Awake the Mighty Dread takes place in a fantasy dreamworld fuelled by Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the aesthetic of steampunk. It's got orphans, air travel, capricious NPCs ranging in scale from an amphibian to a deity, and a reverence for storybooks. And all that in a smallish game. It's alluded to that its orphan protagonist slips away to the dreamworld in order to avoid abuse back in the real world, but the social system in the dreamworld turns out to be a troubled one, too. The heroine's spiky curiosity about what's going on there is well written, and provides motivational fuel for the player in a game which turns out to be not very good at signalling progress through it.
Awake is actually the IF dimension of a larger project by its author which can be found at
However, the game was basically presented as a standalone entity in the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. Exploring the rest of the project might thicken Awake's backstory, but I doubt it would actually help in the playing of Awake for reasons to be enunciated in this review.
Awake received mixed reviews when it appeared in IFComp. My own private review (for other game authors that year) began:
"Since people have been saying that they found this baffling, I secretly patted myself on the head for not being baffled."
So, I liked the overall experience more than most, but the game's delivery is clearly a failing one. In spite of the author's writerly prose and obvious knowledge of some advanced parser conceits, the game exhibits no awareness of how to steer a player through its contents via the parser. Location descriptions are aesthetically pleasing but player-insensitive, with almost none of their interesting features implemented. The features that are implemented are there to service plot points in a story that only seems threadable in retrospect. Trying to make the story happen yourself with the game's minimal direction and tech oversights is futile-leaning, and so the game's solution file is essential.
In the case of contemporary IF, I have low tolerance for being involved with walkthrough/hint systems unless they're really well considered. I also have design philosophy qualms about some games I consider to be impossible without a walkthrough. Awake bypassed my concerns in these areas because it's an interesting failure of an accessible kind. Reconsidering it five years down the track, I'd say it's definitely of more interest to people who create IF games than it is to player-players. In this capacity, it's substantial enough not to feel too small or inconsequential, but still small enough not to feel like a time burglar in spite of its black box implementation.
That black box is actually the point of interest; playing Awake feels like trying to build a Lego model without being able to see your hands. A lot of interconnecting prose seems to be absent in this game. There's a train you start out on, and which automatically travels from station to station, and there's an effect whereby you can see what station you're at out the window. But the descriptions within and without can be indistinguishable. Being on a train in a location can be the same as just being in the location – until the train moves, of course. Similarly, objects sometimes appear 'painted on' in room descriptions, and stay there even after you've taken them. NPCs speak at appropriate moments but don't show up as prose entities when they're not speaking. It's hard to tell when conversations have ended, or if the conversants are still about. Finally, the most important action you must take in the whole game is unguessable, and deliverable as a command in a form that only hardcore parser folk would be aware of. Collectively, these sophisticated-leaning bugs at the coalface of interactivity suggest the author had strong familiarity with parser games but didn't run Awake through a sufficiently typical or robust group of playtesters.
I find the story in Awake interesting, and the game succeeds in feeling like a window onto a larger fantasy world, but in the end its technical oddities render it mostly a curio for parser nerds. Its contents can't be unspooled easily the way the contents of the famous stories it most emulates can. The site of the obstacles is its interactivity.
Drax... Who or what is or was he or she?
When I first completed this game by Paul Allen Panks, I still didn't know. But a couple of days' worth of Commodore 64 BASIC hacking later, I had unearthed the answer. I feel confident in venturing, for reasons which will soon become apparent, that at this time of writing I am the only player on earth to have completed Drax other than its author. And I can't even guarantee that the author did play through his own game, for reasons which will also soon become apparent.
Note that this review is extensive and therefore amounts to a complete spoiler of the game. I hide nothing behind spoiler tags.
I first heard about Paul Panks and his games when I played Ninja's Fate, Hannes Schueller's eulogy to the late game author. I then read numerous reviews of Paul's numerous games, most of which expressed a combination of bewilderment, infuriation and plain old fury at the games' apparent wonkiness. The reviews' tone of hair-pulling was often hilarious to me. I also read some of Paul's refutations to such reviews, and his notes on his own games on his website, and I knew that I would have to try one or more of his games myself.
I am pretty au fait with the Commodore 64, so as a starting place I plucked from the archives Paul's last Commodore game, Drax, from 2005. The experience of playing this game turned out to be amusing in most of the ways I'd expected, but also stimulating in ways I hadn't. Some bold features are spread out over 75 rooms of a fantasy RPG adventure in such a way that many of them would never be seen by the average player, nor do they need to be seen or experienced to complete the game. In this sense, the game's structure is kind of ridiculous. But if it wasn't for this curiosity-inducing weirdness, I wouldn't have been motivated to become intimately acquainted with Drax in the way I did.
When the game begins, you get to name your character, then you find yourself loitering in a tavern which opens onto a village square with a well in it. I've read that this is a common starting point for many of Panks's games. There was no introductory text suggesting what my goal might be, so I just started looking around. Upstairs of the tavern I found a bedroom with some typical adventurer's supplies in it; weaponry and a lantern.
My problems began after I picked up the lantern. When I tried to leave the room, I was told "You need to light the lantern first." This didn't make a whole lot of sense, since I had entered the room by a normally lit corridor. When I tried to light the lantern, I was told "You can't light that here."
Faced with this impossible paradox, I ditched the lantern so as to avoid being trapped in this tavern bedroom for eternity, grabbed the bowieknife (sic) and went outside. I found some townsfolk nearby and, out of curiosity, tried to murder them. Each one of them beat me to death in turn. The bard, the villager, even the priest. Combat consists of a bunch of you hit / they missed messages which you must page through by pressing a key every time the game says <MORE>. My multiple deaths here didn't seem to bode well for my life as a hero of no particular quest. Nevertheless, I tried to proceed out of town and into the ominous looking forest.
"It's much too dark to move in that direction!" said the game.
It turns out that without the ungettable, unlightable lantern, you can't actually go anywhere in Drax. I wondered if Paul ever tried to play the latest version of his own game, which the credits page advises is 1.15?
So I hit the Commodore's BASIC prompt and dumped a listing of the game to my Mac. I disabled the three lines in the program responsible for all the darkness blocks and reloaded my saved game. This worked, and I was now able to venture into the forest.
Drax's wilderness is sizeable, mazey, and satisfying to map. It comes across more like the cross-country terrain of a MUD than the functionally-oriented environment of a personal computer text adventure. Most rooms are empty and exist only to be navigated. Geography is often realistic, but pointless in game terms, like the large stretch of mountains which contains nothing but a bunch of dead ends. I felt I was in a big world, but what was I doing in it?
I passed a few fey folk in the forest, including an elf and a hobbit, and their descriptions indicated that they were friendly, so uncharacteristically for me I didn't try to stab them. But when I saw a black knight guarding a castle gate, I knew it was time for more violence. To my amazement (having been earlier clubbed to death by a villager) I was the victor of this battle. And victory was exciting. I gained experience and gold, a level and hit points, and cool items exploded all over the ground. I wielded my newly acquired broadsword, strapped on my newly acquired chainmail and strode into the castle the knight had been guarding.
In the throne room I met Mordimar, a recurring major villain from Paul's games. Thoroughly expecting to be pulverised, I saved the game and opened fire on the guy. To my surprise, I quickly beat him to a pulp. And as Mordimar's corpse fell towards the ground, but before it actually hit the ground, what appeared to be the missing introductory text to the game suddenly spurted down the screen... then Mordimar finished falling to the ground, died, and the game proclaimed that I was the victor and wished that I should live long.
"Is that it?" I almost asked aloud. You map some empty terrain, kill two monsters and then win the game, at which point you get to read the introductory text?
Weirded out, I returned to a saved game and set out to explore the rest of the world. When I found a werewolf blocking my path in the forest, I saved the game again before engaging him in battle. This battle raged and raged. I noticed that my broadsword was starting to throw lightning bolts at my foe. Awesome! But I had to press a key to advance each round of combat, over and over again… surely I had done this at least 100 times now? We were landing blows, dodging, landing more blows, for pages and pages. Would this clash of the titans ever end? How many hit points did I have left? How many did the werewolf have, for that matter? The game wasn't telling.
My fingers were wearying, and I have enough RSI problems already, so I decided to abort the game and hack the program some more so that I wouldn't have to keep mashing keys to advance battles. With my new 'autoscroll' feature in place, I reloaded my game and went at the hairy fiend anew. I put the Commodore 64 emulator speed up to Turbo and watched the messages begin to scream past. I fiddled around in my web browser and came back six minutes later to find that neither of us had died yet.
This was a bit much, so I quit and revisited the game listing yet again to try to work out what was wrong. I found one bug, then another; unless the player wields a weapon anew after returning from a saved game, their damage roll is likely to reset to zero. And when player armour gets over 100% (which mine was by now), enemy attacks actually GIVE the player hit points.
After rewielding my weapon, I was able to start killing people again. And kill I did, as I explored the rest of the forest and an underground cavern system. There were some cool monsters down there, like a black widow, and some pretty dull ones, like a slime and a skeleton. Every time I killed something, I gained another level and more hit points, and more ridiculously overpowered items, like the ring which would regenerate all my health during every round of combat. What with my lightning-throwing broadsword and the fact that being hit actually healed me, I didn't really need such a ring this point. I also discovered that I could pick monsters up like objects and put them down wherever I liked. Typing GET MORDIMAR produces "You cannot take that." immediately followed by "Ok." And then Mordimar is in your inventory.
If this stuff had been programmed without the bugs, it would have amounted to quite a flourishy RPG system. But it wasn't programmed without the bugs, and of course in practical terms its entire existence is obviated by the fact that you can win the game by killing just two monsters, with the caveat that you must first hack the game program so that you can leave town in order to be able to reach those monsters.
And what of the mystery of Drax? I still hadn't encountered any mention of it during my many plays.
Again, I broke out the game listing and started nosing around. I discovered that the secret passage which had been revealed when I played the piano in the castle had actually opened in the ceiling of the room, and not in the floor as the game had said, and that's why my attempts to go down at that point had not succeeded. I returned to the piano room, went up through the buggy passage and found myself in a small jail area. In one cell was a book called Drax, and when I read that book, I found within it the introductory text of the game, the text I had previously read as Mordimar toppled towards the floor, the text which prophesised that I, Wade6 (your character is renamed automatically after your latest saved game) would free the land from Mordimar's tyranny. But now that this text wasn't scrolling past during combat, I was able to read the last line, which said "The next chapter is awaiting…"
And suddenly I realised why this text appears as Mordimar falls. It is because at that moment it is immediately followed by that 'next chapter', which is the triumphal game over message affirming that you fulfilled your destiny. In other words, had I picked up this book during the game, the otherwise entirely bizarre-seeming placement of the story of Mordimar during his death scene would have made sense, as it would have come across as a reiteration of the Book of Drax and its prophesy, followed by the formerly promised next chapter.
After the huge effort I had made to explore, debug and make sense of this game, and considering that I had initially laughed at the timing of the arrival, at the end of the game, of what I had previously thought of as the introductory text, I found myself smiling at the quite cool idea that Panks had come up with here about the book which writes its own end. He didn't pull it off properly, which it seems was often the case with him, but it was there.
Drax contains a fully imagined game world and system without the focus or polish needed to get players to become interested in either in any traditional sense. I am still glad to have spent my time in that world, and to feel that I have learned something about its author. Paul was obviously a messy creator, but it's also obvious that he enjoyed developing games like this one, and that he was always striving for something in them; witness his prolific output and his multiple attempts to realise whatever Westfront was ultimately intended to be. I find it easy to be inspired by the passion Paul obviously had, even as I imagine that when I try more of his games, some of them probably will turn out to be as annoying as people have said they are.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 5th of 26 games I reviewed.)
One of the fun things about IFComp is how the games come from all over the place. From people you know, people you know hiding behind silly names, people you don't know, tall people, short people, etc. Valkyrie is a team effort fantasy CYOA game from three students enrolled in a Game-based Learning Developmental English course this Fall semester at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs in the USA. As one of my heroes, Shaun Micallef, once said in a skit about a folk CD being sold to raise money for charity, "That makes it virtually impossible to criticise." But so long as their teacher didn't actually browbeat them into entering IFComp – and maybe even if she did – I feel like congratulating them for entering before I get to the reviewing.
The first screen of Valkyrie is weird. Several funerals are described in the third person present style of a film script. Then you're asked to choose what you have trained in: Mistress Thief, Wizardess or Swordswoman. I picked Wizardess on my first play and found myself waking to that role in a fantasy world. The PC is aware that they are dreaming, or might be dreaming, and exhibits anxiousness about finding opportunities to return to the real world, but also about doing a decent job as a Wizardess in the new world. This new world features gods from Norse mythology fighting over a magic necklace.
It turns out that each profession is its own game, presumably with each author contributing one profession. This gives three different styles and three different sets of concerns, but there's a common mythology involving the Asgard stuff, the necklace and the ongoing mini drama of whether the PC will keep helping the Asgardians or try to return home. With each game being about the same heroine, it's interesting to see what each author's version of her is like. The Wizardess is thoughtful and well mannered, though her story doesn't have paragraph breaks. The thief moves directly towards her goal in a short stealth and action tale featuring some instant deaths. The swordswoman's story is ambitious in trying to add detail to the world, with a passage about getting used to her Valkyrie wings and going on a mission (and there seem to be some Harry Potter nods about the place, too) but unfortunately it forgets to keep letting you make decisions, ending with a huge text dump.
The three games reminded me of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books in particular, which frequently started out in everyday life and transported the reader into a fantasy situation. Also like the books, the three games in Valkyrie offer a good number of large-scale choices to the player, choices which result in non-overlapping things happening in the story. This is the key to a lot of the more fun CYOA books, and I enjoyed this same quality in Valkyrie.
Perhaps this game was more interesting to think about afterwards than while playing. Its unadorned and expositional language can be wearing, but with three stories, a good number of choices for the player to make and three different versions of a common heroine trying herself out in a patchwork fantasy world, it has some kind of charm. I don't think the opening was intended to be as strange as it might seem, but that strangeness made it kind of cool, too.
(I originally published this review on 14 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 18th of 26 games I reviewed.)
J'dal, heroine of this adventure, is a dark skinned girl in a whitey D&D world. She brings moxy, wide-ranging resourcefulness and mad vision skilz to the four person team consisting of herself, her adoptive dad, Roderick the thug and Stolas the mage. You control J'dal, who narrates in the first person, as she and her mates venture into a mine looking for a magical artifact.
The content of this game is pretty ambitious, more ambitious than its author had realised, I suspect. It requires solid implementation of four characters who can work as a team or independently. The characters are supposed to be conversant on various topics and capable of responding to J'dal's suggestions/orders. They need to have their own skill sets and inventories but be able to share equipment when necessary. To get all of these features running smoothly across a whole adventure would be no minor feat, and Ryan Kinsman has done well to mobilise them in the first place, but they're mobilised only at a basic level and in a correspondingly small adventure. There are significant programming gaps throughout J'dal, and I found it to be a tough game in spite of its smallness, mostly due to the narrow range of ideas and commands which are catered for. The game that is could use a lot more work, but it's still likeable.
The characters are of above average feistiness, and they swear a lot and their team dynamic is clear, so that the strongest impression the game left on me was of their overall liveliness and interpersonal kvetchings. But there are a lot of game features that don't work as advertised: keywords that don't respond, limited conversation topics, not much puzzle clueing, inventory and scenery bugs. The dialogue typesetting is crowded and when characters follow you from room to room, the following usually goes unannounced. As a result, I mostly stuck to the walkthrough after a certain point, and the linearity of the game meant that this was easy to do.
There's a good practical feel to the adventures the characters have in J'dal, and the game's got ambition and spirit. This all bodes well for the next game from this author, but J'dal remains kind of rough.
(I originally published this review on 22 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 24th of 26 games I reviewed.)
(Tech note: This game has sound. If you play Signos online, you'll need to use the Chrome internet browser to be able to hear it.)
Oh inner peace, if only you really were that easy to find!
Signos is a game handily compressing the eternal quest for existential completeness into the compass of about ten dreamscapey locations. It sports some attractive stock photo graphics of locations and colour-changing backdrops that will probably annoy 90% of players but which I didn't mind. It also sports the occasional sound effect. Quest's hyperlink features are present on top of the parser. They are likely to add to player confusion in what is already a confusing game. English is not Signos's author's primary language and complex prose was obviously never the goal here, but the implementation of Signos is so spare that most players are likely to give up on this life quest very quickly.
The game's layout and design ought to speak at least a bit to anyone who has played a console game at some point during the last fifteen years. There's a hub room with a different "world" accessible from it by each of the cardinal compass directions. Each world is generally a single room with a resident wise man (fakir, monk, yogi, etc.) and will feature a puzzle or two. (Spoiler - click to show)Solving the puzzles gets you pages of a book reflecting the deadly sins, each acquisition accompanied by a fainting spell, and when your book is full you get access to the Zen Garden of the big man: Buddha.
This is obviously a path to enlightenment that the kids can relate to, but in reading back my own summary of the game, I recall that all of the knowledge contained therein was hard fought for. Signos understands almost no synonyms, offers minimal clues and has no descriptions for the majority of its content. Ironically, the work involved in nutting out how this game functions amounts to a better simulation of the discipline required to gain enlightenment than the symbolic actions portrayed in the game itself.
As cute as Signos's fast track to wisdom is, its symmetrical layout idea is neat, even if typical for this kind of design. It also occurs to me that if there had been a Scott Adams game circa 1980 about gaining wisdom, it would probably have represented the problem in a similar manner, just without the graphics and colours. As it stands, the potentially hammer-weight powers of Quest give the appearance of overkill to a simple game which is too raw in its current state for players to come at.
Regarding my own quest for enlightenment in Signos... (Spoiler - click to show)I did find four pages of the book under my own steam, then I took to reading other reviewers' reviews for clues. Once I had all the pages I got stuck again and let the game show me the complete walkthrough. It hadn't occurred to me to try to smash the mirror with the stone because I'd been obsessed with trying to light fires with the cross (steel) and stone (flint). My gaming abilities continued to go downhill in Buddha's garden. After guess-the-verb and inventory limit troubles, I found myself stuck in a way that the walkthrough seemed unable to remedy, and conceded defeat. I guess the path to wisdom isn't so easy to tread after all.
(I originally published this review on 6 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 9th of 26 games I reviewed.)
When I was in high school, the music students (not me) put on a production of Orpheus in the Underworld. I found this embarrassing because the cool school where my dad taught would put on normal shows like Grease and Dracula Spectacular. Anyway, I didn't go to see Orpheus then and I didn't read his story at any time in the intervening period, leaving me in a theoretically weaker than ideal position for playing Eurydice, an adventure about bereavement named for Orpheus's wife. The game is initially character focused and entirely realistic, showing some very strong writing in this area. It then takes an unexpected turn into more fable-like territory. My preference that the game had stayed entirely in the first mode is irrelevant; it has many fine qualities.
Before the game opens, the male PC's dear friend, maybe love, Celine, has died. The circumstances of her death are sketched in over the length of the game. The PC and his flatmates are having a wake-like gathering of some friends and acquaintances when play begins. This first part of the game is essentially puzzle free, and sees you wandering around the house reminiscing, feeling strange and self-conscious and finding it agonising to interact socially. The quick elucidation of the PC's relationship with each of the friends is superb. Talking to each person for the first time produces at least one paragraph of sentiment free appraisal of their role in your life and in Celine's life. The sharp observations make the cast and situation feel real.
I've been keen and am keen to play a game that works well in this fashion for its duration, and which is also not just a short story on rails. I thought this game might be it, so I had to admit my disappointment to myself when, after strolling out of the game house, I came across a character who was clearly a Charon the Ferryman type ready to paddle me to some fantasyland. Perhaps the prevalence of afterlife games in IF in general weighed into my reaction here.
Transported to the underworld, the player's goal is now to (Spoiler - click to show)find and retrieve Celine from a mental hospital staffed by incarnations of the characters from Virgil's Eurydice tale. This is nowhere near as Ingmar Bergmanesque as it sounds. It's not like you walk in and meet a chap who says, "I am Hades." That chap is a doctor in this game, and some of the parser's responses to your actions describe him as Hades, but he never mentions that name himself that I noticed, nor do any of the characters mention any of the Greek names. I didn't study the tale of Eurydice until after I had played, and the technically subtle approach of the game to the twinning of the hospital residents and the Greek characters is clever.
Eurydice the game may become more traditionally puzzley in style in this section, but it was a bit disingenuous of me to draw a blunt line through the midpoint of the game, as the PC's recollections of events and time spent in Celine's room maintain the realistic and sometimes poignant outlook established in the early scenes. It's just that now additional ways to move forward may include (Spoiler - click to show)playing the lyre.
There are minor proofreading issues and implementation gaps scattered consistently across the game. The only ones which actually disrupted my play were the fact that the hospital doorbell was not described as a button, making me wonder why I couldn't pull or ring it, and that the hospital ground descriptions gave the impression that there were many more enterable buildings than there were. These are typical minor mistakes for what appears to be a first game, and all of the game's important elements are solid: its clear setup and (unexpected) trajectory, some well considered endings and brief but very good character writing. The overall combination of elements is novel and there are human truths in here.
(I originally published this review on 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.
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.
I played this small IFComp 2011 game during IFComp 2011. I didn't get it.
The writing is good at creating the character of a muscular labourer who's a bit superstitious, and shy about using his imagination to solve problems. The game is obviously linear, and in that capacity does keep the player on track. It also demonstrates general technical polish.
However, it turned out either I was a dummy or the game was too subtle, because I didn't even notice when Something Dramatic Happened, to coin a phrase from amongst Inform's library messages while simultaneously avoiding any specific spoiling. I learned about what I'd missed by reading other reviews after I wrote mine. I was also unaware of a superstition involving cold iron, even though I used to play AD&D and so felt I should have known of it if it was a big enough thing.
Replaying the game armed with the knowledge of thing dramatis, it still seemed to me it was only mildly indicated.
I had been surprised (excited?) to see the game print, at one point, the library message "Because something dramatic has happened, the commands available to you have been cut down." I'd previously only seen this by poking around inside Inform on my own time. I then wondered: Was the point of this event (and the accompanying screen clear) that it tested whether I had been paying attention to recent content in the game, because at this point I could no longer scroll back to review the details of the story?
But then all I could do was go back to the chapel location, with or without having noticed thing dramatis. I was disappointed, both because of the possibility for excitement I'd anticipated that had not come about, and because the ending was so low key. (Spoiler - click to show)The first character had begun to flex his imagination, but not to much avail, apparently. Any ulterior purpose of the game was too obscure for me to discern. Whether I was careless or not – it seems I probably was – I didn't believe I was the only player who would miss thing dramatis, and since I expected thing dramatis to be bound up with the purpose, I felt the game was likely to undershoot a lot of people as it undershot me.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)
War of the Willows is a combat game, requiring a Python interpreter to run, in which you must put down a giant, killer willow tree that's menacing your kingdom. Put it down mano a mano.
I doubt that anyone would have guessed this about the game based on its IFComp blurb –
"Did you see the clean air of the hilltops? Wind waves tumbled down through the trees, tore the drift of lavender smoke... Did you see then, in the cinder that glowed in the pewter cup, did you see how Death would wrap its roots around our throats?"
– except perhaps for the presence of that subtle pun about the roots wrapping around our throats. It's like that moment in the original Resident Evil when Chris Redfield, having polished off a building-sized carnivorous plant, says, "I think we got to the ROOT of the problem." (His emphasis, not mine.)
War of the Willows wraps a randomised combat game of obscure mechanics – one that at heart is not entirely unlike the kind of thing that appeared in David Ahl's 1978 book BASIC Computer Games – with a poetic and sometimes heavy-leaning text delivery. When a game starts by quoting a chunk of Edicts from the Bible, that's heavy. The original prose that follows flows in a similar, stansa'd vein. Poetry + combat = a novel entity, and once you get stuck in, you'll probably be hooked on trying to win at least once. But the game throws up tons of very obvious design issues. Primary amongst them: requiring the player to deal with way too much repetition of prose and key-mashing.
I believe that I am a poor reader of poetry-poetry, but I enjoyed picking my way through the figurative language of War of the Willows to learn about the woes of my kingdom and its apparent comeuppance at the hands of nature and such. At least I enjoyed doing it the first time. After I had tried to kill the tree about ten times, died as many times and mashed RETURN to make it through all of the same prose ten times, as well as answering the questions I had to answer on each playthrough to get to the battle, my right hand was ready to fall off and I was displeased at this design weakness.
Also – when you type in a god's name, you have to capitalise the first letter or it's not understood! And double also – I often experienced buggy code dumps in the middle of the prose. Maybe they're related to my version of Python. They didn't wreck anything, but seeing blocks of code from the game appear during the game was not an endearing quality.
The upshot is that when you get to the combat, you'll become interested in the combat, and all the unvarying material preceding it then just becomes a delay at getting back into the combat on replays. This applies to player death, too, which also requires a fair bit of RETURN-whacking to end proceedings.
The combat itself is significantly frustrating, but still compelling. The mechanics are hidden, but the prose does give feedback on your actions. Seeing new phrases appear suggests that your last action might have brought them about. There are logical ideas about useful ways to string together the available actions like strike / evade / advance, etc. that are likely to occur to any player, but as I say, it took me about ten plays to score a victory over the willow. It's hard to know what effect your pre-battle choices of god and desire have on the proceedings; I was having so much trouble killing the tree once, I never swerved from the walkthrough's advice (the walkthrough is purely advice) that one always choose certain combinations. I went with Vordak and Power.
I think the author has hit on a strangely original idea with this game, but it's a pretty user-unfriendly incarnation of that idea.