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IFCOMP 2008 - LAIR of the CyberCow

Game #9: LAIR of the CyberCow
Author: Harry Wilson (IFComp info page) or Conrad Cook (game’s >about)
Played On: October 11th (1 hour 55 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 3.9)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 4

     Game’s Blurb:
     One of the few games in the neglected Farm Noir genre, LAIR of the CyberCow takes a stylishly chilling, ambivalently moral look at the social themes of our times -- or, does it? Play it now: don't wait for the movie. (Requires ADRIFT 3.9)

     That kind of humor will get you nowhere.

     One can tell from the blurb that LAIR is going to have problems. One can tell that it’s going for absurdity and humor, but that it’s likely to be more amusing to the author than to anybody else.

     Sadly, that does seem to be the case with LAIR. It’s a complete game, showing obvious effort and moderate attention to detail; don’t mistake it for a joke entry. But at the same time, it falls flat in many ways. The humor doesn’t work well when it’s being drowned by implementation problems. (However, I do find it more amusing in the transcript, and I can see better what the author had in mind.) The absurdity is downplayed to the extent that it sometimes feels as though the story is supposed to be taken seriously. Some puzzles work and some don’t, and it’s possible to make the game unwinnable in several ways. The writing is sometimes okay, but often suffers from clunky phrasings. In general, it fails to describe things well enough to be satisfying and believable (sometimes, you won’t even know more about a thing after you’ve examined it because the description is too vague).

     Among its biggest problems is that it’s easily broken. I found two place -- at least two -- where the game can be rendered unwinnable. I tried to hit the fairy, and when the game assumed I meant to use the plans, the fairy just sort of disappeared. I restored an earlier save. Later, near the end, I got stuck riding in something that never did reach the top of where it was supposed to be going. Nothing happened, until after several turns when I “woke up” back in the house, went down the well, and could no longer leave. Again, I had to restore a prior save.

     Better beta-testing should have rooted out these kinds of problems. Even when not completely broken, things are made more difficult by inconsistent daemon messages (“daemons” being automatic tasks that run within the game, usually independent of the player’s actions). A message announces the fairy’s arrival or departure only if you’re not doing something else, making it more difficult to track her down. Sometimes when night turned to day, the game didn’t tell me (which made it odd when it turned to night again). “Moving” and “lifting” one large object with another doesn’t work (and even seems to suggest it’s not possible), yet “prying” and “flipping” it works.

     Whenever Adrift 3.9 (or, perhaps, this game in particular) would impress me with something cleverly implemented (“get all from couch” works, for instance), it would almost immediately disappoint me on some other technical point (“undo” says it works, but only seems capable of sending you one turn back, despite multiple uses). It still runs the gamut of issues inherent to the Adrift parser, but on the whole this didn’t pose as big a problem as it has in other Adrift games I’ve played...

     ...With one notable exception. I’ll spoil this puzzle (and believe me, you’re better off for it) with quotes from my transcript:

     >look under couch
     The couch is a pale green velvety plaid, suitable for most purposes. One of these modern, lightweight deals.

     >move couch
     Moving the couch reveals a cleverly-hidden trapdoor!

     Those commands didn’t come consecutively. After not finding the trapdoor to begin with (because the game ignored “under”) I spent many long and fruitless minutes doing other stuff. At one point, when I felt I was stuck beyond all hope, I peeked at the walkthrough. I was supposed to push the couch. Well, silly me. There was nothing special about the couch; no clue, except that it was described as “lightweight.” In a better game (as callous as this may sound), the author would have anticipated that if a player were to look under the couch, it would make sense to reveal the existence of the trapdoor.

     Often, the game just didn’t give enough information. It took a while to discover that Vluurinik was actually a fairy, and I only realized it after the game started referring to her as one. A puzzle involving her capture is made almost unsolvable (without a peek at the hints), not only because there’s no indication of what she wants, but because getting what she likes requires a suspicious leap in logic. (Cover your eyes here, if you want to avoid another puzzle spoiler.) If you want me to milk the cow, don’t make me think the cow is hostile. And, while you’re at it, remind me that cows have nipples when I look at it, instead of telling me it’s a totally customized, unique kind of cow. Milking it becomes the last thing I’d ever think of! This puzzle was kind of clued in the bowl’s description, but only to the extent that I thought I might need to find some cereal. I never connected the dots from cereal to milk, and milk to cow. But maybe that’s my fault.

     The plot never commits itself to being ridiculous, yet neither is it serious. This makes the internal logic hard to figure out. Many situations crop up that seem fitting of the silly scenario, yet have all the trappings of an accident. For instance, you can’t carry a huge metal cross up a ladder for obvious reasons, yet you can climb up and down a rope with it. The PC sticks his toe in the bell’s crack, but presumably is wearing shoes throughout the adventure (this could, I think, just be a case of ambiguous wording). You can wake up back at the cottage without ever explicitly going there. No explanation is given as to why the cottage consists of only a living room. It’s possible to pick up an object without realizing it, because the “you pick it up” message, reworded as simply “still hot!”, convinced me that I wasn’t able to pick it up.

     The author sometimes uses a dramatic pause as a means of delaying bits of information. The game actually freezes for a few seconds, and as far as I found, you can only wait until the text continues. It seems overused, but to be honest, I’m not sure even a single use was necessary. Allowing a keypress to move forward would have been nice.

     Yet all this, and I still liked it. I can’t recommend it, but it has a charm that makes it palpable in the context of the competition. I’m voting it a “4.” I’m probably creating my own cliché here, but I would like to see more from this author in the future. Key thing, though: beta-testing. Play the top games from prior competitions, too, and read plenty of reviews (both for the top games, and for the lower-ranking ones). Most IF authors who keep at it do better and better with practice. Next year, raise the bar.

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