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Reviews by Wade Clarke

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Dad vs. Unicorn, by PaperBlurt

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Unicorn Smash!, July 7, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013, Twine
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon the game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)

This is a short (ten minutes) CYOA Twine piece about a small-minded masculinity-conscious dad, his overweight and troubled son and how they are eventually attacked by a unicorn. I can let on about the unicorn attack because it's in the blurb of the game and also strongly implied by the title in the first place. I found the experience mildly unpleasant and lacking some other resonance to sufficiently make up for that. The game has swearing, sexual content and violence.

Dad vs. Unicorn carries the fire of anger, manifest as sarcastic energy, and it uses highly crafted minimal prose which is sometimes hard to follow due to its frequent stylistic omission of the verb to be or other sentence-launching entities. This wasn't the first ten-minute Twine game I'd played brandishing the particular combination of anger, swearing, sexual politics and characters throwing their entrails around, and my reaction to each such game tends to be half instinct, and half – if I have ideas about what I think the game was on about – what I think the game was on about.

I read Dad vs. Unicorn as a short assault on traditional ideas of masculinity and how they can screw people up. You can click your way through either the dad's thoughts as he prepares a manly BBQ or his son's thoughts as he looks for his dad around the house. The dad's recollections show how boxed in he is in his thoughts and how disappointed he is in his unmasculine son. The son's recollections are a series of vignettes about being embarrassed or shamed. Both stories lead to the encounter with the unicorn, who kills someone, and you get to pick who dies. After those two experiences you can play from the unicorn's point of view, where you discover that he's not just literally a dickhead, but figuratively one, too. Hypermasculinity leads only to stupid destruction, perhaps?

The dad has only small thoughts and appears to have stopped evolving completely, which obviously isn't impossible, but makes me feel that the pervading angriness is the game's main point, since games in which you can choose which person to play usually use that opportunity to let you experience varying perspectives.

The act of writing about this game showed me I took more from it than I thought I did, but it felt too much like having one angry note yelled at me.

Final Girl, by Hanon Ondricek

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Suspenseful, funny and well-informed card-based slasher film game., July 3, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: StoryNexus, horror, IFComp 2013
* I wrote the following review of Final Girl for my blog upon the game's initial IFComp 2013 release. The game is no longer available for tech reasons, and may not become available in its original form again, so I've left this review 100% as I originally wrote it. I'm not sure that there are/were any specific solutions to the game that could be 'spoiled' by what I've written, but that said, this review looks extensively at the content and mechanics.

Final Girl is a highly innovative horror-thriller delivered via the StoryNexus platform. The player takes on the role of a teen girl who must identify a masked staple gun(!) killer in the wake of a cabin-in-the-woods-vacation massacre of her friends. I haven't played anything quite like Final Girl before, and while some of that will be down to me never having used StoryNexus before either, it's also clearly down to the game itself. I've not seen a game manage horror genre microscopy like this before, with stats like Squick, Terror, Exertion and Badassery. You even need to manually control your out-of-of-control breathing. The whole thing is framed as a slasher flick, and there are some touches of meta level commentary, but they don't come at the expense of the effect of the core story. As it is tense and gruelling to be the final girl in a horror film, it is tense and gruelling to make your way through this game. This is why I find the author's 'send up' description in one of his blurbs (though not the other, and I prefer the other) somewhat off target.

(The other day I read that a term emerging to describe a variety of ironic storytelling less aggressive and more affectionate than postmodernism's is 'metamodernism', but since I've only heard it once, I'd best not harp on it.)

It may be possible to complete Final Girl in under two hours but I died at around the two hour mark, then accidentally conceded my death, losing all my progress. Well, I'm pretty sure I lost it. The trouble with StoryNexus is that there isn't one piece of freaking documentation for players. While working out how to play was a broadly intuitive experience, finer points like 'Is there an undo? Can I save? Do I need to save?' were all left blowing in the wind. Maybe some veterans can chime in here.

The upshot is that Final Girl is a substantial game with some demanding elements, and it might take you to the two-hour mark or beyond. You'll also need to create a StoryNexus account or log in via Facebook or Twitter to be able to play. It's absolutely worth doing these things, unless you hate horror, because this is an unusual and surprising game. It also has an attractive visual style and an effective audio soundtrack. And more than once it says: "You no longer have any of this: 'staples in your face'". Low level spoilers ahead.

The term Final Girl, describing the lone female survivor at the end of many a horror film, was coined by Carol Clover in her book of horror film criticism "Men, women and Chainsaws". When Final Girl, the game, started with what appeared to be the final scene of a slasher film, I was disappointed with both of the trajectories I anticipated. I thought that either (a) the game was going to cut away from this final scene back to the very start of the story, one of my least favourite filmmaking devices, or (b) the game was just going to be really short and end then and there.

The first surprise of Final Girl was that neither of these things happened. The scene ended with the apparent death of the bad guy, but then the debriefing just kept going until a new investigatory story began. And this story becomes the game, interspersed with flashbacks to the prior story which led to the first scene. So the game's title is a good one. Final Girlness is normally a state acquired by a film's end. In this game, you begin as the final girl, fully formed and already possessed of a degree of savvy – which you'll need because as you'd expect, the killer isn't really dead, and you need to work out who he or she is.

StoryNexus play is based around cards. In Final Girl, these represent locations you can explore. To play certain locations you'll need to have already played particular cards, acquired certain items or set certain stats. Conditions like these can also apply to actions which might appear on the screen. To be able to move, you might need to rest to lower exertion. To do something particularly cringeworthy, like examine a corpse, your Squik level might first need to be reduced, or you might need to take a deep breath to reduce your fright levels. This micromanagement is a good match for the minutiae of horror films the game is simulating, because they're all about microscopic detail: a foot trying to not squeak on the floor, someone hiding in a closet trying to hold their breath, a door handle being turned as slowly as possible, etc. In response to your decisions, the game produces a ceaseless and fascinating parade of cards, badges, icons, skill updates and status reports. If you get better at something like using a pair of pliers, you'll be told exactly how you just got better at using them, whether you learned from fumbling or whether you learned how to wield them with sweaty hands.

Amidst all of this mechanical fun there's still a mystery which needs solving. You went to the cabin by the lake for a vacation with a dozen friends. Where are they now, and is any one of them the masked killer? Flashback scenes round out your relationship with each of these horror archetype teens. So much of this game comes in short stabs of prose, but these slightly longer memories are well written and do a little for each character. They also allow you to act upon the knowledge gained from them back in the present.

The lone element of Final Girl I disliked was the ubiquity of the killer. He (or she or it) attacks you again and again as you explore, and it's a time-consuming and no-gain encounter each time. This kind of ongoing harassment of the player is a pretty common stress tactic in horror games, but it's not handled well here. I suspect its random occurrence rate has been set too high, and similarly, too much of the encounter itself is down to 50/50 luck. That said, it is kind of StoryNexus to either explicitly tell you the odds of success of an action you're about to take or to give you a broad estimate of your chances in words (EG 'nearly impossible').

Dying and accepting your death leads to a game over screen with a movie review assessment of your playing style. This is the most overt display of the game's meta film material, though there are scattered in-game jokes as well. However, Final Girl walks the walk so well, the commentary comes across mostly as a fun addition. The game's act of quoting so many slasher films in its performance is its major gesture, a much stronger communication delivered at a more fundamental level. This is an excellent horror game with a sense of fun, but which doesn't skimp on tension or grizzliness either. It's got a few grindy elements, but with the exception of the repetitive run-ins with the stalker, I think they help make the experience what it is.

The Paper Bag Princess, by Adri

2 of 2 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

1 of 1 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
(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.

Dream Pieces, by Iam Curio

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Simple, young-player-leaning wordplay game from the Quest school., July 3, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013, Quest
(The original version of this review was split over two blog posts I wrote upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)

Dream Pieces is a friendly-feeling bedroom adventure of word puzzling delivered via the Quest platform. It has semi-rhyming (and semi-straining) prose and some nods towards helpful production values – for instance you can choose whether the presentation is delivered to suit a desktop computer, a tablet or a mobile phone. The goal in Dream Pieces is to manipulate domestic objects in your bedroom to create tools and methods to further manipulate domestic objects in your bedroom, but it's more fun that I just made it sound. Tools can split the names of objects into constituent letters which can then be rearranged to create new props. The game uses some features of Quest well, like being able to right click a wordlet, click 'Mix', then click the thing you want to mix it with from a menu.

When I initially apprehended this mechanic, I felt my interest prickling, and since the game gives the impression of being easy enough for a child to complete, what with its child-like font and enthusiastic outlook, I figured I was about to power through the whole thing for some simple satisfaction. I ended up abandoning my first playthrough due to a moment of inflexibility that I mistook for a bug. Other IFCompers cleared me up on this point and brought it to my attention that there was a colour-related mechanism in play that I hadn't noticed. I then powered through to victory like I'd thought I'd been about to the first time. The game has apparently been significantly updated since I played its original incarnation.

Dream Pieces certainly offers easy word-chopping for an adult but would probably be more outwardly satisfying for a kid. It was also the first word game I'd seen released for the Quest platform, and it came out after a year that birthed a decent number of sophisticated word games in IFdom.

100,000 Years, by Pierre Chevalier

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Tiny existential text toy., July 3, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013, Twine
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)

100,000 years is a sci-fi Twine piece about galactic-sized spans of time. It is easily worth any comp-goer's time to try as it is very short. I almost said "ironically very short," but that would have been silly as the smallness/largeness thing is obviously a feature.

The goings-on in a chunk of the universe are described in a few lines of verse. Clicking the left arrow takes you 100,000 years into the past while the right arrow takes you the same distance into the future. Changes over that time period are then described, but the arrows remain, ready to move you forward or backward again. The result is a tiny existential text toy. What you discover if you go far enough in either direction is equally likely to make you feel more a part of the universe or just less significant. The achievement of 100,000 years is that it can touch on those feelings quickly and with such a simple device, though the whole piece is definitely short-lived.

Island of Secrets, by Jenny Tyler and Les Howarth

4 of 4 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
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

2 of 2 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

9 of 9 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
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.

In a Manor of Speaking, by Hulk Handsome

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Smooth-playing sprightly punning, July 18, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2012, Inform, comedy
(I originally published this review on 21 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 23rd of 26 games I reviewed.)

I don't claim to have played many wordplay focused IF games before, but I loved this one. In a Manor of Speaking is an adventure beyond the Bermuda Triangle through a world ruled by puns. Lord Dashney is the evil figurehead who needs to be overthrown and you are the person who needs to do it, using only colloquial expressions and a bit of lateral thinking as your weapons.

The game's implementation in Release 3, the one I played, is very strong. Its puzzles are numerous, amusing and served by an excellent contextual hints system. The game's humourous tone and aesthetic are entirely coherent and the prose is hiccup free. In short, this level of quality is what I ideally want from every adventure in the comp. The immersion which results when every part of a game is working smoothly and the flow of words and actions is unbroken is hard to beat, and with only a few games left for me to review now, I can say that In a Manor of Speaking is the only game to have achieved such frictionless immersion for me in this competition. Therefore unless you hate wordplay (and this is a pretty user friendly version of it) I advise you, and all and sundry, to try In a Manor of Speaking.

Paradoxically, I find that this game's accessible comedy style makes it hard to discuss at length. Its meanings are consistently transparent, whether they are silly sight gags (metalheads whose heads are made out of metal), riffs on timeworn sayings (Spoiler - click to show)(the pudding which contains the proof) or misdirections (the game is full of bars, but only the first one is a metal rod). To write about the game's jokes like this makes them sound only groany, but puns are fascinating because while they do often prompt groaning or cries of "I hate puns," almost nobody genuinely hates a pun, except for people whose souls are broken and ugly as pitch. You know, people who are to be pitied. In fact most people enjoy being the opportunistic revealers of puns in conversation once in awhile. In a Manor of Speaking takes you into a world and mode of writing where the puns are so numerous that they are the source of all the meaning. This pushes them beyond the context of goofy pleasure and shame which often accompanies isolated real-life punning into a place where anyone is likely to enjoy them more freely.

I only encountered a couple of tiny bugs in the game and both were related to the object "a piece of your mind" and the kangarude. The solidity of implementation also extends to the majority of the parser's blocking messages, with idiosyncratic jokes on hand for most kinds of command rejection. The numerous instant deaths (which you can instantly back out of, as well) become something that you can easily anticipate, as a good number are attached to invitingly stupid actions, but you're likely to find that you still enjoy trying each one.

In a Manor of Speaking is a funny and engaging adventure with a lot of personality and a near seamless delivery. That last point is a clincher for me, whether a game is light, profound, transparent or opaque.


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