Blue Chairs by Chris Klimas [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blue Chairs
Final placement: 2nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Chris Klimas! Now there’s a name from out of the mists. Klimas released a game called Mercy in 1997 that garnered rave reviews for its writing and its pre-Photopia puzzleless design. (In fact, it was nominated for that year’s Xyzzy awards in both story and setting.) Then, he contributed a little fable called Once to the Textfire hoax, and disappeared shortly thereafter.

Now he’s returned, and what a welcome return it is — Blue Chairs is not only his best work, it’s the best game I’ve played so far in this comp. Klimas has a hold of something very powerful — interactive fiction steeped in surrealism and symbolism. This sort of thing has been tried before, but Blue Chairs is the best realization of it that I’ve seen. At the beginning of the game, the PC ingests a powerful hallucinogenic drug. True, you have the choice not to do so, but if you make that choice, the story winds up in a dead end, albeit an intriguing and well-executed dead end. This sort of thing always feels a bit like a sucker punch to me, especially when the only real choice is followed up with a “why in the world did you do that?” sort of message as it is here, but the game is so wonderfully crafted that I forgave it immediately.

The z-code “special effects” that Blue Chairs uses to represent the drug taking hold are very trippy and extremely effective, and from that point forward the game slides brilliantly between dream and reality. IF is an amazingly powerful vehicle for this kind of writing, because you’re not just reading about someone’s reality shifting around him — in a certain sense, those shifts are actually happening to you as you traverse the game’s world. Blue Chairs got so deeply into my head that when someone interrupted me while I was playing, I felt as if I was the one dreaming, as if the intrusion of reality into my game session was just as sharp and unexpected a lurch as the sudden hallucinations that happen to the PC. What makes these hallucinations so powerful, I think, is the fact that they’re full of compelling symbols and archetypes, mixed with totally ordinary objects. In this way, they really do feel like dreams. Blue Chairs‘ heady blend of symbol and story got its hooks deep into my psyche. It blew my mind. I love when that happens.

The psychedelic design was my favorite thing about the game, but a close second was the writing. Blue Chairs does an outstanding job of creating an utterly convincing PC, showing us the world as described by that character, then fracturing his world all to hell, capturing the interrelated parts of his personality like collecting hurricane-blown leaves. At the end, I felt like I really knew Dante. (Yeah, the PC’s name is Dante Hicks, and not only does he share a first and last name with the lead character in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, he also spends the entire game searching for a girl named Beatrice, a beautiful collision of high and low allusion.)

I don’t know that I had too much respect for Dante, but more on that a little later. There were so many sublime turns of phrase, so many funny moments, that my game transcript is littered with “ha”s and “whoa”s and “very nice”s. The game’s implementation was strong, too. Most actions were reasonably anticipated, often with hilarious or terrifying results. I only found one problem, but unfortunately it was quite a doozy. Late in the game, I was working on a puzzle and had come very close to the solution, but not quite hit it. A look at the in-game hints set me straight, and off I went to solve it. Except… the solution didn’t work. Near as I can tell, some kind of bug makes that puzzle unsolvable, which came as a crashing disappointment to me. In a game as strong as this one, a serious bug is all the more unexpected.

Luckily, Blue Chairs‘ design is open-ended enough that even an unsolvable puzzle didn’t prevent me from finishing, though the time limit nearly did. I just barely got done within the two hour window, and towards the end I was opening hints liberally, because I very much wanted to complete the game before rating it. There are multiple endings, too, though they’re nowhere near simple enough to be classified as “winning” or “losing.” (I’m about to discuss those endings in general terms — nothing too spoilery, but you might want to skip the rest of this review if you’re particularly spoiler-sensitive.)

By the time I saw the endings, I was feeling pretty ambivalent about the game’s main character. Right after Dante swallows the drug in the game’s first scene, here’s what it says:

It seems like now would be an excellent time to reflect why you, once a consistently above-average student full of ambition and love, just bought an unknown but almost certainly illegal substance from a stranger and drank it without a second thought.

A fine question indeed, and the game resists the idea of an answer, insisting that there’s nothing in Dante’s life to explain his rootlessness and ennui, that it “just happened, one second at a time.” That being the case, the sort of slacker malaise that Dante exudes is all the more unsympathetic — it’s tough to feel sorry for somebody who has led an incredibly privileged life, free of hardship, but still manages to be desperately unhappy just because he thought things would be so much more shiny, so much more interesting.

Blue Chairs calls itself “a chance to change,” but leaves it up to us to decide which ending really constitutes the change. I think it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s not the one where a soft-focus lens suddenly snaps onto Dante’s life, where the whole thing turns into a Thomas Kinkade painting. That one felt like the ending of Rameses to me, an insistently perfect fantasy that fulfills the PC’s wishes, wishes that have been unrealistic from the start. I’m not sure the other one is any better, though. There’s a kind of letting go to it, but I’m not sure that it’s letting go of the right thing.

Dante comes to a kind of peace with his inaction, but I’m not convinced he’s dropped the binary thinking, the idea that there’s something perfect just beyond his grasp, and that without it, everything is worthless. I think he still may be lost, because as long as he’s locked in that stark dualism, the next illegal substance from a stranger won’t be that far away. Like I said, I rushed through the end — maybe there are other paths I didn’t find. But from what I saw, Dante may not have a chance to change after all. Anyway, that’s just what I thought. You should really play Blue Chairs and think about it a while yourself.

Rating: 9.5

[Postscript from 2021: Blue Chairs was the last parser game Klimas wrote, but he wasn’t done with IF yet, not by a long shot. In 2009, he created Twine, a parser-less IF authoring tool that has arguably had the biggest impact on the IF Comp, and indeed the broader interactive fiction world, of anything since Inform. He’s created a number of other games too.]

The Trip by Cameron Wilkin [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Trip
Final placement: 33rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Trip is a rather clever title, for a few reasons. Of course, there’s the obvious double-entendre: not only does the main character go on a vacation-kind-of-trip (to Utah or Arizona, the game can’t seem to make up its mind which), he also indulges in several drug trips, courtesy of the marijuana and peyote found in his inventory at various points. However, beyond that simple pun, there’s also the fact that while the character is taking these trips, he is at the same time going nowhere. He’s graduated college, but hasn’t obtained gainful employment (one gets the impression he hasn’t looked very hard), and is sinking further into depression. In fact, both kinds of trip serve to underscore how stuck the character is; the trip he takes is to just hang out with his buddy (who the game describes as “just your average happy-go-lucky stoner”) and smoke a lot of dope, which doesn’t exactly seem like a promising route to get his life on track.

Even beyond this more subtle resonance, another trip occurs in this story, one that actually does get the character unstuck — it’s a spiritual journey, and one that couldn’t have happened without the other trips. The neatest thing about this last trip is the fact that the game sets it up so that it actually happens through traversal of the landscape. The source of spiritual enlightenment is physically moving from one location to the next, and the PC has to follow it from place to place in order for the spiritual journey to happen properly. This is a lovely example of how powerful it can be to map abstract or emotional concepts onto IF conventions.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the game doesn’t live up to the promise of its artful title. Spelling and grammar mistakes are strewn throughout it, and coding errors aren’t terribly uncommon either. I’d like to be really charitable about it, and suggest that the writing errors are simply the reflection of a character who isn’t very literate, sort of a very mild example of what Adam Cadre did in his Flowers For Algernon Textfire demo. However, if this is the intention, the style isn’t strong enough to put it over, and besides, some of the errors just aren’t in line with the way people talk. For example, when examining a lighter, we are told, “You once knew a guy who insisted that white lighters were bad luck, because something bad always happened to him when he was carrying him, but this theory holds no sway with you. You’ve never been a particularly superstition person.” “Carrying him”? “Superstition person”? These come across less as mannerisms of a subliterate stoner than as grammatical slips from a non-native English speaker. Mostly, they just come across as basic proofreading errors, and the presence of bugs in the code tends to confirm this theory. In addition to these cosmetic problems, there’s the fact that the spiritual stuff in the endgame just really isn’t all that weighty. To me, it came off as sort of a weak rehash of the Simpsons episode “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Homer.” In your face, space coyote!

On the plus side, however, The Trip does contain what is by far the most realistic depiction of four guys sitting around getting baked ever to appear in the history of interactive fiction. This wasn’t the most exciting moment of computer gaming I’ve ever had, but it did have its own Bill-And-Ted-ish charm. That scene, along with several choice touches like the way the stoners react to Arches National Park (“That’s a big-ass rock, dude”) had me laughing quite a lot. Not quite as much as the characters in the scene, mind you, but laughing nonetheless. In the end, this game feels a lot like some trips can be: long stretches of mild enjoyment, boredom, or even disappointment and annoyance, punctuated by flashes of beauty and brilliance. Or at least, that’s what it felt like at the time.

Rating: 6.3

Guess The Verb! by Leonard Richardson [Comp00]

IFDB page: Guess The Verb!
Final placement: 11th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Guess the Verb is fun. In fact, I’ll go even better than that: Guess the Verb is great! I was quite worried when I saw the game’s title, fearing that I faced another Annoyotron, or at best a riff on the Textfire game Verb!. What I got instead was a highly enjoyable comp game that I’m eagerly looking forward to revisiting after the judging period is over. What a bargain! For one thing, the game is just screamingly funny. In fact, even the meta-game materials are hilarious. Not two minutes after loading up GTV I was giggling like a loon. My wife walked past and asked, “Good game?” “I haven’t even started the game yet!” I replied. “I’m just reading the instructions!” Those instructions are not to be missed, and they set the tone wonderfully for the rest of the game, a riotous spoof on IF that skewers everything from pretentious authors and critics (like myself) to overly literal parsers to shopworn genre conventions.

Here’s what’s even better: even though GTV is a spoof, it is simultaneously a really fun game. The first puzzle, for example, makes terrific mockery of IF parsers, but it is also at the same time a clever, original, and completely fair puzzle, one which gave me that invaluable “Aha!” feeling once I had figured it out. Examples of this kind of dual excellence abound throughout the game, and there are so many examples I loved that it’s hard to pick one, so I’ll just select this room description from early on in the game:

The Midway
The lights and noise of the midway seem hollow and dull compared to
the aura of excitement you felt at the verb guessing booth. You
survey the sights around you as though through different eyes: the
merry-go-round, the concession stand--they seem so pedestrian now.
You feel a strange attraction pulling you back towards the southwest,
as though a ham-handed author were trying to place hints into the
room description that the game would progress a lot faster if you
went back to the verb guessing booth already.

This is a lovely parody on the tendency of IF authors to give rather clumsy hints in the midst of otherwise banal descriptions of objects and rooms, in hopes of giving the player a friendly shove in the right direction. But even as GTV lampoons the silliness of that technique, at the same time it enacts that very technique and achieves the hoped-for effect. Stuff like that makes me smile very, very widely.

Another great feature of this game is its impressive replayability. The plot branches randomly into five small scenarios, and I don’t think that all five scenarios are reachable in a single play session, at least not without very copious amounts of UNDOing, and perhaps not even then. Each scenario is well worth visiting, even the briefer ones, so there’s a reason for replay right there. Not only that, the game is just stuffed full of Easter eggs. I played for two hours, got to the end, and was rewarded with a long list of amusing things to do, things that I’m just itching to go back and try, especially knowing how many of the game’s jokes truly were amusing. In fact, even when some of the scenarios get cut off, GTV sometimes compensates you with additional items that can be used in a bunch of entertaining ways.

This game wasn’t perfect — mercifully, I found no coding errors, but there were there were a few typos here and there, and the very beginning of the game is lumbered with a misfeature that forces you to enter some very specific information before you can get to a standard prompt that allows you to restore, script, restart, etc. Those quibbles aside, however, I can say without reservation that this is by far the best game of Guess the Verb I have ever played or could ever hope to play.

Rating: 9.7

About my 1998 IF Competition reviews

When the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition came around, the indie IF scene in rec.*.int-fiction was well-established, and me in it. By that time, I’d written a game, written lots of reviews, and become a regular in newsgroup conversations. The groups themselves had established clear dynamics, with authorities, troublemakers, helpers, jesters, you name it. The community even pulled together a massive April Fool’s joke called Textfire, a fake IF sampler from a fake IF company. Comp98, though, brought us all up to a new level.

It kind of blows my mind to reread my reviews from that year, knowing the future as I do now. I’d love to tell my 1998 self that decades on, I’d hike in the Grand Canyon with one of the authors, see the sights of Austin with another, collaborate on a game with a third (for a company created by a fourth), and so on. I have relationships with some of these folks going way back to those formative days, thanks especially to the IFMud, founded the year prior. One Comp98 author even became a professional game designer, scooping up a bunch of BAFTA awards a few years ago.

The competition itself had by this time evolved its own set of tropes. Rybread Celsius was one of these, a surprisingly beloved figure with a cult following I never quite grasped. Another was the prevalence of Inform, followed closely by TADS, alongside the “first attempt” and homebrew games that appeared in every comp. The competition itself had become an institution by this point, inspiring lots of mini-comps throughout the year — Chicken-comp, the IF Fan Fest, etc — and these in turn fed into the main competition.

My own reviewing style reached maturity this year, settling into the format I kept for the rest of my comp reviews: basically three paragraphs and a score. Sometimes more, if the mood struck, but my comp reviews had evolved from basically filling out a form to writing a little mini-essay about each game. I more or less took my Comp97 review format, got rid of all the bold headings, and massaged those categories (plot, puzzles, prose, technical writing/coding) into the rest of the review. The artificiality of the headings still sticks around to some extent — sometimes I can see myself going out of my way to cover each base — but my voice was getting more natural the more I wrote.

I also evolved in my approach to spoilers. Where tons of my Comp97 reviews had spoilers in them, always flagged with big capital letters, I managed to mostly avoid them in the Comp98 reviews. There are a couple of exceptions, where a point I was making really demanded a concrete and accurate example, but more often I’d file the serial numbers off the game’s specifics so that I could provide an example that fulfilled the spirit of my point without giving away any of the goods.

Finally, I worked to keep in the front of my consciousness the fact that this is an all-volunteer endeavor, done by enthusiasts who should be rewarded for their enthusiasm wherever possible. I tried to find something to appreciate even in games I really hated, or at least offer some constructive criticism for how the next one could be better. It didn’t stop the occasional flame, but that was reserved for when I felt like a game really should have known better.

I originally posted my reviews for the 1998 IF Competition games on November 16, 1998.