an apple from nowhere by Brendan Barnwell as Steven Carbone [Comp01]

IFDB page: an apple from nowhere
Final placement: 37th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Last year’s comp gave us Stupid Kittens, which I called dadaist IF. an apple from nowhere (caps intentionally omitted, as they are in the game) is perhaps a cousin to that game. It’s avant-garde, certainly, but where Stupid Kittens‘ stream of non sequiturs was snide and aggressive, this game’s barrage of scenes feels more distinctly dreamlike, less a pointed attack than just the random firing of synapses, aggregating elements from life to stretch them and collide them.

The game skirts some taboo areas, drug use and pedophilia among them, but it seems to do so more out of an attempt to directly channel the subconscious than out of an explicit desire to shock. Perhaps I’m giving it too much credit — there is an awful lot of in-your-face subject matter here — but the dreamlike atmosphere felt genuine, if overly charged. Perhaps it’s the dream world of a somewhat mentally ill person.

The question it brings up for me is this: what happens to IF when logic is removed? There are plenty of bad games that lack logic unintentionally, and some of these can be as surreal as anything in apple, but they are unsatisfactory, because we can sense that their incongruencies are a bug rather than a feature. When the illogic is intentional, the IF prompt carries a different sort of subtext. Normally, the presence of interactivity tells us that the game wants to shape itself around our commands, and challenges us to enter into a dance with the text whereby we both lead and are led. When a game makes it clear that its responses to our commands may only be tangentially related to what we type, and may not be related at all, it has taken the lead in that dance and turned it into more of an amusement park ride. Now, amusement park rides can be a wonderful thing, and I’d even suggest that there is some room for exploring the ways in which participation can enhance surreality — Shade is an excellent example of this sort of thing done right.

apple, however, has a different agenda than Shade. At the core of Shade, there was still a story being told; all its unreal occurrences were very clearly included with a purpose in mind. In this game, such a purpose is harder to discern. It’s awfully brief, for one thing, so we don’t get much of a chance to make the connections that might lead to a story. For another, it jumps, Fusillade-style, through a variety of characters, settings, and even writing formats (a few scenes are written as a sort of interactive screenplay.) It was well-written enough, and certainly well implemented. There was very little interactivity, but that’s hardly the point in a piece like this.

Ultimately, I think it was apple‘s lack of cohesion that failed me. When I reached the end of this game, I blinked, and then I shrugged. Some people can look at a Pollock and see emotion made visible. Other people just see chaos. This game may be similar, and while I enjoy surreality and even randomness, I don’t think there’s much here that will be sticking with me.

Rating: 7.1

Got ID? by Marc Valhara [Comp00]

IFDB page: Got ID?
Final placement: 29th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: There are a couple of obscenities in this review.

I am being tested. That has to be it. How else to explain the fact that immediately after playing 1-2-3…, a game that practically dares you to stop playing and pummels you mercilessly with ghastly, brutal descriptions if you don’t, I end up with this game? This game comes across like a schoolyard bully, one who not only wants your lunch money but who wants to make sure you know that you’re weak and ugly, too. It misses no chance to sneer at and belittle both the player and the PC.

Get this: you play a high school kid, and your goal in the game is to buy beer with a fake ID so that you can bring it to the party at the house of the most popular girl in school, so that maybe she’ll let you sit at the lunch table with her cool clique for the rest of the year. Talk about a concept that I could not relate to — when I was in high school, sitting with the so-called “popular” kids would have been my idea of a punishment, not a reward. Combine this with the fact that from the first sentence, the game makes clear that the PC is less a character than a laundry list of faults: fat, ugly, stupid, deceitful, shallow, etc. etc. Take, for example, this description of the shirt you’re wearing:

Glittery, sparkly, metallic-looking fabrics are all the rage this
season. Unfortunately, they're also extremely expensive. To
compromise, you've glued tinfoil to the front of your tee shirt.

So the game sticks you in this role, and wastes no opportunity to remind you that the character you’re playing is pretty much a waste of oxygen. Then, on top of all that, the game is designed to fling taunts at the player as well. For example, if you do the most obvious thing at the beginning of the game, in fact the thing that is necessary to continue the story, a little sign appears. The game won’t let you alone till you read the sign, reminding you of its presence every turn. What does the sign say? The sign says YOU SUCK. See what I mean about bullying? I half-expected it to print “An asshole says what?”

Now, let me back off a step or two. It’s true that the game is an insult machine, and that I did not enjoy the abuse it heaped on me. However, it may have chosen this approach as a part of its overall tone, which attempts to be a kind of gonzo, over-the-top parody. A parody of what, I’m not sure, since the game seems to hold pretty much everything and everyone in contempt. Perhaps it wants to be a kind of dark, cutting satire — certainly the reference to Jonathan Swift embedded in one of the locations would suggest that it aspires to that kind of humor, but the difference is that “A Modest Proposal” had a point to make, and this game does not, or if it does, the point gets buried under an avalanche of condescension.

However, it wasn’t unremittingly awful. I laughed at a few points. I can envision somebody who might even enjoy this kind of tone, and for that person, the insults would probably fit right in, and might even be funny rather than annoying. I have a small suspicion that this game was written by the same person who wrote Stupid Kittens — they share a few things, like their in-your-face tone and their fascination with dead cats and with refuting cutesiness (oooh, real tough target.) This game feels like what Stupid Kittens might be like if it was more interested in being like a traditional IF game than in being a dadaist excursion. It didn’t appeal to me at all, but perhaps it might appeal to somebody.

After all, it’s not as if the game is badly implemented. All the words seem to be spelled correctly. Its grammar betrays no glaring errors. It’ll insult you, but at least it will do so correctly. Similarly, with the exception of one major bug, its implementation is tested and clean. The puzzles, while rather arcane, all make some kind of sense within the extremely exaggerated world of the game. Of course, that doesn’t make their content any more appealing. In fact, one major portion of the game is unpleasantly reminiscent of I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel — will IF authors never cease to be fascinated with flushing toilets?

Excremental obsessions aside, I found I had a more difficult time than usual with the puzzles in the game, and I think it was because I found the insults so offputting that my travels through the game became more and more desultory. In addition, the hints weren’t as much help as they might have been because, like the rest of the game, they’re working hard to make you feel like an idiot. They mix in fictional and factual hints pretty much indiscriminately, and they don’t give you any hints as to which is which. Between these two factors, I hadn’t solved the game when, after about 110 minutes of play, something happened that forced me to go back to a very early restore. Faced with the prospect of playing through the whole tedious thing again, I declined. I had been itching for a reason to quit anyway, and relished the fact that it was finally my turn to tell the game to go fuck itself.

Rating: 3.9

Stupid Kittens by Marc Valhara as Pollyanna Huffington [Comp00]

IFDB page: Stupid Kittens
Final placement: 44rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well. OK. Um. What can I say about Stupid Kittens? It lives up to its title, sort of. There’s only one kitten, so it doesn’t live up to the last “S” of its title. But it is pretty stupid. Either that or brilliant. It’s kind of hard to tell the difference with this game.

Here’s a definition of dada that I found on the Internet: “Nihilistic movement in the arts that flourished chiefly in France, Switzerland, and Germany from about 1916 to about 1920 [and later -ed.] and that was based on the principles of deliberate irrationality, anarchy, and cynicism and the rejection of laws of beauty and social organization.” I think Stupid Kittens might be dada. Or else stupid. It’s kind of hard to tell the difference with this game.

This game has God, and Krishna, and Einstein, and Buddha, and a crazy murderous little girl, and weird stuff, and lots of kitty litter, and the disintegration of reality, and Jennifer Love Hewitt encased in carbonite, and angels, and you can take your soul, and wash it, and dice, and more weird stuff, and a little electric chair, and a fish-head, and a crack pipe, and a vet, and a laptop, and Next Tuesday, and a grenade made of vinegar and baking soda, and then a bunch more weird stuff. It doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have puzzles. It doesn’t have stupid unintentional errors in spelling, grammar, or coding. Or else it does. It’s kind of hard to tell the difference with this game.

Rating: 3.8 (Also, I like cats, so I didn’t like this game.)