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[Review] Winchester's Nightmare

by Andrew Pontious

Posted 30 January 2000 to

This is a review, under the aegis of the IF Review Conspiracy, for Winchester's Nightmare by Nick Montfort.

This work can be found in the IF Archive via FTP at

It requires a z-machine interpreter program to run. Please go to or and look at the file there called "index" to find such an interpreter for your operating system.

The author's Web page about the game, including a 386 laptop version you can purchase for $250, is at


In Winchester's Nightmare, you are a young girl, Sarah Winchester, experiencing a dream. In the dream, Sarah is exploring a place called United City in an attempt to find redemption for the deaths caused by the Winchester rifle.


First, the good news.

It's well-written. Its room descriptions are spare and get the point across nicely. Its various narrative scenes draw you in with their simplicity and immediacy.

The puzzles are nicely integrated into the plot, and they occur at the right intervals to keep the work interesting but not frustrating, puzzle-wise. I was also pleased with the final solution.

And it is expertly programmed; I found few bugs and experienced smooth, uninterrupted gameplay. (The author promises a bugfix release probably in early February.)

At times, I enjoyed Winchester a lot. If it were a small, conventional game, I would recommend it.


Now, the bad news.

Winchester's Nightmare is a small, conventional game masquerading as a large, experimental one.

As such, while the payoff is worthwhile, I can't recommend the trip to get there.

What I can recommend is examining the unique reasons why the game doesn't work, below, and how those aspects could be changed.

I've emailed the author and he has told me he has no plans to change the game conceptually, so this will primarily be of interest to other authors attempting to produce unusual effects or gameplay, especially ambitious first-time authors who may not have thought through the consequences of their ideas. (Anyone who has played the first version of my own game, Small World, has seen an especially acute case of these kind of overreach.)


According to the author's introduction (not available in the game itself, but available via the above-mentioned author Web page), "The interactor will hopefully be able to engage with the work as literature, rather staying in a jigsaw-puzzle mode of thinking during all of the interaction."

There are two main non-traditional techniques Montfort, an alumnus of MIT's Media Lab, uses to enhance his game in this literary fashion. (1) Changing the input prompt and disallowing abbreviations. (2) Including many extras locations and much more information than is needed to solve the puzzles and follow the game's plot.


(1) Throughout the entire game, the input prompt consists of the words "Sarah decides to". In addition, common abbreviations such as N, S, E, W, NW, NE, SW, SE, and L, X, I, Z, G are explicitly disallowed.

It seems to me like this was done to increase the sense that the player is in a novel, both reading and writing the novel as s/he goes along. So instead of

>x shell

the player reads/types

Sarah decides to look at the shell

The trouble with this approach is that in all other ways, the player is still in a traditional IF game.

- The cardinal directions are still the primary means by which Sarah travels from location to location.
- The location descriptions are in the laconic style of traditional IF games.
- The puzzles are solved using strictly traditional IF verbs and concepts.

In all other ways but the abbreviations, I still felt like I was playing an IF game, not reading a novel. Having to type out "south" instead of "s" didn't create or reinforce a novel/literary context, it merely annoyed me within an IF context. Especially since the game's numerous locations require you to type in those same cardinal directions over and over again. Others I've spoken to had the same response.

Also note that, if true immersion through typing was the goal, even "south" should have been banned in favor of "go south", since "Sarah decides to south" makes as little literary sense as "Sarah decides to s".

The solution? Add in an "expert mode" where both the prompt and the abbreviation restrictions are lifted.

The irony is that this game doesn't need tricks to pull you in; it pulled me in despite them by its professional writing and elegantly simple plot.


(2) This game has many, many locations, far more than are required for either the plot, the game's interludes, or its puzzles.

Some authors may argue that such locations are needed for atmosphere, or to add to the game experience.

But the tools used -- clipped room descriptions, clipped object descriptions -- however well-written, are tools geared toward interaction: taking, repeated examining for puzzle clues, manipulating, etc. Using them only as a static backdrop means depriving yourself of the benefits of the genre without achieving the level of static fiction.

And their large number means that in addition to solving the puzzles themselves, you have to find the puzzles, creating an additional, game-wide needle in a haystack "puzzle" which doesn't add anything thematically or plot-wise to the game.

End result: I got bored. I would never have finished the game if I wasn't tapped to write a review of it. Other players have reported the same effect.

The solution? Pare down the locations to those where puzzles are actually located or where at least some kind of meaningful interaction or narrative scenes takes place. Or add vastly more amounts of meaningful interaction. (The former is probably easier.)


The thing these two techniques have in common is that they aren't unconscious mistakes, they are deliberate choices made by the author for the sake of a certain IF experience. Montfort is to be highly commended for what appears to be a first-time work where I'm reduced to debating his choices, not identifying his obviously unintended errors.

He has told me he may create future works which take experienced IF players more into account, and I look forward to his efforts.


If the above observations don't deter you, by all means play the game, as I think you will enjoy all other aspects of it.

This article copyright © 2000, Andrew Pontious

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