IF Comp 2014: Hill 160 (Mike Gerwat)


Hill 160 is a parser-based game about life in the trenches in WWI. I did not complete the whole game.

Hill 160 is a game with major ambitions. The room descriptions and interstitial text run long and are plainly designed to try to give the player a sense of the chaos and turmoil of trench war. The starting inventory includes a dauntingly large kit of things that a WWI soldier might have had on hand, including multiple weapons, tools, ammo, changes of clothes, spare buttons, wirecutters, and a latrine shovel. (That’s the condensed version.)

The ABOUT text suggests that the author has spent a lot of time on the history of WWI, and that occasional odd moments are down either to poetic license or to his being visually impaired (for instance, there’s a reference to “Eypre” which ought to be “Ypres”, unless I’m missing something).

Unfortunately, the results aren’t very interaction-friendly. The game seems to be written with the assumption that the player will do exactly what the author expects at each turn; goals aren’t always clearly indicated and the environment is not always modeled in a way that directs the player towards what she should be doing.

Early in the story, I tried leaving the location I was in to explore further, and this proved to kill me instantly for reasons that didn’t seem all that well flagged. At another point, I was supposed to get rid of some rats, but after a little text about their arrival the rats were not described in the room description, and several objects I might have used to attack the rats failed with minimal explanation. I discovered from the walkthrough that I was supposed to have a go at them with my shovel, but it wasn’t obvious to me why that was better than the other objects I’d already been trying.

Finally, the game sometimes seems actively hostile to the way that IF players typically operate: for instance, if you’ve already examined an object and you go back to have another look, you’ll often get a response like

You’ve already examined the backpack.

To which I say, so what? Why can’t I examine it again? This seems especially arbitrary in a game like this one, which has quite long prose passages and multiple points at which the screen gets blanked out. The description I’m interested in may have had a lot of detail in it, and it may no longer be in my scroll-back. Preventing the player from reviewing the description contributes nothing positive whatsoever to the play experience; it’s just pointlessly exasperating, and at worst makes me feel like the game is sort of taunting me.

The game’s credits state that the game was beta-tested, but only by the same person who helped the author to code it. This, I think, is a big part of the problem. One of the reasons we need beta-testers is that they can see how the game is going to present itself to players who don’t already know what to do.

The prose would also benefit from a thorough edit. Aside from some punctuation and capitalization issues, there’s a fair amount of redundancy: sometimes lines are reused verbatim, and sometimes they’re just repetitive, like this one:

They snake away in hap-hazard lines this way and that like a curved snake.

Sometimes, too, the grammar of a sentence drifts a bit:

You have entered a zone of mist, wafting up from the gunfire from your artillery, firing sporadically at German batteries.

The subject of this sentence is “you”, so in theory “wafting” and “firing” should both describe things that you are doing as well; but of course they refer to the mist and the artillery respectively. Meanwhile, I’m not quite sure what to make of

Far to your front, the shells pass over your head.

If they’re going over my head, they can’t be at all in front of me, presumably?

Finally, a glance at the walkthrough makes it clear that this game is far, far, far longer than could reasonably be finished in the 2-hour comp judging period.

So, hm. In theory, there is a lot that I want to like about this game. I am in favor of historically detailed settings, and I like that the author tried to present a major real-life event in parser IF form. Though I found the inventory a little overwhelming and I might have introduced it to the player more gradually, I also thought it was pretty cool to have all of that information; it provides a sense of the texture of the protagonist’s life. And plainly a lot of effort has gone into what is already here.

But the game needs a bunch of additional testing, some changes to the way it treats the player, and possibly someone to focus specifically on proofing the text. At its current size, complexity, and level of bugginess, it’s a rough sell for IF Comp.

Other reviews: Joseph Geipel, Herr M, PaulS, Sam Kabo Ashwell.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2014: Hill 160 (Mike Gerwat)”

  1. There are actually a lot of random sudden deaths: even following the walkthrough, you’ll randomly die. It wasn’t a big problem most of the time because you can seamlessly undo. However – as signalled in the about section – there are two places where the undo function is disabled – deliberately, we can assume. I and another reviewer fell into one of these traps and it doesn’t feel fair.
    I tried feeding the walkthrough commands into the game using the replay command (which takes several tries due to the aforementioned random sudden deaths) – but I still couldn’t complete it! One of the commands failed and I couldn’t work out why.
    Now I know this doesn’t change your point at all – because I agree the syntax needs a polish – but do participle phrases really have to share the subject of the main clause? Can you not say “I saw an eagle flying through the sky” ? For me, the sentence is ambiguous. (In fact there’s lots of syntax research about how the human language parser resolves these ambiguities.)

    1. In “I saw an eagle flying through the sky”, “flying through the sky” is modifying the eagle; that’s fine. But if you say “I saw an eagle, flying through the sky,” then the phrase has been decoupled from the noun.

      I agree it’s still possible to parse the example sentence anyway. What I was trying to convey (though I didn’t spell this out as clearly as I might have done, myself) is that the author seems often to be moving on to the next thought faster than he can write everything down. A sentence that is initially about one thing frequently ends up including several other ideas that perhaps should have stood alone in their own sentences.

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