Chronicle Play Torn by Penczer Atilla as “Algol” [Comp04]

IFDB page: Chronicle Play Torn
Final placement: 22nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

The readme for Chronicle Play Torn issues a warning:

Now a few comments about the dark side of the game: its testing was done in a hurry, it is very likely that you will find irritating bugs in the prose, and the working of the game.

I’m somewhat innocent in the former one; I’m from the non english speaker part of the world, and thus writing prose for me is like walking without light in an Infocom product: I never know, when does a grue find me (and if it does, I don’t even notice it).

This warning encapsulates both what’s good and what’s bad about the game. As even the readme demonstrates, the author’s English is far from perfect, and can frequently be a major roadblock to understanding. Even the title shows this — it feels like three words randomly drawn from a magnetic poetry set. In addition, the rushed testing job shows; CPT isn’t a relentless bugfest, but its code has some serious issues. However, like the readme, the project as a whole is well-intentioned, good-natured, and more fun than I expected it to be, given its acknowledged flaws.

I do want to talk a little more about the idea expressed above, that authors who don’t speak English natively are “innocent” when it comes to problems in their prose. Sorry, but no, they aren’t. I grant that English is a difficult language. I grant that the IF audience is tiny already, and that the majority of it communicates in English, making the choice of writing IF in one’s native language so audience-limiting as to feel like no choice at all. I grant that the majority of IF tools and parsers are in English. I grant that if I tried to write a game in Hungarian or Russian or Swedish or even Spanish, the language I studied in high school and college, the results would be far worse than even the worst translated game in this comp. I grant all these things.

But ultimately, the fact remains that whatever the circumstances, good games have good prose. When you write a story, you are responsible for every word in it. Who would try to write a novel in a language in which they weren’t fluent? What publisher would take it? Just because you’re writing an IF game doesn’t mean that you’re any less responsible for your words, no matter how strong the coding is, and no matter how tough you find English. In the end, I want to read good stories, not understandable excuses. Native speaker or not, if the prose in your game is littered with problems, your game will suck. Period. By the way, it did occur to me that the author may not have understood the connotation (or even denotation) of “innocent” when making the claim above. However, if that’s true, it only underscores my point, which seems well worth making in a competition where a full 15% of the games I’ve played thus far suffer from some amount of broken English.

So, that point made, how’s the rest of the game? Well, mixed. On the negative side, my game experience was diminished greatly by the presence of a bug so severe that it crashed the entire interpreter, which is an IF experience I haven’t had for a while. I checked it out, and the bug is reproducible — I think the game is trying to dynamically create objects that it hasn’t properly set up. There were some other bugs too, though none as bad as that one. In addition, I found the game too long for the competition; by the time my two hours had run out, I’d estimate I was about 75% done. Of course, having to keep restarting my interpreter didn’t help matters in that department.

In the positive column, CPT features some entertaining imagery, including a few parts that capture the Lovecraft feel quite well. Also, the game’s story is fun, kind of a jumped-up version of Uncle Zebulon’s Will. The hint system is very helpful, but most of the puzzles are crafted sensibly enough that I didn’t need it often, though I did turn to it as I was running out of time, or when I found the game’s prose just too impenetrable. Finally, what I appreciated the most about CPT is that its heart really seems to be in the right place. Despite its serious problems, it’s written out of a deep affection for both its medium and its themes, and while I can’t recommend the game, I applaud the effort, and I hope that the author improves it and continues to write more.

Rating: 4.4

A Moment of Hope by Simmon Keith [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Moment Of Hope
Final placement: 18th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Remember how one-room puzzlefests were the big trend of the 1998 competition? Well, I think I’m getting a handle on what it is for ’99: non-interactive fiction. It’s the legacy of Photopia, I suppose. But how little we knew, when we played that one short, brilliant Red Planet section of Photopia where every chosen direction advances the plot, that in a year we’d be playing entire games that operate like that. So far I’ve seen Halothane, which enforces its plot fairly rigidly; Remembrance, which limits the player’s options severely by restricting them to a very short menu; and Life on Beal Street, which is no more interactive than a book. Perhaps the worst offender yet, though, is A Moment of Hope. At least Beal and Remembrance didn’t pretend to be anything but linear roads with no detours available. At least Halothane allowed some freedom of action. Because A Moment of Hope is a TADS game with the appearance of an unrestricted parser, it gives a very believable facade of interactivity, when in fact it’s anything but. Here’s a sample from towards the end of the game:

You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep.

Turning to your other side, you give it another try.

You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your

In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head
with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work.

You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.

This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location — even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of “Not right now, you’re busy.” Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.

Let’s take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn’t much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the “fiction” side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there’s also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I’ve quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley’s responses, and the player’s input really Wendy’s participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section’s plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won’t find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game’s responses and player’s input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley’s trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we’re not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won’t lose us.

The game doesn’t take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can’t afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC’s deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn’t fit the story. Wouldn’t fit the character. So it’s not allowed. But a player can’t help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It’s written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn’t much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn’t it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn’t so mysterious after all…

Rating: 3.8