___. .___ _ ___. / _| | \ / \ / ._| \ \ | o_/ | | | |_. .\ \ | | | o | | | | The |___/ociety for the |_|romotion of |_|_|dventure \___|ames. ISSUE # 13 - COMPETITION SPECIAL Edited by Magnus Olsson (zebulon SP@G pobox.com) February 5, 1998. SPAG Website: http://www.afn.org/~afn55673/spag.html Contest Website: http://www.afn.org/~afn55673/contest/ SPAG #13 is copyright (c) 1998 by Magnus Olsson. Authors of reviews retain the rights to their contributions. All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine with the traditional 'at' sign. IN THIS ISSUE ------------------------------------------------------------- The results of the 1997 IF Competition Interviews with Lucian P. Smith, Ian Finley and Nate Cull. Reviews of: Babel, A Bear's Night Out, The Edifice, The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang, Friday Afternoon, Glowgrass, The Lost Spellmaker, Madame L'Estrange and the Troubled Spirit, A New Day, Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza, She's Got a Thing for a Spring, Sins Against Mimesis, Sunset Over Savannah, Sylenius Mysterium, The Tempest, Unholy Grail, Poor Zefron's Almanac, Zero Sum Game, and Zombie! EDITORIAL------------------------------------------------------------------ Well, what can I say? If the first IF Competition was a good start, and the second was a resounding success, then the third Competition was overwhelming. Not only in the number of entries (though I certainly have to admire the energy of the judges who played every single game), but in the quality of most entries. I could go on for some length praising the entries, but I think I'll leave that to the reviewers. Let me just give my heartfelt congratulations to all the authors, and thanks to all the judges, and to the organizers. You've done a great job, all of you! COMPETITION RESULTS ------------------------------------------------------- 1 - The Edifice, by Lucian P. Smith 2 - Babel, by Ian Finley 3 - Glowgrass, by Nate Cull 4 - She's got a Thing for a Spring, by Brent VanFossen 5 - A Bear's Night Out, by David Dyte 6 - Sunset Over Savannah, by Ivan Cockrum 7 - Poor Zefron's Almanac, by Carl Klutzke 8 - The Lost Spellmaker, by Neil Brown 9 - Sins Against Mimesis, by Adam Thornton 10 - A New Day, by Jonathan Fry 11 - Zero Sum Game, by Cody Sandifier 12 - Zombie!, by Scott W. Starkey 13 - The Frenetic Five vs Sturm und Drang, by Neil deMause 14 - Travels in the Land of Erden, by Laura A. Knauth 15 - Unholy Grail, by Stuart Allen 16 - Friday Afternoon, by Mischa Schweitzer 17 - Madame L'estrange and the Troubled Spirit, by Ian Ball and Marcus Young 18 - Sylenius Mysterium, by C.E. Forman 19 - Phred Phontious, the Quest for Pizza, by Michael Zey 20 - Down, by Kent Tessman 21 - VirtuaTech, by David Glasser 22 - The Obscene Quest of Dr Aardvarkbarf, by Gary Roggin 23 - A Good Breakfast, by Stuart Adair 24 - The Town Dragon, by David A. Cornelson INTERVIEWS -------------------------------------------------------------- Since the first competiton in 1995, SPAG has made it a tradition to publish e-mail interviews with the authors. The number of entries this year makes it somewhat impractical to interview all the entrants; instead, we've settled for somewhat more in-depth interviews with the three top places. First the winner of the first prize: Lucian P. Smith, auhor of "The Edifice". Q: To start with, could you tell as a few things about yourself? Who are you, what do you do for a living, and so on? A: Well, in no particular order: I'm a graduate student in Biochemistry at Rice University. I'm in an improv comedy troupe called ComedySportz. I'm married. I grew up in Seattle and went to college at Wheaton College in Illinois. That enough? Q: How and when did you first get into contact with IF? And what made you decide to write your own game? A: I remember playing 'Deadline' (and getting nowhere, incidentally) on my friend's Apple II ages ago, and getting Zork hints from a friend in High School. I always loved the concept, even though I wasn't able to play them that often. I got back into IF by searching the web in early '95 for 'XYZZY' and stumbling upon XYZZYnews. From there, I got to the newsgroups, eventually figured out the concept of an 'interpreter' so I could *play* the games everyone was talking about, and it's just snowballed from there. I don't remember precisely what motivated me to try to write my own games in general, but the driving force behind 'Edifice' was definitely the contest. I was trying to come up with a good idea for a short game for the contest when I thought of the basic plot for it. Q: What made you choose Inform, rather than TADS or some language, for writing "Edifice"? A: Inform games were the first games I figured out how to download and play back when I started, so I guess there was an affinity there to begin with. Also, when I first downloaded the files, TADS was still shareware. After that, it's been mostly inertia ;-) Inform is a very nice language, and was easy for me to understand and assimilate. Q: Would you say that your entry is primarily a game or a piece of literature? Or perhaps both? Or neither? A: Ooog. Perhaps both, I guess. I'd say maybe that it's a story that depends on its game aspects to be fully effective (however effective it may be). The story, even as literature, depends on the interaction with the reader/player. The language puzzle would be boring to read about, but (apparantly) was quite fun to experience. Q: "Edifice" has been described as an allegory about the evolution of man. Was it intended as such, or is it "just" a story without deeper meaning? A: Well, I *did* subtitle it 'An Interactive Allegory'. But I think of it as an allegory in the sense that the things you found tended toward the archetypal--Others, Enemies, Rock, and so on. The allegory is right there on the surface. I was kind of thinking of Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" in the back of my mind--"Oh, here's Frugality, I wonder what he thinks about cash flow?" So yes, I suppose there's a 'deeper meaning'--but you don't exactly need a shovel to find it ;-) Actually, if there's any sort of deeper meaning, it would be in your 'contentment' score--but the whole score thing was horribly, horribly broken in the competition release, so it was virtually impossible to get this. Q: How much is the Edifice inspired by the Monolith in "2001"? Did you have other sources of inspiration? A: *Laugh* Actually, it's been rather amusing to read all the posts assuming I was inspired by 2001. I was, indeed, inspired by something, but it wasn't that. There was a film I saw at least a couple times in grade school (once in fourth, again in fifth, and maybe even again in sixth), which was a collection of short snippets, designed, I suppose, to stimulate creativity. There was a bit about a ping-pong ball rejected from a factory because it bounced too high, an interview between two people that degenerated into just numbers ("2-0-5-7-9-9-2?" "4-4-2-4-6-6-9." "2-6-1-1-2-8-4?" "6-3-9-0-1-2-9."),...and "The Edifice." It was a cartoon in which the camera panned up a big tower, and you got to look in through the windows and see history unfold. The only specifics I remember are someone in the dark ages discovering the '0', and in the end, a guy standing on the top of the tower, his head in a radioactive cloud, shouting "Help!" as the camera backed away and showed the whole tower he was standing on. In my mind, at least, the Monolith is a different sort of beast than my Edifice. I actually hadn't seen 2001 until last month, but I had read the book. The Monolith is active, causing change in the apes. My Edifice is passive, presenting opportunity, but nothing more. But who knows? Maybe the film short was inspired by 2001 ;-) Q: What do you think of the other contest entries this year? Any favourites? A: I have to say that as I was playing through the introductions to all the games, just to get a feel for them, there were two games that hooked me and made me play the whole thing--Babel and Glowgrass. I particularly liked the way Glowgrass worked on two levels, as the protagonist discovered more and more about the land he was searching, and as the player discovered more and more about the protagonist. Other games that stood out were "A Bear's Night Out" and "The Frenetic Five". I haven't played all of them yet, but most all were at least good efforts, and many were outstanding. Q: What do you think of the future of IF? A: I have no idea, except that it'll be fun to watch unfold. My guess is that the field will spread, as new avenues are explored, and old motifs are re-exploited. It'll probably stay a hobbyist's pursuit, for the most part, but it'll be interesting to see what all it touches as it expands. Q: And, finally, speaking of the future: do you have any plans for writing more IF? A: Oh, of course! Great grandiose plans, no less. I do actually have a basic idea for a larger work of IF, but it hasn't really gelled yet, and I've been busy with other things. No plans yet for another competition game (or, for that matter, an Edifice sequel, which has been inquired about by a few), but if inspiration hits, who am I to stand in its way? Thanks again to Whizzard for hosting the competition! =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= Then, the second-prize winner, Ian Finley, author of "Babel": Q: To start with, could you tell as a few things about yourself? Who are you, what do you do for a living, and so on? A: Ok, my name is Ian Finley, I'm 17 years old and a senior at Bountiful High School in Bountiful, Utah; one of the more conservative communities this side of Communist China. My "living" as it were consists of writing essays for college and/or scholarship applications in a desperate attempt to further my education. Q: How and when did you first get into contact with IF? And what made you decide to write your own game? A: My first experience with IF was in fifth grade when my fantastic teacher Joyce Martinez (who I still claim to be one of the primary factors in who I am today) took me and a group of my friends aside during recess and showed us Zork, Enchanter, and Deadline. We never got more than 10 points into any of them, but it was something new and amazing, and the day after she showed us I was already imagining what I could do if I could write a game. Years past, and nothing occurred, though my interest was sparked again off and on by The Lost Treasures of Infocom, etc. Then I found the IF archive and the authoring systems. After a nightmarish attempt with AGT, and tremors of horror just looking at the Inform manual, I settled on TADS (which I truly adore) and started writing. "Babel" was meant to be quite small, and by the time I realized it's necessary size, I was ready to quit, were it not for the Competition and the carrot it dangled. Mr. Wilson, you have my undying thanks for pushing me through. Q: What made you choose TADS, rather than Inform or some other language, for writing "Babel"? A: Ease of use. I haven't programmed a thing in my life and TADS was the easiest tool. I found it much easier than even AGT, as well as much more powerful. I started with a very small game requiring very little programming knowledge and gradually added more and more complex stuff as I went. The HTML documentation is also wonderful and really quite accessible. Q: Would you say that your entry is primarily a game or a piece of literature? Or perhaps both? Or neither? A: LITERATURE. I get frustrated easily with puzzles and end up looking up hints, so those aren't usually motivating factors when I play other people's games. In fact, the only puzzles I can recall actually enjoying were some from Riven, when I got that real "Aha!" sense. But the reason I play a game isn't to work out my brain, it's to be part of a story, in a different way than you can experience with a movie or a book. This was my mindset in writing "Babel." Q: A very important element in "Babel" is the protagonist's way of recalling events, in a form of flashbacks. What gave you the idea for that? A: Everything I write is character driven. Interaction with people is the core of any story I think. But, due to my lack of coding ability, I knew I couldn't write decent characters that you could interact with. Also, I knew that the game should be cold and empty. The flashbacks seemed the perfect solution. Q: Do you see a conflict between the non-interactive "flashbacks" and the essentially interactive nature of the medium? Is there a need to overcome this conflict, and, in that case, do you have any ideas how this could be done? A: Naturally this is a problem; people have complained since the beginning of IF about screenfuls of text scrolling past them. The solution to this, as I see it is to cut things down to a manageable size. Brevity is the soul of wit and all. The scenes in Babel all went through extensive revision (and even MORE extensive revision is occurring as we speak for the second release) though many scenes (Brett's bedroom, Jonas' bedroom) are still more ungainly that I'd like them to be. Q: What do you think of the other contest entries this year? Any favourites? A: There are some AMAZING games this year. "Sunset Over Savanna" (or however you spell it) is on my list of all time favorite games, and one of the greatest gaming experiences I've had. Also, my hat off to Lucian; Edifice is a masterwork, combing the broad with close detail. In fact, I take back what I said about puzzles. Edifice used them brilliantly; the moment I figured out what was written on the Edifice I nearly crowed with joy. I was honored to follow this game in the rankings. Q: What do you think of the future of IF? A: Ok, I'm a 17 year old who still writes and plays IF, so I can at least say from personal experience that the art form has a long life in front of it. I also see, with the increase of the internet that, with a little more support, the field will have experience renewed growth in the years to come. Look at the increasing size of the Competition! Q: And, finally, speaking of the future: do you have any plans for writing more IF? A: Maybe too many! I'm currently at work on two projects, both small to play but huge to program: "8:00 at Andie's Bar and Grill," an entirely menu based game focusing on interpersonal relationships (no more stereotypes for me!) and (tentative title) "The Lips of Iscariot," a more straightforward game, also heavily focused on NPC interaction, set in the jungles and revolutionary camps of Mexico. Beta-testers always welcome! =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= And finally the word goes to Nate Cull, author of "Glowgrass": Q: To start with, could you tell as a few things about yourself? Who are you, what do you do for a living, and so on? A: I'm 26. I live in New Zealand (that's the little country in the South Pacific which isn't a state of Australia). I'm a computer support slash network technician at Christchurch Polytechnic (a small university). At the moment I'm living alone, which is great for writing, but not much else. Despite what you may have heard, the majority of the inhabitants of New Zealand don't wear flax skirts and jump up and down waving spears. Well, we do, but only when our rugby team wins the World Cup. We're a fairly technically literate country; we've had EFTPOS here in the late '80s, though we still don't have cable television. Q: How and when did you first get into contact with IF? And what made you decide to write your own game? A: Hmmm. Let's see. The very first IF game I remember was called "Miser", and it ran on a 16k Commodore PET. It was a ripoff of Scott Adams, where you had to pick up treasures around a house. I was majorly impressed. Then I found Colossal Cave and got incredibly frustrated because I couldn't solve the dragon puzzle - even now, I *still* think that's one of the all-time classics of bad IF design, because it relies on a completely unexpected parser trick. I pretty much started writing adventures as soon as I could program. _Island Adventure_ was I think my original masterpiece. It was written in MBASIC, had nine rooms (two of which would kill you instantly) and a two word parser. My second attempt was a bit better, it had multiline room descriptions and a vending machine (that gave you bullets, for some reason. Don't ask me why.) I was intrigued by Scott Adams, but only solved one (Pirate Adventure) without cheats. But when I played my first Infocom (no, not Zork - _Seastalker_) I fell in love. The rest of my teenage years were mainly spent trying to design a parser that could accept multiword sentences, but I never got it to work. I had lots of plots for Infocom-style games, and was very annoyed that I couldn't ever implement them properly. Oh, yeah, I never solved an Infocom without cheats, either. Q: What made you choose TADS, rather than Inform or some other language, for writing "Glowgrass"? A: Mainly because TADS was the first "real" IF development package I found. I had been tinkering with AGT, and even wrote one experimental game in it just to test its boundaries, but it was an incredibly painful experience. Writing in AGT, at least the version I had, was like writing raw assembler code. Then I came across an obscure little gmd.de game, _Peshach Adventure_, which found its way onto a shareware CD. It was written in TADS, and I liked what I saw, so from there I tracked down the gmd archive and Michael Roberts. (IF Authors note: put *lots* of contact details in your "help" screens. You never know where your game might end up.) When I saw TADS, it was another "wow!" experience. I was heavily blown away - and still am - by its simplicity, and its late-binding object-oriented focus. The fact that you can redefine a property to be either a value or a method on the fly makes the implementing of a game pretty much trivial, so you can focus on the story. And its syntax is nearly pure C, which made it simple to learn. Heck, there's hardly *any* syntax. Just object definitions and assignments and a few functions. The rest is the ADV.T library (which I've hacked) and your own code. I haven't yet tried Inform, but from what I've seen of the manual, its syntax seems a lot stranger and more needlessly complicated than TADS. And I'd seriously miss the "adjective" property - TADS disambiguation is so easy it hurts. However, I am being tempted by the Nelson Side. In particular, I'd consider trading my soul for the quote box, online help, real-time control and the ability to parse arbitary sentence structures (you can do arbitary parsing in TADS, but you'd have to reinvent the parser to do it). Q: Would you say that your entry is primarily a game or a piece of literature? Or perhaps both? Or neither? A: Given the choice, definitely literature. I was trying to write an interactive short story, not set up a conflict of wits between author and player. I don't mind the term "game", because it's a word that has come to mean a lot of good things - exploring, having a fun time, and playing with things - but IF, for me, is not about strategy and tactics and conflict and all the other things that make up good gameplay. It's about storytelling, creating an interesting world and letting the player free to discover it. Conflict may well enter into that as a mechanism, but it's not the primary motivator. I guess it's no surprise that my all-time favourite Infocom is _A Mind Forever Voyaging_. :) Q: What are your feelings about IF in science fiction settings? Is that genre in any danger of becoming overused, in the way that many people say that fantasy IF is? Why do you think so much IF belongs to the fantasy and science fiction genres? A: For a start, I think IF attracts a more technologically minded kind of author. You don't even think about writing stories that interact, that are very mechanical, unless you're in love with the machine. The tools we use to write with - even Inform and TADS - are still fairly primitive, and require a lot of technical ability to use. And because it's a very young, offbeat, cultish medium, you're likely to get creatively minded people - people who look at the world and see not what is, but what might be. The sort of people who like speculative fiction. So you're already selecting for a certain type of writer right there. Speculative fiction is also a lot easier for amateurs like me to write (not write _well_, just to write), and since most IF writers are amateurs not professionals, we pick the easy choice. SF and F worlds are easier because they're a lot more flexible than reality, so if you need the Golden Widget of Truth to be carryable by the half-gnome player, then it is. IF engines aren't forgiving; science-fiction and fantasy worlds are. Personally, I am a science fiction fan, and I write what I want to read. SF and fantasy (_good_ fantasy, the really weird stuff, not just a warmed over Tolkien clone) is like adrenalin for the brain. It stimulates you, makes you think in new directions. Politics and romance haven't changed much for centuries; science has. Now we're living in a generation of massive cultural change. We didn't have the World Wide Web last Thursday, what will we have Friday week? SF writes to that gap, which is why I think it's the most interesting form of fictional literature on the market today. But yes, it can tend to make for easy, cheap writing. (I don't think _Glowgrass_ is much of an exception; I cut a lot of corners I couldn't have in a "realistic" setting.) SF and fantasy do get overused and abused. I'd love to see more "reality" IF - good solid spy thrillers, murder mysteries, romances, period dramas. I liked _Border Zone_ and I wished the historical part of _Trinity_ had been a game on its own, without the fantasy segment. IF does need to break away from the "it's just spaceships and dragons" stereotype that it's evolved. I'm not sure if that's likely to happen, though, until we get tools that give a wider spectrum of writers, people who don't necessarily like computers, access to painless IF development. But until then, I'll just keep hoping that the science fiction and fantasy we produce will get more serious, with as much depth and character as "mainstream" fiction. Whatever that is. Q: "Glowgrass" isn't really an example of "puzzle-less" IF, but I noticed that you take care to make the puzzles simple, sometimes almost giving away the solution (I'm thinking about how to open the garage door, for example). What's your view on puzzles in IF? Are they a necessary evil? A: They're evil. No doubt about that. :) Seriously, I'm not a puzzle hater, but a puzzle has to be _impossible_ to not get or it's got no business being in IF at all. That's my view, and it's mainly because I have incredibly dark and icky memories of playing IF as a kid and literally screaming in frustration because I wanted to finish the _story_ and couldn't because some stupid _puzzle_ kept getting in the way. I like _good_ puzzles -- which means, ones I can get. But they're nasty creatures to control. They're like jokes, only much, much worse. In a comedy, say a Terry Pratchett _Discworld_, you can sling off thousands of one-liners and several dozen elaborately sprung and weighted fall-off-the-couch-and-die-laughing set pieces, and you can be reasonably certain that 90% of the readers won't get more than half of them. But that's okay, because they can still read all the way to the end of the book. But in IF, if a player misses _one_ puzzle, just one, she fails to read the author's mind or have gone to the same school or watched the same movie once, she's gone. Snap. End of game. No more story. Can you imagine watching _Seinfield_ and have the screen black out and go to static each time you didn't get a joke? Yeah, in IF you can cheat with a walkthru. That's a bit like printing explanations of all a show's jokes in the TV Guide so you can look them up, laugh in the right place and have the TV signal cut in again for another 30 seconds. There's a reason IF isn't popular, folks. When puzzles work, they're brilliant. I played _Myst_ all the way through without hints, and it was wonderful. One of my favourite Infocoms is _Suspended_, and that was one big puzzle. I like the thrill of challenge and the joy of solving something you thought impossible, but all to often, when you meet an impossible problem in IF, it stays impossible. (At least it does to me. Very, very rarely do I read a solution and go "Oh! I could have thought of that." Usually I go "Huh?" or "But, *nobody* could have known that." Maybe I'm bad at problem-solving, but heck, I play IF for entertainment, not work.) In _Glowgrass_ I was mainly using puzzles just as placeholders for putting interaction into the story. They weren't seriously meant to slow anyone down, or even necessarily make them think. In hindsight, I think I did make them a bit too obvious; I might fix that in release 2. Q: What do you think of the other contest entries this year? Any favourites? A: Yes. Outstandingly, _Babel_. It had everything I love most in a game. It created mood brilliantly, it seamlessly blended story and puzzles, and it had the most professional writing I've ever seen on gmd.de. _Savannah_ and _Edifice_ were pretty good, too. Savannah because it had an original setting and there was just so much detail in the environment. Edifice had puzzles that were a joy to solve - the language translation in Level 2 was possibly _the_ single best puzzle I've ever seen. I've always wondered what it must be like to learn a foreign language - now I know! _Thing for a Spring_ with its wilderness environment was another real-world setting that worked for me, though I flicked straight to the online help for most of the puzzles. I liked _A Good Breakfast_ very much - it was like the best of Infocom humour on a good day, and I was very unhappy that a bug made it unfinishable. And _Zombie!_ and _Zero Sum Game_ both looked very nice ideed, but I haven't got around to finishing them yet. Q: What do you think of the future of IF? A: Text-based IF? Bleak, but hopeful. Bleak because text is almost a vanishing dialect today - in two hundred years, we'll probably all be speaking with icons like in Greg Bear's _Eon_. And because we're working with tools that the rest of the computer world pretty much sees as Stone Age - "What? People are still writing text games? Wow, man, heavy retro trip." Despite our best efforts, there's really no way _So Far_ or _Jigsaw_ can compete with the likes of _Wing Commander 4_ or _Riven_ in the popular gaming market. But I'm hopeful because the rebirth of text IF is above all a return to the _hobbyist_ roots of computer gaming. It's an underground movement that gives power to the individual, instead of large centralised studios, so it's got the potential, if we network together, to make large advances in a short time. We are literally pushing the frontiers of storytelling (well, walking up to them and waving, anyway). Because we're small, there's all sorts of experimental stuff we can do, both in terms of usable AI and in defining the nature of story itself. Look at what id and Apogee did with the Wolfenstein texture mapping engine - did that come from a big company? Heck no. Do I think hobbyists can do something similar with AI? Heck yes. But hey, even if we don't accomplish anything of lasting significance, we can still have a really fun time reliving the '80s. As to the wider future of IF in general, the large-studio stuff: well, I think it can only grow. Probably not as fast as the movies did or as science fiction stories might make you think, but the seeds are there. I hesitate to say it, because it's already such a cliche, but it's the Web that's going to really make IF a public commodity, I think. The Web is going to replace television, we can all see that, and in about 2015 when it's finally seeped into the popular culture that our fundamental data grid, the thing that links our planet, is not broadcaster-listener-based and linear but open and _interactive_, stories are going to naturally be seen in interactive terms. It will probably take that long for the groundwork to get put in place; even the big flashy games out now are still dealing with a very small set of rudimentary actions and plots, and we're still having to reinvent stuff like graphic engines every time a product is released. IF's going to get networked. Ultimately we'll be looking at something like Star Trek's Holodeck, that's the high end. A kind of immersive chat room with computers running AI NPCs, simulating the world environment, and making dramatic interventions to keep a plot running. All rendered in sexy realtime VR with voice recognition and gesture analysis. In the near future, I'd expect to see all sorts of cute stuff like IF servers popping up on the Web. Bot servers that do nothing but run NPCs, world servers that act like MOOs for live players and bots to mingle, and maybe interesting things like dramatic rulebases that can analyse players' behaviours and write customised story scripts for their worlds or the bots who accompany them. But no matter how good the tech gets, human Game Masters, like IRC moderators or RPGs GMs are likely to take a controlling role. Interactive pay-per-play soap operas are a possibility... maybe with semi-famous guest stars dropping in every few episodes. And at the low end, you'll still have the good old pick-a-choice HTML page as your base unit of literacy. _Everything_'s going to be interactive eventually. Q: And, finally, speaking of the future: do you have any plans for writing more IF? You bet. I'm definitely entering the next Contest. And there's at least one reasonably full-length game I've been wanting to write for about seven years. Maybe some experimental pieces too. I expect I'll be writing IF of some kind for quite a while. :) NEW GAMES-------------------------------------------------------------------- It seems as if the relase of the TADS sources as freeware has re-kindled interest in this language. Ten of the competition entries were written in TADS, and since the end of the competition three new TADS games have been released. Firstly, there's Stephen Granade's "Losing your Grip". This is a full-lenght game in the same league as "So Far", "The Legend Lives" and "Jigsaw": story-oriented without sacrificing the puzzle aspect, literary but also enjoyable as a game, dealing with deep questions without being pretentious or obscure. We also have two new short games by Kevin "Whizzard" Wilson, the founder of SPAG: "The Sea of Night" and "The Lesson of the Tortoise". According to the author, the first game is an SF story involving a spaceship and a cargo of bananas, while the second one builds on elements of Chinese folklore. All three games are avaialable from the IF-archive, in the directory ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/tads/. KEY TO SCORES AND REVIEWS---------------------------------------------------- Consider the following review header: NAME: Cutthroats AUTHOR: Infocom EMAIL: ??? DATE: September 1984 PARSER: Infocom Standard SUPPORTS: Infocom ports AVAILABILITY: LTOI 2 URL: Not available. When submitting reviews: Try to fill in as much of this info as you can. Also, scores are still desired along with the reviews, so send those along. The scores will be used in the ratings section. Authors may not rate or review their own games. More elaborate descriptions of the rating and scoring systems may be found in the FAQ and in issue #9 of SPAG, which should be available at: ftp://ftp.gmd.de:/if-archive/magazines/SPAG/ REVIEWS---------------------------------------------------------------------- From: "Laurel Halbany"
NAME: Babel AUTHOR: Ian Finley EMAIL: mordacai SP@G ix.netcom.com DATE: Competition '97 PARSER: TADS SUPPORTS: TADS ports AVAILABILITY: Freeware (competition game) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/comp97/tads/babel.gam VERSION: Release 1 Too many I-F games have the irritating habit of being firmly set in a single genre, with clichéd rather than inventive trappings (space games have their talking computers, fantasy games have their dragons). Babel combines science fiction and horror imaginatively, so that the separate elements of each genre support and enhance rather than fight each other. The game begins on an apparently abandoned and nonfunctional space station; you don't know who you are, or how you got there, you're freezing cold, and the lights are off. The mood of vaguely unsettling horror and the tension of the character's investigation are very well presented. The author has done an excellent job of making the descriptions of rooms different when they are lit and unlit; rather than "It is pitch black," a dark room is described in sinister, vague terms, turning from threatening to clinical when the lights come on. The layout of the space station is straightforward without being simplistic, and solving the first problem (getting the lights on) doesn't take much wandering. Most items have been described or dealt with, rather than allowed to fall under the heading of "I don't understand that." The character learns most of the plot through various set-pieces; you find blue glowing fixtures in different areas, and when they are touched, there is a flashback (not necessarily in chronological order) to something that happened on this station, when it was inhabited. These are well-written, and though there are plenty of them, at one point you can obtain an item that will automatically "catalog" them for you. The set-pieces cleverly manage to add the humanizing element of interaction with NPCs, without detracting from the gloomy emptiness of Babel station. The problem with these set-pieces is that the characters, and therefore the story, is a bit hackneyed. There is the Bright Young Man (clearly headed for trouble); the deeply religious researcher who fears human hubris; the older, father-figure head of the team with his own agenda; and the brillant, beautiful female scientist who unsurprisingly ends up having a romance with the Bright Young Man despite the team leader's severe disapproval. (Out of jealousy? Concern for unprofessionalism? A little too much paternal concern? We don't know.) This also tends to ruin the central mystery of the game; by the time you finally solve the puzzle that reveals in fact who the character is, you-the-player have probably long since figured it out; there's not much shock in the revelation. The memory of what happened to the team of scientists is similarly predictable. Most of the puzzles are not mind-wracking, but do take some thought. There are often clues given in how the station reacts to you, or in the set- pieces. Most involve finding an item and applying it, although this is not mechanical. There are a number of locked-door puzzles involving an ID-card slot. It's nice that this is easy to solve, but I found it unrealistic: there were only four scientists on Babel, all of whom had access to the entire station, so why did they need ID cards to open the doors? The final important puzzle of the game, involving synthesis of liquids and manipulating machinery, is forgiving of mistakes but tedious to do. It seems as though the author wanted a difficult final hurdle, but it is mechanical rather than exciting, and not particularly difficult. The last set-piece is, sadly, not as original as it might have been. Overall, I found Babel to be a well-crafted, atmospheric horror game that, while not a classic, is certainly enjoyable and absorbing. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: Babel AUTHOR: Ian Finley E-MAIL: mordacai SP@G ix.netcom.com DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standards SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp//ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/tads/babel/babel.gam VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Outstanding (1. ATMOSPHERE: Very effective (1.7) WRITING: Consistently absorbing (1.8) GAMEPLAY: Fairly good (1.2) CHARACTERS: Quite good (1.5) PUZZLES: Few, nothing special (0.9) MISC: Outstanding storytelling, even if the plot's derivative (1.6) OVERALL: 8.1 In the realm of science fiction, very trodden ground indeed, Ian Finley's Babel does not seem profoundly original; you have an experiment in an isolated lab that goes wrong, an unscrupulous scientist, dramatic confrontations, even a countdown of sorts. But the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, and there is more to Babel than might appear from a thumbnail sketch. The puzzles are few and not particularly remarkable, but for simple storytelling power, this one ranks among the best in the competition. That, unfortunately, means that it's difficult to review effectively without breaking the spell for future players, so this may be somewhat unrevealing. The initial premise is set out before the first room description: One by one, your senses speak to you. There is one absolute: cold. The hard surface you're lying on is cold, the thin gown thrown over your body is cold, the disinfectant-tinged air is cold, the darkness around you is cold. Even your mind is cold and empty. Where are you? Who are you? You feel the warm edge of a memory, but it fades as you approach. Slowly, your joints bulging with ache, you get to your feet and look around. Where you are and who you are become clear through a series of discoveries that begin as cryptic vignettes and only gradually begin to make sense; though the game exercises only limited control over the sequence of your discoveries, the control is sufficient to make your reconstruction of the storyline reasonably predictable. Moreover, the manner of those discoveries amplifies the uneasy feel: relevant facts come out first as offhand references and are only explained much later. A computer that you discover early on supplies some background information, but no more than that; you learn about the course of events that led to your awakening alone on the floor through other means. Helpful in that respect (and for keeping things straight) is a calendar that you find, and in which you note the sequence of events; even if it feels like a device to keep the player from being confused, it's a welcome one. One of the best parts of Babel's story is the believability of the characters it depicts: though you never interact with them over the course of the game, your discoveries about them make them as real as NPCs that are actually present. Mr. Finley's writing deserves the credit for that; the dialogue is good enough to supplement rather than drag down the story (not at all a given these days), and what you see of the way the characters interact both fills out the plot and gives them some life. Admittedly, the scenes you encounter are heavily steeped in science fiction conventions, and perhaps those who read more science fiction than I do will find the whole thing too old to be interesting. But for my part, I found a genuine interest in the characters, as opposed to nifty gadgetry or wondrous discovery, that made the story much more compelling than much of the science fiction I've read. If anything, I was hoping for more development, more plot to discover, though I recognize that Mr. Finley was limited by the two-hour format. The strength and complexity of the story line makes Babel feel more like fiction than puzzle-based IF. As noted, Babel's puzzles are secondary to the story, and what we do get is not especially memorable (though neither are they very hard). One puzzle involving a cabinet strains belief a bit, as does another involving security mechanisms that you defeat, and the beginning presents a bottleneck of sorts that requires both close reading and something of an intuitive leap -- but once a certain barrier is passed, most of the game will come easily to the experienced IF player. But that factor works well here: more difficult or time-consuming would slow down the plot and take away the realism of the premise. As it is, there is almost no need to save and restore: there is a time limit, but it is loose enough to afford plenty of room for wandering around and making mistakes, and all of the ways to die or make the game unwinnable can easily be foreseen. But there is a nice puzzle involving a locked door, and many of the puzzles draw on the development of the plot -- you need knowledge that you discover along the way, for example -- in a way that is all too rare even in good IF. Particularly notable about Babel is that it tells its story in a way that conventional fiction could not -- at least, not as well or as powerfully. Though a short story or novel could in theory be written in the second person, it couldn't put the reader in command of events, and leave the unveiling of the plot to the reader's discretion. A storyline in which discovering your own identity is central works well in a medium where your persona is rarely fixed; in conventional fiction, where using the second person is uncommon, the device just wouldn't work. In an odd way, the usual limits of IF work to the advantage of this game, as the player's expectation of a series of puzzles rather than an identity problem makes the resolution to the problem genuinely surprising; the twists in the plot are effective precisely because of the questions the player doesn't ask of the game. The strength of the writing also helps; to quote much of it would give the plot away, but room descriptions like the following convey the frigidity of the setting: Grey light drips in from an octagonal skylight in the ceiling of this room, making the room look as cold as it feels. To the north, east, and south, doorways lead into unlit halls. The metal door frame of the east hall glows faintly with an eerie blue light. The dominating element of this small cube is the color white. The walls are white, the stiff bed by the east wall is covered in white sheets, the counter sticking out of the wall in the corner looks as though it were carved from snow. Set into the counter is a pale, porcelain sink. Even the air smells as if it has been scoured bare. The atmosphere is effective throughout; the countdown messages, when they come, heighten the tension, and stray details -- shattered mirrors, dead mice -- work to the same effect. There are some gameplay problems that complicate matters now and again. "Search" is never useful, as far as I can tell, and "examine" does what might be expected of "search" in more than one case. One sequence involving a radiation chamber, though put together with admirable realism, feels rather tedious to work out -- and some related actions require rather exact wording. At one point, the game asked me if I wanted to open the east door when it meant the west door, and there are some events and feelings embedded in room descriptions that accordingly recur a bit too often. These are minor glitches, though; bugs are relatively few (and the author has promised that those that do exist will be cleaned up in future releases). There are similarities between Babel and C.E. Forman's Delusions -- in the premise and in some of the plot devices, notably. But Babel works on a much different level; the story is more central to the game here, and is hence better developed and more compelling -- and, naturally, the puzzles are far fewer and less involving. (For my part, I found that the plot of Babel made more sense than that of Delusions, but perhaps that's just me.) There is no reason why playing Delusions should spoil the experience of playing Babel (nor vice versa). I enjoyed Babel, in short -- I gave it a rating of 9 -- and I consider the storytelling equal to that of any recent work of IF. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: Babel AUTHOR: Ian Finley E-MAIL: mordacai SP@G ix.netcom.com DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS advanced SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/babel/babel.gam VERSION: 1997 competition release Babel is not only one of the best competition games I've ever played, it's one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I've ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story. The work of exposition and plot development is performed through the protagonist's enhanced powers of tellurgy, which the game defines as "the ability to experience past events by touching objects present when the event occurred." The clarity of these visions varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King's The Dead Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly other games (most notably Zork:Nemesis) have used this device in the past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an awareness of the character's identity, and how he came to be in his amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific arrogance and attendant disasters. Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades: they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the universe or some version thereof, or basically self- interested seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim, then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own undoing. Finally, I think it's worth noting that two games in this year's IF competition (Unholy Grail and Babel) deal with a metallic research station where the player discovers the frightening results of unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. What is meaning of this thematic fascination in a community devoted to a form of gaming which has been bypassed in the marketplace by games which grasp to exploit the newest, flashiest technology? It's a speculation for another essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of the best I've ever seen in any medium anywhere. Prose: Babel's prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were very vividly rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the tellurgic visions were sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist's eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole. Plot: The game's plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a calendar on which he "instinctively" jots down the date of each occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and greater: the unfolding mystery of the character's origin serves to heighten the power of the story's eventual climax. Some of the Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness. Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn't the point of this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right. Technical: writing -- The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game. coding -- Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of this game. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: A Bear's Night Out AUTHOR: David Dyte E-MAIL: ddyte SP@G cricket.org DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/competition97/inform/bear/bear.z5 VERSION: Release 2 PLOT: Not always consistent, but amusing (1.4) ATMOSPHERE: Not bad (1.4) WRITING: Very good (1.5) GAMEPLAY: Excellent (1.7) CHARACTERS: Few (1.2) PUZZLES: Reasonably clever (1.5) MISC: Central gimmick well done (1.7) OVERALL: 7.7 If 1996's Ralph was a game that managed to be consistently doggy in its outlook -- in that it effectively took on the perspective of a house mutt -- 1997's Bear's Night Out is quite consistently, well, beary; the player is put in the position of a teddy bear that mysteriously comes to life one night and pads merrily about its owner's house. (Actually, given how comfortable this particular bear seems to be with exploring on its own, perhaps this isn't the first time -- the game isn't clear on this point.) It's a genuinely charming premise that author David Dyte carries off with humor, and as with Ralph, that premise shapes both the plot and the puzzles in a way that makes Bear's Night Out feel fresh. Your goal, which you discover on the course of your explorations, is to prepare for the annual Teddy Bears' Picnic, slated to happen the next day, by finding out what you need to bring and assembling it. (The author sprinkles quotes in pop-up format throughout the game, but "If you go down in the woods today..." is not one of them, curiously.) Why you need to do all this yourself rather than leaving it to your owner is not wholly clear, but it hardly matters: the story holds together adequately in setting out a series of problems. The best of them hinge on the problems associated with inhabiting a teddy bear's body -- unlike Ralph, the identity of the central character is in several instances an obstacle to overcome. The writing is quite good, even though spare; most of the settings are relentlessly ordinary, and Mr. Dyte does not try to load them down with special characteristics when they are, in truth, generic rooms in a house. This is not to say he shirks his writing duty, of course, merely that the descriptions of rooms and events are not what makes the game compelling. That said, though, the "bear's eye" view of the house is fairly consistent and well done -- take this example, for instance, part of a room description: Along one wall stands a high bench, featuring a sink full of dirty dishes, next to which you can see a telephone and an answering machine, if you step back and crane your neck a little. The player is virtually never allowed to forget he is inhabiting a teddy bear's body, one of the best things about this game: Mr. Dyte evidently didn't simply have some puzzles that he threw together in a game and grafted a funny plot on, and he clearly took some time making the game environment and gameplay appropriate to the game. As a result, the cute and funny factors is considerable, which makes the game appealing in its own right even without good puzzles. When you climb down from something, for example, you get "You tumble down, but being a soft bear, that's ok." Better still, in response to JUMP: "Full marks for cute and furry, but none for achievement." Though not everything in the game really fits the mode -- how does this teddy bear manage to carry so many items -- the sacrifices are generally in the name of facilitating gameplay and as such are wise choices. (For example. a teddy bear's paws aren't probably up for much in the way of manipulation -- but Mr. Dyte fortunately didn't confine the player's actions to things like pushing or pulling. That would go beyond realism into annoyance.) The puzzles themselves are well constructed and not too hard, on the whole, and some of them even offer multiple solutions -- though one of them, in the bathroom, requires rather exact syntax (and some luck in stumbling on the puzzle in the first place, unless I missed something). There is a hint system included, Invisiclue-style, which provides help for any problem, so difficulty certainly isn't a problem, and most of the puzzles are logical. The one event that isn't particularly logical is funny enough to make it worthwhile (and is also a veiled reference to Sorcerer, better still). The only problem is that the first real puzzle to be solved requires some real exploration, so things can bog down a bit while you try to figure that out -- though, after that, things move along more quickly. This problem might be alleviated with perhaps a hint or two as to the location of a certain object required to solve the first puzzle -- as it is, you discover it, but not because you were looking for it as such. The other main problem is that there is a side plot that separates out from the main plot after a certain point -- and though it is fairly obvious that you need to solve the relevant puzzles, it isn't clear why until the very end of the game (and the reasons are rather thin, I think, as justification for having the side plot). I did enjoy the second plot, of course, quite a bit, but it might have helped to have the reasoning for pursuing the puzzles better incorporated into the story. One of the perks for the seasoned IF player is the wealth of IF references; this one rivals Sins Against Mimesis for sheer IF knowledge. The author claims 32 references to other games, and while I certainly didn't find that many, I can believe that they're in there. (One puzzle even involves finding a "z-chip" that allows you to play interactive fiction.) Excursions into Dungeon, Curses and Adventureland are among the game's highlights -- my favorite moment in the entire game was luring Holly into Adventureland -- and the IF-full environment and barrage of self-reference (the author is present, though asleep in bed the entire time) increase the enjoyability and replayability factors. Along with finding the IF references, there are many funny things to do, quite a few deriving from the limits of your character; the "fun stuff" section is ample, much larger than that of most games, and affords a wealth of alternatives. Bear's Night Out doesn't do much wrong, in short, and what it does do wrong is easily balanced by what it does right. With consistently funny writing, this is one of the best of this year's competition, earning a 9 from me: it's a good idea, well implemented. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: The Edifice AUTHOR: Lucian Smith E-MAIL: DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/competition97/inform/edifice/edifice.z5 VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Involving (1.5) ATMOSPHERE: Simple but well done (1.3) WRITING: Strong (1.4) GAMEPLAY: Mostly good (1.3) CHARACTERS: Few but strong (1.4) PUZZLES: One outstanding (1.6) MISC: Innovative and well-thought-out (1.7) OVERALL: 7.2 Lucian Smith's "The Edifice" is one of the simplest games in the competition -- head games involving puzzling out what's going on are few -- but it also tells one of the most effective stories. (Well, okay, some of the entries don't have much of a story at all to tell, but that's different.) Edifice is an example of IF where desultory puzzles don't matter: it's the story, and the concept driving it, that counts, and this is one of the best game ideas this year's competition produced. This is an allegory: you represent primitive man, moving through the various stages of evolution as represented by levels in a strange stone edifice that appears before you suddenly. The puzzles represent problems along the way of evolution, problems whose mastery defined certain levels of development -- they're mostly straightforward (though one is a bit confusing), but there is a real sense of accomplishment in solving them, somehow. Certain stages are by definition mind-numbingly tedious, which reflects the subject accurately -- these are problems that involve tedium -- but also raise the question of whether there might have been a better way to design those particular puzzles. (For a similar problem, see The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet.) It should be added that the author isn't trying to convey every single aspect of every phase of evolution; rather, you represent an important breakthrough at each stage, and when you're done, you move on and reenter the scene much later, when Homo sapiens has incorporated your discovery and built on it. That raises the question that I, at least, found most intriguing about this: does this really have anything to do with evolution? It's kind of a silly approximation, after all, since it's apparent quite soon in each stage what the sought-for breakthrough is, and it's just a question of putting together the needed materials or figuring out the key steps. But it could be argued that Smith has designed this with the feeling of discovery in mind: particularly in the last two scenes, you have the sense of a specific need that drives the breakthrough, not a sudden resolve out of the blue to carve hand tools or domesticate animals. The sense of logical connection is less strong in the first one; there is very little sense that you tumble to your discovery because of circumstances, rather than having a twentieth-century computer user push him around to accomplish a certain goal. Perhaps that's inevitable, given the problem at hand, but I would have liked to have seen at least some sort of conjecture as to what sort of circumstances lit up that particular connection for Stone Age man. The game does capture the brutality of this particular discovery well, in that you have no particular reason other than your own satisfaction for doing what you do, and perhaps the apparent purposeless of your solution to the problem reflects the arbitrary kill-or-be- killed nature of the environment -- but it still felt a little unsatisfying. On the whole, I found the second stage most plausible and interesting; it's the only one where you deal with other characters, and though your interactions are limited, the characters have a certain charm. (I found a certain whimsical appeal in their names -- Wife, Son, Grandmother.) The central puzzle took real thought and felt genuinely rewarding to solve -- and, even as a microcosm, it felt more than any of the problems like what really might have happened. The first stage, as suggested, is a little too illogical to really feel like an account of the breakthrough, and the third just doesn't quite make enough sense; you have the sense of the original motivation for your character, but not what inspired him to try this particular approach. (And the realism/tedium element that worked reasonably well in the first part is simply annoying here, because it doesn't feel particularly logical.) Still, all three are worthy concepts, mostly well thought out. The writing is nothing special, though arguably that makes sense here -- too much attention to the scenery or aesthetics would distract from the goals at hand; you're not in the situations in question to check out the sights. Certainly, the writing is adequate for the purposes; it sets the scene and makes clear what you need to do. My main problem with the mechanics of Edifice is that it's possible in the first part to screw up and require a fairly laborious process of restarting (it's probably quicker just to RESTART), which, quite apart from its problems for the IF player, doesn't really make much sense in the plot of the game. (The nature of the problems was such that the solutions developed over time, after all; it took many failures to make the discoveries required in each scene.) In several key respects, the first scene requires resources that can be easily wasted -- and though the urgency of the situation lends a certain logic to the picture (if you don't solve the problem, you'll die), it still doesn't really make much sense as an evolutionary tableau. Another clunky element is the hint system, which rests in a mural in the edifice -- clever enough, but the problem is that the mural only gives you the hint once you've gone out and actually done each step and come back and checked the mural, which I found time-consuming and annoying. You can't, in short, play to where you get stuck, then come back and check the mural, because the mural won't keep up with you. Among problems to be fixed for future versions, this one may be #1. The end is a bit confusing. There is a cataclysmic event at the end that doesn't seem to fit into the evolutionary frame, as far as I can tell, and my guess was that it's the author's device for ending the story. If so, it's intriguing -- but the final sentence, even when you've finished the game "right" (in accordance with the walkthrough, anyway), is a bit of a puzzler. I couldn't decide whether it was a comment on the nature of evolution or simply a bug; if it was supposed to be the former, it could perhaps have been more skillfully done. (At least, it might have a sentence somehow distinguishing it from less satisfactory endings.) And while I enjoyed the ending -- it had plenty of drama -- it did weaken the allegory a bit; certainly, the evolutionary process didn't end where it does in this game, but the conclusion of the game suggests some sort of ending. Quibbles aside, though, The Edifice is one of the most intriguing games in the competition, in that it tries something completely new -- a first-person account of the highlights of a scientific process. In a sense, your actions are vital to the continuation of that process -- if you choose not to go on, progress stops with you -- and one way to see your role in the game is that of a guiding force at crucial moments in history, an intervention to ensure that the development of man stays on track. That, at least, would explain some of the knottier problems involving questionable motivations or the difficulty of anticipating a particular result without the player's advance knowledge. Part of the charm of Edifice is that the story it tells is sufficiently ambiguous that it can justify a variety of perspectives, including those who don't care for evolution as a self-perpetuating force at all. (The game, whether deliberately or not, provides some grist for the mill of the argument that mere chance could not been sufficient to turn ape into man.) Though elements of the gameplay are lacking somewhat, anything that Edifice lacks in playability is easily made up in sheer concept; the idea and the charm of its implementation earn this one an 8 on the competition scale. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: The Edifice AUTHOR: Lucian Smith E-MAIL: lpsmith SP@G rice.edu DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard, significantly extended SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/edifice/edifice.z5 VERSION: 1997 competition Release 1 You're an ape, spending your days hunting for Food and fleeing from Enemies. You have these little thumbs, too, that set you apart from the Others. Suddenly one day, a huge black Edifice appears before you, arousing your wonder and suspicion. I can almost hear "Also Sprach Zarathustra" in the background: Daaaaaaaa, Daaaaaaaaa, Daaaaaaaaaa..... Da-Dummmmmmm! However, from this highly derivative beginning, the Edifice ventures quickly into much more original territory. It seems that once you enter the monolith, you find yourself able to enter various stages of human development, from the discovery of fire to protecting your village against plundering marauders. The idea works very nicely, putting the player into puzzle-solving situations which blend very naturally into the game's environment and using the edifice itself as a sort of frame around the smaller narratives as well as a hinting device. One section of the game in particular I found really remarkable. On the second level of the edifice, you find yourself as a very early human, living in a family unit in the woods. Your son has a fever, and to cure him you must find the Feverleaf, which can be made into a healing tea. However, no Feverleaf seems to be available anywhere, until you stumble across a Stranger. Unsurprisingly, however, the Stranger does not speak your language, and so you are faced with a problem of communication. The game does an incredible job with simulating this situation. I was astonished at the level of realism which this character was able to achieve, and at the care that must clearly have gone into fashioning this interaction. I've rarely seen such a thorough and effective establishment of the illusion of interactivity. The Stranger did not of course respond to English words in understandable ways. However, you could point to objects, or speak words in the Stranger's language, and gradually the two of you could arrive at an understanding. It was an amazing feeling to be experiencing this kind of exchange in IF... I really felt like I *was* learning the Stranger's language. It will always remain one of the most memorable moments of this 1997 competition for me. I spent a lot of time on this one encounter, but I spent more time on the first level of the edifice, where you learn basic skills like how to hunt and build a fire. All of the puzzles in this section were logical, and the implementation was characteristically thorough and rich. However, this level is also where I ran into the game's one major flaw: its scoring system. Upon typing "score", you are told something along the lines of "You have visited two levels of the Edifice and solved none of them. You are amazingly discontent." However, sometimes "amazingly discontent" changes to "very content." for reasons that aren't at all clear. Moreover, I did everything that the hints indicate on that level, but the game still insisted I had not solved it. I worked on this until I got so frustrated with it that I just went up to the next level. I'm not sure whether these irregularities in the scoring system were intentional or not, but I found that they were the only significant detractions from an otherwise excellent game. Prose: The author did a superb job with the prose. Objects and rooms were described carefully and concisely, and in fact their descriptions often changed to reflect the character's expanding knowledge. In the beginning, words are simple and their meanings often archetypal: Rock, Enemies, Others, etc. As the game progresses and the character continues to evolve, the diction becomes more complex and the meanings more specific. This is the type of prose effect that a graphical game could never achieve, since it arises from the nature of the prose itself. That the game can achieve this effect shows that it is very well written indeed. Plot: The game's plot is a clever device to put the player into various moments in the history of human development. Its central device is rather clearly lifted from 2001:A Space Odyssey, but other than that it's an excellent frame story around fascinating vignettes. Puzzles: I think the language puzzle was the best one I've seen in interactive fiction this year. Certainly it was the best in the competition -- it advanced the narrative, developed the character, achieved a new kind of IF character interaction, and packed a powerful Sense of Wonder. The other puzzles I encountered were also very good, arising quite intuitively out of the game's situation and objects. My only frustration was with the elements of the game which suggested I had more to solve but never seemed to indicate what those things were. Technical: writing -- The Edifice's prose was quite error-free. coding -- Aside from the problems with the scoring system, the coding was outstanding. Synonyms abounded, and almost all logical or intuitively available actions were accounted for. I have no doubt that the problems with the scoring system arose from the complexity of the game, and that they will be resolved in the next release. When that happens, Edifice will have eradicated its one significant flaw. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang AUTHOR: Neil deMause E-MAIL: neild SP@G echonyc.com DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/tads/frenfive/frenfive.gam VERSION: Release 2 (1997 competition release) Here's my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel comic at age six, I've always been a fan. Even now, well into my twenties and possessing a Master's degree in English Lit, I still make sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though really, who cares about plausibility? We're talking superheroes, here!) And yes, I'm disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized bodies (especially women's bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it's still a pleasure. Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and gave a small cheer when Comp97's magic shuffler put it towards the front of the line. I've always thought that the whole superhero genre would make a great one for IF -- if it's a great power fantasy to watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv, whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow's headlines, and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality, from the characters' dialogue with one another to the snappy responses provided for some unlikely actions (">GET HOUSE" brings "You can count the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an entire house with one finger.)") It's hilarious. Sadly, there are some problems as well. First of all, I was disappointed that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my "super Improv power" to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player) developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I'm afraid. In addition, the game does not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even this setup, because it does not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds (cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the verb ("You can't see any bite here.") or "That's not really possible in your current state." The game doesn't really account for all the clever things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the *one* clever thing that will solve each puzzle. Finally, there are a number of just plain bugs in the game, which always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However, interface design and implementation are too important to be treated the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I'm still waiting for the game that does superheroes just right. Prose: As mentioned above, the prose is excellent throughout the game. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team is sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the character's mental state) are both concise and vivid. Even some of the most everyday IF responses are considerably enlivened by the superhero treatment -- for example, saying "Down" in a locale where that direction is not available evokes the response "Sadly, you're not equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground." Plot: The plot is basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero cliche. Since this is a spoof, of course, cliches are a good thing, and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the supervillains' hideout) are quite funny. The landscape, the premise (SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound heroes, etc.) are all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I'll discuss those below. Puzzles: In fact, I'll just discuss them right here. The puzzles are a weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in the game. One group is the puzzle based on extremely contrived circumstances -- for example, the door to the villains' hideout uses a "guess-the-big-word" lock, and what do you know, I happen to have someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me! The other type of puzzle is supposed to have drawn on my character's superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since this power wasn't implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of which have already been discussed above. Technical: writing -- I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game. coding -- I think the main failure of the coding was the one I've already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for inventory items. When a game's main character is someone whose primary trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible. Frenetic Five falls well short in this regard. The game also had a few regular bugs, which I assume will be fixed in the post-competition version. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: Friday Afternoon AUTHOR: Mischa Schweitzer E-MAIL: M.A.M.Schweitzer SP@G inter.nl.net DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILIITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/competition97/inform/friday/friday.z5 VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Simple (1.2) ATMOSPHERE: Office, but well-done (1.3) WRITING: Quite good (1.4) GAMEPLAY: Mostly good (1.2) CHARACTERS: Quite funny (1.4) PUZZLES: Nothing special (1.2) MISC: Solid, but some unfortunate elements (1.2) OVERALL: 6.3 Among all the wander-around-an-ordinary-place-doing-ordinary-things entries in the 1997 competition, perhaps the most enjoyable is Friday Afternoon, a short tour of the author's office. Though the puzzles aren't really anything special, they have few obvious flaws, and most impart an air of whimsy that makes this feel reasonably fresh. Perhaps the most notable thing in Friday Afternoon is a development right at the beginning of the game -- your glasses break, and you have to find a means of fixing them despite your limited vision. The solution itself is not particularly hard or innovative, true, but Mr. Schweitzer shows admirable thoroughness in concealing the office behind a blur until the problem is solved. The problem is vaguely reminiscent of one from Wishbringer, though that was an absolute bar on vision rather than a reduction -- but it did draw me into the game effectively enough, much more than the average conventional-task game tends to. My only problem with that part of the game, really, was that the solution came too easily; I wanted to have to rely on other senses, follow a complicated pattern, something, but the payoff was a bit mundane. After that, Friday Afternoon becomes fairly conventional, though enlivened by a good deal of wit; one of your co-workers has responses that echo those of the hacker in Lurking Horror, for one thing, and the solution to the problem of looking up a phone number is entertainingly zany. (At least, zany in a bored-and- trapped-in-an-office way.) The only puzzle that really breaks IF rules is one involving repeated actions without the first few failures being clued -- i.e., the player might give up after a try or two, since the responses don't indicate that you're getting any closer. With some tinkering on that -- feedback that changes, some reason to believe that pursuing that course will lead you to the goal -- the puzzles would be fine. A secondary but just as significant problem in Friday Afternoon involves a certain calendar and what it assumes about you, the player -- namely, that you're a straight male who enjoys having pictures of women in tight clothes in your office. While this certainly doesn't do anything for the game, in my eyes, the sexism involved isn't so painfully blatant that it's offensive; I found it a bit annoying, I suppose. (When I played this one, I had already encountered "Leaves" and its much more juvenile example of the same problem.) I don't think that the existence of the calendar in the game is itself wrong, but there are a few lines that could be better put -- namely, in a description, you're told that it's from August 1997, "but that isn't what you're looking at, is it?" And elsewhere, when you find a note indicating that the company's female employees are offended, you smile and note that the management won't see the calendar in its current location. No, not outrageous, but still a little obnoxious on both counts. Imputing thoughts or feelings to a player can be very effective when well done, but these aren't thoughts or feelings that are really worth imputing, given the assumptions involved. My feeling is that the calendar should still serve its purpose in the game -- but that the suggestion that it, er, does whatever it does for you should be removed. (And, I must say, the answer to "read calendar" is quite amusing.) Some have objected on similar grounds to the central premise of the game -- you need to get out of your office bi 6:00 lest you miss your date with Tanya, and your date with Tanya is particularly important because you want to prove to yourself and to the world that you're not a nerd. Not a particularly noble reason for going on a date with her, true, but the game doesn't say that it's the sole reason or that you have no actual feelings for Tanya, merely that you feel like a nerd and are tired of that feeling. My feeling was that this is simple tell-it-like-it-is; for many people, going on a date -- either the first one ever or the first one in a long time -- serves as ego reinforcement, a sign that you're attractive, interesting, etc. It isn't particularly fair to the other party involved if that's the only reason, but the interests of comedy here; it's not as funny, somehow, if you're anxious about missing your date because you're desperately in love, and this is supposed to be comic, not tragic. All that said, there are plenty of things to enjoy here, notably an "Easter Egg Hunt" in the hint menu that gives the player interesting things to try -- with a prize in the form of the original release of the game. I didn't find many of the Easter Eggs involved -- though I wouldn't mind getting a push, particularly for "re-creating a scene from The Graduate". There is plenty of deadpan humor in the writing, for example when you try to move a stack of boxes and get this: "You'd rather not do anything with it: you might hurt yourself if it all fell on top of you, and you don't want to go on a date with Tanya with band-aids all over your face." Or a reference to a desk as "taking up space," to which the author adds "(Much like Marc's job description, from all you've seen him do." The view of your co-workers is consistently amusing, even if they're a bit stereotyped; the sugarcube is a very funny take on office boredom. Though there isn't a lot about Friday Afternoon that will stay with the player, the author should get credit for not doing much wrong. Using the phone, admittedly, requires fairly specific syntax, and the scoring system -- where you get ten points for significant tasks, but one routine action gets one point -- is a bit odd. But the game is entirely free of grammar problems (the author is Dutch, though it's not clear what his familiarity with English is). There's a time limit, though it's sufficiently loose that you really have to be lost to run afoul of it -- but it does provide some measure of tension, the puzzles work the way they're supposed to, and the whole thing's done with a measure of humor. I gave this one an 8 on the competition scale. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: Glowgrass AUTHOR: Nate Cull E-MAIL: culln SP@G xtra.co.nz DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/tads/glow/glow.gam VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Intriguing but incomplete (1.4) ATMOSPHERE: Not bad (1.4) WRITING: Mostly good (1.4) GAMEPLAY: Uneven (1.2) CHARACTERS: One, sort of intriguing (1.3) PUZZLES: Fairly good (1.4) MISC: Interesting idea, not fully developed (1.3) OVERALL: 6.7 Post-apocalyptic IF? There hasn't been any, in my memory -- A Mind Forever Voyaging is the only thing that comes close -- but there's no reason why there couldn't be, and Nate Cull's Glowgrass, small but well-conceived, is certainly an interesting attempt. Though the game itself has some flaws, the story is intriguing enough to make it enjoyable. You, it seems, are an alien researcher whose ship has crashed on an Earth now empty of humans -- 'twasn't nuclear war, though, 'twas a Green Plague (not much development on the specifics there) that wiped everyone out. As an expert on Homo sapiens (or, to you, "the Ancients"), stranded on the planet you're supposed to understand, your mission is to apply your knowledge to get yourself out of your plight one way or another, though exactly how isn't clear at the outset. (Nor, arguably, is it at the end, though you have a better idea.) You explore a small suburban home in an anthropologist's mindset -- in the bathroom: "From your knowledge of Ancient social mores, this was likely to have been a personal cleansing area." The effect is occasionally like that of a short story I once read called something like "Daily Rituals of the Nacirema" -- I don't remember the author -- which similarly describes common daily suburban life as an anthropologist might. But the intent there was to parody, and Glowgrass is more science fiction than sociology -- and, moreover, the Earth you're witnessing is several technological notches up on us currently, so most things are only indirectly familiar. It's something of a strange way to go about it, but the story does, for the most part, hold up, more because it's well written than because of striking originality. The main problem with the plot, though, is that there's just not enough there. You get snippets about yourself, but not enough to really figure out who you are, what you were doing coming to Earth in the first place, what you really think of "the Ancients" or of the things you find. Nor, as noted, is the fate of the Earth made clear -- you find a printout that hints at a plague, but why did it happen? What sort of plague was it, how was it spread, how did it start, did anyone survive or get off the planet? It might be unfair to expect all this from a competition entry, but a story as complex as this one should get at least some development, and there really isn't much to go on here. There are offhand references at the end that seem entirely cryptic -- which gives the impression that the author either has a sequel planned or meant to develop the plot more in this one and never got around to it. If there is more to come, I look forward to it -- but this snippet is so truncated that it's a bit frustrating. The gameplay is mostly adequate, though the required syntax is often rather specific, and steps for piecing together one mechanical puzzle aren't entirely logical (you have to be holding certain objects that you hook together but not others). At one point, a certain NPC says to you "I didn't think of that!", even if you've already mentioned it to her. And there is a vehicle that is a location unto itself, so "get out of" it doesn't work, and objects that appear to be in plain sight require "examine" to find. More irritatingly, crashes are frequent -- and I'm running the latest DOS TADS runtime, so I don't think it's the interpreter. In a small game, of course, it's not a huge issue -- but one hopes that a future release will clean things up. Glowgrass is not particularly difficult -- there are only three puzzles, really, though some searching of scenery is necessary to solve those puzzles, and they're all fairly straightforward mechanical assemble-and-apply-the-objects puzzles. (Though there is one moment that requires simply waiting around for four or five turns, not initially obvious to me.) But the writing is good enough to keep you involved; you have the sense of inhabiting the mind of a character who is genuinely intrigued and surprised by what he finds. At times, the writing takes on the overwritten character of mediocre science fiction, and you get this: A gasp wells in your throat, as vividly you relive how it must have been; to suffer such agony, so young. For the first time you regret the empathic talent which led you to xenohistory. A moment later, the mood passes, leaving you still somehow chilled. For one thing, tears well in eyes; gasps don't generally well in throats. For another, you're not reliving anything, you're trying to imagine, and your capacity to do that is fairly limited considering who you are. More importantly, imputing emotions is difficult to do well -- see this year's Sunset Over Savannah for an exceptionally good attempt -- and in a scene like this, where the player can infer perfectly well what he or she is supposed to be feeling (your "empathic talent" is a little weird; why it would lead you to researching Earth is too hard to infer), there's no need to inform the player that he or she feels sad or empathetic or anything else. Similarly, you're told at another point that a room "still retains the awe and innocence of the Ancient age," which feels like overkill, unless the author wants to tell us exactly why it seems that way. But there are also good moments that recall, well, good science fiction, such as the following from the intro: A minute later, you get to your feet, pain gnawing your body. Scratch one dropship; nobody could have survived that crash. Scratch your equipment. Now it's just you, your wits - and the Ancients. Hope you're as good a xenohistorian as you claimed at the Institute. Because unless you find some kind of way out of here, it could be months before a recovery team locates you. Not profound, but concise and even witty in a rueful sort of way. There are several of the shakier moments, in terms of writing, in Glowgrass, but the game is short enough that it's not a major problem; if this were followed up or expanded into a full-length game, the imputing-emotions bit might get wearisome. At any rate, Mr. Cull keeps us involved throughout, and even manages to pass off one quasi-metaphysical moment (in that it's somewhere between spiritual and technological) with a minimum of conscious suspension of disbelief. (At least, that's how it felt to me.) Though that moment doesn't really feel as transcendent as it should, it's convincing and gives the story a jolt. Glowgrass, in short, is a competent and reasonably interesting little entry, though it feels more like a teaser than a game in its current state. I hope the cryptic references will be elucidated in a later game; for now, I give this one a 7 on the competition scale. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: Lost Spellmaker AUTHOR: Neil Brown E-MAIL: neil SP@G highmount.demon.co.uk DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if- archive/games/competition97/inform/lost/lost.z5 VERSION: Release 2 PLOT: Reasonably amusing (1.2) ATMOSPHERE: Not much (0.9) WRITING: Mostly strong (1.3) GAMEPLAY: Weak in spots (0.8) CHARACTERS: One very funny one (1.2) PUZZLES: Not great (0.8) MISC: Some good ideas, didn't do enough with them (1.2) OVERALL: 5.4 Uneven but reasonably enjoyable nonetheless, Neil Brown's Lost Spellmaker pushes the boundaries of the genre somewhat. The setting is ostensibly fantasy -- your mission is to rescue a wizard of sorts, after all -- but Spellmaker is more comedy than fantasy; the game spends more time subverting or mocking fantasy conventions than abiding by them -- and to the extent that it succeeds, it does so mostly because of the comedic factor. You are a dwarf (an element almost entirely neglected by the story; it isn't clear whether you're in a land of dwarves or are unique in that respect) assigned by the Secret Service to hunt down a Magic Weaver who has disappeared. (Some hint of the tone of the game comes in the prologue, when you're instructed to retrieve the missing magician "so that he may entertain us further with his joyful sparkly spells.") You have no hint of his whereabouts until you stumble across him; the plot, typically, requires that you go out and solve puzzles, not actually track the guy down. Still, there is more than enough whimsy to keep the player entertained; among the better elements is a sarcastic talking cow and a reverend who speaks entirely in malapropisms. ("I never did heard such inscruciating nonsenseness in my whole lovely liveliness!") There is also some unintentional humor -- one character's ability to parse input is limited enough to produce this exchange: >mrs wisher, hello "Oh I'm sorry, dear," apologises Mrs Wisher. "I can't do that. The Reverend wouldn't approve." At least, I assume it was unintentional. The predominance of silliness, as opposed to coherent plot, is occasionally irritating, though -- one character must be given an object simply because it's nonsensical, and your final action is more than a bit contrived. The gameplay is slightly uneven; there are some actions whose syntax might defeat the less persistent, notably the problem of a certain well. At another point, in a dangerous situation, an escape route opens up for a turn or so -- but the game gives you no hints to that effect. More generally, you steal a jar from a sweet shop (well, you take it in plain sight of a dimwitted salesman), and, as noted, several actions are more than a bit illogical. There are several well-coded features, though, notably characters who manage to move around without obvious bugs (at least, not very many), a series of candies that can be regenerated, and a hint system in the form of a magical door that leads you back to the central office. Though the game revolves around magic, your contact with it is limited -- one instance -- and the story depends more on the silly characters in the village than on the ostensible plot. The central distinguishing feature of Lost Spellmaker is that you play a lesbian; you are attracted to the cute librarian Tilly, and the game tries -- not very successfully -- to resolve that along with the finding-the-lost-magician bit. The author has said that the game was underway before the argument this fall on gay characters in IF -- in which his position was that a gay or lesbian main character, even if made obvious, did not have to be a political statement. As far as that goes, Lost Spellmaker demonstrates the truth of it; unless your biases are such that you see the inclusion itself as political, this game does not come across as trying to Make An Important Point or any such thing. But nor does it do much with the relationship; your interactions with Tilly are so limited that it would be hard to call this a lesbian romance, somewhat improbable ending aside. It is worth wondering whether such a game would feel like a political statement if the game encouraged you to act in a way expressing your attraction -- along the lines of, say, Plundered Hearts. As it is, it's easy enough to forget that you're a lesbian -- for that matter, to forget that you're female -- for most of the game. This is certainly an interesting foray, but I'm not sure it answers many of the questions that the argument brought up -- not that it was required to, of course. With more development in the romance area, this might be genuinely groundbreaking. Lost Spellmaker is very short -- six puzzles, by my count -- and not all that remarkable, but it does manage to entertain (me, anyway, which is more than I can say for many humor games). As a demonstration of the viability of having a gay or lesbian main character, it's not particularly successful; it sends up the convention that the hero or heroine must be a strapping young thing, but that's a different problem. But it works well enough as a whimsical romp that I rated it a 7 on the competition scale. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: The Lost Spellmaker AUTHOR: Neil James Brown E-MAIL: neil SP@G highmount.demon.co.uk DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/lost/lost.z5 VERSION: Release 2 (1997 competition release) It's not often that you see a thread from one of the newsgroups translate so directly into an actual piece of IF, but that's what's happened with The Lost Spellmaker. This summer, the discussion raged (and I do think that's a fair characterization) in rgif about "Gay characters in IF." Some people held that if a piece of IF were to feature a gay character, that piece would need to have homosexuality as its primary concern. Others, including Neil James Brown, contended that a character's sexual orientation can function simply as a vector to deepen characterization, of no more central concern to the game's theme than her gender, her height, or what food she likes to eat. The Lost Spellmaker proves Brown's point quite handily. The game's protagonist is Mattie, a dwarf Secret Service agent dispatched to discover the whereabouts of Drew Tungshinach, last in a long line of local spellmakers who have disappeared mysteriously. The fact that Mattie is both a dwarf and a Secret Service agent is an indication of the clever world that Brown has created, which consists of equal parts Ian Fleming and Brothers Grimm. The fact that Mattie loves candy comes in handy in a couple of puzzles, and helps explain why she lives in the town Sweet Shop. And finally, the fact that Mattie is a lesbian has a bearing on the love- interest subplot with the local librarian. Yet none of these incidental facts impinge on the game's central concern, the rescue of its eponymous Lost Spellmaker. Instead, they enrich our understanding of the characters, for which purpose Mattie's status as a lesbian is no more or less important than, for example, her status as a dwarf. After the competition ended, Brown posted to RGIF that he didn't write The Lost Spellmaker to prove his point -- the game was half-finished when the debate began, and in fact he wrote "It was unfortunate in some ways that Lost was a competition entry, as I was unable to use it as an example during the debate." No matter: The Lost Spellmaker stands as an example now, proving Brown's point handily. It's also a fun piece of IF apart from any political or identity considerations. The quest for Drew brings Mattie in contact with a number of amusing characters, and the milieu is small enough to make most of the puzzles fairly easy. Of course, I can't deny that I personally find it quite refreshing to play a game where heterosexuality isn't the implied norm, but The Lost Spellmaker has more than that to recommend it. It's a snappy quest in a creatively conceived world, a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. Prose: The prose in The Lost Spellmaker never jarred me out of the story, and I often quite enjoyed reading it. The village wasn't particularly vividly rendered, but the characters often were, and some of the game's lighter touches were hilarious. Dialogue was, as a rule, quite well-written, especially the Reverend's constant malapropisms, which made me laugh out loud over and over, even when seeing them for the second and third times. Plot: Considering the weird, mutant setting Brown has achieved by breeding traditional fantasy elements (magic, dwarves, talking animals) with James Bond derivations (the Secret Service, a one-letter superior, his secretary "Mr. Cashpound"), the plot walks a fine line, and does it well. The plot is not simply a fantasy, though it does involve using magic to halt the decline of magic, and manipulating fantasy characters to solve puzzles. Nor was it simply espionage, though it did involve a heroic spy facing off against the obligatory Femme Fatale. Instead, it swerved back and forth between the two, making for a merry ride. Puzzles: I only had to consult the walkthrough one time, for a puzzle which was logical, but could have used an alternate solution. The puzzles weren't the focus of the story, so they served the basic purpose of small goals to help advance the plot. In this role, they worked admirably well. There were no particularly witty or clever puzzles, but by the same token there were no unfair or "guess-the-verb" puzzles either. Technical: writing -- I only noticed one proofing error in the game. The vast majority of the prose was competently and correctly written. coding -- There were a few bugs in the game, one of which may be more of a library issue than a lack of attention on the part of the author. Also, there were a few places where a response beyond the default would have been appreciated. Overall, the code was relatively bug free. Kudos must go here to the title page, which employed a really nifty z-machine special effect. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: Madame L'Estrange and the Troubled Spirit AUTHORS: Ian Ball and Marcus Young E-MAIL: iball SP@G maths.adelaide.edu.au DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/lest/lest.z5 VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release) Madame L'Estrange and the Troubled Spirit (hereafter called MmeLTS) is a frustrating game, because it builds such a slipshod house upon a very promising foundation. The game is riddled with what I would guess are at least a hundred grammar and spelling errors. It flipflops seemingly at random between past and present tense. It can't seem to decide whether to address the player in the second or third person. It consistently causes a fatal crash in at least one interpreter (WinFrotz). All this would be easy to evaluate as simply the product of incompetent authors if it didn't take place in a game that starts with an interesting premise, executes a number of great interface decisions, and manages to unroll a complicated mystery plot along the way. As it is, MmeLTS is a great mess that could've been a contender if only it had been written with more care. One area in which the game does succeed is that of the innovations introduced by its authors, especially in the area of navigation: MmeLTS combines the direction-based locomotion of traditional IF with the more intuitive "go to location x" type of travel used in games like Joe Mason's "In The End." The title character (a "spiritualist detective" who is also the player character) can travel to various locations around Sydney with the use of the "travel to" or "go to" verb. However, once she has arrived at a particular location she uses direction-based navigation to walk from place to place (or room to room, as the case may be.) Moreover, the authors often write direction responses as a simple set of actions performed by the title character rather than implementing entire rooms which serve no purpose. These methods of navigation combine the best of both worlds, providing a broad brush for cross-city or cross-country travel but not taking away the finer granularity available to the direction-based system. A related innovation concerns Madame L'Estrange's notebook, in which the game automagically tallies the names of important people and places which come up in her investigations. This notebook (similar to the "concept inventory" used in some graphical IF) provides a handy template for travel and inquiry, and would be welcome inside any game, especially those involving a detective. One other point: MmeLTS takes the character all over Sydney, and in doing so provides an element of education and travel narrative along with its detective story. The medium's investigations take her from Centennial Park to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo to the University of New South Wales. Locations are often well-described, and after playing the game for two hours I felt more knowledgeable about Sydney than when I started (I hope the game's locations weren't fictional!) As an American whose knowledge of Australia is mostly limited to "Mad Max" movies, I can attest that the travel aspect of the game is a lot of fun. Prose: It's not that the game's prose was terrible of itself. The game is quite verbose, outputting screenfuls of text as a matter of course, and much of this text is effective and worthwhile. As I mentioned, many of the descriptions worked quite well, and the game does manage to clearly elucidate its plot as events happen. It's just that the mechanics of the prose are *so* bad (see Technical/writing). When technical problems are so pervasive, they can't help but have a tremendous negative impact on the quality of the prose. Plot: The game's plot is actually quite interesting. Mme. L'Estrange is presented with two apparently unrelated mysteries: strange wildlife deaths ascribed to a mysterious beast loose in Centennial Park, and the apparent suicide of a marine biology worker. As one might expect, these two situations eventually turn out to be linked. I wasn't able to finish the game in the initial two hours of competition judging time; in fact, I only scored five points out of 65 in that time, which gives an indication of just how much text there is to read. By the time I finished, I was really quite impressed with the machinations of the plot. The game employs several clever ideas and brings the whole together nicely at the end. Puzzles: I didn't really find many puzzles as such -- the game is mainly focused on exploration. Those puzzles which I did find were quite soluble as long as enough exploring had been done. What took up most of my time was visiting locations, talking to characters, and "tuning in" to the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the dead or learn more about a place's spiritual aura. This kept me busy enough that I didn't really miss the lack of puzzles. There are a few rather perfunctory puzzles as the game progresses, but they serve less as brain-teasers than as adjuncts to the plot (as is appropriate in a game as plot-driven as MmeLTS). Technical: writing -- The mechanics of the writing are just horrible. Sentences constantly lack periods or initial capital letters. Words are quite frequently misspelled. Typos are everywhere. The tense shifts back and forth at random between past and present; either one would have been workable and interesting, but the game seems unable to make up its mind. A similar phenomenon occurs with the voice, which vacillates between second and third person address. This avalanche of mechanical problems cripples what could have been an excellent game. coding -- The jury is still out on how well the game is coded. When I was using WinFrotz to play the game, I encountered Fatal errors repeatedly, but I'm not sure whether they were the fault of the designer or of the interpreter. JZIP presented the game with no problem, but again that could be because the interpreter was ignoring an illegal condition. Several aspects of the coding, such as Madame L's notebook, were quite nifty (unless that's what was causing the problem with WinFrotz crashing), and the implementation was solid overall. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: A New Day AUTHOR: Jonathan Fry E-MAIL: jfry SP@G skidmore.edu DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/newday/newday.z5 VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Interesting but uneven (1.2) ATMOSPHERE: Er, not much (1.0) WRITING: Fairly good (1.2) GAMEPLAY: Frustrating in spots (0.8) CHARACTERS: One very good one (1.3) PUZZLES: Nothing special (0.9) MISC: Very interesting idea (1.3) OVERALL: 5.5 Jonathan Fry's A New Day is another in a fairly long list of games that were nice in theory but not a real joy to play. Though the premise is interesting and though the plot is well-designed, mostly, the challenges of A New Day felt more like annoyances, and I never really got into the game. The plot, in all its self-referential glory: you are venturing into/playing a partially completed text adventure whose author, one Jonathan Fry, has died mysteriously; you confront a sentient being named Winston who seems to be running the show inside Jonathan's computer. The "incomplete" element means that objects are there but not mentioned, and some room descriptions are entirely absent or very terse. Even if you understand what you're doing in the game -- not all that likely -- it's still hard to make any sense of what you, the player, are supposed to do next, since you don't get much direction; as is typical, you are tossed into settings and given things to do. (As has been pointed out, there is a built-in excuse here for flaws in the game -- "it's an unfinished game, dummy" -- but I assume that Mr. Fry won't take refuge in that.) There are some problems that can't be put down to the unfinished-game element, though, like a location requiring that the player SEARCH three times -- finding something on the first and third times but not on the second (and, obviously, no clue that there's something more when you search the second time). Syntax for getting a cat across a street is rather unlikely, and the solution to a puzzle involving a guard assumes considerable stupidity on the guard's part. And try as I might, I could _not_ visualize the last puzzle, nor figure out why the solution suggested by the hints was correct. One of the more interesting decisions that Mr. Fry made was to make one of the sections of the game simulate a software crash of sorts, so that the text comes out garbled -- or, I should say, SP@G #$^ s SP@G #$ft SP@G # SP@G e cr SP@G #!sh s} th8723 the t523xt c&* SP@G es SP@G % SP@G #$t ga^%23482 SP@G (*bled. I exaggerate only slightly -- a sample sentence: Spli0LAS99x Broken gla31s and dsi8 wiring de76f746t the deca##] wo_)2den49053en walls of this room. There are very few moments in IF that I have wanted to be over as quickly as I wanted this one to be over, and, unfortunately, it took a while to end, since there's a not-all-that-intuitive puzzle to solve that assumes you have VERY sharp eyes. All this gets points for verisimilitude, I guess, but giving the player a headache is not the sort of verisimilitude we're striving for, nor even the k2342nd of veris27 SP@G #^ SP@G ^ SP@G #de we're str][;,ving for. A New Day is, for the most part, technically proficient; other than the unfairnesses mentioned above, there aren't many design problems, and no bugs at all as far as I could tell. Somehow, though, I didn't enjoy it; I didn't feel like the plot went anywhere, and the story felt uninvolving. Well, the plot did go somewhere, true, but it didn't precisely progress there; you're given a situation at the beginning, you do a bunch of things that don't relate directly to the situation, and then the situation changes suddenly at the end. Perhaps some hints at the final revelation -- perhaps things that you discover along the way that point to it, rather than having it all dumped on you without warning -- might help in that respect; for me, that development was a sort of "oh, really?" bit. I hadn't really been thinking about it, to be honest, as I'd been busy trying to solve unrelated puzzles. If the idea is to figure out how Fry died, it might be good to have some of the puzzles actually concern him or the setting of his death, lest the whole thing feel disconnected. (I recognize that the behavior of a certain character may be intended to point to that, but it didn't really work for me.) My, I do seem to be complaining, don't I? There are plenty of well-done things about A New Day as well. The ending feels genuinely suspenseful -- though a little mysterious, since you have very little idea of what's going on. There are multiple solutions to several puzzles, a welcome touch, though I admit I only found a few. At one point, you get bad advice from an NPC, and though normally it would feel unfair to do something like this -- when there's no obvious reason not to trust the NPC -- it works well here, I found. (At least, I was sufficiently unsure about the NPC not to take the advice.) One puzzle involving crossing a street breaks IF conventions in a thoroughly welcome way; it does something that seems like common sense but is almost never actually implemented, and I was glad that this game rewarded common sense (though, for those who have been playing IF for a while, it's actually not common sense anymore). More generally, the idea is well-thought-out and intriguing, even if I never got into the plot, and there's potential for a much longer and more- involved game where the plot might move along better. At least, it seems so to me; it seems like there's much that can be done with exploring a computer. (Find a file directory tree and chop it down. Hee hee hee.) Though this particular effort is a little short (though I shouldn't fault Mr. Fry for obeying the two-hour limit, I know), it has ideas that could make a longer game quite intriguing. Even so, there are difficulties in A New Day that, while not fatal to its playability, made it less than enjoyable for me; perhaps it's a matter of taste, but I don't claim to be sufficiently objective to transcend these things. Though this is a good effort, and Mr. Fry is clearly a good programmer, I gave this one a 6 on the competition scale. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza AUTHOR: Michael Zey E-MAIL: zeyguy SP@G aol.com DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/pizza/pizza.z5 VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Cliched but sometimes funny (1.2) ATMOSPHERE: Nope (0.8) WRITING: Not bad, but nothing special (1.1) GAMEPLAY: Uneven (1.0) CHARACTERS: Cardboard (0.8) PUZZLES: Some very clever (1.3) MISC: Problems, but still fun (1.1) OVERALL: 5.2 And sometimes, well, the game just matches the title perfectly. The tone of Phred Phontious is relentlessly silly, so much so that several of the puzzles are quite difficult because they require offbeat thinking rather than simple logic. Though the premise is far from original, and though there are plenty of flaws, there is still plenty to enjoy here -- if you don't mind some dreadful puns. The setting is fantasy, sort of, but more joke-fantasy than Tolkien-fantasy; this is the sort of fantasy that allows for things like photographs and coffee and chainsaws. The plot is typical of fantasy, though, even though it's a joke here -- you have to hunt down the ingredients to a pizza, and deliver it safely. Along the way, you encounter a dragon and a vampire -- along with a gnu and a crazed dentist, of course. The layout is sufficiently unencumbered by sense that all sorts of things can sit side by side, such as a spice mine (why not?), a dragon's lair, a haunted cemetery and a travel agency. Obviously, Phred Phontious is not trying particularly hard to convey the scene or draw you into the world it describes; the player may safely register the given stock situation, figure out the twist, and never bother to try to visualize anything. The result is, while enjoyable for a while, oddly forgettable; I found that I could hardly recall the details of the game just hours after playing it. (The silly place names -- Thikk Forest, Idubeleevinspukes Cemetery, etc. -- don't help.) Implementation-wise, Phred Phontious needs work. One significant object is hidden in a scenery object that barely gets mentioned, another important object is never mentioned at all, an enemy notices your hiding place under one set of circumstances but not another -- though it would be just as easy to spot you -- and another fellow goes on addressing you or preventing you from doing things even after he falls asleep. Other objects act _very_ illogically -- a rope in this game has some unexpected properties, and another object embedded in scenery must be dislodged by an action that I never would have guessed. At another point, you find yourself in a hole and are told that "it looks uncertain whether you'll ever make it out." Is the challenge to find some creative means of getting out? No -- just finding the right syntax. There are other things, illogical bits that didn't slow down gameplay but still left me wondering -- for instance, the character brandishing a key next to a locked cage, except that the key doesn't unlock the cage -- the cage is irrelevant to the game -- but rather a gate far far away. There is a bottleneck right at the start of the game -- you have to discover a hidden closet, but the game gives no hint that it's there. Elsewhere, you have a few turns to search certain scenery and get an object; if you don't find it then, the game closes off. Even amid gameplay problems, though, there are some memorable moments -- and even if the setting is clumsy more often than not, the author does manage to send up fantasy conventions in amusing fashion now and again. Two puzzles hinge on dreadful puns -- I, personally, enjoyed them, but then again I have a weakness for these things, and I don't advise that the author do this in the future. The way you get rid of the dragon is reasonably creative, and the gnu-milk puzzle -- the first part of it -- is clever, even if distasteful. And the endgame is quite rewarding, though made more difficult by the requirement of random scenery searching; I enjoyed the puzzles in the endgame more than any in the game. Though there are coding problems aplenty associated with the puzzles, many of them have excellent ideas; with some more time and attention to programming difficulties, the author might produce a first-rate -- and very challenging -- game. (One puzzle I never figured out: a "last lousy point" that's a clue from a British crossword.) Phred Phontious is large, hardly finishable within two hours unless the player relies heavily on the walkthrough, and the game both encumbers you with a lot of objects and limits your inventory severely. Perhaps the most welcome thing about the endgame was that the goal was clear and the territory to explore limited; there was no question of wandering around looking for the right object only to find that the solution actually turned on a bad pun. Moreover, the endgame is the only area where the room descriptions come alive -- and they do for a very obvious reason then, of course, but it does make things more vivid. And even though it's predictable, the ultimate ending does, somehow, feel satisfying -- no "to be continued" messages or any such thing. This is a game for the puzzle fan, in short, specifically the puzzle fan who likes to see fantasy sent up and doesn't mind some incoherence in the setting. Though the player should save often -- the game closes off without warning -- Phred Phontious is one of the few competition entries that I found enjoyable despite serious flaws, and I gave it a 6 on the competition scale. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: She's Got a Thing for a Spring AUTHOR: Brent van Fossen E-MAIL: vanfossen SP@G compuserve.com DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/spring/spring.z5 VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Reasonably interesting (1.4) ATMOSPHERE: Effective (1.6) WRITING: Strong (1.6) GAMEPLAY: Mostly good (1.4) CHARACTERS: Excellent (1.8) PUZZLES: Not especially notable (1.3) MISC: Attention to nature is a nice touch (1.6) OVERALL: 7.6 Though it's arguable whether She's Got a Thing for a Spring has the best or most memorable setting in this year's competition, Brent van Fossen has clearly given the backdrop a wealth of detail: there are ample descriptions of flora and fauna that play no part in the game other than scenery, and the player gets a feeling that Mr. van Fossen lives among and enjoys observing the sights that he describes. The rest of the game doesn't quite live up to the setting, unfortunately, but She's Got a Thing... is a solid entry in this year's competition nonetheless. The story: you've received a note from your husband asking you to meet him at a hot spring, and you have to get over there, first, and then assemble all the little things needed to enhance the experience. Getting there is fairly straightforward, and gathering most of the accoutrements isn't difficult, but one puzzle at the end requires considerable intuition and, even when the gap is bridged, doesn't make much sense. (It feels like the author is either trying to make the game harder or trying to come up with an excuse for the puzzle -- which is, to be fair, a reasonably clever one, though the game doesn't give you much of a nudge.) Still, the idea is compelling, and the sensual delights associated with the various features of your dip in the hot spring are so vividly described that it seemed a safe bet to me that this is among the author's favorite real-life experiences. Among the more intriguing parts of the game is only tangentially related to the plot: you encounter a fellow named Bob, who resides in a cabin in the woods and can offer his knowledge on virtually everything in the game. Bob seems to serve as a stand-in for the author in providing useful information about the various forms of wildlife you encounter -- he has a paragraph for all of them, as far as I can tell -- and he'll go on about the various aspects of his little cabin and garden. (In fact, he so fits the image of the benevolent kindly old fellow that his one off-color comment, when you ask him about the spring, seems slightly out of place; dirty old man, perhaps, but it doesn't seem to fit his persona.) One gets the feeling that Bob is so happy to have someone to talk to that interaction isn't much of a problem for him; he'll often babble on whether or not you respond. If there is a side of Bob that is lacking, it is Bob himself -- we get something about his wife Sally, dead of breast cancer, but virtually nothing else. (Moreover, you are told repeatedly that you remind Bob of Sally, certainly effective in painting Bob as a slightly forgetful old coot, if that was the intention, but it breaks the spell more than anything else. (Even a forgetful old coot doesn't word it the same way every time.) If you stay by Bob's side, you can watch him picking strawberries, fixing a rocking chair, fixing the porch, making lunch, making a strawberry shortcake, painting the forest (no, silly, on canvas) -- and though all this takes hundreds of moves, the passage of time is slowed while you're with Bob (a comment on the stimulating nature of his company?) so that you don't forfeit the main story by hanging out around the cabin. The main problem with all this is that, apart from a few things right at the beginning, you're largely confined to typing Z endlessly -- there are undoubtedly a wide variety of things to ask Bob about, but they slow down his various chores, and even those run out after a while. There doesn't, sadly, seem to be any way to participate in Bob's actions, and watching Bob put together the batter for the shortcake, ingredient by ingredient, loses its fascination after a bit. And if you're an IF player conditioned to expect that something elaborately coded will be relevant, well, you'll be wrong, because you only need about five moves' worth of interaction with Bob to finish the game. Bob is worth noting because he's the rare example of an NPC who is much more developed than he needs to be; in fact, he's a relatively ordinary character with an ordinary life which you can even witness in all its glory. The failure to really fili out Bob's background is a weakness, yes, but even so, he does such a remarkable amount of things and reacts to such a remarkable amount of stimuli that one can only wonder at the amount of code that went into him. It isn't, of course, unprecedented to have an NPC who plays encyclopedia for the game, but to have one who does that but also carries on complicated time-sensitive tasks of his own (which speed up dramatically when you walk away from him). And I don't recall ever encountering an NPC who did such a variety of, well, mundane tasks, described in such detail; it reinforces the idea that living in the wild and carrying out these chores is something that Mr. van Fossen enjoys, or at least thinks more people should know about. Bob is noteworthy, in short, because he's one of very few NPCs that can't be reduced to an obstacle; more often than not, characters represent puzzles, locked doors upon which you need to use the right key to get the needed object or bit of information. There is much more to this one -- the mundanity of it all makes him feel more real -- and if for nothing else, She's Got a Thing deserves recognition for the inclusion of Bob. (He's a close second to Maurice of Zero Sum Game as best NPC of the competition, I think.) There are several puzzles, as mentioned, one slightly unfair but most reasonably straightforward. One requires observation, as it happens, to figure out a pattern, irritating to the impatient IF player but consistent with the feel of the game (as in, nature is there to be observed, not simply co-opted to the player's ends). The gameplay is likewise strong; most verbs and nouns have several synonyms, and there are multiple substitute syntaxes for most important actions. One puzzle is a mite peculiar -- you dodge an adversary simply by moving away, and the adversary disappears and doesn't return (though the behavior in question is not atypical in real life) -- and the solution to another is not obvious to those of us who aren't familiar with hot springs -- but most of the puzzles are passable. As suggested, though, the appeal of this one lies less in the puzzles than in the scene as a whole, and though a few elements of it do break the spell -- two elk lock antlers and stay that way for the _entire game_, several birds are largely untroubled by your presence -- the game is well-written enough to make those minor flaws. The descriptions are effective... The canyon rim trail descends, clinging tightly to the stone wall, then disappears entirely as the rocks converge. You have no choice but to wade, the current swift and powerful. Overhead, a small slice of the sky is visible between the two cliff faces, covered with ferns that thrive in the dark moist environment here. The crevice runs northwest to south. ...and restrained; Mr. van Fossen has the sense not to go on about how beautiful the setting is, certainly a welcome touch. Moreover, the vocabulary employed is considerable and scenery objects get far more detailed description than standard IF would give; it is virtually impossible to find a "That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game" in She's Got a Thing... (And there's even some humor: a book that you find includes short stories about "a bored diplomat who uses underground means to accomplish his goals", with other references to the 1996 competition.) And even though things get resolved oddly at the end -- you learn about a few things involving your own thoughts and motivations for the first time -- the nature of it fits the game quite well. On the whole, then, though She's Got a Thing... might not be the entry whose playing experience stays with you the longest, it's a polished work that's consistently enjoyable to play. Though sticking with Bob is only for the extra-patient, there is much to do in the game environment, and I gave it an 8 in the competition. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Paul O'Brian NAME: Sins Against Mimesis AUTHOR: Adam Thornton E-MAIL: adam SP@G princeton.edu DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/mimesis/mimesis.z5 VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release) Few things are more unfunny than an in-joke that you're not in on. On the other hand, an in-joke that you *are* in on can be hysterical, as it provides not just the pleasure of humor but also the feeling of community that comes from shared experience. Sins Against Mimesis is definitely a very in-jokey game, and consequently not for everyone. However, having been a longtime (since 1994) lurker and sometime participant in the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups, I was part of the audience at which the game was aimed, and I have to admit that I found a lot of the in-jokes really funny. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the game was to play name-that-reference -- kind of the IF equivalent of listening to a World Party album or a Dennis Miller routine. Of course, the nature of the game (and the fact that it was written pseudonymously) also invited us to play guess-the-author. My guess was for Russ Bryan, but as it turns out the game was written by Adam Thornton, a relatively new author. If you haven't played much IF, and in fact even if you haven't spent much time on the IF newsgroups, most of this game is going to mean very little to you. Even its title is an allusion: to "Crimes Against Mimesis," a well-crafted series of articles posted to the newsgroups by Roger Giner-Sorolla (whatever happened to him, anyway?) a year or so ago. The rest of the game continues in that vein. The opening paragraph alludes to Jigsaw. The score of the initial part of the game is kept in IF disks which magically pop into the player's inventory every time a correct move is made. In some ways, this familiar, almost conspiratorial approach is a weakness. Certainly in the context of the competition it won't endear Sins to any judge who stands on the outside of the privileged circle at which the game aims itself. Even for an insider, the constant barrage of "if you're one of us, you'll know what I mean" references can start to feel a little cloying. However, the game is cleanly coded and competently written, and on the first time through I found it quite entertaining. There aren't many games which I would highly recommend to one group of people and discourage others from playing, but Sins is one of them. If you're an raif and rgif regular, I think you'll find Sins quite funny and entertaining. If not, forget it. It's bound to be more baffling and irritating than anything else. Prose: The prose is generally somewhere between functionally good and rather well done, with occasional moments of brilliant hilarity. Plot: The plot is based around several clever tricks which are quite funny at the time, but aren't worth repeating. If you've already played, you know what they are, and if you haven't played yet I won't give away the jokes. Like the rest of Sins, the plot is funny the first time through but won't wear well. Puzzles: Actually, this was the weakest part of the game. Many of the puzzles can be solved by performing extremely basic actions, which of course hardly makes them puzzles at all. Others, however, depend either on extremely specific (and not well-clued) actions or on deducing something about the surroundings which is not included in object or room descriptions. For a game so adamantly self-aware, it's ironic that Sins falls into some of the most basic blunders of puzzle design. Technical: writing -- I found no mechanical errors in Sins' writing. coding -- I found no bugs either. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: Sunset Over Savannah AUTHOR: Ivan Cockrum E-MAIL: ivan SP@G cockrumville.com DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/tads/savannah/savannah.gam VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Intriguing (1.7) ATMOSPHERE: Very good (1.5) WRITING: Mostly strong (1.6) GAMEPLAY: Consistently good (1.6) CHARACTERS: Not many (1.3) PUZZLES: Some quite original (1.5) MISC: A genuinely innovative premise (1.9) OVERALL: 8.3 This year's competition had a fair crop of "ordinary person doing ordinary things" games, for want of a better description, but few of them confronted the central problem associated with such games: how to make the game interesting, more than a collection of dull tasks. After all, if the player wants to relive the joys of washing dishes or finding phone numbers, in theory he or she doesn't need interactive fiction to describe it for him; a good work of fiction, interactive or not, manages to transport the player to another world, and one would hope that the new doesn't look exactly like the old. But Ivan Cockrum's Sunset Over Savannah is up to the task; the game give the player an apparently ordinary situation and invests it with unexpected life. Indeed, the goal of the story lies in the process of discovering the hidden wonders of your environment -- and the experience for the player may fairly be called unique. The initial premise of Sunset is unrevealing: you are on the last day of vacation from your office job, and you're discontented with your work and thinking of quitting. With no more direction than that, the game deposits you in front of the boardwalk in front of your Savannah hotel -- and it might seem that the background is a way to explain your presence before the real plot, yet to be discovered, starts. But if you assume that you'll encounter an adventure game with a little poking around, you're wrong, because that prologue really did give the plot: the key developments are all in your mind, involving your decision on whether to quit your job. Handled poorly, this could be fairly silly -- "you find a brochure for a job on an ocean liner, so now you're thinking of doing that" -- but the beauty of Sunse" is that the developments feel plausible. Mr. Cockrum employs an innovative device for keeping track of the internal action: a status line with your state of mind on any given turn. Some actions -- jumping over a railing and landing with a crash on the beach -- lead to temporary changes ("stunned"), and other developments are more permanent. And though many of the pivotal actions are far from ordinary -- some merely unusual, a few simply fantastical -- very little conscious suspension of disbelief is required, simply because the setting feels so real. Mr. Cockrum integrates the ordinary and fantasy elements skillfully: those parts of the story that go beyond ordinary experience are few, carefully chosen, and clearly surprise the player-character as much as the player. Just as importantly, those elements are out of your control and mostly independent of your actions, so the feeling of ordinariness juxtaposed with the fantastic is enhanced. The idea of tracking your feelings and making them central to the plot is original to this game, to the best of my knowledge, and Mr. Cockrum carries it off skillfully. The connections between your experiences and your corresponding thoughts are sometimes a bit forced; an experience involving a sand sculpture starts you thinking about the sculptor and his artistic vision about your job "and how infrequently it lets you pursue your own visions." And there is no real sequence to the required actions, though some inevitably come before others; the plot is not so integrated with the puzzles that certain tasks address certain moods. But one could argue that realism dictates against such manipulation -- the idea is supposed to be that you stumble across experiences that affect your thinking, not seek out those experiences in order to force a certain decision on yourself -- and the arbitrariness of the connections mirrors the arbitrariness of real-life decision-making, to some extent. Moreover, the plot requires a certain degree of aimlessness to be realistic; no one sets out to wander around a beach and pavilion with certain goals in mind, and though several of the things you need to do require more effort (and some semi-suicidal motivations in a few cases) than might be expected in real life, exploration and experimentation are what move the story along. The puzzles themselves are quite good -- few of them are very hard, though a few, as noted, require whimsy that borders on suicidal tendencies, and others require wanton destruction of property that, while unremarkable for an adventure game, break the feel of the game somewhat. I must admit that one puzzle, if puzzle it can be called, eluded me completely when I first played the game -- I didn't see any reason for doing one particular vital thing -- and the prospective player should know that logic occasionally yields to simple impetuousness for this particular player-character. That aside, though, there is plenty of creativity at work, particularly in the way you use the objects at hand to get around problems; the way you catch the crab is one of the more inventive puzzles in this year's competition. The description-to-puzzle ratio of the writing -- the amount of text that is there simply to be read -- is unusually high, as might be expected, but that is hardly a drawback. The writing, for its part, is strong and descriptive, though occasionally Mr. Cockrum piles on a few too many adjectives and images at once. At one point, we are informed that "somehow this amazing spectacle has cut through your ingrained layers of cynicism to revitalize your waning belief in a world full of wondrous novelty." Er, maybe, but there are simpler ways to put it. And the tone wavers now and again -- at one point, the sun is described as a "fat, ripe, blood orange," inadvertently deflating (at least, I assume it was inadvertent) what was otherwise a picturesque description. A few flaws aside, though, Sunset is compellingly written: most events and descriptions are portrayed with a wealth of detail, consistently absorbing and almost never tedious. Some particularly strong examples: Pavilion You're standing in the center of a colossal gazebo that provides shade for sunburned tourists like yourself. The octagonal floor is made of unbroken grey concrete, bordered on each face by a waist high railing. Tall beams support a sloping wooden canopy that rises over three times your height. A red brick enclosure squats in the southwest corner and a small snack bar nestles up against the enclosure to the south. To the east lies the foot of a seemingly endless pier. A number of wooden benches sit along the north face of the pavilion. Damp Sand, North of Pier The damp, hard packed sand is darkened almost to bronze by the relentless tide to the east, while to the west it lightens to a powdery gold before ending in tall dunes. To the south, you can pass through the pylons supporting the long pier that stretches east from the pavilion. Though the writing in Sunset is not always as economical as it might be, the moments that get described with particular detail warrant the attention; the game's interest in detail mirrors the player-character's observations of the surroundings, and the circumstances justify more attention to the scene than your average passerby might give. Particularly effective in that regard is a series of random messages involving your scenery that recur now and again... A slight gust of wind sends eddies of sand swirling over the brick path. ...or... A young boy wearing a bright blue bathing suit and matching flip-flops runs by. ...which, though not precisely relevant to anything in the game, do plenty to set the scene. An extensive "fun stuff" section available at the end of the game testifies to the wealth of attention that went into writing Sunset, and there are many things in the game that reward curiosity, notably collecting the various shells and chatting with the old man. Several line-break descriptions amplify the effect, notably this: "Grains of sand on the concrete floor twinkle as the light of the setting sun streaks through them at just the right angle." (And, naturally, there is humor here and there; hitting return without entering a command elicits one of the following -- "Beg pardon?", "What?", "Sorry?", and "Mumblemumble?", the latter of which amused me immensely.) Though there are several moments where text takes up at least a full screen, it is a tribute to the writing that those are highlights, invariably clear and vivid. In short, Sunset is well-written enough that even aimless wandering and experimenting feels intriguing; there are few games that can say that. Whether Sunset will appeal to a given player is, I think, largely a matter of taste; some might simply regard the subjective approach dull or mechanical, or find the story too aimless to be involving. My own enjoyment of the game no doubt owes something to my biases. But there is no denying the skill that Mr. Cockrum brings to bear on this game, nor how well it achieves its objectives, and given that and the novelty of the concept, I feel comfortable rating Sunset as my only 10 in the 1997 competition. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Paul O'Brian NAME: Sylenius Mysterium AUTHOR: C.E. Forman E-MAIL: ceforman SP@G postoffice.worldnet.att.net DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/sylenius/sylenius.z5 VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release) [Because of the nature of Sylenius Mysterium, any or all of this review could be considered a spoiler. In addition, spoilers are present for "Freefall" and "Robots." You have been warned.] There seems to be this strange impulse in the text adventure community to recreate the experience of graphical arcade games using the Z-machine. The first evidence I ever saw of this trend was Andrew Plotkin's "Freefall", a z-machine Tetris implementation using realtime opcodes to reproduce the geometrical game with ASCII graphics. Others have followed, including Torjborn Andersson's "Robots", which recreates one of the earliest computer games, and a DOOM implementation which I haven't played. I have to say that this notion baffles me. When I first saw "Freefall", I thought it was good fun. It struck me as a typically amazing Plotkin programming exercise which showcased the versatility of the z-machine. But it didn't become an arcade staple on my machine. As a text adventure, it was pretty wild. As Tetris, it was pretty average. I played it once or twice to see what it could do, then deleted it. "Robots" I kept, but I don't play it. Now here's Sylenius Mysterium (hereafter called SM), the bulk of which is a textual emulation of a horizontally scrolling run-and- jump game, a la Pitfall or Mario Brothers. This kind of thing used to come up as a joke on the IF newsgroups from time to time, and now here it is, a real game. Unfortunately, SM demonstrates the reason why those games were implemented graphically in the first place. Namely, it's silly to implement an arcade game in descriptive mode. ("You begin walking right." "You execute a running jump." "Beneath you is a low wall.") These types of structures are what graphics are best at doing, and they were being done 15 years ago. It's both more fun and less confusing to see an arcade environment in graphics, and if even ancient computers are capable of doing so, what's the point of making a text adventure which simply produces an inferior copy of the original? Playing SM just made me wish that the author had sacrificed portability and implemented the arcade section in graphics. Hell, even cheesy ASCII graphics would have made for a more fun experience than one long room description reading "A panoramic landscape, parallax layers of empty, ruined buildings, scrolling by with your movements." It seems to me that text is good at certain things and so is graphics, and to make a text version of Pitfall makes about as much sense as a joystick-and-fire-button version of A Mind Forever Voyaging. It's great to know that the z-machine has realtime capabilities to produce a text arcade game, but surely those capabilities can be put to better use. SM does have a prologue which operates in a traditional text adventure mode, and this section of the game is quite well-done, with the exception of a number of problematic bugs. The game does a very nice job of defining an engaging and convincing setting and characters, as well as creating a sense of nostalgia for the old gaming consoles. The Atari system was my first introduction to videogames that could be played at home, and I have many fond memories of days spent at friends' houses playing "Missile Command" or "Donkey Kong" or "Pitfall." In fact, the game evoked nostalgia so well that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that its "arcade" section was nothing more than realtime text. Prose: The prose in the IF section of the game was really quite accomplished, so much so in fact that it sent me to the dictionary a couple of times to confirm the meaning of unfamiliar words. All the game's elements, from the sterile quiet of a mall after-hours, to the almost exaggerated "skate punk" main character, to the loving descriptions of the old-time game consoles, were written in a style that I found quite rich and absorbing. Plot: The plot in SM is mainly a device to whisk the player to the arcade section. The plot of that section is (intentionally, I think) extremely pure and simple: find the bad guy and undo his evil deeds. Puzzles: Again, the puzzles outside the arcade section were few, and those inside the arcade section can't really be called "puzzles" in the traditional sense, though I would argue that the game does propose an interesting juxtaposition between the challenges of a Mario Brothers-style arcade game and IF puzzles -- the two are closer than they are sometimes thought to be. Those puzzles within the IF section were usually quite simple, though from time to time bugs arose that made the simplest actions seem unintentionally like puzzles themselves. Technical: writing -- The writing was technically excellent. coding -- Here there were a number of problems. I was keeping a text file of all the major bugs I found until I realized that the author had provided no email address (not even an anonymous remailer for comp97) to which bug reports could be sent. Suffice it to say that there were a number of situations, both inside and outside the arcade section, that needed much improvement. That being said, however, I'm willing to forgive quite a bit from someone who takes on a project as ambitious (even though I personally don't find it to be very interesting) as the arcade section of SM. That section suffers from game-killing bugs of the "FATAL: No such property" variety (or at least it does under WinFrotz), but the working sections of it seemed to work quite well, and I salute the serious effort it must have taken to create them. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April NAME: The Tempest AUTHOR: Graham Nelson E-MAIL: graham SP@G gnelson.demon.co.uk DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform, sort of SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/tempest/tempest.z5 VERSION: Release 3 PLOT: Um...borrowed (1.0) ATMOSPHERE: Not bad (1.2) WRITING: To the extent that Graham wrote it... (1.4) GAMEPLAY: Clunky (0.7) CHARACTERS: Fine, but borrowed (1.0) PUZZLES: Few, not very good (0.6) MISC: Brilliant idea, execution so-so (1.3) OVERALL: 5.6 Of the 1997 competition entries, among the most memorable, and the most ambitious, is Graham Nelson's "The Tempest" -- but it may also be the hardest to rate. Certainly, the extensiveness of the Inform hacking is impressive, and the sheer concept of adapting a drama and making it interactive is novel -- but the game does not, in truth, meet all the challenges the task presented. For the few who don't know: this is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Your role is that of Ariel, the fairy servant to Prospero, the protagonist of the play, and you must complete a series of missions given you by Prospero to (a) move the plot along and (b) win your freedom. The text of the play is virtually all there within the game, and, essentially, when you do something right, the play moves along; you're given a series of situations within the play where the action stops, in a sense, and you need to do something to restart it. After the first scene, you can never make the game unwinnable; you can take as long as you like to hit upon the right thing to do to move things along, and no one will complain. The responses to your actions are written entirely in Elizabethan, perhaps the best part of the whole thing for me; an unrecognized verb elicits "That instruction, that verb, doth elude me," and "get violets" brings this response: "I pluck me nodding violets from this darling bed." Swearing will yield a rich variety of insults, including this: "Mind thy tongue, thou paunchy pottle-deep plume- plucked strumpet!" There is, in short, wit aplenty. There are also, however, some serious problems. Your required actions are not always obvious, even with a copy of the play in hand, and there is no walkthrough or hint system to help you along. Though there are very few puzzles as such -- though one, requiring that you unlock a cabinet, is rather confusing and frustrating -- simply figuring out how to do whatever Prospero has commanded often takes considerable guesswork. Limiting the difficulty somewhat, though hardly in a positive way, is the small set of commands that the game recognizes; once the player figures out the 10 or 15 actions that are helpful, the experimentation required for any given problem is reduced somewhat. The problem remains, though; a bottleneck at the very beginning, in the form of actions that require some intuition even for those who know the play, makes the difficulty of the whole enterprise obvious. Other problems abound -- at one point, even though you can fly, you are required to swim, not an obvious turn of events. The one significant puzzle requires such trial and error that it breaks the spell, so to speak, in that the other characters involved never comment on your presence. And translating some of your tasks into interactive-fiction actions sometimes results in some strange creations, notably three homonculi that you carry around. Nelson takes considerable care to make this a performance of the play, not an innovation on it. Most obviously, you are prevented from speaking your own words -- you cannot ASK a character about anything -- though Ariel will speak lines at the appropriate time, independently of you. This isn't generally a problem -- it would confuse things if you tried to interact with most of the characters anyway -- but given that there are scenes and actions added that aren't Shakespeare's, it doesn't seem that a few questions to Prospero (with the responses described rather than recorded -- "he tells you that...") would break the spell. True, the game does have a note on each character available when you type the name at the prompt -- but there are other things that bear explanation. The desire to avoid dialogue that isn't Shakespeare's is understandable, but it shouldn't override the necessity that a player understand what's going on. Also problematic is that some of the action does not actually turn on anything Ariel does, meaning that, in some cases, _very_ lengthy stretches of text go by before you get a prompt again -- which isn't a problem the first time, but might be if you have to replay that section for some reason -- and in other cases, you set off a scene merely by walking into a room. And in a few cases, though your action does trigger the advance in the plot, the connection feels a bit strained -- and it's those cases where what's required of you is particularly hard to guess. Ariel changes shape now and again, as the play dictates, but the way you prompt them -- when you do; sometimes it just happens -- feels random and impossible to guess. Though these problems speak to the difficulty of the project, it is undeniable that Tempest is not, for all its charm, a particularly playable game. Even so, I enjoyed the experience -- though, I must say, I enjoy Shakespeare as a whole, and being thrust into the middle of the play was entertainment enough for me. Simply having a setting to match and make sense of the action was in many cases helpful and illuminating -- it made sense of the plot in a way that Shakespeare's stage directions sometimes do not -- and the cut scenes that happen in response to certain actions give the player a sense of how the story progresses. And even though there is a feeling of being distinct from the play, in that the prompts only come when the action stops and you have to restart it, that does reinforce the sense that you're controlling the events on the island and the various characters are, in a sense, puppets. Of course, your ability to manipulate them is severely limited by the plot of the play; there isn't much real freedom to test your power. But the sensation is interesting all the same. I found the "performance" genuinely involving in a way that simply reading the text could not reproduce. The sequence of events is variable, to some extent -- certain scenes can be triggered at different times -- but never, as far as I can tell, can you delay or speed up an event in a way that doesn't make sense. And whatever the other faults of Tempest, it must be conceeded that Nelson's Elizabethan is outstanding; even the most mundane responses are written convincingly. The difficulty remains -- how to rate this? Though the gameplay limitations of Tempest are considerable, they are there for a valid reason, not simply inadequate coding -- and, as such, I decided they shouldn't count too heavily aganist the game. Though it doesn't "work" especially well, the concept as put into practice works about as well as it could, and the author should get some credit for a worthy effort. I gave it a 7 on the competition scale, and think that a few minor changes -- like the addition of a hint system, ideally in Elizabethan -- could make this one highly enjoyable. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: The Tempest AUTHOR: Graham Nelson E-MAIL: graham SP@G gnelson.demon.co.uk DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard, significantly adapted SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/tempest/tempest.z5 VERSION: Release 3 (1997 competition release) "Yet look, how far The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow In underprizing it, so far this shadow Doth limp behind the substance." -- William Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice III.ii.126-129 The Tempest attempts a great deal, and achieves much of it despite being somewhat flawed. The work presents itself not as a game, but as an "interactive performance" which asks the player to perform as the magical will of Shakespeare's Prospero, guiding the spirit Ariel (a.k.a. the parser) through the plot of The Tempest (the play), though not necessarily in the order in which Shakespeare wrote it. Remarkably, this complicated positioning of subjectivity works quite well (and opens some unexplored territory for the mixing of first, second, and third person forms of address in IF). It is blended with a new approach to dialogue which prevents the player character from speaking at all but presents many screenfuls of dialogue between other characters (and sometimes including Ariel himself), the exchanges broken up by pausing for keystrokes between each character's lines. In a sense, the player's commands to the parser become essentially stage directions issued to an onstage persona via a magical conduit. This idiom also works beautifully, bestowing the game with a powerful aura of theatrical performance. The Tempest is entertaining and innovative; it often feels quite magical to inhabit the Prospero/Ariel connection, and to take part in a groundbreaking interactive experience. I think that the game also has great potential as an educational tool, allowing readers to experience Shakespeare's language in a new and thrilling way. All this being said, however, the Tempest is not without its problems. Actually, perhaps the game just has one major problem which manifests itself in several ways. Although the game does an excellent (sometimes astonishing) job of rearranging Shakespeare's scenes and lines to fit the interactive mode, the fit is not perfect. Several times during the game I felt faced with responses which, if not complete non sequiturs, were certainly only tenuously connected to the command I had typed. Tempest wrenches in bits and pieces of dialogue from all over the play for various purposes, pressing them into service as room descriptions, parser rejoinders, and other sundry purposes. Sometimes they are perfectly suited to their purpose and sometimes less so. When I was on the wrong end of this continuum, my relationship with the game became strained -- the parser's responses were beautiful, but didn't make enough sense, and not because of any opacity in the Elizabethan English. This situation creates a problem with the game's puzzles: usually interactive fiction prose can be written in such a way as to suggest subtle hints to the problems facing the player. However, when control of the prose escapes the author, those hints become harder and harder for a player to come by. It is to this difficulty with the prose (and, of course, to the lack of any hint system or walkthrough) that I ascribe the problems I've seen players having, often with the very first puzzle of the game. With a typical piece of IF, the game could simply tailor its responses to help the player along -- the Tempest often achieves this goal, but all too often it falls short. Plot: I predict that a certain contingent of voices will raise the hue and cry over what they perceive to be the Tempest's lack of interactivity. I wasn't able to finish the game in two hours (far from it, in fact -- I got only six points, another example of an excellent competition game which breaks the two-hour rule), but the parts I saw made it pretty clear that the game leads you along rather carefully from one plot point to the next, allowing for very little branching. My own opinion is that this structure is not a problem -- after all, the piece bills itself as "more a 'performance' than a 'game'," and as such it's perfectly appropriate for the Tempest to enforce a certain degree of rigidity to accommodate the exigencies of its plot. In fact, what this achieves is the inclusion of a much more complicated plot than is common in interactive fiction; by limiting the player's ability to affect the narrative stream, the game allows the complexity of Shakespeare's plotting to shine through even in this challenging new form. I'm satisfied with the trade-off. Prose: I suppose this is where I ought to weigh in on the debate over the originality of a work like the IF version of the Tempest. It's my opinion that the IF Tempest is absolutely a different piece of work from the Tempest, the play. Yes, the author uses almost the entire script of the play, but I would argue that such usage is not plagiarism, because whatever Shakespeare's intentions, I think it's safe to say that the play was not written to be adapted into interactive form. Consequently, I don't see the IF Tempest as any less an original work than Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility or, for that matter, Shakespeare's MacBeth (whose plot was lifted from Holinshed's histories.) Yes, the seams do sometimes show between the author's additions and Shakespeare's text -- these are the work's weaker moments. However, in judging the Tempest's prose, I judge not the quality of Shakespeare's writing, but the quality of its usage in its new medium -- on that basis, more often than not, it succeeds. Puzzles: As noted above, this is where I identify the major weakness of the Tempest. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I cite as an example the first puzzle of the game, where Ariel must blow a storm to upset the boat and set the plot into motion. The reason that players are finding this puzzle so difficult is that it requires rather close knowledge of the play (and not just of the play's first scene), which most players, even very well educated ones, are not likely to have at their fingertips. No hint is given of Ariel's powers or of his purpose in regard to the ship. Now, in a typical IF game, there might be a sentence or two in the introductory paragraph which introduces the idea and sets players on their way. However, because of the constraints imposed by using a collage of prewritten text, these hints are unavailable and thus players flounder in a "read-the-playwright/designer's-mind" sort of puzzle. It won't be the last time. Technical: writing -- The prose did an excellent job with handling a number of difficult technical tasks with regard to writing and using Elizabethan English. coding -- I found only one bug in Tempest (at least, I think it was a bug), among a thoroughly reworked library of Inform responses and the introduction of a number of excellent devices for the presentation of dialogue and clarification of the plot. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: Unholy Grail AUTHOR: Stuart Allen E-MAIL: sallen SP@G one.net.au DATE: 1997 PARSER: JACL standard SUPPORTS: JACL interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/jacl/grail VERSION: 1997 competition release Playing Unholy Grail puts me in mind of the old saw about the glass being half-full or half-empty. For each positive I can think of, a counterbalancing negative also comes to mind. While the prose creates sharp, clear, atmospheric images, it is also burdened with numerous grammar and spelling errors. While the game had an inventive plot, this same plot was punctuated with moments of tediousness, implausibility, and pure frustration. And while Grail is orders of magnitude better than Allen's 1996 entry "The Curse of Eldor," it still fails to realize both its own potential and that of its author. Allen has accomplished a noteworthy programming achievement: he has written his own IF engine, one which mimics much of the important functionality of the current front-runners Inform and TADS. Unfortunately, it still doesn't perform at the levels of either of these popular "standard" IF engines, and suffers greatly by comparison. Again, it's a yin and yang situation: a quality engine is written from scratch, but it's still a poor competitor to the dominant systems, marred by problems ranging from the complex (tortured disambiguation) to the amazingly simple (an inexplicably arbitrary pathname in the CONFIG file.) Still, Unholy Grail was the first 1997 competition game I played, and it wasn't an altogether inauspicious start. For one thing, it represents remarkable progress on the part of the author. Unholy Grail is not the fulfillment of Stuart Allen's promise, but it marks him as one to watch. With the improvements he's already made to his JACL engine it seems entirely plausible that it could one day match the quality of the current state of the art. Also, this game is one of the few conceptually complete pieces of IF I've seen in the "thriller" genre, a field which is in many ways well-suited to IF, but whose only significant representative has been "Border Zone," a quality game but one whose gimmick of real-time has often overshadowed discussion of its generic groundbreaking. Unholy Grail was uneven; some things were really very good, other things really not very good at all. I hope it's a marker of better things to come. Prose: I found the prose in Unholy Grail fairly difficult to read. Sentences seemed to string endlessly, clause following clause until I thought perhaps the author had asked Henry James to ghost-write. However, I also think that the lack of a status line and room name threw me out of my ingrained IF reading habits, the disorientation of which probably contributed to my difficulty in following the author's long narrative strands. Or it could just be my own denseness -- that's always a possibility. Despite the game's verbosity, though, strong images floated up to me out of the sea of words. I have a very distinct picture in my mind of the swivel chair and radar screen in the control room, of the battered hut whose floorboards parted to show the ground below, and of the elegant, elaborate hotel. The author clearly had done his homework, and was able to create a very convincing picture of the character's environment. I just had to read some of the sentences a few times before I felt sure I knew what they were saying. Plot: The most ringing endorsement of the plot I can give is this: after the two-hour judging period had expired, and I was only 75% through with the game, I spent another half-hour on it because I *needed* to know how it ended. I found the plot difficult to get into at first (see Puzzles), and needed to refer often to the science encyclopedia so I could have a basic clue of what the game was talking about, but once I understood, I was inexorably drawn in by the skillfully dropped hints and slowly unfolding drama. On the other hand (and there's always another hand when it comes to Unholy Grail), I found some things in the plot pretty difficult to believe. Small points like the layout of the complex were jarring: would the military really have a female officer share a bathroom with a male civilian? Certainly the PC's name ("Alex") is gendered ambiguously, but imagining the character as a male (as I did) drains the layout of some believability. Also, some larger points (such as the Rotenone) seemed only to serve as red herrings, but created major implausibilities in the plot: if I've determined that Rotenone is causing the fish deaths, how can it be true that they're being caused by something which in fact behaves entirely differently? For that matter, if my basic science encyclopedia tells me that Rotenone causes fish to drown, why do I blame it for cancer? Puzzles: For the first hour I played the game, I was absolutely stumped. Finally, I resorted to the hint system and learned that because an extra-long sentence in the room description of the lab, I had neglected to examine the lab bench as closely as I ought. Once I found the global positioner, I was off and running. Consequently, I struggled with this game a lot more than its puzzles may have merited. Most of the puzzles were fairly easy, when they didn't involve guessing the verb (Can't turn the drum. Can't move the drum. Can't push the drum. Can't pull the drum. Can't look under the drum. Oh, look *behind* the drum!), and some were quite satisfying (especially the filing cabinet.) However, one puzzle was amazingly tedious -- it basically involved typing "n" 20 times and "w" 20 times, then doing the opposite. Here's where a "swim to" verb would have been much appreciated! Technical: writing -- In addition to the stylistic factors I mentioned in "Prose", Unholy Grail was also plagued with grammar and spelling errors. Certainly there was some attention to proofreading, but one or two more passes were needed. coding -- Unfortunately this is where Grail stumbles the most. JACL does a good job of imitating mainstream systems (especially Inform) in many ways, but in other crucial areas it falls critically short. For example, the system lacks an "oops" verb. Also, its disambiguation is weak, a fact which caused a great deal of frustration for me as my reasonable answers to its reasonable questions kept getting the response "The sentence you typed was incomplete." The system also overuses Graham Nelson's famous "You can't see any such thing," applying it to sentences whose nouns are examinable and manipulable in other contexts. In addition to these general systemic problems, Grail itself had a number of particular bugs which I've reported to the author in a separate email. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: Poor Zefron's Almanac AUTHORS: Carl Klutzke E-MAIL: cklutzke SP@G iquest.net DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/tads/almanac/almanac.gam VERSION: Version 1.0 (1997 competition release) Right about the time that Poor Zefron's Almanac (hereafter called PZA) starts feeling like another humdrum sword-and-sorcery game, it executes a nice surprising twist. To say too much more would be to give the game away, but the fact that the author bills PZA as "an interactive cross-genre romp" is a clue toward its direction. This twist made the game refreshing and fun again, especially after the frustration it caused me when I began playing it. More on that later. PZA does several things very well, one of which is its eponymous book, a tome owned by your wizardly master Zefron and left behind after his mysterious disappearance. This almanac contains a feature unique to all the CONSULTable items in IFdom (as far as I know): it can be BROWSEd. Browsing the almanac brings forth a random entry from within its pages; not only is it great fun to read these random entries, it also gives a sense of how thoroughly the almanac has been implemented. This device would be most welcome in other IF... how I'd love to browse the Encyclopedia Frobozzica or the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy! Just having the book at hand lent a sense of scope and excitement to PZA. Unfortunately, my first 45 minutes or so of playing this game were extremely frustrating. PZA suffers from a couple of serious design flaws, the gravest of which is its repeated violation of the Fifth Right (from Graham Nelson's "Player's Bill of Rights"): not to have the game closed off without warning. Because of a fairly flexible (but extremely temporary) magic spell that becomes available at the very beginning of the game, I found myself repeatedly stranded, unable to proceed and forced to RESTART. This happened again later on in the game -- I committed a perfectly logical action and found out hundreds of turns later that this action had closed off the endgame. This is a frustrating experience, and one that could easily have been avoided with a few minor changes to the game's structure, changes which would not have had any discernible effect on puzzles or plot. In addition, there are a few areas in which the player character can be killed without warning, always an unwelcome design choice. PZA is (as far as I know) Carl Klutzke's first game, so chalk these flaws up to education. I look forward to playing another Klutzke game as well-implemented as PZA, but designed more thoughtfully. One nice element of PZA was its facility with IF homage. The game's "cluple" spell not only had a name that sounded straight out of Enchanter, it was virtually identical to that series' "snavig" spell. The almanac itself (as well as a number of other features) was a skillful allusion to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Finally, the XYZZY command response is one of the more clever I've seen in a while. Clearly PZA's author is a devotee of the old games, and his devotion shows in his work. I am hopeful that his next piece of IF will live up to his worthy aspirations. Prose: The prose in PZA is generally very good. Rooms, objects, and random events are described concisely but with attention to detail. Some of the locations are rather sparsely treated (for example, the town consists of one location), but such skimping is always done in service of the plot, and more detail would serve to distract rather than to enrich. Plot: This is definitely the strongest point of PZA. The game starts out with an engaging hook, and after the twist I was definitely enjoying the direction of the story quite a bit. In addition, the author has manipulated the scoring system in such a way as to give the feeling of multiple endings. Granted, many of those endings amount to one version or another of "*** You have died ***", but not all of them. There are more and less successful solutions to the story, and they are integrated so naturally into the endgame text that they almost escape notice. One of the nicest implementations of multiple endings in the competition. Puzzles: Here there were problems. What happens to PZA is that its individual problems are well-considered, and their solutions are perfectly logical. However, when the actions that comprise those solutions are attempted in other areas of the game, they all too often drive the narrative into a blind alley from which there is no escape. It's one of the hardest balancing acts in interactive fiction: how to have sensible puzzles logically integrated into the game, without making the narrative too linear, which in their elements create no dead ends for the player. PZA doesn't pull it off. Technical: writing -- I found no technical errors in the writing. coding -- Once I played PZA on WinTADS, I had no problems with it. I started out trying to use it on my old DOS version of TR, and before I could even get one command out it was giving me TADS "Out of Memory" errors. Whether this is a bug in the program of the interpreter, I don't know enough about TADS to say. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Second April TITLE: Zero Sum Game AUTHOR: Cody Sandifer E-MAIL: sandifer SP@G sunstroke.sdsu.edu DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standards SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/tads/zero/zero.gam VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Funny, innovative (1.6) ATMOSPHERE: Cartoonish (1.3) WRITING: Quite good (1.6) GAMEPLAY: Weak in spots (1.3) CHARACTERS: Very funny (1.7) PUZZLES: Some bad choices (1.2) MISC: Original concept, well executed (1.7) OVERALL: 7.5 In premise and execution, Cody Sandifer's Zero Sum Game is a genuinely funny send-up of an adventure game (Pork, eat your heart out) and perhaps the funniest work of IF since C.E. Forman MSTed Detective. Your mission: you have completed an average hack-and-slash adventure game, but when you come home, your mother sends you out to undo everything you've done. The goal is therefore to lose all 75 points you have at the start of the game, by unslaying a dragon, giving back treasures, and making good all your dirty deeds. That you frequently have to do more dirty deeds along the way is, of course, part of the humor. Humorous enough as a concept, but there's more: you get a sidekick named Maurice the Follower (when commanded to do something salacious: "Maurice can't spring to your aid if he's busy doing that!") who invariably refers to himself in the third person and provides running commentary on everything in the game. And I mean everything: periodically, Maurice exclaims "Oh boy! Look at the size of this [room name]!", which has quite the effect when it comes along in the location named Dirt Patch. Though Maurice is only minimally useful, it is advised that the player keep him around as long as possible to hear his various contributions. My personal favorite Maurice line, when accompanied by a nasty character: Maurice claps. "Hooray for goodness! Down with evil!" Irritated, Darlene glances sharply in Maurice's direction. "Um," stumbles Maurice. "Maurice is shutting up now." The comedy in Zero Sum Game extends well beyond Maurice. (When you try to give something to a dead character: "I bet you also loan money to trees.") The antiheroic "hero" character affords some humor in his or her own right (the gender varies with yours, which you choose at the beginning), stalking around killing everything in sight in a fashion reminiscent of many a combat-based role-playing game. (And berating his or her big toe for its interference.) There's even a sex scene of sorts (or a series of them), played for laughs rather than thrills, naturally. As with Mr. Sandifer's most recent work, "Everybody Loves a Parade," there are numerous particularized lines for ho-hum commands, notably "kiss", whose generic response is "You're not attracted to [character] in that secret special way" but which draws a wide variety of funny lines in certain situations. The glitches in Zero Sum Game mostly arise from the puzzles. For one thing, there are many opportunities to make the game unfinishable, many of them merely from doing things out of sequence; the player is advised to save often, since many of the key developments are a bit hard to foresee. One puzzle can even be solved "wrong" -- you'll get the points, but you won't be able to finish the game -- which is a bit irritating. Even though the game is short enough that restarting it is not a major hassle, the gameplay problems detract a bit from the overall enjoyability. There are also numerous small illogicalities -- you steal an object and its owner doesn't notice, though he does if you show up carrying it; you can't take an object from Maurice, even if he follows you around slavishly; the superstrong hero can't break an old rusty padlock. Logic is not a major factor in humorous games, of course, but then again that's one of the drawbacks of humorous games (witness Bureaucracy, one of the hardest games Infocom ever produced simply because the puzzles all required Douglas Adams logic), and Zero Sum Game suffers from that problem. Small problems aside, this is certainly one of the best of this year's competition, and without a doubt one of the most consistently enjoyable; even with the gameplay problems, I still thought it merited a 9. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: "Paul O'Brian" NAME: Zero Sum Game AUTHOR: Cody Sandifer E-MAIL: sandifer SP@G crmse.sdsu.edu DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/tads/zero/zero.gam VERSION: Release 1 (1997 competition release) Zero Sum Game (hereafter called "ZSG") is like the proverbial apple which is shiny & enticing on the outside, but inside is rapidly rotting away. The game starts with a fun premise: You've won. You've collected treasures and solved puzzles, and now (before the first move of the game) you're bringing them home to your mother. Unfortunately, she doesn't approve of theft and killing and other such goings on, and orders you to go back and put right all the wrongs you've committed. Thus the game's name: you try to bring your score down to zero before your moves (5000 of them) run out. This could have been a fun romp of reverse thinking, or an interesting exploration of the morality of the traditional stock adventurer character, or even both. As it turns out, the game doesn't really succeed on either count. The main problem that I had with ZSG is that it takes a much more callous approach to cruelty (no, not Zarfian cruelty. Real cruelty. [No offense, Andrew -- yours feels pretty real at the time.]) than I'm comfortable with. SPAG has a no-spoiler policy, so it's difficult to provide concrete examples of this problematic tendency. Suffice it to say that in order for the player to reach the solution, several harmless and friendly creatures within the game must be killed, sometimes in grotesque ways. These (and other) scenes make it apparent that the author has not taken a thoughtful, mature approach to the implications of his theme. That's OK -- not everything has to be thoughtful and mature. But ZSG reached such a level of cruelty that it wasn't much fun either. Dead bodies piled up in proportions comparable to any hack-and-slash MUD, and even though there's a resurrection spell in the game, you can't use it to revive any of the dozens of dead elves and villagers, or any of the other beings killed in the game (with one partial exception). The game's ending provides the final barb. Without giving away too much, I'll just say that it inflicts some arbitrary punishment on you, not as penance for your crimes, but because you're a "mama's boy" (or girl, as the case may be.) To give it its due, ZSG does have a clever premise, a promising start, and some good puzzles. Some of these puzzles have no particular moral bent, but are cleverly designed. Others in fact do have the particular ethical direction of reversing wrongs: you give the candy back to the baby, for example. That's why it left such a bad taste in my mouth to learn that other puzzles required coldly slaughtering your friends for the sake of a few points. I learned this from the walkthrough -- I had already thought of the "killing" solution to one puzzle, but couldn't believe it was the right thing to do until I heard it from the author himself. After that point, I detached from the game, using the walkthrough to see the whole thing and make notes for this review. It didn't get better. Zero Sum Game's gimmick is one that works best the first time it is used -- too bad this game did such a poor job of using it. Prose: The prose in ZSG is actually pretty good. It's what enabled me to become a little affectionate about Maurice and Chippy before I had to slaughter them. Still, much like the rest of the game, the prose is a good tool used for the wrong purpose. It's like a beginning carpenter using the best quality wood -- the result may look pretty, but it falls apart much too easily. Plot: I think this is a game that doesn't know what it wants to be about. After the competition ended, the author posted to rgif that in fact there was a "larger purpose" to the cruelty in ZSG, and that he was trying to do a number of things, including explore 1st person morality in IF, and to spoof the traditional treasure hunt in a funny, absurd, and extreme way. It's interesting to know this, and also to know that for a number of people, the game worked. Still, maybe I'm overly sensitive (or taking things too seriously), but it didn't work for me. The game's arbitrary limits force brutal answers to trivial problems -- not a very powerful exploration of the concepts the author claims to have had in mind. The plot is a wandering mess, ending in a big "piss off" to its player. Unsatisfying and unpleasant. Puzzles: The puzzles represented both the best and the worst things about ZSG. On the one hand, the first couple of puzzles I solved (the baby and the key) were really clever and interesting, and they raised my expectations from the already high level achieved by the game's premise. Unfortunately, the excitement of these only intensified the letdown of consulting the walkthrough and discovering what cold solutions were required for the other puzzles. It's a pity that the game didn't keep a consistent tone throughout -- I was much more disappointed than I would have been had all the puzzles required nasty measures to solve. Technical: writing -- I only found one grammar error in the entire text, a misplaced modifier. coding -- The coding was relatively coherent, though there was one major problem: the warning system was a complete failure. To test it, I ate the candy, killed the merchant, and killed Maurice in the first few turns of the game. No response. Other than that, I found no major bugs. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Paul O'Brian NAME: Zombie! AUTHOR: Scott W. Starkey E-MAIL: starkey SP@G wcic.org DATE: 1997 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/competition97/inform/zombie/zombie.gam VERSION: 1997 competition release I love the beginning of Zombie!. In it, you play Valerie, a junior at the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits to the various characters squabbling over how to build a campfire. Equally well- done is the terror of learning that there is something awful lurking in those woods, and it's coming to get you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed... and then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role: that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn't you know it?) run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of another, and vice versa for the character I played in the prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the first things you hear with Scott's ears is a scream -- it sounds like Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods? Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles badly. For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it! I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see Scott's emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt cheated. I wouldn't have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she was just a throwaway character. Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is far from Zombie!'s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code, hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of mechanical errors in the writing. I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great job of building that tension. It's a b-movie all the way, no deep or serious issues here, but it's definitely got that suspenseful, creepy feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony in that phrase, so you needn't bother pointing it out.) The sound of heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend. Prose: The prose isn't beautiful by any means, and it often shows signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing, and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and built the tension just right for entry into the game proper. Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly, with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on, as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a competition entry the author didn't have time to explore it. Also, as I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd considering that she never again showed up in the game. I also felt a little frustrated by the ending. I don't want to give too much away, except to say that it managed neither the triumphant feeling of destroying evil nor the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat. Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn by now. However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn't been plagued by bugs, its puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the narrative rather than obstructing it. Technical: writing -- There were a significant number of mechanical errors in Zombie!'s writing. coding -- The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least one round of intense playtesting before it's really ready for the world at large. SUBMISSION POLICY ---------------------------------------------------------- SPAG is a non-paying fanzine specializing in reviews of text adventure games, a.k.a. Interactive Fiction. This includes the classic Infocom games and similar games, but also some graphic adventures where the primary player-game communication is text based. Authors retain the rights to use their reviews in other contexts. We accept submissions that have been previously published elsewhere, although original reviews are preferred. At the moment, we are reluctant to accept any more reviews of Infocom games (though exceptions happen). CLOSING REMARKS-------------------------------------------------------------- In his answer to one of the interview questions, Nate Cull states that he thinks of the future of IF as "bleak, but hopeful." Well, I don't really know about the bleak part, but considering the sheer number of entries in the '97 competition, as well as the outstanding qualities of at least some of them, there is certainly reason for hope. Keep up the good work in 1998! ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Thank you for helping to keep text adventures alive!
Click here for a printable, plain text version of this issue.