2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition. I play/review as many games as possible depending on my current platform (windows or linux); this means tads, inform, hugo and usually also alan, adrift, quest, and windows/msdos executables. When I'm on a windows machine I use multimedia interpreters where appropriate.

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

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

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

Highly Recommended Games

The Atomic Heart (Stefan Blixt) Z-Machine:
The protagonist of this game is a robot, and like such games as Bad Machine or LASH, The Atomic Heart is interested in the concept of free will. Unfortunately, at times the game gives the player too much free will: "Here's a big deserted city," it says, "go wander around looking for something to do." While there is some atmospheric value in wandering around the city trying to figure out what's going on, I would have liked a little more guidance and a little less "hey, this looks like a puzzle, guess I'd better try and solve it." And, in fact, the game was able to provide the necessary motivation — it just curiously puts the encounter almost at the end of the game, instead of earlier where it would have done some good (but perhaps that's due to the unguided nature of the game, and other players encountered it sooner).

The other major gripe I have about this game has to do with phrasing issues: if you're going to have a setup where a lot of plugging and unplugging cables is required, please make sure that >PLUG, >CONNECT, >ATTACH, etc all work, and do not provide confusing default error messages. Furthermore, if there are multiple cables but each one can only go into one kind of slot, please work this out for me: do not always go asking me "Which cable do you mean, the foo cable or the bar cable?" when it should be obvious based on what I'm plugging into. Finally, if I am going around on a vehicle and doing a lot of getting in and getting-out, please do not make me go through eighty-seven steps to get into the vehicle and start it up each time. Thank you.

I see this has turned into one of those reviews where most of it is gripes, so I should clarify that I liked the game quite a bit: it showed that there is still stuff to do with the robots-and-free-will theme, provided a decent setting, and had a nicely evolving frame scene around the whole thing. Just, hrm, if you were going to play this it might be worth waiting a bit after the comp to see if the author was going to iron out any of the phrasing issues.



The Erudition Chamber (Daniel Freas) TADS 2:
This is a pretty standard game concept, executed in a professional manner. You're some guy that's been sent into this puzzle area and you have to, like, solve the puzzles. There's some frame story about how you're being tested or punished or something, but that only matters insofar as it sets up the theme that each puzzle has four kinds of solutions (physical brute force, mental brute force, analysis, and evasion) (if some of these sound similar, well, it's probably because this is an IF game and not real life, and so, say, physical and mental brute force are really both pretty similar from the player's perspective, and sometimes it's hard to distinguish between trying to figure a puzzle out and waiting for it to go away — but still, it's a good idea and adds some good replay value). At the end it gives you a little score for how many of each kind of solution you used. If you like puzzles this is worth a shot, especially if you like multiple solutions. If not this doesn't have much to offer, but hey, I like puzzles.



Gourmet (Aaron A. Reed) Z-Machine:
It's a pity this game isn't quite as bugfree as it could be, because it's otherwise great. Like the title sort of suggests, in Gourmet you play a chef on opening night of your new restaurant. The good news for the PC is that there are ingredients in the fridge and a big critic coming to review the restaurant. The bad news is, well, everything else: when you hear that there are pneumatic tubes to serve the food, a lobster in a tank, and knives in the drawer I need hardly mention that zany antics ensue. To digress for a minute, there are basically two kinds of comedy you can put in an IF game: you can write funny lines, which lots of games do, or you can write funny scenes, which hardly any games do (Fine Tuned being one of the notable exceptions, as was the also-restaurant-themed Dinner with Andre). Or, rather, hardly any games do it well: "you are a fat goofball wearing nothing but underwear" is an attempt to write a funny scene, even if it doesn't, like, work. Gourmet is a funny-scene game, and manages to pull it off, getting the PC to perform one bit of slapstick after another. The only gripe I'd say is with the bugs; the first half or two-thirds is fine, but just when the game starts to pick up speed on the antics, the errors start to kick in: there are some things with mistakes in the description, alternate solutions that don't work, and object actions that are incorrect. But, nevertheless, I was able to stagger through to a crashing conclusion, and you should too.



Risorgimento Represso (Michael Coyne) Z-Machine:
I am told there is an explanation for the title somewhere in the game, but I choose to persist in thinking that Risorgimento Represso is a kind of cheese. And speaking of cheese, this game has a lot of it, not only the Stilton variety but also the "You have a 5-cup and a 3-cup measure and need 4 cups of water" kind. Not to mention more toilet-related jokes than I've seen outside of My First Stupid Game. All that said, this was a pretty good example of the "You are transported into a fantasy land!!" genre. Besides the initial gripes, there were a couple places where it stopped being clear what to do next and I had to look at the hints for direction, but these problems were all more than made up for by solid implementation, some decent puzzles, and a fair amount of humor (most notably the getting-past-the-bear bit, which is staggering in its absurdity). If you only play one game this comp where the PC is transported into a wacky fantasy land (and I don't know why you'd want to play more than one), this is the one to play.



Slouching Towards Bedlam (Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto) Z-Machine:
Ok, folks, this is the way to do it. Take an original steampunk-esque setting, throw in some weird architecture and strange devices, decent writing with some especially nice scenes, and then run the PC through it all with a plot that's built in the context of the world but adds something new on top of it. There are text dumps that should have been broken up, a few rooms that could have been trimmed, a few places where I got off the plot track and had to hit the hints (and then the hints are mostly laid out by location instead of by plot thread, which makes it kind of a pain to figure out what to do next), I'm not convinced messing with the meta commands was necessary — and what was up with the cricket? But these are all quibbles. This is a great game. Go play it.



Recommended Games

Adoo's Stinky Story (B. Perry) Z-Machine:
Although technically this game is quite good, with NPCs that wander around and do stuff, and no real bugs that I noted, plotwise it requires so much suspension of disbelief that it should come with support cables. To list a few of the less plausible things:

I dunno. Adoo's Stinky Story is a good-natured but absurd story; I don't think it's intentionally silly, but if it is, it doesn't really work like that either — in that case it's not silly (or funny) enough. On the other hand, it's got a few puzzles and some fun toys to play with, so hey.



The Adventures of the President of the United States (Mikko Vuorinen) Alan:
Even though most of the puzzles are basically impossible to understand without the hints, I had a good time, because — well, there's a room called "Canada", that says "To the west is Alaska and to the south the rest of the United States." and this makes me laugh and laugh. It is small but extremely geographic.



Baluthar (Chris Molloy Wischer) Z-Machine:
This was a perfectly decent section of a fantasy-horror game. It had some ok puzzles, some suitably creepy scenes, and weird stuff going on. The only problem is that it's a section, it's not really a full game, and when it ends there are too many loose ends left unanswered, and not a feeling of having accomplished anything lasting. That said, it's good to play through, solidly implemented, and has hints if you get stuck. Oh, yeah, and "Rykhard" is a totally lame fantasy-ization of "Richard".



CaffeiNation (Michael Loegering) Z-Machine:
This is not entirely dissimilar to coffee quest II, being a coffee-focused office comedy, but it's much wider than that game: most of the puzzles here have several solutions and there are areas that you don't have to go into at all on a particular run of the game. The downside here is that the author seems to consider them all equally appealing and hasn't made any effort to guide you in any particular direction. This leads to me wandering around, trying some puzzles and doing things, but not being sure why I wanted to do that, or if this puzzle is solvable at the moment at all or maybe I should be working on something else. Probably Loegering would have been better off taking some of the effort he spent adding on multiple solutions, and instead grafting some plot and subgoals onto the game. But if you're the sort of person who likes exploring every last bit of a game this is a good choice: some of the puzzles are difficult or not quite fair but there's sufficient help in the hint file to get you through it.



Cerulean Stowaway (Roger Descheneaux) TADS 2:
Cerulean Stowaway is a pretty good game, with a reasonable blend of story and puzzles, and a gently humorous writing style. Unfortunately, it's also kind of old school, and by that I mean that it is really easy to make the game unwinnable without realizing it, and then have to restore/restart. There's a major one-way trip you take in this game, and it's not necessary to have all the important objects before taking it (or even to realize you're missing some), and then once you arrive you have to solve some puzzles, and it's easy to use up something you need for one puzzle on the wrong puzzle, and then bam, you're stuck again. Were it not for this design decision, I'd be scoring the game higher: the individual puzzles are all pretty good and Cerulean Stowaway is fun to play. Except when I had to restart for the fifth time.



Episode in the Life of an Artist (Peter Eastman) TADS 2:
After the intro, I was surprised to find myself liking this game. "Oh man," I thought, "Misquotations and first-person tense in a game set in your apartment." But somehow as Episode in the Life of an Artist went on I found myself warming to the protagonist, a nebbishy loser who quickly finds himself out of his depth. There's still not much there, in terms of story or puzzles, but the PC was appealing enough to carry me on through.



little girl in the big world (Peter Wendrich) Windows Exe:
This is on the recommended list mostly because it has an intriguing premise and it's short. The homegrown parser isn't anything special: no real support for adjectives, no undo, the usual. Although it has an interesting split PC setup (that's more or less the intriguing premise right there, trying to figure out exactly who — or what — you're playing) it's nothing that couldn't have been done in a more standard system with all the benefits that implies.



The Recruit (Mike Sousa) TADS 2:
I'm marking this one subjective since I feel like I had a worse experience than perhaps it deserved, although I can't quite figure out why. The game is sort of a meta-joke: here are 7 puzzles, each a standard IF kind (lock/key, darkness, etc), go solve them. The scenes are all solidly implemented enough, but enh. The ones that I got into I generally ended up stalling out on due to some weird syntax thing, and then pretty quickly I ended up just reading the hints all the time. I dunno — it's probably worth checking out and seeing if you have a better experience than I did.



Sardoria (Anssi Raisanen) Alan:
I like this game — it is a pleasant enough generic fantasy game with hints for the few times I got stuck — but I do wonder why the king sleeps in the middle of his palace surrounded by a maze of traps. Like, how do courtiers come get him in the morning? And what if he has to get up to use the lavatory in the middle of the night? Wouldn't it be embarrassing to be snared by a booby trap and have to wait around in your pajamas for somebody to let you out? Though I am willing to suspend my disbelief to play an IF game Sardoria seems to ask it to be held a trifle further than is really necessary. Since it's an Alan game there were a couple parsing issues, but it's not that big a deal. The lack of undo, especially, was mitigated by an auto-restore feature that kicks in whenever you lose.



Scavenger (Quintin Stone) TADS 2:
I would have scored Scavenger a point or two higher if the setting had been more original, I think. Otherwise it is quite well done: it's just the right length for a comp game, has decent writing, has good puzzles with multiple solutions, and decent characterization of the few NPCs you interact with. But the setting, enh. It's the usual post-nuclear-war setting where people wander around scavenging stuff and dealing with the Big Corporations that are in charge now. And, c'mon, even if you're going to give us a setting that's been used before, at least give us a more original plot than "retrieve the magic whatsit." But hey, the game's still worth a shot, and if you're not burned out on pseudo-cyberpunk, all the better.



Shadows On The Mirror (Chrysoula Tzavelas) TADS 3:
I am pleased as can be that there's somebody else out there doing conversation-based games besides Emily Short; I just wish I liked this attempt better. It's not bad, let me say right off, but it failed to grip me to the degree that I would have expected given the quality of the writing and the complexity of the backstory Tzavelas obviously has worked out (a storyline which you get glimpses of throughout the game, but frustratingly never get close to a full understanding). I'm not sure what the problems were.

Part of the problem, for me, is that there's a time limit for the first part of the game. So I'm sitting there talking to the guy, restarting every ten turns or whatever because I keep losing, trying to find the right conversation topics to make me not lose (and occasionally stalling out there, and then grumbling because the topics suggested by >TOPICS are hardly ever useful for getting back on track), and then finally I give up and look at the hints, and argh, the solution isn't a conversation-based one at all. What's up with that?

My other gripe with the game is the character of your conversation partner. Tzavelas has taken what feels like a standard novelist's approach to the characterization in this game: the protagonist is fairly well-known, with little details being drawn out and discussed, and the NPC, Galen, is something of an enigma who mostly acts as a sounding board for the PC, at least in the first part of the game. The problem is that this is exactly backwards for how IF characterization tends to work. Because the PC is "me" I already feel like I know about myself — it's the other people I want to find out about. Making Galen the strong, silent type exacerbates the problem: not only do I not find out much about him, he leaves all the suggesting of topics up to me too. While I don't think he needs to be as chatty as the NPC in Best of Three, it would have been nice if Galen said something once in a while to push the conversation along and keep me from getting stuck.

Anyway, Shadows On The Mirror ends up feeling like a missed opportunity to me. It's not bad, but I feel like it could have been great if it hadn't derailed.



Sophie's Adventure (David Whyld) ADRIFT:
Hmm. Ok, it's a better parody than Amnesia, and has some genuinely funny bits, even though Generic Fantasy is pretty well-trod ground for satire ever since Bored of the Rings. Unfortunately, it's also pretty long; probably too long for a comp game, and definitely long enough to overstay its welcome as a light parody. This is made more true by the long infodumps that occur with distressing regularity. Coding-wise it's reasonably done but not brilliant: I ran into a fair amount of missing-phrasings and similar, and there was one bizarre point where the disambiguation for the crystal objects seemed to be completely broken and had to be hacked around by the author. I got through the first bit of the game on my own, the next bit with the walkthrough, and then for the last bit of the game the walkthrough failed me (sigh). So I cannot tell you if the evil skeleton lord triumphs in the end, but I am thinking not.



Sweet Dreams (Papillon) Windows Exe:
Like many other games (I count five total) in this comp, Sweet Dreams is about a normal person who gets transported to a fantasy world. Unlike many other games in the comp, Sweet Dreams is graphical. As usual with new IF systems, I feel like I need to review the game and the system separately. So, on that note: the game is a pretty slight thing, presumably intended mostly as a test of the system. Players of Papillion's previous work will be surprised to hear there is hardly any lesbian subtext in the game, but nevertheless it's fine as far as it goes (which isn't far). There are a handful of puzzles which exercise the interface and they're not too bad. The interface, on the other hand, needs some work. First off, there are some collision-detection issues moving around the hallways or big objects. This is especially annoying when navigating with the mouse, which never lets you stand still for some reason: when you click on a spot and arrive there, it keeps you walking around in circles. Speaking of moving around, there's nothing like getting a "You can't interact with that, it's too far away" message to make me appreciate the abstract rooms of text games — how about, you know, automatically walking me over to the object if I'm too far away to interact with it? The other graphical-game-grumble here was a similar thing to AGON (part 1), mood for the room, but it's annoying that only three of the objects in the scene are can be interacted with, and I don't know which they are unless I happen to mouse over them. There's one item in particular that frustrated me, where the item as a whole wasn't implemented (not even a "That's just scenery" object — it was treated as just being part of the backdrop) but a part of the item was vital to get. Sigh. Anyway, this is an interesting experiment, and unlike most homegrown IF systems, this one actually provides something that Inform or TADS or Hugo doesn't. It's a pity the game written with it wasn't any meatier, though — I'd be interested to see Papillion do something else with this that's more of a real game.



Not Recommended Games

Amnesia (crazydwarf [Dustin Rhodes]) TADS 2:
Ok, since some people seem to have missed this, I should point out Amnesia is a parody. Not a good parody, but a parody. I'm interested in humor from a theoretical perspective so I am curious why the satire felt so blunted. I think what it comes down to is crazydwarf recognized a couple obvious cliches in IF (amnesia, islands, cramped ecosystems, mazes) but didn't have a good enough understanding of the cliche to know what to do with it to make it funny. Like, say, Amnesia has a maze that consists of a room saying "This is a maze, ha ha." Save Princeton had a maze that looked like a regular maze, but when you dropped objects to try and map it, it said "Ok, ok, I see you know how to handle these, let's just skip to the end." Or Amnesia has this jungle, which has a line about "ok, all these ecosystems are squashed together". But just pointing out something is a cliche isn't particularly funny — taking that idea and doing something with it is funny, carrying it to extremes or turning it around and carrying the reverse to an extreme. Probably the real moral here is not to try a parody as your first game; wait until you've got some more experience with the genre you're trying to parody so you'll have more to say and the satire will stay on target.



Bio (David Linder) TADS 2:
This feels like the sort of game you write before you find out about beta-testing. While the game is finishable with the help of the included walkthrough, there are too many bugs (wearing the bandage without being injured), guess-the-thingys (what to ask anyone about), and inconsistencies (why can only one lock be picked? why can only one object be destroyed by the acid?) to make it an enjoyable playthrough. Conceivably this could be cleaned up, but the author would probably be better off starting off on another game and budgeting some time for beta-testing into their plans.



Curse of Manorland (James King) AGT:
Curse of Manorland is another Peter-Berman-type wacky-story game. You will be surprised to hear that the protagonist is a girl from the modern world transported into a fantasy world, although the "fantasy" tag seems to mean only that it has a king and a pirate ship along with the hotel and minefield. Normally I am fond of these zany sorts of games but this one was curiously uninspiring, despite having all the right elements — a giant vulture, picnickers, a jetpack. Maybe it's just that this is an AGT game and the parsing isn't quite up to snuff, and I was mostly wandering around instead of getting carried along by a wacky plot.



Delvyn (Santoonie Corporation [William A. Tilli]) TADS 2:
Another adventure from our friends at Santoonie Corp. This one seems to have been done with a little less attention than their previous effort, given that there's no description in the first room, a hunger daemon that kicks in ten turns after you are described as eating a full plate of pancakes, and so on. They did take the time to implement a full cross-dressing system, though. Besides all that, in its current state it's not beatable without hints, so until either they're added or the game quality is improved, even fans of Santoonie's style should probably stay away.



Domicile (John Evans) Z-Machine:
Sigh. Although Domicile has a nice premise, some interesting places to visit, and a suggestive backstory, it's also massively buggy, impossible to get much of anywhere in without hints, and has a terrible hint system. Also it may well be unfinishable. Check back on this game in a couple months; if the author's gotten a revised version or two out it may be really cool.



The Fat Lardo And The Rubber Ducky (Somebody) Z-Machine:



Hercules First Labor (Bob Brown) HTML:
Ok, points for doing a game in javascript or whatever this is (maybe some ActiveX stuff, since people were complaining it didn't work on non-Windows platforms). But pretty much everything else isn't really there — weak writing, puzzles are lame and hard to figure out, rooms are barely described, etc. Once again, an argument for spending the time working with an existing IF system instead of writing your own, especially if you're not going to do anything that couldn't be done with an existing system (and if you say "this can run in a web browser and existing systems can't," you're still wrong, since there's ZPlet and Jetty).



Internal Documents (Tom Lechner) Z-Machine:
William Zinsser, in one of his writing books, says that novice journalists generally write two or three unnecessary paragraphs at the beginning of their stories. They don't add anything to the story, they're just there because the journalist was warming up, and an editor can cut them fearlessly. Internal Documents's whole opening sequence is like that — it has you go into town and then wander through the outdoors for a while before reaching the estate you have to investigate. This all should have been sliced, since there is almost nothing implemented, and totally nothing relevant implemented, in the whole outside area. This hypothetical editor would have taken a red pen to much of the interior of the mansion too: it consists of a bunch of mostly-empty rooms, and then you go into the basement, which is a maze of mostly-empty rooms, and argh. There is a decent plot here, and one or two salvagable puzzles, and a decent sense of humor in the writing, but it'd require a hacksaw to get it out.



No Room (Ben Heaton) Z-Machine:
This is In the Spotlight again, but I'm even less thrilled with one-puzzle-which-I've-seen-already games than I was before. I agree this might be a good place to start learning Inform, but that doesn't mean it should be entered in the comp.



A Paper Moon (Andrew Krywaniuk) Z-Machine:
A Paper Moon promises better living through origami. But the manual in the first room which discusses origami is buggy and doesn't support most of the lookups I try, and already we're off to a bad start. This is another one of those "modern guy and his underpants transported to fantasy world" games, but this fantasy world is pretty much like the normal one except with less-well-clued puzzles (that said, the 'fill out the tax return' puzzle is pretty rough). If you're in the mood for Heroine's Mantle-style grinding away at puzzles you might like A Paper Moon but in the comp I wasn't and didn't much.



Rape, Pillage, Galore! (Kristian Kirsfeldt) Windows Exe:
This isn't really an IF game, despite having a prompt. Each turn you can type either >SLAY, which generates a random Arabian Nights-style fight chronicle; >LAY, which generates a random Arabian Nights-style smoochies scene; or >QUIT. I gravitated to the third option pretty quickly.



Temple of Kaos (Peter Gambles) TADS 2:
Temple of Kaos is this year's The End Means Escape or CC: the author has some story in mind but it's all Symbolic and Mysterious and Not Clear What The Hell Is Going On. I like the idea of having descriptions in poetic form but I'm not sure the poetry here is good enough to justify its inclusion. Similarly with the symbolic whatsits: there are some interesting ideas but they're not exotic enough to make up for their negative effect on gameplay. I was interested enough to use the walkthrough to finish, but if it weren't in the comp and I wasn't a completist I probably wouldn't have bothered.



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