Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Interactive Fiction Competition '06 Reviews

These are my reviews of all the text adventure games produced for this year's Interactive Fiction Competition. The results have just been released (people are asked not to post reviews before that) but I wrote these reviews before knowing the results or who the anonymous authors were. I've included the blurbs that came with the games because I noticed that in many cases my reviews made no sense without them. And, just to be weird, I'm posting the reviews in the randomized order in which I played the games.


Simple Adventure

By dunric

Blurb: Simple Adventure is a basic Scott Adams-like adventure game written for the 12th annual interactive fiction contest. The goal is to slay the ice dragon.


As happens every year, somebody insists on reinventing the wheel. At least nothing bad happens when you run out of HP. How did dunric know I love leveling up? 4


Fight or Flight

By geelpete

Blurb: The counselors at Open Arms Academy, a camp for troubled youth, celebrate after closing the camp for the season. An unexpected visitor crashes the party, and someone loses his head...


The tone didn’t quite catch my attention. I would have completely missed the sentence “A headless corpse spurts blood inside the truck” if I hadn’t been reading closely.

>tell Sydney about corpse

This provokes no reaction.

>tell Sydney about body

Specify the body.

>tell Sydney about Jeb's body

She giggles. "I'm sorry. You've got such a crazy sense of humor!"

After the only way to convince my friends that a horrible murder had taken place 100 yards away was the Hulklike feat of ripping the hood off the truck that the body was in and carrying it to them, I stuck to the walkthrough for the rest. 3


The Tower of the Elephant

By Tor Andersson

Blurb: An adaptation of the classic sword & sorcery tale by Robert E. Howard, first published in 1933.


I strongly approve of IF literary adaptations, but if this is a faithful adaptation I don’t see how this one ever worked as a static story either. The main character has no agency. He mostly just follows people’s instructions. He’s supposed to be a thief, but he’s not willing to leave once he’s stolen the loot; he’s too busy helping a couple of superbeings he doesn’t know sort out their personal drama. When he leaves the tower, does he even know he has the jewels? Better title: The Tower Of Way Less Than One Whole Elephant, No Matter How You Look At It. 4


Beam

By Madrone Eddy

Blurb: Beam is a short escape adventure.


Beginnings have a special significance in IF: they are the only part of your game your player can reach without figuring out how to play the game. If the beginning makes no sense, nothing else matters. A protagonist who can’t walk on the ground without running into trees, and a parser that insists you can only get to the top of a tree by typing IN, make no sense. Experimentation revealed that the game wasn’t designed to respond to commands that deviate even slightly from the walkthrough, so I punched it in verbatim. I think if I had waited longer (in real time!) after doing this I might have won, but I got bored and wandered off until I met the sweet embrace of death by asphyxiation.

P.S. Why is there no air? 1


Xen: The Hunt

By Ian Shlasko

Blurb: John Richardson returns in this sequel to Xen: The Contest. Two years later, he finds himself caught again in the crossfire. This time, however, his life may be forfeit.


I used to watch a lot of TV in the ‘80s, so until I lived in a city I thought it was quite plausible that if I ever went into an alley, six black guys would pop out of nowhere and be like, “Yo, yo, yo, looks like the white boy wants to play tough!” So I feel bad that I have to take a point off for that. Apparent success on the train ID puzzle killed me, while doing nothing allowed me to escape but made the next event impossible to trigger. Would be helpful if I could show the ID to the cops, but the game doesn’t understand when I refer to them. There and elsewhere, the game became confused if I didn’t copy the commands from the walkthrough precisely. Still, this has a fair amount of detail and visible effort. I especially admire the creator for putting in so many active NPCs and scripted set pieces. It may be a little too plot-heavy: half as much supernatural exposition probably would have had the same amount of impact. 5


Enter the Dark

By Peter R. Shushmaruk

Blurb: My first complete IF game. An interactive thriller, where you find yourself in an unexplainable situation with the memories of your sister’s murder haunting you. There is something waiting for you. You can feel its presence watching your every move.


It’s a little weird, seeing these strange acronyms cropping up year after year: ALAN, HUGO, ADRIFT. It seems like popular opinion would bring IF authors to enough of a consensus that we could at least narrow down the range of languages that are considered worth using. I’ve never experimented with ALAN, but it seems like it must encourage some bad IF-writing habits. Enter the Dark doesn’t even seem to have the equivalent of an EXAMINE verb. Obvious methods for trying to kill the crow elicit no response, not even an “I don’t understand” message. I couldn’t figure out the command to load or fire the crossbow, and neither could whoever wrote the walkthrough. 1


The Initial State

By Matt Barton

Blurb: Initial State is a deeply psychological text adventure set in deep space. You play as an amnesiac who finds himself stranded aboard an immense ship drifting through space. The game is also a literary exercise in the "unreliable narrator" tradition.


Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning! I have to admit, though, the bleak tone was consistent and engaging, and the pacing was good in terms of both obstacles and plot revelations. I would recommend this game as a good example of how to make the plot clear while still allowing the player to feel he’s accomplished something in piecing it together. The parser was better-implemented than I could have expected, even given the limited range of actions required, though it still wasn’t as good as in the average Inform or TADS game. 8


Fetter's Grim

(or, how I became a zombified hitman for Jesus Christ)

By Dunric

Blurb: You are on a beach with the LORD.

You've got a headache, but you're with Jesus and he's not nailed to a cross (he's having one of his better weeks).

The goal is to find out why you ended up here with a guy who eats locusts, honey and speaks oddly.


Plot is nonsensical, I can’t seem to level and I can’t find anything to spend my gold on. Also, “Whether expressed or implied” is a phrase normally applied to warranties, not copyright. 2


Delightful Wallpaper

A Cozy Mansion Mystery in the Making

By Edgar O. Weyrd


Really inventive. It’s rare that I can get absorbed in a puzzlefest, but because of the meta-puzzle structure there was always something new to fiddle with that gave me hope of getting unstuck. The “notes” function was a great help and a fun reward for making things happen. This may be laziness on my part, but once I solved the puzzle I would have liked a message telling me who was left alive at the end (and what happened then). I didn’t bother to work the survivor’s identity out on my own. Come to think of it, maybe the second-to-last heir committed his murder and then died of slow-acting poison. Who knows. 9


Sisyphus

By Theo Koutz

Blurb: You are Sisyphus, a Greek king who is being punished in the underworld by being forced to push a huge boulder up a hill for all eternity. Can you figure out a way to weasel out of your predicament, escape from Hades, and get your job as king back?


I don’t know how to put this delicately. I’m trapped here for eternity, I have the use of my hands, and I’m naked. The proper course of action is obvious, and it’s not coded. That’s just sloppy. 1


The Apocalypse Clock

A Race Against Time

By GlorbWare

Blurb: You must stop the end of the world. Your tools in this task: A crayon and a cat.


Starting up a game like this, I have to ask myself: is that typo some kind of intentional joke I don’t get, or am I in for a really bad time? In this case the answer was the latter, but at least I was able to identify a couple moments that were apparently intended to be funny, so I had a feeling the author basically likes me and wants me to be happy. That’s a lot more than I could say for “Sisyphus”. Or “The Initial State,” probably. (Where was the crayon?) 2


The Bible Retold

The Bread and the Fishes

By Justin Morgan and "Celestianpower"

Blurb: A light-hearted adaptation of the classic Bible story, The Feeding the Five Thousand. Not for the fundamentalist!


“Not for the fundamentalist” is an odd thing to say about this game. Are there really people out there who are so doctrinaire in their Christianity that they would find the addition of silly anachronisms and a tedious math puzzle offensive? This game makes a few slight gestures toward irreverence toward the beginning, but it quickly switches to doctrinaire recapitulation of the original Bible story, even resorting to the “copy your character’s actions directly out of the original book” style of puzzle that plagues IF literary adaptations. Could this be a sneaky ruse, designed to lure unbelievers with the promise of blasphemy and then cram the Good News down their throat before they know what’s happening?

Anyway, I don’t think the idea of things disappearing “in a puff of logic” quite fits this particular story, but the sliced bread joke made me laugh. How was I supposed to guess to “say grace” rather than “pray”? Making Jesus pick up only one loaf at a time was a mean trick, given that it was about a 50 move round trip to go to the crowd, try to feed them, be told I didn’t have enough food (I thought that was the whole point?) and walk all the way back to get the rest. Even if I were clever enough to type in “get crumbs” after the feast, the game wouldn’t know what I was talking about: the authors insist on direct copying from the walkthrough only (and no “scraps” show up in the location description to give you a fighting chance). 4


Legion

By Ian Anderson

Blurb: She will not triumph. We are strong. We are legion.


Cool design. I would have liked a little more guidance toward the beginning. I still don’t know exactly what I did there. I thought I had an unwinnable state when an object I possessed got destroyed, but given the range of interactions possible there was probably something I could have done to get inside. Maybe the descriptions could have been a little less sketchy? The protagonists started to develop a little personality only toward the end (or maybe I became able to relate to their personalities because I started to see them in a human context). This game accomplishes exactly what it intends to with the POV, but the plot is pretty conventional and the characters are sketchy so I’m going to hold back the perfect score. 9


Moon-Shaped

By Jason Ermer


This story has been done before, but somehow it worked again. This game was a lot of fun at first, as I had a clear goal and an interesting environment to explore. Around the locket and the grandfather clock, it was almost like Curses. After a while, it got a little less logical and interesting. There’s something about being instructed to perform ancient rituals that puts me off, because it means I’m no longer trying to understand the relationships between objects in the game, I’m just trying to follow the authors arbitrary and intentionally opaque instructions, which will make something unpredictable happen. Someone like Emily Short can make magic feel like it operates according to fair rules, but it’s not easy to do. Logistic complaints: I think it would have been fairer if looking at the pebbles anywhere outside was the same as doing so in Grandma’s yard. I still don’t know how I was supposed to find out the walking stick’s history. Was trying every direction from every location the only way to find the graveyard? It wasn’t clear at first that Grandma was also the Witch. And I could have sworn I had two mushrooms rather than one… 6

The Primrose Path

By Nolan Bonvouloir

Blurb: You've led a fairly uneventful life, perhaps; certainly you never planned on having to save your best friend's life. Now, it's up to you to unearth the secrets he's been concealing from you, perhaps learning a thing or two about yourself in the process...


This game is full of inventive supernatural concepts while still maintaining realistic characterization and tone, which is one of the best results that fantasy fiction can aspire to, really. One of the first lines, about “a half-second of pure ‘Where the hell am I,’” doesn’t seem to fit the protagonist’s voice, but after that she’s very consistent and engaging. The meta subplot is fun, though I’m not sure if it adds up to anything. I don’t know Irene found out about the player, and Matilda’s feelings about the object in the drawer seemed a little extreme. Come to think of it, how did that get there anyway? And the first paragraph of the game alludes to an extra supernatural twist that I did find in the game, but I couldn’t figure out how it connected to anything else. And, by the way, I believe the author forgot to explain how the protagonist gets the ring in the “You have won” ending. I’m curious to know if there are major elements I haven’t seen yet; I’ll certainly be comparing notes about this game once judging is over. 9


Requiem

By david whyld

Blurb: "She told me she needed my help. She told me someone was after her and that he would kill her. She told me where to find him, told me what needed doing... and left the choice in my hands. What I didn't know was that there was a lot more to the story..."


A lot of repetition and wordiness: “Something seems wrong the moment I enter the apartment. It takes me but a moment to put my finger on it: it’s been trashed.” This protagonist feels compelled to explain what he’s thinking in great detail, several times. For some reason his detective agency has a staff, his house is implausibly big, and he doesn’t seem to know if he bought it when he was thinking about starting a family or when he “hit bottom”. The author says he doesn’t like puzzles, which must be why this game mostly boils down to walking into places, getting attacked and knocked out, and agreeing with things NPCs say. The walkthrough says that there’s an alternate path if you try to kill the bad guy the first time you meet him, but I reached the scene that you flash back from in the beginning, so I considered my responsibility fulfilled. 3


A Broken Man

A story of revenge.

By Geoff Fortytwo

Blurb: Your little girl has been mercilessly killed at the hands of a heartless terrorist.

The police won't even admit that it happened.

It's time for revenge.


This plot for this one is way more complicated than it has to be. Why couldn’t the main guy have just read “The Punisher”? Instead it goes into this whole alternate reality plotline about “What if there the movie Swordfish was originally a book?” Man, if Swordfish was a book, Chapters 1-5 would read about like this: “If it were somehow possible for the police to view the explosion in extreme slow motion, they would see a giant wall of flame, slowly undulating, with metal ball bearings soaring around in a totally awesome way, and then one of the ball bearings hits one of the sleek metal-and-glass bombs attached to another one of the hostages, and then that makes another huge awesome explosion that slowly blossoms in a hundredth of a second that stretches out for a really long time, and a couple of cops and a cop car are floating in midair and kind of rotating like in The Matrix, and then if we were to pan slowly to the right we would see…” Anyway. So to give himself a break after coming up with that concept, the writer has you enter the mansion you’re invading just as a burglar is leaving with all the furniture, decorations, some of the rooms and pretty much all the characterization that otherwise would have been in the game. Sample quote: “This side of the building is almost entirely made up of a grid of glass panes. One of those panes appears to serve the function of being a window…” 2


Aunts and Butlers

By Robin Johnson

Blurb: It's 1920s England, you're a near-bankrupt minor aristocrat, and your only elderly heirless aunt is coming to tea. A PG Wodehouse-inspired farce of bad Manors, good fortunes, and mysterious servants.


Weird and fun. This game got lots of laughs out of me with the way bizarre things kept happening so abruptly, starting with the meal of salad dressing at the beginning. I especially enjoyed it, actually, when the game threw in bizarre occurrences that were transparent plot devices, like the cop eating the paper, and I normally hate that stuff. I’m not sure I’m quite sold on the supernatural stuff with the butler and the warping around, though, because toward the beginning I quite enjoyed the consistency of style. I rarely enjoy it when it seems like a game could take you absolutely anywhere on the next screen: if anything can happen, then nothing can have consequences, and I don’t care about anything. Speaking of consequences, I triggered an unwinnable state on the spaceship (!) and since I’d never figured out how to use the save/restore system, I had to give up. Based on the walkthrough, it looks like the author doesn’t always know exactly how to save the game either. That’s what offline interpreters are for! By the way, if it’s low-class to call a drawing room a sitting room, what is it when you call a foyer a lobby? 6


Visocica

By Thorben B├╝rgel

Blurb: A Game made with TAG from Martin Oehm.

Unfortunaly only in german.

Dieses Spiel ist komplett nur in deutsch.


I clicked on this, it said the game was too big to fit in my computer’s memory, and it shut down. Next time, try writing in a language with shorter words.


MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness - II

Part II: Explanation

By Bill Powell

Blurb: Having attempted murder in your landlady's front garden in Edwardian London, you receive a private trial in the dining room. Enemies expose your wretched past: burglary, desertion, polygamy, murder...but you remember these incidents a bit differently...


I’m kind of offended that this author has made both halves of his game separate entries, but I took him on his word by playing this one first. Too few of the objects in the scenes were implemented, many scenes required reading the author’s mind, and others were trivially easy. There was not much of a sense of interaction. It wasn’t clear how this guy managed to get on trial for things he’d only allegorically done. The plot had a little charm, although I’m quite skeptical of guys who think they can find the meaning of life by running around, getting married a lot, shooting guns and bragging about how they’re living life to the fullest (I recently read On the Road for the first time). The main character’s message is so commonplace that I’d still find it a little uninteresting even if I bought it. Also, this game loses a point for featuring a “Breakespeare College”. I know that’s a real name, but I just don’t like it. 3


Polendina

By Christopher Lewis


Soon upon opening this game I smelled a rat. It was really cagey about my identity, and it didn’t seem to want to give me details like what my favorite bands were when I was little. Either this writer was very unimaginative, or he was pulling an unreliable narrator on me. It turned out to be both: in a shocking twist, the game reveals it’s being narrated by a guy who doesn’t bother with many details! The ending is perfectly arbitrary, and provides no explanation for why the narrator keeps telling you not to solve the puzzles he’s given you no choice but to solve. Also, would the game really have made itself unwinnable just to punish me for leaving the cell phone on too long? That’s low, man. 3


The Sisters

By revgiblet

Blurb: 'The Sisters' is a haunted house game written with ADRIFT. It's my first ever entry and one of my first efforts, so go easy on me.


Because the author of this game has requested that players go easy on him, this review will contain only positive comments.

I like the description “Trees and assorted foliage. You don’t know the proper names. You are no nature expert.” It reminds me of Nice Pete in Achewood, which apparently means it’s like Faulkner. Green on black text makes ADRIFT games much eerier than INFORM or especially TADS games. The location of the game is creepy, the way it’s gradually revealed works well, and the puzzles are fair and fun. The story is cool and, for the most part, it comes together in a coherent way. 6


Green Falls

The Curse of Eldor

By Dunric

Blurb: A mysterious shadow demon has taken the countryside of Eldor captive. It is up to you, brave one, to rescue it!


Multiple entries using identical data resources shouldn’t be allowed in the comp, in my opinion. (“The wolf massacred you in to small fragments.”) 2


Madam Spider's Web

By Sara Dee


This is a basically well-meaning and competent game, but it bothered me by having so many played-out IF tropes: supernatural events as allegory for real-life trauma, the character’s real identity and the main conflict of the story revealed only after it’s over, unavoidable car crash. It’s frustrating for me to play games as apparently different as this, The Sisters, Polendina, and A Broken Man, and have them all turn out to be the same thing: exercises in hiding critical facts from the player. Obviously, after a while it ceases to be a surprise. It’s cool to see that Adam Cadre’s influence is still so important in IF, but surface-level imitation does nobody any good. In this game the dream world seemed half-hearted, too sketchy to offer any insight into the “real” world that gets revealed at the end. The endgame felt abrupt, triggered after solving just two puzzles that didn’t seem particularly important, although nothing had happened that made me want the game to go on longer, either. I don’t know what the difference is between the house in this game and the one you explore in The Sisters that made the latter so much more interesting to me. Atmosphere, I guess. 4


Carmen Devine: Supernatural Troubleshooter

File CH357 (Northern China)

By Rob Myall


I think the title gave me the wrong idea about this game. I was impressed that BECOME WOLF got a response as soon as I got out of the car! But then I was anti-impressed when BECOME HUMAN in a room that turned out to be dark apparently caused an unwinnable state by making my inventory inaccessible. I thought about starting over, but I couldn’t figure out the command to make the pack help the injured wolf, so I accepted defeat. 5


Hedge

By Steven Richards

Blurb: Hedge is a modern fantasy piece revolving around the legendary Hedge, a very exclusive club with a nasty reputation. You try to get in, and then out again, without dying. The duality of man may make an appearance.


Maybe I’m dumb, but I couldn’t get the list without the walkthrough, and I have no idea what I was supposed to get out of the crossword puzzle. A description of what the puzzle looked like would have been nice. A way to fill it in would have been even better. The allegory here didn’t do much for me, and pretty much every puzzle called for a look at the walkthrough. This seemed like one of those surreal/anything-can-happen environments where it’s tough to get enough of a sense of context to learn how to interact with it. This is an interactive medium, so if you’re going to make your game surreal, you need to find a way to make the player surreal as well. 3


Another Goddamn Escape the Locked Room Game

By Riff Conner

Blurb: A satire of the popular genre of flash-based webgames. It's my first attempt at authoring IF, so please don't hesitate to send me reviews, reports of bugs I missed, and so forth.


I was disappointed when this game let me go in the bathroom right off. That seems to violate the rules of the locked-in-a-single-room genre. Plus, if you’re going to add a second room to a one-room game, a bathroom is a poor choice. It’s as if this author made a list of all the greatest rooms he could have in his game, and a bathroom came in second on that list. Think of all the compromises an IF author has to make with himself when he codes a bathroom. “I wonder if I can get away with not writing a pointless shower, if instead I write that the bathroom is really crappy because it doesn’t have a shower?” “Okay, what do I say when the player tries to make a dookie?” I guess it makes sense to require illogical actions if you’re satirizing locked room games that do the same, but those games are solveable because they have a strict limit on the number of available objects and actions, and you can just try every possibility. This game had too many items for that. For instance, I don’t see how anybody could guess to throw the hand out the window. And by the way, OPEN WINDOW ought to elicit a response. 4


Lawn of Love

A Santoonie Romance

By Santoonie Corporation

Blurb: Santoonie Corporation's first ever romantic adventure.


I was looking forward to this game, but then I realized I had Santoonie confused with Textfire or something like that. I don’t think there’s any need to develop an IF brand associated with comical badness, because comically bad is pretty much the default position for IF. Lots of people put in lots of hard word and still come out with comically bad. (One exception to the no-antibrand rule is Rybread Celcius, who threw in enough exciting weirdness that he made me remember him). Anyway, Lawn of Love makes very little sense but it has occasional flashes of perfectly competent prose. The joke about the fondue pot, for instance. 4


The Elysium Enigma

By Eric Eve

Blurb: It was meant to be a routine visit on behalf of the imperial government, just to remind the settlers that the Empire hadn't forgotten them. But maybe there's more going on on Elysium than your orders bargained for.


This was a good one. I liked how the author integrated a category of hidden objects to find (food items) into the plot of the game, especially in a context where I felt a little guilty for stealing them. Other puzzles, too, had multiple solutions and required you to find some but not all of them. The decision to have only a few, well fleshed-out characters was probably the right one, as ghostly as it made that village seem at first. It wasn’t exactly clear to me how and why the backstory (Captain Villiers) echoed the present action of the game. I thought the explanation would have to be supernatural, but then the story went in a different direction. In a couple of places I would have liked more guidance in the location descriptions, like about what I had to do to use that path through the forest, but I’m bad with puzzles. The plot was more low-key than I expected, but I thought it was good that it delivered on its promises rather than cutting the plot short with huge pyrotechnic confrontations. And no twist ending! 9


Wumpus Run

By Elfindor

Blurb: Wumpus Hunting will never become "the sport of Kings" ... too many risks involved for royalty (although, they've been known to allow any number of fools, er, adventurers, to partake on their behalf). Let's not be under any delusions here - you could die!


It’s been a long time since I last chased the Wumpus, but it looks like this is just a straightforward reimplementation of that game with a few extraneous words layered on top. I was surprised that this passed muster under the no copyrighted works rule, but I guess Wumpus has been ported so many times that it must be public domain somehow or other. 2


Mobius

An Interactive Twist

By J.D. Clemens


Blurb: Another mission. Just when you had settled in for a nap.


I have to give this one kudos for a cool play mechanic: your actions come back to haunt you via timewarp. The puzzle wasn’t quite as good as I hoped, though. The distinction between the two different tasks you have to coordinate is fuzzy, and it’s possible to get what seems to be a victory message for either of them when there’s still one more minor action you need to perform. That can make the game misleading as to why your attempt at a solution didn’t work. It’s possible that the game was consistent in the way it treated interactions between me and my double, but it didn’t feel that way. If his actions can help me access a button in my own time, then why not the receptacle on the reactor as well? Maybe it would have been more fun if the actions the player had to perform were more fun or inherently dramatic, the kind of thing that you’d love to watch come together like clockwork according to a choreography you’d painstakingly planned. But there’s a lot to like: the sergeant, the first aid kit and the busted transporter brought disconcerting liveliness to a seemingly generic sci-fi setup. 7


PTGOOD 8*10^23

How the Worst was Won

By Sartre Malvolio

Blurb: In this uncut version that YOU DID NOT SEE IN THEATRES, you'll laugh your arse off at Xorax's evil stupidity, and get to play the role of his murderer.

The most meanspirited IF parody to date!

DOWN WITH PTBAD!


It’d be funny if as a result of the Comp, this guy and the Sisyphus guy became, like, pen pals. 1


Game Producer!

By jason bergman

Filename: producer.z5

Blurb: You're a producer at AXL Games. Today is the day your game goes gold, but you've overslept!

Rush to the office, get your developers paid, coordinate QA and marketing efforts and do it all before time runs out!


This is cool, but it feels like it’s directed mostly at people inside the game industry. The author seems to feel a responsibility to take the stuff that happens in game production seriously (so there’s not much humor), but as he says in his game notes, he’s not really trying to depict the process in a realistic way either. The notes claim that the opening scene was based on the Riddle of the Sphinx, but I think it was really based on the beginning of Quake (and whatever Infocom game that bathroom door trick came from). 6


The Traveling Swordsman

By Anonymous

Blurb: You are the traveling swordsman; the strong and silent stranger; the wandering vanquisher of villainy. Damsels swoon for you. Good men respect and envy you. Scoundrels learn to fear you. Even so, you are but a rumor throughout the land.


With the logo and chapter headings, it looks like they’ve found a way to make Hugo games look like Glulx games: a cruel deception. This game is a puzzlefest, but it’s too disjointed for me. There was no real connection between the different episodes, and solving a puzzle rarely made me feel that I’d progressed toward any specific goal or that I had much sense of what to do next. This game lost points in my book for being so long without ever seeming to get started. When the puzzles made sense, it was more often because of their resemblance to things I’d done in other IF than because I started to see how they fit into the plot. The attempt to tie things together with the tapestries failed for me: I have no idea what the imagery on them represented. I did appreciate that the hero of this game was a tough guy who could at least occasionally overcome obstacles by slashing and smashing them, and he even gets through an entire battle against some giant spiders without resulting to any wimpy/clever ploys.

IF authors are often tempted to find excuses not to describe things, and Anonymous is no exception: I think this is the first time I’ve heard a girl’s face described as “featureless” without a good reason. Also, the author seems to be mistaken about what “maiden” means. 3


MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness - I

Part I: Enigma

By Bill Powell

Blurb: London, 1912. When you invade a bored boarding house and proceed to climb the garden tree, stage an impromptu concert, and propose to a stranger, your fellow lodgers assume you're eccentric, rather than insane. Until you show them your revolver.


After my experience with the follow-up, I wasn’t much looking forward to this one. Like its sequel, this game is single-mindedly focused on reminding the player of the transcendent joy of life, but this time around, at a couple of points as the formerly unhappy people got together and partied...it kind of did the job. Probably by some measure that means it should get a 10 by default, but I’m an excitable guy so I’m not going to give the game quite that much credit. Good points include reasonably vibrant characters, the whole photography subplot, and much of the prose: the paragraph beginning “The sky above you is full of mythology,” is pretty, and I liked it when the game told me to “Leave this charnel!” The bit about happy people making rules was thought-provoking: a concept that the author develops considerably and that will probably stay with me for some time. Problems: at times it felt like my actions (for which I often turned to the walkthru) were just triggering the release of chunks of short story. Having played the second game, I kept noticing the author constructing the groaning, creaking machinery of that game’s pointless twist ending. The Doctor character, as in the sequel, was inhuman, allegorical and overblown, not fitting with the tone of the rest of the game. And the gun in these games, like the fight club in Fight Club, is simply not as existentially significant as it thinks it is. 8


Strange Geometries

By Phillip Chambers


I like the way that the simple command “NORTH” seems to be fraught with danger in this game. I guessed one of the literary sources for this game before I started; an even more astute player could have guessed both. Spoiler: I enjoyed noticing something was suspicious about the game’s response to the command “U” but not finding out what until I reached the professor. The game seemed pretty well-planned to match that conceit, although I don’t know how things like piles of newspapers or “drying racks where freshly printed papers are set so they do not smudge” can exist in this world. It was the good kind of twist: the kind that lets you go back and revisit things with new eyes. The magic object puzzle was arbitrary, kind of like the ones I complained about in Moon-Shaped. Could have used more proofreading: “They smell foul, and have all the ascetics of a a scribble.” 7


Star City

By Mark Sachs

Blurb: The looming future. An Earth recovering from alien occupation. A mysterious object is approaching our put-upon planet and it's up to one explorer to discover its secrets.


I liked the concept for the space station that was the setting for this game, but in practice the sci-fi scenery was so generic that my eyes sometimes glazed over. The plotting was exciting, propelling me from crisis to crisis, but in a lot of places the only interaction was moving from place to place. I had to refer to the walkthrough a lot. For instance, neither the room description nor looking at everything named in the room description would have revealed the existence of the call button: as far as I can tell I would have had to look at the grille more than once. 5


Floatpoint

By Emily Short

Blurb: Note: Floatpoint requires a Glulx interpreter; I recommend Spatterlight on MacOS X or Gargoyle on Windows/Unix.


This game, about an interplanetary diplomat, is another of Emily Short’s attempts to push back the boundaries that limit NPC interaction, and it definitely offers a lot of choice in your character interactions. Even better, when you make a really dumb diplomatic decision, you can count on Short’s eloquent prose to find some retroactive justification for your decision. I’m sure that there’s nothing at all insightful about this comment, but it’s kind of strange to think that as soon as a game gives you a significant range of choices about what happens next, it has to end, because otherwise the designer would have to create a separate game for each option. Does that mean that a really good IF game has to be really short, then? Or at least, to get longer it has to incorporate more elements of simulation so the game world can adjust to changes without the author specifying the results of every possible set of inputs. It’s funny: the first thing you read in the theory of interactive narrative is that will inevitably split into an unmanageable number of branches, but it’s only in Short’s work where that threatens to happen in practice.

Like all of Emily Short’s games, this was a pleasure to play. Short always goes two or three steps beyond other authors to include helpful features and depth, and her characterization is excellent. The relationship with Jane was perfectly drawn, and I loved the way it existed on the margins of the story while looming over everything. The recording-paraphrasing machine was gratuitously awesome: I’m sure there’s some way to tie it into the main plot, but I have almost no idea how. And I can’t wait to find out how to totally offend someone with that cookbook: too bad it wouldn’t fit in the box. (Was the repeatedly bowing scientist a bug?) Part of me wants to rate this game a 9 because nothing in it was totally amazing (at least for someone who has already played Short’s other games), but that would mean I’d have to go back and scale the other games’ scores down to 8 or below, and that’s not happening. 10


Labyrinth

An Adventure in Symmetry

By Samantha Casanova Preuninger

Blurb: Puzzle-heavy game set in an Escherian environment. The zip file contains a hints file in addition to the z8 file and the walkthrough. The hints file provides gentle nudges only, without explicit instructions.


I love digging into a severely puzzlefest-looking game like this, but always in the back of my head there’s a little voice saying “you will not be able to solve this don’t even try.” I do appreciate that the author game away the twist ending in advance. Okay, I’ve definitely spent more than two hours on this, and I think I have a solution to the true/false logic puzzle, but I spent most of my time on the code. I checked the hints for that one and found this: “It's not a plain code, it's a keyword cipher.” GO TO HELL AND DIE, author of this game. Seriously, breaking a code like that is not the kind of task you can expect people to perform in two hours. Or ever, in the case of a bunch of people who had the misfortune of playing the online web puzzle Thisisnotporn when a keyword code came up in that game. Some of us plugged away at it for months...in fact, I just checked the forum for that puzzle, and it appears that some people are STILL trying to solve that puzzle after years. This entry has made me look back into the abyss of my darkest wasted hours. That is going to cost this author some points. 5


Tentellian Island

Professor's Request

By Waru

Blurb: With nothing but a note from the Professor in hand, your are sent to an unusual Island to obtain a special artifact. You'll need to be creative and clever to solve the puzzles and unlock all four endings.


I had to open the About file to get this one running, which is how I found out that the game is “A Beavertoe Software Production”. First of all, just because you made an IF game does not make you a production company. And I do not find “Beavertoe Software” to be an acceptable name. That’s going to cost this game a point. The idea that things could pulse in “slow unison” is grammatically intriguing but probably incorrect. The author apparently couldn’t figure out how to implement a save-game function, which is a shame because for me the game crashed twice in a row at the blue door. The standard IF languages exist for good reasons. Please use them. 1 (Not that I utterly hated this game: I rated it a 2 and adjusted down for Beavertoe.)


Unauthorized Termination

By Richard Otter

Blurb: You are a senior investigator with the police force of what is basically a totalitarian state. On a world where nearly all forms of crime are punishable by execution, you have been called on to investigate someone who has been unlawfully killed.


Remember: the plural is formed by adding an s to the end of a noun.

“An unauthorized termination is not unusual but is fairly rare…”

I think the author may have chosen poorly by taking on a form of techno-dystopia that basically cuts off the chance of interesting character development. I felt that I was generally being led by the hand by this game at first, and then I got stuck and the walkthrough couldn’t help me. Evidently I’d lost a vital keycard somewhere along the line. 3


Pathfinder

By Tony Woods


Have you ever been in a conversation with someone whose ideas about what you’re likely to find interesting and relevant seem to reveal a serious flaw in his perception of reality? That’s what this game is like. HEY GUYS LET’S TALK ABOUT THE IMPORTANT ISSUE OF SHADOWY OMNIPRESENT CORPORATIONS THAT TELL YOU TO KILL AND WATCH YOU ALL THE TIME AND PLANT EVIDENCE AGAINST YOU ON YOUR PERSON BECAUSE THEY’RE SCHEMING AGAINST YOU. Unsurprisingly, the action of this game is almost totally disjointed and random. The PDF news article that comes with the game is kind of funny. It’s about the cops investigating a murder and they’re like “I just want to point out that this killer did an extremely good job cleaning up the evidence afterwards. I was very impressed.” And then in the game I found myself randomly murdering somebody and looking over the crime scene and I thought, wow, I’ve got a lot to live up to. I did like the variable room descriptions toward the beginning. Bug: going through the victim’s apartment door rather than knocking traps you forever on a stage with no players. 2


Ballymun Adventure

By Brendan Cribbin


It looks like this is just a game where the author decided to create an IF version of his school. For what it is, it isn’t bad. The puzzles are mostly fair. I appreciate how he’s not ashamed to give you hints like saying where important things will or won’t be found. I thought that trash can was hidden a bit deceptively, and it didn’t seem like the kind of thing the teachers would be encouraging me to dig through. I probably never would have found the red-capped key if not for a bug, and in many places it would have helped to have the game recognize a greater variety of commands. The map travel system was a great idea, but it looked like the author ran out of time to implement it. 4

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