Posted 15 November 2005 to rec.games.int-fiction
Like it says on the tin, posted herein are my reviews of the games of the 2005 IF Comp. I've been writing these since the 02 Comp, and my tendencies towards wordiness, idiosyncrasy, and snarkiness seem to be given freer and freer range over time, for which I apologize (I really do try to—I only used "trope" nine times in the course of writing over 20,000 words worth of reviews, which is probably a personal record). If I say anything too unkind about a particular game, the author will hopefully take comfort from the knowledge that I probably wrote the review at 3 AM, desperate to get the bloody thing finished so I could get to sleep.
This year, I've decided to dispense with noting my numerical scores for each game. Associating some objective ranking with my subjective reactions always occasions much wringing of hands from me, and while I accept that they're a necessary evil—the Comp is a competition, after all—I've decided there's no particular reason to give them any more weight. There's an element of calculation in this, of course - my reviews are somewhat wordy, and now if you want to know what I thought of a particular game, you'll be forced to actually wade through my prose, rather than just skipping to the number at the end. Also, I insulate myself from accusations of hypocrisy and arbitrariness in my final rankings. Consistency, hobgoblins, &c.
With that said, I tend to view reviews as being primarily critical in nature, which is to say that most of the time I'm not so much attempting a dispassionate evaluation of strengths vs. weaknesses as hopefully groping towards interesting ideas prompted by the game at issue. Since I did try to keep my numerical rankings somewhat objective, they might not track the way I talk about a particular game - I found quite a lot to comment negatively upon in some of the games I ranked highly, while others which were basically inoffensive might not have elicited much in the way of complaint but didn't grab me.
Also, I haven't gone out of my way to avoid spoilers, so reading the reviews might ruin one's enjoyment of as-yet-unplayed games.
As always, major thanks to the organizers and all the authors, without whom the world of IF would be a much-impoverished place.
Space Horror I
While I'm generally quite partial to knock-down drag-out argumentation on abstract matters, for some reason the question of what makes something IF has never really struck me as worth getting worked up about. Space Horror I is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game, and that may or may not disqualify it from being considered IF under some (quite reasonable) definitions of the form, but its cardinal sin isn't that its structure is unconventional—rather, it's that the author hasn't made good use of that structure once chosen.
CYOA has a bad name because of how the eponymous series of books was put together—lots of "pick door No. 1, die horribly, pick door No. 2, the story continues," in my recollection. But this isn't anything inherent in the CYOA framework; it's just a matter of implementation. And CYOA does have its virtues: the author has a great deal of power to tell a compelling story; since only a limited set of player actions are available, it's possible to take every choice into account and weave a deft tale that's responsive to everything the player does. That is, the raw possibility-space may be highly constrained, as compared to typical IF—instead of deciding where to go, what to examine, and what to take, you can only choose from a pre-ordained menu—but the flip side of that those fewer choices can be more meaningful, more dramatic, have more of an impact on the story. Many IF authors choose to go with menu-driven conversations rather than the more free-wheeling keyword system for precisely these reasons, after all.
Space Horror, however, doesn't take advantage of the strengths of the CYOA model; instead, it's modeled (explicitly, according to the end-notes) on one of those books from the bad old days. The player is left making choices in the dark, with no real information about the likely consequences, and with death very often the wages of an incorrect choice. Progress in the game often resembles navigating a labyrinth more than creating a story; instead of picking what actions would make for the most compelling narrative, the player winds up backing up from dead-ends and going left instead of right, so to speak. Picking a small, quick car over a big, slower one will result in player death, but there's no a priori reason to know that. Going back to the player character's dorm rather than exploring around is likewise a one-way ticket to the restart menu. The game doesn't present interesting choices—it just presents frustrations. The only real exception is the series of choices at the beginning that determine which branch of the plot gets played, but again, there's no context informing the choice, so it has weight only in retrospect (and really, the way the options are presented isn't exactly the stuff of high drama - "oh, if only Oedipus hadn't gone into the bedroom before going to the kitchen, it might have all turned out differently!" And so on). Further reducing one's chances of doing well on these shot-in-the-dark quizzes, the author repeatedly uses the player character's thoughts as a head-fake; several times, the text indicated that the protagonist wanted to pick a certain path, which when followed led to certain death. I'm unsure whether this was intentional or not, but it felt unnecessarily punitive and served to emphasize how the other characters were much smarter than me. This is called "deprotagonizing," and it's not particularly fun.From the title alone, it would be unfair to expect Space Horror's story to be anything other than B movie fare, but given the choice of CYOA format, the narrative has to do even more heavy lifting than it would were the game a more conventional work of IF. Unfortunately, even judged by the standards of the aliens-invade genre, the tropes deployed still manage to be tooth-grating. Everyone from the player to the supporting characters immediately twigs to the fact that it's aliens behind everything, despite the ravaging monsters looking a lot like werewolves, and the mass disappearance looking a lot like the Rapture. This uncertainty could have been exploited to create some nice tension - of course the girl who runs the UFO web site thinks it's aliens, but then she's not all there, is she?—but sadly we're left with the dull (and somewhat silly) consensus that it's carnivorous wolf-aliens who've traveled untold light-years and deployed hugely advanced technology in order to eat us. And the Tina character is too transparently the Romantic Interest—immediately after seeing an 8-year-old girl horribly eviscerated by an alien monstrosity, her first words are a thank-you to the player for being thoughtful enough to hold her hair while she vomited from the horror. The other characters are generally more bearable, though are just as cardboard—the Defenseless Moppet, the Cop In Over His Head, the Kooky Survivalist. The overall amateurish writing doesn't particularly help matters.
The puzzles are nothing to write home about either, being decidedly abstract and poorly integrated into the story proper. The use of Morse code as a puzzle element is especially ill-advised; there isn't an in-game shortcut for deciphering the message, which means that the puzzle reduces to simple drudgery once the player realizes that Morse code is involved (I confess to immediately scurrying to the hints because I was too lazy to perform the transcription, which presumably isn't the desired behavior). There is an opportunity for a clever puzzle—discovering why the player character and the other survivors weren't taken—but the author immediately sabotages it by having the answer written in block-caps across the top of the screen. Simply presenting the facts and allowing the player to deduce the pattern would have been much more satisfying.
Space Horror just doesn't have enough room for player agency, both because of the CYOA format and the less-than-inspired puzzles. If all this railroading was in the service of a novel story, it would be forgivable, but the plot is an unpretentious genre exercise which barely registers the moment after it's over; more, because of the way the story branches, it's likely that what small narrative punch it packs will be diffuse the first time through, since many of the characters won't make it to the end or won't have had any screen time.
I can't close out the review without offering one unalloyed word of praise, however: "Is it the end of the world? :(" is perhaps the most hilarious parody of Internet-discourse I've ever read. The idea that someone, someday will greet the apocalypse with an emoticon still leaves me giggling.
The dual nature of IF—works generally are both stories and games - is one of those things which authors need to grapple with. Regardless of where the balance point winds up being, the best IF manages to weave the two strands together so that they're complementary rather than antagonistic. The authors of Cheiron aren't particularly interested in that task, however, and the result isn't so much antagonism as it is an all-out rout. The game is a medical-care simulator, with deep implementation of the process of diagnosis; gameplay consists of poking and prodding at patients until you discover what's wrong with them. Concerns of story are chucked out the window to an almost unprecedented degree—as far as I can tell, there's no way to even get the game to acknowledge that you've "solved" one of the "puzzles" and identified a patient's malady, which means Chieiron provides even less narrative closure than a hand of Freecell.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, don't get me wrong. To borrow a paradigm from Will Wright, Cheiron is more of a software toy than interactive fiction as such, but (see above) I'm hardly a purist in such matters. However, the reason that I'm harping on the lack of narrative context is that Cheiron's approach to its subject matter is pointillistically detailed, and makes no concessions to the nonspecialist. The overall effect is austere and forbidding, and a more robust frame, more deeply-drawn characters, more story, might have rounded off some of its sharper edges, making for a more satisfying and more approachable experience for those who don't happen to be in the rather narrow core audience. There's definitely something to be said for sticking to one's guns and refusing to compromise a vision in favor of accessibility—hell, if you can't get away with it in IF, you can't get away with it anywhere—but here, while the end result is certainly impressive, it doesn't have much to offer to anyone who isn't a doctor or medical student.
The implementation, as mentioned, is very deep—you can PERCUSS all sorts of nouns, and ask the various patients about a wide variety of subjects. There are occasional bouts of awkwardness, however: I encountered a number of annoying disambiguation issues (many revolving around nipple-lumps and discharge, unpleasantly enough), which isn't helped by the parser often presenting degenerate possibilities. AUSCULTATE CHEST, for example, presents a host of available targets, one of which is the torso. But AUSCULTATE TORSO requires you to specify heart or lungs, and AUSCULTATE HEART is similarly not specific enough, prompting another deluge of Latinate nouns. Listing only the possibilities which would actually lead to a result would have been far more convenient. Some dialogue responses are shared across patients - diet in this part of the world seems remarkably uniform—but given the wide variety of conversational topics, this is understandable.
There are long help files provided, but they're fairly contextless - that is, they just give you a long list of things to try, without any guidance provided for individual patients. The help file points out that you can call the lab for test results, but I found the feedback to be meaningless. Again, there's no context or baseline given: if a patient has a peak flow of 418, is that high or low? Who knows? It seems like it would be possible to incorporate some cues of this kind into the game itself, and even if that would interfere with the pedagogic purpose, the authors could still have provided a reference manual or something similar, to allow the non-expert some recourse. Diagnosing an illness could be a rewarding puzzle, albeit one involving many highly-complex steps, but where a normal work of IF would provide clues at each step and attempt to guide the player through the process of deduction, Cheiron just leaves the player to flail around helplessly. There's no sense of progression, of working towards an understanding of a complicated problem by examining each part of the whole—rather, you're just left with a sea of atomized data. And the patients don't have much in the way of personality, which keeps the whole exercise feeling abstract.
So does Cheiron work on its own terms? Probably. I'm not aware of what training tools medical students generally use these days, and I'm certainly not qualified to judge whether the detail provided is medically accurate and sufficient to help students learn how to diagnose patients, but from my layperson's perspective, it seems like it would get the job done. Still, I feel like the authors missed an opportunity here. I enjoy playing around with complex systems, and going in, I was excited to play around and maybe even learn something about medicine, but there just weren't enough concessions on hand to allow me to do that. I have to respect what the authors have accomplished, here, but Cheiron unfortunately didn't have anything to offer me.
I was going to write a disquisition on the pros and cons of adherence to genre tropes in order to justify my principal criticism of the Plague, but upon reflection, I think the point is obvious enough to not require extensive apologia: if you're going to write a survival-horror game about a zombie apocalypse, the zombies should be scary. While the game is overall fairly solid, its refusal to maintain a tension-filled atmosphere severely undercuts its effectiveness.
Things do get off to an appropriately threatening start; the Brit-slang dialogue is authentic-sounding (at least to my ears, though I admit that most of what I have to go on is a couple of songs by the Streets), the inevitable disaster is a slow-motion horror which gives the player plenty of time to feel trapped, and the initial few moments of confusion are nicely drawn. I was well sucked-in by the time the game proper began.
The only problem is, our protagonist—a slim twenty-something who's been out partying all night and then gets knocked unconscious—kicks more ass than John Bolton at the UN. Once she gets her hands on a makeshift weapon, she bashes her way through zombies a half-dozen at a time. There are certain circumstances where the zombies are overwhelming, but in these cases, they're used only to close off exploration—they block a tunnel, so another way around needs to be found, e.g. At no point are the player character's life, limbs, or sweet, sweet brains in any jeopardy, and while the zombies do devour the occasional NPC, the deaths are mostly shrug-worthy, since none of the victims have been established as characters in their own right. By the end the zombie horde elicits annoyance rather than fear. I'm generally not in favor of games which are too death-happy, but once the danger is removed from this particular scenario, not much is left.
On the other hand, the Plague does manage to appropriately model another, er, salient convention of the B-movie aesthetic: there are breasts everywhere, from the main-character's "small but perky chest" to the 16-year-old NPC's "full cleavage." Post-zombie attack, the player character's first interaction with another human involves an attempted rape—admittedly, it does fit the genre, but I found it rather unpleasant to play through. It doesn't help that the protagonist once again proves herself to be frighteningly competent in a fight, and her method of dispatching her attacker is somewhat ridiculous—I know they're called stilettos, but still, offing someone with a pair of heels?
Other than these admittedly rarefied genre concerns, the game is playable and solid. My fears were pricked—in a bad way—by the ABOUT text's warning that there would be a lot of locked doors, but fortunately my dark visions of Resident Evil-style lock-related silliness failed to materialize. Most of the puzzles proceed logically - collecting gloves to grab a sharp object, giving water to a wounded survivor, bribing another with a packet of cigarettes—modulo a few minor hiccups (X NOTICE BOARD initially returns a "this isn't important" response, but a subsequent re-examination is necessary to progress, without any clue to the player that anything's changed). The writing is generally strong as well, though it is marred by a few typos: "looked me up" for "locked me up," "smear-like" for "spear-like." Still, while the prose does begin to establish the tension appropriate to a zombie apocalypse, the gameplay lops it off at the knees.
Gilded: The Lily and the Cage
Gilded is one of the more ambitious games in this year's field; unfortunately, it's also one of the least polished. It's got an interesting premise, and the prose is fluid and distinctive, but the player isn't given enough direction, and sloppy implementation further confuses things. There's plenty of creativity on offer, but lack of guidance and bugs suck away most of the enjoyment, and I found myself floundering and using the provided hints and walkthrough as a lifeline.
The set-up for Gilded—a fairy-tale in reverse—is initially compelling, and after reading over the introduction and ABOUT text, I was looking forward to leading the adventurers on a merry chase. The descriptions and especially the dialogue were amusing, but almost immediately the fun of using my powers to play pranks on the poor mortals gave way to a life-and-death struggle. Instead of proactively coming up with clever mischief, the player is himself forced to react to a series of threatening situations, which increases the feeling of being off-balance, as the player doesn't have the leisure to experiment and explore. While there's nothing wrong with such an evolution towards reactive gameplay, it happens far too suddenly, and feels too much like the rug being pulled out from under the player. The opening sets up a lighthearted scenario where the player will be in control - and then midway through the second location, this control is history. A more gradual transition would allow the player more time to master the fey's powers, and flesh out the characters more fully. Indeed, the rivalry/flirtation with Val is one of the most enjoyable elements of the game, but again, it isn't given much space to develop—you chat for a while outside the tavern, and then are off solving puzzles and trying to escape him. Most of the world is open from the very beginning, and while there's quite a lot which isn't directly related to your struggle with Val, its relevance is rarely clear.
Puzzles based on magic and allusion are always difficult to pull off; when they work, they work beautifully (see the Moonlit Tower, for example), but it's often hard to communicate the operant logic to the player. This difficulty is compounded in Gilded; not only do the player's abilities work on metaphor, so too do those of the primary antagonist—when Val begins plastering papers etched with sutras all over the forest, it's difficult to know what the appropriate course of action is. The endgame, by way of contrast, seems to vary wildly in tone, and brute force comes to the fore; while I'm sure there are cleverer ways out than simply fighting, I wasn't able to come up with any, and as a result, the ending was very anticlimactic. Still, the writing as a whole is a pleasure to read, and there's plenty of visual creativity on display—the sutra-plastered forest might be somewhat obscure as a puzzle element, but it's a beautiful image.
Contributing to the sense of disorientation is the feeling that the game isn't quite finished. There are only hints for two areas of the game, and I got stuck in the help menus at some point, unable to return to the root menu. I encountered a number of disambiguation problems, and in one play-through, the conversation in the tavern would display no matter how far away I traveled.
Overall, I found Gilded to be a frustrating experience; the writing is good, and the scenario should present fertile opportunities for enjoyment, but the lack of guidance and lack of polish makes it more frustrating than it should be. A post-comp release with some better clueing and some of the quirks ironed out could really improve the game; it's deep and interesting, but doesn't quite cohere as-is.
Jesus of Nazareth
This is the one game in the comp I didn't assign a numerical rating to. I played for a few minutes, and then found that I had to stop. It's not that I found it offensive; for some reason, I just couldn't force myself to try to solve the puzzles presented. Some elements really work—the dialogue especially effective, as various NPCs will voice their concerns, and the player character responds with direct quotes from the Gospels, in Jesus's voice, which are relevant but pleasingly obscure. But many of the other elements are, in a word, game-y, and in the context of a story about Jesus, they come off as absurd. What to make of Mary Magdalene asking Jesus to find her lost necklace? Or a prospective apostle saying "perhaps if you brought me my papers, then I will follow you unto death"? The combat engine—Jesus vs. the Romans!—is perhaps the crowning example.
For whatever reason, I couldn't quite handle the cognitive dissonance, so I stopped playing fairly quickly. I don't think it's a terrible game—the homemade parser didn't seem too annoying, and while the puzzles seemed fairly bland, they didn't suck away any enjoyment. And the author seemed to treat the subject matter respectively, at least within the conventions of IF. It's just not something I could meet halfway and complete.
If I were a better man, I would resist the temptation to note that the adjective in this game's title is unfortunately a quite accurate description of the experience of playing it. Sadly, I'm not, and it is.
The ABOUT text admits that the game was rather a rush job, and sadly it shows. The story, such as it is, is so bare it vanishes when you squint. The setting is haphazardly thrown together with no particular logic, serving only to provide space for the grab-bag puzzles, most of which I felt like I'd solved several dozen times before in other games. The one exception—acquiring a fire arrow to defeat a tree-creature - is plagued by implementation issues; there's a strange sort of recursive notification of nested burnings, and LIGHT ARROW fails, instead of a more natural "what do you want to light the arrow with?" prompt. There are wall-to-wall misspellings, and "your" and "you're" are continually interchanged. And of course X ME is left at its default.
As first games go, Dreary Lands certainly isn't terrible; lackluster, yes, but not terrible (for which, see Phantom, below)—but while I sympathize with the author's desire to release something in time for the competition, I ultimately think the must-submit-a-game-any-game mindset is self-defeating. If he'd instead waited until the Spring Thing, or next year, and entered with his more ambitious project, chalking this one up as a learning experience, I think he'd have gotten a much better reception, instead of having his first released work of IF be something he's not satisfied with.
The first sentence of this game is "Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior." To say my expectations going in were low as a result would be something of an understatement. Sadly, the game lives up to the promise of that opening line: rampant misspellings, mountains of unimplemented scenery, and not one but three mazes, at least one of which is noneuclidian (SE, NW doesn't take you back to where you started from). And the main character's nickname is apparently derived from a DnD spell. I could continue heaping up complaints, but really, the bottom line is that this game has nothing to recommend it, unless mazes and misspellings are your idea of a good time.
So a couple of months back, I was in a clothing store with my family, shopping for a coat for my two-year-old cousin. I had to go to the bathroom, which was a one-person-at-a-time unisex deal, with a concomitant line. After a few minutes standing there, I noticed that there was a guy a few places ahead of me who had what appeared to be a wakizashi—basically a smaller version of a katana—belted to his waist. In other circumstances, I would have probably thought this was somewhat neat. But I was shopping with my two-year-old cousin, so it was just uncomfortable instead.
My primary impression of Psyche is a similar feeling of awkwardness. Psyche is billed as an "Interactive Geek Myth," and it lives up to the appellation, mixing characters and situations from Hellenic mythology with puzzle-solving gadgets. I like a mash-up as much as the next guy, but in this case, I really don't think it works; the two elements are pulling in such opposite directions that the mythology aspects wind up looking like window dressing. I admit this reaction is almost beside the point—the characters and situations are jokey enough that it's clear the author wasn't aiming for much in the way of genre emulation, and the scenery and characters are likewise underdeveloped, with the puzzles obviously mean to be foregrounded. Still, these decisions wound up making the puzzles feel arbitrary and disconnected from the story, which isn't pleasant no matter what kind of game you're playing.
The puzzles are conceptually fine, but for some reason they never felt intuitive to me. Possibly this is because my brain had to deal with cognitive dissonance brought on by the thematic mismatch, but I suspect they're just not particularly well-clued (alternative explanations, viz., I'm just not that good at these sorts of puzzles, I of course dismissed out of hand). Having a description disclose that the magnitude of a task is enough to make you want to cry doesn't strike me as an adequate prompt for communicating to the player that CRY is the only action which will progress the game. The gadgets seemed overly-fiddly, too, and the descriptions could stand to be more robust - I had to resort to the walkthrough because I hadn't realized that the counter could fit in the mouse's expansion slot. Forcing the player to type G 60 times in a row is also not the best design I've ever seen; I initially stopped after 5, afraid that since the game hadn't acknowledged that I'd succeeded, I must have been doing something wrong.
Ultimately, Psyche is a reasonable enough game; its puzzles are competent albeit uninspiring, and the implementation is solid. But the aesthetic choices, keying off an unfortunate pun, make it less than the sum of its parts.
A second game spawned from an ungainly pun (though perhaps it's cleverer in Italian), Hello Sword is yet another of the solid comp games which doesn't stray too far from the path other boots have trod. It falls into the familiar "modern-lad-is-sucked-into-the-fantasy-realm-where-he's-the-last-hope-against-the-evil-overlord" genre, and while it has a rocky start, it eventually levels off. Still, there's little here that's distinctive, and some clueing issues - possibly an artifact of translation from an Italian original - make it less compelling than it could be.
The weakest part of Hello Sword is undoubtedly the beginning; the player is plopped down with only the vaguest idea of what to do, and the language is initially very awkward. I floundered right out of the gate; READ PAD and X PAD didn't seem to do anything, and the responses seemed to indicate just that the note had gotten lost somewhere - only a second READ PAD allows the player to progress. In my view, puzzles which require doing the same thing twice in a row, without some indication that repetition will be necessary, should be avoided, as the player will generally only discover the solution, if ever, after running out of new things to try and growing frustrated. This problem of necessary repetition occurs at least thrice more in the game - once with SING, again with WAKE, then later with X COUNTER—and in each case, I found it stopped me in my tracks for a time.
After the initial pad-reading issue is overcome, I found a further inelegance: I've played enough games to know that you can read what was written on a piece of paper by rubbing the sheet below with a pencil, but the syntax was rather unforgiving. RUB PAD WITH PENCIL and WRITE ON PAD WITH PENCIL both failed, returning unhelpful responses, but WRITE PAD WITH PENCIL is necessary to proceed. It isn't quite a guess-the-verb situation, but close enough. Fortunately, I ran across only one other instance of this problem, though it was a doozy: the unlikelihood of ever coming up with MENACE ENEMY WITH SWORD on my own conjures up images of monkeys at typewriters, banging off to infinity (in case you were wondering, yes, now that I've read it over again I recognize that that last clause conjures up other, less PG-rated mental images, but I'm too fond of the locution to change it).
Once the real world is left behind and we're in the realm of spellcasting and evil trees (second arboreal terror of the Comp so far!), things do settle down—the writing seems to get a bit clearer, the puzzles feel less arbitrary, and a clear motivation is finally supplied. The ending encounter is intriguing and well-executed; it's a shame that the beginning was so off-putting, decreasing the chances that a player will make it there. Hopefully a continuation or other game from the author would benefit from the experience apparently gained from the writing process; while Hello Sword bears all the marks of a first game, down to the title, and isn't greatly enjoyable of itself, it does bode well for what the author does next.
Futuregame is a didactic riposte to a straw-man argument that nobody's ever actually made. This means it kind of sucks, both as game and as rhetoric.
[To briefly engage the argument: yes, a reductio ad absurdum focus on some shibboleth called "player choice" to the complete exclusion of plot, characterization, puzzles, and gameplay doesn't make for a good experience. But you could overexaggerate any of the other elements above—or hell, punctuation—while leaving the rest to atrophy, and you'd wind up with something just as execrable. This in no way implies that player agency isn't arguably the most distinctive and therefore exciting part of the IF medium]
Neon Nirvana is a solid and unpretentious take on scenario common in fiction but less so in IF; as a cop looking to bust a big-time crook, the player runs through a number of well-integrated puzzles and a few narrative twists and turnabouts. This procedural isn't without its faults, but is inarguably a pleasant romp. It's the IF equivalent of finger-food; nothing spectacular, but well-suited for entry in the Comp.
The puzzles, as mentioned, all arise logically through the context of the story. The one involving a building permit is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but the rest—hiding from thugs, sneaking backstage, outwitting the bouncer—feel very natural. Since the cops-and-robbers set-up isn't one that classically lends itself easily to puzzle design, this is an impressive accomplishment. The solutions do start to feel a bit same-y—a whole lot of LOOKING UNDER things is required—but absent magic or exotic equipment or complex machinery, this is forgivable. The story, while nothing thematically deep or character-heavy, at least moves along at a fairly good clip, which is enough to sustain interest.
There are a few unfortunate bumps which make the whole thing go down less smoothly than it could; in one scenario involving a propane tank, described as a cylinder in the room description, I failed to progress because X CYLINDER failed to work. Similarly, towards the end, I knew I wanted to break a door by hitting it with a chair, but the intuitive BREAK DOOR WITH CHAIR wasn't supported. A piece of graffiti suggests that the player type HELP for more information, but in fact there is no HELP text, and Neon Nirvana sadly fails the X ME test ("as good looking as ever"). Still, I only noticed one typo on offer ("wimch hook", which is better than a "wench hook", I suppose).
The biggest complaint I had about the game is that Neon Nirvana suffers from a tone mismatch. The overall vibe and language are very jokey, but there are occasional moments where the author seems to be wanting to tell a more serious story—the death midway through, for example, and the ending, which felt more like something out of Chinatown than arising naturally out of what had come before. In the grand scheme of things, however, this is a minor issue; if the main object of criticism is consistency of mood, rather than bugs or misspellings or bad puzzles or an inane story, you know you're in pretty good shape.
This is another game which features something of a tone mismatch, yet strangely it didn't bother me so much. The setting is a garish carnival-island fallen to degeneracy and decrepitude, and juxtaposes a whimsical central puzzle—bake a magic pie to rescue your children - with some fairly Grand Guignol bits. Despite harboring rather complex emotions vis a vis clowns, the "evil circus" aesthetic is generally something I find irritating—it often comes off like someone trying to convince you they're terribly outre because they listen to lots of Nine Inch Nails. But in this case, the execution is understated enough that my anticipated eye-rolling failed to occur. Sure, there's an evil ringmaster and all that, but Waldo's Pie plays sleekly and contains enough enjoyable touches that they don't much matter. It's not one for the ages, and there are a few niggles to be picked at, but overall it's a refreshingly pleasant enjoyment.
Puzzles are generally pedestrian—trade with a shopkeeper, collect ingredients, and so on—but very well clued. I'm not the best puzzle solver in the world, but I found the solutions to even the more complex scenarios, like the tiger-hamburger-grate-rope puzzle, to be intuitive, because there were enough textual cues pointing towards the salient features of the available objects. The only real complaint I can levy is that PULL DOWN FENCE is a very specific locution to require.
It is possible to put the game in an unwinnable state—in fact, there are many ways of doing so—but in a welcome convenience, the author appears to have altered the way UNDO works, so that instead of backing up one action, it reverses back to just before you committed yourself to the action which will lead to inevitable death. And some of the ways to lose are almost as much fun as winning—neglecting to remove the life preserver before jumping through the hole in the henhouse roof, for example, leads to poor Waldo getting stuck and starving to death.
Again, the plot is nothing to write home about, and the puzzles aren't the fiendishly clever stuff of which XYZZY's are made. But not everything needs to be Spider and Web or Photopia, after all, and Waldo's Pie very much succeeds on its own terms.
I recently made my way through a video game called Indigo Prophecy. Initially, it looked like a dark and brooding game of psychological horror, but about two hours from the end the wheels fell off and it devolved into, to put it charitably, batshit lunacy. What started out as a compelling examination of the intrusion of random, terrifying violence into an ordinary life, dealing as much with the emotional fallout as with the inevitable whodunit, metastasized into tripe about Mayan prophecies, Matrix-style kung-fu, Illuminati-style conspiracies, and sentient AIs. The transformation cripples the game, making it impossible to take seriously—one gets the feeling the designers wanted to pull out all the stops and reveal twist after twist, but didn't realize that the more stripped-down, impressionistic stuff at the beginning was the best part.
Don't get me wrong, Beyond certainly isn't crippled by its twists to nearly the extent of Indigo Prophecy, but I did find that my enjoyment of the game steadily eroded as time went by, not so much because the writing or puzzles got less compelling as due to the fact that the slow hints led up to revelations which seemed disappointingly over-the-top. The early stages of Beyond successfully invoke world-weariness, wistfulness for what might have been, and a compelling investigative urgency, but the endgame turns into something different, more garish and obvious and inferior to the understated early sequences.
The opening is very strong, introducing the central mystery and the framing device which turns it into something other than just a commonplace cop-show procedural. The authors manage to evoke real pity for the fate of the central protagonist, and the complicated way she interacts with the character who the player guides through most of the game winds up being enjoyable—trying to solve the mystery of one's own death is a compelling premise. In the first viewing of the corpse, for example, the player in his detective-guise is presented with a young victim of violence, leading to a hint of paternal feeling, while simultaneously in the child-protagonist's eyes, the body is that of a lost parent. The overlapping impressions create dynamic frisson which very much deepens the experience. The small Italian village in which the main action is set is well-drawn, and the characters quickly manage to make an impression. Indeed, the detail of the real-world vignettes make for an effective contrast with the overtly fantasy-based interludes.
One could perhaps complain that these interludes occasionally suffer from being overly-precious—the Mad Joker's transformations do sometimes feel too zany for the surrounding narrative—but when they work, they're absolutely devastating. The authors managed to make a sequence of chores into the most compelling thing in the story; this luminous portrayal of a casual domesticity rendered impossible by violence is far more effective and heart-wrenching than the late-game reveals on what was going on in the shack's cellar. There is a noticeable missed opportunity in this sequence, however—when fetching well water, DRINK WATER returns a default "you're not thirsty" response. The protagonist, a child who's never been born, has never tasted water before; this would have been a perfect chance to zoom in and bring home the poignancy of lost possibilities, of the mundane experiences the protagonist will be denied.
The puzzles are well-clued and unobtrusive, which is almost a shame, as the integrated hint system is elegant and enjoyable in its own right. Finding the secret door in the shack is nicely handled, and the initial investigation is more entertaining than just Xing everything in sight, as the player demonstrates that he's figured out what the murderer did by walking through the same steps. A word should be said about the accompanying artwork, which is evocative and very successful at setting a mood of obscure dark fantasy—again, especially in the opening, where everything is threatening and unfamiliar.
So I did very much enjoy most of Beyond, but as alluded to at the top of the review, I found the game got decreasingly effective as it wore on. From the set-up—a young girl, murdered as her pregnancy becomes obvious—I'd assumed that the crime was essentially domestic and squalid, arising out of a relationship which never should have happened, the fruit of desperation and anger and stupidity. The murderer, I imagined, was somebody who acted out of recognizably human motives—evil, sure, but still essentially a person. The authors, however, went in a rather different direction: the killer is a Satan-worshipping priest who'd been ritually and sexually abusing two different girls of the town. This felt disappointingly over-the-top, turning the villain into a cartoon and rendering everything far too simple and pat. Besides this aesthetic objection, conjuring up the specter of ritual satanic child abuse brought to my mind the famous hoaxes, like the McMartin Preschool case, which further undermined its effectiveness. Sure, there's something horrific about discovering that your father is a demon-worshipping sexual predator, but since the character is so unrecognizable, it's essentially safe. Presenting the villain as an actual person who did something terrible for all the wrong reasons would have been far creepier, and more memorable. I'll willingly concede that choosing this particular trope isn't by any means invalid or wrong, and it certainly pops up in fictional portrayals with some regularity, but again, I think a more humanistic approach to the evil would have made for a more satisfying experience. The final real-world sequence compounds the mistake in my view—the hostage drama, replete with guns and shouting, lacks the grace and subtlety which are the game's greatest strengths. In the final sequences, understatement is deprecated in favor of spectacle and narrative pyrotechnics, but I think the detail-work of the opening is superior to the broad strokes of the endgame.
Additionally, while the game is quite solid, a few mistakes did seep through—I noticed misspellings of "chamomile" and "consecrating," but these are forgivable. Likewise, in one place I saw "e" used in place of "and," presumably due to the authors' native language being Italian. There also appeared to be some inconsistencies involving the appearance of the protagonist; during the first interlude, she is supposed to look like a woman in her twenties, but looking in a mirror returns a description about her being a child in a pink dress, and X ME gives the newborn response. And in a few places, I ran into disambiguation issues.
I feel churlish even mentioning these, though—as is often the case with games I enjoyed, I think I've spent most of this review harping on things I disliked, which might give the wrong impression. To state it baldly, Beyond is a good game, and has all sorts of highlights—from the moody art to the artful juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, with plenty of imaginative flourishes (the discourse on bright and dark inspirations sticks in my head as particularly clever). I think the choice of making the bad guy a really bad guy broke the emotional realism of the scenario, but up until that point, I got as much enjoyment from the game as from anything else in the Comp, and even looked at in aggregate, I still think it's one of the very strongest games on offer.
Sabotage on the Century Cauldron
The first thing I do when entering a game, even before typing ABOUT or HELP, is X ME. Usually I'm just hoping for something other than "as good looking as ever," but Sabotage's response is one of the few to ever really take me aback: being told that I'm healthy, naked, and covered in oil is not exactly what I was expecting. Fortunately or un, it's not THAT sort of adventure; Sabotage is yet another variation on the trapped-on-a-starship-with-monsters plot, albeit one which boasts enough wrinkles to keep it interesting.
"Interesting," of course, is one of those loaded words which can mean either "good" or "distinctively bad." Indeed, one of the reasons Sabotage sticks in my memory is that I can't think of another work of IF in which the player character is defecated upon, which is perhaps not the greatest claim to fame in the world. The author's working in dangerous territory here—portraying mentally ill people usually ends badly (Episode in the Life of an Artist, from the 03 Comp, is a notable exception), as it's very easy to veer into slapstick. This happens all too often in Sabotage, and the wackiness makes the game hard to take seriously (the fact that the evil master plan looks like it was written by a seventh-grader doesn't particularly help matters. I suppose I can't really complain—in second grade, I wanted to destroy the sun—but it does make the game harder to interface with without smirking). The early going suffers especially from this problem—strange things seem to be happening all around, the initial objective seems bizarre, and the player isn't given any real sense of how to go about accomplishing it. The dream-interlude doesn't help matters—dream sequences are most effective when they're tied to the larger narrative, and here, they seem just like a disconnected series of "crazy" vignettes.
Fortunately, once the scenario gets a bit better established and an NPC starts providing some much-needed guidance, the player can finally start to get his bearings and concentrate on the puzzles, which are a heterogeneous mix of the reasonable and the bizarre. In the latter category fall such tasks as jumping on a monster's belly to get it to disgorge swallowed objects. Even in the ones which rely on recognizable logic, it's not always clear what's going on: I solved one puzzle more or less by accident, by noticing that a passcard had fallen down when some chaotic NPCs ran through a particular room. There are also some implementation hiccups: at one point, the player needs to vocalize a password, and SAY PELICAN causes the interpreter to return "I don't know the word pelican," which isn't true, as SAY "PELICAN" is necessary to progress. I managed to grit my teeth and get past these issues, but the inventory limit is harder to ignore, especially since there are quite a lot of red herring objects.
The upside is that Sabotage doesn't wind up feeling too by the book. While many of its elements aren't really successful, the author at least managed to present a pre-and-post-disaster spaceship-romp in a way that felt rather original, even if it wasn't always fun. So points for that.
A New Life
Bear with me through one more comparison: I recently read Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I'd had it recommended on the basis of its setting, which did not fail to impress—the novel's set in a city in which a variety of fantastic creatures rub elbows in a Dickensian social milieu. It's incredibly rich, which is why it was utterly perplexing to me that the plot is a DnD-style monster bash. It felt like a waste of a fascinating setting, to fall back on such a bog-standard narrative.
In much the same way, A New Life immediately drew me in by presenting a novel and evocative religious system, a society in which gender is continually and individually constructed, and an interesting central character who boasts a backstory nicely revealed through layered remembrances. Unfortunately, none of this has very much to do with the actual plot, which is kicked off by a peddler who wants you to rid a cave of goblins. While the story eventually becomes more interesting that the premise suggests, it never managed to sink its hooks into me - the history of some kingdoms I didn't care about and political machinations undermining a marriage whose ramifications I didn't quite grasp didn't seem all that compelling, when what I really wanted to know was about what happened to the player character's brother, and the girl s/he had fallen in love with when s/he was young, and how s/he felt about the religious figures depicted in the shrine, and whether s/he was ever going to acquire a gender again. This is clearly a testament to the author's skill at getting me to care about the world and the protagonist, but again, it felt perverse to have all the really interesting elements shoved aside in favor of something pedestrian by comparison.
With that said, the game is by no means bad. The writing remains strong throughout, the cave lair boasts some distinctive features—a planetarium and underground tower—the dialogue is sharp, and the puzzles are original and entertaining, especially the final sequence in which the player must recover another's lost memories by interacting with mnemonic seeds and a dragon reminiscent of the one from Grendel. The map in the upper-right corner is a welcome convenience—though the gameworld isn't particularly huge, it's still a nice barrier to getting lost. Many obstacles boast multiple paths around them, and there are a few actions which aren't strictly necessary, but which better flesh out the world and make for a more satisfying narrative.
If all of this had been in the service of a different story—or if the author had employed a different player character, one with a personal stake in the proceedings—A New Life could have been my favorite game of the comp. As it was, though, each twist of the story earned little more than a shrug, which is really a shame, given the overall high quality of the game. My favorite parts wound up being sideshows that didn't really have much to do with anything—I was eager to try to tease out as much of the player character's past as possible, to explore the pilgrimage site's carvings, to manipulate the planetarium so it showed an alien sky. Helping the genocidal peddler-woman paled by comparison, but all that other compelling stuff ultimately turned out to be inconsequential. I'd very much welcome seeing the author further explore this world, but A New Life winds up being a very good introduction to the setting but only a fair game as a result.
Vespers feels a lot like Name of the Rose. I know, I promised I'd stop with the using other works of fiction to make comments, but I'm not so much drawing functional comparisons as I am pointing out topical and thematic similarities here, so according to my head it's all right. The primary reason why I bring this up isn't to do something so dreary as to accuse the author (responsible for last year's Sting of the WASP, an excellent but very different game) of lack of originality or anything like that—in IF as in every other medium, it's all about execution, and the best creators are plunder-happy magpies, ripping off ideas from wherever they can find them. I mention the Eco connection mostly to disclose that I liked Name of the Rose a lot, am a sucker for Medieval Catholic eschatology, and therefore might be biased towards Vespers due to an affinity for the subject matter and residual good-will for works which hoed much the same row.
(For those of you keeping score at home, yes, I do feel obligated to provide a disclaimer before saying something nice about a game for a change. This is because I am a terrible person. Read the On Optimism review if you don't believe me).
So with that out of the way, I can now start praising Vespers. It has numerous strengths, but I think the most important is how well paced it is. The introduction slopes in gradually, and while I generally like to have some idea of what I should be accomplishing from the very beginning, here the more leisurely approach worked well—knowing that plague was loose and the monastery was locked in made things more interesting than the standard wander-corridors-until-something-happens opening, and front-loading much of the exploration allowed later sequences to play out tauter, since the player knows exactly where everything is. The number of NPCs is initially a little overwhelming, but the author does a very good job of giving each of them a distinctive feature, so that the player soon remembers which is the crazy one, which is the terse, practical one, and so on. Besides, things pick up fairly quickly once the player's visited all the important areas—Cecilia's arrival kicks off a string of clear, well-motivated puzzles, and from there interaction with her serves to give the player character his next objective.
The narrative doesn't just progress, though—it deepens. As time passes and the malady which has laid claim to the player character does its work, descriptions change quite strikingly, which is a very nice touch—not only does it effectively convey the character's deteriorating mental state and effectively underline the thematically central mood of decay, it also makes re-visiting already-explored areas a pleasure rather than an invitation to tedium. The player is also allowed to complete major goals along the way, which lead fluidly on to the next. The arcs of individual monks are continually resolved (usually, sad to say, this involves their death), which each add something to the larger puzzle. The game also does a good job of unlocking new areas to explore in a controlled fashion; the player is introduced to a few new locations at a time, generally already knowing what he wants to do, which helps create a fleshed-out world without unnecessary disorientation.
Speaking of avoiding unnecessary disorientation, the puzzles are another strong suit of Vespers. The player knows about most of the major puzzles (finding the hidden diary, gaining access to the cellar) from the early stages of the game, which serves to alert him to any tools or clues which might help with those tasks. Smaller-scale, more immediate puzzles (the avalanche, the wolf attack), often confined to one particular area, are introduced cleanly, usually requiring some quick thinking but no items from previous scenes. The prayer system is particularly elegant, almost serving as get-out-jail-free cards—I think in every case, the player can find a solution which doesn't involve prayer, but if you're having trouble coming up with the answer, a saint's intercession will do the job, without forcing recourse to the hints file. This middle ground of providing the player with a limited number of expendable puzzle-solving tokens is very good game design, and evocative too—before bedding down on the first night, I thought the good abbot should say his nightly orisons, and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that this preemptively solved a puzzle which otherwise might have required a die-and-undo!
So Vespers is already a very good game, before you get to the endgame and the rug gets pulled out. Not only is the narrative twist nicely done—it both comes out of nowhere and had me slapping my forehead for not noticing it sooner—there's also a mechanical twist, as this whole time the game has been keeping track of the sins you've committed. It would be very easy to have put the mechanic front and center and transparently informed the player when he's moved down on the degeneration track, but keeping it hidden was definitely the right call, as this way the player isn't even aware he's being judged until it's too late, and it's never obvious which particular decisions were decisive. My only objection is that I think the scale might be too unforgiving—my first time through, I got the "evil" ending, even though of course I think my transgressions were relatively minor (I'd once prayed to Cecilia, and attacked the unknown figure I'd tripped down the stairs since I wasn't sure if he was incapacitated from the fall). Still, given the setting, an unforgiving morality is definitely appropriate.
Flaws? A few. The mystery of what Constantin's been up to is a major driver of the narrative, so the rather hasty reveal felt abrupt and therefore had less impact than it might have. The last scene, while a nicely calculated sucker-punch, also has about it a faint redolence of a heavy-metal album-cover. And sometimes the header quotes (which are nicely done, by the way, like the scenery descriptions starting out familiar, almost banal, but slowly growing strange and threatening as the plague progresses) wouldn't properly erase, so that bits of earlier quotes would stick around and overlap on the new ones. But that's literally all I can come up with, which is pretty impressive, given how much of a stickler I can be. My notes don't record any disambiguation issues or typos; they're basically just reminders not to forget how neat particular elements were.
Overall, Vespers was my favorite game of the comp.
It's not often that I say that a particular work of IF really should have been done as conventional fiction instead, but Vendetta is among the unhappy few. The overwhelming impression I retain is of gigantic text-dumps containing lots of dialogue and action, brought on by typing a single command—which is often G. The story isn't terrible: the main character—Colonel Jem Bitter, which is possibly the best name for a sci-fi badass ever—boasts an overly complicated backstory, but the author does try to foreground character interactions. Still, the off-putting presentation prevents the player from really investing in things, and the protagonist's flattened affect doesn't help matters. His jaundiced, seen-it-all attitude bleeds over into the player, and as a result the game's attempts to explore themes of love and vengeance fall flat.
The player doesn't have much agency over the story, but there are a number of puzzles to be solved. Far too many of them, unfortunately, have to do with finding and operating elevators. While the specifics do vary from floor to floor—sometimes you need to find keys, other times it's a matter of disabling guards—the building-ascent sequence goes on for much longer than it should. Too, there are a few guess-the-verb issues—the laser-beam puzzle is a particularly egregious offender—and descriptions don't always point the way through the puzzles in an intuitive fashion (saying that a desk doesn't have anything interesting on it when there's actually game-critical information there isn't playing particularly fair).
The author is clearly trying to tell a story which is a bit more sophisticated than usual in this genre—more Blade Runner than Aliens—but the disaffected narrative voice and uninspired puzzles combine with the noninteractive storytelling techniques to undercut the story's effectiveness. There's just not much for the player to do here, and the story isn't strong enough to let the rest of the game coast.
History Repeating either makes a subtle statement about how the smallest changes can lead to enormous effects, or it boasts the most virtuous protagonist in the history of fiction. The conceit is that the player character gets the opportunity to travel back in time to the critical juncture of his life and fix the mistake over which he's brooded ever since: that one year in high school when he slacked off and did a crap job on a history paper, which forced him to retake the class in summer school. Really. The game is going for a comedy vibe and doesn't take itself too seriously, but come on, there could at least be a girl involved. Or serious intravenous drug use. Whichever.
Anyway, for all that the player character's dreamed of going back and re-living his high school days, he's loath to interact with any of his peers—he chats with several teachers, an administrator, and staff members, but there's no opportunity to, say, humiliate the class bully or impress the girl he always had a crush on. Indeed, besides completing the much-regretted assignment, little of the plot and none of puzzles really take advantage of the set-up—your high school self presumably didn't care about finding a bit of wire and draining a pond. Further undercutting the premise, doing a good job on the paper is easy and is probably one of the first things the player will do (ah, to have a WRITE PAPER function in real life). Irritatingly, doing so locks the player into a suboptimal ending—for reasons which only become clear at the finish, handing in the paper is the last thing that should be done, as otherwise a restart is required to reach a better resolution. The puzzles are generally fine, as far as they go - they're not exactly well-motivated, but to be fair that doesn't seem to be one of the authors' primary concerns.
Indeed, it's hard to figure out what exactly the authors are going for in History Repeating; there are puzzles and a plot and characters, but it's all perfunctorily albeit competently sketched, and the set-up is really just a minor flavoring and framing device which doesn't do much to drive what comes after. It's inoffensive enough, but not as fun as the premise might suggest.
There are certain set-ups, I must admit, that just overwhelm me with enervation from the very first sentence. At this stage in my life, playing a member of a starship's crew sent to investigate the mysterious destruction of a colony on a thought-to-be-harmless planet definitely qualifies. It's my own damn fault for watching too much Star Trek in my youth, I suspect, but it's still a bias I carry with me. Pink's introduction doesn't really redeem things by implying that it's going to be a cynical, red-shirt's-eye take on these dust-dry tropes.
However, my habit of typing X ME before doing anything else, for a change, immediately rubbed some of the rough edges of the intro off. The joke riffs on Inform's default response, and even suggests a good reason for it—and by this stage of the Comp, I'd seen enough "as good looking as ever"s to really find the line amusing. Pink mostly stays true to this dynamic; much of it is cliched and runs the risk of boring the player, but it's got enough unexpected verve to overcome these weaknesses.
The Star Trek style plot, thankfully, does fall off the rails rather quickly, though it must be admitted that what replaces it isn't particularly novel either—in place of old sci-fi tropes, it's the conventions of fantasy which are on display. The game does boast a number of different endings, which are basically determined by choices made at the very end, but the narrative isn't really the focus. As is often the case, the puzzles are front and center, and for the most part, they carry the day. They're familiar—unlocking chests, swapping items with a shopkeeper—but are generally well clued. Objects work how you'd expect them to, and the author does a very good job of framing most puzzles, so that there are usually only a limited number of possibilities in play at any particular time. More importantly, in almost all cases, I was immediately aware of my goal with respect to a particular character or location.
Pink's puzzles are also susceptible to multiple solutions—of course there's the "good" path of helping others and puzzle-solving, but the player can also opt to solve his problems through violence and treachery. In an entertaining flourish, the world changes depending on which approach the player favors, the trappings and NPCs oscillating between candyfloss fantasy and Hammer horror. The substance of the puzzles doesn't appear to change—both the "good" and "evil" solutions are always open—but the alteration in flavor does help keep the game fresh. The Goth take on the fantasy world is over-the-top enough to induce a few chuckles, and the depredations of an evil player-character are likewise presented in a comedic enough fashion—while you might have compunctions about hurting the friendly dolphin or pacific bunny, their evil-world counterparts more than justify the violence unleashed against them.
As an aside, I have to confess that on my first time through, I hadn't even realized that the puzzles had alternate, more direct solutions, and that the world could turn spooky at the drop of a hat. I often tend to have similar experiences with other games—in the Erudition Chamber from two years back, I also wound up finding all the classic-IF solutions, without more unconventional approaches occurring to me. In Pink's case, if the end notes and hints hadn't referenced the alternate path, I wouldn't have even known it existed. I'm curious how common my experience is, and wonder whether making the possibility clearer from the start might have ensured that the player got to see more of the author's hard work. On the other hand, it would undercut the moment of surprise when everything shifts, so it's hard to say one tack is better than the other.
At any rate, Pink is unpretentious and doesn't even bother with logical or tonal consistency, but it feels unfair to hold that against the game. It's an enjoyable theme-park romp with some entertaining but decidedly non-fiendish puzzles—nothing too special, but nothing to be embarrassed of.
Mortality is the second CYOA-style game of the Comp (while the player does move about, there's very little interaction which occurs outside of conversation trees), and I think it winds up making better use of the format than does Space Horror I; there's a greater sense that your choices have an impact on the plot. Unfortunately, repeat playthroughs reveal that the story is more railroaded than it first appears, and the thoughtful and comprehensive manual arguably undercuts the game by revealing a bit too much.
The plot of Mortality is pleasantly dark, and the nonlinear way in which it's told makes for an interesting experience—rather than the conventional CYOA structure, where stories branch continually from a common origin, the game's narrative resembles a wave, diverging then returning to common points. The jump-cuts also help prod the player into working with the story: knowing that the protagonist will knock off his employer, I thought about how to make the choices which would make the scenario more interesting, rather than fighting to try to avoid committing murder.
Unfortunately, most of those choices are hollow. I'll grant that because the game moves around in time, it'd be hard to alter the story in too fundamental a fashion. Still, there do seem to be several missed opportunities. At one point in the story, the narrative flashes back to when the protagonist killed a man in a bar-fight, which has been presented as something of a turning point in his life. The player has the option of having the character behave aggressively, starting the fight of his own, or meekly, such that the killing is an accident. The choice does seem to reveal something about the character, and one would think that later conversation options might alter to reflect a more confrontational or more retiring attitude, but no such changes seem to be on offer. Similarly, while there are a number of possible approaches to offing the employer, the interrogation sequence is substantively unchanged no matter which is picked. Overall, repeat playthroughs feel far less engaging than they should, and retroactively make the first time seem less reactive.
There's only one main puzzle in the game, and the manual comes right out and flatly tells the reader what it is: there's an internal variable tracking how positively disposed the female lead is towards the protagonist, and depending on its state at the finish, you're either headed for the good ending or the bad ending. Not only is this disclosure rather nakedly game-mechanical, it also sucks some of the enjoyment out of the story; knowing that my ultimate fate hinged on whether Stephanie liked me or not, I was loath to disagree with her. The centrality of her opinion is morally neutral, of course—given where the story ends up, it is reasonable that her subjective feelings would be the single determining factor—but it does also have a normative effect. Actions which please her are "good", those which don't are "bad." As Stephanie isn't a particularly pleasant character, having her desires be the world's guiding principles is likewise not particularly pleasant.
Finally, though, it's the lack of player agency which is Mortality's fatal flaw. The story is a robust enough take on horror tropes, and the author is to be commended for making the protagonist be not at all a hero, but there just isn't enough interactivity or reactivity to create much in the way of investment.
There is one overwhelming mistake in Mix Tape, which poisons any enjoyment a player could hope to derive: the central male character asserts that the Rufus Wainwright plays the best cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, when no reasonable person can dispute that the honors in fact go to Jeff Buckley. It's the orthodoxy, sure, but it's the orthodoxy for a reason. Either the author or the character is a Judas and a liar.
This is an overstatement, of course, but it is very much emblematic of my reaction to the game. Mix Tape, as the title suggests, uses music to embroider upon the basic story, using the eponymous mix as a structure upon which the narrative is framed. Music dominates the scenery, the conversation, and even serves as a plot element (the two leads meet cute over They Might Be Giants). There's nothing wrong with this approach—in theory, I think it's a great idea, in fact—but taste in music is a highly subjective thing, especially for those of us cursed with pronounced music-snob tendencies, and mine wound up being somewhat different from that of the author or the main characters.
This is in no way the game's fault (in fact, I played it while going through one of my periodic why-would-I-ever-want-to-listen-to-anybody-who-isn't-the-Mountain-Goats phases, which was a further handicap), and I've tried to evaluate Mix Tape dispassionately, but the fact that I want to derail this review and go through all the reasons why the Jeff Buckley version is better - or rant about how Iris and Don't Speak are way too melodramatic and overplayed, or talk about the time I went to dinner with a friend and the restaurant played Jewel's debut album on repeat, until my friend and I were both twitching at the lyrical vapidity—makes this a somewhat quixotic undertaking.
In fact, stripped of its musical associations, there isn't much to Mix Tape—it's completely linear, and there aren't really any puzzles to speak of. Cooking the lasagna perhaps comes closest, as the player can actually fail at the task, but the couple has a blow-up whether it's perfectly cooked or a malignant lump of carbon, and subsequent dialogue doesn't reflect the difference (even if dinner comes out fine and has nothing to do with the fight, Peter later says "It wasn't really about the lasagna, was it?", which makes very little sense in context). There are a few opportunities to take optional actions, or explore the scenery, but overall interactivity isn't a strong point of Mix Tape.
What's left is the story of the relationship and its ups and downs, and again, my personal reactions made it hard for me to enjoy the game. Peter struck me as emotionally manipulative and borderline abusive, even—perhaps especially—in the framing story where he's meant to be reformed and contrite. Perhaps part of this is due to the inherent difficulties of IF and the author's desire to use Peter to guide the player along, but it does come off as domineering. Val, the player character, by way of contrast comes off as emotionally dependent, immature and annoyingly twee. Far be it from me to suggest that good stories require likeable characters, but I do think there needs to be some means to allow audience investment, and I was less than excited about patching up this train-wreck of a relationship.
As a result of all of the above, Mix Tape never quite gelled for me. This reaction was highly subjective—well, all reactions are, of course, but there's something qualitatively different between an aesthetic mismatch and bugs rendering a game unplayable—but I think it's valid; how one feels about the game will hinge almost entirely on how one feels about the characters and the music, since they're very much the focus of things. The other elements mostly get out of the way and let the story do its thing—I managed to crash the game once by trying to leave Peter's bedroom in the fifth scene, but otherwise noticed no bugs or typos. I can't fault it for not sharing my tastes, and others might well enjoy the game quite a lot because they're more in harmony with it, but Mix Tape just didn't do much for me.
When writing this review, I've continually been aware that perhaps I'm taking the game more seriously than it wants to be. I work at a human rights organization directly involved with issues—U.S. detention and interrogation policy, the proper role of civil liberties in wartime - which are very close to those implicated by Eternal Vigilance. As a result, I found the premise of being put in an interrogator's shoes and turned loose fascinating, if disturbing, and was eager to explore the dynamics of security.
That the game turned out to be more spy-thriller than political-thriller was thus disappointing; both main factions appear rather cartoonish, and again, the struggle is rarefied and divorced from social reality. The fate of the poor writer is somewhat problematic, but not especially so—given my job, I feel like I'm rather more sympathetic to the civil liberties side of things than are most people, so if I thought his detention and interrogation was bad policy but ultimately justifiable, I suspect most players would be even less bothered. Internal Vigilance employs the rhetoric of the ideological struggle between liberty and security, but it fails to really address the issues, and they act more to flavor the plot than drive it. This is a valid approach, certainly, and can make for an enjoyable game—but it wasn't what I was looking for.
Of more moment is that the game ultimately feels superficial. All through high school, my English teachers would repeat that most annoying of mantras: show, don't tell. Internal Vigilance presents a 1984-style dystopia, but doesn't provide any details or specificity on what, exactly, the society does that's so terrible. We're told that the Union tramples on individual freedoms, but the primary example is rather problematic—the writer who's been arrested on suspicion of being involved with terrorism in fact does have a link to a terrorist faction dedicated to the overthrow of the Union, after all.
Once the plot picks up speed and the player begins investigating said faction, instances of government oppression are few and far between. The interrogation methods employed by the player are generally unsavory, but not so terrible in the grand scheme of things—indeed, the game perhaps includes an implicit anti-torture message, as direct beating gets you nowhere. As a result, the proceedings feel bloodless; the central dilemma which is meant to give force to the plot lacks tension, and the ideological struggle is an abstraction without weight.
All of the above is rather personal and ideological (as opposed to the rest of my reviews, the arch reader points out), which is perhaps testament to the fact that the game doesn't really have any major problems. A few sloppy mistakes appear to have slipped through—I noticed some capitalization errors in the Investigation section, and the apartment number given for the author's mother is inconsistent - but overall the plot proceeds logically, the player has a reasonable amount of choice of where to push the story, and the puzzles are clever and well-clued. Indeed, the opening interrogation is a highlight - it's a conversation puzzle which involves asking probing questions and researching background intelligence on the subject, exactly what's required in actual interrogations. I would have liked to see more options for ideological debate—throwing the fact that the anti-statist author was able to write his book because he was on welfare, for example—but the options that are there are fairly robust. And while the password puzzle is reasonable enough, it's almost unnecessary, as I came very close to guessing the phrase without any clues. The game also shows flashes of humor—the record will show that I am a sucker for X ME descriptions which work in "as good looking as ever."
In the end, my objections to Internal Vigilance probably boil down to wanting something out of it that it wasn't meant to give. As a spy story with an oblique nod in the direction of current political debate, it works quite well. But the focus on bombing plots and digging up conspiracies causes the social milieu to recede, and the governmental oppression which theoretically drives the story isn't sharp or specific enough to be anything but background. One advantage of this is that the player is relatively free to decide whether the Union or the terrorists have the right of it, and act accordingly. But this moral weightlessness prevents the game from really engaging with the issues it raises.
(Re-reading this review while going through and editing—"editing" being kinder albeit less exact than "desperately paging through hoping I catch all the typos so I don't seem like too much of a bastard for lambasting authors for mixing up it's and its"—it strikes me as rather harsh. I considered softening it, but ultimately decided to keep it unchanged; I think the points it makes are valid, and trying to address more important issues does open one up for more stringent criticism).
As always, I played the games from this year's comp in a random order; as such, it's surely just a coincidence that three games in a row had some degree of personal relevance for me. My first girlfriend used to cut herself; so too did one of my closest friends. The female character who provides the conflict and environment (the game is an allegorical trek through her mind) for On Optimism has a number of issues—heroin addiction probably being the biggest—but she cuts herself too, and since thankfully none of my friends or family are IV substance-dependent, cutting is the one I focused on. I will come right out and say that I really disliked how the game treats the activity, probably at least partly due to those idiosyncratic factors which biased so much of the previous two reviews. However, I feel on much firmer ground criticising it than I do Mix Tape or Internal Vigilance—On Optimism just doesn't work, as a game or as an aesthetic statement.
The game aspect is easier to critique, so I'll start there. On Optimism is riddled with misspellings, usually due to homophones (bear/bare, its/it's), which I find particularly irritating. There are way too many pieces of paper floating around, and the game does a poor job of distinguishing between them, which leads to lots of disambiguation problems. The puzzles are either trivial (replace one piece of paper in a cabinet with another) or completely inscrutable (BROCK, GET NEEDLE is the worst offender here. Puzzles which require ordering NPCs around are often difficult to implement in an intuitive fashion, and here there's not even an indication that the statue is animate). The game often requires solutions to be in very specific forms: PUT BLOOD IN BOTTLE causes the character to put a bottle into a hole into which blood is dripping, but the more intuitive PUT BOTTLE IN HOLE doesn't work.
Worse, the game's writing is terrible. The prose is overwrought, dripping with emotion which is completely unearned by the narrative - at one point, the protagonist says that weeping is not his custom, when it seems like every single room he enters prompts a different crying fit. There are a number of poems, which serve as thematic signposts and also play a role in several puzzles—they're similarly overwritten and have a tendency towards doggerel and incoherence ("My hand reached down to your waist/oh you should have seen your face/It squeezed yours and we lost all our disgrace"). And for God's sake, if you're going to quote Ecclesiastes 1:18, don't use the bloody, bloodless NIV: "the more knowledge, the more grief" has nothing on "for in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Sometimes you just need to go with the King James. At one point, to illustrate the depths of self-loathing which cause and inform the self-mutilation and drug abuse, the author invokes, of all things, Gollum/Smeagol's internal struggle in the Lord of the Rings. And misspells the names.
On a more thematic level, the player character is a Romanticism-addled victim of a messiah complex gone horribly awry. There's a slim chance that the author is in on this, and the game is meant as a devastating critique of a particular type of person who thinks that loving somebody in a smothering, histrionic fashion is going to magically fix them, showing the love-object that they don't actually have problems, they're perfect and flawless just the way they are. The whole thing is framed as a hallucination attendant on a suicide attempt, so there's some hope. But the game oozes sincerity, and no matter how much I'd like to, I just can't take it ironically. This is where my personal experiences come in again—yes, I was just such a callow idiot when I was younger, and it took a while to disabuse me of the delusion. To be put back in a similar place was distasteful, as a result. But worse, the process the game posits as a solution just isn't psychologically plausible. It reduces the "loved" object to exactly that—she's important only to the extent that the protagonist can validate his own feelings of self-worth by abnegating himself and thereby proving to the object that he's all she needs. It's not about helping her work through her problems—no, it's all about him and his martyr complex. It's perhaps the most extreme form of narcissism, and it's impossible to wish the protagonist "success" in his endeavor as a result.
I could also complain about the composition of the allegory—there are some evocative images, like the take on the nihilism of fear, but much of the rest, like the "window on the soul," lead to much gnashing of teeth. Still, these details didn't really make much difference to my reaction, one way or the other. On Optimism's writing is painful, and the way it treats its female lead is worse. I wish it was tongue-in-cheek, a parody of people who are way too into the Cure or the Sorrows of Young Werther, because it certainly succeeds in this task—an ironic train-wreck is somehow less of a train-wreck. But unfortunately On Optimism plays it straight. While there are games that are "worse" in the comp—because incomplete, buggy, cliched to the point of inanity—I found On Optimism to be the least pleasant to play. I didn't rank it that badly because whatever its faults, it's at least attempting to deal with conflicts more dramatic than recovering the Magic Amulet of Whatever or fixing the spaceship before it crash lands or what have you, but by no means can I recommend it.
Off the Trolley
After a string of games to which I had rather heavy reactions, I was glad to have Trolley come up next—it's decidedly low-key and quirky, a puzzle-y romp which isn't trying to have much plot but winds up being fun nonetheless. The set-up—on the day of his retirement, an aged trolley operator wants to crash his vehicle into a building he thinks is evil—is bizarre enough that I immediately suspected that the player character was meant to be mentally ill, but somehow by the end of the game, I really wanted to smash those mirrored walls in too.
Trolley just has the one meta-puzzle, but there are a number of steps required (as the operator, you need to get the trolley to switch tracks, charge up its battery, and thoughtfully get all the passengers to disembark before going off on a frolic of your own). This is a nice set-up: it's always clear what the point of each individual task is, and the player can work on puzzles in parallel without feeling like he's getting stymied. Plus, the corresponding payoff is that much greater.
The component puzzles are entertaining—none of them are particularly difficult, and most are reasonably well-clued. Getting the ordinary passengers off and charging up the battery just require paying attention to the environment, and while evicting the bum is a bit more complex, the author does a good job of providing feedback for partially right solutions which don't quite get all the pieces together. I had a hard time visualizing how to switch from one track to the other, and my attempts were somewhat frustrating as a result, but looking over the accepted syntaxes, I think the problem was just on my end.
Overall, Trolley is a clean, focused game. Indeed, the weakest part is probably the postlude; it's not immediately clear what you're supposed to do, and suddenly jumping to an entirely new character in an entirely new environment is disorienting, especially given the draconian time constraints. It's probably a misstep, but as long as Trolley sticks to its narrow premise, it does everything it sets out to do.
The genre of caffeine-referencing IF games about workplace purgatory is more crowded than one might prima facie guess; it's also, in my eyes, not been particularly enjoyable. The setup has been done to death, in comic strips, sitcoms, and movies, and the particular games - Caffeination and Coffee Quest II from the 03 and 02 comps, respectively - have not been particularly good. So I was surprised to find myself enjoying Tough Beans; fleshing out the scenario by including a plot about actual characters, rather than relying on stale observational humor, gives a tired premise a real shot in the arm. As a result, Tough Beans is a workplace/relationship comedy which is fun to play.
The opening is effective, quickly establishing the character's personality (and eliciting sympathy!) in just a few sentences, and then continues strong by introducing a narrative complication. Suspected (or actual) infidelity is one of the all-time great motivators, of course, and it works like a charm here. Much of what happens next isn't that different from what you'd see in other workplace-humor games - mornings from hell, annoying bosses, endless queues—but knowing that the player character is continually stewing over her boyfriend's betrayal, and that every annoyance has the chance of being the straw which will eventually lead to total meltdown, creates a necessary sense of narrative momentum, and making the protagonist that much more interesting. It's an elementary thing, but so many games neglect to have the protagonist react to what's happening in any but the most perfunctory manner that it's refreshing to see one that bucks the trend.
The hoops the player must jump through are a mixed bag; some arise logically enough, and have reasonable solutions (improvising a pen, setting off the explosion), but others strain credulity (the dog-food rattling puzzle at the beginning is a particular offender). Still, none are too difficult, and the player can move through them at a brisk pace. The breezy writing also helps matters go down agreeably
The scoring system seems to be a bit buggy (I won one game with 11 out of 10 points), and doesn't really add much to the game, but I suppose it does give a bit of an incentive to play again. I only noticed one mistake: "subsequently, they aren't worth losing a finger over" doesn't make sense, and I think the author meant "consequently." Besides these, my only real complaint is that when speaking to the paramour of the protagonist's now ex-boyfriend at the end of the game, TELL PARAMOUR BOYFRIEND HAS GENITAL HERPES isn't recognized by the parser. Sigh. And I felt so clever.
Tough Beans won't set the world on fire, but as first games go, it's remarkably solid and enjoyable. I hope the author explores some less played-out premises in the future—she's certainly got the chops for it, and her easy way with characterization bodes well no matter what she winds up working on.
I remember playing Ninja 1 in last year's comp. It wasn't very good - like many custom parser games, interaction felt awkward, and there wasn't much content. When I saw that there was a sequel on this year's roster, I hoped that since the author already had the parser up and running, he would have had a full year to focus on the story and puzzles, and smoothing off the rough edges.
No such luck; immediately upon entering the game, a dragon accosts the player and appears to want to play Spacewar (the setting is notionally feudal Japan, I believe). I flailed around for a while, unable to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. The parser kept kicking out ">20" without rhyme or reason, same as it did last year. And then a ninja cut me in half, which in most other circumstances would make me unhappy, but here I must confess I was glad to be off the hook.
The Sword of Malice
Sword of Malice doesn't make the best first impression in the world. The protagonist, a good-looking-as-ever barbarian warrior, awakens in a cell which reeks of death which nonetheless doesn't SMELL of anything in particular. There's a body which is apparently hiding a book someplace I'd rather not think about—when the body falls to the floor, the book tumbles out, but before then, it's nowhere in evidence. And the situation and protagonist seem so eye-rollingly cliched it's hard to take seriously—yes, we're mighty-thewed and trying to get the sacred McGuffin out of the enemy castle. Yawn.
Surprisingly, though, I found the game got more fun as time went on. The milieu and protagonist possess a certain stripped-down, amoral charm which pleasantly recall the classic swords-and-sorcery stories (Howard, Lieber, etc.), and while there's nothing at all original on offer here, the author depicts the proceedings with conviction which almost starts to look like panache. Yes, it is a McGuffin-hunt - worse, a hunt for four different McGuffins which combine into one big one—and there's a combat system and silly names and items ripped off from Diablo II (unless there's some folkloric origin for the potion of fulmination, in which case, mea culpa), but somehow there's enough enthusiasm animating the thing—and enough fidelity to the roots of the fantasy tradition—to make the game feel fresh and fun. It shouldn't work, but it does.
Primary credit for this has to go to the writing. It manages to be both terse and over the top, and never cracks even a hint of a smile at its own expense. Setting elements are described in the barest of bones, but this is an integral part of the aesthetic. The puzzles are likewise very lo-fi; you almost never need to bring any items from any other location, as they're very self-contained, and hew tightly to particular themes. Some puzzles do have alternate solutions, accessible if the player manages to obtain mysterious super-powers (I had to look at the walkthrough to realize that touching the body would do anything useful, but this is more of an easter egg than anything else). I ran into some guess-the-verb difficulties with the very first puzzle—I knew I wanted to PULL BARS WITH CHAIN, but I got hung up on attempting intermediate steps (ATTACH CHAINS TO BARS, TIE CHAINS TO BARS, WRAP CHAINS AROUND BARS, etc.) which the game wouldn't permit - but other than this one hiccup, matters were generally clear.
Again, there's nothing here which hasn't been done to death—and badly—by countless other games. But Sword of Malice somehow manages to be endearingly old-school, revealing that it still can be fun to cater to your inner child and play Conan.
I've not played the original Amissville game; however, I have gone through a number of the subsequent Santoonie games. They've not been particularly up my alley. Delvyn, from the 03 Comp, for example, featured a gigantic, aimless world, plenty of in-jokes, even more typos, and a hunger timer. I disliked it, and thought the hunger timer was mostly to blame. After playing Amissville II, which features a gigantic, aimless world, plenty of in-jokes and even more typos, and I've decided I was wrong. Make no mistake, I still hate hunger timers, but it's really the gigantism and aimlessness which I can't stand.
The player's introduction into the world is rather disorienting. You're dumped into the woods, alongside a group of colorfully named NPCs—none of whom are properly introduced, as if the game assumes you know who they are. The NPCs bounce around doing their own thing; one continually pesters you over a walkie-talkie, without saying anything of apparent interest. There's some indication that you're meant to find and explore a mansion, but there's no indication of where it is. So off the player goes, and then the real problems rear their heads.
The world is just far too big. There's no attempt made to channel the player's explorations, or even give an overview of the environment. There's lots of asymmetric connectivity; go east then west, and end up someplace completely different. In fact, one time through I managed to get myself so lost, I got stuck and couldn't find my way back to the beginning. I lost count of the number of pseudo-mazes. There are objects lying around, but it's never clear whether they're just red herrings or if they're actually useful. Likewise, I never found anything which was clearly a puzzle—should I try to cross the chasm somehow, or is that someplace I can get to by wandering through yet more woods? Who knows? I might once have eventually found the mansion the opening told me I was meant to loot, but I quickly lost it and couldn't make my way back. I think it was locked anyway.
I can see this design aesthetic appealing to a certain kind of player, but it certainly doesn't work for me. I admit to only spending an hour, rather than the maximum two, playing the game, but if the player can't find plot or puzzles or point after an hour, there's something dreadfully wrong with your game. Focus, direction, motivation, pacing - in this day and age, they aren't optional. Even with the hunger timer lopped off, Amissville II feels extremely archaic.
And the misspellings and typos. A partial list: in the opening text, there's a missing apostrophe. You're and your are confused, as are horde and hoard. Special thanks are given to Stephen Grenade (duck!). Comma splices are legion. It's/its. Placque. Mirky. Steal/steel. Abondoned. Lightening for lightning. Emmense. Bizaar. A few mistakes or homophone confusions I can understand, but in Amissville II, the spelling errors are practically a plot element unto themselves.
On the technical side of things, the first time I ran Amissville II, it crashed my interpreter (HTML TADS 3.0C). I had to roll back to 2.5.9 in order to get the game to work. The game has enough other problems that I doubt it really made much difference to my overall opinion, but this issue didn't exactly get things off on the right foot.
I don't mean to be ungrateful. I really am glad there's no hunger timer burdening the exploration this time around. But getting rid of the glaringly annoying elements only serves to draw attention to the fact that there's not much here to lure the player in. Maybe once you get to the mansion, an IF experience of surpassing richness unfolds for those luckily enough to stumble into it—in which case, start the game there, instead of forcing the player to fumble through the preliminaries for an hour. Playing Amissville, in this sense, is sort of like being a high school student ineptly stranded in a purgatory of foreplay, forever struggling with the hooks on the bra. It's just as frustrating, with no promise of resolution.
Escape to New York
Reading the title, I was expecting a John Carpenter homage, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that the game's setup is significantly more original than murky post-apocalyptica—you don't see many non-genre historical games, and the idea of playing a thief attempting to gain access to his ill-gotten goods while on a cruise ship sounded like a lot of fun. Escape to New York mostly lives up to its premise; the puzzles are tough but fair, the environment is evocatively drawn, and there are some nice mechanical touches which reinforce the player's role as a thief.
The ABOUT text indicates that the ship on which the action unfolds was a real vessel, and given the author's attention to detail, it isn't hard to believe. Descriptions note the texture of surfaces and the richness of furnishings; leaving a porthole open will realistically chill a room. I've probably played dozens of games set on board spaceships, and am sick to death of running through their corridors and cabins and galleys and decks, but the similar environments in Escape to New York feel fresh. Focusing on details makes the ship seem like a real environment, rather than a schematic backdrop for the action.
The dynamics of that action are fairly straightforward—the story proceeds in chapters, each of which has a clear objective—but there are enough twists to keep things interesting. The player is from the first locked in a game of cat and mouse with one, then two, representatives of the law, and while it's not terribly hard to avoid them, it does make moving from one end of the ship to the other more involving that it might otherwise be. There's also a sort of pickpocketing side-game—the player can solve a number of small puzzles to lift quite a lot of valuable merchandise, and while this doesn't seem to affect the progression of the plot and only adds to the player's score, it also nicely deepens the experience.
I found the main puzzles to be more of a mixed bag—I spent quite a lot of time floundering, trying to get my package from the mail-room, since dialogue seemed to indicate that the clerk wanted me to get it myself, and the logic of locking the parcel in the cupboard somewhat escaped me. Still, there are hints to nudge the player on track, and a full walkthrough for when that fails. Also, the later puzzles seemed to flow much more naturally.
There were only two writing errors which I noticed—well, one error and an oversight. The word "complextion" is used, which is just a typo, and trying to hit people or objects causes the game to ask "Who do you think you are, Mike Tyson?", which I presume is an unchanged default response, but is singularly and anachronistically mimesis-breaking nonetheless. Still, these are niggles.
I enjoyed Escape to New York mostly on the basis of its setting—the puzzles and the plot are solid, albeit not particularly engaging of themselves. But choosing to place the game in a real, historical place, and play straight without any genre improvisations, makes it a real breath of fresh air in a field which is often choked with vanilla fantasy and science-fiction scenarios.
Snatches is as at first a disorienting and frustrating experience, but it's hard to fault it for that, as that's part of the design. As the title indicates, the story is conveyed in short vignettes, out of chronological sequence, each of which ends with a sharp jump-cut to the next. The jagged storytelling enlivens what's at best a B-movie horror plot, more or less on the old-Indian-burial-ground model, but as a result of the snapshot approach, the narrative loses some of its weight. Inevitably, some vignettes are quite strong, but the shifting POV means that the player never really invests in the characters. Because so little time is spent with each individual, they don't have enough room to breathe and establish themselves, and their eventual deaths fail to register as a result.
The early stages of the game do a good job of sucking the player in - after the first vignette, one doesn't really know what's happening, and the process of piecing together what's going on, and inhabiting characters who are introduced earlier in passing, helps connect the proceedings. Still, there are probably too many characters in the mix, and the fact that each vignette ends with a death means that individually few of them have much impact. The story of the boozehound businessman which opens the game, for example, never actually goes anywhere—he just dies, and that's it. The author does a reasonable job of working in backstory for the cast, but since ultimately none of these mini-storylines has any resolution, it winds up feeling very cursory. Indeed, by halfway through the repeated death and subsequent transfer to another character's viewpoint was starting to feel overly familiar, which isn't something a horror game should be aiming for. I also was frustrated at one point by having more knowledge than the character I was controlling did; I'd already learned that spider webs had some protective power against the monster, but since the character didn't, my attempts to manipulate a cobweb were futile.
With that said, Snatches does get in a few good moments; playing as a mostly-immobile old man and desperately casting about for some method of escape as the monster slowly draws closer is nicely dread-ful, and the episode where the player guides a family dog is especially effective. The writing shifts to communicating information which would be comprehensible to an animal—focusing on smells and so on—and seeing the corpses of beloved owners without understanding what's happened is spooky and sad.
The puzzles are generally not particularly involved—indeed, for several characters, it seems as though the player is just meant to explore while waiting to get eaten. When they do come in, they arise naturally, and the solutions are usually reasonable. Sealing the monster away in the flashback episode is well-clued, and every adventure game player worth their salt always knows there's something hidden in the grandfather clock.
Overall, Snatches is well-put together, but I think it suffers from having too many characters crammed into too short of a space. Pruning things down so there are fewer balls in the air and the player could really start to care about the characters would have allowed the game to pack more of a punch and tell a better story, I think. The best horror IF I've played is probably Anchorhead, and much of that is because so much attention is paid to developing the relationship between the main characters. Without player investment in the protagonists, monsters aren't frightening and death is greeted with a shrug. Snatches is an above-average example of the genre, but because of this narrative weakness, it doesn't ascend among the greats.
I have a hard time reviewing Chancellor, because I didn't wind up finishing it in the two-hour time limit. The author included hints for the first series of puzzles in the game, but none for anything that came later, and there was no walkthrough on offer. So when I foundered on a puzzle part of the way through, I had no recourse, and time eventually ran out. There are other games in the comp I didn't finish - Jesus, Ninja 2, Amissville II, which likewise didn't have walkthroughs, come to think of it—but this was the only one which I felt I didn't know how to evaluate because of my failure to complete it. Chancellor has some weak parts, but it also has some strengths, and it's hard to know how that balance will turn out without getting to the end. So the below is all rather provisional, and the only definitive statement I want to make is a plea to authors to please include complete hints or walkthroughs, because we players are a dense lot who often won't get through your game without them.
The primary conceit of Chancellor knits together two plot-threads, one following a college student left alone in an empty dormitory, the other depicting possibly the same young woman as she sets off on a sort of coming-of-age journey in a fantasy world. The fantasy-thread comes first, and I found it a bit off-putting; not only was I told that my cloak was +1 vs. quake spells—this is rather a more game-mechanical description than I like to see in IF—but the solution to the first puzzle seemed unpleasantly out of character. Drugging a beloved pet in order to feed and sate a hungry monster (well, landscape-feature, to be fair) seemed unnecessarily cruel, and not the sort of thing the player character would have necessarily thought of (I found it reasonably intuitive myself, which perhaps says something unkind about me). The writing in this sequence is also inconsistent; sometimes it's clean and evocative, but at others there are clunkers like "sunlight from the front door and the window stabs through the room like it's a dank crevice under a rock."
When the setting shifts to the present day, I was pleasantly surprised, though. College dorm rooms feel like the new cryopods (that is to say, they're overused as starting locations, not that they're easy to fall asleep in and by the time you finally leave, several years have passed), but Chancellor's depiction is well done—it probably helps that I actually have been stuck in an empty dorm over Thanksgiving, so I had an easy time identifying with the player character. The player's given a number of reasonable goals, and while I'm generally down on hunger puzzles, here the hunger acts to get the player moving and provide a goal besides sit-in-the-room-and-work-on-a-paper, so it's forgivable. The puzzles here again were well-clued, which precipitated yet another shift, back to the fantasy world. It's here that I started to hit some snags—monsters devoured my companion, I think because I was too dense to figure out what to do properly, and then, back in the real world, I finally was unable to get access to my clothes, stuck in a washing machine. I was pretty sure I needed to find the coin I'd dug up in the fantasy world (some objects appear to go back and forth), but didn't know where to look, and again, without any nudges in the right direction, my playthrough sputtered out.
Bearing in mind that I'm evaluating a highly incomplete experience, overall I think Chancellor is well put together. The fantasy setting starts off feeling overly familiar, but there are enough original elements (the carnivorous mountain, for example) to keep monotony from setting in. Likewise, the empty dorm is well-drawn, and I was feeling positively disposed towards the puzzles before I got irredeemably stuck. My biggest complaint is that there was a real tonal mismatch between the halves; in the fantasy world, the protagonist is kicked out into the world by a stern, uncompromising parent, which is a dramatically compelling impetus for the action which follows. Being a relatively comfortable upperclasswoman with a supportive family doesn't line up well with the experience in the fantasy world, as a result; sure, being stuck doing work on Thanksgiving sucks, but it didn't feel like there was much at stake for the player character in these sequences. Again, this thematic disjunction might get resolved further in, so this can only be a tentative criticism. I think Chancellor might be quite a good game, so it's frustrating that I don't know for sure.
[After writing this review, I checked the author's site again and saw that he had posted a complete set of hints for the game. Unfortunately, since I'd already spent my two hours, my review and ranking will have to stand]
Clearly, I haven't sufficiently internalized the tropes of adventure gaming: I was stymied for quite a while in the opening of Unforgotten, because after being told that my friend really didn't want anyone to break into his belongings and read his diary, my reaction was to respect his privacy. More the fool I. For much of the game, Unforgotten seems primarily about sticking one's nose into other people's business—the primary action is in unraveling the secrets of the family of the player's friend. Unfortunately, the contours of the central mystery—not its solution, simply the setup—are very unclear until relatively late in the game, and the author's penchant for twists make the story more confusing than it needs to be. Underneath the continual Big Reveals, there's an interesting story, but I felt like the thriller tropes wound up getting in the way of the interesting relationships.
Unforgotten's beginning is probably its weakest section; after the rather forced searching of the friend's possessions, the player is thrust into a conversation which reveals some backstory, but leaves important concepts and facts unexplained. Then without warning, the setting abruptly shifts, without the player being aware of what exactly has happened. This middle section, which contains the meat of the game, is clearer, and the player has specific goals to work towards, but just when I felt like I had my bearings, an NPC—the aforementioned friend's sister—began launching into exposition whose relevance wasn't immediately clear. Soon after, the player is thrust into two vignettes, widely separated in time and space, which are likewise fairly disorienting, and cast everything that's come before into doubt. And then there's a final big twist at the end (albeit this last one is rather heavily choreographed). I do enjoy games which are one big meta-puzzle—Jon Ingold's corpus comes to mind—but here, the twists just sort of pile up on each other, yanking the player one way then the other. Eventually whiplash—and fatigue—set in.
This is too bad, because the relationships between the three main characters—the player character, his friend, and the friend's sister—are interesting, and really drive most of the action. Foregrounding them a little more, keeping the friend around for a while longer so the player can form an attachment to him, and keeping the story more focused by more aggressively framing the problem which the player is attempting to solve, would have made for a stronger, sharper, more affecting game. The wall-to-wall twists make the proceedings feel contrived, and the game doesn't allow sufficient space for the repercussions of each individual revelation to play out, which really reduces their impact.
Unforgotten does do a good job of integrating puzzles into what's a fairly plot-heavy game. The initial journal-stealing sequence, for all my grumbling, is actually well-put together; depending on how exactly the player goes about it, there are a number of possible outcomes. There's a lot of fairly intuitive sneaking around, and except for that first sequence, the player usually knows precisely what he's working towards. I found one puzzle in particular to be shaky—lowering a doped pie to attack dogs on the end of a fishing rod feels far too slapsticky for the rest of the game, and LOWER PIE seemed a much more natural way of doing this than LOWER ROD—but otherwise the puzzles are well clued, even when the player doesn't necessarily know what he's meant to be doing.
One sequence does remind me of the comment I made about Tough Beans, above, to the effect that too few games depict the player character reacting to events. There's a scene in Unforgotten where the player is controlling a little girl who, while hiding, overhears two soldiers talk about raping her mother—this strikes me as a rather traumatic event, but for all the game discloses, the girl reacts with stone-faced impassivity. I'm not lobbying for histrionics here, but any human being would be really upset in this situation, and the tension of perhaps calling attention to yourself could make for a more dramatically interesting scene.
Still, Unforgotten does pay more attention to questions of character than do most games, and its narrative shortcomings are real but not fatal. Definitely worth a play.
There was a PTBAD game among last year's entries, and I remember seeing a post-Comp comment to the effect that it was written specifically in order to get a certain result in the voting. I forget if it was an attempt at the Golden Banana or a run for last place or to get at exactly the one-third mark, but it was something like that. That didn't exactly put me in the most open-minded of moods when it came time to play this new entry, and indeed, it doesn't appear that much has changed. There are a bunch of random objects, some of which aren't actually mentioned in the room descriptions, plenty of misspellings, and nothing much to do. My only real comment is that the line from Song of Myself is "I am large, I contain multitudes." Comma, not period. This matters to me, somehow.
Son of a...
Son of a... (hereinafter SOA) is a minor game, a collection of low-key puzzles without much in the way of plot to enliven things. The player character's car has broken down, and now he needs to charge up his cell phone and call for a tow. The premise is pleasantly quotidian, and the setting—an abandoned motel—is at least not one that's been done to death. The puzzles are where all the action is, and while they're a bit overly key-reliant, they're generally intuitive.
All of this makes the game competent and inoffensive, which it mainly is, except that it feels unpolished. There are a number of writing errors: "its" is continually confused with "it's" (in the opening crawl, no less), and there's a location called the "utily shack," for example. X ME gives the predictable result. EXAMINING a sign in the motel office caused the interpreter's font to suddenly change. At one point, the player needs to break a window with a garden gnome, but BREAK WINDOW WITH GNOME doesn't work. None of these are dealbreakers, but they do make the game feel significantly less clean.
Really, there's not much to be said about SOA; it is what it is, and what it is isn't particularly ambitious or memorable. If it's a first game, it's pretty good—I didn't notice any technical problems, and the puzzles are reasonably well structured—but there's not much here to excite the jaded palate.
I enjoyed the author's entry in last year's Comp, Trading Punches, and though Distress is a fairly different game, I likewise had a good time with it. This surprised me, as Distress is very deadly, is easy to put in an unwinnable state, and has no plot or characterization to speak of - generally not the elements I look for in IF! But it plays fair and though the player will do a lot of dying, generally each death imparts a bit more information about how to not die next time. The writing is taut, the puzzles are reasonable, and solving the game definitely feels satisfying. Distress nails what it's going for, in short, and while this isn't my favorite flavor of IF, I can definitely take pleasure from something so finely-crafted.
The ABOUT notes imply that the author put Distress through some beta testing, not just for stability, but also to tweak the puzzle design, and the effort paid off. A whole lot of death is necessary to make it through the game, but the failure-text clues you in on what went wrong. If you wait too long in the opening screen, a piece of paper gets torn loose from some nearby debris and flies off, letting the player know there's something hidden in there. Likewise, attempts to fight the monsters generally end in a devoured player-character, but next time round you'll know to use the distraction to flee. There are some puzzles which are somewhat unintuitive—I kept trying to save my mortally-wounded shipmate, despite this apparently being an impossibility—but overall Distress is liberal with feedback, and is short enough that restarting, when it becomes necessary, is not too much of a headache.
There is something of a mystery hovering around in the background, and there's something of a twist at the end (albeit not a particularly original one), but the plot doesn't really add much to the game. Likewise, there are puzzles which don't have anything to do with getting away from the monsters, but as these lack urgency, they wind up feeling somewhat pedestrian—the ending is a bit anticlimactic as a result, since the after killing the best which has been plaguing him, the player still needs to jump through a few more hoops. Still, Distress is a very tight game, focused and, in its way, elegant.
Xen: the Contest
I'm usually in favor of games taking some time to establish their premise, the central characters, and the protagonist's routine, rather than just jumping into a plot before the player is given a reason to care about the proceedings. Situating a story in a particular place, and allowing the people to exist independent of whatever dramatic twist winds up pulling the rug out from under them is, generally makes the narrative feel more distinctive, more real, and facilitates player investment. Xen is a rare exception to the rule—not so much because it's a bad rule as because the game's grasp of pacing is seriously off. The opening sequences drag, such that half of Xen's playing time elapses before the main plot really starts to kick in. There's a positive fusillade of characters, who wind up crowding each other out for screen time. And while it's nice that the main character has a routine, it very quickly starts to feel that the only role the player has in the narrative is to guide the protagonist to bed, classes, and meals.
Most of the gameplay of Xen can be abstracted as follows: a) wake up b) go to class c) meet one or more new NPCs d) eat lunch e) meet other NPCs f) something plot-related happens f) go to bed. This isn't an unreasonable way to structure things, but there are a few details which make the repetition far more annoying than it had to be. First of all, the "something plot-related" is doled out rather parsimoniously, swamped by the day-to-day details for most of the game. More importantly, there are a number of tasks—busywork, really—the player needs to perform every time the cycle comes round. Before going to class, you need to get your books together, which is a multi-step process (PUT BOOK IN BACKPACK. CLOSE BACKPACK. TAKE BACKPACK. N). Skipping one (trying to TAKE BACKPACK before closing it) makes you start all over. Similarly, ordering lunch or dinner takes a while, and getting into your dorm requires a card-swipe every time. The first occasion that the player encounters these situations, it's fun to go through the motions, but by the fifth or sixth, I was wishing that there was a shortcut, or that the game would just automatically assume that I knew to gather my things before running to class.
The puzzle design in Xen oscillates wildly: much of the time, it's quite forgiving, almost puzzle-free, but then all of a sudden one wrong move will result in instant death—I'm thinking specifically of the spontaneous alarm-fire, which seems designed to require multiple deaths-and-UNDOs to solve. Many of the late-game puzzles hinge on manipulating clouds, which are somehow tied to the player character's chosen one-ness, and they're less than intuitive. Picking up one cloud to bash others makes minimal sense, and I'm still scratching my head over whether there's a way to input the correct code into the cloud-cross that blocks exit from the police station besides trial and error. Towards the end, there's one puzzle which felt very much like a read-the-author's-mind challenge—ASK ROB ABOUT GUN isn't clued at all, and in fact the resulting dialogue has nothing to do with the command—and in many cases, more synonyms could be provided (despite knowing exactly what to do, I had to resort to the hints to figure out OPEN STAFF WITH SONG).
The plot behind the gameplay tries to pick up the slack, but Xen has some storytelling issues. The slow pace acts to leach much of the momentum out of the narrative, but a graver problem is the author's tendency to introduce new characters whenever he gets a free moment. It's hard to keep track of all of them—to the extent that, when one of them was revealed to be an alien agent, my first reaction was "wait, I've never met this guy, have I?" Worse, there are too many balls in the air to allow for a satisfying resolution for all of them. The player character's pursuit of Marie drives most of the opening sequences—but just as soon as things are starting to get interesting, she's dropped from the story (and replaced by a different attractive coed). Minor characters are killed off without very much narrative impact at all.
Indeed, the first-week-at-school elements interleave poorly with the sci-fi action; at one point, the player character is headed to go clubbing with some friends, when one casually mentions that a mutual acquaintance has just been murdered. They head on to the club anyway. The protagonist later saves an NPC from assault with a crowbar, and neither really mentions it afterwards. As a result, the thriller elements feel like they're part of a different story completely.
(On an aesthetic level, I should note that the central narrative tropes - teenager is the intergalactic chosen one, meets all sorts of cute girls who are interested in jumping his bones, eventually sleeps with the alien babe who needs his help to save her people, etc.—don't really appeal to me on a personal level. But a chacun son gout, and all that).
Xen also suffers from being on rather stringent rails. In just about every important scene, my input was limited to banging the spacebar at paragraph intervals while the excitement unfurled automatically around me. Really, I think the most important choice I made in the course of my playthrough was which flavor of beef I wanted for each meal. Given that the central conceit of the game is that the player must choose between backing two alien factions, it's rather egregious to not even let the player voice an opinion on the matter.
And, just as a personal matter, I find the blanking out of curse words with "[expletive]" to be really silly. I'm not sure if it's meant to model the experience of listening to the Nixon tapes or what, but at one point the protagonist reacts to a brutal slaying with the outburst "that was my [expletive] friend, you [expletive] [expletive]." I don't think this is meant to be comedy, but I had to chuckle.
There's some promise here. Xen is a long game, and manages to be stable throughout—I also didn't notice any spelling or grammar mistakes, which is quite an achievement. I do think the emphasis on daily life is a good idea, if ineptly executed. The depiction of college life feels rather shallow, but somehow right—meeting lots of people and being utterly convinced within a day or two that you're really good friends already, really, is about how I remember the first couple of days of school. "Calculus: Your Only Friend" is funny and likewise lines up uncomfortably well with my own college experience. And the concept of alien Jains is pretty neat, even if nothing was done with the concept.
But there just isn't enough interactivity, the pacing is off, and the overstuffed plot fails to register. Xen practically plays itself, and the poor player is left to take care of meals and naps while desperately attempting to keep up with a profusion of supporting players. Unfortunately, this isn't enough to sustain much interest.
This article copyright © 2005, Mike Russo