Posted 26 February 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
The review below appears courtesy of the IF Review Conspiracy, a fantastic project whose aim is to blow up IF's Parliament House on November 5th this year, thus preventing tons of Comp2000 reviews from clogging up Usenet and giving non-comp games their rightful place and attention (er, I'm twisting history a little, but I think you get the general idea.) To join or secretly support the Brotherhood of the Conspiracy, all you need to do is visit www.textfire.com/conspiracy, where your PC will be tattooed with an indelible cookie shaped like an inverted roentgenogram, and you will be sworn to the most sacred oaths a human can swear these days. All right, so I'm still kidding. On with the review, then.
For anyone entering the IF community right now, it's easy to lose sight of one important fact: that what we call "interactive fiction", analyse and discuss in quasi-scholarly terms and treat almost as a literary form, actually had pretty humble beginnings. The grand-daddy of all text adventures was Crowther and Woods' "Adventure": we all pay lip service to the fact that it's a "classic", but if you or I were to write an Adventure-like game today, it'd probably be dismissed as just another cave crawl. Over the years, as certain aspects of IF (prose, non-player characters, and literary technique) have acquired greater importance, earlier works - that were intended as entertainments first of all - gradually get dismissed with generic terms ("two-word parser dungeon game", "treasure hunt", "fantasy", "plotless puzzle game" and so on.) That's why I feel it takes a considerable amount of moral courage to write a treasure hunt and release it into an arena that's reaching saturation point with experiment, puzzleless games, deconstructions, subversions and the like. And this is where Eric J. Toth's game, "Inheritance", deserves commendation.
"Inheritance" is, quite simply, a throwback to the earlier days of IF. The plot is minimal (you have to solve the enigma of your uncle's mansion in order to earn the reward the title suggests), there are no "interactive" non-player characters as such, and all the gameplay is made up of a series of puzzles, each of which takes yo closer to your eventual goal. I never was a huge fan of strings of puzzles, as least the modern variety as exemplified by authors such as Andy Phillips, and frankly I didn't expect too much from this game as I fired up my TADS run-time. But something strange happened. It took me some time to find my bearings, sure, but once I'd figured out the aim of the game - which is fairly obvious if you look around a bit - I was able to direct my efforts into looking for the series of objects I needed. The puzzles, except for one, seemed pitched at just the right level - not painfully simple (UNLOCK BIG DOOR WITH BIG KEY) or diabolically twisted (LOOK UNDER TABLE. GET CHEWING-GUM. BLOW CHEWING-GUM INTO BALLOON. TIE STRING TO BALLOON. GIVE BALLOON TO BABY TROLL), and, for the most part, I worked my way through them painlessly. Though most objects were single-use, and were meant to fit only into their respective puzzles, they formed a pretty creative assortment. And, believe it or not, within a few hours of intermittent play, I had cracked the game.
"Inheritance", I think, won me over with its simplicity. Descriptions are terse, as in most old-school games (I began my text adventure career porting Spectrum BASIC games to my Sharp computer, so I recognized the style). Though this sometimes goes to extremes (for examine, "Examine rectangular slot" returns the telegraphic "12 inch rectangular slot", nothing more) it somehow works. The puzzles were fun to play through, and except for one, were clued pretty well. Most of the silly actions I tried brought amusing replies, or at least non-standard ones. But most of all, I think, there was a sense of _purpose_ in this game that I usually find lacking in contemporary puzzle-fests; I knew what had to be done, and more or less how to do it, and even if I got stuck I knew it wasn't an unwinnable situation but just a temporary barrier. Though the story is thin and rather sterotypical - eccentric old men and mystery manors are old hat - it fitted the game's size, design and aims perfectly. At the end, I felt satisfid ; I didn't find myself crying "Hey! Where are the complex NPCs, the lengthy room descriptions and the ifMUD Easter Eggs?". I've almost never had this positive an experience with a puzzler, and Eric deserves a lot of credit for that.
Predictably enough, the preliminary reviews for this game were subdued: to quote from a SPAG review, "......IF as it has come to be known rarely works this way, I'm afraid." However, I felt it worked very well. In a period where we're all concerned more with making IF one of literature's poor cousins (and, face it, guys - as a gaming genre, it's unlikely to rise above that level for the world at large), works like Inheritance serve to remind us that, well, it's all just a game; as Billy Joel puts it, it's still rock n' roll to me. It's got something of the charm of a playground romp versus a 20MB World War sim; of a Charles Dickens tale as opposed to a postmodern masterpiece. Tastes vary, and to categorically say that IF doesn't work this way any more is to deny the fact that not every IF enthusiast _wants_ his or her games at the "So Far" or "Shrapnel" level, and that a choice like Eric's (or, earlier, Francesco Bova's) is by no means inferior. "Inheritance" belongs right up there with the best-written eary IF, and benefits from the use of the TADS engine, making it playable by those of us who find negotiating with a BASIC parser too hard.
Games like "Inheritance" deserve a place in the sun too; they're honest entertainments in a time of daring experiments that often end up looking contrived, at least to this reviewer. Whether we accept the fact or not, these were the games that early IFers cut their teeth on before we arrived with our pet theories; you're unlikely to gain a deep insight into life, death or relationships by playing them, but that doesn't at all make them unworkable, and they remain deeply enjoyable to many. As I said above, they will always have a certain charm; to wax poetic, and paraphrase William Shakespeare, "their eternal summer shall not fade."
This article copyright © 2000, Quentin D. Thompson