History Repeating by Mark & Renee Choba [Comp05]

IFDB page: History Repeating
Final placement: 13th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m writing this in 2021, having been in a kind of Comp coma since 2004. Oh there was occasional dip into a comp game or two — perhaps a solicited XYZZY review, or an overview of an acclaimed author, or an attempt at grabbing and rating a handful of games from 2015 — but those were flickers of consciousness, nothing like the focused attention I used to give the IF competition. That focused attention probably isn’t coming back anytime soon. Parenting doesn’t demand the kind of time it used to, but it still takes up a whole lot of my world, and other hobbies have grown into my life too — trivia and writing about Watchmen come to mind.

Nevertheless, freshening up all my comp reviews for this blog has given me the itch to play more, so I’ve decided to give the Comp05 games a whirl. As before, I downloaded the whole package from the IF Archive, fired up Comp05.z5, and pressed the “Big Red Button Which, If You Push It, Will Make You Do Everything You Really Need To Do Automatically.” That generated a randomly ordered list of games to play, and in one of the purest examples of beauty arising from chaos, the first game on that list was called History Repeating. Let the repetition begin!

Of course, it can’t be a literal repetition. I’m a different person than I was in 2005, and these reviews are written under decidedly different circumstances. My old comp reviews were written during the judging period, and the point of them was to explain my ratings and give useful feedback to authors. Now the results are long established, and most of the authors have likely moved on from writing IF altogether. The scene is completely different too, and I’m pretty completely out of touch with it. Consequently, there isn’t the old sense of urgency nor the sense of community accompanying these reviews. They’re more for me than for the authors, though of course I hope some others still find them interesting or useful. So while history is repeating in a certain way, an another way it really can’t repeat at all — it’s a river, and you can’t step in the same one twice.

That’s part of the point of this game, too. The premise is that you lose consciousness in your office job, and suddenly wake up back in high school. Turns out a Doc Brown-like figure has dragged you back into the past as a way of testing his hypothesis that we can change the future. Your way of doing this apparently will be to turn in a history report that you blew off, which seems to have derailed your life into the unsatisfying doldrums we’re told it’s in. However, as you might expect, changing the past isn’t so easy.

That isn’t just because of the timestream protecting itself or whatever. It’s also rather challenging because it turns out this game’s version of the past is pretty thinly implemented, and its puzzles require a fair amount of authorial telepathy. Having just read through many years of my own comp reviews, I know that the points here are ones I’ve visited many times, so I’ll skip teacher mode and just say that when a game doesn’t offer a rich implementation, it had better be very well cued, or else you end up like me, checking the walkthrough because many logical actions get no useful response, which makes it very difficult to guess the one reasonable action that the authors intend as a solution.

Outside of its thinness and its rather improbable puzzle solutions, History Repeating hangs together pretty well. It’s got a fun premise, solid coding, and error-free writing. It’s reasonably sized, and reasonably enjoyable, thanks to the walkthrough. It feels like the work of beginners, but beginners who are dedicated to creating a quality game. Overall I think it could have used a round or two of testing and then implementing better feedback to what the testers try, but the nature of the comp deadline tends to preclude that sort of thing all too often. If I saw another entry by these authors, I’d be interested to play it, and hope that they’d learned from history rather than just repeating it.

Rating: 7.7

A Crimson Spring by Robb Sherwin [Comp00]

IFDB page: A Crimson Spring
Final placement: 23rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

One thing that can fairly be said about A Crimson Spring is that it is one dark piece of work. It starts out with a funeral, and in the course of its plot will describe twisted psychotics, brutal beatings, murder, and rape, along with a generous helping of menacing, intimidation, and vile ideas. It’s about superheroes, but not your Saturday morning SuperFriends kind of superheroes, nor even your angsty Stan Lee/Chris Claremont kind of superheroes.

No, these are superheroes in more of a Frank Miller vein, tortured vigilantes who stalk through horrific corridors of urban decay, beating the living crap out of evildoers and anybody who looks at them funny. Though Miller is clearly their main predecessor, they’re also a bit reminiscent of the out-of-control metahumans in Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, with elements of the anger and psychoses that bubble under Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

They even bear a passing resemblance to the characters from Sherwin’s own Chicks Dig Jerks, at least in the way that they tend to investigate crimes by cruising bars looking for trouble. In addition, they’re also likely to have somewhat more disturbing powers, especially the villains, such as AIDS Archer, who shoots disease-tipped arrows at the good guys, and Mucous Man, who suffocates his victims under lots and lots of snot.

As I’ve said in the past, I love superheroes, but this particular subgenre of them is not my favorite. The whole grim-and-gritty trend in superhero comics, which probably reached its peak towards the end of the Reagan years, was always rather unappealing to me. I found its insistence on the world’s rottenness to be just as monotonous and unrealistic as the post-Code, whitewashed Batman and Robin’s world of silly villains and cardboard heroes. Miller’s Daredevil and Punisher, and Claremont/Goodwin’s Wolverine were fine when they were the darker exceptions to the nobler rule of costumed crusaders, but when nearly every superhero suddenly became a clench-jawed desperado struggling against a poisoned culture by any means necessary, the whole thing started to seem more and more silly. [Pssst! Paul! Stop lecturing about comics and get back to the game! (The what? Oh yes, that.)]

Ahem. As I was saying, A Crimson Spring is one dark piece of work. It even displays its text as faded letters on a pitch black background. In addition, even besides the fact that its particular flavor of superherodom is not to my taste, it misses some pretty important opportunities. For instance, although the PC wears a mask and has a code name (Holy Avenger), he doesn’t have any superpowers. What does he have? A lead pipe. He’s surrounded by people who can fly, or are super-strong, or have unbreakable skin, or can morph themselves into other stuff, but his main skills are talking smack and whacking people with a big metal club. Oh, he’s got a perfect immune system, too, which doesn’t seem to me like a great superpower (“I’m Never-Get-Sick Man!”), though I have to admit it does come in handy against guys like AIDS Archer. I found myself wishing that I could play one of the real superheroes instead of this smart-aleck “detective” with the pipe in his hand. Hell, even Batman had a utility belt.

On the other hand, perhaps playing a character I liked more would have made it even more frustrating when I encountered one of the game’s many bugs. The bugs in ACS come in two varieties. One of these is the “huh?” bug, which happens when the game makes a reference to somebody or something you’ve never heard of before, and acts as if you of course know what it’s talking about. For instance, at one point the PC is asked (in reference to a villain), “Have you seen him since the incident on the bridge?” I read this and thought, “incident on the bridge?” The game had described no such incident.

Perhaps things like this were its way of building character by mentioning past “offstage” events (though some of the “huh?” references seemed clearly oriented towards things that were supposed to have happened in the plot, but didn’t, at least not to me), but even if this is the case, the game should throw in a sentence or two explaining the reference. I suspect that this kind of bug emerges when a game is written around a walkthrough and fails to account for the many paths that can be taken through the plot. Granted, this is one of the more difficult challenges in writing IF, but it is a challenge that must be met, or else the story deflates very rapidly.

The other type of bug is of the more traditional variety, the inability to refer to an important object or the nonsensical response to a reasonable command. Both types of bugs appear with depressing regularity in ACS, and they utterly defeat any sense of immersion that the game’s other nifty features strive to create. Among these features were a cool soundtrack of gritty indie rock and hand-drawn illustrations of various scenes and characters. The latter, while not exactly George PĂ©rez, were obviously the product of quite a bit of labor, and managed to give a nice visual sense to the colorful characters. I wish, though, that the time had instead gone into debugging — I would have enjoyed the game lots more had it been bug-free, even without its illustrations. A Crimson Spring puts you behind the mask of a dark superhero on a mission of justice, but in the end, it only defeats itself.

Rating: 6.1