The SmoochieComp premise was simple: write a short game featuring love and romance as one of its central themes. Seven people submitted games by the initial deadline; by the final bell, nine total were in.
The seven games which I played ran the gamut from traditional to experimental, from light and sprightly to dark and brooding. This is a good thing. I'm all for a wide range of games.
Before I get to the actual reviewing, a word for authors regarding the nature of competitions for short games. Yes, the competitions provide good exposure. Yes, you'll garner attention you wouldn't receive otherwise, especially in the form of reviews. Yes, working to a deadline can give you motivation you might otherwise lack.
Despite all of this, make sure the game you enter is one you want to enter, one you're willing to have scrutinized and criticized. Don't let the deadline and the attention lull you into entering something "just because."
I know I'm sounding like the grumpy old reviewer man sitting on his front porch yelling, "Hey, you kids, keep your unpolished games offa my lawn!" Doesn't matter; the point is still valid, and often ignored. There is a difference between an experiment and a slapped-together entry.
End of sermon, at least for now. I'm going to have to return to it in my reviews.
1981, by A.D. McMlxxxi
The first thing I notice about 1981 was how choppy its sentences were. The second thing I notice is that I am holding a sheaf of poems.
My bad poems.
And my first task is to find the dorm room of the woman I'm in love with, my first true love, and give her those poems.
Never fear -- there's more to the game than that initial synopsys would indicate. However, I can't discuss it in any great detail, not without wading deep into spoiler territory. Instead I must talk in wandering ellipticities, orbiting around the game but never drawing too close. Go and play the game, then read the spoiler version of this review (at the very end of my reviews) if you want to read my full opinion.
This is a game of love, albeit love shaded with the jagged purple of obsession. You are in love; the object of your affection is not so infatuated. It is a game exploring communication. How do you explain to someone the depth of your feelings? Is there any way to convey your emotions to another person? Can you prove your love?
This is also a game on rails. Please keep hands and feet inside the game at all times until it has stopped moving, because at any given point you have one and only one real action available. It's a risky design decision, one that has been a subject of hot debate in the past. Suffice it to say that this approach is arguably necessary given the plot of the game, but that it does not work in this situation. There are moments which cry out for different options, but you're not provided that freedom. As a result I felt disconnected from the game. There was no sense of urgency pushing me forward, keeping my interest. 1981 also lacked much in the way of polish or depth: it focuses on the bare minimum of what is necessary to convey the story. Given the small range of motion possible, that leaves little to snag my interest and drag it along.
The roughness was enhanced by some random bugs involving those poems. There is no way to discover the names of the poems other than triggering disambiguation by referring to one poem: your inventory consists of the one line, "You've got a bunch of poems for her." And speaking of that line, it remains constant, even when you only have one poem left, or none.
Right, I've gone as far as I can without sinking neck-deep in a swamp of spoilers. I'll stop by saying that 1981 was an interesting idea let down by its implementation.
August, by Matt Fendahleen
From the game's ABOUT text:
I didn't think I was going to have time to enter the smoochiecomp. Then, with one week to the deadline, my workload vanished. What luck, I thought! I had never written an IF game before, didn't know inform, and like a fool, a poor, desperate fool, I thought I could beat the proverbial clock... I wrote, designed, and coded this game in seven days. Seven miserable, cathode-saturated days. As a consequence it is a horrid, malformed, wretched, crud-eating wreck of a failure and I am only submitting it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Matt, other authors, attend me closely, so that my soft words might be better heard:
DO NOT DO THAT!
Look, it's simple: either you believe your game is ready to be released or you do not. If not, don't release it. And for the sake of my delicate sensibilities, do not apologize for your game ahead of time. Not in your ABOUT text, not in your announcement, not anywhere.
Having said that, the game isn't as bad as the ABOUT text would lead you to believe. (This, gentle authors, is why I recommend against a preemptive apologetic strike. Why predispose your audience to dislike your game unnecessarily?) You are Lord Hakuin Ikthanadar, a war hero lately returned from fighting the evil Bloodwyn Dire. A celebration is taking place in the August Chamber of the Luna Plina Citadel, one with dancing and drinking, a prince and an oily "advisor," a loved woman and a hated one.
There are ideas lying in great towering heaps throughout the game, though no whole is made of them. At times the game veers tantalizingly close to something unusual, then lurches away. In fact, the whole game lurches around herky-jerky. Consider this bit:
>TALK TO ORLOCK
Orlock glares at you from the shadows behind the King's table. You and he have little to say to each other that cannot be said far more eloquently with knives.
and this one:
Your leggings are a little coarse and ill-fitting. But you never could stand the idea of tights. I mean.... ugh.
Given the shift in tone, the two passages could have come from separate games.
There's so much of interest hinted at: the dreaded Bloodwyn Dire, the archetypical evil woman of fairy tales, who may not be as evil as she seems; the court intrigue involving the Prince and his advisor Orlock; what kind of man Hakuin is. Some of it plays out, at least for a bit, but then the game loses all momentum.
Obscurity in a game is a dangerous card to play. You want to tease the players, giving them glimpses of a structure which they never can apprehend in its entirety. August is too obscure; at no point did I believe that the author was working from a fully-developed story. Rather, it was as if Matt was writing the story furiously as he went along, planning on connecting it all at the end. This interpretation fits with the ABOUT text quoted above, and I was probably influenced by that text. I don't know what I would have made of the game's story had I not read the ABOUT message.
As I mentioned earlier, August loses steam eventually, leaving you with little to do besides dance endlessly. You run out of things to ask the various non-player characters about -- a problem which tends to plague games that depend on undirected conversations with people -- leaving you to bring the story to a rather abrupt end. Were the game more developed, I would have appreciated it more; as it stands, the game is too short for everything that's crammed into it.
Even Bantams Get the Blues, by Eric Mayer
Somewhere, Christopher E. Forman is smiling.
Bantam is the story of one rooster and his quest to cross the road. The game is an homage to Freeway, an old Atari 2600 game in which you attempted to get your chicken across a busy highway, Frogger-style. Bantam even reproduces the screen of the original by using ASCII art, a style which isn't that far off of Freeway's low-resolution graphics.
As the chicken (^), you must cross the road (........) which is filled with cars and trucks (+++, ===, and the occasional === ===). Why? Because your lady-love has flown the coop, and you must drown your sorrows not in cheap booze but in repetitive and dangerous freeway-crossings.
Despite this one-joke premise, there are some nicely goofy touches. The game can be played in ARCADE or LITERARY mode. In ARCADE mode your task is merely to cross the freeway, while in LITERARY mode you are burdened with philosophical musings throughout your journey:
You remember Byzantium. How many lives ago? In her youth the Empress Theodora was an actress. She would strip you and you would peck grain from her naked body. And now, you have been shunned by a common banty hen.
And the ending, or endings, I should say...well, I'll leave them to you to find.
My major complaint is with the actual gameplay. It appears that there is one and only one way to cross the road. Finding that solution takes some doing, but once you do, you can complete the game with ease.
All in all, a not-bad joke that's worth five minutes of your time, and would not have been out of place in the IF Arcade games that were released a while back.
Dead of Winter, by Christina Pagniacci
Go to the Ice Queen to save your beloved Saul, whom she has imprisoned. Be sent on a quest to recover the Heart of Winter, which is guarded by the Dragon. Go recover the Heart and bring it back to the Ice Queen.
In one paragraph I've covered just about everything that takes place in the game, barring two choices, one of which has no effect on the game whatsoever. The other is...well, it's rather random, and if you're not careful you'll miss the clue as to what choice you should make.
Really, there's not much to the game. No real puzzles besides the two yes/no choices. Little to no detail in most rooms. Only one action is possible at any given point, and that design choice is even less satisfying here than it was in 1981.
Level of detail, folks. In 1981 I felt as if I had more choices, limited as they were, because of the little details. Dead of Winter is berift of these. I count three NPCs, none of whom you interact with to any great extent, and three items, none of which you do much with. When you get right down to it, interactive fiction only gives the illusion of freedom; if you're going to take away the illusion provided by having a number of actions available at any one time, you've got to balance it by giving me more things to examine and fiddle with. If you don't, you'd best find some other way of putting illusory control back in my hands or distract me with interesting ideas and sparkling prose.
Dead of Winter employs a TALK TO system of communication. It doesn't provide much in the way of interaction, especially since there is only one NPC with whom multiple TALK TO commands results in further conversation.
One point in Dead of Winter's favor is that the game recognizes verbs such as KISS and HUG. There are a number of games in this competition that don't. Shame on them! (I'd have been even more pleased if the game recognized SMOOCHIE. Sadly, you can't win them all.)
Overall, it's a tiny slip of a game which I will be hard-pressed to remember in two weeks.
Pytho's Mask, by Emily Short
I always have trouble with games that have dumptrucks full of backstory. I get three sentences into how King Girthandor, Liege of the Craggy Wastes, is on his deathbed and how Regent Jaksn has been scheming with Grand Vizier Necip Demirel to seize the throne but the Minister of Social Engineering is working with the Society of Mimes to prevent this from happening -- and then my eyes glaze over and my brain shuts down. Eventually, assuming I have the fortitude to slog through the history that my character should know but that I must learn as I go, I end up taking a lot of notes and wondering, "Was that Lord Ragen or Lord Regan I was talking to?"
Backstory is a difficult thing in interactive fiction. There is a fundamental disconnect between what the player knows and what the character in the story knows. You often see this in games set in the character's house; why is it that I have to learn where the bathroom is when I presumably already know? The problem is exacerbated when the game involves history and culture fabricated from whole cloth.
Pytho's Mask is one of those games. Two screens into the game I had several copies of the game going at once and nearly a page of notes.
It was worth it, though. As in her other games, Emily's prose delights, and she has handled the large amounts of information as well as can be expected. Your situation is quickly sketched in deft strokes: you are a girl named Soteria who has gotten an invitation to the Celebration of the Night of the Comet. Such invitations are hard to come by. But your role is not that of mere reveler; you must speak to the King's Physician, discover what is wrong with the King, and protect him.
There is more, of course. (There always is.) Many are attending the Celebration of the Night of the Comet. The Physician is there, along with the Prince, the Prince's best friend, Avril the androgyne...and a mysterious stranger who provided your invitation.
Conversations are handled via an interesting amalgam of menu options and ASK/TELL-like topics. When you first begin talking to someone, you are presented with a list of several possible things to say. If you don't like those options, or would like to change the direction of the conversation, you can select a new topic to discuss with the TOPIC command. If you have more to say about that topic, you'll be presented with new conversational options. Otherwise, you can change to another topic or return to your original one. It's a nice balance between the limited choices of conversation menus and the lack of specific things to say inherent in ASK/TELL systems. My only complaint is that it's easy to get lost in a gigantic state space of topics, wandering away from a conversational thread and being unable to find it again.
Meetings with the various NPCs are skillfully handled. There are several conversations you must have in a specific order, and the game insures that they occur in such a way that you're unlikely to notice the manipulation the first time through. Writing interactive fiction involves some of the magician's art, misdirecting you so that you don't notice the palmed card. Pytho's Mask distracts you from the wires and string with aplomb.
The game does make a few missteps, though unintentional ones. It is possible to dance forever with the Prince, should you fail to hit upon the right avenue of conversation. And should you lose your forward momentum, it's hard to pick up speed once more: the game has too many conversations and yet not enough. If unobservant you may find yourself running out of topics without a clue as to how to gather your lost thoughts and conversations.
These are minor quibbles, though, in a game remarkable for its scope and complexity of NPC interaction. Of the SmoochieComp games I played, this one gets the nod for best overall.
Second Honeymoon, by Roger Ostrander
Here's a novelty: a game which is a stand-out because it's an old-fashioned puzzle romp. If you glance through my reviews, you'll notice that in most of them I spend a lot of time talking about the plot, the characters, and the Grand Meaning of it All.
Not here. You and your wife Jessica are headed to a cabin on the shores of a lake for a second honeymoon. Before you can go, you must find all the items on your to-do list, gather them up, and take them to Jessica, who is in charge of the packing.
Of such elements have entertaining games been made. One of my favorite games, Kissing the Buddha's Feet, has this same structure. Go, My Son, and Perform the Five Tasks that Result in Points, so that You Might Reach the End. Second Honeymoon pares this down to the bone. There are two main NPCs, your wife Jessica and your daughter Sapphire, but your interaction with them is minimal at best. The items you need are strewn throughout your home, and only some of them are guarded by puzzles.
What sinks this game right out of the harbor are the myriad bugs and mistakes which hang from the game like Spanish moss, drinking its vitality. Some are merely mild slip-ups, such as this humorous example:
What do you want to ask it about?
Some are more blatant. There is a puzzle involving Sapphire and her missing teddy bear, Beary. (The location of Beary is highly improbable, but I'm willing to let it slide, since it involves the one puzzle in the game.) After you find Beary and give it to her, should you re-enter Sapphire's room, she asks you to find Beary once again. This despite the fact that she is clearly described as holding Beary on one shoulder. Shortly thereafter, Sapphire leaves with the babysitter. If you return to her room after that, Sapphire will once again ask you to find Beary even though she is not physically present. Clearly this is a ghost Sapphire, sent to warn you that your second honeymoon will be spoilt by the guilt you feel over leaving her behind.
What is most irritating, though, is how many directions aren't listed in the room description, or are listed incorrectly. The first room you begin in mentions the kitchen to the west. Don't believe it; the room is merely trying to trick you. The kitchen is actually east of the living room. In the hallway you are told that your computer room is to the north. This is undoubtedly an important room to you, since at several points the game mentions that you are a computer programmer and that you spend a lot of time in front of the computer. If only it were true, for there is no computer room, at least none I could find. I tried going north from the hallway and was told, "You can't go that way." And when the game isn't actively lying to you, it's hiding exits from you. The first few rooms lull you into a false sense of complacency by telling you what exits were available, albeit in a rather haphazard and often incorrect manner. In several rooms, though, there are exits which are never mentioned. After being stuck for some time and then finding a new room by accident, I was reduced to going into every room and typing the cardinal directions one right after another to make sure I hadn't overlooked some crucial room.
The puzzles, such as they are, are similarly lackadaisical. In fact, now that I think about it, there is precisely one puzzle that doesn't involve walking unimpeded into a room and picking up an item that is in plain sight or readily discovered. (I'm not counting the "find the room the game didn't tell you about" episodes as true puzzles. Roger, if that was your intent, bad author! No biscuit.) That didn't stop me from looking behind and under every possible item -- when I'm in full-on treasure hunter mode, I search everything I find -- but it was entirely unnecessary.
There are occasional hints that the author is paying attention to detail, despite the game's lack of KISS, HUG, or even TALK TO. At one point in the game, Jessica comes looking for you to ask you to find something for her. Her arrival message changes slightly from room to room, indicating that Roger took into account that players move around and might not be exactly where he expected. This is easy to overlook; countless authors have made incorrect assumptions about where the player will be when an event happens. Given the wacky fun hidden rooms, I half-expected the game to describe Jessica as having walked in the room, even when I was outdoors or in the attic. I was surprised and pleased to discover that Second Honeymoon handled the possible cases properly.
That one element is not enough to save a game which is festooned with bugs and lacks interesting puzzles. I had hoped that Second Honeymoon would reveal details of my life with Jessica as I went on the Great Honeymoon Scavenger Hunt. It was not to be.
Sparrow's Song, by J.D. Berry
Remember my comments about having to digest large uncut chunks of backstory when playing a game? This seems to have been the competition for such games, Sparrow's Song included.
To be fair, Sparrow's Song integrated a lot of its backstory into the game. Most of what I needed to know I learned as I played, without feeling too lost at any point in time. That puts it ahead of the other two big-story games of the competition. Pytho's Mask did a similarly good job of integration, but was hampered by having so damn much culture and backstory; August dumped wodges of text in my lap and expected me to deal with it.
The navigation and conversation systems have been fiddled with in Sparrow's Song. Instead of using compass directions, you type in the name of the place you want to go. Each room lists its nearest neighbors, but once you've visited a place you can return to it (if possible) from anywhere else on the map. It's an effect I first saw in Avalon Hill's Empire of the Overmind. Other than the ability to move directly to a location several rooms away, I'm not sure it's more than a gimmick. It didn't seem to add anything notable to Sparrow's Song.
The conversation system similarly walks the line between gimmick and innovation. Instead of using ASK or TELL, you type in a topic followed by an exclamation point. If you want to ask someone about love, say, you use the command LOVE!. It's little more than a dressed-up ASK/TELL interface with topics instead of items, and it would not work with more than one character in the room. But if you're stumped for something to say, you can type TOPICS to get a mostly-random list of possible topics. There were a few times that I reached for that command to help get me back on track.
The story is this: You are Kellen, the mayor of a vaguely medieval town. You have been negotiating a treaty with the Ronqon, a tribe of giants who live a mountain or two over. The treaty is ready to be signed, but for unexplained reasons you have let things languish until you have less than one day to deliver the treaty to the leader of the Ronqons.
On occasion, a game will have little details which make me feel comfortable putting myself in the author's hands. Sparrow's Song had several such details. The game begins with you in bed. If you get out of bed and attempt to head downstairs, you are told that you need to get dressed first. If you then open your armoire and type GET DRESSED, you will indeed get dressed. It's a nice touch, and one which many authors would miss implementing. Another example: throughout most of the game you carry a walking stick. At one point I noticed that it was listed in my inventory as
your trusty walking stick (nervously being twirled)
Again, a little touch, but one which makes me believe that the author is paying attention.
Given my trust, it was painful to be let down by the one true puzzle in the game, which occurs around the two-thirds mark. After spending most of the game unconcerned with puzzles, I hit one involving a nymph -- and came to a screeching halt. I was stumped, completely at a loss. Even after I got a hint to the puzzle and was able to continue, I found myself shaking my head at the solution. The solution almost, but not quite, makes sense. There are subtle hints, the kind that are only of any help after you've completed the puzzle and are trying to deduce the logic behind it, and they're not of much use then.
There were other oddities with the game. Items moved into and out of my inventory at will, as if moved by the unseen hand of some capricious god. I later discovered that I was to have taken these items from elsewhere in the game, but I managed to overlook them, and the logic of how they appeared in my inventory and why completely escaped me.
And then the game ends, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving a major plot thread severed and thrashing about. Given how much the game directed me towards two goals (in part by spelling out in great detail how I felt instead of leading me to feel that way myself), I was annoyed that one of them vanished from my hands.
I see I've listed a number of complaints. Despite them, I liked Sparrow's Song. It took a number of risks, many of which I appreciated. Still, I couldn't help but feel as if I was playing the Reader's Digest condensed version of a much longer game.
Below are spoilers for 1981.
1981 -- the Spoiler Version
If you've played 1981, then you know the twist: You're John Hinckley, Jr., would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, stalker of Jodie Foster. That twist is the one item in the game that made it interesting.
But the twist was not handled optimally. The game ostensibly gives you a glimpse into the mind of John, but there aren't enough details to make that person real. We're not given enough of a chance to sympathize with or dislike him. He's a collection of poems, stereotypical mooning emotions, and a note; and then the jig is up, the secret revealed, and whatever impressions we've formed of the protagonist are scattered to the winds by our already-formed impression of John Hinckley, Jr.
I needed more time, both before the great revelation and after, to get to know John. Why is he like this? What was it like to be him those fateful days? Make me feel his anguish over Jodie's refusal to see him, his joy at realizing that killing Reagan will bring the two of them together. Make him human, give me something on which to hang my emotions.
And then there's the final moment, frozen in time in front of Reagan. There was so much I wanted to do.
>TELL REAGAN THAT I AM MENTALLY ILL AND NEED TREATMENT
>TELL REAGAN NOT TO RUN UP THE NATIONAL DEBT
None of it was possible, of course.
I must praise how, in that final scene, only you and Reagan exist -- until you start shooting. With every shot, your latest victim becomes real. Brady. Delahanty. McCarthy. (It's implausible that Hinckley knew all of these people's names, especially McCarthy, the Secret Service agent, but in the end that's not important. The effect is all-important, and well worth any small leaps in logic.) You literally do not see them until you've wounded them, a view I would not be at all surprised to find out that Hinckley had.
I wish the author had taken more time with this game, fleshed it out more. There are a number of interesting things going on, and throughout I saw glimmers of a much more satisfying game.
This article copyright © 2001, Stephen Granade