Wow, itís been ten years already? I barely even noticed. It fills me with a sense of pride to know that SPAG and the IF-Comp are still going strong, and to know that I had a hand in creating them, even if my grades in college were the worse for it. I apologize that I havenít been a part of the IF community for some time other than on the ifMUD, but I plead real life. Here Iíll insert a disclaimer...anyone not interested in what Iíve been up to for the last decade might as well skip down past this bit, since thatís what Iím about to talk about. Okay, for the folks still reading (both of you), after college I bummed around awhile and finished up Avalon (er, I mean Once and Future) and then got busy looking for work. Eventually, I came to rest at Alderac Entertainment Group, makers of fine roleplaying games and collectible card games. There I stayed for several years before moving on. I spent a year coding oil truck simulation programs (the companyís client was Halliburton, amusingly). Iíve since moved on to Fantasy Flight Games, where Iím the companyís board game developer, of all things. Itís been a weird trip. I never wouldíve predicted that Iíd be designing board games for a living. But then, I never thought the IF-Comp would do so well, either. Shows what I know. All told, Iíve worked on roleplaying games (7th Sea and Spycraft), card games (7th Sea CCG and the upcoming Call of Cthulhu CCG), board games (Arena Maximus and Warcraft: the Board Game, to name a couple), and just generally passed the years in a haze of activity. Currently Iíve begun work on a fantasy novel that I hope to get published in a year or two and Iím designing Doom: the Board Game (ah, sweet, sweet irony). After that, who knows? Maybe in another 10 years Iíll be selling hula hoops and marbles, or maybe Iíll be designing video games in a weird sort of full circle. One thing is certain. I donít think that I ever wouldíve become a game designer if it werenít for IF. Starting those projects back in college and carrying Avalon through to the bitter end gave me a terrific sense of confidence that I lacked back then. Once I saw that I could make good things if I put my mind to it, I just went out and did it. I may not be rich now, but I love what I do, even on the bad days. Yessir, Iíd say that IF has been really good to me. But enough about me. Hereís to Paul and Magnus and everyone else whoís helped to carry the torch! Hereís to SPAG, and hereís to another 10 years! And hereís to everyone whoís helped to keep text adventures alive. Thank you all. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- The SPAG Interview with Magnus Olsson Magnus Olsson was a prominent SPAG reviewer, then took over from Whizzard as editor with issue #11, and steered the ship for two years. He continues to administer the SPAG mailing list; if you're a subscriber, he probably sent you the message you're reading right now. In addition to helping out with SPAG, he's been a member of the IF community for more than 10 years, and has authored many games, including Uncle Zebulon's Will, winner of the TADS division in the first comp. For this anniversary issue, he was kind enough to answer some questions for us. SPAG: The usual opening question may sound a little odd to you, since I believe you actually wrote it, but I'll ask it anyway: Could you tell us a little about yourself? Who are you, what do you do for a living, and so forth? MO: I'm Swedish, in my late thirties, and live in a medium-sized Swedish city. I used to be a theoretical physicist but found the grass greener in the software industry. My interests range from linguistics to aviation; I'm a bit of an SF fan, do some role-playing of the table-top variety, that kind of stuff. SPAG: What first sparked your interest in interactive fiction? MO: Back when I was in high school, text adventures were pretty much the dog's breakfast (it's hard to believe nowadays, but text-only dialog-based interfaces were the state of the art); the big computer magazines ran reviews of the great new games like _The Hobbit_ and _HHGTTG_. So I suppose it would've been pretty hard not get interested in IF. SPAG: You've been around the IF community for a long time -- what has kept you involved? MO: Actually, I'm not very involved nowadays -- for the last few years, I've been pretty much watching from the sidelines. What kept me involved for so long was the wonderful community spirit on the IF newsgroups -- it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that r.a.i-f *was* the community, and the community was r.a.i-f. Alas, that has changed. SPAG: Tell me about your tenure as SPAG editor. How did you acquire the job, and what are your memories of it? MO: I was a regular contributor when Whizzard was the editor, and I helped with various practical things, so when Whizzard wanted to pass the torch I was one of the first people he asked. I'm afraid that I don't have very many memories of my "tenure" - it was all rather uneventful; there were never any tough editorial decisions to make or anything like that. It's had two lasting effects: on the positive side, I've learned to see things from an editor's perspective, which is very good for an author. On the negative side, I've been unable to write reviews since I took over SPAG. I've tried, but I never get more than a paragraph or two into the review before giving up. Of course, this may also be because people like Emily Short have raised the level of IF criticism to heights that were all but unimaginable when SPAG started. SPAG: What made you decide to pass the reins? MO: Lack of time, lack of inspiration. It had become a routine chore to be done, which is not a good thing for a 'zine like SPAG. SPAG: In the geeky spirit of the novel and film HIGH FIDELITY, tell us your top five favorite interactive fiction moments. These could moments from a game, things that happened on the newsgroups or ifMUD, or anything else that seems IFnal to you. MO: In chronological order: * Playing _HHGTTG_ and realizing that I wasn't just playing a game, I was actually playing a character in a book and experiencing the story from the inside, as it were. * Discovering the IF newsgroups. 'Nuff said, I think. * The release of _John's Fire Witch_ -- for the first time, I was playing a brand-new, amateur-written IF game that was as good as the old classics. To me, this marks the starting point of the IF renaissance. * Beta testing _So Far_. This is perhaps the piece of IF that's made the deepest impression on me, and being a beta tester gave me the opportunity to discuss it in detail with the author, and actually to influence it in some small ways. * And, finally, a more recent event: the 2003 XYZZY awards ceremony. For various reasons, I hardly visit the ifMUD, but it was very nice to see that the friendly community spirit lives on there, SPAG: What frontiers do you think still remain to be explored in IF? Is there anything you really hope to see done, say in the next ten years? MO: There's one problem area with traditional IF that sticks out like a sore thumb, and that's NPC interaction. We've all played games that seemed just perfect until we encounter an NPC that's about as responsive as a refrigerator -- and bang goes mimesis. Mind you, this doesn't necessarily mean more intelligent NPCs in the AI sense -- in the foreseeable future, AI will probably only give us NPCs that act as more intelligent robots, rather than human beings. It could very well be scripted conversation, only deeper and better integrated than today. And I don't think any technical breakthroughs are necessary, though of course they'll help. We've seen a few steps in this direction, such as _Galatea_. I'd like to see a more "traditional", story-based game with that kind of NPCs. SPAG: I see from your web page that you're a fan of webcomics. As a comic aficionado myself, I wonder if you have any thoughts about what IF and comics have in common? MO: Artistically, I don't think they really have very much to do with each other at all, except that both media are used to tell stories. Comics are static, non-interactive, primarily graphic; while IF is dynamic, interactive, and -- by the usual definition -- text-oriented. But there's a similarity in that both comics and IF seem to have found an "alternative", non-commercial outlet on the Net. In the case of IF, it's almost impossible to get published commercially; in the case of comics, it's just very difficult. In both cases, distribution for free over the Net seems to work really well -- which is not the case at all for related art forms such as static fiction (with the exception of fanfic, which again is impossible to publish commercially). SPAG: About the games you've written in the past: how do you view them now? Any memories that stand out as particularly special about them? MO: _Atomia Akorny_: Primitive to the point of unplayable by today's standard (by *any* standard, actually), but great fun to write, and quite a challenge to fit an entire text adventure into 10 KB. _Dunjin_: Very old school, of course. I wasn't trying to tell a story until quite late in the development process (when a tester told me that it needed a plot), but it was an exercise in world-building and, in a sense, game-mastering; trying to manipulate the player, making him experience certain things, see things in a certain light. And that is of course at the core of story-telling as well. It's all very college-boyish, of course, which is no wonder since I was an undergrad when I started it. I remember that the parser was a real bitch to write, since I knew nothing about parser construction at the time. And the paranoid satisfaction of protecting my precious secrets with clever encryption algorithms... _Uncle Zebulon's Will_: It started with the idea of exploring a wizard's house, and with the blue and green bottles. The rest grew from there. Until quite late in the process, it was called _Uncle Phil's Will_, by the way -- which doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it? When the other Competition entries had been released, I looked in awe at all the features they had which _Zebulon_ hadn't, and I didn't think it would stand a chance of winning -- which shows how difficult it is to assess your own works. Today, of course, the Competition entries are far more sophisticated; _Zebulon_ is a trifle compared to, say, _Slouching Towards Bedlam_. _Aayela_: Most reviewers see it as an experiment with darkness, but it was intended rather as a mood piece: the darkness isn't there as an obstacle to the player but to set a certain atmosphere. It was inspired by a dream which in turn was inspired by Ursula LeGuin's _Tombs of Atuan_. _Zugzwang_: A joke, of course: a demo for something that would be impossible to write. But ever since I learned to play chess as a kid, I've wanted to use the point-of-view of a chess piece. SPAG: Are you working on anything IF-related at the moment? MO: Yes, for some definition of "working", but it's very much on the back burner. Don't hold your breath. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- Duncan Stevens has authored more SPAG reviews than any other single reviewer, and they have all been of a remarkably high standard -- cogent, incisive, and well-written. Real life has diverted his attention for the past few years, but for the anniversary issue he's done us the favor of applying his knowledge and intelligence to an examination of what's happened during the last ten years of IF development. From: Duncan Stevens So SPAG's been around for ten years now, and what's happened in the IF world in the ten years of SPAG's existence? Oh, not much. Consider: 1) THE RISE OF FREEWARE IF. Ten years ago, much of what was produced in the IF community was some variety of commercial effort -- often shareware or crippleware. Legend was on its last legs (Gateway 2: Homeworld was released in 1993), the Adventions games saw their last commercial installment with 1993's Unnkulia Zero, and amateur efforts like MacWesleyan (1995), Save Princeton (1994), Perdition's Flames (1993), and Enhanced (1994), were all shareware. Much of what was made available for free was the leavings of the annual Softworks AGT competition, about which, honorable exceptions like Cosmoserve (1992) and Shades of Gray (1994) aside, the less said the better. The 1993 freeware release of Curses heralded a trend of high-quality freeware games (The Legend Lives! in 1994, Christminster and Jigsaw in 1995, etc.) that left shareware largely a memory in a few years. You can argue, of course, that the move away from commercial IF has been less than salutary for authors, who have lost a chance at even the meager compensation available from shareware registrations -- but the freeware revolution has likely broadened the IF audience (in that new players are arguably more willing to try a free game with no pressure to register) and diversified the IF available (since the decline of commercial avenues for IF left fewer constraints on authors' creativity). 2) BREVITY, THE SOUL OF IF. Relatively short IF games were all but unknown ten years ago; Unnkulia One-Half was written in 1993 as a teaser for Unnkulia Zero, and medium-length fare like Busted! was rare (and only half-serious.) The advent of the annual competition in 1995, with its "One Rule" that entries must be finishable in under two hours, heralded a movement toward shorter games, and popular games like John's Fire Witch (1995) both followed and pushed the trend -- fast enough that longer IF is now largely unknown, with maybe a release or two each year. (Three of the past four Best Game winners have been competition entries.) As above, this is both good and bad. New writers can break into the IF-writing biz more easily if the median length of an IF release is relatively compact; if all new games were expected to be Curses-length, there would likely be many fewer IF authors. At the same time, however, the trend toward shorter games has lessened players' patience for highly difficult, epic-length IF on the scale of Jigsaw; it's hard to reaccustom oneself to devoting months to a single game when the more common IF experience takes only an evening (and when there are hundreds more worthy efforts in the archive). The diminished appetite for long games has in turn made authors reluctant to devote the considerable energies required, and the spiral proceeds from there. How significant a loss this is for the IF world is a matter of taste and opinion, of course, but it's certainly a striking trend. A somewhat unfortunate example of this was G. Kevin Wilson's Once and Future, a sprawling Arthurian epic written over the course of five years and released commercially in 1998. While reviews were generally positive, interest (at least, as measured by sales) was tepid -- in part, it seemed, because epic-length IF had fallen out of style to some extent over the course of the game's creation, and the ample supply of short, high-quality freeware games narrowed the game's appeal somewhat. 3) THE NARRATIVE CATCHES UP WITH THE CROSSWORD. Through most of its history, IF has consisted largely of puzzles wrapped in an ostensible plot premise -- sometimes with obvious set-piece puzzles (see Zork Zero), and usually with the seams only slightly better hidden. Aberrations like Trinity and A Mind Forever Voyaging aside, most IF had so little plot that it was all but inevitable that puzzles would predominate and largely displace what passed for a story. Many of the games produced in the freeware IF revolution featured stronger stories, however (perhaps because, in shorter IF, it's easier to sustain a narrative arc), spawning a trend toward smoother integration of plot and puzzle (in other words, fewer locked doors that have to be unlocked because no IF player can leave a door unlocked in good conscience, etc., and more puzzles that the PC might actually want to solve). Notable harbingers of this trend were Christminster (1995), The One That Got Away (1995), Delusions (1996), and Kissing the Buddha's Feet (1996); by the 1997 competition, the plots of the top-ranked games (The Edifice, Babel, and Glowgrass) had become highly focused, and the puzzles to be solved would have made little to no sense in any other context. Increasingly, a plot that both makes sense and drives the bulk of a game's action has become an expected IF feature, and well-regarded games integrate their plot and puzzles seamlessly. (Try to imagine the puzzles in the last three competition winners -- Slouching Toward Bedlam; Another Earth, Another Sky; and All Roads -- transposed into any other game.) This is a welcome development in a lot of respects, but in one in particular: it suggests that the IF medium can be valuable for expressing ideas and telling a story in new ways, not simply for the crafting of puzzles (which was, largely, its original purpose). Some have argued that the ability to not only put the player in the shoes of the protagonist (as static fiction does with first-person narration) but actually direct the protagonist's actions heightens a sense of complicity in the plot as it unfolds and offer an opportunity to make a statement that simply could not be made as effectively in static fiction. Similarly, the experience of interacting with characters and experiencing a setting gives IF a potential emotional impact not available in static fiction -- and the best writers have found ways to make such an impact, notably Adam Cadre in Photopia (1998) and Andrew Plotkin in Shade (2000). Much ink has been spilled on the subject of the decline of puzzlefests, of course, a large portion of it by yours truly, but the nature of the shift has sometimes been oversimplified. Even now, relatively few IF games eschew puzzles altogether (and even those that do must contend with players' puzzle-solving expectations; thus, the branching plots of Galatea (2000) were taken by many as an invitation to find each and every narrative possibility), and even now there are well-regarded games that could reasonably be viewed as puzzles with some ostensible story (Lock and Key). The few genuinely puzzleless games that have been produced (many in the annual Art Show, a few -- Exhibition (1999), Best of Three (2001) -- in the competition) have garnered respect but have hardly set off a stampede. More common are games that use a few puzzles for pacing (Photopia, All Roads, My Angel), but focus their efforts on plot and character development rather than complex puzzles. It's hard to argue, moreover, that puzzle development is a lost art, as the last few years of IF development have seen some of the best puzzles ever devised. The language puzzle in The Edifice (1997), the entirety of Rematch (2000), and a certain puzzle in Spider and Web (1998) all require persistence, ingenuity, and a bit of lateral thinking. Nor are full-blown puzzlefests entirely things of the past: recent years have given us the gargantuan Mulldoon Legacy (1999), Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina (1999), and First Things First (2002), each crammed with creative puzzles. The demise of the puzzle, in short, has been greatly exaggerated. 4) NPC INTERACTION: MORE, BETTER. Part of the rise in the storytelling element of IF has been increased attention to NPC development: while many NPCs in the early days of IF simply served as puzzle props (recognize what the NPC wants, give it to him/her, obtain knowledge/object to solve another puzzle -- or disable/distract NPC guarding exit/treasure), the latter-day IF revolution has increasingly offered more complex characters with whom the PC can interact more extensively. Some of this arises simply from authors giving NPCs more personality -- both Small World and Kissing the Buddha's Feet in the 1996 competition gave key NPCs a wide variety of one-liners and amusing reactions to the game's events, making them feel like well-developed characters even though the PC didn't need to interact much with them. But the complexity of NPC interactions, in the form of more elaborate conversation systems, has also played a key role. At the forefront of this particular development is Emily Short, whose Galatea (2000) consisted almost entirely of interactions with a single exhaustively realized NPC, interactions that, both through an ASK/TELL conversation system and a variety of other means, helped develop a highly complex NPC personality; different questions or approaches would elicit different reactions depending on the conversational context and send the relationship between the PC and NPC down a variety of different paths. Subsequent Short efforts, including 2001's Pytho's Mask and Best of Three and 2003's City of Secrets, featured a novel conversation system that blend the freedom of an ASK/TELL interface with the specific phrasings (and associated tone choices) of menu-based systems, allowing for considerably more complex interactions -- and more complex characters, like Grant from Best of Three and Evaine from City of Secrets, have emerged as a result. Other notable NPC-centric games were Adam Cadre's Varicella (1999), many of whose NPCs were vividly rendered loathsome characters, and Stephen Granade's Common Ground (1999), a shifting-perspective look at complex family relationships. Both the tools and the precedents are there for multilayered NPCs, in short, characters that drive the story rather than merely being cogs in the wheel. 5) EXPERIMENTATION. As noted, commercial IF is largely gone and is unlikely to make a comeback any time soon -- but with the decline of commercial IF has come a great deal of narrative experimentation with the IF medium, some of which, of course, has worked better than others, but most of it has offered something worthwhile. Those experiments have taken a variety of forms, many of which cannot be revealed here without spoilers -- authors began testing the waters with puzzleless and puzzle-light IF in 1996 and 1997 (In the End, Tapestry, Space Under the Window), and have moved on to more radical experiments. Some of the experiments have included novel PC points of view, from dogs (Ralph, 1996) to cats (Day for Soft Food, 1999) to teddy bears (Bear's Night Out, 1997) to robots (Bad Machine, 1998) to genies (Djinni Chronicles, 2000), and others have taken the form of PCs that prove unreliable in a variety of ways. An even more striking experiment was The Gostak (2001), written in a language whose syntax was akin to English but whose vocabulary was entirely unfamiliar, and the challenge was to decipher it sufficiently and interact sensibly enough to solve some simple puzzles. Other notable experiments have included Aisle (1999) and Rematch, both of which offer just one turn (repeated over and over) but manage to provide surprisingly varied and deep exploration of the game's world, and Heroes (2001), where the player has a task to achieve and can assume any of five separate roles to achieve it. There have also been attempts at literary adaptation (The Tempest, 1997, and Nevermore, 2000); surreal/symbolic settings (So Far, 1996, and For a Change, 1999), IF games in reverse (Zero Sum Game, 1997, and Janitor, 2002), and games where most or all of the challenge is to figure out what is going on (Shade, 2000, and All Roads, 2001). These and other successful experiments have helped pushed the boundaries of what IF authors can do with the craft. The common thread here is that many, if not all, of these experiments would have been hard to market (at least, the history of commercial IF includes little boundary-pushing as ambitious as the above efforts, which says something); it's reasonable to conclude that the freeware revolution gave rise to an environment that made innovation of this sort possible. It's undeniable, however, that things have been done with IF tools in the past ten years that have expanded the frontiers of the possible -- at least, in this setting. (No, not Z-abuses.) 6) MULTIMEDIA FOR THE COMMON MAN. While most IF is still text-only, development tools facilitating the use of multimedia have, if not flourished, at least achieved a modicum of popularity in recent years, notably HTML-TADS, Glulx, and Hugo, such that basic graphics and sound files are now relatively commonplace. Particularly notable in this regard were Carma (2002), which had fairly polished animations and well-produced music, and Kaged (2000), which had photographs and a nicely mood-enhancing soundtrack. It's not clear whether this represents a significant advance in relative terms -- the progress of multimedia IF has been slow enough, and the enhancement of multimedia in commercial games fast enough, that potential players accustomed to highly vivid graphics and professionally produced sound are likely in for a rude shock. Still, there are viable multimedia tools available, which is certainly an improvement on 1994. 7) PARODY/COMMENTARY. I'm not sure how much it says, in these self-conscious times, that IF has developed the ability to comment on itself and on its own limitations, but that it has is undeniable. Arguably the first example was Undo (1995), a peculiar little effort with no puzzles in the traditional sense, one problem that is solved with linguistic trickery, a possible score of 86 points but no actual opportunity to score said points, and a variety of bizarre red herrings. Zero Sum Game, where the goal was to undo the entirety of a hack-and-slash fantasy quest and thereby bring the score down to 0 (and the protagonist caused considerably more mayhem in trying to set things right than he/she had caused during the "original" game, was another game that explicitly poked fun at IF conventions, and the list has grown from there: 9:05 (1999), Shrapnel (1999), Being Andrew Plotkin (2000), LASH (2000), Guess the Verb! (2000), Voices (2001), and Janitor have all employed self-reference in one way or another to amuse or inform. All this suggests that, if nothing else, the medium is stable and defined enough that critique and mockery makes some level of sense, which is progress of a sort. 8) GENRE WITH THE WIND. Finally, one of the more encouraging aspects of latter-day IF development is that most of the better games have transcended genre limitations in ways that very little old-school commercial IF managed to do. Whereas much of the most successful IF in the '80s fell firmly into well-trodden genre categories, much of the most acclaimed IF of the last ten years has avoided such categories. Consider the competition winners: over the nine years of the competition, the first-place games have included an elliptical little nightmare about being stuck in the rain, an allegory of sorts for evolution and civilization, a fragmented tale of untimely death that defies categorization, an medieval-Venice metaphysical-fantasy story involving political scheming and a narrator who moves into and out of various bodies, and a steampunk story set in an insane asylum with a dash of unreliable narrator. Other notables of the past few years include: an 18th-century France drama with incursions of fantasy-style magic; a palace-intrigue game in an anachronism-heavy alternate-history 19th century Italy where none of the contenders for the throne, including the PC, are even vaguely sympathetic; a delve-into-your-own-head saga arising from the PC's attempts to quit smoking; a parody of an offbeat indie movie, shot through with IF reference; and a neo-Platonist story freighted with symbolism and object transformation. By this point, well-regarded IF games that fall within genre boundaries at all are more the exception than the rule: Anchorhead (1998), Spider and Web (1998), and Worlds Apart (1999) could fairly be called Lovecraftian horror, espionage, and sci-fi games without stretching the definitions too much, but not many other top-flight IF games of the last several years could be so classified. That latter-day IF increasingly ignores genre boundaries is noteworthy in a few respects. First, it tends to elevate the significance of story over puzzles, a dynamic discussed above; if the setting and plot are generic fantasy or sci-fi, the game often becomes an excuse for set-piece puzzles (since the appeal of the game tends to lie more in the puzzles grafted into the setting than in a tired plot). If the concepts and settings are fresh, however, the author is less tempted to play them down, or ignore them for long stretches, in favor of puzzles. To be sure, genre does not necessarily mean trite -- but without striking innovations that stamp a game as somehow transcending a category (notable examples are Enlightenment (1998), which both inhabits and satirizes fantasy, and LASH, science fiction that encourages the player to apply the story's themes on multiple levels), it can be difficult to make genre fiction feel fresh. (The increasing complaints over the years about genre IF, particularly fantasy -- without regard for the cleverness of the puzzles in the genre setting in question -- underscore the IF audience's increasing dissatisfaction with puzzles as a game's raison d'Ítre.) Second, the decline of genre IF -- in particular, the decline of fantasy and sci-fi -- suggests a growing acknowledgment that realistic and complex characters and compelling human conflicts matter, as those genres traditionally have been better on outlandish visions of alternative worlds, or on bizarre occurrences in traditional settings, than on bringing characters to life. (At the very least, the rise in "realistic" high-quality IF that eschews both fantastic settings and strange/mystical events -- Varicella, Common Ground, Exhibition (1999), Gourmet (2002) -- indicates more interest in bringing to life the interactions within those settings than in portraying the fantastic and otherworldly.) There's nothing about those hallmarks of fantasy and science fiction that precludes character development, of course, but it says something that authors, more and more, no longer need to rely on the outlandish and unusual as a hook. Finally, whatever you might think of IF's aspirations toward serious literature, going beyond genre -- either by subverting it or disregarding it outright -- certainly reflects those aspirations. In short, the past ten years have been quite a time for the development of IF -- and while the long-sought foothold in the commercial gaming world, a few heroic attempts to the contrary notwithstanding, has not yet materialized, that day may yet come. If it does, thanks to the freeware revolution, the medium will certainly be a good deal more mature than it was when the market petered out in the early '90s. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- This article isn't part of the anniversary celebration per se, but it does reference a discussion that's been ongoing during the last several issues, and besides, it was too interesting to pass up. From: Bradley O'Donnell UNLOCK DOOR WITH KEY Back in SPAG issue #34, Paul O'Brian's editorial examined a design tradeoff common in IF. The situation is as follows: The player is in a room with a locked door. The player also has the key to the door: >OPEN DOOR The door is locked. >UNLOCK DOOR What do you want to unlock the door with? The player winces as precious mimesis breaks; the game _knows_ he has the right key for the door, so why doesn't it just fill in the details? It's a good question, and there are many ways of responding to it, each with their pros and cons. Here are analyses of the three responses I find the most interesting. RESPONSE #1: Implement your way out of it. You can add extra programming to increase what the game "knows" how to deal with. The door will now check for the key and unlock itself accordingly. With some extra work and some object-oriented programming, you can extend this knowledge to every locked door in your game. The game now conforms with user expectations, at least in this specific case. But the player's expectations will rise. Imagine the myriad situations where it might be convenient for the program to anticipate the player's intent. Now imagine writing all of that anticipatory code. On the library-writing side, imagine a complete framework that tracks the dependency trees of actions and sub-actions and game-state requirements, filling in the blanks everywhere they are "obvious" or "trivial". It's a beautiful thought, but if you seriously want to go down that road, I look forward to playing your game sometime after the creation of bonafide AI, which you will have developed just weeks earlier. RESPONSE #2: Design your way out of it. You can restructure your game so that these situations don't occur. The rule of thumb for this method is to ensure that any action that isn't intended as a puzzle takes only one command and requires as little disambiguation as possible. This solves the problem by saying that unless choosing a specific key for a given door is meant to provide problem-solving satisfaction, the entire unlocking process should be discarded in favour of some other means of blocking entry into an area. That way the game never asks stupid questions, nor makes the player jump through too many hoops to do non-puzzle tasks. On the other hand, sometimes a door and a key just make so much sense that any other option seems ridiculous in context. RESPONSE #3: Alter the player's expectations by altering the interface and/or world model. Each IF experience makes assumptions about the game's interface and world model. In the UDWK case, the standard IF behavior causes part of the problem: the door is not just for travelling from room to room. It is also a full-fledged object in the game world and (ideally) has to be treated as though the player might do anything to it, including trying to take it off its hinges. But the seasoned IF player knows that 99% of all doors are there to either indicate or block an exit, and so he leaves them alone unless otherwise encouraged. The seasoned author, knowing that his doors are not going to be taxed beyond simple ingress and egress, also leaves them alone. In this way both parties acknowledge the limited purposes of doors and doorways in a game. So when UDWK rears its head, the game is saying, "This door's purpose is to block your way until you acquire its key. You now have the key, but the world-model insists that you perform two or three obvious commands to unblock the door." No wonder the player cries foul -- here is this door, this glorified piece of scenery, giving him a hard time! One of my favorite IF games, The Haunted Mission Adventure, has an interface/world model that potentially sidesteps this problem. In it, the exits of a room are just that, exits, and they're listed in a little window for easy reference. They don't react to other verbs. I can imagine this system extended to include locked doors; simply disallow passage until the key is acquired, and allow it afterward, printing appropriate advisory messages as the player passes through. Haunted Mission has a few other, similar user conveniences. A list of objects in the area gets its own window, as does your inventory. The only thing missing is a verb list, and even with one, Haunted Mission would remain far from perfect. I suppose this constant listing of things directly in the interface seems very un-mimetic, very un-Infocom (except for Beyond Zork). But consider another mimesis-breaker, the menu-based conversation. If you concede (and many do not) that there is merit in spelling-out the player's speech options and bypassing the world-model to do so (traditional ASK/TELL relies on the world-model for conversation subjects), then perhaps the world-model can be bypassed or altered in other useful ways. Perhaps exits are a good place to start. I'd love to see object and verb lists. To those who immediately oppose such ideas because they break mimesis, I respond that we actually never obtain mimesis more than a negligible percentage of the time, using the current model of IF as a continuous stream of conversation between player and game. I think the UDWK phenomenon shows that mimesis is rare, fragile and (probably) technologically distant. If this is the case, then I think the more interesting question is what aspects -- if not mimesis -- make IF compelling in the first place, and how do we emphasize them? 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. VERSION: Release 23 When submitting reviews: Try to fill in as much of this info as you can. Authors may not review their own games. REVIEWS ------------------------------------------------------------------- From: Emily Short TITLE: Black Sheep's Gold AUTHOR: Driftingon EMAIL: Unknown DATE: February 2003 PARSER: ADRIFT SUPPORTS: ADRIFT interpreters (the ADRIFT runner, MacScare, jAsea) AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: ftp://ftp.adrift.org.uk/adrift/games/blacksheep.taf [Obligatory disclaimer: I played this game on the MacScare interpreter, and it is conceivable that there were some differences between my experience and what someone would experience using the ADRIFT runner. From looking at other people's comments on the game, though, I get the impression that I am not the only one suffering guess-the-verb issues. I did not encounter anything in the playthrough that seemed like evidence of a definite flaw in MacScare.] "Black Sheep's Gold", by Driftingon, starts as a slice of life piece about an eight-year-old girl who has to clean the attic; soon, however, she discovers evidence of a treasure hidden by a relative many years before, and goes off in search of it. The young narrator is one of the game's strongest points. Aside from some character-breaking moments towards the end, she remains perky and distinctive throughout, putting a personal spin on the rather mundane house in which she lives. She's obviously a bit precocious, but there's nothing wrong with that. The game's prose is also quite decent -- I didn't find many problems or errors -- and the implementation (except for some parsing issues) seemed fairly strong and consistent throughout. The NPCs in the game were varied; most only have one or two (not very interesting) lines to say, but a few are more interestingly fleshed out, including amusing in-joke cameos: ADRIFT's creator Campbell Wild appears as the rather odd owner of an aquatic pet shop, and at least one other name was familiar to me from the ADRIFT forum. Other aspects of "Black Sheep's Gold" don't work quite as well. For one thing, I found myself faced with a number of guess-the-verb moments, and at a couple of key points could only get through with the help of a transcript. The game does alleviate some of these problems by putting correct action phrasings in italics some of the time -- but it doesn't do this quite consistently enough, and in a few places I was left high and dry. (It also italicizes the names of any important objects in a room, which is either a convenience or goofy and annoying, depending on how you look at it. It certainly draws attention away from immersion towards the user interface.) The puzzles themselves (aside from phrasing difficulties) are extremely simple and obvious, too. Frequently the game quite blatantly tells the player how to solve them, with suggestions like "If I only had a rope ladder, I would be able to LOWER THE LADDER FROM THE WINDOW and CLIMB DOWN!". (Example changed to protect the innocent, though I'm not sure why I bother trying not to spoil puzzles that give themselves away like this.) I don't know much about the background of the game, but I found myself starting to wonder whether it had been designed for younger players. That would explain the age of the protagonist, the not-at-all-challenging puzzle design, and the game's tendency to draw special attention to important nouns and verbs. The experienced IF puzzle-solver is likely to find most of the puzzles too simple to be very interesting, however. One final difficulty was the pacing. A fair amount of time is given to the prologue and to what I thought were opening stages of the midgame, so I assumed that the later portions of the plot would unfold at the same rate. But just at the point of the game when things seemed to be getting interesting and I hoped for high adventure, I was ambushed... by infodumps. There comes a point where you find yourself reading pages and pages of text about all sorts of interesting but uninteractive events. Then there are a couple more fairly obvious puzzles, and the game ends. And the ending -- well, it seems to me that the final few paragraphs break with the narrator's charming personality and go somewhat more cynical and world-weary than suits the rest of the game. I was disappointed. A more obvious ending would probably have been trite, but I still didn't entirely like the effect of this, since most of what had carried me through earlier had been sympathy for the kid. So overall I thought "Black Sheep's Gold" showed considerable effort, a fair amount of polish, and a mostly-charming narrator. On the other hand, it has some unintentionally frustrating moments, and does not offer much challenge as far as puzzles go. It might be suitable for younger players being introduced to IF, but they would still probably need a little help with phrasing a few commands correctly. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- From: Cirk Bejnar TITLE: City of Secrets AUTHOR: Emily Short EMAIL: emshort SP@G mindspring.com DATE: June 24, 2003 PARSER: Enhanced Inform SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters AVAILABILITY: IF Archive (http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/glulx/CoS.zip) URL: http://emshort.home.mindspring.com/CSUpcoming2.htm VERSION: 3 My overall impression of this game was very good. Short's characteristically strong coding and writing combine for a great experience, and I found no notable bugs in this release. From a purely technical standpoint, the work is a gem. Short has again used her resource-intensive ask-tell/menu hybrid conversation system. There are two difficulty settings and various options to set up the conversation system and the graphics to suit a variety of tastes. There is an impressive amount of detail in the descriptions with nearly all first level objects implemented and many second and third level as well. Such extras as your complementary personal shampoo from the hotel are fully implemented, which gives the world a solid feeling. The City seems to be an actual place rather than merely the setting for a game. The superb map design also contributes to this feeling. The city is represented as 20 or so rooms, but between the graphical map that you have available and the intuitive layout of the main thoroughfares travel is easy. She has also admirably succeeded in giving the different sectors of the City a unique feel. A quick glance at the room name will tell you whether you are in Malta or May Street and thus what to expect from your surroundings. The writings is, as I said before, also up to Short's usual high standards. Once the plot got rolling I could see the main twist coming but resisted it because of my personal convictions. (This also seemed perfectly in character for the PC.) However, as details emerged I was slowly won over, against my will, as it were, to the other side. That Short could pull this off, even while I was aware of it, is a testament to the immersive effect of the prose and the real emotional impact of the characters. However, this work is not perfect. None are. And in this case, the weakest link is the plot. It is well written and paced, in my opinion, but more predictable and linear than I would have preferred. In particular I was not able to derail it by personal choice, as far as I could tell. My choices were generally to advance the plot or to continue wandering about the City. I was unable to find a way to take decisive action according to my own judgment, only as the story dictated. The exception to this is the climatic move in the snowstorm. In this case, however, I was too dense to figure out why my options have the effects they do. I know that it is supposed to be mysterious but it would be nice if saving the world depended on more than a guess. In summary, City of Secrets is a fine game that demonstrates not only Short's preeminence in the field but also the way that writing and atmosphere can carry a game rather than devilish puzzles or breathtakingly new plot. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- From: Andrea Crain TITLE: Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I. AUTHOR: Text, script and design by Muffy and Michael Berlyn Inform translation by Mark J. Musante and Michael Berlyn Hints by Gunther Schmidl. EMAIL: ??? VERSION: 4.11 DATE: May 5, 2000 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-code (Inform) interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware, IF-Archive URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/dumont.z5 The premise of Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I. is that you're a student whose off-kilter physics professor has built a combination particle accelerator and A.I. computer. The computer needs a human observer in order to find and view Particle X, a new subatomic particle. Dr. Dumont asks you to sit in the interface shell, just to take some measurements, but of course you accidentally activate the linkage and get plunged into the metaphorical virtual reality the computer creates for you. In order to get out again, you have to help the A.I. view Particle X. Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I. was originally written for Infocom but, due to Infocom's demise, was released by another company in the late 80s. When the Berlyns started their own company in 1999, it was updated and re-released as a commercial, download-only product. Then they went out of business, too, and this game was finally released as freeware. The original manual and "feelies" (artifacts from the game world, including a kite race flyer you'll need to solve a puzzle) are included as PDF files in the same if-archive directory as the game file. Due to its long history as a commercial product, I expected playing this game to be an extremely polished experience. Unfortunately, there were some sloppy elements. For example, there is an object you gain at one point that, when in use, renders you unable to go anywhere or examine objects because you "can't see much". However, you're perfectly able, somehow, to see the same room description as always and to read a banner. Another sloppy piece is that there is an object you need to alter in order to finish the game successfully. Reading its description carefully will tell you what it really is. However, when you find it in the room and when you see it in your inventory, it is named inaccurately, as though it were already in the state to which you are meant to change it. This worked to prevent me from realizing that I needed to alter it until I checked the hints. A third object needed to be made to turn through some complicated manipulations of the environment. However, when I tried "turn"ing it before doing any of those manipulations, I was told it was already turning. That was very confusing -- if it's already turning, I thought, then why isn't it making this other thing work? In addition, the kite race seems not like an integral part of the game, but a tacked-on puzzle originally meant as a low-tech copy protection scheme. To win the kite race, you had to have the information on the flyer. Since the flyer was included in the physical package of the 80s version of the game (it's now part of the .PDF "feelies" file), presumably you had to buy the game and not copy it from a friend's floppy disk. (There is even a jab in the in-game hints section to this effect.) Because there were no photocopy machines in 1988, of course, or even pens, you couldn't have just gotten the hint from your friend's copy. The flyer exists as a game object, including the text that says instructions on how to win the race are on the reverse, but there is no in-game way to turn over the flyer and read the reverse side. The game doesn't even anticipate that we'll try this, and tell us we can't. Anyway, if you try to play the kite race puzzle without this information, you will think that you are following the kite, based on the motions the kite makes in the course. However, the game will tell you that the kite "takes off to the north, then heads off to the south." So you will go south, and the kite may not be there, or it may not be possible to go that way. When you follow the path that using the flyer hint gives you, the way the game says the kite goes will not always match the path you take, yet it will be there with you in the next room of the puzzle, and you will still win. And when you reach the end of that path, you will expect that something "You've won"-ish should happen, but it will not until you leave the course, so you may flounder about thinking you've misunderstood the hint. You haven't. It's just a weird puzzle. There are other annoyances. You have to play guess-the-verb with a duck, and you may not "toss" a ring despite being at a Ring Toss. You will have to cause something to reach a precise state without going too far, and even though you should be able to judge it by "touch"ing or "feel"ing it, you can't. The game will tell you you are standing outside a building, and then will not allow you to look at that building. There is a door with no purpose but to make you open it before you walk through -- it isn't even locked. And in order to get more information from the game about the puzzles by using the "meditate" verb, you have to go through a series of three actions, meditate, and then reverse the steps before you can carry on with the game, every time. It's tedious -- it'd be nice if, once you figured out how to meditate, the process could be automatic! But my biggest disappointment with this game was something a little less nitpicky. This game's premise and atmosphere are very cool. You get the impression that in playing this game, you're going to be immersed in particle physics, philosophy, astronomy, metaphysics and the Marx brothers. In short, you feel like you're about to learn a little something. The game doesn't deliver. The School of Thought is just a place to pick up some objects. The Science Art Museum is just a place to get some objects. The Planetarium is just a place to get some more objects. The professor NPC's don't know anything about their subjects and can barely converse at all. The A.I. is waiting for you to solve its problem for it. You might learn a little about the Milky Way at the fair, but that's about it. This is a puzzlefest wrapped up in an Einstein poster. It looks cool and makes you feel smart, but ultimately, it's just a paper-thin diversion. The demise of the game publishing house that re-released Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I. in the late 90s should not be taken as proof that selling commercial IF is no longer a workable business model. Maybe it isn't, but maybe if the product they were selling had been an outstanding, polished, bug-free game, a game that made people think and talk and tell their friends "hey, you've got to try this," things might have worked out. It's worth playing for a couple of the puzzles, and the fun atmosphere. The prose is lively and engaging, which is why it sets up such unrealistic expectations. If the careless bugs and annoyances I mentioned above were fixed, it would have gotten an 8 from me. But as it is, I'll rate it a 6. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Valentine Kopteltsev I've got to warn you -- the chief motive power behind this review is my spirit of contradiction. It began as I came across the blurb for Dr. Dumont in Baf's Guide, which contained, among other things, statements like "one of the most bizarre examples of true IF ever published", and "recommended for those who found Trinity too tame". I disagree with these statements, but the Trinity comparison gave me a reference point to compare Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I. with. I'd rather apply the second of the quotes above to Graham Nelson's Jigsaw, so let's make that a reference point, too. Along with the reasons adduced above, using Trinity and Jigsaw as criteria is justified by the fact that these works all feature a similar structure: in all three games, the player character starts in his habitual environment, and then lands, whichever way, in some surreal place. These places, in their turn, also share a rather similar layout: a core area (a "central trans-shipping point") that contains several portals leading to more (fairly varied) worlds. However, there is a significant difference in game size; for instance, Dr. Dumont manages to squeeze the prologue, implemented as a mini-game in both classics referenced, into its (admittedly quite long) opening text, and to shrink the aforementioned "central trans-shipping point" to a single room. To avoid rather overused metaphors about meal- and snack-sized games, let's put it this way: while Jigsaw reminds one of a stretched Bentley, and Trinity a Jaguar, Dr. Dumont is (let's stay with European cars) a Volkswagen Passat at best -- the only thing about it bigger than that of the others is its title. ;) Sure, a shorter game still can compete with a longer one in toughness -- for instance, by being bizarre. I don't deny that Dr. Dumont's main theme contains an enormous peculiarity potential; particle physics is quite a mind-bending matter itself, and all the more so is the idea of connecting a human brain to a particle-detection-oriented AI -- one could go off one's head just by trying too hard to imagine the results. In spite of this, though, the game didn't appear that odd. It rather reminded me of a draftee attempting to convince the medical board at the recruiting station that he's crazy in order to avoid conscription into the army. Yes, there were pretty many grotesque, comically distorted details and decorations -- and yet, the puzzles had perfectly logical solutions, and the major subgoals were formulated clearly and unambiguously, sometimes even a bit straightforwardly. Well, maybe not that straightforwardly, because some aspects of the game are downright confusing. To begin with, unlike Jigsaw and Trinity, Dr. Dumont allows the player to get into all the areas accessible through the "central trans-shipping point" from the very start of the game -- due to its relatively small size, it can afford to do so without becoming totally unwinnable. However, the player gets most of the information crucial for success in only one of these areas, and thus should visit it first, since roaming through the other areas without having the goals in the game formulated is rather misleading indeed. As the game contains no hints about in which order the areas should be visited, one is left to find it out oneself by trial and error. Secondly, Dr. Dumont comes with a bunch of feelies in the style of Infocom. And, like some of the Infocom games (though not Trinity), the player needs to refer to these feelies to win. This could be quite confusing for people who don't have much experience with commercial IF, even despite the fact that Dr. Dumont provides quite a clear inkling at the point where the feelies are needed. One more confusing aspect of the game is the 'how to play' documentation that accompanies it. Most of the experienced players probably will ignore this documentation completely, since it appears to be addressed to novices, and as far as I remember Dr. Dumont makes no effort to dispel this impression. The thing is, this documentation describes, along with the usual (and trivial) directives like LOOK, TAKE, etc., a few less obvious commands, which are crucial for success. A typical case of RTFM. ;) Finally, there indeed are a couple of slightly obscure puzzles (like a quiz requiring some basic astronomical knowledge). But even with all these issues, Dr. Dumont still isn't half as tough as Trinity, not to mention Jigsaw: no Enigmas, no careful, turn-precise pre-planning of your actions, no random hints disguised as gibberish... sheer disappointment for a true puzzle-fan! ;) As everybody knows, there is no direct dependence between a game's size and its difficulty or its depth. For the reviewed game, however, this relationship is true: Dr. Dumont indeed hasn't got the vast philosophical background Trinity possesses; in fact, it's entirely light-hearted. This doesn't mean, however, a quality decrease: splendid writing, consistently high level of detail, carefully implemented characters, and a state-of-the-art hint system are a sufficient warranty against disappointment. In fact, these features work so well that the game even failed to frustrate me after I had to restart it three times because I run into an unwinnable state due to bugs. These glitches really were of the "very difficult to locate" kind; I think 95 percent or more of the players will never encounter them. This, along with the realization of my bad luck and the fact that redoing the game from the start wasn't too torturous thanks to its not so large size, helped me to avoid fixating on these problems too much. To sum things up, if it's appropriate to speak about the image a game is trying to form of itself, so Dr. Dumont doesn't act like a super-epic breaking bizarrity records, and outshining classics; rather, it modestly tries to entertain the player for a few evenings with good puzzles and healthy humour. Quite unambitious, isn't it? ;) SNATS [Scores Not Affecting The Scoreboard]: PLOT: Sufficient for a game emphasizing puzzles, and with clearly defined subgoals (1.0) ATMOSPHERE: Makes the game appear more surreal than it really is (1.4) WRITING: The opening text impressed me a lot; later on, I got used to the quality of the prose, and took no notice of it, but one has got to admit it plays a very important role in determining Dr. Dumont's appearance (1.5) GAMEPLAY: As you might have guessed from the comment for the PLOT, it stresses puzzles, and has got its subgoals defined clearly. ;) (1.2) BONUSES: Lots of optional stuff to do, feelies (1.2) TOTAL: 6.3 CHARACTERS: Nice, but fairly conventional (1.3) PUZZLES: Range from "very logical" to "slightly obscure" (1.3) DIFFICULTY: Not without its snags, but manageable (6 out of 10) -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- From: Neil Butters TITLE: The House AUTHOR: Owen Parish EMAIL: doubleprism SP@G hotmail.com DATE: November (?) 2003 PARSER: TADS2 SUPPORTS: TADS2 interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/house.gam VERSION: Version 1.0 The House is a short game that represents Owen Parish's first attempt at IF, and it is fairly entertaining, despite its derivative story and some technical annoyances. Ostensibly the objective is to get out of a house that you woke up in, hungover and disoriented. You have heard disturbing rumours about this house and its occupants. Could they be true? If you decide to explore the house, other objectives become readily apparent, and you uncover goings-on that will be familiar to genre fans. The story borrows from Lovecraft and Frankenstein, but it is underdeveloped, and I never did get a clear understanding of the House's secrets. This may have been because I did not get the full score, but I think it is more likely that the ideas never mesh into a coherent story. Some games can be satisfying even with an open-ended conclusion (see "All Alone") but the House doesn't pull this off successfully. There are a few surprises but they also remain underdeveloped. For example, two possibly interesting NPCS are introduced but I could not figure out what to do with them or how to get any useful information from them. The story should have made it more obvious what I was supposed to do with these guys. Motivation is one of the glaring problems with the game since it is often stressed that you want to get out of the house ASAP and it is possible to do so in five moves without getting any points. Why should I stick around and explore? The only motivation is curiosity. However, the game does reward inquisitive behaviour with rooms crammed full of objects that can be fiddled with or examined. There are some nice atmospheric touches as well, such as the noisy staircase. The gameplay is straightforward for the most part. There are only a few points in the game where interaction with the world was difficult. The library and the kitchen come to mind, where searching or reading the objects, respectively, is awkward. For instance, in the library a "search the west books" command will result in "which books do you mean, the west books, east books, north books or south books?" that necessitates a further "west books" command. In the kitchen, you cannot read the notes attached to objects but must read the object instead (ie "read cupboard"). These problems could easily be fixed in future versions. You have to guess where the exit is in the room you wake up in, and the maze does not make any sense (although it is easy to do). Most puzzles are easy to figure out. However, as I mentioned, I did not get the full score and I am quite sure I missed out on a few things. It doesn't really matter though, since you can leave the House at any time without doing anything. A stay in the House was worthwhile, largely due to the lack of "empty" rooms. If you decide to visit don't expect to leave with your curiosity satisfied. The House keeps its secrets locked within. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- From: Mary Kate Alexander TITLE: Inevitable AUTHOR: T.L. Heinrich (a.k.a. Kathleen M. Fischer) EMAIL: mfischer5 SP@G aol.com DATE: 2003 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/Inevita.z5 In Kathleen Fischer's Inevitable, you find yourself wandering through a deserted city, your ostensible goal to find a way to repair your plane and leave, though it quickly becomes apparent that the player will also be delving into the PC's past at the same time. The atmosphere and puzzles in this game are reminiscent of Myst, and the descriptions are vivid enough to make this work well in a text-based game. Inevitable has several interesting features. One is the ability to set the difficulty level to easier or harder than the default (an option only available at the start of the game). While there are no hints or walkthrough available, attempting a particular puzzle in the easier version of the game is a pretty good substitute; the difference in difficulty between levels is not great, but enough to help a couple of times when I got stuck in the harder version. The puzzles themselves are pretty straightforward, with minimal guess-the-verb problems. In addition to the score and number of moves, a number of memories is given at the top of the screen; at various points throughout the game, something that you see will remind you of the past, and the number of memories will increase. The command REMEMBER will retrieve these memories. I found this to be a relatively smooth way bring up things that the PC knows but the player doesn't. Another set of commands that I found convenient was LIST PLACES, which gives a list of locations that you've already visited, and GO TO [location], which lets you jump to places that you've already visited (the response is, "You make your way back to [location]"). The map in this game isn't big enough for moving around in the usual way to be too onerous, but I'd love to see GO TO implemented in larger games, where moving from one place to another can get to be rather tedious. The writing was excellent; as mentioned above, the puzzles require a very clear visualization of the setting, and the location and object descriptions were more than sufficient for this. I only caught one typo, in an object description. The game was well-implemented; most things I tried to do or look at gave an appropriate response, and the default messages were altered to avoid breaking the mood (e.g., when you try to go in a direction without an exit, "After a moment's thought, you realize that you can't go that way."; or when you try to do something that's not allowed or not possible, "You scowl at the thought," or "You laugh at the thought."). My only criticism would be that there's an interesting (though not strikingly original) backstory, and well-designed puzzles, but the two are not very integrated with each other--basically, you end up trying to get a series of machines working without any good reason why. Overall, though, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable game; on a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 7. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- From: Francesco Bova TITLE: Shadowgate AUTHOR: David Griffith (originally published by Icom for the Nintendo Entertainment System as well as many other platforms) EMAIL: dgriffi SP@G cs.csubak.edu PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters AVAILABILITY: freeware IF-archive URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/sgate.z5 Source code is also available at: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/source/sgate.tar.gz This game is a reimplementation of Shadowgate Classic as it appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) presented by ICOM in 1989. It's an interesting experiment and follows somewhat in the recent IF Arcade tradition that converts graphical games to text. I played Shadowgate in '89 and always felt it would transfer well to a text adventure setting, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this game released in late '03. In its exactness, the Inform version stays very true to the NES version (from what I can remember of the NES version). Even the little bits of background noise and red herrings from the original were completely implemented, and I have a lot of respect for the painstaking amount of replaying of the original version that must have happened to get this done correctly. All of the NES version's written responses were intact although thankfully the IF version cleans up some grammatical and spelling errors. For nostalgia's sake then, this was a great walk down memory lane. Unfortunately, once you look past that, it also highlighted many of the design errors inherent in many of the early NES games. There are unfortunately many things to gripe about here so let's start with one of my least favorite foibles: author telepathy. Specifically, there was major death without warning. Seemingly innocuous actions like picking up items freely available in the scenery, or entering apparently non-threatening directions often lead to death with no discernible justification. It was also fairly easy to break certain structures which always left me wondering whether or not I had permanently made the game unwinnable or not. I think the game can't actually be made unwinnable, unless you don't budget your light resources properly (which is another issue, but I'll get to that later), however death-without-warning abounds and waits in every corner, which is something we just don't accept in IF games anymore. Another issue is a concern that always crops up in my reviews, and that's the combinatorial explosion of having too many items in your inventory. Throughout the game, you collect well over 80 items and when you begin the endgame, it's difficult to remember what each piece does or the exact details of each item. This leads to a lot of put X in Y, hit X with Y experimentation, which gets pretty tedious the third or fourth time around. It also makes the game more difficult than it probably should be, as your light resources dwindle very quickly -- the net effect of all this is that every time I somehow made the plot progress I would have to save, explore, make the plot progress again, restore to a previous saved game armed with my new knowledge, and proceed forward. Ultimately, that type of forced gaming experience is a recipe for disaster. It's unfortunate, too, because many of the game's structure problems could have been easily alleviated by loosening its light restrictions a little. The light issue I keep referencing actually has to do with the limited life cycle of the torches you find lying around. As I played through the game a second time with walkthrough in hand, I completed it with a reserve of only 5 usable torches (having picked up every available torch I could find). Essentially, I won without wasting a move. Unfortunately, the game is so cavernous and the amount of author telepathy need to win the game so great, that winning without wasting a move is next to impossible, as is completing the game with any usable torches. There is a spell of sorts that you can find that might help you with this issue, but it has to be invoked in every new room you enter, which leads to further tedium. And, considering the tight restrictions on your time, I'm not entirely sure you'll find the spell before you run out of torches, so the benefit might be moot regardless. Still, the torch issue remained faithful to the NES original, as did a number of other conventions, which have to be commended. For example, the original Shadowgate loved to bury clues in the scenery -- specifically, the game's walls. The regular Inform parser has a wall object parsed for each of the cardinal directions, and the author here did a great job of subtly clueing the player into examining a wall without blatantly telling us which one. I believe this involved a nice hack in the Inform source code's wall objects. That is to say: a general query of X WALL, would still generate a disambiguation request, listing all the cardinal directions, but if you examine the right wall there wasn't a simple default response [I am impressed here because I believe I attempted to parse something similar a while back and made a mess of it]. Before I started playing the game, I was curious to see how the author was going to implement the puzzles buried in the room's constructs and for the most part, I was really happy with the way he did it. There was only one glaring omission, where a clue of vital importance was buried in the scenery with no hint as to where or even why a player should look. I knew it was there from the NES version, but were I a first-time player, there is absolutely no way I would have found it. So, overall the game is effectively parsed, diligently researched and implemented (the attention to the original game's detail is impressive and the consistent representation in the face of the original's poor design choices -- i.e., torch issue -- was commendable), but ultimately, due principally to the original's shortcomings, it doesn't live up to the standards we expect in IF nowadays. Despite this, however, I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed the nostalgia. As a result, you may want to check this out if you've actually played the NES version, but probably skip it otherwise. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- From: Emily Short TITLE: Solitary AUTHOR: Kahlan EMAIL: kahlan SP@G kahlan.org DATE: April 18, 2004 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-Code Interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: ftp://ftp.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/solitary.z5 VERSION: Version 1 "Solitary" is a short, puzzleless game set in the player-character's dorm room. The basic point of this piece, as with a number of other plot-driven/puzzleless games I can think of ("Photograph", "Shade", and even to some extent "Photopia") is to put together the background that led to the current situation. As far as I can tell, this is the author's first game, and it shows in certain ways. There are some odd glitches in the world model: as, for instance, when you put on a piece of clothing, but can't afterwards remove it, and are told that you're not wearing it. Apparently the author circumvented the normal operation of "wear". Similarly, some default responses have been replaced with answers that don't really make sense in all contexts. For instance: >DIE You jump on the spot, fruitlessly. >KILL ME You can't snap that in two. For the most part, though, the implementation is fine: there aren't a lot of glaring omissions, or scenery that seems important that you can't examine. Moreover, I had the sense that the author cared about the game and about doing a good job -- and that's always a good sign. Most of the problems I had with "Solitary" had to do with storytelling technique rather than with implementation. One major challenge of writing a learn-backstory-through-exploration game is to keep the player from discovering information out of order -- especially when, as here, everything is in a single room and almost every object is accessible more or less at the same time. In this case, there are all sorts of items in the room that *should* let you discover a critical background fact, but the player character refuses to acknowledge them until you hit on exactly the right trigger. It's annoying and manipulative (in my opinion) to prevent the player from reading some useful document with a line like "You can't bear to read that.". I certainly *can* bear to read it, and telling me otherwise does not heighten my feeling of identification with the player character. What's more, finding out what has happened is the only goal I-the-player have in the game. There are no other goals provided. The only way for me to move forward is to investigate things, so it is irritating to come across what seems like a juicy piece of evidence only to have the game refuse to let me look at/read/think about it. Even so, by the time the Horrible Truth was revealed, I had pretty much already guessed it. Foreshadowing is a useful technique, but only if it doesn't completely give away what's coming. Best of all if it leads you to expect something close to the truth, but wrong, so that the real revelation still takes you by surprise even though you thought you were prepared. The handling of PC emotion also needs some work. At a number of points in the game, I'm handed emotions that I have no reason to feel. Being told that I'm weeping intensely is weird when I-the-player have so little cause to do so. In that respect, this would work (a little) better as a story in the first or third person, I suppose -- but I think it would still seem a bit maudlin and self-indulgent. My other fundamental problem with "Solitary" is that the background story is not very interesting. I'm sure the events would be horrible to live through. But there aren't enough particulars here to make me feel much of anything about the protagonist or about any of the implicit NPCs. The player is told that the PC is hurting, that things are bad, that her love used to be strong, etc., but so what? I need more than that before I can generate much empathy. Instead of the vaguely-worded memories, I need specific flashbacks that make me actually feel something about the PC and the people she interacts with. I need more examples of what was so great about her relationship with her love. I need to feel as though they're people I know and would actually care about, rather than place-holders. This is not easy, but without it, a story like this falls flat. Finally, the last line of the game reads as funny in a way that undercuts what good effects the game has achieved elsewhere. I should mention a few positives, though. "Solitary" is set in a dorm room, which is something of a clichť, but I've certainly seen duller dorm-room implementations. The items here did help to paint an image of the player character. (She came off as somewhat immature, but I suppose that's not out of place.) Some of the descriptions showed a nice attention to senses other than sight: tangibles such as how well a drawer slides open, for instance. This is a good sign. "Solitary" also comes with a hint system, which got me through a few points where I was stuck. That was useful as well. It's not a long game to play, but there are a few moments where you may need guidance. I would have liked this system even better if it had adapted itself to what I'd already tried and suggested only new directions, but it worked well enough as it was. I'd encourage the author to write more IF, but also to look into improving traditional story-telling techniques, particularly characterization and plot structure. There's promise in the care that went into "Solitary", but it would be better put in service of a richer story and more accomplished writing. 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