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

Chaos by Shay Caron [Comp99]

IFDB page: Chaos
Final placement: 19th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Most interactive fiction games use the second person voice, and make it clear from the outset that this is their mode. Think of “You are standing in an open field west of a white house,” or “You are Primo Varicella.” Chaos appears to follow in this tradition, describing a character named Captain Chaos but using the second person form of address several times in asides like “You know what I mean” or “you guessed it.” Admittedly, the “I” in the first phrase throws a bit of a spanner into the works, and a player might well have cause to wonder who the “I” is that’s apparently speaking. The parser? The author? Some sort of in-game narrator? For me, though, it went by so fast that I allowed myself to suspend that question. From the introduction, I presumed I was Captain Chaos’ sidekick, there to help him with a sudden power failure on his jerry-built hovercraft. But then I typed in my first command, and this is how it went:

> I

Chaos has a Evil Overlord list.

What? But what’s in my inventory? After a few commands, I slowly began to understand that the game was responding to my commands as if they were guiding Captain Chaos himself, then describing the results referring to the Captain in the third person — “Chaos walks south”, “He picks up the screwdriver,” etc. What’s more, from time to time the Captain Chaos character will offer some commentary on the command chosen, relating tangential or backstory facts about the parts of the environment he encounters while being guided by the player’s commands. The more of this that goes on, the more prominent one question becomes: Who is the PC of this game? Apparently the introduction was addressing me — me the player, not some avatar within the story with whom I am expected to identify. And who is Captain Chaos addressing with his asides? Again, it’s the player. In a real sense, the player is the PC in Chaos. You, the player, control Captain Chaos with your commands, but he is aware of your presence, at least enough to make the occasional remark to you. And if all that’s not complicated enough, wait until he finds (or you find, or something) the technology that allows him to control another entity remotely.

This is all rather haphazardly done in this particular game, as evidenced by my confusion at the first few prompts. I found myself bumping into unexpected forms of address, and having to puzzle out exactly what was supposed to be happening, or at least what it seemed like was supposed to be happening. Moreover, many of the questions raised by these narrative choices, such as those I mentioned about the use of “I” in the introduction, are just never answered. In fact, there is no announcement of any kind — subtle, blatant, or otherwise — that Chaos will overturn a fundamental IF convention, and the result is a rather jarring feeling of displacement. The creation of this feeling doesn’t really seem to serve the story, at least not in any specific way I could determine.

Nonetheless, I found it quite interesting. I was reminded of other competition games which have fiddled with the narrative voice, such as Christopher Huang’s Muse and Graham Nelson’s Tempest. Both of these games took a slightly different approach, having the parser itself take on a character, speaking to the player in the first person and executing the player’s commands as if they were that character’s own actions. Tempest even complicated matters further by explaining that its player’s role is as “the magical will” of Shakespeare’s Prospero, guiding Ariel (the parser’s character) through the various scenes of the play. These tactics have a bit of a distancing effect on the player, setting identification at one remove and shifting the action from the player character to the parser character. Chaos, though it explains nothing of its strategy, actually creates one further remove by allowing neither a player character nor a parser character but another character altogether to be the focus of the action. Yet when this third character (third person, you might even say) speaks outward in the second person voice, it addresses the player (in a “Dear reader” sort of way) and brings the game and player closer together than almost any other IF I’ve seen.

Orchestrated strategically and used creatively, these techniques could make for a masterful, groundbreaking work of IF. Chaos isn’t that work, but its experimentation does open up some very interesting, and mostly unexplored, territory. Beside this, the plot of the game seems quite inconsequential. There’s a ship to be repaired, and various puzzles to solve, some required and some optional. These puzzles are decent, and the writing is passable, and although there are a number of coding problems, the game is at least finishable. It’s a bit of a throwaway, though, a mediocre competition entry except for the unique approach it takes, almost offhandedly, to forms of address in IF. I enjoyed thinking about Chaos more than I enjoyed playing it, but if the author’s next game explores the techniques employed here in a consistent, systematic, and clear way, the result will be well worth a few false starts.

Rating: 6.6

The Tempest by Graham Nelson as William Shakespeare [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Tempest
Final placement: 25th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

“Yet look, how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.”
— William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice III.ii.126-129

The Tempest attempts a great deal, and achieves much of it despite being somewhat flawed. The work presents itself not as a game, but as an “interactive performance” which asks the player to perform as the magical will of Shakespeare’s Prospero, guiding the spirit Ariel (a.k.a. the parser) through the plot of The Tempest (the play), though not necessarily in the order in which Shakespeare wrote it. Remarkably, this complicated positioning of subjectivity works quite well (and opens some unexplored territory for the mixing of first, second, and third person forms of address in IF). It is blended with a new approach to dialogue which prevents the player character from speaking at all but presents many screenfuls of dialogue between other characters (and sometimes including Ariel himself), the exchanges broken up by pausing for keystrokes between each character’s lines. In a sense, the player’s commands to the parser become essentially stage directions issued to an onstage persona via a magical conduit. This idiom also works beautifully, bestowing the game with a powerful aura of theatrical performance. The Tempest is entertaining and innovative; it often feels quite magical to inhabit the Prospero/Ariel connection, and to take part in a groundbreaking interactive experience. I think that the game also has great potential as an educational tool, allowing readers to experience Shakespeare’s language in a new and thrilling way.

All this being said, however, The Tempest is not without its problems. Actually, perhaps the game just has one major problem which manifests itself in several ways. Although the author does an excellent (sometimes astonishing) job of rearranging Shakespeare’s scenes and lines to fit the interactive mode, the fit is not perfect. Several times during the game I felt faced with responses which, if not complete non sequiturs, were certainly only tenuously connected to the command I had typed. The author wrenches in bits and pieces of dialogue from all over the play for various purposes, pressing them into service as room descriptions, parser rejoinders, and other sundry purposes. Sometimes they are perfectly suited to their purpose and sometimes less so. When I was on the wrong end of this continuum, my relationship with the game became strained — the parser’s responses were beautiful, but didn’t make enough sense, and not because of any opacity in the Elizabethan English. This situation creates a problem with the game’s puzzles: usually interactive fiction prose can be written in such a way as to suggest subtle hints to the problems facing the player. However, when control of the prose escapes the author, those hints become harder and harder for a player to come by. It is to this difficulty with the prose (and, of course, to the lack of any hint system or walkthrough) that I ascribe the problems I’ve seen players having, often with the very first puzzle of the game. With a typical piece of IF, the author could simply tailor the game’s responses to help the player along — The Tempest often achieves this goal, but all too often it falls short.

Before I played The Tempest, I was unlucky enough to run across a USENET conversation which suggested that Graham Nelson is the game’s author. I thought this was a spoiler, and I admit that it did set up a bit of preconception for me before I had even seen the first word of the game. Having said that, several things about the game do have a strong air of Nelson about them. The author’s erudition is clear, from the simple choice of subject matter to the deft interweaving of other Shakespearean and Renaissance phrases into the play’s text when necessary (for example, to the command “throw x at character” the game responds “I have no aim, no, no chance of a palpable hit.”, a phrase echoing Hamlet). Such attention to scholarly detail recalls some of the finer moments of Nelson’s epics, especially Jigsaw. Moreover, the game’s help menu (which it calls its frontispiece) contains fascinating blurbs on lost islands and the play’s history, as well as notes on the game, its creation and characteristics. Such additions are strongly reminiscent of the diplomatic briefings in Nelson’s 1996 1st Place game The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. Finally, the author’s technical skill and innovations with Inform are tremendous, and who better to code so well than the language’s inventor? It may be that Nelson is in fact not the author of the work (in which case the author should take the comparison as a compliment of the highest order), but even if that is so, the talent behind this game is clearly a major one. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play, and as such carries a distinct air of finality — I only hope that whoever authored this work will not allow it to be his or her last as well.

Prose: I suppose this is where I ought to weigh in on the debate over the originality of a work like the IF version of The Tempest. It’s my opinion that the IF Tempest is absolutely a different piece of work from The Tempest, the play. Yes, the author uses almost the entire script of the play, but I would argue that such usage is not plagiarism, because whatever Shakespeare’s intentions, I think it’s safe to say that the play was not written to be adapted into interactive form. Consequently, I don’t see the IF Tempest as any less an original work than Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility or, for that matter, Shakespeare’s MacBeth (whose plot was lifted from Holinshed’s histories.) Yes, the seams do sometimes show between the author’s additions and Shakespeare’s text — these are the work’s weaker moments. However, in judging The Tempest‘s prose, I judge not the quality of Shakespeare’s writing, but the quality of its usage in its new medium — on that basis, more often than not, it succeeds.

Plot: I predict that a certain contingent of voices will raise the hue and cry over what they perceive to be The Tempest‘s lack of interactivity. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (far from it, in fact — I got only six points, another example of an excellent competition game which breaks the two-hour rule), but the parts I saw made it pretty clear that the game leads you along rather carefully from one plot point to the next, allowing for very little branching. My own opinion is that this structure is not a problem — after all, the piece bills itself as “more a ‘performance’ than a ‘game’,” and as such it’s perfectly appropriate for The Tempest to enforce a certain degree of rigidity to accommodate the exigencies of its plot. In fact, what this achieves is the inclusion of a much more complicated plot than is common in interactive fiction; by limiting the player’s ability to affect the narrative stream, the game allows the complexity of Shakespeare’s plotting to shine through even in this challenging new form. I’m satisfied with the trade-off.

Puzzles: As noted above, this is where I identify the major weakness of The Tempest. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I cite as an example the first puzzle of the game, where Ariel must blow a storm to upset the boat and set the plot into motion. The reason that players are finding this puzzle so difficult is that it requires rather close knowledge of the play (and not just of the play’s first scene), which most players, even very well educated ones, are not likely to have at their fingertips. No hint is given of Ariel’s powers or of his purpose in regard to the ship. [SPOILERS END] Now, in a typical IF game, there might be a sentence or two in the introductory paragraph which introduces the idea and sets players on their way. However, because of the constraints imposed by using a collage of prewritten text, these hints are unavailable and thus players flounder in a “read-the-playwright/designer’s-mind” sort of puzzle. It won’t be the last time.

Technical (writing): The prose did an excellent job with handling a number of difficult technical tasks with regard to writing and using Elizabethan English.

Technical (coding): I found only one bug in The Tempest (at least, I think it was a bug), among a thoroughly reworked library of Inform responses and the introduction of a number of excellent devices for the presentation of dialogue and clarification of the plot.