ISSUE #31 - January 3, 2003

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

             ISSUE #31 -- 2002 IF Competition Special

           Edited by Paul O'Brian (obrian SP@G
                       January 3, 2003

           SPAG Website:

SPAG #31 is copyright (c) 2002 by Paul O'Brian.
Authors of reviews and articles retain the rights to their contributions.

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

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

SPAG interviews the authors of the top three Comp games:
   * Paul O'Brian
   * Jon Ingold and Mike Sousa
   * Steve Evans

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

Another Earth, Another Sky
Concrete Paradise
Eric's Gift
Fort Aegea
The Granite Book
The Moonlit Tower
The PK Girl
The Temple
Till Death Makes A Monk-fish Out Of Me!
Unraveling God
When Help Collides!


I still can scarcely believe it.

I keep thinking Mark or Stephen (the comp's vote-counter and its
organizer, respectively) are about to email me, saying, "Oh dear, I'm
afraid there's been an error with the voting software. Turns out you
actually came in eighth, not first." The other two times I've entered
the comp, I rather overestimated how well I would do, and came in 8th
place both times, humbled by the strength and quality of the games ahead
of mine. This time, I was emotionally prepared, and made it my goal just
to get into the top ten. I certainly didn't expect to win, especially
after I played some of the excellent games in this year's comp. I still
rise a few inches off the ground whenever I think about the moment I saw
the final results.

I couldn't be more thrilled, and as soon as I got those results, I knew
what the subject of this editorial would be: reviews. There are a lot of
things to which I owe my game's success, but reviews are an especially
big one. First of all, there are all the reviews that people have been
kind enough to write about my first three games. Almost without
exception, each of these has helped me to improve as an author --
there's nothing like coming to understand the faults and strengths in
your own previous work when you set out to begin the next one. In
addition to those, there are all of the *other* reviews that people have
written about IF games. Reading these has allowed me to accrete a more
and more accurate sense of what the IF audience cares about and what it
loves to see.

On top of all this, there are the reviews I've written myself of other
people's games. I strongly believe that writing these has had a huge
impact on my ability to design and program good IF. Writing a thoughtful
review of someone else's game demands that I make the intellectual
effort of figuring out what worked and what didn't work in that game; I
found that the more often I performed this exercise, the better I became
at understanding what works and doesn't work for IF in general, at least
according to my own tastes. Not to mention the fact that simply writing
the reviews in paragraph form gave me more practice at putting together
clear sentences, a useful skill no matter what type of writing I'm
attempting. If you're an aspiring IF author, I highly recommend that you
make the effort to review IF games, the more the better.

Which brings us to SPAG. This is a zine whose core principle is that
reviews of IF games are valuable -- that's why we try so hard to
encourage people to write them. I hope that some of what SPAG has done
has helped other authors as much as it has me. And if you haven't
written a review for SPAG, why not try it today?

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

I've said before that 8 seems to be my number in IF competitions, and
consequently the 8th annual competition is one I'll long remember. This
year saw the debut of some extremely impressive new authors, as well as
solid and innovative entries from familiar names. This year also marked
a decided improvement in the fortunes of ADRIFT games, with one even
placing in the top 10. Many thanks, as always, to Stephen Granade and
Mark Musante for organizing and counting votes (respectively). This
issue has reviews of more than half the games submitted, and for the
record, here are the official results:

 1. Another Earth, Another Sky, by Paul O'Brian
 2. Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me!, by Mike Sousa &
        Jon Ingold
 3. Photograph, by Steve Evans
 4. The Moonlit Tower, by Yoon Ha Lee
 5. Janitor, by Seebs
 6. The PK Girl, by Robert Goodwin
 7. TOOKiE'S SONG, by Jessica Knoch
 8. Fort Aegea, by Francesco Bova
 9. The Temple, by Johan Berntsson
10. Jane, by Joseph Grzesiak
11. MythTale, by Temari Seikaiha
12. Unraveling God, by Todd Watson
13. Identity Thief, by Rob Shaw-Fuller
    Augustine, by Terrence V. Koch
15. Rent-A-Spy, by John Eriksson
16. The Granite Book, by James Mitchelhill
    Eric's Gift, by Joao Mendes
18. When Help Collides, by J. D. Berry
19. Evacuate, by Jeff Rissman
    Constraints, by Martin Bays
21. Sun and Moon, by David Brain
22. Not Much Time, by Tyson Ibele
23. Hell: A Comedy of Errors, by John Evans
24. Out Of The Study, by Anssi Raisanen
    Color and Number, by Steven Kollmansberger
27. The Case of Samuel Gregor, by Stephen Hilderbrand
28. A Party to Murder, by David Good
29. Screen, by Edward Floren
30. Concrete Paradise, by Tyson Ibele
31. Scary House Amulet!, by Ricardo Dague (writing as Shrimpenstein)
32. coffee quest II, by Anonymous
33. Four Mile Island, by Chris Charla (writing as Anonymous)
34. Moonbase, by Mike Eckardt (writing as QA Dude)
35. Koan, by Esa Peuha (writing as Anonymous)
36. Ramon and Jonathan, by Daniele A. Gewurz
    Terrible Lizards, by Alan and Ian Mead
38. Blade Sentinel, by Mihalis Georgostathis

As usual, competition season means not too many non-comp releases. One
notable exception is Dutch Dapper IV, a lighthearted sci-fi adventure in
the tradition of Douglas Adams. Also, just before I finished this issue,
a slew of games were released. There were a handful of goofy gag games,
a new episode in the mock-superhero adventures of the Frenetic Five, and
Stark Springs' glulx fantasy game Words Of Power. 
   * Schizo - Escape To The Void by Tommaso Caldarola (in Italian)
   * Wandmaster by Robert A. Kraus
   * Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage by Harry Hol
   * Words Of Power by Stark Springs
   * Silence Of The Lambs 2 by "Thief Of Bad Gags"
   * Cheeseshop by David Welbourn
   * Comp02ter Game by Brendan Barnwell as Austin Thorvald
   * The Frenetic Five vs. The Seven Deadly Dwarves by Neil DeMause

With 1893: A World's Fair Mystery, Peter Nepstad has created one of the
most expansive and absorbing settings ever seen in IF, and he's still
making it better. While there is a free, text-only version of the game
available on the IF archive, Nepstad is now offering a $19.95 CD-ROM
edition, which includes illustrations, nifty feelies, and source code.
SPAG 32 will have an interview with Nepstad, but while you wait, check
out the 1893 website at for all
the tantalizing details. 

As if further proof were needed that IF enthusiasts have wide-ranging
interests, someone has now gone to the amazing effort of translating
Crowther and Woods' original Adventure into Lojban, an invented language
that aims to take the illogic and cultural bias out of spoken
communication. The someones in question are Nick Nicholas, Eugene Mayes,
and Robin Powell, and the resulting game -- nuntalylihu -- is available
from the Lojban page at

Erik Langskaill has taken his interest in PDF publishing and combined it
with his interest in IF to create "The Journal", a publication that aims
to chronicle the development of his new game from the very beginning
stages to its eventual release. So far, he's done one issue, which
somewhat self-referentially talks about his motivations for doing such a
project, and lays out his initial thoughts for how the game ought to
work. It's all waiting for you at 

The competition issue of SPAG is traditionally the hardest one to find
new reviews for, but this time around our contributors came through with
flying colors. Now let's continue that trend into the new year with more
reviews of non-comp games for all those *other* issues of SPAG. If
you're searching for inspiration on what to review, check out the
following non-hierarchically-ordered list:

1.  Bad Machine
2.  Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage
3.  1893: A World's Fair Mystery
4.  The Frenetic Five vs. The Seven Deadly Dwarves
5.  Heroine's Mantle
6.  Hollywood Hijinx
7.  Katana
8.  The Oracle
9.  Unease
10. Words Of Power

THE SPAG INTERVIEW---------------------------------------------------------

For the annual competition issue, SPAG traditionally interviews the
highest-placing authors in the comp, but I faced some rather
unprecedented challenges when putting together this issue's interviews.
For one thing, since I won the comp, there really ought to be an
interview with me, but for me to interview myself would be a little...
unseemly, as Primo Varicella might say. As he has so often in SPAG's
history, Duncan Stevens came to the rescue, crafting a set of interview
questions which I could then answer without feeling too much like I had
multiple personality disorder. Thanks, Duncan. Then there was the fact
that the second place game was written by multiple authors, another
first for the SPAG interview. My sincere appreciation goes to Mike Sousa
and Jon Ingold, who agreed to share answers and interview space, and to
submit to a bit of unorthodox editing to make the whole thing flow more
naturally. By the time I got to interview Steve Evans, author of
"Photograph", I was just relieved to have a normal SPAG interview to do
for once! I hope you enjoy the following interviews with the authors of
Comp02's highest placing games. 

 Paul O'Brian, author of "Another Earth, Another Sky"

   SPAG: Well, you often ask SPAG interviewees to tell a bit about
   themselves, but SPAG's readers may not know much about you, so -- out
   with it. Name, rank, and serial number?

PO: Okay, fair enough. I'm 32, which put me in my teen years during the
Infocom boom -- just about the perfect age to be, since I was old enough
to understand and succeed at the games and young enough to have lots of
free time to devote to them. I've lived in Colorado all my life, save
for one ill-starred year in New York City, and I currently work in
Boulder at the University of Colorado, where I got my degrees. My job
there is in the Financial Aid office, as an "IT professional," which
basically means that I do all sorts of technical stuff, from programming
to maintaining the network to creating queries that pull data from the
university's mainframe.

I've been married for a little over six years, to someone who isn't an
IF aficionado but who is wonderful about supporting my work and my
ambitions. I'm very verbally oriented (you may have noticed) and love
the complex uses of language. I also really enjoy programming, so of
course I'm a perfect candidate to love IF. Aside from that, my other
passions are music and comics, the latter of which has made the Earth
And Sky series such a fun project to do. 

   SPAG: How did you get interested in IF, and what led you to start
   writing your own IF?

PO: The long answer to this question is the editorial I wrote for my
first issue of SPAG, number 18. In a nutshell: my dad is a computer
enthusiast, and we were sort of "first on the block" with a home
computer -- initially an Atari 400, then upgrading to the
sooper-big-time Atari 800. The first games I played on those machines
either came in cartridge form or on cassette tapes, but shortly after he
acquired a disk drive, he brought home Zork I for us to try together. He
loves to bring home the coolest new things, and that was especially true
when I was a kid; at that point the cool new thing was Zork. He lost
interest in it before too long, but I was enchanted, and became a major
Infocom devotee for as long as the company existed.

I learned about the Internet right around the same time I was writing a
paper about IF for a graduate class, and so of course some of my first
Gopher searches were on "Infocom" and "interactive fiction." That led me
to Curses, and once I figured out that there was a freely available
language that would let me write Infocom-style games, suddenly a
childhood fantasy was within reach. Being an Infocom implementor is
still my dream job -- pity about living in the wrong time and place for

   SPAG: You've written four games now. What keeps you writing IF?

PO: Well, in the case of the last game and the next one, it's the fact
that I've made a promise to myself and to the audience that I won't
leave the storyline hanging. Other than that, I suppose it's just the
fact that I seem to have an unflagging interest in the medium. My first
game was written to fulfill my dream of writing an Infocom-ish game, as
I said above. LASH was just an idea that grabbed me and wouldn't let go,
and I knew that IF was the perfect medium for it. A lot of the drive to
write the Earth And Sky games has to do with the fact that I really,
really wanted to play a good superhero game, and I wasn't entirely
satisfied with any of the ones that had been released up to that point.
So I wrote it because I wanted to play it. 

   SPAG: Another Earth, Another Sky is the second in a series. What led
   you to make a full-blown series out of this story, rather than a
   single self-contained game?

PO: One of the things I loved about superhero comics as a kid was their
episodic nature. I really dug the way the stories just kept going and
going, with characters and themes woven through the whole thing,
disappearing and reappearing as the saga unfolded. Now, with the
emphasis on story arcs that can be collected into trade paperbacks,
that's becoming less true in comics, but when I decided to write a
superhero game, I knew it needed to be episodic. Besides, I really
wanted to take another shot at the competition, and didn't want to write
something so big that it wouldn't be appropriate for the comp. Also, as
a corollary to that, I guess, I really wanted more and faster feedback
than writing the whole thing as an epic would have given me. LASH took a
very long time to write, and I wanted my next piece to be a bit smaller
in scope. 

   SPAG: The first installment was essentially a superhero game, but
   Another Earth, Another Sky has sci-fi elements along with the
   superhero aspect. Is the series becoming a sci-fi series, or are
   there more genre twists ahead?

PO: I wouldn't say it's becoming science fiction, really, and I didn't
set out to do any genre blending with this game. What is true, though,
is that these games are heavily influenced by the old Marvel comics from
the 1960s, particularly The Fantastic Four -- one of the reasons I chose
"Lee Kirby" as my pseudonym for the first game was to acknowledge my
debt to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who wrote many of those early comics.
The tropes of alien invasion and Big Science were intrinsic to many of
Lee and Kirby's stories, probably as an outgrowth of the science fiction
comics that preceded that period's big superhero revival, so that's why
you see those themes reflected in my games. Ultimately, though, I see
superheroes as more a subgenre of fantasy than of science fiction, if
the division has to be made. 

   SPAG: There seem to be allusions to other IF games here and there in
   AEAS -- the setting for a large part of the game is reminiscent of
   Small World, the dome in the desert evokes So Far, the underwater
   scene has echoes of Photopia, and the touchplates reminded me of
   Spider and Web. Or am I imagining these connections?

PO: I wouldn't say you're imagining them, but I also didn't consciously
try to pay homage to any of those games with the elements you mention.
However, I have played all of them, and there's no question that
everything that goes into my brain has an influence on me. Lots of
people have mentioned the "Small World" connection, and I certainly
remember feeling delighted with an IF landscape that formed a sphere,
but the idea of having the PC be able to travel between disparate
locales by means of superhuman leaps came more from old issues of The
Hulk than from any particular IF game. 

   SPAG: The game is sprinkled with Emily Dickinson quotes. Any
   particular reason for relying on that particular poet?

PO: Well, aside from the fact that she's pretty much my favorite
canonical poet, Dickinson was also part of the genesis of the series. I
went through a period where I decided to read every Dickinson poem, but
I found it too exhausting to just read them one after another, so I
interspersed them with comics. Indulging in this weird combination while
thinking about what I wanted to write next gave birth to this superhero
series where the codenames are some of Dickinson's favorite touchstones,
and the protagonists are named after the poet and her brother. The title
and part of the inspiration for Another Earth, Another Sky came from the
Dickinson poem that begins "There is another sky." 

   SPAG: Will the third installment wrap up the series?

PO: That's the plan at this point. I love writing these games, but it's
a little disheartening to realize that each episode takes about a year
to complete. I certainly wouldn't rule out further Earth And Sky games
somewhere down the line, but I'll be ready for a break from them once
the third episode is finished. 

   SPAG: Any other plans for more IF writing?

PO: Beyond the third Earth And Sky game, I'm not sure. I think I'll
probably want to turn towards writing static fiction for a while, but I
plan to keep editing SPAG, and I don't see myself leaving the IF
community unless it seriously deteriorates. So I'd say there's an
excellent chance I'll find myself struck with some great IF idea and
banging out code again sometime in the future. 

 Jon Ingold and Mike Sousa, authors of "Till Death Makes a Monk-fish Out Of Me!"

   SPAG: We interviewed Jon last year when he won with "All Roads", so
   he's already answered this question, but you haven't, Mike: Could you
   tell us a little about yourself? Who are you, what do you do for a
   living, and so forth?

MS: I was tempted to ask Jon to write my answers and try to convince him
this is still part of the collaboration, but I had a feeling it wouldn't
work, so here goes...

MS: I'm 35, father of twin girls (born 4 years ago), happily married and a
sports nut. I work in the technical group for an IBM Business Partner
(been there for 13 years) -- we provide technology solutions to

MS: I live in Massachusetts, work in Rhode Island and my two hobbies are
home theater and interactive fiction. I also tend to write in small

   SPAG: And Jon, this time last year, you were a jobless third-year
   undergraduate at Cambridge with plenty of time to write. How has your
   life changed since then?

JI: Muchly. I'm currently writing this from the office in the school
where I'm working as a Maths teacher, which is an almost-full-time job
in that I work 9 hours a day but usually have a good couple of free
periods, which are spent writing. These days when the printer cartridge
runs out, everyone immediately accuses me. Still, it's quite fun, and so
long as I don't get more classes on my timetable I might be convinced to
stay here a bit longer.

   SPAG: I understand you've done quite a bit of traveling during the
   past year. Have those experiences brought you any fresh inspiration
   for your IF or your other writing?

JI: Not a great deal that I've noticed, actually. They're more just
things I'm glad I did -- there's a charming freedom from responsibility
when the only worry is whether or not you'll actually get the one bus a
week to the nearest city, or whether you'll get someone to pick you up
within the next two hours. That said though, I guess it all feeds
through -- it was a year after coming back from Venice that All Roads

JI: Oh, actually, now I think about it; I did write a play about two
people I met on a bus in Morocco. They were called Maria and Gonzalez -
Maria was a octolingual stunner -- Gonzalez was a hairy muppet who fell
off his camel, twice.

   SPAG: Mike, how did you first become introduced to IF?

MS: My friend's dad had purchased an Apple something or other in the
early 80's. Being arcade junkies, we thought we would give this thing a
shot, so off we went to see what was available. The artwork on the box
of Zork was eye-catching so we bought it. We were immediately hooked.

MS: We then proceeded to purchase practically every Infocom title that
was produced in the next 5 years. Thinking back, it was more fun to play
as a team vs. playing solo. I think there's more enjoyment from solving
a puzzle together or brainstorming about something. Also, when you're
stuck on a hard puzzle, misery loves company...

MS: I then took a break from IF for quite some time. In the mid 90's I
came across 'Curses' and was amazed that something this good was still
being created. A couple of years later I picked up TADS and Above and
Beyond! was born.

   SPAG: Let's talk about this collaboration: how did it come about?

JI: The personals column that is a post to raif.

MS: I'll elaborate on that a little. This collaboration came about
because of the success of the previous one, so let me start with that
first. After the 2000 comp I realized what was missing from my game --
decent writing. I knew I could program fairly well and I thought I was
creative enough but I felt that my writing was bringing the game down.
Actually, some of the reviews for At Wit's End mentions the writing as
needing help and that it was pedestrian. Being a problem solver, I
figured the path of least resistance was to collaborate with a writer.

MS: I posted a note to R*IF in late 2000 and received little interest
but then to my surprise (and joy), there was a note from Robb Sherwin. I
knew Robb was a terrific writer whose games sometimes suffered from
not-so-strong coding. I thought it would be a good match. The result was
No Time To Squeal, and even though the perception was that it had a
major technical flaw, it still did relatively well (average score wise).

MS: Now this collaboration...

MS: Riding the success of NTTS, I figured I would try it again. I was
humbled by the response and figured I would have a tough time picking a
partner -- that thought ended when Jon's email showed up. I was floored
that somebody with his resume wanted to collaborate so I jumped right on

MS: We had every intention of getting the game into Adam's Spring Thing
but our schedules didn't click so we opted for the fall comp.

MS: I had a premise (or hook) and presented it to Jon. After several
email exchanges the plot settled down and away we went. By the by, this
email exchange as well as many other emails during the collaboration
will be available on my "Till Death..." page. The page will be made
available when version 2 of "Till Death" is released -- after the

   SPAG: What were the similarities and differences between your
   partnership with Robb and your partnership with Jon?

MS: There is a long post of mine on RAIF (dated 11/19/02) which gets
into this question in greater detail. Summing it up, the story for NTTS
was mostly complete so Robb had a pretty good blue print to follow but
for TDMAMOOM, only the hook was established. Both collaborations relied
on the transcript method in terms of game play communication.

   SPAG: Jon, now that you've been through the experience of creating a
   collaborative work of IF, is there anything you would do differently
   next time around?

JI: Er, for myself, I'd take it more seriously. The number of "Jon, are
you still alive?" emails I had to be sent is rather embarrassing.

   SPAG: How do you think the experience of collaboration will affect
   your creation process while writing solo IF?

JI: Probably not a great deal, to be honest. I've always bounced ideas
around off people when writing games -- usually my friend who appears as
an ill-fated marble bust in Mulldoon -- and otherwise solo writing is
all about playing and replaying.

MS: Collaboration has ruined me. No really, it has. A couple of weekends
ago I was working on this scene for "At Wit's End Again" where there was
this elevator crash. I wrote it 2 or 3 times. Each time I thought that
Robb and Jon would have written that so much better and I got
frustrated. Half kidding, of course. The real answer is that I will try
and pay more attention to the writing. The coding comes easy.

   SPAG: Jon, what were some of the inspirations for your parts of Till

JI: That's difficult. The setting is from an atrocious short story I
wrote for high-school English, which I thought at the time I'd stolen
from "The Penultimate Truth" by Philip K Dick, though I'm assured by
others that actually I didn't. The "hook" was Mike's idea, that he
wanted to build the game around. The French pills come from a line in
Hitchhiker's Guide -- "You could take some evening classes. I've got a
bottle of them, little pink ones" -- and a short story I wrote about a
country where everybody speaks in anagrams; the protagonist becomes
famous for being able to solve the country's crosswords in record time,
as the clues are all anagrams, but they're written in anagramised form,
so our protagonist (a normal person) just copies the clue
letter-by-letter into the grid.

   SPAG: And you, Mike?

MS: I haven't played much IF since late '99, mostly because I've been
busy creating it -- I still haven't finished Anchorhead, but I digress.
Anyway, a common theme for lots of IF is to avoid the *** You have died
*** message. Okay, not such a common theme today, but it's everywhere in
A&B and AWE and some of the games that I did manage to play. So I
thought it would be different to have the PC try to kill himself, but
the game wouldn't allow it. There had to be a reason for wanting to kill
yourself (I'm certainly not an advocate for suicide nor did I want to
write a depressing game), such as, you're in the wrong body and that's
the way to get out of it. "Till Death..." was born from that premise and
then evolved to the game that it is today.

   SPAG: Were you wary of creating a game set in the by-now traditional
   comp environment of an isolated research station? What choices did
   you make with predecessors like Delusions and Babel in mind?

JI: Actually, I never really thought about either of those. I was a
little worried about the similarity to "Transfer" from two years ago,
which I was involved with as a beta-tester. The main difference is
probably in style though.

   SPAG: Speaking of style, I found the game's room descriptions quite
   striking indeed. Did you use any particular technique to come up with
   these, and what advice would you give authors who struggle with that
   part of IF creation?

JI: Advice: don't just write something functional. You may as well try
and phrase things in a vaguely interesting way, if you can. Oh, and do
get hung up on trying to describe where the exits are, because there is
nothing more dull than "You can go east, north, or west."

   SPAG: One thing that I thought was remarkable about the technical
   part of this game was its uncanny simulation of an Infocom or z-code
   look and feel, even though the game is written in TADS. What led to
   your decision to do this?

MS: Um... I have no idea what you mean.

   SPAG: Well, it seems to me that Inform games tend to have a different
   sort of appearance than TADS games do, based mainly on interpreter
   defaults, I suppose. Inform games generally have tended to be closer
   to what Infocom games used to look like: monospaced font, often white
   on a blue background, a particular kind of header, and so forth. TADS
   games, by contrast, use a proportional font, black on a white
   background, and have things in there by default like "HTML TADS
   Interpreter" at the top. "Till Death" fits much more into the former
   category than the latter, despite being a TADS game -- it feels
   Inform-like, right down to the little serial number in the header.

MS: Ahh... Okay, now I got it. Two factors here.

MS: If you're using version 2.5.7 of the TADS interpreter, you'll have
the Game Chest feature. This allows you to manage recently played games.
One of the features is the "profile" setting which can be set to either
plain text or multimedia. The default setting is multimedia (black text
on white background, proportional font). However, a game author can
imbed a gameinfo file in the .GAM file that the treasure chest will
extract and override the default settings. I picked plain text which
gave us the white text on blue, mono-spaced font which had the old
Infocom look and feel.

MS: As for the opening of the game, I actually used that for No Time To
Squeal (serial number, etc...) so when I started Till Death, I used NTTS
as a starting point. (When Robb had sent over his first transcript, he
included the "serial number" look so I just went with it.)

MS: So in summary, it was a combination of factors that gave it that
look and feel -- some intentional (by coding), others by setting a
switch made available by Mike Roberts' new 'terp.

   SPAG: How interesting -- I thought it was entirely intentional. So
   what did you guys think about this year's competition? Any favorite

JI: Yup, "When Help Collides". It's genius. It's barmy, lucid, very
nicely refracted with all its various parts that somehow connect and
don't connect, and above all, it's a take on walkthroughs coming to
replace in-built hint-systems, and it's almost unplayable without a
walkthrough. Genius. I loved it. It was the only thing that really made
me think, and just applaud with the bizarrity of it all. It was
imaginative and new -- the first time I've seen IF where it's not about
starting it up and getting through to the end, it's more about starting
and fighting with middle for as long as you can cope with it.

MS: Janitor, Another Earth, Another Sky and The Moonlit Tower got my
votes this year for Miss Congeniality. I thought When Help Collides was
funny as hell -- J.D. Berry is a riot -- but got slighted a bit because
some players gave up on it too early.

MS: The competition contained a lot of (well) tested games and that is a
pleasant surprise. There seemed to be very few buggy games, and I think
the scoring proves that. (i.e., nobody averaged under 2 as in years

MS: I did have an opportunity this year to read every review and I
thought it would be interesting to review the reviewers. That post is
floating somewhere on RGIF. By reading the reviews it gave me a pretty
good idea of the games entered since I only played about half of them.

   SPAG: Any advice you'd care to offer for prospective competition

MS: Start early. Don't begin coding until you have the plot done. Get
your beta testers involved early and *trust* them. Try and play the game
as if you know nothing about it. Play through it with 'script on' and
then re-read the transcript a few days later, you'll be surprised at
what you find. Add lots of synonyms. Describe all your first level
nouns. Describe important second level nouns. Don't settle with your
first attempt at a room description. Of course, any writing advice from
me should be taken with a grain of salt. :)

   SPAG: Do you anticipate being able to write more IF in the future,
   and if so what are your plans?

MS: Yes. I am working on At Wit's End Again (finishing up my Intro Comp
entry) and I have a WIP of another release of No Time To Squeal which
ties some loose ends up in the plot. I do plan on working on another
collaboration in 2003. Of course, I know by saying that I'm risking not
doing it... But with no risk, there's no reward...

JI: Hmm. Don't know about the future. I don't have as much time as I
used to, and so I'm trying to save myself from having to have a career
by finishing this damn novel I've been working on for two years. I'm now
very satisfied with chapters 1 and 2. 3 through 6 are okay, and it all
goes to pot after that. When I lose enthusiasm for it, I tend to move
back to the detective game I've been working on for three years now,
which is still *this close* to being finished. Everything's finalised, I
just to need to write a lot of cunning demons, and then make it a bit
more playable.

JI: I'll probably write something at some point. Can't say much more
than that.

 Steve Evans, author of "Photograph"

   SPAG: For starters, could you tell us a little about yourself? Who
   are you, what do you do for a living, and so forth?

SE: Let's see. I'm 42 years old (which is somewhat older than most first
time IF authors, I guess). I was born in Wales but my family moved to
Australia when I was very young, eventually settling in Tasmania. I live
in Hobart, where I'm currently working as a system administrator with an
Australian government department. My role there is business oriented
rather than technical, and involves working with programmers and other
technical IT staff in developing and maintaining one of the department's
computer systems. Besides IF, my interests include reading (I buy rather
too many books), amateur paleontology, abstract board games
(particularly Go & Shogi), and trout fishing in the Tasmanian highlands
(something I don't do anywhere near enough of). British SPAG readers may
have seen the BBC documentary series "Walking with Dinosaurs". Parts of
that series were filmed in the highlands of Tasmania. If you can picture
those stark mountain scenes from the documentary, but with fewer
dinosaurs and more trout, then picture someone in the middle of it with
a fishing rod. That'd be me. 

   SPAG: How did you first become introduced to IF?

SE: My introduction to IF came shortly after buying an Apple ][ computer
in 1983. The first text adventure I played was (I think) Infocom's
Starcross. That was quickly followed by Zork 1, and then by just about
every other text or graphic adventure I could lay my hands on.
Unfortunately, my Apple ][ only had 64k of ram, so it couldn't run the
later Infocom V4 to V6 games. I didn't get to play any of those until I
bought a Commodore Amiga in about 1988-89. By rights I should have been
exposed to IF much earlier than I was. In high school and my
matriculation years we had access to a PDP-11 mainframe via a teletype
terminal. How I failed to discover ADVENT during that time, I've no
idea. I suspect some sort of conspiracy must have been at work. It was
well after playing some of the early Infocom games that I learned of the
existence of ADVENT, or the other early mainframe adventures.

Within months of discovering IF, I was thinking about writing a game.
I'd been reading Richard Brautigan's humorous "gothic western" novel,
"The Hawkline Monster", and as I read it I kept seeing it as a text
adventure. I spent some time mapping it out with puzzles and so forth. I
just did it as an exercise, knowing it was all going nowhere as I didn't
have a development system, and probably wouldn't have got permission to
do it as a commercial game even if I'd worked out how to do it. That was
the beginning and end of my IF writing aspirations for 15 years or so. 

   SPAG: You've mentioned other sorts of writing that you do besides IF.
   Can you talk a little about that? 

SE: I know I mentioned my writing in the background section of my comp
game, but frankly, I haven't done much of it. I wrote a bunch of short
stories in the late '70s and early '80s (including an incomplete,
roughed out version of Photograph), but I wasn't happy with the results.
The ideas were good, but the writing wasn't. In the mid-'90s the muse
returned briefly and I completed a few stories, including Photograph. I
received some favourable reactions to these later stories from family,
friends and others I dared show them to, but the writing still left a
lot to be desired. After rediscovering IF a few years ago, I saw an
opportunity to get back to writing and combine it with my longstanding
wish to do a text adventure. My comp game was the result. I'm pleased
with some of the writing in the game. I think parts of it might almost
be good. So now I'm finally all set to do some more, hopefully both of
IF and straight fiction. 

   SPAG: In her SPAG review of Photograph, Suzanne Britton calls the
   game "irredeemably fatalistic." Do you agree?

SE: Firstly I must say that Suzanne sent me her review of Photograph
early on in the judging period, and it was great to receive such
feedback at that stage. Seeing her review gave me confidence that much
of what I was trying to do with the piece had worked as I'd intended.
But, as to being "irredeemably fatalistic"? No, I can't agree, or at
least that wasn't my intention. Although, I can see how the game, and
particularly the ending, could be viewed that way. It was important to
me in writing Photograph that there was a message or possible spin on
the ending about "seizing the day" or perhaps "not dwelling on things
that can't be changed, but concentrating on living life". I didn't want
this message to be overriding or the only view of the ending, or to be
seen as trivialising the protagonist's psychological condition, but I
had to allow room for the player to take that meaning. Much of the
symbolism in the story was directed at giving the player some
independent knowledge that Jack had problems and that his preoccupation
with the past was causing him further damage. While I wanted the player
to feel empathy with the protagonist, they also needed some warning that
his view of the world was flawed, and that life just doesn't work the
way Jack wanted it to.

Choosing to do this story as my first piece of IF was a decision fraught
with danger, and as I have said on rgif, a couple of people advised me
against it. To be successful I had to draw a very fine line between
being too obvious and too obscure in the symbols I chose and how I
approached the story generally. Suzanne picked up on this in her review.
The position of that line changed several times as I worked on the game,
but no matter where it was set there was no escaping the fact that the
story wasn't going to work for everyone. Overall, though, the whole
thing came together better than I'd expected, and despite some rough
edges, I was (and am) quite pleased with it. The thing I guess I regret
most about the game is some of the unsubtle prompting, particularly in
the later stages. I may clean up some of that one day. 

   SPAG: Some of the reviews and newsgroup posts about the game seemed
   to suggest that it would appeal more to players who were 40 years old
   or older. What are your thoughts on that? 

SE: Yes, that's interesting. It surprised me a little, particularly as
the story and its focus were largely laid out when I was still in my
early 20's. But, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, as much of the
detail in the work was either written or rewritten while in my early
40's and this may have come across more than I'd expected. I suppose
that had I finished the story while in my 20's it would have been quite
different from what it eventually became. 

One thing that really intrigued me is just how old and lived-in some of
the reviewers found Jack to be. There were references to "old man" and
"old coot". Hell, he may not have travelled well, but he was only 55! I
guess his view of life and mindset are things that people may associate
with older people. Although, I'm equally sure that many elderly people
would strongly disagree with such stereotyping. 

   SPAG: The game is peppered with quotes from books, poems, and songs.
   What works inspired its creation, and how? 

SE: I really liked the way quotes were used in some of the later Infocom
games (like Trinity), and in many of the more recent works of IF that I
admire. So I decided I'd also use them to break up the scenes and to try
to strengthen what I was wanting to get across in Photograph. When
looking around for suitable quotes, I turned to some of the authors,
poets and music I've liked. In particular, I chose a couple of pieces
from Kenneth Patchen, my favourite author/poet, and to my mind one of
the most underrated writers and thinkers of our time. The musical
references I drew mostly from the punk and post-punk bands whose music I
grew up with, which included artists like Tom Verlaine and Television,
the Ramones, Talking Heads, and the '70s and early '80s British and
Australian punk scene. HEBGB Horror, anyone? 

As to the works that inspired the creation of Photograph, the only
influence I recall was Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray", which
also featured a blurring of the distinction between alternate realities
by means of a portrait. The dream scene was added well after I had the
original idea for the story, and the inspiration for that was a
wonderful short story by William Kotzwinkle about a corrupt pharaoh
awaiting his judgement in the afterlife. Although, the main reason for
choosing Egyptian elements for the story was that my wife has studied
ancient civilisations and, as a consequence, we have a number of books
on Egypt and Egyptian mythology lying around the house. 

   SPAG: What's your assessment of the state of IF today? 

SE: IF is still very much a new medium, and I think we've only just
begun to explore what can be done with it. I know there've been some
concerns expressed on r*if that the entries in the last couple of years'
comps haven't lived up to the promise of the 2000 games, and that the
number of entries in 2002 was well down on preceding years, but I don't
think there's cause for concern. There were some very good games
released in 2001 and 2002, both within the comp and outside it. There
have also been some innovative games (such as the Gostak, Constraints
and When Help Collides) which have pushed the boundaries of text
adventure convention, and others that have breathed new life into old
tropes. Although there were fewer games in the 2002 Comp, by all
accounts they were generally less buggy than in previous years and this
may simply imply that authors are holding off releasing their games
until they are ready. Certainly, the number of intentions to enter the
competition this year were as high as ever. In addition, there are
people discovering IF and becoming involved, who unlike some of us,
didn't grow up with text adventures. So, despite some comments I've seen
to the contrary, I think IF is in a pretty healthy state and can look
forward to a bright future. 

   SPAG: Do you anticipate being able to write more IF in the future,
   and if so what are your plans? 

SE: Well, I think it's safe to say that I've now been bitten by the
*bug*. I'd very much like to write more IF, but will have to give
careful thought as to what form it will take. The response to
Photograph, and in particular its strong placing in the comp took me by
surprise, and may have created a degree of expectation that I find
daunting. While I've got some half-formed (half-baked?) ideas for my
next game, I don't have any definite plans at this stage. However, I'd
like the next one to be different from my first effort -- probably more
puzzle than story based, and perhaps with alternative endings. We'll
have to see.

   SPAG: What did you think about this year's competition? Any favorite

SE: This was the first year that I'd played many of the games during the
judging period. In the past, I've waited for the results and reviews and
then selected a few games to play. By all accounts the entries this year
were generally less buggy than in previous years, which is clearly a
step in the right direction. 

I thought the writing in Yoon Ha Lee's The Moonlit Tower was great, and
look forward to seeing what Yoon may do with a larger story. I
particularly liked Another Earth, Another Sky, TOOKiE's SONG, and the
more experimental Constraints and When Help Collides. I also liked
TDMAMFOOM, but I preferred the earlier sections of the game to the later
bits. There are still some games I haven't played and look forward to
trying, including Janitor and The PK Girl. Several games didn't appeal
to me, but in the main it was an enjoyable experience. 

   SPAG: Any advice you'd care to offer for prospective competition

SE: Some of this may be stating the obvious, but nonetheless, here are
my tips:

1)	Read through past years' post-comp reviews and r*if comments, to give
yourself some idea of what to expect.

2)	Play through a few of the better comp games, and also a few that
fared poorly.

3)	Before designing your game, read as much of the wealth of material on
game design in the IF Archive and elsewhere as you can.

4)	Don't be afraid to ask for help with coding problems. There are
always nice folk on raif who are happy to help out.

5)	Get yourself some good beta-testers, the more and varied the better.

6)	Understand that what's obvious to you is more than likely not going
to be obvious to someone playing your game. 

7)	Listen to your testers. If a tester has a problem with something,
someone else is certain to have a problem with it as well. Fix it.

8)	Don't try to take short-cuts in coding and hope that no one will
notice. They will.

9)	Don't, whatever you do, submit a game to the comp if it's not ready.

10)	See 9).

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

Consider the following review header:

TITLE: 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.
Authors may not review their own games.

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

From: Adam Myrow 

TITLE: Another Earth, Another Sky
AUTHOR: Paul O'Brian
EMAIL: obrian SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Glulxe interpreters
AVAILABILITY: freeware IF-archive
     Directory with hints, release notes, and game

Last year, Paul O'Brian entered a very short game called Earth and Sky
into the competition under a pseudonym. This game introduced us to the
fact that he intended to make a series of games based on two newly-made
superheroes. The number one complaint about his first entry in this
series was that it was just too short. So, this year, Mr. O'Brian makes
up for it and produces his most puzzle-filled and detailed piece of IF
to date. In Another Earth, Another Sky, you play Austin Colborn. This is
the superhero who wears the "earthsuit." This suit gives him the
strength of a giant and the capability of jumping over buildings. In
part one, you played his sister, with the power to create fog, fly, and
shoot electricity. I thought that Emily's powers would be more fun, but
I was soon proven wrong. That super strength of Austin's is much more
fun than I imagined. How many times have you wanted to break down a
locked door only to be told something like "violence isn't the answer to
this one?" Well, this time, you get to break those doors down. As for
the story itself, there is a lot to learn. You are continuing your quest
to find your parents. This search will eventually take you to an alien
world that is quite unique. I really thought the descriptions made it
easy to imagine.

The thing that impressed me about this game is the detail. For example,
there is a bedroom with curtains which can be opened and closed despite
the fact that the curtains play no part in the story. Nearly every
object mentioned in room descriptions can be examined. This is always a
good thing to me. Of course, what would a Paul O'Brian game be without
doors that can be unlocked from the inside and room descriptions that
change as the PC learns about his surroundings? These elements are
present and only add to the feeling of being there.

So, is there any problem with the game? A few, but they are very minor.
Mostly, they are a matter of personal taste. For example, I wanted to
see more teamwork between the superheroes. Others have mentioned this, so
I suspect we will see it in part 3. Another thing is that I preferred
the titles to the sections in Part I over the Emily Dickinson quotes.
They seemed more like what should be in a comic book and that is what
this story is trying to emulate. As I said, this is personal
preferences, and it wasn't enough to make me really downrate this game.
It was a pleasure to play after some of the other competition games this
year. Mr. O'Brian, a fine piece of work and a well-deserved first place


From: Adam Myrow 

TITLE: Augustine
AUTHOR: Terrence V. Koch
EMAIL: teviko SP@G
DATE: September 2002
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware IF-archive
     Directory containing game, hints, walk-through, and release notes

Terrence Koch is a new author to watch out for. While his first piece of
IF, Augustine, isn't perfect, it has the right idea. In this story, you
play a man who has lived over 600 years. Back in the early 1400's, your
family and friends were wiped out in a brutal raid of your village.
Though you were still a child, you sought the man who had done this and
tried to kill him. You never got to kill him, but vowed that you would
never rest until you did. He also made the same oath about you and you
are now both cursed to live until one of you kills the other. The story
tracks the history between the two of you all the way to 2002, where you
meet on a ghost tour set aboard a ship. For some reason, you always meet
in St. Augustine, Florida, so that city holds a special place for you.
This is where the game gets its title.

The author concedes that this game is similar to the TV series and movie
called Highlander, but insists he came up with the idea independently. I
thought this was a bit defensive, but I can understand where he's coming
from. Anyway, I really liked the concept. The game alternates between
the present and flashbacks with a few lengthy cut scenes. By the end, I
felt like I had participated in a story, which is, to me, the whole
purpose of interactive fiction. Granted, the story isn't perfect,
especially in terms of spelling and bugs. There are several spelling and
grammar problems as well as some parser quirks. Yet, when I played, I
found myself overlooking a lot of this. It may have been because I had
played a particularly buggy entry just before it and was willing to
overlook problems if the game at least made sense and didn't spit out
nonsense every few moves. Also, I give a lot of leeway to an author who
attempts to tell a story as complex as this in such a short game.

Interactive flashbacks, in particular, are extremely difficult to do
well -- too much interaction and the whole story has been changed. Too
little, and it may as well be a long cut scene. The author strays back
and forth across this line. The opening flashback, which details the
village raid, is more like an instant death puzzle. How can you die in a
flashback? Later flashbacks still have some possibility for ending the
game abruptly, and even later, it is practically impossible to change
the predetermined course of events. As I said, this is tricky ground,
especially for a first-time author. The biggest problem with the way the
story is presented is that the flashbacks are too close together. Near
the beginning, you take a walking ghost tour which is almost completely
non-interactive. You basically follow your tour guide and read long
descriptions of the thoughts going through your mind. This would have
been a perfect time to place the flashbacks, but instead, they are all
bunched together on the ship.

So, overall, I liked the story, but the implementation was problematic.
I would really like to see a post-competition release of this game. With
a bit of cleanup, it stands to be an outstanding first work.


From: Mike Roberts 

When I came to the part of "Augustine" where the player character takes
a guided tour of the city of the game's title, I immediately recognized
what had been vaguely bothering me about the game up to that point. The
guided tour is not just a major chunk of the game's plot; it's at the
heart of the game's design. The entire game is, in a way, a guided tour,
and has some of the good and bad features of any guided tour.

The story opens in the year 1400, somewhere "just outside of Wales,"
where the player character is a young villager. A cruel warlord rides
into the village with his army, and proceeds to kill everyone in the
village except the player character. The PC manages to evade the
soldiers by hiding; after the raid, the PC vows vengeance on the
warlord, and sets out to track him down. From here, the story gives us a
capsule summary of the PC joining an army that opposes the evil warlord,
training for combat, and entering his first battle against the warlord.
In the course of the battle, we encounter the warlord himself; we chase
him into a hidden part of his castle, where a magical transformation
causes both the PC and the warlord to become effectively immortal,
immune to death or serious injury except at one another's hands.

That might sound like a lot of story, and it is; but the interactivity
through this part is so limited that it takes all of about twenty turns
to get this far. I think the author intended this portion as an extended
introduction, and couldn't resist the temptation to cram the entire
back-story here; but the trade-off is that all of these big events are
just sketched out, and you feel like you're being rushed along. The
opening scene where the PC's entire family is killed, for example, ought
to have a visceral emotional impact; but it doesn't, because we haven't
really had a chance to meet any of the other characters or see their
relationship to the PC. It also doesn't help that the PC has to just sit
there and hide during the whole enemy raid scene; it would have been
more satisfying if the PC had tried his best to defend the village but
had been unable to overcome the superior force of the raiders.
(Explaining how the PC survived in this scenario might have been
trickier, but not impossible; he could have been badly wounded and left
for dead, for example.) But the PC so willfully keeps his distance from
the action that it distances us as well.

The story next moves from 1400 to the modern day, where the main action
is set. The PC is still alive, thanks to the magical transformation, and
is now in the town of Augustine, Florida. Here the plot development
becomes less frantic, and we're able to do some more leisurely
exploration. Even here, though, our exploration options are limited,
more so than they first appear; we can walk through the town's streets,
but we can't enter any of the buildings. This is where I first got the
feeling that I was in a museum, with velvet ropes keeping me on the
approved path and safely out of reach of the exhibits. In fact, this is
exactly where we eventually take the actual guided tour; the tour guide
leads us around these same streets, pointing out historical events that
took place in all of those buildings we can look at but not enter.

The guided tour is an interesting device for filling in the back-story,
but in this particular game it seems an odd choice. During the tour, as
the guide points out bits of history, the PC reminisces about his
personal involvement in those events. Why, then, doesn't the PC have
anything to say about all of those significant places when visiting them
on his own, outside the tour? The PC doesn't even seem to recognize the
places before the tour. I can understand why the author wanted to dole
out the back-story using the tour, but there's no good reason within the
context of the story that the PC shouldn't be able to reminisce all by
himself; the tour as a narrative device seems better suited to a
static-fiction rendition of the story.

As for the writing, it's mostly decent, but I have a few quibbles. The
technical polish is a bit spotty in places: there's at least one
it's/its confusion, some weird comma placement, and a few spelling
errors. The story in one place uses "ironic" to mean "coincidental"
(which I hear is the latest direction in the drift of the popular
meaning of "ironic", "sarcastic" being the previous one, but this is the
first time I've personally spotted this new meaning in actual use). The
writing affects a style that I think is meant to evoke the sweeping
historical epic; this gives the writing a certain stiltedness in places,
but you get used to it pretty quickly.

It probably sounds as though I didn't like this game much, given the
number of weaknesses I've focused on; but I wouldn't have gone into so
much detail if I didn't at least want to like it. I actually didn't warm
to the game immediately, partially because I was put off by some of
these design problems and partially because the story seemed awfully
similar to the film "Highlander" (a resemblance the author acknowledges
in the README file, with an explanation that it's a coincidence).
However, as I got further into it, I found I was enjoying the game quite
a bit. The feeling of running on rails remained, but it was less obvious
after the early parts of the game; and more importantly, the story
became increasingly engaging as it progressed. There's simply a lot of
story here, especially considering the constraints of the competition's
two-hour play limit (which the game does a pretty good job of obeying) -
and as the plot develops, the resemblance to "Highlander" fades.
"Augustine" has plenty of flaws, but its story is interesting enough
that it's worth a look.


From: Mike Roberts 

TITLE: Concrete Paradise
AUTHOR: Tyson Ibele
EMAIL: ivanisavich SP@G
DATE: September 2002
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: 1.0 / 052202

I'm not sure what this game was meant to be. The story seems to be about
a carefree youngster, whose age is never precisely specified but which
we can infer must be in the late single digits or early teens, who's
sent away to an island prison for life due to an essentially trivial and
unintentional crime. The main story takes place three years into the
life sentence, and revolves around escaping the prison.

The opening of the story is somewhat jarring, in that before the player
character gets sent to prison for life, he's portrayed as an innocent
kid who's not even trying to get into trouble. We're not really trying
to do anything at all, for that matter; there's not any particular goal
at this point.

On my first couple of tries at the opening scene, I figured the prison
sentence must simply be an elaborate "death" scene. In other words, I
figured that the game was telling me the equivalent of "*** You have
died ***", which is the traditional message an IF game displays when the
player character is killed by an incorrect action. I got this impression
because the actions in question seem so random and trivial, and because
there are lots of them; in some games, such a variety of ways to "die"
would simply indicate boundaries of the game, with the deadly
consequences meant to guide players away from those boundaries and back
to the correct path. (It's not an especially subtle way of marking a
game's boundaries, and authors lately tend to favor other means, but
plenty of older games use this approach.) However, after a few tries, I
realized this must actually be the way forward in the story.

Once we're in the prison, there's nothing to do but set about escaping.
And here we encounter another jarring plot development: almost
immediately, we have to kill a guard in the course of our escape. The
player character's original crime is depicted as essentially accidental,
with no evil intent, but the murder of the guard is quite deliberate.
It's made clear that the player character is no psychopath -- he feels
bad after the fact that he had to kill the guard -- but this just means
he's become an utterly ruthless pragmatist who kills in cold blood when
it serves his goals.

So is "Concrete Paradise" a cautionary tale, a meditation on the
poisonous consequences of vindictive criminal justice, that turns an
innocent youth into a vicious killer in a few years' time?

Probably not. As the game progresses, it seems quite free of such
serious implications; this is simply a puzzle game that happens to have
some rather grim plot elements. If anything, the sensibility is
cartoonish, the grimness of the plot just a wild exaggeration for the
sake of an interesting story.

As a puzzle game, "Concrete Paradise" is serviceable, but suffers from a
few flaws. The most consistent is a certain fussiness about command
phrasing; in some places, an alternative syntax will reply with a
message about the command you should be using (which is annoying enough:
if the game can tell me "try this instead," it should almost always just
do that instead, instead), but in many others it simply didn't recognize
reasonably conventional phrasings for things that could be accomplished
with other phrasings. Which isn't quite as bad as the usual "guess the
verb" problem, where the only correct phrasing is unusual; rather, the
correct phrasing in these cases is perfectly ordinary, but other
equivalent ordinary phrasings aren't accepted.

Another deficiency in some of the puzzles is insufficient information to
motivate the solution. In one place, for example, I think you're
expected to simply try different directions randomly; in the location in
question, it's clear that you can't see where you're going, so this
isn't as bad as an unannounced exit in an otherwise ordinary location,
but you're given no reason to think the location would have any exits
other than the one you came in from. In other places, objects -- or
details of objects -- are found to be unusual only after close
inspection, even though they should be obvious at less detailed levels
of examination. For example, if there's something obviously unusual
about a wall, I shouldn't have to examine the wall to discover that,
because an obviously unusual feature of a major room component ought to
warrant mention in the room's top-level description.

Despite the occasional flaws in its puzzles, and the puzzling thematic
intentions, this game is fairly well written and playable. I didn't feel
greatly drawn in, mostly because of the unclear motivations of the main
character, I think; but most of the puzzles are logical and well
integrated into the story, and so are satisfying to solve.


From: Tony Baechler 

TITLE: Constraints
AUTHOR: Martin Bays
EMAIL: martin SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

If I had to describe this game in one word, I would pick "crazy." This
game, or series of mini-games, is wacky. Yes, it makes some sort of
weird sense, but you will probably only get a headache trying to figure
it all out. No, it is not confusing. The stories or sections in
themselves are easily understood. Trying to put all of them together and
figure out what the author's point is will drive you crazy, so just sit
back and enjoy the ride.

The fun of this game is not the puzzles or trying to figure out what to
do. For example, in "Falling" it is completely obvious what is
happening. You are falling and there is nothing you can do about it. The
enjoyment comes in trying every weird or wacky response you can think of
and watching what happens. I particularly liked "xyzzy." Ultimately, you
are forced to go along with the ride but it is short and amusing. After
you have finished, try "walkthrough" to see what I mean.

In another section, you get a completely opposite response to what you
expect. If you type "z," you get "Time does not pass." In fact, no
matter what you do, you cannot affect anything. Again, in terms of a
puzzle this is rather minimal and boring. The entertainment is in trying
everything. I can easily imagine this game becoming an IF classic in its
own right. I would definitely not recommend it for new IF players,
although it can show off what a really good parser can do. It goes
without saying that anything I could think of got a response and I think
I never got a default library message.

Unfortunately, there were two problems. One is an unnecessary use of
profanity. It added nothing and the game would have had just as much
charm without it. This is really too bad. The other problem was a very
small grammar error. Towards the end, it says "hint's" instead of
"hints." This is very small and would normally be overlooked, but for a
game which is otherwise so well written it stands out. The final problem
is an unnecessary maze. No, this is not a typical IF maze, but a Nethack
style maze. I wish I could have found a way to finish it because it
would be nice to see the closing text, if any. Oh well.

All three of the above brought the game down a point or two. If there
would have been a different constraint instead of the maze, this game
could rank a 10. It is not that I never give out scores that high, it is
just that most games are not worthy. I might give it another point
anyway, but I doubt it. This is just a suspicion, but I think Magnus
wrote this. It is not his traditional writing style, though.

My comp rating: 8


From: Mike Roberts 

TITLE: Eric's Gift
AUTHOR: Joao Mendes
EMAIL: joao.mendes SP@G
DATE: September 2002
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
VERSION: IF Comp Release

This is one of those stories where you have to get to the end to fully
understand what's going on at the beginning, so I won't say anything
about the storyline except that it was interesting throughout, and the
ending satisfying. Otherwise, I'll limit my comments to the work's more
technical aspects.

This game falls into the puzzle-free category, where a lot of authors
have focused their efforts in the past few years, especially for
Competition games. In overall form, this one is fairly typical of the
category: very little inventory, a small number of locations with lots
of detail, and well-developed characters. Puzzle-free games vary in
their degree of interactivity; at one extreme, you just sit there and
press the space bar to get to the next chunk of text, and at the other
you do more or less the same things you'd do in a more traditional game,
but never encounter any locked doors or other obstacles. "Eric's Gift"
is at the latter end of the spectrum; it even uses the traditional
ASK/TELL conversational system, rather than one of the more constrained
systems often seen in puzzle-free works.

Conversation is a big part of this game, and it's handled quite well. I
usually don't like ASK/TELL very much as a conversation system, because
it's so artificial: in real life, you never just walk up to random
people and start unceremoniously peppering them with questions -- and if
you did, they wouldn't just answer as though they'd been standing there
all day waiting for you. There's an ebb and flow to a real conversation,
and a certain amount of protocol for initiating and terminating one.

"Eric's Gift" does a couple of things to make its ASK/TELL style of
conversations seem much more natural. First, each question is narrated:
when you type an ASK ABOUT command, the story puts your question into
the narration:

    "Do you know how to work this thing?" you ask Bob, holding up
    the lantern.

    Bob takes a look at it.  "You probably need a new battery."

This game didn't invent this technique, certainly, but it works well
here. It's surprising that more games don't use this device, because
it's simple to implement and a big improvement over the traditional
style of showing only the other character's response. Some people
complain that narrating a question puts words into the player's mouth;
but in a game that distinguishes the player from the player character,
it's actually putting words in the player character's mouth, which is a
different matter. And anyway, there's some implication of words in the
PC's mouth no matter what: it's not as though the PC is literally meant
to say simply "LANTERN?" That's part of what feels artificial about
unnarrated questions; clearly the PC is meant to be posing a question in
some normal conversational form, so it's weird to omit it from the
narration. For authors who can't get past the words-in-mouth thing,
perhaps you could at least narrate the fact that a question was asked -
just something like "You ask Bob about the lantern"; this would serve as
the ASK ABOUT equivalent of the simple acknowledgment that a command
like TAKE or DROP would get.

The second conversation technique this story uses is to establish a
certain amount of context to each conversation. One of the things that
usually makes ASK/TELL feel unnatural is the way you walk up to an NPC
who's never seen your character before and ask a question, and the
response makes it sound as though you're an old friend and you'd been
gabbing for half an hour already. Why would the NPC just answer, rather
than asking who the heck are you and what's with the scuba get-up? This
game is different; each conversation has a clear starting point,
establishing that we're engaged in conversation for subsequent queries.
This allows a certain amount of normal conversational protocol to be
observed. The game also arranges things so that once a conversation has
begun, it stays the focus of the interactivity for a while, further
enhancing the sense of an ongoing conversation. The game accomplishes
this largely through a limited physical setting, so there's not a lot to
do other than continue conversing -- which works well here, but it
obviously wouldn't be appropriate for every game. Despite the limits on
the PC's options during conversations, I never had the sense of being
tied to a chair; the limits are subtle and gentle, since they're
presented as motivational rather than physical constraints.

In sum, this is a well-implemented piece of puzzleless IF with an
interesting story. It doesn't break extensive new technical ground, as
it mostly relies (with fairly good results) on techniques that have been
developed in other puzzle-free works over the past few years; its
conversational system does have some subtle refinements that are worth
looking at, though.


From: Mike Roberts 

TITLE: Evacuate
AUTHOR: Jeff Rissman
EMAIL: unknown
DATE: September 2002
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters

This game reminded me of "Planetfall", which is probably inevitable for
a story about escaping a spaceship on the verge of destruction.
"Evacuate" is hardly a Planetfall clone: the plots and settings are
really only similar to the extent that they both start on spaceships in
urgent need of evacuation, and there's nothing in this game that's
directly borrowed from Planetfall. Even so, there are stylistic
influences here and there that brought Planetfall to mind while playing.

The plot is that the player character has to escape a spaceliner that's
been attacked by an enemy ship and is rapidly falling apart. The PC has
somehow slept through the attack, and by the time he wakes up, everyone
else has already left the ship via escape pods. Not surprisingly, the
damage the ship has sustained makes it more difficult to escape, since
some escape routes are blocked by rubble, and many of the ship's systems
are no longer operating properly.

The story and setting are perfect for a traditional puzzle-solving
adventure: the scene of a disaster is naturally full of physical
challenges, and the science fiction setting means that virtually any
kind of machine or device is fair game for mechanical puzzles. The game
doesn't squander this advantage: it does a great job of developing
story-driven puzzles, and virtually every goal is based on overcoming
some obstacle to escape created by the damage to the ship. Most of the
puzzles involve machinery that would be plausibly in the player
character's path of escape. Only a few puzzles feel deliberately
contrived as puzzles; the worst of these is a maze, which has a
relatively interesting gimmick as mazes go but still sticks out as
highly contrived.

(Actually, I'm probably being far too easy on this maze; because of the
competition's time constraints, I was already using the walk-through by
the time I reached it, so I didn't even try to figure out the maze on my
own. If I had tried, I would probably not be so dispassionate. The
maze's gimmick is interesting, but it's not one of those gimmicks that
lets you bypass the drudgery of brute-force mapping with a flash of
insight; on the contrary, it's one of those gimmicks that requires you
to have the flash of insight before you can even start on the drudgery
part. If I hadn't already been using the walk-through, this maze would
undoubtedly have sent me straight to it, and I undoubtedly would have
few kind words to say about it.)

Even though the puzzles are integrated well into the story, many of
their solutions seem arbitrary. There are two ways for a puzzle to make
sense: before you solve it, or after. In the latter category, a puzzle
can make perfect sense after you know the solution, but only because the
solution contains information that helps explain the logic, or because
it wasn't clear until after solving the puzzle that it was a puzzle in
the first place. This kind of puzzle isn't as bad as the kind that makes
no sense at all, but it can still seem arbitrary, since there's no way
to explain why the player character, within the context of the story,
would have thought to do the right thing. This is the kind of puzzle
that seems to occur many times in this game.

Two things are lacking in many of this game's puzzles: hinting, and
motivation. A few puzzles would be much more fair if they provided a
hint when the player tried doing something close to the right thing; in
one place, for example, we have to use a fairly unusual command to open
something, but using a plain OPEN command doesn't give any encouraging
feedback. The OPEN command should respond with an explanation of why the
object can't be opened directly; this would suggest that opening the
object is the right idea, but we need to figure out how. As it is, the
response to OPEN merely suggests that the object isn't openable at all.
Other puzzles simply had syntax that was too specific; for example, in
one situation we must DIG IN something to move it, but none of MOVE,
TAKE, PUSH, or PULL have any effect on the object.

The game's writing is quite good. It's especially above par for a
puzzle-oriented game, since authors of such games tend to put a lot more
effort into the puzzles than into the writing. The setting is especially
well described; the locations are richly imagined and described in great
detail, and are implemented to substantial depth as well. I greatly
enjoyed exploring the early parts of the setting; it was sort of sad
that the ship was being destroyed, since it would have been fun just to
explore it more.

I have a small complaint about the pacing of the plot. Despite the
obvious urgency of the situation, there's no real *feeling* of urgency
to the player character's actions. If you just wander around the ship
doing nothing, the supposedly critical situation doesn't deteriorate one
iota. Now, I'm not suggesting that I'd prefer the game to have a timer
forcing you to complete certain tasks in a certain number of moves; that
would only make the game mechanics too obvious by forcing the player to
constantly save and restore, which for me destroys any sense of
immersion by reducing the story to a puzzle-box to be taken apart and
solved. Nonetheless, it's strange in this particular story that, despite
the blaring klaxons and piles of rubble everywhere, the setting is
completely static, and doesn't change except in response to the player
character's actions. I don't have a lot of suggestions for how to
improve this; it's difficult in interactive fiction to invest
time-critical situations with a real sense of urgency without either
putting the game firmly on rails or killing the PC, neither of which I
like. In this particular game, I think it might make a big difference if
the ship at least felt like it was falling apart in real time, by
showing some locations to grow noticeably worse as the game proceeds.
The deterioration need not be life-threatening or alter the course of
the plot; a new pile of rubble could appear in a hallway, for example,
making the hallway harder to pass but still passable.

I enjoyed the writing and detailed setting of this game. Given the
two-hour Competition judging time limit, I had to consult the
walk-through, so I didn't get the full effect of solving all of the
puzzles. My sense, though, is that many of the puzzles are quite
difficult by virtue of being rather arbitrary; however, they're probably
no more so than in a lot of other adventures, so people who enjoy
solving hard adventure game puzzles might find this a good challenge.


From: Adam Myrow 

TITLE: Fort Aegea
AUTHOR: Francesco Bova
EMAIL: fbova SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: any Z-code interpreter
AVAILABILITY: Freeware, If-archive
     Directory with game and various maps in PDF files plus walk-through

It has been said that when being interviewed, you are primarily judged
by the first 10 seconds. For me, this is partly true of Interactive
Fiction as well. I am more likely to stick to a game which has a good
introduction than one whose introduction is poorly written. An
introduction full of spelling errors and bad grammar makes me tend to
question the game. In this regard, I was really unsure what to think
when I loaded up Fort Aegea and got this introduction.


   Waking up with a start, you stare blankly into space, and rub your
   watery eyes. While fumbling around on your night table you find a
   piece of parchment in which to blow your nose and wipe your brow.
   It's spring and with it comes your annual bout of hay fever; a
   condition that is certainly not made any better by the fact that
   you're living on an outpost in the wilderness. No matter. You rise
   from bed with a yawn and a stretch, trying to focus mentally for the
   day ahead.

   Being the sole Priestess representing the Order of the Amylyan Druids
   in this distant Northern outpost has never been easy. However, as the
   settlers are incredibly humble and always helpful, your experience
   has been very rewarding.

   Oh well, another day filled with dispute resolution, work
   preparation, and general governance over your small settlement. The
   sun hasn't risen yet, so you still have a few minutes to yourself.

I don't think there's ever been a PC in all of IF with hay fever, and
the only case of hay fever I can recall offhand is the ogre in
Spellbreaker. So, right off, I had a good sense of my character, but no
clue what the story would be about. This is often a good thing, and the
story in this particular game is complicated enough that a lengthy
introduction would be a detriment, but still, this didn't do anything
but make me wonder what I was getting into.

This game is a sequel to The Jewel of Knowledge, and that made me feel a
bit odd since I'd never gotten around to playing that particular game.
However, this one stands on its own for the most part. The story is
described in an interactive prolog which is a nifty idea. Basically,
it's just another ordinary day until a farmer comes in through the gate
of Fort Aegea badly wounded. He tells you of a demon who wants the blood
of 4 virgins over 30 just before dying. Terrified, you consult some
higher authorities and learn that this demon is actually a dragon. The
dragon breathes toxic gas rather than fire and is rather nasty.
Desperately hoping to save the fort from certain destruction, you let
the dragon talk you into a dangerous game of cat and mouse. You have to
survive the day while the dragon tries to kill you. If you survive, he
will leave. Otherwise, he has the whole fort's population for lunch. So,
the bulk of the game involves trying to keep your hide intact and
protect others.

There were two things I really disliked about this game. First of all,
and by far the most important, there is a huge amount of violence in the
story. While I can understand that dragons are mean and hurt people, I
think the author went a bit too far. For example, a husband and wife
with a baby are some of the people you try to help. First, the husband
dies like so:

   The Dragon throws an agile paw at Pierre and knocks him heavily off
   the path and unfortunately, off a precipice that you're sure will end
   off a few hundred meters down the side of the mountain.

   "PIERRE!" screams Annie, the look of hysteria gaining momentum on her
   face. She hands you Etienne and sobs, "You must protect him
   Priestess, at all costs!"

   Annie turns to face the dragon and begins running.

As is obvious, the next move, Annie meets her maker even more violently:

   Annie runs screaming head first into the Dragon's midriff. The dragon
   deflects her mild blow and clasps his arms around her waist with
   little effort. There is a short struggle followed by a bone-crunching
   snap, after which the Green Dragon throws Annie's lifeless body into
   the shrubs surrounding the clearing. His visage shows a hint of pity.

It wouldn't be so bad if these were the only instances of such, but this
sort of thing happens repeatedly throughout the story. There is some
attempt to explain it at the end, but I found it to be a thin excuse.

The second thing that hurt Fort Aegea for me is the spell casting. You
have a few spells you can cast which have very unique effects. However,
the problem is that almost every single puzzles solution involves
casting one of about four spells. There is one spell that is completely
useless in the game, though. The game specifically mentions that you are
an experienced druid and therefore have many spells memorized. I would
have preferred it if more of the puzzles involve non-magical solutions.
I keep thinking of Graham Nelson's The Craft of Adventure in which he
warns against overuse of magic. He said "the majority of puzzles should
be soluble by hand -- or else the player will start to feel that it
would save a good deal of time and effort just to find the 'win game'
spell and be done with it." I completely agree with him on this point
and note that in the entire Enchanter trilogy, there are at least some
puzzles that can be solved without magic. One good thing about the magic
system is that you never have to learn spells. You always have them
memorized and can even look them up individually through a menu. The
spell names also make sense for a change. For example "crewa" means
create water. So, I didn't mind the magic system, and some of its uses
were clever, but I would have preferred that more than one or two
puzzles could be solved without it.

I think the best thing this game has going for it is the completeness of
the world. It is a fairly detailed world model and it feels very real
with the exception of the description of the dragon that sounds like it
came straight from Dungeons and Dragons or one of its imitators. Another
plus is the interactive introduction. It lets the player get comfortable
with the environment, start to understand what things are normally like,
and to really appreciate the shock of the dragon's sudden appearance.
Lastly, the game has two endings, and I always find multiple endings to
be a nice touch when done well.

So, overall, Fort Aegea is a real mixed bag with both good and bad
points. I rated it a 6 in the competition.


From: J. Robinson Wheeler 
[This review originally appeared on Rob's webpage at]

TITLE: The Granite Book
AUTHOR: James Mitchelhill
EMAIL: warning SP@G
DATE: September 2002
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters

I've taken a slightly different approach to reviewing this work, the
latest by the author of the most-vilified game of last year's
competition. My usual practice is to write my thoughts down as soon as I
reach the end of the game. For this one, which left me more than a
little baffled, I didn't write anything right away. I took a brief break
to mull it over, then I engaged a couple of friends in conversation
about it, sharing my reactions and processing theirs. Then I slept on
it, played another game, and reviewed that one. Then I opened the
transcript from my "Granite Book" session and re-read the whole thing,
paying more attention to details I skimmed while playing it.

Now, here I am, still wondering what to say. I'll start with what I said
to my friends last night: This is another work where the author seems to
have a clear idea what it's about, but it's not coming across very
clearly. The game exists in its own universe, bending even parser
messages to conform to its distinctive voice. It is all symbolic, like a
dream; also like a dream, its symbols are difficult to reckon. There is
enough consistency to the story and its imagery to seem thoroughly
thought out, but it remains opaque to my comprehension all the same. I
can see that there is an active mind behind it, but I cannot fathom what
the mind intended to communicate to me.

One of my friends had a definite theory that worked for him, one which
explained the characters and the settings; part of his theory keyed on
the response to "UP" in the first scene of the game: "We had lost our
wings long ago." Once with wings, now with claws. Lost underground. I
don't know.

On a technical level, I had one or two sore spots with the
implementation. [There's a spoiler coming up here, though Rob's point is
how impossible the puzzle is to guess without spoilage. Skip to the end
of the indented section at your discretion. --Paul] The game shied me
away from interacting with an NPC, and then the hint file copped a funny
tone as it instructed me that I needed to do exactly this to proceed in
the game: 

      [We could not understand the word "talk".]

   >ask girl
      [what should we ask it about?]

      She would not reply to anything we said. We began to think she did
   not understand our language.

   >show vellum to girl
      [The girl did not react.]

   >girl, get on pedestal
      [The girl either did not understand our commands, or she would not
   obey them.]

   >girl, get on table
      [The girl either did not understand our commands, or she would not
   obey them.]

   >girl, sit on table
      [The girl either did not understand our commands, or she would not
   obey them.]


   Q. So what's this about the table?

   Light: Have you tried laying on it?

   Medium: You can order the girl to do some things, you know.


The girl doesn't understand our language, nor any command I tried. So
no, I don't know I can do this, thank you.

I remain bothered by two unexplained elements: the sheet of vellum with
designs on it, and the plate on which you find the vellum.

In general, the only direct fault I can find with it is that it is not
to my taste; however, I can see how it might also be someone else's
favorite game. By which I mean, I cannot personally rate it highly, but
I cannot say that it is of poor quality, either.


From: Jessica Knoch 
[This review originally appeared on Jessica's webpage at]

AUTHOR: Joseph Grzesiak
EMAIL: jane SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

This was an interesting one. It starts right out telling you that it
"deals with the potentially uncomfortable topic of domestic abuse."
Telling the player up front about the topic is a very wise move, in this
case: Jane is really nothing like a traditional work of interactive
fiction. The idea is simple. You play the role of various characters
over the course of a few weeks/months in the story of a woman with a
violent husband. There isn't a lot of room for changing the course of
what happens; in fact, I think it's pretty much impossible. You may not
notice it much the first time, but play it through again. This isn't
just the linearity of a story-game, though: the inability to affect the
ultimate outcome of the story actually lends to the sense of
helplessness in the title character, and the helplessness too of those
around her, who watch and want to help but can't seem to find the right
thing to do or say.

The conversation is done with menus, which is a fine way of doing it
when you're trying to tell a specific story. The problem is this: a menu
with only one option isn't really much of a menu. The author explains in
the afterword that he would have preferred to implement more
conversation options. I can imagine it's a pain in the butt, keeping
track of conversations and characters and stuff -- heck, Emily Short has
written more than one game entirely consisting of complex conversation.
So I don't mind too much.

I also agree with what the author says in the afterword about alternate
endings: if he had implemented an ending where Jane gets away from her
abusive husband, then he would risk making any ending where she doesn't
seem like a "losing" ending, and that can't help but trivialize the
subject. It's a difficult thing to handle in a work of interactive
fiction, but I think this is an excellent attempt.

It is a little disorienting to switch from one character to another --
yes, I know everyone always says that. It doesn't make it any less true,
and it's also true that it detracts from the overall feel of character
and cohesiveness of the story. At the same time, though, the two scenes
near the beginning that we get from the husband's point of view are
invaluable for a deeper understanding of the complexities of the topic,
which is something the author was clearly trying to portray.

There's no question that the piece is being used to raise awareness of
domestic abuse, and I'm not really sure that the Comp is the place for
such things. On the other hand, it certainly is honest about what it's
doing, and uncomfortable though it is to play through, there is no doubt
of it's sincerity. And I do approve of raising awareness of such things
in general. This is by no means a fun game, but it is well coded and a
competent job of story-telling. 

There are a couple of oddities that only an "IFer" would notice, mostly
scenery objects that can't be interacted with as you might expect in
reality: shoes that can't be picked up, a bench you cannot sit down on,
and a wife you can't kiss ("Keep your mind on the game" is quite a
jarring response when I've forgotten that this is anything related to a
"game" at all). Plus I couldn't save or transcript and I don't know why.
In summary, a thoughtful piece that addresses a serious issue in a
skilled and competent way.

(There, I went the whole review without mentioning Photopia. D'oh, I
just did!)


From: David Welbourn 
[This review originally appeared on David's webpage at]

TITLE: Janitor
AUTHOR: Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn
EMAIL: ifcomp SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

Do you like puzzles? Do you like a challenge? Are you nostalgic for
games like Colossal Cave and Zork I? And do you like breaking mimesis?
Yes? Then this is the game for you.

Remember Zero Sum Game from 1997? In that game, you had just finished an
adventure with the high score, but then your mom ordered you to put all
your treasures back where you found them. Janitor starts out much the
same way, except this time you’re a janitor at the Flavorplex Text
Adventure Company, a player has finished the game, and it’s your job to
put everything back. And just like in Zero Sum Game, the score goes down
when you solve a puzzle, not up. Fortunately, Janitor is far less

An added conceit to the proceedings is the addition of mimesis and space
warping technologies. The internal game, a cave-crawl called Flavorplex
Qualifying Adventure, is built like a series of movie sets adjoining the
company’s hallways, and populated with actual treasures. But internally,
a mimesis field makes the sets seem real and hides the access corridor
exits, while some other pseudoscience connects the rooms so that they
follow the adventure’s desired layout. And you’re equipped with a
mimesis disruptor in your mop so you can see how the rooms really are
and get your job done.

So once you’ve understood all that (and probably made two contradictory
maps of the place), and stopped chuckling at all the in-jokey game
references, you can start figuring out what goes where. As you might
imagine, it’s somewhat tricky, and in places somewhat unfairly so. I
wasn’t done when my two hours ran out, and I had to rate it partway
through. (There are hints, both in-game, and in an external html file
should you need them. And, in time, I did need them.)

Still, the game wouldn’t let me go. Quite apart from the desire to
successfully reset the game, there were clues that something wasn’t
quite right about Flavorplex; there’s a mystery to solve as well. You
might want to talk to your boss’s secretary, Eva, guest starring from
Grim Fandango, about a few things.

And when you’ve won Janitor, you can still continue to play by playing
the Flavorplex game forwards! What fun.

Rating: 8


From: Tony Baechler 

TITLE: Moonbase
AUTHOR: Mike Eckardt (writing as QA Dude)
EMAIL: mike SP@G
DATE: September 2002
SUPPORTS: TADS 2 interpreters
VERSION: IF Comp release

This game was all right, but apparently had a bug which prevented it
from being completed. Also, there were spelling errors which should have
been noticed. I am going to spoil a puzzle because I know that many
players will not appreciate it. There is an instant death room to the
north of the storage room, but because of the bug there seems to be no
way to get around it. When I tried to get or wear the item needed, I was
told that my load was too heavy, even though I dropped everything.

Upon checking the walkthrough, I found out that I was in fact doing the
right thing and no other solution was offered so I gave up. I have a
slight objection to having to go to the author's site for the
walkthrough. I also object to the assumption that everyone uses HTML
TADS, so they must be using Windows or similar and can access Java. I am
referring to the plaque in the foyer. It so happens that I do use
Windows but my preference is the plain DOS TADS interpreter. It also
happens that I am blind and have almost no access to Java sites, even if
I use Internet Explorer. Authors, please quit assuming that everyone
uses your OS and has the same resources available as you. This has
applied to Adrift in the past and applies to this year's Glulx game.
(No, I had no problem with reading the walkthrough, just the Java site.
It did not look terribly interesting anyway, so I guess I did not miss

Sorry I was on my soap box, but I am done complaining for now. For a
first time effort, the game is not too bad. It is fairly short and the
puzzles are simple. There are no hints but they are not really needed.
For amusement, read the curtains in the transporter rooms. That was
probably the best part of the game. I quit with 13 points. Except the
instant death room, I have no serious complaints. There is another
slight bug, but not serious. If you climb the ladder, it never shows up
on the status line and in fact it seems you cannot get off the ladder.
Movement is unrestricted though, so I think a flag is set and nothing
else. Also, the "x all" feature works and most objects have
descriptions. There seems to be many unnecessary objects but I think I
never got to the puzzle which required them. It also seems that you only
need to use one puzzle per object. You must be carrying a certain tool
to wear the item in the storage room. That is fine, but if you try to
"tighten" something it will not work.

My comp rating: 3


From: Emily Short 
[This review originally appeared on Emily's webpage at]

TITLE: The Moonlit Tower
AUTHOR: Yoon Ha Lee
EMAIL: requiescat SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

Prose compels a certain pace. This is a game to be read slowly, as
though dreaming. I tend to be wary of poetic diction in IF, because it
can confuse and clutter the imagery, make interaction difficult, and
stop immersion with its excesses of pretense. There's some danger of
that here, too. It takes discipline not to let the eye skim for nouns to
interact with. 

There is much that is lyrical and strange and compelling here, all the
same. This is a game of phantom scent and overheard whispers; it all
takes place in averted vision, full of longing and grace. It is like
haiku, or that poem of Ezra Pound's with the jeweled stairs and the dew
on the stockings, where all the sense lies in the interstices of what is

Now, you may call me inconsistent for liking this game when I decried
The Granite Book for being mood-driven and obscure. The central story is
a bit hard to be certain of here, too, but I felt I had a better guess.
I don't deny Moonlit Tower has some flaws. The puzzle design is not its
strong suit. I would not have guessed how to use the maple leaf; I never
did figure out how to acquire the lanterns; I only saw what one can do
with the comb when I read the AMUSING.

Even leaving that aside, the structure of the game was a bit vague: it
seemed as though parts were a little uncertain, a little less organized
than they might have been, the symbolism chosen but its full meaning
unexplored. The excellence of this game is in the language, and even
more in the textures, the lighting, the play of senses. I was content to
see and be amazed.

The only thing that threw me was the amalgamation of material from
distinct Asian traditions; I kept trying to place the story, and
failing. But that's just as well, perhaps. I was grateful for the

This was my favorite game of the competition.

Rating: 10


From: Edward Lacey 
[Originally posted on]

TITLE: MythTale
AUTHOR: Temari Seikaiha
EMAIL: temari_se SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

Any game based on the mythology of Ancient Greece would have to capture
some of their grandeur in its writing if it is to succeed, and MythTale
does not disappoint in this regard. In fact, by setting the body of the
game in the house of a modern day myth-enthusiast, with various
mythological vignettes triggered as he uncovers a set of items, the
author goes one stage further and contrasts the world of mythology,
where you battle giants and bring the dead, with life with the real
world, where the worst monster to face is the spider in the garden shed.
The difference in the nature of the events described is brilliantly
reflected by a distinct shift in the style of the writing (be sure to
try X ME in both the real world and the myths), and within this context
passages that might seem slightly dull or overblown are entirely
justified. I don't think there's a Muse for interactive fiction, but
this is one of the competition entrants that shows we can do quite well
enough without one.

Unfortunately, how precisely the mythological vignettes relate to the
main part of the game is not at all clear. It is suggested at the start
of the game that they represent the protagonist's daydreams (and the
response to CONSULT MYTHS ABOUT ME lends support to this), but it is
possible to die in them and bring the game to an end. The endgame, in
which the player is confronted with a decision about what to do with a
particular object, seems rather detached from what precedes it; the
object and the opportunities it brings could represent the fruits of the
modern character's labours, and may call to mind an object acquired in
the brief introduction, but I was left wondering how the character I'd
been playing through most of the game got on after I left him, and the
lack of an explanation of how the items he'd been searching for had
ended up where they were was disappointing.

Some other small criticisms can be made. There are a few
guess-the-syntax moments, one puzzle involves a device that I can't
believe any sane person could have designed (though most of the other
puzzles are logical) and one object was incorrectly classified as
plural, which caused confusion when I attempted to refer to it as 'it'
and received a message about a different object. None of this prevents
MythTale from being well worth playing, but it isn't going to last as
long as the myths it refers to.

My Rating: 6


From: Suzanne Britton 

TITLE: Photograph
AUTHOR: Steve Evans
EMAIL: trout SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

"Photograph" is a vivid, professionally well-written and competently
programmed work. It is story-based and nearly puzzleless, but manages to
carry the player through the plot at a comfortable pace, without
dissolving into the tedium that sometimes characterizes pure-story IF.
There are things to do, problems to solve, and each project serves to
drive the plot. Occasionally, though, the prodding feels a little too
blatant, as if the player is being bounced from point to point (need to
eat, need to sleep, etc.) with bits of story in between.

"Photograph" is a rather dark character study, reminding one of
"Rameses" from two years ago. It is the story of a man who fixates on a
single "wrong turn" in his past, only to find, in the end, that the
hollowness within him runs deeper than he knew. What most raises
"Photograph" above the ordinary is the rich symbolism with which it
embellishes this tale, particularly the use of Egyptian mythology. It
skates the thin line between over-blatant and over-obscure, occasionally
erring towards the former, but usually just right. One is left with a
host of questions and intriguing ideas, especially regarding the
parallel between the Akhnaten dream and the fate of the protagonist (a
parallel reinforced throughout the story by subtle and not-so-subtle

Akhnaten stands on the shore, awaiting the boat which will take him to
the afterlife. Belatedly, he wonders if it was wise to reject the
Egyptian pantheon in favor of Aten. But then he reaches under his robe
and finds a cavity where his heart should be. This "doesn't auger well
for [his] meeting with Osiris (the weigher of hearts).".

Consider the protagonist, who also made a decision that he later
regretted, and blamed that decision for the hollowness that grew within
him. Yet when he gets a chance to go back and take the other branch of
the fork, the epilogue describes a man who dies just as lost, just as
empty. Akhnaten worried that his choice of deities might bar him from
the afterlife, only to find in himself a deficiency so severe--a hollow
heart--as to render the question moot. Perhaps Jack's deficiency is also

This is but one of many lines of thought to follow. Another would
explore the symbolism of the picture frame. Is it, as the final lines
suggest, a shriveled organ, waiting in a jar for the boat of Ra? Was
Jack's mistake in fixating on this frame--this single deciding moment in
his life--to the exclusion of all else, much as Akhnaten threw away the
richness of the Egyptian pantheon in favor of his pet god, Aten? But on
the other path, Jack makes the same mistake of fixation: he gets
swallowed up in his work.

Whichever way you approach it, "Photograph" is irredeemably fatalistic.
The protagonist seemed doomed from the beginning, by his own nature, to
lose himself. I can't agree with such fatalism; nevertheless, the work
is too rich and thought-provoking not to love.


From: Mike Russo 
[Originally posted on]

TITLE: The PK Girl
AUTHOR: Robert Goodwin
EMAIL: sakurafiend SP@G
DATE: September 2002
VERSION: IF Comp release

This anime-inspired game takes a story-driven IF and mixes in a dating
sim and whole mess of world interactivity. The amount of depth here is
impressive; there's something like half a dozen girls you can woo, a
bunch of nonessential locations that evolve as the game goes by, and a
truly amazing number of objects you can find and play with.

The central plot is nothing to write home about -- cute girls with
psychic powers stalked by a mysterious conspiracy -- and dating sims in
general strike me as somewhere between creepy and pathetic, but where PK
Girl really shines is in the incredible amount of stuff you can do. I
wound up picking up an ice-cube tray early in the game; later on, I
managed to fill it with water, stick it in a freezer, pop out the
finished cubes, and started to make a frozen dessert with it. There was
no obvious puzzle associated with it, although I'm sure there was a use
for it, perhaps in currying favor with one of the girls. That level of
interactivity is present throughout the game; you can help a character
cook dinner, for example, or help comb another's hair. The sheer wealth
of different objects to play and experiment with, some useful to the
plot, some not, really makes the game feel more interactive and engaging
than much story-driven IF, to say nothing of the average dating sim,
which typically relies on simplistic multiple-choice gameplay.

I'm not a particular fan of this genre, which hurt its appeal a bit, but
for a player with different sensibilities, PK Girl could well be the
most enjoyable game in the comp, with enough replayability and depth to
have a long lifetime beyond the judging deadline.

Rating: 8


From: Emily Short 
[This review originally appeared on Emily's webpage at]

TITLE: Rent-a-Spy
AUTHOR: John Eriksson
EMAIL: joers SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

This reminded me in some ways of an Andy Phillips game -- Heroine's
Mantle, say -- but without the mad verve. It does have the persnickety
puzzles that have unbelievable solutions, and the somewhat sketchy
implementation. There were a number of things I did that I think
shouldn't really have worked; I don't, for instance, believe it is
actually possible to open elevator doors in the way this game's PC does.

Once again we have an office setting, once again we have to guess
people's passwords -- and they're shamefully bad about choosing
appropriate ones, too. Most password systems protecting data of any
significance will refuse to allow you to use common words or names, but
this is a rule that apparently does not exist in IF-land. The part of
this game that could've been a more interesting setting -- the medical
lab, with the potentially dangerous chemicals and funky machinery -- is

I do like the fact that the game encourages you to clean up after
yourself in good spy manner. I have a bit of a quibble, though: it
doesn't apply this rule universally. You can leave one thing out of
place -- because it is physically impossible to leave it in its original
position and still escape -- and no one seems to notice that, though it
seems just as significant as all the other things that you are required
to tidy up after yourself in order to obtain a perfect score.

Some other nitpicks that drove my score for this down a little: there
are some grammatical errors. The writing is serviceable, but not
stellar. The responses, especially towards the end of the game,
inexplicably flicker between first person and second person. Debugging
mode was left on, making it possible to find information you're not
supposed to know (though in my case this was convenient, as it allowed
me to cheat without actually having to go to the walkthrough until
nearly the end of the game). The truck is peculiarly implemented and for
some time seems only to be a message-daemon, since it passes through the
room in which you're standing and then cannot be referred to again.
(This wouldn't be so important except that the truck is obviously part
of a puzzle solution; the player is going to be trying to interact with
it. The game ought at least to recognize such attempts, with comments
like "the truck has gone by too quickly for you to catch", rather than
acting as though something of critical importance has not even been

Little things, you know, but they add up, making the whole seem slightly
shabby around the edges.

Rating: 5


From: Tony Baechler 

TITLE: Screen
AUTHOR: Edward Floren
EMAIL: edwardfloren SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

I really enjoyed this game, but it had small faults. Before I mention
them, I would first like to mention that it was very well-written. I
found no obvious grammar errors. Almost everything I examined had
descriptions. I found no obvious bugs. I liked the overall premise. The
best way to describe it without spoilers is "short and sweet." However,
it is just the right size for what it is trying to do.

It had small faults. Probably the biggest was that it could not make up
its mind about whether we are in first or third person. At the beginning
it was obviously first person. It moved into standard IF, which I think
is second person. Finally, it was third person in the cut scenes. This
was a little jarring since I had already figured out my name but it kept
referring to me by name as if I was reading a book about a stranger. I
felt myself becoming distanced from the PC, as if I am looking at him
through an outside window or some such. Overall, this was minor but
detracted from the game.

Secondly, I felt it could have transitioned into the three parts more
smoothly. In other words, suddenly I am in a different part and am
trying to figure out who I am and what I am doing. I guess it did a good
job though because the first thing I thought to do was examine myself.
It did a fair job of describing me, but I thought that part 3 was better
done with more described characters. The NPCs were cutouts but that was
perfectly fine for a game like this. They both gave clues as to what
they wanted, so by poking around it was obvious what I was supposed to
do in part 2.

Finally, it lost some points for originality. Sorry, but similar devices
have been used before. Besides, I am a little confused how the screen
got there in the first place. Again, though, I emphasize that these
faults were very minor. The game was slightly above average. The faults
might have been less noticeable if the game was larger, but I think the
reason why I liked the game as much as I did was because of its small
size. It is enough to capture my attention but is not too long and drawn
out. I was never this PC but can relate to his nostalgia, even with the
narrative style changing as it did.

If the transitions were slightly smoother, this would be a good game to
polish and release after the competition is over. It is a pleasant way
to spend 10-20 minutes. Congratulations and good job. I would like to
see more from this author, since I like his writing style.

My comp rating: 6


From: Mike Russo 
[Originally posted on]

TITLE: The Temple
AUTHOR: Johan Berntsson
EMAIL: temple SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

Hoary as the genre is, I'm a big fan of Lovecraftian horror, and The
Temple manages to nail the obscure sense of existential menace that
makes it work; the city it depicts feels almost like a living thing,
aged, decrepit, and full of hate, although the descriptions do provide a
few moments of unintentional hilarity (the "irregular-sized basalt
blocks of irregular size" spring to mind). Though there are no elements
that are specific to the Cthulhu Mythos that I could detect, the
dream-world setup echoes the best of Lovecraft's work, and while
Charles' longing for his lost love seems more out of Poe than anything
else, it certainly adds a welcome complexity to the theme; there's hope
as well as despair, which makes the ultimately positive ending fit the
story better than it would in a straight Lovecraft pastiche.

I enjoyed the puzzles and felt them to be generally well-integrated,
although that could reflect my own bias in favor of messing around with
rituals. I did need to consult the walkthrough at one point, since
knowing how much Lovecraft liked cats, I hadn't thought of throwing
things at the one in the game, but for the most part there were enough
clues to know both what to do next and why it was important.

The inclusion of an NPC in the same situation as the player was a nice
touch, permitting a few fun puzzles that required teamwork, and cleverly
allowing the author to play up the horror of the situation without being
forced to manipulate the player too heavy-handedly. I did run into one
fairly significant design bug -- Charles helped dig me out of a cave-in
after I opened up a portal and sent him back to his own time! -- but
aside from that, the game was quite solid.

It's true that The Temple isn't fleshed out as completely as it could
have been -- leaving plenty to the reader's imagination is a critical
part of Lovecraft's style, but it still would have been nice to know
more about the presence trapped in the vial, or have a better idea about
where the cultists generally got their victims -- and the puzzles
generally feel lightweight -- boiling two powders together isn't quite
as eldritch a ritual as I'd have liked. But it succeeds quite well at
evoking and sticking to a mood, and presenting gameplay that fits that
mood admirably.

Rating: 7


From: Jessica Knoch 
[This review originally appeared on Jessica's webpage at]

TITLE: Till Death Makes A Monk-fish Out Of Me
AUTHOR: Jon Ingold and Mike Sousa
EMAIL: jonnyingold SP@G, mjsousa SP@G
DATE: September 2002
SUPPORTS: TADS 2 interpreters
VERSION: Release 1.0

Heh. Great title. One of the neatest things about this game is the way
the TADS is made to look like Inform, the way it used to look on my old
interpreter no less. This is indeed very kewl. But on to the game!

You play a scientist at some unspecified point in the future with a
nifty device that allows people to transfer their consciousness to other
people's bodies, apparently for a short time. You are going to use the
device to vacation on the surface for a while (oh, you and your fellow
scientists are at an underwater base, did I mention?) when something
goes horribly wrong. The scene where something goes horribly wrong is
actually sort of funny, and well-coded, and in general fun. For
instance, there's an emergency switch to open the door and get out. If
you try to pull it first, the game says "It's a push switch," and if you
try to push it first, it says "It's a pull switch," just to make you
take that extra turn. This is great. Normally, this sort of artificial
time-wasting is not great, it's just annoying, but it works here because
the game doesn't start until after you don't make it out of the first
scene. Clear?

Ah, there are some great moments in this game. The first two puzzles,
involving getting out of where you wake up, are terrific and clever (and
I solved them without hints). By the way, the hints come in three
different levels of helpfulness, and are location-dependent, so that
when you are in a certain room you get the hint for the puzzle it thinks
you're working on. Not always the right one, but it does take into
account what you have in your inventory, or at least it sure seems to.
It's very cool, although (as I said) problematic. Come to think of it, I
solved the next puzzle or two on my own also. Very well done.

What's also fun about the game is that you, as the player, actually know
more about your situation in some ways than the PC does. Then again, the
PC knows what the machine was supposed to do and you, the player, do
not. So it's kind of a trade-off. Still, the quirkiness and, well, I
almost want to say naiveté of the PC are really very humorous. I lose
the humor a bit when I suspect that the PC knows things about how the
computer works that he isn't sharing, but with a few hints you can get
by. The password and key puzzle from the latter section of the game is
very very tricky, but quite novel and very good. By the way, when I was
halfway through the puzzle I thought, "All right! What's 'dog' in
French?" and typed "chien" without thinking much about it. When that
didn't work, I spent five minutes trying to remember how on Earth you
say "dog" in French (since I had it wrong). But as I said, the actual
solution was terrific.

Where does the game miss out? Well, there was the frustration of not
being able to do something and not finding any hints, because I was
going about the solution in the wrong way. I assumed I needed to
re-enter a room to get something, when actually I needed to be in a
different location to get what was in the room (thus the problem with
location-based hints). And there are some spelling mistakes and
punctuation quirks. At one point, the status line lists you as being "on
on the trolley." And an item is "far to heavy" to pick up. There are
also a few missing synonyms, like using "Rosalind" after she's in
pieces. And it's tough, I know it's tough, to implement being in a
location within a room by implementing it as a separate location (which
is what seems to have happened with the metal drawers). It's tricky
because there are basic things in the larger room that you want to be
able to refer to from the smaller section of room. Let me clear things
up: You are on a large drawer, pulled out from a wall of drawers, and
the room description mentions both metal drawers and a ceiling. But from
where you are you "don't see any ceiling here," nor the metal drawers.
It's a bit misleading, but very forgivable.

Anyway! For most of the game, the writing is either effective but not
attention-getting, or startlingly funny. For instance, a metal plate
sticks up from the ground "like a wafer in an ice cream," and later a
particular item is sticking up "like a cocktail stick from a sausage."
Those are attention-getting phrases, and while not smooth or sweet, they
do bring a chuckle. I did feel pretty involved in the story, even if I
didn't realize it until I was racing down the corridor on a metal
gurney, being pursued by God knows what, and it occurred to me that I
was pretty caught up in it. The best part was, I wasn't anxious or
worried about being caught by the thing because of the overall light and
amusing tone. Very impressive.

There was one programming trick which, while I liked it at the time,
caused me some puzzle-solving problems. If there was one particular
object that the game wanted to draw your attention to, it would prevent
you from examining other things by saying "Your eyes slide back to the
." That's pretty slick, and also effective because the player
looks at whatever the thing is. The problem is, a line like that at the
bottom of a room description makes me skim the room description faster,
which means I missed critical objects that were listed and had no idea
(for instance) that there was a hand scanner in the control room. 

My only other complaint would be that the ending is somewhat
anticlimactic. I always like a good long ending that really wraps up all
the loose ends, or just hits you over the head with them, and I wasn't
really sure that the ending I got with Monk-Fish was the best one. I
don't see what I could have done differently, but I still wonder. 

Overall, a very strong work with excellent writing and clever puzzles.
Great job all around!


From: J. Robinson Wheeler 
[This review originally appeared on Rob's webpage at]

AUTHOR: Jessica Knoch
EMAIL: jessicaknoch SP@G
DATE: September 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 1.0

This game has the same relentlessly cheerful narrative tone that Laura
Knauth's "Trapped in a One-Room Dilly" did. I don't know whether such a
tone is good or bad on its own, but if the player happens to be in a
surly mood when it comes belting out at him, it can be a bit much.

However, I don't take off points for friendliness; I just thought I'd
mention it.

The first comment I'd like to make is a general one, but I'll use
"Tookie" as an example. I think that authors need to exercise restraint
when it comes to opening text. One brief paragraph will usually suffice,
if carefully crafted. If you need more than that to get across all of
the material you have imagined, perhaps what you need to do is start the
game in a different place, and have the exposition unfold interactively.

Here is the first third of "Tookie"'s opening text: 

   It started out a normal enough Saturday...

   You slept in late and watched part of the ball game in between naps,
   until Tookie, your faithful hound, ran over with the leash and would
   not be refused. You set out on a walk through the neighborhood (fully
   intending to be back in time to see the last few minutes of the
   game), when you spotted a rather strange thing in the sky.

By this point, I was already thinking to myself, "Gee, this could have
been done as IF, instead of as a cutscene." I could have started the
game plopped out on the couch, or whatever, and Tookie could have run in
with the leash and nagged at me until I figured out that I needed to put
the leash on his collar and take him outside. And then I could have been
alerted something in the sky, perhaps by Tookie, and EXAMINEd it for

It continues:

   Before you could say "Golly, I wonder what that is," an alien
   spacecraft had landed and three beings that looked like giant cats in
   silver jumpsuits had hopped out, grabbed Tookie right off his leash,
   and hustled him back into their spaceship! A voice hissed out at you,
   "Perhaps if you're clever enough, you can have him back, earthling,"
   and then the spacecraft jumped right into the ground, leaving nothing
   behind but a small hole and some scorch marks!

   Well, naturally enough, you started down the hole in pursuit of your
   dog! Man's best friend, and let's not forget this one is a purebred
   bloodhound, but the point is that no alien cat is going to steal your
   Tookie! The tunnel twisted and turned, but you followed it all the
   way down, slipping a bit at the end to find yourself here.... but
   where is here?

See what I mean? This material also could have been part of the game. It
might have been more fun, and more engaging of my interest. Although, if
it had started that way, I might have ended up being disappointed with
what I found down in the hole, which was a "collect the four gems"
set-up, with multiple puzzles obstructing the path to each one.

I can enjoy a good collect-the-gems game now and then. This one was not
bad, although I was groaning a bit when I discovered that one of the
puzzles was an algebra problem and another was a bowling match, even
though I knew there would probably be a sensible solution to each of

I was going to complain about the very first puzzle in the game, the
acquisition of a ring of keys to the four locked doors, but I found out
later on that the element I was going to complain about reappeared to
more useful effect later in the game. Uh oh, thing-in-the-well won't let
me touch the keys! I'd better figure out how to defeat it! Except, uh, I
don't have anything to defeat it with. This turns out to be
misdirection, and you can get the keys anyway, and the defeating of the
thing in the well comes later on, for a different reason. Still, it kept
me thinking along the wrong lines enough so that I went to the hints
instead of solving it myself. I think that could have been designed a
bit better, because the actual solution to the keys problem, and the
in-game clues to solving it, were fairly original and clever, but I
didn't appreciate it very much because I had to look up the answer.

The game slightly confused me at one point, when I saw two rooms with
holes in the wall, one of which had a gigantic aquarium tank, and I put
a bowling ball through the hole in the wall upstairs from the tank,
heard a smashing of glass, and returned to the tank to see that nothing
had happened. I thought there was a bug, and I restarted, only to find
out the bowling ball had shown up again in a completely different place,
with no clue as to why. The in-game hints say that the aquarium is a
completely useless bit of scenery -- so, er, why is it there? Just
because the author had fun coding up a giant squid in a tank? I guess
that's allowed. I guess.

I had some gripes about the ring of keys, in that the game almost acted
like it was smart enough to disambiguate automatically which one I meant
-- I went south first, and the game took it upon itself to try the key
for that door for me. But, for the other three doors, the process was
more tedious. Once I have the key ring, the doors should just fling
themselves open when I walk in the right direction.

I want to point out two strange authorial choices that were irritating
when they did not need to be. First:

   >x door
   You can't put your finger on it, but something about the large door
   in the wall makes you think of it as a "dropping" door. There is a
   row of colored leaves hanging from the top of the door.

   >x leaves
   See the row of icicles text.

If you're going to bother to make a scenery object and give it a
description, just put an actual description there. Especially when a)
the reference is mimesis-breaking (mentioning game "text"), and b) the
reference, if consulted, doesn't make any sense:

   >x icicles
   Cool, sharp, aloof. Each icicle looks to be about a handswidth long,
   perfectly symmetrical, and slightly bluish. I suppose that's to be

So the leaves are also cool, sharp, aloof, a handswidth long, perfectly
symmetrical, and slightly bluish, as to be expected?

The second example, similarly, shows the author taking the time to code
a response that provides an unhelpful redirection, instead of being

   The wide staircase curves around to enter the upstairs room on the
   north wall.

   Space Bar
   The walls here are decorated with black paint and pictures of stars
   and planets, which, coupled with the futuristic-looking tables and
   chairs scattered about and the bar, lead you to believe that what you
   are in is supposed to be, well, a space bar. The room is brightly
   lit, and all of the tables are empty of people, but there is a
   strange looking figure standing behind the bar. Finally, you can see
   the top of a curving staircase set in the north wall.

   There are two ways of going down from here: you may walk north to the
   spiral staircase, or enter the hole in the corner of the room.

If I can go "UP" to get here, why can't I go "DOWN" to leave by the same
staircase? You know where I want to go when I type that, because you put
the code there to print this message. Maybe it's that you wanted to make
sure I tried "ENTER HOLE" (which isn't actually an exit, either),
because the response to that command provides a hint for a puzzle. Bad

I had some gripes about the solution to Eddie's math problem. [Rob's
answers have been changed to prevent the spoiler. --Paul] The problem
was that I was saying "4" instead of "FOUR," but I think that the author
could reasonably have accounted for this, sparing me trying a dozen
different variations:

   >say 4 p.m. to eddie
   >say "4 p.m." to eddie
   >eddie, 4 p.m.
   >answer 4 p.m. to eddie
   >answer 4 pm to eddie
   >answer "4 pm" to eddie
   >answer "4" to eddie
   >answer 4 to eddie
   >eddie, 4
   >say 4
   >say "4"
   >say "4 P.M."

My final gripe is that once the puzzle about Fred the bowling cat has
been "solved," you shouldn't have to sit through all ten frames of a
simulated bowling game. There really is no entertainment value to it,
especially when it's padded out with [More] prompts for some kind of
attempt at suspense. I can understand why coding this up was fun for the
author, but the effect on the player is, unfortunately, tedium.

   [repeat 7 more times]

There is enthusiasm and energy to spare here, and some neat ideas. In
the endgame, your "performance" is assessed, which I thought was
amusing. Because I finished it after restarting, I took a few shortcuts
(such as grabbing the key ring directly), and was marked off for this.
Once again, I look forward to this brand-new author's next works, now
that they've gotten this initial batch of IF ideas out of their system,
and will have to dig a little deeper the next time.

Also, "TOOKiE'S SONG"? What song? And why the lowercase i in "TOOKiE"?


From: Edward Lacey 

TITLE: Unraveling God
AUTHOR: Todd Watson
EMAIL: jillandtodd SP@G
DATE: September 2002

Like a number of the other competition entries, Unraveling God is
heavily story-based; in fact it contains essentially no puzzles at all.
This is more than compensated for by an original plot and a generally
high quality of writing that depicts the game's characters very
effectively. The author also deserves credit for attempting to discuss
the science behind the plot; while this isn't done totally convincingly,
it places the scientific aspects of the game well above the "this works
this way because I say so" style of explanation that characterises some

The narrative jumps back and forth through time in a manner apparently
inspired by Photopia, although the player controls a single character
throughout and most of the game takes place in a single set of
locations. The first of these differences was, for me, welcome, and I
found it easy to empathise with the character, but the second difference
is the cause of a couple of problems. While I didn't notice any
inconsistencies in the text for the different time periods, the shifts
aren't quite handled perfectly; for example, it's possible to get a
phone call in one time period that should have been received in another.
I would also note that the ADRIFT parser used by the game is not the

However, these relatively minor criticisms would not on their own have
prevented me giving the game more than the four points I awarded it. My
real problem was with the game's endings. It was obvious that there was
a right choice and there was a wrong choice. First, I tried the right
choice, and got more or less the ending I'd expected. But the ending
that followed the wrong choice was really quite shocking -- not because,
as I'd expected, my decision would cause great harm, but because its
final sentences as I read them seemed to suggest that my decision had
essentially been irrelevant. This seemed both to undermine the key idea
of the plot and made me feel angry that I was expected to regard what
now seemed a needless sacrifice as the "right choice". Arousing strong
feelings in the player would generally not be a bad thing, but in this
case it felt that the game was trying to promote a particular
moral/theological argument, and this left a bitter taste in my mouth
that was reflected in my score.

The author afterwards explained to me that my interpretation of the
ending wasn't what he'd intended at all, and perhaps the lesson can be
drawn from this that the reader of any text shouldn't attach too much
weight to its final sentences. Looking back, I may note that I would not
have reacted as I did if the game had not been so successful at making
me sympathise with my character. Indeed, that the game appeared to me to
support a worldview that, it turned out, was actually very different
from that of the author is testament to his creativity. I look forward
to playing any of the author's future offerings.

My Rating: 4


From: Cedric Knight 
TITLE: When Help Collides! (including 'Parched Mesa', 'Level 50' and 'Bleach of Etiquette') AUTHOR: J. D. Berry PARSER: modified Inform AVAILABILITY: Freeware, IF Archive DATE: September 2002 (Comp02 entry) SUPPORTS: Z-machine (interpreter-sensitive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 Suggested "Cheese Rating" according to Emily Short's system: Monterey Jack, from a parodied book In an earlier and much briefer review, I claimed "When Help Collides!" (WHC) "does several new things and does them well". That judgement holds up after another two hours of playing, and yet somehow the game finished a middling eighteenth of the 38 pieces in Comp02, owing to what I surmise are its relative inaccessibility and novelty, and to questions over whether much of it is Interactive Fiction at all. So the more reviews the better. Several reviewers even apparently gave up in bafflement, convinced that they had no interest in discovering the internal logic of the game, and thus missing the varied entertainment on offer. Perhaps this isn't that surprising given the avalanche of an opening, where the player has to accept two truly surreal premises before starting play. The first premise on its own is only moderately amusing, an absurd behind-the-scenes explanation of what goes on in interactive fiction, involving a metafictional ghost-in-the-machine very similar to that used in the same Comp's better-received "Janitor" and perhaps reminiscent of the demon painter inhabiting cameras in Discworld. In this case, it is supposed that when a player types "help" in a game, some gremlin (man? woman? robot?) is charged with receiving the summons, travelling to the location of the character who asked for help in the game world and dispensing appropriate hints. Even this interpolation is more than the game itself states, but it is in fact a logical extension of the "game world" idea which accounts for the way a particular piece of software responds to typed commands. Supposedly an aim of IF is to make us forget the game is a piece of software -- what if the "help module ship" were itself also a character in that world, however "meta"? Were it merely an interactive fiction in-joke, however, I would have rated "When Help Collides!" down for not being relevant to any wider audience. The actual premise relates to just such a wider audience, although one that is mostly disjoint with the IF community: what if the space traversed by help modules is the same as that used for "self-help" personal advice? Including an external topic to spoof was a good move, and popular psychology books are a good choice, being pretty easy to send up, as Alistair Beaton does in his _Little Book of Complete Bollocks_, which consists of tips such as "Do not be afraid of death. Death is merely a continuance of life, only without the breathing. Eat lots of spinach." How would we feel if the hints for a game were similarly impractical, trite or counter-productive? Not a thought that is likely to ever occur to most players except in a dream, but the first "Act" of this game shows us anyway. So the scenario for this section is an example of genuine surrealist humour in IF, a form which has existed since "Colossal Cave", but which usually nowadays gives way to some kind of realism or simple abstraction. The title, incidentally, would appear to allude to the 1951 B-movie "When Worlds Collide", concerning a dramatic escape from a doomed Earth, and also perhaps to the nuttiness of _Worlds in Collision_, the bizarrely popular pseudo-historical theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, himself a psychoanalyst. The story of "When Help Collides!" begins with an explosive crisis, the "collision" between the two ideas previously mentioned, overwhelming not just the player character, but also the player. The first line of a new game, shown on its own in a blank screen without a prompt, reads: Amid the mangled virtual-ware littering this sector, your "Best Help" trophy stands defiantly. It has survived the crash. This line is hard to make sense of, particularly without even the blurb supplied for Comp02 ("Self-Help rams Game-Help. Accident or deliberate consciousness insinuation?") to provide context. Just enough information is given in the next line to clue the first command before the titles and a second collision. The player is supposed to accept all this before reading: Stunned twice in a matter of milliseconds--that's just not right. This also describes the typical feelings of the player pretty well. One problem with starting a piece on a high note like this is that it is impossible to keep the action going at such an extreme pitch for any length of time, and so we down to some kind of intelligible stability at various times. The torrent of one-sentence paragraphs begins to overwhelm. Nevertheless, invention and entertainment keep coming throughout "When Help Collides!", although it lacks any conventional dramatic structure. It also lacks a conventional game structure. Many players got the impression from the accompanying files that "When Help Collides!" consists of four completely unrelated sub-games of equal status; it would indeed be difficult to play all four within a two-hour time limit. The actual structure is as follows. Halfway through "When Help Collides!", on entering a scene on a "wagon" (a metaphor made physical), the narrative path diverges almost randomly into three. Each of these three paths leads to one of the "outer" games, so that a single pass through the game would consist of "When Help Collides!", plus one of "Parched Mesa", "Level 50" or "Bleach of Etiquette" -- it should be much more possible to complete this combination within the two-hour judging period. The idea that competition judges could each be judging an entirely separate game without realising it is itself amusing. Each sub-game (fortunately mostly too easy too need a help system) has two or three endings, the obscure optimal one involving a promised "transformation" with the help of some counsellor figure. The optimal endings of two also see the return of an object from Act I, while the third is unexpected, hinting at yet another level to the game. Unfortunately, the author seems to have committed a tactical error which helped confuse players. Instead of having "When Help Collides!" segue into the appropriated sub-game, a non-player character provides a password to be used after a restart. The reasons for this could have been partly technical (to overcome the problems of a single game file with four distinct banners and command sets), partly practical (to ensure the player has a fixed game position to return to without having to repeat the first section again, although this could have been ensured by insisting on a save), and partly aesthetic (to allow the judges to see the richness of invention in other endings). The actual effect of including the codes in the accompanying walkthrough was that players would indeed play the sections in any order, and were therefore less likely to understand the links between them. One other factor that might have made WHC (that is, the game as a whole) less popular was needing to learn a whole new command set to play. This applies particularly to the "Bleach of Etiquette" sub-game, and the second "wagon" section of "When Help Collides!". In both cases, the standard IF world model and language which principally centres on manipulating physical objects is dispensed with as irrelevant, and replaced with new ad-hoc actions. The effect of these actions is clued, but use of "undo" should not be regarded as cheating when getting to grips with them. Attempting a different interface for a game has in the past has usually been seen as a good thing, provided it works (Zarf's "The Space Under The Window" comes to mind), and it strikes me that the same standard should apply here. The button-pushing in the "wagon" scene is, in fact, not much more confusing than in many other games where the object is to discover the workings of some piece of machinery, but here usual verbs such as "put" are more clearly useless, and the only interesting command remaining is "examine". Amid all this, minor innovations, such as use of asterisks or brackets to denote the thoughts of the player character, go almost unnoticed. In the first Act, we see relevant "help" topics and irrelevant content, producing gags like: A barbaric, hulking figure looks up and asks, "What's 'alignment'?" >press help "We're all aligned to the same source. But somewhere along the line, some of us bend and twist, becoming quite unlike what our creator had in mind. Then the labelling begins: Chaotic-evil, lawful-neutral, etc... Unless we recognize that we're all in this together, we cannot truly become one with the source. That poisoned-scimitar-wielding dark elf? Give him a hug. Be surprised at what you might find." The second Act is less predictable and funnier, throwing in even more elements and further literalizing the metaphors and psychological constructs. Incidentally, the author warns that the game "works best with WinFrotz and JZip interpreters", and on others (including most Linux terps and Windows Frotz 2002) there is a subtle bug, as Andrew Plotkin noted in his review. This bug doesn't stop progress, but removes a lot of the fun of dealing with "manifestations". The game can then take one of three paths, each of which relates to a genre of interactive fiction, and each of which has an associated subgame supposedly typical of that genre. These paths are best described by the game itself as "Western", "Eastern" and "Fantasy", with Fantasy being the default, naturally enough. This review will give most attention to the "Eastern" path as that is the one that received most comment on r.g.i-f. Fantasy path -- Zarenzo the Black and "Level 50" ------------------------------------------------ "My name is Zarenzo the Black, and I'm a necromancer. Every waking moment claims the need for power and control. The ends always justify the means. But when I saw myself in the mirror this morning, saw what I had become--the skull cap, the impractical black robes, the horde of undead oustide [sic] my window--I realized this has to stop. It just has to stop. I am powerless over necromancy." The final sentence is the punchline, quite rightly -- here we have a thoroughly evil character doing the equivalent of the "Twelve Steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous (although Necromancers Anonymous appears to only have six -- perhaps the Dark Arts allow one to skip the others). It's quite a nice idea -- instead of playing a hero, or forced to play an evil PC, here we learn about an evil character and have a chance to change him. The actual "help" we provide him is rather too glib to plausibly make any difference, but the scenery is well-implemented (other than that bug) and fun to play with: A tiny fear peeps in your ear. "I'm not finished with you, yet. Just you wait, you fu..." It disappears from view before it can finish its rant. Once through this scenario, we receive the password to Act III, the fantasy subgame "Level 50." This subgame introduces the innovative elements of its scenario more gently and explicitly than the WHC frame story does: the PC is not Megnax the Fighter in some fantasy world, but Jerry Dorkman playing Megnax in some Dungeons and Dragons convention. As with "You Are Here" in Comp01, this extra fictional level makes merely cosmetic changes to the story, but allows the author to comment, via the PC, on its weaknesses; you can get away with a lot when writing a spoof. Several comments are (I think, accurate) observations about the kind of weak jokes prevalent among people with high-level D&D characters, such as an aside about fantasy shopkeepers. Although this is the only outright comedy among the sub-games, it is self-conscious in its silliness. When sent to Limbo to bring Law to Chaos, >knock on grey door "A tinny voice calls out from behind the door. 'Can you come back tomorrow? It's been total chaos in here, today. Thanks much.'" Note here the extra set of quotes, as this is the dungeon master speaking. We're allowed only the occasional command that works on the interposing mezzanine reality: >smell dungeon master (The Phish T-shirt is warning enough.) As the help system is disabled, we do have a character, Xila the Bard, who will sing about your inventory to the tune of a Billy Joel song, but these hints are themselves rather obscure. Some obviously unwinnable situations are also notable. Western path -- Winston Puckett and "Parched Mesa" -------------------------------------------------- Here, Act II of WHC takes its humour from imagined mannerisms and world-view of the Frontier rather than the moral "alignment" of the character: Puckett is venal, whereas the other two are thoroughly evil. Another Act III follows. "Parched Mesa", is subtitled "a classic western", yet something's gone a bit awry, as if this is another collision with an unexpected genre -- the dead seem to have swapped places with the living. This cross-genre aspect may be the real innovation here, rather than any old "unreliable narrator" stuff. Sparse implementation in the one mode (such as self-conscious room descriptions like "The place is as you remember it--with a dearth of furnishings yet a wealth of love.") is complemented with a fairly full set of standard responses ("Can't go thataway, pardner.") in the other. There's even an alternative banner title shown when you start a transcript. This disconcerting mismatch and other imperfections (infodump from an anachronistic NPC with three separate roles, an old-fashioned room-too-scary-to-remain-in) can, maybe unintentionally, heighten effects such as the sub-optimal ending. Eastern Path -- Nebusan Sedonkawa and "Bleach of Etiquette" ----------------------------------------------------------- Berry's irony is at its finest in dealing with the spiritual progress of Nebusan, as when the vicious Yakuza encounters Step 3 of his recovery programme. This leads on to "Bleach of Etiquette", which I shall refer to as "Breach" -- there's nothing essentially racist in the little pronunciation joke, but it gives the wrong impression of a game that deals with Japanese culture at least without deliberate ignorance. Similarly, characterisation of the PC an albino also seemed a little forced and unnecessary. There are questions as to whether "Breach" is really interactive fiction, but the first point to make is that it is at least _fiction_, in plot, setting, characterisation and dialogue. I do not know enough about the secret world of the geisha to judge whether the game is really true-to-life, but regardless of whether it is or not, it manages to _feel_ authentic and exotic with its minimal descriptions, code names, and oddly-phrased language. (The one small element of fantasy does not necessarily undermine this; it could be dismissed as an idiosyncratic way of viewing or describing things.) It is commendable that the social status of the protagonist, Demetoria, is quickly established relative to the NPCs -- higher than some, lower than others -- thus adding realism to her struggle. We might ask whether we are somehow complicit in her oppression, but the player is probably quick to decide that co-operating is the likely to be her best opportunity, compared to what I imagined was her peasant background. The puzzle here is in finding whatever desperate strategy uses Demetoria's limited assets to achieve victory in her test; thinking in character, and exploration and discovery of hidden elements of the game world help in this fun challenge, which is a marker that this is not only IF, but good IF. "Breach" resembles Papillon's underrated "One Week" (LoTechComp 2001) where a young woman tries to juggle all kinds of pressures leading up to an exam; both have a limited user interface that underlines real social constraints faced by the character and feel more than a "Choose Your Own Adventure" game. However, "Breach" differs in having only one important outcome to worry about, but many elements necessary to achieve it. Geishas are not prostitutes, and need to protect their reputation. Certainty about exactly what favours geisha might do for the people who pay for their company eludes me. Fortunately, discretion is assured here by an assortment of well-chosen euphemisms, the most explicit of which is "Fade to sack." The world depicted in Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" suggests that this last euphemism is a bit too blatant, unless we are dealing with the lower orders of geisha. Conceivably, Demetoria is very fond of some of her clients, but in a way the only important consideration is how fond they are of her. They are a mixed bunch, providing a lot of the game's interest. The only stereotype among them is Vidoru, the electronics company president, who could do with a little more characterisation. His presence somehow suggested to me a setting in the early 1970s, when geisha culture was in decline, although a later reference to Churchill pins it firmly in 1951-5. Of particular interest among the other NPCs is the woman Chizumi, whose interest in Demetoria is less to promote equality of sexual orientations than a way of showing the extraordinary desirability of the geisha character. To tell the story of this geisha's week using the conventional IF game model and interface would, I think, be cumbersome and threaten to dilute the interesting NPC encounters with large amounts of detail. Commands for wearing make-up might take up half the game . So instead of relating to the world primarily through a language of physical objects and maps, "Breach" focuses more realistically on use of time (a limited resource) and higher-level actions. "Breach" is even modestly subtitled "An agenda planner", but I feel that excising the trivia of maps and object puzzles is something of a liberation for character- and plot-based IF. In effect, commands are entered in batches of seven, and each turn consumes about three hours, with a game consisting of 41 turns. This arouses suspicion that "Breach" is not properly IF for two reasons. Firstly, a command once entered in the batch cannot be altered on the basis of a previous one, as if the PC lacks free will. To this I answer that appointment-keeping is a realistic constraint in the absence of major catastrophe, and that there are still frequent opportunities to learn from the game, plan, and interact. (In actual fact, "undo" (x7) becomes very useful when playing to win.) Secondly, that there is only one really significant verb, "book", showing a paucity of range of action. However, that same verb is used to cover diverse actions from harp practice to asking for maths tuition, plus later unexpected actions. Some actions ("research", "counsel") could have come under "book" but arbitrarily do not. The PC does in fact increase her powers during the game, and several times I typed "i" absent-mindedly, rather than "when all" which gives the closest thing to an inventory. I will admit that after all the game world features and rules have been discovered, the combinatorial possibilities of action are not large, and there may be one or more attempts to solve the game mechanically as a single puzzle. The innovations in "Breach" are technically accomplished, and use (or abuse?) the Inform grammar and model in an interesting new way. I would hope some of the new elements will influence future game development somehow. So overall the Comp release of WHC may lack a little polish, but is too easily written off as a confusing mess. A little persistence more than pays off, and the game is much less pretentious than this review might suggest. "When Help Collides!" is among the strongest pieces to come from any recent IF competition, playing with expectations like nothing else for years. 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. Any and all text-based games are eligible for review, though if a game has been reviewed three times in SPAG, no further reviews of it will be accepted unless they are extraordinarily original and/or insightful. SPAG reviews should be free of spoilers. 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. For a more detailed version of this policy, see the SPAG FAQ at ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Thank you for helping to keep text adventures alive!

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