IF Competition 2005 Reviews
by J. Robinson Wheeler
"My InitQuips should be overloaded," says the mendicant. [BUG]
Okay, this is a bad choice for a Comp 05 starter, so I'm electing to set it aside for the time being. It's a little hard to read, although that's not something I'm going to dock it points for, since it's understandable. However, it does make it extra tedious to play.
It's also an RPG that involves stats and worrying about attack and defense and hit points and armor and spells, and I don't like that stuff very much.
So, in general, I'm going to leave this unrated for the moment and (maybe) return to it later. If I don't, I just won't give it a score, rather than give it a bad one.
But I did quit it before even taking a first turn, which is pretty fast.
Okay, I'm officially old and cranky. This is the second game I've quit almost immediately, a habit which I've heard other comp judges employ over the years but never practiced myself. Until now.
What made me cranky? Oh, I suppose hitting a menu before I get to see any of the actual game, that bothers me. That, and the tone of the "About" text that I read.
Then I started the game, wandered around a bit. The only thing that seemed remotely like a minor goal to keep me occupied and get me into the game was a buggy one about swiping my bunkmate's journal from his locked chest while he's in the shower. There was a timing issue, where acquiring the journal gives you only a few turns before he reappears. Everything I could think of to do as far as reading the journal, or hiding it so I could read it later, was rebuffed by the game. No, don't do that, Simon won't like it. Well, screw Simon, this is the only damn thing to do in the game. Simon can take it and like it. I don't even want to steal and read a journal; my motivation for doing so isn't explained, even though apparently the PC has one.
So then I decided, okay, enough nonsense. Let's look at the hints and see what the deal is for reading this stolen journal. Har har, the joke's on me. The hint for it says I'm on my own, since this is an optional puzzle, and it's not going to explain what to do.
Well, if that's going to be your attitude, then I'm bailing on your game. There's dozens of others competing for my attention, and maybe I'll find them more engaging.
[Review continues below]
Well, this was okay, and didn't take very long. I think the authors say that this is their first released game, and it has many of the old-school qualities I associate with new authors. It is neither brilliant nor terrible, and it is reasonably fun.
Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the
Thus begins the unintentional hilarity of Phantom: Caverns of the killer, a hilarity that thankfully never lets up. The first time I laughed out loud was just a few sentences (or sentence fragments) down from the opening text:
[...] somewhere along the lines, a book was written about where
So let me get this straight. Everyone who actually saw the physical existence of the book with their own eyes considered it to be a myth? One wonders what it would take to turn them into believers.
Anyway, so this one was amusing, but not the way the author intended, I suppose. I'm figuring it's a young guy who wrote it, one who hasn't studied English grammar and spelling per se. He has a certain visual imagination (not that he communicates it well), and in his own naive way, he's trying to deliver some IF entertainment as best he can.
The second time I laughed out loud was when I entered this rusty shack I came across. (A rusty shack? I suppose it could be a metal shed type of thing, except it's fallen apart from termite damage.)
I can't exactly explain why that was funny. You had to be there, I guess. I think the fact that it was precisely thirteen points had something to do with it.
The game seems to only have one ending, which leaves you trapped in a tomb forever, but which still says *** You have won ***. You get this no matter whether you've explored the game's six or seven mazes thoroughly enough to get the maximum score of 100 points by picking up various things.
After I reached this stopping point, I read the walkthrough, and I found one last piece of unintentional hilarity there. I had been wondering why I had found a clue that said '15, 37, 12, 12, 40' earlier in the game that didn't seem to connect to anything. Here's the author's explanation of what that clue means:
This puzzle is probbably the hardest in the game. The
Ingenious! But here's my transcript of how I solved this puzzle:
To be fair, that really was the hardest puzzle in the game, not counting maze navigation. In passing, I would like to note that touching the roof in this room wasn't implemented.
Okay, having quit this one after five minutes the day before, I realized I at least knew how to solve that "optional" journal puzzle, so I thought I would give it another go. I got through the game, with a lot of grumbling and looking at the hints, during this second session.
How shall I put this? It almost seems like a generic Comp game. Maybe only people who have played seven or eight years' worth of Comp games will know what I'm talking about. It's about memories and flashbacks, it's got a kind of portentous self-seriousness, and it involves breaking into a mansion by distracting large dogs.
It all feels a bit heavy handed and humorless, which means it isn't much fun. The plot started taking some twists and turns in the middle, where you find out that the PC isn't what he seemed, or your life has been a lie, or whatever that is; I've seen that many times before, too. Frankly, I wasn't very engaged, and I whipped past the explanations of what was going on too fast to really catch what the deal was.
There's a final section in which you find an old photo with something written on the back and a letter, and I guess I missed more than I thought, because I was very confused about whether it was talking about Janice or about Kaitlyn or about someone else.
It's competently coded, with a lot of implemented scenery. The most common typographical error was missing periods at the end of simple one-line descriptions.
There are a few other odds-and-ends mistakes. During a military briefing scene, there's this:
Once again, standard reconnaissance fair.
Either he means reconnaissance fare, or it's like a Renaissance Fair, only different.
Once again, standard reconnaissance fair. You watch sleepily as
(On second thought, it's exactly like a Renaissance Fair.)
I think it's only fair to let you know I take points off for this:
Sometimes, all I really want from a room description is where the exits are. Here's one where I couldn't find the basic information I wanted in all the over-writing:
"Smeared by a thick layer of droplets, the sketch of the ocean to the west ripples in and out of a dream" is a little too -- well, just a little too much. For my tastes. Rippling in and out of a dream? I get what it means, but at the same time, I kind of want to ask, "What the hell does that mean?"
Without warning, she abruptly grabs you and sticks
Must I? If that had been a "Press any key to continue, or K to Kill Me Now" prompt instead, things might have gone differently.
Press Space to continue, Q to Quit, or K to Kill Me Now.
War! The word you first knew, and the reason you live today.
This opening text made me want to shout, "Nooo, start over! Try harder!" In the end, it wasn't that bad. Well, it was, but in a different way. As an IF game, it is also sort of generic. It's a fantasy setting rather than sci-fi, which is what I was thinking it would be. You have to escape from a prison cell, then collect the five magic widgets that assemble into the thingy of doom, and then you win.
Or not really. On a storytelling level, what you're doing is kind of creepy. Over and over again, you're warned in no uncertain terms that by undertaking this quest, you're doing something really evil that will have the cost of destroying you. And it's all rather occult and demonic, come to think of it.
I followed this plot on its rails, but by the end I was thinking strange thoughts like, what if there were a cult of evil guys, and they wrote an IF game where the player would perform some sort of ritual to loose elder demons into the world to destroy all goodness, and every player who came across the game happily went along with the walkthrough and enacted the rituals and unleashed the curse and destroyed everything?
But of course, if you don't follow along, there's no game. Yet, this kind of willful release of one's will to the game's plot -- something I even tend to encourage sometimes -- feels kind of weird to me tonight, for some reason.
Hey, this game provoked thoughts! Probably by accident, but even so, I think I'll give it an extra point for that.
This was a short, comic game with a punchy writing style. The author has a distinct voice and knack with language, something that the authors of the other games I've played so far have lacked.
There is one glaring problem, though: he keeps writing "it's" instead of "its". There's one of these right at the beginning of the game, and then at regular intervals throughout. Odd, since the rest of it is pretty much clean of typographical errors, as if it had been well tested. Maybe none of his testers knew the difference either.
Grind, grind, grind. That's my teeth.
I mainly got through this tiny puzzle-fest with the aid of the included walkthrough, but I enjoyed myself well enough. There were a few spots where you had to read the author's mind a little too much, where the game could easily have provided some textual clues.
There were two or three very unfortunate situations where I tried to do something that seemed like the obvious move, and was rebuffed in all my attempts, only to find in the walkthrough that I had failed to guess the one precise wording that did the trick. Grr, I say! Grr!
>throw gnome at window
There was another example where if you tried to look behind or pull something that was against a wall, you got generic failure responses, but pushing it revealed something vastly important to solving the game. Pulling it should have produced the same message, at the very least.
A more annoying one was near the end of the game, where the problem was a nest of wasps that needed to be dealt with.
Behind the utility shack
See, because, hey, PUT NEST IN SACK to me conjures the idea of picking up the nest and putting it somewhere else, not the idea of putting the sack on it. Which I tried. Grr.
Gnash, gnash, gnash.
Still, this was a decent game. Pity about the apostrophes.
I played this one for only fifteen minutes or so. I wasn't enjoying it that much, although I'd gotten used to the stylistic conceit of jumping from protagonist to protagonist. This is the second comp game now with a character called Kaitlyn, I note in passing.
Then I got to another one of these scenes like I commented on with the Sword of Malice game. I'm desecrating an ancient tomb, carrying an artifact of black magical energy, and the game is demanding that I hand this evil thing to this evil corpse, such that all manner of awful curses is unleashed -- no doubt that which I've already seen the results of, as all these other characters.
And I didn't want to. I tried to leave, and the game just kept telling me how compelled I was to do nothing else but hand this evil guy the evil amulet.
Well, I have more willpower than the PC I was playing, so I exercised it and quit. Take that.
What a refreshing change this was from the other games so far. Admittedly, if I'm looking for complete originality, other comps have had their share of office comedies like this. I guess it was just that the spirit of the thing was light hearted and chipper, and I needed that change of pace.
So, in this one you step into the shoes of a young woman who has to deal with some day-to-day stuff. Running late for work, worrying about whether her boyfriend is cheating on her, chasing around on dumb errands to please the boss. You end up having to do some rather unusual things to get through the day.
It's got kind of a unique style of integrated cut-scenes; you make a couple of moves, then suddenly get an explosion of text, then get the chance to make a few more moves, then another explosion. (Eventually, a literal explosion, but that's neither here nor there.)
I had fun, but I started to almost wish there were a more realistic genre of IF where you really do take care of real-life challenges in a real way, but within bounds of the IF medium.
Anyway, this put me back in a better mood, so I'll give it more points than I might have.
Enjoyment is guaranteed.
The corporate-speak bullshit is for comedy, I suppose, but I don't feel like putting up with it.
This is a fairly standard old-school piece, the first Inform work by an author of several ADRIFT games. The stuff about pink and pinkness in the very beginning was sort of interesting as a hook, and then suddenly I was transported into an Alice in Wonderland middle game. The brief endgame was sort of a CYOA cutscene, in which it really wasn't clear why I was punished for choosing reality over fantasy.
The puzzles are logical and solved easily enough with a little exploration. "Clearly I need a -- oh, here it is." That sort of thing. The mechanical dog was kind of a new invention, but the white rabbit was, you might say, completely not.
There's nothing particularly to criticize, but nothing particularly to praise, either. I used to say I was a fan of old-school games and enjoyed the fact that people were still writing them, but this Comp is making me think I've outgrown them. I'm going through the motions here, but with no interest or joy.
I did notice that I have a lot more trouble mentally keeping track of a map that is based around interlinking NE-SE-SW-NW pathways. This made the Wonderland section slightly more fiddly to get used to than it might have been. I wonder if it's an artifact of ADRIFT authors originally not being able to go all eight directions, that now they feel like they have to do it even when it's not all that necessary. Either that or I'm just cranky.
"This is my first game" says the version text. The "About" text has a lot of apologies for how rushed it was, being the fill-in work done at the last minute (the last month) when a more complicated game was abandoned.
It is also completely obvious that the author didn't bother having the game tested. It is riddled with bugs, including one where I thought the game was made unwinnable because there was a three-item inventory limit and one of the items I needed to throw away kept springing back into my hand. There was a bad short_name routine that was a pity to see.
And, thrashingly, screamingly obviously, there was an average of 2.3 misspellings per sentence. Here's a sample from the introductory text of the game, the first impression the game makes on a player:
The only thing you know for a fact is that you
It's also a bad idea to call a game "dreary.z5", I feel the need to point out.
But really, dude. I don't care how rushed you were. Get someone else to look at it before you release it.
This game was well written, coded, and tested, and atmospheric. In general, it gets high marks from me. I had a little more choice in what to do than the walkthrough let on, and found a slightly better ending. In the cynical universe of the game, there's not really any good choice. Apparently Heaven is just sort of enh.
So that bothered me. But it doesn't really take away from the other qualities that the game obviously has. It also shows notable growth from this author from his entry last year, which other people were more fond of than I was. What bothered me about Sting of the Wasp was that it seemed to encourage and celebrate acting very badly and doing rotten things to people for selfish reasons. In this one, everything seems to conspire to twist things around to be bad even when you attempt to act as nicely as possible.
However, I did save a small lamb from being eaten by wolves. Thanks, Francis.
This is a wonderful use of IF technology to create an educational simulation of a hospital. Alas, it is not a great fit for an IF competition where I tend to be looking for entertainment rather than education. Not being a medical student, I did the best I could with the first patient I could find, and examined her bulging eyes and enlarged thyroid. Then I didn't know what to do, and -- that's about where the experience ended.
I certainly want to encourage this kind of thing, and it is well done. The photo graphics could be better, but the authors acknowledge that. I just am not sure how to rate it as part of the competition here, and I end up kind of wishing they had just made a public release of it outside the competition just for general interest and feedback.
Should the IF Comp only be for games? I don't see why that should be the case, even though it traditionally is. I suppose this work would have fared better if it had helped me along just a little bit more, once I went as far as my layman bumblings could take me. I might have moved on to look at other patients besides the first one, but I wasn't encouraged or emboldened enough to try.