[IFRC] Dangerous Curves by Irene Callaci

[This might be one of those REVIEW CONSPIRACY things. Or it might not
be. I'm not allowed to say, or the REVI -- uh, that is, my employers --
might get angry.]


Yikes! Shades of _Varicella_. What is it with these enormous games which
force you to explore a humongous map which you ought to know like the
back of your hand before you can even begin to figure out what's going
on? I wish people would write these games in RAIF-POOL, at least, so
that I can download the PC's tacit knowledge telepathically while I'm
reading the opening paragraphs.

Alternatively, it seems to me that there's great potential in this kind
of mystery game for Infocom-style 'feelies' -- for modern examples, see
_Enlightenment_ and _Muse_ from the 1998 comp. (Not that 'feelies' is a
particularly good way to describe intangible files on disk; can anyone
think of a better word?) I'd love to play a mystery which comes with a
large, detailed map of the player's stamping ground.

_Dangerous Curves_ doesn't come with a map, so exploration is the order
of the day. And even accounting for my prejudice against this sort of
thing, my initial impressions weren't good. You start off in the fourth
floor of an office building, and naturally every floor -- every room! --
is fully implemented; parked outside is your car, with an ignition which
has to be explicitly turned on if you want to drive anywhere... By this
point my anti-simulationism prejudice had also kicked in. If I wasn't
reviewing the game, I might have given up there and then.

But I didn't, and I'm glad I didn't; and this is obviously going to be a
long rambly review, so I'd better get the actual review bit done while I
have the chance:

    _Dangerous Curves_ is a really good game. Go and play it.


It's a detective story, set in the 1940's. This genre was one of
Infocom's specialties, of course; there haven't been many recent
examples, but _Dangerous Curves_ goes a long way towards redressing the
balance. (The only other detective game which springs to mind is Mike
Oliphant's _Gumshoe_. Hmm? No, Matt Barringer's _Detective_ does *not*

I haven't played any of the Infocom mysteries, so I can't give an
in-depth comparison, but one obvious difference is size: _Dangerous
Curves_ weighs in at 512KB, four or five times the size of the average
Infocom game (though some of this is accountable to Inform's more
complex parser and the overhead of the Z8 format). Again like
_Varicella_, this seems to be due more to depth and detail rather than
massive length. It took me three or four evenings to complete _Dangerous
Curves_, with a few minor nudges and hints.

The plot makes sense, the coding is solid, and the puzzles are generally
very good. The plot structure is also very loose and non-linear, but I
have mixed feelings about this. At times it works really well: the plot
thickens and progresses smoothly and naturally each time you find a new
lead, allowing you to investigate new areas without the game having to
force you. The flip side is that sometimes you just end up collecting
clues for points, rather than uncovering new information. For me, this
was particularly obvious towards the end, where I had essentially solved
the mystery but couldn't collar the culprit until I'd picked up the
remaining few bits of evidence.

Then there's the writing. The writing is... Well, Irene's previous game
was _Mother Loose_, in the 1998 comp. So you might expect something
competently written, but maybe a bit precious and cutesy, right? You
might be surprised. Just read the introduction:

    "Los Angeles, California. City of Angels."
    "Not so fast, Sherlock; I'm no angel." She pauses, the cigarette
    poised an inch from her lips. A stray beam of sunlight leaks from
    a broken slat in the venetian blinds, spotlighting her hair.
    Blonde. Platinum, not gold. Abruptly, she reaches across your desk
    to push a stack of green at you, past the halfway point. Her eyes
    watch yours as she fans the money out on the desktop. "I never mix
    business with pleasure. Do you?"
    Not often. Not lately. "Not me," you assure her. "Wouldn't dream
    of it."
    She leans back in the chair, studies the smoke curling from the
    cigarette between her fingers. "I--we don't visit L.A. much anymore.
    My husband, he hates it; won't go near the place. Calls it the City
    of Angles. Says everybody's got one, you know? An angle, I mean."
    "Your husband sounds like a man with his head screwed on tight."
    She laughs, a short, bitter sound with no amusement behind it. "That
    night, I did go to L.A. Without Walter. When I got home, late, the
    cops were waiting for me." She kills the cigarette with a quick stab
    at the ashtray. "If Walter dies, I'll inherit millions. My alibi--
    well, let's just say it doesn't help. Get the picture?"
    Her old man was right, everybody's got an angle, even dames with
    more curves than a mountain road. A guy could hurt himself on all
    that geometry.

Sassy puns, slangy dialogue, saucy innuendo, and generally the whole
tongue-in-cheek pulp fiction kitchen sink... I like it. Not all the
writing is this good, of course, but there are little gems sprinkled
throughout the entire game. In particular, it has enough of the
irreverent ornate similes required by any true hard-boiled detective
story to feed a small village for a fortnight:

    The streets are as empty and dark as a church on Tuesday.

    The caged electric clock over the door hums monotonously, its
    red second hand stepping jerkily around like an inmate pacing
    in his cell.

    Musical instruments, everything from alto saxes to battered
    guitars and dented brass tubas, hang from the ceiling like
    pinatas at a birthday party.

    Periodically, a car pulls up to the pumps and the attendant
    emerges, right on cue, like one of those Black Forest cuckoo
    clocks with the little figurines that come out on the quarter

Well, you get the idea. I like it.

Having said that, my single biggest complaint is with the writing at a
larger scale: after that excellent introduction, Jessica Kincaid more or
less falls out of the game. The plot revolves entirely around your
investigation, with Jessica merely making a few unconvincing and mostly
irrelevant appearances on the sidelines. The denouement is clever and
satisfying, but again, no Jessica! This would have been fairly easy to
fix, too, perhaps just by adding a few extra paragraphs at the end.

An example of this just occurred to me: the film _The Pelican Brief_.
This is a fairly average investigative thriller; but after all the
investigative stuff is resolved, there's a little scene at the end which
tries to imply that everything that's gone before is really a love story
between the two main characters. Which is just about plausible, but only
because of audience input: when you're watching a film with two likeable
characters played by attractive actors, it's only natural to hope and
expect them to get it together at some point. The ending panders to
this, and it works; but really, it's just an investigative thriller.

_Dangerous Curves_ is a bit like _The Pelican Brief_ without that final
scene. I'm not saying this is a massive problem, but it's a shame -- the
story doesn't quite live up to its potential.

Now, let's get back to this 'simulationism' thing. Here's a fairly
innocuous example:

    Jessica Kincaid stands up. "Well, I guess that settles it, then.
    You're hired. If you need me, I'm usually at home. Unless, of
    course, I'm out. Give me a call if you've got anything to report,
    or pay me a visit; I don't care. Just don't expect me to show my
    face around here any more than I have to. The last thing I need
    right now is more publicity."
    Jessica Kincaid opens the door to the hall.
    Jessica Kincaid walks away to the north.

The first paragraph is a less sparkling sample of the writing I lauded
above. Nothing out of the ordinary. But what about the next two
paragraphs? Why describe Jessica's actions in such clunky detail, and
why keep clunkily repeating her full name instead of using pronouns?

The answer (I suspect) is that those paragraphs were written by the
library, rather than directly by the author. This being Inform, the
author has probably written something like:

    move Jessica into Hall;

The library has moved some objects around, and pasted together a message
so that the player knows what's going on. This implies a trade-off
between writing and object-shuffling; and if it's a choice between
beautiful flowing prose and a complicated data structure that holds a
detailed world model, I'll go for the former every time.

More significant examples might be a car containing realistically
simulated pedals, indicators, steering wheel and so on; or a lift
(elevator, if you insist) with realistically simulated doors, floor
indicator, call buttons... _Dangerous Curves_ doesn't contain the
former, but it _does_ contain the latter. In games like this you tend to
spend a lot of time figuring out how to use completely irrelevant
equipment, and twiddling your thumbs as you're conveyed realistically
from place to place; and if you're as lazy as me, you just have to ask,
what's the point? I want _story_, dammit, not a travelogue.

And inevitably the realism will fall short of real life. The most
blatant offender in _Dangerous Curves_ is the strip joint where you can
watch the (rather repetitive) proceedings all day without paying so much
as an admission fee. I claim no particular knowledge of such things, but
shouldn't they at least try to sell you a hideously overpriced drink?

On the other hand, detailed simulation sometimes works to great effect.
A good example of this in _Dangerous Curves_ is the way money is
handled. When you buy things, the correct amount is automatically
subtracted from your wallet and you're given the correct change in
smaller notes and coins. Compare this to _Gumshoe_, in which you just
have 'some money', and you can buy any amount of inexpensive things.
Both systems work, but that used in _Dangerous Curves_ is more...
charming, perhaps. Chalk up a point for simulationism.

Another good example is the way keys are handled in _Dangerous Curves_.
You start off holding keys to your apartment, car, and office; the game
automatically picks the appropriate key for the appropriate door:

    The door to room 401 is now locked.

This automatic assistance is crucial. Imagine the alternative:

    The office door isn't closed.
    What do you want to lock the office door with?
    Which key do you mean, your apartment key, your car key, or
    your office key?
Arrgh! That'd be horrible! And far too many Inform games _do_ behave
like this at times -- but not _Dangerous Curves_, for the most part. So
I can live with simulationism, and I'll agree that it does add a certain
something to the game, _if_ the tedious bits are handled automatically.

Well... Maybe there's a little more to it than that. I have to admit
that there's something weirdly enjoyable about an excessively-detailed
game world. There's something strangely pleasurable about going up to
the bar in an IF game and typing:


And by God being given a Vodka object and typing:


Making the Vodka object mysteriously vanish again, but not without
adding a little bit of happiness to the world. If my "flowing prose is
better than mechanical simulation" rule-of-thumb were completely true,
I'd prefer something like:

    "Hey! Lenny," you call, "I could do with some voddy over here."
    Lenny splashes a few drops of vodka into a glass and slides it
    across the bar towards you. "You planning on paying this time?"
    "Yeah, sure," you tell him. "I just got an advance from -- well,
    I'd better not say, but she sure ain't short of cash." You raise
    the glass in (absentia) salute to Jessica Kincaid, then drain it.

Okay, that would read better if Irene wrote it, but you get the idea. It
would still suck. This is Interactive Fiction, and I've got rights: and
one of those rights, though it never occurred to me before, is to buy my
own damn vodka. And if I want to let it sit for a turn or two before I
drink it, that's my own damned business too.

So even excessive realistic simulation of stuff that's completely
irrelevant to the actual game can work. Maybe this 'simulationism' thing
isn't quite as evil as I thought. Here's a few possible explanations:

 o  Exploring a well-constructed game world is like playing with a
    Lego village, or Star Wars figures, or maybe (I'm guessing here)
    a Barbie house, or a little shop where you sell imaginary goods
    to your parents, or whatever. There's something joyful about
    tinkering with a miniature world. Or perhaps being able to do
    anything you want without really hurting anyone or being punished
    is just a power trip, but I guess it amounts to the same thing.
 o  The fact that there _is_ a game world, and that the various
    objects in the game really are 'objects' stored inside the
    virtual machine, gives you a feeling that the game itself --
    the code -- really does understand what's going on, after a
    fashion. If the author writes hundreds of paragraphs of
    beautiful descriptive text, that just shows that the _author_
    knows what's happening; but 'move Jessica into Hall' is
    actually _doing_ something -- isn't it? The game world exists
    inside the bytes of the game file, not just the author's head.
 o  Interactivity is the thing. If you want to buy a vodka, you can
    buy a vodka. If you want to explore the church, you can explore
    the church. The game won't try to stop you; on the contrary,
    it'll do its best to respond as realistically as possible.

Or maybe it's just that pointless fripperies can be amusing and fun. And
why not?

Still, that third explanation is particularly tempting, since it ties in
neatly with some of the puzzles in _Dangerous Curves_. These might be
described as 'passive' puzzles, as opposed to the more common, more
active kind of puzzle where the game plonks some Blatant Obstacle under
your nose and needles you until you solve it. The cliched strange
machine whose workings you have to figure out is an active puzzle. Logic
puzzles, combination locks, towers of hanoi and so on are active
puzzles, and just as cliched.

An example of a passive puzzle -- which does not appear in _Dangerous
Curves_ -- might be a suggestion that Senga has left a secret message in
a book. You note that Senga has several library books out, and therefore
explore the library. You peek at the library's computerised records and
find out which books Senga has borrowed; there are quite a lot of these,
but you know some important dates and use these to narrow the search
down to three books. You examine these books, and bingo! -- one of them
contains a secret message. Peeking at the records again, you obtain the
addresses of a few people who borrowed the book after Senga, one of whom
might be the intended recipient of the message. And so it goes.

It's not a black and white distinction, but what I'm calling a 'passive
puzzle' does have some distinctive characteristics. It can be buried in
the scenery, to the extent that it's not obviously a puzzle at all
unless you noticed the vital clues. In the example above, the library
might contain many realistic but irrelevant records and books (as in
Monkey Island II). In turn this means it can tie in to the game world
more neatly: I bet you've been to a library; but how often do have to
solve anagrams, jigsaws, 15 puzzles and the like in real life? And both
of these are helped by a detailed, realistic game-world -- simulationism

One common disadvantage of passive puzzles, however, is lack of feedback
on your progress. In the example above, you get no direct indication
that you're on the right lines until you actually find the message. On
the other hand, it's extremely satisfying when a series of long shots
suddenly comes up trumps. I suppose the game could take note of
intermediate stages ('you look up Senga in the borrowing records for the
last year, finding a list of forty books. Could one of these contain the
message she mentioned in her diary? But searching forty books is going
to take a long time'), but _Dangerous Curves_ doesn't tend to do this.
I'm not sure whether I'd prefer it to do so or not.

Anyway, the game contains several such puzzles, and I like them. I can't
explain more clearly without giving outright spoilers, so I won't try.
This is the bit where I say "if you haven't played _Dangerous Curves_
yet, go and do so right now. You'll enjoy it." Or at least I would if I
hadn't said it already. What are you waiting for?



The 'passive puzzle' I'm particularly thinking of -- for my money,
easily the best one in the game -- is finding the incriminating records
about the new freeway in the realty office. This requires several
flashes of insight and leaps of faith, but each is perfectly logical.
Not least you have to think of checking the records in the first place,
but that makes sense since the freeway is clearly important.

Can't get at the records? So break into the office at night; you're a
detective, right? Can't open the door? Try a lockpick. There's a set for
sale in the junk store; didn't you notice? Okay, so you're in -- but
there's a hell of a lot of records here. Nothing under the Mayor's
name... Damn, maybe this is a wild goose chase. Oh, but wait; his wife
uses her maiden name, doesn't she? What was it, again... aha!

As I said, a series of long shots coming up trumps can be _extremely_
satisfying. (Although solving this particular puzzle didn't open up any
new lines of inquiry, which was a little disappointing. Oh, well.)

On a smaller scale, finding Walter Kincaid's room in the hospital is
another satisfying puzzle. Essentially the entire hospital is simulated
in the game world, and you can visit any ward. To find the correct ward
number, you just need to ask a nurse; but in principle, you could solve
it by brute force, by visiting every damned ward. To my mind, this is
preferable to something like:

    First Floor
    You're at the south-east corner of the building. Wards 101-110 lie
    to the north, and wards 171-180 to the west. Stairs lead up and
    At a nearby desk, a nurse frowns at the horoscope in the _Courier_.
    Hang on -- there are an awful lot of wards here. Maybe you should
    find out which one Walter Kincaid is in before you start wandering
    around at random?
    The nurse looks up lazily from her horoscope, then starts flicking
    through the registry book. "Kincaid? Uh, lemme see... He's in ward
    224, doc."
    She closes the book and buries her nose in the newspaper again.
    This is the first floor. Ward 224 will be on the second floor.
    You climb the stairs and follow the signs for ward 224.
    Ward 224
    This is a private ward, containing just one bed. Walter Kincaid lies
    on the bed, asleep or otherwise unconscious; his clothes are draped
    over a nearby chair.

Active versus passive again. It's not always good fun to have the game
hold your hand like this -- it sort of gives me a good feeling to know
that I _could_ have solved a puzzle by brute force, in principle. Though
note that if the brute force solution isn't too tedious -- say, the
hospital only contains ten or twenty wards -- I'll often just use brute
force rather than bothering to figure out the 'correct' answer to the
puzzle. Even this can work as long as the correct solution is obvious
after the fact; the thing to avoid is puzzles which you can brute-force
without ever finding the real solution.

But to get back to unhelpful helpfulness, _Dangerous Curves_ actually
contains a good example of this, in a puzzle which I found rather
annoying. This involves getting into the damaged Jag, which is stuck on
a hydraulic lift in the garage.

The obstacle is the garage mechanic, who isn't too keen on you poking
your nose around. The solution is to bring your own car in to get its
brakes checked, and hide inside it when the mechanic goes outside to
deal with a customer. Upon returning, he'll raise your car on the second
lift, allowing you to crawl across to the Jag.

Fair enough. I got as far as asking for a brake check, having noticed
the sign offering free checks. But the next part of the puzzle stumped
me completely. Why? The game tries to be too helpful, that's why! The
mechanic simply doesn't check your brakes until you're safely hidden
inside the car. You can stand around in the garage for turn after turn
and he will not check the brakes. You can go off for lunch, wander the
streets and question people and return hours later and _he will not
check the damned brakes_. Unless you wait until after the garage closes,
in which case you find your car on the street outside. Huh?

I was completely confused by this, and spent ages trying to figure out
the mechanic's brake-checking routine. This got me nowhere, since he
doesn't have one -- he just waits for you to sneak aboard your car. Very
cooperative of him! But how does he _know_ to check the brakes at that
point, if he can't see you? See?

I'd prefer the mechanic to behave more realistically, to check the
brakes after a few turns (days would be a little _too_ realistic)
whether you're hiding in the car or not. If you miss your chance the
first time, the game could always let you ask for another brake check
later (with a suitably sarcastic quip from the mechanic). The puzzle
would be no harder but mimesis would be preserved -- and that's either
the fundamental point of all this IF stuff, or some sort of plant. But
either way.

Iain Merrick