Home | Profile - Edit | Your Page | Your Inbox Browse | Search Games   |   Log In

Ratings and Reviews by Michael Roberts

View this member's profile

Show reviews only | ratings only
1-2 of 2


Planetfall, by Steve Meretzky

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Great early Infocom game, February 1, 2019
by Michael Roberts (Seattle, Washington)
This is one of my favorite Infocom games. I think it stands out as an important transitional game in Infocom's early years that was hugely influential on their later games, and we all know Infocom was hugely influential on IF in general. One of Planetfall's best-known innovations is of course Floyd, probably the first attempt at an NPC sidekick. The bag of tricks the game used to make Floyd seem continuously present and interactive formed the basis of NPCs in countless subsequent works. The innovation that was more important to me, though, was less about technology and more about the game design philosophy. Planetfall was deliberately designed to be fair to the player. It probably doesn't qualify as "merciful" by modern standards, as it did let you back yourself into an unwinnable corner, but its puzzles were logical, consistent, and well clued; at no point did you have to read the author's mind or exhaustively try every VERB+OBJECT combination. That was a huge break from the fashion of the time, which conceived of the adventure game as a contest between designer and player without any constraints on the designer's sadistic omnipotence. There was a certain pleasure in beating a game that had such blatantly unfair rules, but even the most obsessive players got tired of that after seeing one or two such games. IF wouldn't have endured (even to the limited extent it has) if the design philosophy behind Planetfall hadn't come about.

Zork I, by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful:
A canonical puzzle-fest, January 10, 2008
by Michael Roberts (Seattle, Washington)
Some modern reviewers have said Zork I is dated, and to some extent it is, although not in the usual way that computer games become dated, which is to say technologically. The technology of IF has improved over the years, certainly, but only incrementally; Zork I is, after all, written on basically the same Z-Machine that a lot of authors are still using today. Sure, parsers have gained a few niceties over the years, but the fact is that even the most sophisticated current parser is still an unnatural computer interface that you have to learn to use; Zork's parser is maybe 10% harder to learn than the current standards. Try digging out a video game from last year, let alone one from Zork's era, and see if they hold up as well.

The thing that makes Zork I look dated isn't the technology; it's the genre. Zork is a story-less treasure hunt in a big cave full of wacky incongruities and anachronisms; it's an unapologetic puzzle-fest; it's a slightly unfair, one-sided contest between a smirking author and a frustrated player. This sort of game went of out style years ago (among IF enthusiasts, I mean - the whole of IF went out of style even earlier among the broader gaming population). Some IFers look at it and say, good riddance: this sort of thing went out of style because it was inferior to what IF has evolved into. I tend to disagree; I think this sort of game actually went out of style because it was done to death, in large part by imitators of this very game. Zork I isn't inferior to modern IF; it's just different from modern IF.

The appeal of Zork I is that of a crossword, or of one of those evil little entangled-wire-loop puzzles. And the thing is, Zork has a ton of that kind of appeal. Once you get into the game, it's really good at doling out just enough positive feedback to keep you going, while keeping the challenges numerous and difficult. Maybe you have to have the right personality type, but if you do, it can become an obsession to beat the thing, to get that last lousy point. The game is unfair, but just a little; its designers had a good feel for just how far they could push their luck before players would feel cheated. It's the kind of game you really want to solve on your own, without looking at hints or walkthroughs, because it always feels like the answers are just within reach.

If you're still convinced that modern IF is just objectively superior to the likes of Zork I, here's something to consider. Modern IF dogma ranks immersiveness as one of the great virtues a work can have. Some look at Zork I's sparse room descriptions and irrational map and scoff. But Zork suggests that there's more to immersion than pretty descriptions. For many IFers, Zork I and its ilk have created some of the most intense subjective feelings of immersion they've had from any sort of game, just because they spent so much time walking back and forth and back and forth across the map. The obsessive play, I think, makes up for the thin text, and then some.




1-2 of 2