Temple of Kaos by Peter Gambles [Comp03]

IFDB page: Temple of Kaos
Final placement: 15th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Much to my dismay, Temple Of Kaos has nothing to do with Maxwell Smart or Agent 99. I mean, sure, getting permission from whoever owns the rights to the show would probably be an insurmountable hurdle, but legal problems aside, wouldn’t Get Smart make a fantastic IF milieu? The Shoe Phone, the Cone Of Silence… I can just picture it. This Temple of KAOS, however, isn’t the stronghold of a nefarious organization of evil spies whose efforts must be thwarted by the agents of CONTROL, but rather a bizarre otherworld, where rules of time, space, and spelling (it’s called KAOS for no discernible reason) don’t apply.

Basically, the two salient features of this game are its disregard for making sense, and its propensity to express itself in verse, sometimes free, sometimes blank, and usually with end rhymes. As such, it’s a highly experimental game, and while I think both of the experiments fail in this instance, they illuminate some remarkable territory along the way.

Let’s tackle the nonsensical part first. In the ABOUT text, the author states that part of his intention with the game is to “interfere, out of sheer mischief, with some of the normal perceptions / causal relationships of IF space-time.” Mission accomplished, and in some parts of the game, the technique works well. The first section in particular contains a puzzle which utterly confounds standard expectations of how the world ought to work, but it’s possible to figure out the alternate system of reality at work in the puzzle, and thereby defeat it. The process of doing so is really fun, reminiscent of the flavor of The Gostak or For A Change. More specifically, the reason the puzzle works is that even though the PC’s actions don’t produce the expected results, they do produce some results, and from these results it’s possible to deduce what’s really going on. The same can’t be said of most of the other puzzles in the game.

Even for IF set in a much more mundane universe, feedback design is one of the toughest parts of puzzle creation — you don’t want to be so obvious that the puzzle becomes a non-puzzle, but your feedback also mustn’t be so obscure (or nonexistent) as to leave the player shaking her head in confusion even when the solution is revealed. Most of the puzzles in TOK err on the latter side of this line. I think that for every puzzle after the first one, I looked at the hints, and for most of them even the hints were insufficient. (Thankfully, the author provided a walkthrough.)

For some puzzles, the solution made a tortured kind of sense once I’d looked it up, but for many, I found myself just following the walkthrough’s instructions with a shrug. Sufficient feedback is very important in any IF puzzle, but in a world where the normal rules don’t apply, feedback becomes utterly crucial — how are we supposed to figure out the rules without the ability to gather any evidence about them? TOK usually (though not always) fails to provide enough feedback to make its puzzles solvable, which takes a lot of the fun out of playing.

What does provide some fun is the game’s tendency to present its room and object descriptions in a shaky kind of poetry. For instance, the first room description:

In the North Chamber

Chamber of the north, so empty, still, all noise grates
Black as night the chest your thought awaits.
The other chamber southward lies
Cloaked in mystery's disguise.

Most, but not all, of the game’s verse rhymes like this — sometimes the lines lack rhyme or even consistent meter. Moreover, there’s a fair bit of prose mixed in, as conversation, library responses, or descriptions of action, and the presence of these rather ordinary bits of writing juxtaposed with the more elevated verses tends to drain the effectiveness of each. The other problem with the poetry is reminiscent of what happened in Graham Nelson‘s final game, The Tempest. That is, it’s tough enough to craft IF prose that communicates clearly and concisely, and that also provides enough information to the player, but to do so in verse is much, much harder. TOK‘s poetry isn’t at as great a disadvantage as The Tempest, which forced itself to use prewritten lines as room and object descriptions, but it can still be rather opaque.

Usually the lines aren’t pure gibberish, and they sometimes even manage to pack a few clues in, but nevertheless it does take some time to translate, for instance, “Black as night the chest your thought awaits” into “There’s a black chest here.” The poetry technique is ill-chosen in combination with the game’s nonsensical laws of time, space, and causality, since either one by itself is confusing enough but together they can be utterly impenetrable. However, TOK does give some glimpses of how compelling an IF game in pure verse could be, and of how fascinating it might be to play in a universe with a completely different set of basic rules. Play it for these glimpses, but don’t be afraid to reach for the walkthrough.

Rating: 6.5

Lovesong by Mihalis “DarkAng3l” Georgostathis [Comp01]

IFDB page: Lovesong
Final placement: 48th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game was my first introduction to the Quest development system, and I wish I could say I was impressed. I mean that. I’m all for people using their skills to create IF stuff that’s new, cool, and functional. What I can’t get very enthusiastic about, though, is people using their skills to create IF stuff that isn’t as good as stuff that already exists. Sure, Quest looks nice and everything. But unless the author of Lovesong broke or disabled something, its parser is less sophisticated than, say, that of the first Monkey Island game. Based on the help text, the parser seems to understand 19 verbs. Counting synonyms. And 9 of those are directional commands. And another one was (I think) added by the game’s author.

Such simplicity allows the game to be almost completely mouse-driven (or it would if the mouse support didn’t break halfway through), but really… what’s the point of that? It’s one thing to present a mouse interface in a graphic adventure, but a text adventure? Why? Legend tried it, but I can’t imagine that many people actually played all (or even most) of any Legend text game using the mouse alone. I guess it cuts down on guess-the-verb, but really, is the gain worth the price?

It seems to me that what Quest allows people to do is to create text games with the interface of a graphical game. To my mind, that’s a pointless endeavor — it deprives text games of one of their major strengths, and adopts a “hands-off-the-keyboard” aesthetic from graphical games that has a stultifying effect on game design. The worst of both worlds. No doubt Quest has some features unused by Lovesong, and those may go some distance toward making it useful. But ultimately, I don’t think that any nifty features are going to make a big difference. You know why? Sure you do: THE PARSER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NIFTY FEATURES. Same old song.

Of course, no matter what development system had been used to write this game, Lovesong would still be deeply troubled. The big problem here is English. Apparently, English is not the author’s first language. As the game’s author bio asserts, “Please forgive me, but me English are not fluent enough. I pray that some mistakes won’t ruin your gaming experience.” Well… sorry, but it’s really hard to enjoy a text game written in broken English. (Unless the English is broken on purpose, a la Gostak or For A Change, but that’s a different matter entirely.)

In fact, I have to wonder: if someone isn’t fluent in English, but wants to create a game, should that game really be a text adventure in English? I’ll probably get flamed for that, and really, I don’t mean to be some kind of Guardian of IF Purity, but a text adventure is a piece of prose, just like a novel, short story, or poem. If you’re not fluent in a language, how can you possibly craft a good piece of prose in that language?

Maybe it can be done, but Lovesong isn’t it. Its plot is sorta sweet, but the whole thing is so hampered by the twin burdens of its straitjacketed development system and its badly mangled writing that there’s not much opportunity to enjoy anything else about the game. In addition, it has its own implementation problems, though it’s always hard to tell what’s the game’s fault and what’s the system’s fault. Several times, the game just had no response at all to a command. About halfway through, the mouse buttons stopped working. Towards the end, the “save” command stopped working. Oh well — at least I can now say I’ve tried a Quest game.

Rating: 2.1

The Gostak by Carl Muckenhoupt [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Gostak
Final placement: 21st place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In the proud tradition of Bad Machine, this game broke my brain. If you’ve played it, you’ll know why. If not, maybe this will give you an idea:

Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave.
But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds.

Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk
them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them.

But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud
will vorl them from you.

That’s the game’s introductory text, and it pretty much goes on like that the whole time. At first I thought it would be kind of a fun, Lewis Carroll-ish diversion, full of nonsense words but still easily understandable. I was wrong — the game is much more insidious than that. The linguistic displacement is deep, and it infects the game on every level, up to and including its help text and hints. In fact, I paid closer attention to this game’s help text than I probably have to any other piece of IF’s instructions, ever, since it used so many unfamiliar words, and since these words were absolutely necessary as levers to begin cracking the game’s code.

Not that I ever completely succeeded in figuring out every aspect of the game’s environment. I ended up with three pages of words, each of which held a column of nouns and a column of verbs. I didn’t even attempt the adjectives. At the end of two hours, I was pretty impressed by the amount I’d been able to grok of the game’s language, and in fact I had wrenched my head far enough into this new linguistic space that I’m having to be careful to make sure I’m writing English as I type out this review, so as to avoid louking “rask” instead of “take”. Oh, sorry. [Don’t worry, this is no more a spoiler than the little starter hints telling you that Z=E in today’s Cryptoquip.]

Putting my head into the game’s space was critical to getting anywhere at all in it — I found that to play The Gostak successfully, some significant immersion is required. The game upends IF convention so thoroughly that all the directions have different names (and abbreviations), as does almost every verb. Consequently, once I had figured out many of the fundamentals, I was able to navigate through the game with relative ease, but only during that game session. After I saved my game, ate dinner, and returned to it, my old IF habits were obstructing me again, resulting in the game rejecting or disastrously misunderstanding much of my input. Since I only had about 15 minutes left on my two hours at that point, I was unable to fully recapture all those tenuous understandings I was holding in my head during the first session, and consequently couldn’t quite finish.

I get the feeling that this game wanted to be a comp-length exercise in the kind of mental mechanisms that made The Edifice‘s celebrated language puzzle so much fun. To some degree, it succeeds. I was able to enter this game’s foreign world much more easily than that of, say, Schroedinger’s Cat, and I found the process much more enjoyable. I was shocked at how quickly and easily I found myself typing commands like “doatch at droke about calbice”.

However, the whole experience was completely cerebral, with little of the emotional catharsis I associate with successful storytelling. I felt this effect when I played Dan Schmidt’s For A Change, but it’s ten times stronger in this game, where words aren’t simply rearranged but actually replaced wholesale. Consequently, while playing The Gostak was a strange and memorable experience, one which will surely elevate the game to the rarefied level of For A Change, Bad Machine, and Lighan ses Lion, I found it a somewhat strained sort of fun. Great for a puzzle-solving mood, and certainly worth trying if you’re a cryptography buff, but not terribly involving as a story. If it sounds like your cup of tea, make sure you set aside a few hours — it’s not something you want to leave and come back to.

Rating: 8.1