Blue Sky by Hans Fugal [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blue Sky
Final placement: 26th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

At this point in the development of interactive fiction, we’ve seen a lot of genres tried. However, there’s one kind of writing for which this medium is very well suited, but which has been attempted very seldom: travel writing. In many ways, it’s a natural fit — IF can’t help but put a great deal of emphasis on setting, and one of the best parts of a deep, detailed, and well-written text game is the strong feeling of location it provides. The best travel writing gives us a sense of having visited a place unfamiliar to us, and done properly, interactive travel writing could intensify this feeling even further.

I think that this is the sort of game that Blue Sky wants to be — it casts the player as a tourist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the majority of the action consists of wandering around a replica of that city’s plaza, searching for a moving target. It seems to me that the point of the game is to be a virtual visit to that site, and that we’re supposed to come away from it enchanted with what a lovely place Santa Fe is. Unfortunately, Blue Sky is both too poorly written and too sparsely implemented to accomplish this goal. I’ve actually been to Santa Fe, and liked it very much, but instead of bringing back good memories of visits I’ve made, Blue Sky brought back bad memories of past IF games.

At times, the game reminded me of The Big Mama in its rapturous insistence on how beautiful everything is:

The St. Francis Cathedral was designed by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy in the Romanesque style. The cathedral, which was dedicated in 1884, took fifteen years to complete. It stands majestically against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and you almost feel like you can see the twin steeples that were never completed in the clouds set in the deep blue sky.

In fact, though it’s quite a small game, the word “beautiful” shows up in no less than seven different places. Instead of describing just what’s so beautiful about them, the game flatly labels its items as such and expects that to be sufficient, which it isn’t. Then again, sometimes the writing is so perfunctory that it can’t even be bothered to try communicating anything special about the setting:

Cathedral Place and East Water Street
East Water Street ends here from the west and Cathedral place continues southeast into the business district of Santa Fe. La Fonda occupies the block to the west on the north side of the street.

Setting aside the fact that much of this prose is in dire need of commas, it also doesn’t do a whole lot to conjure anything specific about Santa Fe. Instead, it feels just one step above the bare grid of a city presented by Strangers In The Night.

The plot, such as it is, involves trying to catch up with your tour group as you glimpse them traveling from one landmark to the next, but the majority of the game involves wandering around and around a dozen or so of these underdescribed locations. Most of these locations not only offer very little in the way of writing, there’s not much to do in them either. After a while, I felt like I was playing Aunt Nancy’s House, except that instead of a house, there was a town.

Blue Sky compounds this problem with implementation that’s far too sparse. Take this interaction, for instance:

Inside the Loretto Chapel
The inside of this chapel is indeed beautiful. Your eyes scan over the altar, the wooden benches, and then fall upon the miraculous staircase.

>x altar
That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

>x benches
That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

>x staircase
This 'miraculous' staircase leads to the choir loft. Legend has it that the staircase, built without nails or support beams, was constructed by a carpenter who mysteriously appeared, completed the job then disappeared without pay or leaving his name.

There are three items mentioned. Two are unimplemented. The third has a description that reappears verbatim in the description of the chapel’s exterior. Can you blame me if I’m not feeling transported? Over and over, the game missed opportunities to provide immersion, instead providing descriptions that were sketchy when they weren’t absent entirely. For instance, the initial room description mentions how the PC’s inn has a “beautiful wood facade”, but the inn itself is described thus: “This is your hotel.”

One of the keys to immersion in IF is detail, and Blue Sky falls well short of the mark. I don’t mean to be too harsh — the game is obviously well-intentioned, and with a substantial overhaul of its writing and a considerably increased depth of implementation, it could become a lovely evocation of Santa Fe. Until then, if you’re looking for travel IF that really works, go back and play She’s Got A Thing For A Spring.

Rating: 4.1

The Big Mama by Brendan Barnwell [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Big Mama
Final placement: 20th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Big Mama is an ambitious work with an intriguing structure and a strong sense of place. Somehow, though, it just didn’t work for me, and I think there are a few reasons why. For one thing, the protagonist has the same first name as me, which produced a strange experience that I don’t think any other piece of IF has given me. It’s an odd feeling to have the PC introduce himself as “Paul” and be addressed as such in a game that hasn’t asked for my name explicitly. I suppose that I wouldn’t find this offputting in and of itself if the PC was a character I could relate to. Unfortunately, he isn’t — I found him pretentious and grandiose. One of the most prominent examples of this pretentiousness is the PC’s insistence on constantly referring to the ocean as “the big mama” — one or two references of this sort would be fine, but when the game hammers at it over and over again, flying into rhapsodic soliloquies about how “It’s like some caring, artistic superior being has crafted this little coastline as an experiment in environmental beauty,” I start to get the feeling it’s trying to impress me with how deep and soulful the PC is, and I wasn’t that impressed.

Those kinds of details tend to make me roll my eyes a bit, and they’re everywhere in the game. Another example is the room description in which the PC reacts to a sign reading “Private beach: next 1.5 miles” by snorting “Stupid imperial measurement!” This is the sort of behavior trait that would annoy me if I found it in a real person — it strikes me as contrariness for the sake of it rather than for any rational reason, and when it’s divorced from any explanatory context, as it is with this PC, my initial response remains as my lasting impression. Meanwhile, the game is not only ascribing all these traits to me in the second person voice, it’s actually using my name to do so. Weird.

Oddly, the game’s very open-ended structure only served to underscore this feeling for me. At one point (when you type “score”), the author himself intrudes to insist that “it’s all up to you.” In fact, however, it isn’t. If you try to swim in the ocean, for instance, you are told “You’re a stand-on-the-shore-and-watch-the-waves-roll-in kind of guy, not a frolic-in-the-crashing-surf kind of guy.” When this happens, the game forcefully reminds me that despite its proclamations of freedom, the PC is never going to act like anything but the rather pompous character I was trying to steer away from. I can understand that there need to be some limits on what’s implemented in a game, but I’d rather not hear any claims like “it’s all up to you” unless those limits are very wide indeed.

That complaint aside, however, TBM‘s structure is absorbing. The game sports at least 39 endings (at every ending you reach, you are told “You have reached ending #[whatever]”, though the game rather coyly avers that “The total number of endings is a secret.” Anyway, I got to ending number 39, so I know that there are at least that many.) I played through the game about 20 times, and was impressed by the number of possible branches to take, though again I still felt disappointingly straitjacketed by the character’s consistency. If I had liked the character, I think would have spent even more time chasing down the various possibilities.

The writing in the game was well proofread — I think I only found one error (an it’s/its mixup) — and it was very effective at producing a strong sense of place for me. TBM provides quite a few vivid details for its beach setting, and when I closed my eyes after playing the game for an hour or so, I nearly felt transported. The actual style of the prose, on the other hand, felt just a little over-the-top to me at times, but this may have been a further outgrowth of my reaction to the PC’s perspective. In addition, TBM suffers unfairly in my mind because I can’t help comparing it to Sunset Over Savannah, one of the best-written IF games out there and certainly the best one to be set on a beach. I think another thing that deflated the power of the writing for me was that the game begins with a series of “light-hearted” admonishments by way of introduction, and I found this sequence irritatingly precious. That’s pretty much the story with me and TBM — there’s nothing wrong with it, particularly, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Rating: 7.2

[Postscript from 2020: This game inspired one of my all-time favorite reviews ever written for a piece of IF, Adam Cadre’s review from, which I subsequently reprinted in SPAG. The whole thing still sends me into fits of helpless laughter. Also, the big mama.]