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

Blade Sentinel by Mihalis Georgostathis [Comp02]

IFDB page: Identity Thief
Final placement: 38th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

On the plus side, this is a superhero game. I like superheroes. On the minus side, well, everything else. Quest is just about the same as it was the last time I played a Quest game, which was last year. I talked about its shortcomings in my review of Comp01’s Lovesong, so I won’t rehash that.

I will, however, complain about the fact that apparently Quest savegame files have the directory path of the original game file hardcoded into them. Consequently, when I played the first half of Blade Sentinel on my lunch hour at work and then took the save file with me to finish the game at home, the restore failed miserably, since it was looking for my work machine’s directory structure.

So I loaded the savegame file into a text editor, found the directory path and changed it, and managed to do my restore, only to discover that Quest is terminally broken under Windows XP, showing no input line. You would think that the “handful-of-verbs, mouse-interface” problem might cancel out the “no input line” problem, but apparently only most of the game’s verbs are available via mouseclick. Two or three must be typed in, which is tough to do without an input line. So I took it to my WinME machine, got it working, and discovered that the game is fatally bugged and unfinishable. So that makes rating it easy. Oh, and the English is really, really terrible.

Rating: 1.0

A Crimson Spring by Robb Sherwin [Comp00]

IFDB page: A Crimson Spring
Final placement: 23rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

One thing that can fairly be said about A Crimson Spring is that it is one dark piece of work. It starts out with a funeral, and in the course of its plot will describe twisted psychotics, brutal beatings, murder, and rape, along with a generous helping of menacing, intimidation, and vile ideas. It’s about superheroes, but not your Saturday morning SuperFriends kind of superheroes, nor even your angsty Stan Lee/Chris Claremont kind of superheroes.

No, these are superheroes in more of a Frank Miller vein, tortured vigilantes who stalk through horrific corridors of urban decay, beating the living crap out of evildoers and anybody who looks at them funny. Though Miller is clearly their main predecessor, they’re also a bit reminiscent of the out-of-control metahumans in Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, with elements of the anger and psychoses that bubble under Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

They even bear a passing resemblance to the characters from Sherwin’s own Chicks Dig Jerks, at least in the way that they tend to investigate crimes by cruising bars looking for trouble. In addition, they’re also likely to have somewhat more disturbing powers, especially the villains, such as AIDS Archer, who shoots disease-tipped arrows at the good guys, and Mucous Man, who suffocates his victims under lots and lots of snot.

As I’ve said in the past, I love superheroes, but this particular subgenre of them is not my favorite. The whole grim-and-gritty trend in superhero comics, which probably reached its peak towards the end of the Reagan years, was always rather unappealing to me. I found its insistence on the world’s rottenness to be just as monotonous and unrealistic as the post-Code, whitewashed Batman and Robin’s world of silly villains and cardboard heroes. Miller’s Daredevil and Punisher, and Claremont/Goodwin’s Wolverine were fine when they were the darker exceptions to the nobler rule of costumed crusaders, but when nearly every superhero suddenly became a clench-jawed desperado struggling against a poisoned culture by any means necessary, the whole thing started to seem more and more silly. [Pssst! Paul! Stop lecturing about comics and get back to the game! (The what? Oh yes, that.)]

Ahem. As I was saying, A Crimson Spring is one dark piece of work. It even displays its text as faded letters on a pitch black background. In addition, even besides the fact that its particular flavor of superherodom is not to my taste, it misses some pretty important opportunities. For instance, although the PC wears a mask and has a code name (Holy Avenger), he doesn’t have any superpowers. What does he have? A lead pipe. He’s surrounded by people who can fly, or are super-strong, or have unbreakable skin, or can morph themselves into other stuff, but his main skills are talking smack and whacking people with a big metal club. Oh, he’s got a perfect immune system, too, which doesn’t seem to me like a great superpower (“I’m Never-Get-Sick Man!”), though I have to admit it does come in handy against guys like AIDS Archer. I found myself wishing that I could play one of the real superheroes instead of this smart-aleck “detective” with the pipe in his hand. Hell, even Batman had a utility belt.

On the other hand, perhaps playing a character I liked more would have made it even more frustrating when I encountered one of the game’s many bugs. The bugs in ACS come in two varieties. One of these is the “huh?” bug, which happens when the game makes a reference to somebody or something you’ve never heard of before, and acts as if you of course know what it’s talking about. For instance, at one point the PC is asked (in reference to a villain), “Have you seen him since the incident on the bridge?” I read this and thought, “incident on the bridge?” The game had described no such incident.

Perhaps things like this were its way of building character by mentioning past “offstage” events (though some of the “huh?” references seemed clearly oriented towards things that were supposed to have happened in the plot, but didn’t, at least not to me), but even if this is the case, the game should throw in a sentence or two explaining the reference. I suspect that this kind of bug emerges when a game is written around a walkthrough and fails to account for the many paths that can be taken through the plot. Granted, this is one of the more difficult challenges in writing IF, but it is a challenge that must be met, or else the story deflates very rapidly.

The other type of bug is of the more traditional variety, the inability to refer to an important object or the nonsensical response to a reasonable command. Both types of bugs appear with depressing regularity in ACS, and they utterly defeat any sense of immersion that the game’s other nifty features strive to create. Among these features were a cool soundtrack of gritty indie rock and hand-drawn illustrations of various scenes and characters. The latter, while not exactly George Pérez, were obviously the product of quite a bit of labor, and managed to give a nice visual sense to the colorful characters. I wish, though, that the time had instead gone into debugging — I would have enjoyed the game lots more had it been bug-free, even without its illustrations. A Crimson Spring puts you behind the mask of a dark superhero on a mission of justice, but in the end, it only defeats itself.

Rating: 6.1

The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang by Neil DeMause as Anonymous [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm und Drang
Final placement: 13th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel comic at age six, I’ve always been a fan. Even now, well into my twenties and possessing a Master’s degree in English Lit, I still make sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though really, who cares about plausibility? We’re talking superheroes, here!) And yes, I’m disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized bodies (especially women’s bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it’s still a pleasure.

Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and gave a small cheer when Comp97’s magic shuffler put it towards the front of the line. I’ve always thought that the whole superhero genre would make a great one for IF — if it’s a great power fantasy to watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv, whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow’s headlines, and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality, from the characters’ dialogue with one another to the snappy responses provided for some unlikely actions (“>GET HOUSE” brings “You can count the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an entire house with one finger.)”) It’s hilarious.

Sadly, there are some problems as well. For lack of a walkthrough, I was unable to complete the game, and this frustrating experience revealed most of the game’s shortcomings. First of all, I was disappointed that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my “super Improv power” to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player) developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I’m afraid. In addition, the game did not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even this setup, because it did not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds (cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the verb (“You can’t see any bite here.”) or “That’s not really possible in your current state.” I got the impression that the author hadn’t really thought about all the clever things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the one clever thing that would solve each puzzle. Finally, there were a number of just plain bugs in the game, which always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However, interface design and implementation are too important to be treated the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I’m still waiting for the game that does superheroes just right.

Prose: As mentioned above, the prose was excellent throughout all of the game that I saw. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team was sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the character’s mental state) were both concise and vivid. Even some of the most everyday IF responses were considerably enlivened by the superhero treatment — for example, saying “Down” in a locale where that direction is not available evokes the response “Sadly, you’re not equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground.”

Plot: Since I wasn’t able to complete the game, I can only report on as much of the plot as I saw, which was basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero cliché. Since this was a spoof, of course, clichés were a good thing, and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the supervillains’ hideout) were quite funny. The landscape, the premise (SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound heroes, etc.) were all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I’ll discuss those below.

Puzzles: In fact, I’ll just discuss them right here. The puzzles were a weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in the game. One group was the puzzle based on extremely contrived circumstances — for example, the door to the villains’ hideout uses a “guess-the-big-word” lock, and what do you know, I happen to have someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me! The other type of puzzle was supposed to have drawn on my character’s superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since this power wasn’t implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of which have already been discussed above.

Technical (writing): I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game.

Technical (coding): I think the main failure of the coding was the one I’ve already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for inventory items. When a game’s main character is someone whose primary trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible. Frenetic Five fell well short in this regard. The game also had a few regular bugs, including the most egregious occurrence of the typical TADS disambiguation bug I’ve ever seen — when I and my team members were tied up, and I tried to do something with the ropes, I was asked “Which ropes do you mean, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, or the ropes?”