a drama and immediacy to it, it creates a perfectly plausible reason for the world to be basically deserted, as it so often is in IF, and it gives the author a blank slate onto which a compelling alternate world can be drawn. Not to mention the fact that the mysterious “K-radiation” can be an excuse for almost any biological oddity you care to dream up.

The good news is that from this imaginative premise, Purple takes several very creative steps. The flora and fauna of the post-apocalyptic world are pleasingly exotic and interesting. The landscape is convincingly changed, and the language used to describe the new reality can be quite vivid. The bad news is that these good ideas are very poorly implemented. Let’s start with the writing. Purple isn’t exactly riddled with errors in the same way that, say, Lightiania was. However, there are enough mechanical (spelling & grammar) problems to be a serious irritant. Many of these problems aren’t exactly errors, but rather awkward turns of phrase that make the game harder to read. Purple‘s descriptions often sound as if they were translated from another language into English, by a somewhat inexpert translator. The awkwardness throws off the rhythm of the game’s prose, and I found myself frequently reading text more than once in order to figure out what it was saying. Then there are those sentences that really don’t make sense, like this one: “Urging to cover your eyes from the bright light, you still can’t move a finger.” I think that what this means is that you have the urge to cover your eyes, but you can’t because you’re paralyzed. I figured this out, but it took a minute, and for that minute I was thrown out of the story; in a text adventure, where prose is all there is, being thrown out of the narrative like this is problematic. Add a few outright spelling and grammar errors, and the game starts to feel more like work than fun.

Compounding this problem are some trouble spots in the code. There were several instances of disambiguation troubles, almost enough to make me feel like I was playing a TADS game. Scenes like this were not uncommon:

Which do you mean, the up, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

To make matters worse, I also came across several run-time errors of the flavor ** Run-time error: [Name of object] (object number 211) has no property to read **, and in fact once crashed WinFrotz altogether with a “No Such Property” error. Besides these basic errors in the code, there were also a number of problems with the way objects were implemented. For instance, you have half of a tool that you have to complete by improvising the other half, and putting one piece into the other. Unfortunately, unless you choose the right piece to insert, you are told that the other half “can’t contain things.” I also had trouble with a number of the puzzles, and was unable to figure them out without a walkthrough, but I can’t tell if that’s because of the stumbling English and buggy code, or the difficulty of the puzzles, or just my own denseness. On balance, I’d say that Purple is a very rough version of what could become a good IF vignette. After it’s undergone a few vigorous rounds of beta-testing, you might want to give it a try.

Rating: 4.1

Glowgrass by Nate Cull [Comp97]

IFDB page: Glowgrass
Final placement: 3rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Glowgrass is a fine piece of interactive science fiction in the tradition of Planetfall. Once again, you play a character whose ship has failed, touching down amid the well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilization. You explore these ruins, piecing together strange technology and small clues which lead you to the discovery of how a deadly plague wiped out the race which once dominated the planet. Of course, there are differences along with the similarities. Rather than an Ensign Seventh Class, you play a “xenohistorian”, and the ruins you are exploring belong to the Ancients, who are apparently (it’s a little unclear) not a separate race from your own, but rather your people’s ancestors. Also, Glowgrass is a much more serious game, with none of the silliness and whimsy of Planetfall. Finally, it is, as befits a competition game, much shorter, and therefore its ending is rather unsatisfying, leaving off just when it feels like the real game should begin. I won’t give away anything about this ending, but it pulls a little surprise which casts the assumptions of the rest of the game into doubt. I’m hopeful that Glowgrass is a preview of a longer adventure, so that the secret revealed at the ending can be explained and explored to its full extent.

Another important way in which Glowgrass distinguishes itself from Planetfall is that its postapocalyptic exploration is clearly focused on our own world. Various clues scattered throughout the game make it clear that the player character is exploring the ruins of old Earth. However, the old Earth explored by the character is not our present-day world, but rather a speculative extrapolation of a future 60 or so years from now. Thus Glowgrass becomes a small puzzle-box of possible futures, one fitting inside the other, and each one interesting in its own way. Cull does a very nice job of extrapolating technologies, both for the “Ancient” future and the far future, using small touches to demonstrate the character’s far-future understanding colliding with a researched past (which is our future.) If my description is confusing, it’s only because I’m not doing as good a job as Cull does of making the overlapping eras perfectly clear.

Glowgrass also concerns itself with an imagination of virtual reality. The number of IF games which involve some type of VR or simulated reality (Delusions, AMFV, Mind Electric, etc.) leads me to believe that our medium is particularly suited to exploring the possibilities of VR. It makes sense, considering that IF partakes of some element of simulation, that it demonstrates a particular facility for making itself a simulation of a simulation. Glowgrass pushes the envelope a bit by making its only NPC a virtual reality construct, thus neatly avoiding the problems of sentience, competence, and individual action — the character can’t go anywhere or do much of anything except talk, and her knowledge is limited by her programming: a perfect IF character. Glowgrass is a well-written game with a pleasantly creepy aura, a pleasurable way to spend a couple of hours and hopefully a prelude to more quality work.

Prose: The prose in Glowgrass was quite effective. In particular, the author made good use of the opportunities afforded by the player’s first entry into a particular location. For example, in one part of the game you find an “Ancient” skycar, and the game effectively capitalizes on the natural first reaction to finding such a vehicle: “Looking at the skycar, you feel a surge of hope. Despite the vehicle’s age, it seems intact. Maybe, if you could somehow get it to work…” However, having evoked and emphasized that reaction, the game quickly quashes it: “The thought dies as quickly as it came. Stupid idea. You have no idea how to fly the thing, and who knows what parts are missing?” Prose techniques like this build a very convincing player character, and help the game to succeed in creating an immersive fictional experience.

Plot: I’ve covered the basics of the plot above, so I’ll just use this space to say that the plot is not what it seems, and that I found the ending rather frustrating. In the last few sentences of the game, the author rearranges and twists your perceptions of the setting and the characters, but just as the secret is unfolding, the game ends. I’m hopeful that this game will one day serve as a prologue to a more thorough exploration of Glowgrass‘ absorbing world. In short: I want more!

Puzzles: According to the author, Glowgrass is “a story, not a puzzle game,” so the puzzles are intended to serve as natural propulsion for the storyline. In the main, they work quite well in this regard. Really the only area where I had trouble was in figuring out a piece of technology whose description was (I felt) a little too vague to suggest the use intended by the author. Once I consulted the walkthrough and found my way past this obstacle, the game flowed quite smoothly. Thus, if that part of the game (which I consider more a faltering of the prose than a puzzle) were polished a bit, Glowgrass‘ narrative flow would be very well served indeed by its puzzles.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Glowgrass.

Technical (coding): The game’s coding was quite well done, with some very nice touches (I appreciated a response to “Who am I?”). There were only a few areas where the illusion broke down a bit too far, the main one being the “sculpture” which you can “SIT” on but not “ENTER”.