The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)
So this year I’m only reviewing comp games that I can basically recommend. If this makes you sad because you enjoy reading reviews where I did not like something, you might instead enjoy my reviews of Tender Loving Care or Lifeline 2, which have the benefit of being commercial games that can fend for themselves.
Hereafter, thoughts on Untold Riches and Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box.
Untold Riches is a short parser puzzle game about retrieving treasure from a deserted island. I played it to completion, which took me about 20-30 minutes.
Jason is the author of a couple of previous puzzle games. Untold Riches is easier and less ambitious than either of those, but this makes sense in context: the about text explains that it’s designed as a teaching model for middle school students.
The result is a bit simple for an adult player, but there’s enough charm about the writing that I had a good time with it for the duration. Only one puzzle gave me any trouble, and it was because I hadn’t realized a piece of scenery was implemented in depth. However, there are hints.
If you liked this, you might also like Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, a short, replayable puzzle game about transporting loot off a sinking ship.
Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box is by the author of last year’s Excelsior. I didn’t get far with Excelsior because it was a bit too spare for my tastes, offering little story to go around the puzzles it was presenting.
Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box is not pretending to do story either, but it has a wonderful focus and playfulness. You are presented with a box whose components you can either examine or use. That’s the extent of the allowed interaction, but — in classic puzzle box fashion — there soon proves to be a bit more to it than that.
Because of the tight focus, the piece is very juicy — you can interact with everything you can see, at every stage of the game, and get amusing responses back. And because the allowable verb set is so tiny, it’s hard to get too stuck for too long; there just aren’t that many possible commands. It consistently surprised me and made me smile. Silly, cute, endearing. Beware the tree.