Game Reviews V

These reviews are in alphabetical order according to the name of the game reviewed. The index also has a few extra features. First and foremost of these is the instant gratification feature. If you see the SPAG button:

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Table of Contents

Vacation Gone Awry Varicella Vespers Vicious Cycles VirtuaTech Voices Voices of Spoon River

Vacation Gone Awry

From: Duncan Stevens <dnrb SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #28 --March 20, 2002 TITLE: Vacation Gone Awry AUTHORS: Johan Berntsson, Fredrik Ramsberg, and Staffan Friberg E-MAIL: vacation SP@G DATE: 2001 PARSER: Inform, modified somewhat SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 2 I must acknowledge that Vacation Gone Awry got my attention right away -- but not with the cleverness of its premise or with a nifty hook. No, what grabbed me was the copyright notice, which described the game as "copyright (c) 1988-2002." Not many works of any kind are fourteen years in the making, and IF has a sufficiently short shelf life that putting that much time into an IF game is worthy of note. More to the point, though, the world of IF changed more than a little between 1988 and 2002, and I wondered just how retro Vacation Gone Awry would feel. The short answer: fairly. But not unpleasantly so. One of the aspects that makes Vacation feel a little dated is that the plot is a bit on the ostensible side. You're vacationing with your family when a big causal event happens, which leads to various puzzles involving getting into a research lab, which leads to standard research-lab situations and mildly artificial puzzles, many of the there-must-be-*something*-important-behind-this-obstacle variety. There are NPCs, to be sure, but most are cardboard at best; their saving grace is that most of them do move around without, as far as I can tell, tripping over any bugs. Most importantly, though, nothing much happens after the first third or so of the game, besides that you solve puzzles; most IF of more recent vintage is somewhat more story-driven, in that solving puzzles will lead not only to more puzzles but also to some sort of plot development, but in Vacation the plot is pretty much given to you whole at the beginning. This stuff isn't the kiss of death, I suppose, but it does give the game a certain flavor. As a puzzle- rather than a plot-driven game, however, Vacation is a reasonably good, though by no means perfect, example of the form. Lessee -- the good: there's a timing puzzle that involves a certain amount of large-scale thinking (figuring out who's where when) and some advance planning, though some trial and error is necessary as well. The bad: that same puzzle requires an astounding amount of stupidity from a certain NPC; let's just say that most people, when they encounter someone walking away from a suspicious event, don't just wave them by. The good: the game's world is built in a way that does a passable job of modeling a real research lab -- not every locked door can be opened, for instance, and certain locations are there because realism requires them, not because they're essential to a puzzle. The bad: some of the red herrings are simply confusing and don't appear to be driven by realism, as there's no particular reason why the features in question should appear where they do (which tends to suggest to the savvy player that puzzles are at work). The good: a puzzle that involves delving into an NPC's past. The bad: the way you put that knowledge to use is (a) cruel, (b) far from subtle, and (c) made unnecessarily hard by the point in the game -- i.e., very early -- where the puzzle comes up. As in, the game closes off if you don't take advantage of a specific opportunity at a specific time, and taking advantage of that opportunity requires knowledge that you're unlikely to have gathered by that point. The good: a multi-room puzzle that's an homage of sorts to a pretty good puzzle from Lurking Horror. The bad: here, unlike there, solving the puzzle in the way you do really should attract some attention, but the attention never comes. You get the idea. The design problems aren't severe by any means, and most probably wouldn't have been considered design flaws at all in 1988; a lot of them amount to NPC stupidity or cardboardness, and those things haven't always been considered major warts. Still, the game simply doesn't try all that hard in that department -- there are quite a few things that the NPCs should be able to talk about but can't, and you can carry around all sorts of suspicious items without any comment from them. There's also the larger problem that, even though you're supposed to be working with some scientists in a lab, no one seems particularly interested in actually working with you, and you can go about your puzzle-solving business without anyone asking what you're doing. The puzzles themselves are clever in their way; it's just that the player who says to himself "but I could never get away with that" may get onto the wrong track. The writing is adequate, though largely unexceptional -- most of the descriptions are pretty workmanlike, but there are flashes of personality here and there. Trying to charge off into a storm elicits "Hey! There's a blizzard going on, in case you forgot," and "search jeans" brings "You figured out the difference between boys and girls a long time ago. You know what is in the jeans." There are some clumsy moments as well, though -- for some reason, Inform's default "That's hardly portable" for stationary objects has been replaced by "That seems unmobile," not an improvement, and this description of a sound, "There's that whistling sound again. It does sound like someone whistling," is simply redundant. This paragraph is representative: The corridor, entering from the south, ends at a heavy door made of steel. Judging from the temperature, being somewhat lower here than in the rest of the building, you jump to the conclusion that the door could lead out into the cold (or into a giant freezer, perhaps...) The "being somewhat lower" phrase is clumsy and "judging from the temperature" is a little wordy, but "jump to the conclusion" and "giant freezer" are pretty funny, in a wry way. The writing is also marred by sprinkling of typos and misspellings that recurs just often enough to be noticeable. The problems -- e.g., "Suddenly high-pitched alarm signals start emerging from hidden loudspeakers"; do sounds really "emerge"? -- aren't so awkward that they make things unclear, however, and on the whole the writing isn't a major flaw. The technical aspect is okay, on the whole -- the NPC movement daemons work particularly well, and one complex object in the castle was well handled. There are also very few library responses, though some of the replacements are less helpful than the library; one that I found particularly irritating was, as a generic failure message, "You do. Not that it seems to change anything," even though more often than not the action in question had not been "done." I wrestled with the syntax a few times, but mostly when I was on the wrong track anyway, and synonyms are reasonably plentiful. The problems lie more in the design. How grave those problems are is, as usual, a matter of taste. As most of the puzzles are reasonably well-conceived, some will enjoy this thoroughly; as the logic is often less than thorough, particularly around the edges, some will find this annoying. For my own part, I ended up somewhere in the middle, but a given player's attitude will more than likely depend on how that player feels about IF created circa 1988. FTP FilePC package with Windows interpreter FTP FileInform .z5 file


From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #18 -- September 15, 1999 TITLE: Varicella AUTHOR: Adam Cadre< E-MAIL: ac SP@G DATE: 1999 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1.00 Varicella, Adam Cadre's third game, has almost nothing in common with his first two, I-0 and Photopia--which, in turn, have just as little in common with each other. (One wonders how long Adam can go without producing IF that bears any resemblance to anything he's already written.) "Almost" is operative because Varicella does have a few things in common with Adam's previous works. The writing is terrific, of course; this is one of the best-written works of IF ever, bar none. Beyond that, though, such a wealth of intelligence went into the designing of this game that, even when the playing experience is unedifying, the player can only appreciate the author's artwork. The premise: you're Primo Varicella, the Palace Minister in the palace of Piedmont, a small Italian city-state (and the product of a somewhat reworked history, since the setting is modern enough to include telephones and electronic surveillance). The king is dead, leaving a five-year-old heir, you're bent on seizing power for yourself- -and you have no apparent compunctions about how you get that power. Your primary tool for the purpose is murder; for your purposes, evidently, your rivals are only out of the way when they're dead. Fortunately, all your rivals for the throne are as evil as you, so the player is unlikely to feel any qualms--and all sorts of nasty stuff ensues. Varicella is a black comedy, with the accent on "black"--mayhem and self-aggrandizement are your character's primary objectives. It follows the lead of last year's "Little Blue Men" in making the PC amoral, driven by greed and unimpeded by sentimental things like compassion--but it addresses a factor that Little Blue Men did not, namely the problem of expecting the player to go along with the PC's objectives. All of the rivals you bump off, or arrange to have bumped off, are profoundly evil; most of them seem to enjoy abusing or exploiting those weaker than themselves. (It is arguable whether you, the PC, are just as evil, but certainly your enemies are unsavory folks.) The player can see Varicella as a sort of avenging force, therefore, even if there are no signs that Varicella actually feels that way or cares about the various evils perpetrated by his enemies except insofar as they affect him personally. It's a rationalization, but a useful one. Varicella himself is one of the most intriguing PC's in memory, but also one of the most frustrating. He is fastidious to the point of caricature; the game regularly keeps you from touching or exploring things because the character finds the idea "unseemly." In fact, "unseemly" is Varicella's favorite word; he uses it as a sort of all-purpose denigration, and it gets applied indiscriminately to actions like walking into a wall inadvertently, lying on the floor, or dying messily. His tastes in interior decoration are exacting, and he feels compelled to comment on the furnishings of virtually every room in the palace--in fact, redecorating seems to be among his main objectives in seizing the throne. The persona that emerges is a sort of C-3PO gone Machiavellian, whose main concern in seizing power is ensuring that there are no bloodstains on the carpets. Varicella is an amusing invention, to be sure, but accomplishing his aims while observing his scruples can be aggravating; the verb TELL is almost never useful, as the game invariably returns "You're not about to divulge your secrets to a hysterical female," or with some substitute for the "hysterical female." In fact, though Varicella speaks in the beginning of a "flawless plan," I had the impression that this sort of character would ordinarily fuss over details and never actually dispose of anyone--and that it's the player's intervention that makes him a murderer. If so, it's a disturbing spin on the player-PC relationship. Unfortunately, none of the other characters are nearly as vivid, and most, with the exception of Miss Sierra, the cynical, clear-eyed prostitute, are wearily familiar. There's the dissolute younger brother, the corrupt priest, the ambitious War Minister, and others. To be sure, Adam gives many of them backstories that put their behavior in context, but they don't do much that could be considered surprising. Miss Sierra is the exception, though; she has definite opinions on everything that goes on, and the perspective that she affords on every aspect of the game is rather disconcerting. (In fact, she seems to function as the author's mouthpiece.) If there is a defect to Miss Sierra, it is that she speaks cynically about everything and initially seems to care personally about nothing, so that discovering something that does touch her personally leaves one wondering why. (It seems, in other words, that she could perfectly well shrug it off as typical of the depraved world she inhabits and understands so well, and it's not clear why she reacts as strongly as she does.) On the other hand, the point of Varicella is served just as well without 10 exhaustively developed characters; the author does what he sets out to do quite well with only a few. Lots and lots goes on in Varicella, and the timing for your required actions is very tight; ascertaining what you need to do requires several games' worth of information-gathering, along with considerable logistical planning so that you can time everything properly. Constant restarting isn't my favorite mode of gameplay, but it's acceptable in Varicella because the game is so short--with less than a hundred moves to replay, starting from scratch isn't such a chore. (There's even an inside joke toward the end of the game on this very subject: Varicella says to one of his rivals, "None of us really has the luxury of going back and trying it all over again until we get it right, now do we?" Varicella, of course, has had that very luxury.) The other reason why repetition isn't as irritating as it might be elsewhere is that, as mentioned, Adam is a hell of a writer, and reading his prose is consistently enjoyable no matter how often it goes by. Notable, but by no means atypical, is the following passage in the prologue: For if this letter you've just received is correct, just such a disease has claimed the life of the King. This leaves the principality in the hands of his son, Prince Charles. Prince Charles is five years old. Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself. One can almost see the character rubbing his hands together (in a fastidious sort of way, of course) at the prospect of snatching the regency. The phrasing captures his personality nicely--"requiring the services of a regent" is the sentence construction of a man who has spent most of his life trying to phrase indelicate matters delicately. The mock-serious tone of "you can think of no better candidate than yourself" likewise implies that the narrator has spent lots of time thinking it over, really, and is prepared to justify the conclusion to his superiors as a Palace Minister must. The writing reflects Varicella's personality throughout the game, and is almost invariably mordantly funny. Playing through Varicella is quite an experience; as noted, the player must devote himself to thoroughly unwholesome ends, sought for no particularly good reason, which isn't necessarily such a pleasant sensation. Beyond that, though, the game requires that you unearth all sorts of unsavory details about your fellow aspirants to the regency--and the nature of the things you learn is, by and large, unpleasant. Giving the relevant players their comeuppance is superficially satisfying, but it doesn't address or rectify the evils already done--and the ultimate ending reflects that fact. In that sense, the game is thoroughly depressing; there's such a remarkable concentration of evil in the game's world that the walls practically drip with it. (In fact, in a sense, they do.) Yes, it's fiction, but the story told is unremittingly bleak--part of the game's message is that evil inevitably engenders more evil (and, moreover, a purer and more monstrous evil). It's in the nature of IF that telling a story of dirty deeds leaves the player feeling a bit soiled himself. (Footnote: playing Varicella can also be a tad annoying for those who don't share the author's views, particularly on matters religious: the character who represents religion also emanates hypocrisy and cruelty, and the mouthpiece mentioned above gets to excoriate all religious doctrines as "sugary lies." Subtle.) But Varicella is a well-told tale, and that it's depressing and unedifying is a testament to how well it's put together; it arguably wouldn't serve the author's purposes as well if it were simply malicious fun. The ending pulls the player up short, forces her to reconsider what came before; suddenly, there are consequences to casual cruelty. That point wouldn't come across nearly as well if the player didn't have a sense of complicity in the events of the game (which she certainly should). There is another process loose in the palace--an infestation of a nefarious green substance--that tells its own story: the palace itself is decaying rapidly, though no one seems to notice but you, and if the decay goes unchecked, the whole place will shortly become unlivable. The infestation serves ably as a metaphor for the evil afoot. (The setting is vaguely reminiscent of the end of Hamlet, in fact, when the "rotten" remnants of Denmark destroy each other and what is left is overrun by Fortinbras and his army. The system's internal contradictions cause it to implode. As it happens, there's also an Ophelia-like character in the game who repeatedly quotes Ophelia.) This, in short, is one of the best pieces of IF ever to be produced; it works brilliantly on several different levels, from entertainment to IF theory. As IF, and as fiction, it's quite an achievement. FTP FileInform file (.z8) FTP FilePC Executable (.exe)


From: Michael A Russo <mar2116 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #43 -- January 7, 2006 TITLE: Vespers AUTHOR: Jason Devlin EMAIL: jdevlin1984 SP@G DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: VERSION: Release 1 Vespers feels a lot like Name of the Rose. I know, I promised I'd stop with the using other works of fiction to make comments, but I'm not so much drawing functional comparisons as I am pointing out topical and thematic similarities here, so according to my head it's all right. The primary reason why I bring this up isn't to do something so dreary as to accuse the author (responsible for last year's Sting of the WASP, an excellent but very different game) of lack of originality or anything like that - in IF as in every other medium, it's all about execution, and the best creators are plunder-happy magpies, ripping off ideas from wherever they can find them. I mention the Eco connection mostly to disclose that I liked Name of the Rose a lot, am a sucker for Medieval Catholic eschatology, and therefore might be biased towards Vespers due to an affinity for the subject matter and residual good-will for works which hoed much the same row. So with that out of the way, I can now start praising Vespers. It has numerous strengths, but I think the most important is how well paced it is. The introduction slopes in gradually, and while I generally like to have some idea of what I should be accomplishing from the very beginning, here the more leisurely approach worked well - knowing that plague was loose and the monastery was locked in made things more interesting than the standard wander- corridors-until-something-happens opening, and front-loading much of the exploration allowed later sequences to play out tauter, since the player knows exactly where everything is. The number of NPCs is initially a little overwhelming, but the author does a very good job of giving each of them a distinctive feature, so that the player soon remembers which is the crazy one, which is the terse, practical one, and so on. Besides, things pick up fairly quickly once the player's visited all the important areas - Cecilia's arrival kicks off a string of clear, well-motivated puzzles, and from there interaction with her serves to give the player character his next objective. The narrative doesn't just progress, though - it deepens. As time passes and the malady which has laid claim to the player character does its work, descriptions change quite strikingly, which is a very nice touch - not only does it effectively convey the character's deteriorating mental state and effectively underline the thematically central mood of decay, it also makes re- visiting already-explored areas a pleasure rather than an invitation to tedium. The player is also allowed to complete major goals along the way, which lead fluidly on to the next. The arcs of individual monks are continually resolved (usually, sad to say, this involves their death), which each add something to the larger puzzle. The game also does a good job of unlocking new areas to explore in a controlled fashion; the player is introduced to a few new locations at a time, generally already knowing what he wants to do, which helps create a fleshed-out world without unnecessary disorientation. Speaking of avoiding unnecessary disorientation, the puzzles are another strong suit of Vespers. The player knows about most of the major puzzles (finding the hidden diary, gaining access to the cellar) from the early stages of the game, which serves to alert him to any tools or clues which might help with those tasks. Smaller-scale, more immediate puzzles (the avalanche, the wolf attack), often confined to one particular area, are introduced cleanly, usually requiring some quick thinking but no items from previous scenes. The prayer system is particularly elegant, almost serving as get-out-jail-free cards - I think in every case, the player can find a solution which doesn't involve prayer, but if you're having trouble coming up with the answer, a saint's intercession will do the job, without forcing recourse to the hints file. This middle ground of providing the player with a limited number of expendable puzzle-solving tokens is very good game design, and evocative too - before bedding down on the first night, I thought the good abbot should say his nightly orisons, and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that this preemptively solved a puzzle which otherwise might have required a die-and- undo! So Vespers is already a very good game, before you get to the endgame and the rug gets pulled out. Not only is the narrative twist nicely done - it both comes out of nowhere and had me slapping my forehead for not noticing it sooner - there's also a mechanical twist, as this whole time the game has been keeping track of the sins you've committed. It would be very easy to have put the mechanic front and center and transparently informed the player when he's moved down on the degeneration track, but keeping it hidden was definitely the right call, as this way the player isn't even aware he's being judged until it's too late, and it's never obvious which particular decisions were decisive. My only objection is that I think the scale might be too unforgiving - my first time through, I got the "evil" ending, even though of course I think my transgressions were relatively minor (I'd once prayed to Cecilia, and attacked the unknown figure I'd tripped down the stairs since I wasn't sure if he was incapacitated from the fall). Still, given the setting, an unforgiving morality is definitely appropriate. Flaws? A few. The mystery of what Constantin's been up to is a major driver of the narrative, so the rather hasty reveal felt abrupt and therefore had less impact than it might have. The last scene, while a nicely calculated sucker-punch, also has about it a faint redolence of a heavy-metal album-cover. And sometimes the header quotes (which are nicely done, by the way, like the scenery descriptions starting out familiar, almost banal, but slowly growing strange and threatening as the plague progresses) wouldn't properly erase, so that bits of earlier quotes would stick around and overlap on the new ones. But that's literally all I can come up with, which is pretty impressive, given how much of a stickler I can be. My notes don't record any disambiguation issues or typos; they're basically just reminders not to forget how neat particular elements were. Overall, Vespers was my favorite game of the comp. Zcode executable (.z8) Inform source code

Vicious Cycles

From: Suzanne Britton <tril SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #27 -- January 4, 2002 TITLE: Vicious Cycles AUTHOR: Mark Simon E-MAIL: marksimo SP@G DATE: October 2001 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: VERSION: Release 1 Sweet. A game that Requires Knowledge Of Past Lives, and gets away with it! The "gimmick" of Vicious Cycles is a real gem, serving as the fulcrum for the clever, interlocked puzzles that form the meat of the game, and deftly flouting the Player's Bill of Rights. There were many pleasant "aha!" moments, and not a single puzzle that felt tacked-on. With the addition of excellent writing and competent programming, the game is well worth a top score. I noticed just a handful of minor bugs (missing synonyms, illogical defaults, etc.) and no spelling or grammar errors. I was struck by the sharp, effective precision of the author's storytelling and mood-setting: very Plotkinesque. I remember particularly the casual mention of "knuckles whiten(ing) around a hand grip". Though the story is full of opinionated characters, the narrator is all "show", no "tell": he gives you the cues and lets you read into them for yourself. The boy and girl were a nice extra touch. I liked the fact that you could talk with the boy, and also that the repair man answered to many more topics than was necessary for puzzle-solving. Mimesis wore thin almost nowhere. All in all, this is an impressive offering by a relatively new name on the IF scene. FTP File.z5 Zcode file (updated version) FTP FileDirectory with .z5 Zcode file and walkthrough (competition version)


From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #14 -- May 17, 1998 NAME: VirtuaTech AUTHOR: David Glasser E-MAIL: virtuatech SP@G DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 Captivating visions of the future are fairly old hat in science fiction, though, like most things, they're not quite as overdone in IF. The challenge in such stories is usually to introduce the player to some new technology and make it both impressive--full of exciting possibilities and dangers--and easily accessible. David Glasser's VirtuaTech doesn't quite meet that challenge; though it's simple and reasonably fun, the equipment that the player has to use is not as accessible as it might be, and the whole thing just doesn't feel all that enthralling. You are a college student who must get to class with a copy of your report in some limited amount of time--though it doesn't seem the game actually limits the time, unfortunately; it might give the task some urgency. Your goal, actually, is one of the best features of the game--it drives all your actions, it gives the puzzles meaning, and you are never allowed (at least, there isn't much room) to go check out the sights. Many games simply thrust the player into an environment--far too often a fairly humdrum one--with a goal only vaguely defined and not obviously connected to any of the initial things he or she does. There is much to be said for a small, tightly plotted game environment. Anyway, you find that the power is out--though some rather power-heavy equipment seem to work just fine--and then that your computer has bugs, and you must use the virtual-reality technology available to solve the problems. There is an additional puzzle afterwards that I found hilarious, at least in terms of the images it produced; I wished the author had made more of it in the writing. (I also wished that the author had explained why "the world for miles in each direction is cursed with blight and chill"; that sounds a little overwritten to be talking about winter, but if not, what is it talking about?) Among the main problems here is that the technology is such a pain to use that it hardly seems labor-saving at all. For example, you have a "scanner" that must be plugged into the phone for the latter to work; the phone dials whatever number is on the scanner. The number on the scanner, though, is whatever you last scanned into it, and there is no apparent way to "save" a number on it and come back to it later, after dialing other numbers. Worse, you have to pick up the scanner to scan anything into it, and to do that, you have to disconnect it from the phone and then reconnect it afterwards--and why those complications are necessary is beyond me. Actually, I have a guess--the existing setup prevents the player from going to a virtual site (via the phone) while still holding the scanner, which would admittedly cause problems. But it doesn't seem so impossible to either prevent the player from disappearing into VR while still holding the scanner or have it fall to the floor when he does. It feels, in short, like the author should have made it easier by skipping the scanner and allowing the player to CALL whoever once he knows the number. I mean, there are programmable phones _now_. Did progress go backwards? The author can't, however, be accused of laziness, in that the places you access to finish the game have a wide range of irrelevant options to simulate the feel of actual tech support; that element, at least, feels real. Which brings up the other main problem. Tech support? This is a good way to make your innovation thoroughly unappealing. Mightn't it be possible to go somewhere else, somewhere fun? It might be in the course of the given plot--you have to visit your cool friend to get some sort of information for your report, or go to Bermuda to investigate something. I dunno. But this is not a vision of the future that gets me all that excited--I mean, it's barely different from existing technology, and getting transported to drab little rooms doesn't feel like much progress. (After all, what happens in any of the virtual scenarios that couldn't have been done just as easily with an ordinary phone and computer? And how is the experience any more interesting?) The interior of the computer is all right (though, like with A New Day, I wanted to do more with it, like chop down a directory tree or sift through the trash or explore a dark and spooky sector), though compass directions break the spell a bit, and the translation from solid objects in real life to virtual objects-- and back--is plausible and well done. (And the daemon is cute, I must admit, even if you can't do much with him.) But you can't really do enough in the computer for me to get into the idea. Oddly, it was the last part of VirtuaTech (well, it doesn't have to be last, but that's how it worked for me and I suspect that most players had the same experience) that I enjoyed the most, though it required major suspensions of disbelief about several things. It was just--I dunno--a funny way to solve the puzzle, though it seemed like there was another, more obvious way to do substantially the same thing. It was also something that the player can actually visualize--the other parts of the game are written so sparsely that they don't exactly come alive. And, to be frank, it was more interesting than calling tech support. VirtuaTech isn't bad; structurally, there isn't much wrong with it. I just felt like it needed some things--perhaps more things along the lines of the last puzzle--to spice it up and make it fun to play; had I read about such a game in the GMD archive, I doubt I would have been inspired to play it. Though mostly solid, there isn't a lot here to keep the player's interest. FTP FileDirectory with TADS .gam file and text files


From: Adrian J. Chung <ajchung SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #29 -- June 20, 2002 NAME: Voices AUTHOR: Aris Katsaris EMAIL: katsaris SP@G DATE: February 2001 PARSER: Infocom Standard SUPPORTS: Z-code (Infocom/Inform) interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: VERSION: Release 1 (SmoochieComp original) I debated with myself whether or not I should submit a review for this one. The recent jump in the adventure gaming audience swayed me in the affirmative. Stating that newcomers who were expecting a game are in for a surprise would be a bit of an understatement. The opening text: Voices An Interactive Romance (...) Ladies' Tree We like to play and dance in this place around the tall beech, (...) but I've never seen them myself. Nor have I ventured alone much to the south of here - the town of Domremy is in the north. suggests a romance told in the first person -- features of the Comp98 2nd place game, "Muse". As it turns out, this work really orbits in the same system as the Comp98 1st placer, "Photopia". The tightly scripted (almost on rails) story and heavy reliance on "talk to" are the features to which I refer. Not to mention the interface manipulation gimmicks pioneered by "Shrapnel" -- one gimmick is also to be found in another SmoochieComp game, "Pytho's Mask". Enough references for you? There's not much more I can say without contributing to the spoilery for a work as short as this -- it takes no more than ten minutes to experience. The prose conveys some rather strong emotions via a story design that can be debated for days, which is exactly what happened on r*if. If emotional impact per line of non-library source code were a valid measure, this would probably rank as high as Photopia or Shade; perhaps even higher due to the sparse implementation. It takes courage to use the minicomp format (and SmoochieComp, no less!) to tackle much debated philosophy and religious theology. Admittedly my Catholic upbringing could be a factor in my slight disagreement in the portrayal of some of the major characters. It was also disconcerting to have to make decisions for them at critical points in the story. The rapid switching of person perspectives -- between 1st and 2nd, interspersed with 3rd -- only added to this discomfort. Maybe this was intentional. At least it avoids the risks of trivialising the belief systems of a major religion as can often happen in this medium. This is testimony to the author's writing skill and well-planned design. Did I mention the historical setting? There is almost too much packed into something of this size. Does it work? I'd venture a conditional yes. But like I said, it depends greatly on what expectations you bring to the table. Perhaps that's why it was released in a minicomp. FTP FileUpdated post-comp release FTP FileOriginal version packaged with all SmoochieComp games Go to the previous page of reviews (U)

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Voices of Spoon River

From: Jimmy Maher <maher SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #45 -- July 17, 2006 TITLE: Voices of Spoon River AUTHOR: Creative Learning Environments Lab at Utah State University EMAIL: brett.shelton SP@G DATE: June, 2006 PARSER: Inform 6 SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: VERSION: Release 1 Voices of Spoon River was developed by a group of graduate students studying instructional game theory at Utah State University. Its purpose is to illuminate a minor classic of American literature, Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Before discussing the IF work, perhaps we should talk briefly about the book on which it is based. First published in 1915, Spoon River Anthology is a collection of over 200 short poems. Each is written in the form of a first-person epitaph, describing a citizen of the small Midwestern town of Spoon River. The stories these citizens tell about their lives are not, with only the occasional exception, uplifting, as Masters digs deep beneath the surface of small-town middle American life to reveal the quiet desperation in which even the upstanding and successful live. Although each can stand alone, the poems form a web of interrelationships to be puzzled out by the reader. Thus we see hopelessly dysfunctional marriages from the standpoint of both spouses and sometimes the husband's other woman, and hear from both a criminal and the judge who put him away. The poetry is frankly not very good, but the stories told are often compelling, and piecing together the various plotlines of the town from fragments of testimony is fascinating. Equally approachable in any order the reader chooses, these poems would make a fertile subject of study for students of non-linear, multi-formal literature even if the Spoon River IF work had never been created. But what of that work? Voices of Spoon River begins about where one might expect it to, in the middle of the Spoon River graveyard. All around are tombstones bearing Masters' poetic epitaphs. The player soon learns that she has a task to perform. She must restore peace to these lost souls by performing various actions that will reconcile them to their fates. To do this, of course, she must first determine just what, or in many cases who, is disturbing their rest. Here enters the didactic focus of the work in earnest, for in order to solve the game the player must grapple fairly intimately with the literary world Masters has created. It is quite a clever conceit, actually, and it works quite well. At its best, Spoon River gives the feeling of actually getting inside a work of literature and exploring in a way I have seldom if ever experienced before. One could, however, argue that the IF work is not really true thematically to the original work it purports to celebrate. After all, much of the power of Masters' poems arises from the pathetic futility of all these broken, unsatisfied lives. The game, though, undermines that by giving the player the opportunity to tack happy endings of sorts on top of Masters' miniature tragedies, even though the very lack of tidy resolutions like these is sort of the point of Masters' work. For Spoon River to work as a game, though, perhaps this conceit is necessary. Once she determines what needs to be done to satisfy each lost soul, the player will find some simple puzzles to solve to actually accomplish each good deed. None are particularly creative -- indeed, you will probably not remember the details of a single one five minutes after solving the game -- but, thankfully, none are obscure or unfair. Working out what needs to be done and then solving the necessary puzzles together give a nice glow of accomplishment that keeps the player moving through the game, and that is more than enough. Complicated brain twisters are just not what this one is about. Spoon River's geography is fairly expansive by modern standards. In addition to the graveyard of lost souls, the player will also explore the deserted town of Spoon River itself, full of locations offering further insight into Masters' characters. Of course, one could ask just why the town is deserted. Where are the descendants of those in the graveyard? Still, the emptiness suits the haunted, dreamlike nature of the work, so we will allow it its artistic license. Although implemented widely, Spoon River is not implemented very deeply. Scenery is generally non-manipulatible, and character interaction with the ghosts is rudimentary at best. It does not really matter, though. The implementation is generally good enough to accomplish the game's goals, and the player is never left at a loss for how to phrase a command or converse with others. The game's non-Masters derived prose is similarly workmanlike, being competent but uninspired. On the other hand, Masters' poetic skills are far from his greatest strength, and thus the game's prose and Masters' poetry do not clash horribly at all. One could even attribute to the whole a certain rough-hewn charm. More disconcerting is the game's lack of overall polish. It claims that there are 100 points available to be scored, but I saw no way of reaching even 70. Typos are not overwhelming, but they are there. Worst of all is the game's ending, which seems hopelessly bugged. A secret, "bonus" area is apparently supposed to open up once the player has put all of the souls at peace, but this does not happen. Luckily, another bug means that the player can enter this area at any time, even on the first move of the game, so one need not miss anything. Still, I hope that a cleaned-up, bug-fixed release will be forthcoming at some point, as the game is definitely worth it. My biggest disappointment with Spoon River is that there is not more of it. Only a dozen or so of Masters' 200-plus stories are told here. It is not a particularly small game by modern standards, and will probably give the careful player a good two or three hours of enjoyment, but I wanted to spend even more time in its, and Masters', world. That is perhaps the best compliment I can pay to it. I hope we will see more IF like it in the future, and encourage educators everywhere to give it a serious look for possible classroom use, particularly if some of its rough edges get a bit of polishing sometime soon. FTP FileZip containing the Zcode (.z8) game file, documentation and interpreters for Windows and Mac