Six Favorites from IFComp ’97

Babel

Babel is built on cliches: there are keys and locks, cards and slots, dials and keypads; there is a mixing puzzle; you have amnesia; there is an isolated research lab where a small band of scientists takes their work a bit farther than perhaps God intended; and yes, the biblical tower is a prime allusion. The writing is frequently overwrought and the outcome predictably bleak. But it works. You’re not merely exploring a facility — you’re cold and alone in an abandoned lab in the arctic, miles away from anyone, with toxins floating around and a failing power supply and all the mirrors are shattered and it’s cold and holy shit when did you cut yourself like that. A large part of the game’s success is that the story, hackneyed though it may be, is so well integrated into the gameplay that you’re literally collecting it piece by piece; you’re making it happen. Highly recommended.

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit

Madame L’Estrange has so many technical problems it’s almost unplayable, but in spite of everything I thought it was terrific. As a psychic detective, you’re hired to unravel the apparent suicide of a marine biologist; meanwhile, there’s some sort of animal on the loose in the park, terrorizing the public and eluding the authorities. These two threads cross several times during the course of your investigation, which takes you through the shores, parks, zoos, cliffs, bridges, schools, flats, and shipyards of modern-day Sydney. The sheer scope of the geography is made less daunting by the liberties the game takes with exploration. In contrast to the nuts-and-bolts interactivity of most games, Madame L’Estrange takes care of a lot of the grunt work for you, and many commands merit lengthy responses. To type something that ignites a whole conversation can be extremely rewarding. Some would argue that this is less interactive, but I like lots of text and I’d say it’s merely letting you interact at a different level. And where some games throw you a command prompt for the illusion of it — mostly disregarding your input while spiriting you forward — here there really seem to be a number of paths. After getting a ways into the game only to have it crash, I turned to the walkthrough to quickly restore my progress and found that most of what I had accomplished was completely optional, and started down an equally intriguing alternate route. The fact that I didn’t have to reproduce what I’d lost, together with the amiably weary tone of the walkthrough, did a lot to reduce my frustration at not having saved.

Like its protagonist, the story itself covers a lot of ground. Most of its events have already transpired, and a lot of the action involves piecing them together after the fact. At its best the game reminds me of Babel in this regard, where a large part of the thrill is solving the mystery, literally collecting the story with your psychic abilities. In summary the game is so unique among its competitors, and works so well for its faults (which I’ve tried to avoid mentioning), that I can’t help but recommend it.

The Lost Spellmaker

You’re a midget lesbian spy — more of a special agent, really — working to get to the bottom of a conspiracy — or caper, caper might be a better word — in your cute little village. More consistent than Sins Against Mimesis and more amusingly self-conscious than the other semi-serious fantasy quests (Phred Phontius, Zero Sum Game, Poor Zefron’s Almanac), this could be the comp’s most successful comedy. (On second thought, I would award that title to Congratulations!, for allowing you — and therefore requiring you — to put the baby in the blender. That Spellmaker is less permissive is probably a good thing.)

Symetry

In my notes on Symetry, I transcribed the following lines:

When you saw the mirror, you knew at once that you must own it. Tonight will be the premiere of you slumbering under its constant eye. Splendid is the only word that escapes your gate of teeth.

Where, in my notes on Glowgrass, I have nothing. Well-made the latter may be, but Symetry is far more memorable — missing “m” and all.

She’s Got a Thing for a Spring

Thinking back on this one, there was plenty to impress — the detailed guidebook, the practically omniscient NPC, the sheer variety of flora and fauna — but I didn’t care very strongly for any of it. What I did really like, what vaulted the game into my top ten, was the layout of the map. I had a clear mental picture, throughout, of where I was and how I could get to the places I’d already visited. In most games, even when the scenery is well-described on a room-to-room level, I have a hard time seeing how the rooms are linked together, and I often get lost without drawing a map. In that sense, Spring was refreshingly fun to explore.

The Town Dragon

Paul O’Brian singled out the line

> EXAMINE COINS

They are copper and few would trade on them.

as the kind of thing to avoid when supplying descriptions. I loved that line! Short and suggestive, it’s a perfect example of the game’s economy.

And Three Outliers

Temple of the Orc-Mage

The title speaks volumes, but no matter how you feel about orcs or mages or combinations thereof, the premise here remains classic: you descend into a cave with only your wits and a superhuman yet finite carrying capacity. The writing’s not horrible, either. You’re starving, soaked to the bone, waist-deep in slime, and, dammit, you’re tracking all over the Orc-Mage’s carpet. Granted, the game has its share of problems, but, unlike the fantasies mentioned above, self-consciousness isn’t one of them.

Least Enticing Subtitle: “In Quest of Adventure”

. . . from Travels in the Land of Erden, and I didn’t progress much past it. While it may be realistic to step from the harbor into a disorienting tangle of roads leading in every direction, it doesn’t make for a very inviting introduction. When I struck out at random to find that my automap was on the fritz, it was the beginning of the end.

“You’re on a beach. You’re in turmoil. Go!”: Sunset Over Savannah

It pains me to dismiss the mind-boggling amounts of time and care that must have gone into this game, and I’m sure if I had applied even a fraction of that effort into playing it I’d have been richly rewarded. But. I felt like the author was a preoccupied director relying on me, a mere extra, to supply the emotion due his tragic opus. Jarring, because in so many respects it seemed a comedy — why must I build a sand castle to decide about my job? I might as well be gutting fish to look for hidden keys. The writing was undeniably good, but as for the gameplay I still feel {conflicted}.