ISSUE #13 - February 5, 1998

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The  |___/ociety for the |_|romotion of  |_|_|dventure  \___|ames.

                  ISSUE # 13 - COMPETITION SPECIAL

             Edited by Magnus Olsson (zebulon SP@G
                        February 5, 1998.

         SPAG Website:
        Contest Website:

SPAG #13 is copyright (c) 1998 by Magnus Olsson.
Authors of reviews retain the rights to their contributions.

All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine
with the traditional 'at' sign. 

IN THIS ISSUE -------------------------------------------------------------

The results of the 1997 IF Competition

Interviews with Lucian P. Smith, Ian Finley and Nate Cull.

Reviews of: Babel, A Bear's Night Out, The Edifice, The Frenetic Five
vs. Sturm Und Drang, Friday Afternoon, Glowgrass, The Lost Spellmaker,
Madame L'Estrange and the Troubled Spirit, A New Day, Phred Phontious
and the Quest for Pizza, She's Got a Thing for a Spring, Sins Against
Mimesis, Sunset Over Savannah, Sylenius Mysterium, The Tempest, Unholy
Grail, Poor Zefron's Almanac, Zero Sum Game, and Zombie!


Well, what can I say? If the first IF Competition was a good start,
and the second was a resounding success, then the third Competition
was overwhelming. Not only in the number of entries (though I
certainly have to admire the energy of the judges who played
every single game), but in the quality of most entries.

I could go on for some length praising the entries, but I think I'll
leave that to the reviewers. Let me just give my heartfelt
congratulations to all the authors, and thanks to all the judges, and
to the organizers. You've done a great job, all of you!

COMPETITION RESULTS -------------------------------------------------------

  1 - The Edifice, by Lucian P. Smith
  2 - Babel, by Ian Finley                                 
  3 - Glowgrass, by Nate Cull                           
  4 - She's got a Thing for a Spring, by Brent VanFossen         
  5 - A Bear's Night Out, by David Dyte                     
  6 - Sunset Over Savannah, by Ivan Cockrum                   
  7 - Poor Zefron's Almanac, by Carl Klutzke                  
  8 - The Lost Spellmaker, by Neil Brown                    
  9 - Sins Against Mimesis, by Adam Thornton                   
 10 - A New Day, by Jonathan Fry                              
 11 - Zero Sum Game, by Cody Sandifier                          
 12 - Zombie!, by Scott W. Starkey                                
 13 - The Frenetic Five vs Sturm und Drang, by Neil deMause   
 14 - Travels in the Land of Erden, by Laura A. Knauth           
 15 - Unholy Grail, by Stuart Allen                          
 16 - Friday Afternoon, by Mischa Schweitzer                      
 17 - Madame L'estrange and the Troubled Spirit, by Ian Ball and
      Marcus Young
 18 - Sylenius Mysterium, by C.E. Forman                    
 19 - Phred Phontious, the Quest for Pizza, by Michael Zey  
 20 - Down, by Kent Tessman                                  
 21 - VirtuaTech, by David Glasser                           
 22 - The Obscene Quest of Dr Aardvarkbarf, by Gary Roggin
 23 - A Good Breakfast, by Stuart Adair                      
 24 - The Town Dragon, by David A. Cornelson                        

INTERVIEWS --------------------------------------------------------------

Since the first competiton in 1995, SPAG has made it a tradition to
publish e-mail interviews with the authors. The number of entries this
year makes it somewhat impractical to interview all the entrants;
instead, we've settled for somewhat more in-depth interviews with the
three top places. First the winner of the first prize: Lucian
P. Smith, auhor of "The Edifice".

Q: To start with, could you tell as a few things about yourself? Who
are you, what do you do for a living, and so on?

A: Well, in no particular order: I'm a graduate student in
Biochemistry at Rice University.  I'm in an improv comedy troupe
called ComedySportz.  I'm married.  I grew up in Seattle and went to
college at Wheaton College in Illinois.  That enough?

Q: How and when did you first get into contact with IF? And what made
you decide to write your own game?

A: I remember playing 'Deadline' (and getting nowhere, incidentally)
on my friend's Apple II ages ago, and getting Zork hints from a friend
in High School.  I always loved the concept, even though I wasn't able
to play them that often.  I got back into IF by searching the web in
early '95 for 'XYZZY' and stumbling upon XYZZYnews.  From there, I got
to the newsgroups, eventually figured out the concept of an
'interpreter' so I could *play* the games everyone was talking about,
and it's just snowballed from there.

I don't remember precisely what motivated me to try to write my own
games in general, but the driving force behind 'Edifice' was
definitely the contest.  I was trying to come up with a good idea for
a short game for the contest when I thought of the basic plot for it.

Q: What made you choose Inform, rather than TADS or some language, for
writing "Edifice"?

A: Inform games were the first games I figured out how to download and
play back when I started, so I guess there was an affinity there to
begin with.  Also, when I first downloaded the files, TADS was still
shareware.  After that, it's been mostly inertia ;-) Inform is a very
nice language, and was easy for me to understand and assimilate.

Q: Would you say that your entry is primarily a game or a piece of
literature? Or perhaps both? Or neither?

A: Ooog.  Perhaps both, I guess.  I'd say maybe that it's a story that
depends on its game aspects to be fully effective (however effective
it may be).  The story, even as literature, depends on the interaction
with the reader/player.  The language puzzle would be boring to read
about, but (apparantly) was quite fun to experience.

Q: "Edifice" has been described as an allegory about the evolution of
man. Was it intended as such, or is it "just" a story without deeper

A: Well, I *did* subtitle it 'An Interactive Allegory'.  But I think
of it as an allegory in the sense that the things you found tended
toward the archetypal--Others, Enemies, Rock, and so on.  The allegory
is right there on the surface.  I was kind of thinking of Bunyan's
"Pilgrim's Progress" in the back of my mind--"Oh, here's Frugality, I
wonder what he thinks about cash flow?"

So yes, I suppose there's a 'deeper meaning'--but you don't exactly
need a shovel to find it ;-) Actually, if there's any sort of deeper
meaning, it would be in your 'contentment' score--but the whole score
thing was horribly, horribly broken in the competition release, so it
was virtually impossible to get this.

Q: How much is the Edifice inspired by the Monolith in "2001"? Did you
have other sources of inspiration?

A: *Laugh* Actually, it's been rather amusing to read all the posts
assuming I was inspired by 2001.  I was, indeed, inspired by
something, but it wasn't that.  There was a film I saw at least a
couple times in grade school (once in fourth, again in fifth, and
maybe even again in sixth), which was a collection of short snippets,
designed, I suppose, to stimulate creativity.  There was a bit about a
ping-pong ball rejected from a factory because it bounced too high, an
interview between two people that degenerated into just numbers
("2-0-5-7-9-9-2?" "4-4-2-4-6-6-9."  "2-6-1-1-2-8-4?"
"6-3-9-0-1-2-9."),...and "The Edifice."  It was a cartoon in which the
camera panned up a big tower, and you got to look in through the
windows and see history unfold.  The only specifics I remember are
someone in the dark ages discovering the '0', and in the end, a guy
standing on the top of the tower, his head in a radioactive cloud,
shouting "Help!" as the camera backed away and showed the whole tower
he was standing on.

In my mind, at least, the Monolith is a different sort of beast than
my Edifice.  I actually hadn't seen 2001 until last month, but I had
read the book.  The Monolith is active, causing change in the apes.
My Edifice is passive, presenting opportunity, but nothing more.

But who knows?  Maybe the film short was inspired by 2001 ;-)

Q: What do you think of the other contest entries this year? Any

A: I have to say that as I was playing through the introductions to
all the games, just to get a feel for them, there were two games that
hooked me and made me play the whole thing--Babel and Glowgrass.  I
particularly liked the way Glowgrass worked on two levels, as the
protagonist discovered more and more about the land he was searching,
and as the player discovered more and more about the protagonist.
Other games that stood out were "A Bear's Night Out" and "The Frenetic
Five".  I haven't played all of them yet, but most all were at least
good efforts, and many were outstanding.

Q: What do you think of the future of IF?

A: I have no idea, except that it'll be fun to watch unfold.  My guess
is that the field will spread, as new avenues are explored, and old
motifs are re-exploited.  It'll probably stay a hobbyist's pursuit,
for the most part, but it'll be interesting to see what all it touches
as it expands.

Q: And, finally, speaking of the future: do you have any plans for
writing more IF?

A: Oh, of course!  Great grandiose plans, no less.  I do actually have
a basic idea for a larger work of IF, but it hasn't really gelled yet,
and I've been busy with other things.  No plans yet for another
competition game (or, for that matter, an Edifice sequel, which has
been inquired about by a few), but if inspiration hits, who am I to
stand in its way?

Thanks again to Whizzard for hosting the competition!


Then, the second-prize winner, Ian Finley, author of "Babel":

Q: To start with, could you tell as a few things about yourself? Who
are you, what do you do for a living, and so on?

A: Ok, my name is Ian Finley, I'm 17 years old and a senior at
Bountiful High School in Bountiful, Utah; one of the more conservative
communities this side of Communist China.  My "living" as it were
consists of writing essays for college and/or scholarship applications
in a desperate attempt to further my education.

Q: How and when did you first get into contact with IF? And what made
you decide to write your own game?

A: My first experience with IF was in fifth grade when my fantastic
teacher Joyce Martinez (who I still claim to be one of the primary
factors in who I am today) took me and a group of my friends aside
during recess and showed us Zork, Enchanter, and Deadline.  We never
got more than 10 points into any of them, but it was something new and
amazing, and the day after she showed us I was already imagining what
I could do if I could write a game.  Years past, and nothing occurred,
though my interest was sparked again off and on by The Lost Treasures
of Infocom, etc.  Then I found the IF archive and the authoring
systems.  After a nightmarish attempt with AGT, and tremors of horror
just looking at the Inform manual, I settled on TADS (which I truly
adore) and started writing.  "Babel" was meant to be quite small, and
by the time I realized it's necessary size, I was ready to quit, were
it not for the Competition and the carrot it dangled.  Mr. Wilson, you
have my undying thanks for pushing me through.

Q: What made you choose TADS, rather than Inform or some other
language, for writing "Babel"?

A: Ease of use.  I haven't programmed a thing in my life and TADS was
the easiest tool.  I found it much easier than even AGT, as well as
much more powerful.  I started with a very small game requiring very
little programming knowledge and gradually added more and more complex
stuff as I went.  The HTML documentation is also wonderful and really
quite accessible.

Q: Would you say that your entry is primarily a game or a piece of
literature? Or perhaps both? Or neither?

A: LITERATURE.  I get frustrated easily with puzzles and end up
looking up hints, so those aren't usually motivating factors when I
play other people's games.  In fact, the only puzzles I can recall
actually enjoying were some from Riven, when I got that real "Aha!"
sense.  But the reason I play a game isn't to work out my brain, it's
to be part of a story, in a different way than you can experience with
a movie or a book.  This was my mindset in writing "Babel."

Q: A very important element in "Babel" is the protagonist's way of
recalling events, in a form of flashbacks. What gave you the idea for

A: Everything I write is character driven.  Interaction with people is
the core of any story I think.  But, due to my lack of coding ability,
I knew I couldn't write decent characters that you could interact
with.  Also, I knew that the game should be cold and empty.  The
flashbacks seemed the perfect solution.

Q: Do you see a conflict between the non-interactive "flashbacks" and
the essentially interactive nature of the medium? Is there a need to
overcome this conflict, and, in that case, do you have any ideas how
this could be done?

A: Naturally this is a problem; people have complained since the
beginning of IF about screenfuls of text scrolling past them.  The
solution to this, as I see it is to cut things down to a manageable
size.  Brevity is the soul of wit and all.  The scenes in Babel all
went through extensive revision (and even MORE extensive revision is
occurring as we speak for the second release) though many scenes
(Brett's bedroom, Jonas' bedroom) are still more ungainly that I'd
like them to be.

Q: What do you think of the other contest entries this year? Any

A: There are some AMAZING games this year.  "Sunset Over Savanna" (or
however you spell it) is on my list of all time favorite games, and
one of the greatest gaming experiences I've had.  Also, my hat off to
Lucian; Edifice is a masterwork, combing the broad with close detail.
In fact, I take back what I said about puzzles.  Edifice used them
brilliantly; the moment I figured out what was written on the Edifice
I nearly crowed with joy.  I was honored to follow this game in the

Q: What do you think of the future of IF?

A: Ok, I'm a 17 year old who still writes and plays IF, so I can at
least say from personal experience that the art form has a long life
in front of it.  I also see, with the increase of the internet that,
with a little more support, the field will have experience renewed
growth in the years to come.  Look at the increasing size of the

Q: And, finally, speaking of the future: do you have any plans for
writing more IF?

A: Maybe too many!  I'm currently at work on two projects, both small
to play but huge to program: "8:00 at Andie's Bar and Grill," an
entirely menu based game focusing on interpersonal relationships (no
more stereotypes for me!) and (tentative title) "The Lips of
Iscariot," a more straightforward game, also heavily focused on NPC
interaction, set in the jungles and revolutionary camps of Mexico.
Beta-testers always welcome!


And finally the word goes to Nate Cull, author of "Glowgrass":

Q: To start with, could you tell as a few things about yourself? Who
are you, what do you do for a living, and so on?

A: I'm 26.  I live in New Zealand (that's the little country in the
South Pacific which isn't a state of Australia).  I'm a computer
support slash network technician at Christchurch Polytechnic (a small
university).  At the moment I'm living alone, which is great for
writing, but not much else.

Despite what you may have heard, the majority of the inhabitants of
New Zealand don't wear flax skirts and jump up and down waving spears.
Well, we do, but only when our rugby team wins the World Cup.  We're a
fairly technically literate country; we've had EFTPOS here in the late
'80s, though we still don't have cable television.

Q: How and when did you first get into contact with IF? And what made
you decide to write your own game?

A: Hmmm.  Let's see.  The very first IF game I remember was called
"Miser", and it ran on a 16k Commodore PET.  It was a ripoff of Scott
Adams, where you had to pick up treasures around a house.  I was
majorly impressed. Then I found Colossal Cave and got incredibly
frustrated because I couldn't solve the dragon puzzle - even now, I
*still* think that's one of the all-time classics of bad IF design,
because it relies on a completely unexpected parser trick.

I pretty much started writing adventures as soon as I could program.
_Island Adventure_ was I think my original masterpiece.  It was
written in MBASIC, had nine rooms (two of which would kill you
instantly) and a two word parser.  My second attempt was a bit better,
it had multiline room descriptions and a vending machine (that gave
you bullets, for some reason.  Don't ask me why.)

I was intrigued by Scott Adams, but only solved one (Pirate Adventure)
without cheats.  But when I played my first Infocom (no, not Zork -
_Seastalker_) I fell in love.  The rest of my teenage years were
mainly spent trying to design a parser that could accept multiword
sentences, but I never got it to work.  I had lots of plots for
Infocom-style games, and was very annoyed that I couldn't ever
implement them properly.

Oh, yeah, I never solved an Infocom without cheats, either.  
Q: What made you choose TADS, rather than Inform or some other
language, for writing "Glowgrass"?

A: Mainly because TADS was the first "real" IF development package I
found.  I had been tinkering with AGT, and even wrote one experimental
game in it just to test its boundaries, but it was an incredibly
painful experience.  Writing in AGT, at least the version I had, was
like writing raw assembler code.

Then I came across an obscure little game, _Peshach Adventure_,
which found its way onto a shareware CD.  It was written in TADS, and
I liked what I saw, so from there I tracked down the gmd archive and
Michael Roberts.  (IF Authors note: put *lots* of contact details in
your "help" screens.  You never know where your game might end up.)

When I saw TADS, it was another "wow!" experience.  I was heavily
blown away - and still am - by its simplicity, and its late-binding
object-oriented focus.  The fact that you can redefine a property to
be either a value or a method on the fly makes the implementing of a
game pretty much trivial, so you can focus on the story.  And its
syntax is nearly pure C, which made it simple to learn.  Heck, there's
hardly *any* syntax.  Just object definitions and assignments and a
few functions.  The rest is the ADV.T library (which I've hacked) and
your own code.

I haven't yet tried Inform, but from what I've seen of the manual, its
syntax seems a lot stranger and more needlessly complicated than TADS.
And I'd seriously miss the "adjective" property - TADS disambiguation
is so easy it hurts.  However, I am being tempted by the Nelson Side.
In particular, I'd consider trading my soul for the quote box, online
help, real-time control and the ability to parse arbitary sentence
structures (you can do arbitary parsing in TADS, but you'd have to
reinvent the parser to do it).

Q: Would you say that your entry is primarily a game or a piece of
literature? Or perhaps both? Or neither?

A: Given the choice, definitely literature.  I was trying to write an
interactive short story, not set up a conflict of wits between author
and player.

I don't mind the term "game", because it's a word that has come to
mean a lot of good things - exploring, having a fun time, and playing
with things - but IF, for me, is not about strategy and tactics and
conflict and all the other things that make up good gameplay.  It's
about storytelling, creating an interesting world and letting the
player free to discover it.  Conflict may well enter into that as a
mechanism, but it's not the primary motivator.

I guess it's no surprise that my all-time favourite Infocom is _A Mind
Forever Voyaging_.  :)

Q: What are your feelings about IF in science fiction settings? Is
that genre in any danger of becoming overused, in the way that many
people say that fantasy IF is? Why do you think so much IF belongs to
the fantasy and science fiction genres?

A: For a start, I think IF attracts a more technologically minded kind
of author.  You don't even think about writing stories that interact,
that are very mechanical, unless you're in love with the machine. The
tools we use to write with - even Inform and TADS - are still fairly
primitive, and require a lot of technical ability to use.  And because
it's a very young, offbeat, cultish medium, you're likely to get
creatively minded people - people who look at the world and see not
what is, but what might be.  The sort of people who like speculative
fiction.  So you're already selecting for a certain type of writer
right there.

Speculative fiction is also a lot easier for amateurs like me to write
(not write _well_, just to write), and since most IF writers are
amateurs not professionals, we pick the easy choice.  SF and F worlds
are easier because they're a lot more flexible than reality, so if you
need the Golden Widget of Truth to be carryable by the half-gnome
player, then it is.  IF engines aren't forgiving; science-fiction and
fantasy worlds are.

Personally, I am a science fiction fan, and I write what I want to
read.  SF and fantasy (_good_ fantasy, the really weird stuff, not
just a warmed over Tolkien clone) is like adrenalin for the brain.  It
stimulates you, makes you think in new directions.  Politics and
romance haven't changed much for centuries; science has.  Now we're
living in a generation of massive cultural change.  We didn't have the
World Wide Web last Thursday, what will we have Friday week?  SF
writes to that gap, which is why I think it's the most interesting
form of fictional literature on the market today.

But yes, it can tend to make for easy, cheap writing. (I don't think
_Glowgrass_ is much of an exception; I cut a lot of corners I couldn't
have in a "realistic" setting.)  SF and fantasy do get overused and
abused.  I'd love to see more "reality" IF - good solid spy thrillers,
murder mysteries, romances, period dramas.  I liked _Border Zone_ and
I wished the historical part of _Trinity_ had been a game on its own,
without the fantasy segment.

IF does need to break away from the "it's just spaceships and dragons"
stereotype that it's evolved.  I'm not sure if that's likely to
happen, though, until we get tools that give a wider spectrum of
writers, people who don't necessarily like computers, access to
painless IF development.  But until then, I'll just keep hoping that
the science fiction and fantasy we produce will get more serious, with
as much depth and character as "mainstream" fiction.  Whatever that

Q: "Glowgrass" isn't really an example of "puzzle-less" IF, but I
noticed that you take care to make the puzzles simple, sometimes
almost giving away the solution (I'm thinking about how to open the
garage door, for example). What's your view on puzzles in IF? Are they
a necessary evil?

A: They're evil.  No doubt about that.  :)

Seriously, I'm not a puzzle hater, but a puzzle has to be _impossible_
to not get or it's got no business being in IF at all.  That's my
view, and it's mainly because I have incredibly dark and icky memories
of playing IF as a kid and literally screaming in frustration because
I wanted to finish the _story_ and couldn't because some stupid
_puzzle_ kept getting in the way.

I like _good_ puzzles -- which means, ones I can get.  But they're
nasty creatures to control. They're like jokes, only much, much worse.
In a comedy, say a Terry Pratchett _Discworld_, you can sling off
thousands of one-liners and several dozen elaborately sprung and
weighted fall-off-the-couch-and-die-laughing set pieces, and you can
be reasonably certain that 90% of the readers won't get more than half
of them.  But that's okay, because they can still read all the way to
the end of the book.

But in IF, if a player misses _one_ puzzle, just one, she fails to
read the author's mind or have gone to the same school or watched the
same movie once, she's gone.  Snap. End of game.  No more story.  Can
you imagine watching _Seinfield_ and have the screen black out and go
to static each time you didn't get a joke?

Yeah, in IF you can cheat with a walkthru.  That's a bit like printing
explanations of all a show's jokes in the TV Guide so you can look
them up, laugh in the right place and have the TV signal cut in again
for another 30 seconds.

There's a reason IF isn't popular, folks.

When puzzles work, they're brilliant.  I played _Myst_ all the way
through without hints, and it was wonderful.  One of my favourite
Infocoms is _Suspended_, and that was one big puzzle.  I like the
thrill of challenge and the joy of solving something you thought
impossible, but all to often, when you meet an impossible problem in
IF, it stays impossible.  (At least it does to me.  Very, very rarely
do I read a solution and go "Oh!  I could have thought of that."
Usually I go "Huh?" or "But, *nobody* could have known that."  Maybe
I'm bad at problem-solving, but heck, I play IF for entertainment, not

In _Glowgrass_ I was mainly using puzzles just as placeholders for
putting interaction into the story.  They weren't seriously meant to
slow anyone down, or even necessarily make them think.  In hindsight,
I think I did make them a bit too obvious; I might fix that in release 2.

Q: What do you think of the other contest entries this year? Any

A: Yes.  Outstandingly, _Babel_.  It had everything I love most in a
game.  It created mood brilliantly, it seamlessly blended story and
puzzles, and it had the most professional writing I've ever seen on

_Savannah_ and _Edifice_ were pretty good, too.  Savannah because it
had an original setting and there was just so much detail in the
environment.  Edifice had puzzles that were a joy to solve - the
language translation in Level 2 was possibly _the_ single best puzzle
I've ever seen.  I've always wondered what it must be like to learn a
foreign language - now I know!

_Thing for a Spring_ with its wilderness environment was another
real-world setting that worked for me, though I flicked straight to
the online help for most of the puzzles.  I liked _A Good Breakfast_
very much - it was like the best of Infocom humour on a good day, and
I was very unhappy that a bug made it unfinishable.  And _Zombie!_ and
_Zero Sum Game_ both looked very nice ideed, but I haven't got around
to finishing them yet.

Q: What do you think of the future of IF?

A: Text-based IF?  Bleak, but hopeful.

Bleak because text is almost a vanishing dialect today - in two
hundred years, we'll probably all be speaking with icons like in Greg
Bear's _Eon_.  And because we're working with tools that the rest of
the computer world pretty much sees as Stone Age - "What?  People are
still writing text games?  Wow, man, heavy retro trip."  Despite our
best efforts, there's really no way _So Far_ or _Jigsaw_ can compete
with the likes of _Wing Commander 4_ or _Riven_ in the popular gaming

But I'm hopeful because the rebirth of text IF is above all a return
to the _hobbyist_ roots of computer gaming.  It's an underground
movement that gives power to the individual, instead of large
centralised studios, so it's got the potential, if we network
together, to make large advances in a short time.  We are literally
pushing the frontiers of storytelling (well, walking up to them and
waving, anyway).  Because we're small, there's all sorts of
experimental stuff we can do, both in terms of usable AI and in
defining the nature of story itself.  Look at what id and Apogee did
with the Wolfenstein texture mapping engine - did that come from a big
company?  Heck no.  Do I think hobbyists can do something similar with
AI?  Heck yes.

But hey, even if we don't accomplish anything of lasting significance,
we can still have a really fun time reliving the '80s.

As to the wider future of IF in general, the large-studio stuff: well,
I think it can only grow.  Probably not as fast as the movies did or
as science fiction stories might make you think, but the seeds are

I hesitate to say it, because it's already such a cliche, but it's the
Web that's going to really make IF a public commodity, I think.  The
Web is going to replace television, we can all see that, and in about
2015 when it's finally seeped into the popular culture that our
fundamental data grid, the thing that links our planet, is not
broadcaster-listener-based and linear but open and _interactive_,
stories are going to naturally be seen in interactive terms.  It will
probably take that long for the groundwork to get put in place; even
the big flashy games out now are still dealing with a very small set
of rudimentary actions and plots, and we're still having to reinvent
stuff like graphic engines every time a product is released.

IF's going to get networked.  Ultimately we'll be looking at something
like Star Trek's Holodeck, that's the high end.  A kind of immersive
chat room with computers running AI NPCs, simulating the world
environment, and making dramatic interventions to keep a plot running.
All rendered in sexy realtime VR with voice recognition and gesture

In the near future, I'd expect to see all sorts of cute stuff like IF
servers popping up on the Web.  Bot servers that do nothing but run
NPCs, world servers that act like MOOs for live players and bots to
mingle, and maybe interesting things like dramatic rulebases that can
analyse players' behaviours and write customised story scripts for
their worlds or the bots who accompany them.  But no matter how good
the tech gets, human Game Masters, like IRC moderators or RPGs GMs are
likely to take a controlling role.  Interactive pay-per-play soap
operas are a possibility... maybe with semi-famous guest stars
dropping in every few episodes.

And at the low end, you'll still have the good old pick-a-choice HTML
page as your base unit of literacy. _Everything_'s going to be
interactive eventually.

Q: And, finally, speaking of the future: do you have any plans for
writing more IF?

You bet.

I'm definitely entering the next Contest.  And there's at least one
reasonably full-length game I've been wanting to write for about seven
years.  Maybe some experimental pieces too.

I expect I'll be writing IF of some kind for quite a while.  :)

NEW GAMES--------------------------------------------------------------------

It seems as if the relase of the TADS sources as freeware has
re-kindled interest in this language. Ten of the competition entries
were written in TADS, and since the end of the competition three new
TADS games have been released.

Firstly, there's Stephen Granade's "Losing your Grip". This is a
full-lenght game in the same league as "So Far", "The Legend Lives"
and "Jigsaw": story-oriented without sacrificing the puzzle aspect,
literary but also enjoyable as a game, dealing with deep questions
without being pretentious or obscure.

We also have two new short games by Kevin "Whizzard" Wilson, the
founder of SPAG: "The Sea of Night" and "The Lesson of the
Tortoise". According to the author, the first game is an SF story
involving a spaceship and a cargo of bananas, while the second one
builds on elements of Chinese folklore.

All three games are avaialable from the IF-archive, in the directory

KEY TO SCORES AND REVIEWS----------------------------------------------------

Consider the following review header:

NAME: Cutthroats
AUTHOR: Infocom
EMAIL: ???
DATE: September 1984
PARSER: Infocom Standard
SUPPORTS: Infocom ports
URL: Not available.

When submitting reviews:  Try to fill in as much of this info as you can.
Also, scores are still desired along with the reviews, so send those along.
The scores will be used in the ratings section.  Authors may not rate or
review their own games.

More elaborate descriptions of the rating and scoring systems may be found
in the FAQ and in issue #9 of SPAG, which should be available at:


From: "Laurel Halbany" 

NAME: Babel
AUTHOR: Ian Finley
EMAIL: mordacai SP@G
DATE: Competition '97
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (competition game)
VERSION: Release 1

Too many I-F games have the irritating habit of being firmly set in a
single genre, with clichéd rather than inventive trappings (space
games have their talking computers, fantasy games have their
dragons). Babel combines science fiction and horror imaginatively, so
that the separate elements of each genre support and enhance rather
than fight each other.

The game begins on an apparently abandoned and nonfunctional space
station; you don't know who you are, or how you got there, you're
freezing cold, and the lights are off. The mood of vaguely unsettling
horror and the tension of the character's investigation are very well
presented.  The author has done an excellent job of making the
descriptions of rooms different when they are lit and unlit; rather
than "It is pitch black," a dark room is described in sinister, vague
terms, turning from threatening to clinical when the lights come
on. The layout of the space station is straightforward without being
simplistic, and solving the first problem (getting the lights on)
doesn't take much wandering. Most items have been described or dealt
with, rather than allowed to fall under the heading of "I don't
understand that."

The character learns most of the plot through various set-pieces; you
find blue glowing fixtures in different areas, and when they are
touched, there is a flashback (not necessarily in chronological order)
to something that happened on this station, when it was inhabited.
These are well-written, and though there are plenty of them, at one
point you can obtain an item that will automatically "catalog" them
for you. The set-pieces cleverly manage to add the humanizing element
of interaction with NPCs, without detracting from the gloomy emptiness
of Babel station.

The problem with these set-pieces is that the characters, and
therefore the story, is a bit hackneyed. There is the Bright Young Man
(clearly headed for trouble); the deeply religious researcher who
fears human hubris; the older, father-figure head of the team with his
own agenda; and the brillant, beautiful female scientist who
unsurprisingly ends up having a romance with the Bright Young Man
despite the team leader's severe disapproval. (Out of jealousy?
Concern for unprofessionalism? A little too much paternal concern? We
don't know.) This also tends to ruin the central mystery of the game;
by the time you finally solve the puzzle that reveals in fact who the
character is, you-the-player have probably long since figured it out;
there's not much shock in the revelation. The memory of what happened
to the team of scientists is similarly predictable.

Most of the puzzles are not mind-wracking, but do take some
thought. There are often clues given in how the station reacts to you,
or in the set- pieces. Most involve finding an item and applying it,
although this is not mechanical. There are a number of locked-door
puzzles involving an ID-card slot. It's nice that this is easy to
solve, but I found it unrealistic: there were only four scientists on
Babel, all of whom had access to the entire station, so why did they
need ID cards to open the doors? The final important puzzle of the
game, involving synthesis of liquids and manipulating machinery, is
forgiving of mistakes but tedious to do. It seems as though the author
wanted a difficult final hurdle, but it is mechanical rather than
exciting, and not particularly difficult. The last set-piece is,
sadly, not as original as it might have been.

Overall, I found Babel to be a well-crafted, atmospheric horror game
that, while not a classic, is certainly enjoyable and absorbing.


From: Second April 

NAME: Babel
AUTHOR: Ian Finley
E-MAIL: mordacai SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standards
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
URL: ftp//
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Outstanding (1.           ATMOSPHERE: Very effective (1.7)
WRITING: Consistently absorbing (1.8)   GAMEPLAY: Fairly good (1.2)
CHARACTERS: Quite good (1.5)    PUZZLES: Few, nothing special (0.9)
MISC: Outstanding storytelling, even if the plot's derivative (1.6)

In the realm of science fiction, very trodden ground indeed, Ian
Finley's Babel does not seem profoundly original; you have an
experiment in an isolated lab that goes wrong, an unscrupulous
scientist, dramatic confrontations, even a countdown of sorts. But the
whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, and there is more to
Babel than might appear from a thumbnail sketch. The puzzles are few
and not particularly remarkable, but for simple storytelling power,
this one ranks among the best in the competition.

That, unfortunately, means that it's difficult to review effectively
without breaking the spell for future players, so this may be somewhat
unrevealing. The initial premise is set out before the first room

    One by one, your senses speak to you.  There is one absolute:
    cold.  The hard surface you're lying on is cold, the thin gown
    thrown over your body is cold, the disinfectant-tinged air is
    cold, the darkness around you is cold. Even your mind is cold
    and empty.  Where are you?  Who are you?  You feel the warm
    edge of a memory, but it fades as you approach.  Slowly, your
    joints bulging with ache, you get to your feet and look

Where you are and who you are become clear through a series of
discoveries that begin as cryptic vignettes and only gradually begin
to make sense; though the game exercises only limited control over the
sequence of your discoveries, the control is sufficient to make your
reconstruction of the storyline reasonably predictable. Moreover, the
manner of those discoveries amplifies the uneasy feel: relevant facts
come out first as offhand references and are only explained much
later. A computer that you discover early on supplies some background
information, but no more than that; you learn about the course of
events that led to your awakening alone on the floor through other
means. Helpful in that respect (and for keeping things straight) is a
calendar that you find, and in which you note the sequence of events;
even if it feels like a device to keep the player from being confused,
it's a welcome one.

One of the best parts of Babel's story is the believability of the
characters it depicts: though you never interact with them over the
course of the game, your discoveries about them make them as real as
NPCs that are actually present. Mr. Finley's writing deserves the
credit for that; the dialogue is good enough to supplement rather than
drag down the story (not at all a given these days), and what you see
of the way the characters interact both fills out the plot and gives
them some life.  Admittedly, the scenes you encounter are heavily
steeped in science fiction conventions, and perhaps those who read
more science fiction than I do will find the whole thing too old to be
interesting. But for my part, I found a genuine interest in the
characters, as opposed to nifty gadgetry or wondrous discovery, that
made the story much more compelling than much of the science fiction
I've read. If anything, I was hoping for more development, more plot
to discover, though I recognize that Mr. Finley was limited by the
two-hour format. The strength and complexity of the story line makes
Babel feel more like fiction than puzzle-based IF.

As noted, Babel's puzzles are secondary to the story, and what we do
get is not especially memorable (though neither are they very
hard). One puzzle involving a cabinet strains belief a bit, as does
another involving security mechanisms that you defeat, and the
beginning presents a bottleneck of sorts that requires both close
reading and something of an intuitive leap -- but once a certain barrier
is passed, most of the game will come easily to the experienced IF
player. But that factor works well here: more difficult or
time-consuming would slow down the plot and take away the realism of
the premise. As it is, there is almost no need to save and restore:
there is a time limit, but it is loose enough to afford plenty of room
for wandering around and making mistakes, and all of the ways to die
or make the game unwinnable can easily be foreseen. But there is a
nice puzzle involving a locked door, and many of the puzzles draw on
the development of the plot -- you need knowledge that you discover
along the way, for example -- in a way that is all too rare even in good

Particularly notable about Babel is that it tells its story in a way
that conventional fiction could not -- at least, not as well or as
powerfully.  Though a short story or novel could in theory be written
in the second person, it couldn't put the reader in command of events,
and leave the unveiling of the plot to the reader's discretion. A
storyline in which discovering your own identity is central works well
in a medium where your persona is rarely fixed; in conventional
fiction, where using the second person is uncommon, the device just
wouldn't work. In an odd way, the usual limits of IF work to the
advantage of this game, as the player's expectation of a series of
puzzles rather than an identity problem makes the resolution to the
problem genuinely surprising; the twists in the plot are effective
precisely because of the questions the player doesn't ask of the
game. The strength of the writing also helps; to quote much of it
would give the plot away, but room descriptions like the following
convey the frigidity of the setting:

    Grey light drips in from an octagonal skylight in the ceiling of
    this room, making the room look as cold as it feels.  To the
    north, east, and south, doorways lead into unlit halls.  The metal
    door frame of the east hall glows faintly with an eerie blue

    The dominating element of this small cube is the color white.  The
    walls are white, the stiff bed by the east wall is covered in
    white sheets, the counter sticking out of the wall in the corner
    looks as though it were carved from snow.  Set into the counter is
    a pale, porcelain sink.  Even the air smells as if it has been
    scoured bare.

The atmosphere is effective throughout; the countdown messages, when
they come, heighten the tension, and stray details -- shattered mirrors,
dead mice -- work to the same effect.

There are some gameplay problems that complicate matters now and
again.  "Search" is never useful, as far as I can tell, and "examine"
does what might be expected of "search" in more than one case. One
sequence involving a radiation chamber, though put together with
admirable realism, feels rather tedious to work out -- and some related
actions require rather exact wording. At one point, the game asked me
if I wanted to open the east door when it meant the west door, and
there are some events and feelings embedded in room descriptions that
accordingly recur a bit too often. These are minor glitches, though;
bugs are relatively few (and the author has promised that those that
do exist will be cleaned up in future releases).

There are similarities between Babel and C.E. Forman's Delusions -- in
the premise and in some of the plot devices, notably. But Babel works
on a much different level; the story is more central to the game here,
and is hence better developed and more compelling -- and, naturally, the
puzzles are far fewer and less involving. (For my part, I found that
the plot of Babel made more sense than that of Delusions, but perhaps
that's just me.)  There is no reason why playing Delusions should
spoil the experience of playing Babel (nor vice versa). I enjoyed
Babel, in short -- I gave it a rating of 9 -- and I consider the
storytelling equal to that of any recent work of IF.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: Babel
AUTHOR: Ian Finley
E-MAIL: mordacai SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS advanced
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: 1997 competition release

Babel is not only one of the best competition games I've ever played,
it's one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I've ever seen,

The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no
memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking,
emotional story.  The work of exposition and plot development is
performed through the protagonist's enhanced powers of tellurgy, which
the game defines as "the ability to experience past events by touching
objects present when the event occurred." The clarity of these visions
varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being
witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King's The Dead
Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of
character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly
other games (most notably Zork:Nemesis) have used this device in the
past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so
effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an
awareness of the character's identity, and how he came to be in his
amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific
arrogance and attendant disasters.

Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main
character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades:
they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the
universe or some version thereof, or basically self- interested
seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of
these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim,
then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of
depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of
playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story
gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own

Finally, I think it's worth noting that two games in this year's IF
competition (Unholy Grail and Babel) deal with a metallic research
station where the player discovers the frightening results of
unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. What is meaning of this
thematic fascination in a community devoted to a form of gaming which
has been bypassed in the marketplace by games which grasp to exploit
the newest, flashiest technology? It's a speculation for another
essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding
treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of
the best I've ever seen in any medium anywhere.

Prose: Babel's prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly
conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic
outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful
turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out
in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were very vividly
rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the
tellurgic visions were sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined
and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold
floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist's
eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader
strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole.

Plot: The game's plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs
by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all
these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a
calendar on which he "instinctively" jots down the date of each
occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and
greater: the unfolding mystery of the character's origin serves to
heighten the power of the story's eventual climax. Some of the
Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is
strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness.

Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of
blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary
puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served
elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that
were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn't the point of
this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the
narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right.

writing -- The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple
of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game.

coding -- Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor
bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a
great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of
this game.


From: Second April 

NAME: A Bear's Night Out
AUTHOR: David Dyte
E-MAIL: ddyte SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 2

PLOT: Not always consistent, but amusing (1.4) ATMOSPHERE: Not bad (1.4)
WRITING: Very good (1.5)            GAMEPLAY: Excellent (1.7)
CHARACTERS: Few (1.2)     PUZZLES: Reasonably clever (1.5)
MISC: Central gimmick well done (1.7)

If 1996's Ralph was a game that managed to be consistently doggy in
its outlook -- in that it effectively took on the perspective of a
house mutt -- 1997's Bear's Night Out is quite consistently, well,
beary; the player is put in the position of a teddy bear that
mysteriously comes to life one night and pads merrily about its
owner's house. (Actually, given how comfortable this particular bear
seems to be with exploring on its own, perhaps this isn't the first
time -- the game isn't clear on this point.) It's a genuinely charming
premise that author David Dyte carries off with humor, and as with
Ralph, that premise shapes both the plot and the puzzles in a way that
makes Bear's Night Out feel fresh.

Your goal, which you discover on the course of your explorations, is
to prepare for the annual Teddy Bears' Picnic, slated to happen the
next day, by finding out what you need to bring and assembling
it. (The author sprinkles quotes in pop-up format throughout the game,
but "If you go down in the woods today..." is not one of them,
curiously.) Why you need to do all this yourself rather than leaving
it to your owner is not wholly clear, but it hardly matters: the story
holds together adequately in setting out a series of problems. The
best of them hinge on the problems associated with inhabiting a teddy
bear's body -- unlike Ralph, the identity of the central character is
in several instances an obstacle to overcome.

The writing is quite good, even though spare; most of the settings are
relentlessly ordinary, and Mr. Dyte does not try to load them down
with special characteristics when they are, in truth, generic rooms in
a house.  This is not to say he shirks his writing duty, of course,
merely that the descriptions of rooms and events are not what makes
the game compelling.  That said, though, the "bear's eye" view of the
house is fairly consistent and well done -- take this example, for
instance, part of a room description:

    Along one wall stands a high bench, featuring a sink full of
    dirty dishes, next to which you can see a telephone and an
    answering machine, if you step back and crane your neck a

The player is virtually never allowed to forget he is inhabiting a
teddy bear's body, one of the best things about this game: Mr. Dyte
evidently didn't simply have some puzzles that he threw together in a
game and grafted a funny plot on, and he clearly took some time making
the game environment and gameplay appropriate to the game. As a
result, the cute and funny factors is considerable, which makes the
game appealing in its own right even without good puzzles. When you
climb down from something, for example, you get "You tumble down, but
being a soft bear, that's ok."  Better still, in response to JUMP:
"Full marks for cute and furry, but none for achievement." Though not
everything in the game really fits the mode -- how does this teddy
bear manage to carry so many items -- the sacrifices are generally in
the name of facilitating gameplay and as such are wise choices. (For
example. a teddy bear's paws aren't probably up for much in the way of
manipulation -- but Mr. Dyte fortunately didn't confine the player's
actions to things like pushing or pulling. That would go beyond
realism into annoyance.)

The puzzles themselves are well constructed and not too hard, on the
whole, and some of them even offer multiple solutions -- though one of
them, in the bathroom, requires rather exact syntax (and some luck in
stumbling on the puzzle in the first place, unless I missed
something). There is a hint system included, Invisiclue-style, which
provides help for any problem, so difficulty certainly isn't a
problem, and most of the puzzles are logical. The one event that isn't
particularly logical is funny enough to make it worthwhile (and is
also a veiled reference to Sorcerer, better still).

The only problem is that the first real puzzle to be solved requires
some real exploration, so things can bog down a bit while you try to
figure that out -- though, after that, things move along more quickly.
This problem might be alleviated with perhaps a hint or two as to the
location of a certain object required to solve the first puzzle -- as
it is, you discover it, but not because you were looking for it as
such. The other main problem is that there is a side plot that
separates out from the main plot after a certain point -- and though
it is fairly obvious that you need to solve the relevant puzzles, it
isn't clear why until the very end of the game (and the reasons are
rather thin, I think, as justification for having the side plot). I
did enjoy the second plot, of course, quite a bit, but it might have
helped to have the reasoning for pursuing the puzzles better
incorporated into the story.

One of the perks for the seasoned IF player is the wealth of IF
references; this one rivals Sins Against Mimesis for sheer IF
knowledge.  The author claims 32 references to other games, and while
I certainly didn't find that many, I can believe that they're in
there. (One puzzle even involves finding a "z-chip" that allows you to
play interactive fiction.) Excursions into Dungeon, Curses and
Adventureland are among the game's highlights -- my favorite moment in
the entire game was luring Holly into Adventureland -- and the IF-full
environment and barrage of self-reference (the author is present,
though asleep in bed the entire time) increase the enjoyability and
replayability factors. Along with finding the IF references, there are
many funny things to do, quite a few deriving from the limits of your
character; the "fun stuff" section is ample, much larger than that of
most games, and affords a wealth of alternatives.

Bear's Night Out doesn't do much wrong, in short, and what it does do
wrong is easily balanced by what it does right. With consistently
funny writing, this is one of the best of this year's competition,
earning a 9 from me: it's a good idea, well implemented.


From: Second April 

NAME: The Edifice
AUTHOR: Lucian Smith
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Involving (1.5)          ATMOSPHERE: Simple but well done (1.3)
WRITING: Strong (1.4)          GAMEPLAY: Mostly good (1.3)
CHARACTERS: Few but strong (1.4) PUZZLES: One outstanding (1.6)
MISC: Innovative and well-thought-out (1.7)

Lucian Smith's "The Edifice" is one of the simplest games in the
competition -- head games involving puzzling out what's going on are
few -- but it also tells one of the most effective stories. (Well,
okay, some of the entries don't have much of a story at all to tell,
but that's different.) Edifice is an example of IF where desultory
puzzles don't matter: it's the story, and the concept driving it, that
counts, and this is one of the best game ideas this year's competition

This is an allegory: you represent primitive man, moving through the
various stages of evolution as represented by levels in a strange
stone edifice that appears before you suddenly. The puzzles represent
problems along the way of evolution, problems whose mastery defined
certain levels of development -- they're mostly straightforward
(though one is a bit confusing), but there is a real sense of
accomplishment in solving them, somehow. Certain stages are by
definition mind-numbingly tedious, which reflects the subject
accurately -- these are problems that involve tedium -- but also raise
the question of whether there might have been a better way to design
those particular puzzles. (For a similar problem, see The Meteor, the
Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet.) It should be added that the
author isn't trying to convey every single aspect of every phase of
evolution; rather, you represent an important breakthrough at each
stage, and when you're done, you move on and reenter the scene much
later, when Homo sapiens has incorporated your discovery and built on

That raises the question that I, at least, found most intriguing about
this: does this really have anything to do with evolution? It's kind
of a silly approximation, after all, since it's apparent quite soon in
each stage what the sought-for breakthrough is, and it's just a
question of putting together the needed materials or figuring out the
key steps. But it could be argued that Smith has designed this with
the feeling of discovery in mind: particularly in the last two scenes,
you have the sense of a specific need that drives the breakthrough,
not a sudden resolve out of the blue to carve hand tools or
domesticate animals. The sense of logical connection is less strong in
the first one; there is very little sense that you tumble to your
discovery because of circumstances, rather than having a
twentieth-century computer user push him around to accomplish a
certain goal. Perhaps that's inevitable, given the problem at hand,
but I would have liked to have seen at least some sort of conjecture
as to what sort of circumstances lit up that particular connection for
Stone Age man. The game does capture the brutality of this particular
discovery well, in that you have no particular reason other than your
own satisfaction for doing what you do, and perhaps the apparent
purposeless of your solution to the problem reflects the arbitrary
kill-or-be- killed nature of the environment -- but it still felt a
little unsatisfying.

On the whole, I found the second stage most plausible and interesting;
it's the only one where you deal with other characters, and though
your interactions are limited, the characters have a certain charm. (I
found a certain whimsical appeal in their names -- Wife, Son,
Grandmother.) The central puzzle took real thought and felt genuinely
rewarding to solve -- and, even as a microcosm, it felt more than any
of the problems like what really might have happened. The first stage,
as suggested, is a little too illogical to really feel like an account
of the breakthrough, and the third just doesn't quite make enough
sense; you have the sense of the original motivation for your
character, but not what inspired him to try this particular
approach. (And the realism/tedium element that worked reasonably well
in the first part is simply annoying here, because it doesn't feel
particularly logical.) Still, all three are worthy concepts, mostly
well thought out.

The writing is nothing special, though arguably that makes sense here
-- too much attention to the scenery or aesthetics would distract from
the goals at hand; you're not in the situations in question to check
out the sights.  Certainly, the writing is adequate for the purposes;
it sets the scene and makes clear what you need to do. My main problem
with the mechanics of Edifice is that it's possible in the first part
to screw up and require a fairly laborious process of restarting (it's
probably quicker just to RESTART), which, quite apart from its
problems for the IF player, doesn't really make much sense in the plot
of the game. (The nature of the problems was such that the solutions
developed over time, after all; it took many failures to make the
discoveries required in each scene.) In several key respects, the
first scene requires resources that can be easily wasted -- and though
the urgency of the situation lends a certain logic to the picture (if
you don't solve the problem, you'll die), it still doesn't really make
much sense as an evolutionary tableau.

Another clunky element is the hint system, which rests in a mural in
the edifice -- clever enough, but the problem is that the mural only
gives you the hint once you've gone out and actually done each step
and come back and checked the mural, which I found time-consuming and
annoying. You can't, in short, play to where you get stuck, then come
back and check the mural, because the mural won't keep up with
you. Among problems to be fixed for future versions, this one may
be #1.

The end is a bit confusing. There is a cataclysmic event at the end
that doesn't seem to fit into the evolutionary frame, as far as I can
tell, and my guess was that it's the author's device for ending the
story. If so, it's intriguing -- but the final sentence, even when
you've finished the game "right" (in accordance with the walkthrough,
anyway), is a bit of a puzzler. I couldn't decide whether it was a
comment on the nature of evolution or simply a bug; if it was supposed
to be the former, it could perhaps have been more skillfully done. (At
least, it might have a sentence somehow distinguishing it from less
satisfactory endings.) And while I enjoyed the ending -- it had plenty
of drama -- it did weaken the allegory a bit; certainly, the
evolutionary process didn't end where it does in this game, but the
conclusion of the game suggests some sort of ending.

Quibbles aside, though, The Edifice is one of the most intriguing
games in the competition, in that it tries something completely new --
a first-person account of the highlights of a scientific process. In a
sense, your actions are vital to the continuation of that process --
if you choose not to go on, progress stops with you -- and one way to
see your role in the game is that of a guiding force at crucial
moments in history, an intervention to ensure that the development of
man stays on track. That, at least, would explain some of the knottier
problems involving questionable motivations or the difficulty of
anticipating a particular result without the player's advance
knowledge. Part of the charm of Edifice is that the story it tells is
sufficiently ambiguous that it can justify a variety of perspectives,
including those who don't care for evolution as a self-perpetuating
force at all. (The game, whether deliberately or not, provides some
grist for the mill of the argument that mere chance could not been
sufficient to turn ape into man.)

Though elements of the gameplay are lacking somewhat, anything that
Edifice lacks in playability is easily made up in sheer concept; the
idea and the charm of its implementation earn this one an 8 on the
competition scale.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: The Edifice
AUTHOR: Lucian Smith
E-MAIL: lpsmith SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard, significantly extended
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: 1997 competition Release 1 

You're an ape, spending your days hunting for Food and fleeing from
Enemies. You have these little thumbs, too, that set you apart from
the Others. Suddenly one day, a huge black Edifice appears before you,
arousing your wonder and suspicion. I can almost hear "Also Sprach
Zarathustra" in the background: Daaaaaaaa, Daaaaaaaaa,
Daaaaaaaaaa.....  Da-Dummmmmmm! However, from this highly derivative
beginning, the Edifice ventures quickly into much more original
territory. It seems that once you enter the monolith, you find
yourself able to enter various stages of human development, from the
discovery of fire to protecting your village against plundering
marauders. The idea works very nicely, putting the player into
puzzle-solving situations which blend very naturally into the game's
environment and using the edifice itself as a sort of frame around the
smaller narratives as well as a hinting device.

One section of the game in particular I found really remarkable. On
the second level of the edifice, you find yourself as a very early
human, living in a family unit in the woods. Your son has a fever, and
to cure him you must find the Feverleaf, which can be made into a
healing tea.  However, no Feverleaf seems to be available anywhere,
until you stumble across a Stranger. Unsurprisingly, however, the
Stranger does not speak your language, and so you are faced with a
problem of communication. The game does an incredible job with
simulating this situation. I was astonished at the level of realism
which this character was able to achieve, and at the care that must
clearly have gone into fashioning this interaction. I've rarely seen
such a thorough and effective establishment of the illusion of
interactivity. The Stranger did not of course respond to English words
in understandable ways. However, you could point to objects, or speak
words in the Stranger's language, and gradually the two of you could
arrive at an understanding. It was an amazing feeling to be
experiencing this kind of exchange in IF... I really felt like I *was*
learning the Stranger's language. It will always remain one of the
most memorable moments of this 1997 competition for me.

I spent a lot of time on this one encounter, but I spent more time on
the first level of the edifice, where you learn basic skills like how
to hunt and build a fire. All of the puzzles in this section were
logical, and the implementation was characteristically thorough and
rich. However, this level is also where I ran into the game's one
major flaw: its scoring system. Upon typing "score", you are told
something along the lines of "You have visited two levels of the
Edifice and solved none of them.  You are amazingly discontent."
However, sometimes "amazingly discontent" changes to "very content."
for reasons that aren't at all clear. Moreover, I did everything that
the hints indicate on that level, but the game still insisted I had
not solved it. I worked on this until I got so frustrated with it that
I just went up to the next level. I'm not sure whether these
irregularities in the scoring system were intentional or not, but I
found that they were the only significant detractions from an
otherwise excellent game.

Prose: The author did a superb job with the prose. Objects and rooms
were described carefully and concisely, and in fact their descriptions
often changed to reflect the character's expanding knowledge. In the
beginning, words are simple and their meanings often archetypal: Rock,
Enemies, Others, etc. As the game progresses and the character
continues to evolve, the diction becomes more complex and the meanings
more specific. This is the type of prose effect that a graphical game
could never achieve, since it arises from the nature of the prose
itself. That the game can achieve this effect shows that it is very
well written indeed.

Plot: The game's plot is a clever device to put the player into
various moments in the history of human development. Its central
device is rather clearly lifted from 2001:A Space Odyssey, but other
than that it's an excellent frame story around fascinating vignettes.

Puzzles: I think the language puzzle was the best one I've seen in
interactive fiction this year. Certainly it was the best in the
competition -- it advanced the narrative, developed the character,
achieved a new kind of IF character interaction, and packed a powerful
Sense of Wonder. The other puzzles I encountered were also very good,
arising quite intuitively out of the game's situation and objects. My
only frustration was with the elements of the game which suggested I
had more to solve but never seemed to indicate what those things were.

writing -- The Edifice's prose was quite error-free.
coding -- Aside from the problems with the scoring system, the coding
was outstanding. Synonyms abounded, and almost all logical or
intuitively available actions were accounted for. I have no doubt that
the problems with the scoring system arose from the complexity of the
game, and that they will be resolved in the next release. When that
happens, Edifice will have eradicated its one significant flaw.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang
AUTHOR: Neil deMause
E-MAIL:  neild SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: Release 2 (1997 competition release)

Here's my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel
comic at age six, I've always been a fan. Even now, well into my
twenties and possessing a Master's degree in English Lit, I still make
sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge
power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love
comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the
exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight
spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the
superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though
really, who cares about plausibility? We're talking superheroes,
here!) And yes, I'm disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized
bodies (especially women's bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero
comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it's still a

Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and
gave a small cheer when Comp97's magic shuffler put it towards the
front of the line. I've always thought that the whole superhero genre
would make a great one for IF -- if it's a great power fantasy to
watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much
greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned
that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who
think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre
without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and
a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv,
whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other
members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow's headlines,
and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of
course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality,
from the characters' dialogue with one another to the snappy responses
provided for some unlikely actions (">GET HOUSE" brings "You can count
the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one
finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an
entire house with one finger.)") It's hilarious.

Sadly, there are some problems as well. First of all, I was disappointed
that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been
one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I
needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my "super Improv
power" to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary
household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player)
developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I'm afraid. In
addition, the game does not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even
this setup, because it does not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by
using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were
implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For
example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds
(cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus
the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to
put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers
to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one
of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the
verb ("You can't see any bite here.") or "That's not really possible in
your current state." The game doesn't really account for all the clever
things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the
*one* clever thing that will solve each puzzle.

Finally, there are a number of just plain bugs in the game, which
always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent
premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However,
interface design and implementation are too important to be treated
the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I'm still
waiting for the game that does superheroes just right.

Prose: As mentioned above, the prose is excellent throughout the
game. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team is
sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the
character's mental state) are both concise and vivid. Even some of the
most everyday IF responses are considerably enlivened by the superhero
treatment -- for example, saying "Down" in a locale where that
direction is not available evokes the response "Sadly, you're not
equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground."

Plot: The plot is basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero
cliche.  Since this is a spoof, of course, cliches are a good thing,
and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the
supervillains' hideout) are quite funny. The landscape, the premise
(SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and
the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts
relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound
heroes, etc.) are all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences
which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I'll
discuss those below.

Puzzles: In fact, I'll just discuss them right here. The puzzles are a
weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in
the game. One group is the puzzle based on extremely contrived
circumstances -- for example, the door to the villains' hideout uses a
"guess-the-big-word" lock, and what do you know, I happen to have
someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me!
The other type of puzzle is supposed to have drawn on my character's
superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since
this power wasn't implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I
was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of
which have already been discussed above.

writing -- I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game.

coding -- I think the main failure of the coding was the one I've
already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for
inventory items. When a game's main character is someone whose primary
trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to
provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible.
Frenetic Five falls well short in this regard. The game also had a few
regular bugs, which I assume will be fixed in the post-competition


From: Second April 

NAME: Friday Afternoon
AUTHOR: Mischa Schweitzer
E-MAIL: M.A.M.Schweitzer SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Simple (1.2)               ATMOSPHERE: Office, but well-done (1.3)
WRITING: Quite good (1.4)         GAMEPLAY: Mostly good (1.2)
CHARACTERS: Quite funny (1.4)  PUZZLES: Nothing special (1.2)
MISC: Solid, but some unfortunate elements (1.2)

Among all the wander-around-an-ordinary-place-doing-ordinary-things
entries in the 1997 competition, perhaps the most enjoyable is Friday
Afternoon, a short tour of the author's office. Though the puzzles
aren't really anything special, they have few obvious flaws, and most
impart an air of whimsy that makes this feel reasonably fresh.

Perhaps the most notable thing in Friday Afternoon is a development
right at the beginning of the game -- your glasses break, and you have
to find a means of fixing them despite your limited vision. The
solution itself is not particularly hard or innovative, true, but
Mr. Schweitzer shows admirable thoroughness in concealing the office
behind a blur until the problem is solved. The problem is vaguely
reminiscent of one from Wishbringer, though that was an absolute bar
on vision rather than a reduction -- but it did draw me into the game
effectively enough, much more than the average conventional-task game
tends to. My only problem with that part of the game, really, was that
the solution came too easily; I wanted to have to rely on other
senses, follow a complicated pattern, something, but the payoff was a
bit mundane.

After that, Friday Afternoon becomes fairly conventional, though
enlivened by a good deal of wit; one of your co-workers has responses
that echo those of the hacker in Lurking Horror, for one thing, and
the solution to the problem of looking up a phone number is
entertainingly zany. (At least, zany in a bored-and-
trapped-in-an-office way.) The only puzzle that really breaks IF rules
is one involving repeated actions without the first few failures being
clued -- i.e., the player might give up after a try or two, since the
responses don't indicate that you're getting any closer.  With some
tinkering on that -- feedback that changes, some reason to believe
that pursuing that course will lead you to the goal -- the puzzles
would be fine.

A secondary but just as significant problem in Friday Afternoon
involves a certain calendar and what it assumes about you, the player
-- namely, that you're a straight male who enjoys having pictures of
women in tight clothes in your office. While this certainly doesn't do
anything for the game, in my eyes, the sexism involved isn't so
painfully blatant that it's offensive; I found it a bit annoying, I
suppose. (When I played this one, I had already encountered "Leaves"
and its much more juvenile example of the same problem.) I don't think
that the existence of the calendar in the game is itself wrong, but
there are a few lines that could be better put -- namely, in a
description, you're told that it's from August 1997, "but that isn't
what you're looking at, is it?" And elsewhere, when you find a note
indicating that the company's female employees are offended, you smile
and note that the management won't see the calendar in its current
location. No, not outrageous, but still a little obnoxious on both
counts. Imputing thoughts or feelings to a player can be very
effective when well done, but these aren't thoughts or feelings that
are really worth imputing, given the assumptions involved. My feeling
is that the calendar should still serve its purpose in the game -- but
that the suggestion that it, er, does whatever it does for you should
be removed.  (And, I must say, the answer to "read calendar" is quite

Some have objected on similar grounds to the central premise of the
game -- you need to get out of your office bi 6:00 lest you miss your
date with Tanya, and your date with Tanya is particularly important
because you want to prove to yourself and to the world that you're not
a nerd. Not a particularly noble reason for going on a date with her,
true, but the game doesn't say that it's the sole reason or that you
have no actual feelings for Tanya, merely that you feel like a nerd
and are tired of that feeling.  My feeling was that this is simple
tell-it-like-it-is; for many people, going on a date -- either the
first one ever or the first one in a long time -- serves as ego
reinforcement, a sign that you're attractive, interesting, etc. It
isn't particularly fair to the other party involved if that's the only
reason, but the interests of comedy here; it's not as funny, somehow,
if you're anxious about missing your date because you're desperately
in love, and this is supposed to be comic, not tragic.

All that said, there are plenty of things to enjoy here, notably an
"Easter Egg Hunt" in the hint menu that gives the player interesting
things to try -- with a prize in the form of the original release of
the game. I didn't find many of the Easter Eggs involved -- though I
wouldn't mind getting a push, particularly for "re-creating a scene
from The Graduate". There is plenty of deadpan humor in the writing,
for example when you try to move a stack of boxes and get this: "You'd
rather not do anything with it: you might hurt yourself if it all fell
on top of you, and you don't want to go on a date with Tanya with
band-aids all over your face." Or a reference to a desk as "taking up
space," to which the author adds "(Much like Marc's job description,
from all you've seen him do." The view of your co-workers is
consistently amusing, even if they're a bit stereotyped; the sugarcube
is a very funny take on office boredom.

Though there isn't a lot about Friday Afternoon that will stay with
the player, the author should get credit for not doing much
wrong. Using the phone, admittedly, requires fairly specific syntax,
and the scoring system -- where you get ten points for significant
tasks, but one routine action gets one point -- is a bit odd. But the
game is entirely free of grammar problems (the author is Dutch, though
it's not clear what his familiarity with English is). There's a time
limit, though it's sufficiently loose that you really have to be lost
to run afoul of it -- but it does provide some measure of tension, the
puzzles work the way they're supposed to, and the whole thing's done
with a measure of humor. I gave this one an 8 on the competition


From: Second April 

NAME: Glowgrass
AUTHOR: Nate Cull
E-MAIL: culln SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Intriguing but incomplete (1.4)   ATMOSPHERE: Not bad (1.4)
WRITING: Mostly good (1.4)     GAMEPLAY: Uneven (1.2)
CHARACTERS: One, sort of intriguing (1.3)  PUZZLES: Fairly good (1.4)
MISC: Interesting idea, not fully developed (1.3)

Post-apocalyptic IF? There hasn't been any, in my memory -- A Mind
Forever Voyaging is the only thing that comes close -- but there's no
reason why there couldn't be, and Nate Cull's Glowgrass, small but
well-conceived, is certainly an interesting attempt. Though the game
itself has some flaws, the story is intriguing enough to make it

You, it seems, are an alien researcher whose ship has crashed on an
Earth now empty of humans -- 'twasn't nuclear war, though, 'twas a
Green Plague (not much development on the specifics there) that wiped
everyone out. As an expert on Homo sapiens (or, to you, "the
Ancients"), stranded on the planet you're supposed to understand, your
mission is to apply your knowledge to get yourself out of your plight
one way or another, though exactly how isn't clear at the
outset. (Nor, arguably, is it at the end, though you have a better
idea.) You explore a small suburban home in an anthropologist's
mindset -- in the bathroom: "From your knowledge of Ancient social
mores, this was likely to have been a personal cleansing area." The
effect is occasionally like that of a short story I once read called
something like "Daily Rituals of the Nacirema" -- I don't remember the
author -- which similarly describes common daily suburban life as an
anthropologist might. But the intent there was to parody, and
Glowgrass is more science fiction than sociology -- and, moreover, the
Earth you're witnessing is several technological notches up on us
currently, so most things are only indirectly familiar. It's something
of a strange way to go about it, but the story does, for the most
part, hold up, more because it's well written than because of striking

The main problem with the plot, though, is that there's just not
enough there. You get snippets about yourself, but not enough to
really figure out who you are, what you were doing coming to Earth in
the first place, what you really think of "the Ancients" or of the
things you find. Nor, as noted, is the fate of the Earth made clear --
you find a printout that hints at a plague, but why did it happen?
What sort of plague was it, how was it spread, how did it start, did
anyone survive or get off the planet? It might be unfair to expect all
this from a competition entry, but a story as complex as this one
should get at least some development, and there really isn't much to
go on here. There are offhand references at the end that seem entirely
cryptic -- which gives the impression that the author either has a
sequel planned or meant to develop the plot more in this one and never
got around to it. If there is more to come, I look forward to it --
but this snippet is so truncated that it's a bit frustrating.

The gameplay is mostly adequate, though the required syntax is often
rather specific, and steps for piecing together one mechanical puzzle
aren't entirely logical (you have to be holding certain objects that
you hook together but not others). At one point, a certain NPC says to
you "I didn't think of that!", even if you've already mentioned it to
her. And there is a vehicle that is a location unto itself, so "get
out of" it doesn't work, and objects that appear to be in plain sight
require "examine" to find. More irritatingly, crashes are frequent --
and I'm running the latest DOS TADS runtime, so I don't think it's the
interpreter. In a small game, of course, it's not a huge issue -- but
one hopes that a future release will clean things up.

Glowgrass is not particularly difficult -- there are only three
puzzles, really, though some searching of scenery is necessary to
solve those puzzles, and they're all fairly straightforward mechanical
assemble-and-apply-the-objects puzzles. (Though there is one moment
that requires simply waiting around for four or five turns, not
initially obvious to me.) But the writing is good enough to keep you
involved; you have the sense of inhabiting the mind of a character who
is genuinely intrigued and surprised by what he finds. At times, the
writing takes on the overwritten character of mediocre science
fiction, and you get this:

     A gasp wells in your throat, as vividly you relive how it
     must have been; to suffer such agony, so young.  For the
     first time you regret the empathic talent which led you to
     xenohistory.  A moment later, the mood passes, leaving you
     still somehow chilled.

For one thing, tears well in eyes; gasps don't generally well in
throats.  For another, you're not reliving anything, you're trying to
imagine, and your capacity to do that is fairly limited considering
who you are. More importantly, imputing emotions is difficult to do
well -- see this year's Sunset Over Savannah for an exceptionally good
attempt -- and in a scene like this, where the player can infer
perfectly well what he or she is supposed to be feeling (your
"empathic talent" is a little weird; why it would lead you to
researching Earth is too hard to infer), there's no need to inform the
player that he or she feels sad or empathetic or anything
else. Similarly, you're told at another point that a room "still
retains the awe and innocence of the Ancient age," which feels like
overkill, unless the author wants to tell us exactly why it seems that
way. But there are also good moments that recall, well, good science
fiction, such as the following from the intro:

     A minute later, you get to your feet, pain gnawing your body.
     Scratch one dropship; nobody could have survived that crash.
     Scratch your equipment.  Now it's just you, your wits - and
     the Ancients.  Hope you're as good a xenohistorian as you
     claimed at the Institute.  Because unless you find some kind
     of way out of here, it could be months before a recovery team
     locates you.

Not profound, but concise and even witty in a rueful sort of
way. There are several of the shakier moments, in terms of writing, in
Glowgrass, but the game is short enough that it's not a major problem;
if this were followed up or expanded into a full-length game, the
imputing-emotions bit might get wearisome. At any rate, Mr. Cull keeps
us involved throughout, and even manages to pass off one
quasi-metaphysical moment (in that it's somewhere between spiritual
and technological) with a minimum of conscious suspension of
disbelief. (At least, that's how it felt to me.) Though that moment
doesn't really feel as transcendent as it should, it's convincing and
gives the story a jolt.

Glowgrass, in short, is a competent and reasonably interesting little
entry, though it feels more like a teaser than a game in its current
state. I hope the cryptic references will be elucidated in a later
game; for now, I give this one a 7 on the competition scale.


From: Second April 

NAME: Lost Spellmaker
AUTHOR: Neil Brown
E-MAIL: neil SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 2

PLOT: Reasonably amusing (1.2)    ATMOSPHERE: Not much (0.9)
WRITING: Mostly strong (1.3)     GAMEPLAY: Weak in spots (0.8)
CHARACTERS: One very funny one (1.2)  PUZZLES: Not great (0.8)
MISC: Some good ideas, didn't do enough with them (1.2)

Uneven but reasonably enjoyable nonetheless, Neil Brown's Lost
Spellmaker pushes the boundaries of the genre somewhat. The setting is
ostensibly fantasy -- your mission is to rescue a wizard of sorts,
after all -- but Spellmaker is more comedy than fantasy; the game
spends more time subverting or mocking fantasy conventions than
abiding by them -- and to the extent that it succeeds, it does so
mostly because of the comedic factor.

You are a dwarf (an element almost entirely neglected by the story; it
isn't clear whether you're in a land of dwarves or are unique in that
respect) assigned by the Secret Service to hunt down a Magic Weaver
who has disappeared. (Some hint of the tone of the game comes in the
prologue, when you're instructed to retrieve the missing magician "so
that he may entertain us further with his joyful sparkly spells.") You
have no hint of his whereabouts until you stumble across him; the
plot, typically, requires that you go out and solve puzzles, not
actually track the guy down. Still, there is more than enough whimsy
to keep the player entertained; among the better elements is a
sarcastic talking cow and a reverend who speaks entirely in
malapropisms. ("I never did heard such inscruciating nonsenseness in
my whole lovely liveliness!") There is also some unintentional humor
-- one character's ability to parse input is limited enough to produce
this exchange:

     >mrs wisher, hello

     "Oh I'm sorry, dear," apologises Mrs Wisher. "I can't do
     that. The Reverend wouldn't approve."

At least, I assume it was unintentional. The predominance of
silliness, as opposed to coherent plot, is occasionally irritating,
though -- one character must be given an object simply because it's
nonsensical, and your final action is more than a bit contrived.

The gameplay is slightly uneven; there are some actions whose syntax
might defeat the less persistent, notably the problem of a certain
well. At another point, in a dangerous situation, an escape route
opens up for a turn or so -- but the game gives you no hints to that
effect. More generally, you steal a jar from a sweet shop (well, you
take it in plain sight of a dimwitted salesman), and, as noted,
several actions are more than a bit illogical. There are several
well-coded features, though, notably characters who manage to move
around without obvious bugs (at least, not very many), a series of
candies that can be regenerated, and a hint system in the form of a
magical door that leads you back to the central office. Though the
game revolves around magic, your contact with it is limited -- one
instance -- and the story depends more on the silly characters in the
village than on the ostensible plot.

The central distinguishing feature of Lost Spellmaker is that you play
a lesbian; you are attracted to the cute librarian Tilly, and the game
tries -- not very successfully -- to resolve that along with the
finding-the-lost-magician bit. The author has said that the game was
underway before the argument this fall on gay characters in IF -- in
which his position was that a gay or lesbian main character, even if
made obvious, did not have to be a political statement. As far as that
goes, Lost Spellmaker demonstrates the truth of it; unless your biases
are such that you see the inclusion itself as political, this game
does not come across as trying to Make An Important Point or any such
thing. But nor does it do much with the relationship; your
interactions with Tilly are so limited that it would be hard to call
this a lesbian romance, somewhat improbable ending aside.

It is worth wondering whether such a game would feel like a political
statement if the game encouraged you to act in a way expressing your
attraction -- along the lines of, say, Plundered Hearts. As it is,
it's easy enough to forget that you're a lesbian -- for that matter,
to forget that you're female -- for most of the game. This is
certainly an interesting foray, but I'm not sure it answers many of
the questions that the argument brought up -- not that it was required
to, of course. With more development in the romance area, this might
be genuinely groundbreaking.

Lost Spellmaker is very short -- six puzzles, by my count -- and not
all that remarkable, but it does manage to entertain (me, anyway,
which is more than I can say for many humor games). As a demonstration
of the viability of having a gay or lesbian main character, it's not
particularly successful; it sends up the convention that the hero or
heroine must be a strapping young thing, but that's a different
problem. But it works well enough as a whimsical romp that I rated it
a 7 on the competition scale.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: The Lost Spellmaker
AUTHOR: Neil James Brown
E-MAIL:  neil SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 2 (1997 competition release)

It's not often that you see a thread from one of the newsgroups
translate so directly into an actual piece of IF, but that's what's
happened with The Lost Spellmaker. This summer, the discussion raged
(and I do think that's a fair characterization) in rgif about "Gay
characters in IF." Some people held that if a piece of IF were to
feature a gay character, that piece would need to have homosexuality
as its primary concern. Others, including Neil James Brown, contended
that a character's sexual orientation can function simply as a vector
to deepen characterization, of no more central concern to the game's
theme than her gender, her height, or what food she likes to eat. The
Lost Spellmaker proves Brown's point quite handily.

The game's protagonist is Mattie, a dwarf Secret Service agent
dispatched to discover the whereabouts of Drew Tungshinach, last in a
long line of local spellmakers who have disappeared mysteriously. The
fact that Mattie is both a dwarf and a Secret Service agent is an
indication of the clever world that Brown has created, which consists
of equal parts Ian Fleming and Brothers Grimm. The fact that Mattie
loves candy comes in handy in a couple of puzzles, and helps explain
why she lives in the town Sweet Shop.  And finally, the fact that
Mattie is a lesbian has a bearing on the love- interest subplot with
the local librarian. Yet none of these incidental facts impinge on the
game's central concern, the rescue of its eponymous Lost
Spellmaker. Instead, they enrich our understanding of the characters,
for which purpose Mattie's status as a lesbian is no more or less
important than, for example, her status as a dwarf.

After the competition ended, Brown posted to RGIF that he didn't write
The Lost Spellmaker to prove his point -- the game was half-finished
when the debate began, and in fact he wrote "It was unfortunate in
some ways that Lost was a competition entry, as I was unable to use it
as an example during the debate." No matter: The Lost Spellmaker
stands as an example now, proving Brown's point handily. It's also a
fun piece of IF apart from any political or identity
considerations. The quest for Drew brings Mattie in contact with a
number of amusing characters, and the milieu is small enough to make
most of the puzzles fairly easy. Of course, I can't deny that I
personally find it quite refreshing to play a game where
heterosexuality isn't the implied norm, but The Lost Spellmaker has
more than that to recommend it. It's a snappy quest in a creatively
conceived world, a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Prose: The prose in The Lost Spellmaker never jarred me out of the
story, and I often quite enjoyed reading it. The village wasn't
particularly vividly rendered, but the characters often were, and some
of the game's lighter touches were hilarious. Dialogue was, as a rule,
quite well-written, especially the Reverend's constant malapropisms,
which made me laugh out loud over and over, even when seeing them for
the second and third times.

Plot: Considering the weird, mutant setting Brown has achieved by
breeding traditional fantasy elements (magic, dwarves, talking
animals) with James Bond derivations (the Secret Service, a one-letter
superior, his secretary "Mr. Cashpound"), the plot walks a fine line,
and does it well. The plot is not simply a fantasy, though it does
involve using magic to halt the decline of magic, and manipulating
fantasy characters to solve puzzles.  Nor was it simply espionage,
though it did involve a heroic spy facing off against the obligatory
Femme Fatale. Instead, it swerved back and forth between the two,
making for a merry ride.

Puzzles: I only had to consult the walkthrough one time, for a puzzle
which was logical, but could have used an alternate solution. The
puzzles weren't the focus of the story, so they served the basic
purpose of small goals to help advance the plot. In this role, they
worked admirably well.  There were no particularly witty or clever
puzzles, but by the same token there were no unfair or
"guess-the-verb" puzzles either.

writing -- I only noticed one proofing error in the game. The vast
majority of the prose was competently and correctly written.

coding -- There were a few bugs in the game, one of which may be more
of a library issue than a lack of attention on the part of the author.
Also, there were a few places where a response beyond the default
would have been appreciated. Overall, the code was relatively bug
free. Kudos must go here to the title page, which employed a really
nifty z-machine special effect.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: Madame L'Estrange and the Troubled Spirit
AUTHORS: Ian Ball and Marcus Young
E-MAIL: iball SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release)

Madame L'Estrange and the Troubled Spirit (hereafter called MmeLTS) is
a frustrating game, because it builds such a slipshod house upon a
very promising foundation. The game is riddled with what I would guess
are at least a hundred grammar and spelling errors. It flipflops
seemingly at random between past and present tense. It can't seem to
decide whether to address the player in the second or third person. It
consistently causes a fatal crash in at least one interpreter
(WinFrotz). All this would be easy to evaluate as simply the product
of incompetent authors if it didn't take place in a game that starts
with an interesting premise, executes a number of great interface
decisions, and manages to unroll a complicated mystery plot along the
way. As it is, MmeLTS is a great mess that could've been a contender
if only it had been written with more care.

One area in which the game does succeed is that of the innovations
introduced by its authors, especially in the area of navigation:
MmeLTS combines the direction-based locomotion of traditional IF with
the more intuitive "go to location x" type of travel used in games
like Joe Mason's "In The End." The title character (a "spiritualist
detective" who is also the player character) can travel to various
locations around Sydney with the use of the "travel to" or "go to"
verb. However, once she has arrived at a particular location she uses
direction-based navigation to walk from place to place (or room to
room, as the case may be.) Moreover, the authors often write direction
responses as a simple set of actions performed by the title character
rather than implementing entire rooms which serve no purpose. These
methods of navigation combine the best of both worlds, providing a
broad brush for cross-city or cross-country travel but not taking away
the finer granularity available to the direction-based system. A
related innovation concerns Madame L'Estrange's notebook, in which the
game automagically tallies the names of important people and places
which come up in her investigations. This notebook (similar to the
"concept inventory" used in some graphical IF) provides a handy
template for travel and inquiry, and would be welcome inside any game,
especially those involving a detective.

One other point: MmeLTS takes the character all over Sydney, and in
doing so provides an element of education and travel narrative along
with its detective story. The medium's investigations take her from
Centennial Park to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo to the
University of New South Wales. Locations are often well-described, and
after playing the game for two hours I felt more knowledgeable about
Sydney than when I started (I hope the game's locations weren't
fictional!) As an American whose knowledge of Australia is mostly
limited to "Mad Max" movies, I can attest that the travel aspect of
the game is a lot of fun.

Prose: It's not that the game's prose was terrible of itself. The game
is quite verbose, outputting screenfuls of text as a matter of course,
and much of this text is effective and worthwhile. As I mentioned,
many of the descriptions worked quite well, and the game does manage
to clearly elucidate its plot as events happen. It's just that the
mechanics of the prose are *so* bad (see Technical/writing). When
technical problems are so pervasive, they can't help but have a
tremendous negative impact on the quality of the prose.

Plot: The game's plot is actually quite interesting. Mme. L'Estrange
is presented with two apparently unrelated mysteries: strange wildlife
deaths ascribed to a mysterious beast loose in Centennial Park, and
the apparent suicide of a marine biology worker. As one might expect,
these two situations eventually turn out to be linked. I wasn't able
to finish the game in the initial two hours of competition judging
time; in fact, I only scored five points out of 65 in that time, which
gives an indication of just how much text there is to read. By the
time I finished, I was really quite impressed with the machinations of
the plot. The game employs several clever ideas and brings the whole
together nicely at the end.

Puzzles: I didn't really find many puzzles as such -- the game is
mainly focused on exploration. Those puzzles which I did find were
quite soluble as long as enough exploring had been done. What took up
most of my time was visiting locations, talking to characters, and
"tuning in" to the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the
dead or learn more about a place's spiritual aura. This kept me busy
enough that I didn't really miss the lack of puzzles. There are a few
rather perfunctory puzzles as the game progresses, but they serve less
as brain-teasers than as adjuncts to the plot (as is appropriate in a
game as plot-driven as MmeLTS).

writing -- The mechanics of the writing are just horrible. Sentences
constantly lack periods or initial capital letters. Words are quite
frequently misspelled. Typos are everywhere. The tense shifts back and
forth at random between past and present; either one would have been
workable and interesting, but the game seems unable to make up its
mind. A similar phenomenon occurs with the voice, which vacillates
between second and third person address. This avalanche of mechanical
problems cripples what could have been an excellent game.

coding -- The jury is still out on how well the game is coded. When I
was using WinFrotz to play the game, I encountered Fatal errors
repeatedly, but I'm not sure whether they were the fault of the
designer or of the interpreter. JZIP presented the game with no
problem, but again that could be because the interpreter was ignoring
an illegal condition.  Several aspects of the coding, such as Madame
L's notebook, were quite nifty (unless that's what was causing the
problem with WinFrotz crashing), and the implementation was solid


From: Second April 

NAME: A New Day
AUTHOR: Jonathan Fry
E-MAIL: jfry SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Interesting but uneven (1.2)     ATMOSPHERE: Er, not much (1.0)
WRITING: Fairly good (1.2)          GAMEPLAY: Frustrating in spots (0.8)
CHARACTERS: One very good one (1.3)   PUZZLES: Nothing special (0.9)
MISC: Very interesting idea (1.3)

Jonathan Fry's A New Day is another in a fairly long list of games
that were nice in theory but not a real joy to play. Though the
premise is interesting and though the plot is well-designed, mostly,
the challenges of A New Day felt more like annoyances, and I never
really got into the game.

The plot, in all its self-referential glory: you are venturing
into/playing a partially completed text adventure whose author, one
Jonathan Fry, has died mysteriously; you confront a sentient being
named Winston who seems to be running the show inside Jonathan's
computer. The "incomplete" element means that objects are there but
not mentioned, and some room descriptions are entirely absent or very
terse. Even if you understand what you're doing in the game -- not all
that likely -- it's still hard to make any sense of what you, the
player, are supposed to do next, since you don't get much direction;
as is typical, you are tossed into settings and given things to
do. (As has been pointed out, there is a built-in excuse here for
flaws in the game -- "it's an unfinished game, dummy" -- but I assume
that Mr. Fry won't take refuge in that.)

There are some problems that can't be put down to the unfinished-game
element, though, like a location requiring that the player SEARCH
three times -- finding something on the first and third times but not
on the second (and, obviously, no clue that there's something more
when you search the second time). Syntax for getting a cat across a
street is rather unlikely, and the solution to a puzzle involving a
guard assumes considerable stupidity on the guard's part. And try as I
might, I could _not_ visualize the last puzzle, nor figure out why the
solution suggested by the hints was correct.

One of the more interesting decisions that Mr. Fry made was to make
one of the sections of the game simulate a software crash of sorts, so
that the text comes out garbled -- or, I should say,  SP@G #$^ s SP@G #$ft SP@G # SP@G e
cr SP@G #!sh s} th8723 the t523xt c&* SP@G es  SP@G % SP@G #$t ga^%23482 SP@G (*bled. I
exaggerate only slightly -- a sample sentence:

    Broken gla31s and dsi8 wiring de76f746t the deca##]
    wo_)2den49053en walls of this room.

There are very few moments in IF that I have wanted to be over as
quickly as I wanted this one to be over, and, unfortunately, it took a
while to end, since there's a not-all-that-intuitive puzzle to solve
that assumes you have VERY sharp eyes. All this gets points for
verisimilitude, I guess, but giving the player a headache is not the
sort of verisimilitude we're striving for, nor even the k2342nd of
veris27 SP@G #^ SP@G ^ SP@G #de we're str][;,ving for.

A New Day is, for the most part, technically proficient; other than
the unfairnesses mentioned above, there aren't many design problems,
and no bugs at all as far as I could tell. Somehow, though, I didn't
enjoy it; I didn't feel like the plot went anywhere, and the story
felt uninvolving.  Well, the plot did go somewhere, true, but it
didn't precisely progress there; you're given a situation at the
beginning, you do a bunch of things that don't relate directly to the
situation, and then the situation changes suddenly at the end. Perhaps
some hints at the final revelation -- perhaps things that you discover
along the way that point to it, rather than having it all dumped on
you without warning -- might help in that respect; for me, that
development was a sort of "oh, really?" bit. I hadn't really been
thinking about it, to be honest, as I'd been busy trying to solve
unrelated puzzles. If the idea is to figure out how Fry died, it might
be good to have some of the puzzles actually concern him or the
setting of his death, lest the whole thing feel disconnected. (I
recognize that the behavior of a certain character may be intended to
point to that, but it didn't really work for me.)

My, I do seem to be complaining, don't I? There are plenty of
well-done things about A New Day as well. The ending feels genuinely
suspenseful -- though a little mysterious, since you have very little
idea of what's going on. There are multiple solutions to several
puzzles, a welcome touch, though I admit I only found a few. At one
point, you get bad advice from an NPC, and though normally it would
feel unfair to do something like this -- when there's no obvious
reason not to trust the NPC -- it works well here, I found. (At least,
I was sufficiently unsure about the NPC not to take the advice.) One
puzzle involving crossing a street breaks IF conventions in a
thoroughly welcome way; it does something that seems like common sense
but is almost never actually implemented, and I was glad that this
game rewarded common sense (though, for those who have been playing IF
for a while, it's actually not common sense anymore). More generally,
the idea is well-thought-out and intriguing, even if I never got into
the plot, and there's potential for a much longer and more- involved
game where the plot might move along better. At least, it seems so to
me; it seems like there's much that can be done with exploring a
computer. (Find a file directory tree and chop it down. Hee hee hee.)
Though this particular effort is a little short (though I shouldn't
fault Mr. Fry for obeying the two-hour limit, I know), it has ideas
that could make a longer game quite intriguing.

Even so, there are difficulties in A New Day that, while not fatal to
its playability, made it less than enjoyable for me; perhaps it's a
matter of taste, but I don't claim to be sufficiently objective to
transcend these things. Though this is a good effort, and Mr. Fry is
clearly a good programmer, I gave this one a 6 on the competition


From: Second April 

NAME: Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza
AUTHOR: Michael Zey
E-MAIL: zeyguy SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Cliched but sometimes funny (1.2) ATMOSPHERE: Nope (0.8)
WRITING: Not bad, but nothing special (1.1) GAMEPLAY: Uneven (1.0)
CHARACTERS: Cardboard (0.8) PUZZLES: Some very clever (1.3)
MISC: Problems, but still fun (1.1)

And sometimes, well, the game just matches the title perfectly. The
tone of Phred Phontious is relentlessly silly, so much so that several
of the puzzles are quite difficult because they require offbeat
thinking rather than simple logic. Though the premise is far from
original, and though there are plenty of flaws, there is still plenty
to enjoy here -- if you don't mind some dreadful puns.

The setting is fantasy, sort of, but more joke-fantasy than
Tolkien-fantasy; this is the sort of fantasy that allows for things
like photographs and coffee and chainsaws. The plot is typical of
fantasy, though, even though it's a joke here -- you have to hunt down
the ingredients to a pizza, and deliver it safely. Along the way, you
encounter a dragon and a vampire -- along with a gnu and a crazed
dentist, of course. The layout is sufficiently unencumbered by sense
that all sorts of things can sit side by side, such as a spice mine
(why not?), a dragon's lair, a haunted cemetery and a travel
agency. Obviously, Phred Phontious is not trying particularly hard to
convey the scene or draw you into the world it describes; the player
may safely register the given stock situation, figure out the twist,
and never bother to try to visualize anything. The result is, while
enjoyable for a while, oddly forgettable; I found that I could hardly
recall the details of the game just hours after playing it. (The silly
place names -- Thikk Forest, Idubeleevinspukes Cemetery, etc. -- don't

Implementation-wise, Phred Phontious needs work. One significant
object is hidden in a scenery object that barely gets mentioned,
another important object is never mentioned at all, an enemy notices
your hiding place under one set of circumstances but not another --
though it would be just as easy to spot you -- and another fellow goes
on addressing you or preventing you from doing things even after he
falls asleep. Other objects act _very_ illogically -- a rope in this
game has some unexpected properties, and another object embedded in
scenery must be dislodged by an action that I never would have
guessed. At another point, you find yourself in a hole and are told
that "it looks uncertain whether you'll ever make it out." Is the
challenge to find some creative means of getting out? No -- just
finding the right syntax. There are other things, illogical bits that
didn't slow down gameplay but still left me wondering -- for instance,
the character brandishing a key next to a locked cage, except that the
key doesn't unlock the cage -- the cage is irrelevant to the game --
but rather a gate far far away. There is a bottleneck right at the
start of the game -- you have to discover a hidden closet, but the
game gives no hint that it's there.  Elsewhere, you have a few turns
to search certain scenery and get an object; if you don't find it
then, the game closes off.

Even amid gameplay problems, though, there are some memorable moments
-- and even if the setting is clumsy more often than not, the author
does manage to send up fantasy conventions in amusing fashion now and
again. Two puzzles hinge on dreadful puns -- I, personally, enjoyed
them, but then again I have a weakness for these things, and I don't
advise that the author do this in the future. The way you get rid of
the dragon is reasonably creative, and the gnu-milk puzzle -- the
first part of it -- is clever, even if distasteful. And the endgame is
quite rewarding, though made more difficult by the requirement of
random scenery searching; I enjoyed the puzzles in the endgame more
than any in the game. Though there are coding problems aplenty
associated with the puzzles, many of them have excellent ideas; with
some more time and attention to programming difficulties, the author
might produce a first-rate -- and very challenging -- game. (One
puzzle I never figured out: a "last lousy point" that's a clue from a
British crossword.)

Phred Phontious is large, hardly finishable within two hours unless
the player relies heavily on the walkthrough, and the game both
encumbers you with a lot of objects and limits your inventory
severely. Perhaps the most welcome thing about the endgame was that
the goal was clear and the territory to explore limited; there was no
question of wandering around looking for the right object only to find
that the solution actually turned on a bad pun. Moreover, the endgame
is the only area where the room descriptions come alive -- and they do
for a very obvious reason then, of course, but it does make things
more vivid. And even though it's predictable, the ultimate ending
does, somehow, feel satisfying -- no "to be continued" messages or any
such thing.

This is a game for the puzzle fan, in short, specifically the puzzle
fan who likes to see fantasy sent up and doesn't mind some incoherence
in the setting. Though the player should save often -- the game closes
off without warning -- Phred Phontious is one of the few competition
entries that I found enjoyable despite serious flaws, and I gave it a
6 on the competition scale.


From: Second April 

NAME: She's Got a Thing for a Spring
AUTHOR: Brent van Fossen
E-MAIL: vanfossen SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Reasonably interesting (1.4)   ATMOSPHERE: Effective (1.6)
WRITING: Strong (1.6)             GAMEPLAY: Mostly good (1.4)
CHARACTERS: Excellent (1.8)    PUZZLES: Not especially notable (1.3)
MISC: Attention to nature is a nice touch (1.6)

Though it's arguable whether She's Got a Thing for a Spring has the
best or most memorable setting in this year's competition, Brent van
Fossen has clearly given the backdrop a wealth of detail: there are
ample descriptions of flora and fauna that play no part in the game
other than scenery, and the player gets a feeling that Mr. van Fossen
lives among and enjoys observing the sights that he describes. The
rest of the game doesn't quite live up to the setting, unfortunately,
but She's Got a Thing... is a solid entry in this year's competition

The story: you've received a note from your husband asking you to meet
him at a hot spring, and you have to get over there, first, and then
assemble all the little things needed to enhance the
experience. Getting there is fairly straightforward, and gathering
most of the accoutrements isn't difficult, but one puzzle at the end
requires considerable intuition and, even when the gap is bridged,
doesn't make much sense. (It feels like the author is either trying to
make the game harder or trying to come up with an excuse for the
puzzle -- which is, to be fair, a reasonably clever one, though the
game doesn't give you much of a nudge.) Still, the idea is compelling,
and the sensual delights associated with the various features of your
dip in the hot spring are so vividly described that it seemed a safe
bet to me that this is among the author's favorite real-life

Among the more intriguing parts of the game is only tangentially
related to the plot: you encounter a fellow named Bob, who resides in
a cabin in the woods and can offer his knowledge on virtually
everything in the game.  Bob seems to serve as a stand-in for the
author in providing useful information about the various forms of
wildlife you encounter -- he has a paragraph for all of them, as far
as I can tell -- and he'll go on about the various aspects of his
little cabin and garden. (In fact, he so fits the image of the
benevolent kindly old fellow that his one off-color comment, when you
ask him about the spring, seems slightly out of place; dirty old man,
perhaps, but it doesn't seem to fit his persona.) One gets the feeling
that Bob is so happy to have someone to talk to that interaction isn't
much of a problem for him; he'll often babble on whether or not you

If there is a side of Bob that is lacking, it is Bob himself -- we get
something about his wife Sally, dead of breast cancer, but virtually
nothing else. (Moreover, you are told repeatedly that you remind Bob
of Sally, certainly effective in painting Bob as a slightly forgetful
old coot, if that was the intention, but it breaks the spell more than
anything else. (Even a forgetful old coot doesn't word it the same way
every time.) If you stay by Bob's side, you can watch him picking
strawberries, fixing a rocking chair, fixing the porch, making lunch,
making a strawberry shortcake, painting the forest (no, silly, on
canvas) -- and though all this takes hundreds of moves, the passage of
time is slowed while you're with Bob (a comment on the stimulating
nature of his company?) so that you don't forfeit the main story by
hanging out around the cabin. The main problem with all this is that,
apart from a few things right at the beginning, you're largely
confined to typing Z endlessly -- there are undoubtedly a wide variety
of things to ask Bob about, but they slow down his various chores, and
even those run out after a while. There doesn't, sadly, seem to be any
way to participate in Bob's actions, and watching Bob put together the
batter for the shortcake, ingredient by ingredient, loses its
fascination after a bit. And if you're an IF player conditioned to
expect that something elaborately coded will be relevant, well, you'll
be wrong, because you only need about five moves' worth of interaction
with Bob to finish the game.

Bob is worth noting because he's the rare example of an NPC who is
much more developed than he needs to be; in fact, he's a relatively
ordinary character with an ordinary life which you can even witness in
all its glory. The failure to really fili out Bob's background is a
weakness, yes, but even so, he does such a remarkable amount of things
and reacts to such a remarkable amount of stimuli that one can only
wonder at the amount of code that went into him. It isn't, of course,
unprecedented to have an NPC who plays encyclopedia for the game, but
to have one who does that but also carries on complicated
time-sensitive tasks of his own (which speed up dramatically when you
walk away from him). And I don't recall ever encountering an NPC who
did such a variety of, well, mundane tasks, described in such detail;
it reinforces the idea that living in the wild and carrying out these
chores is something that Mr. van Fossen enjoys, or at least thinks
more people should know about. Bob is noteworthy, in short, because
he's one of very few NPCs that can't be reduced to an obstacle; more
often than not, characters represent puzzles, locked doors upon which
you need to use the right key to get the needed object or bit of
information. There is much more to this one -- the mundanity of it all
makes him feel more real -- and if for nothing else, She's Got a Thing
deserves recognition for the inclusion of Bob. (He's a close second to
Maurice of Zero Sum Game as best NPC of the competition, I think.)

There are several puzzles, as mentioned, one slightly unfair but most
reasonably straightforward. One requires observation, as it happens,
to figure out a pattern, irritating to the impatient IF player but
consistent with the feel of the game (as in, nature is there to be
observed, not simply co-opted to the player's ends). The gameplay is
likewise strong; most verbs and nouns have several synonyms, and there
are multiple substitute syntaxes for most important actions. One
puzzle is a mite peculiar -- you dodge an adversary simply by moving
away, and the adversary disappears and doesn't return (though the
behavior in question is not atypical in real life) -- and the solution
to another is not obvious to those of us who aren't familiar with hot
springs -- but most of the puzzles are passable. As suggested, though,
the appeal of this one lies less in the puzzles than in the scene as a
whole, and though a few elements of it do break the spell -- two elk
lock antlers and stay that way for the _entire game_, several birds
are largely untroubled by your presence -- the game is well-written
enough to make those minor flaws. The descriptions are effective...

       The canyon rim trail descends, clinging tightly to the stone
       wall, then disappears entirely as the rocks converge.  You have
       no choice but to wade, the current swift and
       powerful. Overhead, a small slice of the sky is visible between
       the two cliff faces, covered with ferns that thrive in the dark
       moist environment here. The crevice runs northwest to south.

...and restrained; Mr. van Fossen has the sense not to go on about how
beautiful the setting is, certainly a welcome touch. Moreover, the
vocabulary employed is considerable and scenery objects get far more
detailed description than standard IF would give; it is virtually
impossible to find a "That's not something you need to refer to in the
course of this game" in She's Got a Thing... (And there's even some
humor: a book that you find includes short stories about "a bored
diplomat who uses underground means to accomplish his goals", with
other references to the 1996 competition.) And even though things get
resolved oddly at the end -- you learn about a few things involving
your own thoughts and motivations for the first time -- the nature of
it fits the game quite well.

On the whole, then, though She's Got a Thing... might not be the entry
whose playing experience stays with you the longest, it's a polished
work that's consistently enjoyable to play. Though sticking with Bob
is only for the extra-patient, there is much to do in the game
environment, and I gave it an 8 in the competition.


From: Paul O'Brian 

NAME: Sins Against Mimesis
AUTHOR: Adam Thornton
E-MAIL: adam SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release)

Few things are more unfunny than an in-joke that you're not in on. On
the other hand, an in-joke that you *are* in on can be hysterical, as
it provides not just the pleasure of humor but also the feeling of
community that comes from shared experience. Sins Against Mimesis is
definitely a very in-jokey game, and consequently not for
everyone. However, having been a longtime (since 1994) lurker and
sometime participant in the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups, I was part
of the audience at which the game was aimed, and I have to admit that
I found a lot of the in-jokes really funny. In fact, one of the most
fun parts of the game was to play name-that-reference -- kind of the
IF equivalent of listening to a World Party album or a Dennis Miller
routine. Of course, the nature of the game (and the fact that it was
written pseudonymously) also invited us to play guess-the-author. My
guess was for Russ Bryan, but as it turns out the game was written by
Adam Thornton, a relatively new author.

If you haven't played much IF, and in fact even if you haven't spent
much time on the IF newsgroups, most of this game is going to mean
very little to you. Even its title is an allusion: to "Crimes Against
Mimesis," a well-crafted series of articles posted to the newsgroups
by Roger Giner-Sorolla (whatever happened to him, anyway?) a year or
so ago. The rest of the game continues in that vein. The opening
paragraph alludes to Jigsaw. The score of the initial part of the game
is kept in IF disks which magically pop into the player's inventory
every time a correct move is made. In some ways, this familiar, almost
conspiratorial approach is a weakness. Certainly in the context of the
competition it won't endear Sins to any judge who stands on the
outside of the privileged circle at which the game aims itself. Even
for an insider, the constant barrage of "if you're one of us, you'll
know what I mean" references can start to feel a little
cloying. However, the game is cleanly coded and competently written,
and on the first time through I found it quite entertaining.

There aren't many games which I would highly recommend to one group of
people and discourage others from playing, but Sins is one of them. If
you're an raif and rgif regular, I think you'll find Sins quite funny
and entertaining. If not, forget it. It's bound to be more baffling
and irritating than anything else.

Prose: The prose is generally somewhere between functionally good and
rather well done, with occasional moments of brilliant hilarity.

Plot: The plot is based around several clever tricks which are quite
funny at the time, but aren't worth repeating. If you've already
played, you know what they are, and if you haven't played yet I won't
give away the jokes. Like the rest of Sins, the plot is funny the
first time through but won't wear well.

Puzzles: Actually, this was the weakest part of the game. Many of the
puzzles can be solved by performing extremely basic actions, which of
course hardly makes them puzzles at all. Others, however, depend
either on extremely specific (and not well-clued) actions or on
deducing something about the surroundings which is not included in
object or room descriptions. For a game so adamantly self-aware, it's
ironic that Sins falls into some of the most basic blunders of puzzle

writing -- I found no mechanical errors in Sins' writing.  
coding -- I found no bugs either. 


From: Second April 

NAME: Sunset Over Savannah
AUTHOR: Ivan Cockrum
E-MAIL: ivan SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Intriguing (1.7)     ATMOSPHERE: Very good (1.5)
WRITING: Mostly strong (1.6)  GAMEPLAY: Consistently good (1.6)
CHARACTERS: Not many (1.3) PUZZLES: Some quite original (1.5)
MISC: A genuinely innovative premise (1.9)

This year's competition had a fair crop of "ordinary person doing
ordinary things" games, for want of a better description, but few of
them confronted the central problem associated with such games: how to
make the game interesting, more than a collection of dull tasks. After
all, if the player wants to relive the joys of washing dishes or
finding phone numbers, in theory he or she doesn't need interactive
fiction to describe it for him; a good work of fiction, interactive or
not, manages to transport the player to another world, and one would
hope that the new doesn't look exactly like the old. But Ivan
Cockrum's Sunset Over Savannah is up to the task; the game give the
player an apparently ordinary situation and invests it with unexpected
life. Indeed, the goal of the story lies in the process of discovering
the hidden wonders of your environment -- and the experience for the
player may fairly be called unique.

The initial premise of Sunset is unrevealing: you are on the last day
of vacation from your office job, and you're discontented with your
work and thinking of quitting. With no more direction than that, the
game deposits you in front of the boardwalk in front of your Savannah
hotel -- and it might seem that the background is a way to explain
your presence before the real plot, yet to be discovered, starts. But
if you assume that you'll encounter an adventure game with a little
poking around, you're wrong, because that prologue really did give the
plot: the key developments are all in your mind, involving your
decision on whether to quit your job.  Handled poorly, this could be
fairly silly -- "you find a brochure for a job on an ocean liner, so
now you're thinking of doing that" -- but the beauty of Sunse" is that
the developments feel plausible. Mr. Cockrum employs an innovative
device for keeping track of the internal action: a status line with
your state of mind on any given turn. Some actions -- jumping over a
railing and landing with a crash on the beach -- lead to temporary
changes ("stunned"), and other developments are more permanent. And
though many of the pivotal actions are far from ordinary -- some
merely unusual, a few simply fantastical -- very little conscious
suspension of disbelief is required, simply because the setting feels
so real. Mr. Cockrum integrates the ordinary and fantasy elements
skillfully: those parts of the story that go beyond ordinary
experience are few, carefully chosen, and clearly surprise the
player-character as much as the player. Just as importantly, those
elements are out of your control and mostly independent of your
actions, so the feeling of ordinariness juxtaposed with the fantastic
is enhanced.

The idea of tracking your feelings and making them central to the plot
is original to this game, to the best of my knowledge, and Mr. Cockrum
carries it off skillfully. The connections between your experiences
and your corresponding thoughts are sometimes a bit forced; an
experience involving a sand sculpture starts you thinking about the
sculptor and his artistic vision about your job "and how infrequently
it lets you pursue your own visions." And there is no real sequence to
the required actions, though some inevitably come before others; the
plot is not so integrated with the puzzles that certain tasks address
certain moods. But one could argue that realism dictates against such
manipulation -- the idea is supposed to be that you stumble across
experiences that affect your thinking, not seek out those experiences
in order to force a certain decision on yourself -- and the
arbitrariness of the connections mirrors the arbitrariness of
real-life decision-making, to some extent. Moreover, the plot requires
a certain degree of aimlessness to be realistic; no one sets out to
wander around a beach and pavilion with certain goals in mind, and
though several of the things you need to do require more effort (and
some semi-suicidal motivations in a few cases) than might be expected
in real life, exploration and experimentation are what move the story

The puzzles themselves are quite good -- few of them are very hard,
though a few, as noted, require whimsy that borders on suicidal
tendencies, and others require wanton destruction of property that,
while unremarkable for an adventure game, break the feel of the game
somewhat. I must admit that one puzzle, if puzzle it can be called,
eluded me completely when I first played the game -- I didn't see any
reason for doing one particular vital thing -- and the prospective
player should know that logic occasionally yields to simple
impetuousness for this particular player-character. That aside,
though, there is plenty of creativity at work, particularly in the way
you use the objects at hand to get around problems; the way you catch
the crab is one of the more inventive puzzles in this year's
competition.  The description-to-puzzle ratio of the writing -- the
amount of text that is there simply to be read -- is unusually high,
as might be expected, but that is hardly a drawback.

The writing, for its part, is strong and descriptive, though
occasionally Mr. Cockrum piles on a few too many adjectives and images
at once. At one point, we are informed that "somehow this amazing
spectacle has cut through your ingrained layers of cynicism to
revitalize your waning belief in a world full of wondrous novelty."
Er, maybe, but there are simpler ways to put it. And the tone wavers
now and again -- at one point, the sun is described as a "fat, ripe,
blood orange," inadvertently deflating (at least, I assume it was
inadvertent) what was otherwise a picturesque description. A few flaws
aside, though, Sunset is compellingly written: most events and
descriptions are portrayed with a wealth of detail, consistently
absorbing and almost never tedious. Some particularly strong examples:

    You're standing in the center of a colossal gazebo that
    provides shade for sunburned tourists like yourself.  The
    octagonal floor is made of unbroken grey concrete, bordered
    on each face by a waist high railing.  Tall beams support a
    sloping wooden canopy that rises over three times your
    height.  A red brick enclosure squats in the southwest
    corner and a small snack bar nestles up against the
    enclosure to the south.  To the east lies the foot of a
    seemingly endless pier.  A number of wooden benches sit
    along the north face of the pavilion.

    Damp Sand, North of Pier
    The damp, hard packed sand is darkened almost to bronze by
    the relentless tide to the east, while to the west it
    lightens to a powdery gold before ending in tall dunes.  To
    the south, you can pass through the pylons supporting the
    long pier that stretches east from the pavilion.

Though the writing in Sunset is not always as economical as it might
be, the moments that get described with particular detail warrant the
attention; the game's interest in detail mirrors the
player-character's observations of the surroundings, and the
circumstances justify more attention to the scene than your average
passerby might give. Particularly effective in that regard is a series
of random messages involving your scenery that recur now and again...

    A slight gust of wind sends eddies of sand swirling over the
    brick path.


    A young boy wearing a bright blue bathing suit and matching
    flip-flops runs by.

...which, though not precisely relevant to anything in the game, do
plenty to set the scene. An extensive "fun stuff" section available at
the end of the game testifies to the wealth of attention that went
into writing Sunset, and there are many things in the game that reward
curiosity, notably collecting the various shells and chatting with the
old man.  Several line-break descriptions amplify the effect, notably
this: "Grains of sand on the concrete floor twinkle as the light of
the setting sun streaks through them at just the right angle." (And,
naturally, there is humor here and there; hitting return without
entering a command elicits one of the following -- "Beg pardon?",
"What?", "Sorry?", and "Mumblemumble?", the latter of which amused me
immensely.) Though there are several moments where text takes up at
least a full screen, it is a tribute to the writing that those are
highlights, invariably clear and vivid. In short, Sunset is
well-written enough that even aimless wandering and experimenting
feels intriguing; there are few games that can say that.

Whether Sunset will appeal to a given player is, I think, largely a
matter of taste; some might simply regard the subjective approach dull
or mechanical, or find the story too aimless to be involving. My own
enjoyment of the game no doubt owes something to my biases. But there
is no denying the skill that Mr. Cockrum brings to bear on this game,
nor how well it achieves its objectives, and given that and the
novelty of the concept, I feel comfortable rating Sunset as my only 10
in the 1997 competition.


From: Paul O'Brian 

NAME: Sylenius Mysterium
AUTHOR: C.E. Forman
E-MAIL: ceforman SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release)

[Because of the nature of Sylenius Mysterium, any or all of this
review could be considered a spoiler. In addition, spoilers are
present for "Freefall" and "Robots." You have been warned.]

There seems to be this strange impulse in the text adventure community
to recreate the experience of graphical arcade games using the
Z-machine. The first evidence I ever saw of this trend was Andrew
Plotkin's "Freefall", a z-machine Tetris implementation using realtime
opcodes to reproduce the geometrical game with ASCII graphics. Others
have followed, including Torjborn Andersson's "Robots", which
recreates one of the earliest computer games, and a DOOM
implementation which I haven't played. I have to say that this notion
baffles me. When I first saw "Freefall", I thought it was good fun. It
struck me as a typically amazing Plotkin programming exercise which
showcased the versatility of the z-machine. But it didn't become an
arcade staple on my machine. As a text adventure, it was pretty
wild. As Tetris, it was pretty average. I played it once or twice to
see what it could do, then deleted it. "Robots" I kept, but I don't
play it.

Now here's Sylenius Mysterium (hereafter called SM), the bulk of which
is a textual emulation of a horizontally scrolling run-and- jump game,
a la Pitfall or Mario Brothers. This kind of thing used to come up as
a joke on the IF newsgroups from time to time, and now here it is, a
real game.  Unfortunately, SM demonstrates the reason why those games
were implemented graphically in the first place. Namely, it's silly to
implement an arcade game in descriptive mode. ("You begin walking
right." "You execute a running jump." "Beneath you is a low wall.")
These types of structures are what graphics are best at doing, and
they were being done 15 years ago.  It's both more fun and less
confusing to see an arcade environment in graphics, and if even
ancient computers are capable of doing so, what's the point of making
a text adventure which simply produces an inferior copy of the
original? Playing SM just made me wish that the author had sacrificed
portability and implemented the arcade section in graphics.  Hell,
even cheesy ASCII graphics would have made for a more fun experience
than one long room description reading "A panoramic landscape,
parallax layers of empty, ruined buildings, scrolling by with your
movements." It seems to me that text is good at certain things and so
is graphics, and to make a text version of Pitfall makes about as much
sense as a joystick-and-fire-button version of A Mind Forever
Voyaging. It's great to know that the z-machine has realtime
capabilities to produce a text arcade game, but surely those
capabilities can be put to better use.

SM does have a prologue which operates in a traditional text adventure
mode, and this section of the game is quite well-done, with the
exception of a number of problematic bugs. The game does a very nice
job of defining an engaging and convincing setting and characters, as
well as creating a sense of nostalgia for the old gaming consoles. The
Atari system was my first introduction to videogames that could be
played at home, and I have many fond memories of days spent at
friends' houses playing "Missile Command" or "Donkey Kong" or
"Pitfall." In fact, the game evoked nostalgia so well that my
disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that its "arcade"
section was nothing more than realtime text.

Prose: The prose in the IF section of the game was really quite
accomplished, so much so in fact that it sent me to the dictionary a
couple of times to confirm the meaning of unfamiliar words. All the
game's elements, from the sterile quiet of a mall after-hours, to the
almost exaggerated "skate punk" main character, to the loving
descriptions of the old-time game consoles, were written in a style
that I found quite rich and absorbing.

Plot: The plot in SM is mainly a device to whisk the player to the
arcade section. The plot of that section is (intentionally, I think)
extremely pure and simple: find the bad guy and undo his evil deeds.

Puzzles: Again, the puzzles outside the arcade section were few, and
those inside the arcade section can't really be called "puzzles" in
the traditional sense, though I would argue that the game does propose
an interesting juxtaposition between the challenges of a Mario
Brothers-style arcade game and IF puzzles -- the two are closer than
they are sometimes thought to be. Those puzzles within the IF section
were usually quite simple, though from time to time bugs arose that
made the simplest actions seem unintentionally like puzzles

writing -- The writing was technically excellent.

coding -- Here there were a number of problems. I was keeping a text
file of all the major bugs I found until I realized that the author
had provided no email address (not even an anonymous remailer for
comp97) to which bug reports could be sent. Suffice it to say that
there were a number of situations, both inside and outside the arcade
section, that needed much improvement. That being said, however, I'm
willing to forgive quite a bit from someone who takes on a project as
ambitious (even though I personally don't find it to be very
interesting) as the arcade section of SM. That section suffers from
game-killing bugs of the "FATAL: No such property" variety (or at
least it does under WinFrotz), but the working sections of it seemed
to work quite well, and I salute the serious effort it must have taken
to create them.


From: Second April 

NAME: The Tempest
AUTHOR: Graham Nelson
E-MAIL: graham SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform, sort of
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 3

PLOT: Um...borrowed (1.0)     ATMOSPHERE: Not bad (1.2)
WRITING: To the extent that Graham wrote it... (1.4)
GAMEPLAY: Clunky (0.7)
CHARACTERS: Fine, but borrowed (1.0)
PUZZLES: Few, not very good (0.6)
MISC: Brilliant idea, execution so-so (1.3)

Of the 1997 competition entries, among the most memorable, and the
most ambitious, is Graham Nelson's "The Tempest" -- but it may also be
the hardest to rate. Certainly, the extensiveness of the Inform
hacking is impressive, and the sheer concept of adapting a drama and
making it interactive is novel -- but the game does not, in truth,
meet all the challenges the task presented.

For the few who don't know: this is an adaptation of Shakespeare's
"The Tempest." Your role is that of Ariel, the fairy servant to
Prospero, the protagonist of the play, and you must complete a series
of missions given you by Prospero to (a) move the plot along and (b)
win your freedom. The text of the play is virtually all there within
the game, and, essentially, when you do something right, the play
moves along; you're given a series of situations within the play where
the action stops, in a sense, and you need to do something to restart
it. After the first scene, you can never make the game unwinnable; you
can take as long as you like to hit upon the right thing to do to move
things along, and no one will complain. The responses to your actions
are written entirely in Elizabethan, perhaps the best part of the
whole thing for me; an unrecognized verb elicits "That instruction,
that verb, doth elude me," and "get violets" brings this response: "I
pluck me nodding violets from this darling bed." Swearing will yield a
rich variety of insults, including this: "Mind thy tongue, thou
paunchy pottle-deep plume- plucked strumpet!" There is, in short, wit

There are also, however, some serious problems. Your required actions
are not always obvious, even with a copy of the play in hand, and
there is no walkthrough or hint system to help you along. Though there
are very few puzzles as such -- though one, requiring that you unlock
a cabinet, is rather confusing and frustrating -- simply figuring out
how to do whatever Prospero has commanded often takes considerable
guesswork. Limiting the difficulty somewhat, though hardly in a
positive way, is the small set of commands that the game recognizes;
once the player figures out the 10 or 15 actions that are helpful, the
experimentation required for any given problem is reduced
somewhat. The problem remains, though; a bottleneck at the very
beginning, in the form of actions that require some intuition even for
those who know the play, makes the difficulty of the whole enterprise
obvious. Other problems abound -- at one point, even though you can
fly, you are required to swim, not an obvious turn of events. The one
significant puzzle requires such trial and error that it breaks the
spell, so to speak, in that the other characters involved never
comment on your presence. And translating some of your tasks into
interactive-fiction actions sometimes results in some strange
creations, notably three homonculi that you carry around.

Nelson takes considerable care to make this a performance of the play,
not an innovation on it. Most obviously, you are prevented from
speaking your own words -- you cannot ASK a character about anything
-- though Ariel will speak lines at the appropriate time,
independently of you. This isn't generally a problem -- it would
confuse things if you tried to interact with most of the characters
anyway -- but given that there are scenes and actions added that
aren't Shakespeare's, it doesn't seem that a few questions to Prospero
(with the responses described rather than recorded -- "he tells you
that...") would break the spell. True, the game does have a note on
each character available when you type the name at the prompt -- but
there are other things that bear explanation. The desire to avoid
dialogue that isn't Shakespeare's is understandable, but it shouldn't
override the necessity that a player understand what's going on.

Also problematic is that some of the action does not actually turn on
anything Ariel does, meaning that, in some cases, _very_ lengthy
stretches of text go by before you get a prompt again -- which isn't a
problem the first time, but might be if you have to replay that
section for some reason -- and in other cases, you set off a scene
merely by walking into a room. And in a few cases, though your action
does trigger the advance in the plot, the connection feels a bit
strained -- and it's those cases where what's required of you is
particularly hard to guess. Ariel changes shape now and again, as the
play dictates, but the way you prompt them -- when you do; sometimes
it just happens -- feels random and impossible to guess.  Though these
problems speak to the difficulty of the project, it is undeniable that
Tempest is not, for all its charm, a particularly playable game.

Even so, I enjoyed the experience -- though, I must say, I enjoy
Shakespeare as a whole, and being thrust into the middle of the play
was entertainment enough for me. Simply having a setting to match and
make sense of the action was in many cases helpful and illuminating --
it made sense of the plot in a way that Shakespeare's stage directions
sometimes do not -- and the cut scenes that happen in response to
certain actions give the player a sense of how the story
progresses. And even though there is a feeling of being distinct from
the play, in that the prompts only come when the action stops and you
have to restart it, that does reinforce the sense that you're
controlling the events on the island and the various characters are,
in a sense, puppets. Of course, your ability to manipulate them is
severely limited by the plot of the play; there isn't much real
freedom to test your power. But the sensation is interesting all the
same.  I found the "performance" genuinely involving in a way that
simply reading the text could not reproduce. The sequence of events is
variable, to some extent -- certain scenes can be triggered at
different times -- but never, as far as I can tell, can you delay or
speed up an event in a way that doesn't make sense. And whatever the
other faults of Tempest, it must be conceeded that Nelson's
Elizabethan is outstanding; even the most mundane responses are
written convincingly.

The difficulty remains -- how to rate this? Though the gameplay
limitations of Tempest are considerable, they are there for a valid
reason, not simply inadequate coding -- and, as such, I decided they
shouldn't count too heavily aganist the game. Though it doesn't "work"
especially well, the concept as put into practice works about as well
as it could, and the author should get some credit for a worthy
effort. I gave it a 7 on the competition scale, and think that a few
minor changes -- like the addition of a hint system, ideally in
Elizabethan -- could make this one highly enjoyable.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: The Tempest
AUTHOR: Graham Nelson
E-MAIL: graham SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: Inform standard, significantly adapted
SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters
VERSION: Release 3 (1997 competition release)

    "Yet look, how far
    The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
    In underprizing it, so far this shadow
    Doth limp behind the substance." 
                         -- William Shakespeare
                     The Merchant of Venice III.ii.126-129

The Tempest attempts a great deal, and achieves much of it despite
being somewhat flawed. The work presents itself not as a game, but as
an "interactive performance" which asks the player to perform as the
magical will of Shakespeare's Prospero, guiding the spirit Ariel
(a.k.a. the parser) through the plot of The Tempest (the play), though
not necessarily in the order in which Shakespeare wrote
it. Remarkably, this complicated positioning of subjectivity works
quite well (and opens some unexplored territory for the mixing of
first, second, and third person forms of address in IF). It is blended
with a new approach to dialogue which prevents the player character
from speaking at all but presents many screenfuls of dialogue between
other characters (and sometimes including Ariel himself), the
exchanges broken up by pausing for keystrokes between each character's
lines. In a sense, the player's commands to the parser become
essentially stage directions issued to an onstage persona via a
magical conduit. This idiom also works beautifully, bestowing the game
with a powerful aura of theatrical performance. The Tempest is
entertaining and innovative; it often feels quite magical to inhabit
the Prospero/Ariel connection, and to take part in a groundbreaking
interactive experience. I think that the game also has great potential
as an educational tool, allowing readers to experience Shakespeare's
language in a new and thrilling way.

All this being said, however, the Tempest is not without its problems.
Actually, perhaps the game just has one major problem which manifests
itself in several ways. Although the game does an excellent (sometimes
astonishing) job of rearranging Shakespeare's scenes and lines to fit
the interactive mode, the fit is not perfect. Several times during the
game I felt faced with responses which, if not complete non sequiturs,
were certainly only tenuously connected to the command I had
typed. Tempest wrenches in bits and pieces of dialogue from all over
the play for various purposes, pressing them into service as room
descriptions, parser rejoinders, and other sundry purposes. Sometimes
they are perfectly suited to their purpose and sometimes less so. When
I was on the wrong end of this continuum, my relationship with the
game became strained -- the parser's responses were beautiful, but
didn't make enough sense, and not because of any opacity in the
Elizabethan English. This situation creates a problem with the game's
puzzles: usually interactive fiction prose can be written in such a
way as to suggest subtle hints to the problems facing the
player. However, when control of the prose escapes the author, those
hints become harder and harder for a player to come by. It is to this
difficulty with the prose (and, of course, to the lack of any hint
system or walkthrough) that I ascribe the problems I've seen players
having, often with the very first puzzle of the game. With a typical
piece of IF, the game could simply tailor its responses to help the
player along -- the Tempest often achieves this goal, but all too
often it falls short.

Plot: I predict that a certain contingent of voices will raise the hue
and cry over what they perceive to be the Tempest's lack of
interactivity. I wasn't able to finish the game in two hours (far from
it, in fact -- I got only six points, another example of an excellent
competition game which breaks the two-hour rule), but the parts I saw
made it pretty clear that the game leads you along rather carefully
from one plot point to the next, allowing for very little
branching. My own opinion is that this structure is not a problem --
after all, the piece bills itself as "more a 'performance' than a
'game'," and as such it's perfectly appropriate for the Tempest to
enforce a certain degree of rigidity to accommodate the exigencies of
its plot. In fact, what this achieves is the inclusion of a much more
complicated plot than is common in interactive fiction; by limiting
the player's ability to affect the narrative stream, the game allows
the complexity of Shakespeare's plotting to shine through even in this
challenging new form. I'm satisfied with the trade-off.

Prose: I suppose this is where I ought to weigh in on the debate over
the originality of a work like the IF version of the Tempest. It's my
opinion that the IF Tempest is absolutely a different piece of work
from the Tempest, the play. Yes, the author uses almost the entire
script of the play, but I would argue that such usage is not
plagiarism, because whatever Shakespeare's intentions, I think it's
safe to say that the play was not written to be adapted into
interactive form. Consequently, I don't see the IF Tempest as any less
an original work than Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility or, for
that matter, Shakespeare's MacBeth (whose plot was lifted from
Holinshed's histories.) Yes, the seams do sometimes show between the
author's additions and Shakespeare's text -- these are the work's
weaker moments. However, in judging the Tempest's prose, I judge not
the quality of Shakespeare's writing, but the quality of its usage in
its new medium -- on that basis, more often than not, it succeeds.

Puzzles: As noted above, this is where I identify the major weakness
of the Tempest. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I cite as an example the first puzzle
of the game, where Ariel must blow a storm to upset the boat and set
the plot into motion. The reason that players are finding this puzzle
so difficult is that it requires rather close knowledge of the play
(and not just of the play's first scene), which most players, even
very well educated ones, are not likely to have at their
fingertips. No hint is given of Ariel's powers or of his purpose in
regard to the ship. Now, in a typical IF game, there might be a
sentence or two in the introductory paragraph which introduces the
idea and sets players on their way. However, because of the
constraints imposed by using a collage of prewritten text, these hints
are unavailable and thus players flounder in a
"read-the-playwright/designer's-mind" sort of puzzle. It won't be the
last time.

writing -- The prose did an excellent job with handling a number of
difficult technical tasks with regard to writing and using Elizabethan

coding -- I found only one bug in Tempest (at least, I think it was a
bug), among a thoroughly reworked library of Inform responses and the
introduction of a number of excellent devices for the presentation of
dialogue and clarification of the plot.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: Unholy Grail
AUTHOR: Stuart Allen
E-MAIL: sallen SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: JACL standard
SUPPORTS: JACL interpreters
VERSION: 1997 competition release

Playing Unholy Grail puts me in mind of the old saw about the glass
being half-full or half-empty. For each positive I can think of, a
counterbalancing negative also comes to mind. While the prose creates
sharp, clear, atmospheric images, it is also burdened with numerous
grammar and spelling errors. While the game had an inventive plot,
this same plot was punctuated with moments of tediousness,
implausibility, and pure frustration. And while Grail is orders of
magnitude better than Allen's 1996 entry "The Curse of Eldor," it
still fails to realize both its own potential and that of its author.

Allen has accomplished a noteworthy programming achievement: he has
written his own IF engine, one which mimics much of the important
functionality of the current front-runners Inform and
TADS. Unfortunately, it still doesn't perform at the levels of either
of these popular "standard" IF engines, and suffers greatly by
comparison. Again, it's a yin and yang situation: a quality engine is
written from scratch, but it's still a poor competitor to the dominant
systems, marred by problems ranging from the complex (tortured
disambiguation) to the amazingly simple (an inexplicably arbitrary
pathname in the CONFIG file.)

Still, Unholy Grail was the first 1997 competition game I played, and
it wasn't an altogether inauspicious start. For one thing, it
represents remarkable progress on the part of the author. Unholy Grail
is not the fulfillment of Stuart Allen's promise, but it marks him as
one to watch.  With the improvements he's already made to his JACL
engine it seems entirely plausible that it could one day match the
quality of the current state of the art. Also, this game is one of the
few conceptually complete pieces of IF I've seen in the "thriller"
genre, a field which is in many ways well-suited to IF, but whose only
significant representative has been "Border Zone," a quality game but
one whose gimmick of real-time has often overshadowed discussion of
its generic groundbreaking. Unholy Grail was uneven; some things were
really very good, other things really not very good at all. I hope
it's a marker of better things to come.

Prose: I found the prose in Unholy Grail fairly difficult to read.
Sentences seemed to string endlessly, clause following clause until I
thought perhaps the author had asked Henry James to
ghost-write. However, I also think that the lack of a status line and
room name threw me out of my ingrained IF reading habits, the
disorientation of which probably contributed to my difficulty in
following the author's long narrative strands. Or it could just be my
own denseness -- that's always a possibility. Despite the game's
verbosity, though, strong images floated up to me out of the sea of
words. I have a very distinct picture in my mind of the swivel chair
and radar screen in the control room, of the battered hut whose
floorboards parted to show the ground below, and of the elegant,
elaborate hotel. The author clearly had done his homework, and was
able to create a very convincing picture of the character's
environment. I just had to read some of the sentences a few times
before I felt sure I knew what they were saying.

Plot: The most ringing endorsement of the plot I can give is this:
after the two-hour judging period had expired, and I was only 75%
through with the game, I spent another half-hour on it because I
*needed* to know how it ended. I found the plot difficult to get into
at first (see Puzzles), and needed to refer often to the science
encyclopedia so I could have a basic clue of what the game was talking
about, but once I understood, I was inexorably drawn in by the
skillfully dropped hints and slowly unfolding drama.

On the other hand (and there's always another hand when it comes to
Unholy Grail), I found some things in the plot pretty difficult to
believe. Small points like the layout of the complex were jarring:
would the military really have a female officer share a bathroom with
a male civilian?  Certainly the PC's name ("Alex") is gendered
ambiguously, but imagining the character as a male (as I did) drains
the layout of some believability. Also, some larger points (such as
the Rotenone) seemed only to serve as red herrings, but created major
implausibilities in the plot: if I've determined that Rotenone is
causing the fish deaths, how can it be true that they're being caused
by something which in fact behaves entirely differently? For that
matter, if my basic science encyclopedia tells me that Rotenone causes
fish to drown, why do I blame it for cancer?

Puzzles: For the first hour I played the game, I was absolutely
stumped.  Finally, I resorted to the hint system and learned that
because an extra-long sentence in the room description of the lab, I
had neglected to examine the lab bench as closely as I ought. Once I
found the global positioner, I was off and running. Consequently, I
struggled with this game a lot more than its puzzles may have
merited. Most of the puzzles were fairly easy, when they didn't
involve guessing the verb (Can't turn the drum. Can't move the
drum. Can't push the drum. Can't pull the drum.  Can't look under the
drum. Oh, look *behind* the drum!), and some were quite satisfying
(especially the filing cabinet.) However, one puzzle was amazingly
tedious -- it basically involved typing "n" 20 times and "w" 20 times,
then doing the opposite. Here's where a "swim to" verb would have been
much appreciated!

writing -- In addition to the stylistic factors I mentioned in
"Prose", Unholy Grail was also plagued with grammar and spelling
errors.  Certainly there was some attention to proofreading, but one
or two more passes were needed.

coding -- Unfortunately this is where Grail stumbles the most. JACL
does a good job of imitating mainstream systems (especially Inform) in
many ways, but in other crucial areas it falls critically short. For
example, the system lacks an "oops" verb. Also, its disambiguation is
weak, a fact which caused a great deal of frustration for me as my
reasonable answers to its reasonable questions kept getting the
response "The sentence you typed was incomplete." The system also
overuses Graham Nelson's famous "You can't see any such thing,"
applying it to sentences whose nouns are examinable and manipulable in
other contexts. In addition to these general systemic problems, Grail
itself had a number of particular bugs which I've reported to the
author in a separate email.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: Poor Zefron's Almanac
AUTHORS: Carl Klutzke
E-MAIL: cklutzke SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: Version 1.0 (1997 competition release)

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

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

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

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

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

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

writing -- I found no technical errors in the writing.

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


From: Second April 

TITLE: Zero Sum Game
AUTHOR: Cody Sandifer
E-MAIL: sandifer SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standards
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

PLOT: Funny, innovative (1.6)   ATMOSPHERE: Cartoonish (1.3)
WRITING: Quite good (1.6)       GAMEPLAY: Weak in spots (1.3)
CHARACTERS: Very funny (1.7)   PUZZLES: Some bad choices (1.2)
MISC: Original concept, well executed (1.7)

In premise and execution, Cody Sandifer's Zero Sum Game is a genuinely
funny send-up of an adventure game (Pork, eat your heart out) and
perhaps the funniest work of IF since C.E. Forman MSTed
Detective. Your mission: you have completed an average hack-and-slash
adventure game, but when you come home, your mother sends you out to
undo everything you've done. The goal is therefore to lose all 75
points you have at the start of the game, by unslaying a dragon,
giving back treasures, and making good all your dirty deeds. That you
frequently have to do more dirty deeds along the way is, of course,
part of the humor.

Humorous enough as a concept, but there's more: you get a sidekick
named Maurice the Follower (when commanded to do something salacious:
"Maurice can't spring to your aid if he's busy doing that!") who
invariably refers to himself in the third person and provides running
commentary on everything in the game. And I mean everything:
periodically, Maurice exclaims "Oh boy! Look at the size of this [room
name]!", which has quite the effect when it comes along in the
location named Dirt Patch. Though Maurice is only minimally useful, it
is advised that the player keep him around as long as possible to hear
his various contributions. My personal favorite Maurice line, when
accompanied by a nasty character:

    Maurice claps.  "Hooray for goodness!  Down with evil!"
    Irritated, Darlene glances sharply in Maurice's direction.
    "Um," stumbles Maurice.  "Maurice is shutting up now."

The comedy in Zero Sum Game extends well beyond Maurice. (When you try
to give something to a dead character: "I bet you also loan money to
trees.")  The antiheroic "hero" character affords some humor in his or
her own right (the gender varies with yours, which you choose at the
beginning), stalking around killing everything in sight in a fashion
reminiscent of many a combat-based role-playing game. (And berating
his or her big toe for its interference.) There's even a sex scene of
sorts (or a series of them), played for laughs rather than thrills,
naturally. As with Mr.  Sandifer's most recent work, "Everybody Loves
a Parade," there are numerous particularized lines for ho-hum
commands, notably "kiss", whose generic response is "You're not
attracted to [character] in that secret special way" but which draws a
wide variety of funny lines in certain situations.

The glitches in Zero Sum Game mostly arise from the puzzles. For one
thing, there are many opportunities to make the game unfinishable,
many of them merely from doing things out of sequence; the player is
advised to save often, since many of the key developments are a bit
hard to foresee.  One puzzle can even be solved "wrong" -- you'll get
the points, but you won't be able to finish the game -- which is a bit
irritating. Even though the game is short enough that restarting it is
not a major hassle, the gameplay problems detract a bit from the
overall enjoyability. There are also numerous small illogicalities --
you steal an object and its owner doesn't notice, though he does if
you show up carrying it; you can't take an object from Maurice, even
if he follows you around slavishly; the superstrong hero can't break
an old rusty padlock. Logic is not a major factor in humorous games,
of course, but then again that's one of the drawbacks of humorous
games (witness Bureaucracy, one of the hardest games Infocom ever
produced simply because the puzzles all required Douglas Adams logic),
and Zero Sum Game suffers from that problem.

Small problems aside, this is certainly one of the best of this year's
competition, and without a doubt one of the most consistently
enjoyable; even with the gameplay problems, I still thought it merited
a 9.


From: "Paul O'Brian" 

NAME: Zero Sum Game
AUTHOR: Cody Sandifer
E-MAIL:  sandifer SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release)

Zero Sum Game (hereafter called "ZSG") is like the proverbial apple
which is shiny & enticing on the outside, but inside is rapidly
rotting away.  The game starts with a fun premise: You've won. You've
collected treasures and solved puzzles, and now (before the first move
of the game) you're bringing them home to your mother. Unfortunately,
she doesn't approve of theft and killing and other such goings on, and
orders you to go back and put right all the wrongs you've
committed. Thus the game's name: you try to bring your score down to
zero before your moves (5000 of them) run out.  This could have been a
fun romp of reverse thinking, or an interesting exploration of the
morality of the traditional stock adventurer character, or even
both. As it turns out, the game doesn't really succeed on either

The main problem that I had with ZSG is that it takes a much more
callous approach to cruelty (no, not Zarfian cruelty. Real
cruelty. [No offense, Andrew -- yours feels pretty real at the time.])
than I'm comfortable with. SPAG has a no-spoiler policy, so it's
difficult to provide concrete examples of this problematic
tendency. Suffice it to say that in order for the player to reach the
solution, several harmless and friendly creatures within the game must
be killed, sometimes in grotesque ways. These (and other) scenes make
it apparent that the author has not taken a thoughtful, mature
approach to the implications of his theme. That's OK -- not everything
has to be thoughtful and mature. But ZSG reached such a level of
cruelty that it wasn't much fun either. Dead bodies piled up in
proportions comparable to any hack-and-slash MUD, and even though
there's a resurrection spell in the game, you can't use it to revive
any of the dozens of dead elves and villagers, or any of the other
beings killed in the game (with one partial exception). The game's
ending provides the final barb. Without giving away too much, I'll
just say that it inflicts some arbitrary punishment on you, not as
penance for your crimes, but because you're a "mama's boy" (or girl,
as the case may be.)

To give it its due, ZSG does have a clever premise, a promising start,
and some good puzzles. Some of these puzzles have no particular moral
bent, but are cleverly designed. Others in fact do have the particular
ethical direction of reversing wrongs: you give the candy back to the
baby, for example. That's why it left such a bad taste in my mouth to
learn that other puzzles required coldly slaughtering your friends for
the sake of a few points. I learned this from the walkthrough -- I had
already thought of the "killing" solution to one puzzle, but couldn't
believe it was the right thing to do until I heard it from the author
himself. After that point, I detached from the game, using the
walkthrough to see the whole thing and make notes for this review. It
didn't get better. Zero Sum Game's gimmick is one that works best the
first time it is used -- too bad this game did such a poor job of
using it.

Prose: The prose in ZSG is actually pretty good. It's what enabled me
to become a little affectionate about Maurice and Chippy before I had
to slaughter them. Still, much like the rest of the game, the prose is
a good tool used for the wrong purpose. It's like a beginning
carpenter using the best quality wood -- the result may look pretty,
but it falls apart much too easily.

Plot: I think this is a game that doesn't know what it wants to be
about.  After the competition ended, the author posted to rgif that in
fact there was a "larger purpose" to the cruelty in ZSG, and that he
was trying to do a number of things, including explore 1st person
morality in IF, and to spoof the traditional treasure hunt in a funny,
absurd, and extreme way.  It's interesting to know this, and also to
know that for a number of people, the game worked. Still, maybe I'm
overly sensitive (or taking things too seriously), but it didn't work
for me. The game's arbitrary limits force brutal answers to trivial
problems -- not a very powerful exploration of the concepts the author
claims to have had in mind. The plot is a wandering mess, ending in a
big "piss off" to its player.  Unsatisfying and unpleasant.

Puzzles: The puzzles represented both the best and the worst things
about ZSG. On the one hand, the first couple of puzzles I solved (the
baby and the key) were really clever and interesting, and they raised
my expectations from the already high level achieved by the game's
premise.  Unfortunately, the excitement of these only intensified the
letdown of consulting the walkthrough and discovering what cold
solutions were required for the other puzzles. It's a pity that the
game didn't keep a consistent tone throughout -- I was much more
disappointed than I would have been had all the puzzles required nasty
measures to solve.

writing -- I only found one grammar error in the entire text, a
misplaced modifier.

coding -- The coding was relatively coherent, though there was one
major problem: the warning system was a complete failure. To test it,
I ate the candy, killed the merchant, and killed Maurice in the first
few turns of the game. No response. Other than that, I found no major


From: Paul O'Brian 

NAME: Zombie!
AUTHOR: Scott W. Starkey
E-MAIL: starkey SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: 1997 competition release

I love the beginning of Zombie!. In it, you play Valerie, a junior at
the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having
finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the
camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits
to the various characters squabbling over how to build a
campfire. Equally well- done is the terror of learning that there is
something awful lurking in those woods, and it's coming to get
you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed... and
then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role:
that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his
heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the
country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn't you know it?)
run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me
off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better
insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of
another, and vice versa for the character I played in the
prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a
dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person
form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this
time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the
first things you hear with Scott's ears is a scream -- it sounds like
Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods?

Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles
badly. For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the
relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it!
I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see
Scott's emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to
find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A
reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see
of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less
predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt
cheated. I wouldn't have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so
much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she
was just a throwaway character. Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is
far from Zombie!'s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code,
hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of
mechanical errors in the writing.

I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really
got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a
bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis
and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great
job of building that tension. It's a b-movie all the way, no deep or
serious issues here, but it's definitely got that suspenseful, creepy
feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony in
that phrase, so you needn't bother pointing it out.) The sound of
heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating
against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures
staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all
very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable
technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs
than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When
Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend.

Prose: The prose isn't beautiful by any means, and it often shows
signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does
achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice
pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing,
and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In
addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and
built the tension just right for entry into the game proper.

Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly,
with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the
early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The
kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the
haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main
disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on,
as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a
competition entry the author didn't have time to explore it. Also, as
I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd
considering that she never again showed up in the game. I also felt a
little frustrated by the ending. I don't want to give too much away,
except to say that it managed neither the triumphant feeling of
destroying evil nor the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat.

Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of
them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall
puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn
by now.  However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit
very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of
things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn't been plagued by bugs, its
puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the
narrative rather than obstructing it.

writing -- There were a significant number of mechanical errors in
Zombie!'s writing.

coding -- The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least
one round of intense playtesting before it's really ready for the
world at large.

SUBMISSION POLICY ----------------------------------------------------------

SPAG is a non-paying fanzine specializing in reviews of text adventure
games, a.k.a. Interactive Fiction. This includes the classic Infocom
games and similar games, but also some graphic adventures where the
primary player-game communication is text based.

Authors retain the rights to use their reviews in other contexts. We
accept submissions that have been previously published elsewhere,
although original reviews are preferred. At the moment, we are
reluctant to accept any more reviews of Infocom games (though
exceptions happen).

CLOSING REMARKS--------------------------------------------------------------

In his answer to one of the interview questions, Nate Cull states that
he thinks of the future of IF as "bleak, but hopeful." Well, I don't
really know about the bleak part, but considering the sheer number of
entries in the '97 competition, as well as the outstanding qualities
of at least some of them, there is certainly reason for hope. Keep up
the good work in 1998!


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