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Winter Wonderland

by Harry and Mary Kaplan

Return with us now to those chilling days of yesteryear...

Reviewing Laura Knauth's piece of interactive fiction Winter Wonderland seemed an appropriate homage to two consecutive frigid winters in the northeast US. Despite a lack of angst, cynicism, erudition, or the presence of a deserted post-apocalyptic planet, Winter Wonderland was honored as the Best Game of the 1999 IF Competition and placed as a Finalist for the Best Setting in the following XYZZY Awards. How does it play in 2004?

Winter Wonderland remains innocent and refreshing. It could be a wonderful diversion for a child were it not for the challenge of some of the puzzles. So let's call it an ideal family IF, of which there are probably few in the IF Archive. Though we haven't played the other games against which it competed, the Best Setting nomination must have been a no-brainer, because that is where this game shines so very brightly.

The first section, which the author terms Prologue, seems to introduce an archetypal fairy tale: on the holiday night of winter solstice, a young girl from a poor family (with a sick brother to boot) is sent into the nearby town on a fairly pathetic errand. And then, of course, magic happens and she finds herself in a strange new world of snow and ice chock full of supernatural NPC's.

And thereby hangs a fairy tale. Because, except for its final prose wrap-up, the rest of Winter Wonderland consists of the PC to-ing and fro-ing across the magical country of winter, mixing it up with the likes of dryads, fairies and snow sprites, making sure every creature gets what it wants or needs before she is finally helped back home. Sound familiar? On her webpage, Ms. Knauth mentions her special fondness for the early King's Quest games, and it is hard to ignore the influence. While the loss of narrative is a bit abrupt, the charm of the new setting more than compensates.

Although the writing varies in quality, and at times one wishes for deeper responses to EXAMINE the whole is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. There is a distinct "you are there" feel to the wonderland: not only can the place be pictured without effort, but anyone playing the game is likely to feel a need for a warm wool sweater. Apart from a mischievous snow sprite, the NPC's are not individually memorable, not because they are badly drawn but because their function is to enrich and perhaps melt into the general ambiance, not to stand out as creatures.

The puzzles vary in difficulty from easy to medium. There are only a few true head-scratchers but all well-integrated into the game's universe. On several occasions the real puzzle was deciding which puzzles could be worked, as the game became purely linear after a certain point. One complaint: even though each had a distinctly different puzzle buried in its innards, putting three mazes in one game is pushing it. But as reassuring balance we should mention that Winter Wonderland ranks as "Merciful" on Andrew Plotkin's Cruelty Scale, meaning the player cannot get stuck. And if players feels stuck, Ms. Knauth has provided excellent built-in hints in the graduated spirit of the Universal Hint System.

The game ends rather abruptly, with the joyful return home being handled with one long piece of prose, rather than something gently interactive like the Prologue. A hunk of prose can work well as an ending (e.g., the sweet and hilarious close of Infocom's Planetfall), but here it's more like the theater lights coming up. (Well, no review is complete without a little nit-picking).

In discussing the making of Winter Wonderland, Ms. Knauth mentions her substitution of winter solstice for Christmas in an effort to avoid clichéd Christmas trappings and to find the real wonder of the season. That was a wise decision since her sidestepping of modern commercialism allowed her to rediscover a lost magic. It's been a while since 1999—let's hope that Ms Knauth has plans to share another imaginative vision with us all.

Laura Knauth has created a weather-wise webpage for Winter Wonderland. The most recent release of the game, which is written in Inform, can be downloaded from her site. She has also authored two other works of IF: Travels in the Land of Erden and Trapped in a One-Room Dilly. Now let's let her speak for herself:

First allow me a brief reflection: quite simply, creating Winter Wonderland was a joy. It was perhaps also a bit of desperate escapism, with the majority being written during a brief summer respite from an otherwise intensely stressful graduate school experience. I had a sneaking suspicion that you guys out there would thrash poor little Gretchen, or the winter solstice, or the fantasy, so I was all the more appreciative of the generally positive response. Completing works of interactive fiction remains among my proudest accomplishments, and I encourage would-be authors to please give it a try!

Since Winter Wonderland, I've developed many of the concepts for a sequel to Travels in the Land of Erden despite the lack of encouragement for that game on the newsgroups. Considering Trapped in a One-Room Dilly took less than 1/10th the effort of Erden, my jaw hit the floor when it placed higher in the competition. I realized that most people really hadn't seen the work I'd done for Erden at all. How many ever made it to the scene with the rotting pirate bodies...hands? Despite some admittedly clumsy implementation, I still say this one has a heart of gold, and I have high hopes for a less overwhelming sequel.

My preference is full-length games that hearken back to the style of the Infocom text adventures, so the sequel to Erden wouldn't be entered into the annual IF competitions. Realistically though, completing this project is still years down the road. I've actually written two novels since Winter Wonderland and am in the process of trying to get them published. I'm also starting a part-time photography business, so in addition to the day job, I've been swamped. But interactive adventures remain my ideal of the perfect art form, and I'd love to keep contributing! Thanks again to those who've taken the time and energy to provide feedback.

Our Credo

We are Harry and Mary Kaplan, the Naïve Reviewers. We like IF (and graphic adventures, too). Under duress we admit that we are middle-aged, but nonetheless we have not been part of the gaming community since Adventure, or Zork, or the advent of Inform, or TADS, or you name it. We have not come close to reading all the true classics of IF and probably never will. We fail to understand IF in-jokes and do not know the history of the NPC. What we have noticed is that most IF reviews are written by IF creators and that of necessity brings a certain perspective. We propose to review for IF readers equally as naïve as ourselves in a sincere effort to widen the circle of appreciation.

This article copyright © 2004, Harry and Mary Kaplan

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