Spring Thing Reviews

I'm pleased to see Greg Boettcher's brought back the Spring Thing after a year hiatus since Adam Cadre's originated it. The idea of another comp in the spring seems like a good idea, to balance out an IF year heavily built around the fall comp.

Spring Thing 2003

The Cross of Fire (Matthew Carey) Z-Machine:
After struggling through an initial guess-the-verb mess (since the scene is trying to inject yourself with cocaine, I started to think the difficulty was actually a subtle anti-drug message), I found myself as Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street. "Hunh," I thought, "a new Sherlock Holmes story." Then the client came in and, after a bit of deduction, told me a familiar-sounding story. Specifically, one that was from an existing Sherlock Holmes story, The Five Orange Pips. "Hunh," I thought, "an old Sherlock Holmes story." But then the narrative did a couple switchbacks and eventually I wasn't sure what I was looking at anymore.

The Sherlock Holmes that Carey presents is strikingly different from Doyle's; this is made all the more apparent by the voluminous swathes of text quoted from Doyle at the start. Where the classic Sherlock Holmes is calm and emotionless (even when hot on the chase), Carey's Holmes is visible angry and storms out of the room with clenched fists; where the classic Holmes is reticent, this one talks to himself in the cab; and where the classic Holmes tracks down the criminals and then lets the police handle it, this one spends the game plotting to arrange the criminals' deaths.

It's an interesting take on the material; this is a particularly good story for it, since The Five Orange Pips otherwise ends somewhat unsatisfactorily, with "justice" being meted out by fate and Holmes solving the case, but too late to make a difference. The Cross of Fire offers an interesting what-if on What Really Happened Behind Watson's Back. The problem with this game is that the actual execution of the idea doesn't hold up to the promise.

Partly it's a matter of confusion of interface: the game uses >TALK for normal conversion, >ASK and >TELL for detective work, and it uses >TELL NPC TO ... for commands. Even though there was reasonable support for each of these, it wasn't perfect, and I had problems distinguish when to switch modes from when I was just asking about the wrong stuff. Partly it's a matter of confusion of character: while it's OK to want to do a new take on the character with Vengeful Holmes, doing a new take means you can no longer assume the player knows how the PC works, and you really have to do the same work to develop the PC's persona that you would with an original PC. Lastly it's, hrm, that the plot is the kind that makes sense only in retrospect, and with some knowledge of The Five Orange Pips: when it's all done you can see how the vengeance works out but trying to do it without the walkthrough (which is helpfully included) was beyond my skills.

Anyway, this is an interesting, if flawed, take on a Sherlock Holmes story. It's worth playing through with the walkthrough (even moreso if someone were to provide a full-points walkthrough) but I'm not sure it'd be rewarding enough to play without.



Inevitable (T.L. Heinrich [Kathleen Fischer]) Z-Machine:
Normally when people complain that they have problems visualizing a game, it doesn't bother me one bit, possibly because I can't visualize stuff anyway. But in Inevitable, I couldn't visualize stuff, and it was a problem. Most of the puzzles involved being able to picture the spatial relations of objects in the room (and interact with them accordingly) and I had serious problems because I just didn't realize where things were. This is accentuated since it's basically a Myst-like "explore the mysterious city, get the mysterious machines to work" sort of game, and while that's cool, it's also hard to work with unless the stuff is well-described. I like the imagery Inevitable pulls up — it's especially good in that the machines don't just do stuff in their own room, but, on the contrary, their effects can be seen across the city.

It's just a pity the writing isn't quite up to the setting. There's the aforementioned problem with visualization, which I think is just Heinrich having a clear idea of how the place looks but not managing to get it all down in a way that we can understand. Then there's the room descriptions like this:

Tall trees with thick trunks and spreading branches cast lacy shadows upon the broad avenue, which connects the ziggurat to the south and the tower to the north. Handsome square inlays of well-spaced black stone lie in two parallel lines down the center of the path, ending at a thin edging of stone dividing this avenue from one approaching from the southeast.
I'm not really a good enough writer to point fingers, but I do know that feeling required to give every noun an adjective is a common novice writer's mistake, and the extra adjectives generally clutter up the sentence more than anything else. This room description is especially confusing since the actual exits from the room are north, east, and west; were it not for the exits display in the status bar it'd be impossible to figure this out. Not all the room descriptions are problematic — some are quite clear and evocative, but enough are problematic to lower the overall tone. The game has a "remembering" system with similar problems: most of the memories are fine, but some are so heavy-handed in their attempts to be emotional that I get turned off the whole setup. Lastly there are a couple of Awful Plot Things I Hate at the end of the game (see below for spoilers), but since they're at the end of the game they're not as big a deal as they could be.

What it comes down to, I think, is that this is a text adventure crying out to be made as a graphical one. So it's worth playing as it is, even though the game is difficult, but this isn't really how it wants to be seen.



Max Blaster and Doris de Lightning Against the Parrot Creatures of Venus (Dan Shiovitz and Emily Short [Emily Short]) TADS 3:
I co-wrote this game so I'm not going to write a review of it; it's included here only for completeness. Good stuff, though.



Puddles on the Path (Anssi Raisanen) Alan:
Puddles on the Path is similar enough to Raisanen's previous The Chasing that you can probably tell if you'll like this based on whether you liked that. They're pleasant fairly-easy-puzzly magical adventures in generic fantasy worlds with a fairy-tale feel. The fairy-tale feel is even more apparent in Puddles on the Path, where you're a wizard's-apprentice-type walking home who gets imprisoned and have to find your way home. The magic system here is a cute Nord-and-Bert take on things: you cast spells by invoking proverbs, so you could search a gravel bed with >LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED (I guess it's technically more of a T-Zero take on things, then). The game is pretty difficult if you don't use the in-game command to list the proverbs you know; even for the ones I managed to guess without looking at the list, I didn't always get the right wording for the game to accept it. Anyway, I like this kind of game, and this was an entirely pleasant romp. My only gripes were that it was a bit shorter than I wanted, the sword puzzle was kind of non-intuitive, and petered out a bit at the end — it seems like things should come to a peak at the end, but instead Puddles on the Path became so linear and straightforward that it fizzled. Still, it's fun, I enjoyed it, and if you like this sort of game you will too. By the way, this was an Alan game I didn't have any fights with the parser during. It doesn't >UNDO, which is a bit annoying, but other than that I guess there were few enough objects that manipulation just wasn't an issue.



Spring Thing 2005

Authority (Eva Vikstroem) Z-Machine:
It's hard not to feel like I must have missed the point of this game in a major way. As far as I can tell Authority is a perfectly normal simulation of office life — as the game goes on, the PC talks to their new coworkers, has lunch, collects office supplies, attends meetings, and so on. But, I mean, this seems like a lousy idea for a game. There are a few notes hinting that this might be intended as a satire of office life, but if it is a satire, it's such a pitch-perfect one as to be indistinguishable from the thing it's satirizing. Beyond that, I'm afraid there seem to be a number of plot-related bugs — on my first playthrough I ended up triggering a lot of events that didn't quite make sense, causing me to have lunch twice in one day and so on. It is possible I am totally misunderstanding or misreading Authority, but as it is I really can't recommend it.



Bolivia By Night (Aidan Doyle) TADS 2:
I am going to spoil more of this game than I usually like to spoil of a game, but I don't feel bad, because the spoiler is: although it starts off looking like it's going to be a boring educational game filled with tedious historical-political fact nuggets, Bolivia By Night actually turns out to be an excellent semi-fantastic ('fantastic' in terms of genre, not quality, although it is pretty good) romp studded with interesting historical-political tidbits of information. And since it's set in Bolivia, and is semi-fantastic, I guess that would make it magical realism. Which would explain the talking Che Guevara t-shirt. Not to mention the ninjas.

Anyway, the deal here is that Bolivia By Night is one of those games where the PC stumbles onto a problem, has their consciousness raised, and is eventually willing and able to solve the problem (or at least a small part of it). In this particular game there's a nice parallel track where the political issues have supernatural implications, and fixing the latter is intertwined with fixing the former. This kind of thing can be done well or badly, and I'm pleased to say that Bolivia By Night won me over pretty thoroughly by the end, with humorous writing and an engaging plot balancing out the after-school-special nature of the whole thing.

The only real gripe I have is that the pacing could be tightened up substantially. The first two chapters have long stretches where the player is doing something not all that exciting that really should have been condensed, and then later on there are a few places where there could be more direction as to what to do to move the plot along. This latter is mitigated by the game having hints, but I didn't realize that until almost the end of the game, and, anyway, that's not really the optimal way to handle it.

So, yeah, I liked Bolivia By Night quite a bit. It manages to both amuse and educate, and at some points it successfully does both at once. Definitely recommended.



Flat Feet (Joel Ray Holveck) Z-Machine:
You're a cat detective, and your best buddy is a hyperactive ferret. Together you fight crime! Specifically, in Flat Feet you fight crime by bopping around the Bay Area, cracking jokes and (at least for me) trying to figure out what you're supposed to be doing. The problem is, basically, the author is aiming for an absurdist humor game (a la Sam & Max, he says in the credits), which is good, but he's made the mistake of also giving the game an absurdist plot design, which is very bad.

Like, at the start of the game you're sitting around waiting for a case to come in. You might think the correct answer is to wait for the phone to ring — but no, the correct way to make stuff happen is to go outside and make preparations for leaving the office, and then this will make the phone ring, giving you a case and thus a reason to leave the office. Funny concept, irritating in practice. The plot is filled with situations like this, where you have to do things before knowing why they're useful, either to solve a puzzle or to advance the plot. Slightly more defensible are the puzzles that are obviously just stuck in to make things harder (eg, Ralph and the elevator). There's nothing wrong with this feel-wise in an absurdist game, except that they're psychologically hard to solve: the author has plainly said "THIS IS AN ILLOGICAL PUZZLE" so how can you expect to solve it by reasoning out a solution?

Putting aside the plot difficulties, Flat Feet is a lot of fun. There are plenty of zany hijinx and goofy remarks, and they take place in a really well-done version of the Bay Area that strikes the right balance between cartoon and geography. It's just a pity that the plot makes it such a pain to see all the funny bits.



Second Chance (David Whyld) ADRIFT:
I started off figuring this would be pretty similar to other games by Whyld I've played and haven't cared for. But for whatever reason — maybe because there's no time limit on the springcomp games and so the game didn't feel so rushed, or maybe because it wasn't trying for wacky humor, or maybe because the plot was more linear and the puzzles were simpler — I ended up quite liking it. It's one of those "go back in time and change your fate" games where you play through little vignettes for several of the characters involved, and working out how to win each vignette and how they tied together was pretty satisfying.

I don't think this is going to win over everyone who hasn't cared for Whyld's stuff in the past. The individual pieces aren't really challenging enough to feel puzzly, but the overall game structure tends to force a lot of replays and hence requires some time investment (and, again, the lack of a time limit for the spring comp makes this game viable in a way it wouldn't be in the fall comp). The writing is kind of enh, and the character's dialogue feels slapdash (the old woman's manner of speaking, in particular, wanders all over the social class hierarchy). Oh, and what's up with the anti-climactic ending? When the player gets the best possible solution, say something about it — don't give them the same summary that everyone else gets. But nevertheless, the game all came together for me and worked pretty well — I don't have any problems at all recommending Second Chance.



Threnody (John "Doppler" Schiff) TADS 2:
Man, I never thought I would see the day when I would be recommending a fantasy adventure where the PC has a cat buddy. A magical cat buddy. A magical talking cat buddy. Furthermore, the game does another thing I can't stand, where the PC in this fantasy world finds this magical cape that makes the wearer hopeful, so, hey, we'll call it the Cape of Good Hope ha ha I kill me. Repeat fifty times or until dead. But, ok, putting aside all the lame anachronistic puns (and the entire backstory involving them), Threnody is basically a really good puzzle adventure of the kind I haven't seen in a while. It took me about three and a half hours to get through one playthrough; I used the hints maybe once or twice at most.

The puzzles were in general really good, sufficiently difficult to feel satisfying when you get them but not so difficult that you spend hours on it — but, hey, since this is a springcomp entry I was able to spend as much time as I wanted without feeling like I was hitting a limit. The only time the puzzle quality broke down was in the last bit of the game, when there was one puzzle of a kind that's starting to approach the fifteen puzzle in terms of tedium for me, and then one puzzle that was really much too easy. But besides that, excellent. Oh, and did I mention that this is one of those games where you have three characters to choose from, and the puzzles are different depending on what you pick? I don't think many people are going to have the stamina to play through the whole game a second or third time, but I enjoyed getting to pick one to start with, and then spent an hour or so exploring the walkthroughs of the other two once I'd finished the game.

Threnody is, unfortunately, not totally bug-free. I found a number of places where descriptions didn't accurately reflect that I'd picked up an item, and there's at one important place where >IN works when >ENTER THING doesn't. Oh, and somehow I didn't get credit for picking up one of my treasures on my first playthrough. But these are pretty minor, and I imagine they'll get cleared up in a post-comp release. Even before that happens, if what you want is a good-sized meaty puzzle adventure, Threnody would be an excellent choice.



Whom The Telling Changed (Aaron A. Reed) Z-Machine:
This was the last game I played of this year's spring comp, and it was an extremely satisfying note to close on. It's always nice to play something that is a little experimental, and it's especially nice to play something experimental that works, and Whom The Telling Changed totally does. The concept is sort of like The Space Under The Window with a plot and momentum, but in ancient Sumer, hearing one of the tales of Gilgamesh. Isn't that awesome?

Normally I'm a little suspicious of games with conversations where the key words are highlighted, but I thought it really worked well here (though if you don't care for it, you can turn the highlighting off). Probably this is helped along by the occasional presence of a third option not listed — even though a lot of it is effectively menu choices, you don't forget that this is a game with a parser. And the "menu" system definitely doesn't fall into the exhaustively-try-every-option trap that Andrew Plotkin has complained about in the past: when you make a choice, the story moves along, and you can't just go back and try option B to see what it would have done.

Naturally, even though I really liked Whom The Telling Changed, I do have a few gripes. One is that it's not always clear what effect a particular word is going to have: while that doesn't matter in The Space Under The Window since it's just an art piece you're exploring, here it seems like you're nominally participating in some kind of moral/philosophical argument, and you ought to know what statements you're making before you say them. The other is, well, this was good, but now I want more. Lately I've been really interested in IF games that let the player make a few serious choices that have real consequences — this feels like it does that, but the basic plot seems to be pretty fixed. There is one significant change you can make, but it's predicated on a choice you have to make early on and without understanding the implications. But, yeah, these are relatively minor complaints. Whom The Telling Changed is an excellent game, well-crafted and innovative, and I absolutely recommend it.



Spring Thing 2006

The Baron (Victor Gijsbers) Z-Machine:
I'm pretty sure this is not like any IF game you've ever played before. The author labels it as real "interactive fiction" rather than a "text adventure", but I'm not even sure "interactive" is the right word for it — the amount of control the player has over the storyline is extremely limited, and the plot really isn't the point. Maybe a better term might be "analytic fiction": the point of The Baron, as far as I can tell, is for the player to engage with the questions the "game" (another bad choice of word, but oh well) raises and explore all the angles of the issue.

In some ways I think the game is better as a concept than as an actual product. Although there are some really stunning moments that push the boundary of what IF can be, there are also lots of points where the writing is clunky, the story feels forced, and the lack of any real ability to affect things is frustrating. But all that said, I totally recommend everyone check this out — it may well be the most boundary-pushing IF piece since Galatea and The Space Under The Window.



Pantomime (Robb Sherwin) Hugo:
I'm not exactly sure why Robb Sherwin chooses to put his ideas into IF rather than static fiction since all his strengths — vivid characters, crackling writing, crazy premises — seem like they'd work just as well there. But by this point I know what I'm getting into, and I am totally willing to ride along on another Sherwin story.

Pantomime is definitely worth the trip, too. It seems to not be set in Sherwin's usual setting, although maybe it's just a different area of the same universe. The protagonist is a slightly different stripe, too — Sherwin's written about some lovable fuckups before, but this one is the most pathetic of them all. It takes a little while before it sinks in just how sad the PC is, though, since he rules the roost in his own little area (which I guess is true of a lot of Sherwin's protagonists, even if that area is just Mastery of Dungeons and Dragons trivia).

I always gripe about gameplay issues in Sherwin's games, but this is much better than most. I hit one or two rough patches, both caused by forgetting where exactly the game was set. If anything, I think it's the story that's especially rough this time. Although it does come to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion, there are lots of loose ends that came up along the way, including one totally bizarre deus ex machina that I'm not sure even Sherwin has a good explanation for.

Anyway, if you like Sherwin's games, this will probably be another hit. If you haven't tried them, this would probably be a good place to start — it's short and goes down smooth but keeps most of the characteristic Sherwin charm.



The Potter and the Mould (Robert Street) ADRIFT:
Ok, I need to say at the start that neither "The Potter" nor "The Mould" are very impressive names for superheroes (plus The Potter has unfortunate popular-fantasy-novel resonance, which seems like something no aspiring supervillain would really want to be associated with). Despite this, The Potter and the Mould pulls off a decent superhero story, hitting all the important bases: origin of powers, training, parents dying, love interest appearing, nemesis appearing, etc. If this sounds a little cliched, well, yeah, I don't know if there is much original story-wise in this game (except maybe the bad guy's power), but it's competently-executed and I generally had a good time playing it. I particularly enjoyed how the PC's moulding (ie, self-transformation) power was handled — you type >MOULD and it gives you a menu of things you can transform into in this location. There's no real in-game explanation for why you're limited to three or four forms per location, but as a gameplay thing it works just fine, giving you a few things to puzzle over but not making it too easy or too hard. I guess I have a few quibbles with it — the story is really pretty linear, and the writing isn't strong enough for all the elements it tries to develop (romance, a complex relationship with your parents, the popular with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility thing) — but on the whole it's perfectly fun, and there's a walkthrough, so go for it.



The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog (David Whyld) ADRIFT:
Ernh, I dunno. I'm not really a fan of Whyld's style of humor so when I'm grumpy about The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog I'm not sure how reliable my thoughts are. But it felt like the game was pretty disorganized and sloppily put together — there were a lot of areas where I had syntax issues, I noticed a couple cosmetic bugs, and I really never had any idea what I was supposed to be doing (beyond the general mission given at the start). Whyld says in the author notes that the previous game in the series (which I didn't play) was pretty popular, so I guess I'm just not in the target audience for this one. Oh well.



Spring Thing 2007

The Epic Origins of CamelGirl (Brandi Wilcox) TADS 3:
The Scylla and Charybdis of people's first games are railroading storylines and guess-the-verb puzzles. The Epic Origins of CamelGirl successfully plots a course between them, and while it doesn't get everything right, it was surprising to me how much it did accomplish (and written in a month, yet). Once you get past the slightly-clumsy intro, you're in a pretty free-form area with multiple things to poke at, multiple solutions for puzzles, and multiple endings.

While the puzzles aren't super-original or super-challenging, they're fair and appropriate for the setting, and I enjoyed exploring the main area (for some reason it never stops being satisfying to snoop through other people's belongings). But given how well the game is constructed in general, I'm surprised at how tacked-on the beginning and ending feel. There's a shift from goofy comedy to more-serious pseudo-X-files as you go from the intro to the main part of the game, and then when you get to the ending it switches again to an over-the-top superhero bit (this switch is especially apparent in the puzzles; suddenly you have to stop thinking like MacGyver and start thinking like a superhero).

As I said, the main area is good, but since I must always have some complaints about puzzle construction, I think the player suffers from a lack of direction. While this isn't a problem, necessarily — it's totally fine to have games where the player just wanders around solving puzzles — this can be an issue when it comes up in a game with multiple solutions. See, normally there are two ways for the player to solve a puzzle: either they identify a goal and work on how to get there; or they identify a thing that can be fiddled with, and fiddle with it until something happens. Multiple solutions are usually only a good idea in the first case. In the second case, they just confuse the issue: some things are no longer useful once the player's gone down a different solution branch, but they have no way of knowing when this is true.

But overall, The Epic Origins of CamelGirl was very good-natured, not too hard, and fun to play around with: a pretty impressive first effort.

P.S. We can just take the cameltoe jokes as made, right?



Fate (Victor Gijsbers) Z-Machine:
I am watching the IF career of Victor Gijsbers with considerable interest. In The Baron and now in Fate, he has created games that are compasses — they point at something larger than themselves, seemingly just over the horizon. I'm not exactly sure what this hypothetical game looks like, but it clearly involves choice, consequence, sin, sacrifice, and making the best way you can in a bad situation.

Fate is a better stab at this than The Baron was, but it's still not all the way there. The premise is better-chosen here, easier to relate to and offering more ways for the player to interact with it. But in the current game it's still basically a single continuum where you decide how much X you're willing to trade for how much Y — at some point I think he's going to have to do a game with more than one axis. The actions the player takes are better here too, and the consequences as well. There's a better blend of people wanting to rehash them with you afterwards, and the actions actually feeling meaningful at the time you're doing them (in particular, the pixie is good for this, which is interesting since the objective moral weight there isn't all that high).

The piece that's still mostly lacking here is gameplay — like, the thing the player does in between having moral crises. There are a few cursory puzzles here, but they really do feel cursory, as if they're mostly there to gate the progress of the player in the narrative. While this is one important purpose of puzzles, there's another obvious purpose: they're fun. Solving puzzles and exploring are entertaining things to do in and of themselves (when a game is done well), not just a thing that the player has to slog through to get to the good bits. That's what The Baron and Fate need most. I'm not advocating puzzle at the expense of theme, of course — the thing to shoot for is puzzles where the solving acts out the theme.

And along with this we have time: unless you are the best writer in the world, there's no way that "You see before you the person you love most in the world. Sacrifice them for your own ambitions? (Y/N)" will ever compare to, say, going through an entire game with a cute robot sidekick and then asking that same question about him. Both The Baron and Fate have very little downtime — even if there's no actual game timer you're still in moral-crisis mode almost all the time. This is really hard to make work. It's hard to sustain a game for long at this pitch (and indeed, both games are pretty short), and it's hard for the player to bond to the other characters when there's no time to take a breath and do so. Above I said the pixie works despite the moral weight not being that high, but perhaps this is exactly why it works: if I only have about five moves to bond with the person I'm about to hurt, then maybe the only time I'm going to "feel it" as a player is when the moral decision is worth about five moves. For the bigger sacrifices to pay off, the author needs to have the player, not just the character, invest real time in the thing to be sacrificed.

But like I wrote at the beginning, Gijsbers is a guy to keep an eye on. His games are hinting at the revolutionary, and if they're not all the way there yet, well, there's definitely still some gold in them.



The Reluctant Resurrectee (David Whyld) ADRIFT:
This is another of David Whyld's numerous games, so I guess it's not that surprising that this is another of my standard David Whyld reviews, subtype 2B (semi-humorous puzzle game review). I really do try to give each of his games a fair shot, but I'm not sure I have ever found one that really satisfied me. I used to think this was basically a series of coincidences, but I am starting to think it's a fundamental difference in taste about the kind of games we like (or at least the kind of game he likes to write and I like to play).

It's not the ADRIFT parser issues, although those are still mildly annoying here (when clearly a lot of effort has been spent to work around them). It's not the writing either — his sense of humor doesn't do much for me, but I can at least recognize it as humor and am okay with it in that sense. No, I think it's something more general about the game philosophy: he writes games like I have a week of free time to spend on them, and I play like I have fifteen minutes. This isn't specific to Whyld's games — I play everyone's game like that — but I think the philosophy clash is especially problematic here.

Like, shortly after the game starts up you find an instruction sheet. A magically-encoded instruction sheet. Decoding it requires solving multiple puzzles, and until you do, there's no real way to work out what the goal of the game is. Whereas I am the sort of guy who believes the player should have a goal to be working towards starting on the first turn of the game and should continue to have one every turn thereafter (even if it's not the same goal).

Or take the various markings hidden around that you have to collect. Finding secret whatsits is great as a puzzle for bonus points, but being required to scrutinize every single part of every single object makes me grumpy. Especially since most objects don't have the markings, so it's usually unrewarding. But I'd guess Whyld thinks this kind of aimless exploration is great and an end in itself — there are all sorts of places in the game that require doing the same action over and over again, sometimes with no obvious encouragement, and multiple easter eggs to reward the people with the persistence to try doing everything to everything.

On the other hand, I am interested in story and puzzles and general game structure, and so some things that presumably don't bug him at all stick out a mile for me. Like there's a bit at the end where Whyld mixes up the southern barbarians and the eastern plainsmen, the difference between which I'd carefully noted because I was sure it had to be significant. Or that the author's note asserts the game can't be made unwinnable — while that may be technically true (though I have my doubts), it's also true that it's easy to lock yourself out of the good endings and, in fact, lock yourself out of being able to understand much of anything about the endings at all.

So, yeah, another of this kind of review about this kind of game. I do give points for the chutzpah involved in the situation of the PC, though (and it is probably especially funny to people who played the game this is a sequel to). And hey, no inventory puzzles.



Starship Volant: "Stowaway" (C. Henshaw) ADRIFT:
There's that joke about the kid who comes to a rich guy looking for work, and the rich guy recognizes the same go-getter spirit he himself had as a kid, so he says "Fine, I'm going to take a nap, go paint my porch." He comes out later and the kid's just putting the lid back on the paint can. "I got it all painted, sir! But I have to tell you, it's not a Porsche, it's a Ferrari."

I feel kinda the same way about this game. Like, it's great the author went to the trouble of creating a bunch of characters, of writing multi-paragraph descriptions for each room, of making a complicated introductory sequence to introduce us to everyone, of having a crazy cross-cut narrative to present the plot .. but is all this effort actually in support of the underlying game concept and does it add to the play experience? In short, is the author painting the right thing?

If you hack away all the stuff I mentioned that the author worked really hard on, what you end up with is basically a Star Trek episode. This isn't a bad thing! But just so we're clear, that's what it is — you got this crew on a starship, there's a stowaway, there's a bad guy threatening to blow them up, there's a tense negotiation as they try to decide on a clever way out, then the credits roll and we see clips from next week's episode starring a six-breasted alien.

So given that, don't tell me how your transporter works, because I don't care. Nor do I care about tips on tactical evasion, how the bathrooms work, or the fact that the ship's engine is a living heart that pumps plasma instead of a magic box that runs on dilithium crystals, because the distinction plays no role in the story. Ok, actually, the ship's engine is a little interesting, but you can have one sentence in the room description about it, and a paragraph when I examine it. You absolutely do not get to devote three full paragraphs in the room description to the engine.

Similarly I don't care about the elaborate backstory of all the characters or their personal histories and little romances, because you just don't get that on a single star trek episode. You get one sentence about each character: "Kirk is a macho captain who plays by his own rules," "Bones is a crotchety doctor who argues with Spock," "Spock is the always-logical Vulcan science officer." If there's something more than that, you get an entire freaking episode about X's crush on Y or whatever, as the B-plot for the Alien of the Week.

And the thing is, once you get rid of the unimportant stuff and look at what's left, you realize it's pretty weak. There are maybe six commands the player actually does in this game beyond moving and talking to people (and that's using >TALK TO X, which we all know means "give me the next piece of plot"). The author's obviously able to work hard and code complicated things, and there are plenty of places where their energy could have spent more effectively. The engine could be more complicated to repair (which might justify the larger description), the stowaway could be more difficult to locate and deal with, and the enemy could necessitate a more elaborate plan that the player must actually carry out. In other words: A for Effort, but I was really hoping for a P for Porch.



Spring Thing 2009

A Flustered Duck (Jim Aikin) Glulx:
Ok, first off, I think it is important to acknowledge this title totally rules. That said, on to the rest of the review.

I am not normally that big a fan of typical IF sloppy-fantasy settings, with medieval knights using handguns. But somehow the one here totally works for me, with the rusting VW bug just down the way from the troll-guarded bridge being charming rather than irritating. I think there are two techniques that Aikin is using to make this happen. One is that the whole thing is positioned as a fairy tale that isn't exactly going to make sense, and the other is that the modern stuff isn't modern in the context of the setting (that is, the car has been rusting out in the field for quite a while now) nor is it modern in our time (Granny's got a black & white tv in the kitchen, not a plasma HDTV). Together these fuzz the edges of the genres and make me more willing to accept the merge.

Actually, the thing I had the most trouble with in the setting was the actions of the protagonist. The author doesn't present him this way and clearly thinks of him as a dumb-but-nice guy, but the PC is kind of a jerk. Like, he destroys things of deep significance to a couple people, kills two non-human creatures who don't seem to be doing him any harm, tricks another guy into spoiling an important personal vow, and ruins somebody's picnic. And that's in addition to the usual theft and deception PCs engage in. I think the reason for this somewhat confused portrayal of the PC is related to the next point, which is game design.

Because, well, I hate to say it, but overall the design of this game is a mess. I mean this both from a sense perspective — if you diagram out the puzzles, the fraction that have to be solved to get yourself a rope is surprisingly high* — and from a player-direction perspective. Like, the aforementioned puzzle that requires a rope appears very early in the game, and there's no particular indication that it can't be solved yet. So it'll be there for most of the game, as the player wonders if perhaps they've just missed an item or are misunderstanding what's needed to solve the puzzle, alongside (and a distraction from) other puzzles which can be solved immediately.

The game lists a number of beta-testers, but despite that, I found multiple rough spots interacting with it. Interacting with the surfboard is a pain, the whole insertion-and-extraction sequence at the end is fiddly, and the vehicle was cute but quickly grew tiresome to use in practice because you had to spell everything out. That actually requires a little more mention: there's a part where you can't travel from X to Y without the vehicle. But, for some reason, you can travel from Y to X without it. So it's totally possible to accidentally leave the vehicle at Y, walk back to X, and then you're stuck. The author obviously recognizes this as an issue, because he fixes it for you the first time — but after that you're out of luck. This isn't a "puzzle", this is just the author being a jerk.

Anyway, overall this makes it sound like I liked the game less than I did. It has a number of fun puzzles and the setting is overall quite charming. It's just, well, a mess, and would have seriously benefited from a reworking before release. Also, what is up with the prompt not being a >? That's just weird.

*Furthermore, the PC's fiancee-to-be has three different opportunities to intervene to cut the chain short, and she refuses each time. It's quite enough to make me reconsider matriomonial plans.



The Milk of Paradise (Josh Graboff) Z-Machine:
This seems like it has an interesting idea in there somewhere, but it's unfortunately not long enough to really bring it out. It feels a little underimplemented even for its size (I doubt that it was beta-tested much), and it restricts your choices during the game firmly enough that the yes/no question at the end feels a little pointless. So yeah, it has some potential, a kind of Bellclap-like vibe and a cool setting but I am not really sold by the execution.



Realm of Obsidian (Amy Kerns) Windows Exe:
This is one of those in-from-the-cold games you get sometimes, where somebody who is totally outside the community in terms of system and style and genre shows up out of nowhere and enters a game in a comp. Like, ok, the game is written in some BASIC IF system (and if you look at the author's notes, you can see this is like the third or fourth version of the game, as the author has ported it between different BASIC flavors). It's a homegrown system* so no UNDO and blah blah, but generally speaking the parser isn't too bad and you open doors automatically and stuff. Style-wise it's a pseudo-RPG in the sense that you're wandering around a dungeon collecting treasures and encountering monsters, but I say "pseudo-" because there's no hit points or random combat or anything. Still, this style has rather dropped out of fashion in recent years and it feels a little archaic. And, finally, genre — it's a horror game. And I mean Tales from the Crypt kind of horror, where there are various gory death sequences and then the game says "Torn apart by hungry wolves? That really .. bites." Also, at the start you are attacked by a skeleton in a wheelchair holding a chainsaw.

So, uh, all in all I don't really know how to rate this. It is amusing but it is probably not going to be to a lot of people's tastes. (Also, I should probably note it's not a complete game; it stops at about the one-third mark, since that is all the author has implemented.)

*Ok, technically it's ThinBASIC Adventure Builder, which isn't by Kerns, but it's got the same vibe. A homegrown system grown in somebody else's home, maybe.



Vague (Richard Otter) ADRIFT:
It seems a little weird to write a game that is made entirely of references to your early games. It's like the bit about the musician who's interviewed and he says "yeah, I've always been one of my own biggest influences." But, uh, I guess if you were a big Richard Otter fan you would probably enjoy this; I've liked the earlier games of his I've played just fine (most notably Escape to New York and Unauthorized Termination), but I wouldn't say I'm a groupie or anything, and I couldn't really identify most of the games featured here. Ignoring the references, the game is ok but not great — there's a fair amount of unhinted actions and most of the puzzles are just giving the right thing to the right person. There was the hint of a thread about the author being a jerk for condemning all his characters to death that I wouldn't have minded seeing more of, but all in all, I wasn't really sold.



The Ending of Inevitable
Inevitable ends with two plot twists I particularly dislike. One, it has "Person X disappears at the start of the game. The PC goes on and solves all the puzzles and stuff, and then Person X suddenly reappears and says "Ah-ha-ha! You solved everything and fell into my trap, just as I planned!"". This is all the worse when, like in this game, there's no real way Person X could have planned everything, let alone set it all up. Compounding this, the game also has "There's this mysterious figure in the PC's past who made a really strong impression on the PC. The game goes along, and then in a shocking twist, we discover that the mysterious figure is actually the PC who travelled back in time!" Argh. So, so lame. Note that both of these are deus ex machina ways of reducing the agency of the PC: you should avoid doing so at all costs, especially near the end of the game, because it cheapens everything the player's done thus far.

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