About my 2001 IF Competition Reviews

In 2001, I entered the IF Competition for the first time since 1996. My entry, Earth And Sky, was inspired by the Marvel comics I’ve loved since age six, and was entered under the Marvelicious pseudonym “Lee Kirby”. The previous year, I’d written a long and very heavy non-competition game called LASH: Local Asynchronous Satellite Hookup, which was partly about the antebellum South of the U.S., and had me reading many a slave narrative for research. After that, I wanted to write something lighter and more fun, and I’d never yet played superhero IF that I found really satisfying, so I wanted to make some.

Earth And Sky was also intended as the first episode in a series of games, and I would end up entering the other two episodes into the Comp as well, but that’s a topic for a later time. The game took 8th place — oddly, the same exact ranking as my 1996 entry, Wearing The Claw. Of course, while I was writing these reviews, I didn’t know that, so as I had in 1996, I played the games partly with an eye toward checking out my competition as well as the competition.

Weirdly, this was also the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner, because I’d been a beta tester for it. Jon Ingold‘s excellent All Roads took the top prize that year, and I was happy to have contributed a little to it. It’s strange collecting the reviews now though, and knowing that this site won’t contain a review of the 2001 winner. (Well, not anytime soon anyway. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back around to reviewing it?) The other game I skipped was called Begegnung am Fluss, which I couldn’t play due to my total inability to read German.

I do have the ability to read English, much to the disadvantage of many 2001 games. My patience for terrible writing decreased steadily throughout the competition, and I didn’t really start with that much. At one point, I started fantasizing about getting points every time I spotted an error, which I imagined would award me a score of “524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.” The Gibbering Grammarian found himself giving lessons on things like the use of definite vs. indefinite articles, and creating a special label for what I called “NASTY FOUL IT’S/ITS ERRORS”. I was inspired by the Vile Zero Error From Hell, a particularly nasty way of crashing the Z-machine, since NFIEs tended to have the same effect on my brain and mood.

Similarly, I really turned into Mr. Cranky around implementation issues, and in particular non-standard development systems. Just as bad were the games that applied outmoded ideas to modern systems, as I’d really had it with mazes, inventory limits, and so forth. But despite my grumpiness and anxiety about my own game, I still found much to delight me in this year’s competition, and just as much to intrigue me and push my thoughts forward about the medium itself. As in 1996, I hardly minded losing to such stellar work.

One more thing: in the fall of 2001, the shadow of 9/11 loomed large. It was a bizarre time to be an American. One unfortunate game ran afoul of this circumstance by presenting a sympathetic portrayal of terrorists. Another year, I might have had a different reaction, but in October of 2001, it just didn’t work for me.

I posted my reviews for the 2001 IF Competition games on November 16, 2001.

On The Other Side by Antonio Márquez Marín as Lumpi [Comp00]

IFDB page: Al Otro Lado
Final placement: 46th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here we have what has to be the most audacious game idea in the 2000 IF competition. OTOS reverses the typical roles of game and player — it asks you where it is, what it can see, and where the exits are, and then issues you a command based on that information. Then you’re supposed to respond to the command, then it gives you another command, etc. — the game takes the role of the player and the player takes the role of the game.

Now this is a gutsy idea. Crazy, but gutsy. It blurs the line between the pleasures of playing IF and the pleasures of writing IF in ways that weren’t a lot of fun to experience, but might make excellent fodder for an entry to that academic journal that Dennis Jerz has posted about once or twice in the last few months. I was initially so taken aback by the idea that I just kept feeding blank lines to the game — its response commands were along the lines of “scream”, “sleep”, “xyzzy”, and finally, “quit.” Then, trying to get into the spirit of things, I typed “Kensington Gardens” and a bit more Trinity stuff from memory. The game, to my surprise, did not follow a pre-scripted routine, but tried things like “open Gardens” and “talk to Gardens” and such — still fairly nonsensical, but at least somewhat adapted to what I had typed.

In fact, it appears I could have done some fancier stuff, but I found the instruction manual (not to mention what few other sentences the game provided) pretty incomprehensible, so I didn’t even try it. Even if I had, though, I think I would still have quickly found myself bored, because the game so radically alters the balance I’m used to feeling when playing IF. Now that I was in the position of outputting the majority of the text, knowing that the only one listening was a brainless automaton, the whole thing started to feel like a major waste of time.

So playing OTOS wasn’t something I enjoyed. However, it occurs to me that a program like this has the potential to be an excellent beta-testing tool, precisely because it is so brainless. In fact, I tried feeding it a little bit of information from Being Andrew Plotkin, and it found a bug almost instantly! (You can pick up the copier in the initial scene. Who knew?) In its current form, this game still wouldn’t even be all that useful for that purpose, because it expects output in much too rigid a form, and because it is ill adapted to sudden changes in circumstance, or even to things like finding objects inside other objects. Still, it might catch a few things that humans wouldn’t catch, because most humans (Michael Kinyon and a few blessed others excepted) wouldn’t think to try the sort of senseless commands that OTOS attempts.

In the past few years, the last comp game I’ve played has always been one of the best entries in the entire competition. 2000 broke that streak, but it also established the greatest volume of quality output I’ve ever seen in an IF comp. Even many of the games that I didn’t personally care for, I found interesting or worthy as ideas. So perhaps it’s appropriate that my long and frantic road of judging ends with this game, whose idea is so daring and out there that I can’t help but respect it a little, even though it didn’t really show me a good time.

Rating: 3.1

What-IF? by David Ledgard [Comp00]

IFDB page: What-IF?
Final placement: 52nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

What-IF? is an excellent name for this zcode file. The only one I can think of that would fit as well would be “Where’s the IF?” Here’s what happens when you run this file: you get a menu, asking you to select an “alternatate” history from a list of seven choices. When you make a selection, What-IF? spits out several screensful of text and then brings you back to the menu. That’s it. No prompt (other than the menu prompt), no PC, no locations, no objects, really no game at all. Talk about your puzzleless IF!

Twisting the knife even further is the fact that all of these paragraphs are very, very badly written. Missing commas, misspellings, incorrect words, sentence fragments, misplaced modifiers, and many more errors make appearances over and over and over again. Here, I’ll choose an example at random: “If knowledge of how the Chinese navigated had reached the West research in this field may not have preceded.” Even if we ignore the fact that there should definitely be a comma between “West” and “research”, we are still left with the question: preceded what?

This file has nothing to offer as IF. Its writing is difficult, sometimes impossible, to understand. It might make an interesting pamphlet, if somebody who is fluent in English gave it a major editorial overhaul. What it’s doing in an interactive fiction competition remains an unanswered question.

Rating: 1.1

Wrecked by Campbell Wild [Comp00]

IFDB page: Wrecked
Final placement: 39th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are several points in Wrecked where the game collars you to proclaim just how awesome its development system is. For example, you meet someone who (surprise surprise!) just happens to be coding an ADRIFT game on a nearby computer. Ask her about it, and she’ll say to you, “I’m making an ADRIFT adventure. I’ve tried using Inform, TADS and Hugo, but I’d say ADRIFT is by far the best.” In another location, you can gain some points with the command “write graffiti,” something I would never have thought to do without the handy walkthrough to prod me. The graffiti the game chooses to write? “ADRIFT rocks!”

Apparently, Wrecked suspects that its own merits are not enough to convince you of ADRIFT’s supremacy, but that if it just shouts slogans at you once in a while, that might do the trick. For me, the former was true, but the latter, predictably, was not. I’ve already catalogued the shortcomings of ADRIFT in my review of Marooned, so I don’t see the need to rehash them here — the bottom line is that ADRIFT isn’t a bad system overall, and has some nifty features to recommend it, but its parser (which is MORE IMPORTANT THAN NIFTY FEATURES) is substandard, its model world needs work, and it’s still lacking in key functions like UNDO and SCRIPT. A random NPC might think it beats Inform, TADS, and Hugo, but a quick conversation with this NPC demonstrates that her powers of discernment are, after all, rather limited. The game’s self-hyping moments are offputting, as it would have been if Graham Nelson had chosen to have “Inform RUELZ!” scribbled on the side of the house in Curses, or if the spaceship in Deep Space Drifter had been named the USS TADS Is Supreme.

On the other hand, Wrecked is definitely a better showcase for ADRIFT than is Marooned. Those extraneous newlines that I blamed on the ADRIFT system in my review of Marooned turned out to be that game’s doing — they’re nowhere to be found in Wrecked. Many more first-level nouns are implemented, making the auto-complete option work much better, though it still doesn’t work flawlessly. Also, there’s no starvation puzzle in Wrecked, which sets to rest my fears that such a puzzle is standard issue in every ADRIFT game.

However, just being a better game than Marooned doesn’t make Wrecked a great game in itself. One part of the reason why I didn’t care for Wrecked is that it just feels very dated to me. It’s an old-school adventure, something that might have fit comfortably into the mainstream circa 1983 or so. You know the kind: you find a bowling ball with a button on the side, and when you push the button, the ball opens up to reveal a sapphire bracelet, which you then give to the sailor on the dock, who will reward you with a chicken pot pie that you can feed to the vicious warthog, allowing you to sneak into his lair and retrieve the bag of marbles, etc. etc. Everything is pretty much thrown together without any rhyme or reason, loosely grouped together under a threadbare rubric of plot and setting. Like I said, old-school. Unfortunately for Wrecked, the old school of IF lost its accreditation some time ago. To my mind, senseless grouping of stuff without any indication of internal consistency is something IF has outgrown, like mazes and starvation puzzles. Seeing it in a year 2000 competition entry isn’t going to score a lot of points from me.

However, even if I were willing to set aside the deep flaws in both the parser and the design of the game, there would still be the matter of the bugs. Most severe among these is the game-killing bug I encountered about an hour and 45 minutes into the game: despite all conditions being correct, I was unable to complete a critical puzzle, even though I knew from a previous play session that it was possible to complete this puzzle. Because ADRIFT makes a habit of overwriting old save files with the current save unless you explicitly tell it to do otherwise (by selecting “save as” from the menu bar — typing “save” will overwrite without prompting), I would have had to start from scratch and wind my way once more through all the nonsensical contortions required by the game’s plot, and there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t encounter the same bug again.

That bug ended my dealings with Wrecked, but there were other errors along the way. The voice was in first person, but would occasionally slip into second person. Sometimes the game failed to recognize rather important objects. In one supremely frustrating section, the game adamantly refused to recognize the word “keyhole,” despite a promiently featured keyhole in the location; it responded to all commands along the lines of “put key in keyhole” with “I can’t put anything inside the small key.” In short, between the bugs, the parser, the hype, and the lack of any kind of logic, Wrecked wasn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not likely to win many converts to ADRIFT. No matter how many times it insists that ADRIFT rocks.

Rating: 4.0

Masquerade by Kathleen Fischer [Comp00]

IFDB page: Masquerade
Final placement: 8th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Romance has always been a rather underrepresented genre in IF. Lots of people praise Plundered Hearts, but few authors have stepped forward to create more IF romances. One of those few, though, is Kathleen Fischer, whose IF Art piece The Cove was ostensibly just an interactive landscape, but whose viewpoint character was straight out of a historical romance novel. Now that character returns in a work that further embraces (pardon the pun) the conventions of melodramatic genre romance — the woman in distress who passionately fights against the men who oppress her, the moustache-twirling villain who threatens to destroy the woman’s livelihood unless she marries him, and the mysterious stranger who takes an unforeseen interest in the situation.

If setting is the star of science fiction, and plot is the star of mysteries, then surely character is the feature attraction in a romance. Character, however, is not the strongest point of IF, and the game makes a number of clever choices that help smooth what could be a very difficult blending. For one thing, the conversation system is neither ask/tell nor menu based; if you want the PC to talk, just type “talk” (or “talk to ” if there is more than one in the room) — the game will fill in your words for you. In this way, Masquerade can construct the heated dialogues necessary to demonstrate its characters’ interactions without having to cobble together meaningful exchanges from conversation commands that are necessarily quite simplistic. Another smart choice is to reduce the number of takeable objects, which takes the focus off of trying to figure out what MacGyverish feat to perform on inanimate obstacles and places it on trying to figure out how best to deal with the other characters. Finally, like The Cove, this game implements nouns to an impressive degree of depth, creating the illusion of a fully fleshed-out world in which the characters move. Not only that, the descriptions of various characters (and yourself) change as their relationships to one another shift, a technique which breathes a great deal of life into them.

These choices, especially the first two, step away from the conventions pioneered by games like Zork and Adventure, and the gains that they provide in character and plot are taken out of interaction. In some cases, the tradeoff is handled with so much skill that I didn’t even realize how little interaction was really available until my second play-through. In others, the seams showed rather more.

The game provides the player with a number of yes/no decision points, but few of them seem to make much difference. In addition, there appear to be some places in which the right thing to do is far from obvious — I was never able to get to one of the game’s successful endings because my ability to interact with the characters was so limited, and manipulation of the environment so curtailed, that I was unable to guess the proper action, and therefore never found happiness for the PC. It didn’t help that the game’s meager hint system almost always came up with the response “You ponder your situation, but nothing comes to mind.”. This is one case in which a bundled walkthrough would have helped me a lot — it may have just demonstrated that I wasn’t reading the author’s mind properly, but on the other hand it may have demonstrated that I was being incredibly dense and overlooking an obvious clue.

Instead, I was exhorted to email the author for help. I did so, and eight hours later I haven’t heard back, so I’m going ahead with this review. Authors, allow me to suggest that not providing hints or a walkthrough with a comp entry is detrimental to your chances of doing well in that competition. I’ve only got a few days left, and several more games to get through — I don’t have time to wait around for a reply, and I think many judges are in the same boat. In a non-comp game, omitting the walkthrough can prompt players to post hint requests, or to email you, and this is a good thing. In a competition game, though, when the players are under time pressure and are committed to playing as many of the games as possible anyway, this strategy only ensures that they will be delayed and annoyed if they get stuck. Not the recipe for a high rating.

Even if I had been able to win the game, I still would have had to contend with the numerous bugs that appear in it. At various points, the game referred to an object that wasn’t there, or allowed me to take objects that should have been unavailable, or absconded with one of my possessions after I dropped it, or permitted travel in a direction that should have been forbidden (putting me in a room with the description “.”) Each one of these instances threw me out of the immersive world that the other aspects of the game work so hard to sustain. According to the credits, the game has been tested, but I was left wondering if that testing process was perhaps more rushed than it should have been due to the competition deadline.

Between the bugs and my inability to get anywhere with the puzzles (or even find them), I didn’t enjoy Masquerade nearly as much as I wanted to. If you haven’t played it yet, wait for the next release — the author has always shown a strong commitment to fixing problems, so I’ve no doubt there will be one. Once the bugs have been fixed and better hints are available, Masquerade will have a great deal to offer fans of genre romance. In this incarnation, though, I’m afraid it was a bit of a disappointment.

Rating: 7.3

Escape From Crulistan by Alan Smithee [Comp00]

IFDB page: Escape from Crulistan
Final placement: 43rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When the IF competition started, it was meant to be a mechanism for encouraging people to produce more Inform games, and not incidentally more Inform sample source code. After much haranguing on the newsgroups, it was agreed that TADS authors ought to be able to participate too, and the two types of games were grouped into their own separate divisions. After the games came out, we realized that not much new Inform source code had been released, but that the comp was definitely a major hit.

In a unifying spirit, the next year’s comp dropped the language specifications; the gates were opened to any kind of IF game. Since then, every single year the comp has seen at least one “homebrewed” game — that is, a game written without the aid of a major IF language such as Inform, TADS, or Hugo. And not one of those games, not one, has had a parser and model world to match that which comes automatically with the major IF languages. Some have had their own nifty features, to be sure, but the core of IF (and the biggest programming challenge as well) is the parser and model world. When that is lacking, the game is just not going to be good, no matter what else it has going for it. If you’ve guessed by now that Escape From Crulistan is no exception to this trend, congratulations.

Please pardon me. This is something like my 47th comp game. I’m running low on sleep. I’m cranky, and my mood was not improved by the extremely frustrating two hours I just spent with a game that responds like a lobotomized Inform. The first command I type when I’m playing a game for review is “script”, so that I can have a transcript to refer to as I write the review. The next command I type is “verbose”. When the game recognized neither of these, I began to get a sinking feeling.

My subsequent experiences didn’t make me feel any better at all. Experimentation soon revealed that the game only recognizes an extremely limited set of verbs and nouns, far too few to provide any sense of smooth gameplay whatsoever. Now, as I often say when I review homebrewed games, I admire what it did achieve. The desire to write an IF engine from scratch is foreign to me, but I certainly can respect it in others, and it would take a better programmer than I to create even the parser in Crulistan, let alone the strong parsers of the established IF development systems. Nonetheless, achievement though it is, Crulistan‘s parser is woefully insufficient. When you’ve just gone through several dozen games whose parsers have a very high level of quality by default, stepping into Crulistan feels like a jail cell in more ways than one.

Perversely, rather than drawing attention away from these limitations, the game’s design seems instead to want to emphasize its flaws. It consists of a string of situations which require very specific solutions, and the game usually neglects to implement any alternatives, even if just to tell the player that they won’t work. For example, the initial puzzle of escaping from a cell might seem to hinge around going through the window. Yet by no combination of verbs and nouns (and believe me, I tried a lot of them) can you convey to the game that you want to try this. It’s fine if the game doesn’t want to allow it, but not even to implement it? Inexcusable.

Then, when I finally did figure out how to escape the cell, then spent another half-hour trying to guess the right sequence of commands (with very little useful feedback from the game) for the next section, I found myself outside the prison, and the game, unbeknownst to me, was in an unwinnable state. I only learned this after much frustration and failed brute-force attempts at puzzle-solving sent me back, in desperation, to the initial scene. Turns out there are two ways to escape the prison, but only one of them will allow you to proceed further in the game. The game gives no indication whatsoever of this situation, and because so little is implemented, I found it easy to believe that the “wrong” solution I had found was the one and only solution to the prison puzzle. So, the one time an alternate solution was implemented, it was only an extremely elaborate red herring — what an infuriating design choice, especially in a game where so few things work.

Once I did get further, I almost immediately found myself stuck in another situation where the solution was a mystery and the game didn’t recognize 90% of the things I tried. Compounding this problem, no walkthrough is provided. In fact, when you type “help”, the game chides you, “Oh come on now. This game is ridiculously easy.”. Yeah, if you wrote it, maybe. Then again, the author credit seems to allude to the disavowal that film directors sometimes issue on projects that have escaped their control. Of course, with an IF game, there’s really nobody to wrest control from the author, so this allusion is puzzling to say the least. But nobody can say it’s not justified.

Rating: 2.1

The End Means Escape by Steve Kodat as D.O. [Comp00]

IFDB page: The End Means Escape
Final placement: 21st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve felt that inanimate objects are out to get me. Wait, I guess that sounds a little paranoid. Let me rephrase: oftentimes, when I trip over an object lying on the floor, or hit my head on something, or bump into a piece of furniture in a dark room, I curse that object, as if it willfully placed itself in the worst possible spot just to spite me. On some bizarre level of my brain (possibly my out-of-control ego), I feel that the pain I’m in at that moment is the object’s fault, not mine.

In my reality, I’m wrong. In the reality which begins The End Means Escape, I might very well be right. The game appears at first to be an “escape the one room” adventure, with a twist: all the objects are NPCs. I don’t mean that you’re floating in a void with a bunch of other people. I mean that in this room, everything reacts to you, often quite vocally. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the table, the lamp, the door, the various objects strewn around — they can all be addressed and conversed with. It was rather disconcerting to be thrown into this environment without even a halfhearted explanation about what was happening, but once I adjusted, I found it quite absorbing. There’s a startling level of depth to the implementation — I kept being surprised by how many of the things I tried were accounted for in the game. I even had a fragile sense of making progress, though the whole thing was so unusual that I couldn’t rely on my typical IF cues for narrative progression.

Then, something else happened. I escaped the one room, fully expecting to have won the game, but instead moved into a realm that was even more bizarre than the one I had left, by several orders of magnitude in fact. I thought, because the “talking object” room was so well-done, that it was the whole of the game. Not so. To discuss further specifics about what proceeds from that first scene would, I think, be to move into the realm of spoilers, so I’ll just say this: the game turns out to be a string of scenarios, none of which conform to IF conventions of plot, setting, or character. Of these, the first scene is probably the most successful, but each has interesting merits. Certainly the first scene’s thoroughness of implementation is not lost on the others. Consider, for example, this startling disambiguation question:

>X YOUNG
Which young do you mean, the young man, the marking, the young man's
head, the young man's hands, the young man's skin, the young man's
feet, the young man's head of hair, the young man's forehead, the
young man's eyebrows, the young man's eyes, the young man's
eyelashes, the young man's ears, the young man's nose, the young
man's mouth, the young man's chin, the young man's neck, the young
man's fingers, the young man's thumbs, the young man's torso, the
young man's arms, the young man's legs, or the young man's hips?

The game displays an almost overwhelming capacity for describing scenery objects and making them available to various verbs. Strangely, though, where this strategy would normally heighten immersion quite a bit, it somehow fails to do so here, at least for me. I think this is because most all the game’s scenes are quite abstract and surreal, and thus I had a difficult time relating to them. Part of this is just my personal taste — I’m not overfond of highly stylized IF, and even last year’s outstanding For A Change left me feeling rather cold and distanced. The other part of it, I would contend, is that the kind of disconcerting scenes presented in TEME actively work against immersion rather than for it.

There are other things working against the game as well, such as the number of bugs in the implementation. To choose a small example, there is one point when you need to use one object to pry another object, but using the verb “pry” doesn’t work. Using the verb “cut” does, even though the response indicates that you’re prying. To choose a large example, about midway through, the whole game crashed so hard that it brought down my entire system. Now granted, I’m running Windows, so crashing the system is not all that impressive a feat. Still, I don’t expect an IF game to do it. I’ll certainly grant the possibility that the crash had to do with the combination of apps I was running at that time, but the whole experience left me feeling rather wary of TEME.

In other sections, the solution to the puzzle seemed pretty much entirely arbitrary. Of course, because the game operates on such a rarefied level, it’s quite possible that the solution made perfect sense but just went way over my head. Either way, it’s not a lot of fun trying to solve a puzzle whose eventual solution (when you extract it from help messages on Deja) just makes you say, “I was supposed to come up with that?” So yes, the game is flawed, and it’s also rather inaccessible, but it’s still a stimulating experiment in avant-garde IF. It was nothing like any piece of IF I’d ever seen, and that’s what I liked about it.

Rating: 7.5

Got ID? by Marc Valhara [Comp00]

IFDB page: Got ID?
Final placement: 29th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: There are a couple of obscenities in this review.

I am being tested. That has to be it. How else to explain the fact that immediately after playing 1-2-3…, a game that practically dares you to stop playing and pummels you mercilessly with ghastly, brutal descriptions if you don’t, I end up with this game? This game comes across like a schoolyard bully, one who not only wants your lunch money but who wants to make sure you know that you’re weak and ugly, too. It misses no chance to sneer at and belittle both the player and the PC.

Get this: you play a high school kid, and your goal in the game is to buy beer with a fake ID so that you can bring it to the party at the house of the most popular girl in school, so that maybe she’ll let you sit at the lunch table with her cool clique for the rest of the year. Talk about a concept that I could not relate to — when I was in high school, sitting with the so-called “popular” kids would have been my idea of a punishment, not a reward. Combine this with the fact that from the first sentence, the game makes clear that the PC is less a character than a laundry list of faults: fat, ugly, stupid, deceitful, shallow, etc. etc. Take, for example, this description of the shirt you’re wearing:

Glittery, sparkly, metallic-looking fabrics are all the rage this
season. Unfortunately, they're also extremely expensive. To
compromise, you've glued tinfoil to the front of your tee shirt.

So the game sticks you in this role, and wastes no opportunity to remind you that the character you’re playing is pretty much a waste of oxygen. Then, on top of all that, the game is designed to fling taunts at the player as well. For example, if you do the most obvious thing at the beginning of the game, in fact the thing that is necessary to continue the story, a little sign appears. The game won’t let you alone till you read the sign, reminding you of its presence every turn. What does the sign say? The sign says YOU SUCK. See what I mean about bullying? I half-expected it to print “An asshole says what?”

Now, let me back off a step or two. It’s true that the game is an insult machine, and that I did not enjoy the abuse it heaped on me. However, it may have chosen this approach as a part of its overall tone, which attempts to be a kind of gonzo, over-the-top parody. A parody of what, I’m not sure, since the game seems to hold pretty much everything and everyone in contempt. Perhaps it wants to be a kind of dark, cutting satire — certainly the reference to Jonathan Swift embedded in one of the locations would suggest that it aspires to that kind of humor, but the difference is that “A Modest Proposal” had a point to make, and this game does not, or if it does, the point gets buried under an avalanche of condescension.

However, it wasn’t unremittingly awful. I laughed at a few points. I can envision somebody who might even enjoy this kind of tone, and for that person, the insults would probably fit right in, and might even be funny rather than annoying. I have a small suspicion that this game was written by the same person who wrote Stupid Kittens — they share a few things, like their in-your-face tone and their fascination with dead cats and with refuting cutesiness (oooh, real tough target.) This game feels like what Stupid Kittens might be like if it was more interested in being like a traditional IF game than in being a dadaist excursion. It didn’t appeal to me at all, but perhaps it might appeal to somebody.

After all, it’s not as if the game is badly implemented. All the words seem to be spelled correctly. Its grammar betrays no glaring errors. It’ll insult you, but at least it will do so correctly. Similarly, with the exception of one major bug, its implementation is tested and clean. The puzzles, while rather arcane, all make some kind of sense within the extremely exaggerated world of the game. Of course, that doesn’t make their content any more appealing. In fact, one major portion of the game is unpleasantly reminiscent of I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel — will IF authors never cease to be fascinated with flushing toilets?

Excremental obsessions aside, I found I had a more difficult time than usual with the puzzles in the game, and I think it was because I found the insults so offputting that my travels through the game became more and more desultory. In addition, the hints weren’t as much help as they might have been because, like the rest of the game, they’re working hard to make you feel like an idiot. They mix in fictional and factual hints pretty much indiscriminately, and they don’t give you any hints as to which is which. Between these two factors, I hadn’t solved the game when, after about 110 minutes of play, something happened that forced me to go back to a very early restore. Faced with the prospect of playing through the whole tedious thing again, I declined. I had been itching for a reason to quit anyway, and relished the fact that it was finally my turn to tell the game to go fuck itself.

Rating: 3.9

1-2-3… by Chris Mudd [Comp00]

IFDB page: 1-2-3…
Final placement: 42nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past few years, each competition has had one game that I found unremittingly unpleasant, a horrible experience from start to finish. Last year, it was Chicks Dig Jerks, with its pounding misogyny and seething nests of bugs. The year before that, it was Cattus Atrox, whose relentless but shallow horror and totally logic-free plot I found impossible to stomach. I was beginning to think that I’d make it through 2000 without such an experience, but no such luck: 1-2-3… wins the prize for Most Repellent Comp Game, hands down.

It doesn’t suffer from bugs, though — it doesn’t really get the chance, because it is as linear as a short story. Basically, the game is one long string of guess-the-noun or guess-the-verb puzzles. In fact, for most of the game, each move is in itself one of these types of puzzles, since the game will allow no other action than the one it’s waiting for you to guess. The most freedom it ever allows you is when it spreads seven or eight guess-the-noun puzzles in front of you, which you can do in any order, but all of which must be done before the story can proceed.

Actually, I use the word “puzzle” but that’s being rather generous. Really, the situation I mention above is that you have a couple of NPCs, both of whom must be ASKed ABOUT three magic topics each before the game will continue. These NPCs are so minimally implemented (as is pretty much everything in the game) that they only answer to those three topics — all others will provoke one of three random default responses. As if this extremely minimalist implementation didn’t make guessing the noun difficult enough, the topics you’re expected to type in sometimes verge on the ridiculous. If a character doesn’t respond to ASK HIM ABOUT ADVICE, why would I expect him to respond to ASK HIM ABOUT WHAT HE WOULD DO?

Of course, the game gives me an unsubtle shove in the right direction by having the character say, “Do you want to know what I would do?” But this is a pretty desultory form of interactivity. The game may as well just tell you what your next command should be, since it has no plans to respond to anything else anyway. If you think that’s interactivity, you probably also think ventriloquists’ dummies come up with their own punch lines.

Non-interactivity is annoying enough, but consider the context: 1-2-3… is about a serial killer. It puts you in the role of this serial killer. It won’t let the game continue until a murder is committed, then another, then another, and these murders can be triggered by rather innocuous (if unintuitive) commands. Now how much does it suck to have no choices?

The killings are horrific, misogynist gorefests, with nauseating specifics lovingly enshrined in detailed descriptions, capped by attempts at psychological pathos that would be laughable if they didn’t follow such revolting excesses. The first murder scene made me feel literally sick to my stomach, and I seriously considered quitting the game there and then, abstaining from rating and reviewing it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t do that — perhaps some overactive sense of fair play among the comp entries, perhaps a misplaced hope that the game would produce some artistic justification for its ultraviolence. In the end, I had such a horrible experience playing 1-2-3… that I almost wish I hadn’t played it, but since I did, I want at least to give others the warning I didn’t get.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t keep you in the serial killer’s role throughout. You are privy to a couple of other viewpoints, most prominently the police detective whose mission is to find and apprehend the killer. Unfortunately, the scenes from the detective’s POV are no more interactive than those from the killer’s. You must follow, more or less lockstep, exactly what the game has in mind for you, if you want to finish the story.

Is 1-2-3… a psych experiment of its own, a kind of test to see how much gag-inducing content a player can take before switching off the computer and (to steal a line from Robb Sherwin) switching her hobby to “Scattergories”? Is it the IF version of Lisa Simpson testing to see how many times Bart will grab for the electrified cupcake? Maybe it is, and if so I certainly seem to have failed the test, because I played through to the end. But my emotional engagement with the game had ended long before that, having suffered multiple stab wounds from the vicious, senseless violence that permeates the game. I was taking every one of the game’s cues, typing in what it told me to and letting the text scroll by in the vain hopes of some Rameses-like epiphany. None was forthcoming. Now excuse me — I have to go take a shower.

Rating: 2.5

At Wit’s End by Mike Sousa [Comp00]

IFDB page: At Wit’s End
Final placement: 17th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

“Expect the unexpected” may be a cliché, but there are a few things for which it is the perfect description. At Wit’s End is one of these things. This game’s plot has more twists and turns than a mountain road, and most of these surprises consist of various misfortunes for the hapless PC. In some games (e.g. Bureaucracy), I think this kind of plot could be intensely aggravating, but in this one, I thought it worked beautifully — each new twist injected drama and suspense into the situation, but the combined weight of all of them gave the story a comic feel which counterbalanced nicely against all the cliffhanging turmoil.

Of course, since the surprises are half the fun of AWE, I certainly won’t give them away here, but suffice it to say that the game strings together one fairly plausible situation after another, ending up with a string of bad luck that’s so unlikely it’s funny, even though it’s hard to laugh while you’re frantically trying to think your way out of the latest mess. In fact, the one thing I was worried about during my initial time with the game was that the whole thing would be too linear: “something bad happens — solve it. OK, something else bad happens — solve that…” for 10 or 15 bad things in a row. Luckily, after an admittedly lengthy opening sequence of linear puzzles, the game wisely broadens into a more traditional middle section, where several puzzles must be solved in order to bring about one overall result.

Speaking of puzzles, most of them worked quite well for me. Certainly the opening sequence presented situations that were quite logical — I found I sometimes needed to think a bit before I could come up with the right answer, but when I did come up with it, it felt right and made sense. Because of the tightly timed nature of some of these puzzles, I did come up against the death/failure message a bit more often than I’d have liked, but this is more my own fault than the game’s.

AWE isn’t one of those games that give you one move to figure out the right action and kill you if you don’t do it; some of the puzzles have four- or five-move time limits, but these limits make sense in the context of the puzzle situation, and they did succeed in creating a strong sense of urgency in me, whereas shorter time limits tend just to annoy me. There’s a time limit for the midgame, too, but it’s quite generous, and I found that it wasn’t necessary to motivate me — I was already frantic from the initial string of puzzles. I think this is a smart design choice on the game’s part, one that lent a sense of tension to a midsection that might otherwise have sagged. Rather than feeling a letdown at having to explore and put together multi-step processes, I continued to feel on edge, as befit the character’s situation.

Unfortunately, these multi-step processes comprise the game’s one significant flaw. Sometimes, in its fervor to crank up the puzzle intensity along with the story intensity, the game overloads certain puzzles, thrusting them into the Babelfishy realm of the ridiculous. One puzzle in particular, probably the most byzantine of them all, really strained the bounds of believability for me. It’s one thing to have a plot where misfortune piles upon misfortune, but when consistent, ongoing bad luck is a key feature of a puzzle, it’s hard not to feel that the game has unfairly stacked the deck against you.

I guess the lesson is that, for me anyway, when rotten luck is part of the plot, it still feels like the game is playing fair, because really bad days happen, but when the rotten luck is part of a puzzle (especially the kind of rotten luck that makes you think “but that wouldn’t really happen!”), it feels like the game is cheating. This quibble aside, AWE is an excellent piece of work. The writing, though nothing special, is serviceable, and the coding is really outstanding. The game notices and comments on lots of little things, which really deepens immersion, as does AWE‘s thorough implementation of all first-level nouns. The best part, though, is the plot. At Wit’s End has one of my favorite plots of any competition game from this year, one that kept surprising me even after I had figured out to expect the unexpected.

Rating: 8.8