2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition. I play/review as many games as possible depending on my current platform (windows or linux); this means tads, inform, hugo and usually also alan, adrift, quest, and windows/msdos executables. When I'm on a windows machine I use multimedia interpreters where appropriate.

I've sorted games into three categories, "highly recommended" (the best of the competition), "recommended" (worth the time spent playing), and "not recommended" (not worth playing); and then sorted the games alphabetically within those categories. I've put an asterisk (*) by some games that were difficult to categorize or when the categorization feels extremely subjective; you may want to read the review before deciding whether to play them.

Some of these reviews may contain minor spoilers. Unfortunately, for some games, even knowing that there is a spoiler in the review may itself be a spoiler. I don't know what to do about this short of the Magic Amnesia Stick. If you have the time and inclination, I recommend playing the games first, but if not, go ahead and read the reviews. Nothing major is spoiled.

If a game was entered by proxy or under a pseudonym, the actual author is listed afterwards in square brackets.

Highly Recommended Games

All Things Devours (half sick of shadows [Toby Ord]) Z-Machine:
Like the author says, All Things Devours is not a particularly new premise: you invented a time machine, and now you have to get rid of it because in the future it blows up the world. You know, the usual deal with time machines. Wisely, though, the author ignores the angst and the what-is-the-moral-philosophy-of-science stuff and cuts straight to the good bit: zipping through time to solve puzzles and fight paradoxes. There's one extremely tedious bit (c'mon, no >WAIT UNTIL?), and the whole thing ends up feeling a little slight — the author mentions plans to release a harder version post-comp, but I think what's required is something with a few more puzzles, not harder as such. On the whole, though, All Things Devours is a fun little puzzle game with one great thing to play with.



Blue Chairs (Chris Klimas) Z-Machine:
I don't know how this game will be received by the crowd that thinks fancy writin' is bad, puzzles should be hard, and real adventurers are AFGNCAAPs. On the one hand, Blue Chairs has some puzzles, and it allows all the poking around and stealing people's stuff that we all love so much. But on the other hand, it's also fundamentally unconcerned with that sort of thing. You start out the game drinking a bottle of something unidentified but probably weird, and the rest of the game is mostly hazy speculation on what's real and what's not — except since this is IF, you don't have to speculate, you can actually wander through the semi-real landscapes and poke at them.

In short, this is the closest thing I can think of to an IF version of Waking Life or Mulholland Drive (or, as someone pointed out, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and in general it's a pretty successful experiment. There are some weaker bits (the place where it dips into current politics is going to feel extremely dated in six months), bits that go on too long, or puzzles that feel thrown in for the sake of being puzzles. And, ok, it's frustrating that the game raises a question and then doesn't answer it: it claims it will show you how you got this way, and really only shows you how you are now. But Blue Chairs is really fairly incredible; I can think of vaguely similar games, but none that take things to such an extreme without losing control of the narrative and crashing, and Klimas walks that narrow line like a pro.



The Great Xavio (Reese Warner) Z-Machine:
The credits to The Great Xavio explain that this is not the first adventure the author has written with the intrepid academic protagonists, and it shows: he tosses in just the right amount of characterization for the various characters, sketching out their personas without shoving them down our throats. Warner's steady hand on the controls also shows through in the plotting — despite it being a mystery, always tricky to get right, the crime is totally solvable, things move along at a reasonable pace, and in general the whole game is brought off with pizzazz. There are unquestionably a few rough spots: some of the trickier bits of character interaction lead to bugs in the game, and in a few places the story ground to a halt as I tried to figure out what to do next. Oh, and the LLP is far more finicky than it needs to be. But all in all, this is an extremely well-done game (by a first-time IF author, no less), and I highly recommend it.



Luminous Horizon (Paul O'Brian) Glulx:
Well, here it is, the crashing conclusion to the Earth & Sky series. O'Brian keeps in the motifs of previous games: sassy dialogue, comic-sized BAMs and ZZAPs, weird alien technology, and goofy aliens. Unlike the previous two in the series, Luminous Horizon actually gives you a choice of whether you'd rather play Emily or Austin, with a command to switch between them in-game (and this is more than just optional: many puzzles are designed so that it requires effort from each to complete). The game has a few really nice scenes, and one in particular that totally floored me, even though it was perfectly set up and I should have been expecting it.

So, hmm, why was I a little disappointed by the game? I think Luminous Horizon has two major rough spots. First, gameplay: while many of the scenes are nice, the actual play through them is not. I don't want to give too many spoilers, but it seems like finding the fortress, battling the robots, and the two battles beyond that all have a great setup but then the actual thing the player ends up doing is being a little confused and wondering what to do instead of blasting on through in dynamic superhero fashion. The other rough spot is the story. This may just be a taste issue, but for me the overarching storyline in Earth & Sky ends up coming off as kind of silly. There's this bad guy who's a cat-alien, which is already borderline, and he's a mad scientist, which is fine, but he's a stupid mad scientist, who isn't all that good at what he does. It may be that genre-wise, this is how it works, but for me it made the big conclusion a little less big.

Looking back I see I've given more lines to my problems than my praises, and that may give the wrong impression. So let me say that I liked Luminous Horizon very much; it is big and bright and and a lot of fun. Oh, and it has really spectacular feelies — a very nicely-done comic to get people up to speed on the events of the previous two games.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Sting of the Wasp (Jason Devlin) Z-Machine:
The protagonist of Sting of the Wasp might be best described as a nastier and more capable Bridget Jones; or perhaps a better description would be a prospective member of the First Wives' Club attempting to remain married. Sly, slutty, and shallow, she nevertheless has enough ingenuity to remain near the top of the pecking order at her broken-down country club. Most of the game, and most of the fun of the game, comes from being nasty to other members; Sting of the Wasp could even have stood to have a few more of these incidents, or perhaps more elaborate backstabs. The intervening time is filled in with wandering around the club making and overhearing catty remarks. Again, a few more to be overheard would have been nice — Melissa's comments through the game are just right, and it's a pity Beverly didn't have much to say. The coding is solid, the writing is pretty good, the puzzles are generally well-clued with multiple solutions, and the subject matter is superb.



Recommended Games

Bellclap (Tommy Herbert) Z-Machine:
I should really be giving this game a lower score. The main puzzle seems to have one massive read-the-author's-mind action, and, really, it's never clear what the goal is except in the most general terms (or, rather, there is an obvious goal, but it can't be accomplished — you have to do something random which turns out to lead the way to your goal). But I can't mark Bellclap down too much, because its setup is just too charming. You're a god, the parser is your respectful assistant, and the protagonist is your humble worshipper. Commands get relayed down the chain of command and the description of the effect is relayed up again, and if you're either actually omniscient or check out the walkthrough, you can help the poor lil' guy out.



The Big Scoop (Johan Berntsson) Z-Machine:
I saw some "how to write a movie script" page that said that the main problem with scripts these days was that modern audiences are jaded and need a twist ending. I'm not sure I'm all that jaded, really, but it's true The Big Scoop had a disappointing non-twist ending. You find out pretty early on who the bad guy is, and then the rest of the game is, well, them still being the bad guy and eventually you catch them and save the day, hooray. This is a pity, since the story is otherwise pretty decent — kinda railroady, but a nice combination of stuff that you would do as a bold investigative reporter. The writing follows the same pattern: no real flaws, but it doesn't take any chances, either. Room descriptions are short and to the point with hardly any color. This may be because the author isn't a native English speaker and is writing versions of this game for both languages. Still, I'd rather have seen some errors and a more colorful game than the way The Big Scoop is now, playing smoothly but unexceptional in any way.



Blink (Ian Waddell) Z-Machine:
A Photopia- or Photograph-style temporal-cutting narrative, Blink focuses its attentions on the classic question, "Is War Bad?". The problem is that this isn't really an interesting question. It's too large and too vague to relate to. What is interesting is "What does war do to this specific person?" We get a tiny amount of that in Blink, but it's a short game and the characters never develop far enough beyond stick-figureness for us to care.



Chronicle Play Torn (Algol [Penczer Attila]) Z-Machine:
Chronicle Play Torn, from the author's description, is trying to be kinda Lovecraftian, but despite the few bits depicting Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, I think it mostly comes off as one of those games where you're exploring your crazy uncle's house and get transported to a magical world where you have to solve puzzles. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Really, the readme included with the gamefile summarizes the issue pretty well: the author isn't a native English speaker and consequently the writing has some bumps to it; the game was intended to be small and grew big, so it has a somewhat ungainly layout; and the game didn't get sufficient beta-testing, so, while I didn't see a lot of actual bugs, a lot of the puzzle solutions are fairly mysterious and not well-clued. I guess if there's going to be another release of this one, I'd wait, since it could really be tightened up with some more work.



A Day In The Life Of A Super Hero (David Whyld) ADRIFT:
This isn't really Whyld's fault, but I have reached the point in my life where it is not inherently funny for a superhero to 1) have a goofy name 2) have a lame superpower or 3) be incompetent. Since the premise of A Day In The Life Of A Super Hero is that you're a semi-competent superhero running around battling semi-competent supervillains with goofy names and/or lame superpowers, I didn't get as much out of it as I could have. That said, the concept was executed fairly competently. I found a few minor bugs, the menu-based location navigation was a little peculiar, and the game came off more as a series of setpieces than as a single meaningful story, but I still thought it was ok, and someone who likes the basic premise better would probably like it a little better than ok.



Gamlet (Tomasz Pudlo) Z-Machine:
I'm recommending Gamlet, but the writing and story are so highly stylized that it's probably not going to be to everyone's tastes. Sentences are ornamented and elaborated to the point of gaudiness, and then a few other decorations are tacked on ("A tall cabinet cleft between darkness and dusk stands at the northern end of the landing.", "Thickets of weed sizzle and seethe along the almost vertical walls of sediment and vegetation."). The story is pretty stupid but it doesn't really matter; it's mostly an excuse to have the PC, a little Orthodox Jewish boy, wandering around at night looking for a book in a big house and beyond. And, hmm, what the PC finds is rotting and nihilism*. The puzzles are not very well-clued and not usually that fun, although the study has a few which require some interesting poking around. Overall, hmm, I think Gamlet is an interesting failure. It's got a theme it's working on, and some nice images pointing there, but the playing experience is so rough and the writing so florid that I couldn't get into the game enough to appreciate the theme.

* Eventually they also find a statement saying "if you played to the end of the game, you've wasted your time, ha ha on you," but it seems like the author does not in fact have any say in whether the player wasted their time, though a weak ending may sway the player's opinion.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Goose, Egg, Badger (Brian Rapp) Z-Machine:
Goose, Egg, Badger is a curious game. I think it's intended to be a gently tall-taleish story of a young woman who lives alone on a farm with just her yak and her ape and her other animals for company. Plus her x-ray machine. Of course, this doesn't explain why she turns into a robot some of the time, or why her electrical system is so tedious to use (forcing you to traipse back to the socket each time to turn off the power when changing appliances, and leaving trails of wire everywhere). It also doesn't explain why there is a very clever pattern for getting the extra points which seems pretty much impossible to work out without looking at the walkthrough. In addition to these gripes, some of the puzzles are a touch more tedious or unclued than they really need to be, and the end of the story kind of tapers off rather than ending with a bang. But despite these problems, Goose, Egg, Badger is a fun game. It's got a pleasant setting, a nice mood, and a series of enjoyable puzzles.



I Must Play (Fortytwo [Geoff Fortytwo]) TADS 3:
You've ended up locked in an arcade overnight due to your fondness for videogames, but the tone of I Must Play is much more like The Cruise than Fallacy of Dawn. Playing the videogame throws you into a related text adventure (as Fortytwo points out, this is rather like the IF Arcade), and you must hop from game to game to complete them all. It's a cute premise and I didn't find any bugs in it, but, well, it's hard to make this slight a premise into a really satisfying game, and I Must Play doesn't pull it off. Cute, though.



Identity (Dave Bernazzani) Z-Machine:
One of the two games in the comp where you start out in a cryotube, Identity proceeds in kind of the way you would expect from there: you get out, explore the weird not-all-that-alien planet, find some semi-friendly natives, and call for help. Some of the implementation is kind of bumpy, and in particular, the number of commands required to mess with the circuit board is just ridiculous. In general the puzzles could have been clued a bit better but they were basically ok. Story-wise, I would have liked to see more of the plot with the other explorer; it was a divergence from the somewhat generic feel of the rest of the game and hinted at something better. Bonus points for the yak, though.



Magocracy (Scarybug [Anton Joseph Rheaume]) TADS 2:
I think this is going to do pretty badly in the comp, since it's not standard IF. It's got the trappings of IF — the king has called together all the powerful mages in the land plus, rather inexplicably, you, this little ragamuffin kid, to determine his successor. There is a dragon and some treasures and a secret passage and a maze and stuff. But despite all this, Magocracy isn't IF, it's IF's close cousin, a MUD. Only not multi-user. Gameplay consists mostly of watching the NPCs wander around somewhat aimlessly and fight each other, which reminded me pleasantly of all the time I wasted in college. These days, though, when I'm playing IF I am looking for a story or some puzzles, and those were pretty much absent from the game. For a while it was fun to grab treasures and fight the monsters, though.



Mingsheng (Rexx Magnus [Deane Saunders]) Z-Machine:
Mingsheng has a good premise, to adapt an old story about the origins of tai chi. It has some good scenes: the stork on the crane-still lake, the grinding boulders in the ocean, the row of statues, the mountain peak. So why didn't it do much for me? I think there were a couple problems. Most notably, pacing. The scene with the crane should be one of the peaks of the game, but in my play it came very early on, before I had any idea what the need was for it. Furthermore, it wasn't something I was trying for; just a random scene that showed up as I was moving along, and then it was followed by a passage that might as well been labelled "This is the part with the moral." Similarly, the box opening ought to have been either something cool or something that would lead to something cool, but instead the game ends shortly thereafter with another Educational Segment and then a fizzle. A double-fizzle, really, because it's likely that you'll get the bad ending first, hit undo, and then get the good one. Speaking of the box opening, that puzzle was weird too — there didn't seem to be any real reason to think it would work when, eg, throwing the box down the stairs didn't. Even with these problems, the Mingsheng is worth playing for the beautiful individual scenes; it's just a pity they weren't stitched together into a more coherent whole.



Murder at the Aero Club (Penny Wyatt) Z-Machine:
I guess it is the year for rough-but-good-hearted Aussie games; at least, Murder at the Aero Club and Redeye both fit the bill, when most years we don't even get one. Based on the title, you will not be surprised to hear that this game casts you as a detective investigating a murder at a flight club. Based on the earlier description, you will probably also be unsurprised to hear that the club is filled with a number of zany NPCs who only occasionally deign to answer your questions with anything other than their default response. Still, even without their help, the mystery is pretty easy to solve (unlike the mystery of why nobody at the club seems especially bothered by the dead body lying there). Murder at the Aero Club started to fall apart for me at the end; I think the author was trying for a more dramatic chase scene than she was really able to pull off (although this was sort of an interesting departure from normal mysteries, where it's usually over once you accuse the right person). It's not really profound, but Murder at the Aero Club is reasonably fun and worth the time.



Ninja v1.30 (Dunric [Paul Allen Panks]) Windows Exe:
True mastery of the way of the ninja reveals that all things are connected; this, I suspect, is why repeatedly looking at the sky increases your chance to fight the enemy ninja later on. Panks wrote this, I assume, to make us aware of the sort of game you can write in BASIC. Well, I am certainly aware now.



The Orion Agenda (Ryan Weisenberger) Z-Machine:
The Orion Agenda puts you in the (oddly first-person, for no good reason that I can see) role of "Jon Stark" working for "SciCorps", the "galaxy-spanning mega-corporation that is in charge of secretly monitoring promising new alien species" with the "number one rule" to "not contaminate the native culture." I assume this was all part of the settlement Weisenberger reached with Paramount. Anyway, naturally you and your new partner get a mission to go down in disguise onto a planet, and something goes wrong, and the future of the galaxy is at stake, and so on. In addition to the hackneyed premise, it's irritating that it becomes obvious early on (from the very beginning, if you do any research on the InfoNet) roughly what's going on, but aren't allowed to do anything except be "surprised" by it later on. (Other nitpicky irritations: your interactions with your companion border on a dating sim, and what is up with primitive cultures having the ability to do magic without scientists from all over flocking to be surprised at this?) Despite these flaws, though, The Orion Agenda's skeleton is fairly solid in terms of puzzle design, pacing, setting, and general gameplay, and this enables the game to pull through as an enjoyable play.



Redeye (John Pitchers) TADS 2:
Redeye is in the no-shit-there-I-was genre, exemplified by games like At Wit's End and Narcolepsy. This one is set in Australia; you wake up in the middle of nowhere wondering where the guy is who you told your wife you'd look after — ah, there he is, in the biker bar, harassing the drinkers. The writing style comes off as more enthusiastic than skilled, the coding is a little rough in spots, and the twist ending is one of those irritating ones that's telegraphed extensively but you can't do anything with the info except wait to be "surprised" when it shows up. Despite all that, though, I really can't dislike Redeye. It's short enough to not overstay its welcome, and so good-hearted that I couldn't help enjoying it.



Splashdown (Paul J. Furio) Z-Machine:
The best of the games in this comp where you awake in a cryotube and have to save the ship, Splashdown suffers mainly from a time limit, an attempt at a cute sidekick, and a few problems with command phrasing. Besides that, it is a pleasant little sf romp with a nice variety of puzzles, writing that does a good job at capturing the feel of wandering around a semi-derelict ship, and a chance to read other people's e-mail. What more can I ask for?



Square Circle (Eric Eve) TADS 3:
The actual square circle construction comes off as kind of a goofy intro: I think the phrase Eve is touching on doesn't have nearly the resonance for me that it does for him. But despite this, Square Circle is a pretty good game. It skillfully captures the feel of an Orwellian police state, and if the twist is a bit predictable, well, it could really only have been one of a couple things. The implementation is smooth, there're only one or two puzzles that sent me to the walkthrough, and overall, a satisfying experience.



Stack Overflow (Timofei Shatrov) Z-Machine:
Clearly Shatrov is a fan of the old-school game. One of the first puzzles in Stack Overflow directly recalls one of the Infocom games, and much of the rest of the game is a series of fairly old-school puzzles (the darkness/light source puzzle, the elevator puzzle, the time limit). The game kept me reasonably amused and with the help of the walkthrough I got through it all fine, but there wasn't much of a spark here, and any bits where it tried to get into actual plot/story were pretty silly. (I don't know if Shatrov was playing down the writing because he's (I would guess) not a native English speaker - I found a few quirks in the writing but on the whole it was very solid).



Trading Punches (Sidney Merk [Mike Snyder]) Hugo:
Trading Punches is an interesting mix; it combines a really pretty good premise and backstory with terrible game structure and plot/character development. I think the problem is that Merk has this massive sf epic all mentally sketched out, and he decided the best way to present it was to provide four short scenes from various points along the way. The problem is that even though the four scenes are significant plot-wise, they're not (save the last) actually interesting to play through. The middle two scenes are the worst offenders here, forcing you to perform a long series of tedious actions that are totally unrelated to the story or anything else. Furthermore, as Trading Punches skims over the narrative, character development is almost totally sacrificed; the only characterization in the game is really what we automatically supply based on the conventions of the genre — the scene with Elora is the most blatant example of this.

I took the walkthrough pretty early on and struggled through the first two scenes: the third started to show some promise and the fourth was really pretty good. It's a pity, then, that the game ended there right as I was starting to get interested. I think what Merk needed to have done with Trading Punches was to focus on what he himself found interesting. It seems pretty clear that this isn't the characters: the brother is the most developed of any of them and he's clearly in there mostly as a plot device, not a person. What's cool is the backstory, the prophecy, and the future, and that's where the attention should have gone.



ZEROONE (shed [Edward Plant]) Alan:
I know I've seen more capable parsers than this in an Alan game, so I don't know if ZEROONE's parser flaws (most notably, trying to refer to any door in this game is a nightmare, and there are plenty of doors) are due to it being an Alan game or due to the implementation being sloppy. But, as a friend of mine points out, the author did remember to code a respond for jumping on the corpses. Anyway, this is one of those games where you wake up in a prison cell with amnesia and have to wander around the complex to figure out what's up, and then you do, and then you escape, the end. It has some shooting and some gross bits and some violence and stuff, but nothing too bad. I wasn't really gripped by it, I guess because it is pretty much identical to all the other games where you wake up in a prison cell with amnesia.



Not Recommended Games

Blue Sky (Hans Fugal) Z-Machine:
I would like to go to Santa Fe someday, and it is evident the author is fond of it also, but nevertheless being set there isn't enough to make Blue Sky into a good game. Possibly this is a result of mismatched expectations: I was figuring it would start off with a touristy bit and then have me be magically transported back into Santa Fe's past or something. But no, the touristy bit was pretty much it. And, really, Blue Sky wasn't even well-designed for tourism. There was a certain amount of historic detail in the different locations, but hardly anything about the actual experience of being there; I wonder if Fugal has actually been to Santa Fe, or if he's just reading about this from a guidebook. The lack of local color plus the confusing map and fairly humdrum and not-well-clued puzzles made this game a disappointment.



Getting Back To Sleep (IceDragon [Patrick Evans]) .NET:
Ok, it is once again time for another lecture on why not to write your own IF system. No, I take that back. It is time for me to say "If you actually want to write a good game, there is no reason to spend time writing your own IF system instead of working on the game, unless you actually make real use of whatever special features your IF system has (and if it has no special features, why did you write it again?)." Ok, I guess that was a lecture, but whatever.

Anyway, Getting Back To Sleep's special feature is that it has real-time events. Putting aside the fact that the Z-Machine, Glulx, and T3 all support real-time events, let us consider what use this game makes of its real-time events. Exciting thing #1: the game ends after thirty minutes real time (I assume, anyway — I didn't feel like waiting around a half hour to find out if it was lying). Exciting thing #2: NPCs wander around aimlessly in real-time (difference this makes compared to them wandering around aimlessly on a game-time timer: none). Exciting thing #3: Uh .. I guess there's a message that is printed after N seconds instead of N turns.

In exchange for that, what have we given up? Well, for starters, there's no undo. Nor is there save and restore. Nor is there even restart. Combine those with the game's several ways to kill you or become unwinnable and you have many exciting episodes of quitting the application and restarting. Syntax-wise, the game is correct that it supports both >GO DOOR and >GO THROUGH THE DOOR, but then it makes up for this by failing to support >OUT or >ENTER DOOR. Similarly, >X is a permitted shortcut for >EXAMINE but not >L for >LOOK; >INV works but >I does not. One of the benefits of using the standard library is not just that you don't have to write the standard verbs, but that you are encouraged to use them — people are used to certain verbs and phrasings, and using alternate ones (another example: the game uses >SAY HI instead of >ASK ROBOT ABOUT MONKEY) just confuses people.

Anyway, putting aside all the parser issues (ok, one more: >X NOTEBOOK kept resolving to the note I was carrying in my inventory instead of the notebook I was carrying; no idea why), was this game any good? Enh, not really. It's another (man, the third) game where you wake up from cryosleep on a ship in trouble. You wander around and die suddenly a few times, go through a maze, search absolutely everything, read a couple notes left behind, and eventually win. The writing is generally fine, although the "library" writing is less so ("The bobcat has left via north"). I guess the summary is that the four or six weeks the author spent on the system could have been better spent on the game. Which is the usual deal with people writing their own IF systems. Which is why you don't write your own. End of lecture.



Kurusu City (Kevin Venzke) TADS 2:
Well, this is the only game in the comp I couldn't figure out how to finish. No walkthrough and the hints are inadequate, so it loses a point for that. I guess I could decompile it, but the storyline doesn't really inspire me to do so — the idea seems to me that you're this annoyingly spunky high-school girl, in a city where the government has been taken over by robots for the humans' own good. You don't like that, and being the revolutionary type, have decided to overthrow the robots. So you run around plotting and skipping school and so on. I assume the robot conspiracy has something to do with removing all the men, since out of the seven or eight NPCs in the game, the only one who's male is your dad, and he spends all his time in his room working for the robots. The game at least has the sense to realize the PC's a little annoying ("Julie Agnavo is a skinny blonde girl with a couple of inches on you. She has pledged loyalty to you at your insistence.") and that its fascination with teenage girls is a little creepy (you're attending "Peak of Ripeness Orthodox High School"), but this doesn't make you less annoying or it less creepy. Anyway, the major issue with this game isn't the story so much as the puzzles. In a perhaps realistic depiction of a high school student trying to overthrow the government, you don't have any idea how to go about it, and the game fails to provide any real direction even to start looking. With the aid of the hints I found out to start looking for an ID card, and to try and get to see somebody to ask for advice, but I don't know that these ideas would have struck me as important if the hints didn't direct me. The puzzles become gradually more obscure until I eventually ground down entirely on the monorail. And, since there's no walkthrough, there I quit.



A Light's Tale (vbnz [Zach Flynn]) TADS 2:
It was hard to know how to relate to this game when playing it, let alone when trying to review it. On the one hand, it seems hard to take a game seriously when the main bad guys are are a gang of intelligent (and I assume human-size) gophers. On the other, the game is filled with this Matrix-ish look-beyond-surface-appearances stuff that would be fatal in a comedy. Possibly the best summary of what sort of game it is is this quote:
You turn on the flashlight, producing a small, almost insignificant beam of light — yet it is light, and that is more than enough to repel the darkness. Your flashlight scans and picks up a gopher, whose name you know to be... BOB!
So, er, got me. A Light's Tale is about the right size, and it has some interesting scenes, but in general the writing isn't to my taste, and the storyline would need some serious fleshing out before I could make any sense of it. (Or, er, I guess the whole thing could be a comedy. But if so I think it's actually too elaborate to make that work, and gets too faux-philosophical.)



Order (John Evans) Z-Machine:
Ah, John Evans. He exploded onto the IF scene with Castle Amnos, described by many as "an interesting fantasy game premise, but with some nasty bugs — perhaps you should get some beta-testing." This was quickly followed with Elements and Hell: A Comedy of Errors, two games with interesting fantasy premises but in need of beta-testing and a fuller implementation. Last year he made a stunning break from tradition with Domicile, a game in need of beta-testing, though with an interesting fantasy premise, and finally, this year Evans presents Order, showing he has truly mastered the genre of games with interesting premises but that are, nevertheless, sadly in need of beta-testing. This one does have hints and is finishable, at least, even if major objects are lacking nouns mentioned in the room description. Anyway, Evans can't take a hint, so I guess the thing for me to do is give his games lower and lower scores each year from now on until I give up on them entirely. If you aren't feeling this jaded you may enjoy bits of Order. Then again, you may not.



PTBAD 3 (Xorax [Jonathan Berman]) TADS 2:
Almost completely incoherent. I can't remember if Rybread Celsius's stuff was actually better, or if it was just more of a novelty then. On the bright side, this game isn't actually offensive.



The Realm (Michael Sheldon) TADS 2:
You're a knight, somebody stole your sword and "leathery" armor in the night, the king wants you to bring him the head of a dragon. Enh. The Realm isn't terrible, but it has nothing really new or original about it, and a couple of the puzzles are pretty much read-the-author's mind. The one puzzle that did have a mildly clever twist also had an easier alternate solution, so I didn't stick around it long enough to see the clever part. I think Sheldon would be best-advised, in future games, to try for more complicated puzzles, and to get some beta-testers and see what they think of the game before releasing it.



Ruined Robots (nanag_d [Nicholas Dudek], nanag_d [Natasha Dudek], and nanag_d [Gregory Dudek]) TADS 2:
A three-quarters-implemented game with some potential to be a fun puzzle romp — there are plenty of objects that look like they might be used in complicated puzzles. In practice, though, there's a weird hunger daemon that starts and stops seemingly at random, virtually no clues unless you get exactly what the author is thinking of, some sections of the game that actually say "sorry, this isn't implemented yet", and so on. The main saving grace is the walkthrough, but even the ending that gets you to is not entirely satisfactory.



Typo (Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn) Z-Machine:
Oof. Okay, see, based on Janitor, I was assuming Typo would start off as an innocuous job fiddling with this big machine for Flavorplex, but then it would swiftly turn into a zany meta-humorrific good time. Instead, the bulk of the time is spent on the exciting task that is reading a manual and trying to repair a label-printing machine, and it is only in an ending cut scene that the game actually has any good bits. Even the typo-correction which provides a nomimal theme for the game isn't written by Seebach or Lynn, so it's hard to give much credit for it. The only explanation I can think of for what the authors were thinking is that they ran short on time and ended up having to rush the part they'd expected to take up the majority of the game. But even so, it's hard to imagine why they thought this game as submitted was going to be at all, you know, fun.



Who Created That Monster? (N. B. Horvath) TADS 2:
The fact that the game opens in the year 2026, at the first (and only) McDonald's in Baghdad, says pretty much all you need to know about this game. You run around the city shooting AGT-style terrorists with your assault rifle and talk to diplomats, all in pursuit of the answer to your question: which Western nation helped bring Saddam Hussein to power? Gosh, I wonder. It is slightly to its credit that Who Created That Monster? generally goes down the absurd path rather than the heavy-handed satire path, but still, it's mostly throwing softballs to the choir, as it were. That said, you may find it amusing — I didn't really, but I am so burned out on politics at this point that even this sort of contact is painful.

Post-comp I wrote a newsgroup post about this game which is a useful supplement and update to this review, I think.



Zero (William A. Tilli) TADS 2:
See, unlike most people, I don't really object to the Amissville stuff because it's bad. I object because I think it's a pity the authors have semi-decent ideas but are too lazy, or too scared, to put real effort in and develop them into something that might have a shot at being decent. Zero combines a couple good ideas: you play someone traditionally thought of as being a bad guy; you're cleaning up your home after a raid instead of raiding a dungeon; you're not the most powerful adventurer in all the lands, just some guy trying to live up to his ancestors. Ok, they're not as original as Tilli thinks — Knight Orc and Zero Sum Game had this ground covered since a while back. Still, the principle could have been cool. And it's not like Tilli is entirely without skill, either: he's got a gift for coining words* and getting across the flavor of the ill-mannered NPCs. But it's all sloppy: the puzzles are weak and not well-coded, the implementation is half-hearted (for instance, nobody seems to respond to the pixie spy), the endgame is rushed, and even the areas where Tilli should be an expert are flawed (when Ratfac comes in with a ranseur at his belt, either Tilli means "rapier" or else Ratfac is a lot taller than I'm thinking). Anyway, this is overall more of the same from Tilli, so you already know what you think of it.

*I'm still laughing about "loinens", though it's hard to tell whether this sort of thing is on purpose or because Tilli can't remember what it's supposed to be.



And that's all. For other IF-related things, including many more reviews, you can go to my main IF page.