(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 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.
(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.
(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 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 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.)
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
(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 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 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 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 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.
(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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.)
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
The original IFComp 2011 incarnation of the ambitious sci-fi adventure Andromeda Awakening attracted a lot of what felt like controversy at the time. It was self-proclaimedly verbose, probably too big for the competition context, definitely not accessible enough in general, too difficult due to that inaccessibility and thus polarising overall. These difficulties were distracting spikes on the outer surface of a game with an extremely developed and immersive mythology, a weird and novel atmosphere to match and a powerful ultimate effect. Andromeda's remarkable qualities didn't go unnoticed, but having to handle a valuable thing is still offputting if that thing is spiky, and a lot of players were put off.
Author Marco Innocenti absorbed the considerable volume of feedback the game generated, generated feedback on the feedback in his expansive way, then revised Andromeda and released the new incarnation as Andromeda Awakening - The Final Cut, neatly using movie director parlance to emphasise the degree of change between the versions of the game most people played during IFComp and this new one.
Your role in the adventure is that of a scientist who has put together a doom-predicting report on the state of the planet Monarch. As you rush by train to deliver it to folks who might be able to do something about the impending disaster, the disaster strikes, leaving you in a crumbling underground of magma and strange technology. Mysteries and revelations lie ahead. The imagery and construction of the underground world is fascinating, and feels very real. Many objects and entities you encounter can be researched on your E-Pad, Andromeda's answer to the Hitchhiker's Guide, and this mechanism allows the game to significantly increase the amount of information it delivers while remaining interactive and also motivating you to investigate that information. The overall atmosphere and behaviour of Andromeda is not unlike some of the explorative stretches in the first-person incarnations of the Metroid games, all cavernous areas, natural features and unexplained alien technology.
As a fan of the original Andromeda Awakening I can say that The Final Cut makes good on its promise to fundamentally smooth out the experience. The original was studded with moments where it was broadly clear what needed to be done but difficult to do it. Tricky implementation, casually mentioned but crucial props and unnecessarily fiddly interactions kept tripping up a great story. In almost every case, these problem props have now been fixed up or clued with infinitely more grace, or just made automatic and removed altogether.
Other improvements include the addition of a quality help menu and a 'go to' command for immediately returning to previously visited locations. Some of the prose's weirder expressions have been excised, though I was glad to find that the 'cyanotic lights' were still present.
There are also a couple of significant structural changes/additions made in the Final Cut. A sequence near the end allows for some new third person perspectives on the game's backstory, and the basic 'leave your house to go on your mission' intro has been replaced with something more dramatic.
Even as a returning player, I still found it difficult to work out what to do with a lot of the alien machinery down in the underground, but at least those puzzles are now challenging for valid reasons, and not attended by the general querulousness that hovered over the original game. Andromeda's effect is not spoiled by heading to the walkthrough now and then; its outcomes feel too big for that. If the game's high quality was originally obscured, The Final Cut makes it much more apparent.
The Museum is a short and flippant game in which you play a dude who visits the local Egyptian exhibition one night after the ceaseless leisure time afforded by modern existence causes you to become bored. There's a mummy on display, and if you happen to bring it back to life (it takes a bit of effort) your goal then becomes one of snuffing it out again so that it won't kill people. This premise obviously doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that's par for the course in The Museum. It's the kind of game where defeating the monster doesn't score you one of the six points on offer, but eating a sloppy banana that you find on the floor does.
The Museum was made for the TIGsource's Commonplace Book Competition of 2008. Entrants had about six weeks to turn out a game based on one of H P Lovecraft's unused ideas as scribbled down in his Commonplace (note)Book. The chosen idea here is #190: "Primal mummy in museum — awakes and changes place with visitor."
There are seven rooms in the resulting game and some prop-based puzzles delivered without leeway. Implementation is basic and people who like apostrophes in their prose will be disappointed. Nevertheless, the game offers some fun and several different endings. The tone waggles back and forth between being flip and smart-arsed, which would have grated on me had the adventure been any larger. I was kind of impressed by how annoying I found the protagonist, given the short amount of time I spent playing him.
The game has a couple of cool features worth mentioning; a neat cover graphic of the mummy and some original Egyptian-themed music which plays in the background. All in all, it's good for a laugh.
Varkana is a tale of arty diplomacy set in an earthy yet glamorous fantasy kingdom which feels like it is populated mostly by women – though empirically speaking there are probably as many male characters as female. The city of the game breathes with interesting life and detail, but it's hard to stay immersed in a story as alternately widespread and wandery as Varkana's when the game doesn't do enough to direct the player towards the ends that are really useful in its conversation system.
In the rawest terms, your progress in this game is heavily dependent on your ability to TELL and ASK the right people about the right things at the right times. If, like me, you don't even like the TELL/ASK system, I would not recommend Varkana to you. And even if you do like lots of conversation, there is a significant bug in Varkana resulting in NPCs ignoring important topics unless you make a nonsense query of them first. This bug is documented by the author in her README, and the game will always be of lesser quality than it could be so long as the bug is there.
In spite of these troubles, I found myself significantly immersed in Varkana's attractive world for about half of the game's duration. The opening backstory tells of ambassadors from another kingdom visiting your native Varkana, and of the political wiggling which ensues. There is a lot to take in, and I had to re-read the intro a few times to make sure I had got it. Then I found myself in the position demonstrated by the game's lush cover art by author Maryam Gousheh-Forgeot: That of being a glamourous bookcrafter woman named Farahnaaz, giving a boost to my equally glamourous friend Nivanen so that she can peek through a window.
We were spying on the new arrivals in town, but I immediately had trouble conversing with Nivanen, not sure what I should be asking her about, or whether I had asked her enough questions before I put her down, and whether I was interacting with a bug at times or whether she just didn't know what I was talking about. I had thought we were on a mission, but pretty quickly after our attempt at spying, all the main characters relaxed, and could be found chilling in the local bathhouse and having their hair done.
So much information had been presented initially that I had the sensation at this point that I might be doing something wrong, or just not know what I was doing… but it turns out that this part of the game is meant to be observational and meandery. There are citizens and a spunky cat wandering around, and exotic props and buildings to check out. The physical environment has its own logic which makes it feel real.
Unfortunately it takes a while to work your way back into the intrigue plot, and the further you get into it, the more you have to ASK and TELL judiciously. Sometimes you have to repeat conversation commands several times in a row just to extract all the information from individual characters. Bumping against the interface and trying to follow the sense of all the politics was arduous for me, and I eventually lost interest. Unfortunately the walk-through did not work transparently for me, so I was unable to complete the game.
Varkana presents the details of a world vividly, but its direction as a game is vague. Whether a player can become involved in its politics or not will depend on how much they like this kind of conversation-based progress in IF and whether they can persist with a less than ideal implementation of such conversation. Also, the backstory is very full before the player even starts the game. This fact could be mitigated for folks whom it might stress out by the hook of the initial spying-over-the-wall scene… but potentially immediately unmitigated if the first command typed in the game produces the first of many failures to communicate, as it did for me.
The Hours has an intriguing opening which leads into an exciting and consistently unpredictable sci-fi adventure. You don't initially know what/where/why you are, only that you and your frantic NPC friend are being pursued by something. As soon as you think you've got a handle on this state of affairs, the state of affairs changes. And as soon as you think you've got a handle on the next state of affairs, that state of affairs changes as well. Though the game may be more linear than some players would like, it is great at pulling the rug out from under you time and time again, while also building up a complex set of rules about the time-travelling shenanigans that are going on.
This mythology is fascinating but complex, necessitating a lot of exposition; a Philip K Dick kind of premise with some of the black humour of Total Recall. The Hours moves quickly through many different moods, successfully conveying the disorientation of the Hours agents as they step in and out of their time-gating pools of water. The twitchy tonal changes between suspense, danger, mystery and paranoia kept me interested and on my toes through the whole game. The Russian doll-like development of the story's varying realities and the characters' clones is excellent, given the swiftness and smallish size of the adventure.
While the pacing and delivery of the writing is pretty good, the tone of the player's conversational choices sometimes proves elusive. I don't recommend choosing any of the "none of the above" conversation tree options because they can cause your protagonist to behave unpredictably, and The Hours is a game which subtly pays attention to how you treat the other characters.
I only became stuck twice, and in both cases, one use of the "help" command immediately got me unstuck. Both cases occurred during the game's introductory sequence (one involved an exit appearing that I didn't notice - there can be downsides to keyword based movement schemes) so the rest of the game flowed forward very well. Some obvious commands and synonyms don't work, or lead to (harmful to the suspension of disbelief) default-ish responses, but this is no big deal for someone's first Interactive Fiction game.
I imagine some of the import of The Hours's expositional dialogue could be moved into imagery or action, but I'm fine with the game the way it is. The number of complexities that open up as the mythology is described creates a kind of pleasurable tension (can I follow this? what will happen next?) which is then relieved by parcels of explanation. Some of the explanations are lengthy, but I can imagine this game being pretty hard to follow if it became too cryptic. It could in fact become an entirely different kind of game, a far more abstract one where you're left to ponder what the hell just happened. The game that is balances forward movement, action, doses of mystery and doses of explanation. And I think action can be hard to drive without motive. I always had a clear sense of what I was doing in each scene in The Hours, based on my understanding of my particular situation in that particular moment - which was often apt to change during the next moment. These are the surprises of The Hours.
A Colder Light is set on plains of winter ice under a sky filled with significantly named stars. This world could be an alternate North Pole, or perhaps just the North Pole of another past time, but the game is described as fantasy and the geography is not specified. This is an atmospheric adventure with a very satisfying design, a good puzzle system, an attractive web browser presentation and a haunting feel.
The setup is that you live out in this frozen wilderness with your father, who has been teaching you survival skills and respect for the power of nature. One day he does not come home, and you must draw on your ingenuity and on the spiritual magic of stars and runestones to find out what has happened to him. Determining how and when to call the game's various spirit entities is the primary ongoing puzzle.
A Colder Light is driven by a combination of keyword hyperlinks in the prose and mini-menus of useful actions which pop up at the bottom of the screen, a combination well-suited to this game. The roster of locations is small, though dense with spirit puzzle action, and your runes need to be tested out in permutations, something I imagine could be a bit of a chore to carry out via typing. It's also impossible to waste time trying actions that have no bearing on the proceedings as they simply aren't available in the first place.
The game is designed in such a way that you still have to make some logical imaginative leaps yourself (which to me is the key attraction of parser driven games) based on your observations of which stars are visible in different locations and your ideas about which runes might do what. There is also a sense of bleak urgency which seeps through the modest but poetic-leaning prose of the narrator, and the strength and resolve of the character you're playing come through clearly in that voice.
The aesthetic design of the game screen sets the mood perfectly, with a semitransparent text window floating before a far view of the cold and dark horizon. There are, however, a couple of shortcomings in the delivery system. The first is the slowness of the hybrid Inform 7 / Quixe / hyperlinks game engine; it can take between 1/4 second to 1 second to process each action. This adds up over time and is especially felt on a repeat play. The second shortcoming is mostly a problem because of the first: there is no save capability. While the game can be considered short by most standards, and not too hard, the time it takes to play is longer than such assessments would suggest. So for now, if you want to take a break, it's important not to close the game window. Breaking off completely will necessitate a restart next time.
While the game engine may be an iteration of a work in progress, the game itself is definitely no experiment – A Colder Light is a very fine, compactly designed and enjoyable adventure whose contents play to this new delivery format while also bringing across some of the particular strengths of parser based games.
I had a peek at the original parser-with-keywords version of Starborn when it was released, but I did not complete it – which was a bit silly of me, given the very small size of the game.
Starborn now returns in a high budget Undum+Vorple form that fills your web browser screen with an atmospheric and clickable map graphic and your ears with a couple of spacey pieces of ambient electronic music. The keywords of the original version have become clickable hyperlinks.
The game content remains unaltered, and is a brief evocation of the life of a human born in space in the future who is contemplating what it might be like to return to the old homeworld, gravity and air and all. The writing does a good job of placing you "outside of the Earth" in a short space of time, but short is the defining word for the experience. There's just not that much to do or see or read, and it's all over in a few minutes, making it a tiny mood piece.
Having played both versions of the game, and at the risk of stating the obvious, I found that the new one certainly demonstrates that graphics change the effect of a piece, and so does sound. The aesthetic of the screen colours and sounds was actually quite unlike whatever I had made up in my head the first time I played the game, which was mildly jarring. The more high-tech delivery generated a sense of what might be described as high production values, which the simple text only original did not connote at all. By the same token, the game hasn't gotten any bigger, so the relatively lavish new delivery feels a bit overkilly after the fact.
However, that the game might come across a little weirdly to a person who played the old version first is not really the point. This new version is more effective to me as a demonstration of how a game like Starborn can be implemented by Undum & Vorple, and also shows that this implementation is very appropriate. Given that the game is mostly a CYOA, was originally driven by keywords, has movement around a map and also low interactivity (one gettable item) I found I did prefer playing it in its new format than the old. When the parser is unnecessary and you can click keywords rather than type them, why not do so? I found this design and the attractiveness of the interface appealing, though there was one thing I missed: the ability to undo. Not because of any difficulty in the gameplay, but because more than once I found myself interested in wanting to isolate what performing certain actions would do to different parts of the interface, and there was no way to undo then redo to test such actions.
I think Starborn itself is a little small for the new format, but its basic nature is well suited to the format, and playing it this way got me thinking about the possibilities.
If this short horror adventure had been more tightly programmed, I'd praise it as being very good. As it stands, it manages to be both pretty good and pretty annoying.
The player is determined to apprehend the wonders of the St Cafasso Lighthouse on Buwch Island, and not even a torrential storm is going to put them off. This is a brisk and atmospheric set up with a lot of possibilities, and the game quickly makes good on them, confronting the player with a corpse, violence and secrets.
Where it doesn't make good is in fielding the majority of commands which are slightly off course. Perhaps it is only the fate of good writing to be seriously injured by the unvarying tone of default parser messages. There's nothing more obnoxious than being in the throes of trying to stave off another character's attempt on your life and having to wade through a sea of the old chestnuts like, 'That seems to belong to Mr X', 'That's hardly portable,' or 'That would achieve nothing.' The (quite good) mood of this game was ruined for me on countless occasions by such oversights.
The game has several endings that I could find, and the fact that they are not immediately adjacent to each other, but aren't miles apart from each other, either, is a plus in my book. Yet there is also a a terrible bug along the lines of: characters who are alive shouldn't suddenly be dead, and vice versa.
This is the kind of short piece which, if its holes were plugged, I would probably elevate into my totally underpopulated horror top 10. (There is a sore shortage of non-Lovecraft horror text adventures out there.) But bugs and oversights really work against the Lighthouse's quality content.
It's probably hard for anyone to tell a really convincing story about a small lion pride stalking an innocent man through the suburbs one evening at the behest of a psychopath, but this is the subject matter of Cattus Atrox. Some of Cattus is pulse quickening, much of it is inexplicable, and a lot of it is very funny. Some folks would say that hilarity (either intentional or unintentional) has no place in a horror game, but I think horror and humour are weird emotional cousins, and there is something about this game that I found both intense (sometimes) and hysterical.
For half Cattus's length, I fled cleverly through the foggy night streets while killer lions and 'Karl' harassed me. Then I typed 'wait' about ten times while a beautiful lady conveyed me to safety, or at least to another location. (This is one of those games where you have to type 'wait' an awful lot.) During this gust of confidence, I found myself thinking, "The reviews of this game are wrong. It's totally playable and solveable." Then I found myself dying repeatedly in a drug induced (in the game!) stupor, which seemed inescapable. Then I turned to the walk-through, and then I realised that the other reviews were right. I don't think anyone could divine the series of actions leading to the solution of this game. Some crucial objects aren't mentioned in the room descriptions and tons of objects which would seem to be of help to you are just never implemented. The playing area may be large, but it's also samey and mostly painted-on.
I also discovered I was about 50 moves too late to even be trying to get off my fatal path. I don't mind learning from being killed, in fact sometimes I quite enjoy it, but it was galling in Cattus because of everything about the game that was revealed in one fell swoop when I had to turn to the walk-through -- at which point I just typed in the walk-through.
Still, there are a lot of weird little delights in Cattus. I don't think anyone expects a threatening stranger to suddenly reveal that he has a car full of lions. There's preposterous dialogue, leonine gore, crazy plot twists, and silly episodes of violence which animal-loving players will find completely objectionable. Some of these elements seem to belong in the world of the game, others have been added without care. This makes the whole a bit of a mess, and while Cattus is not a good game by conventional standards, the particular concoction which is Cattus Atrox is certainly that – particular. In terms of its playability, though, I'd say it's guaranteed to aggravate any player cocky enough to persist with it in the belief they can solve it off their own back.
The Zuni Doll is a short horror adventure in which you have to fend off the eponymous and cursed African doll when it starts trying to kill you. Your goal in purchasing the thing was to add it to your collection of curios, but one stupid action by your pet cat has reactivated the doll's evil.
The game is set in the few rooms of your house and doesn't beat around the bush, quickly getting you into the business of finding a succession of methods to stave off the doll's attacks. It has some exciting moments, but the programming is entirely bare bones. The included background information says that The Zuni Doll was written in four days as a programming demonstration, and this shows. There are no synonyms, no alternate ways of doing things, and Undo isn't even mentioned in the game over menu, though it's the most common command you'll need in response to the frequent snuffing out of your life that occurs. There are also random typos, and objects aren't necessarily described through the filter of the life and death events which frame the action.
In spite of these weaknesses, the game is so short and linear that you won't feel like you've wrecked your experience by consulting the equally short walk through, which you'll probably have to do. There's also a bit of humour in the writing (and the whole idea), and some interesting gore. Overall, the game offers brief fun with a good idea, but scattershot delivery. It's certainly a candidate for a tune up which it will probably never get.
Safe is Mister Wochinski's first IF, a little escape game with a fairly strict time limit. You wake up in a cellar and have to break out of your cabin prison before your mysterious captor(s) get all homicidally impatient on you.
The small set of prying and jimmying puzzles you must solve in the space of a few rooms would be more satisfying if they weren't hampered by some traditional adventure programming oversights. There are obvious synonym problems and absences (EG "workbench" is recognised, but "bench" produces "You can't see any such thing."). There's some verb guessing. Weirdness and a lack of accessibility attend some important objects (Spoiler - click to show)("pry hinges with screwdriver" produces the response "You must supply a second noun.") and the game generally only accepts one way of phrasing the most important commands you will need to enter.
Your inventory space is tiny and you have to constantly pick up and drop the relatively numerous props to keep experimenting with them. This could be annoying on its own, but makes the game particularly difficult when the time limit is so stringent. Almost every command in the game causes another minute of time to pass, even LOOK, EXAMINE and INVENTORY. You will definitely need to make some highly optimised saved games as launch points for experimentation – at least if you don't want to resort to the hints.
It's good news that the built-in hints are comprehensive. I had to turn to them once, and I realised when I did that I was being held up by implementation troubles rather than by a lack of ideas on how to proceed. A tighter version of this game would hold up happily as a quickie escape game, but the game that is demonstrates a range of typical first game programming and design oversights. Here's to the next game and tighter implementation.
In Heated you play a messy guy with a messy life who needs to get to work early, and in a more than presentable state, to secure a raise from the boss. This is a small adventure with a handful of domestic problems for you to solve in a finite number of moves. Things will go wrong frequently, and when they do, your heat-o-meter climbs in response to the aggravations. Get back on track and you will cool off a bit, hence the game's title.
The production is not polished (there are typos and incidences of inconsistent programming) but the important thing is that it works as a whole, however modest, and thus is fun if you enjoy figuring out how to optimise your path through a game's obstacles in the fewest number of moves. There are some Babel Fish-like moments à la Hitchhiker's Guide and some cute jokes like (Spoiler - click to show)the move-eater that your backyard turns out to be.
The game is too small for its inconsistencies to really mess you up, and its size is a plus in terms of the gameplay style -- as soon as you learn a better way of doing things, you can replay through an optimal path in a matter of seconds or minutes. This doesn't mean you can't save the game, but UNDO gets you further het up.
One problem with Heated only becomes apparent once you've completed it - (Spoiler - click to show)that the game's small scale mitigates against your heat level really having much of an effect. But the idea that life might work to sabotage us in little ways when we have a deadline comes through clearly.