I’m done playing the games I’m going to play this year (skipping the Windows-only games, Jealousy Duel X which apparently runs on the Macintosh only under Classic, and the Quest game, which Spatterlight refused to cope with), and have submitted my votes.
A list of favorites and thoughts on the competition as a whole follow the cut. There are no specific spoilers for specific games, but people preferring to remain free of influence may want to skip reading until they’re also done playing.
In the end, my favorites this comp were as follow (links lead to the complete reviews):
- Act of Murder, which I enjoyed for its variety and replayability and clever but accessible puzzles. One of the most successful murder-mystery games I have seen in IF, and much fairer than Infocom’s offerings in this genre.
- Lost Pig (though I have a beta-tester’s bias): the puzzles were not hugely intricate, but they were, I thought, satisfying, and the game’s humor, polish, and superb player character make it a stand-out.
- Chinese Room, which took considerably longer than the regulation two hours, but was educational and highly unusual. Even the occasional implementation glitch was not enough to dim my enjoyment of this game.
- Orevore Courier, which had (in my opinion) the best sustained/complex puzzle in this year’s competition, with lots of interlocking events and clever solutions.
- Varkana, whose fantasy setting, easy puzzles, and relative seriousness set it apart from the bulk of the competition; I just wish this one had been longer and the end worked out in more detail, because I felt the plot deserved a more complete exploration.
- A Fine Day for Reaping: despite my exasperation with the parser, which was considerable — this takes guess-the-command to extremes — this had some excellent writing, especially in its numerous similes describing what it’s like to be a very tall, very skinny skeletal man.
A lot of my enjoyment of a competition depends on how well-balanced the games are, and this is something that no individual author can control. 2003 was great — the top entries included experimental steampunk (Slouching Towards Bedlam), slapstick comedy romp (Gourmet), a serious puzzle game (Scavenger), a light-hearted comedy game (Risorgimento Represso), a story-oriented conversational piece (Shadows on the Mirror), and a work of oppressive, evocative horror (Baluthar). I remember 2000 pretty fondly, too: it gave us Shade, Rameses, Kaged, Ad Verbum; Masquerade and Dinner with Andre, two rare entries in the underpopulated genre of IF romance; plenty of puzzles, plenty of stories, plenty of seriousness and plenty of humor.
Some years, by contrast, are monochromatic in a way that makes it harder to appreciate the quality of individual works, even if they’re just as well designed and polished as the games submitted in a diverse year. Last year was long on seriousness and long on SF. Since I submitted a serious SF piece myself, I can’t really complain, but I think the competition would have felt livelier if there had been more of an assortment. I wonder, too, whether this year isn’t kind of a reaction to last year’s somber mood, because I don’t recall there ever being such a large proportion of whimsy, parody, comedy, and outright farce. I found myself longing for some more serious storytelling, some piece with more of an emphasis on characters, some kind of ballast.
I don’t take this as a sign of some kind of retrograde trend away from story-IF, though. There have been some serious, story-driven pieces released this year. But they’ve mostly been released as stand-alone games, possibly because their authors found that the effect they were striving for needed more room than a competition two hours would allow. Blighted Isle is a big game with lots of plot and lots of character strands; Weishaupt Scholars looks to be so as well, though I haven’t finished it; and I haven’t played Lydia’s Heart much since it was refitted from Last Resort, but my impression is that Aikin revised in the direction of more plot and character content, rather than less. This competition just happened to be shy on such entries.
I did feel that this year had less dross than usual. Some years the competition has been weighed down by numerous games into which their authors put no effort whatsoever; I did not get that feeling about so many of the games this year, and even the entries I ranked lowest were well above the dreg entries of a few years ago. I always distribute my scores between 1 and 10 instead of trying to apply some consistent standard from one year to the next, with the result that I scored a couple of 1s this year that would have been 2s or even 3s at other times.
I also found that there were quite a few games this competition that benefited (or would have benefited) from having “how to play” instructions right up front. I would, I think, have found Orevore Courier more fun at the beginning (though I did ultimately enjoy it a lot) if it had been more emphatic at the outset that it was a game designed to be played a number of times before winning. I was more forgiving of Chinese Room running long than of My Mind’s Mishmash doing so, because Chinese Room told me in the about information to expect the game to be long; whereas I was trying to finish MMM within the two hours and wound up rushing through the walkthrough. I appreciated Act of Murder letting me know right away that RESTART would reshuffle the scenario of the game, not reset the existing scenario to the initial position.
As an author, I’m often tempted to leave off any detailed information about what the gameplay is going to be like — I mean, ideally, I’m going to teach the player how to play the game as he goes, and the experience is going to be so surprising and so engaging that he’ll love it! Right? But I’ve been moving away from that attitude, because as a player I enjoy a game better if I know something about the shape of the game before I start. Oh, nothing about the plot or characters or setting or puzzles; I’m happy to find all that out as I go along, and one of the pleasures of the competition is that I’m getting a packet of games that no one else has reviewed yet or discussed with me at all. But it helps to have some idea of how long the game is going to take to play, whether it’s the kind of game where I should be saving a lot or taking rigorous notes, and whether it’s a single run-through sort of game or something designed to be replayed until solved (in which case I won’t stress too much about winning on the first pass through but instead will try just to observe as much as possible).
Another point that strongly influenced me: I found this year that I am more willing to forgive a game its other flaws if the writing is confident and assured, and suggests to me that the author knows exactly what tone he wants to set and where he wants to draw my attention. Chinese Room had this quality. So, in a weird way, did Press [Escape] to Save: the writing is full of errors, odd phrasing, peculiar word choices, etc., but the author seems utterly confident in it all. I think that is probably the reason I stuck with the game to the end, despite all odds. Deadline Enchanter, on the other hand, though vastly more ambitious and displaying a generally greater mastery of prose style and vocabulary, fumbled: there were times when the tone seemed strained, or where the author seemed uncertain about the intended effect of a paragraph. [Later edited to add: I have now, post-voting, played Deadline Enchanter further on advice from others, and I’ve revised my opinion upward; though there are still some odd glitches and hiccups in the thing. Further comments elsewhere.]
Anyway! I enjoyed playing this year. Congratulations and thanks to all the authors, and I look forward to reading other people’s reviews and thoughts as the competition goes on.