sober and serious Introcomp reviews

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Sam Kabo Ashwell

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Apr 1, 2003, 1:56:26 PM4/1/03
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Hooray, it's the Introcomp!

This year, I decided to a) write reviews with some vague reference to
sobriety and fairness, and b) actually post to rgif. Instead of getting
tanked up, I listened to music.
The obligatory House-And-Office themes of this comp: dead relatives and
awakened horrors. I counted two dead wives, a dead aunt and an unconfirmed
dead father, and three awakened horrors, one of whom probably doesn't count
because he's a PC and the most horrific thing about him is his prose.
Although I didn't play Ophelia, I can extrapolate from this that it is the
tragic story of the Danish Prince's second cousin thrice removed, takes
place just after everyone in Hamlet has snuffed it, and features the
horrible reAwakening of the Ghost (who Hamlet had, in a deleted scene,
trapped in a salted halibut in the castle kitchens). The author's cat makes
a cameo, amusingly scratching at the curtains in the crucial scenes, and for
you old-skool fans, there's an exciting and innovative slant on the
roguelike maze puzzle!

Anyway... to the games:


Agency by Ricardo Signes
I betatested this game, and I don't review games I've betatested.

***

Harlequin Girl by Sean M Elliott

Music: Roots Manuva, Brand New Second Hand

"It begins with a scream.

Or more accurately, screams..."

These are not good first lines. Everybody is aware that first lines are
critical in any piece, and the confines of the IntroComp exacerbate this.
Let's be frank: we've heard the screams of a thousand tortured souls before.
Hell, souls in literature seem to do little else. And as with anything
that's been done to death, if you do it again you have to do it well.
Starting your second sentence with 'Or more accurately' isn't a great way of
conveying horror and pain unless you want to suggest a detached, unemotional
response, which doesn't seem to be the aim here.

Now, I quite like the initial concept here; near-total darkness, having to
grope around to make out one's surroundings. The thing about beginnings is
that hurling too much information all at once at the player can be
disorienting, though this can be a technique in itself. This game is quite
unashamedly the reverse, one of those games where the protagonist initially
knows no more than the player; instead of being dumped unceremoniously into
the thick of things and having to think furiously early on, you're gently
eased into the situation. While amnesia generally sucks as an excuse, on the
whole it's a technique that offers a lot; but if it's laid on too thick it
doesn't work.

Calling the body, as seen in darkness, a "large lump" is an awkward way of
putting it at best. This is indicative; quite a lot of the prose could have
done with minor rewrites, ranging from basic grammar ("The body on the
ground is shines in the light") to things that seem immediately awkward, to
phrasings that aren't deeply wrong but could have very easily have been made
a lot more effective.

The descriptions of things are generally rather terse; although in places
commendable effort was made to give things lying around a better description
than "You see an X here", often the actual descriptions of said objects
didn't give you much more information, and in other places, such as the
drainpipe, things are mentioned twice, as loose objects and as scenery. A
good number of overtly mentioned objects are missing, and obvious exits
aren't available and don't give non-default failure messages. This is all
stuff that could and should have been fixed with adequate betatesting, and
is deeply annoying to deal with. However, the visual effects are nicely
evoked despite the bad writing: there are nice objects, the imagery of the
surroundings appealed to me, and while the
oh-shit-we-released-a-hellish-monster-from-its-prison device isn't exactly
innovative, it's handled nicely here. And any game containing a tall guy in
a trenchcoat with a cigarette gets my vote.

>x me
As good-looking as ever.

Deep sigh. I never want to see this response ever again, okay? Even if you
want an indistinct description or an Everyman, write your own. Parser
defaults are ugly at best, and in such a critical place as your
protagonist's description it's hideous. In this context it's also
categorically false, since you can't see yourself and have forgotten
everything, you can't tell how good-looking you are, and you don't have any
'as ever' to refer to. Add to that my general prejudice that any game that
has a standard parser default for this is probably going to suck, and you do
not get a good result.

"That's an amateur spell. The only good spells are said in Latin. The best
spells are said in Latin backwards."

This line is a gem of Wistful Spinach proportions. At this point I stopped
taking the game seriously in any way whatsoever, and started typing in
>STNAP SITSIP SUMIP, TIP SIP MIP and other such infantile crudities.

Conversation style: I generally dislike games that don't print your own
questions as well as the response when you >ASK X ABOUT Y, especially when
the actual *way* you're inquiring about Y could mean several things. Apart
from anything else, failing to give the protagonist a voice is missing out
on a myriad possibilities. Furthermore, this game makes the basic, basic
error of repeating the same responses to the same inquiries: this just isn't
acceptable. The conversation appears to end essentially on a timing device,
it's totally non-linear and shows inconsistencies. With the various
missed-out stuff, this suggests that coding in the subsequent game is likely
to be weak.

"Now the adventure begins. Who was the mystery man? What was the Harlequin
girl's plan, and what went wrong? Who, or what, was released from the
mirror, and what are its intensions? And most of all, who are you?"

The guy at the keyboard halfway through a yawn.

In summary, this is a somewhat immature attempt, but it shows promise. As I
said, many of the problems could trivially be dealt with by proper
betatesting, and although the writing style needs a lot of work the basic
content is engaging, there's some nice imagery and as an intro the game
leaves a lot of possibilities open.
Would I want to play on? Well, not until the basic stuff gets dealt with,
because it just makes the game painful at the moment. And not unless the
writing's quality picks up significantly.

Score: 5

***

HARRINGTON HOUSE by Gayla Bassham

Music: the Prophet Capleton, More Fire

"It's a little eerie, arriving at someone's house after they've died. Aunt
Elizabeth died here only three weeks ago. She'd spent her whole life in this
house. Eighty years in one house. You're not superstitious--but you can't
help but think her spirit must linger."

As you know, your father, the king... hey, I didn't count her lingering
spirit in those awakened horrors. Maybe there's potential here...
Grand old empty spooky houses haunted by the past which you, a vaguely
related innocent, must explore are just a little common in IF. I've spent
enough time wandering around the outside of such houses trying to work out
which infuriatingly counterintuitive method I have to employ in order to get
into them that doing so again is about as attractive as inducing artificial
pneumothorax in myself without anaesthetic using a turkey baster full of
fire ants, even if the descriptions of the surrounding garden are
attractive. The descriptions here aren't awful as such, but they're
distinctly uninspiring.

Bugs abound. Having pulled the sparkly rock out of the wall, it's still
mentioned in the wall's description. You can apparently take the stepladder,
but it doesn't appear in your inventory and it's still apparently leaning
against the tree. Looking at the credits, this game appears to have been
betatested, by no less than three people; I rub my eyes. Annoyed that the
executors of my senile relation's will have not seen fit to equip me with
the key of the house I'm meant to tidy up, I attempted to bash Albert's head
in with a chunk of masonry, and was pleasantly surprised to actually see a
non-default response. Attempting to do the same to a window, my relation's
rampant paranoia was poignantly evoked by her apparent installation of
bullet-proof glass. After a bit more poking about I got the idea that
perhaps I was meant to climb the chimney, but without being able to carry
the stepladder this was kind of academic. Having dropped my entire inventory
(maybe I could carry the ladder that way?) I couldn't pick up the flowers
I'd just dropped, because to do so would ruin the look of the flowerbed.
Speaking to a few other people (hey, it seemed a bit unfair to slate a game
before I'd even finished) revealed the existence of even weirder bugs. I
gave up.

So, in short, this game is abysmally and obviously buggy to a paralysing
degree, has an unexceptional premise and dull writing. It's the sort of game
I'd give up after five minutes, quite honestly.

Score: 1

***

Reality's End by Harry Hol

Music: Morcheeba, Big Calm

Beginning straight out of Disney: I was expecting Gepetto to appear in the
window, horrible scene-setting music playing in the background... with the
title, and the reference to 'if this was a film' followed almost immediately
by a woman watching TV, I was initially expecting something Meta. As far as
I can see I was wrong, although since I generally can't stand meta, I wasn't
overly disappointed in this; there's still scope for that, in any case.

The writing isn't great, but apart from the odd spelling error it's not
disgustingly bad either; there's an overwhelming blandness to it, a tendency
to briefly list everything and then call it a description. I'm reminded of a
Martin Amis review of Michael Crichton's stuff: it's not writing, it's stage
directions dressed up as prose. Even though this is in line with the 'If
this was a film, it would be like this' intro, it doesn't feel like a
conscious device; it makes it very dreary, particuarly for something that
feels like kidlit. There's the occasional touch that adds to the kid's
perspective ("Some sell ladies underwear, some sell stupid hats. None sell
videogames.") but these are more amusing asides than the meat and drink of
good writing; generally it's just too sparse and lifeless.

Whee, I'm a schitzophrenic kid. Immediately I'm reminded of His Dark
Materials, Hexwood and similar connection-to-other-universes
kids-with-familiars kid's lit. Except that those were well-written.
You know how characters in magical realism and similar styles always have a
picturesque childhood packed to the gills with surreal detail and telling
symbolism? Characters in IF always seem to have precisely the opposite; a
childhood directly out of Dick and Jane, a model of Fifties conformity with
videogames added for contemporary flavour. Even when Something has happened
to the kid's dad and he speaks to extradimensional Voices, his life still
bristles with identikitness. I don't know if this is a US thing (every
pudding-basined moppet in every mainstream American movie seems to have
exactly the same surgically conformist life) or if it's just lack of
imagination.

The conversation with the Voice is relatively well-structured: things that
it seemed obvious to ask about are implemented, so even though it's a basic
ASK ABOUT system the conversation flows fairly well. His constant 'you are
my friend' repetition is a little obvious as foreshadowing goes, though.
Other characters are non-responsive to the point of impenetrability, which
in itself isn't a problem; the protagonist is a child and adults are going
to be unlikely to be respond much to him, but I felt this wasn't developed
enough. The kid's obviously had some sort of trauma related to his father in
his history, which has led to the Voice turning up; if the angle that was in
response to not being able to communicate with adults (or other kids) around
him was worked a little more, the unresponsiveness of the adult NPCs, the
lack of any description of the kid's involvement with other kids at school
(an entire day of school is dealt with in a single dismissive sentence,
something that doesn't tally with how immense a day of school seems at that
age), and his inability to participate in the snowball fight could be turned
into powerful suggestive tools... but it isn't worked.

The first puzzle (escaping from Mrs Tibbs) I solved pretty much immediately.
It isn't brilliant as puzzles go, but it's pretty straightforward, you don't
really get stuck on anything and all the stuff you'd expect to work works.
This is true of pretty much the entire game, to be honest. The second puzzle
(getting the disc) is similarly simple. Then comes a great big chunk where,
first off, I expected a triggered event of some sort to kick in; when
nothing happened I wandered around for ages trying to find something to put
the disc in, and eventually found the right place after lots of aimlessness;
and bingo, Voice turns out to be evil and I've released an unknown horror
upon the world for the second time in half an hour.

So, would I play on? The scoring system (5 out of 1000 by the end of the
intro) implies that this game will be kind of huge. Well... it'd be a
close-run thing. Because the intro leaves at a fairly critical point, it's
hard to tell exactly in which direction the game's going to jump, although I
suspect that a lot more cycling around the town in classic graphic-adventure
style will take place, lots of similarly compact puzzles will occur, my
satchel will amass a great many objects, and NPC interaction will be
infrequent and utilitarian. No problem with that per se, to be honest; but
as so often, the quality of writing is the crucial element that's lacking.
Put more love into your descriptions, and more idiosyncracy into your world.

In conclusion:

"None of them seem particularly good or lifelike, and you can't decide
whether this is because of the creator's vision or lack of talent."

Either this is a wry meta-text grin, or its irony is utterly unintentional.

Score: 5

***

The Mage Wars: Statue by Jim Fisher

Music: Finley Quaye, Maverick A Strike

Ah, silly names and oddly-numbered calendar; the two surest signs that we're
dealing with scifi or heroic / epic fantasy here. My initial response to
these two in IF is almost always "sigh": there's some good stuff extant, but
as a rule they're just not my genres, and they lend themselves to awfulness
more than most. The vaguely creepy introductory text bristles awkwardly with
hyphens, and the saccharine GOD I LOVE MY KIDS *sob* air (god, I hope
they're going to be blown to shreds by an exploding dragon or held hostage
by Martian nanoterrorists), as well as "They are both dressed in matching
pajamas and watch you, deeply interested in what their father will do or
say" could only have one response:

>tell kids about goatse.cx
That does not seem to be an appropriate topic for the current context.

Sometimes the parser is a hell of a lot more accurate than it knows.

AAGH awful awful awful poetry, and awkward handling of menu-based
conversation. Repeated errors in the conversation system, looking something
like this
"That did not seem to be an appropriate topic for the given context.

That topic did not seem appropriate for the given context."
crop up occasionally.

Use of the word 'mage', ever. Use of the word 'mage' in the title, for god's
sake. This game was obviously just not targeted at me, so please take
everything I say here with a pinch of salt. Oh, and I couldn't help smirking
every time the word 'stoned' was used.

The biggest problem is that this game is hugely overwritten. It's
particuarly overwritten with regard to emotion; emotion is very hard to get
right, and there are lots of ways of handling this. The verbose method,
explicitly repeating the point in different ways to drive it home, is very
hard to pull off if your writing can't live up to the technique; if you fail
at it, you descend to artificiality and melodrama. The technique of
reflecting a character in the way he sees surroundings is a powerful one,
and used extensively here, but when it descends to "I gazed without reaction
at the red button on the Petrian device. It was as red as my beautiful
wife's blood upon my shirt as she died in my arms that wretched night"
things are (quite apart from the self-contradiction) getting a little
overblown.

Plenty of other annoying little things (compass directions, where mentioned
in the text proper, are capitalised; unnecessary capitalisations are a
particular bugbear of mine). In fact, these capitalisations seem to have
been done by a search-and-replace, since stuff like "The loWest section"
crops up occasionally.
Structurally, the NPCs are nicely responsive as a rule - they notice if you
do anachronistic things, converse among themselves, generally behave in line
with whatever the game's trying to achieve at any one point - but there's
way too much saccharine in 'em all. Similarly, the structural arrangement of
the game is, if not adventurous, then at the very least thoroughly
competent; the protagonist is swapped in the middle of scenes, and the plot
hops back and forth in time a lot. This has the obvious disadvantage that
one can second-guess what's going to happen incredibly easily, but that's
the intention; if you *couldn't* second-guess what the author wants you to
do, the game would become impossible. This does make the events feel
scripted - basically, you know what needs to happen to advance the plot, so
you get on and do it - but this is only an intro, so scriptedness is quite
acceptable for now.

Use of the third *and* the first person as well as the second is always
worth noting, as is the perfect tense; this particular example handles it
reasonably well, as these things go, and it's in line with the nature of the
piece, although it isn't used in a particuarly interesting way and doesn't
add a great deal.

I also found one major game-killing bug in response to a fairly obvious
action, though generally otherwise (apart from the conversation system) the
game felt fairly robust, smooth-flowing and generally well-tested.

This was by far the biggest intro in the comp, and it left me wondering how
much story was actually left to tell; presumably Mr. Alas My Wife Is Dead
has to romance the princess, fend off the other suitor, and foil the Evil
Future Mage's Evil Future Plot. Some sort of war seems likely to occur,
which will in all probability involve mages in some capacity. All which
could take some time, I imagine. So yeah, plenty of room, though it'll have
to be one big game.
If the writing continues to be as apalling as it now, though, I just
wouldn't be able to stick it. In respect to the scoring, the Introcomp's
strictures made it suffer a lot; had it been a comp entry I'd probably have
given it a slightly higher score, because even though I didn't personally
enjoy it much it's obviously technically pretty good; but the writing just
makes it unpleasant to play.

Score: 4

JJK

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Apr 1, 2003, 9:43:44 PM4/1/03
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Been stuck in a cave for a year with nothing but a five year collection
of the NY Times Art Section to pass the time? Despite what you may read
there, Condescending Sarcasm is not really the same thing as sophistication.

-Jim

Ricardo SIGNES

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Apr 2, 2003, 9:50:08 AM4/2/03
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I think Sam's reviews are the most helpful I've seen, and I wish he'd given me
the same treatment (beyond that which I got when he tested for me). Sure, he's
not being delicate. He's offering free criticism. If people don't like it,
they can ignore it. Personally, I think it's quite useful: he's pointing out
specifically those things that he did or didn't like. He goes into more detail
than some other reviewers (including myself, I think).

I think the r*if community has a strange politeness, compared not just with the
modern asshat-filled WEBBARNET but also with the oldskool USENET that many of
us knew and loved. Personally, I'd find a shift toward condescending
helpfulness preferable to its opposite, any day.

--
rjbs

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