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SmoochieComp 2001 Reviews

by Duncan Stevens

Some preliminary notes:

For a SmoochieComp, there was a serious dearth of actual smoochies here. I know that IFers are big on irony and prefer dark and twisted to bright and sunny, but c'mon--there must be something in the love-and-romance area that doesn't involve revenge, obsession, and violent death. Thank goodness for the Kissing Bandit.

I also see that TALK TO is becoming popular. I see how it has its charms in large complicated games, but in a tiny mini-comp entry, how broad is the scope of possible things to ASK/TELL about? How likely is it that the player will bog down saying, hmmm, what should I say? I mean, presumably that's the main benefit of TALK TO, and the main drawback is that you risk locking the player out of the story. If the story's small, consider ASK/TELL. The illusion of interactivity is a highly underrated thing.

Okay--here we go. No spoilers ahoy. Maximum smooch rating is five.

1981, by A.D. McMIxxxi (hee!)

Not much that can be said about this one without spoiling most of it, so for the uninitiated, well, you're pursuing (very doggedly) the object of your affections. Now go play it.

I don't know whether this was intentional, but the first thing I did was read the poems that I was holding--and then I started trying to come up with tactful things to say about them for this review, because I figured they were the author's own poems, you see. "Well, they're certainly heartfelt" was about all I could think of. Fortunately, the game didn't turn out that way.

Lots of points for historical accuracy--from what I've read about this particular incident, I recognized a few of the writings and several of the behavior patterns. But, well, after a while I wanted to be let out of the historical straitjacket, so to speak, and see what would happen if the character decided to take another route. IF in a specific historical setting is a good idea, but it's also nice to have a little freedom. Balance well-researched with not-too-confining and you'll really have something.

Still, a worthy attempt to get inside this particular fellow's head, never mind that it's not necessarily a fun place to be.

Bottom line: two menacing smooches.

August, by Matt Fendahleen

Bloodshed and melodrama in a fantasy setting, with lots and lots of characters. Take notes if you're trying to keep them all straight.

My main reaction was that this feels like the first scene or two of a long, involved game, in which all the characters that have been introduced would actually play significant parts of one sort of another. As it is, it's a bit frustrating to be introduced to someone who essentially has nothing to say or contribute and who isn't actually especially significant in the plot--or to get hints at a simmering complicated relationship that I have with someone that I've just met. >TALK TO probably wasn't the best choice here, since it means that the whole conversation goes by in one shot, diminishing the whole interactivity quotient

Technically, things are a little wacky. There's a bug toward the end that sort of undid a major change. Disambiguation is goofy too-->TALK TO LORD gives me "Which do you mean, The Prince or crowd?" The writing is okay, though it tends to come in torrents--and most of the writing that the author did appears to be in those torrents (meaning that there are way too many library responses).

On the other hand, I sort of like the central triangle--there are all sorts of interesting ideas there--and if I could just interact more with the main NPC, I could really get into this. The flashback is pretty vividly rendered, and I wanted to see more of it and learn more about it--why not let me actually go there for a few moves, let me poke around?

Bottom line: the beginnings of an complex, intriguing story, but as it stands, two incomplete smooches.

Bantam, by Eric Mayer

Attention, shoppers, someone appears to have lost a chicken comp entry. It was found in the SmoochieComp aisle. Please come to the information desk to claim it.

You're an ASCII chicken, crossing an ASCII road and dodging ASCII cars. If you get hit by a car, you're sent back to the side of the road. Unfortunately, the path you take seems to entail getting into the path of one particular car, waiting, having the car appear on the other side of you, and then proceeding across the road. The highlight was the shift into LITERARY mode, of course, but even that didn't really keep things going for long--repetition kicked in pretty quickly.

Bottom line: one flat smooch.

Dead of Winter, by Christina Pagniacci

Extremely short (easily finishable in under 20 moves), and doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense. As in, there are two different endings, and which one you get seems to be toggled by a choice you make, and why the choice has the effect it does is not apparent. Another choice you make, conversely, has no effect at all on anything. There's a middle section where I had no idea what was supposed to be going on--and, come to think of it, I still have no idea. The writing is okay, and everything seems to work all right (not that there's a lot that could go wrong), but in a story this simple, it shouldn't be hard to ensure that the plot makes sense.

Bottom line: one chilly smooch.

Second Honeymoon, by Roger Ostrander

You and your wife are packing for a trip, and pack you do--you toss all manner of silly items into your suitcase. And that, as far as I can tell, is it.

It took me a while to finish this--there was one item I couldn't seem to find, and I looked high, low, and in between. In the course of looking, however, I uncovered all sorts of bugs (which I probably wouldn't have found had the item been more apparent), so the moral is, if you're going to hide something somewhere with no hints about where it might be, make sure your game can withstand a whole lot of poking and prodding. For example, in a game called Second Honeymoon, KISS and HUG should probably be handled (and if the object of my affections is going to smile at me, SMILE AT would be nice too). Several prominently mentioned objects aren't recognized, and one room appears to be unattainable--and another exit isn't mention in the room description.

I got the sense that the details are actually taken from the author's own life--there are lots of things that appear to be very important to the author but aren't at all important to the game. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the player may wonder if the point was to write a game or to tell the player about the author's life.

The puzzles are pretty, um, basic--most of them involve things like opening drawers. That's fine, I guess, but when there isn't much story, usually you have some challenging puzzles to make up for it. Here, there really isn't much story or puzzle. Nor is there characterization, since the NPCs are pretty cardboard. (I know they're your family and all, but they don't have much to say.)

Bottom line: well-intentioned, but there must be a more rewarding way to interact with the author's home and family than hunting for objects. Two smooches, but I won't give them to you--you'll have to go find them.

Sparrow's Song, by J.D. Berry

You've been asked to take a peace treaty to a tribe of marauding troll types, but you're also falling in love with someone, or something, it seems, so you're a bit distracted.

As with Djinni Chronicles, lots of backstory, most of it interesting--and as with Djinni Chronicles, a very short game. A high ratio of background to actual game, in other words, which is certainly better than the reverse. Lots of information available, which I like--in the opening section, lots of stuff to do and people to interact with. Unfortunately, after you get out of the opening section, things narrow a whole lot, and the whole thing ends very abruptly.

The puzzle toward the end (the only real puzzle in the game, in fact)--well, I got it, but it took a while, and I think it needed some considerably stronger hints than it had. There's not really much, logically, connecting the key object with the puzzle at hand, and there's even less telling the player to repeat a key action several times in order to get through the puzzle. As for what happens after that, well, it works okay, but it has the air of "geez, I dunno where to go with this, so here's an ending that'll resolve everything."

This is much better programmed than August, and less melodramatic, but it has a similar problem: extremely involved plot, but the actual playing experience doesn't intersect with it much. There are all sorts of characters with all sorts of things to say that are--well, not quite irrelevant, but they don't exactly figure in the plot. Your relationship with Cordelia seems like something worth exploring, for example, but no--and the peace treaty angle kind of drops out of the game after a while.

Bottom line: Three smooches, on the strength of the writing, but you were hoping for real smooches and you ended up with pecks on the cheek.

Voices, by Aris Katsaris

Joan of Arc, a childhood friend, and a certain admirer. You only get one perspective as player, but a bunch of other folks chime in now and again, so you get a lot of views on things. What things? Oh, a lot of things. Funny--there are not one but two historically based games in the SmoochieComp, but this one doesn't feel as confining as 1981, even though the end is just as inevitable. The difference is that some of the details within the historical narrative here are fictionalized, I guess, so it doesn't necessarily feel like you could get the same thing from picking up a history book.

Very clever--possibly even too clever; there are a few too many ideas crammed into one short game here. You've got the spin on the player-PC relationship, you've got the two romances, such as they are, and then you have these dead-end theological tiffs going on, some of which fit into the plot and some of which feel kind of extraneous. I mean, sensory overload. But they're all ideas worth exploring, don't get me wrong. I'd just like to see them, how shall I say, developed a little more. Specifically, some of the theological questions that are posed--well, they're questions. They have answers, which should lead to more questions, etc. If this tells me anything about what a Christian IF game could/should be, it's that, if difficult questions get chewed on, there should be some attempt to chew on them from more than one perspective. (And, ideally, the game shouldn't end up completely dissing one perspective after introducing it.)

Also, the admirer's choice at the end--I wouldn't call it hackneyed, but we have seen it a few times in recent years in Hollywood. That doesn't make it off limits, but, mmmm, it would be nice to see a little more put into it (the whys and hows and whether the character comes to regret the choice and perhaps the reactions of a few others), given that it's somewhat trodden ground.

Enough criticism--this is a good idea, with one great meta-IF moment. If the story is sort of on rails, well, it's not a major tragedy; what the player lacks in things to do, he or she gains in things to think about, and there's not a lot of action as such anyway in the main plot.

Bottom line: four bittersweet smooches.

Tale of the Kissing Bandit, by J. Robinson Wheeler

You're stalking some unwary victims--none are safe from your smooches! No one with skin will sleep safe tonight! Ha ha ha!

Ha! And ha again! Very nice. The parody at the end is priceless. I should also note that this is a joke that was coded pretty thoroughly--in the ball scene, for instance, there are scads of not-strictly-necessary locations with examinable objects, and there are loads of funny responses. (>HUG MAIDEN yields "Hugs? Pah! Hugs are not what the Kissing Bandit is after!") I was reminded of Snoopy as the Mad Punter, but I suspect there was other comic strip influence too. There are also scads of funny synonyms, by the way, and all sorts of irrelevant stuff you can do. (Check out your inventory, for instance.)

My guess at the inspiration for this was Morganna the Kissing Bandit, who used to go to various sports events and smooch unsuspecting celebrities. (For all I know, she still does.) If there was a Kissing Bandit from whom Morganna stole the idea, I'm not aware of him/her. Google tells me, by the way, that there was also a Sinatra movie called the Kissing Bandit. Who knew?

Anyway, this rules. ("Surely it is your gleaming mustaches that frighten her!") Four Calvinist smooches.

Pytho's Mask, by Emily Short

Romance and intrigue in the king's palace, with more characters and more conversational topics than you can shake a stick at.

Wow. I didn't see all of this one, and I'm not even sure that I saw most of it--I did a lot of talking with a lot of people, and I can sort of tell where things are heading, but the story is still just starting, it seems. The technique of randomly dropping details of my past exploits into conversations is a little jarring, partly, I suppose, because the initial assumption is that the event triggers haven't gone properly and I've missed something. (I did learn about something long before someone told me about it--I don't know if the telling was supposed to be where I learned about it or simply a backup in case I hadn't stumbled on it.) The progress of the story is a little haphazard--sometimes you get an obvious clue about what to do next, but sometimes you don't and everything bogs down. (And when there are this many characters to interrogate, and this many topics, things really bog down when they bog down.)

The conversational system--which involves a menu of choices but also topics that you can choose (which may trigger menus)--works well; I particularly liked that UNDO takes you back to the last menu, not out of the conversation altogether. Occasionally I wanted to talk about a different aspect of a topic than the menu allowed, but hey. The best thing about the conversation is what you learn about your own character--you get to choose between being a flirt, a prude, an adventuress, etc., at various points. (Many statements are accompanied by a specific tone of voice, which I also liked.) Given that you're also learning about your character's past, it's a game full of surprises.

Bottom line: even though I haven't seen it all yet, five exceedingly intricate smooches.

This article copyright © 2001, Duncan Stevens

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