Order by John Evans [Comp04]

IFDB page: Order
Final placement: 24th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

At this point, I feel like I could really save myself a lot of time and energy by just writing up a template for reviews of John Evans games. The basic gist of the template would be “This game has some cool ideas and a lot of potential, but it’s not really finished and it seems untested, so it sucks.” Then I could just fill in the blanks with some specifics about the game, and be done. Evans has submitted games to the last five IF competitions, and they’ve all fit this mold, so why shouldn’t I just keep writing the same review over and over again? I kinda have to.

I mean, I guess they’re improving. The first couple (Castle Amnos and Elements) were way too big for the competition, and that problem got corrected. Unfortunately, it got corrected by switching to total unfinishability due to scores of heinous bugs. I gave a rating of 1.0 to Evans’ last couple of games because they were just totally incomplete. Order isn’t as bad as that. It’s the right size for the comp, and it is finishable. But it is still not finished. See, if you’ve got a command called BUGS that lists out the bugs in the game, your game’s not finished. Actually, one of the funnier parts of Order is that even the BUGS list is buggy, as some of the things listed actually do work (though plenty don’t.) Also, if a crucial puzzle in your game rests on a piece of scenery that you don’t mention anywhere, your game’s not finished. A tester would catch that. That’s, y’know, what testers are for. Use them.

Actually, beta-testing seems particularly critical for a game like Order, because the game revolves around coming up with actions quite spontaneously, and the better sample you have of what actions people are going to come up with, the better you’ll be able to implement them. (Here’s where I start filling in the “cool ideas” part of the template.) I love the basic concept of this game — you’re some kind of magical spirit, and you’ve been set a series of tasks by your summoner. So far, still pretty bland, and strongly reminiscent of J.D. Berry’s The Djinni Chronicles. But the nifty twist that Order puts on things is that you have a CREATE verb at your disposal, and you must use it to solve every puzzle.

So, for instance, you find yourself faced with a locked door, and must CREATE a key. Done right, this could be an amazingly powerful device, giving the game a feeling of almost limitless possibility. And indeed, there are times when Order feels like that. Of course, there are way more times that it’s disappointing, and not just because I was trying crazy commands like CREATE PHASER and CREATE WETSUIT. Lots of much more reasonable attempts aren’t implemented, and I can’t help but think that some beta-testing would have greatly improved the game’s range of options. Still, there are multiple solutions to each puzzle available from creating various objects, and that aspect of the game is really fun. Too bad the other parts are such a drag.

Oh, there is one more good part — the hint system. These hints are nicely implemented, InvisiClues style, and it’s a good thing too, because nobody is finishing this game without the hints. As I alluded earlier, there’s a critical puzzle in the game’s midsection that is simply not solvable without hints, because its main components aren’t mentioned anywhere. Remember Bio, from Comp03, the game that starts out with gas seeping into your room and you have to get a gas mask out of an armoire, except the only place that says anything about an armoire is the walkthrough? Pretty tough puzzle, right? Well, Order takes inspiration from it with a puzzle where you must perform an action on an orb encased in a steeple. Problem is, nowhere in any room or object description are the orb and steeple mentioned. There is a dome mentioned, but like many of the scenery objects in room descriptions, it’s not implemented. Actually, even for some of the objects that are implemented, the descriptions aren’t exactly superb:

>i
You are carrying a set of white robes (being worn).

>x robes
A set of white robes.

Ooo, spellbinding. So okay, I’ve almost got my template ready. The only thing left is to figure out how to wind it up. I’m leaning towards a plea for the future: please help your cool ideas reach their fullest potential by finishing and testing your games! Please! I may have to edit that part out though, as its refusal becomes more and more certain.

Rating: 4.9

Domicile by John Evans [Comp03]

IFDB page: Domicile
Final placement: 18th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

For last year’s comp, John Evans submitted a game called Hell: A Comedy of Errors. That game started out very cool and interesting, but after playing for about an hour, it became quite apparent to me that the coding wasn’t finished. Well, some things don’t change. I mean, the ABOUT listing for this game includes the admonition, “for known bugs, type BUGS.” Known bugs? Listen, if you know there are bugs, especially basic ones like those in this list (“hints not done yet”), that means your game isn’t ready for release. So, hey: DON’T RELEASE IT!

Like Evans’ previous game, this game has some pretty cool stuff in it — there’s an interesting magic system, some good puzzles, a nice sense of expanding possibilities. The problem is, it’s not finished. I played for a while, found some of the cool stuff, and solved a few puzzles. I also found a ton of bugs (not on the “known bugs” list), which forced me into checking the hints a lot from early on — there were a number of synonym problems, some sloppy coding, some Vile Zero Errors. Then got I totally derailed by a game-killing bug (again, not on the “known bugs” list) that spat out a Zero Error and trapped me in a dead-end. So, back to the hints. I restored, tried another method, ran smack into another game-killing bug (that’s right, not on the list) that refused to acknowledge when a puzzle had been completed. So then I said, “Okay, you know what? You get a 1.”

I’m in a bad stretch, here. Three out of the last four games I’ve played have been, in my opinion, not even close to ready. This one is maybe the most aggravating of all, because it seems like the author has this problem repeatedly, so I’m going to do something I rarely do, which is to address him directly. John, your games could be really good. Really. But man, you have got to follow through! You have got to finish what you start. Polish it, test it, get the bugs out, make the code smooth. You know: finish.

Listen, I have a half-finished game on my hard drive too, and I could have slapped an ending on and released it to the comp, but I didn’t, because of this idea I have about comp courtesy. I would prefer to do the right thing by the people I’m asking to spend time on my stuff, so I won’t give it to them until I’ve done all I can to make sure they’ll actually enjoy it. If you get too bored with something to finish it, or the deadline comes before you’re ready, DON’T RELEASE IT. Releasing half-done, bug-ridden games is indefensible, because no matter how much potential they may seem to have, until they’re finished, they’re CRAP.

Instead of starting a new game for next year’s comp, polish and fix this one, so that you can actually have something good to your name. That’s just my advice, which I’m sure doesn’t mean much to you. If it did, you’d have gone back and finished Hell: A Comedy Of Errors. But you won’t be getting much respect as an author until you show that you can actually write a good game instead of a good half-game.

Rating: 1.0

Hell: A Comedy Of Errors by John Evans [Comp02]

IFDB page: Hell: A Comedy Of Errors
Final placement: 23rd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

So here we have the Fine-Tuned of Comp02. That is to say: Hell starts out with a great premise — you’re a newly-created demon, and your business is to go about torturing souls and extracting the maximum possible penance from them. There are some fun role-playing elements to choosing your form, your wings, your color, and so on. In fact, much of the game’s setup is RPGish in a good way — you can purchase various implements of torture (all rather lighthearted, e.g. “documentary crew” or “lizards with pointy sticks”) and carve out your own personal infernal landscape of punishment rooms. Getting penance from damned souls results in further credits for further purchases, and opens possibilities of further demonic avenues such as helpers and peddlers.

Hell then completely squanders the promise of this great setup by being so very incomplete. The documentation suggests that some souls give up more penance depending on their particular characteristics, but damned if pretty much every soul in the game doesn’t look exactly identical. So, inevitably, you run out of money and then wander around wondering what to do next. I get the sense that in the finished version, each soul will have its own personality, and the puzzle will be to match it up with the environments and tortures that best suit it. In the current version, it’s pretty much a crapshoot.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m wrong about this. Maybe I’m missing some critical clue that would make it clear how to proceed. Given that the game provides neither hints nor walkthrough, it’s impossible to be sure that this isn’t the case. Nevertheless, what seems quite clear is that Hell doesn’t do what it says it will, and consequently I have no choice but to regard it as an unfinished game. Please don’t submit these to the comp.

Rating: 1.0

The Water Bird by Athan Skelley [Comp99]

IFDB page: The Water Bird
Final placement: 29th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

From the update on the comp web site, I already knew that The Water Bird had a game-killing bug in it, so I wasn’t surprised when I found it. What I was surprised by (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) was the number of other, extremely basic, bugs I found in it. This is unusual for me — usually once I see or hear of one bug in a competition game I expect them to come in droves, but the opening text to The Water Bird is so good that I allowed myself the belief that the critical bug was just a really bad-luck oversight, one of those things that makes you just about swallow your own tongue as an author the second a player finds it and it’s TOO LATE to change a thing. But no, actually, there are bugs throughout the game. In fact, in only the game’s second location, attempts to walk in an unavailable direction are met with “[TADS-1023: invalid type for built-in function]”.

This extremely fundamental omission is emblematic of the unfinished feel that the entire game has. It reminds me of a poster we have up in our bathroom, a print of an unfinished painting from London’s National Gallery. Part of the canvas is an accomplished portrait of a young woman with a dramatic landscape behind her, and the other portion of it is just a brown mass, with rough lines drawn to indicate how the rest of the painting will go. Similarly, Water Bird reveals its edges at unexpected moments. Here’s one room description:

Lodge Roof
You are on the roof of the lodge. From here you can see most of
the village. ... (good view, etc., smokehole (covered by?))

Now, to be fair, that’s not typical. Most of the descriptions are written, and written well, but there are several occurrences of the “…” symbol, which I’m guessing was the author’s Search-and-Replace code for “Elaborate on this later.” Incidents like this made me feel like I was playing a game that isn’t even ready for beta testing, let alone general release.

I have an opinion on this sort of thing. I’ve expressed this opinion before, and it hasn’t met with general approval. Nor do I expect it to now, although to me it seems like sheerest sense. But I just have to say it: if your competition entry isn’t ready by the deadline, and by “ready” I mean fully proofread, beta-tested and (please) played through at least once to ensure that it’s finishable, DON’T ENTER IT. Don’t even breathe a word of its existence. I adamantly maintain that you gain no appreciable benefit from entering an unfinished game into the IF competition. Instead, it’s detrimental to you in several ways.

First of all, many people who might have been open to playing your game will write it off as buggy and poorly done, and probably never come back to it again. After all, why should they bother with your rough draft when there are so many pieces of really good IF being published each year, and a wealth of older classics in the archive, all available for free? The audience for IF isn’t so large that an author can afford to alienate such a significant portion of it; as the hoary cliche goes, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Secondly, releasing an unfinished game tarnishes your reputation as an author, since it implies that you really don’t care how good your work is before it’s released, that you don’t take pride in it. But perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, it’s so agonizing for a player to go through a game that has lots of good pieces but is an overall bad game, and bad not because its author can’t write, not because there’s anything wrong with the concept or the programming or anything, but just because it’s NOT FINISHED. It’s like biting into a pancake and finding that inside it’s still just batter. It’s so much more disappointing than going through a game that just plain stinks on ice, because it’s so clear how much unrealized potential is present in the unfinished game.

I’m an author myself, and I understand how much time and energy goes into the writing of an IF game. Why would you want anybody to see that game before you’ve honed it and worked out the kinks? Why waste all that good effort? Instead of entering that game, finish it. Do it right. Then release it in the Spring, or the Summer. Or if you really want to be in the competition, enter it in the next year’s competition where it has a chance of kicking some serious butt over all the unfinished games in that year’s field. Exercise a little patience.

Hmmm, well I seem to have ascended my soapbox and delivered a rant, completely heedless of the fact that I’m supposed to be reviewing The Water Bird. OK, here are some impressions from what I saw of the game. It’s obviously quite well-researched, and makes a very smart move by putting most of the author’s explication of that research into footnotes, so that a player can choose whether or not to be exposed to it. This is a new approach to footnotes in IF, one that is amusingly enough much closer to how footnotes are used in actual books. The game is well-written, with great puzzles and a really interesting subject, and if it were finished I have no doubt it would make a sterling entry into that fledgling canon of folktale IF currently occupied by games like Firebird and Lesson of the Tortoise. Indeed, it’s so good that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that I couldn’t actually finish it, because by the time I hit that point I very much wanted to see the rest of what The Water Bird had to offer.

Rating: 4.1