Mathbrush, "77 Verbs"

I don't know about spring itself, but I can tell you that Spring Thing has started. Where the Interactive Fiction Competition runs in October and November, the Spring Thing runs six months later, in April. I have a special feeling for the Spring Thing, since my first two pieces of interactive fiction were published in it: The Baron in 2006 and Fate in 2007. Both actually won the competition, but to put things in perspective, there were just four entrants a year back then.

This is symptomatic of a somewhat larger problem. Unlike the IF Comp, Spring Things has no rule limiting how long a piece can be, making it in theory the ideal venue for longer works. But the IF Comp has always been the more popular of the two competitions, not just in terms of the number of games that were entered, but also in terms of the amount of attention paid to those games -- the amount of reviews, feedback, and so on. And this means that authors of longer games have often opted to enter their pieces into the IF Comp anyway, which, with 80+ games, is becoming quite overburdened.

So I think it is important for the health of the interactive fiction community that we make sure that Spring Thing becomes (even) more enticing to enter. And the obvious way to do that is to play and discuss the games that have been entered. There are 20 of them, this year, so enough to keep even those of us who don't have to homeschool their kids occupied. (I'm not among those of us, alas.)

Today, I'm starting off with a game entered into the Back Garden of the festival. This means that it's explicitly offered as a more experimental piece that is not eligible for the "Best in Show"-ribbon. The game is 77 Verbs by Mathbrush. For those who don't know him, Mathbrush is a prolific and successful author of IF, having written pieces such as Absence of Law (5th place IF Comp 2017), Color the Truth (2nd place IF Comp 2016) and In the Service of Mrs. Claus (published with Choice of Games). But this... this is something different!

77 Verbs is a short parser games in which you have to use (nearly) all of the standard verbs of the Inform 7 standard library to get through the scenario. You have to examine, look, push, pull, take, drop, eat, cut, wave, go north, go northeast, ..., unlock, lock, open close, exit, enter, insert, ask for, ask about... and so on, all exactly once. There are some exceptions: a few actions are optional, while all of the out-of-world actions (like saving, restoring, restarting) are absent. Still, 77 Verbs gives a kaleidoscopic overview of the built-in verbs of Inform, and, by extension, of parser IF in general. (While not all systems recognise the exact same verbs, there is much overlap.)

Necessarily, a game that requires you to use all these verbs in as many turns will have to tell a special type of story. One could say that Mathbrush has chosen the easy route: 77 Verbs tells the 'story' of how you and a crowd of fellow hopefuls have to survive a day of training as an adventurer. So you're actually confronted by precisely the sorts of situations that led to all of these verbs being included in interactive fiction games in the first place, and the fact that it's a training serves to explain why every verb makes an appearance. Still, easy route or not, 77 Verbs does a nice job of grouping the verbs together into semi-coherent scenes, and breaking up the potential monotony of the game telling you to do X first, then Y, then Z, then... For instance, there's a scene where you have to build and strengthen a barricade. There's a bunch of objects lying around, and as you examine them, you'll find that one can be pushed, one turned, one pulled, one inserted into, and so on. But the order in which you do this can be determined by the player, giving a least a different feel from just following linear instructions.

Perhaps the best thing about the piece is the sense of urgency it creates. It keeps throwing threats and (later) rewards at you, and it puts you in the middle of a dynamic crowd of people trying to perform the same tasks you have to perform. This sort of set-up is actually quite rare for adventure games, which are mostly about a single person in a static environment, where there is no feeling of urgency at all. The narrative and narration may be a bit chaotic and even absurd, but it is undeniable that 77 Verbs has a personality all its own -- and that's not a bad achievement for a gimmicky piece like this.

Is 77 Verbs actually good for newcomers to interactive fiction, as the blurb suggests? I'm tempted to answer this with only a very qualified yes. Sure, it shows you all the verbs you would need in a standard piece of interactive fiction; and it really takes you by the hand, railroading you through the story. But there are two sources of scepticism. One is precisely the chaotic nature of the narrative and the narration. I can imagine new players being quite overwhelmed and losing their bearing. The second is that this type of railroading precisely does not introduce players to the sorts of obstacles they have to overcome when playing adventure-type interactive fiction games. So the most 77 Verbs can teach is, well, 77 verbs. And perhaps that is useful. But only, I think, for a player who is not entirely new to the genre.


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