Eragon by Unknown [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2006.]

IFDB Page: Eragon

Eragon Vs. Bygone Era

IF aficionados have often made the argument that the medium could have a commercial comeback if marketed in the right way. Forget gamers, the line of reasoning goes. Instead, interactive fiction should be sold in bookstores, right alongside the books, appealing to an educated, literary audience that sees “all words no pictures” as an advantage rather than a drawback. After all, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of Infocom’s biggest hits, and it seems reasonable to conclude that that game drew much of its audience from people who loved the books. (Leave aside for a moment the tremendous overlap between fans of those books and computer nerds.) Perhaps the beginning of this IF resurgence might be text games appearing on author websites, inviting fans of that author to experience their favorite fictional world interactively, possibly re-enacting some key scenes, or filling in some narrative gaps from the paper stories.

I’m not sure I believe that IF will ever experience a commercial comeback on any significant scale, but I love the idea of skilled authors with large fanbases creating text adventures. Consequently, I was excited to learn that Christopher Paolini, author of the “Inheritance Trilogy” of young adult fantasy novels, had placed a text adventure on his site, set in those books’ universe. I’ve never read Paolini’s work, but his books seem to be popular with the kids, what with the first one spending months on the New York Times’ bestseller list and having over a million copies in print. The fact that such a popular author was offering interactive fiction based on his books seemed quite promising to me, and I was eager to check it out. A web browser is a lousy place to play a text adventure of any size, given that Zplet doesn’t provide for SAVE and RESTORE, so once I found the game I dug the zcode file out of my browser cache and played it locally. It would be nice if the author’s web site had provided an easier option for downloading the game file, but that’s a forgivable lapse. I fired up the game, all energized about the bright possibilities.

Unfortunately, that energy evaporated almost immediately. The first thing I did was turn transcripting on, and saw this:

Start of a transcript of
Release 1 / Serial number 050712 / Inform v6.30 Library 6/11 SD
Standard interpreter 1.1 (4F) / Library serial number 040227

Uh-oh. Debugging verbs left on: not a good sign. Also, what’s with the subtitle being just the title with a period added in? Finally, where’s the author credit? Did Paolini actually write this game, or did he leave his name off because some employee or fan of his is the real author?

Having played the game, I’d put my money on the latter. Both in terms of design and prose style, Eragon feels like the product of a member of its intended audience: readers in their early teens. At the very least, given the number of comma splices and grammatical missteps in the game, I think it’s safe to say that this prose has never seen the services of a professional editor. The milieu of the game itself feels like Tolkien with just a few of the serial numbers rubbed off — apparently you’re a dwarf in the tunnels under “Farthen Dûr”. Your quest is to warn the “Varden” (i.e. the good guys) that an “army of Urgals” (i.e. orcs) is approaching. In the process, you’ll come across some magic dust that makes people fall asleep, mysterious runes concealing hidden rooms, huge underground chambers, and so forth. It’s bog-standard stuff.

As for the game itself, well, I wish the news was better. It’s not that this game is out-and-out terrible. Worse games get submitted to every single IF competition. However, it suffers from some very serious flaws. The worst of these is the way it deploys a kind of “selective parsing” that makes it feel like a product of 1983, despite having been produced with Inform 6. Several times throughout Eragon, I found that the parser would claim not to understand a particular formulation, only to specifically require that formulation at a later point. This kind of thing is simply unacceptable in a text adventure — if you tell me a command is not understood, don’t expect me to try it again. A variation on this is the way that at certain junctures I found myself wrestling with the parser, trying to communicate a specific idea, only to learn that the game would only accept the most generic command possible, doing all the rest of the heavy lifting itself. Here’s an example, altered to remove spoilers:

The stone trap door is covered with finely carved runes and etchings
of intertwined dragons. There is an empty space in the center, just
about the size of the marble orb.

Putting things on the Trap Door would achieve nothing.

I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

The door is locked, and simply impassable.

You can't put something inside itself.

I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

The orb slips perfectly back into place, becoming one with the door.
The door, now unlocked, automatically begins to slide open, dragging
heavily along the floor.

The puzzles themselves are pitched at a good level for kids, but any kid would be driven crazy by how frequently this game fails to parse.

Alongside the technical failures is some highly irritating design, the centerpiece of which is a large maze. This maze isn’t terribly challenging — the game is kind enough to give each location a distinctive name, like “Maze M18”, “Hallway H6”, and so forth — but it is so, so dull. Wandering through one empty location after another, following the left hand wall, is not my idea of a good time. Hilariously, the game helps orient you by telling you that you hear singing, loudly or faintly, from a particular direction, but when you get to the source of the sound it seems to forget that it ever mentioned singing. There’s a person there, but I never saw her sing. In addition, there are several spots where I flummoxed the game by doing things in a different order than it expected. For instance, there’s a library section where I thumbed through the books and was told, “Upon realizing that this is not the book you are looking for, you return the book to its place on the shelf.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet met the character who told me what book to look for, which made that message rather nonsensical. I’d venture to guess that the game was written to a walkthrough and not playtested thoroughly enough to uncover its hidden assumptions. Tons of formatting errors, capricious capitalization, and logical lapses add to the unpolished feeling.

I realize that all this criticism is negative, and I don’t mean to be too discouraging, especially if Eragon was written by some young Paolini fan as a labor of love. I think the lesson that emerges from this game is that although it would be great for popular writers to offer interactive fiction based on their works, they should probably do so in collaboration with experienced IF authors if they’re unfamiliar with modern IF themselves. After all, even Douglas Adams didn’t try to write the Hitchhiker’s game himself — the participation of Steve Meretzky helped ensure that the game would not be a hash of bugs and mainframe-era game design cliches. Similarly, modern authors would do well to avail themselves of the knowledge contained within the modern text adventure community. Combining a popular writer’s skill and imagination with the technical expertise and experience of an established IF creator would be most likely to result in a game that puts both the author’s works and interactive fiction itself in the best light. Without that creator’s insight, you run the risk of games like Eragon, which makes IF fans want to avoid more Paolini and Paolini fans want to avoid more IF.

Identity Thief by Rob Shaw-Fuller [Comp02]

IFDB page: Identity Thief
Final placement: 13th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

A couple of years ago, there was a comp game called VOID:CORPORATION, which proclaimed itself to be cyberpunk. Unfortunately, as I said in my review, what it did instead was “just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes”, and was consequently pretty weak. Only a few days ago, I heard from the author of that game, who had just found my review and thanked me for writing it, so V:C was on my mind when I saw Identity Thief describe itself in Comp02 as “a cyberpunk interaction.”

Happily, this game exceeds its predecessor by a long stretch. Rather than being thinly disguised versions of Tolkien or Zork, Identity Thief‘s characters, settings, objects, and plot arise organically from a much more science-fictional premise, a premise nicely limned in the game’s optional introductory material. The prose maintains a very fine level throughout, sometimes even hitting rather sublime and poetic metaphors. The gadgets, such as implanted hands with “memory plastic” that can store palmprints of anyone whose hand you clasp, are delightful and have a great “wow factor.” What’s more, the story starts out with an arresting setup, moves quickly into a high pitch of urgency, and then keeps going into stranger and stranger territory.

I was particularly taken with what I suppose you might call the game’s second half. [I’ll try to be pretty vague here, but some of what follows could be construed as mild spoilage.] The first half involves completing a particular task, and indeed the first pleasant surprise is that there’s still more game to go when that task is completed — I fully expected the story to end, but instead I was asked to do the next logical thing, given what had happened up to that point. As that second scenario progressed, I felt more and more uneasy, suspecting that some big whammy was coming my way, but I didn’t try to get away. I didn’t even want to try to get away, because I knew that wasn’t what the character would do, even though the character himself was probably sharing my apprehensions.

Through its excellent writing and careful plotting, the game had cemented such a solid emotional connection between the PC and myself that I never flipped into the more “gamelike” state of mind that would attempt to obtain the most favorable outcome no matter how its methods might jar against the character or the story. This sort of split consciousness is essential to dramatic irony, and is exceedingly difficult to achieve in IF. Identity Thief achieved it, at least for me, and deserves a great deal of praise for that.

Where the game falls apart, though, is in its depth of implementation. The first part of the game has the PC hunting for a particular object, but a great many reasonable commands related to such a hunt were met with the response “You have better things to do.” This is unsatisfying not just because it thwarts my attempts to solve the puzzle, but because it’s patently false — the PC’s highest priority ought to be to carry out just such actions.

Another area where the implementation seems particularly threadbare is in its major NPC. This NPC, when questioned with the right word, rarely fails to offer large quantities of information, much of it critical to the plot. However, those words can be difficult to determine, and to pretty much every other topic, the NPC responds, “I do not understand your question.” And while that statement may be perfectly true, it is not sufficient.

As a result of these problems of shallowness, Identity Thief feels like it’s one or two drafts away from being finished — bugs and prose errors are rather rare (though not entirely absent), but the game could still benefit greatly from a beta-testing session that addressed not only things the tester finds that don’t work properly, but also things the tester tries that don’t prompt a unique response. Identity Thief is already a good game, but as yet it lacks the polish to be anything more.

Rating: 8.8

Fort Aegea by Francesco Bova [Comp02]

IFDB page: Fort Aegea
Final placement: 8th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I have more thoughts about Fort Aegea than I’ll be able to fit into these few paragraphs, and I’m a little concerned about it. See, I think this game’s shortcomings may be more interesting than its successes, but if I spend more time talking about flaws than strengths, I may give the mistaken impression that I didn’t enjoy it. So let me clear that up right now: I liked Fort Aegea quite a bit. Most of the game is really fun — it has several good puzzles and action sequences, a nice propulsive plot, and some surprising and well-drawn details.

In addition, the game employs spellcasting, which is a kick — there are lots of moments that measure up to anything in Enchanter, and the spells have the added virtue of being particularly well-suited to the character and thus helping to further define her. The game felt quite well-tested and proofread to me — I found a few syntactical errors here and there, and maybe one or two bugs, but on the other side there are a number of rather complicated effects that the game produces with admirable smoothness.

Oh, and lest I forget, Fort Aegea has some of the most gorgeous feelies I’ve ever seen with an amateur game, hand-drawn maps that positively exude Tolkien. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game to anyone who enjoys Dungeons-and-Dragons-influenced fantasy IF, especially games in the Enchanter vein.

Very well then, now that that’s out of the way, I want to look more closely at a few things that tarnish this game’s shine. First, let’s talk about that D&D influence. I’ve been on a yearlong Bioware jag, so the D&D rules are fresh in my mind, and this game hews so closely to them that it may as well have a Wizards Of The Coast logo in its banner. The main character is a druid, with spells like “Entangle” and “Warp Wood”, who cannot use edged weapons but carries a mace and plate armor into battle. The game explains the philosophy of her order as one that strove to be “one with the world and viewed good and evil, and law and chaos as balancing forces of nature which were necessary for the continuation of all things.”

For anyone familiar with AD&D rules, this material will ring a churchful of bells. This, in itself, is not a terrible thing, though it feels a bit boilerplate, as if the story’s characters don’t really live and breathe in their own fictional universe but are cookie-cut from prefab templates. Where things really break down is when the characters start speaking as if they themselves are D&D players:

“He’s the fabled Green Dragon, and he’s not been seen or heard from
in over a century! What we know of him we’ve gathered from the Great
Book of the Dragons and here are the specifics: He’s vicious and he
has a ferocious breath weapon; one that unfortunately we don’t have a
defence for.”

It strains the limits of my belief to think that a person who actually coexists with dragons would talk about their “breath weapons” — it’s just a little too close to saying something like “take a look at this fine sword — it’s +2!”. In addition, there are linguistic anachronisms sprinkled throughout the text, such as the adventuring expedition that a history book characterizes as a “public relations nightmare.”

The net effect of these choices is to drain the scenario of fictional credibility. Every D&D reference, every anachronism makes the game feel less like a story and more like an exercise — instead of drawing us into its world, Fort Aegea keeps reminding us of ours. Instead of breaking, mimesis simply stretches thinner and thinner until it’s nearly transparent.

Here’s another way that happens: for much of the game’s plot, the PC’s objective is to stay alive until nightfall, while being hunted. In the course of trying to do this, she finds several spots that would make outstanding hiding places, where one could easily wait out a day, emerging victorious after the sun sets. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t allow any actual time to pass while the PC sits in these places, no matter how many times the player may type “z.” I know, because I tried.

It was one of the slowest mimesis breaks ever — the more I saw the “Time passes” message, the more convinced I became that no time was passing. Once I knew that I needed to conform to the game’s puzzly expectations in order to complete the scenario, my emotional involvement evaporated — probably a good thing given that several horrible, unstoppable events occur in the course of play. Fort Aegea has a great deal of fun to offer as a game, but as a story, I found it a pretty inhospitable place.

Rating: 8.5