The PK Girl by Robert Goodwin [Comp02]

IFDB page: The PK Girl
Final placement: 6th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I like comics, and I like animation, but I’ve never really read much manga or watched much anime. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding these forms, but rather that I haven’t happened to explore them yet. I’m a little bit familiar with the concept of hentai, because of the subculture of hentai IF that seems to be out there, which was brought to the attention of the newsgroups a few years ago, primarily by the efforts of a reviewer named Craxton.

Because of my unfamiliarity with Japanese comics and animation, I think I lack some context for evaluating The PK Girl, a text adventure with a deep manga influence. First and foremost, I’m not sure what to make of the game’s extreme, almost comical insistence on rigid and stereotyped gender roles. Whether this is a convention of manga, something particular to this game, or even just a quirk of the PC I don’t know, but while I found it at first just distracting and silly, it quickly graduated to annoying and even offensive. The game puts you in the role of a male PC, and quickly demonstrates that you have some pretty sweeping assumptions about femininity, and a fair amount of anxiety about maintaining the image of your own masculinity. The former becomes apparent in the description of the first female NPC you encounter:

The girl is clothed in a silky blue dress. Long vibrant hair cascades
over her shoulders and down her back. Her countenance seems to
reflect all feminine virtue, inclusive of kindness, submissiveness,
empathy, and consciousness of time and place.

So “submissiveness” is a feminine trait, in fact a feminine virtue? And kindness and empathy are outside the male domain? Certainly the female characters don’t have a lock on self-consciousness, as evidenced by the PC’s reaction to entering a women’s clothing store:

Why did you come in here? There is nothing terribly exciting here by
any male’s estimations. To a female, this could well be a lesser
incarnation of paradise. A wealth of clothing is available on
circular racks situated in aisles throughout the store, for trying on
and for purchase. The exit is west.

Yes, we know that all women love clothes-shopping. And men have no interest whatsoever in women’s fashion, which is why all fashion designers are women. Oh, wait. At its worst moments, the game spits out statements that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Victorian behavior manual:

You don't need to take the plate; There are females here to clean up
after you.

Give me a break! If this is a manga thing, I don’t think I’ll be reading manga anytime soon.

On the technical (and more positive) side, The PK Girl is the long-awaited game that rises above ADRIFT‘s initial limitations to take a place among games created by the top-tier development systems. An unbelievable amount of care has gone into crafting this game. First of all, it addresses all the flaws in the ADRIFT parser that I’ve railed about in previous reviews. The game handles conversation very smoothly indeed, blending the ASK ABOUT approach with a menu-based approach in a somewhat similar fashion to my Earth And Sky games. On the rare occasions when the parser asks a question, it’s almost always prepared to handle the answer. SEARCH works, and in fact it works better than in most games, because the game explicitly assumes that it includes looking under and looking behind an object, and says so. Best of all, I never encountered the generic “Nothing special” message for an unrecognized noun, partly because the game changed the default message to be more Inform-like, but mostly because nouns are implemented in exquisite depth.

For that matter, not only are almost all nouns described, but a prodigious number are included in the first place. I didn’t come close to finishing this game in the two hours allotted, but I must confess that may be my own fault, because I frequently deserted the plot in order to wander around the game and marvel at the level of detail included. For this virtue alone, The PK Girl is one of the most immersive games in this year’s comp. In addition to its significant improvement on the standard ADRIFT parser, the game also includes professional-looking illustrations and an enjoyable MIDI soundtrack. This latter can get a little grating after a while, and I sometimes wished that a piece of music would play once and stop rather than continuously looping (or that I at least had the option of making the game behave that way), but it did enhance the scenes’ mood quite effectively.

As for the story itself, I found it pretty entertaining. After a fairly tranquil opening, the plot kicks into high gear with a dramatic incident, and events follow sensibly upon each other from there on. NPCs help propel the story forward by sometimes continuing about their business without waiting for the PC, thus forcing the player to keep up or lose the plot entirely. As I said, I didn’t get all the way through the story, but the portion I saw delivered excitement and fun, even if the writing sometimes had an oddly elevated tone which worked counter to the brisk pace. There were some problem spots in the writing, phrases that didn’t make much sense or that suggested with their awkwardness a few lapses in English skill. Still, for the most part they didn’t get in the way of the game’s ability to tell a good story.

Because its story is fun and quite chaste, The PK Girl might make a nice IF selection for kids, though perhaps it ought to be counterpointed by something rather less sexist. In fact, although I’m clueless about anime, the game reminded me distinctly of another branch of animation, the Disney feature film: technically impressive and proficient while remaining on the political level utterly, utterly reactionary.

Rating: 8.4

I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel by Michael R. Eisenman and Andrew J. Indovina [Comp98]

IFDB page: I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel
Final placement: 24th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

If you enjoyed Dan McPherson’s My First Stupid Game, you’re sure to love I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel. Yodel is much larger and better programmed than My First Stupid Game, but the writing and the puzzles are at about the same level. For example, McPherson’s game featured a time limit imposed by the need to pee — in Yodel, unhappy bowels are the feature attraction. However, where the former ended once you had relieved yourself (onto a picture of Barney the dinosaur, no less), the latter is just beginning. Flushing a toilet is the gateway to sprawling vistas of strange riddles, terse descriptions (interspersed with broad cut-scenes), and mostly-nonsensical plot developments. I’m generally not a big fan of the kind of “Dumb and Dumber” humor with which Yodel is permeated. In addition, I found the first puzzle both irritating and illogical. (A key falls off a bookshelf, but it’s not on the floor! Where is it? In the next room! Why? Who knows?) Consequently, I gave up and started using the walkthrough about 15 minutes into the game. I’m happy to say, however, that I’m not altogether sorry that I did.

For one thing, let’s give credit where it’s due: the authors have programmed a text-adventure engine in (according to them) a combination of Modula-2, C, C++, Garbano, and (Intel x86) Assembler, and their simulation of the Infocom interface is not half bad; they even included a free implementation of Hangman. Unfortunately, in the era of Inform, TADS, and Hugo, “not half bad” is really not that great. The engine is missing a number of conveniences, among them the “X” abbreviation for “EXAMINE”, a “VERBOSE” mode, and the “OOPS” verb; I think these conveniences should basically be considered de rigueur for any modern text game. Moreover, while the game was relatively bug-free, the ones I did encounter were doozies: at one point the game crashed completely when attempting to go into Hangman mode, and at another point the “key found” flag was apparently not reset on a restore, making the game unsolvable. Still, despite these flaws, I salute anyone with the energy and the skills to code, from scratch, an Infocom-clone with Yodel‘s level of sophistication. Also, the program had a couple of touches that I thought were pretty cool — at several points during the game, an inset sub-window popped up which presented a parallel narrative thread (“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”). This technique worked quite well, and I think it has a lot of potential for expanding the narrative range, and breaking the limitations of the second-person POV, to which IF usually limits itself. The gimmick was also used at the end of the game to provide a fairly enjoyable epilogue describing the eventual fate of every character you met along the way, a la Animal House. Finally, I did enjoy the free Hangman game, though its puzzles and its insertion into the game were just about as illogical as everything else in Yodel.

Which brings us to the plot. I won’t give away too much about the plot in Yodel, mainly because I didn’t really understand what little plot there was. All I’ll say is this: don’t expect anything to make any sense. There are several moments in the game that I found quite funny, but they are swamped by long stretches of bizarre, inexplicable, or adolescent japes. I would be very surprised if anyone (outside, perhaps, of the authors’ circle of friends) is able to solve the game without a walkthrough. Many of the riddles (and yes, there are many many of them) left me baffled, even after I knew the solution. Moreover, the abrupt, patchwork nature of the game gave me the impression that in several situations only one action would do, and how anyone would guess that action is beyond me. By the way, if you’re offended by descriptions of “swimsuit babes acting out your wildest fantasy” or borderline-racist, stereotypical depictions of Indians (Native Americans, not Bengalis), then Yodel is probably not the game for you. If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for something lowbrow, then grab a walkthrough — Yodel is not entirely without its rewards.

Rating: 4.0