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IFCOMP 2008 - Piracy 2.0

Game #20: Piracy 2.0
Author: Sean Huxter
Played On: November 1st (2 hours 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     Admiral Copeland entrusted you with a mission to bring a pirate to trial. En-route the pirate's band attacks, boards your ship and kills your crew, throwing you into the brig. But you're not going to let that stop you from completing your mission are you?



     Sean Huxter’s inspiration comes from Infocom classics. I always feel like a bit of an IF poseur when I admit this, but I never played an Infocom game. Well, technically I’ve played a few minutes of Zork, a few minutes of HHGG, a few minutes of Nord & Bert, and a few minutes from a couple others from the Comedy Collection. This wasn’t when those games were originally released. The extent of my classic-era IF experience comes at the tail end, in the form of hobbyist, amateur, fan games.

     Piracy 2.0 feels a bit like Splashdown from IFComp 2004, in form and setting. It too, if I recall correctly, was heavily influenced by the works of Infocom. I gather from the game’s >ABOUT text that the author is new to the interactive fiction community, and may not have played many past IFComp entries (or other works of hobbyist IF since the demise of Infocom) as a more recent base of reference. Some of the game’s design decisions take an old-school approach, but it’s thankfully a playable and moderately solid work. I think this is probably because today’s IF continues to be influenced by those early works, even though many aspects have changed to accommodate the tendencies of today’s players to be less forgiving of brutally difficult games.

     Sean’s game isn’t brutally difficult, but it does feature some elements of those old-school designs that make it borderline frustrating in places. Although the blurb is ambiguous, these are space pirates (rather than the high seas kind), and a very simple combat mechanism gives the player a finite amount of health before death. I didn’t realize it at first, but the encounters and hit/miss chances appear to be random. This makes >UNDO your friend. (Randomness -- especially randomized combat -- is one of those old-school features that has fallen out of favor.) It’s possible to recover health at a point later in the game (useful if you haven’t been using >UNDO), but this appears to offer a limited number of uses. Around then (at least for me), the pirates stopped attacking, so it wasn’t as rough as it could have been. The combat, too, doesn’t really fall into complex RPG territory, so it shouldn’t be daunting to most IF enthusiasts.

     One of the biggest problems I noticed in the design (especially the later parts) was that it became easy to block off success in several ways. That’s not inherently bad, as long as the player is clear on what action was taken several turns back to cause the losing ending. At a minimum, the player should be clued into what might have been done differently to avoid failure. Certain actions cause a ten-turn countdown, and that works well. Other actions, though, are less obvious. As I worked toward finding the “best” ending, I had trouble figuring out if I was supposed to have waited to turn on the distress signal, or waited to lay in a new course, or if I should have started one of the countdowns at a certain point before or after either of those things. Ultimately, it feels like I stumbled into the 100-point ending by pure luck, rather than by fully solving the game’s endgame puzzles.

     Speaking of score, the game seems confused on whether or not it even has a score. During the game:

     Life has no score. However, you have used 151 moves. And your health report: The cold feeling in your fingers is almost gone. You have two wounds.

     But after the game, I scored 80 points (and later, the full 100):

     “In that game you scored 100 out of a possible 100, in 540 turns.”

     It’s also confused on the first officer’s name (and gender). A crew roster calls “her” Lisa McGregor, yet this doesn’t mesh with later statements:

     “This is a letter from your First Officer to his wife on Bromax.”
     “Ah. Yes. Matt Blake's letter to his wife, Stephanie.”

     Several locations have a computer console and a monitor, offering the player a variety of command abbreviations. For most of the game I used the prompted form of “type code on keypad.” This was okay -- they’re very short codes. Later, though, I realized the author had implemented these codes as stand-alone commands, which really helped alleviate the tedium of interacting with the various computer consoles.

     The game is pretty solid, with “bugs” that are generally very minor. I noticed a missing blank line once or twice, an extra blank line once or twice, and even a missing response for >put battery in panel. Later in the game, some sort of meta-text was shown at the end of the room description for the Main Bridge, stating “ceres.state not between 1 and 8.”

     Even though what’s implemented is pretty solid, I noticed a number of cases where the author should have implemented more. Sometimes, this took the form of the dreaded “guess-the-verb” problem. In one particularly difficult instance (and this is a puzzle spoiler -- be warned), I wanted to replace a gun’s dead battery with a fresh one. After some frustrating back-and-forth with the parser, I first solved it by dropping the new battery in one room, moving to a different room so I would be able to extract the gun’s depleted battery, then going back to retrieve the good battery so I could make use of it. Afterwards, I poked around a little more until I figured out what was happening. The game wasn’t asking for disambiguation for “battery,” probably expecting me to use its adjective also (or instead). To make matters worse, it wasn’t possible to refer to the gun at all when removing it, and in fact, “remove” wouldn’t even work.

     My transcript illustrates this frustration nicely:

     >x pistol
     This is a standard issue laser pistol. It's pitted and scratched. Typical of weapons owed by space pirates. A scratched battery is in the grip. There is a small red light flashing on the grip.

     >put battery in pistol
     (the shiny battery in the pistol)
     There is no room for a second battery in the pistol.

     >get battery from pistol
     That seems to be a part of the pistol.

     >get battery
     (the shiny battery)
     You already have that.

     >remove battery from pistol
     That seems to be a part of the pistol.

     >remove battery
     (the shiny battery)
     You're not wearing that.

     >get scratched battery from pistol
     That seems to be a part of the pistol.

     >get scratched battery
     You take the scratched battery from the pistol.

     The game was clearly tested, but maybe not by anyone familiar with the common failings of interactive fiction. The response to >X ME is the default “As good-looking as ever.” The game has toilets, but “flush” isn’t a verb (nit-picky I know, but of quite a few IFComp games this year with toilets, I only recall two -- so far -- where >flush toilet is understood). The writing on a piece of paper can be examined, but >read paper responds with “that's not readable.”

     The text, fortunately, fares better. It isn’t flashy or awe-inspiring, but it’s descriptive enough without being excessive, free of spelling and grammatical errors (I noticed none, at any rate) and a pleasant read after too many poorly written IFComp entries. This is the only of my scoring categories in which I have awarded the game top points.

     Of the plot -- the game’s story -- I have mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s interesting enough, and I’m a sucker for science fiction. I tend to enjoy exploring space ships in text adventures. On the other hand, it really doesn’t introduce anything new. The author was wise to abandon the humor of his Piracy 1.0 (described in the >ABOUT information) in favor of a more serious tone, but the game plays out with only minor surprises. It didn’t feel like a fresh idea, or even a fresh telling of a stale idea. Parts of it may be Trek-inspired (a bridge section that can be separated from the rest of the ship in times of emergency conjures up mental images of the Enterprise D, for instance).

     The puzzles work pretty well, yet they often seem at odds with the story. The protagonist -- the ship’s captain -- should be supremely familiar with all aspects of his ship. I would expect him (or her – if I’m right, the captain is gender-neutral to make it easier for all players to assume the role) to know exactly what computer commands are available, how those systems work, and the dangers to be faced in certain areas. Yet most of the time, the protagonist is only as informed as the player, which requires reading instructions and experimenting with options. This might have been solved if the protagonist was just a lesser crew member, but being the captain does serve to explain why you were initially spared (plus, it feels less clichéd than a typical generic-crewman adventure). Given the puzzles, it’s impossible to make a player feel like an all-knowing ship’s captain from the start, but something might have been done to get more mileage out of the premise. Maybe a stronger personality for the PC would have helped make him (or her) a more convincing captain.

     On the subject of plot-point head-scratchers, why do the pirates come and go randomly? This gives Piracy 2.0 more the feel of a video game, and that may not be what the author intended. I would have expected the pirates to become a little more organized, and with their obviously impressive numbers perhaps stake out every location instead of roaming around. And did anyone else notice that the 100-point ending (unless I missed an alternate path) is obtained in a way that effectively disposes of the only loyal, surviving crewman? (To be fair to Sean, I did the same thing in a prior game, although here it almost feels accidental.) I also thought there might be a final face-to-face confrontation with the pirate leader, but this only transpired as a remote communication (but again, maybe I missed an alternate path).

     A link in the >ABOUT text points to this website, where the author has provided a title image, a map of the ship’s interior, and a “blueprint” of the ship itself. It’s all very nice work, and I’m surprised it wasn’t included with the game. In keeping with the Infocom tradition, an actual feelie (the purple DataCube) is even available at a modest price (and this would make an appropriate listing for feelies.org).

     Piracy 2.0 is a solid, recommendable game overall. It even gets the bonus point, but for what’s probably one of the most random, trivial reasons imaginable. In the author’s notes, he identifies himself as a fan of Doctor Who. Coincidentally, I’m Netflixing my way through the recovered (and the never-lost) back episodes of the first seven Doctors, after fond memories of watching the Tom Baker (fourth Doctor) episodes as a kid (and the ninth/tenth doctor episodes now – Season Three in particular had a few really excellent episodes). Also, I too wrote games for the TRS-80 CoCo (most still available here), and these two things combined get a bonus point (for a composite score of “7”) that’s just as random as the pirate crew in Piracy 2.0.

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