Posted 16 November 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
After what seemed like a substantial effort getting through all 52 games of Comp01, I feel justified in using bandwidth to explain why I rated the pieces the way I did, in the hope it will add to critical discussion which looks wider than particular games.
These comments are arranged by a classification system based variously on the genre, theme and structure of the work (game), the role of the player character and my general whim. My reasons for doing this are firstly to help analyse current trends in IF, and secondly to allow comparison between similar efforts and, with luck, highlight the important success factors within each particular group. (Another motivation is that whatever remains outside the main taxonomy is likely to be peculiarly interesting, either good or bad.)
Since each work should leave one mentally in a different place from the starting point, I've named each category after a means of transport. This started because among the first few games several felt very predetermined, and I found myself thinking of them collectively as "trams". The full classification is below.
While every effort has been made to remove spoilers, these reviews may have come into contact with very minor spoilers during processing. (In fact the spoilers are most likely to be in the classification system itself, but given that people are unlikely to understand or remember the classification until playing the game, I'd merely suggest not reading these while in the middle of a spoilable game.)
Personal favourite: The Chasing
Other recommendations: Triune, The Cruise, Vicious Cycles, The Isolato Incident, A Night Guest (These are mostly small, easy games.)
Best Multimedia Monster Download: Carma
Most impressive and lasting works that might be better considered non-competition releases: Silicon Castles, Moments out of Time
Most interesting duds: Kallisti, The Newcomer
Full Classification and Scoring
Trams (linear, minimal exploration): No Time to
Squeal (6RW T), To Otherwhere and Back (6RW A),
A Night Guest (6WS T), Fusillade (5WL T),
Kallisti (3 T), an apple from nowhere (3
Trams include Mule Treks and Time-Travelling Trolley Buses.
Mule Treks (rites of passage): Triune (9RW T), Isolato Incident (7WS A), Prized Possession (5RW Z), Jump (4SW Z), Shattered Memory (4W Z)
Time-Travelling Trolley Buses: All Roads (7RW Z), Vicious Cycles (7RW Z)
Biplanes (standard adventures): 2112 (7RWU P), Bane of the Builders (6W Z), You are Here (6UB Z), The Evil Sorcerer (5BRW T), Volcano Isle (5BRW T), The Coast House (5W T), Fine Tuned (5LI Z), Stranded (3LIU T), Mystery Manor (3BRW D)
Spacehoppers (comedies): Stiffy Makane: TUC (7RW G), Carma (8RW G), Crusade (7RWU Z), Film at Eleven (6W Z), The Cave of Morpheus (5UB D), Earth and Sky (5Z), Invasion of the Angora. (5RWLU P)
Howdahs (atmospheric rides): The Chasing (10W A), The Cruise (7W T), The Beetmonger's Journal (6RW T), Journey from an Islet (5W T)
Rickshaws (conversation pieces): Best of Three (7G), Stick it to the Man (5B G), Lovesong (4WS P)
Dodgems (abstract puzzlefests): Colours (6RWUIB Z), Elements (6RWL Z), Grayscale (5RW T), Timeout (4W Z), Surreal (4RI P)
Unicycles (one-puzzle wonders): Silicon Castles (5B Z), Goofy (4U J), Schroedinger's Cat (4SR Z), The Newcomer (2U Z)
Skateboards (programming exercises): The Test (2RWIB P), The Last Just Cause (2WI P), You Were Doomed from the Start (1S P)
Zeppelins (innovations): The Gostak (8RW Z), Heroes (7RWL Z), Moments out of Time (6W ZZ)
Reluctant to classify yet: Begegnung am Fluss
CODESThe letter codes are provided to give an indication of difficulty:
W - walkthrough or detailed hints provided.
RW - I resorted to walkthrough, usually to get it done in 2 hours of play or to surmount "Guess the Verb" problems. This didn't affect my scoring much unless even using the walkthrough became tedious.
R - walkthrough (or preferably better hints throughout game) needed, but not provided.
I - I left it incomplete.
L - game probably lost points because it was too long (doesn't lose points if too detailed or branching).
Game System: Z - Z-code
Game System: G - Glulx
Game System: T - TADS
Game System: A - ALAN
Game System: D - ADRIFT
S - game was quite short (not the worst vice)
B - bugs affected play.
U - I probably found an (unannounced) unwinnable state.
J - Java/Web
P - PC MSDOS/MSWindows only
Number - the score I gave it after 2 hours. I considered trying to produce an even redistribution, but in the end decided it might appear artificial.While every effort has been made to remove spoilers, these reviews may have come into contact with very minor spoilers during processing. (In fact the spoilers are most likely to be in the classification system itself, but given that people are unlikely to understand or remember the classification until playing the game, Iíd merely suggest not reading these while in the middle of a spoilable game. If anyone thinks anything does spoil a game, let me know.)
GENERAL COMMENTS on Comp01
There has already been some discussion of the overall quality of this yearís competition. I have only sampled from previous yearsí entries and so can not really compare, but possibly there are fewer outstanding pieces this time around. The majority of entries were competent, and worth refining in a second release, but lacked any real element of the sublime. I am less and less interested in the "crossword" element of IF for its own sake, and more and more interested in the narrative qualities. The effect of an work of IF should ideally be equal to a good short story (although more work goes into the IF to achieve this). Only rarely was there sufficient originality or reader involvement to live up to this standard, sadly. I donít mean to damn the average Comp entry, which is enjoyable for other reasons, but you can get a bit jaded when judging 52 works, a lot of which are by definition average.
To repeat, I havenít comprehensively played previous years, but I would guess that we are seeing a little less humour and horror than previous years, and a slight increase in straight science fiction and fantasy, and also in tragedies. The long hoped-for boom in NPC interaction still hasnít happened.
There were some minor technical problems that marred several entries. For example, some HTML TADS games seem to set the background colour without simultaneously setting the colour of the text, sometimes rendering the text illegible. This is easy enough to correct, but it shouldnít happen. Style changes in Glulxe seem unnecessary either. And while weíre on the subject of legibility, for some reason, ALAN games with a WinGlk front-end were much more readable than some Glulxe games. This is probably an effect of excessive window width, which produces long lines with disproportionately small line leading, a user rather than a programming problem. There were also ADRIFT, Quest and Windows games that displayed controls and buttons for use of a mouse. Personally, I think one of the joys of IF is freedom not to use a mouse. When IF games began to include mouse support, I believe the continual switching between mouse and keyboard drove players and designers to want more and more functions available via the mouse, which may have contributed to the decline of IF. (However, the mapping function of ADRIFT is useful, and having also played with the games entered this year and the respective design tools, I would venture the opinion that a port of Adrift to non-PC platforms would be more useful than one of Quest.)
Then there are the guess-the-verb problems that spoil things because they mean an early resort to the walkthrough. A particular bugbear of mine is North American idioms without equivalents or synonyms, particularly "pry" (prise, lever, jemmy, force), and "flip". A more substantial gripe in some pieces is providing insufficient back-story or explanation for the events in which we are immersed. Not everything about the player character (PC) needs to be made explicit at the start, or even by the end. However, often I feel the author plonks us straight into the middle of an action scene, intending us to sympathise with the PC when we donít even fully understand the predicament they are in. One of the advantages of IF is that "expository lumps" as they are called in SF can be neatly concealed in NPC dialogue or in-game hints. The player can investigate them further as they please or skip them if they already have the general idea.
On now to the categories in turn.
TRAMS (linear, minimal exploration)
Thereís a little ditty I heard quoted in discussions of free-will and determinism that runs
There was a young man who said: ''Damn!
It grieves me to think that I am
Predestined to move
In a circumscribed groove:
In fact, not a bus, but a tram.
All IF is to some extent tram-like. However, there is a continuum between those games which deliberately strive for a feeling of agency and discovery, through those which prevent an ordered series of scenes each of which require a particular command to progress from, to those which you experience mostly by pressing any key, and the command "wait" or "z".
I suspect that some of Adam Cadreís work has had an undue influence on some trams, but perhaps the wrong elements have been abstracted. In an Cadre work, or something like Rameses, the themes and plot are explored from various angles and then come together at the climax, and actually the illusion of agency is maintained, even if the end is actually predestined. Some trams really donít feel interactive at all, and therefore can get quite tedious unless they have the quality I mentioned earlier of a good short story.
This first group generally has a very small map. If there is more than one room, the rooms are usually linked in a straight line. It is also characterised by lack of continuity, sometimes years worth of action being summarised in a line or not at all, before cutting to an unexpected scenario, or even a different player character (PC), that forms a new "chapter". You may guess that I am not well disposed to this form for its own sake, but there are at least two types of story where it is justified, and I give points for humour in any case.
Fusillade (5WL T) is a typical, if lengthy example. The opening scene is set after a battle, set, so far as I could tell in some fantasy world (although I did recognise some names). Two or three commands later, we are transported to the War of 1812, and thence immediately to somewhere else. I was unfortunately expecting closure to each scene, or a return to it later, which never came. The postscript explains more clearly what is happening, but it would be improved if somehow the player could guess this sooner (just as the reader can in Iain Banksís The Bridge or Irvine Welshís Marabou Stork Nightmares. For anyone who has read these, I consider this tip to be the opposite of a spoiler.) But it overall has a positive aspect.
an apple from nowhere (3 G) alternates between similar scenes which also fail to make much sense collectively, but does return to its various styles, which include a film script, recollection of a dream and some fragments of surreal nihilism. Itís about pointlessness and frustration, but tends to confuse rather than disturb or shock. Kallisti (3 T) is at least consistent in its plot, and boasts a recognisable beginning, middle and end, the last a memorable shock, and a possible intended, but unnecessary, justification for the explicit sex scenes. The sex scenes are fine, but unfortunately guilt-laden; SMTUC (see below) is more puerile by far, but I personally feel indicates a healthier attitude to sex. Kallisti also falls down on its often awkward prose, and the clichťs where the simply-programmed conversation introduces the NPC (whose name I forget, not a good indication of characterisation).
To Otherwhere and Back (6RW A) has a good excuse for jumping all over the place - itís the game that Emily Shortís walkthrough was written for, a walkthrough you have to use. The humour and shortness made it quite fun, and itís possible I also liked it by getting off on the wrong track altogether. I unashamedly admit that I typed a command that activated the ALAN debugger, and my first thought was "Wow! This is a really alternative approach to puzzles." A Night Guest (6WS T) also scores on humour and for the novelty of having cut scenes in verse, and being a complete, and charming, story which can be read in about 10 minutes. I liked the illustrations which inverse video made reminiscent of etchings, but the metre and wording of the verse could do with some work.
No Time to Squeal (6RW T) boasts a Cadre-esque novelty linking the changes in player character that works well, and similarities to Vicious Cycles (reviewed below). This also works hard to conceal some of the inevitability of the action for a while, for example by allowing completely trivial decisions such ordering from a menu. The final longer section implies fate was a theme of the piece, but personally I found the puzzles and some of the description here unnecessarily distasteful. The significance of some of the catalytic events is still not fully explained by the end. I was ranking low at the time (after a lot of other trams), and this one is worth a look. (What is it about Alice that makes for creepy psychological horror, as in Vurt or Dennis Potterís Dreamchild?)
My (non-existent) grasp of German prevented me getting very far with Begegnung am Fluss (5R P) in 2 hours, but what I saw, I liked. The author anticipates a lot of obvious responses to the puzzles, but I couldnít make some of them work, which may again be related to the language.
Moving on, there are some themes which seem naturally to adopt a tram-like form. Two sub-types of trams I have named mule treks and time-travelling trolley buses.
MULE TREKS (Rites of Passage)
I played a sequence of three that suggested this category. The group is partly a subset of the "trams". Although some may have multiple possible endings, the possible outcomes are but incomplete stops on the way to a final destination.
The plot of a mule trek involves the accretion of experience during a time of crisis, which is reflected in a basically linear solution to puzzles. In this group, the PC is usually a child or adolescent, dominated by outside social influences, and there is little inventory. "Rites of Passage" is a wider term than "Coming of Age" and at least two of the stories in the general tram section could easily be considered rites of passage. There is something in this theme which naturally leads to a linear form.
Triune (9RW T) is an adventure full of surprises, reflecting the changes in the player character, an initially innocent young girl. It is framed as a deconstruction of both the more saccharine kinds of nursery rhymes, and of text adventures, and consequently risks undermining itself. Nevertheless, the writing really flows, without slipping into purple prose, and it is also thoroughly programmed (with one TADS error to break the flow). The changing colour of the status line is effective, and itís also unusual to see a post-quit message, although the longer version of this rather beats the player over the head when making its point. It is a shame that the accompanying ironic stills were not incorporated. Genuinely "mature".
Prized Possession (5RW Z) is a bit of a disappointment really, from a well-known IF person. It is a 12th century Romance (in original and modern senses), involving an orphaned noblewoman trying to avoid being institutionalised or married off. This, perhaps realistically for the time, but quite unlike the quasi-feminist ways of Triune, has to be achieved through the manipulation of the men around her. It suffers from aggravating typos and many of the failures relating to backstory, and trams mentioned above. A particular annoyance was being given the choice between "lie" and "tell the truth", when I had no idea what was entailed by either option. In addition, I had to resort to the walkthrough frequently to solve timed puzzles, and on one occasion where it should be, "hold" is not synonymous for "take". You suspect what the ideal ending is going to be from early on, the various twists and turns sometimes failing to conceal its inevitability, while themselves seeming a bit surplus to the plot. But it has a nice "grittiness" all the same.
Shattered Memory (4NW Z) has the gimmick of the player initially unsure of who they are playing. However, even when the player has known for a while, the story describes the realisation of the PC, which jars a bit. Again, I personally disliked the ethics of the piece. The English was also very poor. It is good for an author to try to keep it simple, when writing in a second language (I believe the writer of my favourite this year is a Finn).
The Isolato Incident is a definite oddity, which could also fit alongside The Gostak as an innovation, and with what a group I have called Howdahs. The second because the PC is at liberty to explore at leisure and has a privileged position, while the comparison with The Gostak is because of the innovative and alien vocabulary that leaves a lot to the imagination. Most of the seemingly bizarre actions you have to perform are well sign-posted, and it leaves one with some vivid images.
Finally, Jump (4SW Z) shows us a group of very disaffected young adults. Although itís not completely clear why the characters are so wrapped up in self-destructiveness and melodrama, the story convinced me quite early on. It is short, as shockers should be.
TIME-TRAVELLING TROLLEY BUSES
All Roads (7RW Z) seems to give us the end of the story first, with the PC on the scaffold after indulging in some Venetian political machinations. Itís really quite spooky stuff, but I also found the plot rather brain-taxing. Paradoxically, the linear form of the tram, with its interaction - cut - interaction cycle, is best for presenting non-linear stories, as here and in much Cadre, when a story is told out of sequence and must remain so until the reader puts it together. But sometimes it doesnít quite come together easily enough, and here it can take longer to work out exactly who the characters are than the time spent playing (maybe thatís another function of playing on auto-pilot). I was sure of what happened at the end, but not completely sure of how it had happened.
The same goes for Vicious Cycles (7RW Z), which introduces the concept and characters early, but perhaps doesnít explore the implications sufficiently (still, that is also true for the highly-rated Trinity). The core concept is familiar from outside IF, and mostly fun to play through, and logical. A feeling of doom gradually builds through play, to be mostly relieved at the end, but again with a sense of confusion. The hint system, designed as an HTML file, is worth investigating.
So far this has dealt with 14 games under the general heading of tram. One quarter of the competition is significant enough to be counted a genre of IF.
DODGEMS (abstract puzzlefests)
These are the works which catapult the PC (who may or may not have had some perfunctory background beforehand) into some alternative dimension containing surreal puzzles arranged into a satisfying but un-naturalistic pattern. I call them dodgems because they are fakes, like dodgem cars, running around in a tiny fairground environment, having no long-term effect on what goes on outside. You can tell these form a group by the single-word, possibly meaningless titles. It may sound that Iím firmly prejudiced against this form, but for an example of how this can be done well, look at the recent "Large Machine", which although providing puzzles which would not fit into any conventional genre of narrative, gives a humorous background and context to the overall aims of the game. In each of the ones in the comp, there is really only one ending, and only one that the player wants, to neutralise the puzzles and finish the game: this is quite explicit by the end of Grayscale - the objective is simply to exit the game system.
First up is Colours (6RWUIB Z), which perhaps has had most thought and innovation put into it. Youíre in a 5x5 set of rooms, each containing either a person identified only by their job, or a magical "black box" machine. Given time perhaps I could have finished without the walkthrough, but the incongruity of some of the puzzle solutions made it quite difficult. I failed to finish at all, probably because I abused the machines, but it also seems that a 4x4 map would have significantly speeded things along. Elements (6RWL Z) is quite similar, but with an internal currency of - surprise, surprise - objects related to one of the four elements, rather than nine or so colours. This was more difficult because this currency was a little more complex and private to the author - you canít just look at an object and divine its relevant element, unlike being able to see its colour. The first half contains some quirky solutions, but it is the second that is likely to take quite a while to solve without any walkthrough; there are hints you collect into a handy scrap book, but they mostly fill in the back-story rather than explaining the system.
In Grayscale (5RW T) we have another anonymous and possibly amnesiac PC, this time wandering around what at least represents a real architecture, a large house and garden, doing things with keys and hidden passages. There is an NPC to dispense most of the hints, but I drew some erroneous connections, trying to capture air on the top of a windy cliff, for example. The conclusion briefly mentions some background that partially explains the strange sequence of actions you have to perform, but it is just as good to say that the context is the game itself. Also notable is a room near the conclusion that is detailed but purely ornamental. Surreal (4RI P) (I see no need to maintain the authorís capitals) also includes a mixed but unidentifiable setting with a large building, and a set of random puzzles not even linked by theme. I did feel some of the writing was unexpectedly good, and given that the author is only fourteen, itís fair to say they show promise. Nevertheless, it would have benefited from using a more standard game system and obeying the standard "no sudden death" IF guidelines. Timeout (4W Z) does actually have a stated setting, some dystopian future, Plastic Factory K, but it is almost like this is forgotten after the set up and the purpose of the whole thing seemed to peter out slightly. There are a lot of things which are either incidental puzzles or total red herrings.
UNICYCLES (one-puzzle wonders)
Weíre getting into the interestingly diverse and unclassifiable now. These are generally short games which rest on one single idea, and stand or fall by that. Even if they stand I scored them low because of the shortage of content. Consequently, spoilers should even be more studiously avoided than usual.
Silicon Castles (5B Z) is likely to be frequently downloaded even if it does badly in the comp. It is an extremely impressive bit of work, but unfortunately I was unable to enter the commands I needed to. Iím glad I had a reasonably fast computer.
It is nice to see an IF game, Goofy (4U J) in a previously unused platform-independent system (Java), and with a quite adequate parser for the few moves needed. Just for noveltyís sake, you understand, not that we want loads of Java games. The puzzle to which the rest of the game is subservient is original and quite challenging, although players must wonder what an animal behaviour experiment is doing in a condemned building. I think I finished Schroedingerís Cat (4SR Z), although it is hard to tell because the odd behaviour of objects is not actually cast into the shape of a puzzle with an end response. How, if at all, it corresponds to quantum physics, Iím not quite sure, having never played a wave-function before.
The first time I played The Newcomer (2SU Z), I rated it 1, since all there seemed to be were a couple of NPCs (one completely inert), some incomplete room descriptions and a completely unwinnable game. By unusual means, I then discovered a solution, and a shiver went down my spine re-reading the brief text, which described an analogy to the discovery of the puzzle solution. Itís a weird fact in information theory that the more you compress data (the more meaning you cram in), the more ambiguous it becomes. This work contained a quite disconcerting ambiguity, and I briefly toyed with the idea of giving the game a ten, confident the "incompleteness" was deliberate. Oh, and try asking the speaker about Gortho (who he?).
SKATEBOARDS (programming exercises)
Iím old enough to remember old BASIC games like Wumpus and Star Trek that were full of short announcements, mental arithmetic, and INPUT statements. Fun if well-conceived, but not IF. Thatís the nearest analogy I can find to this small group of submissions, which presumably come from young programmers. One common factor that must be mentioned is the poor style of writing that made it hard to read, understand and maintain interest.
The Test (2RWIB P) features various arithmetical tests, and some unnecessary calculator functions. If you werenít good at mathematics at school, I donít know what youíd make of this. Original MIDI files though. The Last Just Cause (2WI P) began to seem like a real adventure after a little while (picking up objects and using them), but also had a RPG system. I played a bit of D&D in my youth, but "hit points" struck me as a stupid idea even then, seeming to have no relation to real fighting. It was also particularly annoying that the "parser" generated disambiguation messages for every verb it encountered whether they were needed or not. I resolved to do my best, but the tedium became too much even approaching the conclusion, when the Monster Double J, whatever that is, attacked for the 4 millionth time. One other sin was a complete description of the PCís actions immediately upon entering a room without any pause or chance for intervention, breaking not only mimesis but also any sense of control over the game. The same authorís You Were Doomed from the Start (1S P) does this again, which is a shame considering it contained one or two possibilities for hidden-object puzzles which unfortunately are automatically solved upon entering a room. The documentation said there was "a big twist" to this very small game. I donít think so, although there might have been had it not been announced in the title.
Many of the best games are found in one of the final two groups
BIPLANES (standard adventures)
At the other end of the scale from Trams, perhaps, is an unpretentious group that includes classic Adventure-style treasure hunts (of which there is really only one in the whole competition), and tends towards genre fiction, usually F&SF. There is generally a large map (often of fairly similar locations) allowing for a seamless exploration of landscape, into which important action sequences sometimes do not fit well. The player is a "hero" set to resolve a situation, and the form often feels late Victorian or early 20th Century, following in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells.
2112 (7RWU P) is my favourite of all the PC-only games, although it might be better in HTML TADS. It gives a quirky and imaginative view of the future, but one that fails to suspend disbelief if you think about the plot or the character motivations too much. The writing is above average, with a leavening of humour and satire. However, there were some unwinnable states and gratuitously frustrating puzzles. The other bit of straight science fiction, Bane of the Builders (6W Z) is more functional and traditional, borrowing techniques we seen before to gradually provide background, and pitting us against Average Star Trek Monster. A perfectly good game, yet it somehow failed to really engage interest.
The conceit of You are Here (6UB Z) is that the game is supposed to look like a multi-user dungeon, with characters having a dual persona of avatar and unseen player. As we are the only player, however, it makes little difference in practice, except that certain plot elements do not have to be justified in the same way: one simply arrives without inventory in a hotel room, and is given a quest without further ado. There is an annoying bug already discussed on rgif, but on the whole it was fun.
A similar plot without this conceit might look like The Evil Sorcerer (5BRW T), where it is necessary to acquire a miscellaneous set of items for magical reasons. It also resembles Shattered Memory in that no information is initially available about the PC, in this case, rather ludicrously, because he had previously "run into a wall". I spent quite a while fiddling with some objects that arenít even mentioned in the walkthrough. Some puzzles seemed inadequately described and had incongruously obscure solutions. However, my main gripe was the unsophisticated denouement. The coastal location seemed vividly described, as does that of Volcano Isle (5BRW T), where you arrive by boat (but it could have been biplane), your Indiana-Jones-like quest to loot and pilfer unashamedly from the islandís archaeological remains. The puzzles include one or two minor novelties, but progress is again impeded by the sensitivity to wording and bugs such as describing a door as shut when it is actually open. In Stranded (3LIU T) you play a similar standby hero, in this case some sort of secret agent testing his survival skills, but the game is so much longer that it becomes tedious. The varied and attractive nature photography does not compensate for rather dull descriptions, and unlikely item locations.
The Coast House (5W T) is the final seaside excursion in this group, with a slightly more naturalistic theme, an investigation of the PCís family history. Itís about the right length for a comp game, but I found it hard to really care about the revelations, and the unpleasantness of the final action wasnít apparently recognised by the game text. You can guess the plot of Mystery Manor (3BRW D) from the title: three moves into the game I was assaulted by ghouls and nasties in a rather mistimed block of text that removed any real suspense. Multiple plot twists should never be placed in a single paragraph without any opportunity user intervention. There were only two actual puzzles or significant actions, one of which was an almost impossible guess-the-verb situation because the word "examine" was not equivalent to "x".
Fine Tuned (5LI Z) is a jocular Edwardian adventure that immediately caused Terry-Thomas (English actor) to spring to mind, and which contained an unusual approach to scoring. It is justifiable to warn people that the score does not give an accurate impression of your progress through the game. It led me to believe the game was nearly completed when I was still near the start of a long and meandering plot. It took nearly 20 minutes just to read all the text when playing back a recording, a sure sign the game was too long, and it is a borderline tram, only avoiding that classification because of lack of realism. Quantity is no substitute for quality, and the author would have done better to present a single chapter from it with more polishing and a greater degree of player choice.
It shows up the idiosyncrasy of my classification system that I am including pieces here that may also fall into one or more of the other categories, and they donít even necessarily have to be funnier than some to which I have not given the title spacehopper (A spacehopper was a funny inflatable toy popular in the 1970s which you could sit on and bounce forward while holding onto its horns). The criterion for inclusion is that the primary aim appeared at first to me to be some kind of irony or fundamentally humorous story.
Some are quite tram-like, or at least episodic, such as the two Glulxe games, Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country (7RW G) and Carma (8RW G). Both of these made good use of a multi-window platform with frequent illustrations, either original (in the case of Carma) or nicked (in the case of Stiffy). Carma is a tremendous multimedia effort, and incidentally quite educational, spoilt for me only by one guess-the-verb situation, and the way it induced me to criticise its own English usage as well as mine. (Iím naïve about Glulxe, but couldnít the music have been included as MIDI to save space?) I even imagine engaging kids in playing it, which is most certainly not the case with Stiffy. Despite the claim that it follows on from the previous adventures of Stiffy Makane, this is not a Mystery Science Theater production, and I enjoyed it despite probably missing many of the in-jokes and finding it - am I only one to think this? - a trifle rude. It boldly goes to, and beyond, the final frontier of bad taste (literally) in IF, but finally fails to reach a satisfactory climax.
Crusade (7RWU Z) is a timely satire, showing just how daft the real crusades were. I found the opening scenes hilarious, while most of the second half is downright heretical. But there is a large section in between where you are trying to get an audience sultan or other, and the puzzle seemed badly defined and insoluble by simple measures that should work. Film at Eleven (6W Z) is also quite disrespectful, in this case to politicians and the police, both shown with their peccadilloes around their ankles. Perhaps these are easy targets, and this is more farce than dry wit, but the necessary game infrastructure was here. In common with a lot of comp games, I felt some puzzles were pitched at the wrong level for what their solution brought - either too easy or too hard. These are the kinds of wrinkles that can be sorted out with comp feedback.
We turn now to another modern day, small town comedy. The title Invasion of the Angora-Fetish Transvestites from the Graveyards of Jupiter (5RWLU P), and the idea of a game based around the filmmaker Ed Wood gave me high expectations of what was to come. Unfortunately, some of the game is actually quite dull and humourless, the home-brewed multi-windowed interface and parser donít come up to usual standards, and I was unable to complete it on the easiest level because of a built-in time limit. Toilet Monsters should be an indie smash though.
Back to a couple more spacehopper/trams where the feeling you are being told the story, rather than contributing to it, is justified by the fact you wouldnít think of anything so funny to do as the things the author suggests. The Cave of Morpheus (5UB D) is the Adrift game that may intrigue the non-Windows IF crowd sufficiently to produce Adrift interpreters for other platforms, featuring as it does Willie Crowther of Colossal Cave fame, Death, and the Interpretation of Dreams (bit of a spoiler there, but it was in the blurb). Itís a short, easy and enjoyable rollercoaster with no great pretensions, but what appeared to be one major bug that potentially made it unwinnable. Earth and Sky (5Z) is just as much fun, belied by a rather sober introduction explaining about your quest for your missing parents. As it turns out, this is just Chapter I of the story, so donít expect to solve this mystery. Instead this is a comic book fantasy with the most absurd pseudo-scientific explanations ever (Iím admit Iíve never really been a comic fan). The final scenes were just difficult enough to negotiate to provide interest.
Many of the best games are found in one of the final two groups.
HOWDAHS (atmospheric rides)
Iím actually now writing this having seen some other opinions, and it reinforces how subjective this category is. On could say these are simply games I liked, but hereís an attempt at another definition. A Howdah is a IF piece in which the scenery is enjoyable for its own sake, but which blends perfectly with the story resolution, as such being neither completely tram-like, nor a completely open-field exploration. The PC is usually in a privileged position in society, and there is an absence of tension or closely-timed puzzles, factors many people may dislike. I also didnít set out to pick fault in the works (not having enough time). A good example is The Cruise, where I discovered puzzle solutions before I discovered the puzzles - I actually preferred it that way and it shows actual enjoyment of the exploration.
I really enjoyed The Chasing (10W A) simply because it was so sweet and good-natured, and for its pleasant pastoral atmosphere. In short, you travel around your home valley recovering escaped horses and doing good. Although it has a fairy-tale setting, the puzzles are mostly very realistic and easily soluble within the 2 hours. Moreover, said puzzles also have allegorical connotations which may seem quaint to some, but I didnít find excessively sentimental, and I feel it all comes together in a moment of sublime edification at the end. The English is mostly unadorned (probably not the authorís first language), but what it describes is delightful. Besides, horses are some of my favourite animals.
The Cruise (7W T) is another game with puzzles, but no stinkers (except maybe one or two), nicely incorporated hints, and a real sense of location. I enjoyed just exploring and playing with the objects, and wasnít entirely sure that wasnít the purpose of it for a while. When the plot does come, it is self-consciously stereotypical ("Power crystals may be naff, but I like them" or some such), which at least is better than unthinkingly stereotypical. It has enough different tricks and details to amuse. It feels odd using compass directions on a ship and not having any view, but the former at least has an amusing explanation.
The Beetmongerís Journal (6RW T) was a perfectly competent game, and probably less buggy than The Cruise, using more HTML TADS elements in an attractive way. Although at times I wondered whether I was missing an in-joke about "beetmongers", which I presumed to be some kind of political satire. In that case, the set-up is good, but the execution of the later game failed to strike home. I would have liked enough time and patience to play it without the walkthrough. Journey from an Islet (5W T) was another Howdah with an attractive setting, and a nice implementation of time from dawn until night. Although we are told our objective (to escape an island) at the start, it seemed easy to wander around in ignorance of it, a drawback of this form. The actual puzzle solution was physically unlikely, something I donít always hold against a game, but in this case a "poetic licence" narrowly failed to justify it. The opening screen is very pretty, while subsequent drawings are a little rougher but still charming.
RICKSHAWS (conversation pieces)
This is a subtype of the Howdah, sharing the relatively relaxed atmosphere, but concentrating in particular on NPC interaction. Again, the puzzle is the scenery, but in this case the most important element of both is a fellow human being. Thereís an obvious winner in this category, for which I compensated by paying a bit more attention to the other two.
Best of Three (7G) is a counter-example to what I had said about the competition in general regarding back-story. In this case there is a very short and highly relevant opening scene, frequent prompting and reminders about the current status, and a very useful ability to recall information about particular events or people. (These should be more widespread than just the conversation-based games.) And itís a good set-up featuring shared history, romantic undercurrents, untold secrets and betrayal. Best of Three achieves a high level of realism in the conversation, although it is still possible to find non sequiturs. It is great to be having what is widely called "intelligent" conversation. It is a delight to find oneself saying things like "characterisation is only one of the possible points of fiction" (a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree). My reservations are that I only managed to find a limited choice of two endings, both rather predictable; it is easy to get into simply using digits 1-5 and "z"; the main NPC seems surprisingly mature for a male college student (maybe we can guess things about him that the NPC canít); and since the PC has or had such a crush on him, the player feels under some pressure to produce an outcome which may not be the best. Recommendation goes without saying, and I may lose credibility for rating it no higher than Stiffy Makane, but appreciation of subtlety does preclude appreciation of its antithesis.
I achieved a good ending to Stick it to the Man (5B G) despite it frequently hanging, but one that made me suspect there were many alternatives. The hangs could be due to a complex behaviour of the NPCs. A lot of work has been done on the characterization of the squatters, but at times it seems like lampooning and stereotyping. It concerns a demo which doesnít sound as much fun as most Iíve been to. For one thing it prominently features a dead body about which the PC can do little, and to which the game also reacts insufficiently. I suspect thereís a good story in there somewhere. Lovesong (4WS P) lacks either a good parser or good writing, but also does not have longueurs or pretensions which would make the actions of the gauche teenage PC begin to grate. In this case authenticity comes from unsophistication, and there are a few good ideas and jokes. It functioned all right, but would probably be better written in a standard IF language.
So this is the final category into which the miscellaneous items were going to be entered. Only three have eluded classification until now, although the first could have been classified with the Dodgems.
The Gostak (8RW Z) has a simple enough plot - you are a Gostak sent to distim the doshes in the Doshery of Tondam, but there are six glauds crenned in the lutt. Had the nouns simply been invented it would be hard enough. When the verbs and adjectives are entirely new, I feel it is perfectly reasonable to resort to the "Brolges" (hints). Not all the solutions are simply pieces of vocabulary, however, and the challenge encourages the player to become immersed. Yes, you can dislello your shamtag if you can find the correct adjective somewhere. This seems highly original to me, and worth exploring in the future.
The remaining two both provide multiple viewpoints of the same situation, in the case of Heroes (7RWL Z) you have to experience all five before completing the piece, while in Moments out of Time (6W ZZ) you can play several times, each time finding something different. This is the equivalent of the literary device used in John Fowlesí The Collector where one experiences an abduction from both sides, and something which IF should lend itself well to.
Heroes is constructed from very ordinary fantasy IF elements, adventurers, dragons and magic artefacts. The objects just have enough function to act as puzzle solutions, solutions which are usually well clued. What is interesting is the way it becomes clear that the actions you are taking have implications of which you have been unaware. Precisely for that reason, the lack of back-story is again a problem. There are some off-screen NPCs who are easily confused with each other, and whose significance is not totally explained. As in All Roads, when the conclusion finally comes its impact is diminished by not being completely set-up.
Moments out of Time (6W ZZ) doesnít have quite this problem. The mission, for which the PC is transported back in time to the early 21st Century, is perfectly defined in some dry documents (accompanied by some earnest time-travel physics), while what you are investigating is deliberately and legitimately unclear. What we might like to know is what happens in between: either our future holds a nuclear war or further technological progress; it does not seem credible that it could be both. I donít believe this is resolved whichever way you play the game. Moments is the best "mystery" IF in the Comp, which doesnít resort to gratuitous horror, and is also very sophisticated in its programming. I played on DosFrotz, which paradoxically gave a suitably futuristic air, but it was highly unfortunate that my early choices closed off whole areas to interesting exploration. I would like to unravel the mystery further, hoping it all has some satisfying explanation, but could not do so within the two hours. Moments was not the only game that I thought should be a major announcement outside the Comp.
So if there are new avenues for IF, these are likely to be them:
multiple-character viewpoints and immersion through cognitive dissonance. It would be wonderful if the next year or so saw a game with a Howdah outlook incorporating some of these ideas plus good NPC interaction.
To conclude my reviews, I enjoyed many of the games, even some of those I rated low but "interesting". Iím glad to play all the way through because I made some very personal choices that wouldnít have been chosen if just playing the competition winners. So thanks to the authors, and to Stephen Granade for organising it, Lucian Smith for comp01.z5 and everyone else involved.
This article copyright © 2001, Cedric Knight