(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)
Mark Hatfield’s Berrost’s Challenge agressively resisted my attempts to enjoy it. Spoilers reside in a magical spoiler land entered by passing through the link.
Just reading Berrost’s Challenge’s ABOUT text nearly wiped out my enthusiasm for the game. Playing the thing killed it altogether.
By default Berrost’s Challenge starts in “clean-screen style.” That means it blanks the screen every time you enter a new area, preventing you from referring back to earlier parts of the game. (I have my Zoom preferences set up to keep the entire text of the game session in its buffer. Authors: don’t mess this up more than you have to.) Berrost’s Challenge also makes you keep track of when the PC last ate and slept, a feature which appears to have time-travelled forwards from the primitive world of 1985. To be fair, the author may have been out of the room when the rest of the IF-writing world realized it was boring. But he’s not finished: Berrost’s Challenge also keeps track of the weight of everything the PC carries, and forces you to juggle inventory. You can turn all these off with something the game calls “curmudgeon mode” but I call “avoidance of joyless drudgery mode.”
So I started the game and as my first action entered “avoidance of joyless drudgery mode.” A giant floating head appeared to dock a “point” from my “wit score.” The assumption that I should care about “points” is of a piece with the sleep, hunger, and inventory management problems. Mark Hatfield has his own ideas about how interactive fiction should work: less like fiction, more like double-entry bookkeeping.
Speaking of bookkeeping… did I mention you need money to buy food? It’s typical of this game that you get money by picking a single coin out of a fountain. When you need more money, you go back and hope another coin has showed up while you’ve been gone. Repeat as necessary.
Berrost’s Challenge is a fantasy game. You’re supposed to find and learn spells. Then the game docks points for using the spells, which is just perverse. A game’s magic system is a new tool for the players to tinker with; if your design decisions discourage experimentation you’re missing the point.
Before I started Berrost’s Challenge I wondered how 30 locations could fit into a two-hour game. It turns out they’re mostly empty. The world is standard-issue Extruded Fantasy Product mixed with sub-Zork silly names (the coins are called “flooglemids,” for god’s sake). The barely animate characters include an Elven blacksmith. Why “Elven?” What do elves have to do with anything? Well, Lord of the Rings had elves, and Dungeons and Dragons has elves, so Berrost’s Challenge needed elves, too. That’s about the level of imagination that went into this game. The author probably thought he was bucking stereotypes by not making the guy a Dwarf.