The Sixteenth Annual (2010) Interactive Fiction Competition: Reviews

All of you people need therapy. Except maybe Sara Dee.

Seriously, this has been a pretty grotesque year. Trends come and go without warning, and we had a lot of horror-spectrum work this year. And Mark Jones didn't even enter, although I feel like he's with us in spirit. Moving beyond that obvious point, this was a surprisingly middling year. I had an authentic unimodal distribution for the first time in ages: normally the slushpile at the bottom throws off the curve. But while the bottom was mercifully thin, so in some ways was the top. Nothing really blew me away, although there was a great deal of solid craft. It was pleasant to play games which were, on balance, mostly good, though, so I'm not displeased about this trend towards the middle. And even those games, if not entirely inspiring, are actually good. So this year's Comp is a triumph, I'd say, and the bar for "usual Comp quality" has been raised considerably, even if we're not seeing the Best Game Ever here.

One possible contributing factor to the rise in overall quality is the alumni factor. I have a whole section of the reviews dedicated to calling out the alums on their progress, but this is a year of many, many familiar faces, which surprised me actually: 2010 was the year of the IF outreach, and I had braced myself for viewers of Get Lamp, seeing these rockin' new tools for creating that medium they thought faded in the 90s unleashing their half-baked old-school creations upon us. Maybe that's for next year, though; fortunately few people who learned about the modern IF community in August decided to submit a game this year (that's not to disparage the newcomers, but going from "not knowing this medium still existed" to "releasing a game" in 2 months does not generally make for very good games).

Last year I did trends by the numbers, and that was fun, so here we go again.

Death Off the Cuff, by Simon Christiansen

I liked the conceit of bumbling around until someone gives you something to go on: that's a nice melding of typical player behavior and protagonist motivation. My initial approach was rather lawnmowerish, and started to reveal stylistic flaws, mostly technical (capitalization, punctuation, and suchlike). More damning, of course, is the lack of individual character voices. There are a lot of them, and it would've been nice to have stronger characterizations on each (particularly those who were operating under false identities, so that they could display different characteristics once unmasked).

There's an interesting craft lesson which underlies this game's conceit. One danger of playing with the usual (and undesirable) behavior of players is that you don't disincentivize it, and undesirable behaviors are undesirable for a reason. The lawnmower approach to conversation distances the player from the story, seizing upon scraps of conversational jetsam instead of trying to develop an actual dialogue. And for better or worse, that's what happened here: I was taken out of the story and was just poking at things trying to find the next plot-advancing token. It might've been good to have a way to press people harder; after each character was pushed to reveal their secrets, it seems like the conversational options involving dragging out their secrets should widen, not narrow, but too much of the time, it was "reveal character X's dark secret, then ignore them completely". And of course, the final revelation was completely unrelated to anything which had preceded it, which felt rather unsatisfactory.

There is interesting craft here, and not inconsiderable cleverness in the way the story is put together, but a stronger grasp of some technical specifics, more distinct character voices, and a more deliberate and structured pace would do a lot to make the end product more enjoyable.

Rating: 6

Gris et Jaune, by Steve van Gaal

My first impression is that the stacatto fragmentary intro is trying a mite too hard, and a little bit of worry that I'm stepping into another (possibly not teen) angstpiece.

Getting into the game this original impression seems quite unfounded, as it builds into a peculiarly hermetic horror story shot through with lots of voodoo. I know a little bit about Haitian syncreticism, but it became evident as I got deeper into the game that I didn't know nearly enough.

This game has a strong story, and an interesting world, but it's rather troubled by some design and execution flaws. The late game is awfully open; open enough that it's not clear what to do much of the time. There are a number of technical flaws, ranging from punctuation and spelling to authentic bugginess. This game has a great deal of promise, with a style of its own and considerable responsiveness to unexpected commands, but it has some serious problems nonetheless. It's too sprawly and perhaps too complicated plotwise. Even by the end a lot isn't clear, and giving the player a Big Important Choice among still-vague alternatives is maddening.

Nonetheless, there is a lot here that feels like it works, and much to chew on.

Rating: 6 (a high 6; may revise later, depending on what else is out there)

Gigantomania, by Michelle Tirto

Moderate language issues; plowing and harvesting are different things. I ran into serious early bugs giving grain to the collector and had to restart. There are also a few minor but non-game-stopping bugs in the second section, although, more problematically, a lot of obvious actions aren't implemented in the bakery line in a way which suggests the author thought of them (the solution I found to the bakery-line issue, that is, waiting until it closed and going home hungry, is offensive; yes, it's historical, but from a gameplay perspective it's catastrophic). Some text in the third chapter appears to be repeated, and then, in the fourth chapter, random angle-bracketed text which eventually replaces actual conversation and... er, there seem to be major bits missing.

I wanted to like this. It catches a historical period in a manner which is effective if somewhat cliched, and has some strong narrative voices. And at the end it kind of all falls apart. Apparently the bracketed text is chess moves, which is OK as that goes but looks a lot like a bug to those not expecting it. Plus the conversation tree is fucking long, and I think I didn't actually need pages of conversation to convince me that Stalin was a shit.

There is promise here, some of which is badly derailed by the choice of theme. Atrocity writing always seems manipulative, even at its best (compare Buried in Shoes, for a well-done but still troubled piece, or Blink for a more ham-handed attempt). In addition, while time-management is a good way of depicting the rather frenzied pace of the first and third scenes, tedium is not, I'm afraid, acceptable for depicting the repetitive and monotonous character of life in the second scene. Add in the moderate bugs and the insufficient cluing and pacing of the fourth chapter, and we have a work which isn't quite living up to its promise, but whose intent I (grudgingly) respect.

Rating: 6

R, by therealeasterbunny

Nostalgia is a mixed blessing. Sometimes one goes back to a well-loved old favorite and says, "Wow, this is just as good as I remembered.". And sometimes one says, "Why did I actually like this crap?"

I am not quite of the generation that got into Scott Adams games, so I was never one to appreciate how he evoked atmosphere with short descriptions and a few scenery items in the first place, and I mostly spent my time being irritated by the game's limitations. OK, I know the ladder goes up and down. Can I use 'u' and 'd' to navigate now? Add that to the lacking descriptions and the unhelpful error messages and you have a work that did a great deal to piss me off for no other reason than as a homage to something best left unhomaged in my estimation.

Oh, and all descriptive text is in over-the-top Robert Newton pirate-speak. I'm afraid all my tolerance for that kind of whimsy was used up by last year's Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort.

I'm hard on this game, and didn't like it very much. But I can't imagine that the author expected anything different. Progress is good. We retrogress at our own peril.

Rating: 3

The Bible Retold: The Lost Sheep, by Ben Pennington

Henceforth, I shall refer to this game as Christian Text Adventure #3. Or possibly Lost Sheep And Place Above Ground.

All in all, this is a cute little problem-solving game, slight but reasonably enjoyable (then again, the actual narrative bit of the Parable of the Lost Sheep is pretty slight). It's notably free of Christian symbolism which is honestly fine by me. There are no typos that I saw, and few bugs (the phantom "sticks" object causes a few odd behaviors). It's in all respects a competent entry.

In many ways, leaving behind the Biblical issues which seem to be sheer window-dressing, this reminds me a lot of last year's Eruption: colorless, competent, and lacking in memorable qualities. The AMUSING text suggests an impressive depth of implementation in certain places, but largely places where the average player will never go.

The comparison to Eruption is actually fairly worthwhile, because unlike the 2009 entry, this game isn't actually trying for bland mediocrity, but rather unwittingly points up the multifaceted nature of IF craft: ultimately, technical competence will only get you so far. At some point, you have to do something interesting from a narrative or gameplay perspective. And much as I would like to accentuate the positive, particularly when faced with a work sound on technical aspects, this game simply does not do that.

Rating: 5

Rogue of the Multiverse, by C.E.J. Pacian

I was inclined to like this one more or less right off; it's got a fair lot of sparkle in narrative and dialogue that tells me I'm in good hands. Pretty much everything in the prison and complex is awesome and well-done. Even the lack-of-compass and the use of relative directions works halfway decently.

And then there are the missions, which seem to be deliberately dull. Fortunately they're short enough not to be tedious, but they do form much of the core of the middle of the game, a decision I'm not so sure about, since it somewhat dilutes the otherwise clever design and makes me think I'm in a better-implemented version of Star Hunter.

There were very few technical problems. I ran into a nasty disambiguation problem at one point, and a creature which was either a sauropod or a condor and wasn't sure which, but otherwise I didn't find bugs. My main complaints would be the downtime of the mission sections, and the rarity of any real freedom of action. It's only in the scooter section that I really got a sense that there was something I could do other than that which I had been explicitly told to do. But all of these quibbles ultimately pale before the fact that, taken as a whole, this game is really quite fun. It's not perfect, but it remains engaging and enjoyable.

Rating: 8 (maybe bump it down to a 7 if competition is very stiff)

Mite, by Sara Dee

This is a cute little story. It's for the most part unchallenging, and pretty twee. For some reason these two aspects conspire to make it feel a bit like a children's story. There's a stylistic flatness which also makes it feel a bit simplistic and childlike; this may be intentional, but I don't think that a young audience is necessarily incompatible with a less bare descriptive and narrative style.

Structurally it's mostly strong, with a few straightforward puzzles with a mild degree of interrelatedness. The introdump was overlong, and one that could easily be made interactive; likewise the ending feels a bit trifling and not entirely consistent with the worldbuilding to date. The structure between is quite well-crafted, though.

The writing is technically servicable, although as mentioned above feels more than a little flat. The programcraft aspects were a little more troublesome: I came up with several incorrect phrasings for the bridge-detecting puzzle and had "CLIMB" rejected where "STAND ON" worked, and have been more or less indoctrinated to assume that "PUSH object direction" isn't a useful command unless I'm told it is. Maybe make the one object you have to push actually carryable if your hands are empty?

It feels like the design of this one is such that it'll never quite rise above the perception of a trifle, but it shows a fair level of polish and considerable promise.

Rating: 7

Divis Mortis, by Lynnea Dally

Uh-oh. Another zombie game, this time without voodoo. I fear this will become waking-up-as-a-zombie Comp the way 2009 was waking-up-with-a-hangover Comp and 2004 was waking-up-in-a-cryotube Comp.

First impressions indicate professionalism and a decent implementation depth, but they're rather deceptive. Alternative solutions are ignored, and a couple environmental messages seem to appear at the wrong times. There are a fair number of minor but irksome technical and stylistic errors. The big twist was revealed to me on my fourth move by a seemingly intentional but bewilderingly unreferenced response to a natural if out-of-character action.

Not that I get a good sense of character, anyways. Mostly I get that the protagonist is fussy as all-fuck and really deserves to be the first against the wall when the zombie revolution comes. I only like chickpeas! I can't eat from this can, it's dirty! I can't take pills without water! I can't open a blister pack with my bare hands! (OK, that last one might be right. I still have a nasty gash on my index finger from trying to tear one of those open a few days ago)

All in all, there's not much there there. This game isn't really trying to do much new, and is mostly a number of bog-standard zombie-horror survival elements put together. Its craft and technical flaws are fairly minor, but that pales besides the fact that it's not doing anything terribly interesting; even fixed up, it'd earn a shrug and a tepid review.

Rating: 5

The 12:54 to Asgard, by J. Robinson Wheeler

I was intrigued by the title, and reminded vaguely of some of the chapters of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Surprisingly, the intro seemed a lot more mundane. I collected a lot of gear and performed the obvious tasks as best I could, and then got stuck, with no in-game pointers or out-of-game hints to help.

There are a great many unanticipated and unimplemented actions in the prologue, as well as a few bugs. I'm finding myself stuck but hard early on (or I assume there's more to this game than fixing this damn roof), and a cursory look at the walkthrough isn't very explanatory (this is why hints are better than walkthroughs), but I persist, and eventually find the right command (and I even had the right idea, but I was going to upend the bucket, which the game wouldn't let me do).

So finally I've managed to blunder my way out of the prologue into what I guess is the game proper, I hope. I go off without Polly and immediately fall victim to a bizarre bug which keeps me from entering an open door; returning to the causeway I fall victim to another bug and seem to get stuck hard.

Sorry, but I am kinda not getting a ready-for-primetime vibe off of this. It's buggy and, despite implementation depth in the prologue, unimplemented in the respects that really create an impression. Maybe it gets better, but I'm not going to hack through a broken program to get to the good part.

Rating: 3

East Grove Hills, by XYZ

Ultra-linear and angsty. It's been a while since 1-2-3, so I guess it's time for another social-outcast-teens-ruminate-about-death-in-linear-narrative story (OK, that's unfair, but much of what was criticized in that game way back when still stands).

And it's over quick. I dunno. I'm not getting much of a point out of it. It ends with an appeal to "change the school's social paradigms", delivered, to the best of my knowledge, unironically. The whole massacre element is danced around to the point that I'm not actually sure what its narrative purpose even is. It's implied that the massacre is engineered by Asian-American teens as disaffected as the protagonist's social circle, but it doesn't actually explore that theme in any depth.

This game seems to lack agency, or even really theme. It feels like it would be happier as a short story, or in some other medium where the protagonist's mental state could be explored without all that pesky interactivity. There's a certain degree of narrative self-referentiality in the idea of the protagonist as a designer of IF, but it feels tonally off; it feels more like a clumsy attempt at cutesy cleverness than anything that actually works in the narrative itself.

There might be some good ideas here (particularly, the early characterization of the protagonist is quite good, although his two compatriots are hardly sketched), but this game needs to be much more clear on what it wants to say, and how an interactive experience accomplishes that purpose.

Rating: 4 (maybe a high 4)

Flight of the Hummingbird: An Interactive Costumed Caper, by Michael Martin

Ooh, a very four-color intro, with a hint of parody. Superhero parody's kinda been done, and it's an easy target, but that can be forgiven if it's actually good.

The parodic elements are actually faint as the game gets under way (which may well be a blessing, since it's a respite from, say, the relentless self-loathing in David Whyld's A Day in the Life of a Super Hero), but the game as a whole is fairly well constructed. I didn't encounter any bugs, and the puzzles were on the whole fair. Even the superpowers were reasonably well integrated into the story. I died a few times when I was first trying to figure out how to work the damn flight mechanism, but with multiple-turn undo it can be worked out.

Of course, superheroics and IF are in some ways an unhappy combination: superheroes usually use their intrinsics, while typical IF problem-solving is more object oriented. Definitely, by the third time I used the crowbar, I was feeling less like Hawkman and more like Gordon Freeman. And, in fact, I expected not to have to use it as much as I did; I got sidetracked for some time looking for a key to the office instead of just whacking the lock (which, in my rather limited violent-entry experience, doesn't work nearly as well as one might think).

These are largely stylistic niggles, though. All in all, I was favorably impressed by this game's craft, although the actual writing wasn't nearly as camp as a straight take on comic-book heroes should be. It works in a moderately well-trod and somewhat tired genre and isn't bringing anything new thematically to it, but it works in its limited niche with a fair bit of style and energy, and ultimately was enjoyable, except for that rather silly and tedious spacecraft-docking puzzle.

Rating: 7

A quiet evening at home, by anonymous

The list of competent games which involve bladder-urgency puzzles is rather short. Leather Goddesses of Phobos makes one, and I'm quite at a loss to name another. Needless to say, it does not create a favorable impression to start your game with a timer where you lose if you don't piss immediately.

However, this game's problems run deeper than a dubious design on the timed puzzle (if one can dignify finding a key whose location you should already know, and blindly blundering room to room in a building whose layout you should know as a "puzzle"). I seem to have made the game impossible to win by putting the lid on the hamster ball prematurely. Descriptions are sparse, motivation is mostly absent, and an awful lot of sentences are missing capitalization or punctuation. The whole thing has a "My Stupid First Game" feel to it. It's somewhat more involved and technically more ambitious than the usual "implement my house" game, but even with that faint praise, I fear this game feels quite pointless. I hope the author hones their craft and chooses a less dull exercise for their next work.

Rating: 2

The Chronicler, by John Evans

Uh-oh. The first room uses a few interesting geological nouns ("rhyolite", "defile") but doesn't implement any of them, which is a bit alarming. The second room has an entry action in the room description which is inappropriate on future viewings, and several interesting features which are unimplemented (like, say, that crackling blue energy field). The game continues mostly without obvious errors but also with a confidence-killingly low level of scenery implementation.

I finally got stuck somewhere where there's actually apparently a trigger that's not working the way it ought to, and typed "HELP", to get the message:

Chronicler is a short game for the Interactive Fiction Competition 2010. Unfortunately, due to time constraints it's only half finished, or perhaps three-quarters.

Oh, fuck you, then. I normally give a 2 for the games that Know Not What They Do, but if you're only half done and you know it, you have no business entering the Comp. Seriously, this here is "zork, buried chaos" with better spelling.

I didn't think "If your game is not finished, do not enter it in the annual IF Competition" was a terribly complicated proscription, but it must be, because people keep not understanding it.

Rating: 1

Heated, by Timothy Peers

A note on creating a good first impression: when your first two sentences contain one comma splice apiece, that doesn't immediately promote confidence.

My lack of confidence is in short order seen to be justified; there are bits that are just technically wrong, and far more parts which are merely stylistically irksome. I'm sure there's a great story waiting to come out of the rather tired cliche of a slobby male protagonist in a shithole apartment, but this isn't that game.

For a game as short as this one is, it's surprisingly uncompromising and joyless. Unless you do everything exactly right, the game sneers at you and calls you a failure in so many words. It's short enough to replay, but try-and-die has not been a well-regarded game mechanic in IF for some time.

It's mostly free of actual bugs in coding, but it's so slight that being free of bugs isn't actually all that difficult. Ultimately, this feels a lot like the "I coded my apartment" exercise everyone does as their first game with a time limit. The "anger metric" is at least a mild variation on the largely tired themes which are on display here, but not enough to lift this game out of its squalid submediocrity. In the future, I'd urge this author to think a bit more about what people regard as fun. Being coldly rebuffed and told to do the whole game over isn't fun. Being described as a twentysomething hopeless bachelor slob is neither fun nor original. An ordinary morning routine isn't particularly fun (the only "morning routine" game that has ever worked, as far as I know, is 9:05, but that's because Adam's a talented craftsman and it's actually got a point to it).

Rating: 3

Oxygen: A Game of Survival, by ShadowK

Don't let Gene Roddenberry's estate know you're using the phrase "Jeffries tube", because I'm pretty sure it's a Star Trek-specific reference.

I got stuck early, which may be the limited locations. It wasn't clear to me that the console and the panel were different things, so I missed out on the exposed wiring and the extra card. But that all seems to be window-dressing anyways for the resource-management puzzle that forms the main game: that is, playing redistribution games with the other side, possibly aided by a wounded expert. This is all technically polished and actually pretty sophisticated, but it's narratively pretty thin. By blundering aimlessly I saved both sections, which I guess is the second-best solution, but I never had time to feel the sense of moral engagement that I was supposed to, I guess. Things all pass too quickly, and the apparent malevolence of the aft section's choices means I approached it primarily with the goal of attempting to maximize front reserves rather than total savings (academically: what kind of crazy air-distribution system is designed to automatically waste at least 25% of the supplies?). I replayed and was more impressed, once I stopped running around like a chicken with its head cut off and started thinking in terms of the global situation rather than a single maximization problem.

This work is, in some ways, at the unhappy intersection of the narrative and crossroads. It tried for a ethical ambiguity in its narrative design (multiple endings, nebulous loyalties), but it had this highly distracting timed-puzzle design, which definitely made for an appropriate sense of urgency, but every "round" was only 3 turns, and involved checking the diagram, futzing with keycards... there just didn't seem to be time to explore the moral ambiguities.

However, aside from this conflict of design, this is largely a sound game. There's little in need of simple fixing, except for a very small number of writing errors. I'd maybe redesign the prologue section: the fiddling with cables and wiring and screwdrivers made me think I was in for a machinery-fixing game rather than just doing the prologue-puzzle to a long game-theory exercise, and that added to my non-ethics-oriented mentality for the rest of the game.

In all: a rather slight work in scope, but one which contains a significant technical achievement, a reasonable level of polish, and even some thematic meat in the form of moral decisions, although that came across as understated during game-play proper.

Rating: 7

The Bible Retold: Following a Star, by Justin Morgan

Just to say it here, although it'd really be appropriate for many games in this comp and even in this year: cover art is a fine thing. I admire people who can come up with good ones. This game has good cover art. Gives me warm fuzzies before I even start the game, which, in keeping with my naming conventions, I shall call Christian Text Adventure #4.

Unlike The Lost Sheep, which works with the basically secular text of the parable (instead of the explicitly Christian subtext), this drops us straight into what is very clearly a Christianity-specific setting.

This is competent, and fairly polished. It is also (oddly, for a basically light-hearted take on a story) not terribly fun. There's a flatness which keeps the intended light comic tone from really ever taking. There's a section near the end which I guess is meant to be a manic Keystone-Kops/Blues-Brothersesque chase sequence but which mostly feels like a particularly wearisome pseudomaze. I mean, I got through the whole thing, but I don't think I actually laughed once. And the faux-Latin was pretty annoying, particularly since I've studied real Latin, although it's been a while. So in spite of technical competence, this game felt mostly thin, particularly its assurances that the game can't be made unwinnable: at a number of points I end up making meaningless purchases and engaging in resource management I know to be purposeless, and it takes me rather out of the game.

I dunno, technically this is OK, but it never really drew me in at all. It tries to be all things to all people, and ends up a kind of muddled mess: too respectful and restrained to be truly wacky, too uncruel for the resource-management puzzles to feel consequential, and generally putting too much energy into contradictory purposes.

Rating: 6

Under, In Erebus, by Brian Rapp

The crossword has won the war with the narrative here, unambiguously. This is a wordplay game, which is infamously difficult to do in a satisfactory way in the IF medium but people keep trying. Since IF is one of the few text-based computer gaming environments left, the idea that people would want to do wordplay in it is pretty natural, but it's hard to do a satisfactory wordplay-based game.

This is actually, to my pleasant surprise, a mostly good wordplay-based game. It doesn't completely throw over standard IF conventions the way Earl Grey did, or rely on extremely awkward and unlikely phrasings the way Nord and Bert did. It has a central wordplay mechanic that is easy to grasp and mostly fun to play with, although the results of using this mechanic play out in much more straightforward IF-puzzle ways.

Note the "mostly" hedge on the "fun to play" above. Finding words and seeing the game recognize them is fun. Assembling letters, after the first two or three times, is not (particularly the tea, which is fiddly to acquire and can't be put in the pack). I had complete control of my environment and size and inventory, but actually managing those things turned out to be tedious (especially with the inventory limit and the set of items I couldn't put in the pack).

Other than this cause of unhappiness, this was actually mostly a pleasure. There were two necessary words it didn't occur to me would be important or useful until after I assembled them by blind guesswork, and which could've maybe been more heavily clued. I mostly made every word I could think of in the hope some of them would be useful, and most of them worked to some degree. I didn't encounter any bugs or technical errors. The writing is sparse but sufficient, so on the mundane craft fronts this is plenty acceptable, and it has a clever central mechanic.

It wouldn't give me a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, though. I am in mourning for the lost BLT.

Rating: 8

Pen and Paint: An Interactive Scribbling, by Owen Parish

The setup for this one felt kind of wrong. Part of it was the nebulosity of the setting: clearly Eleanor and I have some sort of powers to trap and modify sensory stimuli, and magical powers and abilities are alluded to, but never described in any useful way; likewise, the "contamination" at the center of the story is never described: the pictures are "wrong", but it's not clear whether it's just an unpleasant vibe, something askew in the actual artistry, or what.

This is all a frame around collecting sounds in a number of different environments. Again, it wasn't clear to me (and maybe it would have been if the contamination had been better described, but maybe not), that I was seeking auditory stimuli in particular.

But the structure is not intrinsically problematic, although it could be better clued; this hub-and-spoke-world setup is reasonable if a bit reminiscent of Myst (as is, in fact, much of the overworld setting). What bugged me was the flatness of it all. This game's conceit is awfully obsessed with sensation: color in the artistry, textures and sensations to stimulate the imagination, the auditory fragments you are seeking. Such a focus really demands evocative and vibrant writing, and this text, I fear, isn't up to it in either richness of detail in text or depth of implementation of objects mentioned in text. I didn't feel transported, and this is a work which really needs to be transportive, I think.

Technically this was mostly OK, although there were a few game-stoppingly problematic situations; I'm thinking particularly of the missing plants near the end of the forest segment, the unmentioned flowers in the overworld, and the fact that the responses to "ASK" and "TELL" were unhelpful. There were a few easily-missed typos, and one or two places where disambiguation was a problem. Nothing extraordinary implementationwise, but little which raised my "god damn why didn't this get caught in beta" flags.

Mostly I came away from this work feeling unmoved. There were subworlds, I solved problems in them, and I got a denouement. None of that ever really invested me much in the story, either plotwise or gameplaywise.

Rating: 5

Aotearoa: An Interactive Adventure, by Matt Wigdahl

Unless one of the few remaining games knocks me off my feet, we probably have a winner here.

There are a lot of really friendly features here, making this believable as an introductory game: the context highlighting, the unfamiliar-room highlighting, the reminders of where absent but seen objects are; this game was designed with a newcomer to IF in mind. Features like this tend to have occasional catastrophic, hilarious failures, but I only saw one, where an object taken out of play got an inappropriate "You last saw it at..." message.

Of course, the fact that the introductory features work as advertised shouldn't surprise me, because this is a game with a lot of polish, which must have received absolutely painstaking beta. The gameplay proceeds quite smoothly with good responsiveness to incorrect but promising solutions. The only place I had to hit the hints proper was on the stream-crossing puzzle, and even that was probably adequately clued in-game.

As to plot and structure: well, we have a pretty classic boy's adventure story here, the kind that appeared on the pages of the better class of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. The early-teen protagonist gets to ride dinosaurs and foil poachers and save the day and all that sort of thing. It's well-established narrative ground but Wigdahl treads it well. The ending is a bit abrupt, and I was kind of expecting more story there, but otherwise the pace is excellent. There's one complaint of some concern about the place where setting and plot collide, which is that the plot of a boy in an exotic locale saving the day, together with the occasional mystical elements such as the spirit of your father and the communion with the noceratops, treads dangerously close to the Dances with Wolves/Lawrence of Arabia/Avatar cliche of a white guy coming among the natives and being just plain better than they are. I think the author's aware of this possible interpretation and attempts to minimize it: Tim's in many ways the inferior to Eruera and the other adult staff members in terms of his actual fitness to deal with a crisis, but he's the only one who's actually in the right place at the right time. Nonetheless, if the native with a solid knowledge of his people's mysticism is telling the outsider how rare and special his gift of working with the animals is, well, it's hard to avoid this particular landmine.

Notwithstanding that mildly alarming interpretation of the plot, this is really a great deal of fun.

Rating: 9

The Blind House, by Maude Overton

Mmm, serves me right for cockily proclaiming victory for Aotearoa; this game will give it a run for its money. It's incredibly atmospheric and has an effectively creepy narrative style. It feel like most of what we learn is given away fairly early, although I'm still not sure if I "got it" in the end, although most of the fragments I saw later were confirmation of things I'd seen early on. The chronology is somewhat confusing, but ultimately plot takes a back seat to tone here, and the modern-Gothic style of a starched and remote cleanliness works. Much is unsettling without too many cat scares, and the polish and implementation depth are high. The consistent style and deep implementation did much to draw me in, although on occasions the mimesis is disrupted: I got particularly slowed down finding the key to the study.

I ran into almost no technical errors, although I got jumped into a later conversation tree by turning on transcripting. The writing, as mentioned, is stylistically consistent and remarkably free of error. There are a number of excellent, professional-quality features, such as the little thumbnail room-layouts on the status line. This game is a gem, but I can't quite bring myself to give it the single highest accolade, possibly because too many of the revelations were repetitions of information I already had.

Rating: 9

The Warbler's Nest, by Jason McIntosh

Apparently I have moved into everyday-horror territory now, with dead half-formed chicks and rustic terror of magic and the unknown. The setting is effectively superstition-infused, with nameless terrors of the mundane and a sense of extreme limitation in the protagonist's worldview and possible courses of action.

However, some of this limitation turned to frustration in the translation from protagonist to player, especially since there was knowledge I wasn't privy to, and the prohibition on entering my house or going behind it was frustrating rather than narrative-advancing, since I didn't know what my goals were, even if the protagonist knew. I was stymied for a particularly long time going behind the house, since it required that I wield an item not appearing in the room description. This roadblock stalled out my progress and somewhat destroyed the sense of immersion.

On a technical front there's a fair bit to like here. The theme picks up considerably after getting into the cottage, moving into excellent descriptive and emotional text; the descriptions outside the house were flatter and short on actual foreboding, but as the actual personal terror looms, it improves considerably. There's a richness in the choice of subjects: primal fear mixed with the more everyday frustrations into a chilling stew of uncertainty. I liked this element, and would've liked it even more if it had better suffused the work as a whole.

Also, the whole work's rather short and small in scope, which contributes in no small part to the feeling of helplessness when I did run out of ways to advance the story.

Rating: 7

Sons of the Cherry, by Alex Livingston

I kinda missed out on the whole "Choice of Something-or-Other" game trend. I heard about it, as some sort of web-based Choose-Your-Own-Adventure engine, but I didn't bother to look at any until now, when I was obliged to.

I don't know if this game is indicative of the medium as a whole, but it seemed awfully railroady: half the time I'd want to do something, like back out of this creepy coven or not do what I was told to, and I was essentially told, "Nope, you don't do that. You do the other thing." Which kind of worked when Rameses did it, but there it was the whole point and here it doesn't seem to be. I discover after the end of the game that it's been tracking my "stats", and I guess all my refusals which had no visible plot effect were actually twiddling my stats, but why railroad at all? Why abandon the one clear benefit of CYOA formulation (i.e., plot branching is really easy)?

The text of the game was OK, in a workmanlike way, but the craft, even disregarding the comparative simplicity of CYOA, seemed awfully lacking.

Rating: 3

Ninja's Fate, by Hannes Schueller

Did Paul Allen Panks need a tribute? I wouldn't think so. For those new to the IF community, the quick 5-minute version: Paul Allen Panks was the author of a great many mostly indistinguishable and terrible games, as well as the incomparable Jesus of Nazareth, which was also terrible but hilarious at the same time. He was also mentally ill, which made some people who are not me sometimes feel bad about slagging his games. He died in 2009, and left behind a legacy of undampable enthusiasm, limited talent, and cautionary examples of what happens when the two collide.

So a tribute to a not-very-good artist is a rather peculiar undertaking, and this game mostly elects for an undifferentiated hodgepodge of his creations, with particular emphasis on the minimalistic Ninja, and Ninja II. For a tribute it's rather uncomplimentary: the opus Westfront PC is rendered as a collection of connected mazelike undifferentiated rooms with random, undistinguished monster encounters, and most of Panks's works are simply referenced in long lsits without any context. This game seems to want to make some point about how imperfection and incompleteness is acceptable, nay, admirable, but I'm not really buying it.

As a game in its own rights, there's very little to this one. It has very few puzzles, at least one of which I managed to break and confuse with my wording. Also, in spite of having a direct Panks-reference dragon in the game, it doesn't even respond in any special way to the command "BEAT DRAGON", which (spoiler!) was how you defeated the dragon in Ninja II.

Rating: 3

Leadlight, by Wade Clarke

I'd heard rumors that there was an Eamon game in this year's Comp, which was bewilderingly charming; I missed Scott Adams, but I did play Eamon games as a kid. So I was looking forward to rolling up a new character, breezing through Beginner's Cave to grab Trollsfire and enough cash for the good spells, and then kicking some ass in this adventure.

This is not quite the Eamon I remember, although individual modular adventures could always tweak the basic design pretty heavily. Certainly the 3 stats in question are familiar, the limited verbset and parser, and the combat messages are close to if not identical to what I remember (what, no "Narelle is at death's door, knocking loudly"?).

Now, on to the game itself, trying my best to overlook the limitations of the design system (just because I have a haze of nostalgia about Eamon doesn't mean I'm eager to relive the experience of struggling with it). There's very little backstory here, and, to be honest, I saw little of the game. Half the people around me are dead, half are freaked out. and half are hostile (yes, I know that's too many halves. Those groups overlap). There is a rather undifferentiated horror, and I'm inclined to set this one down as Another Damn Zombie Game to explain away the irrationally hostile people, but there are also muddles of other horror, with spiders and creepy living dolls and the like. It was the same complaint people had about Theatre back in the day, really, that it didn't have the courtesy to stick to a single subgenre of horror but jumped all over the place.

Not that I could get very far into this game. The damn randomized combat really put a limit on my exploration: even with decent weapons like hairpins and hockey sticks, I ended up getting beat all to hell by the astonishing number of enemies. When I died I got a look at how many enemies were left that I hadn't even seen and resigned myself to the knowledge that randomized combat was not on my side and exploring the entire game was not really an option without either phenomenal luck or extremely tedious savegame-reversion.

Based on what I saw, though, there's an overall air of old-school submediocrity which does not endear this game to me. The instadeaths are annoying and apparently pointless except to fiddle with your score, and the random combat obstructs rather than enhancing the opportunities to appreciate the game. The writing is awfully bland for horror, and if there's an actual plot explaining all this, I never actually ran into it.

Rating: 3

One Eye Open, by Colin Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine

I am going to scream now, and no force on earth will stop me. I've played The Blind House and The Warbler's Nest and Leadlight in rapid succession and I am as creeped out as I am going to get even without wandering around after a test and finding that everybody's dead, most of them particularly gruesomely.

The game mostly has a high level of polish, with deep implementation, some good key-management and fiddlier but clearly intentionally crafted note-management, technical correctness, and an overall effectively visceral style. It started to wear on me after a while, but that's a problem horror often has: the dial doesn't actually go up to 11, and eventually the reader gets acclimated to grotesquery: "Oh, another flayed corpse, with its viscera suspended from the ceiling. Does this one have a key or a clue?" There were parts that were authentically revolting, particularly the second floor, and the genre style is consistent, with heavy body-horror and biological contamination elements (kind of like what When Machines Attack wanted to be, I think).

Despite all of these plaudits, this game has some significant problems. The note-management is, as mentioned above, fiddly, and in a lot of rooms the disambiguation is surprisingly harder than it seems like it should be. The hints are inadequate, and I'd have much preferred puzzle-context or even item-context clues to room-contextualized hints, which are often unclear. Also, it's too damn long for the Comp, it seems. There's a lot to explore and getting an optimal ending would almost certainly take more than 2 hours.

My own playthrough was definitely suboptimal, some of which was my fault. It wasn't obvious to me that the focus command was useful past the prologue, so I guess I missed a lot. I wasn't even clear on the chronology: in spite of all the notes from the 70s, I assumed that what I was encountering was near-future, that I was Ian, and that the prologue was also in the 70s (despite the plentiful clues of chronological weirdness, like the references to American Beauty and cellphones). Nonetheless, I saw enough of the game, I think, to get a good impression both of its strengths and its missteps.

Rating: 8

The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game, by Taylor Vaughan

Oh, man. It must be really weird to play this in close proximity to Gigantomania, which I did not. This is an extremely broad Communism-themed satire. The narrative voice is not entirely unlike the earnest enthusiasm in chapter 2 of Gigantomania, but here it's being played for laughs.

The story is as thin as borscht stretched to last out the week, though. It becomes apparent that this is a Communist veneer over the usual quest game: do this, then do that, then do this other thing in the various locations sprouting off the central hub just like an old-timey text adventure. This is one of the dangers of pretending you have an open-city setting: if the only implemented locations in the city are the school, town hall, and office building, it feels less like a city and more like a collection of puzzle-locales.

On technical notes, this is actually a quite good game. It has multiple solutions for each puzzle, interesting object interactions, and appears to be free of errors. There's also one "get-out-of-solving-this-puzzle-free" card, which is nice.

Nonetheless, in spite of having a fairly decent technical level and an unashamed embrace of its wackiness, I find it hard to respect this game, because structurally it's so slight: as mentioned before, there's the sense that it's a bunch of puzzle set-pieces strung together, which is not helped by the NPCs, pretty much all of whom are of the give-item-X-to-accomplish-task-Y variety rather than actual characters.

Rating: 5

This has become one of my traditions, so I'll try to predict the order in which the games will finish. This is usually terrifically incorrect.

Game My Ranking Estimate Actual Ranking Error
The Blind House 1 4 3
Aotearoa 2 1 1
Rogue of the Multiverse 3 2 1
One Eye Open 4 3 1
Mite 5 6 1
Oxygen 6 12 6
Flight of the Hummingbird 7 8 1
Gris et Jaune 8 9 1
Death off the Cuff 9 5 4
The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game 10 7 3
The Warbler's Nest 11 9 2
Under, in Erebus 12 16 4
Heated 13 20 7
Gigantomania 14 15 1
The Bible Retold: Following a Star 15 13 2
Pen and Paint 16 17 1
East Grove Hills 17 23 6
Divis Mortis 18 11 7
The Bible Retold: The Lost Sheep 19 13 6
The 12:54 to Asgard 20 17 3
Ninja's Fate 21 21 0
Sons of the Cherry 22 22 0
R 23 24 1
Leadlight 24 14 10
The Chronicler 25 26 1
A quiet evening at home 26 25 1

This was a fantastic year for returnees from previous Comps, or otherwise experienced authors. Some years we have a new face who shows up to wow us all with their never-before-seen awesomeness (e.g. Jeremy Freese), or an old-timer who returns to surprise us (e.g. Daniel Ravipinto, Chris Klimas). But this year we got a lot of prior contestants from recent memory, and I'm tempted to write a word or two about each.

Simon Christiansen

Christiansen's 2005 Internal Vigilance wanted to be a morality play and offered the player a range of decisions, and then shut all but one of them out as explicitly bad, despite tempting the player with a sense of moral freedom. It was technically competent but preachy. 2008's Grief was also a multiple-route game, in which every route was wrong, but the narrative-approved one didn't seem to make a lot of sense.

He's changed up his game, stepping away from ambiguity and multiple solutions towards a rather less experimental form, which to me is a bit of a disappointment no matter how delightful his premise was. Structurally, Death Off the Cuff is pretty commonplace, and its appeal comes more from the conceit than from the mechanics. It's nice to see an experienced author finally get some respect, but I'd actually like to see a shift back towards the interesting potential of his previous offerings.

Sara Dee

I didn't get very far into 2005's Tough Beans, and 2006 was a year off for me, so I missed Madam Spider's Web completely. I remember the former as frustrating: even though the prose was excellent and the narrative voice intriguing, I was stymied early on by complicated and fiddly mechanisms which blocked off forwards progress at all.

Mite appears to be a slighter work than Tough Beans was, but it definitely addresses the concern that kept me from enjoying that game: it's quite open, and even though there's a certain degree of linearity to the problem-solving, the exploration is nonlinear, giving me a good chance to appreciate the whole game without getting unfixably stuck.

John Evans

Have a seat. This is going to take a while.

There are actually two IF creators by this name ("Which John Evans do you mean, the John Evans or the John Evans?"), but this one writes in Inform. So: in 2000, Castle Amnos, a fantasy work regarded as sprawly and moderately buggy; in 2001, Elements, an overly large and underimplemented fantasy game; in 2002, Hell: a Comedy of Errors, a silly satire with simulationist undertones that seemed to be unfinished; in 2003, Domicile, which had an overambitious, buggy magic system and a list of known bugs; in 2004, Order, a sequel to Domicile with an open-ended and underimplemented object-creation system and a list of known bugs.

Both the overall theme here and the trend should be pretty obvious. John Evans thinks big, but his skill is not equal to his ambition. He's grown more self-aware, but not actually wiser. Extrapolating this trend, this year's The Chronicler, a half-finished and buggy game with a time-travel mechanism which conceded that it isn't done isn't terribly surprising. Although the unoriginality and limited scope of the central mechanic is surprising: The Anachronist already played with time-travel as a problem-solving mechanic, and did it better (if not actually well, mind).

Anyways, it's disappointing to see John leave for 5 years and return no wiser. He's not devoid of good ideas for conceits, or even for puzzles, but he seriously needs to be willing to take the time to make them come out fully baked. Evidence suggests there will be a Comp every year for the foreseeable future, and I look forward to the time when, in late September, John Evans looks at his games, and not only says, "This is not quite done," but then says, "So I'll finish it for next year!" Because that game will not suck, and it will be good.

Jason "Steve van Gaal" Devlin

Alas, Jason Devlin had nowhere to go but down. 2004's Sting of the Wasp was an extremely strong and well-received debut, and 2005's Vespers swept the awards. 2006's Legion was, if not as well received, nonetheless very highly respected.

Gris et Jaune is, alas, not up to his usual standards, particularly in terms of polish. The setting and writing are top-notch, but those were things we knew he does well. I'd blame a rushed Comp release here, and I eagerly await a second release. The fact that a game which is, in honesty, not quite ready for primetime could even score as high as ninth is a testament to Devlin's skill: even when pushing work out early to meet a deadline, he's still well ahead of the crowd.

Jason McIntosh

Jmac's an old hand who hasn't shown his stuff lately. 1999's Calliope performed tepidly in the Comp, and was generally regarded as dull if competent, which is not a bad place to start from, but the question for anyone tagged with the "dull-if-competent" label is whether they can ever shake the "dull" part.

Well, nobody would accuse The Warbler's Nest of being dull. It's not perfect, but it maintains the established record of technical competence and finds an interesting plot and tone to wrap it around. Bravo to the class of '99's returnee!

Justin Morgan

I was tempted to merge this with Ben Pennington's entry, since the two are clearly connected, both in history and in their 2010 entries, but Morgan also has some solo work. So: in 2006 the pair entered the Comp with The Bible Retold: The Bread and the Fishes, which was light humor, slightly technically unpolished, but not offensive either in content or in competence; 2007 brought us Morgan's solo work, the peculiar Ferrous Ring, which was a technical step up (or sideways, depending how you felt about its verb-inferring system) and an attempt to engage a more interesting plot and tone, which I rather liked but which didn't win critical enthusiasm.

And now he's back with something far more resembling his original work, although unmistakably more technically advanced, but still working in the well-worn inoffensive-Biblical-pratfall vein. For my part, I'd rather see something closer to Ferrous Ring, but, hey, it's nice to see the team try their hand at writing as rivals in fun (hopefully in fun, anyways).

C.E.J. Pacian

In 2007, Pacian released Snowblind Aces, which I never played, alas. 2008 brought his most well-known and well-received work, Gun Mute, and in 2009 he wrote both the short and unsettlingly quirky Dead Like Ants and the quasi-hypertextual Walker & Silhouette. Pacian's generally regarded as a technically adept author in often untrod design choices for IF with a penchant for unusual and rich worldbuilding.

Both of these attributes are clearly in effect in his 2010 contribution. Rogue of the Multiverse was probably most well-loved for its comic take on a galactic civilization where humans are the underdogs, and for the rich dialogue of Dr. Sliss. But it also contains several unconventional IF-design choices, such as relative directions and the peculiar treasure-hunt grid. C.E.J. Pacian is clearly continuing to explore in the directions that have worked for him, and while parts of it have fallen flat (such as the mission segments), he's still got the touch.

Owen Parish

Owen Parish wrote several games, most of which were outside of Comps and some of which were quite obscure, such as 2003's The Gate and The House. The only game of his with which I'm familiar is 2009's The Grand Quest, which attempted to encapsulate a degree of moral choice but was mostly a clumsy frame around a collection of puzzles ranging from the overfamiliar to the tedious.

I'd guardedly offer his 2010 contribution, Pen and Paint to be an improvement. The hub-and-spoke design makes lack of progress less frustrating, the puzzles are, if not as interesting, better integrated into the plot, and the technical polish has improved. Pen and Paint is not without its problems, but it represents progress.

Ben Pennington

This writeup would mostly overlap with Justin Morgan's, since his IF career has, but I'd like to see some solo work outside of the "Bible Retold" series here, too.

Brian Rapp

Brian Rapp, perhaps, does not see the world the same way as us. 2004's Goose, Egg, Badger was an apparently straightforward fetch-quest game with levels of surreality and wordplay uncoverable by an exploratory player; most people didn't know quite what to make of it. 2007's Orevore Courier was a one-room resource-management puzzler with a dizzying array of interlocking timed situations, which was well-enjoyed by the judges for its sophisticated complication.

Under, in Erebus resembles, in some ways, the secondary layer of GEB; it's wordplay-rich and surreal, but unlike the ostensible plot of GEB and the entirety of Orevore, it's not sufficiently goal-oriented to give the player something to make progress towards. I really liked the conceit here, and liked the implementation somewhat less so. I'd look forward with enthusiasm to Rapp's next work, because whether successful or unsuccessful, he's always interesting.

Hannes Schueller

According to the IFDB, Schueller wrote a number of MS-DOS adventures Back In The Day, but the only previous work of his most of us encountered was 2009's The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man, widely regarded as technically competent but highly problematic both in puzzle framing and in characterization.

Ninja's Fate shares with Schueller's 2009 entry an inability to be taken seriously. In spite of his good intentions, the overall result is farcical, and I can't engage with the idea of a digital memorial to Paul Allen Panks any more than I could engage with the creator of an invisibility serum whose only goal is humiliating his boss. I'd like to see him creating something which feels less like a trifle.

J. Robinson Wheeler

Rob Wheeler's writing credits span upwards of a decade, with a handful of XYZZY awards and 16 games, including such highly regarded works as 2000's Being Andrew Plotkin, and 2001's First Things First. He also released some decidedly ill-conceived games, most conspicuously 2001's Colours. It would probably be fair to say that while nobody was entirely certain of what his 2010 entry would be like, everyone expected him to be the strongest contender.

But The 12:54 to Asgard had problems. Big problems. What could be experienced showed Wheeler's flair for imaginative stage-setting and writing, but it doesn't actually work, either technically or structurally. I'd like to blame a rushed release.

Matt Wigdahl

Matt Wigdahl is a comparative newcomer, debuting with 2009's Grounded in Space, which was technically adept but dubious structurally and upsettingly neo-Heinleinian for some people's tastes.

2010's Aotearoa builds on Wigdahl's established talents: once again he has an Adventure Story For Boys, but with a somewhat less skeevy frame (not entirely unskeevy thanks to shades of the Glorious White Man, but he seems to have taken criticism to heart and consciously tried to minimize that aspect), and instead of pouring his technical talent into a well-loathed geometry puzzle (which is not a strength of the IF medium), he used it to fill the world with experience enhancements form keyword highlighting to animal naming. He's maintained his strengths and responded intelligently to criticism, and earned his victory.


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