Reviews by Simon Christiansen

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Changes, by David Given

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Great sandbox, but the puzzles need better hinting, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.

Changes is a science fiction eco-adventure, taking place on a beautifully realized foreign planet. It is well implemented and well coded but is also incredibly hard and needs much better hinting to be playable without the walkthrough.

(Spoiler - click to show)Changes begins with what is probably my favourite introduction so far:

You wake and see blood.

There’s blood everywhere. So much blood, that at first you don’t realise there’s a figure behind the blood. It’s alive, just; there’s a face, twisted with pain, and more blood that bubbles from its mouth as it breathes, and a hand that spasms as it tries to paw at the thing projecting from where a chest should be. The eyes gaze into yours. There is still life and desperation there, but it it knows that it is quickly running out.

You want to help. You reach out — and that is when you realise that you are looking into the inside of the reflective cockpit canopy, and that the face you can see is yours.

Hell, yeah! This is how you do a proper “in medias res” start to a game. After reading it, I was eager to find out just what the hell was going on here.

After the intro, the game abruptly changes to the inside of some kind of gooey cocoon, from which you emerge into a beautiful alien forest. The descriptions are very atmospheric, pointing out the way the light falls through the canopy, the sense of space inside the clearing, and the peacefulness permeating the air. I was looking forward to exploring this strange new world.

I think I’ve pointed out in earlier reviews that I like to go through a series of Inform standard actions, just to see if the author bothered to implement them. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did everything have a non-standard response, but the responses actually gave me clues to my new identity. When I tried jumping I was told that I got much higher than I was expecting. At first I thought that this planet might have a low gravity, but other responses strongly hinted that I was no longer human. I looked at my reflection in the lake and it seems I had been turned into some kind of alien rabbit. Not only am I on a strange new world, I am also a Space Rabbit! This is the greatest introduction to a game ever!

I keep exploring the landscape, enjoying all the sights and sounds on the planet. Not only is everything beautifully described, but there are ton of animals moving around dynamically with what appears some very complex AI behaviour. Deer like animals run through the forest, eating the plants; beavers build dams; rabbits play in their burrows. Also, you seem to have some kind of telepathic ability allowing you to sense the emotions of the other animals from afar, and even read their minds on occasion. All this contributes to making the environment feel alive, and I thoroughly enjoyed just exploring and looking at all the animals.

Unfortunately, the world is just to bit too large for a Comp game, I think. There must be 20-25 locations and I never really properly got the lay of the land. Oh, and did I mention the fox? There is a ravenous fox like creature roaming the lands. Every time you encounter it, it will give chase, and you need to find a safe spot to hide from it. Whenever I was finally starting to figure out how the locations were connected, the fox would appear and I would get hopelessly lost, desperately typing random compass directions until I found one of the safe spots. This made exploring a lot less fun than it might otherwise have been, but I still enjoyed the sense of being part of a living ecosystem.

After exploring for a while, I suddenly realized that I had played the game for more than an hour, and made no progress whatsoever. I typed HELP and learned that the game implements no less than five helpful commands: ABOUT, HINTS, CREDITS, LICENSE and WALKTHROUGH. I’ve later learned that finding the HELP command was a stroke of good luck since it’s apparently the only way to learn about the walkthrough. For future releases, I recommend mentioning all the special commands in the ABOUT text.

The HINT system turned out to be so frustratingly vague as to be completely useless. The hints kept telling me to find the shuttle, but I had no idea where I was supposed to to go to accomplish this. Sometimes, I would the see the shuttle glinting in the distance, but there never seemed to be a way to get there. I only managed to find the way much later in the game, and it turns out that finding the shuttle isn’t necessary until the end-game, so why insist that the player do it right away?

When I finally turned to the walkthrough I learned that not only had I made no progress towards solving the first puzzle, I hadn’t even figured out what it was. The intro of the game did imply that I was supposed to drag dead animals to the Mother Tree, but since I am a harmless rabbit, I had no idea how to procure one. It turns out that I am supposed to lure a poor otter into a rabbit warren, and then collapse it, killing the otter, who had never done me any harm. I have absolutely no idea how I was supposed to figure this out on my own. Not only would it never have occurred to me to kill the otter in this way, but I hadn’t even realized I was supposed to try. The game gives you no hint that turning into an otter might be useful at this point. It’s simply the only animal you are capable of killing.

When you kill an an animal, you can then use the Mother Tree to take over its body, which opens up new options. For example, the otter can swim, giving you access to new paths through the landscape. The game progresses in a linear manner: There is always exactly one animal you are capable of killing and taking over, until you finally reach one that is capable of entering your shuttle. The game would have benefited from better hinting as to what animal you are supposed to be focusing on next. As it is, you just have to figure it out by trial and error.

Every time you change bodies, you get a big text dump, explaining more of the back story. These are well-written, but are also very long, and I would have preferred it if the story had been doled out in smaller bits while progressing through the game. The story itself is a pretty interesting science fiction story concerning a mutiny on your spaceship, which ends up with you having to escape to the planet where the game takes place. I love spaceships, so I kinda wish there had been some kind of interactive flash-back taking place there, but the game is a bit too long as it is.

Once I figured out that I was never going to solve any of these puzzles on my own, I played through the rest of the game with the walkthrough. Normally, this would trivialize the puzzles, but this game is so hard that making progress is a challenge even when you know exactly what you need to do, due to the dynamic nature of the environment. I may know that I need to get the otter to the burrows, but I still need to successfully lead it there, while avoiding the hungry fox along the way. Furthermore, the walkthrough will say things like “herd the deer to the dam”, with no explanation of how “herding” works.

Nonetheless, I managed to successfully complete the game using the walkthrough, and found this to be far more enjoyable than trying to solve the puzzles on my own. I just wish I had figured this out sooner. By this time, I was quickly approaching the two-hour Comp deadline, and had to rush through the rest the game, to reach the ending in time. The environment changes as you make progress, so I would have loved to have more time to explore in between solving the puzzles. I’ll probably go back to the game after the comp, just to see all the things I missed.

In conclusion, I found Changes to be a very well-made and engaging sandbox exploration game, but the actual puzzle solving gameplay needs way better in-game hinting to be enjoyable. With some polish, this could be a real gem.

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Lunar Base 1, by Michael Phipps

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Moon!, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.

Lunar Base 1 is a short game about an expedition to the Moon being interrupted by mysterious phenomena. The game is reasonably well made, but suffers from a combination of bland writing and design flaws.

(Spoiler - click to show)The game begins with a short info-dump describing the set-up. You are one of two astronauts on a mission to the Moon to the be its first long term inhabitants. Now, I love space and things that are in space, so this is right up my alley. Unfortunately, the writing is rather bland, although functional. You are told what the trip has been like, what you’re currently doing, what your mission is, and how you are feeling. I would have liked to be shown some of these things more indirectly, perhaps even with a modicum of interactivity. In general, the writing seems to have been proofread pretty well, but grammatical errors does occur regularly, and there are some really awkward turns of phrase. Stuff like ” It has a built in microphone and speakers in the event of not talking to through your space suit headset.” really could have used a rewrite.

The depth of the implementation is also somewhat inconsistent. By and large, I found the implementation to be good: Every part of the lunar lander can be examined separately, even though you don’t need to interact with more than a few them. However the actual flight controls, described as a pair of joysticks, can only be referred to in the plural, and only gives standard responses to attempts to interact with them. Even if I am not allowed to fly the thing manually, the controls are a central part of the lander and should at least have custom responses implemented.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the first time you step off the lunar lander, onto the surface of the Moon, was one of my favourite parts of the game. The game does a really good job of capturing that sense of wonder of first stepping onto the Moon itself, describing the landscape around you, the way the dust seems to glow in the light like snow, the vastness of space above, and even interjecting a brief childhood flashback from a visit to a science center. Now, if your first instinct on stepping onto the Moon is not to type “jump” then you have no heart. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the author had, in fact, implemented the ability to jump high in the air for no other reason than to marvel at the low gravity.

Unfortunately, the sense of wonder soon starts to dissipate as it becomes apparent that the Moon is basically a short corridor leading from the lander to the base (and later on, a longer corridor leading to Mysterious Phenomenon. Also, jumping into the air curiously stops working in other lunar locations, to be replaced with the usual standard reply.) Trying to walk in a direction you are not supposed to results in the usual “You can’t go that way” reply, even though you are in an open environemnt on the Moon. At least implement a custom response so I don’t feel like I am in a Moon themed corridor. I realize that Comp games have to be short, but the tiny environment feels silly in light of the plot. You are supposed to be long term inhabitants on the Moon, but there is just the two of you, and the entire base seems to consist of a single room with two bunks and a scientific workstation. How long-term is this supposed to be, exactly?

The plot of the game is simple, but works pretty well. You start out by doing scientific experiments, involving some simple puzzling, during which you are introduced to the scientific equipment of the base. Later on, Mysterious Events start happening, and you will have to use your knowledge of this equipment to proceed. This is not a bad puzzle structure in itself, but it suffers from the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any way to proceed in the second half of the game, if you don’t remember everything you learned during the first. The objects you need to interact with to use the equipment are not mentioned in the room description, but only described by the NPC during the previous part of the game. I went to bed halfway through the game, and had long since forgotten those details when I returned, so I had to use the walkthrough to finish.

The game doesn’t seem to have any major bugs, but there are some annoying issues with descriptions not being properly updated and the other character sometimes not responding when you talk to him. The conversation menus also seem a bit stiff, since options are never removed once they have been exhausted. It seems like the menus are made by simply printing all the options as a single block of text, and then replacing the menu wholesale in the next scene. If you don’t know how to implement a proper conversation menu yourself, I recommend using an extension like Michael Martin’s Quip-Based Conversation, or similar.

I mentioned earlier that the introduction was just a non-interactive info-dump, and such “cut-scenes”, become even more prevalent later in the game. When you discover the source of the Mysterious Events you are rewarded with a long text-dump, with nothing to do but press space to read the next section. Even worse, the entire ending chapter of the game is taken up by a single long non-interactive cut-scene, where you are moved between several locations, with no opportunities to interact with anything. Now, I am not asking for complex puzzles here, but just being able to walk around and explore things would have done wonders to make this feel more interactive.

In spite of these flaws, I did enjoy the game. The plot is okay, the characters do display some depth after a while, and the implementation and puzzle design is decent. And as I said, it really does do a very good job of evoking the sense of wonder of just being on the Moon. I just wish I had gotten to explore the lunar landscape a bit more. It’s making me want to write a game where all you do is explore the moon, discovering cool stuff along the way.

Score breakdown:
Graphics: 0
Sound: 0
Game: 5
Moon: 2

Total: 7/10.

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Living Will, by Mark Marino

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Interesting story with confusing mechanics, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.

The Living Will is a hyper-link based CYOA story, which reminded me, at first, of last year’s The Play. Unfortunately, I found it a much less satisfying experience.

(Spoiler - click to show)The Living Will starts out promisingly, with a very novel concept. You are playing a character reading a will, and the choices you make in reading it affects how much you are bequeathed, the legal expenses, and so on. These are shown in a box to the right, similar to how The Play tracked the shifting moods of the actors. The game tracks no less than six different statistics, including medical fees, taxes and shares in the telecom company founded by the writer. This seemed daunting at first, but I assumed that there would be some kind of strategy involved in manipulating these numbers.

At first it seems like the choices you make might simply represent the reader deciding which sections of the will to focus on, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the case. The character of the writer has actually implemented an interactive will, which is being read by the player character.

The game begins with a few introductory paragraphs, describing the background story. The maker of the will has created a telecom company in the Congo, and it’s strongly implied that he has committed many unsavoury deeds along the way. Each paragraph usually has several in-lined options to choose between. Which ones you choose not only affects how the story unfolds, but also causes one or more of the numbers being tracked by the game to rise or fall.

Unfortunately, I never did figure out how I was to supposed to know how my choices would affect the numbers. It seems like you are supposed to work out a strategy to optimize your gains, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to tell in advance what effect your choice will have. In “The Play”, you could at least figure out that letting an actor have his way would make him happy, while putting pressure on him would make him sulky.

After a brief introduction, you get to choose between four different potential player characters, each with their own background story. As you read through these stories, selecting options along the way, numbers continue to rise and fall in the box to the right. I pretty much stopped paying attention to them after a while, as there seemed to be nothing I could do to control them.

After getting the background story for your character, you arrive at the Allotments chapter, where you are told how much will be bequeathed to each character. The bequests all seem to consist of a randomized list of junk, followed by a certain amount of shares in aforementioned telecom company. They seem to be at least partially randomized. They may or may not also depend on the choices made before then, but I was unable to replicate any particular combination, even when following exactly the same path through the story.

Here the game introduces another novel concept, as the current player character can seize the bequests of the other characters. This increases your own total inheritance, but also adds to the legal costs, and you will get a note later saying the character in question now hates you.

However, there still doesn’t seem to be any way to tell whether seizing a bequest will be a net benefit. Sometimes the legal costs exceeds the extra inheritance you get, and sometimes they don’t. If I am missing something here, I would love to know.

In about two-thirds of my playthroughs, I ended up with legal and medical costs exceeding my actual inheritance, which seems rather strange for a will. Worse, when you end the game with a negative net inheritance, the writer will chastise you for your lack of “resourcefulness.” I would love to know what kind of resources I am supposed to bring to bear to determine the optimal ways through the game.

When you do manage to end the game with a positive net inheritance, you are given the chance to save the life of the writer, who is dying from an unspecified disease. Saving his life will slightly increase the medical costs, and give you a different ending, but I didn’t feel very emotionally involved in the choice.

I played through the game several times, but I did so to see the story, and never because I had a coherent idea for a new approach. To be fair, I did find the story to be reasonably entertaining and well written. I enjoyed gradually uncovering the background history from several different perspectives, and learning more about the writer of the will. However, I enjoyed the game much more after I decided to ignore the numbers, and just read through the different stories, seizing a few random bequests at the end.

As an interactive story, I liked “The Living Will”, and found the presentation to be novel and engaging. As a game, I found it severely wanting. If you include numerical scores in a game, you have to provide some hint as to how the various choices will affect these scores. There is a good reason why most story based IF no longer tracks a point score, much less six different ones.

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The Sealed Room, by Robert DeFord

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Nothing much here, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012

The Sealed Room is a very short game in which you have a conversation with a dragon and a unicorn. There is not much story, and no real puzzles.

(Spoiler - click to show)The Sealed Room describes itself as a “short-short story”, but it’s actually a short puzzle game consisting of a single, rather surreal, puzzle. The protagonist is the usual nameless adventure game hero with no personality, and “x me” gives what I can only assume is the Alan standard response to self-examination: “You notice nothing unusual about yourself.” You are out for a walk when you meet an old man, who transports you to a mysterious sealed room, for no particular reason.

The room contains a unicorn and a dragon, and the game mostly consists of talking to these two creatures, and convincing them to help you escape.

It’s never really explained why any of you are there, except as some kind of test devised by the old man. Now, there is nothing wrong with making a storyless puzzle game, but the actual puzzles in the game suffer from being severely overhinted: You are almost always told exactly what to do next, and the required actions would be pretty obvious even if you weren’t. When you procure a new item, the game might say something like “Maybe you should show it to the unicorn and the dragon?” and that will be what you need to do to proceed. At no point did I need to stop and think, which makes the whole game feel rather mechanical and pointless.

The game uses an ask/tell conversation system, but the dragon and unicorn will conveniently tell you every topic you can talk to them about, so I just lawnmowered through them all in the order they were listed. To be fair, the game does add some innovations to the standard conversation framework: You can ask the dragon and unicorn for advice or help, which adds an extra dimension to the conversation, but the game is too short to do anything particularly interesting with it.

After talking to the two creatures for a while, and performing a few obvious actions, a doorway opens, allowing you to leave the room. For some reason, the unicorn and the dragon show no interest in leaving, even though they were trapped there along with you. After leaving the room, you are congratulated for solving the puzzle, and get to choose between ending the game, or exploring the room a while longer. I tried to see if I could get the two creatures to leave with me, but they didn’t acknowledge that I had solved the puzzle at all.

If there had been some actual puzzling to do, this might have made for a decent puzzle game. As it is, there is just nothing there.

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Sunday Afternoon, by Christopher Huang (as Virgil Hilts)

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Atmospheric and well-written, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012

Sunday Afternoon is a short but atmospheric game, set somewhere in Victorian England. It is both well-written and well implemented, but is a bit too short and simple to achieve greatness.

(Spoiler - click to show)In Sunday Afternoon you play a young boy stuck at home during a beautiful sunny day, forced to stay inside and read a sermon while being watched by your stuffy Aunt Emma. Your mission is to escape the house, so you can go play in the countryside. I found this objective to be a pleasing diversion from most IF, which usually involves trying to accomplish something really important.

At first, the game is confined entirely to the parlour, and your first objective is to distract Aunt Emma so you can access the rest of the house. The implementation is pleasingly deep – so much so that I thought the game might turn out to be a one-room game for a while. The mantelpiece in particular is loaded with sentimental knick-knacks, and talking about these turn out to be the key to escaping the room.

The mantelpiece objects are implemented several levels deep, and also reward careful examination by displaying boxed literary quotations when you examine objects more than once. Most of these seem to be references to children’s literature; your aunt even owns the painting of the Dawn Treader from the Narnia books, and I was pleased that the author remembered to implement a proper response to “enter painting.”

Anyway, talking about these objects is the focus of the first part of the game, and the conversation is also well implemented, using the standard ASK/TELL system. Talking to your aunt about her things will reveal new possible topics of conversation, and I never felt like I had to play “guess-the-topic” to proceed in the game. Unfortunately, typing “ask Emma about X” got tedious pretty quickly. Conversation heavy games will often implement a short-cut, by allowing the player to type something like “A TOPIC” to ask the current NPC about the topic. I believe Emily Short’s Galatea was to first to come up with this, and I wish it had been part of this game as well.

Luckily, this was a very minor annoyance as conversation is not really a big part of the game once you get out of the first room. Once Emma has been distracted, you get access to the rest of the house, and have to figure out how to prevent Aunt Emma from taking you back into the parlour.

Here the game introduces an interesting twist: After a few failed attempts to escape, the game suddenly shifts to the trenches of World War I, and it turns out that the events so far are just part of some sort of role playing game to pass time among the soldiers. I thought this was a really cool twist, and was looking forward to seeing how the two stories would interact. Unfortunately, you never really visit the trenches again, except for a short comment at the end, so I felt this was a bit of a wasted opportunity. Perhaps it is there to show the contrast between the innocence of youth and the problems of the adult world?

After you figure out how to placate your aunt, the entire house opens up to exploration. The house as a whole is not quite as deeply implemented as the parlour, but I never felt like anything was missing that ought to have been there. You also get to meet the other NPC in the game: Your uncle Stephen, who is a priest, and wrote the boring sermon you were forced to read in the beginning of the game.

Uncle Stephen’s study is full books, and studying these was one of my favourite parts of the game. His bookshelves are full of exciting adventure novels, and all sorts of other interesting stuff, but the main character stubbornly expects it all to be boring religious stuff because that’s how he sees Uncle Stephen – he assumes “King Solomon’s mines” must be some kind of boring biblical history book. It just goes to show how our prejudices often prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The main character is looking for excitement outside, but refuses to see all the interesting stuff inside the house. If I was him, I would have probably stayed in the library.

The puzzles you have to solve to escape are all well clued, without being too easy, and when I checked the hints I always felt stupid for not figuring out the solution myself. The solutions never seemed arbitrary, or illogical as is all to often the case in adventure games. I just can’t help but feel that the reason you can’t leave the house to begin with is a bit silly. Would getting into trouble for running away really have been any worse than getting into trouble for flooding the house with soot and then running away?

After escaping from the house there is a brief call-back to the thing with the soldiers, and the game then ends abruptly. I really enjoyed playing through the game, but I just wanted more, somehow. The game is well-written, and well-coded, and I discovered no major flaws, but was the point of it all? You learn virtually nothing about the main character, and what was up with the soldiers? Was that soldier the main character as an adult, and is it supposed to say something about the contrast between childhood and adulthood?

Then again, not everything needs to have some deep ponderous “point” to it. Exploring a cosy Victorian household was relaxing and atmospheric, and I thoroughly enjoyed every second. I can heartily recommend the experience.

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Eurydice, by Anonymous

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Well-written but needs a bit more polish, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012

Eurydice is a game about dealing with grief. It is well-written, and quite moving at times, but it needs some more polish to reach its full potential.

(Spoiler - click to show)The game begins with a boxed Tennyson quote, which unfortunately covers up the initial room description, and refuses to go away. A bit of experimentation revealed that the quote box worked fine on other interpreters (I am using Frotz), so I am willing to give the author a pass here, but still kinda set the tone for the game to come: Lots of small errors interfering with the otherwise very good writing and atmosphere.

The main character is grieving over the dead of his friend/girlfriend Celine, who has apparently committed suicide. It’s not quite clear what kind of relationship they had, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that they clearly cared for one another, and the main character is having a hard time letting go. The “help” text implies that the game is based on the experiences of the author, in which case he is doing a great job describing his feelings.

The game starts in the upper floor of a house, where you wander around alone, exploring Celine’s now empty room, your own room, and maybe some of the others. A sense of desolation and abandonment pervades everything. Celine’s room has been emptied, and all the stuff in your own room just serves to remind you of your loss. The lyre in your room is the only item that doesn’t really fit the mood, which is just as well since you are supposed to notice it and take it with you.

When you finally come down to the ground floor, the atmosphere changes to one of social oppression. Tons of people either live in the house, or has come to show their support, and you would really prefer to be left alone. The scene in the living room turned out to be one my favourites in the game. All of the character’s can be examined and talked to several times, and they all seem like three-dimensional people, even though you don’t get to spend much time with them. I loved interacting with these people, and wished they had played a greater part in the story.

Unfortunately, the implementation problems with the game started to become really apparent by this time. While the things the author wants you to interact with, like the people in the room, are implemented very deeply, he tends to forget everything else. Nothing but the people seems to be implemented in the living room: The sofa, the table, the go game and lots of other things don’t actually exist in the world model. While the implementation can be delightfully deep when it wants to, it’s in sore need of more breadth. Mowing through all the “you can’t see any such thing”s, becomes a chore.

There are also a few too many Inform standard responses for my liking, but most of them aren’t really the kind of actions you would naturally try – unless you are like me, and like to obsessively go through a ton of standard actions to see if the author thought of them.

The writing is very good, with lots of beautiful metaphorical language that only occasionally tends towards the melodramatic. It does a great job of setting the mood, and making you identify with the main character. Unfortunately, it’s also marred by minor technical mistakes. There are several spelling mistakes, some odd formatting errors, and some very long paragraphs that would benefit from being broken up into smaller pieces. Still, it manages to work very well, and I’ll take good writing with spelling mistakes over impeccable mediocre writing any day.

After a while, you decide to go for a walk, and the game gradually segues into an afterlife dream sequence, where the mythological themes become more obvious. You take the place of Orpheus trying to rescue his love from the underworld, with the underworld turning out the be the asylum where she was committed. The character’s in the asylum stand in for various mythological character’s: The Doctor is Hades, the other woman in the asylum is Persephone, and so on.

The game becomes a lot more puzzly around this time. You need to figure how to get the Charon stand-in to sail you to the hospital, how to get past Cerberus etc. At first I was disappointed that the Lyre seemed to be the solution to almost everything, but I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that you are supposed to be tempted to overuse it, as it represents the main character’s escapist tendencies. By using it to solve the puzzles you get a sub-optimal ending, in which the character escapes into a fantasy, and never learns to properly deal with his grief. The prosaic – and much harder – puzzle solutions keep you grounded, and allow you to reach a better ending.

I thought this was a really neat effect, which worked very well in my case. Puzzle based IF and literary IF are all too often considered to be at odds with each other, but you can definitely use puzzles to create literary effects, as this demonstrates.

The various endings neatly illustrate various stages of grief, although they probably work best if you get them in the right order. You can fail to deal with your grief, escape into fantasy, try to forget Celine by focusing on your friends, or truly deal with the grief and move on.

Unfortunately, the puzzles are also a bit marred by inconsistent implementation. For instance, there are several cases where you need to give objects to people to proceed, but merely showing the objects just gives you the standard “X is unimpressed” message. Being the possessive type, I tend to show things to people instead of immediately giving them away, so I struggled to solve some puzzles that were rather simple in themselves. I also had trouble retrieving the object hidden in my coat. You are told that there is something stuck in the lining of the coat, but you can’t interact with parts of the coat, or the “something” in any way. You have to type “search coat” to find it. While searching is an Inform standard action, it’s rarely used nowadays, and it didn’t occur to me to try it.

Despite of all the niggling problems, I was moved by this game, which is something that happens all too rarely. There are lots of things wrong with it, but they are all small things that can easily be fixed with some extra work. I guess my only major problem with it is that it reminds my own complete failure in trying to write a game about grief. I get the feeling that the author is an experienced writer, but new to programming. I recommend teaming up with some veteran IF testers, perhaps even a collaborator, and giving the game a few more coats of polish. As it is, it’s still probably my favorite game in the comp so far.

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Andromeda Apocalypse — Extended Edition, by Marco Innocenti

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Excellent game with a great story, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.

Andromeda Apocalypse is a science fiction story, which is the sequel to last year’s Andromeda Awakening. It’s an excellent game, and a must-play for any science fiction fan, regardless of whether you’ve played the previous games in the series.

(Spoiler - click to show)Andromeda Apocalypse is the sequel to last year’s Andromeda Awakening, which I haven’t played, but remember being somewhat controversial. There were a lot of complaints about the language of the game being hard to understand, due to the author being Italian, and using weird turns of phrase. The phrase “cyanotic light” in particular seemed to draw people’s ire.

However, the game must have had solid fundamentals because it seems to be pretty well regarded nowadays, and two more games have been written in the same universe, by different authors. This is the first case I am aware of where a shared universe is used by several IF authors. Judging from the quality of this game, I’ll have to go back and play those games, to get the full backstory.

Luckily, playing the previous games wasn’t necessary to appreciate this one, as it does a pretty good job of establishing what is going on. You are the last survivor of the planet Monarch in the Andromeda galaxy. The ABOUT menu contains a helpful summary of the backstory: The planet has been destroyed by a mysterious race of black spheres, called Hyerotropes, which has lain dormant beneath the surface for millennia. These go around destroying solar systems and galaxies for unknown reasons, and also have the ability to convert matter to “cold, azure light”. I can only assume this must be the infamous “cyanotic light” I’ve heard so much about.

As the game begins, the main character has escaped the destruction aboard a Hyerotrope, which can luckily also be used as a spaceship. For some reason I didn’t quite understand, the Hyerotrope also contains the Voyager probe, along with its famous golden disc. The only thing the main character has managed to bring with him is a single expired railway ticket, a melancholy reminder of his loss. The game uses feelies to great effect, by including pictures of the disc, the ticket and a postcard from the planet Monarch, to set the mood. I wish there had been an option to display these pictures in-game, but the game itself is entirely text based. Perhaps this choice was made to ensure compatibility with browser based interpreters, who don’t seem to be able to handle pictures very well yet.

uring the game there are frequent flashbacks to the late planet Monarch, where you get to have conversations with your uncle and best friend, while watching the approaching storm in the distance. Both the descriptions of Monarch, and the conversations themselves are well written, and did a great job of making me feel nostalgic for the place, even though I had only the faintest idea of what it was supposed to be like. Unfortunately, they also suffer from being almost entirely non-interactive: The only thing you can do is type TALK TO X over and over, until the conversation is over. Attempting to ask about a specific topic tells you that you prefer to follow the flow of the conversation. Worse, when you later need to talk to the main NPC of the game, you do need to talk about specific topics to proceed. By this time, I had resigned myself to the fact that the game would use TALK TO conversation, so I had to check the hints to figure this out.

After a while, you crash into a huge space station, and it is here that the bulk of the game takes place. The station turns out to be an ancient ark that a previous civilisation used to escape the destruction of their home galaxy by the Hyerotropes. The station is very large for a Comp game, with lots of places to explore, and controls to fiddle with. The exploration is helped by the fact that all the exits are listed in the status bar, something I really wish more IF games would do. I’m terrible at visualising how locations are connected, and too lazy to draw a map, so I always end up getting lost in most non-trivial environments.

Soon enough, you manage to activate the station’s AI, which provides conversation and hints throughout the rest of the game. You can talk to the AI from any location, and receive location based comments and backstory. The conversation is topic based with the syntax conveniently implemented as “NAME, TOPIC” in addition to the usual ASK/TELL syntax. This is something I would like to see done more often since hardly anyone seems to implement separate responses to ASK and TELL these days.

The topics you can talk about are highlighted in the text, which helps avoid “guess-the-topic” problems, but also means that the conversation system is really no different than a menu system, except you have to type in the options rather than selecting them from a menu. You end up just lawnmowering through all available options without much thought. I think I prefer having to figure out what topics are available myself, even if it means occasional frustration. In spite of this, I really did enjoy talking to this AI throughout the game, and felt kind of attached to it at the end.

The puzzles in the game are generally very good, and I was impressed by how intuitive the solutions felt. The necessary actions almost always felt completely natural, and on the few occasions where I got stuck it was usually because I hadn’t been paying attention, or had typed something blatantly wrong.

The hint systems is also very good: The game uses the usual menu based “invisiclues” type of hints, but makes them context sensitive, so you can only see hints for currently active puzzles. This neatly solves the usual problem with menu based hints, where the menu options spoil events that have not yet happened.

The only time the hints let me down, was at one of the late game puzzles, where you are chased through the station by a ravenous beast. The hints only mention one way of defeating the beast, but I had unwittingly closed off that option earlier in the game. Just as I was about to give up, I managed to find an alternative solution. It’s a testament to the excellent puzzle design in the game that I found this solution with no hinting, but if I hadn’t found it in time, I would have assumed that I had put the game in an unwinnable state, and probably rated it lower. Authors should take care to mention all the possible puzzle solutions in the hints, and maybe even include an in-game walkthrough. Sometimes I just want to get to the end of a game, without having to wade through 20 gradually more explicit hints to figure out how.

I greatly enjoyed playing this game and can recommend to pretty much everyone, especially people who enjoy science fiction. The ending of the game strongly implies that there will be a sequel – at least I hope that’s the intention since I am not quite sure I understood what was going on. Did someone else escape the apocalypse? Is that presence in the distance the Hyerotrope king or something? Will there be cyanotic light where we are going?

Hopefully I’ll get to find out in the next game in the series. Perhaps I’ll even find a use for that expired railway ticket I’ve apparently been carrying with me since the first game. I’ll definitely have to play the previous installments while I wait.

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Spiral, by Justin Morgan

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Great atmosphere, but what's the point?, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.

Spiral is a dark surreal game about despair and the possibility of getting a second chance. It is very well implemented, and quite atmospheric at times, but the relentless darkness gets tiresome after a while.

(Spoiler - click to show)The game begins with one of the more original beginnings I’ve seen in an IF game: Two people – a man and a woman – wake up in a mysterious train, tied up, gagged and unable to act in any way. The player starts the game as one of the characters, but quickly discovers that it’s possible to switch between them at will, using the BE command. It’s never quite explained how the player can do this, but the game does imply some answers, which I will get to later.

To make up for the initial lack of agency, the game introduces both a THINK and REMEMBER command, so you can learn about the two characters. At first I thought this might be a game entirely about thinking and remembering, but there turned out to be a lot more too it. A game where you are completely unable to act might be pretty cool, though. Sort of like Rameses, except with actual physical restraints instead of mental ones. Stuck as a passive observer, your only options would be to think and observe, trying to make sense of your situation. But I digress.

Anyway, while the game turned out to be about a lot more than being tied up in a surreal hell-train, I did spend a lot of time just examining everything and thinking. This was in no small part due to the impressive depth of the implementation. Not only can you think, and think, and think, gradually remembering a massive amount of information about the character you are currently playing as, but you can also examine both yourself and the other character several times, getting different perspectives each time. Even the room description changes subtly depending on the perspective. On the one hand, this is technically no different than just writing one really long description, and maybe having the player press a button to get the next text-dump. On the other hand, it totally worked on me, and I felt completely immersed in examining and thinking over and over again. Somehow, deciding which piece of information to read next felt like a meaningful choice, which helped me identify with the characters.

The male character, Ross, is a young radical leftie whose friend tried to bomb the London Underground, and may have succeeded. He is also traumatized by the death of his mother, whom he called by her first name for no particular reason. He seems to have become disillusioned with the socialist cause, and no longer believes that society can be saved.

The woman, Helen, is a religious girl, who suffers from both guilt and depression because she got pregnant after a wild party, and had an involuntary abortion. She considers herself a horrible sinner beyond redemption.

After spending some time getting to know the backgrounds, you are told that you are sleepy, and this is where the real game begins. Going to sleep sends you into a symbolic dream world where the locations and items represent the neuroses of the character. Each of the two characters have their own private hell to explore: Ross’ is a gigantic machine funnelling everything, including his soul, into the maws of a giant beast. Helen’s is the fiery hell in which she feels she belongs, filled with fiery lakes and reminders of her life. As you explore these hellscapes, new topics become available for “remembering”.

The writing is dark, brooding and metaphorious. Everything is described in dark, depressive terms, with metaphors scattered everywhere like the dead wasps littering the floor of the train car. At first, I found this to be atmospheric, but as time passed it started to grate on me. Everything is horrible and depressing to these people; Their lives, society, their friends; It’s all terrible. It would have been nice if the characters had had some kind of positive passions and interests to break up the monotonous darkness, but everything in the dreamworlds seems to represent some kind of neurosis. Nothing is ever just an interest, or a neutral character trait.

The objectives to be completed are basically scavenger hunts: Ross is trying to recover the pieces of his soul, which have been scattered by The Beast. Helen is similarly trying to collect the pages of the book of her life, to figure out what it all meant. This serves the usual scavenger hunt purpose of making the player see all the interesting parts of the game world, but also starts to seem a bit mechanical after a while. None of the items to be collected have any unique properties, you are not even allowed to read the pages of the book, so they are basically just tokens that prove you managed to reach them.

The actual puzzles are generally good, avoiding the usual problems with surreal games that only makes sense to the author. I loved the little surreal puzzle features, like being able to peel a door off a wall, and use it to gain access to other locations. Unfortunately, the game suffers from the fact that the central puzzle mechanic – being able to pass objects from one dream world to another – is completely unintuitive. I don’t think I would ever have figured it out if I hadn’t spoiled myself by peeking at some of the other reviews before I wrote this one. The problem is that the thing you have to do to transfer the objects, either feeding them to the beast or throwing them in the lake of fire, seem like they ought to be destructive, and is not really something most players are likely to try spontaneously.

To make matters worse, the game has no hint system. Instead, typing HINT results in one of those infuriating messages where the author pedagogically encourages you to keep exploring, and tells you to write him if you really need help. Please do not do this. I am not interested in writing e-mails when I’m in the middle of playing your game, especially not when I’m trying to finish it before the Comp deadline. And are you really sure that your e-mail address will still be valid ten years from now, when some starry-eyed IF enthusiast digs up your game from the archives? And will you still remember the puzzles by then? Luckily, the game does come with a walkthrough, so I was able to finish it, but using the walkthrough is never ideal since it’s hard to avoid spoiling yourself. Please always include a hint system.

For some reason, there are a lot of puzzles involving the creation of bridges by placing poles in holes. If this has some kind of symbolic significance it went completely over my head.

After you manage to completely at least one of the scavenger hunts, you are transferred to the burnt out wreck of the train that has been bombed by Ross’ socialist/anarchist friend. Here you have the opportunity to kill some kind of horrible humanoid thing, after which you are back in the train car, where you get to possess a bee and kill yourself, which somehow brings the other character back to life, after which you, as the bee, commits suicide and you get a long ending cut-scene. Somehow getting one of the characters killed prevents the tragic event of the other character’s life from occurring, maybe providing a possibility of happiness? You are then somehow rescued from some kind of horrible facility, which may be connected to the train car, maybe, and the other character turns into a still-born infant or something, and I’ve long since stopped trying to make any sense of this.

I am, to say the least, not entirely sure what this is trying to say, if anything. Did I change the past by sacrificing one character for another, or were the events not determined in the first place before I somehow chose which possible world to actualize? Were these characters connected by some kind of karmic thread that meant only one of them could get to live a happy life? Perhaps you are a single soul trying to choose a destiny, which is why you can change between the two characters? I have no idea, but it was a pretty engrossing experience none the less.

I actually gave this a much higher score in the Comp. I was thoroughly engrossed for the first two hours, but as I played through the rest of the game, I got more and more tired of the relentless darkness, and increasingly inscrutable surreality. It’s still a very well implemented game, and definitely worth playing, but I think it could be improved with some editing. I’m not sure how, though.

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