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IFCOMP 2008 - April In Paris

Game #17: April in Paris
Author: Jim Aikin
Played On: October 20th (1 hour 15 minutes)
Platform: TADS 3

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:2 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Gameís Blurb:
     On the first day of your dream vacation, you encounter an exasperating social difficulty. (Game file contains complete hints and walkthrough. Zip file includes pdf map.)

     April in Paris is a game that should be more fun than it is. The writing is pleasantly error-free, or very near to it. It has a few simple puzzles that seem to set the pacing pretty well. Itís technically competent, with just a few quirks (although one is a moderately serious bug) that arenít bad enough to destroy faith in the gameís implementation. It should be really enjoyable.

     Why, then, this lukewarm response? Part may be to do with the truly excellent entry I played just prior to this (donít click that link if you donít yet want opinions on IFComp í08 entries you might not have played). Thatís a very tough act to follow. Recognizing my bias, I have given April in Paris the reviewer bonus point -- just in case Iím being too critical.

     In the two days Iíve put off writing this review, Iíve given some thought to why April in Paris didnít captivate me the way it could have. My biggest problem was with the gameís geography. Itís essentially three rooms, but the main one has been subdivided into six room-like zones. The included .PDF map makes this layout clearer, but I didnít check it until afterwards for fear of spoilers. The game uses a TADS 3 extension for handling movement within a single room (I think thatís right; in response to my transcript, Jim offered a little insight into the gameís construction).

     I was initially confused by the layout, but even when I understood it, I was constantly unclear on who and what was where. Since this main area is open, the player can see whatís happening all around. The waiter is said to move around, but often between other zones. Things are described as they pertain to these six zones (near the south end of the railing, north end of the interior area, etc). The game is good about implicitly moving the player (for instance, an attempt to sit at your table will return you to the proper zone automatically), but the cumulative result -- for me -- was constant confusion.

     Scrapping the zone concept and sticking to a room-based approach might have worked. I think I understand why the game doesnít, though, and itís for realism. It wouldnít make sense to be oblivious to the goings-on just a few feet north of where you stand, when itís essentially an open area. A better solution might have been the ďone roomĒ concept. Except for the runaway dog (which could be adapted), it might have been possible to condense the gameís main area into a single room, making accommodations for the ways this might affect the puzzles. Referring to the map might have helped too, but it still would have been a little awkward to mentally manage what was happening where.

     The young woman, who seemed to be a central piece in the story, felt strangely flat. Two-dimensional characters are common enough in IF -- itís even the norm -- and itís not usually a problem (especially in puzzle games). This game is more story-centric, though, so I would have expected more characterization -- especially for this character. Maybe I didnít talk to her enough. As the game progressed, she just seemed more and more like a puzzle piece, or maybe a prop. Initially, I didnít even trust her. The lesser characters were fine. Even the waiter, with his obstinate attitude, seemed believable and developed enough to fit the needs of the story. Only the young woman seemed to need a more important role than she was given.

     Of the gameís title and blurb, and in an attempt to ďguessĒ at what each of the thirty-five IFComp 2008 entries might be like, I made the following prediction:

     ďSounds artsy. Cultured. Over my head, perhaps... My expectations are high.Ē

     I expected that I might have to involve my wife (with her minor in French) in figuring out some of the dialogue. I expected something that would evoke strong images of this foreign city -- not necessarily a thinly veiled virtual tour as in 2004ís Blue Sky, but something that would spark the imagination and make me yearn for a vacation. I expected something grand and exciting, maybe.

     Itís clear that April in Paris wasnít meant to be any of that. Even though the fault is mine for expecting that it might be, the game still has untapped potential. Somebody at a nearby table kept shouting ďExtraordinary cuisine!Ē I would have expected to hear other kinds of random chatter, and a larger variety of random happenings in general. Even restricted to a single scene (the cafť), the game might have taken more opportunities to expound upon what it feels like to be a tourist in Paris. Ultimately, the story didnít seem interesting enough, the puzzles had me pitying the poor hungry fellow for all that he had to endure just to get a good meal (rather than actively enjoying the effort), and confusion with the cafťís geography left me as frustrated as the protagonist himself.

     Itís not a bad game by any means. Itís even a welcome change from the poorly-written, untested ones that make up a large number of the entries each year. I understand that Jim may be planning to release an updated version after the competition. Thatís not likely to impact the underlying framework or the gameís modest story, but it would probably be a more recommendable version nonetheless. The competition version is still worth a play-through, if no update is released. I have scored it a ď7,Ē which includes full points for writing and the reviewer bonus point.

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