Under the Sea: The Treasure of the Santa Tortosa by Heike Borchers (2019)

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

I think Heike once read an Aquaman comic and thought to herself, “Woah, this guy’s superpower is that he can talk to fish! This is the coolest superhero of all time!” She is the only person in history to have ever had this reaction to an Aquaman comic.

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

There’s treasure, exploration, friendship, puzzles, humor, and even romance to be found here. What more could an IF player ask for?

My Verdict:

I should probably resent this game for being a thinly conceived vehicle for unrelated and somewhat randomly chosen classic puzzles, but it’s so charming and fun I don’t even care. It turns out spending my life not interacting with sea creatures has left a huge void in my heart that I only now realize I must fill. Thanks, Heike!

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Heike Borchers appears to be a first time IF author of whom there is little public knowledge. Cynical voices might point at this game which is both well-designed and well-informed in IF history and argue it must be the work of a seasoned hand writing under a nom de plume, but I’ll refuse to believe this until the bitter, bitter end. To me, Heike will always be some German chick who digs IF and just started writing her own games in 2019. I welcome her to our community with open arms. By the way, do you think Dave Ahl Jr will ever write another game?

Download Link: https://ifcomp.org/play/2076/download

The 2019 Interactive Fiction Competition will not exactly go down as the most family friendly iteration in IFComp’s more than two decade history. Considering just the first four comp games I played this year, the first game featured recreational marijuana use, the second a dead fat guy, the third a dead cat, and the fourth a murderous protagonist. This is exactly the sort of material I’d want any hypothetical children of mine to be exposed to as early as possible, but I can understand why some parents might want to shelter their kids a little longer or at least keep them from falling under the influence of the sick sort of people who still write interactive fiction in 2019. Under the Sea stands out in contrast to the rest of the field as it is exactly the sort of game parents should want their kids to play. It has no death, violence, drugs, or sex. It’s innocent. It’s charming. It has puzzles which require some thought in order to solve but which eager young minds would be capable of solving. It even teaches sound moral values.

Even better, Under the Sea is also the kind of game you could describe in an overly excited tone of voice in order to get an 8 or 38 year old interested in playing it. You’re an adventurer! You’re seeking treasure! It’s buried under the sea! You’ve got to talk to fish in order to find it! There’s a bear! And an octopus too! Even I’m getting excited just typing this out. This isn’t the most intellectual game in the world, but it’s easy to approach and easy to relate to. I don’t know about you, but the only answer I have to the questions “Do you want to find some treasure?” and “Do you want to talk to fish?” is HELL YES.

Treasure hunting games don’t always have much of a moral compass. The whole pursuit is rooted in avarice, after all, and the trail of dead dungeon dwellers we adventurers typically leave in our wake while in pursuit of the shiny is only rarely considered. Under the Sea isn’t heavy-handed in its approach to morality, but it forces the player to choose what kind of adventurer he or she wishes to be. You can be a lying braggart or a kindly truth-teller. You can choose love over money or money over love. There are consequences to every choice, but none are severe or extreme. I loved the fact that I, a bitter old man whose sole guiding moral principle is to not eat people unless very hungry, got the ending with Keira and found myself nominated for an important adventuring honor on my first playthrough. That’s the best ending, I think, and it’s a good illustration that doing good can indeed feel good, particularly when you’re doing good in a text adventure and thus are not subject to all the bullshit people come up with in real life that can sometimes leaves no good deed unpunished. Under the Sea has struck a powerful blow for virtue and it deserves praise for that. On the other hand, I kind of liked the ending where I ended up dirty, stinking rich too even though it was less warm and fuzzy. Avarice is…good? “Awesome” would have more of a ring to it, I suppose.

The game Under the Sea most reminds me of is an AGT classic called Dragons In Chocolate Land by Eclipse. Both games feature a number of animals you must interact with, and both games have a whimsical feel to them. Eclipse, though, seems to have been much more serious about worldbuilding. She created about as realistic a game world that uses chocolate as a building material and is inhabited by dragons as she could, and her animals tend to act more like real animals, albeit animals with generally kind dispositions. Under the Sea in contrast never feels as convincing. The fish and the octopus act more like people than animals. While it’s fun to interact with the sea creatures, you know they’re there mostly to act cutesy and give you extremely unlikely puzzles to solve. You just have to accept that this world you’ve found yourself in has a fish that’s into Morse code and an octopus who likes devious word games. At times, the pretense can wear a little thin and the game can start to feel like a collection of disconnected puzzles.

That said, I mostly enjoyed the puzzles in the game. They all make sense and will be mostly familiar to veteran IF players. I have to admit when I ran into the Morse code puzzle, my first reaction was, “Oh HELL no!” Then I realized that I knew exactly how to solve this and had in fact done this kind of thing before. So I solved it and I felt smart. That’s a good puzzle. The other puzzles I found either straightforward or I solved them on my third attempt. That’s true even for the final puzzle which I recognized as a familiar logic puzzle but couldn’t remember how to solve it for the life of me. So I guessed and solved it on my third attempt. Then the octopus asked me how I solved the puzzle and I guessed the answer he wanted to that on my third attempt. Yeah, I guessed the answer to the puzzle question designed specifically to prevent guessing. It was both my finest and my least finest hour. I really felt like an idiot when I looked up the puzzle online and was reminded of the actual trick to solving it.

One thing that makes this game more difficult than it needs to be is that the parser responsiveness is poor and exact command matches are too frequently required. For example, the game’s parser will understand “say thanks” but not allow you to use thank as a verb. There should definitely be more synonyms implemented and perhaps some more guidance to show players how they should word their commands. The most extreme parser failure I noticed occurred in the opening scene. At this point, you’ve already been told that there’s a treasure map buried somewhere on the island you’ve landed on. You’re on an island and there’s a shovel. It’s pretty obvious what comes next, right? IT’S DIGGING TIME! The only problem is seemingly only one command will do what you want it to do, and every other reasonable command you try will lead to the generic message “I only understood you as far as wanting to dig.” The first time I played through this game I just walked past the scene and found the treasure without the map because I just assumed the map wasn’t actually implemented. It’s not a big game world so you don’t really need a map, but this still bugged me enough that I replayed the game and kept trying until I found that one command that actually did work. It made sense, and I probably would have come up with it long before if only the game had asked me, “Where on the island do you want to dig?” when I tried to “dig island,” “dig in ground,” or “dig for map.” I just needed a little feedback to show me I was on the right track. Is that so wrong?

If you can forgive the overly strict parser and enjoy solving puzzles, you’ll likely find Under the Sea a charming and fun game to play. It’s not a world-beater by any means, but it’s a pleasant diversion and offers a nice escape from more serious competition fare.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 28/50

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 6/10 (This is a generally well-implemented game with no serious bugs, but the poor parser responsiveness makes it a much less pleasant playing experience.)

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

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 Adventure 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.)