A Walk Through Odd Places
by Mark J. Musante

Never volunteer. That's what they say in the army, or so I'm told, but I've failed to follow that particular pearl of wisdom on many occasions and, at least this time, I would have been better off for it.

Game Info Box
Name:
System:
Author:
Date:
Version:
The Spatent Obstruction
AGT
Chris Canavan
1-November-1992
2.55
This particular volunteering on my part was brought about when Carl Muckenhoupt was looking for people to help him put together his "Baf's Guide to the IF archive". In the course of that assistance, I came across this game. The title intrigued me. What was a Spatent? What was obstructing it?

It turns out the first obstruction was that the game was written in AGT. Now the problem with AGT is that, while it's easy to write a game using it, it's hard to write a GOOD game. Why? Because you have so much more work to do to get the parser to behave the way you want it to.

Allow me to illustrate with an example. One of the first main puzzles in this game is trying to take a taxi to the airport. In order to tell the driver to take you there you have to give him your ticket so he can see where to go. You can't use
      > DRIVER, AIRPORT
nor can you use
      > SAY "AIRPORT"
Instead, you just give him the ticket. Unfortunately, if you haven't given him money first (and I'm willing to accept that I'm in a universe in which you pay the driver before he takes you anywhere), the game prints out the confusing
      Don't know how to give here...
Of course the 'give' verb does work... it was expecting 'give money' first and THEN 'give ticket.'

Related Links
GMD: zip file
GMD: AGT runtimes
ifarchive.org: zip file
ifarchive.org: AGT runtimes
Baf's Guide: Game Info
The fault of this lies in the fact that each eventuality must be carefully coded for in any AGT game. For TADS or Inform or any object-oriented development system, there's an easy way to put in a hook for 'player trying to get ride without having paid first'. In AGT, each additional combination causes a multiplicative increase in the number of 'commands' that must be written. As a result, AGT appears easy to write games for but is actually extremely difficult indeed.

While I'm at it, I may as well flag another problem with this game: that of adjectivitis. Most, if not all, IF authoring systems have the ability to add adjectives to objects, but it's a peculiar habit of AGT authors to add adjectives to every object. The canonical example of this is the legendary Detective's "wooden wood." So we're stuck with gold doorknobs, and white mailboxes, and wrapped money, and signs tacked up everywhere of every color imaginable.

One last thing I'll mention that seems to be a hallmark of an AGT game: room descriptions tend to be devoid of any mention of ways out. Instead, you must, as a player, remember to type 'show exits' at each location.

When I sat down to play this game, I knew full well that these sorts of things would probably be present. I bring them to your attention in this review in case you've heard an undercurrent of disgruntledness about AGT games but no clear explanation as to why. Rest assured I'm leaving out many other problems.

So let's ignore the difficulties and quirks of the AGT gaming system and concentrate on what makes adventures fun: writing, puzzles and story.

The Write Stuff

One thing I clearly remember when playing early (pre-1985) Infocom games was that it would be really cool to create a game like this myself. I think many players would like to become authors, just like many actors would love to direct some day.

Since it's so simple to slap together an AGT game, many people try it, regardless of writing ability. Canavan is able to get the point across, but his use of English could do with grammar- and spell-checking.

However, even that wouldn't be enough. Here's a sample room description:

Ahhh, the kitchen. Its beautiful plastic floors and wooden cabinets make it look so beautiful. You remember late night snacks and reading the paper on the kitchen table. It is a very beautiful place indeed!

Tangential Links
rec.arts.int-fiction
Baf's Guide

GMD
Detective (AGT)
Detective (Inform port)
MST3k1 - A MiSTing of Detective

ifarchive.org
Detective (AGT)
Detective (Inform port)
MST3k1 - A MiSTing of Detective
The best that can be said for it is the unintentionally amusing bits and pieces. When you get a sentence which starts, "He grabs you under your legs...", it can't help but bring a smile to your face. While these phrases are rare, they occur often enough to mitigate some of the deleterious effects of the rest of the writing. It's not in every game that you see a "forst of lush green ivory" or learn that a robot can shut himself down "for an infinite number of years with no damage."

Expectedly, this game lacks implementation of detail. In the dining room, Canavan is very careful to point out that there's a vase on the table, and nothing on the desk. However, the game doesn't recognise 'vase', 'table' or 'desk' as objects. Early games, pre-mid-1990's did this because of lack of resources, so it's forgivable. Those more used to modern games in which you at least get a response along the lines of "that's not important" would find it to be just another source of frustration.

For Puzzles' Sake

Many beginning authors wonder how to put puzzles in a game. Where do people come up with their ideas? This question appears often enough in the rec.arts.int-fiction newsgroup and most of the time the response is along the lines of story-integration: make sure the puzzles make sense in the course of the story. In other words, don't put a 15-puzzle in the middle of the road and then prevent the player from walking any further until the puzzle is solved.

In The Spatent Obstruction, Canavan decided to make the living room of your house dark. So naturally the player explores a bit looking for a light source of some kind. When I found my way to the backyard and saw one lying there, I was amused by the fact that Canavan provided an explanation:

This is your back yard. You are totally surrounded by woods, which makes this an appealing sight. Green light plays through the leaves of the surrounding trees. A small deck and barn are the only real things that mark the otherwise perfect grass. The only exit to this area is back through the small, almost invisible, path you came from.
   There is an oil lamp here.

> X LAMP

This is an old, rusted, oil lamp. You doubt that it would even wortk except for the fact that there is still old oil sitting in the bottom. You remember leaving this here when you cleaned out your barn.

However, the next time I started the game, I went to the backyard to get the lamp and found out that the lamp wasn't there. This caused me to be stuck for many minutes until I figured out that the lamp only appears there after you open your mailbox and read the airline ticket which lies therein. Moreover, you must be holding the airline ticket when you read it or you will remain lamp-free.

This is a good example of how not to make a puzzle.

This game seems to have been designed with these sorts of puzzles in mind. You must perform task A before object B will magically appear. Several puzzles are time-based in that you only have a few turns to complete a particular part of the game before the game whisks you off to a new location. If you haven't completed everything you need to (and there's no real way of telling, save experience), it's time to restore and try again. In the words of the game, "death is a very possible."

Oh, the game has a maze, but an easy solution, so it's not bad at all.

Storytime

The game starts innocently enough. You were at a party last night and your friends helpfully brought you home and left you on your driveway to sleep off the effects of the alcohol. With friends like these, who needs Spatents?

The good news is that you've won a free ticket to France. Now all you have to do is get past a homicidal taxi driver. After working your way to the airport and hitting on a flight attendant, you suddenly find the world has changed, and you've acquired a robot sidekick named Lexter. This is all quickly explained by an expository scientist who never stops running around.

Apparently you've blorped through time and you need something called a Spatent Obstruction to hold open a time rip long enough for you to get back. But, and here's the spice which thickens the plot, they're illegal. And that's when things get confusing.

The game takes you through a few twists and turns and, at one point, I was surprised to find myself in the enemy computer room. I was relieved to discover that it was "the room your supposed to run to if an enemy attacks." But relief turned to depression when I learned that the enemy (detection) computer was "about three inches bigger than you are". How immodest.

The most disappointing part was when I learned that a bug caused me to get stuck about 80-90% of the way through the game. If someone is aware of a walkthrough that works around this bug, I'd be very interested in it.

And now let's go over the films we've seen on today's show

I've been sitting here thinking about whether this game could have anything worth recommending. As you might have noticed, the "feature" I liked most about this game was the unintentionally funny writing. The puzzles weren't very clever, nor were they integrated into the game. They ranged from "read the author's mind" to "I'm supposed to do WHAT?!?".

Once the game's bug stopped me from progressing any further, I used a program called 'agtout' to decompile the game's text. At least I got to read the ending if not actually participate in it. Canavan is nice enough to set up for a sequel which includes finding your robot sidekick again and, apparently, recruiting an alien crew to help you fly around outer space and blow stuff up.

Much to my disappointment, France seems to have been left as a permanent unresolved plot thread.

I have to come to the unfortunate conclusion that this game really isn't worth playing. There is nothing here that stands out as fun or enjoyable. The plot is too basic, the puzzles too obscure. The best that we can hope for is, if Canavan does write a sequel, he learns from his mistakes.

Bottom line: thumbs down.


This review is Copyright 2000 by Mark J. Musante. All Rights Reserved.
This page was updated on 17 Aug 2000.