[Comp 99] Some of Avrom's Reviews

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Avrom Faderman

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Nov 16, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/16/99
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Hi all,

Well, I feel a bit bad this year. After a serious start (bug
reports, long reviews [see below], games played in quick
succession) I suffered a bit of burnout. I stopped making bug
lists, then I stopped writing reviews, then I stopped playing the
games--although I did manage to play all but a handful. Part of
this, I'm afraid, may be due to my becoming embroiled in a
better-than-usual game of NetHack (which, for those who don't know
it, is the best non-IF computer game there is, IMO). Part of it
may have been simple burnout.

Part of it may have been--and I hope the unconstructiveness of this
will be forgiven (I try to do better below)--that I found the
average quality a *bit* of a disappointment. A lot of this was
that a more-than-usually high number of the games were *very*
buggy, enough to really detract from the experience (writing bug
reports got to be enough of a chore that that probably contributed
to the burnout; I felt like a beta tester, except that I wouldn't
try to beta test a huge slew of games right before the comp). But
that wasn't all of it. I don't think we had many really bad games
this year, but to tell the truth, I wasn't *really* grabbed by any
of them. "Hunter, in Darkness" came close, and a couple of others
came *fairly* close--but nothing that, if I hadn't been normalizing
my scores, I would have given higher than a low 8 to in previous
years (which isn't damning; I considered 8 a very respectable
score).

I *did* decide to normalize my scores this year (well, nearly; I
reserved the right to bump borderline games up 1 or down 1 after
the normalization). The scores in the reviews below may not look
normalized, but that's because I played more games than I reviewed.


NOTE: I've tried to avoid spoilers, but there is one mild one--for
Hunter, in Darkness. It's a spoiler about the very beginning of
the game (I estimate about 4 moves into it), but it's a beautiful
moment, so you *might* want to experience it for yourself first.
It certainly won't ruin the game if you don't--it will just ruin
the first 4 moves.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the reviews I wrote:

---

The Waterbird:

Very interesting idea; novel setting--a fantasy world, but one
drawn carefully from myth rather than the standard Tolkeinesque
mishmash. Moreover, it's a bit of mythology most people know
little about, and it's impeccably researched. Also contains a
remarkable set of footnotes about the lives of the Miwoks. This
game would actually make an excellent educational tool.

The beginning of the introduction reads wonderfully, like a
fireside tale. The style slacks off a bit after that, but
generally well-written. Unfortunately, the game is *extremely*
buggy--enough so that I wondered if it had been tested at all.
TADS errors pop up all over the place, and the most serious bug
makes the game entirely unwinnable. The author's decision not to
include a walkthrough seems generally acceptable in this case (the
puzzles all seem relatively easy), but he should have at least
developed one for testing purposes, and it's clear he didn't (didn’
t this used to be a rule? Shouldn’t it be one again? Again, I’m
not saying authors should be required to submit walkthroughs to the
players, just to the contest admins for verification purposes). I
would be quite excited to play a debugged version, but in this
version the bugs were sufficiently prominent to substantially hurt
the playing experience.

Rating: 6


Six Stories

Very ambitious. This game makes full and unabashed use of all the
bells and whistles of HTML TADS. And the effect is...mixed.

Remember back in the old days of Infocom, when they advertised that
no graphics could match the resolution of the minds eye? That's
still true. And it--and its relatives--are especially true when
the production in question is an amateur one.

Don't get me wrong. This is very impressive for an amateur
production. The photography is skillful, the stories are fun, and
the one puzzle is clever, if simple. And the voices aren't bad,
considering that one assumes that nobody associated with the
production is an experienced actor.

But that "considering" is part of the problem. Of *course* an
entrant in the I-F competition doesn't have a sound lab complete
with noise reduction so that there's no background static in the
recordings. Of *course* nobody in our amateur community is going
to be able to round up 7 experienced actors to read the parts. Of
*course* a production that attempts to do all that is going to look
unprofessional. But that raises the question: Why attempt to do
all that?

There are times something like this can be made to work. Stephen
Granade's "Arrival" hardly had professional-quality multimedia, but
it still worked because the game gave a good justification for the
cheesiness of the graphics. "Six stories" doesn't give any such
justification, and even its much more sophisticated production
values still seem to fall a bit flat.

Rating: 7


Remembrance

I'm beginning to wonder if there's going to be something of an
edutainment theme to this year's competition. This game traces,
from the perspective of several different individuals, the events
leading up to a battle in WWI, focusing on a particular soldier who
was lost in that battle.

Sound at all familiar? Yes, this game owes a *lot* to Adam Cadre's
"Photopia." But, as might be expected, it suffers a lot in
comparison to its forbearer. It is, basically, to "Photopia" what
"Of Forms Unknown" was to "So Far."

The particular problems:

For one thing, the themes were a bit muddled. The ending suggests
that duty is an important theme in the game, but in truth, not much
is done with it. A few of the cut scenes (the Prime Minister's
room, for example) seem unnecessary from both a thematic and a plot
perspective.

Interactivity is *extremely* low in this game. It's essentially a
hypertext story without branching capability: Each "room" has a
list of verbs, each of which you have to click on (sometimes typing
in your own noun or, in the case of "ask," your own question) in
the correct order before being advanced to the next room.
Intermediate steps don't even change the room description; after
you get an object, you're still told it's in front of you. When
you do something out of order, you're simply told "My action has no
effect," even if that's an inappropriate response.

The good things:

The writing, while not as good as Cadre's, ranges from pretty good
to quite good indeed (although it only hits the latter in a few
places). The plot, while it has no major surprises, is moving, and
I did care about Alex, though not as much as I ended up caring
about Alley. There is a very nice, subtle twist at the end, that I
can't say any more about without giving a spoiler, but it makes
some features of the earlier writing that initially seem like bad
writing instead seem like subtle and carefully placed clues.

Rating: 4


Life on Beal Street

A long time ago, on my Atari 800, I had a program called, I
believe, "Random Mozart." It turns out that one of Mozart's short
tunes (might have been part of his juvenilia) sounds good no matter
what order you play the measures in. Some orders are better than
others, of course, but almost none of them are really jarring. So
"Random Mozart" split this piece up into its 40 or so component
measures, picked a random one, then picked (usually another but
possibly the same) random one, and so on until it had a new 40
measure piece. It played it, and it sounded surprisingly good.

"Life on Beal Street" is kind of (notice I said *kind of*--the
feeling is similar, though the mechanics are different) like a
fiction version of "Random Mozart." It's a five-page story, but
each page but the first is chosen from a random bin of 5 or 6
possibilities. The game displays the first page, then picks a
sheet from the "page 2" bin and displays that, then picks one from
the "page 3" bin and displays that, and so on. At any point you
can elect to either go on or go back and end the story.

If you go back, the ending you get depends on the last page you
just saw, but otherwise--and this is important--the pages appear to
be completely independently chosen. The version of page 2 that you
saw has no bearing on which page you pick next. And--just as
surprisingly as with "Random Mozart"--the result is usually pretty
good. Some combinations make more sense than others, but none of
them make no sense, and the multiplicity of good combos is
shocking. And obviously, this is a more impressive effort than
"Random Mozart" ever was, because the author here is both the
measure-chopper *and* the Mozart.

"This is not a game...is it Interactive Fiction? That's trickier,"
says the author in the "about" text. I rather beg to differ. This
*does* have at least the feel of a game, much as "Random Mozart" or
"Mad Libs" has the feel of a game. It's a game of chance, rather
than skill, and there's no "winning," but there's something
gamelike, or better toylike, about the experience. As to whether
it's Interactive Fiction, I'm inclined to say "no." The player has
effectively no control over the storyline (except by choosing to go
back, which is tantamount to "quit"), not only in a global sense,
but locally. You couldn't change the outcome of, say, "Photopia,"
but you could exert *some* control over the game in a turn-to-turn
sense. Here you really can't.

The "about" text also suggests that this game demonstrates the
profound effects of miniscule external forces. But it doesn't
really do that either, at least not clearly: The action of these
miniscule external forces is not only unpredictable but invisible:
Rarely is an external explanation given for the twists in the
story. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the profundity of
the effects is limited to the very next page.

Does "Beal Street" make any sort of deep point? Maybe, but if so,
it's not the one the author intended. More likely it's not one
about emotions or lives or forces at all but rather one about
stories themselves: that what you come in to a bit of text with ca
n be as important to what you get out of it as the text itself.
Two people who get exactly the same page 3 will have radically
different interpretations of it, depending on which page 2 they've
read.

Rating: 9


Chix Dig Jerks

Now this is bizarre. It starts out midway between a "recreate my
college roommates" game and softcore porn, then suddenly shifts
gears to a weird horror story, then shifts again to one massive
setup for a joke. The joke isn't bad (a bit of a groaner, but
funny as groaners go); it reminds me a little of the author’s
Chicken Comp game. And the writing isn't generally bad either,
although it has its serious lapses, and most scenery is not only
undescribed but inaccessible. The game is very buggy, although not
as badly so as "The Waterbird"--I'll try to send bug reports, but
it's difficult as I had trouble recreating a lot of these bugs
(Basically, sometimes characters fail to appear when they're
supposed to, and the game closes off. I haven't been able to
figure out what causes this.)

Rating: 4


Guard Duty

Aaaaaargh! What a promising game! And how completely, utterly
ruined by abysmal, game-stopping bugs! Taking inventory causes the
game to crash! Sometimes removing your cloak causes the game to
crash! Dropping items randomly turns out the lights! Half the
time your boss simply disappears into thin air! I’m sorry, I know
we’re not generally supposed to discuss bugs in a public forum, but
I can’t imagine any of these will come as any surprise to anyone
who tried to play the game.

The idea is interesting, the writing is good, the game is
apparently very complex (but more on that below), but unlike The
Water Bird, whose bugs simply render it unwinnable, the bugs here
make the game absolutely unplayable. I did make a game effort for
2 hours, although much of that was spent downloading different
Z-code interpreters to see if any of them did a better job with it
(they didn’t).

“Any remaining bugs or problems with the game are…likely to be due
to my running out of time…and dynamic memory (in the 64K limit)…”
Look, two points: 1) There’s no law that says you have to enter
your game in the competition. This effort in particular, which
seems so ambitious, could probably have done well if released at
*any* time of the year if the bugs were removed; much better than
I think it’s in fact going to do. 2) It’s an unfortunate fact,
but you have to respect the limits of your medium. If you’re going
to program for the Z-machine, you’re required to stay within
certain computational limits. If your game doesn’t do that, you
either have to find a new virtual machine (TADS or, eventually,
Glulx) or *trim your game*. I know I praised the complexity above,
but bells and whistles stop being features and start being bugs
when they cause the program to crash.

I’m afraid that, despite its promise, I can’t rate this game very
highly. The best writing and idea in the world can’t make a game
fun to play when most playtime is spent dealing with game crashes
and bizarre behavior.

Rating: 2


For A Change

This is interesting, and largely successful. The game is, as the
author states, basically a traditional adventure game (requiring
traditional adventurer’s actions), but this fact is obscured, in
part for the better and in part for the worse, by the language.

Ah, the language. It’s not entirely clear what universe the PC is
in, but it seems to be populated primarily by individuals in an
advanced stage of schizophrenia. Sometimes the effect is amusing
and even quaintly beautiful, for example the parenthetical
descriptions of objects-you start the game with “a small stone
(humble and true)” much as you might often start with “a lantern
(providing light).” Every object, every feature of the landscape
has a personality. On the other hand, sometimes it’s just
confusing (the character’s unwillingness to notice *ordinary*
details makes at least one puzzle basically unclued).

Some of the puzzles were logical; some were less so, although
there was nothing that I wasn’t able to figure out after I had done
it, at least (don’t laugh, this has happened to me with a fair
number of comp games in the past). There were a few events
(something being damaged, for example; to say more would be a
spoiler) the cause of which I was never able to divine.

One notable bug, but nothing really bad in that department.

Rating: 9


Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win

Good. Well written, well-designed, well-programmed. Don’t take
the fact that the rest of this review is critical to suggest I didn
’t like the game. I did. It’s not that the bad parts overwhelmed
the good; it’s just that they inspired more verbosity.

The writing has a few flaws: I feel like I’m being told what I
think too much and too obviously. This is clearly a real PC and
not a cipher, but there must be a subtler way to communicate
emotions. (There is, and many games do it well. Alter the
language and use descriptions that show what sort of individual the
PC is; don’t outright tell us all his/her thoughts).

I’m also not terribly fond of many of the puzzles, which seem to
come too close to simple lock+key puzzles. Not that there are
really any locks or keys, but the idea of a succession of weapons,
each of which takes out a separate baddy, reminds me too much of an
early Nintendo adventure.

Finally, more synonyms. I want to be able to look through windows
as well as at them. I want to be able to fubbg q jvgu errq.

Rating: 8


Winter Wonderland

This game has a lot going for it. Well-written prose (but a bit
more on that later), some cute images, some clever puzzles. And I
really, really wanted to like it a lot--it seems like it *should*
be an extremely likeable game. But there were just enough things
in it that didn't quite mesh that it left me feeling slightly cold.

What was it? Some of the things may simply have been a matter of
taste--I'm not at all a big maze fan, and this game had *two*,
although both are pretty small. Some of the images of frolicking
fairies and fauns and satyrs and magical creatures in their little
hideaways that are miraculously warm got a bit repetitive. The
dryad, alas, annoyed me (for one thing, his poems neither rhymed
nor scanned. I generally have no problem with this in poetry, but
the Dryad's poems seemed like they were supposed to rhyme and
scan)--actually, I noticed this in general: the game's quality of
prose seems to dip a lot when it turns to dialogue (well,
monologue). Most of the descriptions are beautiful, rich,
evocative, but most of the spoken words are...well, a little bit
corny. Maybe this was supposed to be an old-fashioned, corny fairy
tale, but in that case, the descriptions were a bit *too*
well-written, and the contrast was jarring.

Don't get me wrong. I didn't *dislike* the game. It just didn't
grab me the way that I felt it could have.

Rating: 6


Halothane

Not, despite what the intro claims, a game with only optional
puzzles; simply a game in which the required puzzles are much
easier than the optional ones. They're easy enough that they don't
interrupt the narrative much, though, so the game can be read
*almost* like a story (and a good thing, considering that most of
the puzzles involve looking under or in various places).

And a bizarre story it is, too. Surrealistic, sometimes absurdist,
and just plain all around strange. Some of the strangeness, like
an author's having to interact with his characters, is really
nothing new (actually, that's a plot device that I think we should
just about put a moratorium on, the sort of thing that was wild and
mind-stretching the first ten times it was done [mostly in static
fiction] but has since become predictable). Some of it, like the
man whose profile looks like a 10p coin, is new, and those pieces
work, at least individually.

But the game, so far as I can tell, lacks a sort of *cohesion*.
There's a basic plot, it's true, but all the strange and diverse
bits, if they were ever tied together, were tied together in too
subtle a way for me. The basic plot (which revolves around the
aforementioned author's interaction with his aforementioned
characters) is clear enough, but all the strange images remain
simply strange images. Combined with the way in which scenes
change so abruptly (sometimes with relatively innocuous actions
that whisk you about the geography), the overall feeling is one of
disorientation.

Maybe I never found all the pages of the book, and maybe if I had,
all would be clear to me. If that's true, this game is
*definitely* not puzzleless--you don't need to solve puzzles to
win, but you do to understand what's going on.

Oh, and on a more technical note--*more synonyms*. I wanted to be
able to "turn on lights" or "flip switch", not just "push switch."
"Dissolve x" shouldn't be the only way to accomplish *any* action.
I want to be able to go "out" of buildings in addition to a compass
direction, particularly if the compass direction of the exit isn't
described (e.g., Gold's home).

Rating: 7


King Arthur's Night Out

Silly. You're king Arthur. You want nothing more than to get away
from a very shrewish Queen Guenevere and have some brewskies with
Lance and the boys. To do that, you have to solve a number of
old-fashioned adventure-game chestnuts. Not my cup of tea, but of
course YMMV (some people *loved* the earlier-year competition game
Phlegm, which wasn't my cup of tea in some similar ways).

Rating: 4


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

Ah, a Rybread Celsius game. When I did the action that looked like
it should solve the game's only puzzle, I got lots of library
errors and the game went into a clearly unwinnable state. The
writing, though misspelled and misshapen as always, does have a bit
of charm, as Rybread's writing sometimes does. But in the
end...no. He's an icon of the I-F world and I love him for it, but
no.

Rating: 1


Hunter, in Darkness

Now this, I like. Lest anyone think I'm down on old-fashioned
puzzle games, take note: This is, in 99% of its aspects, an
old-fashioned puzzle game. And I loved it.

I wonder if I would have loved it quite as much if I didn't get the
joke. But I did, and it worked. You start out, you're a hunter,
tracking some big beast in a network of connected, cramped caverns.
You have a crossbow and several arrows. Nothing particularly weird
there. But then you notice the bats...and the pit...

OK, for people who aren't up on their ancient games history: There
was, once upon a time, a game called Hunt the Wumpus. It was the
sort of game you might have to program as an exercise in a
second-semester college freshman programming class (in fact, I
think I did have to program it under exactly those circumstances).
You're in a network of caves, chasing a creature known only as the
Wumpus, armed with your crossbow and several arrows. Two of the
caves contain giant bats that scoop you up and drop you elsewhere
in the caverns (at random), and two of them contain deep pits that
are instantly fatal. If you shoot the Wumpus, you win. If you end
up in the same room with the Wumpus (more than once--the first time
you just bump it and wake it up) or a pit, you lose.

So this game is sort of a port of an ancient game to the Z-machine,
just like, say, Robotz or Space Invaderz, right? Wrong--it's not a
port to the z-machine, it's a port to the *medium of interactive
fiction*. The simple "M)ove or S)hoot?" "To what room?" interface
is replaced by...well, you're *there*. In the Wumpus' cave. Amid
the bats and the pits and the twisty passages come to life,
elaborated with wonderful prose and clever puzzles.

And the penultimate scene--if I've spoiled the introduction for
you, take consolation in the fact that I haven't spoiled the scene
just before you solve the final puzzle. In two words, *way* cool.

Rating: 10


Thorfinn’s Realm

This game had some nicely written descriptions, was relatively free
of illogical puzzles, and was quite free of bugs (not entirely, but
really reasonably close). But, well…

I hope I’ve established I have nothing against traditional puzzle
adventures. But “traditional” is a bit of a complex word. It
doesn’t, for example, mean “imitative.” Your puzzles can’t simply
be trivial variations on things we’ve seen a million million times
before. If everything in a game is “find the hidden keys,” “give
the bear something that will calm it down,” or “find new batteries
for your flashlight (!)”, something’s missing.

Number two-it’s of course been often stressed that rooms shouldn’t
be just lists of exits. But somewhere in them, rooms really need
to have all the obvious exits (and those exits’ directions,
particularly if ENTER X, IN, and OUT don’t work!) mentioned.
Otherwise your game becomes a maze.

And finally, something that could be applied to several games not
only from this year’s competition but from many years pasts:
schoolyard sexual innuendo isn’t funny. Really. I’m not saying
sex doesn’t have its place in interactive fiction. I’m not even
saying sex in interactive fiction can’t be used for humor value.
But puns on “booty” can’t be used for humor value, because (IMAO,
at least) they don’t have any. Oh, and while we’re at it, the same
goes for bathroom jokes. I really don’t need to know that the PC
has soiled him/herself. Really.

Rating: 2

[I may write more reviews, although of course they'll be tainted by
post-comp discussion.]

Adam Cadre

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Nov 16, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/16/99
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Avrom Faderman wrote:
> Winter Wonderland
>
> [...] it left me feeling slightly cold.

I suppose that's appropriate enough.

-----
Adam Cadre, Sammamish, WA
http://adamcadre.ac

Sean T Barrett

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Nov 17, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/17/99
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Avrom Faderman <fade...@pacbell.net> wrote:
>Part of this, I'm afraid, may be due to my becoming embroiled in a
>better-than-usual game of NetHack (which, for those who don't know
>it, is the best non-IF computer game there is, IMO).

I think every person interested in IF should play NetHack
at least once, to see some of the other descendents of the
common ancestors that led to modern IF.

Sean Barrett
(NetHack's sort of a glorified "Hunt the Wumpus")

Jake Wildstrom

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Nov 17, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/17/99
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In article <FLBvz...@world.std.com>,

Sean T Barrett <buz...@world.std.com> wrote:
>I think every person interested in IF should play NetHack
>at least once, to see some of the other descendents of the
>common ancestors that led to modern IF.

Angband! Angband! Angband forever! *SLAP* Sorry about that. I'm sane now...

+--First Church of Briantology--Order of the Holy Quaternion--+
| A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into |
| theorems. -Paul Erdos |
+-------------------------------------------------------------+
| Jake Wildstrom |
+-------------------------------------------------------------+

Arcum Dagsson

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Nov 17, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/17/99
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In article <80unog$j...@senator-bedfellow.MIT.EDU>, wil...@mit.edu (Jake
Wildstrom) wrote:

> In article <FLBvz...@world.std.com>,
> Sean T Barrett <buz...@world.std.com> wrote:
> >I think every person interested in IF should play NetHack
> >at least once, to see some of the other descendents of the
> >common ancestors that led to modern IF.
>
> Angband! Angband! Angband forever! *SLAP* Sorry about that. I'm sane now...
>

Play both if you haven't. They are the two most major descendents... If
either intregues you, go to the Roguelike News Page, which ha news, and
links to many more...

It can be found at:

http://www.skoardy.demon.co.uk/rlnews/news.html
--Arcum Dagsson
--
"Real children don't go hoppity-skip unless they are on drugs..."
"Everyone was acting normal, so I tried to look nonchalant..."

Charlie Ball

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Nov 18, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/18/99
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In article <arcum_dagsson-1...@ppp025.max4.las-vegas.nv.skylink.net>,

arcum_...@hushmail.c.o.m (Arcum Dagsson) writes:
>In article <80unog$j...@senator-bedfellow.MIT.EDU>, wil...@mit.edu (Jake
>Wildstrom) wrote:
>
>> In article <FLBvz...@world.std.com>,
>> Sean T Barrett <buz...@world.std.com> wrote:
>> >I think every person interested in IF should play NetHack
>> >at least once, to see some of the other descendents of the
>> >common ancestors that led to modern IF.
>>
>> Angband! Angband! Angband forever! *SLAP* Sorry about that. I'm sane now...
>>
>Play both if you haven't. They are the two most major descendents... If
>either intregues you, go to the Roguelike News Page, which ha news, and
>links to many more...

From the purists point of view, nethack's been going for a lot longer than
Angband, which was built from Moria by a bunch of guys at Warwick in 1991.
Invoking bragging rights, as an initial playtester for the first versions of
Angband, I still think nethack's better!

Also, ADOM supersedes both games, in my view.

Cheers,

Charlie

Arcum Dagsson

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Nov 18, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/18/99
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In article <810gsn$j2t$1...@wisteria.csv.warwick.ac.uk>,
ms...@mimosa.csv.warwick.ac.uk (Charlie Ball) wrote:

Nethack just seems a bit too silly for me, though I've been known to play
it from time to time...

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