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IFCOMP 2006 - Unauthorized Termination

Game #4: Unauthorized Termination (by Richard Otter)
Played: October 9th-10th (2 hours 55 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (version 4)
Unofficial Score: 7+

     Game’s Blurb:
     You are a senior investigator with the police force of what is basically a totalitarian state. On a world where nearly all forms of crime are punishable by execution, you have been called on to investigate someone who has been unlawfully killed.

     XYZZY Response:
     [Press ENTER for cheat mode]
     A small voice says, "I'm sorry, but on Morbian the command xyzzy is meaningless."

     The introductory background material for Unauthorized Termination is both intriguing and daunting.

     On one hand, I enjoy worlds that adhere to a carefully planned model. As a citizen of Morbian, you should know about various body types, creation centers, crime and punishment (laws), fuel consumption and recharging, the usage (or meaning) of general terms, religion (the origin legend), series types, teleportation, and units of measured time. It really shows the thought and detail put into creating the Morbian society.

     On the other hand, if it’s really important to know all of it, how would my memory and comprehension serve me? It’s easy to review each bit in-game using special single-word commands, although “creation” displays the same text as “body”, and “fuel” is listed twice. I struggled, at times, as I confused a body type for a proper name, or forgot that the series number has nothing to do with the creation center.

     Ideally, this information might have been relayed in pieces (with the ability to review any part that was already shown). For a short game, I can see the difficulty in that. In a longer one, a better idea might have been simple puzzles through the beginning that introduce the recharging, and then the importance of laws, and then maybe the creation info, and perhaps the body types, models, and series types after that.

     By the end, though – and this is important for first-time players – it does make sense. Perhaps my mistake was in trying to understand it all from the start. I expected that some of this knowledge might work its way into puzzles. Maybe it would be important to know that “action x” could not have been caused by a certain functioner because this particular functioner has wheels instead of legs. Or, maybe my understanding of laws 4361 and 6610 would ensure (at some point) that I didn’t enter into a situation that would lead to my own termination. It didn’t work out that way, which may be good or bad. Borrowing two more hands, it either saved me from tricky logical deduction on one, or was a missed opportunity on the other.

     Epsilon-Beta handles the deductive reasoning. As a player, I only had to follow the clues. It’s not a difficult game, despite what may seem to be an overwhelming amount of world-defining exposition. I used the walkthrough once or twice, but I might have avoided it with a bit more persistence.

     What I came to realize is that learning how Morbian works is a big part of the game’s appeal. The story is fine (relentless cop defies boss to solve the case and save the day), but putting this in a uniquely odd society – where the emphasis is as much on the backstory as what’s happening currently – made the game more interesting than it might otherwise have been.

     The writing is okay, although some typos show up here and there. The style fits with the utilitarian setting. My biggest complaint (for which I’ll forego any other discussion of the writing in Unauthorized Termination) is with Richard Otter’s use of commas.

     The comma is a tricky little thing. In essence, it separates phrases and tells a reader where to take a mental pause. Commas have rules (as do other kinds of punctuation), and these rules don’t come easy to some of us. Even with my little pocket references for grammar and the rules of writing, I don’t always get it right. What stands out about Richard Otter’s writing, though, is that he really really doesn’t get it right. Commas sometimes take the place of periods (the so-called “comma splice”):

     “Little is known of those early times, some even doubt the existence of the 'first one', but most agree…”

     The fix? Let the bit before the first comma be a single sentence. Sometimes, it’s only a matter of the comma being a word or two out of place:

     “The circular id badge which, is both an id and security pass, reads…”

     The fix? Move the first comma after the word “badge”, since this is where the embedded clause begins. At other places in the text, a comma is sometimes used unnecessarily:

     “With a barrel shaped body it has four, multiple jointed legs and two arms.”

     The fix? I’m tempted to say remove it entirely, but it’s probably needed after the word “body” (before the remainder of the sentence). It’s the “multiple jointed legs” bit that throws it off. Read it as “four multi-jointed legs” instead. See the difference? It’s easy to over-analyze a sentence, but this might instead be written as:

     “It has four multi-jointed legs, two arms, and a barrel-shaped body.”

     I mention all of this (and at such length) because reading certain passages in Unauthorized Termination felt like walking with a shoelace untied. I kept tripping over these instances of comma misuse (especially during the first hour), and it would take a bit of mental stumbling to get back on firm footing.

     At the end, I was left with a few questions over plots points that seemed... unresolved. I hesitate to call them plots holes, because I could very well have missed a clue or misunderstood what was happening. When Epsilon-Beta reviews teleporter logs that have been erased, new entries (for E-B’s own usage) aren’t shown. The tracer finds one terminated functioner outside (distinguishing between him and the fake), yet later the tracer reports the whereabouts of the impostor instead. How do things go from the interrogator to the shelf in Zeta-Theta’s domicile, seemingly without Zeta-Theta ever leaving the Examination Center? What was the purpose of the Center for Distraction? Was recharging really necessary? It was easy enough, and appropriate spots are everywhere, but (a) these guys really need batteries that get them through the day, and (b) because it was so easy, it seemed like an unnecessary limit.

     As for bugs, I noticed only a few. I had a tough time getting the game to disambiguate badges, because replying with just the shape (as seems logical) didn’t do the trick. It usually required the entire description, in order to tell one badge from another. At one point, one of the teleporter options (from the Center for Distraction to E-B’s domicile) wouldn’t work, even though it was listed. The game just kept saying that it didn’t know how to achieve that (which seems to be a generic response for unrecognized commands). Near the end, it was still possible to read a piece of paper that had been taken away from me.

     The game worked well, with its numeric and sometimes alphabetic command shortcuts. It was easy to view laws, interact with the communicator, and teleport from place to place. When I got stuck, it was at times when I didn’t think to go back to a place I had already been – a place where I had already seen and done what needed to be, yet something different (and necessary to advance the story) happens on the way back. Overall, the puzzles are clued well. That, and they seem simple enough to keep the pace moving.

     Oh – one other thing. It’s a world ruled by robots. That’s worth a plus, and Unauthorized Termination gets an unofficial “7” from me.

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