2008 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 2008 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

Afflicted (Doug Egan) Z-Machine:
This is how to do a genre piece right, I think, in the sense that the protagonist quickly figures out what's going on (or even if they don't, you the player can proactively work towards the goal from early on, which is much the same thing). Also, it is weird how enjoyable it is just to have a puzzle involving "look around and find all the whatsits hidden everywhere". There is nothing super-exceptional about the story here but it is nice to find something that is just smoothly coded and coherently written and fun.



Nightfall (Eric Eve) Glulx:
This is another classic Eric Eve game in the style of Blighted Isle or The Elysium Enigma: there's a big area to explore; very little authorial direction (and what there is tends to point in several different ways); a lot of objects and clues scattered around, most of which don't make any sense; and a number of puzzles, some of which are optional and some of which aren't. Oh, and a couple different endings, depending how much of the "optional" stuff you do. Anyway, I liked this one a little less than the others I listed. Partly it's just hard to write a femme fatale in a plausible way, partly the protagonist is less interesting1, and partly I'm just less sold on this particular story2. I dunno. I'm pretty sure Eric Eve is writing the best games out there in terms of player-friendliness and solidness of coding3, but they'd be twice as good if the characters had more depth and flavor.

1I grant that the way this style of game works is to have a mostly-undefined PC so the player is supposed to be able to project themselves in or something, but c'mon, this guy basically has no attributes and no friends and no history except he's some kind of lawyer and he's in love with this girl. It's hard to write a believable story about a romance when one participant is just The Love Object and the other is just The One Who Is In Love With The Love Object.

2Both in terms of me being less interested in sf stuff and in it being less plausible. I'm willing to grant one unrealistic thing for a premise as long as you get it out early, so the city being evacuated without any explanation provided is fine. But then to have the city littered with clues that all pertain only to you, that's pushing it a bit.

3And there are some pretty fancy things going on here, like in all Eve's games. You don't generally notice them because they're not ostentatious and they work just how you expect, but that's way harder than it sounds.



Piracy 2.0 (Sean Huxter) Z-Machine:
For a game which is about having your spaceship boarded by space-pirates, this is really pretty good. It felt like there are a lot of different things to mess with, and a bunch of ending variants you can get depending on what you do. The main nit I'd like to pick is with the combat and health systems, which seem like an unnecessary tack-on that just requires in-game or out-of-game (ie, undo) busywork to deal with.



Violet (Jeremy Freese) Z-Machine:
It is always pleasant to finish with the best game of the competition. There have been a number of games that are too short, have no gameplay, have no puzzles, or have tedious writing. But lest it sound like I am damning with faint praise, let me be explicit and say this game is well-sized for the comp, delightfully written, and full of things to do. If the author's looking for something to work on for the next version, I think it's probably the puzzle nudges. While I think the puzzles are all the right difficulty, it feels like there's a fair amount of luck involved in actually stumbling on the solutions. With a little more guidance when the player is almost right (or not at all right), I think there'd be smoother (and hence more enjoyable) gameplay — for instance, the response to >BURN CABLE seems to imply it's the right track, which isn't at all the case (hmm, unless there are multiple solutions. I did have a few unused items.)



Recommended Games

Ananachronist (Joseph Strom) Z-Machine:
This could have been really good, with a gimmick I've heard of but never actually seen implemented, but unfortunately it's really buggy and there's hardly any guidance for what to do or anything. So basically it ends up as a mildly interesting idea to poke at but you'll probably end up with the walkthrough. And save often, because sometimes the bugs make it unwinnable. Also, the writing tends to feel like the author is trying too hard, with lots of things like "The light strains to fill all the darkness here but collapses at the last moment, falling onto the shelves in the corner for a quick nap." This is a puzzle game, dude, you can save the effort on fancy writing for some other game.



April in Paris (Jim Aikin) TADS 3:
The word "flush" is not necessary in this story.
I like the premise but I found it vaguely unsatisfying as a game. First off, I think the plot is too straightforward, and the characters aren't developed enough for it to stand as a character piece (like, I was expecting the girl to be a scam artist, adding the final touch of humiliation to your day). Second, the waiter isn't sufficiently developed as an antagonist (in a game like this, he has to keep reappearing and upping the ante so by the end you're really annoyed with him — here he's oppositional for the whole game, but oppositional in a constant way, so by the end you've given up on interacting with him, making him less of a presence in the game than the other NPCs). And third, it's often not clear what to do next, and puzzles are often solved by doing something because it's there to be done (eg, the tennis star) without it being obvious what the point is. I admire the technical setup here, and the game does a few tricky things, but as a play experience I'm less impressed.



Channel Surfing (probabilityZero) Glulx:
Hard to get started (argh, the remote has a terrible description, and it's not obvious you need the command >CHANGE CHANNEL TO (CHANNEL NUMBER) especially since just >CHANGE CHANNEL isn't understood). This isn't bad as a short little game, but the political commentary ends up pretty heavy-handed at the end — show, don't tell, dude.



Cry Wolf (Clare Parker) Glulx:
It's hard to do a story where the protagonist finds out something suprising when the thing is a common motif in fantasy so the reader isn't surprised. Because then the protagonist just looks dumb when they are saying "what .. can .. this .. be???" when the reader knows perfectly well. Also, this is kind of guess-the-verb for the surgery segments, and the other bits are kind of railroady, especially the end bit. But despite all this I found myself kinda liking it, so there it is.



Escape from the Underworld (Karl Beecher) Z-Machine:
Surprisingly lacking in atmosphere, considering it's set in hell. It could be translated to a corporate setting with very few changes (though I guess that is a moral in itself). On the other hand, the puzzles were decent, not spectacular, but decent. A pretty solid example of your basic IF game.



Everybody Dies (Jim Munroe) Glulx:
It thanks Emily Short for inspiration in the credits but this is clearly an Adam Cadre game: disjoint narrative, characters in different ethnic groups, a female protagonist, easy puzzles. It gets serious points for the writing and art — this is the first game I've played this comp that really feels professionally done — but on the other hand, the game is so short and the gameplay so shallow that it also feels like there was no need to make it IF at all. Still, if it's a railroad, at least it's a pretty one.



LAIR of the CyberCow (Harry Wilson) ADRIFT:
This is surprisingly smooth for an ADRIFT game, in the sense that the bumps I ran into were read-the-author's-mind and guess-the-verb things that could have happened in any game, not weird ADRIFT-induced guess-the-syntax things. That said, c'mon, >FLIP? Really? Anyway, the story is cute but feels like the author left out the vital 10% that would make it all make sense.



The Lucubrator (Rick Dague) Z-Machine:
I was disappointed there was no actual Mordenkainen or Lucubration to be seen here. It has a good concept and decent plotting but it's hard to write action scenes in IF and this is a good demo of why: you want the player to have to think of something clever to win, but you also want a sense of tension, which usually translates to a time limit. Like I said before, the plotting was pretty good — it felt like these were the right scenes in the right order — but I felt like a lot of the time I was stumbling into the right answer after a bunch of flailing, or just hitting the walkthrough, which isn't the ideal experience.



A Martian Odyssey (Horatio) Glulx:
This is inexplicably* old-school space opera in which there are aliens on mars and stuff. There are hardly any puzzles and the implementation is kind of clunky but nevertheless it's charming.

*I guess not so inexplicable when I see it's based on a story from 1934.



The Missing Piece (C.Yong) Windows Exe:
This is by the author of The Lost Dimension from last year and is basically the same experience, so just go read that review. The engine is a little snazzier this time around, though.



The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom (Anssi Räisänen) Alan 3:
A short and pleasant little diversion. This kind of game is enjoyable in direct proportion to how smoothly you get through the puzzles, and I got stuck more or less exactly the right amount, so I had a good time. There wasn't much nudging towards the correct solution when you tried something incorrect, but I guess it's balanced out by how few manipulable items there are. Undo behaves weird in this game but that was the only not-written-in-a-major-language issue I ran into, and it wasn't that big a deal.



Opening Night (David Batterham) Z-Machine:
Sweet and not what I expected. Short, but it didn't feel too short for what it was. I'm not sure it really benefitted from being IF, but oh well, I liked it anyway.



Recess At Last (Gerald Aungst) Glulx:
Good-spirited and well-implemented, but very short. It seems to have a lot of breadth, but the puzzles are so easy there isn't much need for it (and it doesn't feel like it offers much reward for exploring). I'd rather have seen a longer and narrower game, I think.



Red Moon (Jonathan Hay) Z-Machine:
One of those Jar of Tang stories. I think for this particular one to work right, it should get more and more surprising as the game goes on — but instead it starts out as weird as it's going to, and then gets less weird as you get used to to the situation and nothing else weird happens. Oh, and there was an obvious command from the sort of equivalent Curses bit that I was expecting to work, and was disappointed to see that it didn't.



Search for the Ultimate Weapon (Sharilynn) SUDS:
I just don't get why people want to put a mouse-based layer on top of what is fundamentally text-based input. This game is fine, I guess. I like the setting even if the writing is weak; the puzzles are a little confusing but mostly this is syntax issues. It's not much of an argument for using SUDS, though.



Snack Time! (Hardy the Bulldog [Renee Choba]) Z-Machine:
This is a cute example of a genre I am fond of. My main objection is it's about half or a third of the length I'd like (as it is, I think it could plausibly have been an introcomp game), but I guess if that's the worst thing I can say about a game that's pretty good.



When Machines Attack (Mark Jones) Z-Machine:
Parts of When Machines Attack feel actually pretty evocative and weird and creepy, like they were directly inspired by one of those really good nightmares. But the game is also like a dream in that it's not obvious what should happen next, which is more of a problem when you're playing the story instead of dreaming it. Also, there are a bunch of tedious bits, like the maze (which you have to traverse twice, grah), and some really, really long infodump sections. Probably it'd be a better game if it was shortened up, since it's already bumping up against the two-hour limit. Maybe just chop the last third off and put on some crazier ending — you don't actually have to explain everything in this kind of game, and often it's better if you don't. Also, game design note: it's a bad idea to radically change the player's command set right at the end of the game, after they've spent the whole time learning what to do and interactions are finally starting to go smoothly.



Not Recommended Games

The Absolute Worst IF Game in History (Dean Menezes) Z-Machine:
It would be interesting to do a survey of all the really bad games in history and see how this one stacks up. I assume it's not actually the worst (like, consider Breaking the Code, What-IF?, Jump, The Fat Lardo And The Rubber Ducky, and Kallisti), but I think there's a lot of potential critical interest in determining exactly what would be the worst possible game (Jacek, for instance, thinks it's Gamlet).



Berrost's Challenge (Mark Hatfield) TADS 2:
I am excessively fond of this genre of game, where you are a wizard's apprentice who has to solve some puzzles using your wit and magical spells and conveniently-placed items. This one has some concerning guess-the-verb stuff that suggests it could have been better tested, though. Also, it blocks UNDO, which sucks (and save/restore is still allowed so what's the point blah blah). Also, there's an inventory limit. Also, there's a hunger puzzle. Also, it clears the screen whenever you move to a new room. So I guess I mean, I would like this game if it was a different game.

Uh, also, I should add that examining the help post-play shows that a number of these things are addressed; you can undo during the game (albeit a limited number of times, and at a penalty to your score), and there's a command to turn off the hunger/sleep daemons. But still, I dunno, I spent too much of the time playing the game having my main feeling be irritation to recommend this. Somebody with different gripe hotspots might like it better.



Buried In Shoes (Kazuki Mishima) Z-Machine:
I'm sure the author means well, and the game is about a significant topic, but it's not very good as a game or as a lecture. As a game it's railroady and there's virtually nothing for the player to do; as a lecture, there isn't actually much content here — if someone were unfamiliar with the subject matter I think the game wouldn't make sense, and if they were familiar I don't think it'd tell them anything new. That said, the shoes are a good and striking detail and I think you could build a game around the motif; I just don't think Buried In Shoes is the sort of game it should be. (Also, "bishoes" is way too easy to confuse with this.)



A Date With Death (David Whyld) ADRIFT:
Naturally I had heard of Leila J. Pinckney. Her death some years ago has diminished her vogue, but at one time it was impossible to pass a bookshop or a railway bookshelf without seeing a long row of her novels. [..] The critics usually headed their reviews of her stories with the words "ANOTHER PINCKNEY" or sometimes, more offensively "ANOTHER PINCKNEY!!!". And once, dealing with, I think, The Love Which Prevails, the literary expert of the Scrutinizer had compressed his entire critique into the single phrase "Oh, God!"

(Honeysuckle Cottage, PG Wodehouse)

Feel free to read my review of the previous game in this series.



Dracula's Underground Crypt (Alex Whitington) Z-Machine:
It's hard to work out how to review a game like this, where the author says in the intro "hey, there are a lot of bugs" and then there are a bunch of bugs. I mean, yeah, I guess he's right. On the bright side, there are a bunch of random wacky bits and a lot of things to poke at. If you enjoyed, say, Pass the Banana, you would probably like this.



Freedom (Anonymous) Z-Machine:
My first game about .. running errands? Shade 2: Outside the Dorm? Anyway, see this.



Grief (Simon Christiansen) Z-Machine:
An interactive you are a terrible, terrible parent. Normally the way to have a story where bad things happen to the protagonist is to have them "realistically" follow as a result of the protagonist's actions. But then how do you write a satisfying story where the moral is that the universe is amoral and bad things happen even to the undeserving? I'm not sure, but I don't think this game is either.



The Hall of the Fount of Artois (Simon) DOS Exe:
So I guess the author played Curses* and thought it was awesome and decided to not just write his own game, but write his own IF system to write the game in. In a way it's surprising this doesn't happen more, since in a sense that's a truer recapitulation of the Curses-writing experience. But I guess most people realize if you write your own system you'll have to spend a lot of time just writing the basics and it still won't be that good until you've put literally years into polishing it, and your game will only run on windows and blah blah. Anyway, this game is a perfectly good puzzle adventure at the high level, though not too challenging, but in practice it's rife with hassles — >X doesn't work, undo doesn't exist, there's a weird inventory limit, the parser is dumb and clunky (for instance, it won't understand the command at all if you type >UNLOCK DOOR when what you need is >UNLOCK DOOR WITH KEY), restoring locks up the game, and, most grievously, there's both a maze and a dragon.

*And we know it's Curses because he includes almost a half-dozen things from there, ranging from refs to outright swipes.



The Lighthouse (xyzzyman [Eric Hickman] and xyzzyman [Nathan Chung]) Z-Machine:
Please do not enter your My First IF Game in the comp.



Magic (Geoff Fortytwo) TADS 3:
Wow, a shaggy dog story. I admit I haven't seen one of those in IF before. Possibly with good reason. The game also a magic system which unfortunately mostly serves to point out how well Savoir Faire's was designed. Like, there are many cases where >COMPARE X TO Y works but >COMPARE Y TO X doesn't, and in general the rules of what allows two things to be compared and what the effect is don't feel well-worked-out. In short, it feels special-case-y, and that's the worst thing to have for a system that is supposed to drive most of the puzzles in the game.



Nerd Quest (RagtimeNerd) Java:
If I tell you the guy wrote the IF system himself and coded up a game set in his office, you will know exactly what this game is like.



Project Delta (Emilian Kowalewski) DOS Exe:
This is a demo for a system rather than an actual game. The system is basically CYOA+ — like, you can flip to different screens for inventory and more detailed object manipulation, and some of the menu items are things like "examine (some object)", but you can't type in arbitrary commands. I'm not sure this is a win overall, though. Anyway, as a game it isn't fun (and isn't really intended to be), so you can skip it.



Riverside (Jeremy Crockett, Victor Janmey) Z-Machine:
With this game it seems appropriate to just post my raw notes, so here they are:

It seems a little uncharacteristic for a priest to wish somebody to die, even a bad guy. Also,
That's not a verb I recognise.
Picky girlfriend:
Amy says, "Hey! That's some way to greet a girl!"
Amy says, "Hey! That's some way to greet a girl!"
Amy says, "Hey! That's some way to greet a girl!"
....uh, what?

I guess this is what happens when you have three people writing a game and not speaking to each other.



Trein (Leena Ganguli) Z-Machine:
It is amazing how much less professional a game looks just for capitalizing most of the nouns. There is an interesting plot here but you don't actually play through much of it, and there's a lot of guess-the-verb stuff that suggests the game didn't get much beta-testing.



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