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SmoochieComp 2001 Reviews

by Paul O'Brian

These SmoochieComp reviews are written in a similar style to my reviews of games from the Fall Competition, but their ratings are structured a little differently. Since the SmoochieComp doesn't ask participants to rate the games on a scale of 1 to 10, I decided instead on a scale of one to five smooches, similar to the star scale used by many movie reviewers. Turns out most games huddled around the middle of that spectrum -- the lowest rating I gave was two smooches, and the highest rating was four smooches. Still, the quality index was satisfyingly high, especially for a mini-comp, since these often tend to generate games that are playable in ten minutes and feel like they were written in thirty.

As I did for the Comp00 games I played, I've held onto the transcripts from my interaction with all SmoochieComp games (except Bantam, whose environment didn't allow scripting.) I'll happily send the appropriate transcripts to any author who emails me a request. I'll probably delete all of these around March 15, so don't delay.

Finally, these reviews are presented in the order in which I played the games. I ran a little randomizer to determine what this order would be, and strangely, what it came up with differed very little from alphabetical order, Oh well, that's randomness for you.

And now, on with the reviews...

1981 by A.D. McMlxxxi

Urgh. This game puts me in a tough spot. It's a small piece, with an important twist, and it's very difficult to talk about without spoilers. In fact, most of the things I can think of to say about it necessarily involve spoiling the surprise. However, I am committed to writing this entire review without giving away the secret -- we'll see how it goes. 1981 puts you in the shoes of an apparently lovelorn young man who has cashed in some stock money to travel to the college town where the girl of his dreams resides. At the outset of the game, you stand outside her dormitory, decked out in new jacket and new boots, clutching a sheaf of poems you've written for her and trying to get up the nerve to walk up to her door. At this point, the game teeters on a fine line, and the player can't be sure whether it's going to tip towards a cute story of shy college sweethearts or towards a Moment-of-Hope-like tale of unrequited affection.

As soon as you go to the door or read the poems, 1981 careens over the precipice into a tale that not only deals with unrequited affection, but the darker themes of obsession and even insanity. The game gets these themes across in lots of different ways, from the subtle to the blatant. For the latter, we have the poems, which teem with disturbing images and buckets of adolescent angst. Lines like "Regardless of the laughter of children/ I cannot continue to pretend/ I cannot continue to live" sound like a teenager trying to imitate The Cure, but other poems mention psychiatric visits and murder, clueing us in that something that something more serious than pimply puppy love is at stake here. On the more subtle side, there's the first room description:

New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven. The worst place on earth. The town is dirty and industrial, the students are sloppy, everything is horribly expensive. And you had to cash in $3600 of your stock to get here. But it was necessary. Four years at this place is enough to ravage anyone. You have to rescue her, your first true love.

Her dormitory lies to the north.

The game's encapsulation of all New Haven into a few desultory, derogatory sentences demonstrates the PC's creepily jealous disdain for the world surrounding his would-be lover, and his contrasting focus on her dorm building reveals his single-minded obsession.

From this point forward, 1981 straitjackets the player into its plot, offering no choices at any point, or at least not any which allow any alteration of the storyline. This lack of interactivity gets particularly chafing when the PC is such a disturbed and disturbing individual, but the PC's nature also offers a rational justification for such linearity. If Alex in Rameses suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder, the PC in 1981 is in the grips of full-blown psychosis. The writing and pacing of the game, as well as the elements it includes, deftly outline the boundaries of this illness, and the effect is chilling. By putting the player into such a twisted mind, 1981 sheds valuable light on its subject; standing beneath that light is a deeply uncomfortable experience -- even more uncomfortable than trying to write an entire review of the game without giving away its secret.

Rating: Four smooches

AUGUST by Matt Fendalheen

In the "about" text for August, the author claims that he learned Inform and coded the game in the space of seven days. Usually this is the sort of thing I dread hearing at the outset of a game, since it almost always signals that the experience I'm about to have is will be an unpleasant one. Indeed, the game's own notes profess it to be "a horrid, malformed, wretched, crud-eating wreck of a failure." With this kind of pep talk, it was hard to keep my hopes high, but when I started playing, I was pleasantly surprised. The game is written in a florid High Fantasy tone, but the writing worked for me, and I found it rich and involving rather than overblown and annoying. In addition, I came across no outright bugs in the coding, which was a relief. Finally, the character interaction... well, I'll get to that in a minute. Let's just say that if the author learned Inform and wrote this game in seven days, it must have been one hell of a week. Then again, perhaps those claims were just meant to keep my expectations low so that I would find the game's achievements all the more impressive. If so, it worked. Hooray for the Low Expectation Theory.

The game's story is of a warrior lord, Hakuin Ikthanadar, returned home from a great victory in which he killed the most dangerous enemy of the realm. He is attending the annual Feast of August in order to fulfill a promise he made to his beloved Rosalyn, and as the game begins we find him searching the revel for signs of her. As time progresses, August deftly unfolds more information about the victory, the enemy, the feast, and Rosalyn herself, mixing flashback, dialogue, and description to weave its story. I was pretty impressed with the way this was done, and the most impressive part was the centerpiece of the game, an extended conversation with a key figure in the plot. The game uses the standard ASK/TELL conversation model, and the instructions warn that subjects should be limited to one word -- "ASK CATHBAD ABOUT UNDERWEAR will get you somewhere... while ASK CATHBAD ABOUT HIS UNDERWEAR will not." I was ready for this to feel pretty restrictive, especially when the questions I had were very difficult to encapsulate in just one word. However, I frequently had the uncanny sensation that even though my language was amputated, the game was able to figure out exactly what I meant. For example, I wanted to ask the person why she had come to the feast, but all I could type was ASK HER ABOUT WHY. Imagine my pleasure when the game displayed this text:

You extend your arm, keeping her distant in the motion of the dance.
"Why did you come here?" you ask. "I doubt you were invited." Or welcome.
"I go where I will." she states, lifting her chin defiantly. "If these perfumed cattle object to my presence, they can leave." She swings about, pulls herself close to you again.

Even better, when she returned the question, I was able to TELL HER ABOUT ROSALYN, and the game understood exactly what I meant. I'm not sure whether the game's ability to predict what I was thinking came from its precise coding or its precise writing, but every time it happened, I was made very happy.

Sadly, for every time something like that made me happy, there were two times that the game disappointed me. None of them were crashing disappointments, but each one made it a little easier to believe that the game really was done in a week. Something is described as happening to the east when I know it's actually to the west. Something is mentioned about the PC's right hand that is really about his left hand. Its/it's errors. Sometimes August can't even seem to make up its mind about how the names of its own characters and places are supposed to be spelled. Basically, the game just needs a good round or two of proofreading and betatesting, because even though it's solid at its core, its surface is badly lacking in polish. In the author's lengthy introduction, he implies that he's ready to write this game off as a failure and move on to his next piece of work. I hope he reconsiders, at least enough to clean up the basic errors in August, because once it's been refined a little, this will be an enjoyable work of IF with some extremely satisfying moments.

Rating: three and a half smooches


If there was some kind of meta-competition for writing games that fit into as many parameters as possible from past mini-comps and themed releases, Even Bantams Get The Blues would make a perfect entrant. This is a Frogger-style game about a lovesick chicken (with no inventory) who must cross a road to find emotional release. See what I mean? It's got the chicken from the ChickenComp, the Frogger theme from the IF Arcade, and of course a bit of romantic backstory so that it actually fits into the SmoochieComp. I'm not sure if the lack of inventory was an intentional reference to that mini-comp, but the chicken certainly isn't carrying anything (well, not really, anyway). All it needs is a toaster, a dinosaur, a dragon, and some aliens to complete the picture. Ironically, the romantic element feels pretty tacked-on, so the game's least significant element is the one that pertains to the comp in which it was actually entered, but hey, I'm not complaining.

Unlike the other two SmoochieComp games I've played so far (1981 and August), this one is pretty lightweight (or should I say bantamweight?) There is very little freedom available, even less than in the original Frogger, really -- this chicken can't even change direction. The game only allows travel to the north, so cars and trucks can't be dodged by backpedaling or sidestepping. Then again, the Frogger element is completely deterministic, so winning is still pretty easy once you've recognized the pattern.

However, there are some pleasures to be found beyond the simple task of conquering the road-crossing ordeal. For one thing, Bantam offers a LITERARY mode alongside its default ARCADE mode. This mode offers plenty of fun little Easter eggs; for example, if you type "X ROAD" in ARCADE mode, you get an extremely terse key to the game's ASCII graphics:

A road ... trucks == cars +.

However, in LITERARY mode, "X ROAD" yields this:

The four lane highway. before you is a breathtaking sight, a vast smooth expanse of night-black asphalt, flecked in spots with some trace of mineral that sparkles with a star-like effulgence in the brilliant sunlight blasting down from the cloudless blue dome of the overarching heavens.

And it goes on like that for an extremely long paragraph. Actually, I should say that there are Easter eggs to be found in both modes, and part of the fun is seeing the differences between them -- the sensation reminded me a bit of the differences between the two modes of alien speech in Stephen Granade's Arrival. The game also suggests that there are several ways to win besides crossing the road, though I didn't find any of them. (I did find some amusing ways to lose, though.) Bantam probably won't occupy your attention for too long, but it's good fun while it lasts, and if you've enjoyed a mini-comp in the past few years, it's probably got something to appeal to you.

Rating: three smooches

PYTHO'S MASK by Emily Short

Believe it or not, here's another large, impressive Inform game that the author claims was written in a week. Like August, the other game in this category, Pytho's Mask takes place in a fictional kingdom, at a large gathering whose purpose is to celebrate a cyclical occurrence. The party in Pytho's Mask is called The Celebration of the Night of the Comet, and the astral event it marks occurs only once every hundred years. When it does, the forces of stability in the kingdom are at their weakest. This concept is of a piece with the astronomical imagery used throughout the game: the king represents the Sun, and he is served by a Moon Minister and an Earth Minister. What's more, he is currently being eclipsed by a mysterious illness that could allow insurgent forces to exploit his Comet-induced vulnerability. The PC is charged with investigating the illness and protecting the king. The setup worked wonderfully for me, and the writing was, predictably, a pleasure to read, infused as it was with Short's gift for evoking dazzling scenes through terse, elliptical language. The use of such fundamental symbols as the Earth and the Moon felt a bit reminiscent of books like Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, and as in that book, the imagery helped give the setting a magical feel without explicitly invoking any particular supernatural occurrences.

The other important thing about Pytho's Mask is its experimental conversation system. The game eschews the ASK/TELL interface that Short employed so effectively in Galatea, opting instead to offer a menu-based system... with a twist or two. The first innovation is that all of the menu options reside in the status line, and all players need do at the prompt is to type the letter (A, B, C, D, etc.) corresponding to their selected menu item. This removal of menus from the main window makes the transcript read a bit more like a dialog, though it does divorce the entries at the prompt from all context. The other unique aspect of the conversation system is that if none of the menu options offered seem right, the topic can be changed. As the game explains it:

So for instance if your options listed at the moment are all vapid remarks about fashion and you would rather say, "Pass the Stilton, please," you might try >TOPIC CHEESE. >TOPIC does not cost a turn to use, so you can explore a number of topics if you're looking for something specific to say.

The great strength of this system is that it combines the freedom and openness of the ASK/TELL system with the more realistic dialogues permitted by menu-based systems. This combination makes it powerful, but as Spider-Man says, with great power comes great responsibility, and this game doesn't always live up to its responsibilities. Several times, I found myself presented with options that seemed inappropriate, if not downright nonsensical, and from time to time the replies fit this description as well. Moreover, there were instances when the conversational menus didn't seem to keep up with the plot; when I encountered the masked man after he had already confessed his identity to me, one of my options was "Are you going to tell me who you really are?" "Not yet," he said. Indecisive fellow.

A number of little warts like this tarnish what would otherwise be an outstanding game. Some, such as those described above, were continuity problems, while others came down to a lack of robustness in the interface. The worst of these was an unfortunate guess-the-syntax problem at a critical moment, which rather wrecked my immersion in the game's climax. Finally, Pytho's Mask occasionally shares a problem which plagued Short's acclaimed comp game, Metamorphoses: there are a couple of moments where the game executes a series of unprompted "hit any key" pauses, and since I'm usually already typing the next action, I would end up startled to discover that reams of text were flowing by me unexpectedly. Still, these blemishes are probably attributable to the fact that the game was done in a week, and even with them, Pytho's Mask is immersive and highly entertaining. There are a couple of wonderful swashbuckling moments, and the PC's propensity for sneaking around, bribing servants, pumping NPCs for information, and getting into romantic entanglements made for an immensely enjoyable playing experience overall. If you're the impatient type, it won't be a big problem for you to dive into Pytho's Mask as it stands. However, if you're a fan of Emily Short, or if you want the best playing experience possible, I'd advise you to wait. Short has an excellent reputation for fixing bugs and adding improvements to her games, and once this one has received that treatment, it will be a terrific slice of romantic adventure.

Rating: four smooches


What becomes apparent is that J.D. Berry has a talent for creating fictional universes. Sparrow's Song is the third game he's entered in a competition, and it's the third time he's given us a fresh, interesting setting, replete with its own culture, people, and idiosyncrasies. His Comp99 entry, Jacks Or Better To Murder, Aces To Win, revolved around a rigidly hierarchical religion of Berry's devising, one in which Machiavellian scheming was the norm and the highly-ranked PC was always on guard against assassination attempts. The Djinni Chronicles, from Comp00, contained an intricate magic system to explain the motivations and capabilities of magical spirits summoned from bottles, lamps, and suchlike. Now we get Sparrow's Song, with another new set of characters and situations. Some of the stuff is fairly standard-issue fantasy: the PC is Baron of a sorta-medieval keep, and in his travels may encounter nymphs, rocs, or the occasional pegasus. However, the predictable elements are spiced with some intriguing personal relationships and a refreshing lack of ethereal elevation in the dialogue. Take, for example, your servant's response when asked about a treaty:

"Where's you head today, Kellen? The Ronqons? You know, the giants that live in those mountains over there? The giants who have strangled overland trade for the past, oh, 500 years? Yeah, those. If you agreed to their terms of peace, you were supposed to have that treaty to them today. I guess it's water under the bridge now, Baron von Pocket Veto."

The game is entirely unafraid of such anachronisms, and as a result much of the dialogue (typos aside) escapes the stale feeling of some fantasy games. On a similar note, did I mention that this game can be really funny? This game can be really funny.

In case you're worried that there isn't some funky new system to experiment with, never fear. It's just that this time the system isn't part of the setting, it's part of the interface. That's right, it's yet another new approach to conversation. Similar to Pytho's Mask, this game's system allows the player to choose the topic of conversation, in this case by typing the topic followed by a question mark, such as "love?" However, Sparrow's Song streamlines the idea somewhat, eliminating the element of multiple-choice lists, and instead simply taking the topic and running with it. Topics aren't addressed to any particular person; rather, conversation is directed at whoever happens to share a location with you. Handily, the game makes sure that you're never with more than one conversation-worthy entity at a time. There are also plenty of times when the game will simply reject a suggested subject, saying something like "You're not so dense as to bring up THAT topic." Finally, the verb "TOPICS" is provided, which will always bring up one to three possible topics, and also functions as a kind of just- barely-a-hint-system. Sometimes this scheme worked perfectly, especially when an NPC mentioned a topic I'd never heard of (like "Ronqons") and I was able to say "Ronqons?" at the prompt. That interaction felt much more natural than most NPC conversation in IF, mainly because I was able to type exactly what I would have said if I were really in the situation. The rest of the time, it alternated between feeling like an abbreviated ask/tell system (where I'm able to just type "TREATY?" instead of "ASK ARCTOS ABOUT TREATY") and feeling like a more focused version of the Lomalow "ask me something twelve times to hear all I have to say about it" system. The pleasant writing relieved the tedium of these latter moments somewhat, but only somewhat. On the whole, the conversation system felt like a noble experiment that garnered mixed results.

The same can be said of the story in general. The initial hook is great: you awake to find a sparrow sitting at your windowsill. After regarding you for a few moments, the sparrow begins to sing, and in that magical song it communicates to you that there is someone who loves you, and that she sent this sparrow to reveal her feelings. The song touches something pure and deep inside you, and you find yourself instantly in love with the person who sent the sparrow, pledged to finding her and beginning a life together. From this promising beginning, the game fans out to encompass several different NPCs, each of whom can help you in varying ways, many of which overlap or constitute decision points. One thing that's clear is that there are multiple paths through the game, and perhaps multiple endings as well. I was only able to complete one path, since the other two I found both led to a puzzle I was unable to vanquish, so I only found one ending. That one felt rather abrupt and unsatisfying to me -- it failed to tie up several loose ends from the plot, and it also seemed to leave the protagonists in a rather precarious situation, with not much hint of how they would move beyond it into some kind of peaceful denouement. I wonder if Berry simply ran out of time to implement the more gradual buildup he might have been planning, and was forced instead to tack on a quick-and-dirty closure. Whatever the reason, my relationship with Sparrow's Song felt, in the end, like a love affair that began tenderly and showed great potential, but finished bittersweet.

Rating: three and a half smooches

DEAD OF WINTER by Christina Pagniacci

Dead of Winter is a tiny game, an interactive vignette, really. The basic plot is that a mysterious being known as The Ice Queen has kidnapped your boyfriend Saul, and you want to get him back from her. She sends you on a quest that encompasses maybe half a dozen locations, and when you return, you find out whether or not your efforts were successful. There are a few decision points along the way, but it wasn't particularly clear to me how the decisions related to which ending I got. Some paths where I made what would seem to me to be some wrong choices ended up with what appeared to be a winning ending, while the path that seemed most right led straight to an ending that felt quite suboptimal. Then again, even the "winning" ending had a sneaky little twist at the end, so it's hard to say which ending is really the better one. The twist had some punch to it, but felt a little overly familiar at this point, similar devices having been used in other recent games. Also, it was a little confusing that the twist was only used in one of the endings, since it tries to impose a retroactive perspective shift on the entire game.

There were a number of pleasant things about Dead of Winter. It was entirely free of bugs, as near as I could tell, which is always a big plus. In addition, the writing was grammatically correct, something that makes a game feel more immersive to me. Finally, the game employs some special effects with timed display and colors in its title sequence. These effects definitely help to set the mood -- I first started playing in WinFrotz, but quickly switched to DOS Frotz and was happy I did, since the black and grey color scheme selected by the game deepened the general atmosphere of chill and desperation.

Dead of Winter is over almost as soon as it begins, so perhaps it's understandable that I didn't feel particularly grabbed by it. It's a sketch rather than a full painting -- sparse descriptions, short plot, few objects and unresponsive NPCs. On the whole, it felt like a first attempt at writing IF, and assuming that the author's name isn't a pseudonym, a first game is probably what it is. As such, it's not an unsuccessful effort. When I reached the end, I didn't want my ten minutes back. In fact, I was looking forward to the author's next effort, with hopes that it has a little more meat on its bones.

Rating: three smooches

SECOND HONEYMOON by Roger Ostrander

Here is a SmoochieComp game that doesn't implement the verb "kiss." That about sums up Second Honeymoon, a well-intentioned effort that fails due to sparseness of implementation, dull design, and multiple errors. For a sample, consider this excerpt from the game's opening text:

You're a successful computer programmer, enjoying his fifteenth year of marriage to a wonderful woman. [...] You announced your plans to your surprised wife two days ago: a secluded lakeshore cabin, away from the hectic rural life you usually lead.

Unless the PC is a programmer for a big farming outfit, or is telecommuting somehow, I'm thinkin' that last sentence wants to be about his hectic urban life. Stuff like this is scattered throughout the game. There's a room description that mentions an exit to the north, but attempts to go that way meet with no success. Conversely, there's a room whose description never mentions the important fact that there's an exit to the east. I only found it due to my obsessive-compulsive playing style, which entails trying every single direction in every single room (a style, I might add, that evolved as a response to games such as this one.)

It's not that this is a terrible game. It's sweet, and has its heart in the right place. But after playing all the other games in the SmoochieComp, I've come to expect a little higher standard of writing and coding, and I'm looking for a plot a little more interesting than the one this game gave me. Basically, the idea in Second Honeymoon is that you're getting ready for a vacation with your wife, and you need to go around the house and get some various items to take with you, like your camera, your swimsuit, etc. Visiting some places, or performing some actions, will remind you of other items you need. When you're finished packing, you win. Probably the neatest part of the game is that it maintains a dynamic packing list that keeps track of items added and items fetched. It's similar to the list carried by the PC in the first part of Firebird, though a bit less slickly implemented.

If you're beginning to think that Second Honeymoon is one of those games that asks you to wander around a suburban house (the layout of which is very probably modeled on the author's own home) and do fairly quotidian things, give yourself a gold star. There's really only one puzzle to solve, and that one so trivial that it shouldn't slow down anybody who's ever actually lived in a suburban house. Really, pretty much all of the items you're looking for will be just laying around on the floor waiting for you when you enter the right room. Then all you do is scoop them up and give them to your wife, who serves as this game's equivalent of the Zork trophy case. That's about all she does, too -- asking her questions or trying to be affectionate with her will get you nowhere. If what I've described sounds like your cup of tea, give Second Honeymoon a shot. If not, why not put some effort into your real-life relationships?

Rating: two smooches

This article copyright © 2001, Paul O'Brian

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