2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition.

Highly Recommended Games

A Crimson Spring (Robb Sherwin) Hugo:
This is similar to Six Stories in that it's a multimedia game that's pretty tightly integrated with its graphics and sound. The difference between the two is, whereas Six Stories had very little story but a really great interface, A Crimson Spring has a pretty good story but the interface is godawful. Really. There's one bit where you go into a room, and it has all these interesting-looking items in the description, and you're told something is weird in the room, and you can't look at any of them. Maybe two of the items are implemented at all, and the only thing you can do there is examine them. The magic command? >SEARCH ROOM. This is a totally bizarre choice by Sherwin; like, out of the dozens of games that come out in a year, maybe one of them will even let you refer to the room by name, and I've never seen a game before that required it. This pretty much continues through the whole game. I think it's pretty unlikely that anyone finishes this without extensive use of the walkthrough.

Ok, that said, what is this game, and why is it highly recommended? I assume you know it's a superhero game. It's, I guess, the first serious superhero IF game that I've played (or as "serious" as superhero games get — the villains all have stupid names like "Iron Lung" and "Snowman" and your girlfriend fled the USSR because they wouldn't let her practice her religion and shape-changing in peace or something). But it's got that gritty thing going on, the mean streets of the city, uncaring cops, moral dilemmas, blah blah. Pretty well-handled, and the music is just the right punk-ass soundtrack to make it work (the pictures I can take or leave, but, hey, I like a picture). Oh, there's also an honest-to-god fight scene in the game, with hit points and everything, that feels like Sherwin wrote this great combat module and then didn't want to throw it away, even when it no longer fit the story.

The summary of the summary is, A Crimson Spring has a lot of flaws, but it's got atmosphere in spades. Grab the walkthrough, grab a multimedia interpreter, and go for it. You'll like it.



Kaged (Ian Finley) TADS 2:
I assume people are going to really really like this game, and are going to ask me why I didn't really really like it. I think — ok, basically, this is a game kind of like Mercy, unfeeling bureacracy, man in a faceless pointless world where nothing matters, etc. Then it turns into a series of twists, yanking the plot out from under you, but the character stays the same: he's just this cog in the system that's too small to care about, and you don't see what he's doing or why. And as the game continues, it twists and turns enough that you continue not to understand.

However, this is not to say I didn't like the game. Finley is a professional and it shows; there are alternate endings and puzzle solutions, hints, better-than-just-adequate writing, even if I don't like how it's used, the whole deal you expect from someone who is good at this. It has some nice multimedia and I'm always a sucker for that. It's a good game, well worth the time to play and, judging by my lukewarm reaction to Babel, will probably be immensely popular. But let's just make this the last one about an uncaring world unless you can make us care about the game regardless.



Letters from Home (Roger Firth) Z-Machine:
Basically, take Erehwon from last year and s/math/verbal/. This has a bunch of things you'll probably like if you're good at cryptic crosswords. I like them enough to follow along with the walkthrough but not enough to try and solve it; the looks I got in passing suggest that most of the puzzles are probably solvable, but you'll need to hit hints for some.



Masquerade (Kathleen M. Fischer) Z-Machine:
I haven't played Plundered Hearts so I can't really say if this is better or worse. I suspect it's pretty close to what you'd get if the author was told to make another one like it "but with dialogue menus; oh, and you have a third as much game to do it in, but you have to include the same amount of plot." It works pretty well, all things considered. There were two stuck points where it looked like an error but turned out to be a guess-the-verb, but other than that it went smoothly, so the only problem was the forced plot. To do this kind of character development you need a bunch of interaction between the two people who are going to hook up; Fischer attempts to disguise the fact that she doesn't have the time/space to do enough interaction by doing a series of small interactions. This is a good trick, and one to keep in mind, but it doesn't quite work well enough. On the other hand, romance novels are all cliches anyway, enough so that your brain will make up the rest of the backstory to a certain extent. Summary: fun, play it if you like this sort of thing.



Metamorphoses (Emily Short [Emily Short]) Z-Machine:
The image to keep in mind when playing Metamorphoses is a Faberge egg, or one of those elaborate cuckoo clocks with the quarter-hour chimes and the little figures that come out and do a little dance. Beautiful, painstakingly hand-crafted by an old master of the art, full of surprises, but ultimately somewhat mechanical.

Possibly it's better appreciated as a toy than as a game; there are lots of cool things to play with, and more or less everything is handled Correctly. It's a fun game, it's great to wander around it, like exploring an art museum crossed with a science museum. But the heart, the human side, of Metamorphoses is so tiny and half-formed that it makes me wish it had either been more developed or deleted altogether; either would have made a smoother whole.



Punk Points (Jim Munroe) Z-Machine:
A fun little game about a badass middle-schooler out to kick some booty. Or at least, he thinks about it that way — how punk can a thirteen year old be, exactly? And in fact part of the humor in the game comes from the fact that you're a wanna-be. If you remove the punk it's kind of a standard school game; there's various teachers and students you interact with and scenes in and out of class. But it's handled well enough, and doin' it punk style keeps it fresh enough to please. You'll probably need some hints, but not that many once you get into the swing of things.



Stupid Kittens (Pollyanna Huffington) Z-Machine:
This is this year's Death To My Enemies. I think that pretty much says it all, really.



YAGWAD (Digby McWiggle [John Kean]) Z-Machine:
It's kind of a parody and kind of a standard fantasy game. It's got some enchanter-style spells but they seem to be thrown in as an afterthought, or at least aren't the centerpiece of the game like spells usually are. There's a dragon, of course, and a magic weapon and stuff. There are puzzles of various difficulty, definitely hitting all the points from "easy" to "no real way I could have figured that out". If this hasn't turned you totally off, you'll probably enjoy the game. It had some humorous bits, like you'd expect from this author, but it's basically not as original or as good as Kean's previous effort, Downtown Tokyo. Present Day..



Recommended Games

Ad Verbum (Nick Montfort) Z-Machine:
Possibly this should have edged out Letters from Home as That Kind of Game. This is more directly in the vein of Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It, I think, with less emphasis on any pretense of story or location and cutting straight to the puzzles. But that's not a bad thing. As the hints say, you will probably need a thesaurus.



And the Waves Choke the Wind (Gunther Schmidl) Z-Machine:
This is a demo (ie, the first chapter/first ten points) of Schmidl's Big Game. As such it feels more like a showcase of what the whole game will be like than a game in itself. And the Waves Choke the Wind has fighting, exploration, pirates, dream sequences, and weird unearthly beasts from beyond. Oh, and conversation menus. Unfortunately they're all jumbled together, with none ever being useful so much as visible. If you're dying for a Lovecraft fix right now, it's probably worth checking this out, but otherwise I'd probably suggest waiting for the full epic.



Being Andrew Plotkin (Celie Paradis [J. Robinson Wheeler]) Z-Machine:
Oh, man, what a disappointment. In a sense it's inevitable — the title was clearly divine inspiration so perhaps it's unfair to expect the rest of the game to live up to it. But, hrm. There are a number of hilarious bits (one of which gets stuck in my mouth, and it's actually funny, so I can't complain), but then the game has been going kind of longer than it should anyway, following the movie perhaps a bit too slavishly, when wham, I hit this big puzzle. It turns out later I was hitting mostly an unfortunate series of parser bugs, but urk. Games like this shouldn't have any puzzles; if the player has to stop to think they aren't going to laugh as much.



The Big Mama (Brendan Barnwell) Z-Machine:
Somewhat amateur writing and plot; the game itself is basically nothing but static NPCs with conversation menus attached. It is possible that this game is sufficient to raise the average number of endings per game in the comp to two or three.



Castle Amnos (John Evans) Z-Machine:
Fantasy game, castle, magic. Probably interesting if gotten into, but I gave up pretty quickly and so did a bunch of people. I'm not sure if this is a symptom of it being a comp game or just bad.



Comp00ter Game (Austin Thorvald [Brendan Barnwell]) Z-Machine:
Ok, I liked this, but it'll make no sense unless you've seen this: http://www.somethingawful.com/jeffk/.



Desert Heat (Papillon) TADS 2:
A choose-your-own adventure style desert princess game, with BDSM thrown in for good measure. If this is your thing, this is your thing. It is not my thing (I don't really care for choose-your-own adventures).



Dinner with Andre (Liza Daly) Z-Machine:
A somewhat ditzy chyk on her worst date ever. Torn clothes, ex-boyfriend, snotty waiter, and that's before it gets bad. There was definitely some disagreement over whether the zany antics worked. For me, definitely. There were some minor parser bugs and there is a somewhat incongruous puzzle making up most of the last third of the game. On the other hand, it's funny. So I'm all for it.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



The Djinni Chronicles (J.D. Berry) Z-Machine:
Cool. Not fully realized, some actions somewhat confusing, character shifts confusing, ending a bit of a letdown, but original (yay) and good (yay). Fantasy, but it's weird fantasy.



The End Means Escape (D.O. [Stephen Kodat]) TADS 2:
About five acts, each totally unrelated, all completely surreal and bizarre. They have mixed success. The first is probably the best, and then it gets either less-inspired or more confusing (the bad kind of confusing) from there. The last act is an appropriate capper, however, with the right length/interest ratio.



Futz Mutz (Tim Simmons) TADS 2:
Like 1-2-3..., you want to separate out the gameplay here from the writing. Gameplay-wise, it's pretty good. Fun use of html-tads in a casual way, not important but adding to the game experience, ok puzzles, that kind of thing. But then for some reason, presumably because he was raised by wolves, the author has peppered the game with all these bizarrely awful things that "juvenile" is too high-class for. Even as a kid, I wouldn't have written the massively offensive 1920's-boy's-novel dialogue given to the black or asian NPCs, and while I might have put in a "TADS r00lz, Inform dr00lz!" line, I certainly would have been better behaved than to put in gratuitous, sexist slams at other IF authors. So, I dunno. Play this if you can separate the two. If not, no loss.



Got ID? (Marc Valhara) Z-Machine:
You're this high-school kid trying to scam some beer at the local 7-11. You fail in the first ten turns or so. Then you wander around aimlessly not knowing what to do next until you quit. At least, that's what I did. There are any number of funny jokes and refs in here, but they were all lost for me when I didn't have any idea what I was supposed to be doing. I guess if there was a walkthrough, I would have gone for it.



Guess The Verb! (Leonard Richardson) Z-Machine:
Fun. I thought the hardest puzzle was actually the beginning one, or at least it made me think, which is always painful. The rest of the sub-puzzles were a laugh, and I am all for it.



Infil-traitor (Anonymous [Chris Charla]) BASIC:
So the author has posted that this is in fact not from 1982, it's original. Even with that, it's still fine. Really. This is perhaps the only case where a minimalist authoring system works with the game. There are lots of unimplemented things and so on, but it's a nice bit of retro spy fun.



Jarod's Journey (Tim Emmerich) TADS 2:
What this is intended as is sort of a Pilgrim's Progress deal where you, Everyman, wander through a landscape filled with archetypal people leading you to insights about the true meaning of Christianity. It's not really a well-done game or even a game at all so much as a series of dioramas, but that doesn't mean it can't be (unintentionally) funny and diverting as a character study of the author.



The Masque of the Last Faeries (Ian R Ball) Z-Machine:
You're invited to a costume ball, everyone in disguise and reading bad poetry. Then there's a revelation. Then another revelation. Then the game gets all buggy and doesn't work right. Which is a pity since up til then it was a series of good ideas, or at least a suggestion of potential for them. I expect release 2, if there is one, will be great.



My Angel (Jon Ingold) Z-Machine:
The term "Fru-fru literary stuff" was invented for this game. The puzzles are .. "bizarre" is the only word I can think of. But with walkthrough in hand, boggling at the solutions, I persisted, and, mm, it was fun. But, like, fun in a reading-a-novel sort of way.



Nevermore (Nate Cull) Z-Machine:
Hrm. The plot is, basically, you're an alchemist trying to figure out how to do stuff, in an Edgar Allen Poe type gothic setting. This is all pretty good. It sets a mood, complete with weird drugs and hallucinations and memories, has the right setting, and all that kind of thing. The puzzles could be spelled out perhaps a bit better. The main flaw, I guess, is you're this expert alchemist who can draw up demons and so on, but you-the-player don't know how to do any of it. So you have to recreate the whole discovery process which, to me, feels extremely artificial. It'd be like implementing my life as a programmer and instead of being able to do >WRITE CODE, the player would actually have to enter the relevant C++ code they wanted to compile.



Prodly the Puffin (Wilber Nooseworthy [Craig Timpany] and Incontinent Pineapple Van Buren [Jim Crawford]) Z-Machine:
Yeeeeeah Pokey. I fully agree this is the IF game the Pokey author would make. I'm not positive this makes it a good game.



Rameses (Stephen Bond) Z-Machine:
This game is obviously going to provoke a debate about the nature of IF, given its brilliant writing and total lack of interaction. I think, tentatively, I'm coming down on the side of it not being better as IF. I know there's the magic word "complicity" which Zarf is so fond of, and I bought it in Photopia, but I don't buy it here. I guess the problem is, the game is about frustrating with your stupid life and useless position and nothing's going the way you want and nobody likes you and — and life isn't like that. Really. Play the game for the writing, sure, but you wouldn't really lose anything if it were just a transcript.



Return to Zork: Another Story (Stefano Canali) Z-Machine:
This is not as bad as you think it is going to be. For a (much smaller) group of people reading this, it is not as good as you think it is going to be. It has a little bit of Zork content, some puzzles which are really quite decent and solvable without hints, and writing which is amusing, if only because it demonstrates a slightly imperfect grasp of English. But it's long and somewhat tedious enough that when I got into an unwinnable situation near the end I quit rather than replaying to see the ending.



Shade (Ampe R. Sand [Andrew Plotkin]) Z-Machine:
This was pretty good. It is mm. It didn't get quite as creepy as Anchorhead, but obviously that one had a lot more setup time. The timing is definitely a little tricky and it's easy to get stuck; it may help to re-check your to-do list at some points (this is why I was surprised to see it was by Zarf, who is normally a more, mm, precise coder) (also the only thing keeping it from being highly recommended).



Threading the Labyrinth (Kevin F. Doughty) TADS 2:
This is only recommended because it is so short and therefore, technically, it will be worth the time invested. Other than that it is completely forgettable.



Transfer (Tod Levi) Z-Machine:
This is not a mystery, but it's like a mystery. I hate these games. I don't know what it is. Possibly I hate weak NPCs, and these always strap NPCs down onto a table and expose the flaws of current technology one by one. Also I hate timing puzzles. Hate hate hate it all. Using the walkthrough it was a pretty good sf story, although a little long.



Unnkulia X (Valentine Kopteltsev) TADS 2:
This is an unnkulia game written by a fan of the unnkulia games. This is apparent. It is very large. It is kind of fun. It is way way more than two hours. You could perhaps use the walkthrough.



Not Recommended Games

1-2-3... (Chris Mudd) Z-Machine:
Hrm. This is one of those games where it's probably helpful to evaluate the gameplay and plot/story separately. It's a detective story/thriller, so you spend a lot of time asking people about stuff, and it's not really well done, as detective games with NPCs often aren't. But there's a walkthrough, so it could be worse. The bits from the perspective of the criminal are pretty linear game-play wise, so that's fine. However. The writing is icky. Ick ick ick. The serial killer's actions are detailed way more explicitly than I want, and while in a sense it's good that it causes a reaction in the player, that's basically a specious argument — like putting 'nigger' in a speech and thinking you're a great orator when people are provoked.



Aftermath (Graham Somerville) TADS 2:
You know how people were griping about games being entered without being beta-tested? This is one of the ones that made them cry. There's some vaguely intriguing stuff about a war and peace and dead bodies but it's literally unplayable without a walkthrough, although the first turns do nicely capture the feel of being trapped under a pile of corpses by not parsing most of the commands you try.



Asendent (Sourdoh Farenheit [Doug Jones] and Kelvin Flatbred [Nate Cull]) Z-Machine:
It's more clever than you think it is, but not much more. The secretary puzzle is worth a point on its own, though. Also, the first room has an up exit.



At Wit's End (Mike J. Sousa) TADS 2:
This is not recommended, but if you just play, like, the first three scenes, it's a fun little game. I don't know what happened after that; I assume Sousa's beta-testers got that far and didn't have time to get farther, so they couldn't point out all the problems. The plot is you're a baseball player about to have the most eventful few days of your life. There are car chases and boat chases and airplane chases and so on. The writing is pretty good and gives a nice sense of place and person which, for me, is pretty unusual for a game set in a non-fantastic setting. However. The puzzles, oh god. I really don't know what Sousa was thinking. There's no way he could have had anyone else look at the second half of the game; no matter who they were, anyone would have told him there was a problem. They might have mentioned that the time limit was too short, the puzzles were too non-intuitive, and the few brief places where "realism" was introduced in the world model it was annoying (and those places were generally right next to places where realism was noticably missing). You could in theory play this with the walkthrough, but I'm so frustrated that a fun little game spiralled totally down the tubes at the midway point that I can't really recommend it.



The Best Man (Rob Menke) Z-Machine:
Some kind of story about a train with bad guys kidnapping somebody and you're trying to save yourself and you'll get killed in the first couple turns if you hadn't died previously and then read the hints. Or whatever. I worked with the hints for a while but it appeared to not get much better, so I quit.



Breaking the Code (Anonymous [Gunther Schmidl]) Z-Machine:
This is not a game, it's a political protest.



The Clock (Cleopatra Kozlowski) TADS 2:
This is the second game someone writes, right after they implement their apartment. This shouldn't really have been entered either. At least, get a beta-tester or two.



Enlisted (G.F. Berry) Z-Machine:
Maze. Arrgh. Partly it's about the perils of simulation, though. There is some good stuff about a spaceship and the marines and so on trying to get out. But man, that maze was crapola. And then it turns out you have to go through it like three times. Wow. I can't even begin to think who would call that a good idea. If you have to apologize for something in the readme, don't you think it's a bad idea to put it in?



Escape from Crulistan (Alan Smithee) Windows Exe:
Sort of a weird game system, no hints, puzzles badly clued, writing not good enough to stick with.



Happy Ever After (Robert M. Camisa) Z-Machine:
Not very well coded. Some kind of storyline here about a chyk from the past you're in love with or something. I was using the walkthrough almost the whole time so I didn't really notice.



Little Billy (Okey Ikeako) Windows Exe:
Linear, forgettable story about something or other. The main thing of note, I think, is that it's written on an adventure game engine (which is of course clearly unsuited for the job), so even though there's no combat and no takeable items, all the characters have values listed for hit points and inventory.



Marooned (Bruce Davis) ADRIFT:
The best part of this game is actually in the readme:
This game is based in the true story of Daniel Foss, who was shipwrecked on a tiny island in the 1800's. He survived on that island for five years and during that time, he ate nothing but seals.
Sadly, the actual game is not really based on this. Or at least there's no graphic seal-eating action. Instead you wander around one step ahead of a hunger timer which will generally catch up to you unless you watch your moves very carefully. The writing is so-so, the puzzles are not that good, that kind of thing. It does, however, feature a monkey, to which you can give a banana.



On The Other Side (Lumpi [Antonio Marquez Marin]) DOS Exe:
The gimmick here is, like the title says, you're on the other side. You have the job to create a world that an adventurer, played by the computer, wanders around in. The thing is, basically, computers are much better at world modelling than exploration, and to make it worse, you're basically being asked to write an interesting game in two hours. And then you do it, and the computer isn't intelligent enough to appreciate anything you've done, so what was the point?



The Pickpocket (Alex Weldon) Z-Machine:
This game doesn't have a very interesting story, it's not obvious what to do so you end up wandering around a lot, and the puzzles are extremely poorly clued. Once it was pointed out to me that debug mode was still on, I was able to make some more progress, but, really, it wasn't worth it with 52 other games or however many there are.



Planet of the Infinite Minds (Alfredo Garcia) Z-Machine:
Maze. Arrrgh.



The Trip (Cameron Wilkin) TADS 2:
It's got some interesting bits, but basically the intro is very long, and then the required bits are relatively short. So you get through the intro to where the game should have started, and then you get stuck and use the walkthrough, which doesn't show you any of the optional interesting bits. So then you finish the game, and think "man, that wasn't very good".



This is, hrm. It's not as good as Outsided, which I think is kind of the ideal if you aren't going to make an sf game that's, like, intellectual. There's some kind of spy plot or stealing something or whatever, and you shoot people and it's all AGT and really not very interesting.



What-IF? (David Ledgard) Z-Machine:
This is not a game, it's bad alt-fiction and a lousy interface. Now I feel bad I gave Human Resources Stories a 1.



Withdrawal symptoms (Niclas Carlsson) Z-Machine:
This is a pure-puzzle game set in a bank. The plot isn't a problem nor is the writing quality given the kind of game it is, but what is a problem is that the puzzles are non-intuitive and not well-explained. The main saving grace is that it's short.



Wrecked (Campbell Wild) ADRIFT:
This is one of those old-sk00l games that were popular in the 80's but not now. You wander around a village looking for some random objective, solving puzzles because they happen to be there, not because they're clearly getting you closer to your goal. The writing is adequate but, unfortunately, not good enough to make the game worth playing in spite of the puzzles and plot.



Why are these reviews so damn cranky?
I'm putting this first because it may be important. Someone said "hey, it doesn't sound like you like these 'highly recommended' games all that much". Which, erm, is kind of true. I'm not positive how much to attribute to 54-game fatigue and how much to attribute to the games just not being as good. Some of the games I have rated highly recommended would, in a "normal" year (bearing in mind this is only the third year I've done intensive reviews), just be recommended.

The idea here is that I don't consider "not recommended" games worth the time to play, "recommended" games are, and "highly recommended" games are the best of the "recommended" games. Ideally a game marked "highly recommended" would be so whatever year it appeared, but not necessarily.

But back to crankiness. I only have X hours, I want to play all the games, something's got to give, and it's generally my temper. I'm pretty sure I was harsher on games in general when they had typoes or mildly difficult puzzles or bad writing; I'm definitely sure I was harsher on games that didn't provide a walkthrough or hints.

I'm kind of sorry it turned out this way. Feel free to magically make less games happen next year, or help me work out some better way to play all the games more comfortably in the same amount of time.

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