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.
The Baker of Shireton is a parser simulation game satirizing MMOs; it includes a large number of independently acting NPCs and different events to coordinate. Even though I did glance at the walkthrough, there was so much going on that I did not master the game in the play time allotted for competition play.
Hanon Ondricek is the author of a number of last year’s Transparent: a big, interesting game with a lot going on that I felt was under-directed. The year before that, he gave us Final Girl, about which I wrote
I think the tuning’s off, though, especially for a comp context. My own experience, at least, was that I played, and died, and played and died, and played and died again, and so on, until I’d run out of the two hours allotted for judging comp games.
All three of these games are doing rich simulations in which you need to spend a while just exploring the environment and getting the hang of what is going on before you’ll be able to make much progress. (Ondricek has since rereleased Transparent in an updated version, and I’ve had fun playing with it in a more leisurely context than the competition, though I still have not finished the game.)
In the case of The Baker of Shireton, you have to juggle timed events such as letting bread rise and bake; NPC interactions with several different types of characters with different demands; and some behind the scenes triggers that only become obvious after several games. In addition, there are certain things that happen in the game after you have died at least once, and this is not initially obvious at all. I first played by saving and restoring when I thought I had my breadmaking in good order, and it wasn’t until I went to the walkthrough that I found that I shouldn’t be relying on save/restore at all. And even with some hints, I never got anywhere near finishing the full arc of the story.
I think the game might have benefitted from a gentler introduction that taught the player a few of the basic aspects of the simulation before letting them loose on the full experience. Since it’s already using an external data file to change the experience from one playthrough to the next, it would be possible to do this without repeating the tutorial section on subsequent games.
I might also have felt less overwhelmed had there been more persistent status information available. I kept having to look around and process descriptions that ran longer than a page just to find out where all the NPCs were currently, how much bread I had left, what was in the oven, and so on. Having a persistent display that kept me up to date on loaves for sale, risen dough that was ready to go into the oven, et al, might have made it easier for me to master the system quickly.
Managing all this reporting is legitimately tricky. Autonomous NPC behavior, especially for large numbers of NPCs, has always given rise to a reporting problem in textual IF, as one risks spamming the players with dozens of lines of “Fred goes west” and “Lucy picks up the handkerchief”. The Battle of Walcot Keep is the example I usually think of here.
On the plus side, though, there’s a lot about this that I did find charming. The idea of casting the player as the NPC in someone else’s game may not be new, but The Baker of Shireton does some entertaining things with it. I loved the back room repository containing representations of all the objects that the Baker’s simulation might need, or the way your inventory contains theoretical as well as actual objects. The player character chat is also a nice touch, giving color to the simulation and providing some useful hints about what the Baker is allowed to do.
And even though I never got a chance to explore them, I really liked some of the later puzzle solutions suggested by the walkthrough, some of which reminded me of the kinds of meta puzzle solutions you get in Magic Circle.
Finally, I’m always glad to see people experimenting with systems that involve a lot of NPC activity. Ondricek’s work remains technically ambitious and interesting, and that’s good to see even when it makes for a game that’s a bit inaccessible to play in two hours.