Lock & Key by Adam Cadre [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2003.]

IFDB Page: Lock & Key

Death Becomes You

[NOTE: Lock & Key has a twist right at the beginning, and I’m going to give it away because it’s not practical to discuss the game without doing so. So if you haven’t played it yet and you want to be surprised, go play it before reading this, at least up to the twist anyway.]

I love editing SPAG, but the job does have its down-sides. For instance, I’m frequently obliged to read reviews of games I haven’t played yet. Most of the time, this isn’t much of a problem, since SPAG reviews are required to be spoiler-free. However, there is a small, occasional section of the ‘zine called SPAG Specifics, wherein reviewers are allowed to spoil as much as they like in the interest of promoting specific, detailed discussion about particular games. When I get a review for this section, I need to read it whether I’ve played the game in question or not.

That’s exactly what happened to me with Lock & Key — I’d played the game enough to get beyond the initial twist, see the setup, say “Cool”, and vaguely resolve to play it whenever I found the time. Shortly afterward, Eytan Zweig submitted a thoughtful, fairly critical review of the game for SPAG Specifics, and I decided that I wanted to wait a while to play the game after that, so that the review would fade enough in memory that it wouldn’t color my perceptions. Now it’s been about a year since that issue, Lock & Key has just won a handful of XYZZY Awards, and I have a new laptop I needed to test this past weekend; the stars were aligned, and I finished the game.

I wasn’t disappointed. Cadre’s writing shines as usual, as does his knack for giving every game a fresh angle. In this one, you play a prison designer and security expert in a mildly jokey pseudo-medieval milieu. Your job is to craft the perfect sequence of death-traps for the King’s dungeon, enough to defeat even the hardiest adventurer who might try to escape it. If you succeed, you’ll make a fortune and be able to retire. If you fail, well, you get beheaded. Those medieval managers really knew how to motivate their employees.

The meat of the game is its one and only puzzle, the one for which it earned the XYZZY for Best Individual Puzzle: setting the traps. It’s not that setting the traps themselves is all that difficult, but choosing the right ones… ah, that’s another matter. See, once you’ve finished constructing your ideal dungeon, it is put to the test by Boldo, a thick-thewed adventurer who, in the best IF fashion, seems to have an endless inventory of items that happen to counteract your traps perfectly. Every time he encounters a death-trap, you get to see exactly how he defeats it, and this in turn allows you to begin scheming about how you might deprive him of that method. Like Varicella, the game is highly iterative — the chances you’ll beat it the first time through are virtually nil, and this is by design. Instead, Boldo’s many triumphs allow you to make your own advances towards building the perfect dungeon upon restarting.

It’s a deeply rewarding puzzle of marvelously interlocking elements. Not only does it operate on several levels to begin with, it builds on itself to make lots of little “aha!” moments combine into a greater experience of overall insight. In addition, the game’s use of graphics do it a great service, presenting a clean and attractive game board to help players to see exactly what choices they’ve made.

My favorite part of the puzzle, though, is the hinting. The prose that describes Boldo conquering your traps is funny and enjoyable to read on its own merits, but it also frequently contains wonderfully subtle hints about how the dungeon might be better constructed. For the sake of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t quote any of those hints here, but I will say that they capture the feel that Infocom at its best was able to provide, of prose that is just as good on a game level as it is on a story level.

So Lock & Key wholly deserved its XYZZY for Best Puzzle. The other awards, I’m not so sure about. At the end of the XYZZYs, Lock & Key went away with the prizes for both Best Individual NPC (Boldo) and Best NPCs in general. The fact that it won these accolades for NPCs with whom (for the most part) the player cannot directly interact AT ALL is rather astonishing. I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps writing is just much, much more important than coding when it comes to NPCs, at least as far as the XYZZY voters are concerned. Certainly Boldo reacts to the traps placed by the player, and the descriptions of his reactions are all great and funny, but that’s a very limited sort of interaction, nothing at all like the dozens and dozens of responses that make up the typical fully-fleshed IF NPC. I wonder: can great writing alone make a great NPC?

Maybe sometimes it can, but I’ve yet to see it. Certainly this game’s excellent writing didn’t make Boldo an excellent NPC. He’s simply a cipher, an intentionally broad cliche whom the PC never meets, instead only watching cut-scenes of him on a sort of magic TV. He’s entertaining enough for the purpose he serves, but he hardly feels like a deeply implemented NPC, though he’s the deepest of the bunch. The other NPCs — the King, a gladiator named Musculo, and a host of others who appear in brief cameos — are present only in cut-scenes. The only exception to this, the only NPC who even responds to “ASK”, is the guard at the beginning. His response: “No talking in the dungeon!”

I would contend that the really remarkable character in Lock & Key is the player character. What’s remarkable about him? [1] Why, his cleverness, of course — his ability to string together just the right combination of traps to defeat Boldo. More to the point, what’s remarkable is the way in which the game constructs this cleverness. Like Primo Varicella, the PC of Lock & Key is what I’ll call an accretive PC, meaning that he becomes more and more himself with each iteration of the game, as the player’s knowledge accretes.

In most IF games, your character will never live up to you — it will never be able to do most of the things you can think of, nor say most of the things you can say. This is still true of Lock & Key and Varicella, but in an important way, what’s also true of those games is that you must live up to your character. You’re told a salient quality about the PC at the outset of the game — his expertise in dungeon design, or his Machiavellian plan to take over the regency — and then you must take him through one iteration after another until you yourself have attained enough of that quality to guide the PC to a successful conclusion. When you finally do reach that conclusion, it’s as if you’ve finally learned the real story, and all the failed attempts leading up to it exist only in shadowy parallel universes. This is who the character was all along — it just took you a while to catch up with him.

Of course, the case could be made that all IF PCs are like this to some degree. That may be true, but then again it’s de rigueur in most other IF to avoid game designs in which the PC must learn something by dying. Graham Nelson even made it Rule Number Three in his Player’s Bill Of Rights. [2] Of course, when a player must be able to step successfully into the PC’s viewpoint without any previous knowledge whatsoever, it becomes rather hard to give that PC any sort of expertise in the game world, which is why we so frequently see PCs who suffer from amnesia, or are fish-out-of-water, or other such tricks. Lock & Key and Varicella break this rule so brilliantly that it doesn’t even seem like a valid rule anymore. Why shouldn’t the player learn from past lives? After all, unless the PC is placed in some sort of contrived situation to deprive her of all her natural knowledge, she’ll inevitably know more than the player does the first time that player begins the game.

After a while, the requirement to match the PC’s knowledge with the player’s can begin to feel like a bit of a cage, and the most common contortions an IF game goes through to live inside it (such as amnesia) have long since lost their appeal. Even the freshest ones can still feel a bit tired and gimmicky unless done exactly right. The accretive PC is one key to this cage — it’s wonderfully refreshing to play a character who’s really good at something, and even better to become good at it yourself. Of all the jail-breaks that happen in Lock & Key, this one is the most satisfying.

[1] I’m referring to the PC as a male for convenience’s sake — I don’t recall its gender ever being specified in the game.

[2] See his excellent article The Craft Of Adventure, available in the info directory of the IF Archive.

City Of Secrets by Emily Short [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2004.]

IFDB page: City Of Secrets

Life In The Big City

Here’s a quote from the ABOUT text of Emily Short’s City Of Secrets:

This game is meant to be playable even by someone who has never encountered interactive fiction before, and be a gentle introduction to the genre. It is not terribly difficult, nor is it possible to die until the very end. One playthrough is estimated to take about three hours.

After playing through the game once, I feel I can say with confidence: “Three hours? HA!” I will happily grant that Short has undertaken a considerable effort to make CoS newbie-friendly, but for someone who is at all interested in exploring the game’s world, three hours is a very conservative estimate indeed. It took me almost three hours just to reread the transcripts of my traversal through the story.

But that’s the thing with interactive fiction, isn’t it? I suppose it’s quite possible that an experienced player on a serious mission, who declines to examine the scenery, who asks only the most pointed questions of NPCs, and who treats the entire thing as a series of puzzles to be solved, could conceivably complete CoS in three hours, but such a player would be missing out on a great deal of the richness that this game has to offer. In fact, I’d make the case that the game’s openness to newcomers and (what for lack of a better word I’ll call) its size are of a piece — they both contribute to one of CoS‘s best qualities: its deep, robust interactivity.

Examples of player-friendliness are everywhere in this game, but here’s one of my favorites:

> attendant, show me the book please
[While your good manners are appreciated, it's unnecessary to append terms like "please" to your commands.]

To talk to a character: Type >GREET to begin a conversation. You will get a list of options of things to say. If you want to change the topic of conversation, type >T and (assuming that's a valid topic) you'll get a new menu of conversation choices.

Now that is just pure class, since 99% of IF games would have just spat out “I don’t know the word ‘please'” or (only slightly better) had the attendant give a blank look or some other “don’t know” response. CoS, on the other hand, anticipates a word that’s likely to confuse the parser, targets it, and responds to it (and to the inappropriate conversation syntax) with a set of instructions to help players communicate more effectively with the game. Besides little touches like this, CoS provides copious documentation, particularly an excellent sample transcript. I especially admired this transcript for using a clever technique that I don’t remember seeing before — it shows the events just leading up to the beginning of the game, and thus not only teaches the rhythm of IF but also serves as story prologue and provides further character depth to the PC.

Once I was through the prologue and wandering the streets of the game’s titular City, I was frankly astonished at the depth it offers. Yes, the vast majority of scenery objects are described, frequently down to second and third levels. This sort of thing is becoming more de rigueur in modern IF, though it’s rarely pulled off with the thoroughness that Short achieves here. In addition, room and object descriptions change to reflect the past experiences of the PC, demonstrating knowledge of other parts of the game once it’s been acquired. Beyond that, random scene-setting messages serve not only to make the City actually feel populated, but to play some of the subtle, sinister notes that hint at plot and theme.

Beyond these are the characters, of whom there are many and most of whom are able to act and converse on a very large variety of topics. I’ll discuss NPCs and conversation further below, but suffice it to say for now that CoS‘s 2003 XYZZY award for Best NPCs was very well-deserved. Beyond the NPCs, and perhaps most impressive of all, is the avalanche of ancillary material available in the game. My mouth was literally hanging open as I perused a bookstore and found volume after volume that I could actually read — pieces of fiction, historical background on the setting, gentle jokes set within the game’s milieu, and on and on and on. Now I don’t mean to suggest that entire novels or histories are actually embedded within the game — that kind of detail would move from dedication into insanity — but more effort went into the book objects in CoS than goes into the entirety of some other games.

Oh, and lest I give the impression that City Of Secrets merely overwhelms with quantity, let me hasten to point out that its quality also remains very high throughout. Short’s typically elliptical and evocative prose falls in layers that pile up to create vivid, intense images — this woman can get more mileage out of sentence fragments than any author I’ve ever read. She’s found a way to deploy them that seems perfectly suited to IF, especially object and room descriptions. The dialogue, too, was top-notch, and plot-advancing moments happened with satisfying smoothness. The milieu, also, was a great deal of fun — magic and science side-by-side, computers and spells combined. Of course, this idea isn’t exactly new, but it felt fresh in Short’s hands.

All of these sterling qualities — the great writing, the remarkable implementation, the incredible depth — make me ache all the more when I think of the game’s actual history. City Of Secrets was originally commissioned by a San Francisco synth-pop outfit called Secret-Secret, who devised the story and some basic marks for the game to hit. At that time, it was intended to serve as a bonus feature for one of their upcoming CDs. Short has never revealed many details about how this deal fell apart, but fall apart it did. Thus ensued the next stage of the game’s life, in which the band agreed to let Short release CoS as freeware IF, and she decided to try ramping up the fun by creating feelies and offering them through feelies.org. As an additional incentive, the game would be available to feelies orderers a little earlier than to everyone else. Then Real Life and the game’s design complexity intervened, causing delays, which in turn engendered a host of vaguely hostile demands and complaints on the IF newsgroups, along with more of the particularly vicious trolling for which Short was already a target.

Finally, City Of Secrets was released publicly on May 1, 2003… and sank. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. Googling on the past year of Usenet discussion, I can see that the game has gotten a couple of reviews, some hint requests, has been used as an example in various discussions, and has even gotten a little recognition in mainstream press outlets like Maximum PC and Games magazines. Still, this is the most major work by one of the best and most important IF authors of the last decade, and a landmark game by many different measures — it seems to me that it is vastly underrated and under-discussed. This is the kind of thing that makes authors disillusioned, makes them feel that their hard work is without purpose, and prompts them to turn away from writing IF. The fact that Short has not done so is a true testament to her dedication to this medium. Of course, I’m one of the guilty parties here, writing this review more than a year after the game’s public release. I hope that if you’re reading this and you’ve never played City Of Secrets, you’ll be moved to check it out, and to post your reaction to SPAG, rec.games.int-fiction, or some other appropriate outlet.

Now that I’ve expended considerable fervor on building the game up, let me discuss a few of its flaws. One difficulty I occasionally encountered in the game is that the demands of its story or its implementation occasionally worked at cross purposes to the role playing I wanted to do as the PC. For me, the primary example of this dissonance occurred at the very beginning of the game, as I am whisked away from my ordinary journey to a friend’s wedding and into the City’s hotel. When this happens, a bellhop takes my suitcase, but fails to bring it to my room. Now, if this were to happen to me in real life, recovery of that suitcase would become my primary goal. The game, however, treats the disappearance as barely worth noticing, and insists that I go to sleep before allowing me to do any searching for my missing possessions. Even when I can question the concierge about my luggage’s whereabouts, the conversational menu options never allow me to be particularly assertive in my efforts to recover it. As a designer, I can understand perfectly why City Of Secrets wants to remove an item whose realistic implementation would add several layers of complexity to the game situation, but in this instance and a few others, the game could have done a better job at providing in-character reasons for such abstraction.

Speaking of conversational menu options, City Of Secrets further explores the conversation system that Short innovated for Pytho’s Mask and Best Of Three. As explained above, it requires GREETing an NPC and then setting a topic, which may or may not bring up a menu of conversation options. I like this system, but I can only imagine how much of a bear it must be to implement. Managing conversation topics to the extent that CoS does, especially with its abundance of characters, requires meticulous knowledge modeling in order to ensure that particular topics and phrasings are available to the player neither too early (before she’s had a chance to learn about them) nor too late (when she’d want to ask something appropriate but isn’t offered the option.) For the most part, CoS does a fine job of this modeling, but it does fall down on occasion, offering inexplicable conversation threads or failing to provide dialogue on an obvious topic. Moreover, the game makes a tactical error in requiring that a conversation be restarted before it evaluates whether or not any menu options are available for the chosen topic, leading to exchanges like this:

>ask bookseller about documents
You approach the bookseller's desk.

"Hello again," he says.

You can think of nothing to say about that.

Such responses give the impression of a mildly autistic PC, who routinely starts conversations, only to stand slack-jawed moments after they begin. Also, as some others have noted, it’s a bit annoying not to be able to return to certain unused options when they would still be valid.

Still, when the conversation engine works, it works well, and that’s the case for most of this game. There are a great many NPCs, quite a few of whom are implemented with responses on a dizzying array of topics. The game’s characters not only respond to questions, but start conversations of their own, introducing new topics with their own associated option menus. Moreover, they define themselves not only through dialogue, but through action — the spice seller who twists his ring nervously, or the City nurse who looks at you sharply enough to stop you from blurting out something stupid. Some NPCs will even accompany you for parts of your journey, then wander off to pursue their own agendas. With Galatea, Short established herself as someone with a particular flair for deeply implemented NPCs, and her work in City Of Secrets reinforces and enriches that reputation.

A more unexpected achievement is the game’s storytelling ability. Many of Short’s games have had sketchy or absent plots, but City Of Secrets unfolds a layered story, replete with intrigue and thematic unity. As the game progresses, new bits of information reveal more about who can and cannot be trusted, and several fun reversals and surprises lay in wait throughout. The pieces drop satisfyingly into place as the end approaches, just as they should in a good mystery story. Moreover, a replay or reread of the game illuminates lots of juicy foreshadowing and judicious ties that thread through its beginning, middle, and end. True to form, Short’s design provides several paths through the story, and multiple solutions to many important problems. I haven’t yet replayed the game as a more self-interested or evil PC, but I could see that such opportunities were available. I’d love to see a more thorough description of which parts of the story were provided by Secret-Secret and which ones came from Short herself, because the unified whole works very well indeed. There were apparently such making-of notes on the original game CD, so perhaps Short or someone else could be persuaded to upload a scan of these to the IF Archive.

I think my favorite thing about City Of Secrets is that it gave me several pieces of writing to treasure, things that I wanted to enshrine and remember. A quote from the denouement now appears in my collection of randomly rotating email signatures. Queen Rine’s Meditation Upon Passion now hangs on my office wall. More than any other IF game I can think of, City Of Secrets offered me ideas that feel like they apply directly to my life — that’s the mark not just of a great game, but of a great work of art.

Blue Chairs by Chris Klimas [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blue Chairs
Final placement: 2nd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Chris Klimas! Now there’s a name from out of the mists. Klimas released a game called Mercy in 1997 that garnered rave reviews for its writing and its pre-Photopia puzzleless design. (In fact, it was nominated for that year’s Xyzzy awards in both story and setting.) Then, he contributed a little fable called Once to the Textfire hoax, and disappeared shortly thereafter.

Now he’s returned, and what a welcome return it is — Blue Chairs is not only his best work, it’s the best game I’ve played so far in this comp. Klimas has a hold of something very powerful — interactive fiction steeped in surrealism and symbolism. This sort of thing has been tried before, but Blue Chairs is the best realization of it that I’ve seen. At the beginning of the game, the PC ingests a powerful hallucinogenic drug. True, you have the choice not to do so, but if you make that choice, the story winds up in a dead end, albeit an intriguing and well-executed dead end. This sort of thing always feels a bit like a sucker punch to me, especially when the only real choice is followed up with a “why in the world did you do that?” sort of message as it is here, but the game is so wonderfully crafted that I forgave it immediately.

The z-code “special effects” that Blue Chairs uses to represent the drug taking hold are very trippy and extremely effective, and from that point forward the game slides brilliantly between dream and reality. IF is an amazingly powerful vehicle for this kind of writing, because you’re not just reading about someone’s reality shifting around him — in a certain sense, those shifts are actually happening to you as you traverse the game’s world. Blue Chairs got so deeply into my head that when someone interrupted me while I was playing, I felt as if I was the one dreaming, as if the intrusion of reality into my game session was just as sharp and unexpected a lurch as the sudden hallucinations that happen to the PC. What makes these hallucinations so powerful, I think, is the fact that they’re full of compelling symbols and archetypes, mixed with totally ordinary objects. In this way, they really do feel like dreams. Blue Chairs‘ heady blend of symbol and story got its hooks deep into my psyche. It blew my mind. I love when that happens.

The psychedelic design was my favorite thing about the game, but a close second was the writing. Blue Chairs does an outstanding job of creating an utterly convincing PC, showing us the world as described by that character, then fracturing his world all to hell, capturing the interrelated parts of his personality like collecting hurricane-blown leaves. At the end, I felt like I really knew Dante. (Yeah, the PC’s name is Dante Hicks, and not only does he share a first and last name with the lead character in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, he also spends the entire game searching for a girl named Beatrice, a beautiful collision of high and low allusion.)

I don’t know that I had too much respect for Dante, but more on that a little later. There were so many sublime turns of phrase, so many funny moments, that my game transcript is littered with “ha”s and “whoa”s and “very nice”s. The game’s implementation was strong, too. Most actions were reasonably anticipated, often with hilarious or terrifying results. I only found one problem, but unfortunately it was quite a doozy. Late in the game, I was working on a puzzle and had come very close to the solution, but not quite hit it. A look at the in-game hints set me straight, and off I went to solve it. Except… the solution didn’t work. Near as I can tell, some kind of bug makes that puzzle unsolvable, which came as a crashing disappointment to me. In a game as strong as this one, a serious bug is all the more unexpected.

Luckily, Blue Chairs‘ design is open-ended enough that even an unsolvable puzzle didn’t prevent me from finishing, though the time limit nearly did. I just barely got done within the two hour window, and towards the end I was opening hints liberally, because I very much wanted to complete the game before rating it. There are multiple endings, too, though they’re nowhere near simple enough to be classified as “winning” or “losing.” (I’m about to discuss those endings in general terms — nothing too spoilery, but you might want to skip the rest of this review if you’re particularly spoiler-sensitive.)

By the time I saw the endings, I was feeling pretty ambivalent about the game’s main character. Right after Dante swallows the drug in the game’s first scene, here’s what it says:

It seems like now would be an excellent time to reflect why you, once a consistently above-average student full of ambition and love, just bought an unknown but almost certainly illegal substance from a stranger and drank it without a second thought.

A fine question indeed, and the game resists the idea of an answer, insisting that there’s nothing in Dante’s life to explain his rootlessness and ennui, that it “just happened, one second at a time.” That being the case, the sort of slacker malaise that Dante exudes is all the more unsympathetic — it’s tough to feel sorry for somebody who has led an incredibly privileged life, free of hardship, but still manages to be desperately unhappy just because he thought things would be so much more shiny, so much more interesting.

Blue Chairs calls itself “a chance to change,” but leaves it up to us to decide which ending really constitutes the change. I think it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s not the one where a soft-focus lens suddenly snaps onto Dante’s life, where the whole thing turns into a Thomas Kinkade painting. That one felt like the ending of Rameses to me, an insistently perfect fantasy that fulfills the PC’s wishes, wishes that have been unrealistic from the start. I’m not sure the other one is any better, though. There’s a kind of letting go to it, but I’m not sure that it’s letting go of the right thing.

Dante comes to a kind of peace with his inaction, but I’m not convinced he’s dropped the binary thinking, the idea that there’s something perfect just beyond his grasp, and that without it, everything is worthless. I think he still may be lost, because as long as he’s locked in that stark dualism, the next illegal substance from a stranger won’t be that far away. Like I said, I rushed through the end — maybe there are other paths I didn’t find. But from what I saw, Dante may not have a chance to change after all. Anyway, that’s just what I thought. You should really play Blue Chairs and think about it a while yourself.

Rating: 9.5

[Postscript from 2021: Blue Chairs was the last parser game Klimas wrote, but he wasn’t done with IF yet, not by a long shot. In 2009, he created Twine, a parser-less IF authoring tool that has arguably had the biggest impact on the IF Comp, and indeed the broader interactive fiction world, of anything since Inform. He’s created a number of other games too.]

The Recruit by Mike Sousa [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Recruit
Final placement: 7th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Some games just feel like they come from deep inside the IF community. Take The Recruit, for instance: how many comp games not only include words of mine, but also go out of their way to compliment my work? Not many, I can tell you from sad experience, but not only does Recruit include pretty much the entire transcript from the 2002 XYZZY Awards ceremony, but when Another Earth, Another Sky is mentioned, this NPC message appears:

“I love that game,” says Fred. “I can’t wait for the third installment!”

Thanks, Mike! Er… Fred! I’m working on it! Anyway, I suppose that to avoid the illusion that sucking up to the judge gets you a good review and score, I should say here that I thought Recruit stank, but I just can’t do that. It was a fun game, if slight, whose puzzles are the star attraction. In fact, more than anything, it feels like a love letter to IF.

The premise, such as it is, is that you’ve been recruited (with the offer of a $50 reward) as a tester for “Real Life Interactive Gaming Simulacra” — in other words, IF puzzles constructed and brought to life. That puts Recruit in the unique position of being an IF game pretending to be reality pretending to be an IF game. In any case, the whole thing is more or less a hook on which to hang a series of puzzles, each of which has its theme: light source, NPC, attention to detail, and so forth.

The game is much more imaginative than this thumbnail description makes it sound. Each of the puzzles felt fresh to me, and the fact that they were explicitly molded around familiar IF concepts made their uniqueness stand out all the more. They also felt pitched at just the right level of difficulty — enough to make me think creatively, but not so hard as to send me running in circles and finally running to the hints, at least not for long. More importantly, each of the puzzles has fun with the concept it embodies, which makes the game a particular pleasure for those of us who have endured many far drearier versions of the same things. I’m not sure how well the game would work for somebody who was new to IF — it might make a fine learning tool, but I have a feeling it would feel more frustrating than educational to somebody who didn’t share its frame of reference — but for me it was a kick.

A great deal of the fun comes from the game’s writing, and I noted with admiration as I played through the game just how much Sousa’s writing has improved since his debut game Above And Beyond. [I’m about to spoil something, though I have no idea why it’s a secret to begin with.] Then I found out in the afterword that in fact, much of the writing wasn’t his, but was in fact done by collaborators like Robb Sherwin, Jon Ingold, and J.D. Berry. Why Sousa doesn’t simply acknowledge these co-authors upfront is a bit of a mystery to me — maybe he just doesn’t want players distracted by going through the game trying to figure out who wrote what.

Anyway, like every Sousa game, Recruit is coded very well, though not as exquisitely deeply as some of his past works have been. It was certainly bug-free, in any case, and quite responsive to most of the things I wanted to try. It also provides a fun list of AMUSING things to try after you’ve finished the game, which is a touch I always appreciate. After finishing The Recruit, I found myself just smiling, and thinking, “Cool!” Like several of the other games in this comp, it was IF about IF, but this time about just how much fun IF can be. It doesn’t provide much in the way of atmosphere or emotion, but it does pack the pleasures of good writing and interesting, interconnected puzzles, and that’s enough for me.

Rating: 9.3

Risorgimento Represso by Michael Coyne [Comp03]

IFDB page: Risorgimento Represso
Final placement: 2nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first things first. It’s time to welcome a talented new author. Michael Coyne has made a great game, so well-written and well-implemented that it’s almost always a joy to play. It’s on a par with most Infocom games, and exceeds them at many points. There’s cleverness and panache to spare, and the puzzles are mostly interesting and fun. It’s not perfect, of course. There are a couple of under-implemented commands (like LOOK BEHIND), a hackneyed puzzle or two, and some jokes (like the cheese one) are pressed rather too hard. It also could use a more compelling title.

Still, on the whole, this is a satisfying and enormously fun game. Well, what I saw of it, anyway. And therein lies the problem. I spent the last review (of Domicile) bemoaning games that are entered in the competition when they’re unfinished, undertested, and unproofread. Now, of course, I’m immediately hit with the opposite problem: a game that is exquisitely finished, betatested, and error-checked, but is still inappropriate for the competition, because it does not even come close to fitting within a two hour play session. When my two hours with RR ran out, I think I was maybe a third of the way through, and that was with a lot of leaning on the hints towards the end. Sure, it was fun while I played it, but I knew almost from the beginning that there was no way I would solve it in the allotted time, and I felt annoyed and disappointed by that. In my opinion, this game is no more appropriate for the competition than was the unfinished Atomic Heart, or the excruciatingly poor Amnesia. It’s too big. It is just too big.

I’ve written out and rehearsed my objections to overlarge comp games so many times that they almost feel self-evident to me now. But I realize that my experience doesn’t match with most people’s, so for those just tuning in, here are a few of my problems with giant comp games. First of all, the comp is a high-pressure playing time. I really try to finish all the games in the judging period, and to write a substantial review after each game. Plus, I have a life, so that means that my IFComp time is squeezed in at the edges of my life — lunch hours, laptop time on the bus to and from work, or late nights after my wife has gone to bed. It’s frustrating to carve out this time and then realize that it’s still not even close to sufficient for the game I’m playing.

Secondly, there’s a more insidious problem with trying to squeeze a big game into two hours. When I had only a half-hour left and huge swaths of the game left undiscovered, I turned to the hints. I did this not because I couldn’t have solved the puzzles on my own. Maybe I could have. But not in half an hour, and I wanted to see more of the game. Turning to the hints, though, does a disservice to a game like this. Well-constructed puzzles ought to be experienced fully, relished, and a well-written world should be enjoyed at leisure rather than rushed through. Trying to play this game in two hours will ruin it for many players, players who could have enjoyed it to its fullest potential were it released outside the comp.

Moreover, how many people are likely to come back and finish the game after the comp period is over? For all the comp games I’ve meant to do that with, I’ve almost never followed through, because after the comp is a frenzy of reviewing excitement, and then come the holidays, and busy times at work, and… whoosh. The game is well off my radar by the time I actually have time to play it. Then there’s the fact that I find it difficult to give a reasonable evaluation to a game that remains mostly unseen by me — it’s like trying to review a movie after watching the trailer and the first 20 minutes. These aren’t the only reasons I don’t like huge comp games, but that’s enough for now.

Still, with all that said, can I understand why somebody, especially a first-time author, would enter their huge game in the comp, even knowing all of the attendant problems? Of course I can. The fact that RR is a comp entry perfectly illustrates the problem with the current IF scene. The annual IF Competition is simply too important, too powerful. It’s become a cynosure whose glare eclipses everything else in the IF world. I love the competition — I think that much is clear from my ongoing participation in it — but I have come to really hate the way it’s turned into a gravity well for games. If you enter your game in the competition, it’s bound to get at least a dozen reviews, be played by the majority of the community, and maybe even become a talking point in IF discussions for years to come. Widespread familiarity in the community also may give it an edge in the XYZZY voting.

If you release your game outside the comp, what happens? Usually, almost nothing. Some games get released to not even a single, solitary post in the newsgroups, let alone reviews or discussion. Even humongous, excellent games like 1893, the products of hundreds of hours of work, sometimes cause hardly a ripple. So of course tons of games get into the competition that aren’t finished, or are way too big. How else to reap in attention what you’ve sown in work? I try to remedy the situation somewhat by continuing to release SPAG and hassling people to write reviews for it, but games routinely go a year or more without a SPAG review, and some games (Bad Machine comes to mind) seem never to get reviewed at all. It’s maddening to me, and I don’t know what to do about it, but I have to say I’m at the point where I’m seriously considering no longer writing comp game reviews, turning my review energies instead to non-comp games so that they’ll at least get attention and evaluation from somebody.

For this year, though, I’m committed, which brings me to the problem of score. From what I saw of this game, I thought it was outstanding, worthy of a 9.5 or above. But I just cannot bring myself to give it that score, if for no other reason than because I don’t want games that shouldn’t be in the comp to do well, since all that will do is encourage more of them. On the other hand, can I really justify giving a low score to such an obviously high-quality product, especially when I’ve already given Scavenger, another too-big game, a high score? Well, the difference between this and Scavenger is that with Scavenger, I felt like I’d seen the majority of the game, that the major puzzles were solved or almost-solved, and that most of what remained was denouement. With RR, though, I felt like I’d eaten the appetizer but had to leave before the entree.

My compromise is this. I’ll make it clear in my review that this is a great game, worthy of any IF devotee’s attention. Play it sometime when you can really enjoy it, linger over its many pleasures, and let the puzzles percolate in your head. Play it without a time limit. Savor it like I couldn’t today. Don’t let my low score fool you — it’s eminently worth playing, but I saw a third of it, and so I’m giving it a third of the score it probably would have gotten from me had it been the right size for the comp.

Rating: 3.2

Ad Verbum by Nick Montfort [Comp00]

IFDB page: Ad Verbum
Final placement: 4th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Among Infocom enthusiasts, the game Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head Or Tail Of It doesn’t tend to get singled out for a lot of praise. It has its fans, sure, but rarely receives the hosannas granted to such works as Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, or even Planetfall. Its detractors, on the other hand, can be extremely vocal and emphatic. Ironically, though, the thing its critics decry is in fact the game’s greatest strength: it is a near-total break from IF convention, setting aside adventuring and role-playing to focus instead on wordplay, puns, and cliches. A typical Nord and Bert puzzle asks you to type a spoonerism, cliche, or bad old joke into the command line, which the game will then recognize and advance the story for you.

Naturally, if you despise puns, or if you don’t know a lot of cliches, or if you don’t enjoy wordplay, Nord and Bert isn’t the game for you. Because I love language and have a pretty firm command of English idioms, I loved Nord and Bert, though I certainly found myself relying on the hints at a few points. Still, it’s not surprising that fans of Trinity-style IF find themselves caught short when playing the game — it’s nothing like any other Infocom game, or really any other piece of IF. Until now. Ad Verbum is very much in the spirit of Nord and Bert, but instead of focusing on English idioms, it focuses on the words themselves, having a ball with all manner of challenging restrictions on expression.

For example, there’s a room where every single word starts with “S”. I’m not kidding — every single word. Don’t believe me? Here’s the room description:

Sloppy Salon
Simple social space, sadly spoiled. Some skewed situation's sequel,
surely. Seemingly, slovenly students sojourned -- scraping,
scratching, scuffing surfaces.

Stuff: ... stainless steel stapler... sizable sofa.

Now, I’ve seen some amazing room descriptions in my years of playing IF, but this one just blows my mind. I can’t believe the sheer linguistic bravado of it. Not only that, the author performs a similar feat in four other rooms, one for the letter “E”, one for “N”, one for “W”, and another for “S”. Not only that, each room has customized library responses consisting of only words beginning with the appropriate letter. In these rooms, as you might gather, the game will only accept input beginning with the appropriate words — the challenge is to come up with words that tell the parser what you want to do while staying within the linguistic restriction. Keep a thesaurus handy while playing this game.

Just for these rooms alone, the game is a towering achievement. To come up with not just a room description, but actual library responses that make sense for all commands, in such a restricted form, is incredible. Beyond this, though, is the achievement in parsing — I shudder to think what this game’s code must look like. And those four rooms are just one part of the whole thing. Ad Verbum overflows with linguistic challenges of this nature, and I had a hell of a lot of fun playing it.

At least, I had fun until the time I typed in an answer that should have worked under the game’s rules, but which the game didn’t recognize. And there we have the danger of this kind of game. Its wordplay challenges are so mind-wrenching that when I do come up with an answer that works, the game had better accept that answer, or I’ll get frustrated very quickly. Up until about halfway through Ad Verbum, I found that it was very well prepared to handle anything I threw at it. However, as I moved to other puzzles, it started to reject perfectly valid commands, which caused me to lose faith in the game with distressing speed, despite how impressed I had been with it up until then. After that frustrating period, I turned to the help and didn’t try very hard to solve the rest of the puzzles, which is a shame because some of them were really excellent puzzles.

The problem is that because Ad Verbum requires such specific input, when it isn’t prepared to handle what little input is valid under its rules, it seems much more broken than does a typical IF puzzle when it rejects alternate solutions. I can’t say I blame it — frankly, I’m astonished by how well coded it is already, even despite what it still lacks — but that didn’t make my experience any more fun when the game was rejecting correct answers. Ad Verbum sets itself a highly bizarre challenge, bravely taking up the mantle of Nord and Bert. When it succeeds, it provides immense intellectual pleasure. When it fails, it generates great frustration, and helps me understand just a little bit more of what those Nord and Bert bashers are on about.

Rating: 8.6

[Postscript from 2020: Ad Verbum won the XYZZY Award for Best Puzzles, in a ceremony held on ifMUD. In accepting the award, Montfort gave the most astounding acceptance speech I’ve ever seen. I reproduce it here in full, from its archive on Montfort’s site:

Ahem, awesome! Author accepts an appealing award affably.

As author’s actions affirm, alphabetical arrangements always amused author. Assembling assorted arbitrary ASCII, ad absurdo, as adventure and acquisition, appeared attractive.

And accordingly, author attacked adventure, abandoning ars amatoria, abandoning athletic activity, appearing agonizingly antisocial. After arduous attempts and assays, author actualized adventure.

Accolade and adventurer appreciation authentically affects author.

Acknowledgement appears appropriate: author appreciates all assistance and aid, awfully. An acolyte (“alone,” as acolyte’s appellation asserts) accoutered abundant authentication aid, assuredly above average.

Author asserts again: acclaim’s absolutely appreciated. Adieu!]

Pass The Banana by Admiral Jota [Comp99]

IFDB page: Pass the Banana
Final placement: 33rd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Ooooo-kaaaaay. This must be what Sins Against Mimesis felt like to people who hadn’t read the IF newsgroups. Pass the Banana, near as I can tell, is a little collection of in-jokes originating on ifMUD. I’m basing this conclusion on the fact that the one location in the game is an Adventurer’s Lounge. I certainly recognize that from ifMUD. The three characters in the game are a giant flaming head, a monkey, and Melvin the Robot. These ring faint bells for me. I think I’ve seen some of those things on ifMUD once or twice. The nine objects were all, well, bananas. I’ve never seen any bananas on ifMUD, but hey, where there’s a monkey… I’m not a very frequent visitor to the MUD, though, so my associations with these things are very tenuous indeed. You start out the game with nine bananas, and the object seems to be to get rid of them all. As the title suggests, you can’t just drop them or throw them — you have to pass them to the other characters in the room. So I passed all my bananas and won the game with a rank of “Master of All Bananas”. I even managed to get that Last Lousy Point, one of the few things in the game whose joke made sense to me.

The game, for what it is, is well-implemented. There are a number of funny responses which require no inside knowledge to enjoy. For example, the room description mentions that seating is plentiful, but when you try to sit down, the game tells you “It may be plentiful, but it’s also only scenery.” Once the bananas get going, there are a myriad of random responses for each character, including an array of each for passing, receiving, and attempting to eat bananas, as well as whiling away the time. I found no bugs, at least not as far as I could tell, though in a situation like this it’s difficult to tell what a bug is. For example, this sentence kept popping up: “The giant flaming head 712 looks bored.” Now, that looks to me like some garbage numbers in the middle of the sentence, but then again the whole scenario is pretty meaningless to me, so for all I know 712 could be a reference to yet another ifMUD joke. Ho ho ho. I can say for certain that I saw no grammar or spelling errors in the game.

I did my riff on in-jokes when I wrote my review of Sins Against Mimesis in ’97, so I won’t revisit it in depth now. Basically, the good thing about in-jokes is that they strengthen the sense of community that comes from shared reference points. The bad thing is that, to an outsider to that community, the in-jokes feel like closed gates, whose guards snicker, “We know something you don’t know!” It was interesting to experience an in-jokey IF game from the perspective of the outsider, especially since I’m someone who considers myself a member of the IF community. The experience underscored my growing understanding of the effects that the ifMUD has had. The MUD has done a lot to bring the community together, including providing realtime hosting for the XYZZY awards and the Implementor’s Lunches. However, it has also attracted a subgroup of IF devotees, people who apparently hang out on the MUD for great swaths of time and discuss whatever comes to mind. This group has developed its own dynamic, its own references, and in some cases even its own cant. It’s not a group I ever see myself being a part of, since I don’t have a great deal of spare time as it is, and that which I devote to IF goes to SPAG or my own work in progress (or to writing long, boring reviews of tiny little comp games). Plus, the lure of hanging out on the MUD is so seductive that I know I can’t let myself get hooked, lest it become a huge suckhole of my time. So I guess I’m not going to get those in-jokes anytime soon. Perhaps someone could offer translation services, or provide a key with the explanations (such as they are) behind ifMUD in-jokes? If this doesn’t happen, I guess I’m doomed to further confusion, as mysterious missives continue to emanate from the Adventurer’s Lounge.

Rating: 2.5

[Postscript from 2020: Mike Roberts (the creator of TADS) wrote a hilarious review of this game for SPAG, including the memorable line, “Other games in this year’s competition might have more plot, more puzzles, or more elaborate settings, but none have more bananas.”]

Introducing >INVENTORY

I started writing reviews of interactive fiction games in 1996. I think it’s only old people who start stories with, “In those days…”, but apparently the shoe fits, so in those days, the IF community was small, cohesive, and centered in a couple of Usenet newsgroups: rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction. For those who weren’t there, newsgroups were essentially discussion forums, consisting wholly of text — posts and threads. “Arts” was about creating IF, and “games” was about playing it. (“Rec” meant “recreation” — there were various top-level hierarchies that… you know what, it doesn’t matter.)

The text-only medium of newsgroups was perfect for text adventure aficionados, and while they thrived, those groups were the fertile soil from which sprung many of the pillars that support even today’s IF scene: Inform, TADS, the IF Archive, and most importantly for my purposes, the Interactive Fiction Competition.

The comp, as it was affectionately known, started in 1995 as a way to spur the creation of more short IF — see in those days most authors were trying to ape Infocom by writing long, puzzly games that would have fit nicely onto store shelves in 1985. The comp changed that, dramatically. Kevin Wilson, founder of the comp, gave it just one rule: every game had to be winnable in under two hours. The first year saw 12 games entered. The next year: 26. And it took off from there.

Opening screen of Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather

A Change In The Weather, winner of the first IFComp, Inform division

I was on fire for IF in those days. I couldn’t get enough of the newsgroups, the games, the languages. I spent my nights immersed in learning Inform, creating little worlds and gleefully walking around in them. The competition was the perfect opportunity for me to actually finish one of these virtual puzzleboxes and send it out into the world in hopes of feedback. That first attempt was called Wearing The Claw, and while I find it rather cringey to look back on now, it did at least land in the upper half of the 1996 comp — 8th place. And boy did I get a lot of feedback on it!

In those days, you see, there was a strong culture of feedback in place, and the comp helped that culture grow explosively. Tons of people would review the comp games, and as an author, you could get a cornucopia of input that would help you understand where you went right this time and how to do better next time. It was invaluable, and I wanted to be part of it, so I reviewed every 1996 comp game.

Then I reviewed every comp game (with a few exceptions) every year all the way up through 2004, which not coincidentally was the year before my son was born. I also wrote reviews of various other IF and IF-adjacent games, and spent several years editing a text adventure webzine called SPAG.

For a couple of decades now, those reviews and writings have been housed on the personal web site I created back in the 90s with my trusty copy of HTML For Dummies. However, my crystal ball tells me that this web site’s days may be numbered. It lives on a legacy server at the University of Colorado (where I still work), and nobody is super excited about hosting old student websites from the 20th century anymore. Plus, those old reviews are absolutely festooned with dead links and ugly typography.

Enter >INVENTORY. This blog will eventually house all my writing about IF, including every comp review, every IF-Review entry, every XYZZY Awards solicited review, and everything else I can think of. >SUPERVERBOSE will remain my primary blog, and new writing about IF will go there as well as here, but >INVENTORY, as its name suggests, will house the exhaustive trove that currently lives on my old web site.

As time permits, I’ll be transferring comp reviews into this blog, where they can be searched, indexed, googled, and so forth. Once that project is done, I’ll start on all the other IFfy stuff I’ve written over the years. It’s quite possible I’ll append some of it with reflections or current thoughts as the mood strikes me.

In my first innocent post to rec.games.int-fiction, I called myself “a major devotee of IF.” While many other passions have laid their claims upon my time, that fire still smolders inside me, and I look forward eagerly to revisiting the many happy hours I spent with IF games and IF arts. As with everything I write, I hope it proves enjoyable and/or useful to somebody else out there too.