Mingsheng by Deane Saunders [Comp04]

IFDB page: Mingsheng
Final placement: 7th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Less than plot or character, Mingsheng is about a place and a mood. The mood-setting begins before the game even starts, with the inclusion of a nicely-formatted PDF feelie, replete with Chinese characters and martial arts diagrams. This document explains that the game is based on a myth about the origins of Taiji, or as I’ve always known it, T’ai Chi — thus all the Chinese martial arts stuff. I appreciated the care that was put into this accessory, and I also liked the fact that the same information was available in a PDF, as a text file, and within the game. It made me grin when I realized that somebody had trumped me in the “ABOUT text in multiple spots” department.

The Chinese feel continues in the formatting of the game, which includes the option of Unicode Chinese characters as “flavor text”. These characters appear mostly in room titles, and apparently just repeat the room name in Chinese, so if you miss them, all you’re missing is a mood enhancer. And a lucky thing, too, because they require a font that supports Chinese characters. The author suggests a font called Simsun, which I don’t have installed on my PC. I would have appreciated a pointer to where I could download a compatible font; instead, I floundered for a while, combing the unhelpful results of googling on “simsun font” and finally giving up. [Note: After the comp, the author provided a link.] The game gives the option of transliterating the Chinese characters (complete with numerical tone markers), but it’s really not the same.

Past the meta-game stuff, the game sets a lovely tone with its room and object descriptions. Mingsheng calls on some lovely imagery — the tableau of perfectly still lake and crane, the worn-down pagoda, the six-thousand-step staircase carved into mountain rock. A particular favorite of mine is the path flanked by animal statues, statues that are implemented several levels deep. The game did an excellent job of making me feel like I was wandering through an Asian painting, enmeshed within a mythical realm.

As I said, tone is the game’s emphasis, and there’s not much of a story to go along with it. A plot summary would be something like “guy solves a bunch of puzzles and along the way attains enlightenment.” Many of those puzzles are pretty straightforward. That’s not a criticism — I’m a fan of straightforward puzzles. Struggling too long at any particular obstacle would likely break the mood that Mingsheng works so hard to set. There was one puzzle, though, that annoyed me in a way I don’t remember having seen before in IF. Actually, it wasn’t so much the puzzle that bothered me as the implementation of the solution.

The conceit is that the PC must learn something by observation before being allowed to pass a particular barrier. Several puzzles must be solved in order to set up the situation where the PC is able to observe and learn. However, once I’d accomplished this, I figured I’d learned what I needed to know, and headed straight to the barrier, which was only two moves away. However, when I tried to pass it, I couldn’t. I was flummoxed, feeling sure that I’d seen what I needed to see. However, as I wandered around trying to figure out what I’d missed, the game kept popping up messages every turn or two along the lines of “Now that you think of it, you realize X.” After no less than four of these messages, they finally stopped, and when I went back to the barrier, I was able to cross it.

I found this technique irritating. Not only would an “all-at-once” realization be a bit more dramatic, it would also be a major improvement from a gameplay standpoint. I don’t want to have to wait for the PC to catch up with me when I figure something out, and wandering around or typing “Z.Z.Z.Z.” while I’m waiting is mighty dull. Another puzzle quibble: there’s an object that requires “a great deal of force” to be applied to it. The solution to this puzzle is cool, and I liked it very much. However, there’s an alternate solution which the game actually implements, but doesn’t seem to want to count as enough force, when it should be easily the match of the working solution. This alternate path should either be included fully or not at all.

Small criticisms aside, I thought Mingsheng was well worth my time, especially for what time it took — the game is pretty short, and when I finished, I felt like I hadn’t actually done that much. Alongside the brevity, though, there’s something else that made it feel not quite complete. Actually, though I rarely say this, I think this is a game that could be greatly improved with the inclusion of some quality graphics. Certainly some visual depictions of key locations, a la Trading Punches, could have helped deepen the mood and setting even further. However, the place they’d really be useful is when the game gets to describing actual martial arts poses. For instance, after a certain point in the game the PC gains the ability to practice stances (which are named after elements) by typing the name of the stance, like so:

You are not in combat at the moment, but you rehearse the stance anyway.

You quickly get into the earth stance:

You balance your weight evenly upon both legs, both slightly bent to keep your stance grounded. Your right hand is held out in front of you, fingers open, palm facing directly forward. Your left hand is also held palm open, but at your side - facing forwards at a slight downward angle.

Now, I can carefully read through this description, act it out a little bit, and get a pretty clear mental picture, but I have to really stop and work at it. However, if a diagram of the stance had been included, I’d understand it much more quickly, and the flow of the game would continue far more smoothly. This isn’t a complaint, but rather a hopeful suggestion. Even without graphics, Mingsheng draws some lovely pictures.

Rating: 8.3

Trading Punches by Mike Snyder as Sidney Merk [Comp04]

IFDB page: Trading Punches
Final placement: 10th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Trading Punches is a lovely piece of work, with a good story and a fine design. It’s also got some flaws, so let me tackle those first, and then I’ll move on to the loveliness. The first problem I had with the game may be more just an idiosyncratic reaction: I found much of its prose rough going. It’s not that the writing was error-laden or terribly awkward — it’s just that I kept finding myself wanting to skim over it, and having to concentrate to actually read it. The problem was most severe in long room descriptions and infodumps, of which the game has many. I’m not sure whether the prose was just too dense for me, or whether it was some question of style, or what. I know that’s an unhelpful reaction, but it was my reaction nonetheless.

One definite problem with the style is that the game goes way overboard on a particular gimmick for making things sound SFnal: word-mating. Thus, the PC wanders around a landscape of “mossgrass” and “elmpines”, watching the “peacrows” and then later drinking some “brandyrum” and “whiskeygin”. Yeesh! A little of this strategy goes a long way, and Trading Punches had way more than a little; it sounded pretty silly in short order. Finally, though the game was obviously tested, a few significant bugs made it into this version. For one thing, certain commands, like “score”, draw no response at all from the game. Even more seriously, there’s a class of locations with one exit that consistently thrusts the player into a formless void from which there is no escape. At first, I thought this effect might be intentional, but further experimentation demonstrated that it’s almost certainly accidental.

So yes, Trading Punches has some problems, but I still ended my play session feeling very happy with it. Why? Well, for starters, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, and aside from the excessive word-mating, the setting felt nicely realized as well. In general, the plot and the game-world felt reminiscent of the work of Orson Scott Card, which I like very much. I don’t know if the author of Trading Punches is familiar with Card, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that influence on this game. It’s got plenty of Card’s hallmarks: bitter rivalry within a family, affecting the larger world and universe on a grand scale; a gifted protagonist with a strong moral center who has a significant impact by helping (or trying to help) others; and strong familial bonds offsetting the deep familial schisms elsewhere.

The aliens in the game feel original and well-imagined, and lend themselves to symbolic use as well. I also appreciated the design of the game — its central story of sibling rivalry is told through chapters that don’t hammer the point too hard, but still make it quite clear how the enmity grows between the two brothers. By skipping forward in time to the most important incidents in their relationship, the game develops the character of both the PC and his brother quite satisfyingly. Situating the chapters within a frame story works very well to knit the disparate pieces, and the game does an excellent job of weaving revelations about the frame story into the content of the chapters and vice versa. Unfortunately, two hours wasn’t quite enough time for me to get through it, partly because of my denseness around one of the puzzles. However, a glance at the walkthrough shows that I was most of the way through, and I felt regret at having to stop the game and write this review, which is clear evidence that the story had me hooked.

Even aside from the story and the design (and its bugs and prose tics notwithstanding), Trading Punches boasts an impressive amount of craft. Especially noteworthy are the game’s cool multimedia components. Each chapter (and each return to the frame story) begins with a full-screen graphic. These graphics are quite lovely, and do an excellent job of establishing the landscape. I found this especially helpful as I struggled with the dense prose’s attempts at scene-setting. The illustrations look as though they were created in some kind of graphics rendering software, and consequently have a bit of a Myst-like feel to them, which is a good thing.

Also effective is the game’s music, a synthesized soundtrack which loops constantly in the background. The music is generally quite effective at enhancing the mood of a particular scene, though some of the musical pieces don’t have enough melody or complexity to withstand the constant looping. No matter how good an eight-bar tune is, it’s bound to get a little grating on the hundredth repetition. The game itself is quite solid, too — it’s clear that a whole lot of effort went into this project. Aside from the few bugs I mentioned in the first paragraph, I found the code pleasantly error-free, and the same goes for the writing. The puzzles worked well for me, and the game did an excellent job of providing cues to help me know what I ought to try next. One item in particular was not only quite well-implemented, but also provided an excellent emotional through-line for the story.

Trading Punches still has a few details to clean up, and the word-mating has to go, but I’d recommend it without hesitation, especially to fans of dramatic fantasy games like Worlds Apart.

Rating: 9.2

About my 2004 IF Competition Reviews

2004 was a year of endings for me, in terms of my IF hobby. First, to my great relief, I was able to complete the final game in my Earth and Sky trilogy, and what would turn out to be my final competition entry. To my great amazement, that game ended up winning the 2004 competition, which was a fantastic way to go out.

In addition, 2004 was the final year where I attempted to review all the comp games, or at least all the comp games that weren’t written by known newsgroup trolls. There were a few different reasons for this, as I explained in a “postscript” post on rec.games.int-fiction. Those included some amount of burnout on my part, and my growing sense of guilt about the part I played in making the competition such a black hole at the center of the IF community’s galaxy. I alluded much more blithely to what was really the central fact behind it all: my life was changing. In November of 2004, I knew that my wife was pregnant, and that our child was expected in June of 2005. Reasonably, I didn’t see myself devoting 6 weeks in November of that year to hardcore IF playing and reviewing.

I don’t think I realized at the time just how much being a parent would completely consume my time and energy. I certainly didn’t realize at the time that I would also be starting a new job immediately after Dante was born. When I wrote that postscript, I expected that I’d still be playing and reviewing longer games even after leaving the comp crunch. Well, some of that happened, but for the most part, not so much. Dante’s birth marked my exit, more or less, from the IF community. I handed off SPAG to new editor Jimmy Maher, more or less withdrew from the newsgroups, and pretty much checked out of IF, at least until the 2010 PAX East convention where Jason Scott screened an early cut of Get Lamp.

Even after that, right up to now, my involvement has been sporadic. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, though populating this blog has been a wonderful way to revisit those IF-heavy years of my life, and to spur me towards more reviewing ideas, such as the Infocom >RESTART project. More about that, and the future of the blog, after this last batch of comp reviews.

Comp04 was a great one to go out on, and not just because I won. There were some games I really loved, including the time-travel mindbender All Things Devours, the sci-fi drama Trading Punches, and my favorite of the year, a trippy psychological journey called Blue Chairs, whose protagonist happens to be named… Dante. Blue Chairs, incidentally, was written by Chris Klimas, who would go on to create Twine and therefore have the biggest impact on the competition since Whizzard himself.

That’s all in the future, at least the future of the guy who published these reviews on November 16, 2004 — one last big comp hurrah.