ISSUE #34 - September 24, 2003

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

                         ISSUE #34

           Edited by Paul O'Brian (obrian SP@G
                    September 24, 2003

           SPAG Website:

SPAG #34 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. 

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

Doomed Xycanthus
Dutch Dapper IV:  The Final Voyage
Goldilocks Is a Fox
Heroine's Mantle
Hollywood Hijinx

Lazy Gods Of Earth


First, the bad news: there's no SPAG Interview in this issue. There are
a couple of reasons behind that, though both are pretty lame. The first
reason is just that I lacked organization -- this issue's deadline came
around before I knew it, and I suddenly found myself up against the
beginning of the competition with no interview subject. I'm pretty
strict about getting the pre-comp issue out before the festivities
begin, so I eschewed the interview. My second reason is that I lacked
inspiration. Between comp winners and regular interview subjects, SPAG
has interviewed a lot of people now, and I'm not exactly sure where the
most interest lies for future subjects. So, in classic pass-the-buck
fashion, I'm throwing the question open to you guys. Who do you want to
see interviewed in SPAG? Email me at obrian SP@G and I'll follow
your leads, beginning with the first issue after this fall's annual Comp

With that out of the way, I'd like to talk about one way that my
experiences with IF have affected my life recently. An emerging rule for
IF design is that if the parser knows what it wants you to say, it
should just act as if you've said it. For instance, you're in a room
with a locked door, and you have the key to that door. You type UNLOCK
DOOR. In most IF, the standard response to this command is "What do you
want to unlock the door with?" But really, as many people have pointed
out, this is not a useful response. The game knows you have a key, it
knows that the key unlocks this door, and it knows that you want to
unlock the door. It should just say "(with the key)" and get on with
things. Even if you say OPEN DOOR, rather than saying "You'll have to
unlock the door first," it should just get on with the business of
unlocking for you, with just a small acknowledgement that it's done so.
In fact, it's even reasonable to argue that if the door is, say, to the
north of you, and you type N, the unlocking, opening, and proceeding
through should all happen automatically, because the directional travel
is much more likely to lead to something interesting than the fiddly
small steps of door management. Now, there are plenty of good reasons to
buck this philosophy in a particular game situation, and I've done so
many times myself. The point, however, is to think through this aspect
of interface design, and not simply default to being obstructive for the
sake of it. And indeed, more and more modern games are providing this
higher level of service for the player.

I was talking to a friend about this emerging trend in IF, and it
occurred to us that traditional IF's insistence on UNLOCK DOOR WITH KEY
is a great metaphor for something that happens all around us in the
world, in all kinds of areas. She'd find herself doing it in her
relationship -- her husband says something vague to her, and she knows
perfectly well what he means, but some impulse drives her to ask for
clarification, just because she wants him to know that he's being
unclear. These aren't proud moments, but they're very human ones, and
I'd venture to say that most of us have been the guilty party in that
sort of conversation at one time or another. I see it in business
interactions all the time, too -- for instance, I work in a college
financial aid office where we process a lot of loan promissory notes.
Sometimes, students make handwritten changes to their personal
information on these notes, and even though they're supposed to initial
those changes, they often don't. The UNLOCK DOOR WITH KEY part of me
wants to return such a note to the student who wrote it, asking that
they please initial their changes like they're supposed to. Although it
would certainly satisfy my desire for correctness, this response is
guaranteed to drive a student crazy. "They know what I wanted to
change," a student would reasonably protest. "Why couldn't they just
change it?" So instead, I initial the changes myself and just process
the note, so that the student can get to the interesting part of our
interaction: getting her money. Yes, there's a valid reason behind the
requirement to initial changes, but I never want to let the letter of
the law lead me away from its spirit -- if in my judgment the changes
aren't fraudulent, the right thing for me to do is just make them,
whether or not they conform to the initials rule. 

I think this urge to force people into perfect compliance with an
arbitrary set of rules is something that's pretty deeply ingrained in a
lot of us. Its appearance in IF is a particularly stark example of how
easy a default it is, and just how irritating it can be to encounter. My
friend and I couldn't find a word that sums up the tendency perfectly --
the closest we could come is "bureaucracy." It's no wonder Douglas Adams
felt inspired to write an IF game about the phenomenon; sometimes
playing IF can feel like a long encounter with a particularly obtuse
bureaucrat. As the form evolves, though, the best authors try to put our
UNLOCK DOOR WITH KEY tendencies behind us, and in my brightest
imaginings about the world, the rest of humanity experiences a similar
growth beyond the pleasures of petty obstruction. Better games, better
world. Hmm, maybe there's a self-help series in the making there...

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

From: Vlad K. 

Hello! I am an audio producer/sound designer, and would like to offer
text adventure writers my support with sound effects and music for the
horror, suspense, and mystery genres.

I know that such writing today is freeware, as text adventures have lost
their commercial value, but for a long time I have had a project in mind
to make a good text adventure with excellent audio backup, and I am not
talking about few sound effects and cheap music, but real
commercial-quality stuff. Unfortunately, my writing skills are poor, and
I don't have enough time to make an IF programming language that would
support MP3 or OGG music and sound effects.

Since I am a great lover of text adventures, especially horror and
mystery (let alone the Lovecraftian genre), I am willing to offer a
completely royalty-free audio solution for new text adventures. I
understand TADS has the possibility to play MP3 files, so this would
probably apply to TADS writers, though perhaps to others as well, as
long as their chosen development system supports MP3 or OGG playback.

So, I would like IF writers with serious and quality textual adventures
in development, either for the IF competition, or as standalone
projects, to know they can get sound effects and music for their horror
and mystery games, tailored for their specific needs, not just as
another SFX library.

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

The theme for this summer's new games appears to be "translation." For
instance, Nick Montfort has produced a translation of Olvido Mortal, an
award-winning Spanish text adventure. And in this corner, David Griffith
has translated an NES console game called Shadowgate into text adventure
form. Perhaps most astonishing of all, Colin Woodcock's new game Blink
has been translated onto ZX Spectrum cassette format, and is for sale at
his website ( Now if somebody would just
translate Unter Hirschen into English for us non-German speakers, our
summer would be complete. 
   * Unter Hirschen by Florian Edlbauer (this game is in German)
   * Dead Reckoning, a translation by Nick Montfort of "Olvido Mortal"
     by Andres Viedma Pelaez
   * Shadowgate, a zcode adaptation by David Griffith of the original
     NES game Shadowgate Classic
   * Blink by Colin Woodcock

Speaking of translation, a translation thread on
spurred a brief discussion of the Spanish-language IF scene, and a
poster to that thread mentioned that SPAG hasn't done much to promote
that scene. In response, I asked for any interested party to send me a
brief summary of it. That didn't happen, so I did a bit of research
myself. I only grasp un pocito de Espaņol, and even that is muy mal, but
from what I can gather, there's a thriving community of people writing
text adventures in Spanish. If your Spanish is better than mine, you
might be edified by visits to and The first is home to SPAC, which is
SPAG's Spanish counterpart, and the second site contains the results
from the latest Spanish IF Comp. 

While Colin Woodcock produces new games for the Spectrum ZX, RWAP
Software has acquired the rights to redistribute some old text
adventures released for the Sinclair QL, with titles including Return To
Eden, The Lost Kingdom of ZKUL, West, and The Prawn (a Magnetic Scrolls
parody.) In addition, they've ported some of these adventures to PC, and
are working on creating a "charityware" CD with some help with modern IF
authors. This CD will collect some modern IF games, with all profits
going to charity. For more information, check out

As some of you may remember, about a year ago I retired the SPAG
Scoreboard due to lack of interest. Now, thanks to Chrysoula Tzavelas, a
shiny new web-based service has filled that vacuum. It's at, and in just a few months of operation
it's already received over 4000 ratings. Huzzah! If you're a text
adventure player, visit the site to see ratings and comments on the best
games, enter such ratings and comments yourself, and search by a huge
array of variables. If you're a text adventure author, visit the site to
inflate and/or batter your ego.

The next issue of SPAG will be the annual competition issue, and
traditionally it's always been the hardest one to get original reviews
for. Most people tend to just post their reviews to the newsgroups, but
if you'd like to offer commentary that is more comprehensive, or that
takes into account the general reaction to a comp game, or that just
makes me happy, send your comp reviews my way. In addition, I'm still
seeking reviews of regular IF games for SPAG 36. If you need a
suggestion for what to review, why not pick a selection from the...

1.  City Of Secrets
2.  Dead Reckoning
3.  Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I.
4.  1893: A World's Fair Mystery
5.  Heist
6.  Inevitable
7.  Insight
8.  Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus
9.  Shadowgate
10. Westfront PC

KEY TO 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.
VERSION: Release 23

When submitting reviews:  Try to fill in as much of this info as you can.
Authors may not review their own games.

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

From: David Whyld 

TITLE: Doomed Xycanthus
AUTHOR: Eric Mayer
DATE: November 2001
EMAIL: emayer00 SP@G
VERSION: Release 2

Eric Mayer's first ADRIFT game, Lost, was a strange one with little or
no plot -- playable and even kind of likeable but hardly the sort of
thing that was ever going to be remembered. His second, Doomed
Xycanthus, is a far different sort of game. It's larger, with more
details and a more complex plot, and overall a far better game.

As Doomed Xycanthus starts, you are in the midst of a forest with no
memory as to how you arrived there and little or no idea of what to do
next. Following a brief fight with a "nightmare creature", you discover
a gem embedded in your left hand and a brief note from a wizard by the
name of Malevol. It appears Malevol has cursed you with forgetfulness
and dumped you in the middle of nowhere as payback for stealing his
daughter's virtue. So starts the game.

I have to confess that after the beginning, I was surprised to find that
the aforementioned Malevol the wizard did not make another appearance. I
was half expecting Doomed Xycanthus to turn out to be a
hunt-the-wizard-and-exact-your-revenge sort of game but instead it turns
out to be more a hunt for treasure in the city of the game's title.
While this is no bad thing in itself -- the storyline as you wander
around the wilderness outside Xycanthus and then subsequently inside the
ruined city itself is well written and has impressive depth -- I was
anticipating Malevol at every moment. When the game finished and there
was no sign of him, I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. The
game reaching a conclusion without any kind of appearance from the evil
wizard left me feeling as if matters hadn't been properly resolved.

That isn't to say that Doomed Xycanthus is a bad game -- far from it. It
has some intricate puzzles -- the one involving the snake and the pool
is an interesting one (if a little on the overly-complicated side), as
well as the letters which allow you access to the ruined city -- and the
locations are often lengthy and detailed. The style of writing is
overall very impressive, lending the game an eerie atmosphere,
particularly during the times when you wander around the city of
Xycanthus itself.

One aspect of the game I found frustrating -- and something that,
thankfully, seems to be getting rarer and rarer in text adventures these
days -- is its zeal to kill the player off for making a single bad move.
Sometimes there are warnings about what will happen if you go a certain
way but more often than not these warnings are subtle to the point that
they will most likely be missed, leaving the poor player to have to
reload time and time again. Often, after I'd died and started again, I
was able to spot the warnings and avoid them subsequent times but it was
still frustrating being killed for doing nothing more than moving in the
wrong direction. Maybe this isn't such a bad thing as it encourages you
to read the location descriptions more carefully than you might normally
do and anyone who just rushes through this game without reading where
he/she is going is liable to wind up dead more than a few times.

All in all, this is a well above average game that suffers from a little
too much guess-the-verb (the puzzle involving the statue is an unusual
one that it is doubtful you would manage to guess without the hints) but
the standard of writing and the atmospheric location descriptions more
then compensate for any shortcomings. From the ending I would have
guessed that this was the first part in a series of adventures (hints
are given that you're going to set off after Malevol the wizard) but as
nothing has come out in the months since then it seems unfortunately not
which is a pity because this is the sort of game we see too little of.


From: Emily Short 

TITLE: Dutch Dapper IV:  The Final Voyage
AUTHOR: Harry Hol
EMAIL: bibberfrob SP@G
DATE: 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Z-code (Inform) interpreters
VERSION: Release 11

I never finished either of the Douglas Adams Infocom games, because the
same zany humor that made the text so much fun also meant that the
puzzles were more or less incomprehensible to me. If you leave out the
complete disconnection between cause and effect, though, the Douglas
Adams approach lends itself nicely to IF: many of the best bits of
Hitchhikers' Guide are descriptions of some strange culture, practice,
or creature. IF's emphasis on setting means that there's plenty of room
in the average game for amusing satirical descriptions, without it even
feeling like a digression.

Harry Hol's "Dutch Dapper IV" takes this idea and runs with it. You're
hero of sorts, though how and why you got into the business was never
entirely explained; you just woke up one morning and found yourself with
a mysterious transporter machine. It proceeds along those general lines.
Hol's humor isn't as sharp as Adams', so inviting the comparison is
possibly dangerous; in particular, some of the things he chooses to
satirize are all-too-easy targets, like the fast food restaurant. It
doesn't take great originality to mock McDonalds and its ilk.

All the same, there were lines that made me smile. And the game has a
generally light-hearted tone, doesn't take itself too seriously, and
gives the impression that the author was having a good time. It's hard
for me to really dislike a game like that. In fact, I'd say the
generally good-natured approach made the game more fun to inhabit than
the sometimes-caustic Adams worlds.

Unlike Bureaucracy or HHGG, Dutch Dapper IV relies on some fairly
straightforward puzzles, mostly of the kind where you need to get item x
in order to appease person y in order to get into place z. Only one of
them caused me any great confusion, and that was largely because I had
used the wrong verb and assumed that an action was pointless when, in
fact, I was just going about it wrong. On the other hand, there was one
puzzle whose solution particularly pleased me, because it fit so well
into the humorous logic of the game world.

As for plot, there is one, but it doesn't take front stage for most of
the game. The majority of the puzzles take place in a plot vacuum, while
the player wanders around and tries to figure out what's going on; then
you hit a stage where things take off, and suddenly you're accumulating
bunches of points every time you turn around, and reading through a lot
of plot exposition without doing very much. By this time the game had
earned my goodwill, so I didn't really mind, but it does give a bit of
an unbalanced feel to the whole experience.

The game could also stand to be a bit more polished. There are quite a
few points where the game should, logically, assume an action, but it
makes you do it by hand. The inventory limit is apparently just there to
drive one nuts. There are some synonyms that aren't implemented. (In
particular, any hyphenated term should be typed exactly as in the game.)
But again, I found myself willing to forgive this, because I was having
enough fun to make it worthwhile. I encountered no actual bugs, which
was nice.

On the whole, I found "Dutch Dapper IV" a pleasant and entertaining way
to spend an hour and a half. Once you're done, you can play with the
long Amusing list, and read synopses of the first three Dutch Dapper
adventures, in case you missed them. (Since they are either in Dutch or
nonexistent, it's pretty likely that you did.)


From: David Whyld 

TITLE: Goldilocks Is A Fox
AUTHOR: Jason Guest
EMAIL: amazing_poodle_boy SP@G
DATE: September 2002
VERSION: Release 2

From the title, you might get the impression that this is a rather silly
game. You'd be right, too.

Goldilocks Is A Fox is a strange mishmash of various fairy tales: the
Goldilocks of the title, a big bad wolf, three bears, a fairy godmother,
Sleeping Beauty, Prince Charming, etc. References to the three little
pigs also pop up from time to time.

The story is pretty much nonsense from the word "go", but it's handled
in such an amusing and charming manner that I found myself not minding
how ridiculous and farfetched it all is. In fact, part of the game's
charm is that it's written strictly tongue-in-cheek and isn't afraid to
let it show.

As the game begins, you, as the eponymous Goldilocks, have just returned
from a crazy art party and have decided, as you do, to walk through a
dark wood on the way home (well, I *did* say it a was nonsense
storyline). The wood is pretty much just a way to get from the start of
the game to the three bears' cottage -- where the game begins in earnest
-- but it has a few interesting set pieces that add to the humour of the
game: Goldilocks' cry of "ooh, I'm so scared" popping up in the location
description, the big bad wolf (my favourite character in the game)
appearing and mistaking Goldilocks for Little Red Riding Hood (who is,
alas, missing from the game). Indeed, the wood is an interesting set of
locations in its own right.

The game properly opens up when you reach the three bears' cottage and
have to figure out just how to get inside and what to do once you're
there. Getting inside isn't easy but shouldn't cause too many problems
if you try just about everything. One interesting thing I found when I
finally got inside the cottage was how much larger on the inside it was
than on the outside -- a kind of magic cottage crossed with Doctor Who's
Tardis perhaps?

Of the various fantasy characters encountered during the game, my
favourite had to be the big bad wolf, who was the sort of character you
could probably base an entire game on. He mistakes Goldilocks for Little
Red Riding Hood and then turns to up at the three bears' cottage
demanding to see the three little pigs (for "see" read "eat"). There are
several other characters in the game (Prince Charming was amusing) but
none left quite the same impression as the big bad wolf.

The original version of the game was entered in the ADRIFT Summer Comp
2002 and came in second (a strange occurrence, really, as the game it
lost to wasn't half as good). That version of the game came with a
detailed walkthrough, which was something of a good and bad idea at the
same time: good because it allows you to get past some of the harder
puzzles in the game (some of them very hard indeed) but bad because it
also spoils much of the enjoyment you get from solving them yourself.
Goldilocks Is A Fox isn't an overly large game but the solution is a
lengthy and convoluted one, often requiring players to double back on
themselves and reuse the same item time and time again; in this way it
generally gives the impression of being a far larger game than it really

Unlike so many comedy games, Goldilocks Is A Fox doesn't just go for the
quick humour and forget about the gaming side of things. Take away the
comedy and the general silliness and there is a very well constructed
game here. There are some quite intricate puzzles (the one with the
large chair being a particular favourite of mine) and while not every
puzzle is logical or straightforward, for the most part they don't
require too much thought on the part of the player to solve. That said,
this isn't a game that you're likely to solve in the space of a single
sitting, which is probably just as well as there are a fair number of
good ideas here that would be ruined if you played the game through too


From: Harry Hol 

TITLE: Gremlins
AUTHOR: Brian Howarth
E-MAIL: Unknown
PARSER: Scott Adams Standard
SUPPORTS: ZX Spectrums & emulators

Gremlins is a game based on the Joe Dante movie of the same name. A
bunch of ugly, evil little critters have run over the small town of
Kingston Falls and you must try to stop them, with the assistance of
Gizmo the Mogway. The game was published by Adventure International and
employed the Scott Adams engine. This means minimal descriptions and a
rather picky "verb noun" parser. Some versions had crude graphics.

I don't mind a picky parser, as long as it is fair. The game Gremlins,
however, isn't. I started to play it when I was about eleven and never
got very far, even though I spent weeks playing it on my C16. I was only
able to finish it a couple of months ago, thanks to a walkthrough I
found on the Internet. I finally discovered why I never got anywhere. It
was bad game design.

If I order the parser to "search" something, I expect the game to list
all that I have found. The Scott Adams system seems to think it more
fair to reveal only one item at a time when you look into something. Now
this would make some kind of sense when you dig around in the dirt, or
go through a pile of papers. But when I look into a kitchen drawer, I
expect the game to tell me all that is in there. The reason I never was
able to finish Gremlins was because the game made me search an ordinary
kitchen drawer three times to find all three crucial items in there.

After I finished solving this "puzzle", more and more bad design
decisions became apparent to me. First: the game makes heavy use of
timed events, with the Gremlins running around through town. They
basically kill you after a random number of moves, but it is impossible
to know how much time you have left. Realistic tension? Without an
"undo" option, getting killed just after making some progress isn't my
idea of fun.

Also, the game is devoid of any sense of wonder. The setting is a
mundane little town with mundane objects. Some of them invite
experimentation, but the vocabulary of the game is so small that the
only thing you actually can do with them is the "right" action to solve
the puzzle. Any attempt that is not *exactly phrased as needed* is
dismissed with "I don't understand".

I realize some of my frustrations have to do with the old school way the
game is put together. But all that would be forgiven if you as a player
had some interesting things to do. Unfortunately, the entire middle
section of Gremlins takes place in an anemically implemented department
store, and the endgame is a hit and miss affair I did not find
satisfying at all. I finally did manage to finish it, as I mentioned
earlier. But in the end, I wondered why I bothered.


From: Jimmy Maher 

TITLE: Heroine's Mantle
AUTHOR: Andy Phillips
EMAIL: aphillips SP@G
DATE: December 2000
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
VERSION: Release 3

Sometimes I think people in our little community take this new literary
form of ours just a little too seriously, and games occasionally suffer
for it. A case in point is Heroine's Mantle, an ambitious gem by Andy
Phillips that came and went with far too little fanfare.

Heroine is either a comic book or (bizarre as it may sound) a first
person shooter adapted into IF... or perhaps it is both. The player
takes the role of one Lisa Flint, a young lady about to be transformed
into the Crusader, whereupon she will devote her life to fighting for
Good (TM) and Justice! After a prelude, the game is played out over
seven chapters, each of them as large as the typical Competition game.
In each, Lisa must thwart the evil scheme of a different villain. These
villains are one of the highlights of the game, as each is larger than
life and possessed of unique powers of their own. Take the Toymaker:

   "What did you used to play with as a child, Lisa? Colouring books?
   Lego? Dolls? Plasticine? There was one little boy who enjoyed
   building his own toys: razored yoyos, acidic crayons, explosive
   balloons-- yes, a real problem child. He still hasn't grown up yet,
   despite reaching physical adulthood ten years ago."

Stan Lee himself would be proud! I may have been influenced by having
played No One Lives Forever and Freedom Force at around the same time,
but this game's episodic structure (each chapter featuring a "boss" to
kill) reminded me of a more mainstream action-oriented game, and its
general sense of good humor and fun reminded me of both of those
(wonderful) titles as well. Some of the puzzles are unusual for IF,
being more action-oriented than the standard cerebral affairs. Lisa has
some very potent powers, and you will have to make use of all of them
(often in very creative ways) to solve the game. Be warned that a lot of
saving and restoring will be required (especially to work your way
through the intricate final battle sequences which climax each chapter),
but the game is generally solvable for anyone willing to spend a bit of
time and mental energy, and working out the correct next move in these
action sequences especially is great fun. I had to turn to a walkthrough
for a couple of somewhat dodgy puzzles, but solved 99% of the game on my

I should mention that there are some suggestive scenes involving Lisa
and Mistletoe, a villain who kills her victims by, ahem, "seducing" them
to death. These scenes are hardly explicit though, and I found them to
be completely innocent fun.

Indeed, fun is the adjective I find myself using over and over to
describe this game. Yes, the moral universe it presents is black and
white to an almost comical (pun intended) degree, but sometimes that's
perfectly okay with me. Andy Phillips' writing is occasionally a bit
awkward, but his prose is energetic and generally effective. At times
you can almost see the "BASH! BANG! POW!" captions surrounding the scene
in your mind's eye.

Heroine's Mantle is huge, challenging, exciting and ambitious. The more
literary and experimental works from authors like Short and Plotkin are
fascinating, yes, but sometimes everyone feels like a good comic book...
if they know what is good for them. When that time comes, Heroine's
Mantle will fill the bill admirably.


From: Emily Short 

TITLE: Hollywood Hijinx
AUTHOR: Dave Anderson/Liz Cyr-Jones
E-MAIL: Unknown
DATE: January, 1987
PARSER: Infocom Standard
SUPPORTS: ZCODE interpreters
VERSION: Release 37

Hollywood Hijinx is a late-period Infocom game, with a cheerfully kitsch
theme and a premise of unabashed treasure hunting. You stand to inherit
a fortune if you are able to discover an assortment of bizarre B-movie
props in a very strange Hollywood mansion -- so off you go to hunt. It
contains even more than the usual number of references to Infocom, and
at no point does it seem to take itself terribly seriously.

There are a few features of the game that irritated me. I might as well
get those over with at once. The most severe is the time limit that
prevents you from succeeding unless you have completed all the puzzles
within an arbitrary number of moves. This is pretty much impossible to
do the first time around, so I had to play until I'd earned about half
the points, then start the game over. The game's other design sins are
comparatively minor: several smaller-scale timed puzzles that seemed a
bit unfair, and one puzzle that couldn't reasonably be solved except by
discovering something and then restoring an earlier state. Coupled with
the inability to UNDO moves, this was somewhat annoying. There's also an
inventory limit that gets in the way at times, but since the treasure
objects are not themselves useful for anything, one can safely drop them
somewhere and keep one's collection of objects to a reasonable size.
Finally, one or two puzzles seemed disappointingly trivial, with the
solution consisting more or less of walking through a series of obvious

On the other hand, there are a couple of neat set-piece puzzles that
show the attention to detail at which Infocom excelled: amusing and
colorful responses to wrong answers as well as right ones, systems that
you can learn how to work, red-herring partial solutions that seem right
at first but then turn out to be wrong. If those are overdone, they can
be infuriating, but I thought that Hollywood Hijinx hit just the right
level of complexity on several of these. There is also one quite elegant
puzzle that relies on solution-by-intuition, depending on your memory of
how an earlier puzzle was solved and your ability to translate that
information to a new context.

This game also contains a massive maze. Most mazes in IF are designed to
irritate the player by making him go to a lot of trouble to figure out a
mapping, and are (relatively) harmless once successfully mapped. This
maze, on the other hand, is probably nigh impossible without the map --
indeed, the game warns you before you go inside that you shouldn't even
make a try for it. Even when you do have the map in hand, it takes a
minute to figure out a good route: in other words, the challenge of this
particular maze is like the challenge of mapping out a maze on paper,
and not very similar to playing through other IF mazes. It can still be
a bit exasperating to play through, especially if you lose your place as
you navigate and have to go back to a saved position and start over.

If I've talked mostly about the puzzles, it's because puzzles are most
of what's worth talking about. The prose style is nothing stunning, and
most of the scenery is sparsely implemented; there are plenty of items
that don't exist at all, and plenty of others that garner a
nothing-special sort of response. Considering the era in which the game
was written, this is not very surprising. Many of the location
descriptions do offer amusing reminiscences about past events in the
house, which is a nice touch, and gives character to some rooms that
would otherwise seem very spare indeed.

As for the plot, it is fairly contrived, and, as in many Infocom games,
most of the actual story occurs either in the prologue or at the very
end. Still, putting the treasure-hunt agenda so blatantly in the
foreground does, at least, remove any difficulty in explaining why the
house is in such a strange condition. If things are implausibly
scattered around, that's because someone put them there for exactly this
purpose. Moreover, the central Hollywood-esque focus, and the emphasis
on your history with Uncle Buddy, Aunt Hildegarde, and Cousin Herman,
provides a nice thematic unity to the whole thing.

The game also has a very satisfying Easter egg; after the game was over,
I realized that there was one obvious action I'd never taken, and taking
it proved to work out exactly as I might have hoped.

It took me only three or four hours to finish Hollywood Hijinx, even
with the unavoidable replay of the early parts of the game. I referred
to hints only a couple of times. In one case, I needed them because the
action in question didn't seem obviously possible, given the
descriptions of the rooms; in another, the solution wasn't something I
would've thought of ever in a million years. For the most part, however,
I felt that they were fair. For me this game didn't provide as much
sense of adventure as Plundered Hearts, or offer the atmospheric
richness of Wishbringer or Deadline, but it is still an entertaining,
solid game of the old school. 


From: R. N. Dominick 

Oh, hey, look, it's just after midnight. Two minutes into September
15th. Maybe I'd better think about going to bed...

September 15th... hmm... that sounds familiar, for some reason.

Oh, yeah. I volunteered to review that old Infocom game for the next
issue of SPAG. The review's due on September 15th. Well, um, that gives
me about twelve hours to solve the game before Paul O'Brian sends an
oh-so-polite inquiry asking what happened... oh... oh, boy...

That puts me in exactly the same situation as the nameless protagonist
of Infocom's Hollywood Hijinx. As the nephew of infamous B-movie
producer Buddy Burbank, you stand to inherit Uncle Buddy's movie
business and fantastic Hollywood estate -- if you can prove you're
clever enough to handle it by finding the ten mementos from Buddy's
career hidden throughout the estate in twelve hours.

Released in 1987, Hollywood Hijinx seems to be a deliberate throwback to
the desolate treasure hunt period. There are no NPCs or animate
creatures in the game (until the end-game, which is a timed sequence
seemingly designed to hide the fact that the NPCs are pretty much
cardboard ciphers). The puzzles are mostly of the clever mechanical
type. The atmosphere is very jokey, and both Hollywood and Infocom
in-jokes abound.

There are throwbacks other than the atmosphere, however. (One annoyance
is just a convenience that hadn't been implemented yet -- 'x' doesn't
work, but damn if I didn't type it eleventy million times anyhow.)

The game contains a maze. A *huge* maze. A huge sprawling maze it would
take forever to map and even then you wouldn't know where you had to do
what you had to do to get any value out of the maze. Luckily, you're
given a map; unluckily, this doesn't provide any sort of automatic maze
negotiation. Even after you've gotten the 'treasure' hidden at the
center of the maze, you have to manually navigate your way back out. It
takes more than 100 moves to complete the maze section of the game,
meaning even with the map you spend an inordinate amount of time on it.

Time? Yes, the game is timed. Even though the status line is the
standard turns/score format, each and every move you perform in the game
costs 1 minute of time -- even 'look' and 'inventory'. You only have 12
hours -- 720 turns -- to complete the game. This puts an exasperating
focus on optimizing the solution to a puzzle after you solve it. The
game requires you to save rather more often than I'm used to because of
this; if you're not careful, restarting will be required.

It is also very possible to waste resources required to progress
elsewhere in the game or to go to a location too soon or with the wrong
items and have to backtrack via 'restore' to fix your error. After
getting trapped like this three or four times, I was daunted by the
proposition of replaying part of the game yet again and turned to a
walkthrough for what turned out to be the last three treasures and forty

(One blessing, at least, is that you don't have to tromp around and
deliver the treasures anywhere; just having had them in inventory at one
time is enough for the game to progress.)

At the end of it all, nothing in Hollywood Hijinx stands out all that
much. The one stand-out treasure-retrieval puzzle (which involves atomic
mutant mayhem in a scale model of downtown Tokyo) is marred by two
instances of the "wasted resource" problem (if you fail, or if you do
something too soon, it's 'restore' for you, buster, or you cannot win).

I think the real problem is that even in 1987, Infocom had progressed
far beyond the basic dry puzzle hunt this game provides. Already
released before this game were much better puzzle-fests (Spellbreaker),
much funnier games (Leather Goddesses) and -- much more importantly --
advances in mood, setting and dramatics (A Mind Forever Voyaging and
Trinity) that outclassed this game and type of game completely. Other
releases the same year included the truly different (Nord and Bert
Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It), the genre-busting (Plundered Hearts)
and the systemically different (Border Zone). Namechecking so many other
excellent games may not be quite fair, but those games set expectations
that Hijinx just couldn't meet.


Phew. There we go. 10 hours and 55 minutes. (Only five of those were
spent playing the game and writing this review -- I had to sleep


From: Valentine Kopteltsev 

TITLE: Katana
AUTHOR: Matt Rohde
EMAIL: rohdemusic SP@G
DATE: 2003
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters

   Judge for yourself, Valentina Mikhailovna -- in the 15th century, the
   Heaven knows who sails up to you and starts speaking Japanese.
                     -- V. Belobrov, O. Popov, "Valentine's Day"

Are you tired of IF experiments? Are you looking for an old-school game
you could spend a few quiet days with? Then you should give Katana a

Yes, it's basically a rather conventional text adventure, set in Japan.
A disclaimer is needed here: it's difficult to judge the depth of the
author's knowledge of Japanese history and traditions by this game; the
only thing that's sure is that he knows a whole lot more about it than I
do. Likewise, I can't say the game provided me with a comprehensive
picture of Japanese culture, in general, or Japanese mythology, in
particular, but that didn't seem to be the author's intention anyway.
The only purpose of all the Far-Eastern decorations, references, and
characters (which, by the way, they served very well) seems to have been
the creation of an atmospheric setting -- and it's probably better so.
One of the pleasant aspects of such an approach is that one doesn't get
the impression that the author plumes himself with his erudition; at
least, I never got the feeling of being talked down to because of my
lack of certain knowledge, as has sometimes happened with other games.

The story underlying this work is a fine match for the setting. Sure,
it's not the fanciest I ever encountered, but it's still a pretty good
one. The author tells it very competently using the flashback technique.
My only complaint about it was that the player character somehow didn't
get emotionally involved into it -- he seemed to remain a distant
observer. That's all the more paradoxical, since this story concerns the
PC's ancestor, and since in the course of the game, the PC makes
considerable efforts in order to put right injustices of the past.

The puzzles are an essential part of old-school text adventures; in
Katana, I'd describe them as "not exceptional, but solid". Their main
virtue is the smoothness with which they fit into the story. Let's put
it this way: while probably none of them will be an aspirant for the
"Best Puzzle" Xyzzy Award for 2003, they do help to create a consistent
and well-built structure for the game. Many of them are based on careful
examination of your surroundings. There's nothing wrong with that,
though I got the feeling that this trick was a bit overused. That's
pretty much all I can say about the puzzles, except for an observation
of minor importance: the layout of the first major puzzle in the game
reminded me of one certain episode in the movie "The Fifth Element" by
Luc Besson -- with the only difference that Milla Jovovich was missing
from the centre of the composition; I assume that, if she were of
Japanese origin, she wouldn't be. ;)

In addition to being a traditional text adventure, an atmospheric piece,
and a story-driven game, Katana is one more thing: a first attempt. And
while it clearly represents a decent one, there're a number of details
showing that its author had little or no experience when working on it.
I'm not talking about bugs, though there are some; after all, this is a
review, not a public beta-test report. (However, I'll be glad to send
one to the author if he's interested, and asks me to do so.) Here's an
example from the game illustrating what I mean:

   >x door
   It's a solid slab of granite that fills the entrance to the tomb.
       There's a Kanji symbol for fire carved in the granite.
       There's a Kanji symbol for air carved in the granite.
       There's a Kanji symbol for water carved in the granite.
       There's a Kanji symbol for earth carved in the granite.

It seems to me that the author followed the path of least resistance
here. If he'd had more experience, he probably would have formulated
this description some other way -- at the least, he'd have listed all
the Kanji symbols in one single phrase instead of using four nearly
identical sentences. Other details I implied when talking about first
attempts are similar, so that I won't dwell on them any further, except
for one feature that significantly affected the gameplay. I refer to the
way that the game parser makes extensive use of responses of the type
"If you want to do such and such, just say so" (for instance, typing
"turn on car", and being told, "I think you mean 'START THE CAR'.")
Somehow, I got such responses a bit more often than I'd like to. (After
writing this, I remembered how frequently I did the same thing in my own
first game. Then, I recalled that game I played some time ago, which had
a shimmering curtain of light in the northern wall in its opening scene;
it harassed me for at least twenty minutes by rejecting all my attempts
to enter, go in, go through, etc. that darn curtain with the message, "I
don't know how to  the shimmering curtain
of light", until I finally happened to type "north"... Well, looks like
I'm getting to be an old grumbler. ;)

Fortunately for Katana, being a first attempt doesn't necessary consist
of disadvantages only. The positive aspects are the genuine fun the
author clearly had writing it (this fun shows through, say, in a number
of witty responses to weird player input), and the attention to details.
And they outweigh the negative ones, despite the fact that you could get
a different impression reading all my nitpicking. ;)

So, to sum up, if you prefer longer text adventures, and don't mind some
minor technical flaws... hey, it's time to look at the beginning of the
review again!;)

...and the SNATS[*]: 

PLOT: Reasonably solid, matches the setting very well (1.2)
ATMOSPHERE: Certainly original (1.4)
WRITING:    Sometimes not emotional enough (1.1)
GAMEPLAY:   Just what you'd expect of a traditional text adventure --
            with minor issues that are listed in the review (1.1)
BONUSES:    The rich setting and the many Easter eggs (1.2)
TOTAL:      6.0
CHARACTERS: Convincing enough (1.2)
PUZZLES:    Fit into the game structure very smoothly -- so smoothly
            they don't stand out at all (1.1)
DIFFICULTY: An appropriate ordeal for a novice samurai (5 out of 10)

* SNATS stands for "Score Not Affecting The Scoreboard"

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

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


Lazy Gods Of Earth




From: Emily Short 

TITLE: Lazy Gods of Earth
AUTHOR: Stark Springs
EMAIL: stark SP@G
DATE: 2002
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters
VERSION:  Release 4

Last issue of SPAG, I reviewed Stark Springs' "Words of Power". That
piece entertained me enough that I went back to try his IFLibrary comp
game from last year, "Lazy Gods of Earth".

In certain respects the two are fairly similar. Both rely heavily on
desolate settings, with a sense of vastness and also, perhaps, great
age. In fact, I thought some of the settings in "Lazy Gods" were more
captivating than the ones in "Words". Springs uses some typically
under-developed places, like the transitional messages when walking
between rooms, to convey a sense of the great scale of the terrain. And
while the writing often verges on the perfunctory, some of the things it
describes are, if you envision them for a moment, quite memorable. Once
again I found myself mentally translating everything into cinematic

At a few points the description in "Lazy Gods" rises to a higher level.
At one point, you're told that you see a gnarled root shaped like a
beckoning finger. The image is both evocative and functional: it's
easily visualized, it suggests an eerie presence in the otherwise
uninhabited landscape, but it also conveys to the player the idea that
one ought to have a closer look at the object. And one does, and it
turns out to be a grappling hook. Easy enough to see in retrospect how
the grappling hook might have looked like a finger of root. Springs
*could* have gone for the standard (and generic) "You see something
stuck between the rocks" in order to get the player to have a closer
look. But this bit of detailed description is a million times better,
because it leaves an impression with the player even after the true
nature of the object has been identified.

"Lazy Gods" also shares some structural features with "Words of Power".
Both games rely on visits to a number of specific NPCs; both involve a
geography with important landmarks to the far north, south, east, and
west. There's a kind of self-aware tidiness about this arrangement that
makes the gameplay easier on the player (because it's usually clear
where to go next, and how many more episodes/interactions are required
before the game will be complete). At the same time, though, it
impresses one with a sense of artificiality, or perhaps of great

At the same time, "Words of Power" works better than "Lazy Gods" on a
couple of important levels. For one thing, it provides character
motivation from the start. "Lazy Gods" leaves the player to wander
around, without any kind of goal or stated purpose, until he does
something quite drastic just because it's the only thing in the entire
game that seems interactive. Then he finds himself in another place,
where, again, he has nothing to do but wander around until a plot
manifests itself. In fact, as it turns out, your task is to *undo* the
stupid drastic thing you did out of boredom at the opening stage of the

This, it strikes me, is a mildly unfair way to plot your game. First of
all, the player feels a bit foolish; if the first step of the game
wasn't progress, then why was he herded into doing it? And second,
leaving the player without any idea of what he's supposed to be doing,
or why, or how, for too long a period tends to result in a certain
amount of disengagement. Purely by chance, I wound up not visiting the
NPC I needed to visit to receive my infodump about what was going on
until quite late in the game; during all the intervening period, I was
poking around the various environments looking for something to do and
collecting objects that seemed to be put there for me to take.
Fortunately (I suppose) there are few enough red herrings that wandering
around pushing all the obvious buttons and taking all the obvious
objects is, in fact, a reasonable way to get through the game. But it's
not a reasonable way to motivate the story.

Then there was a second, far more important problem. "Lazy Gods" turns
out to be about these meddling immortals who have been steering the
development of Earth, but got bored and decided to stop looking after
it. Fine. I don't see anything inherently wrong with this premise; it
could be taken some quite interesting places. But it's treated with a
triviality of implementation that really undermines the effect the
premise might have had. It seems to me that if you were to meet a giant
boar in the forest, and it were to turn into Aphrodite, and she were to
tell you that you had accidentally destroyed, not only your friends and
their nice beach house, but the entire world and everyone in it, you'd
feel pretty stunned. But no, I didn't get that sense about my character
at all.

Partly this is because, in general, the PC is given very little shading
by the game; his conversation is all fairly straightforward, without a
distinctly individual voice. The descriptions are more or less objective
as well, and don't tend to concentrate on the PC's feelings about
things. This is a valid choice for IF, and I don't have a problem with
it, for the most part.

But if the PC isn't going to react visibly, then it seems as though the
conversations themselves at least need to feel a bit weightier, a trifle
less silly.

For instance, when you ask one of these deities who he is, he replies:

   His lips compress in a thin, superior smile. "I am. I don't need a
   name. But you can call me Conrad."

I support the thin, superior smile. The first two sentences of the
dialogue are fine. "You can call me Conrad," after that opening, is pure
comedy. I laughed, but I don't think I was supposed to; the rest of the
game doesn't carry itself in a way that suggests deliberate jokiness at
this point.

Even worse:

   Alea sighs. "I know. You managed to destroy your world. Perhaps it's
   for the best."

That's *it*? That's all? "You destroyed the world, but don't worry about
it"? My character doesn't show any shock, and the goddess doesn't show
any concern; between the two of them, it's hard for me-the-player to be
convinced that this catastrophic event really even occurred.

I suppose that some of this might be deliberate. A deeper exploration of
the topics raised might have made for a longer game, and possibly one
with a grimmer tone. And then, these passages could so easily have been
horribly overwritten that it makes sense to practice some restraint. All
the same: this was too much restraint, I think. With a bit more
investment these themes could have been elaborated into something rich
and memorable, instead of passing the player by without effect.

And I've managed to talk about all these things without mentioning the
adaptive aspect of the game. In essence, during the prologue you're
given a quiz by one of the characters intended to elicit your feelings
about certain plot devices. I gather that the answers affect the way the
game plays out, though I didn't explore enough to exhaustively catalog
how that might work. This is also potentially interesting, except that I
think the device of explicitly asking the player what he'd prefer is too
blatant a way to customize the game. As a player, I care more about
storytelling than I do about the author somehow managing to guess which
scary monster I will personally find the most creepy.

It's exactly there that more work is needed. More character for the
NPCs, more depth, more of a sense that all these things are important.

I raise all these issues because I think, in fact, that Stark Springs is
doing progressively better work. His writing is not universally
polished, but he has the eye for a memorable detail, and this serves him
well. His game design sometimes shows flaws (and whose doesn't?), but I
think, on the whole, that it's improving. "Lazy Gods" has some good
images; "Words of Power" has those *and* a more engaging set of puzzles
and better motivation. So I look forward to what he may do if he
continues to write games.

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