"Nightfall" by Eric Eve

This is a review of Nightfall by Eric Eve, an entry into IFComp 2008. It contains spoilers.

Nightfall is a brilliant piece of code from which hangs a wide and detailed world and solid prose, but also a few flat characters. The broad-brush characterization, fortunately, does not diminish Eve's other achievements when one takes the game as a whole.

We learn in the introduction that the government of this country (presumably England, though I'm not sure if it ever explicitly tells us this) has ordered a total evacuation: "the Enemy" is coming. We know almost as little as the protagonist about this Enemy, yet we have returned to the city which they will soon occupy in order to find her, a woman with whom the protagonist has been obsessed since primary school. We later learn her name is Emma, yet the PC favors the enigmatic, and somewhat overblown, "her" -- always italicized. She has remained in the city for reasons we do not yet understand, and it's as much of our goal in this game to suss out those reasons as it is to locate her.

Nearly all information about our past is gleaned from memories, which are triggered by visiting many of the city's locations. The first brilliant bit of programming we encounter, then, is the REMEMBER system, which we can use to summon to mind any memory we have previously triggered. We can also RECAP all the memories we've triggered since gameplay began. It isn't long before we start implementing other similarly useful verbs: THINK and THINK HARDER provide us solid leads; GO TO and CONTINUE provide us an easy, logical method of traversing the vast city which is known to the player-character but not to the player.

Nightfall is by no means a difficult game, yet the clues and prompts it provides are subtle enough that one feels brilliant while solving its puzzles. A sense of urgency pervades the text, too, and events are so keenly scheduled that we always feel as though we're one step behind the mystery -- invisible, yet within reach.

Eve also includes several branching paths in this game, each of which feels fleshed-out enough to be the "correct" path. We never feel as if we're straying, but instead as if we're forging ahead into this mysterious night, blazing our own path.

In an abandoned library, I found a computer with access to Google. For laughs, I Googled (in-game) the game's title, assuming I would find an Easter egg, if anything. Instead, I learned that "Nightfall" was the title of a book by an author Emma had recommended to me years ago -- whose name was equally in-game-Googleable. This game generally isn't one to breach the fourth wall, so this bit of meta-gaming actually came off as a bit spooky, especially after I went to the shelves to find the book and to see why Emma had recommended it. The text was very dark, fueled by thanatos. At that moment I began to have my first reservations about Emma. When I Googled the anagram of Emma's name, I knew I was in trouble.

The game had tricked me into thinking I had found out about Emma's dark side before I was supposed to discover it, but I was, in fact, right on track. Eve's sense of pacing is impeccable, and for that alone Nightfall deserves high accolades. I wish the protagonist had expressed a bit more depth about his relationships with other characters. Emma is a beauty of mythic proportions, less human than elemental force. I think Eve should either push Emma further into that mythic realm with the language he uses to describe her or introduce a foreshadowing flaw or two into her personality, revealed through the PC's forgotten memories. Otherwise, I don't think there's a detail of this game I'd change.


Dumb joke time.

What do you call a German shepherd with a bell around its neck?

A Rintintinnabulation.


Doubt dir. Erin Scarberry

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt provided a memorable conclusion to several happy years of Heller Theatre productions. If I understand correctly, Heller will be moving to a new location, called Henthorne, within the next few months, and I look forward to seeing those new facilities.

Heller Theatre productions deserve a larger space, and I hope the Henthorne will provide them that. Doubt, on the other hand, benefitted from the closed space. It takes place, after all, within the cloistered halls of a Catholic school. Imagine how such a text would play on a larger stage, in a vast hall. There would be too much air between the actors and the audience. Heller Theatre was an intimate space fit for intimate plays, and I think I will miss that intimacy.

There are moments in Scarberry's production that did not ring true for me. My least favorite was the initial confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Gavin as Flynn violated the sanctity of the Sister's office by sitting in her chair, putting his feet on her desk, and flashing personal habits which she found repulsive. It seemed as though he was making her uncomfortable intentionally, as though he were performing these actions as a power play.

Though Gavin committed himself to the power play, and though Sanders and Blocker both responded to the shift in relacoms appropriately and believably, I didn't understand why Father Flynn would do such things. Aloysius hadn't accused him of anything by that point, and though it's obvious that the Father and the Sister would have butted heads many times due to their opposing philosophies, I'm not sure the antipathy had reached such a level that Flynn would have encroached upon her private space and offended her sensibilities so brazenly. Simply put, the blocking was very interesting and imaginative, but seemed unsupported by the text itself. The blocking made blatant what the text stated subtly: the power struggle between these two religious figures coming to a head.

This moment was very odd for me, because little else in the production unfolded so inorganically. I found a few of the crosses unmotivated, some of the blocking a bit too geometric and symmetrical, but truthfully this was a play in which actions and words flowed from an honest and real source. I think I would have liked to have seen Sister Aloysius' doubts -- or rather, to have seen her experience and then suppress those doubts, revealing them only in full force at the very end of the play. This would have added just that extra touch of depth to her strong and confident performance.

The climactic argument between the Sister and the Father was dramatic without becoming maudlin, and made me curious as to why Doubt had not been submitted to the TATE committee. I think this play would have made a very strong showing at the competition, but I'm sure Scarberry has an ace up her sleeve later this season. Still, I would have loved to've seen these actors' performances recognized more formally somehow. I loved Blocker in Recent Tragic Events, and I loved her in this too. I don't believe I've seen Sonya Wallace yet on the Tulsa stage, which is a shame because she was really something in this production as Mrs. Muller. (When she crossed to kneel in front of the Sister, my heart broke.)

On a more personal note (which I really should be doing more of, since I no longer have to put on the pretense of professional prose), I loved the Radiohead scoring the top of each scene, especially "I Might Be Wrong." It's one of my favorite songs, and I love the idea of using it to expand the theme of doubt in this play. I liked how the music changed the texture of the show, too. Think about how traditional chamber music, or Gregorian chant, or something equally and ephemerally "religious," would have changed the show. It would have distanced us from it, I think. Stereotyped it. I think this choice gave us a new point of access into the text.


El Orfanto (The Orphanage)

The Orphanage is one of those odd horror movies whose ending I did not anticipate -- one of those odd endings which shifts the tone of the film and makes you see its events in a wholly different light. The film does not have many scares, but sustains a general atmosphere of tension throughout. Those scares it does offer up are memorable and even shocking. (The goddamn bus.)

The burlap mask which one of the children wears in the trailer was so disturbing to me that I was disappointed that it did not receive more screen time than it actually did.

The film would not appease many horror buffs. It is a quiet psychological thriller, and a well-made one.


Silent Hill: Homecoming

Whereas combat has always been something of a footnote in the Silent Hill series, it has in Homecoming become the gameplay's central focus. Loading screens feature a few handy tips regarding enemies' strengths, weaknesses and behavior patterns. Battles, which are far more frequent than in any previous installment (save for perhaps Silent Hill 4: The Room), feature QTEs, combos and finishing moves. The player also has the ability to lock the camera onto individual monsters. Outside of combat, the player can adjust and swivel the camera around Alex to gain a better view of his surroundings.

All this adds up to providing the player with increased control over the world of Silent Hill. This has the unintended side effect, however, of diminishing the town's scope and dreadfulness. Silent Hill still bends the landscape to its will, but the PC no longer seems as abject and powerless there. (As a side note, the player's ability to leap over and duck under some obstacles makes little sense when other barriers, such as a simple porch swing or a bench, prove impassible.) Double Helix attempts to mitigate this sacrifice by packing the world with monsters, further emphasizing the prominent role of combat in this game.

Double Helix has greatly improved the Silent Hill combat system, but it is not without its flaws. By swinging the spotlight onto this new system they have thrown its flaws into stark contrast with the loosely implemented but largely ignorable combat of the other Silent Hill games. Homecoming's combat flaws seem more disruptive and troubling in light of this contrast.

In Homecoming, survival depends on the player's ability to learn and distinguish monsters' patterns from one another. Any particular monster will have its own cues and tells, which prompt the player to time precisely a press of the dodge button, then to launch a counterattack with weak attacks, strong attacks, or a combination of both. Some monsters are weak to certain weapons. Strangely, the combat in Homecoming is reminiscent of boss fights in the Mega Man series, which are built upon rigidly patterned boss fights and weakness to particular weapons, making the game seem more like an arcade game than a psychological horror.

Unlike Mega Man, however, Alex is not as agile and adept as we would like. He can have his attacks thwarted by seemingly innocuous pieces of nearby scenery, leaving him vulnerable to monsters. Alex will occasionally dodge into attacks instead of away from them, which can be irritating for a talented player and absolutely infuriating for a player still struggling with the new combat system. There are encounters were Alex can be "stun-locked," or hit repeatedly by an enemy without a chance for escape or avoidance. In a game which puts such emphasis on its combat system, these flaws seem worse than if they were part of a game in which combat took a backseat to other gameplay elements.

Returning to my point about increased control within Silent Hill's world, having the player face down the town's monsters diminishes their horror. Either the player has not learned the appropriate weapons, dodges and counterattacks for a particular encounter or the player has them memorized; in the former case the monsters are infuriating and in the latter they are merely annoying -- or worse, give the player a sense of pride and satisfaction for having overcome them. None of these emotions contribute to the atmosphere necessary to create a sense of horror in the player.

In previous installments, the best solution to almost every encounter with a monster was to run away from them. This often instilled panic and dread in the player. Flight isn't often possible in Homecoming, though, as the designers have laid in the player's path roadblocks and chokepoints, such as boarded-up doorways which must be chopped away.

All that said, the combat can be satisfying. It is just that "satisfying" has little place in a horror game.

This shortcoming disappoints, because Homecoming is otherwise a gratifying experience for the Silent Hill fan. Though perhaps a little more regarding Silent Hill's cult should have been left unstated, the visual design adheres to the series' style with slavish devotion. A cameo of a fan favorite is understated and appropriate. Akira Yamaoka's sound design and music remain a primary source of tension, and probably stand out as the best parts of this game. The story features a few nice touches, but relies on some video-game cliches, some implausible behavior, and a unconvincing, off-the-shelf romantic entanglement.

It's sad, but even though I enjoyed this game, it was not the revelatory, soul-shuddering experience that Silent Hill 2 was to me. Perhaps I'm jaded now. But I've reconciled myself with the fact that, well, it's true what they say: despite this latest release being a "homecoming", you really can't ever go home again. Or, in this case, to your own personal hell.


"Escape from the Underworld" by Karl Beecher

This review of an IFComp 2008 entry contains spoilers.

The whole 'lighter side of Hell' shtick has been done to, well, death. This IF needed to grab me from the get-go, but it didn't. It felt like a half-hearted parody of traditional interpretations of Hell mixed with some standard office props.

The implementation turns out to be pretty lazy, too. I was unable to refer to the lunchboxes as either "box" or "boxes." TAKE ALL ignored the two obviously portable objects in the cupboard yet tried to take four pieces of fixed-in-place scenery, including the cupboard itself.

Beecher introduces the player to three NPCs within a few rooms, yet none of them seems to have more than a few lines of dialogue. Evidently the receptionist wants me to do something for her. I intuit that the ashtray may provide me a clue, so I ASK HER ABOUT THE ASHTRAY. She only yells at me: "Leave the things on my desk alone!" I ask her about cigarettes and about smoking. "She just frowns and looks off to the side bemused."

I've been reduced to playing guess-the-noun, one of my least favorite games. I examine the ashtray: "It is piled high with the Receptionist's cigar stubs." I ask her about the stubs. "I know nothing about that." Turns out the right noun is CIGARS.

Elsewhere, there's a mechanic, who has a toolbag. You can ask him about TOOLS, but you can't TAKE TOOLS; they don't exist. Many of this year's entrants should repeat the following to themselves: synonyms are our friend. Implement them! How are your readers supposed to enter your world if you can't be bothered to make it accessible?

"Ananachronist" by Joseph Strom

This review of an IFComp 2008 entry contains spoilers.

I simply couldn't plunge very far into this game. The prose demonstrates carelessness which reflects the absence of attention paid to detail throughout the game.

Strom has misspelled several words and committed other careless typos. For instance, "You'll be wisked [sic] away to report a job well done." Also: "... That's probably a good thing when you're playing with the forcing [sic] that control time itself." These aren't deal-breaking mistakes, but they indicate a failure on the part of the author to play through his game with fresh eyes.

He occasionally fails to anticipate verbs which would be commonly associated with certain objects. TURN HOURGLASS OVER produces an error message. TURN HOURGLASS produces "Nothing obvious happens," which is unhelpful to say the least.

The game suffers from some unimplemented nouns, as well. When we put the chronometer on the pedestal, "the runes glow." If we try to EXAMINE THE RUNES, we are told there is no such thing.

The proper usage of the magical objects in the Vortex, our starting location, is not self-evident. I assume that either the author intended us to discover their uses through trial-and-error, as a minor puzzle, or that he assumed their usage would be more obvious than it is (which would be, again, a failure to play through the game with fresh eyes). In either case, since the player-character is someone who has done this job before, or at least has learned how to do this job, it doesn't make any sense that the player should be clueless and lost here. The author should have our mentor, mentioned in the prologue, give us a helping hand.

Speaking of the prologue, I can't suss out the intended tone here. It reaches for Douglas Adams but falls far short. Where the prose isn't borrowing Adams's wry tone, it is either bland or confusing; the description of the Vortex manages to be both. Once I had figured out how to travel through the portal, I had hope the game would become less bland, but I was teleported to a nondescript dome with hallways in all directions. Choosing a hallway at random, I discovered the following:

"A small sign, in immaculate black lettering, informs you that this hallway is marginally different from the others. Specifically, this is the hallway which contains the entrance to the warehouse. Said entrance is no more distinct, just a branch in the corridor to the west with a control panel set into the wall."

I tried to OPEN THE DOOR, and for my trouble got a condescending "Perhaps the control panel would help with that."

Guessing that the game would alternate between blandness and condescension, I found I had no interest in continuing.


"Trein" by Leena Kowser Ganguli

This IFComp 2008 entry is not a confident text adventure. The prose has a coherent tone and style, but when the player interacts with it, the game quickly dissolves into standard responses where helpful (or at least flavorful) replies should be and gaping holes where implemented nouns should be.

This review contains spoilers.

It seems to me that Ganguli has not taken the player into account. She had a specific course in mind when she wrote the game, which she expected the player to follow like a trail. Most players do not like to follow trails; they prefer to wander, gaze, prod.

Down a dark alley, the player encounters the following description of nearby hovels: "If even one stick is taken away, the entire construction would collapse altogether!" This is clearly intended as hyperbole, yet still inspires the obvious command TAKE STICK, which only provokes the standard "You can't see any such thing."

The game suggests dozens of nouns in its descriptions, very few of which have been implemented. In the first "room," a road outside a country tavern which leads to Trein's castle, the description provides details about PEOPLE who close and bolt their DOORS when they see me coming; the STREET on which I'm walking; the CASTLE in the distance. There are a few nouns which, though not explicitly listed, would be logically visible here, most notably SKY and HOUSE. Consequently the world feels very empty, thin. Even the TAVERN, a major set-piece here, cannot be examined, let alone entered. We are forced to GO EAST in order to enter it.

Upon arriving at the tavern, we meet several people inside, yet we can interact with these people only in a very limited sense. We can't ask the barkeep about ALCOHOL, only about ALE. We can't ask her about TREIN, DISAPPEARANCES, LORD, or KING, all obvious choices given our backstory.

Once we obtain a coin (inexplicably lying on the road elsewhere in the game), we can purchase some ale. There is a DRUNKARD here, and the obvious adventure-game choice is to give the ale to the drunkard. However, there seems to be no in-game indication that we should do so. The drunkard rewards us with rope and other tools so that we can break into the castle, but who this drunkard is and why we should have known he would reward us remains a mystery prior to our gift of ale.

Typing OUT and EXIT don't move us from the tavern; we can only GO WEST.

At this point I lost patience and ran the walkthrough. The game remains similarly uncompelling and poorly implemented.


"Violet" by Jeremy Freese

This review contains spoilers for the interactive fiction "Violet," an IFComp 2008 entry.

The work begins in media res, disorienting the player. The unconventional narration further disorients us. Freese, through the narrator, prods us to "write," to overcome the player-character's writing block. Freese cuts through the disorientation with this direct order, but the blunt-force trauma of having the narration tell us so directly to do something compels us to do the opposite. I spent my first several turns of "Violet" avoiding the command "write."

Unwittingly, I had put myself in the PC's shoes, and when I entered a game-ending command, I realized how high the stakes were. This IF isn't about writer's block; this is about a decisive moment in the PC's life, in which circumstances challenge him to face and overcome a major flaw in his personality. If he can commit to his thesis, then he can commit to Violet.

From that moment, I was committed to the task at hand. The PC, however, was not as willing and able; constant distractions thwart him. The object of the game, then, is to block out those distractions one by one. In this way, this one-room adventure breaks no new ground, but is fashioned intuitively and intriguingly. The narrator applauds our inventive solutions, even if they fail, even when they succeed at a cost.

Violet, our narrator, is a vivid character. I found her a bit controlling and overbearing at times, especially when she would FEED COMMANDS directly to me, but this is at the least better than playing guess-the-verb. It also makes sense that a PC with so little direction and ambition would seek a partner with more gumption and verve. That aside, the character of Violet has been fashioned such that the player wants the relationship to survive this trial. Indeed, she has invested so much time and effort into the various gifts around the PC's office that we feel guiltily obligated to write the thesis; it is the least we can do.

I was baffled by the slingshot/sprinkler/pen puzzle, especially after finding the old tater tot. I think that particular puzzle could have used one fewer red herring. I enjoyed other red herrings, though. I felt so proud when I realized I could just slide the key underneath the door -- until someone pushed it back. Then I tried to swallow it (and got a laugh out of that attempt's failure).

There are lots of laughs to be had in this game, despite the high stakes. I especially liked: "Warren is playing 'Your Cult Sounds Pretty Cool,' his last known recording."

There are still a few bugs floating around this IF which should be cleared up in the next release, most notably that we seem to be able to take the pen's cap without having removed it from the sprinkler. (I realized this while trying to remove the bottle cap as a bullet for my slingshot, which begs the question: where's the bottle cap? The game tells me I can open and close the bottle. How am I accomplishing this without a cap?) There are also some synonyms for objects which need to be implemented. I wanted to call the photograph a "flier" and a "laminate", words which were both in descriptions of the photograph. Similarly, the itinerary should have as synonyms "receipt" and "printout". Lastly, there's a typo in the error message "[I am squinting at you right now. I feel like you are testing me. I don't like it," which needs either a close bracket at the end or no open bracket at all.

Though the nature of the IF's puzzles remind me too much of the babel fish puzzle from THGttG, I do appreciate that they lead to the destruction of beloved artifacts of the relationship, and once I'd reached the ending, it made sense that I was destroying the past -- because the PC knew, in his heart of hearts, that Violet had left hours ago, that she was gone whether or not he finished his thesis.

The twist ending, then, felt tacked on to me. I mean, I like happy endings as much as anybody else, but the bitter ending felt more artistically justified, given the destruction of all those gifts. Perhaps there is a way for this author to rewrite the happy ending so that it doesn't feel so "easy," so that it feels justified by what has come before it. I hope so, because I found this entry endearing, challenging, and well-written.



I scrub my parents’ pool,
my stainless steel brush attachment
like a staff. Reflecting
in the water are our evergreens, the ash,
and the newly planted, dying maple.
These are the last standing trees
of Walnut Creek. I come here when I need to think,
walking circles around the pool,
the cartoon cliché of pacing’s furrows recalling

Japanese Zen gardens. Trendy businessmen
rake their mini-garden
back… forth…
with an index finger. I feared
the summer’s tornadoes, God’s finger
raking its contemplative path
through civilized landscape,
fields, hills, buildings,
and the creek behind my house.
I fantasized that jungle airborne,
the twister gorging on greens and meats alike,
animals and sky both screaming.

Businessmen brought bulldozers
and cemented the creek. Erosion has stopped.
The drainage ditch burbles when it rains, and,
with more sky than ever reflected on the poolwater,
it is easier to spot scum, to take a brush,
and scrub: Up… down…