Reviews by Wade Clarke

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Pit of the Condemned, by Matthew Holland

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A simple dodge-and-chase game., November 18, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: fantasy, IFComp 2015, Inform

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)

Pit of the Condemned is a short Evade-The-Wumpus-like game in which you play a convict sentenced to die at the hands of The Beast. The site for your intended death is an abandoned city that's now used only to host deadly spectacles. A bloodthirsty public watches your struggles from innaccessible locations overhead.

Part of the info in the preceding paragraph comes from the game's blurb and isn't present in the game itself, a fact which accurately speaks to the minimalism of the game. The implications of the game's setting or vaguely Hunger Games-sounding society don't really come up during play. It's purely about the mechanic of moving through a large network of empty rooms and searching for a weapon or escape route while the beast chases you.

I won on my first try by setting a trap for the beast in the Royal Palace and then wiggling around a lot until the monster followed me into it. It's probably too easy to avoid the creature in general thanks to the proximity warning messages the game delivers. These are handled well technically, as is the occasional warning generated by line of sight programming.

When the beast isn't close, the game tends to dullness. Almost all locations are empty and there are a lot of them. I was tempted to start mapping, but didn't, and it ultimately proved to be unnecessary. Some obvious commands aren't covered. The very first thing I wanted to do in the game was try to KILL MAGISTRATE, the guy who had sentenced me to death. I expected that the result would be that his sidekick guard would immediately kill me. The game's reaction was to instead print the default Inform anti-violence message, 'Violence isn't the answer to this one.'

Pit of the Condemned is good mechanically, but I found it too unexciting given the premise.


You are standing in a cave..., by Caroline Berg

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Meat-and-potatoes adventuring with enthusiasm., November 14, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2016, Inform, fantasy

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)

You are standing in a cave... is a parser-driven adventure of perennial adventuring. Stuck in the title cave with only a random collection of stuff in your pockets, you, the viewpoint adventurer, must unstick yourself and escape. The environment is full of props and clues designed to speak tantalisingly to each other in the language of puzzles via your adventuring brain. The climbable, the ignitable, the combinable; they're all here.

This is plainly not a game for people who dislike puzzles. It's straight-shooting meat and potatoes adventuring, roughly implemented, and with a title that could easily be read as a joke about banality. While cave's first room looks dull and prototypically cavey, things become more involving if you give it a room or two.

The game's tone is encouraging with a dash of wide-eyed. The adventurer seeks answers to age-old questions like, 'How do I defeat this giant venus flytrap?' or 'What really happened when I turned that dial?' The game is excited about the player's progress. Its positive tone acts as a helpful counterweight to the rough typological edges and programming oversights. Probably its weakest areas are in verb coverage and the offering of alternative phrasings for obvious actions, partly mitigated by it also going in for lots of USE phrasings. (e.g. USE A WITH B)

The game's generic USE leanings fit in with another observation I made: That Cave often feels like a graphical point-and-click adventure rendered as prose. I don't mean that in a redundant way, given that point-and-click adventures owe their existence to prose IF. I mean that it takes aesthetics that were added to adventures when they were transitioning into graphical form and brings them back into the all-prose realm. I refer to aesthetics like the extended depictions of transformations that occur in the environment when puzzles are solved. Objects revolve, rise, shine, glimmer or rotate at relative descriptive length. It's visual, and the physical movements are important.

I was able to clear the game without using the walkthrough, though I needed a little human help gleaned from another review. So, although Cave lists no testers and has lots of bugs, you can clear it. I had enough fun doing so.


Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles, by Hippodamus & Company

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An overwhelming, narratively ineffective introduction to Something, November 12, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, Twine, IFComp 2016, fantasy, science fiction

(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)

Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible.

Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IF. Aether is one of these introductory games, and it ends in a weird place and starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.

Spoilers follow:

Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now who used to be a wandering fisherwoman in the past. Links in the prose passages lead to elaborations, courses of action or different locations. The trajectory is generally forwards with occasional gating of progress by character knowledge or events. There is no puzzling difficulty as such, but some patience is required.

Aether's opening, in which the heroine is piloting a starship that's about to disintegrate (the why, where or what of this aren't exposed) should be hooky, but it's handled a bit strangely. The game's structural tactic of looping asides back to already-read passage describing the current scene works later on, but not in this first scene, where it feels like it's slugging up action that should be screaming forwards. The other issue is that Zephyra's visions of divine help from giants and marble hands during this scene come across as pretty psychedelic. Altogether, an odd impression is made, and the whole spaceship scene is not explained or returned to later in this game, leading me to think it's grist for a later episode.

The game then cuts to a more rural (and presumably more modest) time in the past, with Zephyra wandering around and trading fish. The scenic descriptions paint a nice picture, but this prosaic exteriority prevails across all the writing. That's to say that although we're basically playing Zephyra, we barely get inside her, experience her thoughts, motives or feelings. This makes for a mostly inscrutable experience in a Greekish world that's not exactly inscrutable, but is not a world we've been given any reason to invest in yet. Who are these guys Zephyra playfully wrestles with? What does she want out of her days? What's the role of the satyrs she meets? I never learned the answers to any of these questions. Having no character goals and not much of a clear perspective on anything resulted in an uninteresting experience.

There are a fair few links to explore throughout the game – sometimes a crippling-feeling number, like the fifteen on the Fishing District of Kyzikos page – but not many incentives to be thorough. And I got the impression the game expects you to be thorough, since some later asides present information that obviously assumes earlier optional asides were read. Some state-tracking would help address this kind of thing, and will surely be essential in later episodes of this tale if it holds to its mammoth projections.

The finale of Aether is dramatic and ominous, but also oblivious of the fact the player just spent the whole game with Zephyra. The arrival from the sky of a space-faring Jason and his Argonauts, and the promise that they will carry out 'dark deeds' that will wreck everything on Kyzikos, amount to a deus ex (in the broader modern sense) that will remind most players that Zephyra didn't do anything that had anything to do with these things. She might in the future, but so could any other character. In this rural episode, Zephyra has really yet to do anything of significance.

This is what the narrative troubles of Aether boil down to: The game is meant to be an establishing experience for the character of Zephyra, but she has yet to show any personality or do anything of note. The ending only underscores these problems. While they're obviously the biggest ones, the authors don't seem to have any trouble being prolific or riffing on Greekery, and the CYOA-style wandering sections are mechanically effective, though it would take me awhile to get used to negotiating so many links on single pages when those links are interspersed throughout the prose. Aether needs structural recalibration and prose that addresses the interior of its heroine, and so interests us in her, if it's going to succeed.


Necron's Keep, by Dan Welch

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Hardcore CRPG with neat spellcasting system – and bugs – for hardcore players, September 15, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, CRPG, RPG, fantasy

Version five of Necron's Keep is a great advance on the buggy original I tried many years ago. I played this hardcore CRPG to completion over four hours and found it to be very entertaining, in spite of the continued presence of many bugs of inconvenience (mostly involving the automatic inventory management). In a nutshell, Necron's Keep is a challenging, detailed and unforgiving single-character fantasy CRPG. There's no UNDO, and you'll need to keep and label many a save file to make it through. What you get in return is an interesting spellcasting system, transparent die-rolled combat and a satisfying gaming challenge with plenty of danger. The story style is probably most like that of a 1980s Fighting Fantasy gamebook, complete with nasty surprises, while the combat adds some AD&D-like detail.

You wouldn't expect someone called Necron to be a nice guy, but the truth of this game's background story is that you don't know. He's an archmage who went off to live with his people in an enchanted castle and fell out of contact with the world. The king has sent you, a mage, to Necron's place to find out what's going on.

In the fashion of many an old-school (or old-school-styled) RPG, the beginning of this game can be the roughest time. It's when random die rolls and traps can kill you off quickly. Traps and monsters will eat your hp (there are both fixed and random encounters), and the spells you cast to try to protect yourself also cost hp. The multi-page tome you're given to read at the game's start is semi-overwhelming, but it combines lore on how the spell system works with hints that will help you later in the game. You start off with a good number of spells; they show up in your inventory. More spells can be learned from scrolls you find (doing that also costs hp!) and some require material components that you need to find on your journey. This is quite a cool aspect of the game, though it takes a lot of observation to work out which components get eaten by the casting of spells. In bad but amusing news, the game is prepared to incinerate your only held wooden weapon to cast a spell requiring wood if you don't have any other wood in your inventory. You can detect traps, mend broken items, divine the nature of things, cast offensive spells in combat. There's a good range of stuff and a lot of it works on a lot of the game's contents.

The thing that might drive some players spare is the inventory. You've got an unlimited holdall, but only finite hand space. So the game autoswaps items in and out of your holdall as required. This constantly results in situations like you putting away one of two things you need simultaneously when you take the first one out, or accidentally forgetting to get the wood out and burning your weapon as a spell component. This is the main site of bugs in the game that still needs fixing.

The early game is about battling through and finding healing items to sustain you. Once you have the power to create your own healing sphere (this is a cool effect, where you ENTER SPHERE, then sleep or meditate to recover), you enter the midgame, roaming around fighting monsters, collecting xp, healing, learning new spells. The late game could be considered tackling the bigger puzzles and challenges of the keep directly. I was stuck for ages in the midgame because one room exit wasn't mentioned, but I'm not sure if this was semi-intentional – there's a magic item you can acquire that gives you an exit lister, and it was the exit lister that showed me the new way to go.

Once you've worked everything out in Necron's Keep, there's a degree of optimisation in stringing all your knowledge together, and probably revisiting older saves where you were in a better position. I felt really satisfied when I completed it.

This is definitely one for people who like this kind of game, and in spite of its inconveniences, I think it's a good example of the CRPG in parser game form. I wouldn't normally give a game with this many bugs remaining a four, but I can't go below four for a game that kept me this involved.


The Paper Bag Princess, by Adri

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
For people who have read the book, and not for others., July 3, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013, Inform, fantasy

The Paper Bag Princess is a short Z-code adventure in which you play a beautiful royal lass whose beloved is snatched up by a dragon during her wedding, and who then sets out to get him back. When I reviewed the game in my IFComp blog of 2013, I quizzed its design extensively. Very extensively! It turns out that the answer to almost all the numerous questions I rhetorically asked is: "This point is only explained in the book upon which this game is based, or depicted in an illustration in that book." Therefore, the summary of my review is that The Paper Bag Princess is only for people who have read the eponymous book by Robert Munsch. To consider, spoilingly, what the game may be like through the eyes of someone who hasn't read that book (me in 2013, and still me today) you may read on.

Quoth me in 2013:(Spoiler - click to show) I found The Paper Bag Princess to be a curiously toneless game, but it has a few amiable moments. The basic idea is of a mild subversion of the prince-rescues-the-princess story, but this idea is never played up all that much in either the dialogue or in the small inventory of actions the princess will take in the course of the rescue. The role reversal idea could be played for laughs, but isn't, really. The before and after scenes of the wedding lean in the direction of black comedy, what with the contrast between the storybook wedding and the charred field of burning furniture the dragon replaces it with, but I thought the writing didn't sell the contrast strongly enough to deliver an effect.

I didn't really get the choice of puzzles for the game, either. Making a torch is a pretty basic adventure game kind of task. I found it strangely difficult to do in The Paper Bag Princess, in spite of the heroine being conspicuously surrounded by scenery and objects which should have made it easy: smoking ground, burning chair legs, a stick, a vial of oil. All the game wanted was for me to type 'make torch', but the wide range of alternative commands I tried as I attempted to make any of these props interact with one another in a fire-producing way were either not understood, or prompted a "You've got the right idea" message. I think the game should have leapt from giving such a nudge to just saying: "Ok, you do such-and-such and go on to successfully make a torch."

Then there were a couple of quotes from classic adventure games; the PLUGH command and a twisty tree maze to navigate. The walkthrough reads apologetically in the case of the latter, just saying: "the maze is entirely random... sorry!" My question is: Why include these in this game? The Paper Bag Princess doesn't seem to derive any particular meaning from recalling the specifics of old games. It's not a pastiche or in the style of, or saying these were good or bad or anything. These features just appear, unremarked upon in any way, and then it's on to the next puzzle.

The final puzzle of outwitting the dragon at least makes sense on the game's own terms. This ostensibly powerful beast is shown to be easily outwitted, a staple gag of much fantasy and classic storytelling. Doing so involves guessing a couple of topics using one of my least favourite IF mechanics - ask (so-and-so) about (topic). If the classic "guess the verb" problem in IF is about knowing what you want to say to the parser but being unable to say it, I would describe the problem of having to come up with the correct topic to ask a character about as a worse problem in which you potentially don't even know what you want to say in the first place. This is a traditional rant for me which I need to deliver about twice a year and have now delivered here. It's not a problem unique to The Paper Bag Princess.

Mostly I just wanted The Paper Bag Princess to start throwing its eggs into some particular baskets. It could have delivered really strongly on the character of the princess, but she doesn't get to say much and the tone of the prose is too often neutral. The role reversal gag isn't played up. The nature of the tasks the princess performs doesn't say much about either her character or the gameworld. The paper bag she dons is not talked up. I don't get why things like PLUGH and a twisty maze were chosen for inclusion, unless the intent was to quote old games while being subversive about the kinds of things you'd often do in them - but this game isn't very subversive.

This review has probably read heavily for a game this light. It's not that I believe people can or have to be able to explain every choice they make as they create something. But considering the smallness of this game, the author doesn't seem to have made choices that aim it in any particular direction. The result is too flavourless for me, and that's why find myself wondering about all those choices so much.


Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House, by Mark Marino

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Only the introduction to a story, though a very well-produced one., July 3, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013, Undum, fantasy

(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)

Mark Marino's entry into IFComp 2012, the one preceding the one in which he entered Mrs Wobbles, was The Living Will, a curious Undum game which I didn't really get. Mrs Wobbles is a far more vivid and transparent affair, a pro-reading, episodic and illustrated adventure tale aimed at younger readers (7-11 it says) and again delivered with Undum. While there is a fair bit to read here, it turns out that this game is also an introductory one, with more episodes potentially to come in future. Folks have entered introductions into IFComp before, and while I don't think there's any rule against doing so (and Wobbles is voluble, not a tiny tease) it's just in its nature that the Wobbles we're being presented with in IFComp has some of the density of a novel without the payoffs of a novel. I also find it hard to gauge how hooky it might be for those future episodes, but I'm not the core audience. Mrs Wobbles feels to me like the opening of an attractive e-novel for tablets. Interactivity is mostly at the level of deciding in which order to read things, and while this area isn't of much personal interest to me, when I consider the overall quality level of the project I think most players will find something to like here. Some may find a lot.

I think the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books by Lemony Snicket were probably a big influence on the tone of Wobble's prose, and probably more than an influence on its specific content. The protagonists are fostered siblings, their parents died in a mysterious fire and when the game begins, they're going to live in a weird house with a strange adult. The narrator is a magical talking book which can insert whimsical asides into the prose of a kind we'd be hard pressed to get from child protagonists. Production values are consistently high. The game includes some superb woodcut / etching / lithograph style illustrations. The prose is pretty good at any point and you can have it read out to you from author-made recordings. This also means that the speech feature is platform and software independent, and kid-friendly.

What I'm unsure about is how satisfying the scope of this introduction is. It's an introduction for the characters and the setting of the house, but there's no real story vector in place for either of these elements yet, as good as they are. The brother protagonists have a cute rapport, and the fussy girl they meet later, Mildred, is a good foil for them. The house is full of magical rooms and fantastic machinery which may be of use in the future. I suppose the experience of Wobbles is like being introduced to Hogwarts via an explicit tour but then having the book end suddenly. It may be safer to make a self-contained and expositional starting adventure, but it's probably less interesting than throwing players/readers into a story which sets up some plot hooks and mysteries. In the end, my to-ing and fro-ing about Wobbles comes down to the fact that this is an introduction competing in a venue not particularly suited to introductions.


Island of Secrets, by Jenny Tyler and Les Howarth

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A wonderful book delivered a sparse game as best it could in 1984., August 15, 2018
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Apple II, BASIC, fantasy

In 1984, Usborne published Island of Secrets, a fantasy text adventure not delivered as software, but as a book enabling players to generate the program themselves by typing its BASIC listing into their computer. The book doubles as an illustrated reference to the world of the game, containing the background story, character and location guides, coded hints and a map. The game’s prose and engine are so sparse that the book comprises at least half the experience, making it considerably more fundamental to the accompanying game than, say, Infocom feelies are to Infocom games. The story concerns Alphan, a young scholar tasked with collecting objects of power in order to restore a war-darkened Earth.

The Island of Secrets book was a great inspiration to me when I was a kid. The illustrations have a lot of mood and character, the allusions to all the mysteries in the game’s world are intriguing, and the book is full of footnotes about text adventure design and programming. I had to take considerably more from the book than from the game because I never succeeded in getting the game running; I made too many mistakes while typing it in. I was in my twenties before I found a working copy on a public domain disk.

The main reason the book is so essential to playing Island of Secrets is that at least half the findable objects in the game are only cued by their appearance in the book’s illustrations. Island has about sixty locations, but is limited in its overall capabilities by having to support such a wide range of microcomputers out of the box (the Apple II, the C64, the VIC-20, the BBC, etc.). This means the whole thing has to sit and function in about 32kb of RAM after a single load. There’s no space left to hold descriptions of most objects, or to describe or implement scenery that could conceal those objects. All of that work and more is passed off to the illustrations and clues in the book. Mercifully, by holding the back page of the book up to a mirror, a player can obtain the short list of supported verbs and nouns.

Technically, the gameworld’s sophistication is above the level you’d expect from an adventure that presents itself mostly using the Scott Adams aesthetic. There’s a food and drink system, random events such as a storm, and characters who can move around. The characters have histories and motivations detailed in the source book. Amongst them are a Charon-like boatman, a scavenger who’s lost his memory, a depressed swampman and a missing scholar. You need to consult the book to guess at what might variously turn these people into allies, get them out of your path or help you defeat them. The particular solutions the game wants in these departments can be a tad abstract. While the source material is rich, the feedback delivered by the necessarily lean game program is poor. In this respect, Island of Secrets is definitely a story and a game whose visions seriously outpace its game engine. If I’d got it running back in the day, I can see that it would still have been a challenge to complete (without cheating) due to its sparseness, but I might have had the patience for it. In revisiting the game for this review, I was momentarily saddened to acknowledge I no longer have the time or patience. I used a walkthrough.

In its time, the Island of Secrets book provided a way to deliver to kids an adventure game with a deeper story than a BASIC program alone could normally pull off while teaching those kids about programming and game design. As a kid in the relevant demographic, I found all of the related Usborne books exceptional at doing these things, and official versions of them all have now been released as free PDFs. (scroll down on the target page):

Island of Secrets – along with The Mystery of Silver Mountain, Usborne’s other major type-in game presented using the same book and BASIC program combination – now seem unique in the way they’re meant to be experienced. That said, that way did grow out of necessities presented by the limitations of BASIC and the computer hardware of the time. IF players still seem to like feelies, so maybe there’s some weird mine of book-game interdependence that could be retapped for a new project today.

(I give the Island of Secrets book five stars in any year. As a text adventure played today, I can only give Island of Secrets two stars.)


Awake the Mighty Dread, by Lyle Skains

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Something like an Alice in Wonderland that's hard to get at/into/through., July 23, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2011, Inform, fantasy

Awake the Mighty Dread takes place in a fantasy dreamworld fuelled by Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the aesthetic of steampunk. It's got orphans, air travel, capricious NPCs ranging in scale from an amphibian to a deity, and a reverence for storybooks. And all that in a smallish game. It's alluded to that its orphan protagonist slips away to the dreamworld in order to avoid abuse back in the real world, but the social system in the dreamworld turns out to be a troubled one, too. The heroine's spiky curiosity about what's going on there is well written, and provides motivational fuel for the player in a game which turns out to be not very good at signalling progress through it.

Awake is actually the IF dimension of a larger project by its author which can be found at

http://lyleskains.com/Faerwhile.html

However, the game was basically presented as a standalone entity in the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. Exploring the rest of the project might thicken Awake's backstory, but I doubt it would actually help in the playing of Awake for reasons to be enunciated in this review.

Awake received mixed reviews when it appeared in IFComp. My own private review (for other game authors that year) began:

"Since people have been saying that they found this baffling, I secretly patted myself on the head for not being baffled."

So, I liked the overall experience more than most, but the game's delivery is clearly a failing one. In spite of the author's writerly prose and obvious knowledge of some advanced parser conceits, the game exhibits no awareness of how to steer a player through its contents via the parser. Location descriptions are aesthetically pleasing but player-insensitive, with almost none of their interesting features implemented. The features that are implemented are there to service plot points in a story that only seems threadable in retrospect. Trying to make the story happen yourself with the game's minimal direction and tech oversights is futile-leaning, and so the game's solution file is essential.

In the case of contemporary IF, I have low tolerance for being involved with walkthrough/hint systems unless they're really well considered. I also have design philosophy qualms about some games I consider to be impossible without a walkthrough. Awake bypassed my concerns in these areas because it's an interesting failure of an accessible kind. Reconsidering it five years down the track, I'd say it's definitely of more interest to people who create IF games than it is to player-players. In this capacity, it's substantial enough not to feel too small or inconsequential, but still small enough not to feel like a time burglar in spite of its black box implementation.

That black box is actually the point of interest; playing Awake feels like trying to build a Lego model without being able to see your hands. A lot of interconnecting prose seems to be absent in this game. There's a train you start out on, and which automatically travels from station to station, and there's an effect whereby you can see what station you're at out the window. But the descriptions within and without can be indistinguishable. Being on a train in a location can be the same as just being in the location – until the train moves, of course. Similarly, objects sometimes appear 'painted on' in room descriptions, and stay there even after you've taken them. NPCs speak at appropriate moments but don't show up as prose entities when they're not speaking. It's hard to tell when conversations have ended, or if the conversants are still about. Finally, the most important action you must take in the whole game is unguessable, and deliverable as a command in a form that only hardcore parser folk would be aware of. Collectively, these sophisticated-leaning bugs at the coalface of interactivity suggest the author had strong familiarity with parser games but didn't run Awake through a sufficiently typical or robust group of playtesters.

I find the story in Awake interesting, and the game succeeds in feeling like a window onto a larger fantasy world, but in the end its technical oddities render it mostly a curio for parser nerds. Its contents can't be unspooled easily the way the contents of the famous stories it most emulates can. The site of the obstacles is its interactivity.


DRAX, by Paul Allen Panks

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Well, I had to edit the program to make the game work., July 18, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Commodore 64, RPG, fantasy

Drax... Who or what is or was he or she?

When I first completed this game by Paul Allen Panks, I still didn't know. But a couple of days' worth of Commodore 64 BASIC hacking later, I had unearthed the answer. I feel confident in venturing, for reasons which will soon become apparent, that at this time of writing I am the only player on earth to have completed Drax other than its author. And I can't even guarantee that the author did play through his own game, for reasons which will also soon become apparent.

Note that this review is extensive and therefore amounts to a complete spoiler of the game. I hide nothing behind spoiler tags.

I first heard about Paul Panks and his games when I played Ninja's Fate, Hannes Schueller's eulogy to the late game author. I then read numerous reviews of Paul's numerous games, most of which expressed a combination of bewilderment, infuriation and plain old fury at the games' apparent wonkiness. The reviews' tone of hair-pulling was often hilarious to me. I also read some of Paul's refutations to such reviews, and his notes on his own games on his website, and I knew that I would have to try one or more of his games myself.

I am pretty au fait with the Commodore 64, so as a starting place I plucked from the archives Paul's last Commodore game, Drax, from 2005. The experience of playing this game turned out to be amusing in most of the ways I'd expected, but also stimulating in ways I hadn't. Some bold features are spread out over 75 rooms of a fantasy RPG adventure in such a way that many of them would never be seen by the average player, nor do they need to be seen or experienced to complete the game. In this sense, the game's structure is kind of ridiculous. But if it wasn't for this curiosity-inducing weirdness, I wouldn't have been motivated to become intimately acquainted with Drax in the way I did.

When the game begins, you get to name your character, then you find yourself loitering in a tavern which opens onto a village square with a well in it. I've read that this is a common starting point for many of Panks's games. There was no introductory text suggesting what my goal might be, so I just started looking around. Upstairs of the tavern I found a bedroom with some typical adventurer's supplies in it; weaponry and a lantern.

My problems began after I picked up the lantern. When I tried to leave the room, I was told "You need to light the lantern first." This didn't make a whole lot of sense, since I had entered the room by a normally lit corridor. When I tried to light the lantern, I was told "You can't light that here."

Faced with this impossible paradox, I ditched the lantern so as to avoid being trapped in this tavern bedroom for eternity, grabbed the bowieknife (sic) and went outside. I found some townsfolk nearby and, out of curiosity, tried to murder them. Each one of them beat me to death in turn. The bard, the villager, even the priest. Combat consists of a bunch of you hit / they missed messages which you must page through by pressing a key every time the game says <MORE>. My multiple deaths here didn't seem to bode well for my life as a hero of no particular quest. Nevertheless, I tried to proceed out of town and into the ominous looking forest.

"It's much too dark to move in that direction!" said the game.

It turns out that without the ungettable, unlightable lantern, you can't actually go anywhere in Drax. I wondered if Paul ever tried to play the latest version of his own game, which the credits page advises is 1.15?

So I hit the Commodore's BASIC prompt and dumped a listing of the game to my Mac. I disabled the three lines in the program responsible for all the darkness blocks and reloaded my saved game. This worked, and I was now able to venture into the forest.

Drax's wilderness is sizeable, mazey, and satisfying to map. It comes across more like the cross-country terrain of a MUD than the functionally-oriented environment of a personal computer text adventure. Most rooms are empty and exist only to be navigated. Geography is often realistic, but pointless in game terms, like the large stretch of mountains which contains nothing but a bunch of dead ends. I felt I was in a big world, but what was I doing in it?

I passed a few fey folk in the forest, including an elf and a hobbit, and their descriptions indicated that they were friendly, so uncharacteristically for me I didn't try to stab them. But when I saw a black knight guarding a castle gate, I knew it was time for more violence. To my amazement (having been earlier clubbed to death by a villager) I was the victor of this battle. And victory was exciting. I gained experience and gold, a level and hit points, and cool items exploded all over the ground. I wielded my newly acquired broadsword, strapped on my newly acquired chainmail and strode into the castle the knight had been guarding.

In the throne room I met Mordimar, a recurring major villain from Paul's games. Thoroughly expecting to be pulverised, I saved the game and opened fire on the guy. To my surprise, I quickly beat him to a pulp. And as Mordimar's corpse fell towards the ground, but before it actually hit the ground, what appeared to be the missing introductory text to the game suddenly spurted down the screen... then Mordimar finished falling to the ground, died, and the game proclaimed that I was the victor and wished that I should live long.

"Is that it?" I almost asked aloud. You map some empty terrain, kill two monsters and then win the game, at which point you get to read the introductory text?

Weirded out, I returned to a saved game and set out to explore the rest of the world. When I found a werewolf blocking my path in the forest, I saved the game again before engaging him in battle. This battle raged and raged. I noticed that my broadsword was starting to throw lightning bolts at my foe. Awesome! But I had to press a key to advance each round of combat, over and over again… surely I had done this at least 100 times now? We were landing blows, dodging, landing more blows, for pages and pages. Would this clash of the titans ever end? How many hit points did I have left? How many did the werewolf have, for that matter? The game wasn't telling.

My fingers were wearying, and I have enough RSI problems already, so I decided to abort the game and hack the program some more so that I wouldn't have to keep mashing keys to advance battles. With my new 'autoscroll' feature in place, I reloaded my game and went at the hairy fiend anew. I put the Commodore 64 emulator speed up to Turbo and watched the messages begin to scream past. I fiddled around in my web browser and came back six minutes later to find that neither of us had died yet.

This was a bit much, so I quit and revisited the game listing yet again to try to work out what was wrong. I found one bug, then another; unless the player wields a weapon anew after returning from a saved game, their damage roll is likely to reset to zero. And when player armour gets over 100% (which mine was by now), enemy attacks actually GIVE the player hit points.

After rewielding my weapon, I was able to start killing people again. And kill I did, as I explored the rest of the forest and an underground cavern system. There were some cool monsters down there, like a black widow, and some pretty dull ones, like a slime and a skeleton. Every time I killed something, I gained another level and more hit points, and more ridiculously overpowered items, like the ring which would regenerate all my health during every round of combat. What with my lightning-throwing broadsword and the fact that being hit actually healed me, I didn't really need such a ring this point. I also discovered that I could pick monsters up like objects and put them down wherever I liked. Typing GET MORDIMAR produces "You cannot take that." immediately followed by "Ok." And then Mordimar is in your inventory.

If this stuff had been programmed without the bugs, it would have amounted to quite a flourishy RPG system. But it wasn't programmed without the bugs, and of course in practical terms its entire existence is obviated by the fact that you can win the game by killing just two monsters, with the caveat that you must first hack the game program so that you can leave town in order to be able to reach those monsters.

And what of the mystery of Drax? I still hadn't encountered any mention of it during my many plays.

Again, I broke out the game listing and started nosing around. I discovered that the secret passage which had been revealed when I played the piano in the castle had actually opened in the ceiling of the room, and not in the floor as the game had said, and that's why my attempts to go down at that point had not succeeded. I returned to the piano room, went up through the buggy passage and found myself in a small jail area. In one cell was a book called Drax, and when I read that book, I found within it the introductory text of the game, the text I had previously read as Mordimar toppled towards the floor, the text which prophesised that I, Wade6 (your character is renamed automatically after your latest saved game) would free the land from Mordimar's tyranny. But now that this text wasn't scrolling past during combat, I was able to read the last line, which said "The next chapter is awaiting…"

And suddenly I realised why this text appears as Mordimar falls. It is because at that moment it is immediately followed by that 'next chapter', which is the triumphal game over message affirming that you fulfilled your destiny. In other words, had I picked up this book during the game, the otherwise entirely bizarre-seeming placement of the story of Mordimar during his death scene would have made sense, as it would have come across as a reiteration of the Book of Drax and its prophesy, followed by the formerly promised next chapter.

After the huge effort I had made to explore, debug and make sense of this game, and considering that I had initially laughed at the timing of the arrival, at the end of the game, of what I had previously thought of as the introductory text, I found myself smiling at the quite cool idea that Panks had come up with here about the book which writes its own end. He didn't pull it off properly, which it seems was often the case with him, but it was there.

Drax contains a fully imagined game world and system without the focus or polish needed to get players to become interested in either in any traditional sense. I am still glad to have spent my time in that world, and to feel that I have learned something about its author. Paul was obviously a messy creator, but it's also obvious that he enjoyed developing games like this one, and that he was always striving for something in them; witness his prolific output and his multiple attempts to realise whatever Westfront was ultimately intended to be. I find it easy to be inspired by the passion Paul obviously had, even as I imagine that when I try more of his games, some of them probably will turn out to be as annoying as people have said they are.


Valkyrie, by Emily Forand et al

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Triple pack student CYOA, July 18, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2012, choice-based, Twine, fantasy

(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 5th of 26 games I reviewed.)

One of the fun things about IFComp is how the games come from all over the place. From people you know, people you know hiding behind silly names, people you don't know, tall people, short people, etc. Valkyrie is a team effort fantasy CYOA game from three students enrolled in a Game-based Learning Developmental English course this Fall semester at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs in the USA. As one of my heroes, Shaun Micallef, once said in a skit about a folk CD being sold to raise money for charity, "That makes it virtually impossible to criticise." But so long as their teacher didn't actually browbeat them into entering IFComp – and maybe even if she did – I feel like congratulating them for entering before I get to the reviewing.

The first screen of Valkyrie is weird. Several funerals are described in the third person present style of a film script. Then you're asked to choose what you have trained in: Mistress Thief, Wizardess or Swordswoman. I picked Wizardess on my first play and found myself waking to that role in a fantasy world. The PC is aware that they are dreaming, or might be dreaming, and exhibits anxiousness about finding opportunities to return to the real world, but also about doing a decent job as a Wizardess in the new world. This new world features gods from Norse mythology fighting over a magic necklace.

It turns out that each profession is its own game, presumably with each author contributing one profession. This gives three different styles and three different sets of concerns, but there's a common mythology involving the Asgard stuff, the necklace and the ongoing mini drama of whether the PC will keep helping the Asgardians or try to return home. With each game being about the same heroine, it's interesting to see what each author's version of her is like. The Wizardess is thoughtful and well mannered, though her story doesn't have paragraph breaks. The thief moves directly towards her goal in a short stealth and action tale featuring some instant deaths. The swordswoman's story is ambitious in trying to add detail to the world, with a passage about getting used to her Valkyrie wings and going on a mission (and there seem to be some Harry Potter nods about the place, too) but unfortunately it forgets to keep letting you make decisions, ending with a huge text dump.

The three games reminded me of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books in particular, which frequently started out in everyday life and transported the reader into a fantasy situation. Also like the books, the three games in Valkyrie offer a good number of large-scale choices to the player, choices which result in non-overlapping things happening in the story. This is the key to a lot of the more fun CYOA books, and I enjoyed this same quality in Valkyrie.

Perhaps this game was more interesting to think about afterwards than while playing. Its unadorned and expositional language can be wearing, but with three stories, a good number of choices for the player to make and three different versions of a common heroine trying herself out in a patchwork fantasy world, it has some kind of charm. I don't think the opening was intended to be as strange as it might seem, but that strangeness made it kind of cool, too.



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