The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: Kook U
I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for text adventures in a collegiate setting. It might be because Infocom's "The Lurking Horror" was one of the first games I played; or it might be because I first became aware of the broader I-F community while in university (and consequently frittered away countless hours playing rediscovered classics). Regardless, places of higher learning are near and dear to me as I-F settings, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to review this short, but highly enjoyable game.
Kook U is one of the older specimens of community-written I-F, having been written in 1997 [ed note: an older specimen?]. The essential premise is that the player, an administrator of Kook University's Usenet system, must respond to complaints of Usenet abuse committed by some of the university's less desirable students. The player must then wander throughout the university campus, locating the perpetrators and devising ways to get rid of them. Fortunately, background information about the students is available on a computer terminal – enough to get the player started.
Unfortunately, however, the network is down when the game begins, and hordes of irate users refuse to let the player leave the computer centre until everything is working again. Once this is accomplished, however, the remainder of the game is spent exploring Kook U's campus (not very large, and conveniently arranged around a central commons), locating the problem students, and gathering items for later use. Dealing with the threats to the network is very straightforward: each enemy is eliminated by using a specific item in their presence. Paying attention to one's surroundings – this includes item descriptions and information gleaned from computer terminals – makes this part of the game very easy, although the ways in which the people are dispatched is ironically humorous at times.
The characters, as one would expect from a game as small as this one (92 kB), are not highly interactive. However, with a little judicious playing about – showing items, asking them about other characters, Usenet, and whatnot – one can elicit some interesting responses. For added humour, I would also recommend the player try to "kill" the characters directly, or tell them to "go". While we're on the subject of dialogue, I would also note, for those who have sensitivies against this sort of thing, that there is some profanity in Kook U – nothing that would shock seasoned Internet users or recipients of spam, but it is there nonetheless.
Once all of the offending users have been eliminated, the player must perform one final task before the game is finished. That final task is fairly simple, and if completed successfully will result in the player becoming the new Dean of the College of Computer Science. Lower curtains.
Overall, I found Kook U to be satisfying, given the small size (23 rooms) and simplicity of the game. The rooms link up logically, there is no way that I found to render the game unwinnable, and I saw no glaring typographical or continuity errors. Room, item, and character descriptions are brief, but convey enough information to allow the player to develop a mental picture of what is going on. The author also added a few in-jokes (e.g., the computer room door description, below) and other small surprises (such as random poetry from one of the characters) for players who take the time to explore the game thoroughly.
One element of Kook U that I enjoyed considerably was its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the world of Usenet, and those who keep our computer networks running. For example, the player carries a beeper (batteries removed) to create the illusion of importance – perhaps also a jab at how customer service is sometimes handled. The computer room door ("scarred by the fingernails of frustrated users") can only be unlocked by the player's Usenet Cabal Membership card. One might expect a complicated setup in the computer room, with state-of-the-art equipment, but instead there is simply a server and router and other mundane gear. The player gets the impression that everything is held together on a wing and a prayer. The facade of mystery conceals a world that is really quite mundane.
It was purely by chance that I discovered that this satirical take on Usenet has more depth than I suspected. On a lark, I typed some of the characters' names into Google, and found that some of them are, in fact, based on real people. Equally interesting was the realisation that the so-called "Usenet Cabal" has apparently existed since the late 1980s (although it appears to be more of a club for Usenet afficionados than anything else) – those interested can search for it on Wikipedia or Google. F. L. Uffy, the Dean of the College (who is, oddly enough, a cat), is a take on Fluffy the Cat, believed (jokingly) by the "Meowers" to be the alleged owner of Usenet (again, look this up on Wikipedia to read more). Even the game's title has meaning. During the Internet's infancy, in the early 1990s, a newsgroup known as alt.usenet.kooks was established to discuss Usenet contributors who posted strange or incomprehensible articles, or demonstrated extreme obsessions – "net kooks", in other words. Some of the characters in the game definitely fit the bill.
All of this leads me to believe that the anonymous author of Kook U was very active in Usenet during the early years, and was possibly one of the characters in the game. This backstory gives the game, and its title, added significance, which I found quite interesting.
In short, Kook U is a tidy little package. Reasonably well written and coded, it tells a moderately entertaining story that satirises the world of network administrators. If you are looking for a quick I-F fix (you can win the game in as little as 77 moves), or about an hour's worth of leisurely, lighthearted entertainment, I would recommend it to you.