2009 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 2009 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 Ascot (Duncan Bowsman) ADRIFT:
This is another questionably-IF submission, but unlike the others, I think this one records enough state to be considered to have a world model and hence to count. That important question settled, I can say that the writing is cheery and the game is pretty fun, and it actually feels like it has puzzles. It's not a huge thing but I had a good time, and it's got a lot of replay value. (Discussion topic: is this the future of casual IF?)



Broken Legs (Sarah Morayati) Glulx:
I don't expect this game will win the competition (top three, sure), but I do think it's the most interesting from a gamecraft perspective. Naturally what I mean by this is "I think the game has a lot of mistakes but they're thought-provoking mistakes". The most obvious thing that is cool about it is how NPC-heavy it is. There is a fair amount of fiddling with objects (too much, if you want my opinion), but the majority of the game — and the majority of your how-do-I-solve-this-puzzle analysis of the game — is about the NPCs. It is seriously awesome to have a game that gets you to focus on "Who does X trust?" and "Who makes Y angry?" rather than "Where's the key for Z door?" I also like how the game has a "setup" section and a "timed" section, but the timed section isn't just a period of tedious waiting as you watch your setup play out — there's still plenty of interaction that goes on during it, it's just different interaction.

Ok, so let's talk about where the game falls down. The main thing it suffers from, I think, is rear-view mirror syndrome. That's the thing where the author says "Ok, let's see, I need the PC to get their way past this guard — ok, let's say they have to put on a false moustache and disguise themselves as another guard." Well, that's great and totally makes sense, but it also has to be solvable from the player's perspective: "Ok, I have a false moustache, a map of the sewers, a climbing kit, a bag of gold coins, and a sword — how do I get past this guard?" If only the moustache works, this is going to be way hard for the player to solve, even though the moustache is a perfectly legitimate solution in retrospect. So, getting back to Broken Legs, it's got a lot of cool scenes, but getting to them tends to involve a lot of guessing. In particular, ha ha the climax and final puzzle, but there's no real way to know what you have to do in advance, right? And the timer on the last puzzle is short enough that it's totally possible to have locked yourself out of victory without knowing. The other, minor, point is I don't really get the ending. Having talked to some other people I've worked out an explanation that seems reasonable but I don't think it's made clear enough in the game to be satisfying.

That was a lot to write, so for people who skim down to the bottom: play this game, it's fun. It's got some flaws but it's totally interesting from a craft perspective as well as a game one.



Byzantine Perspective (Lea [Lea Albaugh]) Z-Machine:
It's only got one puzzle, really, but it took me just long enough to solve (and I had to map! in two different colors!) that it was charming and satisfying rather than simple or frustrating. Hooray! I certainly wouldn't have objected if the game were twice as long, but I don't see off-hand how you could have spun this puzzle out further, so I guess you'd need a whole new set of puzzles and who knows what integrating that would be like.



Rover's Day Out (Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman) Glulx:
Normally when I start out the comp I play the ones that look like they won't be too serious first. So it's always a pleasure when I get suckered by a game, where I start it up thinking it's casual and before I know it I'm all involved in the story and anxious to see what's happening next and how I solve this thing. Really my only gripe is with the ending — it goes from an loose and open bit to a bit that has (as far as I know) only one right answer, and the particular phrasing isn't something you've had to use earlier in the game. I assume some people got it right off and were fine, but for me the momentum of the game kind of fizzled out at the end due to this, and it felt like a lame way to finish the game. Oh well. Still definitely recommend this one.



Recommended Games

Beta Tester (Darren Ingram) Z-Machine:
Was this a game? I don't mean that in a pejorative way, I just, in retrospect, didn't see any real gameplay here. It was more kind of a "look at the goofy thing I came up with" piece. It's a little big for the IF Art Show but would otherwise fit in there just fine (if it has a comedy section, anyway). Other than that, it was decent enough. I think the author was a little too enamored with his own sense of humor and the pause function but that is the sort of thing that gets ironed out with future games, so whatever.



The Duel in the Snow (Utkonos) Z-Machine:
Enh, I dunno. The game is really linear and restrictive (like, there's one flashback scene that has two rooms, and it doesn't let you do anything in one of the rooms), but at the same time, it feels like it has a lot of wasted time where you have to wait for the game to get on with things. Fundamentally you really can't do much to affect the narrative — if you play around with the walkthrough, you'll notice it demonstrates various ways you can appear to do things but they're all totally ineffective (eg, >REFUSE PISTOL) — and the one thing you can do is so non-obvious that it ends up feeling non-interactive because you end up getting it from the walkthrough. I guess I should mention the Russian literature flavor here, because that is indeed cool and original. I mean, possibly the problem is exactly that — this is basically a flavor railroad without much pretense of gameplay underneath.



The Duel That Spanned the Ages (Oliver Ullmann) Z-Machine:
Surprisingly fun for something with too-easy puzzles and pretty mixed-quality writing ("These metal spiders have been profoundly shot to pieces.") I guess it taps into the basic human drive to run around corridors shooting at monsters for no real reason. It suffers from the heavy metaplot thing, though — there's this storyline you can't really affect that the author is clearly totally interested in and spends a fair amount of time talking about, and yet makes virtually no difference to the actual stuff you do in the game.



Earl Grey (Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish) Glulx:
Pretty good Nord-and-Bert-esque game. It's hard to tell if I was just losing focus towards the end or if it was really getting less clued; at any rate I found myself hitting the walkthrough more and more as the game went on, which is a little disappointing. But still, a good example of this kind of thing, and if you like this kind of thing you will probably like it. (I saw some people complaining about the plot not making any sense, but c'mon, this is the sort of game where the plot is just an excuse to get on with things, so who cares.)



Eruption (Richard Bos) Z-Machine:
This is a puzzle game which is about the minimum size necessary for me not to get angry about a game being too small. Yeah, fine, so I'm ok with it being entered. And it's perfectly fine and well-crafted and stuff — a few of the puzzles have multiple solutions, the difficulty could be higher but isn't too high, the writing is nothing special but totally acceptable. It's just another of the games this year that's a little smaller than I think of as "appropriate" size.



GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! (Dave Horlick) Z-Machine:
Pretty sure I am going to be going against majority opinion here when I say I liked this one. I say this knowing it has an absurdly large map that I ended up having to traverse with no guidance at least twice. I also say this knowing the whole game is a buildup to a confrontation at the end that totally fizzles due to parser issues. But, well, the game is awesome. Specifically, it is the sort of awesome concept (and title) that I wouldn't pick up normally, or even think of, and the comp is, at its best, a delightful collection of all these wacky games. The game certainly isn't without its problems, but I imagine they're going to be covered extensively in other reviews, so I'm not going to bother.



Gleaming the Verb (Kevin Jackson-Mead) Z-Machine:
Not really IF — a word puzzle in the format of IF, but there's effectively no world model, so let's say it's not IF. Ignoring that it's fine, I guess, but there's only one thing to work on at any time, so if you get stuck there, there isn't really an alternative except to hit the walkthrough.



The Grand Quest (Owen Parish) Z-Machine:
A straight-up puzzle adventure. A couple of puzzles are good, and one is quite good. On the other hand, it's really linear and the story feels kind of trite and I have mixed feelings about the ending. "What will you sacrifice for power?" is an interesting theme but the game just dances around on the surface and doesn't really engage with it. That's fine except when the puzzles require you to engage with the theme — puzzles that are like "do something complicated thematically or something complicated puzzle-wise" become trivial when the theme is trivial.



Grounded In Space (Matt Wigdahl) Glulx:
It's basically impossible to take a space journey without running into pirates or pirate-esque dudes, right? And on the few occasions when that doesn't happen, you wake up in a cryo-tube to discover your ship crashed while you were asleep. Anyway, this is a small game which is ok. It would be pretty good — it's got a decent Heinlein-juvenile-esque setup and a pretty good endgame — except for two things. One, the main puzzle is to restart the engines, and it's really irritating. Not because it's especially hard (it's less common than a fifteen puzzle but not what I'd call original) but because the interface is bad — as has been pointed out before, text just isn't a good medium for modelling numbers and specific quantities, and this has that in spades (also, representing the mirrors on the map with rough approximations of their angles would have been a major improvement, and not too hard to do). Anyway, the other gripe is that the writing in the good ending is really, really hokey. Like, hokier than a Heinlein juvenile, and that's saying something.



Interface (Ben Vegiard) Z-Machine:
The author describes this as old-school but I'd say it's more old new-school — the PC's actions have a purpose, the puzzles are integrated into the setting, the end goal makes sense, etc. It's a little on the short side and there's nothing too challenging here, but I had a good time.



Resonance (Matt Scarpino) Glulx:
This is pretty impressive technically for a first game — it's got pathfinding, item purchase, conversation menus, etc. The story is a little more mixed. It's not purely hokey, although it does start out with amnesia and have lines like "The resonant frequency of a chicken skull is 7 kilohertz." Still, I think the real problem I had with the story is that it's rushed. I don't believe I've ever said this before, but I don't think it was a good move to put in multiple endings. I mean, they're good to have, but I think the author would have been better-served spending their time spinning out the infiltration section longer. As it is, it feels like there's a lot of setup and then not much payoff. The riddles feel kind of out of place, too.



Snowquest (Eric Eve) Z-Machine:
Ok, that was weird. It felt like Eric Eve lite — the attention to scenery and verb phrasing was present but not up to his usual standards, the puzzles were decent but usually his puzzles are better than decent, the map was quite constrained compared to his normal stuff, and the plot, hmm. Normally his plots are "standard plot with a twist" — this time the plot was almost entirely twists, but in a way that negated the point of the first part of the game. I can't tell if it's more like this was an intentional attempt to make a small or uncharacteristic game, or if he had a bigger idea but ran out of time and had to squash it into something small, or what. Oh well. Certainly still worth playing, but I'm afraid it's probably not going to be remembered as one of his better games.



Spelunker's Quest (Tom Murrin) Z-Machine:
Reasonably fun and decent-ish puzzles but plays like the guy hasn't played a game since the 1980s. Cave, sword, goblin, machine gun, really?



Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort (Tiberius Thingamus [Duncan Bowsman]) ADRIFT:
Really the worst part about this game was the writing style which gotteth oldeth quicklyeth. Despite the unusual tone I think it may be the most conventional game in the comp this year — it's basically a straight-up dungeon-puzzle-treasures thing. Some of the puzzles weren't really clued enough (in particular, is there a way to work out what to do in the endgame? Maybe the dwarf was supposed to tell me, since his conversation didn't seem to be working properly). Anyway, I like this sort of thing and have no compunction about hitting the walkthrough when I get stuck so I had a pretty good time with this.



Not Recommended Games

The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man (Hannes Schueller) Z-Machine:
Enh, I dunno. The game cites beta-testers but it really feels like it wasn't tested, so I don't know if it just didn't get enough beta-testing or didn't get the right kind or what. There are multiple places where the syntax is extremely picky and, while there are a handful of reasonably clever puzzles in here (I like the one with the badge in particular), the guess-what-the-heck-the-author-is-thinking stuff just makes it painful to play. Also, the "believable" in the title seems to apply only to extent of "Someone who was able to develop an invisibility formula would realistically be a big nerd" and not about, like, whether you can kill someone with a pizza.



Condemned (a Delusioned Teenager [Mark Jones]) Z-Machine:
It seems like we get one emo entry every year, so I guess this is it. In some ways this is better than previous examples, depending on what you mean by better — it has not only abusive parents and an angelic victim and a horrible accident and jerky friends but it has a crucifixion scene, and you really can't go wrong with that. I think my main gripe is that it slaps on the angst by the trowel-load for the whole game and then has a cop-out moral at the end. No way! Have the courage of your convictions and keep the emo all to the end. Why force a happy ending on a game that clearly doesn't want one?



The Hangover (Red Conine [Will Conine]) ADRIFT:
This does have a few funny bits and a reasonable setup, but mostly it's recycled Douglas Adams jokes and terrible programming, to the point of the game being unwinnable. I assume the author is somebody young who will be writing more; a good next step for them would be to switch to TADS or I7 or something for their next game (which is not to say the other two ADRIFT games in this comp aren't pretty good, but there are all sorts of bugs in this game you simply can't create in other authoring systems).



Star Hunter (Chris K.) Z-Machine:
My playthrough, going by the walkthrough for most of it, was like 1200 turns. I'm going to guess this game is a little on the long side for the comp (on the other hand, with all the short games this year, maybe it all averages out). This game actually has a fair amount of cool stuff in it (some interesting settings, some suggestive objects, some interesting implementations with the android merchants) but it's buried under the overall lack of direction and motivation in the game. I find it a little hard to believe anyone will complete this without the walkthrough — there are various places where important exits aren't mentioned in the room description, or things like the lift puzzle where examining provides no hint how to interact with it.



Trap Cave (Emilian Kowalewski) DOS Exe:
It's kind of a funny setup to have a CYOA where the "page text" is in a language you don't speak but the choices are in English. Like, I can imagine a Gostak/Lighan Ses Lion deal here. Anyway, this isn't that, it's just the author running out of time to translate. I am torn between not voting because I don't understand enough of the game to vote and voting a low score because it's clearly a basic CYOA, which I don't think go in the comp. Luckily I'm not voting this year so it doesn't matter, I guess.



zork, buried chaos (bloodbath [Brad Renshaw]) Z-Machine:
Somehow from the name I was expecting more "surreal" and less "intentionally bad". I think it wasn't even intentionally bad enough to work as that kind of game, and plus I got stuck and the walkthrough didn't seem to be right either. Lame.



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