IFComp’07 reviews

Another year, another comp, this one slightly weaker than most.

This year seemed a little weak to me. Not much of anything knocked
my off my feet: about the best I could say about a game was that it
was pretty fun, which is not to be sneezed at, but I reserve 10s for
games which push envelopes and seriously accomplish something by so
doing. This year… well, the 7s and 8s went out mostly to
mundanely functional games, with a few bright spots. Maybe I’m
just getting cranky in my old age.

Notable annoyances this year: for once, apostrophe-placement issues
are not so prevalent as to fill me with rage. Their place has been
taken by a number of other issues, notably:

  • Motivation: A number of the games didn’t tell me what I was
    supposed to be doing, and didn’t give me enough of a character (or
    immediately pressing situation) to get me going. And even when
    I was given a motivation, it was sometimes completely
    irrelevant to the point of the game. Quoth Adam Cadre: “an IF writer
    needs to give the player a reason to type something other than
    ‘quit'”. This applies not just to design but motivation. If you tell
    me that what I want to do is find a quiet place to read, I’m not going
    to spend the game buying pets and sneaking into police stations. If
    I’m told I’m in a seminary at night with no other information, you
    have to give me some reason why there’s a more worthwhile course of
    action than “LIE ON BED. SLEEP”. The whole game’s goal needn’t be
    explicitly spelled out, but there ought to be some reason for both the
    PC and the player to be involved in whatever plot you devise.
  • Parsercraft: This is a perennial topic simply because
    there’s inevitably a subset of IF authorship which insists on
    using substandard parsers. This year, I reserve most of my vitriol for
    ADRIFT, which is indeed moderately fully-featured, but has a “feature”
    which annoys the living piss out of me, namely, pretending to
    understand commands where it can’t interpret a word. This is very,
    very bad form, and if it’s at all customizable, then, ADRIFT authors,
    please stop doing it.
  • Games whose filenames bear no particular resemblance to the
    game titles:
    No, seriously. If I can’t find your game on a quick
    directory search, I’ll be annoyed before I even start playing. You
    don’t want that, do you?
  • Paragraph divisions: Textdumps are generally bad, but
    occasionally a necessary evil. Textdumps seem only that much more
    onerous when the text is not clearly divided into discrete
    chunks. This is a common problem in the first-game
    stream-of-consciousness mode, and has probably bugged me in the past,
    but it’s especially bugging me now.

Fox, Fowl and Feed

Wow. I read the title, and the description, and I knew immediately
what it was. Points for clarity, but I was ready to give it a 2 or 3
(for being not actively offensive but not remotely appropriate in
scope for the comp) if that’s what it was. It was somewhat more than
that, but it never really rose above the level of making the original
problem mechanically irritating. A few bugs with tying the rope to
things (one of which let me inadvertently solve a puzzle), and highly
unclear physical properties of the world (tying the duck to the boat
and setting off with it in tow doesn’t work? why not?), but otherwise
a basically competent effort. So one point for being slightly less
trivial than I feared. No more than one point, because the
nontriviality is not actually very interesting.

Rating: 4

Across The Stars

Nice feelies, although they’re getting me a bit in mind for a fairly
pedestrian sci-fi storyline. Also, no alt tags on the HTML feelies
(hey, some of use use lynx as our default local browser). Z8 puts me
in mind of a world that’s either richly detailed or overlarge, but I
guess the Z8 boundary’s lower what with the Inform 7 library being
pretty big.

Actually playing the game: I manage to die on the first turn, with
a command pretty sensible in context. Trying that again, I find myself
dumped into a crisis situation with some frustrating constraints: I
don’t know what many of these things around are, or what they’re good
for, or how I could cut power to the prox-tar. I’m not sure why I
can’t start by reporting the situation, then trying to get the
full data? Hopefully the time limit is illusory, but if you present a
crisis situation, you need to expect me to respond as such and not
spend it fiddling with a contrary device. Testing reveals that this
time limit is illusory, but that the next one is not. Clearly I
should explore first, then check the prox-tar. So far the writing’s
passable (aside from one error), but the pacing is execrable (also,
exploring in advance tells me the ship’s deserted before the Big
Reveal).

And I get stuck. I’m in the hidden compartment, but the game thinks I
still need to hide. Trying to HIDE gives the amusing response “You
can’t hide here.” Many “wait”s later, I get killed. Fantastic. They
couldn’t hasten the attack once I’m concealed. Trying again, but this
is trying my patience. Going to the walkthrough, I see I’m supposed to
use an object not described anywhere. Grr. Moving on, I encounter a
few more bugs, and more workmanlike writing with occasional mechanical
errors, and unintuitive commands. OK, I can stop now, I have my rating
ready.

Rating: 6

My Mind’s Mishmash

Ah, ADRIFT. Wonky enough to throw me, and occasionally doing things which I find deeply offensive, such as:

> HIT PANEL WITH AXE
You hit, but nothing happens.

Looks like an effective response, but…

> HIT EFIPGEDRJOPER WITH AXE
You hit, but nothing happens.

Grr, thanks for nothing. Anyways, getting into the game proper I’m
dropped into the deep end. My character is presumably motivated and
knows what’s going on, but I’m not and don’t really care. Give me a
reason to be invested in the story. What are nodes? Why do I want to
rip them? Why am I hiding anyways? These aren’t deep mysteries to the
PC, and they shouldn’t be to me either. I guess this wants to be
Ender’s Game meets Lawnmower Man or something, but it’s
going to have to clue me in a lot more to the worldmodel for that to
work.

The narrative style is weird. Stilted, trying a bit too hard with
descriptions and trying for a level of formality which is neither
matched by the game’s tone nor by the writer’s prose skills. It’s
uncomfortable.

Anyways, I’m feeling curmudgeonly, so I’m calling this one a day
because it is simply failing to draw me in, and ADRIFT keeps making my
life miserable. (Oh, and, for the record, “COMBINE” isn’t on the
verb-list.)

Rating: 5

Beneath: a Transformation

New record for the first writing error: sixth word of the
introduction. Otherwise no snark early, except for the quickly
annoying pre-movement message (annoying mostly because it’s also
firing on failed movement).The writing conveys dreariness
effectively but is largely unremarkable and occasionally opaque: the
police station is described at one point as a “mansion” and it has a
“backyard”. Also, things would be much improved if the can’t-go
messages described the directions one can go, since these are
frequently buried pretty deep in the room description.

So much for the writing. On technical details… well, it does
human interaction terribly, with the least guessable conversation
topics this side of 1-2-3, and buying things is so
counterintuitively perverse that it’s a puzzle for no good
reason. Examining an item (such as a cage), I would think, should tell
me its contents, or I’ll assume it’s empty.

Structurally, it relies on way too much happenstance. There are
altogether too many ways to screw up your game, and a bunch of actions
which are unmotivated by your situation: I just want to read, and
that’s my only motivation. Shouldn’t my entire game session involve
hanging out in the coffee shop, then going home to sleep? Why go to
the police station at all? “Plot expediency” won’t sell the idea. Put
that together with its capricious cruelty (in the IF-mechanical
sense), and we have a game which does not actually induce any further
play.

Rating: 3

Packrat

Satisfactory sense of humor, but not really technical chops to
match. There are a few disambiguation problems and a throne I can’t
sit on. But, all in all, a reasonably satisfactory light game, giving
me little enough to be enraged by. Not extraordinary, not
extraordinarily bad. I can roll with that.

Rating: 6

Slap that Fish

Man, what the fuck? Absurd premise, seemingly pointless mechanics
(there seems to be no real distinction between the attacks, except
“kick”, which always fails), and a simple but over-notified combat
system. I’d say it’s some sort of resource-management game, where
you’re trying to maximize damage-per-stamina-hit, but there’s not much
optimization to be done. Is it a parody of the RPG-mechanic IF out
there? No, seriously, I have no idea what this game is supposed to be,
and why I should find it interesting.

Rating: 2

Orevore Courier

Game with feelies. Advanced starship. I’m a minor officer and the
only one to survive boarding by pirates. Can something so shockingly
specific be a theme this year? Must be, since I’ve already seen
two. Anyways, the isolation makes this a kind of static game, and
reduces the feeling of actual activity, suggesting I just try every
single action in sequence. It’s basically unwinnable on the first try,
too. I went to the hints a lot and still had trouble getting
the timing right. If I can’t beat it with a walkthrough, it’s too damn
hard.

In the interests of saying something positive: it was technically
competent, sized about right for the Comp, and the limited actionset
made exploration at least eminently possible. It’s just that it was
far too easy to lock myself out of victory by a tiny error in
timing.

Rating: 6

Reconciling Mother

This has the most awkward introduction I’ve ever read, between the
paragraph of peculiar rhetorical questions and the exhortation to
“repair a mission”, and even down to small quirks like the use of
“them” without an antecedent in the third paragraph, suggesting that
I’m in for a rough ride and an adventure in shaky command of
English.

Getting into the game proper, my fears are confirmed, as the
writing continues to be stilted, awkward, and occasionally technically
flawed. The command of IF structure and technology is lacking too:
examining the flashlight turns it on, and I find myself in a room
called “Snow Cave Death” which describes a death scene but,
inexplicably, does not actually kill me. As I progress further into
the game, I realize this is all pretty typical. Actions, descriptions,
and in-game text are generally muddled, which doesn’t suggest much in
the way of beta-testing (have we learned nothing
from Detective?).

I wandered aimlessly for a while, got treated to the author’s
review of Mirrormask for some inexplicable reason, realized
there was no actual continuity in the story, and decided, fuck it,
I’ve got better things to do with my time than wander through an awful
lot of disconnected bits and pieces. IF needs a point. It can’t
just be “wander through these unrelated, vaguely creepy locations
picking stuff up”.

Rating: 2

Eduard the Seminarist

Can we please have filenames that reflect the game’s actual title?
Please? This is the second one in a row I’ve looked for all through
the directory tree and had to go back to Comp07.z5 to
actually find.

Anyways, on with the game. Wasn’t Eduard the Seminarist a minor
character in Rameses? No indication of it, but, hey, it’d be
fun. It also has no introduction, so I don’t know what to do. I
figured I’m supposed to sleep, since I’m in my room and it’s night,
but no go. Even wandering about fails to give me much of a purpose,
except “not waking X and Y”. I finally get my marching orders by
referring to the walkthrough, and performing an action on an
undescribed object which, uh, I guess I should have tried, but only
because I’ve played 9:05. Another action introduced me to a new
mimesis-breaker: “guess the preposition” (and needed me to
reference another undescribed object.

The ending was underwhelming and seemed kind of pointless. For a
clandestine operation, I seem all too willing to leave traces behind,
and there are a couple of odd plot cul-de-sacs like Scardanelli’s
secret identity. I don’t get it, at all.

Rating: 3

Adventure XT

Whoa. Dare I believe Panks’ games have gotten worse? I know
you still think it’s the early 80’s, Paul, but some of the innovations
we’ve come up with since then are pretty nifty! Innovations like “X”
as a synonym for “EXAMINE”, “ALL” as a valid object of “GET”, and
languages that aren’t GW-BASIC. This would be totally awesome (or at
least moderately impressive) back in 1987 when we were all fiddling
with IBM-PCs and trying to figure out programming, but, please, it’s
20 years later and you are way, way out of your depth. I look at
drawings from my childhood with nostalgia and whimsy, but I don’t
fucking enter them into international art competitions.

Get the point? Please stop. You are doing nobody any favors, least
of all yourself.

Rating: 1 (disqualified)

The Chinese Room

The intro gave me hope. It’s competently written, if a bit precious
and aggressively erudite. Then I found myself in a puzzle-box, and
even though most actions were implemented, I found myself unable to
describe the transformative sequence I wanted (look for the characters
on the poster among the cards). The opening sequence was good enough
in its way, although, uh, I assumed I’d already looked in the drawer,
so the poster’s advice I took as pointless.

Going into the game proper, I ran into a fatal error trying to talk
to the scarecrow, but that’s my own fault for using an old version of
git. Once improved, I find that the game is living up to its
aggressively erudite pretensions with a madcap blend of philosophers
and philosophical riddles from pretty much the entirety of history in
the Western tradition. It’s good silly fun, if a bit too
self-satisfied, and my main complaints are a niggling runtime error in
the tree conversation and that it’s way too long. Also, lacks a
walkthrough, and I’m sorry, but that’s a
requirement, especially for a game this long.

Rating: 7

A Matter of Importance

Meandering, text-heavy introduction, after which it rather
improves. It’s reasonably competent and moderately fun, although the
heavy-handed red-herring issues start to grate (especially when items
like the bed end up being of unclued significance). There are a couple
mind-reading puzzles, at least from my point of view, but by and large
the result is acceptable if not wholly palatable.

Rating: 7

My Name is Jack Mills

The style is pretty solid, but there are some uncomfortable
punctuation errors, mostly involving quotation marks (yes, the way
they’re handled in both American and British English are kinda
cumbersome, but usage here is just wrong). Those are niggling issues,
since things are generally pretty well done. Italicizing the inner
monologue is good: it puts me a bit in mind of noir voiceovers, and
it’s a graceful way to infuse first-person text into a second-person
narrative, although I think it ended up overused from the encounter
with Geigner on.

Also, the ending was abrupt and too early: this game might have
benefitted from an extra scene or two. I totally wanted to be in on
the trainwreck I was engineering. But points for style.

Rating: 8

An Act of Murder

An awful lot of fairly unsubtle injokes early break the mood. The
timing-and-alibis game establishes itself early, and it becomes
obvious what to do in that regard at least; narrowing down the three
remaining suspects, though, was pretty difficult. Tonally, it worked
although I think some of the text-swapping randomization (and I can
appreciate how difficult that must have been) resulted in clunky
dialogue where someone refers several times in a single sentence to
the “antique fireplace poker” or refers to an intimate associate by
their full name, or suchlike oddness. Still, it drew me in, had me
taking notes, and was fun to solve, although the mechanism for
relating all that to Duffy was kinda klunky. I am mindful of the craft
necessary, however, to make an interesting, believable mystery in
which important elements are randomized, and props for doing it
(mostly) right.

Rating: 9

Lord Bellwater’s Secret

Tonally a bit flat, but generally serviceable. Most of the puzzles
in the game are eminently solvable, but I wonder at the poor security
practiced by NPCs in IF (the safe puzzle is similar to an equally
well-clued one in Anchorhead, though, so I guess I can’t be too down
on it). In terms of game structure, I think the timed puzzle at the
end was somewhat unfair; and there was a very odd bug where I
received two endings in sequence, one accusing me of robbery since I
was carrying the money and describing my subsequent transportation,
and another which indicated a successful prosecution of Dewhurst.

Rating: 7

A Fine Day for Reaping

Mercifully free of mechanical errors, although the notes on the
corkboard can’t be READ, but must be EXAMINED, and the command for
reaching into the lucky dip (is this a regionalism, like “bran tub”?)
is so perverse as to qualify as sheer guess-the-verb. On the other
hand, there were a couple laugh-out-loud moments, like the argument
about killing Hitler’s parents. And the elevator in Paris, which, once
again, annoys the crap out of me with ADRIFT’s pretense of comprehension:

> PUSH FIRST
You push, but nothing happens.

> PUSH FIRST FLOOR
You push, but nothing happens.

> PUSH RGJIEOP
You push, but nothing happens.

Also, I can’t open the door to room 147, and I’m not told why, which
stops any strategy I might have dead, what with the likelihood that
room 147 is unopenable (n.b. IF players distinguish between “openable
but locked” and “not implemented as openable”, and messages ought to
reflect this distinction). The Paris chapter continues to irk by not
allowing me to put on the pizza uniform except in the hotel, for
incomprehensible and unexplained reasons (a similar peculiarity
plagues the military uniform). There are occasional unimplemented
directions and, as I get further into the game, I seem to be
encountering more and more bugs. Despite the cleverness of the
writing, I find myself fighting the game instead of playing it, and
that’s detracting a lot from the fun.

Rating: 5

Deadline Enchanter

Mmm. I know what steganography is, but I’m disinclined to try to
find it in this work. Mostly I’m reading deliberately opaque writing,
with incomprehensible first-person interjections. It’s like it wants
to be For a Change but gets lost in its own self-reference. The
result is rather more like Stack Overflow, which also dropped
in needless references to Infocom games. At least this one’s solvable,
since the game gives you a walkthrough at the drop of a hat, but,
seriously, if you’re going to give me opaque text and expect me to
perform actions, you need to give me some clue as to what I’m doing
and why (cf. the aforementioned For a Change or The
Gostak
, both of which had definite goals).

Rating: 2

In The Mind Of The Master

Oof. Maybe it’s my ADRIFT engine, but I find myself being referred
to as “The char1” in a couple of places. The short room descriptions
having lowercase indefinite articles is kind of quirky and peculiar,
and I don’t know if that’s intentional. Occasional punctuation errors
too, but the style has generally settled from Whyld’s previous
games. He still needs to ease off on the conversation trees, though,
especially since one of the conversation trees in this game is a
particularly egregious “But Thou Must!” loop.

Rating: 6

Lost Pig

Ooh, strong character voice! Even if it is a kind of trite
baby/dumb-person/subhumanoid talk, it still works. And it’s
delightfully adhered to as well — there seem to be no breaks in
character.

On technical matters it’s mostly sound, although I came across one
V0EFH, which I thought wasn’t supposed to happen any more. But the
technical deficiencies are more than made up for by the game’s general
silly charm. It feels a bit trifling, but that’s part and parcel of
its tone and I can’t really complain about that. So, essentially, this
one was damn fun and technically accomplished. We have a number for that.

Rating: 9

Vampyre Cross

I’m not sure if, dropped into a Panks adventure at random, I could
tell which one. They all have one starting outside a village with a
tavern and suchlike crap. At least in this one the tavern and whatnot
are unimplemented. Small comfort. Anyways, I wandered around, had to
flip my virtual disk every single time I examined anything, and
got quickly bored. All my comments on Adventure XT? Paste ’em in here
for double vitriol, and add to that my annoyance at having to install
a C64 emulator.

Rating: 1 (disqualified)

Gathered In Darkness

Quest is not my favorite system to begin with, so I was already
faintly annoyed even before I started. The overportentious “Prolog”
did little to allay that feeling. The game continued to run more or
less on rails, and displayed altogether too many mechanical errors and
flat-out awkwardness in the writing for me to be interested. Also, a
major complaint: important room features appear only on entry, and
can’t be accessed again by looking. There are other major ineptitudes,
like mislabeled directions, and all in all this game looks to be in
desperate need of beta-testing and stylistic massage.

Rating: 3

The Immortal

The opening seems awfully clichetastic to me: it’s the
concatenation of several setpiece stock phrases while not giving me a
good idea of what’s actually being described. There are an awful lot
of clumsy writing errors, which indicate an inadequate beta period and
insufficient familiarity with the hyphen. A couple technical errors
interpose too. The combination of sloppy writing and insufficient
motivation made me unwilling to try very hard to make sense of this
game.

Rating: 2

Jealousy Duel X

Not really what I think of as IF, at least within the scope of this
competition. It’s hypertext-with-state, and we’ve seen that. Not much
of anything to see here, from my perspective. It’s competently
constructed, but why should I care?

Rating: 2

Varkana

Ow, please stop hitting me with the backstory stick. I think I get
the point. It’s kind of odd to start in medias res and then
immediately backtrack within the same wodge of text to fill in the
backstory. However, beyond the prologue, the game improves noticeably,
except that the prologue made me forget my immediate goal, so I had to
go back and replay. A nudge in that direction when I woke up in the
morning would’ve been welcome. But once I got back on track, much of
the story unfolded naturally, althoguh after lunch there seemed to be
an awful lot of sudden-deaths and a bit of sloppy writing. It’s
exquisitely written in the beginning, but the end feels like a bit of
a rush job, particularly what with the pages and pages of textdump on
successful ending.

Rating: 7

Wish

The writing rises to mere servicablility, and the text is rather
distressingly ultralinear. Most of the puzzles are overclued for my
taste, and one (how to fix the fabric to the kite frame) was, in my
opinion, underclued. There’s not much here though, and the whole
story’s a bit too saccharine for me to take it seriously, or be
affected by it, or much of anything.

Rating: 5

Ghost of the Fireflies

Whining about your detractors in the info file will not endear you
to them. It didn’t work for Harry Hardjono back in ’98, and it still
doesn’t. And this is the first year when I’m being really nasty to ol’
Panks in my reviews. Previously I’d given a resigned sigh, rolled my
eyes, and played just long enough to realize they deserved a 1. But
I’m finally tired of wasting even that much time. So I go in with
hackles raised, ready to give a 1 if the excuse presents itself.

As for the game: I manage to get to a prompt which doesn’t respond
to anything I type except for one very specific thing. Then I
restart, get to the game proper, and it starts off with a mysterious
error message telling me I’m not in the inn. I wander off and get
killed by a ninja. Still doesn’t understand the word “ALL”, still
doesn’t actually offer compelling gameplay or good writing. i
appreciate the implementation of “X”, but dislike the spottiness of
its erroring (“X TGHTRPHN” produces no output). Some things have
gotten better, which might have almost buoyed this one into “2”
territory, but I’m still irked by the clumsy metalepsis, the
author-insertion, and most of all the constant harping on his
detractors’ sins. Fix the things suggested and don’t raise a
fuss about it, ‘kay?

Rating: 1

Ferrous Ring

Well, we’re dropped in the middle of things, but we’re given a role
and a motivation, if a somewhat blank character. The prologue worked
well, but the firs tscene of the game proper started to irk me, if
only because of the rather tedious device of forcing the player to
perform every single step in a process, rather than doing them
implicitly. The dropped-in-the-deep-end feel only becomes a liability
later, when I’m having conversations with people about things known to
the PC, presumably, but not to me (what’s USUE, for instance?). These
things are never really elucidated at all, and I feel I’d have a lot
more investment in this world if I understood it. Meh. It’s got an
interesting, unusual, distinctive style, but its pacing, and the
nebulosity of its actual plot, does much to nullify what benefits
the stylistic daring brings.

Rating: 6

The Lost Dimension

Having to run an installer annoys me. Having to run an installer
that demands I download and run another installer annoys me more. Is
it too much to ask that executables be standalone and monolithic? I
like executables that run when I click them, not self-installing
monstrosities. And the worst part of it is, I went through all that
bullshit for a game that’s not that good (there seems to be a fairly
clear direct proportionality between “convenience of play” and
“quality of game” at work here). There’s a graphical interface to make
Quest look enlightened, and despite its assurances, trying to play with
standard text input is impossibly clunky, due to the window that pops
up every time I try. Add that to the constant, overused sound effects
and MIDI music, and I find myself wishing they’d written in a
mainstream system with fewer bells and whistles.

And as for the game itself, eh, kind of minimalistic, forced to
some extent by the limited interface. The combat engine, with minimal
user input, reminded me unnervingly of Paul Panks’s, and in the game
itself I couldn’t find much to do or any prose worth reading, so I
gave up pretty easily.

Rating: 1

Press [Escape] to Save

Highly informal narrative voice, which might be OK, but also some
sloppiness with grammar and punctuation, which is not. The
conversation with the jailbird has at least one completely
incomprehensible branch, and also, if I’m asked by a mother-stabbing
father-raper, “Why are you here kid?” then it’d be really great to
have “Littering, and creating a nuisance” as one of my possible
responses. The bed isn’t implemented, and the construction seems
generally sloppy. Then after two sleep sessions (I’m positively
narcoleptic) and a pointless deus ex machina, I had an inescapable
programming error. Feh.

Rating: 2

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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