Reviews: IF Competition 1999

Another year comes and goes.

I felt strange about the competition, this year, and not only because I was (finally) entering again. Lots of games, but not so many games I liked. Out of 33 games played, I put only 11 in the upper half of the Zarf Liked It scale.

Contrariwise, I had real trouble picking a winner -- because there were two entries I just enjoyed the hell out of. They were good in such different ways that I could find no basis for comparison.

But even at the high end, the competition felt... a bit lightweight. The good entries were either simple or gimmicky; the complex entries didn't succeed; the successful experiments felt minor and the major experiments didn't really work. (I put my entry in the "good but gimmicky" slot, by the way.) I didn't feel like any of them was a really solid, high-quality, all-round game of the kind of writing I really like.

I will now go look at earlier competition lists, to see if Golden Age cataracts are clouding my vision. Um, yes, a bit -- my scoring is undoubtedly crankier and less tolerant this year -- but not completely. I really did have more fun in previous competitions.

So I gave high 9 scores to my favorites, instead of choosing one to elevate to a 10, as is my usual habit.

(I do not, by the way, believe that this is a systematic problem. I'm not calling for changes in anything. This is entirely luck of the draw, and subjective: no games this year did everything that I wanted. Next year will be different.)

In the reviews below, you'll find two major elements to my crankiness.

First, IF works that aren't quite interactive. After Photopia last year, I should have expected it. But Photopia was interactive in just those small ways that are essential to what I call "IF". These entries tried different approaches, which mostly didn't work as well for me. Most of them wound up in the upper half of my range, because they were good work, but they migrated to the bottom of that upper half.

Second, entries that I couldn't finish. I hit several of these, and as you read my comments you'll find that none of them scored higher than a 4. Mostly these were games that lacked walkthroughs or hints (although in one case a hint system was present, but buggy).

Now, you immediately cry, where do I get off with a policy like that, when I entered a game with no walkthrough or hints?

You got a point there, I can only reply. Well, most of one. I didn't have a policy of down-scoring games with no walkthrough. I like stories with endings, and when I get stuck and frustrated, I don't enjoy myself. That's a low score. Which leaves the question -- would I have gotten stuck and frustrated in my own game? Would I have liked it?

I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. I'll certainly take it into account next time I enter the competition. As I write this, I don't know how I did; maybe most players didn't even care. (People did ask for hints on the newsgroup -- they weren't entirely without recourse.)

The scores....

As a contestant, I did not actually vote, of course. These are the scores I would have given. (So my decision to award no 10 really is completely theoretical.)

Since the scores are theoretical, I felt free to add plusses and minusses to the official ten-point scale. For even finer distinctions -- look to the order of the list. Games I enjoyed more are listed first, within each rank.

And yes, Winter Wonderland just barely edged out For A Change, after all.

Spodgeville Murphy and The Jewelled Eye of Wossname

David Fillmore

Okay, so I felt like playing a spoof first.

Good opening. Cute scenario, although rather weak on verbs and synonyms. (You'd think that "crack whip" would work.) The "full score" gag was done better last year in Enlightenment, but it's still good.

I got through the first puzzle by more or less trying everything. Then I was stuck. I tried to try everything again, but apparently I didn't try hard enough, because I'm still stuck. Oh well.

Beat the Devil

Robert M Camisa

Obvious problem right at the beginning: the room description is out of order. (That is, the "You wake up" paragraph reads like it ought to come before the "At first glance" paragraph.) This is just careless; you have to read what's coming out of your game, yea verily, even after you're sick of writing it.

I liked the game, though. Cute premise. Short and simple. There were, perhaps, a few more corridors than there really needed to be, but the direct layout of one room per store, and only a few objects per room, made for a tight arrangement.

I solved about three-quarters of it myself (or with in-game hints), and relied on the walkthrough for the rest. A few actions seemed like they could only be discovered by random search, but they were a minority. (The pill, and the thing you have to do to get the hammer, were the two I had trouble with.)

(No, now that I look, there are satisfactory clues for the hammer thing. I forgot to examine one thing.)

(That's worth mentioning, actually. Quite a few objects didn't mention their contents until specifically examined. That's a bit annoying when it's, for example, a counter. Or, for another example, you miss noticing a line of rotting zombies, which one might think would stick in the mind.)

Oh yeah: whyever would the Devil have painless, heatless flame in Hell?

Jacks or better to murder, Aces to win

J.D. Berry

Interesting work here. The author is packing a complete (if short) conventional story in, as the subtitle implies. All the characters are fully developed, including the protagonist.

This leads to a fairly wide disparity. The player's path is a set of simple and well-clued actions. The protagonist's story is a mess of scheming, plotting, considering the strengths and weaknesses of the other characters, remembering scenes and facts from childhood -- all of this boiling down to just a few actions, which are what the player does.

On the one hand, this means rather a lot of info-dumping and "you think... you realize..." The writing isn't strong enough to make this enjoyable on its own. And there's an inevitable sense of disjunction. In the ending, for example, the protagonist pulls some terrific sneakiness, but the player has nothing to do with it; the only command that was parsed was "go north".

On the other hand, the dumped information and the sneakiness are interesting (even if not brilliantly rendered as prose). And the underlying story ideas are excellent. The player is involved in some of the plot, just not all of it. "Jacks" represents an impressive approach to putting IF together; we should experiment more with it.


Cameron Wilkin

Enh, overall. The basic idea could have worked, but the fact that the cliche fantasy world is a superficial layer doesn't make it less dull to play through. There are hints (well, a hint) that something deeper is going on, but you have no way to figure out the truth or do anything with the information. So you have to ignore it. Which means you have to play the game purely at the top level. The ending, therefore, didn't involve me at all. So the protagonist was really killing innocent people? I had no way to know that.

I could only solve a couple of the puzzles without the walkthrough; most of what I was supposed to do was pretty unobvious.

...How then should the game have been fixed? I hear the peanut gallery ask. Good question. More self-consciousness in the writing, I think. When the narrative voice tells us that imps are evil, and the imp is evil, we have no reason to think otherwise. Some subtle inconsistencies would have helped. Even better, some puzzle that could only be solved by taking note of cracks in the fantasy world.

Maybe tying the parent character in with the rest of the plot -- making them more than one-scene backstory announcements.


"Josiah Pinkfoot" (Rick Litherland)

Oh, charming. This is exactly my favorite blend of whimsy-logic, wry satire and self-satire, and mathematics. (Come to think of it, all three are characteristic of Lewis Carroll... I wonder if that was deliberate.)

Yes, we've seen a lot of the tropes before -- inside-out worlds, Klein bottles -- but they work well here. Similarly, while throwing in unrelated genre elements with no warning (talking animals, an ATM machine, a magic fish, and a wormhole) is a bad idea as a rule, the author of Erewhon is deft and aware of what he's doing. (The explanation about air was much appreciated. As was the line about Tir na Nog and the woodchuck.)

Some flaws. The pacing is a little weird: you enter a new area, and it has a bunch of puzzles and a bunch of objects, but you have to run back to earlier areas before they fit together. (I don't object to this sort of thing in general, but in this game it confused me.) Worse, there's one puzzle which is definitively learning-by-death. Or learning-by-undo, if you like, but I was several failed commands deep by the time I realized I had to undo. And there's no warning at all that you're getting to a critical point.

On the other hand, how can I score down a game that uses the word "amanuensis"?

For A Change

Dan Schmidt

I knew I was going to like this game from the first line. "The sun has gone. It must be brought. You have a rock." It's my favorite opening line of the competition. (Yes, I peeked at most of the opening lines before I started playing games.)

The author flings standard English out the window, slaps you on the ass, and sets you on your way. Some of the world is described in fairly concrete terms; some is comprehensible through a whirlwind of adjectives-turned-verb and verbed nouns; some is entirely confusing. But there's plenty there to walk around and get hold of, so it's a playable game. Which is the point.

Most surrealistic games have taken the "journey through the soul" tack. I enjoyed coming across one that was completely opaque. If the game world is a metaphor, nobody but the author will ever understand it.

Not that I felt lost. The forces and goals of the world were quite clear. In fact, the best thing about this game is that even though nothing made sense, everything made sense. I solved nearly everything on my own. The biggest problem I had was not realizing that a particular object was takeable.

One puzzle can be put in an unwinnable state without any forewarning. The game warns you immediately when it happens, with an out-of-band "You feel like you're missing something" message -- an effective but inelegant patch. It would be nicer if the situation was reversible. But I guess I can't think of a good way to do that either.


Quentin D. Thompson

Sigh. Here, presented with sincerity and talent, is a complex work that I don't care about at all. I can see a plot, more or less, but the pieces don't seem to add up to it. I don't know what I'm doing or why. (Contrast earlier review, For A Change, where I did know what I was supposed to be doing, but not why. That had momentum. This doesn't.)

The imagery is pretty good, and I enjoyed the writing. The plot seems to branch a lot -- there are multiple, mutually exclusive exits from some of the scenes -- but I wasn't inspired to explore and see how it all fit together.

Needs more synonyms.

Thorfinn's Realm

Robert Hall and Roy Main

You know something's wrong when I can't get out of the machine in the very first scene, without looking at the walkthrough. It turns out there's an object which isn't mentioned anywhere in the first room -- only in the introduction. C'mon, this is easy to fix. "Open machine" should work, unless you make it entirely automatic. Work with the player, not against him.

And the second problem is a flashlight that runs out. The authors say this game was directly inspired by Adventure, and you can tell; Things Have Changed since those days. But in fairness, I'll try to view the game with early eyes.

...Well, it was worth a try. Just about everything in here is kind of annoying. No synonyms. Inappropriate examining and searching necessary. Unclear descriptions of exits. A maze, or what winds up being a maze -- I can't tell if it's deliberate.

Now, be clear, Adventure would be annoying too, by current standards. But my current standards are what I've got. Oh well.

Stone Cell

"Middle Edge" (Stephen Kodat)

The plot is simple: in a medieval setting, you are a young girl, who is thrown in jail for, um, for showing up at church in the wrong clothes. I'm afraid I didn't find this very convincing, which made the whole game sort of awkward. The whole thing pretty much went on like that. All the plot events sort of made sense, but not plausible sense.

And the language gets just a bit overblown, as well. "Overhead, the tortuous staircase ascends in a miasmal miracle, ready to be dispelled by the first step...." Oh dear.

As long as I'm picking out problems...

The famous "yes/no prompt" bug, which I seem to explain over and over. At one point, you're asked a question. The normal game prompt appears; but it's actually a modal prompt, to which you can only answer "yes" or "no". This is horribly confusing, because (1) any random command you type, such as "look" or even "save", is interpreted as a "no" without any indication, and (2) it messes up the undo sequence. ("undo" at that point is ignored, and "undo" a move later seems to undo two moves.)

Moral: implement "yes" and "no" as regular verbs, as well as variants such as "say yes" and "woman, yes". If you're absolutely unwilling to make this effort, at least put in a blatant prompt: "How do you answer? [yes/no]"

Also on interface: in several places, the game prints some text and then immediately clears the screen. This is a really bad idea. I don't know whether the author tried to put in a fixed delay, or whether he expected the screen to clear by printing a bunch of blank lines, but either assumption is a mistake. Either explicitly pause and wait for a keystroke, or don't clear the screen.

The description is sometimes confusing, particular at the beginning, when you overhear a conversation between two people. At first the voices are described as "Male" and "Female", which is fine, but on each successive turn the labels change: "Treble/Bass", "Smooth/Rough", etc. The implication is that the voices are different each time, which of course they're not. In fact, by the end, I had trouble guessing which was which. More clarity, less cleverness here.

The arrangement of the cell changes after you go to sleep. (It expands to several game-rooms, with much more detail.) This is a good idea for game-pacing -- you reassess the situation after a night's sleep -- but it's badly executed. I explored the cell thoroughly before I slept, and was thoroughly confused before I realized that all the knowledge I'd gained was wrong. Perhaps a more aggressive restriction at the parser level would help -- refuse to do much looking or examining before sleeping.

The intent of the puzzle-design is clearly that I should explore the cell thoroughly, examining and searching everything. I can't argue; that's what a prisoner would do. But I ran into a few descriptions out of order (a feature was described as familiar the first time I encountered it.)

Then I couldn't get past the first tough spot without the walkthrough. I've solved more obscure puzzles, but this had a combination of an unnoticed object and a peculiar object interaction that I don't think I would have gotten, no matter how much time I had. Anyway, from there on I followed the walkthrough. I think I would have had trouble at every step without it. Implausible, as I said, and not much authorial cluing about the way the game was supposed to run -- although I may have missed a lot by not exploring on my own, so I can't be certain of that.

Oh yeah: isn't pig iron only produced by modern blast-furnace methods? Must look that up.

Pass the Banana

Admiral Jota

Okay, it's an in-joke, written by some IFMud denizen in response to LucFrench's "competition predictions" post. (The giant flaming heads are just a bit of a giveaway.)

It's cute. I got ten points, following the appropriate chain of in-jokes. Lots of cute things can happen. It got a smirk. Not many points, but a smirk.

Winter Wonderland

Laura A. Knauth

I really wanted to like this game. The author has entered two previous competitions, and neither game really impressed me. So when I started this one, I hoped it would be better.

And guess what? I loved it!

(One might have guessed, really. "Erden" was too big, and "One-Room Dilly" was too small, and "Winter Wonderland", well....)

It's a winter holiday game, and the careful references to "solstice" instead of "Christmas" aren't just cultural inoffensiveness. The imagery drifts across a wider range of mythology, from living snowmen to fairies dancing around a Yule fire. Familiar, but freshly presented, and it never drops into the horrid muck of commercialized Christmas legend that we've all gotten sick of.

Put it this way: while I was playing this game, that hideous eponymous goddamn song didn't cross my mind once.

The story is... I'm having my usual reviewing reaction, where I don't want to give anything away about the good games. If you'll pardon the vagueness, the story is well-shaped and well-paced. Inciting incident, obvious goal, resolution, sudden expansion, broader game where you figure out the real goal, resolution, and everything ties together.

It's a good story, one I'd be happy to have floating around the cultural soup. Simple, yes; it doesn't have the dark tones of, say, Susan Cooper's winter story; it's a kid's story, a fairy tale (in the modern sense). But I was grinning like a loon all the way through.

I'm not sure it's a little kid's game, though. Most of it was well clued -- the goals were fairly clear -- but the puzzles were tricky. Not extremely difficult, but the puzzles were definitely at a level above the primary audience for the story.

(Not the entire audience, I say. The audience includes people like me, of course. But, well, you know what I mean.)

Actually, when I say the goals were fairly clear, I should mention that I solved several puzzles out of order, without seeing all the clues that motivated them. This made the storyline somewhat patchy. It still worked, but some of the momentum was lost; I was wandering around solving puzzles at random, instead of being guided through successive goals. An interesting question, actually. How do you sustain that sense of flow without forcing the plot to be completely linear?

And then, on the other hand, I had to check the hints in two places.

The writing is a little shaky. Some of the descriptions are unclear, particularly about exits. (The clearing near the cottage, for example.) I had the status-line map turned off, and the description of exits was nearly adequate without it, but not quite. And the general style of prose got a bit out of hand at times, particularly with characters that speak in rhyme. (That's really hard to do without degenerating into doggerel. Tolkien pulled it off. Not too many others.)

But, overall, I'm not complaining a bit. The imagery was vivid and fascinating; the story was -- I'm repeating myself. I liked this game.

Obligatory spelling warning: Peals of laughter. Peals. Really.

Obligatory "Story" bug warning: Never put newlines in your "Story" constant. It should just contain the title of the game, not a multiple-line banner. Otherwise the verbose/brief messages get screwed up.

Lurk. Unite. Die. Invent. Think. Expire.

Rybread Celsius

If anyone else released a competition game with Inform debugging mode on, I'd say "Wow, what an idiot. No, wait, that must be deliberate. He's being clever."

When Rybread Celsius does it, I say "He's either an idiot or completely on another planet, and I'll never, ever know which."

The amazing thing is, even with the debugging verbs I have no idea what's going on here. I think a Z-code disassembler would be necessary. Four rooms of incomprehensible imagery, and a door which causes a library error if you enter it.

The writing is way over-the-top, wielded with the skill of a surgeon in Antarctic mittens, and yet somehow vivid. Rybread has a great future in, um, something.

Strangers in the Night

Rich Pizor

This is an alley crawl, if I can use that term -- you play an urban vampire trying to get his fix.

The author says that the game is somewhat abridged, due to time constraints. That's certainly the way it feels. There are sixty-five outdoor locations, most entirely undescribed. (It takes nearly three hours of game time just to map them all. Given the eight-hour game time limit, that's an awful lot. It verges on learning-by-death, or rather learning-by-running-out-of-time-and-starting-over.)

Indoors, things are somewhat better, but still sparse. It's frustrating to go into a dance club and then discover that the game doesn't know the verb "dance". Heh. And half the places seem to be closed, even at the times that the doorman tells you they're open.

The background seems patchy as well. The author relies on the player's knowledge of vampire tropes, and doesn't really fill in anything to give the game a distinctive feel. (In the first few rooms, for example, I noted both that I'd been a vampire for "more [years] than most mortals can comfortably conceive", but I'd also apparently been living in the same apartment since I was alive. And the building seems to date from the 1930s, on top of that. Huh?)

The meat of the game, as it were, ought to carry all of this; unfortunately, it doesn't. All your encounters are entirely mechanical. You can pretty much walk in, bite someone, and walk out. The game describes your impressions of your victims' lives, transferred in the blood, but it's stiff and not convincing.

(Note: I'm dismayed to discover that growing up "in Silicon Valley amid engineers and Math Teams" is "supremely uninteresting" and barely counts as being a human being. I'd better get myself to a noisy bar before it's too late. Bye.)


J McIntosh

The requisite game about writing a game. The prose is amusing, but the scene reads like, well, an exercise (which the author admits it is). It's pretty static.

It doesn't help that I turned off the TV first thing, and thus had no idea what was going on in the dream sequence. If some plot constraint had prevented that, it would have worked better.


Shay Caron

A neat idea, but badly flawed in the implementation.

You play the Evil Overlord, trying to land your Evil Overlord Mothership (or whatever one might call it). This involves repairing your robotic minions, repairing the ship, that sort of thing.

The game is well-described, but woefully short of synonyms. Most of the neat scenery can't be referred to. And the verbs need a lot more synonyms, too. At one point I found a loose screw, and discovered "screw screw" worked, but "turn screw" and "tighten screw" didn't. Lots of cases were like this. When I encounter a motionless robot, my first instinct is "turn on robot". Not only did this fail, but it gave a generic error; I had no indication what I was supposed to do instead.

The plot fell apart as well. I did everything mentioned in the hints, and the game won't let me do anything else, and I still didn't win. Maybe I missed something, but I found other plot-flow bugs too, so I think it's just broken.

The author put a lot of care into polishing the interface: a preferences file for various options, footnotes, boldface in appropriate places, and so on. However, the line-break discipline seems badly screwed up in places. Paragraphs run together, without even a space between sentences. The hint system is a particularly bad example.

Obligatory prompt bug report: There are several kinds of prompts in the game (command prompt, the options menu, the hints menu). They all look identical. Very hard to tell what's going on as you use them.

And finally, the religious issue. This game is written in third-person. I've now tried several third-person IF games, and I just don't like the effect. It's distancing, it's jarring, and it throws me out of any feeling of complicity. Yes, the author uses the technique to throw in lots of background information. But the same information could have fit in a standard second-person game, with practically no change except punctuation.

4 Seconds

Jason "Trig" Reigstad

Good story, made unplayable by bad implementation.

The "research complex" game is becoming a genre all to itself, like college games and apartment games. And there's always some catastrophe.... heh. A frame story is the added wrinkle in this game; you're an investigator, called in after the fact, probing the memory of the lone survivor.

The contrast between the real world and the recalled one is vivid. Both are populated by clearly (if sparely) sketched characters, and there are glimpses of earlier history as well. Then, well, catastrophe strikes, and you have to deal with it.

Unfortunately, there's basically no way to do that without the walkthrough. The game is implemented so inconsistently that it's impossible to get anything done -- at least, it was for me. Many objects can't be referred to by the names used in the room description; only an obscure synonym works. Not only does opening a container fail to list its contents, but "examine container" and "look in container" never work; you have to "look" to find out what you've found out.

The final scene, being chased around by -- something -- just doesn't have enough structure to be solvable. I can see how it ought to work; after all, I've written a chased-through-the-research-complex game myself. But the descriptions aren't clear enough to clue you about what to do, and many of them are contradictory, or just impossible. (I tried the elevator scene twice. Once I got a sequence of messages intended for the corridor outside. The other time I managed to walk out through a closed elevator door, rather negating the effect of being trapped inside.)

Needs way more programming work, basically.

Music Education

Bill Linney

Call me picky, but when the introduction to a game tells me to practice the saxophone, and I practice the saxophone... I ought to be done with the game. Or I ought to get some clue that there's something else to do.

What I shouldn't be is stuck with 20 points out of 85, and absolutely no idea what needs to be done next.

I even fed the parking meter, which was the other concern expressed in the introduction.

So I pulled out the walkthrough, and followed it blindly. Yay, I guess. I finished the game. But none of what I was doing seemed motivated at all. How did I know that A wanted B, or that C wanted D, or that E gave hints? (I couldn't get any hints out of E, anyway.)

The implementation was generally good, but there were some bugs. For example, you can't push the piano without wearing the shirt, even if you're no longer in the original room.

Obligatory Use-the-Parser-Luke bug report: If you type "cut paper", the game asks you what you want to cut the paper with. But typing "scissors" doesn't work.


"Anatoly Domokov" (Ian Finley)

I must confess to mixed feelings. This is an excellent work. The writing is very good; the sound and visual touches add to the experience. It's an effective presentation of four viewpoint characters and a fifth, the artist whom they are all viewing.

However... it's very static. And I say this as someone who thought Photopia was a fully interactive game. This isn't, not even superficially. You move around and look at paintings. Everything that you learn comes out of that; there is no other form of interaction.

So the work is, without any irony, a portrait rather than a story. Or maybe "history" would be a better word. Things happened, but they don't happen now, and they don't happen to the player. So it's not really what I'm looking for in interactive fiction.

I was also a little disappointed that the characters didn't all mesh together. Two of them have interacted with the artist, and figure in his story, and therefore in each others' stories. But the other two seem to be entirely in their own worlds -- spinning ideas that seem to have nothing to do with the artist's reality. I guess I could take that as a comment about art; everybody's view is valid. But it felt like a waste of an opportunity.

One interesting touch is the use of first-person narrative. As I said earlier, third-person IF really annoys me, but this voice didn't. It was certainly appropriate -- four characters speaking, as if to the (observing) player.

Possibly the very passive game-nature that I'm complaining about makes this work; since the protagonist never acts, only observes, there's no discomfort -- nothing to be distanced from. Or, maybe it's the other way: the first-person voice adds to the feeling of non-interactivity. Hard to tell.

A Day for Soft Food

Tod Levi

Maybe I'm in a cranky mood because it's late and I've played too many games. But I didn't have the energy to explore this one. If I can't figure out the first puzzle in a game, I'm very likely to play from the walkthrough thereafter, and that was the case here.

The cat schtick is well done. You have to act like a cat. (Although it's certainly a very strategic cat.) The world appears as it would to a cat, which is good; and you treat the world as a cat would, which is better. The touch of blithe self-centeredness is just right.

And I liked that the overall plot, your owner's illness, is coherent -- but above a cat's notice. Cause and effect aren't really in the cat domain, and certainly not long-term responsibility. Okay, the bursts of strategic puzzle-solving aren't really consistent here. Nonetheless.

The author was careful to make experimentation safe. All the consumable resources have replacements available, and although there are many ways to lose, I don't think there are any ways to get stuck. (Except for running out of time. The strict move-limit near the beginning is annoying, particularly since, as I said, that puzzle stumped me. The limit could just as easily have been dropped -- the repeated messages about being hungry are sufficient incentive.)

The HeBGB Horror!

Eric Mayer

I liked this one a lot. It's a Musician Game, only it's also a Lovecraftian horror game, and the author just has piles of fun with the combination. Deft sense of humor and some genuinely great lines.

The puzzles are a little vague in places -- I had to look at the walkthrough a couple of times; but I didn't feel like I had to play from it continuously. There are multiple solutions to most of the puzzles that might get you stuck.

A lot of the plot is held together by twists of the form "Once you find out you need something, it happens to appear elsewhere in the game." This is confusing, particularly if it's obvious that you need it long before the protagonist figures it out. Most of the places I got stuck were of this form.

On the other hand, a few were just wacky verbs. The game could use a few more command synonyms. And it wasn't helped by Alan's somewhat persnickety parser. (It won't accept "scrap" for "scrap of cardboard", because it thinks "scrap" is a mere adjective.) Don't even get me started on the limp Mac port, which seems to freeze up completely when the output buffer reaches 32K.

But, technical details aside, an entertaining story and a good game.

One other note. Yngvie is a louse. Not a rat. Sir.

Only After Dark

anonymous (Gunther Schmidl)

A very spare game. Most of the scenes are one or two rooms, and you can only do one thing -- possibly with a few fatal alternatives. The goal-guiding is rather too immediate and heavy-handed for me. Yes, I'm involved, but I'm not making a whole lot of policy decisions.

If you don't figure out the thing-to-do in a scene, of course, the game grinds to a halt very quickly. That's what happened to me. I got to a particular room, which seems to have only two objects, no exits, and one meaningful action. That gets you killed. Lacking any toe-holds to get a grasp on the game, I gave up.

And that was after two tight squeaks. The opening scene seems to be buggy; most of the actions that seem reasonable give an inappropriate response -- they seem to be parsed as something else entirely. That blanks out all the clues about what you should be doing. The second scene is better -- at least, I didn't see any bugs -- but it still took me a few minutes to think of the solution.

The story was pretty interesting up to that point, which is frustrating. I'm curious whether the dark hints about your ship and captain turn out relevant to the plot. I won't know until after the competition, unfortunately.

A Moment of Hope

Simmon Keith

Serves me right. I trash a game for being minimal, railroady, and lacking in policy decisions. The next game I play, I have to praise for being minimal, railroady, and lacking in policy decisions.

This game, as the title implies, illustrates one event (albeit in several scenes). It's -- grn, I'm lacking lit-crit vocabulary here. What do you call a complete narrative that isn't a complete story? Never mind.

You only have one thing-to-do at any point in the game. Your commands are basically limited to deciding when to do it. But it works. I think it's because, in this one moment, the character isn't doing much; the game is intended to convey what it's like to live through it.

And the subject matter supports this. Trying to decide whether to call a girl about a date: one does dither, look around the room, re-read messages, and generally waste time before (ideally) picking up the phone. A forced-move IF scene plays exactly that way; so it fits.

(I also like the way objects pop to your attention. The author gives you a smooth sequence of dithering and time-wasting, which keeps the game moving along.)

Later scenes don't work as well -- less to do, more retyping of a single command as the protagonist narrates -- but the whole holds together reasonably well.

The story is surprisingly complex. Maybe that's not the right term either; but the central gimmick, the computer dating service, has a peculiar set of rules, and the story makes no sense if you don't understand them. I understood them. The author gets that information across early and painlessly, which is vital.

Life on Beal Street

anonymous (Ian Finley)

Interesting work. It's just interactive enough -- letting you flip through a handful of cards, as it were, pick one, and move on to the next choice. You can search carefully through the choices, or take what you're dealt, or stop.

The author says it's "all about telling a story". The story combinations are independent;there's no single underlying reality. But everything is filtered through the viewpoint of the protagonist, of course. I won't say it's a clear portrayal of a personality, but the voice is consistent.

My only complaint is that the cards are fairly long, and you see them all fairly quickly. So it's very easy to skim them as boilerplate. That reduces each run through the game to a list of six or eight glanced-at keywords, which obviously doesn't carry much weight.

I tried to get some feel for how the cards influence each other down the line, but I couldn't see anything; it seems to be random. That contributes to the sense of a bunch of static, unrelated cards, as opposed to a continuous story.

The gender-nonspecific style was awkward at first, and I never completely got used to it.


Brendan Barnwell

You may recall that I commented how much I liked the opening of For A Change. You may consider that the opening of Lomalow is very similar. Well, it's similar, but it doesn't work for me. I dunno what the difference is.

I tried to get into this, but I couldn't. Neither the writing nor the story particularly drew me in. The two NPCs are supposed to be the core of the game, I guess, but they felt pretty superficial. Plus, you have to ask them about the same things over and over, which is mechanical and dull. (Not to mention unobvious.)

I got through several actions by following the built-in hints. Then the game told to me ask the man about 14217, which is obviously a coding bug, and I couldn't get any farther.

King Arthur's Night Out

Mikko Vuorinen

Camelot... "'tis a silly place." And this is a small and silly game. I really can't think of too much to say about it. You're Arthur, happily married (some happentrack must have turned out right, I guess). You're trying to sneak out of the castle for a drink with the guys.

The writing got a few chuckles, but the game is very stock-IF. Search a few things, tie a few things, pick a lock, and you're done.

One line in particular annoyed me: when you look under the bed, the result is "There is something there." What? I was left rather unkunkeled by that. The proper (immediate) response is "get thing"; and I've put puzzles like that in my own games, yes, but I'd rather not be left so entirely confused about what just happened of a turn.


Casey Tait

I play most of these games on my home machine, which has no Web browser, since I don't have TCP/IP access from home. So Remembrance wasn't playable, of course.

Today I finally remembered to look up the link while I was still at work.

Here's what happened:

I went to the Remembrance page, using my standard graphical browser. (That's iCab, if you're interested.)

I read the note that said that JavaScript was required. I tried the form button on the bottom of the page, which didn't work, since iCab doesn't support JavaScript. Fine.

I found my old copy of Mac Netscape 3.0.1, which I never use, since it's so slow and ugly and unstable.

I found the preference to turn on JavaScript, which I never used even when I still used Netscape.

I went back to the Remembrance page.

Two windows popped up. One was a banner ad window, which started flashing crap at me. The other was a JavaScript error, saying something about "Alert" having the wrong number of arguments.

And the form button on the bottom of the page still didn't work.

No, I will not upgrade to a slower, uglier, and more unstable version of Netscape. JavaScript is a broken way to implement a competition game. Goodbye.


Chad Elliott

Okay, I've seen games where you have a limited time before you starve. I've seen games where you have a limited time before a monster eats you. I've even seen games where you have a limited time before your bladder bursts.

I must admit I've never seen a game where you have a limited time before you fling yourself off a balcony.

The author can't write English, none of the puzzles are solvable, you're always under an absurd time limit, and the bugs actually outnumber the correct lines of code. And yet, the story hiding in here isn't too bad. It could be turned into an interesting SF thriller game. With, don't take this wrong, another few years of IF authorship experience.

Bonus quarter-point for using the word "electroluminescent". (I just went to a Halloween party, wearing an electroluminescent armband. Really.)

Death To My Enemies

"Roody Yogurt" (Jon Blask)

Certainly the funniest comp entry I've played all week. (I must salute the use of Dr. Bronner's soap -- I keep two bottles on my curio shelf -- and the message when you pick up the chicken.)

On the other hand, my inventory says "a eggplant". Bzzt. Also, the spelling needs some work, as does the consistency of line-breaks. These lesser matters, thus, must be considered to cancel each other out. Let us go on.

More seriously, a lot of verbs don't work that probably ought to. "attach X to Y" is not the same as "tape X to Y", even though the duct tape seems to be a standard tool. Touching the toxic substance in the moat is curiously non-toxic. And the dustbuster mysteriously lacks any way to be turned on.

The weapons in the final scene seem to trigger the wrong winning messages in a lot of cases. Annoying, since this is more or less the whole point of the game.

I cavil. It's a one-scene game which got a laugh, which is all its little heart desires.

Six Stories

N. K. Guy

Um. Um um um.

I wish this hadn't been the first major experiment with multimedia TADS. Because (like In The End, three years ago), it's going to generate controversy for the wrong reasons.

This game is an engaging, well-narrated, visually attractive presentation of you sitting and listening to stories.

That's exactly how interactive it is. The author has put in one puzzle, which is very carefully kept separate from the stories. It doesn't tie in at all, which makes it rather anticlimactic -- at least to my sensibilities.

I like the stories. I have nothing bad to say about them. Compact fairy tales are a good thing. But, well, it's static fiction. As I complained about Exhibition (but even more so), it gains no new dimension for being implemented in an IF system.

Enough querulous whining. Some more technical comments:

The standard library is modified -- it's subtly more literate and polite. I like that. On the other hand, this leads to some unintentional TADS humor:

>x trunk
Pardon me, but your request is a bit ambiguous. To which trunk are you referring? The trunk or the trees?

I think this sort of game desperately needs a "review" command. When a large chunk of audio narration floats by, I find that I sometimes want to... scroll up. (If the stories were more tightly interwound, this would be even more true. They happen not to be, in this game -- but then, I didn't know that going in.) I'd like some way to repeat the audio script as text output.

[Footnote, added later: When I said "first major experiment with multimedia TADS", yes, I forgot about Arrival. Oops.]

Guard Duty

Jason F. Finx

I wasn't sure how to treat this game and The Water Bird, which were both declared unsolvable immediately after the competition started.

I decided to play through as much as I could. If the majority of the game was accessible, I could probably get a good idea of whether I liked it; and a bug near the end shouldn't prejudice me too much if I was forewarned.

In fact, in Guard Duty, "as much as I could" turned out to be one move. The "inventory" command crashes the game. Goodbye.

The Water Bird

Athan Skelley

This worked better -- at least, I got a fair distance in.

I like the plan: write a game based closely on the mythology and culture of the Miwok (a West Coast group of Indians which I had never heard of). Truth is, as the hack wrote, stranger than fantasy. And the story, as it starts to unfold, does have a realistically alien feel to it.

The setting, on the other hand, is realistically kind of dull. Everything seems to be laid out in a diorama, complete with kids running around playing realistically dull games. The copious footnotes don't help any. I mean, they're all interesting, but they add to the feeling that the history lecture is far more important than the story.

(Yes, I know, reading footnotes is optional. Doesn't help.)

Maybe that feeling would have shifted once I got into the heart of the story. I couldn't, so, well, there it sits.

The implementation is incomplete, as well as buggy. Lots of unimplemented objects and missing synonyms. At least two descriptions are interrupted by "(...)", which the author obviously intended to fill in later. (Hint: pick some string like "$$$" or "-FIX-" that you know will never occur in the finished version. Use that for such bookmarks. Before you release your game, scan all the source for that string.)

On the Farm

Lenny Pitts

Solid work, though not very exciting to my taste. The writing and presentation are sort of... stiff, I guess; lots of unmodified containment lists where hand-written descriptions would be more evocative. But there is a lot to wander around and do, and the characters talk a lot. The farm's sense of history is clearly the point, and it works pretty well.

The built-in hint system only gives one hint for any topic, which makes it useless most of the time. I wound up using the walkthrough quite a bit.

Obligatory Parsing Nitpick: In one spot, there are two objects which can be referred to as "arm". The command "push arm" disambiguates differently depending on which one is already pushed. This is really annoying. And while I'm at it, "attach X to clutch" and "put X in clutch hole" should be synonyms.

Chicks Dig Jerks

Robb Sherwin

Funny, but erratic. (And that ain't spelled with an "o".)

The plot goes all over the place, from the bar scene that starts the game to petty theft to some kind of horror schtick. I knew what I was doing at any particular point, but I had no sense of what was going to happen next, or what it had to do with what happened previously. The scenes in the middle are entirely disconnected -- not a bad idea for building background and character, but there's too much of that for a game this short.

The implementation is pretty buggy. You can play one scene twice by asking the wrong question, and the cemetary sequence at the end falls apart if you blink at it. (One critical event, which seems to be what the ending is about, doesn't necessarily occur.)

The writing is amusing -- yes, reading about glib assholes is fun -- but I didn't find the ending at all convincing. It's another sharp left turn, reaching for a point, and it's not well-written enough to support what the author is trying to do.

(Better that failure than the opposite, eh? :-)

Hunter, in Darkness

"Dave Ahl Jr." (Andrew Plotkin)

I wrote quite a long essay about the creation of this game. Then I decided I didn't want to post it here. Probably I'll put it on my web site in a week or so.

Last updated November 16, 1999.

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