Judges' 2007 Reviews



Note:  Judges reviews were optional. (Warning:  Some may contain "spoilers" and not necessarily all spoilers will be marked.)



Contents:

Eric Eve's Reviews
Victor Gijsbers' Reviews
Jon Ingold's Reviews
Jacqueline Lott's Reviews
Mike Robert's Reviews
Adam Thornton's Reviews
Doe's (Marnie Parker's) Reviews

About the Judges



Eric Eve's Reviews



Rendition - Portrait

In 'Rendition' you play an interrogator softening up a terror suspect for questioning. It quickly becomes apparent that the aim is not to extract any particular piece of information from the victim – questioning him elicits no useful information – but simply to inflict sufficient pain and humiliation on him to reduce him from defiance to despair. In order to avoid later recriminations (such as a trial for war crimes) you are limited to using each torture tactic a maximum of three times, and to spread your assaults round different parts of your victim's body. Your task is complete once you have inflicted thirty such assaults on your hapless victim (although it is apparently possible to continue beyond that point).

The game is solidly implemented, in that it generally seemed to understand what I wanted to do, even as my bullying tactics grew increasingly outlandish, and I encountered no bugs of any consequence. I did not find it too difficult to attain the score of thirty needed to complete my task, although my ingenuity was starting to become exhausted towards the end, and the author seems to have been suitably ingenious in anticipating the various things I might try. At a mechanical level, the game works well.

The problem is that it very soon starts to feel mechanical. In essence, what the player needs to do is to think up ten different unpleasant things to do to someone and then apply each of them to three different body parts, taking care not to abuse any one body part excessively. Although the victim responds in different ways to the different types of abuse, it seems to make little difference which body part is abused: the response is identical apart from the name of the body part in question. This very quickly starts to make the process feel mechanically repetitive, and the victim little more than a kind of life-sized doll.

It could, of course, be argued that the whole point is that to torture someone is to treat them like a thing and not as a human being. It could also the point that torture dehumanizes the perpetrator as much as the victim, and certainly by the end of 'Rendition' I felt I had debased the player character as much as the unfortunate Abdul (the victim). But apart from being something of a cliché in the first place, this dehumanization can only feel shocking if torturer and victim start out as human in the first place (contrast the scenes in Lost where we are shown flashbacks of Sayid's role as an Iraqi interrogator; these derive much of their impact from the fact that Sayid has previously been established as a sympathetic character). But in 'Rendition' Abdul feels like a caricature, and the player character is merely 'as good looking as ever.'

Perhaps the point of the piece is to make players feel guilty at their complicity in the acts necessary to complete the game (is this what we allow our governments to do on our behalf?), but since the game seems to offer the player no other choice, there can be no real sense of guilt. The player character cannot simply walk away, since the game will not allow this until the suspect has been broken. The player cannot establish any meaningful communication with the suspect, since when Abdul speaks at all it is only to babble incomprehensibly in a foreign tongue. All one can do to avoid complicity is to type QUIT or refuse to play; and this perhaps is where 'Rendition' ultimately falls down for me: not only did it ultimately leave me cold, it succeeded in convincing me that the most appropriate response to it was not to play it, and there would seem to be something ultimately self-defeating about a piece of art that forces you to look away.



Varronis Museum - Scenery

In this game the player character is a fifteen-year old girl in republican Rome, out with her father visiting one of his patrician friends (the eponymous Varro). While the two men talk, the player character is left to explore the house, and so the player is given the opportunity to walk round the town house of a member of the Roman aristocracy and learn something about the way of life it encapsulates. I say 'learn' because the game does appear quite openly didactic but is, I feel, none the worse for that. The effect is rather like that of visiting a museum or exhibition designed to show what life in aristocratic Roman house was like (at least in terms of the physical layout and the objects it contained), and I was left with the feeling that this would be the sort of display I would rather enjoy visiting.

I cannot claim any great expertise in the homes of the Roman aristocracy in the time of the late republic, but the game gave the impression of having been thoroughly researched. It certainly rewarded exploration and the examination of objects to several layers of depth; along the way revealing several facets of life in such a household by discussing how the various objects encountered would be used. To my mind this is a good use of the Scenery category in an IF Art Show: the game focuses on the scenery as scenery but nonetheless has plenty of interesting information to impart.

The game reveals its didactic side not least in consistently providing the Latin terms for virtually all the objects encountered. In principle this seems a good idea (it would make it a great game to give to a school Latin class, for instance). In one or two cases it did not work so well: for example the reference to “pots et pans” may have been intended to be whimsical, but came over as precious. In one case there was a Greek word (I assume from the context) that was displayed as ????a?. This is a little strange since Inform 7 is meant to be able to display Greek characters and I know my machine can. From the context I would guess that the word was meant to be klinai ('beds' or 'couches') since that best fits the pattern ????a? (although since it is said to resemble clinium in pronunciation, the diminutive form klinion would be another possibility).

Few players will be troubled by the unintelligible Greek word, but there are, unfortunately, quite a number of more annoying problems. The ABOUT text indicates that the game is not completely finished and (at least in the Art Show entry version) has not been beta-tested, and this shows. There are at least two objects (the dust in the bedroom and the marble table in the atrium) which are very prominently mentioned in the room descriptions but apparently unimplemented, and given the repeated emphasis on the dust in the bedroom and the fact that the marble table is said to be blocking the stairway up from the atrium, this feels annoying. There is also one location – the study where the PC's father is conversing with Varro – where virtually nothing seems to have been implemented at all; it is not clear to me why the PC is allowed in there. Moreover, there are frequent typographical errors and infelicities of expression of a sort that leads me to suspect that the author is not a native English speaker; in which case he badly needs to get his work checked over by someone who is.

There are one or two other oddities. When examining an oil lamp we are told that the Roman aristocracy used to use candles but they are now used only by the lower classes, yet on entering the study we find that it is lit by candles. Again, there are places where the author seems so anxious to show off the fruits of his research that we are given information that has only a rather tenuous connection to the object examined (why should a candlestick in the dining room make the PC think of that belonging to Antiochus III, or the dusty bedroom stool put her in mind of a chair of state?). The game keeps score of the number of 'insights' the player has gained in the course of exploration, but I fear after playing for some time I managed to find only two out of nine of them. More to the point, I failed to see what was particularly insightful about them, or why I should be specially rewarded for examining whatever it was that triggered them, so I was left unconvinced that they really added anything to the game (perhaps they were meant to be an indication of whether the house had been searched with sufficient thoroughness, but I'm not sure that is entirely appropriate to an Art Show piece). Again, given the PC's character as fifteen-year-old girl she seemed remarkably well informed on architectural matters; admittedly this has to be accepted as a necessary convention for conveying the information the author wants to convey, but it left me feeling that the PC must be rather keener on reading Vitruvius than she seemed to be on reading Plautus.

This brings me to the book she was carrying: I suppose it's a very minor niggle, but I couldn't see the point of giving her a book to carry that she apparently had no interest in reading. Again, given the way the function of the other objects is described, I would expect to have been told something about the physical form of the book (a scroll, not a codex, surely) and the typical use of books in that culture (more typically as scripts for oral performance than as something carried round by young ladies for private reading; in that society a young Roman lady would be more likely to hear Plautus read or performed, surely, than to read it to herself). In any case, a scroll struck me as a somewhat unlikely object for her to be carrying around, and its explanation in the introduction as a 'reading book' something of an anachronism, or at least, in that time, and culture, sufficient of an oddity to need remarking upon.

That said, I liked 'Varronis Museum'; the concept is sound and the implementation engaging; the game just needs a good deal more polish and testing.



The Symbolic Engine - Still Life

To my mind, this was the obvious winner of the show. It clearly fulfils the criteria for its category, by giving the player a single object to interact with, and at the same time manages to be thought-provoking. That is not to say that I do not have a number of issues with the game, but they are mostly the kind of issues that show how the game has managed to provoke my thoughts, so they may reflect the game's strengths as much as its weaknesses.

The eponymous engine is an exhibit in a library in a society that follows the collapse of 'alienating' technological civilizations on this planet. Playing with the machine brings about the appearance of a series of three holograms, each of whom discourses on what was wrong with twentieth/twenty-first century capitalist civilizations and why their collapse was a blessing in disguise. The player chooses which topic each of the holograms (a man, a woman, and an ape) is to discourse on by turning a series of knobs on the front of the machine. A dial on its side determines which of the three holograms appears.

The machine is well designed and solidly implemented. Its use of the symbols used to control feels original but not contrived. On the other hand it was not at all difficult to figure out how to work the device, so that the machine indeed represented an object to be interacted with and not a puzzle to be solved. One small downside of this is that once the player has worked out how to operate the machine's controls, using the machine is mainly a matter of simply running through all the possible combinations, but it is hard to see how this could have been avoided. In any case the potential tedium of this is in fact averted in two ways: first, the machine occasionally reacts in unexpected ways; second, and more importantly, once the operational mechanics have been mastered the interest shifts to what the three holograms have to say.

Their message is uncomfortable and disturbing, their argument being that industrial human civilization has taken a disastrously wrong turn, and that humans would be better off living much closer to nature. This is given far greater impact than it would otherwise have through the quotations, facts and statistics the two human holograms are able to come up with (many of them apparently genuine ones researched by the author). Of course, you may end up rejecting the case the holograms try to make; you may believe that it is hopelessly one-sided, or that pre-industrial or pre-civilized societies are being unduly romanticized; what the three holograms have to say about the way we live now nevertheless packs quite a thought-provoking punch.

It is, however, at this point that the game starts to undermine its own premises. If there has been a collapse of industrial civilization, how does there come to be such a sophisticated device such as a machine capable of projecting holograms to tell us about it, or a library to house it in? If civilization is such a bad thing, why do the two holograms who tell us so nevertheless do so in terms of the kind of intellectual discourse that could only arise in a civilized society? Again, the post-collapse society envisaged by the game seems impossibly utopian: there is apparently no government, but only decisions taken by local communities, yet the holograms frequently speak of some 'we' (and occasionally a dissenting 'they') who seem to be deciding how humanity as a whole should live in future. One is left wondering who, in the absence of a government, is making these decisions and how such decisions are to be implemented or enforced. Finally, since Interactive Fiction can only be played on devices that would not exist apart from the kind of industrial society here condemned, the message radically undercuts its medium.

Many of these points could be considered weaknesses, signs that the author has not properly thought through the logic of the game's fundamental premises. But this may not be the case. It may alternatively be that despite the game's polemic against twentieth-century civilization the post-collapse future that it envisages nonetheless preserves some benefits of technological civilization while turning its back on its alienating social structures (this is hinted at by one of the ape's speeches, which talks about combining old and new). Or it may be that these apparent contradictions are designed to provoke the player into thought; the fact that I am bothering to discuss them at least indicates that they have succeeded in doing so!

It may be that my discussion here takes the game just a little too seriously, and that it should instead be understood not as a scathing indictment of western civilization but as a piece of science fiction that invites us to imagine how our world might appear to a certain type of future society. Whether or not the game wants to be taken seriously, it could perhaps be criticized for skating rather too lightly over the catastrophic effects the collapse it envisages would have. But either way (and whether or not we ultimately accept or reject its vision of things), this game confronts us with aspects of our society we would probably rather not see, forces us to stop and consider whether our way of life is ecologically sustainable, and invites us to imagine how things could be different. 'The Symbolic Engine' is not a piece of rigorously argued sociological analysis, and is not intended to be; it is not surprising, therefore, that there are areas where it looks inconsistent under questioning; but the fact that it provokes such questioning is a measure of its success as an IF Art Show entry.



Victor Gijsbers' Reviews



The Symbolic Engine

In many ways, this is the most interesting entry in the 2007 Art Show. Here we are, in a room, confronted with a big machine that has all kind of buttons with which we can fiddle. Sounds familiar? Sure - it is the single most used trope in interactive fiction. But this time, we don't need the machine to solve a problem; instead, it is going to tell us about the relation between Man and Nature. This is a nice twist.

There are many things to like about The Symbolic Engine. The three different hologrammatic narrators were very well done, with instantly recognisable personal styles. The science fiction background is uncovered gradually and in just enough detail to let it fulfill its supporting role. The occasional intrusions by other people did a lot to keep The Symbolic Engine from being just an essay-generator. And, most importantly, the texts you get to read--although not quite profound or groundbreaking--are worth both reading and some thought.

Two points of criticism. First, more ways to interact would have been good; right now, it's just pushing buttons and listening to what others tell you. Second, I would love to see the piece do more with the Nature/Machine contrast, which is after all centrally present in the design.

That said, I consider The Symbolic Engine to be the Best of Show.



Varronis Museum

Varronis Museum is the classic IF museum object: you walk through a roman villa and are allowed to explore everything. The piece has considerable charm because obviously a lot of carefully researched and loving detail has gone into the descriptions. The competition version was not fully implemented yet (for instance, one could not go upstairs), but if the entire villa will be rendered in the same polished way, Varronis Museum will be a great--well--virtual museum to visit if you wish to get a feeling for the life of Roman households.



Rendition

Rendition is nominally a portrait of Abdul, failed suicide terrorist taken captive by a Western army. However, it is impossible to actually get to know Abdul as a person, since the two of you don't speak the same language and the only way of interacting with him is through violence. This, of course, is exactly what the work is all about.

Although it is hard not to sympathise with the political message behind Rendition, the work suffers somewhat from being too obvious. After the first few moves, the player will have formed a pretty clear idea of what the piece is about and what limits to her own actions are, and there is little left to actually shock the player or make her think about political issues.

I think the piece will be more powerful if it is incorporated into a larger work that poses as a game. It could be the epilogue to a thrilling, puzzle-based chase after Abdul which allows us to understand why both Abdul and the protagonist think their causes are good and righteous; then, the sheer pointlessness of the interrogation and the impossibility of communication might have more shock value. My advice to the author is to think about extending Rendition along those lines.



Jon Ingold's Reviews



Varronis Museum

The sub-genre of IF in a classical setting continues with this, a text-model of an ordinary Roman villa. The effect is a little like visiting an archaelogical site (which, I suppose, the author modelled the game on) and reading the placards dotted around the small worlds. Actually, I think this is a great use of the medium: IF, with its focus on locations, geography, and examination of items, makes for a good "immersive museum" through which to wander. Though such experiences are measured by their depth of implementation, and VM doesn't always score highly on this front. Although most objects have descriptions (including, unusually, the rooms themselves, which took me a while to realise); there's not a lot of interaction available: the state of most objects (at least appears) to be fixed. The author takes a nice line in protagonist reactions, often supplying more information (or comment) after a description, or one or two turns after a description. In short, a classic example of an IF Art Show piece, if perhaps a somewhat thinly-implemented one!

(...That said, I wasn't able to find a single one of the "9 insights" promised by the status line! Oh dear, I'm clearly very out of practice as an explorer.)

(And incidentally, was that a Savoire-Faire reference?)



Symbolic Engine (Best in Show)

An excellent example of an IF Art Show: fundamentally a complicated machine with gadgets and widdles, this makes for a small, richly-detailed implementation but with the bonus of a function. The Engine consists of knobs and levers which generate information (across a range of narrative voices) on the subject of economics and the environment. There's a pleasing level of depth: I didn't read all the available text, but enough to scope the corners of the game and be satisfied they were fully laid-out. The information itself is (it would seem) collated quotes from 20th century writers, though of course the editing-together of them is used to promote a thesis. Alongside this is are the outlines of a science-fiction setting, again nicely painted in a fragments (reminding me a little of early Gene Wolfe, but then, most things do...)

Particularly elegant is the framing of the machine, however: details of the "world" are dropped alongside the player's interactions with the machine, giving the experience a touch of richness and background that help to make the whole thing feel more solid. Similarly smoothness is visible in the adaptation of the world to the player's knowledge: parts of the machine appear as one thing originally but become something else once they've been investigated. There's a nice feeling of developing understanding through this.

In summary, interestingly-written, some nice effects, very smoothly implemented, and a pleasingly tight focus of the kind that works well. My favourite exhibit.



Rendition

Firstly, I can't pretend for even a second that this is a review. I didn't play this game.

That's not strictly true: I started playing this game, then when I understood the avenue of interaction avaiable, I chose not to play the game. In of itself, this is interesting: if I wondered whether I identify with protagonists (and more importantly, other characters) in text games, this indicates I clearly do. Partly, I don't want to read about violence (as much as it's avoidable, especially fictionalised violence); but moreover, I don't want to be responsible for it.

This is, of itself, interesting: I've played console games where violence is an integral component, and I've not minded, despite the additional "realism" of blood, gore and facial expressions. There must be something very immediate about the text-medium; something about planting things within the imagination.

So, in summary: I think this is all very powerful. Even the score-line is threatening (I scored 1 out of 48, and that was enough for me). As a demonstration of the power - the impact - that a "silly little text-game" can have, it works very well. (I recently spoke at a presentation about Electronic Literature as the sole representative of IF present and was asked by three or four people "So what's different between what you do and the 'kill troll with sword' games on the ZX Spectrum?" I answered that the difference was in sensibility. This game perhaps would convince them a little better than what I was showing them that the experience of IF needn't be a trivial one).

The game does indeed provide an "interactive war on terror", but in this case that terror is my own.



Jacqueline Lott's Reviews



The Symbolic Engine
by Evan Schull
Still Life (Objects)

I was apprehensive about this piece at first. It opens in a sparsely described white room with an amnesiac PC standing in front of a giant machine. On the giant machine are a bunch of fiddly little bits which don't seem to work. "Minimalist descriptions and a tedious puzzle involving buttons and dials?" I thought to myself. "I thought this was the IF Art Show - home of richly described objects and environs in a puzzle-free setting!"

Never fear, though. The puzzle was so easy even I solved it rather quickly, and then the real point of the game was made clear: we're actually in the depths of a library, and the machine is a fount of information about the history of humans and the Earth prior to the Collapse, when humans finally paid the price for exceeding Earth's carrying capacity.

Now is a good time to compliment the author, Evan Schull, on his first work of interactive fiction and, in fact, his first foray into coding beyond basic HTML. I encountered only one confusing but ultimately minor bug. The piece was generally polished with respect to mechanics and grammar, and it is evident that he worked very hard on the piece.

I would have enjoyed a higher degree of interactivity, and I was a bit dismayed here and there by some descriptions which seemed inappropriately informal or lazy given the overall setting (e.g. Schull's description of a green button as "Small. Square. Buttony." - while cute, the humor seemed out of place in the game, and the terseness of the description wasn't something I expected to see in a polished IF Art Show entry). On the other hand, there were some very nice touches, such as descriptions which changed after you viewed an object... it's small bits of polish like that that I've come to expect from IF Art Show entries.



Rendition
by nespresso
Portrait

I did not enjoy this entry, nor, I hope, was I meant to enjoy it.

The author calls Rendition a 'political art experiment.' In theory, it's an interesting premise: force the interactor to press the limits of the Geneva Conventions while torturing a subject to extract information.

While the premise had a great deal of promise, the game could have been improved by, say, providing the PC with implements of torture and a list of all the various methods of torture currently being utilized without apparent retribution by countries who have signed the treaties of the Geneva Conventions. It would also have been helpful to either have a language translator present (another NPC) or at least make it clear that the PC understands the language of the person he's interrogating; without any comprehensible exchange of information, the piece merely became an exercise in figuring out the best way to beat someone half to death. Furthermore, it deprived both the author and the interactor of the opportunity to explore both sides of the coin: how one person can actually bring themselves to torture another human being and the motivations involved, as well as how people react under the inconceivable agony of torture (how some will snap and provide information, while others will endure to the death, while still others will simply say whatever they think is necessary to make the beatings stop).

While this piece was painful to explore, the concept is particularly well-suited to interactive fiction. I would be very interested in seeing an updated release that explored the psychological aspects of torture in more detail, utilized a more realistic framework, and avoided large amounts of distracting disambiguation. Any future release should also contain a disclaimer from the very start that the piece is intended for mature audiences and contains very graphic violence and language.



Varronis Museum
by David Garcia
Landscape

Varronis Museum has an interesting premise, similar to ones I've been toying with lately myself: setting a story in an ancient civilization, heavily researched. In the case of Varronis Museum, you are a fifteen year old Roman girl, the daughter of a patrician, who has been left to wander the house of family friend while he and your father discuss some business.

The game strives to recreate a house from ancient Rome. It does this rather well, though at times I felt it was a touch too heavy-handed with the interjection of Latin words. For example, the description for the home's atrium reads as follows: "A large chamber roofed over with the exception of an aperture in the center (compluvium) to which the ceiling tilts in order to throw the rain water into a reservoir (impluvium)." When the game was able to explain the Latin words through sentence context rather than parenthetical explanation, it worked much better. I very much enjoyed exploring the rooms available and imagining how people lived during this time period.

The principle issue I had with the game was that the title, Varronis Museum, coupled with an apparent score category in the status line (which reads "0/9 insights"), led me to believe there was more to this game. The concept of a 'museum,' as we call it, didn't exist until the seventeenth century or so, but the word itself stems from an ancient Greek word, mouseion; mouseions were sacred places dedicated to the nine goddesses of the arts and sciences (though I don't believe that's actually covered anywhere in this version of the game). Indeed, there is at least one shrine in the piece. So with nine goddesses, a shrine, and a potential score of 9 "insights," as well as various descriptions in the game that implied there were puzzles to solve, it felt like there should be more to it. As it turns out, there is more to the game - just not in this release. So, while you can explore a house in ancient Rome and learn a bit of Latin, none of the objects can actually be manipulated, and puzzles that quite obviously exist can't be explored. Essentially, this is an extremely early beta of what promises to be a much larger, richer game.

So, while the setting was there, it wasn't truly immersive and interactive, and the piece itself is far from complete; Varronis Museum might have been better as an entry in IntroComp, actually (not that I have a vested interest in attracting entries for IntroComp or anything...).



Mike Roberts' Reviews



Rendition
by nespresso

Spoiler alert : this review contains spoilers the Infocom game Trinity .

This piece advertises itself as political, and while no names are named, it seems clear enough that the point is to indict the Bush administration's fairly open embrace of torture as a tactic in gathering intelligence.

The approach here is an elaboration of a scene in Infocom's Trinity , in which the player must kill an animal in order to solve a puzzle. That puzzle is famous (among IF enthusiasts, anyway) for its emotional impact, which it derives from the internal conflict it creates for the player: most players feel a moral compunction against killing an animal in cold blood, or at least some degree of squeamishness - but it's the only way to proceed in the game. In a sense the game forces you to perform the repugnant act, but in reality you have to decide on your own to perform it: the only "force" involved is your own desire to make progress in the game. When IFers get into a theorizing mode, they talk about the "complicity" that scenes like this create for the player.

Rendition does the same thing, but ratchets up the stakes by making the victim human. The story puts the player in the role of an interrogator tasked with torturing a newly captured "insurgent." As in Trinity , the player has to do something in the game that most people would not be willing to do in reality. And as in Trinity , the approach succeeds at creating significant discomfort for the player. But only for the first turn or two; at least for me, the effect rapidly loses its power. In large part, I think the problem is that the story's mechanics are too obvious and too game-like - after the first couple of turns, the piece become a puzzle to be solved.

I suppose the diminishing emotional impact could arguably be part of the author's point: that torturers become desensitized to the suffering they cause, torture becoming a mere mechanical task with no moral dimension. But if this was the point, it would have been better made if the player were to feel genuine discomfort for more than a turn or two. It might have been more effective to reduce the puzzle-like aspect by, for example, laying out a specific list of tortures to be inflicted, rather than inviting the player to treat the story as a category-enumeration game ("Actions That Cause Pain"). It might also have helped to keep raising the emotional stakes by making successive tortures increasingly gruesome. This way the player would have been forced to continually re-evaluate her willingness to continue, as the visceral impact steadily escalated.

Much more successful for me was the rather wry commentary embedded in the instructions, which lay out the game-like aspect (and it really is game-like: it's a basic resource-management situation, with a limited number of verb/body-part combinations that you have to marshal to get to the desired score). The instructions describe the resource limits in terms of tips for skirting all those pesky legal restrictions on the use of torture, deftly mocking the Bush regime's brazen doublespeak on the subject.

In the end I couldn't get any information out of the victim, which I take it to be part of the point as well. Or maybe I just needed a walk-through; with IF you never can tell for sure.



The Symbolic Engine
by Evan Schull

This piece is nominally a "still life," but it's not actually all that still.

The ostensible subject - the Engine of the title - is essentially an encyclopedia, in the guise of a futuristic mechanical contraption that projects holograms. Anyone who's spent any time with text adventures from any era will feel right at home with the Engine. It's pretty much a canonical adventure game mechanical device, a mysterious metal box bedecked with buttons and knobs and levers and dials, all differentiated by color and labeled with cryptic symbols only vaguely suggestive of a purpose. So it's a cliché, but in this case used to good effect - there are reasons these things show up so often, after all, and one is surely that they fit the interactive model of text IF so well.

The real subject of the piece, though, isn't the physical device itself, but rather the information it contains. It's an encyclopedia, remember, and its subject is history: history from the perspective of a future civilization, looking back on our time. The breadth of the material in the encyclopedia is impressive; it's a collection of quotations, statistics, miscellaneous facts, and commentary from several perspectives. It all forms a coherent picture of a future history.

I enjoyed browsing the encyclopedia's contents. The machine itself doesn't take much figuring out - it's not a puzzle, just a vehicle for interactivity - but even so it's kind of fun to play with. The way you select which material to view is nicely thought out. And the material itself is extensive and quite interesting.

The work has a pretty overt political message, in that it predicts a particular unfolding of events, and comments with historical "hindsight" on the reasons for those events. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it's an indictment of certain aspects of the civilization of our present. I found its point of view vaguely reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi . It's the kind of thing that no doubt will drive the right wingers crazy; but if they don't like it, maybe they can persuade Fox News to start an interactive fiction division to bring some "balance" to the liberal IF world.



Varronis Museum
by David Garcia

This scenery piece simulates a Roman businessman's house from some time in antiquity. I get the impression that the author did a good bit of research into the subject, since the setting is quite detailed and full of little historical notes and explanations of why things are built a particular way.

Maybe because of all the "period detail," the piece comes across as earnestly educational, maybe even a bit pedantic. Part of that is the way the descriptions of rooms and other objects frequently include parenthetical mentions of the Latin names for things: "East is the corridor ( fauces )..." These translations seemed a little out of place, because the narration was otherwise written from the point of view of the player character; the PC is a Latin speaker in everyday life, so she wouldn't be constantly thinking in terms of Latin translations.

In terms of implementation, the piece could use some more polish. First, many of the objects and nouns mentioned in the text aren't implemented, which is especially noticeable in a piece like this that's focused on scenery. Second, some more proofreading would help; I noticed a number of typos. Beyond that, there's room for greater interactivity - the only thing that you can really do with almost anything is to EXAMINE it; but that's more of the nature of embellishment, since this is primarily meant to be a piece of scenery, after all.



Adam Thornton's Reviews



In general, it is difficult to write about the Art Show entries this year. Each entry had merit; each also had deep flaws. They were all spectacularly different from one another, and did not fail in the same way. None are what I would consider particularly groundbreaking, but there were no outright failures in the crop either.



Varronis Museum

This is probably my favorite entry this year. It is somewhat difficult for me to review, as I also have a (much smaller) Roman _domus_ I have implemented in my work-in-progress, and part of my WIP is set in very much the same time and space as "Varronis Museum". Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking, when it appears, that Domus Macana in Ostia is a cheap ripoff of Varronis Museum; fortunately, Marnie can attest to the fact that the Domus Macana has been in my code for months prior to the release of Varronis Museum.

The piece is fairly straightforward in narrative structure: you are a fifteen-year-old Roman maiden. Your father has gone to visit "The Most Learned Of the Romans," Marcus Tarentius Varro, and you are left, bored, in Varro's house to wander (his family has left on vacation) and stare at various things. Occasionally you are rewarded with flashes of insight about the things you find, and your character is revealed through memory flashbacks and attitudes to objects.

The piece is clearly intended to be didactic: it presents you with quite an assortment of information about Roman domestic life in the first century BC, and a fair bit of information about Roman public policy (the Late Republic being a particularly interesting bit of Roman political history, of course). The insights appear to be mostly geared towards aspects of Roman policy, and the way in which they are realized is quite clever: at the end of the game, when you leave with your father, they are presented as part of a dialogue you have with him.

The character as presented is a prissy, uptight, very socially conservative girl distinctly uncomfortable with her burgeoning sexuality. I actually found her quite distasteful, which I guess was part of the point; she is well-realized enough that I understood much of her character and disliked it. She doesn't pick up any objects, but always has a handy rationalization for not doing so (which the game rather charmingly comments upon at one point).

THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS:
***

The piece does something very clever in its presentation of the player character: it's never stated, but I'm pretty sure the protagonist is meant to be Julia, daughter of Julius Caesar, which therefore explains who the man who's brought her to Varro's house is. The timeline fits, the Briton slave fits, and the general conservative world view fits. Now, my Roman history isn't good enough to know what Varro and Caesar would have been talking about in 67 BC--when you eavesdrop they're talking about cattle, but it seems a little early for them to be planning the 59 BC Campania resettlement. I had thought, perhaps, that the real reason for the meeting was to arrange a marriage of the protagonist to Varro, but this does not seem to be borne out by the historical record, or indeed by the game.

***
Alas, I have not come to praise Varronis Museum, but to bury it. Well, not really, but the line was too good to pass up. If the work lived up to the promise of all the things outlined above, it would be terrific. Unfortunately, it suffers from a number of fairly major flaws.

I think that English is probably not the author's first language. The prose is usually functional--I can tell what the author intended--but there are enough jarring infelicities that it is sometimes unpleasant to read. (E.g. "Even cockroaches would write a graphiti on the wall saying 'Clean this place up!'" or "'Who is her? I beseech you to answer,' you moan, awfully unsettled.") A proofreader would have helped immensely.

The more serious flaw is that the game really seems to have been started too late and implemented too quickly. The depth of implementation is inconsistent. Sometimes there are third-and-fourth-level items which are crucial to receiving memories or insights, but often there are second-level items which do not exist. Since the gameplay basically reduces to "Examine something described in the room. Examine something described in that block of text. Repeat until exhausted. Go to another room and try again," this becomes much more irritating than it would in a more traditional puzzle game.

There are a couple of minor flaws that probably no one but a Roman History nerd would notice--for instance, it is more likely that the toilet would have been found in the kitchen than in the bathroom (no lie!). It would have been nice to be told the "book" was a scroll, because I think most readers will default to the assumption it's a codex. These are minor quibbles, but in a game as explicitly didactic as this one, they're worth correcting.

I ended up dumping the game with txd, and I still never found three of the nine insight-trigger objects. Some of the ones I did find--the oats, for example--I found through the text dump, but have no idea what in the text was to have clued me in to their existence.

Nevertheless, this is my favorite of the works in this year's show. It both manages to dump quite a lot of knowledge about the Roman world on the player and to conceal a nice little puzzle (the protagonist's identity), which can be left unsolved without detracting from the work, but provides a little thrill to those who do figure it out.

Best in Show.



The Symbolic Engine

There's not a lot to say about this piece. There's a machine. You set its state by manipulating dials and knobs, and press a button to get a short infodump based on the settings. Taken as a whole, these infodumps present an account of a near-future ecological catastrophe, and you can select between a male, a female, and an ape's (presumably some sort of Uplifted ape--it's got reasonably good grammar and vocabulary, even if it does tend to speak in "me Tarzan, you Jane" sort of sentences, like "you lucky I lightbeam") perspective (do apes not have gender differences in outlook?) on the combinations of topics ("human", "human", "gun" for person-on-person violence, for example).

Basically, the work has just a couple of major points to make: 1) Too many people, 2) Capitalism bad, 3) Resource consumption unsustainable. Since I don't actually disagree with any of these points, there wasn't a whole lot of involvement in the work from me. Pretty much, you flip through the settings until you've exhausted the store of infodumps.

It's competently enough implemented, but didn't leave me, particularly, wanting more, or thinking too hard about what I'd just done.



rendition

The best part of this work is not playing it.

Seriously. Here's how the piece opens:

===begin quoted text===

They caught Abdul during an insurgency in the east. He tried to take out a regiment with some home-made explosives strapped to his chest. They didn't explode, so pretty soon the coalition had a real live terrorist in their clutches. But who sent him? The fundamentalists over the border? He has been shipped over here to be "questioned". And you have been given the plum job.

Interrogation Chamber Formerly the toilet facilities, now stripped clean to allow for the careful vetting of some of the more interesting guests. Utterly bare, save for the door to the south.

Abdul sits huddled in the corner, defiant.

===end quoted text===

Well, it was pretty clear what this game was going to be, and I didn't really want any part of it. But, you know, I'm a judge, and I thought I'd play along:

===begin quoted text===

> punch abdul You can only abuse a body part.

> break toe Which do you mean, his left little toe, his left second toe, his left middle toe, his left fourth toe, his left big toe, his right little toe, his right second toe, his right middle toe, his right fourth toe or his right big toe?

===end quoted text===

And it was exactly at this point that I QUIT on my first play.

If I hadn't picked it up again, I might have given it Best In Show. It had succeeded superbly in its aim, to create revulsion in me, and I didn't want to participate in the author's little Milgram Experiment.

Then I came back to it the next night, since, you know, I *am* supposed to be judging this contest, and I know that I am only *actually* abusing a collection of electrons inside my computer. I've faced down scarier abysses than this one, I told myself, and started interacting as the author meant me to.

Alas, the actual implementation is a lot less compelling than the initial glance. Until you discover the DIAGNOSE verb, the game is guess-the-body-part, and then once you know the body parts, after about halfway, unless you have a better sadistic imagination than I do (and some of the tortures are pretty far out there), then the game becomes guess-the-verb.

You can only perform a verb on a particular noun once, and you can only perform each verb four times. Given that that rather narrows down the application of torture methods, it's unfortunate that the author didn't take the time to differentiate the flavor text more between the times torture is employed--I would think that it would be much harder to urinate on one of Abdul's body parts the fourth time than the first--or indeed to various body parts' reactions to abuse: a stretched anus should not respond the same way as a stretched left little finger. Some actions don't make a lot of sense, either: it seems to me that it would be very hard to defecate on someone's left fourth toe while leaving the other ones unbesmirched. As it is, the repetition really takes a lot of the horror out of the experience.

The work is entered as a Portrait, but of whom? If it's Abdul, there's not much to his characterization. His utterances vary based on his current state of abuse, and that's it. If it's the protagonist, well, we know that he's a sadistic psychopath, but we never find out why, or indeed what he likes to do other than fantasizing about sex with inanimate objects. Is this the "lone bad apple" of the Abu Ghraib Official Story? Or is the author saying all U.S. military personnel are sadistic psychopaths? Or all Americans? Beats me.

You can ask Abdul about anything, and he replies (at least initially) in something that looks like it could be Arabic. The game does make its rather clever point here that the "interrogation" is being performed by someone who is incapable of understanding whatever's confessed. I would actually like for an Arabic speaker to tell me whether what Abdul is saying is gibberish or if it's actually related to his state of abuse and makes some sort of sense.

SPOILERS below here.
***

For all of its flaws, there are, however, two very effective moments in the work.

The first is when Abdul, shortly before being tortured into vacuity, begins speaking in broken English. He sure sounds like he's Taliban, from what he says (little black humor there for my readers). That was genuinely creepy and affecting.

The other one is even better: when you DIAGNOSE Abdul, one of his body parts is a foreskin. He's not even Muslim, not that the protagonist is smart enough to realize it. That was a brilliant touch.

It's not an effective Portrait. It would have definitely been the Best In Category if the Category had been Event.



Doe's (Marnie Parker's) Reviews



Rendition

This is about torturing a prisoner to get information out of him.

I didn't want to play, but I did… a little. I tried hitting, cutting (with fingernails), and biting -- female type of things. Biting was actually going too far for me, but I wanted to see if anything would change, anything would happen. It seemed I'd have to play too far beyond my comfort level to have anything happen.

This reminds me of a study that I read about 20+ years ago. One of those human tests done by a college psychology department somewhere. Two students, the second student behind glass hooked up to a machine, and the first student on the other side of the glass looking in (but maybe not visible to the second student, I do not remember).

The second student was supposed to do something, pick out something, and when he/she was wrong the first student was supposed to give them an electrical shock. They could turn a dial to do that. Seated next to the first student was a lab technician (apparently someone in authority, but I think it was one of the students running the study in a lab coat, but they may have looked like TAs or teachers), urging the first student to shock the second when they chose wrong. The dial went to higher and higher degrees of voltage. The second student would jerk and complain of pain when shocked. So there was feedback that it hurt.

What happened? With the encouragement and approval of an apparent authority, students actually shocked the second student with increasingly high voltage -- high enough to seriously hurt them, despite their complaints. Naturally the second student wasn't hooked up to any electricity, it was all an act. The study was done to see how atrocities could be committed by ordinary Germans in WWII. With authority approving and encouraging, people will do a lot. (Yes, there were some who wouldn't do it, but it was a minority.)

With this entry though, no one was encouraging me, and there seemed to be no reward for torturing someone (as very little seemed to happen when I did). So I quit early, although I was uncomfortable with the biting before I quit (I know my punches wouldn't hurt anyone much, I am not much of a slugger). Even though I told myself this was not a real person, just a NPC that I was told was a person, it was unappealing. I do have limits to what I will do even in fantasy.

I am not sure what the point of this is. To make me feel complicit with Bush's approval of torturing political prisoners? Well, I don't feel complicit - I was outraged and I think it is the worst black mark on his already black record as a US President.

In many ways this was a clever idea, a portrait of me and what I am willing to do. Although it did not appear to be graphic gore-wise (I didn't play it far enough to see), it is also interactive enough, as there seems to be enough to do. It does suffers a bit, though, from hunt the verb and hunt the body part. It also offers thin NPC characterization. However, where it is really interactive is on the emotional level - it is rather repugnant.



Symbolic Engine

This is well-crafted and well-done, but I was left luke warm about it. It is probably the most well-crafted piece entered this year. It is also somewhat preachy. As I am a leftie politically and all for sustainable development, it didn't carry any really new messages for me, although I thought the presentation was well done.

Mild Spoilers
***

One turns knobs and a dial. Turning the knobs will show different symbols. Turning the dial will change the holographic character shown by the machine to a woman, man, or ape. It is like a slot machine where one lines up three symbols, although they do not need to match. Then based on the holographic character the dial is turned to one can get difference responses for the symbols that are lined up. The responses seem to cover a fairly wide range, but mainly the responses are about war, over population, sustainable development, and corporate/commercial over development. The woman gives Gaia/feeling type of responses, the man more factual ones, although he sometimes quotes instead, and some of those quotes are not very different that the woman's responses (I think I wanted him to be always dry and factual). The ape gives simplistic responses supposedly from an animal's perspective.

****

I felt this it isn't as interactive as it first appears. One can only turn knobs and a dial, the rest is "listening" to what are essentially mini-lectures.

Personally, I wanted a bit more in the way of interaction and I was more intrigued by the future this author envisioned. Post overdevelopment/corporate collapse with people growing, eating, and governing locally. This vision of the future world, though, was only given out in small dribbles during the course of the feelings/facts dispensed by the machine about the pre-collapse world. I also felt there was an inconsistency between a library that had high tech machines that could dispense information and a totally local way of living. I wanted to see how the author would resolve that. I am not sure he ever did, because I played about as long as I wanted to and didn't really see one (despite some things I "overheard" coming from outside the room). I found that science-fiction/mystic vision a lot more interesting than what was actually "said."

This, however, is well-crafted and a worth-while IF Art Show entry. It is also a fairly painless and engaging way to present one's political/ecological beliefs in an Iffy mode.



Varronis Museum

I was pretty intrigued by this… at the time of putting these web pages together I have not finished this review. I hope to have it up by the end of the coming weekend.

All three artists/authors showed creativity and interesting new approaches to their category choices, so I hope to see more from them in the future.





About the Judges

Eric Eve - Eric Eve dimly recalls enjoying some text adventures from Level 9 more years ago than he is now prepared to admit, and over the years has occasionally amused himself by writing his own as entertaining programming exercises in a variety of languages; but he first discovered modern IF in 2003 through an article in a computing magazine. Since then he has written a number of games in TADS 3 ("Square Circle", "All Hope Abandon" and "The Elysium Enigma", the last of which came third in the 2006 IF Competition and won the XYZZY award for the best game of 2006) as well as a couple of smaller games in Inform 6 & 7 ("Swineback Ridge" and "Dreadwine").

He is also the author of "Getting Started in TADS 3" and "The TADS 3 Tour Guide", both of which now form part of the TADS 3 documentation set. In his day job Eric teaches New Testament at Harris Manchester College, the only Oxford college that caters solely for mature students.
(self-written)

Victor Gijsbers - Attempting (and failing) to hide his inability to design good puzzles by calling his pieces "narrativistic", the Dutch Gijsbers managed to fool the IF community into awarding him a Spring Thing Award twice, as well as the Best Use of Medium XYZZY for "The Baron". He now tries ruin the form even further by writing anarchistic essays and participating as judge in a subversive enterprise known only as the "IF Art Show".
(self-written)

Jacqueline A. Lott - Artist Profile
(self-written)

Mike Roberts - Created TADS (Text Adventure Development System) , an IF programming language and compiler. He is currently revising (and revising and revising and revising and revising :-)) the next exciting version of TADS, T3. (Note: there is now a finalized, semi-finalized? :-), version of T3 that is useable.) We can thank: first AGT, next TADS, and later, Inform, for keeping IF alive and kicking today. Mike also wrote the games: "Ditch Day Drifter," "Perdition's Flames," and "The Plant," which placed third in the 1998 Annual IF Competition.

Adam Thornton - Adam Thornton was exposed to Interactive Fiction at a tender age, and has spent the rest of his life slavering in dark corners, decapitating truckers with a single effortless swipe (per trucker, that is), and devouring adventurers. His essential lack of creativity is evident in the pieces he's produced, all parodies. _Sins Against Mimesis_, _Chicken and Egg_, _In The End II_, _Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country_, and _Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Atari 2600 Text Adventure Version)_ are among his works, which collectively seem to argue for quantity over quality or, indeed, playability.

He is a dangerous man with a literary theory, and persistent rumor has it that he is creating a Latin-language version of the Inform libraries in order to promulgate his obscene filth to the as-yet-untapped market of Latin text-adventure pornography deviants. If you encounter him, do not allow him to leave your sight, and contact the authorities immediately.    (self-written)

Marnie Parker (aka Doe) - Although not a judge, just the organizer of the IF Art Show, I do usually try to write reviews.
Artist's/Organizer's Profile
(self-written)



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