IF Comp '09

Mon Oct 5, 2009

I’ve now played most of the entries in this year’s interactive fiction competition. I didn’t play the windows games because I don’t use that platform anymore (and I never played them when I did, to be honest). Nor did I play the Adrift games, though they might well have worked with Spatterlight. I guess I have an unreasoning prejudice.

The first IF I played was Deadline on the Commodore 64, bought at a Kmart when I didn’t know what it was or what to expect. The Zorks, Planetfall, Starcross, Suspended, the Enchanter series (I almost solved Spellbreaker without Invisiclues; the only thing that stumped me was the damn outcropping/box, which I later discovered was the undoing of many others), and a few others were great sources of diversion. I would frantically make notes to myself about how to solve puzzles in class. It got to the point that I was accused of making secret notes to myself for studying by peers who saw me do this (and who apparently disapproved of the notion of notetaking and related behaviors; Atlantic Elementary was not always a school of academic distinction). Sorcerer, which I was working on the spring of seventh-grade year, which was a distressingly long time ago now that I think about it, was one which really kept me occupied. The puzzle design was quirky and full of red herrings, with the time travel bit in particular being highly incomprehensible. It now seems clear that the difficulty of these games was designed to encourage the purchase of the cluebooks, as the internet was not yet a viable source of solutions and clues.

But it was the kind of difficulty that I enjoyed. Several of the puzzles were very similar to the types of logic puzzles we were required to work in my G&T; class, which I later discovered popped up in much the same form on the (now defunct) Analytic section of the GRE (also the LSAT, I think). I tried to use this to refute an argument of Mark Bauerlein’s a while ago. The games themselves were quite literate; when I discovered much later that Dave Lebling, one of the original authors of the famous Infocom games, was making perceptive remarks on a Gene Wolfe mailing list, I wasn’t surprised. When I returned to the thriving amateur community of interactive fiction at periodic points in graduate school, I would always make a somewhat masochistic effort to seek out the most difficult of the games and try to solve them without using any of the (very readily available) hints.

This never quite worked out. I probably held out the longest with Graham Nelson’s Curses. Nelson, a Cambridge mathematician who devised a programming system to create games similar to Infocom’s, defeated my puzzle-solving ability by simply making me fail to realize that pulling a string on a ship-in-a-bottle (or something similar to that), would get it out. Curses has a very non-linear structure, and I didn’t know that this was the thing holding me back, you see, but it was. Out of vanity, I’ve always remained skeptical of people who claim to have solved any of the difficult games without clues.

Entries in the competition are required to provide walkthroughs, a list of commands that, if entered, will carry you through the game. Normally, I would have tried very hard not to look at these, but since I felt guilty for spending any time at all on the games this year, I looked at them very fast, at the first moment of frustration. If I entered a game in the competition, as I might do someday, the thought that someone would do this would of course horrify me, but I suppose I should get used to it, and, more importantly, design the game with that in mind. Several of the more successful ones seemed to have taken this into consideration. I’m not sure how anyone would have made it through Earl Grey for instance, without the hints; but this could just be my failure to really pay attention. I was the most impressed with the quirky surrealism and mood of Earl Grey; the medium tends to encourage paranomastic logopoeisis.

Eric Eve’s Snowquest was well crafted, though I didn’t like it. The puzzles seemed to owe something to the revealed description school I associate with some of Andrew Plotkin’s games (Plotkin’s a master of the genre; his Delightful Wallpaper was one of my favorite recent comp entries), and I didn’t like it. The opening puzzle struck me as a bit too cagey. I didn’t want to have to “BREAK” the object to get another, and I thought that some useful verbs weren’t implemented. I even asked my wife, while mimicking the motion required to start a fire in this way, what verbs she would use to describe it, and I don’t think any of them were implemented. In any case, I would guess that this game is likely the top vote-getter, and I should play it through to the end.

A Duel in the Snow is literate, with a Russian setting. I wasn’t sure that the poetry was fully integrated into the plot, and this seemed to be a problem, though I’d say that this was the better games I played. The Duel That Spanned The Ages was one that I played through to the end, even as I consulted the walkthrough occasionally. I admired this game for its honesty about what it was and what it was trying to do. Grounded in Space and Rover’s Day Out both contained references to Heinlein, which made me quit playing. (I kid, just.)

Gatoron had serious design problems, though I have to admit that I didn’t see where it was going after looking at the walkthrough. Modern IF conventions do not allow for the arbitrariness of the crow business, I’m afraid. Eruption seemed to have an attitude problem. I gave up on Invisible, though I’m not sure why. Same thing with Beta Test. Something crucial about Byzantine I missed. Perhaps I’ll try to find out what it was. I don’t know why I moved on from Condemned after the introduction, but I did. Interface wouldn’t open with Spatterlight. Gleaming the Verb had me puzzled for a bit, then I made out the acrostic and went “eh.” That’s probably not fair. (Again, as I type these comments I’m trying to imagine how irritated I would be to read similar ones about something I had designed. Just trying to steel myself for it when the time comes, though academia has inured me to rejection.)

The other Zcode games I only played briefly or didn’t after reading the opening text. I make no claims to be comprehensive. Broken Legs I only started, but it was different enough from the usual genres that I want to continue with it. I’m also going to give Resonance more of a try. The heavy and clumsy background exposition in the beginning put me off to start, but I’m willing to overlook it.