Reviews: IF Competition 2001

People have already started saying that it's a weak year, and I think I agree. Some people are saying it's an awful year, and I don't agree with that. Fewer games than usual made me stand up and say "Yes! I'm really enjoying this!" But that's a skew, not a total failure of quality.

Look at the ranges: I rated 36% of the games (9 out of 25) in the top half of my personal rating scale. Last year, that was 48%. This is a drop, but it's not the end of IF as we know it. (Two years ago was a weak year, too.)

I didn't give out a 10 this year. I did give three 9s; none of them shone quite as brightly as I expect from a 10. This does not, of course, mean they were failures.

Other comments...

I got started late, and only played half the games. Oops. As usual, I bent the rules slightly by glancing at the first screen of each game in advance, before deciding what to play. Now, I started out with a "play one long game and one short game every day" plan, but I took too many days off to finish the course. So my list of completed games is not a random selection; it's influenced by how well the opening text pulled me in. I don't think that's particularly unfair. Even if it is, it's only one source of influence; I also (as usual) avoided Windows-only games. I play what I play.

My "reviews" continue in the short-and-random vein. (Potentially embarrassing, as I wrote three intensely long and detailed reviews of Playstation games during the IFComp period... but hey: I play what I play.)

Conversation menus. Several games used this. I continue to find the effect weak. I said this last year, too, and repeated exposure is not making me any happier with the device.

Glulx (and, generally, multimedia IF systems) seem to have inspired a wide range of responses. Some authors are writing games whose sole point is to demo multimedia features; some are integrating graphics and gameplay; some are taking advantage of one or two carefully-selected features, such as multiple windows, hyperlinks, or background music. I think this is healthy. We will continue to see a wider range of experiment in upcoming IF works.

Enough of that. Here are the 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.)

And the comments, in the order that I played the games.

(Foot, er, headnote: I did not know the true identity of any of the pseudonymous entrants, except for Adam Thornton. In case you care. And although Adam kindly lists me in the credits of "Stiffy Makane", I really didn't do any more beta-testing than to start up the game and see if the opening credits worked right.)

Schroedinger's Cat

James Willson

Okay, things are there only some of the time. I do not get the rule that governs this, but since the "about" text says there is nothing else in the game, I am not motivated to work it out.

Earth and Sky

"Lee Kirby" (Paul O'Brian)

Cute, but only a first chapter.

The author provides three different conversational systems (pre-scripted conversation, ask/tell about, and menu). This makes it very clear that menus are my least favorite. Yes, really, it breaks my sense of immersion more when the game prints out six different possibilities for my line, than when the game prints six alternating lines of a dialogue (without giving me any choices at all). I wound up always choosing "say nothing" followed by "talk to character", to get that dialogue -- but I wish there was an option to make the menus not appear at all.

Somehow the introduction left me expecting a more hard-science game. When the superpowers showed up, I had a bit of mental whiplash, and the insta-beast didn't help.

The initial sequence, when you're experimenting with your powers and trying things, with Austin prompting you -- a lot of work went into that. It reacts nicely to anything you try, and what you try affects the rest of the sequence.

Nitpick: gigawatt is a measure of energy flow rate, and is pretty much meaningless for a lightning bolt.

The Gostak

Carl Muckenhoupt

Also cute. And the idea sort of works -- except that I'm pretty sure you can't finish the game without looking at the hints.

(I couldn't actually finish the game at all. Can't figure out how to skobe the shamtag.)

Now, this doesn't invalidate the idea. Instead of playing a game that you don't understand (and learning about it in the process), you're performing the activity of playing a game and looking at hints, none of which you understand. (But you're learning about it in that process.) It's a slightly different joke. But a slightly less cool one.

Still pretty cool, though. I did, in fact, understand a lot of it.

(I got the in-joke references to Nethack directions, Smullyan yes/no words, and of course the title. Any others will have to be explained to me.)

Vicious Cycles

Simon Mark

I dunno. The story is well-imagined, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The whole thing seems slightly thin. I wound up looking at the walkthrough twice -- I felt like I had literally tried everything possible with the very small range of action available. (In fact, of course, I hadn't, but that's the feeling I had.)

Severe guess-the-noun problem with "ask Ethan about *". Lot more synonyms needed there.

"You know what to do" is rather a painful cliche at this point.

The Newcomer

Jason Love

Not finished. Gosh, I guess that explains why the game file is so short.


Daniel T. Freas

I didn't feel like I was given much of a goal, nor any plot along the way. if this is a walk through the ocean of the author's soul, about all I've learned is that I can't read his poetry. (I can't read most poetry.)

Good eye for scenery.

Most of the puzzles... weren't solvable. By which I don't mean they were impossible, or even hard. I mean that, if I lacked the solution, I wasn't given anything that would lead me in the right direction. And if I had a solution without a puzzle, I wasn't given anything that led me in that direction either. A general lack of direction, is what I'm trying to get across here...

Spelling and grammar are somewhat weak. (It's easy to misspell "fluorine", but to blow that and "iodine" both in the same sentence is a winner. :)

Some doors open automatically when you move through them; some don't. And it's not always locked doors that stay closed and unlocked doors that open.

I typed "unlock french door" while holding the key, and it said "You can't reach the lock from this side of the glass." Later I broke the glass and then typed "unlock french door with key", and it said "The key doesn't seem to fit the lock." So I gave up. Turned out that just "unlock french door" would have worked at that point. This was extremely misleading.

The game says it's impossible to get into an unwinnable state, but that's not much comfort when you put on a mask, can't take it off, and die a few turns later. There may be a way to get rid of it, but if the player doesn't know how, it is an unwinnable state for that player, with all the attendant negative consequences. (I.e., if the player hasn't saved, he's screwed.)

For some reason, I really like the fact that if you wander into the pine forest, you come out somewhere randomly. Maybe it's just the Zorkness of it all.

"get bars" hangs the game.

Silicon Castles

"Jack Maet" (David Given)

Impressive as a Z-machine abuse. Not IF.

One IF-relevant note: the opening screen has a timed delay. You can't interrupt the delay. This annoyed me. (Yes, I was literally pounding the space bar trying to get the game to respond.)

Journey from an Islet

Mario Becroft

More of an exercise than a game... well, more of an exercise than a story. Definitely a game.

Heavy on the description, which works reasonably well. Sense of wonder, but somewhat on the artificial side. Light on the plot, and I seem to be into plot this year, so I wasn't all that excited. "Pleasant diversion", is what comes to mind.

(Do the pipes have eight notes or seven?)

The Cruise

Norman Perlmutter

Ack! Huge infodump!

(Huge infodump with "Okay, you're now sitting on the barstool" tacked onto the end! Suppress that, please.)

This is all awkwardly phrased and hard to take seriously. I feel like the author has a good sense of what's going on, and what he wants to communicate, but it just doesn't come across well.

Oh, I notice that if you ask the man to repeat his infodump, he also repeats the actions of giving you a detector and spraying stuff in your eyes. Editing needed.

The "powerful magnets occupy[ing] the bow and stern" were worth a chuckle. Points for a creative solution to the ship-orientation problem...

And "It derives its power from the force of orangeness" got a laugh, also.

For the hundredth time, if you must ask a yes/no question that doesn't go through the standard command parser, use a different input prompt.

Okay, now I've got an "x" appearing every turn. That can't be a good sign.

The hints say "You do have enough money for the time being", but I don't. I give up. (It's only a last point anyway.)

Prized Possession

Kathleen M. Fischer

Oh, good. Short and highly scripted -- a sequence of very short scenes -- but engaging. Characters, background, description all solid.

The plot seemed somewhat vague. I don't think I ever caught all of what was going on, even after seeing multiple paths and endings; the scenes were individually strong, but I was dragged from one to the next without enough sense of connection.

I often felt like I had just one or two options available. Sometimes this was in general action and sometimes the conversation menus, but it actually felt about the same either way. This game did not throw me out of the narrative with its conversation menus; I much prefer this sort of brief, abstract topic list to the more common list of complete sentences.

Nonetheless, the whole game did feel a bit like a CYOA game.

This is just my sense of humor talking, but I would have preferred if, even if you end up marrying who you want to marry, you still wind up pumping out babies like a Krispy Kreme doughnut machine.

Typo in the second sentence ("check"). Sigh.

Volcano Isle

Paul DeWitt

When I started playing I immediately said, "Oh my, it's a Scott Adams adventure!"

A few turns later, rather less amused, I said "Oh, it's Zork."

It's definitely old-fashioned, and not particularly well-written. The design of the game is functional, but it's got nothing in particular to attract the attention.

"get in boat" really should be a synonym for "enter boat".

You Are Here

Roy Fisher

This seeks to emulate a bad fantasy MUD, full of stereotypical mudders. I would say it succeeds.

Some of this is pretty clever, but not enough, and it doesn't do anything with what it's got. Apparently I'm supposed to care about this because of a play someone is performing in Canada somewhere, but this is the IF competition, so I don't. When I got stuck, I stopped playing.

All Roads

Jon Ingold

I am well and fully pleased. This throws a handful of confusion into the air, lets you pluck a few grains out, and watches the rest bounce into the cracks between the cobblestones -- but you have just enough to come out the other side.

Venice in that era is still terribly, terribly cool.

(How can a three-legged stool rock?)

The Evil Sorcerer

Gren Remoz

A bit of nostalgia for Classic Adventure Gaming -- brightly-colored locations, explicit plot-token hunting, random mixtures of modern and generic-fantasy elements. I enjoy that stuff more than you might think from reading these comments. However, the writing is clunky and the game doesn't come off.

Game-logic sometimes becomes absurd. When Julia says you need a particular item, and she doesn't seem to notice it is there in the room with you, the sense of disbelief becomes strained.

Inventory limit -- annoying and pointless.

Getting the rusty key is a terrible guess-the-verb problem. Should have about a dozen more synonyms. I'd say even "get key" should work, if you're holding the appropriate item.


"Dionysius Porcupine" (Dennis Jerz)

This game has a terrific sense of atmosphere and prose, a medium-good sense of plot, a weak sense of pacing, and a lousy sense of actually being finished.

I really enjoyed the absurdly floofy first chapter. The second chapter didn't seem to have much to do with the first, and I didn't gain much confidence that it would hang together at all. The storyline does come together more after that, but it goes in a number of different absurd directions, and I wasn't quite convinced.

Unfortunately the last bits were full of unpatched seams -- the game may work right if you stay on the intended rails, but as soon as you try to do anything else, you get inappropriate daemon messages, skipped segments of narration, and crashes.

Even the walkthrough is buggy, for heavens' sake. I managed to get nearly to the end, but the last move is either unobvious or broken, so I didn't see the ending.

Nonetheless, the game has good writing and a solid sense of what it's supposed to be, which is worth a lot.

The conversational responses don't track game events very well. You can ask a character about something before he tells you about it, and the resulting text doesn't make sense. (Try "ask aloysius about stranger" too soon, for example.)

(Debug mode left on in competition release.)


John Evans

You start this game with a bathing suit, one sock, a keyring, and (optionally) a tattoo. I have nothing to say about that aspect of the game, but it does remind me of a conversation I had several years ago:

Housemate: "And they came out on stage wearing nothing but fedoras and socks."

Me: "Hm. Well, that could actually cover quite a bit, depending on where you wear the fedora."

Housemate: "...or the sock."

Sorry. Back to the game. I started it up, looked at the initial layout, read the about text -- a classic case of "Inform learning experience expanded into comp entry". Oh no. Then I started wandering around a bit, and realized I was enjoying the damn thing.

I bounced around and messed with toys for nearly the full two hours. I wound up looking at the hints frequently; too many of the puzzles were unmotivated or underclued. (Plus, a few bugs.) But it was still fun.

Needs more synonyms and responses. "touch fire" : "You feel nothing unexpected." The author says to examine the scenery, but far too many scenery objects are unimplemented -- this is such a spare environment (and intended for exploration) that everything should be examinable, even if it just gets a "not important".

(Generally needs much more beta-testing.)

Nope, I still don't like conversation menus.


Mike Duncan

Well-named. Each bit is well-written, but I wish they all hung together better. The few scraps of continuity, reprises of one scene's background in another, work so much better than the one-shots. I wish the game had had a lot more of that.

As it stood, I was reacting to each scene on its own. Some I liked, some I didn't. But I didn't feel like much was building up over the full course of the game. So I had no reason to care about the scenes that didn't grab me.

The response to "inventory" is "Sorry for all you pack rats out there, but there is no inventory command in this game - and neither is one needed." Okay, but "examine me" gave me an inventory listing; it's ingenuous to pretend you can't do it. Since the game-help specifically recommends "x me" as a way to get oriented, perhaps "i" should map to the same command.

(Having finished the game, I still think this is a good idea. It would fit in just about every scene. "Look" and "inventory" are reflexive commands; when they don't work, I feel paralyzed, which is distracting.)

The status line always has "/n/t" appended. I don't know if this is a bug in the game or the TADS 2.5.4 engine -- it could be the MaxTADS shell, but I don't think so.

Sheesh, if the text refers to "the long cold thing", I should be able to type "examine long cold thing".

Generally doesn't give enough credence to standard IF commands, even when they're appropriate. In one scene the game suggests resting, but "wait" is not a synonym for "rest". More attention to synonyms, when variant terms are used in the text -- "mines" for "mine", for example.


Chris Mudd

The story tries to be about extremes of emotion, but it doesn't involve me. Neither the writing nor the interaction pulls me in; I don't know enough, I'm just shown these people.

A Night Guest

"Dr. Inkalot" (Valentine Kopteltsev)

Er, well, I guess. The poetry is no good and the game is a sequence of guess-the-next-line puzzles. (If you had to rhyme, that would be clever, but no.)

Extremely short, and not interesting.

Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country

"One of The Bruces" (Adam Thornton)

So this game is deliberately crude, stupid, and offensive to very nearly everybody.

It is funny in places, however.

It is not particularly erotic. For which I thank all the gods.

an apple from nowhere

"steven carbone" (Brendan Barnwell)

(For no particular reason, I'm writing these comments as I play, instead of when I'm done.)

First-person, sigh -- although I guess the author is trying to write in a style that sticks out; not just first-person, but all lower-case.

(I don't know what the heck's going on here.)

Okay, the author is definitely playing with prose styles here.

However, now it's over and I still don't know what the heck's going on. We've definitely got enthusiasm, and the car chase is a great set-piece, but I'd like it to be in aid of something.

Bane of the Builders

Bogdan Baliuc

I always like an exploring-alien-planet theme, but this is pretty minor. The protagonist doesn't seem to react to his environment at all -- not even to, as he believes, live aliens -- and it's hard to get excited.

Nice idea for changing environment.

By the middle of the game, I'm playing "guess the author's intent" and "guess the verb", which is doubly disappointing. Also, a boring maze.

Very weak on implementation of commands. "Set blaster" not only fails, it doesn't give you any clue that "set blaster to stun" will work.

Best of Three

Emily Short

"Grant Stern"?!

This is signed, so I guess I can compare it to Galatea... The conversational web is still an impressive device, but I am (as usual) less interested in anything that doesn't have a sci-fi/fantasy edge. I messed around with the dialogue for about fifteen minutes, and then had a sudden spasm of You're-All-Just-A-Pack-Of-Cards and typed "topic sex" just to see what would happen.

I identified enough with the character that I was (mostly) steering the conversation by my own impulses. I was uncomfortable saying anything that I wouldn't say in real life; and the engine was willing to accommodate me, which means that it's probably very flexible in letting the player shape the conversation.

On the other hand, I identified enough with the character that I resented being drawn into this conversation which, in fact, doesn't resemble anything that actually happens to me.

Conclusion: well-written, but not in aid of anything that really interests me.

(Footnote: I spent half an hour trying to dredge up the name of, you know, that statue game that Emily Short wrote, starts with a "G"... Totally blanked. The only answer that was materializing was Giaconda -- and that was clearly leaking in from an alternate universe. I hate when that happens.)

(Giaconda is probably worth playing, though.)


"The Wanna-be Writer" (Marnie Parker)

An interactive grammar test. Somewhat amusing; I like the art; the test at the end is nicely implemented, in a 3 in Three sort of way.

However, only barely a game.

Stick it to the man

"H. Joshua Field" (Brendan Barnwell)

Good evocation of experience, and a lot of character and dialogue description, but after I wandered around for a while I realized I didn't have anything in particular to do. Maybe something would have come up, but I typed "x oscar" and the game hung.

Last updated November 15, 2001.

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