The Curse of Rabenstein by Stefan Vogt

Twitter Review:

Full of equal parts atmosphere and fun, The Curse of Rabenstein pairs vintage commands and graphics with excellent writing to create a short and spooky adventure you’ll want to solve in a single session.

Full Review:

The Curse of Rabenstein is a text adventure with graphics that was originally submitted to the 2019 Adventuron Halloween Jam, where it placed second. The Halloween-themed competition had specific requirements (for example each submission was required to contain a graveyard, skeleton, bell, and spooky building), and were limited to classic VERB NOUN commands. Since the conclusion of the contest, the game has been relocated to itch.io where it can be downloaded for a multitude of systems including the Commodore 64, Commodore 16 and Plus/4, CPC, Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, and any Java-enabled browser.

As the game begins, your carriage’s coachman has become lost, and has asked you to travel (on foot) to a village to the north in search of shelter for his exhausted horses a rest. As if you needed any more foreshadowing, your spooky journey begins in the Black Forest in search of the Tavern of the Sad Wanderer.

In the first half of the game players must accomplish several tasks, like getting the horses into a stable and obtaining a few necessary items. The game contains so few locations that it’s impossible to get lost, and essential locations and objects present themselves in a linear fashion so it’s pretty hard to accomplish anything out of order. For example, No matter how many times you knock, nobody will answer the church’s door… until it’s time. Like many vintage text adventures, you’ll have to revisit the same locations multiple times as you work your way through the game.

Having recently played several modern interactive fiction games over the holidays, Rabenstein’s limited parser can be frustrating at times. More than once, I got hung up by trying verbs more specific than USE (ITEM). That being said, for as sparse as the game’s parser is, author Stefan Vogt makes up for it with his delightfully descriptive writing. Every word adds to the game’s overall atmosphere. The story of the curse, along with in-game descriptions, are wonderfully detailed without ever flooding the screen with text.

The puzzles sprinkled throughout Rabenstein aren’t terribly difficult, and in at least two cases, I figured out the solution to a puzzle long before I figured out what verb the parser was looking for. There are a couple of red herrings that made solving the puzzles more fun. Twice I had to resort to reading online hints: once was because I couldn’t guess the correct verb, and once because I didn’t know enough about church procedure to get through one of the puzzles.

The Curse of Rabenstein was an absolute joy to play through, delivering a perfect balance of good writing, pleasing graphics, interesting puzzles, smooth programming, and an engaging story. I originally played the Commodore 64 version which was a little heavy on disk access, but the other versions played much more quickly. Players should be able to complete the game in one to two hours depending on their skill level. Beginners will be glad to find a walk-thru and invisiclues located on the itch.io site. Also available on the site is a physical edition which ships with artwork, media, feelies, and extras.

Link: 8bitgames.itch.io/rabenstein

Captivity by Jim Aikin (2020)

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

The duke talks a good game, but I think we all know he’d rather play Pass the Wand with the wizard than ravage an abductee. In the director’s cut of the game, there’s even a scene where Esteban skips down the hall to his lover’s room while singing, “He’s a magic maaaaan.”

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

Rape is never light-hearted or whimsical or funny. It’s awful and horrible. Some things just shouldn’t be joked about.

My Verdict:

Let’s just say it finishes a lot stronger than it starts.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Jim Aikin is a science fiction author, musician, music technologist, and an experienced creator of interactive fiction. His game A Flustered Duck won Spring Thing 2009, and a number of his other titles are especially highly regarded among enthusiasts of puzzle IF. You can visit his homepage for more information on all things Jim.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/Captivity/Captivity.t3

Other Games By This Author: Lydia’s Heart, Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, and more!

For a game that overall has a decidedly whimsical bent, Captivity has a downright grim beginning. I very much wish that I could start off this review by talking about all the things I like about this game such as the diverse set of fascinating characters, the quality writing, and the terrific castle setting, but I don’t think I can do that in good conscience. The elephant in the room is massive and attention-grabbing enough that I think we have to address it first. Simply put, this game has the absolute worst introduction I’ve ever encountered in a work of interactive fiction.

The first text you see upon opening Captivity is a content warning. It reads as follows:

First, a word of caution: This story approaches the traumatic and often tragic business of abduction and rape in a tone that can only be described as light-hearted and whimsical. The story is not explicit with respect to the trauma, and in fact your role as the primary character is to escape before anything awful happens. Nonetheless, if you find this topic disturbing, or if you feel it should be treated only in the serious manner that it no doubt deserves, you may wish to reconsider whether to continue.

Wow. Jim Aikin knows exactly what sentences to string together to provide the literary equivalent of a one way ticket direct to Miseryville. When I cranked up the ol’ HTML TADS interpreter on Day 1 of the competition, all I wanted to do was play an amusing text adventure and have some fun. What I got instead was a content warning my mind parsed as RAPE RAPE RAPE QUIT NOW SNOWFLAKE which is not what I would call a pleasant start to a game. There’s a suggestion there that abduction and rape might not always be tragic (“often tragic”), and I found the very idea that rape would be presented in a light-hearted and whimsical manner to be rather nauseating. Don’t get me wrong: I’d be the first person to say there are no lines set in stone when it comes to either art or humor. It’s just generally my experience that when rape shows up in IF it’s going to be depressing and upsetting because rape is fundamentally a depressing and upsetting sort of thing. You can say all you want that your treatment of the subject will be light-hearted and whimsical, but the problem is virtually no one is THAT funny or has leveled up whimsy to that degree. Simply throwing the word rape around inevitably brings to mind negative associations and upsetting memories. I probably have it easier than a lot of other people do because the first things that come to my mind involve Jodie Foster, a bunch of assholes, and a pool table. If you do have a direct, personal experience with rape, just reading that intro could feel like a punch in the gut. I have my doubts that anyone has ever made a genuinely funny or whimsical rape game, and I have no idea why anyone would even want to.

My first instinct was to quit right there as soon as I read the intro. This didn’t seem like it was going to be my sort of game at all. What kept me playing was the second sentence of that dreary introduction. Just what kind of rape game ISN’T explicit and lets you escape, I wondered? If this is neither a porn game which fetishizes rape nor a work of interactive fiction which reflects on the trauma of rape, why is rape part of the game at all? If rape absolutely has to be mentioned, is it even possible to thread the needle so that it isn’t a downright traumatic and upsetting experience for a good portion of the audience? The other thing I felt curious about was just who the target audience for this game was. Is there a person out there who could read the intro and actually feel enthused about playing the game? Encountering a content warning like that is a bit like driving down the highway, intent on reaching your destination and generally minding your own business, and suddenly spotting a sign advertising RAPEAPALOOZA 2020 NEXT RIGHT. Nine out of ten drivers are going to pass right on by and a sizable minority are also going to contact the authorities as they very well should. The one guy of the ten who is going to immediately start veering right is this dude named Lil Dougie who is driving a black Kia he barely can squeeze himself into anymore. He’s someone who knows what he’s into and who generally cares very little about the societal consequences of his actions, but he’s also very hard to please. He hasn’t truly enjoyed any Rapeapalooza since the 1999 event because they just weren’t rapey enough for him. That doesn’t keep him from attending every single year even with Covid-19 going on. Designing your text adventure with the primary intent of pleasing the Lil Dougies of this world seems like a marketing disaster far in excess of anything that might have gone wrong with the New Coke rollout. I just couldn’t understand why anyone not chained to a computer in Lil Dougie’s basement would want to target their work of interactive fiction specifically to that dude and his 8chan buddies.

As it turns out, Captivity isn’t in my view really about rape — it mentions rape, but it doesn’t explicitly depict it and it isn’t the or even a major theme in the game at all. Lil Dougie would honestly hate pretty much everything about it other than the very beginning. The fact that this work has an introduction that forces everyone who plays it to think of rape is a really head-scratching decision on the part of the author. That said, Jim Aikin’s heart was probably in the right place when he wrote the warning. He simply didn’t want anyone to play his game and get upset so he erred on the side of including a warning that would dissuade more people from actually playing it at all. He sacrificed plays for the mental health of the community so you can’t condemn the guy. The problem is a warning like that puts a cloud over the whole game. You’re literally associating your work of interactive fiction with one of the most terrible things one person can do to another and for no good reason at all. Let’s talk a little now about what Captivity is really about, where rape comes into play (I can’t tell you how much it pained me to write that phrase), and how Jim Aikin could’ve easily avoided putting the warning in.

In this game, you play the daughter of high-born but financially strapped parents. You have been kidnapped by the evil Duke Esteban who has imprisoned you in his castle. There is no chance your parents will be able to pay the ransom the duke has demanded so that means Esteban will be settling for his consolation prize: you and your supple, unwashed body. Thus, that’s where the suggestion of rape appears. It has struck me each time I’ve played this game how utterly unnecessary it is for the threat of rape to be made as explicitly as it is. A better text adventure could have made the stakes similarly high by simply describing a lecherous look or revolting leer made by the duke and allowed the player work out the implications in his or her own mind. Arguably, even that wouldn’t be necessary — if you’re imprisoned in a castle, of course you’re going to want to escape. It’s clearly a very bad situation to be in, and I’d be just as motivated to help my character out even if my main fear was that the duke would turn her into Alpo for the sustenance of his pack of ravenous hounds. If anything, the stakes have been made too high and as a result the game makes much less sense as a cohesive whole. If I knew I was facing the imminent threat of rape, I’d be daring, desperate, and dangerous if I wasn’t too traumatized or depressed to do anything at all. I’d do anything to get out of that situation. Unlike the protagonist, I wouldn’t be able to calmly wander around a castle, stopping for friendly, leisurely chats with various characters who are partly responsible for my captivity as I rationally planned my escape. I wouldn’t be able to bottle in the torrent of emotions I’d be feeling at every moment whereas the protagonist remains as cool as a cucumber from beginning to end. In the real world, the story of Captivity is horror, not comedy or adventure. Rape and whimsy fundamentally just don’t go together — it’s a juxtaposition that is doomed to fail. I only found one way to truly enjoy Captivity, and that is to simply pretend the Damocles sword of rape isn’t hovering over my character’s head at every moment. The story simply doesn’t make much sense if you don’t do that because no real person would actually act like the protagonist given the dire set of circumstances presented in the game. The pity of it all is it’s quite a fun game if you can do the mental gymnastics required. The main reason I’ve spent so much time writing about this is because I truly think the rape threat makes the game worse: it makes the plot seem less believable, the characters seem less genuine, and the overall gameplay experience less satisfying. Without it, the game would be more enjoyable and appeal to more people.

I wish I didn’t have to devote those first paragraphs to a topic so unpleasant because I have a number of positive things to say here as well. First of all, the castle setting is terrific and is my single favorite aspect of the game. It is vividly drawn and populated by a host of colorful characters. It also feels BIG and is full of objects, features, and secrets…just what a castle in interactive fiction should be like. As I’ve played and replayed this game, I’ve been repeatedly impressed by Jim Aikin’s care in writing descriptions and his skillful anticipation of the player’s reactions to the surrounding environment and the characters he or she comes across. While using the talk command will give you an initial list of dialogue options for each character, you can also ask characters about a pleasingly wide range of topics. It’s quite fun to just explore the castle and think of new things to talk about with the characters you meet. Every time I play I seem to find something new and unexpected. To give an example, consider the very first scene in the game. You are locked in a small room, but you have a barred window you can look out of. The first thing you see when you look out is the text adventure equivalent of a dramatic cut scene. If you look out the window again, you notice various aspects of the castle grounds: the garden, the spiked wall, the forest, the river, and the hounds. You can look at each thing you see, including even the spikes on the wall! The level of detail is consistently impressive, but the descriptions and the writing in general are never overbearing. In fact, much of the content is optional and might not be encountered in a casual playthrough (or because you’re just trying to get out of the castle ASAP so your character doesn’t get raped…completely understandable!). Aikin understands some people will just want to get on with things and escape while other players will want to sniff the grass and mess around with the embroidering materials. Both groups are accommodated, but I think Louis Armstrong has the right advice here: “Don’t forget to mess around!”

Captivity has a few pleasing puzzles, but Jim Aikin has designed the game so it can be completed by even a novice text adventurer. The game is incredibly forgiving — when you mess something up, you generally get rolled back to a point where you can try again and you might even be rolled forward so you can still finish even if you really mucked things up. No player is left behind here. I wouldn’t want every work of IF to be designed in this fashion since sometimes I want there to be consequences for failure, but we also need games that are newbie-friendly. I liked this feature least when I encountered it towards the end of the game because it wasn’t immediately clear what I had done wrong and I wasn’t given the chance to correct my mistake. Instead, I was just zoomed ahead for the big showdown which I didn’t think I deserved to see just yet. As an IF author, you absolutely do lose people when they get stuck and can’t progress so I understand the appeal of a game design that doesn’t let players fail, but at the same time I think a good deal of the pleasure of playing IF comes via the process of figuring out what you are doing wrong and coming up with new solutions to obstacles. You also tend to notice more details of a game when you have to play sections of it repeatedly. I did go back and find the way to complete the game without triggering the rollforward, and it felt like it was a very small, nonintuitive thing I didn’t do that gummed up the works. I think this type of game design would tend to make puzzles worse in the aggregate because the author won’t be as motivated to come up with something clever if he or she knows many players will end up skipping past the puzzles if they don’t solve them immediately. I’m definitely a bigger fan of the rollbacks than the rollforwards, but I’m above all else grateful that most parser IF still doesn’t make things quite as easy as this one does.

Captivity is a generally well-implemented game, but I did notice a couple of bugs. The first and most serious occurs when you are carrying one box and try to pick up another, different box. “Get box” won’t work because the game acts like you’re referring to the box you’re carrying. If you word your command as “get box from ___” the game crashes abruptly and unceremoniously with a nil object reference error message, but only if you refer to the object of the preposition in the plural as the game does. That sentence might not be as clear as I’d like, but I’m trying to avoid a spoiler here. Let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that the box you’re trying to pick up is in the pair of lutes hanging above the fireplace (it isn’t and there are no lutes above the fireplace). We know the box is really in only one of the lutes — presumably the one with the secret compartment — but the game refers to the lutes collectively as a pair of lutes and you can’t interact with them singly. In this example, “get box from lutes” would crash the game while “get box from lute” would work. To accomplish the box grabbing feat, you can also put your first box in your reticule or drop it in another room first before attempting to pick up the next box in which case “get box” will work correctly. You can also be more specific about the kind of box you’re picking up: “get lacquered box” would work if you’ve already looked in the lutes…or, rather, it would work if it was actually a lacquered box we were dealing with. I’m giving you people nothing! The other bug is less serious. There is a scroll you need to read that you are clearly supposed to use two objects to decode in order to overcome two separate methods of obfuscation. However, you can actually read the scroll by using only one object if you word the command right. I would also say this is the one moment in the game where I found it a little difficult to make the parser understand what I was trying to do, but that’s mostly because I kept trying to use “look” instead of the more sensible “read.”

One thing I would have liked Jim Aikin to explore further is the idea of developing Captivity as a revenge game. There’s already a strong element of revenge in the game which culminates in your character’s final showdown with the duke. Getting the better of His Evilness is deeply satisfying. As the game progresses, we only learn more about his evil deeds, including the probable murders of previous abductees. In very broad strokes, this game’s arc isn’t so far removed from movies like John Wick and Death Wish. If we strip away the whimsy and lightness, we have a story of a young woman who goes face to face with evil and overcomes it with her willpower, strength, and smarts. The threat of rape the protagonist faces actually makes sense in the context of a revenge story. The only problem with that interpretation is that the bulk of the game involves you being relatively kind and helpful to members of the duke’s retinue who are deeply involved in your kidnapping. Should you be killing the wizard rather than kissing him? That’s something of a moral quandary we can’t settle in an interactive fiction review. There is a subtext that perhaps the duke’s servants and family members aren’t absolutely loyal to him and don’t entirely approve of his actions and as such they perhaps don’t deserve the duke’s fate. At the same time, I’m not at all sure that Porfiru or Thibon wouldn’t abet another psychopath’s crimes given the opportunity.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 33/50

Story: 6/10

Writing: 8/10 (The descriptions are high quality throughout and just about everything and everyone is worth looking at and interacting with.)

Playability: 6/10 (You should save often just in case you run into the worst of the bugs, but this is otherwise a mostly polished and smooth playing experience.)

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos by Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa (2020)

Twitter Review:

Detective Jay Schilling has been hired to solve a mysterious kidnapping in this entertaining parser adventure that combines the best of Robb Sherwin’s wit with Mike Sousa’s rock-solid programming skills.

Full Review:

Imagine ordering the world’s most delicious pizza only to be told you’ll have to wait an entire year for it to be delivered. Exactly 365 salivating days later, the pizza arrives at your front door. Giddy with anticipation, you grab the box from the delivery driver and run to the dining room. As you open the cardboard lid, billowing steam sticks to your glasses as the smell of your favorite toppings tickle your nose. The first bite tastes so good it hurts the hinges of your jaw. You don’t fully appreciate how delicious the first slice was until you start on your second, which somehow tastes even better. Unable to stop yourself, you reach for a third slice and that’s when you see it — a lone hair, resting on top of the pizza.

Now, some people might stop eating right then and there. Others might call the restaurant and demand a replacement pie, even with the knowledge that it won’t arrive for another 365 days. Me? I’m flicking that hair aside and diving directly into slice number three. We’re talking about the world’s most delicious pizza after all, and I’m not going to let one stray hair ruin the experience.

In a way, that’s how I’ve come to view many of Robb Sherwin’s works of interactive fiction. His plots are so unique, his worldview is so cynical, and his writing is so pleasantly sardonic that when I come to those occasional hairs in the matrix, I don’t stop playing. I merely flick them aside, refusing to let them ruin my meal.

In Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos Sherwin teamed up with fellow IF author and coder extraordinaire Mike Sousa to leverage the best of each other’s talents. I don’t know if there’s an official breakdown as to who did exactly what, but each bite of the game tastes as if Sherwin’s deliciously chocolate humor has been poured over Sousa’s peanut-buttery solid framework, creating the world’s first Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of interactive fiction development. Depending on your previous experience, you might describe the game as either one of Sousa’s funniest, or one of Sherwin’s most polished. Either way is a win for gamers.

In the game players become Jay Schilling, a down-on-his-luck and internally-flawed detective who schedules meetings with potential clients late in the day at the local petting zoo not because it’s good for business, but because he’s so sure they won’t show up that he doesn’t care much. Things turn around for Schilling when a potential client not only arrives, but offers him a single Bitcoin to help find a missing person. What the client doesn’t know is that Jay Schilling lacks even the most basic tools most detectives possess (a computer, a cellphone, a gun, a bed, empathy…). What Jay Schilling doesn’t know is what you, the player, will spend an hour or two uncovering.

Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos is designed for beginning-to-intermediate interactive fiction adventurers. Despite enjoying text-based games I’m notoriously bad at completing them, and I only got stuck twice. (A walk-thru is provided.) For the most part, the game plays nice and errs on the side of simplicity. The surprises come not in difficulty of the puzzles, but in the narrative itself.

Despite the game’s potentially large setting, Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos never lets players stray too far off course. Goals are clearly presented for each scene, and once they have been accomplished, a new one is revealed. I personally love this style of gameplay. While everyone has their own tastes, I would rather spend my interactive energy figuring out what to do and how to do it over guessing where I am supposed to go next and what I’m supposed to be doing. While fans of sprawling game worlds and ultimate freedom may not enjoy the game’s linear progression, I enjoyed knowing what I was supposed to be doing at all times, and how that task fit into the game’s overarching story.

By the conclusion of the game, I deemed Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos — and the Sousa/Sherwin partnership — successes. Sousa’s experience with the TADS programming language shows, with no instances of “guess the verb” or wonky loops popping up during my session. Sherwin’s never-ending stream of pop culture pokes (in the petting zoo, the peacock ponders whether or not it should cancel “Community” again) makes every morsel of text enjoyable. Not everyone loves Sherwin’s biting zingers, but those who do will find themselves examining every object and talking to every NPC (human or otherwise) just to find more of them.

At the conclusion of Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos, players are presented with a list of amusing actions to perform at different points throughout the game. Of the 20+ suggested actions, I had only tried two during my initial playthrough. It’s the perfect way to build replayability into a genre not typically designed for it, and I immediately restarted the game with the goal of overturning every rock to find what lies beneath.

That’s how much I enjoyed this Sousa and Sherwin combination pizza.

Link: Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos

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

Ninja by Softgold (1984)

Tweet Review:

A 2017 re-release of this terribly buggy game fixed all the bugs, but still left it terrible. Ninja is perhaps the slowest and most convoluted game ever to feature ninjas. Real ninjas and Commodore 64 owners deserved better.

Full Review:

Although America’s initial infatuation with martial arts is often attributed to the addition of Judo to the 1964 Olympics, it was David Carradine’s Caine who injected the art form into mainstream America during the 1970s via the television series Kung Fu. In 1980, the success of the television miniseries Shogun convinced Hollywood there was a market for sensible movies about feudal Japan, which led to Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja being released the following year, which is about as far from a sensible film about feudal Japan as a movie can get.

I was ten years old in 1981 when Enter the Ninja was released in theaters, although like most kids my age I didn’t see it until it made its way to cable a few years later. By then, Cannon had already released a sequel, Revenge of the Ninja, and suddenly, like an ancient assassin, the ninja era was upon us. By the mid-80s, not only had ninjas infiltrated b-movies and movie rental shelves across America, but video games as well, including The Last Ninja, Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Warrior, and countless others. If a game was released with “ninja” in the title, I would play it.

Which brings me to Ninja, an interactive fiction game for the Commodore 64 released by Softgold in 1984.

When I think of ninjas I think of sleek killing machines; assassins so adept at blending in with their surroundings that their skills seemed borderline supernatural. I think of well-oiled machines; men trained so vigorously that their reactions became involuntary — their reflexes, swift and deadly. Sadly, Ninja (the game) does not remind me of any of those things. For starters, Ninja is an interactive fiction game — perhaps not the genre best suited for conveying quick action. Fortunately for players, there isn’t any here to be found.

In Ninja, you play a member of the Kubuto Ninja Clan on a mission to recover the Statue of Joken. The statue has been stolen from your clan by Grey Ninjas, and hidden in the Temple of Sharloon. I’d like to poke fun at this, but I can’t. I’ve definitely watched late night ninja movies with less plot than this. The introduction sets up who you are, and what you’re supposed to do.

To spice up the game’s presentation, Ninja includes both digitized sound and color graphics. Softgold promoted Ninja as a game in their “Talkies” series of titles, of which, I believe, there were two. The game’s digitized voice is mostly limited to speaking two phrases — “O.K.” each time a move is processed successfully, and “So Sorry” each time the parser fails to understand your commands — although later in the game you’ll receive a few “beware” warnings as well. The quality of the speech isn’t very good, and one can’t help but think the memory it consumes could have been used to improve the game itself.

The game’s graphics, on the other hand, can’t possibly take up much memory at all. They were drawn using the Commodore’s built in PETASCII graphics set, and convey only the most basic visual information imaginable. In one of the game’s first scenes, players find themselves standing in front of a bridge guarded by a samurai — except in the picture, there is no samurai. Unlike most other graphical adventures of the time, the items mentioned in room descriptions are not depicted in the accompanying artwork. The graphics do a good job of visually reminding players of their physical location within the game, but not much else.

The presentation of the game is fairly straightforward. Players move from location to location, gathering, using, and dropping items (players can only carry five items at a time, so anything that’s already served a purpose should be left behind). Location descriptions are often sparse (“I am in a damp dim cave. Several items lay scattered about.”) requiring players to use the “L” command to look for items in the immediate area. Half the game is spent trying to get into the enemy castle, while the other half is spent inside the castle incapacitating guards and avoiding crocodiles. Unfortunately it’s not as exciting as it sounds.

Like many text adventures from the early 80s, players should prepare themselves for frustrating bouts of “guess the verb.” The aforementioned samurai players encounter demands gold from those who wish to cross his bridge, and while “Give Gold” and “Pay Samurai” aren’t recognized, “Pay Gold” is. Don’t forget that each incorrect guess is accompanied with the same digitized response every single time and boy does seppuku start to sound like a good idea the hundredth time you hear the game say “So Sorry.”

To beat the game, players must find and arrange five jade idols into a specific design, the pattern of which is revealed on a secret parchment. The parchment is located two rooms from the game’s starting point, and I had to use a walkthrough to find it — and even then, the first time I went to the secret location, the parchment wasn’t there, despite the room’s description. You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Willie Scott gets trapped in a room with six million bugs? Ninja has more bugs than that, including doozies like this:

In 2017, Commodore sceners Hokuto Force released a hacked/trained/patched version of Ninja that fixed several of the game’s bugs and added many new features. Among the features added are an in-game map, documentation, a walk through, and (perhaps best of all) the ability to turn off the digitized speech. In the bug-fixing department, Hokuto Force fixed some of the game’s graphical bugs, and prevented players from breaking out into BASIC and peeking through the game’s code to find solutions. In addition to documentation and a walk through, Hokuto also included a list of all verbs and nouns recognized by the parser, for players wanting to take a legitimate stab at solving the game. I can’t say their efforts made the game any better, but at least they made it playable.

Even ninja fans such as myself will have a tough time making it far in Ninja, a game that was created during the “wild west” era of Interactive Fiction, back before norms had been established and/or agreed to. Many times when completing a game while using a walkthrough, I’ll slap my forehead after seeing how obvious some of the solutions were. Not this time, ninja-san.

Link: Commodore Scene Database

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 Pawn by Magnetic Scrolls (1985)

It’s 1998 and I’m writing Trotting Krips reviews. There are some text adventures I am in love with that I never finish, because finishing means I can’t ever play them again. The Pawn is one of them.

I bought my copy through a mail order circular. It offered The Pawn, Guild of Thieves and Knight Orc for a total of $15. At low amounts of money, inflation comparisons sort of break down. It isn’t much now for three new games and it wasn’t much then. There’s so much I don’t remember regarding a document — the flyer — that was one of the most important pieces of paper in my life. While I do have some old price sheets for computer games in the mid 80s, I don’t have that one. Regardless, the games arrived and they worked on our computer, which had to have been an XT with EGA graphics. The Pawn was always thought, in my household, to be the “leader” of new age IF, what with its parser that understood complicated sentences and its opening title screen, still possibly the greatest opening title screen of its kind.

How can you not feel joy for the graphical text adventure in looking at that picture? Yes, it’s static, but computer games simply did not look like this when The Pawn came out. This is going into the arcade only to find Dragon’s Lair there. This is playing Far Cry for the first time. Or BioShock or King’s Quest, or whatever great leaps forward you have experienced in computer graphics.

It’s now 20 years later since Bryan, Ben and I started the Trotting Krips site. I didn’t feel I would ever have the time and the chops to correctly solve The Pawn without a walkthrough. I grabbed a few of them and had those up in a Firefox browser. I installed the Magnetic interpreter on my Ubuntu machine. I raised the scaling of the graphics by three times and started the game.

There’s that beautiful, majestic graphic.


That went a long way towards covering the fact that The Pawn is not a very good game, and intentionally so.

There are pieces to The Pawn that are meant to be parody. Can you imagine the audience for a full-on parody text game these days? It’s probably 100 people, 95 who quit after turn two. But they were such big sellers in the 1980s that it seemed entirely legitimate for The Pawn to have such scenes – a wandering adventurer that can steal items unless you kill him. A maze that breaks the fourth wall and states that you don’t have to bother with it. A mix of the real world and fantasy for no adequately explains reason – while attempting to meet with the Devil, in Hell, you pass by Jerry Lee Lewis, in what may possibly be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a text adventure. You get ten points for giving him some ale, keeping in mind that there is absolutely no special connection in the world between Jerry Lee Lewis and ale. Keeping in mind that Jerry Lee Lewis is from Louisiana and they had him say “Cheers.” Keeping in mind that if you are headed towards hell and you wanted to have someone related to “fire” and you were desperate about it – Jerry Lee Lewis (as of this writing) is still alive!


Christ, if you had to have Jerry Lee Lewis in your text adventure and wanted there to be something in the game that you could have the player give him in order to gain 10 points it should have been an underage cousin.

I don’t get parody that goes beyond a few minutes. You can spend all that time sending something up, but if you spend just a little more time you can have your own thing. And it’s too bad that The Pawn, which had the promise of something that fundamentally changed my life, is designed in such an awful way. There are good things in this game. Even if they wanted it to just be their Zork – a really good text adventure that did lazy fantasy – they had something to work with. You’re a nameless adventurer, sure, but you have a silver wristband on your arm that you want to remove. This is a great premise for a game where there are a lot of FedEx quests, because various characters can then ask you to do things. And if you can forget about the mid-game, the end-game to The Pawn (serious spoilers starting now) has a ton of potential – you are doing the bidding of the nasty wizard Kronos. You encounter the Devil. The Devil asks you to use a potion to destroy Kronos and then bring him his soul. You meet up with Kronos and take him by surprise and suck up his soul. You return to the Devil and he melts away your wristband and dismisses you with contempt. That’s not the greatest adventure ever set to text, but it’s something.


(The picture above is one of the greatest still images in the history of computer games. It was used in the promotion of the game and it’s easy to see why. Beautifully composed, gorgeous palette that took full advantage of the 16 shades of red and black they had available, it really does set a mood.)

But in the middle of that are some really poor scenes. There is a dragon guarding a horde. And a picture of the dragon, high upon the gold horde. The way you get past the dragon is to examine the shadows (that admittedly are mentioned) and figure out that there are hobbits in the shadows. You have to >point at shapes in the game, though at no earlier section did you ever have to use that verb. And while I played on not the greatest monitor in the world, there isn’t a single hint in the graphic for this scene of any shapes. Not a one. (Or I’m blind. Camouflage absolutely works on me, which is why I almost hit a deer three times a week when I drive out of where I live and into work.) When you kill Kronos there is a platform you can get on if you are not carrying too much, but this is the sort of game where the trowel came in handy a zillion turns after using it twice – the hell would you drop anything? You can sneak past the dragon if you are wearing Kronos’s cloak and pointy hat … once. If you try it a second time, the dragon kills you. Keeping in mind that this is where Kronos chose to live, I guess.


There is an awful bit where you have to >cast spell on tomes, even though at no point in the game do you have any idea that you can cast spells. And you aren’t able – as far as I can tell – able to do so again, just out of thin air. I think the bit was trying to mimic a scene from Adventure where, should you try to kill a dragon, the game asks how – with your bare hands? And you reply >yes and that’s the solution. The casting a spell thing came out of nowhere and it’s not clever, it’s not parody, it’s just bad. Please know how deeply I wanted to love this game before I started really playing it.

There’s one scene I almost liked – you meet a character named Honest John early on, who will sell some items if given a coin or coins. You finally get a coin about three quarters of the way through by searching a cushion. Okay, fine, not bad! That’s where coins go. But when you return to the area where Honest John is, he’s not mentioned in the game’s description. I am pretty sure I had verbosity on. So good luck if you didn’t map and write down the precise location of where he is. I mean, dude selling plot-necessary wares not making it to the room description – that was a bug in 1985 and it’s a bug now.

But really, the great bulk of the game just leaves you asking why – why is there a snowman in Kerovnia, blocking your way? What’s his deal? You can save the princess and get zero points, but the object you need to do that is the only way to get a full score later in the game. Why? I can’t imagine how many months it would take to map this game and figure out that there is a closed path there. Why did they do the things they did? There is no discipline whatsoever in the design of this game.

Then there is the ending. Once the wristband is off, you head to a door. You knock on it. You’re asked if you’re wearing a wristband. If you got it off, you meet the programmers of the game. Who leave, because hey, someone finally solved the game. And you can now wander around the game without being able to be killed. Okay. This is a bad ending. It was a bad ending in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but they at least ran out of money, or so I have heard.

(Okay, there is one thing I liked that emerged – the trowel was very useful for things. This really is a story about a guy and his gardening equipment. If the original creators ever got together to make a sequel, I hope they announce it with just an black and white outline of a trowel and a date.)

I’ve read stories of members of Magnetic Scrolls sort of buffaloing the gaming press by showing some of the neat parser tricks during interviews. The Pawn can handle some stuff just fine, like stacking commands, but even consulting a walkthrough I screwed my head up at having to use the word “lever” as a verb because nothing else did. The game tries to get across concepts that are way too advanced for it. I suppose I can’t get too worked up about Magnetic Scrolls showing happy paths in their demonstrations, really – it’s what happens in demos. I remain baffled why so many sentences lack a period at the end. When I was a kid I thought it was a house style. As an older guy on the Internet, who has seen one moron after another on various forums fail to use any capitalization or punctuation, it just looks stupid. This was the game I looked up to, thinking that there was something wrong with my puzzle-solving skills, thinking it was okay to have a mish mash of unrelated garbage in a game and not follow any sort of plot circle or proper design because, hey, The Pawn didn’t do any of that stuff.

I’ve had dreams of taking one game a week that I have not finished since the 80s and doing just this – refreshing my memory, liberally consulting a walkthrough, liberally allowing for design errors, putting to rest these icons from my childhood. Every game is amazing when it’s an unimplemented design and every game that goes unplayed in my Steam library is an incredible multi-genre masterpiece until I see that it has 7 unskippable opening logo screens. The Pawn has been a small but constant companion for decades, now. I had the poster that came with the game hanging up in my college dorm room. When I worked at Xerox for my first IT job, I printed out the scene I in-lined above with the Devil on the luxury color laser printers I tested. I still have that picture around. I had picked up things over the years that gave me a heads-up that it would not be a good game, but at least now I know. And I don’t really hold it against it. Goodbye, Pawn. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you and for that you’ll always have a piece of my heart.

(For an album of my other screenshots while playing, see below.)

 

The Pawn

The Secret of Vegibal Island by Ralf Tauscher (2019)

Tweet Review:

A tribute/parody/homage of/to The Secret of Monkey Island. Fans who loved the original LucasArts game will get all the references and be able to overlook all the grammatical and programming issues. Others may find the game more confusing than the island itself.

Full Review:

While the official goal of The Secret of Vegibal Island is to unravel the mystery of the island, a secondary and personal goal of mine was to determine what exactly a “vegibal” is. My original assumption (that “vegibal” is slang for “vegetable”) was disproved, I think, when I encountered, examined, and ultimately conversed with the vegibal late in the game. The vegibal “reminds you talking to that silly guy at the tiki bar that looked like a tiki bar,” and “carries nothing.” If you had planned to look to the internet for the answer, I’ll warn you up front — Google autocorrects “vegibal” to “vaginal,” so now my Google Image cache is completely pink and I have a meeting with my boss on Monday.

An introductory teaser written by the author references “a famous point-and-click adventure” and “revisiting that island,” and if you needed even more clues, the protagonist’s first name is “Buyshrug” — an anagram of Guybrush (as in Threepwood), the protagonist of The Secret of Monkey Island. This game, The Secret of Vegibal Island, is a little bit tribute and a little bit parody of the original LucasArts game.

The game begins in the “real” world with Buyshrug on the wrong side of a locked gate that leads to a vacation resort. Accessing the gate requires possessing three separate wristbands, obtained by completing three separate tasks. Of the three tasks only one was challenging; fortunately, the game gives enough in-text verb/noun hints to nudge players towards the slightly surreal solution. Moments after I had waltzed through the gate, kicked back in a lounge chair and began sipping on a White Russian, poor Buyshrug was hit in the head by an errant cannonball and woke up a prisoner aboard a pirate ship. Escaping your locked quarters leads to the second half of the game, which involves exploring and ultimately learning the secret of Vegibal Island.

If you aren’t familiar with The Secret of Monkey Island, most of the characters, objects, and jokes in this game will be lost on you. I won’t lie — the last time I played the original Monkey Island, I had to reconfigure my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files to free up conventional RAM so my sound card and CD-ROM drive would work at the same time. If it’s been that long for you and random references to bananas, manatees, and leather jackets don’t elicit an immediate chuckle, this isn’t your game. Many characters such as the Voodoo Lady and the three-headed monkey from the original Monkey Island series make appearances here, and some scenes (like the giant gorilla head puzzle) are lifted directly from The Secret of Monkey Island and transcribed into parser format.

Because I haven’t played the original in so long, there were a lot of objects I wasn’t sure what to do with and a few puzzles I left unsolved. Toward the end of the game I had 35 objects in my inventory, two-thirds of which I never used (including, among other things, thirteen large pigs). Along the way I encountered multiple things that seemed like puzzles, but didn’t seem to affect the outcome of the game. Because the game has no score, it was impossible for me to tell how many tasks I left unaccomplished.

It is obvious that English is not the author’s first language, so there’s no sense in beating up the game’s bountiful grammatical quirks. Some of the text is so awkward that it feels like it was translated using automated tools, except there are so many misspelled words that I am pretty sure it was done manually. None of this makes the game or puzzles unplayable, but several times I was unsure what exactly the author was trying to convey.

Along those same lines, the underlying game engine only performs the bare minimum when it comes to logic and error checking. Default parser rules prevent you from eating lounge chairs or picking up people, but I was able to pick up a filled waterbed mattress and store it in my backpack (along with a dozen pigs). Gamers who stick to the intended script may or may not encounter such oddities, but advanced (or simply curious) players will quickly be able to manipulate the laws of physics in ways that don’t make sense.

The Secret of Vegibal Island is a fun little homage to The Secret of Monkey Island, with additional references to Disney (and at least one SCUMMVM joke that made me laugh) thrown in for good measure. The game’s estimated two-hour play time includes solving every single puzzle; those looking to blast through the game and discover the secret of both Vegibal and Monkey Islands in the shortest amount of time possible should be able to do so in less than an hour.

Link: The Secret of Vegibal Island

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!)