Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye Of Wossname by David Fillmore [Comp99]

IFDB page: Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye Of Wossname
Final placement: 25th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

The 1996 IF competition was won by a Graham Nelson game with the highly improbable name The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. Since then, every year we’ve had at least one entrant with a long, silly name. In 1997, there was The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf and Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza. In 1998, we had I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel. And this year, David Fillmore brings us Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye of Wossname. Is there a causal relationship here? Probably not. More likely, a long and goofy title allows the author to set up some basic expectations about the work at hand. In essence, titles like this say: “Check me out! Boy, am I wacky! Prepare to be taken on a zany and madcap adventure through an absurd universe!” However, the comparison with Meteor is instructive in the following way: having set up the above expectation, Nelson subverted it by using a silly and comedic scenario (riding an elephant next to an aristocratic airhead) as the entry point into what became a rather atmospheric and austere cave adventure. The surprise value of this shift lent strength to the sense of wonder that the game worked to impart. His successors, on the other hand, have struggled vainly to live up to the wacky promise of their titles, providing a few funny moments along the way but generally falling far short of the joy of coherent absurdity. Wossname, sadly, is no exception.

The game certainly does have its funny moments. Its introduction effectively parodies the genre of Enchanter, Beyond Zork, and Path to Fortune with lines like this: “Another champion must be sought; an idiot unskilled in anything but adventuring…” The title page pulled off a good joke by presenting the game with a dramatic flourish, crowned with a grand-looking box quote from Shakespeare, a quote which turned out to have no relevance at all to the game, and very little meaning in general. (“It is an old coat.”) Finally, typing “Zork” leads to one of the best easter eggs I’ve ever found in a competition game. Go on, try it — I won’t spoil it by trying to describe it. But for every funny moment, there were several more that just fell flat. The “full” score listing might have been funnier if not for the fact that last year’s Enlightenment did the same thing with much more panache. Several allusions to various sources (the Zork games, Indiana Jones) were so obvious as to belie any cleverness. Lots of other attempted jokes were just, well, not that funny, and little is more tedious than unsuccessful attempts at humor (as anybody who has watched a lame sitcom can tell you.)

Adding to this tedium is the fact that the game is plagued with a number of errors, both in writing and coding. Now, the writing errors were much less frequent, and many had to do with formatting — strange line breaks, random strings of spaces and the like. Misspellings and grammar errors were relatively few, though at one point the game does manage to misspell the name of its own main character. Coding errors, however, were abundant. For example, every time you climb a particular object the game dutifully reports that you clamber onto it, reprints the room description with additional information now available to you, then inexplicably protests that you’re already on the object. At another time, the ceiling falls in, but this cataclysmic event has absolutely no effect on anything sitting on the ground. “Drop all” just doesn’t seem to work. Most egregious, though, is the fact that the final puzzle hinges on an item which, as far as I can determine, is never mentioned in any description. I only found it accidentally, through the fact that the parser includes scenery objects in its response to commands like “get all”. I felt clever for solving the puzzle by tricking the parser, but it didn’t make me any more impressed with the game. What’s more, I spent the half-hour before that floundering around in circles, trying to figure out what in the hell I could possibly be missing. Normally I ascribe this sort of thing to lack of beta-testing, but the credits indicate that no less than seven people tested the game, so I don’t know. Perhaps the time it took them to read the title preempted their ability to test the whole game?

Rating: 5.2

The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf by Gary Roggin [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf
Final placement: 22nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oddly enough, due to the vagaries of Comp97 I played The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf (hereafter called OQDA) immediately after playing its direct competitor in the silly name wars, Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza. Consequently, my expectations of OQDA were probably distinctly affected by that recent experience. I was expecting another lackluster game where goofy names and so-so jokes were supposed to make up for careless writing, buggy programming, and weak design. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. OQDA is a fairly enjoyable college game (with a minor time travel motif) which kept me pretty entertained for the two hours I played it. Of course, this is not to say that the game doesn’t have its problems. It certainly does: there are many spelling and grammar errors (though not as many as in Phred) and some bugs are definitely still in the game (again, my recent experience with Phred made these seem relatively few as well.) Also, there are several elements about OQDA‘s narrative strategies that I found rather grating — more on this later. Still, with some polishing this game could be an enjoyable vignette.

One interesting thing about OQDA is that not every object in its world serves a purpose within the game. There are locked doors that never need (or even can) be opened. There are many objects that serve no specific purpose. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are a number of puzzles that never need to be solved in order to complete the game. This strategy has its weaknesses: the danger of the red herring count exceeding the tolerable limit is quite high, and solving puzzles is less satisfying when you realize that your brainwork has achieved no appreciable results. Still, on balance, I liked the feeling of openness and mystique that resulted from all these frills in the game universe. That, along with the author’s willingness to implement multiple puzzle solutions and the fact that OQDA is apparently the first chapter of an ongoing work, gave me a similar feeling to that which I had when I first played Zork: the experience of being in a mysterious world which is simultaneously a fun game.

However, there were several elements of the game world which I could have done without. One of these is the way that OQDA constructs its player character. You are told from the beginning that you work in your present job because you were expelled from school during your senior year, due to an “incident involving a freshman (of the opposite gender), a stolen time machine and a bottle of cheap champagne.” The opening text makes clear that you mourn your lost career hopes. Fine. After that, though, almost every single room in the campus Physics building has some kind of remark about how you spend your days weeping and crying. Example: upon examining a couch, “You have spent many an afternoon lying on this couch and weeping into the pillows, wondering what happened to your life. It’s very cozy.” After a while of this, I started to wonder why I cared about this miserable loser who seemed physically incapable of getting on with life. I stopped wanting to play the character, because my sympathy and identification were eroded by a stream of self-pitying text. Infidel plays a similar trick with an unsympathetic player character, but while Infidel at least gives you the pleasure of playing an outright villain, OQDA just provides the less thrilling experience of playing a pathetic whiner.

Prose: As I just mentioned, the prose sometimes goes much too far in repeating the same thematic point in object after object. Another example of this is the game’s treatment of the Anthropology building. There are eight locations around the perimeter of the building; six of these use the word “massive”, “looms”, or “towers”, or some combination of these three. We get the point. On the plus side, the humor in the writing often works well, and some of the silly points within the game were really quite funny. I especially enjoyed some of the professors’ names, like French professor Dr. Eaubooboo, or Philosophy teacher Dr. Jobless — “pronounced (zhahb- LAY).”

Plot: Well, it’s hard to say too much about the plot at this point, since the game makes clear that it is only the first chapter of an ongoing saga (the second chapter is apparently scheduled to be delivered for the ’98 competition). So far as it goes, OQDA‘s plot rests on a very realistic device exaggerated to the point of hilarity. Your boss, Temporal Physics professor Dr. Bignose, has asked you to deliver an envelope to a box on his colleague’s desk. He even gives you a key to the appropriate building. However, in typical absent-minded professorial fashion, he isn’t quite sure where he left the envelope, nor can he verify that his colleague’s office is where he thinks it is, or even if that key really unlocks the building it’s supposed to (predictably, it doesn’t). Unsurprisingly, this apparently simple errand turns into a wide-ranging exploration of a very strange campus. It seems to be only a prelude, but it works well.

Puzzles: One great thing about the puzzles in OQDA is that a number of them are solvable with more than one method. Such a capability always takes extra effort on an author’s part, and it does not go unappreciated. The game has its fair complement of locked doors and their corresponding keys, and there are a number of more inventive puzzles as well. The only problem I really found with the puzzles is that a few of them seemed to be based on wanton destruction for no satisfying reason. There’s nothing anywhere in the prose to indicate that the character is evil (only pathetic and possessed of rather bad judgment), so puzzles which require highly destructive actions went against the grain for me.

Technical (writing): There are a goodly number of technical problems in the game’s writing, including misspellings, typos, awkward sentences, and mangled grammar.

Technical (coding): A number of bugs also exist within the game. The majority of these are puzzles which can be solved over and over, and objects which do not behave consistently when their state is changed.