Fifteen by Ricardo Dague [Comp98]

IFDB page: Fifteen
Final placement: 25th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Is there a genie at work? No sooner did I wish (in my review of In the Spotlight) for a “storyless” game which strung together a number of logic puzzles, than along comes Fifteen. Fifteen takes its name from the traditional slide puzzle, with fifteen tiles arranged in a 4 x 4 grid, with the sixteenth spot left empty for tiles to move into. Fifteen also includes an odd-even puzzle (similar to the sentient stones in Spellbreaker) and a more traditional IF puzzle of rescuing a cat from a tree. All the puzzles are quite well-implemented, and the slide puzzle is done especially well; its interface allows for commands which string a number of moves together quickly and easily. This was much appreciated. In fact, Fifteen is almost the sort of thing I was musing about enjoying in my previous review.

Still, I finished the game feeling like I ought to be more careful what I wish for. See, Spotlight was “storyless IF” in the sense that there was really no plot, just a puzzle. However, what little prose there was in the game was richly written, and often funny. Contrast this with Fifteen, which (according to its author) takes its cue from Scott Adams’ Adventureland. Adams’ games are models of brevity, and Fifteen is just as terse, if not more. Here’s a typical room description: “Kitchen: Exits are south, east and north.” Now that’s brief. Don’t get me wrong — I recognize the nostalgia value of such an atmosphere, especially if you were raised on Scott Adams adventures, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I like to have at least a little feeling of immersion in my IF rather than unadorned puzzles. I find it very telling that even though Fifteen includes many more rooms and several more puzzles than Spotlight, the Inform file for Fifteen is actually 8K smaller than the Inform file for Spotlight. Fifteen is basically raw puzzles; it’s all the way over at the extreme end of the puzzle to story spectrum, and that’s too far for my taste.

Nonetheless, Fifteen is clearly quite well-done, for what it is. I found no bugs in the code, and what little prose there is is error-free. The puzzles, as I said, are implemented well, and the author’s ability to make me feel like I’m playing a Scott Adams game is nothing short of remarkable. But Fifteen is still not that all-puzzle game that I’m looking for — it’s too spare and empty, and because of this it fails to create the interest needed to sustain its intense puzzle-orientation.

Rating: 6.2

Congratulations! by Frederick J. Hirsh [Comp97]

IFDB page: Congratulations!
Final placement: 30th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game started out with such promise. It cleared the screen, then gave a good paragraph outlining the situation: you’ve just had a baby, and are awed with the responsibility inherent in your new life as a parent. You’ve brought your baby home, and prepare to face your new challenges. Wow, I thought. What a great setting! The baby can provide realistic character interaction because although IF characters are only capable of very simple responses, that’s all a baby is capable of, too! Not only that, there are several natural puzzles inherent in the situation of new parents — the game can be challenging, fun, and maybe even educational. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. The first clue that all was not well in Congratulations! was the first room description: “You are in your comfortable living room. There is a room to the north and stairs to the west.” Wow, I feel like I’m there! OK, so there’s no need for sarcasm — it was a disappointment, just like most of the rest of the game. The in-game instruction book felt woefully inadequate (especially since the last game I played was Poor Zefron’s Almanac), the puzzles were lame and the implementation was lazy. It was also short, though in this case the brevity was a blessing.

All of the text in the game (with the exception of the opening paragraph) is terse and uninformative. Details are nowhere to be found, and in fact even full sentences seem pretty scarce from time to time. For example, a common distress message is “Baby cries!” Articles, anyone? I’m always a little puzzled when a piece of text IF offers so little in the way of text, but Congratulations! does just this. It almost feels like a skeleton of coding, waiting to be fleshed out by a real game. You know, paragraphs and such. I’m not sure whether this sparseness has to do with lack of effort, inability to write, or what, but it detracts greatly from the game experience.

Unfortunately, the coding seems to adhere to the same standard as the writing. Room headers appear in caps or lower case more or less at random. The response to “examine baby” is “As you gaze into your baby’s eyes, it stretches out its arms, opens its mouth, and barfs on you.” Mildly funny once, nonsensical and irritating after that. A reasonable command like “put diaper on baby” is met with:

Baby wails!
Putting things on the baby would achieve nothing.
 Baby cries!

It goes on like this. If having kids was as difficult and tedious as playing Congratulations!, our population problem would be solved.

Prose: I think “minimalist” is the key word here. How about these room descriptions: “bedroom: You are in your nice bedroom.”; “cute baby nursery: You are in your cute baby nursery.”; “Kitchen: You are in your brand new gourmet kitchen! To the south is your pleasant living room.” You get the idea. The same applies to object descriptions, character responses, and pretty much everything else written by the author. The Inform library’s stock responses seem florid and baroque by comparison.

Plot: Stop the baby from crying. Yes, that’s it. Hope I didn’t give away too much.

Puzzles: It’s not that the puzzles themselves are all that bad, just that the poor implementation makes a lot of the puzzles into wrestle-the-parser problems. For example, I have a baby and a diaper. What do I do? “Put diaper on baby?” No. “Diaper baby?” No. “Baby, wear diaper?” No. “Give diaper to baby?” No. “Cover baby with diaper?” no. “Wrap diaper around baby?” No. That’s how most of it goes.

Technical (writing): Aside from the occasional period missing off the end of a sentence or letter missing a word, the writing was technically fine. What there was of it, anyway.

Technial (coding): As I’ve outlined above, the coding left quite a bit to be desired. Many synonyms were missing, many illogical situations were allowed, and the commands available were far too restrictive.


[Postscript from 2020 — This game became infamous in the IF world as “the one where you can put your baby in the blender.” Such an action never occurred to me, but it certainly fits in with the slapdash implementation I experienced.]