The Coast House by Stephen Newton and Dan Newton [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Coast House
Final placement: 15th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

As if to taunt me, here comes a game with a NASTY FOUL IT’S/ITS ERROR in its Comp01 blurb, before I’ve even started the game. Then I fire up the game, and there’s one in the first room description! NFIEs are as numerous as cockroaches in this game, and just about as welcome. Am I more sensitive to this now than I was in previous years? Well, maybe, but only in the same way that being kicked repeatedly in the head makes one more sensitive to pain. I refuse to teach the lesson over and over, though, so if you’re not sure when to use the apostrophe and when not to, direct your attention here:

The first is my most recent explanation of the subject, and the others were found by taking 5 seconds to type “its/it’s” into a search engine. There are a bunch more where those came from. Print them out. Post them at your desk. Tattoo them on your body. Rid the world of this horrible curse.

Thank you for allowing me that rant. Moving on. NFIEs weren’t the only area in which this game’s proofreading was overly careless. Punctuation was a particular weakness. My current theory is that the keyboard on which The Coast House was typed had a sticky period key, because the game is littered with text like this: “Grandma’s headstone.. chipped with age…” There are multiple periods at the ends of sentences. There are multiple periods in room names. Ellipsises range anywhere from two to four dots (though some of the two-dot ones may have been intended as periods — rather difficult to tell.)

There are also a number of typos and grammar errors strewn throughout the game, and one very strange bug, in which looking under a particular item yields this: “You find !” Well, okay. There’s that exclamation point I’ve been searching for everywhere. Maybe I can use it to knock out some of these extra periods! Sadly, the exclamation point never made it into my inventory, so I was unable to wield it after all.

Okay, now that I’ve spent two paragraphs moaning about The Coast House‘s cosmetic errors, allow me to remedy things somewhat by talking about the ways in which I really liked the game. The setting is a tiny South Texas town in the sweltering summer heat, and the game brings this setting to life marvelously. Room and object descriptions engage all the senses, and appeal to memory as well, since the PC spent his childhood summers in this town. Many first-level nouns are described, and with similar skill.

In addition, most of the game’s puzzles emerge organically from the setting, thus enhancing the game’s world even as they moderate the story’s pace. All these factors worked together to produce a marvelously rich, immersive gameworld, which made the story-jarring grammar errors all the more frustrating. (Oh right, I was going to stop complaining about that. Ahem.) There was also a healthy dose of humor in the game. Many responses to nonsensical or useless actions were implemented as enjoyable wisecracks. For example, at the northern edge of town, the room description tells us:

The road travels off some distance to the north, with not a whole lot
between where you stand and Houston some 300 miles away.

The response to “N” from here is, “Houston is a pretty far walk. Probably better to stay in town.” Hee hee. The plot itself begins as a standard inheritance narrative and then deepens a bit, to the benefit of the game. All in all, a fairly solid piece of work if not for the simple lack of basic proofreading. Somebody needs to pick this game up and beat the errors out of it like dust out of an old rug. Once this happens, The Coast House will become a nicely atmospheric piece of IF.

Rating: 7.2

The Masque Of The Last Faeries by Ian R. Ball [Comp00]

IFDB page: Masque Of the Last Faeries
Final placement: 31st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Yet another entry in the category of “cool idea with lame execution” comp games, The Masque Of The Last Fairies is all the more frustrating for the glimpses of quality visible beneath its very rough exterior. At first, the problems appear to be rather superficial: formatting weirdness, grammar blunders, and such. Now don’t get me wrong — these things matter, a lot. It’s a source of constant puzzlement to me that games get released to the public while they’re still swimming with mechanical errors in their writing. You know, in some kinds of games, English errors wouldn’t matter very much, if at all. If you’re writing a new version of Quake or Space Invaders, who cares if your code comments are littered with its/it’s errors? But these are text adventures. In order for a text adventure to be good, the text has to be good.

To me, this seems blatantly self-evident. Apparently, though, it isn’t, not when I still end up playing games with sentences like this: “A grand staircase leads up although a row of potted shrubs act as a barrier at it’s base.” Quick lesson: “it’s” is a contraction of “it is,” as in “It’s alive!” “Its” is the possessive form of “it”, as in “a barrier at its base”. Like “his”, “hers”, and “ours”, “its” has no apostrophe, and it never will. If it’s possessive, don’t give it an apostrophe, lest you mangle its meaning. See how easy that is? Similarly, please print a newline before a prompt. Please don’t put more than one blank line between pieces of text unless you’ve got a damn good reason. A mediocre game with correct grammar and correct formatting is still much more immersive than an imaginative, interesting game with really broken grammar and formatting, because every time I have to stop and figure out what a sentence means, or readjust my eyes to figure out what text printed after the prompt because there’s no newline between the previous text and the new text, I get thrown out of the story for a moment. Those moments add up.

Still, if cosmetic problems were the extent of this game’s flaws, I’d probably still be able to have a fairly good time playing it. And indeed, up through the first three acts, this appears to be the case. However, after that I learned that it’s apparently impossible to score all the points, due to the fact that one of the things the hints suggest seems to evoke no response from the game at any point. Moreover, as the game goes on, Masque succumbs to what I’ll call “Harvey Syndrome”, after Elwood P. Dowd’s lapine companion who was inexplicably invisible to the rest of the world. A game suffering from Harvey Syndrome talks about objects which are strangely unavailable for examining, taking, or in fact any kind of interaction at all. I’m not talking about scenery in room descriptions here — I mean major NPCs and objects ostensibly in your inventory. When somebody hands you something, you ought to be able to examine it rather than being told “You can’t see any such thing.” If there’s a character speechifying next to you, you ought to be able to examine that character. In Masque, these people and objects show up in action descriptions but, Harvey-like, are unavailable in any other way.

It’s so sad, too, because there is so much to like in Masque. The plot is composed of a number of intriguing layers — you’re a guest at a masquerade party where you’ve been asked to take on a specific character and participate in the drama that will be part of the evening’s entertainment. However, just as there are community members behind the party masks, there is community turmoil behind the masque itself, and you may find yourself inexorably drawn into that turmoil. The structure and pacing of the game work well, introducing puzzles one at a time (some oriented to the PC’s masque character, some to the PC itself), and ushering in a new “Act” when a puzzle is solved. Moreover, the game makes the ambitious choice to have all the masque action (which is considerable) take place in verse. Some of this verse has grave weaknesses in meter and rhyme, but I still salute the game for setting its sights so high. What Masque ends up showing us, though, is that it doesn’t matter how high you aim — if your basic mechanics fail, you’ll never hit what you’re aiming at.

Rating: 5.9