Posted by: Ben | October 12, 2014

if: Excelsior

This is a review of Excelsior, a z-code game in the 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition by Arthur DiBianca.

But first, some disclaimers:

1) Even if I hate your game, I don’t hate you.

2) Your game is better than mine, since I haven’t yet written anything capable of being shown to another human being. Sorry.

3) Ratings are at this stage only on a three-point scale of Great, Good and Grim.

4) This review may include content that some people might not want to read.

5) If you are the author and you want a transcript, please get in touch and ask for one.

This large round chamber fills the entire first level of the tower. The vaulted ceiling is about fifty feet above you. There are no windows, but light comes from white lamps mounted in the walls. Polished stone stairs curve around the tower wall from the north up to the west.

In the middle of the floor stands a circular stone pedestal.

On the pedestal is a black cube.

The presentation is iffy, so much so that a few minutes in, I preferred my own intuition that I had definitely screwed up to the game’s insistence that it wasn’t possible to do so, and so restarted. I was wrong, of course.

This is a Preston Bus Station sort of entry – aggressively minimalist, unwilling to be beholden to tradition, and capable of winning grudging respect if not unqualified acclaim.

Excelsior!

Excelsior!

All transitive verbs except for EXAMINE and USE have been abolished, the latter being seemingly frowned upon in parser-based games as an unfair cheat to skip verb-guessing. Intercardinal compass directions like SOUTHEAST are also forbidden, meaning if you happen to want to walk around something then asymmetric room relations will have to be good enough for you. And as for the player-character, “as good looking as ever” is all the description they will ever need, or at least are ever going to get.

None of this is a problem, provided you take it on its own rather ascetic terms, although I would criticise the absence of USE X IN Y as an alternative to USE X WITH Y. Possibly the reliance on USE removes some of the intuitive tactility that comes of interacting with pointless water towers, unidentifiable levers and mysterious cubes. Still, it didn’t stop me putting the full two hours in, and almost reaching the end.

As a matter of personal preference I enjoy encountering abstract and yet manipulable environments.  For me, a mechanistic world where the same action can confidently be predicted to produce the same outcome is a pleasure to encounter, something that engenders optimism.  Misery and despair is never far away in IF Comp, but Excelsior feels like a tiny glimmer of light.
Rating: Good.

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