2006 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 2006 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.

I'd like to add a little note before getting into the main set of reviews. In the past with my comp reviews I've tried to focus on providing a snappy summary of what the game is like for people who haven't played the game and are wondering if they'd like it. This year, for whatever reason, I've moved away from that for most of the reviews. Instead they're more along the continuum towards being analyses — discussions of what worked for me and what didn't and what I thought the author should do differently. Unfortunately, this means they're less likely to be useful for people who haven't played the game before. They may be slightly more opinionated than usual too, but presumably by now people are used to my sweeping pronouncements on what IF authors should do. Anyway, all that said, on to the reviews!

Highly Recommended Games

The Elysium Enigma (Eric Eve) TADS 3:
I think this is going to be a lot of people's favorite game. It's got a decent setting, a world big and detailed enough to explore but not so complicated that you can't understand all of it, a few NPCs but not too many, an interesting storyline that you can get fully in the time allotted but still explore further if you want, and a wide variety of puzzles, many of which are optional. It also feels subtly professional in a way that's hard to identify — I think it's a combination of a lot of built-in T3 library and module features (typo correction, lots of actions handled automatically, and other things emphasizing automatic ease-of-use) and authorial attention to detail in terms of message defaults and breadth of simulation.

Having said all this, I do of course have a couple complaints. One is with the story pacing — this is in some ways a mystery, and it was a little frustrating working out what was going on pretty early on but not being able to act on it immediately. Another is with some of the puzzles. This is pretty subjective, but a number of the puzzles felt way too, uh, IF-y. Like, things that you only have to do in a convoluted way because this is an IF game and otherwise there wouldn't be a puzzle. The final thing was the issue of moral greyness. This is clearly something the author's interested in — there is plenty of backstory to suggest the Empire folks aren't the good guys all the time. But in practice it never really pans out in the game — there doesn't seem to be a way for me to act as anything other than a loyal citizen of the Empire, and not even any hint from the other NPCs that I should be otherwise. But on balance these are pretty small gripes, and I totally recommend The Elysium Enigma.



Floatpoint (Emily Short) Glulx:
This is a hard game to review and I am not really going to review it. I have seen a couple versions and they've all been surprisingly different, even though a lot of the details have been shared. I can say that I really like the world-building — this is recognizably a foreign place, somewhere not Earth, and it has its own culture and values and morals. But it's not totally alien, either. There are places in Floatpoint where you can find common ground and connection with these people, no matter how different they are. Now, the really brilliant thing about the game is what I just said applies to every other character in the game. With each of them there are times you'll agree and sympathize, and times when they'll sound naive, crazy, or dangerous. The job of the player in Floatpoint is the universal job: to decide who to trust, what you believe, and, finally, what you'll do about it.

There is of course a bunch of other stuff I could say here. The writing is up to Short's usual high standards, and the endings are complex but satisfying. The main thing I'm not sure about with Floatpoint is the short-term interactions. This is impossible for me to really evaluate given my prior experience with it, but it seems like there's not enough direction for the player, not enough explanation of what they can do. This isn't to say there's nothing for them to do — goodness knows there's plenty here, maybe even too much — but finding it is a different matter.

I'm not sure Floatpoint is the best-designed game or even the best game of the comp, but if people are talking about one game from this competition five years from now, it'll be this one. And that should be reason enough to play it now.
(Disclaimer: I was an alpha-tester for this game and fairly intimately involved in the development)



Game Producer! (jason bergman) Z-Machine:
This is one of those games where they are fairly fun and I like the concept and the execution isn't bad, but it feels like with a little game design tweaking they could be, like, 25% more fun, and so it's a little frustrating. The deal is, you're a game producer (surprisingly enough) and you've got N hours to whip the other people at your company into shape to get the game to go gold. Unsurprisingly, they've all got crises going on, and pretty much as soon as you step into the office they pile four or five on you. This is great! It wouldn't be appropriate for every game, but for this storyline it is totally appropriate for the player to be going "aaaaah too much to cope with". The problem is that when you finally finish that batch and stand there panting, grateful for a moment's respite .. nothing happens. That's it. That's all the problems.

And the problems aren't even super-hard or complicated, either. One of them has the irritating feature that you get into an unwinnable state if you're not carrying the right object, but other than that, they generally take just a few moves to resolve. I hardly ever say this about a comp game, but I wish this game was, like, twice as long and twice as hard. I finished it with a top score on my second playthrough. This seems like not the right thing to shoot for with this kind of game, which is essentially a big optimization puzzle. It seems like there's a lot more that can be done with interlocking deadlines for things, additional problems coming up later, things you thought were solved falling apart again — you know, all the stuff that happens in real life when working at the last minute.

I definitely liked this game, I just wish there'd been more to it.



Legion (Ian Anderson [Jason Devlin]) Z-Machine:
Legion is an example of one of my favorite kind of comp games, the sort of game where you start out playing and don't know what the hell is going on, and gradually enlightenment filters in and you begin to have more and more ability to affect the environment, and finally you decide what to do to bring things to a conclusion and you do it. Among the things I like about Legion is that it actually builds this process of greater understanding into the game; if the timing's off this can be problematic, but for me, I really was getting a handle on things just as the game started to give me more freedom and information. I also like the different ending possibilities; these days I am all about the player choice and active decision-making, and this game hits that really well, giving a variety of endings you can get, and a variety of ways to get to an ending. The only thing I was sorry not to see was more plot. I know there's only a limited amount of stuff you can fit into a comp release, but I thought it was a pity that once you got into the main area, the action's entirely driven by the player. Oh, and >EXPRESS could maybe have gotten more usage — it's important at the end, but it's hard for the player to learn a new command at the end of the game. These are only small complaints, and this is the sort of game you shouldn't know too much about before playing, so really, just go see for yourself; you won't be sorry.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



The Primrose Path (Nolan Bonvouloir) Z-Machine:
I'm about at the halfway mark in the comp, so it is cool to get a game like this, absolutely my favorite of the ones I've played so far. This isn't just because I like games which start by someone giving you a magical whatsit that lets you travel to other places, although that always helps. It's because there's a complex backstory (that I still don't understand, but this doesn't detract from the pleasure of exploring it), nice writing, cool scenery, and some breathtaking images. There are a bunch of nice details here, things that seem a little unusual to start and then become clear later on. The implementation isn't flawless, but the game is doing a lot of complex things, so this isn't surprising. It's certainly not flawless in a problematic way (the only mild exception is reading the diary, which is done with >READ JANUARY, etc, not >LOOK UP JANUARY IN PAPERS as is often the case with books in Inform games). I dunno, this is really one of the sort of games you should just go play instead of me talking about it. Then once you do you can explain it all to me.



Recommended Games

The Apocalypse Clock (GlorbWare) Z-Machine:
Like the title hints, this game has a time limit, but it's calculated surprisingly well — I ended up one turn short, undid six moves and finished with time to spare. Otherwise it is your pretty standard zany adventure, I think. There's a talking cat, a mad scientist, a secret tunnel in your house, the usual drill. There are a few bugs in the coding of certain things, but overall The Apocalypse Clock is a solid implementation of a not-too-fancy concept.



Aunts and Butlers (Robin Johnson) Javascript:
I can establish my credentials to review this game merely by mentioning that I own a pair of spats. So when I say this is pretty funny, you can take my word for it. Assuming you think spats are funny, anyway. On the other hand, I'm not so convinced about the game structure. It's roughly divided into two parts — the first half of the game is a wacky-hijinx story where you're wandering around only vaguely knowing what to do, and then something happens, and pretty soon you're into a collect-the-multiple-whatsits game.

The good news about the latter bit is that it's much more directed than the first part: this sometimes feels a little railroady, but it's nice to have goals to work towards. The bad news is, the solutions are usually just as wacky as in the first part of the game, so the puzzles are still pretty hard to solve. In some ways this has the same issue as MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness - I — the protagonist is supposed to be doing things that are a little zany (or accidentally causing zany things to happen), but this is hard to get the player to think of. In the end it doesn't exactly matter — this is the sort of game that is totally fun to play just from the walkthrough, so even if you get stuck, I suggest you stick with it.

Oh, and I should add that the game system is pretty impressive — as far as I know this is all a from-scratch parser, but I didn't have any issues with phrasing, it supported undo and save, and overall I give it a thumbs up.



Ballymun Adventure (Brendan Cribbin) TADS 2:
Presumably this treasure-hunt-at-my-school game is based on someone's actual school. That would explain the extra rooms and in-jokes and stuff. It's hard to do this kind of game right, since you're targeting one set of people who'll be delighted to see people and places they know immortalized in a game, and another set of people who won't recognize the names mentioned, and evaluate them mostly on their utility for winning the game. This was a fine entry in the genre, I guess.

Most of the puzzles weren't too unfair, but the game as a whole does suffer from serious no-reused-verbs syndrome. There's one object you have to search, one you have to look under, one you have to look behind, etc. I know the author said he's trying to teach people how to play IF, but while it's important to teach people about the basic set of commands most games support, it's also important to teach people that when a verb or phrasing works in one place, it'll work in other places too. Oh, and I was disappointed the map didn't work — I was pleased to find it, since the layout is kind of confusing, and a clickable map would have been immensely helpful (for that matter, giving the player access to the map at the beginning of the game would probably have been a good idea).



The Bible Retold (Justin Morgan and "Celestianpower") Z-Machine:
Gosh. Well, I guess this is a one way to do a bible adaptation. I think what it feels most like is somebody was given the story of Jesus and the loaves and the fishes and told to do an educational but fun game about them. Possibly the author isn't particularly religious themselves, or perhaps they just figure showing they have a sense of humor is mandatory. So you have a game that has God shooting off wisecracks and dropping stone tablets on top of people, but also expects people to recognize specific bible verses and/or know to look them up. There are some fun bits but mostly I don't really get what's going on.



Delightful Wallpaper (Edgar O. Weyrd [Andrew Plotkin]) Z-Machine:
The walkthrough notes that Delightful Wallpaper takes place in two parts, and if you find yourself stuck in the first part you might want to follow the walkthrough to the second part and then pick up the thread of the game again. It's good for me that I followed this, since the first part was (I thought) a pretty run-of-the-mill manipulate-the-big-machine puzzle which didn't really grip me, but the second was an original sort of puzzle I haven't seen before, and I thought it was pretty captivating (if maybe too easy). I would personally have dropped the first part of the game entirely, and tried to expand the second part instead, but I am sure there are people who will like it. Also, since this is the only chance I will ever get to say this about anything, I would like to note that the game starts out Gorey and gets Gorier.



Fight or Flight (geelpete [Sean Krauss]) Z-Machine:
I'm certainly in favor of the premise — nothing I like better than a hideous monster rampaging through a summer camp — but I'm not sure it's been carried out in the right way. For one thing, the pacing is all wrong. I spent a lot of time wandering around camp without the monster making any kind of appearance. I know there's always a tension in these kind of games where you want to put in a time limit to build suspense but if you put in too tight a limit then the player has to keep restoring and it breaks immerision. But nevertheless, this game erred on the side of going too slow. Even if the monster wasn't going to appear all the time, it should have made its presence known, perhaps with sinister boinging noises in the background.

The ideas for dealing with the monster seem reasonable, but the implementation is pretty bad — there are lots of cases where only certain phrasings work and others give unhelpful error messages, or cases where it's not at all obvious what to do or where to go. On the bright side, the NPCs aren't bad. I thought the author did a decent job of giving them distinct personalities and skillsets and integrating those in a helpful way. They really needed a lot more conversation and "life" on their own, though, instead of just following the player around all the time (they do wander around if you don't tell them to follow you, but why would you want that?). Oh, and I was disappointed to see

Keep your mind on the game.
What's a summer-camp slasher game without makeouts?



Labyrinth (Samantha Casanova Preuninger) Z-Machine:
I salute the old-school nature of this game. I'm not, personally, that into rotating-room mazes any more, and Nim leaves me kinda cold too, but I give a thumbs-up to anyone willing to make a game with it these days. There's nothing here that is going to startle you design- or puzzle-wise, but if you're in the mood for this sort of game it is a perfectly good example of it.



Lawn of Love (Santoonie Corporation) TADS 2:
It seems like Lawn of Love is probably related to Delvyn somehow, but I'm not sure if the PC is an uncle or a cousin or what. It's a little sad to see this as the Santoonie submission — I couldn't find a hunger puzzle (although apparently there is one, it just takes a while to kick in), or NPCs following you around in an irritating way, or actions being mentioned in the room description (except the last room of the game). Oh well. The winning message made me laugh, and I guess that counts for something.



Madam Spider's Web (Sara Dee) Z-Machine:
This is kind of disappointing, frankly. The introduction is excellent and there are some good scenes that continue it (I'm thinking most notably of a bit in the kitchen), but as the game goes on it becomes more evident that the strange passivity of the prologue extends to the entire game. The protagonist wanders around looking at things but not really accomplishing anything important, and then, way before I was expecting it, the game ends. Or, rather, it slides gently to an conclusion, through a way-too-long end sequence that finishes with a "twist" that most IF players will see coming a mile away.

The writing is the high quality I expect from Dee and the implementation does a few fancy things without any glitches that I noticed (although it does have a few instances of the irritating thing where you type X and it says "try typing Y instead" instead of just doing it for you). I half-suspect this is one of those cases where you get the idea for an awesome starting scene and implement it, hoping the rest of the game comes along at some point, and sometimes it does on its own and sometimes you have to force it. This feels forced. Oh well.



MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness - I (Bill Powell) Z-Machine:
MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness - I is only half a game, but doesn't really suffer for it — the ending makes no real sense but it seemed about in keeping with the abruptness of the earlier parts of the game. It's really hard to write a zany-hijinx game, very much especially when the protagonist is the zany one, and adapting it from a book, even a great book, doesn't really make it any easier. You inevitably end up with the only-cool-in-retrospect thing: the protagonist in the story has the great idea to have a picnic up on the roof, but it's very hard to make the player suddenly have the same idea, because the whole point is that it's a wacky, off-the-wall idea that nobody would think of.

I'm not a huge Chesterton fan — he comes across to me as pretty heavy-handed and smug — but this game does have some reasonably funny bits of writing. It's too bad that this tends to get shown to us in large chunks (the end of the game is multiple screens full of text, in fact). I know it's hard and risks losing the flavor of the writing, but you really do have to work at breaking this kind of thing up when you're writing IF or the player will get lost trying to read it all.

In addition to this, there are a few coding errors of various kinds in this game — stuff like people saying the same text over and over again, or saying it in the wrong situations, or noun phrases erroneously getting an article when they shouldn't. But for a first game it's pretty solid, and it's an interesting experiment in adaptation even if it's not totally successful.



Mobius (J.D. Clemens [John Clemens]) Z-Machine:
In a sense it's got the same gimmick as All Things Devours (or Sorcerer), but Mobius demonstrates there's still plenty of room here for innovation. Most of the pleasure in this kind of game is in the working things out, and that's certainly true here. Mobius is a little friendlier than the earlier-mentioned games, in ways I appreciate: you don't need to save and restore repeatedly, you don't need to use replay, and it gives occasional hints as you take longer to solve it. The only real downside is the ending, which isn't quite the fanfare I was hoping for when I finally wrestled the main puzzle into submission. There are a few bugs, too, but they're basically cosmetic, and this is a complicated enough implementation that I was willing to cut it the slack.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Moon-Shaped (Jason Ermer) Z-Machine:
Moon-Shaped has a number of cool bits in it, but it suffers from some serious guidance problems and in general the game structure is so loose it's floppy. For instance, the character of the witch is extremely important to the backstory, but I managed to miss any place where she was introduced or her relationship to the player was explained (from the walkthrough I see there's a potential scene on the lake, but it's not really sufficient). Since there are many parts in the game where you interact with things the witch has done, having this be unclear makes them all be more confusing than they need to be.

Moon-Shaped also suffers from an excess of puzzles where you have to do something which is only obviously useful in retrospect — since this is an IF game we mess with stuff just because it's there, but it's not good design. This is especially problematic for the subtype of this where an area will suddenly become available partway through the game, without the player being informed. That said, Ermer writes well and has a good talent for striking scenes and puzzles in the small: I just wish he was better about bringing them together into a solid whole.

(Much later I found out that if you're not wearing the locket, you miss out on a huge amount of backstory. Replaying this game with the locket on did help resolve some issues both of gameplay and of missing plot, though I'm not sure it's enough to salvage things entirely.)



Polendina (Christopher Lewis) Z-Machine:
I actually kind of like this one, although I can't say why. It's got the old-school minimalist design where there are lots of rooms with maybe an average of half an object object per room. It's got puzzles that aren't particularly clever, just obscure. It's got a weird ending that, in fact, is not an ending. But there's still something interesting here. Maybe it's imagining redoing the story, which is perfectly serviceable, in a way that does more justice to it. Maybe it's how the ending seems like a mistake at first but arguably makes perfect sense. Maybe it's wondering what the hell the title means.



Requiem (david whyld) ADRIFT:
Man, I dunno. At this point I kind of hope David Whyld isn't reading my reviews of his games. It seems like I either say "I don't like this game, you should have done X" or else I say "You did X, but I'm didn't really like the game, so you should have done something else." This is one of the latter, but as usual I have yet another theory about What I Think David Whyld Should Do In His Games.

I think this game shows that Whyld can come up with perfectly good plots — even after finishing it I'm not really sure what the hell was going on, but hey, I wasn't sure in Blue Chairs or Chancellor either. The implementation is solid enough. The writing is fine; I think Whyld's overdoing the noir in places but it's acceptable for the kind of story he wants to tell (except for the point of view — he needs to settle on either first or second, even if it is a series of flashbacks).

So what's the problem? I think it's lack of player agency. You can't accuse the game of being railroaded: the player has lots of opportunities to branch the story. But nevertheless, there's very little player agency because the player doesn't have any idea what's going on! In most games this wouldn't be a big deal. Typically player agency comes through their ability to interact with and affect the game world by manipulating objects, moving around, and solving puzzles. The game will have a story but it's not the player's responsibility to affect it directly; all interaction is indirect via object manipulation, and if the player doesn't know exactly what story change will occur, it's no big deal, because they're focused on the objects. Requiem strips out all the puzzle solving and looking and exploring (not totally, but exploration is totally unimportant), with the intent of giving the story primacy. That's great in theory, but it's problematic when the player doesn't have any idea how or why to manipulate the story, and they end up doing the narrative equivalent of wandering around lost in a maze.

I think the problem is that the storylines Whyld is coming up with lately aren't suitable for the player experience he wants to have: they're all about cryptic mystery and the storyline gradually unfolding around a hapless protagonist. In other words, exactly the sort of storyline that should be implemented as a straight-ahead railroad. The kind of story that fits the kind of game design Whyld's written here is one where the protagonist is competent and informed — the player can make choices and know something about what they're getting into with each one. Of course, if he does this, I'll probably have some other gripe. But it's still worth a shot.



The Sisters (revgiblet) ADRIFT:
This isn't a bad ghost story/horror game. It's not one of the really immersive kind, it's more the ever-so-slightly silly sort of ghost story where you keep seeing ghosts and freaky things over and over again, and the protagonist just shrugs his shoulders and keeps on exploring the creepy ol' mansion, because what else are you going to do. There were just a small handful of puzzles, most pretty simple. One in particular was a ghost itself, the Zork II key-in-keyhole puzzle risen from its grave to haunt the earth once more. It felt like there were a lot of extra items in the game — I think you could get by doing much less exploration than I did — but maybe they had some purpose I just didn't find. It's possible that there is some way to a better ending that I didn't find either. The one I got seemed pretty predetermined, but I finished with only 80% of the points, so I dunno. Anyway, this is fine if you like that sort of thing.



Star City (Mark Sachs) Z-Machine:
I'm fairly fond of Sachs' web comic, so I was a little disappointed this game didn't blow me away. It starts fine — I dig exploring ancient spacecrafts filled with weird gadgets and stuff. Then there is a excellent image which ought to set the stage for something really awesome. But unfortunately it just gets fiddly at that point. There's a bit about getting the power on that really bogged down for me as I had trouble visualizing all the mechanics, and then a short exploration sequence which isn't really developed enough, and then — argh. Then we have an extended flight simulator.

I am absolutely not against new, complicated systems in IF games. But when they're there, the author has to realize that they're asking the player to do a large amount of learning, practicing, and restarting. They should be sure that this effort is worth it, in terms of the value this system adds to the storyline and in terms of how much this is what the game is "about". If this was a game about, say, a dogfighter pilot, a complex flying simulator would be totally worth it. You'd have a couple flights during the game and the player would get a chance to master the system and then enjoy the fruits of that mastery. But here it's really not worth it — you have one flight to make, and it doesn't feel like that much of a win over a one-paragraph cutscene.

It's obviously easy for me to make these judgements in retrospect than it is for the author to make when writing, but here's a classic case where I wish the author had, earlier in the design process, thought about what this feature was going to actually mean to the player, compared it to what else they could spend the time implementing, and decided to cut it.



Strange Geometries (Phillip Chambers) Z-Machine:
This is a Lovecraftian game with a twist, but I don't think the twist makes sense — it seems like it'd have much more far-reaching effects than could be disguised by careful description. The writing is a little ragged, and there are a fair number of typos or strange word choices (most notably the city being named 'Malnoxet', which sounds more like an acne medication). There are a lot of points where I didn't find it particularly obvious what to do next, and ended up wandering around. But I like Lovecraftian stuff and this carried it off with aplomb, so on the whole I am in favor.



Tentellian Island (Waru [Zack Wood]) Java:
Well, it's somebody's homegrown adventure in Java, which means it doesn't support >UNDO or >SAVE or that kind of thing, and it's a two-word parser. Beyond that, well, it's the kind of adventure you would expect, I think. You're wandering around an island looking for a whatsit, and you examine things and use things on other things and so on. A number of colored objects are involved. There are a few rooms that could probably have been removed from the auditorium, but otherwise the layout was basically fine, and for some reason I find the item you're supposed to retrieve hilarious, so I can't really complain too much.



The Tower of the Elephant (Tor Andersson) Z-Machine:
I think this game may be the best faithful literary adaptation I've ever played. Presumably with faithful literary adaptations how you feel (or would feel) about the original matters, so I should make the disclaimer here that I think Conan is totally awesome. It may even be that Conan is particularly well-suited for adaptation. Stories about Conan tend to focus on action rather than introspection, and (more importantly for adaptation purposes) Conan is motivated by the demands of the situation, rather by internal whimsy. They also tend to keep the viewpoint focused on Conan almost all the time, although this particular story departs from that for a short time near the beginning.

I was impressed how many chunks of the actual text The Tower of the Elephant managed to work into the game, without feeling unnatural or stilted. Even the improvised writing tends to be either inconspicuous or similar enough to blend nicely with the rest, so the overall effect is a really strong Howard voice. The only real problem here is that I'm not sure playing The Tower of the Elephant is actually that much more fun than reading the story would be. This may be the inevitable downside of doing a faithful adaptation: the game does cope to some extent with the player going off-track in the story, but it still ends up feeling a little railroaded (although maybe that's just because I've read the original story — I'd be curious what people who haven't read the original story (and, ideally, didn't realize it was an adaptation) thought).
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



The Traveling Swordsman (Anonymous [Mike Snyder]) Hugo:
This is pretty charming. I liked the episodic nature of the game — it's something like a less hard-edged version of Cugel's Saga, or maybe like a couple episodes of some saturday morning cartoon show. I also like the storyline. IF games about sword-fighters are always good, and it's cool that all the scenes are connected, although this is only hinted at vaguely in the last scene. On the other hand, I'm not so sure about the puzzles. I admit this is a matter of taste, but if I'm a swordsman, I want to spend my time doing swordsmanny sort of things. I don't really want to be fiddling with machines and hanging out in windmills and inspecting wells. The puzzles are reasonably well-clued and so on, they just feel kind of out of place in the narrative. But overall, I dig it.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Unauthorized Termination (Richard Otter) ADRIFT:
This sf game suffers from one of the classic sf game flaws, giving too much background information. I don't care how long their year is in earth-days, or what cities there are on the planet, or what religions groups there are. When I do care about something, I don't want to see paragraphs on it in intros at the beginning of the game that I have to read in case I miss something important, I want to see it in small chunks as it becomes relevant. Which is not to say the author shouldn't think up lots of background and world-building, they just shouldn't tell me about it. And there are cool things in this game — like the barter-based side-economy was something I would never have thought of but makes total sense.

The storyline is pretty railroady but also fun and reasonably original (with the setting being a big part of this). The ending is a little unsatisfying — I think it drags slightly too long, and as usual I disapprove of endgame "choices" where one of them loses the game immediately and the other lets it continue (the scene is appropriate to include in this kind of story, but just handle it as a cutscene).

It's an ADRIFT game but that's no big deal feature-wise by this point. There are a few places where we get into weird things that would possibly work better in another system — like I don't like the menus where you type A/B/C or 1/2/3 or whatever. They feel "non-IFy", and I'd much prefer "TELEPORT TO HOME" instead, even if it's longer. It's also irritating that TRADE X FOR Y is not the same as TRADE Y FOR X.

On the whole, though, this is quite a solid and fun little game and I recommend it.



Visocica (Thorben Bürgel) DOS Exe:
I thought this one was unrunnable, but it turns out there was just a mistake in the comp packaging — you'll need to rename the .exe to a .zip, unzip that, and the actual game should be inside (although this may be corrected if you download the game at some point in the future after I write this). However, it's in German, so I still can't review it. But it's good to know it's playable.



Wumpus Run (Elfindor) ADRIFT:
Well, it's an implementation of Hunt the Wumpus, which (as far as I can tell) plays it pretty straight, except it's not set on a dodecahedron. It makes a few concessions for playability: you can't run out of arrows (as far as I can tell, you can always retrieve your weapon), and you don't die instantly going into the room with the wumpus. Set against this, the author's added a lantern that provides a time limit for the game. But more important than anything else is the fact that a Hunt the Wumpus game is pretty silly when >UNDO is available.



Xen: The Hunt (Ian Shlasko) TADS 3:
I was surprised to realize that I was pleased to see a follow-up to Xen: The Contest from last year. There's something inherently satisfying about playing a sequel, I guess, when you have all this known backstory and can get straight into things. People who played the previous game will find a lot of things are the same: the backstory is still complicated, there's still a question of who to trust (although, again, this isn't a "real" question in the sense that it has little effect on the story), and a bunch of innocent people get casually killed along the way. People who played the previous game will also notice some changes, and on the whole they're vastly for the better: a lot of tedious simulation has been rightfully deemed unnecessary and dropped, while the overall game length has been trimmed. The magic scenes are also streamlined, which I think is a win, although the game hasn't yet found a good way to deal with the interface aspects of the PC having the power to do anything.

One thing I did miss from the previous game was the focus on your large circle of friends. This is mostly an on-the-run game, away from campus, so was mostly stripped down to your relationship with a couple of girls. On the plus side, the style of this game meant the PC got to do more. The last game felt a little like the PC was a minor character as the NPCs are running the show. This game still has a little of this, particularly around Rikket, but as the PC comes into his powers it's definitely getting better. These things usually come in trilogies, so I'll be looking for the third next year. I'm hoping when it shows, there'll be even more opportunities for the player to make choices about the storyline, and choices that have a bigger effect. And, of course, a chance for the PC to kick a lot of ass with magic.



Not Recommended Games

Another Goddamn Escape the Locked Room Game (Riff Conner) Z-Machine:
I wanted to like this one more, but, well, see title. I certainly am all in favor of the general concept of doing a parody of this genre — it's weird that the games are so popular since they're generally so frustrating and not really fun. And this game does have some funny bits and some clever bits, which is not at all surprising from one of the Kingdom of Loathing guys. But too much of the game is too much like the aforementioned locked-room games, and I ended up playing it mostly the same way (ie, walkthrough in hand, swear words on lips). That said, I have a pretty low frustration threshhold for this kind of thing. If you don't, I expect you'll like it more.



Beam (Madrone Eddy) Quest:
Enh, I dunno. On another day or in another mood I might have more patience with this one. But finding this combination lock that apparently has to just be guessed, and then realizing that the game distinguishes between >LOOK AT and >EXAMINE (hint: always use the latter) soured me. And then there was this maze-like area, and it has some kind of time limit, and I still don't really know what I'm doing here, and enh.



A Broken Man (Geoff Fortytwo) TADS 3:
Not to be a jerk, but this game is a good example of why you should play a lot of IF games, because on the very first move of A Broken Man I thought "hmm, I wonder if this has the same twist as ____", and sure enough, it did. Unfortunately there isn't much about the rest of the game that is particularly innovative either. There are a few "funny" bits, but they feel kind of adolescent (although they're not nearly as adolescent as the sex scene), while the puzzles are either trivial or require reading the author's mind, though perhaps I was just lulled by the trivial ones into not thinking hard enough. Anyway, I feel bad about giving this one a thumbs down, because the author clearly worked hard on it (I don't see any bugs, for instance, and the implementation is all pretty solid (if minimal)) but it's pretty much all been done before, and as well if not better.



Carmen Devine: Supernatural Troubleshooter (Rob Myall) Z-Machine:
Well, Stephen Bond is going to be down on this from the start since it has a colon in the title, and I guess he's not going to like the Underworld-esque setting either. Me, I'm basically ok with that kind of thing and dig real-world/fantasy crossovers, but I do have some issues with the game design here.

Like, please mention exits in the room description. Having them in the status bar really isn't good enough: I didn't actually notice the status bar for half the game since it's all the way up at the top of the screen, and I'm always reading down at the bottom. It's also a lousy idea to have the big confrontation scene with the bad guy consist of you wandering around an area exploring while the bad guy takes ineffectual swings at you, and partway through you leave the area to ask somebody a question, come back again, and then do a single command to get rid of the bad guy forever. There are also some issues with the PC — if your shtick is that you're a werewolf, smelling should be implemented for way more items, and changing form should be relevant more than once-and-a-half times per game (the half is for a time when it's forced to occur but has no real effect).

I expect part of the problem here is that the game is too short, either because it was rushed or artificially truncated. If it was twice the length, I bet a lot of the structural issues would have been fixed naturally as the author filled it out to lengthen it.



Enter the Dark (Peter R. Shushmaruk) Alan 3:
There is a perfectly good Silent Hill type game in here, where you wander through a graveyard and a mortuary fighting zombies and stuff, but unfortunately it's almost totally buried under poor writing, unclued puzzles, a broken walkthrough, and the author's failure to compensate for the deficiencies of their authoring system (I mean, no >X? C'mon!)



Fetter's Grim (Dunric [Paul Panks]) DOS Exe:
Fetter's Grim is, unsurprisingly, a typical Panks game. You interact with people mostly by examining them and having them say stuff in their description, there are weapons scattered around, and you can attack people for no particular reason. This one does have a series of quests leading to an actual win state, but there's no explanation for what the point of the quests are or how they relate to the goal given at the beginning of the game.

But is that all there is to the game? Recently I read Viriconium, a book praised for the way in which it retells the same story in different guises, and have come to realize that Paul's games are just like that. In short, the fact that his games share so many elements isn't a mistake, it's actually that those elements are the fundamental building blocks of the master story he is trying to write. Just like a writer arranges the same words to form many different stories, meaning in a Panks game comes from the permutations of the standard elements. Where will the hellhound be located? What will be the name of the bar where the innkeeper assigns quests? Which room will the magic broadsword be sitting in? By seeing how a game adheres to or deviates from standard usage of these elements, we can see through to the author's message.

In this context it seems like we need to re-evaluate Ninja v1.30, which abandons all the standard Panks elements in favor of new ninja-esque ones. It's the equivalent of an English-speaking writer waking up and deciding to write a novel in Welsh. What message was he sending here? Was he signalling his intent to form a new "language" when he reentered the same game the next year as Ninja II? There is much here for future Panksologists to study.



Green Falls (Dunric [Paul Panks]) DOS Exe:
Please see my Fetter's Grim review for a fuller discussion of this game.



Hedge (Steven Richards) Z-Machine:
Hedge took me off-guard a little, I guess, because it's the first game I've played this comp that is the old-new-school type where the puzzles are the whole point, and the storyline doesn't really have to make sense, so you can toss in a bunch of random stuff and it doesn't matter. But if you are going to write a puzzlely game, it seems like starting things off with a not-quite-solvable diagramless crossword isn't the best choice (or maybe it is solvable and I was just going about it the right way — that's the downside of this kind of game).

The other bad sign about this game is the first room is implemented in much greater detail than the rest of the rooms, which usually means the author started carefully putting it together and then ran out of ideas or time and hurried through the rest of the game. I dunno. I didn't come across any serious bugs as such, but the interactions tend not to be implemented in much detail. I expect people who like puzzle games will probably like this — it has reasonably funny writing and stuff. But I didn't find it particularly satisfying, since nothing makes much sense and the puzzles didn't seem that clever. Oh, and considering that >PUNCH (A PERSON) IN THE FACE is mentioned explicitly in the about text, there are suprisingly few places in the game where it's implemented.



The Initial State (Matt Barton) DOS Exe:
The Initial State describes itself in the blurb as a "deeply psychological" text adventure, which unfortunately means it has quotes like this:
This narrow room's prominent feature is a sprawling viewport, which extends all the way along its northern face like a crevice in a soul.
Yeah. It's also a home-grown parser, which is pretty bad. "x" doesn't work (though you can get it to do so by editing the included 'verbs' data file — all the data files are in plain text). There's no save, restore, or undo. But you can toggle it from being black-on-white to white-on-black. I could also add that the protagonist is an amnesiac, and the bulk of the action is wandering around the ship reading things to get flashbacks, but I'm pretty sure you've stopped reading already.



MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness - II (Bill Powell) Z-Machine:
I'm afraid MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness - II doesn't work as well as the first part. Some of this is because, like I said, I'm not big on Chesterton, and the story gets really heavy-handed at this point (since this is the big wrap-up which you were theoretically waiting for all game, unless you happened to play this game separately from the previous part since they are, after all, two separate games). But also because the heavy-handedness of the storyline infects the design: the game is really pretty much completely railroaded. You choose in which order you do the first three scenes, but you have to do them all, and they're so streamlined that there are only tiny deviations you can make from the walkthrough. Furthermore, each ends with a huge text dump.

On the whole I'm not really sold by these two games. It's a pity they're separate; I think playing them all as one lump would mitigate the deficiencies of the second game to some extent, but it's still problematic. Really, this book is making an argument for a certain kind of behavior, and an ideal IF translation would have gotten the player into the middle of that argument instead of expecting them to take on the role of someone already convinced.



Pathfinder (Tony Woods) Z-Machine:
If you've read the feelie included with the game, you won't be surprised that, after you meet the murder victim mentioned in the article, the game turns into one of those games where you're on the run from the cops. But the thing about this game is — well, ok, check out this quote:
Even though you did your part and helped the environment, that still does not cancel the fact that a man still died tonight due to your hand.
Is this meant to be serious? It's not, right? But the game doesn't otherwise appear to be a parody. It's also got stuff like
...you now realize what the night has meant to you. The meaning of Pathfinder. The meaning of freedom of choice. The freedom to jump off a bridge if you like, or to throw the brown parcel away and forget about what's inside.
Which doesn't seem like it intends to be silly. So how are we supposed to take the earlier passage? Just a little humor to lighten up the grimness of a game where you're on the run from the police for killing somebody? The other thing about the second quote is it points out the weird internal contradiction in the game. It talks about the mystery of freedom and self-determination and stuff, but in practice the game's a strict railroad. If you really want to make a game about choices, how about giving the player some?



PTGOOD 8*10^23 (Sartre Malvolio) ADRIFT:
Equivalent in quality to previous games in the series. It is winnable, although to do so requires knowing there's a window in the starting room.



Simple Adventure (dunric [Paul Panks]) DOS Exe:
Please see my Fetter's Grim review for a fuller discussion of this game.



Sisyphus (Theo Koutz) Z-Machine:
This is one of those games which is either intending to be a purposeless annoyance, or is indistinguishable from a game with that intention. Props for the response to >LOOK UNDER BOULDER, though. The I7 debug mode appears to be on, which is weird (unless this is a Cheater-esque intended solution).



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