(This is an edited version of a review I posted in my blog during IFComp 2022)
Nose Bleed is a clicking-choice-based story with graphic elaboration – ostensibly about social anxiety – that elicited a combination of visceral nausea and hysterical laughter from me; a pretty strong combination for a ten-minute (to play) game.
The player-narrator of Nose Bleed works in an office. They're meant to be doing something with spreadsheets but they feel barely capable. The details of the work, or indeed of anything but the narrator's flustered mental space, and later, their spectacular nose bleeds, are omitted by the game. Their headspace and the negative self-talk going on in there are the main event – the content warning says "social anxiety". In the protagonist's distorted mindset, they expect to be negatively evaluated by others all the time. The narration is a spiral of feeling incompetent, incapable, distressed, depressed, and wanting to flee situations.
When the PC's nose starts to bleed during the work day, it comes in like a metaphor for their anxiety. It starts, it can't be stopped, it seems uncontrollable, others can see it and evaluate them negatively as a result. The bleeding gets worse. The PC is invited to an event they can't get out of, and the blood keeps-a-coming. Choices about what to do next are made by dragging words on the screen to nouns that light up. The actions tend to be basic ones that are either ineffectual (rub nose) or fobbed off upon selection by the protagonist's own self-defeating brain (apologise).
What makes Nose Bleed so nauseating is the way the blood is animated on screen. The paper-white backdrop is stained first by a single streak, then as spots that appear, and finally as an unstoppable animated splatter that follows the cursor about. Coupled with selectable prose options like "Lick" (the blood off your lip) the effect of all this was to begin to induce in my arms that strange weakness that precedes blood-related nausea for me. And then I began to laugh. The whole thing was reaching the intensity of a skit where a patient sits in a waiting room while geysering blood. As much blood gets all over the prose in Nose Bleed. It piles up on the on-screen choices and nothing can stop it.
Nose Bleed's finale has a kind of twisting escalation that reminded me of a David Cronenberg film or two. I'm not sure what meaning I ascribe to the very last event in the game, but the overall design is very good, moving quickly from banal office work and equally banal thoughts, via the start of a typical nose bleed, through the discomfort of being unable to stop the bleed, to an eventual wittily programmed and (to me, hilarious) graphical geyser.
If all that animated blood is in danger of having an eclipsing effect, I could say that having all one's thoughts eclipsed by one panicky thing is like social phobia, after all.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
SOUND is sufficiently small (for me, a few minutes per play) that my whole review amounts to a spoiler:
In the text-on-black Twine SOUND a woman known as Orange seeks treatment for her stutter and communication problems from one Doctor Thee. The doctor is a sailing champion and island dweller. An island is the venue for the therapy. The prose follows a conversation between Orange and the doctor in which neither is necessarily the point-of-view character. I was interested to note I identified, functionally, with the doctor, just because the doctor was the interrogator, but technically the links that change the progression through the conversation can fall to either character.
There is something a bit cute about the dialogue and the situation. Orange's anecdotes of work difficulties are realistic but the actual prose isn't quite. It reminded me of serious-leaning dialogue delivered by videogame or Manga characters. They say 'Haha,' and someone winked at some point.
Orange posits a theory of sound (that may validate her stuttering) that the doctor appreciates as new. It also seems to be bound up with semiotics. While she doesn't just go and say "semiotics", she does talk about the disconnection between sign and signifier in the supermarket aisles, even though she doesn't use the words "sign" or "signifier", either. It's unfortunate that in this precision-requiring moment, the prose is just a bit off. I'm not sure if it's the proofreading, or English is the author's second language or something else.
Fortunately, the outcome is unaffected, and it's the most interesting part of SOUND. It seems that Orange's theory transforms reality (if only all theories were this easily actualised!) and the IF's words rearrange and repeat on the screen to create the effect. The links wander, as well, but this is no "find the correct link to click" moment – this is indeed, the end of SOUND. And for me, it falls in the right spot that is specific enough to the story, and also abstract and poetic enough to be satisfying without over or under-doing anything. It did prompt me to think on it in a manner outsized to the conversation's face content, and the coda text suggests a beginning for the new communication ("You embark to find that voice") and, cleverly/eerily, is exactly what the game's blurb promised, because that is SOUND's blurb.
This IF is so short I replayed a couple of times to see the other elements and to experiment with the end screen. The repeat plays also improved my overall understanding of the conversation. It's not like it's complicated, but in general I find it hard to keep track of who's speaking during long direct speech outings. SOUND is brief and the payoff is good. A multiplication of effect at the end of something (and definitely not its opposite) is always a fine way to go out.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
Due to this Twine's size, my whole review below must be considered a spoiler.
"Carla thinks about all the things she loved, Brutalising the Dead by Sadistik Execution, not being on fire, Paris, and herself healing in the future."
The above line was produced by The Place at one point to describe the actions of its heroine, whom I'd named Carla. The parts in bold were typed in by me earlier in answer to questions posed by the game (e.g. What is your favourite song at the moment?) This output, the joint result of all our creativity, made me laugh a lot. Since the game's (weird!) blurb had endorsed meaninglessness, I then thought, "Oh do cheer up, nihilist, you have helped to make me laugh." Place is another case of a Twine IFComp blurb being way off course and in danger of swamping the content of the small IF itself.
The story is about a young woman (whom you name) who's bored, depressed and troubled due to her home life. She's struggling to find meaning, not finding it in places like Paris (or whatever city you typed in) and ultimately having a look inside herself, plus perhaps in some other location you typed in. It's an optimistic ending.
The small scale of the whole makes it difficult for this piece to succeed. The Place describes an arc of troubledness most people would recognise, and the story struggles to rise above common experience by adding some specificity it obtains from the player by asking them for input. As I've demonstrated, the input scheme can backfire. But even if I'd typed more harmonious things, that wouldn't have changed the feeling for me. The prose is more fuzzy than precise and the story is well-worn and too general, though by asking me the questions, it did at least add an extra frisson of the commonality across human passions. One thing I couldn't work out was why the game kept asking me about some lottery draw order. It was the one question I didn't understand, and I was asked it at least three times. Perhaps some language/culture misunderstanding?
I think there's something to the overall idea of using input this way in a short story of this kind, but it would take more careful thought and application to craft the effect.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
I like to kick off my IFComp experience of a year with the playing of a parser-based horror game that I expect will tickle my fancies. In 2020's entries list, I could not go past the title The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee (hereafter referred to as BM). It's not actually a horror game, and I should point out that it correctly bills itself as a mystery. Its blurb also indicates that sci-fi (time travel) is involved. It doesn't dwell on its adult elements, so references to sex and violence are at the level of any restrained modern whodunnit.
BM took me about an hour to complete, and I was impressed by its interwoven layers of mystery, reality and narratorship, even as the gameplay remained straightforward look, read'n'search throughout. The issues of the PC/narrator split and narrator reliability get a triple workout here. The player initially doesn't know who they are, or why they're investigating Jenny's murder back in 2003. A bold-text-voiced narrator issues instructions that initially seem to intrude on the prose in real time, indicating that the player is under surveillance. Yet that narrator also alludes to having their own problems with another entity. I see BM's sci-fi factor landing individually with different players, but I think the whole is grounded by the specificity of Jenny's world. She was a 17-year-old Chinese immigrant to Canada, was academically pressured by her mum, and lived her teen life in rounds of the band room, the library, and the ACE Tutoring Agency. In the best narrative tradition of the murdered, she also kept secrets.
The whodunnit element presents a decent catalogue of speculative possibilities for the game's size. It's fuelled by the details of Jenny's life, one that evokes some typical migrant experiences but also has enough texture to give Jenny individuality. The way the player experiences her world is as retrospective "recordings" of her most-frequented locations, devoid of people but rife with intimate notes, diaries, library cards, signs and messages on computer screens. The rooms are full of stuff, so much so that even when a lot of objects are implemented, players are still likely to bounce off the ones that aren't. Weird implementation or under-implementation, and almost no synonym support, are typical shortcomings of the old Quest engine, and they're present here. Ninety-five percent of the time, you don't need to guess verbs in Quest games, but when you do, you're in trouble; the walkthrough got me through two such bits in BM. Nevertheless, compelling forward progress and little mysteries come thick and fast.
I was also struck by a lot of the physical environmental details in this game. The letters cut out from cardboard spelling "Asian American Heritage Month" in the library, for instance, or the markered masking tape instrument labels in the band room. The accumulation of these sorts of observations conjured the atmospheres of schools and libraries of my past.
In retrospect, BM seems to mix some unusual elements, but then again I've got a feeling this kind of thing is more common than I think. (For instance, in the Young Adult genre. I just had a flash of the novel Slide by Jill Hathaway.) Ultimately, I liked the Jenny's World elements best, and I see how the sci-fi elements facilitate the exploration of her world in a prying, adventure-gamey way that would otherwise be realistically impossible. In fact, it occurs to me I used almost the same mechanism for exploring a character's past in my contribution to the game Cragne Manor. Rough edges and implementation troubles aside, BM is novel and ambitious, often well-observed and delivers an involving story with elements of cultural specificity.
The author's note recommends playing BM offline by downloading the PC-only Quest app. This is how I played, and based on my personal and anecdotal experiences of both the Quest system and textadventures.co.uk website, I'd say: if you can play offline, don't muck around. Play offline.
Click below to read my spoilering thoughts on the game's ending.
I'm not sure either of BM's endings are great. The most positive spin I can come up with on the solid/regular ending is the idea that the future people's faintly interested reaction to the detective machine (the one that you "were", or inhabited to solve the crime) and the most famous case it solved, is a sad-leaning reminder that we can easily forget about the realities of those who preceded us, and maybe now and then we should take some time to remember them... I hope this isn't too off course, because I lost this piece of the transcript when I tried the other ending.
The other ending is far-fetched in the sense that I think it's almost contrived beyond intentional logic (go west ten times in limbo?!) but it could be hit by accident. And with the walkthrough handy, I think players will probably try it anyway. While it's novel, it's totally removed from the bulk of the game. It reads as: 'Forget about Jenny Lee! I'm now a self-actualised AI out in the world!' Which is almost a different game altogether. I suppose it's cute as a novelty ending, and there have been a lot of bonus endings of this type in Playstation console games. Unfortunately this one wastes BM's remaining locked cabinet passcode puzzle in the process.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
AardVarK Versus the Hype (AVH) is an extremely funny parser adventure about a bunch of teens whose rock band, AardVarK, suddenly becomes very important for the project of life's continuance when a corporate/alien entity known as Hype starts flogging its soft drinks ("sodas" for the handful of Americans out there) to innocent high-schoolers. The brew's side-effects include mindless shillism and bleeding from the orifices.
The game is set in 1997, a time when popular culture was still dominated by the recent explosion of alternative music into it but before the internet had made any excursion onto the same turf; the game is blissfully free of the internet. If I was going to hazard a cultural thought of the kind I don't know that Truthcraze would approve of in the case of AVH, I'd suggest the simplicity of The Kids versus The Hype conflict is already a bit nostalgic for the eighties, a time when individuals-sticking-it-to-commercial-behemoths plots were easier to articulate. The film Reality Bites (1994) captured the zeitgeist of young Americans of the 1990s trying to retain their cred in a culture that was beginning to facilitate the commodification of everything.
Such drama is not what AVH is about. It's about the eternal comedic struggles of being a teenager (well, eternal since the 1940s or so, so not very eternal at all, actually) and about the nineties version of them in particular. The player gets to control all four members of the band AardVarK at different times with a SWITCH TO (PERSON) command. The switching isn't bound up with complex puzzles. It's essentially for narrative purposes. These teens are boys and girls, punks, goths, would-be frontpeople, singers and guitarists. The nineties wack is clearest in their dialogue stylings. There is a ton of multi-option dialogue in AVH wracked with a mixture of self-consciousness and excitement as the teens try to blurt out their explanations of weird shenanigans and corporate shills.
It's not so much what the characters want to say to each other that changes across options, only how they're going to say it. Bravado, hostility, coolness, honest dorkiness and cluelessness are some of the modes the player can choose amongst. Just reading all the different options, including the 75% not chosen, makes for a good chunk of the comedy. There's rarely any revisiting of unpicked dialogue paths because the story and conversations are too busy screaming forward for that.
The seat of the game is a wonderful repeating set piece joke involving the Gas'n'Stop convenience store, a location that has been thoroughly plundered and destroyed by the time all the main PCs have abused it. There are also jock-guarded parties, night-time trees to be climbed, cars that are rocking, and condom-purchasing jokes executed in good taste. Furthermore, AVH has some cool tricks of delivery up its sleeve. One is the way it will suddenly override the player's typed commands with replacement evil ones if the current PC gets possessed by The Hype. Another occurs in a situation where the PC's car turns over, at which point some of the printed text does the same thing. I don't remember seeing that joke in a parser game before.
AVH is a game that wants to help you finish it. It has graded HINTs you can ask for, but it's constantly prompting for free anyway in an amusingly harried voice. I think part of this stems from the fact that it's trying (successfully) to create a sense of lively action, and having players stand around examining everything is anti-action. The game would rather remind you of the next thing you're meant to be doing than let you gawp. There's also a decent amount of fourth-wall-breaking, and its version of the parser voice versus character voice dance is a cute one. I hit some bugginess across the game (remember paragraph one: I am now hitting myself with a stick) but the only thing that actually tripped me up was a guess-the-verb moment which was cleared up by the HINTs.
I admit I'd have liked some more reinforcement of differentiation amongst the teens identities across the game, what with all the SWITCHing amongst them that goes on, but this isn't a major complaint for a story this funny and engaging. The victory scene, which felt felt rushed in the original IFComp version of the game, has also been updated to make it much more satisfying. While playing AVH, I laughed aloud a lot, admired the many forms of comedy wielded by the writing and loved the Gas'n'Stop situation.
(A longer version of this review appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
The House on Highfield Lane or The House... on Highfield Lane if you believe the punctuation on the cover image – and which in any case I shall now on refer to as House – bills itself as 'horror without the horror'. I would probably bill it as a mystery, fantasy and sci-fi parser adventure, which ironically covers all the major genres minus horror and romance. The PC is sassy teenaged Mandy who, fresh from school one afternoon and still done up in its accoutrements, finds herself compelled to enter this house in her neighbourhood after finding a letter addressed to its occupant. Wide-ranging, puzzly adventure game shenanigans ensue in a steampunk-leaning environment. There are big-small spatial gags, some quirky NPCs, a Frankenstein-styled laboratory and creepy silver-faced background folk who always manage to run away.
House took me a bit over two-and-a-half hours to complete. I spent more than an hour just exploring and fiddling with things without managing to solve any puzzles, though thoroughly in the mood all that time and not with any sense that I wasn't getting anywhere. I then turned to the provided invisiclues webpage for help, and used it a fair bit from them on because of time pressure, thinking (in vain as it turns out) that I might be able to get through the game in less than two IFComp hours.
House induces curiosity and enchantment, demonstrates interesting and sometimes challenging design, and is a great first outing for the latest iteration of the Quest authoring system. Indeed, in 2021 it was the best-implemented Quest game I'd ever played. House is kind of hard, though, in a complex way. I don't mean that the puzzles are all complex. I mean that what's hard about it is complex to tease out, and has a nature I suspect will fall quite differently across different players, as might its third person narration. Ultimately, I loved the atmosphere of House, and quite liked the puzzles in spite of my troubles with some of them and the invisiclues.
* Note that the heroine swears A Lot! Mostly with the two most common rude words. I'm not going to say them here because this review is not a home to filth.
I found the key joy of this game to be its development of a prolonged atmosphere of unyielding mystery. There's a derangement of reality at work that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, as do Mandy's flip reactions to this reality. And like in Alice, there's a sense that there is some overriding meaning behind the weirdness. That's mandatory in this kind of game to prevent the feeling you're just solving a bunch of arbitrary puzzles.
The prose is narrated in third person present tense –
"Conscious that dust is about ninety percent dead skin, Mandy decides not to study it too closely."
– which is one of the less common viewpoint choices adopted for IF. I think the first way this choice helps House is that it gets the player through the unreality barrier faster. The game starts with what is arguably a lot of unexplained weirdness. My initial sense of separation from Mandy (she's not 'You' or 'I') helped me accept the lack of explanation. Once inside the house, Mandy quickly runs into some major discrepancies of physical scale and geography. Perceiving Mandy in the third person helped me appreciate the scale of theses scenes visually, as if I really was standing back and seeing a film frame of a relatively tiny girl in a room hundreds of metres high. Over time, Mandy's flip comments on the situation brought out her personality, and made me feel closer to her.
Returning to the topic of the game's puzzle challenge: That the first relevant puzzle entry I looked up in the invisiclues after playing for close to 70 minutes was named for an object I hadn't yet seen or heard of speaks to the difficulty of writing comprehensive invisiclues. This event did worry me, though. Was I really so out of touch with this game? Or had I missed some fundamental mechanic?
Fortunately, neither case applied, but I would say House's puzzles lean hard for a variety of reasons. First, some of them are old-school-styled, involving a lot of mechanical experimentation and repetition (rotate the object, look outside, see if anything happened. If it didn't, rotate the object again, check again etc. And have the idea to do all this experimentation in the first place). Second, this game is rich with interesting objects that seem like they'd help solve multiple puzzles, but usually only one solution is acceptable. I could think of several objects I possessed that could very feasibly be used to catch another falling object, amongst them a giant floppy hat and a magically embiggened chamber pot, but the game didn't have any programming in place for these attempts. The solution to this particular problem involved roping in an NPC I didn't even know I could communicate with, since he didn't speak when spoken to. Teaching players all the ways they can interact with NPCs in your game is vital for any game. Since the base level of game content here is solid, I don't see it as a great omission that House didn't have heaps of alternate solutions in place already, but I do see it as a necessary site for improvement when a game is at this level.
Finally, there may be a stylistic issue that obscured some of the game's numerous props, all those paintings and windows and pipes and levers and bureaus and drawers spread out all through the text. Most IF games cater to this angle of interpretive difficulty by using presentation systems or logic to set elements off; the exits, or prominent objects or geographical features, etc. House wasn't so great at this, presenting most of its prose in solid blocks, so I forgave myself for missing some stuff.
The lead character of Mandy isn't built out of personal details, but out of a lot of behaviours and attitudes players might recognise from girls in this age group. I especially like the way her cynicism for schoolwork is tempered by the occasional excitement she experiences whenever she realises she can apply something she learned at school to real life. Her frequent sarcasm makes her a good fit for the classic strain of sarcastic parser voice that also gets a workout in House.
I feel I have to address the game's final riddle. Nno spoilers to the actual answer here, though if you want to know even less about the question than a measure of spoiler-safe info, stop reading now...
... it is, as a joke, pretty good. As a puzzle, it's probably terrible because it relies entirely on the player's own knowledge if they want to be able to solve it themselves, with the out that they will soon be given the answer if they can't. But they don't know there's an out coming when the riddle happens. And the game had previously enforced a PC/player knowledge divide in the opposite direction, with a riddle to which most players would know the answer but which they weren't allowed to solve until they had first made the PC research that answer in-game.
The kindest spin on all this is that the game adopts two opposite positions as a joke. Even then, I'd ask is it worth doing this when there's a high risk of annoying players on one or both occasions? The upshot is that I don't think ending any game with this kind of riddle is a strong way to go out, and even in the case of this game, which at least gives you the answer if you can't get it, it will be received as an unrewarding ending by a subset of players.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
The Spirit Within Us is a parser-driven thriller with crime and mystery elements that opens with the injured and bleeding PC waking up in a bedroom. Amnesia-game-fearers need not fear per se; the amnesia is well justified and quickly overcome. The whole game plays out around this house setting in what feels like real time, and ultimately with an emphasis on realistic action.
The author describes Spirit as psychological, but I found the prose too sparse and some of the content too vague for it to succeed at that level. It is evident English isn't the author's primary language and its use here is functional. The section of the game based in the house presents as an almost default set of IF content: a bunch of rooms, doors, fiddly doors, openable things and plain objects from daily life — sinks, toilets, boxes, etc. If it weren't for the timed interjections of the PC's returning memories and the few interesting book props, this phase could pose a boredom challenge for the player.
The author wrote the game and its parser from the ground up using C. While that parser effects the basics, the game's needs have definitely outgrown it. My transcript shows I once entered seventeen commands trying to eat a pill from a packet of vitamins before I succeeded, and twenty-three trying to execute the last action required by the game.
The story that is revealed and the violent situation that grows out of it in light of the player's explorations and recollections are more compelling on paper than in the game. They're particularly filmic, as well. I've seen a lot of thriller and horror films make good use of the "waking up in a messy and potentially violent situation" scenario when they're also withholding some information from the viewer. Spirit is in this terrain, but unfortunately doesn't have the prose detail to sell it.
There's also a health timer element for the PC that induced a bit of unintentional amusement for me. The PC starts losing hit points from his injuries as soon as the game starts, and the player has to keep finding enough food and supplies to keep them up until the end. This mechanic does seem to be well balanced in terms of raising player stress levels while not being too savage under the hood. I finished the game without dying on my first play, and with plenty of health left, and this only took me about twenty-five minutes. (I acknowledge that geographically, I had good luck during my playthrough. After I'd made the whole map in my head, I could tell I'd fluked the ideal direction to explore in on a couple of occasions.) But the amount of time I'd spent rummaging around for food – fruits from gardens, leftovers from kitchens et al. – seemed to be too great a portion of the game experience. It's the major mechanical feature atop the find-and-use puzzles and some semi-randomised combat.
From the epilogue, I learned that the author's stated intention was to create a game with some moral challenge/choice. But again, the psychological content wasn't evident enough during play to make it clear I was making any moral path choices, at least in terms of my choosing them against apparent alternatives. If an action seems the obvious one needed in a game, I will take it. I don't come to these games to test my own morality, and I know this a difference between me as a player type and some other player types out there. Certainly the ending text I received was of the kind to indicate what the other endings might be compared to the one I got, but I'm not interested in replaying to see them.
I like the kind of story and situation this game presents, but its sparseness of writing and implementation mean the story doesn't really land, or with the right impact. The game's title is also too vague, in retrospect. I'd still say Spirit may be of interest to players who like a game with a bit of contemporary grit. And its mystery remains a little abstract, which is to say, I have questions about the backstory and I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to. This situation could just be due to the limitations of the prose. Even if it is, the particular degree of vagueness where the details have ended up is not a bad one.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
In Sarah Willson's parser game Closure, teenaged Kira has snuck into the dorm room of her newly ex-boyfriend TJ (using her spare key) intent on nabbing a particular photo of the couple for future reminiscence purposes. As she commits this rummaging crime of the century, she texts her best friend, YOU, THE PLAYER, detailing her every move and asking what she should do next at each juncture. The result is a charming game of rummagey revelations, presented in one's browser with an excellent marriage of content and aesthetic framing, and which took me twenty-three minutes to complete.
I think it would be easy to oversell the game's presentation as the answer to the question of why it works. When Closure is played in a web browser, it certainly puts the player in the right frame of mind to see the speech-bubbled messages appear onscreen as messages do, but what's considerably more important is the dynamic flow of the prose and its accuracy as (pretty articulate, considering the situation!) text message writing. The divisions between successive messages indirectly convey the flow of thoughts in Kira's mind, and also lead the player to visualise the physical actions Kira might be taking between texts. The game can't mention all of her lurching about, lifting and dropping things, her gaze alighting frantically on this and that, her occasional standing back to consider the situation, these things that she must be doing, but I experienced them in a peculiarly vivid way for their absence.
I was actually playing Closure offline initially (I play almost any game offline if given the chance) and even in that situation where the messages didn't appear in bubbles, I already appreciated how well the game was presenting as a text messaging simulation.
The game is well-implemented in terms of cleverly fobbing off many typical parser actions in context, or translating them into the game's context in cute ways. For instance:
i'm using that picture from new year's as your contact photo!! hahaha
Mechanically, it is a one-room game in which you need to search everything in the room to reconstruct the backstory as to why TJ broke up with Kira. This isn't a particularly difficult task, but the revelations are laid out well, with Kira realising things about both TJ and herself in the process and the player being compelled to keep digging.
The next paragraph is 100% spoiler:
From what's learned, it's clear neither character is a titan of complexity (au contraire), nor was their situation. This all suits a still-in-high-school relationship. From being on the outside of Kira's experience, I moved into it a bit, and could think things like, "Yeah, you should have tried to understand TJ's extensive sneaker collection a bit more if you really wanted this relationship, not just made fun of his extensive sneaker collection." Outwardly, this sounds superficial, but I can buy it. People have broken up over infinitely dumber things. I also don't know the nature/extent of the sneaker-teasing; maybe it wasn't actually so dumb an interaction in reality. Also, it wasn't only the sneaker-teasing; there's the liking-metal-music teasing. The conceit is that Kira is texting in harried fashion as she snoops a dorm room, so I can also accept the lack of details regarding these events within the context of the game. Can the game stand up without such details? I've argued here that it can, except that the final revelation of TJ's having run off to marry someone else felt weird and extreme. It's clearly not an impossibility, but it didn't feel like the right end for this game to me.
I think Closure presents its situation as a game about as well as anyone has ever presented this kind of thing in IF. The texting conceit, the thoughts of the responding character as modified by this mode, the prose used to convey it, the dynamics of the text itself and the thoughtfulness of how Kira responds to conventional parser instructions are all handled wonderfully. The only misstep for me was the final revelation.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)
Bigfoot Bluff is a busy parser adventure game of bizarre comedy. You play a paparazzi Bigfoot trying to snap a picture of your dad, also a Bigfoot, in a national park he controls. You're doing this for reasons that are hard to understand at first and hard to articulate later. Plus the park has other cryptids in it and you're photographing them. Why to both? Well, it works out eventually, but this doesn't feel like the kind of game in which one should be fumbling for understanding as often as one is.
BB taps the vein of fun eight-bit adventures with its tons of amusing objects to collect, little puzzles all over the place and a sarcastic parser voice. It's quite compulsively enjoyable already, but simultaneously frustrating to play. Part of the trouble is in the realm of combinatorial explosion. With so many crazy objects in the game (you can sling a goat over your shoulder, dig chocolate out of a pie, wear a falconry glove, take photographs of things, build disguises out of bits of park detritus, etc.) interactions amongst them are underimplemented. This much stuff calls for that much more development work. Many great ideas I typed in received default rejection messages, making my perception of puzzle difficulty go up. There are also minor bugs and almost no synonyms, which leads to time spent retyping and rephrasing good commands.
And, for a good while, I genuinely thought the game was trolling me. Part of the HELP says:
"... Try to do various things that will help you stay hidden in the park. As you do, your score will increase and you will be able to track down Bigfoot Senior and catch him on camera...
Bigfoot Bluff is a forgiving game even though undoing is disabled. If you lose points, don't worry! Just keep playing and you will more than make up for the lost points."
So the score is related to stealthiness. If you act stealthily or increase stealth, your score goes up. But if you bumblingly draw attention to yourself, you lose points. I grew to find the numerous ways you can lose points increasingly hilarious, and suspected that the game's help message about its forgiving nature might be part of the joke.
Here are examples.
What if I...
– Put on some aviator glasses I found on a crash dummy in a downed plane?
The glare from the reflective coating gives your position away
Score minus two
– Examine the drone I saw hovering near the plane?
The drone focuses its lens and you hear a click as it photographs you.
Score minus one
– Try setting a weather-altering machine to SNOW in hopes of making me harder to see?
>set weather to snow
You set the weather machine to snow.
It begins snowing. Your tracks will only make you easier to follow.
Score minus one
Try setting the same machine to WINDY instead?
>set weather to windy
You set the weather machine to wind.
The wind picks up; this will only blow your scent around.
Score minus one
After twelve score-altering events had occurred in the game, I had made a net gain of only three points.
It took me a long time to get on the wavelength of BB. To really understand the premise, and what I was trying to do, and why, and how I should be going about it. I think part of this may be that the intro is too sparse. The premise is deliberately silly, but it's also sophisticated. The opening line is:
"Ten years ago you renounced Bigfootdom to become a paparazzi. Now it is your job to do an exposé on your reclusive sasquatch father. Welcome to... Bigfoot Bluff."
This bit of prose requires unpacking and raises a lot of questions. But the game just starts with you standing in a Parking Lot of short description. Probably the HELP text would be better placed as part of the introduction, and it could all stand to be more focused. I don't think having to make sense of everything slowly by playing the game is the best fit for BB.
The game builds up an effective aesthetic that is simultaneously funny and a little menacing. The emphasis on surveillance inevitably makes you feel like you're being watched. The descriptions of the park don't need to be extensive to create a strong sense of place, a naturally beautiful wilderness with your father's menacing cabin sitting in the middle of it, and the PDF map helps, too. There are wacky cryptids about the place, such as the Garbogriff, for you to photograph, and the taunting announcements / nature talks your father is strangely obliged to give by loudspeaker at such times are amusing as well as truly weird. His later revelations are even weirder and wilder.
BB describes itself as a sandbox game. I don't think I've ever really understood the term, but here it seems to refer to both the nature of the map, and perhaps the mechanic whereby there are many puzzles to be solved, but that you don't have to solve them all. I found this to be a relief because I had a good amount of unused stuff left in my inventory at game's end. And that end is quite spectacular.
BB is a detailed and very funny game, but its implementation isn't a match for its content, and I believe it's unnecessarily hard to get into. I'd like to see these issues addressed in a future update.
(A version of this review first appered in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)
In Adventuron parser game The Prairie House (I'll call it PH for short) the PC is a student involved in soil-collecting field work on the Canadian prairies. Running out of light at the end of an enthusiastically spent day, they drive to an empty but storied communal field house to stay the night. The game's mystery-based trajectory of spookiness is a steadily upwards one.
PH took me about half an hour to complete on my first play, and I was thoroughly enveloped by its atmosphere and story details all the way. The experience builds to solid folkloric ghost tale chills, and even gets in a quality and non-cheap jump scare en route. The game's prose of geography and props is minimal in general, but expands at the right moments. It cues fear right from the first screen:
"As you look around the open grassland, and nervously at the nearby aspen groves, you feel utterly exhausted and alone, and you realize how vulnerable you are."
Part of playing any IF game is divining its general outlook on how to make progress through it. Is it going to be a game where you're meant to grab everything that isn't nailed down? A game where you'll advance if you just pay attention to the PC's thoughts? Or something else? PH starts off looking pretty open. There are good number of objects on the first few screens, but the game shows quickly enough, by policing what you can and can't take with you, that it's not going to be a kleptomania piece. It's important that it gets this out of the way early, because the later scariness might have been easily derailed had the player been allowed to muck around too much during it. That's to say, had they expected that they should try lots of prop and inventory busywork during the spookiness, simply because they could. The spooky sequences need to cast a kind of unbroken spell to hold their effect.
There is one parser shortcoming in the game, and I don't know if it's due to Adventuron itself or author programming, but objects with two-word names only respond to one of the words. And sometimes it's not the first word. (e.g. a rare orchid is only recognised if you type "orchid", not "rare"). I'd hope most players would clock this during those item-heavy first few locations, but I'd also hope this could be addressed in an updated version of the game.
The feeling the game creates is a specific one with many notes. On the one hand, there's the environmental sparseness of the prairies, the power of nature out there and the fear that comes from being alone in it. But PH also evokes the comfort of finding civilised shelter at a time when you're scared, and also the great indirect civility of the community-minded folk who look after and use the field house. The third note is the history of the house itself, manifest in the mementos and books found inside. Their contents, and the immigration backstory, set up a mystery and some ghost lore. The note wrapping all of the others together in PH is the supernatural reality that encroaches during the night.
PH has an original atmospheric soundtrack by Kelsen Hadder and wields some evocative eight-bit / minimal-palette-style graphics at times. It's also glazed with incidental chiptuney sound effects that simultaneously make the whole thing feel like a lost horror game for the Nintendo Entertainment System – had that console ever hosted parser games or a keyboard with which to play them. PH further offers seven font and colour-controlling themes a player can choose from, both before and during play. My main theoretical interest in these was to see what the scene graphics would look like in different colours, but these graphics usually occur during cut scenes, a time when you can't change themes.
While the game is simple and accessible in its delivery (I scored ten out of ten on my first game, but I'm not saying you suck if you don't) it builds a rich and particular world in a short space of time, and succeeds in developing eerie tension, further enhanced at a visceral level by the soundtrack. This kind of spell can be hard to sustain in IF, and I was completely under the spell during this game. The aesthetic is entirely coherent and the overall effect is charming as well as eerie. Yes, horror can charm.
(This review first appeared in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)
Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony (HC from here on) is the semi-autobiographical parser sequel to 2016's also semi-autobiographical Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony by the same authors, Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw, and which was also introduced via Spring Thing.
I found the first game to be extraordinary. It's a hippiedom-infused, life-living sim seen through the window of manic depression, and transfused with plenty of bike-riding, fictional computer tech, new age alternate realities, loving, drug-taking and blasts of mathematics. In spite of its chaos, it displays an almost perfect marriage of form and function in relation to its subject matter, and is wildly written, and fun as well.
The follow-up, HC, has deep connections to the first, albeit in a fractalised, non-continuous way. Memories and events recur, or are revisited, or are re-analysed, or are fit into a continuing narrative of what has been happening with the authors since the first game. While all of the same subject matter returns in this second episode, the result is superficially less satisfying than the first because this time around, the framework is not conspicuously gamey. The player may still be the PC, now known as Mycroftiv (the narrator Ben from the first game) but they aren't a doer in a game world. They're invited to read what amounts to Mycroftiv's hypercubic journal of their memories and experiences. Each location in the game functions as one of 64 journal entries, and they're divided up in a virtual filing cabinet navigated by a bit-based nav system worthy of an Andrew Schultz game. The player's goal is open-ended: they can read entries as they see fit, and try combining some of the objects they find along the way. Objects like a Boolean Prime Ideal or a Measurable cardinal axiom. Examining these objects gives points, which is a measure of progress, but not a particularly important or logistically useful one in this game.
As I found the first game very moving, I found reading the entries in HC just as moving and stimulating, and somehow enveloping. They deal, through the authors' anecdotes, with family relationships, the nature of friendships, peak experiences via people and nature, and theories of "the mathematics of loving communication". Thus encapsulated, that last one may sound flakey, but the journal entries devoted purely to mathematical theories are not light reading. While two authors of the work are credited, the narrator voice is Ben Kidwell's / BenJen's / Mycroftiv's.
In both games, what I feel as I play them is the accuracy of the reality espoused (or theorised) by their authors, because in its bizarre way, it is perfectly articulated through wonderful writing that is never didactic. The narrator can be frank and proselytic when in their manic phases, but they're also tempered by acknowledgment of their mistakes, by moments of standing outside themselves, and by a lot of extended musing on the nature of empathy. The major declared mistake that forms a cut-off point in their life for the genesis of this game sounds especially disastrous (giving voice to sexual interest in a teenaged ward during a ritual invented during a manic phase) and this declaration is made in the first lines of the game. All the player's reading is declared to be about to happen "backwards in time... before everything shattered." So there is a sad frame placed around the game. However, its core narration is clearly an espousal of optimism. The sum of its multi-dimensional journal of positive memories, breakthroughs, mathematical progresses and wonderful human connections is an Eternal Yes.
Like the first episode, I see HC as demonstrating a perfect melding of form and ideas. The author's favourite idea, articulated in a thousand different ways, is about the interconnectedness of all things. The hypercubic nature of the game's journal connects its 64 locations in a fashion that allows you to get between any of them in fewer moves than it would take on, say, an eight by eight grid. This is a mechanical demonstration of what it may be like to have access to another dimension. In turn, the player's path through these locations may be entirely random (people who don't get binary numbers) or may follow a certain logic (people who know binary and can use the game's binary coordinates to lawnmower the journal). Somewhere on their journey, the player will likely find the journal entry that muses on the nature of free will and randomness:
"... I'd like to propose instead that free will is better understood as what randomness feels like from the inside. The intuitive sense that free will is different from randomness is a dichotomy between the external view of dice rolls as meaningless and arbitrary versus the meaningfulness we feel motivates our own choices. A more careful examination of the definition of 'random' shows that the identification of 'random equals meaningless' is not objective. The real definition of random is simply anything that cannot be externally predicted on the basis of available information..."
For all its wildness, the game has this seer-like, synchronous way about it, and contains journal entries addressing almost any mechanic or idea demonstrated by the performance of the game itself. Some of these entries are indirect, others explicit. One that made me laugh was the authors discussing whether the entries describing mathematics would prove too thick for readers. I'd already found my concentration wavering when trying to follow some of those entries down at my lay level. Another entry stepped out of the game to posit that the player is actually a character in another game played by 17-dimensional chipmunks.
It's with tricks like these that the game seems to be what it proclaims reality is: a demonstration of complete interconnectedness in ways we can't anticipate or understand. That it's also an emotional diary of creative experiences, introspective moments growing out of bike rides, jokes, and mathematical ponderings, demonstrates the authors' great instincts for mapping the personal onto the cosmic and the existential. And that it has no end as such, instead just failing to provide new material at some point – petering out, even – seems to be saying something about the imperfect movement between different episodes in our lives or creative outputs.
I think the game is also superbly written from word to word. The voice is persuasive, lyrical, able to build ideas clearly when necessary, and also able to explode them with illegal syntaxes when necessary. While HC drops its gaminess relative to its predecessor, its lack of a need for world model implementation has allowed the authors to take even more flight with their prose, at greater length and as often as they like.
I find it hard to imagine how HC will fall on players who never tried the first game. It's bound up with that game's contents like the posited hypercube. A cube placed in the first game, and which then expanded simultaneously in all directions, might produce the vertices of the second game as a diffracted take on the old mixed with the new. Given that the parts of the old that reappear are reconstituted in detail, I suspect they might work and stand alone for new players. And if you like HC, you should certainly return to the first game to experience its more purposive take on an earlier stream of the story. Both games come with optional outside-the-game music, and HC's extras folder contains css files with theory and speculation about Enlightenment Escalators and Harmonic Ultrafilters. Together, the two Harmonic pieces comprise one of the most singular visions in IF.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
Alone is an adventure of survival set in a sparsely populated post-apocalyptic world. The initial situation of having your car break down out on the road leads gradually (but not too gradually) into a series of dense and satisfyingly overlapping puzzles, especially of the mechanical variety. With its keys, locks, recalcitrant security doors, fuseboxes, circuits and deserted environments, Alone's puzzlebox reminded me most of the Resident Evil games. Alone also steps into the equivalent IF tradition of the Resident-Evil-type game, though pointedly without gunplay, shooting or much violence at all. I'm now finding it harder to think of other similar parser IF games than I expected; there's Divis Mortis, and, with a supernatural spin added, One Eye Open. Calm has deliberately very fiddly mechanics in a post-apocalyptic world, but not any bogeymen if I recall correctly. Alone has The Infected. Zombies if you prefer.
Alone's puzzles are broadly familiar in the adventure game aesthetic, but that doesn't matter when their execution and interweaving are as solidly performed as they are here. The game isn't perfect; a couple of the most difficult actions only accept one very specific phrasing, and I had to use the walkthrough to get through those parts. But otherwise, there's consistent logic to all the mechanics. Alternate solutions to problems are considered by the game and well-excused. Nearly successful attempts on puzzles give feedback to point the player in the right direction. Irrelevant objects fob the player off to avoid time-wasting. These standards are maintained for the game's duration and that is very good work.
A few spoilers if you read on:
Alone has an interesting quality that was apparent to me only after completing it. I noticed all the things that hadn't happened in it. I mean things that I might have expected from a game like this if it had not veered from the centre of this genre's road. The threat of infection is always present and its zombifying consequences are apparent (the one time I did turn into a zombie, I found the description pretty creepy) but there is ultimately only one active zombie encountered in the game. The PC isn't disrespectful of the dead and the player doesn't have to fight or kill to survive. There's almost no violence. And though there are a few endings, the game's ABOUT encourages the player to get the most obviously good one, which it turns out is tied to the most moral and hopeful outcome in the game. So Alone reminded me what my expectations for this genre are, and was uncharacteristically optimistic or entropy-averse in relation to them. In this way it stands out from what you might call the current glut of material in this genre in other media. Though as I say, I think the genre is not as strongly represented in IF as I thought it might be.
Version five of Necron's Keep is a great advance on the buggy original I tried many years ago. I played this hardcore CRPG to completion over four hours and found it to be very entertaining, in spite of the continued presence of many bugs of inconvenience (mostly involving the automatic inventory management). In a nutshell, Necron's Keep is a challenging, detailed and unforgiving single-character fantasy CRPG. There's no UNDO, and you'll need to keep and label many a save file to make it through. What you get in return is an interesting spellcasting system, transparent die-rolled combat and a satisfying gaming challenge with plenty of danger. The story style is probably most like that of a 1980s Fighting Fantasy gamebook, complete with nasty surprises, while the combat adds some AD&D-like detail.
You wouldn't expect someone called Necron to be a nice guy, but the truth of this game's background story is that you don't know. He's an archmage who went off to live with his people in an enchanted castle and fell out of contact with the world. The king has sent you, a mage, to Necron's place to find out what's going on.
In the fashion of many an old-school (or old-school-styled) RPG, the beginning of this game can be the roughest time. It's when random die rolls and traps can kill you off quickly. Traps and monsters will eat your hp (there are both fixed and random encounters), and the spells you cast to try to protect yourself also cost hp. The multi-page tome you're given to read at the game's start is semi-overwhelming, but it combines lore on how the spell system works with hints that will help you later in the game. You start off with a good number of spells; they show up in your inventory. More spells can be learned from scrolls you find (doing that also costs hp!) and some require material components that you need to find on your journey. This is quite a cool aspect of the game, though it takes a lot of observation to work out which components get eaten by the casting of spells. In bad but amusing news, the game is prepared to incinerate your only held wooden weapon to cast a spell requiring wood if you don't have any other wood in your inventory. You can detect traps, mend broken items, divine the nature of things, cast offensive spells in combat. There's a good range of stuff and a lot of it works on a lot of the game's contents.
The thing that might drive some players spare is the inventory. You've got an unlimited holdall, but only finite hand space. So the game autoswaps items in and out of your holdall as required. This constantly results in situations like you putting away one of two things you need simultaneously when you take the first one out, or accidentally forgetting to get the wood out and burning your weapon as a spell component. This is the main site of bugs in the game that still needs fixing.
The early game is about battling through and finding healing items to sustain you. Once you have the power to create your own healing sphere (this is a cool effect, where you ENTER SPHERE, then sleep or meditate to recover), you enter the midgame, roaming around fighting monsters, collecting xp, healing, learning new spells. The late game could be considered tackling the bigger puzzles and challenges of the keep directly. I was stuck for ages in the midgame because one room exit wasn't mentioned, but I'm not sure if this was semi-intentional – there's a magic item you can acquire that gives you an exit lister, and it was the exit lister that showed me the new way to go.
Once you've worked everything out in Necron's Keep, there's a degree of optimisation in stringing all your knowledge together, and probably revisiting older saves where you were in a better position. I felt really satisfied when I completed it.
This is definitely one for people who like this kind of game, and in spite of its inconveniences, I think it's a good example of the CRPG in parser game form. I wouldn't normally give a game with this many bugs remaining a four, but I can't go below four for a game that kept me this involved.
Like a lot of the most high-faluting mummies, you used to be a pharoah. Now you're a Ka, an ex-mummy spirit about to quest for the afterlife. And as the game's blurb reveals, the first problem you face is that you're inside a coffin inside a coffin inside a coffin inside a coffin... etc.
In spite of Ka being on my To Play list for a long time, I procrastinated because of the impression I'd obtained from reviews that it was a hard-leaning puzzler with an emphasis on machinery puzzles; I don't consider interpreting detailed descriptions of arcane equipment to be one of my strong suits in parser gaming. Ka definitely has a good amount of arcane equipment in it, but it's also considerably more varied, and the way it's mostly delivered as one self-contained room after another reduces stress. The player doesn't have to worry that the thing they might need to make a machine work is elsewhere. I was thoroughly engrossed in it and completed it in eighty minutes, only checking a walkthrough once. It is a little strange, though, that so much is implemented in this game, and yet so much that seems obvious has not been implemented. I suppose this backhandedly amounts to direction on the puzzles (you can't muck around with things that aren't implemented) but it does suppress Ka in the polish stakes.
The ABOUT text mentions the amount of research on Egyptian afterlife rituals that went into Ka. The game has a convincing and exotic (to non-ancient-Egyptian me) aesthetic that's lived-in for its PC. I don't think I'd call its procession of puzzles a narrative-narrative, but it does develop a story, attitude and a history through the PC's narration, including flashbacks to his life as a pharoah. Battling through the puzzles amounts to a microcosm of the struggles of the living during life, and the prose doesn't forget to keep pressing this note. Success in the end does bring a kind of spiritual relief. There is an emphasis on time, memory, circles and loops in both Ka's bejewelled imagery and in the physical constructions of its puzzles.
The game's ultimate puzzle, a riddle, is the only one for which I needed to consult a walkthrough. Once I'd read the answer, I couldn't actually reverse engineer the sense out of it, so I wasn't hurt by my failure to come up with it. Fortunately David Welbourn, via his walkthrough, went the extra step of explaining its meaning to me.
Ka is a dense but not overwhelming puzzle game with a rich Egyptian aesthetic, plenty of exotic mechanical puzzles and a good number of other types of puzzles as well.
Disclaimer: I cameo (name-wise, anyway) in this game as an NPC. This was a prize the author gave me for IFComp reviewing.
Grooverland is a big, modern day fantasy'n'puzzling adventure set in the eponymous theme park. The player is eleven-year-old Lily, and for her family birthday outing she's granted the run of Grooverland for a day, as well as the personal party role of Queen. The park is outwardly wondrous but increasingly sinister as the game progresses, putting the game into what I broadly think of as the Wishbringer tradition, with a touch of Willy Wonka to boot. Indeed, both Grooverland and Wishbringer open with a dragon attack scene, and in both cases the scene quickly turns in an unexpected direction.
Grooverland is named for IF author Chandler Groover, from whose games it's inspired in imagery and themes, though in a more G or PG-rated way than the source. I continue in the embarrassing (but majority) tradition of reviewers of Grooverland who haven't played most of Groover's games. Nevertheless, I recognised more of them than I thought I would during Grooverland. Plus, like the game says, knowledge of them is not essential for play.
The puzzles are excellent, exploiting all of geography, mathematical logic, permutational experimentation, and intuition both fantastic and emotional. They involve such tasks as feeding icky foods to weird animals, charming creatures into service, eating giant cakes and working sideshow magic. Some interlock, some stand alone, some require the player to reach back to prior ideas or knowledge at the appropriate moment – and they're great at building that knowledge in the first place – and they all feed each other's logic.
It's this consistency and cumulative development that makes Grooverland feel so vivid. This is a big game (close to three hours for me, without hints) but arranged so that it never feels overwhelming. I'm not used to puzzling at such length these days, nor with puzzles that are so cleanly and sharply presented in concept and in their elements. I almost felt they might be easier than they seem, but I think it's the access to them that is the site of increased ease, a reflection of contemporary possibilities in IF and the author's abilities.
The prose delivers visual clarity, and is especially good at doling out the game's highly dynamic world in a comprehensible way. While the various wacky NPCs demonstrate clear personalities in prose, I felt the heroine perhaps demonstrated the least, or at least the least specific. The game has an impressive catalogue of anti-stock responses and jokes, but I got the feeling too many of them were from the school of parser humour rather than what Lily might be likely to think. (Though who can prove that she doesn't think like a parser game author? She's certainly likely to become one if she survives the experience of Grooverland.) Lily's family, too, are a bit functional in delivery. That didn't bother me. There's so much puzzling to be getting on with, I was glad to not have to ASK/TELL my family into the ground as well. Amongst them, they have enough strokes to conjure the needed familial emotions.
The prospect of tackling the game's finale was almost too much for me when I reached and apprehended it. However, it turns out not to be some brutally punishing boss fight puzzle, but rather a way to reward the player with access to the powers they've spent the game acquiring.
Grooverland is a great puzzle game that's fun and highly involving, and a fine feat of fantasy imagination as well. It is also technically rounded well beyond what any one player might see, which I consider to be one of the hallmarks of the best IF.
Carpathian Vampire, part of the 2022 Text Adventure Literacy Jam, puts the player through one strand of the classic Dracula story – the finding and staking the vampire part – via a clean and fundament-focused presentation suitable for the teaching of playing parser IF. There are few flourishes, but the implementation is very solid and the classic styling of the castle taps the eternal gaming Dracula. The thoroughness of the playalong tutorial is about equal best I've seen, only tripping once with a bit of contrary advice regarding a notebook.
Dracula might be my favourite story. I don't know that it's my favourite novel, because in spite of my indulgent nature where horror is concerned, I do think some bits of the book are particularly poorly or strangely written. In each new take on Dracula in gaming or film, Dracula's castle can be reconfigured in one of an infinite number of ways, drawing on a library of elements that are now sourced from more than a century of books, films and other media. A lot of these ways may not be too different to each other as they target the key tropes, but I still have time for all of them. This was the aspect of Carpathian Vampire that most interested me as an old Dracula head: the familiarity of its setting. I could almost swear I'd walked this configuration before, kitchen on the left, dining room on the right, etc. But I feel that way in many Dracula castles, and it's a good feeling.
Dawn of the Mummy is a treasure hunt adventure written in BASIC for the Commodore 64, and broadly based on the 1981 horror film of the same name. The film had the distinction of being the first mummy gore film; it still is the only mummy gore film as I type these words in 2022. The film sought to cash in on international love for George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, accurately conveying to the punter through its ripped-off title what to expect of it: graphic gutmunching, just perpetrated by mummies this time instead of zombies.
I first watched Dawn of the Mummy on a bootleg VHS during the 1990s. Admittedly it was pretty hard to see what was going on, but the plot has a bunch of New York fashion models swarming into a recently opened Egyptian tomb for a photo shoot. Rick, the overacting soldier-of-fortune character who blew the tomb open, gnashes his teeth as he waits for everyone to get lost so he can nab the treasures, but ultimately the lot of them fall foul of the curse of Safiraman, the mummies' leader, whom a crazy old lady prophesised would attack in the following manner: "Safiraman will rise and kill! His followers will rise and kill!" And so they do, running amok in a climactic wedding massacre.
In the game, you play Rick, and your goal is to pull as many treasures from the tomb as you can and get them to your home space, where you can type STORE TREASURES to receive a score. Dawn of the Mummy is programmed in BASIC, and while there's a thoughtful touch here and there, it's mostly a classic (for this type and level of amateur adventure) mix of guess-the-verb, instant deaths and game-wrecking incidents you can't anticipate. I was happy to keep a walkthrough handy. It's non-trivial to get all the treasures without a ton of experimentation, or cleaving to the walkthrough, so the variable score element adds some interest.
Unfortunately, the highly amusing fashion shoot component of the film doesn't make it into the game, but a few particular moments of gore do. A head-hatcheted guy is found hanging on a hook, mummies strangle people, and another menace "pulls out your stomach".
The probably-then-teenaged author dismisses his own work in an opening demo scroll, declaring: "A lot of shit programs are being released lately so why not add this junk to that already huge stockpile". I think the game's better than that, but probably only a star better. Plus FARAO is spelled wrong in the introductory text. Still, it's cool that this eighties horror movie that managed to carve out a weird little niche for itself does in fact have a computer game to go with it.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during Introcomp 2020.)
Pre-Marie was the first Adventuron game I ever tried. The 'pre' refers to the fact that it was entered in IntroComp as a taster for a longer game.
Marie is set in contemporary London. The PC is a woman about to sneak out to investigate some unspecified mystery that she doesn't want her currently sleeping husband to know she's going to investigate. It's a compelling set-up delivered in a generally old school manner. This means: the parser is simple and doesn't understand a lot or too well. The graphics are pixellated pastels that vaguely remind me of some of the early graphic adventure games from the 1980s, and especially the propensity of those games to present different streets in a town in ways that made them seem disorientingly (or deliberately) samey. The font channels both ZX Spectrum adventuring and Sierra's various Quest games.
There's a bit of needless misdirection in the game that seems down to the parser. For instance, reaching for a wet newspaper spied on the ground prompts a 'Leave it alone, it's wet'-type rejection message. But really, the game wants you to READ the newspaper. The prose is also a little misjudged in giving overall direction. Early on it presents the heroine's internal dithering as to whether she should hasten to get on a train or keep exploring her neighbourhood, but the game is really about doing the latter. Her dithering is too dithery re: what's important to the game. And new location descriptions can scroll partly out of view, meaning you have to mouse back up the first time you enter a new area.
It took several plays for me to apprehend all of this, and the first play felt especially open ("What's going on? How does this game work? What does it want? What can it do? What should I do?"). I certainly enjoyed the intrigue of trying to make out the game's aesthetic over those plays, its suburban London setting and the mystery of its plot. I barely dented that plot. I do ultimately find the game curious. There's something non-transparent to me about how this particular story's being delivered – with this old font, with these graphics, with its mystery plot versus its simple parser. It might have become clearer to me were the game to have continued. I also confess I wasn't crazy about the graphics overall, though they have their moments. The pastel colour scheme leads to a kind of non-differentiation that I find hard to interpret at times. I also find the PC's notebook contents, presented via the graphics, visually illegible.
On the excerpt of Marie given, I didn't get it, but my curiosity did prompt me to give the IntroCompish verdict of, yes, I would like to see more of this game.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during Spring Thing 2016.)
Superhero Stress is a light, traditional CYOA of mutually exclusive options that are dramatic, like (paraphrasing): "Will you save person A at the possible expense of person B, or person B at the possible expense of person A?" You can play through most of its situations in about five minutes. It's got goofy, typo-y writing and the traditional sexism of old comic books: Ladies are for rescuing, or for picking up while you're rescuing 'em. It's also got a touch of offhand gore that I found very mildly disturbing amidst the silliness, but only very mildly.
Superhero Stress does have a message that it delivers a few times; that a superhero can't be everywhere at once. The film Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, had roughly the same thing to say about the Man of Steel, but Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice took more than 150 painful minutes to say it, whereas Superhero Stress did it in about five minutes.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Short, existential Twine game in which you specify the manners in which you will veg out in the house during your girlfriend's next night shift at the pickle factory. This is an experience hailing from the drab end of the slice of life cake. You can think about the bedclothes, fiddle a bit with the bedclothes, clean objects in several boring stages. Your character is clearly depressed, as the prose is insistent about the pointlessness of any activity. A few prose studs of specificity about the characters' shared life don't make up for the more macroscopic lack of specificity that prevents any insight into their plight over the short duration.
Perhaps this is the Twine equivalent of the parser world's 'My Crappy Apartment Game'. The apartment is still there, but the focus shifts to the immediate crappy existential rather than the immediate crappy physical. 'All I Do's...' observations of fiddly-stuck depression make for better writing than that of most My Crappy Apartment games, but its small catalogue of anxious domestic activity didn't interest me because I knew almost nothing about the characters, before or after.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during Spring Thing 2016.)
The Xylophoniad is a joking, mashup take on numerous characters and situations from Greek mythology. It is powered by Versificator, the author's own parser engine. You play the part of veteran adventuress Xylophone, assigned by a bored king to knock over a few light tasks like ending the Trojan War, rescuing prisoners from Hades and killing the Bicyclops. I imagined the Bicyclops was going to turn out to have two eyes side-by-side, which would have had the effect of making it look like anyone else, which would in turn have resulted in comedic, illogical screaming from onlookers along the lines of: 'Argh! Two eyes! It's hideous!' But it turns out that the second eye of a Bicyclops is above the first one. And that is pretty gross.
The Xylophoniad (or THE X as I will now refer to it) reminds of the classic Scott Adams games in some of its nature and puzzles, though rarely in restrained degree. The aesthetic of those 16 kilobyte games was determined by the hard technical limit of the 16 kilobytes. There are no real limits for The X. There are design choices, and any mimicry of older games is carried out to an irreverent extent rather than a slavish one. The game delivers its humour in some particularly goofy and cartoon-like ways, elicits jokes from cute and simple NPCs who appear as caricatures of their legendary selves, or 'non-canonical versions' as the game likes to say, and keeps the player busy with a large ancient world split into separate regions. The region separation feels like both a staple of gaming in general (like levels, a way to divide up content and aesthetics) and a way to make THE X feel more manageable. Because no matter how cute the game may appear to be at the outset, when a king tells you to perform three impossible-sounding tasks before breakfast (it was the 'end the Trojan war' one that especially raised my anxiety levels) you're likely to feel at least a tad flustered about the day ahead.
Fortunately, and as I should probably have anticipated, the explicit solutions to the major challenges are pretty wack. Don't dwell on how to end the Trojan War all by yourself (... ARGH!!!). Just get out there and be the best traditionally klepto adventuress you can be, exploring, finding ways to pass recalcitrant portals, solving puzzles that crop up using a mixture of logic and illogic, and helping NPCs with their usually not-too-obscure problems. Achilles is histrionic, the medusa is apologetic, Daedalus is MacGyver and Helen of Troy emits unusual noises.
I don't think much knowledge of Greek mythology is required to deal with THE X's puzzles. In cases where a particular piece of knowledge might help with a particular puzzle, the game either tells you about it explicitly or collapses it into a joke that has the side-effect of indicating how the situation would have been in a canonical version of the story. I found myself at an impasse a few times and got past each one using the graduated hint system that comes with the game. If I'd had more time to play, I probably would have continued to experiment with the gameworld and overcome one or two of the impasses on my own.
(This is a review of the 2020 Introcomp version of Navigatio. The review is edited from a blog post I made during the competition.)
Navigatio (The Confession of the Second Man) is a parser-driven IntroComp 2020 entry from P. James Garrett. It's the first chapter of the prospective longer adventure and took me about twenty minutes to complete.
The PC in Navigatio is a monk's assistant at a monastery in the middle ages. The prologue about his rough upbringing and how he got to where he is is catchy and confidently delivered, even if there was one element of it I didn't quite understand. Then comes the first prose of the game proper –
Frozen Northern Bank
It is the third of a series of strange mornings. Lauds was late, but time has been misbehaving. So have the monks of this community.
– which I really like. It conveys a lot, moving through levels of awareness and connecting ideas quickly.
In the vein of 'assistant' games, the PC is tasked with fetching news and objects, communicating between different NPCs and solving environmental puzzles that get in the way of his goals. The monastery environment is compelling, and apparently the product of some research, sporting religious and manuscript-making details that evoke time and place. The implementation of the physical details is light, and probably the area of the game I'd most like to see beefed up in a later release.
The puzzles in this intro are simple and well-cued. I also nabbed some items that I expect will be of use in a subsequent chapter. The transition to chapter two has several elements that are hooky, including the continuation of a mystery thread set up in the first chapter and a suggestion that the metaphysical nature of the world might change as the game continues. I'm keen to see more either way. Some typos aside, Navigatio is well-written and well-directed, with a strong sense of place (including a few random environmental elements for flavour) and effective characterisation between the PC and his mentor. I would like to see stronger implementation of the environment in an expanded version, mostly so that the game would have a means of elaborating on its world's interesting details.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
In Letters, you're a teenaged girl reading, tracing and clicking your way through a pile of letters from your ostensibly cool school friend Cadence after certain events have occurred.
Both main characters have solid writing chops and some wisdom beyond their years, and they communicate everything to each other by handwritten letters in the year 2008, give or take a few years. I felt this setup was a bit of a contrivance, the kind of thing that is outrageously possible in real life yet which takes a certain amount of feinting or explaining when delivered as fiction to get people to buy it. I decided to accept the premise and move on once I acknowledged I was enjoying Letters's sparky, emotional teen writing, and that I was also being prompted to think about how I was interacting with this IF. It worked for me both as emotional writing and as something with a bit of a puzzly feel, an experience I've rarely had with similarly presented IFs in the past.
I spent about twenty minutes with Letters and felt that I had satisfactorily experienced most of its content by that point, though probably not all of it. It's not easy to track which links you've previously clicked, unless perhaps you lawnmower them, or have a better memory than I do. It was a testament to the game's effectiveness that I had no interest in mowing the lawn. I was clicking particular links I wanted to click for reasons I possessed or imagined in relation to the story. Contrivances accepted, I liked Letters a lot.
More detail with spoilers below.
Letters is not outwardly gamey, but part of the blurb is a challenge – "Can you find her?" (your friend, figuratively) – and there's a certain labyrinthine quality to the link structuring. The 'Start Over' end nodes often occur after emotional climaxes or relatively drastic events. Something about them makes you want to avoid them, or just nervous about encountering them. This sensation probably emerges from a basic desire to avoid premature closure of the story. And there's a feeling that if you choose wisely, maybe you can in turn eke out wiser decisions for the characters. For instance, an ending that's not too deep in the structure and which occurs immediately after you tell Cadence to piss off, suggests that maybe by doing so you harmed the friendship so early in the piece as to preclude its development. In light of moments like this, I don't interpret the pile of letters to be a bunch of static found objects that you're going through. They feel more like your interface to a story that has an unchanging core but which you can get into more deeply if you're persistent, or sometimes deflect off if you're unlucky.
The key things I liked about Letters are that I wanted to find more ways into the story, that it wasn't entirely elementary to do so, and that there was a good balance between links that made me feel narratively rewarded for picking them and links that capriciously made the story crumble and sent me back to the (not too far away) start.
There's some tension, while reading a letter, between wanting to click particular links as soon as you encounter them, and holding off and reading the whole letter first. Sometimes reading to the bottom of the letter reveals more links that were initially out of range. Maybe they'll be more interesting? Or maybe you're effectively changing events in the story by disregarding later parts of a letter to move laterally earlier? I also like that I never entirely resolved all this stuff, and the answers probably aren't set in concrete anyway.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
Snake's Game is an exotic, pretty inscrutable prose'n'clickable choices piece in which a man walks into an eatery when some manifestation of existential evil – Snake, aka The Vermin – visits his brain and starts having a natter with him about a not-forecasting-the-future game they could play. If they do, the resulting conversations lead to the 'several psychedelic experiences… with demons, monsters, and some more!' promised by the blurb.
The inklewriter engine presents Snake's prose handsomely, and aesthetically it's very good prose, sometimes ripe, only wavering in a bit of proofreading and a rare mistake of the kind that makes me think English is not the author's first language. For other reasons, it is not easy or transparent writing. Not just because of its poetic leanings, but because I don't claim to really know what it was going on about half the time.
The game actively requests replays, encouraging you to build up a bigger picture of something, plus it thanks you every time you reach an ending. (I was thanked five times. That's a fair bit of thanking.) I almost quit after my first play because that first path I happened down was short and, in retrospect, still one of the least scrutable I ever read within the game, and not even in an abstract way. It was just like reading the middle few pages of a wacky book. So I was unlucky in that sense. I tried again, grew more interested, tried again, tried again. Ultimately I played one more time than I thought I would (and for about twenty minutes overall) feeling that I was building up some enjoyment, but there still seemed to be a cap on things making much sense, which is why I didn't continue on to try all the endings.
If you like, or think you might like, any of these things – existential psychedelia, flying into the sky suddenly with a cat, vivid visions of gore, celestial types chatting like they're in the pub, religious-leaning imagery – you might like Snake's Game. I can as easily imagine people hating it pretty quickly. I admired it but in the end I like written fiction to make more coherent sense. I can say that Snake's Game shifted my perception of it significantly on each iteration, and that's something of a feat in a pretty abstract work.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
Night House is a mystery-horror parser adventure of some spookiness. It mobilises a combination of vintage object-based puzzling (use A on B, B on C, C on D) and methods of backstory revelation popular in both horror films and games of the last couple of decades. The protagonist is an eight year-old child who wakes to a mysteriously empty version of their home and unseen menaces.
If you love amassing a huge inventory of doodads and using them to hurdle hurdles in all kinds of laterally conceived practical ways, Night House will whet that appetite, though the old Quest interface gets in the way A LOT. (In old Quest, when in doubt about verbs, use the phrase USE (A) WITH (B). If still in doubt, right-click any lit objects to see if the action you've been agonisingly trying to phrase correctly happens to be a contextual choice that then shows up.) If you don’t have enough horror tastebuds on your tongue, you mightn't find Night House sufficiently distinguished from things you’ve experienced before. Overall it's a dense puzzler with a pretty good, mildly choppy story that I basically followed but didn't completely follow; I will express some of my ignorances below.
Questions of which character you're playing amongst those presented, and by extension, which sex, come up early in Night House. This element of the game was probably experienced as the mystery element it was probably intended to be by some players (see other reviews) but I fixed on it so hard I began to perceive implementation flaws through it and got bogged down. For instance, controlling how objects are described is one of the best methods for characterisation in IF. And Night House wasn't consistent about this. Some objects were described with typical IF snark. Others were character-specific ("Your sister would kill you if you touched this!" (her Trapper Keeper)). This just made it even harder to decide who I was.
So I didn't get off on the best foot with this adventure, but once I found the flashlight (TORCH) and descended from the top floor, things began to pick up. Progress was well gated by various means. I found things to do now and portals and devices to open later.
The house contents show the game is set in the 1980s-1990s. If this doubles as nostalgia for folks of that vintage (e.g. me. I mean this house has an Apple II in it) the game is still wise enough to stay properly in the child narrator's character and make nothing anachronistic out of the situation.
The practical-going-on-impractical puzzle solutions are probably no weirder than some old Infocom, but eventually I had trouble identifying puzzles because there were all these seemingly unrelated story threads floating about. A father worried about his son. A moral panic involving dinosaur cartoons and toys, complete with a spoonerist joke description of the dinosaur who's similar to Raphael of the Ninja Turtles ("Raphael is cool but crude."). Old newspaper articles about yokel weirdos and Halloween. Collectively, these things didn't offer me much direction about what I should be trying to do in Night House other than solving anything that looked like a puzzle. I don't think the threads integrated fabulously at game's end, but at least I knew what my own character's situation was. And in retrospect, the game's story was denser than first appeared.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
This review is entirely spoilery.
Tentaculon is a link-driven Twine game that initially appears to be an eat-or-be-eaten squid simulator. Its prose is keen, a bit gooey and very slightly uncomfortable-making as one cruises around trying to kill and eat stuff while not being subject to sudden spasmodic jerking motions at the same time. I admit I feared some kind of cheap game-ending blow to the back of my head was imminent, for instance a message saying 'HA! You killed to live! You lose!' – but this was unfair misapprehension on my part based on past negative experiences.
Instead, the game cut to a Philip K Dickensian scenario in the present day. I was really a human. The squid I'd been brainjacking was safely across the room in its tank.
Placing what could stand as a whole Twine game in its own right (the short history of this design tool mostly being about short works) within a larger one which turns out to be about neurobiological research and realities within realities is conceptually a very attractive design move, and one I also felt aesthetically. In retrospect of the whole of Tentaculon, I really liked its sci-fi story and its idiosyncratic humour. But actually playing it I found to be a curiously disorienting slog. It brandishes a large variety of interface and delivery approaches that kept me in a place between irritation and aggravation.
There's no consistent way to move between sections. Sometimes it's by clicking the specifically crafted back button, which I'm used to reading as an UNDO button in Twine. Sometimes it's by clicking an acknowledgement ('OK'). Sometimes it's by clicking a particular option amongst several others which are only asides. The variation which bothered me the most, because I didn't realise it was happening for awhile, was when it was necessary to simply wait for the viable link to appear amongst additional text further down the screen after a fixed amount of time. I have complained about the use of text delay timers in Twine games before and will do so again now in light of having discovered a new way in which they can hamper your experience.
I'd say Tentaculon's interface inconsistencies stand out because considerably more Twine games prior to this one have been broadly abstract or linear than have not. Tentaculon features locations connected by stable geography, exits, gettable items and conversations with NPCs. In other words, it's got a light world model, currently a minority mode in Twine, and players need to be able to have some kind of reliable relationship with that model in order to grasp or visualise the results. I struggled with all the chopping and changing of the presentation, links being all over the place and in different styles, and I often felt I didn't have much of a hold on things.
In spite of my troubles, I made it through Tentaculon, relieved that the keycard puzzles were easy, that I was able to link-mash my way through some other bits when I'd lost the plot, and really glad that I'd encountered the fictional work Life Chutney.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)
Pilgrimage is an atypically macro-scaled parser adventure which impressed me with one brief-prose-vivid, new and geographically far-flung location after another. It's also a game whose finishability, as in the player's ability to complete it without being severely gated by a walkthrough, I'd rate as close to nil. Even with the walkthrough, I wasn't able to clear the game. Pilgrimage does list several testers, so I'm going to assume I ran into a circumstantial bug rather than that the game is literally unfinishable.
Pilgrimage's PC is a Roman woman (ancient Rome) of significant alchemical learning who leaves her hometown seeking further knowledge of an existential entity known as The Great Work. She's like Carmen Sandiego in that each move she makes in one of the traditional IF compass directions tends to take her to an entirely different country. I've hardly played any parser games that place a series of huge environments (cities, countries, et al.) in a series of discrete locations like this one does, so whether by not knowing conventions or ignoring them, Pilgrimage sports a novel style.
Some kinds of historical realism or likeliness are important to Pilgrimage and some aren't. I don't think learned Roman woman really set out on globetrotting missions like this one. How many of them got to be this learned in the first place? It was when the heroine met a dragon early in the piece that I clocked I was going to be encountering both fantastic and ahistorical elements in the gameworld.
The Great Work, about which the heroine wants to know, is a 'real' figurative thing (I had to look it up) but the 'De secretus resilio', the cypher she carries at the beginning of the game, is not. So the whole adventure is a kind of 'What If?' with infrequent intrusions of complete fantasy. It enforces the idea of a pilgrimage by having you continue to move towards your goal, or goals, without turning back. Early on, the puzzles are gated in such a fashion that they tend to be self-contained within locations. This means the player doesn't have to worry about missing things or having to backtrack.
Most parser games involve browsing locations on a small scale and revisiting them. Pilgrimage is far more episodic, but whenever it departs from this linear itinerary it becomes very difficult as a result. It also invokes a large range of methods for interacting with the environment and other characters without teaching the player whether any of them are particularly good, or which ones might be of use more than once. As such, in its later stages it too frequently becomes impossible to guess what you're expected to do next. You mightn't be able to fiddle around; you'll just have no clue at all.
I had especial ire for a section in which I was expected to TELL SULTAN ABOUT (name of a city previously visited in the game) at a moment I felt I could have tried to tell the Sultan about anything from my whole game-life experience. Admittedly, Pilgrimage shields the player from this kind of thing most of the rest of the time by having all the characters speak different languages so that they don't even have a shot at understanding each other.
To say that the heroine has a wide range of adventures would be an understatement. Her character seems unclear and merely pragmatic at the journey's beginning, a typical situation at the head of an IF parser game, but she is quickly revealed to be capricious and somewhat ruthless, especially when weary of her pilgrimage. (Spoiler - click to show)She manipulates the knight into service, sacrifices him, threatens the alchemist, burns down a church, steals from the church, et al.
The overarching joke of the game for me is that it presents the pilgrimage as being a relatively noble undertaking when it begins, but it pans out badly enough for the heroine that she devolves into a tired, angry, cursing character who detests all the exotic foreign lands she has traversed and just wants to go home.
I got a lived aesthetic meaning out of this game that I really liked, and a sense of briefly touching the weird little customs and behaviours of a wide range of characters; the plague doctor, the superstitious natives, the wary caravanmaster, the macho knights. And a sense of doing so across different lands. But admittedly, since I couldn't complete the game, I'm missing whatever the end might have given.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)
Pit of the Condemned is a short Evade-The-Wumpus-like game in which you play a convict sentenced to die at the hands of The Beast. The site for your intended death is an abandoned city that's now used only to host deadly spectacles. A bloodthirsty public watches your struggles from innaccessible locations overhead.
Part of the info in the preceding paragraph comes from the game's blurb and isn't present in the game itself, a fact which accurately speaks to the minimalism of the game. The implications of the game's setting or vaguely Hunger Games-sounding society don't really come up during play. It's purely about the mechanic of moving through a large network of empty rooms and searching for a weapon or escape route while the beast chases you.
I won on my first try by setting a trap for the beast in the Royal Palace and then wiggling around a lot until the monster followed me into it. It's probably too easy to avoid the creature in general thanks to the proximity warning messages the game delivers. These are handled well technically, as is the occasional warning generated by line of sight programming.
When the beast isn't close, the game tends to dullness. Almost all locations are empty and there are a lot of them. I was tempted to start mapping, but didn't, and it ultimately proved to be unnecessary. Some obvious commands aren't covered. The very first thing I wanted to do in the game was try to KILL MAGISTRATE, the guy who had sentenced me to death. I expected that the result would be that his sidekick guard would immediately kill me. The game's reaction was to instead print the default Inform anti-violence message, 'Violence isn't the answer to this one.'
Pit of the Condemned is good mechanically, but I found it too unexciting given the premise.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)
A Wind Blown from Paradise is a small parser game that uses the drudgery of underground train travel and the wind blowing down the train tunnels as a metaphor for a greyed-out life not lived in the present; the siren song memories of the past are in technicolour. It's an idea well suited for delivery in IF format, but the delivery of this game is unfortunately frustrating. The solution shows me I had almost reached an ending after about 10-15 minutes of play, but I still quit at that point because I was tired of being thwarted by the random train travel mechanic and interrelated technical problems: the game failing to properly note when I was on a train or off it, turns being out of sync, some commands failing to give any response, a lack of basic synonyms, etc. These common problems could have been sorted out with input from folks with a little Inform 7 experience, but unfortunately the author hadn't spoken to any of them prior to IFComp 2013 (I know I because I spoke to him online at the time). There are also subtler design problems in that the game's responses don't give enough information to indicate that the game state may be changing, or that you may be progressing. It's too easy for the player to wander around in this one feeling lost, stuck in a repetitive loop with no guidance.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during Spring Thing 2020.)
The Golden is an elusive, faintly ominous Twine CYOA about a sister, brother and father stuck together in a seaside house in an unspecified end-of-days situation.
There are some tense character bits involving familial strain – a tortured card game especially on the first run – but the characters aren't specific enough for these to have full effect. For instance, if the blurb hadn't told me the heroine was seventeen, I wouldn't have suspected it from the writing. She seemed much younger to me, partly because of a sense that she looked up to her brother and partly because she didn't express anything too complex. She just didn't express enough. I don't really know what the problem was with the brother. Only the father had enough tics to make him stand out to me. Geography is a little fuzzy, too, a not uncommon situation in a Twine in which you can move around a little.
I don't know if there's a standard model in Twine that involves making the last word in a passage the link to the next page, a typical strategy in this IF, but if there is, I'd say – beware it. Words should generally be lit with intention. When 'God' on the end of 'Thank God' is the only link on a page, that looks highly significant, but proved to be no different than other standard forward links when clicked.
I liked the end of the story because of the aforementioned ominousness. I also felt that the game worked to build an anticipatory mood for it. Characterisation was the thin area. A piece this compact, written from one character's point of view and clearly indicating its characters are specific, needs to specify those characters more. There's not a lot of time to do it in, but maybe that means what time there is can't be handled as gently as I felt it was here.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2017.)
The Living Puppet is a creepy and classically-styled horror IF about a pupeteer’s mysterious relationship with the doll that is the sole source of income for he and his wife Li Shaoxian. It’s delivered in a web browser as long passages of click-scrolling text broken up by several major decision branches that the player can choose for Shaoxian. I played several times to different outcomes over 40 minutes during IFComp 2017 and enjoyed it. I can recommend it generally, and to horror folks specifically, accepting that a couple of its presentation choices may be too irritating for some players. The game sports horror themes and one explicitly violent scene.
Puppet does a couple of things with the text that I found technically annoying, but it’s a testament to the qualities possessed by an essentially good story that I decided to keep playing in spite of them to experience the whole thing. The first problem is that the player must click or press keys to elicit each line of text. The text scrolls at a fast but not instant speed, with the result that when you come back for your second game, for example, you need to hold down the space key for a minute (I timed it) just to reach the first choice again. Puppet’s second text issue is that against the second of its backdrop friezes, the text is partly unreadable due to colour and contrast issues. I’ve noticed I have a high tolerance for text colour variation, so I assume there will be players with lower thresholds who may simply quit on this screen.
The game is set in China, presumably at some time in the past as no mod cons are present and the world of traditional puppeteering is writ far more largely than I expect it would be today. The English version of the game is an ESL entity, so some of the writing is a little off around the corners, but important ideas are expressed clearly enough, and little details like falling snow flakes, breath in the snow, characters cupping their hands and the like, make their mark. The emotional intensity of the husband and wife as they deal with his gruelling performance schedule and her mounting loneliness also come through effectively. The game is about being on the outside of a relationship defined by a Faustian bargain, and its denouements are correspondingly harrowing and gruesome, emotionally and physically. This is what I most appreciated about The Living Puppet; it pays off.
Puppet’s IF mechanics are simple and won’t be enough for some players. There are few choices, but they are highly divergent for the story when they are offered. I also like the fingerprint graphic that appears on choices previously taken. It has both a practical function and seems to emphasise player responsibility for the choice. The network of choices is also a logical one. That’s to say that information learned from one ending can be wielded in one’s own mind to decide where a different earlier choice may have lead, or will lead to if the game is replayed. There are no narrative tricks here, just a good story with several outcomes. There are a handful of discrete sound effects, too, plus a decidedly non-discrete background music loop that becomes too bombastic too quickly for the prose on a first playthrough, but which lines up weirdly well with the later intense goings on.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
You are standing in a cave... is a parser-driven adventure of perennial adventuring. Stuck in the title cave with only a random collection of stuff in your pockets, you, the viewpoint adventurer, must unstick yourself and escape. The environment is full of props and clues designed to speak tantalisingly to each other in the language of puzzles via your adventuring brain. The climbable, the ignitable, the combinable; they're all here.
This is plainly not a game for people who dislike puzzles. It's straight-shooting meat and potatoes adventuring, roughly implemented, and with a title that could easily be read as a joke about banality. While cave's first room looks dull and prototypically cavey, things become more involving if you give it a room or two.
The game's tone is encouraging with a dash of wide-eyed. The adventurer seeks answers to age-old questions like, 'How do I defeat this giant venus flytrap?' or 'What really happened when I turned that dial?' The game is excited about the player's progress. Its positive tone acts as a helpful counterweight to the rough typological edges and programming oversights. Probably its weakest areas are in verb coverage and the offering of alternative phrasings for obvious actions, partly mitigated by it also going in for lots of USE phrasings. (e.g. USE A WITH B)
The game's generic USE leanings fit in with another observation I made: That Cave often feels like a graphical point-and-click adventure rendered as prose. I don't mean that in a redundant way, given that point-and-click adventures owe their existence to prose IF. I mean that it takes aesthetics that were added to adventures when they were transitioning into graphical form and brings them back into the all-prose realm. I refer to aesthetics like the extended depictions of transformations that occur in the environment when puzzles are solved. Objects revolve, rise, shine, glimmer or rotate at relative descriptive length. It's visual, and the physical movements are important.
I was able to clear the game without using the walkthrough, though I needed a little human help gleaned from another review. So, although Cave lists no testers and has lots of bugs, you can clear it. I had enough fun doing so.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
I thought I recognised the 'blob of goop evolves to starflight via all the stages inbetween' premise of Little Lifeform from somewhere. I've not played Spore but I've read about it, and that's the game. But I don't think Little is 'just' doing Spore via prose and the Choice Of Games engine. It has a particular aesthetic slant that is somewhat cute, somewhat dapper (hat-orientated) and generally encouraging. Simultaneously, it seeks to avoid throwing any eggs into particular baskets of peril. It presents a version of the universe that equalises all paths. Frankly this is not something I am used to, and in some bizarre way, I found it a little sinister. The most violent way through life turns out to be as good as the most arty, which is as good as the most capitalistic or the most dapper. That said, I don't think my subtextual reaction is worthy of any great dark spin. The goal of the game is obviously to let you play any way you want, give you a corresponding experience via its cute aesthetic, and allow your way to work. Then, if you like, you can try another way and see what humourous take the game offers on contrasting modes of behaviour.
Your stats in categories like Charm, Defensiveness and Patience are tracked, checkable at any time, and don't seem to lie, though I found the game's ultimate prose assessment of some of my performances a little off (one said I'd leaned on trade when all I remember doing was being the greatest artist and aesthete in the whole universe.) The game is otherwise pretty perfect at what it does, and it's charmingly written. I just missed having some emphases somewhere, because that's how I've always liked my games.
The Little Lifeform that could is certainly not the amoral spectacle of violent death in an uncaring universe that it could have been.
Or is it?..
No, it isn't.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Imaginatively, a fractally projected world of toilets. Practically, a few rooms with basic bad implementation and IFComp rule jokes. Game comes in three versions (web version, Z-code, Glulx) if you download it. All appear identical.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)
The Insect Massacre is a Twine hyperlinks game about which it's possible to expose little more than the blurb if one is to avoid specific spoilerdom. That blurb is:
"A short murder mystery set aboard a space station."
The title is explained in a neat way which I will also not explain here. This review will be incredibly coy by my standards.
I found the game's mystery intriguing. The events of the story are concrete enough to provoke speculation, but blurry enough around the edges so as to ward off absolute explanation. Multiple plays are required to investigate multiple angles. Each session requires little time.
The game's aesthetic delivery was beguiling on the first playthrough, if a bit confusing in terms of indicating who was speaking in each scene. The speech is effected with colour-coded names matched to coloured lines of text. My proper gripe is that on the second and subsequent plays, the unskippable Twine delays, pauses and fade-ins that were enforced on material I'd already read felt pointless and tedious. Text is basically not a temporal delivery vehicle like music or film, especially text in a branching story.
Fortunately, The Insect Massacre is short enough that even on replays it isn't too hurt by its eternally slowly-fading-in text. It is particularly good at making the player guess at the implications of the choices it presents, and not because the choices are at all vague, but because of carefully deployed elements of the game once again not discussed in this coy review.
(A version of this review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2015. Paradise was withdrawn from IFComp because it had been released prior to the comp. It has since gone offline, so my review is here as a record of what it was like.)
Paradise is a text-based online world/system for any number of players/users in which anyone can create, walk around in and inject simple programming into textual objects. The objects aren't modelled to be anything in particular, but typical uses for them include making locations and putting choices and objects into those locations. Interaction is via a mixture of parser-like typing and clicking on hotlinked words.
In my first session in Paradise, I created Cafe De Los Muertos, placed it in a location recommended by the implementors and put something inside it.
As an open-ended project which began four years ago, and one which may not contain any goal-oriented adventures that are easy to find, Paradise was likely to have scored poorly in IFComp. However I think that whether you like parser IF or clicky IF, or both, Paradise might appeal to you as a creative tool. There's nothing to stop you building a game or experience in Paradise and then linking others to it. Another big plus is that neither creators nor players (and technically, the two aren't distinguished from each other) require accounts or passwords to log in or to protect their creations. You can just visit the website and start doing stuff.
Text objects in Paradise are called vessels and operate on a concept of enclosure. Such basic concepts are explained in tutorial vessels you'll encounter soon after logging in. Basically, every vessel is inside another vessel. So you could make a location (one vessel) by typing 'create grassy meadow', then put an object inside it (a vessel in a vessel) by typing 'enter grassy meadow' then 'create chest'. If the object has compartments, they could be vessels in the object vessel. But there are no actual programming rules about the nature of vessels. You could stick a whole new world inside an object if you like – after all, it's just another vessel. You can also pick up editable vessels and put them elsewhere, or embody them, the latter being the means by which you create an avatar. You wouldn't want to be driving a default object like the teapot forever.
The most basic kind of programming lets you attach any useable Paradise command to a vessel through a 'use' link, which can also be activated by typing 'use such-and-such'. You can then repaint the word 'use' as something else – read, press, etc. – whatever word you want the player to type to use (enter) the vessel. You can nut this stuff out by following tutorial topics which consist of locations and dialogue, not boring old instruction files, or by just typing 'help'. More advanced programming is available, but it would be possible to put together an adventurous structure or CYOA adventure with the basics alone.
I suppose what's annoying about the interface is the fact that you can't get away from having to keep switching between clicking links and typing things. Or clicking a link and then having to hit return to execute it. My other gripe is that allowed punctuation in creator content is quite limited. No apostrophes take, no capital letters take in some circumstances, no exclamation marks take (actually, maybe that last one is a plus), etc. For the more literate-leaning, these things might bug.
I'm personally interested in exploring more focused material than what I saw here thus far, but I don't even know how big the place is or what's already in there. I could easily have missed a lot of stuff.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible.
Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IF. Aether is one of these introductory games, and it ends in a weird place and starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.
Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now who used to be a wandering fisherwoman in the past. Links in the prose passages lead to elaborations, courses of action or different locations. The trajectory is generally forwards with occasional gating of progress by character knowledge or events. There is no puzzling difficulty as such, but some patience is required.
Aether's opening, in which the heroine is piloting a starship that's about to disintegrate (the why, where or what of this aren't exposed) should be hooky, but it's handled a bit strangely. The game's structural tactic of looping asides back to already-read passage describing the current scene works later on, but not in this first scene, where it feels like it's slugging up action that should be screaming forwards. The other issue is that Zephyra's visions of divine help from giants and marble hands during this scene come across as pretty psychedelic. Altogether, an odd impression is made, and the whole spaceship scene is not explained or returned to later in this game, leading me to think it's grist for a later episode.
The game then cuts to a more rural (and presumably more modest) time in the past, with Zephyra wandering around and trading fish. The scenic descriptions paint a nice picture, but this prosaic exteriority prevails across all the writing. That's to say that although we're basically playing Zephyra, we barely get inside her, experience her thoughts, motives or feelings. This makes for a mostly inscrutable experience in a Greekish world that's not exactly inscrutable, but is not a world we've been given any reason to invest in yet. Who are these guys Zephyra playfully wrestles with? What does she want out of her days? What's the role of the satyrs she meets? I never learned the answers to any of these questions. Having no character goals and not much of a clear perspective on anything resulted in an uninteresting experience.
There are a fair few links to explore throughout the game – sometimes a crippling-feeling number, like the fifteen on the Fishing District of Kyzikos page – but not many incentives to be thorough. And I got the impression the game expects you to be thorough, since some later asides present information that obviously assumes earlier optional asides were read. Some state-tracking would help address this kind of thing, and will surely be essential in later episodes of this tale if it holds to its mammoth projections.
The finale of Aether is dramatic and ominous, but also oblivious of the fact the player just spent the whole game with Zephyra. The arrival from the sky of a space-faring Jason and his Argonauts, and the promise that they will carry out 'dark deeds' that will wreck everything on Kyzikos, amount to a deus ex (in the broader modern sense) that will remind most players that Zephyra didn't do anything that had anything to do with these things. She might in the future, but so could any other character. In this rural episode, Zephyra has really yet to do anything of significance.
This is what the narrative troubles of Aether boil down to: The game is meant to be an establishing experience for the character of Zephyra, but she has yet to show any personality or do anything of note. The ending only underscores these problems. While they're obviously the biggest ones, the authors don't seem to have any trouble being prolific or riffing on Greekery, and the CYOA-style wandering sections are mechanically effective, though it would take me awhile to get used to negotiating so many links on single pages when those links are interspersed throughout the prose. Aether needs structural recalibration and prose that addresses the interior of its heroine, and so interests us in her, if it's going to succeed.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
As much as I dislike dwelling on the concept of tropes, Slasher Swamp is an old school (i.e. all puzzling for puzzling sake, sparse prose, several schtick mazes, scores of instant deaths, no UNDO) adventure in which you find yourself a witness to a nonsensical mishmash of splattery horror film tropes after your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It’s a Windows application with the TADS engine under the hood, and the author proffers a small command set which can be used to clear the whole thing. I mapped the game and played to completion in about an hour, but I have to admit I achieved this by brute-forcing the content of locations. And there are a lot of locations.
The prose is a mixture of the atmospheric, the overdone atmospheric, the jokey and the juvenile. It's a tone that will be recognised by anyone who’s played any old school games which indulged their authors.
I mildly enjoyed ticking off a variety of silly death scenes, but they're assembled in this game with no overriding design and no consequence, and thus to little effect. Most objects go unused, including conspicuously important-looking ones. The player has no direction or purpose other than to keep throwing themselves at everything until they can win by a kind of exhaustive attrition of props and puzzles, though there are few puzzles in light of the size of the map. The forest mazes are small but tedious, and the random deaths are numerous, and truly, deeply random.
The worst symptom of the disabling of UNDO is that from any of the scores of rooms with teleport-like one-way exits, you can’t go back. I would often save the game just so that I could try each of the four exits from a room without having to circle the entire map after each teleport.
In the end, Slasher Swamp has all the shortcomings of both old school senselessness and aimless design. The world is the base for something decent, but the hodge podge of blood'n'excrement scenes aren't woven into any specific gameplay content. They’re just there, usually described to you and then gone again all in the space of one move, unrelated to each other, unrelated to progress in the game.
In spite of Slasher's shortcomings, I still got moderate amounts of fun out of it.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is a primary school-based adventure of rigourous puzzling in which you play a teacher who must rescue a series of trapped students in the wake of some kind of bombing. The source of the threat isn't specified, or ultimately important, at least as far into the game as I reached before giving up, which I did after 145 minutes.
Ollie's ambitious design supports all of the students independently. You can talk to them, order them about separately and have them act as the instruments of puzzle solving for you, which is necessary because the attack has left you too weak to perform any dexterity-demanding tasks. To successfully marshal them to help you help them rescue each other is the kind of feat which will convince you that you could organise a team of green berets. But with great mechanics must come greater implementation. The tools the game gives the player to do what is being asked of them are underpowered, and there are a lot of bugs and oversights. Also, I don't consider it acceptable to have a parser game say things like: "If that command didn't work, please enter it again," or "It looks like you've completed that part of the walkthrough, but I'm not sure." My guess is the author ran out of development time before IFComp.
Detailed discussion with spoilers ahead:
The layout and presentation of the school building has a realistic logic and a pleasing adventure game aesthetic in terms of the distribution of remarkable features. The descriptions depict a school environment for little kids through an adult's eyes. The teacher's observations on the naff posters and simplistic kiddie artworks express light cynicism, but his subsequent earnest interactions with the kids show how he can compartmentalise adult thoughts.
The game is good at introducing new gameplay mechanics, sometimes through cueing in the prose and sometimes through explicit help messages. And there are a lot of mechanics: SHOUTing to locate kids, THINKing about people or topics, ASKing kids about people or topics, and ordering kids to perform actions. Kids can be spoken to from up to a room away, made to follow you around, or to collect and use various props. They also have different personalities and fears that you need to manage, and these are a source of cute and touching observations of the kids' personalities, as well as a source of puzzles.
The interplay of all of these elements is particularly complex in light of the game's microscopic-leaning scale. The children don't react to broad commands, only to specific ones like SAMIR, GO WEST. ASHLEY, PUSH THE MAT NORTH. TYRONE, GET THE YARDSTICK. In turn, you are limited in being able to have only two children follow you at any particular time, and that each of those children can only carry realistic amounts of equipment.
I am not of the school of players who universally reject inventory limits. In terms of generating interesting logistical challenges, I think Ollie's limits are clever ones, but the trouble for this game is that the number of commands required to try out even a moderately novel puzzle solution can be huge. You need to muster the right children in the right locations, have them carrying the right things, then find the right commands. If your idea doesn't work out, it will probably take at least twice as many commands to undo everything that has been done and to redo it in a slightly different way. The problems of logistical optimisation currently comprise the game's major challenge. And again, I don't oppose this per se. Such challenges can be satisfying to solve, leading the player to a deep engagement with the gameworld. But the player has to be able to have great faith in the reliability of the game's feedback if they're not to feel that they're in danger of wasting their time. Ollie did not generate that faith in me.
I hit all kinds of bugs and problems during play. The prose made incorrect assumptions about what knowledge I had acquired so far, characters spoke out of turn or from out of earshot, crucial conversation topics didn't register, vital items weren't mentioned in room descriptions, mid-puzzle feedback failed to suggest I was making progress.
Bugs and oversights can be fixed, though in the meantime the game much harder than need be and a frustrating vision of what it could be. I think the trickier issue lies in the realm of speculation. Inform has technology in place that would allow Ollie to dispense with a lot of its micromanagement. I can imagine a version of the game in which children can be told to go to rooms, or to collect a particular item and return, etc., with single commands. I'm sure this would be extremely challenging to program, but I believe it could be done, and would eliminate all of the time and hard slog currently involved in trying to execute ideas which aren't necessarily complicated, but which require tons of commands and perhaps gritted teeth to even broach. The result would be a different game – not massively different, in fact the core design would remain the same – but that game would not present the extreme optimisation problems the current one does. Atop it all, the current game admits to the player that it doesn't understand its own state.
The House at the End of Rosewood Street is a mysterious, strange and significantly imperfect adventure in which you play a caretaker to the residents of a suburban street. The residents all chip in to keep you housed (note that your house is not the one at the end of the street) and in return you run errands for them and deliver the newspaper each day. When I say deliver, I do mean deliver. You have to navigate right up to the door of each house, knock on the door and then GIVE NEWSPAPER TO (recipient). The game describes itself as "An exploration of the uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic" but I suspect many players will bail out early on the deliberately repetitious, sparse or tedious tasks the caretaker protagonist must perform, rather than continue to squint their eyes at the suburban grass in hopes of perceiving the promised strangeness. I don't think this game is optimally designed, and the distribution and delivery of some of its weirder content is quite out of balance, but I think it does eventually succeed in generating a feeling of mysterious inevitability, thanks in part to its grinding qualities.
Spoilers increasing ahead, and ultimately I talk about the end of the game.
Something I noticed immediately in Rosewood is that while there are plenty of long descriptions of houses, none of the houses' features are implemented. The game's fob-off message to anything it doesn't understand is "What would Theo think?" (Theo is a neighbour) or "What would the neighbours think?" etc. This looks ill-considered, at least if you haven't read the HELP first, which includes a polite sort of disclaimer amounting to a direction on how to play the game. In other words, it tells you that little details aren't implemented, but also that they aren't important for this story. This info is too important to be left as the optional read it is.
Your street has a pleasingly logical arrangement, meaning that once you're a little familiar with the layout, it's easy to wing your way towards a particular neighbour you need to see or to be reminded of where they live. The caretaker has at least eight newspapers to deliver each day. This means that over the week of the game, the player will have to take at least 56 strolls and knock on at least 56 doors to deliver at least 56 newspapers. That's quite a stunning amount of what most players would consider drudgery. The game obviously has a point with all this, which is to emphasise the sameness of your routine and to also make you keenly aware of any variations in it, but the author could easily have inserted many more "carrots" throughout these sequences to keep player interest up. The way it is, the neighbours say and do the same things in response to your rounds almost every day, and their requests that you run errands for them or repair their broken watches and such are relatively scarce.
Each night you retreat to your house to sleep and to dream. These dreams are relatively wack, featuring a parade of talking cats and endlessly transforming symbolic objects. They're so loaded with archetypal dream imagery and non-sequiturial dialogue that they end up conveying nothing because they could convey anything. I like the structure of having a dream each night, but I think that the prose content of the dreams is the element of this game that is most off.
A source of narrative content that you can grab onto is an ongoing story in each day's newspaper about the disappearance of one Lisa Kaiser, the governor's daughter. When I was playing the game and noticed that an Elisabeth (with an S) had materialised in a house in Rosewood Street one day, I wondered if this might be the missing Lisa. Elisabeth was dissatisfied with my repairs to her broken mirror and disappeared the next day. Alarmingly, the newspaper reported that a groundskeeper had been arrested for her murder. Was this me? I delivered the newspapers as usual that day and nobody reacted any differently. The week concluded with me dining with and then joining in bed the mysteriously charismatic stranger who moved into The House at the End of Rosewood Street at the beginning of the week, and who'd made appearances in my dreams. Since I had virtuously delivered a zillion newspapers over the previous seven days to reach this point, I was quite tense about what I might finally discover. What happened was that I woke up again, and the content of the new day's paper indicated that I was back at the start of the week, as did the now empty bin where my discarded newspapers had been piling up.
Had my life become some kind of circling mental limbo created by myself to protect me from the reality of my murderous actions, if they were mine? That's one of the better explanations I've come up with; the game is highly resistant to concrete interpretation. Its unyielding nature is strangely satisfying to me in retrospect, in the sense that I would have hated to have arrived at an extremely pat explanation for all of this weirdness. But even for the game to achieve this effect – which I can easily imagine a lot of IFComp players didn't experience due to boredom – it barely justified the huge amount of unvarying repetition involved in playing it, nor the nebulous dream content. Still, it has a conceptual weirdness that I'll remember, though I'm unlikely to want to actually play it again.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)
Trapped in Time is a fun and novel CYOA game which operates not on a computer but on paper, either real paper if you print out the PDF file which comprises the game or on the virtual pages of the PDF itself. It is divided up into numbered paragraphs as per a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, and whenever you make a decision you will be told to turn to a particular paragraph. I played the game just by paging back and forth through the document in a PDF reader, a method which had the added convenience of enabling me to take notes by copying and pasting chunks of prose into a TextEdit document. Unless you have a very good memory you'll need notes to stay abreast of the game's trickery, and that trickery leads to an outcome I found strangely moving.
While Trapped in Time's prose has the clear, enthusiastic and kid-friendly style of one of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books, four-letter words and a bit of violence do make appearances later in the game.
In Trapped in Time you play a newly minted Chrononaut, a time travel test pilot, the best in Denmark, and you're about to enter the Copenhagen Institute of Chronology for your first time trip. After you step into the time machine, sparks fly and you find yourself back at the start of the day, standing outside the Copenhagen Institute of Chronology again and actually reading the same numbered paragraphs as before. The difference this time is that you've been informed that you can tell people about your strange experience by adding 30 to the number of the paragraph in which you first speak to them, and reading that paragraph instead. This is the first of a good number of such math-powered mechanisms for taking new actions you'll acquire during Trapped in Time, hence the need to take notes.
These addition / subtraction / multiplication tricks were used by the authors of various Fighting Fantasy game books throughout the 1980s. For instance in Phantoms of Fear (1987) if you saw an asterisk at the start of a paragraph, you could move into a dream state by adding a certain amount to the paragraph number. However, the Fighting Fantasy books were much larger than Trapped in Time and had many other mechanisms at work. Trapped exclusively uses the maths tricks, and uses them more than than any other individual gamebook has before. Of course, it's also fairly novel in using them in the service of a time traveller's loop.
The time travel concept and the overturning of staples of CYOA are played out on many levels here in a way that speaks to adults like myself who grew up on these gamebooks. The earlier stages of Trapped in Time treat you more like a child reader and occasionally invite you to write your name in the book. But as your time stream becomes more messed up and your character becomes more stressed, he starts swearing and opportunities for violence arise. The more exciting of the two endings to the game declares that your ability to travel in time is a form of cheating (I.E. reading paragraphs you weren't told to read) and that you really could have turned to any of the paragraphs at any time, and can do so now. You can use this power to find easter egg endings which are never referenced in the text of the main story.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)
Coloratura is an outstanding parser-driven adventure in which you play an aqueous alien entity (or more gauchely, a blob) capable of interacting with the universe on a rich metaphysical level; part psionic, part molecular, part empathic. Unfortunately you've been dragged up from your seabed home by a crew of humans not unlike those in The Abyss and placed on a table in their ship for research purposes. Your goal is to escape and find a way to return to your home, and it is in your nature to seek to do so without inducing unnecessary violence or discordance in the universe.
The primary aesthetic is the viewpoint of the alien, rendered in a grammatically strange style and with invented words and unusual uses of tense and person. Your character is preoccupied both with the atomic joys of the universe, its magnetic fields, temperatures and viscosities, and with the emotions and empathies of other beings, which it perceives as coloured auras. You also have the power to try to affect others' emotions by instilling them with the corresponding colour, and many of the game's puzzles involve interpreting the panicking humans' emotional states, which the blob is very good at, and nudging them to alter the situation aboard the ship in your favour.
This is an excellent game with many levels of engagement and innovation, plus puzzles and suspense, and which exploits a lot of possibilities unique to text gaming. This is Lynnea's third time in IFComp and I think it's her best game yet. Spoilers ahead.
There is a delight in sharing the blob's way of seeing and feeling things, in mingling your particles with those of a column of hot air or slipping through vents and pipes. Your ability to keep these sensations separate from your apprehension of the drama of the human crew, who are freaking out about your escape, conveys your alien character's holistic view of existence. While you're always aware of the urgency of the different tasks which must be completed to aid your escape, you're incapable of feeling the panic yourself. These tasks include sabotaging elements of the ship so it doesn't stray too far from your home or persuading crew members to help each other. And viewed from your outsider perspective, the humans are extremely panicky. You almost feel as if you're trying to placate bickering children at times.
The game's modelling is strong, with the different crew members (sometimes named by you for their emotional qualities - E.G. 'Mercy' is the nurse) moving around the ship independently in response to your various transgressions. It's not always necessary to follow them on their errands but in most cases you can do so if you wish. At times when they come to blows and you need to calm them down, the actions to take are well clued by both the situation and the prose. Another achievement of the game is that the human drama is so dense. There is a suspenseful development of different crises aboard the ship over the course of the game and you're usually aware of each human's motives and movements in relation to them. I was reminded a little of Infocom's Suspended here by the way you have to negotiate burgeoning disasters remotely.
In the way of nitpicks, there are a decent number of bugs in the game, but almost all of them are down at a level of fine detail which doesn't obstruct core play. For instance, some commands produce responses worded for the blob at times when you're controlling a human. I hit one runtime error which didn't stop play, though in retrospect I wonder if it corrupted the next game I saved, which would not reload. Something which isn't necessarily a bug but which I would like to see changed is that the command LOOK takes a move. There are several occasions where timing of actions is critical, especially during the climactic fight involving the ship's captain, and at such times you'll instinctively LOOK to remind yourself of any features in the immediate environment which could help you, and probably die as a result. Having to remember not to do that and to scroll back through the history was annoying.
As an Inform author, I was interested to see that this game uses only one extension (a small code library which adds a particular piece of functionality to your game). I usually break out about ten extensions before I've gone anywhere, but I didn't notice any inconveniences here. If anything, the game is pro-convenience. Occasionally it reaches into that territory where it makes the taking of a particular abstract action so easy that grizzled parser veterans like myself will get stuck as they try to achieve the action by performing unnecessary constituent actions, even though the master phrase to use is right there in the last piece of prose the game spat out. Apart from the fact of the traditional player base not being used to such helpfulness and therefore often missing it, this is a direction I'd personally like more parser games to go in where it's appropriate.
I confess that I didn't really get the implications of the epilogue, which is playable, but that's my only beef with the game's content. Coloratura is a top-notch sci-fi adventure with an engaging story, vividly realised character viewpoint and a concept which is likely to refresh your batteries on the subject of empathy.
I didn't know who John Napier was before I played this game, and didn't research him until after. He was a noted sixteenth century mathematician with religious and occult interests. The occult angle is the launching point for this parser-based adventure in which the player takes on the role of Napier's assistant in a treasure hunt of sorts.
Napier's Cache is effective and uncomplicated. Simple puzzles are a vehicle for the evocation of servant-filled historical atmospheres, with locations such as the eccentric mathematician's quarters and a windswept Scottish castle. The PC, also a servant of sorts, is observant and resourceful, and views his master through a lens of dependable but arms-length loyalty. NPCs range from dim guards to blustery lords, and the social stratosphere is conveyed by the way the high-ranking characters deliver orders and exposition while 'the help' actually interact with or help the PC. The implementation of the characters is solid enough for each one's purpose.
The game potentially feels a bit short, but this is a sign that what's here is engaging. It delivers a bit of a lot of different effects – multiple locations, exploration, treasure-hunting, easy puzzling, human and animal NPCs – to create a satisfying experience.
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon the game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
This is a short (ten minutes) CYOA Twine piece about a small-minded masculinity-conscious dad, his overweight and troubled son and how they are eventually attacked by a unicorn. I can let on about the unicorn attack because it's in the blurb of the game and also strongly implied by the title in the first place. I found the experience mildly unpleasant and lacking some other resonance to sufficiently make up for that. The game has swearing, sexual content and violence.
Dad vs. Unicorn carries the fire of anger, manifest as sarcastic energy, and it uses highly crafted minimal prose which is sometimes hard to follow due to its frequent stylistic omission of the verb to be or other sentence-launching entities. This wasn't the first ten-minute Twine game I'd played brandishing the particular combination of anger, swearing, sexual politics and characters throwing their entrails around, and my reaction to each such game tends to be half instinct, and half – if I have ideas about what I think the game was on about – what I think the game was on about.
I read Dad vs. Unicorn as a short assault on traditional ideas of masculinity and how they can screw people up. You can click your way through either the dad's thoughts as he prepares a manly BBQ or his son's thoughts as he looks for his dad around the house. The dad's recollections show how boxed in he is in his thoughts and how disappointed he is in his unmasculine son. The son's recollections are a series of vignettes about being embarrassed or shamed. Both stories lead to the encounter with the unicorn, who kills someone, and you get to pick who dies. After those two experiences you can play from the unicorn's point of view, where you discover that he's not just literally a dickhead, but figuratively one, too. Hypermasculinity leads only to stupid destruction, perhaps?
The dad has only small thoughts and appears to have stopped evolving completely, which obviously isn't impossible, but makes me feel that the pervading angriness is the game's main point, since games in which you can choose which person to play usually use that opportunity to let you experience varying perspectives.
The act of writing about this game showed me I took more from it than I thought I did, but it felt too much like having one angry note yelled at me.
* I wrote the following review of Final Girl for my blog upon the game's initial IFComp 2013 release. The game is no longer available for tech reasons, and may not become available in its original form again, so I've left this review 100% as I originally wrote it. I'm not sure that there are/were any specific solutions to the game that could be 'spoiled' by what I've written, but that said, this review looks extensively at the content and mechanics.
Final Girl is a highly innovative horror-thriller delivered via the StoryNexus platform. The player takes on the role of a teen girl who must identify a masked staple gun(!) killer in the wake of a cabin-in-the-woods-vacation massacre of her friends. I haven't played anything quite like Final Girl before, and while some of that will be down to me never having used StoryNexus before either, it's also clearly down to the game itself. I've not seen a game manage horror genre microscopy like this before, with stats like Squick, Terror, Exertion and Badassery. You even need to manually control your out-of-of-control breathing. The whole thing is framed as a slasher flick, and there are some touches of meta level commentary, but they don't come at the expense of the effect of the core story. As it is tense and gruelling to be the final girl in a horror film, it is tense and gruelling to make your way through this game. This is why I find the author's 'send up' description in one of his blurbs (though not the other, and I prefer the other) somewhat off target.
(The other day I read that a term emerging to describe a variety of ironic storytelling less aggressive and more affectionate than postmodernism's is 'metamodernism', but since I've only heard it once, I'd best not harp on it.)
It may be possible to complete Final Girl in under two hours but I died at around the two hour mark, then accidentally conceded my death, losing all my progress. Well, I'm pretty sure I lost it. The trouble with StoryNexus is that there isn't one piece of freaking documentation for players. While working out how to play was a broadly intuitive experience, finer points like 'Is there an undo? Can I save? Do I need to save?' were all left blowing in the wind. Maybe some veterans can chime in here.
The upshot is that Final Girl is a substantial game with some demanding elements, and it might take you to the two-hour mark or beyond. You'll also need to create a StoryNexus account or log in via Facebook or Twitter to be able to play. It's absolutely worth doing these things, unless you hate horror, because this is an unusual and surprising game. It also has an attractive visual style and an effective audio soundtrack. And more than once it says: "You no longer have any of this: 'staples in your face'". Low level spoilers ahead.
The term Final Girl, describing the lone female survivor at the end of many a horror film, was coined by Carol Clover in her book of horror film criticism "Men, women and Chainsaws". When Final Girl, the game, started with what appeared to be the final scene of a slasher film, I was disappointed with both of the trajectories I anticipated. I thought that either (a) the game was going to cut away from this final scene back to the very start of the story, one of my least favourite filmmaking devices, or (b) the game was just going to be really short and end then and there.
The first surprise of Final Girl was that neither of these things happened. The scene ended with the apparent death of the bad guy, but then the debriefing just kept going until a new investigatory story began. And this story becomes the game, interspersed with flashbacks to the prior story which led to the first scene. So the game's title is a good one. Final Girlness is normally a state acquired by a film's end. In this game, you begin as the final girl, fully formed and already possessed of a degree of savvy – which you'll need because as you'd expect, the killer isn't really dead, and you need to work out who he or she is.
StoryNexus play is based around cards. In Final Girl, these represent locations you can explore. To play certain locations you'll need to have already played particular cards, acquired certain items or set certain stats. Conditions like these can also apply to actions which might appear on the screen. To be able to move, you might need to rest to lower exertion. To do something particularly cringeworthy, like examine a corpse, your Squik level might first need to be reduced, or you might need to take a deep breath to reduce your fright levels. This micromanagement is a good match for the minutiae of horror films the game is simulating, because they're all about microscopic detail: a foot trying to not squeak on the floor, someone hiding in a closet trying to hold their breath, a door handle being turned as slowly as possible, etc. In response to your decisions, the game produces a ceaseless and fascinating parade of cards, badges, icons, skill updates and status reports. If you get better at something like using a pair of pliers, you'll be told exactly how you just got better at using them, whether you learned from fumbling or whether you learned how to wield them with sweaty hands.
Amidst all of this mechanical fun there's still a mystery which needs solving. You went to the cabin by the lake for a vacation with a dozen friends. Where are they now, and is any one of them the masked killer? Flashback scenes round out your relationship with each of these horror archetype teens. So much of this game comes in short stabs of prose, but these slightly longer memories are well written and do a little for each character. They also allow you to act upon the knowledge gained from them back in the present.
The lone element of Final Girl I disliked was the ubiquity of the killer. He (or she or it) attacks you again and again as you explore, and it's a time-consuming and no-gain encounter each time. This kind of ongoing harassment of the player is a pretty common stress tactic in horror games, but it's not handled well here. I suspect its random occurrence rate has been set too high, and similarly, too much of the encounter itself is down to 50/50 luck. That said, it is kind of StoryNexus to either explicitly tell you the odds of success of an action you're about to take or to give you a broad estimate of your chances in words (EG 'nearly impossible').
Dying and accepting your death leads to a game over screen with a movie review assessment of your playing style. This is the most overt display of the game's meta film material, though there are scattered in-game jokes as well. However, Final Girl walks the walk so well, the commentary comes across mostly as a fun addition. The game's act of quoting so many slasher films in its performance is its major gesture, a much stronger communication delivered at a more fundamental level. This is an excellent horror game with a sense of fun, but which doesn't skimp on tension or grizzliness either. It's got a few grindy elements, but with the exception of the repetitive run-ins with the stalker, I think they help make the experience what it is.
The Paper Bag Princess is a short Z-code adventure in which you play a beautiful royal lass whose beloved is snatched up by a dragon during her wedding, and who then sets out to get him back. When I reviewed the game in my IFComp blog of 2013, I quizzed its design extensively. Very extensively! It turns out that the answer to almost all the numerous questions I rhetorically asked is: "This point is only explained in the book upon which this game is based, or depicted in an illustration in that book." Therefore, the summary of my review is that The Paper Bag Princess is only for people who have read the eponymous book by Robert Munsch. To consider, spoilingly, what the game may be like through the eyes of someone who hasn't read that book (me in 2013, and still me today) you may read on.
Quoth me in 2013:(Spoiler - click to show) I found The Paper Bag Princess to be a curiously toneless game, but it has a few amiable moments. The basic idea is of a mild subversion of the prince-rescues-the-princess story, but this idea is never played up all that much in either the dialogue or in the small inventory of actions the princess will take in the course of the rescue. The role reversal idea could be played for laughs, but isn't, really. The before and after scenes of the wedding lean in the direction of black comedy, what with the contrast between the storybook wedding and the charred field of burning furniture the dragon replaces it with, but I thought the writing didn't sell the contrast strongly enough to deliver an effect.
I didn't really get the choice of puzzles for the game, either. Making a torch is a pretty basic adventure game kind of task. I found it strangely difficult to do in The Paper Bag Princess, in spite of the heroine being conspicuously surrounded by scenery and objects which should have made it easy: smoking ground, burning chair legs, a stick, a vial of oil. All the game wanted was for me to type 'make torch', but the wide range of alternative commands I tried as I attempted to make any of these props interact with one another in a fire-producing way were either not understood, or prompted a "You've got the right idea" message. I think the game should have leapt from giving such a nudge to just saying: "Ok, you do such-and-such and go on to successfully make a torch."
Then there were a couple of quotes from classic adventure games; the PLUGH command and a twisty tree maze to navigate. The walkthrough reads apologetically in the case of the latter, just saying: "the maze is entirely random... sorry!" My question is: Why include these in this game? The Paper Bag Princess doesn't seem to derive any particular meaning from recalling the specifics of old games. It's not a pastiche or in the style of, or saying these were good or bad or anything. These features just appear, unremarked upon in any way, and then it's on to the next puzzle.
The final puzzle of outwitting the dragon at least makes sense on the game's own terms. This ostensibly powerful beast is shown to be easily outwitted, a staple gag of much fantasy and classic storytelling. Doing so involves guessing a couple of topics using one of my least favourite IF mechanics - ask (so-and-so) about (topic). If the classic "guess the verb" problem in IF is about knowing what you want to say to the parser but being unable to say it, I would describe the problem of having to come up with the correct topic to ask a character about as a worse problem in which you potentially don't even know what you want to say in the first place. This is a traditional rant for me which I need to deliver about twice a year and have now delivered here. It's not a problem unique to The Paper Bag Princess.
Mostly I just wanted The Paper Bag Princess to start throwing its eggs into some particular baskets. It could have delivered really strongly on the character of the princess, but she doesn't get to say much and the tone of the prose is too often neutral. The role reversal gag isn't played up. The nature of the tasks the princess performs doesn't say much about either her character or the gameworld. The paper bag she dons is not talked up. I don't get why things like PLUGH and a twisty maze were chosen for inclusion, unless the intent was to quote old games while being subversive about the kinds of things you'd often do in them - but this game isn't very subversive.
This review has probably read heavily for a game this light. It's not that I believe people can or have to be able to explain every choice they make as they create something. But considering the smallness of this game, the author doesn't seem to have made choices that aim it in any particular direction. The result is too flavourless for me, and that's why find myself wondering about all those choices so much.
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
Mark Marino's entry into IFComp 2012, the one preceding the one in which he entered Mrs Wobbles, was The Living Will, a curious Undum game which I didn't really get. Mrs Wobbles is a far more vivid and transparent affair, a pro-reading, episodic and illustrated adventure tale aimed at younger readers (7-11 it says) and again delivered with Undum. While there is a fair bit to read here, it turns out that this game is also an introductory one, with more episodes potentially to come in future. Folks have entered introductions into IFComp before, and while I don't think there's any rule against doing so (and Wobbles is voluble, not a tiny tease) it's just in its nature that the Wobbles we're being presented with in IFComp has some of the density of a novel without the payoffs of a novel. I also find it hard to gauge how hooky it might be for those future episodes, but I'm not the core audience. Mrs Wobbles feels to me like the opening of an attractive e-novel for tablets. Interactivity is mostly at the level of deciding in which order to read things, and while this area isn't of much personal interest to me, when I consider the overall quality level of the project I think most players will find something to like here. Some may find a lot.
I think the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books by Lemony Snicket were probably a big influence on the tone of Wobble's prose, and probably more than an influence on its specific content. The protagonists are fostered siblings, their parents died in a mysterious fire and when the game begins, they're going to live in a weird house with a strange adult. The narrator is a magical talking book which can insert whimsical asides into the prose of a kind we'd be hard pressed to get from child protagonists. Production values are consistently high. The game includes some superb woodcut / etching / lithograph style illustrations. The prose is pretty good at any point and you can have it read out to you from author-made recordings. This also means that the speech feature is platform and software independent, and kid-friendly.
What I'm unsure about is how satisfying the scope of this introduction is. It's an introduction for the characters and the setting of the house, but there's no real story vector in place for either of these elements yet, as good as they are. The brother protagonists have a cute rapport, and the fussy girl they meet later, Mildred, is a good foil for them. The house is full of magical rooms and fantastic machinery which may be of use in the future. I suppose the experience of Wobbles is like being introduced to Hogwarts via an explicit tour but then having the book end suddenly. It may be safer to make a self-contained and expositional starting adventure, but it's probably less interesting than throwing players/readers into a story which sets up some plot hooks and mysteries. In the end, my to-ing and fro-ing about Wobbles comes down to the fact that this is an introduction competing in a venue not particularly suited to introductions.
(The original version of this review was split over two blog posts I wrote upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
Dream Pieces is a friendly-feeling bedroom adventure of word puzzling delivered via the Quest platform. It has semi-rhyming (and semi-straining) prose and some nods towards helpful production values – for instance you can choose whether the presentation is delivered to suit a desktop computer, a tablet or a mobile phone. The goal in Dream Pieces is to manipulate domestic objects in your bedroom to create tools and methods to further manipulate domestic objects in your bedroom, but it's more fun that I just made it sound. Tools can split the names of objects into constituent letters which can then be rearranged to create new props. The game uses some features of Quest well, like being able to right click a wordlet, click 'Mix', then click the thing you want to mix it with from a menu.
When I initially apprehended this mechanic, I felt my interest prickling, and since the game gives the impression of being easy enough for a child to complete, what with its child-like font and enthusiastic outlook, I figured I was about to power through the whole thing for some simple satisfaction. I ended up abandoning my first playthrough due to a moment of inflexibility that I mistook for a bug. Other IFCompers cleared me up on this point and brought it to my attention that there was a colour-related mechanism in play that I hadn't noticed. I then powered through to victory like I'd thought I'd been about to the first time. The game has apparently been significantly updated since I played its original incarnation.
Dream Pieces certainly offers easy word-chopping for an adult but would probably be more outwardly satisfying for a kid. It was also the first word game I'd seen released for the Quest platform, and it came out after a year that birthed a decent number of sophisticated word games in IFdom.
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
100,000 years is a sci-fi Twine piece about galactic-sized spans of time. It is easily worth any comp-goer's time to try as it is very short. I almost said "ironically very short," but that would have been silly as the smallness/largeness thing is obviously a feature.
The goings-on in a chunk of the universe are described in a few lines of verse. Clicking the left arrow takes you 100,000 years into the past while the right arrow takes you the same distance into the future. Changes over that time period are then described, but the arrows remain, ready to move you forward or backward again. The result is a tiny existential text toy. What you discover if you go far enough in either direction is equally likely to make you feel more a part of the universe or just less significant. The achievement of 100,000 years is that it can touch on those feelings quickly and with such a simple device, though the whole piece is definitely short-lived.
In 1984, Usborne published Island of Secrets, a fantasy text adventure not delivered as software, but as a book enabling players to generate the program themselves by typing its BASIC listing into their computer. The book doubles as an illustrated reference to the world of the game, containing the background story, character and location guides, coded hints and a map. The game’s prose and engine are so sparse that the book comprises at least half the experience, making it considerably more fundamental to the accompanying game than, say, Infocom feelies are to Infocom games. The story concerns Alphan, a young scholar tasked with collecting objects of power in order to restore a war-darkened Earth.
The Island of Secrets book was a great inspiration to me when I was a kid. The illustrations have a lot of mood and character, the allusions to all the mysteries in the game’s world are intriguing, and the book is full of footnotes about text adventure design and programming. I had to take considerably more from the book than from the game because I never succeeded in getting the game running; I made too many mistakes while typing it in. I was in my twenties before I found a working copy on a public domain disk.
The main reason the book is so essential to playing Island of Secrets is that at least half the findable objects in the game are only cued by their appearance in the book’s illustrations. Island has about sixty locations, but is limited in its overall capabilities by having to support such a wide range of microcomputers out of the box (the Apple II, the C64, the VIC-20, the BBC, etc.). This means the whole thing has to sit and function in about 32kb of RAM after a single load. There’s no space left to hold descriptions of most objects, or to describe or implement scenery that could conceal those objects. All of that work and more is passed off to the illustrations and clues in the book. Mercifully, by holding the back page of the book up to a mirror, a player can obtain the short list of supported verbs and nouns.
Technically, the gameworld’s sophistication is above the level you’d expect from an adventure that presents itself mostly using the Scott Adams aesthetic. There’s a food and drink system, random events such as a storm, and characters who can move around. The characters have histories and motivations detailed in the source book. Amongst them are a Charon-like boatman, a scavenger who’s lost his memory, a depressed swampman and a missing scholar. You need to consult the book to guess at what might variously turn these people into allies, get them out of your path or help you defeat them. The particular solutions the game wants in these departments can be a tad abstract. While the source material is rich, the feedback delivered by the necessarily lean game program is poor. In this respect, Island of Secrets is definitely a story and a game whose visions seriously outpace its game engine. If I’d got it running back in the day, I can see that it would still have been a challenge to complete (without cheating) due to its sparseness, but I might have had the patience for it. In revisiting the game for this review, I was momentarily saddened to acknowledge I no longer have the time or patience. I used a walkthrough.
In its time, the Island of Secrets book provided a way to deliver to kids an adventure game with a deeper story than a BASIC program alone could normally pull off while teaching those kids about programming and game design. As a kid in the relevant demographic, I found all of the related Usborne books exceptional at doing these things, and official versions of them all have now been released as free PDFs. (scroll down on the target page):
Island of Secrets – along with The Mystery of Silver Mountain, Usborne’s other major type-in game presented using the same book and BASIC program combination – now seem unique in the way they’re meant to be experienced. That said, that way did grow out of necessities presented by the limitations of BASIC and the computer hardware of the time. IF players still seem to like feelies, so maybe there’s some weird mine of book-game interdependence that could be retapped for a new project today.
(I give the Island of Secrets book five stars in any year. As a text adventure played today, I can only give Island of Secrets two stars.)
Awake the Mighty Dread takes place in a fantasy dreamworld fuelled by Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the aesthetic of steampunk. It's got orphans, air travel, capricious NPCs ranging in scale from an amphibian to a deity, and a reverence for storybooks. And all that in a smallish game. It's alluded to that its orphan protagonist slips away to the dreamworld in order to avoid abuse back in the real world, but the social system in the dreamworld turns out to be a troubled one, too. The heroine's spiky curiosity about what's going on there is well written, and provides motivational fuel for the player in a game which turns out to be not very good at signalling progress through it.
Awake is actually the IF dimension of a larger project by its author which can be found at
However, the game was basically presented as a standalone entity in the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. Exploring the rest of the project might thicken Awake's backstory, but I doubt it would actually help in the playing of Awake for reasons to be enunciated in this review.
Awake received mixed reviews when it appeared in IFComp. My own private review (for other game authors that year) began:
"Since people have been saying that they found this baffling, I secretly patted myself on the head for not being baffled."
So, I liked the overall experience more than most, but the game's delivery is clearly a failing one. In spite of the author's writerly prose and obvious knowledge of some advanced parser conceits, the game exhibits no awareness of how to steer a player through its contents via the parser. Location descriptions are aesthetically pleasing but player-insensitive, with almost none of their interesting features implemented. The features that are implemented are there to service plot points in a story that only seems threadable in retrospect. Trying to make the story happen yourself with the game's minimal direction and tech oversights is futile-leaning, and so the game's solution file is essential.
In the case of contemporary IF, I have low tolerance for being involved with walkthrough/hint systems unless they're really well considered. I also have design philosophy qualms about some games I consider to be impossible without a walkthrough. Awake bypassed my concerns in these areas because it's an interesting failure of an accessible kind. Reconsidering it five years down the track, I'd say it's definitely of more interest to people who create IF games than it is to player-players. In this capacity, it's substantial enough not to feel too small or inconsequential, but still small enough not to feel like a time burglar in spite of its black box implementation.
That black box is actually the point of interest; playing Awake feels like trying to build a Lego model without being able to see your hands. A lot of interconnecting prose seems to be absent in this game. There's a train you start out on, and which automatically travels from station to station, and there's an effect whereby you can see what station you're at out the window. But the descriptions within and without can be indistinguishable. Being on a train in a location can be the same as just being in the location – until the train moves, of course. Similarly, objects sometimes appear 'painted on' in room descriptions, and stay there even after you've taken them. NPCs speak at appropriate moments but don't show up as prose entities when they're not speaking. It's hard to tell when conversations have ended, or if the conversants are still about. Finally, the most important action you must take in the whole game is unguessable, and deliverable as a command in a form that only hardcore parser folk would be aware of. Collectively, these sophisticated-leaning bugs at the coalface of interactivity suggest the author had strong familiarity with parser games but didn't run Awake through a sufficiently typical or robust group of playtesters.
I find the story in Awake interesting, and the game succeeds in feeling like a window onto a larger fantasy world, but in the end its technical oddities render it mostly a curio for parser nerds. Its contents can't be unspooled easily the way the contents of the famous stories it most emulates can. The site of the obstacles is its interactivity.
Drax... Who or what is or was he or she?
When I first completed this game by Paul Allen Panks, I still didn't know. But a couple of days' worth of Commodore 64 BASIC hacking later, I had unearthed the answer. I feel confident in venturing, for reasons which will soon become apparent, that at this time of writing I am the only player on earth to have completed Drax other than its author. And I can't even guarantee that the author did play through his own game, for reasons which will also soon become apparent.
Note that this review is extensive and therefore amounts to a complete spoiler of the game. I hide nothing behind spoiler tags.
I first heard about Paul Panks and his games when I played Ninja's Fate, Hannes Schueller's eulogy to the late game author. I then read numerous reviews of Paul's numerous games, most of which expressed a combination of bewilderment, infuriation and plain old fury at the games' apparent wonkiness. The reviews' tone of hair-pulling was often hilarious to me. I also read some of Paul's refutations to such reviews, and his notes on his own games on his website, and I knew that I would have to try one or more of his games myself.
I am pretty au fait with the Commodore 64, so as a starting place I plucked from the archives Paul's last Commodore game, Drax, from 2005. The experience of playing this game turned out to be amusing in most of the ways I'd expected, but also stimulating in ways I hadn't. Some bold features are spread out over 75 rooms of a fantasy RPG adventure in such a way that many of them would never be seen by the average player, nor do they need to be seen or experienced to complete the game. In this sense, the game's structure is kind of ridiculous. But if it wasn't for this curiosity-inducing weirdness, I wouldn't have been motivated to become intimately acquainted with Drax in the way I did.
When the game begins, you get to name your character, then you find yourself loitering in a tavern which opens onto a village square with a well in it. I've read that this is a common starting point for many of Panks's games. There was no introductory text suggesting what my goal might be, so I just started looking around. Upstairs of the tavern I found a bedroom with some typical adventurer's supplies in it; weaponry and a lantern.
My problems began after I picked up the lantern. When I tried to leave the room, I was told "You need to light the lantern first." This didn't make a whole lot of sense, since I had entered the room by a normally lit corridor. When I tried to light the lantern, I was told "You can't light that here."
Faced with this impossible paradox, I ditched the lantern so as to avoid being trapped in this tavern bedroom for eternity, grabbed the bowieknife (sic) and went outside. I found some townsfolk nearby and, out of curiosity, tried to murder them. Each one of them beat me to death in turn. The bard, the villager, even the priest. Combat consists of a bunch of you hit / they missed messages which you must page through by pressing a key every time the game says <MORE>. My multiple deaths here didn't seem to bode well for my life as a hero of no particular quest. Nevertheless, I tried to proceed out of town and into the ominous looking forest.
"It's much too dark to move in that direction!" said the game.
It turns out that without the ungettable, unlightable lantern, you can't actually go anywhere in Drax. I wondered if Paul ever tried to play the latest version of his own game, which the credits page advises is 1.15?
So I hit the Commodore's BASIC prompt and dumped a listing of the game to my Mac. I disabled the three lines in the program responsible for all the darkness blocks and reloaded my saved game. This worked, and I was now able to venture into the forest.
Drax's wilderness is sizeable, mazey, and satisfying to map. It comes across more like the cross-country terrain of a MUD than the functionally-oriented environment of a personal computer text adventure. Most rooms are empty and exist only to be navigated. Geography is often realistic, but pointless in game terms, like the large stretch of mountains which contains nothing but a bunch of dead ends. I felt I was in a big world, but what was I doing in it?
I passed a few fey folk in the forest, including an elf and a hobbit, and their descriptions indicated that they were friendly, so uncharacteristically for me I didn't try to stab them. But when I saw a black knight guarding a castle gate, I knew it was time for more violence. To my amazement (having been earlier clubbed to death by a villager) I was the victor of this battle. And victory was exciting. I gained experience and gold, a level and hit points, and cool items exploded all over the ground. I wielded my newly acquired broadsword, strapped on my newly acquired chainmail and strode into the castle the knight had been guarding.
In the throne room I met Mordimar, a recurring major villain from Paul's games. Thoroughly expecting to be pulverised, I saved the game and opened fire on the guy. To my surprise, I quickly beat him to a pulp. And as Mordimar's corpse fell towards the ground, but before it actually hit the ground, what appeared to be the missing introductory text to the game suddenly spurted down the screen... then Mordimar finished falling to the ground, died, and the game proclaimed that I was the victor and wished that I should live long.
"Is that it?" I almost asked aloud. You map some empty terrain, kill two monsters and then win the game, at which point you get to read the introductory text?
Weirded out, I returned to a saved game and set out to explore the rest of the world. When I found a werewolf blocking my path in the forest, I saved the game again before engaging him in battle. This battle raged and raged. I noticed that my broadsword was starting to throw lightning bolts at my foe. Awesome! But I had to press a key to advance each round of combat, over and over again… surely I had done this at least 100 times now? We were landing blows, dodging, landing more blows, for pages and pages. Would this clash of the titans ever end? How many hit points did I have left? How many did the werewolf have, for that matter? The game wasn't telling.
My fingers were wearying, and I have enough RSI problems already, so I decided to abort the game and hack the program some more so that I wouldn't have to keep mashing keys to advance battles. With my new 'autoscroll' feature in place, I reloaded my game and went at the hairy fiend anew. I put the Commodore 64 emulator speed up to Turbo and watched the messages begin to scream past. I fiddled around in my web browser and came back six minutes later to find that neither of us had died yet.
This was a bit much, so I quit and revisited the game listing yet again to try to work out what was wrong. I found one bug, then another; unless the player wields a weapon anew after returning from a saved game, their damage roll is likely to reset to zero. And when player armour gets over 100% (which mine was by now), enemy attacks actually GIVE the player hit points.
After rewielding my weapon, I was able to start killing people again. And kill I did, as I explored the rest of the forest and an underground cavern system. There were some cool monsters down there, like a black widow, and some pretty dull ones, like a slime and a skeleton. Every time I killed something, I gained another level and more hit points, and more ridiculously overpowered items, like the ring which would regenerate all my health during every round of combat. What with my lightning-throwing broadsword and the fact that being hit actually healed me, I didn't really need such a ring this point. I also discovered that I could pick monsters up like objects and put them down wherever I liked. Typing GET MORDIMAR produces "You cannot take that." immediately followed by "Ok." And then Mordimar is in your inventory.
If this stuff had been programmed without the bugs, it would have amounted to quite a flourishy RPG system. But it wasn't programmed without the bugs, and of course in practical terms its entire existence is obviated by the fact that you can win the game by killing just two monsters, with the caveat that you must first hack the game program so that you can leave town in order to be able to reach those monsters.
And what of the mystery of Drax? I still hadn't encountered any mention of it during my many plays.
Again, I broke out the game listing and started nosing around. I discovered that the secret passage which had been revealed when I played the piano in the castle had actually opened in the ceiling of the room, and not in the floor as the game had said, and that's why my attempts to go down at that point had not succeeded. I returned to the piano room, went up through the buggy passage and found myself in a small jail area. In one cell was a book called Drax, and when I read that book, I found within it the introductory text of the game, the text I had previously read as Mordimar toppled towards the floor, the text which prophesised that I, Wade6 (your character is renamed automatically after your latest saved game) would free the land from Mordimar's tyranny. But now that this text wasn't scrolling past during combat, I was able to read the last line, which said "The next chapter is awaiting…"
And suddenly I realised why this text appears as Mordimar falls. It is because at that moment it is immediately followed by that 'next chapter', which is the triumphal game over message affirming that you fulfilled your destiny. In other words, had I picked up this book during the game, the otherwise entirely bizarre-seeming placement of the story of Mordimar during his death scene would have made sense, as it would have come across as a reiteration of the Book of Drax and its prophesy, followed by the formerly promised next chapter.
After the huge effort I had made to explore, debug and make sense of this game, and considering that I had initially laughed at the timing of the arrival, at the end of the game, of what I had previously thought of as the introductory text, I found myself smiling at the quite cool idea that Panks had come up with here about the book which writes its own end. He didn't pull it off properly, which it seems was often the case with him, but it was there.
Drax contains a fully imagined game world and system without the focus or polish needed to get players to become interested in either in any traditional sense. I am still glad to have spent my time in that world, and to feel that I have learned something about its author. Paul was obviously a messy creator, but it's also obvious that he enjoyed developing games like this one, and that he was always striving for something in them; witness his prolific output and his multiple attempts to realise whatever Westfront was ultimately intended to be. I find it easy to be inspired by the passion Paul obviously had, even as I imagine that when I try more of his games, some of them probably will turn out to be as annoying as people have said they are.
(I originally published this review on 21 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 23rd of 26 games I reviewed.)
I don't claim to have played many wordplay focused IF games before, but I loved this one. In a Manor of Speaking is an adventure beyond the Bermuda Triangle through a world ruled by puns. Lord Dashney is the evil figurehead who needs to be overthrown and you are the person who needs to do it, using only colloquial expressions and a bit of lateral thinking as your weapons.
The game's implementation in Release 3, the one I played, is very strong. Its puzzles are numerous, amusing and served by an excellent contextual hints system. The game's humourous tone and aesthetic are entirely coherent and the prose is hiccup free. In short, this level of quality is what I ideally want from every adventure in the comp. The immersion which results when every part of a game is working smoothly and the flow of words and actions is unbroken is hard to beat, and with only a few games left for me to review now, I can say that In a Manor of Speaking is the only game to have achieved such frictionless immersion for me in this competition. Therefore unless you hate wordplay (and this is a pretty user friendly version of it) I advise you, and all and sundry, to try In a Manor of Speaking.
Paradoxically, I find that this game's accessible comedy style makes it hard to discuss at length. Its meanings are consistently transparent, whether they are silly sight gags (metalheads whose heads are made out of metal), riffs on timeworn sayings (Spoiler - click to show)(the pudding which contains the proof) or misdirections (the game is full of bars, but only the first one is a metal rod). To write about the game's jokes like this makes them sound only groany, but puns are fascinating because while they do often prompt groaning or cries of "I hate puns," almost nobody genuinely hates a pun, except for people whose souls are broken and ugly as pitch. You know, people who are to be pitied. In fact most people enjoy being the opportunistic revealers of puns in conversation once in awhile. In a Manor of Speaking takes you into a world and mode of writing where the puns are so numerous that they are the source of all the meaning. This pushes them beyond the context of goofy pleasure and shame which often accompanies isolated real-life punning into a place where anyone is likely to enjoy them more freely.
I only encountered a couple of tiny bugs in the game and both were related to the object "a piece of your mind" and the kangarude. The solidity of implementation also extends to the majority of the parser's blocking messages, with idiosyncratic jokes on hand for most kinds of command rejection. The numerous instant deaths (which you can instantly back out of, as well) become something that you can easily anticipate, as a good number are attached to invitingly stupid actions, but you're likely to find that you still enjoy trying each one.
In a Manor of Speaking is a funny and engaging adventure with a lot of personality and a near seamless delivery. That last point is a clincher for me, whether a game is light, profound, transparent or opaque.
(I originally published this review on 1 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 1st of 26 games I reviewed.)
I thought that kicking off my IFComp 2012 quest with a hyperlink powered game à la howling dogs might somehow ease my brain into the gear required for the more typically strenuous parser fare to come. I was wrong; howling dogs brought the strenuous straight away. This piece is an ominous and often perplexing journey through poetic language, virtual reality-ish dreaming and shifting female roles. Beyond its subject matter, it also forced me to immediately confront a bunch of issues concerning different kinds of interactivity in text games I'd rather have put off until later. howling dogs is dynamically beautiful and writerly, but I would point out now for consumers that it is essentially not a game-state game. It's a text with many digressions and some strong aesthetic tricks. It's also pretty weird. To learn more, you may read beyond this paragraph into my more content (but not puzzle) spoiling territory.
The player's initial situation is sparse and sparsely depicted. You're trapped in some kind of quarters with a shower, food, a room whose nature screen keeps you sane, and the 'activity' room where you can go to have virtual reality experiences that aren't of your choice. By the bed is a photo of a woman you once knew. Ultimately the only thing you can do to escape each day's monotony is plug yourself into the activity room. In each of the ensuing virtual realities you seem to be a different person in a different situation, and at the conclusion of each dream you wake up back in your quarters.
The scope of the dreams (and I use the term loosely – there's no certainty that they are dreams) is wide ranging, to say the least. There's a gory phantasmagorical war produced by some entity which bends slightly to your resistance – or lack thereof – to its choice of material. There's a Zen experience involving describing a garden viewed through a paper slot. The ultimate, lavish scenario follows the growth of a prophesied empress with a bone foot.
The series of shorter dreams which come first and flit about in subject matter seem pretty resistant to interpretation on a first play, but the later and longer scenarios start to draw out a theme of the persistent and constricting roles for women which have been laid down over the ages. In one story you're Joan of Arc waiting to be burned. By the game's end you're an empress, arguably powerful but still bound to various aesthetic and behavioural expectations, deciding which masks to wear and which of various predetermined actions to take. The empress story reminded me of some of Tanith Lee's books; Vivia (about an impotent vampire princess) and Law of the Wolf Tower (the adventures of a harried quasi-princess teen). The game's final quote from John Wesley about the indefatigable evil of angels also reminded me of Lars Von Trier's film Antichrist and its concerns with myths of the perpetual evil of women.
These are my ideas and not stone, for this is plainly a game open to wide interpretation. I describe it as dynamically beautiful as it demonstrates a perfect sense of timing and flow in its aesthetics. Not just in the language but in the visual delivery of the game; the pace at which the text appears, the moments the game chooses to repeat things. Some tricks it has which are minimally visceral, like lines which fade or flicker like a broken light, weird links hidden in punctuation, deliberately blurred text. This is some of the most interesting use of this hyperlink format I've seen to date. However, I rarely found much use for the 'Rewind' link, having much more luck with my browser's 'Back' button, and occasionally the need to drag the mouse back and forth over links became laborious – particularly on one rather amazing screen which apparently leads to an alternate ending. I was unable to find that ending, but the need to repeatedly move between links in the text and the 'Back' link which kept reappearing in the corner was more than my RSI could stand.
howling dogs was a very interesting and promising introduction to this year's competition for me, and also demonstrates further innovation in the area of hyperlink pieces. The writing is fine, the dynamics excellent, the imagery clear and strange.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 5th of 26 games I reviewed.)
One of the fun things about IFComp is how the games come from all over the place. From people you know, people you know hiding behind silly names, people you don't know, tall people, short people, etc. Valkyrie is a team effort fantasy CYOA game from three students enrolled in a Game-based Learning Developmental English course this Fall semester at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs in the USA. As one of my heroes, Shaun Micallef, once said in a skit about a folk CD being sold to raise money for charity, "That makes it virtually impossible to criticise." But so long as their teacher didn't actually browbeat them into entering IFComp – and maybe even if she did – I feel like congratulating them for entering before I get to the reviewing.
The first screen of Valkyrie is weird. Several funerals are described in the third person present style of a film script. Then you're asked to choose what you have trained in: Mistress Thief, Wizardess or Swordswoman. I picked Wizardess on my first play and found myself waking to that role in a fantasy world. The PC is aware that they are dreaming, or might be dreaming, and exhibits anxiousness about finding opportunities to return to the real world, but also about doing a decent job as a Wizardess in the new world. This new world features gods from Norse mythology fighting over a magic necklace.
It turns out that each profession is its own game, presumably with each author contributing one profession. This gives three different styles and three different sets of concerns, but there's a common mythology involving the Asgard stuff, the necklace and the ongoing mini drama of whether the PC will keep helping the Asgardians or try to return home. With each game being about the same heroine, it's interesting to see what each author's version of her is like. The Wizardess is thoughtful and well mannered, though her story doesn't have paragraph breaks. The thief moves directly towards her goal in a short stealth and action tale featuring some instant deaths. The swordswoman's story is ambitious in trying to add detail to the world, with a passage about getting used to her Valkyrie wings and going on a mission (and there seem to be some Harry Potter nods about the place, too) but unfortunately it forgets to keep letting you make decisions, ending with a huge text dump.
The three games reminded me of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books in particular, which frequently started out in everyday life and transported the reader into a fantasy situation. Also like the books, the three games in Valkyrie offer a good number of large-scale choices to the player, choices which result in non-overlapping things happening in the story. This is the key to a lot of the more fun CYOA books, and I enjoyed this same quality in Valkyrie.
Perhaps this game was more interesting to think about afterwards than while playing. Its unadorned and expositional language can be wearing, but with three stories, a good number of choices for the player to make and three different versions of a common heroine trying herself out in a patchwork fantasy world, it has some kind of charm. I don't think the opening was intended to be as strange as it might seem, but that strangeness made it kind of cool, too.
(I originally published this review on 14 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 18th of 26 games I reviewed.)
J'dal, heroine of this adventure, is a dark skinned girl in a whitey D&D world. She brings moxy, wide-ranging resourcefulness and mad vision skilz to the four person team consisting of herself, her adoptive dad, Roderick the thug and Stolas the mage. You control J'dal, who narrates in the first person, as she and her mates venture into a mine looking for a magical artifact.
The content of this game is pretty ambitious, more ambitious than its author had realised, I suspect. It requires solid implementation of four characters who can work as a team or independently. The characters are supposed to be conversant on various topics and capable of responding to J'dal's suggestions/orders. They need to have their own skill sets and inventories but be able to share equipment when necessary. To get all of these features running smoothly across a whole adventure would be no minor feat, and Ryan Kinsman has done well to mobilise them in the first place, but they're mobilised only at a basic level and in a correspondingly small adventure. There are significant programming gaps throughout J'dal, and I found it to be a tough game in spite of its smallness, mostly due to the narrow range of ideas and commands which are catered for. The game that is could use a lot more work, but it's still likeable.
The characters are of above average feistiness, and they swear a lot and their team dynamic is clear, so that the strongest impression the game left on me was of their overall liveliness and interpersonal kvetchings. But there are a lot of game features that don't work as advertised: keywords that don't respond, limited conversation topics, not much puzzle clueing, inventory and scenery bugs. The dialogue typesetting is crowded and when characters follow you from room to room, the following usually goes unannounced. As a result, I mostly stuck to the walkthrough after a certain point, and the linearity of the game meant that this was easy to do.
There's a good practical feel to the adventures the characters have in J'dal, and the game's got ambition and spirit. This all bodes well for the next game from this author, but J'dal remains kind of rough.
(I originally published this review on 22 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 24th of 26 games I reviewed.)
(Tech note: This game has sound. If you play Signos online, you'll need to use the Chrome internet browser to be able to hear it.)
Oh inner peace, if only you really were that easy to find!
Signos is a game handily compressing the eternal quest for existential completeness into the compass of about ten dreamscapey locations. It sports some attractive stock photo graphics of locations and colour-changing backdrops that will probably annoy 90% of players but which I didn't mind. It also sports the occasional sound effect. Quest's hyperlink features are present on top of the parser. They are likely to add to player confusion in what is already a confusing game. English is not Signos's author's primary language and complex prose was obviously never the goal here, but the implementation of Signos is so spare that most players are likely to give up on this life quest very quickly.
The game's layout and design ought to speak at least a bit to anyone who has played a console game at some point during the last fifteen years. There's a hub room with a different "world" accessible from it by each of the cardinal compass directions. Each world is generally a single room with a resident wise man (fakir, monk, yogi, etc.) and will feature a puzzle or two. (Spoiler - click to show)Solving the puzzles gets you pages of a book reflecting the deadly sins, each acquisition accompanied by a fainting spell, and when your book is full you get access to the Zen Garden of the big man: Buddha.
This is obviously a path to enlightenment that the kids can relate to, but in reading back my own summary of the game, I recall that all of the knowledge contained therein was hard fought for. Signos understands almost no synonyms, offers minimal clues and has no descriptions for the majority of its content. Ironically, the work involved in nutting out how this game functions amounts to a better simulation of the discipline required to gain enlightenment than the symbolic actions portrayed in the game itself.
As cute as Signos's fast track to wisdom is, its symmetrical layout idea is neat, even if typical for this kind of design. It also occurs to me that if there had been a Scott Adams game circa 1980 about gaining wisdom, it would probably have represented the problem in a similar manner, just without the graphics and colours. As it stands, the potentially hammer-weight powers of Quest give the appearance of overkill to a simple game which is too raw in its current state for players to come at.
Regarding my own quest for enlightenment in Signos... (Spoiler - click to show)I did find four pages of the book under my own steam, then I took to reading other reviewers' reviews for clues. Once I had all the pages I got stuck again and let the game show me the complete walkthrough. It hadn't occurred to me to try to smash the mirror with the stone because I'd been obsessed with trying to light fires with the cross (steel) and stone (flint). My gaming abilities continued to go downhill in Buddha's garden. After guess-the-verb and inventory limit troubles, I found myself stuck in a way that the walkthrough seemed unable to remedy, and conceded defeat. I guess the path to wisdom isn't so easy to tread after all.
(I originally published this review on 6 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 9th of 26 games I reviewed.)
When I was in high school, the music students (not me) put on a production of Orpheus in the Underworld. I found this embarrassing because the cool school where my dad taught would put on normal shows like Grease and Dracula Spectacular. Anyway, I didn't go to see Orpheus then and I didn't read his story at any time in the intervening period, leaving me in a theoretically weaker than ideal position for playing Eurydice, an adventure about bereavement named for Orpheus's wife. The game is initially character focused and entirely realistic, showing some very strong writing in this area. It then takes an unexpected turn into more fable-like territory. My preference that the game had stayed entirely in the first mode is irrelevant; it has many fine qualities.
Before the game opens, the male PC's dear friend, maybe love, Celine, has died. The circumstances of her death are sketched in over the length of the game. The PC and his flatmates are having a wake-like gathering of some friends and acquaintances when play begins. This first part of the game is essentially puzzle free, and sees you wandering around the house reminiscing, feeling strange and self-conscious and finding it agonising to interact socially. The quick elucidation of the PC's relationship with each of the friends is superb. Talking to each person for the first time produces at least one paragraph of sentiment free appraisal of their role in your life and in Celine's life. The sharp observations make the cast and situation feel real.
I've been keen and am keen to play a game that works well in this fashion for its duration, and which is also not just a short story on rails. I thought this game might be it, so I had to admit my disappointment to myself when, after strolling out of the game house, I came across a character who was clearly a Charon the Ferryman type ready to paddle me to some fantasyland. Perhaps the prevalence of afterlife games in IF in general weighed into my reaction here.
Transported to the underworld, the player's goal is now to (Spoiler - click to show)find and retrieve Celine from a mental hospital staffed by incarnations of the characters from Virgil's Eurydice tale. This is nowhere near as Ingmar Bergmanesque as it sounds. It's not like you walk in and meet a chap who says, "I am Hades." That chap is a doctor in this game, and some of the parser's responses to your actions describe him as Hades, but he never mentions that name himself that I noticed, nor do any of the characters mention any of the Greek names. I didn't study the tale of Eurydice until after I had played, and the technically subtle approach of the game to the twinning of the hospital residents and the Greek characters is clever.
Eurydice the game may become more traditionally puzzley in style in this section, but it was a bit disingenuous of me to draw a blunt line through the midpoint of the game, as the PC's recollections of events and time spent in Celine's room maintain the realistic and sometimes poignant outlook established in the early scenes. It's just that now additional ways to move forward may include (Spoiler - click to show)playing the lyre.
There are minor proofreading issues and implementation gaps scattered consistently across the game. The only ones which actually disrupted my play were the fact that the hospital doorbell was not described as a button, making me wonder why I couldn't pull or ring it, and that the hospital ground descriptions gave the impression that there were many more enterable buildings than there were. These are typical minor mistakes for what appears to be a first game, and all of the game's important elements are solid: its clear setup and (unexpected) trajectory, some well considered endings and brief but very good character writing. The overall combination of elements is novel and there are human truths in here.
(I originally published this review on 4 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 4th of 26 games I reviewed.)
You can't fob off the postmodern today, not even if you jab violently at the area directly in front of you with a pointed stick. Last Minute is a hyperlink CYOA about cobbling together a last minute entry for IFComp, and presented with its first screen, I didn't like the look of it. The protagonist thinks in exclamation marks and is equally and constantly excited by every turn of his thoughts as they alight upon different objects in his bedroom. In the long run, I believe that people should be skeptical in general of responses to creative challenges which consist of saying, "Well, I was having trouble thinking of something, so I made my piece about the trouble I was having thinking of something." Which wouldn't be to say that this game is definitely a response of that kind itself – except that the author revealed during the competition that it is. In the end, each object must still rise or fall by its own qualities. The primary quality of Last Minute is silliness, and even if you don't like it, it's over pretty fast.
The game has two halves. The first half is a the part where you scan your room with your eyes looking for inspiration for your IFComp entry. Choices include your games, your DVDs or what's on your desk... The combination of a "my apartment" game with the protagonist's hyper manner began to make my eyes water. But I persisted and reached the second half of the game, where my earlier choices were strung together into a gamey fiction. This section is extraordinarily silly and hyperbolic (EG a blistered blob forces everyone in the world to cannibalism by only letting them eat beetroot otherwise, and you have to stop him) but it's got more messy wit, writing cutesiness and variation than the first half, and might start to bring the sniggers if your defences are sufficiently weakened by now. I played this section a few times and found some different stories, and if you want that explosion of sloppy zaniness that you can usually expect from something in the competition, this could be one of the games to deliver that fix.
(I originally published this review on 8 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 12th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Murphy, that loveable rapscallion of misfortune, strikes again all cobra-like in this light-hearted adventure about a man trying to post his last mortgage payment to the bank in the face of a phalanx of obstacles. Games along these lines are ubiquitous in adventuredom and thus tend to make players of even a little experience wary, in spite of the ebullience the games themselves typically bring. This one starts out quite well with some amusing descriptions and puzzles. The trouble is that ultimately there aren't enough obstacles or puzzles to generate the sense that the fates really have it in for us today, which is what the premise promises.
The first hazard sets the silly and harried tone well: a paper cut from an envelope must be bandaged quickly to prevent death. Next, my interactions with the cockroach blocking my path to the garage made me laugh, starting with its description:
A cockroach lurks on the wall near the exit to the garage, waving its antennae menacingly at you.
When I noticed that bug spray was listed on the shopping list attached to the kitchen wall, I started to enjoy the anticipatory sense of Babel Fish like pain which was developing. Would I now have to find a way to get in my car to get to the store to buy some bug spray to spray the cockroach paradoxically blocking my path to the car in the first place? It turned out that... (Spoiler - click to show)I would not, though I was impressed that I came up with the solution of putting a glass over the cockroach myself, and that it worked, just because I do this a lot in real life.
Once I made it to the garage, the problem with the obstacle of the car not starting was its lack of humour. (Spoiler - click to show)It really did just hinge on the hassle of having to read the instructions on the jumper kit then finding the right commands to execute them, boringly attaching the cables to the correct terminals on the battery. I don't enjoy doing this kind of thing in IF where everyday items are concerned; it's just not fun.
The joke of the bank robbery is that in spite of its high drama, it doesn't stop you from giving your check to the teller in the end. And dynamically this is a good fakeout before you drive home and crash into your house due to that annoying kid from next door. (Unless there's an ending where you don't crash – I only got 17/20 points.) I didn't find the game's destructive finale as funny as I would have liked, probably because the grandness of it demands a bigger and longer build up. The PC should have suffered more first in order to fully milk the pathos. I can read the sketch of the intended dynamics of the game, but basically Murphy's Law needs a bigger, funnier and more drastic middle part for the dynamics to work, and to live up to its title. Though it's also possible that due to the overabundance of this kind of game in IF, no game can live up to this particular title.
The game is decently implemented in general. The only bona fide bug I found was that I was able to pick up the medicine cabinet. The score system could probably use an overhaul, as its structure contributes to the sense that not enough bad stuff happens to the protagonist over the course of the game. The score is out of 20, and your first minor triumph gets you 1 point, making you suspect there may be 19 more hurdles to overcome, but this isn't the case. (Spoiler - click to show)You get 10 points for paying your bill and 3 (I think) for drinking a beer.
Given the premise of Murphy's Law, I mostly wish there had been more of it to bolster its premise.
(I originally published this review on 21 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 22nd of 26 games I reviewed.)
The Sealed Room contains two mythical creatures which have the power of speech. Finding yourself stuck in there with them, your goal is to get out, mostly by ASKing the room's inhabitants about its contents and each other. Described by its author as "short-short", the game is indeed short-short, and while I did not find it to be very remarkable, in the context of the competition it was at least a game that I could easily play and complete, and which thus constituted a kind of break. The game is also kind enough to display its title page artwork on startup, making it one of the handful of entries whose cover image I could see easily this year.
The two creatures in the room are a dragon and unicorn who have wounded each other and can speak on the topics of their own natures, their opponent's nature and occasionally the situation of being stuck in the room. Controlling the game is easy; you just keep ASKing whomever ABOUT such and such a topic, and can also get either creature to offer up a list of TOPICS.
Given the game's simplicity, what it lacks are specific details to make its story interesting and to give strong personalities to the creatures. The reason you're in the room is just that an old guy on a park bench zapped you there. The creatures don't know why they're in the room. Nothing is made of the attractive design on the ceiling, and even the potentially interesting symmetry of the two creatures and their pools of blood, a strong image, doesn't figure in the events of the game. The effect, then, is basically in the contrasting responses you get from the creatures when quizzing them on the same topic, since the unicorn is kind and wise and the dragon is arrogant and a bit nasty. A couple of response pairs did raise a chuckle from me, and they do work best when you question each creature in turn about the same thing. Unfortunately it is likely that most players will lawnmower the responses from one creature before doing the same to the other, which will blunt the contrasting effect. Also, the creatures mostly act as symbols of their type rather than giving the impression of being individuals, so you stop expecting them to say anything that might surprise you after awhile.
Something interesting could have happened in The Sealed Room, but its trappings were too generic.
(I originally published this review on 22 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 25th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Fish Bowl is a short and effective horror piece in which you play sozzled beachcomber Larry Wyndham, a man who wakes up in his shack one day to find that a dusty fishbowl has materialised atop his three-legged dresser. The game is atmospheric with the whiff of sea horrors and sticky dead things, and it's quite a good character piece as well, evoking your awareness of Larry's constant fatigue and salty decrepitude. There are some bugs and oversights about but none that really impeded my play.
Larry's opening narration suggests that he's a guy who stumbles around in something like a semipermanent hangover. When he can't remember the previous night or recognise the fishbowl, these are immediate motivations for the player to start investigating Larry's surroundings. Doing so induces weird intrusions of memory and flashes of conversational static, though I wasn't crazy about the presentation of the latter. On the topic of presentation, the games sports some indented paragraphs. They look quite nice and I'm surprised IF games/authors don't think about this style more often, but I suppose the tradition that it is more helpful to leave an entire blank line between different chunks of information is well established for good functional reasons.
I read other reviews of Fish Bowl which reported over-awareness of its linear nature, or of its mechanism of containing the player to the present location until they perform certain tasks. The game is basically linear and it does contain the player to make sure they get everything they need from each of its few locations, but I didn't perceive either of these qualities in a negative light. The more character-based and naturalistic a game becomes, the more I fear that it will let me do something stupid like walk right down the beach when all the important things I need to attend to are back at my shack. I think Larry is written clearly enough that his thoughts can direct player effort to where it needs to go, and that some of the blocking in general is pretty natural. For instance, Larry's mini-rant to himself which prevents him from leaving the area in front of the shack without (Spoiler - click to show)burying the dead cat. I also don't mind repeating entry of a command when it very clear that the same action is the one that needs to be performed again – for instance, typing GET BOTTLE, seeing the bottle float further out of reach in response, then entering GET BOTTLE again. I think Fish Bowl is consistently good with this kind of thing.
Thoughts on the finale: (Spoiler - click to show)After you trigger a weird and unpleasant series of memories and images, and try and fail to retrieve the bottle from the ocean, you end up back in your shack, ready to wake to a day which is much worse. The revelation about your situation, confirmed by your supernatural answering machine, arrives all at once, and contains some elements that you might have vaguely guessed at by now as well as unexpected background information about you actually being a spaceship pilot infected by some kind of sea monster. Your various memories now make sense and the props you have been dealing with for the past two days are revealed as masking hallucinations. It's a creepy outcome, a bit Ray Bradbury and a bit H.P. Lovecraft, especially the final image of Larry slithering back into the ocean. And I was able to reach it without too much trouble. Fish Bowl's story plays pretty well now, and could play even better if the text output was tidied up, the feedback messages were coralled so that they don't sometimes appear in the wrong order, and missing nouns were implemented.
(I originally published this review on 11 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 14th of 26 games I reviewed.)
With its blurb which consisted not of a blurb but of a few weird, terse pieces of advice–
"to switch on walkthrough you must type "ftang" then "walkthrough" "shazam" will fill your inventory with useful things... "ftang" toggles cheat mode"
– I initially thought that the goal of The Island might be to mock the player. The game opened without a title page and dropped me on a clifftop from which I seemingly couldn't move. It also kept insisting: "This is a miserable place."
A few moves later I managed to unstick myself, began to explore my surroundings and realised that I had gotten off on completely the wrong foot with this game, just because of that peculiar blurb. The Island is in fact a straight, compact and sincere adventure-adventure of easy to medium difficulty, filled with the paraphernalia of fantasy adventuredom eternal. You find yourself on a creepy island; why are you there? It seems likely that you will find out if you do what adventurers do best: go around overcoming obstacles by solving puzzles. To seek more or less reason than this is misguided in the context of this game. The practical minded prose (though dotted with random atmospheric additions) and design make the game's mode apparent, so if you demand long descriptions of everything you see or elaborate in-world reasoning, this game isn't for you. The Island is like a kinder Scott Adams adventure, though a very typo-laden one, presenting the fun of this genre without the arduousness that is sometimes attendant upon it. UNDO is blocked – unnecessarily in this game, I feel – but I confess I didn't notice because I had been saving occasionally, which is all that is required.
The Island is more interesting to talk about if I leap immediately to its ending, so ahead is absolute spoilerage: (Spoiler - click to show)The game has a great conclusion. After you've solved all of the island's puzzles, your mode of escape from it turns out to be a ferry summoned by ringing a bell. It's also a ferry piloted by a guy who is clearly Charon / Death, who has perhaps grown weary of shunting English tossers around over in the world of Eurydice. Death takes you out to sea, only to deliver you back to the island, where he shuffles you into his set of adventure props as a pawn. The man you murdered earlier with the dagger (he was tied to a post, screaming madly, and there was nothing else you could do for him AND the game assured you that stabbing him brought him peace) becomes the new corpse in the coffin which contained the bell for summoning the ferry, and you in turn are tied to the post to become the new man who will be murdered with the dagger by the next person damned to this place. The cyclic inevitability of such a fate was signposted by the clues scratched onto the altar in the temple, which is why it pays off well.
The murder of the man tied to the post is probably still the weakest moment in the game, since it seems a far more obvious thing to do would be to try to cut his bonds. Even a message explaining that it would be impossible to do so for some reason (super tough bonds?) would fortify it, but I couldn't find any bond props or messages implemented. This still didn't bother me as much as it will bother some folks, as I've sacrificed NPCs for way less.
The Island's puzzles will be very familiar in nature for old school pundits, but the performance is the thing, and apart from all the typos making the game look weaker than need be, the performance is good, emboldened by the ending. The design is clear, simple and satisfyingly. It's fun to be able to have an adventure like this without it being too taxing.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 8th of 26 games I reviewed.)
After the last few games I played, all of them CYOA and none of them spectacular, I was glad of the arrival of Lunar Base 1, a parser-based adventure of more voluble quality. Coincidentally, the last IF game I tried before this competition began was Hallow Eve, also by Michael Wayne Phipps Jr. who wrote Lunar Base 1. LB1 casts the player in the role of Captain Stan Rogers, one of two astronauts commencing a mission in 2080 to inhabit earth's moon for the long term. The game could benefit from more proofreading, more nuanced writing, and probably from the use of a bigger canvas (the base only has a couple of rooms). What it has going for it are the qualities of suspense, earnestness and some mystery, though I really wish it didn't take an average of four commands to get in or out of the airlock every time.
The physical setup on the moon is relatively simple, and the two heroes, yourself and Dr John Klose, are good-natured types strongly connected to their family and their past. This is reinforced all through the game in the dialogue, your own character's recollections and a nostalgic photo which Klose brandishes. The presiding feeling is a likeable one of respect for the history of space travel and the human desire to explore the unknown. That said, I wish there had been more detail about the mission. How were the two men going to exist on the moon? What were they going to do there? My personal hope is that we will have tried to send people to Mars by 2080 (if you're reading this after 2079 - are we there yet?) so for me to get into this game's mythology more plausibly, I would need some reasons and details to be given for the mission, whether real or fictional.
These issues get sidelined almost immediately in the game due to Klose (Spoiler - click to show)entering a state of delirium after seeing something out the base window on the first night. This also made me think that I would expect the people selected for this mission to have demonstrated a sturdy psychological constitution. It's not implausible that a supernatural(?) occurrence would rattle Klose to this extent, but again, it's the lack of detail in the game that doesn't help to fortify plausibility. As in many films, the characters here don't communicate sufficiently when significant things happen. You are only able to try three conversation ploys on the clammed up Klose before giving up, assessing him as thoroughly disturbed and contacting Mission Control.
Accepting the flow of the game's events, the puzzles weren't that difficult and they moved the action forward in a satisfying fashion. I only had to look at the walkthrough once; when I felt adamant that I should be able to give Klose's spacesuit to him at the time when it was crucial that we both leave the base. The game was adamant that his space suit should never be removed from its hook in the airlock. Thus the spacesuit was a source of persistent annoyance throughout LB1. Removing it and putting it on the hook to go through the airlock was fun the first time, alright the second time and a nuisance every time after that. This sequence should have become automated.
On the finale: (Spoiler - click to show)I found the extra terrestrial revelations towards the end of the game exciting as they approached, but somehow mishandled after their apex. Following the captain's amazing Mission to Mars / 2001 / Stargate-ish vision, would he really not speak of it to the other man for the whole trip back to earth? Or rather, if he decided not to, and was able to will himself not to, shouldn't we, in playing him, be privy to the inner struggle that led to this decision? These are the kinds of dramatic details that the game could use to beef it up.
Back on earth, I found the "best" ending to be strange. I didn't clearly understand the import of either of the significant things the debriefing guy said, and one of them was outrageously significant, that bit about us being the first man on the moon. If most humans are actually the descendants of the aliens seen in the vision, how is it that we are a "man", or human, instead? Or maybe I got the wrong end of the Space Food Stick entirely?
Overall I had a lot of logic, plausibility and drama questions about the events of LB1, but it's a smooth playing game for the most part and an enjoyable experience, especially if you're also into the noble pursuit of space exploration.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 7th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Transit is a solidly blah hyperlink CYOA in which you try to find your lost friend while in a foreign airport. It's also buggy in spite of its smallness.
The writing of Transit is completely unadorned. The addition of any kind of specific information about anything in the game (what airport? who am I? who's my friend? where am I going or where have I been?) would improve things, but each element is presented in its most elemental non-descript form, preventing any kind of interest from being generated. For instance, the only way to derive play interest from visits to generic airport outlets like Starbucks and McDonalds would be to allow anything at all to happen at them beyond the eating of their generic food, but that eating is all that Transit offers before telling you it's time to resume the search for your missing friend.
The three features of the game which slightly redeem it are:
1. The way you can die by binge drinking some dispensed canned drink whose title and contents you can't read.
2. The fact that the winning path involves trying anti-intuituve actions, which will probably cause you to poke around looking for it.
3. The little icons which appear each turn depicting your current situation in the universal language of public signage. A neat idea not well served by the material.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
The lyrically titled Autumn's Daughter is an Undum hyperlink story taking the form of a series of social encounters in the life of a young Pakistani woman named Areesha, played by yourself. Though you apparently hail from an okay-to-do family, various threats to your future independence and happiness are looming quickly, and their sources are not always obvious.
This game seeks to educate about the difficulties faced by women in Pakistan by engaging the player in a story with outward touches of romance and intrigue. This is a good strategy, given that some of the obvious alternative ones – like involving the player in a story which is grim and didactic – might just turn players off or bore them. Thus Autumn's opening scene seeks to get folks onboard immediately and build up the heroine's happiness. When you greet your visiting friend Samina, the tone heads towards conspicuously exuberant soap opera with lots of squeals and exclamation marks. The writing is broad in its exposition and a bit ripe, but the situation is inviting. The challenge for the game, then, is to be able to convincingly take the drama to the bleaker places it wants to go in a short span of time, and I don't think the challenge is fully met.
The overall design of mostly binary choices, all tied to single pieces of dialogue or action, is pretty good, especially in retrospect; the dynamic between that first happy scene and any of the endings tends to be a smooth but swift slope. But I think the game as a whole is lacking the kind of subtlety which could better convey its message. The characters have the specificity of types (earnest heroine, complicit girlfriend, potential shining knight boyfriend) but don't have the specificity which would illuminate them as individuals. And specificity is really needed to imbue obvious binary choice pairs, like whether to gush at the handsome lad or forget how to speak in his presence, with much meaning. This becomes a bigger problem in the sticky ends of the game when some extreme choices are presented. So while I don't doubt that most of the situations here can and have happened to people, I found the portrayal of them too broad to feel them deeply.
Autumn's Daughter exhibits some good design for its aims over its relatively short playtime, but it is shooting for a lot and would have benefited from stronger characterisation, from which would grow some less generic feeling choices, or at least less generic iterations of them.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Reels is a hypertext game posing 8 mathematical and trivia-based questions. Get them right and perhaps a gang of thieves will return the precious archival reel-to-reel tapes (!) they stole. At least they didn't also steal the ovens we'll need in the future to bake the decaying tapes before making crappy second generation copies of them in order to vaguely preserve the sweet knowledge contained therein.
I bailed out on this quest, without too much regret, after verifying that it didn't function properly in either Chrome or Firefox on my OS X Mac. Those are the two browsers the game's "how to play Reels" file recommends for those without access to Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Before I ran into the technical wall, my instinctive response to the game's proposition was: "Game, you're asking me to do stuff too closely resembling work." The tasks ahead, the first one involving base 36, looked unappealing and potentially trollish, but my bloody-mindedness kicked in and so I broke out a piece of paper and a calculator, and got solving. This in spite of the base 36 question being worded pretty badly, and the explanation of it in the how-to-play (when I checked in there later) being awful.
So, when I typed in my first answer to Reels's first question and found it apparently rejected – and when I say rejected, I mean that I clicked a button labelled "Check the number" and that nothing happened – I had a read of the how-to-play file. I decided I had indeed been doing what the game wanted me to do but had simply made a couple of mistakes in my working. After another pass, I entered what I believed to be the correct answer more confidently, only to find it rejected/ignored again.
This was the moment when I became suspicious as to whether the game was really checking my answer. So using TextEdit, I just opened up the html file (follow.html) which delivers the first challenge and looked at the code. The correct answer was sitting right there, unhidden from the eye, and it was what I had typed, and therefore I concluded that the game was not running correctly in Chrome. I tried playing in Firefox with the same result.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life (or TBATTOTWOL… or maybe just TBAT) is a likeable and rather difficult to solve off your own back Indiana Jones-styled adventure. Tex is less competent and cool than Indy but he's no klutz, and the game doesn't play up his goofiness at the expense of dangerous puzzles or basic seriousness of adventuring. TBAT is chock full of traps, fast deaths and adventure movie quotes, the latter often appearing in the form of achievement-like score boosts. TBAT is a little short of the programming or prose polish that would really get it glowing, but it does have a good sense of danger and suspense.
The basic adventuring schtick of examining one thing, then examining something revealed by the first thing, then examining something revealed by the second thing, etc., is well executed on many occasions in TBAT, and this is complementary to the suspense of time-limit traps, like when a spiked ceiling is descending towards your head. Some wisecracks which happen to hit the mark and a plethora of wacky/gory deaths round out a tone which is recognisable from plenty of adventure films and games.
Since the game is named for its hero, I would have liked to see his personality shine through more clearly in the prose. The nature of some of the humour used is such that it can feel like the narrator is trying to be funny in general, rather than that I've got a window to Tex's thoughts and that they are funny, or illuminating of him. The game is a good romp through a dangerous temple in any case.
I had to visit the hint menus and walkthrough file with increasing frequency throughout TBAT. Games which lead me to cleave to the walkthrough have been known to aggravate me on multiple fronts, but this one held my attention to the end. Part of that is because even though I can't imagine coming up with some of the solutions myself, they were generally quick to execute and fairly self-contained. This is not a game where you'll get stuck, check the help file and discover you need to retreat 50 moves to fix your situation.
Dracula is an exciting, garish and highly confounding 95% text adventure which was released for the Commodore 64 by CRL in 1986. It was the first of a series of similarly themed horror adventures by Rod Pike (and later, other authors) including Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dracula broadly follows the events of Bram Stoker's novel and remains highly regarded in C64 circles to this day for a multitude of reasons, sensationalism amongst them. The non-text 5% of the game consists of gory digitised images which are displayed when the player meets one of the game's many violent ends. The game deliberately courted the attention of the British Board of Film Censors, and got it; it was the first game in the UK to receive a 15 certificate. The game's producers admitted they had wanted an 18 rating.
"Their claws bury into my flesh! They beat their wings on my body while their beaks tear into me! They are tearing me to pieces!The above passage is typical of the game's thrilling tone of demise, and after each death the player is treated to a SID chip rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
ARRGH!! MY EYES!! NO! THE PAIN.. I CAN'T STAND THE PAIN! I CANNOT SEE!!"
"You caught the train to Folkstone. You lose."Apparently the doctor is so klutzy as to be unable to board the correct one of two trains from his hometown station without player input, though he oversees the running of an entire mental asylum for his day job without the same. What the player must do here is bump into every 'wall' in the original platform location, find that there is a path to another platform and go and wait there, despite the fact that neither platform is labelled. It pays to save often in Dracula because you never know when another strange game-ender like this will crop up.
* In 2003-2004 some Inform users remade Dracula using this modern Interactive Fiction system, an impressive feat. In the way of fidelity, the remake offers a choice of Commodore 64 or Amstrad colour schemes, and in the way of niceties it offers cleaned up text formatting and the inclusion of features like UNDO. Strikes against the remake are the absence of the original music (replaced by an extremely dodgy Bach MOD) and the replacement of all the original graphics, except for the title pages, with uninteresting 3-D renderings. The new version is undoubtedly easier to play but it loses the specific aesthetic effects of the Commodore 64 hardware.
Hints came early in The Black Lily that its narrative and subject matter would be following the trajectory of a giallo. The original giallos – yellow-spined Italian mystery novels – morphed into an eponymous genre of Italian thriller-horror-whodunnit films from the 1960s onwards. The films are often graphically violent, sexually charged, visually fetishistic and filled with histrionic characters and extreme psychology.
My familiarity with giallo established some expectations I had of The Black Lily that were helpful in understanding it, but the game turned out to be far subtler than its cinematic counterparts; actually, it's quite elusive. It is an elusive version of a kind of story known for flamboyance rather than subtlety, and certainly novel in this regard. The game's 1975 setting is probably also an extension of its giallo aesthetic, since the 1970s were the heyday for giallo films.
The Black Lily's protagonist narrates in the first person, the game alternating passages set at home in the present with past tense memory episodes the PC willingly triggers by looking at pictures of women in a photo album. My own reviewing coyness (what kind of protagonist is the protagonist?) is both in aid of preserving the game's mysteries and an extension of its deliberately evasive narration. The PC presents a vain and polished front but tries to slide around introspection of the kind IF often prompts via commands like EXAMINE ME or INVENTORY. Nor is the PC comfortable with the game's ubiquitous mirrors. The only thoughts pursued with passion are those about women, usually intermingled with visions of a black lily. These thoughts arrive frequently but suddenly, and explode with a galvanising intensity, and even more exclamation marks than the game normally uses.
The Black Lily gives directions on the way through that show the author has clear ideas about how players will be interacting with it. For instance, it specifies moments when it's important to save, and specifies from the outset that it might take multiple playthroughs to work out what's going on. Giallo-armed as I was, I felt I only half-understood what was going on when the game ended, but I also didn't feel great trust in the experience I'd had that the game would round that understanding out too much if I did replay (which I did, from various save points). For instance, there is a score system in place, but points are few and far between, and tend to be found in a blundering fashion, sometimes at fringes of the terrain. It's hard to feel them as a measure of progress or even interpret what kind of progress they are measuring. At least not for awhile.
I'm very into the psychology and horror terrain that the Black Lily is working, especially via the giallo prism, but the game is probably a bit too reticent to make most players feel confident about their interactions with it. It's fascinating to explore the first time, but not too fascinating. I spent too much time thinking: 'Why was that? What's that character? What just happened?' It's hard to be pulled into a story when your first degree comprehension of it is so gap-filled. The Black Lily is deliberately tough about offering ways in. There is a sophistication to be appreciated here if you are prepared to dwell on the material for long enough, in spite of some of its scantness. Perceiving the sophistication slowly is probably not as satisfying as being able to feel it in a lived way while playing the game.
A moderately protracted Twine joke about rolling a six-sided die, or not. It's only protracted in the sense that it takes takes slightly longer to play than rolling a six-sided die, which is still to say not very long at all. It may also be intended as a joke about the nature of some Twine games, but it's not focused enough on anything for this to be clear. A more aspirational joke about deterministic forces in the universe is written without care. As is the case with most hastily assembled IF jokes, low care / thought levels have had a thinning effect on the humour.
Hippo on Elm St is a cute, shortish and nicely modelled adventure about a house hippo (they're small) scouting the place for food on Halloween. It's based on the world of a Canadian Public Service Announcement video from the 1990s (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNbw-qycyl4). I wasn't given this context when I helped beta-test it, which made the experience a tad perplexing for me. But then again, small, cute animals obviously need to eat, it's logical that other small, cute creatures might impede their attempts to do so, and if it's Halloween I shouldn't be surprised to encounter Halloweenish stuff, right?
The game environment is dynamic and a lot of the puzzles are about mutual exclusivity. Carrying one thing and not being able to carry another, being able to move in certain ways or on certain surfaces in certain circumstances and not others. It's clever like this and pretty dense for a small game.
Sticky points are that it's not always evident what you should be doing (if you lose focus, harken to the very first things the game said to you. House hippos are simple creatures with simple goals) plus the verbs themselves can be sticky. It's easier to finish the game than it is to get all the points, and there's still one I'm missing.
For cute, G-rated IF entertainment about snug-seeking house hippos who like tasty stuff, this is the house hippo game to beat.
Intending to test a new IF interpreter, I downloaded a random, small game from my wishlist: The Kazooist. Then I discovered that the interpreter I'd planned to test doesn't actually run Z-Code games. Not being a total churl, I played the game anyway.
The Kazooist is a tiny and deliberately silly (goofy, unfocused, poorly spelled) game that's barely a step beyond a 'learning to program in Inform 7' exercise. I suppose I got off-side with it immediately because its first room contained only a Pretty Cake that had no description. Eating the cake takes you to a dreamworld where you'll theoretically learn to play the kazoo, or just play the kazoo, but in reality you won't do either of these things. There are a few props, also without descriptions, and some locked doors. I had the solution to what I think was the last puzzle but couldn't find the phrase that would execute it, though I tried about twenty possibilities. There was a strong vibe that the game would have ended had I solved that puzzle. The truth is that I don't really know if it would have.
I cannot recommend this game for playing, though good on the author for already having updated The Kazooist during its lifetime.
PS - It turns out that where I gave up wasn't the end. Read the comments for the input of others.
(I originally published this review on 3 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 2nd of 26 games I reviewed and it has been revised at least once since my review.)
It's 1892 in England, and also in all the other countries of the world, I expect. You're a formally dressed little boy whose mummy and daddy are away at Oxford, and you're trapped in the house with boring Uncle Stephen and Aunt Emma this Sunday while summer goes begging to be had outside. Your goal in this game is to escape the cloying weight of the very proper world of these adults and to get out of the house. Some postmodern interruptions stop it from being entirely straightforward, but I concede I might have preferred a straight telling of this story. It's a clever and finely written game, nevertheless.
My favourite element of Sunday Afternoon is its demonstration of the intelligent persistence of the child protagonist. Initially you're not even allowed out of your chair in the parlour, but with excruciating tenacity you can ask your aunt about each item on the mantel in turn from a seemingly endless series until (Spoiler - click to show)any kind of a gap in her concentration can be found, allowing you to slip away. There's a vaguely Babel Fish puzzle-like quality about this initial obstacle which was just beginning to induce stress in me when it relented. You can also ask your aunt and uncle about an extensive range of topics suggested by props in the house or snippets of prior conversation, and you will find that they have a proper observation to make on almost every one. The pair could be potentially cartoonish in their starchiness except that it's easy to believe in the united front they put up in the face of a child of a very upper-class family. And then there's also the complication of ENTERING SPOILINGTON HEIGHTS (Spoiler - click to show)the story being revealed as a role-playing meets recollections session shared by the grown-up hero with his comrades in the trenches in World War I. The flakiness of the aunt's character in particular is commented on, and the episode comments on the looping, gullible behaviour of NPCs in adventure games in general.
After that I was thinking: In the reality of this game, to what extent did the stuff that I'm doing in 1892 happen in the manner I'm performing it? Does the extent matter? Does the question matter? Other quotes from contemporary language pop up during the game ("weapons of mass destruction") and occasionally an appropriate third person quote will materialise in the centre of the screen. Some will enjoy these whimsical movements but I found they distracted me from acquiring a focused sense of this game.
My other problem was that I eventually sank to cleaving to the hints. Not out of great exasperation or because I think this game is extremely difficult, which I don't, but because it does demand some actions be performed at quite a fine scale. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show)having to arrange the particular letter amongst the contents of the sermon folder. I felt the same about trying to clean the chimney or trying to (Spoiler - click to show)make the object with which to clean the chimney. Having a sense of "OK, that's what I meant," a few times in a row does grate on me when I have to keep returning to a nested hints menu to tweak my commands to success. I'm much more in favour of adaptive hints in general, and not having to go in and out of menus whenever possible.
In spite of my wobbly feelings about the aesthetic of the game as a whole, I did like the fineness of the social puzzles (though they were also too fine-grained for me) and Aunt Emma's patience in answering my questions about her ceaseless catalogue of mantel knickknacks.
The visiting of an open house is an activity eminently suitable for simulation by parser game. In Home Open, you're a prospective owner-renovator checking out a two-storey home. You get to observe the arrangement of rooms, jot critical shorthand notes about the furnishings on your pad, which is fun (NOTE BEDSTEAD) and generally poke around in a state of mild suspicion. Then comes unusualness – though some of the pre-unusualness prose sneaks through.
Home Open develops with a sense of mounting mystery, but I found the outcome to be too ambiguous for a satisfying pay-off. To its credit, the outcome prompted me to re-enter the game to seek out more information (did I miss something? I don't think I did). When I couldn't find anything new, I sat back and thought 'Hm,' my eyes focussing on a point slightly beyond the pane of the screen.
A few of the game's inaccessible props and portals don't yield to other obvious objects to which one might hope they would. e.g. A conspicuously interesting place that's too dark to see into still can't be seen into after obtaining a light source. Are the game's slice-of-life qualities looking for a fight with typical adventure game behaviours, and with prop-puzzle pairings like the light and the hole? Home Open is confusing like this, because sometimes the slice-of-life wins very decidedly and sometimes the classic adventure game puzzles win very decidedly.
Sometimes in life, a sideboard is just a sideboard. But ultimately, Home Open didn't radiate as much drama or explanation as I wanted, or as I felt it signalled it would.
(I originally published this review on 12 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 16th of 26 games I reviewed.)
In many ways, I found sci-fi adventure Changes to be the highest quality game amongst the IFComp 2012 entries. Its prose flows transparently and conveys the vivid, natural beauty of an earth-like planet. It presents the point of view of many different lifeforms in original ways, even from within the point of view of other lifeforms. Its animal cast are realistic and finely programmed, reacting to each other in interesting ways and demonstrating instinctive, independent behaviour.
Unfortunately I also found this game to be incredibly difficult. It worked me into a state of significant frustration on many occasions and eventually I gave up. The difficulty operates mostly at a subtle level, except in the case of one marauding animal, but it is thoroughly persistent in nature, and I stopped when I could no longer make progress even with the walkthrough. There are adaptive hints in the game but they operate on such a large scale as to be of little use in helping with any specific problems. If you find yourself hesitant or struggling in Changes, I recommend examining the walkthrough much sooner rather than later.
After acknowledging at game start that I was a human trapped in the body of an extra terrestrial rabbit, spawned by some weird organic cocoon to boot, I began to explore the planet I found myself on. Other rabbits sniffed and browsed about their burrows and a flock of deer sought out food. A fox pursued me and the other deer, but we were able to outrun him, and he shied away from the beavers trying to plug up their dam. The interplay of all these creatures is so well programmed and fascinating to behold that I ran around exploring and experimenting with them all for a long but unspecifiable amount of time. Eventually, once I had thoroughly surveyed the land and staked out my (Spoiler - click to show)crashed human spaceship, my attention began to turn to the ever marauding fox and the plight of being a rabbit in general.
I think the first important steps the player must take in this game are gargantuan ones in terms of the demand on the player to come up with the ideas required and to then progress from assessing their feasibility to actually working out how to execute them. Many spoilers on this topic: (Spoiler - click to show)Once you have witnessed other animals dragging corpses into the cocoons, you must then decide that you want to obtain an animal corpse yourself. This is obviously a major challenge if you are a rabbit and every other non-rabbit land animal in the game is larger or more powerful than you. The only fatal animal encounter you are likely to have witnessed at this point would be your own death at the hands of the fox. So while you might have decided that you want to kill something, you have seen next to no killing.
The first material step on the path to murdering a bigger animal is to attack a fish flopping about in a pool. The flopping about behaviour is what may give you a clue that the fish is vulnerable and that this is possible, but attacking fish is not behaviour I associate with rabbits, nor have I seen any of the other animals in the game doing anything similar. And the fish is still just a prop for a greater abstract murder plot targeting the otter. Taken individually, I consider many of these steps to be difficult to conceive of on the player end, and they form a chain in a fairly elusive scheme which will eventually involve burying a fish in a hole as bait to trap another animal.
The subtle difficulty I spoke of earlier is that there isn't much feedback from the game that any particular step is bringing you closer to a goal, and you may not even realise what your goal is. There are also moments in the game which give misdirective feedback. There was a stick I saw and wanted to pick up, prompting the response, "There's nothing there worth having." In IF games, that's about as clear a fob off as I've ever seen. I was mad when I later discovered from the walkthrough that the stick is vital for progress but can only be collected after you have examined it.
The final problem I had with the game's first major puzzle ((Spoiler - click to show)kill the otter) was that it took me perhaps twenty or more attempts to just pull off the feat of (Spoiler - click to show)leading the otter to my fish trap without encountering the fox on the way. The fox forces a plan abort, since it is necessary to wait with the otter for a turn to activate the trap, and waiting results in death if the fox is present. Each time I encountered the fox I would retreat, hide from it, emerge and then restart the whole plot from the first step of catching the fish once again, taking it north, dropping it for the otter, waiting, leading the otter away... I couldn't believe how hard this was, but at least the fox's behaviour during this section of the game should be easy to tweak for the author.
So in various dimensions, the game's first puzzle is the hardest one. Having survived it, the player must now (Spoiler - click to show)evolve through a series of other animals – by killing them and/or dragging them into the life cocoons – to eventually become the drug-addicted lemur whose fingers are long enough to work the numeric keypad on your broken shuttle. These puzzles are all very clever, but the game just keeps missing out on giving the bits of direction and feedback necessary for most people to be able to have a shot at clearing them without cleaving to the walkthrough. In the end I did cleave to the walkthrough, but the game insisted I was not tall enough to reach the spaceship hatch, though both the sticks and the branch were in place, so I'm unsure if I hit a bug or missed something important, but I felt too drained to attempt to play on at that point.
I have barely touched on the human elements of the game's plot here, and while they're obviously important overall, they didn't factor in either the massive difficulties I had in playing Changes, nor in its wonderful presentation of a believable alien planet teeming with life. The game has the overall quality of something exceptional, but it's too hard to play at the moment.
I played this small IFComp 2011 game during IFComp 2011. I didn't get it.
The writing is good at creating the character of a muscular labourer who's a bit superstitious, and shy about using his imagination to solve problems. The game is obviously linear, and in that capacity does keep the player on track. It also demonstrates general technical polish.
However, it turned out either I was a dummy or the game was too subtle, because I didn't even notice when Something Dramatic Happened, to coin a phrase from amongst Inform's library messages while simultaneously avoiding any specific spoiling. I learned about what I'd missed by reading other reviews after I wrote mine. I was also unaware of a superstition involving cold iron, even though I used to play AD&D and so felt I should have known of it if it was a big enough thing.
Replaying the game armed with the knowledge of thing dramatis, it still seemed to me it was only mildly indicated.
I had been surprised (excited?) to see the game print, at one point, the library message "Because something dramatic has happened, the commands available to you have been cut down." I'd previously only seen this by poking around inside Inform on my own time. I then wondered: Was the point of this event (and the accompanying screen clear) that it tested whether I had been paying attention to recent content in the game, because at this point I could no longer scroll back to review the details of the story?
But then all I could do was go back to the chapel location, with or without having noticed thing dramatis. I was disappointed, both because of the possibility for excitement I'd anticipated that had not come about, and because the ending was so low key. (Spoiler - click to show)The first character had begun to flex his imagination, but not to much avail, apparently. Any ulterior purpose of the game was too obscure for me to discern. Whether I was careless or not – it seems I probably was – I didn't believe I was the only player who would miss thing dramatis, and since I expected thing dramatis to be bound up with the purpose, I felt the game was likely to undershoot a lot of people as it undershot me.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)
War of the Willows is a combat game, requiring a Python interpreter to run, in which you must put down a giant, killer willow tree that's menacing your kingdom. Put it down mano a mano.
I doubt that anyone would have guessed this about the game based on its IFComp blurb –
"Did you see the clean air of the hilltops? Wind waves tumbled down through the trees, tore the drift of lavender smoke... Did you see then, in the cinder that glowed in the pewter cup, did you see how Death would wrap its roots around our throats?"
– except perhaps for the presence of that subtle pun about the roots wrapping around our throats. It's like that moment in the original Resident Evil when Chris Redfield, having polished off a building-sized carnivorous plant, says, "I think we got to the ROOT of the problem." (His emphasis, not mine.)
War of the Willows wraps a randomised combat game of obscure mechanics – one that at heart is not entirely unlike the kind of thing that appeared in David Ahl's 1978 book BASIC Computer Games – with a poetic and sometimes heavy-leaning text delivery. When a game starts by quoting a chunk of Edicts from the Bible, that's heavy. The original prose that follows flows in a similar, stansa'd vein. Poetry + combat = a novel entity, and once you get stuck in, you'll probably be hooked on trying to win at least once. But the game throws up tons of very obvious design issues. Primary amongst them: requiring the player to deal with way too much repetition of prose and key-mashing.
I believe that I am a poor reader of poetry-poetry, but I enjoyed picking my way through the figurative language of War of the Willows to learn about the woes of my kingdom and its apparent comeuppance at the hands of nature and such. At least I enjoyed doing it the first time. After I had tried to kill the tree about ten times, died as many times and mashed RETURN to make it through all of the same prose ten times, as well as answering the questions I had to answer on each playthrough to get to the battle, my right hand was ready to fall off and I was displeased at this design weakness.
Also – when you type in a god's name, you have to capitalise the first letter or it's not understood! And double also – I often experienced buggy code dumps in the middle of the prose. Maybe they're related to my version of Python. They didn't wreck anything, but seeing blocks of code from the game appear during the game was not an endearing quality.
The upshot is that when you get to the combat, you'll become interested in the combat, and all the unvarying material preceding it then just becomes a delay at getting back into the combat on replays. This applies to player death, too, which also requires a fair bit of RETURN-whacking to end proceedings.
The combat itself is significantly frustrating, but still compelling. The mechanics are hidden, but the prose does give feedback on your actions. Seeing new phrases appear suggests that your last action might have brought them about. There are logical ideas about useful ways to string together the available actions like strike / evade / advance, etc. that are likely to occur to any player, but as I say, it took me about ten plays to score a victory over the willow. It's hard to know what effect your pre-battle choices of god and desire have on the proceedings; I was having so much trouble killing the tree once, I never swerved from the walkthrough's advice (the walkthrough is purely advice) that one always choose certain combinations. I went with Vordak and Power.
I think the author has hit on a strangely original idea with this game, but it's a pretty user-unfriendly incarnation of that idea.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)
This is how I like my vampires: Solitary, dangerous and with vile motivations. (As opposed to ubiquitous, shiny and Mormonesque.)
Admittedly Martin Voigt, the anti-hero of Darkiss, isn't as powerful as a vampire usually would be, but that's because the good guys previously killed him, leaving him with the inconvenient side-effect of weakness. The player's job in this classically styled parser adventure is to get Martin back into fighting, biting shape.
Darkiss was originally released in Italian in 2011. The IFComp 2015 version is a fresh translation into English. The game is puzzly, robustly implemented and relishes the protagonist's intent of evil vengeance. As might be expected, it's also just slightly off in some of the translation, but the core translation is resilient. The off notes don't affect game mechanics or player understanding, just the ideal reading of the prose.
The game is principally set in Martin's lair, into which he's been barricaded by both magical and folkloric means. The puzzles mix magical and practical solutions. Collecting the props needed for them requires quite exhaustive examination of the room descriptions, and for this reason I was glad of the hint system.
The lair's familiarity to this long-lived creature is a good mechanism for triggering anecdotes and memories from the past. Martin moons frothingly over his torture chamber and sadistic treatment of previous victims, while less exciting stuff – like the trick to getting through a certain door – is correspondingly less easy to recall, and thus decently excused in the story.
The game's overall feel is one of a wicked romp, though it's obviously not without some seriousness, too. The scenes in which Martin recalls past loves like Lilith from the painting, or Sabrina from the white coffin, are probably the most resonant and Anne Ricey. It's unusual to have a character so plainly evil and bloodthirsty, yet strangely endearing, at the centre of an adventure, and to play from the villain's point of view in general. The anchoring of this experience in a solid parser puzzler makes it an entertaining one.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Moquette is a Quest hypertext game in which you play a hungover security guard who begins to feel the weariness of his lot too heavily during one morning commute on the London Underground, and who then begins to wander the network in some kind of attempt to do anything differently.
This was the first Quest game by the author of the Quest engine, Alex Warren, and I think it made sufficiently good on views expressed in his blog over time about trying out different things in IF. It's not going for radically different, but it has its own feel and structure, and text effects which are novel enough to make me say that the author walked some of his talk. I found the game fascinating at times, well written as often, though in a way which underutilises (or just doesn't utilise) experiences the protagonist has had earlier in the game. Another problem is that no specific background emerges for the character. And I found the ending to be very querulous; it seems really hard to end existential IFs in a way that is equally or more satisfying than the game content.
There is a fair bit of content in Moquette, and its attention to geographical and other details of the London Underground give it the smell of the real. But overall it's a mix of good elements amongst others which don't work so well.
The run of decisions you make during the game consists of looking at various strangers who get on and off the trains, deciding when to switch train lines, when to stay on a train and when to get off. There are a lot of strangers and a lot of lines to switch between, so eventually the player is likely to start wondering: Does this game have a trajectory or an end, and if it has an end, how deep into my travels will that end be? I wondered all of these things.
The protagonist's view of both himself and others as unthinking cogs in the machine of life is one of the classic concerns of modernity, a concern emphasised in this game by the fact that the whole thing occurs on trains, those classic symbols of the Industrial Revolution. With all this in mind, it seemed to me the game could have gone on forever, making a conceptual point of pointlessness while annoying a lot of players in the process. Thus I was glad of a random encounter on the trains with a character whose presence opened up the possibility of throwing a spanner into the cogs. Still, the protagonist's narration around this event didn't change to reflect the passage of the day, his wobbly health, things that had happened earlier or anything that might happen later. The lack of connectedness of the parts renders the game's finale probably more ambiguous than was intended.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
The Cardew House is a short parser adventure of typical mechanical puzzling in a haunted house. It could be said to be of Ectocomp style and hasty Ectocomp or slightly-better-than-speed-IF quality, and it doesn't have any surprises up its sleeve that would warrant anyone already uninterested in the basic premise from trying it. As the author's declared first or equal first Inform game, it's simple and rough and wasn't tested, but at least it has focus and a degree of technical soundness.* (* excepting its habit of just killing the interpreter where it stands whenever the game ends, which strikes me as unsound.) If you play, save the game before taking any particularly exciting actions; there's no undo from a game over.
The introduction tells of cruel Old Man Cardew, he who so aggravated all his neighbours and kin that somebody eventually shotgunned him in the head. Cardew's daughter disappeared, too, but nobody really knows the whole story. Enter you, foolhardy explorer of... The Cardew House. Note that I am going to arrogantly say that I've expressed this in a more exciting fashion than the game does.
Something you'll notice once you enter the house, and which you'll be aware of before you enter the house because the author mentions it in his introductory spiel, is that the lights in the rooms randomly turn on and off. I actually found that the reports about the flickering from adjacent rooms, and the business of me turning things back on, was quite atmospheric. I'm still relieved the author set things up so that the PC will turn lights on by default (an option you can deactivate) because, as he correctly anticipated, it would have made the game super fiddly if you had to do it all manually. The lighting atmos, in tandem with other random sounds and moans, makes the game a tiny bit bumps-in-the-night creepy.
One prop has a good attention-drawing schtick but mostly there's a lot of implementation oversight. Some props, like the kitchen cupboard, have fairly classic guess-the-verb issues attached to them. On the plus side, the hint system gives hints for the room you're in, so it tends not to spoil too much, and you can toggle it off again before you move to the next room.
The denouement doesn't really explain all of the implications of the game's introduction. (Spoiler - click to show)So Betty was buried under the house, but who shot Cardew? Did Cardew shoot Cardew? What about all the black magic stuff and the pentagrams? Fortunately this game is short enough that I wasn't tremendously bothered that I didn't find out the answer to all of these things. I enjoyed my 15 minutes or so in this house enough.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Vulse is a hypertext. I would say what I think it is about but I don't know what it's about. I wasn't sufficiently engaged by it to play through it more than once, and that first play eventually began to feel like a chore. The protagonist sloughs about in an apartment with a collection of abstract and angry thoughts and perceptions. These are rendered with deliberately crafted language, a sort of free verse stream of consciousness. The prose wore on me over time, not inherently, but because it didn't seem to take me anywhere. There was little sign of the literal stuff mentioned in the game's blurb, of the Twin Peaksy corpse which floats into the town. Perhaps it was down other paths.
My primary beef with Vulse is that I could find no point of interest that would stimulate me to engage with its prose. There was no sense of a character, or inner or outer reality, or of a plot or story or mystery or something else to compel. This left just a series of links leading to different strands of language. Ability with the language needs to be in service of something, but I'm afraid I couldn't find Vulse's something.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Blood on the Heather (BOTH) is a wack-seeking CYOA adventure about three young Americans who take a vacation in Scotland and get mixed up with petulant feuding vampires and their scenery-destroying vampiric offspring. The author says it was inspired by the vampire B-movies of their youth. For me, this raised disturbing questions about how old the author might be… Twelve?! Facetiousness aside, the game's combination of bloodsuckers who act like the rabid zombies of the cinema of the 2000s, Underworldish vampire clans and a splat of Twilighty romanticism pointed to pretty recent stuff. And after I'd done all that thought, someone who watched the TV show Buffy the Vampier Slayer told me with great confidence that that was probably the primary influence.
BOTH gives off a strongly goofy vibe through its predilection for one-liner gags and funny/cool character behaviour, but it's also a work of quite driven prose. It was probably the biggest CYOA game I'd ever played when I first encountered it, and also the one with the longest passages between each moment of player choice. I was curious about what a text game which was confident enough to use this much unbroken prose would be like. As I'd expected and hoped, it was able to build up a lot of momentum. I also felt that it was capable of instilling each choice with more context, potentially making the whole thing more character-centric.
While I'm grateful to BOTH for demonstrating all of this to me in a big, real world case, I did find it an effort to get through a lot of it because I just wasn't interested in the petulant vampires or their moderately complicated mythology. In this respect, the game definitely reminds me of my experience with most of Hollywood's recent films about supernatural clans.
If the writing and characterisation of BOTH were both excellent, that would obviously do a lot for player interest. The trouble with the former is that it's erratic. I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief. Some pages are in great shape while others are rife with typos and mistakes of tense. The characters tend to make the same kind of opportunistic jokes as each other, spreading a fuzzy zaniness across the game at the cost of character individuality. And I found the feuding vampire characters really annoying. They have a kind of Flash Gordon / Prince Barin rivalry going on, except that both of them are Prince Barin. The heroine (us), who unfortunately spends nearly all her time as an unwilling sidekick to one of the vampires, does develop over the game, mustering a tenacity which is underestimated by all the baddies. Her emerging resolve was a source of humour and tension which sucked me back into the second half of the game, but in the main I found too much of BOTH tiring or insufficiently involving. It would take more preparatory work than was done here, or more idiosyncratic characters, to get me interested in all these feuding vampires and the spectacle of their rampage.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Further is a short, parser-driven Z-Code adventure set in the afterlife, or at least after your death.
In my relatively short experience of IFComp prior to playing Further (2010+) I'd observed that afterlife games were a mainstay of the competition. They'd appeared in forms as various as the cerebral puzzlefest, the religious sampler, the existential angst generator and the poser of ethical and moral dilemmas. Further's approach is less complicated. It uses simple puzzles to dramatise the process of remembering your life as you head for the light. The result is a modest game which didn't stir my emotions as much as I think it might have liked to, but whose concept is clear.
In Further you start out as an insubstantial form lost in the haze. Exploration reveals a small map composed of elemental terrain: grass, a sandstorm, snow. Little objects from your life are lying around, and by FOCUSing ON them in the appropriately coloured locations you can revivify your memories, transforming the locations into clearer recollections of your life. The colours are also used to paint the relevant pieces of text and to clue you in to suitable locations.
The delivery of these mechanisms is simple. Only a handful of commands are required across the whole game and not much is implemented beyond the vital objects, but the lack of extra detail happens to suit the overall idea that only really important stuff from your life is of value to your ghostly or insubstantial self now, and that only that stuff can help you move on. The descriptions of the memories themselves may suffer a bit from the game's sparseness, at least in terms of their power, but they're in keeping with the whole. I also like the minimal prose used in the final room and the lack of a game over message – even though I admit I then went and peeked at the solution to make sure I really had reached the end.
I found Further's simplicity satisfying. At the level it pitches at, its idea plays out well.
(A tech anecdote: During IFComp 2013, I played this game online using an iPhone 5. While it responded instantly to most commands, it would typically pause for up to 25 seconds each time a Player Experience Upgrade response was invoked... Ouch! Player Experience Upgrade was Aaron Reed's suite of code for Inform 6G60 games which sought to supply more accessible than average responses when players typed stuff that wasn't understood. Obviously it was a CPU-crippler for some combination of Z-Code games and/or online play and/or the iPhone 5.)
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
The Challenge is a one and a half room demo with graphics which are stills from a simple 3-D modelling exercise. You can turn to face in different directions. There's a knife. And that's about it. If IFComp had a qualifying round, The Challenge would have been eliminated at that stage because the competition is not a venue for incomplete tech demos.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
Sigmund's Quest is the visually colourful point-and-click introduction to an incomplete CYOA style adventure based on a tale from Norse mythology. It runs in a web browser, and its deliberately magnified, pixelated colour graphics fill the screen. Unfortunately this is way too short (I reached the end in about five minutes) to sell or indicate much about the game-to-be except that it will have some charming graphics.
The blurb mentions werewolves and incest; none of either were in evidence in my playthrough. The tip of the story didn't hook me, as the content demonstrated up until the endpoint was too generic a tale of medieval royalty. The prose is simple and a bit workmanlike, with an earnestness which does little to riff off the playfulness that the graphics suggest as an aesthetic possibility.
The author cites the inspiration of King's Quest. This is writ large in the visuals, but the aggressive attitude of the King's Quest games (which I really, really don't miss - both the games and the attitude) is not. Yet I feel there needs to be some kind of attitude here to something. That's what's missing.
Sigmund's Quest competed in IFComp 2014. There was no rule against entering incomplete works, but historically they've faired poorly. The context is 99% of the reason why. If I'm given scores of games to play, why would I want to play one which isn't finished? Or in this case, barely begun? In IFComp, receptivity to a demo can plummet at the moment the player realises it's a demo.
To put an Introcomp spin on what I experienced of Sigmund's Quest, I wouldn't be interested in playing the rest of it if it were to continue in the fashion already demonstrated, and that’s primarily because I'm not trusting the prose or writing to become interesting if they continue in the fashion already demonstrated. Such a perception all comes down to the smallness of the sample space presented by this intro, one way or another.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
Milk Party Palace is a brief CYOA comedy in which you play a slack hotel employee who needs to round up six gallons of milk to appease visiting celebrity Alec Baldwin. Your eye is also on the twin goals of attending Baldwin’s "Milk Party" and finding out what a milk party even is. With the tone of the game being a bit juvo-Hollywood-teen-comedy wack, I wondered if a milk party might turn out to be a celebration vaguely along the lines of a lemon party, but I will not spoil such a revelation in this review.
Milk Party was made in Unity, a rarity for a text game, and demonstrates a clean and efficient link’n’click style. Once I'd reached one of its three advertised endings, I decided I'd had enough. Obtaining the gallons of milk involves cajoling or harassing various hotel guests by negotiating some absurd scenarios in their respective rooms. This absurd comedy seems to be Milk Party’s main purpose, but I quickly fell offside with the game, which caused me to click away impatiently at each encounter in an effort to hurry through it. I felt critical of my unreceptive state afterwards and tried to work out what I hadn’t liked.
It could be as simple a factor as that it all started off with the anticipation of a very short game involving a celebrity, a description which made me interest-weary. Then came the business of chasing up the milk itself, which was almost hard slog. The guests are understandably wary of your bugging each of them for milk, and the encounters are structured around the pains of you trying to extricate the needed gallons in the face of ridiculous verbal and physical hurdles. These hurdles somehow reminded me in nature of the kind of conversations I’d expect to have to suffer in hell, were I to end up there, albeit shorter in length. It's testament to some kind of effectiveness of what the game is doing along these lines that I did feel aggravated by the hurdles, even though they are less "real" than they might be in a parser-based game, where you could become physically or literally stuck against a puzzle. That can't happen to you in Milk Party, but I was still a bit teeth-gnashy throughout the experiences described in the prose.
So even though Milk Party is not all that long, it feels strenuous. Its brand of absurd thwarting is legitimate comedy fodder – and I found some of it funny – but that wasn't enough to drive me to want to engage with its stuff. Deep down in my heart of hearts, I did not feel motivated to care about getting milk for Alec Baldwin, as fine an actor as he is, and thus I did not get into the shenanigans involved in doing so.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2015 IFComp.)
In 5 Minutes To Burn Something! you've got to start a fire in your apartment to cover the false alarm raised by your toaster before the firemen arrive, thus avoiding a false alarm fine. Sure, this is a damagingly uncivilised course of action, but the whole game leans obviously to the silly.
5 Minutes is an incarnation of the most staple of staples of the IF Competition: A parser game in which you have to solve an impractical physical problem in a closed environment using a disparate bunch of props before a time limit runs out. Other staple factors include the environment being the player's apartment, a wack approach to humour and the prose's fixation on the PC's crummy ex.
5 Minutes does all its basic stuff right and exhibits some touches of advanced mindfulness: Certain commands don't waste your precious turns, there's a complete and context-sensitive hint system, some text is formatted in colour, etc. It's an old school-leaning adventure in the sense that the relationships between the puzzles and the solution objects can be pretty abstruse; it certainly requires a try everything on everything mindset embracing kitchenware, bathroomware and miscellaneous apartment crap. The implementation is too fuzzy for the fiddliness of the puzzles, leading to some guess the verb problems and uneasiness about whether you've really investigated each prop thoroughly.
I did come to feel that I knew my apartment very well during play, but the PC's constant harping on her ex-boyfriend through the lens of object descriptions tired me. This was the primary means of giving the PC some character. The danger with this game's kind of wack tone is that it can easily blanket all of the content. If I found the conjured boyfriend to be a caricature of a jerk, I found the PC to be a caricature of someone who dated a jerk and then never shut up about it. So I didn't find the game to be as funny as it probably hoped it would be.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2014 IFComp blog.)
It's usually lazy of a reviewer to summarise the content of a game they're reviewing by reprinting its blurb, but I think the blurb for Tia Orisney’s IFComp 2014 entry Following Me already does the best possible job for the purposes of my review, and handily builds in the limits of advance information the author would like players to know about the game:
"Two women take a wrong turn in the woods and make a gruesome discovery. They seek help from a mysterious stranger and are dragged into a vicious trap that they will be lucky to survive.
The story is delivered in a CYOA format characterised by long, unbroken passages of text studded with infrequent moments of choice and ‘Continue’ buttons. It’s a substantial read. Tia’s long format prose, within the context of this kind of game, was on display in two entries in the 2013 IFComp, of which I fully played one, Blood on the Heather", a wacky Buffy The Vampire Slayer-style adventure which wavered for me between being compelling and tiring. I remember the drive of much of the prose though, about which I wrote:
“I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief.”
Following Me is a serious snowbound thriller which threatens to get very heavy. There's still the distraction of some loose proofreading dragging on the author's obvious storytelling skills, but the plot is tight, the whole thing is quite tense and the construction dense enough to push through problems. Psychologically it stays truthful to the headspace of Kat, the protagonist, and her moment to moment bursts of thought. (Occasionally I felt it was a spot off here – it's not that people don't have the odd bizarre and ostensibly comical thought during times of real peril, but I don't believe they narrate it to themselves at the time using the language they’d use to narrate it to someone else later. i.e. They have no time for a longer or circumspect view because they’re in immediate peril. Kat did this a bit too often for my taste. This is not a big nitpick in a piece which is psychologically on target most of the time.)
The physical manifestation of the bad guys is finally handled, too, the way Kat observes their little tics and physical dynamics. How they say things, where they look when they are delivering particular threats, how they brandish their rifles and how the older man brandishes his cane. These details accumulate to vividly convey the repugnance of their characters, and the experience of being a woman who has become their prisoner.
The choices offered always read as weighty alternatives and they caused me a lot of player deliberation, though the ultimate construction of the game is such that most roads eventually lead to Rome. The choices create different vectors to get there, shepherding the prose in a broad way that reflects a choice you probably made heavily, and so whose outcome you are predisposed to invest in. Because Following Me is a thriller with life-and-death stakes for the characters, I think this scheme works well in this game.
Baluthar is a fantasy-horror adventure set on a world which has been invaded by the Ivarns, a destructive and technologically advanced race. While this setting informs the events of the game, it does so from quite a distance. The game itself is really about a father following his missing son down the horrible dungeon in the well outside their hut. You play the father, and must first drag yourself out of bed after reading a heavy, non-diegetic quote from the book of Ecclesiastes.
The construction of the sense of the greater world in Baluthar is impressive. The game physically presents just a very specific part of it, but through the ruminations of the character of the father, and through scenic features like paintings and through the anthropology of the game's rather horrible monsters – which are lovingly described – a strange portrait of the whole begins to emerge. I see that the game was criticised upon its release for not letting the player venture out into that whole, but this element didn't bother me. The game's achievement is the grotesque inventory of creatures and weird artefacts it delivers in the space of a single dungeon: a child-ghoul, rooms awash with rivers of fist-sized corpse beetles and a half-alive skull embedded in a laboratory wall amongst them.
Getting around these creatures and overcoming hostile magic are the subjects of the game's puzzles. They aren't too complicated, and there's a completist hint system built in if you get stuck. The writing is vivid, certainly purple at times, overloaded with too-long sentences and prepositions, but given the intensity of the content and the shortish duration of the game, the style does not outstay its welcome for what it's doing. It is also clever in building up the world mythology out of little strokes and asides distributed throughout the prose.
The parser itself is the weak point. It just isn't honed enough to deal with some of the more obvious ambiguities of player intent in relation to the game's content. Baluthar was the author's first game, and programming up the interactions is his obvious site for improvement. But as a fantasy puzzle game with a horror-leaning aesthetic, it is self-contained, imaginative and satisfying.
The game potentially doesn't follow up on the existential weariness expressed in its opening, but I'm not sure. After it was over, I found myself thinking about the way the character of the father had been expressed. Weary at first, single-minded in his quest to find his son, wordless by the end. Perhaps it was the ASK/TELL system, implemented rather feebly in Baluthar for communication between the father and son, that left a querulous feeling on this front.
Vlad the Impaler is a grim and incredibly bloody choice-based adventure set in Istanbul in 1452. After choosing to play as the explorer, soldier or mage, the player is tasked by an old friend – one who seals his letters with a big red V – with saving the city from a blight of natural and supernatural corruption.
With its character classes, small array of stats and its karma meter, the game aims for replayability over linear depth. Concentrated initial plays may last from 45 to 90 minutes, and there are considerably more encounters available across the finite map of locations than are accessible in any one session. The presentation is lush, with a fixed colour palette of black and white with red highlights, an inventory of expressive pencil drawings of the characters and locations and brooding loops of string music in the background.
The PC is written as a major force in this world of atrocious crime and madness. In almost anything you try to do, you will succeed, or have a solid chance of succeeding – at least for a good part of each game. This may sound like a recipe for boredom, but the high volatility of the encounters and the oppressive atmosphere of Vlad ensure quite the opposite. There is a sense that no matter how many amazing things you do in the city, no matter how many individuals you save from being violated, sold into slavery, murdered or torn apart by monsters (and you tend to tear the bad guys apart yourself) that you're up against too much evil for one person. This feeling is reinforced by the great despair evinced by most of the NPCs about their situation. They also regard you with an awe that inspires heroism, or at least perseverance.
The writing is mostly pointed and effective. It's also especially vivid in a lot of cruel scenes, but this content is balanced by a moral weight. The PC isn't heedless, nor are the citizenry of the cursed city. The characters discuss what's happening, why it may be happening, where does evil come from – without or within? The sense of these ideas is well conveyed through the whole dark aesthetic of the game.
The prose does suffer from bizarre technical variability, though. The strong focus and flow of the majority of it makes me wonder how it could also flop sometimes into great spates of overpunctuation (!!!?) and why there are phases where commas or semicolons just vanish, leaving a bunch of run-on sentences. It's as if half of it was proofread and half wasn't, or different people wrote different stretches in isolation. This didn't hamper my enjoyment overall, but did make me wonder how it happened.
What a greater number of players have been concerned about is the lack of continuity written into a lot of the encounters. You might see an option to 'Ask someone to translate the runes you found earlier' when you don't remember finding any runes. It becomes apparent from the prose that the scope of the actions you're taking in the city is assumed to be greater than just what you read during the course of a playthrough; you're a powerful figure achieving a lot off-screen as well as on. So if you take this attitude that a richer sense of all your character's doings will build up over repeat plays, you'll be okay, but I can appreciate this as a valid point of criticism against the game for many players, given how attentive Vlad is to mechanics in other areas, and that some players will just never accept being given so many shorthanded summaries of things they've 'done'. I personally felt the positive value of the game's approach in that it gives the PC's doings a breadth and depth that would be hard to effect if every single part of them had to be explicitly played through in a game of this length.
The trick of Vlad is working out what your stats are for and how they're affected by your handling of encounters. You can see your stat values and you can see when they go up and down, but 'die rolls' are not displayed at times when they're relevant, nor is it indicated when those times are. The game's structure is that of a broadening fan of encounters you can visit in almost any order you choose, followed by a narrowing into a gauntlet of situations in which deadliness to the PC increases significantly.
I found the whole game tremendously engaging for several playthroughs, but paradoxically, once I'd worked out how the stats figure into major events, the replayability factor the game pushes for weakens a lot. Too many critical moments in the game are either predictably easy, or so hard that it feels pointless trying to reach them again just to have another chance to roll a really high number on an invisible die. If you're killed, your saved games within the current play session die as well. So the weakness is that every game eventually becomes a stat test against the 'gauntlet' section, and you have to replay the whole game to get back there.
There are a lot of other tricks and secrets I can't elaborate on without spoiling, as well as a pile of Steam achievements to be had for people who like that sort of thing. It's just that these elements don't add up to the solid replay model the game seems to promise at the outset. However, by the time I'd come to these conclusions, I was already more than satisfied with my experiences in this dark and bloody world.
2013 was a prolific year for this author. The first game by MTW I played was The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons, and in the same year he released all of Castronegro Blues, Ill Wind, Dark Carnival, The Vanishing Conjurer and The Voodoo You Do. Several of these are Lovecraft-meets-hardboiled period mysteries in which you play an anonymous (or at least unnamed) detective – or dick. I feel like calling him the anonymous dick because he certainly can be a dick, and so can most of the NPCs he has to deal with in these amusingly profane games set in lurid environments.
You play the dick again in Dark Carnival, and are charged with investigating several mysterious disappearances at a run-down carnival east of town. The place is populated by a bunch of hopeless, cynical and foul-mouthed carnies, which might explain why I didn't see any customer NPCs on the premises. The carnies are very busy, as are all the NPCs in this game. There are tons of people wandering around, looking at you or the scenery, or doing carny things like yelling swear words. All this action plus the extensive carnival map (every exhibit has its own room, or series of rooms) makes for a great feeling of animation.
My main problem with the game is that the investigation isn't well integrated with all this content. From the word go, you've got five murder incident reports to ask NPCs about. That's a mountain of 'ask X about first', 'ask X about second', 'ask X about third', etc., to get through. And for the most part, people either have no significant information for you, or they just tell you, in their own colourful fashion, to piss off. But there are so many NPCs here it's hard to give up on the asking as you continue to hope to find the needle in the haystack.
I'm not sure I ever found a needle. It was only by thorough investigation of the locations that I stumbled into the hidden section of the carnival. The maze design and atmosphere down there were exciting, but when I solved the case, I felt it had been pretty much a case of 'and in a single bound, Jack was free'. All my conversation attempts had achieved little, mechanically. There's evidence that they should have achieved more – for instance, some hidden portals in the game block the player and suggest one should do more investigating upstairs, first. But I only found these portals after I'd reached areas on the other side of them. Whether this was down to bugs or oversight, the consequences were the same.
Comparing this to Brian Timmons, that game was very well directed as an investigation game, if linear. Carnival goes in for a much busier world and a theoretically more interactive investigation model, but that world isn't feeding the investigation mechanics. Nevertheless, the whole is again vividly written in MTW's style, with the particular attitude of this series strongly represented.
The Pyramid of Anharos hails from the heyday of Eamon, a time when Eamon authors who were making what you might call serious adventures – rather than jokey or personally expressive ones – were constantly trying to come up with new ways to outsmart (read: destroy) players who by now had about 100 different paths to hack or cheat their way around standard Eamon mechanics. Where swathes of powerful monsters might not ultimately stop a PC, difficult custom-programmed puzzles that paid no heed to the PC's engorged stats or superweapons probably would. Thus solidified the tradition of difficult, player-killing puzzle Eamons.
My speculation is that this author versus player attitude was exacerbated within Eamon because of authors' infuriating visions of character-hacking, upstart players who really needed to be facepunched to the floor. After all, if you had slaved away at making a challenging Eamon adventure, and you'd finally got it out there back in the days when getting it out there was infinitely more difficult than it is now, would you enjoy the thought of having your game cleared promptly by cheaty types?
Pyramid of Anharos definitely facepunches the player to the floor. It's not really wrathful about what it's doing, but if you put a character you like in the disk drive, it's guaranteed that they will be killed and deleted, probably multiple times, assuming you backed them up or cheated in the first place. The reason this is so tiring in Eamon is because you do have to keep cheating, hacking, breaking the game off and switching disks if you want to complete it, restarting every time. Your saves are deleted, too. Pyramid has tough puzzles and one undoable instant death after another. I reached a point where I become too annoyed with all this to want to risk experimenting any more, so I hit the walkthrough.
The puzzle collection and overall coherence of this game is actually pretty good in an adventuresome sense, and that's why I give it three stars – I consider it a worthy example in the Eamon catalogue of the kind of hyper-frustrating aesthetic I've described. I don't recommend playing it today if you're seeking an entertaining challenge; I only recommend playing it to see what these killer games were like.
There's a desert maze you can overcome if you just hire a guide. Glyphs you can read to learn secret words you need to say. Mummies you can search to find magic items. A few annoying riddles to answer. A gauntlet of deadly rooms with increasingly ravaged corpses on their thresholds as a warning. You also need to keep your water supplies topped up or you die of thirst. The main problem with Pyramid is that you get killed just for trying things out. The other problem is that it's particularly variable in its implementation approach. Sometimes important items are picked out, sometimes they're buried in the scenery. Sometimes you find a secret door by just LOOKing again, sometimes you need to examine a specific unhighlighted object. This amounts to you having to try interacting with everything in about four different ways to pluck the needles from the haystack. And in Pyramid, nothing is not in the haystack.
The author, Pat Hurst, was known for throwing some moral content into his Eamons, mostly of the 'help a beggar or pay later' variety. There's another beggar in Pyramid, though weirdly there's also a desert raiders camp where you basically need to pick which group of folks you'll hack down in order to get to the other side – the children, the women or the men. Tom Zuchowski's walkthrough opts for the women; like he says, it's the most direct route. And when a game is as unreasonably difficult as Pyramid of Anharos, you probably don't want any more indirect routes. It has notable production values, but it's also a prototypically devilish player-killer from middle school Eamon.
Bug-ridden, incomplete, and unintentionally very funny.
The opening line is: "This text based game puts you inside a modern American with the intent to steal a very desirable item..." Presumably a kidney.
Room descriptions are definitely from the couldn't-be-bothered school: "There is a single window here but nothing else, really. Some grass I guess."
And for a game which is about breaking into a house to steal something valuable, the burglar protagonist has set some pretty low bars. My favourite response came when I entered GET TOWEL while scoping out the house's swimming pool:
"You pick up the towel. Nice."
If I'm this admiring of my completely unimpeded theft of a used towel from a suburban back yard at 12:34 AM, and apparently also of the towel itself, I don't think I really need to be heisting jewels to satisfy my will to power. Some much simpler and infinitely less dangerous activity is in order for me!
The Interstellar Text Adventure materialised on the official website for the film Interstellar in March 2015. The ASCII art title screen and mention of Zork in the first paragraph of the FAQ gave off a vibe that the game might turn out to be more of a novelty promotional item rather than a legitimate standalone entity, but this proved to be an unfair assessment. The Interstellar Text Adventure is a small but narratively solid prequel story to Christopher Nolan's film. The game sees you playing one of the Lazarus mission astronauts, and opens with your waking from cryosleep on an unknown planet. Your goal is to determine if it is fit for human life and then to broadcast your findings so that they can be picked up by any who might follow you. Your companion on the mission is a walking, talking robot called PLEX, whose Humour and Honesty settings can be adjusted, as per the film.
The prose is good at evoking the geographical strangeness and splendours of the mystery planet, and does so at length. The dialogue for the robot's practical observations and bad jokes is also effective. However, it should all have gone in for more proofreading; sometimes it's evident that an automatic spellchecker has made the wrong choice and that the result simply hasn't been picked up.
What may cause a few old hands to smirk is that the game's puzzle content is very traditional. It includes a maze that can be solved by dropping things and a text version of something akin to the old Lunar Lander game, where you must burn fuel at the correct rate to touch the ground at a safe speed. There's also an oxygen limit attached to your spacesuit, but you can refill the suit whenever you return to your ship and you're unlikely to find yourself in real danger of running out.
The puzzles must still be viewed as being of potentially extreme hazardousness, given that there's no proper save feature. You can save the game and return to it later, but you can't manually restore an old saved position; to die is to return to the start. Once I'd confirmed this, I felt no compunction about using the COMMANDS HERE option at critical moments, which handily lists all valid commands for the current situation.
So there is a novelty angle in the game after all, in that it builds on a popular modern film and uses it as an opportunity to demonstrate some old school entertainment to a lot of that film's audience who will be unfamiliar with it. But importantly, what surrounds these puzzles is a genuinely interesting narrative about what may be necessary to support human life on an alien planet. There is also a moral choice to be made about what you will do if you are forced into the position of being the bearer of bad news about this planet's habitability.
The game's parser is certainly clunky. It hardly knows any synonyms, and expects a mixture of simple and very complex commands to be entered in turn. Fortunately these problems are mitigated by the presence of the COMMANDS HERE feature, along with its inevitable embrace by anyone serious about completing the game. There are a few other bugs about, the robot's variable settings are under-utilised, and there are puzzle moments that don't work because important text scrolls away and can't be retrieved.
In spite of these problems, the story delivery works. The potentially complicated business of installing environmental probes around the planet is made accessible and comprehensible. The environmental science musings are interesting. The astronaut's relationship with the robot can be affecting, even within this short span of game, and I found the finale moving. The whole game fits as a satisfying elaboration of one aspect of the film. The weird physicality of the robot is probably the only element you won't perceive if you haven't seen the film, as it is not described in the game, but I think that the rest of the content is capable of standing alone. You'll just comprehend it faster if you've seen the film.
A quick CYOA in which - in game parlance - you die and must restart after every second move because whatever you decide to wear and wherever you choose to go (two choices) you are sexually harassed by a man or men.
The mixture of cuteness and smartarsery in the writing, in combination with the girly pink colour scheme, is broadly funny. This tone extends into the dialogue and content of the harassments. That they are so frequent and display such a variety of dialogue and invention that they acquire an overkill quality in this context which is inevitably funny and exasperating, and makes them palatable in spite of their volume. And the game is in tune with player exasperation. It starts to offer an 'I give up' option at about the right time.
The punchline when you do so is: 'BLAM! Welcome to life as a woman.'
(OK, I admit I added the 'BLAM!')
So this very small game is well structured for its idea. This leaves us with the idea and the question of who it's for. I'm already aware of the specific point that a woman might be sexually harassed whether she is wearing a low cut item or a tracksuit, and this is the game's main point. So telegraphing that at length and then saying 'BLAM!' was not revelatory for me personally, but that doesn't mean it might not be revelatory for someone else. The practicality of the point makes it a good one for people who might not have thought about such things much, or at all.
Based on what's (figuratively) written on the box, a woman need not play Female Experience Simulator. After all, she doesn't need to simulate the experience of being a woman; she's experiencing it. Nevertheless, were she to play it, my punt on what her experience might be like - informed by my experience of playing Female Experience Simulator - is that the game would be likely to hit the recognition spot with a leavening of humour, but obviously without any revelations.
If the game actually advocated hopelessness or hopeless behaviour (eg 'You MUST run home to cry whenever you are sexually harrassed!') I would have flushed it down the toilet to join other self-deludedly defeatist crap like the works of Samuel Beckett. However I think it's obvious that this game is not making a point beyond: A woman can experience sexual harrassment in spite of how she dresses or presents herself. Which is important if not known. A man may learn this by playing. A woman already knows it. The game manages to do this with some humour, and it's pretty light, so it's a stretch to read much further into it.
This review is already in severe danger of brandishing more content than the game itself, so it's time to stop.
As a basic-as-can-be, clickable Choose Your Own Adventure aimed at helping people to read English, or which at least tries to be easy to read, Find the Gold isn't achieving its aims. I expect such a game to be absolutely transparent in its communication. Problems include:
- The way new information fades in over the old information is likely to be visually and mentally irritating to any reader.
- The game prints the consequences of clicked on actions only after reprinting the current room description and hyperlinks. That would be OK for a 16kB game from 1980 but it's not OK for a Twine program from today with educational goals. Actions and their consequences get separated.
- The turn of phrase 'a door in back of you' is weird, and it's used all the time. I think in this context most Americans would still say, 'There is a door behind you.'
- The 'You can only take one thing!' message is important but poorly chosen. If it actually means 'You can only ever hold one thing', players will be confused. I was confused.
- It is difficult to download and open this HTML file-based game in the first place, requiring trickier than average navigation of Google Drive followed by manual dropping of the product on your web browser.
Find the Gold's writing, logic and programming all need lots more work. So does the distribution method.
Whatever IF is, it does not reach to describe this game, which is the kind of simple point'n'poke piece you might expect a very young kid to play on a tablet. The graphics are nice but there's no story branching (and no story, just a situation) and the action mechanics don't work well. The 'Collect some apples' screen in particular is strange, underexplained and poorly designed; you can rain apples all over the countryside and none of them will go in the apple cart. However, moving a stone inbetween the sheep and cart afterwards can result in an instant level clear. The action on the cider pressing screen is frustrating and tedious to execute. There's also no sound.
My observations are that (a) I don't think this game should be listed on this site in the first place, and (b) it's not ready for a public unveiling to children or adults.
A game like I'm Fine is pretty hard to assess as a game. It's the hypertext monologue of a young gay man suffering through the most grinding lower layers of depression and hopelessness. Player choices are along the lines of ‘Take the call’ or ‘Ignore this person’, and as per the level of dysfunction of the character, tend to make little difference to his life. If you do take someone's call, you're not doing so with the wherewithal to exact a change on your existence. The communication is likely to be totally ineffectual, still drizzled with the protagonist's conviction that all is useless. I wouldn't expect otherwise from someone in this state.
I don't like assuming stuff about autobiographical qualities in games. Maybe that means I'm destined to miss the point of Twine games like this one. Maybe I'm supposed to start from a position that this is entirely confessional - in which case I would say that the author knows the dirge of the self-hating monologue very well. The experience of this game is the experience of reading the diary of someone who is morbidly depressed. Day upon day, page upon page. This kind of depression scrapes away all of the horizon, leaving only a circling in language which is devoid of individuality and consistent across sufferers who express it.
Rhetorically: Do such confessionals makes for good games? The nature of the phenomenon written about in this game makes it pretty impervious to your interactions or most other kind of digression. You'll read screen after screen of the same self-critical thought processes. If you recognise them, it's variously an unpleasant reminder, an empathy stirrer, but still basically frustrating, because you already know that all of the pages are the same - unless the only attitude you bring towards the whole game is: “I hear you and your pain.” This is an explicitly uncritical gesture that is essential to make at some point towards anyone suffering like this, but this game isn’t the person, and I can't be uncritical towards it when I am explicitly being a critic. A game is an entreaty to become involved using my thoughts, but perhaps more importantly to have some kind of Me or in-body relationship with an avatar. Again I feel this may be the principal difference between the audience that accepts this kind of game as simply an expression, and myself with all of my questions about an expression like this taking the form of a game.
If you don't recognise the thought processes expressed in this game, the experience may become a battle between your interest in perceiving something new (keep playing) and just wanting to get out once you realise that the protagonist is thoroughly convinced of the hopelessness of all actions. There is an overlap here with the mechanic of the much vaunted Depression Quest, but while I view that game as more of a novel tool/primer which can begin to educate people about the experience of depression, I’m Fine is absolutely realistic and out in the deep end.
I won't spoil the ending of the game, but I will say that I liked it and it made me feel that it had been worth persisting. 'Worth persisting' is also decent advice for the protagonist, and conceptually, the end of It's Fine is what brings the most value to the whole. The catch remains that the bulk of the game is spent moving through material that you will find almost verbatim in the diaries of the morbidly depressed or suicidal.
I continue to find it extremely difficult to interpret games like this, let alone stick a star rating on them. ( I know I don’t have to use stars, but I tend to like to be able to do so within the context created by this site. I don’t want to say something like, ‘This is too personal a game to the author for me stick a star rating on it,’ because I don’t think the author gets to decide that if they submit their game work to a site with star ratings.) Perhaps I'm not supposed to find it difficult at all; just to respond to and accept someone's expression. But in art I don't ever want to take an attitude of uncritical acceptance. Not every raw expression will make for a good game experience, no more than every cathartic expression a human being makes will be of benefit to all other humans. The expressive act itself can be the important thing. I understand that my floundering in this confessional game terrain comes because I often feel I’m being presented with the raw act and expected to find the value in that context, rather than that I should consider what decisions have been made to transform that material into a game. I want to do the latter because the material is being presented as a game.
The relative explosion of H.P. Lovecraftian text adventures occurred in the non-commercial period of IF dating from the 1990s and onwards. It might have happened irrespective of all external factors, but because Infocom released The Lurking Horror in 1987, that game is an obvious landmark. I was therefore a little surprised to find an earlier example in the form of 1984 Eamon adventure The Tomb of Y'Golonac. This game exhibits most of the qualities of the later Lovecraft games – reverence towards the subject matter, wide-ranging knowledge of the author's made-up mythologies and a competent or better pastiche of Lovecraft's writing style, liberally sprinkled with words like 'loathsome' and 'unwholesome'.
Being Eamon, this is Lovecraft done as a kill-em-all-before-they-kill-you explorathon, but Tomb's writing is decidedly above average for an Eamon. It creates an underground world of dank corridors and weird landscapes, and is capable of generating suspense about what dangers may lie ahead. A plethora of weird stains, evil smells and inexplicably dreadful feelings mark the corridors. While this atmosphere is likely to impress a new player, numerous harsh gameplay difficulties become apparent as one spends more time with this game and, unfortunately, they stop it from being fun in the end. Y'Golonac does have cause to be hard. As Pat Hurst pointed out in his review of the game back in the day, it reproduces the core aesthetic of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, itself a logical extension of the implications of Lovecraft's stories. That aesthetic consists of players having an incredibly low survival rate due to them being frequently smitten by the powerful and unknowable horrors from other universes encountered during play.
It's easy to make an Eamon hard in a thoughtless kind of way: Just give the monsters massive stats and pack the map with unheralded instant death rooms. In Eamon's time there was a degree of competition to make 'the hardest Eamon ever', and I don't blame people for trying to achieve this using the relatively limited toolset which was available. Eamon evolved pretty quickly during the 1980s, and later versions of the engine (6 and 7 especially) gave authors the ability to do more sophisticated stuff. Y'Golonac is a version 4 Eamon which mostly hacks the player down using a combination of big-statted regular monsters, super monsters which can kill with one blow and hard-to-avoid instant deaths. The SAVE command is locked and a cave-in prevents players from escaping back to the Main Hall if they want out early. The kicker, once all of these features are in place, is that 90% of the game's secret doors aren't clued at all, and can thus only be found by walking into every wall in every room. The map of 90+ rooms has been slyly arranged to maximise the difficulty of making real progress and the player who discovers the nature of the secret doors after a long spell of vigilant mapping is likely to feel as great a deflation of their spirits as I did.
For its atmosphere and quality of writing alone, The Tomb of Y'Golonac is a remarkable Eamon. It's also significant for being one of the earlier Lovecraft-themed text adventures around. However, the standard of unreasonably difficult play the game adheres to is most definitely of its time. I enjoy the challenge of discerning and hacking out the path through some of these harsh old combat adventures, but Y'Golonac is meaner than even I can stomach. I lost count of the number of times I died, restarted, missed exits or cheated without success (cheating with BASIC hackery is an easy and common tactic in Apple II Eamoning). Eventually I broke out the Eamon Utilities disk and used the Dungeon Mapper program to look at the parts of the game I hadn't been able to reach or find on foot. So while I don't regard Y'Golonac as worth completing for bragging rights, it is worth sampling for those interested in Cthulhu mythos text adventures, especially those interested in actually fighting Lovecraft's grotesque monsters rather than just imagining that they might be slithering about nearby. Y'Golonac doesn't become insanely difficult immediately, but those things which are good about it are present immediately.
Presumably a time will come when the author base of Quest format adventures ripens, but at this time of writing, it remains that the majority of these games (almost all of which are published online) are of the quality of learning exercises. Such is the case with The Intruder. This teeny CYOA of binary choices see the player waking one morning to the sounds of someone or something else in the house. Doing the wrong thing at any point leads you to a scary picture and sound which act as the Game Over message. In these circumstances, maybe it is scarier to convey Game Over without the use of any text, and without including any means of undoing or even restarting the game from within the main window. The trouble is that The Intruder has almost no content; the prose is ultra spare, the results of the handful of choices available are either predictable or boring – though in a broad sense you can probably intuit which choice is the wiser one to make of the two presented to you each time – and the whole thing is far too short.
In spite of all this, the "urban myth explained" win screen is curiously effective, though also likely to provoke head-scratching or laughter, since it says that (Spoiler - click to show)a man, an escaped lunatic, was the person who menaced you, but the scary graphic seems to be of a female and/or non-human monster.
Storm Cellar opens with the player driving through fields towards a sunset storm. A truck abandoned on the road blocks the way, forcing you out of your vehicle in some desolate terrain. The rustic Cicada Creek Motel is the only dwelling in sight, but is anybody home? From this traditional horror setup, Storm Cellar quickly develops an atmosphere of charged suspense and creepiness. Lit but inaccessible windows beckon mysteriously. Something is glimpsed slithering around the building. The deserted wooden decks of the motel prompt strong fears about what could be out there in all that open space. Cramped and dingy room interiors generate a different kind of insecurity.
As other reviewers have said, this game is of such high quality that it's a shame it was never expanded from this solid introductory chapter into a complete adventure. I had a feeling it might be good as early as the content warning screen, which seems to channel the introductory warnings of console-based survival horror games. In turn, I felt the positive influence of the Playstation's Silent Hill strongly throughout.
The prose is clear, measured out perfectly to breed suspense and sprinkled with dynamic atmospheric elaborations. The transitional lines of text describing your passage from one location to another are a neat touch. The puzzles are mostly about portals and blockades, doors and keys, and the yearning to find a way into each room is a strong motivator. My guess is that had more chapters of the game been created, the puzzles would have become more novel. This first chapter is about establishing access to the motel and setting the scene. It also demonstrates a smart and comprehensive parser.
Storm Cellar gave me real chills more than once and its horror elements are expertly wrangled. Usually I'm not interested in incomplete games, but as Storm Cellar is a veteran of Introcomp 2008, what exists of it is entirely functional. It also ends at a dramatically satisfying point (I.E. not just while you're walking down a hallway or something.) The game was ambitiously touted by its author as chapter zero of a pending eight, but it ended up being the only one. You should definitely play it if you like suspenseful horror.
P.S. There's no mention of the title Chapter Zero: Welcome to Cicada Creek in the game itself, only of Storm Cellar, but the author used the former title when he created the game's entry on IFDB.
This entertaining and incidentally educational Eamon sees your character plucked from his or her usual fantasy setting and transported to the present day (of 1983) to explore the Tower of London from the perspective of a tourist. The tone is a bit whimsical; your unusual dress and armour don't draw too much attention because the tower is already heavily populated with guards wearing funny traditional costumes and brandishing funny ornamental weapons. Just before you're hurtled through time, a couple of big suggestions are offered as to how you might play:
BECAUSE YOU'VE HEARD RUMOURS OF AN IMPENDING ATTEMPT TO STEAL THE CROWN JEWELS FROM THE TOWER OF LONDON, YOU DECIDE TO GO THERE... TO PREVENT THE THEFT?? OR TO STEAL THEM FOR YOURSELF!!
The only disappointment, then, is that the game doesn't follow up on actions you might have taken towards or away from either of these ends when it reaches its own end. It just finishes with the default "You ride off into the sunset" message and the pawning of your (likely enormous) haul of bounty. It's easy to play either protector or thief, though it's easiest to play both roles at the same time: To both kill all the thieving bad guys you will encounter on the premises, ranging from the pickpocket to the American tourist, and to also grab every treasure that isn't nailed down, including the Crown Jewels.
Tower sports a large and interesting roster of NPCs. It begins with the Friendly Woman who starts tagging along with you on the underground before you even get to the tower. On the grounds you'll meet numerous historical ghosts, everyone from Guy Fawkes to Sir Walter Raleigh. There are a bunch of beefy guards and yeomen stationed about the place, some friendly and some hostile, and lots of amusing and poorly disguised thieves. The Japanese tourist attacks you with his camera, while the weapon of the American tourist is his sharp credit card, that of the French tourist his loaf of bread. Fictional celebrities "Dr Hoo" and "Professor Moriarity" show up as well, the spelling of their names presumably tweaked to avoid any copyright issues.
I appreciate the authors' feat of converting the layout of the real Tower of London tourist site into a satisfyingly arranged game map, something that is fun to explore, a little bit tricky and consistently interesting. The prose in this game is very clean and vivid by Eamon standards, and there's also humour in your adventurer negotiating mundane features of the modern world like the gift shop, or having to buy tickets to enter certain areas of the grounds. A sign declares that weapons are prohibited inside the tower, and the programming enforces this – at least in the moment in which you try to step through the front gate. This gesture is probably intended to stop you from bringing in any superweapons from your previous adventures, and will cause you to instead arm yourself with something found on the grounds which is balanced for the toughness of the local monsters. I gave in to the sign's demand on my first play, but was later pleased to discover that there is a way to get around the sign built into the game. That's a pretty neat piece of design.
There's not much custom programming in this Eamon and there are no in-game payoffs for your play style vis-a-vis stealing the crown jewels or protecting them, but the recreation of the tower and the various characters encountered on its grounds are charming, and the humour of time travel and anachronisms is well used. The game may also be of historical value through what I suspect is its fairly accurate recording of the state of the Tower of London as a tourist destination in 1983.
One of the strange things about the mind is how seemingly long-forgotten information can be revived by the apprehension of brand new but similar information. Watching the floridly entertaining 1960s thriller Brides of Fu Manchu recently reminded me that an Eamon game called Superfortress of Lin Wang existed, and made me want to play it. So I did.
Superfortress is an out-and-out hack, slash and loot Eamon consisting entirely of exploration and combat. There are no secret doors or examinable room features, nor is there any custom programming. Bad guy Lin Wang has enslaved Japan and taken up residence in his henchmen-filled castle. Your job is to eliminate him, hewing through numerous ninjas, dragons and karate champions in the process and grabbing all weapons and treasures you see en route.
There are countless Eamon games in this vein, but Superfortress at least distinguishes itself with its clear aesthetic of martial arts bad guys and a sense of escalation of threat and variety. The author knows how to lay out a castle and to make the encounters heavier and more interesting as you progress. And the game's monsters don't just exhibit arbitrary stats. When you walk into a room with a dragon, both the prose and the nature of the preceding bad guys will have correctly cued you to expect that this will be a rougher fight.
With no puzzles or custom mechanics to test the player in other ways, this game is ultimately about how good your stats are versus those of the bad guys. Freshly minted characters who have completed nought more than Beginners Cave will get torn apart here. Even though I used the relatively tough Sam character from the Eamon Utilities disk, I died about five times before I won. (Proceedings weren't helped by the fact that there's a friendly NPC also called 'Sam' in Superfortress, meaning that reports on the status of his health were indistinguishable from reports on the status of mine.) There's always a chance that the worst monsters will take you out in two hits if you're simply unlucky, but if you save up all the hit points you can by learning the whereabouts of unnecessary fights earlier in the castle, you will optimise your chances of surviving on any playthrough.
Superfortress wasn't rated highly by the Eamon Adventurers Guild back in the day ("Once you've killed one Ninja, you killed them all" - Tom Zuchowski) but as an example of an unadulterated combat Eamon, it's decently designed and coherent. That counts for something, given the number of nothing-but-fighting Eamons in the library which aren't.
ADRIFT veteran Heal Butcher gets all weird on us in Worship the Pig, winner of the inaugural Questcomp held in 2013. Worship is essentially a hypertext click, look and walk journey through some strange and ornate scenery. The clickable keywords make for a clean and smooth delivery of the experience, with the most commonly appearing contextual menu action being "Look At". The imagery and feel reminded me of one of the David Lynch films not grounded in reality (EG Inland Empire) or of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. There is no plot to speak of, but there are anonymous figures, a garbed pig-man and crowds who say strange things. It all feels somewhat threatening, like you might be the only sane person wandering in a world of creatures who are freakish or alien to you – though these creatures also have a slavish civility about them, and seem to be following a set of rules that you don't understand. It is unsettling to be amongst them.
In the tradition of some other games with imperative titles, "Worship The Pig" turns out to be an action you can take one point, and in the context of this no-puzzle game, it's a significant decision. In terms of interactivity, the fact that you're still choosing when to move around and what to look at in general gives you a traditional IF trope to hang onto, one which, even on its own, can add a purposive feel to a game that's essentially linear bur not interested in revealing a clear narrative purpose.
I found the prose a tiny bit ripe, but it's undoubtedly vivid and has been well crafted to deliver the experience it wants to deliver. And that experience is bit freaky.
Pest, in which you play a rat in Black Plague era London, has the makings of a thorough puzzler, but is hampered by a fair few technical and writing oversights. The former manifest as bugs, the latter make the puzzles unnecessarily tough. There are no hints in or out of the game; my observation is that the Quest community hasn't worked up any culture of creating help to go with its games at this time of writing. I gave up on Pest after becoming stuck during its second major scene.
An introductory sequence in which the player flees from an unseen pursuer teaches the use of the various sense commands the rat can use (smell, listen, feel). The teaching works, but the rat's constant ruminations on his fate while this is going on are mostly at odds with the move to build suspense. There's too much repetition of material, or perhaps the repetition would work better if the player wasn't required to press a key to advance through every line of dialogue, which is pace-sluggening.
Pest needs to go for detail in its physical model of the world because it's about a small rat adequately positioning himself in relation to various people and objects, and interacting with them in clever mechanical ways. The scene in the stone dwelling shows the promise of this kind of thing, with different pieces of furniture at different heights which can be used to access each other, move around the room or draw the attention of its inhabitant, the broom-wielding Matlid.
What's missing from this scene is more exacting programming and prose. The physical relationships between the objects aren't adequately described, and these details are often crucial for visualising / conceptualising where things are and which courses of action may be fruitful. For instance, since the bag was on top of the cupboard, I didn't expect to be able to do anything with it, given that I was on the floor. But FEELing the bag turned out to be a big step forward. Paradoxically, the table is described in a manner suggesting you can get onto it. I never was able to do so, and its description only emphasised the fact that I was on the floor. Other bugs interacted with each other here; I was able to pick up things I shouldn't have been able to (EG the ladle - a bug fixed in the version 1.1 update) and perform one-shot actions more than once. I suspect the latter issue might have screwed up my game state.
I still enjoyed what little I played of Pest, and from what I've seen it promises more interesting design if you like solving physical puzzles when you're really small, but it definitely needs more work on its implementation to reach a level of stability and trustworthiness that will compel more players to persevere. And ideally to not even be thinking in terms of 'Should I perservere?' in the first place.
(I published the first version of this review on 3 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. Guilded Youth was the 3rd of 26 games I reviewed. The review has since been revised to address updates to the game.)
Guilded Youth is a smooth playing and charmingly presented story about the suburban adventures of teenaged Tony. Tony is preoccupied with the cool local manor which is soon to be demolished, and he sneaks in there each night in search of treasure. The game is set in the 1980s and delivered through the prism of the imaginative life shared by Tony and his friends on their local Dungeons & Dragons BBS game, where he's Tony the Thief.
Guilded Youth is linear, but not "I don't feel like I'm doing anything" linear, and its production values, including some graphics and sounds, are impeccable. Its atmosphere works on a couple of levels, that of the world of teenagers in general, and also with a degree of specific nostalgia or period feel for folks who grew up in the 80s or like 80s things, and for the entertainment from that time. The original IFComp version of the game had a disappointing ending (I wasn't the only person to say so) but Jim Munroe revised the tail completely in response, and it's now as good as everything else.
The BBS world is presented in pretty green monochrome which makes way for a contemporary online style when you take Tony out on one of his nightly jaunts. Character portraits of your friends and inventory images surround the screen, and there are cool discrete sound effects if you play with the Chrome web browser. The game is also very simple to control, letting you know that there are only a handful of commands which are actually required for play, though others will work. On each of your trips to the manor at night you are accompanied by different friends from the BBS whom you attract to your party with loot from the previous night. I should make it clear that there is no actual RPG engine in play. Each object only persuades a certain friend to come with you, and only on a particular night, so the linearity extends to all areas of the game.
Guilded Youth recalled for me the atmosphere of many 1980s movies about gangs of adventurous teenagers. The characters in the game are excited that they're getting to have such adventures, and hope to enjoy and prolong this feeling as much as they can before the manor is torn down, symbolically ending the fun and ushering them further towards adulthood. The characters are only as open to us as Tony's point of view allows, and à la their BBS characters (or the cast of The Goonies) each teen demonstrates a knack for a particular skill or way of doing things that fits neatly with the structure of going out with a different one or two of them each night. Tony even gets to (Spoiler - click to show)smooch the cool girl, which was the romance every boy liked to imagine himself in when he watched something like The Goonies. At least I assume the other boys were thinking the same things as me but that we all just never spoke about it. What's funny about the NPCs in the game (or just jealous-making) is that even though they don't say a tremendous amount of stuff or stay onscreen long enough to do a tremendous amount of stuff, they manage to leave a great impression of their liveliness, individual foibles and relationships in a way that's both fun and realistic.
KING OF BEES IN FANTASY LAND is a brisk fantasy/sci-fi CYOA which, in common with the same author's terrific You Will Select a Decision, is presented as an artefact from the recent past written in less than ideal English. Starting up King feels like starting up an '80s coin-op or Nintendo game, albeit one without pictures. The lettering is an all caps 8-bit font and the copyright notice says 1989. The style of the writing is that of mildly enthusiastic Japlish.
The player, addressed as Space Knight during the patriotic opening spiel, is charged with the mission of taking down the "evil King of Bees from Bee Fort" so that humans, who have wrecked their own planet, can colonise the bee planet Garaxas, aka Fantasy Land. The outward silliness of this plot and the game's presentation both put you in in a frame of mind in which you're immediately hungry for fun and success.
The fun is easy to come by. Whatever decisions you make once you hit the planet's surface, the game rolls with them. Even when you face seemingly important binary choices, like whether or not to trust the boardwalk which crosses the alligator swamp, you'll find that all roads tend to lead to ultimate success by their own methods, or that a blocked path will produce a discouraging loop which quickly pushes you onto an unblocked one. Messages will appear proclaiming exciting bonuses you've acquired for non-existent (mechanically speaking) skills, and whatever you do, the occasional exclamation mark is there to suggest that you're doing good, or The Right Thing.
The planet is busy with its bee inhabitants, and they're mostly friendly, chatty folk who offer no opposition to your march across their territory, or even an impression of being aware that opposing you is relevant or necessary. So even though the excitable 8-bit plot and tone of the game will have primed most players savvy to 8-bit conventions for combative action, most players will also find themselves pretty uninterested in vaporising friendly unarmed folk, except in the also 8-bit manner whereby they might just want to see what happens if they act like a jerk. The text gets prejudicial when the bees show up, with terse but aggressive options appearing like ERADICATE, but the delivery remains paradoxically light and encouraging, whether you're acting like Rambo or not.
The first time I played King, the contrary signals being sent simultaneously by different levels of the game about what I was doing as Space Knight started to put me in a nervous and suspicious mood. I was wondering if the game was going to suddenly turn around and tell me (or at least strongly imply) that I was a harmfully suggestible dumb-dumb of the kind who can easily be made to follow any orders. That might sound like a strong reaction to an ostensibly light game, but there seem to be an increasing number of IF games around which impart this lesson through degrees of player deception. It's not that I oppose games deceiving players per se; in fact IF is particularly good at doing this in lots of different ways, and to different ends. But sometimes in the case of games which offered the lesson, "You should have resisted the game's path for moral reasons", I had felt, when I reached the outcome, that I had simply been tricked.
I'm definitely not saying that this lesson or this schtick are the upshots of King, only that these issues do come into play. And I have deliberately not addressed a lot of King's content to avoid spoiling anything. There are some interesting, entertaining and surprising little turns of events tucked into this quite short game, and it's frequently cute, even while it's being serious. To understand all the aspects of what might be going on will take at least a couple of plays, and there's some new fun to be had on the way through each time. The voice of the prose is very authentic in reproducing the earnest and focused tone of Japanese 8-bit games, and the arrangement of the screen, fonts and colours are all attractive. The game is a fine example of how cute and simple aesthetics should not be underestimated in terms of their ability to deliver clever or thoughtful outcomes. Probably the biggest cleverness of King is that the expectations and aesthetics of the 8-bit are used both sincerely and for commentative purposes at the same time. My final advice on this game comes from the attract mode of 1980 coin-op Moon Cresta: "Try it now!! You can get a lot of fun and thrill"
The intent behind this game is clear - to teach some IF basics through a simple scenario involving you getting the newspaper from your mailbox, finding yourself locked out of your house and having to find an alternate way back in. The game fails because it barely works. It doesn't even demonstrate consistent behaviour within the nuances of the Quest interface.
The geography is confusing. The illustrations, while cute, only enhance that confusion. It was a poor choice to create those illustrations in black and white when the text consistently emphasises how sunny the world is. There are no synonyms for anything; "paper" will not do for newspaper. "OPEN MAILBOX" doesn't work; you must "search" or "look inside". The game fails to acknowledge that you have acquired the newspaper until a thunderstorm event happens. Some important and obvious objects do not appear in the "Places and Objects" menu. There is a silly instant death-by-car if you try to cross the road in front of your house, in spite of the game having previously suggested that "the grass is greener on the other side of the road". You can't undo from the instant death if you're using the online Quest player.
I don't think the game is completeable, which is to say that I couldn't complete it, and I made several serious attempts to do so. Amongst the buginess, inconsistent approaches and the general newbie-unfriendliness, the game certainly would not be good for newbies, and isn't suitable for anyone else, yet.
In 1981, you play a man stalking a woman. If "play" sounds light, perhaps it's more accurate to say you are almost chained to the actions of a man in the grip of erotomania (a deluded and obsessive romantic fixation). Due to the shortness of the experience, I will omit further description of either of the main characters, as I can imagine how some players may prefer not to know certain fundamental details of the setup going in. What is certain is the strength of the writing, which thoroughly sinks you into the headspace of the obsessed protagonist, and into his vivid fantasy life.
At the rawest level of game mechanics, 1981 caters to very few player actions; it is what is typically called linear. The obsessed PC imparts clear thoughts in the prose about the next important course of action, and it's generally a waste of time trying anything else. What's interesting is the extent to which this approach could be considered to work well with the subject matter of this game. The psychological disorder at work here is characterised by the subject's complete resistance to all attempts to convince them that the situation is other than they believe it to be. Perhaps this is the best "excuse" for linearity that there can be.
This raises the question of what the player's role is here. "Creepy" and "uncomfortable" have been common review descriptions of the experience of playing 1981. Players tend not to like playing "bad" characters in realistic situations, or even facilitating their actions. I think this remains a difficult or weak point for the prospects of certain kinds of storytelling being done with IF. 1981 may again supply its own solution with its subject matter. With the PC's character being presented so monomaniacally, the player is likely to feel a degree of separation from the PC's actions. If you try to break off the path, the PC either doesn't want to do your thing because it's irrelevant to his plans, or your thing isn't implemented, or both.
It would be difficult and tedious for me to try and describe how 1981 could work as easily as a short story as IF. I think it could, and in that form it would be clear of the "playing a villain" hurdle. But it works in this form with the caveats that you must play the villain and accept mechanical linearity, positions which are unpopular and still querulous to many, respectively. What you will get for this is the sensation that you are shackled to the PC's ruinous path and that there's no getting off. This kind of story trajectory fascinates me because being privy to the amount of effort that a human can devote to going entirely the wrong way in life is strangely illuminating about our capabilities as a species. 1981 is a psychologically strong excursion into this territory – though with little extra implementation – and also an interesting demonstration of one way to traverse a lot of difficult IF terrain to do with unlikeable protagonists and realism.
Spoiling background on the game: (Spoiler - click to show)This is an imagined recreation of the real case of John Hinckley Jr. and his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, resulting in his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. I knew about the case before playing the game, but the game doesn't reveal who the parties are until halfway through. I experienced a minor letdown at the moment of revelation, to an extent, only because I then felt I knew what was going to happen. But inevitability is such a strong part of this game anyway - this was really just my idiosyncratic reaction and no reflection on the game.
I had a problem during the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. I was supposed to be getting a move on and reviewing all of the other entrants' games, but I kept procrastinating by sneaking away to play Kerkerkruip. By the time the competition was over, I had played it at least 50 times in my quest to complete the game on Normal difficulty. This is testimony to Kerkerkruip's addictiveness, which grows out of the stiff but strategically overcomeable challenge it presents and the relatively infinite pool of circumstantial variations it offers to dungeongoers. The latter quality is what makes the game really memorable and anecdote-worthy once a player has got a handle on its mechanics.
A moment's divergence for the consumer guide part of this review: Kerkerkruip is certainly not a traditional IF game or text adventure in which the player solves unchanging puzzles en route to particular goals while possibly becoming involved in a narrative the author has laid out. This is a high-stakes game of Dungeons & Dragons adventuring in randomly generated dungeons. At the same time, it is delivered by text and controlled by a parser, and uses explorative elements in some typical adventure game-like ways. In all of these capacities, it is obviously from the school of text adventures, and not completely unlike a combat MUD or a modern incarnation of Eamon, though a plotless one. Also note that it is essential to at least read the Beginner's Guide before playing (I found this three page guide to be the easiest way into the game, as opposed to traveling through multiple inline HELP menus) or Kerkerkruip will promptly kick you to the pavement.
Your goal is to find and kill the evil wizard Malygris of the dungeon Kerkerkruip. You begin armed with a rapier; more significant weaponry and equipment must be found in the dungeon. Usually there will be about five other groups of monsters lurking around, and it is only by defeating these monsters and absorbing their powers and health in a wisely chosen order (new powers only accumulate if they are weaker than powers you already possess) that you will have a hope of becoming powerful enough to defeat the wizard. The dungeon contents and layout and the roster of monsters change every time you die or restart. You can't save the game except to take a break, and there is no UNDO. These danger-increasing elements are common to another genre of game Kerkerkruip announces that it belongs to: the roguelike, named, unsurprisingly, after a particular game called Rogue.
Movement is handled with the traditional compass commands, augmented by a "go to" command and a handy "remember" command, but the combat makes use of the ATTACK system originated by the author and is divided into Action and Reaction phases. By working with just a handful of well balanced temporal elements, Kerkerkruip ensures each decision you make about what to do next in battle carries significant weight. Should you Attack now, or build up the strength of your next attack by pausing to Concentrate? You can try to build up to three levels of concentration, but if you're struck in the meantime, your concentration will be broken. On the other hand, if you never concentrate, your attacks won't grow strong enough to finish off the bad guys before they finish you.
This core system is simple enough for anyone to understand, but its application in any moment is modified by a huge number of variables, amongst them: the geography of the room you're in (e.g. it doesn't pay to Dodge while fighting on a narrow bridge over lava), the nature and habits of the enemy you're facing (e.g. animated daggers attack ceaselessly and break your concentration as often – the jumping bomb will never break your concentration, but if it gathers enough concentration itself, it will explode and kill you instantly), the Tension in the air (how long has it been since anyone last struck a blow?), your current status and arsenal of powers, and the interference of a further array of supernatural stuff like fickle dungeon gods or weird summoned entities.
The sum effect of the play amongst all these interrelated elements is that Kerkerkruip is capable of generating the exciting sense that with almost every move you make, the whole game is at stake. The circumstances of danger can rearrange themselves into so many different patterns that a lot of your battles will strike you as uniquely memorable, even when you're dealing with the same small roster of monsters over and over again. You can marvel at a seemingly (or actually) brilliant series of moves you make that succeed in resuscitating your prospects when you're down to 1 hp. Similarly you can laugh at the results of a particularly bold, stupid or unlucky move that backfires spectacularly, or at some confluence of events so extraordinary that you'll feel like telling someone else about it. You will certainly die far more often than you will win, but this is a game where experience, exploration and repeat plays really pay off, and the strategic element is always vivid, the prospect of victory always tantalising.
Ultimately, Kerkerkruip is an essential and massively replayable game for dungeon and combat fans, and also demonstrates the kind of novelty and elegant design that is inspiring in general.
The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons is a Lovecraftian adventure based on a scenario for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, a scenario in turn based on H.P. Lovecraft's short story 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward'. In spite of its convoluted sounding provenance, this game is actually one of the most accessible Lovecraft IF games out there. A player doesn't need any prior knowledge of the source material or of Lovecraft's work to be able to get into it, and while it's of moderate size, it's more about linear action than the kind of painstaking puzzling folks often associate with Lovecraftian games ala Anchorhead. A word of caution; it's also a game which gets shootier and bloodier as it goes on.
While Lovecraft's protagonists usually have some kind of personal involvement in the supernatural goings-on they face, the PC in Brian Timmons doesn't. He's a detective from the hardboiled school who gets mixed up in a stranger's supernatural goings-on only because they stand between him and his next paycheck. The novelty of adopting an outsider's viewpoint is a welcome one in this busy IF subgenre, and the detective brings humour, attitude and action to the table – three things you normally don't much associate with Lovecraft. The resulting game is straightforward, episodic in a good way and becomes quite gripping as you move towards its climax, though some elements of the delivery could be improved.
Brian Timmons is divided up into scenes set in different locations. Each car trip you take from one location to the next acts like a chapter break, and you don't have to worry about deciding where to go. The hero chooses the next relevant stop as soon as he's got enough fresh leads from the current one. While the game itself suggests you should use ASK and TELL to communicate with its characters – and at times it's essential to use these methods – the majority of communication actually consists of the NPCs telling you their stories one line at a time. While a lot of games use this method and it gets the job done, the game could be richer if it would allow the player to interject with some relevant ASKing and TELLing (as is, the characters only respond on the most vital of topics), though I acknowledge this is never an easy area to program. The characters do a lot of neat fidgeting of their own accord when not speaking, and the game is also generally strong in the area of random atmospheric detail, throwing in lots of little snippets about passers-by, the weather and other environmental changes.
Where the game has some trouble is in getting all of its content to live in the same place tonally, at least at once. When the hardboiled shtick and language are in evidence, they really dominate. But they vanish too easily when the detective isn't delivering his Chandler-esque wisecracks, allowing the game to be overtaken by more utilitarian descriptive text. The sexy dame character is a bit cringy in this light – she triggers the "poured into her dress" remarks in extremis, but in isolation, and thus comes across more as a reminder of the game's tonal wobbling than an authentic seeming femme fatale character justified by the genre and context.
I have a few other nitpicks. The game suffers a bit from empty porch syndrome. It needs a little more proofreading. The inventory limit can aggravate, though this last point is mitigated by the coolness of having a trench coat with pockets of seemingly infinite depth. And it's just fun to wear a trench coat and Fedora in general. I enjoyed The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons a lot. It's also a game which comes without hints, and I was pleased to be made to solve it off my own back, pausing occasionally to scratch my head.
Voodoo Castle (1979) was the fourth game from Adventure International (AI). It was written by Scott Adams's then wife, Alexis, who had previously assisted on Pirate Adventure, and its opening enthusiastically proclaims that it is "DEDICATED TO MOMS EVERYWHERE!".
The goal of Voodoo Castle is to lift the curse that afflicts Count Cristo, a goal established after the player has opened the coffin in the game's first location and examined the man therein. In the context of the Adams game engine, this is a fairly abstract goal; recall that all of the prose must be extremely minimal (room descriptions generally come in at under 40 characters in length), the parser only accepts two words, and the whole affair has to fit into 16KB of RAM. Doing something like finding treasures and dropping them in a target room, ala Adventureland, is an easy-to-grasp concept in the context of these limitations, but accomplishing a goal as broad as lifting a curse is harder to think about in a vacuum, and potentially a little more intimidating to contemplate when you first fire up this game.
The game's castle isn't actually called "Voodoo Castle", but it is the castle where the action takes place, and Voodoo is clearly afoot. Fascinating paraphernalia can be found lying around in its corridors, including a voodoo doll, a Ju-Ju bag, a witch's brew and a room full of exploding chemicals. With no more to go on than the game's initial exhortation that the player lift a curse, he or she must experiment with these interesting props and advance through the solving of a succession of puzzles, and ultimately of the game. The experience is a lot of fun, and while Voodoo Castle's official difficulty label is Moderate, I find it to be one of the easier AI games. However, I should point out that this was not one of the AI games I had the opportunity to play back in the day. By the time I came to it in the 2000s, I was (a) way older and wiser, (b) had solved a lot of adventure games in general, and (c) had solved a decent number of AI games and acquired a strong sense of their workings.
What is interesting about Voodoo Castle is that there are no antagonists in it. While there are still lots of ways to die or wreck your game, including inescapable rooms and destructible crucial items, there are no people, monsters or other entities that are out to get you. In fact, a theme of Voodoo Castle (if 'theme' isn't too lofty a word in the circumstances) is that people who might seem scary at first are probably not threats, but sources of potential help. Except for the maid, who chases you downstairs if you happen to track soot through the castle. Back in the realm of objects, the cause and effect relationships between a lot of the game's artifacts and things that might happen to you during play are often unintuitive (E.G. "I've recently stopped being blown up by exploding test tubes. Why?") and require much trial and error and game saving to discern.
It would be a struggle to qualify any observations I might be tempted to make about the nature of games Alexis authored or influenced in this series versus the ones her husband authored, but it's certainly fun to speculate. My sense is that when Alexis was involved, the games were a little kinder in tone, though not necessarily in content. The absence of antagonistic characters in Voodoo Castle speaks to this idea, as does its altruistic goal for the player, and the very positive image with which the game ends. Scott of course gave us several games featuring instant death by bear mauling, and he gave us Savage Island Parts I and II, two of the most difficult and masochistic jaunts to ever grace adventuredom. But Adams also opposed the idea of the player having to commit any acts of violence against other creatures to advance in his games. The attitude of the AI games is that violent acts may be visited upon you, usually by nature, if you are stupid or unlucky enough - and we have to take the AI concept of player stupidity with a grain of salt.
Voodoo Castle features a couple of AI's most loveable/hateable guess-the-action and guess-the-verb moments (you won't believe what you have to do with the Ju-Ju bag, and I mean that in a banal way) but fortunately the AI clue sheet cyphers make getting help fun in these games. And I always particularly liked Voodoo Castle's clue sheet. It was the first AI clue sheet I ever encountered, and I encountered it as a kid well before I played the game, back in the Adventurers Corner column of a 1986 issue of Australian Apple Review.
If you haven't tried an AI game before, I wouldn't recommend this one to start with due to the abstract nature of its goal. It's probably best to familiarise yourself with the nature of these very early adventures by first playing a straightforward treasure hunt like Adventureland. But in the scheme of the AI series, Voodoo Castle sports some distinctive features, a castle stocked with lots of interesting objects, and a good dose of that elemental, imminent style of puzzle-solving which is the hallmark of the AI games.
I feel that the best way to describe the aesthetic of this game is as follows: Imagine that the computers used to render the graphics which portray the horrible, gritty world overrun by machines in the film The Matrix were corrupted by a hacker who replaced most of the textures with imagery from Peanuts comics. This is the imagery rendered by the prose of this game. And yes, you do need to have read a moderate amount of Peanuts to recognise the iconography, and knowing The Matrix some will also help. I guess The Simpsons anticipated all of this with that poster outside the Googleplex which says 'You're in the Matrix, Charlie Brown!'
However – I am already struck by the difficulty I feel in describing this as a game. Perhaps it is in the area of pieces like this which the term Interactive Fiction will come into its own in a more literal sense. Mastaba Snoopy is a poetic prose story with junction points which determine what may be read next, but there's a low sense of consequence based on what you click – I confirmed this at least for myself by repeatedly rolling back one move, trying the other option(s) and seeing if my feeling about the whole moved a different way as a result of what I read there. It didn't, except at a handful of major branches; there's a kind of uniform forward velocity into this clever concoction of an alien meets future-internet world based on Peanuts comics, no matter what choice you click on, but I can't say that the different facets of it feel very different to each other. The world is rendered with effective writing, and the immediate effect of the piece is different to that a static piece of writing, but the combination of the piece's overall abstraction and its low consequence of action mean that its emotional effect is still closest to that of a static piece of writing, albeit one which can be rotated to be viewed from a few different angles.
Peanuts has always been and will always be a big part of my life through all of its sense of humour, writing and artwork. I doubt I missed any of the numerous references in Mastaba Snoopy, whose whole world is built out of an alien's interpretation of Peanuts comics. Some of the iterations are darkly amusing, though nobody is likely to guffaw at the bleakness of the whole. Coming into this game as a Peanuts guy, my mental state was along the lines of, "Alright, bring it." I came out disappointed that Mastaba Snoopy was neither specifically as humorous nor as thoughtful enough about ideas from Peanuts as I'd hoped it might be. It's probably hard to be specific when you're also being abstract. I didn't feel that any more meaning emerged from the throbbing of Snoopy's loins – a scene in Mastaba Snoopy – than it would have from the throbbing of, say, Hello Kitty's loins. Or rather, both may be saying the same thing (whatever that is). Mastaba delivers a fair bit on the cyber/veneral imagery front in general.
In spite of the quality of the writing, I was disappointed re: Peanuts and I missed the presence of more game-like consequences which might have made me get more into this world. If the writing alone is enough for you, you may like it a lot more, and the whole idea is very imaginative.
Our Island appears at first, and mostly, to be a lyrical holiday game set in an idyllic seaside community. You can wander along Wharf Street, buy an ice cream from the pretty ice cream girl, look for flotsam and jetsam, observe local wildlife and feel sparkly about life as you note the presence of the local community centre. Admittedly the majority of these things are only implemented at a very rudimentary level, and some only exist in the location description text, but there's still no denying the game's coherent and romantic sense of place. The map is big and demands real mapping with pen and paper, at least if the player isn't to miss anything. This is also assuming the player makes it past the painful intro, which is basically a My Apartment game set in a holiday house where you have to fight with an inventory limit.
The trick with Our Island is that there's a whole other level of play in it, one involving puzzles and unexpected zaniness, but it's so obscurely integrated into an outwardly goal-less holiday game that it's a huge ask of players to (a) even identify that it's there and (b) negotiate it and solve it – especially with Our Island being in as rough a state as it is. Presenting a rich environment and then slowly allowing the player to become aware of some upheaval within it can make for a great dramatic design, but it demands strong execution to be successful. The biggest problem for Our Island is its erratic implementation. If the player starts to sense that more than half the interesting-looking content in the game is just painted on, they're going to stop checking the content. And in the cases where the content is relevant to the puzzles, the game doesn't signal it. There's also just tons of plain old bugs, typos, failures to describe exits, scenes that play at the wrong times, and even the odd location with no description. So for now, the game's island-sized ambitions considerably outstrip its quality of delivery. The groundwork for something great is here, and I already enjoyed exploring the environment, but the whole thing needs lots more work.
Strange Odyssey, released in 1979, was the sixth of Scott Adams's games in the series today referred to as the Scott Adams Classic Adventures. This game was a childhood favourite of mine and remains a favourite in adulthood. In plain mechanical terms, it's a treasure hunt in space, but its use of multiple alien settings gives it a sense of exploratory danger which feels unique in the series. This isn't to say that the perils in the likes of Adventureland or Pyramid of Doom aren't exciting – it is to say that those games are about exploring one dangerous world, while Strange Odyssey involves visiting a series of unrelated dangerous worlds, never knowing what to expect as you step into each one.
This is a dense game even for Adams, whose Classic series entries each had to fit into 16kb of RAM. Many objects have multiple uses and need to be carted back and forth between different worlds. Time pressure comes in the form of the finite air supply in your spacesuit, and working out how and where you can refill it is a significant puzzle. Odyssey also has more locations than most of its siblings, but the reason it feels more expansive than them is because of its intergalactic nature. Its little text strings have to act as seeds to help the player imagine whole environments at a time, rather than just one room or a corridor.
The fundamental puzzle in Strange Odyssey, the one which is most likely to cause players to stand around for awhile going "Hm," is the one involving working out how to move between worlds. It is quite an abstract puzzle (dare I say Zorkian) in a game canon that rarely supported abstract puzzles due to the simplicity of the game engine and the necessary briefness of all the prose. Another interesting element of this puzzle is the way it mobilises split-second glimpses of text. Unfortunately, this special effect only exists in the original Apple II, Atari and TRS-80 versions of the game. I recommend against playing versions of the game which are missing it (C64, Inform, Spectrum) since the game's quality and sense are hurt by its absence.
Dying and dead-ending are frequent occurrences in Odyssey, so it's wise to save frequently. Just stepping through a door can kill you if the gravity or air happen to be unfavourable on the other side. Several objects can run out of gas or power, it's possible to destroy crucial items with your phaser and most of the wildlife is aggressive. When I was a kid, I loved all of this unheralded danger because I always liked stories in which you never knew what bizarre thing might be on the other side of a door or teleporter. This quality of the game still speaks to me today, and while Adams's games have come in for a lot of criticism over the years, Strange Odyssey's alien dangerousness seems to coincide perfectly with the relatively hostile nature of adventure games from this era. A major reason that a lot of old school adventures are disliked today is that players find it too aggravating that they can mess up by taking actions they might reasonably expect to have inoffensive consequences within the world of a particular game – if that game had much logic about itself. In Strange Odyssey, all of the hardships make sense and thus does the form of the whole. Space is dangerous, the worlds you visit aren't explained and alien hardware doesn't come with instructions. In retrospect, I think Strange Odyssey was one of the designs which best fit Adams's minimalist game system.
The Next Day is a low stress and soporific (in a good way) slice'o'life piece in which you play a young person returning home from your first soulful all-night long outing with a friend. You wandered the town, talked about this and that and got very existential, and now you're feeling all reminiscent, but pining for bed.
The game captures the mood of early morning peace quite well, embellishing it with a sleep-inducing synth music loop. Your actions as a player really just consist of choosing which paths you will take home, triggering different small memories from your night out as you go. As sleep encroaches, Zs start to descend from the top of the screen, and different locations trigger different colour schemes, if you'll let them. There's a low-key charm to all of this, but I don't think the choice to make the characters (and thus a lot of memories) basically generic was a good one. What are memories without specificity? The game seeks to evoke some commonly shared experiences of growing up, but just offering a broad reminder of this fact isn't evocative enough. I know that I would rather have played a particular character with particular memories related to the world of this game, and that that in turn would have caused me to reflect more on my own memories of similar experiences. It's also strange, then, that the game's different endings, while presented in an abstract way, are opposite in nature to the game's content; they are ultra-specific to some relatively geeky online phenomena.
The author mentions the issue of specificity in his substantial About text, where he also acknowledges that the game may still be at the stage where it's more an experiment than a resolved piece. I think the game has got the mood right, but I would like it to be more specific.
Magic Travels is a program which dumps the short transcript of a fantasy text adventure game to your screen, kills you, then asks you if you are okay with that. The author's self-proclaimed goal is to have the game play itself, but there's no model inside ala Progress Quest. The implication is that the joke is at the expense of Interactive Fiction that's not very interactive. This subject is viable comedy fodder, but as per Mister Nose's Big Red Button, the execution is not good, resulting in a flat joke and lack of insight. The problem is the fake transcript itself. It's a hodgepodge of aimless non-sequiturs and Enchanter jokes. Some of the latter I recognised, and in the case of others, I'll take the author's word for it that they are indeed Enchanter jokes. This is all the content there is, and it doesn't change from one play to the next.
At a stretch, I could interpret the game's final question to the reader as representing the disdain of uppity authors for players who don't like their non-interactive interactive works. At least that idea is funnier than the transcript itself. I'll admit that the outro phrase raised a smile, though: "The game has completely and utterly stopped."
It's probably hard to write a deep game about doing naught more than repeatedly clicking a big red button you have been instructed not to click, but it shouldn't be impossible to write a funny one. Big Red Button's problem is that it's just not witty. The game speaks to you in a harassed tone each time you click the button in defiance of the instruction at the top of the screen, and what it says is sloppy and inconsistent, and hasn't been proofread. It's like the first draft of a comedy sketch that doesn't have a direction or any quality yet, just a basic idea. As such, it's unable to say anything about the one-move games it's probably trying to mock. Worse crimes are that it didn't make me laugh and it doesn't even understand PRESS in place of CLICK.
The game comes in two flavours. The everlasting one loops its messages forever in response to your clicking of the button. The non-everlasting one ends. Both games contain the same messages, and it's unlikely anyone would want to read them more than once, so the difference makes little difference.
The shtick of You Will Select A Decision is that the English translations of a pair of Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) knockoff books originally written by Russian computer scientists in the 80s have just now become widely available. The real author of this work is Brendan Patrick Hennessy, and he has created one of the funniest and best written absurd text games I have ever played. The two self-contained adventures demonstrate a deep understanding of all the methods of the original CYOA books, and so are able to mobilise and make fun of the lot of them over their course. Perhaps the most faithful feature is the way every passage of text in the games is tied to a real page number, allowing for the classic CYOA 'turn to' parlance to be in place.
"If you take on a fisty attitude and confront the witch head on, turn to page 53"
The humour of You Will Select A Decision is fuelled both by the strange outlook of the books' faux Russian authors and by the superb contortions of the translated text. The first story, Small Child in Woods, is about a peasant girl who sneaks out of her village one night in defiance of parental strictures. This story gives the authors a chance to expound on life in the context of their home turf. The second story is a lot more fanciful and has the reader playing a cowboy in Wyoming in the 1800s, a tale obviously begging to be mishandled by its Soviet Union authors.
We live in times when even a clueless person can prise the occasional linguistic gem out of the back and forth of Google Translate, but it takes a writer's skill and understanding of language to consistently craft and squish faux-translated words into a form that is funny for showing up all our assumptions about the workings of English. This is what has been achieved at length in You Will Select A Decision. Weird choices of tense, verbs and nouns are exploited to produce a constant stream of misdirections, surprises and absurdities. The fake authors try for a stern narrator's voice, but most of the time they succeed only in being capricious. The usual set of morals in CYOA books is usurped by advocations of Communist pride and anecdotes about obscure Soviet heroes. The main joke is that when the fake authors aren't waxing ideology, they're just clueless about how to satisfy a reader or tell a tale competently. The stories swerve towards or away from exciting moments in just the wrong fashion, and in a manner you can imagine would be guaranteed to irritate a sincere child reader. A great set piece may be followed by an unavoidable stupid death involving rocks falling on the reader's head. A climax may be steadfastly worked towards and then not delivered.
You Will Select A Decision remains vigilant in delivering this fantasy of a specific kind of hilariously bad, translated storycraft from its two starts to all of its numerous finishes. With more than 200 pages of content across both stories, the game also satisfies as legitimately designed CYOA, with just as many major and minor branches of possibility as you would expect from one of the real books. I laugh a lot in life, but I don't think I've ever laughed along with a computer game as much or for as long as I did with this one.
Technically, Housekey, Part I is not an incomplete game, but it is certainly one in spirit. It's a skerrick of a my apartment game which has three locations and no housekey. The PC has left this item outside and is theoretically trapped in the very house in which they live. How ironic!
The house contains a handful of unsurprising and useless items which are consistently described as being beneath the PC's attention. Should it occur to you to try and leave your house via the front door in the manner of a normal person, an event of great unexpectedness will send you hurtling towards the non-existent Housekey, Part II, your mind racing with questions like, "Where did I put my housekey?" and "What?!"
If it was the author's choice to release this four room programming exercise to the world at large as a game, it was potentially a strange one. All I know about the title's provenance is that it describes itself as "a simple demonstration Mystery/Puzzle game". With its content of four rooms, one locked door puzzle (I hesitate to call it a puzzle when the key is in plain sight) and some other objects which are painted on, it offers no challenge or development. It really is just a skerrick of programming set in an airport in which you move the protagonist through a locked door to win.
Acknowledging The Airport in the odd context in which I find it, it does have a few amusing qualities. The volume of text in the default help menus included with the game outweighs the game content by a ratio of about 20 to 1. The game's introduction, which is more verbose than anything that follows, describes the PC thus: "You’re Priya Kapoor. You’re a 28 year old half South Indian, half Arab Muslim woman who works as a senior accountant at Tully’s Coffee’s heaquarters in Seattle." Ethnicity has no bearing on the game content that's here. The funniest thing is that if you glance at the television in the airport lounge, you learn that in the reality of this game, Bill Gates has become the president of the USA, and that Peter Garrett, former frontman of the band Midnight Oil and currently Australia's Federal Minister for Education, has become the Prime Minister of Australia.
To me, Tenebrae Semper was the horrible disappointment of Ectocomp 2010. This may seem like an outrageously unkind statement with which to open a review, but it comes from a place of love. The reason I was so disappointed is because I liked Seciden Mencarde's Forest House games, all of which were made in similarly constrained speed IF competition circumstances, and which managed to punch above those circumstances at least 70% of the time. However, it was obvious that the third Forest House game was starting to get too ambitious, and it came out buggy, holey and underimplemented. Tenebrae Semper falls further into the same pit by aiming far beyond what anyone could achieve in several hours of programming. The result is an incomplete and particularly frustrating demo for what obviously needs to be a much bigger game. It barely brings the promised horror, either.
The PC is a college student who wakes from a dream (?) of a girl screaming when the game begins. Now it's time to get out of bed and off to class. The player's room is jampacked with furniture, books, a bookshelf, a desk, an alarm clock etc. Anything that can have a drawer in it does, and there's stuff in the drawers as well. But every third item is painted on and every second item is improperly implemented. Try and go out the north door and you'll be informed, "You don’t have all your stuff yet, and you’d better not go to class unprepared." So your goal, should you choose to accept it, is to divine which items constitute all your stuff, locate them amongst the mess and then be holding them all when you try to go through the door. Plus you've got an inventory limit which fights you as soon as you start picking up heavy textbooks. This scene was probably intended to be a breezy, realistic start to the adventure, but comes on more like an agonising puzzle from Hitchhiker's Guide. Suffice to say, it is extremely difficult to leave the room.
If escape is achieved, further problems come thick and fast. It's usually unclear what you're meant to be doing. Characters don't express surprise at surprising stuff, like supernatural shenanigans or teleporting books. The exit lister is broken. Room descriptions don't seem to print automatically.
Ultimately the game doesn't go anywhere, and it has, for the time being, squandered the truly awesome title of Tenebrae Semper.
Intake is a very short hypertext piece about being a mental health patient and unsatisfactorily answering some initial questions from a patronising doctor. It's okay as a brief emotional sketch, and it has a poetic rhythm about it that's felt if you play a few times. But as an interactive piece representing this situation, it's too simple to make an impact. The main effect comes from the good idea of putting the player in a seat of powerlessness to emphasise that powerlessness (only the doctor gets to speak). Intake fares best if considered only for that effect. Thinking about a few answers you can make to the doctor's questions, and ones you specifically can't make, which I sometimes didn't understand, led me into a state of protracted querulousness. Am I supposed to be playing a marginalised character, or a not-marginalised character being treated as if I was marginalised? Am I specific or not? Besides, can anyone actually quantify how marginalised I am or should be, especially if I am fronting up with mental health problems?
I think troubles are hard to avoid in general in short IFs with frontmost political content. The moment such expressions take interactive form, they need to be able to stand up to a fair bit of scrutiny in the same way that rooms in IF games need to be able to stand up to sufficient player interaction. Intake will not stand up to scrutiny beyond its basic expression that it sucks to be in this position if your system is crummy and the particular doctor you are seeing is appalling. In which case, you obviously need to find a different doctor, preferably a good or great one, and/or persist – my words, not the game's. Also, if Intake's outro did mean to badmouth Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (a badmouthing I would dismiss) I think it undercut itself, since it's obvious that any doctor who would prescribe the same treatment for every problem is a fool.
The Dead is a pint sized CYOA Quest game which drops you in a graveyard and immediately has you fleeing a killer skeleton. The prose is brief and adornment-free. The game also hasn't reached a basic level of proofreading, so there are typos and grammar errors in every line. At least the stakes are high; most choices tend to be life or death, but not in a completely blind 'Will you go through door A or door B?' kind of way. A typical choice might be to decide whether you should glance over your shoulder to identify the unidentified thing that's chasing you, or grab a key off the ground and hope it unlocks the gate in front of you.
As unbaked as The Dead is, it quickly moves into some weird mythology involving glowing green energy and a skeleton army, which feels like a guest power up animation from a videogame. Perhaps the whole thing is the author's first CYOA. The Dead has a dash of suspense, but not much sense and no writing craft. It is complete – there are a good number of losing ends and one winning end. But it's definitely not up to a standard where strangers outside of its home context would be interested in it.
The Binary is a browser based text'n'click game involving looping time travel. To describe it as a CYOA doesn't feel right, as the game keeps track of what you've done and also allows you to revisit locations, though the circumstances of the revisitings are unusual. In common with Operation Extraction, also from IFComp 2011, the timing of your actions is important in this timey game. I found the whole thing somewhat baffling to begin with, with a barrier to play in the form of potential initial uninterest. I think I'd rather The Binary had just told me what my goal was instead of making me work it out myself. Constant forward movement, albeit in a loop, can be mildly aggravating when you don't know what's going on yet and have no hook of intentionality to arouse your interest.
Once you do know what the story is about, it turns out to be as exciting as other stories of its kind often are - that kind being (Spoiler - click to show)stories about people trying to stop an assassination by locating snipers at the last minute. In the role of one of the guys I'm going to call Time Cops, you loop through the same few moments repeatedly, trying to string together the circumstances to bring about change. This scenario also brings about an eagerness to quickly return to the spot where you think you might next be able to best change things up, which is why the cutaway scenes which occur every time the repeating sequence ends are a distraction. They open a window onto a broader mythology, but not one that's too useful for the workings of this small game space. Once you've done some things over and over, it's frustrating to have to pass through the cutscene again, or just to have to wait before you're able to access certain links anew.
Ultimately The Binary is clever and becomes fun, and it's a smoother ride than its cousin (of sorts) Operation Extraction, but it could stand to be sharper.
Captain Lighthouse is a Nova Scotian superhero who fights pollution and tells Nova Scotian kids about the virtues of reading local newspapers. He is a multimedia figure for our times, appearing variously in his own comic book, in the form of a huge inflatable doll, and in this adventure game, Captain Lighthouse's Museum Mystery. The interview I read with the captain on his website painted a portrait of a well-meaning but verbose and kind of dull guy, which, excepting the verbosity, is also how I would describe this game.
Playing the good captain, you are called to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenberg, where some villain has stolen the plans for the Bluenose, a historic fishing schooner. Handily, all five suspects are standing around in the next room. Your job is to identify the guilty party – not by such exciting means as using ESP or asking questions about the crime itself, but by submitting the suspects to a comprehension test. And in truth, the party being subjected to the comprehension test is yourself, because you have to read the fact sheet about the Bluefin before you can grill the bad guys to find out which one of them knows the least about this jewel of history. For surely that ignoramus is the committer of the crime!
The bad guys have cute names like Kaiser von Thefz, and the game's atmosphere, buoyed by the presence of photoshopped portraits of characters and a few simple pieces of music, is generally one of endearment. But in the end, you're a superhero who displays no evidence of having superpowers, does not get to use any superpowers, and instead administers a comprehension test. I confess I wanted more from the character who earned local rag SouthshoreNow the Best In-house Promotion Award from the Canadian Community Newspapers Association.
(Also, the villain's identity does not change from one game to the next.)
This is a one-way trip through an eventually male student's day at what seems to be a parodic version of the author's high school. That is to say, Klein Collins High School attended by Hugh Jass (heh) in Texas. The game displays an accompanying photo or picture with most of its locations and objects, making it visually busy, and is controlled by a mixture of the parser and hyperlinks. In each class there tends to be a notable object or student that you can try to interact with, but these actions don't have any mechanical game value and the objects are pretty dull, so you'll want to click on the 'out' button to leave each class sooner rather than later.
The purpose of the game is to share the author's witty observations of school life. I didn't find the written material all that funny, though some of the juxtapositions of text and picture are amusing. The implementation of the parser is so basic that straying away from the point-and-click controls tends to be a mistake. On the whole, the game gives the impression of being an experiment for the purposes of learning Quest, using an environment familiar to the author. I admit I was disturbed by its vision of students slyly watching Avengers on their laptops during class. Oh well, better that than Iron Man 2.
The author shows a viable hypertext style in this game, which may lead to something in the future, but for strangers, this one isn't worth playing.
A couple of folks at textadventures.co.uk made some neat observations about Klein Collins High School than I've decided to reproduce here, since I failed to make them. The first happens to tell you how to win, which isn't much of a spoiler in a game with no puzzles, but I've still hidden it to avoid outrage:
(Spoiler - click to show)"You can win the game if you keep saying "out"... lol." - Gabe Lance
"Another thing that kind of irritates me but I don't know if others care about it: In some games you're told in the beginning who you are, but in games like this you're supposed to be yourself, since there is no character in it. I don't really like it when a game has me be myself in it, then about halfway through tell me I'm a guy. But that's just me." - Azura Davis
The author's name is :3 so I wasn't expecting this game to be the last word on the subject, though it may be one of the first few.
In this teeny CYOA, you're a girl who goes to school one day and hears that another girl has been murdered, and that no one knows whodunnit or why. This situation is all the talk amongst the kids, especially the few you might interact with in the course of Murder. These kids have a good way with the breathlessness and exclamation marks, and are the kind who will start screaming out "I DIDN'T DO IT!" with little prompting. The feel of the dialogue and character behaviour reminds me of that of the hot and cold bobble-headed folk in the MySims console games.
Unfortunately, I have probably already given the false impression that there is way more content in Murder than there is. Its choice structure for the duration of its handful of scenes consist entirely of: "Will you A or B?" You can play the whole game to its bizarrely abrupt finale in two minutes or less, then click through all the choices you missed the first time for a second play of about one minute in length.
Murder (the game) is cute and actually got me involved in spite of its tiny size, but it's also typo-filled and super simple, and its story stops just when it was getting started.
The Library is too elementary and underdeveloped to be able to interest anyone looking for a complete game to play. It's clear that the author is in the very early learning stages of how to program these games and is still grappling with the basics. The PC is stuck in a library for reasons which aren't clear, leaving the player to try to fiddle with all of the available objects in a handful of rooms. Some objects are gettable or have descriptions, but too many don't. Nearly all of them have the wrong indefinite articles, and the coding omissions are in significant areas. EG You can pick up A Christmas Carol but you can't READ it.
Playing this game online, I did notice that Quest's habit of making any and all interactive objects clickable can prove to be a distraction in a game when most of them are really just unimportant scenery. When I see the glowing blue links, I tend to compulsively check each object, but I realised I should have been relying more on my adventure game instincts and not investigating every chair, table and lounge (of which there are plenty in this game). I suppose this is a mental shift you may need to make when Questing.
I can't verify how large The Library is because I was unable to interact in any way with the code reader securing the door which blocked further progress, but many aspects of it are obviously not up to standards that will satisfy strange players. I wish the author the best in her progress; my one star rating for this game reflects that I can't recommend it to anyone as is. Apart from the wealth of technical problems, players need a motivation to play. The mystery of the situation should be played up. Without that element present in the writing, the player is really just randomly searching a bunch of samey furniture for no apparent reason, which is boring.
Based on the title of this game and its synopsis, I was expecting to play a badass jungle cat in an adventure of comedic nature. It turns out that the PC is actually a rap music braggart named Tiger. This was disappointing, at least in light of my expectations, and I don't think they were insane expectations because it feels kind of clumsy to both suggest that a character called Tiger is also a 'tiger' (metaphorically speaking) and then to dwell on this point in the title of the game.
Anyway, having shifted my existential gearstick from 'great cat' to 'rapper', I got a smile or two out of this game which sees you rising as Tiger after a night of rap star partying. Tiger is a dim, spoiled fool with a Titanic sized ego, and the game was clearly going to be at his expense. I say 'going to be' because it turns out that this is just a one room demo, but it must be said that it definitely feels like the start of an actual game rather than just a mechanical test. Various story points are set up, like the fact that you have a piece of music overdue for delivery and that various family members and girlfriends are angry with you. There are a bunch of stats ready to go, too, like 'Booze Level' and 'Oontz Completion'. But the first room is already underimplemented and there is no second room or continuation. So probably the only reason to try this is if you suspect that you might like the material enough to go and browbeat the author into expanding it. I wasn't as motivated as that.
Hauntings is a short and well written supernatural tale about a woman who shows up for work at the old house of a mysterious no-questions-asked employer. As the sole entry into the IF section of the Saugus.net Halloween Contest of 2011, it won in its field. The game keeps its interactions simple, advising the player to stick mostly with the movement commands, GIVE and GET and basic conversation commands like YES/NO. The focus is on the prose and its descriptions of the peaceful but dilapidated location and the thought processes of the PC. I don't think the game's period or geographic setting are specified, but the heroine's situation and the hints of social custom mentioned in Hauntings made me feel like it is probably set in the 1940s at the latest – though it could be as far back as the century before that, or maybe even later than the 1940s if in a remote location.
The atmosphere builds well as you search the house, and the tasks you may later perform for your employer don't involve puzzling so much as basic observation of your surroundings, though it might have been nice if a bit more of the scenery had been implemented. There are multiple endings which let you experiment with the situation you're ultimately presented with, and what I like about them is that they all seem to be equally legitimate choices for the heroine to take in light of her backstory. I don't think they are especially surprising endings, and I might have preferred the more dramatic one to be more dramatic again, but the story is basically satisfying. The heroine is also interestingly sketched. I found myself speculating on her background and what she might be doing before and after the events of this game.
Having just installed the shiny new Hugo game interpreter Hugor on my Mac, I hopped onto IFDB to find a quick game with which to test it. That's where I discovered Dragon Hunt. Three minutes later I had played through Dragon Hunt three times, and had to acknowledge that the game probably fit the 'quick' part of my brief too well.
In this accurately named adventure you find yourself trekking with a band of hunters through the wilderness towards Dragon Mountain, where the creature lives. The game has a sense of urgency because the hunting group must move forward every few turns, and also because there is a pounding and ominous MOD music file looping in the background. The prose is clean and simple and the main actions that will occur to you to try are all covered.
This is not speed-IF, though it is similarly sized. I'm uninterested in speed-IFs because their lack of implementation bugs me and their effects are too ephemeral. Dragon Hunt is still pretty ephemeral because of its size, but it manages to quickly develop some presence as you necessarily turn it over a few times. I didn't like the music at first but three minutes later I had changed my mind. Actions I couldn't try the first time I played because the hunting party moved forward too quickly I was able to try on subsequent games. Given that this is the authors' first Hugo game (their comments told me so) and also a small game playing against my 'size matters' biases, I would probably be an ungrateful churl to demand more of Dragon Hunt. It also looks like it was the authors' last game.
My experience of these Pirate Kart games is that they're short, easy and busy. I find that to be a good combo compared to short, hard and anything else, since the flakey implementation of tiny games is what can make me so annoyed when I fiddle with them.
Anger is not relevant for Delicious Breakfast, a game about a person (or perhaps some manner of living man-insect, if 'x me' isn't joking) who wakes up in the morning and sees the world largely through a prism of exclamation marks. A being for whom the phrase 'Delicious Breakfast' is always thought of in Title Case.
As you fiddle with assorted foodstuffs in your kitchen trying to assemble and eat a Delicious Breakfast, you learn that the character you're playing is a rather stupid manic whose existence is framed only in terms of Delicious Breakfast, and that the term 'Delicious Breakfast' represents an idealised concept for this character rather that an accurate description of what's eaten and how it's et. (I don't know why I'm always eating gross stuff off the floor in adventure games, but I did it again here.) My score was soon to explode, and pretty soon I'd won the game.
I can relate to idealising breakfast. I eat Weet-Bix every day and they bring me into the land of the living. Delicious Breakfast is amusing and easy, though it is not a Weet Bick.
Ecdysis is one of the English language entries making up the HP Lovecraft Commonplace Book project of 2007, and in spite of its brevity – or maybe because of its brevity in league with its quality – it's probably the best of them. It is based on the following jotting from Lovecraft's book, which I wouldn't actually read if you want to approach the game in a pure state: (Spoiler - click to show)Idea #221: “Insects or other entities from space attack and penetrate a man’s head and cause him to remember alien and exotic things–possible displacement of personality.”
The great idiosyncrasy of Lovecraft's writing and subject matter are capable of indirectly prompting degrees of weariness from IF players, who cannot help but wonder why so many IF horror games choose to follow in the footsteps of one writer. Yet there is still a great variety of stances the authors of these games can choose from when adopting an approach to the material. What is strong about Ecdysis is that it manages to draw both extremes of the scale of Lovecraft's material together into a short game; the epic, cosmic end involving interplanetary concepts and great, smiting alien beings older and more powerful than humankind can comprehend, and the claustrophobic, imminent end involving monsters and putrefaction in the here and now.
Ecdysis is linear and uncomplicated, but the PC is driven in his actions, which tends to be the thing that makes linear games work as interactive pieces. When there are few actions you can take but they happen to be the ones you'll really want to take, it can draw attention away from the absence of a range of alternate choices and help keep the game out of "Why wasn't this written as a short story?" territory.
This is one of those games where to say more would be to spoil the effect, so I won't.
The piece of short fiction this eponymous game is based on takes the form of an urban myth-like set of directions for finding a mythical art gallery hidden behind a bar in Paris. The penalty for deviating from the instructions once you've started to follow them is grisly death. The story apparently hails from the often stupid internet thing known as 4chan, where all users are anonymous. It's a good story which I read after playing this game, and which I then decided I should have read instead of playing this game.
The Gallery of Henri Beauchamp, the game, cleaves to the source text, often reproducing large chunks of it verbatim. Given the small size of both game and source, the majority of the prose is identical in both formats. All you can do in the game is type commands which correspond to the successful following of the directions – resulting in you continuing through those directions – or type commands which do not correspond to the successful following of directions, resulting in one of the grisly deaths, also usually reproduced word for word from the story.
Between the content duplication and the absence of any additional interactive possibilities, the game doesn't really justify its existence in its current form. And even within its highly constrained scope, it demonstrates next to no implementation. The first location is a bar containing a bartender who has no description, and beer that responds to DRINK BEER with "There's nothing suitable to drink here." The game continues in this fashion, sometimes only responding to unusual verbs cued by the source, and I would say that it is impossible to score more than one out of seven available points without first reading either the source material or all of the contents of the game's help menu. The latter option is no way to enjoyably play a game and the former, while enjoyable, obviates the need to play the game.
Humourous sci-fi adventure Death of Schlig copped a lot of negative reviews during IFComp 2011. "It's crammed full of extra line breaks!" was the commonest refrain, but there were heaps of other problems that just made for staggery play and fought the game's attempts to get a flow of humour and action on. This was the first IFComp in which entrants were given the opportunity to update their game during the comp period and author Peter Timony availed himself of it. The late-in-the-competition version of the game I tried was in significantly better shape than the one everyone had been yelling at, but frustratingly (in retrospect) it still didn't address all of the non-aesthetic tech problems. This leaves us with a game whose bursts of silly comic book fun keep being stymied by mundane annoyances with its parser and other stuff – door keys which are bad at sorting themselves out, an inventory limit which adds only hassle, proofreading and pagination troubles, no synonyms at all, etc.
If you regard the cute cover image for Death of Schlig (drawn by the author's brother) you'll have a good idea of what's ahead – telescopic eyeballs and green aliens. The latter give you the former in an experiment gone wrong after kidnapping you from your day job at the deli counter, though your real job is Great Private Detective. Your super eyeball powers allow you to EXTEND and RETRACT your eyes, to send them around corners to spot alien guards and even to occasionally use them to wield objects.
The tone of the writing is consistently zany, with lots of non-sequiturs, little pieces of misdirection and exaggeratedly amusing characters. It has the appropriate spirit and personality for the subject matter, and while its uneveness is increased by the game's incomplete proofreading (and the fact that Zaniness is an area subject to even more subjective individual response than its parent category Humour) there are a lot of parts in Schlig which made me laugh, and which I was able to remember almost verbatim even a year after first playing the game. My favourite, still: "You attempt to slice the world's thinnest slice of ham. With atom-splitting precision, you gently push the ham towards the spinning blades."
Unfortunately the timing of a lot of the jokes is thrown off by surrounding bits of writing which remain too sloppy, or by the unpolished gameplay itself. The extend-an-eyeball gimmick should be uniformly cool but proves extremely fiddly to deal with, and is underpowered as a tool to help you outmanoeuvre your enemies in this game. The patrolling guards only seem to move at the moment Schlig or Schlig's eyeball enters their presence. I have tried following them around with Schlig's telescopic eyes, trying to zap them, but they always remain one move out of reach and will ultimately complete a circuit and step into the original room containing Schlig. This "good guy's eyeball chasing the bad guy chasing the good guy" image is an appropriately cartoonish one in this cartoonish game, but the programming of this mechanic wasn't sufficiently massaged by the author.
Death of Schlig's prose has a consistent aesthetic which suits it, and it's one of those adventures that makes me really want to like it. But it's still a game that needs more work in the programming and in the writing to pull it out of that territory where it is often work-work to express or achieve what you want to do in it, and unfortunately it is unlikely to get that work.
(I originally published this review on 7 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 10th of 26 games I reviewed and it has been updated at least once since the review was written.)
Body Bargain is a horror game set in a near future world of cybernetic body modification. It reminds me of the film The Human Centipede in its aesthetics and ideas, and while none of the characters here get sewn together, I will echo the consumer advice displayed by the game on startup, that if you're squeamish of gore or violence or clinical disturbing-ness, this game will probably squeam you. It also deals with something that remains challenging to successfully negotiate in IF, the continuum of moral and ethical boundaries between the actions a PC might be likely to take based on his or her personality and the in-game situation, and the actions different players might be prepared to take based on their out-of-game personality. Body Bargain doesn't evade all these complications, but even as raggedly implemented as it currently is, I found it morbidly engrossing and definitely interesting. For horror fans, a must play.
The PC wakes up after surgery she has opted for to transform her whole body from that of an overweight human to that of a toned blue elven woman. The story suggests, through the tone of its conversations and the thoughts of the PC, that such fantastic transformations are now contextually acceptable in society, maybe even common. You have paid for your own surgery by becoming the new assistant nurse at the illegal practice which performed it, presided over by the more-machine-than-man Doctor Overclock. However, a big early problem in this game was that it was not clear to me that I had made such a deal. Why some robot doctor was expecting me to help him perform surgery on a stranger just because I had walked into his operating room baffled me. It caused me to fob off his request and look around other areas in the game. In those areas I found information to fill in the gaps, but I don't think it was the author's intent to let this point slip.
The first episode of surgery is a good litmus test for whether or not any particular player will have the taste or stomach for what is to come. You have to scalpel shoulders, handle severed limbs and put up with the spray of gore from the doctor's sawing, but the result appears to be what the patient requested. (Spoiler - click to show)Not so for the next patient. His grotesque fantasy drawing of the giant-schlonged dragon he wants to become prompts the doctor to euthanase him as a "pervert". It's this moment that is likely to mobilise the player, especially when they discover that the next patient is their own sister. She already has a punk hairdo and piercings. Will she attract the pervert label?
You can now continue to follow the doctor's orders or start to do otherwise. The game is ready for many permutations of what can happen, impressively so in retrospect, but some of its positions are significantly weakened – (Spoiler - click to show)in the first place by the sketchy implementation of the sister character. She is attended by numerous bugs, gives the impression of being asleep even though she is awake and has nothing of use to say to the player. Surely my character is likely to alert her to the murder of the second patient that just took place? My character does not, creating a blank stage for action in which the player can choose to blithely butcher the sister character or not. This is simply an unrealistic presentation of the situation, stealing power from the choice the player makes and what results from it. The PC has demonstrated that she is not a blank canvas upon many previous occasions; with her thoughts on the grossness of her old body and the grossness of the second patient's dragon fantasies, and with her shock at the murder of the second patient. But she seems to become a moral vacuum, as far as the prose is concerned, after that murder. I believe these kinds of inconsistencies can be incredibly difficult to deal with for any author. They have often stumped me just at the stage of thinking about creating a game in which the player might be called on to perform actions generally considered repulsive. Body Bargain has not overcome all of these problems, but that doesn't mean it's not an interesting game for playing with them.
There are a lot of technical troubles with the game, ranging from duplicate and erroneous messages (automatic doors are always opening and closing, sometimes more than they should) to under-helpful implementation (typing "cut X" always asks "With what?…" in a game about surgery and stabby violence), verb guessing (the keycard reader – I'd never have thought to type AUTHORISE) and synonym weakness ("card" and "key card" are not accepted for "keycard"). There's also an unfinished feel to some of the emptier locations in the southern vicinity of the hospital. Nevertheless, I found the core design of Body Bargain to be clear, distinctive and effective. I like the way the operating rooms are laid out diagonally from the hallway, the device of the doctor leading the player from one operation to the next and the grisly but clinical depiction of the operations. Again with The Human Centipede, the incident with the dragon patient's fantasy sketch reminded me of the opening scene of that film in which Doctor Heiter gazes with fascination at the photo of the three dogs he has sewn together.
Body Bargain is novel and has all the ingredients to be a really high quality piece of horror gaming, but technically it needs a lot of work and it faces conceptual challenges, too. These factors make for rough play and work against the game's ultimate effects. I'm glad to have played what's here already and would certainly designate this as a must play for horror fans.
The best thing about Lonely Places is its high rate of dramatic escalation. I've never seen a game move from a single incident (your car breaking down – at night – in the rain) to the scenery-devouring business end of a whole lot of Lovecraftian shenanigans so quickly. No ponderous sloggings through the mythology of ancient smiting beings for this protagonist!
While it's set in the modern world, the game mobilises a handful of character names, speech styles and incidents from Lovecraft's stories, making it more a winky pastiche than one of those enormous reverent ones. Its own story is freestanding and does not demand any prior knowledge of Lovecraft, but the end of game assessment of the PC does, at least if you want to fully understand it; it tells you which Lovecraft character you most behaved like during play. Your playing style is also described in more practical terms, a neat feature which doubles as a means of giving clues for how you could try to change things up on your next play.
Lonely Places is not a very strongly implemented game but it does a good job of cramming a fair bit of action into a small space. I think it's actually a good example of what you can potentially do with Inform without killing yourself as an author. A significant element of this is the game's forward trajectory, where certain events keep crashing into the protagonist, forcing the player onwards or keeping them alert. It also helps that the forward movement often covers for the game when the player is trying stuff that hasn't been accounted for, which in this game is a lot of stuff.
Lonely Places is novel in its ramping up the traditionally glacial pace of Lovecraftian goings-on. It achieves a degree of hysteria quickly and the effect is of a kind of ghoulish humour, a funny and affectionate comment on the typical trajectory of Lovecraft's stories. It will be more fun if you've read some of his work, but there are no barriers to play if you haven't.
(I originally published this review on 21 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 21st of 26 games I reviewed, and it had already been updated once during the competition before I reviewed it.)
Adventure games have consistently demonstrated that trying to stop people escaping from stuff, at least literal stuff, is a futile goal. Joining this rich tradition concerning the flight from the literal is switchable protagonist adventure Escape from Summerland. Summerland is an amusement park, and when the game begins, it get hits by a bomb. The adventure which follows demonstrates fun and inventive puzzle engineering but could stand to help the player more with those puzzles.
The dapper nature of the first of three playable PCs made me feel like the introductory bomb had fallen during the London Blitz, but information in the game's blurb, which appeared only on the IFComp website during competition time, specifies the setting of the game as a future in which drones are fighting all our wars for us; presumably they dropped the bomb. The explosion results in the inconvenient death and ghostification of dapper gent Amadan and the entrapment of monkey performer Jacquotte. Amadan's ghost can't do much for dead Amadan, but it can try to liberate Jacquotte from Summerland, and it will seek to do so with the help of a busted up robot found along the way. The player gets to control all three of these characters and can switch between them at will to coordinate the escape effort. This brings a lot of neat features to the game's table: multiple PCs, unique viewpoints and a tweaked parser. The game design brief is extensive, demanding in some idealised form even more work on Escape from Summerland than has already gone into it, as difficulties remain.
The core puzzle mechanic is that each of the three characters has their own way of perceiving the environment, and their own physical pros and cons. Amadan, a human until very recently, delivers regular descriptions of the locations, but being a ghost he can't manipulate anything, though he can walk through walls. Jacquotte is a high achieving monkey and able to report on the world in her simplified terms which emphasise things she finds shiny and exciting over things she finds boring. Every statement she makes is accompanied by a monkey emoticon. I thought these might bug me at first, but I got used to them over time and was even charmed by them. The damaged robot turns out to be the most difficult character to wield. It distils what it sees and experiences into a high tech series of itemised lists. The elusive meaning of some of the robot's output turned out to be the cause of most of my trips to the game's walkthrough, but transparent or not, the lists themselves are fascinating.
There is little to complain about in Amadan's implementation when it comes to the puzzles, but the game doesn't explain his evident fervour to liberate the monkey. Perhaps she was the only animal in the carnival? The capricious monkey is the source of most of the game's humour, but also seems to be the PC with the least tolerance for varied commands. This isn't illogical – she's a monkey after all – but her monkeyfied rejections of most of what you might type can be wearing. The catch with the robot is that while it has many useful abilities, they're hard to access, or perhaps to even discern in the first place. After I picked up one of the robot's detached arms, I didn't realise that I needed to (Spoiler - click to show)INSTALL it before it would work. Other attachments were hard to identify, and a couple of other robot-based solutions seemed too abstract to guess at without more explicit clueing from the game.
I found Escape from Summerland to be of an essentially high quality but it didn't operate with a smoothness to match that quality, resulting in me keeping the walkthrough close at hand. Apart from the game needing to be more helpful in general where the robot is concerned, probably the main thing I think would help is a greater sharing of feedback amongst its characters. That is to say that when the player changes from one character to another, even in the same room, it's currently very rare to receive feedback on significant changes which have been wrought by other characters. The three of them could almost be living in separate worlds as they barely acknowledge each other's actions. I could understand such behaviour from an unemotional robot, but Amadan came back to save the monkey and the monkey is just observant and reactive in general.
Escape from Summerland also has a few curious elements which seem to be underdeveloped; the drone warfare which is never specifically mentioned in the game, Amadan's history with the monkey and some interesting attractions in the park which go unused. Perhaps development time ran short before the competition? These elements might have aroused more curiosity had the game gone on much longer than it did. The heart of the adventure is its novel choice of differently abled protagonists, the contrasts amongst them and the brief but clever run of puzzles they have to solve, with most of the game's atmosphere established by Amadan's initial walk through Summerland.
(I originally published this review on 18 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 20th of 26 games I reviewed and the game has been revised at least once since I wrote the review.)
Spiral gives the player two protagonists, one male, one female. The two don't know each other but wake to find themselves bound and gagged and stuck on a moving train. What lies ahead for them and for the player are puzzly dream and afterlife scenarios which are manifestations of the characters' various crises.
If you played the entries from the 2011 IFComp, you may have a sensation that games in which characters run a morality-tinged gauntlet in the afterlife are on the ascendancy. Spiral is of this ilk, and while it does make use of symbolically charged landscapes and a little fire and brimstone / Dante's Inferno type imagery, it also has some conceptual tricks and strengths which give off more of a sci-fi vibe. Overall, it's a game whose establishing sections I preferred to its body. The large and persistence-demanding middle section, involving the tracking down of many objects, was less interesting to me than trying to get a sense of how the whole story worked in the first place, what was going on.
After I first completed Spiral (and learned that (Spoiler - click to show)I had reached one of the Unsuccessful endings from the six available overall), I had the feeling that I should probably have understood what had happened over the course of the game better than I did. I'd begun the adventure by using the proffered REMEMBER and THINK commands to draw some initial backstory on both characters as they lay in the train, learned that I could switch between characters using the BE command, and that I could enter their dream worlds by going to SLEEP.
The core of this review discusses the game in a manner where spoilers are frequent and unavoidable, so it is entirely enclosed here: (Spoiler - click to show)Ross's dream world consists of a giant environment-destroying machine in space, Helen's of something like a flaming mountain in purgatory. The nature of each protagonist's dreamscape reflects the nature of their anxieties in life, Ross with his environmental politics which apparently became mixed up with extremism, and Helen with her self-assessed shallowness. Ross needs to find pieces of his soul in his world, Helen pages from the book of her life in hers, but I was stymied as both. When I eventually turned to the walkthrough, I found that an idea that I was never going to have tried was the key to unlocking progress for the rest of the game: that I pass objects from one protagonist's dreamscape to the other's by "destroying" them after a fashion, dropping them into the waste in Ross's world or into the flames in Helen's.
Somewhat stunned but also fatigued by this discovery after playing for more than an hour, I experienced a sense of disorientation and wondered if I should begin the game anew. The next day I decided that I should simply press on if I wanted to have a shot at completing Spiral in under two hours, however, I never felt that I got my mojo back or that I was making particularly good sense of things after this point. This is obviously just one of those things that can happen when playing a game if you're unlucky, but with the time pressure of the competition on me I didn't necessarily have the opportunity to recover from it as I normally might have in another context. I'm just describing this experience here because it's my first year experiencing IFComp from the player-voter's seat.
In retrospect, the various kinds of separation of the two characters from one another makes for a strong concept. The fact that they are together on the train and within a few feet of each other, yet might as well be miles apart because their bindings and gags basically prevent any communication between them, is reflected in the absolute separation of the dream worlds. Even in their ability to pass objects to one another, which would normally be a kind of communication, there is no acknowledgement in the prose by either character that this is what they are actually doing, no thought at all as to who might have supplied an object which just fell from the sky into their current location. The only problem of course is that with no mutual acknowledgement by the characters, the idea that they could trade objects is never conveyed to the player in the first place, at least that I saw. And this idea must be conveyed, somehow. It's too huge a game mechanic to be left to chance.
By trading puzzle solving props as required and inching their way through new rooms in their respective environments, Ross and Helen both reveal chunks of their backstory and ultimately may find some or all of their respective treasures, the soul crystals or the pages from the book. In my case I found all seven of Helen's pages but few of Ross's crystals. I have a suspicion I locked myself out of some locations in Ross's world by sending Helen a prop I needed – a wall-cutting sickle – at an inopportune moment, but I'm not sure. It was apparent to me that the purpose of the characters' adventures was for them to make some kind of peace with the less than ideal lives they'd lived up until now, in readiness for an afterlife or heaven or hell or nonexistence or something. But I didn't work out the context for all this. I don't know if the train in which the characters were bound and gagged was a metaphorical train to the afterlife or a train that the characters were really on or both. Over the course of the game, the player learned that Ross was involved with an anarchist-leftist group which eventually planted a bomb on a train. Ross sought to stop the bomb going off, but a late scene in the game of a flaming train underground suggests he failed. Or was that his imagination? Or a memory or a dream?
The final stages of the game added another layer of perplexedness to my experience. The player can suddenly use the BE command at this point to take control of a wasp trapped in the train carriage with the protagonists. Then you can sting them to death. This is the only way for them to die, as suicidal actions taken by the humans only result in them being kicked into or out of their dreamscapes. And in truth, I really wanted the game to end at this point, as it seemed there had been several scenes in a row suggesting the end was imminent (Helen finding all her pages, an escape from the flaming train, the murder of some symbolic Eraserhead / mutant Voldemort type baby on the flaming train) but the end still hadn't come. I only switched to the wasp after visiting the walkthrough for the umpteenth time. The ending I finally reached dropped me back into the initial predicament in the train carriage. So here was the spiral. Perhaps without sufficient atonement (enough treasures gathered) both characters are condemned to wander their dreamscapes of failure until they get things right.
While acknowledging that I experienced this game in a more confused than average state, I imagine I'd have been more involved in the whole thing had I been more involved with the characters. In spite of their initial elaborate (overwritten for Ross) statements about the predicament of being bound and gagged, I felt the information about the characters was delivered in weird disjointed chunks which, in combination with the nature of the information, never formed a clear picture of either person over the course of the game. The business of solving the puzzles across the two worlds is normally something I would really like, but it felt like hard slog here, probably because I wasn't digging the carrots, the dollops of backstory. There's lots to admire in Spiral; the solid programming, the conceptual strengths of the design, the scope of the whole thing. But I found it to be at least as confusing as thought-provoking.
(I originally published this review on 10 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 13th of 26 games I reviewed and the game has been revised at least once since I wrote the review.)
In a competition close shave, I completed Irvine Quik & the Search for the Fish of Traglea in exactly two hours. This absurdist space adventure, whose title causes my mouth to do everything it doesn't want to do at once if I say it aloud, puts the player in the role of its eponymous goofball as he and the Interstellar League of Planetary Advocacy try to save an endangered fish in order to save an endangered planet in a universe mostly populated by cat people. With its distinct aesthetic of cute humour, diverse environments, a big roster of NPCs (including a fully staffed ship) and cat-fu karate sequences, this adventure is potentially one of my favourites this year, but I have to temper that statement with observations of its bugginess and the attendant difficulties. The only ADRIFT-based game I'd previously played with a bigger scope than this one was 2011's mighty Cursed, and perhaps in a similar manner to Cursed, it's the ambitiousness of Irvine Quik which opens it up to a greater range of bug possibilities. I played the game using the aging Mac Spatterlight interpreter, which I've noted is solid for ADRIFT 4 games (ADRIFT 4, Irvine's platform, is now a static development platform) but which was incapable of recording any transcripts in the case of this particular game.
IQ, as I'm now going to call it, makes a strong impression of novelty and helpfulness through its opening screens. Alliterative taglines that would work well on sci-fi B movie posters describe the options available. It is surprising to find that you can start playing from any one of the game's six chapters. If you admit that you don't know how to use a HiRBy (your floating, grabbing robot pal in IQ) the first chapter will begin to play itself, slowly typing out the introductory commands before your eyes to show you what to do. On the other hand, if you answer "No" to the broader "Have you played interactive fiction before?" question, you seem to get almost no additional tuition at all, but the game does offer a VERB command which will list a minimum set of commands needed in the current chapter.
The first significant puzzle, helping the captain land the ship, meow, has an impressive five possible solutions according to the nicely presented PDF walkthrough. At least one of those solutions is a mini game involving quick memorisation and typing of numbers. Offering this much variety is obviously a pretty industrial strength way to start the game. In fact, the presence of a whole explorable spaceship for the good guys to live in is a pretty industrial strength gesture, and could almost be regarded as strange, considering that this ship is not where the bulk of the action takes place – except that this gesture is (a) neat, and (b) will probably be of use for any sequels, EG the one promised by the game's outro.
IQ is written in the third person, an interesting choice which seems to amplify the clumsiness of the hero and of the game's humour in general, as if Irvine is being viewed omnisciently and pitilessly from a distance above. My own playing troubles really began in Chapter 3, in which Irvine explores the jungly planet of Tragear with the broad purpose of trying to solve the case of the missing fish. The puzzle involving the coat-stealing tree monkey had all kinds of bugs in it. (Spoiler - click to show)One time the solution didn't work, so I thought I was stuck. After restoring a game, the solution did work but I didn't know that it had because the game still said "The monkey refuses to give Irvine the tiger coat!" A fruit I had previously taken from the monkey was also capable of teleporting back into the monkey's hands. Before I broke out the walkthrough for the first time, and as I continued to wring my hands at my troubles, I went back to the ship to talk to other characters in hopes of getting some help from them. Here I found that the captain was still talking about my chance to pilot the ship, the story from the previous chapter. In summary, it's apparent that IQ has many different states and events whose interrelationships it needs to keep track of, but it currently isn't on top of a lot of them.
After Irvine acquires karate in a sensei sequence he can bust it out as required. It's a fun system combining a bit of random damage with the not overtly stressful demand that you learn which of the moves particular opponents are immune to. Chapter 5 is a 100% combat chapter set in a tunnel, and pretty exciting for it, though I swear there was a moment when I was reduced to 0 hit points but still alive and kicking. Also, (Spoiler - click to show) regarding the passcode which got me through the locked door into this area in the first place, I don't know where that number actually occurs in the game. After I learned of it from the walkthrough, I went looking for it but failed to find it. Running out of time to clear this game in under two hours, I caved in and just typed in the code which-I-still-don't-know-where-it-came-from. This typing wasn't easy, either. I accept in retrospect that the game did define the PRESS command for pressing buttons, but none of PRESS KEYPAD, UNLOCK KEYPAD, (the number itself) or PRESS NUMBERS worked.
In spite of all its bumps, which kept making me worse and worse at the game as I approached its finale, what IQ possesses is a very charming and coherent aesthetic which seems to extend beyond the already decent chunk of universe presented in this game. Even though communication with the other characters could be better programmed, each character seems to have his or her own concerns and purpose, and there are a good number of characters. And while the cat people are highly capable in their roles, it is left to the human outsider, Irvine, to falteringly observe the silliness of this world which is invisible to them. That the highly sought after fish is asleep nearly all of the time, that the characters who claim to be giving instruction barely give any, or that the villain's rant explaining his motivations doesn't make a lot of sense.
I found the funniest and cutest scene to be the one where Irvine helps a kitten which is fishing(!) in a brook. Given the general absurdity of this game, I really thought that the fish I was looking for might turn out to be the one in the water here, since its description said it was. But it turned out to be a Red Herring instead. This moment sums up the feel of the game for me.
In some ways Irvine is my favourite game so far at the halfway point of the comp, but its bugs did slow me up and hamper my experience of it. A lot of me struggling to finish this in under two hours was due to me rewinding to earlier points because of uncertainty about the game state. But the world of this game is a wonderful creation, and I will line up for a more polished version of this game or a sequel.
(I originally published this review on 15 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 19th of 26 games I reviewed. The game had been updated once during the competition before I played it.)
A Killer Headache casts the player as a zombie in a posthuman world with the immediate goal of ridding oneself of one's blinding headache by finding and eating more brains. It's truly a sad time to be a zombie when you have to live off the grey matter of animals and other zombies, but what saddened and maddened me was how excruciatingly difficult I found this game to be. In common with Changes, also from the 2012 IFComp, A Killer Headache has a world model of great sophistication, but it's even harder than Changes, and its nested hint menus almost induced apoplexy in me.
A Killer Headache was apparently inspired by a long and existentially discussion about zombies on the intfiction.org forums. I sped read the discussion after playing the game and can say that cumulatively, the participants knew their zombie stuff, as I claim to myself. Author Mike Ciul has considered the gamut of post Night of the Living Dead ideas and come up with his own version of the zombie mythology. The zombies range in sentience from below average to above, but they are all still possessed by their hunger, which can blind them to almost everything else. They specifically want brains, a schtick begun by the film Return of the Living Dead in 1985, and some of the humour of this game is also in keeping with that film's supposedly funnier aesthetic. (That's to say that RoTLD marked the arrival of "funny" zombies in zombie movies, but that I didn't find that film very funny myself; no slur on this game's humour intended.) An example would be the pathetic, moaning conversation you can have with the severed head of your friend Jim in the game's first location, your trailer.
The practicalities of being undead are foremost amongst this game's interests. The first puzzle is just getting out of your trailer. Your lack of coordination makes fiddling with the doorknob annoying and your lack of strength means that using brute force tends to destroy parts of your own body. Various enemies can tear your hands and feet off, hampering your future hazard-negotiating abilities. Falling down a ravine on your stupid zombie legs could result in an eternity of being pecked at by vultures. The game's commitment to the hopeless grisliness of zombie existence – assuming zombies have feelings of a kind, which is this game's atypical premise – is unwavering.
The difficulty which ensues is also unwavering. You're constantly being interrupted or killed by enemies while in the process of trying to solve difficult and fiddly puzzles, often under time pressure or with the added complication of your concentration being dragged away into pre-zombiedom flashbacks. This is clearly a point of the game, to convey that zombie "life" is indeed arduous. The point is effectively made and felt, but I don't think the experience should be quite so impractical to move through as a game. When you die, it tends to be several moves deep into a losing streak of actions, and to verify your suspicions about your situation often requires exploring several branches of the nested hint menus, paging in and out, going deeper and shallower and reading the lists of topics which are so convoluted that they cross reference each other.
A lot of the difficulties of play are also a consequence of what is exceptional about this game: its highly involved world model. The different groups of enemies interact with each other in complex ways, roving the desert, staking out objects and locations, fighting each other and fighting over you. The behaviour of the hated mob of zombie children is especially impressive. However, the author has not missed an opportunity to turn any particular permutation of circumstances into another hazard for the player, and the hint topics reflect this, reading like a troubleshooting manual for a day in hell. Did the dogs tear your hand off? Did they tear your foot off? Have they trapped you in the diner? Have the children trapped you in the diner?
My player wherewithal was gradually eroded over time as I kept trying and failing to solve my zombie problems. Some solutions were quite abstract ((Spoiler - click to show)put the other head on your shoulder), some relied on the kind of small-scale fiddling that has proved eternally difficult to implement to everyone's satisfaction ((Spoiler - click to show)I had terrible problems trying to find the commands to express what I wanted to do with the pump and gas tank), some were solutions I was too late to try ((Spoiler - click to show)try to keep your limbs in this game; it's better that way) and some were just very demanding. Dealing with the (Spoiler - click to show)mob of zombie kids occupying the diner near the end saw me dying on almost every move. I was spending about four times as much time moving in and out of the hint menus as I was playing. I had also been trying to play using speech-to-text, and being constantly driven back to the keyboard to fiddle with the menus was intolerable in my trammeled state, so this was where I gave up, unfortunately missing out on some existential ending, according to other reviews of this game.
A Killer Headache is dense, cleverly constructed and well written, and its savage entitites show a wide range of behaviours. The whole thing is harrowing. I just wish I hadn't found it so agonising to play. Perhaps the context that IFComp creates wasn't right for this game. Without the desire to try to finish this in two hours and the knowledge I still had a pile of other games to get through, I expect I would have been more receptive to the challenges it posed. What I don't have any kind words for are its nested hint menus. Nested hint menus drive me nuts in any game – it's about the only extreme prejudice I have in text adventuring – and the complex nature of A Killer Headache managed to show this particular method of dispensing information in its worst light.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 6th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Unfortunately The Lift is not a game based on either 1983 Dutch horror film The Lift or its silly but likeable 2001 remake The Shaft.
"The cover art for The Lift looks like it might be good," I had thought to myself as I'd squinted at the postage stamp sized icon dispensed by the IFComp site. The same automated process which deleted all of the large sized cover artworks from the comp games and replaced them with shrinkies in 2011 did the same thing again in 2012. After playing through this hyperlink CYOA game which involves choosing one of four weapons and then either being killed or not being killed by some zombies and dire rats, I think its cover image (even in shrunken form) is the only part of it I can compliment.
The PC is an amnesiac who wakes up with the obvious goal of survival. After picking your weapon, the next important choice you have to make is which of the four floors of the building you will investigate in hopes of escaping. Give or take the odd exception, that's about sixteen outcomes, but there's next to no variation of choice within outcomes. More problematic is that the writing is bad to unremarkable, there are no dynamics, there is no atmosphere, no suspense, reason, or really any point of interest. The choice you have to make before making the second important choice is whether to avail yourself of some pornography or not. This is potentially a moment of inspired dumbery, but it also might not be.
(I originally published this review on 11 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 15th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Based on its opening scene, I thought The Test is Now READY was going to be a zombie game, but this scene turned out to be on its own. Test drops you into a series of unconnected but difficult situations. Your choice of action in each scenario will inevitably have extreme (usually fatal) consequences for one or more of the parties involved, including yourself. Quick to play and undeniably galvanising, this game is well suited to the context of this competition, but not all of its scenarios are equally strong, varying in logical sturdiness, plausibility and implementation. They are all equally easy to spoil, however, and player freshness is important for the premise, hence the remainder of my review is solid spoiler:
(Spoiler - click to show)The torture-a-suspect-to-save-millions scenario is very discomfort-making, and probably the strongest in terms of goading agonised thinking. The grisly prose in this section is vivid, the important actions all implemented. When I compare the quality of this scenario to the one in which your son's foot is trapped in the train tracks as a train approaches, the latter's problem is that it is not vividly portrayed, nor are the responses to obvious actions convincing. I didn't have a sense of how far away the train really was at different times, or of the physical arrangement of the space or of the positions of the important players in relation to each other. This probably compounded my annoyance at too basic responses like, "You can't help your son," when I tried to free him. But what I did particularly like about this scenario were its epilogues, which quickly summarise how the mother's life goes as a consequence of the actions she takes by the train tracks. They demonstrate that some situations really are impossible to negotiate successfully.
The hysterical quality of some of the scenarios is justified in retrospect by the fact that they have been designed to deliberately test the ability of an artificial intelligence (which is us) to make difficult decisions. I still didn't feel this made the blood donor scenario more credible, though. There's something about waking in hospital and being told in one fell swoop that you have the only blood in the world that can save this woman, and that that's why there's a tube coming out of you and going into her. That's why this was the easiest scenario for me. I ripped the tube out of my arm immediately and walked out.
The trouble with the you-can-choose-to-be-high-forever scenario is that unlike with the others, I did not find the nature of the choice to be clear. I didn't press the drug-releasing button once and think, "Oh okay, my choice is between getting high or being responsible." I was just trying to understand what kind of situation I was even in. Once I knew that the button delivered drugs, I walked out of the room.
The assessment of player personality and disposition at the end of the game is kind of fun, even if I suspect there will be a camp of players who won't like the AI revelation. Not all of the scenarios needed to be as painful as the torture one, obviously, but more of them could have benefited from a greater sense of immediate urgency of situation, achieved through more focused writing and implementation.
(I originally published this review on 22 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the last of the 26 games I reviewed.)
I would have preferred the last competition game I play to not be about sport, let alone Gridiron. But now that I have played – nay, won! – Kicker, I'm glad it was my last game because it managed to surprise me. This is a game in which you play the placekicker on a Gridiron team, but it's an easy game to play for the sporty and the unsporty alike. It is also, after a fashion, not what either camp would expect from the premise. Or perhaps exactly what they'd expect.
The game's thorough message is that the role of placekicker is tedious and thankless, and close to being a joke in the eyes of one's teammates. You RUN ONTO THE FIELD, GIVE THE SIGNAL, KICK THE BALL and then RUN OFF THE FIELD. Then you mill about on the sidelines for twenty turns or so before the coach urges you to repeat the kicking process. In the style of a conceptual art piece, the player has to ride out an entire interminable game of football in this manner, boringly entering the same commands again and again to reinforce the idea as lived practice, with the extra joke that any and all attempts to find stimulation on the sidelines, whether through conversation or action, are doomed to failure. Other players shun you, a film crew ignores you, cheerleaders ignore you and there's basically nothing else to do.
Driven to the boredom the game seeks to muster, I tried to bring down my team by disobeying the coach in various situations. For instance, by not running onto the field when he asked me to run onto the field, or by not running off the field when he asked me to run off the field. My stratagems didn't ruin my team's prospects but I was fired twice. Happy to find that the game was not completely unyielding, I undid my tomfoolery and pressed on with entering "Z" or "WATCH THE GAME" a zillion times to see if anything wacky would eventually happen. I had grown quite weary by the time my team won, and our winning was the thing that happened.
The programming of the football game's progress is good and the prose is clean. A few commands I tried weren't recognised, but otherwise this is technically a solid game which is explicit about the commands you need to type if you want the match to keep going, but also relaxed enough to assure you, with good cause, that "You'll figure it out."
I've always thought of Gridiron as that ridiculous game where the players' physical attributes and skills are completely ghettoised. The kind of sport where one guy might have a massive right arm that he spends all his life pumping, except when he's on the field doing nothing but standing on a prearranged spot and waiting for a chance to clothesline some passer-by with that arm. Playing Kicker certainly did nothing to change my prejudices, but what it did do was let me win a sports IF game without understanding or caring about the featured sport at all, and it took a swing at at least one element of that sport while it was at it. For these things I am grateful, even if the game worked its magic by daring me to give up in the face of intense boredom.
(I originally published this review on 8 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 11th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Thou shouldst save and save often in Castle Adventure! for thou art without UNDO capability and opportunities for thine stuckening abound. This is a solidly executed rescue-the-princess toughy delivered in a simple 1980s style. None of Castle's puzzles are too tricky individually, but the overall difficulty is multiplied by the combination of the game's large map (I would estimate 100 rooms) and the fact that you can wreck your game in various ways. If Castle Adventure hadn't shipped with its Invisiclue hints, I imagine I would have been in danger of giving up on several occasions, and to make use of the clues still requires a good familiarity with the gameworld. However, I think anyone who gets into this game will enjoy acquiring that familiarity, as the map design is really excellent. Even with so many rooms, and so many of them being empty, they have a distinct style of logical arrangement and clear description that makes them easy to navigate. The empty rooms also add a sense of scale which helps give the game its atmosphere. By the time I completed Castle Adventure, I had its whole world in my head.
This is a game about the good old joys of unfettered fantasy adventuring. Forests, castles, secret passages, creatures to help and hinder, bare bones descriptions and anachronistic jokes when you look at things. Your goal of rescuing the princess isn't accompanied by a bunch of mythology, it's just self-evidently what the hero does in a world like this. And Castle Adventure is very polished. I don't recall seeing any typos or encountering any bugs I could guarantee were bugs. That is to say that there were some slightly cumbersome command moments, but the game has the spirit of a two word parser game, even if it isn't one literally, and it's possible that moments of inflexibility are just a part of the style.
A handful of puzzles seem to slyly comment on the great anti-intuitive difficulty which sometimes accompanies old school games. (Spoiler - click to show)I especially liked the part where I had to keep typing GET TORCH in a darkened room until I did manage to find the thing. Once I had it, I wondered how I was going to light it, and spent several turns trying to do so until I examined it and discovered it was an electric torch, the only such modern appliance in this otherwise ye olde game. Another potentially daunting moment was when the Princess, whom I was escorting home, fled upon seeing the ghost. If I'd been more rational at the time, I would have thought the situation through and realised that the minor maze of an area into which she'd fled was closed in. This suggests the entirely logical solution to the puzzle: You just go up into that area and check each room until you find her. But I was briefly having visions of having to explore all of the game's 100ish rooms again looking for her.
The condition for getting the game's super happy ending is probably its sneakiest feature, pretty much guaranteeing nobody will achieve it without replaying the whole thing from the start. (Spoiler - click to show)That condition is that the player must give the gold key back to the thieving magpie before entering the castle. Just reading this information in the hints brought a smile to my minor failure face. Overall, Castle Adventure was very happy-making for me. It may feel too standard for some players and its old school spirit will deter others (in fact it plainly repelled many, based on reviews I read) but in its chosen field of uncomplicated two-wordish princess rescue it is finely designed, technically polished and subtly idiosyncratic.
The Forgotten Girls drops the player into the bare feet of an Indian girl sexually enslaved in a brothel. Considering the potentially confronting, bleak and dour qualities of the subject material – and it is the game's stated aim to raise awareness of the problem – The Forgotten Girls surprised me by turning out to be thoroughly action packed. As the heroine strives to rescue her friend and effect an escape, we see a range of the brothel's residents' behaviours through her eyes, ranging from the workaday to the cruel. The game's practical and non-exploitative approach keeps it from being didactic. For players who are concerned about encountering any explicit sexual abuse in the game, there is none on camera: it is only implied and out of game time. There are violent scenes, though.
The game's puzzles actually turn out to be fairly classic adventure game stuff: escapes, dealing with locked things, avoiding enemies. A central scene involving one character who is being tortured achieves the strange and novel feat of also managing to be a bit cute at the same time, as your character(Spoiler - click to show) takes this opportunity to create a series of amusing distractions to get rid of the guards. I found this scene to be particularly well executed because it extrapolates some interesting outcomes from simple commands. Had the same scene demanded the player spell out every element of his or her intentions in microscopic detail, it would likely have been a nightmare of worst-of-Infocom pedantry.
The game does have a few weaknesses in basic areas. You have to specify with which key you want to open what door, it's pretty strict on synonyms in general, and its effect is at times undermined by Inform's default delivery style, which remains unadorned here. EG 'You can see a can of beans (in which are some brown beans), a table (on which are Pari, some ropes, an iron rod, and a purse (closed))'. Considering the cleanliness and cleverness of the action overall, these aren't big problems. The game also has good built in hints in the typical style and offers helpful advice during its opening turns in a fashion inviting to newcomers.
The Forgotten Girls finds an engaging way into harsh subject matter. It's practically minded, uncomplicated and clear-eyed. It certainly bends reality a little to adventure game conceits, but does so in a way that's good for playability.
The excellent Andromeda Dreaming shares a universe with and is set immediately prior to the events depicted in Marco Innocenti's sci-fi adventure Andromeda Awakening (The Final Cut). Awakening saw the player take on the role of a scientist exploring an alien underground in the wake of a planetary disaster. In Dreaming, a new character, Aliss, wakes to find herself quarantined to a bunk in cylindrical space pod 19-Q, bound for somewhere. As Aliss, you're unsure of where you came from or where you're going, and so you begin to engage the other bunk dwellers in one cryptic-seeming conversation after another, sliding in and out of a sleep in which dreams reveal fragments of unsettling memories.
Dreaming has a wonderful structure, a nervous-making and palpable trajectory, its own very funny slang language (sported by the loquacious NPC Kadro) and extra frisson for people who have played Andromeda Awakening, though doing so is not a prerequisite. Extra frisson can also be derived retrospectively by playing Awakening after Dreaming.
Dreaming uses the quarantine pod as a hub location, a necessarily sparse and isolated one. Even if there was something in here to fiddle with, you couldn't reach it as you are strapped down in your bunk. All you can do initially is talk to the other pod inhabitants or go to sleep, yet these are the only actions needed in this location to drive the story forward, as it is your conversations and dreams which fill in the blanks of your predicament. Through just a handful of changeable features in the pod – different bunks being open or closed at different times, different characters being awake or asleep, a TV screen being on or off – the author is able to convey that groggy sense of time passing in a hermetically sealed space that anyone who has flown will recognise.
The conversations are managed by the same menu-based quips system Joey Jones has used effectively since his sci-fi adventure Calm. Aliss mostly has hesitant queries at her disposal, and they're mostly hesitant queries that are similar to each other because they all have the same goal of trying to elicit any and all information from the other party. Thus the interest is carried by the other characters' responses. My only technical quibble with the game is that it's possible to lose your bearings a bit if you UNDO during a menu conversation.
The various dream locations Aliss finds herself in demonstrate different levels of vividness, with temporary restrictions on the parser working perfectly to deliver an aesthetic of the intangible or incomplete; dreams with holes in them, or in which forgotten details are replaced by familiar ones. Another good trick on display is the technique of describing specific details before the broader ones, as if the memories are like close-ups that are stuck on certain things. In purely mechanical terms, the dreams are simple and linear, but their effect is entirely involving. The transitions from dreams back to the now are also well executed. Crucially, the returns to consciousness aren't announced. All the game has to do to achieve this is not reprint the room description, resulting in the player inevitably bumping back into the present with a command that doesn't work because the location has changed. It's a simple but totally effective aesthetic trick achieved with the parser alone.
To speak on the game's revelations about the situation it presents would be spoilerage. Instead, I'll just say I think Andromeda Dreaming is one of 2012's best IF games. It makes a virtue of its strong linearity by expressing its meaning through its structure. Trickiness is conveyed simply. Limitations turn out to be assets. The game is funny, unsettling and affecting.
If you complete it once, you may then wish to read the following: (Spoiler - click to show)There are many endings. Not several – at least twice that.
I hadn't played a one-move game before I played I'm Having a Heart Attack and it turned out to be an excellent introduction to this mini-genre. The game puts you in the shoes of an actor starring in some kind of pro-health commercial, one in which your character might be about to have a heart attack in the wake of a poorly lived life. The director's nearby, the camera's rolling and there are a few domestic props and food items within reach. With your single move, you determine how the scene will be performed. The viability of any one performance is determined by the director, whose enthusiastic interpretations of your actions are highly amusing. Each viable performance scores you another point out of a possible 41, plus there are an unknown number of bonus points up for grabs for trying out more meta or 'guess the verb' type actions. The scene loops, which makes a lot of sense in the context, giving you the opportunity to stumble around the set, fiddling with the props in a creative manner and trying on gratuitous emotions as the director eggs you on.
The game is addictive and progress tends to come in waves. One successful action will often cause a rash of similar actions to pop into your head. The director's feedback is also helpful. The more of it that you read, the more you may connect with the game's mindset and work out what other angles might lead to performances. I scored more than half the available known points plus a bunch of unknown points in my first session with the game, and I intend to revisit it to try to find more.
David Whyld's The Cellar was part of the H.P. Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 organised by Peter Nepstad. This was a remarkable project whose IF angle I knew nothing about prior to researching it in relation to The Cellar. I had known what Lovecraft's Commonplace Book was: the place where the author used to jot down unused story ideas. While the Book's contents have been used as a launching point for IF games or IF competitions on more than one occasion, what was neat about the 2007 project was that the six games which participated were set up for play as part of an exhibition in Switzerland's Maison d'Ailleurs, aka The Museum of Science Fiction and Utopias. Further details are available in Peter Nepstad's article about the project in SPAG#50.
Concerning The Cellar, it is no spoiler to reveal which idea from the Commonplace Book the game is based on, as it is displayed on startup:
“Man’s body dies - but corpse retains life. Stalks about - tries to conceal odour of decay - detained somewhere - hideous climax.”
The game is written from the point of view of a character initially standing outside of its unsettling events: the boy Nevare, whose father made him promise not to go into the cellar after returning from a trip to Africa. When the game begins, you (Nevare) find yourself alone in the house one day, consumed by curiosity and with an opportunity to at last search for the key to the forbidden room.
The prose of The Cellar is quite good, and the game's revelations fall comfortably (or should that be uncomfortably?) into the Lovecraft mould, as do its methods of writing, perhaps. One character emerges to tell the game's backstory at great expositional length. It is the quality of this story that is the soul and effect of this game, but the linearity of the whole piece and its broad sidelining of interactivity are very apparent. The choice moment of being a child in a room and having to look around for an object from the world of adults is repeated a few times, and it's well done, but these are the only moments in which you get to really do something other than listen to another's story. Of course, it isn't literally "another's"; being a tale of family, this story involves Nevare indirectly, which turns out to be a salient point for the denouement of The Cellar. However, I imagine many regular IF players would simply wish they could do more in this game. I wished that, but I still enjoyed the story. I can also imagine a game depicting some of the told material in interactive fashion, though this isn't a case where speculating on a significantly different game that isn't will pay dividends. The Cellar's linearity might also have made it more accessible to random passers by in an exhibition. Either way, its story is a good realisation of Lovecraft's jotted idea.
Dead Cities hails from the Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 and uses the following jotting of Lovecraft's as its inspiration:
"An impression - city in peril - dead city - equestrian statue - men in closed room - clattering of hooves heard from outside - marvel disclosed on looking out - doubtful ending."
While I've yet to play through all of the project games as I write this, I'm guessing that this one is the most technically ambitious of the bunch. It presents attractively in a multi-pane window which divides up the main text, an inventory list, a hint panel and black-and-white pencil sketches of many of its situations and objects. Suggested commands from the hint panel can also be clicked to enter them into the main window. Unfortunately, these flourishes are not trouble-free. I ran into a fair few bugs while playing, several of them related to the display, some of them serious (no save possible because it was not possible to restore) and was rarely able to determine exactly where the fault lay. I will discuss these issues at the end of the review.
Dead Cities is a Lovecraft pastiche long on conversation, domesticity and quality prose. Lovecraft was good at fetisihising all kinds of things by dwelling upon them at what I like to think he would describe as preternatural length, and Jon Ingold achieves something similar here with the rare books which appear in this game. The player is a solicitor charged by Carter Arkwright with obtaining the signature of Carter's dying uncle. Carter seeks to avoid inheritance tax bankruptcy by acquiring his uncle's valuable books before his death, books which range from rare Isaac Newtons to Necronomicon-like volumes.
It is necessary in the first place to attend to social niceties in this game. You'll tie up your horse, make small talk with the maid and humour an old man. I would say that these things seem to flow easily here, when they often don't in IF, except that with my general dislike of the tell/ask system of IF conversation which Dead Cities uses, the truth is that I was unable to cleave myself away from the hint panel, which perfectly yes'd and no'd and asked and told my way all through the introductory section of the game – and then quite far into the game's core conversation with old man Arkwright. The hint panel feature strikes me as an excellent way to show people how to play IF, and would probably have worked very well for random folks looking at this game in the context of an exhibition. For regular IFfers, it may be a bit too much of an easy temptation, but personally I never say no to an opportunity to skip asking and telling.
The conversation scene with Arkwright has that black humour about it of someone trying to extricate valuable information (or just valuables) from an old person who is dying and knows it. Of course in this game you can say that it was all just business because you're playing a hired solicitor, but there is some scope in your yes-ing and no-ing to treat the old man well or poorly, or somewhere inbetween, which is interesting.
To speak of later more hair-raising shenanigans would be to spoil this not particularly long game. There is a lot of room in it to try little variations in your interactions with the game's few NPCs, but there are perhaps only a handful of opportunities to change a bigger picture. I found a couple of endings hard to read in that they made me wonder if I'd missed chunks of the game, as if I could have achieved something more drastic. But there's no walkthrough and no hints for the later part of Dead Cities, so I decided to be content with what I'd done. The general high quality of the prose and overall flow of events were the real attractions for me.
Concerning technical troubles, I can say that I was unable to successfully restore a saved game of Dead Cities in the current versions of Mac interpreters Gargoyle and Zoom – doing so produced a Glulx error. The game's hint panel spiralled out of control on me more than once, cycling madly through the hints, and in Zoom I found it was sometimes necessary to resize the game window mid-session to prevent the interpreter from pausing after every line of text. Dialogue and hints snuck into the inventory window occasionally, too. I believe this game was put together in two months for the Commonplace project, so it's already punching above its time-weight in overall quality, but it looks like it could have benefited from more testing, and it's probably become a victim of some degree of inconsistency in delivery of the relatively nascent Glulx format, or tweaks to that format over time.
Critical Breach puts you in the role of something like one of the low ranking scientists working for the bad guys in the Resident Evil games. The kind of white-coated underlings who do the dangerous lab work on the zombie DNA and are first to be torn apart when some giant mutant springs out of a petri dish.
The game has a core of two busy lab rooms sporting computers, scanners, medical miscellany and one specimen cage containing your charge, the horrible Scorpig. Your goal is to implant a chip in that little bastard, a procedure which does not go routinely. This main part of the game is very satisfying, coming on like a significant but not overly tough set piece from a larger adventure. There's good interactivity amongst the many props at your disposal, a fair bit to do and a fair bit to work out. The game successfully conveys a feeling of the dangerousness of the PC's situation without ever killing the player. I did get stuck once, at which point I consulted the walk-through and discovered that (Spoiler - click to show)a particular object which common sense had told me would never fit inside another particular object actually did – so I blame the game's failure to make clear the size of this object.
Unfortunately, the post-Scorpig section of the game is poor. It may also be short, but it dragged down my experience with its relatively lame implementation (EG a vital noun makes no appearance in the prose at any point), vagueness of purpose and possible bugginess. I was stuck in one room for ages, and when I turned to the walk-through, it didn't work – (Spoiler - click to show)nor did its instructions on getting either of the game's endings.
I was tempted to lop a star off my score for the messy endgame, but I felt that would fail to accurately reflect the fun I had in the laboratory section, which comprises the bulk of Critical Breach. I had also been expecting a small game from the outset, and wouldn't have minded if it hadn't continued beyond the lab anyway. It's a good and basically satisfying dose of puzzle in a sci-fi setting. An update to the endgame would be great, though.
I was going to begin this review by saying: 'Not to be confused with the 2009 game of the same title, genre, initial situation and initial geography,' and then I realised how dumb that sounded. If ever a human being should be allowed to accidentally confuse a pair of games with each other from a position of ignorance, it should be in the case of these two Awakenings, though admittedly this one has a 'The' in front of it.
Now that I have kindly allowed for human fallibility, I can say that Dennis Matheson's lone IF game, 1998's The Awakening, is a well written piece of goth horror in which you wake up in a grave in the pouring rain and must seek to solve the mystery of your predicament. The prose is steeped in Lovecraftian dread and 'unnameable'-ness, and the development of the plot moves strongly in the direction of one of Lovecraft's short tales.
At the time of writing this review, I was mostly in the habit of playing more recent IF games – IE from the mid 2000s and on – and as I played The Awakening, I discovered that I needed to shift my playing style and mindset a bit to accommodate what feels like a game from a different time. The differences were subtle, but they spoke to me about the adventure games I am used to playing, which could be generalised as coming from both the old school and the new school. The 90s games are in a middle period for me. I had no awareness of them at the time, and this one certainly feels more like a small Infocom title than something newer.
The puzzles, though not numerous, are quite finicky and also subtle. Important props are sometimes buried with equal subtley in the room descriptions. It is possible to make your game unwinnable or to miss out on points, and there's also the technical limitation of only one UNDO being allowed. I don't think anyone would say this is a really difficult adventure, and there are in-game hints you can call upon, but it asks a little more of the player puzzle-wise than more modern games.
Atmosphere is king in The Awakening, what with its shuddery graveyard and dilapidated church settings. Some of the gettable objects about the place are just there to enhance the story and the reality of the situation, and there are a couple of nasty NPCs. (Spoiler - click to show)I have to confess that in the case of the guard dog, I only got stuck because I found the description of its chain inadequate. Folks who like non-explicit Lovecraft spinoffs, graveyard spookiness or a bit of rigour in their adventuring should enjoy this middle sized mystery.
Awakening is a short to moderate length horror adventure of likeable clarity. To solve the existential mystery of your identity there are two main things you need to do in this game: Pay attention to the descriptions of the rain-drenched church grounds you'll find yourself wandering and pay attention to the automatic feedback you'll receive from your character's senses. Nor should you forget that you woke up by an open grave when the game began. Like I said, three things.
Awakening won the Saugus.net Halloween Contest of 2009 and delivers a Halloweenish variation on the IF amnesia theme. Though a little overladen with adjectives, it has a strong mood of ceaseless rain and mud and a good way with the burden of the numerous physical sensations experienced by your character. Your bedraggled state gives you strong motivation to try to improve your lot by exploring, or at least to try to do something loftier than mope about by a grave.
The implementation is rusty in some places but then surprisingly detailed in others. While there are a handful of inflexible moments, the game as a whole isn't complex enough to be undone by them. Awakening's mood is sustained by good location writing and its world is small enough that you don't have to retrace too much ground if you get stuck. Some mystery, some mostly staple puzzling and a moody locale of small inventory make for a satisfying goth horror outing.