1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition.

Highly Recommended Games

Arrival (Samantha Clark [Stephen Granade]) TADS 2:
Ha! Funny! In a game clearly inspired by Calvin & Hobbes, the player is a little kid exiled to the kitchen, and thus is the only one to observe the invading space aliens who are out to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Eeeagh! Someone must foil their evil plans! Anyway, that's you. This is the first "real" game to make use of HTML-TADS features, and is an excellent demonstration of the sort of things they can be useful for. Arrival makes use of a variety of image types, including hand sketches and what looks like clay models, plus music and sound effects. But the graphics & sound are by no means compensating for weak writing; even without them the game would be hilarious. If there is a weak spot in the game, it's the puzzles. They're fair, and not too difficult, but they feel somewhat tacked on. Like Calvin, the protagonist of Arrival has his parents set up as his main nemeses, but unlike Calvin's mother and father, the parents in Arrival are basically passive figures, and they feel fairly unreal and uninvolving because of it. Nevertheless, a great game, and highly recommended, especially if you can play it with an HTML-TADS interpreter.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. (Digby McWiggle [John Kean]) Z-Machine:
Another comedy, and in fact another B-Movie game. But Tokyo passes over space aliens in favor of Japan getting stomped by big monsters in rubber suits. Well, not rubber suits, exactly, but .. This is one of those games that takes a genre and runs with it, giving the player a knowing wink in the process. 'sgood stuff.



Little Blue Men (Michael Gentry) Z-Machine:
It's an office comedy. It's a drug-induced hallucination. It's both! As the author says in his about note, this game is a "rushed and uneven mixture of gonzo humor and surreal horror", but, really, overall it's highly successful. There are some genuinely creepy bits (though not creepy in the same way that Gentry's previous game, Anchorhead, was), and some genuinely funny bits (the response when you find the nickel is laugh-out-loud), and some bits that are just .. umm .. weird. Another good point about this game is the multiplicity of endings, a nice touch, especially in a game this size. I highly recommend Little Blue Men, despite the occasional rough spots. Most notable among these is the sudden lack of direction after the first half-dozen moves. This led to me wandering around and hitting the hints early in the hopes of figuring out what to do next, probably spoiling some stuff I could have figured out later on (but then, I've always been weak-willed). There's also at least one puzzle I would characterize as unfair, but it's solved in the hints, a definite mitigating factor.



Mother Loose (Irene Cillaci) Z-Machine:
A witty little game about a little girl on the, er, loose, in nursery-rhyme land. Originally written for the author's granddaughter, Mother Loose bears some similarities to a Disney flick: there are all sorts of little touches for adults in a story that's generally aimed at kids, plus a moral message at the end that feels somewhat fake and tacked-on. But it's good anyway. As Callaci says, it probably wouldn't really work for kids: typing is a lot tougher than watching a movie. On the other hand, this might be fun to play with a kid. The puzzles are in general pretty good, and the hints sufficient to cover any problems you might have (and also make the puzzle's inspirations clear). The puzzle or two near the end are a little weaker than the earlier ones, and there's one case when I had a problem because I assumed magic and never stopped to look for mechanics. These are little issues that don't detract from a good game; highly recommended.



Persistence of Memory (Anonymous [Jason Dyer]) Hugo:
The first four games on my "highly recommended" list are all at least somewhat funny; these last three are all mostly serious. This one, in fact, is completely serious. The protagonist is a soldier, separated from his unit and lost in enemy territory. Or are they enemies? Time and circumstance combine to put the protagonist in a position to appreciate the question. There are a few puzzles in the game, I suppose, but they all fall out naturally, save perhaps the very last. As the only Hugo entry, this game is also a reminder not to forget a promising system; hopefully some new people will be attracted to the language as a result of playing this excellent game.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)



Photopia (Opal O'Donnell [Adam Cadre]) Z-Machine:
There are a lot of things wrong with this game: the story (not the story, but the story — you'll see) is trite, the explanation of big words starts off cute then quickly becomes annoying, and I'm told the color scheme is horrid. But none of this matters a bit, because there was a point in the story when I saw what was going to happen, and it was dreadful and hateful and perfect, and I had to keep going anyway and let it all go on. What more can an author (or player) ask for in a game? If you play only one of the competition games this year, play this one.



The Plant (Mike Roberts) TADS 2:
A genuine Mike Roberts. Cool. This feels a lot like Perdition's Flames or Deep Space Drifter: moreso the former than the latter, perhaps, since The Plant continues the policy of no death, no way to lose the game, and no freakin' mazes. On the other hand, there's a "big mechanism" puzzle that reminds me distinctly of Deep Space Drifter, and there seems to be a vague feeling of similarity about the plot, although there's no actual overlap I can put my finger on. This is really simply a very solid, well-executed game, and well worth playing.



Recommended Games

Acid Whiplash (Rybread Celsius and Cody Sanifer) Z-Machine:
This is a Rybread Celsius game. It is also an interview with Rybread Celsius. If you like Rybread Celsius's other stuff, you will probably like this game. If you don't, you won't. I do.



Cattus Atrox (David A. Cornelson) Z-Machine:
Cattus Atrox reemphasizes the point made by Anchorhead that you almost certainly can't write anything as scary as what I can think up. So the more explicitly you write about something, the less room you've left for imagination and the less scary it is. The first bit, when I was running around the city being chased by monsters, that was scary (and the very first bit, when the monsters first show up, that was really freaky. At least, judging by the fact that I turned the game off and didn't come back to it until daytime). The second bit, when I was directly confronted with monsters, was not. Furthermore, horror games depend on maintaining a constant feeling of tension. Having nothing happen, or wrestling with the parser, decreases that tension. Also, serious randomized events are a bad idea, as they encourage use of undo, which also destroys tension. Cattus Atrox succeeds on some of these points but fails on other. I'd play it, but with a walkthrough handy to keep the pace moving (the omission of any hints was a bad idea on the author's part. If the player gets stuck, the player gets unhappy.) Also, just as a side note, this game is a distinct improvement over Cornelson's first game. I look forward to his third!



CC (Mikko Vuorinen) Alan:
Ok, this gets points for being the first decent Alan game that I know of. It also gets points for being a sort of wacky, metaphoric game like The Ritual of Purification, but with more of a sense of humor. It still doesn't make much sense, though. Compared to The Ritual of Purification it's shorter, a little easier, and not quite so reliant on standard symbols, and I think that gives it a slight edge (even though Alan doesn't support undo, which is obnoxious and a noticeable omission).



The City (Sam Barlow) Z-Machine:
During those discussions about 'undo' that we always seem to get into on raif, I've stated that as a general rule, undo is a good thing and should be kept in, unless there are serious artistic reasons for leaving it out. Then I'd privately add "but I doubt I'll ever see a game that really requires doing so". Ok, I was wrong. This is the game. Not only does it leave out undo, save and restore are also removed. And guess what? It's ok. It works. The game is fairly interesting and worth a look. Syntax issues sent me to the walkthrough fairly often for such a short game, though — this is most likely a beta-testing issue, which Barlow mentions he didn't really have time for.



Enlightenment (Taro Ogawa) Z-Machine:
Congratulations, Adventurer, you're almost out of the dungeon. You just have to get past the troll (which, incidentally, is unkillable and impassable, but don't let that stop you). Figuring out what you have to do in this game isn't that difficult; the tricky bit is solving all the clever sub-puzzles to get the whole thing done. The problem is that for most of the puzzles, there are a wide variety of solutions that suggest themselves, and only one or two have been coded in. But persistence and judicious use of hints should get you through okay. This game is also to be commended for having the most impressive packaging in the comp. Several html pages plus gifs. Very pretty.



Four in One (J. Robinson Wheeler) TADS 2:
This game is similar in many ways to Toonesia, from the 1995 Competition. Both games consisted mainly of watching the antics of wacky characters (in Toonesia it was Bugs & Daffy & the gang, while in this case, it's the Marx Brothers), and neither game quite worked. This one does a better job of almost-working than Toonesia did, but it still runs into the problem that there's not really the feeling of continuous zany activity necessary to make you feel immersed in the slapstick. Still, it's cute, and I recommend it. On the other hand, it's probably just as fun to read over the transcript it was made from, submitted to the Miningco's Interactive Fiction Fan Fest (making this another game made from a published transcript. Sheesh. But at least this time the author of the game was also the author of the transcript.)



Human Resources Stories (Harry Hardjono) Z-Machine:
I find it moderately amusing to spend my free time being heckled by someone. If you don't, you probably won't like this. On the other hand, it's kind of like an olive to cleanse your palate between games. On the third hand, it's also kind of like having your ankles attacked by an angry shrew. Make sure to try >XYZZY.



Informatory (William J. Shlaer) Z-Machine:
This is a game with a gimmick. It's a very clever gimmick, and I'd be interested to see how it was coded. Unfortunately, the gimmick is not mentioned anywhere that I could see, so you're expected to just sort of stumble on it. Which is not totally unreasonable, but Murphy knows it's a bad idea anyway. So I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to suggest that once you get inside the house, you should check out the south room first of all.



Muse: An Autumn Romance (Christopher Huang) Z-Machine:
I strongly suspect I'm going to be one of the only people who don't really like this game (that's "don't (really like)" not "(don't really) like"). Which is odd, because I'm quite fond of Jane Austen and That Sort Of Thing, and this game does a creditable job of doing a very short piece with the right feel (well, in fact, it's not that short a game, but compared to Pride and Prejudice or something it is). I think my major problem is that classic bugaboo of IF writing, NPC interaction. The author has done a decent amount of coding of responses to conversation topics and so on, but it's not nearly enough. I still got into "I know what I want to talk about, but I have no idea what the magic word is to do so" situations, and that's a killer in a game as much about NPC interaction as this one is. But if you like the gothic romance-ish genre, check this out.



Purple (Stefan Blixt) Z-Machine:
I didn't really care much for this the first time I played it. But when I came back and got through the intro part, it turned out to be pretty cool, even though I ended up using the walkthrough quite a bit, and there seemed to be some bugs with the NPC interactions. The plot is pretty simple: nuclear war strikes, and you run to the bomb shelter and go into cryogenic-type suspension. Then you wake up, hundreds of years later, and have to struggle for survival, etc. There's some good bits about mutated plants and stuff, and remembering where items were so you can retrieve them later on. Play it, but keep the walkthrough nearby.



The Ritual of Purification (Sable) Z-Machine:
It's sort of symbolic and sort of mystical and it's got magic and stuff. It's trickier than it seems to pull off a game that's One Big Metaphor: So Far and Losing Your Grip got it right; this one and Of Forms Unknown didn't quite. Still, The Ritual of Purification is a fun game, even if it doesn't hold together very well. So don't think too hard about it, just play.



Spacestation (David Ledgard) Z-Machine:
Er. It's an implementation of the explanatory walkthrough from Planetfall. Doesn't this count as "previously published" or something? But it's all well-implemented and fine if you like that sort of thing, I guess.



Trapped in a One-Room Dilly (Laura Knauth) Z-Machine:
Knauth's 1996 competition entry, Travels in the Land of Erden is probably best-remembered for having approximately as many rooms as all the other games in the competition put together. So Trapped in a One-Room Dilly is an interesting change: as the name suggests, you spend the entire game in the single room. This game also specializes in, mm, more game-like puzzles than Travels in the Land of Erden, which isn't a bad thing but definitely a shift. The puzzles themselves are well-executed and there are hints if you get stuck, there's no plot to speak of, and I suggest you check this game out.



Not Recommended Games

Fifteen (Ricardo Dague) Z-Machine:
This game has a clean, Scott Adams type feel to it (which the author mentions specifically as an influence). That's good. But it has a maze in it. I hate mazes. I really, really, really hate mazes. The walkthrough gives the path through the maze as being FIFTY TURNS LONG. Also, the other main point of the game, besides the FIFTY TURN LONG MAZE, is a fifteen-square puzzle. I'm not fond of those either. If you feel differently, and especially if you're feeling nostalgic for the early 80's, you may well enjoy this game.



In the Spotlight (John Byrd) Z-Machine:
Um. This is a solid implementation of a logic puzzle that I've seen before. The puzzle takes, er, four moves to solve. What's the point?



Lightiania (Gustav Bodell) TADS 2:
I feel bad about giving this game a not recommended, because it's obviously trying and it's obviously someone's first or nearly first try. But, I dunno, it's not very good, and the spelling isn't very good (another thing I feel bad about, because the author(s?) appears to be a non-native English speaker, and I certainly couldn't write anything like this in a foreign language). What it comes down to, though, is that games have to be judged on what they are, not why they are, and this one isn't recommended. On the other hand, I'd be interested in seeing what the author does as a second game, now that they've got this one under their belt.



Research Dig (Chris Armitage) Z-Machine:
More or less the same critique as for Lightiania. This one's a bit more solidly written, and better-programmed, but it's still, unfortunately, not very interesting. But again, the author shows potential, and if they can get a more creative/complex storyline going in another, I'll certainly play.



Where Evil Dwells (Paul Johnson and Steve Owens) Z-Machine:
The third of the games I played which had potential but didn't really express it, Where Evil Dwells suffers from too many ideas, rather than too few. There's a detective story sort of idea, and a cthulhu horror story sort of idea, and an Addams family sort of idea, and a Gilligan's Island running joke sort of idea, and none of them really work. I suspect pruning down to just one or two of these ideas would have served the authors better. As it is, the game is sort of a mishmash, and nothing makes very much sense, and, really, the game isn't worth playing. For their next game, I suggest the authors think about picking a single concept and focusing on that (also, think about beta-testing. It may have just been due to lack of time, but I'm sure beta-testing would have brought out things like the game having a shotgun but not supporting >SHOOT).



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