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Vague Reviews
Author: Richard Otter
Date: 2009

Reviewed by Wayne Miller

I really enjoyed Vague. I had several misgivings about it -- it was written in ADRIFT (ok, I'm a snob); the file size was small; and you start out naked with amnesia. I really was on my way to giving it a poor score.

After playing it through, I have to say I really enjoyed it. The master puzzle is clever in the same way Spider and Web is clever -- you have to understand what's going on to solve the game. There is this overarching puzzle to solve. Once you've got that taken care of, the rest is pretty easy to finish.

A few untidy ends, but otherwise tested very well.

I could see this one possibly coming in first if people really give it a chance and play it out.

Reviewed by JimTun

I first played Vague when it was entered into the Spring Thing 2009 and to be honest I didn’t get it. I gave up after a few turns and left it at that. After talk on the ADRIFT forums recently about reviewing and playing games I’ve had another look and thought I would review it. 

The player starts brainwashed and naked. Cliché. All the NPC’s are stationary and badly-implemented. Typical bad IF. The game starts by telling you it is likely to be bad. Usually a sign of bad IF. When I first played that’s what I thought. 

Now I see that Vague is all about breaking the fourth wall. Almost looking at the game from the point of view of the player character rather than the player. It just doesn’t do it very well. 

I think using locations and characters from his own stock of games was the big mistake (and I’ve told Mr Otter that). Most reviewers got hung-up on this and said so. The game is really just a treasure hunt. Like the old school way of having the player carry out random acts and finding and linking together random objects. He would have been better using clichéd locations, you know typical IF locations like bedrooms, garages etc. 

It also wasn’t tested enough as it has a number of minor bugs, lacks a little polish and has the ADRIFT weirdness and all that. 

But second time around I now think it is - okay. Not the best but I enjoyed playing it.

Reviewed by Dan Shiovitz (Inky)

It seems a little weird to write a game that is made entirely of references to your early games. It's like the bit about the musician who's interviewed and he says "yeah, I've always been one of my own biggest influences." But, uh, I guess if you were a big Richard Otter fan you would probably enjoy this; I've liked the earlier games of his I've played just fine (most notably Escape to New York and Unauthorized Termination), but I wouldn't say I'm a groupie or anything, and I couldn't really identify most of the games featured here. Ignoring the references, the game is ok but not great — there's a fair amount of unhinted actions and most of the puzzles are just giving the right thing to the right person. There was the hint of a thread about the author being a jerk for condemning all his characters to death that I wouldn't have minded seeing more of, but all in all, I wasn't really sold.

Reviewed by Ben Dixon

This is a review of Vague by my fellow former Spectrum owner, Richard Otter. It contains spoilers, descriptions of nudity and in an earlier draft, a crude drawing of a penis which I thought better of before posting.

It was David St. Hubbins who said “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” As it happens he wasn’t referring to this game, but it’s a line that Vague walks boldly.

Even the introduction teases us with its clever stupidity – “Yet more badly written interactive fiction, or does it all have some meaning?” Perhaps this is just the “evil author” fishing for compliments, but the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive – badly written interactive fiction can indeed have some meaning - and the clue is right there in the title. Both suggestions are vaguely correct.

Some of the writing certainly seems to be bad in the sense of being careless. (Now I have no intention of picking on the author here, but he did go out of his way to draw attention to it, and it hardly seems fair to announce my concurrence without at least having a look at an example.)

Roof of Building

You are on the roof of the victorian gothic Global Building, which has 16 floors and was built around 3 years ago. A strong wind is blowing from the west and it looks like it could easily rain sometime today. A large antenna is whipping in the wind to your right and the air conditioning equipment in front of you is making a very loud noise. A large sign is fastened to the roof here. Just at your feet is the closed door leading down to the roof exit. You can go north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest and down. A dirty, smelly old tramp is lying on the floor.

This is a little unclear and I had to reread it a few times before coming to the conclusion that the building was built in the present day in the Victorian Gothic style (I’m no student of architecture but I’m picturing something like the Houses of Parliament). For no readily apparent reason, the style and age of the building appears to be randomised, and changes between playthroughs. The description unnecessarily provides the exact number of floors (exemplifying a somewhat robotic descriptive style that manifests elsewhere as a tendency to tell us the lengths of objects in millimetres, even when the PC does not seem to be a robot), and many directions that don’t work.

Elsewhere, we find “ball-like clumbs of tissue”, a word that presents as a misspelling of “clumps” but could easily be interpreted as a parapraxic portmanteau of “clever” and “dumb”.

And yet these idiosyncratic troubles do not defeat the writing as a whole, which is well up to the difficult job of crafting a coherent narrative out of an intentionally incoherent setting. On the evidence herein Otter’s writing style seems especially suited to science fiction, and the more fantastical settings are the most believable, which is a hard trick to pull off when you think about it.

If you haven’t played Vague, you might be wondering why I’m blathering about multiple settings and the PC sometimes being a robot. The reason is less interesting than it might have been. It turns out that I’m playing Richard Otter’s greatest hits. As easily as moving east or west, we are transported between diverse vignettes with little in common save for their origin in the sadistic imagination of the man who calls himself “the evil author”. (Shades, perhaps, of another, more illustrious, Richard?) Now as a complete virgin when it comes to Otter (that’s something I thought I’d never write), I initially found this somewhat off-putting, and indeed given the number of settings involved, not a little intimidating, but it turned out I didn’t have to go and play every single one of them to work out what I was supposed to be doing. Which was nice.

Now, before we get on to the “meaning” part of the equation, I presume if you’ve got this far down this column, you’ll have at some point read Graham Nelson’s essay The Craft Of Adventure. If you haven’t, go and read it now. There, doesn’t that feel better? See that diagram, about four fifths of the way down, where he shows you how not to design your map? That’s Vague, that is. Except Vague also has directions in non-working, irreversible and teleport-only flavours, just to make it that little bit less accessible. On the other hand any aesthetic rules may be considered breakable provided the breaker knows exactly what they’re doing. Which I suppose is the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

The thirty-two thousand dollar question being, does it all have some meaning? You’re walking through the games of Richard Otter, bollock naked before the amused inspection of trainspotters and barmaids. You have an especially severe case of Videogame Amnesia, and ten tasks to complete. Even if you succeed, your cat will very probably die. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to identify a possible subtext here. But which is it, or to rephrase that question, are you you or are you even him?

Maybe he wants to humiliate his players. What self-respecting IF author doesn’t? After all, clothes are available, but the player-character elects not to wear them. With regard to the sexual humiliation that occurs it is significant, in this context, that the player-character should be male. But the signs point to imagined autobiography. The dreamlike quality of the image of walking unclothed through familiar environments made strange is unmistakeable. And who but Richard Otter would dream of the games of Richard Otter?

On the technical side there’s also a damn clever Adrift-powered point’n’click interface such as I have never seen in my admittedly sheltered life. It autocompletes your typing, permits you to type words merely by clicking on them, and if you right click on a noun it will suggest a list of appropriate verbs. All of which is extremely slick and reinforces the suggestion that this is a thoroughly competent work.

I didn’t have a lot of fun playing Vague. But I did have a psychosexual awakening, and surely that must count for something.

Reviewed by Emily Short

I am not encouraged by the opening of this, which explains that the player character has amnesia, and concludes:

Yet more badly written interactive fiction or does it all have some meaning?

1) It’s bad enough to give your PC amnesia. Drawing attention to the cliché does not make it any less a cliché. Andrew Plotkin does this at the beginning of Dreamhold, and is the only person I know who has gotten away with it.

2) It’s generally unwise to start off by encouraging the player to think he’s about to play something not-very-good. Andrew Plotkin does this at the beginning of Shade, and is the only person I know who has gotten away with it.

Don’t feel bad if your name is not Andrew Plotkin. He is also able to write mazes that don’t suck, which clearly means that he exists outside the normal continuum of IF design and the usual rules don’t apply.

That said, I enjoyed Unauthorized Termination, so let’s see what this one has in store.


Apparently what it has in store is an interactive advertisement for the author’s other games, only one which also manages to convey the impression that said games are underimplemented and not very fun. Self-deprecation is better than the opposite, I guess, but it doesn’t explain why Vague exists in the first place. I am really not sure what to make of this.

I’m apparently supposed to be giving messages to various characters to tell them which of Richard Otter’s previous works they come from. Though I have a pencil I am not allowed to write with it, nor may I circle titles on a magazine, nor may I cut or tear those titles out. Maybe I have to find that information written down in other places. And how am I supposed to know what locations go with what titles, anyway? I guess I could look stuff up on IFDB or actually play Otter’s other games, but as far as I can tell so far there isn’t much in-game hinting to help with solving the puzzles, which makes this less like a game and more like a homework assignment.

Also, the punctuation and spacing is extremely odd. The spacing may have to do with playing the game on a non-Windows interpreter, but the punctuation has to be thanks to the author.

My general impression: this isn’t very polished, the parser hasn’t gotten the kind of thorough work the ADRIFT parser really needs, and I have really no idea why I am supposed to want to play this through in the first place. I am not sure whether I have given it a fair shake, but the basic premise holds about as much appeal as one of those clip-show episodes of Star Trek: TNG, so I think I’m going to stop and put this in the “not for me” pile.

Reviewed by Sarah Morayati

The title was quite appropriate, because I beat this game and I still have no idea what it was about.

From reading other reviews, it seems to be a mashup of Richard Otter's other games, which would make things so much clearer if I had played any of them. So I suppose I wasn't the target audience for this. Maybe the whole storyline about my being a murderer (and perfectly willing to kill cats) and everything being painted on would make sense if I'd played some of them.

I can only comment on the technical aspects, then:

- A "you have amnesia" introductory infodump, hastily lampshaded by some talk about how this isn't "badly written interactive fiction." It doesn't work.

- A lot of stationary, barely-implemented NPCs that the hint system tells me can tell me things, but recognize precious few topics.

- Various spelling/grammar errors suggesting a lack of proofreading.

- The ending. A "It was all an IF game!" ending? Really? Really? There's twist endings, and there's just being ridiculous. Guess which this was?

Maybe somewhere out there is a rabid Richard Otter fan who'll reveal all kinds of hidden subtleties and references and in-jokes in this, but I don't know who that would be.

(Minor note: Some character names are just too loaded now to use. Like Jack Thompson.)

Reviewed by Jenni Polodna (Pissy Little Sausages)

[spoilers begin here]

With amnesia it is quite possible to have a complete or partial loss of memory, but this isn’t like that.
I had heard that a complete or partial loss of memory often accompanies amnesia, yes.

It is not that you can’t remember who you are or anything about your life, you have no thoughts what-so-ever. Your mind is totally blank, as if it has been completely wiped clean. You have no personality, no memories, no feelings; nothing. It is almost as if you do not actually exist and are just an empty shell.

There is a modest but spirited debate over whether it’s better to present the player with a fully realized PC or to let them create their own, but I’ve never seen the issue just plain skipped before, and I’m not sure yet how to feel about it.

You are also not wearing any clothes, but far form being worried by your own nakedness you have no thoughts about it at all. It is just part of the nothingness.
A typo in the introduction does not instill confidence that a game was thoroughly tested.

How did you arrive? You do not know. Where did you travel from? You do not know. What do you need to achieve? You have no idea, no idea at all.
This is my usual state at the beginning of a game actually.

Yet more badly written interactive fiction or does it all have some meaning?
Wow, breaking the fourth wall to self-deprecate. Believe in yourself, Richard Otter! If you’ve made a game you’re happy with, and other people don’t like it, that’s their deal. If you haven’t made a game you’re happy with, don’t release it until you do like it. It sounds like you’re saying “I think it’s got some meaning, at least, I meant to put some in there, but I’m worried it’s going to get just absolutely slammed.” Also, why are you asking me? I haven’t even started playing it yet.

Let’s do that now!

A trainspotter dressed in wet weather gear is watching you.
I must be a train, then. Mystery solved! Time to go home!

Oh, wow, there’s some sort of auto-complete happening when I type things. Is that an ADRIFT deal?

Oh, wow, I also get a little right-click-style menu when I click on “drunk” with potential actions I could take involving the drunk! Schmexy!

> ask drunk about me
Leave him alone, he is a sleep. He may also have been drinking.
Drinking? The drunk? I suppose it’s possible, sure…

> take pencil
Taking the pencil shakes a memory loose. You are Charles Glass, a salesman with a stationary company. You are trying to find someone called David Tailer and need to get to a place called Grantby by train. Could any of this be true?
Wow, that was a lot of memory for one pencil! Also, minor nitpick, the stuff people write letters on is stationery, with an E. A stationary company would be one that doesn’t move around, making it much easier to go into work every day but much harder to call in lost.

> x magazine
The cover article is about Interactive Fiction, with the details of an author called Richard Otter-
Oooh, the new issue of Shameless Plug magazine? I love Shameless Plug! And so do the good people at Pepsi!

There seems to be a lighthouse west of this train station. How unusual. I wonder if this one will have descriptions?*

You do not recognise the individual but feel it could be the soul of Tosh Graham, one of the keepers at the lighthouse. Although you have no memory of any lighthouse or the names of the keepers.
Why do I get the feeling I’m being deliberately difficult with this amnesia bidniss?

It is your trusty rucksack, which has been with you on many a fishing trip. Not that you remember fishing trips.
See, this is exactly the kind of shit I’m talking about!

On the leaflet is written, “We Are Coming To Get You! As a small germ your instinct is to infect. Why fight your instincts!”
Well, that’s an odd thing to be written on a leaflet.

> infect drunk
I don’t understand what you want to do with Drunk.
I want to infect him! As is my instinct as a small germ! Right? No?

There’s a lot to make fun of in the individual sentences of this game, but I’m having fun with its gimmick, that every room is somewhere completely different and I am someone different in all of them, yet they are all somehow connected. Also, huh, I am apparently naked and male. I’ve always thought that if I found myself in this position I would run around hitting things with my penis, but I doubt that’s been implemented.

> infect tonsils
They are now infected!

You can hear the germs cheering.
Whoo I got to infect something! I like this game.

Should I be worried that I am a senior technician in the engineering team for these teleporter thingies and I do not fully understand the science behind them? Am I the one in charge of making them yellow?

Someone has scratched, “Unauthorized Termination by Richard Otter was garbage”, into the side of the crate.
What is the world coming to, that a person isn’t even safe from negative criticism in their very own game?

The lab assistant tells me this location is from the game Pestilence, and is adamant that it be written down on something. Write down what exactly, and how? I have both a pencil and a pen, you know. And a mansion and a yacht.

I wouldn’t be naked if the game would let me wear these overalls, you know. I’m just saying.

So, wait a minute, these are all locations from previous Richard Otter games? No wonder Shameless Plug magazine did a feature on him!

I feel rather bad about this, but I’m stabbing that tramp. Sorry, tramp.

Oh, apparently I need the right weapon to kill the tramp. After I fail to take his life he asks me if I’m up here to look at the air conditioning. Yes. I’m up here to look at the air conditioning. Hold still.

…why tell me I can go north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest, and down if I can only really go down?

Although the beast is quite obviously dead, it appears to be watching you. In fact you are pretty sure it is alive.
Make up your damn mind, me!

The sight of the germs jogs a thought in your memory. You remember that it really is fun being a germ.
So far infecting those tonsils has been the funnest part of this whole game. I was all “HEY TONSILS GET THIS” and they were all “Oh no now we are infected” and I was all “Score!” It was a lot like a Kate Beaton comic really. I wonder if she’d draw me a sausage if I asked nicely?

Richard Otter is very fond of exact measurements. I generally assume a thing is going to be about thing-sized, and if it is larger or smaller it will tell me. Not that he can’t provide numbers with little Ms after them but man are they wasted on me.

Hopeful that you will gain more information from him you comment, “This place makes no sense, no sense at all”.

Not really listening he replies, “Yep, sounds like a typical game written by him”.
Richard Otter is self-deprecating again, Mommy. Make it stop!

Wow, that poor Tarc beast was only keeping itself alive until it could verify I knew which game it was from. How sad!

Oh, I see, I needed to complete some tasks before getting the things I needed to complete some others.

Oh no, the cat died!

What does “the mobile phone part of town” even mean? Also, if I were being paid to kill someone, I think I’d insist on seeing a photograph of them. I would not want to make that mistake again.

Okay, I’ve completed ten tasks out of ten. Where is my ticker-tape parade?

Ah, had to go back to the station. And now I have a ticket to ride a train and I’m riding a train and oh, it turns out this whole time I was a person playing a game and someone behind me has made me dinner. I am going to inform Riff that he needs to make me dinner now as my reward for finishing this game.

For other games by the same author visit http://www.delron.org.uk
I think I’ve just played every other game by the same author in a handy condensed format! I might need to pick up that one where you’re a germ and you infect things, though.

Final verdict: silly. And shameless. Honestly, though, I found it sort of entertaining, in the same way a children’s placemat at a chain restaurant is sort of entertaining (hey, kids! Help Richard the otter navigate through his back catalog of interactive fiction! Crayons provided!) Also, I’m bemused by its very existence, which is always something, right?

Watch this space for some sort of score once I’ve played everything else.

…wait, why did the cat have to die?

Reviewed by Victor Gijsbers

This is a review of the Spring Thing 2009 game Vague. So before going any further, here is some spoiler space for RSS feeds. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space. It's time to kick ass and chew bubble gum. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space. And I'm all out of gum. Some spoiler space. Some spoiler space.

This time, the game is Vague by Richard Otter. Which is a weird game, since it apparently consists of rooms taken from all Otter's other games. You have to find items with the name of a Richard Otter game on them, then give those items to people in the corresponding location. In the meantime, you must solve some other puzzles of the "give the cloak to the shivering beggar" variety.

I only played one Richard Otter game before (Unauthorised Termination), but you don't need to be familiar with his work in order to play Vague: all locations contain clear hints about what game they are from. This is good, I suppose: forcing people to play all your fifteen games in order to vote in the Spring Thing would have been... presumptuous.

However. Walking through a game world that consists of totally different rooms which mean nothing to you, conversing with characters who say little more than "Identify this game!", and hunting down pieces of paper with titles written on them is not fun. There is no story. The puzzles aren't clever. The pieces of the diverse games are not united into a coherent and surprising whole. (At least not as far as I can see, though true Otter devotees may find meanings I miss.)

Vague plays a lot like a failed commercial for the author's other games. It is not itself an interesting game experience.

On top of that, the implementation is far from perfect. Please never write something like this:

> wear coat

"For some reason you are unable to do that. It isn't that the coat does not fit, you do not want to wear it."
I don't understand how this parser error is even possible:

> get dart
You pull the dart from the board.

> throw dart at colin
You are not carrying the knife.
And beta-testing should reveal stuff like this:

> open wallet
You can't open the wallet!
People might be better off playing another Richard Otter game. I seem to remember that Unauthorised Termination was a lot better than Vague.

Reviewed by Michael Neal Tenuis

In one line: It's an advertisement for the author's previous games.

This one has you starting out as a completely blank slate. You are thrown into a series of locations from the author's previous games and have to carry out some rather unexciting get-and-deliver-quests. It's a bit hard to get your bearings at first, because there are asymmetrical map connections (one can't help but think that the author copied the room descriptions from his other games verbatim). A PDF map of the game was included, but for fear of spoilers, I didn't look at that until I had nearly completed the game.

It was competently written and showed off a wide variety of settings and (possible) plots, although not in detail, rather in the form of a collage. There were funny moments when the game repeatedly mocked IF conventions and broke the fourth wall. The ending (something like a heavily foreshadowed surprise ending) tied everything together, in a way.

If the author wanted to make the player curious about his other games, well, then he succeeded with me. "Escape to New York", about a thief on an ocean liner, and "Unauthorized Termination", about a totalitarian robot state, sounded especially interesting. I also liked the settings for "Darkness" (a lighthouse) and "Target" (the roof of a high-rise).

I rank it fourth among the four Spring Thing 2009 games.

Reviewed by Jimmy Maher (SPAG Issue #55)

I'm not sure I'm qualified to review this game. You see, it's made up of bit and pieces of Mr. Otter's previous works of IF, of which there are many -- fifteen, to be exact. It's not an automatically illegitimate premise; plenty of great literature has been built out of responses and allusions to earlier works in the canon. The question, of course, is whether we can consider Mr. Otter's previous works to a canon worth revisiting; and the problem, at least for this reviewer, it that I am familiar with exactly one of the fifteen games referenced here, and even that one I barely remember. Referencing my 2006 review of Unauthorized Termination, I see that I found it to have some clever and original elements but also to be seriously flawed in its implementation. That's pretty much my opinion of this game as well.

You wake up at the beginning of the game naked in a train station, but luckily your nakedness does not really matter. At least, no one seems overly concerned about it beyond a few raised eyebrows and one pub patron who repeatedly makes reference to your "manhood." Mr. Otter spends a great deal of prose trying laboriously to explain that you don't remember anything but don't have amnesia, as you never had any memories to recover, and then you're off to... recover a bunch of memories by visiting the various settings of Mr. Otter's previous games. I played along for a while contentedly enough, sorting out gradually what was expected of me and solving a few puzzles, but I eventually stalled out with no idea of what to do next. A quick check of the walkthrough showed several actions that seemed completely arbitrary. It may be that knowledge of the other games would have led me to the correct courses of action in this one, but still Mr. Otter's asking his players to remember fifteen other games to that level of detail seems a problematic suggestion at best. And then it's also possible that these are just bad puzzles. Again, I'm not qualified to judge. All I can say is that getting through this one required me to spending a lot of time getting very familiar with that walkthrough.

Along with these issues we get the usual authorial sloppiness that ADRIFT always seems to inspire: bad grammar, mangled sentence structure, careless formatting. Some of the premises for the games here strike me as novel and interesting, just as did that of this game and of Unauthorized Termination back in 2006. But still, it's not enough to have an idea; you have to execute it well too. That still seems to be Mr. Otter's stumbling block.


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