IFComp 2008

The Fourteenth Annual IFcomp has ended. Read my comments and reviews below. A copy of these comments are also on crochetgeek.

A note for authors: I am sometimes not a terribly pleasant person,
at least not when I’m sitting in judgment on my fellow human
beings. The Comp always feels a bit maipulative, since imperfect
authors in our tiny community tend to induce pity and a desire not
to crush their fragile budding enthusiasm for gamecraft. This comp
had an extra heaping of that with a few games which felt
emotionally manipulative as well. That said, I am an
equal-opportunity jackass, so whether you’re a young author, or a
new author, or an author with a history or psychology I should feel
sorry for, you still get unvarnished criticism. I do not think any
of you are bad artists, and I do not think any of you are bad
people (except for Dean Menezes, who is in fact a bad person). I do
believe that a lot of these efforts could be improved with a
modicum of effort, and really, really wish y’all would put in that
effort.

Another year, another comp. My feelings about this comp as a whole can be summed up in one short *nix command:

$ grep -ic underimplement comp08.html
10

Yes, “underimplementation” is the word of the year. Too many games
fell to wholly inadequate betatesting: failure to implement
interesting scenery items, failure to implement obvious actions on
implemented scenery items, failure to implement obvious actions taken
at the wrong time or wrong place. These are not just window-dressing:
these are important ways to give feedback to players on the wrong
track. If an action is unimplemented on one object, I’ll tend to
assume it’s unimplemented everywhere. If it’s implemented and there’s
a short message as to why it doesn’t work in this particular
circumstance
, I’m more likely to try it later.

But underimplementation isn’t a matter of authors consciously
deciding not to give feedback. It’s a matter of authors being unaware
feedback is necessary. And the only way you, as authors, will learn
what players need, is to get playtesters. Get the crap
playtested out of your games by actual IF players. It is not an
accident that, of the 15 games with in-game credits given to
playtesters, 9 of them are the games I (and I imagine many others)
rank highest. Four others are quite close behind, and the other two I
have to regard as likely aberrations, either due to inadequate
beta-tester play or inadequate response to testers’ comments.

That, however, is a perennial concern. A more unusual occurrence
this year is the prevalence of games too small in scope. There’s
always at least one game way too large for the comp; this is the first
year when it’s seemed that a great many of the entries were way too
simple and minimal.

With all that in mind, here’s my (flexible and fairly subjective)
scoring system, along with games which achieved those scores:

  • 1: Entirely inappropriate. For a game to receive a rating
    of “1”, it has to be completely inappropriate for entry into the IF
    Competition, either through drastic failure of scope or
    implementation, massive incompleteness, or not actually being IF at
    all. I wish I could claim this judgment was rare.

  • 2: Awful. Ratings of “2” are for games which, while
    ostensibly appropriate for the Comp, fail to rise to even a
    minimal level of craft. A game with massive underimplementation,
    poor writing, and uninspiring premise will receive a “2”. Also,
    any game which is intentionally annoying, unless the annoyance
    actually serves an artistically worthwhile goal, gets a “2”
    regardless of its craftsmanship.

  • 3: Highly flawed. A game with a “3” may well have a
    decent idea lurking in it, but is bogged down massively by writing
    and technical skills not up to scratch, by extremely buggy
    gameplay, or by poor design choices.

  • 4: Weak. A “4” shows evidence of coherent
    craft and design, but is plagued by one or more major problems in
    execution.

  • 5: Acceptable. A grade of “5” is a minimally acceptable
    game: writing is technically sound and there is a reasonable level
    of world-craft detail. Bugs, ideally, are peripheral and
    reasonably uncommon. Presumably a game with a “5” will have major
    imperfections, but not be actually incompetently written.

  • 6: Promising. Games with scores of “6” induce a modicum
    of respect, either through implementation depth, writing, or
    premise. These games have certain stand-out features showing promise
    on a revised version of the game.

  • 7: Well-crafted. A “7” suggests a game whose play
    proceeds smoothly and hitchlessly: writing is descriptive with a
    consistent style; implementation is deep enough to consider all
    reasonable actions, player’s goals are clear, and the story is
    moderately engaging. Bugs are, if present, rare or minor.

  • 8: Good. An “8” is a well-crafted game with some sort of
    surprise. Above and beyond the competent craft mentioned above, an
    “8” must have some realized ambition or hook that makes it either
    enjoyable or emotionally engaging to play.

  • 9: Excellent. To get a “9”, a game must possess a strong
    narrative style, a sufficiently clued and well-paced plot, minor
    bugs if any, high depth of implementation and richness of detail,
    interesting and well-constructed characters, and overall informed
    and consistent design. In other words, 9s are near-perfect.

  • 10:Extraordinary. A “10” is just a “9” which knocks my
    socks off. I realize this is completely subjective.

I ran into a couple of bugs early. By default, for reasons beyond
my ken, writing things writes on my jeans. Opening the envelope has no
effect and no useful error message. There’s a peculiar parser error
which seems to assume everything is a noun. Then there are the odd,
inexplicable technical errors: “ball” isn’t a synonym for “kickball”,
and “push button” doesn’t work outside the school. In terms of
writing, the prose here is generally error-free but bland, so on that
front it’s at least serviceable, but the many play idiosyncrasies
suggest inadequate testing.

Gamewise, I dunno. School setting’s a terrible cliche, and it feels
in-jokey (the author here is apparently older, so I don’t know if this
actually has in-jokes, but it certainly feels like the teacher and
school layout and suchlike are in-jokes; whether they actually are is
moot). This game doesn’t actually do anything particularly
interesting with the setting, so it’s all kinda hollow-feeling and
probably would be even if the technical errors were fixed.

Rating: 5

The narrative style put me off early. It may be an overstrong
narrative voice, or, more to the point, an overstrong narrative voice
that can’t seem to figure out what tone it should take. It wants to be
inside-of-head but the picture it paints of the inside of the
protagonist’s head is somewhere between uncompelling and unpleasant,
and his point of view quickly becomes annoying. I also get a feeling
of telling rather than showing vis-a-vis my feelings and actions, and
it grates somewhat. This is all in just the prologue, but that sets
the tone for the rest of the play session, and it never really lets
up.

Underimplementation hits me immediately. No tombstones I can
examine, not even an examinable grave until the coffin’s in it,
“sedan” isn’t a synonym for car, and so forth. Enough things mentioned
in room descriptions are unimplemented to make me leery.

The invisible telephone (which appears in no room description, and
which I can’t examine) is only in the kitchen? Is there a reason for
that? There are other underimplementation and guess-the-verb issues
which pop up throughout and weaken the story’s narrative drive
considerably.

I then get a nonstandard game-over so weird I can’t even figure out
what the hell the point of all that was. Was the whole game supposed
to be a joke? If so, it wasn’t a very good one. Was that end text not
ever actually supposed to be seen by the player? So confused. This
only escapes a 1 because I’m not sure if it’s intentionally causing
angry incomprehension.

Rating: 2

Can we have a moratorium on games telling me in specific terms what
I think? It’s irksome and it’s poor charactercraft, and we’ve been
getting a lot of it of late. Please, people, show, don’t tell.

Mechanical errors show up early, continuing my distrust in games
with inadequate beta. The word “eke” is used wrong in the first room
description, and there are clothes I can’t wear (yes, I know, they’re
clothes my character presumably wouldn’t wear, but this is a
great chance for a custom failure message). Since I should say
something nice, it’s worth mentioning that this author, unlike the
authors of Riverside, knows how a respectable bachelor configures his
toilet seat.

Moving on from the opening, the game shows more
promise. Descriptions are slightly overflowery, anthropomorphizing
inanimate objects, but otherwise well-done, and the implementation is
moderately deep. There are some weird disambiguation problems
(especially with bottles), and the occasional technical error, but all
in all it works more than it doesn’t for the first 2.5 scenes at
least. Then there’s the surgery scene, which is clumsy and
guess-the-verb-laden and did much to kill my growing enthusiasm. The
main problem, though, with the story is how agonizingly it draws out
its fairly obvious twist. I ended up not caring much about the menus
in the insanely overlong conversation at the end just because it was
being so coy about something I found out about 3 scenes earlier.

I see that a lot of what I wrote above is negative, but I’d like to
be encouraging. There are good story ideas and good mechanical ideas
here. The writing is passable and with some massaging could be
excellent. I’d like to see this game go through some testing and some
redesign, and it could well be an excellent game then.

Rating: 6

This shows a pleasing level of polish. While the prose isn’t quite
my cup of tea, no glaring errors jump out at me. The urgency of my
situation isn’t driven home nearly often enough — the
flashback/reverie style seems to defuse the tension which would be a
more natural tone for this story. The ‘THINK’ gentle-hint mechanism is
well-done, but the obscure hint on the blotter (the one thing I didn’t
really get) is so contrived it feels shoehorned in, and I managed to
miss the metal-detector hint. Otherwise, the game felt organic if a
bit over-sprawly, and it worked — it told a story well enough fleshed
out to feel satisfactory but open-ended enough to let us fill in the
blanks. It loses some points for the tone-mismatch and the sprawl,
but this is still a first-rate effort.

Rating: 8

“Release 0 / Serial number 080929 / Inform v6.21 Library 6/10
D”. Please note the last letter of that version line. That means you
left debugging verbs on, so if I even get stuck, I can use PURLOIN and
GONEAR to escape the confines of your plot. While we’re at it, neither
that “Release 0” nor putting the date in the byline inspires
confidence either.

Not, mind you, that there’s much to purloin or gonear, although I can
steal groceries that way. Most of this seems to be a ‘go through my
day, guessing verbs’ thing, which is a rather tired cliche. The
implementation is shallow, and none of what I’m doing is the slightest
bit surprising or interesting, but parts of it seem pointlessly
difficult (there’s no residential street I’ve ever crossed which takes
that long, and the verbs for buying groceries are completely
unintuitive.

All in all, not bad for a First Game, which more often than not is a
banal simulation, but there’s a reason people don’t enter those in the
comp.

Rating: 3

Oh, god. “You walk up to the lighthouse. It’s large wooden frame
creaking in the wind.”. Rarely have I seen such stylistic and
grammatical error packed into such a small space, and in the intro,
too.

And the first room description is a paramount example of how not to
write a room. Description should be descriptive (hence the name!) and
the automated listing of objects (in this case doors) betrays a lack
of familiarity with the authoring system, and not nearly enough
competent beta.

I’ve gone through three rooms, and seen nothing to suggest even
minimal implementation. Sorry, no credit for not even trying.

Rating: 1

I dislike games which have an installation process, since for IF
such a system footprint should really not be necessary. I note with
dismay that this uses the same system as last
year’s The Lost
Dimension
, and is by the same author. Oh, joy. The system has
become, to my surprise, even worse than it was originally, for it now
accepts no keyboard input at all. The language has likewise become
worse, with verb-tense problems all over the place (few of them
amusing, although “The Bat is slained!” makes the shortlist of
unintentionally funny exclamations).

Anyways, I have no particular respect for people who can’t be
bothered to address criticisms, so I have no respect for this
game.

Rating: 2

Alas, another homebrew. At least homebrew systems are, for the most
part, easy to judge. I never entirely understand why people subject
themselves to this. I mean, yes, I can see the attraction in writing
your own IF system, just to do it, but entering a homebrew game in the
comp? If you’re trying to write a work of IF, rather than a system,
doesn’t it make a lot more sense to start with a system where the
parser and most of the worldmodeling is already done for you?

Anyways, I guess I shouldn’t prejudge: a homebrew game could
be good. But this one isn’t. It’s flogging an authoring system, and
not even doing so with a particularly impressive exhibition of
skills.

A note to prospective designers: The IFComp is a showcase
for games. Not systems. You are wasting our time and insulting
your prospective audience if you’re shilling a system. Write an
announcement to raif or something, but don’t claim the right to up to
two hours of our time so you can show off your platform. Yes, Curses
was a showcase for Inform, and Ditch Day Drifter a showcase for TADS,
but those were both full, enjoyable games in their own right.

Rating: 1

Ah, it’s a sequel. Hopefully it doesn’t depend too much on the
previous games, which I haven’t played. David Whyld is a generally
competent gamecrafter, and some of his hallmark styles are here. The
writing style is about as comic as usual, with a few flat notes but at
least a consistent voice (which seems cribbed mostly from Pratchett,
alas). So on technical details he does OK, but the actual storycraft
seems a bit problematic: what I need to do at any given time is
insufficiently clued, and I found myself stumbling rather than working
towards solutions. That’s kind of disappointing, because after a
certain point I didn’t have any clear goals and the game seemed to
lose a lot of momentum and charm.

Otherwise, though, I have few complaints or even comments. It was a
little textdumpy and prolix with pretty much every description;
initial and subsequent descriptions of rooms and objects might
somewhat mitigate this failing. The game is competently crafted with a
solid narrative voice, but it felt sprawly just because so few of the
things going on connected into a cohesive set of goals.

Rating: 6

Everything old is new again! In the late ’90s, we were graced with
the dog tale Ralph and the cat story A Day for Soft
Food
. Sometimes it seems like all the clever ideas really have
been done. But, on the other hand, it’s been over a decade and another
charming non-human-protagonist story is welcome.

And this game does have charm. Almost all of the default responses
have been overridden for the right feel, and it conveys a good sense
of actually being a disobedient, playful dog. Many of the right
new verbs exist, and the action mostly makes sense, although the final
game-winning move is rather contrived.

It’s short. It’s slight. But it is free of obvious bugs and does
what it does quite well.

Rating: 8

Huh. Title and intro text prepare me for a fantasy game. But
bizarre use of the word “pragma” and a character lifted (with a
misspelling) from Curses makes me wonder if there’s more to
it. References to a curse and a “bladed agricultural implement”
vaguely suggest that the references to Graham Nelson’s opus are
intentional (likewise references to beer and German metal music). On
the other hand, interesting though this connection may be, I ended up
going straight to the walkthrough: few enough verbs were implemented
(or nouns, in the case of examinables) that when there was an action
to be taken or an object to take it on, there wasn’t the slightest
clue how to proceed.

It’s another homebrew, which makes itself evident in not
understanding the abbreviation “X”. Or the command “VERBOSE”. Or
pronouns. Or “TAKE INVENTORY”, despite the game exhorting me to do
so. Or any object which doesn’t appear in green at the end of a room
description. It also has a broken instant-fail implementation of
darkness which seems rather unfair. One must wonder: if the author was
familiar with Curses, why didn’t he use the system it was built
in (or a similar system), which has all this functionality built-in?

There aren’t many mechanical errors, but the barebones
implementation is more frustrating than any number of actual errors
would be. If anything, this makes it more frustrating, that someone
who is clearly capable of decent description and implementation depth
chooses to use a system in which even a well-thought-out project is
barely playable.

Rating: 4

This game is firmly on the puzzle end of the puzzle/narrative
spectrum. Sadly, the puzzles cannot really carry it, as the three
puzzles admit of very specific solutions, which are somewhat clever
but don’t really admit of alternatives (contrast with the somewhat
more fulfilling Erudition
Chamber
from some years back). Some of the
not-admitting-of-alternatives is the shallowness of the implementation
and, in the case of the second room, the harshness of the time
limit. In terms of technical issues, other than the
underimplementation of alternatives, there’s not much problem, but
there’s really no feeling of consequentiality at any point in the
game. I was kind of hoping for the ending to have a twist and require
me to do something besides the obvious instructions I was given, but,
nope, all is what it seemed, and what it seemed was thin.

Rating: 4

Another underwhelming use of an obscure and ill-crafted system. See
my Windows grumbling a few reviews above for my thoughts on this. It
recognizes few modern amenities (where ‘modern’ is defined as circa
1987), like such abbreviations as ‘L’ for look. It doesn’t even seem
to support ‘EXAMINE’ or ‘QUIT’! Everything seems to, amazingly, be
spelled right, but that’s the best praise I can muster for this
underimplemented and pointless game.

Rating: 1

The world and situation envisioned is imaginative, and the writing
is halfway-decent, although it falls down grammatically in several
places (e.g. “Large windows are line the north side and the east is
half open to the world with only a small wooden gate provides a sense
of enclosure.”). The descriptions are vivid if terse (although two
rooms lack description altogether), which makes the lack of
implementation of things described a bit disappointing. The
descriptions actually seem to get worse for the present-day and future
sections, so I may have been too hasty in judging the prose as
pleasingly descriptive.

As for the game itself, it has an interesting mechanic which could
have been better clued with respect to items and the movement thereof,
but mostly it’s all in service of some exceedingly clunky
read-the-author’s-mind puzzles. I was impressed at first, but somehow
continuing play seems to render the game less and less appealing. But
the conceit and some of the mechanics are good, so with some fixing up
of the prose and more intuitive puzzles — both of which are the
kind of thing adequate beta-testing would catch — this could be
a quite enjoyable game.

Rating: 4

Man. Hell of a narrative voice. Overwhelming, but justified. And
well-integrated: I had a hell of a time finding anything even close to
a standard library message. The story was clever, and the difficulty
curve was mostly appropriate. I got hung up in the middle, but it’s
not unlike Shade in that, once the path and the pattern of the
narrative is discovered, there’s a certain set of actions which
becomes more-or-less inevitable, and like Shade, it’s a blend
of glee and pain with each awful decision. I would like to say it’s
flawlessly constructed, but I found a single bug.

This game is so strikingly beyond everything else I’ve seen thus
far, in craft and in imagination, that I felt compelled to look up the
author. Is Jeremy Freese a pseudonym? His name is not extremely
familiar to me, and I get the vague impression this is his first
game. If so: bravo indeed!

Rating: 10

A semi-generic fantasy setting doesn’t create a favorable first
impression, but that isn’t in itself necessarily problematic if it’s
handled right. The game itself, though, does little to improve on the
first impression: there are a few minor grammatical and technical
language errors, and some technical guess-the-verb issues: “GET
BERRIES” gives an unencouraging response when “PICK BERRIES”
works. There is an inventory limit, which seems designed solely to
annoy, as inventory limits do (and let’s not start on the sleep and
hunger daemons). The grammar to fuel the miner’s helmet is fiddly
beyond comprehension. I eventually went to the clues and found that
this one had a bunch of extremely convoluted puzzles which, as far as
I could see in limited play, offer no positive or negative
feedback. This is pretty important; we make progress by testing
different ideas, and if a near-right idea has no result, we tend to
give up. Certainly I’d never think to do something so complicated when
the game doesn’t even understand comparatively simple ideas.

Rating: 5

This is a hard one for me. I can acknowledge that April is
technically sound, with few bugs and serviceable writing. The puzzles
and plot progression were a bit outside of what I’d guess, or the most
part, and it was only for few of them that I actually guessed the
solution (part of the problem was that I wasn’t thinking nearly
disruptively enough). On all of these notes I can acknowledge that it
shows signs of competence at the very least. So it’s with a certain
troubled lack of articulation that I say it just didn’t work
for me. Maybe it was the apparent triflingness of it, or the fact that
parts of it feel broadly drawn and stereotyped, but I just never
really got the sense of investment that would lift it into the upper
echelons. If other reviewers felt the same way, perhaps they’ll have a
more specific critique.

Rating: 7

Oy, the writing is godawful. It veers just barely around some
grammatical errors and falls squarely into others (in particular
subject-verb agreement), but the real problem is that stylistically it
runs like Pentari on a stretch of bad road. Also, it suffers
badly from failure to actually show unnerving things. If you
have to tell me something’s strange, you haven’t made its description
nearly strange enough. Once I get freed from the textdump tour (which
is dull beyond belief; I do hope there isn’t a quiz) I find that some
directions mentioned in room descriptions are unimplemented. I fill a
cup with water from an unimplemented faucet after desperately
flailing for the right indirect object for my verb. Then there’s a
clearly significant conversation I can’t listen to. Well, fuck this,
I’m giving up now — this is way too underimplemented, way too poorly
proofread, and way too sprawly for me to waste my time on.

Rating: 3

Man. If you start your game with a disclaimer about how much less
awesome it is than you think it could be, prepare to be roasted by
judges off the bat. If you don’t feel you’re ready for primetime this
year, don’t enter the comp this year. Really! There will be
many more opportunities!

And, indeed, this game is not ready for primetime. The punctuation
is execrable, the tone and style hit-or-miss, and the implementation
shoddy in places. Some critical nouns don’t appear in the room
description, and so forth. I want to be encouraging, and there’s a
certain measure of promise in parts of the implementation detail, but
I have to say, please, try again, and actually polish it next time.

Rating: 4

I guess this wants me to Take It Seriously. But it’s kind of
arbitrary. I played through, doing the obvious things, and the game
randomly ended in pointless tragedy. Now, the title may have given
some indication this would happen, but I kinda expected that to be the
end of the prologue and the beginning of the eponymous grieving I
expected the game to be about, but, nope, that’s it. I turned to the
walkthrough and I apparently get my choice of grisly fates, but all
except one of them require me to be a complete idiot and ignore the
obvious plot it’s heavily implied I ought to follow. It’s like 9:05
without the plot twist. I guess I’m supposed to buy into the
inevitable tragedy — but Photopia did this first, and did
it better.

And the fantasy-ending doesn’t even work, dramatically! The gist of
it, AFAICT, is that by not letting him out of your sight, you have
protected him from the specters that will attack him in your
absence. But the most likely ending, the one the author is shepherding
the player toward with exclamation-point-terminated sentences, does
not involve an attack when you are absent. Why couldn’t the car crash
just as easily when driving home from work as from school? The
duality, the could-have-been, doesn’t cover that case.

Technically, the game works generally. Other than inconsistencies
in punctuating room names and some rough segues when driving, I saw
little that was actually technically room. The tone and style are a
little off-kilter, with simple sentences and a lot of exclamation
points. I’m thinking this might have been intentional, because it
gives the story a certain unhealthy edge, like an oversaturated
photograph.

Rating: 5

My most immediate problem with this game is lack of
motivation. There’s a prologue, but it gives astonishingly little idea
of what my goal in the game is. I get a vague idea later that it has
something to do with rabbits (together with the hand-grenade thing, I
assume this is written by the one member of the IF community
who isn’t sick to death of Monty Python and the for the Holy
Grail
). I wandered around and don’t get a chance to do much in
particular, even using the command which is ostensibly the game’s main
gimmick: one problem is that it’s insufficiently clued, and there’s no
real feedback given for determining what “resembles” something else
enough for it to work. I ended up going to the walkthrough in fairly
short order.

It’s technically OK but with some serious weakness in craft, and it
didn’t engage me at all. Give me something, anything to latch onto in
a story. Give me something to do. Don’t make me do random things until
something eventually happens. This had, for me, the same problems
as April in Paris: insufficient
direction, and too vague an idea of how the plot is best advanced.

Rating: 5

This starts out good and creepy, which puts it ahead of some of the
comp entrants which have tried, and failed, to put out a creepy
vibe. Unfortunately, it can’t really sustain it, and the mood
evaporates as I examine the furnishings of the room. It fails to be as
unsettling as it ought to be, and, in the end, goes for a pretty cheap
gag, which is a pity, because I’d braced myself for something a lot
more interesting. It’s compact enough that it’s got few technical
flaws (“perspiration” misspelled is the only one I noticed), but so
trifling in both scope and ambition that it doesn’t earn my
respect.

Rating: 3

There is what I can only assume is some unintentional bawdiness in
this one. A team whose members are named “Dick” and “Putz”? An
acknowledgement that I “rub the injured member ruefully” (yes, it’s
presumably talking about my nose, but “member”, like “intercourse” and
“prophylactic” seems to be constrained to a sexual meaning in modern
English).

Implementation is a bit hit-or-miss. A lot of things are
unimplemented (such as the grass in the canal, which caught my
attention), or implemented minimally. A lot of obvious actions aren’t
handled under many circumstances, and that makes the unobvious options
that much harder. As an example: I’m sure climbing Xanthus wasn’t
supposed to be a puzzle, but it took me a surprising amount of
effort for me to find the right verb.

I’m conflicted on the music. On principle I’m not a fan of the
idea, and 56MB is an absurd size for a text adventure, but this
execution works pretty well. It’s ambient and unearthly, vaguely
reminiscent of the more sedate sections of the Future Sound of
London’s Dead Cities.

I never really got engaged. The descriptions made everything seem
alien and little seem wondrous. And a story like this, perhaps, needs
a sense of wonder more than anything else. Some reason for my actions
would be nice too (pretty much everything in the mine was completely
inexplicable to me). This is an interestingly valiant attempt, but
nothing really seemed to come together and make it feel like an actual
adventure.

Rating: 5

One stylistic issue which I can’t really fault, although
technically you’re not supposed to do it: punctuation marks should not
have two spaces after them. More damning is a shaky command of how
quotation marks work with punctuation, although I’ll freely admit that
this particular English convention makes no actual sense. The
description of the mirror is also odd, but in a way suggesting
programming rather than language difficulty.

Moving beyond the occasional technical-English glitch, this game is
actually a quite solid one. It’s smoothly constructed and guides the
player roughly the right amount to keep the plot moving. It’s not a
game which makes one sit up and take notice in any particular way, but
it’s for the most part a good exemplar of its genre. It doesn’t really
have much in the way of puzzles, as such, but that means it doesn’t
fall into any of the usual puzzle-design-and-integration traps.

Rating: 7

Ow, long textdumpy opening. And it would have made a perfect
prologue too, to actually be boarded and lose a fight. The first room
is fairly well clued for relevant actions, but I ran into a few bugs
in implementation of incidental features. Implementation kind of falls
off a bit as I get further from the first room, though. There are
random battles which don’t actually seem to affect me for a long time,
even though I get shot a lot. These random actions are easily enough
avoided with “UNDO”, but having them in the first place seems a kind
of poor design choice.

I tried the gas-flood command, which the in-game documents
specifically said shouldn’t affect me as long as I’m in the right
rooms. But it did. Bah. But I eventually figured out what I was
supposed to be doing. Except for the random-death, most of the
puzzles/situations were reasonably fair.

The end-game win-text is way, way too long. Commend the player, but
don’t write him a novel!

All in all, this comes off as a well-intentioned, if relentlessly
old-fashioned game. It’s well-constructed for what it is, despite its
endorsement of a couple of tropes which have fallen by the wayside
(seriously, random encounters?).

Rating: 7

I guess now that I’m a homeowner with not-crap furnishings, I
notice furnishings more. So seeing a table prominently described as
“expensive looking” [sic] piques my interest; what makes a table look
expensive? Exotic hardwoods? Intricate carving? Artistic pretensions?
The description is a bit vague on the point. It’s still better than
the description of the post-it note, though. The chair can’t be sat
on. The TV can’t be turned off, or watched. Already the implementation
is seeming thin and ill-tested. I try every damn grammar I can find
for changing channels, and can’t actually do it. It doesn’t help that
the remote is underimplemented. Doesn’t it have a channel-up button?
Unless it’s described explicitly,I assume it has a channel-up and
channel-down button like every other remote I’ve ever used. For a game
called Channel Surfing, it’s strikingly unaware of the concept
of actually channel-surfing.

I finally find a grammar, and… it provides absolutely no feedback
for most actions. As in, no reply at all. Seriously, this is kind of
unacceptable. The game lists testers: did they not call attention to
these issues?

Rating: 3

This is not the absolute worst IF game in history. The absolute
worst IF game in history is Andrew Katz’s Coming Home. This is
probably not even the worst game in the 2008 comp. It falls to a
philosophical conundrum in media: actually trying to make something
awful will result in bland submediocrity. True direness must have a
certain earnestness, and enthusiasm and vision wholly unmatched to the
creator’s skill. It took tremendous intent and a disastrous dream to
make Plan 9 from Outer Space; start out with the purpose of
making a dreadful film and you’re more likely to get something
indifferent like Cheerleader Ninjas.

So, meh. Nothing dire. Nothing interesting either. Just a dull
attempt to be irksome. Ben Parrish did the exact same thing, but he
did it better, and first. And second. (And Sean Barrett did it third,
so really, you’re very late to the party.)

This game doesn’t get a 1 because I think it wants a 1, and it
doesn’t deserve anything it wants.

Rating: 2

Gah! A spelling error in the blurb. The writing’s generally
shaky, with weird, awkward locutions which are not grammatically
incorrect but are stylistically dreadful. Significant nouns and
directions have Initial Capitals: I’d blame some programming error but
these actually seem to be written by hand. Some rooms seem to have had
the “LOOK” command incomprehensibly short-circuited. Things which
shouldn’t have articles have articles, such as “a Dark
Clothing”. Scenery objects aren’t excluded from “ALL”. Items have odd
descriptions like “Instructions Note”. I’m impressed. Even with the
cutting edge of modern interactive fiction technology, this author has
managed to encapsulate most of the more irritating idiosyncrasies of
AGT.

The gameplay itself is, to say the least, uninspired. The closest I
found to a puzzle was guess-the-preposition on a torch bracket. And
then I found an Evidence (no, really!) and escaped. Woo.

This game may illustrate some of the problems in putting Inform 7
in the hands of those who don’t understand it. Most of the conspicuous
problems here stem from defining nouns in the most lazy way
possible. But, of course, all this could be prevented with a little
bit of testing and feedback.

Rating: 3

The splash screen has a different title on it, which is odd. The
writing is, well, workmanlike. The interface is kind of primitive and
occasionally annoying, such as with the odd command-completion. It
doesn’t recognize an awful lot of verbs, or allow for deep
implementation, or even feedback. I got sick of seeing “That has no
effect” as the response to half my actions, and a dumb parser error to
the other half. Please, please, try to implement things a bit
deeper. I tried to tie the knife to the rope and the rope to the
branch to cut through the moon’s reflection, but that was
unimplemented (in every particular, from the noun “branch” to the verb
“tie”). So much for trying to actually do anything clever.

And, of course, this one has one of my favorite parser flaws:
pretending to understand:

>Put the pocket knife in Lake
Nothing happens.

>Put the pocket knife in High-speed River
That has no effect.

>Put the pocket knife in eragersagera
Nothing happens.

I give up. What is wrong with a decent system and some actual
feedback? Also, what is wrong with providing a walkthrough?

>quit
You don’t know how to quit.

Yes I do.

Rating: 2

This one’s got a mostly solid authorial voice, falling down
occasionally and making minor errors (when I first saw a Receptionist,
I was afraid I’d forgotten to stop playing Trein). The NPCs have an
awful linear key-and-lock feel to them: you get water to give to the
mechanic to get the cigar to give to the receptionist to get the crank
to fulfil Trevor’s quest, and so forth (tvtropes calls this
a Chain
of Deals
; I figured it must have had a name). This rather upsets
the eternal crossword/narrative balance and makes characters seem even
thinner than they are. Oh, and lockpicking does not work that
way
, and soldering is generally unnecessary for quick one-use hacks.

Technically, things seem OK, although I ran into some odd grammar
with the “unscrew” verb, scenery objects aren’t excepted from “all”,
the elevator is somewhat clunky, and typing numbers, dialing numbers,
and soldering requires verb-guessing (we couldn’t implement “DIAL” or
“TYPE”?). Alternative solutions for heating the poker aren’t
implemented at all.

This one started out promising, but succumbed to unfortunate quirks
and underimplementation. And a lame ending.

Rating: 5

The Lucubrator has a nicely opaque (and moderately pretentious)
title, but how does it play? It’s disappointing that one of the most
relevant items in the first room (the restraints) are so
underimplemented, with way too many default responses. In fact,
everything except the expected path seems to be default responses,
which suggests limited testing. For instance, attacks giving default
responses discourages me from trying them under other circumstances,
when that’s exactly what I need to do. And then there’s this odd
line:

“O-okay. Not what I was expecting,” he mutters, and then
pointed at me.

That took me aback somewhat, what with both the odd first-person
reference and the tense-shift. Near the end it ended up getting
confusing and buggy, and timers would be relating events even as I
stopped them, and it ended up an unholy mess. Even the walkthrough
couldn’t help me much (and, again, with all these violent commands, a
non-default response to failed violence would be useful, because
violence clearly is the answer.

There’s a certain visceral effectiveness to the writing, so with
more polish this might be interesting.

Rating: 3

Strong voice right away. Not pleasant, but effective in that
jackassery-intensive way that I associate most strongly with Robb
Sherwin (the other narrative voices are also a bit Sherwinesque). Ran
into a small issue of underimplementation early, but otherwise it’s
seeming pretty solidly done. A little bit of
guess-the-noun/preposition on the final significant action of the
game. My only complaint might be that the overlinearity of the game
discourages, to a large extent, experimentation, and that nothing in
it’s terribly difficult, but the strength of the writing and
implementation depth makes up in large part for the (minor) structural
deficiencies.

I like the art. It’s a bit troubling to realize people without
graphics capabilities will get no context at all for the Void scenes,
but the art is nice.

Rating: 9

ADRIFT, amazingly, has no backwards compatibility. The 4.00
runner will not work on ADRIFT 3.90 games. I don’t know ADRIFT
well enough to know whether this is because of a serious VM overhaul
(compare TADS 2 vs. TADS 3, or Z-code vs. Glulx), or whether the
system’s just lazily designed. Either way, it’s an irritating foot to
start off on. Oddly, this game dodges (after a fashion) the most irritating aspect of ADRIFT, which is pretending to understand when it does not:

>pull rgerg
You pull, but nothing happens. (That is, I couldn’t parse this to the game situation, so I’m bluffing.)

I’d prefer a real error to the parenthetical, but, still, this is
better. Less excellent from a technical standpoint are the long
inexplicable pauses.

“Also here is the robot.” is a very incongruous thing to read in a
room description. Implementation is sparse, with many nouns and
alternative command-phrasings not implemented (particularly for the
damn bell). Actions are fairly arbitrary (fairies like milk? cows eat
snails? Am I just ignorant, or did the author make this shit up?).

I then got stuck in a situation which I thought I knew how to
escape from, and the hints suggested was escapable in the manner I
tried, but it didn’t work. Bah.

Rating: 3

Participatory slapstick is a bit tricky, but most of the elements of
this game’s first puzzle were adequately clued, with partial and
incorrect solutions implemented.

As things get surreal, I’m left with a sense of trepidation,
because about half the time when this happens, nothing’s really
resolved. This game ties it up fairly neatly, although as it gets
grimmer, the initial puzzle seems less tonally appropriate. Shifts in
style and description are well-done (although, actually, we could’ve
used more shifts in PC appearance and suchlike in the intermission)
and appropriately creepy. There were a few bugs in the final map, but
otherwise this worked quite well.

Rating: 8

It’s hard to say anything either good or bad about Buried in
Shoes
. It feels in ways like a qualified success: on
implementation depth and interesting use of language it works, but it
feels manipulative rather than authentically emotional. Holocaust
narratives are, quite frankly, awfully common, including some by the
better authors of the 20th century, so pretty much anything anyone
writes will suffer by comparison. So even with a heavy garnishing of
surrealism, this is only going where other stories have gone, and it
feels a bit ham-handed in its treatment, not unlike 2004’s
Blink. I salute its attempt to
engage a powerful subject through symbols (and, yes, since I too have
been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, I grasped the
significance of that device early on), but I’m afraid it was perhaps
doomed to fail: there are a few subjects which are really, really hard
to engage in a way that doesn’t seem manipulative, and the Holocaust
is one of them.

Also, the ending invites (mostly unfavorable) comparisons to So
Far
.

Rating: 7

In keeping with a tradition I started in 2005
(and have not done since — but have failed to do in a very
traditional manner!), I’m laying out my guesses as to the final comp
rankings here. I’m frequently hilariously wrong about these.

Game My Ranking Estimate Actual Ranking Error
Violet 1
Nightfall 2
Everybody Dies 3
Piracy 2.0 4
April in Paris 5
Snack Time! 6
Afflicted 7
Opening Night 8
Berrost’s Challenge 9
Cry Wolf 10
A Date With Death 11
Buried in Shoes 12
Magic 13
Recess At Last 14
Escape from the Underworld 15
A Martian Odyssey 16
Grief 17
Dracula’s Underground Crypt 18
Red Moon 19
Ananachronist 20
When Machines Attack 21
Riverside 22
Channel Surfing 23
The Hall of the Fount of Artois 24
Trein 25
LAIR of the CyberCow 26
Search for the Ultimate Weapon 27
Freedom 28
The Lucubrator 29
The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom 30
The Absolute Worst IF Game in History 31
The Lighthouse 32
The Missing Piece 33
Nerd Quest 34
Project Delta: The Course 35

Return to the IF reviews.

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

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