On The Other Side by Antonio Márquez Marín as Lumpi [Comp00]

IFDB page: Al Otro Lado
Final placement: 46th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here we have what has to be the most audacious game idea in the 2000 IF competition. OTOS reverses the typical roles of game and player — it asks you where it is, what it can see, and where the exits are, and then issues you a command based on that information. Then you’re supposed to respond to the command, then it gives you another command, etc. — the game takes the role of the player and the player takes the role of the game.

Now this is a gutsy idea. Crazy, but gutsy. It blurs the line between the pleasures of playing IF and the pleasures of writing IF in ways that weren’t a lot of fun to experience, but might make excellent fodder for an entry to that academic journal that Dennis Jerz has posted about once or twice in the last few months. I was initially so taken aback by the idea that I just kept feeding blank lines to the game — its response commands were along the lines of “scream”, “sleep”, “xyzzy”, and finally, “quit.” Then, trying to get into the spirit of things, I typed “Kensington Gardens” and a bit more Trinity stuff from memory. The game, to my surprise, did not follow a pre-scripted routine, but tried things like “open Gardens” and “talk to Gardens” and such — still fairly nonsensical, but at least somewhat adapted to what I had typed.

In fact, it appears I could have done some fancier stuff, but I found the instruction manual (not to mention what few other sentences the game provided) pretty incomprehensible, so I didn’t even try it. Even if I had, though, I think I would still have quickly found myself bored, because the game so radically alters the balance I’m used to feeling when playing IF. Now that I was in the position of outputting the majority of the text, knowing that the only one listening was a brainless automaton, the whole thing started to feel like a major waste of time.

So playing OTOS wasn’t something I enjoyed. However, it occurs to me that a program like this has the potential to be an excellent beta-testing tool, precisely because it is so brainless. In fact, I tried feeding it a little bit of information from Being Andrew Plotkin, and it found a bug almost instantly! (You can pick up the copier in the initial scene. Who knew?) In its current form, this game still wouldn’t even be all that useful for that purpose, because it expects output in much too rigid a form, and because it is ill adapted to sudden changes in circumstance, or even to things like finding objects inside other objects. Still, it might catch a few things that humans wouldn’t catch, because most humans (Michael Kinyon and a few blessed others excepted) wouldn’t think to try the sort of senseless commands that OTOS attempts.

In the past few years, the last comp game I’ve played has always been one of the best entries in the entire competition. 2000 broke that streak, but it also established the greatest volume of quality output I’ve ever seen in an IF comp. Even many of the games that I didn’t personally care for, I found interesting or worthy as ideas. So perhaps it’s appropriate that my long and frantic road of judging ends with this game, whose idea is so daring and out there that I can’t help but respect it a little, even though it didn’t really show me a good time.

Rating: 3.1

Human Resources Stories by Harry M. Hardjono [Comp98]

IFDB page: Human Resources Stories
Final placement: 27th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

I have to confess, I’m a little afraid to write this review. So let me just start out by saying Harry, I’m sure you’re a wonderful person. I’ll bet you have lots of friends, a loving family, and are kind to small animals. I’m sure you’re not violent, or if you are violent, your violence is directed only at inanimate objects. Please accept anything in this review as purely constructive criticism, and remember that reviews are about the game, not about the game’s author. If anything I say offends you, I will gladly retract it. Please don’t hurt me.

OK, that being said, here’s what I thought of Human Resources Stories: I thought it was the most unrepentantly bitter, angry, and unsettling game I’ve ever played. I started to get a hint of this in the game’s readme file, in which the author proclaims “I am not a lemming,” as though he has been accused of thoughtlessly following the crowd, and feels obliged to defend himself. He goes on to say that he will probably suffer for the small size of his game, and that he has “pointed out (much to the chagrin of a lot of people) that judges are discriminatory toward size.” OK, so far I’d seen some defensiveness, a predilection to believe that the competition judges (basically any random r*if readers who bother to send in votes) don’t judge fairly, and the suggestion that when he has pointed out this “fact”, he has been shouted down. My guard was up.

And a good thing too, because after I read the intro (which casts you as an interviewee for various high-tech companies, all of which take pride in “paying the best, brightest, most talented people in the industry sub-average salary”), I read the credits. These thank various helpers, and at the end: “other raif denizen: Except for some obviously rude, stupid people who think they are _so great_.” Um, wow. That’s some real anger there. Or at least, that’s how I took it. Gee, I hope I’m not one of those “obviously rude, stupid people.” I’d hate to be rude and stupid, much less obviously so. I wonder who these people are. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to point out that flaming raif in the credits of your game and using a singular noun when you intend a plural isn’t exactly polite and intelligent. I don’t mean that in a hostile way, really. Just gently pointing out the irony I felt at that moment. If necessary, please reread my first paragraph. Anyway, once I got over the credits, I decided to type “XYZZY” for fun, since the readme file specifically mentions the author’s bafflement at why modern IF games still include it. That’s when I got the biggest shock yet.

The response to XYZZY is a long, long, long diatribe. It probably has more words than the rest of the game and the readme file combined. It starts out as an interview scenario, the question advanced being “How do you work?” This question becomes the jumping-off point for a highly detailed rant about how this poor programmer got the blame for every bad thing in the company, is working on weekends with no pay, has had the project timeframe reduced by 75%, meanwhile the manager is off to Hawaii, and finally this programmer, who is a good person and a fine worker (and an excellent programmer who would write outstanding code except for it’s impossible to do so under such oppressive conditions) pulls the whole thing together so that it works for the end users, only to have the whole process start over again. By the end of this, I was sitting there reading with my jaw hanging open, just in shock. Let me say that if I were interviewing someone and got this answer, not only would I never call the person back (in the game’s words, “The phone never ring.”), but I would be beefing up security and thinking about investing in a bulletproof vest, and phoning the interviewee’s current and former employers to suggest that they do the same. The level of anger and bitterness there is just incredible. By this point, I had completely forgotten the original question, so I typed “RESTART.” The game’s response? “That’s not how life works.” Same response to “QUIT”, which was my next inclination. And I thought Zarf was cruel! Certainly it’s true that you can’t do these things in real life (well, you can quit. See In The End), but disabling these basic commands made for a hell of an inconvenience when I actually did want to restart the game.

Perhaps “game” is too strong a word anyway. When I finally did get to it (by shutting down the whole interpreter then re-running it), I found that it wasn’t a game exactly. It’s advertised as a choose-your-own-adventure type of game, but beyond the initial prose there’s really no story, no advancing narrative whatsoever. Instead, HRS asks you a series of multiple choice questions, as if it were interviewing you for a programming job. At the end, you either get the brush-off (“The phone never ring.”), or you get the job with a series of letter grades for technical, teamwork, and leadership criteria, along with a salary. The best I did was an A, A+, and A+, with a salary of… $20,000. Now, I work as a programmer, for a state university no less, and I didn’t find that to be my experience of a starting salary. I have to wonder if the anger I saw in other sections of the game might be biasing its results… just a bit. To be fair, the game does not reward you for being a bootlick. If you give the typical “What you think an exploitative company would want to hear” answers, you will get “The phone never ring” pretty fast. However, the set of answers I gave for my highest score still indicated some pretty brutal expectations on behalf of the hiring company. And this, the game would like me to believe, in the face of the biggest high-tech labor scarcity in… well, ever. Aside from whether HRS reflects “real life” or not, it’s not much of a game. It’s more like a test than a game, and more like a rant than a test. I can’t really say I found it fun, though it certainly did provoke a strong reaction from me. I guess that in all honesty, I’d have to say that I really disliked being subjected to both the rant and the test. The game makes me glad I’m not looking for a job right now, but it makes me even more glad that I’m not looking for an employee. But that’s just me. Nothing personal. Please don’t hurt me.

Rating: 2.5 (I hope I’ve explained myself well enough to demonstrate that the length of HRS had very little to do with my rating. I, uh, am not a lemming.)

Poor Zefron’s Almanac by Carl Klutzke [Comp97]

IFDB page: Poor Zefron’s Almanac
Final placement: 7th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right about the time that Poor Zefron’s Almanac (hereafter called PZA) starts feeling like another humdrum sword-and-sorcery game, it executes a nice surprising twist. To say too much more would be to give the game away, but the fact that the author bills PZA as “an interactive cross-genre romp” is a clue toward its direction. This twist made the game refreshing and fun again, especially after the frustration it caused me when I began playing it. More on that later. PZA does several things very well, one of which is its eponymous book, a tome owned by your wizardly master Zefron and left behind after his mysterious disappearance. This almanac contains a feature unique to all the CONSULTable items in IFdom (as far as I know): it can be BROWSEd. Browsing the almanac brings forth a random entry from within its pages; not only is it great fun to read these random entries, it also gives a sense of how thoroughly the almanac has been implemented. This device would be most welcome in other IF… how I’d love to browse the Encyclopedia Frobozzica or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! Just having the book at hand lent a sense of scope and excitement to PZA.

Unfortunately, my first 45 minutes or so of playing this game were extremely frustrating. PZA suffers from a couple of serious design flaws, the gravest of which is its repeated violation of the Fifth Right (from Graham Nelson’s “Player’s Bill of Rights”): not to have the game closed off without warning. Because of a fairly flexible (but extremely temporary) magic spell that becomes available at the very beginning of the game, I found myself repeatedly stranded, unable to proceed and forced to RESTART. This happened again later on in the game — I committed a perfectly logical action and found out hundreds of turns later that this action had closed off the endgame. This is a frustrating experience, and one that could easily have been avoided with a few minor changes to the game’s structure, changes which would not have had any discernible effect on puzzles or plot. In addition, there are a few areas in which the player character can be killed without warning, always an unwelcome design choice. PZA is (as far as I know) Carl Klutzke’s first game, so chalk these flaws up to education. I look forward to playing another Klutzke game as well-implemented as PZA, but designed more thoughtfully.

One nice element of PZA was its facility with IF homage. The game’s “cluple” spell not only had a name that sounded straight out of Enchanter, it was virtually identical to that series’ “snavig” spell. The almanac itself (as well as a number of other features) was a skillful allusion to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Finally, the XYZZY command response is one of the more clever I’ve seen in a while. Clearly PZA‘s author is a devotee of the old games, and his devotion shows in his work. I am hopeful that his next piece of IF will live up to his worthy aspirations.

Prose: The prose in PZA is generally very good. Rooms, objects, and random events are described concisely but with attention to detail. Some of the locations are rather sparsely treated (for example, the town consists of one location), but such skimping is always done in service of the plot, and more detail would serve to distract rather than to enrich.

Plot: This is definitely the strongest point of PZA. The game starts out with an engaging hook, and after the twist I was definitely enjoying the direction of the story quite a bit. In addition, the author has manipulated the scoring system in such a way as to give the feeling of multiple endings. Granted, many of those endings amount to one version or another of “*** You have died ***”, but not all of them. There are more and less successful solutions to the story, and they are integrated so naturally into the endgame text that they almost escape notice. One of the nicest implementations of multiple endings in the competition.

Puzzles: Here there were problems. What happens to PZA is that its individual problems are well-considered, and their solutions are perfectly logical. However, when the actions that comprise those solutions are attempted in other areas of the game, they all too often drive the narrative into a blind alley from which there is no escape. It’s one of the hardest balancing acts in interactive fiction: how to have sensible puzzles logically integrated into the game, without making the narrative too linear, which in their elements create no dead ends for the player. PZA doesn’t pull it off.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): Once I played PZA on WinTADS, I had no problems with it. I started out trying to use it on my old DOS version of TR, and before I could even get one command out it was giving me TADS “Out of Memory” errors. Whether this is a bug in the program of the interpreter, I don’t know enough about TADS to say.

OVERALL: An 8.0