I Must Play by Geoff Fortytwo [Comp04]

IFDB page: I Must Play
Final placement: 14th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Once upon a time, that time being 1997, C.E. Forman wrote a comp game called Sylenius Mysterium. It was set at night, in a near-deserted mall, with an arcade and a game store. The teenage PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a particular arcade game. When he plays it, he suddenly finds himself inside the game! Now, seven years later, we’ve got I Must Play. This game is set at night, in a near-deserted arcade. The 8-year-old PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a room full of arcade games. When he plays them, he suddenly finds himself inside the games!

Happily, the project of I Must Play is a bit less literal-minded than that of Sylenius Mysterium. While the latter was built around a real-time prose implementation of a side-scrolling arcade game, requiring the player to type commands like JUMP as obstacles approached, IMP instead creates prose versions of classic arcade games, in a similar manner to some of the games in the IF Arcade project from 2001. Still, the parallels are startling. Given that one of the things Forman blew his top about before leaving the IF community was Babel‘s alleged resemblance to his own game Delusions, I can only imagine how he’d have reacted to IMP.

In any case, the prose arcade environments in IMP serve as simple puzzles, leading to a slightly more complicated endgame, one which is also an arcade re-creation but which uses a few connected simple puzzles rather than just one. These are well-done for what they are, and while I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the writing, neither was I annoyed. I had a fine time with the game until I hit a particular puzzle, one which placed the PC in a political environment. To avoid the spoiler, I’ll just say that in order to win this puzzle, I had to do something that is anathema to my beliefs. I did it, but it turned me off immensely, and I cruised through the rest of the game without engagement.

Yes, I know it’s just a game. Yes, I’m aware that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and may not have been trying to advance a political agenda. Yes, I’m sure that I’m reacting more strongly than I would have if my blood pressure hadn’t just been raised by the presidential debates. Still, what’s true for me is that I felt herded by the game into a reprehensible action. This has happened in good IF before — a classic example is in Trinity — but in those instances, the action is meant to be symbolic, to lend power to the themes of the story. In IMP, the action seems to be more or less an arbitrary puzzle-piece, serving no thematic or emotional purpose. It felt starkly out of place in what otherwise seemed to be a fairly lighthearted endeavor, rather like getting a relaxing massage and then having the masseuse suddenly wrench your little finger backwards for no apparent reason.

Part of what felt offensive to me about the scene was its terribly simplistic nature. I don’t mind art that takes positions opposite to my own nearly so much when those positions seem to be thoughtful and well-argued, or at the very least entertaining and/or funny. What I got in IMP was a gross oversimplification, a caricature really, of both the issue in question and of politics in general, one that lacked any redeeming humor, flair, or cleverness. Now, I will say that I remembered partway through the puzzle that the game’s perspective character is an 8-year-old, and when I kept that in mind, the simplistic presentation bothered me a whole lot less. However, there are some parts of that puzzle that feel dumbed-down even for a third-grader, and other parts that felt too politically opinionated for a child.

The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth. In short, the game had me, and then — via a short series of aggravating scenes and statements — it lost me. I’m sure that won’t be true for everybody. People who share the beliefs portrayed in that scene will have a much easier time navigating it (though I imagine that even some of them will still be less than pleased with its primitive formulations), and some people who share my beliefs will be dispassionate enough about them that the scene won’t bother them. It’s not that the game is super-fantastic aside from that, but until it rubbed me the wrong way, it was a pleasant enough diversion. For me, though, even though I finished IMP, I didn’t end up getting a lot of pleasure out of it.

Rating: 7.3

[Postscript from 2021: This review ended up rather controversial, despite the many qualifiers I placed around my reaction. “It’s a friggin game, for pete’s sake” was the emblematic response. So I wrote a subsequent post explaining my response to the issue at hand in much more detail. The issue was gun control, and although I didn’t love being embroiled in a debate about my review, I did enjoy that the subthread got called “I Must Gunplay.”]

Sylenius Mysterium by Christopher E. Forman as “whomever wrote it” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sylenius Mysterium
Final placement: 18th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Because of the nature of Sylenius Mysterium, any or all of this review could be considered a spoiler. In addition, spoilers are present for Freefall and Robots. You have been warned.]

There seems to be this strange impulse in the text adventure community to recreate the experience of graphical arcade games using the Z-machine. The first evidence I ever saw of this trend was Andrew Plotkin‘s “Freefall”, a z-machine Tetris implementation using realtime opcodes to reproduce the geometrical game with ASCII graphics. Others have followed, including Torbj√∂rn Andersson’s “Robots”, which recreates one of the earliest video games, and a DOOM implementation which I haven’t played. I have to say that this notion baffles me. When I first saw “Freefall”, I thought it was good fun. It struck me as a typically amazing Plotkin programming exercise which showcased the versatility of the z-machine. But it didn’t become an arcade staple on my machine. As a text adventure, it was pretty wild. As Tetris, it was pretty average. I played it once or twice to see what it could do, then deleted it. “Robots” I kept, but I don’t play it.

Now here’s Sylenius Mysterium (hereafter called SM), the bulk of which is a textual emulation of a horizontally scrolling run-and-jump game, a la Pitfall or Super Mario Brothers. This kind of thing used to come up as a joke on the IF newsgroups from time to time, and now here it is, a real game. Unfortunately, SM demonstrates the reason that those games were implemented graphically in the first place. Namely, it’s silly to implement an arcade game in descriptive mode. (“You begin walking right.” “You execute a running jump.” “Beneath you is a low wall.”) These types of structures are what graphics are best at doing, and they were being done 15 years ago. It’s both more fun and less confusing to see an arcade environment in graphics, and if even ancient computers are capable of doing so, what’s the point of making a text adventure which simply produces an inferior copy of the original? Playing SM just made me wish that the author had sacrificed portability and implemented the arcade section in graphics. Hell, even cheesy ASCII graphics would have made for a more fun experience than one long room description reading “A panoramic landscape, parallax layers of empty, ruined buildings, scrolling by with your movements.” It seems to me that text is good at certain things and so is graphics, and to make a text version of Pitfall makes about as much sense as a joystick-and-fire-button version of A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s great to know that the z-machine has realtime capabilities to produce a text arcade game, but surely those capabilities can be put to better use.

SM does have a prologue which operates in a traditional text adventure mode, and this section of the game is quite well-done, with the exception of a number of problematic bugs. The game does a very nice job of defining an engaging and convincing setting and characters, as well as creating a sense of nostalgia for the old gaming consoles. The Atari system was my first introduction to videogames that could be played at home, and I have many fond memories of days spent at friends’ houses playing Missile Command or Donkey Kong or Pitfall. In fact, the game evoked nostalgia so well that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that its “arcade” section was nothing more than realtime text.

Prose: The prose in the IF section of the game was really quite accomplished, so much so in fact that it sent me to the dictionary a couple of times to confirm the meaning of unfamiliar words. All the game’s elements, from the sterile quiet of a mall after-hours, to the almost exaggerated “skate punk” main character, to the loving descriptions of the old-time game consoles, were written in a style that I found quite rich and absorbing.

Plot: The plot in SM is mainly a device to whisk the player to the arcade section. The plot of that section is (intentionally, I think) extremely pure and simple: find the bad guy and undo his evil deeds.

Puzzles: Again, the puzzles outside the arcade section were few, and those inside the arcade section can’t really be called “puzzles” in the traditional sense, though I would argue that the game does propose an interesting juxtaposition between the challenges of a Mario Brothers-style arcade game and IF puzzles — the two are closer than they are sometimes thought to be. Those puzzles within the IF section were usually quite simple, though from time to time bugs arose that made the simplest actions seem unintentionally like puzzles themselves.

Technical (writing): The writing was technically excellent.

Technical (coding): Here there were a number of problems. I was keeping a text file of all the major bugs I found until I realized that the author had provided no email address (not even an anonymous remailer for comp97) to which bug reports could be sent. Suffice it to say that there were a number of situations, both inside and outside the arcade section, that needed much improvement. That being said, however, I’m willing to forgive quite a bit from someone who takes on a project as ambitious (even though I personally don’t find it to be very interesting) as the arcade section of SM. That section suffers from game-killing bugs of the “FATAL: No such property” variety (or at least it does under WinFrotz), but the working sections of it seemed to work quite well, and I salute the serious effort it must have taken to create them.

OVERALL: A 6.8