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     \  \                | o_/              |   |          | |_.
     .\  \               | |                | o |          | | |
The  |___/ociety for the |_|reservation of  |_|_|dventure  \___|ames.

                          ISSUE # 6

    Edited by G. Kevin Wilson (whizzard@uclink.berkeley.edu)
      HTML Version Edited by Scott Reilly (wsr@cs.cmu.edu)

                        July 31, 1995

First off, thanks go out to Gareth Rees, who sent me the nifty 40-point gothic outline font now used in the title of SPAG. I think it looks pretty spiffy.

Second, if you look in the Closing Comments section, you will find the complete rules for the 1995 First Annual IF Tournament. I'm running it this year, and I'm pretty excited about it. We've got some really nice prizes (the list may not be complete) including a $100 cash prize donated by Eileen Muller (the editor of XYZZYnews, see SPAG #3) and copies of Excalibur (for Macintosh), Save Princeton, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, and Avalon. I hope to see a huge response.

In the meantime, is there anything you'd like to see SPAG print? If so, just let me know. As long as XYZZYnews isn't already doing it, I'll be glad to include it.

				G. Kevin Wilson

From: "Gareth Rees" (gdr11@cl.cam.ac.uk)

Dear SPAG,

Every artistic pursuit, from poetry to architecture, gives rise to a body of criticism and analysis. This performs a service for the consumers of that art form - it tells them what's interesting, what's enjoyable, what's new (and what isn't) - helping them to be more discriminating in their choice, and helping them to waste less time searching for things that satisfy their taste. SPAG serves this purpose well.

But criticism also has a function for the artists. It explains their art form to them, makes sense of old work and puts new work into context. It tells them what works, what doesn't; it gives them an understanding of the field so that they know what to react against and where the opportunities for new work are.

It seems to me that the interactive fiction genre lacks good criticism of the latter type, and that this is an unfortunate consequence of the nature of the genre. Because adventure games are puzzle-oriented and because the kinds of people who play the games tend not to want the puzzles spoiled for them, extant reviews (such as those in SPAG) and serious discussions (such as Graham Nelson's "Art of the Adventure") have tended to be very coy about saying *anything* specific about the games under consideration.

I think this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs; I think criticism of adventure games needs to get beyond the generalities and into specifics. At the moment we have a state of affairs where we all have our own ideas about which games are good and why, but we have no effective means of communicating our separate understandings to each other.

I would like to see SPAG containing a few in-depth reviews, especially if they contain major spoilers.

[Well, Gareth. I'm perfectly willing to help organize a body of criticism geared to the author's needs. I think the difficulty will be in finding someone to write criticisms that involve such in-depth analysis. SPAG, as policy, doesn't carry spoilers of the nature you are describing, so it would have to be more of a rec.arts.int-fiction thing, that could also be put up on ftp.gmd.de. Again, I can be the editor/coordinator, but the writing will have to come from interested parties. Anyone interested, drop me a note. -GKW]

Consider the following review header:

 NAME: Cutthroats          PARSER: Infocom Standard
 AUTHOR: Infocom           PLOT: Two Seperate Paths
 EMAIL: ???                ATMOSPHERE: Well Done
 PUZZLES: Good             SUPPORTS: Infocom Ports
 CHARACTERS: Not Bad       IFFICULTY: Medium
First, you'll notice that the score has been removed, and replaced by one or two word ratings. These are pretty arbitrary, and should allow more freedom to the reviewers. The EMAIL section is for the e-mail address of the game author, not the reviewer. AVAILABILITY will usually have either Commercial ($price), Shareware ($price), or Freeware. If the commercial price varies in stores, then it will just say Commercial. If it has been released in the LTOI collection, this line should say so. Lastly, if it is available on ftp.gmd.de, the line should add GMD. (Demo) if it's a demo version. The body of the review hasn't changed.

When submitting reviews: Try to fill in as much of this info as you can. Also, scores are still desired along with the reviews, so send those along. The scores will be used in the ratings section. Authors may not rate or review their own games.

SPAG accepts reviews of any length, letters to the editor, the occasional interesting article on text adventures (no reprints please), and even just ratings for your favorite game, if you don't have the time to do a full review. Please though, at least send me info for each game you have rated equivalent to the review header for Cutthroats, above. All accepted materials will be headed by the submitter's name and e-mail address, unless you request that they be withheld, in which case the header will read as "Anonymous."

The big news in interactive fiction-land this month is _Theatre_. I've gotten two, count 'em, two reviews on this real estate/horror/H.P. Lovecraftian/Victorian romance tale. It's definitely worth a look. Details on getting ahold of the game appear with the reviews. Besides that, it's my Pick of the Month. What more praise do you need?

From: "Magnus Olsson" (mol@df.lth.se)

name: Balances				PARSER: Inform
AUTHOR: Graham Nelson			EMAIL: nelson@vax.oxford.ac.uk
ATMOSPHERE: Nostalgic, slightly surrealistic
PUZZLES: Some old friends, some quite original ones
AVAILABILITY: GMD, Freeware		SUPPORTS: Infocom ports
WRITING: Very good, rather minimalistic	PLOT: Simple, non-linear
CHARACTERS: Few and sketchy		DIFFICULTY: Below average
It is an interesting fact that one of the most talked-about adventure games of 1994, and certainly the one that caused the most controversy, was, according to its author, not intended as a game at all, but just as a demo. Despite this fact, the game/demo did not only become quite popular, but the debate about whether its puzzles are in any way "unfair" or "illogical" reached enormous proprtions, degenerating into the first big flamewar of rec.arts.int-fiction (a Usenet newgroup devoted to the art of writing adventure games). I have seen several people writing very kindly about this game, ranking it among their favourite pieces of IF; it was recently included on the companion disk of XYZZYnews; many people have expressed disbelief in the author's claim that the game is just a demo. [Had our esteemed editor been in the habit of putting more varied headlines over reviews than just the name of the game, this review may have been titled "The Game That Wasn't", or perhaps "The Little Demo That Could" :-)]

The game in question is "Balances" and the author is Graham Nelson, of "Inform" and "Curses" fame.

If this game is "nothing but a demo", then it is certainly one of the most ambitious and playable demos ever written; the fact that so many people played it as a game, never noticed the demo aspect, started criticizing it as any other game, and seemed to have difficulty believing the author when he told them it was just a demo, makes a very clear point. On the other hand, some aspects of the game, which would be serious flaws had it been intended as a game, are quite natural in a demo, at least in retrospect - but we're of course all blessed with 20/20 hindsight. Be that as it may: game or demo, "Balances" is in many ways a very attractive piece of IF, with great charm.

Any Infocom fan is bound to recognize the setting of "Balances": it takes place in the same universe as the "Enchanter" trilogy, as a kind of epilogue to "Spellbreaker". Not only that, but the user interface is almost identical to those games; spells are cast in the same way, and you'll recognize some of the spells, and even some objects. Indeed, the opening words reflect this: "This transcript is not from the Enchanter trilogy, but it does show most of the usual things you can do in those stories..."

If the universe, interface, and general look and feel of "Balances" are almost identical to Infocom games, then "Balances" is considerably less detailed: there aren't many objects, there are very few locations, and neither the object nor room descriptions are very long. This is, of course, quite in line with the game being a demo: if you are going to demonstrate that you can implement certain advanced features of Infocom games, then you don't want to spend too much time designing or describing the rooms and objects that are the necessary framework for those features. Still, however, the author has taken the time to create a coherent, consistent world, albeit a tiny one. The whole game has a sketchy character to it, but that is sketchy in the sense of a sketch by a great artist: Leonardo's sketches are still considered great art. The prose is sparse, but of high quality; despite the small amount of text, the author manages to create a very pervasive atmosphere of nostalgia (a feeling of nostalgia for the golden days of magic before the Change, when seen from the perspective of the protagonist; from the perspective of the player, the nostalgia is for the golden days of Infocom), more than a little surrealistic, of a dreamlike quality that gets a twist in the very concluding paragraph.

The puzzles are of varying quality, most of them rather easy. Some are familiar to all Infocom players (how do you open a locked door without a key in "Enchanter"?), while others are quite novel and innovative. The "lleps" spell in particular is perhaps alone worth the effort to download this game. Some puzzles have been criticized for seeming to require exhaustive exploration of all possible actions - this, however, is only natural for a demo, where you're really expected to try all possibilities just to see what happens. It is maybe unfortunate that a critical puzzle hinges on a pun that may be easily overlooked, but once you've got it, it's quite delightful as puns go. Perhaps the most notable feature of the puzzles - one which elevates this game high above the level of ordinary demos, and even of many serious games - is that many (though not all) of the puzzles not only advance the plot, but actually act to reinforce the mood of the game. I'm referring primarily to the puzzles involving balances - the constant repetition throughout the game of the concept of "balance" in various forms enhances its dreamlike quality quite a bit.

If the prose and puzzles are of a quality (though not quantity) comparable to the very best of IF, then the playability aspects of the game are more "demo-like". According to the author, the game (being a demo) didn't go through any playtesting; this notwithstanding, its more playable than, say, most AGT games, but the parser and vocabulary are not quite up to Nelson's usual standards. The lack of synonyms had me playing the rather more disagreeable game of "hunt the word" for quite some time. Another aspect of the game that lowers playability is the complicated way spells are cast: you must memorize the spell before casting it, you can only cast it once before having to re-memorize it, and you can only keep four or five spells in your memory at once. Of course, Graham Nelson can't really be blamed for this, since he copied the system from "Enchanter"; still, in a game like this, where you really have to cast a _lot_ of spells (and the demo aspect makes you want to try out all possible and impossible spell combinations just to see what happens) you tire very rapidly of this rather pointless complication. I can only urge current and future IF authors _not_ to use this spellcasting system in their games, but try to find something more convenient, or, if they really want to make spellcasting hard, something novel, innovative and less time-worn.

To summarize, is "Balances" really a game or a demo? I'm not certain of the answer, or even if this choice of categories is the appropriate one. As a demo, "Balances" has achieved a state of almost unbelievable sophistication; as a game, it is very enjoyable but rather sketchy and not quite as playable as one might wish.

Perhaps instead "Balances" should simply be regarded as a piece of interactive literature. As such, it is original and very charming; the dreamlike, nostalgic mood is quite memorable - "Balances" is very small and quickly played through, but the mood and the images are likely to stay with you for a long time. Finally, let me just quote one line which might be destined to become a classic quotation of IF; a line that nicely exemplifies the surreal quality of this game:

"Tiny in the blue sky, a tortoise flaps across the sun".

From: "Anonymous" (Virus2Wyrm@aol.com)

 NAME: Beyond the Tesseract     PARSER: 2 Word Syntax
 AUTHOR: David Lo               PLOT: Science Fact
 EMAIL: ???                     ATMOSPHERE: Creepy
 AVAILABILITY: GMD              WRITING: Good, but short
 PUZZLES: Great                 SUPPORTS: IBM
 CHARACTERS: Strange, inhuman   DIFFICULTY: Hard*
Taken from the docs:


You have reached the final part of your mission. You have gained access to the complex, and all but the last procedure has been performed. Now comes a time of waiting, in which you must search for the hidden 12-word message that will aid you at the final step. But what choice will you make when that time comes?

The scenario for the adventure is meant to be vague. Once the adventure has been completed, the scenario will hopefully become clear.

Vague is the word for it! At first glance the world is 4 rooms large, but don't worry, soon you'll be popping your stack and collapsing universes, looking for those key words. Also, you'll have a dream, read an IF book (!) and have fun trying to get the improbability.

I personally found this game hard...but that's because I'm in 8th grade and haven't had physics or quantum mathematics. These are the refrences the author lists for this game.

    The Beauty of Fractals.
    The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought.
    The Fractal Geometry of Nature.
    Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.
    The Heritage Illustrated Dictionary Of the English Language.
    Mathematics: The New Golden Age.
    The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary, Encyclopedic Edition.
    The Penguin Dictionary of Science, Fifth Edition.
    Roget's International Thesaurus.
    The Science of Fractal Images.
    The VNR Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics.
    The World of M.C. Escher.
Ummmm....I've heard of Escher ;). My favorite part was the dream where if you think, an idea will become an object, but then the hypothesis will come and you'll have to prove it. When in the interactive book, you'll find a machine that doesn't work. Now while you would think from what this game has been like so far, some heavy mechanical skills would come in handy. Nope.

The charecters are not human, except the Professor, but he's in the dream. There's a plant that would really like some fluid....could you please fit it in my klein bottle? And of course the party of numerals! Don't worry. They won't hurt you. In fact, nothing will. You can't die or get stuck in this game.

The game plays exactly like a Scott Adams game. Room descriptions are short and to the point. He does describe objects better than Mr. Adams though. That brings up another point: VERBS. You'll be doing a lot of popping and _y_ing. Yes, _y_ is a verb in this game.

Over all this is a fun game that could take a long time to play, or a very short time to delete. Let it grow on you, and if you're really stuck, there's a solution on ftp.gmd.de

P.S. The game also comes with a great philosophy on adventure games. Check it out!


             /  '            /  '
           /   '|          /   '|
        */----'---------*/    ' |
       '|    '  |      '|    '  |
      ' |   '   |     ' |   '   |
     '  |  '   /*----'--|--'---/*
    '   | '  /  '   '   | '  /  '
   '    |' /   '   '    |' /   '
  '    /*/----'---'----/*/    '
 '   /  '    '   '   /  '    '
'  /   '|   '   '  /   '|   '
*/----'----'----*/    ' |  '
|    '  | '     |    '  | '
|   '   |'      |   '   |'
|  '   /*-------|--'---/*
| '  /          | '  /
|' /            |' /

From: "Julian Arnold" (jools@arnod.demon.co.uk)

 NAME: A Fable                      PARSER: Poor
 AUTHOR: Stan Heller                PLOT: I couldn't find one
 EMAIL: Unknown                     ATMOSPHERE: Kafka-esque
 AVAILABILITY: Freeware, GMD        WRITING: Reasonable
 PUZZLES: Virtually nonexistant     SUPPORTS: AGT
 CHARACTERS: Non-interactive        DIFFICULTY: Couldn't say
Well, what can I say? In _A Fable_, a game originally written in 1985 by one Stan Heller, and apparently rewritten three years ago by David Malmberg and Mark Welch with AGT 1.35, you guide the actions of Max, a somewhat confused man. Unlike most IF _A Fable_ uses the third person (ie, `Max feels suddenly like a huge cloud has lifted him up and taken him away'). This adds to the detached, dreamlike atmosphere which the author has attempted to create. The introduction tells how Max has gone for an evening stroll through his neighbourhood in order to `find himself'. Wrapped in self-obsession he is unaware as his world rapidly disappears, and Max soon finds himself in a strange place, enveloped in fog.

Apart from a few foggy areas each location (there are apparently only fifteen so the game is mercifully short) is a one or two paragraph scene reminiscent in style, but without the content, of some of Kafka's shortest works. They are apparently unrelated to each other, except that each seems as pointless and pretentious as the other. In most of these locations there is one item which you can manipulate, but to what end I could not say.

The only puzzle which I could find (and I quit with a score of 70/75) involved unlocking a lock with a key... Wow! Admittedly the key was hidden, but very obviously. The score seems to go up for no reason (maybe for moving to a new location) and also goes down for no reason.

I guess Max is wandering around his own mind and each location is meant to reveal something to him about himself, but if this is the case it hasn't worked. Oh, this is silly. Even four paragraphs is too long a review for this. Unless I have missed something crucial this game is utter drivel. Don't bother.

From: "J. J. Farmer" (J.J.Farmer-CSSE94@cs.bham.ac.uk)

 NAME: Plague Planet                        PARSER: Fair
 AUTHOR: Philip Hawthorne                   PLOT: Linear
 EMAIL: ???                                 ATMOSPHERE: Very Good
 AVAILABILITY: Shareware (BBC Micro),       WRITING: Very Good
               Commercial (Archimedies)     SUPPORTS: BBC Micro,
 PUZZLES: Excellent                                   Acorn Archimedies
 CHARACTERS: Rather Shallow                 DIFFICULTY: Hard
Let me start by saying this: Plague Planet is a BIG game. Lots of locations, hundreds of puzzles, thousands of hours of fun for all the family, and at a very reasonable price. Which is rather useful, since you will have to employ somebody to make your food, walk the dog, clean the house, etc., the moment you buy it. Why? Because this game is so addictive you won't be able to tear yourself away from it.

The plot is nothing if not unoriginal: you are a peaceful farmer on the agrarian planet of Azura when a spaceship lands in your field. And that's pretty much all you know when you start the game.

Like many excellent games, however, you are left to discover the objective for yourself. In fact, you actually create the objective whilst you are trying to do this. I'm not spoiling the plot too much if I tell you: like a prize idiot, you break into the spaceship, releasing the plague virus that was contained within and condemning every man, woman and child (including yourself) on the planet to death.

The puzzles in the game are, almost without exception, solvable with nothing more than the objects to hand and a little logical thinking. There are a couple of mazes, but hints to the paths through them are lying around, and there is no need to fall back on the old "drop an object in every location" routine.

Many puzzles are a joy to solve. I particularly enjoyed learning to fly the spaceship and satisfying the talking door unhappy with its position in life. And the sheer number of puzzles means that there is a tremendous variety, ranging from variations on traditional ones (a key in a lock on the opposite side of a locked door), to completely original conundrums.

There is only one "what on earth is the author thinking of" puzzle; the meaning of the initials "BMUS". Just think of a certain American science fiction serial...

As for the other characters in the game - well, there aren't all that many. A few robots, a few animals, a few religious maniacs who will kill you on sight, and one miner with a severe flatulance problem. They don't have a wide variety of things to say, but there are various reasons why you can't spend much time talking to them, anyway.

The atmosphere generated by this game is simply wonderful. The descriptions are verbose without being longwinded, and the problems fit into it all perfectly - none are "glued on". You could almost believe you are there, sneaking into a mine on the planet Zanthor, evading a Yillis Gorf on the planet Aquaria, meeting an "old friend" on the planet Arboreta.

All in all, this game is simply marvellously addictive and amazingly enjoyable. If you can find a copy, snap it up at once...

From: "J. J. Farmer" (J.J.Farmer-CSSE94@cs.bham.ac.uk)

 NAME: Scapeghost                                PARSER: Very Good
 AUTHORS: Level 9 Computing                      PLOT: Linear
 EMAIL: ???                                      ATMOSPHERE: Excellent
 AVAILABILITY: Commercial                        WRITING: Good
 PUZZLES: Poor (part 1), Very Good (parts 2 & 3)
 SUPPORTS: Amiga, Amstrad CPC, PCW, Apple II, 
           Atari ST, XE, 800XL, BBC Master,
           Enhanced (sideways or shadow RAM) BBC Micro, 
           Commodore 64 or 128, IBM PC, Apple Mac, 
           Spectrum +2 or +3, MSX 64k,
           Spectrum 48k or 128k
 CHARACTERS: Excellent                           DIFFICULTY: Moderate-Low
Let's start at the beginning: Alan Chance was a cop. Alan Chance was infiltrating a drug gang. Someone (or something) tipped off the gang. Alan Chance got killed, his partner Sarah was taken hostage and his ex-colleagues think it's all because of his own stupidity.

But all is not lost. Alan Chance has returned as a ghost and, with the aid of an adventure game-player intrepid enough to actually locate and purchase a copy of this game, has three nights to rescue Sarah and bring the criminals to justice.

Scapeghost was the last game Level 9 wrote before they withdrew from the adventure market, and evidence of their previous experience is obvious. The parser understands pretty much anything you type in; you can use the command "FIND" or "GO TO" to take you to any object in the game, and you can order around characters in the standard fashion (e.g. "JOE, RUN TO MY GRAVE, WAIT FOR ANDY, FIND THE WATCH, GET IT, FIND ME"), although whether they actually do it is another thing.

Like most of the later Level 9 games, Scapeghost is split into three parts; in this case, the three nights on which the game takes place. However, unlike many of the previous games, they can be played in any order. I'm not really all that keen on this; the parts follow each other in a logical and chronological manner, and later parts do all but give you the solutions to puzzles in previous parts. I exercised restraint and played through the parts in order.

The first part, November Graveyard, is probably the weakest. You start the game by waking up at your funeral just before dusk. There are four characters in the graveyard at this point (a workman, a supervisor, a detective and a crowd of mourners), and valuable information can be gained from following them around.

Then night falls and you are introduced to the first of your fellow sufferers - Joe Danby used to be a publican, but he's stuck in the graveyard now because his place "doesn't serve spirits"; groans all round. He'll take you on a guided tour of the graveyard and introduce you to most of the residents. It doesn't take you long to deduce that each one of them has a problem, and if you solve it for them they'll help you.

It's all rather routine and there are some awful puns along the way. The climax of this part involves coordinating your small army of ghosts in a final effort to delay the drug gang while you wait for part two.

As I said, this part has a good atmosphere but it's pretty much all been done before. There is only really one innovative puzzle, which I won't go into detail about because I don't want to spoil it for anyone. It took me about a day to complete this part.

The location descriptions are very terse; some versions include graphics, and these help to get the true feel of the locations. I had the BBC Master version, and whilst the graphics were in an ultra low-res mode, with the BBC's normal complement of 8 colours not really helping, they were of surprisingly good quality and quite atmospheric. The back of the box shows some screen shots from the Atari ST version, and these are of near-photographic quality. On the other hand, they would put the best pictures on the box...

Although the quality of the location descriptions is rather poor, all of the other text is truly excellent. It more than makes up for the other shortcomings.

Part Two, Haunted House, sees you with enhanced abilities, and you can now leave the graveyard. Your previous squad of helpers has melted into the darkness, with only Joe Danby remaining to aid you in your quest to investigate the gang's old hideout.

The puzzles in this part are really excellent. You must use your ghostly abilities to piece together your final moments, and to assemble a body of evidence. All of this can be solved by pure logical thought. There's still nothing too testing, but it's all good fun.

In part three you can finally get to grips with the criminals - but they're trying to get to grips with you too, and force a priest to attempt an exorcism. After your exploits in part two, the police are making their way to the gang's new hideout - with lights flashing and sirens blaring. A surprise assault it won't be.

Although it initially seems that you are left to develop your own strategy to bring them to justice, the instructions actually tell you what to do, which is a mite disappointing.

The atmospheric touches in this part are excellent. It's worth playing the part through once just to sit and watch the gang's poker game. The puzzles are once again very original, and in some parts hilarious. Yet again, though, there's nothing overly difficult.

Scapeghost is a truly classic game let down by a poor first part and some very brief location descriptions. Another review (in the magazine "The Micro User") said that it contained "real brain-teasers", and left the impression that it was rather difficult. I personally found it very easy - I finished it in three days, which is the quickest I've completed any game, but maybe I was lucky.

Availability is probably rather low - it was released in 1989, and when I purchased my copy three years ago Level 9's supplies of all their BBC games were running very low (sold out of all but three), and it's a fair bet that a similar situation exists for the other formats. However, if you do see a copy anywhere, snap it up at once. You won't be disappointed.

From: "Donna Mccreary Rodriguez" (drodrig@tenet.edu)

 NAME:   Sir Ramic Hobbs and the High Level Gorilla
						 PARSER:  AGT
 AUTHOR: Gil Williamson				 PLOT:  Slightly linear
 EMAIL: ???					 ATMOSPHERE:  Whimisical
 AVAILABILITY:  GMD (hobbs.zip),  F              WRITING:  Good
 PUZZLES:  Clever; logical                       SUPPORTS:  AGT ports
 CHARACTERS:   Whimsical; "punny" names          DIFFICULTY:  Easy
You, the main character, are Sir Ramic Hobbs, Knight Errant. You have made a pledge to rescue Princess Anne de Pea from the clutches of the High Level Gorilla, who resides in the Pleasure Dome of the kingdom of Trassch Khan. Corny, yes......but really a light, fun little game with no pretenses except to entertain the player and present some interesting puzzles. Gil Williamson, the author, says that---having spent days lost in the caverns of Zork--he wants to make no unfair demands on the player, and he is true to his word. In case you get stuck, there is a solution file zipped in.

Try this one. In my download from GMD there was no information about registering the game and no contact info on the author, so I suppose it's a gift.

From: "Gareth Rees" (gdr11@cl.cam.ac.uk)

  NAME: Theatre                           PARSER: Inform's usual
  AUTHOR: Brendon Wyber                   PLOT: destroy the evil
  EMAIL: cctr120@cantua.canterbury.ac.nz, 
         brendon@caverock.co.nz           ATMOSPHERE: Lovecraft horror
  AVAILABILITY: Freeware, GMD             WRITING: good spelling, no style
  PUZZLES: good                           SUPPORTS: Infocom ports
  CHARACTERS: not convincing              DIFFICULTY: easy
[This review contains some plot details, but spoils no puzzles.]

The introduction to "Theatre" explains that you are an estate agent, trying to sell an old run-down theatre in a slum area of town. It is late in the evening, and you're in a hurry to see off the buyer and set out to the opera, when you remember that you left your pager in the basement. After collecting it, you discover that your car has been stolen, and a nasty thug turns up to make sure that you don't wander off. It looks as though you're going to have to spend the night in the theatre unless you can find a phone and call the police.

You have to play through the above. It takes a minimum of about ten turns, but it feels very forced because the game won't allow you to explore until you have finished the opening, and the "You can't do that yet, because that would be contrary to the plot" messages come thick and fast. Perhaps the author could have found a more natural way to restrict access to the rest of the theatre until the opening was finished.

After the opening, the game becomes much wider. You explore the haunted theatre, at first in search of a way out, and then in search of magical items necessary to thwart a certain evil power. You find yourself collecting the scattered pages of the 1898 journal of Eric Morris, the man who drew the architects' plans for the theatre, which gradually reveal a tantalising story of how he fell in love with Elizabeth, a mysterious and beautiful woman who persuaded him to alter the plans in nefarious ways.

My first impressions were very favourable. The developing plot was intriguing, and the atmosphere well-judged. I imagined that the focus would be on some tragic and melodramatic incident in the history of the theatre (perhaps, I speculated wildly, this would be a jealous rivalry between two leading actors over a woman, or a spurned prima donna who killed herself). The puzzles were logical and not over-hard, and the programming was excellent: almost everything I tried produced an intelligent response, and there were never any problems guessing verbs. The developing journal entries kept me interested in looking around for more.

If anything lets the game down, it's the quality of the prose, which feels as though it has been very hastily written, without much attention to grammar. There are few memorable or vivid descriptions, and lots of clumsy phrasing. This is a particular problem with the journal entries, which have an unfortunate Adrian Mole tone.

However, the game becomes weaker as it progresses. The early sections are original and interesting, but there comes a point where the game loses its atmosphere and becomes a standard fantasy set in H. P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu" mythos. A couple of scenes (the monster in the library and the rats in the tunnels) feel as though they could have been lifted straight out of Infocom's game "Lurking Horror", also based on Lovecraft's books. The interesting exploration eventually comes to an end with the disappointing realisation that this has been a simple treasure hunting exercise: you have to find a collection of colour-coded jewels of power and leave them in the correct place.

The author explained to me that because of time constraints, he hadn't been able to spend as much time on the ending as he would have liked. "Theatre" certainly feels as though it reached a certain point and then was finished off in a desperate rush. There are many loose ends: for example, it is hinted that there is a cellular phone in the theatre, but this never materialises. Some of the closing scenes are very unfortunate: for example, the appearance of Elizabeth near the end completely spoils the characterisation of her that was established through the journal. It's very disappointing that there is no real attempt to link the plot with the potentially interesting milieu of early twentieth century theatre.

I don't want to sound too negative. "Theatre" is excellent when considered only as an adventure game, with good puzzles and superb game-play. I felt that it lacked the consistency and prose that would have made it a good piece of fiction too. But then I feel the same way about "Zork".

"Theatre" is a medium-length game written using the "Inform" compiler. The version 5 story file is available by anonymous FTP at ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/inform/theatre.z5. It runs on all manner of computers; fetch the following file to find out how: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/inform/how_to_play_these_games. The game includes hints which appear as needed. These are nicely judged, and don't give too much away.

From: "Julian Arnold" (jools@arnod.demon.co.uk)

 NAME: Theatre                                   PARSER: Excellent
 AUTHOR: Brendon Wyber                           PLOT: Not too original
 EMAIL: cctr120@cantua.canterbury.ac.nz, 
        brendon@caverock.co.nz                   ATMOSPHERE: Inconsistant
 AVAILABILITY: Freeware, GMD                     WRITING: Good
 PUZZLES: Mostly logical and intuitive but unoriginal
                                                 SUPPORTS: Inform
 CHARACTERS: Very few and limited                DIFFICULTY: Easy-medium
In this game you are a property agent who, having just shown some clients around a decrepit theatre, are annoyed to realise that you left your electronic pager in the old building. The game begins as you re-enter the theatre with a view to retrieving this object before meeting friends at the opera. Suffice to say things do not go quite as planned.

_Theatre_ is very distinctly split into the traditional opening, mid-game and end-game. Indeed, the three sections seemed rather too distinct from each other, lending a rather disjointed feel to the game. Also contributing to the feeling of disjointedness is the atmosphere, which changes about half way through from ghostly psychological horror to semi-Lovecraftian `icky' horror, more reliant on physical revulsion than a sense of `something's wrong'. This is a shame, as it reminds the player too much of _The Lurking Horror_ which is the better game. The opening is nice 'n easy for beginners with plenty of advice in case you don't know what to do next. This may be frustrating for more experienced players as it is very linear. The middle game opens up more, with several well thought out but familiar puzzles open to the player at once. However, as mentioned above, there is a sudden change of direction in the atmosphere and style of the game, which was not to this reviewer's tastes. The end-game is where _Theatre_ really falls down though, with a short sequence of ill- or un- explained puzzles which, once finally solved, leave the player with an unsatisfactory ending and a bitter aftertaste.

Hmm, the previous paragraph gives the impression that I didn't like _Theatre_. This is not true, there are many good points to recommend the game. For a start it seems an excellent game for the beginning IF player, boasting several pages of a well written `Introduction to text adventures' as well as a short non-interactive demonstration and a useful explanation of the way the parser works. The parser itself, in common with all Inform games, is excellent. The puzzles, although they've mostly been seen before in various incarnations, are both logical and fair (again apart from the last few). There are also some nice little touches along the way, such as the system for reading the diary pages which you pick up along the way (a clever use of Informs menu system), the adaptive on-line hints, and the fact that the game starts in verbose mode rather than brief.

To summarize, _Theatre_ is far from perfect but is perfectly adequate with several enjoyable moments and a nice `polish' to it. It is a damn sight better than many shareware games out there, and it's free. Try it, you might like it. Akk! I can't believe I wrote that...

From: "Magnus Olsson" (mol@df.lth.se)

NAME: Wishbringer	        PARSER: Infocom
AUTHOR: Brian Moriarty 		PLOT: Non-linear
EMAIL: ???			ATMOSPHERE: Horror-comedy
AVAILABILITY: LTOI2		PUZZLES: Innovative but not difficult
WRITING: Excellent		SUPPORTS: Infocom ports
CHARACTERS: Vivid		DIFFICULTY: Below average
As a postal clerk in the small seaside town of Festeron, your only problem, apart from the occasional angry poodle, is your even angrier boss, Mr. Crisp. When he tells you to take a special-delivery letter to the Magick Shoppe right outside town, you have no idea that this errand will throw you right into the middle of a life-or-death struggle between good and evil, or that your idyllic, maybe a little boring life will be turned into a nightmarish parody of itself...

This is the beginning of _Wishbringer_, one of Infocom's "introductory" games. That label has led people to dismiss it as a trifle, or as aimed at a juvenile audience. It is true that the game is a little smaller, a little easier, a little less complex than Infocom's "big" games. It is also a little nicer to the player (it's very hard to get killed, and at some places you get warned to save your game before attempting some dangerous action).

To draw the conclusion that the game is in any way inferior to other games would be a big mistake, however. In fact, I regard this game as one of Infocom's very best products: a small-scale masterpiece. The puzzles may be easy, but they're original and innovative. The game may be less complex than, say, Zork, but complexity is not necessarily a virtue by itself. It may be aimed at a juvenile audience - but aren't most computer games?

What I like the best about this game is that it works with small means. There are no horrible monsters, no monstrously evil super-villains - but the transformation of idyllic Festeron into a distorted, evil mirror image of itself is far more effective; at least the first time I played it, it managed to fill me with a fundamental, existential dread that is much worse than any fear for monsters or evil wizards.

Still, the game never becomes gothic or macabre; the genre is horror-comedy, and the balance between horror and humour is nicely kept. The humour never becomes facetious or intrudes on the plot, but derives mainly from the sheer absurdity of the situation; the horror aspects never degenerate into empty fireworks or become so terrible as to stop the humour from working. All the time, you have this anxiety and feeling of threat at the back of, but it never gets bad enough to keep you from enjoying yourself - it's more like watching 'Twin Peak' than 'Aliens^3'.

The game also has great charm, not only in its loving attention to detail, but also in its references to other Infocom games (how many people have seen the family life of grues and lived to tell about it?). Add to this engaging and memorable NPC's (the most memorable being, perhaps, something as improbable-sounding as the mailbox from Zork 1), a set of very clever (though simple) puzzles (the video game and the blurry room are expecially noteworthy), excellent writing, and some breathtaking cliffhangers, and you get a very good game indeed.

A nice touch is that the major puzzles have alternative solutions; the Wishbringer of the title turns out to be an object in the game, and with that in your possession you can wish for various things, such as darkness, rain, or flight. I managed to find the "scientific" solutions to all puzzles; however, for beginning players it may be nice to have a way around difficult problems - and of course it adds variation to the game.

The endgame, finally, is everything it should be: brief, not too difficult, suitably climactic (though not flashy) - and it also manages to provide a surprise at the very end, when you thought everything was nicely wound up.

My only major complaint is that it is quite easy at some places to get the game into an insolvable state, without noticing that until much later; this lowers the gameplay score slightly, though the puzzles are sufficiently simple that it's not too difficult to start over again.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable little game, as well as an excellent piece of writing. As an introduction to Infocom, or to IF in general, it is superb; for experienced adventurers it provides a delightful diversion from the complexities of games such as Curses and Spellbreaker.

A   - Runs on Amigas.
AP  - Runs on Apple IIs.
GS  - Runs on Apple IIGS.
AR  - Runs on Archimedes Acorns.
C   - Commercial, no fixed price.
C30 - Commercial, with a fixed price of $30.
F   - Freeware.
GMD - Available on ftp.gmd.de
I   - Runs on IBM compatibles.
M   - Runs on Macs.
S20 - Shareware, registration costs $20.
64  - Runs on Commodore 64s.
TAD - Written with TADS.  This means it can run on:
        AmigaDOS, NeXT and PC, Atari ST/TT/Falcon, 
        DECstation (MIPS) Unix Patchlevel 1 and 2, 
        IBM, IBM RT, Linux, Apple Macintosh, 
        SGI Iris/Indigo running Irix, Sun 4 (Sparc)
        running SunOS or Solaris 2, Sun 3, OS/2, 
        and even a 386+ protected mode version.
AGT - Available for IBM, Mac, Amiga, and Atari ST.  
        This does not include games made with the 
        Master's edition.
ADVSYS - Available for PC and Macintosh only, or so 
           my sources tell me.  (Source code available 
           as well.  So it can be ported to other 
INF - Infocom or Inform game.  These games will run on:
        Atari ST, Amiga, Apple Macintosh, IBM, Unix, 
        VMS, Apple II, Apple IIGS, C64, TSR-80, and 
        Archimedes Acorn.  There may be other computers 
        on which it runs as well.

 Name		       Avg Sc  Chr  Puz  # Sc  Rlvt Ish Notes:
 ====                  ======  ===  ===  ====  ======== ======
Adv. of Eliz. Highe     3.1    0.8  0.3    1     5      F_AGT
Another...No Beer	2.5    0.1  1.0    1     4      S10_IBM_GMD
Arthur: Excalibur	8.6    1.8  1.7    1     4	C_INF
Balances		6.6    1.0  1.2    1     6      F_INF_GMD
Ballyhoo		7.0    1.8  1.6    2	 4	C_INF
Beyond Zork		8.0    1.6  2.0    2	 5	C_INF
Border Zone		6.1    1.1  1.4    2	 4	C_INF
Bureaucracy		8.4    2.0  1.8    2	 5	C_INF
Castaway		1.1    0.0  0.4    1     5      F_IBM_GMD
Cosmoserve		8.7    1.3  1.4    2     5      F_AGT_GMD
Curses			8.3    1.3  1.7    6     2	F_INF_GMD
Cutthroats		6.3    1.4  1.2    4	 1	C_INF
Crypt v2.0		5.0    1.0  1.5    1     3	S12_IBM_GMD
Deadline		7.2		   2	 x	C_INF
Deep Space Drifter	5.5	    1.4    1     3      S15_TAD_GMD
Detective		0.7    0.0  0.0    2     4-5    F_AGT_GMD
Ditch Day Drifter	7.1    1.2  1.6	   1     2      F_TAD_GMD
Dungeon Adventure	6.8    1.3  1.6    1     4	F_SEE REVIEW Issue #4
Dungeon of Dunjin       7.0    1.0  1.5    1     3      S20_IBM_MAC_GMD
Electrabot		0.7    0.0  0.0    1     5      F_AGT_GMD
Enchanter		7.0    0.8  1.3	   4     2	C_INF
Enhanced		N/A		   0	 2      S10_TAD_GMD
Fable, A		2.0    0.2  0.1    1     6      F_AGT_GMD
Great Archaelog. Race	6.5    1.0  1.5    1     3      S20_TAD_GMD
Hitchhiker's Guide	8.2    1.6  1.8    4     5	C_INF
Hollywood Hijinx	5.5		   2	 x	C_INF
Horror30.Zip		3.6    0.0  0.9    1	 3	S20_IBM_GMD
Horror of Rylvania	7.7		   1     1	C20_TAD_GMD (Demo)
Humbug			7.4		   1	 x	S10_GMD (Uncertain)
Infidel 		6.9		   5     1-2	C_INF
Jacaranda Jim		7.0		   1	 x	S10_GMD (Uncertain)
Jeweled Arena, The	8.0    1.5  1.5    1     x      ?
John's Fire Witch	7.0    1.1  1.5    2     4	S6_TADS_GMD
Journey			6.9    1.3  0.8    1     5      C_INF
Klaustrophobia		7.3    1.3  1.4    3     1	S15_AGT_GMD
Leather Goddesses	8.0    1.6  1.7    3	 4	C_INF
The Legend Lives!	8.2    0.8  1.5    1     5      F_TADS_GMD
Lurking Horror, The	6.9    1.4  1.2    4     1,3	C_INF
Magic.Zip		4.5    0.5  0.5    1     3      S20_IBM_GMD
Mind Forever Voyaging	8.4    1.5  0.3    3	 5	C_INF
Moonmist		5.8	           4     1	C_INF
Mop & Murder		4.9    0.5  1.0    1	 4-5	F_AGT_GMD
Multidimen. Thief	5.3    0.4  1.0    2     2      S?/F_AGT_GMD
Nord and Bert		3.9		   2	 4	C_INF
Odieus': Flingshot	3.2    0.4  0.7    1     5      F_INF_GMD
One Hand Clapping	7.1    1.1  1.3    2     5	F_ADVSYS_GMD
Planetfall		7.1		   3	 4	C_INF
Plundered Hearts 	7.9    1.2  1.2    1	 4	C_INF
Sanity Claus		9.0	           1     1	S10_AGT_GMD
Save Princeton		5.6		   1	 x	S10_TAD_GMD
Seastalker		5.4		   2	 4	C_INF
Shades of Grey		7.8    1.2  1.5    2	 1-2	F_AGT_GMD
Sherlock		8.5    1.5  1.8    1	 4	C_INF
Shogun			7.1    1.5  0.5    1     4      C_INF
Sir Ramic Hobbs		5.0    1.0  1.5    1     6      F_AGT_GMD
Sorceror		7.3    0.6  1.6	   4	 2	C_INF
South American Trek	0.9    0.2  0.5    1     5      ?_IBM_GMD
Space Aliens...Cardigan 1.6    0.5  0.4    3     3      S60_AGT_GMD
Spellbreaker		8.1    1.2  1.8	   3	 2	C_INF
Starcross		7.2	           4     1	C_INF
Stationfall		7.5    1.6  1.5    3	 5	C_INF
Suspect			5.9		   1	 x	C_INF
Suspended		7.0		   1	 x	C_INF
Theatre			5.4    0.5  0.8    1     6      F_INF_GMD
Tossed into Space	3.9    0.6  0.2    1     4      F_AGT_GMD
Treasure.Zip		N/A		   0     3	S20_IBM_GMD
Trinity			8.8    1.4  1.7    6     1-2	C_INF
Unnkulian One-Half	7.0    1.3  1.7    4     1	F_TAD_GMD
Unnkulian Unventure 1	8.0    1.3  1.7    3     1-2	S10_TAD_GMD
Unnkulian Unventure 2	7.2    1.4  1.5    3     1	S10_TAD_GMD
Unnkulian Zero  	9.0 	           1     1	C25_TAD_GMD (Demo)
Waystation		8.0    1.2  1.5    1     x      F_TAD_GMD
Wishbringer		7.5    1.3  1.2    3	 5-6	C_INF
Witness, The		7.0    1.7  1.2    3     1,3	C_INF
World			6.9    1.0  1.4    1     4	F_SEE REVIEW Issue #4
Zork 0			6.5    1.1  2.0	   1	 x	C_INF
Zork 1			5.9    0.6  1.5	   6	 1-2	C_INF
Zork 2			6.7    0.8  1.6	   4	 1-2	C_INF
Zork 3			6.0    0.6  1.4	   4	 1-2	C_INF

The Top Three:

A game is not eligible for the Top Three unless it has received at least three ratings from different readers. This is to ensure a more democratic and accurate depiction of the best games.

1. Trinity 8.8 6 votes
2. Mind Forevr Voyagn. 8.4 3 votes
3. Curses 8.3 6 votes

Editor's Picks of the Month:

My pick of the month, as you may remember, is _Theatre_. Theatre is a fun, short game. It uses some interesting techniques, and contains more plot and characterization that most other IF games put together. While I agree with my two reviewers that the ending was a let down, I still have to compare Theatre with other IF works and state that it shines in comparison. Seldom, when exploring the if-archive, will you come across such a gem. Just for the sake of convenience, I reproduce the info on where to get it below.

From: "Gareth Rees" (gdr11@cl.cam.ac.uk)

"Theatre" is a medium-length game written using the "Inform" compiler. The version 5 story file is available by anonymous FTP at ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/inform/theatre.z5. It runs on all manner of computers; fetch the following file to find out how: ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/inform/how_to_play_these_games. The game includes hints which appear as needed. These are nicely judged, and don't give too much away.

There are no advertisements this month. Remember, they're free, take advantage of them.

Announcing the First Annual Text Adventure Authorship Competition

This idea has been bandied about on r.a.i-f for awhile, so I am making it a reality. The original concept of the contest was to get more Inform source code out in the public domain. However, the TADS authors wanted to play too, so a category was added for them. Here is my own personal vision for the contest.

"This competition is to inspire IF authors to write something, however small, and make it available for people to play. IF as a hobby cannot survive unless there are people out there writing and playing it. Hopefully, some of the people who enter the competition will enjoy it, and decide to write more on their own."

Anyways, here are the rules (I mean, the rule.)

The Rule: The text adventure you enter must be winnable in under two hours. Judges will be asked to rate it after playing for that long.

That's the main point of the competition. You don't have to enter something really long to have a chance at winning, because you aren't allowed to. That way we get more entries.

The rule is not debatable. It's the only rule, and it's not very unreasonable.

Now, to enter, simply write a game, using either the TADS authorship system, or the Inform authorship system. The two groups will be judged seperately. Once you have your game, put anything that comes to mind with it (that's related to the game) such as maps, read.me files, hints, walkthroughs, source code, whatever and .zip it. I know some folks may have trouble with .zips, but I'm here to help. If someone needs their game zipped or needs a game unzipped, just email me, and we'll work out something. You cannot enter a game in both categories by porting it over to the other development language.

Upload your .zip file to: ftp.gmd.de:/incoming/if-archive/competition

The deadline to do this is Midnight on the last day of August. (That's midnight in Germany obviously. Plan ahead, upload a day early. I doubt I'll disqualify slightly late entries anyway.)

If you want your entry to be anonymous, then leave your name off it and email me that it's your entry. I advise a secret command that pops up the author and copyright message.

Which reminds me. All entries MUST be freeware or public domain. So don't enter a game you've worked on for 2 years if you don't want to give it away.


The judging will be a 'People's Choice Awards' type deal for the most part. There may be a few prizes that are just awarded by the person who donated them to whichever game they liked best, but not many. In general, everyone is able to vote. All you have to do is play every game in the TADS and/or Inform category (which will be sorted out on the 1st of September) and then choose your three favorite games, in no particular order, for that category (or both categories, if you've played them all.) Email me your votes at whizzard@uclink.berkeley.edu. The games with the most votes in each category will win. The winners will have their pick of prizes available in a draft sort of thing. If there are conflicts between the TADS/Inform choices, a coin flip will decide the matter, with the loser choosing another prize, if there is one.

The deadline for submitting votes is September 30. Prizes will be awarded the next day.

The Prizes So Far Include:

More might be donated as we go along. If you have something you want to donate, email me with details.

Good luck, now get out there and write!

Thank you for helping to keep text adventures alive!