Meeting Robb Sherwin by Jizaboz (2019)

Tweet Review:

A parser-based slice-of-life game in which players assume the role of the author (Jizaboz) and attend Robb Sherwin’s wedding. Throughout the weekend, players will explore bits of downtown Denver, spend time at a hipster draft house, and hang out with… me?

Full Review:

Of all the experiences I’ve had in 40 years of playing text-based games, perhaps the most jarring was stumbling across a digital recreation of myself inside one of those games. To be clear, I don’t mean simply discovering a character that reminded me of myself; no, I mean literally encountering my name and physical description inside this game.

Meeting Robb Sherwin is a “slice-of-life” adventure. For those unfamiliar with that particular flavor of game, allow me to explain. Forty years ago, early text adventures offered very little narrative and were instead content with presenting players a series of puzzles which, when solved, would save them from (an often excruciating) death. Over time, text adventures evolved and matured into interactive fiction — text-based games with deeper stories that seamlessly mixed the art of fiction writing with more narrative-driven puzzles.

Meeting Robb Sherwin is neither of those things. Instead it is a digital recreation of a specific event — Robb Sherwin’s wedding — which took place in Denver, Colorado on June 30, 2017. Sherwin invited a couple hundred personal and online friends to join him that weekend. This game is a retelling (or perhaps more accurately, a reliving) of that event through the eyes of the author.

In the game, players assume the role of Jizaboz, one of Robb Sherwin’s friends who attended the wedding. Throughout the game, players will retrace the author’s steps by seeing the same sites, visiting the same places, and experiencing the same things he experienced in Denver. That weekend, Jizaboz traveled from the airport to La Quinta, made a purchase at a local cannabis shop, had a few drinks at a “Hipster Draft House,” and eventually attended Sherwin’s wedding. Those who successfully complete the game will do those same things in the same order. It is not designed to allow players to skip locations, because that’s not the way things happened. Unlike many works of interactive fiction, the author’s goal was not to offer players total freedom of choice; in fact, the exact opposite is true. For the most part, the game offers a single path from beginning to end, corralling players into replaying the events exactly how the author experienced them that weekend.

In real life, I encountered Jizaboz twice that Denver weekend: once at the draft house, and again the following day at Sherwin’s wedding. In the game, you (as Jizaboz) will encounter me in those same two locations. While you’re chatting with Flack (er, me) inside the draft house, Robb Sherwin will arrive, just as he did that afternoon. Later, on the day of the wedding, Jizaboz introduces himself to Jason Scott. Other characters Jizaboz encountered that weekend also make appearances — the tattooed woman working the desk at La Quinta, the clerk at the cannabis store, the young man who sat behind us at the wedding, and the mysterious guest who stole a piece of wedding cake before the ceremony ended all have cameos.

Because the game is a recreation of actual events, by design, it doesn’t feel (at least at first) that there is much room for experimentation. Don’t expect to object during the vows, or skip the event altogether and go skiing instead. That being said, not everything in the game is on rails, and certain situations can be manipulated just enough to change history. For example, with a few poor choices it is even possible to make poor Jizaboz miss the wedding. By sticking to the narrative (at times game tells you exactly what to type in order to progress) the game is easy enough to coast through, but there’s definitely a little room for exploration during multiple playthroughs.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room — who exactly is the target audience for Meeting Robb Sherwin? Perhaps being so close to the source material, my initial instinct was that only those who know Jizaboz or Robb Sherwin would truly appreciate this game, but after a few days of gameplay, I’ve expanded the potential audience. The slice-of-life genre was new to me, but definitely has a following. Not everyone enjoys the sprawling worlds and mind-bending puzzles presented in many parser-based games. Those just dipping their toes into parser games or not interested in a week-long gaming session will enjoy a smaller and more linear game such as Meeting Robb Sherwin. Plus, you know, you get to meet Robb Sherwin.

(And me!)

Link: Meeting Robb Sherwin

Enceladus by Robb Sherwin (2019)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

So this ship has a lady captain on the rebound (death rebounds totally count!) and a female crewmember whose primary interest is drinking vast amounts of alcohol yet Ja’Rod still can’t get laid. He has no game whatsoever. Varick would be deeply, deeply ashamed. I’m ashamed too, so much so that my new name for this guy from here on out is Ja’Rodless.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I personally feel that Wikipedia continues to be an example of the very best the Internet has to offer. While I didn’t enjoy the aspersions cast on the finest online encyclopedia known to man and robotkind alike, I did enjoy the rest of the game, especially the bouncy tunes!

My Verdict:

I’m no mathematician, but space plus werewolf plus hot sauce plus Robb Sherwin equals fun squared, baby! Or an extremely disgusting porn flick.

Game Information

Game Type: Hugo

Author Info: Robb Sherwin is the guy I originally started this website with back in 1999, one of the best IF writers of his generation, and surrogate father to all the demented denizens of Jolt Country.

Download Link: https://ifcomp.org/play/2045/download

Other Games By This Author: Chicks Dig Jerks, A Crimson Spring, Necrotic Drift, Cryptozookeeper, and many more!

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes this game feel a little different from all previous Robb Sherwin games. The best I can come up with is it’s a matter of luminosity. Enceladus doesn’t shy away from depicting evil, but it isn’t encompassed by darkness. In the past, I think Robb has often used his writing as a way of exorcising personal demons, and the result of that has been darkly funny games that are like nothing else in the world of IF. In this game, it feels like Robb is using his writing to accomplish a slightly different goal: sharing joy. The result is a light, funny game that is like nothing else in the world of IF. My guess is we haven’t seen the last of Dark Robb, but Enceladus should expose his work to a whole new audience who might not have been able to handle the darkness of some of his previous works. That’s a good thing!

For newcomers to Robb’s IF work, this game is a fun, accessible space adventure that will serve as a great introduction. You play the role of Ensign Ja’Rod Butler, crewmember aboard the starship Plagoo which is currently traveling in outer space near Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons. Everything is going well except for the fact that a werewolf has boarded the ship and is killing people. The werewolf is probably the most Sherwinian thing in this game, but the explanation is that the werewolf is the result of an elective genetic engineering procedure. In other words, he is a highly modified human being. That makes sense. I mean — let’s face it — that’s the sort of thing that’s definitely going to happen in the future. Some people will do the werewolf procedure in order to become better criminals like the one in the game, some people will do it because Teen Wolf is their favorite movie, and some people will do it because they’ve always felt like they were werewolves on the inside. The point is they will definitely be doing it so Enceladus is giving us a glance into our futures which is exactly what science fiction is supposed to do. The battle against the werewolf (who, it turns out, isn’t really the mastermind here) will ultimately continue on the surface of Enceladus, a frozen wasteland best known for hosting the only hot sauce bar this side of the galaxy.

For those of us who have played Robb Sherwin games before, we will inevitably come into this one armed with a certain set of expectations. These expectations might vary a bit depending on which game is your favorite, but, personally, I expect a Robb game to take place in a dystopian world or at least an environment where justice is in short supply, to feature numerous bursts of virtuoso writing, to be hilarious, and to be populated by a host of fascinating and weird characters. Enceladus is very funny, well-written, and features some interesting and quirky characters, but it also feels a little restrained compared to some of Robb’s other games in keeping with the lighter atmosphere. If we were talking about music, we’d say Robb’s latest release was a little tighter and less experimental than his previous work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I found it refreshing. We want artists to keep trying new things, especially when the results are good as they are here. Plus, “a little restrained” in this case still leaves room for a character as over the top as the thong-wearing Finnian, a case of near death by hot sauce, and the aforementioned werewolf. I also wouldn’t say the world of Enceladus is dystopian. Even though the crew of the Plagoo face danger in the harsh reaches of outer space, most notably because people are trying to kill them, the game environment never feels entirely unpleasant or hostile. Admittedly, Grimes might disagree with that assessment for good reason. Even so, this still feels like a game world where the AIDS Archer may well have hung up his bow long ago, where having pets is still a perfectly legal activity, and where Varick still works 9 to 5 because he hasn’t been driven to raid the last resting places of the dead by sheer economic necessity.

Enceladus does a nice job depicting the chain of command and job specialization on a well-run starship. As Ja’Rod, you are not the head honcho. Like everyone else on the ship, you have a job to do; in your case, you use your special X-ray glasses to scan nearby locations for DANGER. Like everyone else, you answer to the captain. Not doing your job and not following orders can get you and the rest of the crew killed. At the same time, you are given the creative freedom needed to problem solve and can speak freely without fear of retribution. This is an efficient outfit that clearly works well together. Linus Torvalds and Jeff Bezos could probably learn a lot about leadership from the unnamed but badass and utterly competent captain in this game. As a general rule, I like being in charge whether in an adventure game or in real life, but Enceladus does a great job of making you feel like your role is important even when you’re not the one giving the orders. All space games tend to remind me of Red Dwarf to a degree, and mentally I did classify Ja’Rod as Dave Lister in an alternative universe. Like Ja’Rod, Lister isn’t an insubordinate man by nature, and he would likely have served a capable commander with perfect rectitude. Ja’Rod probably wouldn’t have amounted to much if he had to work under Rimmer either, but placed in a positive work environment such as aboard the Plagoo he has everything he needs to shine.

Robb Sherwin remains a big believer in the potential of multimedia to enhance interactive fiction. In this game, there are just a couple of graphics that you see when you start the game and visit the about section, but there’s music throughout the game. In the past, I haven’t always been a big believer in the use of music in text adventures. I kind of like having text adventures be a silent, almost meditative experience, and it can be difficult to find music that truly complements a game. I even felt that way playing Cryptozookeeper at times because it felt like the music was doing its own thing, largely independent of the action in the game, and sometimes it actually distracted me from the job at hand. In Enceladus, however, the music perfectly complements the game and each song seems to match the scene it is featured in very well. Rather than serving as a distraction, it actually reinforces the mood set by the text. Robb has proven with this game that music truly can add something to the text adventure playing experience just as it does in other types of games. The loud red background color also seems to fit the game very well. Most importantly, it reminds me of AGT so it gets some bonus points based on that alone.

I served as a beta tester towards the tail end of this game’s development, and I’m very pleased with how everything turned out all in all. Some bugs needed to be squashed and typos eliminated along the way, but it’s a downright smooth and almost flawless playing experience now as long as you type all the same things I do. If you run into the text, “I aren’t in anything at the moment,” in the mine, I’m very sorry and have no idea why I only noticed that after the comp version had already been released. Finding a way to get Alexandra safe and sound and inside the airlock proved to be one of the most serious game development challenges. It’s much less confusing now than it used to be, but it’s still a little odd that Alexandra is listed as being present Before the Airlock and also said to be inside the airlock at the same time. Oh well, nobody likes a pedant. Apart from those small quibbles, the game works great now and I’m very happy to have played a very small role in getting it into its present form.

For better or for worse, Enceladus is a comp game through and through. It’s short and easy enough for just about anyone to finish. In practice, this means that the game ends very soon after it reaches its crescendo. You play through the best part, and then it’s just…over. I definitely found myself wishing there was more adventure to be had and that I could spend some more time with my crewmates, but at the same time I know authors can struggle to find the perfect length for a comp game so it’s perfectly understandable why Robb would want to keep it short. Even though Enceladus is about as straightforward as interactive fiction can be, there are probably a few people who still will have a hard time finishing it. I imagine any hardcore Twine fans who crossed over to play this game likely needed to ice their fingers after every few typed commands so that two hour comp game time limit really can be reached more easily than one might imagine. When I give out my numeric ratings, I’m mentally comparing a game to all the interactive fiction I’ve ever played even though that’s probably not fair. This can make it difficult for a short game to get a great score from me, but I really had to think a while about what rating I should give this game. You could consider Enceladus to be about as good as short and simple IF can be. It really is among the best of its kind, and I’m not sure a better game was entered into Comp ’19 — if one does exist, I definitely haven’t played it yet. At the same time, I still prefer my IF to be lengthier and a little more challenging. Be that as it may, the annual IF competition is all about celebrating short form IF, and Enceladus is fantastic short form IF so I’m expecting it to do very well.

Lastly, the fact that I have now reviewed two games in a row that both featured Enceladus has to be about the weirdest thing to have happened in the history of this site. Yeah, it’s even weirder than having all three of the original Trotting Krips review Pass the Banana. I had absolutely no idea Robb was working on an Enceladus-themed game until I’d already started writing my review of Saturn’s Child. What this all means I have no idea, but I think I can state with more authority than anyone else that Enceladus is the best Enceladus-themed text adventure there is. Admittedly, Saturn’s Child did feature an awesome space birth scene (though in my opinion it would have been better if the baby had been named after Jim Bexley Speed), but Enceladus is pretty much superior in all other respects. So, if you can just play one Enceladus game, make it this one!

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating: 34/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 8/10 (Whoever beta tested this game did a fantastic job!)

Puzzle Quality: 4/10 (It’s not that the puzzles are bad per se; it’s just it’s pretty much always bleeding obvious what you should do next so it’s not very challenging.)

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Looks Like AGT: 8/10 (Color is good!)

 

The House on Sycamore Lane by Paul Michael Winters (2019)

Tweet Review:

If you can get past the typos, scarce descriptions, and programming glitches, there’s a fun mystery to be solved within The House on Sycamore Lane. The game is unpolished and rough around the edges, but delivers a rewarding payoff for those willing to wade through its issues.

Full Review:

I was six years old when my father brought home our family’s first home computer, a TRS-80 Model III. One of the first games I ever played on that computer was Haunted House, a text adventure written by Robert Arnstein and published by Radio Shack in 1979. Forty years later, Paul Michael Winters wrote his own haunted house text adventure, The House on Sycamore Lane, and submitted it to the 2019 Interactive Fiction Competition.

Like 1979’s Haunted House, the goal of The House on Sycamore Lane is to enter (and subsequently escape) the titular house. After entering the house, players will need to free the spirit that haunts Sycamore Lane before ultimately freeing themselves. Following an opening sequence that takes place outside a middle school, players are quickly funneled (and promptly trapped) inside the Sycamore house through one of two entrances. From that point on, the majority of the game is spent exploring the spooky old house while solving simple puzzles, most of which involve acquiring objects within rooms and using them to complete tasks in other rooms.

The game’s first puzzle, in which players must unlock their own bike lock, is less about knowing the combination to the lock and more about knowing the combination of words needed to unlock the lock. Unfortunately, this was not the only puzzle where I knew what I wanted to do, but couldn’t figure out how to convey it to the game. Later, inside the house, I got stuck standing underneath a latch in the ceiling with a hook in one hand and some twine in the other. I prefer parser games to graphical “choose your own adventure” point-and-click games and appreciate the level of work that goes into programming them, but there’s a fine line between delivering freedom and frustration.

The sparse descriptions give The House on Sycamore Lane an old-school text adventure vibe. Examining your dirt bike reveals “it is your trusty dirt bike.” A pair of pliers found are “rusty, but functional.” There are no humorous descriptions or long passages of narrative to distract you from the tasks at hand. Most objects are described using only a few words, while room descriptions max out with a few sentences. In this text only medium, descriptions are where moods are set and mental images are painted, and I felt the game would have been more effective with more vivid descriptions. Authors often use item descriptions to provide depth to a story, an opportunity lost here.

Most fans of interactive fiction enjoy reading, which makes them particularly skilled at spotting typos. Unfortunately, this game is filled with them, which gives it an unpolished feel. I tried to overlook the way the game uses “your/you’re” and “its/it’s” interchangeably, but was driven bonkers by a “peperoni stick,” which literally stumped me until I realized the game was requiring me to misspell the object to pick it up. For any text adventure, but specifically one submitted to a competition, a bit of proofreading would give it a more professional look.

With all that said, at the core of The House on Sycamore Lane lies an entertaining little ghost story. As players move throughout the mansion searching for keys to unlock doors and such, certain objects, when acquired, trigger brief flashbacks. Over time, the story behind who has been haunting the house on Sycamore Lane (and why) is revealed — and, more importantly, a way to free the tortured spirit also becomes clear. It’s unfortunate that this story isn’t teased earlier in the game, as it’s definitely interesting. If I were to rework the game, I would either drop the opening subplot involving the middle school bully, or — even better — find a way to tie it into the overall theme of the game, creating a bit more cohesion. A couple of paragraphs at the beginning setting the tone and hinting at what is to come might also help set the mood. The actual story, which is the most compelling part of the game, is simply buried a bit too deep.

I’m not particularly adept at text adventures and it only took me about half an hour to work my way through The House on Sycamore Lane. There are a finite number of rooms within the house, so everywhere I turned I found objects looking for a puzzle to solve, or puzzles awaiting a solution. I don’t think at any point I ran out of places to go or wondered what I should be doing next, and I like that in a game of this scale. The size of the house was appropriate, with lots of rooms to explore and secrets to discover.

The House on Sycamore Lane isn’t terrible. There’s a fun mystery to be discovered by players willing to stick with the game long enough to find it. Interactive fiction games require interesting concepts along with polished writing. Paul Michael Winters has the former part down, and I would love to play another game by him with a bit more attention spent on the latter.

Link: The House on Sycamore Lane

Saturn’s Child by Jerry Ford (2014)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

If Wednesday’s Child is full of woe, then Saturn’s Child is full of cable up the butt. Seriously, in this game your character has a cable up his butt for most of the game, as does your girlfriend. When you and your girlfriend have a baby together in space, your kid eventually gets a cable up the butt too. This just reinforces my feeling that all space games are ultimately variations of Xtrek. Every. Single. One. Especially Planets: TEOS.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

What an epic space adventure! I was totally absorbed from beginning to end, especially during the scenes on Titan and Enceladus. Admittedly the butt stuff was a little weird.

My Verdict:

I loved the adventure, the setting, and the developer’s ambition. I hated the bugs and the excessive focus on procedure. Also, the butt stuff made my butt wince which is never a good thing.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Following his unfortunate death in 2006, ex-president Jerry Ford decided to set politics aside and focus on a new way to reach the masses from beyond the grave: interactive fiction! No, this particular Jerry Ford actually hails from the mean streets of Pleasant Hills, CA, a veritable world away from the gilded cage of Rancho Mirage. He’s written several games that cover everything from crime to demonic seduction to space exploration. That’s why my nickname for him is Detective Jerry Ford, Demonfucker of Mars! Let’s see if that catches on.

Download Link: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/saturns_child.zip

Other Games By This Author: Dark Angel, The Devil in the Details

Before we begin in earnest, I have to tell you something I’ve never shared with anyone else: I’m biased when it comes to space games. That’s because I love space games. I love science fiction in general. I read the books. I watch the movies. I listen to Dimension X. I think about things like space colonization, alien culture, teleportation, and daily life aboard a spaceship on a regular basis. This is an enduring interest for me. Furthermore, I also tend to particularly enjoy interactive fiction set in space, whether it be Infocom classics like Planetfall, graphic adventure game classics like Space Quest, or shooter that occasionally bothers to tell a story classics like Mass Effect. If you want to know how deep the obsession goes, let’s just say I am a genuine fan (present tense) of the BASICA classic Alien and Super Z Trek. Robb reviewed both games fairly on the original incarnation of Reviews From Trotting Krips; I didn’t review either one because I knew I was way too biased to be fair.

So if you want a completely unbiased review of Saturn’s Child you’re not going to be satisfied here because this is definitely a space game and so I’m definitely going to be biased. I’m not so biased that I won’t tell you that the game has both flaws and bugs because it does have both. I’m not even going to write a glowing review because there are as many things I disliked about the game as I liked. It’s just that I have a feeling I enjoyed this game more than most players of interactive fiction will primarily because I love space games. If you don’t share my bias, you could very well think that this is an absolutely terrible game, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince you otherwise. When the average interactive fiction player (who also happens to be a stereotypical teenage girl) plays this, the results are predictably combustive:

“The bugs make this game sooooooooooooooooo annoying! Like there was one which made it so I couldn’t go back to my ship. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!”

“Why do I have to press so many buttons and pull so many levers anyway? This is hella boring! Wouldn’t they have self-flying spaceships or voice-activated controls or something like that in the future?”

“What’s the deal with the whole cable in butt thing? Like ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! I bet the guy who did this is a total sicko!”

I bring up the average interactive fiction player’s potential criticisms of this game because they are totally valid. This game does have annoying bugs, it does have an excessive number of buttons, dials, switches, and levers, and it does feature troubling cable-in-butt action. But all that stuff doesn’t absolutely define the game, at least not for me. I prefer to think of the high points. For example, this game features an outstanding sequence where you help your girlfriend give birth to a baby on a spaceship (if your character is male) or actually give birth (if your character is female). This scene and its leadup are pretty intense. During my first playthrough as a male character, I found myself feeling deeply worried I was going to fuck up. After all, I didn’t know nothing about birthing babies. It turned out to be relatively straightforward in terms of what I had to do (which definitely was the easy part), but I was still sweating bullets by the time we were done. The magnitude of what had just happened — the birth of the first baby (human at least) off Earth — awed me. I’m not privy to the development history of this game, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Jerry Ford started out with a more neutral title like Mission to Saturn and then changed the name after writing the birth scene. This is a game that can and will alienate a player with its annoying bugs and insistence on procedure, but the birth scene is interesting enough to draw you back in if you get that far. You could certainly argue that the birth scene is too passive if you’re playing a female character — you don’t even get to push — but it remains powerful because you still get the overwhelming feeling that you’re doing something no human has ever done before. It feels genuinely fresh and exciting, too, because this just isn’t a theme that gets covered in adventure games all that often. I also really enjoyed exploring the Saturnian moons though I was disappointed they felt so similar to one another. To be fair, I should note that you’ll only see one moon in any given playthrough depending on whether you’re the male or the female player character.

The basic premise of Saturn’s Child is that you are in the space program and are on a mission to Saturn together with an opposite sex partner. Your task is to retrieve two probes lost on Titan and Enceladus, two of Saturn’s numerous moons. You can choose to be either the male or the female astronaut. This choice affects your path through the game ever so slightly; most notably, it changes the perspective of the birth scene and determines which moon of Saturn you’ll personally land on. Whether male or female your space duties will be extremely similar, and I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary to play both paths. Technically, you can also choose to have no sexual organs or be a hermaphrodite, but this just leads to an early game ending. According to this game, NASA doesn’t accept hermaphrodites into the space program. Even if true, pointing this out in a text adventure seems a little unnecessarily mean. Suffice it to say that hermaphrodites will always have a place in my space program, if you know what I mean. If you DO know what I mean, you definitely have the edge on me because I have absolutely no idea.

The game starts out with you and your partner in training. The first scene is a little similar to the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that you find yourself in a dark room with nearly no sensory information to go on. If anything does smell a bit this time around, it’s likely to be the cable you find securely inserted in your ass. You also don’t have any memories. Starting the game out in this manner made me think I wasn’t really an astronaut but rather a kidnap victim. In fact, the first character you meet actually makes an alien anal probe joke. Not exactly the best way to earn my confidence. I had a bit of a hard time buying that my loss of memory was somehow connected to my training as well. Later on, I started to suspect the government might be involved in the pregnancy too, especially when a scientist referred to my child as an extraterrestrial. For whatever reason, the game seems to go out of its way to downplay this possibility — you get your memories back, your baby appears completely human, and a short timeline for the impregnation (which suspiciously no one really seems to remember in any great detail) is provided. Even an explanation for the anal cables is given: the little buggers dispense medicine and report back important health information! In other words, they’re basically a more advanced smartwatch for your butt…who wouldn’t want one? So, no, I can’t exactly prove a secret government research project and alien sperm were actually involved in the birth of my child, but I was totally expecting an ending where my kid sprouted feelers and exhibited telekinetic powers. I’m afraid you’ll have to play the game for yourself to find out if that’s what really happens.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this game is that Jerry Ford’s ideas are generally good and his ambition is admirable. He’s genuinely succeeded in creating a virtual world that is distinct and memorable though not detailed. He captures some of the majesty and mystery of space and some of the dangers as well as the allure of space travel. The big ship, the lander, and the rover all feel like real environments — it’s easy to play this game and imagine yourself actually in space and actually manipulating these hulking machines. The problem is Ford seems so wrapped up in his ideas and his world that it feels like he sometimes forgets people will be playing his game for fun. I’ll take that back if it turns out NASA is actually using this game to prepare recruits for space travel. If that never happens, it’s very hard to justify what Ford puts his players through at times. For one thing, his favorite type of puzzle seems to be the puzzle of obscurity. One example is the treadmill. It takes multiple steps to get it working and to dismount it, but the most trouble users are likely to have with it is finding how to turn it on. It turns out the machine has an emergency power cutoff lever, but you have to stumble about for a while to find it. Looking at the treadmill won’t tell you anything about any cutoff switch. It’s much the same story with the difficult to find book or the first aid kit that doesn’t want to be used even when your partner is bleeding out. To be frank, it’s unclear if these “puzzles” are really intended to be puzzles or if the author just didn’t want to take the time to flesh his game out. Another point of annoyance is Ford’s love of procedure. Space travel naturally involves a lot of cool machines and electronics, and this game has a number of instances where you need to manipulate buttons, levers, and switches in a specific way to proceed. I can appreciate this to a degree because it does make the game seem more realistic, but it becomes downright ridiculous when you have to spend five minutes using a space microwave that’s exactly the same as its counterpart on Earth. Some parts of this game are downright tedious and dull. I think there’s a place for procedure when you’re doing something important and need to learn a skill you’ll use again in the game. For instance, I wouldn’t complain if I had to learn how to manually navigate a starship in a space game. I got absolutely nothing out of opening and closing the microwave, adding water to various food packets, putting the packets in the microwave, setting the power level, setting the cook time, and turning the power on multiple times, though. That’s just unnecessary tedium.

I’m afraid the bugs are going to get their own paragraph. Sadly, there are a lot of them. Some are easy to ignore, like the unmatched quote error early on. Some principally serve as an annoyance, like the way the scientist keeps telling you to dismount the treadmill even when you’re no longer in the same room if you fail to do the dismounting in time. I don’t think you actually CAN do the dismounting in time if you’re a male character, but it works if you’re a female. Maybe the game’s actually trying to make some sort of social commentary about the male tendency to monopolize exercise equipment. Women may take too long in the bathroom, but guys…uh…take too long on the treadmill? The little bastards just can’t get enough of walking without going anywhere, and Saturn’s Child is here to call them out on it. In any case, there’s a certain humor in having the scientist show up somewhere completely inappropriate, such as on Titan, but you’re likely to see that message about dismounting the treadmill a hundred times or more before you’re through with the game. That brings us to the last and worst category of bugs: the game enders. There are at least two bugs which will leave you stuck and unable to finish, and I ran into both of them. As a male character, you can get stuck on Titan through no fault of your own. I still don’t know what triggered the bug, but I somehow ended up in a position where the game said I had reentered my lander even though I was really still on Titan. My space helmet was removed automatically when I tried to reenter the ship so I found myself aimlessly wandering the surface of Titan, breathing in the atmosphere without a helmet and none the worse for wear. Weird all around. Jerry Ford’s strong belief in gender equality lead to him inserting a similar bug for the female character. This time the bug occurs during a radiation leak that occurs prior to your departure for Enceladus. If you don’t follow the proper sequence of actions, you can end up unable to advance the game no matter what you do. It turns out software bugs are ultimately more deadly than radiation. I think NASA knows exactly what I’m talking about, unfortunately.

In short, Saturn’s Child is a game for a particular type of person: someone who really, really loves space and doesn’t mind bugs, even game-ending bugs. Even though there were aspects of the game that I genuinely enjoyed, it turns out even I don’t love space quite THAT much. There’s just a few too many problems here to forgive and overlook or to expect others to forgive and overlook. The pity is that Saturn’s Child genuinely had the potential to be great…it just didn’t quite manage to realize that potential. In its present form, I suspect those who have some sort of weird cable-butt fetish will end up enjoying the game more than anyone else. If that’s you, this is definitely the game. If that’s not you, well, that’s why we have other reviews.

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 22/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 6/10

Playability: 3/10 (Sadly, Jerry Ford seems to struggle to look at his own games from a player’s point of view.)

Puzzle Quality: 1/10

Parser Responsiveness: 5/10 (The parser can be quite picky at times and some of the TADS rewrites for unrecognized inputs are downright bizarre.)

My First Stupid Game by Dan McPherson (1996)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I genuinely thought that this game was set at my old college right up until I realized you couldn’t piss on the Sammy Hagar poster. That’s definitely not the Pelling way!

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I gave this one a ‘1’ in competition voting. There’s no place for such crudeness and vulgarity in interactive fiction.

My Verdict:

Dan McPherson has shown us authoritatively that college games don’t have to be a series of inside jokes. There’s also the urination option!

Game Information

Game Type: AGT

Author Info: Dan McPherson wrote exactly one game in his interactive fiction career that we know of. It finished last in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition, as it seemed designed to do, and Dan proceeded to ride off into that good night. What a man, what a loss. I hope he knows that we as a community need him now more than ever.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/indexes/if-archive/games/competition96/first/

Excerpt from David Holstein’s Review in the AGT Times, October 13th, 1996:

College is as much a series of questions as it is a series of courses. Will I find out what I want to do with my life? Will I form a new crew and have tons of good times with them? Will I finally meet my one true love? Will I drop out after two months just like Uncle Charlie? In Dan McPherson’s amusing and nostalgic look back at university life, he suggests a few more questions undergraduates might ask if they attended the same institution he did: Where are all the toilets? What’s the deal with the talking bear? Will the best lineup of Van Halen ever reunite? Despite its self-effacing title, this is a quirky game well worth playing for adults, but it is inappropriate for the littlest adventurers due to some graphic toilet humor.

My First Stupid Game is designed to enrage a certain type of pearl clutcher who participates in the voting at the annual Interactive Fiction Competition every single year. These are the sort of people who demand IF creators take their competition entries seriously and frown on anyone who would dare call his first stupid adventure game My First Stupid Game. I think Dan McPherson knew exactly what he was doing here. He wanted to lower expectations with the title and then surprise people with the quality of his first stupid adventure game. Some competition voters — I’m looking at you, Davy Carmichael — automatically gave the game a ‘1’ because they judged it on the title alone in an extreme violation of the spirit of competition voting. McPherson’s next audacious move was to create his game using AGT. Bear in mind here the competition’s first incarnation in 1995 only welcomed Inform and TADS entries. Traditionally, authors submitting games written using less mainstream development systems to the competition have had a hard time of it, and Dan McPherson entered the lion’s den in its first year of truly open and desegregated competition. Thirdly and most importantly, My First Stupid Game is fundamentally about urination. You play this guy who needs to pee and can’t access a toilet and has scruples about pissing anywhere but in an appropriate urine receptacle. Considering that the median IF competition voter has neither urethra nor bladder, it is quite a lot to ask them to relate to basic human bodily functions. As a general rule, bathroom humor more often than not fails to connect with competition voters, likely because it is too sophisticated. Under these circumstances, it would essentially be impossible for an AGT game about urination called My First Stupid Game not to finish in last place in the competition in 1996 (or 2019), and the pearl clutchers did not fail to live up to expectations. In a just world, it wouldn’t have won but still would’ve finished higher. Let’s right a historical wrong right here and now.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to My First Stupid Game as MFSG from this point forward. I realize this acronym makes it look like I’m referring to Motherfucking Sodium Glutamate, but the game title is fairly long. Something had to be done. As I mentioned before, MFSG is about one man’s quest to urinate. He seems to be living in a dorm type of environment, and theoretically does have access to a communal bathroom. The problem is the only toilet in the vicinity is locked with a padlock. Judging from the smell of the hovel, most dorm residents prior to the protagonist have handled the locked toilet problem by relieving themselves wherever they want to, but our protagonist won’t entertain that notion for a second. No, he has standards, and if he finds a locked toilet he’s going to unlock it or die trying. I’m not joking about the dying part as this game features an epic, masterfully written urination death scene if you somehow fail to unlock the toilet in time (you can also be killed by a bear). In fact, this game sets new standards for writing in urination adventure games. Take this description of an Alex Van Halen poster for example: “The poster shows Alex Van Halen playing the drums. There is a copy of Playboy propped open on his drum set, and he is staring intently into it as if he were an orchestral percussionist and it was the score of a Mozart operetta.” If you doubt for a moment that this is the real deal, check out the almost proper use of the subjunctive mood and everything. Paul O’Brien wrote a extremely negative review of this game but noted of the writing, “Remarkably, I noticed no errors.” I see that as Paul O’Brien’s way of acknowledging that nothing he ever writes will ever be on the level of an AGT game about peeing. I’m sympathetic because I’m in the exact same boat.

I won’t pretend that Dan McPherson made no mistakes here. All have sinned and come short of the glory of Plotkin, after all. His biggest blunder was starting the game out in a room where five posters of Van Halen members are hanging on the wall, all of which are difficult to interact with. There is one poster which is absolutely essential for advancing the game which a clue will guide you to. The problem is the game expects you to first type “look poster” or “get poster” and hit ENTER and then answer the prompt to indicate whether it’s the David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, or Michael Anthony poster you mean. If you type “get eddie van halen poster”, it simply won’t work; neither will “pour hot sauce on michael anthony poster” or “drive sammy hagar poster 55”. At one point, the game assumed I meant “hagar’ as a preposition. There are a lot of questionable prepositions in the English language, but hagar is the worst of the lot undoubtedly. Another issue is that sometimes you get warned about needing to piss twice after an action. This definitely heightens the tension, but might not have been quite what McPherson intended. There’s also the fact that every now and then you die rather suddenly from an exploding bladder before you’ve had a chance to really explore the game. I tend to forgive this to an extent because the death scene is so great that every player needs to encounter it at least once but preferably five times. When you do die, there is a room description that is displayed AFTER the death scene unfolds which is quite difficult to explain; perhaps it’s the proof of life after death mankind has sought fruitlessly over the millennia. I also feel like there could be a bit more description in places, particularly considering we’ve got a very good writer at our disposal here. On the other hand, “there is nothing particularly interesting about the Michael Anthony poster” is biting musical commentary at its best. Some of the hatred directed towards Barney seemed a little immature to me at first (especially considering the highbrow content of the rest of the game), but then I remembered I myself once downloaded a patch for Wolfenstein 3D back in the day that enabled me to take a break from killing Nazis and kill Barney, Beavis, and Butthead instead. College kids really did hate Barney, and so this game is a valuable historical record of a very special time in online history.

I think what makes MFSG work so well is that it absolutely knows what it is. It doesn’t want to do much more than make you laugh and be quirky, and there’s no point in the game where it ceases to be fun. Although the game never acknowledges that it takes place on a college campus directly, I feel like it’s a great addition to the college adventure canon. The bear in the hidden passage seems like an example of campus lore come to life, and the implied war between the Barney shrine builders and the Barney destroyers is every bit as compelling as your typical nerds vs jocks showdown. As a game designer, Dan McPherson’s strength lies in his anticipation of what the user will do next. Most authors doing a urination game wouldn’t bother coding a response for defecation commands, but McPherson refuses to participate in that old food fight. If you try to relieve your bowels in this game, you’re kindly told, “You don’t need to shit, you need to piss. Pay attention.” There are a number of unexpected responses to reasonable inputs in this game, and it makes you want to try different things to see what happens. No, it’s definitely not I/O, but McPherson obviously spent some time fleshing out the game. For an experienced adventurer, MFSG offers little challenge and the hints that pop up every now and then largely ensure that no one will be left behind, albeit in an amusing way. It’s an enjoyable ride in the country, not an obstacle course. All in all, I was extremely tempted to give this game a 7, but ultimately I decided the RANDOM DEATH TIMER was just a little too sadistic. Sometimes you’ll see a review that warns players that they need to finish this game in some arbitrary number of turns, like 79. That’s adorable. What this game really does is randomly explode your bladder whenever it damn well feels like it. I’ve died in this game on my first turn which is as hardcore as it gets. And, come to think of it, that does help explain the whole last place in the competition thing. I’d like to call this a bug, but every conversation I have with Dan McPherson in my head ends with him saying, “Yeah, well, I’m still keeping the random death timer.” Well fine then, your game is getting a 6 which is still the highest rating it has ever received from a publication not formally affiliated with an elementary school.

One side effect of playing this game is you’ll never, ever “hold it” again in your life. That’s the primary reason it receives the highest recommendation possible from the Society of Urologists Who Play Interactive Fiction — Zork is the only game that even comes close to MFSG in their rankings. Anyway, I’m now prepared to piss 24 hours a day regardless of circumstances. The first thing I do after getting dressed is fill every available pocket with guitar picks, just in case I need something to piss on later on. Only 90s kids who’ve played My First Stupid Game before would understand.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 30/50

Story: 5/10 (It’s not a particularly deep story, but if you’ve ever really, really needed to piss I think you’ll be able to relate.)

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 5/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10 (The game is pretty easy, but getting the last point does require a little experimentation.)

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Dormicity: 7/10 (The only way this rating could have gone higher is if you had a few drunk buddies around who were buried underneath a pile of beer cans and were lying in a pool of both their own and unidentified urine. Just a suggestion for Dan’s next game.)


Tube Trouble by Richard Tucker (1995)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I was personally rooting for my character to starve. Also, is this guy’s name seriously Dick Tucker?

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I love quirky puzzle games!

My Verdict:

The best interactive fiction combines challenge with story. This game does not do that.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Richard Tucker wrote the original Tube Trouble in 1988 for the BBC Micro, but he didn’t quit there. In 1995, he decided to release more or less the same game under the same name but newly rewritten in Inform and enter it into the first ever Interactive Fiction Competition. For that reason alone, his place in the history books is assured, but I still wonder what might have been. In an old SPAG interview, Tucker mentioned he was working on another game which would feature a “guess the noun” puzzle (the poor chap sounded like he thought that was an original idea). This doesn’t seem to have ever been released, presumably because the author didn’t name it Tube Trouble. If I were Tucker, I’d have entered a new game called Tube Trouble written using a different development system into each yearly competition. That’s probably why I’m not Tucker.

Download Link: https://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/tube.z5

Other Games By This Author: Tube Trouble (1988)

I like to think of myself as being a person who can appreciate a good puzzle. When I play a game, I genuinely don’t want to have everything handed to me. I want that sense of accomplishment that only comes from overcoming adversity and solving problems. I actually like having to think and struggle a little! When a game doesn’t feature any puzzle/obstacle/challenge at all, it starts to not even feel like a game to me. On the other hand, a game that is JUST puzzles and doesn’t have much of a story or atmosphere or anything to really draw you in can be quite tedious in a way that’s just as bad as a game that offers no challenge. If you doubt me on this, I need but say two words in my defense: Tube Trouble.

I had a feeling Tube Trouble was going to be a trying experience fairly quickly. Because the game’s intro invited me to type “info” to get more information about the game, I did just that as my first action in the game. Delightfully, it warned me that I could expect to be killed without warning. Some games like that are fun, and I resolved I would try to get myself killed in as many different ways as possible. I soon discovered an empty electrified track that was described as “high voltage and extremely dangerous.” Sounds promising, right? I tried to jump on the tracks and the parser pretended not to understand me. I tried to touch the track and the game told me that would be extremely stupid. You can’t even have sex with the vending machine — I thought this was worth a try considering how my cousin Charlie met his untimely demise. RIP, Charlie…I hope you and that shortstack Frito-Lay machine are still together somewhere up there. The fact is that it’s easier to die in real life than in this game, and Senor Tucker should frankly be ashamed of the false advertising.

At least there’s always the specter of starvation following you around throughout the game. You see, the premise of the game is that you’ve been trapped in this tube station for days, possibly weeks, and you haven’t eaten anything in all that time. Don’t expect this to lead to any sort of intense race against time in which you’re battling every moment just to stay alive, though. In fact, if you solve the first puzzle you do receive some food. If you try to eat it, however, an official tells you can’t eat in the station. In response, you do NOT tell the official to go to hell and proceed to devour the chocolate in a single bite. Instead, you’re supposed to just accept this and go off and solve another puzzle. Is mindless obedience a side effect of starvation? Is our hero a man or a mouse? I just can’t relate to this tube man at all. He doesn’t seem to care if he lives or dies as long as there’s another puzzle to solve. As it turns out, I don’t think you can really die from starvation in the game either…the worst that happens is that you get knocked unconscious.

I found myself particularly annoyed by the repetition in the game. There’s a tramp who’ll go through his script a million times if you let him. There’s a vending machine (the same one you can’t make sweet love to) which will give you an unlimited supply of chocolate and pound notes except for the fact it will also magically eliminate every existing chocolate and pound note you may have in your inventory or have attempted to hide in another location. There’s also a guy who will buy your hat as many times as you like, and he even lies about how much he’s going to pay each time. I suppose Herr Tucker wanted to give players extra chances if they screwed something up, but I felt like the game was just telling me, “Hey, don’t forget you’re supposed to be solving a puzzle right now,” over and over again. The repeated events and scripts broke all sense of immersion for me. There’s definitely no soaking in the atmosphere or messing around in this game. You’re either going to be solving a puzzle or the game will be nudging you to solve a puzzle the whole time you play.

Perhaps a game that really was just puzzles might still be fun if the puzzles were unique and engrossing. That’s not what we’re dealing with here. In Tube Trouble the puzzles are rather silly and while not necessarily all easy I can’t say I felt any better about myself after solving them. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment, I had more of a sense of resignation as I plodded my way through the game…there’s just not a lot of joy or adventure to be found here. Instead, there’s just puzzles, and to be honest there aren’t even very many puzzles either. That doesn’t mean you’ll finish the game quickly. I personally had a particularly hard time with the second puzzle just because I thought the game had already told me that this one item was off-limits. Turns out it wasn’t really off-limits, and you had to actually mess with it in order to advance. C’est la vie! Richard Tucker does not do foreshadowing.

The game is functional, but not really noteworthy in any way. The parser is not very responsive and one puzzle arguably forces you into a guess the verb situation largely because Richard Tucker also does not do synonyms. As for those of you inclined to gaze at walls, you’re going to find out that absolutely none of them have anything special about them. No, not even the southeast wall…I couldn’t believe it either. The writing is minimalistic, with very limited descriptions throughout, but I thought Tucker did manage to at least give the tramp some personality.

If I had to say one thing good about this game, I suppose I’d mention that it does require you to observe and experiment until you win. In the world of the game, creativity and perseverance are rewarded (mainly perseverance, though). So I suppose this experience isn’t so much about having fun as it is gaining valuable life skills. For that reason, it might not be a terrible first text adventure for a kid or life dropout to play. No, I suppose it actually would still be terrible even for kids and life dropouts…terrible but useful at the same time. Just like Richard Tucker!

Disclaimer: any criticism of Richard Tucker implied in this review is offered only in a spirit of good-natured ribbing. After all, Richard is one of the best friends I have whom I’ve never met nor otherwise ever interacted with, and no negative review could ever change that. The man deserves credit for porting a BBC Micro game to Inform — he did his part to preserve our interactive fiction history. Plus, he helped playtest Curses which is a fantastic game.

Simple Rating: 3/10

Complicated Rating: 17/50

Story: 4/10 ( I think you COULD have an interesting game about being stuck in a subway station. Theoretically, anyway.)

Writing: 4/10

Playability: 3/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Parallel by David Hughes (2008)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

You know this guy killed his parents, don’t you? He’s breaking out so he can dig up their skeletons and have a little tea party with them. AND YOU HELPED HIM DO IT!

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

What a fun adventure! It’s a short game, but there’s two whole worlds to explore!

My Verdict:

David Hughes totally ignored the main question everyone who plays this game will have. I can respect that.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Who is this guy? What’s his plan? I don’t know, but he seems to have also written a game called Sporkery 1: There Will Be Sporking. I’m not touching that one with a ten foot spork.

Download Link: https://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/parallel.z5

Other Games By This Author: Sporkery 1: There Will Be Sporking

Parallel is a game that is set in an asylum. It puts you in the role of a patient at the facility who wants to escape. You just happen to be able to travel to a parallel world where analogues of objects and people in the “real world” appear in different forms. Altering the parallel world also causes changes in the real world. Ostensibly, your goal in the game is to use your special power to get out of the loony bin and go back to your family. David Hughes seems to want to make you think that’s what you should do, since that’s how you win the game…but should you really go along with it? That’s the question that has plagued me both day and night ever since I first played this game.

I mean just stop and think about it for a moment. The protagonist believes a gypsy granted him the ability to travel to a parallel, often disturbing world. When he tells his family about this, they alert the authorities. Abuses in the mental health system set aside, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me — we don’t need another guy thinking he’s slaughtering orcs in Middle-Earth when he’s really shooting up a school. This is where the story starts to fall apart. The dude in the asylum claims his parents want him back and the asylum, especially the evil supervising nurse Maggie, is unfairly trying to keep him confined. Think about things from his parents’ perspective here for a moment. Do they REALLY want this kid back? Imagine the conversation:

Dad: “Gee, honey, the house feels so empty these days. Do you remember when little Billy would come back from his ‘trips’ upstairs and tell us all about how everything was a different color and looked really desolate up there?”

Mom: “Oh, yes, dear, that was really creepy. Uh, I mean I sure do. I’d do anything to have little Billy back home. I’d even harbor him from the authorities if he managed to escape the asylum. I totally don’t have Nurse Maggie on speed dial in preparation for that event ever happening.”

Radio: “We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to inform you that Maggie Slater, head nurse at Silver Fountain Asylum, has been brutally murdered with a toy action figure by one of the patients at the asylum. A different patient has escaped from the facility and is believed to be responsible for locking Nurse Maggie in the room of her murderer. The escaped patient is highly delusional and should not be approached under any circumstances…”

Dad: “LITTLE BILLY’S COMING HOME!!!!”

Mom: “Oh God, oh God. No. This cannot be happening. Not again…”

The subject David Hughes seems intent on ignoring is the one everyone who plays this game is going to be wondering about: is this guy (the main character, not David himself) crazy? Those of us who have read or seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest know that not everyone in an asylum is actually going to be sick. We also know that nurses in positions of authority in asylums are completely unlike other types of nurses because they are totally evil and actually enjoy torturing people who are sane. So, yeah, it is certainly possible the protagonist is someone we should feel good about saving. On the other hand, what he’s going through sounds a lot like a delusion. The parallel world he visits isn’t very fleshed out and feels a lot like the asylum itself with some restrictions removed and some unsettling elements inserted. There’s nothing in the text that makes it clear that the game is set in a mental patient’s delusion, but you can’t discount the possibility. That certainly tempered the satisfaction I felt upon “freeing” the protagonist in this game. There’s also the potential that our hero is not just sick but actually dangerous because he definitely ends up putting his nemesis in a very perilous position when it seems like he could have theoretically used his powers to just stick her in a bathroom or something. The revenge was satisfying, but I still felt guilty. All that said, we do have to remember magic can be real in adventure games. You don’t play Enchanter and assume everyone’s nuts. Maybe I’m just reading too much into the whole asylum thing. Maybe our narrator really is reliable. Maybe he’s really being persecuted despite being sane and really needed to get out of this nuthouse so he could go live a happy life with his family again. I have to try to believe that no matter what my reason and that ugly guy on my shoulder are telling me. The alternative is just too disturbing to contemplate…

Dad: “Hey, that’s funny…what did I do with my axe? I was sure it was right around here somewhere.”

Little Billy: “I’ve got a gift for you, Mommy. It was a rose in the parallel world!”

Mom: “No, no, no! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

I do think parallel worlds can be a great element in interactive fiction, and Parallel uses about the simplest way to switch between worlds you’ll come across: you simply go “up” to go to the parallel world and “down” to go back to Earth (or whatever it is). This choice of directions is certainly provocative since the parallel world seems kind of hellish, but maybe the message is that asylums are worse than Hell itself. Your actions in both worlds are essentially limited to the movement of objects (the choice of what object to move where is the only type of puzzle you’ll find here). The fact that most things I tried to do didn’t work made me hate the parser, but this is a game that deliberately allows for only a very limited range of activities. You’ll probably enjoy it more the sooner you discover and accept this. Three verbs ought to be enough for everyone! The descriptions are about as sparse as the command list but do seem to fit the bleakness of the asylum and parallel world. All in all, Parallel is pretty decent for a really short game: it perhaps inadvertently makes you think and it’s pretty entertaining to travel between worlds.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 26/50

Story: 6/10

Writing: 5/10

Playability: 6/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Bee by Emily Short (2012)

I read an article about the Hobbit, novel version, recently. All right, it was on Jimbo’s Big Bag of On-line Trivia. The article said that the novel contained lots of descriptions of Bilbo’s larder in the Shire, because children would be interested in the descriptions of all the food. I was so impressed with that insight that when I vandalized the article to just contain a 4K photo of a giant spider for future arachnophobists, I left that part in. I was reminded of the power of food playing Bee. Food that I would only eat if having lunch over a job interview to my chagrin popped up – pea soup, brown bread (sorry, CANNED brown bread!) — lentils everywhere, and rice with red beans which isn’t that great unless prepared by an incomprehensible Cajun.

Food, though, is just one of the things used to paint the picture of the family that you are a part of. This family was rather different from my own and I enjoyed seeing the world from their perspectives. There is a lovely spot in the game where the family is putting labels on jars of preserves. Putting aside, for a second, the concept of fruit being in the house, the interplay in the family’s craft and perfectionism when it came to a can labels was nothing along the lines of what I had growing up. Bee successfully creates a virtual world to experience. For me, that is what IF is all about. A journey into such a different world is what I love about interactive fiction; I mean, I can accumulate demerits from Ensign Blather with the best of them, but this world was in many ways richer.

I’d never played a Varytale before, so I wasn’t 100% up on the platform shortcuts or what was expected of me. When I got into my first competition Bee eliminated choices that my character wouldn’t possibly say, I suspect because my spelling attribute was high. So I had four choices for “cacophony,” but some were ghosted. Also, I never use words that have “k”s in them and I wasn’t about to start now. (That said, if some future programmer for the Varytale software adds the red squiggle pattern under misspelled words in the presented text, they are going to screw this story up. Thus expect this to be the first thing implemented should Varytale be acquired by Games for Windows Live.)

A lot of choices are cyclical, as the months in Bee progress, so there’s lots to do that does not involve vocabulary words. Each one was a treat, as I had no idea what was going to happen when I selected one (though none disrupted my expectations more then when I chose the one called Advent).

One of the specific bits of writing that resonated with me was a line about gardening, a distraction I sort of loathe:

You work in stripes, listening to past spelling bees in your headphones. It’s not a perfect drill method, but it means the time under the hot sun isn’t totally wasted.

This is a universal truth, except for people whose self-respect extends to their gardens. It’s time that could be spent on things that matter. I could try to distance myself at this point and say that maybe I shouldn’t turn towards children for philosophies on weed and treant maintenance, or I could state that Bee taught me something… then get a novel on tape on MP3, “plug in” and learn Python.

I got snippets of the other characters in Bee and did wish there was a chance to learn more about them. One in particular was Jerome, although when we all went to the zoo I wasn’t sure if the story was indicating that he was showing aptitude to become a veterinarian or the next Re-Animator.

Another one of the things I loved was that for one stretch, Difficulties With Money continually showed up as an option. I have never seen anything approaching that in IF – while what happened when I selected that one did not seem change, its appearance was always about, always on the screen, an unstoppable force. A very real one, too and not a video game monster. Just by being selectable constantly, it was a spectre of just how poorly the family was doing with money. That was wonderful design.

The ending I got depicted a family where the children were in public school and mom had to get a job — I am hesitant to call that a bad ending, because that’s how things really were for me growing up, though I guess my mother’s opinion on whether it was “good” or not would probably hold more weight. I can’t categorize this Varytale experience as a role-playing game, CYOA story, text adventure, all three or something in between, but Bee made me want to spend more time with the people inside it, which is more important than classification, anyway.

Pit of the Condemned by Matthew Holland (2015)

Last year, my gal and I bought the biggest piece of crap on the housing market in Denver and, over the course of 5 months, turned it into something livable. Through a steady regimen of cursing, nail-gunning and hair-pulling, we got it to where the roof doesn’t leak, the heat works and the doors shut. So when I picked Pit of the Condemned as my 2015 IF Comp game to review, the title alone made it sound like a vacation.

In PotC, you play a convict that, along with fellow imprisoned person Iza, are thrown out into a city while a horrible beast tracks you. There’s one thing that this game does very effectively, and that is giving you (in my opinion) a sense of where the beast might be, without the benefit of graphics or a Defender-style radar or little text mini-map. There were a few playthroughs where I focused so much on the game’s text at the very beginning like, “You hear movement not far away, to the west.” and I would find myself unable to not type “west” and not say aloud “DURRR.” This resulted in me instantly perishing, but it was my fault because I have the habit of typing whatever compass direction I see in a text game. Usually in a game that features a lot of dying, I get a little torqued and quit, but that never happened in PotC. I intentionally don’t want to know how author Matthew Holland implemented the movement of the beast, because nothing is going to beat how he did it in my mind, which was to have the thing actually track both Iza and myself every turn. It effectively seemed that way and is the game’s brightest positive.

But yeah, two of the graphical adventure games I liked as a kid – Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown – created a feeling of death under a ticking clock in the opening, alongside being chased by a killer. Pit of the Condemned has this same vibe going for it. What I like about chase-based IF is that it eliminates a certain sense of player anxiety. I’m not expected to futz about in the Boiler Room for 20 turns trying to get the lathe working. I’m expected to keep moving, maybe grab some items if they’re out in the open and be okay with dying a few times until I can formulate a plan. Pit of the Condemned implied, to me, that through its title we’re all going to be in one location, but that’s not it at all. Admittedly, I would have loved it if we found out a little bit about ourselves as the player character during this chase, but that’s not the focus of the game.

There was some inconsistency when it came to the capitalization of the various rooms — “Gallows Hill” as one example, “canal,” “cellar,” “rancid sewer” as others. Perhaps that was intentional and only the “decent” places got capital letters. (I do like that, though the primary means of execution these days is a horrible monster tracking you, they still had a nice hill to hang people on. You know the landscaper of the gallows was clucking his tongue in irritation and rolling his or her eyes when the Dark-Furred Monster People gave their seemingly superfluous sales pitch to the city.)

I would assume that the implementation is where the game got stung in the comp. An example where it got dicey is one room where I found a couple keys. >take the keys doesn’t work, you have to take them individually. More, the room’s description of the junk after you’ve grabbed the items still says that there could be something useful in the pile of junk, implying that the player should still search it… By that point I knew what to expect and it wasn’t irritating.

I want to stress that I am not bothered by this sort of thing in a text adventure. Not being maddened by under-implemented IF is not a huge surprise, having written the great majority of it in the 2000s. But to me, there’s two styles of text adventures, two things an author might be going for:

1) This is a highly-polished interactive adventure game and the author is creating something that Infocom could have released.

2) This the work of a highly-enthusiastic author that is doing this for the first or second time and might stumble into some common Inform / TADS / Hugo pitfalls.

I’m okay with the second one. I like those games. That’s what I mostly played in the 1990s when I re-discovered IF thanks to the Internet. The highest compliment I can give Pit of the Condemned is that it gave me nostalgia for a wonderful time and I enjoyed it for that reason. It’s perfectly stable, just missing a tiny bit of player character love that would have really made it shine more. What I really hope is that Matthew Holland digests the reviews and comes out swinging with another game in a year or two and lets us all into his mind once again.

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by One of the Bruces (2011)

I have never played Curses. Any reference that Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis has to Curses is going to be lost on me. However, I did play Apocolocyntosis in a moving vehicle to and from an arcade, with several other people along for the ride and Bruce as the narrator. I believe MM:A gives you quite a lot to think about regarding the magic of a singular vision in design.

Bruce has made the kind of game I suspect he would like to play on some level, but never gets a chance to. Sometimes text games try to answer a question that is always lurking — in Savoir Faire, we wonder “What if I could link these two objects?” In Deadline, we wonder, “What if I could accuse people of a horrible crime?” In Apocolocyntosis we get the answer to, “What if everyone was more-or-less receptive to my engorged video game cock?” Text games are really among the leaders in answering these questions, because doing so with a mainstream title means taking a chance. It’s not remotely pornography, though it’s an incredibly pornographic experience.

There are things I like about this game that have nothing to do with sex mechanic. It’s packed with fun features. I like PONCY MODE being a thing you can enable, and I like that it came out as a result of discussions with people who made the newsgroups unreadable. I like it when people put footnotes in their games. What I liked most was the “hub” design of the game world. There’s areas to explore in Apocolocyntosis, but Bruce doesn’t ask you to play them all over again, like Halo, or play them a second time in reverse order, like Hexen. It’s a difference in preference between generations of gamers, like how quarter-second cuts are totally okay in music videos if you are younger than I am, but a moronic unstyle if you are exactly my age or older. The area worlds are set up like chapters in a book, and filled with characters that I can dislike “properly”: I dislike them because they treated our protagonist badly or were condescending to him, not because the author is broken and projecting his issues onto his characters.

I recall that as a group, we had a bit of trouble with the whale scene, but we were otherwise able to make pretty good progress with only marginal nudging. I was exhausted on the trip back, so more of a passive absorber in that regard, due to my attempts to have sex with the Sinistar machine at the arcade; don’t judge me you fiends. The design, taken as a whole, it is that of a game meant to be played in a session or two, and it’s all very approachable. It, like The Undiscovered Country is unquestionably an adventure game — if you’ve been at all frustrated with puzzleless IF, this is the game for you. Even if you take the fact that it’s a text game out of it, what interests Bruce from a gameplay standpoint is frozen in time, and I am delighted to return to a sort of post-Infocom Meretzky ride with his offerings.

There’s a good deal of subtle humor in the game as well — a great application of scare quotes managed to crack me up every time I did a playthrough, and you’re never going too long without the game giving you a wry observation. More, while I had no idea what a lot of stuff was in the game, especially regarding archiecture, Bruce described it well enough for me to make sense of it. >LOOK is a strong verb in the arsenal once again, at least in my playthroughs.

Completing Apocolocyntosis, I wonder what kind of game Bruce would or could make next. I would most like to see him answer, “What if he gave us Stiffy’s thoughts on all this?” I don’t know if that sort of thing resonates with him much, but it wouldn’t be the first time a mute protagonist spoke in a sequel.

The people who gave it a “1” in the comp are probably babies (no offense). If you have matured to the point where a video game can’t offend you by simply existing there’s a lot of adventure to be found here. I don’t know if we’ll ever get another Adam Thornton game – I hope we do! – but man, what a way to go out if this is the finale.