IF Competition 2001 Reviews

Between the Zorkmid Project and a house closing, I didn't finish many entries in the annual Interactive Fiction Competition 2001. But here are my reactions for what they're worth.

Games Reviewed
:-DAll Roads by Jon Ingold
an apple from nowhere by Steven Carbone
Carma by The Wanna-Be Writer
:-(Doomed from the Start by Jeremy Carey-Dressler
:-)The Gostak by Carl Muckenhoupt
>:-(The Newcomer by Jason Love
:-(The Test by Dark Baron Matt
:-(Timeout by Steev Hilderbrand

The Good

:-D All Roads by Jon Ingold

Warning: Spoiler about the game's premise follows, but not the ending. You may prefer to play this game with no expectations.

An easy game to lose yourself in. Its picturesque descriptions took me to another place and time.

From the opening scenes, the protagonist seems unstuck in time like a Renaissance version of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Yet soon it becomes clear the protagonist believes he is merely traveling through space. Several episodes later, he realizes what I understood immediately. Then, disconcertingly, he relapses into ignorance in a later conversation.

My mind was engaged with making sense the disjointed plot, drawing connections between events separated by unknown spans of time, and puzzling over hints of deeper mysteries.

The author recommends avoiding the use of undo, which is good advice. If you reverse the wheels of the plot and choose differently, you may notice the plot rolling along the same hidden rails. You cannot stray far from your predestined path, though puzzles have alternate solutions and scenes have alternate resolutions.

One scene stood out as an exception to this flexibility. Events built up to a major confrontation which seemed to have an obvious, straightforward outcome, but the game flatly refused to allow it. Heavy-handedly, it hinted at a less apparent choice, setting the stage for a thoroughly perplexing plot development. Perhaps I was slow on the uptake.

The plot was more convoluted than at first it seemed. In the end, it wasn't entirely clear to me what happened, but I felt I knew the whole story if I could only grasp it. Playing through a second time, everything fell into place.

This road has a few bumps and ends at a confusing destination, but the journey is rewarding.

:-) The Gostak by Carl Muckenhoupt

Two hours wasn't nearly enough for me to decipher this imaginative game, but I enjoyed analyzing it for a day and a half.

Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave. But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds.

Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them.

But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud will vorl them from you.

This world uses an alternate English where nouns, verbs, and adjectives take unfamiliar forms. Though less demanding a linguistic exercise than Zarf's Lighan Ses Lion transcript from the Telegram Comp, even familiar concepts play by different rules here. The high concept might be Lighan Ses Lion meets Dan Schmidt's For a Change.

Paying attention to my own thought processes was interesting. It amused me that my brain was programmed to think things like Hmm, a calbice. Panks rask murgous goaves which boltep calbices... even though I didn't know (and still don't know) what panks, murgous goaves, boltepping, or calbices are. Such abstract puzzle solving may not be for everyone, but it was definitely for me.

According to The Craft of Adventure, Michael Kinyon once said, A tester with a new verb is like a kid with a hammer; every problem seems like a nail. To solve this game, act like a tester. For example, I figured out a puzzle that stumped me for hours just by seeing how the game responded to tophth. (Familiarity with standard error messages of the Inform library also helps, but is not essential.)

Take notes. In pencil. And doatch at the droke about everything you reb.

The Middling

an apple from nowhere by Steven Carbone

Take a trip in the head of a junkie. A succession of surreal scenes swept me away. If you prefer puzzles, you'll find none here.

The plot is on greased rails. Spend too long in any scene, and you abruptly zoom off to the next one. Amid feverish dreams, fragments of story flash by, but they're hard to make sense of. Confusing? Yes. You're meant to feel as dazed as the protagonist.

The most breathless parts of the rollercoaster come at the end, then everything screeches to a halt. Afterward, I collected my thoughts and wondered, What the heck was that?

Scenes play out in unexpected ways. The protagonist is impulsive, and just looking at something can send events veering out of your control. Whatever you do, the next scene is the next scene. Your choices don't influence later events, but different choices can reveal more of the story.

The protagonist thinks and behaves in shocking ways, but not just to be offensive. The transgressions are expressions of an unleashed id in an unhinged mind.

Extra credit for doing some segments in screenplay format.

It wasn't all fun, but you know what? This ride blew me away.

Carma by The Wanna-Be Writer

As the author warns right from the beginning, this is not a game. It's a cute, mildly amusing lecture about punctuation problems, showcasing the capabilities of the Glulx interpreter.

Most of Carma is noninteractive. Over half the game goes by with no more input than occasionally pressing the space bar to continue. Sit back, eat your popcorn, and watch the show.

There are a few implementation problems, but nothing serious. In the interactive scenes, the game could be more flexible in the commands it accepts:

You are in a stark, empty room. Deep shadows pool like inky wells in the corners.

In the furthest corner the dark density seems to coalesce into a huddled figure, blacker on the black.

>examine corner

[ Sorry, I don't know the word "corner." ]

>examine darkness

[ Sorry, I don't know the word "darkness." ]

>examine shadows

You see nothing special about the shadows.

And the parser has some disambiguation issues:

>enter bar

Which do you mean, the saloon, the buildings, the bar girl or the bar girl's doo-dads?

>enter saloon

Which do you mean, the saloon or the buildings?

In one scene, I had to ask questions of several characters. Whenever I tried to talk to them, the game would respond that I wasn't currently interviewing them. So start interviewing them, you silly parser! But it inflexibly insisted I use the uncommon adventure verb interview.

As a lesson, the game is too didactic, giving more rules than concrete examples. As a game, you watch it more than you play it. But it is an entertaining diversion with some nice use of multimedia.

Missed opportunity: In a gunfight armed only with a pen and paper, I immediately thought of a classic Bugs Bunny pun. But the game didn't anticipate the command draw gun.

The Bad

:-( Doomed from the Start by Jeremy Carey-Dressler

Writing a parser from scratch is a difficult task. Even the classic Adventure only had a primitive two-word parser, but for the tasks at hand it almost sufficed.

This author was even more economical, inventing a primordial one-word parser. This parsimonious parser strips the standard adventure game vocabulary down to a mere dozen words (not counting one-letter abbreviations). To pull off this feat, the author circumvents the need for unimportant verbs like open with room descriptions like You see quite a few medicine cabinets and decide to open a cabinet up. While rifling through its contents you find a key!

You'll never miss the excess words after you solve the game's first and most difficult challenge, figuring out how to take the key off the floor:

You notice a key in the corner, maybe you should pick it up...

You are in room 1, now what do you wish to do? get key

Sorry that is not a correct word!

You are in room 1, now what do you wish to do?

Sorry that is not a correct word!

You are in room 1, now what do you wish to do? take key

Sorry that is not a correct word!

You are in room 1, now what do you wish to do?

Sorry that is not a correct word!

You are in room 1, now what do you wish to do? look

Sorry that is not a correct word!

Even a seasoned adventurer like myself had to resort to the help command to solve this puzzle.

Unfortunately, Jeremy neglected to include a walkthrough for easily stumped readers who would like to skip such puzzles and just read the rest of the prose. To remedy this lack, I have written one.

>:-( The Newcomer by Jason Love

After a promising introduction, two steps from the initial room I read this:

>south

You can't, since the iron door is in the way.

>open door

You can't see any such thing.

Hmm. Two steps further, I read this:

>west

Grand Stairwell (top)
The link between

>down

Grand Stairwell (bottom)
$$$

Then, backtracking to the last described room:

[** Programming error: Shadowed Hall (west branch) (object number 36) has no property d_place to read **]

Jason, if you can't be bothered to finish writing the game, I can't be bothered to finish playing it. Fortunately, you didn't waste enough of my time for me to be really angry.

Pity, I'm tantalized by what prose there is. Despite this experience, I'll play the game if it is ever completed.

:-( The Test by Dark Baron Matt

This was the first competition game I played this year. The initial room description made a strong first impression:

You don't want to be here unless running on conveir belts is your kind of thing. You're in some kind of factory, in a think passage way standing on a conveyer belt, which is going backwards into a big machine which crushes stuff between giantic steel teeth.

My first thought on encountering conveir, think passage, and giantic in the game's starting room was: I'm going to rate this less than 3 (out of 10). My second thought was: How young is the author?

To be accurate, this isn't the opening text. First you must solve a puzzle maladapted from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's matter transference beams.

Logic failed me in solving several puzzles, but fortunately the game includes hints. For example, I erred by looking at a robot guard with X GUARD and assuming that Nothing special. meant just that. Later, the hints drew my attention to a feature of the robot I would have seen had I typed X ROBOT instead.

My resistance to using hints was broken within my first 10 moves by examining my starting inventory:

I know what you're thinking.
Why've I got a calculator?
Well, if you'd read the introduction it tells you, you were just about to have a maths test. So you brought a calculator to school. Because you need one. To work out the answers. Which you write down on the paper. With a pen. And so on.

You fiddle with it, "Hey! It still works!" You shout. To use it find full documation in the hint section. ;-)

Since hints cost points, I'm not sure whether reading this documation would've prevented me from achieving a perfect score. However, the game crashed soon after an annoying audio puzzle, and I couldn't bring myself to voluntarily load it up again.

The Test gets a failing grade from me.

:-( Timeout by Steev Hilderbrand

A boring game based on Paranoia, a darkly humorous tabletop RPG. Your mission is to take an object X from room A to room B, somewhere in a large complex of mostly empty rooms with an occasional random death trap.

This program has more bugs than an IntSec confession booth. Exhibit A, the unopenable trash can (which is closed):

You can see a trash can (which is closed) here.

>open can

That's not something you can open.

>look in can

You can't see inside, since the trash can is closed.

Exhibit B, the invisible locked steel doors:

A steel door is set in the north wall, and a passageway heads south, back to the hallway.

>north

The door is locked.

>examine steel door

You can't see any such thing.

Sundry takeable objects are scattered about, most of which have no practical purpose. Others seem to have a purpose which has not been implemented. For example, a decoder ring lies out in the open in one room, and a piece of paper with a coded message in another. (Reading this paper crashes WinFrotz, because its message is a 300-character long word. The paper is readable in Nitfol, so I blame the interpeter, not the game.) However, I could not figure out any command to decode the message or read it with the ring.

Wondering if the game was even finishable, I consulted the walkthrough. It turns out that room B is behind one of the invisible locked steel doors--the only ones you can walk through, despite appearances.

The writing is lifeless, and so is the story. You have no significant obstacles to overcome. You don't get to commit any of the backstabbing and mayhem that a Paranoia game traditionally entails. (I suspect Steev hasn't played a lot of Paranoia, since he names the protagonist TEND-IR-FUT instead of Tend-FUT-1. Infrareds don't have clearance initials.)

This mission isn't worth reporting for.