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

2112 by George K. Algire as George K. George [Comp01]

IFDB page: 2112
Final placement: 24th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Unlike the other game at the IF Archive by this title, 2112 is not an adaptation of the 1976 Rush song. There are no Red Stars of the Solar Federation, no Temples of Syrinx… really, no Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian sci-fi whatsoever. Instead, this game just happens to be set in the year 2112, and casts the PC as a middle school student taking a field trip to humanity’s scientific outpost on the planet Mars.

The futuristic trappings are there, but I wouldn’t exactly call this game science fiction. Its vision of the future is more or less a straight transplantation of present-day life into a century from now, with very little extrapolation for change. The students travel to Mars in a Boeing 797, and upon reaching the planet, the PC finds a Starbucks, a Gap, even a “2113 Dodge Aries Planet Hopper.” As the author jokes in the readme, “It’s a shame they don’t offer a prize for most corporate name-dropping in a single work.” The game reserves a little sneering for the various corporate presences, but I’d hesitate to call it satirical — the swipes are rather too blunt to deserve that label. Of course, the game was so large that I didn’t reach the ending in two hours, even after I spent the second hour more or less typing commands straight from the walkthrough, so there may have been a stinger that I missed later on in there, tying the whole thing together and making some kind of point. More on the size a little later.

This not-quite-science-fiction, not-quite-satire game was also written as a Windows executable, using a homegrown parser. Every year, the IF competition seems to attract one or more of these, and I have to say, I find it rather interesting that there are enough people willing to write their own parsers and world models to actually provide a number of new creations, all with their own from-scratch code, for each and every annual IF competition. I’ve mentioned before that the urge to keep reinventing the wheel is quite a foreign one to me, and that I tend to dread these homegrown entries, as their parsers are much more likely to be problematic, snide, and annoying. Due credit, though: 2112 has one of the best homegrown parsers I’ve ever seen. Yes, it still breaks rule #1 of Paul’s Parser Manifesto: “Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.” One small favor is that its violation applies only to verbs, as in the following exchange on the occasion of finding a stuck hatch:

>pry hatch
You don't figure doing that would help you much.

Well actually, I did figure doing that would help me. That’s why I typed it. Turns out the game would have responded exactly the same way if I had typed “rpy hatch.” However, on the positive side, the parser has a very useful and ingenious way of disambiguating. For instance:

>drop note
. . . note
Which of the following do you mean? 1) the small yellow note, 2) the
pile of notebooks? Just hit 3) to forget it.

After issuing this question, the game disables all keys except 1, 2, and 3, thus preventing accidental input while preserving (through the last option) player freedom. I thought this was a great way to prevent the pernicious “Let’s try it again: Which do you mean, the note or the note?” problem. 2112 also had several fun features available, such as a customized game window, appropriate (and sometimes startling) sounds, and multicolored text. It even provided most of the features I’ve come to expect from IF, such as scripting capability and undo, though I was hesitant to use the latter because it required restarting the former.

Usually my screed on homegrown games is that nifty features don’t matter as much as a solid parser. 2112, though, has both. You’d think I’d be satisfied. Well, it turns out that reasonable game design is nearly as much of a must as a good parser, and it’s here that 2112 doesn’t quite make it. I’d played the game for about an hour and couldn’t figure out what to do next — the game was telling me I was still in the preface, despite my having explored a couple dozen rooms and solved a variety of puzzles. So I checked out the walkthrough, and guess what? I’d failed to find a vital item in the first 10 moves of the game, and there was no way to recover that item, nor to substitute its use in the puzzles that involved it. I had to restart, and let me tell you, I was gritting my teeth.

From that point, I was going straight from the walkthrough, and although I did this for a straight hour, I still wasn’t able to finish the game. What this means to me is that 2112 is in no way a two-hour game. Consequently, it dodged the pet peeve I expected it to hit (shoddy homegrown parsers) and ran smack into two others (games inappropriately large for the competition, and games that close off without warning.) Oh, I almost forgot to mention: the game suffers from a number of spelling and grammar errors, too. Make that three pet peeves. 2112 is a slick piece of work, and it didn’t need TADS or Inform in order to be as richly interactive as it needed to be. What it did need, however, was to take a few lessons from the game design ethos that the IF community has evolved alongside its development systems.

Rating: 6.6

Wrecked by Campbell Wild [Comp00]

IFDB page: Wrecked
Final placement: 39th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are several points in Wrecked where the game collars you to proclaim just how awesome its development system is. For example, you meet someone who (surprise surprise!) just happens to be coding an ADRIFT game on a nearby computer. Ask her about it, and she’ll say to you, “I’m making an ADRIFT adventure. I’ve tried using Inform, TADS and Hugo, but I’d say ADRIFT is by far the best.” In another location, you can gain some points with the command “write graffiti,” something I would never have thought to do without the handy walkthrough to prod me. The graffiti the game chooses to write? “ADRIFT rocks!”

Apparently, Wrecked suspects that its own merits are not enough to convince you of ADRIFT’s supremacy, but that if it just shouts slogans at you once in a while, that might do the trick. For me, the former was true, but the latter, predictably, was not. I’ve already catalogued the shortcomings of ADRIFT in my review of Marooned, so I don’t see the need to rehash them here — the bottom line is that ADRIFT isn’t a bad system overall, and has some nifty features to recommend it, but its parser (which is MORE IMPORTANT THAN NIFTY FEATURES) is substandard, its model world needs work, and it’s still lacking in key functions like UNDO and SCRIPT. A random NPC might think it beats Inform, TADS, and Hugo, but a quick conversation with this NPC demonstrates that her powers of discernment are, after all, rather limited. The game’s self-hyping moments are offputting, as it would have been if Graham Nelson had chosen to have “Inform RUELZ!” scribbled on the side of the house in Curses, or if the spaceship in Deep Space Drifter had been named the USS TADS Is Supreme.

On the other hand, Wrecked is definitely a better showcase for ADRIFT than is Marooned. Those extraneous newlines that I blamed on the ADRIFT system in my review of Marooned turned out to be that game’s doing — they’re nowhere to be found in Wrecked. Many more first-level nouns are implemented, making the auto-complete option work much better, though it still doesn’t work flawlessly. Also, there’s no starvation puzzle in Wrecked, which sets to rest my fears that such a puzzle is standard issue in every ADRIFT game.

However, just being a better game than Marooned doesn’t make Wrecked a great game in itself. One part of the reason why I didn’t care for Wrecked is that it just feels very dated to me. It’s an old-school adventure, something that might have fit comfortably into the mainstream circa 1983 or so. You know the kind: you find a bowling ball with a button on the side, and when you push the button, the ball opens up to reveal a sapphire bracelet, which you then give to the sailor on the dock, who will reward you with a chicken pot pie that you can feed to the vicious warthog, allowing you to sneak into his lair and retrieve the bag of marbles, etc. etc. Everything is pretty much thrown together without any rhyme or reason, loosely grouped together under a threadbare rubric of plot and setting. Like I said, old-school. Unfortunately for Wrecked, the old school of IF lost its accreditation some time ago. To my mind, senseless grouping of stuff without any indication of internal consistency is something IF has outgrown, like mazes and starvation puzzles. Seeing it in a year 2000 competition entry isn’t going to score a lot of points from me.

However, even if I were willing to set aside the deep flaws in both the parser and the design of the game, there would still be the matter of the bugs. Most severe among these is the game-killing bug I encountered about an hour and 45 minutes into the game: despite all conditions being correct, I was unable to complete a critical puzzle, even though I knew from a previous play session that it was possible to complete this puzzle. Because ADRIFT makes a habit of overwriting old save files with the current save unless you explicitly tell it to do otherwise (by selecting “save as” from the menu bar — typing “save” will overwrite without prompting), I would have had to start from scratch and wind my way once more through all the nonsensical contortions required by the game’s plot, and there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t encounter the same bug again.

That bug ended my dealings with Wrecked, but there were other errors along the way. The voice was in first person, but would occasionally slip into second person. Sometimes the game failed to recognize rather important objects. In one supremely frustrating section, the game adamantly refused to recognize the word “keyhole,” despite a promiently featured keyhole in the location; it responded to all commands along the lines of “put key in keyhole” with “I can’t put anything inside the small key.” In short, between the bugs, the parser, the hype, and the lack of any kind of logic, Wrecked wasn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not likely to win many converts to ADRIFT. No matter how many times it insists that ADRIFT rocks.

Rating: 4.0

Escape From Crulistan by Alan Smithee [Comp00]

IFDB page: Escape from Crulistan
Final placement: 43rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When the IF competition started, it was meant to be a mechanism for encouraging people to produce more Inform games, and not incidentally more Inform sample source code. After much haranguing on the newsgroups, it was agreed that TADS authors ought to be able to participate too, and the two types of games were grouped into their own separate divisions. After the games came out, we realized that not much new Inform source code had been released, but that the comp was definitely a major hit.

In a unifying spirit, the next year’s comp dropped the language specifications; the gates were opened to any kind of IF game. Since then, every single year the comp has seen at least one “homebrewed” game — that is, a game written without the aid of a major IF language such as Inform, TADS, or Hugo. And not one of those games, not one, has had a parser and model world to match that which comes automatically with the major IF languages. Some have had their own nifty features, to be sure, but the core of IF (and the biggest programming challenge as well) is the parser and model world. When that is lacking, the game is just not going to be good, no matter what else it has going for it. If you’ve guessed by now that Escape From Crulistan is no exception to this trend, congratulations.

Please pardon me. This is something like my 47th comp game. I’m running low on sleep. I’m cranky, and my mood was not improved by the extremely frustrating two hours I just spent with a game that responds like a lobotomized Inform. The first command I type when I’m playing a game for review is “script”, so that I can have a transcript to refer to as I write the review. The next command I type is “verbose”. When the game recognized neither of these, I began to get a sinking feeling.

My subsequent experiences didn’t make me feel any better at all. Experimentation soon revealed that the game only recognizes an extremely limited set of verbs and nouns, far too few to provide any sense of smooth gameplay whatsoever. Now, as I often say when I review homebrewed games, I admire what it did achieve. The desire to write an IF engine from scratch is foreign to me, but I certainly can respect it in others, and it would take a better programmer than I to create even the parser in Crulistan, let alone the strong parsers of the established IF development systems. Nonetheless, achievement though it is, Crulistan‘s parser is woefully insufficient. When you’ve just gone through several dozen games whose parsers have a very high level of quality by default, stepping into Crulistan feels like a jail cell in more ways than one.

Perversely, rather than drawing attention away from these limitations, the game’s design seems instead to want to emphasize its flaws. It consists of a string of situations which require very specific solutions, and the game usually neglects to implement any alternatives, even if just to tell the player that they won’t work. For example, the initial puzzle of escaping from a cell might seem to hinge around going through the window. Yet by no combination of verbs and nouns (and believe me, I tried a lot of them) can you convey to the game that you want to try this. It’s fine if the game doesn’t want to allow it, but not even to implement it? Inexcusable.

Then, when I finally did figure out how to escape the cell, then spent another half-hour trying to guess the right sequence of commands (with very little useful feedback from the game) for the next section, I found myself outside the prison, and the game, unbeknownst to me, was in an unwinnable state. I only learned this after much frustration and failed brute-force attempts at puzzle-solving sent me back, in desperation, to the initial scene. Turns out there are two ways to escape the prison, but only one of them will allow you to proceed further in the game. The game gives no indication whatsoever of this situation, and because so little is implemented, I found it easy to believe that the “wrong” solution I had found was the one and only solution to the prison puzzle. So, the one time an alternate solution was implemented, it was only an extremely elaborate red herring — what an infuriating design choice, especially in a game where so few things work.

Once I did get further, I almost immediately found myself stuck in another situation where the solution was a mystery and the game didn’t recognize 90% of the things I tried. Compounding this problem, no walkthrough is provided. In fact, when you type “help”, the game chides you, “Oh come on now. This game is ridiculously easy.”. Yeah, if you wrote it, maybe. Then again, the author credit seems to allude to the disavowal that film directors sometimes issue on projects that have escaped their control. Of course, with an IF game, there’s really nobody to wrest control from the author, so this allusion is puzzling to say the least. But nobody can say it’s not justified.

Rating: 2.1

The Pickpocket by Alex Weldon [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Pickpocket
Final placement: 32nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s the kind of situation that happens all too often in comp games: after a long period of frustration, I finally turn to the walkthrough, only to find that the correct solution was unguessable due to the game’s omission of a critical detail. That’s just the situation I thought I was in when I finally turned to the walkthrough for Pickpocket and saw that it suggested the manipulation of an item I had never seen at any point in the game. So I marched on over to where the item was supposedly to be found, all set to write a cranky note for this review, and discovered something that surprised me: the item was in the room description. In fact, it had been there all along.

It was then that I realized that the game had pulled a rather clever, but completely fair, trick on me. (The rest of this paragraph could be considered a mild spoiler, I suppose, though it really just boils down to the standard admonishment to read carefully.) You see, what Pickpocket did was to announce the presence of an important item, but to announce it in an utterly casual way, burying the sentence in the second line of a rather long-winded room description, a description that is almost identical to eight other room descriptions in the game. What’s more, the game ensures that you’ll encounter at least three of these near-identical descriptions before you get to the one with the important difference.

This devious but totally reasonable trick worked perfectly on me — by the time I got to the critical room (and I got to it seventh, not fourth), I was blowing past the room descriptions, assuming that they were all pretty much the same. Even better, it’s the perfect trick for a comp game by a first-time author, since if most of its players are like me they’ll be (A) going quickly, hoping to finish within the two-hour time limit, and (B) not expecting anything quite so devious in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward game. When a game gulls me so completely, I can only salute it.

Then again, there is another, less laudable reason why I turned to the walkthrough: I encountered a bad bug. This bug was of the “Which do you mean, the door or the door?” variety, which is even more disappointing in an Inform game than it is in a TADS game, since Inform’s library has never had any particular propensity for creating that kind of error, where TADS’ library did (though I don’t think it does anymore.) After I encountered this bug at what seemed to be the climactic scene of the game, it was easy to assume that my failure to progress was the game’s fault, not mine.

Even after I discovered how the game had hoodwinked me, I felt disappointed that it contained such a serious bug, because without the presence of that bug (and a few others, and some few-and-far-between spelling and grammar errors), I might have felt compelled to continue working at the game and had the pleasure of solving that puzzle myself. The whole experience just reminded me again that one of the most important reasons for betatesting is that once players encounter a serious bug, they’re unlikely to take the rest of your game very seriously, having lost faith that it knows what it’s doing.

The other lesson that Pickpocket underscores is the importance of maintaining some logical consistency in constructing the PC. First of all, the premise of Pickpocket strains credibility considerably: a street urchin has made off with your money pouch, so you decide to wait until nightfall, then prowl into the most dangerous slums in the city to find the urchin and recover your money. Only in a text adventure could a character like this seem like a normal person — any book, TV, or movie character that made such a choice would come across, at best, like Charles Bronson gone way off his meds, only unarmed and not at all intimidating.

Certainly any real person that tried to hunt down a pickpocket just by wandering into the slums, hours after the robbery, would deserve to have her sanity questioned. But even if we grant this premise, the game still demonstrates a puzzling lack of moral consistency. For example, the game’s response to OPEN CASH REGISTER is “You’re trying to catch a thief, not embark on a life of crime.” Yet to recover this money, you’ll end up committing theft, assault, menacing, breaking & entering, and vandalism. If that’s not a life of crime, I’m not sure what is. Overall, Pickpocket is an enjoyable game with one dynamite ace up its sleeve, but that sleeve is still a bit ragged from logical inconsistency and technical errors.

Rating: 7.8

Desert Heat by Papillon [Comp00]

IFDB page: Desert Heat
Final placement: 28th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Desert Heat made me realize something. In the first five years of the IF Competition, I don’t think a single “true” Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style branching narrative has been entered. Sure, we had Human Resources Stories, but despite its title, that game had no story — it was just a weird quiz. We also had Life On Beal Street, but that game didn’t really offer any choices, unless you count “quit” and “don’t quit” as legitimate story branches, which I don’t. So along comes Desert Heat, a true CYOA story, forcing me to decide what I think about such a format for a comp game.

Here’s what I ended up with: I have nothing against CYOA; in fact I like it, and nurture fond childhood memories of CYOA books by the likes of Edward Packard, R.A. Montgomery, and the amusingly pen-named D. Terman [Which turns out not to be a pen name at all. Guy was actually named Douglas Terman. — 2020 Paul]. However, in an interactive fiction competition where its competitors boast full-blown parsers, maps, and the like, it just doesn’t feel very interactive. Desert Heat does an excellent job of presenting its milieu, but I kept wishing for many more choices than the story offers.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the game’s narrative doesn’t actually offer that many real options. Most of the branches aren’t branches at all. Instead, they generally do one of three things: one, they reveal themselves to be dead ends, forcing you back to a previous node; two, they only offer the illusion of choice, because every option leads to the same node; or three, they result in an abrupt ending. Endings are plentiful in Desert Heat, but branches aren’t, and that probably accentuated the feeling of restriction I was already experiencing as a result of dropping from the wide-open ambiance of a text adventure into the more streamlined mode of CYOA. Consequently, I found that I was having less fun with Desert Heat than I had with the good parser games I’ve played so far, though to be fair I did find it more fun than the bad parser games, so format isn’t the only thing at work here.

The other unique thing about DH is its genre. It calls itself “A Romance Of Sorts”, and because I’m not a reader of romances, I couldn’t say how closely it hews to the conventions of that genre. I can say that it was written well, proofread well, and programmed well (though the programming chores are obviously more minimal when it comes to CYOA, and the author apparently had help from Mark Musante’s CYOA library for TADS). The Arabic, desert milieu is one I haven’t seen very often at all in IF (the only other one I can bring to mind is a section of TimeQuest), and it feels fresh and interesting. The characters are believable, the intrigue plausible, and there are even some quite subtle moments of humor. (Read the descriptions closely if you ask one of the characters to dance.)

As the author’s warning suggests, there are some sexual scenes available, and in fact the options to include or exclude these scenes represent some of the most significant choices available in the game. Again, I’m not sure what the conventions of the genre are when it comes to this kind of scene — some of them made me a little queasy, but I only encountered these when I was systematically going through the game looking for text I had missed (the inclusion of “undo” was much appreciated.) They didn’t appear in my first few plays through the game, which probably says something about how I tend to play a character.

In the end, while I appreciated Desert Heat for its experimentation with an untried format for comp games, and while I enjoyed its presentation of an unusual setting, I just couldn’t get very into the story. This is no doubt partly just because romances like this aren’t really my cup of tea — I’d never seek one out for pleasure reading. Also, there are some continuity slips in the game, highlighting the fact that although CYOA takes the burden out of coding, it places much more stringent demands on plotting — characters shouldn’t seem surprised to discover something that was already revealed in a previous node, or by contrast claim knowledge of something that hasn’t been revealed yet in this particular narrative trajectory, and those things sometimes happen in Desert Heat.

In the final analysis, it was probably a combination of factors that made me say, “Nice try, but it didn’t really work for me.” I still think a CYOA could work in the comp, but the lesson of Desert Heat is that such a game would not only have to be well-written and very well-plotted, but also wide enough and with enough available choices to provide a feeling of freedom at least somewhat comparable with parser games.

Rating: 5.4

Nevermore by Nate Cull [Comp00]

IFDB page: Nevermore
Final placement: 7th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Nevermore calls itself “An Interactive Gothic”, and lives up to its billing with aplomb. A loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, Nevermore builds on the foreboding and melancholy of Poe’s poem, injecting elements of alchemy, forbidden magic, and thematic whispers of Shelley’s Frankenstein. You play the speaker of the poem, a dejected wretch pining for his lost love, “a maiden whom the angels named Lenore.” The difference between the PC and the protagonist of Poe’s verse is that this PC is willing to challenge Death itself to retrieve Lenore, and has the mystic lore, the alchemical elements, and the dread hubris to bring about her resurrection. I thought this was a fabulous premise, and the game succeeds admirably at delivering that frisson that is an indispensable part of eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic literature. To Poe’s already powerful imagery, Nevermore adds the illicit thrill of cocaine and opium, the dark power of occult magic, and the appropriate hints of colonialism and oppression. For me, the combination worked very well at evoking the rich purple feel of novels like Frankenstein, The Monk, and the template gothic novel, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

The game’s writing and coding don’t let it down either. In fact, in some spots the detail is so rich that it feels like almost every noun mentioned in any room description or object description is accounted for with a description of its own. Nevermore uses Inform‘s “box quote” feature to bring up excerpts from the poem at various appropriate points in the plot, and this device adds considerably to the game’s atmosphere. Also adding to that atmosphere is the writing style of the various books discovered by the PC. These books, while not burdened with Middle English spellings like the alchemical quotes in Christminster, do an outstanding job of conveying the spooky and arcane feel that such forbidden texts should have. All in all, Nevermore builds a magnificent gothic atmosphere with a combination of well-judged plot, good writing, and bug-free code.

What a pity, then, that it all comes crashing to Earth, victim of its horrendously flawed design. For one thing, the game features the equivalent of a starvation puzzle in its first few moves. This puzzle is no less forgiving, and perhaps even stricter, than the one that used to be a standard feature of TADS games (check out something like Deep Space Drifter if you don’t know what I’m referring to.) What’s more, the “starvation” problem (it’s not really starvation, but it might as well be — it’s a timed necessity for action that kills you off if not appeased) continues to occur throughout the game, cropping up every twenty moves or so. Even if starvation puzzles didn’t bother me, this one’s fuse is way too short.

Beyond that annoyance is the far greater problem of the game’s main puzzle. This puzzle involves following a highly complex alchemical ritual, requiring dozens of steps and fairly precise actions. Multi-step puzzles in and of themselves aren’t a problem, and certainly it makes sense within the context of the plot that the PC’s actions should involve complicated magical rituals, but the way this puzzle is implemented is deeply problematic. Nevermind the fact that one particular object is required for at least four of the steps, one of which destroys it. Nevermind the fact that the instructions for the ritual are couched in highly figurative language, language that is open to multiple interpretations. Let’s even forget about the fact that some of the necessary steps aren’t particularly discernible without glimpsing into the author’s mind — the thing that sent me over the edge about this puzzle is the fact that its instructions (the figurative, abstract ones) are spread over six different books, books which only reveal their contents randomly.

That’s right, each book contains between four and ten critical pieces of information, but each time you type “READ BOOK” you get a random selection of one of those pieces. Consequently, not only can you never be sure if you’ve obtained all the information you need, you have to perform the same command over and over again, wading through dull repetitions of already-printed information in the hopes that you’ll turn up something new. Once I figured out what was going on, I turned to the hints and never looked back. This tactic allowed me to get through the game (though even that required several restarts, due to the “destroyed object” problem), but the fun had long since drained from the experience. Nevermore is IF with marvelous writing and a chilling gothic atmosphere, but until its fundamental design problems are repaired, it will remain as lifeless as Poe’s lost Lenore.

Rating: 7.4

Skyranch by Jack Driscoll [Comp99]

IFDB page: Skyranch
Final placement: 37th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

In my head, I’ve started this review a dozen different ways and discarded them all. The unused versions were rejected for being too caustic, too angry, or too harsh. During this current attempt, I will try to keep a leash on these energies, though they’re chomping at the bit (if I may mix my animal metaphors.) I want for these reviews to be helpful, not hurtful, and I want to keep my criticisms constructive. In that spirit, I offer a couple of changes that could (and should) be made to make Skyranch a playable game:

The game should be reprogrammed until it meets a minimum level of coding quality. I would put this minimum level right around the functionality provided by, for example, an Inform shell game (i.e. the bare-bones version of the library before the game author has added any real code.) To detail all, or even many, of the ways in which Skyranch fails to meet this standard would take more time than I want to devote to this game. One example: the game should recognize verbs like “ask” and “examine”. The game’s error messages should be helpful, rather than flippant parser responses like “What?” or “So… what are you saying?” Many authors meet this minimum standard by using a text adventure creation tool such as Inform, TADS, Hugo, ALAN, etc. to create their game. This isn’t strictly necessary, of course, but if a game is programmed from scratch, it had better be at least as good as one that was created with such a tool.

The prose should be rewritten until it consists of correct English sentences. The current writing in the game is pretty abysmal. Mistakes are so legion that the text is often confusing, sometimes completely incomprehensible. Until a text game is written in English, it won’t be any fun for me to play, because English is the only language I read fluently.

Until these two basic conditions are met, Skyranch won’t even be worth discussing, let alone playing.

Rating: 0.9

SNOSAE by R. Dale McDaniel [Comp99]

Final placement: 32nd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

By the time I hit the end of the two hour mark on SNOSAE I was just laughing. Most of my second hour I was basically cutting and pasting commands from the walkthrough, stopping only long enough to read the text and save the game from time to time in case I screwed up. Even so, when I reached the time limit I still had over half the walkthrough to go! If this is a two-hour game, The Brothers Karamazov was a short story. I doubt I could finish the entire thing in two hours even if I had already solved it once. Without the walkthrough I don’t think there’s a player in the world who could finish it in two hours. Now, whenever I make sweeping statements like this I always regret it, and no doubt somebody will follow this up with a post saying “Gee, I had no trouble at all. Finished it in 45 minutes flat!” But let me put it this way: I spent a half hour on the first puzzle (of about a zillion in the game), and only cracked it because of a pretty left-handed hint in the documentation.

That first puzzle reminded me of a game on the archive called +=3. Dave Baggett wrote that game to prove that a puzzle could be entirely logical but also completely unsolvable without hints or random guessing. The puzzle in +=3 is this [and spoiler warnings are beside the point here]: You have to cross a troll bridge, and nothing in your inventory satisfies the troll. The only thing that will satisfy it is if you remove your shirt and give it to the troll — not that the shirt was mentioned in your inventory or that the game gave you any hint the PC is wearing a shirt. A similar thing occurs in the opening sequence of SNOSAE — you have to cut some wires, but you have nothing in your inventory. There are also no takeable objects in the initially limited landscape. None at all. It was only in desperation that I was combing through the game’s documentation and saw that the game allowed the command “LOOK IN”; the docs suggested that the command was useful for pockets. For laughs more than anything else, I tried “LOOK IN POCKET” and what do you know, the game told me “In it you see: A small pair of nail clippers.” Turns out that I’m wearing coveralls, and these coveralls have a pocket — they just aren’t mentioned in the inventory anywhere. Sure, the coveralls are mentioned in the opening text included in the readme file, but I maintain that they are absolutely indistinguishable from a simple scene-setting detail, and that when they don’t appear in the game the player cannot reasonably be expected to know that they’re really there anyway.

Many of the puzzles after this are of the “save-and-restore” variety. “Oh, that killed me without warning. Well, let’s get a hint from this death message and restart.” These sorts of tactics really raise my hackles as a player, because they use the IF conventions I’ve learned against me, and give me no warning they’re doing so. When I solve one, I don’t think, “Aha! I feel so clever now!” I think, “What an irritating puzzle.”

Puzzle expectations aren’t the only IF conventions overturned in SNOSAE. For one thing, it’s a DOS-only program, a PC executable with an apparently homemade parser. Now let me be clear that I always believe in giving credit where it is due for these sorts of efforts. I can’t imagine wanting to build a parser and game engine from scratch, but I recognize that for some it’s a fun exercise, and I certainly understand that writing an IF game from “the ground up” is more work than writing the same game using an established IF language and libraries. On the whole, SNOSAE doesn’t do a bad job, but as usual it’s not up to the very high standard set by Inform, TADS, Hugo, and their ilk. There’s no “SCRIPT” capability, which makes the reviewer’s job much tougher. The “OOPS” verb is missing, which is a minor inconvenience. “UNDO” is also missing, which is a major inconvenience, especially considering how thoroughly this game is infested with instant-death puzzles. On the other hand, there are also some cool things about the interface. It uses colors to nice effect, putting room descriptions in light blue, commands in dark blue, inventory listings in white, etc. It also displays the available exit directions as part of the prompt, like this:

You're at the intersection of four hallways. Down each of these
hallways you can see a door. There's a ramp going up into the flying

I liked that, although I found it didn’t really add that much to the gameplay experience. There’s also a very cool command you discover about 1/3 of the way through the game which speeds navigation significantly. But all these frills didn’t make up for the missing “UNDO”, especially when the game kept cavalierly killing me off.

The one unblemished positive that SNOSAE has going for it is its sense of humor. This is a game that knows it’s a wacky romp and acknowledges it frequently, usually by breaking the fourth wall and displaying awareness of itself as an adventure game. This tendency is evident almost immediately, when the game describes a door thus: “There doesn’t seem to be a lock on the door! All adventures should start out so easy.” That isn’t anywhere close to the funniest example of the game’s writing, but I couldn’t make a transcript of the thing, and there’s no way in hell I’m slogging through 500 commands again just to find a funnier example, so you’ll have to just take my word on it. I was laughing for much of the time I played SNOSAE, and only part of the time was it at the ludicrousness of entering this game in a competition for short IF.

Rating: 5.0

Strangers In The Night by Rich Pizor [Comp99]

IFDB page: Strangers in the Night
Final placement: 20th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Strangers In The Night starts out with a cool premise: You are a vampire, and you awaken with a terrible thirst for blood. You must feed on at least three different victims (draining each only a little, so as not to arouse undue attention.) However, it’s the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year, [The longest day, and therefore the shortest night. Thanks to Daphne Brinkerhoff for helping me through my apparently immense confusion on this issue. –Paul] and so you have only a limited time to slake your desires. Done well, this could be a sort of undead Varicella, where with every iteration of the game you figure out more and more about how to satisfy your needs. Unfortunately, Strangers In The Night turns out to be more of an undead Fifteen. You wander around an extremely minimally described cityscape (most rooms have no description at all) solving rudimentary puzzles, most of which just amount to unlocking a door, then walking in and typing “BITE “. What little writing is present has some nicely gothic moments — I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the PC’s apartment. On the other hand, it is also riddled with a goodly number of errors, including two in the first two sentences. Misspellings, plural/possessive errors, awkward phrasings — they’re all there.

Compounding this problem is a generous serving of bugs. The game credits no beta testers, and the lack of testing definitely shows. Some locations (restaurants and the like) are described as closed when they definitely (at least, according to the information you get from the doorman) should be open. My first time through the game I failed to find any victims before the sun came up, mostly because I was exploring the gridlike map to see if it was really as empty as it seemed, and as the sunrise approached the game started giving me warnings. This is great, although giving them EVERY SINGLE TURN NO MATTER WHAT I DO might be considered a little excessive. In addition, the warnings describe the sky getting pinker, etc., even when I’m inside locations like a dank night club or my own windowless apartment. Anyway, heeding the warnings I returned to my apartment and got back in bed, but when the sun came up, the game told me I was trapped where I didn’t belong. It then helpfully chided me “Pity you never made it home.” In addition, there are lots of spots where the game displays the default response abutting a specialized response. If this were an Inform game, I’d say the problem is a lack of “rtrue”s. I don’t know what causes it in TADS, but I suspect it’s something roughly equivalent. Here’s an example:

>ask bouncer about bouncer
You have no interest in or use for the bouncerThe bouncer is in a rather
public place; that kind of interaction isn't advisable.Surely, you can't
think the bouncer knows anything about it!

After hitting a long stretch of bugs and writing errors, the novelty of the premise wears off pretty quickly.

It’s that much more frustrating, really, because an IF game from the point of view of a vampire is just a really cool idea waiting to be done well. It just seems that nobody quite gets to it. Infocom had one in the planning stages before they folded. (It was to be written by Plundered Hearts author Amy Briggs). A guy named Sam Hulick made a big announcement that he was going to write one — even got a piece of it included as an example in the Inform manual — but it never materialized. Now there’s Strangers In The Night, which definitely has some nice conceptual elements but whose execution (no pun intended) is sorely lacking. The vampire PC is so rife with possibilities — it can have unusual goals and vulnerabilities, as demonstrated in this game. It can have unique modes of travel. It can allow the author to play with all sorts of interesting questions of moral ambiguity and complicity within the player/PC relationship. Even better, it gives the writer access to a wealth of popular and canonical allusions, and allows the kind of rich gothic writing practiced by Anne Rice and any number of Victorian writers. Frankly, I think it would be awesome. Hey, all you IF writers out there: write that great vampire game! I know it doesn’t exist yet, but I very much want it to, because Strangers In The Night really got me itching to play it.

[I just reread this and something in the back of my mind said “Horror of Rylvania.” I haven’t played that game yet, and the only review I’ve ever seen was very brief. Somebody care to review it for SPAG so I know if it’s what I’m looking for?]

Rating: 3.5