Reviews by Juhana

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Everything We Do Is Games, by Doug Orleans

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Everything we do is art, May 26, 2015

About 15 years ago I visited an exhibition in the local museum of modern art. One of the art pieces was a solid white square on the floor, about one square meter in size. It didn't seem like art at all. It was just a white square; "I could make that too."

The museum guide then explained that the square was actually a plastic frame filled with milk. Every evening when the museum closed the milk was drained and in the morning someone filled the frame with fresh milk. The actual art piece was not the physical object itself but the ritual of replacing the milk every day.

This is what Everything We Do Is Games is. As a computer program and as a game it barely exists. Its only function is to do nothing, it has no visible content at all. For something that does nothing it's still carefully planned and executed. Its value is in the act of creating it, not in the resulting program.

Therefore Everything We Do Is Games is art -- or is it? Is it a game? Is a null program a program at all? These are some of the questions it raises but leaves the answers for the audience to ponder.

Unscientific Fiction, by Tom Tervoort

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Silly and surreal, December 13, 2009

If this game would have to be reviewed with only one word, the word would be "silly". This is a game that takes nothing seriously, not even itself. Unscientific Fiction draws its inspiration from Douglas Adams, Portal, and Super Mario, among others.

Unscientific Fiction has its poor protagonist go through surreal virtual worlds and a spaceship controlled by an insane computer. The puzzles follow the cartoon logic of the world and the key to solving many of them is to remember that some real-world restraints aren't always a hinderance in this game.

It's unfortunate that there are some annoying bugs and bad spelling throughout, even though the typos aren't as distracting here as they would be in a work that has a more serious tone. Only when you're required to mistype your commands for them to be understood it really starts to get on your nerves. There are also annoying rituals you have to go over and over again when moving around (doors closing and locking themselves after you've gone through, but no implicit open and unlock actions).

If the game had a bit more polish and went through proofreading it would be even more enjoyable, but even as it is now it's good times. It does require a sense of humor that's attuned to this kind of silliness and an ability to suspend truckloads of disbelief.

We played this game at ClubFloyd as a group, which was a lot of fun. If you have the possibility to play with a friend or two you'll probably get a lot more out of the experience. The key is to try everything and with a group it's easier to come up with ideas.

(By the way, you can't design for not having guess-the-verb problems (this game has its fair share of them) and item based puzzles are not immune, quite the contrary. The only way to avoid it is playtesting.)

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter, by Mike Gentry and David Cornelson

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Great for newcomers, nothing special for experienced players, July 24, 2009

So here we have Textfyre's first finished product, the first serious attempt at commercial interactive fiction in a long while. The story is of a street urchin who is destined for greater things in life in a generic non-magical medieval world. This is part 1 of 3 and the story ends in a cliffhanger, so expect to pay for the whole trilogy if you want to see a full story.

The custom-made FyreVM interpreter imitates a book spread where the text is on the left page and illustrations on the right page. Mostly the picture page shows just the main character and occasionally locale pictures, and most of them are what look like halfway-done sketches. At the moment the illustrations are not much more than a waste of half the screen. Apparently Textfyre is adding more pictures for the upcoming versions so this is likely to change. The map spread is nice though, it's like a built-in virtual feelie. I was hoping it could be printed out to make it a real physical feelie too.

The puzzles are mostly trivial and the solutions are usually spelled out by the story or accompanying NPCs. The player is left to type commands given more or less explicitly in the previous paragraph. This is arguably more interactive than "press enter to continue" but not much. From this naturally follows that the story is not only so easy that it could even be called puzzleless, but also heavily railroaded. Locations are mostly void of anything else than the one thing you need for the plot to continue and in many places there's nothing else to do than the glaringly obvious action that advances the script.

The main character is suffering slightly from a lack of personality other than the ability to be nervous of everything. The (Spoiler - click to show)cross-dressing aspect has potential to say something meaningful, but unfortunately the narrative never leaves the comforts of reinforcing gender stereotypes (and this game has no "heteronormativity off" command!). This is of course understandable when considered that Textfyre intends to market the game to schools and libraries, but that doesn't make the underlying attitudes any less annoying.

That's a lot of nitpicking for a game that's still far better than the large bulk of amateur work, but if you're aiming high, you'll be judged against higher standards. For a commercial venue there's a surprising amount of rough edges, for example standard "You see nothing special about x" replies to examining many things.

There's a silver lining here: easy puzzles, handholding from start to finish, and flashy interface make this a perfect game to introduce someone to interactive fiction. I would not hesitate to recommend it to someone new to the medium if they are willing to pay for it. The only minus in this plan is that the most freeform non-railroaded gameplay is right at the beginning which might put off some people.

The existing IF community is not the target audience of The Secret Letter and it shows. Last time I wished for a version made for children - now I find myself wishing for a version made for adults. It's hard to predict how Textfyre's potential customers will react to the game. The expectations of a greater audience are often not the same as a niche group's so there's a good chance that it will find fans from outside the current IF community. It'll be interesting to see how the company and its products evolve over time. The next publication is supposed to be more to the tastes of current IF players, so I'm looking forward to that.

Madam Spider's Web, by Sara Dee

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Solid piece with disappointing ending, June 26, 2009

Madam Spider's Web is another "fractured fairytale". You are a housemaiden in a giant spider's house, but you can't remember where the cleaning supplies are or what your tasks are or how you even ended up there. (Amnesia must be pandemic among IF player characters.)

The puzzles are easy and interesting and there's a sense of exploration, even though the area to explore is quite small. It won't take long to get through to the ending. The puzzles are well clued and I didn't have to look at the walkthrough or use hints even once when I played. That does not happen very often. For hardcore puzzle fans this might be a disappointment but for me it's important that the puzzles don't interrupt a good story. The implementation is thorough and I didn't run into any bugs.

The ending is somewhat unfortunate because (Spoiler - click to show)a) it's been done many times before (and it's been done better) - the player's reaction is not "oh, clever!" but "oh, this again." and b) the connection with the preceding game is not that obvious. If you're going to make a dream world (a dream within the fictional world, that is) you should take extra care to make sure that the allusions to the real world are there, otherwise the dream world, and the entire work, loses its meaning for the reader completely. (To be fair I might have just missed the point entirely.)

On the plus side the ending you see is based upon your actions during the game, not just the final move; on the minus side without looking at the walkthrough it's not immediately obvious which actions affect the ending or even that there are multiple endings.

If you only look at the basic setting, the gameplay and the length, this would be a perfect game for children. Unfortunately (Spoiler - click to show)gruesome imagery in the end and some scary characters make this unsuitable for that purpose. It would be nice to see a version made especially for children where selected parts of the game would be changed or left out.

Borrowed Time, by Brian Fargo, Michael Cranford

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Old-school detective game, January 16, 2009

You play Sam Harlow, a private investigator. The game begins in your office where you receive a phone call and you must escape thugs who want you dead.

The problem with the game is that scenes seem to be tied to locations, not to each other. If you visit the locations in the order the game expects you to, then everything works fine, but if you explore the city in wrong order you miraculously stumble into places you should not be aware of yet and get scenes that would belong to later parts of the story. This makes following the plot a bit like watching Memento.

True to its era there are also random sudden deaths and places where doing anything other than the right action will end the game in death. Another annoyance is that the exits are not described anywhere. Presumably the game came originally with a printed map.

There are some fun parts too in the game. I especially liked a chase scene in the beginning that has speed and action. There's a graphics window that depicts the surroundings in relatively accurate details instead of being just a static location image and the parser is a bit more sophisticated than a simple two-word parser. It recognizes left, right, forward and back (in relation to the graphics shown).

Annoyingly the parser pretends to be smarter than it is: examining a word that the game doesn't know always says "You see nothing special" which suggests that the word was right but it doesn't have a description. Only examine seems to do this, other commands reply correctly "I don't know the word x."

Eric the Unready, by Bob Bates

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Fantasy parody in the spirit of Monty Python, January 11, 2009

Eric the Unready chronicles the adventures of a fumbling knight, a laughing stock of his peers, who accidentally gets assigned the task of saving the princess. Eric is not a very imaginative choice for the protagonist but the game fortunately manages to keep him in the "lovable loser" category as opposed to the "annoying twit" category that are very very close to each other.

The interface has several windows that are, among others, a compass rose, a picture of the location, an automap, a list of available commands and a list of objects in the location. The lists are not of much use to experienced players and can at times even be considered minor spoilers but they can be hidden from the view giving the text area more room.

The jokes vary between hit and miss, fortunately there are more hits than misses. References to popular culture and other games of the era abound. The humor and the game's world in its absurdness resembles Monty Python very much; influence from The Holy Grail is obvious.

Resemblance to Monty Python doesn't end with the humor. The gameplay is very episodic and after the player has finished with one set of puzzles in one location, he is transported into new location with a new set of puzzles. There's not much to tie the scenes together. While this is usually not considered the best design choice, it works here for the same reason it works for TV's sketch shows: the jokes don't have a chance to get old.

As the game was published in 1993 and has been out of print for many years now it might be hard to get your hands on it, but if you can find a copy it's definitely worth playing.

Slouching Towards Bedlam, by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Forgotten masterpiece, January 10, 2009

Slouching Towards Bedlam was the game that introduced me to modern IF so I might not be the most objective person to review the game. Still I am probably not far off saying that the game is too often forgotten when we are talking about the modern classics.

The game is about exploration and finding out what has happened in the asylum where the protagonist works. Assisting him is Triage, a hearwarmingly steampunky computer/dictation machine, that can give details and information of the surroundings. While it doesn't actually do anything other than follow the protagonist around and show information on request it is an important part of the whole and the game would be seriously lacking without it.

What brings Slouching Towards Bedlam above others is the way it builds and sustains the atmosphere and mood. The only other game that accomplishes the same is Anchorhead and I would be hardpressed to choose which one does a better job. Another nice touch is how meta-game commands (UNDO, SAVE, RESTORE etc) have been given an in-game explanation. They fit seamlessly into the story, not feeling like artificial additions.

The game is not entirely without flaws, of course. Some gameplay mechanics are unnecessarily awkward (for example making the player type long strings of numbers to a machine one at a time) but my main quibble is that some puzzles feel like they are there only because "IF must have puzzles". They break the mood and yank the player out of the game's world. The authors could have trusted their creation to work as a game without locked doors and hidden items.

The Phoenix Move, by Daniele Giardini

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Phony one-move, August 23, 2008

Despite what the author says, The Phoenix Move is not a one-move game. The game does put the player back on top of the pole after every turn, but any changes made to the world do not reset. In this sense the game resembles not Aisle but Sam Barlow's other game The City. This got me stuck for a while when I tried to find the one winning move when in fact you need a series of moves to win.

The game gradually reveals a nice story and the prose is fun to read. Influences from Aisle and Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle can be seen in the writing style as well. Unfortunately the ending doesn't work that well - the final textdump explains the background too much leaving nothing for the player to work out. (Spoiler - click to show)The final choice presented to the player both contradicts the story and is altogether unnecessary. It would have been more satisfying and more consistent if the game would have made the choice automatically based on the player's actions during the game.

A Day in Life, by John Goettle

3 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Another programming exercise, June 7, 2008

Announcement to all aspiring authors: please, please don't release the "game" you made while going through the first five chapters of the I7 tutorial. Thank you for your attention.

You Have To BURN ROPE WITH TORCH, by Michael Cook

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Lost in translation, April 9, 2008

When I was a kid I read a novelization of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was a huge disappointment: the book was essentially the entire script written in complete sentences, nothing added or removed. I was once again reminded of it when I played this game. You Have To Burn The Rope is a clever, funny and meaningful little Flash game, and this is its literal novelization.

As it now is, it doesn't work. The commentary of the original game is completely lost when the medium changes. The original parodies the aspects of modern online platformers, but that joke doesn't work if the medium isn't a modern online platformer and the author of this version clearly has no insight of this genre to make a similar commentary on the aspects of modern IF games.

Besides, if the game is called You Have To Burn The Rope and the command BURN THE ROPE is a "dangerous act that would achieve little", something has really gone wrong. (You have to BURN ROPE WITH TORCH.)
(UPDATE: The author realized this himself and changed the game's title. That's funny enough to earn an extra star.)

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