Slouching Towards Bedlam by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto [Comp03]

IFDB page: Slouching Towards Bedlam
Final placement: 1st place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: Because STB is one of those games whose entire point is to figure out what’s going on, some parts of this review could be considered spoilers.

For me, Comp03 has been Homecoming Year. First Mikko Vuorinen, then Stefan Blixt, and now, of all people, Dan Ravipinto, whose great, ambitious game Tapestry made a huge splash in 1996 by using the IF medium to explore ethical choices, allowing multiple paths through the game without attempting to privilege any one path as the “proper” one. Ravipinto then proceeded to utterly disappear from the face of IF, seemingly never to return. All is not as it seems, however, for here he is again, having enlisted the aid of a friend to produce another game of multiple paths, this time set in a steampunk universe with Lovecraftian overtones.

All is not as it seems in STB either, which makes reviewing it rather difficult. As I say above, the point is to figure out what’s going on (and what you’d like to do about it), and what’s going on is really quite complicated, but at least part of it involves the IF interface itself. Integrating interface and story has long been an interest of mine, which played itself out somewhat in LASH‘s “remote robot” conceit; STB takes a rather different tack, finding a completely dissimilar and ingenious explanation within the plot for the PC’s inevitable amnesiac and kleptomaniac traits, as well as the ability to jump about in time via RESTART, RESTORE, UNDO, and the like. Even stranger, you encounter tales of others in the story who have those same unusual powers.

I only figured all this out gradually, and some of it I didn’t figure out at all, having turned to the hints in order to see the end of the game. Or rather, an end to the game. Like Tapestry, STB offers an array of choices while attempting not to prefer any of them over the others, and these choices lead not only to a variety of endings, but to significant differences in the entire third act of the game. Now, I suspect that most of us, having been raised with pulp narratives about saving a threatened humanity, will find ourselves striving towards a particular ending as the “right” one, but STB rather slyly requires some extremely distasteful acts to progress on that particular path, which balances things out somewhat.

In the end, I felt that there really were no good choices, and the idea of doing the least harm to the least number still depended distinctly on who was doing the counting. Still, ultimately most of us are likely to be loyal to our own species, and so just as with Tapestry, even though multiple paths were available, there was still one that felt much more right to me than the others. That’s the brilliance of these games, though. If The Erudition Chamber is like a “What Kind Of IF Player Are You?” quiz, then Slouching Towards Bedlam is more like a “What Kind Of Person Are You?” quiz.

I guess I’ve written a lot about this game, but not much yet about what I thought of it. Well, I liked it very much. The story really drew me in, and I love the way the plot flowed smoothly from puzzle to puzzle. Even though there was quite a bit of inevitable infodumping, the wonderfully intense atmosphere of the hospital and other parts of London kept my unflagging interest. In fact, there are some parts of the game — the opening scene, the first major signs of strangeness, and the case file, for example — that I found purely spellbinding. The writing, too, was strong, keeping a Victorian mood without descending much into caricature.

There was one problem with the prose, though — for its own reasons, the game chooses to express player action predominantly in the passive voice, avoiding the word “you” as much as it can. It transfers agency to outside objects wherever possible, but sometimes it must describe the PC doing something, and here it occasionally trips, with descriptions like this (very minor puzzle spoiler ahead):

>look under blotter
Beneath the blotter is a small key, easily taken. It carries a small
tag labeled '2D'.

“Easily taken” doesn’t tell me that the PC has picked up the key, just that it would be easy for the PC to do so. Nevertheless, a subsequent inventory check reveals that the PC has indeed taken the key. From time to time, STB‘s passive voice emphasis afflicts it with this sort of muddiness.

That quibble aside, the writing worked really well, and the coding was similarly solid — I found no bugs at all. In fact, between the game’s puzzlebox premise and its lack of flaws, I’ve found this review rather hard to write, so I’ll just close by saying this: play Slouching Towards Bedlam. Your time will be well-spent, and you may find that it remains with you in entirely unexpected ways.

Rating: 9.6

Kaged by Ian Finley [Comp00]

IFDB page: Kaged
Final placement: 1st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Kaged is totalitarian IF. I mean that in two ways. First, the game’s setting is a paranoid, Kafkaesque dystopia, where a totalitarian government is clearly in control. The game tips us off quite early to the fact that it’s placing us in a very dark world indeed. The introductory text is full of capitalized phrases, phrases like High Inquisitor and Citadel of Justice. These give us a clue that the powers in charge surround themselves with an overwhelming air of authority, and the intro’s gory imagery makes it obvious that all is not well in this Stalinist wonderland.

When we reach the first room, a number of standard props are waiting for us: heavy, immovable desks symbolizing the drudgery of work; a seal and inkpad hinting at numbing bureaucracy; a solid iron typewriter, a technological relic to tell us that we’re in a place where innovation is squashed, where the status quo is upheld and even enforced for its own sake; and of course, a standard uniform, reminding us unsubtly that the PC is just one of a million pieces in the authoritarian machine. Then, finally, when we reach the first important scene of the game, we enter the chamber of the High Inquisitor himself. The Inquisitor’s job in this society is described thus: ” All decisions and power lay solely in the Inquisitor’s hands, the legal hocus-pocus of the past swept away. True Justice at last.” The irony is as thick as anything you’ll find in A Mind Forever Voyaging, and if you don’t get the point by now you never will. I found it all about as pleasant and effective as a hammer blow to the face. That is to say, Kaged is unremittingly, relentlessly dark in plot, setting, and characterization, and it certainly worked on me, spooking me into some of the sharpest paranoia I’ve ever experienced in IF.

Remember, though, I mentioned that there are two ways in which Kaged is totalitarian IF. Not only does it depict a totalitarian regime, it enacts one as well. With the exception of one branching point, both directions of which are functionally equivalent, and both of which put you at the same spot, your path through Kaged is very much predestined. Deviations from it are not tolerated. Commands that don’t advance the story tend to be met with terse dismissal: “That’s ridiculous.” Others are rejected with the rationale that the risk they involve is too dangerous, not that the game minds your taking the risks it intends. A few choices simply aren’t implemented at all.

A great deal of this is quite appropriate and logical, given the game’s setting. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, as are guards, and it’s a sensible design choice to disallow obviously suicidal commands with a “You don’t want to do that” type of message. In addition, this design dovetails neatly with the game’s plot. However, there are times when Kaged oversteps even these bounds, laying a controlling hand on the player to enforce the plot very rigidly indeed. For example, I figured out much of the foreshadowing in the game rather early on, and tried some rather reasonable actions to test my conclusions. Despite the fact that these actions would not have placed the PC in danger, certainly no more than most of the actions that the game requires to advance the plot, they were forbidden under the simple rubric of “You don’t want to do that.”

This bothered me — if I’ve figured something out, why can’t I act on that knowledge? Because it isn’t time yet, the game tells me, and besides it wouldn’t be in character. But when a game slips hints to you and then forbids you from acting on those hints, it has moved beyond simply shaping the character. In the case of Kaged, I felt very much that the game itself became an example of the kind of dictatorial control that it ostensibly was working to decry.

That being said, I’m in a dilemma about how to rate it. On the one hand, I have to admit that it does an outstanding job at achieving what appear to be its goals. By the end of the game I was twitchy, angry, and thoroughly awash in the reality-questioning quasi-madness brought on by works like Brazil and 1984. Like those works, Kaged is a kick in the head all the way through, and a very powerful kick at that. In a way, I love this — I find it a brilliant indictment of authority run rampant, and perhaps even a radical thesis on the problems of non-interactive IF. All that makes me want to rate Kaged quite highly indeed.

On the other hand, if I give it what it wants, doesn’t that make me complicit? If I truly believe in resisting totalitarianism (and I truly do), then shouldn’t I resist Kaged and its demands by giving it the lowest rating possible? Shouldn’t I raise my voice as strongly as possible to insist that IF like this is unacceptable? Maybe I should. But then again, what about that old rationale of irony? Sure, Kaged shows us totalitarianism, and controls us with an iron hand, but isn’t it just making a point by doing so? Sure. Of course it is. It’s all ironic, you see? That’s what it is. And it certainly would be overly paranoid of me to think of that as just a rationalization.

Rating: 9.6

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

Photopia by Adam Cadre as Opal O’Donnell [Comp98]

IFDB page: Photopia
Final placement: 1st place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

If there was a prize for “competition game most mentioned on the newsgroups before the deadline had passed,” Photopia would win hands down. Everyone was quite courteous about it, spoiler warnings and rot13 and all that, but there was a marked impatience to talk about this game, recommend it to other people, make it the test case in any number of arguments. There is a reason behind this impatience: Photopia is an amazing piece of work. It’s also very hard to talk about without giving spoilers away, so please forgive me if I’m a little vague in my language. One of the most brilliant aspects of the game is its plotting. It has what Adam Cadre, in an unrelated discussion, called a Priest plot, named for writer Christopher Priest. I don’t know if this is a term that Adam just made up, but it’s a useful term nonetheless. It refers to a plot which just gives you fragments, seemingly unrelated to each other, which coalesce at (or towards) the end of the story. When the fragments come together, and you figure out how they relate to one another, the result can often be surprising or revelatory. When they came together in Photopia, I found the revelation quite devastating. I won’t say too much more about this, except to say that it wasn’t until the end of Photopia that I realized what a truly incredible, powerful story it is. It’s the kind of thing where when you’ve played it all the way through once, you can then replay it and all the pieces fall into place, everything interlocking from the beginning in a way you can’t understand until the end. I think that this is the game that opens new frontiers of replayability in interactive fiction — I needed to play through Photopia twice in order to see all the text again, knowing what I knew after the end of the game.

Actually, I hesitate to call Photopia a game, but not because it failed to live up to a standard of interactivity. It’s just so patently clear that Photopia is not interested in puzzles, or score, or some battle of wits between author and player. Photopia is interested in telling a story, and it succeeds magnificently on this count. Unfortunately this deprives me of the use of the word “game” in describing it — perhaps I’ll just call it a work. In any case, it’s a work that anyone who is interested in puzzleless IF should try. At no point was I even close to getting stuck in Photopia, because the obvious action is almost always the right one — or else there is no right action and fated events occur with heavy inevitability. Oddly enough, this creates a strange contradiction. I was on ifMUD looking for a word to describe the plot of this work (I couldn’t think of the phrase “Priest plot”) and someone said, jokingly, “linear.” But actually, that’s true. Despite the fact that it’s completely fragmented, and despite the fact that it jumps around in time, space, and perspective, Photopia is a linear composition. There’s only one way to go through it, and the player has little or no power to make it deviate from its predestined course. I think the reason that this didn’t bother me, that in fact I liked it, is precisely because Photopia isn’t a game. Because it is a story, the emphasis is taken away from a teleological model, where the player tries to steer for the best outcome. Instead, you’re really just along for the ride, and the ride is one not to be missed.

Now, this is not to say that Photopia may as well have been a short story rather than interactive fiction. In fact, it takes advantage of the capabilities of the medium in some very inventive and almost unprecedented ways. One of the foremost of these is its use of color — each section of the game (oops, there’s that word again. Make that “the work”) is presented in a preset color, and these colors also play a part in the Priest plot. I understood their function by the end of the piece, and once I understood, I knew exactly why they were there and how much they enhanced the storytelling. Unfortunately I found the colored text a little hard to read at times, especially the darker colors on a black background, but I wouldn’t go back and play it in blue and white. The colors, like everything else in Photopia, worked beautifully, adding artfully to the overall impact of the story. The work is interactive in other important ways as well. In fact, in many aspects Photopia is a metanarrative about the medium of interactive fiction itself. Again, it wasn’t until the end of the story that I understood why it had to be told as interactive fiction. And again, to explain the reason would be too much of a spoiler. I have so much more I want to talk about with Photopia, but I can’t talk about it until you’ve played it. Go and play it, and then we’ll talk. I promise, you’ll understand why everyone has been so impatient. You’ll understand why I loved it, and why I think it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction ever to be submitted to the competition.

Rating: 9.9

The Edifice by Lucian Smith [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Edifice
Final placement: 1st place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

You’re an ape, spending your days hunting for Food and fleeing from Enemies. You have these little thumbs, too, that set you apart from the Others. Suddenly one day, a huge black Edifice appears before you, arousing your wonder and suspicion. I can almost hear “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in the background: Daaaaaaaa, Daaaaaaaaa, Daaaaaaaaaa….. Da-Dummmmmmm! However, from this highly derivative beginning, The Edifice ventures quickly into much more original territory. It seems that once you enter the monolith, you find yourself able to enter various stages of human development, from the discovery of fire to protecting your village against plundering marauders. The idea works very nicely, putting the player into puzzle-solving situations which blend very naturally into the game’s environment and using the edifice itself as a sort of frame around the smaller narratives as well as a hinting device.

One section of the game in particular I found really remarkable. On the second level of the edifice, you find yourself as a very early human, living in a family unit in the woods. Your son has a fever, and to cure him you must find the Feverleaf, which can be made into a healing tea. However, no Feverleaf seems to be available anywhere, until you stumble across a Stranger. Unsurprisingly, however, the Stranger does not speak your language, and so you are faced with a problem of communication. The game does an incredible job with simulating this situation. I was astonished at the level of realism which this character was able to achieve, and at the care that must clearly have gone into fashioning this interaction. I’ve rarely seen such a thorough and effective establishment of the illusion of interactivity. The Stranger did not of course respond to English words in understandable ways. However, you could point to objects, or speak words in the Stranger’s language, and gradually the two of you could arrive at an understanding. It was an amazing feeling to be experiencing this kind of exchange in IF… I really felt like I was learning the Stranger’s language. It will always remain one of the most memorable moments of this 1997 competition for me.

I spent a lot of time on this one encounter, but I spent more time on the first level of the edifice, where you learn how to fashion a spear, how to hunt, and how to cook your meat over a fire. All of the puzzles in this section were logical, and the implementation was characteristically thorough and rich. However, this level is also where I ran into the game’s one major flaw: its scoring system. Upon typing “score”, you are told something along the lines of “You have visited two levels of the Edifice and solved none of them. You are amazingly discontent.” However, sometimes “amazingly discontent” changes to “very content.” for reasons that aren’t at all clear. Moreover, I did everything that the etchings indicate on that level, but the game still insisted I had not solved it. I worked on this until I got so frustrated with it that I just went up to the next level. I’m not sure whether these irregularities in the scoring system were intentional or not, but I found that they were the only significant detractions from an otherwise excellent game.

Prose: The author did a superb job with the prose. Objects and rooms were described carefully and concisely, and in fact their descriptions often changed to reflect the character’s expanding knowledge. In the beginning, words are simple and their meanings often archetypal: Rock, Enemies, Others, etc. As the game progresses and the character continues to evolve, the diction becomes more complex and the meanings more specific. This is the type of effect that a graphical game could never achieve, since it arises from the nature of the prose itself. That the game can achieve this effect shows that it is very well written indeed.

Plot: I didn’t finish the game, so I’m not sure whether the mystery behind the edifice is ever revealed. From what I saw, the game’s plot was a clever device to put the player into various moments in the history of human development. Its central device is rather clearly lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but other than that it’s an excellent frame story around fascinating vignettes.

Puzzles: I think the language puzzle was the best one I’ve seen in interactive fiction this year. Certainly it was the best in the competition — it advanced the narrative, developed the character, achieved a new kind of IF character interaction, and packed a powerful Sense of Wonder. The other puzzles I encountered were also very good, arising quite intuitively out of the game’s situation and objects. My only frustration was with the elements of the game which suggested I had more to solve but never seemed to indicate what those things were.

Technical (writing): The Edifice‘s prose was quite error-free.

Technical (coding): Aside from the problems with the scoring system, the coding was outstanding. Synonyms abounded, and almost all logical or intuitively available actions were accounted for.

OVERALL: A 9.2

The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet by Graham Nelson as Angela M. Horns [Comp96]

IFDB page: The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet
Final placement: 1st place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I was very impressed with Sherbet, a highly inventive adventure which puts yet another imaginative spin on the Zork mythos. The game’s prose is at a very high level of quality, its world is very well-designed, and several aspects of the documentation (the context-sensitive hints and the diplomatic “briefing”) were very well done indeed. I didn’t get through the entire game in the two hours allotted, and I found myself resorting to the hints quite a lot. Often, this was because a logical puzzle had me stumped, but the first two times were due to puzzles which didn’t offer enough alternative syntax. Unfortunately, these two situations inured me to looking at the hints, thinking perhaps that my other obstacles were due to syntax problems as well. Apart from this one flaw, Sherbet was a truly excellent piece of work — well-plotted with clever puzzles, a strong sense of unfolding narrative, and rife with the pleasures of revisiting an old friend in a new context.

Prose: The game’s writing consistently maintains an exceptional level of quality. The vacuous’ Amilia’s ramblings serve exquisitely to define her character, and the “briefings” concisely draw the player’s diplomatic situation while quietly evoking Zorkian echoes. I found myself just a little confused by some of the cave descriptions, but this was mainly due to the sense of scope which the author unerringly conveys.

Difficulty: As I mentioned, the game was too difficult (and large) for me to complete in the two hours allotted for judging time, and part of this difficulty arose from problems with the first two puzzles. After finally summoning the bird of paradise, I spent a good fifteen minutes trying to pour, put, rub, insert, or otherwise attach the sherbet to the elephant before finally resorting to the hints only to discover that the game demanded I “throw” the sherbet glass. However, in other spots the difficulty of the game was quite legitimate and logical, as in the instance of the ladder problem, which was another solution I found in the hints rather than finding it myself.

Technical (coding): On the whole, the game was very well coded, and I never found the kind of irrational flaws which can snap the suspension of disbelief in interactive fiction. There were a few spots where the game suffered from a lack of synonyms, especially the elephant (as described above) and the hook (one must again “throw rope over hook” but cannot stand on the table or hamper, lasso the hook, simply “throw rope” , “put rope on hook”, or even “throw rope onto hook”.) When these problems are eliminated , the game will be very strong indeed.

Technical (writing): Sherbet is a well-written and well-proofed piece of work in which I don’t recall noticing any technical mistakes.

Plot: It was a great pleasure to get embroiled in the plot, and the premise of the main character as a diplomat rather than an adventurer provided a break from cliché married with a plausible reason for the snooping called for by the game’s structure. I’m looking forward to the endgame, which I hope will offer a tie between the game’s diplomatic beginnings and its Zorklike middle.

Puzzles Mostly discussed above in “Technical (coding)” and “Difficulty.” Many of the puzzles were real pleasures (panning and the ladder come to mind) and the twist on treasure collecting (giving all the treasures to the Zork adventurer) was brilliant. Once the puzzles are better coded the game will be really first-rate.

OVERALL — A 9.3