The Fifteenth Annual (2008) Interactive Fiction Competition: Reviews

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth came with some folks' realization that this was one of the smallest Comps ever. I am not wholly convinced that's a bad thing, though. Small it was, but most of the games we didn't get seemed to be from the bottom end. By and large this was a fairly strong field. Most years I find my reviews saying, in a nutshell: "This game is a bad game, and the author is a bad person for having written it." For the most part, though, this year I felt an optimistic sense of promise. There were a lot of well-constructed games, and even at the low end of the spectrum, I'm seeing interesting ideas.

That burst of optimism having been displayed, it's time for some comp-by-the-numbers fun:

Before getting to my own perceptions, I'd also like to point out my two favorite observations by other reviewers:

Enough fun and games. How about my rating criteria and scores? Like last year, I put an asterisk in front of those which credited beta testers. Note that this class correlates pretty closely with getting a score of 6 or more (except for one work which may have been bet-tested, but still did not constitute IF, in my opinion).

The Hangover

No opening text at all, just a banner. C'mon, HHGttG had the same start-situation, and its opening was a nice, condensed gem. Surely you can do as well. Then again, maybe the lack of opening text is a blessing in disguise, since when text does emerge, it's ghastly. There were three obvious writing errors in the first room description, and even the bits that weren't conspicuously incorrect were stylistically suspect. Room descriptions don't change to reflect updates in world-state. All of this is information that I, and I daresay any competent beta-tester, would report within 2 minutes of starting the game. I can only conclude this game had no competent beta-testers. There are countless other stylistic, writing, and technical errors which emerge when I take more than 2 moves, but they're hardly worth going into, as they are, for the most part, depressingly illiterate rather than hilariously incomprehensible. It's worth mentioning, however, how many of the exits are mislabeled and misdirected, since that's a flaw which not only affects prose enjoyment but also ability to play the game.

As for the game itself: it's full of the kind of things inexperienced and juvenile authors put in their games that experienced authors tend to counsel against. The two most conspicuous: extradiagetic telegraphing of actions (pretty much every action the author expects you to do), and constant belittling of the protagonist (which wasn't funny when Slacker X did it, and hasn't become funnier in the interim; there's a way to write a hapless fuckup protagonist that works, but it requires a defter touch than this). Add that to unimplemented actions (the telegraphed action to buy fries does not in fact work) and a guess-the-verb so bizarre it qualifies as a bug (when "wait" is the right action, "z" is not accepted), and I can't help but wonder what induced the author to enter this game in the comp. It's not even finished (and why, oh why, did I play all the way through?).

Rating: 1
Earl Grey

It starts out looking promising, if a bit over-ebullient and flowery (that's a style that grates for me, but I must admit it's a style that is not intrinsically wrong). And then things start going really weird with the parser.

> LOOK IN TEAPOT
I only understood you as far as wanting to look the inside.

> OPEN TEAPOT
That's not a verb I recognize.

As the game progresses, the reasons for the parser-brokenness become obvious, because this is, heaven help us, a wordplay game. Making the wordplay-style surrealism work in IF is difficult: it's often opaque and far from obvious to anyone except the author (Ad Verbum worked, but it also implemented an absurd variety of alternative solutions and a fairly complete grammar). Indeed, that seemed like the problem here: although the writing is clever, the way to progress is rarely clear and the best words to seize on often actively unclear. I'd like to encourage envelope-pushing, and this game is certainly inventive and interesting, but as it stands this it feels way too insufficiently clued most of the time, and that I'm just trying to fiddle with words without any goals in mind. I would like to think this is a fixable problem, and that this game has potential. This work definitely exhibits technical talent, so I'd like to see that turned into something which is less of a walkthrough-consulting slog.

Rating: 7
The Duel in the Snow

This is an unusual mood piece. It's got a strong sense of place and feels very much Russian-novel-pastiche. It deserves some praise for full implementation and strong narrative style. At the same time, though, it feels in some respects sparse, like it's only nibbling at the edges of a larger story. It gets full marks for technical excellence and a strong narrative voice, but it feels so trifling in actual scope that it's hard to think really well of it. The one puzzle (if one can call it that) is rather insufficiently clued (to my mind, I would think the flask, if it's the squarish type, should do as well).

Bravo for the mood and what was, from beginning to end, an enjoyable and interesting experience. I just wish there were more to it.

Rating: 7
GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands!

This one had a clever idea at its core. Zany can be good, and this game has zany to spare, although not enough to cover its giant map: given how much walking around there is, even when you know what you're doing, having a bit more actual color and reveling in the scenery would not be amiss.

The initial human section was reasonably clued, although, again, a bit underdescribed and underimplemented for all the running around I had to do. But from first robotization on I was seriously screwed, starting with the fact that I'm apparently stupid enough to go into robot-synch mode without actually closing the hatch, which I wouldn't even think possible. It only goes downhill from there, and I eventually ended up at the walkthrough realizing that I first needed to do an action I'd already tried phrased differently and decided didn't work, and then needed to perform an action whose only synonym was not, in fact, an English word. This was where this game lost my sympathy and patience.

Also, funny as it was to get the default message at the end of the final move, I'm guessing that's a bug.

I would like to be encouraging, and this author clearly has a zany streak which could lead to real fun, and the commitment to make a game in which things are spelled right and more or less make sense. I look forward with enthusiasm to your next game. This particular game, alas, is kludgy, in dire need of some filling out and fixing up.

Rating: 5
Star Hunter

Uh-oh. The start is not terribly auspicious. It's not ghastly, but neither is it exactly confidence-winning prose. The game continues to fail to win my confidence as I struggle to understand devices on a ship I presumably own and have operated for some time. I eventually stumbled my way to the robot bazaar, and the game is way too wide open at that point, with a million possible things to buy and no indication of a goal, so I wandered over to the walkthrough. And then I gave up, because the fucking thing is huge, and if it's all as sparsely implemented as the beginning is, I already know it's going to be no fun. Besides, the game makes all the travel so damn tedious. Use the fiddly navigation console to fly to a planet (ejecting and inserting tapes), then use the fiddly teleportation console (not called that) to beam down to the surface, pick up everything that's not nailed down, then repeat the whole process in reverse to sell stuff. No thanks.

The author clearly put a hell of a lot of work into this game, so I feel marginally bad about panning it, but there's just no actual meat on these gargantuan bones.

Rating: 3
Rover's Day Out

The fixed-width text didn't work at all under Gargoyle, just giving me question-marks instead. I'm willing to believe the problem here is Linux and its occasional half-assedness about insignificant things like fonts and readability, and just fire up the Windows box to do this properly.

Anyways, I went into this looking just at the name, and all prepared to wax lyrical about how timing is everything and even though it had been a long time since a dog game as of last year, Snack Time! had filled that niche nicely and we didn't actually need another. Surprise! This is not a game in which you play a dog. It is a crazy amalgam of Starcross and LASH and Shade with maybe a touch of Bad Machine, and it mostly works.

So, for the most part, I liked this one. It's imaginative, interesting, and insanely well-detailed, not only with a high level of implementation but with extremely dynamic implementation details, which do much to mitigate the one aspect I'm a bit critical of, namely, the repetitiveness of the early game. Having to do the same actions three times over is more than a little annoying.

By and large, though, I'd rate that as a quibble. I think I spotted a single grammatical error at one point too, but the text is mostly well-written and clever, and I'm quite favorably impressed.

Style points for having excretion as a character activity which is plot-relevant and not juvenile, even if it did start to feel a bit much by the third time around. Also, it knows the word "widdershins". That's excellent.

Rating: 9
The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man

I've never read H.F. Saint's Memoirs of an Invisible Man, so if there's any reference to that here, I won't get it.

The text I encounter early on strikes me as somewhat juvenile. It doesn't help that this is another "you are a repulsive slob" game. I'm struck immediately by what seems to be extensive parser-breaking: for some reason, the usual supporter-exiting commands fail to get me off the bed; somehow, "UNDO" got broken; "GET ALL" now includes items in containers in my inventory, as well as scenery.

A pronoun got randomly changed on me, and "GET IT" became a nonstandard game over. What the hell? I lose more confidence as the game goes on. There are objects with inappropriate articles, objects tagged as singular when they should be plural, and a myriad of other bugs competent beta would've caught.

Between the shoddy implementation, the broken parser, and the overall immature and vacuous style, I can't get into this at all. It kind of meets a bare standard for vague acceptability, but it would be a lot better if it had a style worth appreciating (it seems to want to be comedy, so "actually funny" would work) and some more extensive testing and debugging.

Rating: 4
Eruption

The ABOUT text includes a fairly surprising rant about the quality of the average comp game. While I might well agree with it, it seems a rather peculiar thing to actually put in a comp game. The context for the whole rant is of course the author's insistence that his game rises to a level of fundamental competency. Faint self-praise indeed, but, very, well, I shall assess you on your own self-described merits.

And indeed it meets them. It is technically competent, colorless, and minimal. It's like an unusually polished but also unusually dull SpeedIF entry. Good for it, I guess. I'd say it made its point if I had any clue what its point was. If it was to be something you can point at and say, "this is what the bare minimum standard for gamecraft competence looks like", then, uh, mission accomplished.

Rating: 5
Gleaming the Verb

I was given so little guidance I had to go to the walkthrough almost immediately after the first telegraphed move. No other obvious verb seemed to work, and the nonstandard verb which I was apparently meant to use only made sense to me after the fact. However, apparently, the whole game is a sequence of similar wordplay without any actual plot or indeed anything to make it IF. As a puzzle for the MIT Mystery Hunt, this would be par for the course for the first round. As a work of IF, though, it's a mystifying disappointment.

Rating: 1
Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort

I expect wacky. I expect awful, anachronistic Ye Olde Englysh. I expect an uncooperative parser, since it's ADRIFT. I am immediately not-disappointed on the first two fronts. And the third isn't long in coming, as the game accepts "UP", but not "CLIMB TREE" in the first room.

The writing starts to grate pretty quickly. Ye Olde Englysh is bad enough (particularly with the completely arbitrary use of "ye" and "yon"; I don't think there's any typographical convention in early Modern English using "ye" as a synonym for "your"), but the overuse of the "X and X-like things" construction gets tedious too. I eventually managed to get the game in an unwinnable state and didn't much care, because I'd found this simultaneously way too precious and not precious in particularly entertaining ways.

Plotwise, this game is fairly relentlessly old-fashioned. It's a magpielike treasure hunt, involving a bunch of locked doors, monsters to defeat, riddles, and suchlike. It's actually other than its own stale whimsy a fairly standard exemplar of this type, and, for what it is, on this front, is not all that bad.

The author of this one is presumably competent and has some good ideas, so I'd really like to see them turn their talent to something a little less gimmicky and annoying.

Also, walkthrough in an MS Word document? Not all of us use Windows.

Rating: 5
The Ascot

Well, mechanically it's not what I usually think of as IF, since it's essentially CYOA with two choices at each step. I don't predict this doing really well, simply because, on a technical level, CYOA isn't all that hard.

But within its technically modest presentation, this is not all bad. It's firmly in the genre of "unlucky everydude's clothing gets him dragged into a world of weirdshit". You might think that's too specific to be a genre, but then you clearly haven't played "Space Aliens Laughed at my Cardigan" or "Invasion of the Angora-fetish Transvestites". This may be better than both of those, or at least less distressingly juvenile. Its text is freewheelingly zany, but with enough restraint that eye-rolling was kept to a minimum, and free of the sort of technical errors that make me wish for the sweet release of death.

I did manage to run into a misdirected conversation prompt which got me stuck in an unwinnable loop, but the game is short enough that I could restart and work around it. Trying to do things differently the second time merely pointed up how linear the whole thing is: almost none of my decisions have any effect, except for the immediately losing ones.

The author of "The Ascot" is a competent writer with some good ideas, and a pretty good sense of storycraft. I can't rate this one highly because its technical ambitions are so very limited, but I would very much like to see more by this author, but less linear and less limited in interactivity.

Rating: 6
zork, buried chaos

Good God. The word "serial" is spelled wrong. Don't you have to, like, specifically go out of your way to break the built-in banner code for that to happen? I am getting a sinking feeling before I even see the first room description. Also, while I'm being contrary, the game's internally stored serial number is 090725, not 099518. Where did you get 099518 from, anyways?

The actual game text is less illiterate, although stylistically about the most bare-bones thing imaginable, than this inauspicious start suggests. Implementatiowise, though, it's far weaker: clearly significant objects, like the hole in the ground, the obstructions on the slide and dead-end, and the glass wall, are not recognized as nouns.

The game goes rapidly downhill, from a storycraft perspective, after the first few rooms. The initial section is vaguely acceptable, although if opening the grey door was supposed to be an interesting puzzle, I have to admit I brute-forced it and don't know what the correct way to solve the puzzle was, if that wasn't it. But after being dumped in a maze with undescribed rooms, and having to perform an action with an object which is neither particularly usable for that action nor relevant to the obstacle in question, I'm not terribly impressed. Room descriptions stop making any particular sense, exits aren't implemented, and the quality generally declines from its already marginal standard, to the point that the walkthrough doesn't work (also, the fact that the walkthrough contains a command which specifically excludes a heavy object from being picked up suggests the author knew it wasn't immobile like it was supposed to be, and didn't bother to fix it).

In a nutshell: this game is not finished. From the coal mine on it is insufficiently implemented even to follow the walkthrough. Please do not release unfinished games to the Comp. Finish them and release them in the off-season or next year. Seriously.

Oh, and, for the reference of other players, the game is winnable in spite of the two unimplemented and apparently necessary exits, but you have to exploit some bugs and idiosyncratic behaviors, and get a little bit lucky.

Rating: 1
Interface

The author's assertion that this project was essentially his nostalgia piece whose main purpose was to get an idea that had been in in his head for 25 years out and into the world didn't fill me with confidence: that could be "Inhumane", or, worse yet, "zork: buried chaos". Seeing a list of respectable beta testers in the same section, however, did much to assure me I was in the hands of someone who, at the very least, understood the obligations incumbent on Comp entrants.

My hopes were, alas, doomed to be short-lived, although there is actually much to praise here. On the bright side, the technical implementation is pretty good, with plenty of custom parser messages, nonrepeating text on certain actions (although there's one that didn't get it and needed it), a fairly high level of implementation, a certain amount of complex NPC behavior, and reasoned puzzles which are, at least for the most part, integrated into the narrative.

There are, however, a great many kludges. The TV runs out of things to show and just has a blank space. "ALL" includes static objects and objects in containers in my possession (a flaw shared with "Invisible Man", so I assume there's some common Inform 7 parser flaw or flawed parser-tweak). The hint menu has a "-more-" prompt making it difficult to use (this may be a 'terp issue, but this should have been tested under Gargoyle; also, it could have been prevented by having not quite so many red herring clues: yes, Infocom had them, but not quite this many). The most conspicuous flaw, though, is in the writing. There are enough actual grammatical and spelling errors to make me wonder why the testers didn't catch them, and a great many things I would characterize simply as stylistic flaws; they're not actually grammatically incorrect, but they're written in a stilted style which isn't quite expository or conversational.

I'm glad the author got this out of his head. His enthusiasm for his subject and attention to the details he can be bothered to pay attention to are commendable. Unfortunately, either he did not listen to his testers or they did not do their job, because there is a lot here which could be better with trivial improvement.

Rating: 6
The Grand Quest

It fits into a Z5. How grand can it be?

Well, I managed to get confused in the first room already, and I even know what aqua regia is (I also knew that word in "Gleaming the Verb" that mystified a lot of people. Guess who paid attention in chemistry class!), but that may be my own slow-wittedness. The next puzzle is, though, pretty unfair: IF typically doesn't involve looking at walls and suchlike unprompted, and it wasn't nearly well enough clued here. And the next puzzle after that seems like it should have multiple solutions, but many of them are unimplemented. The puzzles actually get easier from there on, but more contrived. One is stolen wholesale from Zork II but More poorly implemented, and the hardest part was phrasing.

But the crowning annoyance is the card puzzle. Experimentation showed me pretty quickly how the mechanism worked (quickly being relative here, since it takes up to 6 actions just to perform a single test; could we have possibly had a less clunky card-changing mechanism?), and got to a linear algebra problem in modular arithmetic with 4 congruences in 4 unknowns, or a sequence of known transitions built of individual moves. Yes, it's solvable, but it's fantastically tedious, and even after solution is a lot of work to carry out.

The reward is not nearly commensurate to the effort I had to put into it. Grr.

Even though the game starts promising technically with a good depth of implementation, it gets shaky quickly. The 5-jin coin isn't identified by type as a "coin", making some actions more inconvenient than they have to be. One of the room names is spelled wrong. Several objects with obvious actions (the whistle, the stools, the snake) don't have those actions implemented. These are things which (and I become tedious, saying this over and over) competent beta would catch, and they're real easy-to-fix experience spoilers.

Anyways, the lack of any real plot to some extent soured me on this game: I like puzzles, but I want them to be in service of some purpose. What little enthusiasm I had left was sapped by the puzzles themselves, which for various reasons seemed to flop more often than succeed.

Rating: 4
The Duel That Spanned the Ages

The Comp's other "duel". We are having some weird patterns this year. Actual dueling is, unlike in the previous "duel" game, conspicuously absent. It's also an "Episode 1", a subtitle which, more than anything else, seems to guarantee that a sequel is not forthcoming.

The opening textdump: good Lord is it long. It's stylistically about in line with what the title prepared me for, though; in fact, it, and the title, remind me vaguely of Ben Bova's Orion, which I haven't actually read in a decade. On that front I reckon it works, but I think of long as generally bad, and it doesn't help that it is apparently unrelated to anything that follows. The first scene is well-implemented, and from there things get slightly odd: why are all the room names in the second and fourth scenes lowercase? That's a bit nonstandard, although it's consistent enough that I'd entertain the notion it's intentional.

There are a couple of odd technical issue.Technical writing errors are minor and infrequent, but there are a few. "STAND" doesn't work, although "STAND UP" does. The voice-recorder files are clunkily handled. These are minor issues. For the most part, this is a game of appropriate scope, with an intelligently crafted narrative voice, and well-considered and thought-out puzzles. And yet, for all that, it never really grabbed me as such and made me want to keep playing. Some of that might have been the intro and cutscenes, which I imagine were meant to heighten the mystery but mostly just annoyed me.

All in all, though, despite not exactly hitting my sweet spot, this game does many things right and nothing serious wrong. This I can respect.

Rating: 8
Broken Legs

Oh my. This one has an extraordinary narrative voice. And an extraordinarily unpleasant one: I haven't seen a protagonist (or supporting characters) this unpleasant outside of "The Sting of the Wasp" or "Varicella".And they're all well fleshed out. This is, in many respects, an excellent game. Strong narrative voice, technical polish, deft writing: this is a deliciously sour piece.

My only real problem with it was pacing and scope. It seems that there's an instigating action which sets off Kassie's audition, and if you don't have all your ducks in a row before that, you're basically sunk. I mentioned "Varicella" earlier, and this game possesses many of the same structural idiosyncrasies in that your plan to dispatch opponents has to be tightly constructed and fairly free of wasted action. After a couple of false starts I was driven to the walkthrough, where an action which hadn't occurred to me turned out to be a necessary early action. I find it hard to believe anybody could actually finish this in 2 hours without the walkthrough, but they'd have a quite enjoyable incomplete experience.

Rating: 9
Snowquest

Another "snow" game. This one caught my eye when I was scanning titles, mostly because Eric Eve is a long-time competitor and community member, who exhibits technical talent at the least and usually a respectable level of craft as well.

What seemed an error in description set me on the wrong path; I was expecting to have to get to the tree to detach the broken branch, not find it already on the ground. However, from there on the first puzzle was fairly reasonable, as were most of the subsequent puzzles (I didn't get what was going on with the crystal window at all).

Structurally I found this game problematic: the extended dream sequence the first night, the flashback the second morning... it's an alternative to textdumping, but it does much to break up the narrative flow. Of course the narrative flow as a whole slides off the rails later.

In terms of assessment, I find this game moderately problematic: like this comp's other "Snow" game, it's narratively disjointed, well written, technically polished, and makes some dubious design decisions. Unlike "Duel", it actually has a resolution, although the resolution feels, in some ways, rather trifling, and the twist near the end introduces more questions than it answers. This is definitely a satisfactory game on many levels: as Eve's record predicts, what it does it does well. But in the end it feels like several decent ideas stapled clumsily together: the dream-sequence-as-metaphor-for-reality (which manages to go two levels deep, with some of the metaphors in the third level not even existing in the first) is a bit overused, and the hardboiled who-to-trust narrative seems to be from a rather different genre.

Rating: 8
Grounded In Space

My initial sense is of trepidation: stories of children reacting to parental punishment or perceived injustice tend to be some manner of heavy-handed. To my pleasant surprise, the initial tangle with parents is just a frame story for what appears to be a standard space-adventure story. This game does more to explain our unfamiliarity with ship controls (and force us to train ourselves in them) than "Star Hunter", and is a not too bad if over-explicit way of making sure the player has a clue.

Even that, alas, didn't help me much. I had to use a couple of nonstandard verbs, some more heavily hinted than others, to even get into the adventuretastic part of the story.

And in the end, there was less to it than I expected. One moderately annoying puzzle (and I can appreciate how fiddly it must have been to code, but, seriously, solving geometrical chestnuts without visual aids is pretty annoying), and a showdown which depended on my knowledge of how various ship systems work. It might've been nice to get the feel for some of the rhythms (autominer probe/beacon activation/station deployment) before having to use them in combat. This is actually, come to think of it, the anti-"Rover". In "Rover" we got practice with the systems to the point of tedium so that when things went weird we could be expected to know how to work with the system. Here we get roughly halfway through a single version of the procedure before we're expected to use them in time-dependent situations.

This was a pretty solid piece technically, with well-thought-out writing and good implementation depth (with a few in-jokes, even), but in terms of actual content was a bit thin. A bit more prologue might help, both in terms of acquainting us with the ship's systems and in fattening up the story a bit.

Rating: 7
Spelunker's Quest

Uh-oh. Interrobangs and waking up in a cave with amnesia. I would imagine this is the kind of thing Richard Bos was going on about in his rant against submediocrity in Comp games, except Richard Bos also has his protagonist wake up in a cave with amnesia, so, uh, maybe I missed his point.

Does falling and hitting your head and formulating a desire to escape constitute a "quest"? The other two games which describe themselves as "Quests" in the competition, for all their other failings, actually involve quests. Even adding in the situationally inappropriate treasure-hunt aspects, this isn't actually very questy.

This one actually lists beta testers, which is a good sign. Certainly straight off I see a pretty good implementation depth and competent writing. What's being implemented may be a different matter, though. This game is old old-school. Rooms and objects with no real rhyme or reason, unprompted instadeaths, combat (mercifully unrandomized). Add a maze and you can party like it's 1982.

So, datedness aside, how does this stand up? Not bad, not great. The writing's pretty workmanlike, but at least it's literate, and it's generally actually descriptive (although don't tell me a room is "crudely furnished" if it contains a sofa, a recliner, and a table. That's more than most graduate students have in their living rooms). However, that's kind of it. The puzzles are highly bimodal, ranging from trivialities like "use this key on a chest one room away" and "stab the monster with the sword" to read-the-author's-mind bits like "search an item you have no reason to believe you should even look at too closely". None of the individual parts of this game are particularly exciting, and it's too trifling for those non-exciting bits to actually be part of an impressive whole. The obvious games to compare this to are "zork, buried chaos", to which it is far superior but with which it shares inspiration and old-school pretensions, and, more relevantly for judging purposes, "Eruption", in that it is a slight, flat game which achieves fundamental technical competence.

One major mystery: I can't carry the helmet. I can wear it, I can take it off and drop it, but apparently tucking it under my arm and carrying it around is not an option. This isn't a technical error, since it was coded to behave this way and does so consistently, but it's a head-scratcher as to why.

Rating: 5
Resonance

I have something akin to a hangover. I am not just now waking up. I'm not in a cave. I think all eight possible combinations of these three elements may have been achieved in this Comp now.

That may be a bit unfair (how could the author know that this would be waking-up-with-a-hangover-Comp the way 2004 was waking-up-in-a-cryotube-Comp?). This is not a terribly bad game. Steve's dialogue has a weird disconnect with reality; it's the "As you know, Bob" speech without the "As you know" part. I'd likewise question the choice of having a character pre-empt the parser's role: that can be done, but it might need a bit more subtlety and purpose than is displayed here. It's a bit rocky, but I was starting to get into it, although I was a mite distressed that my house didn't have a bedroom in which I might find a closet with a less gamy suit. And then I looked in the medicine cabinet:

*** Run-time problem P7: Too many rulebooks in simultaneous use.

It picks up as I try to leave my house, but it's spelling things out too much. This feels, especially with the parenthesized cues, like a game for beginners, which is not necessarily a bad thing, inasmuch as it removes guess-the-verb, but between this and the excessive hand-holding of the plot, the overall vibe is a bit patronizing.

All in all, this feels a bit too cliche-ridden and textdumpy. It is mostly fine on technical issues, (although, see below), but it feels like it's not actually bringing much to the table. It's trying hard to be hard-boiled but stylistically it never quite gets there. A stylistic punch-up might freshen this a bit. It doesn't have the narrative voice necessary to make this interesting.

A few technical issues: since the state of my hair matters and is mentioned, I'm surprised it's not implemented. There are a few odd default messages not properly prevented or anticipated, and world-states not updated. For the most part it's pretty seamless on technical points, with nice bits like the direct building-to-car movement, although the heavy-handed cluing on verbs mentioned above feels a little bit like cheating to avoid technical complications.

Rating: 7
Trap Cave

Ah, Emilian Kowalewski, author of last year's "Project Delta: the Course", the CYOA system showcase which had no content and was widely regarded as not ready for prime-time. He's back, with another CYOA system showcase, which starts off by apologizing for being only partially translated into English by the Comp deadline.

"Partially translated into English" is an extremely charitable interpretation of the language-state of the so-called English version.

I'm not sure how many times we need to say this, much less say them over again to the same person, but: if your game is not finished by the Comp deadline, do not enter it. There is a Comp every year. Apologizing for its inadequacy is far inferior to taking a year to make it actually good.

I know a bit of German, but I find reading it fairly exhausting. I tried this for a while, bumped into a few instadeaths, and realized that by even attempting this, I was putting far more effort into playing the game than the author had put into writing it.

I will say it again, because clearly people are not getting the message: if your game is not finished by the Comp deadline, do not enter it.

Rating: 1
Condemned

Oh, no. Not more adolescent angst. "On Optimism" had nearly toxic levels and I still haven't recovered. On the other hand, a little bird told me that the anonymous author of this one is none other than Mark Jones, author of the intriguingly terrible "When Machines Attack" and "Press Escape to Save". So, this might be fun.

The prose is rather trainwrecky. Viscerally effective, but at times bewilderingly incorrect, with phrases like "terrifying unrecognizable", "wreck-caused mass of metallic tubing", and "Your heart beating with furiously". Where it's correct, it's still awfully overwrought (see above re: teen angst).

I originally found an early solution which missed a lot of backstory. On replay my opinion of the game actually went down: it's textdumpy and full of passages where I have nothing to do while other characters vomit plot at me (this is a recurring problem with Jones' craft). In addition, the characterization, which was lightly enough sketched at first to actually seem nuanced, became heavier-handed. Sig seems to have been pulled directly out of a Very Special Episode of some tween series (I don't think peer pressure works that way in the real world). And I have nothing to do but type "Z" for pages and pages of his characterization. OK, he's a bad person. You can stop now.

In context, though, this is not actually an awful work. It has a quite good implementation depth and is largely free of coding errors. It (and its author, who is fast filling the Rybread-Celsius-shaped hole in the community) has a fascinating quirkiness and visceral intensity. Mark Jones has a rather rheumatic grasp of language: even at its best it's pretty shaky, and sometimes he just drops it altogether. For the most part this actually works: the language is dubious but the tone is right, but sometimes a phrase is so bewildering (or unintentionally hilarious) as to take me out of the mood. The craft is also rocky. "Condemned" wants to tell a story, but the interactive elements are lacking. The story could be slimmed down: it doesn't need quite so much text to get the same points across, and reading 11 enormous indigestible rectangles of words while occasionally typing "Z" is not nearly as satisfactory as removing the unnecessary bits, and having 11 slimmer paragraphs of action spread over the other things I need to do to progress the story forward.

I hope Mark Jones continues writing, because he is fascinating. I imagine he will also become better over time. At present his oeuvre is indicative of a number of features both good and bad: extremely active imagination, visceral but frequently technically flawed writing, linearity, and complete lack of player agency. This work is more of the same, but with the good points improved and some of the flaws reduced.

Rating: 6
Byzantine Perspective

The ostensible plot of this work is the PC's intent to abscond with a goblet, which is really a fairly thin premise on which a puzzlebox has been built. Other than that, it's pretty much unlike "The Grand Quest", and, in my estimation, better.

This one is short, and once you figure out the gimmick, it's actually pretty easy. This puts it sort of in the category of one-puzzle games, which back a few years ago were pretty popular (see "In the Spotlight" and "No Room"). It's an extremely well-developed one-puzzle game, though, with a clever and well-thought-out mechanic, at least from a technical standpoint. From a realism standpoint, it's a bit less justifiable, but it falls under suspension-of-disbelief territory for me.

I must confess a certain amount of satisfaction in and approval of this one. It's a one-trick pony, but that, within the Comp constraints, can be a good thing. It falls comfortably into time limits, and certainly isn't a waste of the little time it takes. It's small enough to be well-polished, and indeed I saw no errors. It's not a perfect Comp entry by a long shot: it is awfully short, even for the Comp, and story development outside of the puzzle is nonexistent. Nonetheless, I'd qualify this as an entertaining and enjoyable entry.

Rating: 8
Beta Tester

With respect to the "Pause" thing: explaining an irritating mechanic doesn't make it any less irritating. This colored my whole experience. I might have put up with the over-the-top and frequently fizzled whimsy if it had been less uncomfortably presented. I can buy that comedy needs comic timing, but, uh, if you're inserting that many beats, you're not actually that good at it.

Technically, it starts out OK, although I ran into a few unimplemented actions and disambiguation issue. Near the end, though, there are far too many unimplemented objects for me to get a feel for what's going on, and given how physics-intensive this game is trying to be, not being able to get a visual on individual items is a real problem. None of the NPCs are responsive at all, so if there's something I'm supposed to do with them, I totally missed it in a flurry of non-response.

Tonally, this game feels all wrong. It's trying for wacky humor and mostly just pissing me off. The individual activities feel really physics-heavy. I'm sure the author had a totally awesome Rube Goldberg machine in mind for the original bell-ringing, but, look, that kind of thing doesn't come through in text (kinda like comedy beats don't, actually).

Rating: 4

One thing I've done for the past several years is try to predict the order in which the games will finish. This was surprisingly hard this year: there were strong contenders for the top 2 spaces, and a pretty good second flight as well. This is, I'm sure, hilariously incorrect, but it's fun to take a guess.

Game My Ranking Estimate Actual Ranking Error
Rover's Day Out 1 1 0
Broken Legs 2 2 0
Resonance 3 7 4
Snowquest 4 3 1
The Duel That Spanned The Ages 5 4 1
The Duel in the Snow 6 6 0
Earl Grey 7 5 2
Interface 8 8 0
Byzantine Perspective 9 9 0
Grounded in Space 10 10 0
The Ascot 11 15 4
Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort 12 11 1
GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! 13 20 7
Spelunker's Quest 14 16 2
Beta Tester 15 14 1
Condemned 16 12 4
The Grand Quest 17 18 1
Eruption 18 13 5
The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man 19 17 2
Gleaming the Verb 20 21 1
Star Hunter 21 19 2
zork, buried chaos 22 22 0
The Hangover 23 24 1
Trap Cave 24 23 1

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