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An Ex-lurker's Comp Reviews

by Stephen Gilbert

Posted 17 November 2005 to

This is my first post to rgif, but I've been a lurker in the IF community for a number of years. I've decided to break radio silence this year and judge the IFComp. Here are my reviews of the seventeen games I managed to play, in the order I played them. I've tried to avoid spoilers, but my explanation of how I felt about Distress required me to deviate from that general rule. Play that game before reading my review.

1. Snatches
By Gregory Weir

Score: 5 Completed game? Yes, several times

The description for Snatches contains this warning: "May contain scenes of violence and suspense". There certainly was violence, but I'm afraid the suspense didn't work for me. The constantly changing perspective was interesting, but I found it too jumpy; I hardly had time to figure out who and where I was, and I couldn't seem to do anything worthwhile before the next jump. Also, some of the characterization was weird, like the woman who didn't like guns but was out in back of the house firing off live ammunition at bottles (isn't that dangerous?).

A good effort overall, but it fell flat for me.

2. Ninja II
By Dunric

Score: 1
Completed game? No.

I haven't yet played this game's predecessor, but based on my experience with this one, I think I'll give it a miss. Apparently I'm a master ninja, who is not yet a master, outside my shrine. Blocking the entrance is an Ice Dragon that breathes fire that doesn't burn and programs old DEC computers. After I issue a certain number of commands which don't do anything, a ninja jumps out of nowhere and kills me. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Perhaps this game is a subtle commentary on life. Perhaps we are all like ninjas with our own dragons to slay and no obvious way to do it. And then, POW! We die for no foreseeable reason. In any case, I would like to thank that rival ninja for putting me out of my misery quickly.

3. Cheiron
By Sarah Clelland and Elisabeth Polli

Score: 4
Completed game? No

This seems to be a training simulator for medical students. I think using IF for this sort of thing is a great idea. I remember reading an article about a police academy using Sierra's old Police Quest games for training police officers. To improve the simulator, I offer these suggestions:

However, I should point out that this simulator was not fun to play, even with the hints for non-medical students. So my final suggestion is:

4. Internal Vigilance: 5
By Simon Christiansen

Like Snatches, there's some good work here, but it fails to come together. The multiple paths through the story are quite good, but the writing can't quite carry the weight. A sample: "Your highly trained instincts tell you that he is probably telling the truth."

The PC is an agent of a freedom-oppressing but safety-ensuring government, and has to choose between the status quo or fighting for freedom. The problem is, I didn't find either side particularly compelling. Oppressors to the left of me, fruitcakes to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with a suitcase bomb. Or something like that.

5. Sword of Malice: 4
By Anthony Panuccio

This game was rather dull. There are some weird puzzle choices that I don't think I could have solved without the walkthru. The world felt very small and narrow, both map-wise and conceptually. Also, if I'm going on a terrible and dangerous mission that only I am strong enough to do, why don't I need any weapons or armor? And if there are grim warnings that the Sword of Malice will consume me, should I not have the option of refusing it? And if you make a big deal about our sworn enemies being our brothers, shouldn't the idea of destroying them with this ultra-weapon be morally challenging? I guess not.

6. Tough Beans
By Sara Dee

Score: 6
Completed? Yes, several times

The opening was quite creepy and hooked me instantly. And then, the game let me down. It turn out to be all about this poor little thing who has grow a backbone. The writing was good, and the automatic navigation was a nice touch (I hate wandering around office buildings...), but the story left me cold, especially after that opening. I tried to find the various endings, but my heart wasn't in it.

7. Hello sword
By Andrea Rezzonico

Score: 2
Completed? Yes, with walkthru

I have great respect for people who attempt to write in a language that is not their native tongue. In the "About" section, Andrea Rezzonico has this message for the English players of the game:

"I'm absolutely acquainted with the great number of errors and incomprehensible expressions that crowded this adventure (by the way, I ask you to signal them to me), but I hope you at least appreciate the huge effort I made for you."

I want to emphasize that I do appreciate the effort and the courage it takes to write a game, translate it into English and then present it to English speakers. However, if you plan to enter your game in a competition, it is absolutely vital that your beta testing includes language testing. At least one of your testers should be a native English speaker whose only job is to correct your translation.

For example, here is the opening sentence of "Hello sword":

"You hasn't the will-power to go out this morning: today is one of the most hottest day of the month, the air is so damp to seem viscous and the bed appears to you a valid alternative to everything."

I would offer the following correction:

"You really didn't want to go out this morning. Today is one of the hottest days of the year, and the air is viciously damp—your bed seems like a valid alternative to everything."

Nearly every line needs a similar correction.

Unfortunately, poor translation is not Hello sword's only problem. The game is set in a generic sword-and-sorcery type world. The puzzles mostly require reading the author's mind (or the walkthru). There are minor bugs which announce themselves at the beginning of the game. Some sections require an obscure action to be performed multiple times, and there was no way for me to know this without consulting the walkthru. Vital information is not mentioned in descriptions. And so on.

In short, Hello sword is a generic fantasy game with a long list of problems, and it wasn't much fun to play.

8. Dreary Lands
By Paul Lee

Score: 3
Completed game? Yes (with walkthru)

This is a poor game on all levels. The author seems to have thrown a bunch of random ideas together, and the result is a weird-smelling mush. Is the game supposed to be serious or absurd? Why is there a car, and then a faux-medieval scene? How did I get here? Why am I even playing this? Run, it's an evil tree!

Also, the coding is very bad. There are many, many bugs, and most objects and actions are poorly implemented.

9. FutureGame (tm): 1
The Game of the Future
By The FutureGame Corporation

The FutureGame Corporation has provided us with a thought-provoking piece. I've decided to apply Pete Jasper's experimental evaluation criteria (see to determine if FutureGame (tm) advances the state of the art in IF.

> Does the game deconstruct the rooms paradigm so effectively that no map is required to play the game? If not, does the story itself have elements that actually focus the PC on geography, so that a map is necessary to the story itself, not just to the gameplay? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

FutureGame (tm) so thoroughly deconstructs the rooms paradigm that only a madman would find a map helpful. 1 point.

> Does the author make game-related choices or plot-advancing consequences inherent in the majority of actions the player takes? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

Every single choice has a profound impact on the path of FutureGame (tm). 1 point.

> Does game play and choices made as result advance the player to multiple endings, with multiple paths to reach those endings, in ways that are both supported by and supportive of the main story trying to be told? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

FutureGame (tm) has no fewer than three separate endings, and two of them can be reached in two different ways. 1 point.

> Is the story itself actually worth telling? Does it have a narrative dynamic that would be worth relating in other media, so that it is not purely a technical exercise? And is that dynamic sustained throughout the course of the game so that the player essentially knows the story, even if he/she doesn't fully understand it or all its implications, on the first playthrough? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

It's hard to imagine how FutureGame (tm) could be done in a different medium, and even harder to imagine why someone would want to. It's also hard to detect any sort of narrative dynamic. No points here, I'm afraid.

> Do commands—including movement commands—really support the story, i.e., if you are using compass directions, is the player using a compass to navigate with at the time? If not, do the commands truly enhance the mimetic effect being achieved in the game? Are uncommon commands natural to the story and the responses to incorrect commands helpful? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

The commands in FutureGame (tm) are extremely intuitive. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the player could unintentionally enter an incorrect command. 1 point.

> Does the author have sufficient control of the pacing, the narrative, the hints, other authorial mechanisms such as flashbacks, memories, event intrusion, etc., so that the player can't ever really get stuck and therefore fail to finish the game? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

The pacing seems to be under the consistent control of the author. It is doubtful that any player would get stuck in this game. 1 point.

> Does the author use timing or turn-related events or scene-cuts that give the player the appropriate forward momentum necessary to move from scene to scene and complete the game? If not, is a slow pace and relatively open player "wandering" reflective of the story and how it is being told? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

The pace of FutureGame (tm) is quite brisk, and the player moves from scene to scene easily. 1 point.

> If puzzles are included, are they natural byproducts of the world model or the interactions of the PC/NPCs? Are the puzzles absolutely necessary to advance the story being told? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

There are no puzzles in the traditional sense, and this is appropriate to the general flow of the game. 1 point.

> Does the game take risks in switching viewpoints (varying the PC view between one or more of the game characters), using different voice at different times (applying 1st, 2nd, 3rd and/or stream of consciousness, perhaps all in one game), and/or breaking with any other standard PC/NPC conventions (look, inventory, x me, etc.)? Are those risks successful in the context of the game? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

FutureGame (tm) implements a unique command structure which eschews the use of standard IF commands. Given the context of the game, this seems to be a successful strategy. 1 point.

> Does the game break new ground in the story being told, new genres, new plots, new structures, etc.? Does it avoid complete cliches (amnesia, underground empires, etc.)? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

I've never seen another piece of IF like it. 1 point.

> Is it well-written, well-told, well-edited, well-tested? If yes, thumbs up. If no, thumbs down.

FutureGame (tm) has no glaring spelling or grammatical errors, nor did I encounter any programming bugs. I'm sure Jon Ingold's new 3D text game environment vastly improved the productivity of the FutureGame Corp's programming staff. 1 point.

Overall, FutureGame (tm) scores 10 out of a possible 11. I can confidently predict that the FutureGame Corporation will be raking in cash with this game, and it may even spark a Renascence in the IF community.

Sadly, by my admittedly traditional and outdated scoring criteria, it doesn't do so well.

10. PTBAD6andoneeighth: 1

Score: 1
Completed? Hard to say, really.

Yay! PTBAD!!1! Romp and skip through the fields of everlasting joy! Gargle in amazement!!! BIG muffinman!! Zomph and blort, it's PTBAD6andoneeighth! I WIN!!!! etc.

11: Vespers
By Jason Devlin

Score: 9
Completed? Yes, several times.

Vespers hooked me from the beginning and didn't let go until the end. And then I played it again. And again.

The setting was perfect. I could feel the desolation of St. Cuthbert's, and I found the deteriorating descriptions particularly effective. At first, I brushed off the Bible quotes as annoying... but I soon found them them very creepy, and paid more attention. This is easily the best use of the quote box that I have ever seen.

Only a handful of programming bugs, none of which were serious for me, keep this game from getting full marks.

12: Amissville II
By Santoonie CorporationI
Filename: am2.gamI
System: TADS 2I
Walkthru: In file GameInfo.txtI
Blurb: Sequel to the original epic game Amissville.

Score: 1
Completed? No.

The game starts with a long stretch of "explanations" that are largely incoherant. I'm then dropped into the game at a campsite with a bunch of strange companions. Maybe I've missed something because I haven't played the original game?

I tried wandering around aimlessly, since there's not much indication of why the main character is here or what he's supposed to be doing. It didn't help. So at this point, I hit the walkthru. Oh. This isn't a walkthru: "Keeping with Santoonie tradition, there is no walk thru. The game was written for the amusement of it's authors." Well, I hope they're amused. "After the competition look for updates for game as well as collector items and rare interviews at" No, I'd rather not.

13: Distress
By Mike Snyder

Score: 5
Completed? Yes, after several gruesome deaths.

As mentioned above, this review contains ******MAJOR SPOILERS******; consider yourself warned.

I found Distress infuriating. Not because it is a learn by dying game—that was fun. And not because I could make the game unwinnable—Distress was designed to allow the player to easily catch up after a restart, so that sort of frustration was minimized. Nevertheless, Distress made me mad.

The PC and two other crew members escape from their doomed spacecraft in a pod. As the game begins, one of those people is already dead, and the second is in rough shape. Only the PC is able to act. The writing is good, and made me feel like I was actually in this situation, and this was where my frustrations began. My first priority was to save the lieutenant's life. I needed to pull that spike out and bandage up the wound. No problem! The game mentioned that I had already used my uniform to bandage up Covegn. So here's what I tried:

Any of those approaches should have worked, but I kept looking, and eventually found the solution. Later, when reading the walkthru/design notes, I found that Snyder actually references the exact same solutions that I tried, and then says, "Those things can be referenced, but the puzzle—while not really difficult—is not this."

This opening puzzle and that explanation sum up my frustration with this game. The author's writing had me feeling like I actually had crash-landed on an alien world, but then the game betrays me by not allowing me to solve a problem in the way I would if I was actually there. Why? Because "the puzzle... is not this". It is obvious that the game's beta-testers tried to do exactly the same things that I did, but the author was so attached to his puzzle that he blocked actions that made more sense than his solution. This line of thinking is the overwhelming influence in Distress, and it infuriated me. I was forced to do actions that, while well-clued, I simply would not do in this situation. Nor does there seem to be any motivation for the PC to do them, other than the fact that they must be done to advance the plot.

After stabilizing Huchess, I tried to go to the site where the ship crashed. The game wouldn't let me, saying I had no reason to do that yet. But I did! I wanted to look for survivors! Of course, I didn't know about the monster at this point, but the PC seemed to have some sort of foreknowledge that leaving the pod site was a bad idea. Since this is a learn by dying game anyway, why not let me leave and be killed?

My frustration peaked when I realized I had to abandon the other remaining survivor, even though this meant certain death for him. "I'm going to pop off for a while, Lieutenant—you just stay here. Even though you'll likely be torn apart in a vicious and excruciatingly painful fashion, you can rest easy in the knowledge that I'm about to solve the next puzzle. Ciao!" And why am I leaving? To decrypt the order that Huchess already knows! Why can't I bring Huchess with me? Why isn't keeping him safe from the monster a priority? Why is the PC so fascinated by that little paper that he has to abandon his last living companion to a horrible death? Because that's the puzzle.

In a nutshell, Distress is good, evocative writing that is undermined by a puzzle design that simply moves the player to the end-game hook, consequences be damned. I'll split the difference on the score.

14: The Colour Pink
By Robert Street

Score: 4
Completed: Yes, with walkthru

Take a generic sci-fi game in one hand, and a generic fantasy game in the other. Slam them together at high velocity. What do you get? Something that, if you added a dumb-as-a-rock PC, love potion #9 and a can of pink paint, resembles The Colour Pink.

I hit the walkthru soon after starting this game, and I'm glad I did. Quick quiz! If you're on an alien planet investigating the mysterious disappearance of the colonists, and the only sign of life you find is a pink egg, what should you do? Robert Street thinks you should eat it. I disagree, but hey, the show must go on.

The fantasy section actually isn't that bad, so I gave some points for that. Unfortunately, I couldn't enjoy it because I knew I was a sci-fi scout having some pink-egg-induced fantasy hallucination.

15: History Repeating
By Mark & Renee Choba

Score: 3
Completed? No.

Office. Sigh.
School. Sigh.
Time travel. Sigh.

So, I have to change my life by writing a history paper? Oh boy.

I wandered around the school for a while, but that just made me want to blow off the paper like the PC did the first time. Maybe I'll come back to this one.

Later— I just checked the walkthru, and I now know I'll never work up the enthusiasm to play this one through. It reminds me too much of type of dream I occasionally have. I find myself back in high school, and I'm missing an important classes. I wander frantically around the school, but I just can't find the right classroom. Maybe it's just a personal hangup; my apologies to the authors.

16: Chancellor
By Kevin Venzke

Score: 6
Completed? Yes, two times.

I love games that require the player to figure out what the heck is going on. Chancellor seemed to offer this, and kept me interested until the ending... which left me wondering, "Is that it? That's the ending?" I felt ripped off.

The "alone in the dorm" bits gave me a delightfully uneasy feeling. Those delayed closing doors were wonderful; I kept "listening" when they closed behind me, wondering if I would hear one that I hadn't opened. And waking myself up in the medical room was a disturbing little touch.

But the ending! I just can't get past it! All of that mental energy I spent trying to figure this thing out was wasted. That cheap, cop-out, I'm-all-out-of-ideas ending! Why, Kevin, why?

17: On Optimism
By Tim Lane

Score: 2
Completed? Yes, with heavy use of the built-in hints.

This is my least favourite kind of work to review. It obviously means a lot to the author, and it is clear he wants to say Something of Deep Emotional Significance. I hate to slam such games, but it can't be helped — this game was just terrible.

The author wants to be poetic and deeply emotional, but he simply tries to hard. On Optimism is as subtle as a brick to the head, and induces a similar amount of pain. There are also poems in the game that are equal to the prose in quality. Oddly enough, the hints, which I made liberal use of because of the unclued puzzles, are written in a light, chatty style which was quite jarring. I'm afraid the actions that the hints claimed were "cool"... weren't.

In the end, the PC was claiming his pain was on par with that of Jesus, and he should therefore kill himself for his love. (I didn't get around to playing dunric's other game, so I can't compare for myself.) I gladly obliged.

On the plus side, the first-person past tense narration worked quite well, given the material it had to work with. Also, I didn't encounter any bugs.

I would encourage Tim to keep working on IF, as I think he could produce something much better than this. But please, use your own language, not the stretching, achingly bad prose you used here.

This article copyright © 2005, Stephen Gilbert

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