Slouching Towards Bedlam by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto [Comp03]

IFDB page: Slouching Towards Bedlam
Final placement: 1st place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: Because STB is one of those games whose entire point is to figure out what’s going on, some parts of this review could be considered spoilers.

For me, Comp03 has been Homecoming Year. First Mikko Vuorinen, then Stefan Blixt, and now, of all people, Dan Ravipinto, whose great, ambitious game Tapestry made a huge splash in 1996 by using the IF medium to explore ethical choices, allowing multiple paths through the game without attempting to privilege any one path as the “proper” one. Ravipinto then proceeded to utterly disappear from the face of IF, seemingly never to return. All is not as it seems, however, for here he is again, having enlisted the aid of a friend to produce another game of multiple paths, this time set in a steampunk universe with Lovecraftian overtones.

All is not as it seems in STB either, which makes reviewing it rather difficult. As I say above, the point is to figure out what’s going on (and what you’d like to do about it), and what’s going on is really quite complicated, but at least part of it involves the IF interface itself. Integrating interface and story has long been an interest of mine, which played itself out somewhat in LASH‘s “remote robot” conceit; STB takes a rather different tack, finding a completely dissimilar and ingenious explanation within the plot for the PC’s inevitable amnesiac and kleptomaniac traits, as well as the ability to jump about in time via RESTART, RESTORE, UNDO, and the like. Even stranger, you encounter tales of others in the story who have those same unusual powers.

I only figured all this out gradually, and some of it I didn’t figure out at all, having turned to the hints in order to see the end of the game. Or rather, an end to the game. Like Tapestry, STB offers an array of choices while attempting not to prefer any of them over the others, and these choices lead not only to a variety of endings, but to significant differences in the entire third act of the game. Now, I suspect that most of us, having been raised with pulp narratives about saving a threatened humanity, will find ourselves striving towards a particular ending as the “right” one, but STB rather slyly requires some extremely distasteful acts to progress on that particular path, which balances things out somewhat.

In the end, I felt that there really were no good choices, and the idea of doing the least harm to the least number still depended distinctly on who was doing the counting. Still, ultimately most of us are likely to be loyal to our own species, and so just as with Tapestry, even though multiple paths were available, there was still one that felt much more right to me than the others. That’s the brilliance of these games, though. If The Erudition Chamber is like a “What Kind Of IF Player Are You?” quiz, then Slouching Towards Bedlam is more like a “What Kind Of Person Are You?” quiz.

I guess I’ve written a lot about this game, but not much yet about what I thought of it. Well, I liked it very much. The story really drew me in, and I love the way the plot flowed smoothly from puzzle to puzzle. Even though there was quite a bit of inevitable infodumping, the wonderfully intense atmosphere of the hospital and other parts of London kept my unflagging interest. In fact, there are some parts of the game — the opening scene, the first major signs of strangeness, and the case file, for example — that I found purely spellbinding. The writing, too, was strong, keeping a Victorian mood without descending much into caricature.

There was one problem with the prose, though — for its own reasons, the game chooses to express player action predominantly in the passive voice, avoiding the word “you” as much as it can. It transfers agency to outside objects wherever possible, but sometimes it must describe the PC doing something, and here it occasionally trips, with descriptions like this (very minor puzzle spoiler ahead):

>look under blotter
Beneath the blotter is a small key, easily taken. It carries a small
tag labeled '2D'.

“Easily taken” doesn’t tell me that the PC has picked up the key, just that it would be easy for the PC to do so. Nevertheless, a subsequent inventory check reveals that the PC has indeed taken the key. From time to time, STB‘s passive voice emphasis afflicts it with this sort of muddiness.

That quibble aside, the writing worked really well, and the coding was similarly solid — I found no bugs at all. In fact, between the game’s puzzlebox premise and its lack of flaws, I’ve found this review rather hard to write, so I’ll just close by saying this: play Slouching Towards Bedlam. Your time will be well-spent, and you may find that it remains with you in entirely unexpected ways.

Rating: 9.6

The Atomic Heart by Stefan Blixt [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Atomic Heart
Final placement: 10th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Comp03 is starting to feel like Old Home Week. First there was the return of Mikko Vuorinen, and now here’s a brand new game from Stefan Blixt, author of Comp97’s Pintown and Comp98’s Purple. Pintown, in my opinion, was an unwinnable disaster, and I found Purple to be very poorly implemented as well, albeit full of fun ideas. The Atomic Heart, I’m sorry to say, is in just about the same shape as Purple.

The game’s concept is that old science fiction nugget about the machines gaining consciousness and battling mankind, but it’s enlivened by the IF presentation, in which the PC is a nanny robot (albeit with a very minor twist, revealed only in game-ending scenes) who bears no hostility towards humanity. “PC as robot” has certainly been done and done much better by other games, as has the twist gimmick, but not in combination (so far as I know) with the “robots vs. humans” plotline, and I liked the idea of playing a robot whose mission is to save humanity from other robots. There were a number of interesting details in the writing, and the structure of the story was good too, with surprising revelations, an exciting climax, and a satisfying ending.

Unhappily, though, the game’s incredibly shoddy implementation demolished any chance I had of enjoying its story. Even more irritating, most of the game’s problems are attributable to nothing but carelessness. For example: synonym problems. There’s a photo that can’t be called a picture. There are “trainers” that can’t be called shoes. There’s this exchange:

>examine bulk integrity module
I only understood you as far as wanting to examine the bulk integrity

“Well,” I had to ask, “isn’t that far enough?”

There’s more, though. Newlines are added or subtracted willy-nilly, giving the game a sloppy appearance. Losing endings are utterly unmarked as such, making them feel more like bugs than dead-ends. There’s a database that supposedly can provide all kinds of information to the robot, but when CONSULTed, even about the topics the game says it knows, all that ever seems to happen is that “You discover nothing of interest in the database.” Then there’s the delightful old “Which do you mean, the eighteenth century bottle or the eighteenth century bottle?” problem. Worse yet, one of the game’s main actions requires incredibly finicky syntax, and that action must be performed again and again in a successful game session.

After about an hour, I was so frustrated with the game’s inability to understand basic things that I started going straight from the walkthrough, and was gobsmacked to discover that even the walkthrough is loaded with commands that don’t work. I can think of no possible excuse for this. Apparently the walkthrough is a command transcript of the game’s author, or someone who has similar inside knowledge, playing the game through to conclusion, but if even the freaking walkthrough document can’t easily figure out how to phrase its commands, isn’t that a really big clue that the game is under-implemented? I think so.

I have to say, I really can’t figure this out. You take good idea, write an interesting story, make up some cool puzzles and such, then you put it together in such a slapdash way that almost nobody could enjoy it. I dunno, maybe there’ll be a big handful of glowing reviews for this game and I’ll discover that I’ve just become uptight and overly picky, but my experience with it was just so aggravating. The game even credits testers, but if the evidence of the walkthrough is any indication, just because a problem is obvious doesn’t mean it will be fixed. But WHY NOT? Why why WHY release something that is so much worse than you know it could be? Take some pride in your work, for heaven’s sake.

I guess this is all getting a little ad hominem, and I don’t mean it to be, but games like this just make me want to pull my hair out. There is just no plausible reason for a game to have problems like this, not with testers and playthroughs that clearly found them. Look, your job as a game author is to make sure your game is the best it can be. Do your job.

Rating: 4.4

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.

Purple by Stefan Blixt [Comp98]

IFDB page: Purple
Final placement: 15th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The world is ending. It’s not immediately apparent at first, because you and your brother are living out on the remote island of Lino Kapo, quite isolated from the political troubles of your future Earth(?), whose nations have names like “the Kollagio Antarktika” and “the Oceanic Republic.” But listen to the TV. (The nations have morphed so much that people are living in places like Antarctica, but we still get our information from the TV. Some things never change.) Political battles between the nations have led to the use of the deadly K-bomb, which releases, unsurprisingly, deadly K-radiation! (Where are you when we need you, Lane Mastodon?) This radiation turns the sky a disturbing purple, and threatens to choke out humanity in its menacing clouds. (By the way, the color of the sky is the meaning behind the game’s title. Hallelujah, a title that makes a little sense!) Lucky for you, your brother is a bit of a tinkerer, and has come up with this device called a Phoenix Nest, into which you can climb and sleep away the death of the world in suspended animation. The Nest wakes you up when the levels of K-radiation have dropped enough for humans to be safe. So in you climb, as the world ends, to await its rebirth and greet it with your own. Now, I know I’ve made a bit of sport with the plot here, but details aside I like this premise. It has a drama and immediacy to it, it creates a perfectly plausible reason for the world to be basically deserted, as it so often is in IF, and it gives the author a blank slate onto which a compelling alternate world can be drawn. Not to mention the fact that the mysterious “K-radiation” can be an excuse for almost any biological oddity you care to dream up.

The good news is that from this imaginative premise, Purple takes several very creative steps. The flora and fauna of the post-apocalyptic world are pleasingly exotic and interesting. The landscape is convincingly changed, and the language used to describe the new reality can be quite vivid. The bad news is that these good ideas are very poorly implemented. Let’s start with the writing. Purple isn’t exactly riddled with errors in the same way that, say, Lightiania was. However, there are enough mechanical (spelling & grammar) problems to be a serious irritant. Many of these problems aren’t exactly errors, but rather awkward turns of phrase that make the game harder to read. Purple‘s descriptions often sound as if they were translated from another language into English, by a somewhat inexpert translator. The awkwardness throws off the rhythm of the game’s prose, and I found myself frequently reading text more than once in order to figure out what it was saying. Then there are those sentences that really don’t make sense, like this one: “Urging to cover your eyes from the bright light, you still can’t move a finger.” I think that what this means is that you have the urge to cover your eyes, but you can’t because you’re paralyzed. I figured this out, but it took a minute, and for that minute I was thrown out of the story; in a text adventure, where prose is all there is, being thrown out of the narrative like this is problematic. Add a few outright spelling and grammar errors, and the game starts to feel more like work than fun.

Compounding this problem are some trouble spots in the code. There were several instances of disambiguation troubles, almost enough to make me feel like I was playing a TADS game. Scenes like this were not uncommon:

Which do you mean, the up, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

To make matters worse, I also came across several run-time errors of the flavor ** Run-time error: [Name of object] (object number 211) has no property to read **, and in fact once crashed WinFrotz altogether with a “No Such Property” error. Besides these basic errors in the code, there were also a number of problems with the way objects were implemented. For instance, you have half of a tool that you have to complete by improvising the other half, and putting one piece into the other. Unfortunately, unless you choose the right piece to insert, you are told that the other half “can’t contain things.” I also had trouble with a number of the puzzles, and was unable to figure them out without a walkthrough, but I can’t tell if that’s because of the stumbling English and buggy code, or the difficulty of the puzzles, or just my own denseness. On balance, I’d say that Purple is a very rough version of what could become a good IF vignette. After it’s undergone a few vigorous rounds of beta-testing, you might want to give it a try.

Rating: 4.1

Pintown by Stefan Blixt [Comp97]

IFDB page: Pintown
Final placement: 28th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Pintown was an extremely frustrating experience. The game was loaded with errors, both in its writing and in its coding. Even the walkthrough had bugs. I went through two hours and two interpreters trying to get the program to respond in such a way as not to crash the game, and after 45 minutes I stuck with the walkthrough. Even with the walkthrough, it took me another hour to finally get the game to stop crashing, and once I had done that a runtime bug derailed three puzzle solutions and magically eliminated the person following me. By the time I figured out that the game is unwinnable (at least according to the walkthrough provided by the author) I really didn’t care anymore. The game’s puzzles were infuriatingly arbitrary, its plot made no sense, and its prose was both very unhelpful and heavily burdened with grammar and spelling errors. I recognize the fact that the author of Pintown is Swedish and therefore might not have the best grasp on English. That’s why beta testing is important — not only does it get rid of those pesky game-killing bugs, but testers who are fluent in English can help correct all those mechanical mistakes.

In Pintown you play a musician (though the game will only respond to “play guitar” in one location at one particular time) who’s just come off a bender where you had a major row with your girlfriend. Now it’s your task to find her and make peace. Of course, the game gives you no hint as to where she might be, and characters who seem to have no programmed responses to any questions or actions aren’t much help either. A vital part of the plot hinges on your getting into a parking garage, but you can only get in there at one crucial point in the game, and your are given no hints as to when and how that point arises. I only managed to get that far with the walkthrough in hand. As to how the game ends, I have no opinion since I never got there — the game’s bugs prevented me.

This game recalled some of the more disappointing moments of last year’s competition, and I found myself once again asking that question: why would anyone who cares about his work at all enter a buggy, error-laden, unwinnable game into the IF competition? There’s clearly a precedent (upheld by many of this year’s entries) of high quality among many of the competition games. And surely authors understand that the idea of the competition is to encourage the writing not just of IF, but of good IF. So why would people humiliate themselves by entering poorly written, untested games? It’s a puzzle too tough for this adventurer to solve.

Prose: The prose in Pintown was weak. On the one hand, it’s one of those situations where there are so many technical errors that the overall prose quality is dramatically impacted for the worse. Then again, even without all those errors, I still think the prose would be bad. There’s a character who responds to every subject with “I don’t know.” Room descriptions leave out crucial objects. Sentences often make little sense. Clearly, there was a lack of effort here.

Plot: It’s hard to use the word “plot” in connection with a work like Pintown. The game’s basic goal, according to the designer, is “simply to get along with your girlfriend.” Of course, this is hard to do when she’s nowhere to be found until the endgame. Actually, the main goal of the game is to be in the right place at the right time, then to steal a car, set some random events in motion with an arbitrary action, then to clean up your apartment in exactly the right way, and finally to rescue a cat and “discover” your girlfriend’s hiding place. These plot points are relatively unconnected by any sort of logic.

Puzzles: The puzzles are very much of the “read the game designer’s mind” variety. First, you wake up and the first thing you need to do is go back to sleep. Then, you need to follow someone without really knowing why; if you don’t do this, you’ll never finish the game. Then, you steal a set of keys and a van to drive to your apartment. There is no alternate solution to the apartment puzzle. You can’t call a cab, or walk there, or ask anyone where it is. You’ve got to be there at the right time to get those keys and steal that van. Well, you get the idea.

Technical (writing): There were many grammar and spelling errors in the game. They include words missing letters, misspelled words, and made-up words (“trafficated?”)

Technical (coding): But if the writing was bad, the coding was downright awful. Playing the game under WinFrotz led to many game-killing bugs of the “FATAL ERROR: Illegal Object Number” or “Illegal Attribute Number” variety. Under JZIP, the game would just stop responding at random points. In addition, the game state was unstable enough to eliminate a follower and return two solved puzzles to an unsolved state, all at once. Unsurprisingly, beneath these major bugs was a panoply of minor bugs, including a dearth of synonyms, important missing verbs (like “pet cat”), and readable materials that only respond to “examine”, not “read.”