ISSUE #18 - September 15, 1999

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

                         ISSUE # 18

           Edited by Paul O'Brian (obrian SP@G
                      September 15, 1999

           SPAG Website:

SPAG #18 is copyright (c) 1999 by Paul O'Brian.
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. 

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

The Awakening
Golden Wombat of Destiny
Jewel of Knowledge
Mystery Science Theater Adventure #1 ("Detective")
Wearing the Claw


Interactive fiction has been a part of my life for over 15 years. It's
hard for me to believe it's been that long since my Dad brought home a
copy of Zork I for the brand-new disk drive of our sleek Atari 400, but
it's true. For me, just playing a game that didn't take a half-hour to
load from a cassette tape was pretty cool, but this new program that
understood what I typed, that challenged the agility of my mind rather
than of my fingers, and that transported me into a breathtaking new
imaginative vista... well that was downright *magical*.

From that time forward, Infocom games were the only computer games I
wanted. The most exciting thing about Christmases and birthdays was the
prospect of a new Infocom game. Infidel, Planetfall, Sorcerer, Suspect, 
Trinity -- I remember each one as an event. Back then, nothing could 
duplicate the thrill of thumbing through each nifty "feelie" and seeing 
that very first introductory screen of text. I was never all that good 
at them; I'd get irretrievably stuck at some point, sometimes for 
months (or even, in one case, years), and would have to find some 
friend or acquaintance for a hint, or worse yet, break down and buy a
hint book (which was that much less money to spend on the next game!).
I didn't care, because solving the puzzles was only a small part of the
pleasure of IF. For me, it was always more about that feeling of
immersion in a fictional world. That was my teenage addiction.

I fell away from it for a little while, during my college years. Infocom
had disappeared, and I couldn't work up much excitement about the games
remaining on computer store shelves. Fast-forward to 1993. I was in the
first year of a Master's program in English Lit., browsing in a computer
store when a familiar word caught my eye. The package said "Lost
Treasures of Infocom." I could barely believe it, but it seemed to be a 
packaging of *twenty* Infocom games for the same price I used to pay 
for *one*. Even that money was more than I should have been spending at
that dirt-poor student stage, but you see, I had no choice. My love of
IF, so long dormant, roared up once again, stronger than ever. Besides,
I rationalized, I was in the middle of a literary theory class, and
wouldn't it be cool to write my final paper on interactive fiction?

I bought it (both the rationalization and the game), wrote the paper,
found LTOI 2, and was back in IF bliss. Around that same time, I was
working a graveyard shift job in the university's dorms, long quiet
nights with just me and the lobby computer. Following my reawakened
interest, I looked through various Gophers (remember those?) for
information on interactive fiction. That's where I found some vague
hints about something called a "", a "USENET", and
most confusing of all, a "Curses." It took me a little while, but I
puzzled it all out, and figured out the most astonishing fact of all: IF
is not just an object of sweet nostalgia. It is *alive*!

I've been a part of the Internet IF community ever since, posting,
writing reviews, and even contributing a game of my own to the IF
archive. Around the same time I started reading the int-fiction
newsgroups, something else was just starting: a magazine called SPAG.
(Wondering when I'd finish talking about myself, weren't you?) Founded 
by Gerry Kevin "Whizzard" Wilson, SPAG's purpose was to review pieces 
of interactive fiction, both old and new, and by doing so to advance 
the cause of the modern text adventure. Whizzard helmed SPAG for over 
three years before handing it off to Magnus Olsson, winner of the 1995 
IF competition (TADS division) and frequent contributor to the IF
newsgroups. Now, as SPAG passes its fifth anniversary, Magnus has given
the reins to me.

I'm honored to be chosen, and grateful to my predecessors for making
SPAG an important voice in the IF community. I believe that SPAG's
reviews are valuable, and I'm pleased to be able to continue their
collection and dissemination. I'll do my best to keep SPAG a vital
and invigorating presence, and I believe that this issue is an
auspicious start on that goal. We've got reviews from a variety of
contributors, including looks at new games Jewel of Darkness and
Varicella, re-examination of some older pieces, and contributions
from articulate reviewers like okblacke and Duncan Stevens. In short,
I'm excited about the contents of this issue, and I hope you are too.
Thanks to everyone who has welcomed me into this position -- it's a
wonderful feeling when you know that the hobby of your past has a 
dazzling future too.

NEWS ------------------------------------------------------------------------

Normally this section will contain all the news I've collected since the
publication of the previous issue of SPAG. However, due to the editorial
shift, I haven't been collecting news this time around, so instead I'll
provide a Top Five list of interesting and exciting things currently
happening in the IF world. For the competitive among you, let me state
clearly that this list is in no particular order -- all news items are
equal to me!

Adam Atkinson, Graham Nelson, and Gunther Schmidl have combined their 
energies to help resuscitate some very old games. These games resided on
the central computer at Cambridge University, which was known as
"Phoenix," after its operating system. Schmidl sought and cleared rights
to the source code of these games, while Atkinson and Nelson worked on
testing the source code and creating a translator program which output
z-machine binaries from this code. So far, the fruit of their labor is
a trio of cave games by Jonathan R. Partington: Crobe, Fyleet, and The 
Quest for the Sangraal.

Andrew Plotkin is hard at work on the next generation of virtual
machine for interactive fiction. For his own always-arcane reasons, he
has chosen to call this machine "Glulx." The executable interpreter for 
this virtual machine is called "Glulxe", and work on an Inform-to-Glulx
compiler is proceeding apace. (A beta version is currently available for
early testing.) The products are a little rough at this point, but being 
refined at a rapid rate. The result will be a lifting of nearly every 
current limitation of the z-machine. 

With the competition nearly upon us, we prepare to be flooded with new
short games very soon. In the meantime, we enjoy a couple of recently
released longer games, Francesco Bova's "Jewel of Knowledge" and Adam
Cadre's "Varicella." One is a traditional cave crawl while the other is
a courtly intrigue. Both are reviewed in this issue. 

The summer IF Art show has come to a close. The show was a modest one,
with only two entrants, but both entries are worth attention. Also
rewarding are the reviews from the panel of judges, comprised of David
Dyte, David Lebling, Michael Gentry, Marnie Parker, and Mike Roberts.
The "Best of Show" award was given to "Statue", by David Clysdale. The
web site of the IF Art shows is

Cascade Mountain Publishing (the publishing venture owned by former
Implementor Mike Berlyn) is preparing to publish a printed version of
Graham Nelson's Inform manual. Graham is hard at work on the revised
edition of this book, which will include lots of new sections,
exercises, and updated coverage of the latest library and features.
These manuals will be sold at cost, so only a limited number will be 
printed. To reserve your copy, email mberlyn SP@G Be
sure to put "Inform Manual" as the subject of your message. 

Finally, I'd like to finish this section with another list. The SPAG 
"10 Most Wanted" list will name ten games which have not yet been 
reviewed in SPAG, but which richly deserve to be. I plan to make it a 
regular feature of the SPAG news section. Once again, this is not a 
ranked list; all reviews are desired equally. In addition, I welcome 
suggestions for games that ought to be on this list (or better yet,
reviews of those games!)

1.  BSE
2.  Crobe
3.  Deadline
4.  Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I.
5.  Frobozz Magic Support
6.  Fyleet
7.  I-0
8.  Lost New York
9.  Quest for the Sangraal
10. Spiritwrak

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

Consider the following review header:

NAME: Cutthroats
AUTHOR: Infocom
EMAIL: ???
DATE: September 1984
PARSER: Infocom Standard
SUPPORTS: Z-code (Infocom/Inform) interpreters
URL: Not available.

When submitting reviews:  Try to fill in as much of this info as you can.
If you choose, you may also provide scores for the games you review, as 
explained in the SPAG FAQ. 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:
 and at

REVIEWS ----------------------------------------------------------------

From: Duncan Stevens 

TITLE: Aisle
AUTHOR: Sam Barlow
E-MAIL: sam.barlow SP@G
DATE: 1998
PARSER: Inform standard, with some additions
SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

Sam Barlow's Aisle is without a doubt one of the most unusual works to hit
the IF community in quite some time. In no sense is it a game; trying to
"win" it is futile, and the suboptimal outcomes aren't bad choices to be
avoided as such. Rather, the point is to explore the central character and
take a look at the various possibilities available to him from one point
in time. That said, however, it's not clear that Aisle is an entirely
successful experiment. 

The premise is simple: the game has one move, and it "ends" after that
move and automatically sends you back to your original position. By
interacting with what's around you -- and by incorporating knowledge 
gained thereby into future moves -- you learn about your own character and
make sense of his various neuroses, fears, and hangups (to some degree, 
anyway). In the process, you get a sense -- at least, I did -- that your
character, in this one move, is at a crossroads of sorts (or, at least,
that the moment can mark a turning point, a change, if treated that way),
and you take a look at where various paths might lead. In a sense, it's IF
compressed -- while most good IF lets the player decide how a story will
come out, to some extent, but draws that input out over several dozen or
hundred moves, Aisle limits the input to one turn and tells the rest of
the story for you. This structure allows the author to greatly multiply
the range of options available, of course.

In practice, however, Aisle can be thoroughly confusing--in part because
the author both lets the player discover the PC's past and gives the PC
multiple pasts to discover. The player might therefore initially assume
that the key to understanding the player is piecing together his
memories -- but there are too many memories that are inconsistent, 
incapable of fitting together, to do that successfully. As a result, it's 
difficult to make sense of what the PC does in the present, given that he 
has multiple pasts which might or might not explain his actions, and the
character splinters into several parts, Sybil-like. The command "think
about" or "remember" gives the player access to the PC's past, which is
handy -- but the significance of the events recalled is largely a matter 
of interpretation.

Though this may be a product of the assumptions built into most IF (i.e.,
polite conversations are rare), it also seemed that most of the PC's
options at this moment in time are profoundly antisocial; many involve
violence, many of the other options are simply bizarre, and your character
often treats apparently normal conversational gambits as an excuse to act
psychotic. All this has its place, of course -- the PC is supposed to be
unhappy and under stress -- but it does make Aisle a bit tedious after a
while, when the options for civilized behavior run out.

On the other hand, many of Aisle's outcomes are quite effective on an
emotional level, product of antisocial behavior or not; there is a strong
sense in many of the scenarios that the PC doesn't really know why he does
what he does. (Which, of course, puts him in the same boat as the player.)
Whether intended this way or not, it's an intriguing take on the player-PC
relationship in works of IF, since the player is free to tell the PC to do
irrational, bizarre, or suicidal things -- but here the consequences of
those irrational actions, and their effect on the PC, are played out again
and again. Thus, as unattractive as the PC occasionally seems, it's hard
to entirely lose one's sympathies for him. Since most of the story
revolves around the PC's emotions, the player's reaction to the PC
determines her reaction to the story as a whole, however -- and it should
also be noted that the repetitive nature of the game, and the sameness of
most of the outcomes, may tax the patience of the player and erode her
sympathy for the hapless antisocial PC.

The writing, on the whole, is strong -- memories come back to the PC in
jumbled, scattered fragments that force the player to cobble together the
story (or one of the stories), and the fragments -- a pasta meal, a 
waiter, an accident -- are vividly rendered, with striking images to carry 
them along. (It would spoil the game, however, to reveal what the images 
are.) The technical aspect, though obviously very simplified, is likewise 
well done; most actions, logical and illogical, are provided for, and 
those that aren't generally are omitted for a good reason.

It's difficult to say, in the final analysis, what Aisle is setting out to
do. If the point was simply to experiment with the classical IF form, this
was clearly a successful effort. But the introspective nature of the game
leads one to believe that the point is to portray a character and paint
his emotional portrait, and the effectiveness of that aim turns on the
player's reaction. For those who don't care for the PC or for his
behavior, Aisle gets old fast, and there isn't much flexibility for the
player to try to send the PC in different directions or otherwise change
his ways. The lack of any sort of cathartic finale also means that the
story always feels incomplete: the player is likely to try a series of
options, eventually conclude there is nothing more to see, and quit, with
no particularly resonant ending to make the whole thing more emotionally

Aisle is an interesting idea that has its moments, and it's worth a look
for anyone interested in the theory of IF. Its effectiveness depends on
whether it makes an emotional impact, however, and without such an impact,
it's a dreary experience at best. 


From: Duncan Stevens 

TITLE: Anchorhead
AUTHOR: Michael Gentry
E-MAIL: edromia SP@G
DATE: 1998
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters
VERSION: Release 5

There's a certain skill to writing horror fiction: the author has to know
how to build suspense in such a way that the story is interesting
throughout. The challenge is doubled for IF, since the author cannot
control the pacing in the same way as a static fiction writer can -- and 
the puzzles need to be forgiving enough that the player doesn't bog down 
in a particularly difficult one and lose the rhythm of the story. Michael
Gentry's Anchorhead is very good horror IF; the author has a nice feel for
the challenges posed by the genre, and the game is consistently both scary
and playable, no small feat.

Among the challenges is, of course, making the game feel fresh.
Lovecraftian horror is a fairly well-explored IF genre -- between 
Infocom's Lurking Horror, Brendan Wyber's Theatre, Dennis Matheson's 
Awakening, and Anchorhead, Lovecraft seems to have quite a few imitators. 
(Most or all of whom, incidentally, write better than he did.) The trodden
nature of this particular ground means that the seasoned IF veteran needs 
more than unnameable horrors and unspeakable rituals to stay interested in 
a game that borrows from Lovecraft. But Anchorhead is up to the job: the 
story is more than good enough to overcome the familiarity of the horror 
devices. Part of the reason is that the story revolves around the 
relationship between the PC and her husband, which comes alive as much as 
any relationship between two IF characters in memory -- and much of the 
progress of the story is marked by changes in that relationship.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The story is that your husband has
inherited a family home in the New England town of Anchorhead, and picked
up a full professorship at the local university, so you and he are moving
in. You don't know much about his family -- in fact, when the story 
begins, you don't even know the family name (of this branch, at least) -- 
and much of the first half of the game is spent wandering around gleaning 
details. It's to the game's credit that you do have to glean the 
details -- as in, progress is cut off until you've actually found certain 
bits of information and made use of them in certain obvious ways. 
Knowledge from prior games, in other words, isn't enough. This makes 
particular sense given the genre: a Lovecraft fan might well skip straight 
to the conclusion and cut out the information-gathering, which would throw 
off the pacing of the story's buildup (and make later events rather 
confusing for someone who hadn't bothered to collect the evidence). And 
for those of us who don't know intuitively where the story is heading, the 
various details heighten the creepiness factor considerably. To be sure, 
there are improbabilities and coincidences, but such things are inherent 
in the Lovecraftian universe -- and given the assumptions of the genre, 
nothing in Anchorhead strains disbelief unnecessarily. 

The game is divided into three days, but time passes only when certain
puzzles are solved; you are only on the clock at a few select times (and,
even then, the timing isn't all that tight). The pacing is therefore
fairly leisurely for the bulk of the game, which takes away the scare
factor inherent in time limits. In light of that, the author has to ensure
that the story does, in fact, move along when the threat of imminent death
isn't forcing it to move along -- and he succeeds, mostly; few of the
puzzles should detain the player long enough that she forgets what had
been going on in the story before she started on the puzzle. From the
author's notes, this appears to be a conscious choice, and it's a wise
one; repeating the same scene dozens of times doesn't serve any sort of
story well, but it's particularly damaging for horror, since there's
little shock value in a gruesome death when you're reading it for the
twentieth time. As it is, there are only a few scenes where the player is
likely to have to replay several times, and the more recent releases have
streamlined those as well -- particularly one involving a certain asylum.
(Anchorhead is much better in this respect than Lurking Horror, which had
some very difficult puzzles and several ostensibly scary sequences that
most players probably end up playing through multiple times.)

Anchorhead is a _very_ large game -- not so much in the amount of area
covered, but in the length and complexity of the story, the amount of
items you encounter and use in one way or another, and the potential
different paths through the game. Very few of the game's items are
artificially cut off from each other to save the bother of coding their
interaction, moreover, meaning that the combinatorial explosion factor
must have been considerable. In light of that, the technical aspect of
Anchorhead is impressive indeed (there's a reason why this was the first
Inform data file to exceed half a meg in its compiled form). There were
some bugs from the first few releases, but they've largely been cleaned
up. One of the nicest things about Anchorhead, moreover, is its
player-friendly nature: you have a rucksack-like trenchcoat that can carry
just about everything in the game, but the game does all the item-juggling
for you when you try to pick up something you don't have room for in your
hands. Better still, the umpteen locked doors and keys to those doors that
you encounter along the way are handled automatically, through a keyring:
type UNLOCK DOOR before one of the locked doors, and the game will
automatically flip through the keyring and try all the keys. Without this
innovation, trying to keep track of which key opens which door would be a
puzzle in itself; with it, the player is free to pass through the doors
without giving them a second thought. A game as complex as Anchorhead is
clearly the product of considerable attention to detail.

The best thing about Anchorhead, however, is the writing, which is itself
the product of some very careful choices. Horror writing can easily lose
its force over the course of a story; the author has to strain to come up
with fresh grotesqueries that shock or terrify in new and different ways.
There's no formula for avoiding repetition in such writing, but somehow
Anchorhead manages -- to the end, I never had a sense of deja vu when
reading about my latest gory death. The author also exercises enough
restraint to avoid slipping into self-parody, another pitfall of horror
writing -- every sight and smell is not, in fact, pronounced the most
horrible sight you've ever witnessed or the foulest stench you've ever
smelled. Vital on this point is that the author avoids injecting the PC's
emotions into the story almost completely; when you're not told that
you're terrified out of your wits at every moment (and can infer such
things when you care to), the story avoids excessive repetition. Nor, in
fact, are you told, with a few exceptions, how you react to your various
experiences -- no "you scream in terror" or "you gasp in horror" or
equivalents. The emotional reactions are left to the player.

Those are some of the things Anchorhead doesn't do that win it points in
my book, but the things it does do are just as good. This game won the
1998 XYZZY for Best Setting, and the award is well-deserved: the
atmosphere is skillful, particularly in the early scenes: the author
conveys a feeling of general gloom and decay without crossing the line
into horror prematurely, and without laying on the foreboding and unease
stuff too thickly. This is one of the better passages:

Pallid gray light trickles in through the drawn blinds. The office is
deserted, papers still scattered across the top of the desk. The front
door lies west, and the file room lies east.

Sitting on the corner of the paper-strewn desk are a telephone and an
answering machine.

Someone seems to have left a cup of coffee sitting out, half-finished and

With just a few details -- the "pallid gray light", the unfinished cup of
coffee -- the author sets a subtly disturbing scene; not everything gets a
description filled with ominous portents (there is nothing to suggest that
the desk was abandoned in haste or any such thing, which might tempt a
lesser writer). It is inevitable, given the nature of the materials, that
things get a bit over the top now and again, but that's the exception
rather than the rule here. 

Are there flaws in Anchorhead? Yes, but they don't detract much from the
story -- and recent releases have cleaned them up. There's a sequence 
toward the end of the third day with no time limit (after a chase of sorts 
had already happened) in which the player doesn't really have much 
direction in figuring out what to do next, and it's possible to wander 
around aimlessly for quite a while, trying to figure how where to go, and 
lose the feel of the story. Some points are awarded for nonessential 
things, which might leave the player wondering what she's missed when she
completes the game with less than a perfect score. The one puzzle that
struck me as potentially frustrating involved an NPC who would give the PC
an object, given the proper prompting -- but it's not necessarily obvious
how to prompt him, and it's easy to get on the wrong track.

Still, these problems are insignificant given the scope of the game, and
most things about Anchorhead work more than well enough to keep the player
involved throughout. It's an impressively coded, impeccably written work,
one of the best in recent memory.


FROM: okblacke SP@G

NAME: The Awakening
AUTHOR: Dennis Matheson
EMAIL: Dennis.Matheson SP@G 
(I pulled this off of Deja News. The E-mail listed in SPAG#15 may be
better. Dennis_Matheson SP@G
DATE: July 1998
PARSER: Inform
VERSION: Release 1

"The Awakening" is a short-short horror with a clear and admitted
homage to H. P. Lovecraft (HPL), complete with elements lifted directly
from "The Outsider" and other of that seminal author's works. It's a
"first game", too, and taken as such, it's certainly not bad.

But the game can be seen to illustrate some of the larger issues that
arise when trying to bring the feel of HPL to IF. On the good side, a
lack of dialogue and human interaction (which HPL felt to be
antithetical to the atmosphere he was trying to create) makes
sidestepping classic IF NPC issues easier. On the bad side, the
kleptomaniacal, Wile-E.-Coyote-esque aspect of the adventurer doesn't
mix well with lurking horrors.

In other words, running around with ladders and being chased by dogs
present me with comic images--made even more comic by the fact that I
knew from the start (as any reader of HPL would) the secret behind the
"purple tablecloth".

I know the writing worked for a lot of people, but I'm still scratching
my head over "storm tossed sky" (not to mention the Zork-esque "storm
tossed branches"), concaphony, and the "iron-barred fence" in the
initial descriptions. (A fence barred by iron? A fence made of iron
bars?) Not to mention prose peppered with "seems".  (I'll assume that
the adjective-heavy segments in the beginning of the game are an homage
to HPL.) 

Some of the weather effects didn't quite make it for me, either. The
frequency of the intermittent hailstorms drew my attention to the fact
that I was being fed random weather effects.

There was some satisfaction in solving the puzzles, although there is
an instant death puzzle at the end (which you can avoid by talking to
an NPC).  They mostly made sense and some effort was made to avoid
having the player get into unwinnable state. (Though the hint system
actually encourages the hapless user to get into an unwinnable state,
if he's trying to minimize his use of it.)

The arrangement of hints is poor: I'd say half the hints are worthless,
and they detract from any sense of atmosphere, even ending with "That's
All Folks" when they have been exhausted.

There are a number of out-of-place messages, some from the Inform
standard library (like "Violence isn't the answer to this one.") and
one gets the idea that the author hasn't quite patched up all the
holes.  You can, for example, tie a rope to the limb of the tree, only
to receive the message "The broken limb isn't attached to anything"
when you try to "untie limb".

This is a somewhat harsh review but, as I point out, the game isn't bad.
There are some nice atmospheric touches and the author shows more care
with the story than one might expect from such a small game. Nonetheless,
a game (however short) that is dependent so heavily on atmosphere needs
to take impeccable care with the details or risk losing his audience
before they get to the "frisson".

Plot: 1.2
Atmosphere: 0.8
Writing: 1.2
Gameplay: 0.9
Characters: 1.0
Puzzles: 1.0
Overall: 1.3


FROM: okblacke SP@G

NAME: Detective
AUTHOR: Matt Barringer
EMAIL: Unknown
(He probably doesn't want any mail about this anymore anyway.)
DATE: 1993
PARSER: Inform
VERSION: Stuart Moore's Inform Port of an AGT classic!

Have you ever had the experience of seeing a movie or reading a book only
after a hundred people told you how good or how bad it was? The actual
work almost never lives up to your expectations.  So it is with
"Detective" which is probably the "Plan 9 From Outer Space" of IF. (It's
not the worst piece of IF ever written by a long-shot but it may be the
most infamous.)

I'm not entirely sure of the history of the game, beyond the author
uploading it to a BBS and things getting out of hand from there, but if
I'm not mistaken there are two ports of the original AGT game and two MST
versions. That may be some kind of record for a game held in such loving
low esteem.

I hadn't ever played it, so when I saw that Stuart Moore had created an
Inform version, I thought I'd take the time to play this and the so-called
MSTied version. Truth is, it's not that bad. It's not any kind of good,
either, because it's basically a puzzle-less IF piece without solid,
compelling writing to sustain it. Enough has been said about the program's
various faults (the lack of a proofreading, instant death, one way doors,
incidents built into room descriptions, near complete non-interactivity,
no story development beyond the original idea, incoherency and so on) that
the game could serve as a model on how not to write IF. 

I won't embellish on the game's faults here except to say that, having
known what to expect, I can't really share in the frustration that players
of the original AGT version must have experienced if they were looking for
a game.

It's short, arbitrary and pointless, but it *is* short! It may even be
historical. (Can you count yourself a true IF afficionado if you don't
know of this game?) It's also sincere in its way.  If you look at other
bad IF, you often find a cynicism, rampant insults to the player, and
sleazy bad humor. It's clear that the author's intentions are good.

Rating is somewhat problematic because (as outlined by Whizzard) the
ratings system deals with "attempts" and "effort" and I believe the
attempts and effort were there, just not successful. Nonetheless, I can't
really give a high score for "trying" except to bump up the "overall"
category somewhat.

Plot: 0.1
Atmosphere: 0.0
Writing: 0.1
Gameplay: 0.0
Characters: 0.1
Puzzles: 0.0
Overall: 0.5


From: Duncan Stevens 

TITLE: Golden Wombat of Destiny
AUTHOR: Huw Collingbourne
E-MAIL: huwcol SP@G
DATE: 1989
PARSER: Home-brewed, but adequate

The IF Archive is filled with no end of strange stuff, and Golden Wombat
of Destiny is one of the strangest. The author is Welsh, I believe; I
don't know the circumstances that led to writing this game, nor precisely
what language it's written in. But while it isn't up to the technical
standards of IF produced now, it's fun in its own quirky way.

It seems you're looking for a lost city in the middle of a mangrove swamp,
drawn on by vague talk of a mighty civilization destroyed by a plague, a
nameless horror, wonderful treasures, and a Book of Knowledge. The swamp
serves as a maze of sorts, not at all a highlight; as you have no objects
to map with, the approach of choice seems to be wandering around randomly.
The game does note your footprints in the mud, but that's your only
guidance. Eventually, you stumble on the city, the game proper begins, and
you save the game and never bother with the mangrove swamp again. A
peculiar design choice, admittedly, and a harbinger of some equally
peculiar choices. Once inside the city, you stumble across a giant
termite, a skull guarded by an ant, a Room of Lesser Hallucination, a
Death Ray Room -- and it gets odder from there.

The puzzles are difficult, often unfairly so -- one requires some
Shakespeare knowledge, another requires a realization that two machines on
opposite sides of the city are linked somehow, and most require startling
leaps of logic. The walkthrough in the solutions directory on GMD is
handy. On the other hand, there is a certain elegance to a few of the
puzzles -- at one point, careful study of the geography of the city is
rewarded. And the parser, for the most part, is good enough to recognize a
variety of syntaxes, so "guess-the-verb" is never an issue. For a homemade
parser, Golden Wombat's is fairly effective -- full sentences are handled
well (though not pronouns or undo, irritatingly), and there are no
disambiguation problems that I encountered. And the writing, while hardly
flowery, is competent -- important events are thoroughly described, while
ordinary rooms are simply treated as ordinary. (At one initially confusing
moment, you actually encounter the nameless horror mentioned above --
rendered as "             ".)

As indicated, "quirky" is the name of the game here. Particularly
memorable is a funnel buried in the ground (examining it yields "It is
extraordinarily funnel-shaped"); when the proper object is deposited in
the funnel, you get this:

there is a noise of ancient machinery which has become activated somewhere
under the ground beneath you...After a few moments, there is a curious
rustling sound amongst the vegetation nearby and a tiny sign unexpectedly
pops up just behind the funnel. It says: "Thankyou [sic] for your
generosity; "You have given that a wombat "May romp again in peace..."
There is the sound of tuneless music somewhat like the British National
Anthem being played on a didgery-do on a warped cassette buried in the
ground. You stand to attention and salute.

The upshot of the scene is that a hamster appears -- "looking very bemused
and sad - the way that homeless hamsters usually do." A little of this
sort of thing alerts the player that this game is not played by your
ordinary logical rules. Most of the game is cute, but a good deal of it is
just downright peculiar.

The plot, despite the rather cursory background given at the beginning, is
reasonably well developed, though some things remain unexplained. Central
to the story is an empress imprisoned (after a fashion) in the city, whom
you endeavor to free--but the consequences upon freeing her are rather
surprising, and the ending is a real shocker: just when the player thinks
he understands where the game is going, or has gone, the ending pulls the
rug out from under him. (The original Zarfian ending, in a sense.) Though
most of the story does ultimately hang together, many of the connections
are left to be filled in rather than dutifully supplied. The effect is
initially frustrating, but it actually fits the enigmatic feel of the game
rather well.

Golden Wombat of Destiny is obviously nothing like any IF produced
recently; it's very much a product of the early days of freeware and
shareware, when home-brewed parsers were common and cooperation among
authors to develop and test games was sporadic (at least, as compared to
today). But it's no less creative for all that, and it's offbeat fun, for
the most part, with a thoroughly surprising finale. Though best played
with a walkthrough at hand, it's certainly one of the more intriguing
denizens of the IF archive.


From: Duncan Stevens 

TITLE: Jewel of Knowledge
AUTHOR: Francesco Bova
E-MAIL: fbova SP@G
DATE: 1999
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

Is the truest/highest purpose of IF entertainment, or art, or a fusion of
the two? Is a game that provides an enjoyable playing experience as worthy
as one that questions the nature of the form, or slyly sends up cliches or
assumptions about its genre? Should the IF community turn up its nose at
games that aspire to be nothing more than a collection of puzzles, bound
by a tried-and-true plot?

Francesco Bova's recently released Jewel of Knowledge does not pose these
questions, technically, but playing through it does bring to mind some
issues at the very core of IF--because, in its essense, Jewel of Knowledge
is a puzzle-fest dungeon crawl in the tradition of Colossal Cave, Zork,
and other foundational works of IF. To be sure, it gives the player
considerably more backstory than most of the seminal dungeon-crawl works,
and your motivations are considerably more developed. But what really
works here is what made the canonical dungeon crawls work, namely good
puzzles and a well-described setting; the moments where the author tries
to question the assumptions of those traditional dungeon crawls are far
less effective.

Let me be clear, though: there are many intriguing innovations in Jewel of
Knowledge that may well catch a Zork veteran off guard. Particularly
notable is the opening sequence, which makes the backstory/prologue of the
game interactive and forces the player to pay attention to the story
rather than ignoring it and blithely jumping into the puzzles. While the
plot does not at first glance appear novel--defeat three dragons, obtain
the McGuffin of the title--the story follows a rather different path than
the fantasy-game aficionado might expect. Other mild surprises include a
maze that isn't what it appears to be and a false puzzle of sorts, an
obstacle that cannot be passed in the expected way. These are effective in
the context of the game because they keep the player guessing.

Moreover, many of the puzzles are genuinely creative. Particularly notable
is a cloak into which the player can insert other objects (the exact
physical process here is left vague); the cloak then assumes the
properties of those objects. The game doesn't do as much as it might with
the implications of this power--some of the stranger and more interesting
results are left sadly underdescribed. Still, it's an interesting idea
that gives rise to some unusual puzzles. The maze mentioned above is
clever as well and accommodates different solutions, in a sense, and other
puzzles turn on recognizing relationships between objects in ways that
reward careful reading.

It is obvious to anyone who has finished Jewel of Knowledge, however, that
the author had more on his mind when writing the game than coding original
puzzles and arranging them in a satisfying sequence. There are Weighty
Issues Afoot; progressively stronger hints develop them throughout the
game, such that the finale is a surprise only for the player who hasn't
been paying much attention at all. But while the game does a nice job of
developing the PC's character and fitting him into the story, the author
overdoes his theme--and what was presumably supposed to be a surprise
ending becomes painfully obvious. The loudly moralistic ending is
exacerbated by a guess-what-the-author's-thinking game for the optimal
ending; even if the player recognizes the action that would lead to the
suboptimal ending, she's likely to try it just to get a clue toward what
the author _really_ wants her to do. The trouble is partly that the point
isn't all that novel--Zork III made it much more subtly--and the
alternatives presented at the end are painted in such stark colors that it
doesn't actually say much to us. (Admittedly, it may be asking a lot to
expect a fantasy game to say anything of note, but a more nuanced set of
options might have helped.) 

There are similar problems with the writing. Parts of Jewel of Knowledge
are impressively well-written: the scenes, by and large, are set vividly
and economically, and the cave setting comes alive even for players who
have already seen thousands of cave settings. There is plenty of
geological detail (shades of Colossal Cave) that reduces the feeling that
the cave is just a generic setting for the author's House o' Puzzles. (The
geology even plays a part in some of the puzzles.) Other descriptions give
the setting some atmosphere, though on the whole there isn't much of that.
But there are also many awkwardly phrased moments, and, unsurprisingly,
many of them come along when the author is reminding us of his Themes.
This passage, from a conversation with your companion, is not entirely

"Of course, returning the Jewel to Amylya will provide us with a lifestyle
we could have only dreamed of," continues Jacob, "and the omniscience that
the Jewel brings would tempt any person."

Any person? Conversation isn't easy to write, but jarring moments like
these don't help. Likewise, in what is presumably supposed to be a
chilling moment, you discover the body of your companion:

Oh, the horror! Lying face down on the cold granite ledge is your former
colleague Ariana! Looking up through the shaft, you deduce that this must
have been the air pocket she fell through a few layers up.

The tone wobbles badly--any "horror" the player feels is minimized by the
ill-placed observation about the air pocket. On the other hand, in the
same scene, there is one particularly well-done line:

You feel a lump in your throat as you realise that your nimble friend
won't be around to experience the joy of your triumph as you bring home
the Jewel.

The author makes a rather surprising point here about the essential
selfishness of the PC--and while it's jarring to interrupt the player's
sympathy for Ariana, it does serve the purposes of the story. The writing
isn't world-class, in other words, but it's good enough to be worth paying
attention to--particularly in in the way it develops the protagonist's

Likewise, from a technical standpoint, Jewel of Knowledge is mostly
successful despite some rough spots. Some puzzles take more experimenting
with verbs and syntax than seems strictly necessary, and others take more
manipulation and searching of apparently insignificant scenery than one
would expect from the average player. (At one point, moreover, the author
seems to have unintentionally created a puzzle involving your escape from
a dream or reverie, since the required action is rather obscure.) But
there are very few bugs, and the design flaws don't significantly impede
the player's progress. There are well-done little bits here and there,
such as a warning system when the player is about to render the game
unwinnable, and a "practice" puzzle reminiscent of Edifice. 

Jewel of Knowledge is, in fact, well-crafted enough that the forced ending
is all the more disappointing--and yet it does manage to say something,
even if unwittingly, about the state of IF. It is not exactly a secret
that generic cave crawls focused entirely on gathering treasure are no
longer in fashion, but Jewel of Knowledge, it may fairly be said, goes out
of its way to avoid that label just a bit too much. No doubt this is the
product of envelope-pushing IF that have left the traditional fantasy
quests looking unimaginative, but it should still be possible to combine
the traditional fantasy game with a modicum of irony; that was, after all,
Zork III's approach. Perhaps more importantly, the split in personality
between the "game" side of Jewel of Knowledge, which is by and large well
done, and the "fiction" side, which is a worthy effort but needs some
help, leaves the whole thing feeling a bit schizophrenic.

My point, if I have one, is that not all IF needs to be dedicated to
pushing envelopes, erasing boundaries, overturning tropes. Certainly, it's
fun and a good idea to send up familiar settings or introduce fourth-wall
humor to show the player that you're hip to the latest trends. (Jewel of
Knowledge does do this in a few spots, and quite well at that.) But IF can
be perfectly serviceable as _entertainment_, hardly an illegitimate goal,
without beating the player over the head with a message about the
limitations or assumptions of the genre. Jewel of Knowledge feels like it
wants, in its heart of hearts, to be a Spider and Web, a Losing Your Grip,
a Photopia, and it just isn't up to the job.

There is plenty to like about Jewel of Knowledge; in most respects, it's a
worthy heir to the tradition of fantasy quests, and while it has some
problems, they don't detract from the game aspect much. Unfortunately, as
interactive fiction, the overall effect is best described as uneven.


FROM: Karen Tyers 

Jewel of Knowledge is the first offering by a promising new author,
Francesco Bova, and hopefully it won't be the last.  It is a
traditional dungeon crawl, so for you purists out there, it's ideal.
In my opinion (not worth much, but there you are), there are far too
few traditional text adventures being written nowadays, and I have to
confess I am not too sure that I like the way that interactive fiction
is heading.  I like to have puzzles to scratch my head over, and the
trend towards puzzleless games doesn't appeal to me at all.  You might
just as well write a book and be done with it.

There, now I'll get off my soapbox, and on with the game.  When you
start, you find yourself deep underground, obviously in the middle of
some quest or other, but with very little information on what you are
supposed to be doing.  This had me stumped at first, but you do have a
travelling companion (Jacob), and if you start talking to him about
various things, you will find the game soon opens up, and since poor
Jacob doesn't live very long, as usual in this type of game, you find
yourself alone and very much up the creek without a paddle!  I am not
giving away anything here by telling you this, since in order for the
game to start properly, unfortunately poor Jacob has to go and meet his

OK, so you're now even deeper underground, and you must start to wander
round the various tunnels and passageways in order to achieve your
object of finding this wondrous jewel which is reputed to give it's
owner unlimited knowledge and power.  I really don't want to say much
about the puzzles since it would give too much away, but there are lots
of things to do in a very small playing area.  What about that porous
wall that you can look through - can you get to the other side of it?
What about that shaft above the geyser - are you able to get up there?
What about the crack in the roof of one of the tunnels?  What about
that skeleton that seems to be hiding something?  The list goes on, and
you haven't even met the three dragons yet!  Is there any way of
getting in contact with the people who sent you on this foolhardy
mission in the first place?

These are just a few of the questions you will have to find the answers
to while playing this game.  There are many more of course, and I have
to say that although I got stuck in several places, none of the
problems were insoluble with a little thought, and a lot of lateral
thinking.  Just a word of warning, don't be too quick to be destructive
and violent - think about things.

When I finally got to the endgame and found the jewel, I was quite
relieved. I know from messages on the newsgroups that I subscribe to,
that several people didn't like the ending, but I have to say that I
found it to be a very refreshing change.  I won't say more than that,
as I don't want to spoil things, but I would be very interested to know
what other people think.

There are still one or two minor bugs in the game, but nothing that
will stop you completing it.  The author is aware of them, and they
should be cleaned up shortly.

I may be a little biased here, since I was involved in the
beta-testing, but I would thoroughly recommend this as a smashing
little game to while away a few hours.  I do hope the author continues
to write games like this, for those of us who still prefer a good old
'zorky' type of game.


FROM: okblacke SP@G

NAME: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Adventure 101 ("Detective")
AUTHOR: C.E. Forman, Gareth Rees, Graeme Cree, Stuart Moore ("Detective"
by Matt Barringer) 
EMAIL: various 
DATE: This version, 1998 
PARSER: Inform
VERSION: Stuart Moore's Inform Port of the original MST3K IF.

Having survived "Detective" relatively unscathed, I then went on to play
the MST3K version of the game. As a rule, if someone is poking fun at
someone else's work, I tend to be more critical and keep a sharper eye out
for errors than otherwise, and right off the bat I noticed a few errors in
the game. 

For example, the game has "role call" instead "roll call". Some of the
initial jokes don't display any greater creativity than the source
material. Also, the printing of the complete opening song from the MST3K
TV show is probably a copyright violation. After the initial scenes,
however, it's clear that the adaptation is more "good-natured ribbing"
than mean-spirited criticism, and it won me over.

You don't have to be a fan of the show "Mystery Science Theater 3000" or
of bad movies, but if you're not, a fair portion of the jokes will be lost
on you, and the introduction (which you can skip) may not make any sense
at all. Suffice to say that the text of the original game has been "spiced
up" with comments from characters (Mike Nelson and his two robots) who
watch as you play.

There is considerable creativity here, and the quality of the humor can
give you an appreciation for "Detective" that you may miss just playing it
"straight" (though I really think you should play it straight to begin
with). For example, I knew there were "one-way" doors in Detective, but I
never noticed them as the game was positively aggressive in telling me
which way I could go. Knowing how bad the game was, I never bothered to do
anything other than what the text was leading me to do.

But with the MST3K version, it becomes fun to open all the doors and see
what various deaths were planned. As they're all instant deaths, you can
just undo and go on playing along. Also things like trying to backtrack
and go in circles pays off when Mike and the 'bots riff on the "scenery"
not reflecting your most recent actions.  (At one point, you shoot a guy
and his body vanishes, but he's still in the room description.)

Personally, I think that any game, movie, or work of literature can be
given this sort of treatment.  (I've always wanted to see Mike and the
'bots do "Citizen Kane".)  But a game like "Detective" gets a new lease on
life from efforts like this, and reminds us how to laugh...and love
again*. (*A quote from the show and the interview of Matt Barringer by
C.E. Forman.)

To rate the game, I've used the adapted text wherever possible to
influence the ratings I gave detective. Since the MST3K version didn't add
any puzzles (an intriguing notion were someone to pick it up), I didn't
alter its score. Also, if you don't know the show, the atmosphere,
characters and plot will probably work less well, since the game relied
heavily on these known characters and spent little time explaining them.

Plot: 1.0
Atmosphere: 1.0
Writing: 1.5
Gameplay: 1.0
Characters: 1.0
Puzzles: 0.0
Overall: 1.5


From: Duncan Stevens 

TITLE: Varicella
AUTHOR: Adam Cadre
DATE: 1999
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters
VERSION: Release 1.00

Varicella, Adam Cadre's third game, has almost nothing in common with his
first two, I-0 and Photopia--which, in turn, have just as little in common
with each other. (One wonders how long Adam can go without producing IF
that bears any resemblance to anything he's already written.) "Almost" is
operative because Varicella does have a few things in common with Adam's
previous works. The writing is terrific, of course; this is one of the
best-written works of IF ever, bar none. Beyond that, though, such a
wealth of intelligence went into the designing of this game that, even
when the playing experience is unedifying, the player can only appreciate
the author's artwork.

The premise: you're Primo Varicella, the Palace Minister in the palace of
Piedmont, a small Italian city-state (and the product of a somewhat
reworked history, since the setting is modern enough to include telephones
and electronic surveillance). The king is dead, leaving a five-year-old
heir, you're bent on seizing power for yourself- -and you have no apparent
compunctions about how you get that power. Your primary tool for the
purpose is murder; for your purposes, evidently, your rivals are only out
of the way when they're dead. Fortunately, all your rivals for the throne
are as evil as you, so the player is unlikely to feel any qualms--and all
sorts of nasty stuff ensues.

Varicella is a black comedy, with the accent on "black"--mayhem and
self-aggrandizement are your character's primary objectives. It follows
the lead of last year's "Little Blue Men" in making the PC amoral, driven
by greed and unimpeded by sentimental things like compassion--but it
addresses a factor that Little Blue Men did not, namely the problem of
expecting the player to go along with the PC's objectives. All of the
rivals you bump off, or arrange to have bumped off, are profoundly evil;
most of them seem to enjoy abusing or exploiting those weaker than
themselves. (It is arguable whether you, the PC, are just as evil, but
certainly your enemies are unsavory folks.) The player can see Varicella
as a sort of avenging force, therefore, even if there are no signs that
Varicella actually feels that way or cares about the various evils
perpetrated by his enemies except insofar as they affect him personally.
It's a rationalization, but a useful one.

Varicella himself is one of the most intriguing PC's in memory, but also
one of the most frustrating. He is fastidious to the point of caricature;
the game regularly keeps you from touching or exploring things because the
character finds the idea "unseemly." In fact, "unseemly" is Varicella's
favorite word; he uses it as a sort of all-purpose denigration, and it
gets applied indiscriminately to actions like walking into a wall
inadvertently, lying on the floor, or dying messily. His tastes in
interior decoration are exacting, and he feels compelled to comment on the
furnishings of virtually every room in the palace--in fact, redecorating
seems to be among his main objectives in seizing the throne. The persona
that emerges is a sort of C-3PO gone Machiavellian, whose main concern in
seizing power is ensuring that there are no bloodstains on the carpets.
Varicella is an amusing invention, to be sure, but accomplishing his aims
while observing his scruples can be aggravating; the verb TELL is almost
never useful, as the game invariably returns "You're not about to divulge
your secrets to a hysterical female," or with some substitute for the
"hysterical female." In fact, though Varicella speaks in the beginning of
a "flawless plan," I had the impression that this sort of character would
ordinarily fuss over details and never actually dispose of anyone--and
that it's the player's intervention that makes him a murderer. If so, it's
a disturbing spin on the player-PC relationship.

Unfortunately, none of the other characters are nearly as vivid, and most,
with the exception of Miss Sierra, the cynical, clear-eyed prostitute, are
wearily familiar. There's the dissolute younger brother, the corrupt
priest, the ambitious War Minister, and others. To be sure, Adam gives
many of them backstories that put their behavior in context, but they
don't do much that could be considered surprising. Miss Sierra is the
exception, though; she has definite opinions on everything that goes on,
and the perspective that she affords on every aspect of the game is rather
disconcerting. (In fact, she seems to function as the author's
mouthpiece.) If there is a defect to Miss Sierra, it is that she speaks
cynically about everything and initially seems to care personally about
nothing, so that discovering something that does touch her personally
leaves one wondering why. (It seems, in other words, that she could
perfectly well shrug it off as typical of the depraved world she inhabits
and understands so well, and it's not clear why she reacts as strongly as
she does.) On the other hand, the point of Varicella is served just as
well without 10 exhaustively developed characters; the author does what he
sets out to do quite well with only a few.

Lots and lots goes on in Varicella, and the timing for your required
actions is very tight; ascertaining what you need to do requires several
games' worth of information-gathering, along with considerable logistical
planning so that you can time everything properly. Constant restarting
isn't my favorite mode of gameplay, but it's acceptable in Varicella
because the game is so short--with less than a hundred moves to replay,
starting from scratch isn't such a chore. (There's even an inside joke
toward the end of the game on this very subject: Varicella says to one of
his rivals, "None of us really has the luxury of going back and trying it
all over again until we get it right, now do we?" Varicella, of course,
has had that very luxury.) The other reason why repetition isn't as
irritating as it might be elsewhere is that, as mentioned, Adam is a hell
of a writer, and reading his prose is consistently enjoyable no matter how
often it goes by. Notable, but by no means atypical, is the following
passage in the prologue:

For if this letter you've just received is correct, just such a disease
has claimed the life of the King. This leaves the principality in the
hands of his son, Prince Charles. Prince Charles is five years old.
Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the
foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than

One can almost see the character rubbing his hands together (in a
fastidious sort of way, of course) at the prospect of snatching the
regency. The phrasing captures his personality nicely--"requiring the
services of a regent" is the sentence construction of a man who has spent
most of his life trying to phrase indelicate matters delicately. The
mock-serious tone of "you can think of no better candidate than yourself"
likewise implies that the narrator has spent lots of time thinking it
over, really, and is prepared to justify the conclusion to his superiors
as a Palace Minister must. The writing reflects Varicella's personality
throughout the game, and is almost invariably mordantly funny.

Playing through Varicella is quite an experience; as noted, the player
must devote himself to thoroughly unwholesome ends, sought for no
particularly good reason, which isn't necessarily such a pleasant
sensation. Beyond that, though, the game requires that you unearth all
sorts of unsavory details about your fellow aspirants to the regency--and
the nature of the things you learn is, by and large, unpleasant. Giving
the relevant players their comeuppance is superficially satisfying, but it
doesn't address or rectify the evils already done--and the ultimate ending
reflects that fact. In that sense, the game is thoroughly depressing;
there's such a remarkable concentration of evil in the game's world that
the walls practically drip with it. (In fact, in a sense, they do.) Yes,
it's fiction, but the story told is unremittingly bleak--part of the
game's message is that evil inevitably engenders more evil (and, moreover,
a purer and more monstrous evil). It's in the nature of IF that telling a
story of dirty deeds leaves the player feeling a bit soiled himself.
(Footnote: playing Varicella can also be a tad annoying for those who
don't share the author's views, particularly on matters religious: the
character who represents religion also emanates hypocrisy and cruelty, and
the mouthpiece mentioned above gets to excoriate all religious doctrines
as "sugary lies." Subtle.)

But Varicella is a well-told tale, and that it's depressing and unedifying
is a testament to how well it's put together; it arguably wouldn't serve
the author's purposes as well if it were simply malicious fun. The ending
pulls the player up short, forces her to reconsider what came before;
suddenly, there are consequences to casual cruelty. That point wouldn't
come across nearly as well if the player didn't have a sense of complicity
in the events of the game (which she certainly should). There is another
process loose in the palace--an infestation of a nefarious green
substance--that tells its own story: the palace itself is decaying
rapidly, though no one seems to notice but you, and if the decay goes
unchecked, the whole place will shortly become unlivable. The infestation
serves ably as a metaphor for the evil afoot. (The setting is vaguely
reminiscent of the end of Hamlet, in fact, when the "rotten" remnants of
Denmark destroy each other and what is left is overrun by Fortinbras and
his army. The system's internal contradictions cause it to implode. As it
happens, there's also an Ophelia-like character in the game who repeatedly
quotes Ophelia.)

This, in short, is one of the best pieces of IF ever to be produced; it
works brilliantly on several different levels, from entertainment to IF
theory. As IF, and as fiction, it's quite an achievement.


From: Duncan Stevens 

TITLE: Wearing the Claw
AUTHOR: Paul O'Brian
E-MAIL: obrian SP@G
DATE: 1996
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters
VERSION: Release 3

One of the nice things about fantasy IF is that it's so malleable; rarely
will the player complain that he couldn't suspend his disbelief enough to
allow the author's innovation to work, because just about anything goes.
As such, the fantasy setting serves Paul O'Brian's Wearing the Claw well,
as it allows the author to incorporate some interesting experiments with
the feel of traditional IF--and while the result isn't flawless, it's
certainly good enough to be worth a look.

The main innovation at issue is the replacement of the traditional
point-based scoring system with something that actually relates to the
plot. Specifically: your mission is to rid your homeland of a curse that
has turned people's body parts into animal parts, and your own left hand
has turned into a wolf's paw. As you overcome significant obstacles in
your quest, however, your hand turns more and more human (and, conversely,
when you screw up or otherwise get farther away from your goal, the
wolfish part of you grows). The changes, one way or the other, are marked
by a "tingling" or an "itching" in your hand, and the effect--to keep the
player on course without the artificiality of points as a reward--is
accomplished nicely. There was one time, however, when my hand became more
wolflike even though I had just made progress toward my goal--but it's a
minor flaw in a well-conceived experiment. It's true that, since the game
was released, other IF has been released with more dramatic revisions of
the standard scoring system--Sunset over Savannah, Little Blue Men--and
still other games have abolished scoring systems entirely, among them
Spider and Web. To my knowledge, however, Wearing the Claw was the first
to rid itself of points as an indication of progress, and the author
deserves credit for that.

The other innovation that the author mentions was to weave the puzzles
seamlessly into the plot, rather than having soup-cans-in-the-pantry sort
of puzzles that don't fit into the narrative. This, likewise, succeeds,
though it should be noted that there aren't all that many puzzles, and
what there is isn't all that tricky. Still, given how most IF--then and
now--simply tosses out puzzles to solve, with the implicit promise that
the game will bestow something useful or interesting as a reward for
solving the puzzle, a game that consciously avoids that path is a welcome
change. It should be noted, however, that such an approach probably
wouldn't be possible in a significantly larger game; it's difficult to
provide a predetermined reason for overcoming every obstacle, particularly
things like locked doors, other than that you feel a strange compulsion to
explore your surroundings as thoroughly as possible. It would, at least,
be interesting to see a longer work of IF that attempted to do what
Wearing the Claw does in this regard.

As mentioned above, Wearing the Claw isn't all that difficult; there is
one logical leap toward the end that takes some thought, but most of the
game flows by rather quickly. This was an entry in the 1996 Interactive
Fiction Competition, meaning that it had to be short enough to be
finishable in two hours--and it does, in fact, fit well within that limit.
Though what's here is of high quality, the game does seem to end just as
it gets going, and the player may be left wishing for more to do. (The
"amusing" list is quite extensive, though.) There are quite a few rooms
and objects (in proportion to the size of the game, at least) that play no
part in the plot, which helps the game seem larger than it is--but, that
aside, this shouldn't take anyone very long to finish.

The find-the-McGuffin fantasy setting itself is nothing new, though it
does allow the author to work with some of the hoary IF tropes--and there
are a few twists at the end that do test the player's expectations
somewhat. Moreover, the writing is good enough to sustain the game even
when the plot feels familiar: room descriptions are economical and vivid,
though the style of the conversations owes more to Tolkien than to
everyday parlance. (Sample from the protagonist's mother: "I fear for you,
dear one, but perhaps you can find on your quest some means of restoring
prosperity to our village, which has been too long poor.") It also helps
that the plot is largely free of glaring inconsistencies or incongruities,
hardly a given even in fantasy settings.

Those who genuinely dislike fantasy probably won't make an exception for
Wearing the Claw, as it doesn't really push the boundaries of fantasy all
that much. As fantasy IF goes, however, it's both thoughtful and
imaginative, and manages to entertain consistently--and for those who
weren't around for the 1996 competition, it might be worth going back to
check this one out.

READER'S SCOREBOARD ---------------------------------------------------------


        A   - Runs on Amigas.
        AP  - Runs on Apple IIs.
        GS  - Runs on Apple IIGS.
        AR  - Runs on Acorn Archimedes.
        C   - Commercial, no fixed price.
        C30 - Commercial, with a fixed price of $30.
        F   - Freeware.
        GMD - Available on
        I   - Runs on IBM compatibles.
        M   - Runs on Macs.
        S20 - Shareware, registration costs $20.
        64  - Runs on Commodore 64s.
        ST  - Runs on Atari STs.
        TAD - Written with TADS.  This means it can run on:
                AmigaDOS, NeXT and PC, Atari ST/TT/Falcon, DECstation
                (MIPS) Unix Patchlevel 1 and 2, IBM, IBM RT, Linux, Apple
                Macintosh, SGI Iris/Indigo running Irix, Sun 4 (Sparc)
                running SunOS or Solaris 2, Sun 3, OS/2, and even a 386+
                protected mode version.
        AGT - Available for IBM, Mac, Amiga, and Atari ST.  This does not
                include games made with the Master's edition.
        ADVSYS - Available for PC and Macintosh only, or so my sources tell
                 me.  (Source code available as well.  So it can be ported
                 to other computers.)
        HUG - Written with Hugo.  Runs on MS-DOS, Linux, and Amigas.
        INF - Infocom or Inform game.  These games will run on:
                Atari ST, Amiga, Apple Macintosh, IBM, Unix, VMS, Apple II,
                Apple IIGS, C64, TSR-80, and Acorn Archimedes.  There may be
                other computers on which it runs as well.

Name                  Avg Sc     Chr     Puz    # Sc   Issue Notes:
====                  ======     ===     ===    ====   ===== ======
Aayela                    7.9     1.2     1.6       2        F_TAD_GMD
Acorn Court               3.8     0.0     1.0       1        F_INF_GMD
Adv. of Elizabeth Hig     3.1     0.5     0.3       2      5 F_AGT
Adventure (all varian     6.5     0.6     1.0       8      8 F_INF_TAD_ETC_GMD
Adventureland             3.8     0.5     1.5       2        F_GMD
Afternoon Visit           4.1     1.0     0.8       1
Aisle                     6.3     1.2     0.0       1     18 F_INF_GMD
Alien Abduction?          7.5     1.4     1.6       2     10 F_TAD_GMD
All Quiet...Library       4.9     0.9     0.9       5      7 F_INF_GMD
Amnesia                   7.8     1.5     1.7       2      9 C_AP_I_64
Anchorhead                9.1     1.8     1.6       4     18 F_INF_GMD
Another...No Beer         2.4     0.2     0.8       2      4 S10_IBM_GMD
Arrival                   7.8     1.0     1.4       2     17 F_TAD_GMD
Arthur: Excalibur         8.0     1.3     1.6       4   4,14 C_INF
Awakened                  7.7     1.7     1.6       1
Awakening                 5.4     1.0     1.0       1     15
Awe-Chasm                 2.4     0.3     0.6       1      8 S?_IBM_ST
Babel                     8.2     1.7     1.3       2     13 F_INF_GMD
Balances                  6.8     0.7     1.2       6      6 F_INF_GMD
Ballyhoo                  7.7     1.8     1.5       4      4 C_INF
Bear's Night Out          7.7     1.2     1.5       1     13 F_INF_GMD
Beyond the Tesseract      3.7     0.1     0.6       1      6 F_I_GMD
Beyond Zork               8.0     1.5     1.9       5      5 C_INF
BJ Drifter                7.3     1.5     1.5       1     15
Border Zone               7.3     1.4     1.4       6      4 C_INF
Broken String             3.6     0.5     0.4       3        F_TADS_GMD
BSE                       6.6     1.0     1.0       1
Bunny                     6.6     1.0     1.4       1
Bureaucracy               7.5     1.6     1.3       6      5 C_INF
Busted                    5.2     1.0     1.1       1        F_INF_GMD
Castaway                  1.1     0.0     0.4       1      5 F_IBM_GMD
Castle Elsinore           5.3     1.0     1.2       1
Change in the Weather     7.4     0.9     1.4       8  7, 14 F_INF_GMD
Chicken under Window      6.9     0.0     0.0       1
Christminster             8.7     1.7     1.6       8        F_INF_GMD
Corruption                7.8     1.6     1.1       3      x C_I
Cosmoserve                8.4     1.3     1.5       3      5 F_AGT_GMD
Crypt v2.0                5.0     1.0     1.5       1      3 S12_IBM_GMD
Curses                    8.5     1.3     1.7      11      2 F_INF_GMD
Cutthroats                6.2     1.4     1.2       6      1 C_INF
Dampcamp                  6.0     1.0     1.4       1
Deadline                  6.9     1.2     1.3       6      x C_INF
Deep Space Drifter        5.6     0.4     1.1       3      3 S15_TAD_GMD
Delusions                 8.4     1.8     1.6       1
Delusions                 7.4     1.3     1.5       2     14 F_INF_GMD
Demon's Tomb              7.4     1.2     1.1       2      9 C_I
Detective                 1.2     0.0     0.0       6    4,5 F_AGT_GMD
Detective-MST3K           6.2     0.9     0.1       5    7,8 F_INF_GMD
Ditch Day Drifter         6.7     1.0     1.7       2      2 F_TAD_GMD
Downtown Tokyo            5.5     0.3     0.6       1     17 F_INF_GMD
Dungeon                   7.4     1.5     1.6       1        F_GMD
Dungeon Adventure         6.8     1.3     1.6       1      4 F_SEE REVIEW Issue #4
Dungeon of Dunjin         5.8     0.7     1.4       3  3, 14 S20_IBM_MAC_GMD
Edifice                   7.5     1.5     1.7       3     13 F_INF_GMD
Electrabot                0.7     0.0     0.0       1      5 F_AGT_GMD
Emy Discovers Life        4.1     1.0     1.0       1
Enchanter                 7.1     0.9     1.4       6   2,15 C_INF
Enhanced                  5.0     1.0     1.3       2      2 S10_TAD_GMD
Eric the Unready          6.9     1.5     1.5       2      x C_I
Everybody...Parade        7.3     1.2     1.3       1
Fable                     2.1     0.2     0.2       2      6 F_AGT_GMD
Fear                      7.6     1.5     1.6       1        F_GMD
Firebird                  8.1     1.7     1.6       1     15
Fish                      7.6     1.2     1.7       3      x C_I
Foggywood Hijinx          7.6     1.7     1.7       1
Forbidden Castle          4.8     0.6     0.5       1      x C_AP
Frenetic Five             5.1     1.2     0.2       1
Friday Afternoon          6.3     1.4     1.2       1     13 F_INF_GMD
Frobozz Magic Support     8.0     1.6     1.7       1
Gateway                   8.3     1.4     1.7       3      x C_I
Glowgrass                 7.4     1.6     1.5       2     13 F_INF_GMD
Great Archaelog. Race     6.5     1.0     1.5       1      3 S20_TAD_GMD
Guardians of Infinity     8.5             1.3       1      9 C_I
Guild of Thieves          7.3     1.2     1.6       3      x C_I
Guilty Bastards           8.7     1.8     1.6       1        F_HUG_GMD
Gumshoe                   6.2     1.1     1.1       4      9 F_INF_GMD
Hitchhiker's Guide        7.7     1.5     1.5       9      5 C_INF
Hollywood Hijinx          6.4     0.9     1.6       7      x C_INF
Horror of Rylvania        7.3     1.5     1.3       3      1 F_TAD_GMD              3.7     0.3     0.7       2      3 S20_IBM_GMD
Humbug                    7.0     1.7     1.5       2      x F_GMD
I didn't know...yodel     1.7     0.3     1.0       1     17 F_IBM_GMD
I-0: Jailbait on Inte     7.5     1.7     1.2       5        F_INF_GMD
Ice Princess              6.2     1.1     1.6       1
Infidel                   6.9     0.0     1.4       9    1,2 C_INF
Inhumane                  4.5     0.3     1.0       2      9 F_INF_GMD
Jacaranda Jim             7.9     0.9     1.0       2      x F_GMD
Jewel of Knowledge        5.7     1.4     0.8       1     18 F_INF_GMD
Jeweled Arena             8.0     1.5     1.5       1      x ?
Jigsaw                    7.8     1.4     1.5       8    8,9 F_INF_GMD
Jinxter                   6.4     1.1     1.3       2      x C_I
John's Fire Witch         7.1     1.1     1.6       6      4 S6_TADS_GMD
Jouney Into Xanth         5.0     1.3     1.2       1      8 F_AGT_GMD
Journey                   7.8     1.6     1.3       3      5 C_INF
Kissing the Buddha's      8.1     2.0     1.2       1
Klaustrophobia            6.7     1.2     1.3       5      1 S15_AGT_GMD
Leather Goddesses         7.0     1.3     1.5       9      4 C_INF
Legend Lives!             8.9     0.9     1.6       2      5 F_TADS_GMD
Lesson of the Tortois     8.1     1.6     1.6       1        F_TADS_GMD
Lethe Flow Phoenix        6.8     1.4     1.5       3      9 F_TADS_GMD
Light: Shelby's Adden     7.6     1.5     1.1       3      9 S?_TADS_GMD
Lists and Lists           7.5     1.5     1.8       1
Little Blue Men           9.1     1.3     1.9       1     17 F_INF_GMD
Losing Your Grip          8.2     1.3     1.4       2     14 S_TADS_GMD
Lost New York             8.2     1.6     1.6       1
Lost Spellmaker           5.4     1.2     0.8       1     13 F_INF_GMD
Lurking Horror            7.2     1.3     1.3      11    1,3 C_INF
MacWesleyan / PC Univ     4.9     0.6     1.2       2      x F_TADS_GMD
Magic Toyshop             4.3     0.7     1.1       2        F_INF_GMD                 4.5     0.5     0.5       1      3 S20_IBM_GMD
Matter of Time            1.4     0.3     1.4       1     14 F_ALAN_GMD
Mercy                     7.9     1.5     1.0       2        F_INF_GMD
Meteor...Sherbet          8.5     1.6     1.9       1        F_INF_GMD
Mind Electric             5.1     0.6     0.8       3    7,8 F_INF_GMD
Mind Forever Voyaging     8.4     1.3     0.8       7   5,15 C_INF
Moist                     8.4     1.7     1.6       1
Moonmist                  5.7     1.2     1.0      11      1 C_INF
Mop & Murder              5.0     0.9     1.0       2    4,5 F_AGT_GMD
Multidimen. Thief         5.6     0.4     1.0       3    2,9 S15_AGT_GMD
Mystery House             4.1     0.3     0.7       1      x F_AP_GMD
New Day                   5.5     1.3     0.9       1     13 F_INF_GMD
Night at Museum Forev     4.2     0.3     1.0       4    7,8 F_TAD_GMD
Nord and Bert             5.8     0.6     1.2       5      4 C_INF
Odieus...Flingshot        3.3     0.4     0.7       2      5 F_INF_GMD
Once and Future           6.9     1.7     1.6       1     16 C30_TAD
One Hand Clapping         6.9     1.2     1.4       3      5 F_ADVSYS_GMD
One That Got Away         6.7     1.3     1.2       3    7,8 F_TAD_GMD
Oo-Topos                  5.7     0.2     1.0       1      x C_AP_I_64
Path to Fortune           6.7     1.5     1.0       2      9 S_INF_GMD
Pawn                      6.5     1.0     1.2       1      x C_I_AP_64
PC University: See MacWesleyan
Perseus & Andromeda       3.4     0.3     1.0       1      x ?
Photopia                  8.8     1.8     0.7       3     17 F_INF_GMD
Phred Phontious...Pizza   5.2     0.8     1.3       1     19 F_INF_GMD
Planetfall                7.4     1.6     1.5       9      4 C_INF
Plant                     7.7     1.2     1.7       2     17 F_TAD_GMD
Plundered Hearts          7.2     1.3     1.1       5      4 C_INF
Pyramids of Mars          6.0     1.2     1.2       1
Quarterstaff              6.1     1.3     0.6       1      9 C_M
Ralph                     7.3     1.7     1.5       1
Reruns                    5.2     1.2     1.2       1
Ritual of Purificatio     5.8     2.0     1.0       1     17 F_GMD
Sanity Claus              9.0                       1      1 S10_AGT_GMD
Save Princeton            5.6     1.0     1.3       3      8 S10_TAD_GMD
Seastalker                5.5     1.2     0.9       6      4 C_INF
Shades of Grey            8.0     1.3     1.4       4    1,2 F_AGT_GMD
Sherlock                  7.3     1.4     1.4       3      4 C_INF
She's Got a Thing...      7.8     1.8     1.8       2     13 F_INF
Shogun                    7.1     1.5     0.5       1      4 C_INF
Sins against Mimesis      7.7     1.7     1.6       1
Sir Ramic Hobbs           5.0     1.0     1.5       1      6 F_AGT_GMD
Small World               5.9     1.4     0.9       1
So Far                    7.8     1.1     1.8       5        F_INF_GMD
Sorcerer                  7.3     0.6     1.6       5   2,15 C_INF
South American Trek       0.9     0.2     0.5       1      5 ?_IBM_GMD
Space Aliens...Cardig     1.6     0.4     0.3       5      3 S60_AGT_GMD
Space under Window        7.3     0.0     0.0       1
Spellbreaker              8.4     1.2     1.8       6   2,15 C_INF
Spellcasting 101          7.0     1.0     1.2       1      x C_I
Spellcasting 201          7.8     1.5     1.6       1      x C_I
Spellcasting 301          7.5     1.4     1.5       1      x C_I
Spider and Web            8.6     1.8     1.7       4     14 F_INF_GMD
SpiritWrak                7.1     1.3     1.2       3      9 F_INF_GMD
Spur                      7.1     1.3     1.1       2      9 F_HUG_GMD
Starcross                 7.0     1.1     1.3       5      1 C_INF
Stationfall               7.6     1.6     1.6       5      5 C_INF
Stiffy - MiSTing          4.2     0.1     0.1       1
Sunset Over Savannah      8.3     1.3     1.5       1     13 F_INF_GMD
Suspect                   5.8     1.2     1.0       3      4 C_INF
Suspended                 7.2     1.3     1.3       5      8 C_INF
Tapestry                  6.9     1.2     0.7       2     14 F_INF_GMD
Tempest                   5.6     1.0     0.6       1     13 F_INF_GMD
Theatre                   7.0     1.1     1.3       5      6 F_INF_GMD
TimeQuest                 8.6     1.5     1.8       1      x C_I
TimeSquared               4.3     1.1     1.1       1      x F_AGT_GMD
Toonesia                  6.4     1.2     1.3       4      7 F_TAD_GMD
Tossed into Space         3.9     0.2     0.6       1      4 F_AGT_GMD
Travels in Land of Er     6.2     1.5     1.5       1
Treasure.Zip                                        0      3 S20_IBM_GMD
Trinity                   8.6     1.3     1.7      12    1,2 C_INF
Tryst of Fate             7.1     1.4     1.3       1
Tube Trouble              3.3     0.5     0.4       1        F_INF_GMD
Uncle Zebulon's Will      7.2     0.9     1.4       9      7 F_TAD_GMD
Undertow                  5.2     1.0     0.8       1        F_TAD_GMD
Undo                      1.9     0.1     0.4       2      7 F_TAD_GMD
Unnkulian One-Half        7.0     1.2     1.6       7      1 F_TAD_GMD
Unnkulian Unventure 1     7.1     1.2     1.6       6    1,2 F_TAD_GMD
Unnkulian Unventure 2     7.2     1.4     1.5       4      1 F_TAD_GMD
Unnkulian Zero            9.0                       1      1 F_TAD_GMD
Varicella                 9.2     1.9     1.6       3     18 F_INF_GMD
Veritas                   6.9     1.7     1.4       2
Waystation                5.7     0.7     0.9       2      9 F_TAD_GMD
Wearing the Claw          6.8     1.1     1.1       2        F_INF_GMD
Wedding                   8.0     1.7     1.6       1
Wishbringer               7.5     1.3     1.3       9    5,6 C_INF
Witness                   6.9     1.6     1.2       7  1,3,9 C_INF
Wonderland                7.5     1.3     1.4       1      x C_I
World                     6.5     0.6     1.3       2      4 F_SEE REVIEW Issue #4
Zanfar                    2.6     0.2     0.4       1      8 F_AGT_GMD
Zero Sum Game             7.5     1.7     1.2       1     13 F_INF_GMD
Zork 0                    5.7     1.0     1.3       6     14 C_INF
Zork 1                    6.4     0.8     1.5      13    1,2 C_INF
Zork 2                    6.6     0.9     1.5       9    1,2 C_INF
Zork 3                    6.1     0.7     1.4       6    1,2 C_INF
Zork Undisc. Undergr.     6.5     1.0     1.2       1     14 F_INF


The Top Ten:

There being so many worthy games now on the list, I've expanded the
former Top Five list to another Top Ten. Note that a game is not 
eligible for the Top Ten unless it has received at least three ratings 
from different readers. This is to ensure a more democratic and 
accurate depiction of the best games.

The list has changed significantly since last issue, due in part to
Anchorhead and some works of Adam Cadre's finally receiving the baseline
three votes necessary to make the list. 

1.  Varicella             9.2   3 votes
2.  Anchorhead            9.1   4 votes
3.  Photopia              8.8   3 votes
4.  Christminster         8.7   8 votes
5.  Trinity               8.6   12 votes
6.  Spider and Web        8.6   4 votes
7.  Curses                8.5   11 votes
8.  Cosmoserve            8.4   3 votes
9.  Spellbreaker          8.4   6 votes
10. Mind Forever Voyaging 8.4   7 votes

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