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[Comp05] James's Reviews

by James Mitchelhill

Posted 17 November 2005 to

You would not believe the amount of trouble posting these reviews has turned out to be. First of all, I wrote them back when I had broadband on the linux side of my dual boot system. After moving and getting dial-up, I found I couldn't get my modem to work, so I went back to using Windows for online stuff. Then, when trying to move the relevent files from one OS to the other, I found my disk drive has stopped working. Well then, I thought, I'll solve this problem and add another partition that both OSes can access. So I partitioned the hard drive. Unfortunately this came up with an error, destroying my linux partition and forcing me to reinstall the mbr for windows so that I could access anything. Thanks to the magic of data recovery software I managed to recover most of my files, including my reviews. I posted them to the newsgroup... but checking google groups I see that they've never shown up. So, thinking size was the problem, I cut them into three pieces and tried again. Which hasn't worked. So, as a last ditch attempt, I'm using google groups to post them. Who'd have thought it'd turn out to be so much trouble, eh?


A word of warning to sensitive authors: I am a bitter, twisted, somewhat evil individual who will rip your game to shreds if it annoys me. I've tried to be constructive where I think it's warranted, but in other cases I've gone for cheap laughs at your expense. Them's the breaks.

Notes on scoring.

I don't go in for any of these scoring systems that some judges seem to favour. My biases are all included right in the scores. I have a strong preference for literary games. I don't mind puzzles. I dislike fantasy. Bad writing almost angers me. I tend to score low. Only games I actually enjoyed score above 5.

Chancellor (9)
Vespers (8)
A New Life (7)
Tough Beans (6)
Internal Vigilance (6)
Vendetta (6)
Psyche's Lament (6)
Son of a... (5)
Escape to New York (4)
The Colour Pink (4)
Mortality (4)
Waldo's Pie (4)
The Plague (Redux) (3)
Beyond (3)
History Repeating (3)
The Sword of Malice (3)
Neon Nirvana (2)
Unforgotten (2)
On Optimism (2)
Dreary Lands (2)
FutureGame (1)
Hello Sword! (1)
Phantom: Caverns of the Killer (1)
Amissville II (1)
PTBAD6 (1)
Cheiron (1)


And now, the reviews.

The Comp05 games have just been released. Downloaded via BitTorrent. Fast and easy, which was nice. Only a 10 Meg zip file, so presumably there's no huge multimedia games this year. I have one week to play as many games as I can before I move house and end up without an internet connection for a while. Hopefully I'll get through them all. But I'd better play them in random order anyway. Register on the comp site, get the email, log in, all very smooth. Downloaded the randomised list of game and first up is...

Neon Nirvana by Tony Woods: 2/10

This is not a good start to the comp. First the half-hearted feelies suggest lack of care rather than added value. They hint at the nonsensical story-line to come. Are we to expect that the Director of Undercover Operations would give a big case to a detective he has nevermet and who has never been on an undercover operation before? And why is this an undercover operation when the objective is to arrest someone whose location is known? And any real club would be deeply ashamed to hand out flyers like the one included.

What follows is a chain of read-the-author's-mind puzzles and guess-the-verb puzzles. Sometimes both at the same time. I'll admit that I turned to the walkthrough early on and never left it. The implementation is patchy. While "x me" comes up with the default response, the author pays unswerving attention to the state of sidewalks in the area.

What's worse than breaking the fourth wall to give the player information? Not including the command you just broke the fourth wall to tell the player about:

>x graffiti
The litter is awful. It's scattered all over, and the graffiti reads "Type HELP for more information"

> help
That's not a verb I recognise.

This really is inexcusable.

The best that can be said about the writing is that it's there. At the plot level, the player falls through massive holes and is left wondering if even the author thought any of this was remotely believable. I'm led

to wonder if the author has ever actually been to a night club, or if the PC is just supposed to sound insane:

"Some smart-aleck hung black-light lamps on the partitions' walls, casting an eerie, demonic look on everything within range. "Neon Nirvana", indeed.""

Black-lights don't cast an eerie, demonic look on everything. Not unless the demon is from the sixties. Black lights are a relic of psychedelica, not the depraved invention of a "smart-aleck". Possibly the author is trying to emulate the neon-styled aesthetic of Batman Forever, but if I were emulating an aesthetic that's really not the film I'd have gone for.

This isn't even the worst of the writing. My internal editor almost wept: "Patrons sit at barstools with their friends Mr. Walker, Mr. Daniels, and Mr. Cuervo, all of them stored behind the bar under a large sign. What a considerable compromise from the darkness outside, the blue room to the south, and the blinding multicolored lights of the dancing and music to the west."

The red pen runs out. The most minor problem is that "compromise" is the wrong word. I think the author means "contrast", but it's difficult to be sure. It's slightly worse that the PC is describing a room he hasn't, in fact, been in yet. But a word of advice for the author: Setting up a metaphor where alcoholic drinks are thought of as friends of the drinkers is cliched and inadvisible, but once you've made the decision to do this you can't suddenly say that these people are stored behind the bar. And most especially you cannot do all this in the SAME FREAKING SENTENCE.

At one point the PC uses the word "w00t!" as an interjection. Enough said.

And can anyone explain this nugget of prose? "The key fits snugly in the lock. A quiet little tone fills the elevator. It seems to say to you, "Good job!". You don't feel as proud of yourself as the doors feel about you."

I really should stop this. The game is almost crying out to be MST3ked.

But I can't help including this quote: "You are aware that the club is silent, except for the loud music still playing."

Indeed. One point for effort. One point for being so bad it's good. No points for writing, coding or implementation.

The Sword of Malice—Anthony Panuccio: 3/10

With a name like "Sword of Malice" I was expecting a flood of generic fantasy tropes to wash over me. I was not disappointed. The introduction sets the scene, speaking of a terrible war. I'm a little uneasy with such talk of genocide, so I was hoping that it would turn out to be ironic. If I were to be charitible, I could argue that the ending shows the devastating consequences of the lust for power. I'm not charitible, though, I'm bitter and twisted. Even if we accept this interpretation, we never actually see any consequences, which rather nullifies the point.

So the story didn't appeal to me. I don't like fantasy mostly, although I can appreciate it when it's done well. This wasn't. The writing was competent, but only just. It lacked sparkle. I can't comment on the puzzles, because I played from the walkthrough for most of the game.

Authors: If you don't implement a response to the "x me" command, I'm probably going to hate your work. If you don't care about your PC enough to give the player some reference to work from, then I'm going to doubt you care very much about my enjoyment of your game.

The first room is boring. This is a bad thing. The first room also includes two really dumb implementations. When the PC breaks the chains, causing the body to fall to the floor, a book appears. This is not mentioned until the player types "look". The book presents further problems as it's implemented to show snippets of text at random. The player has no way to know if they've seen all the text. When a piece of text repeats itself, it's natural to assume that you've seen all the text.

We'll mark this game using the French dictation method. From the perfect ten points, we deduct: One point for dragons existing in this world without good reason. One point off for riddles. One point off for dumb implementation. One point off for genocide. One point off for characters I don't care about. One point off for no description of the PC. One point off for boring me.

Final score: 3/10

Psyche's Lament—John and Lara Sichi: 6/10

This is a short game with three puzzles, each of which seems well implemented. The text is well written, but mostly exists just to give flavour to the puzzles, which is fine if that's the kind of game you enjoy.

It's hard not to like this game. It has a certain amount of charm. I'm not a puzzle fiend, so I glanced at the walkthrough once or twice, but I found it quite enjoyable. The intro really shines as a piece of scene setting for the game.

Unfortunately, there's one or two problems that slightly detract. I may have missed something, but "zap" didn't occur to me as the right verb for using the wand. Additionally, there's some problems with newlines sometimes not being printed after text. These are fairly minor woes, though. I'd have also appreciated "disconnect all" being implemented.

I'm giving this a 6, not because there's much wrong with it—it's a fine piece of work—but because it's a puzzle game and I'm far more interested in works that have a greater fiction component.

Vendetta by Fuyu Yuki: 6/10

I've never played an Adrift game before, so I was particularly interested in what this would be like. As I'm not running Winodws, I used the SCARE interpreter. I can't say I'm terribly impressed by the system, but it's playable, and that's what counts, I suppose.

Enough about the system. Vendetta is quite an ambitious game, set in a future that reminded me of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. The writing has flaws, but the author seems to have approached the task with enthusiasm and, with a little more experience, I'm sure it'll improve. The major problems are with the design of the game, however.

Conversation is static, giving the player only the choice to "talk to" somebody or wait as the conversation unfolds. There are large portions of the game where this is the only interaction. Typing "z" or just hitting enter isn't fun. I'd be willing to give a little more leeway on this if the writing was better. Unfortunately, along with memories the PC has, conversation is often used for clumsy exposition. There are other problems. The idea that the player's girlfriend has no idea about his past or that his is asexual until a conversation during the game stretches belief to straining point.

The SF elements are also poorly done. Good SF is generally an extrapolation of current knowledge. Unfortunately, the author doesn't seem to have any current knowledge. At one point he mentions that the PC's muscles are made of "multiple amino acid chains". This is the Star Trek strategy of throwing in scientific terms without any reference to reality.

I'm being harsh. The game does show some signs of sparkle and imagination, and in parts it is very good. Unlike a few entrants to this comp, I'd encourage the author to keep at it.

Unfortunately, the funniest line from the game comes from the climax. I literally burst out laughing at this: "Execute! Execute!" The griffon crows in a staccato parrot-like voice."

Three points for effort, three points for that line: 6/10.

A New Life by Alexandre Owen Muñiz: 7/10

I'm impressed, but the game annoyed me by letting me get completely stuck after saying how rare this should be in the help text. (Note to authors: Bugs are never as rare as you think they are.) However, I like the game. And it's especially impressive for a first major game.

The memory system works well as it goes, but I'm not entirely sure I like the idea in general. It seems like an excuse for shifting the burden of discovering backstory to the player, instead of letting the player discover this through the game. It's not very interactive.

The same applies to the talk system. There's not enough to talk about. Things that I wanted to talk about didn't seem to be implemented, which discouraged me from asking about others (which, looking at the help text, I should have). The inclusion of a default list of topics seems to discourage the player from exploring outside those boundaries. Otherwise, things seem well implemented.

The writing is excellent and seems well polished. The author has a clear idea of what needs to be achieved. I'm not a big fan of fantasy, but this was tolerable and some scenes were very well executed. The goblin girl is a great example of this, but one of the reasons she stands out is because she didn't talk.

Minor points deducted for the menu system in response to the help command. Menu systems are bad news in terms of accessibility. Minor points returned after seeing the response to "x me".

There appear to be vile zero errors from hell. I ignored them.

To sum up, then, an excellent competition entry and a very solid foundation to build upon for a promising author.

Phantom: Caverns of the Killer—Brandon Coker: 1/10

Incomptence does not even begin to describe this game. When there's a grammatical error in the second sentence, it does not bode. Follow this with a split infinitive, several spelling errors, capitalisation errors and a mysterious allergy the author seems to have with apostrophes - and all this before the end of the introductory paragraph—and you have a game that inspires dread for all the wrong reasons.

The game is essentially a treasure hunt set at an undertermined time in Egypt. I'd like to take a moment to talk about its handling of Egyptian myth, but I can't, because it didn't. Hint: A "dome of death" would not have images of the grim reaper painted on it because it's not medieval Europe.

As I've already wasted fifteen minutes of my life playing this travesty, I'm not going to waste many more on this review. A short list should suffice: Instadeath. Mazes. No depth of implementation. No characterisation. An ending that's about as surprising and clever as an obvious idiot in a place where one would expect to find obvious idiots.

To call it "old school" would be an insult to the old school. They had dictionaries and beta-testers. The single point is for actually entering a game. With any luck it'll be the worst I play this comp.

Dreary Lands—Paul Lee: 2/10

Why do authors feel the need, once they have decided to enter the IFComp, of entering whatever they've ended up with after weeks of toil even if it's no good? It must be the emotional investment. It certainly can't be in any hope of recognition or achievement.

Here, at least, the author admits as much. The very title drains any hope the player may have. Then, in the title, the author feels the need to tell us it's his first game. As a player I don't care if this is your first game, or if you're a legend among the interactive fiction community—all I care about is whether I enjoy the game. And I really don't want to see, in the ABOUT text, that your game is "not exactly first class". It doesn't matter to me if you had trouble implementing things because you're new to all this. I don't care how hard something was to do, only whether the result is good. In any case, the good people of r.a.i-f are generous with their expertise. All you had to do was ask.

If you don't have any confidence in your work, why should I? And it's obvious here that Paul has no confidence in his work. I can forgive many implementation details if the story and writing are good enough. The writing here is passable, but marred by all manner of spelling mistakes and punctuation errors.

I gave up after getting the second point. The whole thing was just too dreary for me. Still, it's an improvement on the previous game.

So, one point for warning me that your game sucked and other for the brief flashes of surrealism. And Paul, that other game you're working on? Make sure it gets proofread.

Vespers—Jason Devlin: 8/10

I have few notes for this game. The reason for this is not that there was nothing worth noting, but that I was having far too much fun to bother. My initial hopes were high after reading the ABOUT text. This game had betatesters and there were no obvious errors in the introduction. And it seemed as if there was going to be a story line. I was right to have high hopes. This game is the best I've played yet.

The writing is excellent and conveys the sense of isolation and incipient madness flawlessly. The way that descriptions change throughout the game is very nicely done. The implementation is mostly well done, although there are one or two places where it could have been better (the commands necessary for riding the horse are one example, the verb used for killing Ignatius in the cellar is another), more seriously I completely missed the prybar, but I'd already looked at the walkthrough to find out how to trip the intruder, so I knew it was there. Oh, and searching Droggo after he's dead leads to him swatting your hand away.

These are fairly minor complaints though. Other authors could learn a lot. Every room is necessary. The conversation system is appropriate for the game. This is how to put depth into IF.

I was impressed to find out there are multiple endings. I didn't have time to go back and see them after I'd completed the game (I got the "evil" ending, which was nice). I'm assuming that the hints change based upon this.

One slight problem is the risk of instadeath in places, but this is a design issue and the appropriate player response is to type "undo" and try again. I'm not convinced this is an entirely successful technique, but it works to an extent I suppose.

One point deducted for the bugs, one point deducted for the reliance on undo. Giving Vespers a grand total of 8 points and congratulations to the author for producing a quality piece of work.

The Colour Pink—Robert Street: 4/10

I should declare my biases straight away with this one, I think. I hate puzzle-fests. I don't hate puzzles, but I need something else to go along with them. In other words, solving a puzzle isn't a reward in itself for me. Especially not unless the puzzle is clever and original (as in Psyche's Lament). So I'm really not in the target audience for this game.

The writing appears to be decent, although its only purpose is in providing a frame for the puzzles. The tone is humourous, but not funny. The conversation system is menu based, with no divergence, so the player is reduced to going through each option.

I got bored very quickly, found I didn't care at all about the game and soon typed "quit". I still reserve the right to rate it, though.

One point for no glaring errors. One point for the slightly imaginitive setting. One point for the hell of it. And one point because some people actually seem to like these types of games.

Hello Sword—Andrea Rezzonico: 1/10

Oh. Dear. Lord. I'm playing the English version of this. Or rather, I'm not going to. The translation is so bad that I consider the game completely broken. Obviously, people able to play the Italian version may have a very different experience.

If you're going to release an English-language version of your game, please let someone who has English as their first language assist you. Even if it's just by looking over your initial translation and cleaning up any errors that creep in.

I feel a little bad about rating the game a 1, but not that bad. I was able to play through a little way using the walkthrough and what I saw didn't impress me. I doubt I'd be able to get far without the walkthrough and I have no desire to keep reading the text, so there's not much point. A single point for the effort involved.

Waldo's Pie—Michael Arnaud: 4/10

Before I actually review this game, I want to pause for a moment to talk about something I've always hated in text adventures: The idea that humour is a good replacement for good writing. This isn't to say that humour and good writing don't mix, some of the best games have been comedies. Indeed, the IF medium is particularly suited to comedy, where bizarre chains of logic can end up having spectacular results. Assuming a guise of humour in order to distract attention away from poor writing and puzzles is not a winning strategy.

Besides, humour is difficult to do well and this game doesn't do it well. Calling a swamp the "Mucky Muck Swamp" is not inherently funny. Calling a type of berry a "bazzleberry" doesn't have me laughing. Clowns. Oh my. How amusing.

I haven't played an Alan game before. The system seems fine. The game seems well implemented. There are a few problems with puzzles, but nothing major. I had to push the stone twice before the parchment actually showed up in my inventory. And I don't really understand the logic of the yo-yo being used as a key. Maybe it was supposed to be funny and I just don't have that sense of humour. And the puzzle of waking Boffo, which is solved using a loud horn. This is in keeping with the setting, I suppose, and the game isn't striving for realism, but when in real life would anyone ever need a loud horn to be woken?

The writing is servicable, but rather plain. One line stood out as objectionable on a number of different levels:

> look at rolling pin
It's a common, wood rolling pin. The housewife's favorite weapon.

I'm not going to bother mentioning the inherently misogynistic overtones here. I don't really care if a game is misogynistic. Hell, I entered a deeply misogynistic game into the competition a few years ago (although, I claim irony as a defense). The idea of a rolling pin being "the housewife's favorite weapon" is deeply cliched and unoriginal. Maybe I'm missing the humour again.

One point deducted for bugs, one point deducted for the writing, one point deducted for misogyny and three points deducted for really annoying the hell out of me. Four points, total.

Tough Beans—Sara Dee: 6/10

Empowering slice-of-life drama isn't usually my thing, but this was fairly enjoyable. The writing is fairly good, the implementation is deep enough to be interesting. The subject matter isn't terribly original, but that's an observation rather than a criticism.

Unfortunately, while the PC is well drawn, other characters are stereotypes—The Cheating Boyfriend, The Sexist Boss. Apart from anything else, a boss who was that overtly sexist would have already drawn down the wrath of litigation. It makes the whole thing seem just a little shallow. Even the PC starts out as a fairly shallow person and her transformation into Empowered Woman seems hollow.

That said, it's nice that there is a story to criticise. And there's some lines in the writing that really stand out: "Windex and Pledge and a bottle of Febreze—these are a few of your favorite things."

So, not an unqualified success, but an excellent first game. I look forward to seeing what else Sara Dee produces. One point off for the shallow boyfriend. One point off for the shallow boss. One point off for the empowerment theme. And one point off for the angst. Grand total - six points.

Amissville II—A.P. Hill: 1/10

I never played the original Amissville, but I'm aware of its reputation. Neither am I certain that the IFComp is the best venue for sequels, either, although it does provide a rather captive audience. It was therefore with some trepidation that I loaded up Amissville II.

Now I understand why people hated the first one so much.

One point awarded for being obvious enough to junk with the minimum of time wasted.

Mortality—David Whyld: 4/10

The first question that needs to be asked is why the author feels the need to tell us all about the plot of the game in the PDF file he includes. I'd far prefer to judge a game on its own merits. If there are multiple endings, feel free to tell me about them after I've played through the game once. The fact that the PC is an antihero should be discovered through the game, not because of a note the author writes about the game.

And that's the problem. A character doesn't have to be nice to be interesting. I don't have to sympathise with someone to empathise with them. In this game, though, the characters are neither sympathetic nor interesting. They proceed through the game like cardboard cut-outs. And, because the game is puzzleless there's really no point to reading the text. In fact, interactivity is so limited in the game that it's almost like one huge CYOA with sparse choices throughout long text.

A near static story like this can be interesting, but as others have noted, it's often like being strapped down in a chair and the author screaming the plot into your face. And this is worse if the game is boring. And there's nothing interesting going on here. The author does his best, telling scenes out of time and switching from one genre to another, but in the end I never cared about anyone involved and couldn't give a damn about whether they lived or died.

I'm sure the author thinks he's being clever and edgy. Every writer probably goes through a phase when they have to experiment with these kinds of plots. Unfortunately, Mortality must be consigned to the million words of crap every author writes before they get to the good stuff. The writing is not particularly polished, either. I spotted a couple of spelling errors and the author needs to memorise the maxim "show, don't tell" (not that it's a hard or fast rule, but knowing when to break it is important). A little more subtlety would be nice, too.

Two points for trying something experimental. One point deducted for failing. One point for decent implementation. One point for the sheer effort put into writing that amount of deathless prose and a final point just because being so harsh makes me feel a little guilty.

FutureGame—Jon Ingold: 1/1

What can I say? This game is pure genius! It provides hours of gameplay and the ultimate in replayability. I marvelled at the prose. I spent my two hours engaging with challenging puzzles that never grew frustrating. And then, after I'd rated it like a good IFComp judge, I played some more.

The writing is both humourous and delightfully dark, providing sparkling and witty repartee. After just a few minutes of play, the player is sure to feel they are meeting an old and valued friend. Never before has interactive fiction seen a writer of such power and versatility. The NPCs, even the minor ones, are lifelike and have rich inner lives. The conversation system—well, I don't want to spoil it for you, but suffice to say that this is like NOTHING we've seen before.

To describe the game as well implemented would be an understatement. There are no bugs that I could find. Not once did a command I tried respond with an error message. The sheer effort that went into coding this game must have been huge and I find it amazing that a single author is listed. Surely a team of expert programmers was necessary.

In conclusion, if the authors of Infocom were to suddenly reform, spend three years researching modern IF techniques and a further three years secretly developing entirely new systems—and then if they were to resurrect P.G. Wodehouse, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and William Shakespeare to advise them on the writing—the result would still not be as good as this.

Hearty congratulations! I'm sure this will be the overall winner this year.

Unfortunately, after the stress of the IFComp, my keyboard has developed a fault and only one of my number keys is still working. The only score I can give, therefore, is 1 out of 1. I'm sure you'll agree that's the only score possible for a game that gives 111%.

Chancellor—Kevin Venzke: 9/10

This game disturbed the hell out of me. It's well implemented, well written and deeply immersive. I'm incredibly glad that the author didn't include a walkthrough. I would have caved in and looked at it way before the end. As it was, I was still playing when the two hour deadline hit.

It takes a good game to make me play for two hours when I'm spending a lot of time not getting anywhere. Like a good little judge, I assigned my score, deducting a single point for being too long for the comp, then immediately went back to the game.

Like the protagonist of this story, I too have spent time as a student on a deserted campus. I was there. The way familiar places change when they are emptied of people, the subtle feeling of wrongness—it's all perfectly evoked. This is immersion. I wasn't playing so that I could win the damn thing, I was playing because I wanted to survive. The game rewards the observant player. It may be that I got to see the polish, because I was hopelessly stuck at some points and had little else to do but wander around trying odd things. But the polish is there, the things implemented even though many players won't see them. It's a definite mark of quality.

I sound like I'm raving about this game. I probably am. It's that good.

My first few notes on the game reflect my distaste for fantasy, but I was impressed when the genre shifted suddenly. Looking back, I was probably being fairly dense about some of the puzzles. If I had finished it before the two hours were up, I'd have given it a 10.

The only thing left for me to do is to provide a handy little pullquote in case the author feels like quoting me: Kevin Venzke's Chancellor is a truly excellent piece of work, one of the stand-out pieces of this competition and one of the best horror games the IF community has seen.

Escape to New York—Richard Otter: 4/10

Let's start with what I liked: The well researched setting.

Well that was fast. Now, what I didn't like.

There appears to have been a lack of proofreading. I can accept the odd spelling mistake. I can accept the odd missing comma. I can even accept, though not easily, a misplaced apostrophe. But to spell the same word in two different ways in a single paragraph—and not only a single paragraph, but the paragraph that's revealed in response to "examine me", the first command most players will type—this I cannot accept. I will note things like this and highlight them in reviews, pausing only to mock you.

Richard Otter, consider yourself duly mocked.

But my annoyance didn't start here. Could someone perhaps explain to me this obsession authors seem to have with putting backstory and characterisation outside the game itself? Surely this is sheer laziness. I don't want to read backstory, I want to discover it through the game.

This is what short opening sequences are for. This is what introductions are for.

The game takes an interesting setting, applies the obvious results of research and turns it into a treasure hunt. I don't like treasure hunts. I don't care about the loot the PC picks up. I most especially don't want to do this in a game that doesn't treat "look in" and "look under" as proper verbs, leading to the response "you see no such thing" when such a thing does, indeed, exist. It may be a limitation of the system, but that doesn't matter to me as a player.

If you're implementing a treasure hunt in which the PC puts things in some kind of sack-like object, please don't make me type "open suitcase. put object in suitcase. close suitcase." repeatedly. While your at it, auto-opening doors may be a good idea. And speaking of doors, the response "You can't go that way (at present)." is deeply annoying. If you disallow something have a good reason and tell the player why.

The characters are generally as life-like as the suitcase.

One point for reasonably complete implementation. One point for research. One point for setting. And one point because even this was better than Sword of Malice by a long way.

The Plague (Redux)—Laurence Moore: 3/10

Now this is disappointing. An interesting concept and some good writing destroyed by shoddy implementation. And boy is the implementation shoddy. Bugs abound. I played until, judging by the walkthrough, about half way through, before a showstopping bug trapped me. It's not just buggy, though, basic commands don't work, completely misleading the player.

Some other things annoyed me. The walkthrough is in .doc format. The game opens with dictionary definitions of the words in its title. I know what "plague" and "redux" mean, thanks. The author should lean that he does not need to provide a different adjective for every turn of conversation when "said" will suffice.

The opening scene was very good though. This is exactly the right way to draw a player into the game. And the writing, while a little unpolished, does strike the right tone most of the time.

The storyline is nothing original. I was led to think of the film _21 Days Later_. Charitibly one could say the game is a "tribute", those less inclined to charity (and God knows the game doesn't inspire charity) might be tempted to call it a rip-off.

The phrase "Like a cross between Rybread Celcius and Cattus Attrox" comes to mind, too. But then again, every comp seems to have an author hailed as the new Rybread.

One point for originality. One point for the terrible lust for braaaiiinssssss. One point for strangely compelling writing. No points at all for coding skills.

Beyond—Mondi Confinanti: 3/10

I found this rather boring, unfortunately. One of the problems may be that it the authors don't have English as their first language. That isn't to say that the translation is badly done, but while the text is mostly good english, it's not necessarily good prose. There's a couple of minor spelling mistakes that I'm willing to let slide.

The major problem is not with the prose, though, but with the story. It's not very interesting. The conversation system is the increasingly familiar menu system where each item can be exhausted. This is never very interactive. The game is broken into short scenes, so the structure is essentially, exhaust menu options, do a few things, exit scene. It's always obvious that we're on train tracks, being dragged through a plot.

I didn't get to the end. I couldn't be bothered even to play from the walkthrough after a while. It's possible that I missed all the dramatic tension that was coming up, but there didn't seem to be too much in the scenes I saw. For a murder mystery to work, the player needs a sense of agency. The reward the player receives is from understanding things and working out the truth. In other words, it's the perfect genre for a wide open playing area with the player able to follow several leads at any time. The missing sense of agency here pulls the game down.

There are pictures. I didn't think they added much to the game. There is a framing device. This didn't interest me much either.

So, two points deducted for uninspiring prose, two for bad design decisions and a final two for boring me. Three in total.

On Optimism—Tim Lane: 2/10

Dear Tim,

Please don't spew your angst all over us. I don't care if it's based on real life experiences, or if you're just imagining these situations. They may be important to you, but they're not very interesting. Share this with your therapist or support group if you want. A therapist is at least paid to read these things. For the rest of us it's very, very boring. Your prose is substandard and didactic. Your poetry is adolescent and immature.

You get one point since you seem to have coded it well and another because your writing, while awful, at least looks as if you proofread.

Don't feel too bad about this response. Angst is something a lot of writers find themselves mired in for a while. I'm sure you'll grow out of it. Most people do.

Oh, and Tim, people who self-harm often find that descriptions of self-harm trigger that desire in themselves. It would have been considerate to include a warning at the start of your game.

Sincerely, James.

Internal Vigilance—Simon Christiansen: 6/10

Interesting. Although, to be honest, I'm not sure what to make of this game. Is the author trying to make a point? And if so is that point, uh, interesting. The quotes the author's included seem to lean towards one bias, but the open ended nature of the game seems to say the issue is complex. I don't know whether to call this moral cowardice, or not. Since I can't decide what the game's purpose was, it's difficult to decide whether it succeeded or not. It has left me strangely unsatisfied, though.

I suppose, in a way, the direction in which the author took the story was the easy way out. That way he doesn't have to say anything. I'd have found it much more interesting for the PC to remain as an agent of the state, to be drawn into the rationalisations and to understand him. The player would have to make the same decision once the story was finished, even if there was only one ending.

But that wasn't the game I played.

I have a few problems with that game. Puzzles should serve a purpose. If they are the focus of the game, they can be an end in themselves. In a story-orientated game like this, a puzzle should not exist for the sake of there being a puzzle. It should pace the game, and ideally lead the player into new knowledge or appreciation. Why make the player look for some car keys at a point in the story when all the player wants to do is get on with the story? There was no reason for that delay. Other puzzles in the game reflect the same lack of overall design.

The occasional flashes of dark humour were good, but there weren't enough. When the subject matter is heavy, humour often works well. Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a film this game seems to draw on in more than one scene, is a great example of this. That said, I did particularly like this line:

>hit stiles
Moderate physical pressure isn't the answer to this one.

A whole four points deducted because it really isn't as good as it should be. So, six out of ten.

Cheiron—Elisabeth Polli and Sarah Clelland: 1/10

This is not interactive fiction. It's interactive, yes, but it's not fiction. And I'm not entirely sure I understand the point of it. Is it supposed to be a training aid? A study aid? Or what? "This is what being a medical student is like" say the authors. But they're wrong. Medical students know what they're doing, or at least have some idea what the results of the tests they perform mean. Most players, those without medical knowledge, won't have any idea what they're doing.

I don't think shoe-horning this kind of thing into an IF medium works very well. The experience of walking around a hospital adds very little to what seems to be the main point of the game—interacting with patients. Nor does a parser based system work well with the vocabulary employed here:

> ausculate heart
Which do you mean, myocardial infarction, the mitral area, the
area, the aortic area, the tricuspid area or the apex beat?

This is where a hierarchy of menus in a GUI system really shines—it gives the user a visual overview of what tests are available and which are split into further categories. I'm a fast typist, but even I'd prefer a menu system. Here's what I'm imagining. A diagram of the body.

Click on the heart to open a menu containing the various applicable tests from which one would choose "listen" or "auscultate", which then opens another menu containing the various areas available, then choose the applicable one. That's three clicks compared to a lot of keypresses with the additional advantage of navigation over memory.

If someone can learn Inform, then they can probably lean enough HTML and javascript to do exactly this. I suspect it would be more popular, too.

Is there an undiscovered market of IF-playing medical students aside from these two authors? I doubt it.

Or possibly I'm missing the whole point of this effort. In any case, this entry gets a one.

Unforgotten—Quintin Pan: 2/10

I'm not sure the author will ever forgive me for this review. But that's none of my business. In my review of the excellent Chancellor, I mentioned that it takes a very good game to keep me playing for two hours. I've learnt something now. A bad game can keep me playing that long, too, provided it's bad enough. And Unforgotten delivered in every way.

It's not just the writing (which we'll get to shortly), but the implementation is rather shoddy. In the very first room:

> jump
(off the bathroom door)
You jump on the spot, fruitlessly.

That's not too bad a bug though. It's easily missed. I always type jump as one of the first commands in any game, but this could be considered perverse. There's a worse bug lurking, though. If you have not examined Simon's chest:

> look under pillow
You've done that already. No need to disturb it more than you have to.

Um. No, I haven't done that already. It's also rather poor implementation when SEARCH BED doesn't even clue for the fact that there's a key beneath the pillow. That first scene was annoying because of the constant need to disambiguate betwen my bunk and chest and Simon's bunk and chest. Also, It's all very well the author telling us to examine everything, but everything is underimplemented. Consider this:

> remove glasses
You take off the glasses.

> look
You can't see anything without your glasses!

> listen
You can't see or do anything without your glasses!

I can't listen without my glasses on? Do they have built-in hearing-aids?

The puzzles seem to have been designed with no reference to reality. At one point the PC has to feed a drugged pie to some guard dogs. The dogs are on the other side of a gate. The player cannot give the dogs the pie directly because he fears they would bite his hand off. The obvious thing to do is to throw it to them. But, no, according to the author and in direct contradiction of the aim of the puzzle:

> throw pie
You'd rather keep it.

No, I wouldn't. The PC eventually climbs one of the walls. You'd think he could now just drop it and it will fall to the ground where the dogs will eat it. You'd be wrong:

> give pie to dogs
You can't reach!

> drop pie
You think it would be wise to rather hang on to the pie.

No. I wouldn't. The actual solution involves putting the pie on the end of a fishing line and dangling it down to the dogs. And how is this is functionally different to throwing it? It's hard to say. At no point does the author provide the player with anything like a justification for this bizarre logic.

All this is bad enough, but it's not enough to completely destroy a game. For that honour, we have to look at the author's prose. This is a writer who will never use a five dollar word when he can find a hundred dollar one in his thesaurus. "Look at me!" he seems to be saying. "Look at all the words I know!" And as his readers we're supposed to be incredibly impressed. I just laughed. And laughed. Then I laughed some more. This is why I was still playing after two hours. The time spent marvelling at the author's incredible misuse of language slowed my progress. I collected particularly egregious examples as I went.

Of the bathroom: "It's hardly a room." Well, it has walls and a door. Looks like a room to me.

"Throughout the journey, you get execrated glares from Zed." I'm not entirely sure how someone manages to construct so poor a sentence without intending to. There's so much wrong with it.

1. Phrasing this passively lessens its impact. There's no good reason to do so. 2. Using the word "get" is lazy and inaccurate here. You don't "get" glares; you see them. 3. There's no need for a comma. 3. "Execrated". Oh dear. The author is desperately trying to impress us with his vocabulary. 4. Unfortunately, the author doesn't actually know what this word means. The glares are not execrated. This would mean that the glares themselves were being hated. What the author means is: "You get execrative glares from Zed". And even that sentence is hideous.

"A single light flickers chokingly from the ceiling, peeling the walls away." I find it difficult to even articulate why this sentence is so awful. Did the author even read what he was typing? Why did he think that the way the light flickered needed to be described with two adverbial phrases? I can just about imagine a light that flickers chokingly, but "peeling the walls away"? Now there's a truly bizarre image.

"A plant sits at either side of the entrance as well as the briefing room to the south." I believe this is what they call a "garden path" sentence. Is it the briefing room that sits either side of the entrance? "The unfamiliar emptiness echoes the buzz of a freezer in the far corner." This is a bad description. Emptiness doesn't echo. Sounds reflect from surfaces.

"One swift movement from Simon was all it took. The lid flies open and the lock dangles from it." In the first sentence we are in the past tense, which implies the lid has already been opened. In the second sentence we've travelled back in time and suddenly the lid is flying open again.

"Everything slowly fades away into the white fugue, but you know beyond the tranquil illusion, dozens of buildings lie in ruin from the everyday bombings that plague this area." Once again the author has no idea of the meaning of the pretty words he chooses to use. A fugue is a musical composition where a number of different instruments repeatedly play variations on a phrase. A fugue state is a disocciative break after a traumatic event. I'm not sure which the author was going for in his overblown metaphor as neither really seems to apply.

"Other than a few twitching bodies, the place is vacated." Odd way of putting it. "The place is vacant" or "the place has been vacated".

"A flash of loud whiteness followed by a phantasmagoric sequence of memories. Then it all fades..." Loud whiteness? And while "a phantasmagoric sequence of memories" does make sense, I could very happily never see the word "phantasmagoric" in any piece of fiction ever again.

"Simon's last words cling to you as the image of his sad expression stays forever engrafted in your mind." There appear to be two main uses of the word "engrafted". One is archaic/poetic usage in the bible. The other is as a technical term in medicine and genetics. Which one did the author mean?

"Shepherd's Rock didn't cartographically exist."

"You find yourself in the heart of a grassy saddle." Using the lesser known meaning of a common word leads to unintentional hilarity.

"Smeared by a thick layer of droplets, the sketch of the ocean to the west ripples in and out of a dream." Huh?

I could go on all night. It's not funny because it's bad. It's funny because the author so obviously thinks it's good. This would be a great game to play with friends. Gather round the computer with copious quantities of your beverage of choice. Take a drink every time you see a sentence that makes you cringe.

If the author doesn't hate me now, I've not been reviewing it right. I award one point for effort and another for unintentional hilarity, giving the unforgettable Unforgotten a grand total of two points.

Son of a...—C.S. Woodrow: 5/10

It's the story of a young college student whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Now where have I heard that story before? Imagine Interstate-Zero without the imaginative story-line, branching paths and pert, youthful brea... Ah wait, this isn't that sort of review. And this isn't that sort of game. There's no pretentions to literature here. No, what we have here is a small series of puzzles described with the minimum necessary text.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's a fairly amusing diversion. None of the puzzles are very hard. so the whole thing speeds by. It's not as much fun as I-0, though. And the reason is, no real storyline, no exuberance. The restraint of the text leaves the experience a little empty.

That said, it's solidly coded. It is what it is and it does what it does well.

I'm struggling with this review. The game just doesn't have that much to write about.

At this point, I note, I have awarded points ranging between one and nine, with the exception of five. So, as this is very much a middle-of-the-road game, it can have those five points and even out my curve a little. Ah, curves, maybe I should replay I-0...

History Repeating—Mark & Renee Choba: 3

Well that was spectacularly dull. This plays like the outline for a game. Everything essential is there. Rooms are described, characters can converse, objects exist, but there's no atmosphere, no background flavour. The setting—a school—gives plenty of scope for interesting things to be going on. The rooms are minimally described, the conversation is depressingly linear (simply go through all the options) and is seldom about anything other than the task at hand, and the objects are puzzle pieces. Even the story is unsatisfying, existing only to provide the framework for a rather uninspired set of puzzles.

The puzzles aren't particularly interesting. At one point the PC needs to get into a locked room. Looking through a peep-hole into the room he sees students there. My first response was to knock on the door. But the game doesn't even recognise "knock" as a verb. There's no way to communicate with the students. The solution is to tell the dean about the students who "don't seem to be getting much work done". This was not, to me, the obvious way to go about things.

This is a first game for the authors, which means I'm supposed to be nice and encouraging. This is difficult. Niceness and encouragement do not (as may be seen from many of these reviews) come naturally to me. I'll give it a go. Aside from the puzzles, which I found dumb, there's not too much wrong with the game. But there's not enough in the game for much rightness or wrongness, anyway. You have most of the basics, now add substance.

Possibly I have failed to grasp the essense of nice and encouraging.

One point for a lack of obvious grammatical or spelling errors. One point for me having seen no bugs. One point for the pond puzzle, which I quite liked. Three points overall.

PTBAD6—Slan Xorax: 1

Like Rybread Celsius without the wit.

This article copyright © 2005, James Mitchelhill

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