IFComp 2008: Trein, The Ananachronist, Cry Wolf

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review . I’ll try to have something else soon for readers who don’t care about this stuff at all.)

Trein, The Ananachronist, and Cry Wolf are well intentioned but have not been tested and should not have been entered in their present form. Spoilers past the link.

Trein is such an earnest and well intended game I feel bad about ripping it to shreds. But it needs the ripping. Every detail suggests a probably very young author, new to interactive fiction, who hasn’t mastered the form and isn’t ready to publically release her work.

Unlike other authors in this year’s competition, Leena Kower Ganguli will be ready, someday. The prose reads like a first draft and has rough patches—i.e., the PC is “the closest (and most trusted) person to Lord Aplin.” You can see the problem with that sentence if you remove the parenthesis. But she seems to have the basics of spelling and grammar down, which is saying a lot in a competition where, every year, many entrants appear to be functionally illiterate.

The oddest thing about the prose is the profusion of Apparently Random Capital Letters. The game capitalizes words like West, Alley, and Sign; it’s like the game was copy edited by Benjamin Franklin. This may be an artifact of the author’s naive approach to IF. My guess is that she capitalized the names of all the objects in her source code, discovered that the printed names came out capitalized, and changed the rest of her text to match. Her room descriptions end like this:

You can see a Large Table (on which are a Potato Bag, a Vegetables Bag and an Empty Mug), a Stew Pot (in which is a Grain), a Tavern Bench (on which are a Barkeep and a Drunkard), a Tall Guard, a Scarred Guard and an Older Guard here.

This list comes after Ganguli mentions most of these things in the room description. Apparently she hasn’t yet figured out how to keep Inform from listing them again. By the end of the game this reduces to its absurd conclusion as you’re told “You can see a Chamberlain’s door and an Evidence here.” That’s the evidence you need to solve the mystery. Or maybe the Evidence. Either way, it’s all wrapped up in a neat little package.

Trein spends a lot of time telling you what to think. You’re told that the peasants are poor while the lords live in splendor. “Show, don’t tell” is standard writing advice, but it goes double for interactive fiction. If Trein showed the evidence and let the players draw their own conclusions they’d strike with more force, simply because the players came to them on their own instead of receiving them pre-assembled, like an Evidence, from the text.

Sometimes the game tells you things before you’ve even had a chance to learn them. Examine the barkeep and you’re told “The Barkeep is a busy woman named Simone.” Is she wearing a nametag? Sometimes the game lies: as in many other games this year, room descriptions mention objects that don’t really exist within the game. Everything in a description should respond to EXAMINE.

The story has logical gaps. The PC is a highly-placed agent on a mission from the King but doesn’t have any money. You can find a coin and buy a round for the town drunk and he will trust you, a complete stranger he just met ten seconds ago, with an important and politically sensitive mission that could get him killed if it goes wrong. Because you gave him a mug of ale. Simone must have some amazing ale.

Joseph Strom’s The Ananachronist has a more individual idea behind it than Trein but the execution is still ropey. Objects mentioned in room descriptions don’t exist. Obvious synonyms aren’t implemented. One location has some barrels; you can refer to “barrels” but try just “barrel” and the game doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Some objects have somehow acquired other objects’ descriptions. You can scan objects with a device called a “rune tracer;” if you point it at something the game wasn’t prepared for, you get “The rune tracer elicits no reaction from the rune tracer.” All of these things would have been caught by beta-testers.

The prose initially seems smoother than Trein’s, but has more problems. It’s full of homophones—we get canvas that “has begun to peal aside,” and so forth. This is a sign of somebody who spellchecked his game without actually knowing how to spell—or at least without knowing how to spell in English. If this isn’t Strom’s first language it’s more understandable, although unnecessary. Even the most minimal beta testing would have helped with all of these problems.

Even if these problems were fixed, there’s a basic conceptual problem: the game’s ultimate goal is simply to break three clocks that are sitting right there in the opening room. To achieve this, the game expects you to travel through time and solve puzzles. It never explains why you can’t just smash them right then and there.

Cry Wolf is, on the surface, a more accomplished piece of writing than either Trein or Ananachronist… but, like the other two, it wasn’t tested adequately. I’m guessing the testing consisted entirely of running through the walkthrough, because as soon as a player steps away from it or tries something in the wrong order the game becomes unplayable. Game-killing bugs are a theme among reviews of Cry Wolf and everyone seems to have crashed in a different place. In my case it was while trying to get a bottle of aspirin from the bathroom; the game wouldn’t let me go in, saying I had other things to do.

Details like that give the impression that the author knew her game had problems. If so, she should have found a different solution. Cry Wolf is full of intrusive measures to guide the player along the path the author wanted and ironically it’s sometimes these that break the game if you don’t follow the walkthrough carefully. The game won’t let me put on the shoes until it’s ready. I have to type WEAR SHIRT and WEAR PANTS individually. I can’t type GET ALL to get the pill bottles; it gives me a menu and I have to take them one at a time. If you need to lead the players, it’s best done unobtrusively, so that players don’t even notice they’re being led… but a better solution would have been to test the game. And fix the bugs. And maybe hold off releasing it if there wasn’t time to fix everything before the deadline.

As in Trein, the game at one point gave me a character’s name before I learned it. I assume this is related to the not-following-the-walkthrough problem.

Properly tested and implemented with care, a game with Cry Wolf’s concept and writing might have scored a good ranking in this year’s competition. As it is… probably not. I’m flashing back now to an aside in my earlier review of a much better game:

Many of this year’s games were just plain rushed out before they were ready. And this isn’t the first time: I’m reminded of last year’s truncated game Varkana, which for its first three-quarters looked like a new classic but ground to a halt with a sudden infodump. Think we’ll ever see a finished version? Or, even if we do, that anyone who played through the first wreck will pay it any attention? Neither do I.

Cry Wolf is, I think, this year’s Varkana.