A Day in the Life of a Super Hero by David Whyld [Comp04]

IFDB page: A Day In The Life Of A Superhero
Final placement: 23rd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

By now, my affection for superheroes is no secret. I love a good superhero game, and I love a good superhero parody. A Day In the Life Of A Super Hero is a good superhero parody, but unfortunately not a very good superhero game. Its greatest strength by far is its writing — there were many spots that made me laugh, and many more that made me smile. Super Hero‘s satire isn’t quite as finely honed as that found in Neil DeMause’s Frenetic Five games, but it’s lots of fun nevertheless.

Along with the typical comedy juice available from silly supervillain names like The Gardener and The Pizza Delivery Kid, Super Hero does a lovely job at conveying a boundless gee-whiz enthusiasm on the part of the PC. Near as I can tell, the titular hero actually has no discernible superpowers, and nor do any of the supervillains — they just adopt the exaggerated poses and outlandish names of the genre in the service of jazzing up their personalities. I also found it amusing that the game features no less than 28 ways for the hero to meet an unfortunate and ignominious defeat, and encourages you to collect ’em all, like bad-luck action figures. Moreover, Super Hero surprised me at times with its thorough coverage of unlikely verbs, and its witty responses thereto. For instance, when suspended above a crowd of people:

spit on crowd
That's the sort of thing super villains would do, not super heroes.

Of course, taking a scattershot approach with the jokes as it does, Super Hero misfires every so often as well. Sometimes it throws out a joke so old as to have lost all its appeal. Other times, it’s guilty of running a gag into the ground — one “bad odor” joke might be funny, but ten of them will not be. Still, judged on its writing alone, Super Hero is a rollicking good time.

Unhappily, the game’s interactivity does not support its prose, and much of that is the fault of Adrift. The unmodified Adrift parser is already quite weak, but somehow in this game it seemed even worse than usual. For starters, Adrift frequently falls victim to its asinine policy of ignoring input that surrounds a keyword, resulting in gems like parsing “look behind couch” as the same command as “look at couch.” But the problem seemed to come up way more than normal in this game. For instance, when the PC tries to address his animal sidekick, Smelly The Parrot:

ask smelly about soldier
A fusty smell pervades your apartment. It's probably a mixture of you never getting around to cleaning it and that time the Slug Monster was here to kill you.

The first time this happened, I went, “Huh?” After several tries, I finally figured out that the parser must be stupidly pulling “smell” out of that string and pretending that my command was “smell.” At least, that’s my theory for what it was doing, and repetition of the principle in other instances seems to bear that out. Conversely, the parser can be weirdly uptight about addressing items with their full name:

x rag
You see no such thing.

x city rag
The City Rag is the city's worst paper, one that specialises in writing slanderous and libellous stories...

[…]

x muggle
You see no such thing.

x mrs muggle
You've seen her sort before: old, grumpy, permanently displeased about something unspecified...

For a player like me, accustomed to other parsers’ much more sensible approach of treating all pieces of an object’s name the same, these responses are infuriating. Also infuriating is when the parser stubbornly and willfully misunderstands input:

ask erik about singer
"Sorry, can't talk," says the singer. "Genius at work. Ohhhohohohohoh!"

But most infuriating of all is when the parser out-and-out lies, and lies in such a way as to make winning the game extremely unlikely. For example, at one point, it told me it didn’t know the verb SHOW, when in fact that verb is crucial to solving one of the game’s puzzles. When there are a number of free IF tools that provide much, much better parsers, my patience for substandard parsing like this is limited indeed, and this game would have been so much stronger had it not been hampered by such silly flaws.

However, sad to say, not all of Super Hero‘s problems can be ascribed to Adrift. For one thing, there are all kinds of bizarre typos that I can only chalk up to carelessness:

“You mean as in give him a damn goof biffing till he clears off and leaves you be?” says Smelly.

A damn goof biffing? Secondly, like Whyld’s Comp03 entry, this game seems quite a bit too large to complete in 2 hours, which is something I really dislike in a comp game. Of course, perhaps much of my inability to complete Super Hero stems from its aggravating tendency toward read-the-author’s-mind puzzles. To blithely spoil one of these, the PC’s apartment has a half-dozen pieces of furniture, and moving one of them reveals a crucial item. Nothing in the room or object description suggests that moving it or moving anything else will be useful. And so on.

At bottom, Super Hero is entertaining writing trapped in excruciating code. I fervently hope that other talented IF writers can avoid this dastardly predicament.

Rating: 6.5

Caffeination by Michael Loegering [Comp03]

IFDB page: Caffeination
Final placement: 14th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Caffeination (it can’t seem to decide whether it wants the middle “n” capitalized, so I’m going to forego it) starts out like a more intelligent version of last year’s Coffee Quest II. The setup is nearly identical: you’re a depressed, sleepy office worker in an oppressive, cubicle-filled corporate environment, and your object in life is to get a really good cup of coffee. Happily, the literacy level of Caffeination is several steps above that of CQ2, and at first the game seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Alas, it quickly sinks into a bog of misguided design, buggy code, and error-laden prose.

In addition, rather than presenting any kind of sharp or thoughtful satire of office culture, the game instead tends towards the hackneyed and the juvenile. For instance, the boss’ name is “Mr. Norom.” Ooh, “moron” spelled backwards! There’s wit for you. Norom is a walking (well, sitting) “evil boss” stereotype, and the clich├ęs continue from there: the bimbo coworker hired strictly for the boss to leer at, the depressing and decrepit building fixtures, even the sleepy, slackerish PC himself. Instead of giving us a fresh, fully-imagined setting, Caffeination just shows us the same dull office we’ve seen a hundred times before. What’s fun about that?

This game also suffers from the same syndrome that seems to plague many entries in this year’s comp: a lack of sufficient feedback and cueing. I struggled against the constraints of the first major puzzle for quite some time before turning to the hints, but these were much less helpful than I thought they’d be. The game has a hint system with great potential — you find a notepad left by a former co-worker who had allegedly amassed all sorts of interesting tidbits about the office. Unfortunately, CONSULTing the notebook about nearly every topic gives you either no information at all (“Bill left some detailed notes, but you cannot find any info on that.”) or no more information than is present in simple object and location descriptions. A hint system in a consultable object is a great idea for integrating metagame activity into ingame mechanics, but to succeed, it must be much more deeply implemented than this.

So finally, I turned to the walkthrough and was astonished to discover that there are no fewer than three different solutions to it. The problem is that all three solutions rely on extremely improbable actions, ones I’d certainly never have thought would work, given the fairly limited implementation of most game objects. For instance, one path involves finding out about a particular bit of office intrigue through dialogue, but even very direct questions about this exact topic elicit no response whatsoever from the NPCs. In fact, most questions to the NPCs elicit the default response, which leads one to stop asking questions in fairly short order. Another path requires discovering an object hidden in a cubicle. However, an object mentioned in the room description that should be in roughly the same spot as the hidden object not only doesn’t lead the player to discovery, it isn’t even implemented, which certainly leads one to believe that searching that area of the cubicle won’t be fruitful. It’s all well and good to provide interesting and unusual solutions, but you can’t expect players to read your mind to get to them. You have to provide cues, feedback, and evidence that will lead the player in the right direction.

In a similar vein, if a game’s coding is focused on its solution path(s) rather than on making a fully interactive environment, it will almost certainly be extremely buggy to anybody who isn’t strictly following the walkthrough. I associate this problem most strongly with Robb Sherwin‘s earlier comp games — if the game was a story, it’d go pretty well, but IF isn’t a story so much as a place, and when an incomplete place tries to be a story, problems ensue — even though Caffeination provides multiple solutions to each of its puzzles, they’re all pretty hard to guess, and exploratory moves towards them founder in a morass of bugs.

This may be a problem that deserves its own category: the “walkthrough-driven game”. These games end up making me feel like one of the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” terrified to step off the path lest everything around me be screwed up forever. That’s certainly what happens with Caffeination. Especially after the first puzzle, I found myself confronted with one bug after another when I tried things that the game didn’t expect.

Now, like the bugs in Sophie’s Adventure, many of this game’s bugs were beneficial to me, including one that allowed me to win without solving any of the coffee shop puzzles at all. I’ve been surprised by the games in this comp that go to great lengths to explain the obstacles to you, but then don’t bother to actually use those obstacles to prevent winning actions. Still, winning lacks its usual pleasure when it’s done by exploiting a bug. I was happy enough to have the game overwith, but I wish it could have been different.

Rating: 5.5

Sophie’s Adventure by David Whyld [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sophie’s Adventure
Final placement: 16th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here are some things about this game: It is cute. It is buggy. It is huge.

About “cute”: the whole thing is written from the perspective of 8-year-old Sophie, the daughter of a couple of retired magic-users, both of whom seem sunk well into strangeness now, but then again perhaps they’d look a little different through someone else’s eyes. There were many moments in the game that brought a smile or a chuckle, and much of the writing found a place between overly edgy and overly twee. Sophie has a rather hardheaded perspective, or so she seems to think anyway, and while she’s really rather spoiled, she does have some valid points about the foibles of those around her.

For instance, her mother has an inexplicable predilection for decorating in bright colors, and Sophie quite reasonably finds things like her painfully bright quilt rather difficult to stomach:

> x bed
It's hard to look at your bed with the colourful quilt lying across over it like that but you know there's nothing very interesting in it because you were lying there only a few minutes ago. You remember when you were a kid (well, a younger kid than you are now anyway) you used to worry that there was an evil gremlin that lived under the bed who would creep out after nightfall and eat you. But when you got a bit older you realised that no self-respecting gremlin would be seen anywhere near a bed with a quilt like that.

> look under bed
You look under the bed, searching for the gremlin you were convinced as
a child was under there.

Nope, no sign of him.

Writing like this lends a wonderfully strong personality to Sophie as a PC. The NPCs, too, are distinctive and interesting, and the menu-based dialogue can be a source of great amusement. On the basis of the writing (leaving out, for now, the issues of “buggy” and “huge”), I’m strongly inclined to recommend this game for kids, except for the fact that there are several parts that are outright gruesome. Sophie encounters gory battlefields, piles of corpses waiting to be burned, and dead bodies lying in pools of blood.

Now, I don’t have kids, and haven’t read children’s books for a while, so I don’t have a good sense of what are considered “appropriate” levels of gore and violence in those stories. I’m also a believer that what’s appropriate for kids isn’t so much determined by their ages as their personalities. Nevertheless, just because Sophie is 8 doesn’t mean the game would be great for any 8-year-old. Personally, I was able to ignore the gore, and so found it charming, though it would have been a lot more charming were it not so buggy and huge.

About “buggy”: Sophie’s Adventure breaks frequently, and often in the most unexpected ways. For instance, this exchange:

> n
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> north
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> go north
You move north.

I’ve had games forget to implement exits before, or forget to mention them in the exits list, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that forgets in one place to make the directional abbreviations available. I’m surprised ADRIFT even makes this possible — I can’t think how it would happen in a more robust development system. Speaking of ADRIFT, all its parser deficiencies are still hanging around like unwelcome guests: the way it pretends to understand more than it does, the way it asks questions but doesn’t listen to the answers, and the way it totally ignores prepositions (LOOK UNDER = LOOK BEHIND = LOOK IN = EXAMINE, except when it doesn’t.)

Another bizarre way that Sophie’s Adventure frequently breaks is in its menu-based conversations; once out of every 20 or so times, the game just wouldn’t understand when I’d enter a number to choose a menu option. There wasn’t any pattern to this that I could discern — the broken choices might be first, middle, or last entries in the menu. It was always very aggravating when it would happen. The game is broken in larger ways, too, or at least it seemed so to me. Several times, I’d get information that suggested a roadblock puzzle — you know, the old “you can’t go this way until you perform this task for me” routine. However, if I simply walked in the forbidden direction: success! No puzzle-solving required. This is either a bug or head-scratchingly odd design. There are also tons of typos throughout the game, some quite hilarious (“It also looks remarkably similar to Golem in Lord of the Rings.”) All in all, the game is a couple of betatesting rounds away from being ready for release, and maybe more, given that it’s probably difficult to test because it’s so huge.

About “huge”: there’s no maximum score listed in Sophie’s Adventure, so I’m not sure how many points are possible, but after two hours with it, I’d scored two points. There’s also apparently a “niceness” score, which not only never changed, but never even seemed to offer any opportunity to change. Also, even after circumventing quite a few puzzles via the bugs mentioned above, I still think I’d only seen a fraction of the game’s locations. I already gave my spiel on too-big-for-the-comp games in my review of Risorgimento Represso, and most of those points apply here as well. However, where that game felt disappointing because I hated to rush through something created with such skill and care, Sophie’s Adventure evinces sort a flip side to that problem, which is that gigantic games are much harder to get right.

I boggle at the amount of work that must have gone into this game, and so I don’t mean to badmouth it, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel it would be a much better game if it were much smaller in scope. Fewer locations, fewer puzzles, fewer things to go horribly wrong. It goes without saying that this game is totally inappropriate for the comp because of its size, but I wonder if it’s simply the wrong size full stop. I say this because frequently, object and room descriptions seemed freighted with resentment for even having to be written:

As cracks go it's not a very interesting one and you kind of wonder
why you're even taking the time to examine it.

Somehow you doubt the fate of the world relies on you examining rat
droppings.

East Road
The land from here on eastwards is desolate to the point of having a
not-very-finished look to it. If anything, it looks like whoever was
given the job of designing this landscape got bored and decided to
just scribble in a few trees and bushes and leave it at that. [...]

There’s the straightforward problem with these that I don’t know whether something is interesting until I examine it, so would rather not be chastised for wasting my time, but there’s also this: when the descriptions themselves start complaining about being boring, there’s probably too much stuff in the game.

I think the best thing that could happen to Sophie’s Adventure would be if it were scaled back considerably (say to a size that is finishable in two hours), tested and proofread much more thoroughly, and entered in the comp in that tighter and stronger form. Too late for all of that now — I won’t be returning to this game after the way it aggravated me — but these lessons can be learned for future games, by this author and others.

Rating: 3.0