(I originally published this review on 21 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 22nd of 26 games I reviewed.)
The Sealed Room contains two mythical creatures which have the power of speech. Finding yourself stuck in there with them, your goal is to get out, mostly by ASKing the room's inhabitants about its contents and each other. Described by its author as "short-short", the game is indeed short-short, and while I did not find it to be very remarkable, in the context of the competition it was at least a game that I could easily play and complete, and which thus constituted a kind of break. The game is also kind enough to display its title page artwork on startup, making it one of the handful of entries whose cover image I could see easily this year.
The two creatures in the room are a dragon and unicorn who have wounded each other and can speak on the topics of their own natures, their opponent's nature and occasionally the situation of being stuck in the room. Controlling the game is easy; you just keep ASKing whomever ABOUT such and such a topic, and can also get either creature to offer up a list of TOPICS.
Given the game's simplicity, what it lacks are specific details to make its story interesting and to give strong personalities to the creatures. The reason you're in the room is just that an old guy on a park bench zapped you there. The creatures don't know why they're in the room. Nothing is made of the attractive design on the ceiling, and even the potentially interesting symmetry of the two creatures and their pools of blood, a strong image, doesn't figure in the events of the game. The effect, then, is basically in the contrasting responses you get from the creatures when quizzing them on the same topic, since the unicorn is kind and wise and the dragon is arrogant and a bit nasty. A couple of response pairs did raise a chuckle from me, and they do work best when you question each creature in turn about the same thing. Unfortunately it is likely that most players will lawnmower the responses from one creature before doing the same to the other, which will blunt the contrasting effect. Also, the creatures mostly act as symbols of their type rather than giving the impression of being individuals, so you stop expecting them to say anything that might surprise you after awhile.
Something interesting could have happened in The Sealed Room, but its trappings were too generic.
Room 206 is a huge mystery-horror game of poetic venereal prose (and poetic overkill), a boggle-leaning story and reality-skewing assaults. Programming and writing this game would be an extreme challenge for even a whole team of superhuman IF veterans to pull off smoothly – and I have to say upfront that the game's author Byron Alexander Campbell has not pulled the programming off in bullet-proof fashion – but he has pulled the game off, and done so using the ALAN development system.
The game kicks off in a chapel where you're considering the aftermath of your wedding to exquisite Erica. The wedding party waits for you out on the lawn as you observe stray paraphernalia like a dropped handkerchief and a wafting ribbon, but once you head outside, you find the party has disappeared. Only an anonymous limousine remains. Thus begins this noir-wedding-horror-hardboiled-nightmare-daymare mystery.
Room 206 doesn't have any trouble integrating its sprawl of content and styles into one story, but does have trouble integrating it into the tone of its prose. Lines which are functional, overripe, poetic, super earnest and bizarre all chase each other's heels, often within the space of a paragraph. Dynamically I found this too erratic, so I didn't always buy the narrator's ability to construct back-to-back vivid metaphors while digging through the garbage in a hotel room, for instance. Scripted conversation, especially by telephone, is also in abundance. If you don't like your IF extra writerly, you're unlikely to be able to come at Room 206, but the more you stick with this game, the more you get into its style.
Unfortunately, the adventure reaches close-to-impossible difficulty levels by the halfway mark due to shortcomings in those most important (though boring to always cite) design areas of implementation and giving the player cues. Most objects are implemented for only one purpose, resulting in a lot of preclusion of action and oblivious feedback. Failing to perform a task such as treating your headache with painkillers can result in the game ceasing to progress without telling you why.
Room 206 also makes extreme use of the 'wait' command to progress the script – the walk-through lists more than 50 waits. I appreciate the game's interest in creating an emotional reality in which the player might pause to process thoughts and feelings, but it's too often impossible to guess when you might need to wait to make something happen. It is also in the nature of the game's ambitious content, which becomes increasingly abstract and complex, to make it tough to work out what you might need to do next in general, especially once your character's grip on reality has started to slide. The game mobilises keyword technology for movement (the opening scene is particularly graceful) but geography is typically the least of your worries.
Eventually I was exhausted by the various kinds of onslaught and had to take completely to the walk-through. Doing so typically destroys my interest in a game, but with Room 206 I found that seeing it through to the end was rewarding. I realised I had persisted through lots of challenges, some frustrations – including out-of-game stuff like numerous crashes in two interpreters and corrupted saved files, resulting in multiple replays (I think the latest version of the ALAN interpreter at this time of writing has some Macintosh problems) – and that I had done so because of Room 206's engrossing story and wildness. Even when the prose was overkilly, I started to side with it. And I found myself thinking about the whole experience afterwards. While I was definitely infuriated a lot on the way through, I was ultimately impressed by the fiery reach of this game.