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.