IFReviewed by Paul OBrian on 2006-07-20 10:00
The author's notes for Surreal contain the following statements: "I am currently fourteen years old and I enjoy playing text adventures."; "SURREAL is the first text adventure I have ever written so I hope that it's alright."; "I hope you like it." So now I'm in a bit of a pickle. I didn't like the game, because it had lots and lots of problems. But I hardly want to crush a first-time author, especially somebody so young who enjoys text adventures not as nostalgia, but on their own merits. So this seems like a good time to reiterate my general reviewing philosophy: basically, I'm here to help. I never want my reviews to come across as nasty jabs, and if they do, it's because of my own deficiencies as a writer and critic. Instead, I hope that these reviews offer worthwhile feedback to authors, and that they communicate some of my ideas and knowledge about IF. The point is not to smack somebody down for writing a bad game, but rather to report on my experience with that game so that the author's next game can be better. Now, that being said: Surreal was not a strong game.
Let's talk first about the writing. It's pretty apparent that the game's landscapes are inspired by the Myst series, and that's not always such a bad thing. There are moments throughout where a vivid picture arises from a paragraph, or even a sentence. However, grammar is a serious problem through the entire game. Poor grammar is a writer's bane, because as a rule, it impedes the communicative arts; the prose in this game is no exception to that rule. Take these sentences, for instance:
You are standing in the fresh outdoor air again, a spray of salty
water hits you in the face. The weather has taken a turn for the
worse as dark clouds roll across the sky like and army of black
horses marching to war.
The first sentence is a run-on, meaning that it's really two sentences held loosely together by a comma. What this does to me as a reader is basically to pull the rug out from under me. I read the first part of the sentence, then hit the comma, which signals to me that I'm about to read something related to the first clause, probably either a dependent clause or an appositive. Instead, I get hit with another independent clause, and consequently I have to stop and try to figure out what the connection is. A moment later, I realize that there is no connection, because it's just a run-on. But by then it's too late -- I've already been thrown out of the prose. All this happens very quickly, but the result is devastating to the story's power, because it makes me remember that I'm reading words on a screen rather than inhabiting a surreal world. The second sentence has a more obvious problem: instead of "like an army of black horses", it says "like and army of black horses." Typos like this are similar to heavy static on a TV screen. If we're looking closely, we can see what's supposed to be there, but after a while, it hardly seems worth the effort. Words are the game's only conduit to our minds, and if the words don't make sense, the game doesn't either. There are also several NFIEs, but I have taken a deep, cleansing breath and promised not to rant about those.
Implementation is also a serious issue. The game is apparently programmed in GAGS, a precursor to AGT. Now, why in 2001 someone would want to use such a primitive development tool is a complete mystery to me. Even if one is too intimidated to broach something like Inform, TADS, or Hugo, there are plenty of newbie-friendly languages that are far more robust than GAGS. That choice of tool alone limits the game's audience severely, since it's only playable via MS-DOS, and even among DOS users, there are plenty of people who are unwilling to put up with a rudimentary parser and absent features from a modern text adventure. On top of that, some of the most important items in the game are unimplemented, even with a "That's just scenery" sort of description. No matter how much one loves text adventures, parser-wrestling is just not fun, and tools like GAGS make for lots of parser-wrestling. There is promise in a game like Surreal, but it's a promise largely unfulfilled. My advice to the author is to learn a high-level IF language (it's not that hard, really!), review basic grammar, employ proofreaders and beta testers... and write again!