Winter Wonderland by Laura A. Knauth [Comp99]

IFDB page: Winter Wonderland
Final placement: 1st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

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.

Rating: 8.7

Trapped In A One-Room Dilly by Laura A. Knauth [Comp98]

IFDB page: Trapped in a One-Room Dilly
Final placement: 8th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

OK, probably the first thing I should confess is that I’m not hip enough to know what a “dilly” is. My handy dictionary suggests that it means “something remarkable of its kind” — their example is “a dilly of a movie.” Somehow I don’t think that’s what’s meant here. So, judging from context, I’m going to assume that “dilly” means “relatively enjoyable puzzle game with good coding and writing, but a few guess-the-verb problems and sometimes not enough synonyms implemented.” If this is what dilly really means, then Trapped In A One-Room Dilly has the most accurate title of any game in the 1998 competition. Like many others in this year’s competition, Dilly is very puzzle-oriented. Perhaps what we’re seeing this year is a bit of a backlash against the periodically swelling outcries for “puzzleless IF.” If backlash it is, I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. Sometimes because literature has so much more cultural capital than puzzles, we can get into a mindset which tries to shun puzzles in favor of an elusive brand of literary merit. Don’t get me wrong — I myself am much more interested in IF for its literary qualities than its puzzles, but I also think it’s important to remember that (for some of us, anyway) there is also a pleasure in puzzle-solving, the “crossword” part of IF as opposed to the “narrative” part. I believe that interactive fiction can cover a very wide spectrum indeed, but that there will always be a place for puzzle-oriented IF on that spectrum, and I’ll probably always enjoy a really well-done puzzle game.

Dilly is the closest I’ve seen yet in this competition to that lofty standard, but before I talk about the things it does right, I have to take one step back and talk about a game from last year. The author of Dilly entered a game in last year’s competition called Travels in the Land of Erden. Ironically, these two games could not be more different. Erden was a sprawling, gigantic game with an enormous map, any number of subplots, and a generally broad scope. When reviewing that game, I wrote about the benefits of focus, and suggested that “if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted.” Well, when I’m right, I’m right. Dilly benefits enormously from having a much tighter focus than Erden. The game narrows its scope to (as you might have guessed from the title) one room, and the room is a really interesting room, full of enough gadgets and gewgaws to keep me busy for two hours. At no time in Dilly did I lack for something to figure out, look at, or do. The game crams about 10 puzzles into this one room, but it didn’t feel particularly strained to me. In fact, Dilly makes a sly gibe about its lack of plot by including a bookshelf full of books whose plots are plausible explanations for your situation (Intelligence testing, alien abduction, the bomb shelter of a wealthy wacko, etc.). The puzzles are generally creative and fun, and all of the coding and writing is technically proficient.

Well, almost all. The only times I ran into trouble with Dilly were when I was close enough to the solution of a puzzle that I should have received some slight confirmation, but the game didn’t provide it. For example, at one point in the game something is ticking and vibrating. If you listen closely to this object, you can hear it ticking. However, if you touch it “you feel nothing unusual.” This is one of those instances where after I found out what was happening, I felt cheated. If I’m that close, I want at least a little nudge. In another instance, I had more of a guess-the-verb problem — the game wants you to tie two things together with a rope, as in “TIE FROG TO LOG.” (That’s not really what you’re tying, but I’m trying to avoid the spoiler here.) However, if you first “TIE ROPE TO LOG” you get a message along the lines of “That’s useless.” If I had tried “TIE ROPE TO FROG” first, the game would have picked up on what I meant to do, but I didn’t make that lucky guess. I don’t like to be put in the position of making lucky guesses. Nonetheless, these are relatively minor problems, easy to fix. They didn’t stop me from enjoying my time in the one-room… whatever it was.

Rating: 8.5

Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza by Michael Zey [Comp97]

IFDB page: Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza
Final placement: 19th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Before I begin, let me make it clear that I’m a fan of silly, absurd humor. I’m a loyal Monty Python watcher. I think The Jerk and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure are two of the best movies ever made. I gave last year’s competition entry Phlegm an 8.5 because it cracked me up. Consequently, I had high hopes for any game that would title itself Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza (hereafter called PPQP). However, I was disappointed. PPQP certainly wants to be a funny game, and it does have some genuinely hilarious moments. Unfortunately, much of the game is buggy, error-laden, and tedious, and nothing saps my sense of humor more quickly and completely than those three things. In addition, the game seems to have caught the same disease from which Laura Knauth’s Travels in the Land of Erden suffers (perhaps I’ll start calling it Erdenitis): a great deal of swelling and very little focus. The walkthrough goes on for 17 screens. This isn’t a two hour game, folks (see my review of Erden for further comments on this.) Even setting aside the game’s size, it has both surface problems (lots of grammar and spelling errors, a number of serious bugs) and deeper ones (badly designed puzzles.)

There are some things that PPQP does right. For one thing, it made me laugh out loud several times. My favorite has to be when you come upon a butcher who is described thusly: “Gunnar is burly, scary-looking brute. But he has the heart of a lamb. He has the heart of cow, too. He has many hearts in a pile on top of the counter.” That was hysterical. [PUZZLE SPOILERS AHEAD] I also enjoyed killing a vampire by driving a fatty steak into his heart before he arose from his coffin. As he dies, he exclaims “Too much cholesterol. My arteries can’t take the torture.” [SPOILERS END] In addition, many of the names chosen for places and people strike the right note of humor. In fact, many of them are strongly reminiscent of the Unnkuulia series (for example, “Mizztik Island”), which in my mind is a good thing. These moments of mirth prove that the author is definitely capable of writing funny moments. Unfortunately, the game proves unable to sustain the humor, a task made no easier by its bugs and errors.

I won’t go on for too long about these, except to say that the game clearly should have had some intense playtesting before it was released to the public. Playing it reminded me of the old New Zork Times playtesting article with the story of how initially in Dave Lebling’s Suspect it was possible to carry Veronica’s corpse around the party and not have anyone react to you in any way. In PPQP I was able to solve a puzzle or two without ever having found the items necessary to do so, and to add an unconscious dwarf to my inventory after I tried to take off his vest. These things were funny, but I don’t think this was quite the type of absurdity the author was aiming for.

Prose: At times, the prose works beautifully, delivering funny lines with good pacing and diction. Other times, it feels a bit over the top, trying too hard to be funny and falling short. The conclusion I came to after two hours of play is that the author is probably quite funny, and is working on the craft of distilling that humor into written form. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I look forward to his future creations if he continues to develop his comic voice.

Plot: Well, play a silly game, find a silly plot. The idea behind PPQP is, quite predictably, a treasure hunt. This particular variety of treasure hunt asks you to chase down all the ingredients necessary to make a pizza as demanded by Phred Phontious (not the main character, surprisingly enough), the court jester who is your boss’ boss. You, the lowly peon, must traverse the faux fantasy landscape to come up with the sauce, cheese, mushroom, etc. It’s a silly, shopworn device that nonetheless serves its purpose. Of course, I didn’t come close to finishing the game in two hours so I don’t know whether the pizza ever actually gets made, but that’s not the point anyway.

Puzzles: This was one of the weakest areas in PPQP. A number of the puzzles are highly dependent on each other, and a few are not as well clued as they should be. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I found myself completely stuck after exploring for a little while, only to discover that I was supposed to pull a hook in the kitchen. I didn’t see anything suggesting that the hook should be pulled, and the prose led me to believe that the hook was in the ceiling and (I reasoned) hard to reach. Turns out the hook was in the wall, and pulling it opened a secret passage to a wine cellar which held a bottle of wine absolutely necessary for any progress in the game. [SPOILERS END] This struck a sour note with me, and I found myself using the walkthrough repeatedly after that. I still didn’t come anywhere close to finishing in two hours.

Technical (writing): There were quite a few mechanical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): As mentioned above, the game was quite buggy. It definitely could have used another round or two of playtesting.


Travels In The Land Of Erden by Laura A. Knauth [Comp97]

IFDB page: Travels in the Land of Erden
Final placement: 14th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erden is a sprawling, ambitious game which probably does not belong in the competition. This isn’t to imply that the game is without merit; on the contrary, it seems to have the potential to become an enjoyable fantasy excursion. However, the game is huge — I played for two hours and I didn’t even visit every location, let alone solve many puzzles. Moreover, Erden could use another few rounds of testing; I found several coding bugs and a plethora of grammar and spelling errors. In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to this game is thorough testing and proofing, then release in the spring of 1998, when we’ve all recovered from our competition hangover and hunger for substantial new adventures.

I can see why there’s a temptation to submit longer games to the competition. For one thing, there seems to be ongoing debate about the meaning of the “two-hour” rule: is it that your game can be any size but will simply be judged after two hours of play, or does it mean that your game should be winnable in two hours? And if it’s the latter, what do we mean with an imprecise term like “winnable?” Hell, with a walkthrough and a good headwind even Curses is winnable in two hours — that doesn’t make it a two hour game! Then also there’s the fact that historically, the games that have won or placed high in the competition (Weather, Sherbet, Delusions… the list goes on) have strained or outright flouted the two-hour convention. According to Whizzard, the idea behind the rule is to prevent new authors from having to be intimidated by the prospect of going up against a Jigsaw or Christminster, an epic game with a huge scope, and I think that this rule still has value, despite the beating it’s taken over the years. I tend to be of the opinion that the ideal size for a competition game is something that I (an experienced IF player, but no great shakes as a puzzle solver) can see 90-100% of in a two-hour sitting. I designed Wearing the Claw this way, and I appreciate competition games that do the same. However, the way it’s worked out in practice is that the large-scope games still slip in — perhaps not epics, but much more than vignettes, and they often succeed. And perhaps that’s for the best; after all, in a competition like this one (where the works are labors of love and the financial stakes are rather low) it’s better to have fewer rules and more flexibility, thus to encourage more entrants.

Still, what Erden demonstrates is that there is another advantage of keeping your competition entry small: focus. I don’t have an accurate idea of how big Erden is (since I didn’t see the whole thing, probably not even half of it, in my two hours), but it seems to me that if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted. In addition, she’d have had the opportunity to implement a taut and crystalline design structure, which is beneficial to any game writer. I think that after serious and detailed revision, Erden could be a fantasy odyssey on a par with Path To Fortune; at the moment, however, it is neither that nor a particularly thrilling competition entry.

Prose: The prose in Erden is often awkward, and can be difficult to read. Misplaced modifiers, unmarked appositives, and endless strings of prepositional phrases abound. The author also seems to have a particular dislike for commas, stringing clause after clause breathlessly together. I often reached the end of a sentence and found myself wondering how it had started. There are times in which this turgid prose style makes for some nice effects, as it gives a baroque feel to some of the game’s ornate artifacts. Other times, it’s just confusing. Overall, Erden could be made a much more evocative game with the help of some serious editing.

Plot: One interesting aspect of Erden‘s plot is that it feels much more “in medias res” than most interactive fiction. You enter the mysterious fantasy land after the dragon has already been vanquished. Of course, there are other quests to be undertaken, but the absence of the dragon helps to give the milieu a satisfying sense of history. That being said, I’m not sure that I gleaned much more about the plot. Certainly the retrieval of a mystical ruby is your main goal, and several subquests pop up along the way, some of which I didn’t even begin before my two hours ran out. However, what the meaning of the ruby is, or whether the plot offers any twists, turns, or even character development of any kind is still opaque to me.

Puzzles: I spent enough time traversing the land that I’m not sure I even encountered any puzzles. There’s apparently a lantern to be obtained, but the parameters of doing so were so broad that I have no idea how long it would have taken to succeed. I collected several objects whose use was not immediately apparent, but I’m not sure if they ever come in handy or not. There was one area of the game that seemed pretty clearly to hide a gateway to underground caverns, but once I thought I had found the answer to opening the gate, the parser was stubbornly unresponsive to my ideas. So I have no idea whether what I was seeing was an unsolved puzzle or a red herring. What’s more, the game lacked a scoring system so I wasn’t ever sure when I had done something important, but let me put it this way: I didn’t feel like I had done anything clever. Because of all this, I can’t venture much of an opinion about the puzzles in the game.

Technical (writing): There were dozens of writing errors in the game. Beyond the awkward, overloaded prose there were any number of misspellings and misplaced modifiers.

Technical (coding): Erden suffered from many niggling coding errors, especially missing or added new_lines. Some important scenery objects are missing (for example, the game describes huge hieroglyphics carved into a cliffside, the examination of which returns “You can’t see any such thing.”). Like the writing, the coding would benefit from an attentive overhaul.