[COMP99] Yet more reviews (Iain Merrick) [2/4]

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Iain Merrick

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Nov 18, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/18/99
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Here's my second bunch of reviews. The games reviewed here are all good
fun and worth playing; I just didn't really find them totally
satisfying, for one reason or another.

Iain Merrick
i...@cs.york.ac.uk

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Exhibition: 5
Winter Wonderland: 5

Bliss: 4
A Day for Soft Food: 4
Outsided: 4

Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win: 3

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Exhibition

Score: 5

Here's a novelty: an experimental game which I actually quite liked.

It's set in an art gallery, where a posthumous exhibition of the works
of an immigrant artist is taking place. Gameplay consists mainly of
wandering around the gallery inspecting the paintings, but you can
switch between four different characters as you do so, to get four
different interpretations of each work.

I quite enjoyed playing the two male characters,'the critic' and 'the
boy'. I initially imagined the boy as being perhaps ten years old, which
made the story of his friendship with the artist a bit more, uh,
surprising. The two female characters, however -- 'the student' and 'the
wife' -- seemed a bit one-dimensional in comparison.

I forgot to mention that this is an HTML-TADS game. There aren't
pictures of the pictures, but there are pictures of each character. This
worked as a structural device, to highlight the switch to a new
character, but . . . well, the threshhold for competent artwork is
_much_ higher than that for writing. Most intelligent people can throw a
sentence together, but very few can draw for toffee. The character
portraits in this game are pretty good, but still a little rough and
amateurish. I did quite like the portraits of the critic and boy,
though, which might be one reason why I preferred them to the female
characters overall. Oh, and the picture frames in the title screen look
great.

There's music, too. Unfortunately, I happen to hate _Pictures at an
Exhibition_. Fortunately, I was able to turn it off.

The boy's story was gradually revealed as he looked at various
paintings, and I found it amusing to see the radically different views
of the same paintings offered by the other characters. Favourite
painting? The portrait of the boy, I forget its name -- yes, that one.
Anyway, all this was enough to keep me playing for a reasonable amount
of time, and to persuade me to give the game a reasonable score.

I didn't bother looking at all the paintings, though. I think ultimately
the problem was that I just didn't find the _central_ character -- the
artist Anatole Domokov -- all that interesting. I think the player is
supposed to use the paintings and the various PCs to triangulate on
Domokov himself, but I was content to let him remain a cipher. Compare
this to _Photopia_, where I certainly was interested in the central
character and what happened to her: perhaps because the game let me
interact with her directly, rather than through a series of fairly
uninformative proxies; and perhaps just because she was more likeable.

To improve the game, perhaps more could be done with the relationships
between the subsidiary characters. (_Are_ they subsidiary?) I'd quite
like to hear what the wife has to say to the boy, for instance, but she
just seems entirely oblivious to what's really going on.

I'd have really loved this game if there was a story taking place in the
art gallery itself which progressed as you moved from painting to
painting -- especially if this story was altered in some fashion by the
actions of the various characters, leading to alternate endings.

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Winter Wonderland

Score: 5

Hmm. I've left this review until last, for some reason. Now I learn that
_Winter Wonderland_ has won the competition, and I still can't think of
much to say about it.

Don't get me wrong, I did quite enjoy it: it has some nice puzzles and a
lovely setting. But . . . I was misled at the start into thinking it was
going to be a fairy tale, and was slightly disappointed when it turned
out to be a mood piece. I didn't get a sense that I was really getting
anywhere, however far I travelled, although the scenery I passed on the
way was definitely very pretty.

I'll note one bug in particular: the ASCII art didn't work in MaxZip,
since my main font is proportional. You should switch into the
monospaced font before printing ASCII art in the main window. Oh, and
the status bar seemed to be fixed-width rather than adjusting itself to
the width available.

Overall, a very nice game, though somehow not quite my cup of tea.
Congratulations to Laura Knauth for winning comp99!

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Bliss

Score: 4

(Some SPOILERS)

This is an admirable attempt to try something a bit different, but it
didn't quite work for me: I felt it was trying to drive home its big
points too strenuously, while some of the basic game mechanics were
rather clumsy. It's definitely worth playing if you haven't done so
already, however, and I'm looking forward to the author's next game.

It's difficult to review it without giving too much away. Suffice to say
that it starts off as a conventional if rather violent fantasy game,
with orcs and wily merchants and dragons and whatnot; then there's a
couple of plot twists in rapid succession, which present your actions in
a new light and ask you to question their morality.

The first problem is that I was nearly put off playing right at the
start. Not by the cliched setting -- I have absolutely nothing against
'high fantasy' -- but by the clunky implementation of the first puzzle.
The solutions I tried turned out to be correct in principle, just
phrased incorrectly, which either didn't work or exposed some
daemon-related bugs. Naturally, I was slightly annoyed when I finally
gave up and reached for the walkthrough. Because of this, I probably
used the walkthrough too much for the rest of the game, which spoiled
the effect somewhat.

As to the higher-level stuff, I disagreed with the points the game was
trying to make for two reasons. Firstly, I think it's implicitly trying
to equate two things that aren't really the same, and thus missing a
link in its argument. It questions fantasy-world violence and murder by
mapping it onto real-world violence and murder. However, the game world
is arbitrary: it happens to be a Tolkienesque fantasy here, but it might
just as well have been a Star Wars-style space opera or a James
Bond-style spy story. _Bliss_ seems to imply that the fantasy-world
violence is infecting the real world, thus bringing the morality of the
game world into question, but the traffic is actually in the other
direction: it's the real world which is infecting the fantasy, and thus
it's the real world which is suspect. But we knew that already: the PC
does indeed have a pretty bad childhood in the real world, which might
well lead to a violent adult life. I don't see that the fantasy world
adds much to the equation. One could argue that it's the very fact that
the PC is retreating from the real world into a fantasy which is
dangerous, but I don't think I buy that line.

Secondly -- and I'll have to be careful how I phrase this -- I actually
enjoyed the violence. I _don't_ mean that I laughed evilly as I gutted
orc after orc and later went off to throw bricks at the neighbourhood
cats. But I was glad to see a fantasy game with some genuine blood and
guts and brutality for a change. Perhaps I just haven't played enough
games, but I can't think of any other IF fantasy games which have
convincing combat scenes in them. There's the fight with the troll in
Zork, perhaps, and the dagger-throwing dwarfs in Adventure, but both of
those take a more simulationist approach, which I don't think works at
all. In _Bliss_ I happened to startle an orc as I walked into a room,
and I happened to have a dagger in my hand; so I immediately typed 'STAB
ORC' -- and it worked! It didn't start a tedious fight scene with a
randomly-generated outcome, and it didn't fob me off with 'violence
isn't the answer to this one', it just described me killing the orc,
without any emotional overtones (either tut-tutting disapproval or macho
celebration).

This is great, I thought. It really brings home the brutality of the
fantasy world. Compare this to, say, _Spider and Web_, in which there's
a fair amount of violence but absolutely no death: highly laudable,
certainly, but not entirely convincing. But this meant that when the
plot twists came and the morality of the violence was called into
question, it wasn't as effective as it might have been since I was
_already_ questioning the violence; and I don't think the argument
applies to many other games, since most other games I've played are
relatively squeamish about death and violence. So in one sense the
argument didn't work for me because I already agreed with it, and in
another sense it didn't work because I'd actually like to see more games
with the kind of death and violence it calls into question.

You're probably shifting suspiciously away from me now. To put it
another way: I've played, and enjoyed, rather horrifically violent games
like _Quake_ and _Myth_, but I simply don't believe that violent
computer games lead to violent behaviour in real life. I'm capable of
keeping fantasy and reality separate, and I assume that other people can
do the same. Such computer games may even serve as a safe outlet for
violent feelings, though I'm not sure I buy that either.

Time I was wrapping this up. Judging by the amount of stuff I've written
about it, this game provoked me into pondering at length the questions
it raises; even on that basis alone, I guess I have to count it a
success. It's a long way short of perfect, but it's definitely a game
worth playing.

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A Day For Soft Food

Score: 4

I've said it about half-a-dozen other games, but I have to say it again:
this is almost a great game, but it just tries too hard. I think there
are at least three different games wrapped up inside _A Day For Soft
Food_, but each is only half-successful.

It's a day in the life of a cat. This is such a great game idea that I'm
amazed nobody has tried it before. However, there are several ways in
which this idea could be implemented, and I was never quite sure at
which one _Soft Food_ was aiming. At the start, when the cat is indoors,
everything seems quite cute and fluffy; later, when you get outside,
it's a bit more gritty and dangerous, with the wilder parts of the cat's
nature taking precedence. Now, that switch is rather effective; but then
there's a third element: an out-and-out puzzle game. My main criticism,
I think, is that the puzzles just aren't cat puzzles.

Almost all of the puzzles are rather complicated, requiring you to use
three or four objects in the correct sequence of actions. I might just
have managed to solve them on my own -- although I'll admit right now
that they're probably too difficult for me -- if I hadn't at the same
time been trying to act like a cat. I'd be the first to agree that most
cats are even more intelligent than they look, but romanticism aside,
cats just _can't_ do a tenth of the stuff that's in this game!

It _could_ have worked. I can easily imagine a wacky Hollywood film in
which a cat rescues children, catches burglars, lands aeroplanes and so
on through sheer feline elan and an improbable sequence of lucky
accidents; and this might make a highly amusing game, too. But _Soft
Food_ isn't that kind of game: to my taste, it requires far too much
intelligent, purposeful activity on the part of the cat to be really
successful. (I'm particularly thinking of the bit with the balloon and
the bit with the fire here.)

There is one thing I really loved, though: every so often the cat's
owner turns up and frowns at the damage which has been wreaked on the
surroundings. As the game progresses, your list of crimes gets longer
and longer, though the owner's reaction remains the same. I laughed out
loud at this on several occasions.

So I'll finish with another bit of boilerplate that's probably losing
its effect through overuse: _A Day For Soft Food_ is a very creditable
effort, and I look forward to the author's next game.

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Outsided

Score: 4

Whoa. This one gets the Rybread Celsius award for accidental genius, I
think. (Rybread himself seems to be going for intentional accidental
genius these days, which doesn't work nearly so well.)

_Outsided_ isn't plotted or written or programmed very well at all, but
it _is_ tremendously energetic and imaginative and -- most important of
all -- fun. I think this will prove to be one of the most memorable
games of the competition.

I hope that doesn't sound too sarcastic or condescending, because I do
actually mean it. This game was a hell of a lot of fun to play, and it
put many of the better-implemented games to shame for their relative
lack of imagination.

It has a wonderful panoramic sweep, jumping effortlessly between a
series of exotic locations across the globe. Admittedly the actions you
have to perform in these locations are quite staggeringly inane at
times, but I got a kick out of that too. It's that sort of game.

And at the end -- it suddenly makes sense, almost, and you realise there
was actually a plot and an original idea there all along (at least I
hope it's original). And _then_ there's a ludicrous workaround/bug
that's worthy of AGT. What more can I say?

Go and play it! Just make sure you keep the walkthrough handy.

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Jacks or better to murder, Aces to win

Score: 3

(Some SPOILERS)

I should give this game extra marks for making me eat my words.

A while back, there was a spirited discussion on rec.arts.int-fiction
about the merits of the 'examine' command. Some of the Phoenix people
remarked that they hated 'examine' since it just served to hide
information from the player. This touched a nerve with me and I
vociferously argued to the contrary, that 'examine' allowed the author
to add useful and interesting detail to the game world without
overloading the player. Hide information? What nonsense!

Well -- they were right and I was dead wrong. I hate 'examine'!

Not that I hated this game, I hasten to add. Maybe I should give it
double extra marks for making me eat my words twice. It's absolutely
chock-full of 'examine' puzzles, but I was prepared to give it the
benefit of the doubt since this was obviously intentional, and used
consistently throughout the game. Similarly, I didn't mind the
save-and-restore puzzles in _Varicella_ as much as usual since they
formed the entire basis of that game. (As a counter-example, _Stone
Cell_ is full of 'examine' puzzles but doesn't make this obvious from
the start -- bad idea!)

_Jacks_ is a story of Machiavellian mischief and murder, with an unusual
and very detailed setting. As you explore your surroundings and examine
various objects, you're given snippets of backstory; the plot skips
along in jerks and starts but the pace keeps increasing all the way
through, until it all comes to a head in a suitably slap-bang
conclusion.

My main objection is to things like this:

> X FURNITURE
Luck is part of an A's repertoire. [...]

You stumble around a large weapon, grabbing it with your right hand
and steadying yourself with your left against a large mirror. This
triggers a secret passage leading down. This also triggers a comedy
you once saw, and now you are the bumbling minstrel.

Two problems, in fact. Firstly, I don't mind examining things, but how
on earth was I supposed to know that examining the furniture would do
that? Secondly, why did I need to examine the furniture in particular,
since that's not what actually opens the secret door? 'X FURNITURE' is
just being used as an excuse for printing out the next snippet of
exposition, and I feel as if I'm simply reading a story rather than
interacting with it.

I just thought of a suggestion. In the situation above, give the player
a chance to find the secret passage on his or her own: 'x mirror' should
at least give some sort of clue about its existence. At the same time,
rather than waiting for a real stroke of luck -- i.e., the player
happening to type 'x furniture' -- just fake it: the fourth object
examined, say, could by sheer coincidence happen to open the secret
door. _Photopia_ did this sort of thing very nicely: at one point there
are two passages you can go down, but whichever one you choose it's
always the one the author _wants_ you to go down.

I did enjoy the story, though. My main complaint here is that the PC's
lightning-fast analysis of the situation is a little _too_ superhuman at
time, stretching my credibility a long way.

Overall, a fun game that I felt was a bit lacking in real interactivity.
And I hate 'examine'.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------
--
Iain Merrick
i...@cs.york.ac.uk

Cameron WIlkin

unread,
Nov 19, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/19/99
to
Iain Merrick wrote:

> ...
> Bliss

>
>
> Secondly -- and I'll have to be careful how I phrase this -- I
> actually
> enjoyed the violence. I _don't_ mean that I laughed evilly as I gutted
>
> orc after orc and later went off to throw bricks at the neighbourhood
> cats. But I was glad to see a fantasy game with some genuine blood and
>
> guts and brutality for a change.

I hope to go down in history as having entered the most violent
competition game ever. :)


-Cameron


Mark J. Tilford

unread,
Nov 24, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/24/99
to
On Fri, 19 Nov 1999 22:36:30 -0500, Cameron WIlkin <bwi...@ix.netcom.com> wrote:
>Iain Merrick wrote:
>
>> ...
>> Bliss
>
>>
>>
>> Secondly -- and I'll have to be careful how I phrase this -- I
>> actually
>> enjoyed the violence. I _don't_ mean that I laughed evilly as I gutted
>>
>> orc after orc and later went off to throw bricks at the neighbourhood
>> cats. But I was glad to see a fantasy game with some genuine blood and
>>
>> guts and brutality for a change.
>
> I hope to go down in history as having entered the most violent
>competition game ever. :)
>
>

Did you play Zero Sum Game?

>-Cameron
>


--
-----------------------
Mark Jeffrey Tilford
til...@cco.caltech.edu

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