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IFCOMP 2005 Reviews - Full Journal

Introduction to Mike Snyder’s IF-COMP 2005 Review Journal
Written On: October 2nd, 2005

     For me, this is the best and the worst part of the process. The weeks leading up to October are a blur of hurried work. The weeks following November 15th -- when voting ends and the results are later announced -- only confirm what was already probable from the beginning -- the best and worst of the competition. But these weeks, while judges are busy forming opinions and us hopefuls hear almost nothing, are a mixed bag. I have so many other games now to play and review -- the best part of the competition. Yet for roughly six weeks, I have only my own opinion as to how well my entry will fare.

     You may find that I'm a non-traditional reviewer. I will try to find something I like in every game. My unofficial rankings will probably be much 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 enjoy 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 numbered 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).

     With a baby as a distraction this year, it might be difficult to play in one sitting. I may have to take short breaks even during a session, so to keep from complicating the log of time spent playing, I might edit out those short gaps so that it’s easier to add up. If so, then the “time” spent playing (shown in the header of each review) will show “adjusted”. The total time will be right, but the ending time might have been later with those breaks.

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, well-clued puzzles. This may also be a game where the author has made great use of his story, game structure, and characters. I'm hoping to go generous with the 9's, as I intend to have fun playing all the 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. An “8” will have good writing, and if it has puzzles, they’ll be good and clued fairly. Generally, I will have no big complaints about an “8”, except maybe that the story, game structure, or characters may not have been used to their full potential.

     ** 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, suspicious puzzles, sparsely-implemented scenery… just things to be improved upon for an updated release. This could also be a game that still seemed to fall short of its potential, even if the prior things (puzzles, scenery, etc) weren’t very problematic. 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, not enough implementation of the scenery, or quirks that just seem misplaced or unintentional. This could also be a game where frustrating, badly-clued, or overly-complicated puzzles bring down a score that might otherwise have been better due to the game’s other strengths. 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, unpolished, or unbalanced.

     ** 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. It has probably failed in more than one area – puzzles, writing, story, etc. 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. This is a game in which I started to lose interest, began to cringe quite a bit, or just really disliked the obscurity of the puzzles (or the bad writing or uninspired plot). This is probably a game that felt more amateur as opposed to merely rushed and unpolished.

     ** 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). When I use a base score with a half-point (for instance, 7.5), it means I couldn’t decide if it was clearly a “7” or an “8”, or it really does seem to fall in the middle of the two.

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 to my scores, and without the skew, there would be no flexibility.

Game #1: Sabotage on the Century Cauldron, by Thomas de Graaff
Played On: 10/02/2005 (3:00 PM to 6:45 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (5.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     Even though I can’t vote, I used the competition website to view the game blurbs and generate a random play-list. Sabotage on the Century Cauldron is first up. This game’s blurb alluded to a story much different than the one I played. It’s possible that the blurb describes something in the ending. I can’t say for sure. I couldn’t finish the game.

     I tried. I played for close to four hours. The game does enough right to entertain, but what it does wrong borders on frustration. From the information provided, I gather this is the author’s first game, and that English isn’t his first language. In that regard, it’s a very impressive entry. In the context of the competition, though, I expect to come across more solid entries before I’m done.

     What it does right: The spelling and grammar are fine. I didn’t notice any misspellings or other mistakes in the text, more or less. Throughout, the use of “remark” instead of “regard” was a little jarring, but the usage is technically right (according to dictionary.com). I noted one run-on sentence – a very minor point. It’s an interesting sci-fi setting and an interesting story. The action sequences were effective, making the game feel more alive and real. The seemingly deranged actions taken by some of the NPCs – and in fact, the PC’s own obsessive desire to sabotage the Century Cauldron over the trivial matter of a forgotten pet – are explained effectively at a pivotal point in the story. The three-part dream sequence, while pretty sparse in details, did serve as an interesting break to explain a long period of sleep.

     What it does wrong: Inventory management became a frustration. I don’t think the concept is inherently bad – I’ve done it, although probably no more effectively than Thomas manages – but as the game progressed, I found myself leaving items behind that I later needed. Before I stopped, I had reached a point where I wasn’t even quite able to carry all the loot I knew I would need. Various bugs jumped out, too. Jersey kept asking me to find the medicine I had already retrieved, yet she’d accept none from me. A blokomo would follow me into the kitchen upon return, and with a dead one waiting, I found no way to disambiguate the “blokomo” from the “dead blokomo”. Worse, as it followed me away, I couldn’t attack it. The game told me that attacking it didn’t seem productive. The computer in office 032 shows a snippet of play from an in-game adventure, which I felt was a little tactless given the direction the plot had gone. In fact, I never was quite sure whether the game was meant to be taken seriously. At times, it seemed entirely humorless, and at others, bits of comedy spilled in. It almost seemed that the author wasn’t quite sure himself. The writing was fine, as I mentioned, but not particularly memorable.

     These are by no means the only problems with the game. I was disappointed that some scenery wasn’t implemented, where a short description might have been nice. I was confused by the cages and pipes, never even understanding the point of the small box. The walkthrough says I need to get the scientist’s photo, even though I was able to look at it just fine while he carried it around. Some NPCs wouldn’t accept or even recognize things that I might have expected them to – the apple and orange with the cook, being a prime example. The yellow button in the bridge control room gave a strange message. The result of trying to “open nightstand” at the beginning left me wondering if the resulting message was key to the story, or just a strangely customized parser response (made more mysterious when no similar messages were shown to any other actions later in the game). I kept a transcript during play, though, which I’ll gladly send to Thomas if he’s interested in releasing a post-comp update.

     I didn’t check the walkthrough until 45 minutes into the game. Until then, I hoped I wouldn’t need to. Like last year, I started this game with high hopes. Frustration set in later, when I realized how far over the comp’s 2-hour limit I had gone (if I were really judging, I’d have probably ranked it higher after just the first two hours). In the end, I couldn’t even beat the game. I sent an email to the author asking for advice. The walkthrough makes it a simple matter of doing this, then that, making sure you’ve done the other thing, and then deciding on two possibilities. I couldn’t even find out how to get there. I assume the locked “Top Secret” door is an answer, but the walkthrough doesn’t mention this and I found no way in. With a fussy baby and a wife I’d promised just a two-hour time-out to play, I couldn’t keep going. It’s a shame, because I am interested to see how the author wraps up the story.

     I can’t decide if the game fits my base scale at 5 or 6. So, I’ve rated it a 5.5, with a very optimistic +1 skew (because I really liked the setting, the game world seemed real enough, and it’s far too early for me to become a cranky reviewer with almost three dozen more to go). It seems like the game could be much better than it is, with some more work. I hope the author considers updating the game for a post-competition release.

     FOLLOW-UP: I finished the two different endings, with some information provided by the author. I probably could have figured it out, but for some reason, I had been walking past the appropriate area without even noticing. Although neither ending explains the game’s competition blurb, this at least put closure to the story.

Game #2: Amissville II, by Santoonie Corporation
Played On: 10/03/2005 (7:55 PM to 8:40 PM and 9:00 PM to 10:45 PM)
Unofficial Score: 3.5 (4.0 base with -0.5 skew)

     The second game on my random list was one of two that I beta-tested (Chancellor). I plan to play the competition release and review it too, but I’ll move it to the end. That bumps Amissville II up to be next in line.

     The Santoonies did a decent job last year with Zero. All things considered, that game ended up low on my list, yet I still had fun with it. I liked the concept, and it was a good game. I gave it an unofficial 6.0.

     Compare this to Amissville II. It’s the sequel to a game the Santoonies seem quite proud of. For all the effort claimed in the credits, I would have expected a polished masterpiece. At the very least, I would have expected one or two of them to have some experience using the English language. I’ve only played Zero, but that was enough to give me better expectations for this year’s entry.

     The game starts well enough, putting the player among simulated Santoonies at the Amissville campsite. One guy has separated himself from the group, on a trip into town for some fast food. The others are busy with chores of their own. I didn’t realize until later that the build-up had me expecting something like The Blair Witch Project -- a small group, camping in the woods at night, finds that evil is closing in.

     That’s not Amissville II. At least, that’s not the first two and a half hours of it. Initial exploration goes fine, provided you don’t look too closely and you don’t stray more than a room or two from the starting point. Before I gave up, my high hopes had turned to simple optimism, shrinking to a growing suspicion, then to budding frustration, and finally to a dismal realization that the game is nearly – if not entirely – unplayable. It might be Santoonie tradition to leave players stuck without a walkthrough, but this left me without the ability to write a review based on the entire game. I couldn’t even find the hints that were reportedly available at the Santoonie website.

     If bad grammar, poor spelling and faulty writing in general had been the worst of it, Amissville II might still have been redeemed by its story. I can’t say for certain that the game even has a story. It seems more like a collection of elements and communal experiences meaningful only to the Santoonies themselves. Lacking a plot, it could have been saved by solid gameplay and clever puzzles. However, the game itself is so severely broken that playing to completion seems impossible.

     The bug report alone could take up pages. I’ll skip all but a few examples. After all, my suggestion last year that “fowl” should have been “foul” was overlooked in this year’s offering. The CB seemed totally worthless, until one point when (somehow) I hit upon the right phrasing to make it work… once. Pat kept repeating the same dialogue, as if stuck in a time-loop the game never actually acknowledged. Much of the scenery – even things that seemed important by their in-room descriptions, could not be referenced at all. In at least two places, it was possible to go one direction without a way back. I was stuck twice that way (NE from the Grey Ghost Winery and SW from the “Enbankment”). If this was intentional, the game gave no indication. Once, I even stumbled upon an area by going generally southward from the start, then found the same area after restoring an earlier point by going generally northward. If this was a design gimmick, it seemed more like a bug. I found and rode a horse (using just a stirrup – apparently a whole saddle was unnecessary), which was the start of an interesting twist. Interesting, that is, until it disappeared without explanation when I tried going west into Amissville. I’m no pro, but even I was bothered by the bad grammar and awful spelling found throughout. The game was so thick with these problems that I couldn’t quite enjoy what might have otherwise been very entertaining text. The only puzzle I managed to solve was riding the horse, which is a shame, because with so many items to be found and carried, I think the game has more to offer.

     I do have session transcripts, guys – yours for the asking, if you’re interested in releasing an update and (more importantly) using my frustrated commentary to improve your future games. I only noted a few of the problems in the text, but the more serious bugs are clearly identified.

     It seems that the Santoonie Corporation is full of creativity but shy of talent. That’s not a slam – just an opinion. Even though I found little to enjoy in Amissville II – and even though I can’t recommend it with its present glut of problems – I hope the Santoonies turn it around with a more impressive entry in the 2006 competition. By my scale, I have to give this one a 4.0 (to me, it was frustrating and unwinnable). This is skewed down half a point, because I suspect it was entered into the competition fully aware that it wasn’t quite ready for a public release.

     On a side note, I also suspect that Santoonie isn’t a real corporation...

Game #3: Space Horror Part I: Prey for your Enemies, by Jerald M. Cooney
Played On: 10/05/2005 (8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, 10:30 PM to 11:30 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     Space Horror Part I had two things working against it, even before I started. One, it’s a CYOA-style game, which I haven’t really enjoyed since I was kid. Two, the title alone suggested a weak story and a mind-numbingly dull couple of hours.

     Thankfully, it had plenty working for it – not the least of which is that it’s a great game. Even when stuck briefly at a colored-lights puzzle, the game wasn’t frustrating. Perhaps this comes from (a) being only my third game of the competition and (b) following a really frustrating “traditional” IF entry, but I really enjoyed this. It has a few technical problems, sure, but these are minor. I encountered nothing that caused the game to break, or to play out in a way that might indicate broken or incorrect page progressions. Prey for your Enemies is a survival horror game, and even with limited interaction, it was effective.

     I hope the judges this year keep an open mind. To rank Space Horror low just because it’s not traditional parser-driven IF would do an injustice to writing that’s superior to much of what we’re likely to see this year. The three main plot threads cross at times, maintaining consistency and appeal that really does build with each newly explored branch. Jerald’s use of multimedia is enough to bring variety without overuse of any one concept. A couple puzzles are even worked in – to good effect – but I’ll get to all of this in a moment.

     In all, I played for three hours. I enjoyed every minute of it, even though some (perhaps many) of the page runs were simply continuations without any choices. I was skeptical at first, but it really worked. Using my browser’s “back” as needed, I never had to replay from the beginning. I never had to flip page after page just to try a plot variation, because the bad endings didn’t stray far from the decision point, and because I could always back up just to the last major decision. I guess that’s probably how it’s done with the books, but that was many years ago for me. I was really surprised – and impressed – at how well Jerald managed to keep the entire experience from becoming dull and repetitive. By the end, I was pretty confident that I had explored it all. No mapping was required – not even of the plot branches. The story was very clear, even when backing up and changing lines.

     I mentioned puzzles. This is accomplished by what seemed to be a long series of web pages. To the player, that’s invisible unless you’re eyeing the URL (like I was). I didn’t understand the colored light’s puzzle until later. I solved it by trial and error, looking to see which URLs were “new” from the time before, and just going forward and backward. It probably sounds like a frustration, but it really wasn’t. I guess my mind was still gnawing away at the problem, because I realized the solution later. I think the puzzle was made more difficult because the buttons pressed are (I think) zodiac symbols. It would have been more fair (requiring less trial-and-error yet still solvable if you figure out the trick) had the buttons themselves been colored. It would also have still fit the in-game explanation.

     Video is used twice. I encountered the long, recorded speech first. I was glad to see it in printed form, after continuing. The other instance is part of a puzzle, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this might have been more fair to hearing-impaired players if this had also been included (somehow) in text form. A few still images are used, and that’s one area where I thought “more” would be even better. One puzzle requires a real-world email, which was thankfully answered right away by an auto-responder. Tina’s website (especially the forum in her own plot branch – the first branch I found, incidentally) was further proof that this game really was going to work.

     It isn’t flawless. I noted several typos, collected in a text file that I will gladly send to the author upon request. Several compound words (head on, rear ending, once over, more) were missing their joining hyphen. These instances were hardly a distraction for me, because the text was otherwise wonderful. Some of the plot choices rely on honesty from the player, to avoid hopping branches. I found it more fun to play fair, but I also wonder if the game could be improved with some kind of cookie or plot-tracking method. My biggest complaint, though, is that the story was entertaining enough to make me pick apart the plot. The temporary immunity to the aliens’ method of abduction, for instance, just doesn’t seem possible to sustain for the long period (years, maybe) mentioned in certain endings.

     All in all, I enjoyed the game. I recommend it, particularly if you’re open-minded enough to overlook the lack of a parser. I’m basing it 8.5 on my scale, with a +0.5 skew for exceeding my expectations. I hope the game fares well in the final results. Two of my favorites last year were generally disliked by the real judges. That was a disappointment, as would be a low ranking for Space Horror Part I.

     As an aside, I’m a little worried now, though. Last year, I remember no games featuring monsters (aside for the political satire, and that was only a figurative monster). If I’m wrong, it at least wasn’t obvious like this year. Of the first three games I’ve played, two feature hostile alien creatures as a key element (Century Cauldron and this one), the third (Amissville II) mentions a creature, and even the one I’ve temporarily skipped (because I beta-tested it), Chancellor, has at least two segments with a murderous monster. The theme is central to my entry as well. Will it be so cliché for the year that we’re all marked down for a perceived lack of originality? At this point, that’s every game I’ve played.

Game #4: Psyche’s Lament, by “Now We Have Faces”
Played On: 10/08/2005 (10:15 AM to 11:40 AM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (6.5 base with no skew)

     Next on my list was the second of two games I beta-tested, so I moved on to Psyche’s Lament instead. Billed as “An Interactive Greek Myth”, and written under a pseudonym reminiscent of last year’s “Half Sick of Shadows”, I expected a lot from this one.

     The writing is good, and often clever. It’s an interesting story – something likely to be unique among all the other entries. The technical flaws are minor. These are generally things like an extra line-break here, a missing line-break there, an unnecessary comma once or twice. It isn’t a buggy game by any means.

     Even so, it has problems, and these problems are harder to define. The first weakness is a general lack of implemented scenery. At first, I thought it might be a way to keep the player focused on the tasks at hand, without becoming sidetracked by extras. Still, a short, simple description of those things could have achieved the same goal, and fleshed out the game world better than it is. Second – and this is where things get difficult – the puzzle clueing is... I don’t know... a little off, somehow. I do think the puzzles are clued, but often in an obscure way, or a one-shot mention that might be overlooked. Easier puzzles would have made the game far too short, but I wonder if a fun but brief experience is still better than a longer, frustrating one?

     Early on, the clueing worked for me. I figured out how to summon the Fairly Oddmother (that’s what “fullscore” called her) from a clue-seed planted a little earlier. It left me thinking, though, that this could just as easily have not worked. I give credit, because it did work, and sometimes we as players think in what-ifs. We criticize clues or puzzles even though they worked for us – the proof being in that we figured it out. Shortly after this, I couldn’t figure out how to use the wand. The clue was in what the Fairly Oddmother told me (I don’t think this is a spoiler – perhaps a kind tip for those of you yet to play), but I finally checked the walkthrough to get unstuck. The author could have hinted better at the proper action when trying to use the wand in incorrect ways. Although I don’t think guess-the-verb puzzles are always bad (some do, I know), it just didn’t fit here. What remained was already difficult enough. I guess my point is, the simple act of using the wand (for any purpose) didn’t really need to be a puzzle.

     What stuck me next was a misunderstanding about the items I had to work with. I can’t say much without giving a spoiler, but the counter device wouldn’t work as intended unless you do something with it first. I had figured out how two of the pieces related, and how this might achieve the task at hand, but I mistakenly thought the counter was bigger than it (evidently) turned out to be. I guess I just had a hard time wrapping my mind around the objects at hand. This, and the puzzles to come next, required (I think) a visualization that just didn’t happen for me. From this point on, I solved very little without referring to the walkthrough.

     I found it odd that, once the counting began, it wasn’t reduced to a single paragraph explaining what happened. I think this would have been just as effective – if not more so. I didn’t really need a play-by-play account of the entire process. With no way to interrupt it, I had to space through pause after pause of uncounted pages. After several, I really thought I had messed up. We’re counting grains, after all. I expected thousands – hundreds of thousands. Thankfully, the two-digit number given as a final result allowed the game to continue. Why Psyche was willing to jump through the hoops necessary to count it all by proxy, I’ll never quite understand.

     Then comes my next sticking point. In order to pass this information along to Aphrodite, a very specific (but IF-standard) phrasing is required. The bad thing is, it’s not intuitive. Showing her the counter could have worked. Telling her in other ways could have worked. This again turned into a guess-the-command puzzle that didn’t really need to be a puzzle. It’s also something I think IF newbies would never figure out, simply because this method of direct communication with NPCs (without using a verb – sorry if I’ve spoiled it) wouldn’t occur to them. It didn’t even occur to me.

     In the next part – fleecing the rams – I couldn’t even figure out what I needed to do. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. That may be part of it, but the series of actions detailed in the walkthrough – while logical after the fact – didn’t really show how I might have figured this out on my own. Looking back in my transcript, I don’t see any clueing there. If I had applied the goal of the grain task to the fleece-acquiring task, I might have gone further before feeling so stuck. Even so, I never quite figured out what the triangle was for, even though it’s key to solving the puzzle. I give credit for a nice bonus to the puzzle – the “sleepy” bit – even though it all made sense only after getting through it.

     After this, only one more puzzle segment remains. It’s clever, but again, I was stuck. I tried referring to the cloud as “clouds” – which wasn’t recognized – leaving me to think it was just unimportant, unimplemented scenery like much of the game had shown. I stopped trying, never realizing my mistake. Once I peeked again at the walkthrough, I could continue. Thankfully, the symbol works symmetrically (otherwise it would have taken twice as long). I really liked this part, and it was more straightforward than the puzzles before. However, Windows Frotz 2002 – for whatever reason – did not show the diagram to me in a fixed-width font. Without the walkthrough, it would have been pretty difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult, and the effect was unfortunately lost.

     This was a difficult one to rank. My scoring definitions for the higher numbers were focused mainly on story and writing. This game succeeds there, yet the puzzles and sparsely-implemented scenery bring it down. I was forced to revise those definitions a little from last year, to better reflect my standards. I think it falls between 6 and 7, so I’ll base it at 6.5. Nothing triggers any personal bias – good or bad – so the score is not skewed.

     FOLLOW-UP: I looked up the Cupid/Psyche story online. Although what I read was pretty brief, I get a better sense now for the inspiration that went into this story.

Game #5: Gilded: The Lily and the Cage, by A Hazard
Played On: 10/09/2005 (10:15 AM to 11:55 AM, 1:15 PM to 2:30 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (9.0 base with no skew)

     To this point, I’ve skipped almost every second game because I beta-tested it, or in this case, I wrote it. Next on my list was Distress, but I’ll save my thoughts on my own entry until the end. Moving on, Gilded: The Lily and the Cage is next. From here on, I should be able to take them all in order. Those were, oddly enough, all sorted toward the top.

     This game is very reminiscent of last year’s Magocracy – my favorite of that competition, unfortunately shunned and low-ranked by the judges in general. To a lesser degree, it reminds me of Order, where creating things with wizardly powers was a key feature. Without the D20 combat of the former and the implementation problems of the latter, Gilded should fare better than either. The setting and the story reminded me a little of The Compleat Traveler in Black by John Brunner – or perhaps something from The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. I don’t think this was intentional, and it’s more a general concept than a definite correlation anyway.

     The text is well-written. So early in my random list, I can’t describe it as the best in the competition, but it hits right with me. If anything yet to come is better, I’m in for a treat. This is one of those short games made long by the beautiful craft and abundant detail put into it. It’s easy to spend two hours just romping through the small world created by the author, where interactivity succeeds so well. I had numerous “wow” moments in the almost three hours that I played. So thorough was the author that it became easy to buy into the “create from thin air” theme. It seemed as if the game was adapting to my whims, rather than (which is, of course, the case) pre-defined with such a set of results.

     The ending I found without hints, though, seemed less satisfying than I expected. I played using the quickest-path walkthrough provided under the About menu afterwards, and it was the same ending. It seems likely – especially in the way it proclaims itself as “an” ending – not “the” ending – that I’ve missed something. I’d like to play through other paths, eventually.

     This is a great example of how a game doesn’t have to be flawless to leave a good impression. Bugs ranged from missing object names (maybe the result of noun-ready items not yet “created” by the game), to minor typos, to minor inconsistencies between the descriptions and the real state of the game world (the broken mirror and the burnt tavern seemed to be the main examples). The author’s “about” text encourages feedback, so I’ve sent my transcript. Since this seems to be a smaller version of a longer game, I think it’s going to be helpful for a post-comp release.

     I hope Gilded does well in the competition, but I suspect it may be a repeat of last year’s Magocracy – a game I really enjoyed, but not a hit with the judges. If so, have the IFComp judges collectively lost their minds? By my scoring, it’s a 9.0 game.

Game #6: Vespers, by Jason Devlin
Played On: 10/11/2005 (9:15 PM to 11:15 PM)
And Again On: 10/12/2005 (2:00 PM to 3:40 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.5 (9.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     It will take some excellent challengers to keep Vespers out of the top 3 in this year’s competition results. For that matter, it has a strong shot at winning. With more than two dozen games to go, is it a little early to make such a prediction? Maybe.

     But maybe not. Jason’s entry last year, Sting of the Wasp, was generally a crowd-pleaser, ranking 4th of 36 in the competition. It went on to win two XYZZY awards – Best NPCs and Best Individual PC. I’m probably not alone in starting Vespers with high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s nothing like Jason’s first credited game, but it’s likely to prove that last year’s quick popularity was no fluke.

     The two games do share great writing. Both have unique and interesting settings. However, where last year’s Sting of the Wasp featured characters over story, Vespers is just the opposite. That’s not to say Cecilia, the five brothers, and the PC/father (the game is set in a monastery) are dull. I felt this was a bigger, better story, but even though each brother was characterized as uniquely as one would expect, I still found myself thinking of them interchangeably. At times, I even confused one for another. The “brothers” command was helpful, but for whatever reason, I kept thinking of them as names rather than people. I don’t think this is a problem in the game, though. I’ll be surprised if any other reviewers mention the same thing. I have been, unfortunately, a little distracted while I play this year’s games, and that certainly makes a difference.

     Vespers uses a gimmick that brought to mind 2003’s Slouching Towards Bedlam. It’s the only game I’ve played from that competition, and that was only a year ago while trying to get a feel for what the prior year’s winner did right to grab the top spot. It’s not the same gimmick, but it sure seems inspired. Late in the game, the purpose of the gimmick is explained through one brother’s journal pages. I haven’t attended church regularly in many years, but I do have vague memories of it. Only toward the end did it begin to make sense why some of the biblical quotations were clearly fictional.

     By the end, it even made sense why the plot had me doing odd things ranging from mildly sinful to completely blasphemous. I don’t think Jason has an expert’s grasp on the subject matter used in the game’s setting, but nor would I. Ultimately, it all worked fine. This seems to be one of his greatest strengths. Like last year, he manages a very convincing story in a setting he (probably) can’t draw from any real-life experience. We take this for granted in science fiction and fantasy, but Jason does it in less definable genres where it’s important to blend fact and accuracy with the fiction.

     Sudden death occurs in several places, but it’s usually fixed by an “undo” or two. In one of the first cases – getting some sleep – the abrupt ending seems necessary just to understand that something has to happen first. By IF canon, that’s bad. It didn’t bother me, perhaps because of the abrupt endings possible in my own competition entry. If this works for judges here, then it stands to reason it may work for them in mine.

     The game isn’t flawless, but it isn’t easy to find problems. The most obvious mistake I found was late in the game, when Ignatius appears in the calefactory even though I just left him in a completely different area. Going back there, he remains. I think the scene in the calefactory was meant for earlier. Once or twice, a blank spacer line was missing after prior text. Two logs, available at the author’s request, show a few other minor problems. I found nary a misspelling (of course, I’m no ace when it comes to spelling) and very few typos. Like I said before, Vespers shows off great writing.

     I gave this score more consideration than any so far. I’ve based it at 9.0 on my scale, but a +0.5 skew (for originality and great storytelling) puts it at 9.5. If anything tops it, this is going to be a great year for the IF Competition.

Game #7: Vendetta, by Fuyu Yuki
Played On: 10/13/2005 (1:25 PM to 2:20 PM)
And Again On: 10/14/2005 (1:30 PM to 3:30 PM and 4:30 PM to 5:00 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.0 (5.0 base with +1.0 skew)

     The first of five Adrift games on my play list this year is Vendetta, by “Fuyu Yuki” (which seems to be a pseudonym). I’ve only ever played one – maybe two – Adrift games. Last year’s
A Day in the Life of a Superhero comes to mind. With it, I didn’t notice how odd the Adrift parser is. I sure noticed it here.

     We all get into our own comfort zones. I generally play Hugo, Tads, and Zcode games the same way. Command syntax is pretty similar, and when something doesn’t work in one that does in another, it’s probably because that particular grammar rule wasn’t included. Commands start with a verb, objects are parsed out by their nouns and adjectives, articles are discarded, grammar rules are checked, and everything is put into scope to minimize references to objects elsewhere in the game. When I made custom parsers for my interactive fiction of years past, it didn’t come close to this.

     Adrift, by comparison, is…. weird. Initial punctuation is ignored, I think. In the process of putting comments in a transcript, my line was parsed. Sometimes, it was parsed on multiple breaks, spooling several suspicious errors. At times, Adrift even managed to pick out a real command from the line, leading me to do things that couldn’t be reversed. I think Adrift allows “undo”, so perhaps it was only disabled in this game. An example was when I tried to point out a quirk. I typed “*I meant to push it” – and the game replied with “(the small trolley) You feel nothing unusual. Command not understood.” That was because I had already tried to push the trolley, and the verb was mapped to “feel” instead.

     The biggest distraction was at a time when I had several comments to make in a row. I did this at a point near the beginning where large amounts of dialogue were dumped page after page. The game would continue to the next turn, showing another page of the story for each log entry I made. I’m not used to that in other games. To reorient myself in the absence of “undo”, I had to read pages of text in the transcript. I might have taken it from the Adrift scrollback, but at key transitional points, the screen was cleared.

     I felt that object scope was out of whack, too. Most things mentioned in the scenery were implemented, which is a bonus. Still, the game tried to match on a few things that weren’t, and instead of getting a “that’s not here” or “that’s not important” message, it matched on some object elsewhere (earlier in the game, I think), and referenced it by name. It wasn’t a big deal, but all these things cumulatively drag the quality down.

     Not every problem in Vendetta can be attributed to the Adrift environment. In fact, some of what I’ve already mentioned may have nothing to do with Adrift – it’ll take a few more samples before I know for sure. The game suffers from design flaws as well. English may be the author’s second language. Although comments about problems in the writing (especially extra, unnecessary words tacked onto the ends of sentences, or “she says” tacked on after too much dialogue to be anything but jarring) make up most of my transcripts, I’m going to pass over mentioning any particulars. The writing could be improved with proofreading and much retooling, and I’ll leave it at that.

     The bigger problem is that conversations are done in blocks. Okay, that’s not necessarily a problem. The author does break it up so that a command is necessary to spool it forward to the next page. I was playing on a wide-screen laptop, so I was often seeing back-and-forth dialogue line by line. It would have been easier to read if a blank line had been included before each switch, and perhaps if indentation was used. That would have made it feel more book-like, and I think it might have been easier on the eyes.

     The game is full of superfluous rooms, used only as a means of adding to the realism. Generally they’re simple constructions and contain nothing that might mislead a player into thinking a puzzle is involved, but they’re also unnecessary. The perimeter around the Falcon Lithoid comes to mind. The parking lot at its base is another. The building itself has numerous rooms that could have been combined or “sealed off” to the player, just to keep things focused. This is a minor complaint, though. It didn’t bother me, and I only mention it as a suggestion for the author’s future games. The story points and discoveries made in some of these places could have been combined or accomplished in other ways, without the need for all the extra rooms.

     A few things seemed entirely unnecessary, and potentially misleading. A humming sound can be heard in the northern portion of the parking garage, because (as it turns out) a reactor is in the building behind that wall. It’s realistic, sure, but was it necessary? The walls could have been thick enough to block out the sound, and then it wouldn’t seem as though it was important to investigate the humming from the parking area – since the humming isn’t even important there. I don’t know what, if anything, can be put into the disintegrator. It seemed to exist only as a story point. Only a couple of the labs had uses, or contained useful items, but for a time I thought I might need to perform experiments.

     The game is set 168 years in the future. I prefer sci-fi to be less specific. Let the world and the story speak for itself. The technology in Vendetta didn’t seem “futuristic” enough. Wouldn’t video-phones be replaced by holo-phones? Would anybody still have “an old, screenless mobile telephone” that far into the future? If so, would basic cellular service still exist? The game could have been set 15 years from now. Maybe 25. I would have preferred to simply not know. I like sci-fi in which everything seems old-fashioned. The Dying Earth (by Jack Vance) is a great example of how old-fashioned things come back by circumstance. In Vendetta, it just seemed unintentional. I think the author set out to make a near-future adventure, and then decided it would take 168 years for genetic engineering to reach the stages described by his story.

     At the end, the game shifts into a choose-your-own-adventure, where the final confrontation is carried out by way of a menu tree instead of IF-style action. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, it worked to make the confrontation stand out from the rest of the game. It probably helped keep the confrontation on track, where it would otherwise be difficult to involve the player in the same series of actions. On the other, it seemed out of place to the style of the rest of the game. The only puzzle was in figuring out which series of actions would lead to a win. Fortunately, more than one way works. With the lack of an “undo”, though, it pays to save just before the encounter begins.

     So, how did this game end up with an unofficial 6.0, when to this point I’ve been nothing but negative? Despite all these problems, the game really wasn’t buggy. Everything worked as intended. The puzzles weren’t broken, and until close to the end, I didn’t even need hints. I really liked the auto-mapping feature in the Adrift runner. The story was interesting too, and the game had a point. You are Jem Bitter, and you’re an unusual… person. The setting, despite the discrepancy between near-future technology and a far-future year, was interesting and even convincing. I liked the game, and that’s worth a 5.0 on my scale. The author has put considerable effort into it. The +1.0 skew is because I think he’s on the right track. Release an updated version of Vendetta (ask me, if you want my session transcripts), and don’t stop writing Interactive Fiction! Your next game, I’m sure, will be an improvement.

Game #8: The Colour Pink, by Robert Street
Played On: 10/15/2005 (5:40 PM to 6:30 PM, 6:50 PM to 7:25 PM, 7:45 to 8:55)
Unofficial Score: 9.5 (9.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     I love this game.

     This is old-fashioned puzzle goodness. You are sent to investigate the disappearance of a colony, missing from an alien planet. Eating a suspicious bird egg – for no good reason other than an irresistible urge – puts you into a surreal, alternate reality. I did something similar way back in the ’99 competition. It was met with mixed reactions.

     You must be thinking “Great. Another one. Everything is all random and unreal, but it’s all just part of the fantasy and that’s supposed to make it okay.” That’s one way of looking at it. Yes, this does allow for some wacky encounters in which animals (both real and mythical) talk and ask for help with personal dilemmas. The puzzles are well-clued and not very difficult (aside from a carrot-harvesting bit that’s optional anyway), and most importantly, the entire game is fun. It’s really fun. This is what adventure gaming is all about.

     I solved the game along one path (not realizing another was even possible) without hints. The various endings are picked CYOA-style (following a CYOA ending in the game I played just prior, Vendetta). I was left missing 5 points, and a few objects/areas seemed unused. So, a peek at the hints, the after-game notes, and finally the walkthrough put me onto an alternate path that not only expands the enjoyment of the game, but actually changes much of the second half, resulting in two additional endings.

     The first two areas are quads that require no real mapping. The next area is larger, but arranged in a pattern that looks pretty cool on paper. Another quad underwater reflects some aspects of the “real” world, as does the interior of the red tower. As was probably the author’s intent, no single ending seems like the best or the most real, and it’s never quite clear how the things in the alternate land (either of them, since there are two paths) relate to the missing people or the lost inventory from the real world.

     The writing in The Colour Pink isn’t particularly colorful or clever (although it is pink in spots), lacking complicated metaphors and dense descriptions. This keeps it unpretentious and more game-like than story-like. The focus is always on the puzzles. I have little else to say about this game, except that I highly recommend it to puzzle fans – especially those who like the easy, traditional kind, where the gold key always opens the gold door and the carrot-loving rabbit is always going to give you something good if you feed him.

     As for the story, it’s not complicated, but it could be deeper than it seems. I’m not sure why the pink theme was abandoned mid-way, nor why the love potion was just a segue to the fantasy world. I’m basing the game at 9.0 on my scale, skewing +0.5 for an “unofficial” 9.5 because I had so much fun playing.

Game #9: Xen: The Contest, by “Xentor”
Played On: 10/16/2005 (11:00 AM to 1:30 PM, 9:20 PM to 10:50 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (7.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     When a game takes twice as long to finish as the competition tries to promote, it’s safe to say the entry is just too long. It seems to be the norm this year, and it’s probably why I’m finding it so difficult to get through every game. The competition judging period is one-third over, and I’m only about one-quarter of the way through.

     Xen: The Contest feels like a CYOA taken apart bit by bit and reconstructed in Interactive Fiction form. Each chapter (and there are several) gets shorter and less interactive than the one before. Even when key story points can offer no real choice, it’s better to keep the illusion of choice. Or, if action happens a la cut-scene, it’s better to minimize it for effect. The second half of the game, looking back, seems like one big cut-scene with prompts added for good measure.

     The author put all his creativity and effort into the story. It’s an interesting story, and one that really grabbed me. The problem is, the framework on which the story sits was shortchanged as a result. You can’t wear the backpack. You don’t need to, but what would it hurt? You can’t unlock doors – you have to swipe cards. That took a little while to figure out. You can talk to “Kevin” but the game doesn’t understand “Kev” – not a big deal, except he asked to be called that. Trying to go east from the bus stop just shows a blank line when it’s not appropriate to the story. When the time is right, you board the bus and all is well. Much of the time, the same series of actions (visiting the cafeteria, going to class, going back to the dorm to sleep) are repeated, as the bridge between one cut-scene and the next. You can phone NPCs by name, but not by number. At a few spots, it’s necessary to ask an NPC something that requires either a hint request or exceptional intuition.

     The writing is fine. It never felt forced, and the dialogue was convincing. The puzzles aren’t complicated. Usually, the game is looking for a specific action or two. I guess these aren’t puzzles so much as they are brief interactive bits, allowing the player to take part in the transition between one cut-scene and the next. Again, this becomes more obvious in the later chapters, but it’s like that from the start. The interactive bits usually take some thought, so it doesn’t really qualify as puzzle-less IF either.

     Don’t worry. The built-in hint system helped every time I needed it, which makes this a game anybody can complete. The included walkthrough (I peeked after I finished) seems well-written too. I mapped the campus on paper, and that also helped.

     What starts as a generic college sim becomes a pretty cool sci-fi story, full of interesting NPCs, trust and betrayal, magic and murder, mystery and discovery. I considered upgrading its score with a +1.0 skew from its 7.0 base because of the cool and entertaining storyline, but in the end, the good story is already why the base isn’t lower. Instead, a skew of +0.5 serves to compliment what I felt was some great dialogue between the PC and his various peers. I liked Xen: The Contest, and two transcripts are available if the author is interested in checking my comments for an updated version.

Game #10: Snatches, by Gregory Weir
Played On: 10/18/2005 (3:10 PM to 5:05 PM and 9:00 PM to 9:55 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (8.0 base with -0.5 skew)

     In Snatches, a survival horror game told from various (at least ten) viewpoints and set in and around a not-all-that-creepy bed and breakfast, Gregory Weir tells an entertaining story. It’s the first entry I’ve played (so far) this year that feels short enough to embody the two-hour spirit of the competition (although Psyche’s Lament may also qualify).

     Each viewpoint changes room and object descriptions, as you might expect. This seemed effective, and I found very few instances where it didn’t feel right. A young girl’s perceptions won’t be the same as a semi-drunk businessman, and one segment is even told from the perspective of Duke, a family’s pet. As far as I can tell, the segments aren’t always played in order – Sam’s segment is played before Kaitlyn’s, although it happens after hers. It’s not about time travel in any way – just the way the story is shown to the last of the series of victims as she struggles with the loosed creature.

     It’s a story and a game structure that sets itself up for high expectations. To make it work, though, the author had to prevent most of the potential overlap between segments. It doesn’t seem that any segment ever happens during another, and most of the time, each character is restricted to a subset of rooms that prevent interaction with the others. This means most segments have only minor effects on the others. I played through to three different endings once (allowing the creature to escape, killing the creature, and capturing the creature), but felt there had to be more. Later, I played through again, trying everything I could to make these segments interact. I managed to create some minor inconsistencies that way, but I never managed to find a deeper plot line. I hoped that the first character could do something that would help the second character do something to benefit the third character, and so on.

     I just couldn’t. The separation of segments was so thorough that I couldn’t bring key items into an area that could be accessed by characters in later segments. The “about” text mentions NPC conversations, and I only found it possible a couple times (once near the beginning, and again near the end). I could be wrong, but it seems that the author had a much better plan for this structure. The decisions made in early segments are supposed to impact later ones, according to the “about” text. That’s true, to the extent that doors opened or closed and items taken or dropped by one character remain that way into the next. This just seems like a persistent world state, though – not the plot device it could have been. I would love to see an alternate walkthrough in which my initial hopes for this game are proven right, but it seems more likely that the logistics of managing so many characters in so many segments, coupled with a looming competition deadline, made this a game that strays from what the author had originally set out to do.

     Each character’s perspective, as I mentioned, is done well. Unfortunately, since it’s a comp-sized game, we are never really given a chance to get to know any of them very well. The game does a good job or providing information about each character from the perspective of the others too, and that alone is rewarding. I just found some of the segments constricted and short. One of the longest and most free-roaming is the first, and ultimately that’s just a segue into the main story. It does allow for some familiarity with the game map without the urgency of later segments, and that’s a plus.

     The writing is great, and I liked the story. Even though it seems to fall short of what I hoped given the structure, it’s still a good game as-is. I have scored it at 8.0 on my scale, but with a -0.5 skew (for an unofficial 7.5) because I still felt some disappointment that I couldn’t manipulate the game in the ways the premise seemed to promise (and because of some weird interpreter errors toward the end).

     I’m very interested in hearing what Gregory Weir has to say about his entry, after the results are announced. I expect it will be one of the more discussed games this year, and since it’s the kind of thing judges tend to go for, it will probably be one of the few games that do better with the judges than it did by my rankings. Even so, I do recommend it!

Game #11: Beyond, by Mondi Confinanti
Played On: 10/19/2005 (12:45 PM to 4:45 PM)
Unofficial Score: 10.0 (no skew needed)

     Okay, I cheated. Beyond was much lower on my random play list (fifth from the bottom), but after peeking at it a few days ago, I was impressed by the visual style and the title graphic. I didn’t want to wait, especially since it looks like I might not even make it through all the entries before the competition ends.

     The biggest problem with the game – and I’ll get this out of the way first, because I don’t have much to complain about otherwise – is that the not-quite-right English is a little jarring. This was more noticeable in the first chapters, where “an” and “a” were sometimes misused, and phrases like “…the man came here about at eight o'clock…” would have read better with “about” and “at” swapped. My transcript is full of grammatical criticism, but the more involved I became in the story, the less a distraction this was. I know a few random words in a few random languages. To write an entire game in another language is unthinkable to me. These guys did a great job.

     I don’t really want to talk about the story, except to say that it’s purposely manipulative to the player’s emotions. That’s probably redundant. All good fiction is likely to manipulate the reader’s emotions, which is the point of storytelling. It took a while to decide whether or not this was working for Beyond, because it deals with some troubling subject matter and the prompted emotions are outrage, regret, and sadness. It seemed forced at first, as though the authors were writing this particular story in this particular manner just because that’s what the IFComp judges go for. It won points once I realized my first suspicion – the cause of Elena’s death – was totally wrong. It might have been a forced political/moral statement, but thankfully it wasn’t.

     Each chapter – and each interlude between chapters – is unique and varied from the others. That’s not to say the style of the game changes. It remains consistent, but it doesn’t just repeat the same thing again and again and… again. One scene has you questioning witnesses. In another, you chase a shrouded killer. Later, you visit a might-have-been farm-home that never-was in a life you never had. When it came to catching a bright light while my companion demonstrated a dim one, I thought “Wow. These guys never slacked on the creativity.” I can’t say that the story is without flaws, but it isn’t one that I felt inclined to pick apart even so.

     The game isn’t flawless, either. In the dim/bright lights area, you can get hopelessly stuck if you go north or south without going through the door. These things are the proverbial exception, not the rule. For instance, I was very impressed with the conversation system – not because menu trees are new or unique, but because it stays up and remains responsive even while normal actions work. While it might be said that “ask-about” is more realistic, I really liked what I saw here. You could take any actions you like (except leaving the room) while the conversation was going on. Look at the guy, then pick a conversation option. Check inventory and look at a photo, and then continue the conversation. It worked very well. It’s likely I might steal this technique for a future game – sorry, guys.

     I’ve never seen a hint system quite like this, either. A request for help whisks you off to a pseudo-room where important components of the current chapter exist. Interacting with these items provide further clues to the actions you should take. I didn’t slide into the hints area often, and once or twice I still felt stuck afterwards, but it was unique. Ultimately, it worked for me, even if some of it may merit improvement.

     The style of the game hit me just right as well, from the layout and color choice to the excellent monochromatic illustrations. Despite some very disturbing subject matter, I really enjoyed this game. I listened to remixes of some Silent Hill 2 music the entire time, and even though this isn’t creepy to that extent, it worked very well. A high level of detail polishes it off, from the wide range of shapes available to the Mad Joker, to the bonus scenery responses. This is the first game that seems to fit my description of a “10” – and that’s the base, with no skew required. It’s not perfect, but it made me say “wow.”

Game #12: Internal Vigilance, by Simon Christiansen
Played On: 10/21/2005 (9:30 AM to 11:30 AM)
Unofficial Score: 7.0 (7.0 base with no skew)

     On my scale, a 7.0 is sort of the midpoint. That’s the fault of my rankings, sure, but in deciding on a score for Internal Vigilance, I noticed how everything above “7” is pretty good (by my scoring explanations, I mean), and everything below it begins to suffer from more serious problems. Internal Vigilance fits in here. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. It’s no waste of time, yet it’s not a game you’re likely to play outside the competition. It’s typical story-heavy interactive fiction. In short, it’s pretty average.

     It’s easier to point out what’s wrong with it than what’s right, so I’ll start there. The game has a few technical flaws (and as usual, my play transcript is available at the author’s request). Some actions are automatic (using the elevator – which was a little confusing too), while some aren’t (getting in and out of the car and turning on/off the engine). At times, I was able to do things while still inside the car, even though the game described me as standing outside. I noticed a few formatting problems: an extra blank line here, a missing space there, overuse of commas, missing quotes, etc. The lowercase “i” is almost certainly intentional (it’s used throughout, and seems to fit the theme), but it bears mentioning since at first glance it appears to be a mistake among other typos.

     I remember at least two politically-motivated games in last year’s competition: Who Created That Monster? and Blink. This is sort of a middle ground between the large area and frequent puzzles covered by the former, and the almost puzzle-less narrative of the latter. Internal Vigilance allows for choice, and that’s fine. However, with the narrative serving as the PC’s conscious, the endings in which I sided with the Union felt critical. Essentially, I ended the game positively, but the final text wags an invisible finger at me, reminding me that I still live in a dystopic utopia. If I help topple the Union, the endings suggest regret, as though the dystopia-in-sheep’s-clothing was better than the chaos to follow. I found endings one, two, six, seven, and eight. I wonder if the undiscovered ninth ending is best? I replayed from earlier in the game, more than once, and relied on hints. It still wasn’t enough to help me uncover those other endings.

     I’m becoming a fan of menu-tree conversations. I think conversations should side with the story, not the puzzles. Internal Vigilance sticks with the traditional “ask-about” style. This became something like a brute-force “look at”, where I began to experiment with every keyword I could think of. This is made harder because the keywords aren’t objects in the same room, the way brute-force “look at” works. This makes the conversation a puzzle. I found that I would rather move the story along instead. Others may insist that the menu-tree approach is jarring, but I think I prefer it.

     My only other complaint is harder to describe. By the end, I had a good idea what was going on. I knew some about the Union, why it came about, and the result. Beyond that, I never felt a connection to the game’s world. If the author is suggesting that we’re gradually moving toward Union by the actions of our governments now, I disagree. Anyway, it was never quite clear what freedoms and choices were abandoned by the formation of the Union. Everything seemed pretty normal to me. People came and went unhindered. Lives seemed otherwise normal. The theme could have been more heavily saturated into the game, for a better effect. With a theme like this, I think that’s important. Show, don’t tell. The story would benefit from showing happy people living within their obvious restrictions. The interrogation bit at the beginning wasn’t enough. The NeuroChip was a step in the right direction, but I never connected with the characters and their plight, in either direction. It was never quite real enough, because I never really felt the Union was good or bad. It just… existed.

     Now, the good. Gameplay seems solid, although the hints became more necessary than I would have liked. The writing is never too bad – just a little rough in minor ways. Hmm… those are probably back-handed compliments. The story has potential… there I go again. It’s perfectly competition-sized, unless you intend to collect all the endings. Scenery is generally well-implemented, which is sometimes lacking in games that focus too much on story and not enough on game mechanics (okay, yes, I’ve been guilty of that). Some earlier decisions do affect the outcome. All in all, it’s a worthwhile but average game.

Game #13: History Repeating, by Mark and Renee Choba
Played On: 10/23/2005 (1:15 PM to 2:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (7.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     This is going to be a pretty short review, because I don’t have much to say about History Repeating. It’s a good, short game. I finished in a little over an hour, but deferred to the walkthrough a time or two when I felt especially stuck. The first time, I didn’t know what to say to the dean (we called them “principals” when I went to high school – deans were at college). The game uses a combination of menu-tree conversations and ask/tell. I guess this became a little misleading, because the right option never appeared in the menu, yet I needed to tell her about something I witnessed earlier. Fortunately, once the walkthrough pushed me past that point, I figured out what to tell the janitor, no hints required.

     The rest of the game worked pretty well. I knew the history lecture was a clue, and that really helped when I began to investigate the pond in the courtyard. I tried to adapt the lunch tray to the purpose, overlooking something more useful (again to the walkthrough). Scenery is well-implemented, and the “help” section even describes a few amusing things to try during the course of the game. I encountered a few small bugs (trying to print the report after you already have it indicates you should type it first, although you already did and can’t do so again), including one in which the game crashes (both in Windows Frotz, and in Gargoyle – probably others) when you “ask janitor for toolbox.” The strangest was probably the layout of the western ends of the hallways, where NW or SW followed by NE or SE toggled the same two rooms. Perhaps it makes sense, but I couldn’t envision it – especially when the rest of the school’s layout was pretty logical.

     It’s a good premise that might have worked as a longer game. You have been brought back in time by your old science teacher, to determine whether or not it’s possible to change the past. It’s done in a wacky way, though. He’s built a time machine on the roof of the school. Accept it, and move on.

     Multiple endings are possible, and fortunately not too difficult to achieve. The puzzles are logical and not overly difficult, although I found some of them a little arbitrary. This is no real problem for me. I like puzzle games, and I take for granted that sometimes the same scenario in real life might have easier, more obvious solutions. This doesn’t bother me the way it might others. If you wonder why no records are to be found near the stereo in the music room, or why something more brick-like wasn’t found elsewhere in the school, well… you’re forgetting that it’s a game. Simulation has its place, and (thankfully) Interactive Fiction is rarely simulation.

     As another neither-bad-nor-great entry in this year’s competition, History Repeating fits snugly into 7.0 on my scale. For a few clever, interesting bits (especially things described in the “amusing” section), I have added a +0.5 skew to the score. It’s a fun, short game.

Game #14: A New Life, by Alexandre Owen Muniz
Played On: 10/23/2005 (3:40 PM to 6:40 PM)
Unofficial Score: 8.0 (7.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     Once again, I have jumped ahead to a game later in my list. This time, it’s because A New Life was recommended to me. If I really won’t have time to finish all the games before November 15th, I might as well take them in any order, right?

     I’ll probably go back to the list now. I enjoyed this game, but I found it incredibly difficult. Maybe it’s just me and my sub-par puzzle-solving abilities, but I was only able to complete the game down the path set by the walkthrough. I was already over two hours into the game my own way, using the built-in hint system more and more, and I had exhausted all of those options. I may have been in an unwinnable state. I’m not sure.

     It’s a very unique story, hinting at parallel realities and mythical races where a person’s gender can be changed from time to time. While playing, I kept wondering if the goblins were really humans and vice-versa, but this was never confirmed. A New Life has a lot going on, and much of it surfaces as memories (a “remember” command does this), or as considerations when examining scenery or talking to the game’s characters. The back-story is an epic tapestry of magic and mystery. Much of the fun comes from learning more and more about the unique world in which the game is set, and about the people who inhabit it.

     The biggest problem is, it’s sometimes (okay, often times) unclear what to do without getting pointers from the hints. Even then, it can be a little confusing. This is the kind of game that would be great outside the competition, where it might be played over the course of three or four nights without that two-hour mark looming ahead. I think it would be more rewarding taken at leisure. I spent three hours on it, and the last of that was just typing from the walkthrough. My original path might have been interesting, if I had been able to figure it out. The thing with the three bags and the two staffs was pretty clever, but even putting them to use, I never quite felt as though I had solved everything. On my own plot branch, I couldn’t figure out what was important about the stars and panels, even though I could make them light up as described in the hints.

     This is either a really great game I just didn’t fully understand, or a pretty average game that does a great job of seeming to be a really great game I didn’t fully understand. If taken without recommendation, I might have based it at 6.5 or 7.0 – lower because of the complicated puzzles, and the lack of clear objectives. This is the trap we fall into when judging a game we know is or isn’t liked by others. If I’m to trust in someone else’s opinion, I have to believe the game is better than it seems. And now it’s my turn, to pass my opinion along to others by way of this review.

     The writing in A New Life is excellent. This is one of the few games where the text just flowed right. It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t overdone, and it wasn’t choppy. Good writing makes a game seem more real, and when the unique world seems to be the focus, that’s important. This is the basis for my +0.5 skew, from a base of 7.5. A New Life may fare well in the competition. It’s a good enough game: worth the time, but not my favorite. I recommend playing it without expecting an easy, two-hour experience. Don’t rush, ease into it with exploration and experimentation (looking, remembering, asking), and you’re likely to have a great time.

Game #15: FutureGame, by The FutureGame Corporation
Played On: 10/24/2005 (2:00 PM to 2:05 PM)
Unofficial Score: 1.5 (2.0 base with -0.5 skew)

     What’s here is well-written.

     Not much is here.

     You can win, or you can not win. You can read about how great FutureGame is.

     Thankfully, I didn’t get to this one yesterday, when I was making deals with my wife to play just one more competition game. I’d have filed a complaint with my local Better Business Bureau against the FutureGame Corporation, if I had wasted it on five minutes of nothing. Every competition seems to have a joke game or two. This one lacks humor.

     I might have finished in three minutes, but I thought maybe I was missing a trick, or a deeper experience. The game file is only 11k. I think I got it all. At least what’s here works, more or less. Trying to “x” things assumes (for some reason) an intended restart. Since it’s a step above “unplayable” I have based it at 2.0 on my scale. A negative half-point skew is awarded because it could have been funnier, lasted a little longer, or delayed the punch-line after a few more options.

Game #16: Son of a..., by C. S. Woodrow
Played On: 10/24/2005 (2:25 PM to 4:05 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     I’m a sucker for moderately easy puzzle games.

     Maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment that comes from solving a game without the walkthrough. Maybe it’s the unbroken pace that allows the game to play out without too much trial-and-error frustration. Maybe it’s the various “ah-ha!” moments that don’t come quite as often when I peek at the hints in a more difficult game. I’m just a sucker for these kinds of games.

     The game begins in a broken-down car, then leads to an abandoned, run-down motel. The writing is excellent – except for the frequent misuse of “its” (possessive) and “it’s” (contraction of “it is”). In general, the author has confused the two (but later in the game, it seems to improve with some correct usage). It’s a surprise, since the rest of the writing (with a few minor bumps here and there) is great. I got over it pretty quickly, though, and enjoyed the game much more without dwelling on that.

     It’s a simple story, meant to describe a day where everything just goes wrong (according to the game’s competition blurb). To me, it seemed like a typical adventure scenario. Sure, you can die from a wasp attack or by standing on a decrepit diving board, and you’re thwarted by obstacles along the way (dead cell phone, miles from anywhere). I never really had a sense that the game was setting me up for anything. I expected to encounter one defeat after the next, leading me along a trail of failures. That didn’t really happen. I made it through well enough, and found the game to be just difficult enough for my meager puzzle-solving talents.

     Son of a... employs an interesting use of the game’s score. It’s not something I picked up on right away, but I was awarded points seemingly at random. Instead of increasing my score for each achievement, five or ten points were awarded just for entering certain rooms, or picking up certain items. My first inclination was to complain about this. It seemed silly and arbitrary; but then it made sense. Actually, I probably saw the author’s explanation in the hints (which, by the way, are general tips that don’t spoil the puzzles). By adding points for important items and important places, it becomes easier to pick out what’s necessary from what isn’t. Although I couldn’t remember what had given me points and what hadn’t (too bad a “fullscore” command wasn’t there – is that just a TADS thing?), I could refer to my ongoing transcript. When I felt stuck, I only had to consider which “scored” items and places hadn’t yet proven useful. That’s not to say this technique can take the place of good in-game cueing, but for Son of a... it worked well.

     Woodrow has replaced every brand name with something contrived – an opportunity to sprinkle the game with humor. Your cell phone is from “Phonyrola”. Your car is a “Furdler Weasel”. Granted, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but these kinds of details – the motel’s letterboard sign, for instance – add depth to compliment what’s essentially a puzzle-fest. I almost laughed, though, right at the end when I tried giving the sack (contents included) to the tow-truck driver. You have to try it.

     Aside from the it’s/its misuse and what few flaws can be found in the text, I have very few complaints. For some reason, looking at the sign in the office left my entire game in a fixed-width font, corrected only by exiting and coming back to re-load the saved game. Most of the game’s map was pretty logical, but there was a bit near the old tavern that had me going in multiple directions from multiple places, with path connections I didn’t quite understand. I tried to “climb” something at one point, but the game only understood “up” there. At the utility shack, I found a strange quirk dealing with moving from one side of the fence to the other – nothing game-killing, just a little odd. At the end was another of those “yay!” moments, where I knew just what I needed to do, but couldn’t, until I figured out what to say to the driver first. I count these all as minor for an otherwise wonderful hour and a half.

     I have based the game half-way between 8 and 9 on my scale, but it’s an even 9.0 after a +0.5 skew (given almost entirely due to my reaction to the previously-mentioned “give sack” response). The skew also comes from some entertaining text in general. Well done!

Game #17: The Plague (Redux), by Laurence Moore
Played On: 10/24/2005 (7:40 PM to 9:40 PM, 10:40 PM to 12:00 AM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 5.0 (5.5 base with –0.5 skew)

     Survival Horror is less scary when you’re taking care of a wailing infant. I admit I struggled with the first two hours of this game more than I might have otherwise, due to splitting my attention between the game and the baby. Later, I put on some Silent Hill remixes (from
www.ocremix.org), which helped the mood.

     I had less trouble with the Adrift parser for this, the second Adrift game in my list. It still felt a little off, especially when Adrift is parsing multiple commands out of my ongoing commentary. Otherwise, it works pretty well. There were a few instances where the game thought I was referring to a completely different object, or where disambiguation was a problem. One instance kept asking me if I meant the “wall” or the “water bottle.” Neither answer would disambiguate. This is key to solving the game, as it turns out. After some frustrated repeating and undoing, the command somehow worked. This kind of thing can be a problem in other IF language, so I don’t think this is the fault of Adrift so much as just a bug in the game.

     Strangely enough, the “about” and “score” commands were mapped the same as “help”.

     The Plague (Redux) uses a first-person voice. Not to rest there, it’s also written in the past tense. I assumed the author was going for a narrative in which the PC, a twenty-year-old girl among the zombie hordes, is relating her experiences to someone at the end of the game. This didn’t happen (and later, I’ll talk about the ending bits), so I’m not sure if this was just meant to make the game stand out from the traditional second-person present tense or what. It slips a few times, where single events happen in the present tense seemingly by mistake, but overall it flows pretty well.

     I suspect that beta testing was either a low priority, or else the author just didn’t finish with time to respond to beta feedback. The “water bottle” disambiguation is just one among many bugs. You can enter the stall in the women’s bathroom, where a [F]ight or [E]scape choice is given. However, neither option works, and the brief room text makes no mention of the zombies quite plainly described as being in there earlier. They’re back, and the two options are gone (the fight is automatic), once you get a weapon. Names are given to NPCs before the PC should know. Toward the end, one puzzle requires learning an NPC’s name to build trust, which is difficult to follow when the game has already given her a name in reference to attempted actions. Late in the game, I began to experience an inventory limitation that kept me from carrying almost anything – even stuff I previously had. This too seemed unintentional.

     Harder to identify, but equally frustrating, are the problems that are attributed more to bad design than to bad coding. I hate calling anything “bad”, especially since I’ve done much of this in my own past games (although it was bad those times, too). When searching boxes in one area, the PC finds nothing. I tried moving the boxes, but couldn’t. Stuck later, I referred to the walkthrough (ultimately, I did so several times). You can look behind the boxes. It’s a spoiler, but you’ll thank me for it. The PC then shifts the boxes around to see what’s behind. If you pick a half-dozen beta-testers, at least one would probably have caught this. As it stands, I thought I had exhausted my options. It’s frustrating to see the PC described as doing something you explicitly tried, in response to a different action. Knowing this at least makes later parts easier. The game requires quite a few unprompted and unclued actions. Sometimes this can work, but at times I had to repeat actions I did before, without any indication that I might get a different result this time (finding the screwdriver, learning the girl’s name, returning to the subway exit). Again, sometimes this can work, but not without some kind of clue or hint that I should try again later.

     The game also requires close examination of everything. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but failing to investigate every piece of scenery can leave you stuck. Again, I don’t think that’s always a bad practice. With a large area to explore, though, it becomes a pretty big task to even identify each piece of scenery in every room. If I had been limited to a room or two, this would probably be a non-issue. Looking at everything becomes obvious.

     Then, there are the quirks that are neither bugs nor design problems. Okay – possibly design problems, but I’m not lumping them together because I understand the point of a puzzle game. First, the smell of decaying flesh is described. The plague struck only a few hours earlier. Does flesh decay that quickly, or was it brought in from elsewhere? I was sure the cigarette pack and the lighter (and perhaps the roll of tape) could help me make a torch. I don’t mind that it didn’t, except that it would have been nice for the game to tell me why not. It seemed pretty obvious. Perhaps the lighter could have been empty, and the PC discards it as useless. I don’t know. The great thing about beta-testing is that you don’t have to change everything testers try, to accommodate such varied solutions to the puzzles. You can leave the game and the story untouched, and simply add meaningful, legitimate reasons why those things won’t work. It will also help you identify where clues are lacking, to help direct the player to the proper path.

     What happened to the other three girls at the beginning? I expected to meet them again in Zombie form, if nothing else. What about Nick? Did he stay dead because he was never attacked by a Zombie? Carnage was all around, but the zombies were confined behind doors and in the train. Some might have reasonably stuck around, right?

     At the end, I realized how some of these earlier problems were introduced. The author had more planned for the game. The map (thank goodness for auto-mapping – I love that about Adrift) shows an exit “out” with no branch westward, yet the room text describes the exit as being to the west. I did that first, winning the game. I backed up. I went out instead, and found a whole new area to roam, complete with an unimplemented barrel and hose. The problem is, you can’t get back “in” when you do, and every way is a dead end. One branch leads to an empty room with no way back. Another room with no text can at least be exited. I think the author meant to seal off this unfinished portion of the game. This might also explain why the [F]ight or [E]scape bit earlier seemed totally unimplemented. The author made some last-minute decisions, to finish by the deadline.

     Other than that – and yeah, that seems like a lot to complain about – it’s a fine game. The writing is vivid and the game feels urgent when it needs to be. With some work, The Plague (Redux) (was there a first zombie plague?) could be a great game. I have a transcript with plenty of notes, available to the author at his request. I wanted to base this at 6.0 on my scale, but it slips a little more into frustration for a 5.5. I should skew down half a point because it’s too big for the competition. I won’t, because I didn’t do the same for the earlier games. What happened to all the short games, though? The half-point downward skew is because the game is apparently unfinished, and bits of the incomplete design still remain.

Game #18: The Sword of Malice, by Anthony Panuccio
Played On: 10/25/2005 (10:10 AM to 10:35 AM and 11:10 AM to 11:55 AM)
Unofficial Score: 4.0 (4.0 base with no skew)

     Ordinarily, I wouldn’t give up so soon while trying to solve a game. I’ll go an hour or two – even longer, if I feel I’m making progress on my own – before I resort to the walkthrough. With The Sword of Malice, I probably should have peeked early. When I did, I started over so I could go strictly by the author’s suggestions. I have to pat myself on the back, though, for making it out of the “Altari Castle” (why does the author put quotes around room names? No idea), albeit without the scabbard. I made it to the tomb with the three puzzle rooms, and I even defeated the skeleton warrior without hints.

     I don’t think I’d ever have solved the game (especially for the “best” ending) without the walkthrough. It’s hard to feel smug about getting as far as I did, when it was partially accidental. I had to check the transcript later, to realize that the bed is held up by chains. This is important, but nothing about it drew my attention. In fact, when other commands started referencing the chains by mistake, I thought the author had flubbed up and completely forgotten to include a vital piece in the description. My fault, but why wasn’t it clued better? Say a little more about the chains. Draw my attention to them. Make me curious about them in some way. I solved this only because the game kept thinking I was talking about the chains, even though I had previously overlooked them.

     I really wasn’t too put off at first, because this seemed like a one-room game. Limited objects might lead to more and more, until the game was bigger than it first seemed in my quest to escape. Thinking of it as a possible one-room game, though, I tried a few random actions just to observe the results. That’s how I got the Power of the Sekoniun. I don’t know how to explain this without giving a blatant spoiler. I’ll just say that the action required to obtain the power (which I did just in the course of experimentation) is hinted in a journal, but you can only get the journal by doing something that would seem sufficient to trigger the action anyway. I’ll use a generic example. Suppose a path stretches before you. You go north. You return to the south. It’s only when you “walk on path” that magic happens. Wasn’t it implied that I was walking on the path already? Maybe that’s not a good example, but it’s the best I can do without spoiling it. The power, according to the walkthrough, is optional – for a lesser ending. Even finding the journal was problematic, because I couldn’t search or “move” something to get it, but… well, again with the possible spoiler.

     Here’s a better example, straight from the game, and it doesn’t spoil anything. If you try to get the scabbard, a transparent aura blocks you. If you touch the aura, you die. Didn’t I just do that, in the process of trying to reach for the scabbard?

     It isn’t a one-room game, and knowing this, I couldn’t help but lose faith in its internal consistency. I’ve said this more than once as I’ve reviewed the other games this year, but I do understand puzzles. I get the point. I enjoy puzzles, and I know that allowing anything and everything kind of defeats the point. This is where beta-testing is vital. The puzzles don’t have to be easier, but they can be clued better. The wrong actions – especially obvious ones – should at least tell players why they’re wrong. If this makes the puzzle too easy, then give more thought to improving the puzzle. As I see these kinds of problems this year, I’m learning what not to do in my own future games. As another example, I looked at the potions on the shelf several times. I saw two or three different ones – and sometimes none at all – after repeating that ten or so times. Later, via the walkthrough, I found that one potion can be taken. It’s not required – it solves a puzzle that I solved in another way – but it just made me wonder again about consistency. You can take the potion only when you stumble upon it, which requires pure and repeated randomness.

     At the end, I managed to stick the game in a state where I had done everything required, but the forge wouldn’t respond. I think it’s when I tried to save time by using “all” with the required action. That’s just a guess. Anyway, I had to “undo” a few times, so I could try again. Then, it worked. I had all points. I guess that was the “best” ending, but I’m not too sure what’s to become of either the Sekoniun or the Altari races. Worse, I don’t think it really matters.

     The writing is okay. I didn’t spot any real problems, but I found myself wanting to re-write the text. For instance, “the epigraph on the stone is inscribed deeply into the stone” might flow better as “the epigraph on the stone is deeply inscribed” or perhaps “an epigraph has been deeply carved into the stone.” This may be a matter of taste. When I play console games, I like good graphics. When I play text adventures, I like good text.

     To its credit, The Sword of Malice is appropriately comp-sized. Had I been able to go further without the walkthrough, it might even have hit a full two hours. The game seems to fit right in at 4.0 on my scale. This is due more to my frustration with the puzzles and consistency than to the text and story, but all of it could use some work. Beta-testing is almost as important as writing a good game to begin with, and no good game is great without it.

Game #19: Tough Beans, by Sara Dee
Played On: 10/25/2005 (2:35 PM to 3:45 PM and 4:05 PM to 4:35 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     All in all, Tough Beans is a fine piece of work. It isn’t often where a person’s first game (assuming Sara Dee isn’t a pseudonym) is so polished and playable. “This is Sara Dee’s first game.” I kept thinking, though, that my entry last year was Sidney Merk’s first game, too. Why didn’t she say “…my first game” instead? Just semantics? Moving on.

     Tough Beans does a better job of describing a day where everything just goes wrong than does Son of a...(another entry in this year’s competition). The story hints at something deeper, which remained unexplored up to my 3-point ending. Was the early elevator scene a premonition of one possible ending (mishap with the firework)? Does Wendy have a mental illness, or some kind of tumor that’s causing her numbness and flashbacks, or is that just for narrative effect? What was her boyfriend’s motivation, beyond the obvious? The walkthrough claims there are five endings, with variations to each. Does that include the firework mishap? If not, then I found only one. I did identify a key decision early on (it’s pretty obvious – the game tells you it’s a key decision, more or less). I played briefly into each, and settled on just one.

     The puzzles aren’t complicated, but they aren’t always easy. For puzzle experts, this is probably perfect. The clues are usually just right. I made it to the coffee shop before feeling stuck enough to peek at the walkthrough. I felt guilty here, though, because I should have noticed what’s important after Rhoda broke her pen. Some of it may still walk the border between fair and unfair – the form goes unnoticed, for instance, even when looking right at the spot where it’s found. I guess if I visualize the scene, and consider what I might see walking up to my own desk – the orientation of it, and the angle of approach – I guess I can see how a form might remain unnoticed until further action is taken. I guess since it did work, and I found the form, then the puzzle worked.

     The bugs – what few there are – are minor. Looking at the kitchen table reports a bowl, but searching it states nothing is on the table – that kind of thing. Errors in the text are almost non-existent. The game succeeds very well as fiction, where the level of implementation is deep and the writing stands out as descriptive and emotional.

     It’s a story about breaking cycles and standing up for yourself. Some of that is obvious from a 3-point play-through, but the scoring hints in the walkthrough make it more clear. I couldn’t quite decide what the story was meant to achieve, though. Was it meant to be a poignant introspection into Wendy’s psyche? Should I have felt bad for her, or should I have resolved to be more assertive? Both? It wasn’t easy for me to recognize decision points aside from the early one, and it wasn’t easy to think like a weepy 22-year-old secretary. This game is going to hit the proverbial perfect note with some players, but I never quite connected with the PC.

     Fiction is less about writing main characters that are familiar to the audience – that’s a playground for stereotypes – and more about writing main characters that will become familiar to the audience. Games with a deemphasis on the PC’s identity avoid this almost entirely, except where the PC’s motivations are concerned. Whether or not Wendy is familiar to the author, she probably isn’t familiar to many of us. The game succeeds in making her real, but not (for me, anyway) in making her evolve.

     I think more can be learned in the unseen, alternate endings. It’s a shame the author didn’t include alternate walkthroughs, showing a ten-point ending. I’m curious about what other actions I might take as Wendy, and how this will reflect on those endings.

     My scoring scale fits Tough Beans in somewhere between 8 and 9, so I have based it at 8.5. I think it’s a great game even though I couldn’t connect with the protagonist, and I think it’s going to do very well in the competition. It deserves a +0.5 skew for great writing and a convincing game world. Unofficial score: 9.0.

Game #20: Off the Trolley, by Krisztian Kaldi
Played On: 10/27/2005 (1:50 PM to 2:30 PM and 4:00 PM to 4:35 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.0 (5.0 base with +1.0 skew)

     I already played
A New Life, which was next on my list. That puts Off the Trolley next. This review is going to contain partial spoilers for some of its puzzles. I’ll mention it first, before I launch into it – just be forewarned. With what I need to say about the game, the review won’t be possible otherwise.

     Usually, I find that a game either works for me, or it doesn’t. I can point to bugs, problems with the writing, the puzzles, the story… but when I do, I can’t often say how much better the game might be if those things were fixed. I can’t often say for sure what needs fixed, let alone how to fix it, because I’m no expert at this myself. Off the Trolley is unique in that its chief problems are very easy to identify. I have a pretty good idea of exactly what could be changed to make it a far better game.

     The writing needs work – a lot of work. Somehow, I was more bothered by the twisted grammar in Off the Trolley than is usual for me. English probably isn’t the author’s first language. Job One would be to export all the text and have it corrected by someone. Take this bit, for instance – a direct quote from the game:

     “Being aware of having no real sense for human relations, you had a hard time how to think and feel about your passengers. Seeing and hearing all kinds of people going on their everyday lives, and on the trolley crossing you, left you feel lost.”

     Job Two would be to further explore the PC’s neurosis. It came across at times – the specific passengers identified in the crowd, and of course the PC’s terroristic goal. Since this was the point of the game, these delusions could have been a bigger focus.

     Now, it gets easier, because I’ll be talking about puzzle clueing. Skip the lengthy paragraph that follows, unless you have already played or unless you don’t mind the spoilers.

     I was thrown off track by the description of colored “paper clips” glimpsed inside the bum’s coat. What the author meant was probably “paper clippings”. Better yet, identify them for what they are. The puzzle will still work, and the player can focus on solving it. As it was, I kept trying to take the “paperclips” (small, bent metal wire meant for clipping papers together) from the bum. I wasn’t sure why I needed them, but it seemed important enough to try. This wasn’t even what the bum was carrying. Next, showing or giving the ticket back to the inspector should have worked. The actual phrasing to make him take action was too obscure. Even though the PC has successfully swiped it, the inspector would still be in-character to grab it back and then begin the inspection. After readying the battery and then braking at the wrong time, the result didn’t really point to the problem. It wasn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out why. Nothing was said about the battery gaining no charge – only that the slow-down was pathetic. Say something about the battery (if it’s ready), and make it more clear why the braking wasn’t good enough. As to the gauge, the power level (0, 1, or 2) was confusing. It wasn’t clear that “2” was full (only that further attempts didn’t raise it). This would be easier to understand if expressed as 0%, 50%, and 100%. Unlocking the panel wasn’t difficult, but it was more complicated than necessary. A simple “unlock panel with key” would have sufficed. It didn’t need to be a mini-puzzle. I guess improving the clueing in all these areas would be Job Three.

     A few odd things – bugs, I guess – could be ironed out as well. That’s Job Four. I could leave the driver’s cabin by going in any direction, but I could only return by going “in”. Much of the time, the built-in hints weren’t helpful enough. I got a general sense of the goal, but I needed more. This is one area I can’t easily advise. At a minimum, the hints should go further. Assume the player hasn’t caught on, and continue to get more and more specific.

     Job Five would be to have the entire game beta-tested, after everything else was done. My transcript – with comments – is available at the author’s request.

     On the positive side, Krisztian Kaldi has the makings of a really interesting game. I especially liked the ending bit. I managed to guess one of the ending actions without referring to the walkthrough, and the change in perspective really put a nice, unexpected cap on the story. Some of the puzzles are poorly clued, yes, but they seemed original and well-placed. I found myself liking the game despite my constant criticism. So, even though it scores 5.0 on my scale, I have skewed a full point up by reason of an inexplicable fondness for it.

Game #21: Neon Nirvana, by Tony Woods
Played On: 10/28/2005 (12:55 PM to 2:25 PM and 2:40 PM to 3:00 PM)
Unofficial Score: 5.5 (6.0 base with -0.5 skew)

     Walkthroughs are a blessing and a curse. It’s easier to resist looking the first time, but once I peek, it’s harder to put any effort into problem-solving. Any obstacle that doesn’t present a quick solution seems to be a frustration that sends me right back to the walkthrough. That’s the curse.

     For Neon Nirvana, though, the walkthrough was entirely a blessing. Even though this has been the case several times this year, it’s very obvious here. I usually feel guilty in a game, after the first time peeking, because I know I might have solved the puzzle if I hadn’t been so quick to go back to the hints. Not here. No way would I ever have finished this game. Some of the puzzles – or parts of some of the puzzles – were solvable. Some were not. Some require such leaps of imagination that I’d wager only the author himself could complete the game unassisted. None of the puzzles seem hard in the sense that it takes good deductive reasoning, and they’re even logical after the fact. The problem is, certain aspects of objects weren’t described well enough to even provide all the information a person would need to solve the puzzle.

     Consider the next two long paragraphs as containing probable spoilers.

     Take, for instance, the propane cylinder. I had an image of a small tank, probably with a threaded neck and a valve on top. The walkthrough describes it as a torch. Its description said it could be used for welding, but a tank by itself is useless. You’d need to hook it up to some welding equipment, right? It turns out that (apparently) you don’t. Nothing in the description of the tank made me think of it as a torch by itself. To make matters worse, the phrasing to light it up was specific enough that trying to light it “on” the right thing didn’t work, but “with” did. Then, something is to be found under the porch of one of the houses. Again, nothing in the description gave me any indication that the porch even had an “under”. This is where logic fails. Porches can be any shape, any size, small, large, raised, flush with the ground… anything. My mental image of the porch obviously didn’t match the author’s, because it wasn’t clear to me that the porch was raised and open enough to look under. The loose bolt in the rusty shelf seemed to clue me to its removal, but that’s the opposite of the actual solution.

     The author tried hard to implement a lot of extras – including a few things shown in the “amusing” list at the end. This is one of the few games I’ve played this year that implements “XYZZY” (sadly, no “PLUGH”). However, for every cool extra, it cues the player to actions that don’t work at all. For instance, the graffiti says “type HELP for more information.” Well, “help” doesn’t work in the game. I’m in a dance club, but “dance” wasn’t implemented as a verb (of course, the PC wouldn’t dance, but some response was probably in order). The PC can’t attempt to kick down a wooden door. Again, it doesn’t have to work – but it should probably be recognized, given the PC’s profession in law enforcement. Gunfire in the club isn’t noticed at all by the patrons – which is unusual, since the music has been turned off and all eyes are presumably to the stage. The bouncer is described as being at the door, because the author hard-coded that into the room description. At times, the bouncer is actually in the alley instead. I was able to rack up three points over and over, just by pushing the blue button again and again. One puzzle can be solved by shooting a window, but shooting a glass door near the end doesn’t work. I can take Perron’s gun, leave the room, drop it, come back, and somehow he still grabs it off the table where it no longer rests. The button on the radio isn’t implemented. The button on the elevator is implemented, but not mentioned when looking at either the room or the elevator itself. The “key hole” in the elevator can’t be referred to as “hole” or “key hole”, because the author implemented a variation, “keyhole” (one word, not matching the text) instead. Earlier, I couldn’t see around in a dark basement. Later, I found a lamp that the PC is unwilling to take. I don’t need to see around in the basement, as it turns outs, but it seemed like a puzzle to me. Even the endgame is problematic, because it requires a completely unclued action.

     The writing was okay, in general. I found a few typos and a few strange phrasings, but it was good enough to be entertaining. The problem for me was the inconsistency in the tone of the game. It’s a pretty serious matter, arresting a drug lord, especially when people are getting killed. However, the author chose a comedic presentation for some of the narration. Here are three great examples:

>unlock door
This action does not unlock the door. You are sorely disappointed. You can stop playing NEON NIRVANA to go cry now, if you wish.

>enter car
(the sports car)
Carjacking is not the answer here. How horrible it is that you tried such a horrible thing...I'm going to go in a corner and cry now. You just stay here. And - um - do stuff. Yeah.

>get paper
Well, you don't think anyone is going to notice your little purloinment (is that a word?) and so you remove the slip of paper from the pocket. w00t!

     What this said to me, intentional or not, is that the author wasn’t taking his own game seriously. That in itself is not a problem, except that the rest of it shouldn’t have been written as a serious game if this was the case. It was this mixed tone – the strangely sophomoric narrative to a story that was otherwise serious – that really put me off. The problems in the game – especially the misleading or unclued puzzles – are why the game scores a 6.0 on my scale. I took another half-point off for those instances of unnecessarily comedic narrative.

Game #22: Jesus of Nazareth, by Paul Panks
Played On: 10/29/2005 (4:50 PM to 6:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (5.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     If you thought
Vespers was blasphemous, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

     As Jesus, you can attack anyone, provoked or not. Yes, Jesus has hitpoints. You can even become a hitman for Harod Antipas, ridding him of a Sicarii rebel and ultimately converting him to the path of righteousness.

     Jesus of Nazareth does a lot wrong. There are bugs, and I’ll mention some of that later. It’s a hand-made parser. Paul thankfully added “x” as a shortcut for “examine”, and it features a “save” option – but no “undo” and very few frills. The game is going to rank very low in the competition. It’s going to get 1’s and 2’s… maybe a few 3’s.

     Somehow, the game worked for me. Before I launch into what’s wrong with the game, I should discuss what’s right. In “unofficially” ranking Jesus of Nazareth higher than most judges will – even higher than I’ve ranked a few of the other game so far – I should explain why.

     Paul Panks manages to keep things simple. Sure, Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t understand complicated commands, but it rarely ever sets up a situation in which a complex command would seem necessary. The “help” command explains it all. It doesn’t take long to understand how the game is put together. Important things are always listed after the room description. This makes the game more playable than it might otherwise be. The consistent blue-on-gray display was also easy on the eyes – a welcomed change from harsher color schemes and rainbows of needless highlighting.

     It’s also unexpectedly original. Sure, it’s silly to have Jesus battling centurions and city guards, keeping track of hit points and all, but the concept is pretty good. Jesus, travelling the land, is recruiting disciples. This sometimes requires obtaining some object of interest to the potential recruit, but they’re easy to find and don’t require any complicated puzzle-solving. In fact, Jesus of Nazareth has no real puzzles. It’s all just a matter of collecting a few objects and roaming the map. This keeps the pace flowing, and it’s perfectly comp-sized. The second-person narrative switches to third-person during dialogue and attempts to convert the denizens of Capernaum. This is less jarring than it might seem. These parts are written in pseudo-biblical fashion. Some of it is probably based on direct quotations, although I think Paul probably strays from it to suit the situation.

     Although it requires working around a few bugs, Jesus of Nazareth is winnable without hints and without a walkthrough. That’s fortunate, because the game includes neither. I liked that it was easy to finish, even with its quirks. The writing has a few problems, but it’s pleasantly more verbose and well-written than either of the two Paul Panks games I’ve played before (Ninja v1.30 and The Golden French Fry). The fighting aside, it doesn’t feature any fantastical, nonsensical elements or suspiciously contrived situations. It doesn’t require any outlandish leaps in logic to play. The available exits listed above the command prompt, although frowned upon by today’s standards, helped quite a bit.

     I was lucky a couple of times, or I very well might have been stuck. In the town of Capernaum, Mary Magdalene can be found in the central market. The problem is, her entry after the room description says “this is Mary of Magdala, a town near the Lake of Tiberias.” On a whim, I tried talking to Mary, and this works. Another point of confusion is that the terra-cotta lamp is always described as burning brightly, even when it’s not on. After some frustration with trying to enter the cave, I noticed that “light” was listed as a verb in the “help” info. Lighting the lamp worked. The last problem is that you can convert Harod or John, but not both. Well, that’s not necessarily a problem, because the game requires 6 disciples, and there are seven possibilities. However, Peter won’t convert when the other five include Harod, which leaves the game unwinnable.

     These aren’t the only bugs, but they’re the ones that hurt the most. As far as I could tell, it’s impossible to escape from a battle once it starts. You can convert Andrew again, even after he has joined the others. Everybody goes south after conversion, even though an exit rarely exists in that direction. I can’t leave the garrison because the centurion wants to arrest me, but he never actually does. If I try going south, he acts as though nothing happened. Sometimes, I am said to have “destroyed” an enemy, yet the battle has only just started. Trying to covert the soldier gives no response. “Sandles” should be “sandals”. Dead bodies just disappear, as if this was some first-person shooter from years gone by. Why can’t the game just convert commands to lower-case behind the scenes, instead of being confused by uppercase input? The “score” text says Jesus needs to find and convert four disciples, yet all six are required to win. What was the purpose of the birds found after climbing the tree, and what was the purpose of the sickly boy? Even though the game has no transcripting feature, I made other notes during play, which are available to the author at his request.

     Some things just seem in poor taste. At one point in a battle comes this bit: "Wow! The enemy centurion almost crucified you!" I can’t try to convert the sickly boy, because he’s dying of the plague… maybe I’m getting “conversion” and “redemption” mixed up. Presumably Jesus knows about the Ten Commandments, yet he dispatches the righteous and the unrighteous with equal fervor. The fact that any NPC is referred to as an “enemy” of Jesus is a little suspicious.

     Taken on its own merits, Jesus of Nazareth is between a 5 and a 6 on my scale. That’s not undue, considering I was never stuck for long, and the game never really frustrated me. I think it’s original and unexpected. If the bugs had been fixed before the competition version, I might have considered basing it at 6.5 or even a 7. The combat system seemed unnecessary, and the text (especially the dialogue) could have used some indention and spacing, but Paul was on the right track. I liked the game, and I can even recommend it to anyone with an open mind for something unusual. I skewed the game up a full point, to a final score of 6.5, because it’s much better than I expected.

Game #23: Unforgotten, by Quintin Pan
Played On: 10/30/2005 (9:35 AM to 10:50 AM, 12:20 PM to 2:05 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 9.5 (8.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     After playing Unforgotten, I feel... exhausted. I can’t quite put my finger on why, and I mention it only as insight into the rest of the review. It’s on the long side for an IFComp game (three hours would have stretched into four or five, had I not made multiple forays into the hints). It’s one of the best stories in the competition so far. It runs through a gamut of emotions with disgust being right up there among the others.

     The story jumps from now to later to much later, then twice to past events, back to much later, and finally to much much later. Confusing? It really isn’t. Nothing is clear at first, which I find intriguing in a story. I don’t mean that the PC starts without any clear goals – which is true enough – but that the story takes twists and turns and makes revelations about the setting and the characters along the way. It feels like more than a game.

     The author describes his design philosophy in the “Help & About” text. As I play games with menu-choice trees in place of ask/tell conversations, I like the former more and more. Quintin clears the screen after each choice. I’m not sure why, except that maybe it draws focus away from the prior list of options. I thought maybe this was a trick to keep “undo” from rewinding the entire conversation, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. He also mentions that a game shouldn’t require bits of replay if the player messes up. In a game this size, that’s probably true – but if it’s only sections (not the whole game), it’s fine with me. The alternative is that you’re allowed to skip optional bits, sometimes never even realizing it. Only some peeking at the hints made some of this clearer, and it was a shame I made it to the end without seeing those parts. Sure, the game made sense anyway, but I like to get the full experience. I don’t want to go back through it at this point, though. I kind of wish all the optional bits were channeled through the main story line, but that’s probably a minor complaint.

     Some parts of the story are told from a different perspective. One in particular is jarring enough to slice through the bond of familiarity I was forming with Nigel, the main PC. I had (and still have) mixed feelings about the bit with Zed. It makes the story feel dirtier, grittier, less safe; but at the same time, I’m thankful to have been playing this one at home, and not at work on my lunch break or something. While this bit may be realistic, I think it’s probably trying hard for that shock factor. I don’t like the story any more because of it, but I’ve decided I don’t like it any less, either.

     Even though the story is strong enough to make it feel like more than a game, each obstacle serves as a reminder. The “help” text encourages players to examine everything for clues that might otherwise be missed. That’s good advice in most games. What I found, though, was that scenery was inconsistently implemented. Especially in spots where the story was more important than the puzzles, a response of “you can’t see any such thing” wasn’t uncommon. Even doing my best to take it all in, I missed clues. Well, it’s not so much that I missed clues, but that nothing about the clue was striking enough to make me give it a further thought.

     Peeking back at my transcript, I see where a red glow during the conversation with Janice was clued, but somehow I didn’t catch on. That’s probably my fault, but further prodding after the fact might have been helpful. The bit with the fishing pole was particularly difficult, especially since the game didn’t give enough feedback to help me understand what I was doing wrong. I figured out half the puzzle, but I never realized I was in the wrong spot to make use of it. I’m also not sure I would have figured out that merely distracting the dogs wasn’t enough to get past them. It’s hard to say whether this is my poor puzzle-solving, or whether the game could have guided my actions a little better. I tend to think the clueing was kind of off with the game – in this instance and several others – but I’m not sure. Thankfully, the hint system always helped.

     Beta testing seems to have weeded out most bugs, but a few quirks remain. I was able to unlock doors without a key. Once, this allowed me to enter a place that was clearly meant to be entered a different way. Another time, I unlocked and opened a door into a shop, but was subsequently told that the door leads nowhere. At the beginning, a strange response when referencing something of Simon’s leads me to believe the game thought I was talking about the same thing of my own, until after I realized I was still in bed. The text is largely error-free, although “cheeck” was probably supposed to be “cheek”. In several places, the room exits weren’t obvious from the text – or at least, they didn’t seem obvious, leaving me to randomly try paths in various directions.

     The writing is very good, describing the grungy, enclosed barracks with the same detail given the beautiful, secluded Shepherd’s Rock. Dialogue is well-written too, and each character feels unique and real. However, it’s all about the story. The game itself seems to come midway between 8 and 9 on my scale – not a clear 9.0, primarily because the more gritty, vulgar sections weren’t fun to read. I don’t mind it – I’ll play a game that’s nothing but vulgar and gritty – I just prefer not to. The story, though… and the way it’s presented… well, I was a big fan. I’m skewing a full point higher (for an unofficial 9.5) because of it. Unless judges have the same problems with the puzzle clueing, or unless the two hour limit happens before some of the more important discoveries are made, I think Unforgotten has a great shot at a spot in the top 5. Then again, it could even win. I’m a poor judge of guessing what the voters are going to do.

Game #24: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer, by Brandon Coker
Played On: 10/30/2005 (4:20 PM to 5:20 PM)
Unofficial Score: 2.5 (2.5 base with no skew)

     Eeeee... Okay. I want to say some good things about this game before I talk about what’s bad. In many ways, Brandon Coker’s Phantom reminds me of my early, inexperienced attempts at writing adventure games. By no means am I any kind of expert now, but I think I’ve improved. My more recent games are better than the
TRS80 stuff I wrote many years ago, and my most recent Hugo efforts are better than my earlier DOS attempts. I had this same concern last year, with Ruined Robots. How can I write an honest review of a very bad game that doesn’t seem completely discouraging to the author?

     Well, it’s a pretty short game. I finished it in an hour, although I might not have finished at all without the maze solutions found in the walkthrough. The rest of the game was pretty simple, but those mazes… well, I’ll get to that soon. Kudos for using Inform instead of a hand-made parser. Again, I have no room to talk in that regard, but with the flaws in the game itself, I can only imagine how unplayable it might have been without the stable Zcode framework to keep it on track.

     Just about everything that can be wrong in a game is wrong with this one, with the exception that it’s not really buggy. What I mean is, the game is flawed in a large number of ways, but I found nothing I would consider a bug. Rooms connect together. The map (aside from the mazes) makes sense. No errors crashed the game. It can be won with a full 100 points, and it doesn’t seem possible to repeat the same points.

     The text: It’s bad. This includes sentence fragments, run-on sentences, general misuse of commas, missing apostrophes in contractions, capitalization problems, spaces before commas where no space belongs, no space after commas where it does belong (sometimes referring to the same comma), bad spelling, and stray 1’s and 2’s (a digit) in ending text.

     Implementation: Not good. Implemented scenery is hit and miss (usually miss). “Enter shack” says you can’t enter it, but “X shack” says you can. The answer is a simple “in” – odd. In the Dome of Life, the same lengthy room description was used for both halves of it, with just a minor variation at the end. There is no difference between a 61-point ending and the 100-point ending – at least, no difference that I could see. These treasures don’t even have a purpose, except to give a higher score at the end of the game.

     Puzzles: Easy or impossible, with no middle ground. Points are gained just from picking up important objects found in various areas. Two of the most important puzzles in the game, the four doors and later the four boxes, can be solved with an “undo” followed by the next possible choice. I’m not sure Brandon realizes “undo” isn’t just available at an ending. Both puzzles would be insanely difficult to figure out otherwise, yet this makes them just minor obstacles that don’t really pose a challenge. Then, there are two mazes (well, three, but the third isn’t hard). The first might be possible to solve, because variations to the text and available exits at least provide feedback to the player. I gave up and got the answer from the walkthrough. It might be okay if either was a real maze, but that’s not the case. These are pseudo-mazes where the solution is a special combination of directions. In the first maze, failure brings you back out of the maze. The second is tougher, because not only is every room identical (every room can be exited in any direction), but the solution involves going one way and then back the way you came. Who could possibly solve this?

     The story: It’s pretty generic. You’re an archeologist looking for the tomb of a mythical (and possibly evil) warrior, which was written in a legend in a rare (but apparently readily available) book. The premise is never really developed, though. The phantom isn’t even there, and instead, you ultimately confront an ages-old deceased explorer who might also be evil. At the very least, he might have warned me before I joined in his fate. Also, if he had been there for 500 years, why was a note written to him just lying outside the tower?

     I hate to be so negative about Phantom: Caverns of the Killer. I think the author is probably young, and I know he must have spent a lot of time working on this game. I cringe to think of what other reviews he’s likely to see, and I just hope that this isn’t too discouraging. It takes time to get this right. I would encourage him to practice even non-interactive writing. Get better at that, and read a lot. Then make each game better than the one before, and before you know it, you could have a top-10 entry one of these years.

     To rank this one accurately on my scale, I have to give it a 2.5. As it is, there just isn’t much here to be excited about.

Game #25: Escape to New York, by Richard Otter
Played On: 10/31/2005 (9:45 AM to 11:35 AM)
Unofficial Score: 7.5 (7.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     When I first looked at the list of competition game titles this year, certain visuals came to mind. In the case of Escape to New York, I imagined a rough-talking, scruffy Snake Plisskin returning to the island-turned-prison in John Carpenter’s cult classic. However, Richard Otter’s game has nothing at all in common with the Kurt Russell flick
Escape from New York. The game is set entirely aboard a large luxury passenger ship.

     Have I begun every Adrift game review with commentary on the Adrift runner? Well, here goes again. It would be nice if “script” or “script on” worked, without the need to turn on logging from the top menu. I had the bright idea to play Escape to New York in the Gargoyle implementation of SCARE, hoping to avoid the inline parsing oddity I’ve noticed when trying to make comments, but I couldn’t find a way to turn on a transcript. I also don’t like that Adrift doesn’t provide an “undo” option upon losing the game. In some ways, that might make things too easy, but it was sorely missed when I had to replay a part when I hadn’t recently saved, where a single “undo” would have helped.

     However, I should also say that I’m liking Adrift’s special features more and more. The mapping window is great, and I noticed today that I could email the author just by clicking on his email address when it appears on the title screen.

     The game isn’t too difficult, but one particularly confusing quirk had me checking the walkthrough in Part 3. You’re supposed to hide something in Part 2, and then find a way to retrieve it in the following part. I found a way, and it avoided triggering an event that was supposed to move the story forward to Part 4. So, I stumbled around trying to make things happen, exploring the upper decks, putting the PC’s thieving skills to good use. When I finally felt that I had done as much as possible, I checked the walkthrough. Fortunately, the game wasn’t unwinnable, and I didn’t have to start over. I just had to return to the lower deck with all the appropriate stuff, and then leave again.

     The puzzles make sense and are pretty well clued. Most of hidden items are extras – loot that will ultimately contribute to a higher score. I found one important item very early (this was something different), and was pleased to see it clued later in the game at a time when it’s actually needed. I missed the cap, which isn’t trivial, but I did pretty well solving everything but some of the bonus puzzles. I didn’t try a play-through based strictly on the walkthrough, but as far as I can tell, it leaves a few points unearned. I can tell that Richard intended this to be a game with some replay value. Now isn’t the time to strive for a higher score – I still have more competition games to finish – but I think this would probably work outside the competition.

     The writing is more matter-of-fact than colorful. A few problems with the grammar were never quite distracting enough to merit much notice. At times the PC interjects with helpful thoughts, but nothing ever seems too urgent. Even at a turning point, when my suspicions about the game’s setting were confirmed (little clues come here and there, but I don’t think the game ever puts a name to it), it didn’t seem… well… urgent. The PC still had plenty of valuables left to loot, and there was time enough for that.

     This one was tough to rank for some reason. I generally don’t, but this time I went back to review some of the scores for prior games, trying to figure out where it fits. I think my scoring criteria may be too focused on the technical aspects of each game (the writing, the story, the implementation), and not nearly enough on just… “how much did I enjoy it?” Looking back, it seems like I may be scoring some games higher than other games I may have liked better. I might change how I rate the games next year, but for now, I’m pretty confident in giving Escape to New York a 7.0 base with +0.5 for being a pretty well-clued puzzle game.

Game #26: Cheiron, by Elisabeth Polli and Sarah Clelland
Played On: 10/31/2005 (4:35 PM to 5:00 PM)
Unofficial Score: 2.0 (1.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     “Cheiron was the wise centaur who taught medicine and healing to Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing.” It sounds like a lead-in for a pretty cool fantasy adventure.

     It isn’t. Cheiron is interactive non-fiction. More accurately, it’s a detailed diagnostics simulation probably of interest only to medical students. As a student doctor, you’ve been assigned the task of examining and diagnosing four different patients at St. Jude’s Hospital. The trappings of IF are here – an inventory, some familiar verbs, and directional movement between floors and rooms – but there, the similarities falter. I didn’t encounter any implemented scenery, although the brief room descriptions do include some superfluous details to make it a more believable, realistic setting.

     It’s interesting that in my last review, I was just mentioning the shortcomings of my ranking scheme. I definitely need to factor in “fun” as more than just a reason for skewing if I review next year’s competition. In a different context, Cheiron might be incredibly useful. It might even be fun, in the same way a cooking simulator might appeal to a would-be chef, or a real (and accurately complex) flight simulator would appeal to a real pilot. It seems out of place in a competition for interactive fiction, though.

     I don’t know how likely it is that Cheiron is solvable to anyone without formal medical training. I wasn’t even sure what every basic diagnostic method meant, although it made sense after reading some info in the “help” section. The simulation is good about reminding the participant what to do (wash your hands, introduce yourself, ask for consent, begin the diagnostic process), but I don’t know how much further this goes. I managed to keep at it for just over half an hour, and the last part of that was just me trying to trick the parser into giving inappropriate responses to some general commands for my own amusement. My guess is, had I been able to plunder my way through a general diagnosis based on various noun ambiguities (with so many dozens of individual body parts, “arm” and “leg” just won’t cut it), I’d have still been scratching my head at what it all meant. It’s possible that the authors might have guided me toward the right answer, if I could narrow in on the right tests for the right body parts, and if I could ask the patient the right questions.

     I just couldn’t figure it all out. At first, I wanted to, but that feeling gave way to frustration and boredom. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the authors’ work. I’m sure they’ve both become great doctors, and coding such an elaborate system was probably a great achievement. The heartbeat sound effect and the photo illustrations were nice touches. I added a half-point skew to the 1.5 base because of this, and as a nod to a program that would probably be great in a different context.

     Aside from strange errors that refer to patients as “puppets” when trying to “look at” them, the simulation seemed to work well enough. This is an interactive fiction competition, though, and I didn’t enjoy Cheiron as that. Base score plus skew: 2.0.

Game #27: Hello Sword, by Andrea Rezzonico
Played On: 11/01/2005 (12:10 PM to 1:20 PM and 1:50 PM to 2:10 PM)
Unofficial Score: 3.0 (2.0 base with +1.0 skew)

     First impression – the washed-out white-on-blue pastel display looks great.

     Second impression – It’s very poorly translated. It’s far better than I’d do if I attempted to translate English to Italian, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read. It felt almost as if the author had translated his original text using something akin to the Alta Vista babelfish website (http://babelfish.altavista.com). This doesn’t seem to be the case, as babelfish makes an even worse mess of the translation. Details found in the “info” menu suggest that the author wrote his own translation, as a courtesy to English-speaking players.

     I have to wonder if the game would have fared better without the English translation? Does the competition allow for that? I find nothing to the contrary in the rules. If judges were fair and skipped voting on a game that couldn’t be played at all (it’s in another language, after all), this would leave only the Italian-speaking voters. Perhaps this isn’t a large enough group to qualify the game (if I recall correctly, games have to get five or ten votes to qualify); but if it is, Hello Sword might have ranked higher.

     The translation isn’t bad enough that the game doesn’t make sense, which is fortunate, because this means it can be understood, completed, and even enjoyed to some extent. It seems light-hearted, but humor comes from the quirky grammar rather than witty writing:

You feel a nauseating smell, so you ask to Wallen: «Where is this smell from?»
«Hey, the fault isn't mine!»
You don't answer, letting him to realize that he's without hope.
«In any case... Surelly we are near the swamps... Well.»

     Nothing original there, but the bad translation makes an old joke funnier.

     Although the translation is the most obvious problem with the game, it’s not the only problem. Some of the puzzles – most of them, in fact – just aren’t clued very well. Sometimes, it’s necessary to wait – not just hang out somewhere wasting turns, but actually “wait” to trigger an event. Sometimes, the same task (especially looking at some things) has to be done several times in a row, without enough feedback the first time that something is likely to change (talking to NPCs doesn’t count here, since it’s assumed that the conversation will continue). Unless some alternative phrasings are available, I’d never have figured out how to defeat the guard hiding in the inn. At the beginning, two strange errors (identifying themselves as “BUGs”) are shown as “shopgirl” and “mendicant” dialogue. This was very odd, and it didn’t seem intentional.

     Third impression – it’s a worthy attempt. With the walkthrough, I was able to beat the game. It’s appropriately competition-sized (maybe even a little too short), which means the game covers just the introduction to what seems like a larger epic. The author has given Hello Sword a combat and magic system, but this is useful in only two or three spots. What’s here doesn’t make good use of these extensions, and the story isn’t unique enough to draw attention away from that. It’s all pretty standard: real-world everyman gets unwittingly recruited to be a fantasy-world hero by a magic-wielding wizard. The fantasy setting reminded me a little of the first Wheel of Time book (the only one I’ve read) for some strange reason, although the author’s inspiration is probably Lord of the Rings (this is mentioned near the beginning).

     The Italian version of Hello Sword probably deserves higher than the 2.0 base I’m scoring the English version. The added effort of providing an English translation, though, deserves a bonus point – even though it’s not a very good translation.

Game #28: PTBAD6andoneeighth, by Slan Xorax
Played On: 11/01/2005 (3:15 PM to 3:40 PM)
Unofficial Score: 0.5 (1.5 base with -1.0 skew)

     Slan, Slan, Slan. What was the goal this year? Dead last?

     As far as I can tell, the walkthrough explains the only winning route through the game. However, if you’re willing to put abbreviations temporarily aside, you can find three more rooms (and when it says “west is a poem” it means that literally). This exploration seems to make the game unwinnable, but it does offer a bit more content.

     PTBAD6andsomesubtitles features... er... not much. It has an other. Excuse me. It has “a other”. And a multitudes. It has a mouse named Blooble, who responds to nothing, and a pair of goggles, which can be worn to no effect. Unrecognized commands advise you to “reexplainicate your self.” I would have based it as at 1.0 on my scale, but I did laugh (in a head-shaking, pitiful kind of way) at the depths to which Xorax will sink to amuse himself. So, I stepped it up to a 1.5, but a negative full-point skew makes this the least compelling game of the competition with a 0.5 score. Keep it up, Slan. Next year, you might owe me points.

Game #29: Waldo’s Pie, by Michael Arnaud
Played On: 11/01/2005 (10:15 PM to 10:30 PM)
And Again On: 11/02/2005 (10:15 AM to 11:35 AM and 12:10 PM to 1:00 PM)
Unofficial Score: 7.0 (7.5 base with -0.5 skew)

     This late in my list, and after a month of reviewing game after game, maybe I’m just starting to lose interest. If not that, then maybe I’m just in a hurry to get done. I was tempted to rate Waldo’s Pie lower than I did, but looking back to consider the experience as a whole has convinced me to go higher.

     Waldo is an ex-clown, taking his two sons (Timmy and Jimmy) to see the circus on Wheewhistle Island. A mysterious purple mist surrounds the island, and rumor has it all the clowns have vanished. The boys vanish (or leave) too, so you (as Waldo) embark on an adventure to solve the mystery and rescue the boys. I would like to say that comedy ensues, but that’s not the case. I think some parts are meant to be funny – the names used for various people, places, and things – but there is enough exploration and puzzle-solving here that the humor kind of gets lost.

     I made it a good ways without becoming stuck enough to look at the walkthrough. I missed a couple of things I should have noticed – I had been doing a pretty good job of looking at anything I thought might prove important, but I missed a couple. This would have gotten me further. In general, the puzzles aren’t difficult. I especially liked how you get past Tumbo – that one practically solves itself, but it’s still fun. The level of implementation is pretty good, where additional information can be seen by examining most anything you might choose to look at. I don’t know how complete this is, but “x” was pretty responsive. No obvious examples of anything lacking jumps to mind.

     A couple things keep it from being an 8.0 or a 9.0 on my scale. It really loses a base point for some logic problems, and another point for a story that doesn’t quite add up. I’ll get to both of these things separately, in a moment. I can’t complain about the writing in Waldo’s Pie, though. If I found any problems there, each was minor enough that I’ve already forgotten. It reads very well – descriptive enough, and without the kinds of problems that draw my attention away from playing the game.

     The logic problems may not all be accidental. At a minimum, I think the “look in / open” ones are. Twice (and in the same room), something can be found if you open the, uh… “container” where it’s stored. The problem is, “look in” does an implicit open, and then the game reports that nothing is inside. I probably only solved this because I found a couple items via “opening” something, which I couldn’t find with “look in” on a later play. Bad thing is, I only did “look in” on the other container, which automatically opened it, and reported nothing inside. I couldn’t figure out if the game was unwinnable or not, but closing and then opening again triggered the script that makes those items appear inside – items that should have been there all along.

     The game can be made unwinnable, though. I guess whether this works or not depends on the game, and how it’s presented. An item can be shown to an NPC, which the NPC remembers. Later, the state of that item changes in an important way, and the NPC is supposed to be fooled by this. On one hand, the author thought of this, and the NPC won’t fall for it. On the other hand, it now requires a replay (as far as I can tell) from a save made prior to showing the unchanged object to that NPC to begin with. Fortunately, this doesn’t take long.

     The game is pretty good otherwise about ending any time you’ve performed an action that will make it unwinnable, although these sudden endings simply announce that what you did makes the game unwinnable. It borders on annoying, but it works because “undo” (which, oddly enough, sometimes takes you back multiple turns when used at an ending) fixes the mistake. I can think of a couple different ways this might have been handled (not allowing the player to make the mistake to begin with, or perhaps ending the game with a more legitimate reason than just “you needed to do something else, but now you’ve made it impossible”), but it’s not important enough to dwell on. Well, it is, but not for the purposes of this review. Ideally, the player should be able to mess up but still have a way to recover – for instance, trading the wrong item back for the right one – unless it’s important to the story or the specific tone of the game, which isn’t the case here.

     As to the story, it seems unique yet tiredly familiar at the same. To clarify, I don’t think I’ve seen another game where an ex-clown tries to rescue his two sons and a bunch of missing clowns from an evil circus owner, yet the components (a magical means of ridding a mythical creature just to get what the creature is guarding, collecting ingredients to make a pie, etc) aren’t particularly innovative. I guess this year’s The Colour Pink does much the same thing, yet I enjoyed it quite a bit more somehow. Waldo seems to remember his days as a circus clown at the beginning of the game, because some of it is mentioned. Upon arriving at the island, he attributes the forgetfulness to his years of absence. Later, this is more clearly identified as a funny kind of amnesia, but when that happens, it seems odd that Waldo would remember anything from those lost years. The story’s villain is never really given a motive (if so, I missed it), and some of the losing scenarios wouldn’t really stop a determined father from searching for his missing sons. If I missed my chance to take what I needed before the rooster drove me away, I’d kick its feathered butt onto the next island. Better yet, I’d just cook the frikken’ pie without an egg – especially since it’s meant to be thrown, not eaten.

     Still, it’s a pretty solid game, and I don’t remember Alan being so good with its parsing. I didn’t try many complicated actions, but this felt and looked as smooth as TADS (my white-on-black display and the game font were similar enough to make this the closest comparison). Despite an earlier inclination to rate the game lower, I have based it at 7.5 on my scale. I did skew down half a point, though, for the suspicious logic.

Game #30: Mix Tape, by Brett Witty
Played On: 11/02/2005 (3:00 PM to 4:15 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 7.0 (7.0 base with no skew)

Beyond was next on my list, but I already played and reviewed it out of order. Next, then, is Mix Tape, which is a short but story-heavy entry. It’s not quite puzzleless, but nearly so. It’s not possible to derail the story on any branching path (as far as I can tell – which is perfectly fine by me), but at the same time the illusion of freedom is less prevalent here than in most Interactive Fiction.

     A few things worked against this game, and not all of that is the author’s fault (or even under the author’s ability to control). First of all, this is the fourth to last game on my list. It has taken me longer to get this far than it did last year, and I might be running out of steam. Second, I was a little more distracted while playing Mix Tape. Third, I only know two of the songs that are the inspiration for the game’s chapters – tracks 3 and 4 – which probably weakens the emotional punch the game is probably after. I know the artists responsible for all the tracks except the second, but I’m not familiar with those specific songs.

     Mix Tape doesn’t ease slowly into its tale of love lost and memories shared. As such a short game – even short by IFComp standards – it probably doesn’t have time to drag around at the beginning. I wish it did, even if only for a few more turns. Perhaps this could be a short lead-in where Valentine is on her way to meet Pete, before things get so serious. It was just hard for me to connect with the story in an emotional way.

     At times, the writing seemed a little off. It was pretty good – better than many of the other games I’ve played in this year’s competition – but a little off. Take the following passage, for instance, where specifying “Peter” seems redundant in the first sentence and the note is described as being inside the envelope twice. I don’t know if the first bit was part of a standard library response, but it’s a good example of what I mean:

>read letter
Opening the envelope from Peter reveals a note from Peter. The envelope is sealed only at the bottom of the flap, so you dig your finger underneath and break the seal. There is nothing inside but a plain, folded piece of paper.

     Take out the middle sentence and it becomes even more evident. The first sentence is probably the unnecessary one. I noticed unusual wording here and there, but the writing was vivid and otherwise convincing.

     I said before that the game is almost puzzleless. At times, parenthetical prompts are clear cues as to what should be discussed with Peter. At other times, the game moves forward on its own after a small number of turns – sometimes, even when I was hoping to see a little more of the current chapter’s detail first. One chapter is just a cutscene with no interaction at all.

     It’s not entirely puzzleless, but this is probably unintentional. For me, figuring out how to heat up the lasagna and then give it to Peter wasn’t easy. I figured out the easy way for the former (it was still burnt), and I used the hints as a clue to the latter. What threw me was that I could show him the lasagna – even try giving it to him (and he saw it) – yet telling him about it afterwards prompts him to ask if it’s ready yet. A very specific command is required here.

     Brett put plenty of detail into the game. I didn’t come close to fully exhausting the CD catalogue, but it seems pretty extensive. Detail was put into the variety of junk mail in Valentine’s mailbox. The grumpy old man seems to serve no purpose, but some time was obviously taken to implement him for added realism. Somehow, though, it seemed that the effort put into some aspects of this detail would have been better applied to lengthening the story instead. Also, some implementation seemed lacking – notably Peter’s bedroom in the second scene:

>get into bed
You are too large for the unmade bed.

>make bed
You don’t know how to cook that.

     A few bugs sneaked into the competition release of Mix Tape. The most severe is a stack overflow that locks up the interpreter (tried in both HTML Tads and Gargoyle) when you try going west from the bedroom in the fifth chapter. I only know it’s a stack overflow, because that error is repeated over and over in the transcript (nothing appeared on-screen). A single runtime error happens early on, when trying to go south without first standing up from the campfire. Doing “get clothes” as the first command in the fifth chapter repeats “the Valentine is…” instead of “you are…” in several sentences. The transition between chapters was sometimes quirky, where an extra space was often required (and then another, at a blank screen).

     With some touch-up, Mix Tape can address all of these things. I know the pressure of an unbending submission deadline, and maybe the game was just rushed. It would probably have appealed to me better a decade ago, when the ups and downs of dating and breaking up were very much a part of life. It may be an especially good game for players in their early to mid twenties. I liked the game, but my scoring criteria put it right at 7.0.

     Incidentally, I was a fan of the Goo Goo Dolls when “Name” came out (before “Iris”, where the author claims their success began) – but they were around well before that. I think “Domino” and maybe “We Are the Normal” (I used to love “Girl Right Next To Me”) were hits on “Superstar Carwash” even before “A Boy Named Goo” was released.

Game #31: Ninja II, by Paul Panks
Played On: 11/02/2005 (9:50 PM to 10:05 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 1.0 (2.0 base with –1.0 skew)

     If you played last year’s
Ninja v.1.30, you have already played most of Ninja II. It doesn’t even seem different enough to qualify as a new game – I’m kind of surprised it wasn’t disqualified as having already been released. But hey. It’s harmless enough.

     I can sum up the changed bit. What’s italicized is from the game. What’s bold (and begins with the “?” prompt) is real game input. What’s in parenthesis is my commentary. Here we go, from the beginning:

Dare you beat dragon?

(Sure... why not...)

The Dragon appears to be programming a DEC PDP-1 minicomputer.
‘Spacewar!' it chants.


The Ancient Chinese Ice Dragon appears to be smoking something...

(So does the author.)

? inv
You are carrying:

? beat dragon
The dragon falls over dead!

     That’s pretty much it. Then you can go east, enter the shrine, take the sword, go west, chop the tree, go west again, take the idol, return to the beginning, and waste moves until a ninja attacks. Then you win… or sometimes you lose.

     The dragon reminds me a lot of the one in The Golden French Fry. Why is it sometimes called a “her” and sometimes an “it” though? What purpose does the dragon serve? Why won’t “kill” or “slay” or “attack” work, and how is this even possible before I’ve obtained a sword? For that matter, why does this ninja return to the shrine completely unarmed? How’d he lose the idol again? He doesn’t seem like a very good ninja. Ninjas are totally sweet and all, and everybody knows that the purpose of a ninja is to flip out and kill people (www.realultimatepower.net says so) – but this ninja falls short.

     If Ninja II is meant to be a parody of Ninja v.1.30, it succeeds… sort of. I’ve given it a 2.0 base, because it doesn’t seem to have the same bugs that plagued the original. However, after playing Paul’s Jesus of Nazareth, I know he’s capable of a lot better. That game is good enough to recommend. This one isn’t. I’ve skewed down a full point for needlessly littering the competition with yet another useless game. The source code isn’t even included this year, so fifteen minutes is about all the time I can invest in this one.

Game #32: Mortality, by David Whyld
Played On: 11/03/2005 (9:10 AM to 10:35 AM)
Unofficial Score: 8.5 (9.0 base with -0.5 skew)

     David Whyld’s Mortality is a choose-your-own-adventure story. At first glance, that might not seem to be the case. However, interaction is very minimal. Decision points pause the narrative and seem to allow for adjustments to the eventual ending. It works a little better than traditional CYOA, primarily because the game can track and remember these decisions. This allows the plot to branch in minor ways, converge again, and ultimately contribute to differences later in the game. It’s a step above CYOA in that regard (and it’s written in Adrift), but it’s clear that Mortality is meant to flow forward without the plot-stopping obstacle of puzzles. Sometimes, IF-like actions are required, but much of the time it’s just a matter of hitting a key to see the next page, or picking a choice from the dialogue menu.

     The text made me cringe a little – not because it’s badly written (it isn’t), but because I wasn’t at home while playing and the dialogue gets kind of raunchy in spots. Although it’s not very interactive, the dialogue and characters were surprisingly convincing. I found the story very interesting – engaging and engrossing – and the writing was excellent.

     I wasn’t a big fan of David’s entry in last year’s competition (although I see that I remarked on his enjoyable style, in my review). I don’t know if David’s writing just improved remarkably in the past twelve months, or if Mortality had the kind of proofreading that A Day in the Life of a Super Hero lacked. With such an emphasis on the story, this is really the key to helping a game such as this succeed or fail. I noted a very small number of minor issues with the writing, but that’s in the transcript and needs no further mention here.

     Steven Rogers (my uncle’s name, oddly enough, and with a background similar to this one) and Stephanie Gamble have plotted to kill Wilfred Gamble, an elderly, harsh millionaire. The deed is done. The story jumps around like a kangaroo on hot asphalt, but it’s always clear what’s going on in the scene and at what point it happened. It even seems to follow a pattern, where the events following Wilfred’s funeral move forward, with each intruding scene set at some key point in the past. The game lacks room titles and a status line, which is never an issue. In fact, it probably helped.

     Mortality has a few sticking points, but not many. In my ending, for instance, the game didn’t actually end. Also, it was clear what needed to be done in the scene with Stephanie in the club, but my variations on the required action weren’t recognized by the game. I thought David had inexplicably missed what was a pretty obvious cue, but looking at the walkthrough later showed me that it was just a tricky bit with the right command. At one point very late in the game, the “x me” response didn’t take into consideration a pretty important change in circumstances. Sometimes, referring to “woman” would make references to a “nude woman” – and references to “Stephanie” replied with “the Stephanie's sculpture.” Opening the trapdoor in the ceiling was a mini-puzzle, where I expected a simple “open trapdoor” to suffice (in the context of the rest of the game, anyway). At the tavern, “drink” tells me I can’t drink the cold beer, but “drink beer” works. Sometimes, it’s not possible to see all the detail David has put into Mortality, because the game moves ahead of its own volition after a few turns.

     My biggest complaint is that the story does branch. An odd complaint? Probably. But at the end, I hadn’t realized that any of the decisions I made were affecting anything other than immediate variations to the story. Only afterwards, when looking at the walkthrough, was it clear that I missed some opportunities to positively affect the outcome. I haven’t seen it all, but it seems that the more you do to keep Stephanie on your side, the better chance you’ll have in the final confrontation. It was easy for me to get everything out of Space Horror I earlier in the competition, because I could use multiple browser windows at key points and the browser’s inherent “undo” ability. With Mortality, it’s not so easy, simply because of the different type of presentation.

     The walkthrough is a transcript, so it’s possible to get the full effect of a good ending without playing it through again. This is described as one of two good endings, so it stands to reason the decision points are even more important than they seem. With the minimal interaction, though, reading a transcript that sticks to what’s important is just as good as playing it yourself. This is why I skewed down half a point from a 9.0 base score – I like a little more interaction. It’s a good story with very good writing and no major problems. It worked well for me, and a final score of 8.5 seems aptly earned.

Game #33: Dreary Lands, by Paul Lee
Played On: 11/03/2005 (12:30 PM to 1:30 PM)
Unofficial Score: 4.5 (4.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     So this is the way the competition ends. T. S. Eliot, in a phrase that is now a cliché, describes it best – “not with a bang, but a whimper.” It’s not really the end, though. Dreary Lands is the last game on my list, but I skipped the two I beta-tested. I’ll need to replay and review both of those next.

     Dreary Lands blends three different concepts into one game. First is the surreal, where the protagonist wakes up in a tiny, multi-colored chamber where strange things happen. Next, escaping this bit, things become a bit more fantasy-inspired. A sword, a shield, and flaming arrows are to be found in a land with a murky swamp, a sentient tree, and a looming castle. This leads into a confrontation of religious nature, where the bad guy describes his very biblical backstory. What this equals is a very schizophrenic story lacking enough originality to bring it more attention.

     The writing could be good. It isn’t, due almost entirely to its poor spelling rather than any grammatical faults or lack of imagination, but it could be. During some of it, I could see good writing shine through. It just needs some revision. In the “about” text, the author is clear that an update to Dreary Lands isn’t on his agenda. That’s too bad. I have a transcript, and I intend to point out a few problems during this review.

     At the beginning, a couple lines of non-default color were a nice touch. Near the end, this becomes a bulk of dark red on the standard Frotz blue, which wasn’t. Other than that, the presentation is pretty good. The game is also fairly well clued. If not for a couple of pretty important problems (and I’m coming to that), I could have finished without help.

     Inventory management is the first problem. If you find the rucksack early on, this is all handled smoothly. I didn’t, though, until playing through a second time via the walkthrough. This meant I could only hold three items at a time, putting a fourth thing inside the only box I actually kept. It turns out, I probably picked the wrong box to carry around. Not only was it too small, but near the end, it seems important to have one of the other boxes due to its special nature. At that point, though, the game doesn’t let you backtrack. I found this out with a frustrated peek at the walkthrough, which is why I had to start over in the first place. But, yeah – find the rucksack, and that’s not a problem.

     The second thing was a weird glitch in the mud-brick hut. It’s important to take a thing or two from this room, but part of the listing shows a long series of parenthetical “which is currently burning” modifiers to a bunch of (I assume) nameless objects. If it had been possible to see what this was, things would have been easier. The puzzles weren’t difficult, and the clueing was pretty good – but you can’t solve a puzzle if an important part of it is broken.

     The “good” ending is interesting, but again, it’s one of those things you’ve probably seen a hundred times before. It was worth the second play-through to get there, but it’s a shame the game was broken enough to require that. I don’t have much else to say about Dreary Lands, except that it’s probably not as disappointing as the author thinks (see the “about” text). Yeah, it’s not great, but it’s not the worst of the competition by any means.

     I have given the game a base score of 4.0, with a +0.5 skew for simple puzzles that were not badly clued. It needs some work the author probably won’t do, but it’s still playable.

Game #34: On Optimism, by Tim Lane
Played On: 11/03/2005 (3:50 PM to 4:25 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.0 (6.0 base with no skew)

     This was the fifth game on my random list, but it’s a game I beta tested. I wanted to move it to the end (along with one other), to put a few weeks between that first experience and this replay of the “official” competition version.

     It’s still difficult to review. The game isn’t much changed from the beta I played, but I can see where the author has improved some of the clueing that had me confused back when I played the beta. I made it through without hints this time, but that may be due as much to remembering how it all works than to the improved clues. I seem to remember, though, that nothing obvious happened after dealing with the first frame. Now, it makes more sense that something has changed after the task is performed. The port is now inaccessible until later in the game – this was confusing before, since it seemed to hint at a host of possibilities that only drew attention away from what was really important. The blank piece of paper is clued a little better now, too.

     A few problems with the puzzles remain, ranging from a minor disambiguation oddity with the sheets of paper, to a new bit in the underwater cage that seemed (if I recall) to have a slightly different solution before. The hole that opens in one of the rooms (not the one filled with blood) can’t be “entered”, yet it’s important to go in that direction (effectively entering it anyway). The deal with the three statues might be a little better now, but it still seems pretty obscure. I brought this up, as did at least one other tester, but ultimately the author decided (I guess) that it was okay. Drop me an email if you solved the room with the statues without hints. I still don’t think it’s possible.

     The text is still overly sentimental. It’s meant to be a surreal but touching story, but it’s written in a way that makes the PC sound pitiful and hopeless. To fully enjoy it, I think a player would have to be in that frame of mind… rejected, full of despair, pining away for a girl that might not even be worth the attention. Yeah, years ago, that was definitely me. Now, though, it’s harder to identify with, and the too-forced prose (written in first person, I should add) just left me disconnected from the protagonist. I hope this wasn’t inspired by a real situation in the author’s life. If so, I might be insulting the author’s honesty and open emotional display, which isn’t my intent. It feels like the kind of trippy, emotional outpouring that might come from a break-up, but only the author knows for sure.

     Tim Lane entered the competition last year. That’s not his real name, so I won’t point to last year’s entry in case he intends to remain anonymous. I will say that On Optimism is an improvement over his previous entry. I liked the option at the end to go back to the fork in the road, and this game seems more thought out overall. I think, though, that On Optimism is meant to be so deeply personal that it’s hard to share in the protagonist’s emotional invasion of his ex girlfriend’s private thoughts and memories.

     It’s a good game, even though I didn’t find it effective in an emotional way. The built-in hints should be enough to get anyone unstuck at the harder parts. Even so, the strained writing and some iffy puzzles keep it from going higher than 5.0 on my scale.

Game #35: Chancellor, by Kevin Venzke
Played On: 11/04/2005 (10:10 AM to 10:40 AM and 12:20 PM to 1:50 PM)
Unofficial Score: 9.5 (9.5 base with no skew)

     Again this year, Kevin Venzke has written my second-favorite game of the competition. I beta-tested Chancellor, a few days before the competition began. Even though not much has changed, that first play-through went a little rougher than this, as I have gone back through the official competition version. It’s a pretty hard game. I managed it this time, right at the two hour mark, thanks to those hints from more than a month ago.

     I wasn’t sure what score I’d assign to Chancellor. It isn’t easy to be objective about an updated version of a game I’ve already played. It stood up very well to the repeat play-through, which shows me how well-written and entertaining this game really is. I even noticed bits of consistency that escaped me the first time – I remember seeing it, but I don’t think it hit me at the time. For instance, pay attention to the bit at the beginning where the PC slides down into the cave (something happens with the torch), and then look at the mirror later, in the bathroom.

     The detail put into this game is amazing. A variety of sensory descriptions are used. Almost everything obvious is implemented, and this includes more than just being able to look at what’s around. Unnecessary actions such as jumping at the balcony or moving the body at the shore are anticipated and responsive. Even though figuring out what to do can sometimes be a challenge, the game is very good about understanding variations in commands – nouns and verbs that seem to require no guessing whatsoever.

     I would hate to give away what’s going on in the game (although I’m sure other reviewers won’t hold back), but suffice it to say it’s a very interesting plot. There are two… parts, I guess. The overlap can sometimes be subtle and even hidden enough to miss (examine your suit in the first bit, and then go inside room 510 in the next – be sure to look at the door first). It’s sometimes more obvious as the lines begin to blur (what father writes on the note; what’s contained in the package; the condition of Stacey’s clothes, found later in the game; the common fear of the monster and the janitor). I’ve probably said too much already. It’s interesting how (especially in the later bits) one part just fades away into the next, as if by sleight of hand.

     It’s one of those games, though, where even a second play-through leaves questions unanswered. How much detail did I miss? What’s to be believed, if anything? I hope this gets some discussion after the competition (with appropriate spoiler notices, of course). I’m interested in finding out what it all meant to other people, and so far the author hasn’t explained it. Maybe it’s open for interpretation, but I gather that something is going on, and it can be figured out. The ending alludes to the ultimate completion of a task – one that seems important to her father – and that’s exactly what the PC set out to do at the beginning.

     I mentioned, though, that it’s a pretty hard game. Some of it might be the need for better clueing. Maybe that’s not it – I picked up more hints in this second play-through, and I’m sure I just missed some of this subtlety the first time. Maybe it’s the larger area covered by the game in some places, or just the amount of detail that sometimes seems important even though it isn’t. Anyway, no help was available during the beta, except be emailing Kevin. A hints file is included with the competition version, but as far as I can tell (it’s coded, but with an easy key at the bottom) it only covers the first part of the story. My hope is that judges persist through the tough parts, to get a better sense of just how much the game has to offer. I think the lack of a walkthrough might hurt Chancellor. I didn’t mind so much that Kurusu City wasn’t as well-liked by the judges last year as it was by me, but if Chancellor isn’t in this year’s top 3, the judges have collectively made a mistake. It’s really a great game. And I’ve played them all at this point.

     So, this is the last one! I give it a 9.5 – no skew, but for no particular reason. Well done!

Game #36: Distress, by Mike Snyder
Self-Reviewed On: N/A
Unofficial Score: N/A

     I haven't yet written my thoughts on the design and implementation of Distress, my own competition entry. I'll try to do it shortly after the results are announced -- might be a few days, though.

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