Friday, November 7, 2008

IFcomp08 reviews: Trein

This is a review of a game in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. This text is so spoilers do not show up in the RSS feed. That would be less than polite. The feed is set to truncated, not full. You should only be seeing this paragraph, not the review itself. By the way, there are SPOILERS in the review. I repeat, SPOILERS. Do not read on if you do not want spoilers. You have been warned.

by Leena Kowser Ganguli

This is an old-schoolish kind of game, with castles and intrigue and plots. Not to say this is a bad thing; it is what it is. Because there have been games like this, however, one of these games stands or falls on its writing.

Now, I'm a huge supporter of more descriptive writing in IF. It's what is going to push the field away from Zork and towards literature. So I appreciate that this game is attempting it, but it feels like a massive first draft. For instance, take this room description:

"South End of The Shadowed Alley
You follow the Shadowed Alley as it curves to the South. It is a dead end. This area used to covered at some point - you can see the remnants of the roof on the ground, now useless lumps of wood and plaster. Above, you can see the last fingers of the evening light as they begin to fade into the night. This is a dead end. Following the Alley to the North leads back to the Shadowed Alley."

Leaving aside the obvious grammatical errors and capitalization quirks - generally, if you're going to be capitalizing in unorthodox ways there had better be a fantastic reason for it, even more so in prose - the "last fingers...fade" is a mixed metaphor and the final two sentences are superfluous. Revising this, of course, will leave you with a much shorter roomdesc, but that's good. It gives you more space to pack in evocative details and scenery and the stuff that immersive worlds are made of.

Other rooms fall along the same lines. The writing's trying to go beyond a simple, terse description, which is great, but doesn't quite make it. Atmosphere requires subtlety which I didn't quite get out of this. Furthermore, there's the action-in-the-description thing. If you're going to use a metaphor such as the wind brushing against you like a phantom, it loses something when you see it again and again in the room description every time you >LOOK.

Is this easy? No way. Am I an expert at this? Hell no. It takes polish, for everyone. I didn't really get the sense that this happened.

This need for polish extended into the technical realm as well. A few I noticed: The self description mentions that you're wearing dark clothes, even if you remove said clothes. Some nouns which could've been opportunities for atmosphere text (the shadows in the castle, for instance) weren't implemented. A lot of objects either needed to be marked scenery or given initial descriptions to avoid the constant repetition of "You can see a Noun here."

I encourage the author to write more IF; this isn't bad at all as a first draft. It's a first draft, though. More beta testing could help, but what would help more is authorial revision. I've said this a lot because it applies so often. Polish, polish, polish. Polish alone won't make a top tier game, but the lack of polish is often what keeps games out of the top tier.