Stranded by Rich Cummings [Comp01]

IFDB page: Stranded
Final placement: 37th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

The opening screen of Stranded bears the legend “A game written and designed by Rich Cummings, 1988/2001.” I didn’t pay much attention to these numbers when I started the game, but when I looked back at the transcripts to write this review, they started to make a lot of sense. The idea that this game was begun in 1988 would explain many of its more aggravating features. Take, for instance, the sudden death rooms. I found numerous spots where just entering the room would kill the PC. To make matters even more irritating, these deaths don’t happen as soon as the room is entered, because that could be remedied with a simple UNDO. Instead, the death occurs upon exiting. It’s a bit like those nasty jungle traps that catch your foot in a circle of downward-angled spikes — it’s not the stepping in that hurts you, but the extrication.

Back in 1988, freeware IF was still in its infancy, and in those ancient days, sudden death traps like these weren’t so terribly uncommon. Nowadays, we like to think that the art of IF game design has evolved, and traps like these are frowned upon as unfair and annoying. The same can be said for strict inventory limits and the inventory management problems that accompany them. Does Stranded have these? Yep, sure does. Let’s see, what else? Maze? Check. Near as I could tell, solving it doesn’t even yield anything good, either. Starvation time limit? Check, and several puzzles must be solved before the game even makes any food available. Size way too large for the comp? Check.

In fact, this game even somehow managed to break some aspects of the standard TADS parser so that it behaved more primitively, like so:

> shoot alligator
What do you want to shoot it with?

> gun
There's no verb in that sentence!

I doubt this feature was disabled on purpose, but its absence just makes the game feel like that much more of a throwback. About the only old-school feature I couldn’t find was a light source puzzle, and given that I couldn’t finish the game in two hours (could anybody?), for all I know there may have been one of those too. The IF competition has now been in existence for seven years, and yet we’re still seeing games designed before the advent of TADS, Inform, and the new wave of freeware IF. When will it end? Nobody can say, I suppose, but it can’t come too soon for me. It’s not that I object to old fashioned puzzlefests, or that I need every game to be Photopia, but darn it, we have learned some things in the past 13 years. Sudden death rooms are not challenging, not fair, and not fun. Mazes are dull. The idea that a PC could starve to death within a few hours, or even a few days, is silly.

More’s the pity, because Stranded has some strong features. It provides photos with every location and many of its objects, and some of this photography is really lovely. Of course, some of it is a little suspect — the photo of a large insect appears actually to be an electron microscope magnification of a very small insect. Still, even if one can’t help but wonder whether some of the game was built around what photographs the author was able to find, they still do an excellent job at enhancing the setting.

What’s more, this setting — a marshy, swampy island — is one we haven’t seen much of in IF, and I was intrigued by its possibilities, many of which the game included. As is typical of games designed before the competition existed, this one is way too large to be completed in 2 hours, even with help from the walkthrough. Consequently, I didn’t see the whole thing, but I didn’t need to. Stranded has lots of pretty pictures, some of which are even worth the effort to see. Its writing, while fairly bad in some places, does have its moments. But at bottom, it’s a game from 1988, gussied up and presented as new, but still unable to disguise its decaying roots.

Rating: 5.0