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Spring Thing 2011: Wetlands

Wetlands is an entry in what I sometimes call the Myst-alike subgenre of IF. Its story, especially initially, is rather backgrounded in favor of the exploration of an almost deserted environment and the solving of lots of puzzles informed by that unique Myst flavor of semi-magical engineering. At one time, when we were getting a lot more statically plotted puzzlers like this, I might have chaffed more about the lack of innovation here. However, this is one of the things that IF can do really well, and it’s something that gets done seldom enough now that when a really get example comes along, as this largely is, I can put aside my normal story-centeredness and just enjoy it for what it is.

So, in the first paragraph we are informed that our vague goal is to see the “Crystal City,” whatever that is. There follows a whole lot of fiddling about with plumbing and hydraulics because they are there, until we manage about 80% of the points, at which time the backstory comes to us in a rush. That’s not to say, though, that the game is devoid of literary merit. Raubertas does a very good job of evoking a mood of a certain contemplative beauty with her writing without ever seeming to work too hard at doing so. That, combined with the fact that these puzzles are tricky but not overly so, made the game as a whole an oddly relaxing experience for me. Although there is a lot of fiddling and wandering back and forth, Raubertas’s design and storyworld are tight and compact enough that things never start to feel too labored, and the process of gradually discovering what one’s goals actually are is satisfying enough for the persistent to justify a certain lack of direction in the early stages. This sort of balance is tough to bring off, and it’s to Raubertas’s credit that she does it so well.

While the writing is polished and the game certainly shows evidence of testing, there are some glitches here which occasionally made me wonder whether problems I was having were down to puzzles or bugs. Likewise, the writing was sometimes not quite as precise as it might have been; I sometimes felt like Raubertas’s mental vision of some of these intricate contraptions wasn’t quite all there in the words on the screen. In one place this was particularly problematic: a device had a leaky hose, a fact that should have been obvious, but I had to struggle mightily with the parser to finally determine this. Both of the times that I turned to the walkthrough were due to issues like this, places where the storyworld I was seeing and the storyworld that (I realized afterward) Raubertas was seeing just didn’t turn out to be entirely in sync.

Yet while my faith in the game did occasionally waver, it never completely broke, and on the whole I enjoyed my time with it quite a bit. Even the story, while it retains something of the atmosphere of a dream right until the end, does turn out to hinge on an interesting if somewhat underdeveloped little moral quandary. If you catch it when you’re in the right frame of mind, this atmospheric puzzler may just charm and entrance you like it did me.

Score: 7

And since this is the last game in this Spring Thing, perhaps a sentence or two about the competition as a whole is in order. Sometimes these reviews come off more critical than I intend them; it’s always easier to point out flaws than to analyze the many unobtrusive little things that worked in a particular game, after all. While it’s true that there were no games that I was unreservedly delighted with, it’s also true that four of the six were almost bug-free, and one of the remaining two did show plenty of evidence of technical competence only to fall victim to a single silly — but in this case fatal — bug, the kind that can be fixed easily enough. And the writing across the balance of the entrants was up to a similar standard. These things meant that instead of hammering on bugs and grammatical problems I could devote my criticisms to bigger questions of theme and design. Those are much more interesting subjects for me as a reviewer to write about, and hopefully for you to read. So, when I couple this competition with the big Comp from last year, which showed a similar trend, it seems we’re getting somewhere in the IF community, raising the bar, etc. (choose your cliche). And that in turn is a pretty good trend to see.

 
 

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Spring Thing 2011: The Promise

In one of those odd synchroneities that so often occur around these competitions, this is the second game of Spring Thing 2011 to be a work of fantasy aimed at relatively young children, a demographic IF hasn’t really tended to target all that often in the past. Even more surprisingly, the two games are almost of a piece in my mind, succeeding and failing in quite similar ways.

The Promise cast as you as a ten-year-old living in a tiny fishing village where the environment is harsh and cold but the people are kind and warm. In the first of its three acts, you run about the village performing workaday tasks as requested by the various inhabitants: cutting wood and delivering it to the boatmaker, making a candle for your mother, etc. These tasks are so varied and extensive that you’ll quickly get a pretty good idea what Robbie Robertson must have been feeling when he wrote “The Weight.”

Certainly the village could use some more child-safety laws. Some of these chores are more chilling than the evil marauders who show up later:

>saw log
You pull the crank. The saw blades go up and down. Cranking and cranking, the saw blades cut into the birch log, over and over until the entire log has a slab cut from it on one side, then you repeat the process until the once round birch log is now an unevenly cut plank, and sawdust and shavings litter the floor.

The plot begins in earnest only with Act 2, when news comes that those marauders are about to attack the village from the sea, just as virtually all of the men are away on a hunt. And so you are pressed into service, given responsibilities which, if out of keeping with anything anyone is ever likely to entrust a real ten-year-old with, are certainly well in keeping with children’s literature of this tradition.

All in all, The Promise is a very competent game, an enjoyable enough way to spend an evening. As with The Lost Islands of Alabaz, however, it fails to become a really compelling experience due not so much to any one or two major failings as a number of low-key niggles and questionable decisions.

For instance, the writing, while grammatical and even polished in its way, doesn’t quite sing like it might. I think I know what atmosphere Mr. Huxter was going for — a stoic Scandinavian beauty, as resplendent as it is desolate — but that doesn’t always come through as well as it might. Sometimes the text seems to be trying too hard, and the reader ends up swimming in a sort of adjective soup. Take the very first sentence of the dream sequence that opens the game: “You are in a wide, seemingly endless flower-filled meadow on a gorgeous summer day.” (When you line up so many adjectives in front of a noun that you have to start inserting commas to separate them, it may be time to have another look at the sentence as a whole — a lesson I too have learned only slowly, painfully, and still incompletely.) At other times — and more problematically — the text becomes little more than lists of compass directions, a problem that is compounded by a somewhat sprawling storyworld with plenty of rooms that only serve as connections.

And there are other design decisions that are perhaps questionable, or simply not quite implemented as well as they might be. In light of that sprawling storyworld, the attractive map that Huxter includes in the game itself is much appreciated — yet his choice to display said map inline with the main text rather than in a separate window is a bit annoying, forcing the player as it does to constantly scroll back to consult it. His choice to suddenly increase the maximum score every time the player seems to be nearing the end of the game, meanwhile, is not so much annoying as just kind of odd.

But these things — all of them, really — are just niggles. My biggest complaint comes with the ending. During the middle part of the game, you make a promise to a certain, let’s just say, “entity” not to visit a certain location in the forest outside of the village ever again, a promise prompted by some errors of judgment your father made with regard to said entity. In the context of this fantasy mileau, that’s all fair enough. At the climax of the game, however, the village finds itself in desperate straits thanks to the marauders who have now landed and started on their work of raping and pillaging. The only possiblilty of hope for you, your mother, and the entire village lies in that place you promised not to visit. Now, given these circumstances I know what I would do: I’d break my promise without a second thought, throw myself at the feet of the entity, explain my desperate situation, and hope for the best. I like to think that most reasonable people would do the same. Yet, incredibly, this game expects you to “keep your promise” even if it means watching the village burn and everyone die. In its last sentence it solemnly informs us that, “Today you have learned the true value of a promise.” That’s just… well, that’s just fucked up. It’s not only jarring, it’s downright disturbing. If I had a child, this is exactly the sort of rigid thinking I’d want to teach him to avoid. It’s thinking just like this that has caused incalculable pain and death and destruction in our world, all in the service of some inflexible code of conduct laid down in a religious text, a solemn oath, or a samurai code. It’s unfortunate that this is the message the game chooses to conclude with, without a hint of irony or equivocation.

Like Alabaz, then, we have here a solid game that has an unfortunate element of (what strikes me as) moral tone-deafness. And also like Alabaz, I’m not entirely sure whether that’s down to genuine differences of belief between me and the author or merely an author who didn’t think through all of the ramifications of his story as well as he might. Which doesn’t erase its genuine strengths or mean you shouldn’t play it, of course. Just be prepared to be left scratching your forehead — or banging it on your desk — at that ending.

Score: 6

 

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Stiffy Makane: Whateverthehellcyntosis

This game is either called Stiffy Makane: Apocolocyntosis or Mentula Macanus; it can’t quite seem to decide which. While I’m sure there’s some sort of obscure Latin-derived meaning for this apparent confusion that would leave me smugly chuckling into my professorial beard if I were a brighter sort, I’m afraid I’m like Shakespeare in having “little Latin and less Greek.” So, we’ll just call this one Stiffy.

Stiffy, then, is a sprawling old-school piece — the most old-school yet in what has so far been a surprisingly old-school competition — set in a Free Love version of ancient Rome which would shock even HBO. Two reviewers whose opinions I respect a lot, Sam Kabo Ashwell and Emily Short, both compared it to Graham Nelson’s classic Curses. I can certainly understand where they’re coming from in doing this. What I can’t understand is their actually liking this game; I hated it with a passion.

Stiffy considers itself, amongst other things, funny. Now, humor in IF is always a hit-or-miss proposition for me. For every comedy game that makes me laugh, there are several that only make me impatient. I’m afraid Stiffy falls into the latter category — but the way that it fails to amuse me is rather unusual. Most funny IF is kind of friendly and self-conscious about it. “I really, really want you to have a good time,” it says, “but I just don’t know quite how to overcome this or that limitation, so instead I’ll make a joke about it and maybe, instead of you being annoyed with me, we can laugh together… maybe?” Even when it fails — and it usually does — this sort of humor means well. After all, it wants to make me laugh. How bad could that be?

Stiffy‘s humor, however, is of the smug, condescending stripe. It has neither the lusty good spirit of a Shakespeare nor the angry satirical edge of a Swift. It doesn’t laugh with me, doesn’t challenge me; it smirks at me. The very best humorists are moralists at heart, laughing to keep from crying at the inanities of the world. But this game has no capacity for moral concern or outrage. In fact, it has no capacity for any real and human emotion. And so what we’re left with is a thin gruel of tedious intellectualism — and of course lots of sex that wants to be transgressive but isn’t. It’s just boring. It’s the “edgy” kid at university who enrolls in Human Sexuality 101 and walks around with a battered copy of The Story of O but has no clue how to actually get it on with anyone.

Graham Nelson has influenced my thinking and writing to an extent that is almost embarrassing to admit. One thing I love about his style, whether it’s in Curses or Jigsaw or those endless asides and digressions in the old Inform Designer’s Manual, is the way that it refuses to confine itself to a single intellectual sphere. Nelson is a much smarter and more educated man than I, and he doesn’t hesitate to share his erudition in virtually everything he writes. Yet he has the peculiar genius of making all of his esoteric knowledge inspiring and interesting, of never making his reader feel like he is showing off just for the sake of it. It was many years in happening, but the fact that I spent the last half of last year reading the whole of In Search of Lost Time is really down to that vignette of Proust I experienced in Jigsaw a long time ago. It sounds trite, but I feel I’m a better person for having read Nelson, if only because through Nelson I came to Proust.

Stiffy, while I suppose it reflects almost equal erudition, doesn’t inspire me at all. Its self-satisfied tone and sparse, brittle storyworld only awakens long-dormant anti-intellectual biases I didn’t even know I had any longer. (Anti-intellectualism is of course a birthright of every American.) This is IF as it might be written by the father from The Squid and the Whale: the professor for whom A Tale of Two Cities is “minor Dickens,” who cannot think of a stronger adjective of praise than “dense,” and yet is still even more pathetically desperate for a blow job from the local hottie than is his son. This is art with all of the magic of life boiled away, leaving behind just a residue of formal logic and literary references.

Objectively, this is the most polished and complete of any of the games I’ve played so far in this Spring Thing; certainly it would seem to realize all of its design goals beautifully. Subjectively, however, those goals are so antithetical to everything I enjoy about IF or, indeed, art in general that I can’t bear to give it a very good score. So, we’ll start with a nice neutral 5, then subtract 2 because it pissed me off so fucking much. Your mileage may vary.

Score: 3

 
 

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Spring Thing 2011: The Lost Islands of Alabaz

Even if we leave aside those folks who would say it’s all kid’s stuff, IF has had a long and fruitful relationship with children’s literature, stretching back from Seastalker and the old Windham Classics line right up to Textfyre’s recent efforts. Virtually all of that legacy has, however, been aimed toward children a bit older than Michael Gentry is targeting with The Lost Islands of Alabaz. In pitching his game at five to seven year-olds, Gentry is likely to turn away a fair number of judges, a fact that, judging from his slightly defensive ABOUT text, he well realizes. Indeed, at first I wasn’t at all certain this game was for me. As I played on, though, the diction level seemed to rise somewhat (perhaps in parallel with the diction level of Gentry’s children as he was creating the game), and it turned into quite a passable, if never quite outstanding, adventure. And then, alas, it all came crashing to earth again.

Gentry has obviously devoted considerable time and energy to his world-building. If the Alabaz Archipelago never quite feels believable, it does offer heaps of opportunity for adventure, what with each island having a unique, archetypical environment and culture. As a young knight just out of “Knight School,” you’ve been tasked by your king with traveling to the other islands to discover the source of a mysterious mist which has suddenly come upon the archipelago, isolating all of the islands from one another. Your ship can travel over the mist-shrouded seas only through the offices of magical pearls. Each pearl guides you to exactly one of the other islands. Everyone who’s ever played an adventure game knows where this is going: you travel from island to island, solving puzzles and acquiring pearls in the process, which in turn open ever more locations to visit.

Indeed — and in spite of a pile of convenience features such as a hint system implemented through your traveling companion Trig and a journal which keeps track of puzzles solved and pending — Alabaz has quite an old-school feel. There’s a lot of toing and froing, and even a maze, although not an egregiously cruel one. While Alabaz doesn’t hate its player like Zork does, Gentry’s claim that it includes “everything I fell in love with when I first discovered Zork” certainly rings true enough. For many modern IF players perhaps not quite so in love with Zorkian designs, it’s likely that it contains lots of stuff they’d just as soon do without.

But I didn’t really have a problem with the game for a long time. In fact, I rather enjoyed myself for what must have been four or five hours. Even the maze, while it didn’t exactly warm my heart, wasn’t enough to put me off the game. Then, perhaps 80% done, I was really stumped for the first time by a puzzle. When I checked the walkthrough, I found a reference to an “icefruit seed” I knew nothing about. It seems that I should have received this near the beginning of the game, but did not due to a bug. While I had enjoyed the game, I hadn’t quite enjoyed it enough to start all over again. So that was that.

But bugs aside:

As anyone who played Anchorhead knows, Gentry is a fine writer, with a particular gift for description and atmosphere (ideal qualities for an IF author, I’d say). Despite that, the Alabaz Archipelago never really came alive for me. This is obviously just a personal impression, but I was consistently missing a certain spark. From the Wall E-esque junk-collecting robot to the chariot race that reminded me of a similar sequence in Rogue of the Multiverse, I felt like I had seen too much of this before. Every writer cribs, of course, but the best know how to rise above their inspirations, as Gentry himself did with Anchorhead.

Another thing that bothered me was a certain moral dissonance that I can’t imagine was intentional. At one point I had to steal a poor bird’s egg from her; at another I nearly asphyxiated a sort of intelligent squid by pumping all of the water from the chamber in which she lived. Granted, the squid did find an escape route, but I had no way of knowing she would do so when I started the process. And once she was gone I promptly stole the fruits of her underwater garden. These are typical adventure game puzzles, but they feel clunky and ill-considered here.

Still, its size and the general sense of craftmanship that accompanies it would have likely rated Alabaz a pretty good score from me — perhaps a 7 or even 8. Yet, and while I understand only too well that bugs happen, the bug that bit me was fairly unforgivable really, especially given the game’s purpose as a general introduction to IF. I can’t imagine a better way to make sure a child never tries this adventure-game thing again than cheating her of victory through no fault of her own hours into her grand adventure. So, reluctantly…

Score: 5

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2011 in Interactive Fiction, Modern Times

 

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Spring Thing 2011: Hallow Eve

This is the kind of game that is always a bit difficult for me to review. It actually represents a success story of sorts for IF outreach: its author, Michael Wayne Phipps Jr., tells us that he just recently learned about the IF community, and now he’s had the opportunity to make a game he’s been “wanting to create for over a decade.” There’s certainly a lot of enthusiasm on display here, and there’s also quite a lot of ambition; Phipps claims there to be nine different endings. I just wish the game was, well, a little bit better.

This is a horror story in the Wes Craven mold: hot chicks, beer, campfires, the obligatory Baddies from Beyond, that sort of thing. It seems like we’ve been getting quite a lot of titles in this genre recently, a genre that I have to admit is not really my favorite. Yet I can only wish the problems I had with this one were down to personal preferences. I’m afraid this game fails on just about every level. To wit:

I had problems with the writing. While Phipps does show a certain eye for detail in places, the writing in general is unpolished and amateurish. The dialog is often painfully stilted and confused. Why for instance does Lola suddenly start to call Steve, a guy she just started to get friendly with, “baby?” I haven’t been a teenager for a while, but is it really normal for 16-year old girl to use that term on the guy she just started to flirt with? Phipps spends a lot of words describing the physical attributes of the three girls, which is par for the course with this genre, so fair enough — but do his descriptions have to read like an exercise in taxidermy?

I had problems with the parser. Oh, boy, did I have problems with the parser. Here’s a typically fun exchange:

>open window
It’s stuck!

>open window with knife
That doesn’t seem to be something you can unlock.

>x window
You see nothing special about the window.

>break window
You have to specify what you want to hit it with.

>hit window with knife
You can’t see any such thing.

>i
You are carrying:
a butcher knife
a lighter
a sharp tent stake
a bottle
a battery-powered lantern (providing light)
a can of WD-50
a wristwatch (being worn)
clothes (being worn)
a blue key

>hit window with stake
You can’t see any such thing.

>break window with stake
You can’t see any such thing.

>break window
You have to specify what you want to hit it with.

>knife
That’s not a verb I recognise.

>use knife on window
That’s not a verb I recognise.

>open window with stake
That doesn’t seem to be something you can unlock.

>break window with knife
You can’t see any such thing.

>put wd-50 on window
Putting things on the window would achieve nothing.

>spray wd-50 on window
I didn’t understand that sentence.

>spray wd-50
What do you want to spray the can of WD-50 with?

>spray window with wd-50
You spray the cracks of the window with WD-50 liberally. You’ve used up the last of the WD-50, so you toss the can into the woods.

I had problems with the overall design. The game features a maze, or at least something perilously close to one. There are objects and puzzles scattered willy-nilly all over the landscape without much rhyme or reason, and just to add that final touch of aggravation there’s a time limit. Solving this one would require lots of planning, mapping, dying, and note-taking. That’s okay in one sense; there’s certainly still a place for puzzly old-school IF. (As a matter of fact, I’d love to see a little more of it.) But the old-school approach feels at odds with the heavily story-driven piece that the game also seems to want to be, with the multiple endings and all, while the general shoddiness of the whole structure made me reluctant to approach it as a serious puzzle-solving exercise. I’m just not willing to invest a lot of effort into a puzzle game if I don’t have faith that every problem I encounter is indeed a puzzle and not a bug, nor if I’m not sure whether I actually hit upon the correct solution to this or that conundrum hours ago and just didn’t phrase it in the One True Way that the parser requires.

I could go on to talk about things like the nonexistent conversation options that you leave hovering about your companions like a ghost rather than interacting with them, or the zombie that doesn’t actually chase you unless you go in one specific direction, but I’ve probably already said too much. I don’t doubt that Mr. Phipps thought he was submitting a really great game, and this review and the many others like it must feel like a slap indeed. Still, IF, like any creative endeavor, requires craft as well as enthusiasm. Maybe this babe in the woods can learn from this experience and come back with something more worthwhile soon. Indeed, from its over-ambition to its lack of testing this is a veritable catalog of first-timer mistakes. As Sam Kabo Ashwell noted, “everyone writes My First Crappy Game; the fortunate never release them.” Well, Mr. Phipps, at least now you have an idea where the bar is.

I give it half a point for enthusiasm and ambition, and half a point because my buddy Fred’s identifying a bra he found as “probably about her size” (referring to Brenda, one of the girls who had just gone missing at that point) I found pretty hilarious. That makes…

Score: 2

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2011 in Interactive Fiction, Modern Times

 

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