The Thirteenth Annual Interactive Fiction Competition: Reviews

This year seemed a little weak to me. Not much of anything knocked my off my feet: about the best I could say about a game was that it was pretty fun, which is not to be sneezed at, but I reserve 10s for games which push envelopes and seriously accomplish something by so doing. This year... well, the 7s and 8s went out mostly to mundanely functional games, with a few bright spots. Maybe I'm just getting cranky in my old age.

Notable annoyances this year: for once, apostrophe-placement issues are not so prevalent as to fill me with rage. Their place has been taken by a number of other issues, notably:

Fox, Fowl and Feed

Wow. I read the title, and the description, and I knew immediately what it was. Points for clarity, but I was ready to give it a 2 or 3 (for being not actively offensive but not remotely appropriate in scope for the comp) if that's what it was. It was somewhat more than that, but it never really rose above the level of making the original problem mechanically irritating. A few bugs with tying the rope to things (one of which let me inadvertently solve a puzzle), and highly unclear physical properties of the world (tying the duck to the boat and setting off with it in tow doesn't work? why not?), but otherwise a basically competent effort. So one point for being slightly less trivial than I feared. No more than one point, because the nontriviality is not actually very interesting.

Rating: 4
Across The Stars

Nice feelies, although they're getting me a bit in mind for a fairly pedestrian sci-fi storyline. Also, no alt tags on the HTML feelies (hey, some of use use lynx as our default local browser). Z8 puts me in mind of a world that's either richly detailed or overlarge, but I guess the Z8 boundary's lower what with the Inform 7 library being pretty big.

Actually playing the game: I manage to die on the first turn, with a command pretty sensible in context. Trying that again, I find myself dumped into a crisis situation with some frustrating constraints: I don't know what many of these things around are, or what they're good for, or how I could cut power to the prox-tar. I'm not sure why I can't start by reporting the situation, then trying to get the full data? Hopefully the time limit is illusory, but if you present a crisis situation, you need to expect me to respond as such and not spend it fiddling with a contrary device. Testing reveals that this time limit is illusory, but that the next one is not. Clearly I should explore first, then check the prox-tar. So far the writing's passable (aside from one error), but the pacing is execrable (also, exploring in advance tells me the ship's deserted before the Big Reveal).

And I get stuck. I'm in the hidden compartment, but the game thinks I still need to hide. Trying to HIDE gives the amusing response "You can't hide here." Many "wait"s later, I get killed. Fantastic. They couldn't hasten the attack once I'm concealed. Trying again, but this is trying my patience. Going to the walkthrough, I see I'm supposed to use an object not described anywhere. Grr. Moving on, I encounter a few more bugs, and more workmanlike writing with occasional mechanical errors, and unintuitive commands. OK, I can stop now, I have my rating ready.

Rating: 6
My Mind's Mishmash

Ah, ADRIFT. Wonky enough to throw me, and occasionally doing things which I find deeply offensive, such as:

> HIT PANEL WITH AXE
You hit, but nothing happens.
Looks like an effective response, but...
> HIT EFIPGEDRJOPER WITH AXE
You hit, but nothing happens.
Grr, thanks for nothing. Anyways, getting into the game proper I'm dropped into the deep end. My character is presumably motivated and knows what's going on, but I'm not and don't really care. Give me a reason to be invested in the story. What are nodes? Why do I want to rip them? Why am I hiding anyways? These aren't deep mysteries to the PC, and they shouldn't be to me either. I guess this wants to be Ender's Game meets Lawnmower Man or something, but it's going to have to clue me in a lot more to the worldmodel for that to work.

The narrative style is weird. Stilted, trying a bit too hard with descriptions and trying for a level of formality which is neither matched by the game's tone nor by the writer's prose skills. It's uncomfortable.

Anyways, I'm feeling curmudgeonly, so I'm calling this one a day because it is simply failing to draw me in, and ADRIFT keeps making my life miserable. (Oh, and, for the record, "COMBINE" isn't on the verb-list.)

Rating: 5
Beneath: a Transformation

New record for the first writing error: sixth word of the introduction. Otherwise no snark early, except for the quickly annoying pre-movement message (annoying mostly because it's also firing on failed movement).The writing conveys dreariness effectively but is largely unremarkable and occasionally opaque: the police station is described at one point as a "mansion" and it has a "backyard". Also, things would be much improved if the can't-go messages described the directions one can go, since these are frequently buried pretty deep in the room description.

So much for the writing. On technical details... well, it does human interaction terribly, with the least guessable conversation topics this side of 1-2-3, and buying things is so counterintuitively perverse that it's a puzzle for no good reason. Examining an item (such as a cage), I would think, should tell me its contents, or I'll assume it's empty.

Structurally, it relies on way too much happenstance. There are altogether too many ways to screw up your game, and a bunch of actions which are unmotivated by your situation: I just want to read, and that's my only motivation. Shouldn't my entire game session involve hanging out in the coffee shop, then going home to sleep? Why go to the police station at all? "Plot expediency" won't sell the idea. Put that together with its capricious cruelty (in the IF-mechanical sense), and we have a game which does not actually induce any further play.

Rating: 3
Packrat

Satisfactory sense of humor, but not really technical chops to match. There are a few disambiguation problems and a throne I can't sit on. But, all in all, a reasonably satisfactory light game, giving me little enough to be enraged by. Not extraordinary, not extraordinarily bad. I can roll with that.

Rating: 6
Slap that Fish

Man, what the fuck? Absurd premise, seemingly pointless mechanics (there seems to be no real distinction between the attacks, except "kick", which always fails), and a simple but over-notified combat system. I'd say it's some sort of resource-management game, where you're trying to maximize damage-per-stamina-hit, but there's not much optimization to be done. Is it a parody of the RPG-mechanic IF out there? No, seriously, I have no idea what this game is supposed to be, and why I should find it interesting.

Rating: 2
Orevore Courier

Game with feelies. Advanced starship. I'm a minor officer and the only one to survive boarding by pirates. Can something so shockingly specific be a theme this year? Must be, since I've already seen two. Anyways, the isolation makes this a kind of static game, and reduces the feeling of actual activity, suggesting I just try every single action in sequence. It's basically unwinnable on the first try, too. I went to the hints a lot and still had trouble getting the timing right. If I can't beat it with a walkthrough, it's too damn hard.

In the interests of saying something positive: it was technically competent, sized about right for the Comp, and the limited actionset made exploration at least eminently possible. It's just that it was far too easy to lock myself out of victory by a tiny error in timing.

Rating: 6
Reconciling Mother

This has the most awkward introduction I've ever read, between the paragraph of peculiar rhetorical questions and the exhortation to "repair a mission", and even down to small quirks like the use of "them" without an antecedent in the third paragraph, suggesting that I'm in for a rough ride and an adventure in shaky command of English.

Getting into the game proper, my fears are confirmed, as the writing continues to be stilted, awkward, and occasionally technically flawed. The command of IF structure and technology is lacking too: examining the flashlight turns it on, and I find myself in a room called "Snow Cave Death" which describes a death scene but, inexplicably, does not actually kill me. As I progress further into the game, I realize this is all pretty typical. Actions, descriptions, and in-game text are generally muddled, which doesn't suggest much in the way of beta-testing (have we learned nothing from Detective?).

I wandered aimlessly for a while, got treated to the author's review of Mirrormask for some inexplicable reason, realized there was no actual continuity in the story, and decided, fuck it, I've got better things to do with my time than wander through an awful lot of disconnected bits and pieces. IF needs a point. It can't just be "wander through these unrelated, vaguely creepy locations picking stuff up".

Rating: 2
Eduard the Seminarist

Can we please have filenames that reflect the game's actual title? Please? This is the second one in a row I've looked for all through the directory tree and had to go back to Comp07.z5 to actually find.

Anyways, on with the game. Wasn't Eduard the Seminarist a minor character in Rameses? No indication of it, but, hey, it'd be fun. It also has no introduction, so I don't know what to do. I figured I'm supposed to sleep, since I'm in my room and it's night, but no go. Even wandering about fails to give me much of a purpose, except "not waking X and Y". I finally get my marching orders by referring to the walkthrough, and performing an action on an undescribed object which, uh, I guess I should have tried, but only because I've played 9:05. Another action introduced me to a new mimesis-breaker: "guess the preposition" (and needed me to reference another undescribed object.

The ending was underwhelming and seemed kind of pointless. For a clandestine operation, I seem all too willing to leave traces behind, and there are a couple of odd plot cul-de-sacs like Scardanelli's secret identity. I don't get it, at all.

Rating: 3
Adventure XT

Whoa. Dare I believe Panks' games have gotten worse? I know you still think it's the early 80's, Paul, but some of the innovations we've come up with since then are pretty nifty! Innovations like "X" as a synonym for "EXAMINE", "ALL" as a valid object of "GET", and languages that aren't GW-BASIC. This would be totally awesome (or at least moderately impressive) back in 1987 when we were all fiddling with IBM-PCs and trying to figure out programming, but, please, it's 20 years later and you are way, way out of your depth. I look at drawings from my childhood with nostalgia and whimsy, but I don't fucking enter them into international art competitions.

Get the point? Please stop. You are doing nobody any favors, least of all yourself.

Rating: 1 (disqualified)
The Chinese Room

The intro gave me hope. It's competently written, if a bit precious and aggressively erudite. Then I found myself in a puzzle-box, and even though most actions were implemented, I found myself unable to describe the transformative sequence I wanted (look for the characters on the poster among the cards). The opening sequence was good enough in its way, although, uh, I assumed I'd already looked in the drawer, so the poster's advice I took as pointless.

Going into the game proper, I ran into a fatal error trying to talk to the scarecrow, but that's my own fault for using an old version of git. Once improved, I find that the game is living up to its aggressively erudite pretensions with a madcap blend of philosophers and philosophical riddles from pretty much the entirety of history in the Western tradition. It's good silly fun, if a bit too self-satisfied, and my main complaints are a niggling runtime error in the tree conversation and that it's way too long. Also, lacks a walkthrough, and I'm sorry, but that's a requirement, especially for a game this long.

Rating: 7
A Matter of Importance

Meandering, text-heavy introduction, after which it rather improves. It's reasonably competent and moderately fun, although the heavy-handed red-herring issues start to grate (especially when items like the bed end up being of unclued significance). There are a couple mind-reading puzzles, at least from my point of view, but by and large the result is acceptable if not wholly palatable.

Rating: 7
My Name is Jack Mills

The style is pretty solid, but there are some uncomfortable punctuation errors, mostly involving quotation marks (yes, the way they're handled in both American and British English are kinda cumbersome, but usage here is just wrong). Those are niggling issues, since things are generally pretty well done. Italicizing the inner monologue is good: it puts me a bit in mind of noir voiceovers, and it's a graceful way to infuse first-person text into a second-person narrative, although I think it ended up overused from the encounter with Geigner on.

Also, the ending was abrupt and too early: this game might have benefitted from an extra scene or two. I totally wanted to be in on the trainwreck I was engineering. But points for style.

Rating: 8
An Act of Murder

An awful lot of fairly unsubtle injokes early break the mood. The timing-and-alibis game establishes itself early, and it becomes obvious what to do in that regard at least; narrowing down the three remaining suspects, though, was pretty difficult. Tonally, it worked although I think some of the text-swapping randomization (and I can appreciate how difficult that must have been) resulted in clunky dialogue where someone refers several times in a single sentence to the "antique fireplace poker" or refers to an intimate associate by their full name, or suchlike oddness. Still, it drew me in, had me taking notes, and was fun to solve, although the mechanism for relating all that to Duffy was kinda klunky. I am mindful of the craft necessary, however, to make an interesting, believable mystery in which important elements are randomized, and props for doing it (mostly) right.

Rating: 9
Lord Bellwater's Secret

Tonally a bit flat, but generally serviceable. Most of the puzzles in the game are eminently solvable, but I wonder at the poor security practiced by NPCs in IF (the safe puzzle is similar to an equally well-clued one in Anchorhead, though, so I guess I can't be too down on it). In terms of game structure, I think the timed puzzle at the end was somewhat unfair; and there was a very odd bug where I received two endings in sequence, one accusing me of robbery since I was carrying the money and describing my subsequent transportation, and another which indicated a successful prosecution of Dewhurst.

Rating: 7
A Fine Day for Reaping

Mercifully free of mechanical errors, although the notes on the corkboard can't be READ, but must be EXAMINED, and the command for reaching into the lucky dip (is this a regionalism, like "bran tub"?) is so perverse as to qualify as sheer guess-the-verb. On the other hand, there were a couple laugh-out-loud moments, like the argument about killing Hitler's parents. And the elevator in Paris, which, once again, annoys the crap out of me with ADRIFT's pretense of comprehension:

> PUSH FIRST
You push, but nothing happens.

> PUSH FIRST FLOOR
You push, but nothing happens.

> PUSH RGJIEOP
You push, but nothing happens.

Also, I can't open the door to room 147, and I'm not told why, which stops any strategy I might have dead, what with the likelihood that room 147 is unopenable (n.b. IF players distinguish between "openable but locked" and "not implemented as openable", and messages ought to reflect this distinction). The Paris chapter continues to irk by not allowing me to put on the pizza uniform except in the hotel, for incomprehensible and unexplained reasons (a similar peculiarity plagues the military uniform). There are occasional unimplemented directions and, as I get further into the game, I seem to be encountering more and more bugs. Despite the cleverness of the writing, I find myself fighting the game instead of playing it, and that's detracting a lot from the fun.
Rating: 5
Deadline Enchanter

Mmm. I know what steganography is, but I'm disinclined to try to find it in this work. Mostly I'm reading deliberately opaque writing, with incomprehensible first-person interjections. It's like it wants to be For a Change but gets lost in its own self-reference. The result is rather more like Stack Overflow, which also dropped in needless references to Infocom games. At least this one's solvable, since the game gives you a walkthrough at the drop of a hat, but, seriously, if you're going to give me opaque text and expect me to perform actions, you need to give me some clue as to what I'm doing and why (cf. the aforementioned For a Change or The Gostak, both of which had definite goals).

Rating: 2
In The Mind Of The Master

Oof. Maybe it's my ADRIFT engine, but I find myself being referred to as "The char1" in a couple of places. The short room descriptions having lowercase indefinite articles is kind of quirky and peculiar, and I don't know if that's intentional. Occasional punctuation errors too, but the style has generally settled from Whyld's previous games. He still needs to ease off on the conversation trees, though, especially since one of the conversation trees in this game is a particularly egregious "But Thou Must!" loop.

Rating: 6
Lost Pig

Ooh, strong character voice! Even if it is a kind of trite baby/dumb-person/subhumanoid talk, it still works. And it's delightfully adhered to as well -- there seem to be no breaks in character.

On technical matters it's mostly sound, although I came across one V0EFH, which I thought wasn't supposed to happen any more. But the technical deficiencies are more than made up for by the game's general silly charm. It feels a bit trifling, but that's part and parcel of its tone and I can't really complain about that. So, essentially, this one was damn fun and technically accomplished. We have a number for that.

Rating: 9
Vampyre Cross

I'm not sure if, dropped into a Panks adventure at random, I could tell which one. They all have one starting outside a village with a tavern and suchlike crap. At least in this one the tavern and whatnot are unimplemented. Small comfort. Anyways, I wandered around, had to flip my virtual disk every single time I examined anything, and got quickly bored. All my comments on Adventure XT? Paste 'em in here for double vitriol, and add to that my annoyance at having to install a C64 emulator.

Rating: 1 (disqualified)
Gathered In Darkness

Quest is not my favorite system to begin with, so I was already faintly annoyed even before I started. The overportentious "Prolog" did little to allay that feeling. The game continued to run more or less on rails, and displayed altogether too many mechanical errors and flat-out awkwardness in the writing for me to be interested. Also, a major complaint: important room features appear only on entry, and can't be accessed again by looking. There are other major ineptitudes, like mislabeled directions, and all in all this game looks to be in desperate need of beta-testing and stylistic massage.

Rating: 3
The Immortal

The opening seems awfully clichetastic to me: it's the concatenation of several setpiece stock phrases while not giving me a good idea of what's actually being described. There are an awful lot of clumsy writing errors, which indicate an inadequate beta period and insufficient familiarity with the hyphen. A couple technical errors interpose too. The combination of sloppy writing and insufficient motivation made me unwilling to try very hard to make sense of this game.

Rating: 2
Jealousy Duel X

Not really what I think of as IF, at least within the scope of this competition. It's hypertext-with-state, and we've seen that. Not much of anything to see here, from my perspective. It's competently constructed, but why should I care?

Rating: 2
Varkana

Ow, please stop hitting me with the backstory stick. I think I get the point. It's kind of odd to start in medias res and then immediately backtrack within the same wodge of text to fill in the backstory. However, beyond the prologue, the game improves noticeably, except that the prologue made me forget my immediate goal, so I had to go back and replay. A nudge in that direction when I woke up in the morning would've been welcome. But once I got back on track, much of the story unfolded naturally, althoguh after lunch there seemed to be an awful lot of sudden-deaths and a bit of sloppy writing. It's exquisitely written in the beginning, but the end feels like a bit of a rush job, particularly what with the pages and pages of textdump on successful ending.

Rating: 7
Wish

The writing rises to mere servicablility, and the text is rather distressingly ultralinear. Most of the puzzles are overclued for my taste, and one (how to fix the fabric to the kite frame) was, in my opinion, underclued. There's not much here though, and the whole story's a bit too saccharine for me to take it seriously, or be affected by it, or much of anything.

Rating: 5
Ghost of the Fireflies

Whining about your detractors in the info file will not endear you to them. It didn't work for Harry Hardjono back in '98, and it still doesn't. And this is the first year when I'm being really nasty to ol' Panks in my reviews. Previously I'd given a resigned sigh, rolled my eyes, and played just long enough to realize they deserved a 1. But I'm finally tired of wasting even that much time. So I go in with hackles raised, ready to give a 1 if the excuse presents itself.

As for the game: I manage to get to a prompt which doesn't respond to anything I type except for one very specific thing. Then I restart, get to the game proper, and it starts off with a mysterious error message telling me I'm not in the inn. I wander off and get killed by a ninja. Still doesn't understand the word "ALL", still doesn't actually offer compelling gameplay or good writing. i appreciate the implementation of "X", but dislike the spottiness of its erroring ("X TGHTRPHN" produces no output). Some things have gotten better, which might have almost buoyed this one into "2" territory, but I'm still irked by the clumsy metalepsis, the author-insertion, and most of all the constant harping on his detractors' sins. Fix the things suggested and don't raise a fuss about it, 'kay?

Rating: 1
Ferrous Ring

Well, we're dropped in the middle of things, but we're given a role and a motivation, if a somewhat blank character. The prologue worked well, but the firs tscene of the game proper started to irk me, if only because of the rather tedious device of forcing the player to perform every single step in a process, rather than doing them implicitly. The dropped-in-the-deep-end feel only becomes a liability later, when I'm having conversations with people about things known to the PC, presumably, but not to me (what's USUE, for instance?). These things are never really elucidated at all, and I feel I'd have a lot more investment in this world if I understood it. Meh. It's got an interesting, unusual, distinctive style, but its pacing, and the nebulosity of its actual plot, does much to nullify what benefits the stylistic daring brings.

Rating: 6
The Lost Dimension

Having to run an installer annoys me. Having to run an installer that demands I download and run another installer annoys me more. Is it too much to ask that executables be standalone and monolithic? I like executables that run when I click them, not self-installing monstrosities. And the worst part of it is, I went through all that bullshit for a game that's not that good (there seems to be a fairly clear direct proportionality between "convenience of play" and "quality of game" at work here). There's a graphical interface to make Quest look enlightened, and despite its assurances, trying to play with standard text input is impossibly clunky, due to the window that pops up every time I try. Add that to the constant, overused sound effects and MIDI music, and I find myself wishing they'd written in a mainstream system with fewer bells and whistles.

And as for the game itself, eh, kind of minimalistic, forced to some extent by the limited interface. The combat engine, with minimal user input, reminded me unnervingly of Paul Panks's, and in the game itself I couldn't find much to do or any prose worth reading, so I gave up pretty easily.

Rating: 1
Press [Escape] to Save

Highly informal narrative voice, which might be OK, but also some sloppiness with grammar and punctuation, which is not. The conversation with the jailbird has at least one completely incomprehensible branch, and also, if I'm asked by a mother-stabbing father-raper, "Why are you here kid?" then it'd be really great to have "Littering, and creating a nuisance" as one of my possible responses. The bed isn't implemented, and the construction seems generally sloppy. Then after two sleep sessions (I'm positively narcoleptic) and a pointless deus ex machina, I had an inescapable programming error. Feh.

Rating: 2

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