2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 2005 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.

It seems like it might be a good idea to put out some general observations about the games before going into specific reviews. I've written an essay about thinking like a player in respect to some issues I saw in this year's crop, but in addition I'd like to point out: Now, on to the reviews!

Highly Recommended Games

Chancellor (Kevin Venzke) TADS 2:
Chancellor isn't perfect, but it's the first comp game I've played this year that I found really satisfying. It doesn't start particularly auspiciously — there's a generic fantasy setting and a puzzle with had a fairly non-intuitive solution (both because it's something you don't usually do in IF, and because it seems like the intro strongly suggested you shouldn't do it). But this goes on for a relatively short time and then the setting changes. And then (eventually) it changes again, ending up with a deliciously creepy mixture of the two settings that is far more interesting than either on their own. In a way it's like Bliss or Triune, but with a totally different overall premise. I did have a problem in the midsection where I didn't know what I was supposed to be working on, and I spent a lot of time wandering around aimlessly. Since the main point here seemed to be just exploration and seeing weird stuff, this was basically ok, but I would have felt better with more direction. The other thing was, hmm, near the end the game seemed to be verging on flying apart. It didn't, quite, but I could hear the mechanisms vibrating as the story struggled to stay coherent. Overall, though, Chancellor was quite successful and suggestive, and I definitely recommend it.



Distress (Mike Snyder) Hugo:
When I first tried this game, I quickly put it aside in irritation. I wasn't really sure what to do although things seemed urgent, daemons kept going off, and a monster kept showing up and killing me. Bah. But when I put it aside I made the mental note that maybe I hadn't given it a fair shot, so a week later I started Distress up again, and I'm really glad I did. Ok, yeah, it does have a lot going on — probably more than the author realizes, since he knows which daemon messages are important and which are just color, but the player doesn't. But once you get a handle on what's going on, it's much easier to pick out the moves you need to make and the messages you need to pay attention to. Although I still think it's too easy to get killed at the beginning, Snyder clearly put a lot of work into beta-testing. The game requires a number of somewhat exotic commands, but the parsing of them is very smooth and I didn't have any problem making myself understood. The other parts of the game are also quite solid: the puzzles aren't too hard but they're satisfying once you understand the world-logic; the storyline is interesting and the game is the right length to handle it; and the ending is slightly unexpected while still following logically from the rest of the game. This comp is woefully short on puzzle games — if you're in the mood for one, Distress is definitely worth putting the time into.



A New Life (Alexandre Owen Muniz) Z-Machine:
Wow. Ok, I think this is the only game in this comp where it feels like the author has both come up with an interesting new world and implemented it enough that you have a real interaction with it over the course of the game. A New Life has a really skillful blend of the original and the new that pulls you in with familiar-sounding elements, and by the time you realize that they're not quite as familiar as all that, you're hooked. I was really pretty happy for the first hour and a half or so to just wander through the game poking at stuff. It's a small map but it feels very dense and there is a lot to think about and look at. My only gripe with the game came at about the ninety-minute mark, when I started wondering about a plot. And, well, I couldn't really find one. I mean, there were a bunch of threads and peeks at stuff that I could maybe follow up on, but they didn't seem to go anywhere as a group. I read the walkthrough and the hints and neither were totally helpful: some of the things the walkthrough suggested doing I had already done, and I couldn't seem to do them again or get by with having done things in this order. I am willing to believe that there are alternate solutions in A New Life I just didn't find but — well, if I didn't find them, they can't help me any. In any other game this would have been a serious flaw, but here it's more a cause for mild wistfulness. As it is, A New Life is engaging: think how much better it would be if all that content had felt like it was leading somewhere in particular.



Vespers (Jason Devlin) Z-Machine:
Whether you like this game or not, you have to admire Devlin's willingness to go all the way in writing it. He doesn't rely on hints or suggestions or innuendo — this is a game about corruption and rot and spiritual and physical decay, and if that requires sticking a filth-encrusted chamberpot in the heart of the church, then he's going to put it there. This carries triumphantly on to the ending: just when you think he's done, he's not done by a long shot, and whatever ending you end up with is going to throw a new light on your earlier actions.

All that said, Vespers isn't flawless. The gameplay, in particular, could use some work. The beginning is pretty unguided, and you can wander around for some time before the story begins in earnest. Later on things improve, but it's still often not clear what to do. You can usually get a pointer by talking to Cecilia, but this feels more like a patch than a real solution, only one step up from consulting the hints. I am in no position to make this complaint since I was one of the beta-testers, but I'm afraid the game does feel like it could have used another pass or two from beta-testers. But yeah, overall Vespers is pretty excellent, weird and stylistically fearless.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Recommended Games

Beyond (Mondi Confinanti) Glulx:
Just to get it out of the way, Beyond is clearly written by someone for whom English isn't a first language, but the writing is never so awkward as to make it unclear what's going on. This is good, since the actual plot is reasonably complicated even without the language barrier. The deal is that it's a two-strand mystery: one from the perspective of the detective (mostly) and some other characters in the drama, and the other from the perspective of the unborn baby of the murder victim and her magical blob companion. Yeah. But this isn't quite as incongruous as it sounds — the latter thread has kind of a magical-realism vibe that keeps it from getting too silly (at least, if you're willing to buy it at all), and the former thread is actually pretty out there too once you get into it, with cults and plot twists and other thriller elements. In fact, I think the plot is actually as melodramatic and over-the-top as The Last Hour, but somehow Beyond works a lot better for me. I think this is partly because the story's stretched over a longer period so I have more time to get used to it, and partly because the gameplay's better — it feels like the puzzles are easier to get a handle on, and what the PC is supposed to be working on is much more clear. You definitely have to be willing to cut it some slack, but Beyond is still pretty fun.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



The Colour Pink (Robert Street) Z-Machine:
Despite having an interesting premise (you're sent to a distant planet to investigate a colony where the inhabitants turned pink and then vanished), The Colour Pink ends up feeling pretty generic. Part of the problem is there's not much to the colony — just a bunch of burned buildings with a few items. The other part is that most of the game isn't actually in the colony, but in a fantasy sequence you get pulled into soon after the game starts. And, well, it's one of those generic fantasy lands. There're a bunch of creatures hanging around with easily-solved problems that they ask you to handle, and some magic whatsits you have to collect to trade for another magic thingy, and there's a dragon and a princess and c'mon. Plus, it's pretty rare that I say this, but I think this game would have benefited from harder puzzles, or at least more complicated ones. The puzzles that currently exist weren't really hard enough to make this count as a "puzzle game", but there wasn't enough of a story to make this enjoyable as a "story game" either. Plus the whole fantasy sequence seemed vaguely pointless, since I knew it was all a hallucination — I think the game would have benefited from just dropping the sf prologue, and either forget it entirely or show it in flashbacks in the middle of the fantasy sequence.



Escape to New York (Richard Otter) ADRIFT:
Hmm, this isn't bad. The premise is you're on some boat trying to get a package while wandering around stealing everything you can get your hands on (but you're a thief, so it's ok). It's a historical piece — from the author's notes, I assume this is a real ship — and it's kind of heavy on the details included purely to show the author has done his research:
This room is decorated in some sort of flash style (you have no idea what) and has fancy carved oak panelling with daido rails. Linoleum tiles have been specially designed for the room and are unique to the ship (you read that somewhere).
The author clearly realizes he's going a bit overboard, but really should have restrained himself further. The trick with these kinds of things is for the author to know a lot about what they're writing, but only to put a small fraction of what they know into the game, and let the rest just be suggested.

The same issue comes up with the continuous reminders that the PC is a thief and is appraising everything all the time. I mean, yeah, they are, but most of the time it's subliminal and not explicit, and the writing sort of overdoes it. This is especially weird since the idea of the game is that just getting out with the package is enough to set you up for life — if that's the big score, why spend time worrying about the penny-ante stuff? But I guess you can't have too much stuff, which is why a big part of the gameplay is looking under and behind everything in sight to pocket as many valuable items as possible. That was a fun minigame, but I wish the loot had been more cleverly hidden or harder to get to than just repeated use of >LOOK UNDER.

Since this is an ADRIFT game, I feel obliged to give a mention to how this affects gameplay. Luckily, not too much. There are a few cases where the game is set up with non-standard verbs (in particular, >HIT gives a confusing error message in a situation when >SMASH works fine), and the stuff with door and container manipulation tends to be more fiddly than you'd see in TADS or Inform, but it's not bad.

Anyway, overall not bad. Nothing special in terms of writing, but a reasonably diverting treasure hunt.



History Repeating (Mark Choba and Renee Choba) Z-Machine:
A surprisingly pleasant explore-generic-high-school game. I think surprisingly pleasant because it's not very hard, and all sketched out in a rough but very good-natured way. I did hit the walkthrough at two points (figuring out the syntax to use with the dean; ditto for the pond), but someone more dedicated would have no problem going without. I was surprised by the ending somewhat — both because the authors decided to make it require replaying the game from the beginning (wait! don't go away yet! it's stupid game design but it really doesn't take very long to replay) but also because, well, replay it and compare endings. I think my main disappointment with the game was there didn't really seem to be much interaction you could do with the other characters. In particular, given the theme of the game, and given that it's used as an example in the help, I would have expected >ASK CHARACTER ABOUT REGRETS to do a lot more than it did, and for there to be more characters to bring up this subject with.



Internal Vigilance (Simon Christiansen) Z-Machine:
It's really hard to do an IF game that's primarily about a moral or philosophical issue. Which is not to say there aren't plenty of examples: just off the top of my head, I can think of Jane, Square Circle, Common Ground, and now this game. There are lots of others that touch on these kind of issues, everything from Spider & Web to Pytho's Mask, but I'm picking out these three others for comparison because they're very clearly Issue Games. Internal Vigilance, for instance, is about the issue of "Is it ok to give up freedom for safety?" We know this because the first thing the game does when it starts up is pop up a quote about freedom from Jefferson, and in the help menu for conversation, the example it uses is >ASK JONES ABOUT HIS VIEWS CONCERNING THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL.

Anyway, the two tasks for this kind of game are to make the player care about the issue, and to make them think about it. You do the former by providing characters and situations the player can relate to — usually this means that it's not about "is freedom better than safety?" but "in this particular situation for these particular characters with this particular choice to make, is freedom better than safety?". Despite making things hard for itself in this area by having one of those generic totalitarian world governments, Internal Vigilance does a really good job of creating specific characters with not-entirely-clear motivations. I wish the dreams had been developed better — they seemed like the start of some deeper character but never really went far enough. Where the game falls down to some extent is on the second task. To do this right, you have to do a serious examination of the issue. The basic problem is that for any of these issue games, there's an easy answer: domestic abuse is bad, families should love each other, freedom is good. If this is all that's required, then the player will make the right decision instinctively and go on having learned nothing whatsoever. If you want to write a good game about an issue, therefore, you have to make the choice a real choice. Common Ground does this pretty well, for instance — there's a real choice for the daughter to make and it doesn't have a simple answer. Internal Vigilance doesn't quite make it to that level. There are multiple endings, yeah, but it's frustrating that any discussion of the ramifications of the choice only comes in the ending text* — by that point, it's too late to think about it!

So overall I found Internal Vigilance somewhat disappointing. Not because it was a bad game, exactly, but because it promised more than it really ended up delivering. Oh, and the grammar could definitely have used a once-over, but that wasn't a big enough deal to make me knock the game seriously.

*Later discussion suggests I missed some of the paths in the game, but I don't know how much this changes the overall point.



Jesus of Nazareth (dunric [Paul Allen Panks]) DOS Exe:
A game where the PC is Jesus, written under what feels like a modified version of the Westfront PC engine. That sentence should be sufficient to let you know if you want to play it or not. Me, I wouldn't miss it for the world, although I am sorry that if Jesus runs out of hit points and dies, you have to restore the game because he won't just resurrect on his own. Maybe I didn't wait long enough.



Mix Tape (Brett Witty) TADS 3:
Well, like A Moment of Hope, I guess Mix Tape gets points for successfully hitting a bunch of my relationship buttons and creeping me the hell out, but I'm not really sure this was the intent. For that matter, I'm not really sure what the intent of the game was at all. Like, to me it comes off as a story about a self-obsessed, emotionally manipulative geek and the insecure girl who was stupid enough to love him, but I don't know if that's what the author intended. I can't tell from the ending whether they get back together and whether this is a good thing or not, so it's hard to say what the author thinks about the whole thing. This is consistent with the rest of the game, which tends to try for big things and fail rather than going for smaller things it might better able to handle. The writing in general is overdone, and hits an emotional level that we don't see enough character development to justify (the girl's reaction to the breakup letter, in particular, is crazy over the top — intentionally or not, I can't tell). The dinner conversation needed a lot more beta-testing; I tried plenty of obvious things that weren't implemented. Overall, I'm not sure what story Witty was trying to tell here, but I don't think the game structure was a good one for achieving it. I dunno. I liked the concept of Mix Tape, and there are some nice little moments, but overall it needs a serious reworking. Oh yeah, and what's up with naming the couple after the siblings in Ender's Game? Isn't that kind of creepy?



Mortality (David Whyld) ADRIFT:
I guess Mortality is a lot like a more focused and more polished version of Second Chance. Instead of a pretty weak story that doesn't really come together, this game has a tightly focused story with just a few characters that actually throws in a few twists. The thing is — hmm. The thing is, this is actually less interactive than Photopia. Like, although the story's pretty good, most of the actual gameplay for me was "There are exits west and east. >WEST There's nothing interesting that way. >EAST A bunch of plot occurs, putting you into another room with exits north and south." Which, argh. I was ok with that in Photopia (and anyway, as people have pointed out, Photopia had a non-railroady appearance to a much larger extent than most of the games that have followed in its footsteps) but these days I think I'd rather see more interactivity even at the price of less story, unless the story is really incredibly awesome. So yeah, this isn't bad, but I think my ideal Whyld game is something with a storyline like this but the player freedom of A Day In The Life Of A Super Hero or something.



Neon Nirvana (Tony Woods) Z-Machine:
I am definitely a fan of the gritty cop genre, and Neon Nirvana acquits itself reasonably well in terms of the number of genre elements it crams in: explosions, gun-battles, drugs, clubs, mob bosses, bouncers, and so on. The problem is that while Woods has envisioned a number of cool scenes, it's pretty rare for the game to give you much of a clue how to start or finish them. There's a bit early on where you have to sabotage someone's car, which requires doing something to an undescribed part of the vehicle and then doing something not clued at all to disguise the sabotage. It's the sort of thing that is perfectly reasonable in retrospect, but given the wide variety of things you could do to accomplish your goals, there's no reason to think you should do this one as opposed to any other. This held true for me for most of the rest of the game — I was often just wandering around fiddling with items that seemed fiddly, and hoping that later on there would be some reason provided for wanting to have done that. The cool scenes were cool, but if you're not willing to spend a lot of time wrestling with the game, I'd suggest having the walkthrough handy.



The Plague (Redux) (Cannibal [Laurence Moore]) ADRIFT:
Ok, seriously, this is 2005 and there is no excuse for inventory limits. Or weight limits. On the other hand, there is every excuse for including zombies, because zombies are totally awesome. This game doesn't really do anything special with the zombie formula — you're a hot woman trapped in a building, there are a bunch of zombies, you have to kick their ass and get out — but that's fine, because zombies are totally awesome. There are a few rough bits in The Plague (Redux), in addition to the aforementioned inventory/weight limits (on the other hand, the resource limit of needing cash for the vending machine is great, since it gives you something to work on). There are way too many rooms — you could have trimmed a good quarter of them out and ended up with a much tighter map. The intro is pretty silly, and goes on way too long with not much happening (plus, it's got the problem that the help tells us from the beginning that it's a zombie game, so then the PC looks like an idiot when they can't figure this out; either don't tell the player in the beginning, or make the PC catch on faster). There's not quite enough plot guidance — at the beginning I was wandering around looking for cash for the vending machine, not because I knew why I needed the water, but because there was nothing else to work on. And the searching can be weird: sometimes >LOOK UNDER or >LOOK BEHIND finds something when >EXAMINE claims you've searched it and found nothing. It was also a little weird to have the issue of the main character's hyper-combat-competence raised and then dropped: there is clearly something unusual going on when you can kill, like, ten zombies while armed only with a length of pipe, and there are hints that it is turning you into a crazy killing machine, but nothing is ever done with it explicitly. Anyway, if you like zombies, you will probably like this game fine, and if you don't, you should, because zombies are awesome.



Psyche's Lament (John Sichi and Lara Sichi) Z-Machine:
Aw, nuts. See, Rocky's Boots meets Greek myth is really quite an interesting idea, and Psyche's Lament hints at some cool things that could be done with it, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. Partly this is a lack of beta-testing, to catch stuff like the first puzzle not correctly implementing all the ways of telling somebody the answer to their question, or the ascii graphic at the end not displaying properly on my interpreter; and partly it's — well, probably a lack of development time. Ideally this game would have had four or five more puzzles modelled after the first two, with gradually-growing complexity. As it was, I was just getting interested when the thing ended and we switched over to a third puzzle that was pretty difficult to work out given the broken display. I guess the glasses hint that the authors had more planned, since they don't seem to be useful in this version. Anyway, I'd definitely like to see a post-comp expanded release of this — as it is, it's an interesting taste of an idea, but in serious need of polishing.



Sabotage on the Century Cauldron (Thomas de Graaff) TADS 2:
Ok, there is no excuse for disabling undo. I am docking this game points for it and I imagine other people will too. This is especially irritating because I can't see any particular reason for it — there are some combats but they don't seem to be very random, and I don't see any other random events that the author might feel the need to restrict undo over. And speaking of heavy-handed, I thought the humor would have been funnier if it eased up a bit. This is obviously a matter of taste, but I can't help wincing a bit at things like
The captain wags his finger at you - although he misses you by a mile - and says, "I'll be keeping a close eye on you!" He turns around, nearly trips over his own feet, walks off to the west and closes the door.
Yeah. Anyway, there were a few genuinely funny bits, and the first part of the game did a good job of setting up a wacky spaceship. The puzzles were pretty heavy on the guess-your-motivation aspect, but with the walkthrough I got through to the second half, when things took a surprising turn. Without spoiling too much, I can say that there is some reason for the initial setup (not a great reason, but a reason), and the second half is a bit darker than the first. The guess-your-motivation stuff eased up to some extent too, which was nice, although the inventory limit become more irritating now that I had more stuff, so it balances out. The game ends a little disconcertingly, bringing up an aspect of the PC's character that I hadn't exactly thought about but is nevertheless obvious.

I'm not exactly sure what I think of this. I guess none of the parts work exactly like they should — the humor of the first part of the story is a little forced, and then the second part has a muddled tone that left me feeling lost, and there's never enough motivation provided to help me know what to do. All that said, though, the storyline is fairly original, and the game design takes a few interesting risks, even if they don't totally work out.



Snatches (Gregory Weir) Z-Machine:
I am all for IF games being told from multiple viewpoints, but more than ten seems a little excessive, especially since this means each viewpoint ends up only getting a half-dozen moves or so. Even more especially because most of the viewpoints don't really do anything. Some of them advance the backstory a little bit, but not in a way that couldn't have been merged into another character. None of the characters besides the last two, as far as I can tell, actually accomplish anything. Also, I hit some weird daemon bug at the end that I ended up restarting to get around, so I'm not real pleased about that. On the other hand, the writing was decent, the storyline pretty good, the creature fairly original, and the game as a whole was the right length. So in balance, not bad, even if I've got some serious reservations about the design.



Son of a... (C.S. Woodrow) Z-Machine:
Kind of in the same genre as At Wit's End, Son of a... details one of those days that involve a series of unfortunate events: first your car breaks down, then your cellphone battery's dead, then you realize the author can't get "its" and "it's" straight. Man, I hate days like that. But, ok, ignoring some grammatical errors and infelicitous metaphors and evident confusion about static vs scenery, this isn't bad. It's a nice little puzzle game of the kind I've been looking for since I started playing games in the comp. Like the previous comments suggest, the puzzles do feel like they could have used some more beta-testing: the padlock has an irritating bug in it, and the conversation at the end is a little confusing (since it had been a no-conversation game up til then). For that matter, I wouldn't have minded if all the puzzles were a little harder, but still, Son of a... was short and reasonably satisfying. Recommended.



Space Horror I (Jerry) HTML:
I have the system listed as HTML, but, irritatingly, it's packaged in a Windows installer exe, so you can't actually play it unless you're on Windows. Anyway, so the full title of this is "Foil the Fates: Space Horror #1: Prey for Your Enemies" (or maybe "Foil the Fates" is the name of the line). Combine this with the fact that the game starts out in a diner, and you will not be surprised to hear that the plot revolves around an alien invasion devastating humanity, leaving a rag-tag band of rebels as the only ones able to join together and fight off the alien menace. At least, I assume that's what happens, since (again, like the subtitle suggests) we've just gotten up to the point when everyone says "hey, we should join together and throw off our chains" when the game ends. You might be surprised there is any hope of survival at all, given the subtitle, but c'mon, there'd be no need for the "#1" if the ending is "and then everyone gets eaten". Unless the second book in the series is "Space Horror #2: Digestion". Anyway, this really does feel like the first book in a series. It carefully introduces the various characters: the Cute Kid, the Ex-Military Guy ("Name's Jason VanHorn, but just 'bout everybody calls me Gunslinger"), and the Tough Hot Female Who Will End Up Dating The PC (she is also covering the role of The Person Who Fortuitously Ran An Internet Chat Site About Aliens Before The Invasion). Like this suggests, the writing isn't super-original or anything, but hey, it's a CYOA, what do you expect. Fast to play and reasonably amusing. One minor feature that's an interesting design choice is the different paths are all intended to take place in the same reality — if you don't make choice X at some point, then it won't be done as you're heading down the other branch, which might have an effect later on. I'm not sure this kind of faux-simulationism is really that visible to the player, but it's an interesting idea.



Tough Beans (Sara Dee) Z-Machine:
It's A Doll's House for the working woman, or something. Tough Beans gets definite points for the NPCs (sketched briefly but firmly), for the PC (shows enough development to be interesting, but not so much as to be unrealistic), and for the writing (not frilly, but with a few well-turned phrases spaced appropriately). Minus some points for the puzzles and gameplay, though. It's not enough to wreck the game or anything, but most of the puzzles feel like the author didn't do enough thinking from the player's perspective — once you've solved the puzzle it's clear why the solution works, but that doesn't mean this was the obvious thing to try before you knew the answer. Like I said, this isn't a gamebreaker, but it means I did a lot of somewhat out-of-character poking around trying stuff randomly, and the whole experience wasn't as smooth as it might be. Which is kind of similar to other bits in the game — my purse kept closing at inconvenient times (and then it'd be irritating to have to open it when I wanted something I knew was inside), exits were somehow never where I expected, and on the whole it was just more fiddly than I'd like. But yeah, overall this was a fun one.



Unforgotten (Quintin Pan) Z-Machine:
Grf. This has a decent storyline and character development and stuff, but somehow it feels not quite satisfying. I think partly the problem is a variant of the "is this really the most interesting story you could be telling with these characters?" thing — it's not quite that Unforgotten is telling the wrong story, but that it's telling it the wrong way. Like, there are a lot of cool things here — secret military experiments, psychic powers, genetic testing, the life of the individual vs the life of a larger group, love and forgiveness. But it seemed like in practice the actual gameplay experience mostly involved wandering around an army base, wandering around a town, and trying to figure out how to use a fishing pole.

It doesn't help that the lower-level gameplay feels not quite polished enough. It was often the case that I knew what I needed to do but couldn't work out the exact phrasing, or I needed to more closely examine something first, or the required thing to do was totally tedious (I am thinking here in particular of the thing you have to do after talking to Janice).

I dunno, I think this game had a lot of potential that it didn't quite live up to. I'd definitely still recommend the game, but I can't help wishing it had been tighter.



Vendetta (Fuyu Yuki [James Hall]) ADRIFT:
Stories about supercompetent badasses who have No Time For Love always make me feel a little dirty, like I'm seeing parts of somebody's psyche it is embarrassing to be looking at, but nevertheless Vendetta is pretty fun. There's this bad guy who kidnaps your girlfriend, see, and even though it's not much of a relationship because your duty to humanity gives you No Time For Love, this is no job for the police. No, it is up to you to sneak into the building, kill a bunch of people, and save the day, because that is what supercompetent badasses do best. There is some subplot about your memory slowly returning or something, but this didn't seem to be particular important. The subplot about genetic engineering, on the other hand, provided some cool scenery and guys to fight and stuff. It was kind of irritating that the game required so much traipsing up and down between the different floors of the building (even by the walkthrough it requires a fair bit, and if you're not following it, it's more, since you keep having to go back to poke around for stuff you missed earlier). In summary, zam pow biff exciting conclusion.
P.S. I hate the game forever for disabling undo, especially since there is no gameplay reason for it.



Waldo's Pie (Michael Arnaud) Alan 3:
This is a pleasant game where you are a clown saving the day on clown island, or something like that. Overall it is fun and a good advertisement for the new version of Alan, which apparently now includes such crazy things as adjectives and undo (although the undo is weird; sometimes it takes you back multiple turns). I did have a few gripes with the game, though. One is how easy it is to make it unwinnable — there are multiple ways to make the game unwinnable and not find out until later. The other is the holey backstory. I'm sure the author knows all the missing pieces, but just because the PC has been hit by a memory scrambler is no reason not to give the player answers to some of the important questions by the end of the game. Like, why is the bad guy kidnapping the clowns? Why did the bad guy bother to lock up your kids? Why is the bad guy's lair there; isn't it kind of inconvenient for him to get to? Where did this giant come from? So, yeah, fun but kind of frustrating.



Xen: The Contest (Xentor [Ian Shlasko]) TADS 2:
This game is a long one. A lot of people will probably not finish it in two hours: I have no qualms about hitting the hints so I squeaked through, but just barely. Part of the reason it's long is because, well, it has a lot of stuff in it. There are probably a dozen characters in the game, a bunch of locations, four classes on your schedule to remember (you're a college student), a textbook per class — it just feels huge. And, irritatingly, a lot of the hugeness is unnecessary: forcing the player to put their textbooks in their backpack, close the backpack, and pick up the backpack every morning serves no role in the game, nor does making them have a wallet full of id cards to show clerks or swipe in card-readers. Even some of the characters could probably be trimmed — I had trouble keeping track of who was friends with who and who was paired up with who and it didn't really end up mattering much anyway. If the game had been narrowed down to one dorm, one course, three or four friends, and half as many locations, it would have been a lot easier to get the hang of.

Especially since there's also a huge story. It's one of those "ordinary college kid turns out to be important pawn in galactic struggle between alien races" stories, which goodness knows I am fond of, but it makes for a bunch to digest. Especially when it looks like it's setting up for having to make a real choice and decide which alien to trust. But then, oops, the plot heedlessly carries you along and makes all choices for you, ending up with the wishy-washiest alternative. Bah. It would have been way better if the player could really talk to the aliens about stuff for a while and decide who to trust based on that, and then make a decision and see how it plays out. Oh, yeah, and the other thing about this game is it has a bad case of stupid-cool weapon syndrome. Anyway, it's a lot to get through, and I'm not quite sure the payoff justifies it. On the other hand, Shlasko does manage to sustain the storyline the whole way, an impressive feat. It keeps moving and had enough twists to make me want to keep playing, so there you go.



Not Recommended Games

Amissville II (Santoonie Corporation) TADS 2:
AP Hill is kind of like Robb Sherwin's kid brother. They share a focus on characterization and style, although Hill would totally get grounded for using the same kind of language as Sherwin. But he makes up for it by filling the game with a series of in-jokes that, though incomprehensible to adults, are probably perfectly sensible to his peer group. Anyway, this is more of the usual Santoonie thing, I think — a really big map with some broken exits, puzzles that you solve more because they're there than because there's any reason to do so, very little guidance on what to do, NPC with wacky nicknames that declaim random catchphrases. I think gameplay-wise it's actually below Delvyn or Zero just because there's so little plot here, but this is a fine distinction to be making.



Cheiron (Sarah Clelland and Elisabeth Polli) Glulx:
Boundary-pushing IF games are cool. So when I say Cheiron is not going to be a very good game for most players, I don't mean to say that it was a mistake to try it, or that other people shouldn't try similarly away-from-the-norm things or even that there are no people who'll enjoy it. See, this is a simulation of being being a medical student going into a hospital to do diagnoses. I am not a medical student (although my sister is — maybe I'll send the game her way). So my typical interaction with the game consisted of checking the help to see a list of implemented verbs, picking one at random (say, 'palpate'), examining the patient and checking the help to pick a body part to try the verb on (say, the lumps in their neck), and then sticking them together to see what happens. At which point you get asked to disambiguate between anywhere from three to a dozen objects (in this case, 'lumps generally', 'breast symptoms', and 'neck lumps'). And this is the only real game-design flaw as such — this much disambiguation is crazy and the parsing should have been smartened up to avoid it. Anyway, I assume if you're a real medical student you could work out how to use the verbs to figure out what's wrong with the patient. Me, I just checked the help (which helpfully has the answers), and realized I didn't recognize half the diseases listed there anyway. So, yeah. Cool idea, ok implementation, I'm not the target audience.



Dreary Lands (Paul Lee) Z-Machine:
The about text for Dreary Lands says "I know this game is not very good; It even dissapoints me." I imagine this will be much-quoted, as it aptly sums up the game.



FutureGame (tm) (The FutureGame Corporation) Z-Machine:
Normally I'll recommend pretty much any really short game just because they have to be really worthless to make them not worth the time it takes to play, but I think this one might do it. The concept is amusing and there is a Cascade Mountain Publishing joke, but there's really no comedic follow-through. I guess the way to make this worth it is to realize in advance that all the endings will do exactly what you expect, and only play one of them.



Gilded (A Hazard) TADS 2:
Gilded is one of those games in the tradition of Guard Duty or The Tempest or anything by my old nemesis John Evans. That is to say, it combines an elaborate and captivating fantasy world, a PC with numerous magical powers, and a player who has no idea whatsoever what to do. Unsurprisingly, games that say "You can use the >CREATE X power to create stuff!" are especially vulnerable to this — I don't really know if there is any good way to write a game that involves that kind of command and doesn't end up with a lot of guesswork. Gilded also has other weirdness and bugs: the narrative bogs down once you get out of the first room until you guess what the author intended, the about menu doesn't quite work right and prevents you from seeing the walkthrough if you explore another menu branch too deeply, and the parser error for unknown objects only makes sense for the >CREATE X command. There is a walkthrough, like I mentioned, but it takes you to the endgame and then you're supposed to type a command to get the rest of the walkthrough, but that command isn't implemented. So, yeah.



Hello sword (Andrea Rezzonico) Z-Machine:
Man, I can't review this. I mean, I'm going to, but, ok, the deal here is that the English in Hello sword is bad enough that it's not really playable. It takes a lot of work to understand some descriptions, and sometimes this spills into player input as well (for instance, there's a part where you have to do >WRITE X WITH Y, and >WRITE ON X WITH Y gives a confusing error message). Putting that aside, it looks to be the start of one of those fantasy adventures where you're teleported to another land to fight an evil whatsit. Weirdly, you don't use your Earth-knowledge of technology or anything, you just pick up a sword and a spellbook and start killing and/or zapping stuff. Unfortunately, it's also one of those fantasy adventures where you get part 1 and then the game is over. I'm not opposed to those in theory — like, Earth And Sky was awesome, but when it comes to part 1s turning into complete series, it's pretty much the sole example. Despite all this, I kind of liked Hello sword. It's unapologetic about trotting out fantasy cliches, but (maybe because this is just a part 1) they weren't piled up so high that the game was hidden under them. On the other hand, I did have to keep hitting the walkthrough, so maybe that made the game go down easier than it otherwise might have.



Ninja II (Dunric [Paul Allen Panks]) DOS Exe:
As far as I can tell, this is pretty much Ninja v1.30 with an Ice Dragon added at the beginning. Dare you beat dragon?



Off the trolley (Krisztian Kaldi) TADS 2:
I'm afraid this one didn't do much for me. The plot is that for some reason you want to crash the trolley you're driving into a building, but since trolleys run on power lines this isn't entirely trivial. I ran into a few difficulties with missing synonyms and guess-what-I'm-supposed-to-be-doing puzzles, but the main difficulty was that I was never really convinced it was a good idea to crash my trolley into a building. And the epilogue didn't really help in this department.



On Optimism (Tim Lane [Zach Flynn]) Z-Machine:
I feel bad about slagging this game because the author seems to be sincerely trying to write something moving about a serious subject. But the writing here is really, really bad. Sometimes it's just overwritten or a bad metaphor, like
"He's gone." Your voice sounded like tears were an ever-present friend but she had just left for dinner. Too soon she would return.
and sometimes it's like the sort of thing I would assume is a parody if the rest of the game weren't like it (but I guess it could be Kallisti all over again), like
My eyes once again received the strange privelege of sight. I was strangely back inside your heart it seemed. Strange.
The weirdest thing about this kind of game is how little it says with so many words. For all the wails of grief about how fucked up she is, we don't really get any details more specific than that she's a drug addict and cuts herself. And yeah, that's bad, but if the PC thinks she's the only one in the world like that, he's kidding himself. For all his claims of sacrifice and suffering, we don't really see any evidence, except his griping. And for all the talk about how much the guy loves the girl, we don't ever get a reason for why he loves her, except that she's cute and they held hands. If you want me as a reader to care, you've got to give me something to hang my emotions onto, or else they're just going to slip away.



Phantom: caverns of the killer (Brandon Coker) Z-Machine:
Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the military ranks faster that any other. Egypts enemies nicknamed him "The Phantom" , or "Phantasmal Killer" because of his ability to move faster, hit harder, and fight better than any living being should be able to.
Awesome. I am not sure why I like these kind of games so much. I guess it is the idea that the author has something totally cool in mind that they are dying to share with us. Unfortunately, this style of game somehow always requires that the gameplay be pretty bad. This game, for instance, has three (!) mazes, some puzzles where you have to pick the right color thingy based on a cryptic clue (and if you get it wrong, you undo and try again, and there's only four possibilities, so why bother with the clue), and as far as I can tell it's not winnable. But dammit, the Phantom could fight better than any other living being, and that ought to count for something.



PTBAD6andoneeighth (Slan Xorax [Jonathan Berman]) ADRIFT:
This game obviously aims to be stupid and irritating, and it's successful.



The Sword of Malice (Anthony Panuccio) Z-Machine:
Man. Ok, I am totally done with stories about two races of ancient enemies battling it out for world domination or whatever. But even forgetting that, The Sword of Malice is one of those games that has a perfectly fine overall premise but the execution thereof is a litany of poor game-design choices. There's the thing where lots of alternate syntaxes aren't there, even the very first puzzle in the first room. There's the thing where failure messages are misleading (either discouraging you from trying the action multiple times — and yeah, requiring someone to do an action multiple times is usually a poor choice in itself — or discouraging you from the concept when it's just your syntax that's at issue). There's the thing where roughly half of the rooms in the game are pure filler with no relevance whatsoever. There's the thing where an action you fail to take in literally the first five or ten moves of the game makes you unable to win (and you can't backtrack). For that matter, there's the thing where it lets you go into the second part of the game even though you've made it uncompletable by something you failed to do in the first part (and, again, you can't backtrack). There's the thing where the puzzles are either trivial or read-the-author's-mind with nothing in between. There's the thing where one puzzle in the game implements a hit point system, which is used and mentioned nowhere else that I can see. And all of this isn't addressing the story issues: why does the enemy keep their magic artifacts so near their jail cells; why don't they, you know, leave some guards by your cell; why did the ancient people hide all the good stuff in their tomb if they were so big on their descendents taking over the world.

Sorry, I guess this is more a rant than a reasoned review. I just find it really frustrating to see games like this where the author can't possibly have thought much about the actual gameplay involved. They've clearly worked out some elaborate backstory with the hero of this and the battle of that and the treaty of whatever, and none of it matters at all. Worse, this has apparently distracted them from the actual play experience, which is what I see. If that's not there, then I don't care about your backstory at all.



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