Posted 16 November 2004 to rec.games.int-fiction
Since there are already quite a lot of reviews out here, and I did not have the time to read all the pieces (though I read most of them), I'll limit myself to making remarks about the few pieces I think actually may have something interesting to say about.
I was a bit disappointed by the fact that almost every piece I read was actually a game I played; I would have preferred more 'literary stories' and less 'puzzles'. Some of these games were very enjoyable, and some tried to get literary - but in this last respect, none of the ones I played was truly successful. Blue chairs never made its point clear to me, and I was very much distracted by the annoying puzzles that made up its middle part. Gamlet promised a lot in terms of a tight and interesting story, but never seemed to go anywhere and really lost me at the exceedingly strange finale. Most disappointing in this respect was Who created that monster?, which for all of five minutes seemed to be a serious exploration of political issues - but wasn't.
Still, pieces such as All things devours, Gamlet, Blue chairs and Sting of the wasp made judging this competition very worthwhile for me. (And by not playing The great Xavio, Splashdown, Mingsheng, Luminous Horizon and Square Circle I seem to have been doing myself a misfavour!) Let's turn to some remarks about individual games.
ALL THINGS DEVOURS
(Very mild spoilers)
All things devours by 'half sick of shadows' is a very good piece of interactive fiction. Located towards the 'game' side of the IF spectrum, the player must carefully deduce the sequence of actions that will lead to victory. In order to succeed at this task, one must first learn to understand the inner logic of the game's universe, and then to come to understand how this insight can be used to overcome the existing obstacles. I found it very pleasing that no puzzle in "All things devours" is merely decoration: all of them reflect aspects of the game's central theme. Once you understand how the world works - the informative messages that accompany your many failed attempts are a real help here - the rules of solving the game are clear and unambiguous. The resulting puzzle is of satisfying difficulty, leading to a real sense of accomplishment for every obstacle you succeed in overcoming. "All things devours" is a beautifully crafted, very coherent intellectual challenge, with added suspense because of the time limits.
Unfortunately, the game is not as polished as it could have been. I encountered several bugs, one of which leaves you trapped in a room you are not supposed to enter. Worse, there is a bug which makes a crucial item disappear for no reason at all. I found this last one very frustrating, as it put me off the right track for some time. Also, some meta-actions such as 'ABOUT' actually take 5 seconds to perform, which is not good. If the author fixes these minor and major bugs, All things devour will become an outstanding example of transforming an interesting idea into a great puzzle, worthy of a rating of 9 out of 10. In its present state it is still very good, and I give it 8 out of 10. [This is the highest score I gave, although ATD was not the only game to get it. I will mail the author a more detailed bug report.]
(Nothing to spoil)
Dunric's Ninja is not just a bad game, it is an absolutely awful game. The first thing I noticed is that it doesn't recognise 'x' as an abbreviation of 'examine'. The second thing I noticed was that the prose was, to say the least, interesting: "The birds fly atop it, scattering the sky with a distant breeze." After that, it only became worse. There are exactly two items in the game that can be picked up, but it seemed that the author decided they needed no description. Indeed, examining them is not even a valid game action. Then again, almost nothing is a valid game action. As far as I could see, gameplay consists in wandering through the very small and completely linear game world, picking up your sword (which you cannot examine), solving one trivial puzzle, and being suddenly attacked by an evil ninja. Once this last thing happens, you are allowed to press space several times to see the random generator decide whether you die or prevail. Oh, and due to a bug in the code, both can happen at the same time.
Although the verb list includes 'save', it is not actually possible to save the game - presumably, adding the word to the verb list was merely a cosmetic touch. (Either that, or programming a save-routine in GWBASIC exceeded the author's skills. One does wonder why anyone would choose BASIC over an established IF-language.) The same holds, surprisingly enough, for the word 'quit'. In a desparate last attempt to keep his player from leaving as soon as possible, the game answers any request to quit with the words "You have not yet completed this adventure, master...". No, and neither do I wish to! Avaunt, o piece of crap!
Rating: 1 out of 10.
WHO CREATED THAT MONSTER?
The main problem I have with N.B.Horvath's Who created that monster? is that it is a mere trifle. Set in Bagdad in the year 2026, a place full of security robots, Americans and foreign ambassies, it seems to start out as a game in which you can wrestle with some serious political or cultural problems. At the very least, you expect the author to make some point on the Iraq war or some connected issue. Alas, no - the game loses itself in light-hearted absurdity, the political references never add up to anything substantial, and as far as I can see the discoveries the main character makes about Europe's connections with Saddam contain no serious message whatsoever.
This is not to say that Who created that monster? fails entirely. It is well-programmed, well-written and quite funny. It is absurd, amusing, and definitely good for one or two hours of fun - but you won't find yourself replaying it or pondering its message.
Rating: 6 out of 10.
GOOSE, EGG, BADGER
I feel strangely incompetent to judge this game. While playing it, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that the idea of the piece completely and utterly eluded me. You wake up in the middle of the night, and find that your farm is in chaos. The idea seems to be that you set things aright through solving puzzles, but these are oft extremely illogical, and otherwise made irritating by the carrying limit of two items. I had to use the hints system and the walkthrough many, many times in order to reach the perfect score. I mean - "jump over the moon"? How on earth was I supposed to think of such a command?
Afterwards, I found out that the entire game was a play with words, where every verb you needed to use was also the name of an object in the game. That is interesting, but I never found it out while playing the game.This may be partly due to the fact that English is not my native language (I didn't know the verb 'to scoop', for one, and would never have thought of 'to ape'), but the game never made clear that understanding it had anything to do with verbal gymnastics. So I would really recommend making that clearer, as well as - expressing my irritation again - removing the carrying limit!
The first part of this piece, before you reach the gas station, was by far the best experience I had in this competition. However, I got severly stuck in the middle, mostly because it took me a while to figure out that the piece had suddenly turned into a puzzle-fest, and partly because the puzzles lacked - as far as I could see - any literal or symbolic connection with the previous narrative. So my main question for the author is: what did you intend to achieve by switching from a tightly-packed narrative to a text-adventure-like maze full of puzzles for a while? Perhaps you did achieve it, and I just missed it, but I would like to know what design choice lay beneath it.
Rating: 8 out of 10.
I admired the prose - overwrought, yes, but consistently so and thereby creating a special atmosphere. But the finale.. if you wish to make a point about the roles of player and character in Interactive Fiction, that's great, but shouldn't it have a link with what happened previously? The 'point' of this game's narrative was like a Deus ex Machina, appearing out of nowhere, and leaving me more confused than anything else. The piece lacks unity and direction; but the writer is one with great potential.
Rating: 8 out of 10.
This article copyright © 2004, Victor Gijsbers