Reviews: IF Competition 2004

I was definitely in grumpy mode this year. A bunch of other things were competing with IFComp for my attention, so I was very willing to fail over to hints or walkthrough. And the first several games I played were not that great. However, I then hit a couple of good ones which got my hopes back up.

When I got to the end, I had a tough decision for the top spot. "All Things Devours", "Splashdown", "Mingsheng", and "Blue Chairs" were all really excellent -- and on utterly different axes, which made them hard to compare. A brilliant puzzle, a perfect Infocom homage, a lovely classical fairy tale, and a kickass funny/disturbing drug trip. "All Things Devours" finally edged out the others for a ten, but really I could have put those four down for a tie and been satisfied. (And if "Luminous Horizon" came in below those, it was only because Earth and Sky games are now a familiar pleasure instead of a new one.)

Here are my scores, from highest to lowest. (I've added pluses and minuses in the interest of further discrimination, although of course only the plain integers counted in official voting.)

I didn't get to "Gamlet", "Zero", "Getting Back to Sleep", or "Ninja v1.30".

Commentaries, in the order that I played the games:

Goose, Egg, Badger

Brian Rapp

Starts off charming and minimal, and then tries to do everything in one game. "Whimsical" fades rapidly into "I'm sorry, what the hell is going on?"

The obvious goal turned out to be slightly impossible, which is a valid technique if you then replace it with another goal -- I didn't find one. There's an in-game hint device ("You have an urge to..."), which is clever, but not a substitute for me knowing what I want to do. I followed the urge for a while; then I followed the hints for a while; then I followed the walkthrough.

Actually, before I tried the walkthrough, I hit the time limit. It turns out there's a way to circumvent the time limit, but I didn't realize that until I cheated.

After following the walkthrough, I realized the original goal was correct after all, but there's no way to realize that while inside the game. And what happened to the poor cow?

Why the harsh inventory limit?

A lot of cute ideas, but it doesn't hold together as a game very well.


Dave Bernazzani

A twist to the classic "amnesia" opening: the introduction tells you who you are, and then tells you that you forgot it. I don't think this works. You regain your memories over the course of the game, which is fine, but the repeated exposition that "You have regained some of the memories you lost in the crash" is rather painful. Describe the experience, don't tell me that it happened.

Capitalization inconsistencies.

Decent story; decent implementation; but not inspiring. I felt like my attention wasn't being pointed at useful things to try. Which is silly, since the game is straightforward about only implementing stuff relevant to the puzzles. But that's how I felt.

I kept using the hints, and then discovering that I should have figured out the solutions on my own. I wasn't hooked enough to experiment.

Never did figure out why an alien planet is inhabited by humans and yaks. (However, I'm two yaks for two games so far. Let's see if we can keep it up!)



Many spelling errors. And the author doesn't seem to have figured out the concept of room names.

I like a total surrealist whackjob, but some sense of direction would be nice. Nothing compelling here.


A. Joseph Rheaume

A lot of work went into this, but it isn't an adventure game. As a CRPG, it isn't balanced enough to play -- I was almost immediately dropped into a dungeon with no way out and nothing I could easily kill. I killed a few monsters with "undo", but it didn't get me very far. All my opponents were collecting loot and power, and I just had a bit of combat skill. Then I got my ass handed to me.


Tommy Herbert

Well, this is confusing. I've got a first person, a second person, and a third person. "Who are you?" and "who am I?" ought to work. "Examine me" does work, but doesn't clarify matters.

I seem to be a deity, but the game won't accept "stop rain". I assume the point is that I'm a very lame excuse for a deity, but the game ought to be telling me so.

Ok, finished by following the walkthrough. There were a whole bunch of actions which seemed totally unmotivated -- maybe I could have sorted through them by experimenting, but I'm doubtful.

On the other hand, I spent the first few minutes thinking "I have nothing to do." Playing with the tools in my possession (note that I think of it as "me" even when the game says "him") ought to have been obvious, but they were underplayed somehow. Also, having to repeat commands twice really doesn't work.

I like the premise a lot, but it needs to be introduced better. The initial scene just leaves me feeling blind. Does the interlocutor persona need to be in the game at all? It gives a sense of separation between the worshipper and his deity, which is good, but that might have worked as well with a "traditional" third-person IF format.

(Why doesn't the cement get wet out in the driving rain? If I'd started playing with the cement before cutting myself, that would have seriously confused me.)

Stack Overflow

Timofei Shatrov

Vaguely annoying that I don't understand the research notes of my own project.

Severe bugs -- the fourth floor is a dead end, when it shouldn't be. And the elevator can't get back to floor zero, although I don't think there's a reason to go there.

Lots of spelling and grammar problems. I get the impression the author is not fluent in English. I'm willing to allow for this.

Weird opening? No explanation ever appeared... the Cube movies handled this far better. Exploring an alien space station is always fun. I got interested by the topology puzzle, but it doesn't seem to cover all the possibilities that it should.

The commands in the endgame are a major guessing hassle. I doubt anyone is going to figure them out without reading the walkthrough.

A Light's Tale


Again with the you/me parser tricks. (The default can't-go message is "I won't let you go that way.")

Remember when I said "I like a total surrealist whackjob"? This one doesn't work either. Getting a decent sense of immanence out of text takes more setup.

Also, I walked into a room and met a gopher who killed me three turns later. It's not that timed puzzles are evil -- but if the game lets me walk away, and then kills me even though the gopher isn't in the room, it's a buggy game. (I looked at the hints, but because I walked away, I don't have enough moves to get back to Bob before he kills me.)

I tried undoing several turns and continuing, but timed death came back in the next puzzle. Forget it.

Kurusu City

Kevin Venzke

I like the way the author portrays the simple, flat-color scenery of anime just by using simple descriptions with distinct colors. The city gives the impression of being large without wasting words or locations.

"Peak of Ripeness Orthodox High School"? That's lovely.

Unfortunately, I get to a point where I either get stuck in math class (no way out), or I'm stuck in jail (death in a few turns). The hints do not address this situation. Therefore, I can't win.

Blue Chairs

Chris Klimas

I love the opening -- because I've been to Dundalk.

Then I examined the oven, and I loved it double.

I prefer the "yes, this is real" ending. You can all get out your psychologist's notebooks now.

I like a total surrealist whackjob. Yay.


John Evans

Seems to me that more stuff ought to be implemented. If the initial room contains nothing except bricks, a door, and myself, then "x bricks" should work and "x me" should say something interesting.

Bleah, time limit. I didn't even get the map drawn in 100 turns. (Some badly-hinted non-straight paths.) I guess I'll start over a lot.

Got totally stuck on the air creature, and this turned out to be because a critical piece of scenery was completely unmentioned by the game.

(I thought "create cats" was a good idea. Oh well.)

The gimmick of being able to create anything is a good idea, but it's hard to avoid making it a "guess the noun" puzzle. The game teeters between that and relying on classical D&D elemental attacks. (Don't know what to do? Try fire, cold, acid...)

Needs another couple of drafts before it's finished, anyway.


Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn

Cute. Small, and basically a one-joke shaggy dog story, but it was a funny joke.

The Realm

Michael Sheldon

Not very polished implementation. ("You have a shoes (being worn), a trousers (being worn), ....")

Not an inspiring game either. It contains some funny lines, and I liked the disgusting fluffy hamster, but the whole is an exercise in rote questy stuff. In a rote faux-medieval setting.


John Pitchers

The first thing I notice is that the game is in funny colored text on a black background. I hate reading text like that. Unfortunately HyperTads seems totally resistant to giving me readable colors. (Yes, I tried all the preferences.) Wound up building ncurses TADS in order to play the game.

(But I won't downgrade the game for this -- it's a HyperTADS bug.)

Good grief, it's the old classic: "Which toilet do you mean, the toilet, or the toilet?" I thought TADS had fixed that. Or at least made it possible for the author to avoid it. Ok, I'll provisionally blame the author for that.

More seriously: I'm several events into the plot, and I still have no idea what this game is about. I thought it was about rescuing my buddy Arthur, but that theory has just been violently disproved.

Playing from the walkthrough now. Game needs a big pile of synonyms and stuff. Particularly for talking to people -- most of the significant actions have involved NPCs, but their implementation is minimal.

I just went to the walkthrough (again) because I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, and the answer turned out to be "go outside, more plot will happen to you". Hmf. The author has pointed out (in a cut scene) that he has provided no motivation for the protagonist to be doing any of what he's doing. The author is correct.


Deane Saunders

Bonus points for being the first Unicode-using Inform game I've played. Also, bonus points to Zoom for handling it. Also, best feelie map in the Competition.

The game isn't perfect, but it doesn't need much improvement. Descriptions and atmosphere are great. I don't know anything about Chinese philosophy besides what I read in Hughart, but this game got the tone just right.

I only got hung up trying to get through the (first) archway. Not enough description of the statues, or else not enough emphasis on the important parts of them. Everything else in the game flowed pretty smoothly. Much of it was easy (in the puzzle-difficulty sense), but that's not a complaint.

Other improvements: "put ... in water" should be a synonym for "put ... in teapot". Opening the box needs a lot of synonyms too -- I had to look at the walkthrough for that. And if you want to restart the training combat, the man should give you some help -- perhaps say something to imply the appropriate command when you re-enter the pagoda.

Chronicle Play Torn


Whew! Large and full of detail. The prose is awkward, but it doesn't cover up some of the creepiest scenery I've seen in a long time. Lots and lots of ancient, occult nastiness. Lots of active occult nastiness -- things crawl out and bite you, steal from you, infect you. The game tries to warn you about dangerous acts; after a while, I was ghoulishly anticipating how bad it could get. ("I lost fifty points! This ought to be impressive...")

Save often. The game is mostly good about warning you of dangerous acts, but it doesn't try to warn you about making the game unsolvable. (Besides, you have to undertake some dangerous acts, and there's no way to tell the necessary risks from the fatal ones. Technically that makes this the dreaded "learn by dying" game -- but the deaths are so wonderfully gruesome! How can you complain?)

I don't think the game is really solvable in its current state. Too many of the puzzle connections are way too obscure. And the feedback on a lot of the actions is inadequate. A lever which can be set left or right should accept "pull" and "push"; so should a hidden turnable handle. There's a lot of awkward implementation. But, again, the setting is so much fun that I forgave it. A lot of polish and a second release should make this a solid game.

I was disappointed by the oracle. It only had information about a few items -- it could have provided a lot more fun. (Plus, it allowed me to win with a score of 129 out of 100. Bit buggy there.)


Ian Waddell

Well, I don't know where this was supposed to go, because I got to the jungle and then got stuck. No idea what I was supposed to do.

Of all the things that don't work in a menu-style conversation system -- "Grandpa why is there war?" has to be the top of the list. No, to be fair, that wouldn't work in any interactive conversation system. I look at it, and I know that whatever the game contains, it will be entirely the author talking to himself. The illusion of complicity breaks down right from the start; whatever thoughts I might have on the subject are certain not to arise.

Plus, you know, sober character meditation on war via Vietnam. It does nothing for me. You have to set it on another planet to get my attention. I'm not making rewrite suggestions, here, I'm just telling you how I am.

All Things Devours

"half sick of shadows" (Toby Ord)

Remember when I said "Technically that makes this the dreaded 'learn by dying' game"? This is the dreaded "learn by dying" game. It's even better this time. It's exactly big enough that replaying it is interesting -- you know you're going to do better this time. On each retry, doing everything right is neither too easy (boring) nor too hard (complicated).

(In fact, I'm not sure the promised "more difficult" post-comp release is a good idea. I really like the game at this size. Maybe the author should offer a choice between "standard" and "expert" modes.)

Sneaky, satisfying, perfect.

Very solid implementation. Author has thought of everything I tried. Oh, one exception: a "wait N seconds" or "wait until 4:25:00" command would be pleasant.

Only a nitpicker would point out that the self-description reads like someone else's description of the protagonist -- not like something she would say herself.

Blue Sky

Hans Fugal

Small, and not particularly pointy. I mean, not much of a point. Nice descriptions, and it did get the scenery across, but the fact that I was able to do things in Sante Fe was not a motivation to do them.

Rather a lot of misspellings. No bugs though.

Who Created That Monster?

N. B. Horvath

This has a point, but I can't tell whether it's ironic or naive. Or both.

Having now finished it (via the walkthrough), I think it was irony. But it didn't go anywhere.

Murder at the Aero Club

Penny Wyatt

A snack-sized mystery game -- we don't see a lot of those, so it's nice to have one. I like searching stuff, so I had fun with this. However, the actual mystery part is not interesting (by mystery-genre standards). Completely straightforward.

Chasing the victim, after my accusation, was trickier. Had to look at hints about that.

Rather a lot of objects mentioned in the room description and then listed again below it. And the related bugs of "mismanaged line breaks" and "every time you examine the junk, you find the same object in it".

Luminous Horizon: Earth and Sky Episode 3

Paul O'Brian

This is shorter than the previous installment, isn't it? It's a collection of "use your superpower" scenes -- each of them is satisfactory, but you're rushed from scene to scene, and the game never develops much sense of space or exploration.

The climactic battle (of course it's a battle, I'm not giving away anything, this is a superhero comic) gives you no leeway at all. You have to choose the right move each turn. It therefore becomes an undo-fest, which leaves me with little sense of making real decisions.

Positives: everything good about previous EAS games. Dialogue is snappy, descriptions are good, scenario is blatantly implausible. Big "pow!" sound-effect balloons at the appropriate points. New to this game: free swapping between characters, and you can get game hints from your partner. This is (ahem) super-smooth, comfortable to use, and keeps the game from ever becoming non-fun.

Using the phrase "salient features" before telling me what they are is always a mistake.

Final thought: I always thought the superpowers of Earth and Sky were a bit limited for IF. Games where you gain wacky abilities usually have lots of wacky abilities. Future EAS games -- if there are any -- ought to have, oh, about twice as many superpowers...

Square Circle

Eric Eve

The chilly-government opening is fun, although the idea doesn't go anywhere we haven't seen before. The game winds up being rather less surreal than it starts out. I was disappointed, although it's a perfectly acceptable prison-escape caper.

Lots of alternate solutions, which is nice. (Although, of course, not detectable to the player until you cheat.) I wound up looking at hints a lot. But I felt bad about it afterwards.

A twist on the menu conversation system -- you actually type what you want to do, but in imperative rather than literally ("claim circle is a square", "ask why not"). The game is still prompting you with the list of options you can use. Weirdly, this is more comfortable to me than the standard menu. Possibly because some of the options are actions which you might fail at -- you can't "define square" unless you have learned the definition of a square. So the conversation can involve more than trying every option... although trying every option is exactly what I did.

I Must Play

Geoff Fortytwo

Narrative voice is funny in places. In other places it's trying to be funny. Half points.

Severely short of synonyms. "Get in limo", "enter limo", and "drive limo" should all be equivalent to "in" (if you're not already in it). "Jump in water" should be the same as "jump into water".

The author really should have considered the likelihood that I would play his game. If he had, he wouldn't have left the blatant bug in the high-score board.

After finishing the game, I'm upgrading the funny to three-quarters. The poster made me laugh. The diary was good too.

Would have been better if the metaphor had been consistent. I liked the games that were mimicking realistic situations which mimicked the mechanics of familiar video games. But a couple of the games had no familiar game equivalent -- they existed only to support puzzle solutions. It would have been much more clever to think of a real video game, which you have to solve in its own right, in which you delivered speeches... okay, I can't either.

(Hm. "Paperboy", except you're delivering bills to Congress? Strained, I know... The alien spaceship has a lot more options -- practically anything with an alien setting. "Berzerk", maybe.)

The "list exits in status line" option that TADS3 apparently has is annoying. (Square Circle used it too, and it was annoying there too.) It's visual noise, and if I try to navigate by it, I get more disoriented. (Because I'm not reading room descriptions any more, only looking at exit patterns.)

The automated "can't go that way" generator also causes some nastily confusing sentences. Example: "Obvious exits lead west, back to the building top west; and down, to the structure southeast." So far, T3 is not impressing me with its advanced technology.

A Day in the Life of a Super Hero

David Whyld

This interpreter is kind of weak. No command history. It keeps showing abbreviation translations. Em-dashes show up as O with an umlaut. And I can't get at the fonts.

"read paper" produces "You can't read the newspaper!" I take it this is the famous Adrift abstraction failure at work. Oh, and you can examine stuff in the dark (or with your eyes closed).

The first time I died, the game forgot to present me with a "game over" prompt. I just kept playing. Convenient, I guess.

The second time I died, I tried the hint system, but it didn't tell me anything useful -- even though I walked all over the city typing "help". So I went to the walkthrough. (Amusingly, I had to restart the game to figure out how to get the walkthrough, since the usual "about" and "info" commands weren't set up.)

Well, none of the puzzles are solvable, and the plot just throws you from place to place when you guess the right command. But the patter is amusing.

Oh, I see the game isn't solvable with this interpreter. I mean literally not solvable -- I can't enter the letter "c". (The game abandons the text parser completely in the endgame, giving you menus instead. The interpreter gets confused at this.)

Zero One

Edward Plant

The README tells me to "Bow to the unstoppable Microsoft monopoly". I nearly gave it a 1 right there.

In the opening scene, a bullet misses you by six inches and knocks you unconscious anyway. I suspect the rest of the game isn't going to make any more sense.

Oh, good grief. Didn't we learn not to put movable objects in the room description back in 1983? And both the standard verb list and the synonyms are sadly lacking -- no "move" command, no "gun" for the Beretta.

Nothing really going on in this entry.

The Great Xavio

Reese Warner

Great opening. And I may be only on the second move, but I can't resist an NPC who is "muttering something about 'modus tollens'" as an idle action.

The implementation is smooth, except for an odd rash of missing periods in room descriptions. And other one-line messages. Some of Todd's dialogue is missing quotation marks, too.

I got stuck because the game didn't accept "ask ... for paper clip". Fix that. I got stuck again because of an unobvious action (the locker). But basically this is a well-written short whodunnit. More red herrings than plot, maybe, but it's hard to tell -- I don't know what optional stuff I missed.


Paul J. Furio

Wow, major bonus for the point-perfect Infocom-style manual.

(Also for attention to detail in the cryotubes. I wear 388 with pride!)

This is a terrific Infocom pastiche, and a good game too. You definitely need to be prepared for the old-style "run out of time, die horribly, run out of light, die horribly some more, make mistakes, die horribly, optimize, win" cycle. But that's fine. My only real disappointment was that it was Competition-sized, and I wanted more of it.

The NPC is well-implemented, although not very interesting story-wise.

Definitely need more verbs for the heatpack. "Squeeze", "shake", "bend", "fold". And allow "remove hose" to be a synonym for "disconnect hose".

Various death scenes need more detail. (Flooding the ship shouldn't hurt you if you're in a closed airlock! The message should also differ if you're wearing the mask.)

Some spelling and punctuation errors.

Trading Punches

"Sidney Merk" (Mike Snyder)

This interpreter needs to put some margin space around text. It also can't cope with window resizing. And, uh, no copy/paste? That's kind of lame.

I'm standing here with absolutely nothing to do. I can't go anywhere, and nothing is happening. I tried talking to my brother, but he just nods.

Oh, I see. He's been skipping stones the whole time, and I didn't know it until I examined him. Fine.

I have "music and sounds" turned off in the interpreter menus, but the game keeps starting them anyway. Annoying. I can't prevent it from printing colored text, either. Fortunately it's only in a few spots.

I like a science-fictional setting, but the constant nouny-noun phrases are getting on my nerves.

This is the second scene, and I still don't have anything to do. The game pointed me to looking under the seat, which I did, and now I'm at a halt again. I think this is going to be a by-the-walkthrough effort.

Having finished: mmf. There's a lot of good stuff in this, but it felt badly constructed as IF. The author had a story in mind, but he wasn't leading me through it. Some of the actions were explicitly prompted; others were not prompted at all, and I wound up looking at hints. Either way, I didn't feel I was doing it myself.

(Exception: exploring in the last chapter worked. And I really liked the interludes. That gimmick worked very well for me.)

The writing was way overdone in places -- use fewer words. I wanted to like the story -- I like the ideas behind it -- but I wasn't convinced in the end.

The Big Scoop

Johan Berntsson

I don't see why the timing has to be so tight at the beginning. Oh, okay, it was a puzzle I didn't see. But it isn't exactly logical -- slowing them down at the front door won't keep them from catching you as you go out the back.

Smooth introduction of game-common commands like "call". (Would have been even smoother to say "[You can type 'drive to landmark']" when you get into the car.)

Hrm, the conversation engine this game is using is very slow. Is it doing an N^2 search or nested scope iteration?

It plays out well enough, but the writing is rather bloodless. Except for the literal blood. But I mean there's no tension in the writing -- I felt like every discovery was accompanied by a thoughtful "hm", up to and including the exciting showdown at the end. The world is very plain also. Most of the scenery is just scenery -- implemented for the sake of filling out the world -- and, you know, I knew that as soon as I saw it.

The opening gimmick is nice, though.

I wouldn't have gotten the balcony puzzle without hints. Reason: the first thing I tried was "tie hose to railing", but that gave a generic failure message.

Ruined Robots

"N, N and G" (Nicholas, Natasha, and Gregory Dudek)

The first room description goes like this: "This is a living room with a burning fire in the Hearth. There are rooms to the East and Northeast, Southeast, South and exit to the West, and a fireplace. There is also a small hole where the wall joins the floor, but you can't get in it or put anything in it."

The capital letters, I think, are used for words the game knows. I think this because the game doesn't know the word "hole". I mean, yes, the game says outright that I can't interact with the hole. But the authors seem to have missed the point of IF twice in three sentences.

Also, if I get into the fireplace, it tells me that I'm burning up. I don't actually burn up, however. Z, z, z, z. Nope. Still not burnt.

No, I'm wrong about the spurious capital letters -- they go away after the first room. Mostly.

Okay, this is one of those "we threw in everything because we were playing with the development system" games. Not intended to make any sense. Right.

I am not particularly motivated to solve this. Walkthrough time. Blah, even following the walkthrough seems like more trouble than it's worth -- particularly since I ate both cookies. Don't know whether that makes the game unwinnable, but since everything is screaming "Meaningless" at me, I give up.

The Orion Agenda

Ryan Weisenberger

The obligatory first-person-prose game of the competition. Well, it's the only one, so I'll cope. [Footnote: okay, I forgot about Bellclap, but that's a wacky first-person.]

No matter how much you want to use an adjective form of "Orion", let me tell you -- "Orionion" is the wrong choice.

This is quite the opposite of "Trading Punches". The gameplay was very nice; you can explore, you have a helpful NPC, you can figure stuff out. The writing was good enough. But the story itself was thin, a rehash of old SF cliches played out with no subtlety at all.

Still, I had fun playing it.

Sting of the Wasp

Jason Devlin

Mmf, a lot of people and I'm supposed to interact with them. Unfortunately I'm not really in the mood for this. The bitchfest-grande setting is funny; maybe I'll get into it if I hit the walkthrough a few times.

And indeed the game won me over. Full points for snappy responses to absolutely everything. (Both by the parser and by the NPCs, who are pleasingly attentive to your out-of-character IF antics.)

The implementation is very good, with lots of reasonable command phrasings accounted for. I still had trouble with the puzzles. Some of the things you had to do were hard to think of -- they made sense in plot terms, but I didn't see where the plot was going. More leading remarks in the game text would have smoothed over most of these spots. (E.g., commenting on how precarious the pots in the kitchen looked.)

Last updated November 16, 2004.

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