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IFComp 2001: Stephen's Reviews

by Stephen Bond

Posted 16 November 2001 to

Okay, there are quite a few negative reviews here, so if you're annoyed by negative reviews you should skip these, unless you enjoy being annoyed. I didn't think this was a good competition year: in fact I'd nominate it as the worst ever. Every other comp gave us at least a couple of stand-out games, but this year... well, let me put it this way. At the start of the year, TEXTFIRE GOLF looked like a fun-but-inconsequential game, but now it's looking like a multiple XYZZY-winner.

Before the reviews, a few general comments. A lot of the same old problems with second-person narration keep appearing. One problem I can summarise like this: don't tell me how I feel. Unless you make a clear distinction between player and PC, it's safest not to give the PC any strong feelings. Because when you tell me how the PC feels, this is like telling me how I feel, and I don't like being told how I feel. If you tell me I love someone, I'm not going to love them. If you tell me I care about something, I'm not going to care about it. I'm a cynical bastard. The solution? Make me feel the same way as the PC. But this is difficult, especially within the scope of a comp game.

And then we have the old player/PC knowledge conundrum. How do we handle the PC knowing things the player doesn't? With the 'think about' command, Best of Three tried a new solution to the problem, but it strikes me as a bit clumsy. A lot of games sidestepped the problem by giving the PC amnesia, which is now such a cliche that it's impossible to take seriously. Other games, like All Roads and Prized Possession, denied there was even a problem and went bravely on, with an "it'll all be explained in the end" attitude.

So anyway, on with the reviews. I've reviewed all the games I played for any appreciable amount of time. Of the remaining games, I either didn't look at them, or looked at them for a few seconds and didn't find them interesting. It is entirely possible that I missed something brilliant. The games are presented here in the order I wrote their reviews: that is, totally at random.

Oh, and spoilers ahoy.

Best of Three, by Emily Short
Rating: 5

"What I meant is that there doesn't seem always to be much narrative momentum, just people sitting around spewing out ideas. Sometimes they're interesting ideas, but they're all stated in the most verbose mode possible."

So says one character in Best of Three, describing Dostoyevsky. I'm sure tongue was in cheek as the author wrote this, though, because the same comment would be an obvious, if unkind, description of the game itself. In this game, two people sit down and talk about stuff. The range of stuff they can talk about is impressive, and some of the stuff is interesting, but the story is just too weak to contain it. I like ideas being explored in fiction, but they can be introduced much more organically than they are here. The conversations about art, love and literature don't flow from the narrative: instead, a one-size-fits-all narrative is flung over them. The story seems like an excuse, rather than a reason, to present a few ideas.

So for most of the running time, we don't so much have a story as a chocolate-box of different conversations, most of which are essentially authorial digressions. I can understand why the characters might want to blather a bit, before they move onto more intimate things, but I'm less convinced that the digressions have any artistic motivation. Why do the characters talk about the topics they do? Where, for example, does the literature conversation come from? Does it comment on the action, or advance it in any way? Or is it, as I think, just an unconnected island-blob of ideas?

As you'd expect from Emily Short, the writing here is very good. The PC's reaction to Grant seems very real: the initial defensiveness, the moments where she almost says things but doesn't, the way she gradually becomes more open and intimate. And in the 19th-century throwback Grant, the author has created a convincing character, even if he's a character I don't like.

Yeah, I hated Grant, and not just because he disses my favourite author. I hated him long before that. My hatred of Grant goes right back to the point when the game told me I was infatuated with him, whereupon I immediately decided not to be infatuated with him. (Telling me how I feel again, you see.) Nothing he said in the game convinced me to change my mind about this pretentious cane-weilding twit. His conversation rapidly bored me, so I wanted to leave, and I couldn't, and then I lost sympathy with the PC, and then I lost sympathy with the game. I ended up wishing he'd hurry up and ask me out so the whole thing would be over with. And even at that, he took an age. Really, I hope the PC dumps this guy later.

Anyway, despite the weak points, which I've probably dwelled too much on, Best of Three is still one of the most worthwhile entries to try.

Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country, by One of the Bruces
Rating: 8

The game ended, I closed the window, and sat back in horror - as I realised that Stiffy Makane was my favourite game of the competition. Yes, an in-joke that prominently features extraterrestrial bestiality gets my top marks. What does that say about this year's competition? And more worryingly, what does it say about me?

Years in the making, dreamed up before I had even heard of IF, SM:TUC is a frequently hilarious romp through the erotic adventures of the eponymous Starfleet captain. There's a surprising innocence about the game, something that brought out the giggling 14-year-old in me: I laughed at the kind of things I hadn't laughed at in years. The Erazmatron/orgasmatron joke, the outrageous forwardness of Space Moose, the ASSimilating Borgs - all had me cracking up, as did the appearances of such IF favourites as Beevie and Granny from Shattertown Sky. And of course the idea of combining Stiffy with xtrek is just fricking brilliant, even if it is about three years old now. (Given the source material, though, couldn't '69' be implemented as a verb?)

There are more ambitious games in this year's comp, there are better-written games in this year's comp, but as far as I'm concerned, there is no game more enjoyable. Now, time to work on those strange feelings I'm getting for large furry animals.

Prized Possession, by Kathleen M. Fischer
Rating: 4

As with Masquerade last year, Kathleen Fischer has written a quality historical romance that I just can't get into. Unlike Masquerade, though, which conveyed a certain Victorian stuffiness, the historical vision here is less successful. Despite the evident research and a liberal sprinkling of archaisms, the setting comes across as more Hollywood-medieval than medieval: I could never escape the feeling that everyone here was wearing moisturiser. The occasional historical clanger didn't help either. A 12th-century knight called Darren? I half-expected Keith, Gary and Jason to join the party.

It takes a lot of courage and effort to write historical fiction, though, and I admire that. I'd like to see more of it in IF.

The prose is generally good in a swoony romantic sort of way: it only gets uncertain when navigating the frequent archaisms. Characters speak an uneasy mix of modern speech and stuff like 'Christ, thou art blue.' Most irritatingly, a horse is always called a 'destrier'. Each time this happens I sense the joy of someone sharing new-found medieval vocabulary, and each time I think how much better it would be if the horse was just called a horse.

As with many historical romances, Possession never strays very far from formula. We have a feisty, independent heroine who seems superior to everyone else in the story; a strong-but-sensitive hero, played by Richard Gere; and an assortment of nasty English-accented villains who get their comeuppance in the end. There are daring escapes, daring rescues, scenes where His strong arms envelop Her waist, and so on. These formulaic elements are mainly a consequence of the genre, I suppose, but they do dilute the impact for me. I guess historical romance just isn't my scene.

Earch and Sky, by Lee Kirby
Rating: 4

When I came back to the games to review them, I had to wonder why I passed this one by the first time around. It seemed competent, and well-written, and... then I remembered. I have to walk into a lab! Full of equipment! That I'll probably have to manipulate! Aaaargh!

The second time I played, however, I persevered into the lab, and found out that it wasn't like that at all. This is, in fact, a light-hearted tribute to the world of Marvel superheroes, with no annoying puzzles to get in the way. Now, I know very little about superheroes - just enough to recognise that 'Lee Kirby' is a pseudonym, and not much more - but this game seems to capture the superhero experience very well, as far as it goes. It evoked a genuine sense of wonder as I was exploring my new powers. When I flew for the first time, and started zapping things, I felt a sort of liberation, as if I could do anything - quite an achievement in a railroaded game. The dialogue here is also excellent - I enjoyed the snappy repartee between the PC and her brother.

So the game started for real, and I was getting into it, and it was all set to be one of my favourite games, when suddenly this happened:

*** You have saved the day ***
- Watch for Episode 2 of EARTH AND SKY, coming in 2002 to an IF archive near you!

Huh? I'm sorry, but I'd been playing for all of ten minutes! Is that it? This isn't Earth and Sky: this is the trailer for Earth and Sky. And as good as it is, I can't mark a fragment of a game as highly as I would a whole game.

Heroes, by Sean T. Barrett
Rating: 4

"Do you want to play as an [a]dventurer, an [e]nchanter, a [t]hief, [r]oyalty, or a [d]ragon?"

Oooh, it's just like Nethack! In fact, I rather wish it was Nethack, because when it comes to fantasy quests I'd much rather go out and do the stuff than have to read about it. As it happens, as soon as words like 'Blackhelm' and 'Dragonslayer' start appearing in the text, I can't help drifting away and thinking of better things to do.

I really have to admire the amount of work put into this one, though. Five different PCs, five separate quests, each with a feel and story of its own, with the ability to switch between them in mid-game. Heroes is certainly a great achievement in programming and game design, and I'd probably really like it if it was a 3D graphics game. But this game showed me that in IF and in graphical games, I look for different things. Heroes has everything I'd look for in a game, but very little that I'd look for in IF. In IF I want to see an entertaining story, good writing, interesting uses of interactivity. And any fantasy quest where you have to recover a magic gem is, by definition, none of the above.

Jump, by Chris Mudd
Rating: 1

"'Don't you want to ask me about her breasts?' he asks insidiously" is one of the funniest sentences ever written. Especially the 'insidiously' part, which cracks me up every time. This and other howlers made last year's dismal 1-2-3, also by Chris Mudd, worth reading. With Jump, however, I have to wonder if he's aiming for the title of 'worst living IF author'. This one isn't even unintentionally funny.

An Apple From Nowhere, by Steven Carbone
Rating: 2

It's very easy to spew out a load of stream-of-consciousness crap, dress it up in IF and hope some profundity and structure emerges from the mess. So while this game fires at some legitimate targets, and though I like the savage humour and the general anarchic rage, I'd feel conned if I marked it too highly. At times, too, the satire verges on being simple misanthropy, and overall the game's cynicism left a bad taste in my mouth.

Film at Eleven, by Bowen Greenwood
Rating: 5

This game is apparently inspired by I-0, so the first time I played it I spent the whole time doing I-0 type things: I stripped off everywhere and waited to see how people would react. But the reactions were somehow disappointing, and the descriptions were somehow disappointing, and I felt a bit let down. I got the same feeling I get when reading Terry Pratchett - all very light-hearted, and the author is having a good time, and the characters are having a good time, and everyone involved is having a good time, and... I'm not, really.

One difference between this and I-0 is that the latter is much more richly described and imagined. To take a concrete example, I-0 gives me a very good picture of what Tracey Valencia's breasts look like. The description of Betty Byline's boobs, on the other hand, is "You've never had any complaints about them", which is so vague that she might as well be wearing five woolen sweaters. Does "You've never had any complaints about them" conjure up images in anyone's mind? No. And it's not that I'm only slavering after good descriptions of T&A: a lot of the writing here is similarly unevocative. I-0 it ain't.

The second time I played, however, I tried to appreciate Film at Eleven on its own terms, and I found it a lot more likeable. In fact I found the whole thing rather sweet and endearing. I liked the PC and her infectious enthusiasm, I liked the quirky small-town inhabitants, and I liked the friendly, gently chiding voice that was narrating. There's nothing particularly memorable here, but Eleven makes a pleasant enough way to pass an hour or two.

The Gostak, by Carl Muckenhaupt
Rating: 6

I can't help but think of this as a working implementation of Lighan Ses Lion, even though the two were probably conceived separately. One argument against mini-comps, maybe? Anyway, I enjoyed this one up to a point. The new words must have been a lot of fun to come up with: I liked all the big round blotchy sounds. I also liked figuring out what the words meant, but after a while it became clear that even when I knew them all there would still be a big tedious locked-door puzzle to solve, so I gave up. Good game, though.

Rating: 6

The Cruise, by Norman Perlmutter
Rating: 3

Openings are very important. In fact, it's difficult to overemphasise just how important the opening of a game is. You've got to grab people's attention and give them a reason to keep playing. On r.g.i.f. a few weeks ago people spoke about a brilliant game that a lot of people might have passed by. Cruise might be that game, but if it is, well that's a pity. As it is, I spent a while walking around a cruise ship, didn't see anything obvious to do, and quit. I like being on cruise ships though, so it gets a few points for that.

Cruise is notable for being probably the first game since A Moment of Hope to feature its own author as a character. Maybe it's me, but I find this a little bit, well, icky. Unless you're Kurt Vonnegut, appearing in your own fiction isn't the best idea.

Colours, by anon
Rating: 2

I have a strange suspicion that this game may be pretentious junk. This could be because it actually is pretentious junk, but I can't be sure.

All Roads, by Jon Ingold
Rating: 7

Jon Ingold's My Angel was one of my favourite games last year, so when the comp games were released I homed straight in on this one. And immediately I was happy. From the moment you start up this game, you're drowning in quality. The presentation is immaculate, the prose is clear and confident, the puzzles are logical and have multiple solutions, and the implementation is flawless. Make no mistake: this is really good stuff.

Like Varicella, this game is set in a fantasy renaissance Italy, and of the two fantasy renaissance Italies I prefer the one here. It's less arbitrary, more convincing: there is a consistent atmosphere of suspicion and fear, decadence and decay. Ingold's Venice is a city of dusty gothic arches, dark alleyways, deadly secrets, a city where assassins can lurk in every shadow. It's immersive stuff.

I'm concentrating more on the setting because I'm not sure how to approach the story. I'll be honest: I really have no idea what this game is about. For the first few minutes I didn't know what was happening, but I hoped it would all gradually become clear. Unfortunately, though, it didn't. I got more and more confused as the game went on, and after a while I lost hope and was counting on a big My Angel-style explanation at the end. (In general, I don't approve of explanations like this, but this time I was desperate.)

No explanation came, however, and so I have only the vaguest idea of what actually happened. This, I suspect, is more due to the reader's incompetence than the author's. Still, my bewilderment became so great that it did inhibit my enjoyment, and so All Roads misses out on my top marks.

A NIGHT GUEST, by Dr. Inkalot
Rating: 1

Here we have a few bad verses with some IF squeezed into the gaps. Nice try. In may ways this is a disaster - the poetry is terrible, the IF parts are pointless, and the narrative voice switches uncomfortably between first- person in the prose and third-person in the verse. And there are even a few guess-the-verb problems. Very little thought has been put into this. If you want your poetry to reach a wider audience, this is not the way to do it.

Fine Tuned, by Dionysius Porcupine
Rating: 3

Lame pseudonym. But this game has potential. I think IF has been crying out for a 1920s scarf-and-goggles daredevil hero, and Fine Tuned's Troy Sterling could be just the man. That he's vain and incompetent and not particularly heroic makes things even better. There are some wonderful anticlimaxes here, with the dashing Troy 'restoring the forces of light' by paying the electricity bill, and doing heroic things like removing an unsightly steel bucket from the road. I also liked the banter between Troy and his clearly long-suffering assistant. In fact I enjoyed the whole first chapter.

But then the bugs started to kick in - lots of weird things started happening in the train station and the game rapidly became unplayable. It seems that other people ran into the same problems, and the game is not finishable. Not for the first time, someone has released a game into the competition that's too buggy to finish. Don't do this, please. You're not going to do yourself justice, and it's more likely that you'll just end up annoying people. Me, for example.

So despite the promise of the opening, I can't rate this one very highly.

Vicious Cycles, by Simon Mark
Rating: 7

I really shouldn't like this game. It uses the worn-out 'amnesia' device, it has vaguely Luddite sensibilities, and at its heart it's yet another 'research station' game. Maybe that explains it. I'm a sucker for the research station genre - Babel is one of my favourite games, I really liked Transfer last year, and I can't resist movies like The Andromeda Strain and The Thing. Mad Science is just a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine. And so I liked Cycles.

We've seen a lot of things in this game before: the amnesia, the repeat-a- puzzle-until-you-get-it-right, but they are all done well here. The big puzzle is logical and well-clued, and easy enough that I was able to get it after a few tries. There are enough different things to try in each 'cycle' that the game never gets boring, and the flashbacks, which gradually reveal the story, are nicely integrated into the action.

Fusiallade, by Mike Duncan
Rating: 3

This game seems to be quite ambitious, and wants to say something about the 'age-old conflict between dream and reality' (which apparently has an 'erotic tinge'), but I'm not sure the end result is very succesful. Having a plan and an elaborate structure is one thing, but turning it into something people might actually want to read is another.

Fusillade is divided into lots of little scenarios, which cover an eclectic mix of things from genre fantasy to Jimi Hendrix to the War of 1812. Most of the scenarios are uninteresting. Genre fantasy, even if it's ironic genre fantasy, is still pretty hard to slog through. And while I'm aware that there is probably some great arc of meaning that links these scenarios together, I still think Fusillade would benefit from having a story, having some narrative drive. I need a reason to keep going, a reason why I shouldn't type >QUIT at any moment, and the game just didn't give me that.

It doesn't help that I think the question 'Which is better: dream or reality?' is about as pressing as 'How many angels can dance on the end of a needle?'. The answer is a no-brainer. Living in dreams doesn't work, people. Believe me: I tried it for a year.

No Time to Squeal, by Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa
Rating: 4

When I play a Robb Sherwin game, I expect to see loads of ass-kicking dialogue and inspired, crazed imagery. So the opening of this game was quite a surprise: it all seemed strangely calm and muted, and even dangerously close to being boring. But not so close that I stopped playing immediately. As it turned out, the muted style is appropriate for the fairly sombre events of the first section.

There is a lot of character-establishing text at the start, maybe too much, but it was effective in drawing me into the role. After a while I really became the PC. I wanted to make that deal, I was genuinely shocked at seeing my wife unconscious, I genuinely wanted to save the baby. That the game was able to make me feel that way shows it was doing something right.

But then, after the second section, I stopped playing. Why? Maybe it's something to do with the 'you die, then restart' gimmick. After spending all that time in one character, suddenly I'm wrenched out and thrust into a new one, and I have to go through the whole process of getting to know them again. And that just seems too tiring. On the face of it, the PC-changing in this game is not too different from the PC-changing in Photopia: but in Photopia, the breaks between PCs were cleaner and more fluid than the ones here, and they happened regularly enough that I didn't feel disoriented every time the character changed.

Skimming through the walkthrough, it looks like there is a lot of stuff that I missed in this game, though, so maybe I'll come back to it sometime.

Silicon Castles, by Jack Maet
Rating: 1

Full marks for programming, but sadly programming doesn't enter my judging criteria. And, when all is said and done, this is a competition for interactive fiction, not a competition for chess games. Castles turns z-abuse into comp-abuse.

Crusade, by John Gorenfeld
Rating: 7

Ah, here is a game that almost restored my faith in this year's competition. Crusade is a savage spoof of last year's risible Jarod's Journey. And unlike such games as Asendent and Stupid Kittens, this isn't just a braindead piss-take: beneath all the silliness there is a sincere rage against crap games and religion, and something of a reforming zeal that is the hallmark of true satire.

Despite the occasional sophomorism, I think the writing here is the most memorable in the comp: not just for the jokes, which are frequently laugh-out-loud (like the burning bush and the vintage wine), but also for some astonishing imagery. Take the scene where Jesus doles out gunpowder to his disciples, 'for future use'. Have you ever seen a better metaphor for the crimes committed in the name of Christianity? I don't think I have - it could almost be a parable from the man himself. And even with the jokes, and the deliberate anachronisms, and the postmodern self-awareness, Crusade still manages to get something of an authentic 12th-century feeling across. No, I'm serious. The crusades really were looting raids cynically dressed up in dogma, just like the one here. (And just like the one currently being waged, I might add).

The writing is good, but the same can't be said about the interactivity. This game seems like it would be impossible without the use of a walkthrough. So many of the required actions seem unmotivated: how would I ever guess 'pray to goose' or 'convert king'? The game is also quite thinly-implemented, with a lot of disappointing default responses. I'm not sure it would lose anything if it were ordinary fiction instead of IF, so I have to mark it down a few notches.

This article copyright © 2001, Stephen Bond

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