SPAG
ISSUE #45 - July 17, 2006

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

                         ISSUE #45

        Edited by Jimmy Maher (maher SP@G grandecom.net)
                       July 17, 2006

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

SPAG #45 is copyright (c) 2006 by Jimmy Maher.
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 ----------------------------------------------------

A Look at IntroComp 200(?5?) by Mordechai Shinefield

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

The Amazing Interactive Turing Machine
Deadsville (IntroComp version)
Finding Martin
Ghost Train
Glass
OMNIQuest
Swineback Ridge
There's a Snake in the Bathtub
Voices of Spoon River


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

When Paul O'Brian passed the reins of SPAG to me a year ago, one of my first 
goals was to improve the magazine's appearance.  While the website might have 
been cool in that kitschy time capsule sort of way that leads to cinematic 
remakes of Starksy and Hutch, this wasn't quite the image I wanted to promote 
for either SPAG or IF in general.  Unfortunately, my skills with web design are 
rudimentary at best, and I always seemed to have others projects that were more 
pressing.

Finally I decided to force myself into action by announcing my plans to the 
world in my editorial for last January's issue.  I also put out a call in that 
issue for designers who might be willing to donate some of their expertise 
toward a sleeker, more modern SPAG, even though I was doubtful what kind of 
response I would receive.  Enter Felix Plesoianu.

As it turned out, Felix did not just assist me.  I was, as usual, bogged down 
with other projects, and so Felix basically did everything himself over a period 
of several months, patiently responding to my many requests for changes and 
additions.  And now his work is finally on display for everyone.  Personally, I 
think it looks great, and I hope you will agree.  If you do, feel free to send 
him an email telling him so.  You can reach him at felixp7 SP@G yahoo.com.

One of the nicest features of the new site is that it makes it much easier to 
submit reviews.  Simply click the "Submit a review" link on the right side of 
the home page, and fill the form out as best you can, pasting the body of your 
review into the appropriate field.  Of course you can also continue to submit 
reviews by the old method of personal email to me, if you prefer, and I also 
always welcome feedback, article proposals, and whatever else IF-related you 
care to send me.

We are not done with modernizing SPAG.  Indeed, this is hopefully just the 
beginning.  The individual issues are still not HTMLized, and correcting that is 
the next project on the agenda.  Further down the road, I hope to start sending 
SPAG out to subscribers in HTML format, and I have vague ideas for plenty more 
enhancements.  Be patient with us, please.  We will get there.

As excited as I am about SPAG, I am even more excited about the IF community in 
general.  I think many of us have had a sense over the last couple of years that 
IF needed something, some spark, to galvanize people again.  The number of new 
games released each year was not only not growing, but had actually begun to 
decline, and we often seemed to be coasting on our traditions rather than acting 
out of passion.  

Inform 7, I am gratified to say, has changed everything in exactly the way I had 
hoped it might when I first encountered it.  The number of posts to 
rec.arts.int-fiction has skyrocketed since Inform 7's April 30 release, and, 
even more gratifyingly, the excitement in the community is palpable.  We have so 
far seen only a few small efforts created with Inform 7, but I have every reason 
to believe these are only the first trickles that precede the deluge.  I suspect 
that Inform 7 will be well-represented in this year's IF Competition.  And, 
excitingly for a devotee of epics like myself, many people seem to be have been 
inspired by Inform 7's power and ease of use to begin long works of 
considerable ambition.  

Many of those who have taken up the new system are non-programmers who had 
previously found traditional IF authorship closed to them.  This is exactly the 
path IF must take if it is to grow.  We must attract writers and readers who are 
not computer geeks at all, who indeed were perhaps never even interested in 
computers before discovering IF.  This is the path to better, more literary 
works and acceptance, first by the electronic literature community and then by  
literary establishments in general.  Pipe dreams?  Perhaps, but stranger 
things have happened.  I get excited when I think of where IF could go, and 
cannot express enough gratitude to Graham Nelson and Emily Short and everyone 
who has helped with Inform 7 for opening up a new path by which we might get 
there.

Pipe dreams aside, though, I have some very interesting reviews for you today.  
Mordechai Shinefield has written a very funny overview of (what he thinks is) 
last year's IntroComp, just in time for this year's event.  Previous SPAG editor 
Paul O'Brian has contributed two thoughtful reviews, as has IF Renaissance woman 
Emily Short.  Throw in reviews from longtime SPAG stalwart Valentine Kopeltsev, 
returning contributor Mike Harris, and a couple of much-appreciated newcomers, 
and there is much to enjoy.  And so, without further ado, I invite you to read 
on and do so.


IF NEWS -------------------------------------------------------------------

One Room Game Competition 2006
Francesco Cordella recently hosted a one-room game competition, with games 
written in either English or Italian being eligible.  A healthy nine entries 
were submitted, although only two were written in English and are thus 
accessible to Italian-challenged players like myself.  However, one of those 
English games, Sam Gordon's Final Selection, actually won the competition.  The 
other, Sara Brookside's It's Easter, Peeps!, finished sixth.
http://www.avventuretestuali.com/orgc/orgc-2006-eng

Let's Tell a Story Together
For my undergraduate Senior Honors Thesis this past semester at the University 
of Texas at Dallas, I worked up a fairly detailed introduction to and history of 
IF.  I call it Let's Tell a Story Together, and I have put it online on my 
personal page.  Response has been gratifyingly positive so far, and I plan to 
correct, update, and with luck even expand the work over time.
http://home.grandecom.net/~maher/if-book

IntroComp 2006
As of this writing, the 2006 edition of the IntroComp is just underway.  For 
those who haven't participated before, the goal of this competition is to 
encourage authors to create longer works by allowing them to submit introductory 
sections of possible longer games to be judged by the community, and thereby to 
discover whether their concepts are worth expanding into full-length games.  
This year's competition has seven entries.  Take a few minutes to read Mordechai 
Shinefield's belated but enjoyable overview of last year's IntroComp in this 
issue to get a feel for how it all works, then download this year's intros and 
judge away.  The voting deadline is August 6.
http://www.xyzzynews.com/introcomp

Spatterlight
Tor Andersson, who seems to have the energy and interpreter-creating skill of 
dozens of normal programmers, has announced a new multi-format interpreter for 
Mac OS-X called Spatterlight.  Spatterlight can play games in AGT, ADRIFT, 
AdvSys, Alan, Glulx, Hugo, Level 9, Magnetic Scrolls, TADS, Quill, and of course 
Z-Code formats.  Whew!  It is still in beta, but looks very usable, and receives 
updates at a rather furious pace.
http://ccxvii.net/spatterlight/

SPAG NEEDS YOU!
So many deserving games are still waiting for reviews.  If you have played or 
plan to play any of these, please think about setting aside an hour or two of 
your time to write up your impressions.  You'll feel good afterward, I promise.

SPAG 10 MOST WANTED LIST
========================
1.  Eragon
2.  A Spot of Bother
3.  1893: A World's Fair Mystery
4.  Final Selection
5.  Provenance
6.  When in Rome, parts 1 and/or 2
7.  Bronze
8.  Dracula: The Arrival
9.  The Reliques of Tolti-Aph
10. It's Easter, Peeps!


A LOOK AT INTROCOMP 200(?5?) ----------------------------------------------

From: Mordechai Shinefield (lubbarlubab SP@G hotmail.com)

When I decided to write my own IntroComp submission, checking out past 
contenders seemed natural. Itís always a good idea to get an idea of the 
competition before crawling into the ring swinging. Here, though, it was more 
like watching the video footage from a previous match then scouting out 
competitors. Fine. Itís what I had to work with. I read that SPAG was looking 
for reviews of IntroComp 2005, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone. 
(First the boxing metaphor, now the birds cliche. Iím mixing metaphors like a 
bartender on acid.)

At Witís End Again

This is apparently the sequel to another game, titled (surprisingly) "At Witís 
End." Perhaps that game sets up what is going on with this one. Because Iíve 
only limited myself to IntroComp games, though, I have no idea. Apparently I 
have a narcolepsy, which is a total bummer, because I also dream nightmares 
compulsively. I pleaded with the on screen representation of me to lay off the 
ambien, but to no avail. To be fair, I donít know that it was ambien that made 
him like that. Iím just extrapolating from my own experience with the drug. 
Maybe our protagonist just ate bananas before he went to sleep. I hear those 
things will screw you up. 

Anyway, apparently my name is Jake, because when the parser talks to me, it 
calls me Jake. Maybe Iím the Jack Nickolson character from Chinatown (and The 
Two Jakes). Maybe Iím having nightmares because of that dame who got the bullet 
in her head. Iíve been waking up in cold sweats. I havenít taken a case since 
then. An NPC taps on my shoulder. "Címon Jake, itís only Chinatown," he says. 
Well, no. He doesnít. Instead I wake up in my bed. Iím in a cold sweat. Iím told 
"Damn! Another freakin' nightmare. Those sleeping pills are doing absolutely 
nothing for you." This tells me two things; one, that Iíve had these nightmares 
before and two, I was right. I totally am on ambien. Score.

Much like being on ambien in real life, I have the experience that no matter 
what I do, Iím on a fixed track. I try to mess with the system. I type "wait" 
until the game forces me to do things. I talk back to the parser. [>stop moving 
me around / I don't know the word "moving". / >go to hell / I don't know the 
word "hell".] 

Itís like talking to Smarterchild, except Smarterchild totally pretends to 
understand me. I have an idea: Maybe I can make the parser for my IntroComp 
submission interact like Smarterchild. 

[>stop moving me around / SmarterChild: You think I should do that? / >yes / 
SmarterChild: I should do that, huh? No way. / >go to hell / SmarterChild: I've 
heard much better insults than that, Jake.] 

Smarterchild? Total snark. So I finally think Iím awake when [SPOILER ALERT] the 
elevator Iím in goes into total freefall and the game ends. I wish I could say 
Iím literally at my witís end, but instead Iím just slightly nonplused. I turn 
off my computer and go to sleep. For real.

Except suddenly a giant leper is attacking me!

I go to check out what rating this game got when it was released and notice that 
I played a game from the first Introcomp, not the last one. This information 
seriously bugs me. I decide to include the review in the 2005 review package 
nonetheless and hope no one notices. I realize that announcing this intention 
out loud is completely sabotaging myself.

Apparently though, it was the Second Runner-Up in the first ever contest. Thatís 
like Ė Bronze medal. I decide to play the winner from the last IntroComp.

Deadsville

First reactions: A village called Deads? Was there a Mr. Deads who founded the 
village? Are there ghosts here? Does this star Bruce Willis? [SPOILER ALERT] It 
doesnít star Mr. Willis. [ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT] Turns out Bruce was dead during 
the entire duration of Sixth Sense.

Apparently the conceit is that youíre a zombie, risen from the dead. Also, the 
guy who raised you messed up, so you still have free will. Also, youíre hungry. 
To see if I could die from hunger, I hit the "wait" button about fifty times. 
Nothing happened. Apparently waiting to die from hunger as a zombie is like 
waiting in the grave. A lot of nothing. Anyway, I decide to kill and eat the 
kid. This secretly pleases me as a player. I try to choke him with my zombie 
hands, but apparently Iím not an indestructible as I once thought. My arms come 
right off.

You know, the kid wants to raise a zombie army to take over his town. Maybe he 
should have thought about this detachable limbs thing first. I mean, how am I 
supposed to hunt down townspeople when my bones keep coming off? My entire 
raison díetre is gone. Why do I be? Who am I? In pitiful rage I clobber the kid 
with his own spellbook and feast upon his brain. The game claims this is because 
I am hungry. I know the truth. It is because I am man without purpose. The 
zombie is merely a metaphor for the modern man. I walk through the New York 
streets. I am in a city of millions of people and yet I feel alone.

I can see why this game won, and yet I am not satisfied. Are we not postmodern 
men? Am I not a pastiche of influences? My zombie correspondent lumbers into the 
town and I get a "to be continued." Perhaps the rest of the game will shed light 
upon these questions. I turn to the second place winner.

Weishaupt Scholars

Weishaupt is the last name of Adam Weishaupt, who supposedly founded the Order 
of the Illuminati. The game is either a reference to good old Adam, or to the 
Weishaupt Corporation, a wholesale distributer of gasoline. (WC recently 
expanded to over 25,000 square feet. Congratulations WC!) The game is either 
about studying conspiracies or studying gas companies. I secretly hope for the 
latter.

The game starts by talking about an organization with "secret meetings, a 
shadowy power structure that stretches throughout the world, and theyíll even 
pay your way through college to get there." Iím thinking that this is definitely 
about an oil conglomerate. 

Well, even after completing the intro, Iím still unsure. I like the multiple 
characters you can play as, though. Itís like having MPD (which is a serious 
condition, I mock not), or just being generally fractured. The bulk of the intro 
involves cultists storming the building, threatening you. I wonder if they 
intend to eat you. Perhaps they are the zombie army raised in the last game. 
Hopefully those zombies are all wielding spellbooks, I sigh. I also liked that 
you canít lose. Screwing up in one chapter effects all the other chapters. In 
the short intro the implications of that are minor, but they may have greater 
significance in later chapters. If later chapters ever emerge. I am left 
remembering that most IntroComp games are never finished. I take a moment of 
silence for those that donít make it, then load up the third place winner.

The Fox, The Dragon, and The Stale Loaf of Bread

Awesome. Itís like a Marie 

de France fairytale. Hopes me

before loading it that he 

wrote the entire game in lai. 

Inspired, I write the review

in form. Free-verse I eschew.

Then I reconsider. Do I really want to write an entire review in eight syllable 
couplets? No. Instead I start the game, and to my surprise it actually is a 
fairytale! Not only, but it also starts with five quatrains. The poet-geek in me 
is very excited. It is subtitled "A Bizarre Fairytale Adventure." My heart beats 
faster. Apparently youíre a bard. A good looking bard. With a blemish in an 
unnameable place. I find myself in love with my protagonist. Hopeful he lives 
through the adventure. Last time I fell in love with a protagonist was while 
reading the Bell Jar. That didnít end well for either of us.

Iím confronted with a magic fox who begs me not to eat it. Of course I refuse 
and eat it. Magic or not, I find the ideal option in any choice to eat whatever 
is before me. Sadly, I have nothing to cook the carcass with, and I go 
searching. I find a firepit, but canít light it. I find a cliff, but cannot jump 
off it. (The game assures me I will be able to in the full version). I realize I 
have a tinderbox on me, and attempt to start a fire. To no avail! Ď>light 
firepití doesnít work, nor does Ď>light tinderboxí nor does any combination of 
the two. Ď>complainí doesnít work either. It just keeps explaining that "That 
dangerous act would accomplish nothing." It would accomplish eating! Is it my 
fault that the IF parser if a machine and canít appreciate the needs of a human? 
Who ever gave the keys to the kingdom to a robot anyway?

I go onto IFMud and ask the writer, David, exactly what the proper syntax is. He 
isnít sure either. A little of me dies inside. I think about writing full 
reviews for the other entries, but my heart is sad. I decide to express that 
sadness by describing the last four entries in haiku form.

The Amazing Uncle Griswold

You I want to play

Adrift I donít have installed

And I am very lazy

 

The Hobbit

I keep groping around

Donít sue me for harassment

Iím lost in darkness.

 

Negotis: Book 1

There is much to read.

The game calls me by my name,

Fear for my sanity.

 

Somewhen

Much has not been done

It feels empty of purpose,

Much like Wittgenstein.

 

Postscript: David figures out that the correct syntax is "light the kindling 
with the tinderbox." It works and I cook the magic fox. I eat it. The game is 
now unwinnable. David claims Iím the first player to ever try to eat the fox. 
Though Iíve apparently broken the game, I am satiated from eating the fox and 
donít bother restarting. I never find out who the dragon is. Life goes on.


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: Valentine Kopteltsev (uux SP@G mail.ru)

NAME: The Amazing Interactive Turing Machine
AUTHOR: D. Clemens
EMAIL: jdc20 SP@G psu.edu
DATE: May 2006
PARSER: Inform
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: http://www.math.psu.edu/clemens/IF/Turing/

A Turing machine is an abstract device invented by the British mathematician 
Alan Turing. It consists of a reading/writing head that moves over an infinite 
tape in discrete steps (one step at a time), writing zeroes or ones on it as it 
does so. This movement occurs in accordance with a so-called state table (which 
effectively represents a program of sorts) containing entries that define, 
depending on the state of the machine and on the symbol that has just been read 
by the head, whether a zero or a one has to be written to the tape, which way 
(left or right) the head has to move next, and to which state the machine should 
change.

I'm not sure the previous paragraph doesn't automatically put my review in the 
SPAG Specifics section, because, if we assess The Amazing Interactive Turing 
Machine basing on canons traditionally applied to IF-games, the "find out how 
this weird contraption works" type of puzzle is the only thing it can offer the 
player. Seriously, most players probably wouldn't know what a Turing machine 
actually is, because it's not a concept taught in every school (well, not even 
in every college, at least in Russia). On the other hand, I think 90 percent of 
such "uninitiates" would just resort to the Internet. The only reason why I 
didn't do so myself is, a couple of months ago I accidentally stumbled upon a 
popular scientific magazine that contained an article dealing with the subject.

Thus, as you might have already guessed, the reviewed work is nothing more and 
nothing less than a fully functional emulation of a Turing machine. As such, it 
probably represents a useful tool for people active in adjacent areas of 
science, which can spare them lots of routine paperwork. However, a few 
enhancements could help making this tool even more powerful: first of all, a 
point-and-click interface for setting up the state table (although it probably 
would be a pain to implement in Inform) -- the current editing procedure is 
pretty tedious. The second improvement would be a command allowing to skip the 
entire computing session of the machine, hiding all intermediate messages, and 
only displaying the results of the computation. Currently, the game allows you 
to skip up to 59 turns; while this really is a blessing, it's not enough for 
more complicated tasks (that can take quite an extended number of steps on a 
Turing machine), and the monotonous "The machine churns along" messages become 
more and more annoying with the time.

As almost any computer, the Turing machine has something fascinating about it, 
so that many people probably will be tempted to fiddle with it. While I'm a 
dilettante in this field, I couldn't help programming a few semi-trivial 
problems on it. Thus, this work clearly has a certain entertainment value, at 
least for a specific category of people; still, it hardly can be considered
interactive fiction by any means.

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

From: Mike Harris (M.Harris SP@G spi-bpo.com)

NAME: Deadsville (Introcomp 2005)
AUTHOR: William McDuff
EMAIL: wmcduff SP@G mac.com
DATE: July 24, 2005
PARSER: Inform 6
SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters
AVAILABILITY:  Freeware; IF Archive
URL: http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/Deadsville.zip
VERSION: Release 3

A short, two-location game, Deadsville is a fun twist on a George Romero 
premise.  Despite a limited palette of one NPC, two locations and a small number 
of objects itís rich and well written, proving that an enjoyable game does not 
need complexity.   

Defeating the NPC and winning the game is fairly straightforward.  It can be 
done in less than twenty moves and took me about 15 minutes the first time.  
However, thatís not really the point.  After the first play I spent over an hour 
repeatedly replaying the game to find all iterations.  A well-implemented hints 
menu contains a number of amusing suggestions including a command that allows 
the player to explore all of the losing options without having to restart each 
time.  Even the ďdefaultĒ responses are entertaining and well thought out and 
there were several times I laughed out loud when I got a response that I wasnít 
expecting.

As for technical details, the game is bug free and well implemented, with no 
ďguess the verbĒ problems.  No ďguess the nounĒ problems, either - the game 
accepts a surprisingly large list of nouns to refer to the NPC and objects.  I 
only found one flaw - after defeating the NPC character, re-examining an object 
gives the pre-defeat response Ė and my only objection is that a single sentence 
within the response refers obliquely to the NPC as though still undefeated and 
in no way affects the playability.   I can only wish that all IF games were this 
thoroughly debugged.

Deadsville is ďhorrorĒ in much the same way the movie ďShaun of the DeadĒ is 
horror Ė no lurid descriptions of gore to off-put the weak of stomach.  You 
donít have to be a fan of the genre to appreciate Deadsville, but if youíre the 
sort of person who laughs when the ditzy teenager gets her gruesome comeuppance 
youíll find it especially entertaining. 

I look forward to the full game.  The atmosphere is dead on and the characters 
are as fleshed out as they can be (every possible pun intended).  Some tougher 
puzzles might be enjoyable.  In any case, if the author takes as much time and 
trouble with the full version as with the intro, Deadsville could well become a 
classic.

On a scale of 1 to 10 I give Deadsville a 3 for difficulty and 8 overall.

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

From: Paul O'Brian (obrian SP@G colorado.edu)

TITLE: Finding Martin
AUTHOR: Gayla K. Wennstrom
EMAIL: gayla SP@G qrivy.net
DATE: 2005
PARSER: TADS
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters
AVAILABILITY: freeware; IF Archive
URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/fm.gam (Archive)
     http://www.qrivy.net/~gayla/ (game home page) 
VERSION: 1.12

In an era of bite-sized IF, Finding Martin is a 12-course meal. Actually, it's 
more like one of those progressive dinners, where you go from one house to the 
next, a different course at each house, for a total of 12 courses in the 
evening. Except it's more like going to one of those every night for two weeks. 
Seriously, this game is HUGE. This is the kind of game where you might find an 
item with ten different modes, many of which can be used to adjust the item to 
one of its 720 different settings (and some of which do other things entirely),
settings which are split into twelve different themed sections, many of which 
give hints, some of which give red herrings, and some of which perform game 
functions. I am not exaggerating. And that's just one item out of dozens and 
dozens you'll find in this game way way way before you get anywhere near finding 
Martin himself.

If you love yourself a big, juicy puzzlefest, Finding Martin is cause for 
celebration. It's several times larger and more complex than anything Infocom 
ever attempted, and it's generally quite well-implemented. I encountered a 
number of glitches in my journey through the game, but they were all minor -- 
typos, missing synonyms, and underimplemented parsing mostly. There are a few 
logic errors here and there, but nothing game-crashing, and in fact very little 
that even caused me any trouble with a puzzle. Moreover, these problem areas are 
a very small percentage of the game itself, and this is a game that implements 
some highly complex behavior. A few errors here and there are quite forgivable 
in a game this ambitious in scope.

As for the puzzles themselves, the news is again mostly good. Most of the 
challenges are logical, and some are quite clever indeed. In particular, there's 
a puzzle (or maybe it would be more accurate to call it a suite of puzzles) 
toward the end of the game that is astoundingly intricate and deeply satisfying, 
the kind of a puzzle that would make up the entirety of another game. It's a 
time-travel scenario that takes the groundwork laid by Sorcerer and expands it 
by an order of magnitude, asking you to consider the relations between a number 
of different time-slices as well as to coordinate the actions of multiple past 
selves with the actions of your current self in order to bypass certain 
barriers. However, well before you reach that puzzle you'll have made your way 
through a large number of obstacles that should scratch any inveterate puzzler's 
itch.

Not only that, the puzzles frequently build on each other, and most of the goals 
require several components to achieve. Finding Martin's world can feel 
astonishingly layered and convoluted. I frequently found that the discovery of a 
new item or command would add new dimensions to the pieces of the game I'd 
already uncovered, and that their interactions would open up new avenues for 
exploration. Of course, the flip side to this is that such a discovery would 
often compel me to explore the game's giant world yet again, trying the new key 
to see if it would unlock any heretofore unseen doors. At time, the gameworld 
feels like an obsessive-compulsive's paradise, but at least most of the 
interactions seem logical once they've been found.

Unfortunately, not all the puzzles manage to meet the same high standards. There 
are a number of read-the-author's-mind stumpers spread throughout the game. Some 
of these just require induction stretched absurdly far, but for several others I 
still have no idea how I was supposed to come up with the solution. There's 
another category, too: puzzles whose solution required some kind of cultural 
referent which I lacked, a la Zork II's baseball puzzle. Finding Martin's 
pedigree consists mostly of geek lore like Monty Python and Douglas Adams, and
that stuff I've got covered, but a couple of puzzles require knowledge of Asian 
customs that I only learned from the walkthrough.

On the flip side of read-the-author's-mind are "puzzles" whose solution is 
entirely arbitrary but so heavily clued that the game pretty much just tells you 
what it is. Imagine a dark room with a description along these lines: "It's 
impossible to see anything in this room -- this must be what a cinnamon roll 
feels like when it's in the oven!" And lo and behold, you just happen to find a 
cinnamon roll later in the game, so when you bring it into the dark room and eat 
it, the cinnamon-oriented olfactory sensors in the walls detect it and turn on 
the lights, just as they've been programmed to do by the house's exceedingly 
eccentric and patient owner. That example isn't from the game, but there are 
several puzzles in there that are cut from the same cloth.

The substandard puzzles are a minority, and they certainly aren't enough to ruin 
the game, but my advice is: don't be afraid to bust out the walkthrough. Yes, 
sometimes you may find that a perfectly logical solution was staring you in the 
face, but other times you'll be relieved to just take the rather farfetched 
solution and move on with your life. Happily, the author is kind enough to 
provide a walkthrough on her web page that is broken up into 5-point clusters so 
as not to give away too much at once. However, if I may offer one more piece of 
advice: download the full walkthrough from that page and tuck it away somewhere 
on your hard drive. Otherwise, you may find yourself, as I did, stuck two-thirds
of the way through the game and panicking because the author's site has gone 
down. Luckily for me, the page came back up the next day and I found some cached 
bits on Yahoo in the meantime, but I could have saved a good deal of time and 
stress if I'd just had the full walkthrough to fall back on. 

Finally, take heed of the author's advice in the intro text: save your game a 
LOT. There were quite a number of times I found myself returning to an earlier 
savegame because I was trapped without a necessary item, or I wanted to undo 
something I'd done a bit improperly a few hundred moves earlier. Actually, that 
brings me to one of my chief gripes about Finding Martin: it sets a few 
arbitrary limits, ostensibly in the name of realism but functionally just to 
irritate the player. Chief among these is an inventory limit. Let's face it: 
this is not a game that holds realism particularly dear. Many of its puzzles 
consist of caprice and whimsy, and its entire plot is metaphysical to say the 
least. However, for some reason it decided that the player should only be able
to carry a limited number of objects, and it failed to provide any kind of 
bottomless sack-type object to circumvent this limit. Not only that, there's a 
puzzle component that steals items when they're dropped on the ground. Even more 
confoundingly, commands like PUT ALL ON TABLE are met with the response, "One 
thing at a time, please." And of course, there are many many journeys to pocket 
worlds whose obstacles require that the player has brought a particular item. 
Frequent were the times I cursed at this game for the way it forced me into 
numbingly dull inventory management tasks when I wanted to be having fun 
instead. Also, there are several instances of the game being pointlessly obtuse, 
along these lines:

   >READ BIG BOOK
   First you'd need to open it.

Come on. This is 2006 -- we know by now that READ implies OPEN. Such 
obstructionist world-modeling benefits nobody. 

I'm not sure if responses like this one and the response to PUT ALL are TADS 
default behavior. I do know that I sometimes wished this game had been written 
in Inform, so that I could get certain pieces of the Inform default 
functionality. Besides the lack of a sack_object, I was jonesing hard for an 
OBJECTS verb that would let me see all the items in the game I'd found up to 
that point. Similarly, a FULLSCORE command that told me all the puzzles I'd 
solved so far would have been most welcome, especially given how many times I 
had to restore back to an earlier saved game. Finally, having just played 
Bronze, I really missed conveniences like GO TO that allow me to traverse the 
game world without rattling off memorized directions to the parser. 

Okay, I've been complaining for a while, which makes it sound like I didn't 
enjoy the game. That's not true -- overall I had plenty of fun. It's just a 
similar feeling to what I had when playing Once And Future, another enormous 
old-school puzzlefest. Like OAF, Finding Martin provides lots of opportunities 
to feel that satisfying *click* as logical components snap together, but forces 
a little too much tedium on the player after that click has happened. It's the 
figuring-out that's the fun part of a puzzle, not the follow-through of putting 
twenty pieces in just the right place once you know where they're supposed to 
go. Several of this game's puzzles would have been much more fun if they'd 
provided some way of automating that follow-through once the player has 
demonstrated understanding of the basic concept. 

Enough about the puzzles anyway. What about the story? Well, actually, the story 
is pretty much MIA for the first third or so of the game. We begin with a 
reasonably compelling premise: your brilliant but peculiar friend Martin has 
disappeared, and his family has asked you to explore his house in hopes of 
finding him. Why you and not, say, the police? Well, it seems that you may just 
be close enough to Martin's highly bizarre mindset to understand how to find him 
when the police wouldn't even be able to get in the door. Strong echoes of 
Hollywood Hijinx abound as you poke through rooms laden with fascinating devices 
and hidden exits, but there's not much more story to be had for a while. 
Finally, the game begins doling out plot in awkward lumps, but about two-thirds 
of the way through, these lumps smooth out and the story begins to tie together 
as more and more interconnections between Martin's family and friends, as well 
as his past, present, and future, reveal themselves. By the time I was rolling 
toward the endgame, I had felt genuinely moved several times. In fact, a couple 
of times Finding Martin hits a real IF sweet spot, where the solution to a 
puzzle not only advances the story but carries strong emotional content about 
the PC's role in the other characters' lives. I recall one moment in particular 
that gave me goosebumps, as I figured out how something I had done in a past 
time-travel scenario had affected the future, and how someone in that past had 
sent a message forward in time to me.

Remember how I mentioned the game's geeky pedigree? There are a number of 
references woven throughout the story that are pulled straight from the geek 
handbook: Star Trek meets Hitchhiker's meets Tolkien. Some of these made me 
smile, and some made me squirm. At times I felt like saying, "Yes, yes, I get 
it. You like Monty Python." Also, the writing around these references can 
sometimes feel a bit flat and ingratiating, as when the PC encounters a used 
paperback:

   >x novel
   It's a book by Douglas Adams, entitled "So Long and Thanks for All
   the Fish". Apparently this is the fourth book in the "Hitchhiker's
   Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy. It occurs to you that publishing the
   fourth book of a trilogy must be the toungue-in-cheek behavior of
   someone with a fantastic imagination and an audacious taste for the
   bizarre.

Ho ho ho. Nothing like belaboring that "fourth book in the trilogy" joke. I get 
it -- you like Douglas Adams. Also, "tongue".

Aside from that, though, the writing worked well. Most of the time it was 
transparent, but there were some clever twists and turns throughout, as well as 
a few good jokes. Having finished this game at last, and finally found Martin, I 
have to express my admiration. It must have been an unbelievable amount of work 
to put together a game of this size and scope, and for the most part it's done 
really well. If you're hungry for puzzles, Finding Martin should keep you fed 
for several weeks. Even if you're not a puzzler, grab a walkthrough and explore 
this game -- there are pleasures here for many tastes.

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From: Gemma Bristow (gemma SP@G helical-library.net)

TITLE: Ghost Train
AUTHOR: Paul T. Johnson
EMAIL: paul SP@G wolfman.co.uk
DATE: 2003
PARSER: Inform 6
SUPPORTS: Z-code (Inform .Z8) interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive
URL: http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/ghost.z8
VERSION: Release 6

There's inherent drama in trains, hence their frequent use as a setting for 
thrillers. Trains move to an insistent rhythm which reminds of the passing of 
time. They go speeding through dark tunnels and over rickety bridges. They don't 
stop at the protagonist's convenience. And then there's the romance of the 
railway in the pre-WW2 era: the trail of steam, the velvet seats and polished 
fittings of the carriages. This is the world of Ghost Train, a flawed but 
interesting horror tale that exploits all of these elements.

It's Christmas Eve, 1935. The PC is a young man travelling by train through 
southern England, accompanied by a female friend, to spend the holiday with his 
family. The journey is interrupted by a terrible accident that derails the 
train. The PC, seemingly the only survivor, is left to stagger along the track 
looking for aid. However, he is soon found by a story involving a mysterious 
signalman, a hidden station and an ancient curse, and it becomes apparent that 
his friend has met with a fate stranger than death.

The first half of the gameplay flows smoothly. The player is guided through the 
actions necessary to advance the plot without feeling figuratively (as well as 
literally) on rails. Puzzles are fairly straightforward, and one of the game's 
many atmospheric objects doubles as a hint system during a particularly risky 
scene. In the second half, things unravel a bit. One scene can trap the PC in a 
location, unable to move or do anything unless they ask an NPC about a specific 
topic; hard to intuit when the NPC delivers a stock response to most other 
subjects. Then there are a couple of puzzles in the endgame that had me 
scrambling for a walkthrough. One involved manipulating a piece of machinery 
that, as it turned out, couldn't be manipulated in the manner I tried because it 
was already at its physical limit. Unfortunately, the resulting message from the 
game didn't indicate this physical property of the mechanism. Instead, it was a 
non-committal refusal which suggested, misleadingly, that the mechanism wasn't 
the solution to the problem. Better playtesting might have caught these trouble 
spots.

The game's writing would also have benefited from a good beta, since it's marred 
by punctuation errors and some clunky sentence structure, as well as a sometimes 
unconvincing tone when narrating action. The opening scene is unfortunately one 
of the more poorly written. However, the prose overall is suitably atmospheric, 
and it's in atmosphere that the game succeeds most strongly. The events that 
first introduce the supernatural, judiciously placed within the storyline, are 
genuinely eerie. The author makes good use of scenery objects and colours. One 
sequence in particular, in which the PC walks through a series of railway 
carriages equipped with graduated, symbolic decor, has a strong visual charge. 
The non-visual senses are also catered for, with frequent mention of ambient 
sounds heard by the PC as well as the pervasive cold of the December night. A 
more subtle effect is the way in which the game employs one potent aspect of the 
train as an image: that of a journey whose final destination is set and whose 
course cannot be altered. Where the atmosphere falters, it is due to the game 
attempting something more graphic. A literal figure of doom that appears in 
later portions of the game is less dramatically successful than the intangible 
menace of earlier parts.

Ghost Train is worth a ride for players who are in the mood to be unsettled. 
Some of its images do linger in the mind. If the opening and closing segments 
are the weakest parts of the game, at least it can claim with some relevance 
that the adventure is in the journey.

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From: Paul O'Brian (obrian SP@G colorado.edu)

TITLE: Glass
AUTHOR: Emily Short
EMAIL: emshort SP@G mindspring.com
DATE: April 30, 2006
PARSER: Inform 7
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: freeware; Inform 7 web page
URL: http://inform-fiction.org/I7Downloads/Examples/glass/
VERSION: Release 1

I've barely begun to explore the capabilities of Inform 7 (I7), partly because 
its appearance has rekindled my interest in actually *playing* IF. In that vein, 
I continue to explore the games that were released with I7 as "Worked Examples". 
Having made my way through Bronze, Emily Short's adaptation of Beauty And The 
Beast, I came next to Glass, in which she similarly adapts Cinderella. Actually, 
perhaps "similarly" isn't the right word here -- where Bronze was all about 
landscape and puzzles, Glass resides on the other side of the spectrum, focusing
entirely on character and conversation. There are other differences, too. 
Although both works are meant primarily as example I7 code, Bronze feels like a 
full-fledged game, while Glass plays much more like a demo, or perhaps an 
experimental comp entry. That isn't to say that there aren't interesting ideas 
embedded in Glass -- there are, and I plan to discuss them -- but the experience 
of playing it feels altogether more slight than solving Bronze. Not only is it 
simply a smaller game, it also demands less interaction from the player;
"Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z.Z" is a valid walkthrough, though perhaps not to the 
best ending. 

Those endings are important. Like some other short replay-cycle games, Glass 
layers on story elements by making less-than-optimal endings the most easily 
reachable. There aren't a terribly large number of endings (another factor 
making the game feel a bit thin), but it's unlikely that most players will reach 
the best ending first. Along the way, they'll learn more about the motivations 
of each character, and in fact more about some hidden details of the game's main 
scene. This information in turn adds meaning to the rest of the paths to be 
found in the game. It's a variation on the "accretive PC" model of knowledge I 
discussed in my review of Lock & Key on IF-Review. The difference is that the 
news gained through these sub-optimal endings doesn't so much help the player
better direct the PC or better solve the game, but it does lend additional drama 
to the other branches of the story. I suppose this game gives us accretive NPCs 
more than an accretive PC.

However, there are some tricks at work with PC knowledge, too. The player/PC 
knowledge divide is one of the thornier fundamental problems of IF -- a player 
new to the game will almost inevitably know less about the character and 
game-world than the PC does, and both the game and the player often start out by 
scrambling to narrow the gap. There are some workarounds for this, amnesia being 
the more traditional and popular, while accretive PCs are a more recent 
innovation. Glass has found another: base your game on a story with which the 
vast majority of your audience is already familiar. Bronze was an imaginative 
variation on Beauty and The Beast, but it neither shed a great deal of light on 
the original tale nor did it require much information about that tale from the 
player. Our familiarity with the base story helps us get up to speed on who the 
PC is, but it isn't otherwise exploited. However, in Glass, the player *must* 
bring to bear knowledge from outside the game in order to reach the best ending. 
For anyone familiar with most any version the fairy tale, this gambit should 
work well, though perhaps not right away. Still, it's an ingenious way of 
bridging the information gap between player and PC -- I'm surprised we haven't 
seen more of this strategy before. I suppose there are only a limited number of 
stories with which authors can assume widespread audience familiarity, and an 
even smaller number of those that aren't still under copyright.

With this bridge in place, then, Glass is free to disconcert us a bit as well. 
For one thing, the player character has some rather surprising qualities (and 
that's all I'll say...), which are left for players to discover rather than 
being announced upfront. Not only that, the game's take on the Cinderella tale 
is less than traditional. In keeping with many modern treatments of fairy tales, 
its approach to the story's villains is a little more sympathetic, and its 
portrayal of the heroes is a little more ambivalent. I would have expected Emily 
Short to bring some subversive ideas to any fairy tale she touched, and she 
doesn't disappoint here. 

One more note: in the article I wrote for the long-awaited IF Theory book, I 
mentioned that it was hard for me to imagine how the basic component of 
landscape could be extracted from interactive fiction, since as soon as the 
first room description appears, the game introduces a concept of geographical 
location. Well, Glass is the game that breaks that model -- it has no room 
descriptions whatsoever. That doesn't mean it's without a landscape, though. 
It's just that instead of presenting a landscape of Place, Glass instead gives 
us a landscape of Concept. The NPCs traverse a conversational terrain with 
particular goals in mind, and at every prompt the PC can try to steer that 
travel to influence its destination. It's a compact territory, but well worth 
exploring. 

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From: Michael Martin (mcmartin SP@G gmail.com)

TITLE: OMNIQuest
AUTHOR: Chris Barden and Chris Ethridge
EMAIL: Unknown
DATE: March 26, 2006 
PARSER: Inform 6
SUPPORTS: Z-Code interpreters
AVAILABILITY: IF Archive
URL: http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/omniquest.z5
VERSION: Release 2

This is a port of a 1988 game written in Commodore BASIC, and it shows most of 
the characteristics of the old school as a result: no real intro, puzzles that 
need to be solved because they're there, and a sizable, if inconsistent and 
sparsely implemented map.  This was also a reimplementation, not a direct port, 
so the parser is full Inform standard.  As such, it really needs to be evaluated 
at two levels at once; as an old game, and as an Inform game.

As a game, taken on its own terms, it's not that bad.  The map is well-designed, 
though there's some illogic (most notably a thoroughly modern intrusion into a 
supposedly ancient cave in an abandoned ruin). Its cruelty rating is "Nasty", 
and is actually the first game I've seen that operated at that level instead of 
one of the extremes. Despite this, I actually only ran into a single situation 
where I wound up actually locking myself out of victory without being able to
UNDO my way out of mistakes.  Not only is it obvious you've done something 
irrevocable in OMNIQuest, it's also generally obvious that it was a mistake.

One puzzle that I saw has an alternate solution.  However, I wouldn't have 
worked the solution out had I not hit the source code (or looked at the object 
tree, given that debugging verbs were not disabled in the binary release).

As an Inform port, it's sort of interesting in that it is the most deeply 
implemented sparse game I've seen.  That is to say, almost nothing is actually 
interactive, and the descriptions that actually are implemented are perfunctory 
at best.  Nevertheless, every first-level noun is implemented.  It's just that 
it's implemented as "You see nothing special about the [noun]."  Flipping 
through the source code, I found that each of these props was given its own
object, as well, so some effort put into descriptions would put this at the 
complexity and depth one would usually expect of a competent comp-sized puzzle 
game.

There's also a lot of excitement and circle-of-personal-friends in-jokes in it 
which I am guessing were ported directly from the 1988 CBM BASIC version.  These 
feel a bit jarring when compared to the rest of the IF-Archive, and would 
probably do well with being removed.

In summary: I rolled my eyes a few times while I was playing it, but I did play 
it through and enjoyed it.  If you can deal with the excesses and the omissions 
of late-80s hobby games, this is worth playing.  A hypothetical Release 3 that 
removes the excited-high-schooler bits and actually expands the scenery to 
include descriptions (and possibly some additional interactions) would be 
recommendable with no reservations whatsoever.

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From: Mike Harris (M.Harris SP@G spi-bpo.com)

TITLE: Swineback Ridge
AUTHOR: Eric Eve
EMAIL: eric.eve SP@G hmc.ox.ac.uk
DATE: May 8, 2006
PARSER: Inform 6
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF-Archive
URL: http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/Swineback.z5
VERSION: Release 1

Eric Eve described Swineback Ridge as ďa fairly easy, slightly tongue-in-cheek 
game that should provide brief amusement for an occasion when you're looking for 
an IF-Snack rather than an IF-Meal.Ē  Itís a well put together little game, no 
more than a diversion really, with no obvious or glaring bugs and fairly well 
written text.  The puzzles are straightforward and not terribly complicated; 
objects and functions are well implemented and despite its short length and 
relatively small number of locations itís clear that it was no throwaway.

The PC is a general with a sword and worn battle armor, who must defeat an enemy 
encampment across the river, and thatís pretty much all you need to know about a 
slightly hackneyed backstory.  The writing is well done which saves the game 
from clichť Ė ďAs you stoop over him, you recognize General Chorza, your old 
friend and comrade, who was meant to be commanding the army here until your 
arrival.Ē  

That said, such writing and the gameís subtitle - ďA Desperate BattleĒ - is 
somewhat over the top for such a short game which somehow manages not to convey 
any desperation whatsoever.  To be fair, this may be the ďslightly tongue in 
cheekĒ part of the authorís description.  If itís meant to be taken at face 
value, however, extremely limited opportunity to interact with NPCs doubtless 
contributes to this lack of a sense of urgency, as does a lack of progression or 
ďtime passingĒ based on number of moves, which I half expected based on the 
premise and subtitle.  Nothing changes in the enemy camp except in reaction to 
the PCs actions.

I can only speculate at the authorís intent but the game as it stands gives the 
impression Ė in its writing at least - that itís a part of a much larger game 
yet to be fleshed out.   The simplicity of the puzzles is slightly disappointing 
and somehow unsatisfying given such florid verbiage.

All in all, Swineback Ridge isnít a bad way to kill an hour or so, but 
ultimately is no more than a simple object-puzzle game with a needlessly complex 
backstory.  On a scale of 1 to 10 I rate it a 3 in difficulty and a 6 overall.

From: Emily Short (emshort SP@G mindspring.com)

Swineback Ridge is described by its author as snack-sized and light-hearted, and 
both of those are accurate. The premise isn't that funny -- you've been sent to 
lead your country's army in a last defense against the invading enemy -- but 
when you consider that this enemy worships the demon-god Malodor, it's hard to 
take the whole situation seriously.

The puzzles are of moderate difficulty, and are quite well-designed: objects are 
reused in inventive ways; physical relationships are described clearly and make 
sense; there's plentiful feedback on partial solutions; all of the props have 
some logical in-game reason to be there. There were perhaps one or two points 
when it wasn't immediately obvious to me what I should try next, and the game is 
perhaps a little less perfect at articulating your goal at a couple of points 
than at prompting you through the puzzles once you've identified them -- but 
then again, I was never stuck for long, so I can't complain too much. Though 
I've seen the game described as Fantasy, there's nothing all that fantastical 
about what you have to do; if your enemies worship a strange deity, well, 
there's no clear evidence that he actually exists. The player's activities are 
non-magical; the puzzles can be solved through the application of real- 
world principles.

There are admittedly a few points where, in order to make sure the player 
doesn't lock himself out of victory, Swineback refuses to allow an action purely 
on the grounds that the action isn't something you want to do at the moment. 
This makes the game easier, but diminishes the sense of immersion just a bit.

This is a minor and perhaps unavoidable blemish on a charming piece, though. 
Swineback Ridge may not be terribly ambitious, but it has a focused story and 
tightly designed puzzles; it is also highly polished, with an adaptive hint menu 
and plenty of responses to unlikely actions. If you're looking for a puzzle game 
that you can play in an hour (or a little less), you'll probably find Swineback  
Ridge quite satisfying.

From: Valentine Kopteltsev (uux SP@G mail.ru)

(Disclaimer: in this review, I express a few rather daring speculations about 
the development process for Swineback Ridge, as well as about the motives behind 
its creation. It goes without saying these speculations are based entirely on my 
own opinion, and all I do describe is nothing other than my personal thoughts 
and impressions of the game; I also would like to apologize to Mr. Eve if they 
have nothing to do with reality.)

By pure coincidence (and it really *was* coincidence -- somehow, I managed to
remain unaware of Swineback Ridge author's name until I looked at the credits
after starting the game) I reviewed another game by Eric Eve, All Hope Abandon, 
not too long ago. This fact undoubtedly left its trace on my impression of 
Swineback Ridge: it was as if Rolls Royce produced a subcompact. And by 
subcompact, I don't even mean a puppet doomed to become a cult object (like the 
new Mini), but a genuine mass consumption product -- pretty much the way 
Japanese cars used to be in the 1970/80s.

Most of the things a reviewer could say about Swineback Ridge are covered in the 
game's own ABOUT section. From there, we can learn that this work was intended 
to a) be an exercise in Inform for its author, and b) provide a few (by my 
estimation, 30 to 60) minutes' amusement. It seems to succeed in both roles: I'm 
quite sure IF-authors having the skill and patience to polish their first 
attempt in an IF development system new to them to such an extent are in vast 
minority, and the game's entertaining value, albeit relatively modest, can't be 
denied, either.

However, speaking objectively, the game's adequacy with the aims and goals set 
by its author doesn't save it from being totally unremarkable. Sure, it'd help 
you to while away an hour or so -- but after a few weeks, you wouldn't remember 
it.

At this point, the reader could ask a completely justified question: so, why did 
I bother writing this review at all? Well, because Swineback Ridge is the 
perfect mass product, or very close to being it. To explain what I mean, let me 
refer to that example with Japanese cars again: they were supposed to transport 
a handful of people together with some luggage from point A to point B -- and 
they'd never let down their owners in doing so. Of course, things like the 
satisfaction of the drivers' ambitions, as well as driving fun were out of 
question -- but they weren't included in the contract, so to speak. 

And that's the case with Swineback Ridge: its author seems to have formulated 
his goals, and then has done everything necessary to reach them -- but not a jot 
more than that. This approach threads the whole game: for instance, there hardly 
is an object in the room descriptions you couldn't examine -- but none of the 
responses are particularly catchy; the puzzles are logical and make perfect 
sense -- but not a single one would evoke an "Aha!" feeling after being 
solved...

In its current state, Swineback Ridge deserves a place in an IF textbook as a
pearl of pragmatic game design. It embodies all aspects needed for a work to be 
of a high technical standard -- methodical pre-planning, consequent 
implementation, and thorough beta-testing -- but nothing beyond. Things that
hasn't been invested into Swineback Ridge at all, or only injected in 
homoeopathic doses, are of the kind one can't learn from a textbook, anyway:
fantasy, spirit, and ambitions (in a good sense). But hey -- they weren't in the 
contract.

SNATS (Score Not Affecting The Scoreboard):

PLOT: Straightforward (1.1)
ATMOSPHERE: The absolutely necessary minimum (1.0)
WRITING: Even and solid (1.2)
GAMEPLAY: Adequate, but nothing striking (1.2)
BONUSES: Thorough implementation (1.2)
TOTAL: 5.7
CHARACTERS: The closest approximation were two corpses (-)
PUZZLES: Well-clued and logical (1.2)
DIFFICULTY: (Intentionally) pretty easy (3 out of 10)
 
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From: Emily Short (emshort SP@G mindspring.com)

TITLE: There's a Snake in the Bathtub
AUTHOR: Edward Griffiths
EMAIL: ?
DATE: 2006
PARSER: Inform 6
SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: http://mirror.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/bathtub.z5
VERSION: Release 1

I came across this game largely by chance: it was announced in the usual "recent 
additions to the archive" post, but I don't think it was mentioned on 
rec.games.int-fiction or otherwise promoted to the community. So it may not have 
gotten much notice.

Mild spoilers about the structure follow; if you want to avoid all contact, stop 
reading now, though I think I would have been glad to know these things, myself.

The premise of the game is exactly as given in the title: you get home from a 
hot sticky day, ready for a nice long soak, only to find that the tub is 
occupied. From there, everything just gets increasingly surreal and out of hand, 
eventually requiring visits to alternative dimensions and so on. "Slice of life" 
this is not.

There are a number of implementation details that add up to make things a bit 
frustrating. There's very little here by way of implicit action handling; 
everything has to be explicitly opened and closed for use, for instance. 
Disambiguation is sometimes inelegant. There is some mild verb guessing, too. 
You'll want to read the list of understood verbs (type HELP at the outset of the 
game), but even then, there is one important command where ATTACH FOO TO BAR 
works, but ATTACH BAR TO FOO gives a generic failure message, and it's not clear 
what's gone wrong. Moreover, there are inventory limits, and they do get in the 
way. A hint system is provided, but it doesn't cover nearly everything one might 
want hints about, and in most cases it only told me the things about the puzzle 
that I'd already worked out myself: my notes say "More of a taunt system than a 
hint system." Well, I was feeling cranky.

There are also lots of low-level immersion-breakers (or possibly bugs): for 
instance, you can fill a bathtub with water, but this doesn't seem to affect the 
other contents of the bathtub in some of the ways you might expect. Sometimes 
it's possible to interact with creatures or objects even though they are 
technically untouchable at the moment. An action that broke an inventory item 
produced the change only some of the time, and I wasn't able to figure out why  
(though this turned out not to be game-critical). Likewise, many sensible 
actions aren't dealt with; you're not allowed to throw things at a certain 
object, even though that would be my first approach if I were in the same 
situation.

Worst of all, there is an absolutely fiendish 100-move time limit on the whole 
game. I replayed and replayed, trying to optimize, but without any luck. I was 
only able to finish the game when -- quite belatedly -- I realized there was 
actually a way to disable the limit entirely. It might not hurt to have further 
hinting in the game about that possibility.

For all that, "There's a Snake in the Bathtub" is not without charm. Much of the 
game revolves around defeating various malevolent figures, and it is generally 
quite rewarding when you finally succeed; in this respect the snake reminded me 
a little of the lobster in "Gourmet". Many of the descriptions and events are 
fairly entertaining, and there's pleasure in the sheer absurdity of many of the 
solutions. I have less to say about this than I do about the game's flaws, 
because enumerating all the funny moments would ruin them -- but I did find 
enough here to keep me playing despite the detractions listed.

In the end, then, this is an exuberant, slightly old-fashioned puzzle-fest, 
probably taking several hours to play without outside help. Some of those hours 
will be spent retracing your steps. Players in the mood for that kind of 
experience will enjoy this piece. Those looking for a strong story or a deeply 
implemented setting would be best advised to look elsewhere. "There's a Snake in 
the Bathtub" is not for the impatient -- though if you find yourself replaying  
endlessly to make that 100-move deadline, do consider ways to make the deadline 
go away.

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From: Jimmy Maher (maher SP@G grandecom.net)

TITLE: Voices of Spoon River
AUTHOR: Creative Learning Environments Lab at Utah State University
EMAIL: brett.shelton SP@G usu.edu
DATE: June, 2006
PARSER: Inform 6
SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters
AVAILABILITY: Freeware
URL: http://cle.usu.edu/VOSR_r1.22a.zip
VERSION: Release 1

Voices of Spoon River was developed by a group of graduate students studying 
instructional game theory at Utah State University.  Its purpose is to 
illuminate a minor classic of American literature, Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon 
River Anthology.  Before discussing the IF work, perhaps we should talk briefly 
about the book on which it is based.

First published in 1915, Spoon River Anthology is a collection of over 200 short 
poems.  Each is written in the form of a first-person epitaph, describing a 
citizen of the small Midwestern town of Spoon River.  The stories these citizens 
tell about their lives are not, with only the occasional exception, uplifting, 
as Masters digs deep beneath the surface of small-town middle American life 
to reveal the quiet desperation in which even the upstanding and successful 
live.  Although each can stand alone, the poems form a web of interrelationships 
to be puzzled out by the reader.  Thus we see hopelessly dysfunctional marriages 
from the standpoint of both spouses and sometimes the husband's other woman, and 
hear from both a criminal and the judge who put him away.  The poetry is frankly 
not very good, but the stories told are often compelling, and piecing together 
the various plotlines of the town from fragments of testimony is fascinating.  
Equally approachable in any order the reader chooses, these poems would make a 
fertile subject of study for students of non-linear, multi-formal literature 
even if the Spoon River IF work had never been created.  But what of that work?

Voices of Spoon River begins about where one might expect it to, in the middle 
of the Spoon River graveyard.  All around are tombstones bearing Masters' poetic 
epitaphs.  The player soon learns that she has a task to perform.  She must 
restore peace to these lost souls by performing various actions that will 
reconcile them to their fates.  To do this, of course, she must first determine 
just what, or in many cases who, is disturbing their rest.  Here enters the 
didactic focus of the work in earnest, for in order to solve the game the player 
must grapple fairly intimately with the literary world Masters has created.

It is quite a clever conceit, actually, and it works quite well.  At its best,  
Spoon River gives the feeling of actually getting inside a work of literature 
and exploring in a way I have seldom if ever experienced before.  One could, 
however, argue that the IF work is not really true thematically to the original 
work it purports to celebrate.  After all, much of the power of Masters' poems 
arises from the pathetic futility of all these broken, unsatisfied lives.  The 
game, though, undermines that by giving the player the opportunity to tack happy 
endings of sorts on top of Masters' miniature tragedies, even though the very 
lack of tidy resolutions like these is sort of the point of Masters' work.  For 
Spoon River to work as a game, though, perhaps this conceit is necessary.

Once she determines what needs to be done to satisfy each lost soul, the player 
will find some simple puzzles to solve to actually accomplish each good deed.  
None are particularly creative -- indeed, you will probably not remember the 
details of a single one five minutes after solving the game -- but, thankfully, 
none are obscure or unfair.  Working out what needs to be done and then solving 
the necessary puzzles together give a nice glow of accomplishment that keeps the 
player moving through the game, and that is more than enough.  Complicated brain 
twisters are just not what this one is about.

Spoon River's geography is fairly expansive by modern standards.  In addition to 
the graveyard of lost souls, the player will also explore the deserted town of 
Spoon River itself, full of locations offering further insight into Masters' 
characters.  Of course, one could ask just why the town is deserted.  Where are 
the descendants of those in the graveyard?  Still, the emptiness suits the 
haunted, dreamlike nature of the work, so we will allow it its artistic license.

Although implemented widely, Spoon River is not implemented very deeply.  
Scenery is generally non-manipulatible, and character interaction with the 
ghosts is rudimentary at best.  It does not really matter, though.  The 
implementation is generally good enough to accomplish the game's goals, and the 
player is never left at a loss for how to phrase a command or converse with 
others.  The game's non-Masters derived prose is similarly workmanlike, being 
competent but uninspired.  On the other hand, Masters' poetic skills are far 
from his greatest strength, and thus the game's prose and Masters' poetry do not 
clash horribly at all.  One could even attribute to the whole a certain 
rough-hewn charm.

More disconcerting is the game's lack of overall polish.  It claims that there 
are 100 points available to be scored, but I saw no way of reaching even 70.  
Typos are not overwhelming, but they are there.  Worst of all is the game's 
ending, which seems hopelessly bugged.  A secret, "bonus" area is apparently 
supposed to open up once the player has put all of the souls at peace, but this 
does not happen.  Luckily, another bug means that the player can enter this area 
at any time, even on the first move of the game, so one need not miss anything.  
Still, I hope that a cleaned-up, bug-fixed release will be forthcoming at some 
point, as the game is definitely worth it.

My biggest disappointment with Spoon River is that there is not more of it.  
Only a dozen or so of Masters' 200-plus stories are told here.  It is not a 
particularly small game by modern standards, and will probably give the careful 
player a good two or three hours of enjoyment, but I wanted to spend even more 
time in its, and Masters', world.  That is perhaps the best compliment I can pay 
to it.  I hope we will see more IF like it in the future, and encourage 
educators everywhere to give it a serious look for possible classroom use, 
particularly if some of its rough edges get a bit of polishing sometime soon.  


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