IFcomp 2010 Thoughts

I generally don't write straight reviews when it comes to the annual IF competition. It would be more appropriate to say that I jot down my thoughts.

This is the paragraph where, each year, I find a new and creative way of apologizing for how few games I've played and then promise that I'll try to be a better geek next year.

Should you be interested in how I assign the numerical ratings for each game, my methods can be found here.

Clicking on a title will download the game. If you're new to interactive fiction, I would recommend a visit to A Beginner's Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction before you download anything.

Games reviewed:

A quiet evening at home | Under, In Erebus | Oxygen | Gris et Jaune
Gigantomania | The Chronicler | Rogue of the Multiverse | The Blind House
Death Off the Cuff | Aotearoa | Heated

A Quiet Evening at Home
by anonymous

The title makes me suspect this is Yet Another Apartment or House Game.

Perhaps this author is playing a Deep Game. Perhaps the author wants to lure me in. "Mwuhahahaha! I will make 'em all think this is a crappy apartment or house game when in fact it is anything BUT that!" cackles the anonymous author. Yes, perhaps I am just a pawn, falling into anonymous' trap...

What's this? Now I'm getting persistent and uncapitalized messages about how I really need to unlock my house before i wet my pants?

Yes, this author is playing a very Deep Game.

>unlock door with copper key
You unlock the front door.
gotta go! gotta go!

>pee self
That's not a verb I recognize.

That's not a verb I recognize.

That's not a verb I recognize.

>release urinary sphincter
That's not a verb I recognize.

Or maybe it really is just a crappy apartment game, albeit with a twist.

Why do people keep entering coding exercises into the comp, even after all these years? Why? Srsly.

Rating: 1

Under, In Erebus
by Brian Rapp

This one... failed to grab me.

I mean, I had some amusing moments, but they were accidental, such as this bit during the opening sequence, in which the PC is having a bit of a bad day on a very crowded train:

Two or more of your neighbors seem to be competing for the right to stand on top of your feet.

You can't find anything relevant by that name.

If you are new to interactive fiction, you may like to try typing HELP.

I heard there's some clever shtick to the puzzles here, but the game failed to inspire motivation in me, and upon asking for a hint the game angered me by telling me I hadn't explored everywhere. It was true, I hadn't explored everywhere, but that was because exits were not always conveniently mentioned in room descriptions. Silly me for not exploring exits that I didn't know existed.

So then I was at the point where I started randomly typing directions just to see where the exits were. (ARGH!) Then it occurred to me to see if there was an EXITS verb, which there was, but then there was this clunky addendum at the end of all the room descriptions: From here you can go northeast to an unknown location, southeast to The Place You Just Came From, and east to an unknown location. How hard is it, in a game with a map requiring exploration, to seamlessly blend exits into room descriptions? Not difficult. People have been doing this since the 1970s.

In some fairness, the landscape is dark. Instead of operating on visuals, you're operating on touch and sound. Some of that's done well, but I failed to grasp a lot of what was going on around me, and I don't think it was the lack of visuals. Things just weren't articulated to me very well. I think you could still craft comprehensible room descriptions with stimuli gained through non-visual cues.

Anyway, I got pretty frustrated with this one, and it wasn't that engaging to me, and when I did find out what the goals of the game were (by typing >GOALS) I realized that things really. Were. Not. Well. Clued. At. All. I also spoiled myself by typing >SECRETS to find out what the shtick was. Huh, the shtick might have actually been fun, were I not already so frustrated.

More games left to play, time is dwindling, this one didn't merit more of my patience.

Rating: 3

by Benjamin Sokal

It is not spoilery to tell you this first bit, because the game cuts to the chase on this with the first move and, let's face it, the title itself is spoilery. I won't go into the political particulars, but I'm on a space station, and there's been an explosion, and the systems are having trouble coming back on line, and I'm a tech. I gotta make things right.

I generally avoid science fiction at all costs, the two exceptions being when ClubFloyd is playing some scifi, the other exception being when a game comes up in my comp queue. So I heaved a heavy sigh as I began the game and the plot became clear. Then I started having a few traumatic Infocom Suspended flashbacks. Then I thought to myself, "I'll play a few turns, write it off as crap, then move on to something that hopefully involves an orc looking for a pig or someone trying to finish their dissertation."

But then Sokal had to be all polished and stuff, and I couldn't write it off as crap. I had to keep playing! Ultimately, the game is less about the science fiction and more about ethical choices, morality, politics, selfishness and selflessness, that sort of thing. It's not exactly terribly deep in those regards, but it's not a very long game and it's difficult to delve into such things in detail in a game of this length.

But I would nevertheless like to point out that it is still super swaddled in scifi gift-wrap with a giant scifi bow on top!

So if science fiction is your thang, you might like this. It is not my thang, but I feel bad holding that against the game. It's not Sokal's fault I really don't like scifi! So I added a point to my score to compensate for that.

Short and fairly easy to play, multiple endings. Seems like it could have benefitted from a WAIT FOR 6 TURNS command (or something similar), and a couple of other verbs that were suggested in the prose but not actually functional (REMOVE X from Y comes to mind), but it did anticipate some non-standard things that I tried to do. Only a couple of typographical flubs. It does a good job of backstory, character motivation, and is clever with its (optional) use of sound without being annoying (thank you, Sokal, for asking me if I had sound enabled... I took that as a warning; prior games by other people have just scared the shit out of me without asking first, and I didn't really like that very much).

As per my well-established rating scale, I gave this a 7 (it would have been a 6, but I bumped it up one to make up for my scifi allergy).

Rating: 7

Gris et Jaune
by Steve van Gaal (Jason Devlin)

I was very deeply conflicted, on a few levels, as to how to rate this game.

On one level, this game has a beauty, an allure... a sensuality running through it. A spell. I felt like I couldn't stop with it, and this is the first comp game in a long time where I remember going far in excess of the two hour mark. I wanted to find the end. I cared.

That said—and there's unintentional metaphor here—the critical ingredient of the spell that binds you tightly and draws you through the game? The bit that makes it possible to find its ultimate conclusion? The walkthrough. I honestly don't see how you could get through this game without it.

At first blush the game is silly and on rails, but then suddenly it grows sinister and seductive and opens up in such a vast way that the interactor has no clue where to go, what to do. I tried an attempt without the walkthrough—and got far!—but could never have found the end alone. I'm not sure how this could have been mitigated, either. On the one hand, I enjoyed the agency it gave me, but it gave too much, too quickly. I drowned.

I said I was deeply conflicted on a few levels, and I've only touched on a couple. I should move on with that.

There are other things this entry does really, really well. For example, it does a great job of show—don't tell—with accents. By the time I was half-way through, I was reading dialog in my head that dripped of humid Southern nights laced with cicadas. This was done exceptionally well, without misspelling everything to hit you over the head with it. Maybe I only picked up on this due to having spent a lot of my time in the South, though. I'll be interested to hear others' views on this point.

To continue with respect to the writing: it is this lovely mix of succinct matter-of-factness, evocative descriptions, and eloquent dialogue. This is what hooked me fairly early on, kept me going through my initial dismay, and teased me far enough along that I couldn't let go.

Also, we begin with this sense of being a slave, of being directed, and gaining volition... earning it. That was well done, though (as mentioned above) I think the author loosened the reins just a touch too quickly.

The next bit is spoilery, so I'm going to go all ROT13 on you.

V'ir orra nfxrq jung V gubhtug bs gur Ibbqbb. Vg vf, ng vgf pber, gur frafngvbanyvfg fbeg bs ibbqbb lbh trg va ubeebe abiryf naq Ubyyljbbq. Ohg gung'f jung guvf vf zrnag gb or, qrfcvgr gur nhgube'f erfrnepu. Vg'f boivbhf ur xabjf n ovg nobhg Ibbqbb, gubhtu vs guvf vf orpnhfr ur'f fcrag gvzr va Arj Beyrnaf be whfg ernq n ybg bs negvpyrf ba Jvxvcrqvn, V'z abg fher. V'z pbzcyrgryl hasnzvyvne jvgu Ybhvfvnan Ibbqbb.

Ohg V xabj rabhtu bs Ibbqbb sebz n gevc V znqr gb Unvgv naq obbxf V'ir ernq fvapr gung gevc naq erfrnepu vagb fbzr bs gur negvsnpgf V oebhtug onpx jvgu zr gung V haqrefgbbq n ybg bs gur grezvabybtl hfrq va guvf cvrpr bs svpgvba. Vg jnf vagrerfgvat gb pbzcner naq pbagenfg jung V xarj bs Ibbqbb gb guvf. V'z abg fher vs gur nernf jurer guvatf qviretr ner ba nppbhag bs Ybhvfvnan phygher, be whfg gur frafngvbanyvfz.

Vg'f n jbex bs svpgvba. Vg'f cebonoyl cerggl bssrafvir gb fbzr. Ohg V gbbx vg nf n jbex bs svpgvba, naq V rawblrq vg.

I didn't realize (for some reason(!)) until after I'd completed the game, that there was a hint menu. Maybe that would have been enough. Maybe I could have gotten through without the walkthrough. Maybe I could have found my way without feeling led. That's really all that held me back on scoring this very, very well. But I rather doubt that to be the case. Some of the things in the walkthrough felt so. poorly. cued. I stand by my original statement: I don't see how you could have gotten through this game without the walkthrough. If you did, please leave a comment. I'd love to know.

I wanted this to be more. Really wanted it to be more.

As per my well-established rating scale, I should give this a 7, but I enjoyed it too much, and thus gave this a 8. That is, admittedly, a bit of a gift.

Rating: 8

by Michelle Tirto

This is a piece about "living under the Stalin era, in four parts." I'm going to be a touch spoilery here, but just a touch. After all, I played this several times, but never lasted more than thirty moves, so I can't possibly be spoiling your immersive experience that much.

I died of starvation once, but then I started plowing potatoes and grain like a mad man so that I'd be ready when they came to collect my share for Mother Russia. No matter how industrious I was, though, I was always pinned to the ground, called an enemy of the collective, an enemy of the people, an enemy of Russia, and killed. I'm not sure if it was a bug or what, because I always had more grain and potatoes than the game said I needed, even after feeding my dying wife whom I couldn't bring myself to euthanize... because somehow, someway, I knew we would survive.

Yes, life in Stalinist Russia is horrible, but you get a sense of this about ten or fifteen moves into the piece and the rest of the game is not terribly interesting after that. I mean, I admire the premise, and the ambition of it, but I think it could have been done in a more engaging way. Bit more of a plot. Bit more promise that the misery to come would at least be interesting misery. More than four beta testers next time, Michelle.

This wasn't bad, per se, it just wasn't good. If you're going to take us back in time and show us how miserable a certain period was, you have to make it engaging enough that people will actually want to stay in the Hell you've (re)created for them.

And I didn't get far enough into this one to figure out where the title came from, which made me sort of sad. But they kept killing me!

Rating: 4

The Chronicler
by John Evans

Ooh, The Chronicler. That's a good title. Sometimes you can pick a game just by its title. Maybe this'll be good.

Oh, and lookie here, the author has an e-mail address that ends in alum.mit.edu. That's promising.

Oh great. More SciFi. Or should I call it SighFi. (I can't believe it took me this many years to think of that pun. I shall now forevermore think of it spelled that way.)

Some of the initial writing is decent. I like foreign worlds when they're well imagined and well described. Let's start playing the actual game.

As good looking as ever.

Uh-oh. Let's have a look at that ABOUT text. Perfectly useless. Let's have a look at that HELP text. What's this? OMFG, check it out! I shall quote:

Chronicler is a short game for the Interactive Fiction Competition 2010. Unfortunately, due to time constraints it's only half finished, or perhaps three-quarters. I can only hope that you'll find some amusement from the manipulations of objects it affords, while apologizing for the shortness of the experience.

Yeah, quitting now. Thanks for wasting a few minutes of my evening, Mr. Evans. You might have gotten higher than a 1 had you not actually admitted that you knew (you knew!) that what you were entering wasn't comp worthy.

You. KNEW.

Rating: 1

Rogue of the Multiverse
by C.E.J. Pacian

Ooh, okay. C.E.J. Pacian. I like him. Let's boot this.

(Maybe the person who said on ifMUD this evening that next year we should require everyone to use a pseudonym had a point...)

Ooh, the cover art has, like, prehistoric crocodiles and squids in it. Excellent.

Then I actually launched the game, and I found myself in a cell. And the cell door was open. Like, I didn't even have to escape the cell. And there was this boring bit of walking and not really looking at much because there isn't much to look at and the descriptions aren't all that engaging and CEJPacianesque.

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the title of the game. Rogue of the Multiverse. Yeah. Maybe it's that it's science fiction. Not my thing. Maybe it's that it starts not so much on a railroad as a rollercoaster. Maybe it's that I hit a runtime error about a dozen moves in. Maybe it's that I was in the mood for saying damn the gender binary! I mean, we finally get into the Pacianisms, and that's amusing enough. But I still felt... well, not so much railroaded, more like I was in one of those little carts at Dollywood with a bar across my waist, knowing I was going to have to sit there and listen to the recorded dialog of silly people.

I like Pacian, so I stepped away for a bit, played something else, came back hoping I'd start to really feel engaged. But I never really was. That makes me kind of sad. I think this is simply Not My Kind of Game. I decided to step away again, but this time I didn't come back.

Rating: 5

The Blind House
by Maude Overton

I started with this one by following the author's initial advice upon booting the game: I read the About text. It claimed that the focus of the game is more on plot, atmosphere and exploration rather than on intense puzzle-solving.

And then we started off with a bunch of puzzles. Plot-driven puzzles, mind you, but I found myself refreshingly all geared up for story, and suddenly I was trying to figure out how to lock doors and cover mirrors and get rid of light through the window so that I could fulfill the very pressing need of getting to sleep. Plot and atmosphere rather than puzzles, eh? I felt kind of betrayed right out of the gate on this one, and perhaps because the game promises to be not puzzly, there are no hints and alternative solutions don't work the way they should.

The other initial impression I had, though, was a positive one: nice art, author-drawn, with good use of Glulx features. There's a nicely crafted, aesthetically pleasing map visible during play, which shows the layout of objects mentioned in room descriptions. It provides a better sense of place. There's also an image of the two characters in the game, and I'm curious if this image will change as the story progresses (sadly, it turns out that it does not, though that would have been a nice feature).

The game also says I'm supposed to be thinking about things a lot. I try that a bit. I try to think about the thing that's most pressing on my mind right now, according to the status bar, and can't figure out a way to think about that. I'm not sure what that refers to, the game tells me.

And then here we go again, with some more puzzles. Here's the thing, Author: I like puzzleless IF, so please don't build me up to believe I'm going to experience a game that's puzzleless, and then put scavenger hunts and look-behind-object puzzles in my way.

I sense that the game, though solid in writing and intriguing in plot, could really have benefited from more testers/testing, and that makes me a little sad, because there's a lot that's solid here and it feels so close to being really good. But it's frustrating me just enough to be annoying.

I can't decide if the game was ultimately intentionally surreal and disjointed due to perceived themes of mental illness or just... well... if it was just really screwed up writing.

Anyway, my husband wishes I'd had a microphone recording me while I played this, because this game drew from me a whole range of audible emotions: loud sighing, profanity, frustrating grrs, nervous laughter, a couple of fairly loud outbursts, and once (just for effect) I slammed a nearby stool into the carpeting. I had an audience, though. I was conscious of that.

This is probably a four, but it's almost a five, and I am the sort who likes to give the benefit of the doubt, so I'll give it a five. Sad, though, as this could have done so much better.

Rating: 5

Death Off the Cuff
by Simon Christiansen

We begin the game with a exceedingly clever and original premise (at least, not a premise that I've ever seen before). The writing is witty and fun... a few typographical errors here and there to distract, but the prose manages to do what it needs to do without being repetitive, which is a trap it could easily have fallen into given the premise.

This game is interesting in that it's almost entirely conversation driven, but you can only talk about objects in plain sight. This at first makes it seem as if the game will be pretty short, as you're in a room with six people and limited objects, but there is a lovely layering of detail that is not at first apparent, and it turns out there's more to the conversation than it would at first appear. The game looks as though it'll be a banana, but turns out to be a bit more of an onion, and this is a dreaful metaphor, so I'm going to move on and give this game a score.

It wasn't perfect, there were a variety of ways it could have been better. It probably deserves an 8, but I had a lot of fun, and so, as per my well-established rating scale, I gave this a 9.

Rating: 9

Aotearoa: An Interactive Adventure
by Matt Wigdahl

In many respects, I very much enjoyed Aotearoa. It was perhaps the closest I've ever come to experiencing the comforting old skool feel of a Choose Your Own Adventure ported to interactive fiction. The PC, the plot, the things that happen... it feels like something straight out of a good CYOA by Packard, and I mean that as a high compliment.

The game grabs you right away with a strong prologue that is appropriate to the story and gets your mind ready for an adventure set in the land of the Maori. The writing is strong and sure. But once the player is given the volition to move about and do things, some of the gaps start to show. I hate to point out those gaps, because Wigdahl has done some very, very good things here, but I found myself pretty frustrated.

The frustrations varied. One example: items mentioned in scenery descriptions that sounded useful for the current puzzle sometimes weren't actually implemented. In another instance, a very plausible alternate solution was unaddressed; I had everything I needed to solve the puzzle but the game said I didn't have the necessary items (I had a straight stick, when what the game thought I needed was a board). There was a lot of rail roading and quite a few triggered events that were very difficult to figure out unless you got lucky and stumbled upon them or went for a hint. The conversation menu topics were pretty limited, and often avoided things that would have been very useful in favor of things I wasn't too curious about.

That said, I enjoyed quite a bit about this game. Some of the puzzles were quite clever and fun, and there were a fun command that allowed you to name the critters you encountered in the game. There was an element of backstory and character development lovingly crafted for this game that you don't often see in this sort of game, giving it an element of depth you wouldn't otherwise expect in this genre. The scenery descriptions were generally quite beautiful, with a definite sense of having been written by someone who spends time in the natural world.

Unfortunately, the greatest frustration of all was that I'm pretty sure I encountered a show stopping bug. My husband was one of the testers, and he took a look at my predicament and agreed. Sad way to end the game, seemingly about three-quarters of the way through, and before what I suspect was an interesting climax. I've sent the author a transcript, but have to vote and review and move on. I hope to revisit the game and finish it later.

Basically, this is a pretty awesome game that was about 90% ready for the comp. Just not ready enough.

Rating: 7

by Timothy Peers

Heated is a game set in a boring apartment which the author describes as "meditative" and "sparsely decorated" to make us think his creative use of underimplementation was intentional. There's some mildly amusing writing, albeit not without its mechanical errors, and some unintuitive and unrealistic puzzle design. Then again, I'm a pretty productive member of society, and the PC in this game is a slacker who probably deserves to not get the raise that they're hoping to receive. Possibly I just can't relate.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the plot (this isn't a spoiler, it's something mentioned right after you start the game): you are already on warning at work, haven't had a raise in forever, and need to get to work early, looking sharp, and finish a report to put yourself in line for a raise. I'm sorry, but this is not the sort of escapism I'm looking for when I sit down to play interactive fiction. There's nothing to be learned here, no big aHA moments, just a not terribly engaging puzzle fest.

The game's one schtick is that your stress level goes up and down depending on stimuli. That could have been kind of fun, and is a good idea in and of itself, but the event context and setting in which it was used simply did not engage me enough to make me stick around to see if Peers did something interesting with it.

Rating: 4