SPAG
ISSUE #35 - December 31, 2003

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

             ISSUE #35 -- 2003 IF Competition Special

           Edited by Paul O'Brian (obrian SP@G colorado.edu)
                       December 31, 2003

           SPAG Website: http://www.sparkynet.com/spag

SPAG #35 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 ----------------------------------------------------

SPAG interviews the authors of the top three Comp games:
   * Star Foster and Dan Ravipinto
   * Michael Coyne
   * Quintin Stone

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

The Adventures Of The President Of The United States
The Atomic Heart
Baluthar
Caffeination
Cerulean Stowaway
Episode In The Life Of An Artist
The Erudition Chamber
Gourmet
Internal Documents
The Recruit
Risorgimento Represso
Sardoria
Scavenger
Shadows On The Mirror
Slouching Towards Bedlam
Temple of Kaos

############## Review Package: Interactive Reality Show? ##############
#  The Erudition Chamber                                              #
#  The Recruit                                                        #
#  A Paper Moon                                                       #
#######################################################################

EDITORIAL------------------------------------------------------------------

Interactive fiction got some great publicity recently with a four-page
writeup in Games magazine, thanks at least in part to erstwhile SPAG
reviewer Duncan Stevens, who wrote a Games staffer suggesting an IF
article might be a cool thing for them to do. For those of you who
aren't familiar with the magazine, it consists mostly of, well, games:
trivia, wordplay, riddles, and other puzzles, including a big center
section entitled "Pencilwise", printed on newsprint and full of
crosswords, cryptograms, logic conundrums, quizzes, word searches, and
all sorts of other nifty pencil puzzles. However, the magazine also
contains reviews of new games (of both the digital and physical
varieties) and articles about various aspects of gaming, which is where
the IF piece appeared.

I bought the issue, of course, and just to get my money's worth, I
played through all the puzzles, including everything in the Pencilwise
section. I had a great time doing this, which got me started thinking
about puzzles. I actually used to subscribe to Games magazine when I was
in my teens, and that was right around the same time I was way into
Infocom games. I guess I was a real puzzle aficionado back then. I can
remember working diligently at Infocom's puzzles, hammering away at
games for days, weeks, or even months at a time, trying new things each
day as they'd occur to me. On those occasions when I finally did figure
out a puzzle (as opposed to breaking down and buying the Invisiclues),
the feeling of accomplishment was exquisitely sweet. This magazine
brought me back to that experience, and made me realize that I don't do
that with IF anymore. I wonder why?

At least part of the reason is that now, I have other options. When I was
stuck on an Infocom puzzle, there was no Internet to trawl for a
walkthrough, and none of my friends were into my nerdy pursuits, so my
choices were to either keep working on it or to buy the clues. In those
cash-strapped days, it wasn't much of a choice at all. When a puzzle
frustrates me now, the answer is often at my fingertips. Solutions are
available for almost all older games, whether in the form of actual
walkthroughs at the archive or old rec.games.int-fiction discussions
preserved in Google's vaults. Even for brand new games, IF-loving
friends are now only a MUD login away. I doubt I'll ever again live in a
world where hints were as hard to find as they were in the 80's.

Still, I don't think the simple availability of help is the only reason
why I don't find myself working at IF puzzles for long stretches any
more. There are other factors, many of which have to do with the fact
that IF is an amateur-driven, community-based enterprise nowadays. For
one thing, amateur games don't go through the kind of editing and
testing process that Infocom had, and therefore I'm a lot more reluctant
to trust that the solution to any given puzzle will actually make sense.
The investment of putting weeks of thought into a puzzle turns out to be
a bust when that puzzle is completely nonsensical or unguessable, and
after playing through enough read-the-author's-mind scenarios, I'm much
quicker to suspect that the problem is with the puzzle rather than with
me. Also, there's the fact that now, IF games have a sort of
time-sensitivity that they didn't before. In the past, nobody but me
really cared if I spent a year trying to get the hungus in Beyond Zork
to cooperate with me, but now, spending too much valuable time
cogitating on a puzzle means missing out on the initial wave of
excitement about a good new game, and losing the chance to participate
in that first and most vital public discussion.

The IF competition is probably the most extreme example of this
phenomenon. When you've got thirty games to play in six weeks, and only
two hours to devote to each, there's precious little time for puzzle
solutions to come while you're waiting for the bus. If I'm stuck on a
puzzle in a comp game, I can't afford to work at it for days -- I don't
have that kind of time. I'll try for a little while, but as my two hours
are running out, I'll definitely turn to walkthrough or hints, at least
if it's a game that I care about seeing more of. That means I get
through all the games, yes, but I don't get the pleasure of turning a
puzzle over and over in my mind until the solution comes to me in a
flash. That's a little sad.

Of course, this isn't a call to restructure the competition or anything;
I think it's just fine the way it is. In any case, it's not just the
competition's fault -- my life isn't filled with the abundance of free
time I had during adolescence. That's why it's taken me many weeks to
complete this Games magazine. Still, I've had enough fun doing it that I
think I'd like to try working through a few IF games the old-fashioned
way. Even if that means I'm at it for quite a long time.

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

From: Sean Barrett 

Although I have no complaint with the SPAG #34 editorial itself, your
initial explication of modern IF and keys misses an important aspect of
the problem. You wrote:

 >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.

The game must obviously not go too far in anticipating player's desires;
to use an absurdly extreme example, the game knows the player is trying
to win the game, but it would serve nothing for the game to
automatically respond to the first input with an automatic walkthrough
and "*** You win! ***".

In general, the parser should attempt to map player intent -- the
player's *explicit* intent ("open door" explicitly implies unlocking it,
but does not explicitly imply going west first to pick up the key). To
do this requires the parser have some model of the player's *knowledge*.
In other words, the scenario you describe above needs an additional
fact: the game knows *you* know the key you have is the right key.
Alternatively, the game could try the key that's in your possession,
whether it's the right one or not. Or if you have several keys it could
mention that it is trying them all. But perhaps if (for some strange
reason) you have ten thousand keys, it should not open it automatically
for you.

How the game knows whether you know it's the right key can depend
situationally. If you've used it once, you know it's right (unless it's
a strange, morphing lock). If it's a brass lock and a brass key, and the
game subscribes to that sort of obviousness, then it could be
automatically inferred.

But obviously if it's the thing your aunt gave you that you don't know
what it is, the game shouldn't automatically use it as the key to the
appropriate door without the player first revealing that she knows
that's what it's for.

Now, you yourself said "there are reasons to buck this philosophy", so
it's not like you were denying there were counterexamples; but I wanted
to point out that they're not necessarily counterexamples nor bucking
the philosophy, but rather that the philosophy is perhaps incompletely
thought-through, or at least incompletely stated; with the suggested
revision, many more cases are accurately covered (and, in fact, the
ideal behavior is better described, even if it is rarely implemented
that way).

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: "Glenn P.," 

In SPAG #34, you wrote:

   ...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...

Well, I disagree with this. I think games will continue to make (or at
least to allow) the player explicitly unlock locked doors, and I think
it good that they should do so. There are, I think, two good reasons for
coding games this way.

The first, and purely practical, reason is that the Adventurers'
well-known habit of picking up any and every significant-seeming object
he can means that in the case of "must-be-carrying-item" puzzles, it
becomes possible to "solve" a puzzle without even knowing that the
puzzle even existed. To use your own example, if the player is careless
about reading the room description and misses mention of the door, a
game which allowed him to simply type "N" to go north if the player has
the key would permit him to pass the door without ever realizing it was
there! You'll have to forgive me, but if you can (so-called) "solve"
such a problem without even knowing it, then it isn't really a problem
at all. On this point, I scarcely think there can be any really serious
argument, especially with no less a luminary than Graham Nelson on my
side:

   From "The Craft Of Adventure", by Graham Nelson:

   13. To be able to understand a problem once it is solved

   This may sound odd, but many problems are solved by accident or trial
   and error. A guard-post which can be passed if and only if you are
   carrying a spear, for instance, ought to indicate somehow that this
   is why you're allowed past.

Of course, it would be possible, in the spirit of the above, to
construct a response such as this:

   North Chamber
   The passageway you are following dead ends here. The passageway
   continues to the south, and a closed door, large, rusty, and iron,
   bars you way to the north.

   >N
   [Unlocking the large rusty iron door first]
   [With the large rusty iron key]
   The lock is rusty and unwilling, but with a great deal of effort,
   you manage to turn the ancient lock. The door is now unlocked.

   [Opening the large rusty iron door first]
   With a terrible screech of its badly-rusted hinges, the large
   rusty iron door opens.

   [North]
   Prison Cell
   This small windowless chamber is smelly and uninviting. A
   skeleton lies on the floor, chained to the wall. There is a
   parchment clutched in its right hand.

   (Etc.)

Whether or not this is easy, it certainly is possible, since one of the
very earliest Infocom games, "Zork I", did just this sort of thing. On
the very first turn of the story, type the command "OPEN BOX. READ.",
and you'll get:

    The small mailbox is open. Inside you can see a leaflet.

    (The leaflet)
    (Taken)
    "Welcome to ZORK!" (Etc.)

In other words, it spares you the responses "What do you want to read?"
and "You don't have that!", respectively.

Now, suppose, having obtained the above (purely hypothetical) game, you
then read on the Internet that it is possible to enter the Prison Cell
just by typing "N" from the North Chamber, provided you have the correct
key. Would you try it? Of course you would -- who wouldn't? I would!

BUT -- and this is the critical question -- BUT --

Would you continue to play it that way from then on? Or, on subsequent
replays, would you go right on typing "UNLOCK DOOR WITH IRON KEY", and
even OPEN DOOR, although you KNEW you didn't have to?

I strongly suspect that the answer to that latter question is, "Yes." I
know that I, for one, would be profoundly dissatisfied with the scenario
given above. I -- and, I think, others -- would find it very emotionally
unsatisfying.

This brings me to my second, and purely psychological, reason for
preferring the "UNLOCK DOOR/OPEN DOOR" shtick: because the finding of a
key in a Text Adventure represents a puzzle solution in the potential.
The puzzle isn't technically "solved" yet -- firstly because you're no
longer in proximity to the danged door; and secondly, even if you are,
the door's still locked -- but for all practical purposes that
particular puzzle is all over except for the shouting. But that
"shouting" is important: what is needed now is a sense of accomplishment
for having solved the puzzle -- particularly if the key was hard come
by. The above game fragment, though it does put the key to its intended
use, ultimately thwarts the player's sense of personal satisfaction
because it denies him the small psychological triumph of typing UNLOCK
DOOR WITH IRON KEY, and being rewarded with the satisfying response,
"O.K., the large iron door is now unlocked." in return.

A related concept to the above involves the sense of STORY that is a
well-written Text Adventure. Let's take the example of the Sperm Whale
incident in Infocom's "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy". (NOTE: No real
spoilers are involved here, because this "problem" practically solves
itself, and once you've reached this part in the game there should be
really very little doubt about what to do. All the same, and Just In
Case, I've carefully refrained from mentioning certain things.)

How many of you go through the trouble of playing out the Repair Scene?
How many of you actually go to the trouble of entering PUSH THE [COLOR
#1] BUTTON, then PUSH THE [COLOR #2] BUTTON, then SHOW THE [ITEM] TO THE
[NPC], and finally SHOW THE [TEXT] TO THE [NPC] -- even though (once the
NPC is on the scene) you could have shown him the [TEXT] at once, and
shortcut to the solution? And after all that, don't you again PUSH THE
[COLOR #1] BUTTON to end the scenario?

And how many of you go through this whole thing knowing -- KNOWING! --
that it isn't necessary at all, that once you have taken what you need
and have stowed it safely away, it's unnecessary to do anything at all,
except to WAIT a few turns?

Why do you do all this? Because it makes a good story, that's why!

And that, basically, is why Text Adventures, *ad aeternum*, will
continue to make -- or at least, to LET -- players type UNLOCK DOOR WITH
KEY, and OPEN DOOR: because it's part of the story! And because, when
once you have found that blasted key, the one thing you most want to do
next is to march up to that danged door -- and use it!

Long may we be able do so!     :)

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

COMPETITION RESULTS
This year's comp saw fewer games entered and fewer judges voting on
them. Happily, what didn't decrease is the quality of the top tier of
games, with several outstanding pieces of IF taking top honors. And as
usual, Stephen Granade and his crew did a masterful job of organizing
and running the whole thing -- a thousand thanks to them! Here are the
full results of the 2003 IF competition:

1.  Slouching Towards Bedlam, by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto
2.  Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne
3.  Scavenger, by Quintin Stone
4.  The Erudition Chamber, by Daniel Freas
5.  Gourmet, by Aaron A. Reed
6.  Shadows On The Mirror, by Chrysoula Tzavelas
7.  The Recruit, by Mike Sousa
8.  Baluthar, by Chris Molloy Wischer
9.  Cerulean Stowaway, by Roger Descheneaux
10. The Atomic Heart, by Stefan Blixt
11. Episode in the Life of an Artist, Peter Eastman
12. A Paper Moon, by Andrew Krywaniuk
13. Sardoria, by Anssi Raisanen
14. CaffeiNation, by Michael Loegering
15. Temple of Kaos, by Peter Gambles
16. Sophie's Adventure, by David Whyld
17. Adoo's Stinky Story, by B. Perry
18. Domicile, by John Evans
19. Internal Documents, by Tom Lechner
20. Sweet Dreams, by Papillon
21. The Adventures of the President of the United States, by Mikko Vuorinen
22. No Room, by Ben Heaton
23. Delvyn, by William A. Tilli (writing as Santoonie Corporation)
24. little girl in the big world, by Peter Wendrich
25. Bio, by David Linder
26. Hercules First Labor, by Bob Brown
27. Amnesia, by Dustin Rhodes (writing as crazydwarf)
28. Curse of Manorland, by James King
29. The Fat Lardo And The Rubber Ducky, by Somebody
30. Rape, Pillage, Galore!, by Kristian Kirsfeldt

GET THE PICTURES
Last year, J. Robinson Wheeler wrote reviews of all the comp games, and
drew cute little icons to go with each review, depicting a prominent
scene or symbol from each game. (You can still see these at
http://raddial.com/if/reviews/comp02_reviews.html) This year, he outdid
himself and drew a full-size portrait for each comp game. Check out his
Comp03 Drawings at http://raddial.com/puzzler/comp03_drawings.html, and
see if you can match the game with the picture. (By the way, some of
these drawings could be considered spoilers, so play the games before
you go to the gallery.)

NEW GAMES
Well, the big event of the Fall was, of course, the thirty new games
released in the IF competition. However, there were a few others
released outside the auspices of the comp. Namely, these:
   * The House by Owen Parish
   * Hamlet by Robin Johnson
   * Narcolepsy by Adam Cadre and others

REIGN OF TERRA D'IF
Terra d'IF is a new Italian-language IF fanzine edited by newsgroup
regular Roberto Grassi. If you can read Italian, or like to pretend that
you can read Italian, or just want to see the wild art that graces the
PDF version, check out the first issue, online at
http://www.robertograssi.net/at/terradif.asp.

I'M LOVIN' GIT!
Iain Merrick has written a new Glulx interpreter called Git. In Iain's
words, this interpreter's "main goal in life is to be fast."
Accordingly, it's about five times faster than Glulxe, and allows plenty
of room for authors to write complicated or large games without fear of
slowness for actual players. The C source code for Git is available at
http://diden.net/if/git, and Brian Kelley has created a Windows version
(cleverly entitled WinGit), which can be obtained from
http://jura.wi.mit.edu/people/kelley/.

LONELY ZINE SEEKS REVIEWS FOR LONG-TERM INCLUSION
After a high-pitched plea on the newsgroups, I got a heartening response
from SPAG reviewers for the comp issue. For next issue, please consider
this your high-pitched plea: I need reviews! Send 'em to me for SPAG 36!
If you're looking for inspiration, here are some suggestions: 

SPAG 10 MOST WANTED LIST
========================
1.  Bad Machine
2.  City Of Secrets
3.  Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I.
4.  1893: A World's Fair Mystery
5.  Hamlet
6.  Heist
7.  House
8.  Inevitable
9.  Narcolepsy
10. Shadowgate


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

The average scores for this year's top three competition games were much
higher than in previous years; the winning game even managed the
unprecedented (well, since detailed statistics have been kept, anyway)
feat of scoring over 8.0. All three games deserve all the accolades
they've gotten, and their authors were kind enough to answer a few
questions for this issue of SPAG. These interviews are usually conducted
by e-mail, but that becomes a little more complicated in the case of co-
authors, like Dan Ravipinto and Star Foster, who co-wrote of this year's
winner, Slouching Towards Bedlam. Their solution was to sit down over a
pizza, respond to the questions, and send me the transcript;
consequently, their interview is a little more freewheeling, while the
interviews with Michael Coyne and Quintin Stone follow the more
traditional SPAG format. Big thanks to all four authors for their time
and thoughtfulness. 

 =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
 Star Foster and Dan Ravipinto, authors of "Slouching Towards Bedlam"
 -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

   SPAG: For starters, could you tell us a little about yourselves? Who
   are you, what do you do for a living, and so forth? And how do you
   know each other?

DAN: Well, both of us live in Philadelphia. I'm a programmer by trade,
though I'm currently between jobs.

STAR: I'm a marketing drone who fiddles with database stuff.

DAN: We met a little over a year ago...

STAR: I know, that's so weird. I can't believe it's only been a year.

DAN: It was at the showing of a movie which we can't name, because it
seems that whenever we do, and mention how horrible it is, the director
is somehow within earshot.

STAR: We met at the movie, but I think we really hit it off playing
Cheapass Game's "Get Out" together at a Game Night and laughing at one
of the participants behind their back. I think a lot of our friendship
is based on a shared love of mockery and schadenfreude.

DAN: And then there was NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month --
which was this insane idea of writing an entire novel in one month. The
pain and shared misery really drew us together.

STAR: I think so.

   SPAG: How did you each first become introduced to IF?

STAR: I remember my Dad bringing home a copy of INFOCOM's "The
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," complete with Peril-Sensitive
Sunglasses and Microscopic Space Fleet and playing it was this huge
revelation for me because I'd read the book and now I was playing it,
and that was very exciting.

I played other games like Nine Princes in Amber -- I've been a reader
and a computer gamer about as long as there've been computer games.

IF seemed the marriage of two really cool things: stories and games.

DAN: I've been involved with interactive-fiction since the age of eight,
when I received a copy of "Wishbringer" for Christmas. The idea of being
able to live inside of a story -- an entirely created universe --
captivated me. The game took me ages to play -- just understanding the
concept of the parser took me a while.

I distinctly remember the day -- sometime in January -- the game told me
I could open the envelope that came with the game as part of its
packaging. I ran around the house yelling about it until my mom came
along to tap me on the head and say, "That's nice dear."

I was hooked.

   SPAG: Dan, you made a big splash in 1996 with Tapestry, then more or
   less disappeared from the IF community. How have you spent the
   intervening years, and what brought you back to IF authorship?

STAR: It was me. I locked him in a closet.

DAN: Uhm. Not exactly.

STAR: You ruin everything.

DAN: Yes. I do. Anyway, I actually haven't been as far from the IF
community as you would think. I've been a lurker on r.*.i-f for a lot of
the intervening time and have played a lot of the games that have come
out since then.

STAR: I let him have internet access in the closet.

DAN: *cough* I've tried writing a few pieces of IF in that time, but
none of them were completed.

Actually, TRIAGE started out as an NPC in one of those works and ended
up becoming part of Slouching.

In the meantime, I finished my undergraduate work in Comp Sci and went
on to a full time job and grad school. I created some card games, wrote
a lot of short fiction, and completed my first novel in the
aforementioned NaNoWriMo.

I decided to enter the competition this year after talking with Star
about it and her suggesting a collaboration.

STAR: I don't remember who suggested it.

DAN: In any case, it sounded like a good idea and so we went with it.

   SPAG: How did your collaboration work? I see from the credits that
   both of you did design, concept, and writing, while just Dan did the
   coding, but can you give us a little more detail on what each of you
   contributed?

DAN: We started out just talking with me taking notes. It was all very
vague and nebulous. At some point we pinned down the basic ideas of what
we were dealing with -- locations, characters, possible lines of action.
We set up a collaborative website to share work and bounce ideas off
each other. Then came the programming...

STAR: The initial idea was for me to learn programming as we went. But
just try taking code away from a programmer...

DAN: Unfortunately, that's how it worked out. The closer we got to the
deadline, the more panicked I got and when Star went for a week's
vacation to Japan, she came back to find me completely wired having
spent the last four days in a coding frenzy.

STAR: You were scary.

DAN: I guess I was. But in any case, things were so far along that
trying to share the coding work at that point would have been
impossible. So we just went from there.

STAR: As for the writing, Dan ended up implementing most of the actual
Bedlam building, as well as Smithfield Market. I handled 1428 Fleet
Street and Newgate. I also wrote the dialogue and the murder scenes. We
ended up sharing the Appendices.

DAN: I actually have to put in here and say that I really remember a
moment towards the end where Star had written out Alexandra's murder
scene and handed it to me and I just got completely creeped out by it.

STAR: It's not my fault. You made me kill all those people.

DAN: Well, we sort of both did. The idea of 'murder as salvation' came
up fairly early.

STAR: I was all for it, as long as the murders weren't easy. I just
wanted that decision to have weight to it.

   SPAG: Both of you maintain weblogs. [Star's is at
   http://www.sarcasmoscorner.com, and Dan's is http://www.peccable.com]
   As writers, do you find that blogging contributes to your other work,
   and if so, how?

STAR: I do, because I find it keeps me in practice. I find that writing
for an audience and getting active feedback helps continually raise the
bar.

DAN: This is kind of ironic, because my blog sort of died somewhere
during the creation of Slouching. I stopped posting sometime in August
for various reasons and I've only just gotten back to it.

My own writing tends to be very personal and different from my fiction,
though I agree with Star that blogging keeps you in practice.

   SPAG: One of the most arresting things about Slouching Towards Bedlam
   is its setting. Can you share a little bit about what inspired the
   game's steampunk universe?

DAN: The first thing I remember about Slouching's creation is standing
in Star's apartment and saying "I want to do something steampunk and I
want to set it in London." I'd just taken a trip to London the previous
year and had gone on some historical tours that really fascinated me.
One was a Jack the Ripper tour where I learned about the association of
the Smooth Field (now Smithfield) with death -- so I guess the whole
thing had a dark tinge from the very beginning. I also had the word
'cypherists' somewhere in the back of my head, though we both didn't
really know what it meant then.

STAR: I think TRIAGE had a big part of it. Dan had written it for
something else and he was anxious to use it.

DAN: Initially, the history surrounding the game was somewhat vague. I
think we settled on the Victorian Era later in the design and we ended
up coming up with a complete timeline for both the events that lead up
to the game, as well as those in the background (McNaughton's trial, the
attempted assassination of Victoria, etc.) and I think that helped flesh
out the universe.

STAR: And then there was the whole tunnel thing...

DAN: The tunnels. A friend of mine and I had a very disturbing
conversation about abused children at an orphanage. All the children
told the same story -- about tunnels that ran between the walls and
under the building -- this seemingly imaginary place where things had
happened to them. The tunnels never existed, but it was really creepy
that they had told the same story. Why was that?

Afterwards, I kept thinking about tunnels that no one could see -- this
sort of backside of reality. And while the tunnels themselves never got
into the game (we had initially considered writing a section where you
'fell out' of reality into somewhere else), it ended up profoundly
affecting our concept of the Logos.

STAR: We're both big Lovecraft fans, so I'm sure that had some effect on
it. Though, to be honest, I like authors that write in the style of
Lovecraft more than Lovecraft himself.

The rest of it just sort of grew organically out of our brainstorming
process. All of these little connections that we hadn't originally
thought of started appearing.

   SPAG: Your game has attracted a great deal of notice, and mostly rave
   reviews, but what aspects of it do you feel have been most overlooked
   in the general community response?

DAN: For me it was the fact that the entire game is a pseudo-lipogram. I
think I only read one review where someone mentioned this, but the
entire piece is written in the second person, but it never once uses the
word 'you'.

That showed up fairly early in the design. You're in an office, but it's
not 'your office'. There's a desk here, but it's not 'your desk'. If you
happen to assume that you are Dr. Thomas Xavier simply because everyone
refers to you that way, that's not our fault.

STAR: I really didn't feel like that was overlooked. I was happy that
anyone noticed it at all because it was challenging to write the murder
scenes without the word 'you'. Overall I was more concerned with how the
story was crafted and received than I was with the game mechanics.

DAN: Yeah. The meta-message thing was my idea. Sorry. I still stand by
it, though.

A huge challenge was rewriting all of the library messages to not
include 'you'. That's probably the source of comments about awkward
phrasing and such. A lot of the messages had to be written in a passive
voice in order to work. But I still really like the subtle effect of it.

STAR: We were gratified, though, that people sought out and read all
five of the endings.

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

DAN: From my experience, anyone who prematurely announces a piece of IF
in a public forum is basically damning themselves to development limbo
-- ONCE AND FUTURE being one of the rare exceptions. That being said,
we're kicking around a few ideas.

STAR: Hopefully I'll get to code some this time. And I'd like to do
something funny.

DAN: I've had this world, basically, in my head for about the last five
years. I came close to capturing it in novel form in this year's
NaNoWriMo, but it didn't really work out. I'm thinking of perhaps trying
to set a small piece of IF in the same universe and seeing how that
goes.

Currently, I'm focused on starting Peccable Productions -- a sort of
umbrella under which I'll be developing all my creative works, though
right now that's skewed more towards a card game I've been working on.

Slouching and other IF definitely will have a home there.

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

STAR: I'm a slow IF player, so I'm still catching up. This was first
exposure to the competition and I was really surprised by the skill of
the other contestants and the range of genres.

DAN: I have to admit I haven't played a lot of the other entries as
well. We ended up not voting for the Miss Congeniality award because of
that. The ones I've managed to see -- Gourmet, Risorgimento Represso,
and Scavenger among others -- I've definitely enjoyed.

STAR: We want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who was
involved in the competition -- our fellow competitors and especially
Stephen Granade for organizing the whole thing. We're big IF fans in
general and it's good to know that there's a place where it's still
being developed and loved.

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

STAR: Write a development schedule and try to stick to it.

DAN: Well we did that.

STAR: Yeah, but we didn't stick to it.

DAN: Oh.

STAR: And remember that it's supposed to be something fun.


 =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
 Michael Coyne, author of "Risorgimento Represso"
 -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

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

MC: Well, I'm a professional computer engineer, which means I design
digital hardware and electronics, and also write a lot of embedded
software.

I was working for a large US company, designing PDAs and wall- and
vehicle-mounted computers for the industrial market, but, well, they
decided they no longer wanted a remote design office buried in the
Canadian prairies, where (as you'll know if you played Mikko Vuorinen's
"The Adventures Of The President Of The United States") we have lots of
trees, and that's about it.

So, according to the outplacement people, I am now "exploring other
opportunities." In fact, in the midst of writing this reply, I've had a
very promising phone call. So perhaps things are finally happening.

[Note: Michael sent a subsequent email with this update: "The phone call
was very encouraging: I've now accepted a position with a small local
company. Similar work, similar pay, so life is good." Hooray! --Paul]

   SPAG: How did you first become introduced to IF?

MC: 
*Sigh*


It was 1983. I was ten years old, and my family had just purchased an
Apple //e. We had Apple Adventure, whose puzzles made no sense to my
logical little brain (throwing a bird at a snake?). The two word parser
didn't do a lot for me either.

But... my older brother then picked up the three Zork games, which had
been in the top 10 for goodness knows how long, and I was immediately
hooked. I still remember the thrill I got figuring out the
placemat/letter opener puzzle in Zork II. Admittedly, if I hadn't been a
rabid fan of Enid Blyton's novels, I might still be stuck there, but
never mind.

   SPAG: Okay, let's get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso
   got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long
   a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest
   complainers on that point, it's only fair you should get to air your
   side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too
   large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I'm not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn't seem reasonable.

So, based on the advice of my beta-testers, and my own feelings, I opted
to enter, hoping that the quality of the entry would make up for the
overall length. In that, I appear to have been largely vindicated,
though I can appreciate and understand why some people (no fingers here,
Paul) marked it down.

   SPAG: One of the great things about RR's size is its ability to pack
   in a lot of fun, optional stuff, as shown by its prodigious AMUSING
   list. Would you care to mention any other fun tidbits that people may
   have missed, like the Infocom references?

MC: There are references to a number of other Infocom games in RR (yes,
I hate typing that full name too). Some are direct references, others
are more of a subtle echo.

Zork I is referenced in one of the cheese visions, as well as the items
for sale in Sorcery Supply. The unclogging of the pipe in the basement,
and the subsequent creation of the Plumbers Union background thread,
were born out of my remembrance of the Zork I documentation, which
discussed the plumber's FIZMO spell. Oh, and trying to look under the
rug in search of trapdoors is thanks to Zork I, too.

Zork II is paid homage to in a cheese vision, and the feckless Ninario
is an echo of the infamous dunderheaded Wizard of Frobozz.

Zork III's opening location gets a nod in a cheese vision, too, mainly
because once Zork I and II were in there, I couldn't leave Zork III out.

And once Zork III was in, I figured, "Why not Beyond Zork?", another of
my favourites, so the bearskin rug hearkens back to that, and the old
crone at Sorcery Supply is a subtle reminder of the old lady from Beyond
Zork's shops.

The description of the ratty, red flying carpet was based on the red
carpet that the shady rug merchant tries to make you walk off with in
Spellbreaker, though my red carpet flies, however briefly.

Both getting into the farmyard and getting past the bear were inspired
by Hitchhiker's, and my desire to create multi-stage puzzles similar to
the infamous Babel fish one...

The idea for the dumb waiter in a spellcasting/wizards-type game came
from Legend Entertainment's Spellcasting 201 game, which isn't quite
Infocom, but pretty close.

And if you manage to hang around the market square or Vechlee gate area
long enough, you'll eventually see the Leather Goddesses of Phobos
tribute.

Oh, and on a non-Infocom-related note, the ability to slap the
chamberpot (instead of the helmet) on your head and fire yourself out of
the cannon is my homage to another favourite game of mine, Monkey
Island, where a (cooking) pot is used for the same purpose.

And of course, I wanted to throw in a bear, because Adventure had one.

   SPAG: What was your creative process in coming up with the basic
   concepts of Risorgimento Represso? Were there any literary (or other)
   works that exerted a particularly strong influence?

MC: I've always enjoyed Paul Dukas's symphonic poem, "The Sorcerer's
Apprentice", which is based on a Goethe ballad that tells the story of a
young apprentice getting into trouble with the sorcerer's book of
spells, while the sorcerer is out. It's a story everyone is familiar
with, a lot of them via Walt Disney, but that's all right.

I thought about turning that clichť of the sorcerer's apprentice on its
head. So rather than have the inept student get into trouble and have
the sorcerer bail him out, I wanted the inept master to get into
trouble, and have the student bail him out.

In addition, I went through a big Craig Shaw Gardner fit about ten years
ago, and Ninario is certainly heavily influenced by Ebenezum from the
"Ballad of Wuntvor" series. Ninario's "Mm-yes" is a direct response to
Ebenezum's "Indeed".

Of course, as mentioned in the game notes, the opening scene of the
lecture hall and Ninario's library were based on the opening of a short
story I'd already written along those themes. It wasn't going anywhere
as fiction, but I saw some possibilities for it as Interactive Fiction.

Most of the rest of the puzzles in the game grew naturally out of the
environments I created as I went, and vice versa. I needed a town for
the Guild Hall, and I wanted a way to create chaos in the Guild Hall to
effect Ninario's rescue. I'm a big fan of foreshadowing, so I wanted an
excuse to use the paint stripper again. Thus, I needed a location in
town that had an excuse to have paint stripper in it. Hence, the
abandoned woodcraft shop.

So it all built up rather gradually, in terms of the rest of the game,
with different elements feeding each other.

   SPAG: Several of the game's puzzles seem to indicate a rather strong
   interest in chemistry. Is that a personal interest of yours, or just
   something that seemed right for the game?

MC: I took a few extra chemistry courses in high school, above and
beyond the required, but remember precious little of it, other than a
vague sense of enjoying it.

However, I do like detail, especially authentic detail, which is why you
can touch and examine the walls and floors in every room, and generally
interact with the environment in the expected way. Lending
verisimilitude to the class notes and the puzzles in the game through
detailed use of chemistry was just an extension of that.

   SPAG: I was astonished to read in your bio that you and your wife
   have a seven-month-old (at least, as of the comp begin date) baby,
   and yet you still found the time to create such a polished and
   professional game. Any time management tips for the organizationally
   challenged among us?

MC: Family? What family? Oh yes, those people who kept making noise when
I was working on RR.

My advice? If you have a family and want to work on IF, get a second
computer. That was about the biggest challenge, the fact that I had the
machine tied up most of the time, while I worked on the game. It was
occasionally a problem, as my wife was in the throes of a Tropico
addiction at the same time.

As far as the baby goes, the 4 months I did most of the writing and
coding were the first 4 months of his life, so in general, the evenings
were available, apart from the Tropico factor. Oh, and he's 10 months
old now. I'm sure, like every parent, that he's advanced for his age,
but he still hasn't shown any interest in playing IF.

The single best piece of advice I can offer, though, is to work to
schedule. I worked on RR four evenings a week, for at least an hour, for
four months. I didn't always keep what I created, and a lot of it was
substantially changed later, but the important thing is to discipline
yourself to at least do some of the project on a regimented basis. If
you're having trouble with one portion, leave that portion and come back
to it later.

And by no means was RR written linearly! I found it just as easy to make
the starting location the path outside the farm, and code the tree
puzzle, before I had any way for the player to get there from Ninario's
caer. If you have a general outline of the piece in your head, there's
nothing to prevent you stopping work on a sticky patch, and moving to a
fresh area for a while. It keeps you generating output, instead of
staring at the monitor, and you can come back to the sticky patch later,
a little older and a little wiser.

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

MC: I certainly want to create more IF. It was a very enjoyable
experience, and I learned so much creating RR.

As I have a keen interest in both writing and programming, I'd like to
try some really novel ideas with IF, and try to create something with a
more solid plot and storyline to it.

I know the game notes for RR talk about a possible sequel and, while I'm
interested in doing that at some point, I'd like to work on a different
style of game first. I'm just not really sure what.

You'll also be glad to know that my plans do not include entering an
offensively long game into the competition again.

At the moment, apart from helping out a bit with Inform 6.3, I've been
fiddling around with game frameworks, finding ways to make life easier
in my next game. I've been exploring a few library add-ons for handling
scenery and adjectives, and I've also been working on a new model for
handling Ask/Tell conversations, which should all cut down on the amount
of hoop-jumping in my next piece.

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

MC: I loved Slouching Towards Bedlam. It was the only one that really
intrigued me, and made me eager to play from the opening few moves.

I also enjoyed Scavenger, Gourmet, Shadows on the Mirror and Episode in
the Life of an Artist.

There were a few other decent games, but I was mostly disappointed with
the rest of the crop. We still seem to get a lot of games that are
unfinished, untested and unpolished.

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

MC: 1) Don't enter long games in the competition. Oh. Oops.

Okay, not exactly. If your game is too long, make sure that the part of
it that everyone will see is really good, as it's the only thing that
will save you. That being said, RR and Sophie's Adventure were the only
two really long games I saw this year (but I did not play all the
games).

2) Get your game tested. Repeat. Repeat.

3) Read Jessica Knoch's IF Comp Primer. Read it again.
http://www.strangebreezes.com/if/writings/compguide.htm

Oh yes: and FOLLOW it. That's the really important part.

4) If you want to put liquids in your game, don't : ) Or, use a library
add-on that someone else has already debugged.

5) If you want to include a rope in your game, have it locked in an
inaccessible display case. This makes writing ropes *easy*.


 =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
 Quintin Stone, author of "Scavenger"
 -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
 
   SPAG: For starters, could you tell us a little about yourself? Who
   are you, what do you do for a living, and so forth?

QS: I'm a 29 year-old computer programmer currently living in North
Carolina. Happily married to a very patient, very understanding, very
wonderful woman. In my free time I enjoy computer and role-playing games
while thinking I should do something much more constructive with my
time. Which I never do.

   SPAG: How did you first become introduced to IF?

QS: My older brother was probably most instrumental in introducing me to
many of my hobbies. He'd bring home all kinds of great games for our old
Atari 800, including the Zork series, Planetfall, Enchanter, and the
other great classics. I was 10 or 11 at the time, so I wasn't any good
at solving most of the puzzles, but I had a lot of fun trying.

   SPAG: On the Scavenger web page, you assure us that Scavenger isn't
   your first IF game, just the first one you've written with a tool
   like TADS. Tell us more about those earlier games.

QS: Wow, let's see. One that I remember best was for an 8th grade
computer class project. It was more or less a direct rip-off of
Planetfall: your ship crashed into an abandoned facility and you have to
solve puzzles to get off of the planet. It was in BASIC on the IBM PC.
Custom parser and everything, just like all of my old games. Another one
I did around that time, in Atari BASIC, was eerily similar in some ways
to the movie Gladiator. You are captured by a corrupt regime and forced
to fight in an arena for the amusement of the emperor and his people.
You have to find better and better weapons to fight progressively more
difficult opponents until you finally kill the emperor himself. There
was also a game I created where your village's sacred sword is stolen by
a demon and you have to go and retrieve it.

Those are just some of the ones I actually programmed. I have a number
that I planned out but never got around to coding. One I designed in
high school, heavily inspired by 2001, had you on the first human
journey to Alpha Centauri, awakening from cryo-sleep to find your
companions dead and the ship's computer trying to kill you.

   SPAG: Can you explain a little about the "Night's Edge" universe in
   which Scavenger takes place? What were some of your influences in
   creating that universe, and in creating Scavenger in particular?

QS: Back in college, my friends and I were heavily into online text
games: MUD, MUSH, MUSE, MUX, all those funny little acronyms. After
college, some of us decided to open our own and we eventually chose to
go with our own setting. This was early 1997, a couple years before any
of us had played Fallout or Fallout 2, so I think our main inspiration
at the time was sort of a mix of Road Warrior and William Gibson
cyberpunk. Though our MUSH, "Night's Edge", never officially opened, we
put a lot of thought into the structure of the society, the world's
history, and its technology level. In 1999, I decided that I could use a
lot of that as the foundation for a modification of Unreal Tournament
and my team and I generated even more detail. It was mainly background
information; no real effect on the gameplay, but it did set up the
atmosphere so that all the violence in the game didn't exist in a
vacuum.

The setting isn't all that complex: one hundred years after a nuclear
war, most of the surviving members of the human race have clustered
within strange areas of inexplicably low radiation. One of the largest
happened to be centered on a pre-war city called Arcadia, so it
naturally became a prominent location. It's run by ruthless thugs who
hold on to power by collecting and controlling technology while at the
same time trying to convince the rabble that they're happy. Not a
cheerful setting, but it makes for great conflict.

   SPAG: Since your game is set in the future, how about a prediction:
   what developments do you see happening in the IF world over the next
   five years or so? What would you most like to see happen?

QS: I think we're seeing greater trends toward simulationist systems and
games. I have the feeling that this will continue. Metamorphoses is a
good example of this, where the objects have certain properties (size,
weight, material, etc.) and the game recognizes those properties, not so
much the objects themselves, for certain actions. From what I can tell,
this kind of simulation is prominent in TADS 3, especially from what
I've read from the discussions of the liquids library. I also feel we're
seeing more games where multiple solutions are possible. If it's
reasonable and it makes sense, allow it.

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

QS: Absolutely! Before the 2003 comp, I'd been putting together details
for two games I hope to make. One is a gritty mystery with a lot of NPC
interaction, the other a humorous and light-hearted puzzlish game. I
haven't started code for either one yet. I've also got a whole list of
possible ideas for the future (most of which will likely never see the
light of day).

   SPAG: I was very impressed with the depth of implementation you
   achieved in Scavenger. About how long did it take you to write the
   game, from start to finish, and what was your process for working on
   it?

QS: I started work on it in September of 2002. I was still working on it
right up to the competition deadline in September 2003. So about a year
overall, though there were long periods where I'd do little to no work
on it, like when I'd be waiting for bug reports for instance. Or if I
just needed a break.

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

QS: This is the second year I've played through all the games in the
comp. I was sorry to see the number of games go down again (as it has
since 2000) even though that made the job easier. The impression I got
this year was that some authors are ignoring the importance of testers.
I can say that Scavenger wouldn't have been nearly what it was without
all my wonderful testers.

My favorite would have to be Risorgimento Represso (even though for the
life of me I can never remember the exact title without looking it up).
Slouching Towards Bedlam gets high marks from me for its ability to
create a specific mood.

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

QS: You know how they say the three most important words in real estate
are Location, Location, Location? I think the three most important words
in IF creation are Testing, Testing, Testing. Programmers just aren't
good at thoroughly testing their own creations. It's some kind of mental
blind spot, I think. You need a fresh pair of eyes to look at your
creation and try some things you just didn't think of trying. Open
yourself up to criticism. Testers aren't trying to hurt your feelings,
they're trying to help you.

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
AVAILABILITY: LTOI 2
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: T. Henrik Anttonen 

TITLE: The Adventures of the President of the United States
AUTHOR: Mikko Vuorinen
EMAIL: mvuorine SP@G cc.helsinki.fi
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Alan Standard
SUPPORTS: Alan interpreters
AVAILABILITY: IF archive
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/alan/apus

This game only placed 21st in this year's IF Comp, but the name and the
Finnish author attracted my attention enough to make me decide that Iím
going to try to save my reputation after the horrid review of Pulsar 7
by reviewing this.

This is a short game that I think is supposed to be funny, but it
doesnít quite achieve its purpose. First of all, I donít find it
particularly funny, and second, it isnít very easy to complete because
of its technical imperfections.

The basic idea is great. You are the (unnamed) president of the United
States. But since the White House is such a boring place, allowing
nothing beyond the destroying the world as entertainment, you decide to
go on an adventure. Unfortunately, an over-protective secret service
agent doesnít allow you to go and there you have your first puzzle.

The biggest problem of the game is that it seems to be written too
hastily. The room descriptions are insufficient and the parser doesnít
allow you to look for details except in a few places. That makes the
simple puzzles quite hard to solve; I have to admit that I had to
consult the walkthrough several times only to find that the solution was
right there in front of my face, but I couldn't have known it since it
didnít appear in the room description.

I liked the idea that after you get out of the White House, rooms are
countries. I donít know if it has been done before, but that really gave
a refreshing difference to the game. In your journeys as the president
you get to visit Mexico, Canada, Russia, Finland and Sweden. In Finland
you actually get to learn some Finnish.

I didnít like the fact that the player isnít given any purpose other
than the need to go out on an adventure. I know that this is one way of
designing a game, but Iíve always liked when the player is given a
purpose and a goal he needs to accomplish to get on with the game. When
a game combines this sort of purposelessness with bad room descriptions,
youíre in for a lot of headaches if you donít resort to the solution
file.

The parser is also quite limited. The author says he tried to avoid
guess-the-verb puzzles this time, but unfortunately the parser
understands only one way of expressing yourself most of the time and you
have to guess a lot while playing. I didnít find any actual bugs though.

So, to summarise: The game's basic idea has potential and the
room-country design is refreshing, but the game falls to its technical
problems. If the author wouldíve given some more time to actual
programming and to the room descriptions, this wouldíve been a quite
entertaining game.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Mike Russo 
[Originally posted on rec.games.int-fiction]

TITLE: The Atomic Heart
AUTHOR: Stefan Blixt
EMAIL: flash SP@G df.lth.se
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/zcode/atomicheart
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

This could have been a really good game. The set-up is involving -- you
spend most of the game wondering where exactly your loyalty lies, and
under nearly constant threat of death -- there are a number of computer
interface-based puzzles which could have been entertaining, and while
the story deals with some fairly standard sci-fi tropes, there's a
welcome sense of horror and desperation beneath it all. Unfortunately,
all this promise is severely weakened by inadequate motivation, some
questionable design choices, and an incredibly mulish parser.

To start with the good parts: the robot revolution is a morally
complicated thing for most of the game. While the "correct" side becomes
clear towards the end, up until that point I found my sympathies
conflicted; while the scenes of carnage wrought by the insurgent
machines were terrible enough, the fact that I was playing a glorified
appliance who recently became self-aware reinforced the idea that maybe
they had a point. The other robots seemed dangerous, of course, but the
humans were also shooting everything in sight, rendering them less than
sympathetic. This sort of ethical quandary is a pleasant change of pace
from the traditional IF conception of the protagonist as a force for all
that is righteous. The puzzles also have quite a bit of potential; the
use of different interfaces recalls A Mind Forever Voyaging, allowing
the player character to control a variety of machinery.

In practice, though, things fall down. To start with perhaps the
smallest of the game's problems, motivation is inadequate throughout.
While the initial section of the game is on rails, once things open up,
I was at a loss to figure out why I was still sticking around. Upon
moving outside and finding the intertwined carcasses of man and machine,
I wanted to run away as quickly as I could. When that proved impossible,
I poked around and found the kid I'd been assigned to watch over -- so,
time to skedaddle with the tot in tow, right? No; in fact, I needed to
make my way into the airbase, where people were hell-bent on shooting
me! While the logic becomes clear once the endgame is reached, it all
comes off as rather contrived; the only reason I was in the base was
because the game wouldn't let me go anyplace else.

The game also unfortunately doesn't start out with its best foot
forward. The initial section is frustrating and punishingly timed. When
confronted with a myriad of new commands and a nonhuman player
character, my first impulse is to tinker and experiment; unfortunately,
this led to a quick depletion of my charge. It took me several restarts
before I figured out everything I needed to do, and I still hadn't
really figured out what all the cables drooping out of my body were for.
Matters aren't helped by the inexplicable decision to cut to the framing
story upon losing the game and not tell the player that he's now in an
unwinnable state -- I spent a good long time trying to get my new Air
Force persona to do something useful before I realized that I needed to
reload.

Finally, the custom commands had me tearing my hair out in frustration.
Much of this was due to the fact that "ATTACH" and "CONNECT" aren't
quite implemented the same way; my first impulse was to use the former,
but the game wound up preferring the latter. Descriptions would say that
cables were connected to each other when the game wasn't actually
recognizing that they were, which led to much anguish. Then there's the
Walkdozer, which you spend a good chunk of the game piloting.
Unfortunately, getting in and out of the thing is an exercise in
frustration, since the door isn't actually implemented. In theory OPEN
WALKDOZER, CLOSE WALKDOZER, EXIT WALKDOZER and ENTER WALKDOZER should be
all you need, but some synonyms would have been nice, especially since I
ran into a nasty bug where OPEN WALKDOZER would return "which do you
mean, the Valvo Walkdozer or the Valvo Walkdozer Operating System?" All
attempts at disambiguation failed, necessitating yet another restart.
It's impossible to leave the Walkdozer without unplugging from the
thing, of course, but instead of this task being elegantly handled
behind the scenes, the player is forced to go through the process
manually, and again, I hit many snags. A sample transcript:

>DROP CABLE
The GSTS interface cable is already here.

>REMOVE CABLE
(first taking the GSTS interface cable)
You're not wearing that.

>EXIT
You need to let go of the interface cable before you move.

>DROP INTERFACE CABLE
Dropped.

Oi. I also stumbled across what in retrospect was probably a bug, but
which confused me mightily at the time; going west from one of the
airfield locations dumps the player in Darkness. At first I thought I
had taken too many gunshots and had lost power, which led to much
frustrated fiddling and still another restart. In fairness, I don't
think the room's description mentioned an exit to the west, but I was
trying to get from one side of the compound to the other quickly so I
was just typing "W" "[ENTER]" over and over until I stopped.

For all my griping, I still wound up liking Atomic Heart; as I said,
it's got promise, and the final puzzle has a solution that's at once
clever, obvious, and poetic. Any game that leaves me saying "wow, so
this is how Jim Jones must have felt!" can't be all bad. Still, it could
have been so much more. I'd encourage the author to work on a post-comp
release; with a little tweaking, he could have an excellent game on his
hands.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Mike Russo 
[Originally posted on rec.games.int-fiction]

TITLE: Baluthar
AUTHOR: Chris Molloy Wischer
EMAIL: breathingmeat SP@G graffiti.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/zcode/baluthar
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

The opening Ecclesiastes quote immediately got me on this game's side.
The fact that existential apathy prevented me from moving off the bed
until I found some motivation was another bright mark. In general, I
think motivating the player is a very important and oft-overlooked
component of a good opening, and Baluthar's got me to buy into the game
almost immediately.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the rest of the game quite as compelling as
the first few moves. Part of this is due to the prose; it's euphonic and
at times evocative, but sometimes drowns in its own wordiness. Take this
description of the terrain around the player character's hut: "the
vegetation of the forest where you make your home is austere and
shadowy, as is typical of plants in your country." Austere and shadowy,
that's good, but that last tacked on clause takes the wind right out of
the image. Still, this is a minor complaint, and there are some
intriguingly creepy ideas on offer -- the skull which reclothes itself
in flesh and the ghoul which is the grown-up form of a zombified child
are off-kilter and memorable. The dungeon beneath the well could have
degenerated into cheesiness redolent of a Hammer flick, but the author
does a good job keeping the parade of monsters distinct and horrific.

The puzzles are logical and generally quite well-integrated into the
game. While some of them are a bit rote (learning the name of the ghost,
finding a light source), others are fairly clever, especially the one
involving the skeleton's key, where the player is never quite sure if
he's doing the right thing or something monumentally stupid. The hint
system is complete and does a good job of providing useful nudges before
spoiling the whole thing.

Where Baluthar ultimately fails is in engaging the player's emotions.
We're told of the horrifying invasion from above, but we don't see the
immediate effects of their tyranny, and it thus never quite connects.
Without this goad driving the plot, Rykhard's actions appear idiotic and
foolhardy -- as indeed they're meant to, but instead of sympathizing
with the pain that led him to make his choice, we're just frustrated
with him. The opening sets us up to expect a tale of existential
paralysis, but once in the dungeon the player character is
disappointingly heroic. The dread god Baluthar might weigh heavily on
the minds of the player character and his son, but we never see his
glowering visage driving home the hopelessness of the situation, which
drastically reduces the effectiveness of the (thematically quite neat)
denouement. Rykhard's mind has been changed, true, but that all happened
off-screen; the player character hasn't evolved as a result of his
experiences, which undercuts the sense of closure the author is trying
to sell.

All in all, the fact that I'm nitpicking some details of prose and the
mechanics of player investment rather than bemoaning poor coding and
broken puzzles argues very much in Baluthar's favor. It's got a good
opening and some neat ideas, and while it isn't quite great, it's
nonetheless a very solid game.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: J. Robinson Wheeler 
[Originally posted on rec.games.int-fiction and on Rob's website at
http://raddial.com/if/reviews/comp03_reviews.html]

TITLE: Caffeination
AUTHOR: Michael Loegering
EMAIL: loegering SP@G earthlink.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/zcode/caffeination
VERSION: Release 0 (competition version)

Okay, there are a lot of problems with this game, but I'm going to try
to be constructive about it. This is a game where the author is having
an enormously good time and the player is having no fun at all. That's a
heck of a problem, and it's a sad one to have to point out to someone
who's got a big cheesy grin on his face. This author went wrong
somewhere along the line, and had no clue he was creating a total
misfire, even has he continued to pack in numerous contrivances and
clever details and elaborate red herrings and locations and multiple
puzzles with multiple solutions. I'm sure he thought it would be a lot
of fun. In a way, it reminded me of my first Comp entry, "Four in One,"
which was packed with all sorts of fun details that only a few players
ever saw because the main game wasn't fun enough to warrant exploration.

The setting of the game is kind of a limp workplace satire that looks
like it fell through a wormhole from the 1999 Comp. Meet your boss, Mr.
Norom. Ho ho ho. That kind of thing. First location of the game: a
cubicle with a computer. Next sixteen locations of the game: everyone
else's cubicles. Sigh.

I halfheartedly played along for ten minutes, and felt totally lost as
to what to do. The author provided no focus at all. Sure, there was a
stated goal: get a big cup of coffee. But that fails to provide any
focus when you're rambling around trying to interact with
thinly-implemented NPCs and office settings. I found a hidden hole
puncher and a coffee maker and some day-old coffee grounds, and I did
somebody else's work because a notepad suggested I try that, and then I
gave up. I went to the walkthrough file, and, just like I did with last
year's limp workplace satire, "BOFH," I ended up just reading the whole
thing and quitting then and there, because (just like last year) I could
see there was no point to trying to come up with the contorted solutions
to each stage of the game on my own. The walkthrough made it clear that
I'd have to be the author in order to solve the author's puzzles.

For example, I mentioned that I found a hole puncher, which I assumed
had something to do with punching the holes on the freebie coffee card I
also found. But, that wouldn't work until I also did the following:

   Escape the office and go to the Buy 'n Blow. Enter and exit the 
   shop until you see a message that the store is being robbed. Go 
   tell the cop about it and go back to the store. You will see 
   the theif being arrested and drop something. It is his knife.
   Get the knife and cut the card three times. Presto! Instant 
   legitimate coffee card.

Can you see the problem with the above? In order for me to be pursuing
this goal, my efforts have to be somewhat directed. I could spend two
hours wandering around the game map, running through laundromats and
bookstores and finding all sorts of items and fighting off rats and
never hit upon the idea of waiting for a store to be robbed so that I
can tell a cop to arrest the guy so that he drops the item I need to
finish the work I started with the hole puncher. The mind boggles. And
yet, I can emit a long, slow whistle at the hours the author must have
put in to implement all of these nifty ideas of his.

You can't let your players flail around trying to read your mind. You
have to use the game's text to give them direction and focus. This game
was all over the place, even in the smaller section of being trapped in
the office. I have a feeling this author is going to be somewhat
surprised and very disappointed at how his game places in the final
rankings.

Because I didn't give this game much of an honest chance and quit to
read the walkthrough, I have to decide whether to recuse myself and not
vote on it, or just give it a score based on its failure to engage me. I
guess I will choose the latter.
 
RATING: 4

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: J. Robinson Wheeler 
[Originally posted on rec.games.int-fiction and on Rob's website at
http://raddial.com/if/reviews/comp03_reviews.html]

TITLE: Cerulean Stowaway
AUTHOR: Roger Descheneaux
EMAIL: rpd SP@G world-nexus.com
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2 standard
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/stowaway
VERSION: Competition release

This comic, old-school science fiction game gave me a bad feeling at the
very beginning, with introductory text that ran on for a couple of
screen pages before the first prompt. Normally, that turns me off right
away. However, when I took the time to read it all, it was fairly
amusing. Funny enough to make me feel like there would be some chuckles
to be had along the way.

I actually had to take more than two hours to finish this game, even
though it is not particularly large. It was one puzzle after another,
and eventually, despite the in-game hint system, I got stuck. The hint
system was welcome, but broke down after a certain point. I kind of got
faked out by it, in that I learned to rely on it -- at one point, at the
most complicated puzzle, the final hint in the sequence for that area
goes ahead and spells out exactly all of the things you need to do -- so
that when it thinned out and stopped being specific, I was left flailing
around. There's nothing quite as frustrating as being trapped in a very
small map with a pretty limited set of objects, and having no idea how
to make the game proceed. You end up pacing around, staring at the same
sixteen locations and the same inventory of red herrings over and over
and over again. In the end, a combination of this and the game's other
problem (which I'm about to get to) made me deduct a point from the
score I was going to give it just for being a generally entertaining
old-school game.

Here's an instance of something that, as a player, bothered me:

   Window Washers' Scaffold
   Across a small gap to the east is the open hatchway of the 
   Cerulean ship. Falling into the gap would most likely be fatal, 
   but you're certain that you can jump into the spaceship with 
   little difficulty.

   >jump
   You jump up and down. It's like being on a pogo stick, except 
   without the pogo stick.

   >jump to hatchway
   I don't know the word "hatchway".

   >jump to hatch
   I don't know the word "hatch".

   >jump to ship
   I don't know the word "ship".

   >jump into spaceship
   I don't recognize that sentence. 

   >x spaceship
   I don't see any spaceship here. 

   >jump to shuttle
   I don't recognize that sentence.

   >jump gap
   I don't know the word "gap".

   >e
   Cerulean Landing Vehicle
   The interior of the Cerulean landing vehicle is made of the 
   same shimmering metal as the outside of it. [...]

If an author tells me, "you're certain that you can jump into the
spaceship with little difficulty," I expect >JUMP INTO THE SPACESHIP to
be implemented. I mean, come on.

The nastiest bit of business like this begins when you finally make it
to the alien ship. Everything on the ship has a label of some sort. You
get some glasses that allow you to read the language. I guess maybe it
was because the author wanted to allow for you not having the glasses,
and so separated out the reading of things to be handled separately, or
maybe it's just a case of TADS allowing READ to be a separate verb from
EXAMINE, unlike Inform. (Inform can be made to do this, of course, but
TADS comes with a 'readable' class in the standard library.) But it
drove me batty, examining things only to be told "It has some writing on
it.", forcing me to READ it:

   >x wax
   The can of floor wax has some writing on it.

   >read it
   Some English writing on the can of floor wax reads, "Floor
   Wax. Warning: Highly Flammable! Keep away from fire". Highly 
   flammable floor wax? Is that safe? You suspect that they the 
   Ceruleans got a really good price for this at some liquidation 
   center.

Why not just tell me what it says when I'm examining it? Gradually,
grudgingly, I trained myself to use the READ command instead of typing
X, but old habits die hard. I play a lot of IF. I'm used to EXAMINE, you
know, printing descriptions of things.

Here's a choice encounter with this problem: 

   Security Center
   A bank of monitors fills most of the north wall, and a 
   huge control console fills the west wall.

   >x console
   The control console has three basic panels on it: an output 
   panel, an input panel, and an action panel. Each of these panels 
   has further controls on it.

   >x output
   Which output do you mean, the output panel, or the output control 
   dial?

   >panel
   The output panel has an output control dial and some writing on it.

   >read output panel
   Some Cerulean writing on the output panel reads, "Output panel. 
   Select output location using the dial below".

   >read input panel
   Some Cerulean writing on the input panel reads, "Input selection 
   panel. Select input source using the dial below".

   >x input dial
   The input control dial has some writing on it.

   >read input dial
   Some Cerulean writing on the input control dial reads, [...]

   >x action panel
   The action control panel has some writing on it. 
   Three buttons are set into it: one red, one green, and one blue.

   >read action buttons
   I don't see any action buttons here.

   >x red
   Which red do you mean, the battered red lunchbox, or the red 
   button?

   >button
   This button has some writing on it.

   >read red button
   Some Cerulean writing on the red button reads, "Stop".

It took me too long to figure out that the bulk of the game was all
about finding ways to dispatch alien guards one at a time, until I'd
offed enough of them to get to the endgame. It wasn't until after I'd
hit the two-hour mark that I realized this was the point of it all. Just
when I was about to quit, I hit on this idea, so I finally saw what was
apparently a winning ending about twenty minutes later, although I only
had 126 out of 161 points. The most I ever got was 145 points. I have no
idea how you get the last sixteen lousy points, but I don't care to try.

Hmm. Writing about this and reliving my gripes has made me deduct
another point. This game might have gotten a score of 7 from me in the
best possible case: amusing, with some interesting puzzles, but still
built from a clichťd set of ideas at the core. That'd be worth a 7 on my
scale. However, I got frustrated and stuck a lot, and the READ thing was
pretty annoying, and I wasn't able to finish in two hours. Sorry, but
that's how it goes, I guess.
 
RATING: 5 

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Virginia Gretton 

TITLE: Episode In The Life Of An Artist
AUTHOR: Peter Eastman
EMAIL: None provided
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/artist
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

Never judge a book (virtual or otherwise) by its title I told myself as
I opened up the game. I might be a scientist who thinks chemistry is the
best subject on the planet, but a title like "Episode In The Life Of An
Artist" does not necessarily mean an arty, poetic, puzzleless offering.

The opening scene is a bedroom, which could have been instantly
sleep-inducing for the player. Luckily, I was fascinated by the author's
choice of quotations and continued. Exploring led me into a pretty
run-of-the-mill dressing sequence but at least I wasn't trapped in one
room waiting to discover the magic command that would open up the game.
And the kitchen was fun for a few turns.

A possibly frustrating time is encountered outside the house but it
doesn't defeat the intellect to find the key to moving the action along.
Entertainment is provided while this section is unfolding its vital
pieces of information.

And then -- suddenly -- the game began to grow on me. Almost against my
will. There is a wonderful sequence after the PC reaches the main game
destination, which speaks volumes about his pernickety attention to
dress code. The timing is exactly right and the PC's shock at the event
is an enduring memory.

Yes, there are bugs. Yes, there are times when starting again is the
only thing to do. The game still managed to overcome my irritation at
its implementation and logic gaps. It made me want to finish. I'm glad I
did, because the final screens are worth the playing time by themselves.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

From: Paul E. Coad  

I really enjoyed playing Peter Eastman's entry in the IFComp, "Episode
in the Life of an Artist." This is largely because game contains many
references to and is in the style of other works that I have enjoyed.
After playing the first section, I nearly quit and moved on to the next
game on my list, but I was completely hooked by the second. The game's
tone is much lighter than many other of the games in the comp, it's
playable in 2 hours, and it's fun. 
 
The story starts with the character in bed with the alarm buzzing. The
remainder of the initial section is concerned with getting cleaned up,
dressed and ready for work. This part is a little dull but serves to
introduce the character. Most story-oriented games contain few or simple
puzzles, and Episode is no exception. None of the puzzles are very
difficult and a few are just tedious. Still, they are not the point;
they're just plot devices. The writing is simple but of high quality.
The game is segmented into discrete areas. Within each area the player
has freedom to explore, but once one of the trigger actions occurs, the
character is moved to a new segment. At first this is a bit jarring but
it is a relief not be required to, for instance, find the bus stop,
right bus, etc.

The setting is a skewed version of the intersection between the here and
now, Zork, and Daniel Pinkwater universes, with bits of others mixed in.
Included in the Zork references is a mention of a "five zorkmid bill"
being in the character's wallet. Usually the references to the Zork
universe take the form of similar items or locations. On the Pinkwater
side, several his books contain variations on the chicken man. His
appearance in this game kept me playing when I was just about to quit
and move on to the next entry to be judged. More than the chicken man
has the Pinkwater vibe. The structure of the story, its simple and
childlike main character, and the strange characters/machines/job are
all common Pinkwater elements. Also included are nods to HHTG, and
likely a few more that I missed. 

At the end of some movies while the credits are being shown, outtakes
from the filming are shown as well. Jackie Chan movies do these
particularly well. They show funny mistakes, goof-ups, and occasionally
Jackie Chan being taken away in ambulances. They do not add to the
story, but they add some extra humor and a peek at the human side of the
people involved. We are invited to laugh with the actors instead of just
at the characters. Some Pixar movies also contain outtakes at the end.
These, however, are obviously scripted, animated, rendered, and
artificial. In Episode, after the end of the game the player is given
the option to view outtakes. These were mostly well done, but felt more
like the Pixar outtakes than the ones from Jackie Chan.

The game is not perfect. The beginning is slow. The end is abrupt. Parts
of the game are scripted in ways which are a little sloppy. In a few
places, long asides are added to room descriptions; these make sense the
first time the location is entered, but break the mood when they are
shown each time the player enters the location. None of these problems
is enough of a problem to really knock off too many points off my score.

I rated this game a 7 in the judging. It placed a respectable 11th.
Hopefully we will see more games from Peter Eastman.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Virginia Gretton 

TITLE: The Erudition Chamber
AUTHOR: Daniel T. Freas
EMAIL: erthwin SP@G cox.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/erudite
VERSION: Competition release

I came away from this game feeling I would forgive the author anything.
Although I'm a non-fan of MUDs -- from which the game derives
inspiration -- the opening pulled me in. I am not aware of visualising
in any conscious way normally but such a vivid image was conjured by the
opening description that I laughed out loud. This (more than any other
piece in the competition) reminded me of the heady days when we queued
to pay money for adventure games. A time when whole weeks were lost
fighting with puzzles and resisting hints from coded clues in the back
of the manual.

I loved the way situations had multiple and logical solutions. It was
compulsive in a self-assessing way because you just had to find out
which sect fitted you best. I also loved the way doors disappeared
behind you as new areas were entered. I was left in no doubt that I
should go forward with the equipment in my current inventory. No
fifty-move treks across the map to retrieve an essential object
discarded earlier.

The central puzzle was a perfect struggle of my intellect against the
Maester. I was meant to prove myself and the contrived game world became
perfectly believable to me. So what do I need to forgive the author for?
Only that The Erudition Chamber ended much, much too soon. I would have
happily continued through another five or six tests. Bravo!

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From:	J.D. Berry 

TITLE: Gourmet
AUTHOR: Aaron A. Reed
EMAIL: reed SP@G aaronareed.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Z-code 
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: http://aaronareed.net/main.php3?topic=explore&meme=gourmet
VERSION: I'm reviewing the Comp '03 release, but there's a Release 1.2
at http://aaronareed.net/memes/gourmet/gourmet.1_2.z5 

"My name is James, and I'll be your sommelier this evening. Might I
recommend a bottle of Gourmet '03? It's a delightful game with a hint of
sitcom in the nose. Bananas repeat on the palate where they are joined
by the flavors of panic and pain. Its upbeat character fades with a
long, slow finish."

Like any method actor, the interactive fiction player will ask
throughout the production, "what's my motivation?" Like a director, the
interactive fiction author must continually inspire that motivation. A
straightforward mission--"you hate this person and will do everything to
destroy him"--is usually enough for the director to give to the actor,
but it's only a first step for the author to give to the player.

If the author wants to ensure player motivation at all times, the author
must: 

   * Provide and maintain a fresh, intelligent setting.
   * Initiate and maintain empathy with the protagonist and his/her/its
     predicament. 
   * Integrate the setting and predicament through story and/or puzzles.
   * Set a pace the player can follow, upping the stakes gradually.
   * Since the story usually progresses only when the player does,
     entertain when the player doesn't.

So, how does Gourmet fare?

Reed nails the setting. The Mack n' Geez combines authenticity (I feel
like I'm really in a restaurant) with imagination (but I'm not in a
boring restaurant). The kitchen displays its practical side with cutting
boards, spice racks and dishwashers. But, oh, there's also a pneumatic
tube food delivery system -- cool. The dining area has the usual tables
and chairs. Yet, there's a band on stage armed with an extremely limited
repertoire of big band tunes -- charming.

Perhaps to maintain the setting's freshness, Reed might have added a
section to the building that was inaccessible for part of the story. One
of the sick workers has the only key to -- I don't know -- a reserved
wine cellar, and he stumbles in near the end of the story to give it to
you. Admittedly this may be my personal Pavlovian thrill of discovering
new locations.

I like the physical layout of the restaurant. Even though, I, the
player, had never been there, I felt like I, the manager, had
practically lived there. Reed's descriptions make the rooms' exits
familiar and natural:

   A small doorway north to your office is half-hidden behind the
   fridge. A set of swinging double doors lead east to the seating area,
   a back door west to an alley, and an iron-wrought spiral staircase
   leads down to the wine cellar.

The setting merits a Xyzzy nomination in its own right, but also because
it illustrates how a setting can strengthen other elements of a game. In
this case, it breathes life into the player character (PC) and his
motivations.

The PC has devoted his life to the culinary arts. There's a mission
statement -- own a five-star restaurant. That's all you the player know,
and that's all you really need to know. Something like 80% of all
restaurants fail. Success demands total commitment and more than a few
dashes of luck. You are a chef, indeed, and you wear many other hats as
well. There's no time for character-defining choices and angst-ridden
soul-searches when there's all this celery to chop.

Achieving your vision? Well, you can't just say you have five stars. An
eminent personage in the biz must deem you worthy. Luck rained on you
this morning -- yes, the noted food critic Vera Davenport will be
visiting, and you know about it ahead of time. Better get busy. Er, I
mean really busy.

So, you, the player character, aren't particularly defined*, but there's
no ambiguity or pretension -- you know who you are and what you're
about. You, the player, care because somehow the restaurant itself seems
like a living entity -- your baby. You must nurture it. It's under your
care. Suddenly, here's its one and perhaps only chance to go to college.
Better get really, really busy.

If the restaurant were generic food joint number five, would I care? Do
you want cold fries with that?

To satisfy my curiosity after completion, I returned to various saved
games. I typed z (the wait command) repeatedly. There aren't any timers.
I generated the pressure internally (mostly, though, only early in the
game). Here, I credit Reed's game design choices. He wisely omitted a
warning daemon telling me every third line to hurry up. He avoided a
"you failed to optimize your moves and now you've botched the whole
shebang." He handed me the ball of anxiety and let me run with it.

Reed integrated the setting and predicament well, especially in the
first parts of the game. The "puzzles" were reasonably clued and pitched
in terms of difficulty, also more effectively so during the first half
of the game. Though some solutions were quite odd, they always fit the
game's tone and were usually hilarious.

Alas, the pace. Unfortunately, play bogs down as the main course
commences. The story structure is fine -- it "ups the ante" emotionally
(and physically -- ouch!) The complexity is fine -- it should be more
difficult at this stage. However, the player can't (at least this player
couldn't) keep the pace. With so many hoops to jump through while the
implied timer ticks, the implementation must be flawless and the
solutions must be intuitive. But the implementation was shaky in spots,
and the solutions were fairly reasonable but not intuitive.

The conversation system shows attention and care, but it's still rather
sparsely implemented. This is fine when you just have to make small talk
(like in the first part), but frustrating when you need to communicate
more specifically (like during the main course.)

Not only was the implementation shaky at times, but also inadequate
feedback from the customers, in the form of complaints and feigned
disgust, led to my disbelief that I was under any real deadline. What
had been an asset in the beginning was a liability by the main course. 

The second-half pacing is my only real complaint, although it's a big
one. When I like a game, such issues stand out all the more. I was
happily whistling along and the tune got away from me. Since Gourmet is
an experience, a comic episode, it can afford a misfired joke or a
puzzle that stretches reality. It can't afford leaving the player
confused and a scene behind.

Ah, yes, I'm grumbling too much. I really did like Gourmet. Just eat the
steak, and leave the little strip of fat, will you, dude? How about the
general entertainment? How was the writing?

Excellent. I loved the descriptions of even the most mundane things. I
enjoyed Reed's natural and personal writing style, capturing the mood
and situation perfectly.

   >open dishwasher
   Business has been slow tonight, so there aren't any dishes in there
   just now.

   >x kettle
   This dingy old kettle was one of the first pieces of cookware you
   owned, a gift from your great-uncle on your eighth birthday. The
   water in the kettle is steaming and looks close to boiling.

Absorb passages like those, over time, and you eventually become
immersed in the world and the character "him"self.

"You'll have the Gourmet, then? Excellent.  Oh, dear, I seem to
have spilled it all over you..."

---
*The following articles present the advantages and disadvantages of defining the PC:

Doug Atkinson's "Character Gender and Interactive Fiction"
http://www.xyzzynews.com/xyzzy.3h.html

John Wood's "Player Character Identity in IF"
http://www.xyzzynews.com/xyzzy.9d.html

Duncan Stevens' "The Player Character's Role in Game Design"
http://brasslantern.org/writers/iftheory/pcrole.html

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Cirk Bejnar 

TITLE: Internal Documents
AUTHOR: Tom Lechner
EMAIL: lechner SP@G ispwest.com
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/zcode/internal
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

At last! A real game! This was the first title the Comp03 randomizer
gave me that was neither terminally bugged nor in aid of a specific
gimmick. I certainly enjoy text adventures -- that's why I judge the
Comp, after all -- but this one was not quite perfect.

Firstly, puzzle design. Several of the puzzles require reading the
author's mind, but in strikingly different ways. Getting into the estate
requires an unmotivated action. Sure I could do that, but why? The
basement puzzle has decidedly non-standard syntax. The game accepts
*that* phrasing? And using the computer requires that the steps be done
in a particular order. I completed it on my own, but the game wouldn't
advance until I had gone back and followed the walkthrough. Nothing that
can't be cleared up in a post-comp release.

Even then, however, this wouldn't really be a ten, for me. I'm not quite
sure why. Maybe it has something to do with how the theme of electoral
fraud falls flat with me. But I think the real problem is the connection
between the story and the puzzles. Both elements are present but they
consistently fail to connect. I wanted to learn more about the house,
the damming of the river, how Holden got connected to Gov. Blight, but
the game just doles out enough to keep the plot moving along. Details
are sometimes colorful, but they never add up to a satisfying picture.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Virginia Gretton 

TITLE: The Recruit
AUTHOR: Mike Sousa with J.D. Berry, Jon Ingold, and Robb Sherwin
EMAIL: mjsousa SP@G comcast.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/recruit
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

Now here is a game I could get to grips with. Playing immediately after
my thoroughly vexing and bewildering experience with Slouching Towards
Bedlam (I apologise to Star and Daniel for my ignorance but I didn't
discover the story, didn't get the machines to work and was flummoxed by
the weird text on certain screens), I spent some of the two hours
thinking about the kind of IF player I must be. I finished the game in
the allotted time but only because I took a managerial decision to
deduct the personality assessment time and restart the clock (shush,
don't tell anyone).

The opening screen invites you to choose your gender and reminded me of
menu-driven role playing games. Don't be put off -- the reason for
gender choice is innocent fun and non-MUD in character.

I found the game concept fresh but I may just have been in a
logic-starved state. Puzzles are the entire point of the piece and a
reasonable explanation is given for your presence in this world.

The first scene is relatively gentle and (filled with confidence) I
launched myself into the second sector. There I spent over 40 minutes in
a state of refusing to be beaten. There are only so many things that can
be touched or otherwise manipulated; how hard could it be?

Later scenes of the game felt very American to this English girl but
that is a comment, not a gripe. The purple room was so elegant in its
complex simplicity that I found myself applauding mentally.

I was slightly disappointed to discover a previously undeclared
collaboration of authors. I hadn't noticed changes in writing style, so
the final product must have been well edited. The concept is clever and
the implementation rewards player effort, but still I felt let down.
Surely all that brainpower (the names were of the famous variety) should
have produced more game for my money. Is that is a backhanded
compliment? I didn't want the game to end so I felt the collaboration
could have produced more puzzles and extended the playing pleasure. The
description of The Recruit's evolution (accessed at the end of the game)
is entertaining in itself.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Mike Russo 
[Originally posted on rec.games.int-fiction]

TITLE: Risorgimento Represso
AUTHOR: Michael Coyne
EMAIL: coyne SP@G mts.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/zcode/risorg
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

This game initially threw me for a loop; given the intimidating title
and the scholastic setting of the opening, I was expecting a much more
historical take than the one I was presented. My initial notes involved
a fair amount of griping about such anachronisms as the use of
Mendeleev's periodic table, but once I grasped what kind of game I was
in for, I had a much more pleasant time. Risorgimento is a whimsical,
well-coded adventure in the Infocom tradition, distinguished by some
very entertaining puzzles. The plot is nothing terribly involving -- the
player character is a student desperately trying to make his (her?) way
back to the modern day -- but that's not really the focus of this
offering. Instead, it's the series of challenges facing the player that
are responsible for keeping the interest level high, and fortunately,
they succeed at this task quite admirably.

The author should be congratulated for removing much of the annoyance
often associated with IF: doors automatically open and unlock, for
example, which makes exploration stress-free. The environment unfolds
gradually, with new areas opening up in a logical, manageable fashion;
although there are quite a few locations, I never felt lost or unsure of
what I should be working on. Although an inventory limit is implemented,
the bottomless satchel greatly ameliorates the irritation. Really, the
only complaint I had was that reading the notebook cycled through three
different passages, only one of which was useful for a particular puzzle
(although while writing this review, I discovered that READ CHEM jumps
directly to the appropriate section, a thoughtful convenience.)

NPC interaction is slim, but what there is works fairly well; one
doesn't expect the absent-minded wizard or the bored gate-guard to be
very interested in chit-chat, after all. The writing is workmanlike and
seemed almost completely error-free. I did run into one coding oddity --
attempting to pick up the iron key Ninario dropped after his abduction
sometimes returned a complaint about the difficulty of taking it home
with me. Just about every object I thought to examine was implemented,
and the overall attention to detail was satisfying; the author indicates
that he spent almost three months testing and revising, and the effort
shows.

The meat of the game really comes in the puzzles, and the quality is
again consistently high. The second I read the chemistry notes, I knew
that I would need to make some gunpowder, but the in-game clues were
robust enough that I didn't even need to look up atomic numbers to
complete this section -- it was deep enough to be interesting but not
complicated to the point of frustration. The misadventures at the farm
are another high point -- when you're standing at the top of a tree,
wearing welding-goggles, a helmet, and a bear rug, and holding a
cannonball, and every step along the way made perfect sense, that's good
puzzle design, right there. While some obstacles were a bit hard, some
judicious tyromancy was usually good for a nudge in the right direction,
and many problems had more than one solution. I might quibble with some
of the implementations (a few seem rather difficult without some outside
knowledge -- the Greek meaning of arktos, the presence of methane in
human waste, etc. -- and it took me a long time to figure out that AIM
CANNON AT DOORS was the proper syntax), but overall the puzzles were
fair and well-clued.

The only thing holding Risorgimento back from a higher rating is the
fact that I do tend to prefer my games a bit more plot-heavy, but
really, that's merely a minor issue of personal taste. The level of care
and conscientiousness that went into this game is impressively high
(look at the list of AMUSING actions if you need any more proof!), and I
hope we'll have a sequel to look forward to next year!

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: J. Robinson Wheeler 
[Originally posted on rec.games.int-fiction and on Rob's website at
http://raddial.com/if/reviews/comp03_reviews.html]

TITLE: Sardoria
AUTHOR: Anssi Raisanen
EMAIL: anssi.raisanen SP@G cop.fi
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: ALAN standard
SUPPORTS: ALAN interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/alan/sardoria
VERSION: 1.0 (competition release)

Normally, I don't play ALAN games, mostly because they're a lot of extra
trouble. There doesn't seem to be a way (and I might be wrong about
this) of automatically saving a transcript, and that's something I like
to do when playing comp games, so that I can refer back to it when
writing reviews. [Editor's note: Apparently, ALAN games can in fact
generate a transcript when they are started at the command line with the
-L switch. This fact does not necessarily overturn Rob's point about
these games being "a lot of extra trouble." --Paul] As a result, I ended
up doing this very tedious thing of copy-and-pasting a screenful of text
at a time from the ALAN terp window into a text editor every twenty
seconds. This has served to make me grumpy and irritable and likely to
rate the game more harshly than I would have if it had been an Inform or
TADS game, which isn't really fair. Maybe I'll add a point at the end to
try to compensate, but that isn't really fair, either, I suppose.

This is a fairly standard and fairly short old-school type game set in a
castle with dining halls, secret passages, a bearded old wizard, and a
king who's in trouble. That sort of thing. You start out in a locked
room, and figuring out how to get out of there was, to me, the most
troublesome puzzle of the game. I went to the hints fairly quickly, and
all they did was suggest that something else was hidden in the room with
me. Given the extremely limited set of things to interact with, I
eventually found it, but it was a total read-the-author's-mind type of
situation.

The next puzzle after that was equally perplexing. I guess if I'd really
taken the time to examine everything (which I was steered away from
doing, because it was a kitchen full of knickknacks, the first dozen or
so of which yielding nothing more than a note saying that they're not
worth playing with), I might have figured it out on my own. Instead, I
used the WALKTHROUGH command.

After that, things went a little better. I'm an old hand at looking
behind things and finding secret passages and so forth. There was a
curious cultural gap that made one puzzle here a bit more of a stumper
than it was supposed to be, I think. You have a clue sheet of abstract
concepts, and then a grid of icons you have to touch, matching the
concepts. Two of the concepts were "night" and "wisdom". One of the
icons was an owl. The mismatch and the correct solution are left as an
exercise for the reader.

Later on, I unintentionally found the solution to a puzzle because an
NPC blurted out the solution, due to a bug, as if I'd already stumbled
on it and was showing him the results. Oh well, whatever works. Just
after this, there was something that I guess was a bug -- I was told to
proceed through a set of color-coded doors in a certain order, and that
order was incorrect: two of the colors needed to be swapped in order for
me to get to the end. I don't know what that was about, but it seems
like a beta-tester should have found that. Unless it was deliberate, in
which case, it was just weird.

Right after that, there was a puzzle that reminded me of something I
made fun of in one of last year's games. It's the equivalent of going
into a room with a gigantic vault safe, with a description saying, "Oh
no! How will you ever get this open? Also, there's a note attached to
the safe." Examining the note says, "The combination is 59-73-102."
Makes you wonder whether it even qualifies as a puzzle at that level.

Following one more read-the-author's-mind puzzle, the game suddenly
ended, and I had won. Uh -- okay. Well, that was, hmm, brief, I guess.
There is nothing especially bad about the game, but nothing especially
unique about it, either. Sometimes I like old-school games like this,
but this one left me kind of wishing for more in the way of
entertainment value. My natural reaction would be to rate this one a 4,
but is that because I was grumpy about the lack of a logging feature?
Hmm, nah, I think it's because that's the proper rating to give it.
 
RATING: 4

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Virginia Gretton 

TITLE: Scavenger
AUTHOR: Quintin Stone
EMAIL: stone SP@G rps.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/scavenger
VERSION: Version 1.0 (competition release)

This game was well-coded and extensively tested. I was given choices at
the beginning, which worried me in case no-win states lay just beyond
the horizon. Happily, that was not the case.

The setting did not excite me for a long time. And being forced to
abandon a child in a hostile world went against the grain. Still, it is
a means to an end -- a workman-like way of coding progression.

Inside the main location, I was frustrated by clear solutions combined
with inability to get the required response. That said, the tension
built nicely and crept up on me unawares.

The conclusion was satisfying and mollified my buried worries about
child abuse. Multiple endings were sufficiently interesting to make me
want to try them. In some ways this game achieved more than my favourite
entry -- it drew me in and held my attention in a very subtle way. If
Scavenger were a book, I would find myself pre-ordering the author's
next title from Amazon. 

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

From: Cirk Bejnar 

My favorite game of the Comp, this old-school gem combines well-done
puzzles with evocative prose to create an intriguing world. You are cast
as a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, seeking some secret
technology of the ancients. This provides a nice explanation for why you
go off exploring behind every desk and pick up anything not nailed down.
One feature of note is the many alternate solutions that are coded.
There is a store in the opening portion of the game where you have a
choice of several items. Most of them are optional and they provide the
game with a fair amount of replayability.

From a technical standpoint, Scavenger is superb. Most actions are
anticipated and generate interesting customized responses. In addition,
alternate syntax is generously provided. Only once did I have to
rephrase a command. There are a few minor bugs in the end game where it
fails to properly check state, but nothing that adversely effects
gameplay.

Personally, I found the gameplay experience of Scavenger to be very
rewarding. You are given a goal at the beginning that drives the action
throughout. The primary task breaks down nicely into subgoals, how to
enter the base for instance, but there are also puzzles which are more
of less optional, depending on the supplies you have and whether or not
you want a full score. The balance between player freedom and keeping
the plot moving was well handled in my opinion. I would also like to
mention the writing. It is generally quite good at sketching places or
people with a few simple strokes. Details are included with just the
right frequency to give you a vivid picture of the world and its
inhabitants.

The difficulty is not particularly high nor is the game very cruel. And
if you do get stuck it features a nicely done hint system to give you a
nudge (or a shove if you need it) in the right direction. Highly
recommended to all except perhaps very young children. The language and
violence would probably garner a PG-13 rating from the MPAA.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Jessica Knoch 
[This review originally appeared on Jessica's web page at
http://www.strangebreezes.com/if/reviews/comp03.htm]

TITLE: Shadows On The Mirror
AUTHOR: Chrysoula Tzavelas
EMAIL: exstarsis SP@G msn.com
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS3
SUPPORTS: TADS3 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads3/shadows
VERSION: IFComp ver 1.0

A major part of this game is figuring out who you are, why you're stuck
in this car, who the driver of the car is, why you don't want to see
your grandfather, and so on. It's tricky; there's a lot to it, and it
can't all be explained, even when you play through it several times. But
what I have seen of the story and background is pretty intense. There's
some supernatural stuff going on, and the PC is in the thick of it, and
you get to be cool, and the driver of the car is cool, and there's just
a lot of cool parts. But... there is a problem.

It's kind of like the third quarter of a really close (American)
football game. Sure, the score is tied at 24, but that's what it was at
the half, and you're not down to the wire yet, because it's still the
third quarter. Or maybe it's like the second to last chapter in a short
novel -- all the really good stuff has already happened, and all of the
explanations are saved for the last chapter, so even though you're in a
great story, it isn't happening now. It's already happened, or it's
going to, but everything that happens in Shadows is subtle and under the
surface.

That said, what you get of the story is definitely worth playing the
game to see. I was initially put off by having to repeat actions to get
the whole effect, but it's mentioned in one of the "hint" or "about"
menus, so I guess I should have known. There are some pretty good liner
notes, which is always nice. Hints and a walkthrough are included, so I
can't complain too much about the puzzles, such as they are. In this
game, "puzzles" are either an action you have to take, or a milestone
you can reach in the conversation. In this sort of situation, getting to
a "losing" ending and having to replay loses a piece of the game's
appeal, but there's nothing to do for it but restart and try again.
Shadows makes it worth the trouble.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Jessica Knoch 
[This review originally appeared on Jessica's web page at
http://www.strangebreezes.com/if/reviews/comp03.htm]

TITLE: Slouching Towards Bedlam
AUTHOR: Star C. Foster and Daniel Ravipinto
EMAIL: bedlam SP@G peccable.com
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: Inform
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/zcode/slouch
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

The title recalls the W.B. Yeats poem, "The Second Coming," in which the
question is posed: "What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" It is, possibly, the most
suggestive and fitting title of any game in this Comp. You play... well,
the game starts in some sort of office, where you are listening to a
voice on a phonograph talk about chaos, and a secret, and moments of
madness. Almost immediately, the game has an eerie tinge to it,
resulting from two things: first, if you've seen enough movies, you
suspect that it is your voice on the phonograph -- moments of madness,
indeed. Second, the text studiously avoids saying "you." You're
examining objects, exploring the contents of the office, but the
descriptions of things and even descriptions of actions are ghostly,
passive: the desk you want to look in is not "your desk," the response
to "open drawer" begins with "The large central drawer opens..." Even
default responses have been changed, so that trying to take an object
you already hold gives "One cannot take what one already has." It all
evokes a mystery, and the discovery that the office is in an insane
asylum in 1855 only adds to the creepy, disturbing atmosphere.

But this is not a scary game: there are no monsters chasing you, no
weapons to wield in self-defense. The act of exploration is so natural,
after the first scene, that you don't realize for some time that the
*PC* is also exploring. There is a subtle lack of familiar references,
which you might expect after identifying yourself as Dr. Xavier, who is
superintendent of the asylum. Instead, the PC is just as new to all this
as you are, which aligns your purposes seamlessly, making the player and
the PC one.

You are given a powerful tool to aid in comprehension, described in the
phonographic diary: the Triage unit. It is a mechanical information
assimilator, and it follows you around on wheels. It can identify
objects and give you an idea of how things are used. It's also useful
for other problems you encounter during the course of the discoveries,
and is just about the ideal thing to have along in a text adventure.

In the course of exploring the asylum and the town, some odd things
start to happen. We start to get into spoiler region here, but you can
find a pattern to the odd things, and between that and the odd things
you find as you explore, the mystery slowly begins to take a clearer
shape. Eventually, gradually, it coalesces until the situation is clear.
However, what you will do about it is not clear. There are several
options, with five different outcomes, none of which could rightly be
called winning or losing. If ever there was a game where not having a
score was justified, this is it.

As for the other aspects of a game people generally talk about:
wonderful. I didn't see a single confirmable error in the text. The
actions needed to "solve the puzzles" were logical and intuitive, and
figuring out how one of the various machines worked in the game was very
satisfying. There are hints: good, extensive, thorough and gentle hints.
The pacing is superb: the pieces of the story come at just the right
moments, the understanding comes gradually and not too slowly. The size
of the game is next to perfect for the Comp, exactly filling up two
hours in reaching one or two endings and reading the appendices. There
are moments that made me completely forget about the real world, and
focus entirely on what was happening in the game.

In short: you must play this game.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

From: Cirk Bejnar 

TITLE: Temple of Kaos
AUTHOR: Peter Gambles
EMAIL: peter.gambles SP@G admin.ox.ac.uk
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/templeofkaos
VERSION: Version 3.3.1 (competition release)

Most of this game's text is written in a rhyming verse that many will
doubtless find tiresome, but that I actually liked. The sparse, tortured
syntax captured the feel of the piece quite well. However, it did cause
a bit of a problem when unaltered library messages were encountered. And
even when the messages were altered there was some evidence of
sloppiness, as when a message says you're alone even when you're not.
But such things remained minor annoyances and overall the text flowed
smoothly.

The story, on the other hand, often went in fits and starts. The game
follows an inverted logic (candles that take in rather than produce
light, etc.) that can be maddeningly difficult to unravel. While
checking the clues sometimes provides an "aha!" moment, just as often
the feeling is more along the lines of "well I wonder why _that_ would
work?" On the plus side, the game features a unique (as far as I know)
dual scoring system and a simple yet shrouded back story that I found
fun to unravel.

Overall, your mileage may vary, but I found Kaos an enjoyable pastime
and would recommend it to anyone willing to enter its skewed vision.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

#########################################################################
######        REVIEW PACKAGE: INTERACTIVE REALITY SHOW?            ######
#########################################################################

[Note: Valentine provides scores with his reviews in the old style of
the SPAG scoreboard, calling them SNATS, for Scores Not Affecting The
Scoreboard. I've chosen to leave these scores in, since I think they
provide interesting and useful information, but in case the name isn't
enough of a hint, 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]

In the last couple of years, so-called reality TV-shows became more and
more popular in Russia. It all began with a BIG BROTHER incarnation late
in 2001. Since then, the TV channel that had started it rested in peace,
but several others launched a number of similar projects, accompanying
them with extensive promotional activities -- so extensive they managed
to make a person as TV-ignorant as myself aware of the existence of all
those shows. Sigh. At least they couldn't make me watch that stuff.

Of course, I'm not quite sure whether this development in Russia
reflects world-wide trends. However, judging by the IF-Competition 2003,
it does; I encountered at least three games one could place into the
category of reality shows, with the protagonist being put into an
unusual environment and given tests to stand and/or tasks to fulfill,
while someone's watching how (s)he's handling them.

It's always difficult to estimate, on speculative basis, how and to what
extent this or that new approach might influence IF, and the "reality
show technology" is no exception; the only thing that comes to mind is,
it probably would give the authors more freedom to include pretty
arbitrary puzzles into their games, presenting them as the
aforementioned tasks and tests the player character has got to master.
The only option to endorse or disprove this conjecture seems to be
having a look at the appropriate entries in the Comp.

A few disclaimers are needed here: first of all, I'm certainly not quite
frank when I'm speaking about speculative estimation -- before writing
this review, I had a chance to analyze the aforementioned games, and
thus draw a more informed conclusion; keep this in mind, and just take
it as a stylistic device. Secondly, since I haven't played all the
entries in this year's Comp, I might have missed a few games based on
the reality show technique. Please don't kick me in the teeth too hard
for that, because I had got a pretty good reason not to grant this
year's contest as much time and attention as I usually do. Finally, I'm
presenting here the reality show genre as something new to IF, which
isn't necessarily true; the fact I've never played such a game before
doesn't mean no such game exists. Again -- please don't get mad at me
because of this.

-=-=-

TITLE: The Erudition Chamber
AUTHOR: Daniel Freas
EMAIL: erthwin SP@G cox.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/erudite
VERSION: Competition release

Of all the games reviewed here, The Erudition Chamber probably uses the
most straightforward approach to reality show concept implementation.
The main character is a novice at some sort of monastery (The Keep, to
be more precise), who has got to solve a number of problems under the
supervision of the Maesters of the Keep, getting feedback from them
after each obstacle successfully overcome. The puzzles the player faces
here are essentially unconnected with each other; in this respect, it
reminded me of an entry in the very first IF-Competition back in 1995 --
The Magic Toyshop, which had been criticized a lot for being a plotless
puzzlebox (to be fair, one has got to admit there were quite a bunch of
people who liked it, as well).

Fortunately for The Erudition Chamber, the parallel between these two
games ends right there: for one, in spite of being pretty casual, the
puzzles in Mr. Freas' game hang together much better in the sense of
atmosphere (that means, they fit into the environment very well -- there
is no "dealing with the Towers of Hanoi in the middle of a cave crawl",
as Stephen Granade put it in one of his articles); and for the other
(which is even more important), The Erudition Chamber isn't as much
about solving puzzles as about the way(s) the player chooses to solve
them. The thing is, The Keep houses four different orders, each with its
own rules and approaches to problem solving; thus, each challenge the
main character is confronted with during the game can be overcome in
four different ways. Based on his choices, the Maesters of The Keep
decide what order he is best suited for. The setting is done with great
care; of course, the fact the puzzles are unrelated to one another has
made the author's work easier, but the result is quite remarkable
nevertheless.

So, in short, The Erudition Chamber is nothing more than a bunch of
puzzles with multiple solutions, where the way you solve them matters.
No more than that -- but no less, either, and thus, absolutely
recommended for playing -- I don't think this kind of game occurs too
often in IF.

And a final note, put here because the author explicitly asked for such
feedback in his game: I played The Erudition Chamber twice (trying to
find alternative puzzle solutions during my second session), and both
times ended up, with a small preponderance, in the Seers' order. Either
this game really can be used for some sort of personality research...
or, the "Seer's" solutions just happened to be the easiest ones! ;)

The SNATS:

(Of course, it's not customary to rate IF-Competition entries in the usual
SPAG style, but, as Ms. Papillon said, somebody had to do it;).

PLOT: It can't be denied a plot is present, but it forms the background
for the puzzles for the most part (1.1)
ATMOSPHERE: The best word to describe the atmosphere would be stark
(1.3)
WRITING: Solid and polished (1.4)
GAMEPLAY: Lets the player make lots of choices (1.3)
BONUSES: Multiple solutions (1.3)
TOTAL: 6.4
CHARACTERS: Not very interactive, but that's determined by the overall
game idea (1.2)
PUZZLES: Described detailed enough in the review already (1.4)
DIFFICULTY: Reaching one ending isn't too hard (5 out of 10); however,
finding ALL possible solutions would be quite a feat

-=-=-

TITLE: The Recruit
AUTHOR: Mike Sousa
EMAIL: mjsousa SP@G comcast.net
DATE: October 2003
PARSER: TADS2
SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/tads2/recruit
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

The Recruit manifests its membership in the reality show class even more
clearly than the previous game. Here, you are a participant in a
beta-testing program for a company that tries to implement "real life
text adventures." (By the way, this only becomes apparent after you read
the Author's Notes after finishing the game.) This program enjoins you
to complete their "product" (which effectively represents a set of rooms
with puzzles to solve) while a manager of the company is surveying you,
and evaluating your activities -- and that for 50 dollars as a reward.
Thus, all ingredients for a reality show seem to be present.

However, this concept is implemented entirely differently here: while
The Erudition Chamber has got a pretty diffuse structure, The Recruit
presents itself as a very, shall we say, tightly-built game. Sure, the
general situation itself is somewhat artificially constructed, but
within this construct, everything fits together as neatly as the
gear-wheels of a well-adjusted clock mechanism: the flawless
implementation (well, a nitpicker certainly would find greyish spots
even on Malevitsh's Black Square, but I'm honestly trying to defeat my
natural inclinations, and not to be one ;); the descriptions (one
description in particular was remarkable; well, actually, it didn't make
my jaw drop -- rather, it made me think, "Hey, that's a hell of a
description!" I was amazed to find it later mentioned in the Author's
Notes); the decoration elements (I mean, for instance, the main
character's gender choice at the very start -- it doesn't affect the
gameplay too much, only becoming visible in minor details, like some
responses being changed, but it does do enough to make it a nice
addition)... Still, as I finished the game, solving all the puzzles, I
found myself (sorry for the bad pun) puzzled: so, the company obviously
intends to make money with this stuff, and the manager who's been
surveying and supporting me all the time has mentioned that all the
(numerous) previous testers had failed to complete the task. Hey, but
then, what's the company's potential customer group? Invalids of mental
labour?

OK, I'm taking a harsh tone here, which really isn't appropriate: the
puzzles really aren't bad. They're set up very logically, and represent
an integral part of the game structure as much as the other elements
I've been talking about earlier; they just were not challenging enough.
It was like... well, imagine you are on a trip in a distant, exotic
country, and someone tells you you just MUST see, let's say, The Famous
Temple Of The Incredible Pillar. So, you take a several kilometres long
diversion from your planned route, visiting a distant village where this
new object of your interest is located, and climb a steep hill to get to
it -- only to find out that the Incredible Pillar is a quite functional
yet totally unremarkable prop supporting the ceiling in the central hall
of the Temple. It's not that this diversion was a totally useless waste
of time -- the landscapes on your way were quite picturesque, and the
Temple itself was worth seeing, too. However, you'd undoubtedly feel a
certain disappointment.

I had got a similar feeling about The Recruit -- just because I expected
so much of the element that was supposed to be the central part and main
attraction of such a well-constructed game.

SNATS:

PLOT: A nondescript part that helps holding the game construct together
(1.1) 
ATMOSPHERE: Well, real life text adventure (1.2) 
WRITING: Effective and intense, just brilliant at some points (1.7) 
GAMEPLAY: Well, real life text adventure again (1.3) 
BONUSES: Choosing your gender; Genie the Labrador (1.3) 
TOTAL: 6.6 
CHARACTERS: The usual one(s) found in text adventures + a well-trained
dog (1.3)
PUZZLES: Not challenging enough for a game focusing on puzzle-solving
(1.1) 
DIFFICULTY: If Mike paid fifty dollars to anyone who completed the game,
he probably would run out of money very quickly (4 out of 10)

-=-=-

TITLE: A Paper Moon
AUTHOR: Andrew Krywaniuk
EMAIL: askrywan SP@G hotmail.com
DATE: 2003
PARSER: Inform Standard
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2003/zcode/papermoon
VERSION: Release 1 (competition version)

Although, like the previous games, A Paper Moon is another variation of
the reality show theme (and you'll notice it if you play long enough),
it rather successfully tries to hide this fact, disguising itself as
your standard treasure-hunt-oriented cave crawl. This design choice
automatically determined the overall gameplay, as well as the
not-too-fancy plot, which even featured at least one episode that, in my
opinion, fully deserved the proud title of a stretching point. Thus, it
probably wouldn't be worth reviewing at all if there wasn't a small
catch: somehow, it managed to become my favourite game in this year's
Comp. ;)

There were several reasons for that. First of all, it was the game
world, and the atmosphere. The main character, a "notorious slacker and
beer drinker extraordinaire", wakes up one morning and sees his familiar
world has changed in a funny way, becoming a rather wild mixture of real
life and fantasy, larded with a good portion of humour. Of course, maybe
it's not to everybody's taste, but I think you'll agree it'd be strange
if a person so fond of Robert Asprin's works and the Unnkulian games
(for those who didn't get it -- I mean myself ;) didn't appreciate such
a cocktail.

Then, there were the puzzles; while making them pretty arbitrary (the
treasure hunt genre is as effective in creating an excuse for
insufficient logical connection between puzzles as the reality show
genre), the author managed to find a theme uniting them -- namely, the
usage of origami paper folding for solving them. Not only is this
approach original (the only game that comes to my mind in connection
with origami is Trinity by Infocom, but comparing origami-related
puzzles of both games really would be like comparing horses to cows),
it's also well-implemented, and provides for multiple solutions at some
points. And finally, there were a lot of details revealing how much fun
the author had had working on his game -- a number of Easter eggs, a
"secret" ending, some unusual and thus unexpected interaction with
NPCs... I think these merits weigh out the not-very-original gameplay
and plot, as well as the somewhat Comp-inappropriate size of the game.
Again, this opinion is entirely founded on personal, and thus
subjective, preferences. I'm aware there are a number of people thinking
differently; judging by the rank A Paper Moon ranked in the Comp, they
even form the majority. Fortunately (at least, for me), it's me who's
writing this review, not them. ;)

SNATS:

Well, as I tried rating A Paper Moon categories individually, I was
astonished to find the total score turned out to be somewhat lower than
I believed this game deserved. Thus, I gave up rating it at all. ;)

-=-=-

Now, its probably time to return to the problem that has been raised at
the beginning of this review package -- namely, the question of how
reality show concepts may affect IF games. Of the reviewed games, A
Paper Moon makes practically no use of the possibilities provided by
this genre. For The Erudition Chamber, being a reality show also seems
to play a minor role; I think the idea behind this game could be
realized as effectively with help of other techniques. However, the
approach used by The Recruit really looks promising, and the fact its
potential hasn't been fully exploited because of too easy puzzles
doesn't change anything about that. As a suggestion -- maybe a more
extensive interaction of the player with the party watching him also
could open new possibilities... Still, I won't give any forecasts,
because the only thing I can be sure of is this: if interactive fiction
was predictable, it wouldn't be half as fun. ;)

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