[COMP99] Yet more reviews (Iain Merrick) [1/4]

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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 first batch of reviews, of the games I really enjoyed playing.
Enjoyment was the _only_ thing I based my ratings on, and a number of
games have sneaked into this top six which are -- how can I put it? --
not actually all that good. But what can I say? I liked 'em.

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

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For A Change: 8

Only After Dark: 7
Strangers in the Night: 7
King Arthur's Night Out: 7

Hunter, In Darkness: 6
On the Farm: 6

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For a Change

Score: 8

This game is built around a very clever gimmick, which I immediately
resented. Unlike _Hunter in Darkness_, however, it grew on me, and
continued to grow, and eventually came out as my favourite game in the
competition.

It uses a strange, invented dialect, with ordinary words used to
describe unfamiliar concepts, or to describe ordinary concepts in very
unfamiliar ways. I initially thought this was rather tedious, but the
inventiveness, consistency and sheer exuberance of the wordplay soon won
me over. About half-way through the game, I found I was 'inside' the
language and could understand every word -- even text I hadn't seen
before! There's a unifying spirit behind all the wordplay which sets it
head and shoulders above a simple decryption puzzle.

Before I start rambling on about how language shapes thought, I'd better
talk about the puzzles. Again, I wasn't too impressed to begin with; it
seemed to be just a series of get-X-use-X puzzles, and I had no qualms
over reaching for the walkthrough. But as I began to understand the
skewed logic behind the game world, I used the walkthrough less and
less, and was pleased to find some clever reuse of elements from earlier
puzzles.

All this builds up to a quite spectacular endgame: an endgame
spectacular, in fact. There's really no plot to speak of, but the
striking imagery more than makes up for that; the game as a whole is
more like a piece of music than a narrative. In this it's similar to
_Curses_, perhaps, but with a much smaller and tighter structure than
that sprawling masterpiece.

To summarise: the beauty of _For A Change_ is that it's bewildering and
rather annoying when you start playing, but crystal-clear and quite
captivating when you reach the end; at which point you realise that it's
not the game which has changed but yourself.

(Well, not really, since the language does in fact get a bit more normal
towards the end. But that's what I _thought_ -- and what the hell, it
sounds good.)

Having said all that, I obviously didn't find it completely and utterly
perfect in every aspect: after all, I only gave it an 8, whereas my
favourite comp game usually gets a 9 or even a 10. Some of the puzzles
are rather arbitrary, I suppose, and I couldn't escape a slight "now,
what on earth was _that_ all about?" effect. I haven't replayed the game
yet. But still, I think I'd have put _For A Change_ safely in the top
four were it any of the previous comps.

(Postscript: I compare _For A Change_ to a piece of music, but Sam
Barlow's review compares it to a painting. Interesting. Either way, I
think I prefer this kind of 'IF art' to works which are specifically
intended as 'art' rather than 'games'.)

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Only After Dark

Score: 7

I rather liked this game, though I'm not quite sure why. It's very
short, it's totally linear, and the puzzles are perilously near to
guess-the-verb at times, but . . .

For one thing, it faked me out. I like that. Initially, you find
yourself as a young sailor striking it lucky with a beautiful native
girl; ah, I thought, it's one of 'those' games. And then she turns into
a wolf and tries to rip your throat out. Aha! So it's one of _those_
games . . . but no, not really, since you don't actually meet any more
werewolves. Overall, it's not a terribly novel story, but I think my
failure to pigeonhole it immediately meant I was drawn into the game
more effectively than usual. Compare and contrast to 'student' games,
which generally find their way into the relevant pigeonhole in roughly
ten microseconds.

I liked the writing. It's not especially clever or stylish, but it does
exactly what it needs to do _and no more_. This is a blessed relief
after playing the sort of game which expects you to read dozens of lines
of text every turn, which is becoming regrettably common these days --
blame Adam Cadre, I say. It's also worth noting that the text in this
game is as much atmospheric as descriptive: setting the tone in a few
terse sentences is a much harder trick to pull off than simply listing
room contents and exits, but it's done here very nicely indeed.

I also liked the PC. Again, there's a nice balance between too much
description and too little. Ranil's goals and motivation were always
clear: initially, to get laid; then to save his skin; and finally
revenge. Lots of rather primitive emotions there, but it's that sort of
game. My only slight complaint is the way he's rather bluntly described
as being black. This is certainly a welcome change, and it did enable me
to picture him clearly, but it seemed rather unsubtle, too 'politically
correct' for comfort. I mean, nobody ever takes the trouble to point out
that their main character is white, do they? I'd have loved it if
Ranil's 'ethnicity' (ugh! horrible word) was asserted with confidence
and aplomb---"I'm black, and I'm proud!"---but it didn't really read
that way to me.

I even liked the puzzles. Like I said, it's totally linear: at each
point your progress is blocked until you solve the next puzzle. I would
have been annoyed at this if I'd gotten irrevocably stuck, but I only
ever got stuck just long enough to keep me concentrating. In each case I
eventually solved the puzzle by effectively saying to myself: "Stop
messing around with standard IF commands. What should I actually _do_ in
this situation?" I'd think for five seconds and then type in my answer,
and I'm buggered if it didn't work every time.

Overall, this little game might not knock your socks off, but I think
it's worth playing. It might be nice to have hints for some of the
puzzles, though, since I can easily see how someone might get completely
stuck. I wouldn't quite call them guess-the-verb, but perhaps that's
just because I was lucky enough to guess correctly.

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Strangers in the Night

Score: 7

Another unlikely top five choice, I think. This game has some major
flaws, but I enjoyed it nonetheless; and by my rating system, that's
what counts. I must admit I'm tempted to downgrade it, but my earlier
self won't let me.

It's a vampire story. You're a vampire who lives in a luxurious vampire
apartment in a large city, and you have to drink blood from a few people
to satisfy your vampire thirst. This is implemented as a sort of
simulation rather than a story; you simply wander around the city
looking for people to bite before your time runs out (thankfully, the
time limit is very large).

I loved the atmosphere. I get the impression that it's drawn from a
large sub-culture of vampire nuts, and I think I could get really tired
of it really quickly, but when I played the game it still felt fresh and
interesting -- and different from all the other comp games, to boot. Not
a student in sight, yay! I almost wished there was, so that I could fang
the fucker.

So -- I woke up, picked up a handy city guide from my junk mail, and
took my private elevator to the ground floor. After exchanging a few
knowing words with the doorman, I was out and prowling the city streets.
I was enjoying myself already. Sure, all this vampire stuff might be
unoriginal, but I hadn't come across it in an adventure game before: so
why not?

I didn't get lost. This is surprising since I have an even worse sense
of direction in IF games than in real life, if that's possible. But I
had my little guide, and the streets were all named and set out in a
sensible grid, so for once I had little trouble finding my way around.
(Thank god it's set in an American rather than European city.)

So I started biting people. The doorman had given me a hint about where
to find my first victim, and she had an item which led me to the next,
and then I consulted my guide and found a likely-looking spot for the
third, and I was done for the night. I had progressed through the game
in an easy, dreamlike fashion; mainly because there are no puzzles to
speak of, I realised, but I didn't feel the lack.

All in all, a pretty satisfying game session, though it probably lasted
barely half an hour. So I tried the game again, and found a different
solution with a new victim. Cool, I thought. Fun game; seven out of ten.

And now, the flaws. I was mostly aware of these while I was playing, but
they never really got in my way. Firstly and most obviously, the game
map is fairly huge but almost entirely empty. Most of the streets use
the same three or four canned room descriptions, and there are only
half-a-dozen or so buildings in the entire city which you can actually
enter. Secondly, what scenery there is is nicely described but rather
weakly implemented.

I'd also prefer the gameplay to involve slightly more than just finding
and biting each victim, though I think turning this into an out-and-out
puzzle game would be a mistake. It would be nice for the victims to make
some acknowledgement of my presence before I bite them, which most of
them don't. The same goes for NPCs in general -- although flitting
unnoticed through the crowds like a shadow also has its attractions.

Time to wrap this up. I liked _Strangers in the Night_ for its novelty;
not just in the setting, but also in the overall flow of the game. It
was a nice change simply to explore an interesting environment for an
hour or two and then return to where I'd started, without having to
complete any tedious quests or whatnot on the way. I tend to be fairly
grumpy about being expected to explore with being given a reason for
doing so; in this game, the necessity to hunt down some victims was a
good motivation but not a hinderance.

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King Arthur's Night Out

Score: 7

I have to admit that my expectations for this game weren't terribly
high. I still remember Mikko's extremely dodgy 'Leaves' from a few years
back, and the readme says he wrote this game in just three days. But
"King Arthur's Night Out" is a little gem. Well done, Mikko!

There's absolutely nothing pretentious or overblown about this game;
it's just good clean fun. Look at the opening paragraphs, for instance:

"But Ginny, darling, I want to go to the pub with Lance and
the boys..."
"Don't you darling me! You are not going and that's final!"
"Yes, darling."

Sometimes it's just not good enough to be the king.


KING ARTHUR'S NIGHT OUT

Written by Mikko Vuorinen (mvuo...@cc.helsinki.fi)
Release 2; Compiled with Alan 2.8


Entrance Hall.
Huge tapestries decorate the walls of this big entrance hall. To the
north is the door that leads to the other parts of the castle and
eventually outside. The rest of your home is to the south.

Queen Guinevere is here watching you very closely.

>

Like I said, nothing fancy. But it gets across all the information you
need: you now know who you are and what you need to do, and even your
motivation. And as a special bonus, it's actually funny. I don't think
any other game in the competition made me laugh out loud immediately,
just from the sheer ludicrousness of the basic concept. A number of them
tried to do so and failed miserably.

I'm still trying to figure out why I liked this so much more than any of
the other comic games in the competition. I think it's because it never
seems forced, and all the jokes arise naturally from the situation:

> x excalibur
You got it from that chick in the lake after you managed to break the
sword you pulled from the stone. Excalibur has been your friend in
many battles.

> x scabbard
Merlin said that this scabbard makes you invincible. Yeah, right.

And, of course, this is all perfectly accurate Arthurian mythology.

So there we have it: a small game with some cute gags and some cute
puzzles, which isn't overloaded with tedious MUD and newsgroup in-jokes.
That's all you need to do to get seven points from me.

(On the downside, I might easily have been put off this game by the
MacOS Alan interpreter, which is pretty dire. I _really_ wish the Alan
source code was freely available, so that we could get some proper ports
done. Rant over, sorry.)

(Oh, and I forgot -- 'examine' and 'search' have different results in
certain situations, which is annoying and unnecessary. But a glance at
the walkthrough helped me over this difficulty.)

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Hunter, in Darkness

I appreciated this game more than I actually enjoyed it, somehow. It
gets ten out of ten for the cleverness of the basic concept, certainly,
and ten out of ten for the execution of the clever idea: it's a
wonderfully atmospheric remake of _Hunt the Wumpus_. And yet . . . well,
it's a remake of _Hunt the Wumpus_.

If there was a contest to find the most pointless and pathetically dull
game of all time, Wumpus would be one of the front-runners: just ahead
of Ludo, I think, and behind Snap. I'm simultaneously amazed at how well
Dave Ahl Jr. -- or rather, whoever's hiding behind that pen name -- has
brought this old chestnut to life, and bemused as to why anyone should
think it worth doing in the first place.

But it is a good game. It's a bloody good game. Give me a minute and
I'll think of an excuse for giving it a lower mark than _Only After
Dark_.

It's interesting to consider whether, all else being equal, a game which
cleverly references the 'ancient history' of IF is better than a game
which stands on its own. I'm not sure where I stand on that one, but I
suppose _Hunter_ would probably work equally well as a stand-alone game,
so it succeeds either way.

I think I have mixed feelings because _Hunter_ just tries too hard. No,
that's not quite right: it's too damned clever for its own good. I
immediately knew exactly what was going on, and while one part of my
mind was getting involved in the game, another part was analysing the
little tricks it was playing; and another part was resentful of the
slightly-too-blatant manipulation that was going on. An uncomfortably
schizophrenic position to be in, I think you'll agree, especially when
you have to solve some rather cunning little puzzles.

I didn't much like the ending, either. It works, I suppose, but only in
spite of itself: the events which occur are completely and utterly
ludicrous, or would be if they weren't described so skilfully. It's
churlish of me to say so, but I honestly felt as if the game was
bragging: "Look! Look how cool I am! I've taken a rather banal and
unlikely story and imbued it with real meaning and pathos. Isn't that
amazing?" There's also a little bit of moralisation over the
consequences of the player's actions, which I rather resented since I
hadn't been permitted to attempt anything different.

To summarise: it's a tour-de-force, but it's _obviously_ a
tour-de-force, and thus not quite as effective as the kind of artless
little game which lulls your defences and sneaks up on you unawares
until suddenly <tunk>

Well, maybe you believe my rationalisation and maybe you don't. Either
way, please forget it and go and play the game.

(Postscript: 'Dave Ahl Jr.' turned out to be Andrew Plotkin, of course.
I didn't remotely suspect this during the comp, but with hindsight I can
see that _Hunter, in Darkness_ is full of the little zarfian touches
we've come to know and love.

Well. Mostly love. I must confess that the only one of Andrew's games
that I really enjoyed was _Spider and Web_. To my taste, he has a slight
tendency to overwrite which I find slightly irritating -- to overwrite
with very few words, that is. This is probably just envy, since I have
no idea how the hell he does it.)

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On The Farm

This is a rather modest and unassuming little game which I rather
enjoyed playing. It's . . . sweet, but decidedly un-saccharine.

It begins as your busy single mother drops you off at your grandparent's
delapidated old farm, before speeding off again to attend to more
important matters. A holiday _here_? How dull can you get!? And to make
matters worse, your grandparents have fallen out and aren't talking to
each other. Your grandfather asks you to help out by finding something
to cheer up grandma -- and so the stage is set for some wonderfully
mucky, smelly and at times dangerous farmyard antics.

The writing isn't perfect: I couldn't put my finger on any general
problems, but it often seems a bit rough and clumsy. It does the job,
though, and Grandpa has some great one-liners. The puzzles are just
right: lots of mechanical devices to figure out, but they're all pretty
intuitive (and well-implemented). The ordering of the puzzles is good,
too, with the game spreading out in the middle and narrowing down for
the endgame at just the right pace. And there are some nice on-line
hints, although they're implemented a bit clumsily.

I'll mention two bugs in particular because they're very easy to fix.
Firstly, _On the Farm_ uses TADS's HTML mode to display some nice
opening and closing pictures; but this means that the HTML-TADS runtime
doesn't switch to the TADS-Input font for player input, leaving this up
to the game. This can be fixed by printing a <font> tag in the
commandPrompt function. Secondly, comments have been added to the
walkthrough directly after some commands, which prevents it being read
in as a transcript with the "@" command. _Erehwon_'s
walkthrough/transcript is an excellent example of how to do this
properly.

So far, all this puts _On the Farm_ in roughly the same category as,
say, _Beat the Devil_. But there's also bags of atmosphere and an
intriguing story, which for me raise this game above most of the others.

I loved the muck and dirt and smells of the farmyard, and the wistful
ambience created by all the rotting and abandoned old buildings and
machinery; it brought back a few memories of similar places I've
explored. It might also have been fun to explore a working farm full of
bustle and animals, though this would be an entirely different game.
(Replaying the game later, I found a farming magazine full of
tongue-in-cheek scatological humour. Call me dull, but I didn't think
this really fits in.)

The story partly involves finding out a bit of family history, through
reading diaries and talking to your grandparents. This sort of thing has
been done before, of course, though for some reason mainly in horror IF
-- _Theatre_, _Anchorhead_, _Curses_. The novelty here, I felt, was that
the PC partly relives the mother's own experiences on the farm as a
young girl. In fact, I quickly decided that the initially-unspecified PC
was a girl for this reason. Later on, I was slightly disappointed to
find that he was actually a boy: a boy in a photograph is described as
looking just like him.

[Later still, I discovered that the PC's gender _is_ supposed to be
unspecified, just like in _Arrival_. Come to think of it, I suppose it's
perfectly reasonable to compare the facial features of a boy and a girl.
I still think it works better with a female PC, though.]

I like the feel of a chain of stories from grandparent through parent
through child, with the motif of a black-and-gold flower tying
everything together. And, realistically, none of the really important
issues are resolved in the course of the game. This does leave the
ending a little weak, however, since most of your discoveries aren't
used in solving the central puzzle. And I felt like the mother should be
involved in the ending somehow, since she was present at the start and
definitely there in spirit in the middle.

Overall, a really nice little game. My wish-list of improvements: a
slicker presentation with less rough spots; a bit of sparkle in the
writing here and there; and a bit more closure in the endgame.

(Oh, and one final note: the author, Lenny Pitts, kept popping up in the
credits list of other games. I eventually counted and found that he had
indeed beta-tested more games than anyone else, besides entering a very
creditable game of his own. He probably deserves a Most Helpful Person
award or something -- though not quite as much as Stephen Granade does,
of course.)

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

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