Reviews by Victor Gijsbers

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I Should Have Been That I Am, by E. K. Wagner

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Great atmosphere, weak pointe, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

I Should Have Been That I Am is a short game, but it has a surprising amount of variability in its text: as the robot protagonist follows one or another line of thought, the card game they are playing plays out differently. (I didn’t fully understand the card game -– it seems to be poker, but it was unclear to me whose cards I was seeing. I don’t think this mattered much, though.) But the card game and who wins it isn’t really the point. No matter how it ends, (Spoiler - click to show)the stranger infects you with a virus that suddenly gives you free will. And at that point, the hyperlink interface turns into an interface where you can type anything you want.

The strong aspect of the game is the atmosphere. Using a minimal amount of prose, it paints a distinctive future society, it shows us the peculiar mindset of the protagonist and it manages to create real tension about the stranger. Well done.

The weak aspect of the game is the story it tells. In theory, it’s a nice idea to (Spoiler - click to show)link the two different interfaces to the notion of free will. But it certainly takes a lot more to actually make it work. There is another game about (Spoiler - click to show)robots developing free will in this very competition, and there I complained that it didn’t really confront the problem –- the solution it presented was just too easy. But I Should Have Been That I Am presents a solution that is even easier. (Spoiler - click to show)A virus, and boom! Type in anything you like! Okay, so we should be aware of the immense space of possibilities available to us. But that’s a statement of the problem, not of the solution. And the current effort is weakened further by the fact that the game cannot actually process what you type, so your ‘free’ choice turns out to be even less consequential than the constrained choices you made earlier.

So: great atmosphere, impressive variability of the text, but it’s disappointing that it all boils down to the message: (Spoiler - click to show)you are free! (Really!) I’d like to see a more ambitious, more sustained effort from this author, since the writing skills are certainly here.

Anno 1700, by Finn Rosenløv

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
With more polish, a fun pirate romp, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

Anno 1700 is clearly a labour of love. It is the story of a guy who really loves pirate stories written by someone who, I suspect, really loves pirate stories. It’s a big game –- too big for the competition, really –- of a very classic variety: you’re let loose in a location and have to follow your innate desire for exploration, solving puzzles that lead to hidden tunnels, caves, coves, and so on, while slowly discovering what has happened. It may not be a fashionable genre in IF today, but it’s a classic for a reason. When done well, this type of game can be very satisfying.

Which leads us to the main question: does Anno 1700 do it well? Yes and no. Yes, as I said, it’s clearly a labour of love; and a piece like this, which simply wants us to enjoy the pirate theme, needs that most of all. It needs to clearly show that it was written by someone who is enjoying the pirate theme. This it does.

But there are two reasons the game in it’s current state doesn’t fully succeed. The vaguer and less easily remedied one is the quality of the prose. It’s not bad, but it’s kind of bland; sometime repetitive; sometimes awkward. The opening text is a case in point. It’s quite long, but it nevertheless fails to characterise the protagonist. It contains awkward sentences like this: “You just know within yourself, that you would never have passed the final exam.” The comma is misplaced; the “you just know” phrase is a bit of a cop-out; and one certainly wonder whether it is also possible to know things outside oneself. The text ends up not having much life in it. And this is true in general; the prose is mostly functional, but it doesn’t exude the same zest that the world building does. It’s hard to be much more specific, and hence hard to give very concrete advice to the author.

I can be much more specific about the second reason that the game doesn’t fully succeed: implementation. The game really needs another round of polishing to make play smoother and give the player more confidence in the author. Polishing a parser game is a lot of work, but it’s not hard, not once you see where things can go wrong. So I’m going to give a list of irritations that I made notes about; the aim being not to criticise the author, but to give pointers about how to improve the game.

[The version of the review that I posted in the authors' forum had a list of specific bugs here, but I'm leaving it out of the IFDB version.]

Certainly the most important thing here is to add more synonyms and recognise more actions. This would also help with some of the more obscure puzzles –- I started using the walkthrough after a while, because I sometimes got stuck because of guess-the-verb issues (as with the floorboards), and I’m pretty sure I would never have thought to try (Spoiler - click to show)“braid threads”. Around the time my two hours were up, I also got stuck in the walkthrough: (Spoiler - click to show)“prime wick” returned an error message, and I didn’t how to proceed any further.

All in all, I think this game needs to be improved. A lot of work has already been poured into it, so it would just be a shame to leave it as it is, with a relatively high number of parser issues and other small problems. Once polished a bit more, this could be a very enjoyable pirate romp. Light, but enjoyable.

Time Passed, by Davis G. See

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Unassuming and enriching, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

This is the third game I played in the 2018 IF Comp in which the protagonist’s not being (strictly) heterosexual is important, making it something of a theme in the competition. That said, Time Passed actually doesn’t make a big deal about it. The story is essentially about an unconfessed teenage love and the protagonist’s desire to find out, years afterwards, what would have happened if he had found the nerve to speak out; the fact that the object of desire was another boy does not heavily impact the narrative.

In terms of structure, the first few pages gives us some links that lead to optional extras; and then we arrive at a single choice moment that determines which ending we get. (Spoiler - click to show)We either never meant anything to the person we had a crush on, or it turns out that they might have responded somewhat favourably.

The writing is quite good, although I felt that the diary entry didn’t really capture the tone of a teenage diary. For instance:

It’s true that I would give anything to feel Billy’s love, but I’d also do anything to avoid the feeling of rejection, and those two desires are in conflict with each other.

That sounds like a pretty detached analysis, not like something you’d write if you were in the middle of it. But this is the exception -– the other parts, including the terrible poem, were good.

Time Passed ends up being a nice little slice-of-life story that is interesting because it puts the protagonist in a somewhat uncomfortable situation, a situation that most people would probably avoid in real life. Having us play through it in fictional form is, in an unassuming way, enriching.

Nightmare Adventure, by Laurence Emms, Vibha Laljani

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Home-brew parser, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

Nightmare Adventure comes an an executable file that has to be opened, at least under Linux, in the terminal. A bit weird, but it works. Unfortunately, the home-brew parser seems to have been built in complete ignorance of conveniences that have been standard for, I don’t know, three or four decades? You cannot abbreviate “examine” to “x”, “inventory” to “i” or “go east” to “e” or even “go e”. You cannot refer to the ruby amulet as “amulet”, but have to type out the entire name. I tried to wear or drop the amulet, but was unable to do so. What doesn’t help is that “verbs” gives you a gigantic list of all the synonyms of every verb. (Friendly advice to the developers: players don’t need to know synonyms! They only need to know which base verbs are supported.) Also, there’s no save/restore/undo. So why exactly are we using this system instead of Inform or TADS or Quest or Adrift?

The game itself is rather sparsely implemented, but clued well enough that I proceeded through it without much trouble. I (Spoiler - click to show)walked through the village, collected amulets, entered the towers, visited all the rooms, and ended up in a dream world among the stars. And then: instant death. In a game which does not support save/restore or undo. I’m afraid that equaled instantly losing this player.

In a sense it’s impressive that a home-brew system works this well, but the designers/authors really need to play some modern parser games in order to get a good sense of what are and what are not acceptable standards today.

Pegasus, by Michael Kielstra

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Should have been longer!, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

In Pegasus, we play a commando on a mission gone horribly wrong: you and your team mate are trapped and she will sacrifice herself so you can get out. At that point, the game turns into a series of flashbacks that tell the story of how you got to be in this situation. This is really quite neat: they are tightly choreographed scenes in which you are continually doing non-standard things that move the plot forward at a brisk page. The early scene where your teamwork is tested, for instance, is a great example of how to do something like that in a parser game. Really nice. I seem to recall that The Duel That Spanned the Ages had a bit of a similar feel, although that game was even more about straight action scenes.

The narrative development isn’t quite up to the same standards. The personalities of the two protagonists remain rather vague, as does the nature of the Pegasus organisation. We learn that (Spoiler - click to show)Sarah was pressed into service, but this fact isn’t developed any further. In the end, what it comes down to is that the game is simply too short: I was extremely surprised when the game ended, because it felt like I had just played through the first chapter of what was going to be at least a three chapter story: disaster, investigation, revenge. Instead, we have a sort of moral choice, but we’re not invested enough to give this a real punch.

Should have been significantly longer. That’s a complaint, but also a compliment.

Junior Arithmancer, by Mike Spivey

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Brilliant game about integers, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

In Junior Arithmancer, we play a prospective student of magic doing an entrance examination in arithmancy, which is more or less the magic of the integers. More or less: the range of numbers is restricted to a finite interval, with overflows wrapping around; and the laws of magic turn out to have a curious in-built preference for the decimal system. Anyway, during the examination we are supposed to learn and then cast spells that add, subtract, multiply, and so on, in order to create specific sequences of numbers. Meanwhile, three examiners comment on our progress.

It is really only that last element that turns the game into a fiction: the comments of the examiners form a satirical story about university politics and cast severe doubt on the wisdom of trying to enter this particular academy. (Unless we like indoor swimming pools.) It’s fun, but there’s not much here, and if someone were to complain that Junior Arithmancer is hardly interactive fiction at all… well, I wouldn’t have a principled counterargument, although I certainly could point at similar puzzle games that are part of the IF canon.

Because it’s all about the puzzles. And if you like puzzles about numbers, then these ones are glorious. They’re brilliant. At first, the aim is to use your limited repertoire of spells to get as far as possible in recreating the given number sequences. Then, as your repertoire grows, it’s all about completing the sequences. And once you have all the spells at your disposal, you have to try to optimise your solutions and solve an entirely independent set of puzzles that are all about getting to a specific end point. (And about factorisation.) It’s great fun, and I think the difficulty scales up nicely: most(?) players will be able to get to a winning ending, and diehards can try to achieve a perfect score.

I’m a diehard, and I did get a perfect score.

Junior Arithmancer is certainly not a game for everyone. You have to like number puzzles. (I won’t say ‘mathematics’, because the puzzles are not really mathematics. If I had been required to prove that a certain sequence is the only one you can solve in three moves, that would have been mathematics. Equally glorious, but a lot harder to turn into a game.) But if you do, well, Mike Spivey has prepared a real treat for you. Highly recommended.

Birmingham IV, by Peter Emery

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Unsolvable puzzles, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

Birmingham IV is quite polished; nothing wrong with it in terms of basic craft. A couple of things soon rubbed me the wrong way, though, especially the annoying sentence you see after every examining action, and the inventory limit. The “I’ll drop you in the middle of something but won’t tell you who you are or what you are supposed to be doing” school of plotting is also not my favourite. Still, I was willing to persevere.

Then I hit the puzzles. The solution for getting past the guy on the bridge was so far out that I seriously doubt I would ever have arrived at it even if I had found all the necessary objects; but getting one of those objects in fact requires you to go into a direction that is not mentioned in the relevant room description! That bumps the puzzle into the unfair-and-impossible category. The next puzzle is getting past the troll, and here the solution doesn’t even make any sense. Why on earth does a troll go away if (Spoiler - click to show)I give it a portrait of my brother? Having lost all faith in my –- or anyone’s –- ability to solve this game’s puzzles, I decided to abandon it.

Space Punk Moon Tour, by J_J

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Seems ambitious, but let down by implementation, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

The pictures are nice, that’s for sure, but three things made Space Punk Moon Tour hard to play for me. First, the immense number of objects. I thought it would just be the first room, but then the second room printed out a whole list of things as well. Every object takes up some of the player’s mental space, and this is really pushing it. This is aggravated by the second point: lack of implementation. Many of the objects don’t have a description… so why do they exist? Or you can’t do obvious actions with them, such as climbing the bed or the Air Fresh -– the latter being a big thing clearly right under the cat, and so the apparently obvious solution to the getting-the-cat-puzzle. Sometimes, even actions that the game expressly tells you to perform are not implemented: if you open the Air Fresh, the game tells you to read its inner contents with your phone, but none of the four objects inside the Air Fresh can be read with your phone.

But the third and main problem is the constant battle with the parser. Exchanges like this were fairly typical of my play experience:

get on bed
I can’t see that.

enter bed
I don’t understand your command.

climb bed
You can’t climb it.

get in bed
I can’t see that.

take science book
Do you want to pack it?

I don’t see that.

I was just getting really, really frustrated by these exchanges. Perhaps the Quest system uses a different syntax than other parser systems, or perhaps the game suffers from a lack of testing/polishing. But I’m afraid I was not having fun, and quit when I saw that the second room had another ten objects., by Devon Guinn

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Light but recommended, March 28, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

A game of consists of three to four small vignettes, each of which ends when you make one of three choices; and then… a kiss! Of varying quality. Immensely varying quality, if you take into account the most negative ending, which is certainly worse than any real kiss has ever been. In the accompanying walkthrough the author explains the underlying mechanics, which I appreciate (and which motivated me to seek both special endings).

The vignettes are taken in random order from a pool of possibilities, which means that the emerging narrative is quite disjointed. In most cases, I would not be a big fan of such an approach, but for, it works. What, after all, do you remember from the date leading up to that first kiss? Some moments, not a coherent story. And it really brings home the message that that delicate thing that maybe we can call ‘mood’, and that determines how our kiss will be received, that this mood depends on the smallest of events, barely noticeable, often indeed unnoticed.

This theme reminds me very much of Railways of Love. But that game worked towards a more serious, more profound conclusion, where is happy to remain as fleeting as a kiss. Which is, in its own way, appropriate. Light but recommended

Campfire Tales, by Matthew Deline

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The merest game that I have ever played, March 27, 2021
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

As far as I could determine by playing through the game twice, Campfire Tales is an extremely short horror story in which a few bits of text are randomly determined, but not enough to make any real difference to the narrative. Interaction consists of typing in some names, clicking a next-button a few times, and answering two open questions that do not, I think, affect the story at all.

The prose is at best barely coherent. Your group is, for instance, described in the following way: “They owned a collection of lonesome owl figurines and they spent their days dreaming about getting super fit.” That makes little sense, but a lot more than the next sentence, which makes no sense at all: “Most people would describe them as the merest person that they have ever met”. What? A few sentences later, I’m walking on “the parametric ground” and I’m told that “[t]hey culturally grabbed the nearest stone”. The English language should sue the author for assault and battery.

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