Blade Sentinel by Mihalis Georgostathis [Comp02]

IFDB page: Identity Thief
Final placement: 38th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

On the plus side, this is a superhero game. I like superheroes. On the minus side, well, everything else. Quest is just about the same as it was the last time I played a Quest game, which was last year. I talked about its shortcomings in my review of Comp01’s Lovesong, so I won’t rehash that.

I will, however, complain about the fact that apparently Quest savegame files have the directory path of the original game file hardcoded into them. Consequently, when I played the first half of Blade Sentinel on my lunch hour at work and then took the save file with me to finish the game at home, the restore failed miserably, since it was looking for my work machine’s directory structure.

So I loaded the savegame file into a text editor, found the directory path and changed it, and managed to do my restore, only to discover that Quest is terminally broken under Windows XP, showing no input line. You would think that the “handful-of-verbs, mouse-interface” problem might cancel out the “no input line” problem, but apparently only most of the game’s verbs are available via mouseclick. Two or three must be typed in, which is tough to do without an input line. So I took it to my WinME machine, got it working, and discovered that the game is fatally bugged and unfinishable. So that makes rating it easy. Oh, and the English is really, really terrible.

Rating: 1.0

Identity Thief by Rob Shaw-Fuller [Comp02]

IFDB page: Identity Thief
Final placement: 13th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

A couple of years ago, there was a comp game called VOID:CORPORATION, which proclaimed itself to be cyberpunk. Unfortunately, as I said in my review, what it did instead was “just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes”, and was consequently pretty weak. Only a few days ago, I heard from the author of that game, who had just found my review and thanked me for writing it, so V:C was on my mind when I saw Identity Thief describe itself in Comp02 as “a cyberpunk interaction.”

Happily, this game exceeds its predecessor by a long stretch. Rather than being thinly disguised versions of Tolkien or Zork, Identity Thief‘s characters, settings, objects, and plot arise organically from a much more science-fictional premise, a premise nicely limned in the game’s optional introductory material. The prose maintains a very fine level throughout, sometimes even hitting rather sublime and poetic metaphors. The gadgets, such as implanted hands with “memory plastic” that can store palmprints of anyone whose hand you clasp, are delightful and have a great “wow factor.” What’s more, the story starts out with an arresting setup, moves quickly into a high pitch of urgency, and then keeps going into stranger and stranger territory.

I was particularly taken with what I suppose you might call the game’s second half. [I’ll try to be pretty vague here, but some of what follows could be construed as mild spoilage.] The first half involves completing a particular task, and indeed the first pleasant surprise is that there’s still more game to go when that task is completed — I fully expected the story to end, but instead I was asked to do the next logical thing, given what had happened up to that point. As that second scenario progressed, I felt more and more uneasy, suspecting that some big whammy was coming my way, but I didn’t try to get away. I didn’t even want to try to get away, because I knew that wasn’t what the character would do, even though the character himself was probably sharing my apprehensions.

Through its excellent writing and careful plotting, the game had cemented such a solid emotional connection between the PC and myself that I never flipped into the more “gamelike” state of mind that would attempt to obtain the most favorable outcome no matter how its methods might jar against the character or the story. This sort of split consciousness is essential to dramatic irony, and is exceedingly difficult to achieve in IF. Identity Thief achieved it, at least for me, and deserves a great deal of praise for that.

Where the game falls apart, though, is in its depth of implementation. The first part of the game has the PC hunting for a particular object, but a great many reasonable commands related to such a hunt were met with the response “You have better things to do.” This is unsatisfying not just because it thwarts my attempts to solve the puzzle, but because it’s patently false — the PC’s highest priority ought to be to carry out just such actions.

Another area where the implementation seems particularly threadbare is in its major NPC. This NPC, when questioned with the right word, rarely fails to offer large quantities of information, much of it critical to the plot. However, those words can be difficult to determine, and to pretty much every other topic, the NPC responds, “I do not understand your question.” And while that statement may be perfectly true, it is not sufficient.

As a result of these problems of shallowness, Identity Thief feels like it’s one or two drafts away from being finished — bugs and prose errors are rather rare (though not entirely absent), but the game could still benefit greatly from a beta-testing session that addressed not only things the tester finds that don’t work properly, but also things the tester tries that don’t prompt a unique response. Identity Thief is already a good game, but as yet it lacks the polish to be anything more.

Rating: 8.8

Moonbase by Mike Eckardt as QA Dude [Comp02]

IFDB page: Moonbase
Final placement: 34th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I think that comp games are a little like blind dates. For two hours or until the game ends, whichever comes first, I’m in a temporary relationship where I’m trying to evaluate every signal, from the smallest to the largest, in order to figure out how I feel. First impressions are particularly important, because the experience is going to be over shortly after the first impression gets formed. Ooh, sound clips — that’s interesting. Hmm, its/it’s error in the fourth sentence — that’s not good. Then again, looks like some effort was put into the help system, at least according to the oddly-passive sentence reading “General help may be asked for using the HELP command.” Wonder how our first conversation will go?

>help
I said that help may be asked for... not that it would be
forthcoming.

>help
I don't want to help you.

>help
It would be nice if there was help available. But there isn't.

>help
Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to do this without help?

>help
_____________________________________________________________________

Very well then. [A few paragraphs of very generic "how to play IF"
info follows, though anyone who doesn't already know this information
will almost certainly never reach it.]

Oh, my. Looks like I’m in for an unpleasant evening. When Moonbase isn’t being adversarial, it mostly seems just sloppy and disinterested. There are plenty of spelling and grammar errors. The writing is flat and utilitarian, making wondrous experiences like teleportation and lunar exploration seem as humdrum as going to the corner store. Sometimes it seems like the game can hardly be bothered to describe anything at all:

workshop
This appears to be the base workshop. Various machine tools are here,
but none that would help you. The foyer is to the south, and there is
a door the the north.

Between the absence of anything at all to actually set the scene, the offhand dismissal of what scant setting exists, and the general rushed feel (“the the north?”), much of the writing feels like a conversation with someone who wishes he were somewhere else. Then there’s the instant death room and undescribed exit. The game-killing bug that sometimes prevents the PC from picking up a vital item, complaining that “Your load is too heavy” even when you’re empty-handed. The room whose description disappears completely after the first visit. The walkthrough that barely corresponds with the actual game. It’s a forest of red flags out there.

Oh sure, there are some nice touches. The sounds are well-done, understated, and enhance the action admirably. There’s a nifty background-color change upon stepping out onto the lunar surface. It talks a little about its interests, mentioning a MOO apparently hosted by the Artemis Project. (This place was populated by a number of friendly people when I briefly stuck my nose in.)

But really, what about my needs? This relationship isn’t going to work unless we’re both making an effort, you know. Where’s the fun? Where’s the immersion? Where’s the verve? A halfhearted collection of bland puzzles doesn’t make for much of a date, especially when they’re riddled with bugs and prose that sounds like it’s on Quaaludes. Actually, since these comp games are publicly rated and reviewed, maybe they’re not so much like an ordinary blind date, but instead like one of those terrible TV shows where people go out on a date and then come back later to analyze it in excruciating detail in front of an audience. In that case, Chuck, as you’ve probably already determined… this was not a love connection.

Rating: 5.0

Fort Aegea by Francesco Bova [Comp02]

IFDB page: Fort Aegea
Final placement: 8th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I have more thoughts about Fort Aegea than I’ll be able to fit into these few paragraphs, and I’m a little concerned about it. See, I think this game’s shortcomings may be more interesting than its successes, but if I spend more time talking about flaws than strengths, I may give the mistaken impression that I didn’t enjoy it. So let me clear that up right now: I liked Fort Aegea quite a bit. Most of the game is really fun — it has several good puzzles and action sequences, a nice propulsive plot, and some surprising and well-drawn details.

In addition, the game employs spellcasting, which is a kick — there are lots of moments that measure up to anything in Enchanter, and the spells have the added virtue of being particularly well-suited to the character and thus helping to further define her. The game felt quite well-tested and proofread to me — I found a few syntactical errors here and there, and maybe one or two bugs, but on the other side there are a number of rather complicated effects that the game produces with admirable smoothness.

Oh, and lest I forget, Fort Aegea has some of the most gorgeous feelies I’ve ever seen with an amateur game, hand-drawn maps that positively exude Tolkien. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game to anyone who enjoys Dungeons-and-Dragons-influenced fantasy IF, especially games in the Enchanter vein.

Very well then, now that that’s out of the way, I want to look more closely at a few things that tarnish this game’s shine. First, let’s talk about that D&D influence. I’ve been on a yearlong Bioware jag, so the D&D rules are fresh in my mind, and this game hews so closely to them that it may as well have a Wizards Of The Coast logo in its banner. The main character is a druid, with spells like “Entangle” and “Warp Wood”, who cannot use edged weapons but carries a mace and plate armor into battle. The game explains the philosophy of her order as one that strove to be “one with the world and viewed good and evil, and law and chaos as balancing forces of nature which were necessary for the continuation of all things.”

For anyone familiar with AD&D rules, this material will ring a churchful of bells. This, in itself, is not a terrible thing, though it feels a bit boilerplate, as if the story’s characters don’t really live and breathe in their own fictional universe but are cookie-cut from prefab templates. Where things really break down is when the characters start speaking as if they themselves are D&D players:

“He’s the fabled Green Dragon, and he’s not been seen or heard from
in over a century! What we know of him we’ve gathered from the Great
Book of the Dragons and here are the specifics: He’s vicious and he
has a ferocious breath weapon; one that unfortunately we don’t have a
defence for.”

It strains the limits of my belief to think that a person who actually coexists with dragons would talk about their “breath weapons” — it’s just a little too close to saying something like “take a look at this fine sword — it’s +2!”. In addition, there are linguistic anachronisms sprinkled throughout the text, such as the adventuring expedition that a history book characterizes as a “public relations nightmare.”

The net effect of these choices is to drain the scenario of fictional credibility. Every D&D reference, every anachronism makes the game feel less like a story and more like an exercise — instead of drawing us into its world, Fort Aegea keeps reminding us of ours. Instead of breaking, mimesis simply stretches thinner and thinner until it’s nearly transparent.

Here’s another way that happens: for much of the game’s plot, the PC’s objective is to stay alive until nightfall, while being hunted. In the course of trying to do this, she finds several spots that would make outstanding hiding places, where one could easily wait out a day, emerging victorious after the sun sets. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t allow any actual time to pass while the PC sits in these places, no matter how many times the player may type “z.” I know, because I tried.

It was one of the slowest mimesis breaks ever — the more I saw the “Time passes” message, the more convinced I became that no time was passing. Once I knew that I needed to conform to the game’s puzzly expectations in order to complete the scenario, my emotional involvement evaporated — probably a good thing given that several horrible, unstoppable events occur in the course of play. Fort Aegea has a great deal of fun to offer as a game, but as a story, I found it a pretty inhospitable place.

Rating: 8.5

Scary House Amulet! by Ricardo Dague as Shrimpenstein [Comp02]

IFDB page: Scary House Amulet!
Final placement: 31st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game’s title captures its tone, right down to the exclamation point. The only way it could be better is if it incorporated some bold text and called itself Scary House Amulet! or some such, because about every seventh word in this game is bolded. At first, I thought this emphasis was serving an interface purpose, highlighting those nouns and verbs that the game implements. I thought that this was a very cool idea — one quickly gets used to the bold text, and the emphasis could help to avoid lots of those annoying “You can’t see any such thing” messages that pop up for unimplemented nouns.

As it turned out, however, the game wasn’t doing any such thing, and was instead sprinkling bold text throughout itself like salt onto french fries, as well as ending nearly every single sentence in at least one exclamation point. In addition, SHA occasionally gets extremely adjective-happy, as in this sentence: “It leads into an evil, scary, putrid dark stillness which makes the hair on your neck prickle!” As a satire of horror, this mock-gothic tone ended up working for me, and I laughed out loud several times during the game. Probably my favorite response, after finding a hole in the ground:

>look in hole
You find nothing... but evil!

The humor of the writing went some way towards compensating for the game’s many irritating design choices, most of which were lifted directly from the Zork playbook. There’s a light source puzzle. There’s a sequence where something comes swooping in and transports the PC to another location. And there are not one but two mazes.

Granted, none of these obstacles are made particularly diabolical, but they give the game’s design a fairly tired feel. It doesn’t help matters that pretty much all the other puzzles are of the “use x on y” variety, with x and y more or less unrelated to each other, prompting the player to just go through every object in her inventory until finding the one that happens to be right for the obstacle she faces. Even the puzzles that don’t fit this pattern don’t appear to have any particular logic behind them.

Still, this is not a shoddily crafted game. I found no bugs, and hardly any spelling or grammar errors. It’s got a clean, functional adaptive hint system, a thorough implementation of first-level nouns, and although the game credits no beta testers, it has a polished feel. It’s even got some great verbs added for fun:

The bat shrieks, "You must fear me! Fear me!"

>fear bat
You do fear the horrible bat!

There were a couple of areas where the writing felt a bit adolescent (particularly in its excoriation of Pepsi), but generally the over-the-top horror bit was pulled off with cleverness and panache. So at the end I was left scratching my head, and not just because the ending doesn’t really make any sense. Why would such a skilled implementor create this game, with its aggressively clichéd setting and puzzles, and no particular virtue except its entertaining writing? I don’t know. I laughed many times while I played SHA, but now that it’s over, I still feel like I didn’t get the joke.

Rating: 6.4

About my 2002 IF Competition Reviews

2002 was the eighth year of the IF competition, and everything was pretty firmly in place. That includes the games and authors, who occupied the usual range from ugh to wow, and in fact pushed the top of that range back up above where I found it in 2001. It also includes me.

By 2002 I’d been reviewing comp games for many years, and I was very comfortable in the critic role. Without being too egotistical about it, felt like I could write reviews that would not only explain the my reaction to game and give useful feedback to the author, but at least sometimes do so in a way that would be useful for lots of aspiring authors, not just the one who wrote the game in question.

Writing all those other reviews had also made me deeply conversant with the history of the comp, which became increasingly helpful, as more and more comp games seemed to be in conversation with their predecessors. This certainly happened on the stylistic level — for example the “pure puzzle game” flavor I’d identified in previous years’ games like Colours and Ad Verbum continued in 2002 with games like Color And Number and (to a lesser extent) TOOKiE’S SONG. Koan was a tiny puzzle game in the spirit of In The Spotlight or Schroedinger’s Cat. Janitor was a cleanup game like Enlightenment and Zero Sum Game.

Dialogue with previous IF also happened at the thematic level — A Party To Murder called straight back to Suspect, Coffee Quest II to Little Blue Men, and so forth. Finally, at the most abstract level, games like Constraints clearly functioned as meta-commentary on the medium itself.

Knowing the domain as I did helped me to feel like I could be a good teacher for newer authors. But even better, closely examining my reaction to a game and explaining it to myself by writing about it, especially informed by a long history of doing so, was the very best way of being a student. The great thing about the IF comp is that it provides such a wide variety of approaches, so in getting analytical about my own responses, I can understand what works and what doesn’t work across a whole range of styles. Particularly helpful were games like The Temple, whose approach inspired my own future work.

2002 was my third time as a competition entrant, and much to my amazement, my first time as a winner. I was genuinely shocked to win the competition — I really did not think my game was the best one. (But who am I to argue with the judges? 🙂 ) My own favorite game of the 2002 comp, by a pretty wide margin, was Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me!. In my meta entry about the 2001 comp, I stupidly asserted that my not reviewing All Roads because I’d tested it was “the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner”, but of course this is not true! I didn’t do so in 2002 or 2004 either, because my games were the winners.

Besides Another Earth, Another Sky, the only games I did not review were Buried! and Castle Maze, because they were withdrawn and/or disqualified.

I posted my reviews of the 2002 IF Competition games on November 15, 2002.

Zork I [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork I
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork I.]

Legends grow in the telling, and so it was with Zork in Dante’s mind. He had seen so many references to it, so much appreciation for it, that he had begun to think of it as some kind of platonic ideal for IF. Within minutes of playing, that expectation crashed against the reality of a vintage text game.

Instead of typing “X”, you have to type the full word “EXAMINE”. (Well, technically only “EXAMIN”, or even just “LOOK”, but nevermind — this was about 1980 IF breaking modern expectations.) Locations are almost immediately mazy, with pieces of the forest connecting in unexplained nonsensical ways to each other. The status line sports no handy exits listing, and when travel in a direction is blocked, it’s often blocked with no explanation. For every “Storm-tossed trees block your way”, there are dozens of “You can’t go that way”s.

In what became a running joke for our playthrough, many incredible things have the description, “There’s nothing special about the [incredible thing].” A non-exhaustive list of things about which Zork I claims there is nothing special: an elvish sword of great antiquity, a pile of mangled bodies, a painting of unparalleled beauty, Neptune’s crystal trident, a sceptre (possibly that of ancient Egypt itself), a beautiful jeweled scarab, a golden clockwork canary, and a solid rainbow complete with stairs and bannister. I had to explain to him that Zork was operating under a draconian space limitation — they simply didn’t have room to include descriptions for anything that didn’t directly contribute to a puzzle. For him, this limitation was almost unthinkable. I mean, it’s just text! How could they not have room for it?

Space limitations also show up in a lack of scenery objects, a problem that can manifest in a fairly benign form or a fairly malign one. For instance, in the Shaft Room, one sentence of the room description reads, “Constructed over the top of the shaft is a metal framework to which a heavy iron chain is attached.” Try EXAMINE FRAMEWORK and you’ll get the response, “I don’t know the word ‘framework’.” Fair enough, the framework apparently wasn’t implemented as an object. On the other hand, try EXAMINE METAL and you’ll get the much more problematic response, “You can’t see any metal here.”

This happens because elsewhere in the game, there are objects that legitimately can be referred to as “metal” — the metal ramp in the Cellar and the metal bolt in the Dam, for example. The framework isn’t implemented, though, so while it’s described as “metal” in the room description, there’s no game object in that room for the word “metal” to reference. This has the story-breaking result that you’re told there’s a metal framework in front of you, but also that there is no metal in the room. Our favorite manifestation of this:

Land of the Dead
You have entered the Land of the Living Dead. Thousands of lost souls can be heard weeping and moaning. In the corner are stacked the remains of dozens of previous adventurers less fortunate than yourself. A passage exits to the north.

>EXAMINE DEAD
You can't see any dead here!

Another modern feature that we missed awfully: UNDO. For instance, when you type OPEN EGG WITH WRENCH, and get a response which begins:

The egg is now open, but the clumsiness of your attempt has seriously compromised its esthetic appeal. There is a golden clockwork canary nestled in the egg. It seems to have recently had a bad experience…

…the natural response is to type UNDO. Oh how painful to receive the reply, “I don’t know the word ‘undo’.” Again, the microcomputers of 1980 couldn’t really have supported such a state-management function, at least not without sacrificing too much text and parsing capability. Instead, games of that era tried to make a virtue out of compulsive SAVEing, and called their game-closing responses part of the challenge. Seen from today’s perspective, they simply invoke the tedium of forcing a RESTORE, or worse yet a RESTART. Replaying up to the game-closing point isn’t challenging, just time-consuming.

Zork I logo, with the caption "Your greatest challenge lies ahead -- and downwards."

In what became a running theme of our Infocom replays, we had to restart Zork I. In fact, we had to restart it twice — the first time because our light source ran out and we hadn’t yet found a permanent one, and the second time, very far into the game, because we realized that we’d killed the thief early on through a “lucky” fluke, but we still needed him to open the jewel-encrusted egg. I ran both of these replays on my own — Dante had no patience for retreading miles of known ground just to get to something new.

All of these pain points served to illustrate clearly the distance that text adventures have come since 1980. I sometimes hear it argued that IF isn’t really all that different now from how it was in the Infocom days, but Dante’s experience with playing modern IF and then going back to Infocom puts the lie to that claim. I mean, yes, it’s still essentially getting a parser of limited vocabulary to cooperate with your traversal of a fictional world. Some of the parsing innovations we might have imagined arriving in 40 years have not come to pass — there’s no intelligent computer DM to respond reasonably to anything you type as it takes you through the dungeon. But as far as the moment-to-moment experience of playing a text game, the state of the art has improved a great deal.

The same is true of the puzzles, at least when it comes to the damned mazes. This was another area that I ran on my own — Dante was interested in the first few rooms of maze-mapping, where we’d drop an object, go a direction, and see whether we’d found a new room. But it just. Kept. Going. Hundreds of moves’ worth of this, painstakingly updating our Trizbort map as we went. This is a test of bloody-mindedness, not complex thought. Luckily, the thief didn’t confound us, due to his aforementioned dumb luck defeat. Still, the Zork maze was another perfect example of something that may have passed as fun in 1980, but could make no such claim today. Actually, make that the Zork mazes, as there’s another one in the Coal Mine, albeit not nearly so tortuous.

On the other hand, many of the puzzles have lost no sheen whatsoever. Flood Control Dam #3, for instance, is just as marvelous as always. There’s an aspect to it that is simply mechanical — figure out how to unlock it for changes, and then figure out what tool is needed to make those changes happen. But then once you make those changes, they imply new relationships and new attributes to various parts of the landscape. I was impressed to see that Dante intuitively grasped these implications, moving quickly not only to the emptied reservoir, but also to the quieted Loud Room, for instance.

In general, I was fascinated to see how he reacted to puzzles I remembered. He immediately grasped puzzles I remember struggling with, like the Loud Room, the Cyclops Room, and the deranged bat. On the other hand, we were quite a ways into our playthrough before he figured out to tie the rope to the railing, which I remember doing pretty immediately.

Dante’s intuition and experience led him more astray on the combat-style puzzles. He’d already embraced a different branch of retro gaming, having logged dozens of hours on Angband, but while Zork is no Angband, the inclusion of D&D-style combat very near the beginning of the game makes it seem as though there’s going to be quite a bit of overlap. Consequently, Dante snapped into the mode of looking for weapons and armor, evaluating the axe vs. the sword vs. the knife, etc., when that’s not really what Zork is designed for. This becomes especially apparent when you find what seems like a magic trident, except it can’t even be used as a weapon at all.

It makes historical sense to me why this randomized combat is in here — IF at the time was still in the shadow of Adventure, which in turn sat in the shadow of D&D. But the combat sits uneasily against the rest of the game, and Zork I‘s commitment to it is pretty half-hearted. The only fightable “monsters” in the game are the troll and the thief. Moreover, the fights with these monsters don’t expose any of the typical RPG mechanics — you can’t see numerical representations of attack, damage, or defense, and consequently you may not know that randomization is happening behind the scenes. The first time we fought the troll, we knocked him out immediately, which seemed like just what the game had “intended” — imagine Dante’s shock when next time around, the troll killed us! Unlike the elegance of most Zork puzzles, the randomized combat can contribute both to sudden losses out of the player’s control and to “lucky” wins that cut off victory. Both happened to us.

The opening screen of Zork I

Then there were those puzzles that we both had trouble with. I have a strong memory of playing Zork I as a kid and flailing around at the Entrance to Hades. I rang the bell, mostly out of sheer desperation, but could make no sense of the response. I was talking through the problem with my Dad when he asked me, “Hey, do you happen to have a book and a candle as well?” Well yes, but how on earth did you even come up with that question to ask? He explained to me then the cultural reference of “Bell, Book, and Candle”, which was entirely lost on me as a kid. Now I can report that the passing of a generation has made that reference no clearer, and Dante’s dad had to explain it to him.

Of all the Zork I puzzles, the gold coffin gained the most in my estimation from this revisit. The puzzle, for those who may not remember, is this: you’ve descended from a rope into a temple chamber. You cannot ascend back up the rope, as you drop from it into the temple and it ends several feet above your reach. The only exit from the temple is through a small hole in the floor, next to an altar. Within the chamber you find (among other things), a gold coffin. You can get through the hole with the other treasures you find, but if you try to take the coffin, Zork says, “You haven’t a prayer of getting the coffin down there.”

What to do? The failure message, along with the religious trappings of the room, hint towards the solution: PRAY. When you do that, this happens:

>PRAY
Forest
This is a forest, with trees in all directions. To the east, there appears to be sunlight.

The command instantly teleports you out of the underground altogether, along with all your possessions — including the coffin. Besides the puzzle being well-cued, it also has a quality of awe, possibly deriving from the suddenness with which everything changes from dark to light. There is no sweeping transition text, which almost any author (including me) would be tempted to put in today — just an instant shift with no explanation. That shift prompts a more mysterious feeling of religious wonder, at least in me — it’s immediately apparent that there are greater powers at work in this world than simply an adventurer manipulating mechanisms, and those powers do not care to explain or announce themselves.

That’s one of the magic moments of Zork I, and there are many. Another, for us, came at the Mirror Room, where we had visited many times and looked at our bedraggled image. That night, there was a thunderstorm outside while we played, and as we reached out to TOUCH MIRROR for the first time, two things happened simultaneously: Zork I said, “There is a rumble from deep within the earth and the room shakes” while outside there was a loud CRACK of thunder. I felt aligned with the universe at that moment.

In replaying this game and its successors, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two fundamental things that make Zork special, and that are reliable sources of delight in subsequent Infocom games: moments of humor and moments of magic. Sometimes they are one and the same, or at least right alongside each other.

Consider, for example, inflating the boat. There’s a moment of satisfaction when you realize that the hand-held air pump connects to the valve on the pile of plastic, like finding two jigsaw puzzle pieces that connect to each other. That satisfaction turns to magic with the appearance of the boat, which suddenly recontextualizes parts of the landscape you’ve already seen. Rivers, streams, and lakes that once seemed like scenery have become pathways to traverse in this new vehicle, opening up new vistas of the map for exploration.

A partial map of the Zork I landscape, including the Frigid River

This is one of the best tricks that IF can pull — revealing a new dimension within a familiar situation, one which expands the possibility space of the entire game world. Previously ordinary aspects of the scenario jump to life with vibrant new potential, and the player sees everything fresh. In the case of the Zork boat, this exciting development comes with a laugh, as the boat contains a label reading:

!!!! FROBOZZ MAGIC BOAT COMPANY !!!!

Hello, Sailor!

[…and then some instructions for how to use the boat.]

Aside from the comical quality of the exclamation points and the capital letters, this label squeezes in two different running gags that thread through most of the series — “Frobozz Magic” products and the phrase “Hello Sailor”, introduced by the prayer book on the altar.

This the other source of pleasure in Zork and its progeny: unexpected unity. Both drama and comedy use the basic structure of a setup leading to a payoff, and that structure finds its place in text adventures as well. The very first underground location in Zork I, the Cellar, contains the bottom of a metal chute, too slippery to climb: setup. Many hundreds of moves later, we find a Slide Room — part of a coal mine containing “a steep metal slide twisting downward.” Of course, enter the slide and you find yourself back in the Cellar: payoff. In that moment, the game unifies two pieces of itself, yielding the satisfaction of a question answered.

In the case of Frobozz Magic products, the structure is more like a single setup leading to a series of payoffs, each building on the last through the long series of games. Each new appearance of these products, especially as they grow in ridiculous specialization, is a comedy callback that enriches the joke. Sometimes, as in the case of HELLO SAILOR itself, the payoff occurs several games away from the setup, and contains both drama and comedy. But more about that in a later post.

The ultimate (meaning both final and best) example of such unity comes when all the treasures are collected, and a voice whispers that there is one final secret. The map we find brings us back to the very first location of the game, encircling the experience in a great dramatic unity. I found the appearance of the secret path to the stone barrow unexpectedly moving, probably because it was a thrilling moment that I was getting to re-experience alongside Dante, while he saw it for the first time. As Zork I both wrapped itself up and invited us to further adventure, I couldn’t wait to continue delving further with him.

About the Infocom >RESTART Reviews

>INVENTORY started as a pandemic project. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to get my many comp reviews, and various others, off of my student website, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that I found myself with the time and motivation to get this site started. My son Dante was 14 at the time, and all these new reviews, brought into the light, piqued his interest.

So he started reading, and learning about the 1990s IF cast of characters — Graham, Zarf, Rybread, and so forth. He also learned about IF history as it stood up to that point, and in particular how Infocom loomed large for all of us at that time. We’d talked about Infocom before — in fact, when he was five we played Zork together for about 45 minutes, resulting in much cuteness.

Meanwhile, revisiting those old reviews started to give me a hankering to spend some time in the Infocom worlds again. So I decided to replay some Infocom games, and Dante decided he’d like to join in. Because we (and a whole lot of IF-ers) started with Zork, I thought that’s where we could restart. I listed out what I think of as the 9 Zorkian Infocom games:

  • Zork I
  • Zork II
  • Zork III
  • Beyond Zork
  • Zork Zero
  • Enchanter
  • Sorcerer
  • Spellbreaker
  • Wishbringer

Then, to make it a nice even list of 10 games, I added Moonmist, more or less at random. It was a game I’d never finished, it seemed like it was going to be on the easier side, and it had a little historical significance, apparently, for being one of the first games featuring a lesbian character. Dante is an LGBTQ+ activist, so I liked that connection, though as it turns out the depiction is very slight indeed.

Even before I embarked on this replay project, Dante had been exploring newer corners of the IF world — Lock & Key, Counterfeit Monkey, Steph Cherrywell’s games, and some others. So he was familiar with the basic idiom and mechanisms of these games. Essentially, he was right about where I was at his age in 1984, except that his primary text game experiences had been with 21st-century interactive fiction. Plus, he’d been playing video games of all sorts pretty much since he could talk, as opposed to me whose only other video gaming came at the pizza parlor, skating rink, or occasional arcade. Oh, and those friends’ houses lucky enough to contain an Atari 2600.

A vintage Infocom advertisement, with an image of a brain and the caption "We unleash teh world's most powerful graphics technology".

So our Infocom odyssey was a combination of me revisiting childhood memories, with dim recollections of puzzles and landscapes, and him seeing these vintage games through fresh eyes, his expectations shaped by a far more evolved version of text games and computer games in general. I’m still the faster typist between us, so I sat at the keyboard and read aloud, while he directed the action. We transcripted all our interactions, so that i could remember how they went when I wrote the reviews. We also used the invaluable Trizbort to map our progress, generally starting out with the automapping and then inevitably abandonding that when some mazy thing confused its relatively simple algorithm.

If I remembered a puzzle’s solution, I’d try to keep my trap shut and give him the pleasure of solving it for himself, though sometimes if we crossed the line between fun flailing and ragequit flailing, I might drop a subtle hint. More often than not, I didn’t remember the puzzle either, so we could genuinely collaborate on solving it. When we got really stymied we’d turn to the invaluable .z5 Invisiclues at the Infocom Documentation Project, but that wasn’t terribly often.

So as I write about these games, I’m writing about that experience. I’m not trying to write the definitive history of an Infocom game — for my money Jimmy Maher has got that territory 100% nailed down. Instead, I’m presenting an idiosyncratic and personal account of how Dante and I experienced those games — how I felt upon returning to those oft-trod trails and how Dante’s insights illuminated them for me like a trusty brass lantern.

We started Zork I on August 5, 2020, and finished Moonmist on December 20. Given sufficient time and interest, there may be more to come! Note that all of these reviews will be spoiler-laden — they aren’t written to promote a game but rather to analyze an experience, so I won’t shy away from getting specific.

Shattered Memory by Akbarr [Comp01]

IFDB page: Shattered Memory
Final placement: DISQUALIFIED from the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition for not being an original work — it’s a translation of the Spanish language game Olvido Mortal.

The basic idea behind Shattered Memory is a sound one. The game starts off with an amnesiac PC waking up to an unfamiliar situation, and although this is one of the most hackneyed tricks in IF, the game comes up with a unique reason for it, which counts for a lot. The point of the whole exercise, predictably, is to find out why your memories are gone, and then resolve your situation once that reason is uncovered. Towards this end, the game provides a couple of special verbs: RECALL and SUMMARY. RECALL by itself may bring back some sort of recollection, but it may not; more often, RECALL <topic> is what’s necessary.

Even then, the things you can recall are few and far between (as it should be for an amnesiac), though sometimes you can remember more about the same topic once you’ve found out more on other fronts. SUMMARY provides a rundown of the various things you’ve been able to recall, and may provide some clues on its own. So as amnesia games go, this one isn’t too bad, doling out information at a reasonable pace and providing an interesting enough reason for the lack of memory. The game also provides a fairly useful conversation system, with SPEAK TO <npc> prompting a menu-based discussion while ASK <npc> ABOUT <topic> behaves in the expected way. A more problematic element is SAY TO NPC “<anything>”, which seems built for guess-the-magic-phrase puzzles, and indeed becomes just that at one or two points in the game. Still, so far so good, more or less.

The problem here, and it’s a considerable problem, is the writing. The prose feels like a bad translation from some other language, or perhaps like a writing sample from someone for whom English isn’t a first language. For example, after addressing an NPC with the SPEAK TO verb and selecting “Ask her if she knows you” from the menu, the game puts these words in the PC’s mouth: “Excuse me… Do you casually know who am I?” In one memory, he says, “I go down for having breakfast, Carmen is at the kitchen.” One half-expects the PC to whip out a phrasebook and carefully enunciate, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

Unfortunately, everybody (including the game’s narrative voice) speaks in this sort of broken English. The game is reluctant to let you leave a queue because “you don’t know how important is what you are waiting for,” and says that you see “wealthy people together to beggars” in that queue. A guard asks, “do you think you’ve always acted the better you could?” In my favorite example, that same guard chides you, “If you had any good reason to leave yor place, you should have said it to me firstly.” He’s not yor frend!

There are probably people for whom mangled syntax, crippled spelling, and broken grammar don’t ruin a game, but I don’t think I’ll ever be one of them. In my opinion, if you’re not fluent in the language you’re using, you must have someone who is fluent proofread your game before you release it. You must fix all the errors that person finds, no matter how many there are. You wouldn’t expect a publisher to disseminate a novel, short story, or essay written so poorly, so why is it reasonable to expect gamers to enjoy a game with equally weak English? It’s basic logic: if an IF game is equal parts prose and programming, both must be bug-free before the game can be any good.

Rating: 4.6

Volcano Isle by Paul DeWitt [Comp01]

IFDB page: Volcano Isle
Final placement: 42nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m hitting that point. It’s late in the judging period. I’m tired. I’ve just finished playing 47 other games, some of which were great but far too many of which were just sub-par. So I open up my 48th game, which has no introduction, no scene-setting, and apparently no real plot of any kind, instead dumping the PC unceremoniously on a beach with a boatload of inventory and no particular explanation about why it’s there. Most of this inventory is described as “It looks like an ordinary to me.”

There’s an ocean, but the game doesn’t know the word “ocean”. There’s a volcano, but the game doesn’t know the word “volcano”. Worse yet, I just did a long rant on sparseness in the previous review (of Crusade), so I can’t even use these problems as the theme of my review. Then the game prints, “The suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.” Wait. What suspicious-looking individual? Let’s talk for a moment about definite and indefinite articles in the context of first and subsequent mentions of an item or person. The indefinite article (“a” or “an”) should be used the first time a noun is mentioned, like so:

A suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.

Subsequent mentions can and should use the definite article (“the”), as in the following:

The suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.

Using the indefinite article all the time would imply that perhaps a different instance of the noun is at hand in each mention — in the case of this example, it would imply that the island might be crawling with suspicious-looking individuals. However, using the definite article each time, as this game does, is rather worse, because it insists that the noun has already been mentioned, as if the suspicious-looking individual has already been introduced (perhaps in the mysteriously absent introductory text) and that some kind of bug has prevented that mention from displaying. It is by such small omissions that sense erodes.

All that is to say: please forgive me if I seem a little impatient. It’s been a long comp, and has felt even longer than usual because I’m an entrant this year and thus have the added anxiety of worrying about how my own work is faring. Consequently, Volcano Isle, with its sparse implementation, mindreader puzzles, maze, and inventory limit, annoyed me greatly.

The game clearly wants to pay homage to Zork — that suspicious-looking individual carries a “vicious-looking stiletto”; there are various treasures to collect, and a place to deposit them; there’s a tree to climb, a rope to descend, and, of course, a maze. Unfortunately, the whole thing ended up feeling like an amateurish copy of something that was a) more than the sum of its parts because of quality implementation and writing, and b) interesting because it was doing some of these things for the first time rather than the 500th. Volcano Isle is neither. In addition, it is plagued by random messages that print every 25 turns or so in the form of “visions” supposedly experienced by the PC. There are probably two or three of these, and each is interesting the first time, then increasingly irritating on every repetition thereafter.

Just so I don’t trash the game entirely, let me point out one thing that I really liked a lot. The game puts the background color capability of HTML TADS to moderately creative use throughout, but by far the best is when the PC enters a pitch-black room. The background goes black and so does the text. The effect feels remarkably similar to what it’s really like to be in a pitch-black room — you know you’re doing something (like typing “turn on light”) and it’s having an effect, but you can’t see it happening. Then, when the action is successful, the evidence of activity is visible once more. I thought this was a pretty neat effect.

The game was also fairly free of bugs and writing errors, and has at least one entertaining puzzle. So it’s a partial success, I suppose — certainly far better than some of its competitors this year — but wasn’t what I needed to give me that burst of energy as the finish line appears.

Rating: 4.3