[COMP99] Yet more reviews (Iain Merrick) [3/4]

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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 third bunch of reviews. I didn't really enjoy these games,
although in each case I felt there were some redeeming features.

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

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Beat the Devil: 2
Chaos: 2
Chicks Dig Jerks: 2
Death to my Enemies: 2
Erehwon: 2
Four Seconds: 2
Halothane: 2
The Water Bird: 2

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Beat the Devil

Score: 2

I can't really think of much to say about this one. I'm not quite sure
why, but I just found that I'd lost all my enthusiasm after about three
moves, and couldn't resist a peek or two at the included source code . .
. I think I spent more time reading the source than actually playing the
game.

I think I probably figured (correctly) that there was going to be
nothing really new here to interest me. I've seen puzzle games before,
I've seen games set in Hell, I've seen games with the Seven Deadly Sins
. . . you get the picture. It may be a bit cruel to give a game such a
low score just for not having any really outstanding features, but there
you go.

(Postscript: in my usual hypocritical way, I'm pleased to see that lots
of other people enjoyed this one, even if I didn't.)

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Chaos

Score: 2

Another game for which I couldn't work up enough enthusiam to give it a
proper try . This _isn't_ because I played it last, honest -- although
this _is_ one of my last reviews, so exhaustion is probably working its
way into proceedings that way.

I'm going to be lazy and suggest you read someone else's review, since I
pretty much agree with most of them. The third-person viewpoint didn't
work at all for me, not least because of the weird formatting errors
that kept cropping up. I was never quite sure whether or not the
disorienting effect this caused was intentional, but either way I found
it annoying.

One suggestion: including the Evil Overlord List is fine (as long as you
give due credit), but I think it would have been better to code it as a
book object with each entry on a different page, rather than printing
out the whole list in one huge chunk. I'd have quite enjoyed flipping
through the list at random while playing, but reading the whole thing in
one sitting completely spoiled the momentum of the game for me.

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Chicks Dig Jerks

Score: 2

This game is very, very strange.

You start off in a nightclub, trying to pick up girls. This essentially
boils down to a series of multiple-choice conversations, which didn't
really catch my interest. The conversations are fairly amusing at times,
but as a non-American I felt a bit like an alien trying to figure out
what was going on. Perhaps I just haven't watched the right films, or
been to the right nightclubs, to appreciate this sort of humour.

After that there's a lengthy -- and mercifully non-interactive -- sex
scene, then more jolly jock-y japes, then a spot of grave-robbing. And
then you have to save the world, or possibly just the state -- I'd sort
of lost track of what was going on at this point. This is why I said it
was strange, you see. The second half of the game was also rather buggy,
so I jumped for the walkthrough even earlier than usual.

Even so, I did quite enjoy the climax, which involved foiling the evil
villainess's plans by, naturally, chatting her up. A bit like
_Goldfinger_, eh? Unfortunately even this was spoiled (for me, at least)
by an unexpectedly downbeat ending, which cynically points out that you
only succeeded because 'chicks dig jerks'. Hence the title, I guess.

But what's wrong with that? The PC is certainly a jerk, but he still
manages to save the world (or the state) and sustain a not
unsatisfactory sex life. One of his friends gets killed, but I don't see
that that's the PC's fault, and he's quickly revenged on the killer. If
that's what being a jerk is all about, yay jerks! And I don't care if
that _does_ classify me as a chick, so there.

(Postscript: Adam Cadre has rhapsodised at length on the beauty of the
dialogue, and to a certain extent he's won me over, so I'm going to
change my defence slightly. I still have a problem with the dialogue,
which is that it's not really interactive; and this is supposed to be
IF, after all.

There are some great lines in this game, but they appear every single
damned time you play the thing, whether you want them to or not.
Consider this exchange, for example, which appears about half-way
through the game:

Criswell gets up for a moment and goes to the refrigerator.
He picks up a jug and sniffs it. "Hey, is this orange juice?"

Everyone replies, "Yeah."

Criswell wrinkles his nose and is visibly irritated. "Look,
is it orange juice or just a really big screwdriver?"

Everyone replies, "Screwdriver."

Everyone? Not me, pal: I'm just reading this stuff.

Compare this to the ferret/stoat joke in _Erehwon_ which Paul O'Brian
quotes in his review. Okay, so it's not the greatest pun of all time,
but it does let the player get involved in proceedings. I liked the
'wrench' and 'agricultural implement' gags in good old _Curses_ for the
same reason.

The multiple-choice conversation system doesn't help, either. I never
felt like _I_ was making the witty and/or inane remarks; it was more
like the author was asking me, "which hilarious conversation do you want
to hear this time? I got hundreds of 'em!" Which is fine as far as it
goes, but hardly great IF. One possible improvement might be to add more
branches to each conversation, as in the Lucasarts games, thus giving
the player's choices a bit more weight.)

(Post-postscript: Hm. I described the ending as 'downbeat', but a few
other reviewers have mentioned a 'terrible pun' in the 'joke ending'.
Looks like I missed the point somewhere, as usual. Anyone want to
explain the joke?)

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Death To My Enemies

Score: 2

This is an exuberant stew of in-jokes, pop culture allusions and so on.
Unfortunately I don't tend to like this sort of thing very much.

The one thing I did laugh at, bizarrely, was the name 'Snam': it's just
the perfect side-kick nick-name. I wonder if the opening, with Snam's
rather touching death-scene, is a parody of _Jewel of Knowledge_, which
I vaguely recall as starting in a similar manner. Anyway, with its
tongue-in-cheek tone this particular opening worked quite well.

But the game itself didn't live up to my expectations, being essentially
a string of surreal jokes and fairly random puzzles. There was a plot of
sorts, but the plot was controlled by the gags and not vice-versa. I
think I'd have enjoyed this game a great deal more if there had been a
consistent world behind it all, with the comedy arising naturally from
the situation. IF sitcom, anyone?

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Erehwon

Score: 2

I _should_ have liked this game. It's a rather esoteric genre, but I
happen to love British mathematical humour, and _Erehwon_ is full of it.
So what went wrong?

Well, maybe it's my fault. I didn't really notice the humour early on,
and I quickly decided that the mathematical puzzles -- while original
and cleverly-constructed -- were just too damned hard and/or tedious. So
I quickly turned tail and ran for the walkthrough.

After walking through a few scenes, I decided that I'd been right about
the puzzles -- I still don't understand that Klein-bottle desert, and I
don't think I'd ever have the patience to traverse a twenty-room maze --
but also began to appreciate the wonderfully witty, whimsical and
idiosyncratic humour that subtly permeates the rather spartan game
world.

I really am annoyed that I didn't like this game more. I'm pretty much
acclimatised to the very American humour of most IF games, and it's
refreshing to come across something a bit different. But alas for
patriotism -- assuming the author _is_ from the UK, that is, or at least
the Commonwealth -- it just didn't work for me on the night.

I suspect that the contest may have hindered rather than helped this
game, which is definitely not a two-hour experience. I'll put it aside
for now, I think, and try it again in six months or so. And I look
forward to the author's next game, of course.

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Four Seconds

Score: 2

This game feels rather similar to Ian Finley's _Babel_, but the
execution is much rougher and it doesn't work nearly as well overall.

The main problem is that it's horribly buggy, but it does have a
wonderful excuse for this: type 'about' at the prompt and you'll see
what I mean. If that rather unlikely tale is true, the author has my
sympathy; if not, I'll still salute his panache. No extra marks, though.

But, bugs aside -- I'm afraid the opening scene put me off, and none of
the scenes which followed managed to grab my interest again. I gave up
before getting beyond about half-way (I think).

My major complaint is that I didn't know what I was supposed to be
doing, and the game didn't seem to want to tell me. I get the impression
that this was intentional, done for atmospheric effect; but I just don't
like flailing around at random, and that's that.

I should qualify that. It occurs to me that if I know what my overall
goal is, I'm quite happy to do some localised exploration; and
conversely, if it's reasonably obvious what I should be doing
immediately -- and _why_ I should be doing it -- I'm happy to go with
the flow and figure out the background details later.

What I don't like is to be dropped into a room which just happens to
have an exit to the north, say, and expected to go north. Why? East and
west and south look just as interesting to me. No matter how
carefully-crafted the plot, I want a glimpse or two of what might be
coming up before I start following it.

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Halothane

Score: 2

From the author's notes, one would think this is a wacky comic romp
which alternately parodies and pays homage to a bunch of classic IF
games, but to me it didn't seem anything of the kind.

It does start off quite promisingly -- despite an annoyingly contrived
initial puzzle -- but the atmosphere is grim and mysterious rather than
comic. Sort of a cross between _Losing Your Grip_ and _Photopia_, I
decided, which could make for a damned good game. So I played on with
high hopes, eagerly looking forward to the gradual revelation of a
momentous story which would tie all the surreal, vaguely unsettling
scenes together into a self-consistent whole.

But time went on, and nothing much was revealed. Instead, the game just
got increasingly opaque, with incomprehensible events occurring
apparently at random.

After a while I came across a woman who seemed to want to explain things
to me -- finally! "You must have a lot of questions," she said. Well, I
did; but they were very general ones, along the lines of: "I'm confused!
What on earth is going on here?" I couldn't think of anything specific
to ask her, and she didn't say very much to clarify matters. At which
point I threw up my hands and started seriously using the walkthrough --
but she _still_ didn't say very much! And the game continued to fail to
make sense.

I eventually gave up and decided that what I'd half-feared all along was
indeed the case: there isn't much of a story inside this game at all,
just a bunch of vaguely postmodernist smoke and mirrors. And not much in
the way of comedy, as far as I can see.

(Postscript: I seem to be in a minority, since this game actually did
rather well and garnered some extremely favourable reviews. This
probably sounds ungracious, but I was and am totally astonished. Have I
totally missed the point of the most witty and lyrical game in the comp?
Well. I'm still not convinced, but: well done, Quentin!)

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The Water Bird

Score: 2

The short review: unfinishable due to bugs. Too bad.

And now, a confession: I didn't even get far enough to run up against
the show-stopping bug, whatever it is. I had really high hopes for this
game, but I just couldn't get involved in the game world at all.

This is a very carefully-researched game based on Miwok legends. The
author has included a great deal of background information and an
annotated bibliography; I really admire the time and effort he's put
into it all, since this is after all just a two-hour comp game. As for
the game itself, I did find it a little bit precious and staid for my
taste. I prefer something a bit more gleefully anarchic: such as Bonnie
Montgomery's _Firebird_, which poked fun at Russian folklore while
remaining faithful to it on a larger scale.

But that still doesn't really explain why I didn't get anywhere in the
game. I think it's just another case of me not wanting to explore with a
good reason to do so. Okay, there's a fascinating and realistic Indian
village out there, but I like to think myself into the PC: and as the
PC, I already know all about the village! The game's introduction hints
that I'm going to get caught up in a fascinating story, but I couldn't
for the life of me see how that story was supposed to begin. I'd much
prefer to have been thrown into the story right from the start, so that
I had to swim just to avoid drowning. If the game itself is interesting
enough, your carefully-researched environment _will_ get noticed;
there's no need to push it into the player's face right from the start.

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

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