Blue Sky by Hans Fugal [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blue Sky
Final placement: 26th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

At this point in the development of interactive fiction, we’ve seen a lot of genres tried. However, there’s one kind of writing for which this medium is very well suited, but which has been attempted very seldom: travel writing. In many ways, it’s a natural fit — IF can’t help but put a great deal of emphasis on setting, and one of the best parts of a deep, detailed, and well-written text game is the strong feeling of location it provides. The best travel writing gives us a sense of having visited a place unfamiliar to us, and done properly, interactive travel writing could intensify this feeling even further.

I think that this is the sort of game that Blue Sky wants to be — it casts the player as a tourist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the majority of the action consists of wandering around a replica of that city’s plaza, searching for a moving target. It seems to me that the point of the game is to be a virtual visit to that site, and that we’re supposed to come away from it enchanted with what a lovely place Santa Fe is. Unfortunately, Blue Sky is both too poorly written and too sparsely implemented to accomplish this goal. I’ve actually been to Santa Fe, and liked it very much, but instead of bringing back good memories of visits I’ve made, Blue Sky brought back bad memories of past IF games.

At times, the game reminded me of The Big Mama in its rapturous insistence on how beautiful everything is:

The St. Francis Cathedral was designed by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy in the Romanesque style. The cathedral, which was dedicated in 1884, took fifteen years to complete. It stands majestically against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and you almost feel like you can see the twin steeples that were never completed in the clouds set in the deep blue sky.

In fact, though it’s quite a small game, the word “beautiful” shows up in no less than seven different places. Instead of describing just what’s so beautiful about them, the game flatly labels its items as such and expects that to be sufficient, which it isn’t. Then again, sometimes the writing is so perfunctory that it can’t even be bothered to try communicating anything special about the setting:

Cathedral Place and East Water Street
East Water Street ends here from the west and Cathedral place continues southeast into the business district of Santa Fe. La Fonda occupies the block to the west on the north side of the street.

Setting aside the fact that much of this prose is in dire need of commas, it also doesn’t do a whole lot to conjure anything specific about Santa Fe. Instead, it feels just one step above the bare grid of a city presented by Strangers In The Night.

The plot, such as it is, involves trying to catch up with your tour group as you glimpse them traveling from one landmark to the next, but the majority of the game involves wandering around and around a dozen or so of these underdescribed locations. Most of these locations not only offer very little in the way of writing, there’s not much to do in them either. After a while, I felt like I was playing Aunt Nancy’s House, except that instead of a house, there was a town.

Blue Sky compounds this problem with implementation that’s far too sparse. Take this interaction, for instance:

Inside the Loretto Chapel
The inside of this chapel is indeed beautiful. Your eyes scan over the altar, the wooden benches, and then fall upon the miraculous staircase.

>x altar
That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

>x benches
That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

>x staircase
This 'miraculous' staircase leads to the choir loft. Legend has it that the staircase, built without nails or support beams, was constructed by a carpenter who mysteriously appeared, completed the job then disappeared without pay or leaving his name.

There are three items mentioned. Two are unimplemented. The third has a description that reappears verbatim in the description of the chapel’s exterior. Can you blame me if I’m not feeling transported? Over and over, the game missed opportunities to provide immersion, instead providing descriptions that were sketchy when they weren’t absent entirely. For instance, the initial room description mentions how the PC’s inn has a “beautiful wood facade”, but the inn itself is described thus: “This is your hotel.”

One of the keys to immersion in IF is detail, and Blue Sky falls well short of the mark. I don’t mean to be too harsh — the game is obviously well-intentioned, and with a substantial overhaul of its writing and a considerably increased depth of implementation, it could become a lovely evocation of Santa Fe. Until then, if you’re looking for travel IF that really works, go back and play She’s Got A Thing For A Spring.

Rating: 4.1

Sunset Over Savannah by Ivan Cockrum [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sunset Over Savannah
Final placement: 6th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sunset Over Savannah (hereafter called Sunset) is one of the most impressive, enjoyable, and successful games of the 1997 competition. Interestingly, it shares a strategy with another very successful game, She’s Got a Thing for a Spring: both games present a natural world where fantasy-style magic is subtle to the point of nonexistence, but which nonetheless is suffused with wonder, divulging incredible sights that move the spirit as strongly as ever did any of Gandalf’s fireworks. The game takes place on a beach whose implementation is exquisitely complete, a small space which allows a great number of options within it… narrow but very deep. In itself, implementation of this depth carries a kind of magic, the kind of delirious sense of possibility inherent in all the best interactive fiction. The magic goes beyond this, though. The puzzles in the game (at least, the ones I had time to solve) are focused on a single theme: finding magic and wonder in a seemingly mundane world. As you wander the game’s beach and find ways to ferret out its secrets, those secrets display themselves in fiery sequences of enchantment and glamour. It’s an effect whose emotional impact could not be duplicated in a graphical game, only imitated. The arresting visuals would be there, but they would only carry a pale shadow of the reverential awe conveyed by the author’s excellent prose.

In a gutsy choice, Cockrum centers his game around emotional transition, presenting a player character whose inner state is conflicted: you’re at the end of your vacation (shades of Trinity), and the experience has made you reassess your life, especially in relation to your mind-numbing job. Is it possible that the best thing you could do is to quit, and try to set your feet on another path? In pursuit of the answer to this question, you wander the beach at Tybrisa Island, near Savannah, Georgia (hence the game’s title,) discovering amazing sights in your explorations. Going further than simply making an emotional journey the subplot of his game, Cockrum focuses the action upon it. The game’s “scoring” system does keep track of puzzles solved, but does it in emotional rather than numerical terms, starting with “conflicted” and moving through “astonished”, “respectful”, etc. I thought this innovation worked brilliantly. As someone who is interested in experimenting with the concept of score in IF, I was greatly pleased to see a game whose scoring system fulfilled the basic purpose of a score (keep players posted on their progress) and went beyond it in such a flexible and artistic way. The fact that the “emotion register” on the status bar changed not just in response to progress in puzzle-solving, but also to smaller changes in game state (switching briefly to “refreshed” after a quick dip in the ocean, for example) lent a depth of characterization to the player’s avatar which was perfectly suited to the medium of IF. I hope that authors take the lesson from Sunset that score can serve not just as a gaming metafunction, but also as a primary driver for the plot.

The game’s design is also first-rate. Following the example set by LucasArts’ games, Sunset is impossible to put in an unsolvable state. Impressively, it achieves this degree of closure without ever resorting to arbitrary, contrived, or artificial devices. Instead, the gaps are covered so naturally that they often enhance the game’s sense of realism. For example, if you pry a brick from the stony path, then lose that brick beneath the waves, the game says “With the path breached, you could probably excavate another brick.” It’s simple, it’s natural, and it prevents the irrevocable loss of an important item. The game’s structure is tight and smart, forgiving and flexible. In addition, there are several touches which reveal significant care and attention on the part of the author. Sunset provides very thorough instructions for players new to IF, a document into which the author clearly put great deal of effort. It also presents a thoroughly implemented hint system, and several sections of documentation, including credits, a list of features, and a listing of the author’s design philosophy, in which he acknowledges his debt to LucasArts. The puzzles are difficult, and there are a few bugs in the implementation, which are why this game stopped just short of being a perfect 10 for me. Once those bugs are fixed, Sunset Over Savannah will be one of the best games ever to have emerged from the interactive fiction competitions.

Prose: The game’s prose is of a very high quality. Cockrum faultlessly conveys the mood of the beach in Sunset‘s room descriptions. The prose employed at the magical moments was breathless with a sense of wonder, imparting just the right amount of awe and astonishment without going over the top into cheesiness or melodrama. And as someone who works in a job that I find less than thrilling, I thought that the sections dealing with the emotional turmoil brought be examining such a situation and trying to figure out what to do about it were expertly handled.

Plot: I think the game’s plot is a master stroke. Sunset has as much or more thematic unity as any interactive fiction game I can think of, and this unity lends a sense of sweep to the plot which makes the game such a powerful experience. Sunset establishes its focus from its first few sentences, and from that point on every piece of the game is an elaboration or variation on that conflicted, questioning theme. This seamless melding of plot and design made Sunset seem like more a work of art than a computer game.

Puzzles: This is where I stumbled just a bit. However, I’m not yet convinced that my stumbles are entirely the fault of the game. For one thing, the game’s environment is so rich that I didn’t get around to really focusing on puzzles until I’d played for about an hour, at which point I only had an hour left to concentrate on puzzle-solving before the competition time limit ran out. However, during that time I found it difficult to solve any puzzle, and I finally turned to the hints with about a half-hour left. What I discovered was that often the answers to the problems I was having were things that never occurred to me because of my unconscious, implicit assumptions about the depth of the game’s implementation. [SPOILER WARNING] For example, at one point I need a thin line to tether something, and the solution is to take the strap off of the swimming goggles I’ve found. It simply never occurred to me to take this tack in the game, though it’s something I would have come up with pretty quickly in real life. Why? I just assumed that the goggles were implemented to be all of a piece — I didn’t realize that the game designer had put enough care into them to make the strap detachable. [SPOILERS END] I solved two major puzzles in the game, and I look forward to returning to it and solving more. I’ll do so with a new paradigm in mind, and the fact that Sunset can make me change my perspective in such a way is a testament to its implementor’s prowess.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in Sunset‘s writing.

Technical (coding): There were a few bugs in the game’s implementation. I found one action which provokes no response from the game. Another action is supposed to change the setting in a particular way and fails to do so, even though the game tells you it has succeeded. There were one or two “guess-the-word” problems. I don’t think any of the game’s problems will be too difficult to fix.


She’s Got A Thing For A Spring by Brent VanFossen [Comp97]

IFDB page: She’s Got a Thing for a Spring
Final placement: 4th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

She’s Got a Thing For a Spring (hereafter called “Spring”) is one of the most delightful and well-written games I’ve played in a long, long time. Its author is one of the few professional writers who has created interactive fiction, and his expertise shines throughout the game. Spring is set in a mountain wilderness with no magic spells, no high-tech devices, in fact no fantastical elements of any kind. Yet this game imparts a sense of wonder that is matched by only the very best interactive fiction. I found some of the scenes absolutely breathtaking in their beauty. Living in Colorado, I’ve spent a fair amount of time is settings similar to those described by the author, and I felt that the prose perfectly conveyed the both the tiny joys and the majestic grandeur of the mountains. In addition, the game’s code usually dovetailed neatly with its prose, creating at its best a seamless experience of walking in nature.

Spring also introduces an interface innovation for conversing with NPCs. The game keeps track of the last NPC with whom the player has interacted and what type of verb (e.g. “give”, “ask”, etc.) was used in that interaction. Then whenever the player is around that NPC and types in a word not recognized as a verb by the parser, the game tries to use that word to interact with the NPC, using the current verb type. It creates interaction like this:

>ask bob about woods
"Lots of aspen around here. I just love the forest."

"Aspens are my favorite trees."

This is a very smart move, and it works superbly in the game. What enhances the NPC experience even more is that the game’s primary NPC (Bob, a friendly old gent who lives alone in the woods) is coded very well. He goes about his business with or without the player’s presence, and it is possible to have a long conversation with him without breaking mimesis. The author has clearly gone to great lengths (including, I think, some close scrutiny of Gareth Rees‘ source code for Christminster) to make sure that his NPC is one of the most realistic and satisfying in IF. The depth of this NPC works along with the game’s outstanding prose to create an extremely realistic gameplay experience.

However, the intensity and power of this realism brings with it a certain burden, and it’s a burden that the game is not always prepared to handle. One problem was that some of the puzzles required me to act in a way that I felt was out of character. [SPOILERS FOLLOW (highlight to read)] For example, one puzzle required me to take the roll of toilet paper out of Bob’s outhouse and burn it. Now, a typical IF character would have no compunction whatsoever about this. But in Spring, the protagonist is supposedly a regular, kind person — for her to steal and burn the only toilet paper from a man who shows her nothing but kindness and hospitality is a significant break from character, especially since Bob does not grant permission to do so. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles required a bit more verb-guessing than I care for, especially the walking stick puzzle. In addition, Bob is missing a few important responses, and the game also has some basic bugs. Still, the fact that these flaws are so jarring is a strong indication of what a high standard the game sets, and minor problems do not greatly detract from the fact that Spring is a wonderful piece of IF, as refreshing as a pine-scented mountain breeze after an invigorating hike.

Prose: The prose in Spring is simply first-rate. The author’s professional writing experience is clear throughout the game. In fact, the prose is of such a quality that it’s hard to talk about it without wanting to simply quote long passages and allow the writing to speak for itself. I’ll save those surprises for the game, but I have to comment on one or two favorite scenes. I remember coming upon the fireflies and gasping in awe. The author creates a mesmerizing, magical picture of these fantastic creatures. I had similar reactions to all the wildlife in the game. In fact, though I said above that the game has no fantastical elements, that’s not precisely true: the element of fantasy in the game is that it presents a nature trip as one wishes it could always be. Sighting elk clashing antlers with each other, encountering someone as nice as Bob, walking into a cloud of fireflies: these are magical moments. When they happen on a real camping trip, they are foremost among the memories you bring back home with you. In Spring, all that happens and more. Its magic is in bringing rare moments together to be experienced all in one sitting, yet never taking away the sense of preciousness carried within each moment.

Plot: Spring wasn’t really a plot-driven game. It has a relatively simple goal, and the pleasure of the game comes from exploring the milieu rather than stepping through a more complicated story. Still, there were some interesting aspects to the plot pieces that were there. One thing that sets Spring apart is that its character is set within a warm, happy marriage. The context of that relationship bubbles under all the events in Spring, and even brings a degree of sexuality in the game’s ending. Presenting sex in the context of a positive, healthy relationship is a rare thing to do in IF, especially since Spring is nature writing rather than romance. The one drawback to the plot, as I mentioned above, is that it sometimes required actions that were out-of-character. Perhaps with some fine-tuning to Bob, this problem could be remedied.

Puzzles: I thought the puzzles were a weaker part of Spring. While it was wonderful to wander around the lovingly described wilderness, it was hard to get anywhere without doing some things that I wouldn’t expect the character to do. Perhaps the answer to some of these problems is to give Bob a little different attitude. [SPOILERS AGAIN] Perhaps have him offer to give the player a hint as to how to get rid of the wasps, then offer to let her use the toilet paper. Otherwise, she’s doing something morally wrong by burning it. Again, this would not normally be a problem in most genre IF, but Spring is a different sort of beast, or it feels that way to me. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles were rather non-intuitive, like the egg/foam connection. I used the hints for almost every puzzle in Spring, and I’m a good enough player that I think that means there’s something wrong.

Technical (writing): The writing was, predictably, flawless.

Technical (coding): I’m a lot more inclined to be forgiving when an author takes on a significant coding project such as the NPC interaction innovation in Spring. Consequently, the fact that there were quite a few bugs in the game did impact its final rating, but not as significantly as it might have.