IFComp 2008: Nerd Quest

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)

This is a review of Nerd Quest. In brief: don’t play Nerd Quest. Spoilers, such as they are, past the link.

Those wannabe writers who have seen their dogeared manuscripts squirted back from a hundred slushpiles, and who at long last take refuge in the arms of the vanity presses, like to think the mainstream publishing industry is a scam. They think you have to be an insider to get published in the big leagues; there’s no other explanation for why they keep getting rejected when all these other books have shelf space at Barnes and Noble. They look at their half-literate romances and fantasy trilogies, and they look at Norman Mailer, and they can’t see the difference.

Something similar is going on with the people who turn up their noses at TADS and Inform, and submit parsers of their own invention to the IFComp. (The “parser,” for any uninitiated who’ve wandered in, is the interface you use to play the game. You type a command, the parser parses it–hence the name–and spits out the proper response.) There are a few of these guys every year and mostly their games work about as well as the White Knight’s plan to keep his hair from falling off. Nerd Quest is not an exception.

The first thing I type in any IF game is EXAMINE ME. Or, more accurately, X ME. Abbreviations are less work, y’know? (Notice how I abbreviated “you know?” I totally saved two keystrokes there, which I can save for something more important later on, like an extra “to” or something.) The first response I got from Nerd Quest was “Not possible.” The second response was “Not possible.” About half the things I typed were “Not possible,” and that was using the walkthrough. “Not possible” is Nerd Quest‘s sole error message. Why is X ME not possible? Maybe because Nerd Quest doesn’t seem to recognize X, or even EXAMINE–you have to LOOK AT things. Or maybe because your character doesn’t have a mirror handy. Who knows? Nerd Quest‘s author has seen that TADS and Inform have error messages, but doesn’t understand what they’re for–to tell the player why the game hasn’t understood what they typed (“That’s not a verb I recognize.”), and distinguish the situation from something that failed to work in-game (“It is fixed in place,” or “You can only do that to something animate”). “Not possible” tells you nothing. It’s the tersest error message ever.

The whole game is terse, where it’s not illiterate. Room descriptions are a couple of sentences long, and the sentences tend to be things like “There is trapdoor here.” The conference room contains a “beamer.” What’s a “beamer?” Type LOOK AT BEAMER and the game clarifies: “An expensive beamer.” I guess that clears that up.

You’ll need a walkthrough to finish this; between the prose and the fiddly parser it’s often impossible to work out what’s happening or how to proceed. But don’t bother; all you get is a moronic little story about a guy who blowguns a laxitive into his boss’s coffee. Maybe this is the stupider cousin of the guy who trashed the cafe in April in Paris.