Comp 2002 Reviews

I have to make a couple of observations about this year’s crop. One, there were fewer games, and two, there were fewer games that were really foully buggy. These two facts suggest to me (ever the optimist, I) that people are catching on to the fact that it’s just really not worth submitting a completely unfinished game, and that they held over some items that were un-enterable for another competition or for independent release. If you did this, hooray for you: you made what I firmly believe is the right choice, which will bring more pleasure for you and everyone else.

So the games that did make it in were, by and large, much sounder than the worst of some previous years. But, rather infuriatingly, there were also fewer games that startled me in any respect: fewer wacky plots, fewer experiments, fewer interesting characters, fewer things that stuck out for their imagination and beauty. Most especially, there were fewer original settings. It felt, as I played, as though someone had declared this Home-and-Office Comp, for the sheer number of games set in one or the other of these — or, in some cases, a Home Office.

Now, there is nothing categorically wrong with that. But it was a bit like buying a variety box of chocolates, ripping off the cellophane, and finding that absolutely every chocolate in there is actually a peanut nougat thingy. (I hate peanut nougat thingies.) Sure, some of them are shaped like cherry cordials or butter-creams or even Godiva truffles, but they’re all really peanut nougat thingies in the middle, and you’re left there chewing and chewing because you’re too polite to spit.

I lost track of how many games turn on guessing a dumb password for an ill-secured computer system. I didn’t bother trying to count the number of generic bathrooms, or keep note of how many undescriptive descriptions of a toilet it is possible to come up with. It’s possible to raise even the most mundane and overworked of settings to something glorious if you’re a good enough writer, but many of these games seem to have settled for the obvious.

Combine a lackluster setting with cliched puzzles and sketchy implementation — not grievously bad, not bad enough to be MSTably funny, just not very good — and you wind up with a score in the 4-6 range. And that is, alas, where the majority of these fell, for me.

Games here are listed in the order in which I played them (randomized by comp02.z5, except that I had already played Paul O’Brian’s game, and there was one game that I skipped entirely the first time because it didn’t appeal to me at that time). The reviews were written as I went along, with the result that some reviews refer back to other ones. They are as spoily as spoily can be, so count yourself warned.


Paul O’Brian
Another Earth, Another Sky
Rating: 8
Played to completion?: Several times
House or Office: House, but I forgave this because I played it first of these
Solidly coded, cleanly designed: this game has all the technical advantages of the first installment of Earth and Sky. And it comes with rather charming Glulx graphics that add a certain something to the flavor of the game. And it’s quite a bit longer than the first one was, thus eliminating the chief complaint I had about EAS1 — that it didn’t run long enough. This one was longer and, I’d say, proportionately more satisfying.

I also enjoy the fact that we get to alternate between the two main characters. Emily, the PC of EAS1, is here an NPC; at some point she remarks (rather slyly) that she did most of the work “last time”, so it’s your (Austin’s) turn to get things done this time. This is cool, because after last time I was eager to try out the possibilities of the Earth suit.

Were those possibilities satisfying? Well, mostly. There are no unique new verbs that come with the Earth suit, the way there were with Sky: you can’t fly, and you can’t make fogs. You do have superhuman strength, though, which is rather gratifying, inasmuch as it means that violence is the answer quite a lot of the time, and you get to fling around important bits of the scenery. There were a few — but only a few — points at which I felt like I ought to be able to make more out of my Earth powers than was allowed by the scope of the game simulation. So it was slightly less fun wearing the Earth suit than wearing the Sky suit, but only slightly.

The new setting offered a great deal to like; I found the intelligent creatures quite appealing, my favorite being the squid who is apparently trying to talk to you. My chief gripe here is that the place is relatively sterile. There’s not much there that isn’t relevant in some way or other to the solution of puzzles. The recording tube is a very nice touch, but too little, in my opinion. It seems to me as though the game needs a few more corners, a few more things that are not as you expect them to be. By the time I’d been to the first couple of habitats, I felt I knew what to expect from the others, and by and large I was exactly right. I am a fan of well-structured IF, where you do not need to make a map, and where the shape of the world and of the plot within the world is sensible. The trick is accomplishing that and yet still being surprising, fitting the pattern in some unexpected way.

A lot to ask, I realize. The reason I’m harping on it is that I thought this was an admirable game, constructed according to every rule I would give to a new designer. It has humor, it has plot, it has NPCs who say interesting things, it has accessible yet not cliched puzzles. It is programmed by a competent coder and then debugged at length. It has good writing, free of its/it’s errors. It has hints. It has a polished interface. It is sound. But it has not quite got the star power of a 9 or 10.

But never mind. I liked it. I had fun. I had more fun than I had with Earth and Sky the first, because there was more there to play, and I do look forward to the third installment.

Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game.


David Brain
Sun and Moon
Rating: 1
Cheese Rating:
Played to completion?: Um, I don’t think so. Hard to be sure.
Hmm. This is interesting, but is it IF? I guess it depends on whose definition you take on that matter, but on most of the definitions I’ve seen lately, the answer has to be no. So I’m voting it a low score, for the simple reason that it doesn’t belong in an IF competition. The Mona Lisa wouldn’t belong here either, nor Scrabble, nor Moby Dick.

I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the author. I can see that this is, if not a game, at the very least a puzzle, which might well appeal to the same sorts of people that play IF. But if you just came out and touted that on the newsgroups at any other time of year, you might not get any takers, so what do you do? You submit it to the competition, that’s what, and then people have to play it, if only long enough to tell you that it’s not IF.

Sigh.

I can’t give this thing a high score because scoring in this competition asks whether something is good IF; this is not good IF.


Anonymous
Coffee quest II
Rating: 3
House or Office: Office
Played to completion?: Yes

This was tedious and pointless. The puzzles were of a grade I tend to associate with inferior AIF. Some attempts at humor. Content apparently written by A. P. Hill’s younger brother.


Joe Grzesiak
Jane
Rating: 7
House or Office: House
Played to completion?: Yes

I’m not going to address this as a game, because it isn’t one. It’s an interactive story, much like Photopia; given that fact, it’s solidly implemented (I encountered no bugs), and competently written in a technical sense (I encountered no grammatical problems, etc). What really deserves discussion is how it takes on its topic, domestic abuse.

This is an especially difficult subject to write about, and write about well, because playing the role of an abused woman requires that you sympathize a certain amount with the motivations that lead her to stay, placate, and conceal. I didn’t have her history, and I certainly didn’t share her self-doubt: I found I got angry on her behalf, and made her as defiant as I could, whenever possible. It irritated me when the game took over again, forcing her to apologize to John, when what she should have been doing is walking out the door.

Now, I realize that from the perspective of an abused woman, that option is often just not there — for psychological and emotional reasons, not for practical ones. I think that the game doesn’t quite convey this; it’s certainly there in Jane’s words, but I-the-player was pretty divorced from those feelings, and did my best to make Jane behave as a free, self-confident woman. I’m not sure what you would have to do in order to get the player to be motivated to apologize to and cover for John from time to time; the result might be something like Rameses, with the player character refusing to obey the player’s instructions. Or possibly it would have to start off with some good times — Jane out with her husband and friends, basking in appearing to be very fortunate in her domestic life. Then, once you actually had a stake in this appearance of happiness, showing the ugliness behind it… I don’t know whether that would work or not, but you might be able to explore this psychology in greater depth. Maybe. So while I think this was written in good faith and portrays problems that really exist, I also don’t think it takes full advantage of the potential inherent in an interactive story-telling. I will add that I think, for this subject matter, that would be very very difficult, and the results painfully disturbing.

On the other hand, this game also avoids trivializing the issue or lapsing into painfully bad taste. When I saw that you sometimes play the role of the husband, I got nervous — I didn’t want the game to force me into the position of abusing Jane myself just to make the story progress. Thank goodness that the author didn’t decide to go that route, because I would’ve found it quite distasteful.


Rob Shaw-Fuller
Identity Thief
Played to completion?: Not on the first pass, but eventually, yes.
House or Office: House
Rating: 6

From the first turns of the game, I sense that this is competently coded, though the author suffers (in my opinion) from logorrhea: I’m generally of the opinion that the introduction to a work of IF should be no longer than a couple of paragraphs, and that if you can’t accomplish what you want to in that space, you might want to think of adding a scene or two to the beginning of your game to set things up. YMMV, of course, and I don’t know that this is a fair rule in all cases, but I found that getting through the whole intro was hard going. It could have been cut a good deal without doing severe damage to either the style or content; indeed, I rather think the style would have improved.

I also quit this the first time I tried it because the unnecessary gore didn’t really appeal to me. Went back to it later when I wasn’t planning on eating in the near future, and this time I managed to finish it.

The opening sequence (after the intro) is, I think, pretty good, except there are some weirdly irritating failures of the parser to understand. I could have unlocked the mirror without resorting to the walkthrough, for instance, if it had responded to any of my attempts to LOOK IN MIRROR, LOOK IN RETINAL SCANNER, EXAMINE SCANNER, EXAMINE HIGHLIGHTS, etc., once I had stared at the Senator.

From there things just get worse, in a guess-the-verb sense; I have no idea how one would guess to tear oneself free of the ‘membrane’ when one is a grub, since the word is, as far as I could tell, not explicitly used. As for the car, I did not know what to expect from it — it didn’t seem to recognize directional instructions, and I didn’t realize that it would be able to DRIVE TO DOCTOR. That’s a level of abstraction that most IF games don’t use unless they first warn you about how to use the commands. Moreover, it recognizes DRIVE TO HOME but not DRIVE HOME. These are all little things that could be cleaned up trivially, but they have a severe impact on the gameplay, especially since there are no in-game hints short of the walkthrough (which spoils all).

Once I got to the doctor’s, I was relying heavily on the walkthrough, so I don’t know what the experience would have been like without it, but I found the ultimate explanation kind of glib and disappointing, low-level X-files stuff I’ve seen many times before. I was also sad that I didn’t get to make use of most of my cool equipment: the bodyguard’s handprint and possessions didn’t come in useful at all, the catalyst spray didn’t seem to be useful, etc. I never found a point at which it was necessary to retract my claws. If you’re going to give me cool cyberpunky tools to toy with, I’d like them to function more centrally in the plot. (I don’t know — perhaps the author meant to include some further puzzles here, but just ran out of time and/or room.)

So this demonstrates good writing and the coding potential for a solid, entertaining game, but the plot arc fell a little flat in the conclusion. I also didn’t notice any beta-tester credits. Possibly testing (or more testing) would have worked out some of the communications issues in the game. I hope that the author will write further games but with a bit more attention to their playability. Without the verb-guessing problems, and with a little more fun stuff to do with the cybertoys, I would have awarded this at least one and perhaps two more points than I did.


Tyson Ibele
Not Much Time
Played to completion?: Not on the first pass.
House or Office: House
Rating: 3

I found the opening screen so over-the-top that it was kind of hard to get going with this game. And then the actual game reminded me a bit of the Clock from — was it last year or the year before? — you have a mundane house, you have puzzles, you have scattered hints of some kind of magical practice. It lacks atmosphere, though. I am getting tired of the bog-standard-house and bog-standard-office as settings, and I am only a little way into the competition. And this one has a discouraging quality of writing.


Edward Floren
Screen
Played to completion?: Yes
House or Office: House
Rating: 4

Typos are typos, but one that says your childhood sweetheart looks “really sweat” should’ve been caught. The implementation also lacks the polish it might have. I don’t like typing >CLIMB and being told “if you want to go up, please type UP.” As a general rule of thumb, I figure that if the game knows what you want to do, it should let you do it. The parser should only request a rephrasing if the way the player phrased the instruction is unparseable.

There are also some logical mysteries. You can go down a chimney and come out in a room with no fireplace — how exactly does that work? I suppose various events in the game are supposed to be mysterious, but this felt as though “magic” was being invoked simply to cover something that the designer didn’t feel like implementing a more complex scenario.

There are other such points. A tv is described as “not something you can switch.” “Attach thread to putty” works, but not “attach putty to thread.” The game is so small that it could easily have afforded more attention to such details.

Puzzle design also needs a little work. There is a timed puzzle with far too little time provided: if you waste any time examining objects, you wind up unable to finish the puzzle on time. I had to replay this passage three times, and ultimately had to follow the walkthrough exactly in order to get through. This is part of what beta-testing is for: to catch this kind of thing.

These are gameplay issues; the deeper dissatisfaction I had with this game is that it just doesn’t hang together. There’s a memory-of-the-past aspect and a silly-tv-based-puzzles aspect, and they don’t fit together in any real way that I can discern. The parting text assures me that I feel as though I’ve been on a wonderful journey, but I don’t know what I was supposed to have gotten out of this all. The game needs more focus; if the designer is relying on the memories of the past to convey an emotional punch, he also (I think) needs to work on them a little bit more, because they feel a bit cliched and generic. The characters in “Jane” were generic, too, but that was to make a kind of point; here, I think, they would need some more development in order to provide an emotional grab. The old man who lived in the now-abandoned house is also apparently intended to be a touching figure, but there’s not much at all to characterize him, since his house is stripped of any distinguishing features other than the mammoth television.

If, on the other hand, the designer wanted to present this as a puzzle-fest, I’d suggest stripping away a lot of the framing material and adding a few more actual game scenes. These were, to my mind, the most entertaining parts of the game. The response to REMOVE HAT made me smirk.


Howard A. Sherman
BOFH
Played to completion?: Yes
House or Office: Office, but I forgive it because it has attitude
Rating: 7

My initial reaction, when I realized what this was about, was a kind of sinking feeling in the gut that here was Another Generic Office. But no. This one has enough attitude to make the setting interesting again.

Unfortunately, partway through the game the actions became obscure enough that I had to resort to the walkthrough; there are several things I would not have thought of doing without its guidance, and several other things that were definite guess-the-verb situations. The game also violates one of my cardinal rules of puzzle design — you want to accomplish x, so you have to do y, which is completely unrelated and simply happens to result in x for unexpected and unpredictable reasons.

Still, I definitely enjoyed the feeling of Evil Power — never less than when I was able to put the boss just where I wanted him. I wish that several of the puzzles had been more intuitive and provided more parsing options, because I think I would have enjoyed this game a great deal more had it been possible to play it all on my own native wit.


Anssi Raisanen
Out of the Study
Played to completion?: Yes
House or Office: House/Office (what else is a study, anyway?)
Cheese Rating: Mild cheddar for cheese mentioned on shopping list
Rating: 5
Unambitious in scope and not very exciting in its beginnings as a puzzle, this game also features unfairly implemented bits where (as far as I can tell, at least) the only way to get the game even to mention important items is to type TAKE ALL and watch the results. There was also a (perhaps non-essential) item that I only discovered by scanning the accompanying dat file.

Most of the effort of the puzzles seems to consist of meticulously examining and looking behind and under items, with the extra-annoying catch that sometimes, eg, LOOK IN SAFE will tell you that the safe is empty, while EXAMINE SAFE will turn up some overlooked scrap. Beta-testing! Need beta-testing!

For some reason I did manage to play the whole thing, though. Go figure. For managing to hold my attention despite some obvious flaws, I award it an extra point.


Jessica Knoch
TOOKiE’s SONG
Played to completion?: Yes
House or Office: Home Office
Rating: 7

Implementation not bad, writing amusing. The puzzles were mostly not especially novel, though I did like the use for the hole in the Space Bar. Otherwise, I wasn’t blown away by any startling new developments in that regard. The setting was cute, and sometimes unevenly implemented — I’m not sure why some of these things were Merely Scenery and untouchable, when other similar things in the same rooms were fully developed. (This also brought me to greater clarity on why exactly I’m getting so tired of the Generic House and Office settings. Using one of these encourages authors to feel that they must sketch in a bunch of mandatory rooms with a bunch of mandatory furnishings which are not in themselves of any interest whatsoever. You have a kitchen, so you must have a fridge, a stove, some cabinets, etc. You have a bathroom, so you must have a toilet, a sink, a shower… And because there is no real puzzle or story necessity for any of these items, they’re all described with a grudging sketchiness, and essentially they come out looking exactly the same as all the others of their kind in all the other games and aughh… Ah well. As mentioned above re. BOFH, even using a Generic Office is not necessarily the kiss of death to your setting design — as long as you do go to the trouble of writing some interesting descriptions. But if you’re bored with your setting, you can damn well bet your players will be too.)

Okay, end of rant. This game in particular didn’t really deserve my wrath on that score, and I did think that the home office was kind of amusing, especially in the way that some of the objects were not fully functional. Still, I was hoping, just a little, from the first bit with the weird and the odd doors, that this would be a slightly more serious and consistent game, not because there’s anything wrong with lighthearted silliness (which this game pulls off pretty well) but because there were so few games in this competition that bothered to try for a well-developed new kind of setting. For just a little while, I was reminded of one of my favorite books from late childhood, Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard, about a race of elves that live underground.

Also on the good side, this game provides multiple sensible solutions to a couple of things, rather than stupidly disallowing all but one of a set of equally logical courses of action. I liked the water weird, and the puzzle involving the keys was sensible and cool. This game is candy, but it’s pretty good candy: amusing if not hilarious, with a decent variety of activities, and easy enough to be played in the allotted time.


James Mitchelhill
Granite Book
Played to completion?: Yes, with serious hintage
House or Office: No. Thank god.
Rating: 6

I have a problem with IF that relies on mood rather than plot. If you don’t have a clear sense of what your goals are supposed to be, it’s hard to progress. I found it impossible to get past the first couple of moves without resorting to the hints, which is usually a bad sign.

This game did manage to be evocative in ways that no other comp game on my list so far has managed. I wish that the invented setting actually made some sense, though.

Having the PC(s) be first-person-plural was another interesting maneuver. I’m not sure I understood exactly what was supposed to have happened at each stage of the story — if indeed there is a clear plot — and I find the deliberate obscurity a little irksome. For sheer imagery, however, this contains some fine menacing bits.


John Eriksson
Rent-A-Spy
Played to completion?: Yes
House or Office: Office
Rating: 5

This reminded me in some ways of an Andy Phillips game — Heroine’s Mantle, say — but without the mad verve. It does have the persnickety puzzles that have unbelievable solutions, and the somewhat sketchy implementation. There were a number of things I did that I think shouldn’t really have worked; I don’t, for instance, believe it is actually possible to pry open elevator doors using nothing more than a screwdriver. A crowbar, maybe. But not a screwdriver.

Once again we have an office setting, once again we have to guess people’s passwords — and they’re shamefully bad about choosing appropriate ones, too. Most password systems protecting data of any significance will refuse to allow you to use common words or names, but this is a rule that apparently does not exist in IF-land. The part of this game that could’ve been a more interesting setting — the medical lab, with the potentially dangerous chemicals and funky machinery — is under-implemented.

I do like the fact that the game encourages you to clean up after yourself in good spy manner. I have a bit of a quibble, though: it doesn’t apply this rule universally. You can leave one thing out of place — because it is physically impossible to leave it in its original position and still escape — and no one seems to notice that, though it seems just as significant as all the other things that you are required to tidy up after yourself in order to obtain a perfect score.

Some other nitpicks that drove my score for this down a little: there are some grammatical errors. The writing is serviceable, but not stellar. The responses, especially towards the end of the game, inexplicably flicker between first person and second person. Debugging mode was left on, making it possible to find information you’re not supposed to know (though in my case this was convenient, as it allowed me to cheat without actually having to go to the walkthrough until nearly the end of the game). The truck is peculiarly implemented and for some time seems only to be a message-daemon, since it passes through the room in which you’re standing and then cannot be referred to again. (This wouldn’t be so important except that the truck is obviously part of a puzzle solution; the player is going to be trying to interact with it. The game ought at least to recognize such attempts, with comments like “the truck has gone by too quickly for you to catch”, rather than acting as though something of critical importance has not even been implemented.)

Little things, you know, but they add up, making the whole seem slightly shabby around the edges.


Jeff Rissman
Evacuate
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 5
House or Office: House, sorta. Not really, though, I guess.
This game is set in space! But it still manages to spend a lot of time on your bedroom and hallways! Grr sigh. Oh well. Better than some I could mention in the recent past, though.

Unfortunately, it is plagued by a number of small but irritating misspellings and mis-usages, such as “arial” for “aerial”. By an also-cruel twist of fate (this time the fault of the Comp02.z5 randomizer), it also happens to have a number of the exact same puzzles as the foregoing game.

But never mind all that. I was slogging along bravely, albeit with the walkthrough, when I came to the RANDOMIZED MAZE.

This is not fun. I have better things to do with my life. I quit here. I will note that I would even have played through a maze if it had been straightforward enough to have a one-thing-works-every-time solution in the walkthrough.

Moral of this story is that Emily is cranky and mean, I suppose. But really, please, so much of this stuff has so been done before, it drives me insane with boredom. Doesn’t anyone have an innovative setting or puzzle system or SOMETHING?

Look, I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something here. But I don’t think this has to be that impossible. Play a bunch of other games. Familiarize yourself with the puzzles, and the settings, that have been done to death. And then don’t repeat them unless you really, truly have a new twist. Just find something else to do. Pick a different time period to work with — lord knows there’ve been lots that have hardly been treated at all. Play with a new genre. Or go ahead and do another science fiction game, but make the science fiction aspect of it go deeper than a little chrome plating and the robot NPC. There’s such a richness of possibility out there that it makes me sad watching real implementation effort — and I discerned that a fair amount of effort had gone into this game, though apparently not much time with a spell-checker — seeing all that yoked to the service of puzzles that have been done before.

Anyway. Sorry. Not all of that rant was really directed at you, Mr. Rissman, whoever you are. I was actually even liking this game better than several others here, until I hit the Random Maze. It’s the trend that I’m ranting about.


Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold
Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out Of Me!
Played to completion?: Yes
House or Office: House/office, in the form of Dr. Kurner’s dorm room
Rating: 8

It’s a kind of mercy getting this game after those others — I don’t know what’s left to come, but I know that I can trust Sousa to code and Ingold, bless and damn him, to come up with something out of the ordinary.

And they did. I am a little appalled to see that even this one has a computer and a password-guessing and a necessary bed and an inescapable bathroom with all the fixtures — did someone declare these items necessary to all comp games? Is this standard-fixture comp?

But never mind. This one has deep black humor, and some excellent injokes. Like BOFH, it manages to transcend the standard-ish elements by describing them wittily and having a good sense of humor. The fake French pills were terrific.

It’s not the best game I’ve ever played, but it towers so far above the average in this competition that it defies description, on the strength of the writing and the wackiness of the premise.


Tyson Ibele
Concrete Paradise
Rating: 2
House or Office: Not quite, but there’s the Mandatory Toilet anyway.
Played to completion?: Yes, with the walkthrough all the way.
This breaks two cardinal rules of good game design. One is that it has you try to solve puzzles, but what actually happens is the result of some totally coincidental action. You have to crawl into the vent system not so that you can escape through the vents but so that someone can find you when you come back out. You have to try to turn off the lighthouse, fail, and then be arbitrarily struck by lightning.

Two, it gives you all the puzzle solutions right up front in the form of really, really stupid hints: they shouldn’t work, but because of Game Logic, they do. How do you know the secret password? Because it was in the kid’s book as a magic word, of course. Naturally. Not only that, but you get to read all three books, revealing the arbitrary solutions to the game’s three arbitrary main puzzles, at the very beginning, so you know exactly what situations are coming up that you will have to try to get yourself out of.

This is a senseless world, devoid of causality. But given that you can get thrown in an Alcatraz-equivalent for jaywalking and that you can successfully flush a glass bottle down a toilet, well, I guess it’s at least consistent about the senselessness.

It also takes place in a moral vacuum, since there’re no problems about stabbing a guard who has a wife and kids at home and who doesn’t seem to be notably evil, just In the Way. I didn’t want violence to be the answer this time, but it was.


Joao Mendes
Eric’s Gift
House or Office: House, but sorta futuristic, I guess
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 4
You know how sometimes you’re watching a movie that is supposed to be suspenseful but you know exactly where it’s going, so you get all impatient to just get to the big conclusion already?

This was like that, with the added problem that I couldn’t get the game to progress at one point — though I knew where it was supposed to progress to — because I happened not to have re-examined the correct object recently. Because I’d already examined it once, and didn’t feel like I needed to see it a second time. This violates the standard ‘do not make a puzzle solution depend on the player doing something multiple times’ rule.

Anyway, I felt as though this was not reconceived as IF very successfully. It still basically plays like the short story it once was, not gaining very much from its nominal interactivity. Even as a short story I’m not sure it would’ve made my top ten list — it felt a little too pointless, I suppose, a little too dreamlike — but it might have done all right as a piece on Outer Limits or Twilight Zone.

On the positive side, the author demonstrates decent programming and writing skills which could be turned to good account with a game that was actually designed from the start to be a game.


Stephen Hilderbrand
Case of Samuel Gregor
House or Office: Office
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 4

On the good side, at least the office is not set in the modern day. Also, you’re allowed to leave it. On the minus side, the quality of the descriptions is rather variable, and sometimes includes things like “The palace gate stands grandiloquent before you.” as the entire room description. Surely Bohemia has more to see than that. Much scenery is unexaminable.

There are some weird things about the UI, especially the way talking to the tobacconist works: the screen clears and then the NPC’s answer to your question appears, without punctuation. I found this disconcerting, as it made the flow of the game difficult to follow. For good or ill, most of the other NPCs didn’t seem to want to talk to me at all, which was unfortunate, since interrogating NPCs seemed the main course of action when most of the scenery was obviously useless.

I also just didn’t know where to get started, really. I read the solution, at which point there didn’t seem much point in actually going through the game.


Daniele A. Gewurz
Ramon and Jonathan
Played to completion?: Not exactly
Rating: 2

Uhhhhhh…

Almost incomprehensible.

And then the game ends on its own.


Yoon Ha Lee
Moonlit Tower
House or Office: Not even remotely
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 10

Prose compels a certain pace. This is a game to be read slowly, as though dreaming. I tend to be wary of poetic diction in IF, because it can confuse and clutter the imagery, make interaction difficult, and stop immersion with its excesses of pretense. There’s some danger of that here, too. It takes discipline not to let the eye skim for nouns to interact with.

There is much that is lyrical and strange and compelling here, all the same. This is a game of phantom scent and overheard whispers; it all takes place in averted vision, full of longing and grace. It is like haiku, or that poem of Ezra Pound’s with the jewelled stairs and the dew on the stockings, where all the sense lies in the interstices of what is said.

Now, you may call me inconsistent for liking this game when I decried the Granite Book for being mood-driven and obscure. The central story is a bit hard to be certain of here, too, but I felt I had a better guess. I don’t deny Moonlit Tower has some flaws. The puzzle design is not its strong suit. I would not have guessed how to use the maple leaf; I never did figure out how to acquire the lanterns; I only saw what one can do with the comb when I read the AMUSING.

Even leaving that aside, the structure of the game was a bit vague: it seemed as though parts were a little uncertain, a little less organized than they might have been, the symbolism chosen but its full meaning unexplored. The excellence of this game is in the language, and even more in the textures, the lighting, the play of senses. I was content to see and be amazed.

The only thing that threw me was the amalgamation of material from distinct Asian traditions; I kept trying to place the story, and failing. But that’s just as well, perhaps. I was grateful for the endnotes.

This was my favorite game of the competition.


Terrence V. Koch
Augustine
House or Office: Office. And maybe more besides, but I don’t know, because
Played to completion?: I quit when we landed in the modern day.
Rating: 4
Here is the train of thought with which I played this game.

On seeing the title: Oh, boy! Maybe it’s a historical game set in late antiquity! That would rock! That would kick ass!!! It’s about time! Godiva truffle amidst the peanutty nougat thingies, I have found you at last!

On reading the opening text: Oh, hm. Well, okay, it’s not set in northern Africa and it’s not 4th century, but it is still a historical. This’ll be good.

On beginning to play: Hunh. This is off to a kind of nondescript start. But no doubt it gets better. We’re going to find something or experience something interesting.

On continuing to play: Yowgh, this is a kind of unpleasant combination of melodrama and ugliness. And there is a lay/lie error. But we have to motivate our PC… hmm. And this looks like a maze… but I can get through it by typing random directions for a while… Now wait a minute, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why is there a pit of lava hidden under a secret passage in a castle? This doesn’t seem very plausible. Plus, I never seem to be in charge during the interesting parts of the action. I the player get to control the carrying lunches and the wandering around, but the author gets to be in charge when it comes to yelling epithets at the vile scum who killed my family. I’m allowed to use some fighting commands, though it’s never really clear to me why some of them should be successful while others lead to instant death.

But I did not actually quit until I reached the following text, after an inexplicable jump cut: “Monday, 4:30 PM… You sit in front of a computer screen in a typical office.”


Martin Bays
Constraints
Rating: 6
House or Office: House, but not in any important sense
Played to completion?: Sort of
Fatal error! Bad color!

This game crashed MaxZip on startup, at which point I wrote it off and gave it a 1.

A while later, I felt vaguely guilty about this blithe dismissal and decided to come back and have another look and see if it would run on Nitfol. It did, leaving me with a choice: penalize it for the problem of bad color-checking? Or grade it for the game proper, which I did eventually see?

Went with the latter, obviously.

Aside from that initial issue, this seems to have been more than competently programmed; it juggles its rather peculiar format quite well, including the z-abuse at the end. (If there was anything to discover there, which I doubt, I did not discover it. Quitting seemed the best option. [Also, thank you. I’ve occasionally contemplated writing a rogue-like z- or Glulx-abuse. This frees me of that desire.])

The game aspect is a little more problematic. This is not really that fun, except perhaps for the third segment; I like simulations that offer a range of approaches, and I enjoyed finding various ways to attempt to vandalize the truck. On the other hand, I wasn’t allowed to interact with things that I think ought to have been there. In particular, the hints kept telling me to throw a rock at the truck body, but the game wouldn’t let me. It didn’t seem to recognize “truck body” or “tanker body” in any location, and just “throw rock at tanker” gave me an obviously erroneous message to the effect that I did not want to damage the tanker. So that could’ve worked better.

But anyway. This is an Experimental piece, which I appreciate. I’m not sure that what it says is very interesting, though. The conclusion I took away from it is that it isn’t much fun to play a game in which you’re not allowed to take any actions or affect anything — which I think I already knew. (When I was a child, some friends of mine had an utterly daft toy, which was a track around which battery-operated plastic penguins would process, making little click-clack noises. There was absolutely nothing you could do with this contraption to affect its behavior other than turn it off.)

I have no idea why the game needed to be in color. The effect was novel, but had the negative side effect of rendering it unplayable on several interpreters. My advice to authors about this kind of thing is: if you’re doing colors or any other wacky behavior, make sure you test it (or have it tested) on a variety of interpreters, and if you can find any that don’t work, include some instructions in a ReadMe file and/or the squib you put in CompXX.z5. This can make a critical difference between people playing your game and people giving it an instant 1. I know this is a pain in the ass, and I’m sorry — these things are supposed to be fully portable, but they’re not, quite.

The scene is even uglier in Glulx, but let’s not get into that now.


“Shimpenstein”
Scary House Amulet!
Played to completion?: No
House or Office: House, yes. Generic, I didn’t get far enough to be sure about.
Rating: 2
Okay, this joke is funny for about .5 moves.


Johan Berntsson
Temple
Played to completion?: No
House or Office: Not clear from the amount I played, but probably not. There’s a desk, though.
Rating: 2

Hey, this starts throwing run-time errors about three moves in, and doesn’t stop. Also, it’s not remotely scary. Just weird.

Moreover, this does the thing that Augustine does, where it does a lot of the interesting interaction with cut-scenes. I examine something and I automatically find some writing which I automatically read aloud. Did I say I wanted to do that? No!


Alan and Ian Mead
Terrible Lizards
House or Office: Probably not
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 2

We have multiple spelling errors on the first line. Punctuation problems, too. I have a very hard time motivating myself to play a game with this level of writing, especially late in the comp. I recommend a review of English writing rules, a spell-checker, and some beta-testing by a literate party.


QA Dude
Moonbase
House or Office: A little of each
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 3

Ennh. The implementation is sketchy, the punctuation erratic; not everything is capitalized where it should be; the rooms, once again, feel completely perfunctory, and the humor feels stale.


Steven Kollmansberger
Color and Number
House or Office: Probably not
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 4

Maybe I’ll come back to this one later. It’s not really inspiring me right now, though.


J.D. Berry
When Help Collides
Played to completion?: No
House or Office: No (yay!)
Rating: 6

This was amusing, but not for long enough. I got confused and a bit bogged down even with the walkthrough, and couldn’t get past the wagon section. In fact, I found it mysterious how I was even supposed to approach the wagon section: I didn’t feel like I had time to acquaint myself with all the buttons at the same time that I was dealing with the crises, and I couldn’t figure out what was likely to be appropriate in any case. Perhaps I’m just inadequately familiar with pop-psychobabble.


Koan
House or Office: No, but there’re no room descriptions at all, so
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 3

Last year there were a whole bunch of these plotless, atmosphere-free puzzle-box games. That tendency seems to have died out a bit, but this one did fall into the category. There’s really just not a lot to see here, and when you type help, it pretty much gives the entire thing away. I’d rate this a four for “not actively offensive,” but it’s so lightweight and trivial that that seems unfair to some of the fours that seemed to have required more effort (albeit sometimes misdirected).


Steve Evans
Photograph
House or Office: House
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 4

I sense the author is trying to do something that might be interesting, here, but I couldn’t figure out what to do, and even the things that I could see and think about gave minimal responses. Oh well. I puttered around for a long while and then gave up.


Francesco Bova
Fort Aegea
House or Office: House, which though set in some Barbarian past contains an oak nightstand among its contents
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 4

On the good side, this seems not to be set in the modern day; on the bad side, it still walks, talks, and acts as though it were, with some rather improbable furniture lying around, and a book that talks about “public relations nightmares”. Parchment, fwiw, was a rather valuable material back in The Day, since it had to be carefully treated to provide a surface for writing on, and I find it hard to imagine that anyone would’ve used it as a handkerchief, especially as it wouldn’t make a very comfortable one.

But never mind the historical accuracy issues. I found my eyes glazing over as I perused the tomes, and I wasn’t sure what I was theoretically supposed to be up to. I spent a while wandering around purposelessly, and then I stopped. And yes, I do have less patience than at the beginning of this exercise; sorry.


John Evans
Hell: A Comedy of Errors
House or Office: No
Played to completion?: Probably not, but I made several good-faith efforts
Rating: 6

I wanted to like this game more than I did. I don’t really care one way or the other about the scenario — the demons don’t offend me, and they don’t fascinate me either — but I approve of what seemed set up to be a simulationist puzzle, with lots of ways to try to maximize your profits and a variety of interesting tools and techniques at your disposal.

But it didn’t turn out to fulfill this promise, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the game informs you that you can wring extra Penance out of certain souls by recognizing their weaknesses — but I found it almost impossible to tell by looking at them what those weaknesses might possibly be, and how they correlated with certain items in the landscape; it took me long enough just charting out what resulted from what stone in my digging staff. I didn’t have enough resources to explore thoroughly and figure out what the various effects really were.

Also, the damned thing crashed on me bigtime. I’m not sure whether this is because my system is just wonky or what, but it took down my whole computer. Sigh. So, er, I guess my recommendation would be to add more description to the souls so that it would be easier to make a logical guess about what tortures and/or locations would be most likely to terrorize them. And possibly give the player some more information about what the stones do, since once you have chosen it is impossible to go back.

I played several times, and each time I got up over 20 penance and then found myself stuck with some recalcitrant souls I couldn’t break. Nonetheless I’m giving this an extra grace point because it managed to engage me enough that I tried repeatedly, even though I came to it at the end of a long series of increasingly wearying experiences.

Side note: I wonder whether a game like this might benefit from a Lock-and-Key-like display of the various rooms as they’re built onto the map. You’d have to switch to Glulx, of course, to do that, but I think it might be fun.


David D. Good
A Party To Murder
House or Office: House
Cheese Rating: Chevre, for several types of cheese which can be eaten, together with dialogue on the topic of cheese.
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 5

Note: I do not possess a Windows machine. I played this game at a friend’s house.

This game has some problems with implementation: ‘you can’t go that way’ messages that list incorrect directions, for instance; books that arespposed to be present, but that don’t react to your attempts to take them (and give confusing messages about not being where the descriptions say they are); and so on. There are occasional spelling errors as well, though not so pervasive as in some games. Some of the things that annoy me about Adrift in general were in their traditional form here: for instance, the autocompletion of words sometimes gave away more information than I approved of or caused peculiarities if the player kept typing — “S” autocompleting to “SOUTH” before the player continued typing “…WIM,” for instance, so you wound up with an unparseable “SOUTHWIM.”

For reasons I’m not certain of, the designer disabled the auto-map-making abilities of the system; though I am not crazy about auto-mapping in general, this game requires enough exploration that I might have found it useful. He did choose to make use of a particularly annoying ability of Adrift, namely text that pauses briefly before dumping out more text. Part of the problem here was that I was reading over my friend’s shoulder for much of the game, and it was hard enough to track without this jerking about. But I don’t think I would’ve liked it anyway. On the other hand, this is probably a more ambitious game than I’ve seen executed in Adrift before. The NPCs wander around and converse independently, for instance.

Leaving aside the features of the system, though, the game’s kind of baffling. You can wander around and find a certain number of pieces of evidence; you can even ask NPCs about them and (sometimes) elicit a reaction (though in many cases GIVE and SHOW produce complete indifference to items when ASK ABOUT will get a customized message). After a while, though, one runs out of space to explore, and it’s not clear how to go on. People’s conversation suggests a certain amount of information — there are some obvious sources of motivation and grievance — but they are none of them terribly forthcoming. Mostly we could only get them to talk about things we already knew. Perhaps we were just approaching it wrong.

We eventually found a way to trigger the end of the game, but it wasn’t nearly a winning state, and we couldn’t discover any other ways to progress with our investigation than by entering the area that seemed to provoke problems. Nor could we figure out a way to find any homeowners’ files. The experience with the game ending was so arbitrary and sudden that we were not inclined to go back and replay with the walkthrough to find out what we had missed. Possibly in another circumstance I would’ve been more forgiving about that, but I was getting bored.

Points for the cheeses, though. Mmm, cheese.


Robert Goodwin
PKGirl
House or Office: Not that I saw, but we didn’t play very far
Played to completion?: No
Rating: 5

Hmmmmmm. This isn’t horrible, but I was put off by the characters; the anime genre of cutely submissive children as sexual objects just doesn’t really do much for me.

I’m also not really sure whether these pictures are supposed to be copyright — maybe not, what do I know — but I find the way they all pop up in their own windows kind of confusing, in that it means the screen is soon cluttered with pictures, the map, and the main interpreter window.


Todd Watson
Unraveling God
House or Office: House, but I can’t actually fault this one for lack of imagination
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 7

This was a distinctly bizarre game, turning on a story and a moral choice in a way that reminded me of Tapestry a few years ago. I thought parts of it were rather silly — Satan dressed in cowboy boots and calling himself Lou was amusing. Tapestry I thought was somewhat preachy; this one is if anything more blatant, in the sense that it provides you with an Obviously Right and an Obviously Wrong choice to make, in the ultimate analysis. I’m still not sure I’ve seen a game that manages to deal seriously and successfully with moral choices on this level.

Nonetheless, this was more interesting and better executed (though I’m still not a big fan of some UI aspects of the Adrift Runner) than many of the other games available in this selection, and it attempted (for instance) some real characterization. It also contains one of the few attempts in IF to show a sexual scene without pornography — that is to say, in a way that contributes to the overall shape of the story. (Granted, it’s not terribly explicit, but most non-AIF IF tends to avoid even this kind of thing.)

So I thought this was definitely an interesting attempt, though I found the gore overexplicit in a way that was not actually frightening, and I didn’t find the ultimate moral choice very revealing. The queasy moment where you realize that you have chosen to let Justin die is much more disturbing than the end-of-game material, whichever choice you make there.

Side Note: I know that people in the Adrift community have been hoping a well-written game, entered in the competition where it would garner lots of attention, would vindicate the system against the common complaints that rec.arts.int-fiction tends to muster against it. I don’t know whether these games will do that; certainly I still find some aspects of the Adrift interface annoying, no matter how meticulously-assembled the underlying game is. I am also usually unable to play Adrift games at all, what with the Macintosh and so on.

However. My conclusion on playing the three games submitted to the competition is that the latest version of Adrift does seem to be significantly more powerful than its predecessors, or else that the game designers put in significantly more work than the designers of previous Adrift games I’ve played. At this remove, it’s not clear to me which is the case. It seemed to me that the games that turned on puzzles and examining scenery — especially “A Party to Murder” — were betrayed by the templating parser of Adrift, because actions that worked in some contexts did not work in others, and there were mysterious problems with the way scenery was implemented, which made it hard to get into the puzzle-solving aspects of the game. Unraveling God, however, worked (to my mind) quite smoothly. Perhaps a plot that turns on triggered events and conversation menus just happens to function better with Adrift’s capabilities.

Anyway, this is the first Adrift game I’ve played where my response wasn’t one of “yuck!” or “well, it’s pretty good given what they had to work with”. I thought this genuinely worked at what it was trying to do, being not just “good given this system” but “as good as it would be if it were written in one of the mainstream languages”. The remaining quibbles I had with it — with the writing in some of the hell passages, and the simplification of the moral choices — would have been an issue no matter what he’d used to write the thing.

Is that vindication? I don’t know. Maybe. But if you want a game with a lot of objects and puzzliness, I still think you’re better served by Inform or Hugo or TADS.


Temari Seikaiha
MythTale
Rating: 5
House or Office: House
Played to completion?: Not on the first pass, but eventually, yes.

Oh goody, I thought, when I saw the beginning: some interesting antiquity-ish stuff. How cool…

And then bump, there I was in my office, at home. At that point I quit.

Later, I felt guilty about how many games I’d summarily quit, and I came back to this one.

Some of the puzzles seemed rather arbitrary, especially the bit about having Artemis chase the spider — I don’t know why we’re supposed to assume that Artemis’ chasing would manage to open a secret panel that your own searches would not. Likewise the puzzle with the cat-food device struck me as a considerable pain in the ass: time-consuming to play with and effect a result from, hard to figure out, utterly unintuitive. (Who on earth would want a cat-food device that worked like that?)

Here, as with Screen, I felt that the frame story didn’t work: there wasn’t enough explanation of what was going on or why, it wasn’t that interesting, and the puzzles felt contrived. I did appreciate that the cat-related puzzles were in some sense related to the actual personalities of the relevant gods and goddesses, but still, the frame just didn’t work for me. I think it is meant to explain how you come to be hopping from one bit of ancient myth to another, but actually, it doesn’t: there is no sensible explanation within the frame world for how these pieces fit together, why you are becoming part of them, etc. (The business about your nightmares doesn’t work for me since you are nominally awake for most of your… visions, experiences, whatever they are.) All the frame does is call attention to the contrivedness of it all and the lack of any explanation. Next time, I say, just pop me down in ancient Greece and make that the main setting. Come up with some internal reason to hop me from vignette to vignette, or, hell, be daring and don’t give me one at all. But skip the framing device if it doesn’t contribute anything thematically or in terms of character.

I mention the latter because I have the vague feeling that the author was trying for something with the characterization — at least, the final scene suggests this — that never really got off the ground. I like the idea of having multiple choices and multiple endings available (obviously), but it only really makes sense to me if you have some prior knowledge of the character and some investment in his choice. I didn’t — in fact, I had no clue why he might be inclined to find one ending better than another — so out of instinct I tried having him choose to give the bowl to Artemis, and I didn’t really check out the other possibilities.

So I’m still not sure what that was supposed to be about. But I think it’s a clue that your frame story is out of place if the game ends not at the frame level but at the embedded level. Had the whole game taken place in ancient Greece, the conclusion might have made more sense.


Peter Seebach / Kevin Lynn
Janitor
House or Office: Office. And later, House. And Generic Adventure Parody. This game has it all, but knows what it’s doing.
Cheese Rating: Monterey Jack. There is a book whose title alludes to cheeses, but it doesn’t seem actually to be about cheese.
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 8

On my first attempt I quit because of the office and the secretary and the so forth, all of which (as the alert reader may gather) I was getting a little weary of.

However, I did go back to it, and the game afforded me one of the more entertaining experiences of the competition. I realize my reactions to earlier games may suggest that I’m just innately prejudiced to the old-school puzzle-oriented sort of game design, but that’s not actually true: what I’m prejudiced against is games that don’t invent anything new. This one doesn’t invent its setting, exactly — or even its mechanic, since games where you strive to lower your score have been around since at least Zero Sum Game — but it does add its own particular spin and its puzzles.

I have a soft spot for games where you see the same objects or rooms from multiple points of view or in multiple ways (Common Ground comes to mind), so the Mimesis Disruptor provided a good bit of fun in this regard.

I found the puzzles mostly intuitive and quite entertaining, and there was a good mix of the easy and the slightly less easy. Once or twice I ran into trouble with specifying what I wanted to do: in particular, if I had the mortar in my possession but wasn’t actually holding it, the game would tell me I had no mortar. (The difference between ‘if (mortar in player)’ and ‘if (IndirectlyContains(player,mortar))’, I imagine, but it can be very important.) There were a couple of other things I found tricky; I sometimes griped at the hints for not providing more information, but I was determined enough to keep going even though they didn’t always give away the full correct action. This process took me more than two hours, and led (in the end game) to me TXDing the gamefile, because it was early in the morning by that time and I was too impatient to write the authors and await a response.

Which is a lot of engagement, especially given how many games I’d already been through.

Overall, this game shows the attention to detail that speaks quality. There are lots of optional fun tidbits, lots of quirks. Including the option to play the game in its normal, “forwards” form is terrific. The butter substitutes are fascinatingly disgusting. There are some minor points where I struggled with the parser, but this could be cleaned up with a little more testing, and overall it was clear that the coding was solid and competent.

Closing comments about the setting issue: this turned out to be even more pervasive and more annoying than I realized when I wrote my opening comments (about halfway through playing the games). There was just a whole lot of non-imagination going on here.

And I don’t understand why. What IF is good at, really truly good at, is setting. You can pack in so much more than you can ever fit into a location description in a novel or short story, because the player is doling out the information to herself as she plays. Most novels don’t have room to detail all the furnishings in every room you pass through; it would be wearing. There’s a lot you don’t see. But IF, now, IF can handle all of that. Characters are hard in IF. Plots take careful set-up and pacing, and then they sometimes get away from you. But setting is easy. And when I play IF, I want to feel as though I’ve been taken somewhere I’ve never been before, or am being shown it from a particular and interesting viewpoint. I liked BOFH, and I liked Dinner with Andre a few years ago, at least in part because the obvious scenery had been given a non-obvious kick of attitude.

So take advantage of the strengths of your chosen genre! There are so very many untouched possibilities. I did an informal survey of games a little while back and found that the overwhelming majority of (my nonscientific sampling) are set either in a Lazy Medieval setting or in the Modern Day, frequently in the country where the author lives (which means a lot of games set in the US or the UK). Which is fine if you’ve got a story that has to be done in the modern day and present context. But if you’re looking for ideas, why not broaden the horizons? The world is enormous, and it has a long history. Where are the games about ancient China, or the building of Rome? How about the decadent courts of Louis XVI, or Wales, or prehistoric Malta, or the diamond fields of south Africa, or the Willamette Valley in the 19th century? Or, if you want, go ahead and do gothic ghost stories, or pirate swashbucklers, or mysteries — yes, some things have already been written in those genres, but not nearly as much as has been written in Generic House or Generic Apartment.

Which is not to say the only settings are the historicals. If you want to write fantasy or science fiction, do it well. A lot of “SF” genre IF seems to be a thinly veiled form of the modern day that just happens to have more shiny machinery and robots. The heart of this issue is bothering to create before you implement; to imagine more than the strict minimum required by mimesis and your puzzle constraints; to make settings inhabited by particular people with particular attitudes, or else interesting in their desolation.

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