Internal Documents by Tom Lechner [Comp03]

IFDB page: Internal Documents
Final placement: 19th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

After Curse Of Manorland, it was a relief to start into a game that seemed at least to be composed of coherent sentences, although the incredibly long, clause-upon-clause opener was a bit of a red flag. Still, the premise of the PC as civil servant investigating electoral fraud in a small town seemed like it had potential, and I began the game excited and interested. Sadly, Internal Documents fails on a number of levels, and by the end of the game I was just annoyed and disgusted, typing straight from the walkthrough. Some of its problems are pretty standard, such as the writing issues — typos and grammatical errors are common, and a noticeable number of sentences just fail to make any sense.

The coding is similarly problematic. At one point, I tried to read a document that (according to the hints, anyway) contains important clues. Here’s what happened:

>read manual
Chapter 1 reads:
Xy                  Yi                  Z
Zm              x                    b      k       a  c         k
a  d         k      a  e         k       a  f        k       a
g   Y   k       a  h   (   k      a  i   ê  k       a  j
y   k       a  k   0y   k       a  l   1u   k       a  m   2o   k
a     3c                 3u

I think this freakiness happens because of a particular quirk in Inform, because I vaguely remember using it intentionally in LASH to demonstrate illiteracy. However, in this game it obviously wasn’t intentional, and even the most basic testing should have revealed that it wasn’t working properly.

Another one of Internal Documents‘ big problems is one that I’d like to discuss in more depth, because I think it’s a signpost for anybody who wants to design good IF. Basically, the mantra is this: THINK LIKE A PLAYER. This game doesn’t, and falls down badly as a result. Here’s an example: early on in the game, I walk into a bar, and after the room description and a bit of incidental business, I get this:

The bartender cuts in and asks you, “So what brings you around here?”

Remember now, I’m a player. I’m trying to be immersed in the game’s fictional world, to do what the PC would do. So I type TELL THE BARTENDER ABOUT DUE DILIGENCE. In the game’s words, “This provokes no response.” So then I try to TELL THE BARTENDER ABOUT several other things, with no results. I proceed to strike out with TALK TO BARTENDER, ANSWER BARTENDER and ASK BARTENDER ABOUT <a variety of topics.> With sadness, I realize that the game has asked me a question but has no intention of providing me with a way of answering. So much for immersion.

See, as a designer, I might know that the bartender isn’t useful, and therefore give him only the bare minimum implementation. Maybe I want him to seem a little bit alive, so I give him a line of dialogue when he’s first sighted, and maybe I don’t so much care just what that line is. As a player, though, I have no idea whether the bartender is useful, so if he has some dialogue that encourages further interaction with him, I’ll take it as a cue that indeed he is supposed to be interesting. Then, when I encounter his minimal implementation, I’m annoyed and disappointed. The solution? Make the bartender surly and uncommunicative, so that his thin implementation seems like a natural aspect of his character. Your game is going to shape your player’s expectations — there’s no way around that, so it should shape them to its advantage rather than to its detriment.

On another “think like a player” point, remember that what’s fun for you isn’t necessarily fun for your player. You may really dig writing up three hundred slightly varying descriptions of the same sort of rather ordinary room, but by all that is holy, it is not fun to walk through them. Don’t set up situations where the player ends up wandering huge swaths of useless, pointless territory, or has to sit around or walk around aimlessly for dozens of moves waiting for a random event to trigger. That’s not fun, and it produces no particular emotional effect except for irritation. That’s not what players want from their IF.

Another aspect of thinking like a player is recognizing that if the game prevents a particular action repeatedly by use of unlikely coincidence, the player is going to believe that this action is forbidden and unimportant. If you think that the player will later be moved to attempt to do that forbidden thing as a way of solving a major puzzle, you’re probably wrong, especially if much more sensible solutions are disallowed. If I the player end up looking at the walkthrough, you want me to think “Oh, of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” Instead, I end up thinking, “First of all, I thought the game didn’t allow that action, and second of all, how does that make sense as a solution to that puzzle anyway?”

There’s a larger point here, which is that implementation generates expectations. If 99 out of every 100 nouns in your game are unimplemented, as is indeed the case with Internal Documents, I will come to expect a very bare-bones experience. I will not type out a long and unusual command construction, because what possible reason would I have to believe that the game would understand it? If you do expect me to do things like that, the game becomes either an intolerable exercise in attempted authorial telepathy, or else it ends up having to dole out sledgehammer-like hints (such as 1-2-3‘s notorious “Don’t you want to ask me about her breasts?”)

Before you even begin coding, think about what it will be like for players to experience your game, and if the answer is “boring”, or “irritating”, or “confusing”, stop those problems before they start. Otherwise, you end up with something that’s great fun for you, but not for anybody else… something like Internal Documents.

Rating: 5.3

Curse of Manorland by James King [Comp03]

IFDB page: Curse of Manorland
Final placement: 28th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

So here we are in 2003 and people are still writing games in AGT. Even more disheartening, they’re still writing terrible games in AGT. Most bad comp games at least have the virtue of being short, but not this one — it’s huge, and unrelentingly bad all the way through. Now look, I want to offer constructive criticism, although with a game like this it’s hard to imagine that any suggestions will be implemented, since quality doesn’t exactly seem to be valued. Nevertheless, in lieu of a detailed review, here are ten ways to improve Curse Of Manorland:

10) Don’t use AGT. There are better tools out there now.

9) Settle on a point of view. In the beginning section, I had this exchange:

Chrissy's room
Your room is covered in rock posters but has Rupert the bear bed
sheets there is a full length closet mirror on the east wall. On the
south is a window. The carpet is bright pink

> x sheets
I loved Rupert - it was my favourite show when I was little - I want
to get Buffy now - she's such a strong character.

Thus, in just a few lines, I got third person (“Chrissy’s room”), second person (“Your room”), and first person (“I loved Rupert”). Pick one.

8) Puzzles need to make sense. I can’t imagine anyone (except maybe the author) ever getting through this game without the walkthrough. Actually, I didn’t even get through it with the walkthrough, since the walkthrough failed to specify the exact moves for the nonsensical maze, and the game itself was (unsurprisingly) no help. I was using that walkthrough from the very first puzzle, a puzzle whose solution makes absolutely no sense at all.

7) Sentences get to have both a subject and a verb. If one of those is missing, then what you have is a sentence fragment. These are fine, in certain circumstances, but avoid them until you’ve mastered writing regular sentences.

6) While we’re at it, both fragments and real sentences end in periods, not commas, and certainly not just nothing. This is unacceptable:

> x window
A white painted window,

It’s especially unacceptable when we need to know that this window is the size of a mattress. Actually, that comma is sort of an exception — the vast majority of stand-alone sentences in the game have no terminal punctuation whatsoever.

5) If the player is supposed to interact with some object, the game should maybe mention that object. It’s pretty hard to come up with “TIE ROPE TO TREE” when there’s nothing about any tree in the room description.

4) Error messages must not lie. If you’re looking for “CHOP TREE WITH AXE” and I type “CHOP TREE”, do not reply “Don’t know how to chop here…” That doesn’t tell me to try another syntax. Instead, it tells me to forget the chopping idea altogether. The game lied to me like that over and over again.

3) For heaven’s sake, do not put random messages in the game that prevent commands from being carried out without saying so. And certainly do not litter the game with them for hundreds of moves before a solution is available.

2) Please, forget the inventory limit. And please please please, if you’re going to make me drop stuff, let that stuff not disappear.

1) Spell-check. Beta-test. Have your prose proofread by someone fluent in English. Don’t enter long and/or terrible games in the IF competition. Give us a break, huh?

Rating: 2.0

Gourmet by Aaron A. Reed [Comp03]

IFDB page: Gourmet
Final placement: 5th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

A few years ago, I was searching around for a way to describe Liza Daly’s Dinner With Andre, and came up with “sitcom IF.” That moniker seems apt enough to describe Gourmet, a game that aims for screwball humor but too often is just screwed up. Not that the problems are obvious at first — indeed, the premise and opening scenes are delightful — you’re the harried chef and owner of a brand new restaurant on the night that a famous dining critic is to visit. Of course, everything goes wrong: your entire staff flakes out, your food supplies are woefully minimal due to late distributors, and all your fancy new equipment seems primed to malfunction. I was having a ball picturing the PC as a Kelsey Grammer type, a model of urbane sophistication whose cultured veneer gets slowly dissolved by an avalanche of calamitous and kooky circumstances.

Much of the writing is witty enough to pull it off, too — objects both animate and inanimate acquire an air of implacable comic malice, and the setting is packed with fun little details, such as the range-top knobs that the PC had custom made to go up to eleven. Characters, though one-dimensional, are nicely evoked, and the game has a neat little structure too, divided up into hors d’oeuvres, first course, and main course, just as you serve the finicky critic.

Sadly, Gourmet quickly falls victim to the same problem Dinner With Andre had, which is this: having decided that wacky problems deserve wacky solutions, the game fails to anticipate enough of the sensible (or even alternately wacky) solutions that might spring to the mind of a desperate player. It’s difficult to talk about these without getting too spoilery, but here goes. Take one instance where an uncontrollable mess is happening in the kitchen. The game anticipates the first obvious recourse and stymies it. Fair enough. The next recourse might be something like blocking and cleaning the mess with a towel — surely any kitchen has towels, right? Wrong. Not only are they not implemented, neither is the reason for their absence. Certainly I’ll grant that this level of realism is a lofty and difficult goal, but much of the game turns on the tension between the realistic demands of the setting and the ridiculous circumstances created by the plot. Players who are pushed and prodded about in the name of realism have the right to expect a satisfyingly thorough implementation thereof.

A more blatant example: you need to prepare a particular drink, which requires the proper vessel. Stunningly, however, your kitchen is so unequipped as to completely lack the necessary piece of tableware. In fact, there seems to be only one such item in the entire restaurant. It would be one thing if this bizarre situation was excused with some appropriately goofy explanation, but as it is we’re left to feel that the game is unreasonably shepherding us into wackiness (or even just into puzzle-solving) by virtue of shoddy implementation. Part of what makes these logic gaps so intensely frustrating is that the game really does a great job of ladling on the tension — I restarted several times because I was a nervous wreck with the feeling that too much time was elapsing while I flailed around. I don’t know that there actually are any timers in the game, but it certainly feels like there are, and under that sort of pressure my patience was quite short with what felt to me like halfhearted implementation.

The bugs get worse as the game progresses, soon moving into responses that are absent or outright wrong. I turned to the hints almost right away, and every time I tried to forego them in order to increase the pleasure of the game, I felt that pleasure turning to frustration as I struggled in vain against one buggy or unimplemented section after another. It doesn’t help at all that the game makes such basic errors as making your finger a key plot point, then failing to properly parse “finger”, or parsing “climb” differently from “get on.”

In another pinnacle of frustration, the game presents you at one point with a small animal on the loose that you must find, yet greets any attempt to LOOK UNDER anything with “You expect you would find nothing of interest.” Say WHAT? That is the exact opposite of what the PC would expect (and hope for) in the circumstance. Additionally, some key NPCs are much too thinly implemented, and it’s perhaps a sign of my frustration that even on puzzles that offer multiple solutions, I still found myself unable to even try the ideas that seemed most obvious to me, and ended up turning to the hints in exasperation.

When I got to the point where even one of the solutions offered in the hints utterly failed to work, I knew that Gourmet was a huge disappointment. The game credits no testers (in fact, I couldn’t find anybody besides the author credited at all), and the lack of outside input is all too apparent. There’s at least one in every comp: a game with great potential, clever writing, and fun portions that dissolves into a mind-numbing bugfest at its end, apparently the product of a rush to deadline and a lack of patience. In Comp03, Gourmet is the first game of that type I’ve played, and the letdown is as stinging as ever. If interactive fiction ever got reviews in People magazine, the write-up for this game would probably end with, “BOTTOM LINE: Good ingredients, but undercooked.”

Rating: 6.2

Baluthar by Chris Molloy Wischer [Comp03]

IFDB page: Baluthar
Final placement: 8th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

When looking at an IF Comp author’s name, there’s always the risk of being gulled by a pseudonym, but I’d be willing to bet that Chris Molloy Wischer really is a first-time author. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — it’s just that several things about Baluthar suggest that it’s the product of a less experienced creator. For one thing, GET ALL lists every object in the area, scenery or no, which is a classic rookie mistake for Inform authors. Of course, it’s possible that this was an intentional choice, but even if so, it’s a bit questionable. Sure, it’s a handy way to see what’s been implemented, and that’s certainly what I used it for, but it’s not exactly the most mimetic way to handle a player’s request to take everything available for the taking, since it results in responses like this:

wind: The wind resists your clumsy efforts with the mad energies of
its eternal youth.
your hand: Your hand is stuck to you already.

Aggravating the problem is the fact that every time GET ALL executes, the game assumes that you want to open all closed containers and take their contents too, resulting in a particular puzzle solution getting unraveled over and over again.

Another basic coding pitfall in Baluthar has to do with disambiguation. There are a couple of instances where the game, presented with several choices for how to interpret a noun, chooses the least obvious or least useful option. For instance, at one point the game describes a figure whose hand is clutched in a fist. So the obvious action is EXAMINE FIST, right? Observe:

>x fist
(your hand)
Your hand is very muddy.

No, not my hand! The thing that’s so specifically called a fist! A little ChooseObjects or parse_name trickery would go a long way here, and that’s just the sort of trickery that an inexperienced author is unlikely to have available.

As is evident from the “TAKE WIND” response above, the prose has its share of problems too, tending strongly towards the florid and even turgid. Even aside from the fact that the gross-out level stays very high throughout the game, and that every description of emotion tends to hit the drama extremely hard, there are some simple structural problems that keep the writing earthbound. For instance, a sentence weighed down by too many prepositional phrases strung together:

A nine-foot statue of a deity scowls down at you from the top of a
large boulder near the hut.

Instead of dancing or even stepping cleanly, the sentence puts one foot forward, then drags itself across the ground, piling on one modifier after another. Consider if instead it had read, “Atop a large boulder, a nine-foot statue scowls down at you.” We don’t need to know it’s near the hut, because we know we’re standing outside the hut — the simple presence of the object in this location tells us it’s near the hut. Save the fact that it’s a deity for the statue’s description, and separate the remaining prepositional phrases by moving one to the beginning of the sentence, shortening “from the top of” to “atop”, and now we have a much more concise and compelling description.

Another chronic problem in the prose is “adjectivitis”:

The white-lined faces of the densely-packed leaves give the
unsettling impression of a ghostly crowd of fish bones which
stretches endlessly around and above you.

Ack! “The [adjective noun] of the [adjective noun] give the [adjective noun] of a [adjective noun] of [adjective noun]…” This repetitive structure gives the prose a lumbering, choppy feel, no matter how vivid the words may be. Again, this sort of thing is the mark of a novice writer, whose focus is more on providing a full description than on communicating it gracefully.

So enough about that. Every author is a rookie once, and only once, and those who can learn from their mistakes and try again will inevitably produce a better game next time out. There are some things about Baluthar that showed promise. The hint system was nicely implemented, a menu-based setup that gave nudges at the right level without ever giving away too much too fast. Also, even though it had some structure and diction problems, the writing had very few grammar and spelling errors, and in fact the game in general felt like it had been tested and proofread, always something I appreciate in a competition entry.

In addition, the first puzzle was intriguing in that the obstacle it presented to the PC was emotional rather than physical, and consequently the puzzle and its solution not only advanced the plot but established some basic facts about the character as well. Finally, the story itself, while a bit over-the-top and melodramatic, presents a plausible emotional arc for the main character and provides an ending with symbolism that’s heavy-handed but effective. I’ll be interested to see what sort of improvements occur when and if the author produces another game.

Rating: 6.7

Scavenger by Quintin Stone [Comp03]

IFDB page: Scavenger
Final placement: 3rd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, here’s what’s not good about this game. First of all, the setting and characters are quite clichéd. It’s your standard-issue post-apocalyptic world (a nuclear war apocalypse, even), with bandits, scavengers, armed provisional-government thugs, and frightened orphans, all straight from Central Casting. The author mentions that the setting originated with a MUSH that then morphed into an Unreal Tournament full conversion mod, and this makes perfect sense — it feels more like an excuse for a background than a fully realized fictional world.

Secondly, there are some moments of shaky design, particularly a “learn-by-dying” puzzle that occurs near the midgame. Now, I’ll certainly acknowledge that the game includes some important details that hint toward the solution, and it could be argued that it’s possible to solve this puzzle without dying first, but to do so would still take a pretty remarkable amount of foresight, not to mention willingness to give up an item that you might need later. Finally, Scavenger isn’t a two-hour game, or at least it wasn’t for me. Maybe somebody who was a sharper puzzle-solver, or relied more on the hints, might have solved this game in two hours, but I found myself only about two-thirds of the way through once time ran out. Since I was at least past the halfway point (and perhaps further than I thought, depending on how fast the points mount up in the endgame), I’m not as indignant about it as I might be, but the fact remains that if I’m not able to finish the game within my two-hour playing slot, my playing experience ends up unsatisfying.

Right. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what’s good about this game: everything else. With just a few exceptions, the implementation is nothing short of outstanding. Almost everything I ever wanted to examine was described, and described well, which created a great sense of immersion. Despite the fact that the basic concepts of the setting are rather hackneyed, the actual writing is strong, with exposition cleverly worked into object and room descriptions, and some very nicely judged details included. The writing not only creates a vivid sense of place, it’s also pretty much entirely free of spelling and grammar errors, with just a few typos marring the prose on occasion.

Scavenger‘s parser is similarly well-crafted. I remember several fantastic moments where I tried a non-standard verb that made sense in the situation, and the game handled it beautifully. It’s not perfect — for instance, I had a flashlight that the game wouldn’t let me point at objects — but those lapses were much more the exception than the rule, and that completeness made Scavenger a real pleasure to play. The hint system was quite good too, a context-sensitive setup that doled out gentle nudges ramping up reasonably gradually to outright solutions. The context-sensitivity failed at a couple of points, offering hints for puzzles I’d already solved, but the system came through where it counted: I always had a hint available when I needed one for the puzzle I was stuck on. Altogether, this is a very professionally implemented game. The credits list no fewer than eleven testers, and their influence shows through again and again.

Along with implementation, design was another of Scavenger‘s strengths. First of all, casting the PC as a scavenger, somebody who survives by exploring unfamiliar territory and taking everything that isn’t nailed down, is a brilliant way of working basic IF conventions into a coherent fictional concept. When encountering the game’s puzzles (most of which were quite good, sometimes involving multi-stage solutions, every step of which made sense), every action I took to solve them felt perfectly in character, which makes for a great IF experience. Objects are sometimes useful in more than one place, and conversely, places sometimes show potential to have more than one important facet — whenever a game can pull this off, its reward is a much stronger sense of realism.

In addition, the basic structure of the game includes a rewarding multiple-solution setup, involving a selection of resources during the prologue. Scavenger presents you with a store where you can buy certain items that may be useful on your journey, but you can’t buy them all. The way you solve subsequent puzzles will depend on which resources you’ve chosen, and alternate solutions are available even when you don’t have the item that facilitates the more obvious choice. The other nifty feature of this limited-resource arrangement is that the game makes sure that most of these resources must be used up fairly early (for example, a grenade that must be thrown to remove an initial barrier), thereby eliminating the combinatorial explosion that their presence would cause in later sections of the game. I think this multiple-solution design will make for great replay value, though of course I can’t say for sure since as of this writing I haven’t even managed to play through the game once.

One more design note: on several occasions, Scavenger gently shepherded me in the direction of the plot, always doing so in a way that made perfect sense for my character. Every time this happened, I smiled with appreciation. In fact I was smiling a lot during Scavenger, and my notes are full of little comments that read “VERY NICE” or something similar. It would have been improved by a few puzzle tweaks, a more original setting, and either being released outside the comp or streamlined to a more reasonable two-hour size, but I can still enthusiastically recommend it.

Rating: 9.1

The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky by Somebody [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky
Final placement: 29th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Call this game “Insultatron.” Its purpose is to insult you in as many ways as possible, though not with a great deal of creativity. If that sounds like fun to you, than you’ll probably love the game. If not, then you’re like me.

Well, actually, there’s a minute or two of fun to be had. I kind of enjoyed the way the game got more and more exasperated with describing the setting, and finally just gave up on the whole thing. Also, a couple of the library default replacements were a bit funny, though most were just dumb and vile, sometimes extremely vile, so searching through for the funny ones isn’t a very rewarding activity. It is a bit amusing to see the genteel Graham Nelson library responses poking through on occasion — they sound very odd in this context.

In the end, this game is pretty dull. Actually, it’s pretty dull all the way through. Also, insults don’t really carry the same punch when they’re misspelled. But at least the game knows it’s stupid. Doesn’t that count for something? Actually… no.

Rating: 1.8

Cerulean Stowaway by Roger Descheneaux [Comp03]

IFDB page: Cerulean Stowaway
Final placement: 9th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

There’s a list in my head of annoying, old-school features that I never want to see again in an IF game. If you’ve read many of my reviews, you could practically recite them by heart: Mazes. Light source timers. Hunger timers. Today, “pointless inventory management” has officially joined that list, and the game that made it official was Cerulean Stowaway. This is the game that gave me six thousand awkward and bulky things to carry, most of which would be important later in the game (though, of course, it’s impossible to tell which ones until you need them and don’t have them.) Then it enforced limits on both number of items (“You’re carrying too much already.”) and weight of items (“Your load is too heavy.”) It gave me a pair of overalls with a bunch of pockets, but didn’t know the word “pocket.” After that, it put me in a bottleneck situation, where I couldn’t get all my inventory into the small space I needed to enter, forcing me to leave some things behind.

As it turns out, there were ways to make sure my inventory wasn’t lost, but due to some odd choices in item description, these options were far from clear. (More about implementation issues later.) As you might have guessed, the items I left behind were both necessary and irretrievable, forcing me to restore back to a much earlier save and replay a large chunk of the game when I realized I didn’t have a crucial puzzle component. Then there were the numerous times where the game put me in a time-critical situation, but wouldn’t let me perform a task because of its arbitrary inventory limits, forcing me to once again restore back to an earlier save, shuffle items around, and replay the sequence. All this, apparently, in the name of realism. In the game with the alien spaceship and the unguarded U.N. construction site that apparently anybody with a bit of spare time can sneak onto and sabotage. Before very long, I was about ready to fling my six thousand items straight at the head of the next living creature I saw. Sadly, that didn’t help, and once again, I found myself typing RESTORE.

This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that Stowaway is, for the most part, a pretty good game. It’s an old-fashioned puzzlefest with a nameless PC and a rollercoaster adventure plot. (By the way, does anybody still think this sort of game is a dying breed? For all the carping I see on the newsgroups about how so-called “literary” IF has taken over and nobody wants to write fun games anymore, I still find myself playing several of these every year. They’re not an endangered species, people.) It’s got some colorful writing, a fun story, and is capable of producing genuine tension and horror at times. I guess that’s why I typed RESTORE rather than QUIT. Any game that sets pointless, arbitrary limits that severely impede the player is a game that drains itself of pleasure, but all the same, I continued to grit my teeth and power through because I really wanted to see what happened next.

Frequently, I was rewarded, because even the losing endings are written with verve and liberally sprinkled with interesting details. Actually, I say “even the losing endings”, but I don’t think I ever saw the optimal ending, which brings up one of the game’s design flaws, albeit an understandable one: the hint system. Listen, I really understand the desire not to include a walkthrough, but if you do your hinting some other way, you simply must make sure that somebody who is a dope about puzzles (like me) or who is just nearing the end of a 2-hour judging period (also like me) can obtain enough information to reach the winning ending. Otherwise, you risk having a player leave your game unsatisfied… like me. Stowaway‘s location-based hints succeed most of the time, but even after I asked for hints in every single location (or at least, I think I did) I still ended up with 151 points out of 161 on my best playthrough. Sure, I saved humanity, but I was left feeling like I’d still failed.

A word, too, about those 161 points: don’t let the high point total fool you. I was mightily discouraged and alarmed to find myself an hour into the game with only 13 points out of 161, but the points mount up very rapidly indeed in the second half of the game, and so what I thought was an indicator of a much-too-large-for-the-comp game turned out to be a false alarm.

Implementation throughout Stowaway was inconsistent. Description levels tend to go pleasantly deep, especially towards the beginning of the game, and for the most part, the prose in these descriptions is utilitarian at worst, and quite enjoyable at best. On the other hand, sometimes those descriptions can be misleading or too vague. For instance, you may find a “small metal box” containing a couple of clothing accessories. Got it pictured in your mind? Good. Would a mop fit into it? Wrong! It does indeed fit.

Imprecise descriptions like this haunt Stowaway in several spots, and in one area the game is guilty of burying an obvious and important feature of the landscape in one of a dozen first-level descriptions. That’s the sort of thing a game should either do all the time (like last year’s Out Of The Study), or not at all. There are also a couple of places where objects are implemented, but with insufficient synonyms, which can fool players into thinking the objects aren’t implemented after all. Finally, I also encountered a couple of flat-out bugs, such as the time the game told me I’d managed to move part of my inventory (during one of my many inventory-management exercises) when in fact nothing of the sort had happened at all.

On the plus side, I found only a couple of tiny punctuation errors (which seemed pretty clearly to be typos rather than ignorant mistakes), and no spelling or grammar errors at all. That’s a big plus factor in my book. So: sharpen the descriptions, stomp the bugs, improve the hints, and for the love of God get rid of the inventory limits. Once those things happen, Cerulean Stowaway will be a really fun text adventure game. Right now, it’s less than optimal, just like my unlucky character.

Rating: 7.0

Sweet Dreams by Papillon [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sweet Dreams
Final placement: 20th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Ooh, it’s always so exciting to start into a new bunch of competition games, and what a start this was! Sweet Dreams has to be one of the more surprising comp games I’ve ever seen, because it’s not a text adventure. Instead, it’s more or less in the style of early LucasArts games like Maniac Mansion or the first Monkey Island — a fully graphical experience whose pixelated protagonist wanders around the landscape, picking up and using items, solving puzzles, and chatting with NPCs via a “TALK TO” sort of system. Over the years I’ve heard rumblings about work on a LucasArts type of engine for amateur games, and I’m not sure if this is the product of that effort or something Papillon did all on her own, but whatever the source, the product is fairly impressive.

I thought the graphics were pretty attractive in a low-res way, the music enhanced the setting nicely (although it tended to halt and restart abruptly rather than fading out and back in when it looped), and the interface was intuitive enough that I was able to use it right away without much attention to the instructions. Aside from a couple of irritating technical glitches (about which more later), I’d be very excited indeed to see more games of this type and quality. In fact, there was one moment, when I maneuvered the PC to a bookshelf and took down a book to read, that I got a jolt to my spine, feeling magically transported to those happy days I spent playing LucasArts’ Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, pulling down one hilarious joke after another from its bookshelves. That is, until I started reading the books in Sweet Dreams, which mostly tended to be something like this:

The Human Battery: How the power of positive thinking can be put to
work not only to cure disease but also to solve the energy crisis.

Or they were about fairies, or crystals, or the zodiac… et cetera. And there we have the factor that’s going to limit the appeal of this game. The characters, plot, and setting are all feather-light and sweet verging well into treacly. It’s set in an adorable little cottage, with adorable portraits of fairies and unicorns hanging on the wall, and serving as a tiny private boarding school to four adorable little girls. Actually, these girls are supposedly adolescents, but they look all of eight years old, save for the bizarre breastlike protrusions that they display in profile. The story involves giving your wonderful best friend a beautiful present for her sixteenth birthday, then making a magical journey into an enchanted land of dreams filled with colorful flowers and friendly animals and… well, some people are bound to find the whole thing just unbearably twee. I have a pretty high sugar tolerance myself, and was able to swing with the tone and enjoy it for the most part, but even I felt myself on the edge of diabetes too often. On the other hand, it would certainly make a great game for kids, so long as a couple of its major technical problems got resolved.

Primary among these problems is the main character’s unfortunate tendency to get stuck while exploring narrower parts of the geography. The first time it happened, I spent a frustrating five minutes trying to get her to budge from behind the piano, until I finally realized that the secret was to try to maneuver her using the arrow keys instead of the mouse. Three directions would fail, but one would get her to run in a tiny circle, and if I interrupted this circle fast enough, I could break her out of her self-imposed cage. This running-in-circles thing is something she does a lot, usually when you’re trying to maneuver her close to a boundary, and when it happens she seems more like a trapped insect than a charming little girl.

These boundary difficulties exacerbated the other problem with the game engine: its insistence on the PC being right next to an object before she can interact with it. Sure, it makes perfect sense that you can’t pull a book from the shelf if you’re across the room from it, but I’d have much preferred it if any command to interact with an object on screen was treated as meaning “walk over to the object and then…”, so that I could avoid the numerous times the game told me “You’re not close enough to it.” As for the rest of the game, I’d say it was above average. There were a couple of very satisfying puzzles, a couple of so-so ones, and a couple that just seemed arbitrary. The one I had the most difficult time with was one that exposes the limitations of graphical games — it was relying on somewhat subtle color shading differences, and my laptop monitor wasn’t making a clear enough distinction between them. The story was, of course, cute, and despite the rather cloying nature of the game as a whole, I ended up mostly enjoying it. Once it gets a bit more technical polish, and so long as you don’t mind a very high sweetness level, Sweet Dreams will make an outstanding piece of amateur graphical IF.

Rating: 8.2

About my 2003 IF Competition Reviews

For me as an author, 2003 was a frustrating year. I had entered part 1 of a trilogy into the 2001 competition, and (amazingly) won the 2002 competition with part 2. I had every intention of completing the set with a 2003 entry, and in fact even publicly announced that I would do so. By June, though, it was very clear that I wouldn’t make it. There were a few different reasons for this, from accelerated real-life demands to a ballooning project scope caused by more ambitious design goals, but nevertheless it was a very disappointing outcome to me. I had really wanted that unbroken run.

For me as a critic, 2003 had different frustrations. The IF Competition had become a massive center of gravity in the community, which meant that it sucked up all the energy and feedback, certainly for the few months it took place, and pretty much overall for the year as well. The perfect emblem of this dysfunction, to my mind, is the 2003 comp entry Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne.

RR is a fantastic game — sumptuously implemented, brilliantly designed, beautifully written. It is also a full-length game. There’s no way anybody finishes it in 2 hours, at least not outside of just charging through the walkthrough. So I played it, and loved what I saw of it, but did so in the context of six weeks where I’m trying to play and review 29 games, and cut each one off after two hours. As it became clear that RR was much bigger, I turned to hints so that I could see more of the game. I would have enjoyed it more without doing so, but it was a choice between more enjoyment or more exposure, and I wanted to be able to review the game with as broad a perspective as possible. So I sacrificed enjoying a work that its author had surely labored over creating.

I hate being placed in this position, so in my review I let the game have it with both barrels, estimating that I’d seen a third of it, so only giving it a third of the score it deserved. As it turned out, RR placed second, and in my capacity as SPAG editor I routinely interviewed the top three placing authors from the comp. I was a little abashed at doing so with Michael, having lambasted his game for its length, so I went straight at the topic in my interview:

SPAG: Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest complainers on that point, it’s only fair you should get to air your side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I’m not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn’t seem reasonable.

So there you have it. The competition pulls in games that don’t belong in it, because if you release those games outside the competition, even a month or two beforehand, you may as well not release them at all. I found this a deeply discouraging place to be. I tried to do my part in counteracting it — encouraging SPAG reviews of non-comp games, and even releasing a full-length non-comp game myself — but the immensity of the comp had gathered a momentum all its own. My banging against it affected me more than it affected the situation, I suspect.

However, while the downside of the comp’s centrality was that it gathered everything to it, the upside was that it gathered so many good things to it. The 2003 games had some fantastic experiences among them, even besides Risorgimento Represso. The winning game, Slouching Towards Bedlam, was stupendous, and made me a little bit relieved I hadn’t managed to finish part 3 of Earth and Sky for that year’s comp. Other highlights included The Recruit, Scavenger, and Episode In The Life of an Artist.

I also benefited from my history with the comp, as I got to enjoy the return of many a previous entrant. Mikko Vuorinen was back with another goofily incongruous exercise in icon-subversion, Mike Sousa brought a bunch of veteran authors into a group-writing exercise, and Stefan Blixt and John Evans returned with more half-baked entries in the line of their previous ones. Well, those last two weren’t so much fun, but best of all was the reappearance of Daniel Ravipinto, whose last game was in 1996 and who excelled once again. He brought with him a wonderful co-author named Star Foster, whose horribly untimely death in 2006 is one of the saddest stories in amateur IF.

I posted my reviews of the 2003 IF Competition games on November 16, 2003.

Zork II [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork II
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork II, and some for Zork I as well. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Dante and I fired up Zork II right after finishing Zork I, and yep, it’s another text game from the early 1980s. There’s still no “X” for “EXAMINE”, still lots of obviously amazing things described as “nothing special”. We were more ready for that this time, which perhaps threw more light on the next layer of dissonance between that era of text adventures and the mid-’90s renaissance: the specific affordances introduced by the Inform language and libraries.

>COMPARE INFORM TO INFOCOM

Dante cut his IF teeth on Inform games, so he found interactions like this pretty annoying:

>put string in brick
You don't have the black string.

>get string
Taken.

>put string in brick
Done.

Inform would have simply handled this at the first command with the bracketed comment “[first taking the black string]”, then moved right on to “done”. (Some later Infocom games took initial steps down this road too.) Furthermore, we couldn’t refer to the resulting compound object as a bomb, even though it was clearly a bomb — granted, that’s not something Inform would have done automatically either, but it is a pretty frequent occurrence in modern text games.

Another instance Inform handles nicely but Zork II does not:

There is a wooden bucket here, 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high.

>in
You can't go that way.

>enter
You can't go that way.

>enter bucket
You are now in the wooden bucket.

Again, Inform would have simply filled in the blank with “[the bucket]”, unless there were multiple enterable objects or map vectors in the player’s scope. And even then, it would have asked a disambiguating question rather than simply complaining, “You can’t go that way.” In fact, we could go that way.

Finally, Inform provides authors with a couple of easy facilities for avoiding “I don’t know the word [whatever]” when the player tries to reference nearby nouns. Those two magical tools are scenery objects and aliases. Thus, where Zork II gave us this:

Cobwebby Corridor
A winding corridor is filled with cobwebs. Some are broken and the dust on the floor is disturbed. The trend of the twists and turns is northeast to southwest. On the north side of one twist, high up, is a narrow crack.

>examine cobwebs
You can't see any cobwebs here!

Inform would have allowed an author to create a scenery object called “cobwebs”, and give it aliases like “webs”, “broken”, and “cobs”, so that even if she didn’t want to write a description of them, references to any of those nouns would result in a message along the lines of “You don’t need to refer to that in the course of this game.” That object could appear in multiple rooms, which I’m guessing is the flaw Zork II ran into here, since it clearly knew the word. I should also mention that it’s not just Inform that helps with extra objects, but the more relaxed memory constraints of the .z5 and .z8 formats (not to mention Glulx) compared to the .z3 that Zork II inhabits. Those early Implementors were trying to fit so many clowns into one tiny little car.

In any case, it’s worth a moment to just meditate in gratitude to Graham Nelson and his helpers for creating so many little helpful routines to smooth out the IF experience. Text adventures are forever changed, for the better, as a result of that language and its libraries. (That’s not to take anything away from TADS or Hugo, of course — I’m just thinking of how z-machine games specifically advanced.)

Box cover from Zork II

While the early z-machine had some pretty austere limits, some other limits were built into the Zork II experience by design. I’m thinking here of the inventory limit and the eternally damned light limit, which was even more frustrating here than in the previous game. I dunno, I suppose it’s possible that there was some technical root for the inventory limit, but it sure feels like it’s imposed in the name of some distorted sense of “realism”, a notion which flies out the window in dozens of other places throughout the game. Even if we accept the magic, the fantasy, and the allegedly underground setting (with features that feel less and less undergroundy all the time), there are just many things that make no physical sense, like easily scooping a puddle into a teapot. We can do that but we can’t carry however many objects we want to? (Again, Inform rode to the rescue here with the invention of the sack_object.)

That light limit, though. There’s no technical reason for it, and it caused us to have to restart Zork II TWICE. Not only that, it’s even crueler than its Zork I version, both because there is no permanent source of light in the game (unlike the lovely ivory torch from part 1) and because there are so many ways in which light can be randomly wasted by events beyond the player’s control. Chief among these are the Carousel Room and the wizard.

Zork I had a Round Room too, and it was entirely harmless. The Carousel Room is another story. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like a fun way to confound players, and it is, but in the case of my playthrough with Dante, we didn’t defeat it until very late in our time with the game — probably about the 75% mark of the time we spent on the game overall. That means a lot of our transcripts consist of us trying to go a direction, failing, trying again, failing, rinse, repeat, all the time ticking through that light limit, since of course all the rooms involved are dark. And it’s not as if the game makes it obvious what or where the puzzle to stop the room even is.

By itself, this direction-scrambling behavior would be quite annoying. When coupled with the fact that our light source is on an unalterable timer, it’s infuriating. Now add to that an NPC who can come along and waste your time with spells like “Float”, “Freeze”, or “Feeble”, all the time wasting yet more light, and you have one deeply frustrating game mechanic. This is that hallmark of early text games, where forced restarts were seen as adding to the “challenge.” A challenge to one’s patience, certainly. As before, Dante sat out those replay sessions.

>EXAMINE WIZARD

Since we’ve arrived at the topic, let’s talk about the Wizard of Frobozz. As has been extensively documented, Zork began life as a mainframe game, too large to fit into the microcomputers of its day, so when its implementors formed Infocom to sell it on the home PC market, they had to split up the mainframe game into pieces. That meant that the nemesis of the original game, the thief, appeared and was dispatched in the first installment of the home-version trilogy.

The thief was compelling. He could pop into your world at the most inconvenient times and create havoc, but you also couldn’t finish the game without him. With him gone in the first game, who would serve as the new adversary? Enter the Wizard. Dante was excited the first time the Wizard showed up — “It’s the title!”, he said. The Wizard is a compelling character too — unpredictable like the thief but with a much larger variety of actions. He can cause a wide range of effects, but sometimes he screws up and doesn’t cause anything at all. Other times, he thinks better of meddling, and instead “peers at you from under his bushy eyebrows.”

When the wizard would show up, and the game would unexpectedly print out a stack of new text, our pulses would quicken, thinking that we’d stumbled onto something exciting. This effect reminded me to tell Dante about the days of external floppy drives — when I first played Zork II, the entire game couldn’t fit in the computer’s memory, so whenever something exciting was going to happen, the game would pause and the disk would spin up, so that the new data could be read into memory before it was displayed to the player. The excitement that accompanied that little light and whir — for instance, when leading the dragon to the glacier — was equal to any thrill I’ve subsequently gotten from a video game.

Map from Zork II

Of course, in the case of the wizard, it would turn out that nothing cool was happening. In fact it was just the opposite — we were generally about to get stymied in some amusing but nevertheless aggravating way. The wizard obviously gets more frustrating as he keeps repeating and repeating, but the variety and comedy in his spells, not to mention that sometimes he fails completely or casts something you don’t hear, really helps temper the annoyance. That said, this game is rich enough to encourage a flow state, and when the Wizard shows up to somehow block your progress, it really disrupts that flow.

Those blockages are ultimately detrimental to the game, on a level I doubt its authors were even thinking about. Parser IF is full of pauses — an indefinite amount of time can pass in between each prompt. However, the player is in control of these pauses’ length, and when we’re barreling through a game, either replaying old stuff to get somewhere or carried on the wings of inspiration, the pauses hardly feel like pauses at all. It’s more like an animated conversation. When the Wizard comes along, though, he’s a party-crasher who grinds that conversation to a halt. Suddenly we are being forced to pause, and cycle through more pauses to get through the pause.

Perhaps in some games, such a forced break would create contemplation, or an opportunity to step back and think of the bigger perspective. That wasn’t the case in Zork II, at least not for us. It just felt like our conversation had been interrupted, and we had to wait for the intruder to go away before we could continue having fun. This feels qualitatively different from the thief, whose arrival would shift the tension into another register, and whose departure may have resulted in loss of possessions, but never in paralysis that simply drained precious turns from an implacable timer.

On the other hand, the wizard has some excellent advantages over the thief. Infocom didn’t make the wizard part of the solution to a puzzle, the way the thief was, since that would have been redundant. In Zork I, the thief would foul up your plans, and had to be eliminated (though not too soon) in order to progress. Instead of this, Zork II themes its entire late game around fouling up the wizard’s plans. This conveys the sense that unlike the thief, the wizard has a separate agenda, one that isn’t centered around the player. That adds a small but significant layer of story to this game that isn’t present in its predecessor.

The way we frustrate the wizard is by getting into his lair, and doing so is one of the game’s most satisfying puzzles. The locked, guarded door to the lair starts with an arresting image: “At the south end of the room is a stained and battered (but very strong-looking) door. […] Imbedded in the door is a nasty-looking lizard head, with sharp teeth and beady eyes. The eyes move to watch you approach.” Getting past this door means disabling both the lizard and the lock, and each requires solving multiple layers of puzzles. For the lizard, it’s solving the riddle room, then finding your way to the pool, then figuring out how to drain it. For the key, it’s getting rid of the dragon, then rescuing the princess, then figuring out that the princess should be followed to the unicorn.

Then, of course, there’s the step of determining that the key and the candies are the necessary ingredients for the door. We tried many things before that! (In the process, we found one of the weirdest Infocom bugs I’ve ever seen — more about that in a moment.) And yet, even after solving it, we didn’t even have half the points! Experiences like this are what make Zork II feel so rich. Layering of puzzles, and then opening up an even bigger vista when they interlock, makes for a thrilling player experience.

Okay, so as promised, the weird bug with the lizard door:

Guarded Room
This room is cobwebby and musty, but tracks in the dust show that it has seen visitors recently. At the south end of the room is a stained and battered (but very strong-looking) door. To the north, a corridor exits.
Imbedded in the door is a nasty-looking lizard head, with sharp teeth and beady eyes. The eyes move to watch you approach.

>look through mouth
You can't look inside a blast of air.

>examine air
There's nothing special about the blast of air.

A blast of air??? What in the world is this? Dante and I never figured it out. There’s never a blast of air anywhere in the normal course of gameplay that I can find. Yet there it is in the Guarded Room, invisible but waiting to be found, apparently as a synonym for “mouth”. It gives all the usual stock responses — e.g. “I don’t think the blast of air would agree with you” as an answer to “EAT AIR”, but is simply inexplicable. Stumbling across it was one of the weirder moments I’ve ever had with an Infocom game.

There were some other amusing bugs as well:

>put hand in window
That's easy for you to say since you don't even have the pair of hands.

>roll up newspaper
You aren't an accomplished enough juggler.

>throw bills at curtain
You hit your head against the stack of zorkmid bills as you attempt this feat.

>put flask in passage
Which passage do you mean, the tunnel or the way?

We played the version of the game released in Masterpieces of Infocom — at the time that compilation was released, Zork II was 14 years old, and had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The fact that these bugs remain is a consolation to every IF author who eventually abandons a game, its final bugs unsquashed.

Screenshot from the opening screen of Zork II

>EXAMINE PUZZLES

Blast of air notwithstanding, that lizard door isn’t the only great puzzle in Zork II. The hot air balloon is another all-time winner. Figuring out the basket, receptacle, and cloth is fun, but once the balloon inflates, its ability to travel within the volcano feels magical. That balloon/volcano combo is one of the most memorable moments in the entire trilogy, and the whole section — including the bomb, the books, and the way it ties locations together — is a wonderful set piece.

The dragon puzzle is another great one. For us, it wasn’t so much a “How can we lead the dragon to the glacier” as it was a “Whoa, the dragon is following us. Where can we go?” I quite like that Zork II allows both of these routes to arrive at a solution. The placemat/key puzzle, while less flexible, is brilliant too, though it feels rooted in a time when people would have seen keyholes that a) could be looked through and b) might have keys left in them. Such a real-world experience was simply not in Dante’s frame of reference. In fact, I remember struggling with that puzzle when I was a kid, too — my dad stepped in and helped me with it, possibly aided by having lived in the kind of house where this could be a legitimate solution to an actual problem.

There are also some lovely structural choices in Zork II. The sphere collecting and placement is a great midgame — getting each one is exciting, and putting them on the stands feels appropriately climactic for the end of the second act. Similarly, the demon is a good creative variation on Zork I‘s trophy case, one who offers a marvelous sense of possibility once he’s satisfied.

We tried a variety of things with his wish-granting power, some rewarded and some not. We focused at one point on the topiary, one of the most enticing red herrings in the trilogy. We kept thinking there must be something to do with it. But “demon, destroy topiary” and “demon, disenchant bushes” got us nowhere. On the other hand, “demon, kill cerberus” was rewarded with comedy, if not progress:

“This may prove taxing, but we’ll see. Perhaps I’ll tame him for a pup instead.” The demon disappears for an instant, then reappears. He looks rather gnawed and scratched. He winces. “Too much for me. Puppy dog, indeed. You’re welcome to him. Never did like dogs anyway… Any other orders, oh beneficent one?”

Our first successful try was “demon, lift menhir”, which certainly got us where we needed to go, but much more wondrous was the notion of the demon granting us the wizard’s wand. Several times, Zork II had given us that wonderful IF experience of a broad new vista opening in response to overcoming some obstacle — the balloon and volcano is a prime example, as is the riddle and the Alice areas. When we obtained the wand, it felt like another whole range of possibility opened up. This sense eventually shrank, of course, but it didn’t fully go away either. For one thing, just the ability to “flouresce” things and end our light source torture felt like a miracle. Of course, it screwed us up for the final puzzle, but more about that a bit later.

We also tried “demon, explain bank”, which didn’t work, but I sure wish it would have. As had many adventurers before us, we struggled mightily with the Bank of Zork. We eventually blundered around enough to get through it, but at no point did we feel a flash of insight about it, or an epiphany of understanding. I hesitate to call this an underclued puzzle. I think it’s just bad — maybe the worst puzzle in the trilogy. Dave Lebling later revealed that even other Infocommers couldn’t keep it straight.

The oddly-angled rooms are another infamous Zork II puzzle, in this case infamous for requiring knowledge of baseball in a way that excluded non-Americans. I contend, though, that this isn’t even the worst part of the puzzle. Even if you do understand baseball, and even if you do make the connection between those rooms and a baseball diamond, the puzzle is still unreasonably hard to solve. Say somebody told you in advance that this is a baseball-themed puzzle, and that to solve it you’d have to traverse through the rooms like you’re running the bases. What would you do? If you’re anything like me, you’d envision the typical diagram of a baseball diamond. It looks like this — the first hit on a Google image search for “baseball diamond”:

Diagram of a baseball diamond

If you conceive this diagram as an IF map, the pitcher’s mound is north of home plate, and the other bases extend in cardinal directions from the mound. So starting at home plate, to run the bases, you’d go: NE, NW, SW, SE. Right?

Well Zork II, for reasons I don’t understand, tips the diamond on its side. To run the oddly-angled bases, you have to pretend that home plate is west of the pitcher’s mound, and therefore travel SE, NE, NW, SW. That reorientation delineates the difference between “Oh, ha, it’s a baseball diamond!” and “How in the hell is this a baseball diamond?” So take heart non-Americans (and Americans who don’t know the first thing about baseball) — that “inside baseball” knowledge isn’t nearly as helpful as you might think.

The other puzzle that really stymied us was the riddle. For those who haven’t played in a while, the riddle is this:

What is tall as a house,
round as a cup,
and all the king’s horses
can’t draw it up?

This was an interesting one for me to observe. I remember solving it quite readily when I played Zork II as a kid. For whatever reason, the words just clicked for me. Dante, on the other hand, really grappled with it. He took about thirty different guesses over the course of our playthrough before I started feeding him hints. The guesses fell into a few different categories:

    • Contrived answers: a gigantic egg, an osmium sphere (because osmium is so dense)
    • Jokey reference answers: the Boston Mapparium (an enclosing stained-glass map globe that he learned about from Ken Jennings), an enemy city support pylon (referencing The City We Became by his fave author N.K. Jemisin), a geode (from the same author’s Broken Earth trilogy)
    • Logical guesses, albeit not very Zorky ones: power pole, pipe, subway
    • References to this game or the previous one: rainbow, tree, menhir, dragon, xyzzy, the letter F, barrow, glacier, carousel, lava tube, gazebo, cerberus, balloon, hot air balloon, cave, carousel room, mine, coal mine
    • Just off-the-wall pitches: hill fort (a Celtic thing inspired by “barrow”), tentacle, squid, octopus

Finally I started hinting around pretty heavily to think about holes in the ground, but even then he said “hole”, “bore hole”, and “quarry” before he got to “oil well”, which wasn’t even the game’s intended answer but which still provoked the success response because it contained the word “well”.

Riddles have a big risk/reward proposition as an IF puzzle. If you solve one, you feel so chuffed and clever. But if you don’t solve it, you may just be stuck, especially in the absence of any other hinting mechanism. Perhaps in the days where players were willing to sit with stuckness for extended periods of time, the calculus was a little different, but now puzzles like this flirt with ragequit responses, which I would argue has turned into a failure on the game’s part.

The final puzzle of Zork II felt like a mixed bag to us. It’s intriguingly different from Zork I, which basically led you to the ending after you’d deposited all the treasures. In Zork II, you can get all the points but not be finished. Indeed, the response to “SCORE” at this point is:

Your score would be 400 (total of 400 points), in 753 moves.
This score gives you the rank of Master Adventurer, but somehow you don’t feel
done.

There’s one more puzzle to solve, and for us it was difficult enough to require a hint, something we’d managed to avoid for the rest of the game. Nevertheless, we ended up satisfied, feeling that it was tough but fair — essentially it requires being lightless, something that willingly surrenders in the battle we’d been fighting the whole game. We completely missed the hint — a fairly obscure phrasing on a can of grue repellent — and therefore floundered.

For us, the barrier to solving this puzzle was the flip side of the sense of possibility that the wand allows. For example, the ability to make things fluoresce with the wand so fascinated (and relieved) us that we never walked in there without light. Our continued frustration with light limits also made this behavior very enticing. On top of that, it seemed like no coincidence that “Feel Free” was a double-F, like a more powerful version of the wizard’s spells. Oh the number of places where we pointed the wand and incanted “Feel Free”, to no avail. On the other hand, having solved this puzzle with hints prepped us to solve on our own a very similar puzzle in Enchanter, but that’s a topic for another post.

I think I’ve spent more time in this post criticizing Zork II than I have singing its praises, so it may be surprising when I say that this is my favorite game of the trilogy. I have plenty of affection for parts 1 and 3, but to me this is where the best parts of Zork fully jelled. The humor works wonderfully, the imagery is fantastic, and the structure mixes richness and broadness in a way that makes for wonderful memories of gaming excitement. And sure, its bad puzzles are bad, but its good puzzles are great — deeply satisfying and marvelously layered. Zork I established the premise, and Zork III deconstructed it, but Zork II fulfilled it, and in the process provided me with many happy hours that I loved revisiting with Dante and his fresh eyes.