As part of the project to get more reviewers talking about IF Comp games, Robb Sherwin writes for us about Matthew Holland’s Pit of the Condemned. Robb is the author of Cryptozookeeper and Fallacy of Dawn, among other works.
Last year, my gal and I bought the biggest piece of crap on the housing market in Denver and, over the course of 5 months, turned it into something livable. Through a steady regimen of cursing, nail-gunning and hair-pulling, we got it to where the roof doesn’t leak, the heat works and the doors shut. So when I picked Pit of the Condemned as my 2015 IF Comp game to review, the title alone made it sound like a vacation.
In PotC, you play a convict that, along with fellow imprisoned person Iza, are thrown out into a city while a horrible beast tracks you. There’s one thing that this game does very effectively, and that is giving you (in my opinion) a sense of where the beast might be, without the benefit of graphics or a Defender-style radar or little text mini-map. There were a few playthroughs where I focused so much on the game’s text at the very beginning like, “You hear movement not far away, to the west.” and I would find myself unable to not type “west” and not say aloud “DURRR.” This resulted in me instantly perishing, but it was my fault because I have the habit of typing whatever compass direction I see in a text game. Usually in a game that features a lot of dying, I get a little torqued and quit, but that never happened in PotC. I intentionally don’t want to know how author Matthew Holland implemented the movement of the beast, because nothing is going to beat how he did it in my mind, which was to have the thing actually track both Iza and myself every turn. It effectively seemed that way and is the game’s brightest positive.
But yeah, two of the graphical adventure games I liked as a kid – Borrowed Time and Tass Times in Tonetown – created a feeling of death under a ticking clock in the opening, alongside being chased by a killer. Pit of the Condemned has this same vibe going for it. What I like about chase-based IF is that it eliminates a certain sense of player anxiety. I’m not expected to futz about in the Boiler Room for 20 turns trying to get the lathe working. I’m expected to keep moving, maybe grab some items if they’re out in the open and be okay with dying a few times until I can formulate a plan. Pit of the Condemned implied, to me, that through its title we’re all going to be in one location, but that’s not it at all. Admittedly, I would have loved it if we found out a little bit about ourselves as the player character during this chase, but that’s not the focus of the game.
There was some inconsistency when it came to the capitalization of the various rooms — “Gallows Hill” as one example, “canal,” “cellar,” “rancid sewer” as others. Perhaps that was intentional and only the “decent” places got capital letters. (I do like that, though the primary means of execution these days is a horrible monster tracking you, they still had a nice hill to hang people on. You know the landscaper of the gallows was clucking his tongue in irritation and rolling his or her eyes when the Dark-Furred Monster People gave their seemingly superfluous sales pitch to the city.)
I would assume that the implementation is where the game got stung in the comp. An example where it got dicey is one room where I found a couple keys. >take the keys doesn’t work, you have to take them individually. More, the room’s description of the junk after you’ve grabbed the items still says that there could be something useful in the pile of junk, implying that the player should still search it… By that point I knew what to expect and it wasn’t irritating.
I want to stress that I am not bothered by this sort of thing in a text adventure. Not being maddened by under-implemented IF is not a huge surprise, having written the great majority of it in the 2000s. But to me, there’s two styles of text adventures, two things an author might be going for:
1) This is a highly-polished interactive adventure game and the author is creating something that Infocom could have released.
2) This the work of a highly-enthusiastic author that is doing this for the first or second time and might stumble into some common Inform / TADS / Hugo pitfalls.
I’m okay with the second one. I like those games. That’s what I mostly played in the 1990s when I re-discovered IF thanks to the Internet. The highest compliment I can give Pit of the Condemned is that it gave me nostalgia for a wonderful time and I enjoyed it for that reason. It’s perfectly stable, just missing a tiny bit of player character love that would have really made it shine more. What I really hope is that Matthew Holland digests the reviews and comes out swinging with another game in a year or two and lets us all into his mind once again.