IFComp 2005

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This week, we enter the world of interactive fiction, and the possibilities it presents, by way of IFComp 2005. In this episode, we look at two of the top 4 winning entries.

Sometime, many years ago, longer than I would like to admit, I ran an early interactive fiction game on my Commodore 64 computer. I was greeted with a simple description

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.

I typed the words, “Open the mailbox.”

Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.

“Read the leaflet.”

(Taken)

“WELCOME TO ZORK!

ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore
some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer
should be without one!”

Yes, I was one of the thousands who got his first taste of adventure gaming with Zork I The Great Underground Empire, which was produced by Infocom before the term interactive fiction even existed. The paper-thin storylines of these earliest adventures, which involved fending off monsters, solving puzzles, and discovering treasure, are lost in our past but not gone from our hearts. And the tomorrow breed of adventure games promises so much more than we playing those early adventures could even dream of.

IFComp

IFComp is an annual interactive-fiction competition organized by Stephen Granade of Brass Lantern. Entrants must register by September 1, and judging happens from October 1 to November 15. Some authors begin working on their entries as early as May. For the eleventh annual IFComp, this year in 2005, there were 36 entries, up from 12 in the first competition in 1995.

The two games we’re looking at are Vespers by Jason Devlin and Beyond by Mondi Confinanti. Both of these games had strong points and weak points. Neither, however, took my breath away like Photopia by Adam Cadre, or All Roads by Jon Ingold, or any of Tim Schafer’s best games, Day of the Tentacle or Full Throttle or Grim Fandango or his latest Psychonauts.

Vespers

by Jason Devlin

Jason Devlin is a Biology student at Malaspina University in Nanaimo, British Colombia. He also wrote Sting of the Wasp, which won two XYXXY awards last year.

In Vespers, you play the Father of Saint Cuthbert’s, a poor, starving monastery, in which the brothers are going mad, after a plague has devastated the land, leaving dead bodies, decaying and fetid. A young woman arrives at the monastery cold and hungry, a woman with powers of divine insight. And then it begins, a death, charges of murder, and an assassination attempt on your life.

You can die in this game, and indeed you will die and will use the “undo” command.

The prose burns images into your mind’s eye. It’s very literary, in both good and bad respects. Occasionally, I didn’t know what I was trying to accomplish. The broader story arc was established, but the more immediate goals were not well enough defined. The answer was to explore. However, though reading vibrant descriptions is nice, it’s not as much fun as having some imminent reason for which to explore. Therefore, I had to explore without motivation in order to discover what I should do, or even what I could do. Looking back, now, I see that I did have at least one cue that could’ve tipped me off. But it didn’t. That’s why Jason should’ve made the immediate goals more explicit, either by giving multiple cues or simply by having some character state them.

At least one puzzle I had to solve by praying. Can you say, “Deus ex machina?” Others can be solved by praying to the right person, not God. And as Jason warns in the game’s forward, he may have gotten his theology wrong. Yup. And therefore it makes no sense, especially considering that the main character is a religious leader, at least not until the very end. But the plot must have a sense to it from the beginning, even if we find new meaning at the end. He would’ve done better either to tone down the divine intervention, or else to characterize the main character in other ways in order to have the strange theology make sense.

By the way, does the horse puzzle make any sense? Or have I just been watching too much Wildfire?

The in-game hint system is of the “give me another clue” variety. However, I repeatedly got stuck in ways for which no hints were available. Deciphering the walkthrough (which unfortunately only gives a list of commands, not a full transcript) showed me what I had to do in each case. And it didn’t make sense to me, even in retrospect.

Even poorly thought commands (“Smell the bed.”) give reasonable responses. (“The mattress smells like you in a nice, comfortable way.”) However, some commands, like “look” and “inventory” traditionally should be free; that is, time does not pass while you do them. However, in Vespers, these commands are not free, a fact which makes the game laborious to play in places. But…

One deadly foe, with a knife, was after me. What to do? Hide from him, but in a way such that I could knock him out before he could see me. But even after he was down, I wanted to make sure he was out, no longer a danger. So I hit him, which generated:

You raise your foot and slam it into his head. It gives, but only slightly.
So you jump. Up and down. Up and down. When you are done, he is little more
than a smear upon the ground.

A little more than I asked for, but okay. Now I want to search him for evidence. To which the game responded, “You can’t while hiding.” Oops. I guess the beta-testers missed that one.

My play time: 3 hours.

Beyond

by Mondi Confinanti
Concept and main story by Roberto Grassi
Programming by Paolo Lucchesi
Graphics by Alessandro Peretti

There’s a soft buzz, somewhere…
Behind me?
I turn around and touch the grey wall of this room.
There’s no one here.
No doors, no windows, no exits.
The room is lit, even if there are no light sources…
Another buzz, in front of me…
In the northern wall there’s now an open passage leading to another room.
Where am I?

The first character we meet is a girl, named Elena, who died as a fetus. Like all children who were never born, and thus never had the chance to learn and make life choices, she ends up in a spiritual reliquary. But first, she can choose whether to learn about the circumstances of her own death. She’s given this choice because she never had an opportunity to choose while she was alive.

The main character is a police detective named Maltelli investigating her mother’s suicide. Or is it a suicide? (Cue foreboding music.)

The cut-scenes are really cool, artistic, moving even. But the imagery only includes visual cues; it fails to engage all 5 senses.

The dialogue is a bit fake, especially in that it doesn’t flow logically from conversation to conversation. If there are several people in the room, all should be able to hear and take part in the conversation. But only the person you’re talking to shows any signs of consciousness. And later conversations with later interviewees proceed as though the former conversation had never taken place. This is unfortunately typical of this genre of game.

The clues are not always given completely, and sometimes sentences are logically incomplete. Depending on who you talk to first, you’ll either understand what’s being told to you, or you’ll need to note the misstatement and wait until a later conversation. You can’t ask your interlocutor to clarify. Nor does anyone else within earshot interject a clarification.

And conversations did not finish cleanly. Usually, there’s a “Thank you, I’ll talk to you later” conversation option. In this game, either conversations end suddenly or you just walk out on people if you want to stop talking to them.

There are a few grammatical errors, probably due to poor translation from Italian. Fortunately, they aren’t too distracting. But here’s a good one, too funny not to share: In a farm yard, “Below the last sunlight of the day all the farm life is thriving. Hens, chickens, ducks and chicks are running in and out from the hen-house…” I think whoever wrote that line was trying just a little too hard.

The parser and vocabulary are mostly okay. Once, I had to play hunt the verb. When I tried to climb on the garbage bins, the game wouldn’t understand me, even telling me I can’t see any such thing, when it just got through telling me they were right there. I needed to “climb bins” not “climb on bins.” Ugh.

One neat feature: Maltelli, the character, keeps notes in a notebook, which you can read any time during the game.

The in-game hint system, which you get to by typing “help,” is integrated into the game environment, as a ghostly, circular room. At first this threw me, because I didn’t know where I was or what was happening. But then I realized that the things I saw in this strange area corresponded to clues about what I should do to go forward in the game. (I didn’t actually need the hint system, but I did try it when I got stuck due to the “hunt the verb” problem I mentioned above.)

My play time: 2 hours 40 minutes, and I’m not done yet.

About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

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