Competition 2003 Reviews

by J. Robinson Wheeler

I thought this was a particularly good Comp, as these things go. The smaller number of total games to play was, to me, a plus, and there seemed to be a larger proportion of solid efforts. Three of the games stood out as being the best crafted, with thorough implementations, fun details, and just a general aura of the kind of professional quality that comes from being well-tested and debugged. Those three games were my top three, and it turns out that they were also the top three games after the votes were tallied.

In fact, my list of the games, in the order I liked them from best to least, matches up pretty well with the rankings seen on the official IFComp site. I need to explain, though, that I ended up with two slightly different ratings (and rankings) for the games. My method of reviewing is to play each game one at a time, immediately write down my thoughts in review form, and then stick a numerical score at the end. These scores are all, therefore, first-impressions.

When it came time to vote, many weeks later, I found that my thoughts had changed. I admit that doing all of those Comp game drawings influenced my thinking. If I had fun drawing a picture for a game, my impression of it went up slightly, even though the game wasn't necessarily any better. ("Delvyn" comes to mind as an example of this kind of grade inflation.) I also changed some scores after having talked about games with friends. In a few cases, the scores went down, and I voted with the lower number. Sorry about that. But, I think that the final tallies for all 30 games are pretty fair estimations of the relative rank of each one. Anyone wishing to do better next year -- especially those authors who placed in the middle tier -- should take a good look at the games in the top tier, to see what they could have done to ratchet up a few places.


Rankings, in order of first impression:

Revised Final Rankings, as submitted:


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PIG-RPG: 'Rape, Pillage Galore!'
by noonius@netexpress.ee

Ooookay, this sure is something. Not IF, really. You have two verbs at your disposal (maybe there are more, I only half-heartedly tried typing in a couple of extra commands): LAY, and SLAY. Actually, it's really just LAY, and typing anything else, including just the Enter key, will function as if you had typed SLAY.

What you get is a run-on sentence, a paragraph long, describing the deeds of Sir Algebrah, in some sort of faux-medieval style. The lurid metaphorical language used to describe sexual acts is almost funny:

Then saw sir Algebrah on nearby fields beautiful Fasi-abiha
nymphs dancing their virginal dances, and sir Algebrah was
filled to the last limit with a great roaring and with a foam
that could fill every vacant hole.

But not completely. The text you get when you SLAY is similarly fruity, but not at all interesting. The author seems to have written dozens of responses in the two categories, and the game randomly selects one each time. I saw a few repeats, but not many. I saw a lot of strained grammar and some curious (but not mis-) spellings. The readme file had a typo in the first word: "Hight" instead of "High", which is a bad sign.

This game got boring instantly and didn't improve. What, one wonders, was the point? Is it supposed to be satirical? In the author's mind, where was he thinking this piece would place in the Comp rankings? Maybe he didn't care. Seems like a long time to spend writing text for no good reason.

But the killing blow, really, is that it's not IF.

 
RATING: 2         Revised RATING: 1


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Slouching Towards Bedlam
by Star C. Foster and Daniel Ravipinto

An engrossing and well-implemented game with a tremendous amount of thought put into its backstory, "Slouching Towards Bedlam" deserves high marks. Upon first running it, it had me a little worried, just because it seemed to have the detail and ambition of a full-sized game. The first room of the game is packed full of objects that you need to read or listen to -- it's a tremendous amount of information for the player to absorb all at once, before even walking to another room. Only after fifteen or twenty minutes of reading atmospheric or expository text did I finally start exploring. My first step took me into a room with three more exits. How big was this game going to be?

As it turned out, it was almost exactly the right size. I hit the first ending of the game (of five potential outcomes) at just about the two-hour mark exactly. I then spent another half hour trying to find some other endings, and only found three different ones, despite some earnest effort to glean the pattern behind the endings.

I'm stuck here for something else to say, which often is the case with games I like as opposed to ones I have problems with: there's nothing to complain about in detail, and I don't like revealing all the things I liked because it kind of spoils the effect of stumbling upon them yourself, in case people are reading these reviews who haven't played all of the games. The implementation is quite solid and detailed, even down to replacing the generic Inform library messages with things more specialized. A clever bit of meta-commentary on the peculiar nature of IF, that allows one to shift in time by SAVE/RESTORE/UNDO, is stitched into the story itself. Part of the narrative involves the weirdness of mystic Kabbalistic orders and sects and so forth, and I dig that sort of thing because it's always intriguingly spooky.

The game takes place in the 19th century, but in a sort of alternate timeline where the technology of the time allowed for some 20th/21st-century inventions.

I feel like there were still a couple of nagging questions about side details that I wanted answered (although the main storyline revealed itself fully by the time I hit the end), and I wish that the hints system (which was also well done) had given explicit instructions for seeing all of the endings, because I never got to see what Appendix-A and Appendix-E said. However, this game does get high marks from me. My first estimate after a half hour of playing was that it was worth at least an 8, but I think it very clearly had the right stuff to go a notch beyond that. Nice work.

 
RATING: 9         Revised RATING: 10


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Cerulean Stowaway
by Roger Descheneaux

This comic, old-school science fiction game gave me a bad feeling at the very beginning, with introductory text that ran on for a couple of screen pages before the first prompt. Normally, that turns me off right away. However, when I took the time to read it all, it was fairly amusing. Funny enough to make me feel like there would be some chuckles to be had along the way.

I actually had to take more than two hours to finish this game, even though it is not particularly large. It was one puzzle after another, and eventually, despite the in-game hint system, I got stuck. The hint system was welcome, but broke down after a certain point. I kind of got faked out by it, in that I learned to rely on it -- at one point, at the most complicated puzzle, the final hint in the sequence for that area goes ahead and spells out exactly all of the things you need to do -- so that when it thinned out and stopped being specific, I was left flailing around. There's nothing quite as frustrating as being trapped in a very small map with a pretty limited set of objects, and having no idea how to make the game proceed. You end up pacing around, staring at the same sixteen locations and the same inventory of red herrings over and over and over again. In the end, a combination of this and the game's other problem (which I'm about to get to) made me deduct a point from the score I was going to give it just for being a generally entertaining old-school game.

Here's an instance of something that, as a player, bothered me:

Window Washers' Scaffold
Across a small gap to the east is the open hatchway of the
Cerulean ship. Falling into the gap would most likely be fatal,
but you're certain that you can jump into the spaceship with
little difficulty.

>jump
You jump up and down. It's like being on a pogo stick, except
without the pogo stick.

>jump to hatchway
I don't know the word "hatchway".

>jump to hatch
I don't know the word "hatch".

>jump to ship
I don't know the word "ship".

>jump into spaceship
I don't recognize that sentence.

>x spaceship
I don't see any spaceship here.

>jump to shuttle
I don't recognize that sentence.

>jump gap
I don't know the word "gap".

>e
Cerulean Landing Vehicle
The interior of the Cerulean landing vehicle is made of the
same shimmering metal as the outside of it. [...]

If an author tells me, "you're certain that you can jump into the spaceship with little difficulty," I expect >JUMP INTO THE SPACESHIP to be implemented. I mean, come on.

The nastiest bit of business like this begins when you finally make it to the alien ship. Everything on the ship has a label of some sort. You get some glasses that allow you to read the language. I guess maybe it was because the author wanted to allow for you not having the glasses, and so separated out the reading of things to be handled separately, or maybe it's just a case of TADS allowing READ to be a separate verb from EXAMINE, unlike Inform. (Inform can be made to do this, of course, but TADS comes with a 'readable' class in the standard library.) But it drove me batty, examining things only to be told "It has some writing on it.", forcing me to READ it:

>x wax
The can of floor wax has some writing on it.

>read it
Some English writing on the can of floor wax reads, "Floor
Wax. Warning: Highly Flammable! Keep away from fire". Highly
flammable floor wax? Is that safe? You suspect that they the
Ceruleans got a really good price for this at some liquidation
center.

Why not just tell me what it says when I'm examining it? Gradually, grudgingly, I trained myself to use the READ command instead of typing X, but old habits die hard. I play a lot of IF. I'm used to EXAMINE, you know, printing descriptions of things.

Here's a choice encounter with this problem:

Security Center
A bank of monitors fills most of the north wall, and a
huge control console fills the west wall.

>x console
The control console has three basic panels on it: an output
panel, an input panel, and an action panel. Each of these panels
has further controls on it.

>x output
Which output do you mean, the output panel, or the output control
dial?

>panel
The output panel has an output control dial and some writing on it.

>read output panel
Some Cerulean writing on the output panel reads, "Output panel.
Select output location using the dial below".

>read input panel
Some Cerulean writing on the input panel reads, "Input selection
panel. Select input source using the dial below".

>x input dial
The input control dial has some writing on it.

>read input dial
Some Cerulean writing on the input control dial reads, [...]

>x action panel
The action control panel has some writing on it.
Three buttons are set into it: one red, one green, and one blue.

>read action buttons
I don't see any action buttons here.

>x red
Which red do you mean, the battered red lunchbox, or the red
button?

>button
This button has some writing on it.

>read red button
Some Cerulean writing on the red button reads, "Stop".

It took me too long to figure out that the bulk of the game was all about finding ways to dispatch alien guards one at a time, until I'd offed enough of them to get to the endgame. It wasn't until after I'd hit the two-hour mark that I realized this was the point of it all. Just when I was about to quit, I hit on this idea, so I finally saw what was apparently a winning ending about twenty minutes later, although I only had 126 out of 161 points. The most I ever got was 145 points. I have no idea how you get the last sixteen lousy points, but I don't care to try.

Hmm. Writing about this and reliving my gripes has made me deduct another point. This game might have gotten a score of 7 from me in the best possible case: amusing, with some interesting puzzles, but still built from a clichéd set of ideas at the core. That'd be worth a 7 on my scale. However, I got frustrated and stuck a lot, and the READ thing was pretty annoying, and I wasn't able to finish in two hours. Sorry, but that's how it goes, I guess.

 
RATING: 5         Revised RATING: 7


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The Recruit
by Mike Sousa (with, uncredited: Robb Sherwin, J.D. Berry, and Jon Ingold)

Wellllllll, this one was slight but amusing. The king of collaborators, Mike Sousa, is back again, with a little help from his friends. I'm almost disappointed with myself that I didn't recognize the writing styles of his ghostwriters, because that would have been fun.

This game looks like it belongs back in the 2001 Comp, which had a mysterious theme of primary-color-motif-puzzle-games that kept popping up. You solve a puzzle in each of the color-coordinated rooms: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, and Black, and then the game evaluates how much time you spent on each one, and that's the end. It took me 45 minutes.

It's fun, but slight, like I said. There were two typos that I noticed, but it's otherwise fairly immaculate as far as that goes. The implementation is fairly sound, apart from this one incident that jarred:

Purple
In its center is a small (purple) stained glass case from
which a single, fine, rather smug thread disappears up into
the ceiling and a three-way pulley attached cleverly to fifteen
subtly different mauve-through-indigo ropes.

>x thread
I don't know the word "thread".

The Purple room is described in a deliberately perplexing manner, but even granting that, I found some of it confusing in an unintended way:

>x case
The case is small, just a foot cube, and made of something
like glass that has been stained a gentle purple color. The
effect is deeply, deeply frustrating.

The effect (of what? looking at a glass cube that's been stained purple?) is deeply frustrating? In what way? The most frustrating thing is that I don't know what I'm supposed to find frustrating about it. My only guess is that it's supposed to be the situation of finding the cube totally ensnared in a jangle of cords that's "deeply frustrating," but it was the first thing I looked at, and the situation I was facing hadn't become clear. I'm supposed to do what? Pick up the case? None of the confused descriptions made it very clear that raising the case was the goal. (Like I said, this is even granting that the descriptions were supposed to be brain-bendingly complicated.)

The other room I had a problem with was the Yellow room. I found the scene and object descriptions inadequate at providing a mental picture of the room and everything in it. One eventually formed just from the error messages I got, but it remained fuzzy and kind of abstract. In this room somewhere is a cage, I'm not quite sure how big, and in it are a dog, a blanket, and a card, in some undefined way out of reach, and there's a door somewhere of unknown size (but too small to enter), but it's not necessarily blocked by the cage, even though the cage is described as big enough to reach the ceiling and contain objects out of reach. Whuh. Well, whatever.

As a collection of archetypal IF puzzles, it has some value. In the future, when people start "What kinds of IF puzzles are there?" threads on the newsgroups, people can answer with links to this game. Perhaps the source code should also be made available to give new authors a bag of tricks to fiddle around with.

I'd like to give this game a 6.5, but I can't, leaving me to decide whether to round up or down. As a comp experience, the whole exercise is a bit meta for top marks, even though I had fun playing it. So, I guess I will round down.

 
RATING: 6         Revised RATING: 7


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little girl in the big world
by Peter Wendrich

Hmm. This game bills itself as "an interactive fiction story," but I don't see much of a story to it. I'm not sure whether I found everything there was to do in the game. First I woke the little girl up and got her dressed, then figured out how to help her play with her dollhouse, and then I packed her off to school. There was a room where nothing happened, her parents' bedroom. I figure I missed something there, but I couldn't get any interaction to happen. I earned 1 naughty point, 3 entertainment points, and 2 education points, whatever that means.

This game is home-brewed, and functions reasonably well. The biggest gripe I have with it is that moving to a new location doesn't print the room description, forcing me to type LOOK after every move. English isn't the author's first language, but this was more noticeable in the readme file than in the game, because the descriptions were too spare to allow for much in the way of gaffes. There was a funny problem with extra spaces surrounding single-quote marks, maybe having something to do with perl processing; I don't know for sure.

My playtime was just over fifteen minutes, and then I ran out of ideas. This seemed to be this author's first prototype of his new VM, just to see if it worked. It works, but I'm not sure the Comp is the best place to launch tiny test games. I'm not really grumpy about this game, but I can't give it much of a good score, either.

 
RATING: 3         Revised RATING: 4


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The Adventures of the President of the United States
by Mikko Vuorinen

The world's most dedicated ALAN author is back again with a small, goofy game that inspires a chuckle every couple of minutes. You are the leader of the free world, so it's time to go out and have a look at it. So, you escape the White House and see Mexico, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, and Sweden. And you wrestle a bear and stuff.

The writing is minimalist, but pitched at a dry tone that's very funny, especially in its terse encapsulations of each country you visit. It's not really a satire per se, but a certain amount of fun is poked along the way.

There's not really much else to say, except that I failed to look at a certain object and made the game unwinnable and had to start over. Whoops. But, it's a small game, so it wasn't a big deal to do it over again. So, yeah, worth a few chuckles.

 
RATING: 5         Revised RATING: 5


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The Erudition Chamber
by Daniel T. Freas

Okay, first of all, a note to TADS authors that I've had to make in past Comps (and will probably have to make again next year): if you're going to do the HTML-TADS thing and change the background and text colors, you have to make sure to take over all of the colors in the game. See, I usually play with a dark background and light text. This game changed these to use a light background with dark text, only it didn't change the command text, which meant that anything I typed was illegible. This made me have to change my defaults for the duration of the game, and then grumpily change them back at the end. Hey authors, I don't like having to go and change my interpreter preferences just to play your game. So, you're all warned.

All that aside, I had a good time with this hour-long game. Kind of like "Recruit," it's a meditation on IF puzzles, but this time it's not about the types of puzzles there are, but the types of solutions different kinds of IF players look for. There are brute-force, physical solutions (Warrior and Alchemist), and object-manipulation solutions (Artisan), and clever thinking-outside-the-box solutions (Seer). The game gives you four puzzles and then tells you how many of each type of solution you found. The first puzzle I solved in Seer fashion, which was pleasing. I kept hunting for other Seer solutions, but half the time I ended up with Artisanal ones. There was only one puzzle (the first one) that presented an obvious Warrior solution, and the Alchemist solutions totally escaped me.

Thankfully, the game's hint file supplied all four solutions to each puzzle, so I didn't have to keep replaying to try to find them all, which would have been a bit tedious.

Again, there's no story here, just this kind of meta-exercise, but it was thoughtfully implemented and well-tested. I guess to be fair to "The Recruit," I should give this game the same score I gave that one.

 
RATING: 6         Revised RATING: 8


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Internal Documents
by Tom Lechner

This is the sort of game that I have a hard time figuring out how to judge fairly. It's the work of a first-time author who has re-discovered his stash of old Infocom games, and then only just recently found out about the IF community. The urge to write a game becomes overwhelming, and there's joy in this act of creation. The inner 12-year-old at play.

Having been there myself, I don't want to take authors like this to task for writing something that is not state-of-the-art. Why poop on their party? The difficulty is that games like this are always a little thin and shaky compared to modern IF. There are a lot of locations, but almost no scenery is implemented. This is the way old Infocom games are, actually, and it only takes five minutes of playing to realize that no scenery is going to be implemented unless it's important to the game, so I stopped looking for implemented scenery (and stopped mentally griping about it), and things went more smoothly after that.

Still, I might as well point out to this author that this kind of thing makes for unsatisfying gameplay:

Township of Sebastian
This is the main street of Sebastian. With a population of 213,
there's not a lot to see here, except a bar to the northeast, a
store to the east, and a post office to the southeast. You
arrived from the north, and the road continues to the south.
Only the bar looks open.

>x bar
I don't think that's here.

>x store
I don't think that's here.

>x post office
I don't think that's here.

>s
Edge of Town
There's a faded sign saying Sebastian Pulp and Paper pointing
southeast along the road. Also a gravel road heads off east
through some trees.

>x trees
I don't think that's here.

...

East Hall
This hall stops at a wall to the east which has a portrait of
some noble, and there are doors to the north and south.

John is here, straightening a picture of some kind of dignitary
on the wall. "This thing's been crooked for a long time! He was
crooked longer still! Anyway. To the files!"
John goes south to the The Library.

>x picture
I don't think that's here.

>x portrait
I don't think that's here.

You end up, after some exploring, inside a large mansion. The NPC who greets you ends up wandering around the place, and when I followed him, I got a cheap tour of the floor plan, one that got me oriented so that I didn't have to get lost or make a map, which was nice. The story managed to progress at a fairly natural pace without making me feel stuck wondering how to get it to keep moving.

Eventually, I ended up in a basement area that was a large maze of rooms with closed doors. A slightly jaw-clenching moment, realizing it was a maze. However, there was something about being in a run-down, subterranean mansion underneath the main one that appealed to me. The best writing in the game is in the scene descriptions in this area. One nice thing about them is that they adaptive; as you open doors, the description changes to tell you what exits are open and which are closed. Beyond that, some are simply well-crafted scene descriptions.

Buried Balcony
This room is 20 feet wide, but only extends a few feet
north of the door. There's shattered glass on the ground,
and the north side is a mixture of wall, board, stone, and
dead plants, which by rights shouldn't even be staying in one
place, but it seems secure enough. Some furniture half crushed
sticks out from under all that rubble. The only exit is back
south.

Even though there was no explanation of why there were the ruins of an older mansion down there, I found the whole area quite evocative of age and decay and history. Also, the occasional mentions of creaks and groans and cracks were suitably atmospheric, creating the palpable sense that I was weakening an already structurally-unsound area by the act of exploring it:

Under Dining Room
There are remnants of a dining room down here, by the
looks of it, the dining room furniture seems to have
crashed down onto a set of lounge type of furniture.
The ceiling is sort of patched, and the sturdy dining room
tables have been upended and are apparently being used to
support the room above. The only exit is east.

The walls creak from time to time.

>e
Yet Another Basement Hall
Breaking the trend down here, this section of hall has normal
doors west, south and east, plus a smaller door in the southeast
corner, plus what used to be big windows and a double door to
the north. The windows are now boarded up. It looks kind of
like a miniature version of the back entry upstairs.

>open east
This door sticks a little in the frame, but with a good yank
you manage to get it open.
You open the east door. The lintel above the door creaks a little.

There was this thing that came up while I was trying to navigate around the maze that at first annoyed me, but I later discovered it was because the author was trying to set up a pay-off at the end of the story. Instead of allowing you to freely navigate, the game would insist that closed doors could not be passed through until you specifically opened them. Scowling, I started to put in the effort to open all the doors one at a time as I explored around, and then cheeky little authorial messages started popping up:

Are you going to open all the doors, or what?

Ok fine, just open everything the hard way!

Criminey! Just open all the doors in the basement, why don't you?

As it turned out, the author was just trying to clue me into the idea that he had implemented a simpler way of going about it; that it was necessary to open all of the doors in order to win the game, so why do it the hard way if you don't have to? This is very much the kind of idea that entertains a new author, so I guess I'll forgive him for it, even if it's a pretty big guess-the-verb problem. The hint system did eventually spill the beans, though, and the rest of the game gave me no trouble at all.

There is an enjoyment to be had in recognizing the enthusiasm of a new author testing the waters and implementing ideas that are fun to him. I know a lot of other Comp judges are much less interested than I am in gleaning this enjoyment from first efforts, but it was there in this game. Not everything was as thinly implemented as the scenery; my interactions with NPCs went well, and the hint system was reliable throughout the game, whenever I needed it. The game only took me 40 minutes to play, and I had a fairly good time with it. Still, it is a bit uneven. It is probably the best that this author could do the first time out, but it shows a good deal of promise for someone inexperienced.

If this author immerses himself in the modern sensibility by playing a lot of highly-rated games of recent years, he will probably be able to come up with something a great deal more accomplished in the future, and I look forward to that.

 
RATING: 6         Revised RATING: 6


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Scavenger
by Quintin Stone

This is a solidly crafted and entertaining game, pitched at just the right level of difficulty. Apparently, the setting is a world that the author developed for use elsewhere, a sort of post-apocalyptic thing with heavily armed bandits, radiation hazards, and underground military bunkers with access panels that you need badges and clearance codes to open, and electricity that needs to be turned back on. In the end notes to the game, the author acknowledges the similarities between this game and "Babel." True enough. I'm making it sound like this is all unoriginal stuff, and in a sense, it is, but nevertheless, I happen to like games where I have to turn electricity back on and find out how to make access panels let me through. I had fun.

Gameplay was smooth, the plot moved along, and the puzzles were logical. I found most of them intuitive, as long as I paid attention to scene and object descriptions. For example, I walked into a room with a desk (it is starting to feel like I haven't played a game yet this Comp that lacked a room with a desk -- and this one has more than one), and the description of the room seemed to take particular note of how the desk was situated against the wall. I immmediately focused my attention on the desk, and was rewarded, as easily as that. It's fun when it works that way, and 80% of the game was like that for me -- as I said, the exact level of difficulty I get the most pleasure out of.

Like all of the games I've played so far this year, this one included a very good hint system that never let me down when I needed a nudge or an outright solution.

By the time I reached the end of the game (not quite getting all of the points, but the author never reveals how this is accomplished), I was almost willing to give this a 10, just because of how well it matched my sensibilities, how fun it was, in addition to its high level of implementation detail and general craftsmanship. That was until I read the list of Amusing things to try, which suggested that I ask Charlie, the store-owner, about "various famous IF authors":

>ask charlie about andrew
"Do you know Andrew Plotkin?"

"Know him? Hell, I was him!"

>yay
I don't know the word "yay".

>ask charlie about wheeler
I don't know the word "wheeler".

>feh
I don't know the word "feh".


 
RATING: 9         Revised RATING: 9


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Sardoria
by Anssi Raisanen

Normally, I don't play ALAN games, mostly because they're a lot of extra trouble. There doesn't seem to be a way (and I might be wrong about this) of automatically saving a transcript, and that's something I like to do when playing comp games, so that I can refer back to it when writing reviews. As a result, I ended up doing this very tedious thing of copy-and-pasting a screenful of text at a time from the ALAN terp window into a text editor every twenty seconds. This has served to make me grumpy and irritable and likely to rate the game more harshly than I would have if it had been an Inform or TADS game, which isn't really fair. Maybe I'll add a point at the end to try to compensate, but that isn't really fair, either, I suppose.

This is a fairly standard and fairly short old-school type game set in a castle with dining halls, secret passages, a bearded old wizard, and a king who's in trouble. That sort of thing. You start out in a locked room, and figuring out how to get out of there was, to me, the most troublesome puzzle of the game. I went to the hints fairly quickly, and all they did was suggest that something else was hidden in the room with me. Given the extremely limited set of things to interact with, I eventually found it, but it was a total read-the-author's-mind type of situation.

The next puzzle after that was equally perplexing. I guess if I'd really taken the time to examine everything (which I was steered away from doing, because it was a kitchen full of knickknacks, the first dozen or so of which yielding nothing more than a note saying that they're not worth playing with), I might have figured it out on my own. Instead, I used the WALKTHROUGH command.

After that, things went a little better. I'm an old hand at looking behind things and finding secret passages and so forth. There was a curious cultural gap that made one puzzle here a bit more of a stumper than it was supposed to be, I think. You have a clue sheet of abstract concepts, and then a grid of icons you have to touch, matching the concepts. Two of the concepts were "night" and "wisdom". One of the icons was an owl. The mismatch and the correct solution are left as an exercise for the reader.

Later on, I unintentionally found the solution to a puzzle because an NPC blurted out the solution, due to a bug, as if I'd already stumbled on it and was showing him the results. Oh well, whatever works. Just after this, there was something that I guess was a bug -- I was told to proceed through a set of color-coded doors in a certain order, and that order was incorrect: two of the colors needed to be swapped in order for me to get to the end. I don't know what that was about, but it seems like a beta-tester should have found that. Unless it was deliberate, in which case, it was just weird.

Right after that, there was a puzzle that reminded me of something I made fun of in one of last year's games. It's the equivalent of going into a room with a gigantic vault safe, with a description saying, "Oh no! How will you ever get this open? Also, there's a note attached to the safe." Examining the note says, "The combination is 59-73-102." Makes you wonder whether it even qualifies as a puzzle at that level.

Following one more read-the-author's-mind puzzle, the game suddenly ended, and I had won. Uh -- okay. Well, that was, hmm, brief, I guess. There is nothing especially bad about the game, but nothing especially unique about it, either. Sometimes I like old-school games like this, but this one left me kind of wishing for more in the way of entertainment value. My natural reaction would be to rate this one a 4, but is that because I was grumpy about the lack of a logging feature? Hmm, nah, I think it's because that's the proper rating to give it.

 
RATING: 4         Revised RATING: 4


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Amnesia
by crazydwarf

>about
OK you wanted to learn something about the auther and now
you will have to pay. Now you are going to have to hear my
life story, why am I telling it to you, because I am hoping
you might take pity on me and give me a better score on my
game.

Nope.

 
RATING: 1         Revised RATING: 2


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Shadows on the Mirror
by Chrysoula Tzavelas

Well, hrm. This reminds me of last year's game, "The Moonlit Tower," in that it was by a new author, well crafted, evocative, detailed, potent, and frustratingly short. In this game, you get teases and hints at a rich backstory, and it's up to you to try to put the fragments together. The game just didn't last long enough for me to do that. First, it unexpectedly ended when I tried XYZZY. Then, after exploring the environment and chatting with the NPC who was driving me, I found myself at what seemed to be a "winning" ending. Then I found several "losing" endings. None if it was enough to add up to a whole story in my mind, which I found disappointing.

In terms of what's there, I have no criticisms at all. There's a lot of different conversation threads to hit on, adapting with each move you make in the game. There are a number of things to play with, and these can also make the game go this way and that. I recognize that the level of detail and the number of ways the story can branch are contributing factors to how short each play-through is. If you make a game branch and branch and branch, you end up with kind of a shrub.

However, the final effect is one of having played an extremely good prologue -- where's the rest of it? My mind boggles at the idea of writing a full-length game with this level of detail; it'd probably take a year or so, and it'd probably get too complicated to sustain and end up more conventional as it went along. But, I might have enjoyed that more than what I got.

Again, what there was of it was at least a 9 in quality, but it's too short, and perhaps too oblique, to give it that full rating, I'm afraid.

 
RATING: 7         Revised RATING: 7


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CaffeiNation
by Michael Loegering

Okay, there are a lot of problems with this game, but I'm going to try to be constructive about it. This is a game where the author is having an enormously good time and the player is having no fun at all. That's a heck of a problem, and it's a sad one to have to point out to someone who's got a big cheesy grin on his face. This author went wrong somewhere along the line, and had no clue he was creating a total misfire, even has he continued to pack in numerous contrivances and clever details and elaborate red herrings and locations and multiple puzzles with multiple solutions. I'm sure he thought it would be a lot of fun. In a way, it reminded me of my first Comp entry, "Four in One," which was packed with all sorts of fun details that only a few players ever saw because the main game wasn't fun enough to warrant exploration.

The setting of the game is kind of a limp workplace satire that looks like it fell through a wormhole from the 1999 Comp. Meet your boss, Mr. Norom. Ho ho ho. That kind of thing. First location of the game: a cubicle with a computer. Next sixteen locations of the game: everyone else's cubicles. Sigh.

I halfheartedly played along for ten minutes, and felt totally lost as to what to do. The author provided no focus at all. Sure, there was a stated goal: get a big cup of coffee. But that fails to provide any focus when you're rambling around trying to interact with thinly-implemented NPCs and office settings. I found a hidden hole puncher and a coffee maker and some day-old coffee grounds, and I did somebody else's work because a notepad suggested I try that, and then I gave up. I went to the walkthrough file, and, just like I did with last year's limp workplace satire, "BOFH," I ended up just reading the whole thing and quitting then and there, because (just like last year) I could see there was no point to trying to come up with the contorted solutions to each stage of the game on my own. The walkthrough made it clear that I'd have to be the author in order to solve the author's puzzles.

For example, I mentioned that I found a hole puncher, which I assumed had something to do with punching the holes on the freebie coffee card I also found. But, that wouldn't work until I also did the following:

Escape the office and go to the Buy 'n Blow. Enter and exit the
shop until you see a message that the store is being robbed. Go
tell the cop about it and go back to the store. You will see
the theif being arrested and drop something. It is his knife.
Get the knife and cut the card three times. Presto! Instant
legitimate coffee card.

Can you see the problem with the above? In order for me to be pursuing this goal, my efforts have to be somewhat directed. I could spend two hours wandering around the game map, running through laundromats and bookstores and finding all sorts of items and fighting off rats and never hit upon the idea of waiting for a store to be robbed so that I can tell a cop to arrest the guy so that he drops the item I need to finish the work I started with the hole puncher. The mind boggles. And yet, I can emit a long, slow whistle at the hours the author must have put in to implement all of these nifty ideas of his.

You can't let your players flail around trying to read your mind. You have to use the game's text to give them direction and focus. This game was all over the place, even in the smaller section of being trapped in the office. I have a feeling this author is going to be somewhat surprised and very disappointed at how his game places in the final rankings.

Because I didn't give this game much of an honest chance and quit to read the walkthrough, I have to decide whether to recuse myself and not vote on it, or just give it a score based on its failure to engage me. I guess I will choose the latter.

 
RATING: 4         Revised RATING: 4


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The Fat Lardo and The Rubber Ducky
by Somebody (richard_holmes_xs@yahoo.com)

Every Comp, there seem to be games designed to shoot the finger at the judges, as if we will somehow find this attitude charming. I was going to write this about "Amnesia," but my one-word review sufficed. Then I hit upon "Lardo," and it was an even more extreme case. The author drops a few hints here and there that suggest he was stoned out of his mind and likely collapsing from laughter as he put in the hour or so of work it took to write this piece of nonsense. Yet somehow, I don't blame the ganja. It didn't make Rubber Soul suck.

The first time I played, I "won" in three turns, by which I mean I figured out how to quit out of it. (XYZZY ends the game.) Then, for no good reason, I restarted and tried to make something happen.

It turns out there are a few ways to make the game print insulting text at you. One of them is by typing LOOK about eighteen or twenty times -- the room description keeps changing. Or, you can run through all of the standard Inform verbs, either interacting with the rubber duck or not. With each, you get a new insult.

And that's all there is to it. You can also ask WHY and WHAT KIND OF THING HAVE I COME ACROSS, and XYZZY. The end.

 
RATING: 1         Revised RATING: 2


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Baluthar
by Chris Molloy Wischer

This is a short game with more atmosphere than plot. It opens with one of the more world-weary passages from Ecclesiastes, and soon sinks you into into an underground world of decay, rot, and death. Every room underground is festering with insect life, huge beetles that thrive on necrotized flesh. Yuck.

There's various layers of backstory that gradually get filled in, but the main plot of the game involves finding your son, who has naively made some kind Faustian deal with an undead warlock, hoping for vengeance against the marauders who murdered his mother years before. There's only a few locations in the game, so you find him soon enough, solve a pretty simple unlock-the-cage puzzle, and then walk back to the surface again. It seemed like there were hints that he was still under a spell and only pretending to have repented; I expected a last-minute betrayal that would lead me to have to either kill him or solve one last puzzle to break him free. Nope, not really. That seemed to be it.

I do give it points for atmosphere, but take off points for not being long enough to really take that atmosphere and use it to fuel a full story that builds the creepiness to full intensity. There are gruesome descriptions -- quite good ones -- of various unliving horrors, but there's no suspense or even much shock to them. I almost wonder whether the author could consider this a first draft, to be reworked and expanded into something perhaps three times as long, with a meatier story. I got the sense, based on the bursts of exposition that come from the son at the end of the game, that the author actually had planned out something more extensive, but had decided to truncate it; maybe this was to save himself a lot of work, or maybe to meet the comp deadline, or possibly just because those ideas were still too unfinished to work into the game. I would encourage this author to consider it, because the final result might be worthwhile indeed.

 
RATING: 7         Revised RATING: 7


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Domicile
by John Evans

This sprawling puzzle game needs about six more months of work and then a re-release as a standalone text adventure. As it is, it's already too big for the Comp. Having no score system to go by as a marker of progress (an undesirable omission in a puzzle game, if you don't mind my saying, and one of the many indications of certain flaws in this author's thinking about what he was crafting), I can only guess, based on the incomplete hint system, that I was at most 70% finished with the game at the two-hour mark. In a game with fewer problems, I might have scribbled down a score and kept playing to see it through, but I had no will to do so.

Yes, six more months of hard work, and beta-testing by testers who will ask the the hard questions and get the author to face up to the real problems in this game. We have here another example of an author too enamored of his own ideas to notice what it all looks like from the player's point of view. The main drift of the game is a system of magic that gets you from here to there and allows various fantastic feats. This system is no doubt complete in the author's head, but he's so familiar with it that he has totally forgotten how inexplicable it will be to the new player -- inexplicable even after reading through the hints, as the hints omit or elide crucial details that the author seems to think go without saying. No, they don't go without saying. But it's not the hint system that should spell them out, it's the game that should do that, and it fails to.

In the info text, the author credits "inspiration and ideas from H. P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Fritz Leiber and Mark Moore," but not any IF authors, which is puzzling. Perhaps the author hasn't played Emily Short's "Savoir-Faire," but the system of magical linkings brings that readily to mind. However, what "Domicile" mainly reminded me of, constantly and throughout, was "So Far" by Andrew Plotkin. Slipping from settings mundane to surreal, meeting bizarre creatures, wandering in icy wilderness one moment and dusty plains the next -- how could this not be an influence? Or, consider:

The reptile is roughly bipedal, with a long tail to balance
it as it runs hunched over. It is colored a mottled green and
brown with a mane of hair growing from its neck, and is fitted
with a saddle made from brown leather.

The humanoid is covered with scales and has no hair. Bony ridges
jut out above its eyes, and its knees seem to be bending the wrong
way. Other than that, it's shaped pretty much like a human. Its
clothes are somewhat medieval in cut, and remind you of snakeskin,
though it also wears a heavy brown coat.

And (from "So Far"):

The creature has four slender legs, deer-like, with small
three-toed feet. Its head is long and tapered, with huge eyes
set wide and high up the skull, and a short broad bill at the
end of the muzzle. Most of the body has a fine tan plush coat,
lightening to cream on the belly; but this thickens to a tufty
black mane up the neck and across the forehead. The creature
is tied to a post with a long tether, which is looped around its
neck.

A pair of large, evil-looking creatures are tethered to one
side. They sport astonishingly long tails, and an astonishing
assortment of claws. The claws of one are stained green, matching
the dyed leather of its harness; the other's claws and tack are
violet.

Anyway, the parallels struck me at the time, so I thought it was worth mentioning. The quality of this game falls far short of those it reminds me of. With those six months of work I mentioned, a more complete and much friendlier "Domicile" (perhaps, I might hazard, with a more fitting title) might better stand up to such comparisons.

As I play through all of these Comp games, I've noticed that the place where an author's childlike enthusiasm for his own ideas shows most clearly is in the Hint text, perhaps because it's where he gets to address his audience directly. In "Domicile," as in others that exhibit this tendency, one often finds little interjections of pleasure that unfortunately don't describe the player's excitement, only the author's:

Now look around some more. (1 hint left.)
Once you look at any of the designs, you learn MAGIC! Yay!

"Yay!", eh? My reaction was more like, "Uh, really?" The game starts out with a really shopworn set-up: your eccentric old relative left you a house in his inheritance, after mysteriously disappearing. The first room is a, cough, homage to the opening scene of Zork. At least I know how to navigate around the white house from its west side with my eyes closed. Soon enough, you enter the house and then discover it's the wacky house that crack built. Apparently, this is because old uncle Pire has:

...been a student of magic for many years. I worked great
acts of thaumaturgy in many worlds, concentrating it all
upon this house. But I reached too far, meddled with powers
I did not understand, all that kind of stuff. cliché, I know,
but it's the truth.

The use of "all that kind of stuff" and stating clearly that it's all clichéd strikes me as really lazy. This is in a sheaf of notes your uncle left, that you find only by reading the hints for twenty minutes and taking several stabs in the dark in order to guess the commands you actually need to use, because the hints don't tell you; and you can only read the notes if you pick them up, because if they're on the floor, they're too far away to read. (Pardon me?) The notes conclude:

I know I don't have much time left--and I trust you believe
me, because if you've gotten this far you've already seen
some pretty interesting stuff.

More "stuff". And I note that this is the author talking to me again, telling me how "interesting" all of this "stuff" has been so far. Like getting moss from a tree, and sticking it in (not on, in) a design on a locked door that you can't otherwise unlock (despite having three or so keys in your possession), so that it suddenly opens into a room. Is there any possible way that a player would figure this out on his own? Or is it only possible by reading this in the hint system:

Now you should be back in the house with something you got from the forest.
Specifically, Spanish moss. This moss is a magical item.
Now, what in the house do we know that's magical...
Put the moss in one of the magical circles. Now you can go through the door
into a new room.

Now, I was capable on my own of finding the moss and picking it up. Where, I ask, is the clue that tells me that this moss is, in fact, "a magical item"? Here's the descriptions the game gave me:

Up a Tree
You're quite a ways up a tall oak tree. Leaves and branches fill your
view, through which sunlight filters in shifting images.

Some Spanish moss hangs from a branch.

>x moss
A type of long, stringy moss that grows on tree branches.

>get moss
Taken.

Nope, no textual clues there. Maybe there's something in the description of those designs on the doors that lets me know to stick the moss in them. Let's see:

The House
You're inside the house. Light filters in through the boarded-up
windows. This room is bare of furnishings, and a little dusty.
There are doors in the west, north and east walls, and also a
hallway to the south leading back to the foyer.

>x west door
A wooden door leading east-west, painted white. A strange
angular design is somehow inscribed on it.

>x oak door
An oaken door leading north-south. A strange angular design is
somehow inscribed on it.

>x design
Which do you mean, the angular magic circle or the serpentine
magic circle?

>circle
Which do you mean, the angular magic circle or the serpentine
magic circle?

>x serpentine
A circle painted on the door, inscribed with a serpentine design.
It almost seems to burn itself into your eyes as you stare...

>x angular
A circle painted on the door, covered over with angular designs.
It almost seems to burn itself into your eyes as you stare...

Nope, not there either. I note that there are several dozen other items and locations in the game that also have strange carvings and designs on them, and sometimes sticking things in them or on them is ineffectual and sometimes it works, with no pattern. And the moss (and various other random items) sometimes go in the doors and sometimes go on the other things, also with no pattern. And one item seemed to have no use until I dropped it in this "The House" room, whereupon it vanished, never to be seen again, with no other effects that I could discern.

I would also like to point out that the game never actually tells you which design (angular or serpentine) is on the west door and which is on the north door. By trial and error, you sort of figure it out, but what a blind spot. How long has it been since the author coded up these doors, such that he has completely missed the fact that he never specified which design went on which? Of course, in his head, he could see which one went on which, he just forgot to tell the player about it. Just like he forgot to tell the player that the moss was magical; just like he forgot to tell the player that the designs on the doors could have items put in them; just like he forgot to tell the player that when various designs became imprinted on the player's mind, that the player could then draw these designs in certain places; just like he forgot to tell the player which kinds of places were receptive to being drawn on and which weren't; just like he forgot to tell the player how to interact with objects that had designs on them so that something happens; just like he forgot to tell you that if you neglect to pick up a board and drop it the game becomes silently unwinnable; just like he forgot to give the player any goal besides exploring around and solving puzzles because they happen to be there. I guess the note your uncle left does mention that we might have "the potential to bring the house back to its former glory", whatever that means.

These are all solvable problems, but they're going to require taking a step back and really thinking about everything from the player's point of view. The credits only thank one beta-tester specifically; they did a reasonable job, but I'm led to think that this beta-tester also got so used to the whole thing that they weren't seeing the unimplemented forest for the unimplemented tree either. (There were tons of unimplemented objects; especially annoying were the ones that seemed to be highlighted as important.)

The main point of writing this long letter of complaint is that, with better textual clues, with a playing experience that isn't full of authorial blind-spots and gaps in logic, this could be a reasonably good giant puzzle game, something akin to "The Muldoon Legacy" cum "Savoir-Faire" cum "So Far." I would even go far as to suggest something as dull and club-like as walking into the house and finding your uncle's old journals (a la Myst) that summarize his years of experimenting with "all that kind of stuff", so that you learn the basic concepts, vocabulary, and objects ("June 29th - Experimented with Spanish moss, with some success! More work needed, but I feel I'm onto something!", yadda-yadda-yadda) so that you've got some direction in mind once you start exploring the broader map of the game.

This problem of getting all wound up inside your own head and forgetting the player's perspective is clearly a big problem that new (and old) authors need to be wary of. It can be fun to write a big puzzly IF game, but it shouldn't be more fun than it is to play it.

 
RATING: 5         Revised RATING: 4


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Gourmet
by Aaron Reed (Story by Chad Barb and Aaron Reed)

This is a very good comedy IF game that sometimes rises to the fever pitch of successful slapstick comedy, and otherwise sustains a tone of gentle amusement. Quite a tricky thing to do right, but this game manages to. I was put in a good mood right away, by descriptions like this:

Some laughed when you announced your intentions to open a
five-star gourmet eatery with a 1940s decor, but as you
glance around fondly at chrome-buffed tables, World War 2
recruitment posters, the big band quintet in the corner, and
the pneumatic tube food delivery system, you wonder, who's
laughing now?

The answer is that I was laughing. I also have a certain fondness for pneumatic tube delivery systems, which this author has cleverly targeted. Naturally, the pneumatic tube system goes haywire -- although, not in quite the way I thought it would.

I enjoyed this short (one hour) game throughout, with minor complaints. Complaint number one is that it ended too soon. (Sub-complaint 1A is that, given the slapstick genre, I expected the evening to end in an exploding disaster of true slapstick proportions. I guess the problem is that there was no dessert course, so there wasn't a pie fight. Shame.) Minor complaint number two is that there was an intermittent problem throughout of too many blank lines after certain descriptions or actions; I like my IF games to have tidy formatting.

The third complaint is that the author included a walkthrough, but not a hint file. He wrote a hint file, and then put it up separately as a download from his website. Why in the world? Perhaps he isn't aware that players like me download everything into a laptop and then go somewhere without net access to play the games. Even so, just include the damn hint file. If you're trying to keep people from succumbing to temptation, why include the walkthrough, which is what I had to turn to instead? It saps the fun from the playing experience to look at a walkthrough and get direct solutions. Why not put the walkthrough on your website and include the hint file? I really don't get it.

Some of the puzzles were easy, and some of them required leaps of logic that I wasn't able to conjure on my own. I guess I was stuck a couple of times because I hadn't examined every last object thoroughly enough, and that's my fault. Once or twice, I was shooed away from trying something important by responses that made it sound futile. It's all about the feedback. Another time, I was missing crucial information because I said >X TUBE instead of >X TUBE STATION, and therefore missed the description of a control panel, instead getting a description of the pneumatic tube system in general.

I was reminded somewhat of "Dinner with Andre" by Liza Daly, from Comp2k, another successful comedy. I guess there must be something about restaurants and cell phones and IF that just works. I finished the game pretty much according to the walkthrough, but with only 57 out of 100 points. Hrm. Another nice thing to have in a game like this is an AMUSING section at the end, but there wasn't one. With one, and with a built-in hint system, the game probably would have been worth a clear 9. (With a pie fight at the end, it might have even been a 10.) Still, very good work. My (chef's) hat's off to this author.

 
RATING: 8         Revised RATING: 9


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No Room
by Ben Heaton

Well, this was unbelievably brief. Kind of like "Lardo," only less abrasive. Actually, it's kind of a nice idea, but it's like flipping through someone's sketchbook, not like seeing a finished piece of work. You're in darkness, so the EXAMINE verb is useless. Instead, you can feel things. You've got the components to do an elementary school science project; if you succeed, you turn the light on, and the game ends.

That's really pretty lame. I was expecting the light to come on, and thus allow the game to start, not end. I thought I'd see where I was standing, start to pick up the first pieces of a story, and set out on the first leg of a two-hour game.

Nope, it was some guy's five-minute doodle. This isn't the International Speed-IF Competition, you know.

 
RATING: 2         Revised RATING: 3


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Temple of Kaos
by Peter Gambles

Rrrgh. I don't want to bash too harshly on this inventive experiment -- the author was going for something trickier and more thoughtful than the usual IF, a creative risk I can endorse at one level. On another level, I found the game to be frustratingly obtuse. I'm a bit too literal-minded to decode poetry on the fly, I think. I don't come from the Star Trek planet where they speak in metaphor, which put me in a rather sad position as far as approaching this work. To someone else, someone who took to the language and symbols of the game easily, it might be one of their favorite games of the comp, but to me it was almost completely baffling.

A fair bit of the time, it was my own hurry and restlessness that stymied me -- I was failing to read each word of each description carefully enough, and missing clues that were buried there. The game got more sensible as it progresssed, but maybe that was because I finally got more used to it.

And yet, it seemed again to be a case where the author has everything all worked out clearly in his own mind, and somewhere there's a failure to communicate. Yes, I take the blame for being obtuse or rushed, but I have to judge games by how much I enjoy them, and I didn't enjoy this one very much, despite having a grudging respect for the concept. IF needs authors who experiment with the medium and try to stretch it a bit.

However, underneath the surface, it was just a puzzle-game. The logic of many of these puzzles escaped me. I solved them only by doing exactly what the author told me to do in the order he told me to do it, by using the WALKTHROUGH command at each stage. I solved one of them on my own, but only one. I also had a bit of a problem with some of the game's text being written as poetry, and some of them being written in conventional prose, and many of the TADS library's default messages being left unchanged. If you're going to go for it, go all the way.

 
RATING: 5         Revised RATING: 4


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A Paper Moon
by Andrew Krywaniuk

Here is another first-time author, boiling through his store of pent-up ideas, having always wanted to write an adventure game and finally seizing the chance to do so. Well, hooray, it was a success. I give a brownie point or two to any puzzle game that I manage to bully through. There was a walkthrough that only tells you how to find an alternate solution (completely ignoring the game's challenge of finding the four magic items of yadda-yadda). There was a hint system, which was helpful up to a point, but then conked out on me, giving me hints for things I'd already done. I was stuck on one last puzzle. I read through my transcripts. I found hints there, but I wasn't sure what to make of them. I examined and re-examined everything I was carrying (which was a lot, given the genre). Finally, the light dawned. I got the last magic doodad, and won the game. Ahh, success.

If I hadn't had that sudden brainstorm, I would be writing a much grousier review. Instead, I'm kind of pleased. "Hey, that wasn't so bad after all." There were some red herring items, but there was nothing frustratingly old-school like an inventory limit or something like that. The puzzles themselves were traditional, but pretty well thought out and logical enough.

I only found one bug and one glaring typo. There's a box of pills you find, and if you try to remove the pills from the box, you get a message saying you're better off leaving them in there. (Better for the author, so he can avoid some implementation headaches. No problem.) I tried sticking some other things into the box while I was working on one of the puzzles, and got the same message about the pills when I tried to get them out again. It didn't break the game, so I left it, but I'd call that a bug. The typo was goofy: the Pearl of Wisdom object is, at one point, called "Pearl of Wisdmon". Dude, you should have caught that.

Anyway, I had fun, despite my grousing near the end. The game was the right size, too. Congrats to this author on writing his first complete adventure game. Keep it up.

 
RATING: 8         Revised RATING: 7


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Bio
by David Linder

Oh, man. This is the kind of game that I wouldn't be surprised to see someone do a MSTing of, as it has all the charming features of "Detective," except for the fact that all of the room exits go in the right directions. For example, you die after the first few turns of the game because poison gas enters the room. The scene description tells you that there's a dresser. When you try to open the dresser, the parser tells you that it's never heard of the word "dresser". So, then you die. Then you look at the walkthrough and it says ">open armoire. take gas mask." And that sort of gives you an idea of the level of quality you're about to endure.

To be generous, I guess it's an earnest and well-meaning effort, but by someone with limited imagination and spelling ability:

"So, have you stolen the vial?" you hear someone say inside the tent.
"Yeah, I have it right hear." a voice responds.

...

The Supply Room
You walk into the supply room. The white walls here are lined
with black shelves. On the shelves, you can see various supplies.

>x shelves
I don't know the word "shelves".

>x supplies
I don't know the word "supplies".

>get all
I don't see what you're referring to.

>search shelf
I don't see any shelf here.

...

>x combination
It's a piece of paper with a combonation written on it.

...

>x padlock
It's a silver padlock. It is currently holding the door shut.

>open it
I don't know how to open the padlock.

>unlock it
I don't know how to unlock the padlock.

>open door
I don't see any door here.

So basically, what we have here is the standard complex-of-rooms-and-corridors setting, with the (sadly) standard problem of the author creating more corridors and doors than he knows what to do with or how to describe. When he does actually write a room description, he generally fails to implement the objects described. Even when he does implement them, words tend to fail him. A curious number of locations and objects in the game are described as "ordinary":

End of Hallway
You're in an ordinary hallway with toupe walls and red carpet.

Librarian's Office
It looks like an ordinary Librarian's Office to me.

Hallway outside of control room
It looks like an ordinary Hallway outside of control room to me.

>x stall
It's looks like an ordinary shower stall.

>x lockpicking
It looks like an ordinary lockpicking book to me.

>x tables
Just some ordinary tables with lab equipment on them.

>x button
It looks like an ordinary green button to me.

There could have been a bit more feedback about all the locked doors. You find a lockpick that opens one particular door, but has no effect on any of the others. Eventually, you find an NPC who has a card badge, and he'll open the doors for you. I guess that's nice, but maybe the game could have told me which doors were badge-openable and which weren't. When I found this NPC, I tried to ask him about a few things, but naturally I got generic responses. I looked at the walkthrough to see what to ask him, and it suggested I ask about "terrorists," which aren't even mentioned in the game until after you find this guy and leave the building. I guess the author thought that since he knew what the story was, we would too.

Amusingly, the Russians are the terrorists. Oh really? So I guess it's a neo-Cold War scenario. Or something.

Anyway, so it's this very short game with all the clichés of combination locks and locked doors and so forth, full of buggy behavior, unimplemented scenery, and terrible spelling. I admit that just before I booted up this game, I was looking at my score sheet so far, and noticing that I had rated at least two games as each score from 1 to 9, except for 3, for which I only had one. So, I was kind of looking for another game I could rate a 3. What luck, this one really hit the spot.

 
RATING: 3         Revised RATING: 3


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Episode in the Life of an Artist
by Peter Eastman

Hmmm. Okay. This one was not bad. As far as puzzles go, the most challenging thing was figuring out how to get dressed. After that, pretty much the obvious solutions worked. Once again we have an apartment and a workplace settting -- hey, a factory floor instead of offices with desks! No, wait. You leave the factory and have to go into the rest of the building, where you find an office with a desk. The number of Comp games with offices with desks is by now mind boggling. Or soul wearying. But, I don't hold it against this author, I'm just venting while it's on my mind.

So, apart from the fairly conventional settings, this game had the benefit of a unique authorial voice. The game is told in first-person; you are not the PC, you just kind of suggest things he should do, and then he hyperactively reports back to you. I didn't quite realize the extent to which this guy was a separate personality, reacting in (something like) real-time as you steer him around, until I got to this moment:

>read newspaper
Hey! There's an article about the Frobworks plant on the
front page! It says... hold on a minute while I read this...
It's talking about the factory being sold.

"Hold on while I read this." That's pretty cute, actually. I started paying more attention to how the whole game was written with this in mind after that, and I liked the effect. I think I've ended up giving the game a better score just because of that. (Another brownie point was earned by a reference to my favorite movie. Way to butter up this judge.)

The title of the game is ironic in a sweet-natured way. I thought maybe I was going to have to wander into a paint-splattered studio and work on a masterpiece. When the game started telling me I'd better get up and report to work before my boss let me have it, I was wondering what was up with that. Then I got to the reference to the movie, and the passage that followed it:

I've always thought of myself as an artist. I put widgets
together, and I always thought I was really good at it.
No one could put those widgets together like I could.
I guess it's like that for all artists. We go along
doing our thing and thinking we're really good. And then
one day we meet someone who's so much better, we don't
know why we even bother trying.

The game also has a reference to Good Omens, which was worth a smirk. It also had, in place of an AMUSING section, a collection of "outtakes," as if this had been a movie (there are ending-credits-type disclaimers, too) and we were watching the blooper reel. In general, the whole thing was worth a few silly grins. Yeah, I'd say it was not bad at all.

 
RATING: 7         Revised RATING: 6


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Risorgimento Represso
by Michael J. Coyne

Well, bravo! After having played 22 games before this, including two games I rated a 9, I was kind of just going through the motions, fully believing I'd already come across the best this Comp had to offer. "Too bad, no perfect scores this year," I said to myself.

After about fifteen minutes with this game, I knew it was a 10. I played it until I got to the end, taking two hours and forty minutes to do so. It's still a 10.

One might make some argument about yet-another-game-with-castles-and-wizards, and roll one's eyes, or complain about old-school games, but in this case, it doesn't matter. I mean, just compare the sheer quality of the gameplay, the writing, and the implementation and customization of the library at work here with, say, "Sardoria," which also has castles and wizards and so forth. This game towers above it, embarrassingly so. And I like old-school games; otherwise, it probably would have been an 8 -- it's too high quality, too smooth, to be given anything lower than that.

This author benefitted from a healthy six-month-plus development schedule that allowed for approximately ten weeks of beta testing. He also had a sterling team of testers who clearly gave the game a thorough workout. The depth of implementation, of fun responses to nearly everything you can think to try, is superb. Good work, everybody.

It's a great pleasure to play a game as well crafted and imaginative as this. The NPCs are a treat; they all have personality. The puzzles are fun. One of them is a bit of a cliché; you have a 3-pint container and a 5-pint container, and a tank that needs to be filled with guess-how-much water. However, what amused me about this was that there was nothing in the game that said how much water. It was just like, "Here's the two containers. You know the drill." I kind of enjoyed it, in a weird way. Fortunately, I solved the same puzzle recently in "The Mulldoon Legacy," so I was all over it. My favorite bit of the game was when I deployed the ancient lost art of tyromancy, and I saw a series of visions that provided either clues to puzzles ahead or just intriguing snippets of roads not (yet) taken. (If the author muscles ahead on his plans to write a sequel, I strongly suggest making the game include all of the scenes here that we didn't actually get to visit this time around, because that would be really cool.)

This is the work of a first-time author, which amazes me. But perhaps it's not that astonishing; there's a noble history of the Comp drawing first-rate first-time authors out of the woodwork to impress us all. Huzzah! Very nice.

 
RATING: 10         Revised RATING: 10


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Sweet Dreams
by Papillon

I know, I know. "What was she THINKING? ..."

Well, quite. The problem, though, isn't that this is a graphical game in the IF Comp, it's that it's a graphical game with no walkthrough or hints. The readme file cheerfully says, "No walkthrough is enclosed (it really shouldn't be necessary)." Wrong. Authors always seem to think their game is so easy it doesn't need a walkthrough, and they're always wrong. The only way I can read your mind is if you write down what you're thinking and let me read it.

It would also help for the really tedious things, like the last thing I did before quitting, which was to cross a bridge that was a Simon-like maze of colored tiles. One wrong move (with maybe three choices at each step), and you get sent back to the beginning. Worse, the game puts you back in a spot that's too far away from the first tile to just start over. No, you have to try to walk to the first tile, but because of the buggy movement code, trying to walk to it puts the little avatar into a random circular path that is only sometimes close enough. So you have to wait and time it just right to click on the tile and jump to it, otherwise you get the "Sorry, you're too far away to jump to that tile." message again. Sometimes, the game doesn't respond to a click, it take two or three before it recognizes that you're trying to interact. And then you have to remember all the steps you took up until the last time you made a choice, and take another systematic stab in the dark. Oh, and there are false paths, too, that lead only to dead ends that shunt you back to the start. That was a real treat. Where's the walkthrough that tells me how to get through this so that I don't burn ten or fifteen minutes out of your allotted two hours on this one pointless exercise?

I didn't get very far, despite sticking it out for two hours. I figure I maybe saw twenty or thirty minutes' worth of it, due to how slowly it ran on my hardware. Oh well, what can you do? The little I saw of the game had some pretty serious bugs. For example, if you click somewhere random, you get a little menu that says "Move to/Use item/Cancel." If you click Cancel, you get a message that says "You shut your eyes, hoping to open them again in the real world..." This is only supposed to happen if you enter the magic dreamland and click "Wake up" from the menu. But no, it happens from everywhere. In fact, it was one of the first things that I did in the game, while I was trying to figure out how to exit the starting location. Suddenly, I'm in a basement chamber, and the character I was just standing next to is in a tube, and a character I've never seen or heard about yet is revealed to be more than I thought she was. Uhhh.. okay. Apparently this is supposed to happen much later in the game, perhaps after I solve the first puzzle of the game, which I didn't. An NPC tells me to go downstairs and get a folder. I guess I managed to find the room it's in, but it was locked. Where's the key? Who knows? Too bad there was no walkthrough. I looked at everything I could interact with in every room I went to, and didn't find a key. Finally, I exploited that bug (which allowed those two NPCs to be in two places at once) just to get back to that room and maybe get something to happen. That's when I entered the dreamland, finally, and found that bridge. Then I crossed it only to find a giant ogre who evidently I was supposed to give something to so he'd let me pass. What was it? I don't know. Where was it? I don't know. Whoops, is that two hours already? The end.

The graphics were pretty, and the sound files were nice. (The readme says that it was done from scratch, but one tends to suspect that a game building app was involved.) Lack of walkthrough was a gigantic mistake.

ADDENDUM: Okay, after I finished this game, wrote the above review, and rated it, I talked to some friends about the game. It turns out that a lot of my problems had to do with the mouse button not being as responsive on my system as it should have been, so that sometimes it printed nothing when I clicked on items I needed to interact with, like the chair that gets me past that locked door, and other such things. So, I eventually managed to get to the secret chamber the proper way, and actually see the expository text that introduces the next stage of the game, and go back to dreamland, cross the bridge again, and face the ogre. But, I still didn't know how to get past him, so I had to quit again. Sigh.

So, the lack of a walkthrough was still a big mistake. Oh well. But, I'll give the game one more point than I gave it the first time. It was a noble effort, I guess, and the first all-graphical adventure in the Comp's history, which is worth something, I guess.

 
RATING: 4         Revised RATING: 6


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Delvyn
by Tilli Productions, Santoonie Corporation

This is a fairly short, unfairly buggy, puzzle game where you play an elf who must find out who's destroying your adoptive mother's corn crops. (I note in passing that the game's prologue describes Lucille as a "widower," not a "widow," for the amusement of anyone who knows the difference, or perhaps for the education of the authors, who don't. Neither are they aware that there is such a thing as spelling "its" without an apostrophe. Either that or they don't care.)

The game looks like it was never beta-tested; the implementation is slipshod throughout. In the first room of the game, there's no scene description. Well, actually, there is, but you have to >X BEDROOM (the name of the room) to find it. There are actually quite a few locations where the name of the location has been given to an examinable (or, in some cases, takeable) object, which is not a bad idea, but putting the room description in the scenery object instead of in the actual room object is kind of sloppy, especially when it obscures the fact that an item you need to win the game is sitting there. >GET ALL and >X ALL and other TADS-allowed "ALL" verbs were helpful in getting through this.

There are a lot of red herring objects, in something like a 10:1 ratio to important ones. At one point, I was told that I needed a container in order to get some liquid. I had been carrying around a bottle of ink that was called this: "ink( container )". Was this actually a container? No. I think it was a purposefully misleading object; you know -- ha ha. Anyway, I tried every object I could find that might seem like a container, and one of them worked, and it was logical enough. In fact, the game has about 5 things you could probably call puzzles, and three of them were fairly logical and solveable as puzzles go.

Although this is not a good game, it is not an utterly stinky one, either. It'd have to actually be offensive to rate a 1 or a 2, and it isn't. Really, it's just mediocre. Or, it would be a mediocre game if it had all of its bugs and spelling errors fixed. The best score it would get, in its theoretically finest shape, would probably be a solid 4. With all the buggy behavior and sloppy implementation and annoying punctuation, it's a weak 3.

 
RATING: 3         Revised RATING: 5


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Adoo's Stinky Story
by B. Perry

Whee, another thinly-implemented house where rooms are there just because they'd be there in a house, even though the author has no energy to actually think up all but the barest descriptions of them. Often, you get text that says something like, "Not very interesting, really." Or, in different terms:

>AUTHOR, DESCRIBE THIS SCENE
The author has better things to do.

Anyway, so you're in this house, and you have to build a stink bomb. The opening text tells you that you'll have to ask someone how to build it. Me, I thought I'd ask my brother, or maybe leave the house and find another kid who might have the secret info. Eventually, I realized neither of those things would work. I looked at the hints, and it told me to ask Dad about stink bombs, and he knew all about them. I wonder why that would be. Maybe in a slightly better game, where the NPCs kind of had personality and some history, there would be some explanation for why Dad would know about stink bombs. But, this isn't a game like that. This is a game where Mom is in the kitchen making dinner, but you can open the fridge and take everything out of it and leave the door hanging open, and she doesn't bat an eye, but if you walk out the front door, she'll leave the kitchen to come and lock the front door with you outside. Odd. And there's a friendly family dog, but you can't take any fur from it without it growling at you like you're an intruder. Strange. And you can talk to your brother Jim about the punk rock music he loves, but when you swap CDs on him, he doesn't seem to notice the difference. Uh-huh.

So, you find the four items you need and zap them and the game ends. Again, not a terrible game, just not particularly inspired, either.

Parting question: What kind of a name is Adoo, anyway? One of the included readme files was titled "Adam's Stinky Story." I guess that was the working title. Adoo? Hmm.

 
RATING: 4         Revised RATING: 5


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The Atomic Heart
by Stefan Blixt

This game had many unique properties, enough so that I wanted to like it more than I did. I found it to be frustrating to navigate, even after staring at the walkthrough. In this game, the PC is a nanny robot -- something I discovered because of my habit of typing >X ME as the first command of the game. That used to be a command that rarely printed anything but the standard library message, but these days it often reveals vital information.

The first rooms of the game are completely under-implemented. An NPC directs you to get someone's shoes, and the game doesn't recognize "shoe" or "shoes" as vocabulary, even when you find left and right "trainers." In one case, the game's implementation is simply buggy:

Mrs. Go's collection of eighteenth century bottles stand
on a wooden shelf attached low to the wall next to the
front door.

>x bottles
You can't use multiple objects with that verb.

>x bottle
Which do you mean, the eighteenth century bottle or the
eighteenth century bottle?

>either
You can't see any such thing.

I hope the author didn't spend a lot of time writing an object description for the bottles that will never be seen. Then again, I doubt that he did, given the thinness of everything in this three-room house (kitchen, kid's bedroom, living room).

Then the game unexpectedly seemed to end, only to reveal that there was another layer to the experience: it was actually just a VR playback of the robot's little black box recorder. Then the game ended for real. Hmmm. Restart. First of a million restarts. The second time, I was trying to recharge my batteries when they ran out. Couldn't manage to finagle the game into actually charging me up even though I started out connected to a charging cable. I had to go to the walkthrough to get the exact commands. Frustrating. Another minor irritant was how I always started in this alcove, and had to remember to separately exit it before I could navigate anywhere else.

Eventually, more of a plot took over, along with more restarting, until I finally learned to save the game when I made progress. Gradually, you get the idea that this little robot can possibly do something to change the flow of history. There's been a robot rebellion caused by a strange viral program that has infested all the droids. Hmm, rather similar to the plot of "Slouching Towards Bedlam," actually, in many ways. I wonder what's in the air that this would be a meme this year.

Finally, I got all the way to a winning solution, and the last bits of the game were a little bit better than the first, although there was a lot of buggy behavior involved with connecting to a larger robot you ride around in. You'd try to do this or that, and it'd tell you that the robot isn't open, which wasn't an appropriate message. Or you'd disconnect, climb out, climb in, and re-connecting didn't work unless you unplugged each fiddly little component and started over from scratch. And if you were in the vicinity of more than one connector cable at a time, things got even worse.

So, I liked the premise, and I liked how it worked out; but the actual experience of playing it and dealing with the buggy behavior, lack of synonyms (DETATCH would have been a nice addition to the vocabulary), and shallow implementation of scenery took it down a point or two in my estimation.

 
RATING: 6         Revised RATING: 6


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Hercules First Labor
by Robert Carl Brown

Okay, this is a Scott Adams tribute game, which seems like the last thing I'd have grounds to stomp on, considering the last IF game I wrote. However, the author's interest (and pride) in preserving all of the limitations of the original Adams games makes things frustrating for the modern player. I even spent fifteen minutes looking at the source code, trying to figure out if I could hack it so that X was a synonym for LOOK (or LOO, to be precise).

The game's readme file exhorts you to look at and pick up everything you can. Then it starts you in a location with two objects, one of which isn't implemented. It's sitting there, but you can't look at it or pick it up. You just get a message saying "What ? !" There's a suitcase like that in a closet, too. Because of this, I stopped looking at everything. This got me stuck, because I had to look at stuff in the bathroom in order to get the game to continue. (It was other comp games with bathrooms -- many, many comp games -- that were there for no reason, that trained me not to bother trying to make anything happen there.)

Then suddenly we're in ancient times, and we're Hercules, and we're in more rooms with nothing in them. Why implement a room that has nothing in it (at all)? Just to fill out the map and boast about how many rooms the game has? Maybe that's what Scott Adams did, so that's what this guy did. Bluh.

Then you wander around the map, the whole thing which seems to be a maze, in the sense that exits head in illogical circles. Then, if you're like me, you follow the walkthrough to get through with the thing. Then you hold your head in your hands and stare at the computer and go "Hrm." Then you feel like maybe getting another cup of coffee or a danish or something, and then you realize you still need to write a review. So then you write a few paragraphs and move on with your life.

 
RATING: 2         Revised RATING: 2


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Curse of Manorland
by James King

This game is sort of sad, in that it seems to be written by a child, and maybe it's unfair to judge the work by the same standards I use for everyone else. The implementation is scarce and buggy, and every puzzle depends on reading the author's mind. Eventually, about a fifth of the way through, the solution file (which was written in prose, instead of being an actual walkthrough of commands) failed to be helpful. Apparently I had to tie a rope around a tree that didn't exist. Well, there was a tree, but any attempt to tie the rope to it gave me the message:

Don't know how to tie here...

And so, that's where the game ended for me, with 37 points out of 200.

The game's a mess, and the writing is really peculiar. It's not what you'd call illiterate, but it looks like work of someone whose ability to compose English has been devastated by instant messaging and email. Sometimes, it has a kind of catchiness in its weird rhythms, intermixing speech and descriptions and asides, all without benefit of any punctuation besides quote marks and the occasional period:

A bit scared at first you approach the king
"where am I" you stammer
"you have been chosen" The king says, the princess, Sarah to the
left and the young prince Phil to the right nod
"chosen for what" you say
"to save the world"
"huh" you reply

...

You approach the picnickers and ask if they have seen Jacob.
"aint seen him" replies a girl of your age
"Do you know who owns this field"
"I think it's owned by a Dwarf who lives around here" replies a
man - thegirls father. He has a balding head with a few grey
strands poking through.
"are you from around here" asks the girls mother
"certainly not" you respond" turning away

...
MEANWHILE

Jacob is sitting scared rigid at the other side of the forest.
A family approach him "are you ok" A girl about his age with
long brown hair says he doesn't respond, they eventually walk off.
He gets up and starts towards the forest before him, looking
for something to eat. He is hungry

At least, I hope this was written by a child. However, even if it was, I must weep for the youth of today. I wrote some stories when I was nine or ten, and I recall having a fairly full command of punctuation and sentence grammar, as well as a keenness about wanting to emulate the quality of writing done by grown-ups. I wish this author had the same motivation.

 
RATING: 2         Revised RATING: 3


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Sophie's Adventure
by David Whyld

This game was my first experience with the ADRIFT system, and apart from running a little slowly on my poor old laptop (increasingly slowly the longer I played), it was a pretty good first experience. It certainly seems capable of handling a full-fledged adventure game like this one; in fact, this game is a bit too fully fledged. Once again, it's an ambitious puzzle game that's way, way too big and sprawling (and detailed in its implementation -- it takes time to examine everything and talk to everyone on your first time through, you know?) to fit into two hours of play.

I started out playing normally, and then realized that nearly an hour had gone by and I had barely explored the map and had solved no puzzles at all. I looked at the walkthrough and noticed, with some annoyance, that I made a blind choice early on ("Which of the 5 NPCs you've just met and have no experience with do you want to have as a companion?") that was, apparently, the wrong one. Hoping to see as much of the game as possible, I decided to just follow the walkthrough as far as it would take me, and at the end of two hours I was less than halfway through the walkthrough. I played a little more after that, then realized I just didn't have the stamina.

It's a good game with some decent writing, although the personality and attitude can be a bit cheeky or precious, and at times it got to be off-putting. What with all of the talking to people you do, and the numerous cutscenes, and the fairly detailed implementation of scenery, there is quite a lot of text in the game. It seems to have been proofed and tested fairly thoroughly, although I did notice some typos, missing words, and the occasional misspelling. The most amusing one was this:

"Prophecized!" you shout. "Can't anyone here spell?"

(Prophecy is a noun, prophesy is the verb.) It was also odd to see the "-ized" spelling, when the game is going to great pains to be British (assorted bins, sweet papers, colours, etc.) most of the time. Speaking of which, there are a great many references to Harry Potter throughout. It's apparently one of the favorite (sorry, favourite) books of Sophie, the PC, but one is forced to conclude that it's one of the author's favorites as well. I had to roll my eyes when Sophie was described as having an unruly mop of uncombable hair -- now where else have I seen a character described like that?

Then suddenly a pack of dwarves arrive to bring you along on a big adventure. When this first happened, I thought of The Hobbit, and then about two paragraphs later, when they were jostling and shoving each other, I realized that it was, in fact, much more like Time Bandits. In fact, the lead dwarf is named Randle. Then some skeleton guys with scythe-like hands show up. Then a swirly portal opens and you and the dwarves fall into it and end up somewhere else. All the dwarves work for a big powerful guy. Hmm, yep, Time Bandits.

There are a lot of self-conscious references to Monty Python and The Lord of the Rings and all the other stuff that has influenced this author and added to this grab-bag pastiche of, well, I guess clichés is a harsh label. The more I played, the more it reminded me of stories I wrote when I was in my pre- to late-teens, because I was into all that same stuff, and whenever I wrote anything, I somehow thought that making reference to all of it would be really hilarious or cool or something. These days, of course, I cringe when I look back on it. That said, I didn't find "Sophie's Adventure" to be either hilarious or cringeworthy, particularly. It just seemed like the kind of thing that would appeal much more strongly to someone else, perhaps someone younger.

In fact, it might be a good game to recommend the next time someone pops into the newsgroup and asks for something they can foist on some youngsters to get them interested in interactive fiction. I'm not sure whether the puzzles would be too tricky or not. That deal where you pick the wrong guy to go with right off the bat is kind of annoying. It would definitely require an attention span, but I seem to recall having a rather impressive amount of dedication when I was 12 years old and playing IF for the first time. Too many of the puzzles seem inadequately clued, though, and require a certain amount of reading the author's mind. This all kind of comes down to craft, and I don't see any evidence that this author is incapable of growth in this regard.

So, I'm all up and down and of two or three minds about the whole thing. It looks to me like the work of a young person who might just have the chops to be a very good writer someday, as soon as they drop the self-referential irony, stop relying on other people's ideas, and get some guts and grit. This is, as I said, a full-fledged text adventure, and it does maintain a certain level of implementation quality that I find no fault with. Recommended for younger players.

 
RATING: 7         Revised RATING: 8