Introcomp 2003 - Ced's reviews

No April Fool's joke here. Just some bog-standard matter-of-fact impressions of the intros, in the order I played them.

Ophelia | Agency | Harlequin Girl | Harrington House | Mage Wars: Statue | Reality's End

'Ophelia' would be a rewriting of Hamlet with the new title character placed centrally as PC. The demo consists of a very few rooms in Elsinore and some commands to produce plot outlines. I waited in my sewing closet for Hamlet to arrive, doublet unbraced, but it didn't happen. In fact, the only objects implemented so far are uninteresting locations like broom cupboards and privies, yet the demo doesn't give much indication that the finished result would be particularly humorous. While Ophelia as a character is arguably underdeveloped by Shakespeare, other signs suggesting the author is no Stoppard include the incongruous name 'Fuchsia' and a (shock! horror!) grocer's apostrophe.

It's hard to judge at this stage how good either the game play or the Java-based parser will be, given that, so far, it is possible to perform very few actions. I would suggest that the author packages his class-file as a web page (like Ricardo Dague did with 'Goofy') to make it simpler to play for Wind32 users. 3/4

'Agency: An Interactive Theodicy' I like the subtitle, at least once I looked it up. A near-future dystopia that is more Greg Egan than Bill Gibson (what do I mean by that? one aspect is that the characters seem more like ordinary professionals than supercool streetwise cyberkids; it's a plus for me). The locations felt real enough too. Although it concluded in a very predictable way, the intro is nicely paced, spinning out the inevitable. Something about the writing grated slightly at first. On the other hand, I like the word 'runtogether'. Inert NPCs. One reason to play on would be to discover the meaning of some of the included technological artefacts, and the nature of this future world. 5

'Harlequin Girl' is a weird and vivid (although fairly short) intro, apparently set somewhere between present-day psychedelic subculture and outright magical fantasy. Although it needs better testing and proof-reading of responses and more scenery implemented, this intro has a lot going for it in terms of intriguing elements, and could develop in many different directions. Of these, I hope it will maintain the macabre start of the intro rather than degenerate into monster-fighting. I also very much like the hint that the player is going to have to face classic moral choices. The actions do not feel forced perhaps because the 'puzzles' are easy. The writing is of variable quality, and uses clichés too easily, but this is a favourite for me because of the effective opening puzzle. 7

I could be wrong, but there seems to be a bug that makes it impossible to complete 'Harrington House'. This is a real shame, as the implementation, setting and story have a lot going for them, and this is the largest and most ambitious of the four intros I have so far played. The genre is by now very familiar: recently deceased relative, exploring old house, a hint of ancient magic and/or crime. However, the somewhat unimaginative title, typical of that genre, doesn't do justice to the intro's realism or to its sophistication of puzzles.

The writing is usually unobtrusive, which means it's probably good, except when daemons repeat themselves in such a way that you see the same message - which would be effective once or twice - over and over again. There are two ways to finish an intro - with an announcement that that is all there is, or to peter out, and it's unfortunate for this one that it ended in the second way for me (due to the bug; probably Inform's print_ret vs print). On the whole, though, it's relatively bug-free but challenging, since the play is less linear, episodic or modular than the other entries. I've no real idea where the story's going yet, but there are several mysteries to solve and it looks fun. 6/7

'The Mage Wars: Statue', like 'Ophelia' is a chance to showcase a new system, in this case Jim Fisher's extensive 'OnyxRing' (OR) Inform add-on library. (Is it just me who finds it confusing that there is another Inform add-on for 'WarMage', and that this game is part of a series called 'Mage Wars'?)

One of the most interesting features of OR for writers and players is the ability to shift viewpoint between first and third person and past and present tense, which is employed a great deal here with about half-a-dozen different Player Characters. I felt this worked very well indeed, not only technically, but in terms of narrative. The conversation and magic systems also seemed very flexible. Other features weren't so useful: the player has problems referring to objects only by adjectives; looking while sitting at a desk produced no room description at all; and there's what seems to be a timed input mechanism that affects the WinFrotz cursor and scrollback in slightly irritating ways.

What of the intro itself? It is the largest and most ambitious of the entries, and about Comp-length, suggesting that the final game or series will be huge. It's a kind of SF/fantasy crossover, where players will expect some hi-tech explanation for the use of magic later in the series; unfortunately, I was unconvinced by the scientific aspects of a plot device that is central to the intro. But it is well structured, introducing what look certain to be the main protagonist and antagonist, several incidental characters, and the imaginary geography and society of a vastly different world (although leaving its basis a mystery).

It seems almost as much attention has been paid to the writing as to the programming, but that that has resulted in the text being overwrought at times. In describing the grief of an accident survivor, 'I was unforgivably unscathed' is great. It says it all. But later the prose repeats and goes over-the-top with 'In the empty coffeepot, which I still held, my refracted reflection returned my gaze, reminding me of the perversity of my existence.' Maybe it's an attempt at the repeated alliteration of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem but, for me, refracted reflection leads to distraction. Then there's 'manilla parchment' implying an attempt at a rich object description that couldn't decide which way to go, 'riffle' instead of 'rifle' and what seems to be a last-minute search-and-replace capitalisation that went too far and probably shouldn't have been done at all. Quibbles, I know, given the vast amount of work that's gone into it and the fact that the author undeniably has talent as a writer. The big challenges seems to be whether the emotional involvement will be maintained, and whether themes raised so far (rationality versus myth, death, grief, millenarianism) will be brought together dramatically. Such a feat is not impossible, but it might also make it the most ambitious IF project since Avalon. 8

Finally, although I beta-tested 'Reality's End', I want to review it anyway for completeness. It has a lot of the elements that work in the other entries: a mystery, a good cliffhanger, a well-developed PC, and a blend of the mundane and the other-worldly. 'Mundane' refers to the time before the protagonist has faced their crisis or crises, so there will be a certain amount of this in any intro. But 'mundane' doesn't necessarily imply 'boring'. Here we open with hints of the extraordinary, and then return to the everyday life of an 11-year-old schoolboy in an ordinary town in wintertime.

The nice thing about the writing, which is sometimes striking but rarely over-elaborate, is the way it conveys both atmosphere and a gentle sense of humour. Although there are not too many locations implemented, they are sufficiently broad and varied to give the impression of a much bigger space. I think it should also be fairly obvious that some features (such as a snowball fight) are purely decorative, at least at this stage of the game. The demo consists of four scenes, each involving a little exploration and a simple puzzle, so it is a little more than half the length of 'Statue'.

Maybe an intro would whet the appetite more if it were not so self-contained. That is, that several features of the rest of the game are hinted at teasingly, even if they are not properly functional in the demo. As it is, we can be pretty sure there are fun and thrills to come, but it's hard to guess what the rest of the game might be like. 8

In sum, an excellent IntroComp, with some really promising stuff. Thanks to Jacqueline, Eileen Mullin, Neil deMause and all the authors.

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