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IF COMP 2004 Reviews - Full Journal

Introduction to Sidney Merk's IF-COMP 2004 Review Journal
Written On: October 2nd, 2004

     I want to apologize in advance if I reference my own competition entry in some of these reviews. I think It's impossible not to draw comparisons between other works and your own, and I wouldn't be giving my wholehearted feedback if I omitted that. I will, however, try to keep it to a minimum. These remarks will probably be to say that I wish I had followed an example like this in my entry, not the other way around. :)

     You may find that I'm a non-traditional reviewer. I will try to find something I like in every game, and my unofficial rankings will probably be higher than those of the real judges. Further, these reviews will form a kind of player's journal, since I'll write each one immediately (if possible) after playing the game. This means I might begin to get burnt out, and my reviews will become crankier, or maybe I'll become more ambivalent and one review will contradict the next. I know how hard I worked on my entry, and how hopeful I've been that judges will still enjoy it despite the flaws that keep surfacing the more I revisit it. Although this shouldn't prevent criticism where necessary, I hope it will at least temper it.

     My reviews may contain spoilers. I'll try not to do it, and I'll try to explain things without giving away a puzzle or the story, but if I can't, I can't. Just keep this in mind when reading my reviews. Also, the reviews are presented in the order in which the games were played, not in order by rankings.

     I plan to use a ranking system that will, with luck, keep me on track. Half-points (a luxury real judges don't have) will be used to indicate a game that could go either way, falling between the two categories. I may also skew a score up or down by a point or two (but I'll mention when I do), if it's something I enjoyed a little more or a little less (for whatever reason). The base will be what I think it should score (based on the explanations given below), without that additional skew. Also, as I'm not strictly bound by the 2-hour rule, I may play longer, or I may revise my scores after giving more thought to the game later. However, I hope to keep such activity under control, since in future years I may be a judge instead of an author (this could be good practice for that).

The base (pre-skew) scores I will use are:

     ** 10 - A game that makes me say "wow, that was incredible." It doesn't even have to be a perfect, flawless game (if it is, all the better) -- it just needs to be one that strikes a perfect chord with me -- a great story, maybe, with characters I believe in; a plot that is inspired; a miniature epic, maybe; something unique, something that astounds me, something that I really connect with.

     ** 9 - A really great game; again, maybe not a perfect game, but one where the problems weren't a distraction. Great story, great plot pace; a setting I found especially appealing; fun to play, fun to read. I'm hoping to go generous with the 9's, as I intend to have fun playing the thirty-seven other games ahead of me!

     ** 8 - A really good game. One I enjoyed, but thought, "it might have been even better if..." This might also be a great game that just didn't hit me right; a genre I don't personally favor, for instance, but I was still able to appreciate the quality of the work. It's still a game I enjoyed playing.

     ** 7 - A good game, worthy of the competition, but could use some polishing. My hope is that most of what I play won't fall below this mark. This is a game I liked, but with noticeable typos, obvious omissions... just things to be improved upon for an updated release. This would be a game where these problems didn't really detract much from the experience for me, although I would expect the ratings of other reviewers to be less forgiving. This could also be a game that might have been a 6 or even a 5, except that the story seemed unexpectedly good, making up for the more serious problems.

     ** 6 - A good game with a few more problems. Maybe this means more typos than usual, some bugs in the game that might either render it unfinishable or begin to detract from the experience, or quirks that just seem misplaced or unintentional. Some instances of any of these things can still make it into a higher ranking for me (even a 10, if it's the right game), but this score would imply that the game seemed a little rushed and unpolished.

     ** 5 - This would be a game with quite a number of problems, or one I found frustrating to play. It could still be a game that I ultimately liked, just one that would put my entire ranking criteria under suspicion if I were to give a higher base. This would be a game that has potential - the author is on the right track - it just needs more work. Still, by allowing for a +/- 2 skew, I could still give a game in this category a pretty decent 7 if I really had a fondness for it, despite the problems.

     ** 4 - This game would be one in which I felt quite a bit of frustration, either with too many problems in the writing, the programming, the puzzles, the setting, or all of the above.

     ** 3 - This would be a more extreme case of what a "4" represents. This is a game where it's difficult or impossible to finish due to the problems; major bugs, glaring mistakes in the text; maybe even blatant attempts to make the player mad (without any indication that the emotion is helpful to the story). This is where it becomes more difficult to pick out the redeeming qualities in the game, because it isn't much fun to play.

     ** 2 - At this stage, I've found very little in your game to be excited about. It will have some kind of quality that sets it above a "1", but only by a small margin. Maybe something you wrote was especially clever, or I found the setting to be interesting even if the entire implementation was not. I will consider this just a step above "unplayable."

     ** 1 - Unplayable. I don't mean that I can't run it at all, because it wouldn't be fair for me to rank a game I can't even try. However, even though I can run it, I might as well have played with mud for two hours. I can find nothing of interest in the game, no reason or justification to bump it up to a "2" - basically, I strongly dislike the game.

     Again, these numbers and definitions refer to the BASE score (the score in the parenthesis, in the title section of each review). The "Unofficial Score" will often include a skew amount, added and/or subtracted from the base to present a final "how well did I enjoy it, above or below the base" score. To further clarify, a game indicating an Unofficial Score of 8.0 (7.0 base with +1.0 skew) falls at 7.0 by my scoring definitions. However, I enjoyed it enough to add a point, even though the final score doesn't mean it fits the "definition" of an 8.0 on my scale.

     Basically, the skews let me stick with a judging guideline (so my scores make sense when viewed as a group), while still allowing for my personal biases and preferences. Without the base definitions, there would be no consistency in my scores, and without the skew, there would be no flexibility.

Game #1: The Orion Agenda, by Ryan Weisenberger
Played On: 10/02/04 (10:30 AM to 11:30 AM, and 3:30 PM to 4:45 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     All in all, this was a pretty tightly constructed game. Not many ways to go wrong, although there were some sudden death situations and some things I might have tried but didn't for fear of putting the game in an unwinnable state. I'll discuss these later, although there may be mild spoilers. A couple times I did anyway, with "undo" in my arsenal.

     The introduction caught my interest. I played through about a minute of every competition game (well, most of them, anyway), and this was the one I was most interested in playing first, just based on the beginning. Several of the competition games seemed to be set in a futuristic Startrek-ish alien society, on a ship or a space station, and having played this game first and written this review before diving into the other games, I have to say I enjoyed this one, where I got a sense of cheesiness, a rush of campy sci-fi deja-vu, in some of the others I began.

     This is the story of a man on a mission, the woman who helps him, and a brewing war that isn't what you expect. The writing was very good, very enjoyable. The author was able to paint a vivid picture without excess text, and that's something I find enviable. As with any game, there were a few unimplemented bits of scenery ("x plants" and "x animals" in the garden, for instance, or "x architecture" in a spot or two). For the most part, the descriptions were brief enough that this wasn't a problem. I liked the story, and I did find several (if not all) of the ways to reach the "good" ending mentioned in the hints -- but I think my attempts to kiss her early on may have caused a starting deficit that I never overcame. I do plan to play through again, for that ending, because the story is entertaining enough to make it worthwhile.

     If I were casting a vote, I'd have gone over by about 15 minutes, hitting the two-hour mark close to the end, during the Orion outpost section. In retrospect, it doesn't seem like it was a difficult game, but I got caught up in three key spots that required checking about half the built-in hints for the appropriate topic. The hint system, by the way, was well done and a good idea. I had planned something similar (but with numeric codes to minimize the risk of spoilers even in the hint descriptions themselves) for my game, and just didn't have time to do it. At any rate, I was stuck in one spot because I didn't pay enough attention to the old man's table, a second time in regards to the map (I saw what I needed to see, but assumed it was simply an "x-marks-the-spot" for later), and finally, because I have a poor memory. Although I can't blame these snags on the author, it would have been nice to get some kind of in-story hint for at least the last one, and maybe the prior. Unless I missed it somehow, I had no way to review what I saw on the prayer cards, and I simply could not remember what I needed to know. But, that only meant I had to go through the entire hint chain. I'd have still used the clue on what to do upon arriving at the meeting. I know the glowing of the cube was a clue -- but I thought I needed to interact with the cube. I suspect other players may resort to the hints at the same point. But, that's end-game. It's the culmination of what you've learned. Although I don't think I'd have figured out the map no matter how long I gave thought to the problem (simply because I had been there and gone, without any indication that I might need to go back), I would probably have figured out the endgame puzzle after a while longer. I might have reloaded a save for another peek at the prayer cards, though.

     My only real complaint is in regards to the sudden death situations. I counted three, but I may simply have been on-track enough to avoid any others. I was ready to explore the Orion countryside, having failed to RTFM, and (unless I missed it), walking along with a partner who was likewise clueless about the risks. Still, "Undo" is my friend. The second time, I answered "yes" where I should have answered "no." It was no mistake -- I simply wanted to test the result, knowing already that I would be able to back up. I wasted the explosives, and was pleased to find it re-spawned where I found it. I didn't try, but I wonder if the same would have happened from my "no refunds" purchase if I had bought the wrong thing? My only other snag was in regards to the war card. I saw it, I read it, I just didn't know what it meant. I suspected time travel, not having any real insight into what was going on. Still, I vanished the Knowledge stone without even realizing it, and I simply didn't put enough significance on it at the end.

     Having played through only once (I'll go for the better ending after I make the rounds with the other entries), there seemed to be only minor plot holes. It was good to have a reference to McEllis earlier in the game. It prevented what might have seemed a tacked- on twist, at least to me. However, if contamination was underway, why would the armed natives have reacted poorly to the sight of us? Also, in the end, I'm told that McEllis disabled the network sats during the siege -- yet prior to "joining" the rally (presumably after the siege), I used it in my quarters. At least, I think I did.

     I've skewed this +0.5 for an even 9.0, because I love sci-fi, and the Star Trek feel works for me. If it had earned a half or even a full point less, I would probably still skew it to a 9, because it succeeds well in its genre and, well... I liked this game! This turned into a pretty lengthy review, so here's to hoping I have the stamina to do the same for the remainder of the entries. It's going to be a long six weeks!

Game #2: Ninja v1.30, by Paul Panks
Played On: 10/02/04 (6:30 PM to 6:45 PM)
Tinkered with source code: (7:00 PM to 8:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 3.5 (2.0 base with +1.5 skew)

     I have an affinity for DOS-based adventure games. Although "Ninja" was distributed in the competition's Windows folder, it's DOS-based, complete with BASIC source code. I admit to peeking at it during a 1-minute run last night, when the games were first released. It's not that I already had my mind made up to dislike the game, because I really wanted to be impressed by it -- I don't know what it is, except that this game is the proverbial poster child for why home-grown games are looked down upon. A little voice tells me that this has to have been a joke, or perhaps an effort to hide an anonymous "real" entry under the submission of a turd -- throw off the scent, so to speak. Honestly, my unofficial "3.5" is generous. The game *is* playable, even winnable, but it makes no attempt whatsoever at being player-friendly. I don't know Mr. Panks, but as an off-and-on R.G/A.I-F lurker, I have come to believe he is an adult. This did not seem to be the work of an adult. "Ninja" earns a bonus point (from a base of 2) for being written in a legacy language I love, and another half point because Paul had the optimism to submit it.

     I became very accustomed to "You cannot do that" during my 15 minutes of play time. Inv? You cannot do that. I? Even better... You cannot do that because you're not yet a master (takes skill to check your inventory, I presume). Help! Ah, verbs, that's good. You gotta spell it out. Cool, he also implemented Save. Save. Er... why must the Gods be with me just to save my game? Woops, killed by a sneaky ninja. Sure, I'll play again. Ah, I can go east. Wait... no I can't. E. E. E. Well... Enter Shrine. Now we're getting somewhere. S. No? I have to Exit Shrine even though it's south? Well... okay, I'll go along with that. Cool, making progress. Woops, go back inside. Get that sword. W (out the window). Swim River. Should have known... but what's that ">20" mean? A score? A clue? Hmm. "Help" said I could chop. Yay! A makeshift bridge. Away west we go. Er... where am I now? Look. C'mon, ya could have just shown me the room description. An idol. Got it. Well, what else can I do here? Hmm.. Try this... try that. What's this, another ninja? And I'm dead again? Well crap. Play again? Might as well -- in for a penny, in for a pound, or so they say. Let's go back through the shrine, back to that "city to the east" I couldn't reach earlier. More of those ">20" messages. What's that all about? Okay, the city -- Still can't reach it. Hmm.... maybe if I try 10 times. E. E. E. E.... Whoa! I won! My score was 101 / 9 -- whatever that implies. I defeated the ninja with my negative-29 HP, and he had 0. I rock!

     I'm *really* not trying to be as critical as it sounds. I just can't help shaking my head at this game. I'll probably feel like a complete idiot later, when I learn that the game is a result of Mr. Panks's disability or mental illness. If that's the case, my apologies for this entire review. Still, it would have been nice if "quit" had let me out instead of assuming I wanted to finish the adventure.

     Well... I owe this game 2 hours. Paul spent about that much time writing it, so... well, it took 15 minutes to write this review, so that leaves me about an hour and a half to play around with the source code. I wonder if I can "objectify" the objects, and "verbify" the verbs? I'll consider it a challenge. QB has more power than you used here.

     FOLLOW-UP: I'm going to let the review stand, because it was my opinion at the time, but for the record, I feel like a big jerk for writing it. Writing games is something we do for fun. It's not fair of me at all to criticize that, nor discourage him -- especially as another IF-COMP participant myself. Paul, you submitted the game, it works, and I bet it was fun for you to do. You've probably hoped that the judges will enjoy it, and that you'll have a fair chance in the contest. Although I found playing the game frustrating, I really enjoyed playing with the source code, and I hope that if you get other reviews as negative as mine (or worse), it doesn't discourage you from improving upon what you do. I hope you continue to enjoy writing games. :)

Game #3: Earth and Sky 3: Luminous Horizon, by Paul O'Brian
Played On: 10/03/04 (2:30 PM to 3:55 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (no skew)

     Paul has done an incredible job with this game -- not only in the writing, but also in adhering to the spirit of the competition. I did get a little stuck in Part 2, but the built-in hints worked very well. EAS3 is very winnable within two hours, and if I were a better player, I'd probably have been able to do so a little quicker and without resorting to hints at all.

     The game keeps moving, and I think that's much of its appeal. I was stuck trying to interact with the vehicle in the hangar, not giving enough merit to the gizmos. I was fed their purpose through hints, only to find myself in sudden death. I did figure a way out of one scenario, and it did seem to provide insight into the importance of the gizmos. When I needed them, I knew what to do with them. I was also stuck trying to enter the robot room, still placing more importance on the hangar and trying to deduce its purpose first. A hint helped me through that, and I had an easier time reaching the end. I didn't require a hint, but I did have to undo from sudden death a few times, to figure it out. The narrative there really had my heart pumping, as I engaged in the final battle. More sudden death in the escape, but that's what I get for dragging my feet.

     The game is nearly flawless (it takes nit-picking to find problems, and even then, it's probably just a problem of personal preference). Good for Paul, bad for the rest of us Comp authors. I'm sure a single play-through doesn't reveal a fraction of the detail and consistency. For instance, Paul doesn't forget that care must be taken when Austin helps his parents out of their situation, in describing them as fragile where super-strength is involved. Similes and metaphors abound. The graphics are a nice touch (although text formatting seemed to be weird in the proximity of the graphical words), and major kudos to your comic artist. I enjoyed the use of cut scenes, even though it seemed awkward to switch to a past tense for that purpose. I believe I understand the reason -- that's the "meanwhile..." section found in a comic -- it was just strange to switch from present to past.

     I may have to revise my aversion to "sudden death" situations. It does add to the challenge, and it would be a bigger issue if "undo" didn't exist. All three contest games I've played so far have offered premature endings, and I've really liked two of them. My past games have almost always done the same, so maybe I'm just starting to buy into the complaints I've received about that. My only other minor annoyance was that "Look Object" was not implemented. As a text-adventure player from way back, it's a hard habit for me to break. Still, "X Object" is shorter, and my unofficial score was not affected by this or by the sudden death situations. The only other glitch, provided it wasn't some mistake I made, was that in trying to have Emily obtain a gizmo from Austin (he was holding both, and I referred to it by its defining characteristic), I was told that he didn't have it. Switching to Austin and giving it to Emily worked fine.

     The only reason I didn't opt for a 9.5 or a 10 -- and it still could turn out that this game tops the competition once I've played through the others -- is that I'm holding out for a "wow, I can't believe it" game. It's difficult to disappoint me, and I suspect most of my comp ratings will sway to the high side. It's the same with movies. I like most movies; some are especially good, and every once in a while I see one and think "wow, that was incredible." Usually, it's the surprise twist or the uniqueness that I love -- Fight Club, Memento, The Usual Suspects -- these are some of my favorites. Luminous Horizon was a great game, and just based on my initial peek at most of the others, it could very easily follow the example set by number-two in the series, and take the top honors.

     Lastly, I want to comment on the dual-character implementation. I found it very easy to use, and a great change from the norm. From the info provided, I gather that the player was Sky in the first game, Earth in the second, making it perfect that both should take part in Luminous Horizon. Very well done. It was extra effort by the author, and it did not go unappreciated.

Game #4: A Day in the Life of a Super Hero, by David Whyld
Played On: 10/03/04 (4:55 PM to 6:20 PM, and 8:00 PM to 8:35 PM)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (6.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     My vague plan for playing all the competition games has been to start with the ones that reside in a category of their own. Being the only Adrift game, I chose it next. It's a very ambitious game, full of puzzles and events to keep things lively. It's a good game, despite receiving a lower score -- it's just not very polished. I couldn't finish it in two hours, and I suspect I have a long ways still to go, having "defeated" only two super-villains and learning nothing from either in the process. My guess is, the author ran into the same problems I did -- a lack of time prior to the deadline, and too much to get done. It seems like a good game that was simply rushed to finish. Later in this review, I'll recap the problems I found in my two hours. I'd like to see an updated version, because I'm still interested in continuing the game.

     Having just played another "super hero" game -- a shorter, more polished one -- I found myself wondering what my character's powers are. Maybe that's a big mystery to be uncovered later in the game, I don't know. One reference to "super speed" was given, but I found no way to really put this to good advantage. More than anything, I felt like a detective rather than a superhero -- and not a very good one, at that. I've always been a fan of puzzle games. Unfortunately, it seems I'm not very good at solving them. I got stuck on numerous occasions, including the introduction, resorting to as much help as the hint system would provide in several places.

     Although frustrated at my lack of progress, and by what I believe to be a spot where I may have saved my game in an unwinnable state, I liked the concept, and I liked the writing. Some British terms were lost on me -- I had to look up "lorry" to know for sure what it was. David has a great imagination, and the puzzles, dialogue, and descriptions seemed clever. My two chief complaints are that I felt too dependent upon the hints (maybe my fault), and that the game seemed to have been rushed to completion.

     You may skip the next paragraph if you're just a casual reader.

     Some of the problems I encountered were sentences with missing commas, other typos ("lessions" instead of "lessons"; a little "while" lie; Mirkhaven's description presumably missing a word or two; commonplace was written as two words; the name of the shop rings a "bill" -- unless that's a British variation, shouldn't it be "bell?"), some inconsistent descriptions (The Cat is asleep, but the room description says he's licking his paws and regarding me with malice; I found soap, searched again, and was told I already found the "marble"; I returned to my apartment but was then shown text regarding Bumble approaching the guards; a kid asks "have you got any real filth?" and the section is repeated), misinterpreted intentions (trying to talk to or show things to Bumble results in the guards responding instead), problems with the talk system (In the apartment, asking or talking to Smelly would give me the "fusty smell" message; sometimes, especially if auto-text would appear right after a conversation list, typing my choice number wouldn't work; "talk" would sometimes not work at all). Adrift's "Undo" seems to be a little quirky as well. I was able to get killed by The Cat, and any attempt to undo would see me dead again. In the presence of Mrs. Muggle, "X Muggle" says she's not there. Hitting the guards results in nothing (not even a flinch). Still, I offer this to be constructive, and hopefully to inspire an improved post-comp version. Having found at least fifteen problems in my own game just in the three days since it was submitted, I'm not trying to break the proverbial glass house by throwing the proverbial stone. :)

     Then, we have sudden death. :) The interesting thing here is, the author makes it a challenge. I found #1, #2, #3, and #9 in my two hours of adventuring, leaving plenty more yet to be discovered. That's a clever way to go about it, and except for not being unable to get "undo" to work correctly in some cases, I didn't even mind it. I kind of felt that it was my superhero's duty in life to fail and fail again. It seemed a less optimistic version of "Mystery Men", and I wonder if that was part of David's inspiration for the game?

     To sum it up, the game has quite a few problems, but the makings of a really good game are still there. I'd like to play it when a new-and-improved post-comp version comes out. If I make the rounds through the other games in time, I may return to this one even without an update. Even though I liked this game, it would fall between 6 and 7 on the scale I set for my rankings. Still, because I can see an epic in the making, and David's style is so enjoyable, I'm going to skew it up a full point.

Game #5: Die Vollkommene Masse, by Alice "Omega" Merridew
Played On: 10/05/04 (7:00 PM to 9:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (5.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     Previously, I have been playing the games that most interested me from a short peek the day the judging period began. For a time, I'll resort to COMP04.Z5 to lead me forward. I do think I will have an opportunity to play and review them all, but this will eliminate my previous bias based on initial peeks and game titles. First on my list: Die Vollkommene Masse.

     I've tried (and many of you probably do the same) to keep maps and notes while I play, for the purpose of referring back in a review. Running a transcript might be easier, but so far, I've just been using a notebook. I made more notes about this game than any of the previous four I've played. I liked this game, but there were definite problems. As a means of helping the author release an updated version, I'll go through the problems I found a little later in the review. I feel guilty for doing this, since as I identify problems in my own competition entry I imagine just how the other authors must feel, with each problem surfacing after our games are already in judges' hands. If I'm going to offer my thoughts, though, that's a part of it. As I go along in future reviews, this may become easier. I may even become snippy about it, but I hope not. I'm an amateur trying to give advice to authors much better than myself; but I digress.

     This is the story of a young drow girl, taken away to the castle of four interesting warlords. One day, she decides to leave the confines of her room and start the adventure that will lead to her destiny. This is set in motion by the warlords' plans to see how charming she can be. Ultimately, it doesn't seem that the warlords anticipated her actions at all, although I could be missing a story point in that regard.

     The layout of the castle is impressive, in that backtracking is made easier with a three- dimensional layout. I enjoyed exploring and making my own map, and despite the errors in text, it did feel immersive to me. Each NPC was given a distinct personality, and while others might dislike the descriptions prior to starting, I found it helpful to jot notes about each warlord in advance.

     Now, for the bugs/problems I found. Skip this next part (it's lengthy) if you're just a casual reader.

     "A emerald necklace" appears in inventory (should be "an"). I used the brush, then x'd it, and was told it had yet to be used. Prior to the game, Marsali climbed the bookshelf. I tried, and was told "the isn't important" (missed the noun). Same thing if I try to move it -- just missing the noun. On floor four is a dilapidated old book. X book results in "no book here." If I sit in either chair near Usi, I can't talk to him -- he's not there. "Inv" doesn't work for Inventory ("I" is easier, but it's a hard habit to break). When referencing "few pieces of parchment," the game would not disambiguate. One line in particular seemed weird -- "...scent of musty paper enters your nostrils as you enter" (maybe use "invades your nostrils as you enter," to avoid doubling up on the word "enter"). "There's too many books" -- should be "there are." Some areas assumed I would enter from one direction before the other. In particular, this seemed to happen for the fifth floor stairs and the fourth floor "cold" hallway. In essence, one room description referenced another, but I hadn't yet been there. Usi didn't want his own cup of tea, nor did anybody else, if I recall correctly. In events where "chat" leads to an ending (the one place you can get killed by saying the wrong thing to an overlord, and at the end), doing an "undo" leaves the chat options on-screen but the numbers are no longer active. Also regarding chat, it seemed whatever option I tried last would always remain, instead of getting a message such as "you have nothing more to ask." At one point, I was in too big a hurry and did "give ball to Eloy" when intending to try for Usi. Oddly enough, I was told that I couldn't give things "to the plain sword" (which I was carrying -- most likely the sword had an "eloy" adjective due to ownership). At the exit, the room text says I should just open the doors and walk west. However, following the suggestion ("open doors") doesn't work (only the "w" part is needed). There were quite a few places where plural objects were referred to singularly, such as "the runes and hieroglyphs isn't important" -- same with silk blankets. If Tads2 is anything like Hugo, there is probably an "is plural" identifier that takes care of properly formatting the default/generic messages. If my note is correct, text in the diary was "chose to reside here..." where it should have been "choose to..." (or maybe vice-versa -- my handwriting is sloppy). The term "a Mbizi's gloves" was used; same with trying to push "the Usi's cabinet." Again, Tads2 might have an identifier that lets you define a blank adjective instead of the default "the" in those cases -- speaking from how Hugo works. I had tried to open the shrunk (trunk?) to no avail, only to find from the walkthrough that it was necessary. After some trying, it turns out I only needed to look inside (even though it remains locked). In one room with a window -- maybe one of the bedrooms -- a "get all" actually obtained the window as well.

     The two strangest problems I found were a scoring bug, and a diary bug. I found the diary and read it, and (don't ask me how) I ended up with two copies of it in inventory. I could only interact with it from then on by using "all" (to get or drop). Luckily, I don't think it was required to finish the game; plus, I had already read it. The second is even stranger. At the end, I scored 125 out of a possible 100. I had actually hit 100 even before I went out to the "end" of the game. This is where a transcript would help much more than my vague recollection of the path I took through the game, but I don't have one to offer (sorry). It happened, though, I swear it!

     My only other concern was with all the unnecessary but obtainable objects. I quickly ran out of inventory space (being unaware, at the time, of the book bag close to the beginning), and I wasn't sure which items were okay to leave behind (even if temporarily), and which I might need at the next turn. It just seemed a few too many red herrings.

     I liked the multiple endings, although I'm kind of conflicted on this. Ordinarily, your path through the game would determine your ending. Different choices lead to a different ending. I understand that not all choices would have been available if certain things weren't accomplished, which was a nice touch. I don't know, though -- like I said, I'm conflicted. I generally don't like replaying a game unless there are clues and things I want to catch and understand better the second time around (sometimes just a different ending isn't enough), so it was nice to be able to see all possible endings without the added work. At the same time, it didn't feel to me as if all the endings really fit the course I had just taken. I don't know.

     I don't mean to turn every review into a criticism-sandwich, with a bug report nestled in between two slices of praise, but I did enjoy the game. That's what I meant when I said I'm a non-traditional reviewer. Nothing about this game was a waste of the two-and-a- half hours spent playing it. The problems did become a bit of a distraction at times, but I enjoyed the castle, the story, and the characters. It does need work, but I'm skewing it +1 from a base of 5.5 (for an "unofficial" score of 6.5), because I played half an hour longer than intended. I was entertained enough to keep going.

     FOLLOW-UP: I was disappointed to see that the very next day, this game was withdrawn from the competition. I already wrote the review, so at least in my mind, it was still a part of the contest. I would have emailed the author, but I couldn't locate an email address.

Game #6: Escape From Auriga, by Florin D. Tomescu
Played On: 10/07/04 (12:00 PM to 1:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (6.5 base with +1.0 and --1.0 skews)

     Going by my randomly generated COMP04.Z5 now, "A day in the life..." would have been next. I already played and ranked it, so this sci-fi adventure follows. Early on, it felt familiar; the setting, the descriptions... particularly the story. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I love sci-fi, and the familiarity helped make the setting seem more alive.

     However, it became obvious that this wasn't just a lack of originality, nor a colossal run of coincidences. This game is set in a well-known sci-fi franchise, using well-known references (by name, in some places), telling an "unseen" portion of that well-known story. This puts me in the strange position of rewarding a bonus point for bringing me into an entertaining sci-fi setting, and losing it again for questionable copyright status. I'll let the comment stand at that, though, and say nothing more of it.

     I'm going to have to curb my newfound tendency toward crankiness if I'm going to get through the remainder of the games. What I mean is, I'm starting to feel more like a beta tester and less like a fellow competition author trying to enjoy (and size-up) the competition. Lord only knows the kinds of complaints I'll get about my entry (my to-do list has already doubled), but with luck, I'll be criticized for typos, scenery with blank descriptions (sigh), unimplemented scenery, and not nearly enough conversational recognition. What I'm finding in games like "Escape from Auriga" includes quite a few typos, grammatical mistakes (everybody does this, but these just seem obvious), and more substantial bugs. Still, I continue to make notes, so if any of these weren't already reported, the author will have a better chance of releasing a post-competition update.

     I would have completed this game without any hints. I came very close, although with a total score of 95 from the possible 250. However, I had trouble using the auto-pilot, because I had already turned it on before performing the required action later. You have to perform the action, then turn it on. Except for this, I pride myself on winning without the walkthrough. As it turns out, the same thing was the source of my frustration in using the self-destruct system. The walkthrough does mention that, but I just never thought to try working it the "right" way.

     A longer bug list will follow, but the two of most importance are the two I'd like to mention separately. First, I found the access code puzzle to be pretty clever. I actually solved it. However, I didn't need to. Entering a blank number will get you in just as easily. I had actually carted my crewmates into the shuttle before finding the access code. Second -- and this might be more important -- it is possible to put the viewer inside the consoles in the flight control room. When you do this, and after taking it again, your ability to hold "general purpose" items is decreased by one. Do this five times and you won't be able to carry any of the extras.

     Additional problems are as follows: "...to fit it a wall..." ("into" a wall?); "state of shock and semi delirious" (something's just not quite right -- you can't be in a state of semi delirious, as "delirious" is an adjective); "...near one of the beds, sends a chill..." (no need for that comma); "...you can't help not realize the irony..." (just reword it); "...as if awaken from sleep..." (ditto); "...there is 2 of them in the middle..." (although it's doubtful I have much room to talk, this segment is bad in three ways -- try "...two of them are in the middle..." instead); "...normally used keep handy..." (missing word, maybe?); "x crates" in hangar results in "you can't see any such thing."; "...prepare for all available craft for emergency..." (drop the first "for" and you're in good shape); "It release the..." (releases?). Also, the hints.txt and walkthrough.txt appeared to be the same document.

     The walkthrough (which I used at the very end) does cover the additional ways to earn the extra points. I was impressed that the game wasn't overly difficult, but that a deeper challenge exists. I couldn't figure out how I was meant to battle the creatures with only three bullets! I'm going to get through as many competition games as I can, but this might merit a replay at a later date. Overall, this was a fun game. Sudden death was a way of life, but I'm starting to get used to it.

     FOLLOW-UP: Once again, I play a game, and then it drops out; this time, disqualification because of rule #1. But, I'll go ahead and post this review when the time comes. I feel like a heel, though, because I mentioned the movie connection. Maybe others did, as well; it wasn't my intention to eliminate the competition.

Game #7: Chronicle Play Torn, by Algol
Played On: 10/07/04 (2:30 PM to 4:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (6.0 base with +1.0 and -0.5 skews)

     I found it difficult to rank this game. I overlooked the grammatical errors, numerous as they were, because this author has done an amazing job if English is foreign to him/her. This was probably the first competition game I played without caring as much for the quality of grammar and phrasing. I think I actually enjoyed it more as a result.

     I found the game world very interesting, very fun to explore, and something unique at this point in the competition. It was very trippy, at times, but I liked that. I found one fatal error ("get gnostical" from the bookshelf at the beginning will result in a Frotz "illegal object" error, and the game crashes). Other than that, and discounting the problems in the writing, my chief issues are with playability.

     I think you have to distinguish between ordinary puzzle-fests, and games intended for the competition. It's something I'll have to keep in my mind for future competitions, but this game really illustrated the problem. The game world was big, the challenges were plenty, and you can put the game in unwinnable states that require replays. Ordinarily, maybe that's not so bad. But when you're trying to stick to a two-hour rule (yeah, yeah, I'm not officially judging -- I could take however long I need, but still...), these things lead to frustration. In particular, every once in a while, various incarnations of an item-stealing statue will appear. It's actually very well done, and the text is varied each time. However, it turns out that you really do need that pickaxe more than once. I can start over from a prior save (heeding the warning from the text file), but I'm beginning to realize it's just not much fun to play through the same parts of a game when the only reward is to get un- stuck. If I didn't have 30 games still to play, this might not bother me. I didn't even need the walkthrough until Part 3, and then I just kind of kept referring to it because I lost my sense of purpose. It was fun to explore -- I loved the world Algol has created -- I just felt confused.

     I noticed something in this game, and in the last ("Escape from Auriga") that struck me as odd. Maybe it's something particular to Inform or the Frotz interpreter, but attempts to "Get All" will cycle through every reachable object: windows, doors, walls, floor, statues... anything. Again, this might not be the author's fault, it's hard to say. I know that in Hugo, you simply make the object "exclude_from_all." Something similar could probably be done here. Otherwise, crafty use of "get all" will identify everything you see, often giving clues where clues shouldn't have been.

     I liked it, yet it frustrated me. I didn't beat it, although I might have, if not for that dastardly statue. I added one full point for entertaining me with such an imaginative game world, and I removed half a point because it is so easy to render unwinnable. That's a final score of 6.5. I can tell that the author put a lot of work into it, and I hope it does well in the competition. I didn't get to see any of the three endings (assuming the three paths outlined in the walkthrough lead to three separate endings), but I would like to. This is another I'll have to come back to later, especially if the author releases an updated version.

     Does anybody have any idea what the title means, and in what way it references the game? I sure couldn't figure it out, but I must be missing something.

Game #8: Identity, by Dave Bernazzani
Played On: 10/07/04 (8:00 PM to 9:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (no skew)

     Once again, science fiction -- and very well executed. Okay, so crashing-landing on an alien planet and a loss of memory may not be the most original of story components, but Mr. Bernazzani did an excellent job. I particularly liked the "Complete %" as opposed to a straight numeric score. Sure, it's still "X out of 100", but it was a nicer way of gauging progress. Like "The Orion Agenda" and "Luminous Horizon", I have to nit-pick to find much technically wrong with this game. I found one typo ("...path through the ticket..." which should have been "thicket") and one quirk (the guard is no longer thirsty, yet he is). I also made good progress through the game, only getting stuck at the guard and again at the radio. For the former, I only required the first hint to figure out that I had missed something. For the latter, I actually tried to get a hint, and one didn't exist for that particular problem (the fuse, the fuse -- but I did figure it out).

     My only real "complaint" is that the game was so engaging -- right from the start, especially -- that I hoped for a little more from the ending. The 2003 film of the same name (John Cusack, Ray Liotta, etc) kept coming to mind, even though the plots are nothing alike. Through the game, I found myself trying to guess the surprise twist concerning my own identity. I thought maybe the "people I work for" were criminals, and I had commandeered the craft. When clues made that unlikely, I thought maybe I was an alien, and this was a pre-industrial Earth I found myself visiting. It's a definite credit to the game that these thoughts crossed my mind. With text that didn't require repeated note-taking on every typo and grammatical problem (for purposes of offering a bug report, I mean), the game flowed quite smoothly. Kudos to Dave, and to his beta testers. This game was an ideal entry in the competition, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

     Wow... when most of the review isn't a bug report, it's a pretty brief review!

Game #9: Mingsheng, by Deane Saunders (Rexx Magnus)
Played On: 10/09/04 (9:20 AM to 9:45 AM and 10:30 AM to 11:35 AM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     COMP04.Z5 has been picking a series of Z-code games for me. Since so many exist, that's probably not surprising. Last night, seeing that Mingsheng was next on my list, I spent some time trying to download and implement the Simsun font. I simply could not get it to work, and I had a concern that the game might not pack the full "punch" without it. That failing, I opted to use pinyin mode while playing.

     This is another nearly flawless game. I made a short list of small things to improve, but this is more nitpicking than an actual bug report. I enjoyed this game, even though it wasn't my first choice in genres. The writing is very vivid, and I do enjoy descriptive nature scenes. Mingsheng earns a bonus half-point for expanding this to include "listen" and "smell" everywhere, and because the goal of the game was to improve the main character by what was learned. I was stuck only twice, resorting to the walkthrough. The first time, I had the right idea, but abandoned the line of reasoning when it didn't work. I overlooked the clue indicating that statues can be referred to by "right" and "left" designations. The second time was again my own lack of attention. I abandoned the box without a further glance, after obtaining what was inside. I shouldn't have.

     As bugs go, these are minor. If attempting to unlock the gate, I was asked the traditional "with what?" question. Having nothing in inventory that might present a solution, I attempted to head south instead. The resulting "(first taking the south)" assumed I was answering the question instead of pursuing a different course of action. Another minor thing: "x flies" at the lake sees no such thing. I found green moss in one location. An attempt to "get moss" actually revealed the red moss as being nearby, too. Finally -- and again, a real nit-pick -- the vine is still dry even after taking a trip along the sea.

     What puts this game above others of a similar type is that the author seems to know history and legend well enough to weave it into the game. As much as I enjoy science fiction, what you generally find in sci-fi is that nothing is based on research; very little requires a firm knowledge in anything except wild speculation. In a game like Mingsheng, you really have to give credit for putting real knowledge to work.

     I found no ways to put the game into an unwinnable state, although I thought (at first) that losing my items to the rough sea was one. But, not only does the author provide for this, it actually presents a clue for a later puzzle. This was very well done. Actually, every puzzle in the game was well done, and because these challenges drive the story instead of merely interfering with your progress, it's difficult to consider any of it as arbitrary. I believe that this game illustrates the right way to introduce puzzles. Give them a point for existing. Put some logic and purpose behind it. This game does that.

     With the skew, Mingsheng gets an unofficial 9.0 from me. It is very well written, the puzzles are good and not overly obscure, the story presents a journey of self-growth for the main character, and it was a nice setting to explore. Well done, Deane.

     FOLLOW-UP: Browsing the official game list at www.ifcomp.org today (10-11-2004) turned up an interesting thing. I don't know if it's a recent change, or if I just didn't notice before, but this game is credited to Rexx Magnus. I've updated the review title to show this. And, to revise my closing comment, Well done, Rexx!

Game #10: Gamlet, by Tomasz Pudlo
Played On: 10/09/04 (4:10 PM to 6:10 PM)
Unofficial Score: 8.0 (8.5 base with -0.5 skew)

     In earlier reviews, I have played the games then immediately given my thoughts. With "Gamlet", I have taken a half-hour break. I just don't know what to think about it. Perhaps I'm na´ve, but the writing is exceptional. Still... I can't help but think I'm missing something, as if maybe this is an in-joke (albeit a very elaborate one). As an occasional message board lurker in recent months, I found the name "Jacek" familiar. During the break, I did a Google Groups search, which turned up some interesting information. It seems the game was written by -- or more likely, about -- a message board "troll". Although "Gamlet" is difficult, mildly offensive in spots, and seems to carry some secret agenda, it's actually quite good.

     Did I mention that it's difficult? I did pretty well for a while, but the game is so layered that one object leads to three more, which lead to three more, and so on. As a player, you have to really dig deep or you'll miss pieces of the puzzle that are vital to the solution. As I became hopelessly stuck, I started referring to the built-in walkthrough more and more.

     To get the "bug report" out of the way, I didn't find much. The game was involving enough, though, that I scarcely looked for any problems. Trying to remove the yarmulke results in "you're not wearing it." The word "grow" is missing its "s" in the line that contains "A morello tree grow before..."

     This is the first game I've given a negative skew without one to compensate in the other direction. It ranks highly on my scale, because it's put together very well. The detail in "Gamlet" is amazing, from the sounds outside the windows to the custom responses when attempting to needlessly interact with various things. It skews down (but only a little) because I found it overly difficult; also, because I couldn't help but think the game was somehow giving the middle finger to someone (or multiple someones) disliked by the author, or to me as the player, or to the IF community in general. I'm sure it will all make more sense to somebody else.

     FOLLOW-UP: Early discussion in rec.games.int-fiction (what happened to waiting until the end of the judging period? Oh well) mentions the "ABOUT" text for the game. I realized I hadn't even tried that, so as a follow-up, I did. It's entertaining, and it does explain a little more about the game. At the same time, I was unable to decide what it really means about the author, the characters, and the story. Decide for yourself.

Game #11: Stack Overflow, by Timofei Shatrov
Played On: 10/10/04 (10:35 AM to 12:05 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (6.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     I'm not one to plead innocence in the crime of writing games where the puzzles are the entire point of playing. With "Stack Overflow," I'm not even sure that was the intention; but it seems to be the result. This game does have a story, and it's even an interesting one. I just think it's buried under too much uncertainty.

     I have tried to grow as an IF author, and I recognize now that sometimes a puzzle that seems completely straightforward and obvious to the author can seem impossibly difficult to a player. The puzzles in "Stack Overflow" aren't bad, they're just obscure. If you provide a puzzle, it's vital to offer clues. At times in this game, I didn't even realize I was facing a puzzle at all, nor would I have known to poke around enough to solve it. The puzzle regarding the table and the elevator comes to mind. Figuring out what to do with the cube (after feeling smug at figuring out how to use the hammer) is another. Regarding the cube, did I miss a hint? I only solved it with the help of the built-in hint system. Nothing in the game gave me any indication whatsoever that a made-up verb was required. I won't disregard the possibility that I'm just not observant enough to see it, but still, if not for the shove forward, I'd probably have been stuck there forever.

     This is the story of a mild-mannered (well, the game doesn't say he is; I just filled in the blank based on his need for inspiration before becoming destructive) research worker, late for work, abducted by aliens. Actually, I'm not too clear on that. He was either abducted by government agents and left to stew alone in a small room, or else the aliens are somewhat like government agents. At any rate, it was nice of them to leave a method of escape available for my use. Then again, my role to them does become clear later in the game, so it was probably intentional.

     I have the impression that the author's native language isn't English (the name, the email address, the obvious grammatical mistakes). I'm not counting off for that, because I can't claim to know more than a few useful words in any other language. Still, the problems in "Stack Overflow" go beyond the literary. Skip the next paragraph if you have no interest in this bug report.

     At the beginning, the "help" command says I need no help. Fortunately, I did solve the intro on my own, but I'm the best judge at whether or not I'm stuck. The "walkthru" command made reference to a revolutionary hint system, yet it's not actually available until after the intro. My character works in research on the SNUTFIX project -- so why would he casually disregard the project as meaningless ("...whatever that means...") when reading the SNUTFIX papers? It seems there are two papers (the papers from the folder, and some other note I never actually saw) at the beginning -- the second being exposed as existing when trying to look at the paper. The only way to use the tape player is to "turn player on" -- implementing "play tape" and "push play" and others might be a nice addition. At one point, my character reverts to hillbilly mode, when I "...ain't got any knowledge..." The gate that ultimately leads to the escape pod doesn't exist. What I mean is, no attempts to reference it with X or Open or whatever will show it. Further, you cannot leave the gate unless you "use" the cube in the same way you did to arrive here (the eastern exit is missing). When taking random papers from the research room, put one into the scanner followed by "take paper" will not only generate another one, but it will cycle through all inventory as if trying to disambiguate (you just have to try it to see what I mean). Oh, one other. After the title screen is (finally) shown, the walls continue to appear in the description, but attempts to interact with them again says they don't exist.

     Despite the problems, I enjoyed playing the game. I really think some of the puzzles were obscure enough to be unrecognizable as puzzles. I got stuck (even with the walkthough -- but that's my fault, not the author's) close to the end. The puzzle with the manual, buttons, dials and switches, I really liked. It just didn't occur to me to make the manual more scanner-friendly. Following the walkthrough then, I didn't quite understand the puzzle. I almost gave up and closed the game, but I really wanted to make it to the end. I gave a closer inspection to what was scanned from those pages. This is where using the walkthrough actually held me up a little. I just need to read and understand the pages to get the clues I needed.

     As I play more of the competition entries, I'm finding it harder to rank them. Multiple games are getting the same score, but for different reasons. I based "Stack Overflow" at a 6.0, not because of the writing or even the story, but because I think it would require telepathy to solve. I offer it a +0.5 skew (for a final score of 6.5) because I'm still a sucker for sci-fi. One word of advice to the author, though. If the point of your game is to explore the space station, it's self-defeating to follow a room description with "why oh why, are you stuck in such a boring place?" Also, I almost gave up before reaching the end, but your game kept me entertained and guessing enough to push forward. It's good that you offer multiple ending possibilities, but I guess I was just a little disappointed. I ended the game without knowing what my role as a research worker plays in the events I just experienced (if any). But maybe that's what you intended.

Game #12: Kurusu City, by Kevin Venzke
Played On: 10/10/04 (7:00 PM to 12:10 AM)
Unofficial Score: 9.5 (8.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     Yes, I did indeed play this game for five hours straight. I was hooked from the start. This is a story of a young girl determined to rid Kurusu City of its robotic domination. Along the way (especially if you're apt to try such things), you learn more about her... personality. If Kevin intended this to feel like interactive anime, he succeeded. Correct me if I'm wrong, but was every NPC female? I mean, there are of course the robots, and the men you don't interact with (father, the professor, etc) -- but of the primary characters, all are female. It made for some interesting interactions.

     After the first two hours, I would have based the game at 9.5. If I were judging, I'd have probably cast a flat 9.0 based on what I played. However, not being bound by that, I plunged forward without making that mark, and realized some important things about this game. You can get stuck. Perhaps there are really clever, obscure ways to get unstuck (although, to be honest, I'm not so sure), but you'll find numerous ways to get stuck. Mainly, it's a matter of trying one thing before you're supposed to. You can do it -- the game lets you -- but you have no way back. To summarize these (so perhaps I can be corrected, or else they can be fixed in an updated): What's in the mail gets broken if another package is delivered before you obtain the first. On a whim, I tried an action that (as it turns out) allowed me to get my sister's ID -- however, I hadn't visited the patient in the hospital, and I could find no way then to "clean" the cans of paint. Also, the same thing seemed to make it impossible to obtain the mailbox key. I made my way through the puzzle which leads to the tug-of-war session, north again into the shower for that bit, only to find out later that I couldn't return and I needed something I had no way of obtaining previously. Giving the remote to Wesley will have it away for repair for two weeks -- presumably, I won't be able to wait that long. Being thrown in jail ultimately leads to death, with no way out. In several places, I saved before moving forward. I had to restart from almost the beginning two times, and from earlier says two or three times more. This was probably the most frustrating part of the game, and the primary reason Kurusu City gets an 8.5 base score.

     However, I'm skewing it a full point for being so entertaining. I mean, I've played other games in the competition that I didn't want to finish even without having to restart a prior save. Plus, it's sci-fi done well. The ending notes were a nice touch. I touched on a couple things as an "after you finish" portion of the FAQ for my game, but I think it would have been a good idea to go into more detail about the evolution of the game, the way Kevin does. It made for an added bonus, and a bigger sense of accomplishment.

     Even with the hints, the game was hard! To some extent, I'm glad the hints weren't more specific. I remembered a recent newsgroup post about updated hints, and even though I couldn't find it at first (was the message cancelled?), I found it using Google Groups. I thought Outlook Express has an option for ROT13 decoding, but I couldn't find that either, so I wrote a quickie QB program to do it. A question to the author, though: how is Neeny in two places at the same time? The rest of the game makes sense, in that it seems to follow consistent logic. But for the life of me, I couldn't figure that one out.

     As for bugs, I only found minor ones (all unwinnable states aside). You can learn the name of the woman in the arcade before you've actually been introduced, simply by telling her about certain things (the description references her by name). When textbooks appear in the cylinder, the listing appears twice. At one point, probably near the beginning, an attempt to interact with the mirror (get, open, etc) leaves the word "mirror" out of the resulting "you can't" messages. Trying to "put hand in red paint" tells me "you don't even have yourself." Trying to take the note from the catalog machine tells me I can't take the catalog machine itself (similar things happened with other "components" of larger items). But, for every small bug, something surprising was implemented. For instance, the nurse says "don't follow me" -- but you can actually try it, and you won't get the traditional "nothing happens." The random video game names are a nice touch. At one point, I "heard" the soundtrack to the movie "When Help Collides" (an IF-COMP entry in 2002?) playing.

     To recap: Difficult. Use multiple saves. Good story. Very fun. Well written. It overshoots the two hour mark, but at this point, it's my marginal favorite.

Game #13: Getting Back To Sleep (Exige), by IceDragon (Patrick Evans)
Played On: 10/12/04 (9:15 AM to 10:40 AM)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (6.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     I was pleased to find that COMP04.Z5 rolled this game closer to the front of my list, because I have been anxious to try it out. It's the only other game built on a custom or "homebrew" engine (although technically most IF engines are non-commercial products, making them all varying degrees of the same thing, but I digress). After the big disappointment with "Ninja", I was hoping to be wowed by Exige. My hopes were dented a little the first night I peeked at it, not only because I was a little leery of the game needing port access (even if just localhost -- I actually went so far as to email Stephen G. about it, and he pointed out that my firewall wasn't actually showing any internet access), but because the display seemed a little clunky. It's the same problem on two different computers (one being a Windows '98 desktop, the other a Windows XP laptop). I actually got a headache from playing this game (sorry, Patrick -- if I recall, I once got the very same comment about one of mine). Part of the problem is the text flickers as it prints, and part is that you can't resize it; the window, yes, the font and playable area, not that I could tell.

     The game is further crippled by the lack of an "undo" and the lack of "save" (which is going to be a future feature in the LIFE engine, says the readme). I've dabbled in writing parsers too, and after working with Hugo, I can see where I took the wrong approach to it in my attempts. Those efforts could have (and would have) been better if I knew then what I know now, about parsing. I think Exige takes the wrong approach, too. I feel bad for criticizing the parser, especially since I can tell from the readme that Patrick is very proud of it, but I hope this is constructive, not deterring (the same things were said to me about mine). Actually, this parser is a little better than my couple of attempts, but it still falls flat in several areas.

     First, there are no "extra" verbs. What I mean is, it's nice when you try to eat something -- even if nothing in the entire game is edible -- to at least get the obligatory "you can't eat that" or similar message. I also found verb recognition in general to be frustrating at times. "Insert X into Y" didn't seem to work, where "Put X in Y" did. It also seemed that some verbs were only "active" in the spot where they're used; I could be wrong, but that's how it seemed. Implementation of "in" and "out" (as well as cardinal directions for entry and exit) would be nice, because "Go X" (where X is a room or object) is a little antiquated. A "restart" would be a nice feature.

     As for bugs, Exige fares better than some prior examples. I received two crash reports, which I'll email to you (fortunately, your built-in error trapping doesn't cause the program to exit). First, the description of the notebook says it's on the desk, whether it still rests there or not. If you are holding the notebook and the note, then drop the note, you won't be able to read the notebook unless you leave the room. It wasn't obvious enough that I couldn't actually "see" the mouse. I knew what I needed to do with it, and I was getting frustrated that I couldn't interact with it. Maybe a simple tip here would help: "You can hear it squeaking, but it seems to be hiding somewhere." Something like that might have worked for me. Also, it seems there were no clues at all about what to do with Tiberius, aside from directing his movements (ala the journal entry). Even this, though, I expected to be able to get him to "follow" me by directing him to do so, and that failing, directions have to be fully spelled to work (which makes sense for Tiberius's hearing, but not so much sense in the scope of forming a puzzle). I had to resort to the walkthrough in both places (figuring out how to get started with the mouse, and figuring out what to do with Tiberius). Additional clues in the notebook might have been handy, unless another clue exists and I simply missed it (a score of 138 suggests I missed at least a few things). Perhaps something to the effect that Tiberius has been trained to locate missing objects (sorry, probably a big spoiler there). And for that purpose, "find" as a synonym for "get" might have helped.

     Overall, the game wasn't too large, and it wasn't too difficult. The general plot is beginning to seem a little familiar, though (I wonder how many more spaceships or I'll be escaping from, in the remaining entries). To showcase a custom engine, something more unexpected might have been a better choice. Still, aside from having to close and restart the game a couple times after either dying or losing, it does seem pretty solid. Starting over would have been more of a frustration if it had been a bigger game. Everything is pretty straightforward, so it wasn't hard to just retrace the same path to catch up again.

     I can see where the author is going with the live gameplay components, but the display refresh thing is a real distraction. I think it will take some improvements to this, and to the parser, plus a game module where these live components are more integral to the story, to really bring out these advantages. As it stands, nothing in "Getting Back To Sleep" was really enhanced by the live components. It will be nice to see another game putting these advantages to better use.

     As a base, I scored this game 6.5. It falls in the middle of 6 and 7, because it could really go either way. I skewed it up a full point (for a 7.5 total) because the custom engine shows promise. It isn't quite there yet (please PLEASE get "save" and "undo" added, and see about that flickering display thing), but I think it can be improved. Plus, where "Ninja" makes no attempt at all, it's easy to see that a lot of work went into the LIFE engine just to bring it to this point. I suspect typical scores may fall in lower ranges, but since I've been in this spot before, I've tried to remain open-minded. Overall, it's the makings of a good engine, presenting a fairly solid game.

Game #14: Redeye, by John Pitchers
Played On: 10/12/04 (1:15 PM to 2:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 8.0 (no skew)

     This is a surprisingly short game (even with the two-hour guildeline). It's probably possible to complete it in two hours even without hints, although I peeked at the built-in walkthrough twice (once, when trying to figure out what to do with the cup, and again when I felt I was at a dead end inside the asbestos house). Redeye offers an interesting story. You are Stanley Southall, a carpet salesman who finds himself having an exceptionally bad day after playing host to one of his wife's clients. The story unfolds after a rough night of too much drinking, and the author manages to squeeze in two plot twists in such a short space.

     The first of these did catch me by surprise. As I discovered something interesting in the garage, the following confrontation was unexpected. The second twist, which ends the game (mild spoilers here) wasn't so unexpected. In fact, I made the connection even before finding the second clue inside the asbestos house. The second clue just confirmed it. Still, it's an entertaining story, a solid game, and by my scale that's a well-deserved 8.

     Now, the game leaves several questions unanswered (even with the hint to ask Agent Smith). In light of the ending, why would the note have appeared in evidence at all? The gun, yes, the brick, yes... but the note was counter-productive to all motives but my own. Why was the door to the 24/7 convenience store locked? Was there any food to be found in the game, or was that just a time limit for completing it?

     Skip this paragraph if you have no interest in the bug report. None of these are significant in completing the game -- just things the author might be interested in improving. It seems that the "toilet" scenery appears twice in the men's bathroom, not at all in the women's. A very similar bug almost made it into the final version of my own competition entry (and in my case, it would have made it almost impossible to complete). Here, it's just a quirk. One bathroom says no toilet exists, the other asks you to disambiguate between the toilet and the toilet. The noun "cycles" for the motorcycles would have been a nice touch (although 'bikes" worked fine). The word "inv" didn't work for inventory (this must be a TADS default). I dropped the bag before I left the hotel, yet the cops still accused me of having it. At the end, I'm allowed to leave with the brick (in fact, they didn't ask for any of the evidence back). I spent a little time trying to tell the driver where I wanted to go (because I knew) -- you've implemented "Say 'whatever'" so maybe that and "tell driver (about) blah blah blah" might make good additions. "You're" should be "your" in the line "You're head is starting to spin..." I use HTML TADS 3.0c (for Windows), and unless I changed it and simply don't remember, my default text font is black (probably black font, white background). This caused my input to appear invisible for the game, until I changed it. These things are all pretty minor, though.

     I found the game entertaining and fun to play. I liked that "verbose" was on by default (not sure why -- having it off doesn't bother me in other games). I liked the use of colors, and the ASCII title was pretty slick. My cellmate's profanity was funny, though excessive. Most of the puzzles weren't too difficult. The author did a good job putting thought into his game. The intent was to entertain the player with a good story, not just throw together some puzzles to provide a challenge. I think he went the right direction.

     This is one of those games, though, where you know your PC is being foolish, but you also can't continue unless you allow him to be. I really didn't want to leave the hotel carrying the weapon I found. That's why I left the bag behind, but the plot is at a standstill unless you do. I'd have rather found a phone, called an ambulance (and the police), and waited until help arrived. This is where, despite a good story, the plot foundation gets a little thin. Oh well. I still enjoyed it; all's well that ends well.

Game #15: Magocracy, by Scarybug (A. Joseph Rheaume)
Played On: 10/12/04 (6:45 PM to 7:30 PM, and 8:00 PM to 9:20 PM)
Unofficial Score: 10.0 (9.0 base with +1.0 skew)

     When the "readme" for a game begins with "...is not like most Interactive Fiction games," it kind of sends up a red flag. In the past, I might have thought "cool!" Now, I kind of think "uh oh." In the case of Magocracy, the former is more appropriate.

     I'm not sure what it is about this game that I liked so well, but taken as a whole, I found it a wonderful experience to play (even if I did get stuck down in the dungeon -- even that was fun). Maybe it's the writing, especially in the introduction. Maybe it's because I started playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends just a couple of months ago (yeah yeah, I guess I'm a big nerd), for the first time since a brief encounter with it over twenty years earlier. Maybe it's because the total flip-flop from black-on-white to white-on- black between the castle and the dungeon impressed me. Maybe it's because of the cool castle and dungeon layouts. Maybe it was just the right kind of game at the right time in my play list. It isn't even really a puzzle-based game, but using spells can be a puzzle in itself. It isn't a perfect game, either; it has its share of periodic typos.

     It's becoming increasingly difficult for me to pick a favorite game -- or even a top three (I kind of dread casting my Miss Congeniality vote) -- but this one is a strong contender. Somebody else could have written this game and completely botched it, making it not only dull but downright messy. Mr. Rheaume does a fantastic job of making the game not only playable (and re-playable), but highly entertaining to boot!

     The hints say that in my situation, I couldn't have left the dungeon. With only one mage standing (I pride myself on defeating at least one of them), I kept hoping for some way out of my situation. But no. She did appear, but she vanished just as quickly. Still, it was FUN. I'll play this game again, I'm sure. It's the kind of game that actually makes me want to play more and discover better tactics. My crowning achievment was when I conjured the dead body of a recently deceased mage in time to loot the corpse. I didn't expect it to work, but it did!

     I didn't find any real bugs (except maybe that I can read books being carried by other mages if I refer to "book" and then disambiguate), but with so much going on in the game, I did find typos. The description for the east guest wing is missing a space after the period in "...trophies on the wall.The hall..." Near that, "an golden orb" is mentioned. Looking at Loge puts an "a" in place of "he" in the line that reads "...speak of the time a bested..." In the dungeon (grid coord 5,5), something found and referenced as being "west" is actually to the east. From there, the line "...to cell door is east" appears. A space is needed between "at" and "the" in "...obsidian blade atthe stone gargoyle..." In the line containing "...Loge sends handfull..." an "a" should appear after Loge, and "handful" needs only one "l". "Cold" should be "could" in the line "...she cold free her people..." Although it isn't a typo, if you try to conjure a book and disambiguate to the "wealth" book, a message says that with so many books here, it would take forever (seems to be piggy-backing off normal "get" messages).

     I intended to base this game at 9.0 with a +0.5 skew, because I wanted to save the ultimate score for the game that totally wows me. This one comes dangerously close, though. It's not even sci-fi, but I couldn't justify giving a lesser skew for a game I think deserves a high mark. So, with a full point skew (for being so well-designed, fun, and original among other IF games), it gets an unofficial 10 from me. It's probably too early to predict, especially when I'm not even half-way through the entries, but I'll be very disappointed if "Magocracy" doesn't land a spot in the final top three.

Game #16: Murder at the Aero Club, by Penny Wyatt
Played On: 10/13/04 (7:35 AM to 8:15 AM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (no skew)

     Penny Wyatt has written a short, entertaining work that seems perfect for the competition. This is another game with almost no flaws to speak of, and the first so far that hasn't required a single frustrated "help" request, or a peek at the walkthrough. Upon finishing, I did check the walkthrough. It mentions two endings, and I had found both, all unassisted and in the space of forty minutes.

     As a detective sent to investigate a murder, you will question suspects, search for evidence, and ultimately solve the case. Fortunately, the clues become obvious. You won't be relying strictly on the PC to explain these realizations to you, because the pieces will come together even before the detective makes an entry in the notebook. It's a short mystery, with no real twists (it would have been interesting if the culprit had been someone else, requiring another layer of clues of deduce that the likely suspect couldn't have done it, but someone else had a strong motive). Still, very enjoyable, and the lack of complications makes it clearly playable in two hours.

     The writing is great, and the story is interesting. I found no ways to put the game into an unwinnable state (even when bumbling around after the culprit already escaped). When I obtained the 25-point ending, a few quick UNDOs put me in a spot to solve for full points (I knew what I needed to do; I just had to think a moment to figure it out). Because of a comment from the author, I suspect much of the setting and some of the characters are indeed based on reality; it would be even more enjoyable to those in-the-know.

     The only bug report I can make is that an "s" is missing on "joins" in the line "...takes off and join..." and attempting to move the corpse says it's fixed in place (maybe it can't be moved because it's crime scene evidence instead). Well, it would also be nice to have "centerfold" as a synonym for "centrefold", but that's really a nit-pick.

     In summary, "Murder at the Aero Club" is a short, nearly flawless game. It really drives home the fact that this is a contest meant for shorter games -- something many of us authors tend to forget when our personal brainchildren spill over the edges of what's reasonably playable in two hours. This is a solid 9.0 with no skew. I would pop for +0.5 if it was "Murder at the Spaceport", with all the adjustments to character descriptions that it implies -- but that's just me. :)

Game #17: Square Circle, by Eric Eve
Played On: 10/13/04 (1:00 PM to 4:05 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (no skew)

     "Square Circle" is bigger than it appears. It begins as a one-room adventure. For some reason, I actually believed that everything I needed to do would occur in the cell where the game begins. This turns into a bigger adventure when you escape the cell and make your way through the few rooms of the building. It really opens up when you escape the building and begin roaming the surrounding countryside.

     The back story is very imaginative. I read everything I could find, including each entry in the law book (whew). That alone is highly entertaining. One premature ending alludes to something which I thought might provide an eventual twist (and I was right), which kept me pushing forward despite feeling more and more stuck. The built-in hints became a big help, although I had to resort to the walkthrough for certain puzzles when no applicable clues were available. It's a very challenging game, with plenty of puzzles and red herrings to keep a player guessing for a long time (without clues and the walkthrough). It's another that pushes the limits of what's possible in just two hours (I spent three hours, trying to go easy on the hints).

     The game is well-designed, well-written, and fun. I didn't get the full score (even with a good ending), so I guess some things went undone and unanswered. For instance, what really happened to the other person at the picnic, or is the assumption the only answer? Why does a hermit (with criminal views and opinions, no less) live so close to the center of activity? The story is interesting enough that these questions come up. Although I won't name examples, I've played some games before that gave me no reason to further ponder the unanswered mysteries of the game's story.

     The additional end notes provided by the author are an added bonus. I loaded prior saves and tried a few (but not all) of the suggestions, for some interesting results. The game is about as flawless as they come (although at this point, I think I'm just not watching for problems to the extent that I did at first). I saw "...cirle or sphere..." at one point (circle is missing its second "c"), and that's about it. Bonus interaction abounds: you can draw on various things, you can wrap things around other things even though it doesn't help, some puzzles have multiple solutions, you can push objects around, the NPCs can talk about quite a number of things, and you can find objects which really have no importance. It's great to have so much free interaction, but at the same time, it tends to obscure what's really important.

     I was tempted to rate a little lower because of the difficulty, but this isn't the first difficult (and lengthy) game in the competition to receive a high mark from me. On my scale it's a 9.0, regardless of the numerous 9's (and higher) I've already given. I enjoyed it, it's well- written, the story is unique, and it even has a plot twist. Without a skew, that's still a very high mark.

Game #18: Who Created That Monster?, by N. B. Horvath
Played On: 10/13/04 (8:00 PM to 9:20 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.0 base with +1.0 skew)

     This entry begs for commentary, and I suspect that when the contest ends, the political debates will ensue. Before I offer my opinion on the subject matter, I'll address the merits of the game itself.

     I'm either becoming less inclined to spot typos, errors, and problems, or COMP04.Z5 has rolled a list for me that simply continues to improve in quality. For the first time, I have absolutely no technical criticism. In part, this is probably because the game drives you forward to the next task and the next. Random experimentation isn't quite as necessary. Early on, I did try a few things with unimplemented objects, but I made no notes and found that this didn't detract from the game in any way. That's not to say this isn't a puzzle game -- it certainly is -- just that the puzzles are neither difficult nor illogical. At times, it felt like a series of errands, but that's okay. For the second time, I finished one of the competition games with no hints and without even a frustrated glance at the walkthrough.

     Baghdad, 2026. Despite the easy setup, "Who Created That Monster?" takes an unexpected direction. Sci-fi is given a cursory nod, but the author's agenda seems to be... well, you just have to play it to get the point. Suffice it to say, you have to be inanely dense (or in too big a hurry) to miss the message (sorry, to anybody who may have drawn different conclusions than I did). Ultimately, Bobbie Joe Lavoro plays his (her?) part in answering the title question. It all comes together like clockwork: the new threat just waiting to be discovered, a shift in blame, and international appreciation for being a good little puppet. While Bobbie does the fist-pump of triumph, somewhere, important people are probably pointing, smirking, sharing a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

     I'm curious to find out if this author entered the contest under a pseudonym.

     This is where things get tricky for me in scoring this game. This isn't my "wow" game (although it's probably going to be for others), so it's not a 10 for me. A 9.0 would mean I liked almost everything about it, but the plot (rather, the "point" of the game) seems to put me at odds with the author. Basing it lower than an 8.0 does the game an injustice, by my scoring system. It's a great game (considered strictly AS a game), but in a "genre I don't personally favor" (see the info about my 8.0 base) -- the genre being global political satire. It's not that I'm close-minded; I just [SNIP]. (Several lines of ranting, none of which have any bearing on the game or the review, were removed in a follow-up edit.)

     Then again, I could be reading way too much into the author's message. It's a thought- provoking game, and one that's sure to strike a chord, be it positive or negative, with many judges. I'll take it as purely entertaining, and skew it +1.0 for being fun, solid, multi-layered, and nearly (if not entirely) flawless.

Game #19: Bellclap, by Tommy Herbert
Played On: 10/14/04 (7:00 PM to 7:40 PM)
Unofficial Score: 8.5 (8.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     "Bellclap" marks the halfway point in my attempt to play and review every competition entry (I already played the two that are no longer participating, mine doesn't count, so that's 18 on either side of the middle). This is one of the shortest yet (Ninja v1.30 still leads in brevity). From the start, it's clear that this game is something different. Primary play is in third-person. As the player, you're first-person, and the narrator can be referenced in second-person. It seemed awkward at first, but it doesn't take long to get used to the idea.

     Depending on how frustrated you get, this may or may not be an easy game. It's the third I solved without hints or a walkthrough, so maybe my adventure-muscle is getting a little stronger than it was before. Anyway, I received one good ending after thirty minutes, did an undo to follow the tip for the second ending (five minutes), then went through from the start using the walkthrough (another five minutes) just to see if I missed anything else. The walkthrough illustrates that this game has multiple paths to a solution (because what I did was a little different), even though it's all effectively the same result.

     With only a brief amount of play, I had high hopes that "Bellclap" was going to be that "wow" game I've been hoping for. When the clouds were parted and that one star was visible, I was really convinced that the game was about to take off for a surprise twist. I could just imagine what was coming next -- Bellclap the shepherd, with a clear invitation to Bethlehem. In fact, I was already thinking of ways to assert my clever conclusion into the forthcoming review, when moments later, I won.

     It's a short but solid game, with very few flaws (I'll list what I found momentarily). With a little more thought, the concept could have been something more than it is. It's a good game -- I don't mean to imply otherwise -- but the three-layered gameplay could have been extended into a longer story. Even a double- or triple-sized game would have fit within the two-hour guideline, and the premise could have been put to even better use. My notes are shorter for this game than for any other so far, and the map I started wasn't necessary after all. It's a three-room game.

     I found a few glitches, but nothing to dent the rating. When returning to the temple from above, the room description still indicates that Bellclap entered through the southern archway. Bellclap can hit himself with the hammer, to no ill effect. In regards to the task necessary for the ideal ending, the command that works "...to hatch" doesn't work "...to roof" -- I considered the hatch the splinters of broken wood, not the opening itself.

     The "about" command (darn me for not thinking to add an "about" verb to my entry) lists quite a few beta testers, and it shows. On my scale, it's an 8.0 base -- a good game, I just wish it had continued for a little longer. I'll skew it +0.5 for creative use of a three-tiered concept, and for giving meaning and reason for the game interface itself.

Game #20: Zero, by William A. Tilli (Santoonie Corp)
Played On: 10/14/04 (8:45 PM to 10:15 PM and 10:30 PM to 10:40 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.0 (6.5 base with -0.5 skew)

     More and more, it seems that I'm second-guessing my own ranking guidelines. In considering an appropriate score, I ask myself why one game should rank lower than a less solid game, or higher than one with a better story. I also consider what the other authors will think, perhaps seeing their game rank higher than one they themselves believe to be superior, or more likely, scoring lower than another game they strongly disliked. Judges with more experience may find it easier to dish out criticism, and to rank such a large set of games in order from best to worst. My goals aren't as complicated. Each game stands alone. Each game is considered on its own merit. Each score, while unavoidably influenced by idle comparison to prior games, is my attempt to provide an honest and immediate opinion. All I can do is go by instinct: what works for me in a game, and what doesn't.

     "Zero" begins well. The setup is entertaining. It isn't especially difficult once you follow the tips in the help screen. Each success opens another option, and you only need to retrace your steps to obtain the next piece, and the next, and the next. The writing is good, but at times, it seemed the author may have been attempting to write above his own proficiency level. I could be mistaken, but from a few misused phrases and obvious sentence fragments, that was my impression. Even so, the story was entertaining, and I appreciated the humor.

     As always, skip this paragraph to avoid the bug report. A "fowl" is a bird; something "foul" is offensive or revolting. A black "suit" is on the stone? If that was intentional, I admit I've never heard the term used that way. The king's portrait was very dark on my monitor. In fact, all but a small splotch appeared black, until I clipped it into PSP and brightened it. "...like a bit farce..." -- should this be "like a big farce" or maybe "a bit farcical?" In "day end and day out", did you mean "day in..." instead? A web search shows results for either, but the latter is the form I'm familiar with. The northern ending doesn't actually end -- no score is printed after "The End", and the endgame options list does not appear.

     Numerous objects are simply unimplemented. It's easy to overlook a few, or miss every possible reference, but in "Zero" it seemed more noticeable throughout (bunkbeds, headboard, etc). This became especially evident in the northern and southern endings -- the northern ending in particular, where it seems impossible to interact with the guard at all. For that matter, I couldn't seem to interact with Zero's comrade, either. I realize and appreciate that these are just paths to the endings, but it took an interactive game and made it two-dimensional. In a way, I'm glad that a large new world didn't open up, but still, more interaction along these paths would have been welcomed. It sort of felt like the author just gave up. Prior to leaving, it's a little unclear on what you have to do. I was told to leave, yet couldn't, despite having cleaned up the place. It worked only after I took what RatFac brought and/or when I wore the three pieces of armor. I was further confused because Lambert seemed not to exist at all. "Zero" skews down a half-point because it seemed like the author lost interest in his own game.

     Then again, it could have been a rush to finish by the deadline. I definitely know the feeling, because I went through it myself. "Zero" isn't as strong as some of the other competition entries, but it isn't a bad game either. The use of graphics (love the guestbook), fonts and colors are a plus, but not enough to bump the score.

Game #21: The Great Xavio, by Reese Warner
Played On: 10/16/04 (10:15 PM to 11:20 PM)
Continued On: 10/17/04 (9:25 AM to 10:35 AM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (no skew)

     I would have liked to have finished this game in one sitting. Playing late at night really added to the setting. Usually when I can't finish in one session, it's only a short break. This wasn't the game's fault -- I simply got started on it too late last night.

     "The Great Xavio" is a really good game. I went beyond the two hour mark by a cumulative fifteen minutes, and it was mainly because I missed one thing (the thing I needed to do at the docks). Oddly enough, I had done the same thing elsewhere, earlier, to find the (useless?) lost room key. On second thought, it might not have been useless. Had I not obtained a room of my own, the lost key might have opened the gym door. Still, what's found inside seemed to have no use. Oh well. I could go on about what-ifs for a while, including the necessity to get a room at all, when what's inside is used for only one possible solution to a puzzle. In fact, I was only able to get a room when I mistyped "cart" in asking Todd's opinion. It seems there may be two or three different ways to open the bathroom door of Xavio's suite; the point is, the author went that extra mile to make the game winnable in a variety of ways. I'm tempted to skew it +0.5 for that, but I think a flat 9.0 score is well-deserved for a very strong entry.

     If you've been thorough, you may feel like a packrat by the end of the game. It's always frustrating to have limits on what items you can carry at once, since much of the time you won't know what you need to keep on-hand. Reese imposes no such limitations in "The Great Xavio", which sacrifices realism to gain playability. Had it gone the other way, I can imagine the frustration in trying to determine what should be carried and what should be stashed away for later. Much of my ending inventory was comprised of things which either had no use, or may have been used for alternate solutions I simply didn't encounter.

     I'll list the few problems I found next (nothing to really detract from the overall experience), but first, I can't resist mentioning this any longer. Do any of you other authors notice things in each of the competition entries that tie back in some way to your own game? In just about every entry (although I haven't been keeping a complete list -- maybe I should have), some item or plot point or puzzle component is similar to something from my entry. It's actually kind of interesting to pick out what piece of the game is most like my own, and I wonder if other authors have done the same? In "The Great Xavio", a serving tray is the prime similarity. In "Identity" it was an arm/wrist device which can accept commands. One game (maybe Mingsheng) had stones "perfect for skipping." Multiple games have included card slots. "Gamlet" features a wheel that can be turned (although, if I recall, it had no purpose). Other examples aren't jumping readily to mind, but I'm sure that most of the games had other similarities.

     The writing is excellent, and the dialogue is great. Dr. Todd is quite a character. The problems I found were limited to implementation, not writing or story. An attempt to "get all" cycles through everything in a room (or at least it did where I tried it). When finding the caped man a second time, I attempted to ask Todd's opinion, and his reply was that he found the man puzzling (even though he was right there). Telling Max about the murder results in two quote marks starting his reply. These next two might be spoilers, but here goes. It's possible to enter Max's room even if the cart remains in the elevator. This leads to a couple of quirks, where Todd recommends we bring the cart with us when we leave (it isn't there), and you can direct Todd into it even if it's not there. When taking all four towels, the room description indicates towels are still on the table. When the cops go down to the first floor (it might not even be necessary for the solution), they will still "talk" in the bathroom. In the master bedroom, the bed is sometimes referred to by its object name ("MasterBedroomBed" in parenthesis) -- for example, when trying to search it. The phrase "an one thousand dollar bill" is used near the beginning, and again when looking inside the locker -- however, references to "a one dollar bill" are correct. When trying to "unlock bathroom door with (whatever)", the line "that doesn't seem to fit." Is shown immediately after the period of the prior line (I'm not sure it should be printed at all, or maybe a line break is needed). In several places, a blank line is missing after the text, before the command prompt appears ("x table" in the lobby is one example). When Todd pushes his glasses up on his nose, "x glasses" sees no such thing.

     In a game this detailed, though, a few problems are no surprise. None of these things posed a problem in winning. I only point them out in case the author is interested (like I will be) in releasing a post-comp update. Good writing makes a game much more vivid and realistic, and "The Great Xavio" succeeded wonderfully in drawing me into the game. Playing the first half later at night, when the game is set at 3:00 in the morning, probably helped. I think this game is going to do very well in the competition.

Game #22: Zero One, by Edward Plant
Played On: 10/17/04 (12:00 PM to 12:20 PM and 12:40 PM to 1:15 PM)
Unofficial Score: 5.5 (6.5 base with -1.0 skew)

     I admit, I started this game with low expectations. From the interesting comments in the "readme" file, to the initial room description (during my brief pre-play peek), the game seemed poised to disappoint. Once I began playing, and when I made some progress, I revised my opinion. It seemed to be a game with a very interesting story -- a plot that made me want to continue forward to see what would happen next. For a time, I thought I might have seriously misjudged the game.

     I did misjudge it, because it's better than my first impression, but at the end, I kind of thought to myself "hmmm." It doesn't really have an ending. It ends, and in a somewhat appropriate spot, but either the author plans a sequel, or he planned to expand this game (the "readme" says the source code is lost -- tip: flash drives are cheap now). An interesting suspense thriller (with bits of gore thrown in for good measure) just kind of drops cold. The game could be a 6 or a 7 (undecided, I based it at 6.5), but the total lack of plot resolution forces me to grudgingly skew it down a full point. I know nothing about the story except that a woman was killed, the bad guys are ambiguously homosexual, and I'm a research subject. Seeing the number on my forehead was a good touch (could it have been backwards?), but just another plot point that goes unresolved.

     The writing in "Zero One" isn't bad. I liked it, in fact. This was the first indication that the game might not be the 2 or 3 or 4 that I had predicted. It seemed like a budding survival horror game was just waiting to burst through, but it never really did.

     I'm going to mix in a few opinions with the following bug report. Some of these things weren't necessarily problems or bugs, but they did seem out of place. First, having the PC scream out when kicking open the double doors didn't fit the game. In this situation, his enthusiasm should have been subdued by caution. I was able to look "in" the coffee machine, and actually take the key that way. I was unable to get a second cup of coffee; the game insisted that I hadn't finished the first one, although I had. Shell casings in the hall will result in "you see no such thing" messages. The description of the interior of the helmet makes it rather disgusting to wear. The PC passes through a kitchen on the way to the point where the helmet is necessary. It would have been nice (and an additional puzzle) if the helmet had required a good cleaning first. A typo: "...oak door leading back to out to the corridor..." (the first "to" should be removed). It would be nice to have "gray" as a synonym for "grey" (one of my beta testers made me do the inverse for my entry, and I think small extras like this can make gameplay go all the more smoothly). The description of the kitchen says the lunchbox is on the counter, even after I've taken it and dropped it elsewhere. After "getting rid of" Terry, a clue indicates (at least, it seemed to indicate) that a better and less permanent solution might be found. I tried restoring the game, to throw hot coffee at him instead. It would have been a nice touch, but no such luck. At the end, when dealing with the padlock, why can't it simply assume which object I mean? I only have one that's suited to the task.

     Perhaps one of the most frustrating problems, and it really illustrates why I received the same complaint about one of my own games in the past, is that "Zero One" asks questions when it doesn't expect an answer. What I mean is, you can't disambiguate. When asked "which X do you mean?" (maybe not the exact wording, but you get the idea) you have to resubmit the complete command. Answering the question won't work. I grant that this is very likely a limitation of the Alan parser, but it's a shame. It's true -- IF players really can become accustomed to a certain type of interface, and a lack of it seems frustrating. To anyone I may have argued with regarding my past efforts, you have my sincere apology.

     Now that I'm not holding back on pointing out the interesting coincidences between each entry and my own, I made a note. In "Zero One" the portrait on the wall is the element that most directly corresponds to something from mine (in fact, a portrait on the wall).

     I enjoyed the game, but the abrupt ending leaves it flat and unresolved. Some of the puzzles are made easier by heeding the advice from "help" -- but I still missed a few important opportunities, such as inside the armory. I had to peek at the walkthrough here (and in fact, near the beginning), but most of it was solved unassisted. "Zero One" could have been much more than it is; it's a shame that it isn't.

Game #23: A Light's Tale, by VBNZ (Zach Flynn)
Played On: 10/17/04 (8:15 PM to 10:20 PM)
Unofficial Score: 5.5 (4.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     If I give this review as much attention as I should, it's going to stretch on for quite a while. The bug report section alone will be substantial. I'm starting to forget the brief introductory play I allowed myself when the games were first released. The intro brought it all back to me, and I remember thinking then that I was probably going to really enjoy this one. The intro was a good hook.

     Despite the low score, I did enjoy this game. At the same time, it frustrated me in places. Perhaps I'm reaching the "cranky" stage in the review process, having played twenty- three games with only fourteen more to go. It could also be that I spent almost as much time jotting down review notes as I did in actual game time. The game does have an epic feel -- epic potential, rather -- it just doesn't seem to make good use of the potential. It's an interesting story, in that you have been whisked away to a dream world of mice and gophers, where darkness threatens everything, and the forces of Good and Evil will pull you in two directions.

     If I was into drugs, I'd ask the author to share his secret. As it happens, I am not.

     The game is trippy. It's supposed to be trippy, but at the same time, isn't it supposed to make sense -- even if sense is injected later? I got the impression that the author had a change of plans two or three times during development, perhaps getting motivation and inspiration from other sources not originally part of the design. The irony is, it's a great concept. I haven't played anything like it. It's an experience, that's for sure. It deserves a full-point upward skew, but from a base of 4.5 (I was very tempted to base it at 5.0, but I was just as tempted to base it a point lower, hence the split), it still doesn't come in as strongly as many of the prior games I've played.

     The following section -- an enormous paragraph -- are the problems I noted. The word "to" is missing in "...from here you get have two choices." The line "...doesn't that sound weird." should end with a question mark. The "es" is missing from "possesses" in "...flashlight possess a great ability." Attempting to drop anything or show anything (to anybody) results in "[TADS-1014: 'abort' statement executed]" (I noticed it first, when trying to drop the mirror when I had the notion it might save me from the gophers). Add a space between "a" and "long" in "...quite along time now..." What are "diverse people groups"? The word "simply" has a typo in which the "y" is a "t" instead. Mary claims that the people at the bar are friendly, but she says so when they've been entirely the opposite. Attempting to climb the staircase says "...don't see any staircase here." I was able to get into the room with the herbs without the key. As a result, I received only one brandy (perhaps when I followed through for the second one, I didn't get it because I already had the first). However, even though I was told that I could exhale only once, I was able to exhale again without having another (found out through the walkthrough -- I didn't even try it later, because I didn't expect it to work -- and didn't have a second brandy). The puzzle with the sixteen cabinets can be cheated with "undo" fairly easily (no way around it since you can also save, aside from changing the nature of the puzzle). Too many UNDOs at the ICE cannon inverted the color scheme to black on white. With the yellow glowstick, wouldn't the red room turn purple? I was previously unable to shine glowsticks at things previously, which trained me to not even attempt it at the point where it worked (the hints file helped). I figured out the colored cabinets puzzle with only the three hints given, but it's another that's just as easy with UNDO. Although I sometimes do it myself (I shouldn't), it's generally bad to end a sentence with a preposition, as in "...to get to that bar you were at." (I suggest simplifying it as simply "...to return to the bar.") Once you obtain the crystal, the stairway becomes "a very very boring place." My only complaint there is that I don't want to BE in a boring place.

     These last three things aren't so much bugs or issues, as simply things that struck me as being out of place. First, the sudden death issue was probably more prominent in "A Light's Tale" than in any other COMP '04 entry I've yet to play. To reach the end, I used UNDO like it was a puzzle in itself, and I ultimately made ten different saves along the way, reverting back to one or another as I went (if not to buy more time before dying, then to review prior text for clues). I would suggest that instead of death, the player is sent back to a central location; it provides a penalty, but should save a little on frustration. Second, near the end, I was saved by the one NPC that upset me the most (I don't know how many times I tried giving flasgarry to the bar's owner -- I hadn't yet found the dying plant -- before resorting to the hints file for an answer). In short, it was impossible for me (as the player) to share in the PC's remorse. Lastly, the intro states that everything in the game is free, except the ideas. At the risk of launching a copyright debate, the ideas in a game are the one thing that you can't own. That's why copyright works. Otherwise, nobody could write about much of anything, because (as someone once said, long ago -- think biblical), "there is nothing new under the sun." An expression in fixed form -- your game, the representation of the characters, even the plot (if you can make a case of it) are the sole property of the author. The ideas... not so much.

     That concludes my notes. To reiterate, I liked this game, despite the problems. With some work (to the puzzles, to the story, to some of the writing), it could be a really great game. I hate to end on a negative note, but since this review won't be posted until all judges have already submitted final scores anyway, I suppose the harm is minimal. "A Light's Tale", for all that it could be, will be a low-ranker. You have a wonderful imagination, VBNZ. I think with a little more time, we'll see better examples of your work.

Game #24: All Things Devours, by Half Sick of Shadows
Played On: 10/18/04 (8:45 PM to 10:20 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.5 (9.0 base with +1.0 and -0.5 skews)

     In "All Things Devours" (not a typo, as it turns out), the author manages to target a sub-genre of sci-fi that I find especially appealing. Despite a few minor problems (including some frustrations with the time-based rush), it's a solid 9.0. I like the story, and I think it makes great use of the concept (+1.0 skew), but I did get a little frustrated at times (-0.5 skew). That's still an amazing 9.5, making it one of my favorites from the competition. I especially liked the opening line: "You're in." I expected "...a room with..." to follow, then I got it. Clever, clever.

     The author was concerned that the game might not be winnable in two hours, but I managed it well enough (without going to the website for hints, until after I had won). The clues given when you die make it possible to try, try again. In any other setting, this might be a problem -- a game should be winnable without relying on post mortem clues, right? However, even though it doesn't directly tie into the story, it's easy to make it fit, with a little imagination. I also liked that "undo" works (as always), but isn't necessarily a cure-all to puzzle-solving. It's difficult to cite examples without spoiling the game.

     In this game, it is possible to get stuck. It's possible to save in any number of unwinnable situations. It's possible to die -- repeatedly. But, aside from the frustration of it (which simply serves as motivation, at least for this game), it works. I had to restart four times, and I reloaded even more prior saves. The author does a good job of making logical puzzles, although much of it does rely on the experience of prior attempts.

     The author's website mentions the "enter door" missing object bug, so I won't go into detail about that ("undo" fixes it). I was able to lock the Deutsch lab door with the key found inside, even though I didn't have to unlock it to begin with (this will make more sense when you play to that point). The "get all" commands seems to cycle through everything -- I see this quite a bit in other games, too. The word "is" is missing from "...prototype itself a six foot..." When I'm racing the clock, it would be nice if certain commands didn't count against me (for instance, "about" takes up time) -- Hugo calls these "xverbs". When putting batteries into the flashlight, it seems they're loaded into the one on the bench instead of the one in your inventory (again, you have to get there to understand it) -- easily worked around by leaving the room first, or (probably) by taking the other with you. One situation that wasn't handled is that I left the light on in the first floor maintenance room, and presumably it would have been noticed during my lengthy wait at the balcony window (I'm positive the light was switched on before the alarm).

     My solution was a little different than the walkthrough. I actually made the alarm work to my advantage, and it made for a long wait followed by a quick follow-up with no time at all to spare. I should have started a transcript on it -- it's an interesting alternative.

     With some of the entries, I have tried to predict how well the game will do overall. I really enjoyed "All Things Devours", but my suspicion is that it's going to frustrate many of the real judges. I hope enough of them are able to stick it out and think it through, because I believe this game deserves a high ranking in the results.

     FOLLOW-UP: I emailed the author, and he pointed out that some of the problems I found weren't really problems. In particular, I didn't need to turn out the light in the first floor maintenance room, because I didn't turn it on the second time. Also, I confused one key for the other, forgetting that the key to the lab was already in my inventory at the start of the game. It's a complex game, and I fault myself for making these errors.

Game #25: The Big Scoop, by Johan Berntsson
Played On: 10/19/04 (1:30 PM to 3:25 PM)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (7.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     My first experience with Interactive Fiction was many years ago -- a game called "The Arconiax Assignment" (or something very similar), which was a "scratch-and-sniff" adventure game published by Rainbow Magazine for the TRS-80/CoCo computers. I remember playing another one, dealing with puzzles in a lighthouse, and another, in a dungeon. I don't remember the details, I only remember the experience of "being" in the game. At the time, it was really amazing to be pulled into another world, in a deeper way than just reading a book. Even short descriptions were vivid and engrossing.

     You may be thinking "what does any of that have to do with The Big Scoop?" Well... nothing, directly, but playing this game reminded me of why I liked these games to begin with. These days, since I haven't played regularly in years, it's easy to forget how fun adventure games can be. I'm usually distracted by one thing or another. It isn't easy to sit down and focus on the playing and the reading and the solving, and I think this detracts from the enjoyment. In "The Big Scoop", some of this came back to me. The puzzles felt like achievements, and I needed the hints in only two or three areas.

     The game does have a few problems, but as I continue to work on a post-comp follow-up to mine, it becomes more difficult for me to weigh these factors into the score (I cringe to think how poorly it'll place, now that I'm up to fifty-four bugs and typos in the competition version, including one or two that are obscure but substantial). But, this is a review of "The Big Scoop" -- sorry for straying from the topic not once, but twice now.

     The game has an interesting (if frustrating) beginning, in which you play as an eventual NPC, only becoming the "main character" after making an escape. Maybe it has been done before -- I'd be surprised, otherwise -- but it seemed clever and original to me. The introduction isn't difficult, but it seems that way at first. It's harder because your time is limited. I had to reload and restart several times (I lost count) before gaining a good enough understanding of the events to make an escape.

     I managed this part without the walkthrough or hints, but this is where things get weird. Because the game seemed to be in a no-win situation later, I had to restart and do something a little differently. However, what I did the first time wouldn't work. I swear it did the first time -- I may have let my lack of attention see phantom bugs in "All Things Devours", but I'm pretty sure on this one. I opened the wardrobe, went inside, closed it, and waited. When I exited, I was able to leave through the front door. This isn't how the walkthrough goes. I can understand multiple solutions, but I simply could not get the same thing to work when I restarted. I tried multiple times, and the length time I waited (Z'd) never seemed to matter. I'd be caught upon leaving the wardrobe. It's as if this was never supposed to work to begin with -- but I promise, it did.

     I had to restart, however, because the game seemed to be in a no-win state. In several other games, I've missed a clue or an item because I wasn't thorough. So, I have a policy to do more searching now -- even before there is reason to feel stuck. Much of the time, it works -- I'm rewarded with something I would probably have missed. So, when I found something in the apartment, I felt like I was already ahead of the game.

     Later, you're required (as the main character) to return to the apartment to find this very thing. The problem for me was, it wasn't there. I tried for a while, even searching outside the apartment in what seemed to be a likely place, but no luck. I referred to the walkthrough at this point. What I found was, I was supposed to have escaped the apartment using an alternate method. My guess is, because I didn't, Linda kept the item, but since that was never supposed to happen, the story continues as if the search is still necessary. Only, it isn't there to be found. I restarted, escaped as instructed by the walkthrough, and that solved it. I tried once with the item in inventory, too, and it was lost a second time (the author did anticipate that, and it seems to be handled). I didn't continue down that route, so it's possible the item might have turned up in another place. Instead, I made sure not to touch the item at all during the path I continued, so I would have no doubt as to its location when I arrived back at that point in the game.

     From there, everything went fine, until I was stuck trying to open a door using the four- digit code supplied by Linda. I just wasn't sure if this was another loophole, or if I was supposed to find an alternate solution. I checked the walkthrough, and confirmed the latter. It was a clever puzzle; I wish I had tried a little longer on it before assuming the worst. And, from there, I reached the end (with a full 100 points, no less) without additional hints or walkthrough-peeks. I admit, I came close when we became locked in the cellar. Somehow, I figured it out, and kudos to the author on a short but good puzzle.

     I found a few other problems, which I mention as a means (as always) of providing feedback to the author for use in an updated version. The phrase "...a eight year..." should use "an" instead. When pressing numbers one at a time (at the door to the corridor), the "1" in my code would not work because the game assumed I was talking about "one" (as a quantity) of the last item I referenced (in other words, "Press 1" will say "(the door) It is fixed in place."). Thinking early on that part of the solution was to turn off the phone, I tried it. The message in reply says the phone is already off, but it couldn't have been, since it was ringing. It would be nice if "keys" was a synonym for the key ring, since you don't need to refer to them individually anyway. When trying to look at anything inside the wardrobe while the door is closed, the message (giving the definition of "darkness") should be reworded -- "an absence of light to see by" just seems awkward. I tried to call 911. The game thought I was trying to call myself. Having "board" as an additional synonym for "plank" would be handy -- I kept referring to it by the mental image I had formed, instead of by the author's description.

     I based this game 7.0 on my scale (it's a good game, but I think more descriptive text might be helpful, and the writing could be improved), but I added half a point (+0.5 skew) because it has that old school feel. "The Big Scoop" reminds me of why I first started playing Interactive Fiction, and why I'm becoming interested in it yet again.

Game #26: Typo, by Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn
Played On: 10/19/04 (6:35 PM to 7:00 PM and 7:10 PM to 7:45 PM)
Unofficial Score: 8.0 (no skew)

     Unless I'm mistaken, "Typo" is the first game that doesn't require any mapping. Despite the initial "what am I supposed to do now?" confusion, it's a pretty short game. I probably would have finished even quicker, except that I was doomed to distraction (the phone, emails of sudden importance, etc). I took a quick break, once I realized these distractions were disturbing my enjoyment of the game.

     When I first peeked at this game the evening the competition package became available, I thought it looked interesting. It features a clever gimmick which, while not perfect, is still a source of amusement. The plot is built around this gimmick, and gameplay is built around the ultimate gadget (it's a gadget-game at heart). The index system in the Field Service Manual was hard to get used to, after playing with something very similar in "Square Circle". The "...in manual" part wasn't optional, and (unless I missed it) it isn't possible to read the contents of the index. Still, once I figured it out, I didn't have a problem reading about what I needed to know. With that solved, it was only a matter of noting what every piece does, putting things in order, and setting the machine to work.

     I solved it without checking the hints. However, I probably wouldn't have except a mistake in the Typo system gave me an unexpected break. At one point, "X Pages" was corrected to "X East." Later, a similar correction on "X Street" offered the solution on what to do with the stray plug-in wire. If not for that, I might have remained stuck, resorting to the hints file.

     I found very few problems with the game, although I didn't try very many typo responses on purpose (a few -- and it was fun -- but not many). The problems I did find are more to do with the interpreter and less to do with the game, I believe. Inform's "get all" quirk is here in full force, when I tried to take everything from the cabinet that way. (Does it not allow an "exclude_from_all" equivalent for objects?) I have a habit of shortening commands wherever possible -- "turn off blue" asks if I mean the blue switch or the blue indicator light, but when I answer "switch", the game believed I was starting a new command in which "switch" is the verb. Not a big thing -- just an interesting quirk.

     The ending -- or rather, the events leading up to the ending -- had me anxious for more. I expected that another part of the game was about to open. For a moment, I thought maybe the entire gadget-puzzle was just the lead-in to another part of the story: Man against Machine, a battle of wits and endurance. As it turns out, this is just an elaborate ending. I don't mean that in a negative way. I'm disappointed that the game wasn't longer, but it sure beats a "you did it -- the end" kind of ending.

     It's was a fun, solid, enjoyable hour of gameplay. I liked "Typo", and it would be nice to know what I needed to accomplish for that final point. I'm scoring the game an 8.0, and unless the puzzle frustrates too many judges, it should do well in the competition.

Game #27: Blue Chairs, by Chris Klimas
Played On: 10/19/04 (8:30 PM to 10:35 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.5 (8.5 base with +1.5 skew and -0.5 skews)

     For the second time, I have taken a break between playing the game and writing the review -- this time, it's now the following morning. With twenty-seven down and only ten more to go, it's getting very difficult to rank them, let alone pick three favorites for the "Miss Congeniality" authors' vote. I don't know if others will agree, but this seems like a year for some very strong entries, and some very enjoyable play.

     I finished it (for multiple endings) without the hints or walkthrough. I looked at both after the fact, because I was certain I missed something. I did miss a few things, but I managed to find many of the nine endings (including the early ones), including a few things not covered by the walkthrough. I have a few questions, such as what would have happened if I had mailed the letter instead of opening it? Would it have impacted any of the possible endings? I found the fortune, but it's gone at the point where the walkthrough suggests reading the additional information printed on it.

     The writing in "Blue Chairs" is exceptional. The story, although a little confusing even in retrospection, is also top-notch. I believe it's probably open for some interpretation, and I'll offer mine later in this review. Before I continue, though, I should explain the score. I was tempted to give the game a 10.0 base, at first. It's so involving and thought- provoking, that I can't help but think an even deeper level of understanding will present itself to players more astute than myself. Where "A Light's Tale" didn't quite work for me in its attempt at surrealism, "Blue Chairs" does. I just couldn't decide if it was an excellent game, my "wow" game, because I was never quite sure I "got it" all. At the same time, it wasn't a wannabe. The author knows how to weave a tale, even if I'm uncertain as to whether or not I fully understood it. I have based it at 8.5 (which is very likely too low), with a +1.5 skew (because I could not stop playing, I was so focused, even when my wife was urging me to give it a rest and come to bed). It completely drew me in. I've added an additional -0.5 skew, which I feel guilty about, for the excessive profanity. No, I'm not a prude, it's just a matter of preference. In "Blue Chairs," the strong language works, and it's even realistic in the story. It's the same reason other games might be docked by other authors for including music and/or graphics. It's possible that "Blue Chairs" wouldn't pack the same punch without it, but I think it would be just as strong an entry if it had been toned down somewhat.

     Now, it's time for speculation. A few times, I tried going down one path, only to back up and try another. As a result, some of what I tried wasn't actually factored into the "final" course that led to my ending(s). What stands out, in particular, is that I attempted to drive the car, before finding a ride. What happened then is a strong clue for the opinions I have formed about the story, although I restored a save and continued the story without ever having driven away. Perhaps I shouldn't have, but it proves that the section I saw, while adding to my understanding, was optional. I did what I was warned not to (near the end), backed up, and continued on the longer path for a different ending.

     The clues to make sense of it all may exist, and I missed them. Or, maybe I've misinterpreted them. Maybe my understanding of the story is nothing like what the author intended. Maybe it really is open for interpretation, with no clear indication of what really happened and why. It's hard to talk about it without spoiling the story, but for those of you who have played it, I think some discussion on the story is warranted.

     Skip ahead to "Okay, that's all..." if you have not yet played "Blue Chairs."

     I think this game has a Photopian feel (although I haven't played "Photopia" in years -- just my vague impression). What I mean is, it's meant to evoke an emotional response. The story is multi-layered. Understanding comes from multiple (optional) paths, and possibly from repeat plays (after finishing, watching the brief intro again shed some light on the events). It's not always clear what's real and what isn't, because reality is colored and shaded by Dante's state of mind, and because dreams sometimes take over completely. I could be completely nuts, or I could be stating the obvious, but I think "Blue Chairs" is partially a ghost story. Dante takes a drug that's promised to provide the best dream of his life. This puts him in touch with his lost love, who reaches out to every cell phone in the vicinity in search of him. She was the victim of a recent house fire (here's where my understanding gets even more speculative). While Dante finds a way to Beatrice, he dreams -- sometimes his own, but sometimes hers, and sometimes reality just seems like a dream. When he finds her, he has a choice: follow her, or don't. What's learned in the optional section I mentioned earlier comes into play here. She has predicted this moment.

     Alternately, Dante's drug-induced dreaming could be a connection with things yet to happen, although I doubt this, because the author makes a point to insist that certain parts are real (outside the convenience store), and certain parts are not. Still, some clues seem to suggest that what was experienced in the dream are simply future events. I lean more towards my first theory, however.

     Okay, that's all... end of the spoilers and plot speculation.

     As for bugs, I only have a few notes. It's either very bug-free, or it was simply so entertaining and able to keep me on the right path, that I didn't really look for problems. A typo in the hints shows "ypu can't proceed..." Asking Chris about the book results in blank text (ah, the woes of blank text). One sentence, starting with "it's sort of warm in here..." doesn't begin with a capital "I" although it should. I tried sitting on the blue chairs in the basement of the office building, but got a default "that isn't something..." message. In the kitchen with the girl, attempting to "say" the word that answers her question follows with a weird result line -- "(to the girl(party_alice))".

     But for every bug, it seems "Blue Chairs" features ten more unexpected positive responses or handlers. Attempting to push the bookcase doesn't just say "you can't push that." The back-stories for the characters in the supermarket maze were a nice touch (if a tad disturbing). When moving through different rooms of the party house, the music is almost a living entity, perfectly described in a "you are there" kind of way. The game features a trick similar to one found in "Typo", in that the game alters your responses in a portion of the beginning, to better fit with Dante's likely reactions to the phone call. The introductory ASCII screens are a great touch, and I recommend viewing them a second time after finishing the game.

     I'm anxious to hear the opinions of other players. "Blue Chairs" has a strong chance of winning the competition, provided the judges are open-minded. I expect a few judges won't get it at all, and it'll receive low marks as a result. But I think that's going to be the exception, not the norm. I wouldn't be at all surprised if other post-competition reviews cite this as the best story in the competition, complete with the best writing, marking it as one of their only 10's (if not the only one). I'm a little disheartened, really. All modesty aside, and the numerous minor problems in my entry notwithstanding, I've been holding onto hope that my game is solid, original, and well-written enough for a chance at a high finish. "Blue Chairs" really dashes those lingering hopes. Good luck, Chris Klimas. I think you have a winner. Great game!

Game #28: Ruined Robots, by nanag_d (N and G Dudek)
Played On: 10/20/04 (8:20 PM to 9:50 PM)
Unofficial Score: 4.0 (3.0 base with +1.0 skew)

     First, the good. It's science fiction, and there are robots. It has the potential to be a really interesting, entertaining story. The authors put quite a bit of work into the game -- it's a large game, with several places to visit and many things to see.

     Now, the bad. Before I launch into this, I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to discourage the Dudeks from further efforts. In some games, the text is iffy but the game is solid -- probably written by someone who's native language isn't English. I think you have to give some slack for that. After all, I couldn't write passable text in any other language. However, it isn't just the text, in "Ruined Robots." The game starts out pretty solid, but it goes downhill quickly. Parsing is a problem (which is a surprise -- TADS is a major IF tool, after all). Grammar and typos are problems. Movement is a problem. Logic is a problem. I suspect the authors are pretty young, not foreign.

     I visited the Dudek website mentioned in the "about" text (just now, in fact), and I think I understand now. That would also explain about the robots. I think the game was written by "N" with inspiration from "G", and with the support and encouragement of the whole family. I think that's great. Having a family that seemed proud of my games, as a kid, is what helped me to improve, study programming, and make a career of it. I imagine they're all wishing you luck in the competition. You spent a lot of time on your game, and you're anxious for the results. I only wish the results were more positive than they're likely to be. Your game is probably going to rank low, but I hope it doesn't discourage you from improving "Ruined Robots". My page is crammed full of notes about your game, and hopefully you'll find it useful for an updated version.

     After about an hour of play, I started over with the walkthrough. I spent about thirty minutes using the walkthrough, and what stands out is that you didn't edit it. Several times, the walkthrough takes a wrong turn, or enters an incorrect command which has to be corrected. It looks like you turned on the logging feature in TADS, played through it, but didn't clean up the log file once you finished. I actually wasn't able to finish, even with the walkthrough. I got stuck in the shopping district. It wasn't for lack of trying. I really wanted to reach the end. Something with the dog and the memory stick, and then I couldn't get the walkthrough to follow the game.

     I'll list general bugs shortly, but first, a few specific ones. The map for the first portion of the game (the cabins around the lake) is difficult to follow. What I mean is, you can go down from the lake-view to the beach, but when you go back up, you're on the balcony. You can go southeast from the living room, but to return, you have to go west. North from the parking lot leads to the forest, but you can't return south, you have to go west. I would recommend plotting the map out logically. With a grid of circle, connect lines in any of the eight directions, and make sure (for instance) if a line north actually represents "up", that you allow for "down" to return from the upper room. You can usually fit your game into a logical map, without losing any realism.

     Some of the puzzles in the game seem too difficult. I don't think this was intentional -- there are times when the answer is actually shown ("liffie, follow me" or "diamand marks by the keyhole" -- these things are clued well enough). Other times, though, it doesn't seem logical at all. The red spherical robot will kill you (because it explodes) if you hit it with the hammer -- it even warns that it's explosive -- yet you have to put it into the fireplace to solve the puzzle. If a hint was available for this, I completely missed it. I never would have thought to try it. I did well at first, getting the glue off my hands after taking the glue stick, but that didn't seem to lead anywhere. It was the makings of a clever puzzle, but it just wasn't taken any further.

     Some kind of problem with the robotic beaver causes him to add one message to his chatter, instead of saying a different message each time. After a few attempts at interaction with him, and by leaving the room and coming back a few times, you'll find that the little guy just spouts off long lists of things. This makes it difficult to read the room description, and see whatever else might be happening there.

     In the intro to the game, the player is looking for relaxation. This quickly turns into the desire to go adventuring, as the game gets started. The help text (possibly only after reaching a certain point, but I'm not sure) says your goal is to take over the world. It doesn't seem like an intuitive goal based on the PC's original motives.

     Now, here is a very long list of other quirks, ranging from typos to unimplemented objects to just plain weird (and possibly unintentional) features. When my inventory was full, I only needed to eat one cookie in order to pick up the sledge hammer. The beaver examines a tree, but when I tried, it says no such thing exists. The artwork is a nice addition, but it's random and inconsistent -- just a few scenes of varying styles (some large, some small, some color, some black & white), and only in a few places. It isn't winter, but there is a snowman. Perhaps it was a robotic snowman? I wasn't quite sure. The beaver comments on the weather, and he also comments that nobody asks him anything. Guess what I tried. Guess what didn't work. Why is "Hearth" capitalized? Why are the directions (North, etc) capitalized? Those things don't need to be. Why is there a Christmas tree icon showing on the balcony? You might want to add "sack" as a synonym for "knapsack". The line "one the side..." should be "on the side..." The game refers to "your The hands" when warming off the glue. Should "...with risk of having trees cut down" be "without" instead? I tried to get and look at the sign in the forest, but it doesn't really exist. Why was the auto-vac sucking up dust on the beach? I was confused by the line "...but it just such a tradition..." It might be more fitting to change the description of the clothes in the bedrooms (sometimes self-referencing text in a game can be clever, but my recommendation is to avoid it in your game). You can hit the robot with the hammer (this, right from the walkthrough), even though you don't pick up the hammer. "In an mouth" should use the article "a" instead. The graphic of the living room is a little difficult to see (black and white, small, and kind of dark). "His glace" should be "glance." Referencing the fireplace will ask "which fireplace do you mean? The Hearth or the merry fire?" Oddly enough, you can't answer "merry" because the word is unrecognized. I think you have a stray "s" and possibly a missing word or two in "...wind makes s difficult..." What are "parts robots"? The hole in the floor (living room, start of the game) seems to serve no purpose, and can't even be referenced. I scored 133 out of 501, and was classified "expert adventurer" -- was that right? After "...with effort, you paddle along..." the next room title seems to drop right in without a gap and without standard bolding. At one point, I was asked "did you call her by whistling?" On a whim, I tried whistling at the "her" this was regarding, and it isn't a supported verb. Once the roboelf start following me (as per the walkthrough), he wouldn't stop. He actually followed me around in the shopping district until I got stuck and ultimately gave up. I believe if you eat the "old" sandwich before the "spinich" sandwich, you'll be stuck inside Standy's with no way out other than to UNDO. I was able to take the tuna sandwich with me, but after dropping it and trying to get it again, the game said I would have to buy it (I was out on the street with it, by then). In the bedrooms, the line "...an some old clothes in it..." doesn't seem right (plus, I think you meant "and" instead of "an"). At the rental, the line "It seems like it's been lost..." appears, without actual any actual reference to the robot. The following text, explaining how to get her to follow, makes it clear, but I think a line is missing somewhere up above. Trying to reference the keyhole (probably the one with diamonds) says it doesn't exist. I tried to climb onto the table in the dining room. The game didn't "recognize that sentence." Using the walkthrough, I arrive at a place called "gapwest". It sounds like the internal reference for a room name, but if not, shouldn't the "g" be capitalized (as the name of a place)? Although I didn't make it to the ending, I did find the note, and it mentions cleaning the telescope lends. I saw nothing of the sort in the walkthrough, beyond the part where I was stuck. The "s" is missing on "serves" in the line "...robot animal serve to remind you..." Putting the battery into the flashlight should add a space before "Done" (it runs right after the period in the previous sentence). Start "A open messy glue stick..." with "an" instead, and maybe add a comma after "open" (I'm horrible at the proper usage of commas, but that one stands out at me). A word is repeated (I think the second instance should probably have been "was") in "...once once a fancy model..." At the lakeview cottage, it seems the door and even the cottage itself aren't objects that can be referenced.

     When I had my initial peek at the game, back on October 1st, I didn't give the writing much consideration. It simply seemed like an interesting story, and one I expected to finish with high marks. Even though I have to give the author credit for writing such a large game, I think a better option would have been to write a smaller game. Then, the time and talent might not have been spread so thinly. Also, bugs may make it into a game despite the best efforts of all involved, but I'm not sure this entry was beta tested at all. Next year (you should definitely try again, but practice first by improving "Ruined Robots"), I'd recommend that you write a game that covers a smaller area. Be sure to have friends or family (or anybody willing to help) test it for you, so the large number of problems I found just in an hour and a half of play are less likely to cause low marks. I based the game at 3.0 on my scale, but because I liked the premise (and I think the author has talent just waiting to grow), I have added a +1.0 skew to the unofficial score.

Game #29: Goose, Egg, Badger, by Brian Rapp
Played On: 10/21/04 (12:10 PM to 2:05 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.0 base with +1.0 skew)

     Brian Rapp's game is unique (at least in my not-so-extensive experiences with modern Interactive Fiction) in several ways. First, the multi-layered reality, through which you can move forwards and backwards, is very interesting. Second, Hope has urges, and these are things you can examine for tips on what to accomplish next. Third, the author uses a design gimmick, which is revealed in portions of the built-in tips and in the second walkthrough. I probably wouldn't have noticed this otherwise, and the game would have ranked 8.5 on my scale. I dropped half a point from the base, because it seems the game is mainly a vehicle for this design gimmick (the story is secondary), but because the gimmick appears to be so cleverly integrated beside the lesser solution (I scored 79 points out of 100 in the path I took), the implementation deserves the upward skew.

     The credits list numerous beta testers, and it shows. I noticed no flaws in the writing, and very few things that might be considered bugs. My notes show that the ape covers his ears when I'm singing, even though sometimes he wasn't there with me (this seemed to be immediately after finding him, and then returning to the north). It might be nothing. I've been known to misinterpret things before, seeing phantom bugs.

     Continuing the somewhat spooky coincidences that link some aspect of each competition entry to mine, Hope is wearing a watch that has sentimental value (because it was her father's, in fact). Either I wasn't very original, or else all the other competition authors peeked at my entry and decided to divide up the various components among them.

     Speaking of coincidences, this is the... hmmm, I have no idea how many now... but it's one of many games to begin with the protagonist waking up (I've done it too -- just seems to be an excessive amount of sleeping going on this year). I'm not the only one to notice it, I think. One guy emailed me about my entry (so far, only the one), and he made the same comment. Somebody else mentioned an interesting similarity between many of the entries (on R.G.I-F), and I bet this is what he meant.

     I can't really say much else about "Goose, Egg, Badger." I kind of thought it would turn out to be an elaborate version of the old logic puzzle -- take everything across the river one at a time (although the components don't really fit that). It's a puzzle game, and sometimes the solutions seem pretty obscure (I requested in-game hints several times). It's a good game, though, and the innovative gimmicks make it memorable.

Game #30: Blue Sky, by Hans Fugal
Played On: 10/21/04 (2:45 PM to 3:25 PM)
Unofficial Score: 8.0 (no skew)

     I haven't been to Santa Fe, but I have the impression the author has, and was inspired to write "Blue Sky" after the visit. Then again, it could just be convincingly descriptive fiction. While I doubt the author really led a camel down the streets of Santa Fe, sold an abandoned piece of turquoise, or snuck into St. Francis Cathedral disguised as a friar, I wonder if the story was inspired by real events?

     "Blue Sky" is descriptive and very well written. The puzzles aren't difficult (although I did need a hint one time when I couldn't find the tour group). It isn't a long game, either. The story is simple. As a tourist, you overslept and missed your tour. You simply have to track down the group to finish the game (I did so with 9 out of 10 points, leaving me curious about the point I missed). The purpose of the game, by my reasoning, isn't even to finish it (although that is, of course, the goal). The journey is the reward, I think. Through the protagonist's eyes and the author's expressiveness, you (as the player) get a short vacation in scenic Santa Fe.

     The game is solid, with very few problems. The most substantial is probably that you can drop the ticket inside the chapel, and unless you immediately UNDO (because you are limited to one at a time), you can't return. Why, you may ask, would a person even try that? I won't answer. The sentence "...touring Santa Fe with." ends with a preposition (that's probably a nit-pick -- perhaps I've watched "B&B Do America" once too often). The sentence "You are after all a tourist" should end in a period, and it should be within the parenthesis. In the chapel, the benches and the altar are unimplemented scenery. The word "beautiful" is missing its first "u". And... that's about it.

     To predict where "Blue Sky" will place in the competition, I'd have to say, about midway. It's a solid game, a little on the short side, kind of wedged in between several games with more involving storylines (on the high side) and several games that are too difficult, frustrating, or buggy (on the low side).

Game #31: I Must Play, by Geoff Fortytwo
Played On: 10/22/04 (8:30 PM to 10:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +1.0 and -0.5 skews)

     So, I'm nearing the end of my play list, and I'm still having a blast with the entries. This time, as a kid on a mission, I Must Play several cleverly disguised video games to compete for the high score (essentially, by winning each one). Each game is based on a classic. Looking for early clues to identify what it is you're playing is as much fun as figuring out how to win. I would even say that identifying each game is almost essential to winning, because your goal becomes obvious then (where you otherwise might remain confused). Two of the games feature a split perspective -- I won't give it away, but the "about" text does explain more about it. Although both are an expansion to the represented concepts, it does add more depth and originality to what might otherwise have been a pretty simple idea.

     It's a game I expect to receive mixed responses from judges, but overall, the responses should be positive. I know it's not the first game to translate video games into text, but it's the first I've played. The author avoids making this a boring prospect, because the games are varied and you simply need to solve each one (not overly difficult). The idea, thankfully, isn't to survive a complete simulation. The games represented would become very monotonous if so. Even with a couple distractions, I finished "I Must Play" in two hours with no hints. It's designed perfectly for this competition.

     I noted a few quirks and typos, but nothing major. On the turtle, the only direction available is "out" -- but "out" isn't valid (my failure to realize how far along I was resulted in some experimentation). "Wake up alien" says "you see no alien here." In several places, "the earth" should probably be just "Earth" -- although I'm not totally sure the change is necessary. The tense is wrong in "...dropped to the ground..." (should be "drops" to the ground, unless I misread it). I wasn't able to "get in car" but I could "enter" it. A quirk with plural pebbles allows me to pick up one and attempt to throw each (one at a time) by using "throw pebbles at man". Yeah, the game is doing what I told it to, but I probably didn't need to automatically pick up another pebble with each attempt.

     Although "I Must Play" succeeds well as a concept-based game, it's light on the story side. But hey, it's not really about the story. Even so, two things stand out as being odd within the concept. The first is necessary to establish the puzzles -- you can take items into and out of the games. A sign or message in the arcade does allude to virtual reality, although it still seems like a stretch. Second, Eric seems mature beyond his years (eight), when referring to things like notches on a bedpost, clever alliterations, etc. He refers to himself as the top-scorer, but "Fortytwo" (presumably the author) is listed with the top score. Was that a mistake, or is Eric really Fortytwo? If so, is he represented as eight years old because that's the author's inner child?

     As for scoring, my list is getting rather top-heavy. Still, I predicted this before I started, and I have no problem giving high scores to many games. From a base of 8.5, I skewed +1.0 for such playable implementations of five different video games, and -0.5 because the story was just a shell for the game. I really enjoyed "I Must Play", and it's definitely unlike anything else in this competition.

Game #32: Sting of the Wasp, by Jason Devlin
Played On: 10/23/04 (10:00 AM to 12:20 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (no skew)

     I wonder how many other players, after getting to this point in the competition (thirty-one down, only a few more to go), begin to think that the proverbial "big picture" is already clear? After all, with only seven more to go, isn't it likely that I've already seen the best the competition has to offer?

     No, in fact. I can't say that "Sting of the Wasp" is the best I've played, based purely on my own preferences, but it's an excellent and well-done entry. It proves that this contest isn't over. If your goal is to play and judge every game, yet you treat the final few as if scraping the proverbial bottom of the barrel, you might be missing out on enjoying one of the best games of the competition. The moral is, play them all with an open mind, as if each one was the first in your list.

     Interactive Fiction is great because it can take a player to another place. Visit a new world, experience something you otherwise could never. "Sting of the Wasp" shows that it doesn't have to end with that. You can BE somebody else -- somebody completely unlike the real you, somebody with different motives, a different background, different reasons for living life. In "Sting of the Wasp", you play as an aging socialite with one goal -- preservation of status. She's an adulterous gold-digger in a world of jealous, back- stabbing, superficial rivals. She is hardly a victim, though, as the circumstances are almost entirely of her own making. The PC and NPC characters in "Sting of the Wasp" are some of the most believable (even by their stereotypical behavior) in the competition.

     The game is highly entertaining, although a little difficult and obscure in parts. I did well at first, but used hints after the first hour. At first, it was harmless. In the instructions, "pour" is mentioned, and this sparked an idea that allowed me to pass an obstacle. As I went along, though, I started to feel that I had exhausted all my options. In prior games, I have gotten into a habit of "searching" things in my starting location. As I mentioned with "The Big Scoop", this often leads to useful items I would otherwise have left behind, never finding later. This happened to me in "Sting of the Wasp" -- I suppose a habit isn't much of a habit if you forget to do it. The hints brought me past this, and the more I went, the less I could resist peeking at the hints. Several of the puzzles were difficult enough that I'm not sure I would have solved the game otherwise. The puzzles are far from bad -- in fact, they're all quite logical -- it just takes a better gamer than me to step back, look at the big picture, and try something that isn't just random experimentation with inventory items.

     The writing in this game is top-notch. It isn't just the writing that makes this such a great game, though. The author does a good job of tracking your actions, so it's isn't really necessary to track them yourself. What I mean is, as you obtain clues and witness various events, the PC's reactions to situations (particularly in conversations) will change. Once you discover the existence of a locker (for instance), it become available to you without any note-taking or fancy lock-turning. As your character's understanding about various things improves, these things become a part of your interactions.

     It's not a game I -- and I suspect, many others -- could have written in anything close to a believable manner. What kind of field research did Jason Devlin do, in building this story? It does ring of what the uninitiated might consider typical, even banal goings-on in the exclusive world of rich country club folk. On that, I couldn't say -- I too am uninitiated. If it's entirely contrived, it's plenty convincing. So much attention to detail is likely to make many of the other authors (myself included) jealous. The characters have something to say about almost everybody and everything. Every interaction is done well. So much is implemented in "Sting of the Wasp" that could just have easily been skipped. This is a game that intends to win, and if it doesn't, it will certainly place highly. It isn't my personal favorite, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

     As for bugs, the game is one of several where problems become a matter of nit-picking. It would be nice if "x reflection" at the beginning (because that's something which is mentioned) would work the same as "x self". After taking the ticket from the bag, I was unable to put it back inside (taking up an inventory slot I often needed). When you "show hair to Cynthia" the first time, the resulting message is repeated twice. If in the same room as Melissa, you can't "put hair in bag" (leave it to me to try that). "...kissing woman..." in one spot should be "women". Something I didn't try, but could potentially be a problem, is that you enter one room (making an escape) which apparently can't be revisited later -- what happens if you drop something you need in that area? Is it prevented, or can you return in some manner I didn't discover? Although "pour" works as an alias for "put on", it seems to fail near the end (think "lockers" for the applicable puzzle).

     I don't know what else to say about "Sting of the Wasp". It's a great game with a unique story, and I expect it to finish highly in the competition.

Game #33: Splashdown, by Paul J. Furio
Played On: 10/23/04 (3:00 PM to 3:30 PM and 6:00 PM to 7:45 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     I was disappointed that COMP04.Z5 rolled "Splashdown" so low in my list. From my initial peek at the game and the included .PDF document, I was anxious to play it. The game features a theme found also in "Escape from Auriga", "Getting Back To Sleep", and "Identity" (at least, the first portion of "Identity"). The game isn't overly long, but it does feature some difficult puzzles. It turns out the puzzles were a little too difficult for me, leading to multiple uses of the hint system.

     Although the story follows a familiar pattern, the author manages to make it more interesting with added detail. The colonists, if you take the time to investigate, are an interesting lot of celebrities (including, perhaps, some members of the author's family). It seems the cast of Star Trek TOS and TNG, maybe Babylon 5, and a number of the who's who of Interactive Fiction are represented. Even Star Wars seems to get a nod by the mention of plasteel.

     A few problems surfaced during the course of the game. As Spider, I tried to take the broken antenna and fix it. This resulted in "warning: @test_attr called with object 0 (PC=ee5f)" followed by "that can't contain things." At the computer, an "activate status" command gives a similar error. In the hints, the "n" is missing from "lauch". The introduction mentions a 32-year trip, but a footnote in the .PDF says 36. I was able to launch Beacon 2 without ever sending Spider outside -- I subsequently reloaded a prior save because I was running out of time to find the generator, but would that have caused an unwinnable state?

     The thing that confused me the most was the pressurizing of the ballast. I got the solution from the hints, but the hints said I simply needed to do that and release the couplings. I couldn't get it to work. I had already released the couplings. Making the appropriate attachments gave what seemed to be an appropriate pressurization message, but the countdown didn't start. I tried several things, including toggling the couplings. Somehow, revisiting the ballast controls did the trick. In fact, I only had to make one attachment and the story moved forward (with the other end still unattached). It was very strange, and I'm not sure I would ever have figured it out without hints. Even with the hints, it wasn't very intuitive. It might merit a little investigation for an updated release, because it seemed like the puzzle wasn't working as intended.

     From a base of 8.5, I skewed the game a half-point for the added detail (for instance, the reason for the splashdown is great), and because I'm still partial to sci-fi -- even a type of sci-fi that has made multiple appearances in the competition. It's a good, fun game.

Game #34: Blink, by Ian Waddell
Played On: 10/24/04 (9:20 AM to 9:55 AM)
Unofficial Score: 8.0 (no skew)

     I was wondering when the first example of puzzle-less IF would appear in the competition. This seems to be the one and only (three more games could reveal another, but I'm becoming doubtful). I don't dislike puzzle-less games -- they just aren't my preference. I think you can blend puzzle and story together, without sacrificing either.

     "Blink" is a short game. The "about" mentions multiple paths, and my thirty-five minutes of gameplay included more exploration than is needed to finish, and a few restart attempts to search for these alternate paths. The game can be won in under a minute, start to finish, once you've been through it once. I couldn't find any alternate paths, even by leading my conversations in different directions. I don't doubt the author's word -- only that I wasn't able to finish with different results.

     The game is far less boring than the original premise suggests. Not only is a story packed into such a short game, but it packs a moral as well. With no real puzzles (the reed shoots seemed to be one, but a replay shows that this was optional), the only spoilers can come from discussing the story. I don't want to give any spoilers, so it's difficult for me to discuss the story in detail. Maybe I can do so in a vague enough way that will make sense to those who've played it, without spoiling anything for those who haven't.

     The game features a theme that I used in my entry, although "Blink" does so with a message. Thomas Walsh comes to realize that what he has believed in and stood for his entire life is a sham. He reconsiders the notion that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. In a bit of retrospection, he remembers an incident that allows him to consider "what if" -- and he realizes that futures can be ruined and lives can be changed, all in the name of something nobody really wants or understands.

     The message is clear enough, and it's a noble concept. Sadly, it isn't one that can easily be put into practice. That requires participation. It assumes that the concept is shared by all parties concerned. It assumes the world is generally a good place, and that by keeping to yourself, nobody will ever try to take advantage of you. It assumes the weak require no protection, and that the strong are always capable of practicing restraint. It assumes a world with no injustice, no causes, no greed, no malice, no jealousy. Earth will be a far better place to live when we can all agree to put these things behind us -- few would dispute that. Until then, in what other way can we practice these high ideals? In what other way can the weak find protection, the tyrannical find opposition, our way of life remain protected? Ian's game shares a trait with "Who Created That Monster?" in that it's likely to spark similar political controversy.

     My notes only cover a few things -- two, to be exact -- that might be considered problems. Both are so trivial, it's almost a shame to mention them. First, "believe" is spelled "belive" in one spot. Second, it would be nice if "son", "grandson" and "wife" worked, as a substitute for providing the name of each person. It's a small thing, but it might help convey Tom's personal perspective.

     I gave the game an 8.0 on my scale, not so much because of the subject matter, but because it's a short, puzzle-less game. The interesting thing about the IF-Competition is that nobody can write a game that is all things to all people. It can't be done. While one judge will mark off for a game that is long and features much to read and solve, another will rank the game highly and mark off a game that is short and puzzle-less. "Blink" is going to be very popular with one camp, and far less enjoyable to the other. The game is well written, almost flawless, and it packs an emotional punch. I liked it, I appreciate the story and the presentation -- it just didn't hit me "right" to earn a higher score on my scale.

Game #35: Order, by John Evans
Played On: 10/24/04 (10:45 AM to 11:50 AM)
Unofficial Score: 8.0 (7.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     I think I missed this game when taking an initial peek at the entries on October 1st. I don't remember it, anyway. I liked "Order" -- the concept of being able to "create" what you need to solve every puzzle was a fresh take on things (in my experience), and for this, I have added a half-point skew. Such a concept can really change the way a game is played.

     But, my base score for "Order" is a little lower than some because even with the ability to create what you need, there are times when this seems impossible to put to use. I was able to solve the test challenge with no difficulty. I was even able to defeat three of the four elementals without much effort. The wind, however, seems impossible. I solved it only by using the hints, and even then, it was because the hints provided information that seemed to be lacking from the game.

     What I mean is, when you reach the top of the castle (not a hard puzzle, and the author has provided two or three alternatives), you won't know what to do. The description mentions no windows, no steeple, no crystal. You can't look at the roof or the tower. As it turns out, you can "x stone" (I meant to look at the stone of the castle), which will at one point assume you mean the crystal. I knew nothing about a crystal, though -- and subsequent attempts after a reload don't even let me do that (so I'm not sure how "stone" becomes "crystal" to begin with). You can't look at the blue-gray stone, nor the dome, nor the hole in the dome. With no mention of the windows or the steeple (I read the description many times, and I looked at everything possible), I don't know how this puzzle could be solved without hints. Either the author forgot to mention these items, or the clues are elsewhere. As it was, I had no knowledge of the wind's motive.

     Quite a few things are unimplemented (I'll get knocked for the same thing in my entry, I'm positive). The pile of belongings cannot be referred to as "pile". At the house, the windows aren't accessible as nouns (it's very likely that players are going to try something with the windows). The domes and holes atop the castle aren't implemented. You can't see the tower at the smooth wall. When attacking the rock with what I conjured (I didn't create an elemental), it says that I attacked with the earth elemental. In the intro, "satify" should be "statisfy". The elder wizard will name the others, and he mentions Robert. At the end, you meet Pire. The two seem to be one and the same (ask the elder wizard about both, and the response is the same), except I didn't come across any earlier clues that let me make this connection. The ending makes more sense when you understand who he is. If you "x man" at that time (a replay follow-up, after I finished), it does ask which one you mean, Brentvid or Robert Pire. Since the elder wizard mentions Robert, maybe he should refer to him by first and last name, to clarify this. At the house, the description says all the windows are boarded. With only two windows, the room description might take a cue from the house description (x house) and refer to "both" windows instead.

     It's a good game -- it could be a better game, with a little more time. Probably, the author ran short of time, as many of us did. I think "Order" (what's the "00" for, anyway?) could be a great game with a little more work. If it's any consolation, I'm in quite the same boat. I'll release an updated version of my game which will hopefully be the "wow" that I wanted it to be, and I think John Evans has an opportunity to do the same thing with "Order".

Game #36: PTBAD 3: A Mystery, by Xorax
Played On: 10/24/04 (6:50 PM to 7:15 PM and 7:15 PM to 7:45 PM)
Unofficial Score: 2.0 (no skew)

     I spent twenty-five minutes charting the maze to the end. I spent an additional thirty minutes (before giving up) trying to figure out how to PTBAD (assuming that this is in some way a clue -- weren't there "games" in the past that dealt with performing just the right action on a phone booth?). The most likely "B" is "biscuit", but this still yielded no positive (or negative) results. Am I on the wrong track? Is this a different author? Did I waste the additional half an hour on a wild goose (or duck) chase?

     I don't know if this game is an honest attempt to compete in the competition, or if the author is simply toying with us. I suspect the latter. Although I'm probably being silly for providing a bug report, here is what I found.

     An "l" is missing in "lateraly" (and no, not at the beginning). It ended up in "Cheerfull" by mistake (yes, at the end). The word "about" is repeated in one sentence. In "...nothing hear" it should be "here". The room title "corridor" should start with a capital "C". In "doorroom" you must "enter door" since the directions don't work. The "t" is missing in "desroying". The word "loniliness" should have its first "i" changed to an "e". In inventory, you can have "a a biscuit" and "a eye". You can't "x graffiti". Should "stoneline" be "stonelike" instead? Did you really mean "aether" -- which is pretty obscure -- or "ether" instead? Drop the "u" in "Anouther wall..." Add another "b" when you "...find a rabit". Change "Other the the..." to "Other than the..." Change "your" to "you're" in the line "...your a normal person..."

     So, what else can be said about this game? It's a step above a 1.0 because I was curious enough to search for some obscure, elusive command, which never really presented itself to me (and, because I now know the difference between a duck -- thank you, Google). At this point in the competition, I thought "Ninja v1.30" was going to bottom out my rankings. Surprisingly, it does not.

Game #37: The Realm, by Michael Sheldon
Played On: 10/25/04 (1:45 PM to 3:00 PM)
Unofficial Score: 8.5 (no skew)

     In three and a half weeks, I have reached the end of the competition list. I've had fun! "The Realm", initially omitted from COMP04.Z5, appeared last on my list (I thought I got the update before generating the list, but it's a strange coincidence if so). I really like the game. The writing is good -- it's a comedic medieval fantasy with an anachronism or two (crayons, possibly the book). The puns don't require excessive contemplation (Cowling mentions Lee's bad habits; the author of the pamphlet; etc). It isn't a long game. It's the perfect conclusion to my competition experience!

     Like almost all the entries, this is a puzzle game. The puzzles work well, and most are clued with playability in mind. I got stuck twice. Once, I had to check the walkthrough to find out how to get the boots (I had what I needed -- but I thought what I needed was a clue -- not realizing that it was really the solution). I checked a second time to figure out who would serve as my second into the forest. Even though I had already provided the right thing to the right one, I hadn't considered requesting his help directly. It's possible that I could have solved either of those things in the additional forty-five minutes, if I had taken the time. I wasn't frustrated with the game -- I was simply ready to move forward. It's kind of a shame, though, because I think many judges are going to resort to hints and walkthroughs in this and other games simply by giving up too easily. Was the puzzle really too hard, or do we just not get in a hurry to finish all the games, blaming our rush on the author's design choices? It's hard to say, but I hope other judges keep this in mind when ranking the entries. If you used the walkthrough or hints, but you finished the game half an hour early, how does this change your score?

     I gave "The Realm" an 8.5, without a skew. It's fun, it's a challenge, it fits the two-hour guideline easily, and the story is simple but interesting. The story doesn't really develop into anything more than it is, but it's a puzzle game -- and a good one, at that.

     I noted a few minor problems, which I mention for the author's benefit. None of these things had any bearing on the score, because none of it detracted from the experience for me. If you "x guardsman" at the forest guardpost, you're told "there's nothing in the forest guard." I think "fresh faced" might need a hyphen. It might be nice to be able to refer to the male NPCs as "man" (I noticed it with the armourer, but possibly others). The town guard knows nothing about the plague. When the child plays with dirt, I thought maybe it was important -- it's not actually implemented. After giving Lee what he wants, he'll still look down and sniffle if you ask him about it. In the mess hall, the tables and benches are unimplemented. I tried to "attack dragon's head" and was told "you don't see any dragon's here." The "inv" command doesn't work -- I guess this is TADS 2's default-verb quirk, kind of like the "get all" quirk in Inform.

     At the end, I was very tempted to check the walkthrough on how to get the dragon's head. I resisted, and I'm proud to say I figured it out. My task is done, both in-game and out. Although The Realm should rank fairly high, I do think the competition has seen some stronger entries. Still, I really enjoyed it, and I think the judges will as well.

Game #38: Trading Punches, by Sidney Merk
Self-Reviewed On: 10/25/04
Unofficial Score: N/A

     No, I'm not really going to score my own game (well, sort of -- I'm not going to give it a score, but I will take a stab at ranking it), but I do have some things to say about it. I've gone through different stages since the first of October, and with about three weeks still to go before the results are announced, I'll probably go through several more.

     At first, I was very optimistic. I put enormous effort into the story, filling page after page in a notebook with trivial facts about the characters, the world, and the setting. I'm a big fan of the novels and stories of Jack Vance, but I wanted something a little darker for Trading Punches. I had in mind to write a tragedy, where a personal rivalry spirals out of control. I finished the game, despite cutting an entire chapter from the story (I simply had no time left to write it, so events in Chapter 3 took on a more confrontational tone than originally intended -- plus, it would have been overly long). Still, I managed to get it tested, polished up, and submitted for the competition. I was optimistic, because I felt I had accomplished something exciting, a great story that will grab players' attention. I tried to write a story with elements that weave through the years, coming together for the observant reader yet not detracting anything from the casual player.

     Next, I was a little worried. Once I submitted the game, I had the opportunity to step back and check it out. I knew there were a few things I would want to improve later -- being able to "ask" various characters about various things, for instance -- things that shouldn't matter, but would help improve a player's overall understanding of the characters and the world in which they live. But with the initial pressure of a ticking clock lifted, I started to pick it apart more. Right off, I found a few typos and misspelling... maybe more than a few -- a dozen, perhaps. I found that I had forgotten to fill in description text for the benches, gate, and fence in the playable cut-scenes (x bench or whatever, you get blank text). Okay, not a major deal -- not all judges will find that. Next, I found that the correct music wasn't playing after a reload, sometimes. Then, I began finding other unimplemented scenery. Then, I figured it might be nice to give better text if trying to walk away from the cut-scenes (the chapter "top" sections). When I realized that I forgot to change my self-made placeholder of "you're you" in response to "look at self" (I intended to provide appropriate information for the appropriate chapters), I just kind of sank. So much for my polished, wow 'em game.

     I went from being worried to being a little more optimistic, when one judge emailed me to say the writing was excellent (even with an occasional typo) and it's the best story he's played so far in the competition. He even went so far as to predict that Trading Punches would be the defining game for the Hugo system -- although I've received no other similar comments to date, that really meant a lot to me. But, as I played more and more of the contest games, my renewed optimism turned sour -- for two reasons. First, I played quite a few nearly flawless games -- and if judges factor technical accuracy highly into their scores (which makes perfect sense), I'm doomed. I made notes of 67 things (counting most typos individually) that are either bugs, quirks, things to improve, or wish-list items for the next version of Trading Punches -- and that's just so far. I couldn't find that many things wrong with even the worst game in the competition -- the second reason I'm discouraged.

     I can't fault my beta testers, although I wish I had opted to choose some additional testers with more experience in Interactive Fiction. I gave the game to them a mere four days before it was due. Chapter 3, in fact, was rushed to completion just one day before the deadline, leaving almost no time to test. Some of my testers didn't even have time to finish playing the game until recently. I think the final nail in my coffin was yesterday. I play D&D with a guy who has some experience with Interactive Fiction, and he had previously only made it to the start of Chapter 3. He finished the game, and he told me that "the first 95% was brilliant" -- but the ending sucked. That's not something that inspires optimism, unfortunately. I kept with my tragic ending, left the final moment purposely unresolved, and hoped that judges would appreciate the decision. I didn't want to move the ending past that point for players, even if I do know what happens when the waiting is over.

     Don't read the next THREE paragraphs if you have not finished the game! SPOILERS!!!

     He pointed out some problems with the story, as well. I guess it's not so much problems with the story, just trouble understanding some of my characters' motives that lead to the ending. First, it didn't seem that the Incs were lacking in leadership. What isn't in the game, but might have been in the never-done fourth chapter, is better references to the Sheeear prophecy, Eeeloraaa's impact on Thyras's decisions, and the subversive movement within the Inc youth. It isn't so much that the Incs "needed" a leader, even though Thyras says this. It's more that Eeeloraaa was in a position to introduce Thyras "as" an eventual leader. What she does halfway through the game serves to fulfill the prophecy. In fact, because she purposely chose the religious caste (knowing it would make her an outcast to many of her people), her biggest goal was to have a child of mixed parentage, then offer both their lives to the gods. It was a narrow interpretation of the prophecy, especially since her child grows up to work covertly against Thyras. Also, because it's an important Sheeear custom to seduce your intended spouse's cousin or brother or relative of similar age... well, sometimes prophecies have a way of taking their own course. I intended to provide more information about these Sheeear customs by way of the "turning rooms" in Chapter 2-2 (various bits of info in each building at each of the four caste colors) -- this is why some can't be accessed without the plastone card -- but it would probably have only further bogged down the game with too much extraneous detail.

     My friend's other concern was that Thyras didn't have enough motive to do what he does. It's a valid point. The introduction was intended to establish a basis for eventual, if perhaps misdirected hatred. Thyras resents Gavenn, due in part to the sparring in their youth, which culminates at the Sheeear Accord. Their brief confrontation in Chapter 2-2 is ten years later -- Thyras has spent a third of his life living among the Incs. When they finally trade punches in a literal sense, Thyras has spent his adult life (almost half his years) considering his own people as outsiders. By the epilogue, about thirty years have passed since the Sheeear Accord. Originally, a fourth chapter was to fit the slot, with the epilogue ten years later. I hope the confrontation in Chapter 3 is enough to establish the basis and reason for the ending. I guess I'll know, when judges provide feedback on my story.

     Then, there are the various plot points, ranging from obvious to subtle, that flesh out the game in what I hoped would be a believable, entertaining way. The information I provided for the COMP04.Z5 "x trading" page was meant to describe each section of the game -- five pairs of opposing concepts for the introduction, chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, and the epilogue, respectively. The game is about pairs -- the joining of two things and the separation of two things. This theme is woven throughout the game, if you look for it (and sometimes, even if you don't). It isn't just in the scenery (those things are easy to spot), but in the story itself -- marriage, sibling rivalry, correlations between the past and the present, the uniting of races. What I intended with Trading Punches was a two-hour epic. I still have no idea if I got it, whether I came close, or whether I missed the mark entirely. I'm anxious for the results, but at the same time, I'm dreading it. I have a feeling my game isn't going to do as well as I had hoped.

     Okay, spoilers are done. You can continue reading here.

     So, where did I go wrong? First, I think Chapter 1-2 will confuse people (based on a couple pieces of feedback I have received so far). It wasn't even originally supposed to be a puzzle, if you can believe that. It turned into one. Because there are different colors of cups (only so players can tell them apart and refer to them in brief), and four different types of alcohol, I think it just seemed like a much bigger challenge than it actually is. Players are going to resort to the walkthrough without spending a few minutes to figure out what's going on. Also, it has been suggested that I give the player a starting directive in the introduction and in Chapter 1-2 (I thought I did -- those sections are titled "Skipping Stones" and "Serving Drinks", respectively), and start out with more information prior to the introduction. It was a design decision not to begin the game with a background intro (prior to the start of gameplay), although if I get enough complaints, I'll probably have to do it. The idea was to start the player without foreknowledge of the story, then build understanding as the story unfolds. Well, that was my intention, even if it turns out to maybe miss the mark. I really thought the chapter titles would work to prod players along the right course of action, but perhaps not.

     Second, realistically, it's about a three-hour game. Well, shorter with the walkthrough, but even a great puzzle-solver (note that the puzzles aren't even supposed to be difficult) will spend some time reading all the text. So, how does this factor into votes? I can guess -- three scenarios, none of them positive. Judges might stop at two hours, not see the whole story, and rank it low because it's too long. Or, judges might stop at two hours, rank it low on a partial understanding of the story, then continue. Or, judges might resort to the walkthrough to ensure a two-hour finish, and still rank it down on the basis of length and difficulty.

     Third, I was too concerned with anonymity to seek beta testers within the IF community -- players who would spot problems in the implementation, not just the bugs. (It's ironic that my "clever" pseudonym trick isn't a first, now that I've learned of the well-known Angela M. Horns entry of an early competition.) When I played some of the other entries, I could see a good, unique story under the game glitches, and I couldn't help but think how much better the game's chances would be if the particular entry was more polished. Then, I relate that to Trading Punches. How far will it slide down the ranks, not because the story is a dud (although it could well be, to some judges), but because I was too ambitious with my first attempt to use Hugo? I didn't allow ample time to refine the game.

     Fourth, what will judges think of my multimedia? The graphics can be disabled (I'm not sure why that would be necessary, though, since they serve only as chapter illustrations). The bigger concern will be reactions to the music. Music is easily disabled in Hugo, but will this count against me? I'd like to think the music isn't half bad, considering I stopped pursuing and practicing music more than a decade ago -- you need not pick up an instrument to compose a MIDI, luckily. I kind of like to play IF in silence -- at least, no vocal music. But sometimes, even random noises are enough to dent my concentration. I wanted to set a tone for each chapter, change the tone at a certain point, and carry it forward to start the next cut-scene. If judges disable the music, will the mood carry through just by the tone of the text? If the music remains on, will it be distracting?

     Fifth, I should have done some things differently in the readme.txt and in the walkthrough. Some details in the FAQ portion of the readme.txt are only supposed to be read after finishing the game. Thankfully, I didn't include even more, because I think some judges have probably read that information first, which would serve to spoil some of the surprises. In the walkthrough, I presented one quick solution to the game. I have received complaints that the walkthrough is broken or doesn't work. It's not broken, and in fact, it does work. The problem is, if you've already messed around with the cups in chapter 1-2, or if you reach the end of 2-2 without following the first part of the walkthrough for that chapter, it's likely that you'll assume the walkthrough is broken or that the game is in an unwinnable condition. Basically, it becomes too much of a reliance on the walkthrough, without following it entirely, leading to those assumptions. I wish I had had time to include hints, and a more "chatty" solution. There are clues for the things people may consider overly difficult, but my suspicion is that "Trading Punches" will be marked down because some judges will miss the clues by relying on the walkthrough. For instance, Yarrel does ask for a variety of different drinks, where the others do not. If her clue regarding the potency of the beverages is missed, it should still be possible to figure it out using the wristwatch and keeping notes of the results. Some solutions are just a matter of experimentation until the game starts nudging you forward with hints and finally the answer (finding the tray, finding the rod, deciding what to do in the buildings, reminiscing with Ruhne, chapter 1-2 behind the pavilion).

     I've tried to predict how my game will do, now that I've played every other entry. Every author probably does the same thing for his or her entry, and it's a frustrating endeavor with only wild speculation as to how the judges will vote. When I try to step back from it, and consider my entry as it might be seen by judges not nearly as enthralled by it as I am, I have to guess around 8th place, based mostly on implementation problems but a strong story. That's not to discredit the thirty other games (well, twenty-eight now) -- only that I can clearly see at least seven games as being much more solid and likable than mine. It would really be a shame to drop much lower -- I entered the competition once before (not as Sidney Merk), and managed a placing in the top one-third. Because of the particulars of my prior entry, it would be a sad irony to rank lower this time.

     How big a nerd am I? I also rolled a D20 (which still assumes my game would make it in the approximate upper half) -- and it came up a "2" for me. The silly dice seems far more optimistic than I am at this point.

     So, what's next for Sidney Merk? I'm kind of letting my success or failure in the competition lead the way. At a minimum, I want to release an update to "Trading Punches" directly after the judging ends. I have fixed most of the easy issues (typos, unimplemented scenery, etc). I've even fixed some larger but obscure glitches. I have more to do, but I should be able to wrap it up by mid-November. It would be nice if judges were sending me feedback now (I've all but begged for it in the R.G.I-F newsgroup), but very little has come my way. If by chance I land in the top three, I'll definitely write more interactive fiction -- and with great enthusiasm. I have a five-part "Trading Punches" epic in mind now, which includes two prequels, one game set through the same events as TP (but from a different perspective), and finally, a sequel that wraps it all up. I'd love to work on those games -- I even have good ideas for two other unrelated stories. If I make the top ten (but not the top three), then I'll probably work on more interactive fiction, although I might skip my continuing epic and work on the unrelated games instead. In the top half (but not the top ten), I'd probably consider writing more IF -- but this would be a pretty good indication that there isn't significant interest in my work. Below half, I might pop up again in another few years, when I've gotten a little better at it. Close to the bottom of the results? I'll very likely slip away, with parting apologies to all judges for such a horrid entry.

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