All Things Devours by Toby Ord as “half sick of shadows” [Comp04]

IFDB page: All Things Devours
Final placement: 3rd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I must admit, I got a little nervous when I saw this game’s title, which appears at first blush to be grammatically incorrect. As it turns out, the title isn’t in error — it’s excerpted from one of the riddle-poems in The Hobbit, the one that begins “This thing all things devours.” I still think that it’s a weak title — the entire line would be much better — but I was relieved to know I was in the hands of a competent writer. In fact, my fears about the entire game were groundless; it’s very good. It has a plot, but by the author’s own admission, ATD is much more game than story, an intricate puzzle-box, with a couple of puzzles I found very satisfying indeed.

The setup is complex, requiring the same sort of lateral thinking as that featured in Sorcerer‘s famous time-travel puzzle. Due to its convoluted nature, the game had to be quite a chore to implement, and while its coding isn’t perfect, I was impressed with how thoroughly and skillfully it covered a very wide range of permutations. Moreover, ATD does a wonderful job of automating mundane actions, the very thing I was moaning about in my review of The Great Xavio. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see something like this:

(first opening the door to the Deutsch lab)
(first unlocking the door to the Deutsch lab)

The Deutsch Laboratory

Every first-level object interaction I tried was handled gracefully, and the automation even did one or two cool tricks to keep track of player knowledge. Anyway, I’m about to raise a couple of points criticizing ATD, so I want to make it clear that I really did like the game. I liked it a lot.

That being said, there are a couple of flaws I’d like to discuss. The first is that I don’t think this game plays fair with the concept of the accretive PC. If you don’t recognize the term, that’s because I recently made it up, while reviewing Adam Cadre’s Lock & Key for IF-Review. In that review, I made the case that games like Lock & Key and Varicella have a unique sort of PC, one whose knowledge and/or cunning must by acquired by the player herself in order to successfully complete the game. Primo Varicella, for instance, has a devious plan to take over the regency. At the beginning of any session with Varicella, the PC knows what this plan is, but the player may or may not. It’s only through experiencing multiple iterations of the game, and thereby learning all the things that Primo already knows, that the player can hope to embody Primo successfully enough to win the game.

I call this sort of PC “accretive” because the player’s accreting knowledge allows the PC to become more and more himself on each playthrough, and once the player’s ingenuity matches that of the PC, she can successfully complete a game. When that happens, it’s as if the real story is finally revealed, and all those other failed attempts exist only in shadowy parallel universes. In my opinion, this sort of game is a brilliant refutation of the idea that IF games should be winnable without experience of “past lives.” After all, if the PC’s knowledge must match the player’s at the outset of the game, the PC must know very little, which is why we see so many amnesiac PCs in IF. An accretive PC allows the player to catch up with the PC through the device of past lives, and as long as the PC is established as already having all the knowledge that the player is able to gain, it all works swimmingly.

At first, ATD appears to be exactly this sort of game. It certainly requires quite a few iterations to win (or even to understand, really), and the PC is shown to have much more specific knowledge of the surrounding area and of her specific task than a player will on the first time through. However, partway through, something happens that the game clearly specifies as a surprise to the PC, something not included in her original plan. Consequently, she has to think on her feet in order to recover and still succeed at her goal. The only problem is, she can’t reasonably do that without knowledge of past lives.

A successful traversal of ATD requires not only knowledge of the circumstances and the setting, but advance knowledge of something that the game itself definitively states that the PC does not know in advance. Here, I cry foul. I’m not complaining that the game is unfair — it does an admirable job of warning players upfront that it’s going to be unfair, and I’m fine with that. However, it’s constructed in such a way that its story cannot make sense. The puzzles still work, but the unbelievability of the PC’s actions causes the story essentially to self-destruct.

There’s another problem too, one that causes the logic of the central puzzle to fall apart. Unfortunately, it’s terribly difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. About the best I can muster at the moment is that if I follow the solution as laid out in the walkthrough, it seems to me that one of the central problems presented by the game remains unsolved, though the game does not acknowledge that this is the case. Because I was crafting my puzzle solutions to avoid this unsolved state (and having a hell of a time solving the puzzle as a result), I was rather flummoxed when I finally broke down and looked at the walkthrough. It was unsatisfying to end the game feeling as if it hadn’t played by its own rules.

Now, as I said initially, the environment in this game is really quite complex, and it’s possible (likely, even) that my objections stem from a careless or incomplete understanding of how the game is actually working. If that’s the case, I look forward to withdrawing my complaints once somebody explains how I’m being dense. Even if not, the game is eminently worth playing just for its clever premise and a couple of excellent puzzles. It may play a bit fast and loose with its concept, and its ending may be a bit anticlimactic, but I highly recommend it nonetheless.

Rating: 9.0

Moments Out Of Time by L. Ross Raszewski [Comp01]

IFDB page: Moments Out Of Time
Final placement: 2nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I found myself both rationally and irrationally annoyed with this game. Let me start with the irrational, since it’s least defensible. Near as I can tell, there is no interpreter that can utilize all the effects of which the game is capable. As an author and a member of the IF community, I understand the reason for this perfectly. The way that things seem to go is that specifications get created for interpreters, zcode formats, multimedia package formats, and suchlike, but they don’t ever tend to get implemented. Why? Because there are no games that use these extended capabilities, so what’s the rush? But of course there are no games, because why produce games with unusable features?

These gears turn each other forever, getting nowhere, and Moments Out Of Time is intended as a crowbar stuck between the gears; from that perspective I applaud it. Hopefully this game will act as a prod (well, maybe a shove) to interpreter authors, and someday there will be an interpreter that can play it. In the meantime, though, from a player’s perspective, it’s a little irritating. It’s rather like being handed a book and told “Oh, some of the pages have illustrations, but you won’t be able to see them without some special perspect-o-vision glasses. But, uh, those glasses don’t currently exist. They might someday, though!” Sure, I’ll still read the book, but it’s a drag to feel like I’m missing the full experience. I understand the reasoning, but still feel irrationally annoyed at being presented with a thing that doesn’t completely work, and that irritation probably colored my experience with the rest of the game.

Of course, there were a number of completely legitimate reasons to be annoyed with this game. For one thing, it is that judges’ bane, the Way-Too-Big Comp Game. Two hours is a completely inappropriate amount of time for evaluating this game. It took me 45 minutes just to read the various manuals and introductory materials, for heaven’s sake. Before I’d even started the game proper, I’d already used up about a third of my judging time. Then there’s the fact that the game offers a zillion different tools, but only allows a few per game session — sure, it’s great for replay value, but how much replaying am I going to do in two hours? Oh, and how about this: even after reading the massive manuals, there were still parts of the interface that were totally unexplained. Here’s a hint for anyone struggling with the conversation portion: don’t use ASK, TELL, or NPC, . Instead, just type the answer at the command line. If you don’t know the answer, type DONE. I figured this out by pure guessing, thereby using more precious time.

Also aggravating was that the game implements the square bracket (“[“) for making notes at the prompt. Okay, that’s not aggravating, that’s cool. What’s aggravating is that 1) You have to type a space after the bracket in order for the game to handle it properly, and 2) Making bracketed notes takes game time, one turn per note! This wouldn’t be so bad, except that there are a number of time limits worked into the game, so making the comment command non-meta effectively penalizes the player for using the game’s built-in notation system. Finally, despite the fact that Moments boasts an amazing amount of technical polish, it suffers in several places from what I can only call lazy implementation. You may find a book which can’t be referred to as “book”. You may be told something by the narrative voice that you couldn’t possibly know, given that it’s happening hundreds of miles away. You may find (details changed to prevent spoilage) a hidden cache in the floorboards, but when you “examine cache”, you will be told “You can’t, because the floorboards is closed.” Oh they is, is they?

Okay, enough spleen-venting. It’s just too bad, because there are the bones of an amazing game here. The plot revolves around a future time-travel agency, and the world-building evident in the details of this is just wonderful. Also, some of the things that make it inappropriate for the competition don’t necessarily make it a bad game. Quite the contrary, in fact — the number of options available makes for an incredibly rich gameworld. I kept wondering what would have happened had I chosen a different array of technology at the beginning, while still quite awed by the capabilities of what I had chosen. I feel I barely scratched the surface of the story, and the scenario was interesting enough that I’m quite curious to see all the things I missed.

The writing did a nice job at establishing a consistent tone, and provided plenty of amusing juxtapositions as the future character examines technology that is primitive to him/her. I saw the beginnings of a number of intriguing puzzles, though there’s an overwhelming array of keys and locked doors, and the game’s auto-unlock feature appeared to me to be broken.

All in all, a very worthy effort, but I wish it wasn’t a competition game. Releasing this game outside the competition would have accrued several benefits. It would have allowed more time to fix those nasty details of implementation and documentation. Players could have approached it as something they could spend a significant amount of time on, rather than having to rush through it to see as much as possible while not giving short shrift to the other 51 games awaiting their attention. And it wouldn’t have been presented for formal judging in a not-completely-functional state. Would have, would have, would have. If only real time travel were possible.

Rating: 5.6

Vicious Cycles by Simon Mark [Comp01]

IFDB page: Vicious Cycles
Final placement: 6th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Note: Because Vicious Cycles gives so little away upfront about its content, this review could be considered a wee bit spoilery. If you’re terribly averse to that sort of thing, go play it first. It’s worth playing.]

Timing can really be a bitch sometimes. Vicious Cycles takes terrorism as one of its subjects, and isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the terrorist in question. This choice was almost certainly made before 9/11, and before that date I think I might have been much better able to make the emotional leap that the game encourages. Today, though… having been inundated with news of the real people whose real lives have been affected by terrorism, and felt the consequent wrenching emotions, I found it difficult not to project those emotions onto the game’s fictional scenario, and that made me a lot less receptive to the story than I probably should have been. That story was a good one (though perhaps just a trifle hackneyed in its presentation of a dystopic future where corporations rule the world and advertising is all-pervasive), but I just wasn’t the best audience for it today. Still, even taking those reactions into account, there is a lot to appreciate about Vicious Cycles.

The game’s best feature is its central concept, which is a great riff on the nature of IF. You play a character hooked into a “time-shunt” and trying to prevent a disaster from occurring. The way the device works is that it sends your consciousness back in time, to inhabit the body of a bystander, whose actions you may then control in your attempt to prevent the disaster. If you don’t manage to stop the catastrophe, you’re shunted back to the beginning of the scenario, to try again with a different sequence of actions. In Groundhog Day, a similar concept was played for laughs, but here the iterations are deadly serious, a race against time with horrible consequences.

I thought this sequence was very well-designed indeed, going against the typical IF grain to fine effect. Here, not only do you learn from each death, but you actually must learn from your deaths in order to make progress on the problem. Having just finished (and loved) Planescape: Torment, where the main character is immortal and death is sometimes a necessary puzzle-solving component, I appreciated this twist very much. The overall puzzle is intricate and satisfying to solve, and the game does an excellent job of slowly doling out information as the PC gets closer and closer to completing the scenario.

Unfortunately, bad timing isn’t the only thing that drags the game down. The author credits testers, and I’ve no doubt that the game has received at least some testing — the main sequence hangs together well enough. However, either the author ran out of time to fix all the problems, or further testing is necessary, because little glitches abound. These bugs range from things like typos and misspellings to responses printed on the wrong turn, and in one case even a death that didn’t restart the time-shunt cycle. Troubles like this happened frequently enough that I was often jolted out of an otherwise absorbing story by their presence. I sincerely hope the author puts out a post-competition version of the game, with the final polish complete; when and if that happens, Vicious Cycles will be a sparkling IF experience, at least for an audience not overly sensitized to the terrors of terrorism.

Rating: 8.6