(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
Night House is a mystery-horror parser adventure of some spookiness. It mobilises a combination of vintage object-based puzzling (use A on B, B on C, C on D) and methods of backstory revelation popular in both horror films and games of the last couple of decades. The protagonist is an eight year-old child who wakes to a mysteriously empty version of their home and unseen menaces.
If you love amassing a huge inventory of doodads and using them to hurdle hurdles in all kinds of laterally conceived practical ways, Night House will whet that appetite, though the old Quest interface gets in the way A LOT. (In old Quest, when in doubt about verbs, use the phrase USE (A) WITH (B). If still in doubt, right-click any lit objects to see if the action you've been agonisingly trying to phrase correctly happens to be a contextual choice that then shows up.) If you don’t have enough horror tastebuds on your tongue, you mightn't find Night House sufficiently distinguished from things you’ve experienced before. Overall it's a dense puzzler with a pretty good, mildly choppy story that I basically followed but didn't completely follow; I will express some of my ignorances below.
Questions of which character you're playing amongst those presented, and by extension, which sex, come up early in Night House. This element of the game was probably experienced as the mystery element it was probably intended to be by some players (see other reviews) but I fixed on it so hard I began to perceive implementation flaws through it and got bogged down. For instance, controlling how objects are described is one of the best methods for characterisation in IF. And Night House wasn't consistent about this. Some objects were described with typical IF snark. Others were character-specific ("Your sister would kill you if you touched this!" (her Trapper Keeper)). This just made it even harder to decide who I was.
So I didn't get off on the best foot with this adventure, but once I found the flashlight (TORCH) and descended from the top floor, things began to pick up. Progress was well gated by various means. I found things to do now and portals and devices to open later.
The house contents show the game is set in the 1980s-1990s. If this doubles as nostalgia for folks of that vintage (e.g. me. I mean this house has an Apple II in it) the game is still wise enough to stay properly in the child narrator's character and make nothing anachronistic out of the situation.
The practical-going-on-impractical puzzle solutions are probably no weirder than some old Infocom, but eventually I had trouble identifying puzzles because there were all these seemingly unrelated story threads floating about. A father worried about his son. A moral panic involving dinosaur cartoons and toys, complete with a spoonerist joke description of the dinosaur who's similar to Raphael of the Ninja Turtles ("Raphael is cool but crude."). Old newspaper articles about yokel weirdos and Halloween. Collectively, these things didn't offer me much direction about what I should be trying to do in Night House other than solving anything that looked like a puzzle. I don't think the threads integrated fabulously at game's end, but at least I knew what my own character's situation was. And in retrospect, the game's story was denser than first appeared.
(The original version of this review was split over two blog posts I wrote upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
Dream Pieces is a friendly-feeling bedroom adventure of word puzzling delivered via the Quest platform. It has semi-rhyming (and semi-straining) prose and some nods towards helpful production values – for instance you can choose whether the presentation is delivered to suit a desktop computer, a tablet or a mobile phone. The goal in Dream Pieces is to manipulate domestic objects in your bedroom to create tools and methods to further manipulate domestic objects in your bedroom, but it's more fun that I just made it sound. Tools can split the names of objects into constituent letters which can then be rearranged to create new props. The game uses some features of Quest well, like being able to right click a wordlet, click 'Mix', then click the thing you want to mix it with from a menu.
When I initially apprehended this mechanic, I felt my interest prickling, and since the game gives the impression of being easy enough for a child to complete, what with its child-like font and enthusiastic outlook, I figured I was about to power through the whole thing for some simple satisfaction. I ended up abandoning my first playthrough due to a moment of inflexibility that I mistook for a bug. Other IFCompers cleared me up on this point and brought it to my attention that there was a colour-related mechanism in play that I hadn't noticed. I then powered through to victory like I'd thought I'd been about to the first time. The game has apparently been significantly updated since I played its original incarnation.
Dream Pieces certainly offers easy word-chopping for an adult but would probably be more outwardly satisfying for a kid. It was also the first word game I'd seen released for the Quest platform, and it came out after a year that birthed a decent number of sophisticated word games in IFdom.
(I 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.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Moquette is a Quest hypertext game in which you play a hungover security guard who begins to feel the weariness of his lot too heavily during one morning commute on the London Underground, and who then begins to wander the network in some kind of attempt to do anything differently.
This was the first Quest game by the author of the Quest engine, Alex Warren, and I think it made sufficiently good on views expressed in his blog over time about trying out different things in IF. It's not going for radically different, but it has its own feel and structure, and text effects which are novel enough to make me say that the author walked some of his talk. I found the game fascinating at times, well written as often, though in a way which underutilises (or just doesn't utilise) experiences the protagonist has had earlier in the game. Another problem is that no specific background emerges for the character. And I found the ending to be very querulous; it seems really hard to end existential IFs in a way that is equally or more satisfying than the game content.
There is a fair bit of content in Moquette, and its attention to geographical and other details of the London Underground give it the smell of the real. But overall it's a mix of good elements amongst others which don't work so well.
The run of decisions you make during the game consists of looking at various strangers who get on and off the trains, deciding when to switch train lines, when to stay on a train and when to get off. There are a lot of strangers and a lot of lines to switch between, so eventually the player is likely to start wondering: Does this game have a trajectory or an end, and if it has an end, how deep into my travels will that end be? I wondered all of these things.
The protagonist's view of both himself and others as unthinking cogs in the machine of life is one of the classic concerns of modernity, a concern emphasised in this game by the fact that the whole thing occurs on trains, those classic symbols of the Industrial Revolution. With all this in mind, it seemed to me the game could have gone on forever, making a conceptual point of pointlessness while annoying a lot of players in the process. Thus I was glad of a random encounter on the trains with a character whose presence opened up the possibility of throwing a spanner into the cogs. Still, the protagonist's narration around this event didn't change to reflect the passage of the day, his wobbly health, things that had happened earlier or anything that might happen later. The lack of connectedness of the parts renders the game's finale probably more ambiguous than was intended.
Bug-ridden, incomplete, and unintentionally very funny.
The opening line is: "This text based game puts you inside a modern American with the intent to steal a very desirable item..." Presumably a kidney.
Room descriptions are definitely from the couldn't-be-bothered school: "There is a single window here but nothing else, really. Some grass I guess."
And for a game which is about breaking into a house to steal something valuable, the burglar protagonist has set some pretty low bars. My favourite response came when I entered GET TOWEL while scoping out the house's swimming pool:
"You pick up the towel. Nice."
If I'm this admiring of my completely unimpeded theft of a used towel from a suburban back yard at 12:34 AM, and apparently also of the towel itself, I don't think I really need to be heisting jewels to satisfy my will to power. Some much simpler and infinitely less dangerous activity is in order for me!
Presumably a time will come when the author base of Quest format adventures ripens, but at this time of writing, it remains that the majority of these games (almost all of which are published online) are of the quality of learning exercises. Such is the case with The Intruder. This teeny CYOA of binary choices see the player waking one morning to the sounds of someone or something else in the house. Doing the wrong thing at any point leads you to a scary picture and sound which act as the Game Over message. In these circumstances, maybe it is scarier to convey Game Over without the use of any text, and without including any means of undoing or even restarting the game from within the main window. The trouble is that The Intruder has almost no content; the prose is ultra spare, the results of the handful of choices available are either predictable or boring – though in a broad sense you can probably intuit which choice is the wiser one to make of the two presented to you each time – and the whole thing is far too short.
In spite of all this, the "urban myth explained" win screen is curiously effective, though also likely to provoke head-scratching or laughter, since it says that (Spoiler - click to show)a man, an escaped lunatic, was the person who menaced you, but the scary graphic seems to be of a female and/or non-human monster.
ADRIFT veteran Heal Butcher gets all weird on us in Worship the Pig, winner of the inaugural Questcomp held in 2013. Worship is essentially a hypertext click, look and walk journey through some strange and ornate scenery. The clickable keywords make for a clean and smooth delivery of the experience, with the most commonly appearing contextual menu action being "Look At". The imagery and feel reminded me of one of the David Lynch films not grounded in reality (EG Inland Empire) or of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. There is no plot to speak of, but there are anonymous figures, a garbed pig-man and crowds who say strange things. It all feels somewhat threatening, like you might be the only sane person wandering in a world of creatures who are freakish or alien to you – though these creatures also have a slavish civility about them, and seem to be following a set of rules that you don't understand. It is unsettling to be amongst them.
In the tradition of some other games with imperative titles, "Worship The Pig" turns out to be an action you can take one point, and in the context of this no-puzzle game, it's a significant decision. In terms of interactivity, the fact that you're still choosing when to move around and what to look at in general gives you a traditional IF trope to hang onto, one which, even on its own, can add a purposive feel to a game that's essentially linear bur not interested in revealing a clear narrative purpose.
I found the prose a tiny bit ripe, but it's undoubtedly vivid and has been well crafted to deliver the experience it wants to deliver. And that experience is bit freaky.
Pest, in which you play a rat in Black Plague era London, has the makings of a thorough puzzler, but is hampered by a fair few technical and writing oversights. The former manifest as bugs, the latter make the puzzles unnecessarily tough. There are no hints in or out of the game; my observation is that the Quest community hasn't worked up any culture of creating help to go with its games at this time of writing. I gave up on Pest after becoming stuck during its second major scene.
An introductory sequence in which the player flees from an unseen pursuer teaches the use of the various sense commands the rat can use (smell, listen, feel). The teaching works, but the rat's constant ruminations on his fate while this is going on are mostly at odds with the move to build suspense. There's too much repetition of material, or perhaps the repetition would work better if the player wasn't required to press a key to advance through every line of dialogue, which is pace-sluggening.
Pest needs to go for detail in its physical model of the world because it's about a small rat adequately positioning himself in relation to various people and objects, and interacting with them in clever mechanical ways. The scene in the stone dwelling shows the promise of this kind of thing, with different pieces of furniture at different heights which can be used to access each other, move around the room or draw the attention of its inhabitant, the broom-wielding Matlid.
What's missing from this scene is more exacting programming and prose. The physical relationships between the objects aren't adequately described, and these details are often crucial for visualising / conceptualising where things are and which courses of action may be fruitful. For instance, since the bag was on top of the cupboard, I didn't expect to be able to do anything with it, given that I was on the floor. But FEELing the bag turned out to be a big step forward. Paradoxically, the table is described in a manner suggesting you can get onto it. I never was able to do so, and its description only emphasised the fact that I was on the floor. Other bugs interacted with each other here; I was able to pick up things I shouldn't have been able to (EG the ladle - a bug fixed in the version 1.1 update) and perform one-shot actions more than once. I suspect the latter issue might have screwed up my game state.
I still enjoyed what little I played of Pest, and from what I've seen it promises more interesting design if you like solving physical puzzles when you're really small, but it definitely needs more work on its implementation to reach a level of stability and trustworthiness that will compel more players to persevere. And ideally to not even be thinking in terms of 'Should I perservere?' in the first place.
The intent behind this game is clear - to teach some IF basics through a simple scenario involving you getting the newspaper from your mailbox, finding yourself locked out of your house and having to find an alternate way back in. The game fails because it barely works. It doesn't even demonstrate consistent behaviour within the nuances of the Quest interface.
The geography is confusing. The illustrations, while cute, only enhance that confusion. It was a poor choice to create those illustrations in black and white when the text consistently emphasises how sunny the world is. There are no synonyms for anything; "paper" will not do for newspaper. "OPEN MAILBOX" doesn't work; you must "search" or "look inside". The game fails to acknowledge that you have acquired the newspaper until a thunderstorm event happens. Some important and obvious objects do not appear in the "Places and Objects" menu. There is a silly instant death-by-car if you try to cross the road in front of your house, in spite of the game having previously suggested that "the grass is greener on the other side of the road". You can't undo from the instant death if you're using the online Quest player.
I don't think the game is completeable, which is to say that I couldn't complete it, and I made several serious attempts to do so. Amongst the buginess, inconsistent approaches and the general newbie-unfriendliness, the game certainly would not be good for newbies, and isn't suitable for anyone else, yet.
The Dead is a pint sized CYOA Quest game which drops you in a graveyard and immediately has you fleeing a killer skeleton. The prose is brief and adornment-free. The game also hasn't reached a basic level of proofreading, so there are typos and grammar errors in every line. At least the stakes are high; most choices tend to be life or death, but not in a completely blind 'Will you go through door A or door B?' kind of way. A typical choice might be to decide whether you should glance over your shoulder to identify the unidentified thing that's chasing you, or grab a key off the ground and hope it unlocks the gate in front of you.
As unbaked as The Dead is, it quickly moves into some weird mythology involving glowing green energy and a skeleton army, which feels like a guest power up animation from a videogame. Perhaps the whole thing is the author's first CYOA. The Dead has a dash of suspense, but not much sense and no writing craft. It is complete – there are a good number of losing ends and one winning end. But it's definitely not up to a standard where strangers outside of its home context would be interested in it.