IFcomp 2012 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:

In a Manor of Speaking | A Killer Headache | Last Minute
Lunar Base 1 | Signos

In a Manor of Speaking:
A Z-Code game by Hulk Handsome

A clever opening to a game premise that's been done before. Quite a few times.

For originality points, I will say that this is the only game or story I've played that uses the premise that I've crash landed in the Bermuda Triangle, and that's why things are so wonky. That's where the originality ends, though.

This is Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It / Ad Verbum territory, which is territory I love, but this one doesn't rise and shine as its predecessors did. That said, I laughed a few times, and I won't say that I didn't enjoy it. I just didn't enjoy it as much as I enjoyed those other games, and it's pretty much impossible to not make the comparison.

Rating: 6

A Killer Headache:
A Z-Code game by Mike Ciul

A Killer Headache started out on the sort of note that made me want to quit immediately. "Not another You Are a Zombie! game," I thought to myself. But then I stuck with it, and found that the game strikes out into some new territory. While it is a game where the PC is a zombie, and while it does focus a lot on eating brains, it's a surprisingly serious game, and comes up with a creative justification for why we always see zombies shuffling about moaning on and on about braaaaiinssss. In fact, the best part of the game focuses in on this aspect in a way that I found pretty novel. If you haven't played this yet, I recommend that you stop reading this review now and go play the game, because it's worth it just to see Ciul's take on the genre.

That said, the game did a few things that fell pretty short for me. Just about the time I was getting the hang of things, it felt like Ciul was saying, "Welp, okay, I've shown you what I wanted to show you so there's not much more point to this so let's enter the denouement." Suddenly I found myself going from puzzles that were so transparent that they didn't feel like puzzles to puzzles that were hard and seemingly pointless except to be there for the sake of having puzzles. Because, y'know, that's what 8 out of 10 IF players allegedly crave. That switch changed the mood of the game considerably for me. I was enjoying the back story more than the puzzles, and was willing to jump through minor hoops to get more flashbacks, until the flashbacks became solidly interwoven with the puzzles and provided no real story, just means to an end.

And as for the ultimate finale, I found it really linear with weak reasons why I couldn't do certain things, and even the hints didn't get me to the ending of the game. Upon reading the hints to see what my ultimate goal was (because really, I felt like I was just solving puzzles because they were there, not because I was feeling motivation), I thought to myself, "Really? That's it? That's the goal, to find a peaceful death? When let's be honest, I have found many, many ways to painfully die but then I'm dead so the end result is the same and when I'm dead I'm supposed to care after the fact that it was painful?"

This is when I realized that I'd gone from a game I'd enjoyed to a game I really wasn't enjoying at all, and so I quit struggling for the last lousy (fourth) point and called it good.

Sad, because I think this could have been a larger work that explored some cool ideas.

Rating: 7

Last Minute:
A browser game by Ruderbager Doppelganger

I gotta say, the opening text was not promising.


A hastily written interactive story by Ruderbager Doppelganger.
Additional material by the ALINE KREW and Daphny David.

Oh, crap! Crap, crap, crap! Crappity crappy crap!


The deadline for the 2012 Interactive Fiction Competition is only ten minutes away! There's no chance in Hades that I'll finish my Twine magnum opus before it's pencils down! Well, I could finish it, but it's not something I want to rush, much like my loving.

In retrospect, there are two things that are interesting about that opening text.

First, it's obvious after you play the game that it was not thrown together in 10 minutes. That misused apostrophe aside, the game is fairly polished. I'm not saying that Ruderbager Doppelganger, whoever that may be, spent months on Last Minute or anything, but it was certainly more than ten minutes, and while the premise is a bit off-putting, it's a setup that works well for the intended schtick.

Second, the writing style is pretty much like that throughout. If you find yourself guiltily cracking a smile at the phrase, it's not something I want to rush, much like my loving, then you should probably play this. It won't take too long.

I mentioned that there was a schtick. Indeed there is. And the schtick is cute, but sadly it is not very deeply explored. I kind of wish that the author had taken this and really explored it, without recycling any more text than absolutely necessary. That would have really made it fun.

And I suppose I should mention that the game is a non-state-tracking CYOA with a seemingly broken 'rewind' button. I personally rather enjoy CYOA, even without state-tracking, though I know many people find it too old skool for their tastes. YMMV.

At any rate, the game is nothing heavy or profound, but it was fun and I enjoyed it. And games I enjoy get at least a six.

Rating: 6

Lunar Base 1:
An Z-Code game by Michael Phipps

Cons: I'm not into science fiction.
Pros: We like the moon. (Well, I like the real moon, not that song.)

Anyway, yeah, I'm not too into scifi, but I have always been particularly fond of the moon and am slightly sad that I was talked out of being an astronaut by someone I looked up to as a small child, so I decided to give the game a try.

This game has some strong things going for it, but a lot of issues.

What's really great about this piece from the start is that it has some humanity to it: I'm given a bit of a feel for who the player character is, first as a scientist and astronaut, then as a person who has lived a life. And the game also has some decent pacing: you're introduced to the setting, your role, the environment, your partner, and then you begin to wonder to yourself, "Gee, I wonder when there's going to be some crazy malfunction or other issue that suddenly breaks the tranquility of exploration and me settling into my new home on the moon base..." and then, sure enough, BAM! TURN 34! SOMETHING HAPPENS. The way it was all set up made me think this was going to be a really great game, but just about the time it gets rolling, issues start popping up.

I suppose that those issues can be summed up this way: the game has a really strong start, then you start to encounter things that should be implemented more fully — conversations that should be available given what's happened but aren't available to you, that sort of thing — then suddenly the game is on rails, and then it just flies completely off the rails into one great big long giant cut-scene. It's as if the author ran out of time before the deadline but decided to submit to the comp anyway, and found short-cuts to rush things along. This is rather too bad, because the game's got this quirky-endearing plot that feels like it came out of an old Edward Packard CYOA, something that really could have been explored in an IF Comp-sized game... but it instead comes off feeling like a quickly wrapped-up IntroComp entry: short, with all the attention on the front end.

For the author's benefit, I'd like to discuss some of the implementation issues that struck me pretty hard. These are extremely spoilery, but I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you've probably already played the game and you're just here to compare notes.

For starters, you're unable to speak to your partner when you're in a different location than he is. You're on the moon, which is sort of remote as work environments go, and there's just two of you up there, yet if you're outside the base and he's inside the base you can't speak to anyone — not John, not 'the base', and not ground control. Seems like a bit of a safety issue. (So you'd better hope nothing happens to you while you're separated from John! Which of course promptly happens the second you're separated from him.) As I went along, I realized that this was probably an oversight on the part of the author, because some of the cut-scenes do involve John speaking to you through the headset in your helmet, and you're eventually nudged to speak to ground control from the lunar module. There are also some minor things like wearing and removing your space suit, and opening and closing airlocks, which are kinda sorta handled, but could be slightly more elegant (i.e. done for you, instead of getting in the way of the action or killing you because you skipped a routine step that has to happen every. single. time. you exit the base — and there's a lot of coming and going, far more than I think is realistic, given what a pain in the rear it'd be to keep donning and removing a space suit).

Conversation-wise, after you see a flash of light on the surface of the moon that takes you off-guard, there's no real way to investigate it, which is annoying, so then you then come back in to the base and it's not a conversation option you can discuss with John (who is from Germany, by the way, but maybe he's adopted the name 'John' because people have trouble pronouncing 'Johann' at the space agency, or perhaps the United States finally achieves world domination by 2050 and everyone adopts English first names... but I digress). The only really obvious thing I can do after having this startling experience alone outside on the moon is have a conversation with John in which he gets excited about his lab samples, but even that doesn't trigger a conversation option to speak to him about the experiment in more detail (which is too bad, since it ends up having an effect on the plot). Ultimately, despite this unsettling experience I had, I have no option but to suggest we turn in for the evening without discussing it or looking into it further. Because that's what you'd naturally do if you were on an otherwise uninhabited chunk of rock and saw something that might lead you to believe you're not alone.

When I wake up, things have turned worse, and there's this crazy light in the distance that's intriguing enough to make me hear about it every turn, but I can't do anything about it until the game decides I can — which, okay, fair enough, but then don't torment me with it until you're going to let me investigate it, or else give me a better reason why I can't go check it out. I also found it kind of funny that the map was so limited, which I understand from the author's perspective, but... c'mon... it's the moon! It's pretty wide-open in every direction but I can only go somewhere if the plot needs me to do so. Some of the nicest touches in the game were the detail of the surface, the joy I got from jumping, things like that... so if you're not going to let me explore (which is the number one reason I kept playing the game), then give me a good reason that I can't go anywhere, as opposed to just saying, "You can't go that way."

So anyway, yeah, I feel like this just got released before it was ready. Extra props, though, for the line, "Your lightning-quick reflex has left him lying limp on the floor, snoring." That I enjoyed a great deal.

Rating: 5

A Quest game by M4u

The writing is terse. The story starts with no real hook. There are misspelled words and mechanical errors.

Okay, I'll quit writing in the same choppy sentences of which this author, M4u, seems to be so fond. Rereading that last paragraph that I wrote, I sound pretty picky, but here's the thing: while one of these things may be forgiveable (or even a feature, if done right), the triumverate seems a bit much. Here's the intro:

You wake up in a big hall made of stone. There is light coming from all directions.

You are in a big hall made of stone. The ceiling is really high from the ground. There is a deep silence in this room.

You can see some kind of glass room to the north.

My description is a somewhat jarring "Looking good," which feels like a shift in narrative voice (perhaps because it's two words, not the rhythmic flow of 7-11 word sentences I've already gotten used to. Taking inventory informs me that I have a mask, and examining it reveals that "All of you can see is it has two holes for your eyes and a big opening for your mouth.."

In the first minute of the game I've got no hook. That's fine by me, if the writing is evocative or the setting intriguing, or something. But the player has very little here of interest. Except wait, there's a glass room to the north, and that sounds kind of interesting, so I clicked on the little hyperlink for "glass room" (because there are convenient hyperlinks in this game), and find that the game has ended quite unexpectedly(!). Okay, so maybe that's the fault of the website, because I'm playing the game online, so I fire it up again to give the game one more chance (I'm feeling charitable, this is my first game of the comp).

> look at glass room

Nothing out of the ordinary.

Okay, yeah. I'm done now. Twenty-eight games in the comp, limited time in which to play and review them, and this needs a lot more meat to make it worthwhile.

Rating: 3