Games I Didn't Finish, and Why

First, a word of explanation. Up until recently, I have avoided reviewing games that I haven't finished playing, because it's not fair or reasonable to offer an opinion on a small slice of the evidence like that. The main exception is with Comp games, where, since I am trying to offer some feedback to almost everything, I tend to explain my reactions even when I don't finish games. And, in an attempt to redress some of the problem where non-Competition games get very little feedback, I've tried very hard to review every non-Comp game of recent vintage that I play to completion. (Most of these are available on IF-Review.)

The thing is that there are a lot of other games I see getting no (or not enough) feedback, and yet they are things I can't bring myself to finish playing in order to write a helpful review. Sometimes, I have quite detailed things to say about why I didn't finish playing. These aren't meant to be unrestricted snarking; that wouldn't do anyone any good. Most of them are written about games I wanted to like and perhaps even attempted to play several times before giving up.

All the same, the opinions expressed herein are mine only, and shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Contents, from most recent to longest ago:

Reefer Island: old-school TADS puzzlefest about the search for pot

This is interesting. To the best of my knowledge, the author didn't announce this game on the newsgroups; I hadn't heard of it at all until a friend and I looking for something to play stumbled across it on Baf's.

As you might guess from the title, it's a game about the quest for your next bong hit. With a premise like that I expected a rather half-baked short comedy game, but in fact it's an old-school puzzle-fest with a spacious map. We ran into some weird moments in the coding, but it showed a reasonable amount of work.

The puzzles themselves are very old-fashioned in character: a lot of them (at least in the portion I saw) seemed to entail finding the right object to give to the NPC to get another object to use to get a key... [etc], often through fairly long and convoluted chains. There is what appeared to be a genuine maze, though we didn't persist long enough to get it fully mapped. There are improbable leaps of logic and NPCs who seem able to teleport across the map just in order to prevent you from doing things. It's that sort of game, and you either get into the mood and enjoy it, or you don't.

I mostly did, actually, and we might have finished it, or at least gone further, if it weren't for the bewildering openness of the game. Many many locations and puzzles are simultaneously accessible from the outset, so we wandered around for a long time before deciding that we were either stuck or insufficiently directed. And the game has both hunger and sleep timers turned on, as well as the occasional message about how long it's been since you last had any marijuana. It's very easy to die before you've really gotten your bearings or figured out how to get your food source. When this happened to us, we became discouraged and gave up. I could easily see someone enjoying this piece if they were on an old-school nostalgia kick (and not too hung up about the drug-use messages). The writing is good-spirited. There are monkeys.

Legacy of a Princess: Adrift game about Zelda

This appears to be largely a parody/expansion/fanfic/something based on The Legend of Zelda. As I never played the original, it didn't mean much to me. There were a number of rooms where there was nothing to do, and the initial several moves of plot were of the variety where X tells you to go somewhere and see Y, and then Y tells you to go and see Z, and Z tells you to visit X again. So I wasn't terribly enthralled, and quit. Someone with nostalgic feelings towards Zelda might have a different experience. Or not.

The House: Set-in-a-house practice game.

Considering that the Help text tells you this is a practice game, the various problems with it should not come as a huge surprise. There are several overt programming errors, but a lot more of what's wrong is lack of beta-testing. Many synonyms aren't handled, and obvious actions aren't anticipated. There's a stethoscope you can't wear or listen to, for instance, and stinky items you're not allowed to smell, and containers which do have contents but which describe themselves as empty if you try to LOOK IN them. I liked the solution to the maze, but that's just about the only thing I really liked *much* -- the game is otherwise pretty uninspiring on the design side, I'm afraid. The game needs a clearer sense of purpose. No, not a goal for my player character -- I think I've figured out what that's supposed to be -- but a sense of what it's trying to do, as a game. Is it supposed to be puzzly and challenging? If so, the descriptions need to be sharper and more evocative. Is it supposed to be creepy? Then there ought to be more effort put into the atmosphere. Heck, maybe it's even supposed to be a parody of bad beginner IF through the ages, but if so, the humor also needs to be more honed. Whatever this is, it doesn't have a very strong sense of itself.

Natalie: Italian game translated to English.

A short while ago I got an email from Francesco Cordella, containing the following invitation:

Another thing. Italian community is trying to translate games in english to let a lot of people to play them. Fabrizio Venerandi translated his interesting (and very short) one room game: Natalie. We would appreciate a lot if you could take a look: I think it worths a look.

Here are some of my initial impressions on this game. [I am posting to both the English and to it.comp.giochi.avventure.testuali; to the denizens of the latter group, I apologize, but I cannot write Italian.]

The premise of Natalie seems to be that the player is communicating (telepathically?) with a trapped player character in a prison of some sort -- though it soon turns out that that is not exactly the case, I never became entirely sure what the truth was. I reached the game's first major twist, but that is about as far as it goes.

The narrative is quite a bit more subjective than the average: this other character (whoever he or she may be) is aware of talking to the player, and addresses you directly. It is an interesting idea to have the player character be a distinct person/personality from the player; a few English games have experimented with it (LASH and FailSafe come to mind), but the idea is not at all used up yet. Here, it generates a few genuinely creepy moments.

However, I think the merits of Natalie are somewhat undermined by the translation. The English is usually comprehensible, but it doesn't feel native, and there are quite a few times when it uses the wrong word. The punctuation is also messy -- by which I mean not just the run-on sentences, which I take to be an intentional sign of the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but the fact that the periods are consistently outside quotation marks when they should be inside.

Technical punctuation problems could be cleaned up pretty easily. I think, however, that an improvement of the translation would need to be done by someone who is reasonably fluent in Italian and has a native-level ability in English. This is particularly important because of the literary ambitions of this particular game; in another context, a serviceable but not stylish translation might be enough. But where nuance of style and subtlety of atmosphere are required, you need someone who is as capable a writer in English as the original author was in Italian.

Then there is an additional issue, and I am not sure whether there is anything that the Italian community could or should do about this. The few pieces of IF that I've played that were translated from Italian tend to conform to a different set of expectations than English IF. The descriptions are often more emotional and less objectively specific; while they seem more like literary products, they make life harder on the player. It isn't always easy to tell what or where the essential objects for interaction are. For instance, in the opening scenes of this game, there are some nouns that are examinable, and are quite important; other nouns, mentioned in much the same way, seem to be unimplemented, and trying to interact with them generates only the unenlightening response "I don't think I want to hear you".

Here's a sample from early in the game:



"I'm tired, I approach the pools and I stomp one or two of them with my bare feet, making the water squirt all around: water falling back on more water, accumulating, can't see anything else but water with water inside closed itself within water opening and closing and glittering, bouncing from the celiling to the floor.

I know there's a grid in one of the pools, I invented that before, do you remember? I think I saw a grid."


"I can barely see its outlline, it looks like a rectangular grid, al immerged in the water, completely fown the water, that damn muddy cold water."


There are some misspellings (outlline, al, celiling), and words that don't exist or are misused (immerged, fown, invented). But leaving aside that kind of problem, which could be fixed trivially by a native speaker with a red pencil, there remains a tendency towards impressionism and vagueness that is strongly at odds with the conventional approach of English-language IF.

Combined with this is a quality that reads, in English, as self-consciously literary, whether or not it feels that way in Italian. It draws attention to itself as a piece of written text, and to the process of reading it. And this goes counter to my own inclinations for IF writing. I tend to think that the purpose of IF text, in English, is generally to provide a near-transparent access to the world model: to concentrate the player's attention on what is, to create a sense of physical presence and of existing in a tangible location. There are exceptions; "Moonlit Tower" is consciously artful in its writing, but I found that fit perfectly the precious, wrought qualities of the game world itself, and I wasn't particularly bothered.

Meanwhile, paradoxically, I often find the puzzles in Italian IF to be particularly difficult and to require a great deal of reading the author's mind. Literary IF, in the English community, is frequently positioned as the opposite of puzzle-based IF; here is a form that is a bit of both.

I noted similar tendencies in "Ramon and Jonathan" (which I found incomprehensible as a result) and, to a lesser extent, in "The Land of the Cyclops" (which I did finish, and wrote up for IF-Review). My guess, therefore, is that these games are not badly written or unplayable, but that the way in which the player is expected to interact is *different* in the Italian community. It is quite intriguing to me that different language communities might develop fundamentally different approaches into IF. When I play IF of Italian origin, I am more than usually aware that I am *reading*; I find myself thinking of one of those slender, expensive white paperbacks, like an edition of Calvino.

The game comes with a read-me file, which not only explains how to play but provides some background to the game's concept. I read through this, though I had a bit of trouble, again, with the translation. This read-me speaks of the use of rhetorical imagery, of an expectation that the player will enter into the game and understand it in terms of this symbolism; to interact with it, in other words, at the level of literature, rather than at the level of simulation.

So I'm forced to conclude, I think, that I'm not a very good player for this kind of IF. It confuses me, and it turns aside my attempts to play in the ways I'm used to. But possibly there are other people who will find it more accessible, especially if some of the technical issues in the prose are repaired. And if the mental switch can be made, the results may be an entirely unfamiliar and novel IF experience.

The Adventures of Helpfulman: Superhero in a big city.

I wanted to like this one, really I did. It was clearly trying to do some neat things, using the HTML-TADS options, but they didn't work perfectly for me. For instance, there's an option to put a menu in the left as a kind of sidebar, but when I scrolled the menu would vanish from view. It only offered a handful of commands, anyway -- a LOOK command, which I presume is no different from typing LOOK myself, and a COMMANDS that would list all the verbs I could use. The latter might have been useful, since some of the game's commands seemed to be a bit esoteric, except that it happened all at once in a scary single-column infodump to my screen.

There were also some illustrations; I approve of this. On the other hand, some of them reminded me of things I did in Hypercard ca. 1986: dithered black-and-white images of simple objects. Eep.

Another interesting thing the game did was to use an oft-suggested but seldom-implemented approach to conversation. When you spoke to an NPC, certain words were highlighted as links, and clicking on them equated to >ASK NPC ABOUT HIGHLIGHTED TOPIC. This avoids any fishing around for things to talk about, I suppose, without going all the way to having a menu. I thought it was a valuable experiment, though I am not sure I'm totally crazy about the effect.

In atmosphere, the game reminded me a bit of Heroine's Mantle, which I liked despite various drawbacks. Unfortunately, it shared a few of Heroine's problems, as well. The puzzles weren't quite as unfair, but it was still entirely possible -- even easy -- to render the game unwinnable, as far as I could tell. In particular, a certain sequence involving a telescope seemed to give the player too little warning. I did my best with it, but it was this sequence that ultimately caused me to give up on the game without really getting past the prologue: I couldn't figure out how to get past a certain point, I kept ruining my options, and the actions recommended by the hints were not successful. Plotwise, the logic of this sequence also seemed a trifle obscure.

The game otherwise could have used a bit more polish. I noted several places where there were typos or misspellings, or where the author had put in a non-default response but the default response was subsequently printed as well. I would probably have played at least a while longer if I hadn't run into the puzzle difficulties, however.

Unease: Fantasy-or-maybe-SF with weird names and hints of adult situations.

It is entirely coincidence that this is the next game I played-and-did-not-finish, after Serve Your Country.

The reasons I didn't get very far are different. In this case, the problem was that too much seemed to be going on, and I didn't understand very much of it at all. There is a fantasy setting -- maybe -- except that some of the objects appear to be technological, rather than magical, so perhaps it is really an odd piece of SF, instead. There are peoples and individual persons with strange Fantasy Names, many of them at a time, whizzing past my head in conversations I only nominally exert any control over. There is conspiracy, disguise, revelation, a blatant pass from a serving wench, all crammed into a couple of moves, before I have had a chance to really get my bearings.

Then I wound up locked in a cell and drunk; the hints didn't give me enough information to figure out how to rescue myself from this problem; and after enough turns of swaying to and fro in drunken abandon, I gave up.

Again, the basic problem is that I know too little to be able to guess what my goal in the game is-- even in the short term, I know I want to get out of this cell and rescue my friend/girlfriend/potential lover/whatever, except that I have no clue how to go about this or why I was even locked up in the first place. Character involvement is also not deep enough, because I understand too little of what's going on with my PC to care a great deal about his dilemmas and desires. If I had a sufficient understanding of my goal, I might find it easier to keep playing; if I cared enough about my PC, I might keep going despite the difficulties. The combination of problems is what made me stop.

There might be something interesting going on here, but so far all I can really tell is that things are Weird. More time on the establishing material might have helped.

Serving Your Country: Pornographic game nominally about a spy mission.

Entered in the ifLibrary's competition for 2003, this game bills itself as a work of Adult Interactive Fiction. I don't play many such games, but I thought that I would try this one since it was part of a mainstream competition.

Alas, it suffers from many of the things that put me off of other AIF games: not the presence of sexual content, but the absence of much else. Room descriptions are sparse to the point of non-existence, which is a pity; I've been told to investigate this man's home for evidence of certain shady dealings, but there doesn't seem to be much for me to pick through. (I guess if I'd chosen a male PC, the Master would have been a Mistress; this is a nice piece of generosity in a genre that, in my very limited experience, caters almost exclusively to the male player. I'll give it points for that.) Where objects are described, their descriptions are likewise brief: one frequently has exchanges of the type,

On the table is a glass.

It is a very fine glass.

The table is exceptionally well-made and luxurious.
Everything is given this same gloss of vague luxury, not specific enough for me to envision it. (Which seems odd to me: if this is a game aimed at providing/evoking a, well, sensuous experience, I would expect it to be more vividly descriptive of the sensual enjoyments at my PC's disposal, whether or not they are sexual. But no matter.)

What made me actually quit the game, though -- or rather, fail to restart -- was that I got to a point where I was doing something that I thought was going to get me closer to the revelation of the mystery, and it turned out to result in a total loss of the game. Moreover, it was an action that I thought was one of the main goals of this particular genre. So, as a player, I felt rather cheated; I didn't know what I was supposed to be trying to do if that wasn't it, and I gave up rather than try to guess what was in the author's mind.

The Island of Infinity: Sparsely minimal puzzle(?) game with cryptic nods to Zork.

A Detective-esque piece of Interactive Fiction that revealed itself as a stunner with this prologue:

You are walking around, minding your own business, when, suddenly, you are sucked into a portal and taken somewhere else...
Room descriptions are minimal to the point of being non-functional:
The Tower
You are right in front of the tower. You can see its door. Directly to the south, there is a house. You can also see its door.
Since >OPEN DOOR is parsed as referring to the house door and no direction is specified for the tower (and >ENTER TOWER is unrecognized), I never did figure out how to get into that region. This may or may not account for my quitting the game at 0 of a possible 300 points.

Murder at the Diogenes Club: Z-code implementation of a game book in which you are a young protege of Sherlock Holmes.

This is a converted game book or "solo adventure", turned into Z-code, so I wasn't expecting exactly the same things I might have expected from a different piece of IF. I was looking for something I could compare to other choose-your-own-adventure style offerings in the IF world, such as One Week, Desert Heat, and When Help Collides, The Geisha Section.

The game has an RPG element, which is to say that you're allowed to adjust some basic skills up or down for your character. Later, these affect the success or failure of your attempts; the calculations are done automatically by the game and you are told whether you succeeded or failed and what the outcome was. (I presume that in the paper version of these game books, the reader/player would have had to perform some dice-rolling at these points.)

What this left was a handful of decision points with a lot of intervening text (in which there would occasionally be a bold-faced You attempted a Communication roll, and failed. [I paraphrase.]) This was, frankly, more reading than I really wanted to do. Then, the writing was nothing terribly stand-out, and most of it consisted of pointed plot exposition, rather than action. Many of the decision points consisted of the choice:

(a) Do [interesting action]
(b) Otherwise
On the whole, a lot of binary choices like this, especially when one of them is "do nothing," doesn't seem to present even the basic level of challenge and interest I expect out of a choose-your-own-adventure scenario. I gave up before the actual mystery really got off the ground.

When Help Collides: The Geisha Section: CYOA-like resource-management puzzle involving the training of a geisha.

I've already played When Help Collides (or tried to) and commented on the general effect it had on me. When I heard in detail about the geisha section, I grew intrigued, and I tried it out. And spent, in total, perhaps four or five hours on it, with a friend or solo. Eventually, we got so frustrated we gave up.

Here are the problems that made it too frustrating for us to figure out.

1) Need for excessive note-taking. There are a lot of factors in this game that could easily have been summarized in the form of a status bar or some other kind of indicator, so that we wouldn't have had to play with a spreadsheet open just to keep track of what we thought our score was at various things at the moment.

2) Unnecessary randomization between playthroughs. The scenario is challenging enough without everything changing each time you play, from the skills your character possesses to the schedule of her admirers.

3) Misleading reports on status. Several times we attained a given skill level, only to have it go down again after further practice or on the testing. This was very confusing. Perhaps it is supposed to represent something about the unstable nature of life or the prejudices of the testers, but it was too much to cope with.

4) Misleading clues. We had some ideas that seemed very much supported by the gist of the game (such as that, if we got an item from one admirer, we could use it to bribe another) and devoted some time to setting this up, only to find it didn't work out and apparently was never supposed to work out.

5) Vagueness about what actually had happened. At times I was uncertain about what was meant to have occurred; for instance, when my yakuza client said certain things, I took them to have a certain implication, which turned out to be unsubstantiated by events. Darn. Can't trust the yakuza, I guess.

In short, this is a scenario of such complexity that it is frustrating for the game to throw in extra cheats like inaccurately reporting the geisha's progress, concealing key information, and randomizing events excessively. We finally decided that there was no likelihood of our solving the puzzle other than by pure chance, and chucked it. This was disappointing, because I liked the concept and had high hopes for it.

Insight: Science-fiction mystery/interrogation.

The basic problem I had with this is that I felt the gimmick of the game too strongly; it felt entirely artificial and basically uninteresting to me. I was constantly aware that my PC ought to know things that were being concealed from me-the-player, and was annoyed. This has to be done carefully if at all. I also found conversation with the prisoner frustrating, and the parsing of complex questions did not seem to work as well as implied by the help. I realize this is a difficult thing to implement properly, but I would rather not be encouraged to try it at all unless the effect is going to be slightly better than it was here. Still, an interesting effort.

1893: mystery set on the grounds of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Here's another game I expected and desired to like, started several times, and still couldn't get into. I respect the historical accuracy. I respect the ambition. I respect, most of all, the incredible amount of work that went into it, not only because of the sheer amount of coding, and testing, and more coding and more testing, but also because of the polishing and packaging it with feelies and the website and everything. Wow. It makes my brain hurt to think about the effort that went into this, because I've been through something similar with City of Secrets, and it's enough to drive anyone nearly insane.

So why didn't I get anywhere with it? For one thing, the scope of the map: I wandered around and soon found myself completely and totally lost, without a sense of what I should be focusing on in my explorations. I did go to the scene of the crime first, and poke around there, and try to find out some things, but that experience left me without a lot of guidance for where to go next. So I just wandered vaguely, got very confused, and quit. Further tries didn't advance the cause very much. I think there would have to be some way to force the player to proceed more linearly, just for the sake of making the game accessible at all.

I realize this suggestion runs counter to one of the main points of the game, which is to allow you to explore this big, accurately-represented historical space. But I guess one way to have approached it would have been to impose some constraints, at least during the early part of the game, not in the form of locked doors and barriers that didn't exist in the real geography of the fair, but perhaps in the form of escorts or guides for the player character who would restrict the range of options to start with. Once the player has gotten used to one portion of the map, and is comfortable with how things are laid out within that space, it would be reasonable to open it up more broadly and allow him to explore at will.

Perhaps then there could also, theoretically, be a mode one could switch to in which the plot would be, as it were, switched off, to allow for free-form exploration if that's what the player/interactor most wanted to do.

I don't know. Maybe not; maybe if I were a more diligent player I would've found my way past it. I still may go back and play this through with a walkthrough at some point. Or I may order the CD version and see if I find it more tractable with pictures and an accessible map. Maybe if I could affix images to these locations, I could get somewhere.

The Mulldoon Legacy: Massive ambitious puzzlefest in a museum.

I've started this game probably five or six times now, due to the popular acclaim it's received and the frequent requests on for hints. And I never manage to get much farther than I did the first time, before getting confused and giving up.

Eventually I figured out what my problem is. Essentially, I have too hard a time forming a clear visual image based on the descriptive prose in the game. This might not be a total handicap -- in fact, the fluttery confusion of parts of All Roads actually appealed to me, to name another game by the same author -- but the problem here is that the puzzle solutions depend heavily on a conception of the objects in question. I could never really figure this out, so I was left playing with things that I knew were important, but lacking the information to intuit how I might reasonably expect them to interact.

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