Bio by David Linder [Comp03]

IFDB page: Bio
Final placement: 25th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: I’m going to be spoiling the first puzzle, but don’t worry, you’d never have solved it without the walkthrough anyway.

Somebody please MST this game. It’s just so perfect for it — terrible but in very entertaining ways. Take, for instance, the first puzzle. You awaken inside your room in the scientific complex (yes, it’s a scientific complex game. I was so worried Comp03 wouldn’t have more than one!) to find gas seeping in under the door. What kind? Hard to tell when the game doesn’t know the word “gas”. There’s a bandage handy, but the bandage can’t be stuffed under the door (“I don’t see any door here.”), nor can it be worn on the face, mouth, or nose (because the game doesn’t know any of those words.) Simply entering WEAR BANDAGE yields the mystifying response, “You put the bandage on your arm and wrap it around the cut.” Cut? X ME shows no sign of injury — turns out that you acquire the cut much later in the game, but the bandage always assumes you have it already.

Anyway, back to the gas problem. Here’s the room description:

Your Room
Your standing in your room or apartment (whichever you want to call it). It's about the size of a large bedroom, complete with all the furnishings. There's a small bed in the southwest corner with a nightstand next to it. On the other side of the room is a small TV. There is a dresser along the west wall. The exit lies to the north.

Rather than focus on the non-contraction in the first word, I’ll try to concentrate on the puzzle. “I don’t know the word ‘dresser'” tells us that the dresser isn’t implemented. The nightstand and bed are no help. Examining the TV gives us this very amusing response:

>x tv
On the screen, you can see that it's a Fastlane rerun. Since it's
your favorite episode, you watch for a few minutes.

The room is nearly filled with gas!

Man, the PC must really love that show! HOLD BREATH predictably fails. (“I don’t know the word ‘hold’.”) Oh, and just walking through the exit engulfs the PC in a cloud of lethal gas. Well, guess we’d better consult the walkthrough.

Hey, the first command in the walkthrough is OPEN ARMOIRE. Now, the question must be asked: WHAT FREAKING ARMOIRE?! It wouldn’t be this dresser, would it? No, of course not, since the game never refers to it as an armoire. The PC must just be so familiar with the armoire that he no longer notices it when he looks at the room, instead just thinking of it as “all the furnishings,” and therefore it is known only to those players who have read the walkthrough. Those lucky people can open it and find — how convenient! — a gas mask. No clothes or anything, but sure enough, this janitor is well-prepared for gas attacks, thanks to the gear he keeps inside the rustic antique that he’s somehow hauled into his onsite living quarters, which presumably are necessary due to the remoteness and/or secrecy of the scientific complex, 25 long miles away from the nearest town.

Later we find out that somebody else in the complex also has an armoire. Maybe this complex devotes itself equally to scientific discovery and antiquing. Anyhow, that entertaining exercise in puzzle-solving is entirely emblematic of the level of gameplay on offer in Bio, where slipshod coding, dreadful spelling, simplistic themes, juvenile imagery, and ghastly design all jostle for pride of place at each moment.

I dunno, though. Compared to some of the games in this comp, Bio just charms me a little. I mean, yeah, it’s sort of fascinated with blood and disease, and heaven knows it’s loaded with clich├ęs, but it’s not outright nasty like Lardo was. And yeah, maybe its prose is in serious need of proofreading, but it’s nowhere near as dire as that of Amnesia. It’s at least nominally interactive, unlike RPG, and has a modicum of story, unlike Little Girl.

It’s the right size for the comp, and while it certainly lacks any sort of testing, it is finishable (with the walkthrough, anyway.) Don’t get me wrong, Bio is nothing like a good game, but it feels well-intentioned to me, more or less. I think it’s possible that some future work from this author may end up being pretty good. That’ll go some ways towards living down the hilarious MSTing of this game that simply must happen.

Rating: 3.5

A Paper Moon by Andrew Krywaniuk [Comp03]

IFDB page: A Paper Moon
Final placement: 12th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

A Paper Moon isn’t a very good game, but it provides some interesting talking points nonetheless. Before I get to those points, though, let me elaborate a bit on the “not very good” part. For one thing, it’s one of those games that goes out of its way to insult and belittle the PC. I don’t have a problem playing a flawed character, but games like this (other prominent examples are Zero Sum Game and Got ID?, not to mention the extreme case of this year’s The Fat Lardo And The Rubber Ducky) don’t have anything interesting to say about the character’s problems, turning instead to insults as a form of faux cleverness. It doesn’t work. For instance, when you come upon an altar in this game:

>x altar
Like your heart, it is made of stone.

Huh? There isn’t anything in particular in the game that shows the character as cruel or heartless — instead, it’s apparently an attempt to be funny. The attempt fails. Another problem in this game is that both the writing and the coding, while not outright bad, are unpardonably sloppy. Things are coded to a reasonable depth, which is great, but bugs are all over the place, including some that seem to make puzzles unintentionally easy. Similarly, the writing does a basically acceptable job of describing everything important, and even pulls off a couple of good jokes, but punctuation is haphazard, especially when it comes to quotation marks, and there’s the occasional utter howler:

>think
Your thinking is attrocious.

Yeah, well, so is your spelling. These problems are aspects of a larger issue, probably the biggest flaw in the game, which is that the whole thing — story, puzzles, prose, and everything — feels fairly half-assed. Disparate elements and genres are thrown together (like, say, a cave with a McDonald’s play area inside) with no attention whatsoever to consistency of plot or tone. Right down to the end, it feels like a story that’s being made up as it goes along.

Problems aside, one worthwhile thing that Paper Moon attempts is to tie most of its puzzles together with the theme of origami — most solutions require some sort of folded paper creation at one point or another. This connection provides a nice unifying thread for the game, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that although the game provides an endless supply of folding paper, what it does not provide is any sort of list of the shapes into which it can be folded. Instead, it relies on “common knowledge” (which gets the scare quotes because, as various culturally specific puzzles have shown us, whether knowledge is common depends entirely on where and when you come from.)

I’ve never been an origami buff, and consequently have only the most basic information about it in my brain, but surprisingly enough, I didn’t have to turn to the hints for a single origami puzzle. Sure, a lot of the things I tried didn’t work, but enough of my ideas were implemented that I was able to feel quite clever about my solutions. This is a risky game design decision, because it’s almost inevitably destined to fail miserably for some considerable number of people, but when it does succeed, it provides great satisfaction, much better than the average IF inventory or mechanical puzzle. It’s a different level of accomplishment to craft a solution from your own knowledge rather than putting one together by combining or manipulating the obviously implemented elements in the game. Paper Moon employs that strategy multiple times, and for me each one paid off.

The other noteworthy, albeit less effective, feature of the game is its occasional use of unmentioned but implied scenery items as important puzzle components. The first time I can remember seeing this technique used is in Adam Cadre‘s I-0, where a car is a major game object, and even though things like the tires, trunk, seatbelts, and glovebox aren’t explicitly mentioned in the car’s description, they’re implemented and often important. Similarly, Paper Moon sometimes relies on our mental picture of things for some crucial items that need to be examined, even though those items may not be mentioned in the room or item description.

I think the reason that this method didn’t work very well in Paper Moon is that it was done only inconsistently. I-0 was reasonably careful to implement implied items throughout the game, but Paper Moon expects us to look for implied things when it’s chosen to include them, but doesn’t provide the solid coding and consistency of depth that would lead us to expect those implied items always to be there. Consequently, when I first looked at the walkthrough to figure out what I was missing, I was fairly indignant that the item hadn’t been mentioned, and only later on changed my mind and decided that the game was playing fair after all. A Paper Moon isn’t a game I’d really recommend to anyone, but for its brighter moments it makes an excellent example of some underexplored aspects of interactive fiction.

Rating: 6.2

The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky by Somebody [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky
Final placement: 29th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Call this game “Insultatron.” Its purpose is to insult you in as many ways as possible, though not with a great deal of creativity. If that sounds like fun to you, than you’ll probably love the game. If not, then you’re like me.

Well, actually, there’s a minute or two of fun to be had. I kind of enjoyed the way the game got more and more exasperated with describing the setting, and finally just gave up on the whole thing. Also, a couple of the library default replacements were a bit funny, though most were just dumb and vile, sometimes extremely vile, so searching through for the funny ones isn’t a very rewarding activity. It is a bit amusing to see the genteel Graham Nelson library responses poking through on occasion — they sound very odd in this context.

In the end, this game is pretty dull. Actually, it’s pretty dull all the way through. Also, insults don’t really carry the same punch when they’re misspelled. But at least the game knows it’s stupid. Doesn’t that count for something? Actually… no.

Rating: 1.8