Ultimate Escape Room: IF City (IF-Comp 2017)

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Back in the late 80s, Tartan Software released a compilation of adventures
which seemed designed to help users get to grips with playing adventures. One
of these games was Red Door, and was published after its initial release as a
cover-mounted cassette in the magazine Your Sinclair. Another Tartan game,
Escape, was released about the same time by rival magazine Sincair User. Both
of these games had a simple gameplay, perfect for new users, Escape perhaps the
more so of the two. The author of Tartan games was a one-man-band Tom Frost,
who incidentally was also the first player to complete the infamous Mountains
of Ket series, winning himself a video cassette recorder in the process. As most of the locations in Escape are corners of the same room, Tom Frost has a case for his game being the first ever room escape.

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Here with Ultimate Escape Room: IF City, we have a game that fits exactly into
that niche. The author has us imagine that we are actually playing a real-life
escape room game. Was the author inspired by an actual real-life room escape?
If so, we have, as another reviewer Jason Dyer points out, “an electronic game
inspired by a physical game inspired by an electronic game”. Well, actually it
goes even further than that as the (typically) Flash games which inspired
real-life room escape were inspired by point-and-click adventure games, which
were inspired in turn by text adventures…

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This is not author Mark Stahl’s first game, he also wrote something called
Questor’s Quest a couple of years back, though I have yet to play it. This offering is quite welcome, as it removes the typical inane text dump and artsy-fartsy stuff, in order to just get back to basics. There are some minor issues: you can’t examine some things you can see, like paint or walls, and there could by more synonyms for nouns, but it is an overall enjoyable experience, even if it is only a few rooms long, each room basically a colour. Does what it says on the tin, although “IF City” is stretching things a bit.

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Measuring the Measureless

Flying home from Cairo, danger awaits, but the world has not reckoned with your Grandfather and the mysterious secret his enigmatic tome holds. Your clothes are rumpled, and eyebrow makeup ruined, but at least you have an apple and the inflight magazine for company.

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This is a Glulx’d game by Ivan R., though I’m not sure these smaller z-code games really need Glulxing, and it prevents it being migrated out to the older 8-bit platforms. Action begins with you gazing up within the black abyss and an infinite sky. I wasn’t sure if I was on the Jolly Roger or on a space odyssey, but it seemed a bit odd to me to find myself on a commercial airflight; it didn’t seem to quite marry up to me. The flight itself was a bit clunky: you can’t GO TOILET you can only GO LAVATORY, and you still have to GET UP before you can get in there. It was also a bit off-putting to have some semi-sacrilegious comments upon examining my cap. There is a distinction of course between player and character, but in adventure games this line is blurred, so it’s a bit unpleasant to hear the character I’m playing moaning about dumb rituals. I think this is something that media in general suffers from these days: cynical and complaining central characters are not really heroic. Worst of the worst was trying to get out of the toilet. LEAVE BATHROOM. Nope? LEAVE LAVATORY. Nada. OPEN DOOR. Nothing doing. Then came into my mind the escapade of a Spectrum game which Mike Gerrard was reviewing many moons ago. He tried multiple entries, until finally inspiration came. “O-U-T spells OUT”.

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We have some flashback goings on, and it’s all a bit plodding, with messages like “you can’t go that way”, even though it clearly stipulates that the road continues east. Equally GO HOUSE is “not something you could enter”. There are delicious smells, but you smell nothing unexpected, and so on. Typical entries like SHOUT, SCREAM or YELL are not included. EXAMINE ME during the opening seemed to imply I might be female, but a cursory examination seemed to imply I lacked the female appendages. But apparently I was wearing a disguise so that might explain it: but I wasn’t quite sure why. Conversation lacks a bit of finesse. With Grandpa I quickly felt like I’d exhausted the inane conversation thread. Grandpa’s patience was beginning to wear thin – and so was mine.

Now some of the best games I’ve played have incredible frustration involved, but this has it in the wrong places, and also a lack of coherence to motivate you to go on. I didn’t notice any bugs that were gamebreaking, but there are minor irritations. You can’t use the abbreviation MAG for MAGAZINE, when you try to THROW it, even though you’re carrying it (and light years away from the plane) you should “grab the one by your seat”. POKE SERPENT WITH PEN: “You can’t see any such thing”. And CUT APPLE WITH KNIFE, “You’re hesitant, both of violence and of breaking your weapon”. A personal irritation was that HELP directs you towards a walkthrough: those things seriously damage your adventuring health.

The serpent was where I found my interest had very much waned due to the lack of response to what seemed the more obvious input. For me there’s just an absence of the necessary connection between author and player that even the most simple of text adventures carry.

Reminiscences It Gave Me (which are much more appealing)

Operation Stealth, Leisure Suit Larry 3, Borderzone, The Last Express, WC Escape

 

And Mine a Sad One…

The Richard Mines – Evan Wright (IF Comp entry 2017)

Into the historical Czech Republic, with not a lot to run the borders bar the clothes on your back and the will for freedom. What a concept for a new adventure game. Well, not quite. This game has more of the vibe of a museum tour. We take a look at Czechoslovakian past troubles (has Czechoslovakia ever been free of troubles ?), but unfortunately this only amounts to trawling a few caves with no attempt at drama.

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Though I like old 8-bit text Adventures even I found the descriptions a little sparse.
In some curious way it reminded me of the original Colossal Cave Adventure. Another reviewer commented that back in the latter days of the ’80s, having no instructions could be abided, as both computer memory space and packaging were limited; but that there is no excuse today. Funnily enough magazine reviewers often managed to grab as much as they could from the inlay and game itself, and then begin their reviews with a background story more cohesive than within the instructions. I could tolerate this absence in “The Richard Mines” if there was some exposé in the actual game, but alas, there is not. There were spelling errors as well, like “escarpment”, and worst is an object which is either not described very well or subverts the laws of physics a little during your “escape”, though it never feels like you’re escaping from anything. At best this could be a demo or neat easy intro into the genre.

Similar-themed games to try out on the old ZX Spectrum:
Castle Colditz, Colditz, Escape Colditz, The Colditz Story, The Great Escape.

Skill, Stamina and Luck

Source: Skill, Stamina and Luck, Posted on ,
Retroactive Fiction blog by A. Hopeful

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In February 2016, the BBC broadcast a radio documentary about interactive fiction called Skill, Stamina and Luck. It focused largely on gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy, Choose Your Own Adventure, and some interesting historical examples — but it also took in parser fiction (text adventure games) and Twine.

To accompany the programme, the BBC created an interesting “interactive audio history of interactive fiction” in the form of a Twine web app, which included a simulation of a play-by-telephone adaptation of a Fighting Fantasy book and many audio clips of interviews, some new and some from the archive, with people like Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Andrea Phillips andEmily Short.

(The Twine also included the audio from this episode of Micro Live, in which the BBC visited the offices of Infocom.)

The Twine app had been taken down from the BBC website, but it’s now been made available again by Steve Alderton, Content Producer for the BBC Taster pilots.

Try it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/taster/projects/skill-stamina-and-luck

Her Story…

Starting this game, I was hugely optimistic. After all it was up for eight (eight!) Golden Joystick awards, and has been hailed as something special all over the place. And beginning the game it was indeed hugely intriguing. Tasked with identifying the details behind a murder, you begin your investigations via the LOGIC database, which allows you to view short video clips of police interviews. The catch is that you can’t watch the whole video all at once: you must input the text of the unknown dialogue to discover clips. One keyword leads to another keyword and pretty soon you’re unravelling a mystifying fairy tale of a murder.

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This game is all about the marvellous acting of Viva Seifert. Truly, great actors can play a range of characters, and placed simply and brutally in a Truro council room, she really delivers the job. Creator Sam Barlow really did his research digging into police interviews and the set up is believable. It’s an innovative vision, but eventually it won only one Golden Joystick award, the panel nominated ‘Breakthrough Award’. I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s great for a text adventure game writer to gain fame for a title, hopefully leading to more gamers playing his 1999-title Aisle, and thereby introducing them to the world of ‘interactive fiction’.. but at the same time the game is a little minimal.

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It seemed a similar story with 80 Days. The style and execution were great but it lacked the complexity of a fully-fledged adventure. “I was becoming aware of how jealous I was of games like Simogo make and the stuff Inkle do now,” Barlow writes, but that is to think of 80 Days as a product which is a fully involved and detailed adventure world, which it isn’t. The concept of Her Story is electrifyingly brilliant, but I’m left feeling like it was rushed to a close instead of us being taken somewhere wonderful. It must have taken an unearthly time to hone and test the dialogue and story to ensure they work at a pace that reveals the story only in dribs and drabs, and yet the game could have left its own confines somewhat to give us more movement, at least in storyline.

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Also I was hoping the game would build up to a great conclusion, but it just petered away like water dripping down the sink. A huge criticism of this game is in relation to “double quotes”. The instructions tell you to use double quotes. In fact you need to use ‘single quotes’. You can use double quotes but only in the case where an entire clip consists of that word. For example, if I said “Hmmm”, and that was all I said. I can well understand that you need to use quotes for phrases, e.g. “her story”, but to unearth all of the clips there is a prerequisite to search for some one-word clips using double quotation marks… Why not just connect those one-word clips to other clips??? Really he should have stuck to  Google-style “double quotation marks”, methinks. But it does operate nicely like Google at the basic level, which is part of its attraction. Little niggles like the occasional lag and muted video are not really issues, as you just re-watch and the video sorts itself out.

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What is great about this game is how imaginative it is, and that Barlow has not allowed the publishers who killed his Legacy of Kain revival game to stop him pushing the envelope by going indie. I hope that other games writers run with this idea and push it to further frontiers. Barlow himself showed how it could have went further, for example, by incorporating codes, but ultimately there is no payoff for cracking codes in this game. It’s a decent experience but it leaves you wanting a bit more. Apparently Barlow is working on a sequel; I don’t know whether it involves the same named characters, but if it did continue the story in a powerful way, it would certainly increase the impact of this game.

Aveyond 3 – The Gates of Night

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As you might realise, I’m getting a little bit long in the tooth so I thought I’d try one of those new fangled Japanese RPGs (jRPGs). I say new-fangled, but they’ve been around forever it seems. Aparently the first was in 1982, The Dragon and the Princess. That old title had a great Wizard of Oz moment where the game transformed from text adventure to top-down tactical RPG. Must have been quite a sight. The quintessential game though as far as UK knowledge of the Japanese market goes was Legend of Zelda. Released for the Nintendo Entertainment System aka Famicom in 1986, it directly influenced more adventurey RPGs like Times of Lore. The NES always seemed a bit of a step-down though for me from the 8-bit computers, as it tended – like its successor the Super Nintendo – to lean on action, rather than adventure and strategy. As a result I always looked at Zelda and the like with a sense of some disdain. Given the fact that Zelda never really reached the UK and US officially until the back end of 1987 – meaning the game was nearly two years old – its influence was probably within UK games as an undetectable undercurrent by then… But then the cynic in me says that its influence was more hype than anything else.

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And so we come to my first jRPG, Aveyond. Aveyond is a huge series, and I dived in at the deep end with Chapter 2 of Aveyond Part 3 – Orbs of Magic. We join the story with Stella experiencing a ghastly nightmare, pursued by uncompromising vampires. Awakening, we find ourselves part of an unlikely fellowship – including a bloodthirsty vampire called Te’ijal – which seeks audience with the King. Somewhere along the line, the king’s sword Excalibur is mentioned (where did I hear that name before?), but it turns out that Te’ijal’s lover and fellow companion is Galahad, so whatever. The central character is announced as Mel the Thief, although Stella also seems to be a protagonist here. After meeting Daddy, the King, Prince Edward leaves with this motley accompaniment with his own additional personal quest of seeking a wife; he is heir apparent after all. And with two single women in the party, there must be a viable option there. We cannot tarry as  Vampire Lord Gyendal is after us, so we must leave Thais and locate Naylith Summit. Perhaps we can find the Orb of Light, and halt Gyendal and his nefarious plans for the Orb of Darkness.

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Fan Art by Esme Amelia                                   Stella at Mount Drake

It really is quite a quest: even locating places like Naylith Summit can be difficult. There is no clear detailed world map, and I like it! I guess that the world maps are similar across games though; if so series fans will astutely recall directions to go… Character development continues from chapter 1 to 2, but as I was starting at Chapter 2, I had far less skills or equipment, which made it a lot more difficult, especially in the end game, although the end game is not as impossible as it might first seem. The following part, Chapter 3 – The Lost Orb resets all character progress, so I felt less bad about the attributes loss. One thing which did feel like a grievous loss was that there was an upgrade made by the soundtrack composer’s team which added voiceovers for characters (chapters 1 and 2 only), but it seems to have disappeared from the Internet. So come on, Walz Music, tell us what is the deal there?

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The music is gorgeous, by the way: Gheledon, Darkthrop Keep, Harburg, Stormbend, the list goes on and on. There’s also a great piece with some Indian sounds when you reach Mount Drake, I wasn’t sure if was a stock piece from RPG Maker XP or one of Aaron’s, but I contacted Aaron, and sure enough, it’s one of his. The story meanwhile is convoluted, but in a good way. You’ll need some processing time though for the epilogue, especially if you didn’t play the series all the way through. If the dialogue seems a little childish at times, I encourage you to read it aloud or just say it aloud in your head with emotion, and any naffness quickly evaporates. The story writer and many of the staff are female, and this shows, again, in a good way. In fact I don’t think I’ve seen so many women involved in a game project since the heady day of St. Bride’s Software.

amanda fitch          tiffany lin             rebecca long

Amanda Fitch                        Tiffany Lim                        Rebecca Long
The writer and game designer, Amanda Fitch, cut her mustard with Adventure Game Studio before moving on to RPG Maker, as well as working with programming languages. I love the 8-bit style graphics: those jungle trees kinda remind me of Sabre Wulf for some reason. Okay, so some people might complain of it being too generic, but RPG Maker or not, great writing is great writing. The atmosphere is so good that there is even a decent bulk of Aveyond fan fiction out there. I wish though that they’d stuck to orginal characters, like Lydia and Stella, rather than mythic ones like Galahad and Hercules. Maybe it’s just my preference, but there’s no need for those characters, as the characterisation which Fitch has achieved with her own characters is great.

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The company Amaranth Games was named after a Greek symbol of  immortality, though Aveyond is so popular that they now call themselves Aveyond Kingdom. I think the former title was perhaps the most apt. +1 to the Amaranth team for warning you to save your game before you descend into the deeper darkness of the catacombs. There are the odd little niggles, like how if you turn off the music you have to leave the current map to re-enable it, but then I can’t see many people turning off Walz’s lovely score. Battle looks a little simplistic, but Prince Edward’s propensity to fly shudderingly close to death tempered the casual look of the game with some emotional moments (there are save games but I like to play as much as possible avoiding them). Whilst the combat does start to become monotonous, it is more edgy towards the end of the game, and I can’t understate the importance of the tactic of changing equipment. For example, you may have a high-powered weapon, but that low-powered dagger which curses your victim might be more useful in the present situation. As the journal doesn’t always keep vital information, you have to have a good memory, and getting that elusive treasure chest key which is so important in the endgame really pulled my ‘harp strings’.

It does have adventure game content, though unlike a genuine adventure, if you are carrying the right item at the time, it simply invokes the conversational thread to progress the sequence. But the sprawling nature of the world, and quantity of things to complete, makes it feel very much real. Overall, even though this is an RPG, it still felt very much an adventure game, and a good one at that. Aveyond 4 was just released before the end of the year, which will immortalise the game even further, but I’d better get cracking with the rest of Aveyond 3 first. As it took me 42 hours to get through Chapter 2 alone, I don’t think I’m going to achieve that any time soon…

 

Wonderland Dizzy

Back in yonder day all you needed was an egg with boxing gloves and you had your main character. I am refer of course to Dizzy, stalwart staple of the 8-bit era.

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There wDizzy4ere nine official titles in the Dizzy series, but whaddyaknow, the Oliver Twins were hosting a talk in Blackpool, and poking within a box they discovered a curious map… The curious map led in turn to the Dizzy creators’ memories suddenly being rekindled (after no doubt a life of debauchery spending the profits of the Dizzy back-collection). The rekindled memories led in turn to a curious disk shining seductively from within the clutter of an attic. It bore the curious inscription, “Wonderland Dizzy”, alongside the legend “Nintendo Source Complete”, dated 1993.

After passing the buck on to Polish dizzy fan Lukasz Kur, the disk was riddled together into an emulator rom for Nintendo emulators (I suggest Nestopia) . And so was born the 10th official game in the series of Dizzy, Wonderland Dizzy (kinda like discovering a 10th planet, really).

So how does the game actually play? This time Dizzy and his girl Daisy take on the quest to rescue the Yolkfolk, which basically means you switch between Dizzy and Daisy in a 2-player game. Maybe the idea was to add a bit of 2-player competition in the quest to collect stars, but overall it felt like a wasted idea, as when you die, the Cheshire Cat offloads inventory onto the other player. Some sort of cooperation between players à la Lure of the Temptress might have been nice instead. Yes you heard right, by the way, the Cheshire Cat. Basically, the Dizzy family have been deposited in Alice in Wonderland territory. Strangely enough this is barely mentioned, though all the principal characters, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, and so on, are there. Except Alice, alas.

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It does play in the main like a Dizzy game, though fans of the series will notice straight away that lots of the ideas were pilfered from earlier games such as the Stonehenge of Magicland Dizzy, a troll, a well, a trampoline and so on. A main gripe is that it is far too finicky jumping the moats and whizzing around on your newly won broomstick, as it is fairly easy to bump into a bad guy. This aspect reminds me of a predecessor of Dizzy called Cauldron. I can’t imagine anyone playing this in 1993 and being anything other than utterly frustrated. Armed with an emulator today, you can save your progress every few jumps or flights, but on a cartridge-based device it would have been agony.

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This difficulty masks simple puzzles, with none of the sophistiction of Spellbound Dizzy. This makes it unsurprising to hear that Codemasters decided to shelve it, and the Twins may have fallen out a bit with the Darling Brothers about that. I could wax lyrical about how releasing this game would have rang the death knells of the Dizzy series, but by ’93 the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga had firmly taken over and arcade adventures were old news. Dizzy‘s real homebase was with the 8-bit machines, and its origin, the 48k Spectrum. But the last game to be published by a large publisher for the ZX Spectrum was the Dr Who game Dalek Attack in July 1993 – two months before the date on the Wonderland Dizzy disk. The extension of Dizzy into the console world seemed a tad over-ambitious, and a bit of a last-gasp effort, even at the time. Dizzy’s fate had already been sealed on the 8-bit machines, and Crystal Kingdom Dizzy, the final game to be released, didn’t even have so much involvement by the Oliver Twins. By 1993 the ZX Spectrum had been crushed into oblivion by the Amiga and ST, and IBM’s PC was soon to take the UK market from them.

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What was truly wonderful about the Dizzy series was how from game to game it became more innovative, with increasingly interesting gameplay. It was difficult to complete, but it was well-loved for its ease of play in contrast to previous 8-bit arcade adventures such as Pyjamarama. In this respect, it tended to fit more within the adventure game category for me, than in the platforming genre. Wonderland Dizzy was enjoyable to complete for nostalgia, but they seemed to have regressed a bit in gameplay with this one. They were, of course, producing the game for a different market, but it wasn’t surprising that Dizzy didn’t last long in the console world. Considering how many Kickstarted games have managed success, it was more of a surprise that Codemasters failed in their bid to revive Dizzy in 2012. Had the project been successful it would have been the first official sequel for 20 years, but they only managed a paltry amount of the needed budget.

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And yet, Dizzy lives! Perhaps not so many people know about Dizzy Age, where Dizzy has long lived on since 2006. Colin Page’s excellent A Pirate’s Age has progressed the series to the realms of point & click adventure. It’s the old familiar gameplay, but it’s difficult to even get started as you have to pull gnarled roots from an abandoned beach and the like. This is the niche where Dizzy coud have continued being published as an indie title. Here you find Dizzy able to merge with copyighted material such as Dr Who and even Knightmare, that old TV series where kids’ hopes were dashed by near-impossible cgi quests.

 

Despite Wonderland Dizzy being a bit of an old carthorse, it was great to see something written by the original team again, and I feel inspired to  download some DizzyAge titles and re-don those boxing gloves a bit more…