The Temple by Johan Berntsson [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Temple
Final placement: 9th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are some scenes that are so iconic, so familiar, that they almost transcend cliché, gaining the power to singlehandedly drag a game into the realm of the tired and hackneyed no matter what other scenes surround it. Such a scene is the sacrificial altar. You know the one — bloodstained altar, hooded priest, big scary dagger, chanting cultists. IF authors have been thinking about it as far back as Zork III, no doubt in tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn more or less stole the riff from the Aztecs, I think.

The Temple prominently features a sacrificial altar scene, and I wish I could say it throws in some fresh new twist that reinvigorates the whole thing, but… it doesn’t, really. The game is a Lovecraft pastiche, which itself has become a bit of an IF cliché, what with Lurking Horror, Theatre, Anchorhead, HeBGB Horror, Awakening, and lots of others. I think it may be time to declare a moratorium on the genre unless you’ve really got a new and interesting take on it. The Temple has no such take, and consequently the entire experience felt a bit overfamiliar to me.

The lackluster, error-ridden writing didn’t help matters either. One significant danger in creating a work that pays homage to a skillful author is that your own writing may suffer badly in the comparison, and that’s exactly what happens here:

Before A Dark Tower
This area in front of an old tower offers a nightmarish view over a
monstrous tangle of dark stone buildings. Most buildings are
elliptical, built of irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size.
None of them seem to have any doors or windows. There is a square
further down to the southwest. The sole passage to the tower is
through the door to the north.

“Irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size?” “Elliptical” buildings? (They’re oval-shaped, I guess? I’m assuming the ovals are lying on their sides, though even then it’s hard to picture something so curved being made out of “blocks”, no matter how irregularly sized.) Where Lovecraft’s vistas were (at their best) ineffable, this is just inept.

The coding is better, but still rather spotty, because there’s a distinct split in the implementation. NPCs and objects are coded pretty well, with the main NPC able to understand a respectable range of queries and capable of interesting independent action. Most first-level nouns are implemented, and outright bugs are fairly few. On the other hand, there is a severe dearth of synonyms for both actions and objects, and the game made me struggle with some of the worst verb-guessing problems I’ve encountered in a while. In particular, there’s a rather critical action that I was totally unable to make the game understand without resorting to hints. I knew exactly what I needed to do, but the half-dozen ways I came up with of expressing it were summarily rebuffed — only the game’s approved syntax won the day. Problems like this should have been caught in testing.

So now that I’ve railed on the game for being unoriginal and unpolished, let me take a moment to point out something I really liked about it. Early on in the action, you acquire a sort of “sidekick” NPC, who follows you through most of the story, and who himself becomes the crux of an optional puzzle. There were several things I liked about this NPC. First, as I mentioned above, he was well-implemented, responding to lots of sensible queries, including many of the things mentioned in his responses to the PC’s initial questions (second-level conversation topics, I suppose.) Also, he serves an interesting purpose in the story’s structure, functioning as a sort of nominal hint system in his sporadic knowledge of the environment.

Best of all, he and the PC really function as a team in several instances. I’m writing a series of games that ostensibly feature a PC/NPC team, but thus far I’ve copped into having the PC do most of the work while the NPC has some excuse for being out of the action. I thought The Temple was an excellent example of how to really create interdependent action between a PC and an NPC, and it got me excited about the challenge of doing so in my next game. For that alone, it repaid the time I gave to it.

Rating: 6.8

The HEBGB Horror! by Eric Mayer [Comp99]

IFDB page: The HeBGB Horror
Final placement: 16th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Patti Smith. The Talking Heads. Blondie. Television. The Ramones. While the Sex Pistols and the Clash were spitting in the face of the bloated English rock establishment, the artists named above were leading a concurrent American punk revolution in New York City. The nerve center of the movement was a club called CBGB (standing, ironically, for Country, Blue Grass, and Blues), where all of these artists got their start before being launched on the national stage. This is the scene to which Eric Mayer pays loving tribute in his competition entry, an ALAN game called The HeBGB Horror!. You play Phil Howard, a musician dreaming of hitting the big time in NYC. You’re down to your last few bucks, and ready to take the bus back home, when you spy a chance to see the reunion of legendary (fictional) punk band The Laughing Kats at their famous stomping grounds, HeBGB. It sounds great, so why can’t you shake this feeling of nameless dread? The game combines the trappings of the Seventies New York punk rock scene with the sort of Lovecraftian pastiche that seems to have become all the rage in IF since the success of Anchorhead.

I’m an avid rock music fan, so the former theme grabbed me immediately. The Lovecraft stuff, on the other hand, gets old pretty fast. Mayer obviously knows and loves the music, and the emphasis is on the New York punk scene — these themes could have sustained a game easily on their own. As I played through The HeBGB Horror!, I found myself really enjoying the punk parts, and wishing that the various “eldritch horrors” and such could have been edited out. I’m not sure how much the game wanted to parody CBGB, or how much of an homage it intended for the Lovecraft bits to be, but I think it may have achieved the opposite of its ambition, as the music parts felt mainly like homage, while the Lovecraftiana, with its various generic rats, tentacles, and gibbering masses, felt more like a parody.

But hey, as the game itself reminds us at several points, it’s only a “three-chord” effort. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about HeBGB is the way it evokes the D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) spirit of punk, making a joyous noise even though it’s no virtuoso. The author reinforces this viewpoint by cautioning us in the credits that HeBGB “does not represent the real capabilities of the Alan Language but does demonstrate Alan’s amazing ability to allow someone who has never done an iota of computer programming of any kind to produce SOMETHING within a few weeks!” This is a very nice thing to say about a programming language, and in fact HeBGB is quite playable despite a lack of programming polish.

However, there are a number of things missing from the game that the average game programmer shouldn’t have to worry about at all. For example, the game offers no “undo” function, nor an “oops” verb. Some simple things run contrary to convention, such as a “” prompt that accepts only the Enter key, rather than the space bar or any random keypress. Some fairly basic verbs are missing, such as “throw”. I attribute these flaws to deficiencies in the ALAN libraries (or perhaps, in some cases, the ARUN interpreter) rather than a failing on the author’s part. It’s unreasonable to expect every game author to program conveniences like “undo” on their own. That’s what libraries are for, and by being such a complete game in lots of other ways, HeBGB demonstrates the limitations of ALAN — not the language, but the default shell given to potential authors.

What the author can control he provides quite well. Despite a few spelling and formatting difficulties, the prose in HeBGB (especially when it’s not doing a Lovecraft parody) combines a snappy sense of humor with strong descriptions. The plot is clever, allowing a good deal of exploration while never opening so wide that the story feels aimless. There are a number of good things about the design, including the fact that the game is carefully structured in such a way as to allow players a second or third chance to obtain items that they may have failed to notice or pick up the first time around. These chances are always well-integrated within the game, and feel natural rather than gratuitous. This design choice allows HeBGB to close off early sections of the map once their purpose is served while avoiding the trap of making the game unsolvable once those sections are unavailable to the player.

The puzzles, for the most part, are quite good, maintaining a high level of originality and (with one exception) escaping “guess-the-verb” syndrome. The one qualm I did have about the puzzles is that at several points, you must return to apparently unfruitful locations to obtain an object that wasn’t there before. The reasons given for the appearances of the objects certainly make sense, but from a gameplay standpoint it’s not very logical for a player to assume that visiting and revisiting empty locations will be rewarded. Moreover, some of the actions required to make the object appear in the empty location don’t seem to have very much causal influence. In other words, the action which puts the object in the formerly empty spot gives players little reason to guess that visiting that spot again will be worthwhile. These quibbles aside, I enjoyed HeBGB quite a bit, and while I was wishing for the conveniences granted by more sophisticated libraries, the roughness of the game was in keeping with its topic, and that resonance lent it an unexpected charm.

Rating: 7.7