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Spring Thing 2006 Reviews - Full Journal

Introduction to Mike Snyder’s Spring Thing 2006 Reviews

     When I review for a competition, I usually do two things. First, I write an introduction. This lets me state a few goals and make a few predictions. Second, I define my scoring criteria, so that every game is ranked fairly in relation to the others, using the same scoring system.

     I skipped both steps for the 2006 Spring Thing. At first, I intended to use my IFComp 2005 criteria (http://www.sidneymerk.com/comp05/scoring.shtml). With only four entries - each being very different from any of the others and none of them being bad - I changed my mind. The final scores are kind of a hybrid between this and my 2004 C32 Comp system.

     Ranking them was no easy task. I was tempted to take the cheap way out and rate them all the same - "Spring Thing 2006: Every Game Gets a Ten!" The Potter and the Mould is action-packed with good scenery implementation, but Pantomime has great writing and a trippy storyline. The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog is a lengthy puzzlefest with multiple solutions and some clever gameplay mechanics, but The Baron stands apart from its competition with a well-told, thought-provoking story that lacks puzzles entirely.

     To decide on scores, I considered the writing, the story, the implementation, the length of the game, and the experience as a whole. Every entry was great in its own way. I am incredibly impressed with what each of these authors has done here, and any of them would make a fine Spring Thing winner. However, I did decide on scores, and so that they're meaningful, no two scores are the same.

Game #1: The Potter and The Mould

     The superhero genre isn't my favorite. I've never been a big fan of larger- than-life, hard-to-believe super powers. Sure, I enjoy the comic-based movie from time to time - Superman with his flying, strength, and x-ray vision; Spiderman with his spider-sense and web-slinging; Batman with his. super wealth; X-Men, of course. I've been known to read a superhero comic, although not recently. I've played superhero IF once or twice.

     In essence, I'm not the ideal fan for The Potter and the Mould. This is a story for superhero fans, and it comes complete with all the trappings. Origin story? Check. Mutant-like powers? Definitely. An imperfect, self-doubting protagonist? Uh huh. The mentor/student relationship? You bet. An evil but misunderstood villain? Sure. Motivation by revenge? Of course. It's everything you'd expect from a superhero story.

     What I like best about The Potter and the Mould is that it keeps moving. It will appeal most to superhero fans, but it's a frenetic and fast-paced adventure that kept me enthralled for the four hours it took to complete. It feels more difficult than it really is, which is a credit to the author's talent. The puzzles aren't hard enough to impede the action, yet they leave a sense of accomplishment in their wake. My longest sticking point involved a machine-room and a clay dog. After solving it - which was easier than I tried to make it - I realized that the puzzles were simple and understated. They work to keep the story moving, not to work against it, and that's probably the best kind.

     In most cases, Robert avoids text-dumps by way of action prompting. This typically comes as a nudge from an NPC, beginning with the rescue scene at the beginning, through Waterfall's revelations in the mall, to the hurried trip to the Potter's inner sanctuary. It works very well, and keeps things interactive.

     The story has some surprises and twists. It strays from the predictable formula particularly near the end. Even though I appreciate the change-up, the victory felt less than satisfying. It was like facing down Dr. Evil, and getting a back-stabbing Mini-Me instead. What follows is an exciting bit, but not what I expected.

     The writing in this, Robert Street's latest game, left me puzzled. Even though I've commented about this in prior reviews, it seemed more noticeable here; equally hard to pin down, but more prevalent. It could just be his style, but I'm not convinced that's it. Too many sentences (even some in close proximity) ended awkwardly with the word "though". There was a glaring lack of contractions throughout the text - not always, but in certain passages - making it more awkward. This alone isn't a sticking point, but coupled with some awkward phrasings in general, it just didn't always read right.

     Take the following - just one random example from hundreds of lines of text:

     "The shops in this corner seem to be trying to outdo each other with silly displays."

     The words "seem to be trying to" are the awkward bit. I might write this as:

     "The shops in this corner strive to outdo each other with silly displays."

     These kinds of things weave themselves throughout the text. The removed bit was clunky and passive. The replacement flows better, and it's more active. I usually qualify these kinds of comments with a reminder that I'm no expert. I have to look two or three times to figure out just what it is about a sentence that bothers me. Even in the example above, I might change "each other" to "one another". At times, the text in The Potter and the Mould felt like a first draft, as though it had been written once and then left alone. At other times, the text felt too heavily edited, as if the smooth flow and original expression had been lost under the weight of so much revision. Which the case may be, I don't know. Like I said, it might just be the author's unique style.

     Robert didn't skimp on details. Even though this is an ever-moving game, the extra effort shows in the responses, from looking around to trying various other actions. This isn't always the case in story-heavy works, where the only important thing is doing exactly what advances the plot. I liked that The Potter and the Mould stood up to some prodding.

     The hero's premise, now that I've come to it, is that he can "mould" his shape into various things. Robert implemented this in a logical, user-friendly way. Mould options are task-specific and presented in a list. This maintains the illusion that you're really able to morph into anything, where free-form input (John Evans's Order comes to mind) makes this very difficult. It also gives the PC some say-so as to how the player proceeds. In other words, the PC dreams up these forms so the player doesn't have to. More than that, it eliminates the "I tried to become a diamond-tipped drill, but it didn't work" complaints, at the expense of limiting the player's options. Occasionally, this let me figure out a puzzle where I wouldn't otherwise have had all the facts, but all in all, it was a good design.

     Next comes the obligatory Adrift discussion - but I'll keep it short. I'm a fan of Adrift's auto-mapping, even if I found some necessary exits unmarked on it. It can be a crutch sometimes, and I probably shouldn't have tried to rely on the map as much. I'm not a fan, however, of Adrift's pick-apart parsing. I call it that, because I don't know if it has a real name. This is most problematic when commenting a transcript. If you type something that has the word "undo" anywhere in it, Adrift believes you intend to undo your last move. If you comment about "he" or "she", Adrift starts matching pronouns, leading to some interesting responses. Knowing nothing about its inner workings, I still get the impression that grammar isn't built the way it is in Hugo and other IF languages. Adrift makes plenty of assumptions, and it doesn't conform to any grammar rules. If it finds what appears to be a verb, and what appears to be a noun referencing a known object, it reacts. At times, such as when it reacts on an NPC you haven't encountered yet, it can even be a little spoilery.

     Even though I'm not a superhero fan, I enjoyed The Potter and the Mould. It was trippy, but it was fun. It's a solid game, and a credit to the author's experience.

     My Spring Thing Score: 8

Game #2: Pantomime

     In the early morning minutes of October 1st, 2005, a list of IFComp entries (at the official IFComp website) showed 50 or so potential games. As titles were knocked off the list (probably because the authors never completed and uploaded them), the list dwindled down to 36. For those of us online at the time, it was an interesting thing to watch. Among those original intents, though, was Robb Sherwin's Pantomime.

     Now released for Spring Thing 2006, it weighs in on the light side (considering the competition's focus on medium- to long-sized games). As an intended IFComp entry, this makes sense. From chatting with Robb at his Hugo forum, I know that it took much effort and some sleepless nights even to finish for the Spring Thing deadline. Even short and perhaps rushed, Pantomime is a solid game with an entertaining story.

     In Pantomime, you live on Phobos, currently a moon of Mars, but soon to break apart into an orbiting ring of debris. It's the last place anyone would choose to be, even before the crisis. It's a world where cloning is commonplace, robots named after Unix commands are a man's best friend, and being good at chess is cause for embarrassment. This is a vision of the near future.

     I've only played the beginning of one or two Robb Sherwin games prior to this. That's probably why my reactions bounced between "whoa. did he really say that?" and "wow. what's it going to be next?" Somehow, even if he's holding back, it doesn't feel that way. Aside from a few typos - probably the result of the hurried effort to meet the deadline - the writing is great. It flows better because it's more casual. It's not just how Sherwin writes - it's also what he writes: the insults between characters, the one-off jokes, the clever descriptions and bits of back-story. I usually cringe at coarse passages and lowbrow humor in a game, but that's part of what makes Pantomime so interesting. Sherwin seems to write it in a convincing, honest way.

     Pantomime is what an episode of Futurama might be, if the script came from Cartoon Network's Williams Street crew and it aired on HBO after hours. The little censor that lives inside Robb Sherwin's mind has a freedom not given most other IF authors, save maybe Adam Thornton. I mean, if a wacked-out robot needs to sport a cloned copy of a male porn star's money-maker, Sherwin will work it into the story. And it'll be funny.

     The game is meant to be funny... I think. It's sometimes tongue-in-cheek humor. It's definitely black humor, where the absurd and the macabre come together. It might be an allegory for some of today's issues, but if so, I didn't really get that. More likely, it's just a strange but fascinating story.

     The puzzles aren't difficult (generally just a matter of figuring out what action to take to move things along), and inventory is almost non-existent. Pantomime is very story-driven. The most difficult bit may have been passing the spiked gate, but even that obstacle yields to some creative but simple reasoning (okay, okay - I solved it by blind luck and experimentation, but it made sense afterwards). Even the second-to-last confrontation doesn't require anything more complicated than following instructions and listening to the bad guy's diatribe. This should be particularly appealing to anyone who prefers IF to be more fiction than game.

     A few minor bugs remain in the competition release. They range from typos to an odd exit back to Kangaroo's Club - nothing game-killing. This seems to happen more toward the end. What's most likely to work against Pantomime, though, is that it doesn't seem long enough for a Spring Thing game. It also glosses over the additional detail in most places, when it comes to interacting with (even if only to "look at") scenery objects. Knowing Hugo, I think this could be fixed easily, even without real objects. Just add an "extra_scenery" property to each room, with lists of keywords that will cause a different reference message. It means the difference between something "not there" when it really is, and simply being "unimportant".

     A few plot points left me confused. Who sent me the vial? What was the purpose of the seemingly unnecessary gate code? And how drunk was Sherwin when he came up with the interaction that helps the PC escape the airlock? Other than that, everything is wrapped up tidily at the end, where a couple of fitting plot twists are thrown in.

     I enjoyed Pantomime, and I recommend it - especially if an update comes after the competition. Without hints, I finished in two and a half hours (plus some re-play of select earlier bits). It's definitely a game that wouldn't have been out of place in the annual IFComp, but even snack-sized by Spring Thing standards, it's a worthy entry.

     My Spring Thing Score: 7

Game #3: The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog

     It's not the next chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia (and if no other reviewer makes the same joke, I'll be surprised). David Whyld's Spring Thing 2006 entry, written in Adrift, reprises the exploits of mercenary bad-ass Stavros "The Bulldog" McGrogan in a sequel to his earlier A Spot of Bother. It's up to The Bulldog to sneak, fight, grunt, and puzzle-solve his way to victory against the evil Warlord, Baron Grishtak.

     At times, this is a contradiction. From the start, the goal is clear. I don't mean the goal of the story (which is also clear), but the goal of the game itself. Finish the three primary objectives with full health for a score boost, and pick up more points for solving puzzles rather than pushing past them with brute force. This opens the game to a variety of play styles, but that "best score" objective is the carrot dangling just beyond reach. The Bulldog loses life points when he fights, and without a clear idea of how to gain them back (let alone how many can be regained), my inclination was to avoid fights and slink about the castle solving puzzles, preserving every point of health possible. So much for being a bad-ass.

     Even though I enjoyed the game using this strategy, I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been aiming for a perfect game. In the end, it didn't matter. I didn't complete one of the three objectives, and I won with a score of only 80 and health of 90. The ending - and the death ending too, when I purposely let The Bulldog get pounced by The Tiger - was still satisfying.

     Things take a bit longer when you play for points. Instead of beating up the bad guys, I lured them into traps, tricked them into leaving, or simply avoided them entirely. When I stumbled into traps or lost health in unexpected ways, I opted to "undo" or "load" a prior save, so I could try another approach. This made the game tougher. To get it all right the first time, I would have needed to read the author's mind. The interesting thing is that this was just another way of playing the game. With a different objective - let The Bulldog fight enemies and bully his way past the tough parts - it doesn't require psychic powers. It's a fair system which rewards do-overs without making do-overs essential to win.

     I've mentioned "health points" several times. If you have visions of RPG stats and random dice-rolls - especially if you don't like those things - take heart. That's not how WPB works. Think of it as the antithesis of a scoring system. When you earn "score" points, it's for completing a task, reaching a milestone, or hitting some score-worthy trigger. These are things built into the game, and the points are set. If you play much IF, you've probably seen this in action. WPB has this in addition to its health point system. Points come off by making mistakes, or in other predetermined ways that involve alternate puzzle solutions. Sometimes, these mistakes (especially in facing enemies) can be repeated, but on the whole it's more like a credit system. The Bulldog is extended so many of these "mistake" points, and he spends them as necessary.

     The beauty is that making these mistakes usually gets The Bulldog past puzzles. For instance, there are several ways to pass the landmines near the beginning of the game. One way in particular saves The Bulldog from damage entirely. Other ways leave him only slightly scathed (or perhaps unharmed, but with the loss of something that might be the key to avoiding damage later). Of course, stepping into it (with persistence) solves the puzzle too, at the expense of a chunk of health.

     It's designed to be winnable, no matter how low your health becomes. The more damage The Bulldog takes, though, the fewer risks he can endure. Suppose this drops to a single remaining point. The game remains winnable, but every additional obstacle must be overcome with brains instead of brawn. This can become very difficult. Health can be recovered, but I never was quite sure how much. If I recall, I healed about 30. The Bulldog has suffered some prior to the start of the game, beginning with 63 health. Health of 100 is considered "full". It may be possible to recover more than 37, making it possible to take damage and still finish with full health. I never figured out the max. It's just as possible that every method in the game adds up only to a total of 37, meaning a perfect win requires a totally unharmed Bulldog. Maybe a better player than I - or Whyld himself - will say for sure.

     Really, it's a clever design. I can't think of a single puzzle that didn't have two or more solutions. The easier the solution, the fewer the points (and often, the more damage The Bulldog would take). Because my goal had me going after the toughest of each solution, I hit the built-in help often. After only a short ways into the game, I was requesting every hint available in every room. In a way, this became just another tool, like "undo". Instead of cheating, it seemed more like a part of the game. Some hints even felt more like puzzles to solve. Even with hints, it was often difficult to work out the best (most rewarding point-wise) solutions. Without them, though, I never would have.

     This all makes it difficult to say just how tough The Warlord, The Princess, and The Bulldog is. I solved many of the puzzles with easier solutions at first, costing The Bulldog only a few points of health. I would have finished faster - and possibly without so much reliance on hints - if I had just pressed forward from those points. I suppose it ranges from "challenging but not overly difficult" to "one step down from impossible", depending on what approach you take. Mine was more on the side of the latter.

     Whyld has done an excellent job of anticipating much of what players may try. The implementation level alone is amazing. Very little encountered in the game lacks first, second, even third-level implementation. If you look at scenery that has parts, you can look at those parts. You can often interact with those parts. If those parts have parts, they're probably implemented too. It pays to really inspect what's around. Even though much of it is optional, enough digging can bring up the keys to alternate puzzle solutions.

     The prose in WPB is dotted with amusing passages. Generally, Whyld isn't trying for real comedy - and if so, it probably wouldn't have worked here anyway. It's more the "ah ha, that was funny" kind of subdued but cliched humor you'd expect from a story in which the hero only grunts yet everybody understands what he means. When Baron Grishtak writes a letter to his ace henchman - subsequently obtained by The Bulldog - he admits that he "foolishly jotted down the access code to the master computer on the bottom of it." He goes on to encourage his henchman to destroy the letter after reading it, for that very reason.

     As to the presentation, the author held nothing back. My first fifteen minutes were spent just reading the introductory material - details about the game, additional commands, the intro, etc. The game font size can be adjusted via the command prompt. Screen-clearing at each room change can be turned on or off (personally, I liked it on - it was easier to quickly scroll up and re- read room descriptions that way). Around four different fonts were used - one for room headers, one for the room description, the default font for most game messages, and a script-style font for letters and notes. It may sound like a hodgepodge, but it works well (if you're using the Adrift runner and your Windows-based computer has those fonts) and it set WPB apart from other games in terms of style.

     To now, it may seem as though I have no complaints about The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog. A big game, though, has more room for things to go wrong. None of these problems (in my play-through, anyway), were game-killing, but they ranged from mildly annoying to completely preventing (or, at times, allowing) certain solutions. My transcripts note quite a few typos - not surprising in a game of this size and complexity, but still minor dents in the proverbial finish. Weirder quirks included things like the non-working pendant (it worked once, but after a subsequent "undo" or "restore", shaking it didn't work even though it still had 3 charges); being able to enter the guards' training courtyard in a "they're gone" state, even though they shouldn't have been; a reference to a voodoo doll in the hints, which doesn't seem to be in the game (Adrift will usually respond to objects it knows, even in other places, and it didn't know that one); being able to break the panel in the sleeping quarters repeatedly; I didn't realize it at the time, but the "code to the master computer" is too long to work in either of the computers found later in the game; some available exits were unmarked on the map; some exits described in the text didn't work in the game; you can't "undo" to before a hint screen; I couldn't get "exit" to work (even though it was supposed to), when trying one of the codes; A seven-letter password scattered throughout the castle appears to have two fifth letters; it's possible to set the watch before winning, so that it goes off during the final scene; a few other miscellaneous quirks.

     As the game progressed, these things either became more common or more noticeable. Maybe it was the cumulative effect, but my faith in the game's internal consistency was shaken. If I felt at all guilty about reliance on hints, the feeling passed when I thought that maybe the game was broken just enough to prevent the solutions I needed for a perfect win. This may not be true. From my experience, the bugs that persist after beta testing are usually the bugs in sections that aren't vital - else they would have been worked out already. Nonetheless, it's a reminder: the better the polish, the higher the faith.

     Most of the design works great. The health point system contributes to alternate puzzle solutions, and alternate puzzle solutions are abundant. The hints, although cryptic at times, are helpful. Even so, a few specific parts left me cold. One very early puzzle (the one that avoids a loss of health - an easier but damaging alternate does exist) requires waiting a few turns after taking action. I was impressed that the game allowed the particular action, but I thought I had messed up - so I did an "undo". Speaking of "undo", you can unwittingly make a move that disables it, in what I can only describe as a prank perpetrated by the author. It's by no means a necessary (or even an obvious) move, but some players will try it. I found no way to re-enable it, aside from reverting to a prior save (or starting over). One obstacle requires that you lose everything in inventory. The hints describe a way to keep most of it, but it requires repeating an action (and it's even possible to undo a failure, repeat, and succeed the second or third time).

     As a Spring Thing entry, WPB is fittingly sized. My play-through - taking most puzzles the hard way and relying heavily on the built-in hints - was eight and a half hours. Despite the flaws, I enjoyed the time I spent with The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog. An incredible amount of effort was put into this game, and it really shows. A post-competition release could address the remaining problems, making it even more recommendable.

     My Spring Thing Score: 9

Game #4: The Baron

     The Baron deserves a spoiler-free review.

     The difficulty is it's a game that can barely be discussed at any length without spoilers. I think this one is as spoiler-free as you'll find, but anything said about The Baron might be too much. In other words, reader beware.

     The author's introductory text describes the story's theme as disturbing, shocking, and tragic. On the surface, it's about a missing girl and the father determined to save her from her captor, the evil Baron. I use the word "evil" because the game does ("x photo" in your bedroom, near the beginning). After that, it's left up to the reader. What kind of monster is the Baron? Can he be redeemed, or should he die? Is he a monster at all?

     The story (if ever a work of Interactive Fiction wasn't a game, this is it) begins in a cave. You must slay the dragon, because nobody else will. I found no way to achieve this, but later events make it clear that you don't have to. After this, the main quest begins. Along the way - and it's a journey that feels much longer than it actually is - you encounter three obstacles. These are decision points, not puzzles. Each obstacle can be overcome in numerous ways. Not every way is obvious in a first play-through, and some of the multiple-choice decisions won't even make sense the first time. It should really be played at least twice. The second time, your decisions are likely to be wildly different - not because you're poking around for changes to the story, but because you will understand the story in an entirely different way.

     Before setting out toward the Baron's castle, look around the house first. At the Baron's castle, it also pays to poke around. Even though the story lacks puzzles, it features bonus material for the observant reader. A torture chamber, found through a hatch under a rock at the castle, hints that things aren't exactly as they seem. Well, not so much that, but it's a good indication that the author is relying on symbolism to enhance the story.

     In relating what has happened at the end of the story, the PC mentions nothing of a dragon. It stands to reason that the story's first scene was someone else's experience. If this is the case, it might have made more sense for the dragon to approach from a southern lair, while the PC stands firm. When it ends, the story offers no congratulations. You haven't won. You haven't lost. The final choices allow the player to affirm his or her convictions. The story doesn't tell you what's right and what isn't. You tell the story.

     What I expected from The Baron wasn't what I got. In his introductory text, Gijsbers does a good job of preparing the player. Actions should be taken because they're meaningful in the situation, not because they "solve a puzzle". My first reaction was "sure - I've heard this before." I can't help but treat IF as a game - even when the author tells me not to - because every decision affects the outcome. In The Baron, that's not the case. Some decisions affect the PC's dialogue at the end, but none of it affects the experience of the reader except to the extent that the decisions themselves are part of the experience. So, even though the author warned me that it wasn't a game, I tried to play it like a game. I expected something dark and sinister. I expected torture, helplessness, suffering, and perhaps victory in the end. The story delivers these things, but in an unconventional way... in a disturbing, shocking, and tragic way.

     If all of this leaves you wondering just what you might be getting into if you try The Baron, by all means read a spoilery review. Even though this could soften the punch of experiencing it for yourself, you might be doing yourself a favor. You may say to yourself "bah - I can handle blood and gore and text- rendered pain." If that's what The Baron actually had in store for you, a disclaimer would be unnecessary.

     It's difficult to say if The Baron hits the mark, without knowing what the mark was. The final choices in the walkthrough included with the Spring Thing version (available from the HELP menu) might be how the author imagines it. Most of us won't be able to feel compassion or empathy for the Baron, though - let alone identify (thank goodness) with the story itself. So, are these final decisions meaningful to us, as readers?

     With precious little else to be said without delving into spoilers, some discussion of the design and craft is fitting. The story file is in .Z8 format, written in Inform. The English translation of the Dutch original (also included) is surprisingly good. Aside from a few typos, not much in the translation detracts from the experience. Even with a second play-through (or read-through) of some of the story, I found it easy to complete in an hour and a half. Certain bits - especially the dialogue - are presented in multiple choice lists. The rest of it, however, manages to maintain the traditional IF- style command system. You move around a map. You get, drop, and examine things. You open doors. You take an active part, just as IF is meant to be.

     It's hard to describe The Baron as a good story, in the way a game can be a good game. It's an effective story. Appreciating it doesn't mean liking it. Even so, I can imagine the opinions of various readers will vary wildly. Some may say it was emotional. Some may say it wasn't. Some may say it was purposely manipulative. Some may say it was an honest and heart-rending story. Some may resent becoming an unwitting participant as the story unfolds. Some may describe it as grim. Some may feel entirely detached from it. Some may say it will receive accolades it doesn't deserve, while others may believe it to be unfairly criticized. Some may even say it's a story that didn't need telling.

     I say... nothing, except that it was an interesting experiment. In the context of the Spring Thing competition, it's far too short (even adding a replay or two). I was moved (I'm a parent - how could I not be moved?), but this alone doesn't make it a clear winner when this year's competition features three other very good games. Scoring it is even harder than reviewing it. After some thought, I have settled on a middle-of-the-road score. It succeeds as Interactive Fiction, and it doesn't pretend to be a game. It fails as entertainment (for me), even though it's more like art for the sake of emotion. In another context, it might be a "9" or a "10". It should prove to be one of the most memorable works of 2006, regardless.

     My Spring Thing Score: 6

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