PrologueComp comments by Nick Montfort




Comments for "Howl":

The situation set up here is an intriguing one. I believe in the author's
ability to unfold a compelling journey with more interesting situations.
There's little described about the world -- it may be modern-day or
ancient -- but it's a world in which the ghosts of the dead play a part,
making it interesting. Nothing visual is described before the room
description is given, a nice choice. I wondered if the PC was blind at
first, but clearly the text is also suitable for a darkened room.

This part of the dialogue is overwritten and overly dramatic: "There's one
wolf -- he sounds like he's pining away for someone.  When I hear him, I
can't help wondering if I will end up like him.  That scares me." This
isn't the sort of thing a child would plausibly say, and except in the
most contemplative speech (probably not in an urgent conversation with a
ghost) an adult wouldn't, either.


To me a much more elliptical statement, such as "I'm not afraid that the
wolves will get me. It makes me sad, because they sound so lonely." is
more powerful and fitting.

I also dislike this part of the text:

        "Papa, why do I have to do this alone?"
        You hear a sigh.  "Oh, child, we've been through this before...."

Here the author is simply reminding the reader that the PC knows more than
the player does, and making it clear that the author is going to keep
things this way. That's unfortunate, because this seldom (if ever) works
to the benefit of a game. It's better to either omit this or give a reply
such as "Oh, child, it's just as I told you before ... [short
explanation.]" Otherwise you're demonstrating a sort of authorial
unfairness: even when the 'story' raises questions that the player should
know about, you're not going to tell the player the answers to those
questions.

Those points being made, it's a compelling beginning.



Comments for "Reckoning":

Except for the use of "traveller" in direct address, which would indicate
that the PC is a visitor to the land in question, there's nothing to
indicate who the PC is or what the PC's situation is. That the land is in
this condition isn't interesting, by itself, although one supposes that
the PC can remedy 'the Taint.' But introducing a work with a series of
bromides is not compelling in any way.

There's also one definite problem: the unfortunate science-fictionism of
introducing a term ('Breks,' in this case) without describing what it is,
in the hopes that a random string of letters will introduce something
ominous or futuristic or something. Making this the last word in the main
part of a speech, as here, is particularly unfortunate.

The premise for this game may work quite well, and the idea of starting
with a speech addressed to the PC may work as well. But making general
statements about "a different era" is sort of like hearing someone say "I
can't believe how bad crime is these days in my hometown" -- when you
don't even know what the hometown in question is. Even knowing the
hometown, a statement like "crime didn't used to be this bad" isn't nearly
as compelling as "I watched my sister being murdered yesterday" for
motivating the player to care about something. The plight of a specific
character (such as the old man) will interest a player more than general
reminisces about what things used to be like.



Comments for "Smoke":

Although I can't think of any sentences that would make this particular
situation compelling to me at the start of a game -- unless they were
deeply ironic -- these sentences aren't effective. To begin with, the
first two sentences aren't sentences. ">Pluft<" is a very inauspicious
beginning, unless "sound effects" of that sort are to play an important
role later on. (If so, there's no indication of that.) The second bit of
text is also a sentence fragment. Sentence fragments are fine if they are
used effectively, but these aren't.

The writing can be improved, but the real problem is this: What's being
described isn't that interesting. It can be summarized like so: "You are a
ninja. You land in a room and listen carefully." That's really all that
happens during this introductory text. There is no indication of what the
PC's mission is, who the PC is (outside the obvious fact that the PC is a
ninja) and nothing to intrigue the player further. "You wake up in a hotel
room and can't remember anything, not even your own name" is far more
interesting -- even though it's a cliche -- because it's a desperate
situation. "You are drunk and someone even more drunk than you is driving
you through red lights in your car" -- also interesting. But "You are a
ninja. You land in a room and listen carefully." with the suggestion that
"you are on a mission but I'm not going to tell you what your mission is"
is not interesting. I suggest giving a hint of what the PC's mission is,
even if later in the game it may be revealed that there is more to that
mission that was originally thought. The prologue is a chance to tell some
of the backstory -- the events that are causing this particular ninja to
enter this building at the moment. A prologue should take advantage of
this opportunity to motivate the player.



Comments for "Troll of rec.arts.int-fiction":

Although not without humor, this text is without any of the essential
elements of an IF prologue. Were an IF prompt to follow, what might I
type? There is nothing to indicate that a PC actually exists, that an IF
situation actually exists, that a room actually exists in which the PC
exists, or that the command format should have something to do with
traditional IF (as opposed to, say, commands for USENET newsgroups). "POST
FOLLOWUP"? "KILL TROLL WITH SWORD"? "KILL NEWBIE WITH TENDRIL"?



Comments for "Catharsis":

"The children here are still burning things." is ambiguous, and not in a
good way. It could mean "the children in this place are, even now, setting
fire to things" or it could mean "the children in this place are
motionless things that burn." If the second interpretation of the sentence
seems absurd, consider that "a baby's grave" is mentioned. If the first
interpretation was not intended at all, that's unfortunate, because that's
the usual way the sentence would be read. If the ambiguity was
intentional, this is one of the infinite number of situations in which
ambiguity confuses and derails a reader, rather than giving pleasure and
inviting a player to think more about the game and to become more
interested in it.

The device of quoting from the PC's journal, which I am guessing from this
excerpt will be used throughout the game (I would be disappointed
otherwise) may be effective, although it has its problems.  Compass
directions aren't used, but there is a "doorway" both above me and at the
far side of the room, so I'm worried about how I'm going to refer to
things and move around. Obviously listening to the whispers is the first
thing I am supposed to do, or at least the first thing I would do.

The situation is intriguing but too enigmatic. Why am I headed down to the
cellar? If you're going to make be go down to the cellar, be so kind as to
explain why, even if I am the kind of person who thinks of baby graves
when I see holes in the ground.

Although there is the severe problem mentioned above with one sentence,
and the other problems related, the situation is intriguing enough to
interest me in playing further, and the device of quotation from the
journal (although I'm not sure it will be effective) is original enough to
interest me in seeing more of what the author has to lay out. 

- - - - - - - - - -

Nick went on to give the entry a second look after the shortlist was
released:

My previous comments remain applicable here. The overall enigma is
effective, although there's no reason to leave the player in suspense
about why the PC is headed down to the cellar. The journal entry itself is
not the most well-written part of the text but it is an original concept
and something that makes me want to read more, to see how this device will
be used throughout the game. I am not sure why others commenting on the
entry are so eager to classify this into a genre; the game could turn out
to be gothic horror or some sort or it could turn out to be something like
Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things. It may very well be an
unusual brand of science fiction, for that matter. It doesn't seem to
declare itself one way or another, at this point, and that's one of the
things that makes it effective: I may be in for a surprise with regard to
the genre as well as the nature of my situation. Although the writing
could use to be improved as described earlier, there's enough of interest
in it to make me believe I could be surprised pleasantly.



Comments for "Interactive Space Mercenary":

The problem with a simple "A Boy and His Computer" mission such as this is
that the player's interest in it is based entirely upon how effective the
humor is. This is a problem because the text here gives all the signs of
trying to be funny, but isn't. Before the prologue is even complete we
have both the PC and player tired of the computer's repetitive humor, and
this is not funny, particularly since the computer seems to be the
player's constant companion and signals how funny the author's other
characters might be. I'm not sure whether the missions coming up are to be
carried out while seated or outside the spaceship, but hearing the
computer's continual commentary on what happens seems like it would be
painful. Also, the way in which the player speaks to the computer is too
complex to be handled by free text input in an IF game, so I know that I'm
either going to be disappointed with my ability to communicate or have to
thread through menus. The conversation thus sets me up for certain
disappointment.

Phrases like "This is, after all," are ill-suited for this sort of
prologue. But more than just the writing, the situation -- "I'm going to
look for space mercenary work with my wacky computer" -- is not the most
compelling. It might be enough if the computer was a funny conversational
partner during the prologue, but even then, something that actually
provided motivation would be nice. For instance: "My Orion slave goose is
cooked because I owe ten thousand credits to Jabba the Hut. I better come
up with that money quickly." "My planet was just destroyed, and I'm gonna
find the bastard who did it." "My computer just converted to [insert funny
religion here] and I'm stuck in deep space trying to live my mercenary
lifestyle which is incompatible with that religion."



Comments for "untitled - judged as heidger.html":

This seems rich; the little glimpse of graduate student astronomer culture
is a nice touch and the situation laid out -- wait for something strange
which is sure to happen -- is interesting enough, given the lively style.
There's little information about whether the player is going to explore an
alternate universe or sit in a lab and see something strange happen,
though. This could set the player up for some disappointment. That's the
risk with a "anything could happen" sort of beginning, even a good one.

Some of the writing can be refined: the professor's words being "cut off"
seems not as good as something like "unintelligible." The tone might
better reflect the PC's position from the outset, as, for instance, in:
"While your own work in late quasars, under Kemplar, looks as unpromising
as ever, it's clear that Heidger's team has made a breakthrough." Or
something. It's not clear whether the PC is actually on "Heidger's team"
or is working with a different professor but was pressed into service, and
clarifying that could give you a chance to situate the PC even better.

A view of the lab would be nice, so that a sample room description could
also be evaluated.



Comments for "untitled - judges as valentine.html":

Who am I? I have a secretary and a wife, I work have an office with a
study in it, I have a door-keeper, and presumably I'm some sort of
dictator or the president of a company that has nuclear war capability --
but which one?

Will it amuse me to maim and kill my enemies? Or to fail to do so after
trying? Certainly not, if their (or my) tortures are simply related to me
in a litany of the sort this prologue provides.

In short, why should I do something rather than nothing?

There is nothing wrong with presenting a PC who is very cruel, as indeed
several excellent games do. This text provides a better depiction of the
PC's personality traits than one usually gets in the prologue. But simply
being a very cruel person -- like, for instance, simply being a very nice
person and looking over a list of nice things you will try to do today --
is not interesting. The game itself may please, but a setup of the sort "I
am a [personality type] kind of person. I am going to look at my list and
do some things that reflect my personality." is not a good setup, and
unless the writing provides me great delight I will have no interest in
playing the game. Furthermore, the PC's cruelty is something that is much
better shown through interaction than simply told about beforehand.

Also, it's "loyalty."



Comments for "untitled - judged as "arais.html":

This text contains abstractions, almost exclusively. Although abstractions
are not universally bad, they have to be deployed effectively.
Substituting more concrete words is almost always an improvement. Some of
the better writing comes from moments where "the cup" is mentioned and
then, in a consistent if somewhat overstated use of metaphor, "the poison"
and "the stench." Then, calamity: A bit of good writing becomes
overwritten and ineffective as a new metaphor (the tactician or warrior)
is brought in, then another (the fisherman), in a sentence that is full of
errors: "there is no humanly possible [?] for you to resist it's [its]
bait." But even the well-written beginning of this paragraph is, along
with the rest of the paragraph, superfluous. The paragraph tells us the
same thing as these five words: "Evil is afoot in Arais." It doesn't tell
us any more because we don't know anything more about this evil when we
finish reading the paragraph. Nor is the sense of the evil particularly
overpowering after reading the paragraph; it really just says "Evil is
afoot in Arais" in a much, much more verbose mode.

Essentially what this prologue offers is a sort of enigma advertisement
for the game. There's nothing that stands out about the writing to make me
interested in these enigmas; I fear simply that I will encounter more
abstractions and more drawn-out ways of making simple and not very
interesting statements.



Comments for "The Book of the Dead":

From the prologue, the concept isn't clear. Is the game simply going to be
the selection of spells, or will it include the journey into the afterlife
as well? Since it begins by explaining that there's one task left in this
life, I suspect it may be the former, although it would be more
interesting if not.

Other unclear things are who the 'you' is -- what type of work do you do,
and during which time in ancient Egypt do you live? How near to death are
you? Why are you dying -- if indeed you are? The language is very vague
for a game with somewhat pedagogical aims -- what exactly is 'a reasonably
good-quality mummification,' for instance? If the quality of mummification
really does vary, it would be interesting to know how, if even by mention
of a single detail. Even if the idea isn't to educate, those sorts of
details are what make the reading and playing enjoyable.

The combination of teacherly aims and vague writing leaves me uninterested
-- I would not play further. For the concept to work, a much more specific
character, setting, and situation would need to be created.



Comments for "Compulsion":

Although the central conceit of this prologue -- introducing the
Intentionally Undefined Science Fictional Thing You Will Learn About In
The Course Of The Story Set in the Future -- is extremely hackneyed, the
writing is deft. The colloquial description of Coffin D-83-b is
accomplished well, giving a hint of who the PC is. This hint isn't
interesting enough, by itself, but it signals that the rest of the
descriptions will be done similarly and that we'll learn about the PC as a
narrator, which increases interest. It's actually this, rather than The
Hook, that makes me interested in seeing more. The quotes, although they
hammer the main point a bit too much, are also fairly well-written and
arranged well.

Perhaps the thing I like least -- aside from the unfortunate attribution
of the first quote to 'General Ira Asimov' -- is the subtitle, which seems
wry and mock-moralistic in a way that doesn't fit at all with the text.
"Let me tell you 'a tale of choices' ... you're stuck here in a box which
can hardly fit your sorry ass!" You could just call it "Compulsion." Or
even "Choices," since the title doesn't need to reinforce what is
obviously the main interesting entity in the story.

The other difficulties are that the Compulsion is attended to too much.
Presumably there are enemies on the planet, about whom we would like to
know something. Are you in infantry? Recon? If the main idea is to keep
secret from the reader important information about the Compulsion -- so
they can be brought into the story in an interesting way later -- it would
be nice to fill the player in on some other important information. We
don't know who Red is, either, and it's not particularly fair to have the
PC reply to someone without telling the player who that person is -- even
if the response was Compelled.

I'd certainly play on from here, but there is plenty of room to revise
this, to good effect, before deploying it as an actual game prologue.



Comments for "You: Tense, Ill (A Gardenburger of Forking Paths)":

The title, alluding to one of my favorite stories (which I just finished
translating) and introducing extremely wacky humor, is a lot to live up
to. The rest of the prologue does indeed live up to it.

There's even a bit of Borgesian syntax in the catalog of the second
sentence and the weighty yet resigned conclusion, "you have been all of
these." The third sentence runs on quite beautifully, as does the sentence
narrating the arrival of the family at the table. There are few adjectives
more amusing than "unassuming" when used to modify the fork into which one
has been transformed. The writing is just very pleasing, both as a
stand-alone amusing example prologue and were it to begin an actual game.
There's little I'd change in the way this is written -- I'd take out the
comma after "forks" in the middle of the third paragraph, I suppose, and
the sentence beginning "There is almost a view of the beach..." could use
revision, since it starts by describing something that can't be seen,
although presumably it was noted on the way over the table. Oh, and I'd
write set off "without giving away what you are." with a dash.

I am ready to be titillated by entering typical IF commands, because I
suspect that this will result in my telepathically projecting those
commands to the person nearest me, to wildly amusing effect. The cast of
five characters (I'm counting the waitress, teenage boy, hyperactive girl,
and parents, although the spoon and knife might be revealed to be
characters as well) seems great and I trust they will be developed to
amusing effect during the meal. It would be funny enough to be a
telepathic alien in the guise of a fork, but a desperate, injured
telepathic alien in the guise of a fork? Damn.

This is a delightful beginning and is clearly, overall, the strongest
prologue I have read in this competition.



Comments for "The Madness of Crowds":

The main great thing about this prologue is that very interesting things
happen, and they are the sorts of interesting things you want to happen
before the main action of an unconventional detective-style IF game
begins. That is enough to place this prologue in the top echelon of the
competition entries.

The present-tense pre-banner text is pretty well-written, too, although
some revisions could be helpful. The very beginning -- an important part
of the prologue! -- is awkward and not nearly as effective as it could be.
"Social pressures usually demand studiously avoiding eye contact with
strangers" is the first of two unnecessary excerpts from introductory
sociology texts, the second being the things that Vadjek says. Why not
begin with something simple but ominous, such as: "None of the other
people on the elevator look at Alex Kinter as he gets on." I'd replace
"open. Her gaze takes in the panting passengers' ..." with "open: the
passengers' ..." for instance, since that keeps it moving and leaves out
nothing worthwhile. It's rather odd to refer to people on an elevator as
"passengers," in general. I'd call them "people on the elevator," myself.

It seems unusual that (since there is a receptionist with a view of the
elevator on floor 43) no one else notices the body during the 'several
minutes' in which the elevator stops at every floor on the way up. Also,
why is the elevator down at the lobby after a murdered corpse is found in
it on the 43rd floor?

It may be a bit much to name the first cop on the scene Dunbar, but maybe
not. Perhaps Duffy, if the reference is desired? The fact that the PC is
female is a plus in this prologue -- not that I have anything against male
detectives, but it demonstrates that some thought went into gendering the
PC in a way that wasn't done in the early Infocom detective games.



Comments for "Passing On":

I'm not compelled by this start; although I might play on from here, I
would be wary rather than enthusiastic. The concept here is sophisticated
and could make for an interesting game, but the writing, although it is
literate and makes good attempts at times, does not work well enough.

The way that fragments of spoken words are used is a gimmick, one which
detracts from what seems to be narrated, to me. It's not a well-executed
gimmick, either: If the words are supposed to be only partly heard, why
are they broken up without regard for how words sound? That the medical
workers are supposed to give up because they are hungry strikes me as
exceedingly banal.

The particular sensations and memories, and then the afterlife realm being
described, are challenging to write about; the writing, unfortunately,
doesn't meet the challenge. There is too much resort to cliche ("like a
tidal wave"), redundancy ("forever as far as you can see"), abstraction,
and unnecessary adjectives "purest white light," "deepest black," "faded
shell," "cool white room,"). That one's life flashes before one's eyes
when one dies is a cliche itself, of course. The synesthesia (pain is
"white-blue") isn't systematic enough to make it effective as a trope; it
seems like a mistake.

What irks me the most is that "the secret" and the "unfinished work to be
done" -- things that the PC -knows-about- and which I as the player am
tasked to command the PC to enact -- are being deliberately withheld from
me by the author. I see little way in which this could please me, because
I didn't find enough to like in this prologue to make it seem worth my
while to not only navigate the afterlife but also guess what I'm supposed
to do.



Comments for "Thirteen Cards, Well Suited":

I'm reminded of Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a novel
organized around tarot cards and taking place at an inn full of weary
travelers. This is a pleasing association, although this game promises to
be different. I like the excuse the PC has for watching the entrance of
someone and then entering at a later point him- or herself; it functions
well. The first line is short and to the point; a great incipit. The
conversation between travelers at the beginning works very well, too: a
banal topic being discussed in a very creative, lively way by strangers
meeting in an inn. The statement "If it weren't for my feet, I could walk
forever" sounds quite plausibly like an absurd complaint that a medieval
traveler might make when trying to be sociable. This is a good example of
the sort of banter I've read in the Song of Roland, in other literature
set in the Middle Ages, and in written version of folktales.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what to do when the command prompt arrives.
DEAL CARDS? EXAMINE ME? SIT? Here again is the problem of the author
keeping very essential secrets about the PC from the player, for no
apparent reason, except that you probably think it will be fun to spring
them on me later. Unless I've suffered amnesia or am in some dream state I
like to know who I am, or else be suitably generic so that it doesn't
matter who I am. When my actions are determined by the game's author to
such an extent before I get to do anything, it seems particularly unfair.
It's one thing to land West of White House without knowing anything about
yourself or why you're there (although this isn't the ideal beginning for
a game, famous as it may be), but having a lot of detailed actions
conducted for you during the prologue is something else, and in a case
like that it seems particularly unfair to not reveal who you are. Consider
Wishbringer: You have a dream and wake up because you're being shouted at.
The author is at least putting a dream into your head, and defining some
things about the character. But the game also lets you know that you're a
mail carrier in a small seaside town. You're being told to deliver a
letter. So -- you know something about who you are and exactly what to do,
so you can enjoy the pleasures of exploring the town and figuring out how
to do that -- and then confronting what comes next.

"You notice the young man glance at you with something in his eye" makes
it sound like he's got a bit of goop there, by the way.

That said, the writing sparkles at times and the unusual actions of the PC
generate interest. (Interest more appropriate for a novel or story than a
work of IF, when I'm not responsible for commanding the PC, but interest
nonetheless.) I'd grit my teeth and go through the ordeal of trying to
figure out who the PC is, were I presented with this.



Comments for "Trouble in Paradise":

And there was warez in heaven. It's not Lucy that Mike's working for, is
it?

The concept and writing are both great, and what I see so far tops
Jonathan Lethem's whacked-out hard-boiled melange, Gun With Occasional
Music, on both counts [Editor's note - I don't know if Nick is picking on
my favorite author because he knows I host a website about him or not...
by removing the nn.html portion of the web address, you will find yourself
at www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Stu/dmyers, aka "Lethem in Landscape"]. For these
reasons I definitely rank this as among the best of the Prologue Comp
entries I've reviewed, including all the short list. The problem is that
while this is a brilliant beginning for a novel or short story, it's not
nearly as good a beginning for a work of IF.

The conversation with Raphael and Uriel later in the game is going to be a
letdown, because it's either going to be menu-driven or not nearly as good
as what I've seen in the prologue. Information which could be comfortably
revealed later, were this not a work of IF, is left out. What's the name
of the man I'm looking for? What's my client's name? (I can't refer to
either of them in conversations with Raphael and Uriel, since I don't know
their names.) In short, although this is great writing and a thrilling
start for a text which I don't have to direct or puzzle though, it's
really Throne me for a loop in certain ways. There's the further question
of whether the pleasure of this prologue (which came, in large part, from
discovering that the detective story is an angelic one) can be sustained
through a game, now that the discovery has been made.

I'd certainly try to play on from here, but I'd suggest the prologue be
more poised to aid the player in getting started. As it is it's more a
"cut scene" that does not bear as much relation to the game as it could.