is copyright (c) 2009 by Jimmy Maher.
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Bad Grenade Launcher: Seven Easy Steps
to Writing Bad Item Descriptions
Puzzle That Won't Go Away
by Harry Kaplan
Thing 2009 Reviews:
A Flustered Duck
The Milk of Paradise
Realm of Obsidian
Game Reviews: Dead Like Ants GDC: The Game Inside Woman Lydia's Heart Make It Good La SeineSPAG Specifics Alabaster
with the release of this latest issue of SPAG I am also releasing my
first serious work of IF, The King of Shreds and
It's an ambitious game, one that has taken some two years of
semi-steady work to complete. The project has taught me a great deal,
and even changed my attitude toward IF as a reviewer. I tend to be a
bit more forgiving of bugs and other shortcomings now, because more
than anything I've learned just how
IF development actually is. In fact, I'm a bit shocked that anyone ever
manages to complete a thoroughly polished game at all when I consider
the amount of labor involved. It takes real love of the form and real
artistic commitment to see even a modest IF project through to
Of course the act of creation is rewarding and
exciting in itself. The creation of a functioning little storyworld on
the computer holds a fascination for me and I suspect many of you. For
my own part, though, I found these rewards to be rather front-loaded
toward the beginning of the project. I "finished" my game as far as
having a completed, playable story way back in the first week of
December of last year. Since then, it's been round after round of
testing and polishing. The first few times I got to read through a
transcript of someone else actually inhabiting this storyworld that had
seemed like my private domain for so long were very exciting. Just to
see what they would type, how they would react, was wonderful. By the
fourth of fifth time, though, boredom had begun to set in, and the slog
through each transcript began to feel like work -- and the most
tedious, drudging kind of work at that. Of course, my game is a large
one, meaning that each tester's completed transcript was on the order
of 1MB of ASCII text. I'm sure this amplified the problem for me, but I
nevertheless think most authors would agree that the testing process is
generally Not Fun. Its frustrations are further exacerbated by the
fact that it comes at the end of the development process, when
enthusiasm is perhaps beginning to flag anyway. It's thus not terribly
surprising -- not acceptable, mind you, but not surprising -- that so
many buggy and otherwise unpolished games appear each year. There were
plenty of times during my testing when I just wanted to say, "okay,
that's good enough, I can't take this anymore." As a matter of fact,
and despite employing ten testers, there is still a voice in
head that wonders whether I shouldn't have recruited one or two more
just to go through it one
You folks will ultimately be the jury on that; I just know that I'm not
up to yet another round of transcript-diving through all my deathless
Some of my frustrations (not to mention my extended
development time) are down to my own inexperience as an IF author.
About eight months into the project, I decided that the design I had
come up with was entirely too linear and simply wouldn't do -- so I
essentially started over from scratch, copying prose and code in from
my old source where it would serve and writing anew where it would not.
Other stupid mistakes did not turn up until the testing phase. Most
embarrassingly, in spite of all my vaunted historical research on
Elizabethan London I had the Thames flowing
wrong way, and further had made that critical to a whole section of the
game. Such problems largely arose from working without a net. I thought
I could use the Call of
adventure on which I based my plot as a substitute for a real design
plan. Not so much, I learned to my frustration. Other problems arose
from my knowing how I play IF but not knowing how others do. For
instance, I never use pronouns. One of my testers, though, had a
positive love for the things, and thus demonstrated to me that my game
tended to associate pronouns with wrong or flatout bizarre nouns more
often than not. I learned that the "Use manual pronouns" directive in
combination with "Have the parser notice..." can be a
of what my testers discovered, though, I can't lay quite so neatly at
the feet of my own stupidity. I've always been a huge proponent of the
parser as essential to the IF experience, but I find my attitude
changed a bit by the experience of actually authoring a game of my own.
The number of ways to phrase some of the more complex actions in my
game is staggering, and I felt myself obligated to support all of them.
Doing so absorbed many hours of my time. Likewise, I've always
supported -- nay, demanded -- that IF authors implement their scenery
as deeply as possible. Realizing that you now have to implement a
separate object and description for that wainscoting you idly
decided to mention as surrounding that door, though, can change your
perspective on the issue a bit. In the end, I still labored mightily to
make the parser understand as much as possible, and I still implemented
as many of those bits of scenery as I could, but none of this is
exactly rewarding creative labor. I now wonder if there might be a
better way, a way to simplify the job of the IF author.
I find Aaron Reed's recent Blue
interesting as a possible way toward just this. That game, as you
probably remember, highlighted all important objects in its text. Aaron
didn't go so far as to only implement these objects, but I wonder if I
should think about doing just that in my next project. I am even
considering, again partially inspired by Blue Lacuna
facility to simply type the name of an object to interact with it in
the most natural way, whether putting some constraints on the player's
interactions would really be such a bad thing. Even considering such a
step is a major shift in perspective for a parser evangelist like
myself, but I do kind of wonder whether we should be considering ways
of making IF authorship easier in the same way that we are trying (with
some success, I think) to make IF playing easier. Perhaps the two even
go hand in hand? I don't advocate less ambitious IF at all -- I want to
see as many big, ambitious IF epics as people can pump out. I just
wonder what we might get if authors could spend less time on crazy
verb-noun combinations and more on the important
aspects of their storyworlds. For more story-focused, literary IF in
particular, would we prefer our authors spend their time making it
possible to look behind every object in their storyworld or would we
rather they use that time and energy into making, say, their NPC's even
more lifelike and responsive?
of these thoughts are, as you've probably gather by now, a bit
half-formed at the moment. When I begin my next IF project -- and there
will be a next; in spite of my complaints developing The King of Shreds and Patches
was on the whole a hugely rewarding experience -- I'm going to think
seriously about what I can do to simplify the process for myself that
will not impact my players' experience much if at all. In the meantime,
I'm very proud of this first game of mine, and hope it goes over well
not only within the community but outside of it. I'll be putting in
considerable outreach efforts in the hopes of that.
Oh, and I hope
you enjoy this latest SPAG, which features a nice round-up of
thoughtful and much-appreciated reviews from some usual and some
unusual suspects, as well as a couple of very fun articles. See you
Back to Table of Contents
A New Career in a
friendly SPAG editor is relocating the operations of the thriving media
juggernaut that is SPAG Magazine from Dallas, Texas, to Aalborg,
Denmark. This means, amongst other more jarring life changes, that my
email address is changing. You can now reach me at email@example.com
for all your SPAG-related needs. The old address will continue to
auto-forward to the new for a while -- but only a very little while, so
update those address books, folks.
Adventure Classic Gaming
Interview about IF History
Continuing the All About Me theme that seems to be developing here: the
has just published quite a lengthy
interview which Harry Kaplan conducted with me on the history of IF.
Textfyre Goes Live
David Cornelson's commercial venture that aims to bring IF to the young
adult fiction market, has just released its first game: Jack Toresal and the Secret
, by Michael Gentry of Anchorhead
fame. The price for online access to the game via Microsoft
Silverlight-equipped web browsers is $24.95. An online demo is also
available, and less-fancy version for those who cannot play (or do not
like) the Silverlight version is on the way.
Inform 7 Build 5Z71
newest version of Inform 7 is here, with the usual litany of
corrections and improvements from the tireless Inform 7 team. Also
online is a snazzy new website to host it.
Cook is putting together via Google Groups a TADS 3 study workshop for
people interested in learning that insanely powerful but equally
complex language. A specific topic will be the focus each week, but
other questions and off-topic discussion are always also allowed. The
group will be kept private (thus allowing free discussion of works in
progress, etc.), but anyone is allowed to join.
The Bryant Collection
In case you haven't figured it out yet: the backstory behind Gregory
Weir's recent game The
is a complete fabrication. The game
itself, however, is not, and does in fact look well worth playing.
think we can all agree that anything that makes it easier for authors
to get their games properly tested is an unequivocal good thing. In
that spirit, Juhana Leinonen has put together a website designed to
bring IF authors together with players willing to test their work.
creator of Guncho, an online multiplayer IF development system based on
Inform 7, is holding a competition for new so-called Guncho "realms."
If you can program at the speed of light, you might still get an entry
together in time for the August 6 deadline; if not, you can still vote
on the entries with the rest of us.
Inform 7 Handbook
Aikin has authored a new manual for Inform 7 designed to introduce the
system in a more accessible way than the thorough but scattered
Back to Table of
Grenade Launcher: Seven Easy Steps to Writing Bad Item Descriptions
Trying to write
rules on how to
craft good writing always ends up so contentious, so let’s take an
Let’s say I
want to make a game
with, I dunno, a grenade launcher in it (because it’s in the title,
might ask, “What could
I do to describe it badly?”
Well, don’t worry guys.
a pro at this one.
follow these seven simple rules…
Rule #1: Avoid
writing descriptions if at all possible.
There’s nothing better than “You
see nothing special about the grenade launcher.”
Why else would “you see nothing special” be
can’t top it.
Except, of course, by dodging item
advice is to never create the object.
You’re already done if you never start.
Rule #2: Repeat
information already given in room descriptions.
If possible, give no other
information other than that.
should your player expect that commands like “look” or “examine” to be
time, they might as
well just type “wait.”
It’s not like looking at anything
is going to tell you about any of the important stuff in the story,
PC’s attitudes or conditions of life and/or production in the gameworld
from a larger
context… that kinda stuff all comes from the room descriptions, and if
there, then the player’s just missed out is all.
Make no mistake— descriptions are a player’s
problem, and not a writer’s, so you shouldn’t be bothered with it.
Just omit those pesky
things when you
players are worried about
having lost a turn for it, that’s what “undo” is for.
You should omit all the other
senses, for that matter.
will tell you they liven up a game, but this is just a myth.
It’s all text, so
obviously it doesn’t matter
how many senses you try to bring into it.
Even if your room descriptions says
the grenade launcher smells like brimstone and sounds like it might
ticking bomb stuck inside it, your game still ought to report “That
normal” and “You hear nothing out of the ordinary.”
I can’t stress enough that these are defaults
for a reason.
why would you want
to listen to a grenade launcher?
Heck, I’ve gone through my whole
life without listening to a grenade launcher and look how far I’ve
Rule #3: Omit
important aspects of the object.
Especially true when it leaves the
player clueless about how to interact with an object.
Players love playing guess-the-verb.
That’s why old skool IF is so popular,
be playing IF if they
just such a pervasive and necessary part
of the whole format— just think, would anyone play Tekken
if they didn’t love button-mashing?
I don’t think so.
you’re only doing your players a
making your game more fun
descriptions shouldn’t include anything like about how you can use your
launcher to “shoot” or “blow up” something or about how it can switch
mode” (y’know, for melee combat).
Players can guess all this.
don’t bother including any kind of stupid glossary or verb list—
learned the hard way that no-one looks at those because they’re just
of words that confuse people. If
really wanted that they’d be reading a dictionary, not playing IF. People need to figure out
your game’s verbiage
and syntax and all that stuff on their own, otherwise you ruin all the surprise.
think we all know surprise is the
best element any game-writer has in their arsenal.
don’t mention that if you shoot a grenade launcher in melee you blow
over. The player
will have to find that
out on their own— that just makes the experience accretive. See?
You’re a better author already.
they can just always look “chainsaw mode” up in your walkthrough. I mean, who plays without
a walkthrough? You’re
better off making a good walkthrough
than a good game, really.
Rule #4: Write about
I know I just said surprise is your
best weapon, but okay, let’s face it.
1) You can only surprise your
players if everything around them is totally ordinary.
People can’t get surprised if there’s a
surprise around every corner— soon they start to suspect everything.
2) If your objects stand out,
people will make fun of your game for being too colourful, and you
This is all without mentioning
it’s too much of a strain on readers’ imaginations to have to think of
other than your everyday grenade launcher.
I mean, they know what a grenade launcher looks like, so
don’t bog them
down trying to get fancy with all these little details.
Just let them assume— and don’t worry because
assume it’s got chainsaw mode
I mean every grenade
launcher I’ve seen has a
it’s always activated
by pressing the green button (the one on the top, not on the side—
Again, this is where default
responses come in.
always use defaults.
Rule #5: Copy your
descriptions from Wikipedia.
Look, item descriptions are a waste
know how I can get that
across to you.
if you’ve just got
to put one in,
why not spare
yourself the trouble and just grab one from Wikipedia?
I mean, everything on there is free, anyway.
And the really good thing about
Wikipedia is that it’s all backed up by articles from experts, so you
information is accurate.
accurate information is all your player needs.
Forget about whether or not the PC would actually know
or even think
the information you put in.
about making it relevant.
it’s right, and you can’t go wrong.
Another variant on this rule is to
use famous quotes that relate to the object at hand.
For example, William Shakespeare once said
something like, “A grenade launcher by any other name is just as
could use that in my game and, bonus,
now William Shakespeare just wrote part of my game.
That makes it cooler by association.
Rule #6: Text dump
Okay, so you want to write.
My doctor says I have that problem, too.
Well, here’s how you can take care of it.
everything you know about grenade launchers.
Write about the history of the grenade launcher. Lecture
recollections about past grenade launchers.
Write about the grenade launcher’s recollections of past
stuff it blew
up (or chainsaw’d).
to the 1mm, red-glowing crack between the muzzle and the bulk of the
Use at least
three words to describe the
shade of green coating that covers the grenade launcher, especially
if you can pack in a simile, metaphor, or hyperbole (the
more the merrier— being figurative only makes you a better writer).
Basically, you should write
whatever you can to take up space on the player’s computer screen.
You see, these
non-interactive parts of the
game are where the story
the best games are ones with well-developed stories, so your game
a lot of time developing it with cutscenes and in-depth exposition,
counter-intuitive, but really
it’s best if the player has to hit enter to continue scrolling the text
least twice to get on with it.
hitting enter is interaction, after all, so even text dumps are an
part of the game, if you think about it.
sometimes there’s no such thing as short and sweet.
When you’ve gotta say it all, quantity is
Rule #7: Just kill
Surprise, as I mentioned, will
always be your greatest weapon as a game-writer.
those old Sierra adventure games.
remember when I’d be playing King’s Quest
XXIV: Dunce is Enough
, and I’d go
click on this rock and then BAM!
Some monster jumps out, no
warning, and smears
me across two screens for no reason.
Don’t you just love it?
can do that in a text adventure, too, and it’ll be just as exciting.
what you read, players actually like dying.
It’s just a fact.
how they learn— and for a game to be good, the player has to feel like
A little dash
of failure’ll do ya—
but all you have to do is just heap it on, it’ll really
Your puzzles will be better for it
in almost every way: they’ll be more dastardly, they’ll cause more hair
and the rewards for your puzzles will be all the sweeter in light of
want to feel
rewarded, so it’s the obvious move.
just human nature.
example, in real
life I once lost a pen between some couch cushions.
But it turns out, I’d also left a wireless
minitoaster down there, so when I reached down there I nearly burned my
index finger clean off.
I ended up in the hospital, but man oh man
did it feel good to get that
Those are just a few simple rules
you can follow to make your game as bad as an eighties biker dude.
Obviously, you really
needn’t bother with
object descriptions and when you do, you might as well just go with the
defaults, but if you must write, then make sure you keep these
guarantee they’ll make you
the next Arthur Winslow, but it’s certainly a start.
Oh, and I totally get dibs on chainsaw
That was my
Back to Table of
The Puzzle That Won't Go Away
by Harry Kaplan
You are standing
in front of a closed door whose lock is
sufficiently old-fashioned to have a keyhole.
Peering inside, you see that the keyhole is completely
blocked, and you
deduce that the key is jammed into the lock on the door’s other side. You need to open the door,
but it is, well,
locked. What to do?
If you have
played either of the IF’s Zork II
or Anchorhead or the graphical
adventure Alone in the Dark 2, or,
according to Michael Gentry, seen the film
City of Lost Children, you will
recently, if you have read
Neil Gaiman’s 2008 Newberry Medal winner The Graveyard Book,
you will be
equally enlightened. Unless
you are in Neil’s
inner circle, odds are that you are hearing this news for the first
strenuous efforts on my part have failed to uncover anywhere on the
single mention of this homage? in-joke? convenient plot device?
Mike did not
need a tip-off from me, as he had read the
book and recognized a kindred puzzle-borrower.
What’s more, of all the places he’s seen it used
(including his own Anchorhead), he
believes that The
Graveyard Book integrates the puzzle most seamlessly and
logically into its
plot. So, Neil, if
you’re listening, you
can add a new prize to your collection of Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker,
and Newberry awards: Best
Use of a Very
Old IF Chestnut.
Back to Table of
Thing 2009 Reviews
I must confess to
disappointed with this year's crop of Spring Thing entries. While
virtually all previous installments (sparsely attended as they have too
often been) have yielded at least one true gem, I had
problems with all of this year's entries. Certainly the best game won
-- no debate there at all from me -- but even that game didn't
particularly inspire me.
Conversely, though, there have been a
surprising number of ambitious, interesting games released outside of
contests this year, some of which are reviewed later in this very
issue. I see this trend as a very positive one.
Back to Table of Contents
| Author Email:
||midiguru23 SP@G sbcglobal.net
||March 31, 2009
||Glulx (Inform 7)
||maher SP@G filfre.net
feeling in beginning
a review of this year's Spring Thing winner is that I have oddly little
to say about it. Perhaps this fact says something about both the game's
strengths (it's polished, proofread, and bug-free) as well as it's
weaknesses (for all that, it's rather unambitious and somehow a bit
A Flustered Duck
is the story of one Elliot the Pig Boy who has not only lost his
employer's prize duck but also lost the engagement ring he was about to
offer to his girlfriend. Worse, said engagement ring has been lost
inside said duck. Extracting the ring without damaging the duck (and
thus Elliot's future Pig Boy career prospects on Granny
farm) presents an obvious conundrum. Before you can tackle that issue,
though, you'll have to locate the duck and lure her back into your
possession. Doing all of that
will require the solving a large number of puzzles, generally of the
wacky LucasArts-style object combination sort.
obviously, Aikin is playing it for laughs here, and it is indeed a cute
game, with a few genuinely chuckle-worthy moments and a general gently
humorous vibe throughout. For all that, though, none of the humor here
is particularly memorable. It feels throughout as if Aikin is
channeling other, better writing found in other, more inspired games --
including, oddly enough, some of his own. Elliot, Granny Grabby,
Suzette (the girlfriend), Bessie the Sow (Elliot's trusty steed), even
the pesky duck herself feel like they've stepped straight out of
central casting, and the game's writing, while polished and
professional throughout, feels oddly like writing for hire. As for the
puzzles and the general gameplay: there are a few noticeably annoying
aspects, especially the game's requirement that you tediously mount,
dismount, and properly tie up Bessie the Sow as you travel across the
fairly expansive map. There is also one puzzle that requires you to
attempt the same action several times in succession to succeed -- never
a good design choice unless very well clued, which it is not here. As such aspects go,
though, A Flustered Duck
is far from the most outrageous offender.
when you get beyond the puzzles and the goofy characters, there's not
much left to talk about. Plot is obviously not this game's focus; nor
is there any innovation going on here. I certainly don't demand that
every game I play be story-focused; nor do I demand that every game
innovate wildly (or at all). My problem with this game is that it
settles for being "pretty good" in all categories, without standing out
in any. I normally try very hard not to bring the personality or
opinions -- or, more accurately, my perceptions thereof -- of
game's author into a review. In this case, though, I can't help but
think of something Jim published a couple of months ago in his blog:
Conversely, IF is not a very suitable medium for exploring
the subtleties of human experience or human encounter. If you want to
write a novel in which Jennifer wrestles, for 250 pages, with whether
to ask Julian for a divorce, IF would be a poor choice. Also,
IF is lousy at pacing; in sustained action sequences such as chases,
the possibilities for meaningful interaction are blunted.
my friends, are some blanket statements indeed. My response is that Jim
may in fact be at least partially right, but we are many years and many
experiments away from being able to say so. As long as we keep settling
for the low-hanging fruit and writing polished but un-taxing games like
A Flustered Duck
how can we know? Jim is one of the finest writers
IF today, one of the few professionals among us. I'd like to see him
give us just a little bit more.
the other hand, I freely admit that humorous cartoon adventures are
not really my favorite genre, and that I've probably played many more
games like this than the average person and am thus rather jaded. And I
know that Jim has recently been teaching the basics of IF authorship to
school-age children, certainly a noble endeavor. If this game was
written to appeal to them (and I can indeed see how it might), all is
Back to Table of
Milk of Paradise
| Author Email:
||March 31, 2009
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||maher SP@G filfre.net
else we can say about this game, it certainly has an idiosyncratic
writing style all its own. Florid doesn't even begin to describe it:
Shall I present to you the fulfillment of your heart's desire? Gaze you
now upon the fine marble quarried from the gut of the earth! Let your
eyes feast upon the pools of vibrant waters, carried by sunless streams
to your domain! My Khan, my lord, if you wish to pass beneath the
balustrades and out into the sunlight meadows why should you not? Can
you not smell the sweet incense that burns so delicately in the
braziers we have hung throughout your perfect dome? Feel the warmth of
the springs upon your face, the coolness of the stone beneath your bare
You can see a silver tray (on which are hot meat dumplings and a goblet
(in which is a mouthful of mulled wine)) here.
O, my Khan, what does it please you to do?
To answer the questions you are probably asking right now: yes, it does
continue in that style through the whole game, and, yes, it does get
pretty annoying pretty quickly. The only saving grace, at least for
those of us not in need of therapy for serious self-esteem issues, is
that it's all over pretty quickly, before mildly annoying turns into
"throw the game against the (figurative) wall" annoying.
guided through a series of railroaded actions, but never given any
feeling of agency over the plot until the end, when everything breaks
down into the all too typical binary choice of endings -- both of which
every single player
course going to view by UNDOing after making their first choice. I
don't feel like I'm spoiling things too egregiously by saying right now
that both endings reveal the game to have all been a dream. More
problematically, the endings relate to one another not at all.
Essentially we wake up to "real" selves vastly different in lifestyle,
location, and possibly even time, based strictly on our reply to a "yes
or no" prompt that seems to relate logically to the final outcome not
As is also distressingly common with more
self-consciously "experimental" works, this game falls down badly
on the level of simple craft. The pool of water appears to have the
magical quality of never actually making anything placed into it wet,
much less damaging anything, including important documents. Examining
corpses results in a description of them as still being in the bloom of
health. As the above quotation illustrates, the Inform 7 library has a
disconcerting habit of undercutting the narrative voice with pedantic
messages of its own.
But still, Mr. Graboff has obviously not written a typical text
adventure, and that deserves some appreciation and some consideration.
The problem is, I'm not quite sure just what he is
up to. Certainly he's playing with the relationship between the player,
her avatar, and the narrative voice of the game itself, but this game
is no Violet
In the end, we
never learn whether the the sycophantic voice that whispers in our ear
throughout the game is actually that of a conniving servant or the
voice of our subconscious. Am I meant to laugh at the ridiculously over
the top narrator and move on, or is Mr. Graboff trying to tell me
something profound that I am missing entirely? Whatever he was
attempting, some testers and a bit more time and care would likely
yielded a better end result.
Back to Table of
||Realm of Obsidian
| Author Email:
||amethystgames SP@G ymail.com
||March 31, 2009
||Windows executable (thinBASIC)
||maher SP@G filfre.net
I really ought to hate this game. After all, it's an
expansive old-school dungeon crawl featuring a large, mostly empty map,
combat, heaps of learning by death, and the sort of campy B-movie
horror atmosphere that hasn't exactly been scarce in IF in this Age of
Irony. Somehow, though, this game manages to be more than the sum of
its parts. It's not what I'd call a good
game, mind you, but I can't quite bring myself to hate it either. It just has a certain charm about it.
So, then... Realm of Obsidian
is "the story of a guy named Nick" whose father has been indulging in
some dreaded Satanic Rituals, and has managed to get himself carried
off to the infernal realms. There's thus nothing for it but for Nick --
meaning you -- to follow in dear old dad's footsteps and kick some
infernal dweller ass. Here we can begin to see what raises this game a
cut above most in its genre: we may be stuck in an old school dungeon
crawl, but at least we have a name and a personality. The Painful Death
cassette we find on the floor of our bedroom -- games like this always
start in our bedroom; that's simply sacrosanct -- that features song
titles such as "Spinal Munch" and "Bayonet Douche" is worthy of a
chuckle. Heck, just the fact that old Nick is still listening to
cassettes in 2009 I find oddly charming and hilarious.
eventually we make it to the eponymous Realm and start fighting
monsters and mapping large swathes of empty space. I'd be lying if I
said the game manages to be a consistently compelling play, but that
gonzo charm carried me further than I ever would have expected it to.
There's lots of cheesily dramatic music, because music in a text
adventure is cool! There's occasional sound effects, because that's
cool too! And there's some borderline offensive gore to go with the
borderline offensive cassette I just told you about, but that's par for
this particular course, isn't it?Realm
was written in a dreaded New IF Development System. This one is called
the thinBASIC Adventure Builder, and while it falls down in some of the
usual areas -- supporting Windows only, having a generally garish and
unprofessional appearance -- it actually does
demonstrate awareness of what we as players expect in 2009.
There's a working SCRIPT command and even a working VERSION command,
and the parser -- not that this game ever really
taxes it -- never gave me any problems. Even the expected
abbreviations (X for EXAMINE, etc.) are in place. And hey, a garish and
unprofessional appearance kind of suits this game. Overall, I'd say
thinBASIC is already sits a notch or two above ADRIFT, at least from
the standpoint of the player.
I don't want
to give the wrong impression here. The game certainly had worn out its
welcome with me by the end, and maps consisting mostly of empty
corridors are never, under any circumstances, what I would call a wise
design choice. Nor can I say that I'm waiting with bated breath for the
full version (this release, while being fairly sizable by modern
standards, is just a preview). Still, in the end it is what it is, and
certainly could have been a whole lot worse. Ms. Kerns does have a deft
writing touch when she's not describing empty rooms. I'd like to see
more IF from her, but preferably without the endless corridors and the
Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||richardo SP@G delron.org.uk
||March 31, 2009
||maher SP@G filfre.net
I'm not sure I'm qualified to review this game. You see,
it's made up of bit and pieces of Mr. Otter's previous works of IF, of
which there are many -- fifteen, to be exact. It's not an automatically
illegitimate premise; plenty of great literature has been built out of
responses and allusions to earlier works in the canon. The question, of
course, is whether we can consider Mr. Otter's previous works to a
canon worth revisiting; and the problem, at least for this reviewer, it
that I am familiar with exactly one of the fifteen games referenced
here, and even that one I barely remember. Referencing my 2006 review
of Unauthorized Termination
I see that I found it to have some clever and original elements but
also to be seriously flawed in its implementation. That's pretty much
my opinion of this game as well.
You wake up at the beginning of
the game naked in a train station, but luckily your nakedness
does not really matter. At least, no one seems overly concerned about
it beyond a few raised eyebrows and one pub patron who repeatedly makes
reference to your "manhood." Mr. Otter spends a great deal of
prose trying laboriously to explain that you don't remember anything
but don't have amnesia, as you never had any memories to recover, and
then you're off to... recover a bunch of memories by visiting the
various settings of Mr. Otter's previous games. I played along for a
while contentedly enough, sorting out gradually what was expected of me
and solving a few puzzles, but I eventually stalled out with no idea of
what to do next. A quick check of the walkthrough showed several
actions that seemed
completely arbitrary. It may be that knowledge of the other games would
have led me to the correct courses of action in this one, but still Mr.
Otter's asking his players to remember fifteen other games to that
level of detail seems a problematic suggestion at best. And then it's
also possible that these are just bad puzzles. Again, I'm not qualified
to judge. All I can say is that getting through this one required me to
spending a lot of time getting very familiar with that walkthrough.
with these issues we get the usual authorial sloppiness that ADRIFT
always seems to inspire: bad grammar, mangled sentence structure,
careless formatting. Some of the premises for the games here strike me
as novel and interesting, just as did that of this game and of Unauthorized Termination
back in 2006. But still, it's not enough to have an idea; you have to
execute it well too. That still seems to be Mr. Otter's stumbling block.Back to Table of
Dead Like Ants
||Dead Like Ants
| Author Email:
||cejpacian SP@G googlemail.com
||March 23, 2009
||Nate B. Dovel
||atreyu918 SP@G gmail.com
was a joy to play. As short and simple as it is, it packs a great
deal of emotion, effortless whimsy, and a strange kind of humor which
is dark yet not depressing. In the afterword, the author credits
Lewis Carroll as inspiration, a muse whose contribution is powerfully
felt without coming across as derivative in the slightest. And the
prose is so... the only word I can think of is smooth, by which I mean
that it succeeds in being elegantly sparse without sacrificing
evocativeness. The parser will rarely give you a response over a
line or two long, and yet each description contains all the information
you need and still pulls off sounding downright pretty.
a young daughter (or rather, several young daughters) of the queen of a
tree-bound ant colony. You are naturally curious and in awe of
your mother, whom you hold in a reverent admiration, but like your
thousands of sisters, you must ponder her motives from the cold
distance of a follower... until she calls you to her chambers and tasks
you with protecting your family from several threatening creatures who
loom in your neighborhood. She has chosen you especially for
this. You are her most beloved, she says. In your naivety,
you believe her, and set out to parley with the interlopers. The
brief adventure which follows puts into question your place amongst
your family and the difficult decisions associated with leadership, and
these themes are handled as naturally as an Aesop fable.
are no puzzles to speak of, but you won't miss them. You explore
and make decisions, of course, but your options are not mysterious or
elusive. In fact, you may find your path finds a bit...
fated. Which will make sense later on. It never feels like
you're being forced to a rigid path, though, and in any case, the most
impatient player can finish this game in about ten minutes. I took my
time, exploring the wonderful environment; it did, after all, win the
EnvComp (there were only two entries, but that's beside the
point). And despite relaxing my way through the game, I finished
in about a half hour. So play this on your lunch break. It
won't stress out your brain, but you'll still feel like you learned
I particularly loved how the creatures are
anthropomorphized. It is endearing in precisely the way that your
typical animal personification is usually annoying (I'm looking at you,
Furries). Each insect is given just enough human characteristics
to make them intriguing, instead of being merely exploited for the
novelty of a talking animal (I'm looking at you, Disney). The
antagonists, if they may be called that, aren't even identified by
species at first. This mystery fits perfectly with the
protagonist's status as a naive youngling, unfamiliar with the
diversity of the outside world, and the gradual revelation of their
pedigree is very satisfying.
The only bit which has me scratching my head, though, is the awkward title. My only guess is it's a riff on Showtime's Dead Like Me
series. The concept of death does figure into the game's plot, but
that's about the only parallel to the TV show. Minor quibble,
though, quite minor. This is the best short IF I've played in
quite awhile, and I daresay it impressively carries many times its
diminutive body weight. I recommend it without reservation.
Back to Table of
||GDC: The Game
| Author Email:
||jim SP@G nomediakings.org
||May 4, 2009
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||maher SP@G filfre.net
Jim Munroe made a big splash last year with his first IF game in many years, Everybody Dies
picking up third place in the Comp and getting favorable notices in
many places far outside the traditional community. Now he's back with a
new effort, and this one is nothing like that one. While Everybody Dies
focused on the literary, GDC: The Game
focuses on the computational. It's a commissioned work created for the
2009 Game Developer's Conference, meant to simulate the experience of a
typical conference attendee looking to meet people and put together a
team for a game project.
The game relies heavily on
randomization. You begin as a promoter, coder, artist, or designer,
with an interest in one or no areas -- chiptunes, ARGs, micropayments,
2D physics, etc. (If these terms mean nothing to you, this may not be
the game for you.) Your objective over the five days of the conference
is to do as much social networking as possible to expand your
interests, make new friends, and hopefully put together a four-person
development team to make a game of your own.
implemented story this game is not. Each turn uses a full hour of game
time, and everything happens at the macro level. ASKING fellow attendee
Wei-Ju about ARGS, for instance, might yield this response: "Wei-Ju's
interest proves infectious. You now have an interest in ARGs." Or, less
desirably, it might result in this: "Wei-Ju shrugs, uninterested in
ARGs." You are allowed to ASK and TELL only about game development
topics. (Which might not be such a bad simulation of an actual game
development conference, come to think of it.) These interactions do,
however, change your own opinions of the various other attendees as
well as changing their opinions of you. If you make some friends you
will get to spend some evenings out on the town rather than languishing
alone in your hotel room. These nights out can in turn result in more
acquaintances and more interests. After a bit of playing, the nature of
the meta-puzzle thus becomes clear: to gain friends and interests as
quickly as possible and put together your team. Your final "score" --
described as your game's chance of success -- is affected by how
quickly you work, by the attitudes of your colleagues not only toward
you but also toward one another, and by the compatibility of your
game's design concepts.
Taken as a puzzler, GDC
is fun to play through a couple of times but ultimately flawed. It's
not particularly difficult; I scored 82% on my first try even after
spending a couple of days just trying to figure out what I should be
doing. Perhaps this is for the best, though, as its underlying system
is too opaque for its own good. The game always remains something of a
black box, with each individual's reactions to yourself and other being
difficult or impossible to predict. Thus things can quickly degenerate
into a game of trial and error as you march around trying to interest
anyone and everyone in your pet topics. Even as it fails as a purely
ludic design, though, GDC
does manage to succeed as an experience. I've never attended the Game
Developers Conference, but I've certainly been to my share of other
conferences. One really does get the conference experience, at least in
a sort of distilled, abstract form, from GDC
the hyper-social atmosphere, the influence jockeying, the frenzied
networking attempts that get more frenzied as time runs short, and the
oddly adrenalized joy that all this can bring. It is more than worth
playing for that alone. Now if only launching a game company were as
easy as this game makes it seem...
Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||eccentricbrit2 SP@G yahoo.com
||May 7, 2009
||Z-Code (Inform 6)
||dmonath SP@G gmail.com
Phillips has... character, and is recommended for patient, die-hard
fans of the genre, although all others may want to carefully consider
their investment in an eccentric, inconsistent work. You may be
familiar with the basic premise: in a dystopian future dominated by
evil military-industrial complexes by way of multi-national
megacorporations, you are the lone East-Asian superagent representative
of a moderately less evil Chinese megacorp who can infiltrate its vast
Western rival’s headquarters to identify and potentially nullify their
top-secret disruptive new advantage.
O hai, world!Utopia
Technologies. Industrial giant, economic powerhouse, the world's
greatest scientific superpower, and the organisation most responsible
for eroding civil liberties and personal freedoms. They're an
all-powerful capitalist megacorporation that you despise completely and
utterly, yet you're perfectly willing to join their ranks.
So proclaims the introductory paragraph.
is evil, capitalism is evil, military equals business,
Utopia/America/”heartless lies” are synonymous, and China is the last
“free country,” despite also being dominated by its own megacorp
military. Less than two minutes into a discussion of Inside Woman
with an acquaintance on the qualitative difference between a
continent-spanning corporation with power over rule of law and a
traditional nation-entity it was observed that the conversation had
clearly well exceeded the author’s intent for political mimesis, like
dissecting Power Rangers
from a standpoint of hard science.
writing style ranges from wry and tongue in cheek to pedantic leftist
schlock to more general schlock sans ideology. (See above
quotation for a representative sample.) One painful example of the
expository assault on sensibility in store for the player, from quite
early on, deals with cryobeds. For some reason, this reviewer was
particularly moved upon exposure to the following.
a common and pervasive element of this future. When examining your
own bed, commentary says A) they’re a sneaky, underhanded way of
increasing life expectancy (really, it says that), B) life expectancy
has risen by 20% since their introduction, and then C) the game points
out this can’t be a coincidence. The flaws in that statement are
almost too embarrassing to discuss, but only almost. It's like
saying schools are sneaky, underhanded ways to educate people, that
after completing a year of schooling a student's standardized test
scores have risen by 20%.. . and this can't be a coincidence
By the time you're being told that extending someone's life is
mysteriously connected with extending someone's life, you've almost
forgotten that you were just told two short phrases ago that a device
which claims to extend your life is somehow underhanded for performing
the advertised purpose for which it is named. [cries]
the game is hardly about politics, principles of civilization, or basic
reasoning skills: it is instead about skulking, MacGyvering, and
sabotage, accomplished through a nearly even mix of deliberate and
unintentional puzzles. Both the puzzles and general crafting of Inside Woman
make the game exceptionally difficult---not because the puzzles
themselves are conceptually complex or arcane, but because they are
implemented so awkwardly or incompletely.
In the very first sequence, you are introduced to a nanotech assistant named NANCI, and the following ensues:“Testing.
One, two, three. You hear me? You can? Great! I can tell from the way
you're looking around. I'm Nanci, by the way. Technically it's NANCI in
upper case, but I prefer the first way.
You seem to want to talk to someone, but I can't see whom.”
for the course, as the first “puzzle” you will likely run into consists
of taking off your clothing. It’s a dreaded case of “information
the Player Character (PC) knows full well but is never communicated to
the Player: hence, a puzzle.” Inventory informs you that you
are wearing clothes and carrying a visa. One would think that, if
one were also carrying an additional critical item, one might be aware
of this. However, once you’ve gotten desperate enough to try
punching troopers, singing, and inflicting miscellaneous other verbs on
your environment and especially your clothes, you’ll discover that you
can remove your clothing and uncover a passport in a heretofore
unmentioned inner pocket.
This puzzle is almost immediately
followed by a thematic variant, wherein all of the data about your
cover story is taken away and the game then grills you on not merely
facts you would not expect to have needed to memorize in real life, but
also to come up with calculated inferences from said facts on the fly.
the other hand, some early puzzles, such as acquiring a battery and
repairing a robot, are so nearly logical as to dangle fun before your
eyes only to snatch it back in your moment of triumph and mock you to
death with “guess-the-exceptionally-precise-phrase-or-word.”
technical deficiency of note is setting “timed” events to a particular
action. In one example, you can wait on the tarmac outside
immigration for, well days if you truly wish, or you can do the one
thing that will trigger the guards to usher in the huddled
masses. Linking chronological advancement to such triggers is a
very risky trade-off for believability. By the third hour you
remain unproductively on the tarmac, it starts to stretch credibility
that neither the guards nor the other emigrants have anything they
might want to be doing with their time, and then when suddenly you
happen to scratch your nose, or examine a key object everyone jumps
into motion as if no such thing as guard shifts or sleep exists, it
can't help but feel coldly artificial.
However, one most notable
drawback which will follow you for the entirety of the game is the
implementation of a redundant verb which MUST be used independent of
its parent verb. Examining in Inside Woman
is not good enough. To acquire additional information about an
object, you must also use a second Examine equivalent, to trigger
NANCI's observations, and finding this additional verb is (bonus!) its
own puzzle. There can't be any excuse for this--there are no
circumstances in which you will not want the extra information, and
since the added data is coming from your ever-present assistant it is a
painful waste of the player's time to make them double examine every
object in the game just to trigger text which could just as easily have
been tacked on to the first, ordinary EXAMINE.
Perhaps more so than with most games, one's enjoyment of Inside Woman
is going to be dependent on whether one finds the atmosphere and genre
a greater joy than the drawbacks in writing, puzzle craft, and
verb/parser peculiarities.Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||midiguru23 SP@G sbcglobal.net
||Nate B. Dovel
||atreyu918 SP@G gmail.com
It started out so well
. I should have known it wouldn't last.Lydia's Heart
is a work of horror set in a seedy Southern resort motel in the middle
of a swamp. You play Diane, a young girl surrounded by other
residents who run the gamut from vaguely menacing to outright creepy
and are just loose-lipped enough to let slip that they plan to
sacrifice you to a demonic monster come evening, in order to fulfill
their hearts' deepest wishes. It is an updated re-release of Last Resort
by the same author, but please note I have not played the original, and
my review is based solely on this newer version. The goal is
fairly straightforward -- escape the motel and your impending fate --
but just elusive and enjoyable enough to keep you intrigued, at least
for the first half.
Your captors are vividly characterized and
exude a dark, tension-laced humor, as you will discover through the
absolutely stellar conversation system. They are all united, both
those who help and hinder you, by a twisted Southern charm that barely
covers, and thus meaningfully highlights, the broken nature of their
souls- some more irreparably than others. Honey Hartwell, a
has-been singer, is willing to sacrifice you to revive her career, but
compliments your cuteness and eagerly offers you an autographed CD in
the same breath. She also has some of the best lines: "Honestly, I
think I'd forget my boobs if they weren't one hundred percent real,"
she philosophizes, and "Fool me twice, shame on you." The primary
villain, Beauregard Phelps, is the proprietor and a decaying pervert
who leers at you from his porch and belches shamelessly. And my
favorite (possible spoiler alert) is a wonderful, otherworldly clown
who manages to both amuse the reader and hint at a tragic parenthood
without being heavy-handed. The cast works perfectly in sync to
build an anxious story of the older generation betraying the
young. It gets campy, at times, in its occasional reliance on
monster movie tropes, but all in all this is an efficient, engaging
thriller. Until the end of the second act, that is.
compliments. To really convey how this game loses its way, I need
to give you some context from the author's note in the
instructions. He writes: "Lydia's Heart
is a large, serious story... I'm reluctant to call it a game, but the
word is probably unavoidable." I read this before even touching
the game, and it made me nervous. Unless a work of interactive
fiction requires no decision-making input from you at all, it is --
with no reluctance on my part -- a game. And if your own critical
thinking really cannot influence the story in even the smallest way,
the piece probably doesn't need the prefix interactive. Let's
abandon this snotty pretension that a "game" means Chutes and Ladders
and a "story" means The Great Gatsby
. An identity as a game does not preclude telling a large, serious story, and IF is no exception.
so now that I've opened that can of semantic worms, I'm dumping it in a
Tupperware container and throwing it back in the fridge, because I have
bigger fish to fry. The very idea that this particular game could
be anything but a game is wholly contradicted by the presence of
several fourth-wall-annihilating puzzles that bring the story to a
head-scratching halt. First, there are two - count 'em, TWO -
mazes. I hate mazes in text adventures
you want to talk about a trope that exists only in capital "G"
games! If a character in a classic ink-and-paper, multiple-paged,
non-interactive story encounters a maze, you need only read of their
perilous and traumatic fumblings through repetitive
environments. I don't need to be their bloody cartographer,
scribbling cramped little diagrams until, having reached the end of my
normally generous patience, I consult the walkthrough for the back-door
cheat. And let me tell you, that shameful surrender scratches my
gamer itch about as pleasurably as role-playing with my toaster instead
of going to see Transformers
sure, I'm broke as hell, but it's just not as fun, and that better not
have been a picture you took with your cell phone. So please, IF
authors: the text maze was boring and tedious in Zork
and it's boring and tedious now. And what a waste of a versatile
story-telling medium -- it's like having the keys to the art store and
just doodling on the receipt paper.
As for the more typical IF puzzles: Lydia's Heart
starts out on the right foot. Logical thinking, appropriate to the
environment, characters, and plot line. But then it veers off into
unfairly difficult guessing games that make no sense in
context. I'm going to just go ahead and spoil the worst offender
in this category, because frankly, if you could figure it out on your
own, you must be Batman and should really be putting your powers to
better use. Skip ahead, undaunted masochists. The rest of you can
highlight the following text to read about it. So
there's this voodoo mask. And it's guarding this room. Steal
anything, or try to move the mask, and it will start screaming, and the
jig is up. So why, then, is the proper strategy to smear wax in
its eyes to blind it? Wouldn't a magical mask, usually so
sensitive to incursions on its personal space, get a little upset by
this ocular assault? Curious. And by "curious," I mean, "of
I'm torn on whether to
recommend this game. On the one hand, it has a perfectly
serviceable story and really interesting characters. I feel I must
defend it more vigorously because there is a serious dearth of games
(in any medium) which put as much effort into exploring character
motivation as they do exploring dungeons and the finer points of
headshots. But pretentious illusions aside, these are literary
challenges in which we find our enjoyment, and the challenge must match
but not distract from their literariness. I'm not sure Lydia's Heart
meets that standard. The author's wish for a large, serious story
may have been fulfilled... but it sacrifices enjoyable gameplay in the
bargain.Back to Table of
Make It Good
||Make It Good
| Author Email:
||jon.ingold SP@G gmail.com
||April 13, 2009
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||dmonath SP@G gmail.com
not even intended for you to beat the first time: your first
play-through is essentially a fact-finding mission which will color
further playthroughs... and that, in what is a truly impressive
work of IF, might constitute one of the few legitimate criticisms to be
leveraged against it.The call comes through. Of all the
dicks; you get the call, sitting in the front seat of your car, hands
shaking on the steering wheel. An urgent call; but all you were
thinking of was the bottle in the liquor store and so that's where you
Now you're pulled up outside the house. The rear
mirror's showing two steely eyes. You adjust your hat, stiffen up your
collar and grab your badge off the dash. Here goes. You've one last
MAKE IT GOOD.
Imagine a cross between hard-boiled detective fiction (a la Chandler, Rex Stout, etc.), and Lemmings
your mind, I know. Your first time through is going to be taking
the lay of the land, but the vast majority of the game will consist of
ever tighter refinements as you build your case. The answer to why
so tricky is rather spoilerish. This is one of those games, like The Sixth Sense
, which is very difficult to discuss in any real depth without giving away a dramatic lynch pin.
therein lies the proverbial rub. [Note that the following text may
be considered largely mildly spoilerish. If you are concerned,
please skip ahead
Each time the
game's secret premise has been broached with an acquaintance after
explaining the first bump in the road, they've immediately deduced it,
hence treating the subject as only mildly spoilerish. The negative
issue alluded to in the first paragraph of this review is that of
trust. There is a vast gulf in practice and implication between an
untrustworthy protagonist and an untrustworthy author
in fiction, interactive or otherwise, frequently withhold information
from the reader for reasons of dramatic tension or deliberate
subterfuge. What is critical at all times, however, is a
recognition that whatever the disparity between the reader's
perceptions and the protagonist's, the author
is in complete control with full understanding.
in point: all software bugs, ever, are an example of an
untrustworthy author. Generally, however, they are obvious as such
and don't affect our engagement or comprehension of the plot, but when
combined with an untrustworthy narrator
as well, can dramatically alter one's degree of immersion or faith in
the environment. There is an event early in the game which this
reviewer encountered, as will many fellow players, which highlights the
The murder weapon is found, and when analysed, is
returned with only the protagonist's fingerprints, even if the player
has deliberately worn gloves. The only two possibilities are that
the protagonist has touched the knife before, and isn't revealing the
information to himself/player, or there is a bug which allows the
weapon to be accidentally contaminated.
This is a deeply
meaningful issue which strikes at the heart of the implicit bond of
trust between player and author. All that is necessary is for the
protagonist, when confronted with this information, to protest the
impossibility of such a result, and the player can place his trust in
the author. However, in Make it Good
there is no such affirmation, and in a game this evidence and
fact-driven, absolutely crashes the action to a halt and destroys
This is only one example, but as it occurs so
near the beginning of the game, it can completely alter the player's
experience. Similarly, there are numerous opportunities throughout
the game for the author or character/narrator to winkingly come clean,
assuring the player that things are in hand.
a game as complicated as this, it’s a testament to Mr. Ingold’s quality
control (and dedicated bug-stomping in the days/weeks after initial
release) that a bare few issues of art rather than what could easily
have been a calamity of broken character interactions take the critical
fore. One suspects that the author’s notes must resemble the
Allied D-day invasion plans in scope.
Make it Good features distinctive characters with unique motivations, an almost Sims
-like toy chest of significant objects, and exposition as smooth as, well...>take whiskey
Your fingers shiver on the glass as you lift it.
police sidekick clearly wants you to fail at the beginning, but
grudgingly expresses admiration as you gradually demonstrate a
persistent level of competence. The evidence is yours to observe,
analyse (indeed, Brit spellings in an apparently American genre),
tamper with, move or obscure. The first time you point out to a
suspect that her account is contradicted by evidence gleaned only
through your anal retentive inspection of the surroundings will make
you feel downright Holmesian. Should you, for whatever twisted
reasons, accomplish a similar result through crafty manipulation of the
same... well, Moriarty had his pleasures, too.
you show, tell, or ask another character matters. It's apparent
that Mr. Ingold has crafted his characters with an extensive
behind-the-scenes bank of knowledge and states which is then used to
shape their perceptions and future actions. (cf. Normandy Beach,
In fact, much of the joy of the game lies in first
determining which evidence you will present, and how, and then in
crafting your own careful structure of the investigation. This is
where the Lemmings
begins to shine. The more knowledge you acquire, and the more
evidence under your control, the more options you find at your disposal
for laying out your case. When you've spent an hour carefully
maneuvering a suspect into the center of your web, make the dramatic
accusation, and your dutiful sergeant thoughtfully explicates the
evidence thus far in support, and then points out the remaining flaw,
there's a simultaneously gah/aha
moment which is both triumphant and deeply motivating.
the end of the game, the protagonist has a character who has been truly
consistent and has masterfully handled the elements of the
case. This reviewer's only regret is that, [SPOILER ALERT
(highlight to view)] he plays as a
perennial Lawful Good PC, and as of the time of this review, has not
succeeded in satisfactorily incriminating the apparently most guilty
[/SPOILER]Make it Good
is a game whose red herrings are more fascinating than many other
games’ primary plotlines. The reward is high for persistence and
attention to detail so long as one enters with the necessary
experimental spirit, per a scientist with a labful of mice and an
evolving hypothesis... or a troopful of lemmings and a malleable
Mr. Ingold has created a well-written, cleverly
designed, technically proficient, devilishly hard work which, by dint
of sheer over-arching competence, participates in the ever-rising
standard of expectations for top-tier IF. Yes, he’s gone and made
it harder for everyone else.Back to Table of
| Author Email:
||j3nsby SP@G gmail.com
||March 23, 2009
||Z-Code (Inform 7)
||uux SP@G mail.ru
Blurry faces, faded colours,
Are they people? Are they puppets?
Mashina Vremeni. Marionettes.
You find yourself in a strange place, and heck, you can't remember how you got there...
behind this amnesia outset so typical for text adventures it almost
sets one's teeth on edge is a really original setting with an
interesting twist. At this point, I have to hand it to the author --
his writing was very effective. As I read the descriptions, I got more
and more imbued with the feeling something is wrong here, and I can say
behindhand -- what exactly was wrong was conveyed very well, and they
fit neatly into the picture of the surrounding world the player gets by
the end of the game. This is probably the work's main asset that
outweighs the drawbacks.
And yes, there are a few things to be
outweighed. First of all, I became a bit frustrated in the beginning as
I tried to interact with my surroundings. While the reasons for the
player's limited possibilities in this respect are fully explained in
the finale, it still was very irritating. The answer could be, say,
shifting some of this frustration from the player's shoulders on the
PC's. Responses on repeated attempts of communication in the vein, "why
doesn't this idiot reply?" certainly would contribute to the player's
identification with the protagonist -- at least, for me. Such an
approach suggests itself the more, since the PC is a foreigner, and
thus could accuse the people around of being unfriendly to strangers.
But a probably even greater sin is the fact the responses don't change even after
the protagonist finds out what's going on. Of course, I only can
speculate about what was on the author's mind when he was making this
design choice. My guess is, he thought the player would type the
winning command immediately after understanding what (s)he got into. He
didn't realize there are enough dupes out there not able to get the
clue, or just curious people, or simply stupid nitpickers inclined to
masochism (like yours truly) who'd continue roaming through the
locations in spite of having the opportunity to bring the story to an
end. Well, their reward were responses like this one:> > OUT
You're not in anything though... or are you?
But enough treading on the author's corns -- among other things, the game really doesn't deserve it. Let's move on to puzzles.
are not meant to be hard, but they seem somewhat... well, undirected:
you do certain things, but there is no indication (okay, apart from
your score increasing) whether this will help you, and if so, why or in
which way. On the other hand, I didn't have any problems getting past
them -- for one thing, because it always seemed the right thing to do,
and for another, because there aren't not too much options in the
game. Thus, in the end, it probably would be best to leave the puzzle
structure as it is -- giving any additional directions to the player
might render the whole thing completely trivial.
Well, it's time for me to wrap it up I guess. So, as you may have noticed, La Seine
is by no means perfect, but it does a few things right. Considering its shortness, you definitely should have a look at it.SNATS
(Score Not Affecting The Scoreboard):Plot
: No, there isn't much of it (0.8)Atmosphere
: Adequate - thanks to the writing (1.2)Writing
: Terse, yet effective (1.2)Gameplay
: Nice little roam (1.1)Bonuses
: The response to "READ NEWSPAPER", which became my quote of the day (1.2)Total
: Absolutely worth the time it takes to beat it (5.5)Characters
: Not very cooperative -- but that's intentional (1.1)Puzzles
: Just enough of them to make La Seine
feel like a game and not a static story (0.9)Difficulty
: Pretty easy (3 out of 10)Also on La Seine, from Fabien Vidal (fabien.vidal SP@G flap.fr):
La Seine is the second submission
to the EnvComp, both in chronological and classification order.
It is a
very short game apparently set in Paris during the Impressionist period. When
the game starts, you suddenly realize that you in are in a park, near
river Seine. And you have no clue what you
should do. Unfortunately, this lasts for most part of the game, and
even when you have finished it.
has 2 faces: the main and most obvious one, disappointing on both
artistic sides; and the second, unraveled at the very end of the game,
forced me to revise some of my original opinions - but some only - and
made me think, "Well, there might actually be a real something
for the less-spoily most obvious face:
When I had
decided to review this game, I had just finished playing the refreshing Dead
like Ants, which contains a very interesting way to navigating its the environment.
I had also
recently been living in Paris for 4 years. My mind was still
full of pictures of the life along the Seine: the nights spent dancing
the sky, crushed by the summer heat; the picnics on the wharf during
but bright days of early spring; or the freezing nights in winter, when
trying to grab as much heat as possible from my girlfriend while she
watching the tourist boats passing under the bridge and illuminating
monuments and nearby buildings.
even if I don't live any more in that town, the week before playing
I had been wakeboarding with friends on the Seine. The set up was
river was boarded with the huge chestnut-trees crawling under the
weight of the
young and tonic leaves. To the north, a few shiny buildings from the
center where reflecting the sun setting down. To the south, we could
old town with its old monuments and twisty roads. Just above our head
aqueduct, transporting a large proportion of the city's toilets far
town for treatment. Ignoring the nasty stream over which they were
few pedestrian where watching us. Finally in the river, there were the
dreadful commercial boats, those real life threats which would never
able to change their course if we had been in trouble. So much room for
ll that to
explain that my mind was boiling with anticipation!! I probably was
trip along the river full of juicy discoveries, where, in line with ECJ
works, usual IF geography would have been deeply shacked. Derek was not
author I was aware of. Would it be an unknown and marvelous French IF
jumping out of nowhere? If not, I was very curious how a foreign author
describe the town in which I had been leaving fro a while. Would it be
traveler who had spent a part of its life there? I was really full of
expectations and curiosity.
first feeling was deception. "Oh my god, it's is so cliché" shouted my
mind. The setting first: during Impressionism. Probably the most
of the town. Setting a story during that period is probably as original
London in the time of Charles Dickens. The
description of the people too was very cliché, specifically the woman
monkey. "Seriously", I thought, "who would really believe that
people where wandering around town with a pet monkey?" At this point,
it was the greater source of my deception at this stage because I was
to discover a new French writer, it was obvious that it had been
someone who had never really spent time in Paris, and was working based
stereotypes. You know the type of ideas that people far from your
country put on you: all Texans wear pointy boots and a large hat and eat
the English have large ears and long noses; French women have pet
I have to
admit that during a later stage, I was proven very wrong on that
thing. And that was a good thing to discover, both for the game, and my
deception was the descriptions. Everything is so terribly static. The
are cold: they won't reply to you, even after you have helped them.
seem frozen in one single action, and don't interact with each other.
the background: nothing moves. I really had the feeling of being
sculptures in a dead world. For most of the time I spent playing, I
considered that as a big failure in the prose of the author.
matter of deception, the puzzles and the first part of the story are
There are 3 easy puzzles. But there is no proper justification why you
them. Except that by experience, you know that if an object is there,
might be a puzzle using it. If there is a puzzle, you need to solve it
further. Well… that type of justification is definitely not good enough
there is an important character which gives you the keys to understand
going on. I suppose that in a more equilibrated game, that character
have been used to hint the player on the reason why these puzzle are
to solve. But, no, even if it happens that this character is a real
(we’ll see that later), it has not been fully used. The last puzzle
There is a
hint system, but probably due to the lack of story, they are given in a
which I felt was far too straightforward and tasteless...
the technical implementation is poor: little interactivity, a lot of
descriptions. You know, when an object is given in the room
should be able to examine it. Okay, this is done. But when other objects
given in that description, they should at minimum be used as synonyms
description they come from. Or better, have their own. Well, in that
of the time they simply don't exist and return an ugly standard reply.
> x Seine
of boats, buildings and clouds dot the blue water
see any such things
see any such things
... and so
Also, for a
good half of the rooms there is no information on the geographical
is: where the exits are). So you have to try all the directions, and
receive no clue on the reason why you are allowed to go to a direction
to an other. For the other half, the exits are given, but in the less
imaginative way: "North is 'that'. South is 'this'".
even managed to reach an undesired unwinnable state. For some reason, I
solved all puzzles, but the last key character kept refusing talking to
I was blocked.
So as this
point, you have a game with poor implementation, non existing story,
unsatisfying description and puzzles, unjustified and underexploited
On the top of that, there is no obvious link between the game and the
the competition. That's definitely not brilliant!
where something happens! The pieces of the puzzle come together. And we
now go into
the spoily bits. (Click to skip ahead.)
end, once you have solved the various easy puzzles, you discover from
character that you are actually stuck in a painting. And that's where I
been forced to revise quite a few of my original judgment: I was
that everything was so static. But, well, it is normal: it is a painting,
things should not move. I was offended that it was so cliché. But
author is doing nothing more than describing an actual painting from
It just happens that historically, stereotypes fed on that type of
which traveled more than the people. So in that case, all the
used were perfectly justified.
A few other
things had been well spotted by the author: I found a picture of that
before writing the review. Every character is looking to the left,
little girl, looking straight at us. It is that little girl which gives
to the whole puzzle; she is the only one not ignoring us. And really, it is the
character which could be used for that purpose. It is unfortunate that
hasn't been used in a better way to guide the player and bring some
to the puzzles.
really enjoyed the last bit of text from the author to the player, and
me want to know more about that painting, the painter, and that
I also felt that a multimedia version should be released, with the
being displayed during the last scene. So the player can see what he as
But does it
make it a good game?
unfortunately not. The descriptions are still poor and incomplete, the
implementation not too good, and the puzzles uninteresting. However I
think that the game would benefit from being fleshed out. There is a
idea behind it. The actual setting is rather promising, and well placed
and improved prose should really lift that game from bottom, near
game, to one really worth a try.
Back to Table of
Contents SPAG Specifics
I would be
curious in reading other games by Derek Sutcliffe. With more practice,
he reads carefully the various reviews, I feel that one day he might be
come up with something really good.
The following is
a conventional review, but rather a more in-depth discussions of
As such, it contains
. You may not wish to read it until after
completed the game in question.
||Group project organized by Emily Short
| Author Email:
||emshort SP@G mindspring.com
||June 5, 2009
||Glulx (Inform 7)
||conradcook SP@G gmail.com
The first thing you need to know about Alabaster
is that it is not in fact a fractured fairy tale. That's a useful tag
to apply to the game in the blurb, because it allows interested readers
instantly to place the game as a certain kind of story, but it is
deeply misleading. Fractured fairy tales are spoofs. You find them in Rocky and Bullwinkle
and in Robot Chicken
. There is no element of spoof in Alabaster
The second thing you need to know is that Alabaster
is computationally intensive, and is meant to be played with the newer
interpreters (details on the site). The game has been re-released, and
the new release apparently runs faster. I played the older release on a
modestly good computer running Git 1.2.4. With this set-up, I noticed
you play the Huntsman in Snow White. He's a minor character, you will
recall, without any lines in most versions. You have been charged to
take Snow White to the woods and slaughter her, carve her heart out and
bring it to the witch as proof. And it's really open to question in
this version whether Snow White is a nice person.
The game was
written by Emily Short and a host of ten others. All of the authors, I
have no doubt, shaped the game as we now have it: but it was Short who
conceived the project and organized it, and it is very much her game;
which in this context means she must share all credit but shoulder any
With eleven different authors writing the thing, I'm sure
you can imagine the schizophrenic variations in style this could lead
to: but you will not find them in this game. Every nuance, every trick
of the light, serves the game's narrative, and this consistency of tone
is yet more surprising when you think of the game's eighteen possible
endings. Eleven authors, eighteen endings, and one narrative voice.
opened the game to contributing authors as an experiment in
collaborative authorship the day before Halloween. I can't tell you
what she learned about making such collaboration work, but the result
is cree-py. It's not much in the Dungeons & Dragons
heritage of text games -- there is no sliding a doormat under a locked
door, poking the letter opener into the keyhole, to make the key fall,
and then taking the doormat to get the key and unlock the door. It
doesn't work that way.
This is a post-Zork
game. It's heavily conversational, and the conversation is broadly
implemented in a way you would need eleven authors to
do. Conversational threads are hinted unobtrusively, topics are changed
smoothly, and the game often rewards saying something unhinted but
is very ... involving. You don't lose yourself in the story. The player
character's identity does not blur with your own in the way an
undefined character's, a blank's, might; but that narratorial distance
serves to make the thing more real. This is mimesis as Aristotle
understood it: compelling representation with a distinct narrative
When I finish a good text game, usually I'll go back and
play it again. I want to see what else it can do; lawnmower a bit;
provoke the NPCs and see what happens. But I didn't want to do that
, and in this regard Alabaster
is unique. I didn't want to replay it, because I liked the ending I got.
is, replaying it would de-realize the story I'd gotten; it would make
the game experience less real. So I didn't replay it. Know what I did
I paced around my apartment thinking about it. I took lunch a bit early so I could mull it over.
is not a kind of response that I have to playing games. It doesn't
happen. But it is a response I have to reading literature: I close the
book, I set it down, and I look at it.
Based on my reactions, Alabaster
is not a game. It is literature. The debate up until now has always
been whether this could happen: some said yes, others said no, and
there was much good debate about what the terms meant and what AI might
be able to do.
always said, sure, it's possible; we'll get there eventually. But
now I have to say, it's possible because it's been done.
subjective conclusion, which you're not compelled to share, but more
honest than any objective argument I can come up with in this
moment. And I think there's some justice in using myself as a test
is literature because I respond to it as literature.
the problem of player agency goes unnoticed -- I didn't notice it --
for a combination of reasons. First, the game directs player attention
efficiently. This is not only a matter of controlling what the player
pays attention to, but more subtly, what the player wants to pay
attention to. The unraveling conversation, with its implications and
its loose ends, and the high emotional stakes, focus the player on a
richly-implemented activity domain. And conversely, our environment is
well-enough defined that we don't need to break from what we're doing
to place ourselves.
Second, there are truly a diverse set of
approaches available to us. The approaches are carefully
implemented: Some are more apparent than others, so you can take the
metaphorical marked trail or, lead by some intuition, break a new one. Alabaster
is broadly plotted: the game handles your sudden intuition because the
authors thought of it too, and provided for it. And it does this
smoothly enough that you don't think to be impressed.
as a player, you are made to understand early that you are not the same
as the Huntsman. The game presents quite clearly that the Huntsman has
information you do not, and yet the game will provide you with that
information when you need it. When you understand that, you
relax: seeing how it works somehow allows you to let the Huntsman be
the Huntsman and trust the game not to test you on something you don't
know. Conversely, it places the implicit constraints of the quip system
into a context where those constraints tell you something about the
These three factors -- directing of player
attention, the diversity of options, and the narrative separation from
the player character -- add up to an odd effect, where there seems to
be no player agency. There are no choice-points. There is no momentous
moment where you must make a decision. (Update--there can be in some
versions.) No: moment by moment, you nose around and make little
unnoticed choices, until what you should do is contextually very clear
to you. There is no sense of agency because there is no sense of making
a choice per se: rather, there is a kind of freedom of motion and a
naturalness about the way one action leads to another.
together, the game mechanics work with that kind of smoothness that
makes them utterly inconspicuous. Looked at as a game, then, it's a
good one. But is it good literature?The Story
take fairy tales pretty seriously. I read, listen to, and retell them
in a spirit of serious fun. Einstein called them the way to foster a
child's intelligence. These are stories told by the oldest to the
youngest; by those who have lived their lives and watched others live
theirs, to those who soon will go out into the world and must be
Not all of them are created equal. The stories of Hans
Christian Anderson are a transparent attempt to push Victorian morality
on kids, and they're cheap. The stories of C. S. Lewis are an attempt
to sell Christianity, and they're lovely.
The stories of the
Grimm brothers, which are what we most centrally consider to be "fairy
stories," are, in general, deeply weird. We have transvestite wolves
who pass for Grandma at close range; we have houses made of candy owned
by cannibals; we have betrayal and scheming and laziness, and broken
The Grimm stories are unlike modern fantasy
stories because they're stories that survived word-of-mouth retellings
through many generations of illiterate European peasantry. They're more
like urban myths than short stories -- more like the one about the guy
who went whoring in Mexico and had his kidney stolen, or the old woman
who microwaved her poodle, than like Tolkien.
Now, I hear you
saying that this is an unfair standard to apply to a text game, and
you're probably right. But as critics and readers, our job is not to be
fair. Our job is to figure out what we like and what works, and to ask
for more of it, and conversely to reject what doesn't work and we don't
like. Part and parcel of that process is to determine what kind of
story or game we're dealing with.
So, is Alabaster
a fairy tale?
tales generally begin with, "Once upon a time..." The phrase is not
itself important, but it sets up a certain kind of introduction, where
the story so far is unwound to the point where the action happens. Thus
we get the background of the conflict in a minute or two, sometimes
going back to before the main character was born.
storytelling trend is to start off with an average, everyday character
living an average, everyday life, and to show the process by which they
become involved in something unusual. The alternative is to start in
the middle of the action, and to fill in the back-story as the story
unwinds. This second method is the one we find in Alabaster
tales generally have something fundamentally screwed-up going on: a
step-mother convinces her husband to abandon his children in the woods;
a father, rather than admit a lie, volunteers his daughter to spin
straw into gold; a king who has a donkey that shits gold decides to
marry his daughter; and so on.Alabaster
scores pretty high in this category. The initial situation is quite
screwed-up, with the PC taking a little girl out into the woods to kill
her. Magic in this story works in a way somewhat more
dungeons-and-dragons than fairy-tale: there is a rationality and logic
to the magic that we never find in fairy-tales.
is more dreamlike than anything else: transformations, for example,
reflect a physicalization of an emotional message. And this works
well. The princess who is married to a frog shows us the situation of
a young girl who enters into an (arranged) marriage. Young wives turn
frogs into husbands with the magic of their affection.
On the other hand, the magic in Alabaster
reflects a suspiciously well-thought-out system of sorcery; but it is
in the end employed in a thematically relevant way, so this is a test Alabaster
does not fail.
tales generally show someone put in a bind. The bind might be an
enchantment -- they are reduced to something less than human; made
powerless -- or it might more pedestrian, like being abandoned by their
caretakers and captured by a hungry witch. Alabaster
does this superlatively well: the PC is a huntsman who is forced into
the role of hit-man, and he doesn't much like it; but, if it's him or
Finally, there is often in the background of fairy
tales the sense of tension between Christianity and the older pagan
religion. Supernatural forces are not usually played out by demons and
angels, but by trolls and fairies. Even so, the new religion seeps in:
there are magic chalices remarkably similar to the Holy Grail; good
kings are invariably Christian; the symbolic language adopts the
structure of Christianity with no thought of creating a Christian
message or agenda. And Alabaster
undoubtedly does this.
in fairy tales, there is no intended or implicit discussion of
religion: but in its form and symbolic grammar, it adopts some of the
language of Christianity. You start the game knowing Snow White drinks
red wine, and perhaps blood: a clear non-reference to the
Eucharist. The PC is faced with a situation very like Abraham's, taking
a child to the wilderness for sacrifice, but without the implication of
To what extent this is the result of deliberate
design, and to what extent the authors, in talking about fairy-tale
matters, simply fell into fairy-tale modes of thought, hardly
matters. The D&D
feel of the magic system aside, Alabaster
has the texture of a fairy tale. And that is very striking.
I suspect Alabaster
has this fairy tale texture at least partly because it was composed in
a way similar to the way fairy tales get composed. Both are accretions
of many minds. The accretion in Alabaster
is parallel rather than serial, as the handing down from grandmother to
granddaughter of fairy tales, but it seems to have had a similar result.
overall effect is that of a fairy tale. It's not like a fairy tale;
it's not a retelling of a fairy tale; it is a fairy tale. I can't think
of another modern work I could say this about.
concessions demanded by the form -- the loss of the "Once upon a
time"-style beginning, for example -- and to audience expectation -- IF
gamers wouldn't easily tolerate truly dreamlike magic in a text game --
probably Short herself would object to it. But these are offset, in my
opinion, by the overall successful adherence to fairy-tale fundamentals.
And, for all that I say that Alabaster
is literature and is a fairy tale -- and I mean these statements in a
plain way -- the fact that it is, after all, a text game really adds
something to it. The most alive way to get a fairy tale is as a child
out of the mouth of a parent, a grandparent, or uncle -- because the
world is alive to us as children in a way we let go of as adults -- but
the second most alive way to get a fairy tale is, I have found, to play
it as a text game. For all that you are not the Huntsman and the
Huntsman is not you, Alabaster
really puts you there -- into a fairy story.The Illustrations
seems that the changing illustration has several layers of
transparencies, such that it the picture at any given moment reflects
the current game-state. Short has written on r.a.if that she considers
the illustrations to be a vital part of the way the game communicates
with the player.
Largely I put the image out of my mind -- I
thought it was nice -- so perhaps I can't speak to that. But I will say
this: On my first play-through, at some point I got an image I had
seen before. I gave it a good long look and thought: "So we're back to
that one, are we? Well, let's see about that..." and returned to the
So it seems possible the illustrations -- which are nicely
appropriate to the tone of the game -- and fairy tales, let's face it,
often are illustrated -- really do convey information to the player's
is a different animal than your normal text game. This game put its
foot outside the bounds of what I thought was possible -- and then
pulled it back real quick, as if hoping I wouldn't notice.
is deeply impressive in a subtle way, and I think it may change the way
we look at interactive fiction. To the game makers, Emily Short, John
Cater, Rob Dubbin, Eric Eve, Elizabeth Heller, Jayzee, Kazuki Mishima,
Sarah Morayati, Mark Musante, Adam Thornton, and Ziv Wities -- and to
Daniel Allington-Krzysztofiak, who made the illustrations -- I say,
Thank you for helping to
keep text adventures alive!