The One Room Game Competition 2008 is now ended, so we can post our reviews.
I played only the three games in English, which were as follow:
Bad Toast. This is a completely bare-bones implementation of a very easy logic puzzle. The only notable thing about it is its implementation in AAS, a system introduced as an April Fools’ prank some years back. As you might imagine of a game written in a deliberately crippled system, the results are not very polished: the parsing and world model is minimal (though in a game this tiny and vacant that doesn’t matter too much), but that’s nothing compared to the magnificent lameness of how you get the game going in the first place: if you don’t have the java runtime you have to install it, and then you have to run it from a command line. People who argue in favor of cross-platform java terps do not, I’m sure, have this in mind.
I gather from RAIF that the author was not fooling around (unless the RAIF posts are themselves a prank): he thinks that XML is an ideal basis for an IF language and considers AAS to be proof of concept that IF games can be built with an XML-structured language. I’m afraid that this game did not help to persuade me of his theory.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was The Moon Watch, a Glulx game with music (I gather — I wasn’t able to get it to get past the opening screen on Spatterlight, and Zoom for OS X doesn’t do sound) and charming cartoon-like graphics. In every way the opposite of the Bad Toast experience, Moon Watch makes the most of being something other than just text. The framing around the game window offers a sort of minimal depiction of your environment; and it cleverly offers some state information, too, because if you put on your space suit, the surroundings blur out, as though seen through a helmet.
In general, this fits with a trend I’ve already observed a number of times: the non-English communities are more consistently doing interesting multimedia work with Glulx than the majority of anglophone authors, and anyone interested in multimedia possibilities really ought to be paying attention to what they’ve done. Look at Beyond, Ekphrasis, Little Falls, or last year’s Kinesis (by the same authors as The Moon Watch, but in Italian). Beyond and Little Falls are in English; with the others, even without playing in full, you can get a sense for the design sensibilities at work and what is being done. The notion of providing an attractive graphical frame for the game seems to be particularly popular.
As fiction, The Moon Watch not necessarily the greatest achievement: it takes a premise that could be very chilling (and is indeed rather scary for about 2 seconds right at the start of the game) and defuses it with humor, goofy sidekicks, and implausible puzzle solutions. The polish is visible elsewhere as well: there are some nice menus, complete with images of the authors. Many default messages have been replaced by amusing Soviet-slogan sorts of reasons why you can’t do the proposed action. Touches like this make it feel like a quality production without making any serious demands on the player emotionally. As for the ending, it is a twist that belongs more to a child’s storybook than to serious science fiction — but that too fits the cartoonish trappings.
The fact that the protagonist is supposed to be a Russian speaker also offers some excuse for the not-quite-idiomatic English in the game — this wasn’t too bad (and it plainly had received some proofreading), but there were some points where it was obvious that a non-native speaker had written it, and a few spots where the punctuation was a little mysterious. (Commas, in particular, were placed without particular regard either for strict grammar or for the places where an English speaker might normally pause.)
The puzzles are a mixed bag. I got through some of them all right (and felt rather proud of myself); others I felt were on the obscure side, and one of them so much so that even with the walkthrough I could not figure out how I was supposed to have resolved it.
So high marks for presentation and general charm; story and puzzles fare less well, but are still entertaining.
Escapade takes the escape the room idea and pushes it in a silly direction: you can escape repeatedly, but none of your escapes last for long, and you’ve got NPCs looking on to comment on your failed MacGyverish attempts.
Here again the game sets aside any kind of serious agenda in favor of silliness; in this case, not as consistent a tone as The Moon Watch, and some of the elements (like the flux capacitor) are more amusing by allusion than they are in their own right. To the extent that there is a coherent plot, it’s mostly reusing stock elements (having you be a less-than-super superhero or sidekick to same; having you locked up and needing to escape; having you assemble implausible contraptions). This is not a game that anyone is going to play for the story.
When it came to the puzzles, I felt a bit that I was struggling to find the specific solutions the author had in mind: there were cool things to do with the provided objects, but I could think of lots of other things also to do with them that weren’t implemented or even (apparently) considered. Refusal messages often said something like “That wouldn’t help you escape,” rather than offering more specific detail that might have helped me envision the puzzle more clearly. It also didn’t help that the game’s text didn’t draw my attention to certain essential features (though perhaps I would have found them by looking at the right time); or that the hints were buggy and started recommending solutions I had already completed, so that I had to go to the walkthrough in order to finish the game.
This is all too bad, and I really hope that the game receives more polish; I had a good enough time with it that I could see how it might have been even better, and I think given that extra work it would appeal to the casual-IF type of player.
I also liked the handling of HR: he had a great deal to say about a number of things, and the keyword-highlighted conversation seemed to work well in this context. One room puzzle games can be very cold and impersonal-feeling, and both The Moon Watch and Escapade avoid this by introducing useful, reactive NPCs. Even though in both cases you’re struggling to solve a series of mechanical tasks, the impression of dealing with a big puzzle box is much less, and I find that makes me more patient and more able to enjoy the process.