Bless her, Laura A. Knauth just keeps getting better and better. Just about the time I was getting starved for a really good competition game, along comes Winter Wonderland, a charming and delightful piece of interactive fiction. By far the best thing about this game is its atmosphere. Winter Wonderland exudes a magical, storybook air that is enchanting without being saccharine. The heroine of the story is a young girl from a poor family who suddenly finds herself in a… well, you can probably guess what she finds herself in. A Winter Wonderland. The setting is just lovely, well-imagined and full of vivid, captivating images. A few of these images are present just for atmosphere’s sake, but the majority of them are puzzle components, and many of the puzzles are clever and fun. What Winter Wonderland does so well is to combine the nifty puzzles from Trapped In A One-Room Dilly with the sense of magical landscape from Travels In The Land of Erden, and adds to the combination a thematic specificity that is all its own and that works beautifully. The links between the puzzles feel very plausible because the entire setting is very consistent, and solving the puzzles rewards the player not only by allowing advancement through the plot, but often as well by presenting another appealing image to add to the already dense atmosphere. Romping around the snowy landscape encountering sprites, fairies and dryads was a great deal of fun for me, and the intricate and ingenious ways in which they presented interlocking puzzles was a real source of pleasure as well.
There are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles, unfortunately. The game has two sections that aren’t exactly mazes, but feel enough like mazes to provoke some annoyance. By the time you figure out how to solve them, you’ll have done a fair piece of mapping, and while there are no “trick exits” and everything connects to everything else in a fairly logical way, just the mapping alone is enough to make the whole area seem pretty tedious. In addition, there are a number of misspellings and a few parser problems which detract from the immersiveness of the game. I’ve emailed the author about these, and I’m optimistic they’ll be cleaned up in a future release. Even so, these flaws don’t ruin Winter Wonderland, simply because it has so many strong points alongside them. In addition, for each of the mazelike areas the puzzle isn’t the maze itself. In other words, the challenge of the area isn’t simply to map it and find the other end — each one contains its own puzzle, and both puzzles are intelligent and fairly well-clued. So for those of you who hate mazes, I recommend playing the game anyway. They aren’t all that onerous, and if you start to get frustrated, you can consult the excellent on-line hints.
The other area where the game really shines is in its technical prowess. While it isn’t a graphical game, Winter Wonderland does provide some ASCII art, much like last year’s Downtown Tokyo did. The art enhances the game’s atmosphere, but doesn’t conceal any crucial clues. Instead, it feels similar to the pictures shown at the beginning and end of On The Farm — images that enrich the text but are not necessary for enjoyment of the game. The author thoughtfully provides a “BARE” mode for those whose interpreters don’t handle such things well. In addition to its ASCII graphics, Winter Wonderland also uses the status line in innovative ways. It’s four lines high and includes score, location, and a compass rose indicating the available exits. We’ve seen the status line compass rose before, but I found myself using this on-screen mapping feature more than I ever have in any other game which provided it. The landscape is complicated enough that the compass rose feels like a real aid to gameplay rather than just a frivolous but useless feature. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the onscreen mapping in Beyond Zork, and felt about as useful to me. In addition, with an interpreter that handles color correctly the status line changes color subtly to enhance the atmosphere of the area the PC finds herself in. When she’s by a roaring fire, the status line is yellow and orange. When she’s in a moonlit snowscape, the letters are various shades of lighter and darker blues. What’s more, in some snowy scenes we actually see a few snowflakes show up in the status line, another attractive touch to embroider this already charming game. Winter Wonderland feels magical and joyous, and deserves to place highly in this year’s competition.