TOOKiE’S SONG by Jessica Knoch [Comp02]

IFDB page: Tookie’s Song
Final placement: 7th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Apparently, it’s the Year Of The Squid. When I wrote Another Earth, Another Sky, I was pretty pleased about the squid. “How many other comp games,” I might have thought to myself, “are going to include a squid?” Turns out there’s a freaking avalanche of them. Well, maybe not an avalanche, but two others besides mine, in a field of 38 games, really is rather a lot. The squid in Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me! is essential to the plot, though, while the one in this game is more or less decorative, so I have to say that TDMAMOOM wins on Squid Points. On the other hand, Squid Points don’t figure into my ratings, nor, I believe, anyone else’s, so who cares?

Besides, this game has plenty of charming and wonderful assets of its own to recommend it. First of all, and still my favorite, are the altered library messages. I hereby nominate the following for Comp02’s most delightful response to X ME: “You are, and I say this in all honesty, as good-looking as you have ever been.” There are plenty more where that came from:

>break it
You raise your hand to strike, but something mysteriously holds you
back. It's as if a voice inside your head is telling you that random
violence is not the answer to this one.

TOOKiE’S SONG takes most of the standard Inform messages and, without substantially changing their content in most cases, tweaks their tone so that they fit in perfectly with the game’s lighthearted world. In those cases where the game does change the message substantially, it’s for the better, such as its replacement of “That’s not a verb I recognize” with “That’s not a verb you need to rescue your Tookie.”

“Your Tookie” is the PC’s beloved pet bloodhound, captured by rascally alien felines. These diabolical outer-space cats have, as they so often do, placed the PC in an artificial environment with a bunch of puzzles, promising that if those puzzles are solved, maybe they might consider freeing the dog. This premise is utterly arbitrary, and the game knows this and revels in it. The writing is joyful and funny throughout, and many of the puzzles are rather clever.

TOOKiE’S SONG (really don’t understand what’s up with that capitalization, but whatever) hangs out near “pure puzzle game” territory for much of its duration, with themed areas (after the seasons), themed treasures (different-colored gems), and parallel puzzles in the various areas. Design is generally strong, with alternate solutions provided for many puzzles, interesting connections between the areas, and a fun ending that provided more evaluation of my actions throughout the game than I had been expecting. The game also takes care to provide lots of extra flourishes, such as an EXITS verb, which lists available exits in a room, and a terrifically complete HELP/HINTS section.

Unfortunately, I can’t praise the coding uniformly, because I encountered a number of problems during my time with the game. Most severe among these had to do with the “story problem” puzzle. Yeah, that’s right — one of the game’s puzzles is a math problem, couched in the old standard form: “Alice leaves city A at 9:20 a.m., traveling east toward city B at a speed of 60 miles per hour…” and so forth. For the word-problem-phobic, there is an alternate solution available, but I’m not particularly in that group, so I worked it out for myself. Unfortunately, the game was unwilling to accept my correct answer, no matter how I tried to express it. I tried saying (answer changed to prevent spoilage) “5:00”, saying “five o’clock”, writing them on a sheet of paper and handing them to the puzzler, but no dice.

After employing the alternate solution, I learned that the game was looking for “FIVE P.M.” I really dislike being told I have the wrong answer when I actually have the right answer — call it residual math class trauma. There were other difficulties too, mainly with objects used in unexpected ways, or error messages that were either too strange to be right, or too vague to be helpful. Happily, the author seems quite dedicated to collecting bug reports, so I feel fairly confident that there will be post-comp releases that take care of these problems. Once those bugfixes are complete, I would recommend TOOKiE’S SONG without hesitation.

Rating: 8.7

Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me! by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold [Comp02]

IFDB page: Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me
Final placement: 2nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, hallelujah. All through last year’s comp, I kept waiting for a game to come along that I loved enough, and found few enough flaws in, that I could rate it 9.5 or above. It never happened. While there were some excellent games last year, none of them felt to me like they’d entered that rarefied air occupied by past games like Shade, Babel, or Delusions. This year, after going through 25 games, the same thing was happening. Until now.

Despite its somewhat unpromising title, TDMAMOOM is a fantastic game through and through. How do I love this game? Let me count the ways. Okay, first, there’s the writing. Frankly, I could spend the entire review talking just about the writing, it’s so great, so I’ll restrict myself to just a few examples picked more or less arbitrarily. There are numerous instances of excellent foreshadowing, whether of themes or puzzles — in the former case, they add great pleasure on re-reading, and in the latter case they operate as a delightfully subtle but effective hint system. The room descriptions are masterfully done, drawing from an endless well of cleverness to make the typical exit listing sound fresh and interesting. Best of all, the writing in this game is just flat-out funny, sometimes howlingly so. Just one example of many — looking at a palm scanner after you’ve switched bodies with an NPC:

>x panel
Flat black glass, a panel that uses all manner of fancy beams to read
over your palm-print and check you are who you think you are.
Unfortunately, it's not clever enough to realise you now think you
are someone that you actually aren't. Or you think you are someone
who you're not, but really are. Or something like that. Anyway, it's
a pig-ignorant machine.

I love it when an IF game makes me laugh out loud, and that happened frequently in this game.

Then there’s the coding. This coding is good. Really good. A raft of nonstandard verbs get recognized and handled. There are a variety of special commands provided, such as “R” or “REVIEW”, which repeats the room description without using any game time. Descriptions of rooms, objects and events alter themselves in various subtle and blatant ways, depending on what’s come before. Timed events, even events where a huge amount is happening at once, run smoothly along their tracks with nary a glitch. There’s a very fine adaptive hint system, quite sensitive to situation and even possessing a self-destruct capability that removes the blatant walkthrough answers after the comp period has ended. Library messages adapt seamlessly to the PC’s situation and point-of-view.

Oh, and how could I forget the special effects? TDMAMOOM takes control of the interpreter to create a beautiful Infocom/Inform-style look-and-feel; people who don’t care for the general appearance of TADS games should definitely try this one. The game even features a little bit of sound, throwing in a system beep at an appropriate time.

Working with the coding and the writing to propel this game to greatness, the story is killer, a wild thrill ride through surprises small and large. Like its predecessors Delusions and Babel, TDMAMOOM takes place in that most favored of IF locales, an isolated scientific research station. I won’t even get into the plot here, because players should experience it for themselves with as few spoilers as possible up front, except to say that it all fits together very nicely, and every time I had doubts, the game anticipated them and tied up the loose ends.

Along with all this, just a quick word about the puzzles: many of them are not only inventive but pitched at just the right level of difficulty, providing several of those wonderful “aha!” moments for me. Some of them are rather complicated, but they’re always scrupulously fair. I ended up turning to the hints so that I could see more of the game before time ran out, but I think if I’d had the time available, this game’s puzzles would have rewarded me for spending it.

So we’re talking about a pretty phenomenal game, here. In fact, almost depressingly so, given that I’m an entrant this year and TDMAMOOM is miles better than my game. It’s not perfect, mind. I found a few spelling and grammar errors, and there were times I wished for clearer descriptions of events and objects. But those flaws are minor and cosmetic, and they do nothing to change the fact that this is a damn good game. Bravo.

Rating: 9.8