ISSUE #33 - June 25, 2003

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

                         ISSUE #33

           Edited by Paul O'Brian (obrian SP@G
                       June 25, 2003

           SPAG Website:

SPAG #33 is copyright (c) 2003 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 ----------------------------------------------------

The SPAG Interview with Mike Roberts

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

ASCII and the Argonauts
A Crimson Spring
Escape From Pulsar 7
Rat In Control
Words of Power

###### Review Package: The Frenetic Five vs. Phlegmatic Reviewer ######
#  The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang                              #
#  The Frenetic Five vs. Mr. Redundancy Man                           #
#  The Frenetic Five vs. The Seven Deadly Dwarves                     #

################### Review Package: The Joy of AAS ####################
#  AAS Masters                                                        #
#  ADVENT                                                             #
#  Cave of Adventure                                                  #
#  Caverns of Doom                                                    #
#  Cloak of Ultimate Darkness                                         #
#  Dead By Morning                                                    #
#  Fabled Caves Of R'th-nylch                                         #
#  Office Ahoy!                                                       #
#  Pleasure Palace                                                    #
#  Pride And Prejudice                                                #
#  Sexual Conquest                                                    #

A Crimson Spring
Fine Tuned
No Time To Squeal
Sunset Over Savannah


I guess it's time I faced reality. I won't be entering the third episode
of Earth And Sky into this fall's IF competition. My original plan was
to write from December to June, beta-test from July through September,
and have something good ready by September 30th, but I find myself
suddenly at the 23rd of June, with only the first section done. There
are lots of reasons for this predicament, some of which have to do with
the motivational crisis I talked about last issue, some of which have to
do with EAS3's expanded scope and techniques, and some of which are much
more beyond my control. It all adds up to a big disappointment, though.

I've always hated vaporware. For as long as I can remember, the IF
groups have had their share of people who charge in, announce some
humongous project, post about it for months on end, and then somehow
disappear, never to be heard from again. Perhaps a few of them release
part one of their planned multi-game epic, *then* disappear, sometimes
blowing smoke about how they've abandoned their plans because the
community is just so much more indifferent to their masterwork than it
has any right to be. To me, this is highly annoying behavior, and I
think that part of what defines being a class act in our field is the
ability to unveil a fantastic piece of work without having hyped it for
months and months. After all, one great game is worth about a million
"I'm working on a great game" posts, trailers, announcements, and

Now I find myself joining the ranks of vaporware authors. Ugh. I
certainly needed to let people know that EAS3 was coming, lest I be
strung up for leaving the plot hanging indefinitely, but it leaves a bad
taste to have written "coming in Fall 2003" when I now know that no such
arrival is imminent. My plan all along was to enter the three episodes
in three consecutive competitions. It's some consolation to know that
since I won the last competition, entering this one with a sequel to
last year's winner could be construed as somewhat obnoxious, but I'd at
least like to have had the option of declining entry out of choice
rather than necessity.

All I can say is this: I am working on it. I will finish it. And in
between now and then, I'll try to mention it as little as possible. 

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR------------------------------------------------------

From: Valentine Kopteltsev 

Dear SPAG --

In my review package "Static Story Struggles", published in SPAG #32, I
alleged that the game AUGUSTINE by Terrence V. Koch was based on the
Highlander series. Naturally, I'm wrong -- I really should have had at
least a quick look at the materials accompanying the game. My apologies
to Mr. Koch and to everybody who has been deluded by this mistake --
AUGUSTINE is an ORIGINAL work, and one with a GREAT plot.

[Thanks for the correction, Valentine. --Paul]

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

Freshly released games this time around include Emily Short's long-
awaited opus City Of Secrets. Nobody's submitted a review of it to me
yet, but I sure would like to see one. Hint, hint. But CoS isn't the
only game in town -- there's erotica, treasure hunts, z-machine abuses,
and a couple of games in Swedish as well. Also released recently was
the perceptual experiment Rat In Control, reviewed by Jessica Knoch in
this issue, and authored by none other than the subject of the SPAG
Interview, Mike Roberts.
   * The Treasury of Zan by Richard Murchy
   * Dear Brian by "Choices IF" (erotica, for ages 18+)
   * ASCII and the Argonauts by J. Robinson Wheeler
   * Drakmagi by Johan Berntsson (this game is in Swedish)
   * Rat In Control by Mike Roberts
   * Z-Tornado by Sophie Fruehling
   * Dark Forest and Dark Forest II by Paul Allen Panks
   * City of Secrets by Emily Short
   * Vanyar by Johan Berntsson (this game is in Swedish)
   * Shapes by Radical Al

If you're a classical music fan, the Rite of Spring will probably make
you think of Stravinsky. For IF fans, though, the Rite of Spring is
minicomps, and this Spring we had as many as ever. Detailing the
premise, rules, and results of each one is too much for this humble
little news section, so I'll just give you some leads and let you have
the fun of discovery all to yourself: 
   * IF Art Show:
   * IF Library Comp:
   * Introcomp:
   * Logic puzzle comp:
   * Minigames:
   * Spring Thing:
For the most part, all the games are available on the IF Archive under

Nick Montfort, known as nm on ifMUD, has established an indisputable
position as one of the world's premier academic scholars of IF. Sure,
there may not be a lot of competition for the title right now, but
Montfort's first book, Twisty Little Passages, may change all that. The
book is due in December of this year, but in the meantime, his webpage
at assauges our appetites with a bushel of
articles, including treatments of Adam Cadre's Varicella
( and ifMap, a new mapping system for
IF (

This April, a group of IF wags took satirical aim at homebrewed
development systems with an elaborate hoax centered on the Advanced
Authoring System (abbreviated, naturally, to AAS), a new development
system that purported to have been created by an isolated bunch of IF
enthusiasts, but was in fact the brainchild of Iain Merrick and a number
of other co-conspirators. And just to prove how far some people will go
for a joke, AAS is an actual, working system that you can use to produce
games... just not very good ones. Of course, that didn't stop Sam Kabo
Ashwell from reviewing every single one of them (except his own) for
this issue of SPAG. The AAS web site is -- be sure to
check out the Store, which includes marketing masterstrokes like the AAS
thong, "made for strutting!"

What if there was one interpreter that could play both z-code and TADS
games? What if that interpreter included a mapping utility? Wait! What
if it *also* included network capabilties, so that multiple players
could see the game screen and map, and control the game session via
voting or a "hotseat" mechanism? Now how much would you pay? Wait!
Before you answer, check out You might
just be pleasantly surprised. 

I've noticed that for the past several issues, there's been a sort of
crest-and-trough pattern to review submissions. This issue, I'm happy to
be riding the crest, with reviews from lots of different contributors
and an unprecedented surge in pieces for SPAG Specifics. However, the
higher the crest, the more I dread what comes next. I live in Colorado,
and I'm a lot more comfortable on high ground than on rough seas -- put
me back on dry land (and get me out of this rapidly deteriorating
metaphor) by keeping those submissions coming! If you're looking for
inspiration on what to review, here are ten suggestions to get you

1.  City Of Secrets
2.  Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I.
3.  Dutch Dapper IV: The Final Voyage
4.  1893: A World's Fair Mystery
5.  Hollywood Hijinx
6.  IF Art Show 2003 games  (any, some, or all!)
7.  IFLibraryComp 2003 games (any, some, or all!)
8.  Insight
9.  Katana
10. Spring Thing 2003 games (any, some, or all!)

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

Simply stated, Mike Roberts is one of the architects of the IF
Renaissance. He's participated in the newsgroups since 1993 and authored
several stellar games, including Perdition's Flames, Ditch Day Drifter,
Deep Space Drifter, and The Plant. But far and away his most prodigious
accomplishment is his creation of TADS, the Text Adventure Development
System, which has given birth to an amazing number of top-notch games,
including Lost New York, Worlds Apart, Once And Future, the Unnkulia
series, Losing Your Grip, and literally hundreds of others. Nowadays
he's still active in the newsgroups and still writing games (including
the recent Rat In Control), and beyond that he's looking to top himself
by creating TADS 3, a next-generation rewrite of TADS, rebuilt from the
ground up to make it an even more powerful tool for the creation of
great IF. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for this issue. 

   SPAG: First off, the usual opening question: Could you tell us a
   little about yourself? Who are you, what do you do for a living, and
   so forth?

MR: I live in the part of the San Francisco area known as Silicon
Valley, which was once well known as the center of a technology industry
boom. My day job is writing software, as you might guess, although it's
just boring system software that has nothing to do with games.

   SPAG: Tell us a little about your history with IF. How did you get
   interested in the form, and what led you to take on a project like
   the creation of TADS?

MR: I first ran into IF back in maybe junior high, just home-brew stuff
that someone had probably found in one of those write-your-own-adventure
books. There was something about the idea that really intrigued me, and
I played around on and off with building little BASIC programs that did
the same kind of thing.

After a few attempts, I realized that what I needed was a way to factor
out all the difficult program code that was always nearly the same in
every game -- things like parsing, and managing inventory, and
maintaining the map of room connections. Ideally, you'd just have a
bunch of data definitions giving the room layout, the names of objects,
and so on, and one generic program to run it all. That idea worked
pretty well, but it separated things too much. The problem was that you
still needed special-case code once in a while, to make a room do
something special, for example. It was too hard to tie the special code
to the separate data definitions. What I really wanted was a way to put
both the code and data together, but I couldn't see how to do that.

In high school, I got interested in compilers and programming languages,
and I wrote a couple of toy compilers for fun. Later, in college, I
discovered object-oriented programming, and I realized it was the
solution to my unsolved mystery of how to put the code and data together
in an adventure game. That, plus my interest in programming languages,
led pretty directly to TADS.

   SPAG: Your latest game, Rat in Control, is really more of a
   psychological experiment in spatial perception than a flat-out
   adventure game, though it does have some clever setting and puzzle
   elements. Did you think it was a successful experiment, and what were
   the results?

MR: Only a couple of people ever sent me their timing numbers, so it
didn't succeed in the sense of producing statistically significant
quantitative data. I'm not sure numbers would have convinced anyone
anyway, though, since the construction of the experiment was probably a
bit hokey.

Even so, I think it was successful just as a way to directly compare the
subjective experiences of compass and relative direction systems. I
actually found it surprising how usable the relative system is -- it's
definitely more work for me than the compass system, but it's not as
hard as I'd expected. Other people have said they found it harder than
they'd expected.

I also see it as a sort of informal FAQ contribution. The
compass-vs-relative question is one of those perennial raif topics, and
it always seems unproductive because everyone talks in the subjunctive
about it -- "I think I'd like it more" this way or that way. The next
time someone joins the newsgroup and points out how unrealistic compass
directions are, and asks why no one's ever thought of using
LEFT/RIGHT/FORWARD before, I can point them to this game and let them do
the comparison for themselves.

   SPAG: When I played the game, it seemed to me that lots of other
   factors could have influenced those results -- not only demographic
   things like gender and age but also the fact that IF-ers are
   themselves a somewhat self-selecting group, as people who tend to
   enjoy wandering around a virtual environment. What are your thoughts
   on these sorts of factors?

MR: That's an interesting point -- self-selection could well be
significant, since people who don't find it easy to navigate around an
imaginary map probably can't stand IF. If I had been able to get any
real numbers out of the experiment, it would have been interesting to
see how they'd change with a more extended group that included people
who didn't play IF.

   SPAG: Playing Rat In Control reminded me how much I enjoy your game
   writing style. What, if any, are your plans for future games?

MR: Thanks! Actually, I'm working on a new game right now -- it's a
full-sized sample game for TADS 3, analogous to what Ditch Day Drifter
was for TADS 1 and 2. I've planned out the game, and I've implemented
most of the introductory sequence. Implementation work has been
punctuated by detours to work on TADS 3 itself, since working on the
game keeps turning up little (and some big) areas that have needed more
work in the system or the library. My philosophy about sample games is
that they should be real games with published source code, so my goal is
to write something that people will want to play even if they don't care
about learning TADS 3.

   SPAG: About the games you've written in the past: how do you view
   them now? Any memories that stand out as particularly special about
   the writing of them?

MR: I always have mixed feelings about my past games -- each one is such
a learning experience, mostly in terms of learning what not to do, but
they were all a lot of fun to work on. I feel like they're all terribly
flawed, but I also feel like I've been getting better at it, and maybe
I'll actually write a good one someday if I keep trying.

The most memorable moment writing the games, I think, was when a friend
was play-testing Deep Space Drifter. I like to do at least some
play-testing in person, actually sitting next to someone while they play
the game, just watching what they do and taking notes. So my friend gets
to the Cave Maze - if you haven't played DSD, part of it is this truly
huge maze, around 160 rooms, with the clever trick that a flood every
six turns washes you back to the starting point unless you're on high
ground. My friend starts mapping the maze, placing the usual one-inch
square at the center of a piece of paper. He maps out a little and
realizes that the map is going off the edge of the paper, so he starts
over with a smaller scale. After a couple of iterations of this, he's
getting kind of exasperated, so he asks if I could suggest a proper
scale. I don't usually like to give out hints while watching a
play-tester, but this time I couldn't help but show him, from across the
room, the original map, which was drawn very carefully on
half-centimeter graph paper from the very bottom to the very top. I must
have considered play-testing a mere formality at that stage in my
game-writing career, because his reaction should have given me a clue
about the wisdom of keeping that maze in the game.

   SPAG: Okay, SPAG is generally focused on players rather than
   programmers of IF (though of course there's a huge overlap between
   the two), but we can't do a Mike Roberts interview without talking
   about your monumental new project: TADS 3. For those not in the know,
   can you summarize just what it is, and what makes it different from
   TADS 2, a.k.a. TADS As We Know It?

MR: It's really a complete overhaul of the system, so it's almost easier
to put it in terms of what hasn't changed. The flavor of the programming
language is pretty similar, although it's a bit more java-like and a bit
more consistent. The run-time user interface is pretty much the same;
the one big chunk of code that's carried over from TADS 2 is the part
that interacts with the operating system to display text on the screen
and all that stuff, because I didn't want to have to rewrite ten
different OS versions. That means, by the way, that the HTML display
features are all the same as in TADS 2. The bulk of writing a game still
involves defining objects for rooms, portable items, actors, and so

One obvious change from TADS 2 is that the parser is entirely
implemented in the library now, so you can customize anything and
everything. The design of the parser is also completely different; the
new parser uses a declarative grammar, kind of like the formal syntax
diagrams you sometimes see for programming languages, or the sentence
diagramming that I remember doing in elementary school. It sounds a
little scary at first, but once you see what's going on, it's amazingly
easy to extend the grammar.

The other big change is the library. At the simplest level, it provides
a lot more in the way of pre-defined classes for the common types of
objects that show up in nearly every game. The deeper change is that the
execution model and world model are a lot more sophisticated, so they
can do more for you automatically. This should all mean it's less work
for an author to create a desired effect in a game. The trade-off is
that there's more to learn, but my hope is that the design makes the
learning curve gentle, so new authors can figure out how to do the basic
things very quickly and then pick up the more complex stuff gradually.

   SPAG: Since we are focused on players, what will be the differences
   between the two development systems from a player's standpoint?

MR: The changes probably won't jump out at you right away, because the
interpreter look-and-feel is almost the same as in TADS 2. But players
will probably notice a number of things just under the surface.

One change that'll affect most games is that the default library
messages are very "neutral" in the new library. The TADS 2 messages
imitate the early Infocom style, which had a sarcastic parser/narrator
"character" that occasionally referred to itself in the first person. I
think a lot of the early authors conceived of text games as a teletype
conversation between the player and a puppet who carried out the
player's commands and reported back. This has changed, though; most
authors these days want something a lot more like the modern
third-person narrator in static fiction, where the parser/narrator is
this submerged, unseen presence. The new library messages aim for that
effect, which I think will let the standard messages be used without the
risk of clashing with each game's own style.

Another thing that players might notice is that the parser can take care
of a lot more of the tedious details for you. It's always irritating
when a game responds to a command with something like "you'll have to
open the door first"; I mean, if the game knows enough to tell you to
open the door, why doesn't it just do it for you? Anyone who's written a
game knows the answer, which is that it's a lot easier to program the
message than the cascading action, since there are all sorts of
complications to worry about in the cascading action. Well, the new
library has a whole mechanism for this sort of thing, which it calls
"implied" actions, and it's very easy to use and control. The result
should be that players see a lot fewer of those irritating "you'll have
to first" messages in TADS 3 games.

There are lots of other little details that players will encounter from
time to time. The parser is overall a lot smarter, and it accepts a more
flexible range of inputs. You can use possessives pretty consistently to
indicate which object you mean, and you can refer to things by location,
as in "look in the box on the table." There are little niceties that
authors can enable, such as always showing a list of exits in the status
line. Hopefully these will all add up to make the playing experience
noticeably more convenient and pleasant.

   SPAG: Why do this project? What are its goals?

MR: The initial goal was merely to move the parser out of the
interpreter and into the library. The biggest weakness in TADS 2 is that
the parser is written in C and embedded in the interpreter, so games
can't customize it except at the specfic points where there are
customization hooks. I probably could have just "ported" the parser's C
code to TADS code and stopped there, and if I'd gone that route it would
have been done three years ago. But once I started looking into it, I
decided it would be a pain to rewrite the parser without automatic
garbage collection in the VM, and that kind of opened the floodgates.
Garbage collection essentially required a VM rewrite, and if I was going
to rewrite the VM anyway then I might as well fix other things at the
same time -- switch to Unicode, add exception handling, add a modular
type system, add a modular UI layer, and on and on.

Even with all of those changes, it probably would still have been a
pretty modest rewrite if I hadn't started talking about it with more
people. After I'd been working on the new VM a while, an informal
discussion group had formed, so we set up a mailing list. Several very
good computer language experts were on the list early on, and they had a
lot of great ideas that made their way into the language. They also
helped steer me away from some of my more foolish ideas, fortunately.
Once the library got under way, there was a strong consensus that it
would be a waste of time to just duplicate what was in the TADS 2
library, so the ambitions got raised there, too. Just about everyone on
the list has a lot of IF experience and know-how, so the library
discussion has been very focused and productive -- not just a bunch of
crazy blue-sky stuff that would never happen.

That's kind of a long answer. I think the short summary is that the
goals have turned out to be to take what we know about IF authoring in
the existing systems, and iterate to the next level, so that the common
problems that authors have to solve over and over are handled in the

   SPAG: Finally, what's its status? When can we expect to see it in a
   stable beta form, and more importantly, when do you think it'll be
   out of beta altogether?

MR: I always try to avoid speculating about schedules in terms of the
real-time calendar, since I'm impossibly bad at it. I can at least try
to give you an idea of the tasks I see ahead, though. The main thing I'm
doing right now is working on the new sample game, with detours for
library work as I run into things that need fixing or elaboration. The
latest library detour has gone on for a few weeks, but this one was
probably uniquely large, and I think it's mostly done now. (I'm also
fixing bugs as they're reported, but that's essentially always the case.
My philosophy is that you have to fix known bugs before you add new
code, throughout every stage of a project, because otherwise you're
building on a crappy foundation.) The game itself is pretty much planned
out, so it's just a small matter of coding.

Once the game is finished, I plan to declare beta. "Beta" is kind of
arbitrary for non-commercial software, but to me it means that I'll be
mostly fixing bugs rather than making functional changes, and that
future updates should remain backward-compatible. The next task after
the sample game will be to write a new Author's Manual. That's a little
more predictable in terms of schedule than writing code, I think, but I
haven't really scoped it out yet, so I'm not sure what to expect. It
should provide long enough for a thorough beta test, though, so once the
manual is done, the official first release should happen.

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: Francesco Bova 

TITLE: ASCII and the Argonauts	
AUTHOR: J. Robinson Wheeler
DATE: 2003
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Z-code (Inform) interpreters
VERSION: Release 2

An issue ago, I reviewed the IF-Classic game Savoir-Faire. Savoir-Faire
is a game that illustrated some of the beautifully nostalgic flair of
the old Infocom games while also improving greatly on Infocom's parser
system and playability. ASCII and the Argonauts is another IF-Classic of
sorts, but instead of having an Infocom-based backdrop as its focus,
ASCII takes a light-hearted poke at some of the surreally awful Scott
Adams games that featured poor punctuation, anemic descriptions, and
less than robust NPCs. While obviously not as polished as Savoir-Faire,
I found the tribute aspect of ASCII to be more endearing, and the
dichotomy of a strong parser in a minimalist-type setting very

What also makes ASCII remarkable is that it was conceived of and created
for a Speed IF competition in about 12-15 hours. Here was the premise
for the competition (which was taken from an ifMUD conversation):

   Trivia question: Which is a famous text adventure? a) Zork, b) Dark
   Tower, c) ASCII and the Argonauts).

   Jacqueline says, "Did they make that ASCII and the Argonauts thing
   up? I've never heard of that, and it sounds scary, but I wouldn't be
   surprised if it existed."

   Gunther | Your search - "ASCII and the Argonauts" - did not match any
           | documents.

   Gunther says, "of course, now it has to be written in a speedIF. You
   have two hours. GO!" 

And with those very broad parameters, Wheeler created a bare-bones
tribute to not only the myth of the same name but to many of the Scott
Adams games created years ago.

So what do I mean by bare-bones? Well, as I've already mentioned, this
game follows a very minimalist sort of pattern. The only area where it
doesn't diverge too greatly from a typical Inform game is with its
parser. Unlike the typical Scott Adams game, the parser was able to
handle any of the standard vocabulary you would expect in a typical
Inform game. This set up an interesting dichotomy for me because even
though the parser was sophisticated, the default responses were not.
Wheeler essentially hacked the default response code for most verbs and
dumbed them down (i.e. two-word responses, poor punctuation) from their
original Inform standards, with the game's default message for just
about any action being, "I CAN'T". That's right, "I CAN'T", replete with
capital letters and no period. Oh the joy of writing sophisticated
sentences such as: PUT THE ROCK IN THE URN only to have I CAN'T spitted
back as the response.

The minimalist style continued with the game's setting. The room
descriptions were non-existent, and were instead summarized at the top
of the game's split-screen simply with the room's title and a list of
NPCs and objects that the player could interact with. Following the same
motif, that list of players and objects was not expanded upon either.
They were listed solely by their names regardless of what context you
found them in. Examining objects typically provided descriptions as
verbose as, "VERY SHINY!" to ones as barren as "NOTHING SPECIAL".
Examining NPCs would typically have the NPC give a one-line description
about how they'd interact with you, and talking to them had no outright
benefit whatsoever as they repeated the same default responses whether
you asked, told, or ordered them to do something. Still there was
something that felt so right about the simplicity of it all.

The game map was fairly small and, with a few notable exceptions, most
areas could be traversed without too much death without warning. What
impressed me about the map though, was that there were some fairly
crafty puzzles buried in its structure. These puzzles typically revolved
around strategic inventory management; the net effect of which was that
if you solved certain puzzles too early, you could put the game into an
unwinnable position. Unwinnable positions aren't new to IF and certainly
not new to Scott Adams games, but unlike many of those games, the
unwinnable states here were not caused as a result of poor game design
choices. Rather, they were caused by what I feel was the author forcing
the player to conserve his limited resources in an attempt to come up
with a strategy that took into account the entire game as opposed to one
individual puzzle. To win, the player has to have a comfortable feel of
his surroundings and what the hurdles are before he proceeds. Only then
will he be able to envision the best way to use what he has. I found
that this process also made the game feel more like a whole gaming
experience rather than a string of unrelated puzzles that were loosely
tied together, and I obviously enjoyed that. A mite bit deeper than the
games ASCII appears to be spoofing, methinks. 

So anyways, to sum up: I guess for me the bottom line is that a lot of
game designers today try to write more impressively than their skill
level provides and either overplay their theme, or overwrite their
dialogue, or whatever, and it was interesting that I felt just the
opposite way about ASCII. As I finished playing, it occurred to me that
despite the clunky grammar, skeletal room descriptions, and poor
writing, there was an extremely solid structure and a very talented
programmer behind its creation and all the wonky game design choices in
the world weren't going to hide that fact. If you have an hour to kill
or your brain needs a break from its daily grind, I would definitely
give this one a shot.


From: Miguel Garza 

TITLE: A Crimson Spring
AUTHOR: Robb Sherwin
EMAIL: beaver SP@G
DATE: 2000
SUPPORTS: Hugo interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)
     (Note: this is the no-sound, no-pictures version of the game)
VERSION: Release 1.0.04

I enjoyed Robb Sherwin's A Crimson Spring quite a bit. It is well-paced
and enjoyable to read and play. It sucked me in like a good book or a
good movie, something I often find myself wishing for in a text
adventure game but rarely find. Paradoxically, one vehicle for achieving
this end in A Crimson Spring is what is frequently derided in
contemporary discussions of good interactive fiction: the game is very
much "on rails". 

For instance, about half of the game is driven by conversation that
moves in one primary direction. Conversation progress is accomplished
through a TALK TO system, in which the player chooses the number of the
conversation-opener the player character (PC) wishes to use. The PC can
keep on talking until there are no more openers left. I personally have
no problem with this system, because the responses are intriguing and
entertaining. They propel the story. I do not feel as if I am reading a
dry transcription of a chain of events, but rather that I am
participating in those events. I think this is primarily due to the
quality and pacing of the writing.

By "pacing of the writing", I am referring to the interplay between plot
or exposition and player action. In some games, the player is required
to discover what the plot is, and this as much as anything is the
central conflict and motivating factor for the PC, at least in the
beginning. Not so with A Crimson Spring. From the beginning, we are
presented with a fleshed-out protagonist with a problem and a goal. This
was a boon to me because I do not enjoy wandering around randomly
examining things and trying to logically discern what goes with what.
Instead, in this game the player is much more limited in terms of where
the PC can go or what the PC can do, but it doesn't *feel* limiting,
because at any one point in the game there are usually only a few
choices that would make any sense for the protagonist to make.

At points where there is really only one choice that the PC would make,
the choice becomes automated. For example, at one point in the game the
PC intends to visit a non-player character's (NPC's) home. At that
point, the player doesn't need to manually move the protagonist to the
NPC's house by typing in directional commands -- once the player moves
the protagonist out of his house, the game takes the protagonist to the
other person's house. 

This is where the quality of the writing comes in: at junctures where
events occur outside the player's jurisdiction. Without good writing at
those junctures, the player gets bored. The player won't be interested
in the PC or his damn problems. Fortunately, Robb Sherwin is a good
writer, and I found myself intrigued rather than bored by his
descriptions of events occurring outside my control.

Despite the fact that the story moves primarily in one direction, the
game feels like it is in the player's control. There is more than one
ending to the game, and much of the conversation is supplemental, rather
than essential, to the story itself, so there is room for
experimentation. The author does a good job of treading the line between
dictating the story and letting the player find it.

That said, there are a few minor qualms that I have about the game.
There are some continuity problems, such as that, after a certain point,
a certain minor NPC will say the same thing to you each time you meet
him, or that an NPC inexplicably knows how to contact you even though
only one other character in the game besides yourself knows where you
are, and those two NPCs probably have not spoken to each other. This
problem shades over into a realism problem. The game is set in a gritty
superhero world (I can hear people grumbling, wondering why I am
concerned with realism). I gladly accept the poetic conceit of
superheroes existing in a modern-day world, but when a major villain and
the superheroes get together to duke it out and there are no bystanders,
no police, and no discernable threat made by the villain to the populace
at large, I find it difficult to swallow. Nonetheless, the
aforementioned battle is an exciting and well-written part of the game.

I cannot stress enough that the storyline and the writing in this game
are both very good. There is a sense of drama evoked by the events in
the game that I find lacking in many games which are more open-ended in
terms of what the player can do and in what order. The "on rails"
quality of A Crimson Spring works because it is not difficult to move
forward in the plot, on the one hand, and the plot itself is
well-written and intriguing, on the other. The puzzles are not difficult
at all, and primarily consist of getting information (by talking to
people) so that the PC will know what to do next. I enjoy the easy
puzzles because it returns the player's attention to the story at hand.

As I said earlier, the game pulled me in. It has a well-paced and
interesting story, and that is its shining glory.


From: T. Henrik Anttonen 

TITLE: Escape from Pulsar 7
AUTHOR: Brian Howarth & Wherner Barnes
EMAIL: ???
DATE: 1983

The reason I wanted to review this old game was that I have a very
special attachment to it since it was the very first text adventure I've
ever played. The story to that is actually quite sad. I got a package
about five years ago that contained some game collection titled 'Big
100' that actually contained 100 games in five floppy disks. Well, we
can all imagine the quality of these wonderful gaming experiences, but
there was this game titled Pulsar 7. All of the other games were graphic
games except this one and when I started the game, I was hooked. I
thought it was a revolutionary idea! No graphics, just text! Brilliant,
why hadn't anyone else thought of this before!? That was the thing I
wondered for about two years without even noticing that the game was
released in 1983.

Well, enough of my sad story about my first contact with text
adventures. I was supposed to review the game, not myself...

In Infocom masterpieces collection, G. Kevin Wilson wrote that the
reason text adventures still keep a good amount of players and
programmers, is because of the stories. Well, this game proves that you
can write a text adventure without much story to back it up. Of course,
the game is not very good. In the game, you are the only survivor of the
galactic freighter Pulsar 7. Apparently, a group of monsters have
boarded the ship and eaten everyone else. Now you have to save the
character from the ship full of aliens who have an urge to tear you to
pieces. Now, this must've been a really original idea in 1983 with only
about couple of million other games using a similar concept.

As far as actual gameplay, it's at about the same level as the creative
force behind the story. The screen tells you where you are without any
description. Then follows a list of the items you can see. About half of
these are totally useless and you can't even examine them since the
parser is at a complete loss if you try to examine those. For example,
in the very beginning of the game I can see a warning sign. I wanted to
see if the warning sign contained any text, but I couldn't do that since
the parser does not understand what 'warning' means.

After the list of items follows a list of exits. There is a significant
problem there. In the very beginning of the game, the game says that
'Exit: SOUTH WEST'. I spent the better part of my childhood trying to
get to southwest. What I failed to realise was that you can go south OR
west, not southwest. This was of course my fault as well, but a bit
clearer way of presenting things would not hurt.

The parser's level is about the same in all situations. There seems to
be only one way of presenting the game with ideas, and unfortunately
that way has nothing to do with English grammar. At the time it was
really hard for me since I am from Finland and English is not my primary
language, so the parser's total failure to understand words like 'to',
'the', or 'a' brought me great difficulties. These days I don't have
that problem, but sometimes still it gives me difficulties to make
sentences that the program would understand. For example, commands like
'use key door' are hard for me when 'to' would come naturally. Then
again, commands like 'unlock door' or 'use key' are out of the question
since the parser fails to understand those too. In the latter case you
would get a message like this:

   It is no use trying to use

Well, as I found out, the parser doesn't understand even 'use key door',
because that would result a message like this:

   It is no use trying to use

So 'use key door' doesn't work either, but it's a good example of the
language you have to use in the game. The parser seems to have a
language of its own and some of the basic commands we're accustomed to
using in interactive fiction are completely useless as the parser does
not understand them. That makes the gameplay really hard, especially to
someone like me who have only just found the joy of playing text
adventures and who is totally helpless in all of them. For example, the
parser does not understand the 'look' command. In some games, the 'look'
command would work the same way as the 'examine' command except that
it's a lot shorter to write. In this game, you have to write the
'examine' command over and over again. If the 'look' command would have
different function than the 'examine' command, I would understand that,
but it's really hard to understand why there is no 'look' command at

The danger of the game is to fall asleep. If you do, a MUTANT CREATURE
rips your head off and the game makes it clear that 'I have landed
myself right in to MANURE this time!!'. Maybe it is the best to let the
game stay in there and try to forget it as soon as possible.


From: Francesco Bova 

TITLE: Heroes
AUTHOR: Sean Barrett
EMAIL: buzzard SP@G
DATE: Oct 1st 2001
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)
VERSION: Release 1 

At first glance, Heroes appears to be another typical D&D-influenced IF
game, with perhaps a few novel ideas scattered throughout. For starters,
you begin your quest by choosing between five different D&D staples as
the player character. You can choose among the following: a dragon, an
enchanter, an adventurer, a thief, and a member of the royal family. You
then work your way through some puzzles in an attempt to acquire the
fabled Dragon Gem and upon your quest's completion, you replay the same
scenario but this time with one of the other characters. You then repeat
this process until you've won with each character. So, Heroes is typical
standard fantasy to be sure, with the interesting twist of multiple and
diverse playing experiences. However, what you'll soon realize after
completing each player-character's perspective is that there is a
macro-story present here that encompasses all five characters and some
subtleties in each of their stories. For those not paying careful
attention to the storyline, the game's final epilogue (which is
triggered once all 5 player character perspectives are completed) will
come as a shock and be next to unexplainable. Come to think of it, you
might still feel that way even if you followed closely. Still, the
macro-story that has to be inferred is an interesting and novel concept,
and for the most part, a success.

The subtleties in each of the stories about the true nature of the
game's chief antagonist are, for the most part, beautifully woven
together if a bit obscure. The big picture in Heroes is a complex one
and probably won't be easily inferred by many except the most
perceptive. The weaving of the story is not direct or blatant. Instead,
interesting facts and tidbits are sprinkled throughout each character's
prologue and epilogue; the interactions they have with other NPCs; and
the various scenery, room, and object descriptions that change with each
new player viewpoint.

The landscape, although fairly small, is beautifully rendered,
specifically because each of the characters' games takes place in the
exact same setting (i.e., same locations, same items to be found, etc.)
but with each character's personality coming through in the scenery
descriptions of their relevant story. For an example, try viewing the
garden in the town's square as each character for some unique
perspectives. Each individual game will also bring different objects and
structures to the forefront of each player's perception. For example,
there is a crate leaning up against a building near the entrance to the
city, but it is only visible in the scene's description by the thief
(which is understandable as he'd be used to lurking in the shadows), and
the adventurer (which is also understandable as he's a roughshod
mercenary-type who would notice it). The same crate is not in the
dragon's description of the same room (because it is understandably
insignificant to him) nor the enchanter's (as he views things on a
metaphysical and magical level) nor the royalty character's (as the
crate is also insignificant to him, albeit for significantly different
reasons than the dragon). Although not in the room's description
however, the enchanter and royalty character can still interact with the
crate and I thought was interesting. Essentially the crate was still in
scope, and if you remembered that it was there from a previous
character's experience you could still attempt to manipulate it. It was
a nice way to maintain mimesis because obviously a crate or any other
object shouldn't just disappear when it's not essential to a specific
player's storyline.

In terms of each character, I found the writing style fairly distinct.
The enchanter, for example, notices the magical chemistry and ley lines
present in his surroundings, while the dragon perceives things in a way
completely foreign to the other characters. However, there was a big
difference between characters in terms of how relevant their individual
stories were to the story as a whole and their relative levels of
playability. The following is a critique of each character and their
respective degrees of influence on the story and levels of playability:

The dragon is a lot of fun to play with because the geography
descriptions change dramatically with his viewpoint. He's got very
straightforward goals, with some interesting puzzles. Storywise, he
fleshes out the relevance of the Dragon Gem, but doesn't do much to add
to the mystery of the chief antagonist's motivations.

The enchanter is a great character and has a great story all around. I
found I didn't learn much about the overall story in this section, but I
did learn a great deal about the world the game takes place in, and
about the magic that forms such and integral part of it. The puzzles are
wonderful and most are solved with Enchanter-style spells, some of which
you start with and some of which you acquire throughout the game. The
end game of this story is the strongest of the five (there's a great
sequence of puzzles to conclude this section) and provides some insight
into the chief antagonist's motivation. This section is, all around, a
logical and entertaining section.

The adventurer is a fairly dull character and story in my opinion. He
didn't really bring much to the table story-wise and his claiming of the
gem is pretty straightforward and mundane. Not much is added to the
story as a whole either during his prologue or epilogue and the puzzles
here are solved more often through brute force and trial and error
rather than by elegant puzzle design. There is some bonus information
generated by one NPC that fills in some missing gaps in the story, but
approaching him with the relevant conversation topic is neither
intuitive nor reasonable, in my opinion. A bit of a filler chapter,

The thief is an interesting character whose relevance to the story as a
whole is significant. The gamplay aspect however suffers a bit from some
guess-the-syntax and some actions that require more guesswork than is
strictly necessary. The thief has an interesting cache of thieving
tools, but not all of them have to be used to complete the section. This
fact saw me spend a bit too much time wondering what they should be used
for. Otherwise, I sped through this section rather quickly except for
one bottleneck that was caused by having no real indicator of how to
proceed. An interesting story, and the epilogue in particular was quite

The royalty character is another integral character, story-wise, to the
entire plot. However, the gameplay aspect suffers more with this
character than with any other. For starters, there are some serious
problems in this section with guess-the-syntax. For example, ordering
NPCs in a certain way yielded a desired result but ordering the same NPC
in another way albeit with the same intent, yielded nothing of interest.
I struggled with this section for quite a while, convinced that I was on
the wrong path while really, I had the right idea but was getting bogged
down in the grammar. Also, receiving the default responses "There is no
reply" and "I know not of which you speak", while ordering around and
questioning various NPCs got to be a bit frustrating. I'm the king
dammit! You'd better reply.

Other bits of annoyance came from the king/queen's substantial
entourage. This section of the game spits out randomly created gossiping
noble NPCs that crop up in whatever location you happen to be in. They
were amusing at first, but eventually became tiresome as their constant
babbling actually got in the way of my reading the text. The author
thankfully parsed some applicable royalty-type verbs to get rid of the
bothersome NPCs such as dismiss, arrest, and execute (execute in
particular was quite unintentionally funny, as the executed corpse
remained in the room of its execution), but as soon as you got rid of
one NPC, another one unfortunately took its place, so the glee was short

Also, because you're a royal, you don't do anything for yourself. This
includes various sundry tasks such as picking up objects, turning dials,
or pulling levers. You unfortunately have to order other people to do
it. This convention maintained mimesis perhaps, but boy was it tedious
to have to ask an NPC to pick something up, and then ask him to give it
to you. A more fluid method, I would think, would have been to just type
in the command and have the closest NPC do whatever it is you asked. 

One final piece that had me guessing for a while came while trying to
acquire one of the game's central objects (an object, in fact, that is
featured prominently in each storyline). The problem arose when I tried
to acquire the aforementioned object in a fashion similar to one of the
other characters. For the most part, the game created good reasoning as
to why each character had to interact differently with this object to
acquire it. Incidentally, this aspect of the game was one of my
favorites, because essentially each character had to interact with the
object on a different level which typically related well to their
substantially different backgrounds. With the king however, these same
rules didn't apply. Following the exact same steps as a previous
character I was sure I would eventually acquire the object the same way,
but the process yielded no results and even worse, no rationale as to
why my efforts weren't successful.

So, overall, this section was a bit of a drag to slog through although
the prologue and epilogue, as well as some smaller bits within this
section, were very important to the story as a whole and integral to
having a shot at understanding what the final prologue meant. 

All in all, I loved this game. I'm a little biased, I suppose, because I
love the fantasy genre to begin with, but even the most contemporary IF
player will find something to enjoy here. After having completed Heroes,
it occurred to me that the writing and subtle hints reminded me a lot of
another fantasy series penned by one of today's great static fiction
writers, Robert Jordan. His Wheel of Time series (at least the early
novels) were brilliant because they incorporated subtle hints amongst
the different books that, when combined, could be used to infer the
solution to some of the many mysteries present in the series. Heroes,
again, follows a similar style although obviously, on a much smaller
level. If you don't think you've figured out what's going on after one
playthrough, I would encourage you to play it again. Following that,
visit the author's website at and read his take on all
the innuendo and intrigue. (Warning: major spoiler at this link.)


From: R. N. Dominick 

TITLE: Mountain
AUTHOR: Benjamin Penney
EMAIL: revolutionary_dust SP@G
DATE: February 2003
PARSER: Platypus standard
SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)

Mountain is a game that, like several recent games, plays at being much
older than it is. An accompanying "cover scan" indicates a price point
of $1.99 and is of a size that suggests ziploc bags and 5.25"
diskettes. The in-game help suggests that the game will be arbitrary and
guess-the-verbish. I was willing to play along; I even set up Frotz to
mimic the display of the Apple][ I originally played IF on back in the

Unfortunately, shortly after starting to play, I started to actually
think about what was going on.

The text is sparse, and almost immediately jokey -- the PCs name is Gary
Hikerson, he's accompanied by his "lesser, uglier and much shorter
companion Biggs".

Here's the first room description:

   Foot of Burly Mountain
   You are standing amidst the snow covered trees of Burly Forest,
   looking upward to the mountain you're delaying climbing.

None of them get much longer than that. Some room descriptions describe
actions you take, which are repeated when you "look" again. Much of the
writing in the game is muddled, especially with regard to punctuation.
An example:

   >kick biggs
   "Oww!", cries Biggs, "Sir, that hurts. Above the waist, please!".

Implementation is sparse, perhaps intentionally so. True to the promise
in the help text, the game is very arbitrary. Items are hidden in
nonsensical places. Things only happen when obscure criteria are met.
You can't command Biggs to do anything in the usual Infocom fashion; in
one location where you have to ask him to do something, you do so with
the command "talk to biggs". There's an item that needs to be "use"d.
Points are given out for seemingly random things. You can never tell
what items mentioned in text will be implemented and which ones won't;
sometimes this is very frustrating, especially when Biggs suffers an
injury you can't even refer to. There's a total of 32 points you can
score, but you can't possibly score them all in the same game session.

As I noticed these things, I kept thinking "Well, that's excusable,
because this is a parody of That Sort of Game". As the list grew,
though, I began to wonder: wouldn't this be better if the game laughed
at these flaws along with me, instead of just actually containing them
and expecting the humor to come from that? I disliked games like this
back in the day, so why should it be inherently funny to play one now?

I grew tired of the arbitrary nature of the game after finishing it a
few times in different ways, so I took TXD to it to see what I'd missed.
(Please excuse me if you think this is wrong; I had only the best of
intentions.) Doing so revealed a few interesting things, best of all a
(truly) humorous set of alternate versions of game events apparently
tied to the Tandy bit. Unfortunately, setting the Tandy bit in three
different interpreters had no effect, leaving me unable to accompany the
cranky bear to the Tandy store.


From: Jessica Knoch 

TITLE: Rat in Control
AUTHOR: Mike Roberts
EMAIL: mjr_ SP@G
DATE: 10-Apr-2003
SUPPORTS: TADS3 interpreters

The first thing to note about "Rat in Control" is that it isn't a
regular game, at least not as we tend to think of them. Mike Roberts
wrote it to gather some statistics on how quickly IF players process
spatial directions when using compass words (north, south, etc.) as
opposed to relative directions (ahead, backward, left, right). This is
an experiment designed to test some theories proposed in a thread on the newsgroup -- see:

for the thread. The "game" consists of finding your way through a simple
maze, using either set of directions (although you can switch at any
time). The game then reports to you your time, to the nearest
millisecond, so that you too can contribute to the statistics-gathering.

This might sound a bit boring and dry. It would have been, too, if the
author hadn't made the game much more compelling by giving it a
fleshed-out setting, a real character, and even a storyline. You play
Fred, a lab rat, who has finally had enough of captivity and is ready to
escape. Besides conjuring images of Pinky and the Brain, this gives you
a valid reason for exploring the "maze" (really the arrangement of
furniture in the lab where your cage is) and also for needing to do it
quickly (before the humans come back).

Rat in Control accomplishes its purpose well. You are given one of the
direction sets -- compass or relative -- at the start of the game,
chosen at random so that the author can get an even sampling of players
using each set on their first play-through. The first stage of the game
allows you to explore the room, using your set of directions, and gives
you a chance to acquaint yourself not only with the layout of the
obstacles, but also with the (potentially unfamiliar) direction
commands. After that is complete, the time trials begin. There are three
timed sequences, each between a different pair of locations in the room.
The game thoughtfully sets the timed sections apart by prompting you to
push the space bar when you are ready to begin. In each, you are to
traverse part of the maze using the set of directions chosen by the
game. The idea is that everyone who plays the game will send their
results to the author, who can then compile them and maybe come up with
some useful, or at least interesting, information.

I was a bit disappointed that my random pick was "compass" directions,
instead of the relative directions. I'd been hoping I would get to try
the less conventional commands on my first time through. But playing
through with compass commands was in itself enlightening. First of all,
I didn't make any kind of map of the lab. Some parts of it made sense,
but there were a few parts which wouldn't fit in my head coherently. For
instance, when I arrived in a previously-visited location via a new
route, I had serious trouble taking that new path into account on my
mental map. From this I must conclude that it was a map very well suited
to its purpose -- straightforward enough to not require a map, but
complicated enough to require actual spatial cognition (which was, after
all, the point of the discussion).

Secondly, the experience revealed that I type the wrong letter for
compass directions pretty frequently. For instance, I interchange "e"
and "w" a large percentage of the time. I knew I did that sometimes, to
see "east" and think west, or to think west and type "e." I also type
"u" for north and vice versa. And in the timed race through the maze, my
tendency to type the wrong letter was much more pronounced than usual.

I also discovered that the first key I hit when under pressure in an
Interactive Fiction game is "n." I looked closely at the "n" key on my
keyboard -- the letter is practically worn away from the key! I've been
playing too much IF. 

Here's the big surprise: Even with switching "e" and "w," even typing
"n" at random times and "u" instead of "n" at other times, my time on
the timed sequences was *better* when using compass directions than when
I used the relative directions. I finished using relative directions in
fewer moves, and longer times, without even taking into account the fact
that I should have been more familiar with the layout (it sure didn't
feel like the same layout!).

Although the object of the game is to test how quickly the brain
processes relative vs. fixed (compass) directions, I think there's a lot
to be said for familiarity with typing the commands. Using f, b, r, and
lf (forward, backward, right, and left) is not only unfamiliar, it's
*so* strange as to be a major hindrance. In addition to thinking of
which way I wanted to go, I had to think about what letter (or letters)
to type in order to move that way. With compass directions, I only have
to worry about the former. But having "f" for forward and "lf" for left
guaranteed I would type the wrong thing a lot. (Although, I didn't
actually type the wrong thing very often -- except for continuing to
type "rt" and getting an error. Instead, I froze up while my brain tried
to remember what to type.)

Another note: using relative directions makes it impossible to scan
through a transcript and get any sense of the layout of the place.

In any case, this is a fascinating attempt at a community-wide thought
experiment. But it's also a short, fun laboratory break-out by a group
of intelligent rats with names like Fred and Mr. Tails, and you get to
play the one rat who makes it all possible. Somehow, this manages to be
funny at times, convey a true sense of urgency, and a satisfying sense
of accomplishment upon reaching the end. Download it, play it, e-mail
the author with your times, and be a part of the experiment.


From: Francesco Bova 

TITLE: Ribbons
AUTHOR: J.D. Berry
E-MAIL: berryx SP@G
DATE: 2001
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)
VERSION: Release 2

Many a newbie author enters the annual interactive fiction competition
with dreams of taking first place amidst a plethora of accolades and
positive reviews. The reality is that most first-time efforts, with some
notable exceptions, tend to lack something, be it cohesive game design,
passable prose, or consistent game continuity. This doesn't come as a
result of a lack of trying, mind you, but instead is a symptom of the
fact the most newbie authors haven't had a chance to perfect and hone
their programming and writing skills. The net result is that when it
comes time for the piece to be reviewed, newbie authors often have their
lofty expectations shattered. Some authors can accept both praise and
harsh criticism in stride, while others find the whole process quite
difficult, and shrink away from the community with badly damaged egos.
This is unfortunate when it happens, as the first releases from most
authors, again with some notable exceptions, aren't usually exceptional.
In fact history shows that the trick to being a successful IF author is
to stick with it, learn from your mistakes, and try again, as future
efforts almost always invariably improve in quality. Here are a few
concrete examples of how a sustained effort has lead to better results
in the past: 

   	Laura Knauth: placed 15th in her first IF Comp, 7th in her second,
   and took 1st in her third with Winter Wonderland. 

   	J.D. Berry: who took 10th place in his first comp, 14th place in
   his second, Best of Show in the 2001 IF Art show for his fine work
   Ribbons, and finally, a whole host of XYZZY nominations for his
   surreal '02 Comp work, When Help Collides. 

More than ingenious ideas and perilous puzzles, the real trick, it
appears, to becoming a good IF author is resiliency and the realization
that all criticism no matter how harsh, should perhaps be taken with a
grain of salt and viewed as a vehicle for improvement.

The ideas of criticism and perception are the principle theme of
Ribbons, an IF Art piece that looks at 4 separate pieces through the
eyes of different judges. As a piece of IF Art, Ribbons is interesting,
but I'll get to that later. Where Ribbons really shines, in my opinion,
is as a commentary on art criticism (and perhaps on a micro-level, IF
criticism) and on the way that the preconceived notions we hold often
affect the way we evaluate games. The basic message of Ribbons is that
we have preconceived notions of what we expect from certain artists (or
IF authors, for that matter). What we get when the artist's identity is
less than certain is often more representative of our true feelings in
most cases, but even those may be skewed because of the newness of the
artist. After all, how could a relative unknown create something
incredible? Ribbons illustrates this dichotomy by presenting two pieces
that are created by the same artist. One of the pieces is signed off
using the artist's real name, and the other piece is signed off using
the artist's pseudonym (an anagram of sorts). Interestingly, the
critics' comments of the pseudonymed art are much harsher than the piece
using the artist's real name. 

This point leads me to another interesting aspect of Ribbons and that is
that each critic's comments shape the way you view the piece. For
example, viewing a piece before reading a critic's comments will
generate a more benign response as compared to viewing a piece after
first reading a critic's comments, which will generate a response more
inline with the critic's viewpoint. It was a great simulation, as our
perception is often influenced by the opinions of those who we hold in
great respect. This truth transfers easily to the IF Comp as well.
Speaking from personal experience, I've often caught myself playing Comp
games and wondering what some of the premier designers in the field
would have thought about the game I just played. On occasion, I've even
rated a game with a negative or positive bias as a result.

So I think it's evident that Ribbons provides a fantastic simulation of
the critiquing process, but how does it stack up in terms of
playability? Well, Ribbons has a novel approach for an IF Art concept.
Each art piece is tactile in a way, and is meant to be experienced
through more than just sight. Certain aspects of the art pieces are
malleable, and require interaction although often to little or no end.
That's to say that the manipulation of an aspect of a certain piece
doesn't necessarily have an impact on how you interact with it. It was
neat to move stuff around, although there seemed to be no rhyme behind
the reason. And I sort of ended off feeling not wholly satisfied, as if
I had left some task unfinished. The interesting scoring system, which
measures your progress based on how much you've experienced (i.e.
looked at, touched, etc.), pushed me to keep trying new things, but when
I exceeded the maximum scoring potential I slowed down, because I didn't
know when I would hit the ceiling of my experience or if I had in fact
passed it. 

I think that's one of the pleasures of experiencing art, mind you.
There's obviously no formula to it, but having played IF for so many
years I've gotten used to common parameters, and I found Ribbons' lack
of direction a little frustrating. Still, the experiential aspect of
Ribbons was interesting and I still enjoyed the different colors shown
to me throughout the game on the artist's palette. There really are no
puzzles to speak of in Ribbons, although there is a common theme running
through all four of the pieces (i.e. use of colors, similar objects).
Perhaps there is a puzzle in there somewhere about discerning the
linkages between the four pieces. For a while, I even thought that it
might be possible that the same artist created all four pieces, but I
wasn't entirely certain how the game's author intended for that to
affect me. In the end, there is perhaps not enough motivation to delve
too deeply into these linkages, as again, you're not necessarily
rewarded whether you find something interesting or you don't, so I just
let it be, and looked at the pretty pictures. 

To be honest, a reviewer more knowledgeable in the area of art than I am
may be more suited to critiquing this game as a piece of art, because
although I enjoyed the experience, I don't know if the right side of my
brain can drum up much more in the way of commentary. Maybe I'll just
stick with this quote from frequent Homer Simpson antagonist, C.
Montgomery Burns: "I don't know art but I know what I hate... and I
don't hate this." :)

Where I think I can comment conclusively, however, is on how well the
critics' comments mirrored many post-Comp comments on r.g.i-f following
the IF competition, and to be honest that's where I found the game at
its strongest. In fact, I think Ribbons might even serve as an
invaluable tool for any aspiring rookie Comp author. The message that
Ribbons delivers to any rookie Comp author is this: No matter how great,
no matter how revolutionary you think your new piece is, you will have
to live with the reality that some people just won't get "it" and that
often times the newness of your name may cause reviewers to be more
critical of your piece. 

There. Now that you're aware of that fact, please don't stop writing IF.
You'll only get better over time and we need aspiring and creative new
talent in the community to keep it thriving. Take the criticism as an
opportunity to grow and improve your programming and writing skills and
keep a determined focus on creating games. Who knows? Maybe that
persistence will help you ascend to the top of the IF world. It
certainly worked for J. D. Berry.


From: Emily Short 

TITLE: Words of Power
AUTHOR: Stark Springs
EMAIL: (I wasn't able to find one listed)
DATE: 2002
PARSER: Glulxe
SUPPORTS: Glulxe interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware, IF archive.

My initial reaction to this game was, to say the least, mixed. It is a
Glulx work, with a complicated UI, pictures, and (though I couldn't hear
it on my computer) sound: clearly a lot of effort had gone into the
production. On the other hand, one of the first things I encountered was
a talking cat. My natural allergy to excessively cute cliches kicked in,
and I set the game aside for a time. Eventually I came back to it, and
I'm glad I did.

Stark Springs' game is ambitiously packaged. It comes with two pdf files
of background material, which represent reading matter you find during
the course of the game; only a password (learned in-game) can unlock
them. Considering that there's quite a lot of this material, I
appreciated the chance to read that material in the pdf format rather
than from the game screen. Having the huge amount to read early in the
game reminded me, negatively, of a similar effect at the beginning of
Fort Aegea, where I didn't care for it. All the same, having a pdf
worked in Springs' favor: I knew that I could always come back and refer
to the file later if necessary, and it was also possible to skim it
without reading everything, so that I knew roughly what I was going to
be in for later. The massive infodump is still not my favorite way of
revealing backstory, but if there had to be an infodump, this is as good
a way as any.

Besides the pdf files, there's a complex graphical interface. Along the
right side of the screen is the conversation menu; along the top, the
status bar; and along the bottom, buttons representing the Words of
Power. The text color and background are frequently changed, a la
Photopia, to suggest changes in setting and atmosphere.

All this UI gadgetry could have been confusing, but, on the whole, I
didn't find it so. The conversation menu looked perhaps a bit awkward
crammed into a narrow space where all the sentences had to wrap -- I
think I would have designed that differently, and perhaps put the power
buttons on the right and the conversation menu at the bottom of the
screen -- but I found that I quickly got used to the effect. The
conversation menu was also decorated with an illustration of whichever
NPC you're talking to, a bit like Fallacy Of Dawn. In a game with a fair
number of NPCs, this is quite useful, because it provides a visual hook
in addition to the NPC's name to help the player remember who everyone

Speaking of the conversation menu, conversation in the game uses a
technique similar to some I've used myself: the player is allowed to
choose a piece of dialogue from the menu, or else to change the topic of
conversation to something else. Important bits of dialogue can be
repeated ("Tell me again what you know about the forest..."), and the
topics available to switch to are listed in the menu as well. I found
this fairly effective and easy to use, except that there were a number
of times when I would have liked to be able to talk about something that
wasn't available: for one NPC I met repeatedly during the game, it would
have been nice if additional conversation items had appeared over the
course of the plot so that I could have discussed more of my discoveries
with him. But it's always a challenge to provide what the player will
experience as "enough" conversation in a game, and I understand the
limitations that might have prevented Springs from adding more.

As for the Words of Power mentioned in the title: Springs has invented a
magic system based on combining elements to construct a complete spell.
The elements can be verbs, nouns, or modifiers, and they are all
represented as buttons at the bottom of the screen, so that there's no
need to memorize the vocabulary. This gives the player a nice range of
action, using a syntax that is not much different from the standard
command structure used to communicate with an IF game in the first
place. It's easy to work out new combinations to suit new occasions. As
a concept, such magic is more sensible than the spellcasting system of
Enchanter and its followers, and it lends itself more readily to
exploration or invention by the player.

There are a few flaws. I would have liked to see a more interesting
treatment of the effects of failure when the magic was cast incorrectly
or on the wrong thing; a few inventive messages here would both have
helped teach the player how to use the magic correctly, and provided
some local color. But even so, I didn't find it particularly difficult
to learn to use the Words. In fact, I would have liked to see a larger
selection of them -- the system has more potential than this game
actually exercised, I think. The number of words available befits a
relatively short game (as this is), but I would have enjoyed playing
with the combinations even more.

The setting is something of a mixed bag. Examining objects tended to
reveal no more than was already in the room description. For instance:

   Stone Road
   When the path leads you out of the tree cluster, the scene in front
   of you seems unreal and it takes you a few moments to figure why. A
   large plain stretches to the west, but you can see no horizon line,
   only a hazy band, far far away, of a darker blue than the sky. The
   sun, huge and orange like a basketball hangs low in the sky. A
   neglected road, paved with round, irregular stones and overgrown with
   grass makes its way from north to south and its both ends are lost in
   the same haze that replaces the horizon line.

   The cat ambles along.

   >x road
   The road is paved with round stones and looks neglected.

There's nothing to be seen here that we haven't seen already, and I was
initially disappointed by the effect. As I played on, I got used to it:
this is not a heavily puzzle-centric game, and obsessively examining
everything is not the point. Ultimately the game succeeds in teaching
the player what sort of interaction is required by politely discouraging
fruitless kinds of action.

Speaking of the descriptions, the writing is somewhat unpolished in
spots -- the sentence that begins "A neglected road" goes on a bit too
long, while the phrase "its both ends" seems a bit unidiomatic.

For all that, if you look past the form of the writing to the content
itself, that content is fairly evocative. Here is a fantasy game (sort
of -- there's magic, and a talking cat), but it is set on a planet built
like a science fiction planet, with a different diameter and a more
distant sun. The effect, an impression of great age and distance, is
both beautiful and melancholy. In fact, the whole map of the game is
built on the same massive scale, with locations that encompass entire
ruined cities and forests. Some elements of the story are a little too
familiar, perhaps -- the race of forest-dwellers and the race of miners
smacks of Tolkien, and other pieces of the backstory ring a little too
familiar -- but not all of them. So on the whole the setting could have
been more sharply imagined and better described, but there were enough
intriguing elements to keep me engaged. I found that I liked it best if
I mentally translated the descriptions into a kind of cinematic
treatment, with many desolate landscape shots.

The story likewise turns out to be more interesting than I originally
anticipated; it takes several bends without ever ceasing to make perfect
sense, and it also manages finally to fuse the story and the puzzle
system into a bit of in-character decision-making of the kind I like
best, where the player has the power to make a critical decision based
on the puzzle-solving skills and plot knowledge she's picked up. It's a
technique I associate with really great game design, and though the
effect here isn't quite as powerful as the effect of a similar juncture
in "Spider and Web", it's still in excellent company.

Despite some early apprehension, I also found the game extremely
playable. The story controls the pacing: I was never stuck at any point,
and those few times when I found myself even slightly at a loss soon
resolved themselves. There's enough for the player to do that the effect
doesn't feel completely linear and closed off, too -- and this is not an
easy balance to strike.

The final verdict, then: this is a pretty good game in several ways. If
it had been sharpened a little on a couple of fronts -- the magic system
deepened, the characters given a bit more edge and complexity, the
writing polished -- it could perhaps have been a great game. As it is,
it falls shy of great, even occasionally slips into mediocre, but there
is still plenty to make it worth playing. I liked the magic system quite
a lot, and liked the way the UI helped the player with it; if there were
to be a sequel or another game using this system, I would be interested
in playing it. I have even forgiven the presence of the talking cat.



[Note: Valentine provides scores with his reviews in the old style of
the SPAG scoreboard. I've chosen to leave these scores in, since I think
they provide interesting and useful information, but they shouldn't be
construed to mean that the scoreboard has returned. It's still dead, and
these scores won't be added to it. --Paul]

From: Valentine Kopteltsev 

When I decided to review the Frenetic Five series, I suspected it was
going to be another ordeal for my objectivity: parody superhero stories
definitely are my thing, and a game whose world is inhabited by such
personages as the Microwave-Popcorn Boy, the Incredible X-Ray Brain
Surgeon, the Human Meteor, and the like, certainly can claim its
rightful place in my heart. In the end, these suspicions turned out to
be mostly correct -- but I'm getting ahead of the story, for my
acquaintance with the first game of the series resulted in...


A Not Entirely Convincing Storm and Onset

TITLE: The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang
AUTHOR: Neil deMause
EMAIL: neil SP@G
DATE: 1997
PARSER: TADS Slightly Hacked
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
           frenfive/frenfive.gam (original competition version); (version 1.1)

The opening sentence of the game -- "It's been another long day at the
office (they all seem to be, lately), but at last it's over" -- already
hints at the fact that a superhero's life isn't as exciting as the
general public usually sees it. To begin with, the superheroes aren't
freelancers; no, they're mere employees, like so many of us, and
defeating evil isn't their hobby but their job. It's not even a very
well-paid job, as we can tell from their style of living -- they share
their quarters (which are most reminiscent of a students' hostel) with
each other, and when another supervillain has got to be overcome in some
distant area, there's no Batmobile at their disposal, heck, not even an
old Yugo -- they've got to use public transportation.

Such a lowered status is partly justified by the exclusive abilities of
our superheroes being somewhat... uhm... specific. These powers reminded
me of the spells so widespread in text adventures since the Enchanter
trilogy -- something like the "Ekab spell: makes a 2.4 square feet large
piece of flaky pastry fold into a seven-sided bun". For instance, you as
the leader of the Frenetic Five team, Improv, have the ability to "adapt
any object into a tool of your wishes", which just means that you're
very good at finding the most appropriate, albeit non-conventional, uses
for various things (a handy skill for an experienced adventurer, isn't
it -- though I hardly would call it a "superpower"). But it's not only
inanimate items you're supposed to apply properly; during your mission,
you also have to find an appropriate task for each member of your team
-- the rather chaotic Pastiche, the dreamy Lexicon, the somewhat languid
Clapper, and the omniscient Newsboy. Most puzzles in the game are about
using your resources wisely, which makes it fit into the Text
Adventure Tradition neatly. The author himself gives a good example of
effective use of assets at his disposal; supported by the vivid and
humorous writing (on the average, every third or so description made me
chuckle silently), the characters (both the PC's teammates and the
villains) made a serious effort, and almost managed, to stagger me, and
immerse me completely.

The word "almost" in the previous sentence represents, to a large
extent, the key to my quibbles about the game -- though admittedly I'm
getting pretty subjective here. My main grievance is the following: you
see, F5 vs. Sturm und Drang is not only the first game of a superhero
series, it's also a Comp game, and when playing it, I had the sneaking
feeling that the author had had some troubles finishing it in time for
the Comp. I'm not saying it's sloppily done, mind you. On the contrary,
the writing and characters are great. The puzzles, while not too hard,
are well thought-out in a fashion that allows you to use the special
powers of each of your comrades to solve them. (I found a couple of them
somewhat obscure, though. Also, some puzzles in the later stages of the
game only can be solved if you previously made sure to pick up a few
objects that have appear pretty useless at the time when they're
available -- but since grabbing everything not fixed meets both the
traditions of text adventuring and the aforementioned special power of
the PC, I think it's by far not as unfair as it seems at first). There
also were a few quite ambitiously programmed features (one of them is
worth a short diversion -- namely, the way the default TADS reaction to
an unknown word has been replaced by "You don't see any  here." A tip for all those who (like myself) are
fond of cheap, rude jokes of extremely bad taste: this feature provides
for a great response if you type that ubiquitous four-letter word in a
dark location. Probably jokers like myself were the reason why this
message has been replaced by "The word "" isn't important
to your mission" in the post-Comp edition). The game's flaws were minor
ones that spoiled the impression (inapropriate responses here and there,
for instance) -- but still, to entirely and unconditionally win me over,
the game either had to be more polished, or somewhat deeper. I'd like to
point out once more -- I'm aware it's pretty subjective, and the roots
of my criticisms lie, to a no small degree, in my initial expectations
of the game being so high.


PLOT: The plot doesn't seem to have been first priority for the game
author... (1.0)
ATMOSPHERE: ...however, atmosphere does. ;) (1.5)
WRITING: Let's put it the trivial way -- vivid and humorous (1.3)
GAMEPLAY: Working puzzle by puzzle towards the overall goal (that's the
long way of saying "pretty linear" ;) (1.1)
BONUSES: Well, it's one of those "parody superhero stories" that
"definitely are my thing";)  (1.2)
TOTAL: 6.1
CHARACTERS: A wide variety of memorable types (1.4)
PUZZLES: Basically of the "find an unusual way to use something/someone"
type; some people (not me!) might find a couple of them a bit unfair (1.1)
DIFFICULTY: Pretty easy -- except for a few obscure points (5 out of 10)

While F5vsSUD wasn't perfect, it worked pretty well as an appetizer for
the next game of the series, where I found myself in...


A Kingdom of Excessiveness

TITLE: The Frenetic Five vs. Mr. Redundancy Man
AUTHOR: Neil deMause
EMAIL: neil SP@G
DATE: 1999
PARSER: TADS Slightly Hacked
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters

My first impression of Frenetic Five II was that the world rather
sketichly outlined in part one finally got a finished appearance. It's a
world with a comically distorted logic; in a sense, it's a reflection of
our reality in a funhouse mirror. For instance, one extremely witty
manifestation of the peculiar nature of this universe is the shoe phone,
which effectively represents a mobile phone disguised as a shoe.
Naturally, to make (and answer) calls, our superhero has got to take it
off (just imagine, say, Superman hopping on one leg!) At the same time,
within these boundaries, the game world is amazingly consistent; each
and every one of its aspects complies with the weird rules defined by
the game author.

One of those aspects is the puzzles. While the core approach of function
division between your teammates from the first game still applies, the
problems you have to solve (and the ways you've got to do that) receive
a hint of craziness, even absurdity. It's difficult to get more specific
and to avoid spoilers at the same time; therefore, I'll just confine
myself to an example. If you had to win a battle in this world, your
only option probably would be to convince the leader of the opposing
force that martial art isn't his vocation, and that he should
immediately turn to potato cultivation instead.

Still, the puzzles themselves are not too arduous -- once you understand
the logic of the game world. Personally for me, however, there was a
catch: I was playing Frenetic Five II in a period of time when my mind
was busy with lots of other rather boring matters of minor importance
(like work, etc. ;) Naturally, this circumstance not only negatively
influenced on my ability to solve logical problems, but also caused an
overall torpor, which, in its turn, had two effects, one bad and one
good. The bad one: I didn't enjoy the puzzles as much as I could if I
managed to solve them myself. The good one was, I got acquainted with
the game's splendid built-in hint system.

Its basic principle is quite simple: once you get stuck, you just ask
your teammates (or, to be more precise, one particular teammate) for
help, and receive more and more directed suggestions. It works (and
keeps track of the current situation) pretty well, but such an approach
itself doesn't represent a big novelty in IF. What makes this hint
system unique is the way the hints are presented to the player.

Officially, Frenetic Five II doesn't penalize you for using in-game help
(since it doesn't record any score). Still, a certain penalty is present
-- don't forget, you are playing as Improv, the head of the team, and by
using the hints you practically let others decide for you, and thus in
effect make a cat's-paw of them. The comments your teammates make
alongside their hints dissipate all your illusions (if you had any)
regarding your leading role, and what the others think of it. Great job!

(A short disclaimer -- the post-Comp release of Frenetic Five I features
a similar hint system; I didn't mention it in the appropriate review
because I had played the original Competition version, which provides no
help, and only had had a cursory look at release 1.1. My impression was
that it didn't work as well as in FF II, but I might be wrong.)

This review wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention the writing, which
largely determines the appearance of the game. The author outcdid
himself in turning the prose into another prop for his work's bizarre
atmosphere by making it excessively ornate, and squeezing as many puns
and word plays in each sentence as only possible. One of the less
refined samples:

   You've seen her do this trick too many times, so you're unfazed when
   her hand phases through the blade as she slams it down.

Incredibly funny references to other superheroes (like the Stupendous
Tweezer-Fingered Girl, The Defenestrator, etc.) not directly involved
into the action, which already occured often enough in Frenetic Five I,
become even more frequent. The final performance of Mr. Redundancy Man
made the supervillains from the preceding game seem like two stutterers.
All in all, it was exactly the writing, with its wide assortment of
decorations, that helped me to formulate my somewhat subliminal thoughts
on this work more clearly.

So, if I had to summarize the essence of the game in one word, I'd
choose "rococo". This architectural style is known for a wide use of
fancy decorative elements, and produced quite a number of impressive,
whimsical buildings. However, it had another side: it also represented a
certain stagnation, even decadence in architecture, a lack of new ideas.
In my opinion, the same is true for F5vsMRM: in a way, it is the acme of
the genre, and gets as much as possible out of the basic ideas the
author initially has put into the series -- but exploiting this ideas
any further would be overdoing it: another game in this vein would be a
step back.


PLOT: The plot still doesn't seem to have been first priority for the
game author... (1.0)
ATMOSPHERE: ...the atmosphere still does. (1.6)
WRITING: (Intentionally) exaggeratedly ornate (1.6)
GAMEPLAY: Pretty linear (that's the short way of saying "working puzzle
by puzzle towards the overall goal" ;) (1.1)
BONUSES: The slightly crazy, yet so consistent and "real" game
world (1.4)
TOTAL: 6.7
CHARACTERS: As great as in Frenetic Five I (1.4)
PUZZLES: Often use the logic of absurdity (1.2)
DIFFICULTY: Still quite easy -- once you understand the game world's
rules (6 out of 10)

For the reasons described above, I wasn't quite sure what to expect of
the next game of the series, where...


Things Got Deadly Serious -- as Deadly as the Dwarves

TITLE: The Frenetic Five vs. The Seven Deadly Dwarves
AUTHOR: Neil deMause
EMAIL: neil SP@G
DATE: 2002
PARSER: TADS More Seriously Hacked
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters

   "I may make you feel but I can't make you think."
                  -- Gerald 'Little Milton' Bostock, "Thick as a Brick"

...And it started pretty much the same way as its predecessor, with the
atmosphere made even more grotesque by the PC being quite drunk. The
obligatory preface smoothly passed into a light-hearted Zork parody. It
was done competently enough, with the puzzles cleverly set up to form a
part of the joke; to be honest, I had some problems solving them --
mainly because of my rushed situation I described in the previous
review. This time, however, the built-in help, formally based on the
same principles as in Frenetic Five II, didn't support me nearly as well
-- for some reason, instead of working as a hint-on-demand system, it
instead used the "it's me who decide when you need hints" approach,
which sometimes became very frustrating. Anyway, one couldn't deny it
was a fairly good game, but -- well, it seemed to do the very thing I
mentioned in the previous review: it went on exploiting the same idea,
and thus started to get somehow too predictable, maybe even repetitive.

Then, everything changed.

I'm intentionally going to be quite vague here, because this sudden
shift in plot and atmosphere represented one of the main attractions of
this game (at least, for me); heck, I'm not sure that even mentioning
this change at all is not a spoiler already! But here you go -- what had
begun as a comedy suddenly turned into something entirely different.
Into a "thoughtful piece" maybe? No -- because, for one thing, it'd be a
crime to talk about it in such cliches, and for the other, take a look
at the epigraph. I'd say, it became a feelingful piece. An
emotion-loaded piece. A disturb-your-freakin'-complacency-and-
indifference piece, damn it!

That'd be the right point to finish this review, but a single final
observation is needed. The way Frenetic Five III ends now, it literally
cries out for a sequel. The genre requires it, and probably many players
will beg for it, too. However, this work is blowing up the boundaries of
the genre, and I sincerely hope the author resists the temptation, and
lets it be the final game of the series. Maybe I'm totally wrong -- but
that's what it made me feel like.


This game moved me so much that I con't coolly dissect it into single
categories, and rate them individually. However, if I brought myself to
doing that, the total would be at least an 8.


######             REVIEW PACKAGE: THE JOY OF AAS                  ######

[This review package is a little different from the normal SPAG fare,
straying closer to satire than to analysis, but given its topic (see
SILLY AAS in the news section), the approach seems only fitting. --Paul]

From: Sam Kabo Ashwell  (for everything but
      "Dead By Morning") and Anonymous (for "Dead By Morning")

Dear Sir / Madam,

As a renowned stalwart of the fine art that is Literary Criticism, a
pillar of the Text Adventure community and environs and a universally
acclaimed arbiter of good taste, it falls to me as an inescapable
(though oftimes insalubrious) moral imperative to scour with an
all-encompassing eye the vast and fetid squabblings promiscuously
spawned upon the World Wide Web like so many lascivious coypu;
consequently, it is my lot to engage (at intervals, happily, of as
elevated a magnitude as may be deemed prudent) in perusals of your
organ. Upon one such occasion I had the misfortune to partake in an
observance of such degraded condition as to appall a leprous official
gatherer of the waste of donkeys. Upon the list in which you invoke the
titles of those works of our elevated Art that you are most desirous to
obtain artful reviews upon, an absence, a privation, a gaping abyss to
scare small children leapt from the crudely fashioned HTML and tore
jackal-clawed at the gusset of my soul. Due, doubtless (for even my
opinion of your ability cannot afford such cretinous wrongdoing) to the
incompetent fumblings of a concave-witted lackey, none of the games
under order of request were members of that illustrious class of mastery
known to the world as AAS.

Since it seems beyond the realms of the humanly credible to imagine that
this scandalous omission was in any way intentional, I have sought to
apply balm to this weeping sore of aesthetic injustice by conferring
upon you my humble thoughts upon the entirety of this portmanteau of
prodigy. Also included is a review of my own trivial effort in the
field, Dead by Morning, supplied by my learned colleague and
international lady of letters Conchita T. Antyoghurt. If you wish to
stave off the righteous indignation of the literary world, I implore
you, lest your organ be trampled in the mud, to publish them in their
entirety, that the world may hear of the greatness of AAS.

Yours, &c,

Sam Kabo Ashwell


TITLE: Sexual Conquest
AUTHOR: Gunther Schmidl as Linc Abrahams
EMAIL: gschmidl SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

Postfeminist contexts are evoked with subtle brilliance reminiscent of
the early de Beauvoir. The stark nullibeity of the protagonist's agency
(meaningful or otherwise) connects the audience directly to the
soul-crushing vis inertiae of an inescapably misogynist society, while
the unrelenting, almost sexually dithyrambic counter-rhythm concealed
beneath the prose's deceptively terse form calls to mind both the raw
sensuality of protoculture and the sexual act itself. The nolus volens
treatment of the game's solitary female (and she is solitary; a point
that deserves greater consideration than I can afford it here) as an
inanimate object speaks for itself; the repeated emphasis on the word
'ravish' both appalls and enthralls us, bringing forth with a few
strokes of the pen the demons that dwell within us all. Her
disappearance after climax (both of game and protagonist) underlines her
role in chilling unambiguity. The hollowness of the phrases employed,
the futile lack of purpose pervading the final puzzle reflected in the
bitter change of the initial room's description -- 'tonight WAS the night
for hot steamy sex!' not only reveals our society for the straw dog it
is, but draws forth the image of the night as a metaphor for the dark,
sordid nature of life itself.

While many have taken the name of the heroine (if she may be considered
such) as an indicator of the game's primarily Christian subtext, I
contend that the frail inadequacy of the game's ending is intended as a
stern warning that while life is bleak, no hope may be sustained to
follow it. A hellish masterpiece, guaranteed to turn the stomach and
soul of the most heartless Lothario; not for the faint-hearted.


TITLE: Pride and Prejudice
AUTHOR: Iain Merrick as ???
EMAIL: iain SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

A witty, piquant and not unfriendly little satire upon Austen's
best-known work, P&P delights the heart not only with the gentle barbs
for which it is best-known, but also for its evocative and stylish
rendering of the setting. Tongue-in-cheek enthusiasm, drifting in a rich
gravy of exclamation marks, emulates the best of the naive Austen
heroines, while good-naturedly poking fun at the modern consumerisation
of a sharp satirist into a prettily becostumed bodice-heaver.

In a masterful stroke, the complex gender politics and fiercely
competitive marriage market of the day are reduced to a unidimensional
'scoring' system; the knowing nod to early text games does not pass
unnoticed. That the percieved aim of 100 points is patently unachievable
adds an air of pathos to the otherwise light-hearted mood. Subtle
touches -- the whip, the fact that all men violently attack you on sight
-- hint at deeper layers of sexual complexity; Jungian archetypes
abound. It would be unfair, however, to deconstruct too rigorously an
essentially comic work; we stand here in the realm of Wodehouse and
Waugh, and should not let our footsteps be dogged by a spirit of


TITLE: Pleasure Palace
AUTHOR: Storme Winfield as Cindy Phillips
EMAIL: stormew SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

In this engaging, expertly crafted piece, the protagonist is compelled
to seduce a triad of Eastern nymphs; from this elegantly simple
framework, however, a veritable banquet of enthralling story and
monumental emotional force arises. The smouldering coitus that forms the
core of this tract is brought to life with almost corporeally organic
force, and this reviewer must confess that he personally experienced
distinct and prolonged symptoms of arousal upon the reading of the more
delicate passages, a phenomenon that he has ascertained to be all but
universal among readers of both sexes. The exotic surroundings,
described in a level of detail unsurpassed in the entire field of AAS,
contribute magnificently to that enchanting paradoxical air of
sophisticated animal lust that so characterises faux-Oriental pieces.
Echoes of The Arabian Nights are stifled beneath a host of references to
the belly-dancer-populated Arabia of dodgy movies of the 1950s-70s, and
we are never allowed to play for long without I Dream of Jeannie being
called to mind; this basic desire to return to an age devoid of the
disquiet of complex moral nuance adds a charming touch of innocence to
the heart of the rampant, joyful promiscuity, much as the early misuse
of apostrophe introduces a flicker of awkwardness that only heightens
the piece's glamour. A sensual tour de force that is guaranteed to cross
over far beyond its humble AIF roots.


TITLE: Office Ahoy!
AUTHOR: Storme Winfield as Ken Taylor
EMAIL: stormew SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

For years the literary community has bewailed our lack of a single,
definitive rites-of-passage text from a female perspective. The
appearance of Office Ahoy! against the figurative horizon, reflected in
a sea of praise, is likely to be seen by history as the answer to our
prayers. A veritable feminine Catcher in the Rye has arisen, the
seagulls of imitation crowding in its wake as it steams forth into
oceana incognita. The discarding of the trappings of immaturity to
revert to a state of blankness (represented here by an asexual nudity
that reappropriates the Everyman for the voice of women) in order that
one may advance to a higher level of existence is universally
understood, and so devauled a currency is it that it is easy to despair
of any fresh approach; but Taylor regales the imagination with such a
tsunami of image and symbol (stabbed through with a staccato of
exclamation marks) that one's breath is taken away. The timeless
simplicity of a Chaucer or a Coleridge pervades the work; the box, the
ship, the garb of office; all these are symbols recognised by every age.
But it is not here wherein the mastery lies, but in the game's
bittersweet resolution; the tragic conflict with the sailor that
suggests we can never realise our dreams without struggling against


TITLE: Fabled Caves Of R'th-nylch
AUTHOR: Adam Biltcliffe as Pat Vickers
EMAIL: amgb2 SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

In a literary context laden down to the point of exhaustion with
recycled pretention and complication for its own sake, R'th-nylch goes
straight for the jugular and taps into our most primal fears: of fire,
of poison, of beasts from the night; our own screams of agony and the
equal horror of those of our foe. Ostensibly a cave-crawl, this game
swiftly reveals depths of gory brutality that never strays away from its
profound import. The aut vincere aut mori struggles between our hero and
his enemies are presented in a fractured and paragraphless
stream-of-consciousness format, the typed commands of the player lost in
the massed howl of violence and exclamation marks.

This work has set an undisputable seal in the hinterlands between genius
and conformity, and never has convention seemed so much the poorer


TITLE: Caverns of Doom
AUTHOR: Iain Merrick as Roddy Ramieson
EMAIL: iain SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

Ramieson has constructed a tautly balanced allegorical humdinger of a
game, intended not only to make us question our deepest beliefs, but to
drive home with uncompromising force the emotional content of the
answer. Ramieson is not above making nods to the ancients; a
pseudo-Socratic dialectic is constructed within the conflict between
audience and goblin, and the player takes the part of interlocuter,
controlling the pace and rhythm both of the prose and of the game's

The repetitive nature of the focal combat's text conjures up sinister
overtones of Zarathustran recursion (reflected in the Judeo-Christian
symbol of the flaming sword); condemned always to die of poison even if
his foe is defeated, the nameless protagonist dully obeys commands he
cannot comprehend, and is constantly returned to life as the player
desperately restarts in a doomed attempt to achieve success. This
metatexual manipulation is carried out with an adroit and fine touch
belied by the apparent simplicity of the prose, creating (if you can
find it; it took me several sleepless nights) a striking and detailed
system of parallel between the game's plot and its levels of meaning.
Subtle changes (the system can handle randomness to an alarming degree)
make for a good replay value, as well. A must, if your head can take it.


TITLE: Cave of Adventure
AUTHOR: Stephen Granade as Roddy Ramieson
EMAIL: stephen SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

An audacious attempt to transpose the artistic qualities of the Cubist
movement onto an interactive fiction canvas; while there is very little
here for anyone not intimately familiar with the subject, for those
willing to venture into the tortured world of Ramieson's visual
imagination the journey is not without its rewards. The most important
clue is the juxtaposition of angular and absolute cardinal directions
onto a supposedly natural cave; from this humble beginning one can
extrapolate a frenzied hive of half-logic and disturbing beauty. (I
won't spoil it for you, though; the joy lies in the mental wrestling).


TITLE: Cloak of Ultimate Darkness
AUTHOR: Iain Merrick as Roddy Ramieson
EMAIL: iain SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

This game has a vampire. Vampires are cool. 'Nuff said.


AUTHOR: Iain Merrick as Arthur Tavistock Jr. 
EMAIL: iain SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

Christian IF in the truest sense of the word has previously been
considered to be an impossible and unrewarding task to take on; to
express one's faith in a manner that is original, interesting and
acceptable to Christians, while avoiding accusations of saccharine,
simplistic proselytising from everyone else. The subject's reputation
makes any attempt commendable for bravery, if nothing else.

Tavistock makes an attempt that, if it fails to achieve the
unachievable, is certainly a striking example of how to carry off such a
failure with good grace. Adopting the classical medieval model, the
spiritual struggle is represented in the form of physical conflict
against Blakesque foes, laden with metaphorical content; in this
struggle, God is never far away, aiding the protagonist in a manner that
I (as an agnostic) found a little overdone, but which would probably not
seem so to Tavistock's target audience. Although the game will play
adequately in a colourless parser, the mood is superbly supplemented by
subtle colour changes, and a great deal of the game's vibrancy is lost
without it. A few crucial flaws -- the conversation system could have
done with a little more betatesting -- but otherwise a solid piece.


TITLE: AAS Masters
AUTHOR: Stephen Granade as Dr. David Banner
EMAIL: stephen SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

Reminiscent of the best of Dumas, this is a swashbuckling tale of
concealed identity and duels to the death with erudite noblemen across
dramatic landscapes, while the omnipresent hand of Ramieson hovers
menacingly over all. Drama abounds as the story builds gradually to its
climactic denouement, amid a blizzard of learned literary references
that clearly demonstrate Banner's comprehensive intellect. It would be
all too easy to characterise as immature the plethora of abtruse
references intended only for members of the immediate community; but
this would be a churlish and ill-thought-out mode of criticism. The
work's central intention, indeed, is to represent the vital dynamic
between work and reader, man-as-author and man-as-himself, community and

AAS Masters is far more than this, however; it provides the literary
context, the creative background, the collective voice which previously
the AAS ouevre so bitterly lacked, and both justifies games previous to
it and gives those who follow on after a vital frame of reference.
Without playing AAS Masters, no enterprising student can truly
understand the great body of work that is AAS.


TITLE: Dead By Morning
AUTHOR: Sam Kabo Ashwell as ninjaschlong
EMAIL: ska24 SP@G
DATE: April 2003
SUPPORTS: AAS Interpreters

This game is the metaphorical jewel in the AAS canon. Scattering
literary allusions around in a profuse and liberal fashion, one might
wonder if some of the nuances are lost on the casual player. From the
pathos of the opening scene -- reminiscent of some of the most elegant
phrasings that Orwell ever constructed -- to the fractured beauty of the
fight scenes (almost Joycean in their organic fluidity), this
masterpiece is more erotic than Lawrence, more spine-tingling than
Shelley, and more packed with hot babes than a pay-per-view porn

One might conceivably draw attention to the lavish misspellings with
which this game is strewn, but I believe this to be a deliberate attempt
on the part of the author to draw the player into the text more fully,
for, in the heat of passion and adventure, such trivialities as pedantic
attention to spelling melt away to be replaced only with a burning
desire to progress further into the heart of the mysterious and
bewitching world available. The indefatigable manner in which one is
prevented from exploring adds a touch of frustration (at the kind of
level hitherto seen only from Yeats in his quest for Maud Gonne) to what
might otherwise be an overly simplistic allegory of one's journey
through life. An absolute gem, and should be acclaimed as what it truly
is: a modern classic.

 ___. .___    _    ___.     ___. 
/  _| |   \  / \  / ._|    /  _| 
\  \  | o_/ |   | | |_.    \  \  
.\  \ | |   | o | | | |    .\  \ 
|___/ |_|   |_|_| \___|    |___/ PECIFICS

SPAG Specifics is a small section of SPAG dedicated to providing in-
depth critical analysis of IF games, spoilers most emphatically


A Crimson Spring
Fine Tuned
No Time To Squeal
Sunset Over Savannah




From: Miguel Garza 

TITLE: A Crimson Spring
AUTHOR: Robb Sherwin
EMAIL: beaver SP@G
DATE: 2000
SUPPORTS: Hugo interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)
     (Note: this is the no-sound, no-pictures version of the game)
VERSION: Release 1.0.04

TITLE: No Time To Squeal
AUTHOR: Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa
EMAIL: beaver SP@G (Sherwin); mjsousa SP@G (Sousa)
DATE: 2001
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)

Mothers and Whores: The Ambiguous Woman in A Crimson Spring and No Time
To Squeal

I have played and finished two games written by Robb Sherwin: No Time To
Squeal (written with Mike Sousa) and A Crimson Spring. After finishing A
Crimson Spring, I was struck by a theme that the two games shared. In
both games, the protagonist relates to a woman in his/her life
ambivalently, with both fear and longing, and this ambivalence is
reflected in the protagonist's perception of the woman. The uncertainty
of the protagonist's relationship with the woman becomes a source of
discomfort and a motivation for the protagonist to resolve the
ambivalence of the relationship.

In both games, the protagonist at one point travels through a
psyche-space, rather than an actual physical space, while on his/her
quest for resolution of the relationship. The protagonist's ambivalent
attitude towards the female characters in the games is reflected in the
protagonist's perception of them in both the physical reality of the
stories and in the protagonist's psychic reality. In No Time To Squeal,
the protagonist's mother, normally conceived of as life-giving force, is
portrayed in the protagonist's psychic space as a deathless and yet
death-dealing prostitute who is indirectly responsible for putting the
protagonist, her daughter, in a life-threatening situation. However, it
must be noted that the prostitute/mother has not attacked her child; in
fact, the mother herself is a victim who has been used to attack the
child protagonist. In A Crimson Spring, one of the protagonist's best
friends is a woman known as Succubus, which is the name given (in the
medieval myth) to beautiful witches who come to men at night and seduce
them, taking away the men's vitality in the process. Indeed, in A
Crimson Spring, Succubus can read the thoughts of people who are
sexually attracted to her. But the protagonist notes that he is not
attracted to her and thus she has no power over him, a potentially
antagonistic or at least ambiguous attitude on the part of the
protagonist towards his friend. Yet it is primarily Succubus who
supports the protagonist during the game, and she is among the
characters whom the protagonist must confront and judge during his
journey through his psychic space. Another female character in A Crimson
Spring has been promiscuously and knowingly spreading a quick-acting and
deadly STD to her many partners: much like the mother/prostitute in No
Time To Squeal, she is a killer who cannot be killed. The protagonist is
also asked to judge this woman in his psychic space, and so decide his
relationship to her. The resolution of these relationships between the
protagonist and the women in A Crimson Spring is crucial to the outcome
of the protagonist's life. In No Time To Squeal as well, the
relationship of the protagonist to her mother is integral to how the
protagonist develops.

The protagonists of these games have ambivalent feelings of both fear
and love towards significant women in their lives, as reflected in their
perception of women as deadly prostitutes or succubi and simultaneously
as a source of solace and object of love. In both games, the ambivalent
relationship between the protagonist and a woman is a source of internal
conflict for the protagonist, and therefore a driving force in the
protagonist's actions as he/she struggles to resolve the ambivalence. In
No Time To Squeal, the conflict is quite explicit: the protagonist is
trying to get out of the woman's body alive, and finishing the game
reflects the resolution of this psychic struggle for independence and
life. In A Crimson Spring, there are two possible resolutions of the
conflict: the protagonist either moves further away from the female
characters and relates to them antagonistically, or moves closer to them
and relates to them from a more intimate and vulnerable position.


From: Emily Short 

TITLE: Fine-Tuned
AUTHOR: Dionysius Porcupine (a.k.a. Dennis Jerz)
EMAIL: jerzdg SP@G
DATE: 2001-2002
PARSER: Inform Standard
SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)
VERSION: Release 8

When "Fine Tuned" appeared in the IF Competition, it was widely
considered to be the best unplayable game ever entered. The opening
scene was full of humor and style, but once you started rolling down the
road there were so many bugs that it was more or less impossible to
finish -- in fact, it eventually emerged that no actual ending had been
implemented. I thought this was quite a pity, since once a game has been
played in the competition, even a bugfixed version has (it seems)
relatively little chance of garnering a large audience; so when I heard
that Dennis Jerz had released a more polished and complete form of his
game, I promised myself that I would try to play it at some point.

The good news is that the fixed version is (as far as I could tell,
anyway) effectively debugged, and that there's a great deal more to the
game than I ever saw on the first playing. The bad news is that this
expanded game -- though it does a number of quite intriguing things --
is still a bit shaky around the edges in terms of playability, not
always consistent in tone, and still doesn't entirely end.

The game is billed as a romance. In the competition version, I didn't
get far enough ever to meet the second party of the romance, but I
assumed that Troy Sterling was destined to meet and love Melody Sweet.
In the expanded version it's clear that that's not the romance in
question -- Troy seems intrigued by Melody, but she doesn't return the
feeling, and ultimately it's hard to see Troy as capable of really
deeply loving anything but his own self-image. Instead, in the last
chapter of the game (at least, the last chapter currently implemented),
there are sparks flying between Melody and Aloysius Pratt, Troy's
self-effacing but much smarter side-kick, who just happens to have a
pretty good singing voice. I was charmed by this twist of the plot --
the earlier phases of the game had done a good job of preparing me for
Troy and Melody not to wind up together -- but I felt that there was too
little set-up for Pratt's side of it, and (even more disappointingly)
too little pay-off. The game ends maybe four fifths of the way through
the plot, with a "to be continued", and I've rarely been so vexed
(though the last episode of "Twin Peaks" comes to mind). What remains of
the plot is far too little to make a game of its own (unless Jerz
expands considerably on what I had assumed would be perhaps one more
action sequence and then some character interaction); without it, *this*
game falls on its nose. We've done all the hard work, we've completed
the puzzles, and we ought by rights to get a payoff: to gloat over the
defeated villain, see the love plot tied off properly, and ride into the
sunset. I don't know what Dennis currently plans to do with the game,
but I wonder whether it's realistic to expect another game consisting
only of the ending of this one. What I'd really prefer is a *complete*
version of "Fine Tuned" -- you know, one with all the chapters.

(This also makes me curious about the viability of an IF serial, to be
released chapter by chapter. The only thing I know of that comes close
is the "Earth and Sky" series, but its episodes more or less have their
own complete narrative arcs. The first one may be brief, but it does at
least address the major problem that arises and has some kind of
resolution; "Another Earth, Another Sky" is long enough and complete
enough to stand on its own, and this is presumably part of the reason it
did so well in the competition. I'm not sure whether there's room in the
IF world for a plot that unfolded in several separately-released pieces,
no one piece a complete narrative; but if that's what Dennis intended
with this game, I hope he still means to write the ending.)

A smaller sin, but still one that interfered with my full enjoyment of
the game, is the way that "Fine Tuned" becomes humorously self-aware at
the wrong times. References to and parodies of older IF works are not
infrequent elements of modern games, and the punning name of one of the
objects in the professor's cabinet is a just-acceptable entry in that
collection. (A groaningly bad pun, but are there ever any really good
puns?) What grated on me were the moments of meta-commentary, when the
game or its characters became aware of their IF-ness -- as when the
professor warns Melody that she is going to have to complete a quest
involving placating trivially interactive characters, and so on. It's
mildly funny, but, to my mind, too jarring to be worth the humor. The
game world, with its melodrama characters and its stylish puzzles, is
otherwise so well-constructed that it seems a pity to break the

Having said all that, I'd like to look at some of the ways that the game
does succeed -- particularly, at how it succeeds in building up the
setting and restrictions on player action that make it so amusing. Adam
Cadre, in his competition review
(, commented on "Fine Tuned"'s
success at participatory comedy -- slapstick that the player is tricked
into performing himself -- and I more or less agree with his analysis of
how this works. The player is encouraged to do one thing or another by
the explicit goals of the plot; naturally, he charges ahead, and finds
himself tripped up by some niggling aspect of the environment. This kind
of thing occurs mostly in the Troy Sterling sections: Adam talks about
the humor with the parking brake, but similar techniques govern Troy's
race with the train (which leads to a breakdown of the car and an
embarrassing trek back to the livery stable for water) or with his
attempts to break into the professor's house undetected. The game
doesn't force the player to screw up in any one particular way, but the
deck is stacked against Troy, and he can't win. Even if you have the
prescience to bring a full bucket of water with you on the drive north,
the bucket will spill when you have to stop the car -- the embarrassing
return to the livery stable is unavoidable either way.

To some extent, writing IF like this is a bit like strewing a room with
banana peels. The author doesn't necessarily know which of various
mistakes the player will make, but if he lays enough traps, it's more or
less inevitable that the player will trigger one of them. The other
thing that makes this successful in "Fine Tuned" is that most of these
mistakes, though funny, are obviously not fatal; there's no reason to
undo them or try to work out a way to avoid them, so they don't feel
like puzzles. They're just part of the narrative.

Discussions of IF design often touch on intentionality -- teaching the
player how to interact with the game world so that he can solve puzzles
and push the plot forward while maintaining a sense that he's an active
agent in the game. What Jerz fosters here is more or less the opposite
-- inadvertency, perhaps? -- which I might define as a tendency for the
player's actions to have unintended consequences that nonetheless
advance the plot, characterization, and humor of the game. This kind of
treatment wouldn't (I think) stand entirely on its own -- giving a
player an environment in which to bumble around, with no idea of his
goals or the means by which he might achieve them, is a recipe for
disengagement and disaster. But Jerz does give the player goals and
well-defined puzzles; he just makes the route to solution as
entertaining as the outcome.

Another interesting point is the way the game handles player-character
behavior. Like "Christminster" or "Plundered Hearts," "Fine Tuned"
refuses to let its female protagonist do anything excessively
unladylike, such as climbing a tree or walking into the bedroom of her
sleeping (male) host. But the other PC, the autoist Troy Sterling, is
characterized by a more interesting device: a number of odd or
inappropriate behaviors are permitted, but if Troy tries them he loses
points. Failing to wave to strangers, say, or treating a young lady with
disrespect -- these things detract from Troy's decorum score. Soon the
player is obediently doing all the things Troy is "supposed" to do,
however silly or irrelevant to the progress of the game's larger goals
-- in other words, cooperating in the character of someone whose chief
concern is how he appears to others. (That he in fact looks like a bit
of an idiot is clear not only from the reactions of the other NPCs, but
from the view that we have of him when playing Melody Sweet. The player
knows that Troy is being silly, but the game shepherds him into playing
the character as written, even so. Troy's refusal to drive as far as the
length of his own driveway without a full kit of automobile attire is
more comical evidence of this same trait.)

The segments with Melody are less broadly played. Melody isn't as much
of a figure of ridicule, and she's allowed to succeed at more of what
she does; there are fewer pratfalls set up for her to take. It is in
Melody's portions of the game that the setting is allowed to shine most:
the backstory of the artifact fits perfectly into an early-20th-century
kind of archaeology, and at times it's somewhat creepy, though for the
most part the game's lightheartedness prevails. Still, I was a bit
unnerved when, as Melody, I started speaking ominous nonsense.

I might have liked there to be slightly more attention lavished on the
room descriptions, some of which are little more than lists of exits.
Even so, there's enough there to provide interest and serve as a
counterpoint to the broader Troy-centric sections of the game. The use
of the period song about automobile drivers, for instance, and a few
other accurately researched touches do a good deal for the setting; I
was reminded of some of the things I like best about Peter Nepstad's
1893. This game, naturally, is attempting something different, and uses
its researched details much more sparingly, but they are valuable

Also charming were Melody's interactions with Pratt in the final
chapter, which work on a similar principle to the Troy slapstick: the
author provides a number of opportunities to interact (somewhat
flirtatiously) with Pratt. The player's natural inclination to explore
the game -- to interact where obvious interaction is available -- leads
her into and through these little scenes, without any real sense that
her hand has been forced. Though there was actual puzzle-solving to do,
I was finding it much more fun hanging around Pratt, and was disinclined
to leave until I had to; in the meantime I was content to let Troy
bumble around, trying unsuccessfully to solve the puzzles himself.

Overall, I see a great deal of potential in this game -- if it were
finished, which it still isn't. Until the plot concludes, it will always
be a bit unsatisfying. All the same, the author has developed certain
aspects of game design to a high art, with excellent characterization
for PCs and NPCs alike, and an original premise and setting. And the
management of the humor is ground-breaking.


From: Adam Myrow 

TITLE: Sunset Over Savannah
AUTHOR: Ivan Cockrum
E-MAIL: ivan SP@G
DATE: 1998
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)
Version: 1.0.3, 3/5/98

Sunset Over Savannah was one of the most experimental games of the 1997
competition, and to my mind, tried something more daring than most games
before or since. I honestly can't think of any other game that has you
play the role of somebody else so completely. The story is simple
enough: you play a person on the last day of his/her vacation. This
person has realized that they hate their job and are thinking of
quitting. That's it. This is such an ordinary situation that it would
take some serious effort to make it interesting. In many respects, the
author of this game succeeds at doing that. The method is to have the
player go walking on the beach and try to come to a decision. This isn't
just any old beach, however. It's Tybrisa Island in Savannah, Georgia. I
have a feeling that Ivan Cockrum has been to this place. The
implementation is so detailed that I honestly hope it's accurate. I
really feel like I've been there. How many games will take the time to
let you build sand castles, swim in the ocean, even do dumb things to
get hurt? On top of that, it even gives clever responses when you try
going up or down in a location where you can't.

   Going to dig a hole to China, are you?

   But you'd burn up at the earth's fiery core!

The status line shows your current state of mind, which serves both as
score and as a temporary description of your physical state. My favorite
moment was when I foolishly put my hand in boiling water and the status
line changed to "boiled."

The game is so detailed that it even lets you eat a live shrimp! It's
not something I'd do in real life, but the description of it gave me an
idea of what it might be like. In fact, I didn't even notice that this
passage contains a grammar error until just now!

   >eat shrimp
   You look with trepidation at the live, wriggling shrimp. Well, if
   it's good enough for sushi eaters... You pop the shrimp into your
   mouth and crunch down on it, shell, legs and all. You're struck with
   a brief sense of nausea that passes as quickly as it came. The
   shrimp's juices roll over your tongue and trickle down your throat,
   at the same both time [sic] sharply salty and subtly sweet. In the
   end, you decide it's not that bad. Not that bad at all.

Yet, with all this hard work, I ended up filling strangely empty after
completing the game. I almost feel guilty about it, because it may be
the most interactive environment ever to be written. The problem I had
with the game was that its environment was so realistic that when
something that didn't quite fit with real life occurred, it broke the
rhythm. Yet, these events are what makes the game into something besides
an interactive art piece. Here's what I'm talking about.

Right at the beginning of the game, we get this:

   A sign advertising boiled peanuts points east, into the pavilion.
      You see a clam shell here.

   Your stomach grumbles at the sight of the boiled peanut sign. You
   realize that, in your agitated state, you've completely forgotten to
   eat dinner.

This was a perfect start. It gives the player an initial goal which fits
right in with the introduction. It's perfectly reasonable to imagine
that you would have forgotten to eat if you were in the preoccupied
state described in the intro. So, my natural response is to go east and
work my way to the snack bar to buy some peanuts. Of course, as luck
would have it, the vendor is about to close. Well, I was lucky enough to
catch him in time and this is what happened.

   >buy peanuts
   You clear your throat to get the vendor's attention before asking,
   "Pardon, could I have some peanuts?" "Oh, sure," says the vendor. "I
   think I've got a few left... yup, you're in luck. I'm closing up for
   the night. Another few minutes and I woulda tossed 'em." He takes a
   pot holder from beneath the counter and uses it to grab a wireframe
   sieve resting in the boiler. He bends over the boiler, and as he
   does, a small steel key slides out of his shirt pocket and falls into
   the bubbling water. Using the sieve, he scoops up the bobbing
   peanuts. He waits a moment while the sieve drains, and then dumps the
   peanuts into a brown paper sack. You dig a dollar out of your pocket
   and hand it over, and he in turn hands you the sack of peanuts.
   Apparently, he hasn't noticed his missing key.

Now, I'm not thinking at all like an adventure game player right now.
I'm role-playing. What would I do in this case? I'd say "hey, you
dropped your key in the water. You'd better get it out of there." The
vendor would get the key with his sieve and be quite grateful. It could
be his house key, car key, or any number of other important keys. So, I
tried to tell him about the key.

   >tell vendor about key
   It occurs to you that you ought to keep that bit of information to
   yourself. If the vendor recovers the key, you may not get another
   chance to acquire it.

Suddenly, the game has slapped me in the face and said in essence, "Hey,
you're an adventurer! Don't you know that you should value any key with
your life and not let anybody else have it?" Now, I realize that there
had to be something to keep it from being dull, but I think it would
have been much better to not have shown the player the key until the
vendor left. What this demonstrates is just how hard it is to make an
ordinary setting into a game.

Compare this to the opening of Lurking Horror. It starts out in an
ordinary setting with the player merely being told to write a term
paper. I won't get into the specifics, but basically, it becomes very
obvious that something weird is going on and the player will become
interested in such things as crowbars and keys. In other words, I feel
that by prompting the player to buy peanuts immediately and not giving
any chance for exploration, there is no motivation for getting the key.

Of course, that key turns out to be incredibly important. Getting the
key is not a particularly easy thing. After the vendor pours out the
boiling water and remaining peanuts, a flock of gulls shows up to fight
over the trash. So, you now have to get that flock of gulls out of the
way before you can sift through the trash and find that key. This was a
fairly natural puzzle. Once I had the key, I was able to open the gate
and find a crowbar and two barrels. One barrel was full of aluminum cans
and the other was full of glass bottles. With further exploration, I
found the glass mites. These are insects which take glass and build
their home out of it. I was also now seeing an intriguing flash of light
from the water pipes. Something was up there, and I wanted to get it.
This was the way the first puzzle should have been handled. Show the
player the obstacle first, then he or she will want to solve the puzzle
instead of treating it like real life.

This also began a second turn from realism into text adventure mode.
That is, destruction of property. However, this first act of
destructiveness is apparently not expected by the PC. Perhaps, he or she
was thinking that by getting the glass bottles near the mites, it would
be possible to have them help out in getting that mysterious object. The
plan works, but not quite as expected.

   >push canister east
   You put your shoulder to the canister again and try to move it
   further east, fighting the friction of the sandy floor. Sand piles up
   against the leading edge of the canister, but still you struggle
   onward, making slow progress. You make it almost to the far end of
   the pavilion, where the canister freezes in the sand. You brace
   yourself and try to force it with a good, strong shove... until
   crash! the canister goes over on its side, and you with it. You look
   up to find that the canister has begun rolling down the slope towards
   the ocean. You chase after it, but it's picking up speed. It
   continues its descent, heading towards one of the pier's cement
   pylons. You redouble your efforts to catch it, and it looks like you
   just... might... make it... Crash! The canister rebounds off the
   pylon and shatters with a hideous cacophony, spewing bottles and
   chunks of thin blue plastic in a rain of broken glass.

Now, it was fairly easy to get the mite into a glass bottle of water and
drop the bottle on the pile of glass and plastic. Presto, a castle is
built which reaches the mysterious object and we score a first step. So,
this was a pretty well-done puzzle. The object turns out to be a scuba

Next, we notice an old bottle that doesn't get used by the glass mites.
It turns out to have a treasure map in it! So, I thought the game had
pulled a brilliant bait and switch, giving me a new goal. Why not?
Finding treasure would certainly give the PC more money and they could
quit that dull office job without a care in the world. So, how to get
that treasure? Well, this involves yet more destruction of property.
This time, it's deliberate. It includes breaking a stave on a trash can,
ripping a shingle from a roof, and moving benches into a staircase. The
staircase thing isn't destructive, but it would sure get some weird
reactions in the morning from tourists who saw it. In the mean time,
there is a scoring opportunity when looking at the sunset from the roof.
We are told of a weird vision where the PC sees himself leaving his body
and floating high into the sky to overlook the area. A little strange,
but tolerable.

I don't know why, but I really thought the destructive things the PC
does just didn't fit. For one thing, the default response to violence is
to the effect that the PC is at one with the world and not violent
especially after the vacation. Ok, so if the PC is so at peace with
things, why is he/she tearing the place up? Oh well, back to the
treasure hunt. That turns out to be another let-down. After improvising
the shovel with the shingle, we dig like mad until, just as we hit
something, the hole collapses. Buried in sand, the PC has another
vision. This time, it is a vision of being tied up and captured by
pirates. When the PC comes out of it, an elderly couple helps him/her
out of the sand and asks what he/she was digging for. After brushing off
the question, the PC is left alone to wonder what just happened. It also
gets another scoring chance out of the way. By this time, the only goal
left for the PC is to talk him/herself into quitting their job. I was
quite frustrated at this point. It would have been much easier to type
"quit my job" at the prompt. However, I had to keep motivating the PC
towards that goal. The rest of the puzzles became less and less
believable. The destruction of property continues at a break-neck pace.
By the end of it, there will be a 200-year-old brick missing from the
sidewalk. It is permanently lost in the waves. The PC will have another
weird vision of dancing in the 1920's or so just from seeing part of the
floor of the old pavilion and later typing "dance." They will finally
catch a crab which must be boiled to get it out of its shell. Of course,
since the boiler at the vending stand is locked up with a clamp, the PC
will just have to rip the lid off with that ever handy crowbar. The
shell, once relieved of its occupant, fits perfectly into that sculpture
of a dragon. Surprisingly, the sculpture turns into a real dragon and
flies off! So, the PC decides to quit their job. The game ends here with
the PC ready to write that resignation letter.

So, a game which started with great promise of how to make a natural
setting into an interesting place had to resort to wild inconsistency to
make an adventure out of it. If the game had stuck to things like the
glass mites and a coral reef that the PC encounters, it would have
worked better for me. It would have also been nice to undo some of the
damage. For example, having the brick wash ashore so it could be
replaced, and somehow having an optional puzzle to fix the roof.

The bottom line is that this game was hampered by trying to be an
adventure when the author clearly wanted a work of art. I suspect that
it could have been released in the IFArt Show many years later and would
have been able to go for pure setting and dispense with the artificial
puzzles and fantasy elements. What I learned from Sunset Over Savannah
was that while realistic and detailed settings are important to me,
believable plot is just as important if not more so.

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