(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.
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.
(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 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.)
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible.
Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IF. Aether is one of these introductory games, and it ends in a weird place and starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.
Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now who used to be a wandering fisherwoman in the past. Links in the prose passages lead to elaborations, courses of action or different locations. The trajectory is generally forwards with occasional gating of progress by character knowledge or events. There is no puzzling difficulty as such, but some patience is required.
Aether's opening, in which the heroine is piloting a starship that's about to disintegrate (the why, where or what of this aren't exposed) should be hooky, but it's handled a bit strangely. The game's structural tactic of looping asides back to already-read passage describing the current scene works later on, but not in this first scene, where it feels like it's slugging up action that should be screaming forwards. The other issue is that Zephyra's visions of divine help from giants and marble hands during this scene come across as pretty psychedelic. Altogether, an odd impression is made, and the whole spaceship scene is not explained or returned to later in this game, leading me to think it's grist for a later episode.
The game then cuts to a more rural (and presumably more modest) time in the past, with Zephyra wandering around and trading fish. The scenic descriptions paint a nice picture, but this prosaic exteriority prevails across all the writing. That's to say that although we're basically playing Zephyra, we barely get inside her, experience her thoughts, motives or feelings. This makes for a mostly inscrutable experience in a Greekish world that's not exactly inscrutable, but is not a world we've been given any reason to invest in yet. Who are these guys Zephyra playfully wrestles with? What does she want out of her days? What's the role of the satyrs she meets? I never learned the answers to any of these questions. Having no character goals and not much of a clear perspective on anything resulted in an uninteresting experience.
There are a fair few links to explore throughout the game – sometimes a crippling-feeling number, like the fifteen on the Fishing District of Kyzikos page – but not many incentives to be thorough. And I got the impression the game expects you to be thorough, since some later asides present information that obviously assumes earlier optional asides were read. Some state-tracking would help address this kind of thing, and will surely be essential in later episodes of this tale if it holds to its mammoth projections.
The finale of Aether is dramatic and ominous, but also oblivious of the fact the player just spent the whole game with Zephyra. The arrival from the sky of a space-faring Jason and his Argonauts, and the promise that they will carry out 'dark deeds' that will wreck everything on Kyzikos, amount to a deus ex (in the broader modern sense) that will remind most players that Zephyra didn't do anything that had anything to do with these things. She might in the future, but so could any other character. In this rural episode, Zephyra has really yet to do anything of significance.
This is what the narrative troubles of Aether boil down to: The game is meant to be an establishing experience for the character of Zephyra, but she has yet to show any personality or do anything of note. The ending only underscores these problems. While they're obviously the biggest ones, the authors don't seem to have any trouble being prolific or riffing on Greekery, and the CYOA-style wandering sections are mechanically effective, though it would take me awhile to get used to negotiating so many links on single pages when those links are interspersed throughout the prose. Aether needs structural recalibration and prose that addresses the interior of its heroine, and so interests us in her, if it's going to succeed.
The Paper Bag Princess is a short Z-code adventure in which you play a beautiful royal lass whose beloved is snatched up by a dragon during her wedding, and who then sets out to get him back. When I reviewed the game in my IFComp blog of 2013, I quizzed its design extensively. Very extensively! It turns out that the answer to almost all the numerous questions I rhetorically asked is: "This point is only explained in the book upon which this game is based, or depicted in an illustration in that book." Therefore, the summary of my review is that The Paper Bag Princess is only for people who have read the eponymous book by Robert Munsch. To consider, spoilingly, what the game may be like through the eyes of someone who hasn't read that book (me in 2013, and still me today) you may read on.
Quoth me in 2013:(Spoiler - click to show) I found The Paper Bag Princess to be a curiously toneless game, but it has a few amiable moments. The basic idea is of a mild subversion of the prince-rescues-the-princess story, but this idea is never played up all that much in either the dialogue or in the small inventory of actions the princess will take in the course of the rescue. The role reversal idea could be played for laughs, but isn't, really. The before and after scenes of the wedding lean in the direction of black comedy, what with the contrast between the storybook wedding and the charred field of burning furniture the dragon replaces it with, but I thought the writing didn't sell the contrast strongly enough to deliver an effect.
I didn't really get the choice of puzzles for the game, either. Making a torch is a pretty basic adventure game kind of task. I found it strangely difficult to do in The Paper Bag Princess, in spite of the heroine being conspicuously surrounded by scenery and objects which should have made it easy: smoking ground, burning chair legs, a stick, a vial of oil. All the game wanted was for me to type 'make torch', but the wide range of alternative commands I tried as I attempted to make any of these props interact with one another in a fire-producing way were either not understood, or prompted a "You've got the right idea" message. I think the game should have leapt from giving such a nudge to just saying: "Ok, you do such-and-such and go on to successfully make a torch."
Then there were a couple of quotes from classic adventure games; the PLUGH command and a twisty tree maze to navigate. The walkthrough reads apologetically in the case of the latter, just saying: "the maze is entirely random... sorry!" My question is: Why include these in this game? The Paper Bag Princess doesn't seem to derive any particular meaning from recalling the specifics of old games. It's not a pastiche or in the style of, or saying these were good or bad or anything. These features just appear, unremarked upon in any way, and then it's on to the next puzzle.
The final puzzle of outwitting the dragon at least makes sense on the game's own terms. This ostensibly powerful beast is shown to be easily outwitted, a staple gag of much fantasy and classic storytelling. Doing so involves guessing a couple of topics using one of my least favourite IF mechanics - ask (so-and-so) about (topic). If the classic "guess the verb" problem in IF is about knowing what you want to say to the parser but being unable to say it, I would describe the problem of having to come up with the correct topic to ask a character about as a worse problem in which you potentially don't even know what you want to say in the first place. This is a traditional rant for me which I need to deliver about twice a year and have now delivered here. It's not a problem unique to The Paper Bag Princess.
Mostly I just wanted The Paper Bag Princess to start throwing its eggs into some particular baskets. It could have delivered really strongly on the character of the princess, but she doesn't get to say much and the tone of the prose is too often neutral. The role reversal gag isn't played up. The nature of the tasks the princess performs doesn't say much about either her character or the gameworld. The paper bag she dons is not talked up. I don't get why things like PLUGH and a twisty maze were chosen for inclusion, unless the intent was to quote old games while being subversive about the kinds of things you'd often do in them - but this game isn't very subversive.
This review has probably read heavily for a game this light. It's not that I believe people can or have to be able to explain every choice they make as they create something. But considering the smallness of this game, the author doesn't seem to have made choices that aim it in any particular direction. The result is too flavourless for me, and that's why find myself wondering about all those choices so much.
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
Mark Marino's entry into IFComp 2012, the one preceding the one in which he entered Mrs Wobbles, was The Living Will, a curious Undum game which I didn't really get. Mrs Wobbles is a far more vivid and transparent affair, a pro-reading, episodic and illustrated adventure tale aimed at younger readers (7-11 it says) and again delivered with Undum. While there is a fair bit to read here, it turns out that this game is also an introductory one, with more episodes potentially to come in future. Folks have entered introductions into IFComp before, and while I don't think there's any rule against doing so (and Wobbles is voluble, not a tiny tease) it's just in its nature that the Wobbles we're being presented with in IFComp has some of the density of a novel without the payoffs of a novel. I also find it hard to gauge how hooky it might be for those future episodes, but I'm not the core audience. Mrs Wobbles feels to me like the opening of an attractive e-novel for tablets. Interactivity is mostly at the level of deciding in which order to read things, and while this area isn't of much personal interest to me, when I consider the overall quality level of the project I think most players will find something to like here. Some may find a lot.
I think the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books by Lemony Snicket were probably a big influence on the tone of Wobble's prose, and probably more than an influence on its specific content. The protagonists are fostered siblings, their parents died in a mysterious fire and when the game begins, they're going to live in a weird house with a strange adult. The narrator is a magical talking book which can insert whimsical asides into the prose of a kind we'd be hard pressed to get from child protagonists. Production values are consistently high. The game includes some superb woodcut / etching / lithograph style illustrations. The prose is pretty good at any point and you can have it read out to you from author-made recordings. This also means that the speech feature is platform and software independent, and kid-friendly.
What I'm unsure about is how satisfying the scope of this introduction is. It's an introduction for the characters and the setting of the house, but there's no real story vector in place for either of these elements yet, as good as they are. The brother protagonists have a cute rapport, and the fussy girl they meet later, Mildred, is a good foil for them. The house is full of magical rooms and fantastic machinery which may be of use in the future. I suppose the experience of Wobbles is like being introduced to Hogwarts via an explicit tour but then having the book end suddenly. It may be safer to make a self-contained and expositional starting adventure, but it's probably less interesting than throwing players/readers into a story which sets up some plot hooks and mysteries. In the end, my to-ing and fro-ing about Wobbles comes down to the fact that this is an introduction competing in a venue not particularly suited to introductions.
In 1984, Usborne published Island of Secrets, a fantasy text adventure not delivered as software, but as a book enabling players to generate the program themselves by typing its BASIC listing into their computer. The book doubles as an illustrated reference to the world of the game, containing the background story, character and location guides, coded hints and a map. The game’s prose and engine are so sparse that the book comprises at least half the experience, making it considerably more fundamental to the accompanying game than, say, Infocom feelies are to Infocom games. The story concerns Alphan, a young scholar tasked with collecting objects of power in order to restore a war-darkened Earth.
The Island of Secrets book was a great inspiration to me when I was a kid. The illustrations have a lot of mood and character, the allusions to all the mysteries in the game’s world are intriguing, and the book is full of footnotes about text adventure design and programming. I had to take considerably more from the book than from the game because I never succeeded in getting the game running; I made too many mistakes while typing it in. I was in my twenties before I found a working copy on a public domain disk.
The main reason the book is so essential to playing Island of Secrets is that at least half the findable objects in the game are only cued by their appearance in the book’s illustrations. Island has about sixty locations, but is limited in its overall capabilities by having to support such a wide range of microcomputers out of the box (the Apple II, the C64, the VIC-20, the BBC, etc.). This means the whole thing has to sit and function in about 32kb of RAM after a single load. There’s no space left to hold descriptions of most objects, or to describe or implement scenery that could conceal those objects. All of that work and more is passed off to the illustrations and clues in the book. Mercifully, by holding the back page of the book up to a mirror, a player can obtain the short list of supported verbs and nouns.
Technically, the gameworld’s sophistication is above the level you’d expect from an adventure that presents itself mostly using the Scott Adams aesthetic. There’s a food and drink system, random events such as a storm, and characters who can move around. The characters have histories and motivations detailed in the source book. Amongst them are a Charon-like boatman, a scavenger who’s lost his memory, a depressed swampman and a missing scholar. You need to consult the book to guess at what might variously turn these people into allies, get them out of your path or help you defeat them. The particular solutions the game wants in these departments can be a tad abstract. While the source material is rich, the feedback delivered by the necessarily lean game program is poor. In this respect, Island of Secrets is definitely a story and a game whose visions seriously outpace its game engine. If I’d got it running back in the day, I can see that it would still have been a challenge to complete (without cheating) due to its sparseness, but I might have had the patience for it. In revisiting the game for this review, I was momentarily saddened to acknowledge I no longer have the time or patience. I used a walkthrough.
In its time, the Island of Secrets book provided a way to deliver to kids an adventure game with a deeper story than a BASIC program alone could normally pull off while teaching those kids about programming and game design. As a kid in the relevant demographic, I found all of the related Usborne books exceptional at doing these things, and official versions of them all have now been released as free PDFs. (scroll down on the target page):
Island of Secrets – along with The Mystery of Silver Mountain, Usborne’s other major type-in game presented using the same book and BASIC program combination – now seem unique in the way they’re meant to be experienced. That said, that way did grow out of necessities presented by the limitations of BASIC and the computer hardware of the time. IF players still seem to like feelies, so maybe there’s some weird mine of book-game interdependence that could be retapped for a new project today.
(I give the Island of Secrets book five stars in any year. As a text adventure played today, I can only give Island of Secrets two stars.)
Awake the Mighty Dread takes place in a fantasy dreamworld fuelled by Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the aesthetic of steampunk. It's got orphans, air travel, capricious NPCs ranging in scale from an amphibian to a deity, and a reverence for storybooks. And all that in a smallish game. It's alluded to that its orphan protagonist slips away to the dreamworld in order to avoid abuse back in the real world, but the social system in the dreamworld turns out to be a troubled one, too. The heroine's spiky curiosity about what's going on there is well written, and provides motivational fuel for the player in a game which turns out to be not very good at signalling progress through it.
Awake is actually the IF dimension of a larger project by its author which can be found at
However, the game was basically presented as a standalone entity in the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. Exploring the rest of the project might thicken Awake's backstory, but I doubt it would actually help in the playing of Awake for reasons to be enunciated in this review.
Awake received mixed reviews when it appeared in IFComp. My own private review (for other game authors that year) began:
"Since people have been saying that they found this baffling, I secretly patted myself on the head for not being baffled."
So, I liked the overall experience more than most, but the game's delivery is clearly a failing one. In spite of the author's writerly prose and obvious knowledge of some advanced parser conceits, the game exhibits no awareness of how to steer a player through its contents via the parser. Location descriptions are aesthetically pleasing but player-insensitive, with almost none of their interesting features implemented. The features that are implemented are there to service plot points in a story that only seems threadable in retrospect. Trying to make the story happen yourself with the game's minimal direction and tech oversights is futile-leaning, and so the game's solution file is essential.
In the case of contemporary IF, I have low tolerance for being involved with walkthrough/hint systems unless they're really well considered. I also have design philosophy qualms about some games I consider to be impossible without a walkthrough. Awake bypassed my concerns in these areas because it's an interesting failure of an accessible kind. Reconsidering it five years down the track, I'd say it's definitely of more interest to people who create IF games than it is to player-players. In this capacity, it's substantial enough not to feel too small or inconsequential, but still small enough not to feel like a time burglar in spite of its black box implementation.
That black box is actually the point of interest; playing Awake feels like trying to build a Lego model without being able to see your hands. A lot of interconnecting prose seems to be absent in this game. There's a train you start out on, and which automatically travels from station to station, and there's an effect whereby you can see what station you're at out the window. But the descriptions within and without can be indistinguishable. Being on a train in a location can be the same as just being in the location – until the train moves, of course. Similarly, objects sometimes appear 'painted on' in room descriptions, and stay there even after you've taken them. NPCs speak at appropriate moments but don't show up as prose entities when they're not speaking. It's hard to tell when conversations have ended, or if the conversants are still about. Finally, the most important action you must take in the whole game is unguessable, and deliverable as a command in a form that only hardcore parser folk would be aware of. Collectively, these sophisticated-leaning bugs at the coalface of interactivity suggest the author had strong familiarity with parser games but didn't run Awake through a sufficiently typical or robust group of playtesters.
I find the story in Awake interesting, and the game succeeds in feeling like a window onto a larger fantasy world, but in the end its technical oddities render it mostly a curio for parser nerds. Its contents can't be unspooled easily the way the contents of the famous stories it most emulates can. The site of the obstacles is its interactivity.
Drax... Who or what is or was he or she?
When I first completed this game by Paul Allen Panks, I still didn't know. But a couple of days' worth of Commodore 64 BASIC hacking later, I had unearthed the answer. I feel confident in venturing, for reasons which will soon become apparent, that at this time of writing I am the only player on earth to have completed Drax other than its author. And I can't even guarantee that the author did play through his own game, for reasons which will also soon become apparent.
Note that this review is extensive and therefore amounts to a complete spoiler of the game. I hide nothing behind spoiler tags.
I first heard about Paul Panks and his games when I played Ninja's Fate, Hannes Schueller's eulogy to the late game author. I then read numerous reviews of Paul's numerous games, most of which expressed a combination of bewilderment, infuriation and plain old fury at the games' apparent wonkiness. The reviews' tone of hair-pulling was often hilarious to me. I also read some of Paul's refutations to such reviews, and his notes on his own games on his website, and I knew that I would have to try one or more of his games myself.
I am pretty au fait with the Commodore 64, so as a starting place I plucked from the archives Paul's last Commodore game, Drax, from 2005. The experience of playing this game turned out to be amusing in most of the ways I'd expected, but also stimulating in ways I hadn't. Some bold features are spread out over 75 rooms of a fantasy RPG adventure in such a way that many of them would never be seen by the average player, nor do they need to be seen or experienced to complete the game. In this sense, the game's structure is kind of ridiculous. But if it wasn't for this curiosity-inducing weirdness, I wouldn't have been motivated to become intimately acquainted with Drax in the way I did.
When the game begins, you get to name your character, then you find yourself loitering in a tavern which opens onto a village square with a well in it. I've read that this is a common starting point for many of Panks's games. There was no introductory text suggesting what my goal might be, so I just started looking around. Upstairs of the tavern I found a bedroom with some typical adventurer's supplies in it; weaponry and a lantern.
My problems began after I picked up the lantern. When I tried to leave the room, I was told "You need to light the lantern first." This didn't make a whole lot of sense, since I had entered the room by a normally lit corridor. When I tried to light the lantern, I was told "You can't light that here."
Faced with this impossible paradox, I ditched the lantern so as to avoid being trapped in this tavern bedroom for eternity, grabbed the bowieknife (sic) and went outside. I found some townsfolk nearby and, out of curiosity, tried to murder them. Each one of them beat me to death in turn. The bard, the villager, even the priest. Combat consists of a bunch of you hit / they missed messages which you must page through by pressing a key every time the game says <MORE>. My multiple deaths here didn't seem to bode well for my life as a hero of no particular quest. Nevertheless, I tried to proceed out of town and into the ominous looking forest.
"It's much too dark to move in that direction!" said the game.
It turns out that without the ungettable, unlightable lantern, you can't actually go anywhere in Drax. I wondered if Paul ever tried to play the latest version of his own game, which the credits page advises is 1.15?
So I hit the Commodore's BASIC prompt and dumped a listing of the game to my Mac. I disabled the three lines in the program responsible for all the darkness blocks and reloaded my saved game. This worked, and I was now able to venture into the forest.
Drax's wilderness is sizeable, mazey, and satisfying to map. It comes across more like the cross-country terrain of a MUD than the functionally-oriented environment of a personal computer text adventure. Most rooms are empty and exist only to be navigated. Geography is often realistic, but pointless in game terms, like the large stretch of mountains which contains nothing but a bunch of dead ends. I felt I was in a big world, but what was I doing in it?
I passed a few fey folk in the forest, including an elf and a hobbit, and their descriptions indicated that they were friendly, so uncharacteristically for me I didn't try to stab them. But when I saw a black knight guarding a castle gate, I knew it was time for more violence. To my amazement (having been earlier clubbed to death by a villager) I was the victor of this battle. And victory was exciting. I gained experience and gold, a level and hit points, and cool items exploded all over the ground. I wielded my newly acquired broadsword, strapped on my newly acquired chainmail and strode into the castle the knight had been guarding.
In the throne room I met Mordimar, a recurring major villain from Paul's games. Thoroughly expecting to be pulverised, I saved the game and opened fire on the guy. To my surprise, I quickly beat him to a pulp. And as Mordimar's corpse fell towards the ground, but before it actually hit the ground, what appeared to be the missing introductory text to the game suddenly spurted down the screen... then Mordimar finished falling to the ground, died, and the game proclaimed that I was the victor and wished that I should live long.
"Is that it?" I almost asked aloud. You map some empty terrain, kill two monsters and then win the game, at which point you get to read the introductory text?
Weirded out, I returned to a saved game and set out to explore the rest of the world. When I found a werewolf blocking my path in the forest, I saved the game again before engaging him in battle. This battle raged and raged. I noticed that my broadsword was starting to throw lightning bolts at my foe. Awesome! But I had to press a key to advance each round of combat, over and over again… surely I had done this at least 100 times now? We were landing blows, dodging, landing more blows, for pages and pages. Would this clash of the titans ever end? How many hit points did I have left? How many did the werewolf have, for that matter? The game wasn't telling.
My fingers were wearying, and I have enough RSI problems already, so I decided to abort the game and hack the program some more so that I wouldn't have to keep mashing keys to advance battles. With my new 'autoscroll' feature in place, I reloaded my game and went at the hairy fiend anew. I put the Commodore 64 emulator speed up to Turbo and watched the messages begin to scream past. I fiddled around in my web browser and came back six minutes later to find that neither of us had died yet.
This was a bit much, so I quit and revisited the game listing yet again to try to work out what was wrong. I found one bug, then another; unless the player wields a weapon anew after returning from a saved game, their damage roll is likely to reset to zero. And when player armour gets over 100% (which mine was by now), enemy attacks actually GIVE the player hit points.
After rewielding my weapon, I was able to start killing people again. And kill I did, as I explored the rest of the forest and an underground cavern system. There were some cool monsters down there, like a black widow, and some pretty dull ones, like a slime and a skeleton. Every time I killed something, I gained another level and more hit points, and more ridiculously overpowered items, like the ring which would regenerate all my health during every round of combat. What with my lightning-throwing broadsword and the fact that being hit actually healed me, I didn't really need such a ring this point. I also discovered that I could pick monsters up like objects and put them down wherever I liked. Typing GET MORDIMAR produces "You cannot take that." immediately followed by "Ok." And then Mordimar is in your inventory.
If this stuff had been programmed without the bugs, it would have amounted to quite a flourishy RPG system. But it wasn't programmed without the bugs, and of course in practical terms its entire existence is obviated by the fact that you can win the game by killing just two monsters, with the caveat that you must first hack the game program so that you can leave town in order to be able to reach those monsters.
And what of the mystery of Drax? I still hadn't encountered any mention of it during my many plays.
Again, I broke out the game listing and started nosing around. I discovered that the secret passage which had been revealed when I played the piano in the castle had actually opened in the ceiling of the room, and not in the floor as the game had said, and that's why my attempts to go down at that point had not succeeded. I returned to the piano room, went up through the buggy passage and found myself in a small jail area. In one cell was a book called Drax, and when I read that book, I found within it the introductory text of the game, the text I had previously read as Mordimar toppled towards the floor, the text which prophesised that I, Wade6 (your character is renamed automatically after your latest saved game) would free the land from Mordimar's tyranny. But now that this text wasn't scrolling past during combat, I was able to read the last line, which said "The next chapter is awaiting…"
And suddenly I realised why this text appears as Mordimar falls. It is because at that moment it is immediately followed by that 'next chapter', which is the triumphal game over message affirming that you fulfilled your destiny. In other words, had I picked up this book during the game, the otherwise entirely bizarre-seeming placement of the story of Mordimar during his death scene would have made sense, as it would have come across as a reiteration of the Book of Drax and its prophesy, followed by the formerly promised next chapter.
After the huge effort I had made to explore, debug and make sense of this game, and considering that I had initially laughed at the timing of the arrival, at the end of the game, of what I had previously thought of as the introductory text, I found myself smiling at the quite cool idea that Panks had come up with here about the book which writes its own end. He didn't pull it off properly, which it seems was often the case with him, but it was there.
Drax contains a fully imagined game world and system without the focus or polish needed to get players to become interested in either in any traditional sense. I am still glad to have spent my time in that world, and to feel that I have learned something about its author. Paul was obviously a messy creator, but it's also obvious that he enjoyed developing games like this one, and that he was always striving for something in them; witness his prolific output and his multiple attempts to realise whatever Westfront was ultimately intended to be. I find it easy to be inspired by the passion Paul obviously had, even as I imagine that when I try more of his games, some of them probably will turn out to be as annoying as people have said they are.
(I originally published this review on 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.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Blood on the Heather (BOTH) is a wack-seeking CYOA adventure about three young Americans who take a vacation in Scotland and get mixed up with petulant feuding vampires and their scenery-destroying vampiric offspring. The author says it was inspired by the vampire B-movies of their youth. For me, this raised disturbing questions about how old the author might be… Twelve?! Facetiousness aside, the game's combination of bloodsuckers who act like the rabid zombies of the cinema of the 2000s, Underworldish vampire clans and a splat of Twilighty romanticism pointed to pretty recent stuff. And after I'd done all that thought, someone who watched the TV show Buffy the Vampier Slayer told me with great confidence that that was probably the primary influence.
BOTH gives off a strongly goofy vibe through its predilection for one-liner gags and funny/cool character behaviour, but it's also a work of quite driven prose. It was probably the biggest CYOA game I'd ever played when I first encountered it, and also the one with the longest passages between each moment of player choice. I was curious about what a text game which was confident enough to use this much unbroken prose would be like. As I'd expected and hoped, it was able to build up a lot of momentum. I also felt that it was capable of instilling each choice with more context, potentially making the whole thing more character-centric.
While I'm grateful to BOTH for demonstrating all of this to me in a big, real world case, I did find it an effort to get through a lot of it because I just wasn't interested in the petulant vampires or their moderately complicated mythology. In this respect, the game definitely reminds me of my experience with most of Hollywood's recent films about supernatural clans.
If the writing and characterisation of BOTH were both excellent, that would obviously do a lot for player interest. The trouble with the former is that it's erratic. I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief. Some pages are in great shape while others are rife with typos and mistakes of tense. The characters tend to make the same kind of opportunistic jokes as each other, spreading a fuzzy zaniness across the game at the cost of character individuality. And I found the feuding vampire characters really annoying. They have a kind of Flash Gordon / Prince Barin rivalry going on, except that both of them are Prince Barin. The heroine (us), who unfortunately spends nearly all her time as an unwilling sidekick to one of the vampires, does develop over the game, mustering a tenacity which is underestimated by all the baddies. Her emerging resolve was a source of humour and tension which sucked me back into the second half of the game, but in the main I found too much of BOTH tiring or insufficiently involving. It would take more preparatory work than was done here, or more idiosyncratic characters, to get me interested in all these feuding vampires and the spectacle of their rampage.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Further is a short, parser-driven Z-Code adventure set in the afterlife, or at least after your death.
In my relatively short experience of IFComp prior to playing Further (2010+) I'd observed that afterlife games were a mainstay of the competition. They'd appeared in forms as various as the cerebral puzzlefest, the religious sampler, the existential angst generator and the poser of ethical and moral dilemmas. Further's approach is less complicated. It uses simple puzzles to dramatise the process of remembering your life as you head for the light. The result is a modest game which didn't stir my emotions as much as I think it might have liked to, but whose concept is clear.
In Further you start out as an insubstantial form lost in the haze. Exploration reveals a small map composed of elemental terrain: grass, a sandstorm, snow. Little objects from your life are lying around, and by FOCUSing ON them in the appropriately coloured locations you can revivify your memories, transforming the locations into clearer recollections of your life. The colours are also used to paint the relevant pieces of text and to clue you in to suitable locations.
The delivery of these mechanisms is simple. Only a handful of commands are required across the whole game and not much is implemented beyond the vital objects, but the lack of extra detail happens to suit the overall idea that only really important stuff from your life is of value to your ghostly or insubstantial self now, and that only that stuff can help you move on. The descriptions of the memories themselves may suffer a bit from the game's sparseness, at least in terms of their power, but they're in keeping with the whole. I also like the minimal prose used in the final room and the lack of a game over message – even though I admit I then went and peeked at the solution to make sure I really had reached the end.
I found Further's simplicity satisfying. At the level it pitches at, its idea plays out well.
(A tech anecdote: During IFComp 2013, I played this game online using an iPhone 5. While it responded instantly to most commands, it would typically pause for up to 25 seconds each time a Player Experience Upgrade response was invoked... Ouch! Player Experience Upgrade was Aaron Reed's suite of code for Inform 6G60 games which sought to supply more accessible than average responses when players typed stuff that wasn't understood. Obviously it was a CPU-crippler for some combination of Z-Code games and/or online play and/or the iPhone 5.)
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
Sigmund's Quest is the visually colourful point-and-click introduction to an incomplete CYOA style adventure based on a tale from Norse mythology. It runs in a web browser, and its deliberately magnified, pixelated colour graphics fill the screen. Unfortunately this is way too short (I reached the end in about five minutes) to sell or indicate much about the game-to-be except that it will have some charming graphics.
The blurb mentions werewolves and incest; none of either were in evidence in my playthrough. The tip of the story didn't hook me, as the content demonstrated up until the endpoint was too generic a tale of medieval royalty. The prose is simple and a bit workmanlike, with an earnestness which does little to riff off the playfulness that the graphics suggest as an aesthetic possibility.
The author cites the inspiration of King's Quest. This is writ large in the visuals, but the aggressive attitude of the King's Quest games (which I really, really don't miss - both the games and the attitude) is not. Yet I feel there needs to be some kind of attitude here to something. That's what's missing.
Sigmund's Quest competed in IFComp 2014. There was no rule against entering incomplete works, but historically they've faired poorly. The context is 99% of the reason why. If I'm given scores of games to play, why would I want to play one which isn't finished? Or in this case, barely begun? In IFComp, receptivity to a demo can plummet at the moment the player realises it's a demo.
To put an Introcomp spin on what I experienced of Sigmund's Quest, I wouldn't be interested in playing the rest of it if it were to continue in the fashion already demonstrated, and that’s primarily because I'm not trusting the prose or writing to become interesting if they continue in the fashion already demonstrated. Such a perception all comes down to the smallness of the sample space presented by this intro, one way or another.
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.
The Pyramid of Anharos hails from the heyday of Eamon, a time when Eamon authors who were making what you might call serious adventures – rather than jokey or personally expressive ones – were constantly trying to come up with new ways to outsmart (read: destroy) players who by now had about 100 different paths to hack or cheat their way around standard Eamon mechanics. Where swathes of powerful monsters might not ultimately stop a PC, difficult custom-programmed puzzles that paid no heed to the PC's engorged stats or superweapons probably would. Thus solidified the tradition of difficult, player-killing puzzle Eamons.
My speculation is that this author versus player attitude was exacerbated within Eamon because of authors' infuriating visions of character-hacking, upstart players who really needed to be facepunched to the floor. After all, if you had slaved away at making a challenging Eamon adventure, and you'd finally got it out there back in the days when getting it out there was infinitely more difficult than it is now, would you enjoy the thought of having your game cleared promptly by cheaty types?
Pyramid of Anharos definitely facepunches the player to the floor. It's not really wrathful about what it's doing, but if you put a character you like in the disk drive, it's guaranteed that they will be killed and deleted, probably multiple times, assuming you backed them up or cheated in the first place. The reason this is so tiring in Eamon is because you do have to keep cheating, hacking, breaking the game off and switching disks if you want to complete it, restarting every time. Your saves are deleted, too. Pyramid has tough puzzles and one undoable instant death after another. I reached a point where I become too annoyed with all this to want to risk experimenting any more, so I hit the walkthrough.
The puzzle collection and overall coherence of this game is actually pretty good in an adventuresome sense, and that's why I give it three stars – I consider it a worthy example in the Eamon catalogue of the kind of hyper-frustrating aesthetic I've described. I don't recommend playing it today if you're seeking an entertaining challenge; I only recommend playing it to see what these killer games were like.
There's a desert maze you can overcome if you just hire a guide. Glyphs you can read to learn secret words you need to say. Mummies you can search to find magic items. A few annoying riddles to answer. A gauntlet of deadly rooms with increasingly ravaged corpses on their thresholds as a warning. You also need to keep your water supplies topped up or you die of thirst. The main problem with Pyramid is that you get killed just for trying things out. The other problem is that it's particularly variable in its implementation approach. Sometimes important items are picked out, sometimes they're buried in the scenery. Sometimes you find a secret door by just LOOKing again, sometimes you need to examine a specific unhighlighted object. This amounts to you having to try interacting with everything in about four different ways to pluck the needles from the haystack. And in Pyramid, nothing is not in the haystack.
The author, Pat Hurst, was known for throwing some moral content into his Eamons, mostly of the 'help a beggar or pay later' variety. There's another beggar in Pyramid, though weirdly there's also a desert raiders camp where you basically need to pick which group of folks you'll hack down in order to get to the other side – the children, the women or the men. Tom Zuchowski's walkthrough opts for the women; like he says, it's the most direct route. And when a game is as unreasonably difficult as Pyramid of Anharos, you probably don't want any more indirect routes. It has notable production values, but it's also a prototypically devilish player-killer from middle school Eamon.
One of the strange things about the mind is how seemingly long-forgotten information can be revived by the apprehension of brand new but similar information. Watching the floridly entertaining 1960s thriller Brides of Fu Manchu recently reminded me that an Eamon game called Superfortress of Lin Wang existed, and made me want to play it. So I did.
Superfortress is an out-and-out hack, slash and loot Eamon consisting entirely of exploration and combat. There are no secret doors or examinable room features, nor is there any custom programming. Bad guy Lin Wang has enslaved Japan and taken up residence in his henchmen-filled castle. Your job is to eliminate him, hewing through numerous ninjas, dragons and karate champions in the process and grabbing all weapons and treasures you see en route.
There are countless Eamon games in this vein, but Superfortress at least distinguishes itself with its clear aesthetic of martial arts bad guys and a sense of escalation of threat and variety. The author knows how to lay out a castle and to make the encounters heavier and more interesting as you progress. And the game's monsters don't just exhibit arbitrary stats. When you walk into a room with a dragon, both the prose and the nature of the preceding bad guys will have correctly cued you to expect that this will be a rougher fight.
With no puzzles or custom mechanics to test the player in other ways, this game is ultimately about how good your stats are versus those of the bad guys. Freshly minted characters who have completed nought more than Beginners Cave will get torn apart here. Even though I used the relatively tough Sam character from the Eamon Utilities disk, I died about five times before I won. (Proceedings weren't helped by the fact that there's a friendly NPC also called 'Sam' in Superfortress, meaning that reports on the status of his health were indistinguishable from reports on the status of mine.) There's always a chance that the worst monsters will take you out in two hits if you're simply unlucky, but if you save up all the hit points you can by learning the whereabouts of unnecessary fights earlier in the castle, you will optimise your chances of surviving on any playthrough.
Superfortress wasn't rated highly by the Eamon Adventurers Guild back in the day ("Once you've killed one Ninja, you killed them all" - Tom Zuchowski) but as an example of an unadulterated combat Eamon, it's decently designed and coherent. That counts for something, given the number of nothing-but-fighting Eamons in the library which aren't.
Having just installed the shiny new Hugo game interpreter Hugor on my Mac, I hopped onto IFDB to find a quick game with which to test it. That's where I discovered Dragon Hunt. Three minutes later I had played through Dragon Hunt three times, and had to acknowledge that the game probably fit the 'quick' part of my brief too well.
In this accurately named adventure you find yourself trekking with a band of hunters through the wilderness towards Dragon Mountain, where the creature lives. The game has a sense of urgency because the hunting group must move forward every few turns, and also because there is a pounding and ominous MOD music file looping in the background. The prose is clean and simple and the main actions that will occur to you to try are all covered.
This is not speed-IF, though it is similarly sized. I'm uninterested in speed-IFs because their lack of implementation bugs me and their effects are too ephemeral. Dragon Hunt is still pretty ephemeral because of its size, but it manages to quickly develop some presence as you necessarily turn it over a few times. I didn't like the music at first but three minutes later I had changed my mind. Actions I couldn't try the first time I played because the hunting party moved forward too quickly I was able to try on subsequent games. Given that this is the authors' first Hugo game (their comments told me so) and also a small game playing against my 'size matters' biases, I would probably be an ungrateful churl to demand more of Dragon Hunt. It also looks like it was the authors' last game.
(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 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.
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.
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.
This is the one of the best of the very early Eamons. A king hires you to rescue his daughter Rowina (sic.) so off you go to Hogarth's castle where she's being held.
The principal schtick of this game is that you should be loyal to your allies. Don't rip off your pals and don't rip off the king if you want to win... but of course in Eamon it's fun to see what happens if you muck everything up, as well.
Frequently saying the codeword 'HOWDY' elicits neat advice from your pals, which proves variously helpful or essential for the castle section. The castle itself is possibly over-elaborate, given that careful mapping can get you to your goal quickly and obviate the need to explore the whole thing.
In this fantasy adventure you must recover the eponymous sword which will save the world from oppression. The intro story is overly long for such a typical plot, but does set the scene for an atmospheric opening in which you are dropped off atop a cathedral by sky ship.
Unfortunately, the initial thrill of going on something like a thieving spy mission in enemy territory quickly gives way to some pretty aggravating puzzles. The precautions you must use to spirit the sword to safety without being detected are not unsophisticated in design or programming (you would hope not from a 2003 Eamon, as this is very much post-heyday) but they are well irritating, because you can wreck your game if you don't do the right things in the first few rooms, but you won't be told about your mistakes until you make it all the way to the end, at which point the game really rubs it in.
Other problems in this adventure are the stacked nature of some locations (in a handful of rooms, you need to examine almost every noun mentioned in the description to unveil a heap of embedded items - most other rooms contain nothing) and the vagueness of what you're trying to do once you get out of the cathedral. Some side puzzles have a lot of programming devoted to them but deliver unimportant payoffs which don't help you to complete the game. I spent ages trying to string together the right series of commands to achieve something in the blacksmith's shop.
In spite of its moments of undoubted sophistication, I found Sword Of Inari to be pretty hard going, even with its relatively small map - because of how easy it is to wreck your game without knowing about it, and how spread out and unpickable the most important puzzles are, and how hard it can be to dredge up the right command to interact with those puzzles.
Eamon#65 comes with a general thumbs up from the EAG, but I found it kind of tiresome. It's a bunch of straightforward combats set in a contemporary school, written from the point of view of a ye olde warrior (you) who has travelled through time to reach it.
The descriptions are arguably clever and consistent, but somehow I just found the overall effect monotonous. The school's boring, the combat verges on being sparse, and continuing to map the school required an effort of will on my part.
This early Eamon adventure kicks off by dumping you in a dungeon in Hades. The place isn't as diabolical as you might expect given its location in the universe, but it does feel threatening due to decently atmospheric room descriptions, which often suggest something terrible is just around the corner. What's usually around the next corner is more dungeon and the occasional battle.
There are, by modern gaming standards, a handful of aggro puzzle moments here. The way to deal with the Iron Door in the first room doesn't make any kind of sense. (For puzzle advice, read Tom Zuchowski's review at the Eamon Adventurer's Guild). I'd throw in one more kind piece of advice which will prevent you from tearing your hair out - (Spoiler - click to show)in The Devil's Temple - make sure to note which wall the door is in before you open it. You can't read its description again afterwards.
Extremely sparse Eamon loot'n'kill from system creator Donald Brown, featuring a maze with some monsters and, fortunately, a minotaur. A pleasant easy map, but all the empty corridors you have to traipse through would be tedious if this adventure was any bigger. 'Lair' has one horrible instant death, thus starting a great(?) Eamon tradition. But for the second Eamon ever, this is decidedly alright.
Dracula's Chateau comes late in Eamon numbering, but apparently was written a lot earlier than that would indicate. In spite of having a few too many empty rooms in the castle, this is a fun and attractive Eamon romp with a basic 'fight monsters, grab treasure and escape' goal. It's got neato combat, the odd trick and an equally neat map layout.
The only thing you shouldn't waste time with is trying the 'DIG' command. It works in one room in the whole game, and there to lame effect.
The program did crash on me once, dropping me into BASIC.
A few glitches aside, Dracula's Chateau is a quality destination - albeit a simple one - for an Eamon vacation.