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.)
If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.
Final Exam is a parser puzzle game with a science fiction premise, concerning a future dystopia. I played through to one ending within the two hour period, then spent some time looking for others, but did not find them in the time available to play. If you’ve played and finished this game to multiple endings, I’d be very interested to hear about what you found.
Man, this game. I wasn’t sure what to make of the very opening, but shortly thereafter became really intrigued by it. There’s a gradual revelation of mystery, together with a good mix of comedy and political commentary. The premise is strongly reminiscent of A Mind Forever Voyaging, in that this society uses computer simulations to judge which political processes are going to be best.
More than that, I felt like the author might have some interesting things to say about governance, democracy, and how we talk to one another about those topics. Passages made me think of posts on political tribalism at SlateStarCodex, particularly a section on how (in the world of Final Exam) people have been successfully moved away from strongly held political beliefs once those beliefs began to cause them to be associated with certain out groups. There’s enough ambiguity here — this passage of text is delivered by someone we have every reason not to trust and is in fact semi-buried within the game — that I’m not sure whether I would have ultimately agreed or disagreed with the author’s conclusions. But it seemed like something interesting was going to be said, and I was totally on board to find out what that was.
So I had a great time with that and was really into this game for, I’d say, the first 45 minutes of play and thought the piece might be headed for a spot in my top tier this comp.
It doesn’t really deliver on all that, though — or at least, I wasn’t able to make it do so. After a certain point, the game turns away from being primarily about knowledge and discovery and turns into a detailed simulation puzzle involving connecting rooms to one another with cables. The cables are implemented meticulously and as far as I can tell buglessly, which I can tell you is an achievement: they’re basically a variant on the infamously hard to model ropes. However, manipulating the cables to connect things becomes a maze-level frustration, at least for me. There’s a clever nugget in the center of this puzzle, but there’s also a fair amount of repetition needed to execute a solution once you’ve worked out what it should be. (A problem of extent.)
I had some additional experiences with the endgame and the walkthrough that I will put after the spoiler space.
Before I go there, though: this is a really solidly coded piece of work with an interesting conceit. I enjoyed the beginning. Even though it didn’t ultimately deliver on all of its promises in my playthrough, it remains well within the top half of the comp for me.
Your boss tells you to plug a regular socket (WS3) into the satellite kit. This is also what the walkthrough tells you to do. Doing this produces an outcome that I would consider a suboptimal ending. Even though the walkthrough goes into no more detail, I felt like I was supposed to discover more, especially since there were a bunch of objects in the game world that were otherwise red herrings. Sadly, running all over the place doing more with the cable puzzle didn’t actually achieve what I expected.
Stuff that I tried that didn’t seem to cause an alternative endgame when I returned to my own body:
— connecting the “unfiltered” network socket (z5) to the satellite uplink
— connecting a virus socket (WS1) to the satellite uplink
— connecting a regular socket (WS3) to the network socket
— connecting what I thought might be an admin-related socket (WS4) to the network socket
— connecting a virus socket (ws1) to the network socket
It’s possible — indeed I think actually probable — that there’s some other outcome I could get if I had more time and could think of additional things to try. But I can’t, and the walkthrough isn’t willing to help me with this.
Or maybe it is not there after all and the only possibility is a sort of failure. I’m really not sure, but if so, the design of the game does a great job of concealing that and misleading the player.
What I am sad about is the fact that there’s so little further development of the story in the latter half of the game, and that the endgame I got didn’t tell me much I hadn’t already discovered.