Babel by Ian Finley [Comp97]

IFDB page: Babel
Final placement: 2nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Babel is not only one of the best competition games I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story. The work of exposition and plot development is performed through the protagonist’s enhanced powers of tellurgy, which the game defines as “the ability to experience past events by touching objects present when the event occurred.” The clarity of these visions varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly other games (most notably Zork: Nemesis) have used this device in the past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an awareness of the character’s identity, and how he came to be in his amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific arrogance and attendant disasters.

Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades: they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the universe or some version thereof, or basically self-interested seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim, then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own undoing.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that after playing only three games from the ’97 competition, I’ve already seen two that deal with a metallic research station where the player discovers the frightening results of unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. The meaning of this thematic fascination in a community devoted to the supposedly “archaic” text form is a speculation for another essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of the best I’ve ever seen in any medium anywhere.

Prose: Babel‘s prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were vividly rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the tellurgic visions was sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist’s eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole.

Plot: The game’s plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a calendar on which he “instinctively” jots down the date of each occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and greater: the unfolding mystery of the character’s origin serves to heighten the power of the story’s eventual climax. Some of the Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness.

Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn’t the point of this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right.

Technical (writing): The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game.

Technical (coding): Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of this game.

OVERALL: A 9.8

The Lost Spellmaker by Neil James Brown [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Lost Spellmaker
Final placement: 8th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s not often that you see a thread from one of the newsgroups translate so directly into an actual piece of IF, but that’s what’s happened with The Lost Spellmaker. This summer, the discussion raged (and I do think that’s a fair characterization) in rgif about “Gay characters in IF.” Some people held that if a piece of IF were to feature a gay character, that piece would need to have homosexuality as its primary concern. Others, including Neil James Brown, contended that a character’s sexual orientation can function simply as a vector to deepen characterization, of no more central concern to the game’s theme than her gender, her height, or what food she likes to eat. The Lost Spellmaker proves Brown’s point quite handily.

The game’s protagonist is Mattie, a dwarf Secret Service agent dispatched to discover the whereabouts of Drew Tungshinach, last in a long line of local spellmakers who have disappeared mysteriously. The fact that Mattie is both a dwarf and a Secret Service agent is an indication of the clever world that Brown has created, which consists of equal parts Ian Fleming and Brothers Grimm. The fact that Mattie loves candy comes in handy in a couple of puzzles, and helps explain why she lives in the town Sweet Shop. And finally, the fact that Mattie is a lesbian has a bearing on the love-interest subplot with the local librarian. Yet none of these incidental facts impinge on the game’s central concern, the rescue of its eponymous Lost Spellmaker. Instead, they enrich our understanding of the characters, for which purpose Mattie’s status as a lesbian is no more or less important than, for example, her status as a dwarf.

I don’t know whether Brown wrote this game to prove his point, but it certainly does. It’s also a fun piece of IF apart from any political or identity considerations. The quest for Drew brings Mattie in contact with a number of amusing characters, and the milieu is small enough to make most of the puzzles fairly easy. Of course, I can’t deny that I personally find it quite refreshing to play a game where heterosexuality isn’t the implied norm, but The Lost Spellmaker has more than that to recommend it. It’s a snappy quest in a creatively conceived world, a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Prose: The prose in The Lost Spellmaker never jarred me out of the story, and I often quite enjoyed reading it. The village wasn’t particularly vividly rendered, but the characters often were, and some of the game’s lighter touches were hilarious. Dialogue was, as a rule, quite well-written, especially the Reverend’s constant malapropisms, which made me laugh out loud over and over, even when seeing them for the second and third times.

Plot: Considering the weird, mutant setting Brown has achieved by breeding traditional fantasy elements (magic, dwarves, talking animals) with James Bond derivations (the Secret Service, a one-letter superior, his secretary “Mr. Cashpound”), the plot walks a fine line, and does it well. The plot is not simply a fantasy, though it does involve using magic to halt the decline of magic, and manipulating fantasy characters to solve puzzles. Nor was it simply espionage, though it did involve a heroic spy facing off against the obligatory Femme Fatale. Instead, it swerved back and forth between the two, making for a merry ride.

Puzzles: I only had to consult the walkthrough one time, for a puzzle which was logical, but could have used an alternate solution. The puzzles weren’t the focus of the story, so they served the basic purpose of small goals to help advance the plot. In this role, they worked admirably well. There were no particularly witty or clever puzzles, but by the same token there were no unfair or “guess-the-verb” puzzles either.

Technical (writing): I only noticed one proofing error in the game. The vast majority of the prose was competently and correctly written.

Technical (coding): There were a few bugs in the game, one of which may be more of a library issue than a lack of attention on the part of the author. Also, there were a few places where a response beyond the default would have been appreciated. Overall, the code was relatively bug free. Kudos must go here to the title page, which employed a really nifty z-machine special effect.

OVERALL: A 9.1

Unholy Grail by Stuart Allen [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Unholy Grail
Final placement: 15th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Unholy Grail puts me in mind of the old saw about the glass being half-full or half-empty. For each positive I can think of, a counterbalancing negative also comes to mind. While the prose creates sharp, clear, atmospheric images, it is also burdened with numerous grammar and spelling errors. While the game had an inventive plot, this same plot was punctuated with moments of tediousness, implausibility, and pure frustration. And while Grail is orders of magnitude better than Allen’s 1996 entry The Curse of Eldor, it still fails to realize both its own potential and that of its author.

Allen has accomplished a noteworthy programming achievement: he has written his own IF engine, one which mimics much of the important functionality of the current front-runners Inform and TADS. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t perform at the levels of either of these popular “standard” IF engines, and suffers greatly by comparison. Again, it’s a yin and yang situation: a quality engine is written from scratch, but it’s still a poor competitor to the dominant systems, marred by problems ranging from the complex (tortured disambiguation) to the amazingly simple (an inexplicably arbitrary pathname in the CONFIG file.)

Still, Unholy Grail is the first competition game I’ve played, and it’s not an altogether inauspicious start. For one thing, it represents remarkable progress on the part of the author. [No, the comparison to non-competition games is not affecting my overall rating — I simply mention it in this review for the sake of completeness.] Unholy Grail is not the fulfillment of Stuart Allen’s promise, but it marks him as one to watch. With the improvements he’s already made to his JACL engine it seems entirely plausible that it could one day match the quality of the current state of the art. Also, this game is one of the few conceptually complete pieces of IF I’ve seen in the “thriller” genre, a field which is in many ways well-suited to IF, but whose only significant representative has been Border Zone, a quality game but one whose gimmick of real-time has often overshadowed discussion of its generic groundbreaking. Unholy Grail was uneven; some things were really very good, other things really not very good at all. I hope it’s a marker of better things to come.

Prose: I found the prose in Unholy Grail fairly difficult to read. Sentences seemed to string endlessly, clause following clause until I thought perhaps the author had asked Henry James to ghost-write. However, I also think that the lack of a status line and room name threw me out of my ingrained IF reading habits, the disorientation of which probably contributed to my difficulty in following the author’s long narrative strands. Or it could just be my own denseness — that’s always a possibility. Despite the game’s verbosity, though, strong images floated up to me out of the sea of words. I have a very distinct picture in my mind of the swivel chair and radar screen in the control room, of the battered hut whose floorboards parted to show the ground below, and of the elegant, elaborate hotel. The author clearly had done his homework, and was able to create a very convincing picture of the character’s environment. I just had to read some of the sentences a few times before I felt sure I knew what they were saying.

Plot: The most ringing endorsement of the plot I can give is this: after the two-hour judging period had expired, and I was only 75% through with the game, I spent another half-hour on it because I needed to know how it ended. I found the plot difficult to get into at first (see Puzzles), and needed to refer often to the science encyclopedia so I could have a basic clue of what the hell the game was talking about, but once I understood, I was inexorably drawn in by the skillfully dropped hints and slowly unfolding drama. On the other hand (and there’s always another hand when it comes to Unholy Grail), I found some things in the plot pretty difficult to believe. Small points like the layout of the complex were jarring: would the military really set up a female officer’s room so that her only access to it is through a civilian male’s room, and have her share a bathroom with him as well? Also, some larger points (such as the Rotenone) seemed only to serve as red herrings, but created major implausibilities in the plot: if I’ve determined that Rotenone is causing the fish deaths, how can it be true that they’re being caused by something which in fact behaves entirely differently? For that matter, if my basic science encyclopedia tells me that Rotenone causes fish to drown, why do I blame it for cancer?

Puzzles: For the first hour I played the game, I was absolutely stumped. Finally, I resorted to the hint system and learned that because an extra-long sentence in the room description of the lab, I had neglected to examine the lab bench as closely as I ought. Once I found the global positioner, I was off and running. Consequently, I struggled with this game a lot more than its puzzles may have merited. Most of the puzzles were fairly easy, when they didn’t involve guessing the verb (Can’t turn the drum. Can’t move the drum. Can’t push the drum. Can’t pull the drum. Can’t look under the drum. Oh, look behind the drum!), and some were quite satisfying (especially the filing cabinet.) However, one puzzle was amazingly tedious — it basically involved typing “n” 20 times and “w” 20 times, then doing the opposite. Here’s where a “swim to” verb would have been much appreciated!

Technical (writing): In addition to the stylistic factors I mentioned in “Prose”, Unholy Grail was also plagued with grammar and spelling errors. Certainly there was some attention to proofreading, but one or two more passes were needed.

Technical (coding): Unfortunately this is where Grail stumbles the most. JACL does a good job of imitating mainstream systems (especially Inform) in many ways, but in other crucial areas it falls critically short. For example, the system allows only one saved game at a time, and it lacks an “oops” verb. Also, its disambiguation is weak, a fact which caused a great deal of frustration for me as my reasonable answers to its reasonable questions kept getting the response “The sentence you typed was incomplete.” The system also overuses Graham Nelson’s famous “You can’t see any such thing,” applying it to sentences whose nouns are examinable and manipulable in other contexts. In addition to these general systemic problems, Grail itself had a number of particular bugs which I’ve reported to the author in a separate email.

OVERALL — A 7.O

About my 1997 IF Competition reviews

Playing and reviewing every game from the 1996 competition was a bit of a journey for me. At first, I was checking them out with an eye toward assessing the competitors to my own entry. That faded pretty quickly after I played Delusions, which was so much better than Wearing The Claw that I gave up all hope of winning then and there.

Delusions remained my favorite game of all the entries that year. It just blew me away. Once I played it and wrote about it, I knew that I wanted to share what I’d written, and in the spirit of fairness I committed to playing and writing about all the games. (The spirit of fairness did not extend so far as to rewriting the notes-y reviews I’d already completed. The deadline was a tough one.)

Some of my other favorites came toward the end of that queue, including Tapestry, Small World, and the ponderously named eventual comp winner The Meteor, The Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. I had started playing these games to check out my competition, but I finished them in love with the competition. Sure, there were clunkers, and some outright painful experiences, but for a kid enchanted by Infocom, there was also this bouquet of brilliant new Infocom-like games, and even more thrilling, some games that opened up territory that Infocom had never touched.

So well before the 1997 comp, I was excited to play all the games, and write much more definitive reviews of each one from the outset. I settled on a format of three paragraphs, plus a similar breakdown to what I’d provided in ’96 — sections on prose, plot, puzzles, and technical prowess for both writing and coding. I discarded “difficulty” as a category, because it had proven irrelevant for so many of the Comp96 games.

Well, I bit off a little more than I could chew. By the time I got to the end of the judging period for all 34 comp games (10 more than I’d reviewed the previous year!), that format had beaten me up pretty well. But again, out of a sense of fairness, I didn’t want to alter it midway through the journey. I knew, though, that I’d need to take a more scaled-down approach in the future.

1997 was also the first year of the cool comp randomizer, meaning that rather than playing the game in filename order, I played them in an entirely random order. As always, I’ll post the reviews in the order that I played the games, since I often find myself referring back to previous reviews in the course of writing new ones. Finally, I apparently found it necessary to post an apology for my occasional irascibility, alongside some further explications of my opinions about unfinished games and cliched settings.

For the 1997 IF Competition games, I’ll provide:

  • IFDB page
  • Final comp placement
  • 3 paragraphs of overall discussion
  • Assessments of the following attributes:
    • Prose
    • Technical achievement, split into writing and coding subcategories
    • Plot
    • Puzzles
  • Overall score

I originally posted my reviews for the 1997 IF Competition games on January 1, 1998.

Tapestry by Daniel Ravipinto [Comp96]

IFDB page: Tapestry
Final placement: 2nd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I thought this was really an impressive piece of work. Yes, it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and probably a little too derivative of Neil Gaiman’s visions of Fate and Evil in his Sandman cycle. But nonetheless, I found the situations compelling, the dilemmas convincing, and if a work is going to be derivative of someone, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Gaiman. I sometimes resented having my emotions so blatantly manipulated (somewhat akin to my feelings in a few Spielberg films) by the Dickensian drama of the mother and wife with wasting illnesses, the struggling family business on the edge of ruin, and the innocent “victims of inexorable fate” in the form of an onrushing car. Still, the fact is that the work succeeded in pushing my emotional buttons, and I was moved by the story. Tapestry is an ambitious piece, and both its successes and its failures are due to its exploration of the possibilities of interactive fiction. For example, the feeling of not being able to control the car despite what you order the character to do is an extremely chilling one, and it is an effect that would not pack the same potency were it attempted in static fiction. By the same token, though, exchanges with the wraith seemed a bit forced due to the limits of the medium — often complex points were reduced to the level of trying different versions of “tell wraith about x”. I have to admit, even though I’m educated enough to recognize “Morningstar” as Lucifer (the author even whispered in my ear to tell me so), I still chose his path my first try through the game. At the endgame, I was forced to think about my choices, and to recognize that I had been (and therefore could be) manipulated into making a choice that was wrong for the character, even if it wasn’t morally wrong, even if it is the choice I myself would have made under the circumstances. It wasn’t a nice feeling.

Prose: The prose tended toward the histrionic at times, and unfortunately this actually occasionally diluted the emotional impact of the situations. However, my experience of those moments was that they stuck out from the general trend of the writing, which was quite craftily done, and in fact sported some moments of real intensity and poignancy despite the occasional cliché.

Difficulty: I didn’t find the game too difficult to get through, but then again it wasn’t particularly puzzle-oriented. In fact, the path of Morningstar required a great deal more puzzle-solving than the path of Clotho (which is the other one I tried). Is there a message here?

Technical (coding): On the whole the coding was quite proficient. I was a little unhappy with what I perceived as some shortcuts (for example, a medicine bottle not implemented as a container), and the author’s realistic setting caused a few problems with Inform‘s standard responses. (Examples: entering “DIAL 911” and being told “You don’t know that phone number.”, and being told that I really should clean the soot that’s collected on my carpet, yet “CLEAN SOOT” receives a reply of “You achieve nothing by this.”) Apart from these details, the coding was accomplished quite handily.

Technical (writing): Grammatical and/or spelling problems and typos were not entirely absent, (I remember noticing an “a” used in place of an “at” or some such) but they were very few and far between.

Plot: I found the plot quite compelling. The prologue worked quite well for me, (though I did appreciate the “begin” command after my first time through) and the mutually exclusive endings were well planned. Ultimately, the game’s plot boils down to the idea that moral dilemmas can be extremely powerful in the medium of interactive fiction. I think this is a very, very good idea indeed.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, this work wasn’t really very puzzle-oriented. The puzzles that were included were integrated well with the game — no gratuitous grafted-on “crossword” elements — and this was both a strength and a weakness. The strength: nothing interrupted the suspension of disbelief created by the game’s dramatic scenarios. The weakness: character-driven puzzles (which most of these were) all too often boiled down to how to fill in the blanks on “tell ____ about ____.”

OVERALL — A 9.4

Stargazer: An Adventure In Outfitting by Jonathan Fry [Comp96]

IFDB page: Stargazer
Final placement: 19th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Stargazer worked quite well as a prologue, but I’m not sure I cared for it much as a stand-alone game. Just about the time I thought the action was about to start, the entire game ended. This made for a rather anticlimactic experience, especially since I worked through the game in well under the two hours allotted. Also, the game’s brevity worked at cross purposes to its genre; confusing references and unfamiliar objects can usually be let slide in fantasy since they are sure to be explained later. Not so in Stargazer. Aside from these problems, however, the piece was fairly enjoyable. There were a few technical problems, but nothing too great, and the author created a world I wanted to learn more about, which is certainly a step in the right direction. Stargazer worked well as a prologue — I look forward to the game.

Prose: Aside from the sometimes awkward or convoluted sentence structure (“One reason for this is that this is also…”, “…any other senses you may have.”), the prose worked fairly well. I got a nice sense of the turbulence of the river, and I thought the dialogue worked fairly well. Nothing was wonderfully well-crafted, but most was certainly serviceable.

Difficulty: I found the game quite easy — I finished it in about 40 minutes. Unfortunately, this ease aided the sense of anticlimax triggered by the game’s abrupt ending.

Technical (coding): Overall the coding was strong, though there were a few weak points. These points included: two separate moss/lichen objects which shared names, so that in one location “X MOSS” yielded “Which do you mean, the moss or the lichen?” over and over again; an object which is on a rock across a rushing river, yet which can still be touched or moved, a god who demands a sacrifice when the verb “sacrifice” isn’t in the game’s vocabulary, and a dusty lens which responded to “X DUST” with “You can’t see any such thing.”

Technical (writing): The writing was sometimes rather awkward, but it was generally correct in spelling and grammar.

Plot: Well, Stargazer didn’t contain much plot, though it did have the beginnings of one, and probably contained a lot of foreshadowing (though it’s difficult to tell without seeing the story ahead). What was there was an intriguing beginning, but not much more.

Puzzles: While quite easy, the puzzles moved the story along well, and were very well integrated with the storyline. I’ll be interested to see what challenges the author has in store in the actual game.

OVERALL — A 6.6

The House Of The Stalker by Jason Clayton [Comp96]

IFDB page: House Of The Stalker
Final placement: 23rd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

A promising beginning turns into an excruciating series of coding and design errors and irritating writing. It’s hard to know where to begin with the criticisms. The tone of many of the responses was a kind of smarmy, smart-alecky wit which undercut any dramatic buildup or fear created by the tense premise. The underlying idea is good, but its execution was rife with logic errors. I can think of at least a dozen plausible solutions that were not implemented. For example, if I squirt the killer with Drano then try to go to the porch for help, I’m told “You can’t go that way.” (Oh no, he’s so dangerous he can make my door disappear!). Another example: I can wander through my entire house without meeting the killer, so why don’t I just call the police? Well, not one single room in the house has a phone. Add to this some fundamental coding errors, unconvincing writing, and “read the author’s mind” puzzles, and the result is a distinctly unenjoyable game.

Prose: The opening sequence of the game got me quite interested, but most of the other prose served to undo tension rather than create it. For example, the author tries to create emotional depth to the character by describing a recent divorce. After about a paragraph of this, the game says “Now that you’ve had a good cry, maybe you’d like to try preserving your life some, hmm?” The condescension and flippancy in this narrative tone completely destroy any gradually building sense of empathy or emotional urgency. Also, object descriptions give no thought to the interactivity of the game. For example, every time you look at the TV, an announcer breaks into a show and says the exact same thing. The hair dryer is described as having its cord hanging off the sink… no matter where you take it. This is lazy writing, and it obliterates suspension of disbelief.

Difficulty: I used the hints to get through the entire game once I realized that there was only one way to solve it and that was by doing exactly what the author had in mind, since no reasonable alternatives are provided. This kind of difficulty tests one’s patience, not one’s intelligence.

Technical (coding): Coding errors were everywhere. For example: The player must remove a scarf from a doll, but this can only be done in the room where the doll is originally located. Trying “YANK SCARF” anywhere else gets a response of “You can’t see any such thing.” Another example: “PUSH CHAIR” gets the response “You push the chair over to the bookcase.” “PUSH CHAIR TO BOOKCASE” gets the response “You can’t see any such thing.” The only other character in the program, the killer, wasn’t even implemented as animate. (“SHOW PICTURE TO KILLER.” gets “You can only do that to something animate.”) Like the writing, the coding was lazy and ineffective.

Technical (writing): There were very few technical errors in the writing. It’s frustrating — a good idea with technically sufficient writing ought to have been a much better game.

Plot: The premise had the promise of being extremely gripping and intense. The idea that danger lurks around every corner of a familiar setting has the potential to be great interactive fiction. However, by the end of the game, the idea of plot degenerated into a series of arbitrary but extremely specific actions performed on the killer’s body.

Puzzles: The puzzles were very difficult because of their arbitrary nature. One has to do a very specific and exact sequence of actions to the killer’s body before the game won’t respond to “KILL STALKER” with “Violence isn’t the answer to this one.”

OVERALL — A 2.5