By the same author that gave us Exile, Gargoyle is another high fantasy ChoiceScript title with a grim, serious tone. This time we play (who would guess?) a gargoyle created by a mage and pressed into service defending the mage’s castle. When enemies attack, we can choose to do our duty and defend the castle, or to join them and take revenge on those who enslaved us. (Perhaps the mage should have anticipated this situation and given us a better health plan?)
Do I want more? Gargoyle is a bit more sophisticated than Exile in that it brings in some RPG elements, in the form of attributes and a spell list, that will apparently affect the story and our available choices. Even better, the plan seems to be to make its story much less rigid and linear than that of Exile. Nor did I run into many choices that I just fundamentally didn’t know what they really meant, as I did in Exile. But still, the answer is basically no. While all this is a step in the right direction, I’m not certain that the author himself knows how he will integrate the RPG elements with the multiple-choice narrative and make our choices really matter in the big picture without being buried under the resulting combinatorial explosion. It’s very telling that the entire option of being “good” and staying loyal to our creator is announced as “not implemented yet” and closed off even in this short introduction. Throw in the cliched setting and the rather turgid writing and there’s just not much for me to get excited about here. Again, though, fans of this kind of high fantasy may very well feel otherwise, as the writing and setting are not really badly constructed for what they are.
Of Pots and Mushrooms
This ChoiceScript game about “a Chinese samurai [is there such a thing?] imprisoned in Japan” is a sort of shaggy-dog story with a very casual, tossed-off feel to it.
Do I want more? No. The thing about strong comic writing, even (especially?) the kind that feels the most natural and spontaneous, is that it’s really not; it’s been fussed over at least as much as good writing of any other stripe. The writing here, with its “kindas” and its “AhahAH”s and its exclamation points everywhere, just feels lazy and annoying. It’s so thoroughly un-funny that it took me a while to decide whether this was even supposed to be a comic story, or whether it was just an utterly inept attempt at telling a “straight” story. (Actually, I’m still not entirely sure…) Writers earn laughs by respecting their craft and working hard at it. This game does neither.
This game casts you as a tourist visiting a “Parthenon” that seems to have oddly little to do with the actual Parthenon. I assume the author envisions it developing into an old-school puzzlefest.
Do I want more? No. The idea of an old-school puzzlefest set in an historical monument does not displease me at all in the abstract, but there’s nothing positive to say about this take on said idea. The writing is sketchy and amateurish, the technical implementation is dodgy at best. The author couldn’t even be bothered to run a spell check (“hanckerchief?”). And I can already see this turning into a nightmare of unsolvable puzzles.
Choice of the Petal Throne
This ChoiceScript effort is (yet) another high fantasy story filled with Gygaxian prose, this time set in the world of Tékumel, a longstanding if obscure setting for tabletop role-playing games and novels. It begins with your home of Tsolyánu on the verge of civil war.
Do I want more? No. Like a junior-high dungeon master who places every creature in the Monster Manual side by side in the same dungeon, the author seems determined to pack as much of his Petal Throne source book as possible into every single page. In addition to plenty of other references to heretofore unknown history and geography, the first page alone contains the following names: “Lord Hnálla,” “Lord Karakán,” “Lady Avánthe,” “Lord Hrú’ü,” “Lord Vimhúla,” and “Lady Dlamélish.” This does not have the effect of impressing the reader, only frustrating and confusing her. World-building is great, and the world of Tékumel seems an extraordinarily rich one in which to set a story… but the world should serve the story, not the other way around. For all the richness of Middle Earth, Tolkien understood this well, opening The Hobbit with little Bilbo smoking his pipe outside his hole and anticipating his next meal rather than with a cataloging of the deities of Middle Earth. Considering my general ambivalence toward Tolkienesque fantasy, “take a lesson from Tolkien” is not normally something I would say. But, author, take a lesson from Tolkien.
A very high-minded game that clearly has some spiritual and philosophical points to make, Seasons places you in a sprawling, surreal geography and expects you to start exploring the landscape of the heart and soul.
Do I want more? No. I can sense right away that the author and I have very different outlooks on the world, but that’s true of a huge number of other works that I respect and often enjoy, so that’s the least of my problems here. Actually, even engaging with any Deep Thoughts is almost impossible because everything else is such a mess. The writing reads almost like satire in its adjective-besotted purple awfulness and its determination to never use five words to say something that can be said in thirty. Instead of saying, “It looks like the cabin is occupied,” for instance, the author writes, “All the signs of basic human habitation mark the cabin as a place of regular and current occupancy.” The design provides no guidance on what’s you’re expected to do in this huge environment. And soon enough, the bugs start to come; I gave up when trying to fill a canteen with water (because I was standing by a stream and the game kept telling me I was thirsty) led to about fifteen screenfuls of “programming error” messages. As far as I can gather from the limited progress I made, this seems to be not so much an introduction as a pre-alpha version of a complete game, leading me to wonder if the author even understands what IntroComp is.
A comic fantasy romp which casts you as the raven familiar of a rather inept mage.
Do I want more? Yes, please! This is what good comic writing looks like; I laughed out loud on several occasions. (Favorite gag: the “stock market” pun.) With an appealing protagonist and a solid design, these authors demonstrate not only that they know exactly what they want to do but that they have the chops to pull it off. The implementation could be strengthened a bit; there are too many “You can’t see any such thing” messages for objects mentioned in room descriptions, for instance. But in general, just keep doing what you’ve been doing, my friends, and you’ll have a very happy player here.
Stalling for Time
A slice-of-life piece in which you play a somewhat lost young man who sets off on a cross-country road trip with his black sheep of an uncle.
Do I want more? Yes, I think so — but I also must say that I’m not quite sure what it is I’ll be getting. Although this is not markedly shorter than several other intros, it rather failed me as an intro in that it never gave me a clear idea of what the author really wants to do in the full game. Is this meant to be a puzzleless and linear character piece? That’s not an untenable choice, although it has to be designed carefully to keep it from degenerating into a short story (or novella) broken up by occasional “>” prompts. Or is it meant to open up and give the player more freedom and opportunity for interaction? I’m not even sure I get the sense the author could answer these questions right now, which does somewhat concern me. Still, I found the protagonist genuinely interesting and would like to get to know him better, and thought the writing did its job pretty well. Throw in some clever touches like the “no faith” you start off with in your inventory, and I’m willing and eager to give the author the benefit of the doubt and play on.
The Z-Machine Matter
A noirish mash-up of a hard-boiled detective story and more IF references and in-jokes than you can shake a three-foot black rod with a rusty star on an end at. Also includes an elaborate manual, which serves as an inevitable homage to the classic Infocom packaging.
Do I want more? Yes, but only with some significant reworking. I want to tread carefully here. I have no doubt that what’s here already represents a tremendous effort, possibly as much as all of the other intros in this competition combined. And there’s a hell of a lot to like, enough that I can’t understand some of the more negative reactions I’ve seen; the writing, for instance, I thought was effective enough in the simple, straightforward style of classic mysteries. Nevertheless, I also found that deep-seated aspects of the design really impacted my enjoyment. In recognition of the effort that went into this entry, I’m going to break my rule for these reviews and take more than one paragraph to talk about my objections.
There’s a certain instinct that really good IF authors have for conveying to their players what is expected of them. Andrew Plotkin, for instance, has it in spades; in fact, I’d say it’s the quality I admire most about his work. This game, however, conspicuously lacks that quality. I never quite felt certain just what I should be doing, where I should be focusing. Should I immediately rush off after getting the phone call at the beginning of the game, or should I hang around the hotel room examining everything? Now, you could say, and rightly so, that choice is the whole point of interactive fiction — but still, when you throw me into a new role in a new storyworld, you as the author have to help me get my bearings, have to tell me what is expected of me at least somewhat. Because I lacked this sense of direction, I always felt vaguely uneasy as I played this game, and always all too aware of the ticking clock. I’m not sure I can even give concrete directions on how to fix this issue based on my limited time with the game; as I said, it’s more an authorial instinct than something that can be codified into rules of good practice.
The game also suffers from the sort of “too much too soon” syndrome that plagues Choice of the Petal Throne. From the very first lines I’m being barraged with a whole lot of names, dates, professions, personalities, motives, evidence, etc. By the time the intro ended I had collected barely half the available points, but was already carting dozens of potentially meaningful objects around with me. I am told repeatedly that I should be questioning the various suspects, but I’m soon saddled with so much mental and physical junk that I don’t know where to begin. Throw in my persistent uncertainty about how to phrase those inquiries I do decide to make, and, again, the effect is rather overwhelming. These flaws are not the result of an author who has not done enough but of one who has perhaps tried to do too much, to give his player too much. The design is by no means unsalvageable; I sincerely mean it when I say I would like to see the game completed. However, I think the author needs to ask himself how he can make everything tighter and more manageable for the player and then do some significant reworking of what is already here before he starts implementing the rest of the story. A good place to start would be to refine the conversation system via Eric Eve’s extensions with their “topics” suggestions; just that additional guidance would help tremendously.
Although it isn’t a game-killer for me, I’m also less than thrilled with all of the IF in-jokery, even as a guy who (as this blog attests) probably knows much more about IF history and culture than is compatible with a balanced and varied life. Of course, evoking and commenting on literary tradition is valid enough in certain works; where would the novel I intermittently think to be my all-time favorite, Ulysses, be without it? Here, though, it just feels… well, silly and intrusive. I gain no insight from interacting with stock mystery suspects who just happen to be named “Emile Long” and “Dietrich Plotkin,” while casting the unhappy Paul Panks as the murder victim is of questionable (at best) taste. All stuff like this does is pull me out of the story. I fully realize that this element of the game may be so entrenched that it’s not likely to change, and if so I can certainly live with it, but I would like to point it out as another example of the author trying to do too much. Make an IF homage or make a Cold War murder mystery; don’t try to make both.
I do want to say again that I’m sympathetic with what the author is trying to do here in creating a big, complex mystery story. It’s actually not that far from what I was going for (albeit in a very different milieu) in The King of Shreds and Patches. He just needs to remember that when you create a huge world for the player to run around in and also give him a complex story to unravel while he’s there, you have to take huge pains to keep him from getting lost in it all. Even though this is not the intro I’ve ranked highest in this competition, the game that results from this intro has the potential to be the most exciting and significant, if the author can take the criticism he’s received constructively and do the redesigning necessary to get it there.
Choice of Zombies
The last ChoiceScript story places you at the center of a zombie attack. But if you’re nervously anticipating a gorefest, you can relax; this is definitely Zombies Lite.
Do I want more? Yes! At last a talented writer uses ChoiceScript right. Parser-driven IF, with its more granular choices and the sense of freedom the parser engenders, can not only get away with but often thrive on an essentially linear plot arc by leveraging the immersive quality of the medium. Multiple-choice adventures, however, lack this immersive quality, and can justify their existence only by giving the player the opportunity to make meaningful decisions about the course of the plot. This author, thankfully, gets that, constructing an intricate web of possibility for the player that must have taken quite an effort to stitch together. Couple meaningful choices with some deft writing with a light comic touch, and the result is a lot of fun to play. I don’t know whether I’m more shocked to be giving such a good score to a zombie game or to a CYOA adventure, but nevertheless…