Although the goal of the game - presumably the author's first - is interesting enough, the storyline and environment on offer are extremely bare, and the objects and locations completely without description. Allowing players to visualise their surroundings would go a long way to making this game more enjoyable to play. The next key ingredient missing is testing.
Getting other people to play your game before you release it is important. They'll be able to tell you that they left that important object behind because when they tried to take it, the game refused on the grounds it was 'fixed in place'. They'll wonder why the switch they're supposed to use doesn't actually exist. They'll miss locations entirely because no exits are listed. They'll wonder why they don't win the game when they (Spoiler - click to show)leave the supermarket by the entrance instead of the exit, and why they're still accused of stealing even when they don't take anything. In the penultimate room, they won't notice (Spoiler - click to show)a key has silently appeared and they'll be confused by the final, unexplained (Spoiler - click to show)instant-death puzzle. They'll tell you that all the objects are incorrectly capitalised and missing their articles.
These issues are not too difficult to fix, and testers will find them.
Overall, the idea behind this game is very solid, and aside from mixing up 'aisle' and 'isle' the writing on display is generally free of errors. I can easily imagine this author writing a good game in the future - if they take more care to flesh out the environment and test the implementation.
When they hear that In the Woods is an IF game written from scratch as a programming assignment, I'm sure that most people will dismiss it immediately. Certainly, these factors are usually taken to be a clear indicator of an amateurish work best avoided. In this case, that's a shame.
Certainly, In the Woods is no great masterpiece, but its author is an established games developer, with experience writing in Inform, and she's here produced an eerie take on Little Red Riding Hood, with prose that's haunting and succinct - constantly hinting at the malevolent and dark without ever shining a light upon it.
This is not a game that outstays its welcome. It's straightforward, direct and compact. Yes, the home-made parser is pretty basic (it's well worth typing ABOUT), but so are the actions needed to complete the game. To me, In the Woods is a perfect 'tiny' game - a vignette that conveys a certain mood and then ends.
Knowing that The Fire Tower was an entry in the IF Art Show, and was praised for its environment, I was kind of expecting a game with a huge number of meticulously described scenery objects - something that I'd find a chore to get through. With this unfortunate expectation set in my mind, my first experiences with this game were a little confusing. There weren't that many things to examine - although they were very nicely described - and when I typed LOOK to remind myself of what there was I found the locations' descriptions to be abbreviated to a brief summary that focused on the exits.
That's when I realised that I needed to take The Fire Tower on its own terms. This is a game about hiking a route that the author is familiar with through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it is possible to stop and smell the flowers and run your hands through the waters of Tom's Creek, the most significant interaction in this game is simply moving and reading the description for the next location.
I'm sure that for many players this is too little interaction and too linear a journey, but if you're not looking to solve puzzles or map rooms, if you're quite happy to just read succinct and evocative descriptions of a real world place and your movement through it, then I think this game is in fact very substantial, in its own way.
One thing that makes The Fire Tower stand out to me, from a lot of other IF games, is not just that it's firmly grounded in everyday life, but that it feels like a very personal story. I'm sure that in reality this is a careful fictionalisation of the author's real journeys, but it's full of great little details - stopping to adjust your socks, for example - that very much convey a lived experience.
Depending on what you look for in IF, you may find The Fire Tower to be a very flimsy game. But if you're looking for ambience and a sense of place, you'll find them here in rich abundance.
While Asylum is a cut above the usual 'my first game' game, it still suffers from sparse implementation, poor motivation and a lack of testing. The plot of Asylum sees you standing in a room described only with your desire to exit it and a list of objects. My first (perhaps somewhat evil) reaction was to attempt to take the closet - an action which, in the version I played, succeeded.
The player character is inexplicably carrying a key, and the initial gameplay involves the trial and error of attempting to unlock and open various objects, and then trying to guess the obscure verbs needed to perform the obvious actions required by the items inside. (Spoiler - click to show)(You need to OPEN the globe, ATTACK the heart and CHISEL the wall.)
After about forty turns, the game ends in a loss without prior warning. Winning the game results only in a bare 'you have won' message.
Unlike a lot of games of this kind, Asylum has clearly had some thought go into design and alpha testing. I certainly hope that the author continues to develop their skills by reading the many helpful articles on IF design that are available, by playing and studying other IF games, and ultimately by soliciting testing and feedback.
Although it comes in one story file, The Bryant Collection is divided into five small, straightforward games - ostensibly inspired by the notes of one Laura Bryant, as found by the author at a yard sale. These different segments consist of one characterful and cartoonish take on the Garden of Eden, two understated vignettes of contemporary life, one dash of science fiction in the form of a picnic at the end of the world, and (incongruously) one bare-faced and old-school puzzle based on (but not, in fact requiring the solving of) a classic Tower of Hanoi problem.
Of these, the Garden of Eden story was by far my favourite, simply because of its unusual setting and its strong and entertaining characterisation of both Eve and the serpent. It may just amount to a yes/no conversation, but of the five different parts it's the one that really stands out as being interesting, well implemented and fun to play.
The two contemporary vignettes are nicely realised, keenly depicting moments that are low-key and lacking in dramatics, but momentous to their protagonists all the same. Having said that, they are perhaps a little too prosaic. The sequence involving a college graduate returning to his family home may be well-written and deeply implemented, but exploring someone's house and reading little everyday memories is, well, not all that much of a step above all the other times we've explored someone's house in an IF game without their memories popping up.
Similarly, the conversation between two ex-lovers parting at an airport conjures a nicely melancholy tone, but I had a little difficulty figuring out exactly what I was able to do or talk about - knowing so little about these characters. It's a nice touch that the NPC notices if you seem to have gone quiet, but along with the tight time limit, it creates a bit of frustration when the PC is actually just displaying the signs of a player who's trying to work out what he can say.
Moving on, I found "The End of the World" to be the weakest part of the game. There's not all that much to do here except examine things, eat lunch and wait. It's solidly implemented in terms of how descriptions change throughout the event, but it all seemed a little bit too vague to me.
And then, finally, there's the Tower of Hanoi. All I'm going to say about this, is that it wasn't my thing, it didn't seem in keeping with the rest of the game, and if I'd realised that the game didn't have any kind of acknowledgement for completing all five segments, I wouldn't even have attempted it. Even using the most explicit hints available, I found solving this puzzle to be arduous and frustrating - it simply isn't the kind of thing that an all-text game handles well, and I struggled to remember which colour or size disk I was supposed to be putting where. For me, this was an unrewarding, anger-inducing throw-back to the dry, unmotivated puzzles of yore. Others will certainly feel differently.
Still, when you realise that there's no need to complete everything regardless of how much you like it (actually admirable in this age of pointless, unlockable achievements), then whether you're interested in characters, or puzzles (or both), there's a good chance you'll find something here you'll like.
Although there are plenty of science fiction and fantasy IF games out there, the actual number of games that try to come up with even a vaguely realistic depiction of ordinary people working in space is pretty small. Most settle neatly into the Hitchhikers or Star Trek niches, where the realities of space flight are made light of or ignored, and the settings are imaginary and fantastical. That's not to say that Rockrider is going to win any awards for services to hard science fiction, but it is refreshing to find a game, small as it may be, about someone orbiting Jupiter and worrying about airlocks, micrometeoroids and getting paid.
But, although it may be small, Rockrider still suffers - just a little - from lack of testing. Output like, 'You can't, since the door is in the way.' is a personal bugbear of mine, but I think even the most avowed door-opener is likely to be momentarily stumped by 'You are unable to descend by the inner airlock hatch.' It means the same thing - namely that your character has a strange mental block about opening doors - but in this case is phrased in a way that makes the very simple reason your passage is barred seem rather opaque. The game's second puzzle also took more than a little poking and prodding for me to figure out. (Spoiler - click to show)Being told that a leak is coming from behind something implies LOOK BEHIND to most IF players, although in this case, OPEN is the required verb. I'd also prefer it if the airlock was operated by a button rather than requiring the player to guess (with a little prompting) the verbs 'pressurise' and 'depressurise' (although it's nice that there are a few implicit actions when it comes to managing the inner and outer doors).
Structurally there are another few hiccups - probably symptomatic of being a first game for a month-long competition. We start the story in a dream sequence, something I rarely care for in static fiction, and which doesn't work any better here. In IF, the start of the game is the last place you want this sort of thing - a substantial number of players may well quit before they realise that the incoherence of these initial events is intentional. And then there's the ending, which is somewhat abrupt and open to astronomical nit-picking.
None of this is game-breaking though, and command phrasing aside, all the cool gadgets and spaceship parts on display here are implemented with satisfying solidity. If you're the kind of person who likes the idea of throwing on an EVA suit to check their spaceship for damage, four months away from home, then this is well worth a go.
Down and Out, as I'll call it here for short, is a promising first work of IF: woefully untested, slightly hodgepodge, but well written and with several nifty features.
I really wanted to have reached the end of this game before posting a review, but after perhaps over an hour of trying everything I could think of, I have to admit that I'm stumped. And as you might expect with an untested first game, I'm not entirely convinced that the place I'm stuck is actually supposed to be a puzzle. On the plus side, in all this poking around I did uncover an ambitious attempt at simulation and - eventually - the game's rather nifty and involved central puzzle.
It's easy to look at this game and see a catalogue of rookie errors: unimplemented scenery, missing synonyms, actions you're prompted to take but which do nothing, weirdly phrased commands - (Spoiler - click to show)'strike match against matchbox' is required to progress, for example, while light match produces a very peculiar response, and no, you can't refer to it simply as a box. On top of that there are a few old-school bogeymen returning from the dark ages. There's a tight inventory limit that's all the more annoying because many commands require that you're holding objects, but don't go so far as to take them implicitly. This is a game about exploring a creepy house, but there's only a tangential hint not to enter the room that triggers the end-game - and a bad ending if you haven't completed that puzzle I mentioned earlier. Perhaps this all seems like a lot of marks against Down and Out, but really I think they just amount to one big one: lack of testing.
While the amnesiac premise may seem clichéd, and the back-story, as it's revealed, may hold up to little scrutiny, the game still manages a fair few imaginative flourishes, with its poison mists and gas-masked slave drivers. And perhaps what makes me most inclined to forgive Down and Out its sins is the writing - the parser speaks as a straightforward and slightly naïve first person narrator, with a few amusing changes to the default messages. Like the rest of the game, it's nothing too special, but it does hint at an author who - with more time and more testing - may well have good things to offer us in the future.
If you're anything like me, I'm sure you've enjoyed finding books and computers in IF games that let you wander through a menu of backstory. The Endling Archive is essentially the same thing, only without the containing game. So, yes, it is pretty much just reading static text from a menu that expands after you've select a couple of options.
The Endling Archive strikes me as a good germ of an idea. I'm surprised that I've never played an IF game before that exclusively treated the parser as a fictional computer system, and it seems to me that there should be a wealth of retro-futuristic (or just pretend unix console) hacking games. There aren't however, so for now we'll just have to enjoy this strange and haunting encyclopaedia of things that the future and present have lost.
When I realised what had happened at the end of this game, I burst out laughing in a way that I'm not sure I ever have with an IF game before. The ending - which I won't spoil, naturally - is a typical example of the kind of brilliant stupidity that made me enjoy this game so much. Stupid Kittens is clearly the work of a capable IF author - capable enough to understand how to bend the structure of a good game back on itself and create a feedback loop of intelligently conceived idiocy.
I'm sure that the poorly spelled opening text of this game has scared off a good few people, who assume that it's one of those self conscious parodies of bad games that blight IF Comp and manage, without fail, to never be the least bit entertaining. Stupid Kittens is more subtle than that, and more in-your-face as well. Simply put, this is a game where stupid things happen. Unexpected stupid things. The game carefully sets up traps for you to walk into, that if you're anything like me, will have you giggling with childish glee as soon as you realise just what (metaphorically speaking) you've stepped in. There are no real puzzles, just a bad acid trip of a game, where the rules change on a whim and the philosophical and moronic are tangled up in one great wet furball.
I guess, when it gets down to it, this is a game where you play a cat that, under instruction from Buddha, finds its soul up its backside. You know whether that's your kind of thing.
Perhaps the best compliment I could give to Nightfall is that playing it never once felt like work. The prose is concise, the puzzles (which are more like semi-realistic obstacles) are simple and straightforward, and there are a number of handy features to keep you on track.
Nightfall is primarily a game of exploration. The nameless main character has remained behind in an evacuated city to try and find his aloof and alluring female friend, and as he proceeds through the eerily deserted streets, bittersweet memories of his (until now, platonic) relationship with her come flooding back. Intriguing things are also afoot in the present, as you follow one step behind this mysterious woman, pondering her possible involvement with or against the strange powers at work in the city - and wondering just how much the PC is right to admire her.
Nightfall flows very easily. For the most part, I think this is simply the result of good decisions at the most basic levels of design and writing. But it helps that the author has also gone above and beyond the call of duty to add advanced features to help players get into the story. The player character can THINK about what he's learned and what options that knowledge points towards - and if you're stuck he can THINK HARDER (a nice phrase to type when you're lost, I feel) and come up with more explicit pointers. As a resident of the city, he can also GO TO locations - something that perhaps is more useful than it should be, given the realistically convoluted depiction of typical urban English geography.
Sometimes I think that IF authors forget that the vast potential for their games to accept varied and subtle commands, even those commands most commonly used by other games, can leave many players throwing up their arms in frustration - can turn away everyone not completely used to (or fond of) the crossword-narrative hybrid that some consider intrinsic to the medium. With Nightfall, I think that we have a nice example of an IF game that makes it easy to take part, while still providing the challenge of exploration and the involvement of decision-making.