The Fourteenth Annual (2008) Interactive Fiction Competition: Reviews
A note for authors: I am sometimes not a terribly pleasant person, at least not when I'm sitting in judgment on my fellow human beings. The Comp always feels a bit maipulative, since imperfect authors in our tiny community tend to induce pity and a desire not to crush their fragile budding enthusiasm for gamecraft. This comp had an extra heaping of that with a few games which felt emotionally manipulative as well. That said, I am an equal-opportunity jackass, so whether you're a young author, or a new author, or an author with a history or psychology I should feel sorry for, you still get unvarnished criticism. I do not think any of you are bad artists, and I do not think any of you are bad people (except for Dean Menezes, who is in fact a bad person). I do believe that a lot of these efforts could be improved with a modicum of effort, and really, really wish y'all would put in that effort.

Another year, another comp. My feelings about this comp as a whole can be summed up in one short *nix command:

$ grep -ic underimplement comp08.html
10

Yes, "underimplementation" is the word of the year. Too many games fell to wholly inadequate betatesting: failure to implement interesting scenery items, failure to implement obvious actions on implemented scenery items, failure to implement obvious actions taken at the wrong time or wrong place. These are not just window-dressing: these are important ways to give feedback to players on the wrong track. If an action is unimplemented on one object, I'll tend to assume it's unimplemented everywhere. If it's implemented and there's a short message as to why it doesn't work in this particular circumstance, I'm more likely to try it later.

But underimplementation isn't a matter of authors consciously deciding not to give feedback. It's a matter of authors being unaware feedback is necessary. And the only way you, as authors, will learn what players need, is to get playtesters. Get the crap playtested out of your games by actual IF players. It is not an accident that, of the 15 games with in-game credits given to playtesters, 9 of them are the games I (and I imagine many others) rank highest. Four others are quite close behind, and the other two I have to regard as likely aberrations, either due to inadequate beta-tester play or inadequate response to testers' comments.

That, however, is a perennial concern. A more unusual occurrence this year is the prevalence of games too small in scope. There's always at least one game way too large for the comp; this is the first year when it's seemed that a great many of the entries were way too simple and minimal.

With all that in mind, here's my (flexible and fairly subjective) scoring system, along with games which achieved those scores:

Recess At Last

I ran into a couple of bugs early. By default, for reasons beyond my ken, writing things writes on my jeans. Opening the envelope has no effect and no useful error message. There's a peculiar parser error which seems to assume everything is a noun. Then there are the odd, inexplicable technical errors: "ball" isn't a synonym for "kickball", and "push button" doesn't work outside the school. In terms of writing, the prose here is generally error-free but bland, so on that front it's at least serviceable, but the many play idiosyncrasies suggest inadequate testing.

Gamewise, I dunno. School setting's a terrible cliche, and it feels in-jokey (the author here is apparently older, so I don't know if this actually has in-jokes, but it certainly feels like the teacher and school layout and suchlike are in-jokes; whether they actually are is moot). This game doesn't actually do anything particularly interesting with the setting, so it's all kinda hollow-feeling and probably would be even if the technical errors were fixed.

Rating: 5
Riverside

The narrative style put me off early. It may be an overstrong narrative voice, or, more to the point, an overstrong narrative voice that can't seem to figure out what tone it should take. It wants to be inside-of-head but the picture it paints of the inside of the protagonist's head is somewhere between uncompelling and unpleasant, and his point of view quickly becomes annoying. I also get a feeling of telling rather than showing vis-a-vis my feelings and actions, and it grates somewhat. This is all in just the prologue, but that sets the tone for the rest of the play session, and it never really lets up.

Underimplementation hits me immediately. No tombstones I can examine, not even an examinable grave until the coffin's in it, "sedan" isn't a synonym for car, and so forth. Enough things mentioned in room descriptions are unimplemented to make me leery.

The invisible telephone (which appears in no room description, and which I can't examine) is only in the kitchen? Is there a reason for that? There are other underimplementation and guess-the-verb issues which pop up throughout and weaken the story's narrative drive considerably.

I then get a nonstandard game-over so weird I can't even figure out what the hell the point of all that was. Was the whole game supposed to be a joke? If so, it wasn't a very good one. Was that end text not ever actually supposed to be seen by the player? So confused. This only escapes a 1 because I'm not sure if it's intentionally causing angry incomprehension.

Rating: 2
Cry Wolf

Can we have a moratorium on games telling me in specific terms what I think? It's irksome and it's poor charactercraft, and we've been getting a lot of it of late. Please, people, show, don't tell.

Mechanical errors show up early, continuing my distrust in games with inadequate beta. The word "eke" is used wrong in the first room description, and there are clothes I can't wear (yes, I know, they're clothes my character presumably wouldn't wear, but this is a great chance for a custom failure message). Since I should say something nice, it's worth mentioning that this author, unlike the authors of Riverside, knows how a respectable bachelor configures his toilet seat.

Moving on from the opening, the game shows more promise. Descriptions are slightly overflowery, anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, but otherwise well-done, and the implementation is moderately deep. There are some weird disambiguation problems (especially with bottles), and the occasional technical error, but all in all it works more than it doesn't for the first 2.5 scenes at least. Then there's the surgery scene, which is clumsy and guess-the-verb-laden and did much to kill my growing enthusiasm. The main problem, though, with the story is how agonizingly it draws out its fairly obvious twist. I ended up not caring much about the menus in the insanely overlong conversation at the end just because it was being so coy about something I found out about 3 scenes earlier.

I see that a lot of what I wrote above is negative, but I'd like to be encouraging. There are good story ideas and good mechanical ideas here. The writing is passable and with some massaging could be excellent. I'd like to see this game go through some testing and some redesign, and it could well be an excellent game then.

Rating: 6
Nightfall

This shows a pleasing level of polish. While the prose isn't quite my cup of tea, no glaring errors jump out at me. The urgency of my situation isn't driven home nearly often enough -- the flashback/reverie style seems to defuse the tension which would be a more natural tone for this story. The 'THINK' gentle-hint mechanism is well-done, but the obscure hint on the blotter (the one thing I didn't really get) is so contrived it feels shoehorned in, and I managed to miss the metal-detector hint. Otherwise, the game felt organic if a bit over-sprawly, and it worked -- it told a story well enough fleshed out to feel satisfactory but open-ended enough to let us fill in the blanks. It loses some points for the tone-mismatch and the sprawl, but this is still a first-rate effort.

Rating: 8
Freedom

"Release 0 / Serial number 080929 / Inform v6.21 Library 6/10 D". Please note the last letter of that version line. That means you left debugging verbs on, so if I even get stuck, I can use PURLOIN and GONEAR to escape the confines of your plot. While we're at it, neither that "Release 0" nor putting the date in the byline inspires confidence either.

Not, mind you, that there's much to purloin or gonear, although I can steal groceries that way. Most of this seems to be a 'go through my day, guessing verbs' thing, which is a rather tired cliche. The implementation is shallow, and none of what I'm doing is the slightest bit surprising or interesting, but parts of it seem pointlessly difficult (there's no residential street I've ever crossed which takes that long, and the verbs for buying groceries are completely unintuitive.

All in all, not bad for a First Game, which more often than not is a banal simulation, but there's a reason people don't enter those in the comp.

Rating: 3
The Lighthouse

Oh, god. "You walk up to the lighthouse. It's large wooden frame creaking in the wind.". Rarely have I seen such stylistic and grammatical error packed into such a small space, and in the intro, too.

And the first room description is a paramount example of how not to write a room. Description should be descriptive (hence the name!) and the automated listing of objects (in this case doors) betrays a lack of familiarity with the authoring system, and not nearly enough competent beta.

I've gone through three rooms, and seen nothing to suggest even minimal implementation. Sorry, no credit for not even trying.

Rating: 1
The Missing Piece

I dislike games which have an installation process, since for IF such a system footprint should really not be necessary. I note with dismay that this uses the same system as last year's The Lost Dimension, and is by the same author. Oh, joy. The system has become, to my surprise, even worse than it was originally, for it now accepts no keyboard input at all. The language has likewise become worse, with verb-tense problems all over the place (few of them amusing, although "The Bat is slained!" makes the shortlist of unintentionally funny exclamations).

Anyways, I have no particular respect for people who can't be bothered to address criticisms, so I have no respect for this game.

Rating: 2
Project Delta: The Course

Alas, another homebrew. At least homebrew systems are, for the most part, easy to judge. I never entirely understand why people subject themselves to this. I mean, yes, I can see the attraction in writing your own IF system, just to do it, but entering a homebrew game in the comp? If you're trying to write a work of IF, rather than a system, doesn't it make a lot more sense to start with a system where the parser and most of the worldmodeling is already done for you?

Anyways, I guess I shouldn't prejudge: a homebrew game could be good. But this one isn't. It's flogging an authoring system, and not even doing so with a particularly impressive exhibition of skills.

A note to prospective designers: The IFComp is a showcase for games. Not systems. You are wasting our time and insulting your prospective audience if you're shilling a system. Write an announcement to raif or something, but don't claim the right to up to two hours of our time so you can show off your platform. Yes, Curses was a showcase for Inform, and Ditch Day Drifter a showcase for TADS, but those were both full, enjoyable games in their own right.

Rating: 1
A Date With Death

Ah, it's a sequel. Hopefully it doesn't depend too much on the previous games, which I haven't played. David Whyld is a generally competent gamecrafter, and some of his hallmark styles are here. The writing style is about as comic as usual, with a few flat notes but at least a consistent voice (which seems cribbed mostly from Pratchett, alas). So on technical details he does OK, but the actual storycraft seems a bit problematic: what I need to do at any given time is insufficiently clued, and I found myself stumbling rather than working towards solutions. That's kind of disappointing, because after a certain point I didn't have any clear goals and the game seemed to lose a lot of momentum and charm.

Otherwise, though, I have few complaints or even comments. It was a little textdumpy and prolix with pretty much every description; initial and subsequent descriptions of rooms and objects might somewhat mitigate this failing. The game is competently crafted with a solid narrative voice, but it felt sprawly just because so few of the things going on connected into a cohesive set of goals.

Rating: 6
Snack Time!

Everything old is new again! In the late '90s, we were graced with the dog tale Ralph and the cat story A Day for Soft Food. Sometimes it seems like all the clever ideas really have been done. But, on the other hand, it's been over a decade and another charming non-human-protagonist story is welcome.

And this game does have charm. Almost all of the default responses have been overridden for the right feel, and it conveys a good sense of actually being a disobedient, playful dog. Many of the right new verbs exist, and the action mostly makes sense, although the final game-winning move is rather contrived.

It's short. It's slight. But it is free of obvious bugs and does what it does quite well.

Rating: 8
The Hall of the Fount of Artois

Huh. Title and intro text prepare me for a fantasy game. But bizarre use of the word "pragma" and a character lifted (with a misspelling) from Curses makes me wonder if there's more to it. References to a curse and a "bladed agricultural implement" vaguely suggest that the references to Graham Nelson's opus are intentional (likewise references to beer and German metal music). On the other hand, interesting though this connection may be, I ended up going straight to the walkthrough: few enough verbs were implemented (or nouns, in the case of examinables) that when there was an action to be taken or an object to take it on, there wasn't the slightest clue how to proceed.

It's another homebrew, which makes itself evident in not understanding the abbreviation "X". Or the command "VERBOSE". Or pronouns. Or "TAKE INVENTORY", despite the game exhorting me to do so. Or any object which doesn't appear in green at the end of a room description. It also has a broken instant-fail implementation of darkness which seems rather unfair. One must wonder: if the author was familiar with Curses, why didn't he use the system it was built in (or a similar system), which has all this functionality built-in?

There aren't many mechanical errors, but the barebones implementation is more frustrating than any number of actual errors would be. If anything, this makes it more frustrating, that someone who is clearly capable of decent description and implementation depth chooses to use a system in which even a well-thought-out project is barely playable.

Rating: 4
The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom

This game is firmly on the puzzle end of the puzzle/narrative spectrum. Sadly, the puzzles cannot really carry it, as the three puzzles admit of very specific solutions, which are somewhat clever but don't really admit of alternatives (contrast with the somewhat more fulfilling Erudition Chamber from some years back). Some of the not-admitting-of-alternatives is the shallowness of the implementation and, in the case of the second room, the harshness of the time limit. In terms of technical issues, other than the underimplementation of alternatives, there's not much problem, but there's really no feeling of consequentiality at any point in the game. I was kind of hoping for the ending to have a twist and require me to do something besides the obvious instructions I was given, but, nope, all is what it seemed, and what it seemed was thin.

Rating: 4
Nerd Quest

Another underwhelming use of an obscure and ill-crafted system. See my Windows grumbling a few reviews above for my thoughts on this. It recognizes few modern amenities (where 'modern' is defined as circa 1987), like such abbreviations as 'L' for look. It doesn't even seem to support 'EXAMINE' or 'QUIT'! Everything seems to, amazingly, be spelled right, but that's the best praise I can muster for this underimplemented and pointless game.

Rating: 1
Ananachronist

The world and situation envisioned is imaginative, and the writing is halfway-decent, although it falls down grammatically in several places (e.g. "Large windows are line the north side and the east is half open to the world with only a small wooden gate provides a sense of enclosure."). The descriptions are vivid if terse (although two rooms lack description altogether), which makes the lack of implementation of things described a bit disappointing. The descriptions actually seem to get worse for the present-day and future sections, so I may have been too hasty in judging the prose as pleasingly descriptive.

As for the game itself, it has an interesting mechanic which could have been better clued with respect to items and the movement thereof, but mostly it's all in service of some exceedingly clunky read-the-author's-mind puzzles. I was impressed at first, but somehow continuing play seems to render the game less and less appealing. But the conceit and some of the mechanics are good, so with some fixing up of the prose and more intuitive puzzles — both of which are the kind of thing adequate beta-testing would catch — this could be a quite enjoyable game.

Rating: 4
Violet

Man. Hell of a narrative voice. Overwhelming, but justified. And well-integrated: I had a hell of a time finding anything even close to a standard library message. The story was clever, and the difficulty curve was mostly appropriate. I got hung up in the middle, but it's not unlike Shade in that, once the path and the pattern of the narrative is discovered, there's a certain set of actions which becomes more-or-less inevitable, and like Shade, it's a blend of glee and pain with each awful decision. I would like to say it's flawlessly constructed, but I found a single bug.

This game is so strikingly beyond everything else I've seen thus far, in craft and in imagination, that I felt compelled to look up the author. Is Jeremy Freese a pseudonym? His name is not extremely familiar to me, and I get the vague impression this is his first game. If so: bravo indeed!

Rating: 10
Berrost's Challenge

A semi-generic fantasy setting doesn't create a favorable first impression, but that isn't in itself necessarily problematic if it's handled right. The game itself, though, does little to improve on the first impression: there are a few minor grammatical and technical language errors, and some technical guess-the-verb issues: "GET BERRIES" gives an unencouraging response when "PICK BERRIES" works. There is an inventory limit, which seems designed solely to annoy, as inventory limits do (and let's not start on the sleep and hunger daemons). The grammar to fuel the miner's helmet is fiddly beyond comprehension. I eventually went to the clues and found that this one had a bunch of extremely convoluted puzzles which, as far as I could see in limited play, offer no positive or negative feedback. This is pretty important; we make progress by testing different ideas, and if a near-right idea has no result, we tend to give up. Certainly I'd never think to do something so complicated when the game doesn't even understand comparatively simple ideas.

Rating: 5
April in Paris

This is a hard one for me. I can acknowledge that April is technically sound, with few bugs and serviceable writing. The puzzles and plot progression were a bit outside of what I'd guess, or the most part, and it was only for few of them that I actually guessed the solution (part of the problem was that I wasn't thinking nearly disruptively enough). On all of these notes I can acknowledge that it shows signs of competence at the very least. So it's with a certain troubled lack of articulation that I say it just didn't work for me. Maybe it was the apparent triflingness of it, or the fact that parts of it feel broadly drawn and stereotyped, but I just never really got the sense of investment that would lift it into the upper echelons. If other reviewers felt the same way, perhaps they'll have a more specific critique.

Rating: 7
When Machines Attack

Oy, the writing is godawful. It veers just barely around some grammatical errors and falls squarely into others (in particular subject-verb agreement), but the real problem is that stylistically it runs like Pentari on a stretch of bad road. Also, it suffers badly from failure to actually show unnerving things. If you have to tell me something's strange, you haven't made its description nearly strange enough. Once I get freed from the textdump tour (which is dull beyond belief; I do hope there isn't a quiz) I find that some directions mentioned in room descriptions are unimplemented. I fill a cup with water from an unimplemented faucet after desperately flailing for the right indirect object for my verb. Then there's a clearly significant conversation I can't listen to. Well, fuck this, I'm giving up now -- this is way too underimplemented, way too poorly proofread, and way too sprawly for me to waste my time on.

Rating: 3
Dracula's Underground Crypt

Man. If you start your game with a disclaimer about how much less awesome it is than you think it could be, prepare to be roasted by judges off the bat. If you don't feel you're ready for primetime this year, don't enter the comp this year. Really! There will be many more opportunities!

And, indeed, this game is not ready for primetime. The punctuation is execrable, the tone and style hit-or-miss, and the implementation shoddy in places. Some critical nouns don't appear in the room description, and so forth. I want to be encouraging, and there's a certain measure of promise in parts of the implementation detail, but I have to say, please, try again, and actually polish it next time.

Rating: 4
Grief

I guess this wants me to Take It Seriously. But it's kind of arbitrary. I played through, doing the obvious things, and the game randomly ended in pointless tragedy. Now, the title may have given some indication this would happen, but I kinda expected that to be the end of the prologue and the beginning of the eponymous grieving I expected the game to be about, but, nope, that's it. I turned to the walkthrough and I apparently get my choice of grisly fates, but all except one of them require me to be a complete idiot and ignore the obvious plot it's heavily implied I ought to follow. It's like 9:05 without the plot twist. I guess I'm supposed to buy into the inevitable tragedy — but Photopia did this first, and did it better.

And the fantasy-ending doesn't even work, dramatically! The gist of it, AFAICT, is that by not letting him out of your sight, you have protected him from the specters that will attack him in your absence. But the most likely ending, the one the author is shepherding the player toward with exclamation-point-terminated sentences, does not involve an attack when you are absent. Why couldn't the car crash just as easily when driving home from work as from school? The duality, the could-have-been, doesn't cover that case.

Technically, the game works generally. Other than inconsistencies in punctuating room names and some rough segues when driving, I saw little that was actually technically room. The tone and style are a little off-kilter, with simple sentences and a lot of exclamation points. I'm thinking this might have been intentional, because it gives the story a certain unhealthy edge, like an oversaturated photograph.

Rating: 5
Magic

My most immediate problem with this game is lack of motivation. There's a prologue, but it gives astonishingly little idea of what my goal in the game is. I get a vague idea later that it has something to do with rabbits (together with the hand-grenade thing, I assume this is written by the one member of the IF community who isn't sick to death of Monty Python and the for the Holy Grail). I wandered around and don't get a chance to do much in particular, even using the command which is ostensibly the game's main gimmick: one problem is that it's insufficiently clued, and there's no real feedback given for determining what "resembles" something else enough for it to work. I ended up going to the walkthrough in fairly short order.

It's technically OK but with some serious weakness in craft, and it didn't engage me at all. Give me something, anything to latch onto in a story. Give me something to do. Don't make me do random things until something eventually happens. This had, for me, the same problems as April in Paris: insufficient direction, and too vague an idea of how the plot is best advanced.

Rating: 5
Red Moon

This starts out good and creepy, which puts it ahead of some of the comp entrants which have tried, and failed, to put out a creepy vibe. Unfortunately, it can't really sustain it, and the mood evaporates as I examine the furnishings of the room. It fails to be as unsettling as it ought to be, and, in the end, goes for a pretty cheap gag, which is a pity, because I'd braced myself for something a lot more interesting. It's compact enough that it's got few technical flaws ("perspiration" misspelled is the only one I noticed), but so trifling in both scope and ambition that it doesn't earn my respect.

Rating: 3
A Martian Odyssey

There is what I can only assume is some unintentional bawdiness in this one. A team whose members are named "Dick" and "Putz"? An acknowledgement that I "rub the injured member ruefully" (yes, it's presumably talking about my nose, but "member", like "intercourse" and "prophylactic" seems to be constrained to a sexual meaning in modern English).

Implementation is a bit hit-or-miss. A lot of things are unimplemented (such as the grass in the canal, which caught my attention), or implemented minimally. A lot of obvious actions aren't handled under many circumstances, and that makes the unobvious options that much harder. As an example: I'm sure climbing Xanthus wasn't supposed to be a puzzle, but it took me a surprising amount of effort for me to find the right verb.

I'm conflicted on the music. On principle I'm not a fan of the idea, and 56MB is an absurd size for a text adventure, but this execution works pretty well. It's ambient and unearthly, vaguely reminiscent of the more sedate sections of the Future Sound of London's Dead Cities.

I never really got engaged. The descriptions made everything seem alien and little seem wondrous. And a story like this, perhaps, needs a sense of wonder more than anything else. Some reason for my actions would be nice too (pretty much everything in the mine was completely inexplicable to me). This is an interestingly valiant attempt, but nothing really seemed to come together and make it feel like an actual adventure.

Rating: 5
Afflicted

One stylistic issue which I can't really fault, although technically you're not supposed to do it: punctuation marks should not have two spaces after them. More damning is a shaky command of how quotation marks work with punctuation, although I'll freely admit that this particular English convention makes no actual sense. The description of the mirror is also odd, but in a way suggesting programming rather than language difficulty.

Moving beyond the occasional technical-English glitch, this game is actually a quite solid one. It's smoothly constructed and guides the player roughly the right amount to keep the plot moving. It's not a game which makes one sit up and take notice in any particular way, but it's for the most part a good exemplar of its genre. It doesn't really have much in the way of puzzles, as such, but that means it doesn't fall into any of the usual puzzle-design-and-integration traps.

Rating: 7
Piracy 2.0

Ow, long textdumpy opening. And it would have made a perfect prologue too, to actually be boarded and lose a fight. The first room is fairly well clued for relevant actions, but I ran into a few bugs in implementation of incidental features. Implementation kind of falls off a bit as I get further from the first room, though. There are random battles which don't actually seem to affect me for a long time, even though I get shot a lot. These random actions are easily enough avoided with "UNDO", but having them in the first place seems a kind of poor design choice.

I tried the gas-flood command, which the in-game documents specifically said shouldn't affect me as long as I'm in the right rooms. But it did. Bah. But I eventually figured out what I was supposed to be doing. Except for the random-death, most of the puzzles/situations were reasonably fair.

The end-game win-text is way, way too long. Commend the player, but don't write him a novel!

All in all, this comes off as a well-intentioned, if relentlessly old-fashioned game. It's well-constructed for what it is, despite its endorsement of a couple of tropes which have fallen by the wayside (seriously, random encounters?).

Rating: 7
Channel Surfing

I guess now that I'm a homeowner with not-crap furnishings, I notice furnishings more. So seeing a table prominently described as "expensive looking" [sic] piques my interest; what makes a table look expensive? Exotic hardwoods? Intricate carving? Artistic pretensions? The description is a bit vague on the point. It's still better than the description of the post-it note, though. The chair can't be sat on. The TV can't be turned off, or watched. Already the implementation is seeming thin and ill-tested. I try every damn grammar I can find for changing channels, and can't actually do it. It doesn't help that the remote is underimplemented. Doesn't it have a channel-up button? Unless it's described explicitly,I assume it has a channel-up and channel-down button like every other remote I've ever used. For a game called Channel Surfing, it's strikingly unaware of the concept of actually channel-surfing.

I finally find a grammar, and... it provides absolutely no feedback for most actions. As in, no reply at all. Seriously, this is kind of unacceptable. The game lists testers: did they not call attention to these issues?

Rating: 3
The Absolute Worst IF Game in History

This is not the absolute worst IF game in history. The absolute worst IF game in history is Andrew Katz's Coming Home. This is probably not even the worst game in the 2008 comp. It falls to a philosophical conundrum in media: actually trying to make something awful will result in bland submediocrity. True direness must have a certain earnestness, and enthusiasm and vision wholly unmatched to the creator's skill. It took tremendous intent and a disastrous dream to make Plan 9 from Outer Space; start out with the purpose of making a dreadful film and you're more likely to get something indifferent like Cheerleader Ninjas.

So, meh. Nothing dire. Nothing interesting either. Just a dull attempt to be irksome. Ben Parrish did the exact same thing, but he did it better, and first. And second. (And Sean Barrett did it third, so really, you're very late to the party.)

This game doesn't get a 1 because I think it wants a 1, and it doesn't deserve anything it wants.

Rating: 2
Trein

Gah! A spelling error in the blurb. The writing's generally shaky, with weird, awkward locutions which are not grammatically incorrect but are stylistically dreadful. Significant nouns and directions have Initial Capitals: I'd blame some programming error but these actually seem to be written by hand. Some rooms seem to have had the "LOOK" command incomprehensibly short-circuited. Things which shouldn't have articles have articles, such as "a Dark Clothing". Scenery objects aren't excluded from "ALL". Items have odd descriptions like "Instructions Note". I'm impressed. Even with the cutting edge of modern interactive fiction technology, this author has managed to encapsulate most of the more irritating idiosyncrasies of AGT.

The gameplay itself is, to say the least, uninspired. The closest I found to a puzzle was guess-the-preposition on a torch bracket. And then I found an Evidence (no, really!) and escaped. Woo.

This game may illustrate some of the problems in putting Inform 7 in the hands of those who don't understand it. Most of the conspicuous problems here stem from defining nouns in the most lazy way possible. But, of course, all this could be prevented with a little bit of testing and feedback.

Rating: 3
Search for the Ultimate Weapon

The splash screen has a different title on it, which is odd. The writing is, well, workmanlike. The interface is kind of primitive and occasionally annoying, such as with the odd command-completion. It doesn't recognize an awful lot of verbs, or allow for deep implementation, or even feedback. I got sick of seeing "That has no effect" as the response to half my actions, and a dumb parser error to the other half. Please, please, try to implement things a bit deeper. I tried to tie the knife to the rope and the rope to the branch to cut through the moon's reflection, but that was unimplemented (in every particular, from the noun "branch" to the verb "tie"). So much for trying to actually do anything clever.

And, of course, this one has one of my favorite parser flaws: pretending to understand:

>Put the pocket knife in Lake
Nothing happens.

>Put the pocket knife in High-speed River
That has no effect.

>Put the pocket knife in eragersagera
Nothing happens.

I give up. What is wrong with a decent system and some actual feedback? Also, what is wrong with providing a walkthrough?

>quit
You don't know how to quit.

Yes I do.

Rating: 2
Escape from the Underworld

This one's got a mostly solid authorial voice, falling down occasionally and making minor errors (when I first saw a Receptionist, I was afraid I'd forgotten to stop playing Trein). The NPCs have an awful linear key-and-lock feel to them: you get water to give to the mechanic to get the cigar to give to the receptionist to get the crank to fulfil Trevor's quest, and so forth (tvtropes calls this a Chain of Deals; I figured it must have had a name). This rather upsets the eternal crossword/narrative balance and makes characters seem even thinner than they are. Oh, and lockpicking does not work that way, and soldering is generally unnecessary for quick one-use hacks.

Technically, things seem OK, although I ran into some odd grammar with the "unscrew" verb, scenery objects aren't excepted from "all", the elevator is somewhat clunky, and typing numbers, dialing numbers, and soldering requires verb-guessing (we couldn't implement "DIAL" or "TYPE"?). Alternative solutions for heating the poker aren't implemented at all.

This one started out promising, but succumbed to unfortunate quirks and underimplementation. And a lame ending.

Rating: 5
The Lucubrator

The Lucubrator has a nicely opaque (and moderately pretentious) title, but how does it play? It's disappointing that one of the most relevant items in the first room (the restraints) are so underimplemented, with way too many default responses. In fact, everything except the expected path seems to be default responses, which suggests limited testing. For instance, attacks giving default responses discourages me from trying them under other circumstances, when that's exactly what I need to do. And then there's this odd line:

"O-okay. Not what I was expecting," he mutters, and then pointed at me.

That took me aback somewhat, what with both the odd first-person reference and the tense-shift. Near the end it ended up getting confusing and buggy, and timers would be relating events even as I stopped them, and it ended up an unholy mess. Even the walkthrough couldn't help me much (and, again, with all these violent commands, a non-default response to failed violence would be useful, because violence clearly is the answer.

There's a certain visceral effectiveness to the writing, so with more polish this might be interesting.

Rating: 3
Everybody Dies

Strong voice right away. Not pleasant, but effective in that jackassery-intensive way that I associate most strongly with Robb Sherwin (the other narrative voices are also a bit Sherwinesque). Ran into a small issue of underimplementation early, but otherwise it's seeming pretty solidly done. A little bit of guess-the-noun/preposition on the final significant action of the game. My only complaint might be that the overlinearity of the game discourages, to a large extent, experimentation, and that nothing in it's terribly difficult, but the strength of the writing and implementation depth makes up in large part for the (minor) structural deficiencies.

I like the art. It's a bit troubling to realize people without graphics capabilities will get no context at all for the Void scenes, but the art is nice.

Rating: 9
LAIR of the CyberCow

ADRIFT, amazingly, has no backwards compatibility. The 4.00 runner will not work on ADRIFT 3.90 games. I don't know ADRIFT well enough to know whether this is because of a serious VM overhaul (compare TADS 2 vs. TADS 3, or Z-code vs. Glulx), or whether the system's just lazily designed. Either way, it's an irritating foot to start off on. Oddly, this game dodges (after a fashion) the most irritating aspect of ADRIFT, which is pretending to understand when it does not:

>pull rgerg
You pull, but nothing happens. (That is, I couldn't parse this to the game situation, so I'm bluffing.)

I'd prefer a real error to the parenthetical, but, still, this is better. Less excellent from a technical standpoint are the long inexplicable pauses.

"Also here is the robot." is a very incongruous thing to read in a room description. Implementation is sparse, with many nouns and alternative command-phrasings not implemented (particularly for the damn bell). Actions are fairly arbitrary (fairies like milk? cows eat snails? Am I just ignorant, or did the author make this shit up?).

I then got stuck in a situation which I thought I knew how to escape from, and the hints suggested was escapable in the manner I tried, but it didn't work. Bah.

Rating: 3
Opening Night

Participatory slapstick is a bit tricky, but most of the elements of this game's first puzzle were adequately clued, with partial and incorrect solutions implemented.

As things get surreal, I'm left with a sense of trepidation, because about half the time when this happens, nothing's really resolved. This game ties it up fairly neatly, although as it gets grimmer, the initial puzzle seems less tonally appropriate. Shifts in style and description are well-done (although, actually, we could've used more shifts in PC appearance and suchlike in the intermission) and appropriately creepy. There were a few bugs in the final map, but otherwise this worked quite well.

Rating: 8
Buried In Shoes

It's hard to say anything either good or bad about Buried in Shoes. It feels in ways like a qualified success: on implementation depth and interesting use of language it works, but it feels manipulative rather than authentically emotional. Holocaust narratives are, quite frankly, awfully common, including some by the better authors of the 20th century, so pretty much anything anyone writes will suffer by comparison. So even with a heavy garnishing of surrealism, this is only going where other stories have gone, and it feels a bit ham-handed in its treatment, not unlike 2004's Blink. I salute its attempt to engage a powerful subject through symbols (and, yes, since I too have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, I grasped the significance of that device early on), but I'm afraid it was perhaps doomed to fail: there are a few subjects which are really, really hard to engage in a way that doesn't seem manipulative, and the Holocaust is one of them.

Also, the ending invites (mostly unfavorable) comparisons to So Far.

Rating: 7

In keeping with a tradition I started in 2005 (and have not done since — but have failed to do in a very traditional manner!), I'm laying out my guesses as to the final comp rankings here. I'm frequently hilariously wrong about these.

Game My Ranking Estimate Actual Ranking Error
Violet 1 1 0
Nightfall 2 2 0
Everybody Dies 3 3 0
Piracy 2.0 4 5 1
April in Paris 5 8 3
Snack Time! 6 6 0
Afflicted 7 4 3
Opening Night 8 7 1
Berrost's Challenge 9 10 1
Cry Wolf 10 11 1
A Date With Death 11 9 2
Buried in Shoes 12 13 1
Magic 13 14 1
Recess At Last 14 15 1
Escape from the Underworld 15 12 3
A Martian Odyssey 16 25 9
Grief 17 16 1
Dracula's Underground Crypt 18 20 2
Red Moon 19 19 0
Ananachronist 20 22 2
When Machines Attack 21 23 2
Riverside 22 31 9
Channel Surfing 23 21 2
The Hall of the Fount of Artois 24 26 2
Trein 25 17 8
LAIR of the CyberCow 26 27 1
Search for the Ultimate Weapon 27 28 1
Freedom 28 30 2
The Lucubrator 29 23 6
The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom 30 18 12
The Absolute Worst IF Game in History 31 35 4
The Lighthouse 32 34 2
The Missing Piece 33 29 4
Nerd Quest 34 33 1
Project Delta: The Course 35 32 3

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