SmoochieComp (14 February 2001) Reviews

by J. Robinson Wheeler

1981 Dead of Winter Pytho's Mask Sparrow's Song
August Nothing More, Nothing Less Second Honeymoon Voices

1981
interactive non-fiction
by A.D. McMlxxxi

It is basically impossible to discuss the game without spoilers, although the game seems best played if you begin it not knowing. Therefore, the entirety of this review should be considered a spoiler.

 

SPOILER SPACE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's hard to imagine a more cynical entry in a mini-comp dedicated to love and/or romance than this, which puts you inside the head of one of the most demented celebrity stalkers of the 20th century -- and doesn't allow you to do anything but follow along. The player character (PC)'s identity is revealed after a delay. It is, I suppose, possible to guess from the time and place: You're outside a dormitory in New Haven, Connecticut in 1981, wearing a green army jacket, and carrying a handful of obsessive poems.

As this is non-fiction, I am guessing that the poetry is genuine, although I haven't done any research to find out. Before I did anything in the game, I looked at my inventory and at myself, and then I read all of the poems. The first big clues that all is not right with the PC are in these poems. Supposedly poems designed to win the heart of your one true love, they seem more likely to be received as the creepy handiwork of someone with real problems. For example, the first one in the inventory list is called "Pretend":

Pretend you are a virgin on fire
An outcast in the middle of madness
The scion of something unthinkable
Satan's long lost illegitimate son
A solitary weed among carnations
The last living shit on earth
Dracula on a crowded beach
A child without a home
The loser of a one-man race
Rare meat thrown to a hungry lion
A faded flag on a windy day

Welcome to the truth
Welcome to reality
Welcome to my world

This is not about to win anyone's heart, except maybe Satan's. By the time I finished reading all of the poems, it was clear that I (the PC) was a stalker, someone who confuses obsession with love.

I ended up dropping all of the poems. This was mostly to see if I, as the player, could actually assert some sort of will or choice over the PC's inclinations. This ends up being pretty much the only time I could make a choice of my own in the game. Needing the game to progress, I had to put one poem under the door, but I could still decide which one. I chose the most harmless of the poems ("I Know a Girl") and put it under the door.

At this point, I encountered the only bug I noticed in the game, which was that my inventory still showed that I was holding the poem, even though it was already under the door. I'm not surprised there was a bit of a bug here, because the author has overridden Inform's normal inventory listings for something personalized to this game. I noted that right away, and thought it was interesting. It also meant that this was an author fairly confident with Inform, and comfortable enough with it to want to achieve some non-generic effects with it.

At this point, you can do nothing but leave, and then the game reminds you that you have a note that you also want to put under this woman's door:

>x note
3/6/81, 1:00am

Jodie Foster Love, just wait. I'll rescue you very soon.
Please cooperate.

J.W.H.

>about
Unknown verb.

>credits
Unknown verb.

Okay, duh, so now I know the PC is John Hinkley, and I know the woman is Jodie Foster. (I also at this moment knew exactly who the author was, which explains my compulsion to confirm this, somehow, by trying the ABOUT and CREDITS verbs.) My reaction was something like, "Oh shit. Do I *really* have to play this out?"

The answer is yes, and at this point the game increasingly becomes non-interactive non-fiction. Somewhat like in Rameses, the Comp2000 game, all of my commands to the PC are carefully nixed by the PC's own will over events. It is non-fiction, though, and what happenedis what happened. Argh.

And so it goes, through some awkward phone calls, catching Reagan on television, quickly deciding what must be done, and then arriving at the Hilton hotel to wait for the moment, "your moment."

Ronald Reagan stands before you, waiting to be shot.

>i
You're carrying a .22 pistol loaded with exploding-point
"Devastator" bullets.

>s
You're not leaving here until Reagan is dead -- or until you are.

>shoot self
No. You considered many variations on this idea -- shooting yourself
in front of the Dakota, shooting yourself in front of Jodie -- but
decided that killing Reagan was the correct course of action.

>x reagan
He's the only political figure you admire, but he has to die.

>x brady
That's not here or not important.

>in
You're not leaving here until Reagan is dead -- or until you are.

>drop gun
Not until Reagan is dead.

>throw gun
Not until Reagan is dead.

The Hinkley of record is seen in the game in his poems and letters, but not in the interior monologue we read as we interact with the game. What comes across is someone whose thought patterns in the moment before he attempts to assassinate the President of the United States are as mundane and clear as those of someone buying a loaf of bread at the corner store.

What I think was missing here, in terms of writing, was something more genuinely evocative of the madness of the PC, of the demons shouting in his head, overriding all sane impulses (represented here by my attempts to do something else). Maybe the matter-of-fact approach here should be creepy, but it seems a thin implementation of a dramatic moment.

I finally had to give up and shoot Reagan -- or try to, at least. The PC's reactions to his five misses are delivered as a kind of dry, black humor:

>shoot reagan
You miss and accidentally shoot Press Secretary James Brady in the
head. Whoops. Well, couldn't be helped.

>g
You miss and accidentally hit Thomas Delahanty of the DC police.
This just isn't your day.

There are a couple of final twists at the end of this tale, which come in little cut-scene bursts after Reagan is finally hit by the sixth bullet. The first one is this:

And with that, time snaps back to full speed, and the Secret Service
agents dogpile on top of you. But you barely even notice -- your
thoughts are with Jodie [...]

But now, after this historic deed, the two of you are equal and in
fact rather compatible.

Don't you agree?
The "Don't you agree?" is interesting, because the game has been told in the 2nd person, and suddenly a question is asked of "you" -- which you is it talking to? Is the narrator asking Hinkley the question, or is Hinkley asking the player the question? It comes immediately after the description of what happens to "you" and what "you" are noticing and where "your" thoughts are.

The game here pauses for a keystroke, and then warps back in time a couple of months, to New Year's Day:

I don't know what's gonna happen this year. It's just gonna be
insanity even if I make it through the first few days... Jodie is
the only thing that matters now. Anything that I might do in 1981
would be solely for Jodie Foster's sake, and I mean that sincerely.
I want to make some kind of statement or something on her behalf.
Just tell the world in some way that I worship and idolize her.
It's time for me to go to bed. It's after midnight. It's the
new year, 1981. Hallelujah!

This could have been the prologue text of the game, but instead it's used as the coda. If you don't know by now who the author of this game is, this is your final clue.

How to sum this up? I think historical non-fiction is a good, new area for IF exploration, and I'm glad that the precedent has been broken. It is bold and shocking (and, as I said, incredibly cynical) to see this game appear in SmoochieComp. I'm torn between thinking this particular story should have been more developed and thinking it doesn't deserve further development -- which is biased because of my thoughts about the actual people and events in question.

It's dangerous material, handled lightly; perhaps for the best. What I said earlier about the "thin implementation" of the assassination scene may be entirely off-base: had the game really probed the darkness inside Hinkley's head, it would have made the game absolutely inappropriate for this mini-comp. As it is, the author has chosen to pull back a bit and to keep a game based on such an off-putting premise from getting too unseemly.

I recommend 1981 to general audiences, in order that everyone can make up their own minds about it. It's a prod in a new direction for IF, and as such is worthwhile for discussion.


August
Bye royale commande.
by Matt Fendahleen

This peachy little fantasy story includes, in its ABOUT text, a lengthy apology from the author. For some reason, instead of rolling my eyes at this type of elaborate disclaimer, I noted that there was an engaging personality behind it. It also contained some helpful notes about how to interact with the game, specifically the NPCs, and in general left me prepared to enjoy it. Besides a bit of randomness in the use of paragraph spacing and separation, I had a great time playing this game.

I mean that in a specific way: it was pleasurable to play it because I found interacting with it to be smooth and intuitive. Pretty much everything I tried gave me some new fun text to read, advanced the story, or both. I found that there was a good rhythm established between author and player; I always seemed to know what to do next. On a couple of occasions, this meant typing Z.Z.Z. while the story unfolded by itself -- a technique I recently experimented with in my IF-arcade game, Centipede. It was rewarding to me that I started typing Z.Z.Z. at just the right moment for it to be useful. Or later, when all I had to do was keep typing a key to continue, and I knew just the timing to use to make the author's intended effect work. The game uses some large, flashback cut-scenes to flesh out the backstory, but they too seemed to come at just the right moments during play.

At other times, the author sometimes pulls a fast one and makes the story progress properly whether it's the right response to my input or not. The first time I tried to talk to the character Cathbad, I got an introductory conversation between the PC and this NPC even though what I'd entered was the command >ASK CATHBAD ABOUT PRINCE. It worked so smoothly that I didn't even notice the mismatch until I was re-reading the transcript later.

The game is a good length, taking about twenty minutes or so to play a total of 75 turns and reach the end. Only a few of those 75 were random or wasted, though. Most of them responded by outputting nice, chewy wodges of text. It felt a lot like reading a story in an electronic book, only with the added fun of interactivity.

The story itself was fun, and I don't want to say anything to spoil it. I liked the writing a lot; it was full of pluck and not a few choice turns of phrase. It made me laugh a couple of times, always worth bonus points in a reviewer's eyes. The game also made good use of some basic text effects. I loved the NPC implementations; quick, bold strokes of personality were used to define them. I had a particularly good time interacting with Cathbad over the course of the game.


Dead of Winter
by Christina Pagniacci

This game is ... brief. It begins with an animated title screen (for interpreters that support it) that I can only imagine took a disproportionate amount of the author's total coding time. The story moves briskly, with a couple of branching options (one of which eventually leads you back to the same place), and has two different endings.

I don't know how long the author spent writing it. If this had been an entry in a speed-IF contest, it would be a solid entry and I'd think it was a pretty good job. If it took any more than four hours to do, my opinion would proportionately drop.

I'm scrambling for something to say, but I think my review is going to end up as brief as the game itself. The ironically happy ending is a bit odd, suggesting perhaps that the author was influenced by Photopia, but that's just a wild guess. I think the author was trying for a kind of poetic minimalism that doesn't quite succeed; certain responses and cut-scenes suggest the attempt.

It is one of the SmoochieComp games that implements the KISS verb. You can kiss all of the NPCs in the game, or try to, anyway, and so I give it points for that.


Nothing More, Nothing Less
An Interactive Slice of Life
by Gilles Duchesne

This late entry to the SmoochieComp belongs to the same general category as Second Honeymoon, which is that of a first-time IF author constructing a model of his habitat. In the popular parlance, it is the "newbie implements his apartment" genre, which usually involves various domestic tasks reconstructed as basic puzzles. Another staple of the genre is the to-do list, which motivates the plot, such as it is.

Rather than a treasure hunt, as in Second Honeymoon, this game presents almost a babel-fish-puzzle-like assortment of cascading tasks. Try to solve the first basic task, and another obstacle pops up in your way. Solve that one, too, and a third asserts itself, and so on. Here, you find yourself having to deal with the housecat.

As the PC's girlfriend removes herself from the game while you accomplish these tasks, the only smoochies in this SmoochieComp game appear, in a hypothetical fashion, after all of the tasks are done and the most successful ending is, at last, reached:

Indeed, Honey and her parents arrive not too long after I'm
fully done and watching TV. Everybody's in a great mood. If
things keep going that way, there'll be smoochies tonight!

This seems very much like a game that might have been developed on its own, apart from the SmoochieComp, with no difference. What the game does present, in a kind of roundabout fashion, is a glimpse into an ongoing romantic relationship. This theme is summed up at the end, also explaining the game's title:

And so it came to pass... After all, this day wasn't
that much out of the ordinary, was it? Some bad things
could have happened, but everything was fine in the end.
Months followed, and then years, with their additional
share of good and bad moments, several of them more
memorable than this "casual" day. In the end, this
was nothing more than a slightly bumpy ride in the course of
a long, deep and sincere relationship.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Further development is found in the game's oddest feature, which is a help system that functions as a completely separate, meta-game world, where we meet not the PC but the author himself, and a closer approximation of the author's real-life girlfriend. The PC becomes you, the player, riding in the back seat of a car with these two people, who comment on their life, on IF, and on the game in particular. What made this especially odd was that I've never before encountered a help system that required me to jump through hoops to escape from it and go back to the game:

Inside the car
This car is fairly spacious, although it's not a deluxe
car either. A coupe, perhaps. Or maybe a sedan. Whatever.
From the back seat, where you are, you don't notice much
else. A young couple seems to occupy the front seats: a man
(driving) and a girl.

>out
You somehow doubt getting out of a running car would be
such a good idea.

>stop
You can't use the word "stop".

>guy, stop
You can't use the word "stop".

>help
If you need help, shouldn't you ask for it? If you don't,
you should probably resume playing the game.

>guy, stop car
You can't use the word "stop".

>get out
You couldn't manage to stand inside a car.

>exit
You somehow doubt getting out of a running car would be
such a good idea.

>z
Time passes...

A few minutes pass.

>z
Time passes...

>z
Time passes...

>i
You are carrying the PDA.

>x pda
That PDA is one of the brand-new, hi-tech "uGo" handheld.
Although the name was obviously pertaining to its "on the
road" capabilities, it became even more appropriate when the
very first full multimedia Hugo interpreter for handhelds
was released. Need I say it, the device cost you a bundle.
Right now, you're playing a game entitled "Nothing More,
Nothing Less" on it.

>play game

Bedroom

>

I note only in retrospect that the command "play game" was clued by the response to >HELP. At the time, though, it served only to heighten the sense of general frustration that any babel fish puzzle game creates, that of mounting tedium, of "Oh what *now*?" as each step is passed, only to reveal another. The problem in general with babel fish puzzles is that you can never get a sense of when they are going to finally end. This game does manage to give you textual clues as to your progress; more items appear in room descriptions as you go along, as needed, and the more times you try to open the door to leave, the closer you seem to get (by each new rejection message) to actually being able to do so.

The prose style of the game is casual and conversational, with a tendency to be verbose at times; I note in passing that English is this author's second language, something you would never guess if you didn't already know.

As far as games by first-time authors go, it is well-crafted and contains some unique ideas; however, the genre is not the best playground for all-out creativity by any means, and has the usual effect of making one wish that the author had dreamed up something more enchanting and less mundane for his first go. Still, certain ideas on display had a spark to them and, on the whole, I am left hopeful about seeing future work from this still-green IF author.


Pytho's Mask
by Emily Short

I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here, trying to review this game by the SmoochieComp host herself. This is the last review I'm writing, and I didn't take proper notes when I first played it. This might be a backhanded way of paying the game a compliment; I started it just to give it a quick look, and ended up getting engrossed and playing the whole thing. Unfortunately, it meant I forgot to turn on a transcript, which is normally the first thing I do when I'm going to review a game.

Having no transcript to fall back on as a memory aid, I can only offer vague, generalized observations. It almost seems to go without saying that this is a quality product; we've already been trained to expect this from this author. The game's notes reveal that it was whipped together in a remarkably short time, given the conversational depth offered (but again, we kind of expect that by now, too).

The setting is a kind of grand court festival, a motif that pops up in a few SmoochieComp games. Intrigue at the palace is the name of the game here, and in a way this game satisfies what I expected from Comp2k's The Masque of the Last Faeries. It plays as a bit of a murder mystery; you have to discover the bad guy and prevent nefariousness from ensuing. By the end of it, you have a pretty clear picture of each of the many characters in the game, their motivations, and of what you have to do. You are given a wide-open choice at the climax of the game, leading to a (here she goes again!) number of different outcomes and endings.

Let me file the rest of this review under the heading of spoilers:

 

SPOILER SPACE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I did end up getting a bit stuck in a rut for a while, rushing back and forth to every NPC, trying to squeeze another drib and drab of conversation from each when I didn't know what else to do. It ultimately came down to something silly; I was stuck because I didn't think to open a cabinet. Somehow, everything else had been either laid out at my feet, dependent on conversation, or otherwise unimplemented, I had failed to remember to engage in the standard means of IF interaction. D'oh.

I was also a bit frustrated with the dripping noise in the grotto; my attention was directed at this detail, and as I followed it deeper into the grotto, it became more prominent. I thought for sure, since it had a good deal to do with the plot to poison the king, that I should be able to locate the pool at the source of it, or otherwise interact with it. Unfortunately not; it turns out to be a red herring of sorts. Still, I'm surprised at how little interaction is possible.

Deep in the Grotto
Darker than the upper part of the grotto, but still
roomy. The walls curve and twist out again. The
dripping sound is more audible here.

>listen
It sounds like liquid collecting slowly and then dropping
into a pool. Plish. plish...

>x sound
You can't see any such thing.

>x dripping
You can't do that.

>search dripping
You can't do that.

The game ends with kind of a multiple-choice guess; the king's goblet has been poisoned, and you need to swap it for someone else's. For whatever reason, all of my first attempts at doing this simple action fell between the cracks of the author's implementation. The proper syntax was close to what I had tried, but evidently not quite:

Dining Room
An extension of the hall where the refreshments are
being served, but with a formal raised dais at one end,
marked by a table. Which is set with all the goblets
for the toast, each at its place.

>get all from table
There are none at all available!

>get king's
You pick up the goblet from the King's place. The liquid
sloshes a bit within but the sediment is not excessively
disturbed.

>pour king's
That's not a verb I recognize.

>empty king's
(the King's goblet)
The King's goblet can't contain things.

>drink
(the maids)
You are not thirsty, which is fortunate since you have
nothing worthy to be drunk.

>drink king's
(the King's goblet)
It would certainly attract attention if one of the
goblets were empty.

>x sediment
You can't see any such thing.

>x liquid
You can't see any such thing.

>put king's on table
(the King's goblet on the table)
Yes, but you must decide at which place to put it.

>put king's at my place
I didn't understand that sentence.

>put goblet at my place
I didn't understand that sentence.

>put goblet
(the King's goblet in the maids)
Those can't contain things.

>swap
That's not a verb I recognize.

>drop goblet
(the King's goblet)
You need to decide where to put it -- and quickly.

>drop goblet in my place
(the King's goblet in your place)
That can't contain things.

>drop goblet in prince's place
(the King's goblet in the Prince's place)
That can't contain things.

>put it on my
(your goblet)
Putting things on your goblet would achieve nothing.

>put it on mine
You can't see any such thing.

>put it on my place
You set the goblet down on your place, neatly exchanging
it for the cup that is there. [...]

These are all just quibbly nit-picks in an otherwise smart game with a strong story and well-defined characters. This is SmoochieComp, however, and so there is a bit of romance to the game even though it is not the central plot. In the course of investigating the plot against the king, the buds of possible romance appear between the PC and a couple of the NPCs. A nice feature of the game is the old woman with the Tarot deck, who underscores the mirrored nature of two of the NPCs in particular. Not surprisingly, these are the same two with whom romantic attraction is formed.

The character of the PC herself comes through during conversation with these characters; she's feisty, to say the least. It is quite humorous to see the outcome of swapping the king's goblet with your own, as I first tried; my selfless act of sacrifice didn't provide the optimal outcome of the game, but it was perhaps the funniest. What's the opposite nature of the main character? A kind of superficial girly- girl, for whom fashion and and appearance are the ultimate concerns in life. The author's dry contempt for such women is rather, uh, palpable.

Although the game does have light moments like this one (or, most strikingly, in the surprise in-joke about corn), the overall tone is rather heavy and solemn. A number of SmoochieComp entries share a kind of super-sobriety about the whole love/romance thing; I wonder why this is. It also explains why, despite its bugs, I thought Second Honeymoon was kind of refreshing to play. This game does have an optimal ending that ends on a graceful note of expectation and optimism; not "happily ever after" (which none of the SmoochieComp games chose as an ending, which you'd think might have come up in at least one of them) but "and so it begins." An open possibility.

Hear, hear.


Second Honeymoon
by Roger Ostrander

I enjoyed this game, despite its frustrating bugs. I like an old fashioned treasure hunt, which is what this is; also, it seemed to be earnestly good-spirited, a happy game about a happy guy preparing for a happy trip with his happy wife. I probably shouldn't put it that way, as it makes it sound mawkish, and it isn't.

There was a good deal of discussion among the SmoochieComp judges about where the heck you go to find Jessica's bikini; I should note that it can be found, just that the exit you take to find it is not listed in the room description. Like a couple of others, I assumed that it would be found in the computer room, which is referenced in a couple of places and listed as an exit, but which doesn't exist. Oops. My feeling is that we had time to alert the author as to these problems, and maybe we should have allowed him to fix them before the release. Oh well.

So, it is mildly buggy, but not hard to solve, and I liked playing it. My main wish was that some verbs of affection had been implemented, since the story almost seems to deliberately prompt them:

Jessica is happily preparing for the trip.

>kiss jessica
I don't know the word "kiss".

>x jessica
Jessica is your wife of fifteen years. Your mind can't even
begin to form the words which would adequately describe her
beauty, kindness, and love. She's the most wonderful thing
that's ever happened to you. Of course, you are married to
her, so you may be a little biased.

Jessica notices the attention, and smiles at you.

>smile at jessica
I don't know the word "smile".

>hug jessica
I don't know the word "hug".

>get jessica
While it might be fun to toss Jessica over your shoulder
and carry her around the house, you doubt she'd appreciate
it while she's trying to pack.

>tickle jessica
I don't know the word "tickle".

>touch jessica
Touching Jessica doesn't seem to have any effect.

Oh, as they say, well. The lack of implementation of the verb "KISS" seems to be common throughout the SmoochieComp games, which strikes me as strange. Of course, the SmoochieComp rules suggested games on the theme of love and romance, which this game does utilize, and except for the Comp's title, doesn't say that the games have to have anything specifically to do with smooching.

Here, though, the obvious mutual affection between man and wife going on makes it seem like the author missed a rather large and obvious boat. The author does, though, include a certain level of scenery object implementation, such as the curtains and the plant in the bedroom, the bookcases in Sapphire's room, etc. From the way the whole thing looks, it seems to have been beta-tested only by the author; a separate beta-tester, one given to fiddling with everything possible, would have provided all of the feedback necessary to round out the game's world (and eliminate the rather easily-caught bugs, like the living room exit that points west instead of east).


Sparrow's Song
by J.D. Berry

Admittedly, I did not stop to "smell, touch and even squeeze the flowers" in this uneven fantasy story, but my playing time was well short of the hour or so the author suggests it will take. Perhaps there was more to be discovered; perhaps the seeming dead-end that two of the game's branching paths led to can be overcome. As it happens, I encountered the love-conquers-all ending of the game (the only ending I saw) the first time through, and only then explored the areas that got me stuck at a dead end by a brook. This was something of an anti-climax, and contributes to the negative tone of this review.

I don't want to just sit here and harsh on someone's hard work, although there are a number of nit-picks that I feel the need to get off my chest. On the positive side, the game implemented two novel interfaces, one for navigation and the other for NPC conversation. Both of them were intuitive and helpful short-cuts for the traditional implementations, and it made playing the game smooth and quick. Having tried to program a smart hint system for a work in progress, I can appreciate the difficulty of making a TOPICS verb that helpfully suggests the most appropriate things to talk about during any given turn. I eventually gave up on using the TOPICS command, because most of the time it would suggest topics that were immediately dismissed as "irrelevant", precisely the opposite of what it should have listed. I didn't count off points because of this bugginess, because I know how difficult it is to implement successfully.

Unfortunately, I did have more serious problems with the conversations in the game. It eventually boiled down to a rather rote exercise of asking every character about the same five topics over and over again. To be diplomatic, this is fairly standard; ASK/TELL always works that way, and so do the LucasArts games, in a way. What was more of a problem was discovering that repeating a question led to more information, but only sometimes. If you teach me that I need to ask a question more than once, it rankles a bit to be routinely rebuffed by the NPCs for doing so.

The rest of this review critiques specific parts of the game and quotes from transcripts of gameplay, all of which can be counted as spoilers:

 

Spoiler space

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To start with, the first time I used the TOPICS command, it responded with "dogs?" I then found out that no character in the game has anything to say about dogs. So why? Since "love?" is apparently a generally-accepted topic, why not use that as the first default? I mean, come on.

Second, we are introduced to one of the main NPCs in this manner:

Of your many habits, one of the good ones is conversing with
Arctos before you leave the manor. You have many responsibilities
in a typical day and many preoccupations, so it's not surprising
that a detail or two will sometimes slip even your sharp mind.
And Arctos has an uncanny knack for filling in the memory blanks.

I really would have had no problem with the implementation of Arctos if the author had not introduced him in this manner. It gave me the distinct impression that conversing with him would be helpful on any topic. The holes in his conversational database soon gaped wide.

Another time I felt misled was when I asked the cleric about sparrows. Since the game is titled "Sparrow's Song," I thought maybe I was on to something, because this was finally a character who had more than one thing to say on the subject. However:

>sparrow?
"The sparrows migrate from the mountains. Their flying patterns
never fail to fascinate me," he says.

Something in his manner suggests a great calm.

>g
"I could tell you more than you ever cared to know about
them," he says with a refreshingly light self-deprecating tone.

>g
He mentions another fact about sparrows that only few would know
and in a way that tells you he cares about what the subject.

>g
He mentions another fact about sparrows that only few would know
and in a way that tells you he cares about what the subject.

What this tells me is that the author doesn't care about the subject. Either that, or his well ran dry -- after loading this character with an interest in sparrows and having him boast that he knows all that can be known about them, the author isn't able to come up with anything of the sort. Pyzynk the treasury guardian has more to say than this character does. In my view, this is a major failure on the author's part, to set this up and then not deliver on it. Even if he'd just gone to Olsen's Standard Book of British Birds and coded up 75 useless sparrow facts, he would have satisfied, even if the information content vis à vis the game itself would still have been zero. It would have been vaguely informative and entertaining, and I would have said "Wow, he was right -- he knows more than I care to know about sparrows."

Better than that, though, would have been for this character to illuminate the meaning of sparrows to the game's story, themes, and title.

Going back to Pyzynk, who reminds me of Mr. Mxyzptlk for several reasons, there is this rather annoying bit of business every time I visit the treasury:

>treasury
You drift down the stairs thinking of HER. Not realizing
you've reached the bottom, you...




You awake staring at a large eye. You blink. The eye, taking
up half of a floating "head" with many little eyestalks on top,
doesn't.

"Xyzzy," it growls through a wicked mouth near its 'bottom'.
"The password is 'xyzzy.' The next time I may gaze death and
not sleep."

Okay, so the "password is 'xyzzy.'" This would be helpful information if, say, there were some means of telling Pyznyk the password so that he doesn't chide me for not using it on all subsequent visits. Did I fail to guess the syntax? I tried typing >XYZZY instead of typing >TREASURY, but that didn't get me into the treasury. So, um, it's just kind of an irrelevant interruption, then? Okay.

Another problem with this transition device, a problem that pops up in a couple of other places, is that the game will sometimes start to print a new room description, pause to accept a keypress, and then clear the screen before printing new text. More than once, I ended up clearing the screen before I'd read what happened, which is always frustrating.

And speaking of "thinking of HER", the game frequently interjects descriptions of a kind of the PC's swooning lovesickness as I travel about. I can't quite put my finger on what was wrong with this, except that frequently reminding me "You are feeling THIS!" makes me feel, on the whole, less and less THAT and more and more distanced from the character and from immersion in the game. Here's an example:

Glade
Nestled amid the foreboding woods amid the harsh mountains rests
this sanctuary of light.A brook rushes by carrying freezing water
from the mountains.

[Nearby locations: Woods]

(What WILL it take to wipe that smile off your face. You couldn't
possibly still be in love?)

(Could you?)

There's just something off-putting about the way it's foisted onto me in this particular voicing -- "You couldn't, could you?" The tempting answer to this is to frown and say, "Actually, no." This is from the dead-end, a glade near a brook with a singing nymph, and where I discover many other reasons to frown. The least egregious sin of this seeming no-win situation is this misleading implementation of the brook:

>x brook
You see nothing special about the brook.

>search it
You can even see the bottom of this deep, clear stream. No creatures
seem to dwell within, there are just rocks. The water is too cold for
a hands-in investigation.

A shiver starts from your shoulder and carries down your spine. When
you recover from the sensation, you begin your adoration a beautiful
nymph.

It's not as bad as I first thought; on my first play-through, I thought it was the act of searching the brook-with-no-description that summoned the nymph. That would have been particularly bad, but instead it's just mildly bad. It would make much more sense to put the text that comes from searching the brook into the brook's description, so that we see it when we examine it. It's just weird to have an item be nondescript (implying a neutral scenery object) and yet yield something upon a search. The phrase "too cold for a hands-in investigation" would warn me off a useless >SEARCH of the brook, had I seen it upon examination.

What happens after this is a lot of shallow interplay with the nymph, and a fruitless search for some way to make something else happen in the game. I don't need to say much to get across my frustration at this point. Despite the fact that there is an exit listed, I cannot go there. Given that the author has trained me to expect exits listed in brackets to take me somewhere, that sort of says it all.

The first time I got to this point, there was an extra bit of confusion about something called "a combinatorial explosion", mentioned in a transitional cut-scene and then appearing in my inventory as an object that resisted all interaction. I played guess-the-verb with it for a couple of minutes and then abandoned it as inscruitable.

I did, however, find a happy ending to the game. Or more than merely happy, if the over-the-top symbolism in this passage (about a "much too long" wand) can be believed:

>chameleon?
I have felt the wand's power, but I lack the "affinity", as
Corwen called it, to unleash it.

>g
"Oh, my Kellen, could you try it?! It grieves me deeply not to
be in physical harmony with you."

>zap wand
(at Tamta)
Maybe it's having watched wands being used for so long, maybe
it's a heretofore unknown affinity for magic, maybe it's the
power of love. But holding the wand in your hand feels natural.
You can feel its energies coalesce with your mind, building and
burning. You mold it to an image while keeping back its volcanic
power.

You can contain the energies no longer.


Her body recoils in shock. A gray mist engulfs her and she is gone.

So, "holding the wand in your hand feels natural", eh? I bet it does, sailor.

Anyway, I wish I hadn't been so snarky with this game; instead of trying to have fun playing it, I feel like I adopted a bias early on and gleaned enjoyment from finding faults instead of from what the author was genuinely offering. Since this competition was created for fun and love, it seems uncharitable to be ruthlessly critical.

The new interfaces are genuinely good creations, and I hope to see them again in other work. Except for the TOPIC verb bugginess, the game was clean of programming errors and, on the whole, it was an entertaining bit of writing. I think maybe my problems started when I started out thinking the game was promising more than it would end up delivering. That can be perceived as a problem for the author to solve on his next outing; and yes, I do welcome more IF from this author.

ADDENDUM:

Skilled IF authoring depends on the author reading the player's mind; sloppy IF authoring depends on the player reading the author's mind.

Thanks to help from another SmoochieComp judge, I learned that there is, in fact, a way to get past the nymph. However, it involves performing an action several times, despite feedback that tells you that it isn't an action that's going to work. The author uses this device several times in the story. One could argue that deliberately giving the player feedback that says "That won't work" only to have it eventually work, if repeated enough, has been established as a valid device -- Zarf used it, once, successfully -- so it's fair game. I would argue that, well, this author goes too far overboard in being dissuasive, or is too subtle in his clues that it will ultimately work. It's as if the author has all sorts of material in his head, all sorts of extra ideas and meanings, and shows only scraps of it that don't add up to anything for the player.

I get the sense that my review will be frustrating for this author to read, as he will be fidgeting in his chair, saying, "No no no, I clued that bit. You missed it completely! Arrgh!" If so, I can only suggest that the author take note of this and work harder next time on eliminating potential blind spots that players might encounter.


Voices
An Interactive Romance
by Aris Katsaris

Subtitled "An interactive romance", this is, like 1981, another black romance, if there is such a term. All of the love and romance ends up skewed and twisted, and above all, judged.

The author's afterword explicitly stated what I had inferred from the game's content, which was that it attempted to answer the recent newsgroup discussions about Christian IF, about whether such things can be done with all of the good qualities of secular IF. Naturally, the answer is yes. The author also wonders whether "a non-Christian author can be an asset to such an endeavour." The answer to this is also yes. The author's being a non-Christian is readily apparent. I would be hard pressed to imagine a Christian author being so bold as to write a scene in which the player takes on the role of God, and is forced to make one of God's decisions in answer to a petition. Despite the frank and uncynical portrayal of Jeanne D'Arc's unspoiled faith, the overriding perspective of this story is that of accusation, of the dispiriting questions that mankind is moved to shout at Heaven.

This is a daring venture, with some particularly devillish twists at times. The deck is stacked; anyone playing this game will be hard pressed to steer the outcome to any but one which defends Satan's sneering cynicism. Non- believers will probably think this is fair enough; Christians will probably scoff at the inherent authorial bias. The questions the game raises and the charges that it makes are by no means unfair, however; and as an answer to the newsgroup debate, this work of IF is quite a good show.

Leaving that aside, there are no bugs that I know of, although the options are limited enough that I certainly wouldn't expect there to be any. A good deal of the game is conversational text; it has a few typos, but what troubled me more were anachronistic phrasings and word choices: "so darn pious", "Yeah", and "stuff", to name three. I haven't studied the history here (in a way, this also like 1981 in being interactive non-fiction, a mini-biography), but the details seem studiously researched.

Interaction at game's beginning points out the unique relationship between player and parser, PC and narrator; it took some experimenting to figure out, but it does follow a logic that can be quickly mastered. Once you become accustomed to it, it turns out to be a very good authorial device for telling this particular story. The author's high esteem for Adam Cadre's Photopia is well-known and definitely on display, here, and to good effect.

Overall, this entry is engrossing, challenging, and remarkable. Let the discussions begin.