Posted 28 January 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
[Note: This is a combined review of Common Ground and 9:05]
This review was instigated by the Interactive Fiction Review Conspiracy. If you've just written a game, why not submit it for review? Not only will you get some useful free publicity, but we guarantee prestigious and high-paying jobs in the post-revolution government for all collaborators. (That's what they told me, anyway.)
* THE GAMES
Today we have a special two-for-one offer:
Common Ground, by Stephen Granade
9:05, by Adam Cadre
You'll need a TADS interpreter to play Common Ground, and a Z-code interpreter to play 9:05. Interpreters for most computers can also be found on the IF-archive.
I'll warn you before giving any spoilers, so it's safe to read this review if you haven't played the games.
* QUICK DESCRIPTION (NO SPOILERS)
Having been asked to review Common Ground, I decided that 9:05 was similar enough that it made for an interesting comparison.
They're both very short. Common Ground takes less than half an hour to play, and 9:05 only takes ten minutes or so. It seemed to me that they put different spins on roughly the same gimmick; 9:05 is a clever joke, while Common Ground makes some serious points in an underhand manner.
Common Ground is well-implemented and visually appealing, with curly typographical quotes and stylised chapter headings if you're using HTML-TADS. 9:05 feels a bit more rough-and-ready, but the programming is serviceable enough and the writing is good. I didn't find any major bugs in either game.
* WORTH PLAYING? XYZZY CANDIDATES?
Both games are worth playing. It's not a major investment in time to play such short games, and they're both well above average.
But XYZZY candidates? Well, brevity is a double-edged sword; does any ten-minute game really deserve to be rated above a huge interactive novel that takes years to write and weeks to play? Long IF is so difficult to write and so rewarding to play that I think it's only fair that long IF should scoop the top awards. I won't be voting Common Ground for Best Game of 1999, and I don't expect to be voting for 9:05 in 2001.
I would like to see more high-quality short IF, however. Perhaps a 'Best Miniature' category could be added to the XYZZYs? Common Ground or 9:05 might not win this -- I don't think either is as good as, say, Lesson of the Tortoise -- but they would be strong contenders.
Now, I can't say much more about either game without spoiling the surprise. Both surprises. So I'm not going to. If you haven't done so already, you might want to download both games and play them -- it won't take very long, and I think you'll enjoy it.
* * SPOILERS * *
* NOW, HOW ABOUT THOSE GIMMICKS?
In 9:05, you're woken up at 9:05am by the telephone. Who am I? What am I doing here? Dammit, I'm late, better get up and ready fast... So far, this is all pretty standard IF stuff. The author has skimped on the background information, but it's pretty obvious what you're supposed to do, so you play along.
You get out of bed, get cleaned up and drive to work, fill out the Important Form -- and then you discover that you're not who you thought you were; you're a burglar who fell asleep on the job, after murdering the guy you originally thought was you and stuffing him under the bed. So you restart the game, notice all the ambiguous little phrases which fooled you the first time round, and finish the game properly. Fun. It's a nice little twist on the untrustworthy-parser schtick, most memorably used in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The central gimmick in Common Ground is actually completely different, but bear with me. In this game you play a teenager called Jeanie, who's getting ready for a night out. You stalk around the house avoiding your nagging mother and drunken step-father until your friend arrives with her car, and then you leave.
Then you switch into the shoes of Jeanie's step-dad, who's busy fixing a toaster. Jeanie stomps around the house looking sulky -- in fact, she does whatever you had her do in the first episode. You ask her where she's going, but she doesn't really want to talk to you; finally her lift arrives and she leaves, slamming the door.
In the third episode, you play Jeanie's mum (okay, okay: 'mom'), getting yet another slant on the events of the evening. Jeanie helps you put some groceries away if that's what you did in the first episode, or flounces off to watch TV if you did that instead. This is a pretty nifty gimmick, and I don't doubt that it was hard to get it to work just right.
It's in the fourth and final episode that the similarity between Common Ground and 9:05 emerges. It turns out that Jeanie is going to the bus station to buy a ticket to Los Angeles. She's running away from home, hopefully to become an actress. You might or might not find this as much a surprise as it is to discover you're really a forgetful burglar in 9:05.
* YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
All this feels reminiscent of Adam's previous game, Varicella, which was essentially one big save-and-restore puzzle. You could see Common Ground and 9:05 as essentially being little save-and-restore puzzles, though I don't think this is quite accurate.
In 9:05, the important thing isn't going back to solve the game properly; the important thing is realising what happened, and getting the joke. In fact, the 'joke' ending is longer and in some ways more satisfying than the 'proper' ending.
Common Ground is even more ambiguous, since you can't really 'solve' the game 'properly'. In the final scene you find out what's really going on, but only then do you have to decide what to do -- should Jeanie get on the bus to Los Angeles, or chicken out and go home again? Either way, the game ends there and you have to imagine for yourself what might happen next.
The common element between the games is doing everyday things without really thinking of the consequences, and re-evaluating your actions later on. Common Ground is particularly satisfying because it does this on two levels: watching the same scene through the eyes of three different characters, and then getting an extra insight into one character's motivation.
It's a neat gimmick. But is it more than a gimmick? I'm not sure; a game like 9:05 is clever the first time, but it could start a really annoying trend. (Is it just me, or does Adam Cadre have a certain knack for doing this?) I suppose Common Ground shows that there is a certain amount of mileage to be gotten out of intentionally misleading the player.
So how about Common Ground's trick of replaying the PC's actions from another viewpoint? I think this has definite possibilities as a general-purpose technique; many writers make skillful use of multiple viewpoints on the same scene in linear fiction, and I don't see why it couldn't be used similarly in IF.
One problem is that multiple viewpoints in IF will inevitably be harder to write, as I'm sure Stephen Granade will confirm. Common Ground does some pretty sneaky stuff to make everything mesh together properly. Most obviously, conversation is carefully constrained: you can choose to TALK TO someone, or choose not to talk, but you can't choose exactly what to say. This scheme still allows you to hold slightly different conversations in each episode, but that just folds neatly back into the story; what the characters each think they hear, and think they say, are different in tone and even content. It's up to you to decide which character, if any, is closest to the truth.
I don't think something along the lines of Back to the Future would be possible in IF, though, where certain scenes are viewed several times without distortion, and where the plot depends on every tiny event meshing together perfectly. How on earth could you do all that and give the player reasonable freedom of action?
* NON-SUCKY METHODS FOR SUCKING THE PLAYER IN
When I play IF, I like to know what I'm supposed to be doing. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy a game where important information is hidden from me -- which both Common Ground and 9:05 do -- but I will enjoy it a lot more if it doesn't leave me floundering around at random trying to figure out what my next move should be.
This is particularly important at the start of the game: there must be a good 'hook' to draw the player in. And it's also particularly important in short games: if a short game starts badly, I'll usually just decide it's not worth my time bothering with it, whereas I'll often give a longer game the benefit of the doubt.
The opening of 9:05 is a great example of how to do it right:
The phone rings.
Oh, no -- how long have you been asleep? Sure, it was a tough night, but-- This is bad. This is very bad.
The phone rings.
And bang, we're thrown right into the thick of things. It's obvious what we need to do next: ANSWER THE PHONE. There's a nice sense of urgency about the opening text, and repeating 'the phone rings' over and over again (it also pops up after the room description) is a neat way of conveying, well, a phone ringing over and over again. I've certainly been in this sort of situation, and I had absolutely no trouble getting under the skin of the PC -- or so I thought.
Common Ground, on the other hand, starts like this:
Great, just great. First you oversleep, end up being late for school. Then the whole day sucks so bad you can barely wait until seventh period's over and you're free. Now you've wasted so much time watching TV that you've gotta rush through your makeup or you won't be ready for tonight before April gets here with her wheels. Mississippi may say you're old enough to drive, but Frank sure doesn't agree.
Man, you can't wait for all this to be over.
Now, this is reasonably good; I didn't stop playing immediately, and not just because I had to review the thing. It works. But I don't think it's as effective as the introduction to 9:05. It gets the PC's feelings across well enough, but doesn't throw you into a situation where your next move is immediately obvious. Okay, so it says 'you've gotta rush through your makeup'; but did 9:05 say 'you'd better answer that phone'?
Phrases like 'you can't wait for all this to be over' tend to stick in my craw, too. Rather than simply being told what I feel, I prefer a more indirect approach, like... Well, like in 9:05. In the case of Common Ground, something like 'when is all this going to be over?' might have worked better for me in the final sentence.
* CREATIVE USE OF TEDIUM
Once the game is underway, the most important thing (to my mind) is to avoid annoying the player. This is where a good parser and a good library come in handy. Now, both 9:05 and Common Ground have a slightly problem here, since they both depend on making the player carry out lots of commonplace actions -- getting out of bed, applying makeup, washing and so on.
9:05 managed not to annoy me, for the most part. I did gnash my teeth a little at things like this:
Loungent Technologies parking lot
You are at the employees' entrance to the Loungent Technologies building. There is a slot by the door, next to a sign reading "INSERT ID CARD HERE".
The car is parked in the parking lot.
It's a brown leather wallet.
>LOOK INSIDE WALLET
In the wallet are a driver's license and an ID card.
>PUT ID CARD IN SLOT
You need to be holding the ID card before you can put it into something else.
>GET ID CARD
>PUT ID CARD IN SLOT
A green LED lights up, the door clicks open and you step inside.
Two quibbles: X WALLET really ought to tell me what's inside the wallet, if it's open. And if the game knows I need to be holding the ID card to put it in the slot, why can't it take the card out of the wallet automatically? I think these are problems with the Inform library, in fact, rather than 9:05.
I found Common Ground a bit better in this respect, mainly because it performed some obvious actions automatically, such as opening doors when I tried to walk through them. I really wish more games did this.
So I actually enjoyed some of the tedium. Look at this:
The carport's in bad need of a cleaning, what with all of the supplies for fixing the cars lining the sides and spilling out almost into the middle. It's getting so you can't hardly find space for the station wagon, though you managed to squeeze it in somehow. And you're beginning to think that you might as well get rid of the bikes. The side door to the house is to the west.
The station wagon's door is wide open.
You bump the door closed with your hip, but it doesn't quite make it. It stops short, leaving the dome light on.
You hit the door pretty hard with your hip. It closes.
You'll have to open the side door first.
>OPEN THE SIDE DOOR
It's locked. Frank must've locked it when he got home.
(with your key ring)
You pull your key ring out, but drop it before you can unlock the door. "Shit!" you exclaim, then look around. Looks like no one heard you.
It's just not your night.
It's tough bending down and getting your keys without spilling groceries out of the sacks, but you manage it.
(with your key ring)
You fumble with your keys and finally manage to get the door unlocked.
You'll have to open the side door first.
You almost drop a sack doing it, but you eventually manage to get the side door open. You go through it and close it behind you.
This is wonderful. This should be a textbook example on How To Pace A Scene. Look closely at which actions I was forced to repeat, and which were performed automatically.
I had to shut the car door twice, I had a great deal of trouble opening the side door -- but hey, this is mimesis. Just like the introduction to 9:05, this precisely captures a situation I've experienced in real life, and immediately summons up all the relevant emotions. I'm pissed off, but not at the game; I'm pissed off because I dropped my keys and the bloody car door won't shut properly!
On the other hand, it didn't ask me what I wanted to use to unlock the side door. That makes sense, too; how many times do you think to yourself, 'hmmm, what might fit in this keyhole... My watch? This key? My left shoe, maybe?' And note that it always knew what I meant by DOOR, although there were two doors in the scene.
Best of all, look how it added an implicit 'GO WEST' to my final 'OPEN DOOR' command. This is an excellent way of getting across the PC's relief at finally getting into the house, of rushing through to the kitchen to dump those heavy shopping bags... If instead the game had printed 'you feel relieved to finally get inside the house', I would have known what was going on, but I sure as hell wouldn't feel relieved. Especially if I then had to type 'WEST. CLOSE DOOR'.
It occurs to me that snippet from 9:05 could be seen in a similar light -- god knows I have enough trouble getting into work after hours with my swipe card. I think the difference is that in 9:05 I got mindless, canned parser messages ('you need to be holding the ID card before you can put it into something else'), whereas most of the responses in the Common Ground snippet were specifically written by the author. It's reassuring to know that the author has things under control, at a certain level, and that you're not just rapping your knuckles on the parser's forehead.
* THE END
Okay, I'm almost done.
I suppose I should really mention the stories and characters and so on -- all the stuff that makes this Interactive Fiction and not just Text Adventures. I can't really think of anything in particular to say here, except that I think both Common Ground and 9:05 were much more enjoyable than the 'equivalent' short story would have been. They're both good arguments for the very existence of IF, if an argument is needed.
The whole point of 9:05 is that I, the player, was the fool who fell for the joke. If I was just reading about something which happened to someone else, 9:05 would be just another Urban Legend.
And the moment in Common Ground when you realise that the game is replaying your actions isn't something that could ever be captured in static fiction, as far as I can see. There's a point, of course: how do all these trivial actions affect the single important decision Jeanie makes? Should she stay at home or get on the bus to pursue a romantic dream? It's your choice.
Neither of these games changed my life. I didn't find myself musing over the issues they raised a week after playing them. But I still enjoyed playing them.
Stephen, Adam -- hell, everyone: more short IF, please!
This article copyright © 2000, Iain Merrick