Comp 2003 Reviews

This year, I didn’t have as much time as I do some years, so even though there were fewer games, I didn’t play all of them. I got to most of the ones that run well on my platform, but not even all of those. This is life.

Because I thought it was an interesting metric, I noted down how many times I saved each game before I stopped playing. Lots of saves doesn’t necessarily mean that a game was better than one with few saves, or even that it was more difficult. But it does seem to indicate that I was sufficiently immersed in the game, and sufficiently worried about things not going well, that I felt a need to save. Take that for what you will.

Rating: 2
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0

I don’t really enjoy games in which the author tries to make up for the game being bad by telling you it’s going to be bad and then commenting nonstop on its badness. The spelling and punctuation are dubious. The implementation needs work. Logic has been omitted. “You can burn stuff with this,” you’re told, when you pick up a flaming branch. But >BURN (thing) is not implemented. Also, apparently flaming branches do not provide light.

From the things crazydwarf said, it’s clear he didn’t expect this to be a great game, and it’s not. Sorry, crazy.

Santoonie Corp
Rating: 4
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0

This game shares a quality with the bits of Amissville I saw: the author (or authors) combine an active imagination, a lively sense of the absurd, and a good eye for detail with exceptionally poor implementation. Despite the rough surface there are quite a few well-observed bits, both in setting and characterization. The way your (adoptive mother?) talks, the way she cooks and handles her cigarette, and the dilapidated state of the building you find are described in specific, memorable ways that hint at real-world models. This is all the more interesting to me because it’s not a world I inhabit. It only happens in flashes — sometimes the dialogue and descriptions are dull, non-existent, or simply tortured — but nonetheless every once in a while I feel as though I am seeing how some real person really might view the world, in an environment and background very different from mine.

On the other hand, whatever the author’s talents may be (I’m going to assume, for simplicity, that there’s just the one), he also seems to take it as a point of principle to avoid any of the little features that make life easier for the player. Rooms sometimes lack descriptions, synonyms and directions that ought to be implemented aren’t, and so on. I can see that the author and I have different approaches to implementation, and that from his point of view mine might be obsessively detailed to the point of clutter. He might even be right. But austerity is also a tricky thing to handle properly, because if you have a sparse room description and no further descriptions available to help the player visualize critical objects, the player may have no idea what to do next. And Delvyn’s behavior is so odd in spots that you’re not sure whether you’re looking at deliberate surrealism or horrible bug.
In any case, I got stuck, and then I died of a hunger daemon, and then I heard through the grapevine that no one actually knew how to win. Oh well. Given, well, everything, I have the impression I would be disappointing the author if I actually liked this game.

John Evans
Rating: 3
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0

First impressions: I am tired of Zork knockoff locations. The white house and all its parodic forms are getting on my nerves. And I also lose faith when I look for information about a game and the author has included a list of known bugs. That just seems like a bad sign.

Next problem: I get to a point in the story where I’m told to look at the accompanying image file in order to see some symbols. I assume this is important, but I don’t HAVE an accompanying image file. D’oh.

And it goes downhill. I take the bust and put it on the pedestal inside the house. I gain access to a room full of furnishings I can’t examine; a phone that has no handset or buttons and produces no particular result to “listen to phone”; windows I can’t look through; a fireplace that’s not implemented. There’s a bust apparently identical to the bust I just carried around a moment ago, but now I’m not allowed to move it. What, did it gain fifty pounds?

There is a bronze key on the ground. I pick it up and go back into the main room, and try to unlock the locked doors with it, but both of them say that they are “not something you can unlock”. Okay, maybe there’s no key to them in the game, but if they don’t have a keyhole (say), it seems like there should be a special message to that effect. If they do and the bronze key doesn’t fit, then they deserve to have a statement saying that.

I wanted to like this game. I wanted to like it extra because the author’s previous games (Castle Amnos, Elements, and Hell: A Comedy of Errors) all seemed to have some unfulfilled potential, and some adroit coding. Amnos was too long, Elements too uneven, and Hell gave too little feedback about how to win, but I found Hell the best of the three: I spent quite a while on it before sadly concluding that it wasn’t going to be winnable. Still, this looked like an uphill trend, and I hoped that this time John Evans would have produced something I could whole-heartedly endorse. I have to admire his persistence, at the very least. Unfortunately, either I ran into a major bug that somehow cut off all interaction with scenery objects, or this game is more haphazardly implemented than any of its predecessors.

I’m not sure what to suggest. Get a collaborator, maybe? Or a team of ferocious, dedicated, experienced testers who will comment on gameplay as well as bugs? Mr. Evans obviously has ideas, and some of them are pretty cool ideas, so it’s sad and frustrating to see them like this, not getting a chance to shine.

Adoo’s Stinky Story
Rating: 5
Played to Completion: Yes
Number of Saves: 4

The title made me severely apprehensive, I have to admit, but the game mostly proved me wrong. The tone is lighthearted and pleasant most of the time; the puzzles are mostly not too hard. There is one action I would not have thought of trying, which was necessary to get the game rolling; fortunately, the built-in hints got me past that point without my having to refer all the way to the walkthrough. One or two of the other puzzles were also non-obvious, but again the hints came to the rescue.

I’m not quite sure why it was necessary for me to die of eating cookies; that seemed pretty arbitrary, especially since I was not allowed to quench my thirst with water. I assume that the gallon of milk would have taken care of things, but at the time I was unaware of how to get rid of Mom, and she kept cold-heartedly shutting the refrigerator. There were also a number of actions that seemed obvious, at least to me, that the author had not accounted for: things I tried to give or show to NPCs, for instance, tended not to have a custom response even at times where it really seemed they should. And I’m not sure how I was supposed to know I should rush that un-sent letter to the mailbox, considering it has been lying around, untouched, in my desk for months.

Other observations: this seems like an extremely juvenile way for someone who is supposedly in college to behave. But we’ll accept that. Also, a lot of the objects lying around the house would have been more smoothly presented, I think, if they’d been described in the main text of the room description and then marked scenery. There are a lot of pieces of furniture that are not at all important to the game; implementing them as separate objects seems to imply that you should be doing something with them, which misdirected me a bit.

All in all, fairly solid, but I wasn’t carried away.

Episode in the Life of an Artist
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 6
Number of Saves: 4

Competently coded, entertaining in its way; I got annoyed with my PC, but not more than I was intended to, I assume. At one point I thought a great deal more game was coming when, in fact, I was nearly at the end.

Aside from that, it’s nicely paced; I almost always had something to do. I could have passed on some of the opening scenes where I am tediously getting ready for work, but I think I can see why the author thought they were necessary. By contrast, the widget-wodget sequence is well constructed. I made my widget-wodget once because that was what I was supposed to do. I did it a second time because I couldn’t think of anything better to try, but thinking: if this goes on more than one more cycle, I’m going to go have a look around, because making widget-wodgets all day sounds dull. Another widget and another wodget emerged, and I thought, “okay, that’s it, I’m bored. I’ll just assemble this one and then go look for the fun part of the game.” So had there been one more or one fewer of these cycles, they wouldn’t have worked.

Likewise, I gradually got fonder of the PC despite his rather inane application of quotes and the goofy Salieri riff; when it came time to destroy the machine on his behalf, I was really happy to do so.

With all that said, I was faintly disappointed in this. I realize it’s (in some ways) about living a life in which you miss the point 99% of the time, and the fact that you never really find out what was going on, or why, is part and parcel of that. The outtakes redeemed this storyline a good bit, though I got a little impatient waiting for the letter to scroll out onto the screen. I’m still not sure I found it narratively satisfying. And I think I’m tired now of the thing where the PC is working for, or testing for, or otherwise involved with an IF-writing company.

Chris Malloy Wischer
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 7
Number of Saves: 1

Wow. This is meticulously coded — no bugs that I could find, other than the, eeagh, scads of beetles. A few bits, especially the descriptions in the prologue of the game, seemed a little overwritten; they were metaphorical enough that I had a hard time telling what they meant, in a strange environment where these metaphors could have been literally true.

I’m not sure I would have thought of the way to kill the ghoul on my own, and the hint system sometimes told me everything but the one fact I really needed, which forced me to use the walkthrough more than I would have liked. In particular, I didn’t grasp what the significance of reading the book was. I thought I should read it some more, in order to find out details about these runes, but that was no go. I didn’t realize that just knowing they were protected by a glamour would be enough to let me destroy them.

But these quibbles are all on the minor end. This is not only technically proficient, it has a number of touches that show how much the author was paying attention: transition text between locations, changes in description reflecting what I have done, a number of actions accounted for that I wouldn’t have thought of, and so on.

My chief complaint is that it is really disgusting and rather depressing as well. I badly wished for some way to comfort Rykhard, but no way is forthcoming. (This is not really a flaw in the game, since the author clearly meant it this way, but I did not come out of the experience with a happy smile.) I was pleased, though, that the author had indeed programmed a reaction for my attempts to hug him. And it was a relief to get rid of the idol at the end.

My final rating wasn’t as high as it might have been because of the overwritten moments and the fact that it made me go UGH so much.

No Room
Played to completion?: Yes
Rating: 4
Number of Saves: 0

Amazing that a game this short could have an amusing list.

This is– despite the coding– really a one-room, one-puzzle game. (Sorry, but I insist on thinking of my PC as being SOMEWHERE.) As one-puzzle games go, it’s a lot better than last year’s peculiar Koan, and somewhat less frustrating than Spotlight from a few years ago. I suppose there tends to be one of these in every comp, and it makes a nice sort of palate cleanser between longer games.

As far as the puzzle goes, I knew instantly what I had to do, but took a little while to do it because interaction with the flashlight did not work quite the way I expected. I imagine that the main concept is one you either get right away or don’t get at all (though if you sat through any school physics demonstrations, it should look familiar).

Hercules’ First Labor
Played to completion?: Not hardly.
Rating: 1
Number of Saves: Don’t think it would have been possible for me to save, but if so, didn’t play long enough to find out.

Apparently, Hercules’ first labor is getting out of bed in the morning. I tried UP to no avail; I tried taking my pillow, and it said WHAT?!; I tried GO UP, and my room description briefly and tantalizingly changed, and then it switched back to the original.

Possibly this doesn’t run optimally on my system? But I have no way of telling, since it plays like a terminally buggy thing. If this were a standard release, I just wouldn’t comment or review. Since it’s a comp game, and since it implements what I saw rather badly, I score it a 1.

Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0
Rating: 2

This game needs work on the descriptions, and a lot more beta-testing. I spent my first three play sessions trying to find a way to cram the bandage under the door to stop the gas from seeping in, and being baffled that the game recognized neither “gas” nor “door” despite their ability to kill me; trying to wrap the bandage around my face as a mask, and finding that wearing the bandage was implemented all wrong; and going around the room looking under everything because I had run out of other ideas. The dresser I assumed was useless, since “open dresser”, etc., had all told me that the word dresser was unknown. Only when I read the walkthrough did I discover that there was an object (the same one? a different one? I don’t know) called an “armoire”, a word not used, to the best of my knowledge, anywhere in the text.

There was a similar comedy of errors involving the application of the bandage, when I randomly cut myself going into the supply room. The supply room in which, as it happens, the word “supplies” is not recognized and the shelves, and whatever they contain, are (apparently) unimplemented. Then again, maybe not. Maybe they’re called something else, like, oh, say, “bookcases” and “food rations”, and I just don’t know it.

Rigorous beta-testing should find these problems. I might’ve tried to keep going if I didn’t generally feel unengaged, though. My character displays a strange lack of concern for the situation, since >X TV has him or her watch several minutes of some random rerun while POISON GASES ARE LEAKING UNDER THE DOOR. Man. I know you’re supposed to stay calm and try not to breathe in any more air than you have to, but this seems extreme. Since he or she seems unperturbed by the whole poison gas situation, I guess I’ll leave her/him to fight it out alone.

Cerulean Stowaway
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0
Rating: 5

I got stuck in a huge box and jettisoned into space without ever realizing that I’d got myself into a situation from which there was no real return. And I hadn’t saved. And I heard that this was the sort of thing that was going to happen to me over and over, so I didn’t bother trying again.

What I saw of the game was adequately implemented, light-hearted, and pleasant, but it didn’t leave me with a burning ambition to find out what happened next. On the other hand, had this not been a comp entry, I might (might) have been inclined to keep playing despite the fact that you can easily make the game unsolvable without any warning whatever. As a comp game, though, it lost me.

Temple of Kaos
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0
Rating: 3

This was a bit like a combination of Schroedinger’s Cat (an abstruse, surreal puzzle with no plot) and The Night Guest (all poetry all the time, not much implemented if you stray from the path). I didn’t like either of those very much, and I didn’t like this.

This is partly a matter of taste, though I am pretty sure that the poetry isn’t very good. (No, I’m not saying I could do better. There’s a reason I only include deliberately awful poetry in my games.)

I think I probably missed the intended point of this game, but once again I couldn’t understand it well enough to get engaged and care. And I don’t mean “understand your subtle intellectual concept” so much as “envision the details of the world well enough to imagine how I could interact with them” — though those two poles are closer together in this game than they might be in others. In a surreal environment you have to work that much harder to make your game world accessible, and even Zarf, who does a better job than most, has let me down a few times.

Mike Sousa
Played to completion?: Yes
Number of Saves: 2
Rating: 7

Competent, entertaining, and, my goodness, that really is a lot of XYZZY award ceremony text you have there. Live and uncut.

Reminded me a lot of a (shorter, gentler, but also less funny) Janitor, what with the company that makes IF-alikes. I most enjoyed playing with Genie, but most of the puzzles made sense to me. The purple room had me gritting my teeth. I suppose it was supposed to do that, though. And I think there wasn’t quite enough description about the direction the fan was spinning in the orange room, if that was supposed to be important; personally, I managed to solve that bit by accident, and only realized that there was an issue later, when I read through all the hints.

Lacks enough story to get a higher score out of me, because though I was entertained, I didn’t really care very much, and level-of-engagement is what gets a game into the 8-10 stratum. But still, it was well-enough done to stand out. Which is what the 7 is for.

Aaron Reed
Played to completion?: Yes
Number of Saves: 10
Rating: 9

Oh, this is fun. It reminds me a bit of Liza Daly’s “Dinner with Andre” a few years ago, not just because of the restaurant setting (though that helps). There’s also the entertaining writing, the way one disaster leads to another, and the detailed implementation of all kinds of stuff:

>put carrot in lobster tank
You wave the carrot tantalizingly at the lobster, but it seems uninterested.
A less thorough author wouldn’t have implemented that at all; a less inspired one wouldn’t have made it funny. This game — especially during the well-polished opening acts — anticipates a great deal, and deflects the things you’re not allowed to do with wit and charm.

The pacing is superb — the puzzles and the story both progress fairly evenly throughout the duration of the game. I appreciated how later disasters were set up in advance, so that each little episode with the lobster seemed like the inevitable working of fate, rather than an ever-more-elaborate contrivance. I also admired the game’s neat division into three acts, and the way any boring and unhumorous puzzles were skipped over in the intermissions. Doing all the setup work of preparing a vegetable soup would have been dull and slowed down the game pace; much better just to cut ahead to the point where it is nearly ready.

And let’s talk about the puzzles for a moment. These are, for the most part, great puzzles. No, they’re not the most mind-bending puzzles ever, and I don’t think I’ll be remembering any one specifically for its complexity or its sneaky solution. Individually, they’re not works of zarfian genius. There were a couple — particularly with the stove dial and trying to figure out what range would work — that were tricky because there was not quite enough feedback on failure. That could be tuned up. It wasn’t perfect. But in terms of functioning within the greater whole of the game, these puzzles are very well-conceived. They are just the right level of difficulty: just hard enough to make you feel the PC’s pain, just easy enough that you can almost believe in them as improvised on-the-spot solutions. They fit well into their environment. Some are silly, but their silliness is in keeping with the rest of the story.

There are bugs. Once or twice NPC descriptions were printed twice in a row. Disambiguation sometimes behaves oddly. Sadly, these blemishes become more common and more noticeable as the game goes on. There is one point where I think the lobster is supposed to be described as being present, but it isn’t — I can’t see it anywhere, but I can hit it, as I discovered from the walkthrough. And then, during the final stages of my epic battle, the lobster was described as lobster_battle or something along those lines. I assume, from the level of polish on early parts of the game, that this means the beta-testers tired before working as much on the later bits, or the author ran out of time to work on it, or some combination thereof.

Things that could be cleaned up, and I hope will be cleaned up for a rerelease of this game, because I really liked it overall. (I realize that the invisible-lobster bug would have made me quit and write a very nasty review if it had occurred towards the beginning of the game. Since it occurs almost at the end, the game had had time to win my trust and affection, and I wasn’t about to leave over such a detail. I’m not being completely inconsistent here: the difference between the vanishing lobster in Gourmet and the vanishing dresser in Bio is that the former occurs in the very first room, where it should have been caught by the most rudimentary beta-testing; it completely impedes the flow of the game; and, critically, it happens before I have anything invested as a player.) By the end of “Gourmet” I had a lot of strong feelings — hate for the lobster, concern for the restaurant, eagerness to be reunited with my lost fingertip. I even found I rather liked most of my customers, except for the irritating family at table one. It came in at just about the right length. I had to look at the walkthrough a few times, but many of the puzzles I was able to solve on my own with a bit of application. (One red herring: Mrs. Davenport’s purse, and the notebook inside, are described so clearly that I thought I might be supposed to steal them and read them while she was asleep. It surprised me to find out that they weren’t implemented.)

Final complaint: I was startled that it ended when it did. The conclusion seemed a little abrupt. I would’ve gone for a slightly longer epilogue– even just a turn or two– during which to savor my success. Without a few more moves of cool-down time, the fire with my chef’s hat seems almost like an afterthought, since the boss monster of the piece is obviously the lobster.

But this is all nitpicking about what is mostly a fine structure. This was novel, charming, and enjoyable, with a good blend of puzzle and light story. With a bit of (mostly technical) cleanup, it could be just about perfect. I loved this game, and I’m happy every time I think back on it.

Paper Moon
Rating: 4
Played to Completion: No
Number of Saves: 0

I tried this without the walkthrough, and didn’t get very far. Then I tried it with the walkthrough, and found myself confused by the seeming arbitrariness of it all. Not to mention that at least one of the sequences in the walkthrough didn’t seem to work. (Maybe I did something wrong? Maybe I accidentally screwed up a trigger? I don’t know, but I never found where the armoire was that I was supposed to be opening. Other people inform me that they did follow the walkthrough with success, so it was probably my poking around and doing things out of order that broke the game.)

I don’t know. I don’t want to be too discouraging; I didn’t get far enough to interact with the main puzzles, and maybe they were good. I just found both the plot and opening puzzles that I saw pretty arbitrary, not giving me enough motivation to want to pursue them further, especially since it would’ve meant starting over with the walkthrough again. There are some games where I feel guilty about the minimal attention I gave them, and this is one. But even after a break, I didn’t feel like coming back to it, somehow. Oh well.

Internal Documents
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0
Rating: 4

I spent a while wandering around the map until I got lost, without running into much that directed my efforts. I had an unsatisfactory encounter with the bartender, in which he did not respond to any of the standard NPC commands for opening a conversation. I got frustrated trying to get my document out of my briefcase, because of the arbitrariness and goofiness of the things that stopped me; I got even more frustrated with the game’s daemon reminded me the third or fourth time that the executive order was in there. I knowthat, I just can’t get at it!

By the time I concluded I didn’t know how to solve the opening puzzle, I was too bored to bother going through the walkthrough. I know this is the most horrible of condemnations for an author to hear, but that’s how it is. The game didn’t look particularly buggy, but it wasn’t implemented with enough detail, the structure wasn’t clear enough to motivate and give me goals, and the writing was fairly bland. I think I might actually enjoy a politically satirical game (well, maybe; depending on how it was written), but I spent most of this one wandering around confused and apathetic on a map I couldn’t keep track of. I guess that might be some sort of cryptic statement about the state of democracy today, but…

Adventures of the President of the United States
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0
Rating: 3

Arbitrary puzzles, not enough description, no story motivation to make up for it. I think this is not my cup of tea, though I appreciated some moments of understated humor in it. I played until I got into an unwinnable state, and then gave up rather than playing again.

Stefan Blixt
Atomic Heart
Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 2
Rating: 5

This game felt competent, but it didn’t grab me. What’s more, I kept losing in unanticipated ways, just by going places I wasn’t supposed to or things like that. After this happened several times, I gave up and quit. Perhaps I will come back to it later.

Played to completion?: No
Number of Saves: 0
Rating: 4

The hints provided were insufficient to get me out of the cellar. I spent a while searching and examining just about everything, and came up with something to do with the wine bottle, but the “other object” tantalizingly promised by the incomplete hints never materialized.

Michael Coyne
Risorgimento Represso
Played to completion?: Yes
Number of Saves: 13
Rating: 8
Cheese Rating: A well-deserved Stilton

I have some troubling questions. One: when I find a chamberpot lying around under a bed, why do I automatically take it? I certainly wouldn’t if it were up to me. Second: when I do, how come I instantly know that it will hold three pints of water? Please tell me there is no such thing as a graduated chamberpot. And third: WHY would I clean a pair of glasses that has been in a sewer with the edge of my robe? Have I no sense of personal hygiene?

With the exception of a glitch involving the dumbwaiter (the description cut off after a line, in the middle of a sentence, leaving me with an inadequate idea what it looked like), I didn’t catch any major coding problems with this game. There are enough puzzles, and they’re difficult enough, that I wouldn’t have finished the game without the excellent built-in hint system. As it was, I was pushing the two hour limit.

My most serious objection is in the design of the puzzles. There were quite a few places where I found myself wandering around, thinking, “well, now what?” I neglected to ask Ninario about his spectacles — figuring that if he knew where they were, he would have told me — so I wandered around the whole castle without finding any sign of them. The laboratory setup looked promising, and fun to play with, but I couldn’t find anything that seemed like it was going to lead to spectacles-discovery. And I wasn’t sure what else my goal was supposed to be.

A look at the hints eventually cleared up that misunderstanding, but from there on out I needed to rely on them several more times in order to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. A number of puzzle items struck me as overly convenient or else downright absurd — though I guess the interlude with the magic carpet doesn’t even try to be otherwise. I wouldn’t have thought to tell Ninario to send me home, I guess because by that time I had only the most mediocre opinion of his wizardly abilities, and I thought my goal instead should be to break out of the castle and find myself someone else to send me back. I also wouldn’t (I guess) have thought to mess about with the portcullis-raising machine the way one has to, although maybe I should have thought of it; we’ll chalk that one up to my being slow. That is, I didn’t realize that I should be experimenting with measures, instead of looking for a manual. Once I got that point, the rest was trivial. The two-sized-containers puzzle is an old chestnut with many variations, and it was more busy-work than anything else to solve it. (This illustrates a problem with riddles or logical conundrums as IF puzzles: either you get it, or you don’t get it. If you’ve heard the solution before, you probably remember, and just using the answer to produce the desired outcome is usually not that entertaining in itself. Conversely, there’s a serious possibility that you won’t be able to make the intuitive leap, and will get stuck. I admit that the intuitive leap to “how do I get four units of water from containers that hold three and five units?” is much simpler than the one to solve various riddles, and one where the player can tinker around somewhat until he finds the answer, but still, I think it’s a risky thing to include.)

But I don’t want to be too harsh here. I did like the content of several of them; the laboratory puzzles were fun, though I was frustrated that the implementation prevented me from pouring various substances together into one container. I hadn’t yet found the ball mill, and spent a lot of time trying to make gunpowder by empty pouches or flasks into each other, or into the chamberpot, looking for a container that was allowed to contain more than one thing. (I am fully aware, by the way, of how very much more annoying that would have been to code. But as a player, I wasted some time on it anyway, because I hadn’t yet asked Ninario to be sent home, and therefore had no idea when I would ever be able to get through the rusty door, let alone that there was an object back there that would solve my problems. I thought that perhaps one of these days I would be able either to find or create an oil of some kind and get it open that way.) Still, the puzzles themselves that involved these objects were pretty entertaining. Identifying the substances and figuring out what to do with them was fun; I guess it relies on a little outside knowledge of chemical compounds and their appearances, but really, only a very little; I’m no chemistry expert, but I had no trouble with that part of the game. And probably you could work it out by raw deduction if necessary, from the formulae in the chem notes and the formulae on the containers.

I also enjoyed exploding the guild headquarters.

Overall, this was a smoothly-coded and often entertaining game; the storyline was less compelling than the puzzles, but still reasonably constructed. I never felt quite as involved as I did with “Gourmet”, I think because my goals and personality were vaguer, and it was often unclear what bearing my immediate activities were going to have on the ultimate outcome. On the other hand, it wasn’t quite as bare of story as “Recruit”. So it goes right in the middle, with an 8.

Chrysoula Tzavelas
Shadows in the Mirror
Played to Completion: Yes, several times
Number of Saves: 2
Rating: 8

After Risorgimento and Gourmet, I was in the mood for something more or less puzzleless, and I had reason to think this might be the ticket. And I was right. It made a really nice break from the other sort of game. Good timing, that.

I’m always intrigued by conversation games written by other people, because it gives me a chance to see, sort of, what my own might be like for someone who didn’t write them. Kathleen Fischer’s recent Redemption gathered mixed reviews: some people really liked it, but it didn’t quite click for me, in particular because I could never get the last two points no matter what I tried. Shadows is a bit more forgiving; there aren’t such narrow opportunities for you to stumble on the right thing to say, and as far as I can tell, once you’ve reached the park all further conversation is untimed and only affects what Galen feels toward you. I also liked the fact that if I reused a conversation topic on which there was no more content, I got back a summary of what had been said so far; that’s an interesting approach, which neatly answers both the need to be able to recall already-said conversation, and the desire to avoid a repeato-bot NPC. Galen also had a nice spectrum of flinches, gazes, dark looks, and moody silences with which to ward off my more impertinent questions.

The pacing and difficulty level seemed right, though this kind of game is hard to tune, and other people might have had a different experience than I did. I failed entirely the first several times I played, but each time I failed, I learned some piece of information that offered me a new direction. Replay, replay… then I hit an ending that didn’t quite please me perfectly, but it wasn’t a total disaster. Replay some more… and finally I wound up with something that seemed like an actual win (and said “You win”, so I guess I was right…). The timing of the ride provided a sort of shape to the game; at first I wasn’t sure I liked the effect, but I think ultimately it was better to replay than it would have been to sit in the car endlessly thrashing around for ideas. Better to start over and thrash anew? Yes, somehow, I think it was, because this way gave it a sense of urgency. Replaying the early bits of the game refreshed my memory about those exchanges and always gave me a new idea about where to go with things.

All that said, there were a bunch of things that confused me. From the references to my PC’s power, I thought I might be using them to get myself out of there; but it turned out that I couldn’t even use the verb “focus”, though it seemed to be associated with my abilities. And I was told I had some kind of power over computers, but I couldn’t do much of anything with the car’s control panel, and the stereo, though perfectly functional, didn’t respond to me in any unusual ways either. Likewise, from the game’s title and the ominous message you get when you examine it, I expected the mirror to be important in some special way (as an alternate focus? A source of information?), and I never got it to do anything. So that was a bit frustrating. I realize that the point of the game was to achieve something else entirely, but as the player, I didn’t initially know that. It would have been nice if the game had recognized some of those attempts and explained why they wouldn’t work, directing my attention back to the conversational interaction.

I wish I’d come out of this understanding more. I have some general outlines of the story pretty clear: that grandfather is the villain, that he souped me up with these powers, that I can use computers in an unusual way, that somehow I can slip between dimensions (whatever that means), that the necklace and the cuff are endowed with special restraining powers, that Galen was unwillingly under his control– I get all that. But the other stuff? With the entities that I see in daylight, and the tiny feather in the pendant? What’s all that about? I’m curious.

Maybe, despite my intentions and the fact that I ultimately “won”, I could have extracted more information from the game by doing something that I didn’t think of. There was a bug, and I assume this has to do with the newness of T3, but the built-in hint menu and walkthrough didn’t work for me. (I was playing on HyperTADS 1.37, in Classic mode under Mac OS X.) It would set the menu up properly at first, but then when I selected anything, the top banner (the part that said MENU, press U for UP and so on) would vanish, and the bottom portion of the menu would remain in place as though I hadn’t clicked anything. So I couldn’t see hints at all. I guess it’s just as well, since, not having any hints, I did manage to get through the game to a winning ending, and it was a good deal more satisfying to do that way than it would have been otherwise. (Actually, now that I’ve seen the hints elsewhere, I’m not sure that they would have revealed any more knowledge than I was able to get out of the game on my own.)

Finally, Galen felt a little bit flat and unfinished to me. As a thing to explore and interact with, the conversation worked pretty well, I thought — as I said, I kept finding out just enough information to bring me back again for another try, and in due course I got to an acceptable ending, and I still cared enough to keep poking it until I arrived at a good ending. And those are all positive signs. At the same time, there are hints of the PC’s personality — the goofy glasses, the RPG dice, her mental commentary on objects and the conversation — that don’t seem to have any corresponding elements in Galen. (Unless, of course, you can read a lot about him from his choice in underwear.) Granted, he’s the stoic, untalkative sort, and there’s not a lot of time to waste chit-chatting about your favorite books and movies, or whatever. But for all that, I came away with a backstory, but not a very good sense of his personality. I see he has a basic streak of decency and a strong dislike for your grandfather; I see he resents your lame boyfriend; I see has interesting powers. I can read all the signs that say “Basically Good Guy” and “Romantic Potential Here”. Yet he’s mostly a cipher, and even the winning ending doesn’t seem to really open up that door. Actually, in that respect, one of the not-quite-winning endings is almost more satisfying, because it shows him in a more playful mood, varying the tonality a little.

If his characterization had been a little stronger, I would’ve loved this game. As it is, I liked it pretty well. And over the course of writing these comments, I’ve reopened it several more times, just to check out new avenues.

(Sidenote: as I write these, I find that I am spending the largest amount of time talking about the flaws in the games that I liked. Please don’t take it personally. I feel obliged to mention them, but I wouldn’t be going on so long if I weren’t basically in favor.)

Daniel Freas
The Erudition Chamber
Played to Completion: Yes, several times
Number of Saves: 0
Rating: 7

Another puzzle game without a lot of story to go with it, but engaging enough to play with for quite a while. I am always pleased with games that offer multiple puzzle solutions, and particularly so with those that make the outcomes of one choice affect another. Some of the early puzzles affected the equipment available for later ones, which I found interesting. The statements of philosophy for each sect seemed a little bit cheesy at times, but okay, whatever; they’re basically cues to the player, to let you know what parameters define each type of puzzle solution, and so I didn’t find them especially annoying.

(I thought it was interesting how the “seer” approach lined up with the “hidden item” puzzle in the purple room in Recruit. Effectively in some sense these are games about IF play approaches, and I wonder what it means that there are two such games in the same competition. Are we theorizing about player approaches more than usual these days than we used to? What’s in the air?)

There were some technical flaws in the writing; a couple of commas were misplaced, and there were minor misspellings/typos. Nothing huge, but it made the game look ever so slightly less polished.

I played several times; I think I did manage (by destroying the wooden gear in the mirror/lens section when things were in the wrong configuration) to lock myself out of victory at one point. Though again, it’s possible that there was an alternative solution I just didn’t know about; I never did find the seer’s way out of that puzzle, which might well have worked even if I got the mirror and lens permanently out of their correct alignment. That puzzle I found, overall, the most irksome, but perhaps also the most rewarding once I got the general hang of it. My problem was mostly that I was having trouble envisioning it; once I’d played with it enough to understand what was happening, the artisan solution was pretty easy, though I also came up with a warrior solution.

The valve puzzle made me think of something out of Myst or Riven. In fact, I could pretty much see the beautifully-rendered rusty tank in my mind’s eye as I played.

Anyway. Less self-assurance and less personality than Recruit, with which it shares a lot of characteristics — the “testing” premise, the set-piece puzzles of various kinds — but on the other hand I enjoyed the variety of puzzle solutions more. Some of the ones in Recruit seemed a trifle arbitrary. So ultimately it comes out in about the same place.

Quintin Stone
Played to Completion: Yes, and several replays of the ending.
Number of Saves: 22
Rating: 9

My first impression is both good and bad. This seems to be a solidly coded and tested piece of work. The scene of equipment purchasing at the beginning tells me that there will be multiple puzzle solutions, depending on what I choose to buy, adding replayability. (Just to see if it will work, I go for a non-violent approach, buying the GPS and the radiation pills, but no guns.) There is a hint system. All good. The bad is that it gives every indication of belonging to a post-apocalyptic setting of a kind I don’t really care for. But that’s personal preference.

The opening scenes of the game seemed a little dry, a little stock. The mangled coyote-chewed corpses, the destroyed buildings, and the adorable orphan… familiar stuff, I thought, without much of a new spin. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get Iona to leave with me, though; I didn’t place a great deal of faith in her ability to survive in there on her own. Of course it would’ve been ludicrous to have her along for the rest of the game, but still.

As the game proceeds, it gets better. Once I was inside the base, the puzzles seemed to even out a little; there was still a bit more searching necessary than I really cared for (and one place where SEARCH OBJECT and LOOK UNDER OBJECT produced no result, but LOOK BEHIND OBJECT did). On the whole, though, they weren’t too difficult, and when I did get momentarily hung up, the adaptive hint system knew just where I was and offered me a solution. As I went along, things got more and more viscerally effective, and I started taking actions that I probably didn’t need to, strictly speaking. In the security station, I carefully turned off the computer when I was done using it, because of the admonition not to touch anything. I was afraid of the repercussions if I left it on. I tried to push the desk back against the wall, for the same reason, but that didn’t seem to have been accounted for. When I accidentally tripped the power plant explosion before it was time, I ran from the compound like a bat out of hell. In the vault, when I was wearing the helmet, I felt so overwhelmed that I made my PC sit down to experience these emotions. So something there clicked.

And there was a puzzle where you have to hide out and eavesdrop on NPCs. I always enjoy those.

The end mostly pleased me. I was able to rescue Iona, finally; and I tried both the ending where I sold the helmet, and the one where I kept it. (I tried also wearing it outside or while going into the compound, in the hope that I would be able to read the minds of the corporation’s people and see what they were planning to do with the helmet, but to no avail. Oh well. I suppose that would’ve been an added complexity.)

Managed to get 65 of 70 points.

Let’s see. Strong coding, with only one real bug that I could discover: the desk repeats its message if you >PUSH DESK more than once in the security room. But otherwise nothing. Mostly strong design, though there were, perhaps, a few too many search puzzles. But I suppose that’s in keeping with the genre of the thing. One or two moments occurred where one obvious phrasing didn’t work, but the second one I tried did. I could’ve done without the instant-death button on the nuclear fusion device, but that’s what I’ve got UNDO for. (Was there supposed to be a way to figure out how to use that thing without learning-by-death? If so, I didn’t find it.) On the other hand, in retrospect I see some alternate puzzle solutions that I did not use. I did find the radiation suit, so I could probably have gotten by without the pills. Most of the puzzles seemed to fit the setting well and were not needlessly difficult. It was timed to be just about the right length, too — I think I spent an hour and forty-five minutes, give or take, solving the game, and the rest of my judging period futzing around with alternate endings and stuff I wanted to try.

The story worked well enough; I don’t think I would have found it a very compelling story as static fiction, but the you-are-there aspect of IF worked well with it. (A digression about this. “Gourmet” had a treatment of its narrative that I could almost imagine working as a story, or possibly a standup comedy routine. “And you wouldn’t believe what happened *then*…” Several things contribute to this. One is the foreshadowing and the careful build-up of ever-more-frustrating situations, which works well with the puzzles, but would also work well in written storytelling. Another is the narrative pacing: “Gourmet” skips right over the boring bits, presenting itself as a series of scenes. “So, okay, a little later I’m chopping carrots for this soup…” says the narrative voice, jumping ahead to the next bad moment.

“Scavenger” is by contrast more committed to being a model world; it elides the long journeys, but everything else is allowed to play out in full. A couple of scenes have good dramatic impact — I was creeped out when I nearly ran into the guard and had to hide out in the bushes with my flashlight off, or when the base leader found me about to walk into the vault — but they don’t build quite such a deliberately structured narrative. I’m not complaining; I think both work quite well in their ways. I’m just interested in why some stories work as IF or static fiction, and some could only viably be one or the other.)

The backstory wasn’t very surprising, really, and followed some of the standard rules of backstory development in this kind of context — diaries and so on journalling the downfall of civilization — but I was willing to go along with that, and I did feel kind of touched by the bit about the pathetic attempt at a birthday celebration. The present-moment plot did what it needed to do, motivation-wise, and once I heard the base leader’s plans, I didn’t have too many qualms about blowing up the lot of them. (Except maybe the guard with the data crystal. He actually seemed like he was probably not a complete bad guy. Easily duped, maybe, but not totally evil.)

Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto
Slouching Towards Bedlam
Played to Completion: Yes, six or seven times.
Number of Saves: 3
Rating: 10

Shades of Anchorhead meet Bad Machine, with a touch of Spider and Web thrown in (for the slow comprehension of the mysterious messages that have been in there since the start of the game).

This is a tight, brilliantly coded piece, with a clever metafictional explanation for the IF interface; puzzles effective and accessible, no serious sticking points; near-perfect implementation, save only some minor frustration with controlling the pyramid and the viewer in the panopticon chamber. Also, it’s good to see Daniel Ravipinto back in the IF scene. We haven’t heard from him for a long time.

Actually, let me talk about the puzzles for a little longer. The manipulation parts of the puzzles are really not very hard at all — it’s all finding keys and looking up documents, finding bits of information and figuring out where to apply it. The real challenge is extrapolating the implications of a course of action. This is one game where you can make master plans and carry them out, rather than being forced to step through an obstacle course of puzzles predetermined by the author.

This works largely because there are multiple endings; I got all five, and they’re all sensible (within the logic of the game-world, anyway). The game handles the divergence gracefully. The first ending I got more or less by accident. But when I saw what had happened, I was able to think up a good way to avoid that particular ending, so I went back and tried something else. Because of the game’s structural conceits, the failed playthroughs become part of the story of how the player reaches a final, desired outcome.

For that alone, it makes a fantastic breakthrough in interactive fiction design. I played it and thought, oh, so that’s how it’s done. I’ve been trying, and not getting it right, for years, but this really offers free will for the player in a context where the choice actually matters to the story.

Some of the tricks Slouching plays would not be repeatable in future games. I don’t think I could play many more works with this kind of exploitation of the SAVE/RESTORE/RESTART aspects of IF: it’s clever, but it would wear fast. Nor (I think) would it always really work to leave the player so much in the dark at the beginning about his mission and even his identity. I was overwhelmed the first time I tried to play it, and confused. When I went out to talk to James, and got the string of gobbledygook, I sighed and quit, recognizing that I was going to have to put real work into just comprehending what was going on. I’m not always in the mood to do that — at least, not at that level. When I decided to come back, it was worthwhile, and the game had given me the sense that it was solidly implemented and worth revisiting.

So what does that leave us with, in terms of repeatable achievements? Here’s the list as I see it.

One: the scope of possible actions is small and clearly defined; the player is not left with a large wash of options any of which might or might not turn out to be significant. There are only a few people to talk to, a few locations that can possibly be visited, a few things that can be done in each location.
Two: the player is carefully educated about those possible actions and their probable results because he spends the first part of the game learning about someone else who has previously done some of these things. The tone of the game, the things that have happened in the backstory, etc., make it clear that murder and suicide are viable possibilities in this world. The first ending you get will make it clear how high the stakes are.
Three: the outcomes are rigorously and sensibly worked through, and all combinations of player action are accounted for. There’s nothing stupidly left out because the author wanted to coerce the player into a given ending. This has to do, again, with the basic problem being well-defined: something is happening, and it can only come out a certain number of conceivable ways, and all of those ways can be achieved by the player with the proper contrivances. In that sense, player free will is only possible because the story is tightly defined.
Four: on the other hand, the basic problem is not as narrow as a binary choice; it is organic to the whole story, and not tacked on at the end; and there could be real differences of opinion as to what was the best outcome.
Five: the game is short. I’m not sure how you could do this in a long game. Possibly the investigation portion would have to take a long time (in which the player becomes familiar with his options). Once you start letting the player make vital decisions, though, you have to keep the action short or else go mad: the combinatorial explosion has begun. And besides that, the moment of decision, if you’ve built up to it right, is the climax of the story. It wouldn’t work, pacing-wise, to have it drag on too terribly long. This is why the timer built into the game is so important. Once you’ve started down one of the major paths (killing the infected), the game gives you only a certain number of moves to finish whatever you’re going to do. It would lose much of its narrative impact if that portion of the activity continued for long.
Six: the puzzles are relatively easy, and most of them are contained in the investigation portion. This sort of goes with point five. It is hard for the player to feel that he has real freedom if there are three options but two require fiendish brilliance to achieve. At that point, those options aren’t options; they’re easter eggs. The moral choice only opens up if the player can really see several ways to go, and pick one of them.
Maybe I’ve missed some stuff, and maybe I’m on the wrong track, but that’s what I see, in terms of game design. In retrospect it seems obvious, and I’ve tried to do some of those things myself from time to time, but they’ve never succeeded for me quite the way this game succeeds — maybe because I couldn’t find all the relevant bits, maybe because I don’t have what it takes.

In any case, this is a really masterful piece of work. It’s not just the best game in the comp, it’s one of the most important games written in years. I’m not saying that all IF should be like this; for that matter, I didn’t even really like the story very much, in the sense that it was more depressing than I enjoy, the main threat seemed like another Mysterious Handwavy Evil that did not get explained enough, and the clever parts were sometimes too clever for their own good. I didn’t mind the Latin, but a few other people griped about being expected to understand it, and I suppose I see their point. But forget all that. It doesn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter that I didn’t like the story in Photopia and I got irritated with its emotional manipulation. This is another one of those games that expands the boundaries of what IF can do, and I imagine we’ll be seeing the repercussions for some time to come.

I hope that doesn’t mean that next year’s comp has a half-dozen steampunk entries, is all.

Last year, I concluded my comp reviews with a rant. This year, I want to conclude with a happier observation.

The best games of this year manage, in their own ways, to pull off an excellent blend of interactivity and story-telling. Things that a few years ago were experimental (multiple solutions, multiple endings, more developed NPCs, cuts between narrative scenes) are now being used with much more assurance, as elements of an overall design rather than as ends in their own right. Gourmet, Slouching Towards Bedlam, Risorgimento Represso, Shadows in the Mirror, and Scavenger all (at least in my opinion) used the capabilities of the genre in interesting, well-chosen ways.

Puzzle design also seems more nuanced and mature in the best of these. The widget-wodget factory in Artist was well-thought-out, for instance. There were no mazes, fewer locks with obvious keys hanging around next door, no irritatingly stupid password-guessing (at least in the games I played).

And there was a good diversity of types of game: some short, some long; experiments with graphics and music, and experiments without; new and old game design systems.

It was a good year, guys. Thanks.

One thought on “Comp 2003 Reviews”

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