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Graham Nelson's Homage to the Start of It All, March 15, 2009
It was 1996, and Graham Nelson -- creator of the Inform language and the father of modern IF -- had just released Inform 6 in April. The Second Annual IF Competition was underway. What better chance to show off the new stuff? Professor Nelson completed the intriguingly-titled piece known as The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet and submitted it to the IF Comp under the pseudonym (and anagram) "Angela M. Horns".
This is a game in the old-school style. That means the pastiche of elements that are assembled into the story is contrived, but the beauty of it lies in the assembly. It's like a patchwork quilt: You can clearly see the seams attaching various unrelated flights of fancy together, but if that's where you focus your attention, you'll miss the striking overall pattern.
At the outset, you play a diplomat, caught in an interminable "tour" of the land you are assigned to. Before long the setting changes to what long-time IF players would consider more familiar territory -- almost literally. Allusions are made to a secret mission, but it's up to the player to figure out what the mission is and how to accomplish it as you go along.
This work predates the modern style of detailed implementation, and its object and room descriptions are remarkably spare. This is clearly not carelessness, however; a rich world is presented as your imagination fills in the artfully-carved blanks. Perhaps it is the nature of a mathematician like Nelson to pay such close attention to negative information, as this same tendency shows through in the design of several puzzles. There is often as much of a clue provided by what is not said as there is by that which is.
Echoes of Zork abound, but they do not define the experience. The story comes into its own towards the end. If you, like me, find yourself completing the game without achieving the maximum score, then you'll also find yourself diving right back in to see how to dredge up those last few points. And if you, like me, find yourself looking at the built-in hints to speed that process, it's only proof that you've been well and truly hooked.
There are a few bugs (including one I found that crashed Frotz), a few quirks (potentially unplanned "solutions" to puzzles) and a couple of instances of find-the-syntax, but on the whole gameplay was smooth and of professional quality. If you enjoyed the original Infocom Zork and Enchanter series, or the more recent Enlightenment, this is a must-play. Three stars for this work from a five-star contributor to the art.