This is a very irregular set of comments.
First, it's very widely spread out. I played several games in the first weekend, with an initial burst of enthusiasm immediately moderating to sustained critical interest. Then I tapered off (having other projects on my mind) and played one every few days for pretty much the whole rest of the voting period. So these reviews (or whatever they are) do not all come from a level playing field. Sorry. Nothing I can do about that.
Second, I tend to focus a lot more on what I don't like than on what I do like. This probably comes across as harsh criticism. I don't want anybody to get angry or discouraged. I'm trying to point out things that could be fixed, that's all -- because I have an abiding interest in there being a lot of good IF out there. Ok?
The scores. Remember, I wrote each review immediately after playing each game, but I didn't assign scores until I'd played and commented on all the games. If the scores don't always seem to line up with the comments, it's because the comments sometimes go off talking about what could have been improved, or about some feature which I found interesting to discuss. Whereas the scores are just about whether I enjoyed the work.
Off we go.
(Reviews in the order I played them, with my own entry last.)
Did I just get incredibly lucky or are they all like this? I know mine isn't -- I wasn't even trying -- but I didn't pull this off when I was trying (last year.)
Ok, I should get more specific. The name "Tim Hunter" is pulled from DC Comics, of course, unless there's an older folk source I don't know about. The story is original, though. The story is great. Stories. No, story. This is one story shown in three orthogonal mirrors. That's use of the IF format at its finest.
Flow of the action was tightly controlled without feeling confining to the player. (Except in a couple of places -- I'm thinking of the points where you try to do an action not consistent with your chosen Path. But that has to be abrupt, because that's the conceit of the story -- that your actions are constrained to this consistency.) Pay particular attention to the confrontations with the Wraith, in the Clotho path. My first reaction was, great, another guess-the-right-thing-to-type puzzle. But that works. It evokes the feeling of panic and pressure, stumbling towards the right thing to say -- and note that, really, you can't screw up. Random guessing works, and the resulting storyline reads fine.
The dream scene. I love well-done dream scenes. Looking-glass logic. This is it. Again, you could call it a guess-the-action puzzle; but in fact you're guided cleanly through the scene, without much feeling of manipulation. The author's careful use of detail is a big factor here. Important things are mentioned; unimportant things are passed over, in a way that makes it clear they are unimportant (but without leaving the reader feeling like there was a gap.) This is true of the entire game, not just the dream scene.
Had to resort to hints once (getting Sarah to go to sleep.)
Involvement: It took me three tries to move my hands to the keyboard to type one particular command. You know which one. I don't think I can give the author higher praise than that.
[Note: This was written after playing the first, erroneous upload of Tapestry (serial number 960911). I haven't gone through the second upload yet.]
The leitmotif is music. (Uh, sorry. :-) The scene of acting within the context of music works well. I know I'm not being very articulate here, but what can I say? The author tried to do something small very well, and succeeded. Maybe "set-piece" is the phrase I'm looking for, but I don't mean it pejoratively.
(BTW: I suspect the author was smirking when he had your character start out with a sword which gets lost, a brass lantern which burns out, and a "rezrov" scroll which gets used up on the first move.)
The story is a short magical sequence, reasonably clever. (The gimmick was stored in the walkthough file for some reason; it should have been visible in an introduction or "about" command.) The timing is a little strange. You have to use the right command at the right time; early doesn't work, or give any indication that it will work later.
Unfortunately, it's easier to complain than to praise, so here's what annoyed me. The very strict action constraints, mostly. I spent a lot of time typing a command, getting a warning, trooping around to where I could perform the action, and typing it again. But this didn't annoy me a lot because it was such a small world. Every mistake is fatal, pretty much, but that's why the warning system was there. (I can't imagine playing the game without it. There are places where "examine" is a fatal mistake.)
Not all the actions made a whole lot of sense; I relied on the hints a lot. But I was usually pretty satisfied once I read the hints. There were a couple more verbs that should have worked, but this can be fixed in future releases.
I liked the tight focus: one or two objects per room, and most standard verbs explicitly disabled. It kept things in perspective, so to speak. You are large; most of what's around you is too small to notice.
A few design problems -- I had verb troubles with the haystack, for example. Nothing unfixable.
The author seemed to be too eager to explain things. The whole illusion motif got spelled out before I really had a chance to recognize it. Or maybe I wouldn't have recognized it before I won, but that's more because the game is so small than any deficit in the writing. The three tests went by too quickly to really differentiate the magic in the game from its surroundings. Did that make sense? Probably not; it's two in the morning. Basically, I'm saying that the fortress would have felt better if it were filled out with the same amount of care and detail that went into the village and beach.
Another thing that left me somewhat adrift was the switches between illusion and reality. There was no message that led me to believe that anything had changed. Maybe the author intended that effect, the world changing without any sensation of change -- it's certainly a disorienting effect when it really happens to you. But it's hard to convey in IF. For example, at one point I did something that affected my perceptions, without realizing it. Then I typed a command which (of course) didn't work. So I scrolled the text window up to see what I'd done wrong. If I'd typed "look" I would have seen the difference, but I had no reason not to scroll up instead. Some kind of message about changed perceptions would have fixed all that. Even a simple "Something changes." (The hints are very explicit on this subject, which leads me to believe that other people got confused too.)
Oh, and it would have been cool if there had been another layer of deception. Just my personal story-telling preference. Plots with only one stratum are too common.
Sherbet's setting is particularly clever, a world clearly descended from ancient Quendor, but advanced beyond the age of Magic to a baroque Ruritanian scenario. (This comes across very nicely in your character's reactions to various levels of technology.) The plot brings you into a corner of the old world, though, so it becomes a lot more familiar as you progress. Now that I come to think about it, this is even more clever than it seems; a game written in the style of the Infocom fantasy titles, without either ignoring the issue of the similarity or being explicitly set in that era.
The writing and level of description were fine. The interaction wasn't so good -- a lot of missing synonyms, some of which were confusing in their missingness. (I found myself checking the hints a lot, often to find that I had thought of the correct solution but had been unable to phrase it right. On the plus side, this kind of flaw is easily fixed.) In a few places, though, the required actions were too convoluted for my tastes. And in one spot at the end, I reached a total dead-end because of something I forgot to do earlier; there was no obvious way to tell what I'd forgotten.
The scenario is a little strangely presented, too. Your character has a "secret mission" which you-the-player are not aware of. You have to infer it from hints in the game. It's not hard to figure out, especially by virtue of where the plot takes you. But it's the kind of thing I don't like in a game.
On the whole, though, I liked Sherbet. Engaging plot, a nicely-sketched antagonist. Fun.
Extra points for the way the dog regards the annoying kid.
On the other hand, I did not in fact solve the puzzle. (On the third hand -- hind paw, I guess -- I should have thought of the action that I missed. Oh well.)
"Originally, it began as a game trying to emulate So Far: psychological, allegorical, with a non-traditional plot. However, time constraints [...] didn't allow time enough for me to do what I wanted with the plot."
Yeah, pretty much. I felt somewhat queasy at being imitated, all the way through this game. I was only somewhat relieved to read the above note (when I finished) and discover that at least the author did it deliberately.
Perhaps I am jaundiced, because I know exactly what I was intending with So Far (and "Weather"), so I know what went into them. Unfortunately, not much seems to have gone into "Forms", in spite of an apparently allegorical cast to the ending. But this wasn't backed up by anything in the game. Did I miss anything? I can only judge from what I saw, so I must judge it not very good.
Three puzzles, more or less. The first seemed to be a cut-down version of a more interesting plan (I was expecting the dials to do more than they did.) The second was very arbitrary, with an object breaking for no apparent reason to keep the plot in line. Hmph. The third (final) puzzle was reasonable.
(Also there's this acknowledgement to "my girlfriend, Nicole Maxwell..." Well, no wonder! You have to have years of pent-up misery to write something like So Far. Drop that gink, Nicky, it'll be the biggest favor you ever did him. Now, I'm always free for dinner; drop by the DC area, we can eat Indian food and talk about the future of interactive literature...)
(Seriously: I think the lesson here is, take whatever time the work needs. Not everything needs to be entered in the competition. (I came up with the greatest idea for a game, on Sunday, Oct. 20th... Haven't decided if I'm going to write it.))
(If you do decide you must make a particular deadline, don't sacrifice quality for speed. Just work more. Sleep less. Food is unnecessary. Homework is unnecessary. Relationships are... uh, never mind.)
I don't think I liked it (the gimmick, I mean.) Maybe this has more to do with the way I write IF than the way I play it. I like to thread story and motivation into the results the player gets to his actions. In this game (I will not lay aside the word, mostly out of stubbornness) -- in this game, there are no results. So I don't feel any motivation. It may sound dumb, but I didn't even think of typing "kill me" until I read the walkthrough. I wanted to go talk to someone, go to sleep, go wake up the girl and get into her pants. I couldn't do any of that, so I sat in the chair and typed "wait" until I got bored and read the walkthrough. Was that (part of) what you, the author, intended? If not, then the game didn't work for me. It did not communicate the story to me fully.
Next time, leave in "save" and "restore". Yes, I know you took them out for a reason. I don't think it was sufficient reason. I got tired of going through the beginning moves, and this happened before I thought I had seen everything. So I got out TXD and dumped out all the game text and read that. (As it happened, I had seen most of the story paths by then.) Are you disappointed in me? Fortunately, my goal isn't to impress you.
Leaving out "save" and "restore" made the game too boring to experiment with as much as I usually do. I don't mean the effect was a total failure; it set an atmosphere in which things mattered -- especially dealing with Annie -- random experimentation was obviously discouraged because I was dealing with a human being, here. But by the same token, I didn't get as much out the program as you put into it. Maybe that part was what you intended. I don't know.
I shall briefly break ranks and compare "In The End" to "Tapestry", the other entry I have played (thus far) whose storytelling truly impressed me. "Tapestry" was a little more cliched, a little less interesting, a little less well-told. But I liked it more. Of course, it's hard to separate my reaction to "End"'s gimmick from my reaction to "End"'s miserable depressing awful theme. I suspect the themes have more to do with my ratings than the gimmicks -- because "Tapestry" was also, in a sense, puzzle-less. It did have complicated actions which were hard to accomplish, but not any harder than getting Annie to like you. On the other hand, "Tapestry" did require player involvement in more places, and gave more feedback and more positive reinforcement when I got through each "puzzle". I think it comes down to motivation again, and (as the "About" text notes) "End"'s theme precludes motivation in any event.
But I still give "Tapestry" a higher score. There. That's the bottom line.
PS: I think you should have left the walkthrough out. Anyone who complained should get an aggrieved look. Let 'em change their vote if they thought you acted wrongly.
Programming aside, the game is nicely designed (although I think I've had enough Mastermind now, thank you very much.) The scenario makes sense, with a touch of looking-glass logic. There's a certain tendency to tell the player how to react, rather than evoking the effect through prose, but only in a few places.
The puzzles fit very smoothly. I didn't get all of them without hints, but I've gotten rather lazy after, what, fourteen games played now. I'm resorting to hints faster than I should. I didn't find any solutions that were actually illogical, although some of the actions were pretty obscure. Not obscure in what you're supposed to do; they made perfect sense in terms of the situation. I mean obscure in that I was never inspired to think of them, or think that the goals they accomplished were important. (Is that too obscure? Uh, getting the rug was the biggest example. That and finding the crypt key. Here's a better way to put it: the useful items didn't stand out from the scenery very well. Because, I hasten to add, the scenery was so nicely detailed.)
(Come to think of it, all my complaints are that "Maiden" is too well-written and well-designed! Gonna have to up my rating or something.)
The finale is very tight on timing, but I'd have to be pretty hypocritical to complain about that.
I like the title effect. The author gives the same information elsewhere in the game, as a nudge, but I'd already gotten it by then.
Oh, it's after midnight now. Halloween has started. Good timing.
Good question. Let me think.
I think, quite honestly, that there's too much there. The focus falls apart; it tries to do everything at once. This thing is huge, I should start off by saying that. It's the first game that I was unable to finish in two hours -- and that's two hours with the all the hints. I started reading hints early, and rapidly degenerated into total reliance on them. Eventually I got stuck trying to sharpen the pencil, I realized it was three in the morning, and I thought, wait, haven't I spent two hours already? Oh, thank god. I have an excuse to stop playing.
Let me back up. Technically, Delusions is very, very good. I had a very solid feeling for the environment, the various characters moving around, the machines I could interact with. It had, in fact, the offhand richness of detail that I associate with the better Infocom work. The music in the ocean, I loved it.
And then the plot started, and my god, there is all this plot. There's the fish plot, and the you-learning-about-yourself plot, and the evil computer program plot, and the using-the-GUI gimmick, and the using-the-simulation gimmick, and the repeating universe head surgery plot, and then then unlocking-your-door plot, and then the plot after that, and that's where I gave up, because I had long since lost track of why I actually cared about any of this. Any one of these, or perhaps two, would have been an engaging competition entry. All of them together left me feeling like, like, I don't know what.
Let me give an example. The GUI computer. It's a cute idea. It could have been developed on its own, and been interesting. In Delusions, however, it was a distraction from the plot it was part of. It took too much time and effort for me to deal with, when I was already trying to understand the rules of the repeating-universe scenario.
The repeating-universe gag. It's a cute idea. It could have been developed on its own. But there was too much else going on, and I couldn't figure out what was important and what was background. It just all felt kludgy. (A head gizmo and drugs? How am I supposed to sort this out? I have to do X, and then Y and X together, and then... I forget. And the sensory thing certainly didn't seem to have enough information available; at one point I turned off touch, passed out, and woke up with my back tingling from the cold metal or some such thing. It would have taken extensive experimentation for me to figure out how to solve that section, and experimentation was a pain in the ass because you have to juggle the stupid GUI computer and the drugs-and-alarm-clock gimmick, every time you try another combination... no. no. no. That was when I started reading the hints before trying to solve puzzles on my own.)
The learning-about-yourself plot. This is a great idea. It could have been developed on its own. In Delusions, it was completely swamped. I didn't follow up on any of it, or realize that progress was being made towards a goal, because there was this other thing to do and suddenly an evil lunatic has me tied up and is screaming nonsense at me! I think it was supposed to be profound nonsense, but I wanted to slap the lunatic upside the head (preferably with a crowbar) and tell him to get a grip, for chrissake.
The traitor-in-the-lab plot. By the time it started, I didn't care. Did it tie into any of the other plots? Don't ask me; I never sharpened the pencil.
I am now trying to count how many Critical Moments there are in Delusions. I think I encountered three; presumably there would be a fourth at the end. What? Sally Callahan on a binge couldn't stay interested through that many climaxes.
Too many stories. Edit. Make it a trilogy. Or pace it out so that only one or two things are happening at a time; then it would be a full-length game, but a focussed full-length game. Or just chop the hell out of it. Something.
[Footnote, several weeks later: Email discussions have brought up the point that I'm a fine one to complain about complex interlocked puzzles, after "A Change in the Weather". I reply, yeah, bite me. If the plot held together, I'd be motivated to play with all the gizmos. And say what you like, but the endgame of "Weather" was (1) focussed down to a single plot idea and a single puzzle, and (2) very short, especially if you got it wrong and had to try again. Twice as much does not mean better.]
(Ok, it's a short review. It was a pretty short game.)
(Well, one more comment: I have now played enough of the puzzle where you have to repeat your command several times to convince the parser to do it. Ok?)
I was always behind in picking up where I was supposed to be, in the plot. The pacing was off. I picked up the book, and was away facing one set of fears before I knew that I was troubled with them. Then I solved that phase of the game, and was back, and discovered the arriving police, which explained why I was trying to face these fears in the first place. You see? Solutions before problems.
The writing, in detail, was fine. (The one thing I did know was that I was embroiled in a nightmare. That fact pushed in on me from all directions, and it was very satisfyingly claustrophobic.)
Then there's the puzzles. Way too disconnected for me. I didn't get the idea of the dark puzzle at all, not without reading the hints; then I was thinking, oy, no wonder the author stuck all this cruft onto the statues -- there's no elegant way to communicate the point of this puzzle. The duck puzzle was atmospheric, but a totally different atmosphere from the main game. Ditto for the crystal dome. (I didn't stumble on "listen to crystal", either, but at that point I'd gotten somewhat impatient.)
I've always been a heavily puzzle-based author, of course, but this game might actually have worked best without any puzzles in the flashback scenarios at all. Or at least much more straightforward ones. Just scenes dealing with the three subjects would have been as effective, without distracting from the plot. As an example -- the dark scenario, but without the statues. I liked the beginning of it; you're crawling around, doing things in the dark. (Although I played "Aayela" before "Fear", and I think that did a better job of the dark thing.)
Some of this is the bantering tone of the writing. This is a great demonstration of the potential of first-person IF; the protagonist comes through beautifully as a personality in his own right. Game text as spoken dialog, rather than exposition. (I don't know whether the game's weak spelling and grammar are deliberate or just the author's mistakes; I don't care, either. Spelling should be fixed eventually, but the slang and run-on sentences should be left as they are, you hear me?)
The storyline alternates being compelling and comic, and just when you think the question of your position as player has been swept under the rug, whammo. The ending doesn't shy away from, well, anything. (Assuming I have reached the ending. The author blithely ignored the requirement to include complete spoilers -- his walkthrough cuts off at the very last scene -- a decision I can only applaud at this point. "This point" meaning that I'm staring at the final screen, totally uncertain as to whether I've done it right. As the author obviously intended. As opposed to other contest entries, where authors submitted to having the "right" answers blazoned on their shirt sleeves. Foo on that. And you were wondering why my entry was a non-game which had no story to give away...?)
Well. I guess I should find some bad things to say. One spot of "guess-the-verb", not too hard to fix. A few more scenery objects that could have been implemented. A couple of bugs, a lot of spelling errors. A whole lot of places where the author forgot to put a backslash between lines of text.
On the author hand (I really meant to type "other hand" there, but I'll leave it the way it is!) there are all the guitar hints, which the author claims he really did improvise on the spot. That's worth a bonus point by itself.
PS: Played a little more; found a different ending. That's cool. I had tried the correct action, I think, but that synonym didn't work -- add it to the bug list. Mmm. Maybe.
The six characters are very snappily presented. They're not deep characters, but this is not a deep game; it's silly and the personalities are on the right level for that. Not stereotypes, mind you.
(Six characters, one of which is you, I should add. Didn't I comment on an earlier game saying that it was a good argument for first-person writing for characterization? This one is a good argument for second-person writing for characterization.)
The atmosphere is frenetic, which is of course the point of the story. People constantly wandering around doing things. Annoying things. Heh. Which is of course the point of your character.
Lots of terribly cute side comments.
You know, I just realized that this is "a college game". I hate college games. I didn't make the connection until well after I'd finished. Am I inconsistent? All the time, yes, but not in this instance. This game doesn't use any of the overused tropes of the college IF cliche (exploring, re-creation of real locations, in-jokes over-explained.)
Not difficult; I figured out all the puzzles quickly, except for finding the skateboard. Mmm, and getting the TV off.
Strangely, there were things I liked. It was a nightmare. Things didn't make sense. Weird things appearing in empty rooms. Random fragments of horror coming and going through the story like, well, nothing in particular.
The author's unique genius for constructing sentences is as evident as it was in "Liquid".
My patience, I discovered, had ended with the previous game. I turned this one off and didn't bother to play through to the end.
[Didn't give it a rating, either. I didn't enjoy it, but I decided I hadn't given it an unbiased chance.]
It was a joke, ok? A one-line joke.
"Yeah, I implemented Lisp for the Z-machine". There are probably only a few hundred people on the planet who have an inkling of why that is a silly thing to do. And most of you are reading this now. It probably ranks as one of the most obscure in-jokes of all time. (The fact that I had to write a whole Lisp manual to make the joke work makes it funnier, I hope, although actually it probably just makes me look more pig-headed.)
But I didn't write Lists hoping to win. Recently (today is Oct. 26) I've seen a few people saying that Lists was the best contest entry they've played to date. What? Jesus Flippin' Mohawk Christ! It's not fun, don't you get it? It's not fiction, ok? It's schoolwork! The manual is the most interesting part of it and that's not even interactive!
As I wrote Lists -- the work of three whole days, plus extra to do the manual -- I had this repeated vision of someone saying, "Lisp for the Z-machine! Ha! Ha! That Zarf, what a clever guy! Three out of ten." And then going on to a real game.
That's what I hope you all said. If Lists gets as high as third place, I'm going to sulk.
But I promised to explain myself. Actually, this was partially inspired by Dave Baggett's musings, many months ago, that he wanted to write IF in Lisp (or Scheme.) "Whoa," I thought, "I bet I can do a Lisp engine which I can play under my extremely terrific MaxZip interface! That'd be cool." So I whipped it out.
The obvious next step is a "dump" facility, that lets you write the program structures you've created out into a file. Preferably an Inform 6 link module, so that you can link them back into a game file you're writing. Easy enough to do -- then you can have a game partially written in Inform and partially in Scheme, with the Scheme controlling as much of the game as you need it to. Or, of course, an pure-Scheme IF system. Although frankly the memory limits are pretty painful.
For added fun, recall that Muddle, Infocom's design language, was Lisp-like. If one had the source for it, one could undoubtedly port it to my engine, and run it on the Z-machine. Wrap your head around that...
Oh well. By the time you see this, I'll know how well I did. But you can see what I scored myself as.
[Postscript: It's a few days later, and I've gotten email that started "Are you kidding?" Thank god someone noticed.]
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