Eric Mayer rambles on about Comp 2001.
A disclaimer, or maybe a confession. I judged this Comp for myself. My scores, which I cunningly am not going to give here, were based on personal taste. With the way the annual comp is set up -- the number of "judges," the lack of standards or control over voting - it has always seemed to me more like a poll than a contest anyway. Which is fine. I've always been suspicious of the idea that there's a dichotomy between enjoyment of art and the work's intrinsic merit, as though art were a medication, efficacious in some way, no matter how hard to swallow. I tend to think art exists only in each individual's subjective experience of it. If you don't like it, it isn't going to do you good.
Which is a really pretentious way of saying don't hate me if I didn't find your game to my taste. I despise all the great operas and didn't get past the second page of Proust's Remembrance of Times Past either. Does Verdi hate me? Or Proust?
Finally, my taste in games, I'll tell you now, runs to stories. I'm lousy at puzzles and only like them if they're easy. In fact, I never finished a game I didn't like.
I was available to judge, because a rush job in the real world kept me from finishing my own game. But on the eve of Comp 2001 I was already engrossed in Robb Sherwin's new Hugo release. He hadn't entered FALLACY OF DAWN in the Comp because he figured it exceeded the two hour limit. What a concept! (Not that many Comp entrants' disdain for that rule means much to me since practically every game takes me more than two hours) The game's a cyberpunkish stroll through bleak streets populated by twisted characters, aptly portrayed in stylish photo inserts by Robb's friends. FOD is a trip. Robb's a language kamikazee -- destructive and spectacular.
I was doing great on the safe side of New Haz when, predictably, I got stuck. You know how, with a good book, you don't want put it down until you've finished? With games, I take the opposite approach. A game I don't like, I'll go to the walkthru right away but if I'm enjoying the ride I want to figure as much as possible out myself, so I'll set the game aside for a day, or a week. Some of my favorite games I still haven't finished. Anyway I was fawking stuck, as they say in FOD, so I was headed for the Comp, grabbed the randomizer and pushed that big red button.
As fate would have it what came up first but a game written with one of the systems I use, Alan. Better yet, THE CHASING by Anssi Raisanen. is the best Alan game ever written. In fact this is one of the most delightful pieces of IF I've played. The Chasing is a gentle little game. Easy, yeah -- if I can play though it in less than two hours, but I enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere. The descriptions are restrained but effective and one section where you go search some woods by not only examining things but moving through various descriptive levels and resorting to appropriate senses is superb.
I moved on to MOMENTS OUT OF TIME, by L. Ross Raszewski but it wasn't many moments. The .z6 file defeated three different interpreters I tried so I put this aside temporarily. Although it seemed I could play the display at the bottom didn't appear functional and rather than guessing whether I was seeing the full game I decided to wait for post-comp enlightenment. Anyway, does time monkeying with interpreters count toward the two hour playing time limit?
Matthew Lowe's SURREAL, a DOS (supposedly) executable was next on my list. It wouldn't execute. Not for me, at least. Okay, so my computer skills are just barely sufficient to get downloaded files unzipped and even then I've still got the PKUnzip program I used on my 286, but still...I clicked on the .bat file, and all the rest. I went to DOS and tried to run everything. No luck. Unreal. Or - maybe - surreal. Hold on! Writers are always playing at subverting the IF format - games where you can't save, or that do what they want no matter which key you hit - even games that pretend to be buggy for humorous effect. So how about a game that won't run at all? The story is - THE GAME WON'T RUN!. What's your reaction as the protagonist? For every player the story's different. And the players all learn different lessons, about themselves. Dada? No, more like Nonperformance art. Wait. Didn't Ryebread do that already?
To be fair to the author, I posted about my problem and thanks to Cedric Knight sending me a list of the necessary files I found I had one that was misnamed. Renaming allowed me to play most of the game, until it ultimately crashed for real. It was fairly standard stuff, down to an adventurer's lantern, but pretty well programmed and easy to play -- until the crash.
Still, people will complain about the parser. And I have to admit, my first thought, as someone who can't program a lick, was that anyone who could figure out how to put together a game like this from scratch would find it a cinch, and be better served, by learning Inform or TADS. Then I had a second thought. While I can't program, I do have some proficiency with nonIF fiction. There isn't any story idea I couldn't write better - maybe even sell - if I stayed away from programming. But I write IF anyway because It's fun and I like the challenge. Nevermind the results. And I guess programmers must feel the same way about writing adventures without leaning on one of the established languages.
This might be a good place to mention the games I either couldn't play or didn't attempt. Posted reports of fatal errors in FINE TUNED frightened me away from that one and I hope my single query about SURREAL didn't discourage anyone. That's why I did post a follow-up, indicating that it was, in fact playable. Also, I never could get 2112 to run, even after I'd downloaded necessary .dll files. I don't mind downloading interpreters. That doesn't seem any different than downloading game files. But I don't like having to download a lot of stuff not specific to the game -- .dlls or, in one instance, Grues Forbid, the abominable Windows Media Player. For me one of the great virtues of text adventures is their simplicity. (And, hey, a lot of players don't even like the imposition of having to use Windows) Another game I didn't even attempt was BEGEGNUNG AM FLUSS because I don't speak German. Uh...notwithstanding my title for this piece.
Finally, language problems discouraged me from THE GOSTAK as well. Much as I enjoyed Carl Muckenhoupt's game about Friar Bacon, as well realized a minicomp entry as I've ever played, I gave THE GOSTAK a pass, at least for now. At first glance this game appears to be one step beyond For a Change. Rather than just framing some odd concepts in odd semi-English, it plunges right into an alien language which the player will - it seems - be required to translate in order to advance the action. Fascinating, an amazing feat of IF, no doubt, but I've always hated cryptograms and such.
As a writer, how do you respond to people who just don't like the kind of thing you're doing? My wife and I write historical mystery novels and occasionally, people will tell me they dislike the genre and sound apologetic and a little worried that I'll be offended. It really doesn't bother me. There are loads of genres of writing I don't care for - from legal thrillers to romances. We write for readers who enjoy historical mysteries. That's our intended audience. That's who we are concerned about when we are engaged in the writing business.
That sounds simplistic. But I think there's a dangerous tendency for writers to write for those that dislike what they're doing. Some contestant in the Comp will get five great reviews and fret about one scathing review. And then that author will go out of his or her way to change the next game to please the one critic - maybe even moving away from the qualities that everyone else liked - and the fact is, that critic is never going to like the author's work because the critic just plain doesn't care for what the author is doing.
I have to constantly remind myself that we write for those who enjoy our work and not for those who don't.
To return to more or less chronological order, here's TRIUNE by Papillon. I played for a couple hours, but couldn't get into this one about a kid abused by her father (yeah I know it does happen) and all the nasty stereotyped men in the fantasy world she enters, full of dutiful maids scrubbing the floors of the castle -- not dreadful but heavy-handed. I know men are beasts but so are women! Plus I got lost in the forest and I do that often enough when I'm orienteering.
At least I didn't find Triune repulsive. I'm not sure but that KALLISTI by James A. Mitchelhill might fall into that category. I got nowhere in this, and given the apparent situation I didn't want to. We're told right off that NPC Katie is a virgin and you play Gunther who's waiting for her in the deserted office. (Except the writing is in third person and clumsily caroms into Katie's thoughts as well) Pretty distasteful. Sex is fine, but playing some guy trapping a woman -- hey and a virgin, alone, well, really, give me a break. He probably seduces her and it turns out she's Katie the Ripper so there's a moral, see... like Shade turning out to be other than what it at first appears.I sure hope but not enough to keep playing.
After a mere week of playing I was getting a little discouraged so I took a break to finish my own game. I mention this so all you authors realize you'll soon have a chance to return fire -- and how - since Doomed Xycanthus is not only a pretty typical find-this-kill-that fantasy, but is written in Adrift and features plenty of that old favorite - Instant Death.
Having sent my game out for beta-testing (I did learn one lesson from entering Comp 99 with a buggy game) I returned to the fray.and JOURNEY FROM AN ISLET, by Mario Becroft, a pleasant enough short fantasy. It uses some simple but effective screen changes to mark the passage of time, contains nicely rendered landscapes and logical puzzles.
One quibble, I'm not a very patient player. I like to know what's supposed to be accomplished in a game practically from move number one - and why. I need both a clear goal and motivation. There seems to be a school of thought -- mostly among writers -- that figuring out what you're supposed to be doing makes for a good puzzle. To me, it's just frustrating.
JOURNEY is hardly a major offender in this area since the goal is actually mentioned in the intro. In fact it is far clearer in this respect than quite a few other comp entries, but I mention the quibble here because the author must have realized that perhaps the introduction wouldn't be explicit enough and provided a hint explaining the goal. Having, as an author, allowed players to drift myself, I'm going to suggest the following: think of the last, sledgehammer hint you'd write to tell players who are hopelessly stuck precisely what they're supposed to be doing - then insert it in the intro.
FUSILLADE by Mike Duncan doesn't have much of a goal-setting problem because it is one of those games that pretty much carries on of its own accord while allowing the you to perform a few obvious tasks along the way. Basically you're taken for a ride -- but it's a hell of a ride. Players find themselves in a bewildering world of alternating cut scenes, slammed back and forth between the gritty historical reality of war and death and the sanitized and glorified media versions. When I finished I still wasn't sure exactly what this was "about"-- probably a good thing. Overly obvious moralizing gets tedious. While playing I did find myself a bit disoriented, not sure what to make of it all, and at the time things seemed to go on a bit longer than seemed necessary. But, unlike most, Fusillade has lingered in my mind. I know judges are supposed to play two hours, score the game and then not change the score. But a game that just won't go away after you're finished is entitled to extra points, after the fact. Being memorable is a quality you can't necessarily judge while playing.
As an Alan author and supporter, I was especially pleased with THE ISOLATO INCIDENT by Alan DeNiro, another enjoyable example of what the language can accomplish. The setting is surreal - not an uncommon game trait -- but, it turns out, there is a rational explanation for the weirdness. The map is small and the puzzles easy but there is enough interaction so it felt like a game, at least to me.
Unhappily, STICK IT TO THE MAN by H. Joshua Field was not such a good experience. It kept crashing and there was no walkthrough which might have guided me around the bugs, so I gave up, with some regret. The story revolves around an anti-capitalist street rally. Certainly not an overused concept. It is essentially puzzleless - as far as I got - with plenty of conversation in menu format. Although the writing style was fine, the protestors - one of whom was the main character -- verged on being foul-mouthed hippy stereotypes, at least in the early going. Since philosophically I side with the protestors, I was curious where the author was headed. Was it going to be the too obvious you-see-the-error-of-your-immature-radical-ways sermon or, rather, would it be revealed that maybe the protestors had some legitimate grievances? Throw axe at running dog capitalist? Ah well, perhaps someone made it through and will report back.
I didn't get any further in THE TEST, written in Adrift by Matt Dark Baron. It seemed as if a necessary verb wasn't completely implemented, but the author warned the game was difficult so maybe it was just me. Bugs happen, so does player stupidity. Sometimes, from the player side, they're hard to distinguish.
Three strikes and you're out, I guess. Well, maybe that phrase occurs because I was delayed in my Comp play by the Yankee's post-season run. Now if there had just been an UNDO command that last inning of game seven would've been a lot more enjoyable. Anyway, THE LAST JUST CAUSE by noobis certainly whiffed me. Judging from all I could see,the "last just cause" is to fight endlessly with a monster named of Double J (not exactly Lovecraftian) who seems to keep returning no matter how many times he's easily dispatched. Probably pissed at his parents, because what sort of name is that for a monster? I had no idea what was going on, what I was supposed to be doing, where I was. I have nothing against home brewed games, but the screen for this confused the heck out of me and when you type "look" and the game tells you "that might be foolish try something else".... well, someone who likes RPGS might have a better experience.
Fortunately I came next to one of the gems of the Comp, PRIZED POSSESSION by Kathleen M. Fischer. The setting is medieval, the protagonist a young woman who has become a pawn in a power struggle and embarks on a perilous journey. Largely puzzle free, this is a real "page turner." That might not sound like a compliment for an IF game, given how uncomfortably close some recent games have come to a level of interaction not much beyond "should I go to the next screen or not." but, in fact, there is enough interaction to keep the player actively involved and certain sequences, notably the first, are tense and exciting. The game is structured very much like a book, with "chapters," and a nicely paced story. Yes, it may be too linear for the puzzle oriented but entirely suited my taste. And there are numerous alternative endings.
This game reminds me that what I value most in a game is the story. Now some might say, well, but you can find stories in books, to which I'd reply - good point. But, hey, that's just the way I feel. It seems that a lot of IF authors are engaged in stretching the limits of the medium, or making comments on the medium itself, playing with its cliches and whatnot. I find that strange, or maybe a premature development, because I don't think we yet have any overabundance of great IF tales. Why all the stretching of and commenting on a practically brand new medium that hasn't even produced an enormous literature yet? Why not just tell some good stories first?
Back to traditional IF with THE EVIL SORCERER GREN REMOZ by Dionysius Porcupine. This is pretty much a puzzlefest and not bad. I trekked around quite awhile even though it quickly became apparent that this is the sort of game with which I do not get along - high praise, in a way. I really dislike having to trudge back and forth over a map though, and only being able to carry a limited number of objects. Did you ever notice how often inventory limits appear in games that are otherwise totally divorced from reality? You have to insert the diamond toad into the Zebulating Device, while wearing the Cloak of Obscurity and carefully placing the cranberry on the overturned goblet, in the Cave of Mists. But, wait a minute, as you pick up that goblet the last item you need, from the throne room, 276 locations away from the cave - "you're carrying too many items already!" So the realism is just there to make the ridiculous puzzle even worse. No, The Evil Sorcerer wasn't that extreme.
THE CAVE OF MORPHEUS by Mark Silcox is another game written with Campbell Wild's Adrift system. Adrift does the coding for you (but not the programmer-style reasoning) by means of various menus. I think it is a lot more powerful and flexible than some might suppose. Mark demonstrates that Adrift can be used for modern style IF, combining a weird dream and puzzleless interaction with strong allusions to classic text adventures. I wonder what William Crowther thinks about finding himself in a puzzleless game?)
I guess he wouldn't have any problem on that score with COLOURS, a massive puzzle. I checked the walk through early and didn't have to read far to see that I will only solve this in some other life when I'm reincarnated with a new brain. There seems to be no characterization, or real setting, not the slightest motivation to solve the puzzle, except the challenge of the puzzle itself. Not my cup of tea, but then I never wanted to play with Rubik's Cube either. (Rubik's Cube? I even hate slide puzzles!) To be fair, this is fiendishly complicated and will be very appealing to some.(Also, the authorship is, at the moment a puzzle to me since a glance at the game, again, doesn't seem to reveal it)
MYSTERY MANOR by Mystery is another Adrift game. This uses that system's soon-to-be-improved (in the next version I'm told) ability to use sounds and pictures. I don't much like pictures in IF. What I value in IF is its simplicity, that it relies on words. I really, really don't like music. Sorry, Mystery, I am being perverse mentioning that here because the music is well selected in Mystery Manor, very atmospheric, but I am a person who keeps the sound turned off on his computer. I don't want my word processor dinging at me when I make an error, or choirs of angles singing when Windows opens. Computers ought to be seen, not heard. Life is noisy enough without all those electronic chimes and beeps and whistles.
By the way. Mystery Manor shows that you can write a good solid traditional game in Adrift. The haunted house is extensive and exceedingly well described, in words!
FILM AT ELEVEN by Bowen Greenwood is one of my favorites this year. You play a cub TV news reporter assigned to get the dirt on a local politician.
Film at Eleven is practically a blueprint for my ideal IF game:
1. It is short
2. It has puzzles but:
a. they are easy
b. they involve real world problem solving
c. there are alternative solutions
3. There is a real plot
4. The setting is not hackneyed
5. You are told exactly what you need to accomplish and given sufficient motivation to do so
Actually, the puzzles I like are those where the character has to figure out how to overcome an obstacle presented in the course of the story. That is to say, rather than being abstract intellectual exercises the puzzles become dramatic story elements.
The BEETMONGER'S JOURNAL begins with some superb TAD's graphics (of an old map) and then author Aubrey Foil does everything possible to distance players from the story. There are asides and interruptions and general silliness, which might be fine except the game does not seem particularly humorous. Tongue-in-cheek is a favorite IF style I guess - too much so. The rather crude interaction IF systems allow, coupled with the often fantastic nature of the stories, present a high enough barrier to reader/player involvement to begin with. When I read, or play an IF game, I am prepared to suspend my disbelief enough to allow myself to be immersed in the story. That's part of the bargain between writer and reader. If a reader refuses to play along, won't pretend, than the writer's doomed. But the writer also has to play fair, has to agree not to constantly rub the reader's nose in the fact that it is all just fiction. Obviously, writers can choose to highlight the artificiality of their work - often it is done for humorous effect - but it is a dangerous tactic and can result in writing that the reader just can't care about.
Having said that, The Beetmonger's Journal is well enough done and I imagine most players would not have the kind of reaction I did. Certainly, it is in the top half of this year's . . .um. . . crop.
SHROEDINGER'S CAT isn't exactly a puzzle. Author James Wilson warns that the player is supposed to learn how the game world works. That instruction was too vague for me. I manipulated the weird environment, put cats into boxes and revivors and took them out again and used the camera to take pictures, and I learned a few surprising things, but, apparently not much, or enough. It was quite amusing, to a point, but how can the player be expected to know how far to explore without some guidance? Nevertheless an intriguing little game - or maybe a big one. Who knows.
It must be said, having been plagued by our cat Sabrina ensconcing itself in my lap while I play, I only wish she would allow herself to be placed so docilely into a box as the cats in this game. She seems to have become fixated with putting her paws, and snout, on the keyboard. Ever enter a dark cave, round a corner to the north and suddenly feel a cold, slimy cat nose on the back of your hand. Creepy! Is she puzzled by the way the keys move, or the clicking sound? Or she trying to communicate with me? All she ever writes is something like : 8888888888888888888 What does it all mean?
I spent some time playing the web based GOOFY by Ricardo Dague and although I was amazed at how smoothly it works, it didn't seem very inspired as a game. I don't want to slam something that no doubt required programming skills which are entirely beyond my comprehension but I'm speaking as a player here. I mean, a sophisticated word processor is an incredible programming feat (at least compared to my old Underwood Manual Typewriter) but there's loads of drivel written on the things. Goofy isn't drivel, but I didn't find it very engaging.
Jason Love sounds like a pseudonym and if I'd entered NEWCOMER I'd be in hiding too. I don't mean the game is exactly disgraceful but, so far as I can see it is a joke, and a real groaner. Or maybe a comment on lack of interactivity? What can I say without giving the game away? Well, if you've "played" Beal Street there's one form of utterly minimal interactivity. Newcomer offers a somewhat different form. Mind you, it appears to be much more. There are some nicely drawn locations. I'm not sure what to make of it, to be honest. It is one solution to what to do with that practice file, with all the locations, that you decide you don't feel like turning into an actual game because how many moves does it take to make a bunch of static locations into a game. Oops. I'd better shut up now.
Personally I enjoy seeing what can be done with systems outside the "Big Three" (or is it the "Big Two" or the "Big 2 and one half"? since everyone on RAIF appears to consider Hugo on a par with TADS and INFORM but there seem to be more games written in Adrift and Alan than in Hugo) so I appreciated that LOVESONG by Mihalis Georgostathis gave me an opportunity to play a game in the much maligned Quest system. As with Adrift, Quest allows you to perform many common operations by clicking on menus rather than typing commands. Not a bad feature. I get tired of repeatedly typing "talk to" so and so in the increasing number of games that feature that sort of conversation. It is quite pleasant to just highlight the character to be addressed and click on "talk to" instead.
As for the game, I enjoyed it. Yes, it is a very short and simple game, and there are a few errors in English, the author not being a native speaker, (and who I am to complain, since I speak only one language?) however, Lovesong contained important elements that many authors of more complicated and polished games miss out on -- an actual story, a clear goal and some motivation to reach the goal.
While I enjoy sampling new interpreters there is also DOS. OK. I thought Mike Snyder's home brewed Lunatix was just fine but, for whatever reason, DOS games free up a lot of Comp playing time for me. Here, for example is DOOMED FROM THE START by noob. Doesn't that name ring a bell? And, wait, isn't this the same interface I couldn't stand earlier? So I began with trepidation and right off what do I read - "You are in a cold dark cave, however you have no clue why." (uh oh!) "To figure out where you are you will start to map each room." (Hmmmm I wouldn't bet on it) "This will be called room 1" (whoa - I'm outta here!)
Talk about games designed to drive me away. Norman Perlmuter's THE CRUISE has just about everything I hate in a game. Totally tongue-in-cheek tone, you're given no idea of what to do initially, ridiculous puzzles (finding jewels of power on a cruise ship -c'mon); inventory limits, the need to endlessly retrace your steps, hunger - hunger, for cryin' out loud. You have to stop in the middle of what you're doing to go to the dining room and eat! I don't even stop to eat in real life!
Needless to say I loved this game.
Search me.( -- You find nothing of interest - especially in the braincase)
I guess Norman just writes engagingly or some damn thing. This hooked me. I worked feverishly. Heck, there was a hint book lying around rather than hints, and how can you hate a game where the author hangs around as an NPC to answer questions? Not to mention there being an explanation of how you can have north south directions on a moving ship.
So much for rules. Guess that's why they call writing an art.
Aside to the author: Hope that intro didn't jar you too bad - payback for that onboard comic - talk about bad jokes.
JUMP, by Chris Mudd, is more of a game I might be inclined to like but didn't. It is brief and has no puzzles. It is story oriented. However, it is very short, even by my impatient standards.(When I'd finished I checked the walkthrough to be certain I hadn't just reached an abrupt, alternate ending.) And the interaction is very limited. You mostly talk to a few characters and get a couple objects.
But what I mainly didn't like was that at the very end, it appears you are about to face a simple decision which lies at the very heart of the game - except that the author whips the decision out from under your nose and pushes you to the end of his own choosing.
Writing non-IF fiction, I understand the authorial urge to control the end of the story. Much of a story's message, not to mention the author's worldview, is at least implicit in the chosen ending. That's the storyteller's prerogative. In real life things come out any old way, but when we write they come out how we want them too. Unless we offer an IF player alternatives.
In my game The HeBGB Horror I cheated. There is a yes/no choice at the end there too and I couldn't resist -if you make the "wrong" choice, I give you the outcome, then insist you see my choice anyhow.
At any rate, since the player at the end of Jump has to choose one of only two actions I would have thought the author could have allowed for alternatives. Could I, as author, have forced myself to do so? Hey, I'm asking the questions here, not answering them.
THE APPLE FROM NOWHERE, by Steven Carbonne, struck me as the sort of thing you see in pretentious lit mags -- trying to be provocative, a dollop of unpalatable sex, violence, wrapped up in enough incoherence that it has got to have some deeper meaning, but maybe I'm just stupid. But this is just my personal taste, understand. I did try to interact with the thing, which was hard seeing as how I had no inkling of what was going on. Finally I just kept pushing "z" and that seemed to keep things going just as well.
So maybe I never did have anything accepted by my college's literary magazine and I still have a chip on my shoulder. But I've had stuff published professionally since then and how about the lit mag editor who rejected my writing? What's he had published? Except for that story in Atlantic Monthly and - well, I guess this doesn't have a moral I like. So forget I ever mentioned it.
I know what you're probably saying anyway. What does this guy like, if not literature? Comic books? Well, yeah. I have gone on several comic book crazes over the years. My last ended some time back when the family budget couldn't support the escalating price of indie comics and graphic novels. (Ah yes, Watchmen, Morty the Dog, Flaming Carrot. . .fond memories all) So anyhow in EARTH AND SKY by (Stan?) Lee (Jack?) Kirby , you get to be a superhero. AWRIIIIGGHHHTT! BAM! POW! and UT! I mean is this game cool or what? You get to assume the tights of power. You fly. You blast. This is what IF's all about. I especially liked the climactic battle with the giant mutant creature. It is a puzzle, but so well designed that I solved it almost instinctively, without even really thinking in puzzle terms but just kind of maneuvering and blasting away as comes naturally to us of the superpowerful persuasion.
I need a whiff of krptonite. Arghh. No not the red. . . Too late. Akbarr's SHATTERED MEMORY is kind of a warped experience, an intriguing idea, though the setting is cliched and the game itself is hampered by unlikely and unclued commands. There is something interesting going on, beyond the apparently static setting you find yourself trapped in, if you can break out. It may be that the particular phrasings that must be used won't stump other players, or that others will think to examine something that has to be present but, so far as I recall, is never mentioned.
Is it fair to players to expect them to realize that an object which is not actually described is present, even when it must be present? I'm not sure. I lean toward answering "no" because the written world is an artificial one, an approximation, an abstraction of reality. There is no way the writer can do more than skim lightly over the incredible complexity of the real world, picking out a few details from which the reader can imagine all that complexity. I think that generally the reader should be able to assume that if the writer has chosen not to describe a thing it is not important. Tomorrow I might think differently.
Despite what I saw as shortcomings, Shattered Memory will reward you with a most interesting and philosophical story, with some surprising twists. An original bit of work.
VOLCANO by Paul DeWitt is another game that isn't really for me. The first thing I do when I play a game is type "X me". I want to know who I am! Seems fundamental. Yet I am amazed at how many games don't implement a description for the protagonist. Well, maybe not amazed. I didn't do it in my first game. I didn't know you could. (No, don't ask how I could be so dense. . .) Still, when I discover, right off, that the game author wasn't even interested in what his main character looks like, that gives me pause. I begin to suspect that the author and I are not on the same page when it comes to what we look for in interactive fiction. In case you haven't figured it out, I prefer stories to puzzles (Oh. Really? And also -- the Big Momma, you say?) especially the same tired old puzzles I haven't been able to solve in a hundred variations already. So when a game has no not implemented "X me" but does leave a flashlight lying around in the first location it is almost by definition a game I'm not going to enjoy. Which says more about my prejudices than Volcano I'm sure. (And someone will probably also point out that Earl Stanley Gardener never described Perry Mason in any of the books, but, why should he since everyone knows he looked like Raymond Burr)
ELEMENTS by John Evans,is yet another puzzle game I can't say much about, except that I can't conceive how anybody could even begin to finish this in the Comp's two hour time limit. The walkthrough takes longer. Again, though, likely a great experience for many players.
In STRANDED by Rich Cummings, you are, as you might guess, stranded on an island. The game features some attractive photo scenes and puzzles that, for me, were almost too naturalistic. I don't want to ruin the game for anyone so I will just pose a general question, kind of an extension of the one I asked in regards to Shattered Memory -- to what extent can the IF author expect the player to attribute to objects mentioned in the game environment all the usable properties those objects would have in real life, including properties that aren't mentioned? I realize that I am straying a bit afield from what actually occurs in Stranded, but the puzzles here did bring the question to mind.
Since I'm even confusing myself, let me find an example. Say you've been tied securely to a stake and can't move anything but your head. You're slowly working your hands free -- wriggle g g g -that sort of thing. But the evil genius responsible has set a cartoon bomb at your bound feet and the flame is racing along the fuse. Now, is "spit on fuse" a fair solution? Or, to be fair, would you have to also include some comment like - "Escaping these bonds takes more than a single bound. Your mouth is practically dry from the exertion."?
Which has only marginal bearing on Stranded. I was pretty confounded but, as mentioned, the puzzles are "real world" type puzzles and should be solvable if you approach them correctly.
STIFFY MAKANE: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY by One of the Bruces. I confess, I enjoyed this game. I know, I know. . .I hear the cries of outrage from all the wronged artists. We've labored to create brilliant intellectual edifices of scintillating puzzles, wrung sparkling, magical blood from the hard stone of If Programming languages, explored the far shores of philosophy, pulled our very souls, shrieking and squirming into the harsh and unforgiving light for your edification, and you have scoffed and laughed and yawned and now you say you prefer playing a horny space cadet with an execrably drawn alien moose stuck in his airlock.
Forgive me for I have sinned.
This is a pretty repulsive mishmash. It's got the lot. Photos, sounds and animations. Enough to make Blorb a dirty word. Hell, it might even get your local Fundamentalists-R-Us senator interested in IF. But all in good fun.
Besides, now that you know what awful taste I have you can ignore anything nasty I've said.
So, for purposes of the two hour time limit, is Sean Barrett's HEROES one game or five? There's a magical gem to be stolen. Nothing unusual there, but in this game you get to play as five different characters, ranging from adventurer to dragon. Since each has different abilities, although the setting and props remain the same, the stories play out very differently.
Playing the contrasting scenarios offers a good lesson for IF authors. I suspect I'm like many IF writers in that when I'm formulating a story I've tended to first think of locations, and what objects might be in the locations and what might be done with those objects. But in IF, as in non-IF, the way you design your protagonist can affect the story more than the setting and physical objects.
Heroes manages to be both traditional and experimental. A real highlight.
As to BANE OF THE BUILDERS by Bogdan Baliuc, Mea culpa. I wandered around this game for a good 45 minutes not understanding why I couldn't accomplish anything. When I checked the walkthrough I realized I'd left the most important item in the game back at the first location. I'd "x me" but hadn't "x"ed my surroundings. Too much introversion. The game seemed fairly standard science fiction. Not bad. The sort of thing you'll like if you like that sort of thing.
A NIGHT GUEST by Dr. Inkalot is a very brief game in the form of a poem (or what modern poets would probably call doggerel). As a game it is limited. Five or six commands, most almost impossible to guess, for me, scroll up new batches of verse. The verse, about a proverbial drunken lord and his infernal nocturnal visitor is amusing, however.
Morton Rasmussen's INVASION OF THE ANGORA FETISH TRANSVESTITES FROM THE GRAVEYARDS OF JUPITER, with its references to Ed Wood reminded me of the first (and last) time I watched Wood's classic "Orgy of the Dead." When the first stripper showed up in the graveyard and gyrated through her act it was pretty funny. Then the next stripper appeared, and the next and, well you get the idea. As I sat there watching, jiggled into numbness, the incredible truth only gradually dawned on me -- this is all there is. This so-called movie is not going to be anything but an endless, tedious, succession of strippers in a graveyard. But, worse yet, even knowing this, I had no choice but to endure to the end because - hey -- strippers in a graveyard. Mr. Wood had plumbed depths of sheer awfulness my poor limited mind had not even imagined could exist. The aforementioned game did not deliver the same sort of lead pipe epiphany. I couldn't do much with it. Couldn't get used to the interface. Perhaps it emulates Ed Wood a little too well.
THE COAST HOUSE by Stephen Newton and Dan Newton is a gem. It uses some standard IF elements -- a search for identity, the deserted house - but in a different and naturalistic way. Rather than searching for your own identity, as often happens, you are searching for an old family secret at the house which was left abandoned after your grandmother died and your grandfather moved to a nursing home. The evocation of stepping back into places that were once familiar, of rummaging though the remnants of vanished lives, is quite moving. When loved ones have gone aren't there always questions we wished we had asked? Years ago, there hung at the top of my grandmother's stairs, an old brown photograph of her and her sisters, posed in front of the long vanished family farmhouse. As a child I always wondered about that farmhouse. The photo revealed nothing beyond the windows, the door could never again be opened. Yet on the day the photograph was taken the house must have been filled with evidence of the lives being led there. In playing The Coast House I got some sense of what it might have been like had it been possible for me to explore that old farmhouse years later.
VICIOUS CYCLES by Simon Mark probably suffered, for me, because of current events. I suppose I might be coming out with a mild spoiler, but I just don't have much stomach for playing a game involving terrorism right now. There's nothing sensationalistic here, but I am just sick of hearing about terrorism. No matter how heinous terrorism may be, it has nothing to do with kids starving in poverty, people dying for lack of health care, or the myriad of other ills besetting society which are being so conveniently shunted aside in the fight against terrorism.
Which has nothing to do with Vicious Cycles. The game features logical puzzles and a neat justification for learning by death. I suspect this was in the works long before September 11 and if so, I wonder what the author thought when the game was, as they say, overtaken by reality. It is well worth playing. Please ignore my rant.
SILICON CASTLES, by Jack Maet, starts like a game but almost immediately turns into a chess simulator. You could've knocked me over when the graphic representation of a chess board popped up. You type in the move, the pieces shift, the computerized genie makes its move. This amazes me even more than Textfire Golf and Freefall's Tetris. I hate chess. I never even learned to castle. I mean, those guys at the high school chess club, the one time I showed up, they really approach it like a war. My stepson had his rating up over 2,000 when he was in highschool. I agreed to play him once and he beat me in three moves. But how cool is this game? The genie can play. I don't understand how you can pack enough information to play a chess game in 200 odd kbs of a .z file. Have I been suckered by some kind of illusion here or what?
Understand, I cannot program. I have browsed the Inform manual. Even did the sample rooms with some objects and workable doors thing. But this isn't written in that kind of Inform, is it? I'm waiting for some real If reviewers to educate me.
I know, it's magic. Common enough in these games.
Roy Fisher's YOU ARE HERE plays like a rather unoriginal pseudo-medieval fantasy game - which is intentional because it purports to recreate, as nearly as possible in a text adventure, a MUD. I found the game fascinating on that account. The bits of conversation by players lapsing from their characters and the setting sounded realistic and provided some laughs. I've never gone anywhere near a MUD. The thought of even stopping by IfMud for the XYZZY Awards fills me with dread. I find the whole concept too much like a big party. In fact, my discomfort level with social situations is so high I've never even ventured into a chatroom except for a few carefully controlled question and answer sessions to promote our mystery books - and only then with my wife handling the keyboard duties and me handling the profuse sweating and shaking. How much this game actually captures a MUD feel - well, you tell me.
Daniel T. Freas, author of GRAYSCALE is right up front about it. He's not going to tell you what you're supposed to be doing. That's for you to find out. It is the first puzzle of the game, in essence. I proceeded to spend nearly half my allotted two hours wandering the more than thirty locations easily accessible to me, gathering objects, talking, reading books, examining things and never did figure out what my goal was.
The setting I traversed here was interesting enough to keep me going, but I still don't like the common "figuring out the point of it all" first puzzle.
One of the most important things I've learned about writing is that readers don't want to be kept in the dark for long - or any time at all. Maybe it is the pernicious influence of short TV shows or non-stop action movies, but it is a fact of life, in writing professional fiction, you've got about two sentences to hook the reader. IF, I realize, is not regular fiction. It is certainly entitled to have different conventions. But I happen to think it is a good policy to get right into the story. Remember, there are well over 1,500 games just on the Archive and never mind all the other things your potential player could be doing, like watching TV, or reading a book.
Funnily, the books in Grayscale's library contain a few paragraphs from real books, so I may have to abandon this idea I had for a game as liable to appear derivative. What I was thinking was that it isn't very interesting to just walk from one location to another, even if the door opens and shuts, and pick up some objects. But what if the coin, sword, box etc were books? And what if I went over to the Guttenburg Project and downloaded the full text of Moby Dick, Les Miserable etc and stuck them in between a bit of code so you could open each book and read the whole thing? And what if, somewhere in each book was hidden one of the clues you needed to find the ring of power?
Oh well. Nevermind. Let's move on.
What should I say about CARMA by Marnie Parker? If you've read this far you already know what I think about (or know about) rules of punctuation. To me, comma splicing is a way of life. Do I really want to be lectured on rules of grammer by a bunch of nitpicking punctuation marks? (Actually I couldn't bring the word "nitpicking" to mind so I called over to my wife - "What do you call someone who's a real hard nose about junk like grammer?" To which she replied "editor") So, OK, this game is a hoot. Militant apostrophes. Pretty funny.
Moreover, the cartoon graphics re outstanding. They do not, as if often the case, look like the best imitation possible (i.e. not too good) of some sort of expensive, professionally produced graphics that are really beyond the means of the average IF author. Rather they are simple, polished, unique and perfect for a TADS game.
But, honestly, Marnie, if you think you're going to succeed where my High school English teachers and Strunk and White all failed, well, that's a hope I'll have to leave you to dangle with.
CRUSADE by John Gorenfeld is another game that's full of laughs, at least if religious (or political) mockery doesn't offend you. How can you not like a game where you have to perform sacrilege to advance or one that rewrites the crucifixion as the climax to an action adventure movie?. I have to say (and I'm sorry if I'm giving too much away) this was the best crucifixion scene since Monty Python's Life of Bryan.
TO OTHERWHERE AND BACK is a polished Alan game, by Greg Ewing. I like seeing well crafted Alan games, but I couldn't warm up much to this one simply because of what it is - an implementation of the walkthru for last year's walkthru contest. Obviously we're several steps away from reality here and the author even warns that because of the nature of the thing some of the puzzles are well nigh impossible without the walkthru. But as an example of Alan it is nice to have in the canon. I still have a bit of an Alan game in progress but recently I've been waiting for Thomas Nilsson's promised new version which will allow for classes. Perhaps next year there'll be a slew of Alan games in the Comp. I think the ones this year have shown the language in a good light.
TIMEOUT, by Steev Hildenbrand, is a truly bizarre game -- and I mean that in a nice way. You and some companions have to traverse a surrealistic futuristic corporation/factory world to make an important delivery. The setting makes little sense. Sudden death lurks around every corner. Silly puzzles abound. Never fear, though. You get five replacement clones. More importantly, as the author explains, there is only one puzzle that you really have to solve, and that mostly amounts to running across the right randomly generated room by wandering aimlessly. The other puzzles are there for scoring purposes. Which makes the game very replayable. I'm reminded a bit of Quentin Thomson's remarkable Halothane, which also presented puzzles, but ultimately didn't give a damn whether you solved them or not. (I am a thick steel door - but what the hell. Keep moving!)
NO TIME TO SQUEAL by Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa is one of my favorite games from this competition but I can't think of what to say that won't ruin its surprises. Even to reveal what it does best, would be to give too much away. I realize, by now you've probably already read fifteen summaries that have already done what I'm trying to avoid to doing to the game, but I'm keeping my mouth shut. Let someone else spill the beans. I won't say a word about what happens when - just fooling!
One comment I will make is that Robb shows off his writing range here, with a style quite different from the usual. Another indication of his skills. I recall a few comps back Adam Cadre commenting on this very topic. Now I have to say, from reading Adam's posts, and browsing his site, and playing his games, and seeing the sort of fiction he writes as opposed to what I write,, I'd guess the only two things he and I share the same opinion on are capitalism and Robb Sherwin's writing. But, hey, at least they're important things.
Emily Short's well written and, as near as I can tell, brilliantly designed BEST OF THREE comes up against my proclivities for limiting dialog since it seems to consist almost entirely of a conversation between old high school acquaintances meeting for the first time in a couple years, discussing their pasts, their families, philosophy etc.- the sort of conversation I would enjoy having at length but perhaps not so much enjoy reading at length. When my wife and I co-write she's the dialog maven. She'll hand me pages of conversation which I will decide is too much, so I'll edit some out, put in some action and send it back. At which point she'll complain the action is a lot of running about to no purpose, take some out and put more dialog back in. So while I did enjoy Best of Three I would've edited, or broken the conversation up into several encounters under different circumstances or somesuch.
Which, of course, would've defeated the gameplay.
I think, in a way, the conversation system is almost too good. The dialog produced is so seamless and lifelike that although my choices were certainly moving the story around (I think) I wasn't sure how. I couldn't hear the clunk of the machinery moving. I expect it will become more apparent when I replay the game and try to make different choices but playing through once gave me the impression, almost, of reading a book. This raises the question of what is wanted in a game. A simulation that feels like life but is replayable? A less realistic experience where the flow of life is reduced to more obvious "moves"? I'm not sure but the programming here seems to be reaching a level of sophistication where really capable authors will have such a choice.
As for authors such as myself -- I remain to speculate, more or less unhampered by any actual experience, since after receiving much good advice, I temporarily set aside my in-progress Alan project one scene short of the conversation I had planned.
Finally, my last game -- Jon Ingold's ALL ROADS! I started the Comp with the superb, pastoral and unhurried The Chasing and now it ends with another superb game - this one absolutely gripping and nerve racking. You play an assassin, of a most peculiar sort, in a Venice of the imagination. I've complained a lot in these ramblings about the necessity to get the player's attention from the start. I don't think I've ever seen a better example than here. And once the author has your attention he never lets go. I was pulled in, drawn along, just about breathless by the time I'd ridden this one out. Is the game on rails? Well, it must be. I could never have played straight through without a misstep, or a lag in the action, or some period of wandering and confusion otherwise. Yet, it seemed like I was making significant choices. Surely I could not have picked exactly the right command at every turn. The game must have been pushing on, regardless, as some do, but I didn't feel like it was, or else I was being fed very explicit playing instructions, but if so I was taking them in almost subliminally. Brilliant.
Conclusions? Four dozen odd games in six weeks is too many! But there were some great ones. Funny how I'd find myself getting bored and figure it must be me, I'd just overdosed, but then some game would really grab me anyhow. And I know what you're saying, enough! You've found out more about me and my hobby horses than the games. But isn't that the way it always is, when you come right down to it?
As for the name - Mein Comp - I dunno, I'm kind of hoping J.D. Berry will now do Hitler's Comp 2001 reviews.
In closing, I know it has been said that interactive fiction is a way of life but if I might, instead, paraphrase Montaigne (the old French essayist that is) -- to study IF is to learn to die. (Wait, is that studying IF or writing cranky comp reviews?)
Reviews From Trotting