Ninja v1.30 by Paul Allen Panks [Comp04]

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

You know, for all the newsgroup fuss and furor that Paul Allen Panks has created over the years with his obsessive marketing and subsequent defenses thereof, I’ve never actually played one of his games. I’ve been wishing for years that somebody would review Westfront PC for SPAG, but so far, no takers. Of course, what I’ve gleaned about that game is that it contains hundreds of fairly samey rooms and a bunch of randomized combat, so I can’t say I’m terribly surprised not to have received a review. Heck, the SPAG standards say that reviewers must finish a game before reviewing it, so maybe somebody started in on it the first time I made the request (in 2000) and still hasn’t gotten through it yet.

At any rate, Ninja v1.30 is Panks’s first comp game, so I was interested to see how well he presented himself. The answer: not very well. It’s bad. Really bad. For one thing, it is so primitive as to lack almost any IF conveniences. There’s no “X” command, no “L” command, and no “I” command. It goes without saying that there’s no SCRIPT or UNDO or anything handy like that. Despite the fact that it contains only four rooms and one puzzle (which is so heavily clued it can hardly be called a puzzle at all), to detail all its failings would be a pretty mammoth undertaking. So let me just pick a few choice ones:

  • The sudden-death endings, which frequently hit out of nowhere. Note that these are particularly annoying in an environment without UNDO.
  • The utterly arbitrary restrictions. For instance, this:
    You are within the shinto shrine. The room is lit by only the light from a nearby window. All else is darkness. You may 'exit shrine' to the south, or head west out the window.

    ? s
    Your path is blocked. Try 'exit shrine' instead.

    Why?

  • The maximum score, different every time the game ends. (Well, I guess the second number in the score might not be the maximum, but if so it’s left completely unexplained.)
  • Terrible writing. For a game that probably has less than 300 words, it’s amazingly well-populated with comma splices, redundancy, and awkward phrasing.
  • Bugginess. For instance, at one point the game started printing “>20” after every command, inexplicably.

Okay, enough of that. It’s just really not good at all. But there is a way to enjoy it, at least for me. See, I like to think that there exists a tiny sliver of possibility that Panks is actually just a satirist with a very, very, very dry wit. I mean, really — if IF were a Christopher Guest movie, Panks would just have to be a character. It’s almost as if he’s playing a character all the time in his postings, and this game works perfectly as reductio ad absurdum interactive fiction. Look at it as a parody, as perfectly straight-faced and utterly ridiculous all at once, and it may provide a moment’s entertainment. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’d give it a high score in the comp or anything.

Rating: 2.4

The Great Xavio by Reese Warner [Comp04]

IFDB page: The Great Xavio
Final placement: 11th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had a lovely time during my first half-hour with The Great Xavio. Similar to Infocom’s Sherlock, you play the “man of action” assistant to a prodigious but inscrutable thinker. In this case, you’re a graduate student named Hagerston, in unending thrall (the way only a graduate student can be) to your adviser, an odd duck named Dr. Rex Excalibur Todd. Dr. Todd is a logician, obsessed with debunking anyone who challenges the reign of empiricism, and that’s why he’s dragged you out of bed at 3 AM, to the hotel housing sensational magician The Great Xavio — your job is to prove that Xavio is a fraud.

These characters apparently feature in some short stories and a novel penned by this game’s author, and Dr. Todd in particular is obviously the product of tremendous affection. The premise provides plenty of room for exploration, and Dr. Todd’s constant presence at the PC’s elbow gives the game many opportunities for humorous metacommentary and the occasional helpful hint. There were a few irritating defects here and there, but after the first 30 minutes, I was enthusiastically looking forward to the rest of my time with Xavio.

Unfortunately, after that things began to unravel a bit, and oddly enough the unraveling started with a key and a locked door, a situation that replicated exactly what I’d discussed in my editorial for SPAG #34. It occurs as the PC is trying to get into a hotel room, a room to which he holds the key. I’d like to quote the exchange exactly, but it would be too much of a spoiler to do so, so here’s a slightly altered version of it:

>e
You can't, since the room door is in the way.

>open door
(the room door)
The door is locked. However, next to it there is a slot for your room key that might do something.

The elevator doors close

>unlock door
(the elevator door)
Unlocking generally requires a key of some sort.

>unlock door with key
(the elevator door with the room key)
That doesn't seem to be something you can unlock.

>put key in slot
The light above the slot flashes green, and you hear the door's lock click.

>e
You can't, since the room door is in the way.

>open door
(the room door)
You open the room door.

>e
Inside The Hotel Room

This was an incredibly aggravating interaction, made more so by the game’s sudden substitution of the elevator door as the default object for “door”, and because I kept needing to visit the room, it kept happening until I trained myself to behave as the game wanted me to. In my editorial, I argued that things like opening and unlocking a door to which you have the key should be handled automatically by the game, rather than forcing the player to manually go through all the fiddly steps of door and lock management. This argument brought several responses, which rightly pointed out that if that strategy is carried to its logical extreme, the game could just automatically do everything for the player — a game like this is more properly called a “book.”

Instead, the game should keep an internal model of the PC’s knowledge and intentions; it should automate fiddly steps only when they match the set of actions that the player knows how to do and clearly intends to do. Within that structure, I’d like to offer a further refinement to my argument: IF games should automate actions which require little to no thought on the part of the PC. Any of us who have spent time using hotel keys as described above know that it quickly becomes second nature. We don’t need to think through every step — rather, we form the intention of entering the room and habit takes care of the rest. I would so much rather have seen this:

>e
You swipe the room key through the slot; its light flashes green and
you hear the door's lock click. Opening the door, you step inside.

Inside The Hotel Room

See, there’s nothing fun about typing out PUT KEY IN SLOT and OPEN DOOR a bunch of times, and it actually weakens mimesis to force players through such menial moves, especially after the first time. I still grant that there can be plenty of good reasons to break this rule — in fact, I force a very similar card-swipe at the beginning of the first Earth And Sky episode. In that instance, I chose to do so for purposes of pacing and dramatic tension, but if the PC had to go through the door more than once, automating that passage would be the right thing to do.

I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing a small piece of this game, but that piece was emblematic of my experience with Xavio. Despite all the game’s appealing traits — its engaging characters, its friendly design, its entertaining story — I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I ended up feeling like I’d played the beta version of something with great potential rather than something that was already great on its own. Erratic newlines and shaky punctuation contributed to my impression that the game wasn’t well tested, and so did basic mistakes like embedding dialogue into room descriptions so that it repeats every time you look at the room. In addition, there were some issues that may have been intentional, but were functionally bugs. For example, inside that hotel room with the difficult door, there’s a window on the north wall (again slightly altered to avoid spoilers):

>x window
The hotel's old enough that it's a window you can actually open.

>look through window
You look out the window. There's a thin ledge, just barely possible as a space to stand if what you saw wasn't a mirage. Looking out further to the northwest you can see a few cars crossing the Golden Gate bridge.

>x ledge
You can't see any such thing.

>open window
Nothing like a breath of fresh air.

>n
You can't go that way.

>enter window
That's not something you can enter.

>go out the window
You can't see any such thing.

So you tell me there’s a window, and that I can open it. You tell me there’s a ledge outside the window. Then you let me open the window… but don’t implement actually going out the window? What was the point of describing the ledge and making the window openable in the first place? Even worse, just typing OUT puts me back out in the hallway, where once again I have to go through that exasperating rigmarole with the key. Whether or not that was the intended implementation, I call it a big fat bug.

The game credits testers, but I can’t tell whether any of them are members of the IF community. If not, that may be part of the problem — it’s important to have at least one person in your pool of testers who is conversant with the basic standards of modern IF. They’ll notice things that novice testers will miss. To sum up in one word what this game lacks: polish. It just needs to be tightened up — formatting errors fixed, typos eliminated, underimplemented areas enhanced. Once that happens, the peculiar charm of Hagerston and Todd will be able to shine through unimpeded.

Rating: 6.7

About my 2004 IF Competition Reviews

2004 was a year of endings for me, in terms of my IF hobby. First, to my great relief, I was able to complete the final game in my Earth and Sky trilogy, and what would turn out to be my final competition entry. To my great amazement, that game ended up winning the 2004 competition, which was a fantastic way to go out.

In addition, 2004 was the final year where I attempted to review all the comp games, or at least all the comp games that weren’t written by known newsgroup trolls. There were a few different reasons for this, as I explained in a “postscript” post on rec.games.int-fiction. Those included some amount of burnout on my part, and my growing sense of guilt about the part I played in making the competition such a black hole at the center of the IF community’s galaxy. I alluded much more blithely to what was really the central fact behind it all: my life was changing. In November of 2004, I knew that my wife was pregnant, and that our child was expected in June of 2005. Reasonably, I didn’t see myself devoting 6 weeks in November of that year to hardcore IF playing and reviewing.

I don’t think I realized at the time just how much being a parent would completely consume my time and energy. I certainly didn’t realize at the time that I would also be starting a new job immediately after Dante was born. When I wrote that postscript, I expected that I’d still be playing and reviewing longer games even after leaving the comp crunch. Well, some of that happened, but for the most part, not so much. Dante’s birth marked my exit, more or less, from the IF community. I handed off SPAG to new editor Jimmy Maher, more or less withdrew from the newsgroups, and pretty much checked out of IF, at least until the 2010 PAX East convention where Jason Scott screened an early cut of Get Lamp.

Even after that, right up to now, my involvement has been sporadic. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, though populating this blog has been a wonderful way to revisit those IF-heavy years of my life, and to spur me towards more reviewing ideas, such as the Infocom >RESTART project. More about that, and the future of the blog, after this last batch of comp reviews.

Comp04 was a great one to go out on, and not just because I won. There were some games I really loved, including the time-travel mindbender All Things Devours, the sci-fi drama Trading Punches, and my favorite of the year, a trippy psychological journey called Blue Chairs, whose protagonist happens to be named… Dante. Blue Chairs, incidentally, was written by Chris Klimas, who would go on to create Twine and therefore have the biggest impact on the competition since Whizzard himself.

That’s all in the future, at least the future of the guy who published these reviews on November 16, 2004 — one last big comp hurrah.

Risorgimento Represso by Michael Coyne [Comp03]

IFDB page: Risorgimento Represso
Final placement: 2nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first things first. It’s time to welcome a talented new author. Michael Coyne has made a great game, so well-written and well-implemented that it’s almost always a joy to play. It’s on a par with most Infocom games, and exceeds them at many points. There’s cleverness and panache to spare, and the puzzles are mostly interesting and fun. It’s not perfect, of course. There are a couple of under-implemented commands (like LOOK BEHIND), a hackneyed puzzle or two, and some jokes (like the cheese one) are pressed rather too hard. It also could use a more compelling title.

Still, on the whole, this is a satisfying and enormously fun game. Well, what I saw of it, anyway. And therein lies the problem. I spent the last review (of Domicile) bemoaning games that are entered in the competition when they’re unfinished, undertested, and unproofread. Now, of course, I’m immediately hit with the opposite problem: a game that is exquisitely finished, betatested, and error-checked, but is still inappropriate for the competition, because it does not even come close to fitting within a two hour play session. When my two hours with RR ran out, I think I was maybe a third of the way through, and that was with a lot of leaning on the hints towards the end. Sure, it was fun while I played it, but I knew almost from the beginning that there was no way I would solve it in the allotted time, and I felt annoyed and disappointed by that. In my opinion, this game is no more appropriate for the competition than was the unfinished Atomic Heart, or the excruciatingly poor Amnesia. It’s too big. It is just too big.

I’ve written out and rehearsed my objections to overlarge comp games so many times that they almost feel self-evident to me now. But I realize that my experience doesn’t match with most people’s, so for those just tuning in, here are a few of my problems with giant comp games. First of all, the comp is a high-pressure playing time. I really try to finish all the games in the judging period, and to write a substantial review after each game. Plus, I have a life, so that means that my IFComp time is squeezed in at the edges of my life — lunch hours, laptop time on the bus to and from work, or late nights after my wife has gone to bed. It’s frustrating to carve out this time and then realize that it’s still not even close to sufficient for the game I’m playing.

Secondly, there’s a more insidious problem with trying to squeeze a big game into two hours. When I had only a half-hour left and huge swaths of the game left undiscovered, I turned to the hints. I did this not because I couldn’t have solved the puzzles on my own. Maybe I could have. But not in half an hour, and I wanted to see more of the game. Turning to the hints, though, does a disservice to a game like this. Well-constructed puzzles ought to be experienced fully, relished, and a well-written world should be enjoyed at leisure rather than rushed through. Trying to play this game in two hours will ruin it for many players, players who could have enjoyed it to its fullest potential were it released outside the comp.

Moreover, how many people are likely to come back and finish the game after the comp period is over? For all the comp games I’ve meant to do that with, I’ve almost never followed through, because after the comp is a frenzy of reviewing excitement, and then come the holidays, and busy times at work, and… whoosh. The game is well off my radar by the time I actually have time to play it. Then there’s the fact that I find it difficult to give a reasonable evaluation to a game that remains mostly unseen by me — it’s like trying to review a movie after watching the trailer and the first 20 minutes. These aren’t the only reasons I don’t like huge comp games, but that’s enough for now.

Still, with all that said, can I understand why somebody, especially a first-time author, would enter their huge game in the comp, even knowing all of the attendant problems? Of course I can. The fact that RR is a comp entry perfectly illustrates the problem with the current IF scene. The annual IF Competition is simply too important, too powerful. It’s become a cynosure whose glare eclipses everything else in the IF world. I love the competition — I think that much is clear from my ongoing participation in it — but I have come to really hate the way it’s turned into a gravity well for games. If you enter your game in the competition, it’s bound to get at least a dozen reviews, be played by the majority of the community, and maybe even become a talking point in IF discussions for years to come. Widespread familiarity in the community also may give it an edge in the XYZZY voting.

If you release your game outside the comp, what happens? Usually, almost nothing. Some games get released to not even a single, solitary post in the newsgroups, let alone reviews or discussion. Even humongous, excellent games like 1893, the products of hundreds of hours of work, sometimes cause hardly a ripple. So of course tons of games get into the competition that aren’t finished, or are way too big. How else to reap in attention what you’ve sown in work? I try to remedy the situation somewhat by continuing to release SPAG and hassling people to write reviews for it, but games routinely go a year or more without a SPAG review, and some games (Bad Machine comes to mind) seem never to get reviewed at all. It’s maddening to me, and I don’t know what to do about it, but I have to say I’m at the point where I’m seriously considering no longer writing comp game reviews, turning my review energies instead to non-comp games so that they’ll at least get attention and evaluation from somebody.

For this year, though, I’m committed, which brings me to the problem of score. From what I saw of this game, I thought it was outstanding, worthy of a 9.5 or above. But I just cannot bring myself to give it that score, if for no other reason than because I don’t want games that shouldn’t be in the comp to do well, since all that will do is encourage more of them. On the other hand, can I really justify giving a low score to such an obviously high-quality product, especially when I’ve already given Scavenger, another too-big game, a high score? Well, the difference between this and Scavenger is that with Scavenger, I felt like I’d seen the majority of the game, that the major puzzles were solved or almost-solved, and that most of what remained was denouement. With RR, though, I felt like I’d eaten the appetizer but had to leave before the entree.

My compromise is this. I’ll make it clear in my review that this is a great game, worthy of any IF devotee’s attention. Play it sometime when you can really enjoy it, linger over its many pleasures, and let the puzzles percolate in your head. Play it without a time limit. Savor it like I couldn’t today. Don’t let my low score fool you — it’s eminently worth playing, but I saw a third of it, and so I’m giving it a third of the score it probably would have gotten from me had it been the right size for the comp.

Rating: 3.2

About my 2003 IF Competition Reviews

For me as an author, 2003 was a frustrating year. I had entered part 1 of a trilogy into the 2001 competition, and (amazingly) won the 2002 competition with part 2. I had every intention of completing the set with a 2003 entry, and in fact even publicly announced that I would do so. By June, though, it was very clear that I wouldn’t make it. There were a few different reasons for this, from accelerated real-life demands to a ballooning project scope caused by more ambitious design goals, but nevertheless it was a very disappointing outcome to me. I had really wanted that unbroken run.

For me as a critic, 2003 had different frustrations. The IF Competition had become a massive center of gravity in the community, which meant that it sucked up all the energy and feedback, certainly for the few months it took place, and pretty much overall for the year as well. The perfect emblem of this dysfunction, to my mind, is the 2003 comp entry Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne.

RR is a fantastic game — sumptuously implemented, brilliantly designed, beautifully written. It is also a full-length game. There’s no way anybody finishes it in 2 hours, at least not outside of just charging through the walkthrough. So I played it, and loved what I saw of it, but did so in the context of six weeks where I’m trying to play and review 29 games, and cut each one off after two hours. As it became clear that RR was much bigger, I turned to hints so that I could see more of the game. I would have enjoyed it more without doing so, but it was a choice between more enjoyment or more exposure, and I wanted to be able to review the game with as broad a perspective as possible. So I sacrificed enjoying a work that its author had surely labored over creating.

I hate being placed in this position, so in my review I let the game have it with both barrels, estimating that I’d seen a third of it, so only giving it a third of the score it deserved. As it turned out, RR placed second, and in my capacity as SPAG editor I routinely interviewed the top three placing authors from the comp. I was a little abashed at doing so with Michael, having lambasted his game for its length, so I went straight at the topic in my interview:

SPAG: Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest complainers on that point, it’s only fair you should get to air your side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I’m not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn’t seem reasonable.

So there you have it. The competition pulls in games that don’t belong in it, because if you release those games outside the competition, even a month or two beforehand, you may as well not release them at all. I found this a deeply discouraging place to be. I tried to do my part in counteracting it — encouraging SPAG reviews of non-comp games, and even releasing a full-length non-comp game myself — but the immensity of the comp had gathered a momentum all its own. My banging against it affected me more than it affected the situation, I suspect.

However, while the downside of the comp’s centrality was that it gathered everything to it, the upside was that it gathered so many good things to it. The 2003 games had some fantastic experiences among them, even besides Risorgimento Represso. The winning game, Slouching Towards Bedlam, was stupendous, and made me a little bit relieved I hadn’t managed to finish part 3 of Earth and Sky for that year’s comp. Other highlights included The Recruit, Scavenger, and Episode In The Life of an Artist.

I also benefited from my history with the comp, as I got to enjoy the return of many a previous entrant. Mikko Vuorinen was back with another goofily incongruous exercise in icon-subversion, Mike Sousa brought a bunch of veteran authors into a group-writing exercise, and Stefan Blixt and John Evans returned with more half-baked entries in the line of their previous ones. Well, those last two weren’t so much fun, but best of all was the reappearance of Daniel Ravipinto, whose last game was in 1996 and who excelled once again. He brought with him a wonderful co-author named Star Foster, whose horribly untimely death in 2006 is one of the saddest stories in amateur IF.

I posted my reviews of the 2003 IF Competition games on November 16, 2003.

Unnkulia X by Valentine Kopteltsev [Comp00]

IFDB page: Unnkulia X
Final placement: 27th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

In the beginning, there was the 1995 IF competition. This competition had but One Rule: all entries must be winnable in two hours or less. The competition has gotten grander and more complex since then, but it has remained a competition for short games, not Curses-length epics. Somewhere along the way, though, the One Rule got mutated a little. I quote from this year’s rules: “Judges must base their judgement of each game on at most the first two hours of play… Authors may write a game of any length they desire, but should keep this rule in mind when determining the length of their entry.” This rule has been in this form, more or less, since 1998. Still, the competition has remained oriented towards short games.

There are some obvious reasons for this. For one thing, it takes less time to write a short game. The more objects, locations, NPCs, plot points, and such you cram into your game, the more work your game will be to produce, at least if you want to maintain a reasonable level of quality. I would argue, however, that there are other reasons to keep long games out of the competition. From a judging standpoint, I don’t feel comfortable evaluating a game unless I’m reasonably confident that I’ve seen most or all of it. If A Mind Forever Voyaging, for instance, were to be entered in an IF competition, I know for certain that I wouldn’t have an accurate picture of it after only 2 hours of play. I felt differently about Zork III before and after the Royal Puzzle. I could go on, but you get the idea. Consequently, the ratings given to a large game don’t really reflect the game as a whole, just its beginning sections. Also, it’s really comparing apples to oranges to put something like Worlds Apart up against something like, say, Winter Wonderland. Even if two games have a similar tone, or similar puzzles, or a whole raft of other similarities, length does matter. Ahem.

Nowadays though, the competition has become, to use a worn-out but apt phrase, a victim of its own success. Authors enter anything they write into the competition just because it’s so high-profile and receives so much ink (or electrons, or whatever.) They figure that even in the worst case, they’ll get a whole bunch of people playing and writing about their game, so why not enter it? I feel a rant coming on about this. The first part of my rant is directed at authors. Look, people, entering a game that is too long (or too buggy, or too poorly proofread, or otherwise inappropriate for the competition) is an abuse of the judges’ time. The feedback and recognition you get this way are ill-gotten.

Moreover, I would contend that especially in the case of overlong games, you’re not really benefiting that much, because whatever recognition and feedback you get are only based on the first two hours, not your game as a whole. You created an entire game, but if it’s just one of fifty entries, and it’s quickly apparent that two hours ain’t gonna cover it, not by a long stretch, how many of those players do you think will return to your game? How many people will see and give you feedback about the other three-fourths of the game that they didn’t get to during the comp? How much are you really benefiting from all that comp attention?

And while I’m on the topic, let’s move to the second part of my rant, which is directed to the community at large. Listen, I love the competition. It’s one of my favorite things about the IF community. But let’s face the problems that it has. The magnetism of the competition, the idea that it’s the best place for every game, is something we all need to work harder to address. Do your part. Release a long game (or a short one) outside of the competition. Write a review of a non-comp game for SPAG or XYZZYNews. Participate in things like the IF Review Conspiracy and the IF Book Club. Most importantly, post post POST about non-comp games. Make a commitment to post a reaction to any non-comp game you play. It doesn’t have to be a review. It doesn’t have to be thorough. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be smart. It just has to be done, because if it doesn’t get done, the authors who don’t abuse the competition will end up losing out, and that’s not right. So please — do it. Your efforts will benefit yourself and everybody else in the IF community.

Just to be democratic, the third part of my rant is addressed to myself, and people like me, people who write long, thorough reviews of every comp game. We are part of the problem. I recognize that consistency is important to us, and that’s why we devote more or less the same amount of space to each comp game. However, there can and should be limits. Don’t even play games that have catastrophic bugs, let alone review them. Any attention those games get contributes to the perception that it’s better to release a buggy game in the comp than a polished game in the Spring. We must work to prove that this perception is fallacious and untrue. As for overlong games, review them if you feel you must, but don’t feel obligated to spend much of the review talking about the game itself — spend it instead on some adjacent topic like the problem of inappropriate games in the competition.

I mean, for god’s sake, Unnkulia X is 865K! The thing is only 45K smaller than Once and Future! It’s freaking huge! Yes, it’s fairly well done, implemented with care and only a few lapses in English. (There’s a lot of unfamiliar diction, which I assume is attributable to the author’s first language being something other than English, but most of these alien word choices are rather refreshing instead of jarring.) Of course, I only got 60 points out of 300 after two hours, so these assessments are based on what I have to assume is the first fifth or so of the game. If it were the whole game, I’d probably give it about a 9. Considering it’s a fifth of the game, I think that works out to about a…

Rating: 1.8

The Big Mama by Brendan Barnwell [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Big Mama
Final placement: 20th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Big Mama is an ambitious work with an intriguing structure and a strong sense of place. Somehow, though, it just didn’t work for me, and I think there are a few reasons why. For one thing, the protagonist has the same first name as me, which produced a strange experience that I don’t think any other piece of IF has given me. It’s an odd feeling to have the PC introduce himself as “Paul” and be addressed as such in a game that hasn’t asked for my name explicitly. I suppose that I wouldn’t find this offputting in and of itself if the PC was a character I could relate to. Unfortunately, he isn’t — I found him pretentious and grandiose. One of the most prominent examples of this pretentiousness is the PC’s insistence on constantly referring to the ocean as “the big mama” — one or two references of this sort would be fine, but when the game hammers at it over and over again, flying into rhapsodic soliloquies about how “It’s like some caring, artistic superior being has crafted this little coastline as an experiment in environmental beauty,” I start to get the feeling it’s trying to impress me with how deep and soulful the PC is, and I wasn’t that impressed.

Those kinds of details tend to make me roll my eyes a bit, and they’re everywhere in the game. Another example is the room description in which the PC reacts to a sign reading “Private beach: next 1.5 miles” by snorting “Stupid imperial measurement!” This is the sort of behavior trait that would annoy me if I found it in a real person — it strikes me as contrariness for the sake of it rather than for any rational reason, and when it’s divorced from any explanatory context, as it is with this PC, my initial response remains as my lasting impression. Meanwhile, the game is not only ascribing all these traits to me in the second person voice, it’s actually using my name to do so. Weird.

Oddly, the game’s very open-ended structure only served to underscore this feeling for me. At one point (when you type “score”), the author himself intrudes to insist that “it’s all up to you.” In fact, however, it isn’t. If you try to swim in the ocean, for instance, you are told “You’re a stand-on-the-shore-and-watch-the-waves-roll-in kind of guy, not a frolic-in-the-crashing-surf kind of guy.” When this happens, the game forcefully reminds me that despite its proclamations of freedom, the PC is never going to act like anything but the rather pompous character I was trying to steer away from. I can understand that there need to be some limits on what’s implemented in a game, but I’d rather not hear any claims like “it’s all up to you” unless those limits are very wide indeed.

That complaint aside, however, TBM‘s structure is absorbing. The game sports at least 39 endings (at every ending you reach, you are told “You have reached ending #[whatever]”, though the game rather coyly avers that “The total number of endings is a secret.” Anyway, I got to ending number 39, so I know that there are at least that many.) I played through the game about 20 times, and was impressed by the number of possible branches to take, though again I still felt disappointingly straitjacketed by the character’s consistency. If I had liked the character, I think would have spent even more time chasing down the various possibilities.

The writing in the game was well proofread — I think I only found one error (an it’s/its mixup) — and it was very effective at producing a strong sense of place for me. TBM provides quite a few vivid details for its beach setting, and when I closed my eyes after playing the game for an hour or so, I nearly felt transported. The actual style of the prose, on the other hand, felt just a little over-the-top to me at times, but this may have been a further outgrowth of my reaction to the PC’s perspective. In addition, TBM suffers unfairly in my mind because I can’t help comparing it to Sunset Over Savannah, one of the best-written IF games out there and certainly the best one to be set on a beach. I think another thing that deflated the power of the writing for me was that the game begins with a series of “light-hearted” admonishments by way of introduction, and I found this sequence irritatingly precious. That’s pretty much the story with me and TBM — there’s nothing wrong with it, particularly, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Rating: 7.2

[Postscript from 2020: This game inspired one of my all-time favorite reviews ever written for a piece of IF, Adam Cadre’s review from rec.games.int-fiction, which I subsequently reprinted in SPAG. The whole thing still sends me into fits of helpless laughter. Also, the big mama.]

About my 1999 IF Competition reviews

Photopia was a meteorite. It landed, and changed everything. I would argue that it was Adam Cadre’s 1998 comp-winner that moved interactive fiction out of Infocom’s shadow once and for all. In a swift, brilliant stroke, it proved that IF could be popular and artistically successful without puzzles, without linear time, and to some extent without meaningful choices. Assumptions molded by IF’s commercial history melted away in Photopia‘s light.

That change had a huge effect on the 1999 competition games. In my reviews I found myself referencing Photopia the way I used to reference Infocom, as a benchmark that set expectations for both authors and players. That year’s comp was full of Photopia-alikes, most of them pretty unfortunate. It’s a bit reminiscent of how in the comics world, the excellent landmarks of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns set off a 15-year wave of “grim and gritty” superheroes, from authors and editors who thought those books were successful because they were dark rather than just both dark and successful.

Photopia was also a high-profile breaker of formal boundaries in IF, but it was far from the only one. 1999’s comp saw formal experimentation blossoming in lots of really interesting ways, and in reviewing the games I found myself evolving a terminology for how to talk about aspects of IF that the games were teaching me to understand. For instance, this year is where I started talking about levels of nouns. Quoting from my review of Hunter, In Darkness: “In this terminology, first-level nouns are those nouns that are mentioned in room descriptions. Second-level nouns are those nouns mentioned in the descriptions of the first-level nouns. Third-level nouns are in the second-level noun descriptions, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more detailed and immersive the textual world.”

Unfortunately, this year also saw a wave of buggier, more broken games. Where Comp98 had 27 games, Comp99 had 37, and much of the difference was made up by substandard clunkers that were turned in before they were ready for public consumption. My opinions about this got shriller and shriller the more of these games I had to endure.

I was fully invested in contributing to the world of IF criticism at this time, so much so that I had become the editor of the SPAG webzine shortly before the 1999 competition. I’d continue in that role for about six years, collecting reviews and essays, and publishing issues more or less quarterly. My biggest annual IF effort and commitment, though, remained the competition. I wrote these 37 reviews in the space of six weeks, and although there was a fair amount of chaff, finding a great game still thrilled me like nothing else.

I originally posted my reviews for the 1999 IF Competition games on November 16, 1999.

Introducing >INVENTORY

I started writing reviews of interactive fiction games in 1996. I think it’s only old people who start stories with, “In those days…”, but apparently the shoe fits, so in those days, the IF community was small, cohesive, and centered in a couple of Usenet newsgroups: rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction. For those who weren’t there, newsgroups were essentially discussion forums, consisting wholly of text — posts and threads. “Arts” was about creating IF, and “games” was about playing it. (“Rec” meant “recreation” — there were various top-level hierarchies that… you know what, it doesn’t matter.)

The text-only medium of newsgroups was perfect for text adventure aficionados, and while they thrived, those groups were the fertile soil from which sprung many of the pillars that support even today’s IF scene: Inform, TADS, the IF Archive, and most importantly for my purposes, the Interactive Fiction Competition.

The comp, as it was affectionately known, started in 1995 as a way to spur the creation of more short IF — see in those days most authors were trying to ape Infocom by writing long, puzzly games that would have fit nicely onto store shelves in 1985. The comp changed that, dramatically. Kevin Wilson, founder of the comp, gave it just one rule: every game had to be winnable in under two hours. The first year saw 12 games entered. The next year: 26. And it took off from there.

Opening screen of Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather
A Change In The Weather, winner of the first IFComp, Inform division

I was on fire for IF in those days. I couldn’t get enough of the newsgroups, the games, the languages. I spent my nights immersed in learning Inform, creating little worlds and gleefully walking around in them. The competition was the perfect opportunity for me to actually finish one of these virtual puzzleboxes and send it out into the world in hopes of feedback. That first attempt was called Wearing The Claw, and while I find it rather cringey to look back on now, it did at least land in the upper half of the 1996 comp — 8th place. And boy did I get a lot of feedback on it!

In those days, you see, there was a strong culture of feedback in place, and the comp helped that culture grow explosively. Tons of people would review the comp games, and as an author, you could get a cornucopia of input that would help you understand where you went right this time and how to do better next time. It was invaluable, and I wanted to be part of it, so I reviewed every 1996 comp game.

Then I reviewed every comp game (with a few exceptions) every year all the way up through 2004, which not coincidentally was the year before my son was born. I also wrote reviews of various other IF and IF-adjacent games, and spent several years editing a text adventure webzine called SPAG.

For a couple of decades now, those reviews and writings have been housed on the personal web site I created back in the 90s with my trusty copy of HTML For Dummies. However, my crystal ball tells me that this web site’s days may be numbered. It lives on a legacy server at the University of Colorado (where I still work), and nobody is super excited about hosting old student websites from the 20th century anymore. Plus, those old reviews are absolutely festooned with dead links and ugly typography.

Enter >INVENTORY. This blog will eventually house all my writing about IF, including every comp review, every IF-Review entry, every XYZZY Awards solicited review, and everything else I can think of. >SUPERVERBOSE will remain my primary blog, and new writing about IF will go there as well as here, but >INVENTORY, as its name suggests, will house the exhaustive trove that currently lives on my old web site.

As time permits, I’ll be transferring comp reviews into this blog, where they can be searched, indexed, googled, and so forth. Once that project is done, I’ll start on all the other IFfy stuff I’ve written over the years. It’s quite possible I’ll append some of it with reflections or current thoughts as the mood strikes me.

In my first innocent post to rec.games.int-fiction, I called myself “a major devotee of IF.” While many other passions have laid their claims upon my time, that fire still smolders inside me, and I look forward eagerly to revisiting the many happy hours I spent with IF games and IF arts. As with everything I write, I hope it proves enjoyable and/or useful to somebody else out there too.