I feel Escape from Summerland may be underrated because it didn't get the IFComp reception it could have -- the authors were in a time crunch, and some bugs slipped through. Which is sad for those who maybe played it and got frustrated. It still may be frustrating with the bug fixes--but it's also a lot of fun, with very clever viewpoint switching and a lot of quirky humor.
You start off as a ghost who sees someone trapped in a tent. Seeing who they are gives a realization--you may be able to figure it out. Once his initial duties are performed, you switch to his pet monkey, which has a ... rather less nuanced version of things. Then once the monkey leaves her cage, you're the ghost, making sure she's safe. That done, you switch viewpoint to a robot. Its descriptions are technical and tough to decipher. But here's the twist: the more you observe and look around as the other players, the more you figure what they mean. And different items are described differently by Amadan (the ghost,) Jacquotte the monkey and Shinobi the robot. Shinobi appears to be some sort of drone from an outer-space invasion, not really malevolent but just obeying orders.
And with the three players' combined abilities, you switch perspectives until Jacquotte gets out of the park. It's fun but very tough. I've come back to EfS several times, and without the clues, I get stuck somewhere else. The puzzles make sense, but they're very sticky. There's a part-broken lift to operate, and pushing a box out of the way takes a while. Shinobi has lost both arms and is badly malfunctioning (the temperature gauge goes from -80 to 80 Celsius). And it is low on power, which is probably why the invaders desert it. And for big events, the power drops 2%. You may see where this is going. Will Shinobi have enough power?
EfS rapidly becomes a buddy-comedy but without the backslapping. Amadon, the least powerful, most knows what's going on. Shinobi, for its technical knowledge, has no clue what things are for. Jacquotte can reach places. Amadon actually needs to provoke Shinobi into an action, where Shinobi senses his presence without being aware he's, well, dead. And Jacquotte has fun with the buttons on the lift, as one always wanted to when one was much younger. Contrasting her with Shinobi is amusing, as she often reverts to emote-speak with no qualitative description, and Shinobi's technical descriptions include "Organic Pest Must Be Jettisoned Before Further Ambulation." In actual English, that means Shinobi must DROP PEST if Jacquotte has climbed, before moving on.
EfS also has neat touches beyond just the three entities seeing the same item in drastically different ways. Trying to change them to themselves gets clever responses. We realize that the amusement park is a sad place, poorly kept up even if there was no alien invasion. And ... well, there are still bugs hidden in there, so you may want to save after each small victory. Which sort of adds to the slog as the three entities push through, leading Jacquotte from her cage to freedom. And, yes, there is some guess-the-verb, due to the nature of how the three entities see the world, but I actually rather like the included hints. They help me stumble through, along with the three heroes.
EfS is a rare combination of charming and clever, where it's fun to take a step back and see what everyone sees even if there are pitfalls in he puzzles and parser. Once you get in the flow, it's clear the authors really knew what they were doing and had a great plan. I know after EfS I hoped and expected something even bigger and more polished. Sub Rosa, for IFComp 2015, was that. And it brings up a tough dilemma: would I rather have, say, EfS and Calm, or one Sub Rosa? I'll cop out here on my own question and say I'm glad we have both, since they're each unique in the IFComp landscape. And to say: EfS is worth taking another shot at, if you trip up at first. Even completing it with its hints/feelies by your side is extremely rewarding.
Changes may have the most creative story from IFComp 2012: you wake up in the body of a rabbit, but with the mind of a human. This isn't some "intelligent rabbit" or Watership Down thing, here. You're on a person-free planet called Elysia. And you observe how you became a rabbit: animals are putting other animals into the same sort of pod you came out of, and they are switching bodies. They know this instinctively. So your main task is: how do I find what happened to my body?
I remember almost giving up on Changes because the start was unclear and hostile and even random. You had a very diligent fox chasing you around, and being able to sense animal emotions around you only did so much--if the fox wanted to play prevent defense randomly, gosh darn it, it would, until you got impatient, and only trial and error showed where you were safe (Oddly, you could also run past the fox if, say, you were south of it, it chased, and you went north. Hooray for mimesis and feeling fear?) It wasn't really clear what animal you'd want to become, as everyone else was bigger than you. The solution wasn't that clear to me, though it seems hinted in retrospect. Along the way I found a ton of insta-deaths. There was one place where I fell into a lake and drowned, because rabbits couldn't swim.
This is the big clue here, because you need to become something that can swim, and there's only one real animal that can. I didn't find it at all obvious how to kill them, though in retrospect, it makes sense. I guess the solution felt like something you'd see in a cartoon, and not a serious sci-fi work. But once I took the new animal's body, I saw more of what to do.
I did not drown in the lake, but my predator did. Then I managed to annoy another animal and kill them. There were deer to manipulate and avoid. I noticed an abandoned shuttle which, well, looked familiar. I needed to become an animal that had something resembling fingers--all through the game, I spent time dragging the bodies of animals I'd killed by their teeth, into the cocoon and then out.
Opening the space shuttle is the big thing, and while actually moving a human body back to near the pod (there's no animal big enough to carry the body) again feels a bit cartoonish to envision, it's pretty much "do what you can to cause a disturbance."
Nevertheless it's all very clever to watch and see unfold, and each time you change animal skins, you get a flashback detailing more of the story. Perhaps you'll be able to guess it sooner than I did. But even escaping in human form doesn't change anything. There's a mythical feel to Changes, including the ending, which is far from "you board the shuttle and race home, vowing never to get near Elysia again." There's a tale of human tragedy and conflict to unravel, and the feeling I had that I was disturbing something perfect and special was, in fact, validated by the end.
Some parts of Changes do feel a bit loose, and they stop it from soaring. There seem to be more locations than necessary, and chasing certain enemy animals gets exhausting. But the payoff is legitimately rewarding, and with Andromeda Apocalypse won the IFComp that year, I can't help but thing Changes would've had a shot with a good deal more polish.
As-is, I remember the author had a bug tracker with a lot fixed, and there were obviously a lot of different moving parts with several animal NPCs. They all act pretty simply, with beavers hissing or deer fleeing, but they build a world remarkably quickly with little need for detailed scenery. As someone who is indulgent about using walkthroughs and giving the author a mulligan for a puzzle or two that may be a logical jump too far, I really enjoyed Changes, even though the random events and NPCs bouncing around made it hard to execute. Perhaps it added to the feel that I, as (initially) a human, had trespassed somewhere I should not have been, in the name of progress. It combines eerie naturalism with sci-fi horror in a way I don't recall any other IFComp games doing.
Milo van Mesdag opened the Pandora's Box of two-player interactive fiction. It explored themes of oppression and war, pitting two characters against each other, leaving the players to suss things out later. The Purple Pearl feels more in the text adventure tradition. Yes, a purple pearl has been stolen, but the other player in this case is someone you cooperate with. You're both cordoned off into small cells. There's a way to shuttle items between rooms, and useless items are rejected. The game has separate binaries for the player in each cell. You can pass items between cells, and once you do so successfully, a code to give to your cooperator drops it into their game.
The Purple Pearl is a good, successful experiment, but if you think too hard, it does feel a lot more like an experiment more than the author's other works. You know you have stuff to solve, and you know it's not the real puzzle, and your main goal is just to get out and start your main adventure. So it doesn't have the usual emotional depth of one of the author's games. But it's still unique and fun and well-executed, and the puzzles, while not profound (they feel as though they've been done before and some, you can use brute force) require some lateral thinking. Receiving the player code once your partner did something, though was a nice surprise gift, as usually you have to keep hacking away or examining everything until you find a clue. Now you hope your partner has, or that they missed something. There was a good deal of encouragement between me and my partner no matter who went first. We wanted to get out of our cells, but it was nice not to have death hanging over us.
And the gifts? Well, they felt like a white elephant party, except they were useful. In one-player games, discovering such things might've seemed too random. I found, first playing one side than the other, it was still a fun surprise to receive an item I'd given, and vice versa. And I was glad the person I played with didn't reveal too much when they were briefly stuck. Purple Pearl has hints--or, more precisely, you can ask for hints to send to your teammate, so you can't spoil anything on your own--but neither of us needed them. (I did poke through them later. They're cheery and fun and do well to steer you only into what you need, with some rhymes that don't spoil things until you know what item they're talking about!) Generally, the items that you didn't need any more conveniently crumbled, which didn't leave much room for confusion.
The Purple Pearl is definitely replayable to see the other side. It took us about forty minutes the first time, then less than twenty for the other. Of course you can play both sides on your own, but I found it a bit difficult to keep track of, even though many puzzles were similar (three switches with three settings, a dial with three digits.) The main moments were the mystery of what might be coming my way, as if waiting for a holiday gift, or asking my partner what we should be looking for--we were walking a fine line between getting through our half of the game and not spoiling the other half, and it was pretty clear we each wanted to see how the other half worked, especially for the bit when we'd escaped our cells and were in a corridor with just one more thing to do. I think that is the main, lasting draw of The Purple Pearl. And it will be unique, unless a MUD version of Inform 7 becomes active again, with its own puzzles.
I confess I've never really gotten into Larry Horsfield's work. Based on this, perhaps I should, or at least try to chip away at one of his works for a few minutes each day. It's odd. I'd have been bummed about a work as short as this as a kid, even if I could solve it, but now, given all the games there are out there to play, I want more like this. (I can't complain, of course, having my own series of decidedly old-school parser games that do their own thing.) It feels like a good introduction, even if it is the fifth in the Mike Erlin series, so it may've been a wake-up call to say, yes, scaling back the difficulty would be worth it. I'm glad it snuck into ParserComp under the deadline.
You, as Captain Mike Erlin, have a group of five subordinates whom you have delegated to help track down Meneltra, which -- well, they need to be shot, because they're big long ugly bugs that shoot acid and terrorize the town. You are to shoot them down with minimal property damage, then BECOME the next person in Erlin's troop. You can play with timed turns or not. The timed turns are a very close shave indeed, at eighty moves total.
Your team splits up at the nexus of a road, going every which way. One Meneltra is easily findable, and another is disguising itself among zampfs, aquatic creatures which need air, while Meneltra don't. You as the captain have one of the toughest ones. There's also one Meneltra you can't shoot, and you need to use other weapons. Blow up six Meneltra, and, mission accomplished!
This is standard parser stuff, but it gives a good look-in to the universe. It's worth playing without the timer, then with it, to feel like you really understand what's going in.
The timed test is a bit confusing from a plot perspective: if you've split up, shouldn't the maximum time taken be what matters, not the total moves? Mike Erlin seems like a man of action and not one to stand around, but when you switch perspectives, the turn count goes up, and that's that. Still, it's a pretty tidy timing puzzle all told.
Still, I wound up coming back to this after ParserComp to play it again, because I appreciated it, and I hoped it would bring me closer to really appreciating the author's other works. So often I've spun out on them earlier, wondering if I should have tried harder to fight with the ADRIFT runner, and such. I've had such fun with short ADRIFT games in the past, and I feel sad I can't tackle bigger ones. Bug Hunt on Menelaus is a good place to start, though, it seems. It leaves me wanting to understand more about how the characters interact (they're all sent separate ways from the center.) It leaves me feeling I can tackle such a game, and all the non-obvious verbs can be quickly found. I'd like more of that!
There are some jokes which are Not Your Thing but still give you a chuckle. David Whyld's games are like that for me. I prefer my humor with different misdirections. The humor in Paint!!! is, well, direct. You have three assistant painters who help you paint the office of a man with a very, very long Greek name. And you need to paint everything: the floor, the table, and so forth. But there are problems, like Thor appearing, and how your assistant Ted keeps stealing stuff. And the people who have kidnapped your sister, even though you don't have a sister. And the secretary who keeps bringing you refreshments you don't quite need.
This needs to be played through honestly several times before you have a clue what's really going on. But it's rather fun to muddle about. I wound up giving up, but fortunately, the game has a command called LET ME CHEAT. I did.
I am pretty sure Paint!!! violates all sorts of principles of game design theory. Nevertheless, I'm glad it popped up on recommended lists, and I was able to give it a try. It would probably be very frustrating without the walkthrough. It's a change of pace we need in small doses, when our subtle humor gets too subtle and doesn't seem to go anywhere.
The author wrote two vignettes for Neo Twiny Jam, and although A Crown of Ash was a more evocative title, The Real Me lasted with me a bit longer. It's a story of a fairy who's a trans man, but it cuts a bit more about that, to the general "being a bit different and people know it" to having even people who think they understand failing to understand. They see you as part of a block. This happens with any sort of nonconformism e.g. "I really respect nerds' work ethic. But maybe I could use their brains better!"
Having a fairy as the main character was interesting for me because, well, isn't it cool enough to be a fairy and have magic powers? You should be grateful for that. But of course that's not the whole story. The whole story can't and shouldn't be told in 500 words. But enough is captured of the whole "can you be less weird, please?" sentiment that rapidly spills over into scorn, or imagined scorn that nobody every really tried to curb, that the piece was successful for me.
On reading that there was a text adventure called Molesworth I held out high hopes that it was about Nigel Molesworth, hero of Geoffrey Willans's The Compleet Molesworth. If you haven't read it, you should. In it, Nigel chronicles the horrible happenings at St. Custard's, his primary school and dreams of defeating the Mekon.
Here, though, it's a different story. In this game written in Quill, you're looking to disable a nuclear missile at Molesworth RAF. It's a long, wandering game, and it has its own retro charm, but all the same there are so many ways to get lost or killed or trapped with no way to win. There are plenty of rooms with no exit, where you're just dumped. Often the game tells you a joke in the process, but that's not quite enough. Also, you get randomly hungry, and if you haven't found the sandwiches yet, it insults you with "You should've listened to me." This is much funnier when you have a walkthrough handy.
And certainly many of the puzzles are arbitrary! There's a maze that's clued by a newspaper article, but I can't figure how. There's a pub where you trade a CAMRA pamphlet for a pair of wire cutters, and another one that won't let you in if you're wearing a CND badge. (I'd not have known what these had meant if I'd played when the game came out. Thanks, acronymfinder.com!) There's limited inventory and red herrings. Some are king of funny, like the French onions in the Peugeot. The best clues are that you get 5% more for finding certain items, so you know they must be useful!
I'm snarking on the mechanics, many of which are about odd item trades, but there are neat parts, where you need to wear disguises so the military base personnel don't wise up to you. With the limitations of the ZX Spectrum, too, there's only so much to be done. But the game does have a lot of filler rooms, and X is not a shortcut for EXAMINE, PAPER is separate from NEWSPAPER, and so forth. (At least you only need four letters per word.) There are plenty of instadeaths, including at the start when your car is low on petrol. And the narrative voice does mock you a bit for not picking up on some very thin hints.
That said, Molesworth has an innocent earnest retro charm, even though it violates the not-yet-created Player's Bill of Rights and you must do ridiculous things like pole-vault across a stream. It's hard not to laugh at the pronouncement at the end where THIS IS YOUR BIG CHANCE, DON'T BLOW IT. I sort of wanted to see what happened if I did, but I was having trouble with save states on the ZX Spectrum, so I was too much of a weedy wet to try.
Solarium struck me as immediately technically impressive when I saw it rolled out in IFComp. It presents itself as a sort of alchemy game, superficially: you have one element, and it's listed at the bottom, and you have a bunch of paths to choose. Technically, you just click through all the paths, and you amass ingredients until you have everything, though some passages are dead ends until you have certain ingredients. Text is color-coded. Simple and effective, with no multimedia. And as you find ingredients, the backstory fills in.
It's not some fantasy with wizards and mythical beasts. It's about the Cold War, and what might have happened with just a bit of supernatural nudging. Someone claims that, hey, we can use nuclear missiles without retribution from the Soviets if nothing happens! Because Communism's bad, right? And people get killed, but it's not as bad as the alternative! You, as part of a fictionalized version of President Eisenhower's Solarium project, are one of two dissenters in a 3-2 vote to launch the plan. The person who breaks the tie says "What the heck, let's bomb 'em." You-the-player learn quickly that your alchemical quest is about locating the other dissenter, with whom you felt a close spiritual bond, to gain closure.
So bombing occurs. It's rather more large-scale than the pre-emptive strike on Iraq, and the enemy is better equipped to counter. But things seem great at first, and there's one scene that reminded me of the picnics people had watching the first few Civil War battles, except in 1860, bystanders weren't going to get harmed. There's another scene where the entity who sold the nuclear attack has possessed the President himself, and you and your mate kill him. It's not even the grisliest.
All this is in service of relocating your friend, but more, who tried to stop the bombing. You both go in and out of bodies, only you do not have the same control over it that the archon (who possessed the President) did. But perhaps the right spell can bring them back one last time. You wrestle with whether you deserve to exist, and if so, how you can go about fixing things.
On rereading Solarium years later, I realize there's a lot of stuff I missed the first time through, but I still got a lot from it. There's a discussion of the overthrow of Iran's socialist regime, which of course had and still has its own side effects. The fervor and religious corruption are still strong. We've seen that you don't even need supernatural powers to manipulate large segments of a population. Simple slogans do the task. And if there is no archon to possess people, we've seen people sell their souls and dignity for power and attention, quickly leaving behind the people they suckered into voting a certain way. And we're not going to use nuclear missiles--but we have plenty of snake-oil salesmen saying that what we do to the environment can't really matter, right?
Solarium has two endings, and they both revolve around ultimate but painful recovery, one for the world, and one in your relationship. They're worth both checking, but I remember the ominous feeling as I clicked the back button (it's in TiddlyWiki format instead of standard Twine)--what if this wipes out my progress? And, of course, it can't change the holocaust that happened. It also establishes it's importance, without seeming to nod menacingly at you or tug on your sleeve to say, you know, you really should find me important or relevant. It has a self-assurance that's rare even among high-placing IFComp entries.
Mikko Vuorinen's The Adventures of the President of the United States was about a president who just got bored of the responsibilities having power and went globe-trotting. I'd played it first and was amused to see King Arthur's Night Out which seemed to address similar things. The main difference is, the game itself doesn't make it out of the castle.
Guinivere, his wife (warning: I'm guessing this is a translation thing, but X QUEEN made me cringe), doesn't want him hanging around with "Lance and the boys." (Sir Lancelot, of course.) She is watching to make sure he doesn't go anywhere. But he has a plan to sneak out--or, rather, you do. You'll find one gauntlet, and then it's obvious you need to find another. You also have secret crannies where you hide gadgets from Guinivere. But what, ultimately, for?
This is all minorly silly and perfectly harmless. Arthur is shown to be a bit of a booby as he looks for a way to distract Guinivere. The puzzles are probably things you've seen before. Arthur's method of escape, though it's been done before, probably hasn't been done by a king.
The command above aside, KANO gave me a few good laughs. It's competently enough executed but never really fully soars. Nevertheless it's a nice distraction if you want to play something Arthurian but don't have the time and energy for an epic. I played it in my head a couple times after getting through it. As text adventures go, it's comfort food.
The Chasing is remarkably low-key for a game with such a title--there's no way to lose the chase! And it's unusual without being weird. Sure, it has a few anachronisms, and a few of the horses you track down have odd names (Unhesitancy--it seems like an awkward English translation) but it finds a niche. It's well above a simple first work but shunned by people who want to make complex things. Not that either of those choices should be looked down on. But sometimes we jump from the first to "let's make something complex" and leave holes to be filled in.
The Chasing fills one of those holes in for me. It's a very welcoming game, like Anssi's others, both in the setting (you track down your horses who have run all over the valley, and you also visit fellow adventurers to give them invitations to a party) and in the non-crushing level of difficulty. The horses are all hidden, and you-the-player don't know their names. They're only revealed when you find them (the horses are all hidden--perhaps to avoid implementing them,) and they're named after various virtues you exhibit to remove the obstacle that was scaring them, or you, from doing what you want. Patience is found after waiting several turns in the right place. Courage is found after visiting a potentially high-risk area. And so forth.
It's a tough one for me whether the player should know their names beforehand--I kind of enjoyed the reveal, but on the other hand, it would be nice to have a general impression of which horses are still out there, and the horse names don't spoil anything. Perhaps an option to reveal this would be nice, although the puzzles aren't exactly crushing or unfair in any case. Sometimes people directly ask for help, and other times, it's a matter of noting what's in the description. Another puzzle rejects the right verb, saying, not now.
I think there's an art to gaining people's attention without holding it hostage, in conversation or in gaming, and Anssi Räisänen's games always do that. We only have so much attention to hand out each day. It may be a weakness that you sort of have to take a relatively simple backstory at its face value (your horses somehow all fled at once) or NPCs often seem to be there more in support of a puzzle, only to chat a bit and leave once you solve it. This works well in the context of removing red herrings, and I'm a lot more okay with that than most people, but I can see how others might want the feel of sociability. For me it's good to have social stuff and text adventures in separate chambers.
I'm also struck by how there are relatively little good didactic text adventures. Of course, there is Trinity, which discusses morals and a world-shaking event, and A Mind Forever Voyaging, which discusses ethics on a macro scale. But there is so much to fill in, games that might not catch fire or have a mass audience or crush you with their impressiveness or profundity, but you feel better for having gone through them. I did so more than once with The Chasing, which I found on a "favorite ALAN games" list and quickly said, yes, it belonged there.