Long-winded Comp97 Reviews (1/2)

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Michael Straight

Jan 9, 1998, 3:00:00 AM1/9/98

I didn't vote in the Competition because I didn't have time to play more
than a handful of games and I didn't feel like being an official judge. I
just wanted to play the games that looked interesting and take as much or
little time with them as I pleased.

I'd like to principally thank all the authors who put in all that work so
we would have some more IF to enjoy. Thanks also to those who played
through enough games to be judges. And thanks to Gary for organizing this
great contest.

The games I'll be commenting are:

Aunt Nancy's House
Madame L'Estrange

I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum.


Of the games I played, Babel was my favorite. It sucked me in and I
didn't want to stop until I'd finished (actually, I think I worked on it
over a couple evenings, but I *wanted* to play it all at one sitting).

Others have mentioned the good writing, the thorough and usually
interesting descriptions for just about every object mentioned by the
game, the great atmosphere (particularly the feelings of cold and
vulnerability--the initial choice of attire for the protagonist worked
really well).

I think part of what really made Babel work for me is that I played at
least a third of the game without saving (right before I tried to do
something with hormone). It wasn't because there were no puzzles up to
that point (the bulkhead puzzle was not difficult, and was really well
integrated), but there were no situations which made me feel like I was
about to do something irreversible. I think this might actually be a
good design idea in general: if you can postpone the player's urge to save
until after he has been sucked in, mimesis is greatly enhanced.

Piecing together the background bit by bit through flashbacks worked
really well. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the obvious debt to
Theatre, another favorite of mine.

Some of the science in the game seems almost comic-bookish, which didn't
bother me, perhaps because some of the less plausible stuff came out after
I'd already been hooked. I was a little more disappointed that the
characters seemed kind of stereotypical and some of the conversations
pretty heavy-handed. Also, one of the "revelations" is pretty obvious by
the time it comes. With a little more subtlety and ambiguity in the
characterization and maybe a few red herrings or a more surprising plot
twist, this very good game could have been truly great.


A caveat here: I am a big (although amateur) Shakespeare fan (of the sort
that likes to get together with friends to read his plays aloud--in fact,
I had recently read The Tempest with some friends before playing this), so
I really wanted to like this, and when I saw how thorough and well-done
the "frontispiece" (great name) was, I was really interested.

Although I like to see Shakespeare's plays performed and enjoy reading
them aloud, I've never gotten into just reading them by myself, perhaps
because it's too weird to read aloud to myself (we've come along way since
St. Augustine). That being said, I found that reading only short sections
of the play at a time (still much larger chunks of text than usual in IF)
helped almost as much as reading it aloud, or maybe gave me the impression
that I wasn't reading it all by myself. That is to say, it worked.

Having to press a key to hear the next speaker's lines slowed me down
enough to let the words sink in (partly alleviating the "push a key, get a
screen full of text" syndrome). The only time I didn't like this was
when I had to replay a scene several times and found myself hitting the
space bar over and over as fast as possible to get through long bits of
text I'd already read. Perhaps this problem could be fixed by a key that
would cause the entire response to an action to scroll by at once for such

I thought having Ariel be the player's eyes/ears/hands was an extremely
clever idea on several levels. No other character could witness all the
scenes of the play without mucking with the play; in the play Ariel
already serves to move the action along; Ariel's relation to Prospero is
analogous to the game's relationship to the player; Ariel is mostly
unaccounted for when not on stage, and so the player's actions don't run
contrary to the play.

The whole conversion of Inform's language to Shakespearian language was
delightful (not to mention technically impressive). The game's response
to the VERBOSE command is worth the price of admission all by itself. I
only wish Graham had found a fun reply to 'xyzzy'. There was, however, at
least one clunker: "What desirest you to unlock the closet door with?"

As for the game itself, I haven't got very far, only to where Ariel
encounters Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano in Caliban's lair. But this is
really because where my reaction to Babel was "I've gotta see what happens
next," my reation to Tempest was "I need to wait until I have time to
really spend time with this and enjoy it."

I liked the first set of puzzles, but I don't know how someone unfamiliar
with the play would know what to do. This might be OK if the intended
audience is people who are familiar with The Tempest, but otherwise, some
hint about Ariel's current goals is necessary. Even knowing the play,
Ariel's abilities are not clear (why swim when you can fly?) and I got
stuck trying to do one of the tasks Ariel does not knowing it would happen
automatically when I went on to the next step.

Unfortunately, this game contains my least favorite IF convention, the
Zork I-style maze in which reversing the direction you just travelled does
not necessarily return you from whence you came. This was a total
mimesis-breaker for me when I played Zork I, and it hasn't worked for me
since. I am simply unable to picture a maze in which I couldn't return to
the spot I just came from by returning the way I came. Yes, I can picture
a twisty path from one spot to the next such that if I leave room A by the
eastern exit and come to room B, the path back to room A does not
necessarily start in the western exit of room B, but surely I should be
able to remember what passageway I just emerged from. It is a testimony
to how much I like this game that I didn't just quit when I hit the maze.

In spite of these problems, I was very happy with this game. The
environment, the changes to the parser, the chance to watch the play bit
by bit, it was all worth the difficulty (obscurity?) of some of the
puzzles. Whether you like it probably boils down to how you answer the
question, "How interested are you in sitting down and reading
Shakespeare's _The Tempest_?"

While I really like the idea of doling out bits of the play as reward for
solving difficult puzzles, I wonder if this kind of thing needs either
easier puzzles or hints or some way of providing more guidance. Perhaps
the "plot" command should tell not only what has already occured, but give
some clue as to Ariel's current goal. I'd love to show this to some
non-IF playing Shakespeare fans, but I don't think they could figure out
how to get very far in the play.

Ack! Michael Straight's reviews have more text than some contest entries!
Ethical Mirth Gas/"I'm chaste alright."/Magic Hitler Hats/"Hath grace limits?"
"Irate clam thighs!"/Chili Hamster Tag/The Gilt Charisma/"I gather this calm."

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