Posted 6 September 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
[I posted this review a while back, but it looks like it never turned up on anyone else's server, and I can't find it on deja; hence this repost. Sorry if you already got a copy. Anyway, on with the feature:]
DANGEROUS CURVES by Irene Callaci
[This might be one of those REVIEW CONSPIRACY things. Or it might not be. I'm not allowed to say, or the REVI -- uh, that is, my employers -- might get angry.]
Yikes! Shades of Varicella. What is it with these enormous games which force you to explore a humongous map which you ought to know like the back of your hand before you can even begin to figure out what's going on? I wish people would write these games in RAIF-POOL, at least, so that I can download the PC's tacit knowledge telepathically while I'm reading the opening paragraphs.
Alternatively, it seems to me that there's great potential in this kind of mystery game for Infocom-style 'feelies' -- for modern examples, see Enlightenment and Muse from the 1998 comp. (Not that 'feelies' is a particularly good way to describe intangible files on disk; can anyone think of a better word?) I'd love to play a mystery which comes with a large, detailed map of the player's stamping ground.
Dangerous Curves doesn't come with a map, so exploration is the order of the day. And even accounting for my prejudice against this sort of thing, my initial impressions weren't good. You start off in the fourth floor of an office building, and naturally every floor -- every room! -- is fully implemented; parked outside is your car, with an ignition which has to be explicitly turned on if you want to drive anywhere... By this point my anti-simulationism prejudice had also kicked in. If I wasn't reviewing the game, I might have given up there and then.
But I didn't, and I'm glad I didn't; and this is obviously going to be a long rambly review, so I'd better get the actual review bit done while I have the chance:
Dangerous Curves is a really good game. Go and play it.
It's a detective story, set in the 1940's. This genre was one of Infocom's specialties, of course; there haven't been many recent examples, but Dangerous Curves goes a long way towards redressing the balance. (The only other detective game which springs to mind is Mike Oliphant's Gumshoe. Hmm? No, Matt Barringer's Detective does not count.)
I haven't played any of the Infocom mysteries, so I can't give an in-depth comparison, but one obvious difference is size: Dangerous Curves weighs in at 512KB, four or five times the size of the average Infocom game (though some of this is accountable to Inform's more complex parser and the overhead of the Z8 format). Again like Varicella, this seems to be due more to depth and detail rather than massive length. It took me three or four evenings to complete Dangerous Curves, with a few minor nudges and hints.
The plot makes sense, the coding is solid, and the puzzles are generally very good. The plot structure is also very loose and non-linear, but I have mixed feelings about this. At times it works really well: the plot thickens and progresses smoothly and naturally each time you find a new lead, allowing you to investigate new areas without the game having to force you. The flip side is that sometimes you just end up collecting clues for points, rather than uncovering new information. For me, this was particularly obvious towards the end, where I had essentially solved the mystery but couldn't collar the culprit until I'd picked up the remaining few bits of evidence.
Then there's the writing. The writing is... Well, Irene's previous game was Mother Loose, in the 1998 comp. So you might expect something competently written, but maybe a bit precious and cutesy, right? You might be surprised. Just read the introduction:
"Los Angeles, California. City of Angels."
"Not so fast, Sherlock; I'm no angel." She pauses, the cigarette poised an inch from her lips. A stray beam of sunlight leaks from a broken slat in the venetian blinds, spotlighting her hair. Blonde. Platinum, not gold. Abruptly, she reaches across your desk to push a stack of green at you, past the halfway point. Her eyes watch yours as she fans the money out on the desktop. "I never mix business with pleasure. Do you?"
Not often. Not lately. "Not me," you assure her. "Wouldn't dream of it."
She leans back in the chair, studies the smoke curling from the cigarette between her fingers. "I--we don't visit L.A. much anymore. My husband, he hates it; won't go near the place. Calls it the City of Angles. Says everybody's got one, you know? An angle, I mean."
"Your husband sounds like a man with his head screwed on tight."
She laughs, a short, bitter sound with no amusement behind it. "That night, I did go to L.A. Without Walter. When I got home, late, the cops were waiting for me." She kills the cigarette with a quick stab at the ashtray. "If Walter dies, I'll inherit millions. My alibi-- well, let's just say it doesn't help. Get the picture?"
Her old man was right, everybody's got an angle, even dames with more curves than a mountain road. A guy could hurt himself on all that geometry.
Sassy puns, slangy dialogue, saucy innuendo, and generally the whole tongue-in-cheek pulp fiction kitchen sink... I like it. Not all the writing is this good, of course, but there are little gems sprinkled throughout the entire game. In particular, it has enough of the irreverent ornate similes required by any true hard-boiled detective story to feed a small village for a fortnight:
The streets are as empty and dark as a church on Tuesday.
The caged electric clock over the door hums monotonously, its red second hand stepping jerkily around like an inmate pacing in his cell.
Musical instruments, everything from alto saxes to battered guitars and dented brass tubas, hang from the ceiling like pinatas at a birthday party.
Periodically, a car pulls up to the pumps and the attendant emerges, right on cue, like one of those Black Forest cuckoo clocks with the little figurines that come out on the quarter hour.
Well, you get the idea. I like it.
Having said that, my single biggest complaint is with the writing at a larger scale: after that excellent introduction, Jessica Kincaid more or less falls out of the game. The plot revolves entirely around your investigation, with Jessica merely making a few unconvincing and mostly irrelevant appearances on the sidelines. The denouement is clever and satisfying, but again, no Jessica! This would have been fairly easy to fix, too, perhaps just by adding a few extra paragraphs at the end.
An example of this just occurred to me: the film The Pelican Brief. This is a fairly average investigative thriller; but after all the investigative stuff is resolved, there's a little scene at the end which tries to imply that everything that's gone before is really a love story between the two main characters. Which is just about plausible, but only because of audience input: when you're watching a film with two likeable characters played by attractive actors, it's only natural to hope and expect them to get it together at some point. The ending panders to this, and it works; but really, it's just an investigative thriller.
Dangerous Curves is a bit like The Pelican Brief without that final scene. I'm not saying this is a massive problem, but it's a shame -- the story doesn't quite live up to its potential.
Now, let's get back to this 'simulationism' thing. Here's a fairly innocuous example:
Jessica Kincaid stands up. "Well, I guess that settles it, then. You're hired. If you need me, I'm usually at home. Unless, of course, I'm out. Give me a call if you've got anything to report, or pay me a visit; I don't care. Just don't expect me to show my face around here any more than I have to. The last thing I need right now is more publicity."
Jessica Kincaid opens the door to the hall.
Jessica Kincaid walks away to the north.
The first paragraph is a less sparkling sample of the writing I lauded above. Nothing out of the ordinary. But what about the next two paragraphs? Why describe Jessica's actions in such clunky detail, and why keep clunkily repeating her full name instead of using pronouns?
The answer (I suspect) is that those paragraphs were written by the library, rather than directly by the author. This being Inform, the author has probably written something like:
move Jessica into Hall;
The library has moved some objects around, and pasted together a message so that the player knows what's going on. This implies a trade-off between writing and object-shuffling; and if it's a choice between beautiful flowing prose and a complicated data structure that holds a detailed world model, I'll go for the former every time.
More significant examples might be a car containing realistically simulated pedals, indicators, steering wheel and so on; or a lift (elevator, if you insist) with realistically simulated doors, floor indicator, call buttons... Dangerous Curves doesn't contain the former, but it does contain the latter. In games like this you tend to spend a lot of time figuring out how to use completely irrelevant equipment, and twiddling your thumbs as you're conveyed realistically from place to place; and if you're as lazy as me, you just have to ask, what's the point? I want story, dammit, not a travelogue.
And inevitably the realism will fall short of real life. The most blatant offender in Dangerous Curves is the strip joint where you can watch the (rather repetitive) proceedings all day without paying so much as an admission fee. I claim no particular knowledge of such things, but shouldn't they at least try to sell you a hideously overpriced drink?
On the other hand, detailed simulation sometimes works to great effect. A good example of this in Dangerous Curves is the way money is handled. When you buy things, the correct amount is automatically subtracted from your wallet and you're given the correct change in smaller notes and coins. Compare this to Gumshoe, in which you just have 'some money', and you can buy any amount of inexpensive things. Both systems work, but that used in Dangerous Curves is more... charming, perhaps. Chalk up a point for simulationism.
Another good example is the way keys are handled in Dangerous Curves. You start off holding keys to your apartment, car, and office; the game automatically picks the appropriate key for the appropriate door:
>LOCK OFFICE DOOR
The door to room 401 is now locked.
This automatic assistance is crucial. Imagine the alternative:
>LOCK OFFICE DOOR
The office door isn't closed.
>CLOSE OFFICE DOOR
>LOCK OFFICE DOOR
What do you want to lock the office door with?
Which key do you mean, your apartment key, your car key, or your office key?
Arrgh! That'd be horrible! And far too many Inform games do behave like this at times -- but not Dangerous Curves, for the most part. So I can live with simulationism, and I'll agree that it does add a certain something to the game, if the tedious bits are handled automatically. Fine.
Well... Maybe there's a little more to it than that. I have to admit that there's something weirdly enjoyable about an excessively-detailed game world. There's something strangely pleasurable about going up to the bar in an IF game and typing:
And by God being given a Vodka object and typing:
Making the Vodka object mysteriously vanish again, but not without adding a little bit of happiness to the world. If my "flowing prose is better than mechanical simulation" rule-of-thumb were completely true, I'd prefer something like:
"Hey! Lenny," you call, "I could do with some voddy over here."
Lenny splashes a few drops of vodka into a glass and slides it across the bar towards you. "You planning on paying this time?"
"Yeah, sure," you tell him. "I just got an advance from -- well, I'd better not say, but she sure ain't short of cash." You raise the glass in (absentia) salute to Jessica Kincaid, then drain it.
Okay, that would read better if Irene wrote it, but you get the idea. It would still suck. This is Interactive Fiction, and I've got rights: and one of those rights, though it never occurred to me before, is to buy my own damn vodka. And if I want to let it sit for a turn or two before I drink it, that's my own damned business too.
So even excessive realistic simulation of stuff that's completely irrelevant to the actual game can work. Maybe this 'simulationism' thing isn't quite as evil as I thought. Here's a few possible explanations:
- Exploring a well-constructed game world is like playing with a Lego village, or Star Wars figures, or maybe (I'm guessing here) a Barbie house, or a little shop where you sell imaginary goods to your parents, or whatever. There's something joyful about tinkering with a miniature world. Or perhaps being able to do anything you want without really hurting anyone or being punished is just a power trip, but I guess it amounts to the same thing.
- The fact that there is a game world, and that the various objects in the game really are 'objects' stored inside the virtual machine, gives you a feeling that the game itself -- the code -- really does understand what's going on, after a fashion. If the author writes hundreds of paragraphs of beautiful descriptive text, that just shows that the author knows what's happening; but 'move Jessica into Hall' is actually doing something -- isn't it? The game world exists inside the bytes of the game file, not just the author's head.
- Interactivity is the thing. If you want to buy a vodka, you can buy a vodka. If you want to explore the church, you can explore the church. The game won't try to stop you; on the contrary, it'll do its best to respond as realistically as possible.
Or maybe it's just that pointless fripperies can be amusing and fun. And why not?
Still, that third explanation is particularly tempting, since it ties in neatly with some of the puzzles in Dangerous Curves. These might be described as 'passive' puzzles, as opposed to the more common, more active kind of puzzle where the game plonks some Blatant Obstacle under your nose and needles you until you solve it. The cliched strange machine whose workings you have to figure out is an active puzzle. Logic puzzles, combination locks, towers of hanoi and so on are active puzzles, and just as cliched.
An example of a passive puzzle -- which does not appear in Dangerous Curves -- might be a suggestion that Senga has left a secret message in a book. You note that Senga has several library books out, and therefore explore the library. You peek at the library's computerised records and find out which books Senga has borrowed; there are quite a lot of these, but you know some important dates and use these to narrow the search down to three books. You examine these books, and bingo! -- one of them contains a secret message. Peeking at the records again, you obtain the addresses of a few people who borrowed the book after Senga, one of whom might be the intended recipient of the message. And so it goes.
It's not a black and white distinction, but what I'm calling a 'passive puzzle' does have some distinctive characteristics. It can be buried in the scenery, to the extent that it's not obviously a puzzle at all unless you noticed the vital clues. In the example above, the library might contain many realistic but irrelevant records and books (as in Monkey Island II). In turn this means it can tie in to the game world more neatly: I bet you've been to a library; but how often do have to solve anagrams, jigsaws, 15 puzzles and the like in real life? And both of these are helped by a detailed, realistic game-world -- simulationism again.
One common disadvantage of passive puzzles, however, is lack of feedback on your progress. In the example above, you get no direct indication that you're on the right lines until you actually find the message. On the other hand, it's extremely satisfying when a series of long shots suddenly comes up trumps. I suppose the game could take note of intermediate stages ('you look up Senga in the borrowing records for the last year, finding a list of forty books. Could one of these contain the message she mentioned in her diary? But searching forty books is going to take a long time'), but Dangerous Curves doesn't tend to do this. I'm not sure whether I'd prefer it to do so or not.
Anyway, the game contains several such puzzles, and I like them. I can't explain more clearly without giving outright spoilers, so I won't try. This is the bit where I say "if you haven't played Dangerous Curves yet, go and do so right now. You'll enjoy it." Or at least I would if I hadn't said it already. What are you waiting for?
[ SPOILERS ]
[ SPOILERS ]
The 'passive puzzle' I'm particularly thinking of -- for my money, easily the best one in the game -- is finding the incriminating records about the new freeway in the realty office. This requires several flashes of insight and leaps of faith, but each is perfectly logical. Not least you have to think of checking the records in the first place, but that makes sense since the freeway is clearly important.
Can't get at the records? So break into the office at night; you're a detective, right? Can't open the door? Try a lockpick. There's a set for sale in the junk store; didn't you notice? Okay, so you're in -- but there's a hell of a lot of records here. Nothing under the Mayor's name... Damn, maybe this is a wild goose chase. Oh, but wait; his wife uses her maiden name, doesn't she? What was it, again... aha!
As I said, a series of long shots coming up trumps can be extremely satisfying. (Although solving this particular puzzle didn't open up any new lines of inquiry, which was a little disappointing. Oh, well.)
On a smaller scale, finding Walter Kincaid's room in the hospital is another satisfying puzzle. Essentially the entire hospital is simulated in the game world, and you can visit any ward. To find the correct ward number, you just need to ask a nurse; but in principle, you could solve it by brute force, by visiting every damned ward. To my mind, this is preferable to something like:
You're at the south-east corner of the building. Wards 101-110 lie to the north, and wards 171-180 to the west. Stairs lead up and down.
At a nearby desk, a nurse frowns at the horoscope in the Courier.
Hang on -- there are an awful lot of wards here. Maybe you should find out which one Walter Kincaid is in before you start wandering around at random?
>NURSE, WHERE IS WALTER KINCAID?
The nurse looks up lazily from her horoscope, then starts flicking through the registry book. "Kincaid? Uh, lemme see... He's in ward 224, doc."
She closes the book and buries her nose in the newspaper again.
This is the first floor. Ward 224 will be on the second floor.
You climb the stairs and follow the signs for ward 224.
This is a private ward, containing just one bed. Walter Kincaid lies on the bed, asleep or otherwise unconscious; his clothes are draped over a nearby chair.
Active versus passive again. It's not always good fun to have the game hold your hand like this -- it sort of gives me a good feeling to know that I could have solved a puzzle by brute force, in principle. Though note that if the brute force solution isn't too tedious -- say, the hospital only contains ten or twenty wards -- I'll often just use brute force rather than bothering to figure out the 'correct' answer to the puzzle. Even this can work as long as the correct solution is obvious after the fact; the thing to avoid is puzzles which you can brute-force without ever finding the real solution.
But to get back to unhelpful helpfulness, Dangerous Curves actually contains a good example of this, in a puzzle which I found rather annoying. This involves getting into the damaged Jag, which is stuck on a hydraulic lift in the garage.
The obstacle is the garage mechanic, who isn't too keen on you poking your nose around. The solution is to bring your own car in to get its brakes checked, and hide inside it when the mechanic goes outside to deal with a customer. Upon returning, he'll raise your car on the second lift, allowing you to crawl across to the Jag.
Fair enough. I got as far as asking for a brake check, having noticed the sign offering free checks. But the next part of the puzzle stumped me completely. Why? The game tries to be too helpful, that's why! The mechanic simply doesn't check your brakes until you're safely hidden inside the car. You can stand around in the garage for turn after turn and he will not check the brakes. You can go off for lunch, wander the streets and question people and return hours later and he will not check the damned brakes. Unless you wait until after the garage closes, in which case you find your car on the street outside. Huh?
I was completely confused by this, and spent ages trying to figure out the mechanic's brake-checking routine. This got me nowhere, since he doesn't have one -- he just waits for you to sneak aboard your car. Very cooperative of him! But how does he know to check the brakes at that point, if he can't see you? See?
I'd prefer the mechanic to behave more realistically, to check the brakes after a few turns (days would be a little too realistic) whether you're hiding in the car or not. If you miss your chance the first time, the game could always let you ask for another brake check later (with a suitably sarcastic quip from the mechanic). The puzzle would be no harder but mimesis would be preserved -- and that's either the fundamental point of all this IF stuff, or some sort of plant. But either way.
This article copyright © 2000, Iain Merrick