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Comp Reviews, or What I Did This Equinox

by David H. Thornley

Posted 25 November 2001 to

OK, I'm not too timely about these. I've modified some of the reviews to take into account earlier comments on the games. Note that I found the most to say about problems with games, and tried (not always successfully) to provide suggestions for improvement.

Assorted comments on games I've played:

1. Journey from an Islet     Rating - 3
The pictures were nice, but there really didn't seem to be all that much to it. I found the way the exits were handled annoying; there was frequently no way to find them except to try a direction that didn't work and get a somewhat jarring list. There was a lot of repetitive action, although it seemed almost ritualistic and therefore not that bad. I could go back and try to do something with the snake, but it doesn't seem worth it.

2. The Coast House     Rating - 4
The descriptions were good, giving a feeling of the sort of place it is, but it still seemed a bit on the barren and limited side. The key actions in the solution seemed rather forced and arbitrary, and the way so much of the situation was just presented at the end made the rest of the game seem relatively unimportant.

3. Stick it to the man     Rating - 1
I really dislike these bleeping pieces of bleeping text that seem to bleeping think they have to bleeping use the word bleep every bleeping line or so, but it does help create the desired atmosphere. Unfortunately, before the game had started to develop a point, it hung and had to be force-quit. I am not at all tolerant of this, and so....

4. The Isolato Incident     Rating - 6
A little lightweight, but intriguing. At first I was wondering if "we" might be the people who play IF, in greatly simplified worlds, usually neither eating nor sleeping. The base situation was moderately interesting, but it seemed to me that it could have used more description, to be in a different style than at the start.

Let me expand on that. The initial world is sparse and described in a strange sort of way. This is puzzling, but is at least self-consistent. Near the end of this world, we get a piece of information, and it is clear that it comes from another world not only by content but by style. Leaving this world, we get back into the same style, different content, with what looks like an arbitrary change from the information, the only thing that actually looks real.

The game would have been considerably improved if the closing text had been written differently, with longer paragraphs and more detail, and some explanation of why it differs from what was in the message.

Oh, well.

5. All Roads     Rating - 10
The in-game puzzles are easy, but there's the larger puzzle of figuring out exactly what's going on. At first, the game is very confusing, but with a sense that there's something going on that might be understandable. In the meantime, the writing is good, with enough details to establish it as some sort of Renaissance Italian city-state. It's by far the most convincing setting I've seen so far in the comp (with the special exception of "The Isolato Incident").

The player is dumped into connected situations which are linked in a strange way, and it remains puzzling until the end, where we learn pretty much what has happened. The writing here, with the earlier build-up, is chilling.

So, we've got a good metapuzzle, good and evocative writing, and none of the little coding problems that have cropped up elsewhere (fortunately, the grammar has generally been good). Nothing to break mimesis.

I really don't know what more to say, except that this is the sort of game that I play the competition in the hopes of being surprised by.

6. You Are Here     Rating - 6
Amusing, technically good, but lightweight. It seems to me that the game can be put in an unwinnable state: fight a certain critter before finding the girl.

7. Crusade: Faith-based Hijinks in the Desert     Rating - 4
Yeah, see above, but less amusing. It suffers from apparent aimless wandering at the start, with a time limit. The writing is of a tone appropriate for being funny, but I did not find it actually funny, but rather just flippant.

8. The Beetmonger's Journal     Rating - 6
The use of the map fragments to show exits is intriguing (if you're playing it with a HTML-TADS interpreter, anyway). It is a frame story, with the characters in the original story finding a diary and reading it. In both the frame and the framed story, there are entertaining odd elements, many concerned with the role of beetmongers. It has the additional feature that it forces the player to make serious choices to keep the plot moving, choices that make serious differences in the ending, without providing guidance as to which is better. (I think the best ending is pretty clear to those who see all of them.)

The writing was good, but it left me somewhat dissatisfied. The world seemed sparse and sketchy. Yes, I know a diary is often like that, but I prefer more detail in an IF game. I think it would also have been better if the story/stories had been longer, but that is difficult in light of the disparate endings.

9. Bane of the Builders     Rating - 3
This has some problems with descriptions. Let's start with the blaster, which you can find early on:

>x blaster
It's a military blaster, a gun that shoots a thin stream of hot plasma. While not powerful enough to melt metal, it's still a devastating weapon at close range. The blaster is currently set to kill and the power meter is green.

Right. What does this tell you? The blaster is a weapon, and has settings and a power meter. There is no direct clue I could find to show what the possible settings are; if you try to set it to something like "heat" a la Star Trek, you'll be told that it can be set to stun or kill.

Now, exactly how do you stun with a flamethrower? If you had a heavy handgun where you could adjust the gunpowder with a dial, what would the stun setting be? As far as I can figure, this weapon should have settings that range from "tear a very large hole in somebody" to "inflict third-degree burns over a hand-sized area". One thing that Star Trek did was never explain what a phaser was, only what it could do. (My best analysis is that it's magic.)

Going into the cave, the elevator and second floor make sense, although the ghost-aliens are never explained. The world is sparse, implementing only that which is necessary for the walkthrough. The bottom floor makes no sense whatsoever. It is too hard to get into for simple storage, and too easy to be a safe place. The problem with the lever apparently exists only to cause an extraneous problem later. We wear that which we find because it is wearable, and because we have seen a picture of an alien wearing something like it, not for any more positive reason.

Once we have everything we need, we go back to rescue the professor. Save first; you need to set things up just right in order to win, and it isn't necessarily obvious.

After winning, we get some brief text superficially explaining a few things, and a high score.

This is basically a Star Trek episode lightly disguised, and not a good one. It seems to me to fall into the category of genre fiction where the genre conventions are used instead of real work.

10. Fine-Tuned     Rating - 2
The writing is generally good, and the character switching interesting, but the world is again sparse. The points based on your actions in being friendly to people help establish a character without being too heavy-handed, and it looks like there is a mystery and romance going on.

Then, when things were getting interesting, the game started spitting out errors and then crashed. I looked at the time and found I'd played for about the magical two hours, and realized that I wasn't going to get back to the crash site (the program, not the ones in the game) in time to rate anything. One reason for the time taken was the frequent requirement to hit the space bar when driving. Pausing the text should be reserved for special occasions when surprising things are happening, not when driving down the road and seeing a boy on a pony.

BTW, the walkthrough seems to be for a slightly different version of the game, or perhaps one in which random events happen differently. If the game is not deterministic, providing a simple list of commands is not a real good thing for a walkthrough. I was thereby discouraged from trying the walkthrough back to the crash site.

Not to mention, what is a .z8 game doing in a competition with a two-hour judging limit? It isn't to provide additional richness to the world that wouldn't fit into a .z5, because it doesn't. It suggests that the game will keep on going and going for some time, long beyond a reasonable two hours involving exploration and experimentation. (Actually, looking at the walkthrough, I wasn't that far from the end. So, what did over a quarter meg of game go to? Stuff that I never got the chance to explore?)

Anyway, it's rating time, I don't know what the revelations are, I can only surmise about the romance, and this is because the game crashed on MaxZip.

You know, despite the rating, this is the game I would most like to have a cleaned-up post-comp version. It seemed like it had a lot of promise, which was betrayed by the bugs and by the fact that it was just too big for a comp setting.

11. Jump     Rating - 2
This isn't so much a game as a Photopia-like story written in Inform. On the other hand, it doesn't have the same depth. While it approaches serious themes, it doesn't get very close. I can sum up the story in a fairly short paragraph, and the game neither fleshes it out much nor draws me much into it. There is no illusion of controlling what goes on.

Yes, I know that things like this happen in the real world. However, setting a game in them does not automatically make it good or significant or anything like that. It's what the game does with the material, and this one doesn't do much.

I find that I have too many questions. What does Amanda expect David to do without a certain item? Why does she commit suicide out of Christian belief, defying a whole lot of things I've seen about Christian attitudes toward suicide? The game ignores them.

12. Earth and Sky     Rating - 6
Short and entertaining, although the IF method of fighting large monsters is more tedious than the comic book method (partly because I always passed over the repetitive panels quickly, an option I didn't have in this Big Fight Against The Monster). The conversations are well implemented, although rather utilitarian; they aren't the point of the game, but support it well.

13. Goofy     Rating - none
How about giving some sort of guidelines as to what we need to play up front? It was billed as a web game, and requires Java (which I didn't realize until noticing the .jar file). Now, the browser I usually use doesn't do well with Java, and I don't want to spend time and effort correcting that. First, I tend to think of Java as a security problem, and, second, without knowing which Java I don't know whether it'll run on MacOS 9.1 anyway. (No, I'm not going to install MacOS X just to run Java, and I haven't bothered putting X Windows on my Linux box, due to various limitations.)

14. Prized Possession     Rating - 8
By this time, I rather expect a Kathleen Fischer game to include romance, and am not disappointed. With good writing and enough details to make the story feel realistic, we (as a woman) go through a forbidding social landscape, hoping to arrive at a good place. There is the usual knight who seems very fond of us, in a slightly rough way.

Unfortunately, there are problems here. I don't know whether it's a genre convention to keep important background facts hidden, such as Ranulf's father, but I found it annoying that I couldn't seem to find out anything more about him. It seems to be assumed that the PC should wind up with the fond knight, although I can't see much reason for that other than genre.

There were two mechanical things that bothered me. The division of the story into very short chapters, something like Shogun, gives the feeling that the player is unimportant in the development of the story, that all the player can do is figure out how to get the few steps from point A to point B, and so on. In the Inform DM4, one will find a description of a standard game as constricted in the beginning and the end, and rather open in the middle. I like the exploration in the middle, and this game really doesn't provide it.

The other problem was the conversational interface, which is critical since in this game, as befits a romance, much of the action is really saying things. In order to say something significant, it appears that you have to type "talk" followed by a choice of given but unlabelled options. Something like BARON, LEAVE ROOM would go like:

Do you want to ask the Baron to leave, ask him why he is here, or thank the Count for the flowers?

"You have no business uninvited in a lady's chamber. Please leave."

which I found awkward and unnatural.

15. Cruise     Rating - 2
Let's see. The writing is awkward (practice, practice, practice - I'd also suggest reading aloud). Critical information comes as info dumps, much longer than the scanty text you get for satisfying any of the main goals. The "last lousy point" is far too important; in most games, the LLP doesn't stop you from winning, but rather is there to allow winning with an imperfect score.

The premise is unconvincing, and violates a Potential Important Safety Tip. If a person claims to be a good wizard, and wants your help in defeating an evil wizard, then that person is 1) deluded, 2) lying, 3) a wizard, or 4) more than one of the above. If the person is in fact a wizard (and I, personally, wouldn't take a person's unsupported word on that), it is reasonable to think there might be an evil wizard around. The question is, who? Are we to assume that the wizard who isn't bothering anybody is evil, and the one that hangs around in bars is the good one? In the game, it's not even possible to ask the purported good wizard for his driver's license. It turns out that, in the game, blind faith in guys who never leave the bar stool is not only rewarded but casually assumed.

There is a lack of plausibility. Real ocean liners don't allow their passengers to drown unnoticed in the swimming pool just to complicate a puzzle that is based on an incredibly restricted ability to hold one's breath. Nor do real crew members threaten to kill passengers.

Defeating the evil wizard is done by gathering crystals from fairly obvious locations and then performing a certain series of acts that is extremely counter-intuitive. It consists of extracting a few words from the wizard's info dump and interpreting them literally as commands to type. The question of exactly what the character is doing as part of these commands, and how it fits into the wizard's instructions, is never addressed. I would not have defeated the evil wizard without the hint book. This isn't a clever puzzle, but rather an abusive one that destroys any mimesis the game might have cultivated. (Very large parts of the game give me the feeling that the author never actually visualized anything that was going on, but rather dealt with it only in game terms. This is a bad way to go. Always try to have a real-world idea of what is going on. Be able to write down a quick paragraph showing exactly what the character does with any necessary command.)

As mentioned, the last lousy point is apparently necessary to get the "you win" message, and the hint book appears to be wrong on how to get it. I never acquired the equipment it said was necessary, but got the LLP anyway.

(OK, let's sum up the suggestions on how to do better next time. Read the text aloud, as I find that's a good way to find awkward phrasing. Imagine the situation, even to the point of writing it up as a short story, so that it isn't completely implausible. Make sure the puzzles make sense in the setting; in order to do this, you can change either the puzzles or the setting. Break up long infodumps, and make sure they still make sense the second time. Make sure the text you get for satisfying a major goal is significant and interesting.)

At least there isn't a maze, so....

16. Grayscale     Rating - 6
Decent writing, and an interesting premise, although sketchy at beginning and end. I found the house geography hard to keep track of in my head, for some reason. The only NPC was odd but well-implemented, and generally likeable. The clues in the form of poems were odd.

17. No Time to Squeal     Rating - 4
There are games that have an "adult" warning in them, but I think this really does need one, due to the mutilation and raw organs found in the last section. I wouldn't want my child to run into that without warning.

The basis of the game is unusual, and I still haven't figured out whether it's unusual in a good or bad sense, and I still have no idea what "squealing" is in this context. There is a tragic occurrence, and we get to go through it in four ways, as different people, and then we get dumped into a thoroughly surreal area that might be considered Lewis Carroll's worst nightmare. Most of the imagery is from Through the Looking Glass, although of course the Hare and the potion are from Alice in Wonderland, making a sort of "Hannibal Lecter in Wonderland" scene. I have no idea what this section is about, or why it is relevant, but it is.

In this case, I'm going to cop out and rate it on more technical factors. The writing was good, the little touches of normalcy well done, and I didn't run into any annoying bugs. Subtracting a bit for lack of warning....

18. Film at Eleven     Rating - 6
You're a new TV reporter. You're female, and although this has no bearing on the main plot it is prominent in many of the side details. There's a breaking story, and your job is to get it on camera. Your ambition is to look good on camera while you do it.

This is a geographically small game, with fewer than twenty rooms that I found. At first, I thought this seemed a bit limiting, but decided otherwise. The small geography keeps the game more focussed, while offering the author scope to play with the NPCs. On the other hand, a bit more detail inside the rooms would have worked better.

The NPCs are stereotypical but well-implemented for that. A good deal of work went into some of the less professional activities a beautiful female television reporter can get into (yeah, ask me how I know), although this is handled with what on some level is reasonably good taste, and doesn't warrant tacking a label on. It's similar to I-0 in that respect.

The game is not difficult, but the winning moves seem implausible. Then again, it seems difficult to come up with good investigative games.

19. Night Guest     Rating - 5
Another one of those games that are sufficiently different to be hard to rate. This is based on an poem, written by the game author, and the task appears to be to follow the poem. At least, I didn't find a way to break out of it. This means that the game is extremely linear, and will advance only when the next few stanzas are triggered. The author modestly describes the game as for students of bad poetry, but it isn't bad at all. It isn't in a style I'm particularly fond of personally, but within that style it seems well done. There is a hint system, which seems to be necessary considering the lack of progress I made without it.

I think my main complaint is that this is the sort of game where I don't really feel I'm needed as a player. The interaction is mostly casting around to get the next part of the poem. This is much the same complaint I had with Jump earlier, but this is much more enjoyable.

20. Moments out of Time     Rating - Not rated
Since this is a .z6 game, and requires Frotz, I can't play it.

21. Volcano Isle     Rating - 2
This is an old-fashioned treasure hunt with an old-fashioned maze. The writing is not all that good, the game expects a leap of faith, and in general it's not something I want to play.

22. The Gostak     Rating - 1
The modification of the English language is too much for me. I had no problem with "The sun is gone. It must be brought. You have a rock." Edifice and Infidel allowed me to play in English, and then figure out what the other language was. This appears to remove words like "get" and "look", making it impossible to play the game without first constructing a dictionary. Now, I can probably get a start on one by invoking the help menu (which I can get) and using parts of it as a Rosetta stone, but that's going to leave me frustrated and unhappy at the end of two hours and not into the game. I'm going to save myself some frustration....

23. The Evil Sorcerer     Rating - 5
This one of those "good person tells you to kill evil sorcerer" games, but it's plausible for all that. Odd things sound a lot more plausible when told to a man by a beautiful woman who appears interested in him. The task is reasonable. The writing is good, although it seems rushed in spots. More specifically, what seem like they should be important moments are dismissed in a short paragraph of text. The end, after killing the sorcerer, is a significant letdown.

There are some bugs when you try to talk to Julia about some subjects, with extraneous text being dropped in for some reason. The main revelation about Julia is handled in an odd way. Rather than allowing you to deduce it from the clues, you find out about it after talking to another character, and apparently going immediately to Julia.

In short, decent, with some problems.

24. Vicious Cycles     Rating - 4
In this, you start in limbo and come out at various points. There is one in which you will appear repeatedly until you get it right, and several in which you really don't seem to have anything to do except observe. There is a backstory, which never becomes perfectly clear, involving megacorporations and time travel and terrorists.

There is one scene in which you have to do something to end the game, and I don't understand that. In the preceding scene, you are told that you know what you have to do, and there is a logical course of action that seems to end the game. It isn't the only logical course of action, and seems to me to be defeat. It is, however, the only action I could find.

25. The Newcomer     Rating - 2
This seems pretty pointless. There is no guidance provided, and I am killed by thugs after nine turns no matter what I do. There may be some miraculous way to survive, but I rather doubt it.

26. Triune     Rating - 7
Triune is something of a takeoff on the pagan trinity of maiden, mother, and crone. It starts in a depressing household and escapes into a what seems at first a classic fairy world, complete with princes and unicorns. It isn't all that long before it becomes apparent that this isn't quite what it appears, and that this isn't really a good place to live happily ever after.

As you realize the faults in this world, you replay scenes from your earlier life, scenes of bitter disappointment that show how your real life came to be so dismal. You can retire in the fairy world, but not in a satisfactory way.

It is also possible, after much destruction, to leave the fairy world and return to your own (although I suspect that the fact that you can bring a unicorn with you is a bug rather than a feature), and this isn't real attractive either.

At this point, I have to get a bit spoilerish, since it is not possible to talk about the end while not revealing it.

The answer is to quit. Walk away from the game. This isn't your situation (I certainly hope). Unfortunately, this doesn't seem like a very deep or important observation. I don't claim to have the firmest grasp on reality, but I can recognize it when I'm passing through, and I do know the difference between a game, a study, and real life.

So, what I'm rewarding this game for is not its philosophical depth, but rather for portraying an unusual sort of world and doing it well.

27. an apple from nowhere     Rating - 3
Another one of those noninteractive interactive fiction things, this one with lots of gratuitous sleaze, and with less point to it than most. The best I can say is that the writing is appropriate.

28. Carma     Rating - Not rated
Yeah, right. At least this game tells me I shouldn't play it on a Mac.

29. Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country     Rating - 2
To paraphrase a book review that sounds like Dorothy Parker, this game fills a badly needed void. It has no reason to exist, and several for being obliterated. On the other hand, the technical quality is so high, with sound effects and graphics seamlessly adding to the the experience (unfortunate, that), that I just couldn't give it a 1.

30. Fusillade     Rating - 7
This is not so much a game as a rapid-fire succession of scenes that seem more or less connected (sometimes more, sometimes less). There are almost no decisions to make.

Now, Photopia sort of pioneered noninteractive interactive fiction, but it appeared to give more interactivity. The game-within-a-game was interactive, if very forgiving. Many of the other segments have decisions to make: are you going to get out of the car or not? Since then, the decisions in this sort of fiction have been becoming thinner, removing much of the illusion.

The little scenes vary from made-up to fictional to historical or at least legendary. There is apparently intended to be a common theme, but I really couldn't follow it.

Anyway, I rather liked it.

31. Silicon Castles     Rating - 1
The game's Comp01.z5 note strongly recommends using a good, established, interpreter, and recommends Frotz. It happens that nobody's ported Frotz to the Macintosh, and if I had the time right now I'd use that time on other projects. I therefore used MaxZip, which is one of the Mac standards. In fact, all of the Mac zcode interpreters I know of are either Zip-based or not well-established. (Nitfol lists itself as version 0.50 last I looked.)

After complaining about Zip and asking me if I wanted to continue, I did so, and after some fumbling around the interface the game hung. It could be that it was just taking a lot longer to calculate a response to d4 than I'd expect, but after a list of complaints starting with a right-shift operator I had no confidence, and killed the game.

Moral: When requiring a given version of the compiler, go ahead and require it. Don't give annoying warnings and then fail.

32. Shattered Memory     Rating - 4
You start in a very long line, and have amnesia. Most of the people don't seem to want to have anything to do with you. Part of your job is to figure out who you are and why you're there. Good luck. (I knew where I was as soon as I looked at the people.)

There is an interesting way to try to remember things, and the game provides you with a useful way of keeping track of what you've learned. On the other hand, there really aren't all that many revelations, and your backstory remains overly sketchy. The longest scene contains information about your wife that seems to me to be too extreme to be believable.

Basically, neither person in the backstory has any apparent redeeming qualities, and more than one quality that isn't exactly redeeming. While it suggests that the protagonist was at least consistent in his taste in women, it leaves me rather flat.

The game needed to be longer, and with slightly less extreme characters in the backstory. There should have been more revelations, not all of them actually relevant.

This article copyright © 2001, David H. Thornley

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