The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
IF aficionados have often made the argument that the medium could have a commercial comeback if marketed in the right way. Forget gamers, the line of reasoning goes. Instead, interactive fiction should be sold in bookstores, right alongside the books, appealing to an educated, literary audience that sees "all words no pictures" as an advantage rather than a drawback. After all, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was one of Infocom's biggest hits, and it seems reasonable to conclude that that game drew much of its audience from people who loved the books. (Leave aside for a moment the tremendous overlap between fans of those books and computer nerds.) Perhaps the beginning of this IF resurgence might be text games appearing on author websites, inviting fans of that author to experience their favorite fictional world interactively, possibly re-enacting some key scenes, or filling in some narrative gaps from the paper stories.
I'm not sure I believe that IF will ever experience a commercial comeback on any significant scale, but I love the idea of skilled authors with large fanbases creating text adventures. Consequently, I was excited to learn that Christopher Paolini, author of the "Inheritance Trilogy" of young adult fantasy novels, had placed a text adventure on his site, set in those books' universe. I've never read Paolini's work, but his books seem to be popular with the kids, what with the first one spending months on the New York Times' bestseller list and having over a million copies in print. The fact that such a popular author was offering interactive fiction based on his books seemed quite promising to me, and I was eager to check it out. A web browser is a lousy place to play a text adventure of any size, given that Zplet doesn't provide for SAVE and RESTORE, so once I found the game I dug the zcode file out of my browser cache and played it locally. It would be nice if the author's web site had provided an easier option for downloading the game file, but that's a forgivable lapse. I fired up the game, all energized about the bright possibilities.
Unfortunately, that energy evaporated almost immediately. The first thing I did was turn transcripting on, and saw this:
Start of a transcript of Eragon Eragon. Release 1 / Serial number 050712 / Inform v6.30 Library 6/11 SD Standard interpreter 1.1 (4F) / Library serial number 040227
Uh-oh. Debugging verbs left on: not a good sign. Also, what's with the subtitle being just the title with a period added in? Finally, where's the author credit? Did Paolini actually write this game, or did he leave his name off because some employee or fan of his is the real author?
Having played the game, I'd put my money on the latter. Both in terms of design and prose style, Eragon feels like the product of a member of its intended audience: readers in their early teens. At the very least, given the number of comma splices and grammatical missteps in the game, I think it's safe to say that this prose has never seen the services of a professional editor. The milieu of the game itself feels like Tolkien with just a few of the serial numbers rubbed off — apparently you're a dwarf in the tunnels under "Farthen Dûr". Your quest is to warn the "Varden" (i.e. the good guys) that an "army of Urgals" (i.e. orcs) is approaching. In the process, you'll come across some magic dust that makes people fall asleep, mysterious runes concealing hidden rooms, huge underground chambers, and so forth. It's bog-standard stuff.
As for the game itself, well, I wish the news was better. It's not that this game is out-and-out terrible. Worse games get submitted to every single IF competition. However, it suffers from some very serious flaws. The worst of these is the way it deploys a kind of "selective parsing" that makes it feel like a product of 1983, despite having been produced with Inform 6. Several times throughout Eragon, I found that the parser would claim not to understand a particular formulation, only to specifically require that formulation at a later point. This kind of thing is simply unacceptable in a text adventure — if you tell me a command is not understood, don't expect me to try it again. A variation on this is the way that at certain junctures I found myself wrestling with the parser, trying to communicate a specific idea, only to learn that the game would only accept the most generic command possible, doing all the rest of the heavy lifting itself. Here's an example, altered to remove spoilers:
>X TRAP DOOR The stone trap door is covered with finely carved runes and etchings of intertwined dragons. There is an empty space in the center, just about the size of the marble orb. >PUT ORB ON DOOR Putting things on the Trap Door would achieve nothing. >PUT ORB IN CENTER I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer to the commands list for help. >OPEN TRAP DOOR The door is locked, and simply impassable. >PUT ORB IN STONE You can't put something inside itself. >X CENTER I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer to the commands list for help. >USE ORB The orb slips perfectly back into place, becoming one with the door. The door, now unlocked, automatically begins to slide open, dragging heavily along the floor.
The puzzles themselves are pitched at a good level for kids, but any kid would be driven crazy by how frequently this game fails to parse.
Alongside the technical failures is some highly irritating design, the centerpiece of which is a large maze. This maze isn't terribly challenging — the game is kind enough to give each location a distinctive name, like "Maze M18", "Hallway H6", and so forth — but it is so, so dull. Wandering through one empty location after another, following the left hand wall, is not my idea of a good time. Hilariously, the game helps orient you by telling you that you hear singing, loudly or faintly, from a particular direction, but when you get to the source of the sound it seems to forget that it ever mentioned singing. There's a person there, but I never saw her sing. In addition, there are several spots where I flummoxed the game by doing things in a different order than it expected. For instance, there's a library section where I thumbed through the books and was told, "Upon realizing that this is not the book you are looking for, you return the book to its place on the shelf." Unfortunately, I hadn't yet met the character who told me what book to look for, which made that message rather nonsensical. I'd venture to guess that the game was written to a walkthrough and not playtested thoroughly enough to uncover its hidden assumptions. Tons of formatting errors, capricious capitalization, and logical lapses add to the unpolished feeling.
I realize that all this criticism is negative, and I don't mean to be too discouraging, especially if Eragon was written by some young Paolini fan as a labor of love. I think the lesson that emerges from this game is that although it would be great for popular writers to offer interactive fiction based on their works, they should probably do so in collaboration with experienced IF authors if they're unfamiliar with modern IF themselves. After all, even Douglas Adams didn't try to write the Hitchhiker's game himself — the participation of Steve Meretzky helped ensure that the game would not be a hash of bugs and mainframe-era game design cliches. Similarly, modern authors would do well to avail themselves of the knowledge contained within the modern text adventure community. Combining a popular writer's skill and imagination with the technical expertise and experience of an established IF creator would be most likely to result in a game that puts both the author's works and interactive fiction itself in the best light. Without that creator's insight, you run the risk of games like Eragon, which makes IF fans want to avoid more Paolini and Paolini fans want to avoid more IF.