Withdrawal Symptoms by Niclas Carlsson [Comp00]

IFDB page: Withdrawal Symptoms
Final placement: 36th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I saw the title of Withdrawal Symptoms, I wondered whether it would be a sort of follow-up to the drug themes in Nevermore and The Trip, an intense tale about a junkie’s triumph over addiction. Nope. The title actually refers to a bank withdrawal — it seems your recently deceased aunt left you the key to her safety deposit box at the bank. You’ve brought the key to the bank’s lobby, and now all you need to do is find your way through a few fairly contrived problems to discover what’s in that deposit box. WS is a short, inoffensive, and moderately enjoyable game based in the “real world”, or at least the real IF world, where you’re allowed to pick up and vandalize things that don’t belong to you, and where obstacles to your progress hinge on some highly dubious connections.

I guess that sentence ended up sounding like kind of a slam, but I don’t mean it to be. Once you’ve set aside the notion that you or the world will have to behave in more or less realistic ways, you can have a lot of fun with WS. I didn’t have much trouble reaching this conclusion, but I can see how somebody without much IF experience might balk at some of the actions required, or in fact might not figure out some of those actions at all, especially since the game takes place in such a quotidian setting. My own deductions weren’t based so much on the “What would I do in this situation?” model, but rather on the “I haven’t done anything with that implemented object yet, so I bet it’ll help me get past this problem” model. Once I moved into that mode of thinking, I found the puzzles in WS pretty enjoyable, aside from a bit of hunt-the-verb here and there. There weren’t very many of these puzzles, and they led to an ending that was kind of funny, though (like the rest of the game) nothing particularly memorable.

Man, there I go getting negative again, so let me be clear: I enjoyed playing Withdrawal Symptoms. The code was bug-free, or at least I didn’t find any bugs in my session with the game. The English had a few errors here and there, mainly misspellings and awkward phrasings. Based on the fact that the author’s email address ends in .fi, I’m guessing he’s not a native English speaker, and considering that, the prose holds together pretty well. I particularly appreciated the fact that although many first-level nouns were implemented by the game, a number of them simply gave the message “That’s not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.” That’s all I need to hear, really — it certainly beats “You can’t see any such thing,” which I always found a fairly irritating response for examining something that’s clearly mentioned in a room description. Of course, ultimately I prefer that all nouns ever mentioned anywhere in the game get their own description, but I think that would have been overkill for this game, and could have even created some possible red herrings and confusion. It’s not the harrowing, David-Crosbyish journey through hell I expected when I saw the title, and after I finished playing Withdrawal Symptoms, I actually preferred what it turned out to be.

Rating: 7.5

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