The Zuni Doll by Jesse Burneko (1997)

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

I once owned a Zuni doll myself. A rather well-proportioned female Zuni doll to be exact. My experience was nothing like what is depicted in the game, though. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that SHE wasn’t the one making holes with her tiny sword. Believe me, the return process was super awkward.

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

Ever since I started playing this game I’ve been unable to sleep or put on a bathrobe. I’ve already destroyed my deceased mother’s priceless antique doll collection, but I’m still seeing that THING out of the corner of my eye everywhere. I’m not seeing a Zuni doll, though — it’s actually a 1959 original Barbie doll wielding a bazooka which is way more terrifying.

My Verdict:

Jesse Burneko likes action-oriented horror, cats, and random misspellings. So do I! Jesse Burneko also likes rigid and horrible parsers. He lost me there.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Jesse Burneko wrote three games during his short late 90s IF writing career which seems to have roughly corresponded with his time studying computer science at Lafayette College. All his games are action-oriented horror adventures, and two of the three take place on a college campus which makes Burneko the almost undisputed King of Collegiate Horror IF. Now he writes RPGs and blogs at Play Passionately .

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/doll.z5

Other Games By This Author: A Breath of Fresh Blair, The X-Child

My screen name wasn’t always No1JesseBurnekoFan. In 1999, I trashed Jesse’s game A Breath of Fresh Blair. I apparently gave it a 2 and said I wanted to shoot it in the head (???). All I can think now is that it must not have been the best time in my life when I wrote that review. My broken memory managed to turn this event in my mind into, “Remember how Jesse Burneko did that interesting but flawed game you played and reviewed on the old site? You should totally go play another Jesse Burneko game!” To be fair, I did end the old review with a semi-promise to one day check out The Zuni Doll so it’s not like I completely wrote off Jesse as a talentless hack. Looking back, I don’t entirely trust my old review of A Breath of Fresh Blair, and it’s not just because of the murder threat. I know I tried to write reviews quickly back then primarily for the sake of having a steady flow of fresh content for the site. In my foolish youth, I had this idea that no successful IF review site could get away with publishing new reviews only every five months or so. Obviously, I don’t feel that way any more. At any rate, I very well may have been too hasty in my judgment and unfair in my critiques. It seems like the least I can do is offer apologies to Jesse Burneko before I proceed to attack another one of his games.

I think what I didn’t appreciate in 1999 is that Jesse Burneko was trying to do a very difficult thing. He wanted to make action-oriented horror games that would be more akin to Friday the 13th than Psycho. His games aren’t brooding or psychological and he wasn’t aiming to be subtle. He wanted to use his words to create an environment of constant, violent, and kinetic danger. This isn’t Anchorhead — it’s an anchor to the head. This isn’t The Lurking Horror — it’s the horror that’s about to stick a sword in your eye unless you think fast. Unlike your typical Lovecraft-influenced text adventure, The Zuni Doll places you immediately in the midst of terror. There’s no slow buildup. Menacing words aren’t used to create a sense of fear and a dark atmosphere. Instead, you start up the game, get out of bed, and suddenly find yourself in a fight for your life.

This simple and direct approach makes sense given that The Zuni Doll is about a doll that comes to life and tries to kill you. The plot was obviously heavily inspired by one of the stories featured in the classic 1975 horror anthology Trilogy of Terror directed by Dan Curtis. “Amelia” was written by Richard Matheson and stars Karen Black as a woman hunted by a murderous knife-wielding Zuni doll. For a budget made-for-TV movie, Trilogy of Terror has memorable visual effects and to me the Zuni doll in “Amelia” is just as if not more menacing than his spiritual cousin Chucky. While I knew I was a big fan of Trilogy of Terror long before I played Jesse Burneko’s game, it took The Zuni Doll to show me just how easily I could imagine myself as Karen Black barely wearing a bathrobe. In a nice homage, you are actually wearing the bathrobe in the game, and you need the bathrobe tie to solve one of the puzzles. You don’t really need knowledge of the movie to play the game, but it might help you understand why you can’t just stick the little bastard in the oven.

Jesse is an effective enough writer for the type of game he was creating. The last thing he would have wanted to do is distract the player from the action so you won’t find any long paragraphs or detailed descriptions here. He tells you only the bare minimum amount of information that you need in order to navigate through your apartment and thwart the bloodthirsty doll. Luckily, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely no room for a line like “hunt and kill, 25 human” which is as chilling as it is ungrammatical, but for the most part the author is very much to the point. The directness of Burneko’s writing helps give the player the feeling that the action is happening quickly. This feeling is further reinforced by the tight time limits required to stop the Zuni doll from killing you during your first two encounters with the thing. In the bathroom scene in particular, you are allowed very little time to digress and so you’ll likely die a few times before you figure out how to get through it. If Varicella had only featured more explosive bouts of diarrhea, it no doubt would have had a very similar scene.

One odd aspect of Burneko’s writing is his almost random misspellings. He’s fully capable of writing at length without error so when you see a basic word like “curled” suddenly misspelled it can be a little jarring. Are we really to believe that College Boy Jesse Burneko is writing stuff like “My favorite sport is cureling” and “I like nothing better than to curel up with a good book” for his English assignments? It might be dyslexia, in which case we’re terrible for even bringing it up, or it might just be that the author had a strong distaste for proofreading. It did also cross my mind that Jesse might be including some kind of hidden message embedded in the misspellings that I just wasn’t smart enough to uncover. You can’t tell me that the line “Thanks must be given to: Graham Nelson for his generious gift of Inform” in the Acknowledgments wasn’t intended to throw shade at Graham Nelson. “Yeah, British Guy, it’s mighty generous of you to offer up your programming language for free, but at the same time it’s pretty generic.” Jesse Burneko can be ice cold when he wants to be. Can you feel the Burn…eko?

I played through The Zuni Doll honestly wanting to like it. The premise is cool. The action can be exciting. Plus, I felt personally motivated to try to redeem myself for a past review that was probably too negative. Unfortunately, the game is a good example of how a bad parser can make puzzles much harder than they need to be. This is a short game that you should ideally be able to solve in around fifteen minutes, but in practice it took weeks of infrequent play for me to actually slog through it. None of the puzzles are honestly all that hard, and figuring out what to do is generally the easy part. The problem is that the parser is prone to reject perfectly reasonable inputs which makes you think you’re doing something wrong which in turn makes you try to do unreasonably complicated things which just leads to more and more frustration. If this game has taught me anything as a veteran player of IF, it’s that trying to set up a floss trip line should be an absolute last resort option. The reviews that call the game easy aren’t entirely wrong, but they leave out the fact that you kind of need to mind meld with Jesse first so you can phrase all the commands just right. My general approach to solving puzzles is to start out simple, try something more complicated if simple doesn’t work, and then go back and try something simple again if complicated also fails. That strategy is helpful here, but it still takes some trial and error to figure out the game’s quirks. For instance, you can only tie two objects together if you don’t mention what you’re trying to use to do the tying or do the tying in two separate actions. In another scene in the game, you can attach object A to object B, but you can’t attach object B to object A (trying this just leads to a generic error message with no hint that you’re on the right track). I get that that would make sense if you’re attaching something small to something big — you stick a magnet to a refrigerator, not a refrigerator to a magnet, and you attach truck nuts to a truck, not a truck to truck nuts — but in this case both A and B are pretty small so it’s not so straightforward. During my first playthrough, I thought that puzzle was the best implemented in the game because I attached A to B right away. During my next playthrough, I stupidly tried to attach B to A first and got really puzzled when it didn’t work before I remembered what game I was playing. You’ll probably enjoy this game more if you can remain patient and trust your first instincts. When something sensible doesn’t work, you may very well just need to word your command slightly differently.

IF can sometimes reveal aspects of an author’s personality in a way the creator perhaps might not have intended. For instance, the parser in this game is probably rigid because Jesse utterly lacks the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective…just kidding, this isn’t that kind of review. No, this paragraph is actually about cats. You no doubt come to this site for intense analysis, and I’ve got a take you’re going to want to brace yourself for. Ready? OK, the conclusion I’ve reached after deep reflection is that I think Jesse likes cats! After all, this game features a great little kitty named Elmo. He does accidentally hasten things along with the killer Zuni doll in a way that could have proven deleterious to your long-term health, but you can’t really be angry with Elmo for very long since he’s such a nice little kitty. The only time this game surprised me and the only time it made me laugh was during my interactions with Elmo. These were quality interactions to be sure, but I think the reason Elmo made such a big impression on me is because this is a rather austere game all in all. There isn’t much description, there certainly isn’t much whimsy, and most superfluous but relevant inputs don’t receive any unique response at all. Bear in mind that this is a game which will happily tell you that “I don’t suppose the Zuni doll would care for that” when you try to pick up the Satanic fetish object and piledrive it into the floor. It’s only in those moments with Elmo where it becomes worthwhile to try to type different things that might not actually win you the game. Elmo can even help you solve a puzzle at a certain point because he has a response to both items you need if you show them to him. That was the one moment in the game that I felt was really well-designed and satisfyingly implemented. It also made me realize that Jesse Burneko probably could put together a high quality game under the right set of circumstances. Presumably, the game would need to be about cats and only cats. Jesse would need to add some synonyms and recruit a few more beta testers in addition to the Russian chick who hates IF and was credited in the Acknowledgments. I’m not saying drop the Russian chick — I think we need her in all honesty — but different people could offer different perspectives and would undoubtedly type quite different things. For instance, I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the command “say to zuni doll cyka blyat” and ragequit until at least my third playthrough so I could have provided very different feedback until then.

One last thing: aren’t Zuni dolls made by the Zuni people? Why, then, would there be an African warrior Zuni doll like the one in this game? It’s almost as if the only research that was done here involved watching a 1970s TV movie. I promise to do much better with my text adventure version of When Michael Calls. In fact, I intend to research phone phreaking for at least 25 more years before I even start writing it.

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 23/50

Story: 5/10

Writing:6/10

Playability: 4/10

Puzzle Quality: 5/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

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

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

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

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.