Zeppelin Adventure (Robin Johnson, Spring Thing 2018)

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Robin Johnson’s Versificator engine is designed to give the player access to a parser IF-like world model but a choice-based interface, free of verb-guessing. The two previous games in this space, Draculaland and Detectiveland, feature navigation and inventory puzzles that feel quite text adventure-like, but in a more accessible format.

At any given time, the player has quite a few choices available — usually one or several movements between rooms, as well as ways of examining or interacting with environmental objects, and then some things that you can do with your inventory items. But these aren’t listed all in one place; instead, choices associated with something in your inventory become visible only when you’re carrying that inventory item. So there are partially hidden options, and you do generally have to draw some connections yourself before being able to execute a puzzle solution.

zepellincover.jpgFeatured in Spring Thing 2018Zeppelin Adventure continues that tradition, set this time in a wacky-explorer universe where people are plotting out Mars from their giant balloons. Yours, however, suffers an accident and crash-lands on a planet dominated by robots, and you have to go on a quest to find repair parts for your engine.

As the cover art suggests, this is a pulpy kind of story that leans into certain genre conventions both present and historical.

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Spring Thing 2016: The Xylophoniad; Foo Foo

I’ve been playing more of the games from this year’s Spring Thing. (You too can play! And vote! And review, if you wish!)

xylophone_coverThe Xylophoniad is a parser adventure by Robin Johnson, a good-natured spoof of Greek mythology with cameos from Achilles, Sappho, Daedalus, the Minotaur, and assorted other crowd favorites. Unlike the author’s recent Draculaland, it’s not relying on a choice-based representation of the parser options, but in other respects the two games are fairly similar in tone and difficulty level: light-hearted, relatively straightforward puzzles that tend to involve thinking of the right item to use in the right situation; an invisiclues-style hint system complete with misleading fake hints; a sizable world map with relatively few items per room, brief room descriptions, and explicitly listed exits. The characters will answer ASK/TELL conversation gambits on a number of topics, but in a fairly old-school style: these are more like Infocom characters than like new-school NPCs, and they don’t have long memories or detailed dialogue scenes. But that suits the genre this is going for.

I found The Xylophoniad took me roughly an hour to play, and that I only had to look at the hints a couple of times, mostly because there were two specific objects whose size and shape I had envisioned incorrectly. However, a couple of the other puzzles amused me considerably, and a couple have multiple solutions. (I was particularly pleased by trggvat n oyvaqsbyqrq oneore gb tvir Zrqhfn n gevz, and also that gur gharf lbh cynl ner Terrx-gvgyrq irefvbaf bs ahefrel fbatf.)

I just recommended ASCII and the Argonauts apropos of Johnson’s last game, but it’s even more apropos here — if you liked this, you might well like that.


foofooFoo Foo (Buster Hudson of Oppositely Opal et al) was originally a game for The Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction, and in fact it won that competition. It’s not hard to see why: it’s a charming, light puzzle game that honors Veeder’s work in both style and specific content. The protagonist is the Good Fairy of the Little Bunny Foo Foo song, and is trying to collect evidence that Little Bunny Foo Foo is not actually responsible for the massacre of field mice in the area. There’s a cameo from the descendant of Captain Verdeterre; there’s a former flame who keeps a dessert shop, reminiscent of the ice cream shop owner in Taco Fiction; there are stuffed dinosaurs as found in The Island of Doctor Wooby; there’s a rock band called “They Might Be Humans,” a nod to Veeder’s contributions to the They Might Be Giants tribute compilation, Dig My Grave and The Statue Got Me High.

From time to time the narrator addresses the player directly about what you should attend to and what you should ignore.

Your detective instincts are telling you to focus on the establishments on the north side of Lumpen Lane. Of course there are businesses across the street, but you aren’t concerned with them, and therefore they won’t be mentioned.

This kind of thing is a classic Veederism, possibly seen most extensively in Nautilisia but present even in his earliest work I know of, You’ve Got a Stew Going!

I also thought this bit was a good nod to Veeder’s style:

He winks at you in precisely the way you hate being winked at.

Overall, I think Foo Foo is probably the most fun for people who know their Veeder canon well, and it’s hard for me to know exactly how you’ll respond to it if you don’t; but it felt to me like it was well enough constructed that even someone without that background might have a good time.

Draculaland (Robin Johnson)

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Draculaland is a goofy, tropey piece of medium-length IF: you solve puzzles, you gather weapons, you fight monsters suitable to Transylvania. There are items to collect, and NPCs who send you on quests, and other NPCs who get in your way; there is even one NPC who follows you around. The whole piece feels animated by the spirit of Scott Adams, especially The Count — short, tight descriptions and puzzles that can be solved in a single flash of inventiveness — but it is infinitely fairer. I estimate it took me about 90 minutes, though I think I wasn’t consistently focused on it for that full time. Draculaland was written for The Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction, an unusual competition with the sole purpose of entertaining Ryan Veeder, but happily the author has made it available for the rest of us to enjoy as well.

It’s sort of a parser game without the parser: you play by clicking on verbs associated with the various objects in scope.There’s a full parser world model going on under the surface, and the links are being generated procedurally by that model. Occasionally this provided puzzle hints I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of, but mostly this eliminated guess-the-verb experiences without taking away the fun of coming up with my own solutions. Most of the puzzles require you to think of combining objects that appear in different locations, so the experience isn’t over-obvious.

It’s not exactly the first game to experiment with building clickable links out of a parser model world — see also Jon Ingold’s Colder Light, for instance — but there aren’t a lot of examples out there that I think work really well, so I was glad to play this one, and I thought that it did essentially work. Certainly it felt a lot more successful to me than a lot of historic UIs that use drop-down verb menus and other doodads to augment a standard parser game. Things like this Spellcasting UI have, to my tastes, aged much worse than even bare-text parser presentations.Spellcasting_101_interface


Towards the end of the Draculaland, the inventory list gets maybe a little unwieldy. I also found myself wishing for a clickable map, though I’m not sure whether that would actually have been an improvement or whether I was merely wishing for it because I manage to mix up east and west even in a clickable parser game. But for the most part, it worked very well for me.

The writing is compact, as it has to be in this format, and funny; the characters are sketched with as much personality as one could reasonably fit in the available space; and I found myself rather pleased with how the ending turned out, more for the sake of the NPCs than for myself.

There is one thing that the story made me do that I wanted to avoid. (ROT13: Ol gur gvzr V fubg gur jrerjbys, V xarj ur jnf ernyyl gur gnirea xrrcre, naq V jnf ubcvat sbe fbzr jnl gb xabpx uvz bhg be qr-jrerjbys uvz engure guna npghnyyl zheqre uvz. Nsgre nyy, nfvqr sebz uvf jbys unovgf, gur gnirea xrrcre frrzrq yvxr n qrprag fbeg, naq jr nyernql unq bar rknzcyr (va Zvan) bs n zbafgre jub pbhyq npghnyyl or tbbq naq zbfgyl xrrc vgf vzchyfrf haqre pbageby.) But perhaps that is in-genre inevitable.

If you like Draculaland as a tribute to Scott Adams, you might also enjoy J. Robinson Wheeler’s Adams-styled Greek myth game ASCII and the Argonauts; if you’re keen on puzzly vampire tropes, you might want Marco Vallarino’s Darkiss. If vampires sound good but you want to stick with a choice-based interface and go more Rice than Stoker, there’s always Choice of the Vampire.