Hercules’ First Labor by Bob Brown [Comp03]

IFDB page: Hercules First Labor
Final placement: 26th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

For me, the comp game experience begins from the moment I read the game’s title and blurb in Comp03.z5. What that meant for Hercules’ First Labor was that I was out of sync with it from the beginning. Not from its title, which is fine, but from its blurb:

My introduction to computers was the Scott Adams series of adventures
with the simplistic Verb/Noun parser and this game is in that vein.

I know that there are these people who have lots of nostalgic feelings about Scott Adams games, but I’m not one of them. I’m an Infocom guy, and have been since the beginning of my involvement with IF. Consequently, Scott Adams games tend to feel like cave paintings when what I’m really looking for is Degas and Monet, or at least Jack Kirby. I come to IF more for the fiction than the interaction (though they’re both important, of course), and my favorite games all have excellent writing in common. So, predictably, I’m not a fan of room descriptions that look something like “I’m in a Hotel Room by Door.” The “simplistic Verb/Noun parser” also feels like a straitjacket to me, and it’s that much worse when I don’t have access to the metacommands I’m used to, like UNDO, AGAIN, and, well, SAVE.

So I’m really not in the target audience for this game. Now, that being said, HFL pulls off the Scott Adams feel quite well, and the fact that it’s apparently coded in JavaScript makes the whole Verb/Noun thing a little more understandable. The presentation is attractive in the browser window, and even though it was frustrating not to be able to generate a transcript of my game sessions, I found the split-windowed interface (one frame each for status line, room description, parser responses, and input) effective and intuitive. The parser worked tolerably well (with some problem inconsistencies between “read” and “look”), though “pretty well” for a two-word parser is still pretty darn poor by today’s standards. The bare-bones nature of the setting made the puzzles very straightforward indeed — just use the very few verbs at your disposal to interact with the handful of objects you encounter and you’ll be finishing the game in no time. The verb USE is your friend. Similarly, there’s not much to say about the writing, because there just isn’t much of it.

“Homemade” competition games tend to be notorious for having underimplemented parsers, and for lacking some of the basic functionality that we take for granted in games produced by top-tier development systems; the homemade games I’ve encountered so far in this comp are no exception. However, this time around, new approaches have tried to turn these shortcomings into advantages. The way Sweet Dreams did it was to throw out the parser altogether, replacing it with a low-res avatar in a graphical environment. Thus was the whole parser problem avoided entirely, and this approach worked for me. The homemade interface still had its bugs and frustrations, but I found Sweet Dreams to be one of the least irritating comp games ever made outside of a mainstream IF development system. (That’s not to damn it with faint praise — I liked it well enough.)

HFL avoids the problem in a different way, by setting the player’s expectations from the very beginning, and enlisting the aid of nostalgia to make its simplistic parser actually seem like a feature rather than a bug. I’ll bet that for people with fond memories of playing Scott Adams games, the trick works really well. For me, though, it felt like just another substandard homemade parser, albeit ameliorated a bit by the fact that its simplicity was matched by that of the environment. So, while I acknowledge it as a good try, HFL left me cold. It did inspire me to my first comp game anagram, though. (“SA flirt’s core blur, eh?”) That’s worth a little something.

Rating: 3.7

Fifteen by Ricardo Dague [Comp98]

IFDB page: Fifteen
Final placement: 25th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Is there a genie at work? No sooner did I wish (in my review of In the Spotlight) for a “storyless” game which strung together a number of logic puzzles, than along comes Fifteen. Fifteen takes its name from the traditional slide puzzle, with fifteen tiles arranged in a 4 x 4 grid, with the sixteenth spot left empty for tiles to move into. Fifteen also includes an odd-even puzzle (similar to the sentient stones in Spellbreaker) and a more traditional IF puzzle of rescuing a cat from a tree. All the puzzles are quite well-implemented, and the slide puzzle is done especially well; its interface allows for commands which string a number of moves together quickly and easily. This was much appreciated. In fact, Fifteen is almost the sort of thing I was musing about enjoying in my previous review.

Still, I finished the game feeling like I ought to be more careful what I wish for. See, Spotlight was “storyless IF” in the sense that there was really no plot, just a puzzle. However, what little prose there was in the game was richly written, and often funny. Contrast this with Fifteen, which (according to its author) takes its cue from Scott Adams’ Adventureland. Adams’ games are models of brevity, and Fifteen is just as terse, if not more. Here’s a typical room description: “Kitchen: Exits are south, east and north.” Now that’s brief. Don’t get me wrong — I recognize the nostalgia value of such an atmosphere, especially if you were raised on Scott Adams adventures, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I like to have at least a little feeling of immersion in my IF rather than unadorned puzzles. I find it very telling that even though Fifteen includes many more rooms and several more puzzles than Spotlight, the Inform file for Fifteen is actually 8K smaller than the Inform file for Spotlight. Fifteen is basically raw puzzles; it’s all the way over at the extreme end of the puzzle to story spectrum, and that’s too far for my taste.

Nonetheless, Fifteen is clearly quite well-done, for what it is. I found no bugs in the code, and what little prose there is is error-free. The puzzles, as I said, are implemented well, and the author’s ability to make me feel like I’m playing a Scott Adams game is nothing short of remarkable. But Fifteen is still not that all-puzzle game that I’m looking for — it’s too spare and empty, and because of this it fails to create the interest needed to sustain its intense puzzle-orientation.

Rating: 6.2