ISSUE #55 - July 15, 2009

SPAG #55
is copyright (c) 2009 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.


IF News

Bad Grenade Launcher: Seven Easy Steps to Writing Bad Item Descriptions by Chuck Schlaedlingsbekämpfungsmittel

The Puzzle That Won't Go Away by Harry Kaplan

Spring Thing 2009 Reviews:
    A Flustered Duck
    The Milk of Paradise
    Realm of Obsidian

Other Game Reviews:
    Dead Like Ants
    GDC: The Game
    Inside Woman
    Lydia's Heart
    Make It Good
    La Seine

SPAG Specifics


So, simultaneously with the release of this latest issue of SPAG I am also releasing my first serious work of IF, The King of Shreds and Patches. 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 damn difficult 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 completion.

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 my head that wonders whether I shouldn't have recruited one or two more just to go through it one more time. 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 prose.

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 the 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 Cthulhu 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 life-saver.

Most 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 Lacuna 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's 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?

All 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 next time!

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A New Career in a New Town
Your 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 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 website Adventure Classic Gaming has just published quite a lengthy interview which Harry Kaplan conducted with me on the history of IF.

Textfyre Goes Live
Textfyre, 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 Letter, 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
The 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.

TADS Workshop
Conrad 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 Bryant Collection is a complete fabrication. The game itself, however, is not, and does in fact look well worth playing.

I 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.

The 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
Jim Aikin has authored a new manual for Inform 7 designed to introduce the system in a more accessible way than the thorough but scattered official documentation.

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Bad Grenade Launcher: Seven Easy Steps to Writing Bad Item Descriptions by Chuck Schlaedlingsbekämpfungsmittel
Trying to write rules on how to craft good writing always ends up so contentious, so let’s take an easier route.  Let’s say I want to make a game with, I dunno, a grenade launcher in it (because it’s in the title, right?).  So, you might ask, “What could I do to describe it badly?”

Well, don’t worry guys.  I’m a pro at this one.  Just 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 the default?  You can’t top it.

Except, of course, by dodging item implementation altogether.  The best 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.  Really, why should your player expect that commands like “look” or “examine” to be useful?  Waste of 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, like the 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 it’s not 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 can.  If your 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.  Some authors 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 have a ticking bomb stuck inside it, your game still ought to report “That smells normal” and “You hear nothing out of the ordinary.”  I can’t stress enough that these are defaults for a reason.  Anyway, 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 gotten.

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, right?  No-one would be playing IF if they didn’t love GTV.  It’s 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.  So you’re only doing your players a favour.  You’re making your game more fun.

Item descriptions shouldn’t include anything like about how you can use your grenade launcher to “shoot” or “blow up” something or about how it can switch to “chainsaw mode” (y’know, for melee combat).  Players can guess all this.  Also, don’t bother including any kind of stupid glossary or verb list— Infocom learned the hard way that no-one looks at those because they’re just big blobs of words that confuse people.  If players 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.  I think we all know surprise is the best element any game-writer has in their arsenal.

Also don’t mention that if you shoot a grenade launcher in melee you blow up, game 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.

Plus, 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 ordinary objects.

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 don’t want that.

This is all without mentioning that it’s too much of a strain on readers’ imaginations to have to think of anything 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 of course they’ll automatically assume it’s got chainsaw mode.  I mean every grenade launcher I’ve seen has a chainsaw mode.  And it’s always activated by pressing the green button (the one on the top, not on the side— that’s the safety).

Again, this is where default responses come in.  The best writers always use defaults.

Rule #5: Copy your descriptions from Wikipedia.

Look, item descriptions are a waste of time.  I don’t know how I can get that across to you.  But 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 know the information is accurate.  What’s more, accurate information is all your player needs.  Forget about whether or not the PC would actually know or even think of all the information you put in.  Heck, forget about making it relevant.  If it’s right, 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 awesome.”  So I 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 it!

Okay, so you want to write.  Fine.  My doctor says I have that problem, too.  Well, here’s how you can take care of it.

Write everything you know about grenade launchers.  Write about the history of the grenade launcher.  Lecture on it.  Write about the PC’s recollections about past grenade launchers.  Write about the grenade launcher’s recollections of past stuff it blew up (or chainsaw’d).  Dedicate a paragraph to the 1mm, red-glowing crack between the muzzle and the bulk of the gun.  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 develops; the best games are ones with well-developed stories, so your game should spend a lot of time developing it with cutscenes and in-depth exposition, right?  It’s almost counter-intuitive, but really it’s best if the player has to hit enter to continue scrolling the text at least twice to get on with it.  I mean, hitting enter is interaction, after all, so even text dumps are an interactive part of the game, if you think about it.

Hey, sometimes there’s no such thing as short and sweet.  When you’ve gotta say it all, quantity is quality.

Rule #7: Just kill the player.

Surprise, as I mentioned, will always be your greatest weapon as a game-writer.  That’s why everyone loves those old Sierra adventure games.  I 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?  Well, you can do that in a text adventure, too, and it’ll be just as exciting.

No matter what you read, players actually like dying.  It’s just a fact.  It’s part of how they learn— and for a game to be good, the player has to feel like they’ve learned something.  That’s also a fact.  A little dash of failure’ll do ya— but all you have to do is just heap it on, it’ll really do ya.

Your puzzles will be better for it in almost every way: they’ll be more dastardly, they’ll cause more hair loss, and the rewards for your puzzles will be all the sweeter in light of their consequences.  Players want to feel rewarded, so it’s the obvious move.  It’s just human nature.  For 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 right index finger clean off.

I ended up in the hospital, but man oh man did it feel good to get that pen afterwards.


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 guidelines in mind.  I can’t guarantee they’ll make you the next Arthur Winslow, but it’s certainly a start.

Oh, and I totally get dibs on chainsaw mode.  That was my idea.

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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 know.  More 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 time, since strenuous efforts on my part have failed to uncover anywhere on the Internet a 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, Eisner, and Newberry awards:  Best Use of a Very Old IF Chestnut. 

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Spring Thing 2009 Reviews
I must confess to being rather 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 significant 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.

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Title: A Flustered Duck
Author: Jim Aikin
 Author Email: midiguru23 SP@G
Release Date: March 31, 2009
System: Glulx (Inform 7)
Version: Release 1
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

My first 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 soulless).

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 Grabby's 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.

So, 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.

But 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 a 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.

Those, 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 working in IF today, one of the few professionals among us. I'd like to see him give us just a little bit more.

On 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 forgiven.

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Title: The Milk of Paradise
Author: Josh Graboff
 Author Email:
Release Date: March 31, 2009
System: Z-Code (Inform 7)
Version: Release 1
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

Whatever 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 feet.

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.

We are 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 is of 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 at all.

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.

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Title: Realm of Obsidian
Author: Amy Kerns
 Author Email: amethystgames SP@G
Release Date: March 31, 2009
System: Windows executable (thinBASIC)
Version: 0.62
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

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.

So, 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 instant death.

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Title: Vague
Author: Richard Otter
 Author Email: richardo SP@G
Release Date: March 31, 2009
System: ADRIFT
Version: 1.00
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

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.

Along 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.

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Other Game Reviews

Title: Dead Like Ants
Author: C.E.J. Pacian
 Author Email: cejpacian SP@G
Release Date: March 23, 2009
System: TADS 3
Version: 6
Reviewer: Nate B. Dovel
Reviewer Email: atreyu918 SP@G

Dead Like Ants 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.

You play 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.

There 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 something.

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.

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Title: GDC: The Game
Author: Jim Munroe
 Author Email: jim SP@G
Release Date: May 4, 2009
System: Z-Code (Inform 7)
Version: Release 1
Reviewer: Jimmy Maher
Reviewer Email: maher SP@G

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.

A deeply 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...

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Title: Inside Woman
Author: Andy Phillips
 Author Email: eccentricbrit2 SP@G
Release Date: May 7, 2009
System: Z-Code (Inform 6)
Version: Release 4
Reviewer: David Monath
Reviewer Email: dmonath SP@G

Inside Woman by Andy 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.

Business 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.

The 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.

Cryobeds are 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]

However, 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.

>nanci, hello
You seem to want to talk to someone, but I can't see whom.”

Par 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.

On 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.” 

Another 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.

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Title: Lydia's Heart
Author: Jim Aikin
 Author Email: midiguru23 SP@G
Release Date: April, 2007
System: TADS 3
Version: 2.0.04
Reviewer: Nate B. Dovel
Reviewer Email: atreyu918 SP@G

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.

End of 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.

Okay, 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. And 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 discourteous authorship."

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.

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Title: Make It Good
Author: Jon Ingold
 Author Email: jon.ingold SP@G
Release Date: April 13, 2009
System: Z-Code (Inform 7)
Version: Release 12
Reviewer: David Monath
Reviewer Email: dmonath SP@G

Make It Good is tough. It's 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 went first.

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 chance to...


Imagine a cross between hard-boiled detective fiction (a la Chandler, Rex Stout, etc.), and Lemmings. Blew 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.

However, 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. Protagonists 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.

Case 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 issue.

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 immersion. 

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.

In 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.

Your 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.

Almost everything 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, per above.)

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 comparison 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.

By 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 party.[/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 landscape.

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.

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Title: La Seine
Author: Derek Sutcliffe
 Author Email: j3nsby SP@G
Release Date: March 23, 2009
System: Z-Code (Inform 7)
Version: Release 11
Reviewer: Valentine Kopteltsev
Reviewer Email: uux SP@G
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...

Concealed 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.

They 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

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 the river Seine. And you have no clue what you should do. Unfortunately, this lasts for most part of the game, and somewhat even when you have finished it.

The game has 2 faces: the main and most obvious one, disappointing on both technical and artistic sides; and the second, unraveled at the very end of the game, which forced me to revise some of my original opinions - but some only - and made me think, "Well, there might actually be a real something lying behind this game."

 Let’s go 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 under the sky, crushed by the summer heat; the picnics on the wharf during the chilly but bright days of early spring; or the freezing nights in winter, when I was trying to grab as much heat as possible from my girlfriend while she was watching the tourist boats passing under the bridge and illuminating the monuments and nearby buildings.

Actually, even if I don't live any more in that town, the week before playing that game, I had been wakeboarding with friends on the Seine. The set up was grandiose: the 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 business center where reflecting the sun setting down. To the south, we could guess the old town with its old monuments and twisty roads. Just above our head was an aqueduct, transporting a large proportion of the city's toilets far outside town for treatment. Ignoring the nasty stream over which they were walking, a few pedestrian where watching us. Finally in the river, there were the dreadful commercial boats, those real life threats which would never have been able to change their course if we had been in trouble. So much room for imagination!

 ll that to explain that my mind was boiling with anticipation!! I probably was awaiting a trip along the river full of juicy discoveries, where, in line with ECJ Pacian works, usual IF geography would have been deeply shacked. Derek was not an author I was aware of. Would it be an unknown and marvelous French IF writer jumping out of nowhere? If not, I was very curious how a foreign author would describe the town in which I had been leaving fro a while. Would it be a traveler who had spent a part of its life there? I was really full of expectations and curiosity.

 However, my first feeling was deception. "Oh my god, it's is so cliché" shouted my mind. The setting first: during Impressionism. Probably the most exported image of the town. Setting a story during that period is probably as original as describing London in the time of Charles Dickens. The description of the people too was very cliché, specifically the woman with a monkey. "Seriously", I thought, "who would really believe that people where wandering around town with a pet monkey?" At this point, and it was the greater source of my deception at this stage because I was not going to discover a new French writer, it was obvious that it had been written by someone who had never really spent time in Paris, and was working based on general 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 chewing gum; the English have large ears and long noses; French women have pet monkeys.

I have to admit that during a later stage, I was proven very wrong on that stereotype thing. And that was a good thing to discover, both for the game, and my own culture.

 My second deception was the descriptions. Everything is so terribly static. The characters are cold: they won't reply to you, even after you have helped them. They all seem frozen in one single action, and don't interact with each other. Same for the background: nothing moves. I really had the feeling of being surrounded by sculptures in a dead world. For most of the time I spent playing, I really considered that as a big failure in the prose of the author.

 Third matter of deception, the puzzles and the first part of the story are really interesting. There are 3 easy puzzles. But there is no proper justification why you should solve them. Except that by experience, you know that if an object is there, there might be a puzzle using it. If there is a puzzle, you need to solve it to move further. Well… that type of justification is definitely not good enough for me!

However, there is an important character which gives you the keys to understand what is going on. I suppose that in a more equilibrated game, that character should have been used to hint the player on the reason why these puzzle are important to solve. But, no, even if it happens that this character is a real good find (we’ll see that later), it has not been fully used. The last puzzle though, is somewhat satisfying.

There is a hint system, but probably due to the lack of story, they are given in a way which I felt was far too straightforward and tasteless...

Finally, the technical implementation is poor: little interactivity, a lot of missing descriptions. You know, when an object is given in the room description, you should be able to examine it. Okay, this is done. But when other objects are given in that description, they should at minimum be used as synonyms for the description they come from. Or better, have their own. Well, in that game, most of the time they simply don't exist and return an ugly standard reply. Example:

 > x Seine

Reflections of boats, buildings and clouds dot the blue water

 > x boats

You can't see any such things

 > x buildings

You can't see any such things

 ... and so on.

 Also, for a good half of the rooms there is no information on the geographical location (that is: where the exits are). So you have to try all the directions, and you receive no clue on the reason why you are allowed to go to a direction and not to an other. For the other half, the exits are given, but in the less imaginative way: "North is 'that'. South is 'this'".

Finally, I even managed to reach an undesired unwinnable state. For some reason, I had solved all puzzles, but the last key character kept refusing talking to me. So I was blocked.

 So as this point, you have a game with poor implementation, non existing story, unsatisfying description and puzzles, unjustified and underexploited cliché setting. On the top of that, there is no obvious link between the game and the theme of the competition. That's definitely not brilliant!

 That's where something happens! The pieces of the puzzle come together. And we now go into the spoily bits. (Click to skip ahead.)

 Near the end, once you have solved the various easy puzzles, you discover from that key character that you are actually stuck in a painting. And that's where I have been forced to revise quite a few of my original judgment: I was disappointed that everything was so static. But, well, it is normal: it is a painting, so things should not move. I was offended that it was so cliché. But really the author is doing nothing more than describing an actual painting from that time. It just happens that historically, stereotypes fed on that type of painting which traveled more than the people. So in that case, all the stereotypes he used were perfectly justified.

 A few other things had been well spotted by the author: I found a picture of that painting before writing the review. Every character is looking to the left, except one little girl, looking straight at us. It is that little girl which gives the key to the whole puzzle; she is the only one not ignoring us. And really, it is the only character which could be used for that purpose. It is unfortunate that she hasn't been used in a better way to guide the player and bring some explanation to the puzzles.

Also, I really enjoyed the last bit of text from the author to the player, and it made me want to know more about that painting, the painter, and that specific museum. I also felt that a multimedia version should be released, with the painting being displayed during the last scene. So the player can see what he as really done.

But does it make it a good game?

Well, unfortunately not. The descriptions are still poor and incomplete, the implementation not too good, and the puzzles uninteresting. However I really think that the game would benefit from being fleshed out. There is a real good idea behind it. The actual setting is rather promising, and well placed work and improved prose should really lift that game from bottom, near uninteresting game, to one really worth a try.

I would be curious in reading other games by Derek Sutcliffe. With more practice, and if he reads carefully the various reviews, I feel that one day he might be able to come up with something really good.

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SPAG Specifics

The following is not a conventional review, but rather a more in-depth discussions of design.  As such, it contains some spoilers. You may not wish to read it until after you have completed the game in question.

Title: Alabaster
Author: Group project organized by Emily Short
 Author Email: emshort SP@G
Release Date: June 5, 2009
System: Glulx (Inform 7)
Version: Release 3
Reviewer: Conrad Cook
Reviewer Email: conradcook SP@G

The Game

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 no delays.

In Alabaster, 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 blame.

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.

Short 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 in Alabaster 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 contextually logical.

Alabaster 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 frame.

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 with Alabaster, and in this regard Alabaster is unique. I didn't want to replay it, because I liked the ending I got.

That 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 instead?

I paced around my apartment thinking about it. I took lunch a bit early so I could mull it over.

That 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. 

I've 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.

A 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 subject: Alabaster is literature because I respond to it as literature.

In Alabaster, 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.

Finally, 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 player character.

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.

So, all 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

I 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 prepared.

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 homes everywhere.

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?

Fairy 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.

The modern 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.

Fairy 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.

Fairy-tale magic 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.

Fairy 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 the girl...

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.

As 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 Divine command.

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.

The 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.

There are 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

It 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 game.

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 intuition.


Alabaster 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. 

It 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, many thanks.

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