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

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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 fourth and final bunch of reviews. These are the games that
just didn't interest me at all, or which were unplayably buggy, or which
really pissed me off. I've tried not to be _too_ bitchy in my criticism,
but apologies if I've stepped over the mark anywhere.

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

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Calliope: 1
Guard Duty: 1
Life on Beal Street: 1
Lomalow: 1
L.U.D.I.T.E.: 1
A Moment of Hope: 1
Music Education: 1
Pass the Banana: 1
Remembrance: 1
Stone Cell: 1
Thorfinn's Realm: 1

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Calliope

Score: 1

This game put me off right from the start. The PC is a student -- or at
least a student-like person -- trying to get an IF game finished on the
night before the competition deadline. Puzzles involve: not falling
asleep; swatting a fly; and coming up with a better game idea, based on
a television programme you half-hear while half-asleep.

Realistic? Probably. Interesting? Not in the slightest.

(Whoops, I'm being bitchy already. Let me put it another way: write
about what you know, sure; but you _are_ allowed to visit the library
and learn some new stuff first.)

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Guard Duty

Score: 1

This game is unplayable due to bugs, which gets it an immediate 1.

The infamous inventory bug is _so_ bad, in fact, that I have to say I'm
surprised this game was entered at all. I can understand how the author
might have overlooked this bug -- why take an inventory when you know
exactly what you're holding? -- but this just shows, as ever, that it's
absolutely essential to find at least two or three testers and iron at
least the obvious kinks out of your game before releasing it.

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Life on Beal Street

Score: 1

An unusual experimental game. I'd be tempted to give it an extra mark or
two just for being different, if the basic gimmick wasn't so silly.

Essentially, it's a random story generator. This could spark off a 'but
is it IF?' debate; for what it's worth, I think it _is_ IF, since if you
don't like the way a story is progressing you can try another random
variation. It's just not very interesting IF.

The story is readable enough, though I didn't find it particularly
engaging. For some reason the genders of the main character and his/her
girl/boyfriends aren't specified, which I think weakens the story a good
deal. Graham Nelson has pulled off this trick very successfully, of
course, but don't forget that _Jigsaw_ also has lots of fiendish puzzles
and beautiful, interactive scenery to keep you interested. _Beal Street_
has neither.

(Postscript: this game was actually written by Ian Finley, who also
wrote _Exhibition_, and entered as a joke. I think I prefer this kind of
joke entry to, say, _Pass the Banana_ -- though perhaps I'm just saying
that because I'm relieved I didn't rave about how great _Beal Street_
is.)

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Lomalow

Score: 1

An unusual experimental game. I'd be tempted to give it an extra mark or
two just for being different, if the basic gimmick wasn't so silly.

Essentially, it's a random -- no, hang on, wrong game. _This_ game has a
large, well-described landscape to explore, in which the central puzzle
is -- according to the foreword -- to read all the text. The foreword
doesn't explain why I might want to do this.

If the prose had been extraordinarily good, I might have been prepared
to try to read every single word of it; but it's merely quite good,
which isn't quite good enough when I have to squint at a computer screen
to read the stuff.

I might also have enjoyed exploring if there were plenty of things I
could actually interact with, as opposed to merely look at. But all I
could find was a pair of NPCs: an old man and an old woman.

So . . . I _still_ might have enjoyed this game if the old man and the
old woman had been interesting characters with interesting stories to
tell. But unless I'm missing something, they're just cardboard cut-outs
with a few ASK/TELL responses.

Having found no evidence that there might be any kind of story or even a
proper ending to reward my explorations, I quickly gave up. If it turns
out that there is more to this game than simple exploration, however, I
might give it another try later.

To be fair, I really can't give it more than 1. I feel slightly guilty
about this, since it probably deserves more for sheer effort; but not
too guilty, since I suspect that some judges will really enjoy this game
and rate it highly, thus balancing things up a bit.

(Postscript: it seems that this game _does_ have a story, eventually,
and a worthwhile ending. I'll have to give it another shot.)

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L.U.D.I.T.E.

Score: 1

Wonderful title, but not much else. This is the usual psychedelic
nonsense from Rybread Celsius.

Rybread's first few games were fun because they were _really_ bad, but
still had some semblance of a plot. The writing in this game is lucid
but meaningless; the overall effect isn't amusing, or even interesting,
just dull.

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A Moment of Hope

Score: 1

This seems to be a true story, unless I've misconstrued the situation,
based on the author's experience with an Internet match-making service.
It annoyed me immensely due to its near-total lack of real
interactivity.

It's a completely linear story, and a rather dull one at that: at each
point, you have to perform the correct action to get the next snippet of
exposition. In the first scene, for example, you have to repeatedly READ
DIARY; in another scene, you find yourself walking home. Every time you
turn the page or enter a new location, you're rewarded with another
angst-ridden thought. And so it goes.

I couldn't find any way of sidetracking from the story. In fact, at one
point I found that the game was completely ignoring my input: I typed
UNDO, to see if I could try something different, and the game continued
regardless. What looked like an input prompt was _not_ an input prompt;
the game just wanted me to type something, anything, before it printed
out the next chunk of the story.

This game could have been implemented equally well by printing a 'more'
prompt at each stage instead of pretending to wait for input. In fact,
why bother with delays at all? Why not just print out the whole story,
and let the user scroll through it at his or her own pace? But if it
comes to that, why bother with computers at all -- why not just write
the thing down on a sheet of paper?

Oh, hang on, that wouldn't work; people wouldn't realise it was
_interactive_ fiction. Hmm.

(Postscript: well, I may have hated this game, but a number of other
people loved it. Both the story and the implementation came in for
praise; I didn't really discuss the story above, so I think I'll do so
now.

I was a helpless observer inside the author's head, and I didn't enjoy
the experience at all. Vaguely pretentious little phrases like 'Spanish
ancestry' and 'renaissance flute' made me feel really uncomfortable. It
may be that as a typically reserved Britisher I'm just instinctively
cringing from the very idea of finding out so much about a complete
stranger; I could never write a game like this, and I admire the
author's courage. Only, um, I think he could probably employ it to more
profitable ends -- just go and _talk_ to the girls, for christ's sake!

I don't think the ending works, either. Whichever way the author tries
to rationalise the situation, it seems to me that the girl comes off
much better than the PC. The PC puts his entire heart and soul into the
abortive relationship, and the girl metaphorically kicks him in the
teeth with hardly a second thought; look, I know it sucks, but by any
realistic standard the girl wins. Sorry.

Just one more example of something which really annoyed me: at one point
in the game, the PC receives a supposedly significant e-mail. The
response to READ EMAIL is (approximately, since I didn't keep a
transcript): "your heart stops for a moment." Typing READ EMAIL again, I
was told: "you read the message again." Then: "You still can't believe
what you're seeing." Then: "you read the message a third time."

But I still hadn't read the message even once! "You read the message"?!?
"No," I felt like saying, "_you're_ reading the message, _I_ haven't
even seen it yet!"

If the game had carefully set things up so that it could just show me
the message directly and have _me_ experience the feelings it describes,
I'd have loved it and given it a 10. I have no idea how one might go
about doing that, though.)

(Post-postscript: compare and contrast time. I just thought of a game
which does the same sort of thing much more effectively: Neil Brown's _A
Week In The Life_. Again, I could never in a million years write such a
game, let alone release it to the public, but this time I absolutely
loved the experience of living through a week of sheer hell inside the
author's head.)

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Music Education

Score: 1

In this game, you're a music student. Your goal is to . . . well, I'm
not quite sure, really. Perhaps if I'd been able to work up the energy
to explore a bit, I'd have found out; but there wasn't much in this game
that encouraged me to explore.

It seems to me that there's a lot of missed potential here, since music
departments are often rather interesting places -- at least, I often
find them so. Cavernous auditoriums with sweeping rows of seats; odd
little nooks and twisty corridors; cramped, musty practice rooms with
upright pianos, each with its own distinct personality . . .

Anyway. The point is that I was quite looking forward to wandering round
such a building, listening to people practising, reading the bulletin
boards and so on, but I was sorely disappointed. The room descriptions
are drably utilitarian, and there aren't many things to interact with.

I did find a few rooms which looked like they might form parts of
puzzles, but I couldn't be bothered finding out what those puzzles might
be. So -- well, I wish I could give this game more points (and I'm
half-hoping that other people will). But I want to be honest and base my
scores on how much I actually enjoyed each game, and this one just
didn't grab my attention at all.

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Pass the Banana

Score: 1

An ifMUD in-joke, or rather half-a-dozen in-jokes stuck together with
monkey spit. Oh deary me.

There aren't any blatant bugs, though, and I'll admit I played with it
long enough to find an easter egg or two. All in all, an amusing enough
way to pass five minutes or so.

(Postscript: even if you don't play the game, make sure you read Mike
Roberts' review. Doe's review is quite amusing, too. _Pass the Banana_
should get the prize for best-reviewed game, as somebody or other said.)

(Post-postscript: it occurs to me that I was probably present at the
conception of this game, so perhaps I'd better explain what it's all
about. See, it's like this . . .

For one reason or another, there happened to be several banana objects
lying around the place. I think it was Dylan O'Donnell who started us
passing them around, and for a few minutes it was genuinely the funniest
thing ever. Then 'Admiral Jota' joked that he was going to port this
game to Inform and enter it in the comp. And that, I suppose, was that.

The game was resurrected a few times over the next week or so, though it
was never quite as fresh and magical as the first time. It did rather
tickle my funnybone, though, since it seemed to be particularly open to
the kind of 'slippage humour' I tend to like (no pun intended).

Slippage humour? Think 'variations on a theme'. Instead of passing your
banana by hand, you silently teleport it. Or you pretend to pass a
banana when instead you just print the string 'X gives a banana to Y'.
Or you pass a banana to a MUD robot -- if you can persuade it to join
in, all the better.

And then you can start varying your bananas. When there are a dozen
objects all called 'banana', you're never quite sure who has which one;
but each has a different response to 'x banana' and 'eat banana'. The
scope for gags here is obvious. I was quite pleased with my 'no bananas'
object, which had this description:

Not yellow, and not banana-shaped.

And as its response to 'eat':

Not bad, considering.

I think I was thinking of the classic un-joke:

Q: What's red and invisible?
A: No tomatoes.

What _do_ no tomatoes taste like, anyway?

So it's all just fooling around, certainly. But every so often someone
will rearrange the existing elements into a totally unexpected new
pattern, jumping out of the system in such a saucy, mind-bending way
that it makes it all worthwhile.

And I don't think this is simply the preserve of sad geeks who should
really find more interesting ways to spend their time. The wonderful BBC
radio programme _I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue_, for example, is largely
built around this kind of humour. (If you're in the UK, you can catch
the current series at 6.30pm on mondays, on radio 4.) The cultural
points of reference that serve as the building blocks for the jokes on
'Clue are almost entirely different from those on the ifMUD, but the way
they twist them and spin them and stick them together to create new
jokes is very similar indeed.

Good grief, I can't believe I just wrote all that about a stupid banana
game -- even paraphrasing Hofstadter without giving due credit, for
heaven's sake! For what it's worth, I think _Pass the Banana_ captures
the essence of our little MUD non-game quite well, but it's inevitably
lacking in the spark of creative human interaction that can spin off new
variations and keep the joke alive.

So: it's a mildly amusing way to pass five minutes or so. Back to where
I started, finally! (END)

)

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Remembrance

Score: 1

This web-based game didn't work in any browser I tried it on; after some
thought, I decided to rate it as 'buggy' rather than 'unplayable', since
the author specifically states that it should work with Netscape 3. As
such, I'm afraid it gets a 1.

It's good to see something different from the usual Infocom-style games
in the comp, however, and I feel rather guilty about marking it down on
technical issues. I'll be interested to see what other people think of
this one.

If anyone else is thinking of releasing an HTML, game, by the way, I
strongly recommend making it available as a downloadable package so that
it can be played offline. (This was done with _Remembrance_ after a week
or two, but I'd already played it at that point, and the update didn't
fix the Javascript problems.) The net can be horribly slow, particularly
if dozens of people are trying to play your game from a single server.
Playing online games can also be quite expensive in countries where
local calls aren't free. In my case, the computer I like to use for IF
isn't networked at all.

And I'm not even going to mention pop-up ads. I don't want to make an
embarrassing scene.

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Stone Cell

Score: 1

Hm. This game has a lot going for it, but . . . well, it's got
altogether too much going for it in some ways, while in others it's
woefully lacking.

The main problem is that the puzzles are far, far, far, far too
difficult, and mainly difficult for the wrong reasons. To find the
correct solutions, you have to read the author's mind, and good attempts
at slightly different solutions are rarely acknowledged. Worse still,
alternate ways of phrasing the correct solutions aren't generally
recognised. I got absolutely nowhere without the walkthrough, and I
didn't understand many of the puzzles even after I'd 'solved' them.

The writing is quite good, and the setting is _very_ detailed and quite
interesting, but both are rather overdone. I think I'd make the general
observation that, having come up with a gripping story and wonderful
setting, the _last_ thing you should do is dump it all on the player
immediately. Instead, concentrate on the gameplay, and try to make a
good 'hook' at the start to draw the player in; if they're still playing
a dozen moves later, they'll be more than willing to admire the
surroundings on their own initiative.

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Thorfinn's Realm

Score: 1

Very terse room descriptions, puzzles that concede little to our modern,
decadent concept of 'fairness'... hmmm. If you enjoyed the Phoenix games
which were recently ported to Inform, you might enjoy this one.

I -- not to put too fine a point on it -- hated the Phoenix games. This
sort of thing isn't my cup of tea at all.

Anyway. After a spot of guess-the-noun, I managed to get out of my time
machine. Then I explored for a bit, and was almost starting to enjoy
myself when the batteries in my flashlight ran out. Damn. Now, this
wouldn't have annoyed me much if there had been a reasonable time limit,
but this didn't seem to be the case. I seemed I was supposed to restart,
and damned well _keep_ restarting until I found more batteries.

I restarted and explored a bit more, and had a glance at the
walkthrough, but my heart wasn't in it; so I stopped there.

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

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