Three Games By Steph Cherrywell

In 2019, Steph Cherrywell became only the second person in the 25-year history of the Interactive Fiction (IF) Competition to win it twice. The other person to have done so is writing this post. So I was inspired to check out Cherrywell’s work, and managed to find some time over the holiday break to revisit my old IF-reviewing ways.

Now, I should make clear that I’m no longer keeping up with the IF world overall, so I haven’t been reading other reviews of her work, or of anybody’s work for that matter. I’ve played very few games from the last 15 years, so something that seems new and exciting to me might be old hat to people who’ve kept up. My perspective is basically that of a former expert who’s done little more than toe-dipping since 2005. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s jump in!

Cover art for Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s first comp winner, from 2015, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Plus, for my next Watchmen essay I’m researching a bunch of background on 1950s sci-fi movies, and Brain Guzzlers looked like an affectionate parody of ’50s sci-fi, so I was predisposed to dig it.

And dig it I did, though I quickly learned that the game wasn’t exactly parodying ’50s sci-fi movies, which generally involve earnest scientists and square-jawed military types grappling with monsters, aliens, giant bugs, or giant alien bug monsters. This game’s tone is closer to Firesign Theater’s “High School Madness” sketch — a broad exaggeration of ’50s teenage tropes as seen in Leave It To Beaver and Archie comics. (Malt Shop Archie, that is. Not Sex Archie.) Cherrywell crashes the ’50s teen universe into the ’50s sci-fi universe, and comedy ensues, with a subversive edge provided by details like mixed-race NPCs, homoerotic undertones, and the ’50s-defying female action lead.

That comedic tone is Brain Guzzlers From Beyond‘s greatest strength — you can’t go three sentences without running into some delightful turn of phrase, well-crafted joke, or witty perspective. Take, for example, this description of a “Modernist Living Room”: “This circular room is ultramodern, like something from twenty years in the future. The sleek, smart-looking furniture is a symphony in avocado, orange, and mustard-yellow.” Or this description of the Drive-In: “You’re standing in the drive-in on the edge of town, where all the coolest teens come to ignore movies. To the north is Make-Out Mountain, and flanking it are a number of less controversial mountains.” Those mountains? “There’s Propriety Peak, and Constance Crag, and Mount Homework.”

The whole thing is a great deal of fun to read, and pretty fun to play too, thanks in part to Cherrywell’s smooth fusion of parser and choice structures. The game follows a familiar pattern of using the parser for exploration and multiple choice for conversations, and that works well, especially with Cherrywell’s charming illustrations of each character to flavor the dialogue. But she takes the structure a little further by rendering the action scenes via choices too.

Action scenes, though they can be done quite well, are rather difficult in parser IF, because there’s always the chance that some confused response or failure to understand input will deflate the pace and tension. Cherrywell makes sure this doesn’t happen by flipping her action sequences into a structure where input is limited and can’t be misunderstood, but still preserves a sensation of choice with options like:

1) Swing around and punch that monster square in the snoot!
2) Scream for help and try to pull away.

Another ingenious use of choice comes right at the outset of the game, in which the player is asked a series of questions. The game’s conceit is that you’re taking a quiz from a teen magazine, but in fact what you’re doing is defining the PC. Those choices affect gameplay in both superficial and substantial ways — everything from altering the “X ME” description to bypassing a puzzle entirely.

The tone and writing were my favorite parts of playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond, but they weren’t flawless. There were a surprising number of typos right in the beginning, which gave me an uneasy feeling: “corresponding your choice” rather than “corresponding to your choice”; “absense of stars”; “your were practically almost sort of his girlfriend”. But either the game got better as it went along, or I just stopped noticing because the experience was so absorbing. Either way, it’s laudable, and in fact may have even been more fun for exceeding my wary expectations.

Brain Guzzlers combines fun writing with clever structures, but I can’t leave out its puzzles. Time after time, this game made me feel smart by presenting puzzles with just the right amount of clueing and lateral thinking, always perfectly in tune with the light and breezy feel of the story and setting. It rewards thorough exploration and leads players right up to the gap that they need to jump across, without building a paved bridge there.

My favorite puzzle of the game was the RPS cannon, and I was pleased to see that it also won the 2015 Best Individual Puzzle XYZZY Award. I confess that I didn’t solve this puzzle on my own, but seeing the solution made me wish I had. All the clues were there, I just didn’t put them together.

All in all, playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond made it easy to see why the game won the 2015 IF Competition, and made me eager to play the follow-up. So that’s what I did.

Cover art for Zozzled

Zozzled

Zozzled was Cherrywell’s 2019 IF Comp winner, and where Brain Guzzlers was a funny pastiche of 1950s tropes, Zozzled is a hilarious pastiche of 1920s tropes. It becomes clear when playing these two games consecutively that Cherrywell is in fact a master of pastiche. She scoops up a whole bunch of slang, stereotypes, and style, stringing them together in rat-a-tat fashion for a wonderfully enjoyable ride. The best comparison I can make for Zozzled‘s style is to Alan Moore’s pieces in the voice of Hildy Johnson at the end of some of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. In other words, excellent.

Sure, she hits a bum note once in a while — using the term “sheba” for a woman is great once, cloying many times in a row — but overall, at pretty much every level, the writing in Zozzled is sharper than that of Brain Guzzlers, which is high praise. It’s quite a bit funnier, for one thing. Where Guzzlers frequently made me smile or chuckle, Zozzled had me laughing out loud. Some of my favorite examples:

The response to EXAMINE GLAD RAGS (because this game would never call a dress a dress if it could instead call the dress “glad rags.”):

If the right dress makes you feel like a million bucks, this little black number makes you feel like Rockefeller’s bank account. And much like Rockefeller’s bank account, it generates plenty of interest.

This description of a refrigerator:

This refrigerator, much like the old lady that time she chaperoned your senior year homecoming dance, is sitting in the corner, humming quietly and radiating bitter cold.

And finally, a great easter egg for Zork fans, in the description of some locked-away valuables:

Just a few odds and ends that guests have deposited – brass baubles, golden eggs, platinum bars, ivory torches, sapphire bracelets, that sort of thing.

It’s not just turns of phrase either — there’s a character who is described as “constitutionally incapable of telling the truth”, which the game then plays out literally to great comic effect. Not only is the wit superb, the story is more sophisticated too. Where Brain Guzzlers was pretty much “fight the sudden arbitrary menace by solving puzzles”, Zozzled sets up story beats in the beginning that pay off in the end, giving the puzzles a reason to exist that transcends “something bad and inexplicable happened here”, replacing it with an unexpected love story to which the PC is a witness.

So, if Cherrywell upped her writing game in Zozzled, how about her… game game? I’m sorry to say that the game aspects of Zozzled were a little weaker than those of Brain Guzzlers. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a weak game overall. I’m about to dive into criticizing a couple of its flaws, so I want to make clear that generally speaking, Zozzled is well-crafted — solid implementation, intriguing design, and reasonable puzzles. It takes the same approach as Brain Guzzlers, which is to say “breezy puzzle romp fusing parser and choice mechanics”, albeit without the illustrations. Its concept is equally solid, maybe even a little less checklisty, but it does stumble in a couple of places mechanically.

The first of these is the transition from introducing the ghost conceit to turning the player loose on the puzzly middle game. In a long choice-based sequence, Zozzled stages a conversation between the PC and an elevator operator named Kipper Fanucci (another Zorky reference, methinks.) That conversation does a lot of expository work, explaining that the hotel setting is haunted, and that Hazel the PC has the rare ability to see ghosts, at least once she’s wearing a pair of magical “cheaters”. Then it transitions from a conversation to a choice-based action sequence, except unlike in Brain Guzzlers, where the possible actions were rendered in prose, Zozzled phrases them in parserese, like so:

1) >ASK KIPPER ABOUT GHOST.
2) >KILL GHOST.
3) >TALK TO GHOST.

Eventually, this sequence reveals the way in which Hazel can exorcise ghostly presences, a command which nicely ties together her carefree flapper persona with her ghostbusting abilities. Moreover, once you exit the Kipper sequence, wearing the cheaters allows you to see ghostly presences in various places, with the spectral stuff rendered in bold, a cool and effective choice.

Except… now that you can see the ghosts, you can’t interact with them anymore! Try to EXAMINE GHOST and you’ll get tersely rebuffed: “(That’s not something you need to fiddle with.)” The entire ghost concept gets introduced via specific IF commands allowing the PC to interact with and contain a ghost. Then, immediately afterwards, there are a bunch of ghostly encounters in which the ghosts aren’t even implemented as game objects. Pretty unsatisfying.

Eventually, I figured out that you have to first solve the puzzle with which the ghost is associated before you can interact with it, which makes perfect sense but could be much better explained. If the answer to X GHOST had given a description indicating that the ghost was deeply embedded in its container and would have to be driven out before I could deal with it, that would have felt much less jarring and buggy.

Similarly, some solution-adjacent feedback would have also helped with the game’s most frustrating puzzle, the fruit bowl. Without spoiling anything, this puzzle has a solution which is logically sound and emotionally satisfying, but which requires quite an intuitive leap. Moreover, the solution requires the destruction of game objects, which goes pretty heavily against the grain of experienced IF players. As with the RPS cannon in Brain Guzzlers, I found myself turning to the hints, but unlike with the RPS cannon, I didn’t feel dumb for failing to solve it myself.

On the contrary, I saw that I came extremely close in a couple of different ways, but the game didn’t give me the feedback I needed to make that final leap. In fact, I would argue that the puzzle should be more tolerant of solutions that fit the spirit if not the letter of the intended answer. Luckily, this puzzle was an outlier. Others, such as the seance and the oyster, brought together actions that made perfect sense in context and worked beautifully with the tone.

Playing Zozzled right after Brain Guzzlers made it impossible not to compare the two, and what I found was that each game was very strong on its own, but each also had its strengths over the other — Zozzled its (even more) masterful writing, and Guzzlers its silky-smooth structure and puzzles. It turns out that Cherrywell has written one other Inform 7 game besides those two, so it was my third choice for this survey.

Cover art for Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll came out in 2015, the same year (amazingly) as Brain Guzzlers. Where Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s entry into the main IFComp, Chlorophyll was for a Spring competition called ParserComp, a themed long-form game jam focused on traditional text adventure format, i.e. excluding choice-based mechanics. Consequently, Chlorophyll is pure parser, unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers.

And you know what? It turns out Cherrywell is still a hell of a writer, even when she’s not penning snappy dialogue for branching-path conversations. Chlorophyll really has no conversations — it hews closer to old-school IF by ensuring that the PC is on her own, navigating through a seemingly abandoned outpost, albeit one that bears unsettling evidence of violent disruption. Until the third act, her only encounters are with minimal-personality robots. Structurally, the game is deeply reminiscent of Planetfall, albeit without Floyd.

Except, instead of Planetfall, a more apt title might be… (I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to stop myself) Plantfall? See, in Chlorophyll, the PC is a sentient, walking plant, a la Groot, but with a better vocabulary. (Or, in the specific case of the PC, Teen Groot I guess.) She and her species depend on sunlight to produce nutrients (hence the title), and without it they slip quickly into unconscious torpor. In the first act of the game, this works out to a tight hunger timer, keeping the PC tethered closely to sunny areas and requiring her to find ways to light up more and more of the outpost with artificial sunlight. In these explorations, she also figures out that her goal is to power up the outpost so that it can restore sunlight to the whole planet — which happens to align perfectly with the 2015 ParserComp’s theme of “sunrise”.

Now normally, hunger timers are one of my major pet peeves in IF, but the one in Chlorophyll worked, for two reasons. First, rather than being an arbitrary limit imposed in the name of “realism”, this game’s hunger timer was a crucial character detail, one that drives the PC’s initial problem and that lends lots of tension to the first several sequences. Second, about a third of the way into the game the PC finds an object which obviates the timer altogether, so that it goes away permanently. Not only that, the mechanism that eliminates the hunger timer also has strong emotional resonance, lent further weight by the player’s relief at removing the constraint. More about that a bit later.

Unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers, there’s very little humor in Chlorophyll. Instead, Cherrywell creates a strong atmosphere of eeriness and foreboding. After playing those first two games, I was all the more impressed that Cherrywell has a whole other register, and is equally great at it. The SF concept was intriguing and logical, the setting evocatively described and sensibly constructed, and the mood of the whole game was just terrific, all the more so for not being another wacky pastiche of a bygone era.

The story was well-structured too, with sudden action at the beginning leading to a series of increasingly compelling discoveries. There are powerful, stomach-dropping moments as the PC discovers more and more effects of the antagonist’s presence, and a sensational climax and denouement.

The puzzles for the most part are solid, with a particularly expansive middle game, in which two entirely different different chains of puzzles (one for good behavior, one for bad) can be pursued, either of which unlocks the climax. I quibble a bit with one solution on the “good” track, as it involves the breaking of an object described as “unbreakable”, with no clear rationale that I can see for how that breaking makes sense. But no matter — that’s a pretty minor objection to what is overall an accomplished piece of craftsmanship.

I think my favorite part of Chlorophyll is its strong emotional core. Neither Zozzled nor Brain Guzzlers prepared me for this. While there’s a love story in Zozzled, Hazel (the PC) is just a bystander to it, really, with no particular emotional investment in anything. Bonnie, from Brain Guzzlers, witnesses a close friendship but is herself mainly either a cipher or a punchline. But Zo, the PC of Chlorophyll, begins the game enmeshed in an instantly familiar and warm mother-daughter relationship, so when her mother gets incapacitated, I found myself drawn in immediately.

Zo is an adolescent, who feels like she’s grown out of childish things but that her mother doesn’t recognize her abilities. Then she’s thrown into the adult role without that mother’s support, and must become the caretaker herself. That makes it all the more moving when Zo discovers evidence that her mother really does recognize Zo’s growth, emblematized in the new solar vest that deactivates the light-hunger timer. This is a wonderful example of using IF constructs to serve and strengthen the story — as we remove a game constraint, we also remove a mental constraint from the PC, allowing both more access to the world and more understanding of her place in it.

Similarly, when Zo finds her unconscious mother, and realizes the jeopardy that they are in from the antagonist, the moment lands harder than anything in Zozzled or Brain Guzzlers. Granted, nothing in those other two games was meant to land that hard, as a sudden emotional jolt would have really wrecked the mood, but having played those two games first, I was all the more surprised and transported by the weightiness of this one.

With these three games, Cherrywell has become one of my all-time favorite IF authors. I’m grateful to have spent my time on them, and I greatly look forward to whatever she releases next.

Thoughts on the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) started in 1995, and for its first ten years, I was a very active participant. I entered the comp 4 different times (1996, 2001, 2002, 2004) and wrote hundreds of reviews. I reviewed pretty much every game submitted to the comp from 1996-2004, with a few scattered exceptions (stuff I’d tested, languages I don’t speak, troll games, etc.)

Then, for the next 10 years, I didn’t vote in the comp at all. Not coincidentally, my son Dante was born in 2005. Once that happened, the time I used to set aside for IF got drastically curtailed, and I pretty much slipped into frozen caveman state. I’ve dipped my toe in a few times, writing reviews of various comp games that were nominated for various XYZZY Awards, but for the most part I’ve remained quite disconnected from the IFComp at large.

As Dante gets older, though, he becomes more independent and my time opens up again. So this year I decided to take a shot at reviewing some IFComp games. However, I discovered rather quickly that the IFComp of today is drastically different from the one I left behind in 2005.

I followed my usual comp reviewing method, which is to let some program dial up a random order and play through the games it selects. My time is still a lot more limited than it used to be, so out of 53 games, I ended up playing 9. Of those 9, the composition was thus:

By way of contrast, of the 33 games I reviewed in 2004, 2 were homebrew and the rest were parser-driven. None were CYOA. The 2015 comp, in my experience, has a completely different quality than the 1995-2004 comps had. The definition of “interactive fiction” has opened wide, wide enough to admit even so-called games whose idea of interactivity is basically “click here to turn the page.”

Logo for the 2015 IF Comp

Now, at this point I should make a couple of things clear. First, I understand that non-parser IF games participated in the first 10 years of the comp. A CYOA game called Desert Heat comes to mind, which at the time seemed like a surprising experiment. Those comps had their share of minimally interactive games too, most of which were roundly panned. There was Ian Finley’s Life On Beal Street, whose interactivity was pretty much “Would you like to read the next paragraph? (Y/N)”. There was Harry Hardjono’s Human Resources Stories, a fake job-interview quiz from somebody who was clearly really angry at employers. There was the infamous (to me) A Moment Of Hope, which pretty much totally ignored whatever you’d type in many scenes, just steamrolling on with whatever story it wanted to tell. Heck, even Photopia, one of the most acclaimed comp games of all time, drew its share of criticism for a perceived lack of interactivity.

So yeah, I get that 1995-2004 wasn’t some kind of perfect golden age where every game was a great IF experience (though I hasten to say that Photopia is a really, really great IF experience). Anyway, trust me when I say that I remember the bad times. The second thing I should make clear is that I enjoy CYOA well enough for what it is. It’s a neat little narrative trick. I had a good time with CYOA books as a kid, and can still have a ball with a well-written CYOA work. But stacked up against full-blown parser games which offer a constant sense of openness and possibility, multiple-choice is just pretty boring by comparison. I find myself so indifferent about the choices presented that I just roll a die to pick one, so that I can get on to the next bit of story.

So I reacted with dismay at the suddenly flipped proportions of the comp’s 2015 games, at least as presented to me in random order. Where in 2000 “Desert Heat” was an odd curiosity, here it was the parser game that was the outlier! I felt like I’d come to a film festival, but that in most of the theaters, I’d instead be handed a coffee table book. I mean, coffee table books are cool. Some of them are spectacular! But for me they’re not as much fun as movies, and it’s a bit of a disappointment to get one instead of a movie.

I rated the comp games the way I always do: based on how much I enjoyed the experience. And the fact is, I don’t enjoy CYOA games as much as parser games, so even the ones I liked a lot could only get an 8 or so. Also, unlike parser games, CYOA games are extremely difficult to transcript while they’re happening, which really drains my ability and inclination to review them. So I won’t review them, but I will provide the list of responses I wrote while playing. CYOA and lists, a match made in heaven! (Fair warning that those lists may contain spoilers — I wasn’t trying to be careful about that.)

Here then, for whatever they may be worth, my “reviews” of 9 2015 IFComp games:

I THINK THE WAVES ARE WATCHING ME by Bob McCabe

I downloaded this Windows executable, and despite my trepidation about running .exe files from unknown people on my machine, I ran it, hoping that the IFComp gods had ruled out any viruses. I got a DOS-looking window, with some DOS-looking text:

I Think The Waves Are Watching Me.
By Bob McCabe.

Build: 106

(G)etting Started.
(P)lay the Game.
(S)ecrets I've unlocked.
(C)redits/Thanks.

Then I typed “g”. Then “G”. Then “P”. Nothing happened, any of these times. I typed “Play the game”. I typed “Help”. I typed “Helloooooooooo?”. Each time, after hitting enter, my words disappeared, with no other effect. Then I closed the window.

I guess this isn’t really a review, but it does explain why I gave the game a 1.

Rating: 1.0

SWITCHEROO by Mark C. Marino & family

  • Engaging, appealing, well-implemented. Smooth and beautiful.
  • Surprisingly a combat card game is an alternative to the story?
  • Some weirdness: “Born a slave on a plantation, Jazmine became a hero when she escaped through the Underground Railroad to a Midwestern whistle-stop town. Later, she was railroaded into selling her story to a motion picture company who fast-tracked the film into theaters. Ironically, she would become an R&B legend best known for her performances on a popular dance show with a train theme.” So she lived how long?
  • Funny: “Shazbot! You use the Electric Slidekick!” Lots of great humor — take-off on Percy Jackson with dentistry substituted. “Lightning teeth”.
  • Interesting — not sure how the math is working, but the card game feels like it’s a bit slanted to prevent the player from losing.
  • Once the story begins, much of the interactivity starts to consist of “show the next part”
  • Whoa – wheelchair boy into able girl.
  • Scale of girly fictional types – Hermione, Dorothy, Little Prince
  • Possibly adopted by “Mr. and Mrs. Sheephead.” Upon clicking mention of California Sheephead: “Ah, I’m glad you were curious. The California Sheephead is a salt water fish, found off the coast of California. It has the unusual property of all the fish being born female and then, given certain circumstances, like when she gets sick of all the long lines at bathrooms, changing into a male.”
  • Mostly writing is smooth. Found first error after about 15 mins: “They were amazed at how much Denise could eat at the burger place after their just a short adventure.”
  • Doll in wheelchair. Moving. “The only word he could think of was: home”.
  • Ending choice, also moving.
  • I wish there was a way to “undo”

Rating: 7.7

NOWHERE NEAR SINGLE by kaleidofish

  • “Because the only way to show you’re serious about someone is to only be with them,” Sarai says sarcastically. [Hmmm.]
  • You’d rather be homeless than have awkwardness in your relationship? You must live somewhere warm. And safe.
  • “Hey, Jerri…” Sarai starts. “Since you don’t have a bed, you can sleep on my side of the bed. I’ll take the couch.” [I thought I had my own room. Wish there was scrollback on this. Oh hey, the back button. That’ll work. So yeah, “Her apartment has two bedrooms. You have yours to yourself.” I have a bedroom but no bed? And Sarai is offering to put me in bed with Nayeli? That is awkward.]
  • It must have taken some stamina to make up 100 fake pop girl star names.
  • From kiss on the forehead to Jerri saying “Yeah. I keep thinking that any day now they’ll finalize what image they want to have, but I think there’s been some setbacks.” Feels like a page is missing.
  • “You heat up leftovers from the fridge and go to your room. Yeah, the one with the wooden floor and no furniture.” [That explanation would have been helpful earlier.]
  • “Tonight’s aout you and me, and no one else.” [Typo]
  • “A large screen television sits on top of dark mohagony drawers.” [Another. Writing is pretty spot-on, but not flawless.]
  • Oh, nice effect on revising the words of advice to gay youth.
  • It never seems to occur to camgirl to just get a regular job.

Rating: 7.4

ONAAR by Robert DeFord

I have to admit, at this point I was pretty excited just to not be picking from a menu for my interactivity. That context probably improved my reaction to Onaar over how I might have rated it in a previous comp. However, it’s also true that Onaar is pretty fun at the beginning. The story starts fast-paced, with the PC needing to escape impending danger. A few commands and a custcene later, and you’re into a whole different environment. From there it’s the usual challenge of exploring the landscape and figuring out the plot. Sadly for me, these fun activities were accompanied by a couple of less fun activities: managing a hunger timer and a decreasing health timer. The latter of these was caused by a poison bite, but it was also less bothersome, as the antidote can be found and the timer stopped. The hunger thing, on the other hand, is a peeve of mine in IF games unless it’s serving some very interesting purpose. No such purpose is to be found in Onaar — it’s just the usual inconvenience which doesn’t engage the mind or enrich the story. Oh well, at least there’s no sleep timer.

I would soon discover that the mechanical aspects of the game are by far its dominant theme, well ahead of anything like story or puzzles. My first clue was in the PC’s self-narration:

As you stand on the sand dripping wet, you remember Father Marrow’s advice to become an apprentice alchemist. “Well Father,” you say under your breath. “It looks like I’m not off to a good start, but I can at least make it a little side quest to report those marauders to the authorities when I get to someplace civilized.”

“I can at least make it a little side quest?” Does the PC know he’s in a game? As it turns out, yes, but not in any kind of interrogative postmodern way — rather just a casual consciousness, as if this is how everyone naturally approaches reality. In Onaar, it really is how everybody approaches reality, as a passing traveler revealed when giving advice:

“Say, you don’t look so good. I’ll bet you have at least one malady. You really ought to be checking your stats more often. Those maladies will kill you if you don’t treat them in time.”

“You really ought to be checking your stats more often?” I found this very jarring, and rather unusual. Generally in IF, the mathy aspects of the simulation are pushed well under the surface, revealed only in the tone and urgency of messages, e.g. “You’re starting to feel faint from hunger.” Onaar is much closer to a CRPG experience in which various numerical stats (health, strength, mana, etc.) are right up front for the player to watch. This is fine too, but even in a typical RPG session (be it mediated by computers or people), there is an observed separation between what the players perceive and what the characters perceive. While all the stats, saving throws, and so forth are available to the player’s knowledge, from the character’s point of view it’s more or less “did I succeed at what I just tried?” Only in the land of parody would another character say something like, “Well, thanks to your Charisma stat of 17, you’ve convinced me of your point of view!” Or for that matter, “You really ought to be checking your stats more often.” Yet Onaar is completely straight-faced.

This kind of naked machinery is on display throughout the game. Various numerical stats are listed after objects, tasks list what stats are needed to perform them, and so forth. It’s weird, but I got used to it. Once the dramatic beginning was over, I found myself with a steep learning curve, figuring out all the intricate rules of this very intricate gameworld. That slowed the narrative pace down considerably, but eventually I got on track with what turned out to be a tutorial for the game’s primary mechanic of alchemy. That mechanic itself turns out to be quite involved, with requirements to gather ingredients from far and wide, take them through a number of magical steps, etc. The procedural quality of this ended up generating some drama in my playthrough as I was dealing with a (different, second) poison timer and only barely managed to synthesize the cure before my health ran out. For the most part, though, all these fiddly rules just made me tired. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of detail and care has gone into this game, and in fact it is an ideal game for somebody who really enjoys putting together complicated recipes from a detailed list of ingredients. The scales are weighted away from lateral thinking and emotional engagement, and towards grinding repetitive tasks. I’m not so much that kind of player, but I didn’t mind stepping into that mindset for a couple of hours, if for no other reason than even this CRPG routine still felt like so much richer an interactive experience than CYOA multiple choice. Of course, after those two hours I was nowhere close to finishing the game, and I doubt I’ll go back to it, but I appreciated being there as a reminder of how the comp used to feel.

Rating: 8.1

KANE COUNTY by Michael Sterling and Tina Orisney

  • “You tap on the break and hold the wheel straight.” – not an auspicious beginning
  • “Choose a class” – again, exposed game machinery
  • ARGH, back button restarts the game. Very reviewer unfriendly.
  • “On the other hand, if climb on top of a nearby hill” – then Tonto see you!
  • Some things strangely don’t lead to choices: ” There are three ways to get up it: follow a gravel wash, trace a well-worn track along an old, torn-down barb-wire fence, or go up directly and push through some junipers and shrubs.” but the only link is “Continue”. Oh, I see, the choice comes a bit later.
  • “You open the bottle and drink.” Why is this called interactive, again?
  • “but you might find some other use for it later on. Gain a Boat Part.” Oh, and uh, spoiler alert.
  • “This might be a good time to use one of your food items…” Not that I’m going to give you the option to do so.
  • “Look at the other area or chose a site.” 1, misspelling, and 2, this is one link that is presenting as two options.
  • “Make a fire – requires a digging tool” – why offer me an option you know I can’t pick?
  • CYOAs like this feel so arbitrary — you’re more or less choosing blind each time. And there’s no “undo”.

Rating: 4.9

LAID OFF FROM THE SYNESTHESIA FACTORY by Katherine Morayati

I was relieved and encouraged when I saw Katherine Morayati’s name. I had played some of Broken Legs and enjoyed it. So I kicked open that Glulx interpreter ready for some true text adventuring at last. Then I read the help info, because that’s how I roll, and saw this “About The Author” blurb:

Katherine Morayati is a music writer by day and by night and an interactive fiction person the rest of the time. She is the editor-in-chief of SPAG and the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition. This is nothing like that.

Slightly ominous, but I’m sure she just means it’s a totally different tone or genre or something. After all, she says clearly elsewhere in that help info, “Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory is a work of parser interactive fiction.”

Except, after trying to “play” it, I figured out that no, it isn’t, either, and in fact the biggest difference between this and Broken Legs is that Broken Legs is an IF game, whereas this is more akin to a text generating machine that can sometimes be prodded to respond to various keywords, but is also quite happy to do its own thing no matter what you type. In fact, on my first playthrough, the PC ended up by a lake and I tried to type “swim”, except my fat fingers typed “seim” instead. Despite my nonsensical input, the game went ahead telling the story: “I decide he isn’t coming and head back to my car. With every mile marker I resolve to turn back, or turn off and find the nearest bar, or turn off and crash…”, so on and so forth, THE END. Seriously, “*** The End ***”. “Seim” was the final command of the game, causing it to spit out a bunch of final-ish text and stop. Next prompt I got was the old “Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT or UNDO the last command?” Undo, obviously. Except that the game replied: “The use of ‘undo’ is forbidden in this game.” Well then, I riposted, perhaps if you wish to disable “undo” in your game you ought not prompt me to type it in? Except, you know, far less calm and polite.

So, just as I was set up by the overall CYOA-ness of this comp to enjoy Onaar more than I might have, I was set up to be much more frustrated by Laid Off than I might have otherwise been. After that first, disastrous playthrough, I wrapped my head around the fact that this game is much more The Space Under The Window than Spider And Web. I tried again, this time just typing keywords and letting the game take me where it wanted. I enjoyed the experience a lot more that second time. The writing and overall concept of this game is a bit impenetrable, on purpose I think, but it still pulls off some lovely turns of phrase, articulating complex concepts: “What you are: A trim, functional paragon of a woman in lifelong battle with a disheveled unraveled omnidirectional grab of a girl.”; “What Brian is: deflatingly human when you’re with him, horribly beguiling when you’re not.” I’m grateful to have played it — I just wish it had been the spice to a better meal.

Rating: 6.3

TAGHAIRM by Chandler Groover

  • “Turn the page” style interactivity
  • Creepy. Creepy may not be a very tough emotional note to hit.
  • Oh ugh animal abuse.
  • Hm, timing matters. Throws off my randomizer. But then again my participation was pretty detached after the beginning.
  • All in all, pretty horrible. Felt like I was in a Milgram experiment.

Rating: 1.7

THE WAR OF THE WILLOWS by Adam Bredenberg

Running Python 3.4, I get a title card, 4 ominous seeming verses, and then this:

Traceback (most recent call last):
File "C:\Users\Paul\Dropbox\IF\IFComp2015\willows\PLAY.py", line 26, in
story.start()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 1525, in start
game = intro()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 82, in intro
raw_input()
NameError: name 'raw_input' is not defined

Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

THE MAN WHO KILLED TIME by Claudia Doppioslash

  • Oh dear. Another unpromising beginning, this time even before the game starts: “Notes: – English is not my first language. – While I was writing it, I realised its nature is more that of a non-branching story, but I wanted to have an entry at IFComp and I could use the feedback anyway, so here it is.”
  • A bit hard to read. Also “Responsability” – you don’t have to be a native english speaker to use spellcheck.
  • This is a tough slog.
  • This is 100% “turn the page” interactivity so far, 10 minutes in.
  • “on the whole it looked like it might be an appropriately assistantely time to show up.” Hoo boy.
  • OMG, a choice! A yes/no choice, but that’s as good as it gets so far.
  • “In fact he had a, not unfounded, feeling that he already was in this over his ears. Or at least a future self of his was.” I wonder if this actually makes some kind of coherent sense to someone somewhere.
  • Parts of this are compelling. The English plus the intricacy of the theme make it hard for me to hang on, and the interactivity is pretty much the same as a book. But as a story, with a good editor, I might enjoy it.
  • “He didn’t want to realise he was alone, to risk relinquish the mode of being under scrutiny. Because if he did, then he nothing would stop him from doing that. He must not let his eye wanted to the cabinet. Yet as he the thought first entered him, it kept growing in his mind, as it usually did and does.” …Annnnd you lost me again.
  • One of the few choices turns into a non-choice.
  • Whuh? Ends altoghether when it feels like it’s about to step out of the prologue.

Rating: 2.9

Now, in fairness, it turns out that the random selector may have done me wrong. Looking at the results, it appears that none of the games I played landed in the top 25% of the final standings. And in fact, only Nowhere Near Single and Onaar were in the top 20 games. Moreover, the top 3 games (and 7 of the top 10) were parser-driven, so it’s not as though IFComp has fully turned into CYOAComp. For that matter, perhaps some of those highly placing CYOA games could have given me a much different impression of how immersive and enjoyable that medium can be.

Until next year, though, I’m probably going to seek out the parser games, and leave the rest be. It’s possible that being an IFComp judge is better left to people with enough time for IF that they don’t mind spending much of it frustrated. That used to be me, but it isn’t anymore.

2013 XYZZY Best Individual PC review

I’ve belatedly realized that I never posted about this here, but like last year, I was recruited to write reviews for the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews.” Unlike last year, the category I chose had only one game in it: Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura was the sole nominee, because it was so good that no other game garnered more than a single nominating vote.

What made it so good? That’s the topic of my review.

IF-Review: Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

Final entry in the 2012 XYZZY best games review project — Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis. With tremendous innovation, technical polish, and abundant humor, Adam Thornton upends the medium of interactive fiction with a work that’s simultaneously traditionalist and transgressive, a layered and richly allusive delivery system for some highly demented and depraved content. It’s a hugely impressive achievement, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. I can’t imagine anyone else even trying.

IF-Review: Cryptozookeeper

Here’s another entry in the series of 2012 XYZZY nominees game reviews: Robb Sherwin’s Cryptozookeeper. It’s the most Sherwin-esque Sherwin game I’ve yet seen. It’s gonzo, it’s funny, it’s extreme, and it’s shambolic, and it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen Robb accomplish, which means it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen anyone accomplish.

What is “the future”?

That post about the art of the trivia question is still brewing, but I got sidetracked this week by another event in the trivia world. You may have heard about it. Watson, an IBM supercomputer, played two games of Jeopardy! against that show’s most famous champions, and thoroughly trounced the both of them.

A number of friends who watched the match complained that it was boring. If what you were looking for was a tense, movie-like contest with the drama of close scores or a come-from-behind victory, I can certainly see why you’d be disappointed. It had all the drama of the 49ers annihilating the Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. On the other hand, if what you were looking for was a glimpse of the world to come, in the form of a breathtaking technical achievement, this match absolutely delivered the goods.

See, some people tend to think computers are smart, and that of course a computer could beat a human at Jeopardy!, given a sufficiently broad knowledge base for its answers. But really, that’s a case of misplaced signifiers. Many human brains find rapid mental arithmetic of large or complex numbers difficult, and therefore associate it with intelligence. Computers happen to be fantastic at this kind of thing. The chess club is full of smart kids, and therefore chess must be a smart person’s game. Knowing that a computer could defeat the chess world champion must mean that computers are smart, right?

Here’s the thing, though. Computers are great at one thing: computing. Arithmetic is computation. Chess, at a sufficient level of abstraction, is also computation. The further away from numbers you move, the dumber computers become, meaning that for the vast majority of tasks our brains do each day, computers are extremely stupid. “Natural language”, aka the way we humans talk to each other, is an enormous challenge for a computer to deal with, as anyone playing interactive fiction for the first time could tell you. (Though the idea that better parsing of natural language will automatically make for better IF is another case of misplaced signifiers — better understanding of language is great and everything, but the more important part of IF is its model world. Advancing the parser just means the model world’s seams show more quickly.) Because computers lack human experience, they are stunningly bad at dealing with linguistic context, and are therefore capable of spectacular misunderstandings when faced with any language outside the very limited domains for which they’re programmed.

Watson is no exception to this, but it has a few advantages that other machines lack. For one thing, there’s an enormous amount of processing power behind it: some 90 servers, over 21 terabytes of data, 15 terabytes of RAM, and 80 teraflops of throughput. More important, though, are a couple of its conceptual approaches to knowledge.

First, through a paradigm called machine learning, Watson learns by example, getting better and better at the game as he sees more and more Jeopardy [leaving the exclamation point off from here on out] clues and their correct answers. It would be ridiculously impractical to try to construct a set of rules that would allow a computer to recognize every possible Jeopardy question, so instead Watson’s creators gave it a framework for recognizing associations between question words, answer words, and source texts, then fed it tens of thousands of Jeopardy clues as examples. This technique enabled Watson to make a huge leap in its Jeopardy prowess.

The other key aspect of Watson is its embrace of uncertainty. Watson doesn’t deal in right answers and wrong answers. It deals in answers that are more likely to be right vs. less likely to be right. Thus, when faced with the clue, “The parents of this 52nd governor of New York immigrated to the United States from Salerno, Italy,” we see its top three answers thus:

Three answers, with "Mario Cuomo" listed first and a certainty of 98% indicated. "motorcycle club" and "Marine Corps" are below, listed at 8% certainty.

Watson was quite certain that “Mario Cuomo” was the correct answer, but hadn’t entirely ruled out the far crazier answers “motorcycle club” and “Marine Corps.” Indeed, if what you’re seeking is comedy, look no further than Watson’s runner-up answers.

Laughs aside, though, it’s this uncertainty which makes Watson so formidable. In a frequently-cited example, Watson can look at the name “Alice Cooper” and weigh the evidence that Alice is a woman’s name against the evidence that Alice Cooper is a man, give each pile of evidence a score, and come to its own conclusion. A strictly rule-bound computer would have to be given a specific exception to handle this case. Watson can generate its own exception, thereby improving its knowledge base. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, isn’t this a hallmark of intelligence? The capacity to allow for the possibility that we may not know everything or fully understand the world is an incredibly powerful tool in the search for truth.

So as a computer, Watson rocks. But Jeopardy is an entertainment program, not a science program. Is it fun to watch Watson play Jeopardy? George Doro, my teammate in the Anti-Social Network, called it “more fascinating than exciting,” and that’s right on target. IBM branded the hell out of this show, and it would have been a black eye for them had Watson lost. Consequently, a few gameplay decisions were made which helped Watson win, but made the show a little less fun.

First off, Watson was allowed to be lightning-fast on the buzzer. People think of Jeopardy as a purely mental game, but unlike chess, there’s a physical component of Jeopardy. People (and computers) with faster reflexes do far better on the show — it doesn’t matter if you know 100% of the answers when you’re getting outbuzzed 80% of the time. Trying to play buzzer-beaters against a computer is like running a 500-yard dash against a car. Watson didn’t have to be this quick — just subtract a little of that processing power until the computer’s average buzz-in time equals the average human’s buzz-in time (or even Ken Jennings’ average) and you’ve got a fairer battle, but instead, when Watson was certain enough of its answer, no human thumb could possibly outrace its mechanical plunger. (There were a few exceptions, but overall it was clear that Watson’s buzzing speed was what allowed it to dominate the match.)

Secondly, there’s the fact that each human had not only Watson to contend with, but also another top-notch Jeopardy player! Consequently, anytime Watson doesn’t pick up a clue in time, the two humans tended to split the points between them. I know Jeopardy is traditionally played by three contestants, but there was plenty about this match that was non-traditional. I would be very interested to see how Jennings would do against Watson by himself, especially if the buzzer advantage were corrected. As he put it in an NPR interview: “It’s the worst of both worlds, you know? The ideal scenario would be to have a human versus a computer, or maybe a computer versus a very good human and a lousy ‘Jeopardy!’ player. I don’t know if you saw Wolf Blitzer on the show, but I’d like to have Wolf back.”

That’s not to say that Watson was flawless. One of its major weaknesses was its inability to see or hear. Instead of listening to Alex Trebek read the clue, Watson was fed the clue via (essentially) a text message, so it saw and started processing the clue at the same time as Ken and Brad saw it. The show neutralized the most obvious disadvantage of this blindness and deafness by eliminating the audio or visual clues it often features. Jeopardy has made this sort of accommodation before, to serve disabled human players, and while it’s certainly true that Ken and Brad could have whomped the computer on those clues, that’s really not what Watson was built to do, so it would rather miss the point. A more pertinent disadvantage was that it could not hear what the other contestants were answering. It was told whether its own answer was correct, and told the correct answers provided by humans, but was not told of wrong answers, leading to this exchange:

Ken: “‘Name That Decade’ for a thousand.”
Alex: “The first modern crossword puzzle is published & Oreo cookies are introduced.” [Ken buzzes in] “Ken?”
Ken: “What are the ’20s?”
Alex: “No.” [Watson buzzes in] “Watson?”
Watson: “What is 1920s?”
Alex: “No. Ken said that.”

[The correct answer was “The 1910s.”] Trebek’s schoolmarmish correction of a machine that had just that moment proven it can’t hear him was amusing, and perhaps reflexive. Watson’s error was the kind of mistake that humans rarely make, though it’s not unheard of. When a human does it, though, it’s a sign of frazzled nerves. With Watson, it’s an Achilles heel. Well, maybe an Achilles toenail.

Another major weakness Watson displayed was its difficulty leveraging the category title to come up with the answer. Humans completely dominated that “Name The Decade” category — Watson was having trouble processing quickly enough to outbuzz them, and at one point its top guess for one of the clues was “2002,” even though it did come up with decades for the others. Most famously, in the Final Jeopardy round of the first game, it encountered the category “U.S. Cities,” and the clue, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” which it answered thus:

Watson answering "What is Toronto?????"

(This inspired the funniest Watson joke I’ve yet seen: “Me: Hey Doc, I’ve got this pain in my left arm and an awful headache. Doc: What is Toronto?????”) The answer was in fact “Chicago,” but even if a human didn’t know the answer, he very likely would have guessed an actual U.S. city based on the category, rather than a Canadian city.

As some of the IBM guys pointed out, Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy are a tough area for Watson, because it has to guess something, and therefore risk looking stupid. When it’s not sure about its answers on a regular clue, it can just refrain from buzzing in. Watching the show, I thought perhaps that Watson’s creators forced it to simply focus on the question, more or less ignoring the category. Turns out this isn’t quite true. In fact, it considers the category in its approach, but it’s learned from its thousands of Jeopardy clues that category is often only weakly tied to the answer. For instance, that Chicago question could have been reworded, “Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named after a World War II hero; this airport, its second largest, was named after a World War II battle.” The question still would have fit the category, but the answer would have been an airport, not a city. Watson has seen that scenario play out many times, and is thus wary of assuming that the answer in a “U.S. Cities” category will always be a U.S. city.

In the end, Watson defeated the humans soundly, with a score of $77,147 to Jennings’ $24,000 and Rutter’s $21,600. A lot of the press coverage has focused on the “man vs. machine” angle, and of course the match was set up to emphasize that. In fact, it was rather poignant to see Watson beat one of its human practice match opponents on the clue, “This African-American folklore laborer: ‘Before I let that steam drill beat me down I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.'” I guess there’s this sort of pastoral vs. industrial thing that gets set up when machines attempt a traditionally human activity, even though people holding buzzers and answering trivia questions doesn’t exactly fit neatly into the pastoral mold.

I don’t feel much solidarity with the OMG SKYNET IS HERE!!!!! response. As somebody who works in IT, I’m fascinated by the achievement. I think about how satisfying it must have been to have worked on the team that created this. Those people just finished a massive four-year project, and the result was an incredible leap forward in information processing, with a world-famous, historic, televised, wildly successful debut. I just finished my time as a team member on a three-year project, and the result is a shakily implemented student system whose portal is currently driving everyone crazy with how incomplete and slow it is. I’m sure there is mental, emotional, and physical damage associated with both project teams, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been on the one whose final product worked so well?

In his Final Jeopardy answer, Ken Jennings wrote, “(I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.)” It’s a reference to a hilarious moment on The Simpsons. And interestingly, it may not have been one Jennings thought of himself. Here’s an excerpt from his NPR interview with Neal Conan:

Mr. JENNINGS: Maybe it’s just my own ego, but yeah, I feel like I’ve somehow, through some weird coincidence, been elected as the champion of carbon-based life on Earth against, you know, our new future oppressor.
CONAN: Silicon, yeah.
Mr. JENNINGS: And I would like to strike a blow while I have the chance.
CONAN: I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.
Mr. JENNINGS: You may have no choice, Neal.

Then again, it’s quite possible that this interview was taped after the Jeopardy round was taped, so who knows? But whether Jennings was lifting a joke or simply making a reference, isn’t this the skill for which we celebrate him? He gathers knowledge from various sources, and retrieves it quickly, using it when it can make the most impact. His graciousness and humor in that final moment certainly set him apart from his predecessor in IBM challenge history, Garry Kasparov, who famously stalked away in an enormous huff after being beaten by Deep Blue. But in that graciousness and humor, he also subtly made the point that for all Watson’s skill and speed at information retrieval, humans can still wield that information with a precision and effect that Watson could never hope to achieve.