Jarod’s Journey by Tim Emmerich [Comp00]

IFDB page: Jarod’s Journey
Final placement: 47th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game has one of the most startling first lines I’ve ever encountered. The line is this: “Welcome to Jarod’s Journey, a TADS-based game that will hopefully get you and Jarod closer to God.” This line brought up a couple of questions for me. The first was “Whose God?”, and the second was “What gives you the right?” I’m agnostic, but I wouldn’t scorn someone simply for their religious beliefs. I respect the desire and necessity of all people to find their own spiritual paths, and I expect to receive the same respect in return. A game that wants to bring me closer to what it calls God is violating what I see as a very personal boundary, the boundary around my soul and my spiritual life.

My agnosticism is of the stripe that objects to the notion that any human has privileged access to any sort of Higher Truth. I find it deluded and arrogant when a person claims to have all the answers to the Big Questions, even when they’re basing that claim on some kind of intense personal experience, but I respect that person’s right to believe whatever feels right to them. However, when they want to proselytize to me (or to anybody else, really), that’s when I get offended. I think people have the right to believe whatever they want, but I don’t believe they have the right to evangelize others about it — doing so runs roughshod over those others’ right to believe what they want. Consequently, I found the basic goal of Jarod’s Journey to be an offensive one.

That being said, I’ll try to set aside my fundamental personal objections to the game’s announced intent and review it simply as IF. Sadly, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, even from a pure gaming standpoint. First of all, it crossed another big bias of mine by having, you guessed it, a starvation puzzle. Actually, two starvation puzzles. Strangely, there doesn’t appear to be any actual consequence attached to the starvation. Jarod, the PC, never dies, no matter how long he starves, but the game continues to print annoying messages.

It could be argued that these are better than typical starvation puzzles since they don’t ever actually enforce a time limit, but I say that they’re just as bad, because without the time limit they become entirely pointless instead of just mostly pointless. In addition, there are a disheartening number of spelling and grammar errors in the game’s writing, which makes the whole thing seem less than divinely inspired. On top of this, there’s the fact that although the game tries to maintain a third-person voice, there are little slips of second-person throughout, as in this scene:

Jarod is in a dream, or at least he thinks it is a dream. The
angel is here and has delivered a map.
You see a map here.
There is an angel here who is slightly glowing!

If the player controls Jarod, who is the “you” that sees the map? Perhaps it’s the same “you” that the game announces in the first line that it wants to convert — that is, me? But I don’t see a map, just a computer game. Or rather, a digital sermon. (One nice thing about JJ is that next time somebody tells me that LASH is preachy, I can point at this game and say, Crocodile Dundee-style, “That isn’t preachy. THIS is preachy!”)

Setting aside the game’s deficiencies in the areas of design, prose mechanics, and coding, we come at last to the quality of the writing itself. Jarod’s Journey is written in a kind of earnest, gee-whiz tone that works best when you imagine it being read aloud by Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. (And by “works best”, I mean “is most entertaining.”) An example:

>ask angel about god
"God is wonderful. He loves you very much and created you just as you

>ask angel about grace
Jarod asks the angel about grace. The angel responds saying "Grace is
truly wonderful! You will not find a better gift!"

Jarod thinks to himself, "The angel is truly magnificent, glowing
ever so brightly."

Okeley-dokeley-do! Don’t get the impression that I scowled through this game. On the contrary, I laughed a lot, but only because it was difficult to take this wide-eyed tone seriously. On a more serious level, though, perhaps it’s worth thinking about the model of Christianity that this game constructs for us.

There’s one section that I found quite ironic — Jarod meets a pharisee who is described as “praying loudly. So loudly that everyone nearby can hear him. Even in the short time that Jarod pauses to listen, it is obvious that the man is repeating himself. Is this what pleases the Lord?” From this description, we’re supposed to realize that the pharisee’s method of prayer is Not OK. But only one location away is a Christian priest who fits this same exact description. Not only that, the game itself fits this description. The deep irony of the pharisee section made me suspect that not only is the game evangelical, its evangelism isn’t even well thought out.

Another example: at the end of each section of the game, Jarod is asked to make a spiritual choice between various methods of approaching God. If you pick the right one, you get a point. If not, you get chided with a scripture. Is the sacred realm of faith really so simple as that? Can the intricacies of individual worship really be boiled down to a multiple choice test? According to the game, apparently so. The best religious literature explores the mysteries of faith rather than handing out reductionist platitudes. Dante knew this. Chaucer knew it. Lewis knew it. Jarod… Well, Jarod still has quite a ways to go.

Rating: 3.4

[Postscript from 2020: As dire a game as this was, it did inspire a really fascinating and fruitful conversation on rec.games.int-fiction. Duncan Stevens — one of the best IF reviewers of all time — challenged my “What gives you the right?” question, saying “Why shouldn’t he have the right?” And it went on from there, with lots of other community members weighing in with thoughts and jokes.

Rereading that conversation reminds me of what a vibrant community lived in the IF newsgroups once upon a time. This competition landed during the glory days of that community, and the conversation was often as good as or better than the games themselves.

Oh, and Adam Cadre’s review of Jarod’s Journey was very funny. Man, Adam was on fire with funny reviews that year.]

The Trip by Cameron Wilkin [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Trip
Final placement: 33rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Trip is a rather clever title, for a few reasons. Of course, there’s the obvious double-entendre: not only does the main character go on a vacation-kind-of-trip (to Utah or Arizona, the game can’t seem to make up its mind which), he also indulges in several drug trips, courtesy of the marijuana and peyote found in his inventory at various points. However, beyond that simple pun, there’s also the fact that while the character is taking these trips, he is at the same time going nowhere. He’s graduated college, but hasn’t obtained gainful employment (one gets the impression he hasn’t looked very hard), and is sinking further into depression. In fact, both kinds of trip serve to underscore how stuck the character is; the trip he takes is to just hang out with his buddy (who the game describes as “just your average happy-go-lucky stoner”) and smoke a lot of dope, which doesn’t exactly seem like a promising route to get his life on track.

Even beyond this more subtle resonance, another trip occurs in this story, one that actually does get the character unstuck — it’s a spiritual journey, and one that couldn’t have happened without the other trips. The neatest thing about this last trip is the fact that the game sets it up so that it actually happens through traversal of the landscape. The source of spiritual enlightenment is physically moving from one location to the next, and the PC has to follow it from place to place in order for the spiritual journey to happen properly. This is a lovely example of how powerful it can be to map abstract or emotional concepts onto IF conventions.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the game doesn’t live up to the promise of its artful title. Spelling and grammar mistakes are strewn throughout it, and coding errors aren’t terribly uncommon either. I’d like to be really charitable about it, and suggest that the writing errors are simply the reflection of a character who isn’t very literate, sort of a very mild example of what Adam Cadre did in his Flowers For Algernon Textfire demo. However, if this is the intention, the style isn’t strong enough to put it over, and besides, some of the errors just aren’t in line with the way people talk. For example, when examining a lighter, we are told, “You once knew a guy who insisted that white lighters were bad luck, because something bad always happened to him when he was carrying him, but this theory holds no sway with you. You’ve never been a particularly superstition person.” “Carrying him”? “Superstition person”? These come across less as mannerisms of a subliterate stoner than as grammatical slips from a non-native English speaker. Mostly, they just come across as basic proofreading errors, and the presence of bugs in the code tends to confirm this theory. In addition to these cosmetic problems, there’s the fact that the spiritual stuff in the endgame just really isn’t all that weighty. To me, it came off as sort of a weak rehash of the Simpsons episode “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Homer.” In your face, space coyote!

On the plus side, however, The Trip does contain what is by far the most realistic depiction of four guys sitting around getting baked ever to appear in the history of interactive fiction. This wasn’t the most exciting moment of computer gaming I’ve ever had, but it did have its own Bill-And-Ted-ish charm. That scene, along with several choice touches like the way the stoners react to Arches National Park (“That’s a big-ass rock, dude”) had me laughing quite a lot. Not quite as much as the characters in the scene, mind you, but laughing nonetheless. In the end, this game feels a lot like some trips can be: long stretches of mild enjoyment, boredom, or even disappointment and annoyance, punctuated by flashes of beauty and brilliance. Or at least, that’s what it felt like at the time.

Rating: 6.3

Halothane by Ravi P. Rajkumar, as Quentin.D.Thompson [Comp99]

IFDB page: Halothane
Final placement: 6th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Halothane is an intriguing, ambitious mess. First of all, it’s way too big for the competition. I spent two hours with the game and didn’t even score half the points. This review is based on those two hours. Maybe the game pulls everything together at the end — I’ll never know, because what I saw in the first two hours didn’t interest me enough to make me keep playing. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about the game. It reveals glimpses of an interesting premise: when an author abandons a work in progress, the characters live on. They must try to continue their lives without the structure of a planned story to support them; they sometimes even drift into works by other authors, still carrying the burden of their former backstory. Some of the settings are interesting, and there are some devices here and there that are fun to play with. The problem is that all these interesting snippets are just fragments, floating free in search of a consistent plot. The game moves you from location to location as if you were on rails — in fact at one point the PC is literally bound and gagged to have the plot shouted at him. Unfortunately, the rails don’t seem to go in any particular direction, and Halothane starts to feel like a story that can’t make up its mind what it wants to be about. Adding to the disarray are an unedifying prologue and a few “interpositions” which seem altogether orthogonal to the main story, such as it is. Oh yes, there are also a few in-jokey text adventure allusions, though they seem to have little impact on the plot. Then again, most things seem to have little impact on the plot — it just rolls along, whisking you to the next chapter when you simply move a certain direction, or sometimes even when you just sit around doing nothing.

Player freedom of action is unreasonably constricted in Halothane. The game is constantly giving available directions in room descriptions, then preventing travel in those directions with one of a hundred variations on “You don’t really want to go that way.” Moreover, the game logic is inconsistent. For example, I got in the habit of looking under every single stick of furniture, because about 15% of the time I’d find something and score points for having done it. But some of the other times the parser sniped at me. We actually had this exchange at one point:

Suspicious bloke, aren't you?

That was a rhetorical question.
That's not a verb I recognise.

As Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons might say, “Ach! Good comeback!” Anyway, the writing is similarly uneven. One significant flaw is that every character seems to talk as if they have an M.D. A portion of a letter that you find reads thus:

The doctor came and gave me three hundred minims of pyrazinamide,
and I was sick the whole day. Beastly, unfeeling physician! The
haemoptysis seems to have cleared up, but the laboratory pathology
report says that my sputum smear is still ++++, which I assume is
good. They're considering a repeat biopsy, because they didn't find
any Langhans giant cells the first time.

I found the “which I assume is good” particularly funny. First of all, it’s set in opposition to saying that something “cleared up”, despite the fact that (I would think) the “clearing up” is good too. That’s just bad sentence structure, but also I found it very difficult to believe that somebody who casually refers to “minims of pyrazinamide” and “Langhans giant cells” would be in the dark about the meaning of test results. For all I know, that may happen in real life, but it certainly didn’t feel real to me, which after all is what fiction aims for. In addition, one character thinking or speaking this way is fine, but even the PC does it! At one point, the parser tells you, “If this heat continues any longer, you’ll soon have first-person knowledge of what the proteins in a boiled egg actually undergo.” Really, doctor? Even the game’s title and opening screen are guilty of this fault. On the other hand, when the plot pauses a moment to take a breath, the writing can manage to set an effective scene. One good sequence occurs when the PC (after a POV shift… don’t ask) comes upon her house, dark and empty. The game creates an effective atmosphere of mystery, so that when surprises jump out they’re good for a little thrill.

Oh, hell. This review probably makes it sound like I thought Halothane was just abysmal, and I didn’t, really. The overall impression that I got was that the game is just sort of… half-baked. I don’t mean this in an offhand sense, nor is it intended to be derogatory. I just felt like I was playing a game that was not suited for the competition, nor fully realized by the time the deadline arrived, but was entered in the competition anyway, for who knows what reason. Lord knows I’ve played a lot of games that are worse, even in this year’s comp entries. But it’s a pity to see the potential in a game like Halothane squandered so. Put that sucker back in the oven and wait for it to rise.

Rating: 4.6