Competition 2000 Reviews

by J. Robinson Wheeler

Asendent Dinner with Andre Metamorphoses What-If?
Castle Amnos The Djinni Chronicles Rameses YAGWAD
Cracking the Code Enlisted Shade
Comp00ter Game The Masque of the Last Faeries Stupid Kittens

ASENDENT: An Interative Hallucintory
by by Sourdoh Farenheit and Kelvin Flatbred

A short burst of the sillies is ASENDENT, ostensibly a parody of Rybread Celsius's oeuvre. It lacks the surreality, the crazed originality, of Rybread -- perhaps in an ironic way pointing out that Rybread is in his own way inimitable.

Instead, the authors pack in the spelling errors. The text is written in a broken English, with deliberate typos; however, there are sections of it which come across with a whimsical sing-song quality, reminding me of John Lennon's free-form wordplay riffs in his books "A Spaniard in the Works" and "In His Own Write."

Okay, maybe that's just me. But let me pick out some of the examples:

The game is also mercifully short. For what it is, it seems to be well enough tested and proofread. Hard to tell, though. It does what it set out to do, and isn't pretentious about it, and I did enjoy the wordplay.


CASTLE AMNOS
by John Evans

It wasn't until I started writing these notes that I remembered that the game told me to type HELP at the very beginning. So, I played as far as I could without using the help feature as a resource, and I didn't have the stamina to go back and try again after reading it.

Reading the notes and hints makes me more sympathetic. Apparently, I missed most of what the game was about (casting spells, being good/evil), and I misinterpreted deliberate confusion with the elevator buttons as being the result of poor testing. This was not a particularly broad jump to make, considering the layout of the castle floors was buggy. Going east, then west, will take you north of the starting position in one place, for example.

I would like to say something positive about this effort by a young IF author. His heart seems to be in the right place. I was going to be mildly derogatory and refer to this as "Varicella Lite," but I see in the author's notes that the similarities were intentional; the author was directly inspired by Adam Cadre's Varicella. Imitation is a useful way to start; originality is where you really score the points, however. Learn how fast you work and budget as much time for testing as possible.

If everything had been in the right place, and the game had been thoroughly tested, I still couldn't rank this game higher than a 6. I sense some original thinking going on underneath the surface of this game. I'd like to see those fresh ideas played out in an original setting, too.


CRACKING THE CODE: A Kinda-Semi-But-More-Like-Non-Interactive Thingy
by Anonymous

I find the inclusion of this "thingy" in the Competition to be highly inappropriate. There oughta be a law. Then again, I suppose that's the point.


COMP00TER GAME
by Austin Thorvald

Here's a game that set out to be annoying and succeeded. There's a sliver of cleverness in the intentional errors of seeing what looks like Inform code and comments in the game text, but the intentional spelling mistakes are grating. It does underscore what I said about Asendent's pseudo-misspellings and distorted grammar having a stroke of artistry to it, but that's about the only positive thing I can say about this insulting waste of time.


DINNER WITH ANDRE
by Liza Daly

Okay, this one was a lot of fun. I nearly solved the puzzle of distracting all four waiters without going to the hints, but didn't quite. Oh well. I was just glad there were hints in the game.

This is one of those occasions where I don't have anything bad to say, so I don't really have anything to say at all. It would be appropriate, though, to single out a few things for praise, so here goes.

I was pretty much sold from the beginning but, for reasons that shall remain obscure for the present, getting the waiter's attention by throwing a bread roll at him was a real treat. There's a smart little description of the roll arcing through the air and narrowly missing someone before it "beans the waiter just over his left ear." Then, with comically expert dryness, there is a blank line and then:

You seem to have his attention now.

It's hard not to burst into a stupid grin at that point. Or again when hiding under the table actually works. Or yet again when you find yourself crawling along the floors, trying to make it to the restrooms, because I hadn't expected the game to become a slapstick farce of sorts. I happen to love slapstick farce.

Okay, then there's the whole waiter thing. I was sufficiently amused by my ability to crawl back and forth along the floors without being noticed that I didn't mind the predicament. It's a nicely crafted puzzle, one of those "babel fish" type puzzles where it dawns on you, in a timely fashion, the nature of the solution -- distracting all of them at the same time -- and then you have to use what you have to accomplish this. It's good design that you have very limited options. Some solutions are obvious, such as loosing the dog and dropping the bread roll. Calling one phone from the other was obvious, but the exact placement of it was a mystery. The wine cart had me baffled, partly because I couldn't get anything to happen. Pushing the cart was an available command, but wouldn't work. There were fairly broad hints about the critic, but I don't think I would have clued into the solution on my own steam.

After that, things sort of flowed on their own. There's a strange red herring with a set of flowers spotlit from above, but the ending comes swiftly, and a happy ending at that.

There was a missing quotation mark in the final conversation of the game, but other than that, this was an impeccably proofed and tested entry. I really enjoyed this game.


THE DJINNI CHRONICLES: "Undercurrents of Manipulation"
by J.D. Berry

A summons from mere existence. The scattered undercurrents of Purpose integrated me, established meaning. The summoner desired Feedback. I searched the undercurrents for one that would fulfill my summoner's stated desire. Of those that would accomplish this, only one was I Willful enough to channel.

I loved the concept -- being a Djinni -- and admired the writing that was used to carry it out. My experience of the game was weakened by going straight to the walkthrough. Normally I don't reach for the walkthroughs first, but the included text file looked more like a README than a walkthrough.

Having looked at the walkthrough, I'm not sure I would have managed to play the game without it. Being able to float anywhere, how would I know where to go? With Purpose ticking away with each move, there is a built in bias against random exploration.

There seemed to be gaps in the narrative. I sort of understood the general plot, as it was told to me, but not completely. This might be due to the fact that I was using the walkthrough, and therefore not reading each screen of text as carefully as I might have. After the scenarios with Seegan, I became confused and remained confused.

The game had established a pattern of TALK TO <SUMMONER>. GRANT WISH. Then I ended up in this tent with Labiiq, and suddenly TALK TO didn't do anything, nor did GRANT WISH. Lead-in text talked about destroying things, but the responses I got after that point left me bewildered. If Labiiq is the summoner, why am I destroying his camp, rather than his enemies' camp? I probably mis-read this:

Labiiq looked out at me, expectantly. Summoners would wait
for me to destroy their enemies, only to learn I destroyed
whatever caused misery.

Here, the writing lost its clarity. I really didn't know who Labiiq was, but the narrative presumed him to be a bad guy whom I should somehow thwart. So I destroyed his water supply and his bulwarks, but only because the walkthrough told me this is what I needed to do. It then gave this contradictory feedback:

Unexpectedly, I did not derive the Purpose that I felt I
should have from doing that. [...]
Only to find a Purpose-starved servant waiting for them.
[I sated my Purpose.]

Only after starting to write these notes, and re-reading the transcript several times, did I realize that I had gotten confused because I didn't recognize that I was playing the three different servants mentioned in the expository dialogue. Perhaps if, before I became the destroyer Djinni, it had been pointed out that some Djinnis grant wishes and others only destroy, I would have followed along without a problem.

This game had an original concept and was well tested and proofed.


ENLISTED: An Interactive Space Fiction Story
by Greg Berry

At the end notes in the included walkthrough file, the author disclaims, "I hope the EVA Suit puzzle wasn't too much for too many of you." He reports his fondness for the puzzle and adds, "Hopefully the walk-thru helped where the game was too much."

Well, I guess the author gets points for having a clue that the EVA suit "puzzle" was out of hand, or in this case, out of Comp. Suitable, perhaps, for a full-blown space fiction story, one that had immersed itself in the niggling details of space work all along. In this context, though, the EVA Suit puzzle was a total fun-killer. The walkthrough didn't help, I'm afraid. After several false starts with just typing directly from the walkthrough, I found out that I would have to fly the suit back into the station, then return later, then fly back in again. The tedium of just glancing ahead at all of those inexplicable "lthrust", "turnr", "roll" directions was enough to make me stop playing. I'll never see the ending of this game.

This is all a shame, of course, because I was all set, up until the point where the repair-the-station business started, to give the game a high rating. Original setting, brisk writing, a smartly-imagined world -- and very helpful room exit listings. In the prologue, you deal with one room at a time, and the story carries you along easily. Then, without warning, all of the rules change. You're groping around a station with unfamiliar geography and then trying to fly a realistically implemented space walk, with the game giving you no feedback as to how you're doing or where you're going, or, really, how the suit works. What the heck is an "mthrust"? I've never flown a real EVA suit, nor have I studied up on their operation enough to know what to do to cancel a Z acceleration.

I submit that, were there no included walkthrough, learning to navigate the EVA suit to the proper location (and end up with zero acceleration) would take a full two hours. To do this from scratch, you'd have to check your absolute position gauge every turn -- but in the turn you take to do that, you continue to move in space. Automatically printing the APG data every turn might help a lot, but I still consider the puzzle basically unsolveable, and way, way, way beyond the bounds of being Competition- friendly.

I'm sympathetic to a point; this EVA Suit puzzle was probably one of the launching points for the author. Everything else in the game is a set-up for this realistic spacewalk, therefore the author is going to keep it in the game even though it became known that it was inappropriately challenging. I respect the work and the detail that went into it, but I didn't enjoy playing (or walking through) it.

I suppose I'm not alone in thinking this; I also suppose that there are a few people who loved this puzzle enormously. I hope those people send feedback to the author.

I can no longer give this game a hearty 9 out of 10. My inclination is to drop it to a 7, losing two full points because of my disappointment and frustration.


STUPID KITTENS
by Pollyanna Huffington

There seems to be a current of effrontery in this year's selections. Witness the incarnation of the standard "I don't know that word" message as appears here:

In the basket you can see a pin, a grenade and a stuffed
toy mouse.

>x greande
I don't what "greande" is supposed to fucking mean.

Oddly enough, in the same game are some rather sugar-hearted responses (meant sarcastically, one assumes):

>x soul
It's made of moonbeams and rainbows.

As well as some genuinely amusing, intentional comedy:

>x einstein
He seems upset about the fact that Krishna is playing dice
with men.


Krishna smiles the smug grin of omnipotence.

>play dice
Einstein becomes even more enraged. "What is this?! What is
this?! Now there is this the playing of dice with the feline
too?!?!?!?!?"

The Nobel Prize-winning scientist punts your furry ass into
next Tuesday.

The game comes with a set of hints that are mostly fake and full of weird in-jokes (e.g., Scru Flandurs). My favorite part is probably the walkthrough, which reads like a piece of beat poetry:

    Picture a smoky clubhouse. A thin guy with white skin and a 
    black goatee and sunglasses adjusts his beret as he sits under 
    the spotlight. His hands go to the bongo drums on his lap. 
    Cigarette smoke curls into the air from an appreciative audience.
    
    Drums:  Badda-badda-buddup-buddup-bap!
    
    Poet:   When you get to the litter in the afterlife...
    
    Drums:  Badap-bap...
    
    Poet:   Pee on it.
    
    Audience:  <snap snap snap snap>
    
    Drums:  Buddup-buddup-badada-bap.
    
    Poet:   Choose the sock.  Get your soul.  Wash your soul.
    
    Drums:  Bada-buddup-buddup-badda-badda-buddup!
    
    Poet:   Claw the drapes.
    
    Drums:  Bap! Bap!
    
    Poet:   In the koan... go east, daddy-o. 
    
    Drums:  Budda-budda-buddup...
    
    Poet:   When you see Albert, play dice. When you see the angel, smell the 
            flowers.  At Love's house...
    
    Drums:  Badda-bap!
    
    Poet:   Like, at Love's house, go into the backyard...
    
    Audience:  Oooooh.
    
    Poet:   At Love's house, man, go south, and go south again. You got it. Like,
            can you dig it?
    
    Drums:  Buddup-buddup-badda-badda-buddudduddudduddudup-bap-BAP!
    
    Poet:   STUPID KITTENS!
    
    The Poet exits the stage.
    
    Audience: <snap snap snap snap snap snap snap>

THE MASQUE OF THE LAST FAERIES
by Ian Ball

There is an ambitious concept lurking underneath the hastily-written surface of this game, some kind of noiresque, tangled plotline about multiple murders and incriminating lockets, duplicity and masks. The game runs mostly on autopilot, until around Act 4 or 5, when suddenly I find that the hint system lets me down. I saw two semi-failure endings, and no winning solution.

I was supposed to tell a certain person about a certain object, but doing that got only a canned "That provokes no reaction" message. Disappointing, I suppose, but my curiosity was only mild by that point anyway.

This game has been tested and proofed. I didn't run into any bugs or spelling errors, but there was a laxity in proper output style that bothered me: Inconsistent use of line breaks. Sometimes there are two or three, other times none. Sometimes sentences wouldn't have ending punctuation, and would run right into a different kind of description. The overall effect is sloppy, and neatness counts in my book.

I liked the premise; I was not at all fond of the execution. I wish I'd been able to see the winning ending.


METAMORPHOSES
by Emily Short

Overall, this is the sort of work that impresses you with its quality, and yet you find yourself wishing for a leavening of humour, as the atmosphere of the game is unusually grave. The heroine is a slave with a troubled past, a hope deprived present, and little chance for a better future. It's a puzzle game with a lot of set-dressing and backstory.

There is a certain delicate elegance to the writing, to the choice of symbols, to the alchemical changes one is equipped to make on objects in the game. The dragon furnace is an appealing use of the medium, allowing the player what feels like free will in choosing new forms for things. As an author, I am somewhat sympathetic to the trouble involved once you introduce such a device. Players such as myself will end up putting every new object through all five metamorphic paces just to see if anything interesting happens. More often than not, something very generic happens. To disparage it slightly by naming it as a gimmick, it is a gimmick that is bound to disappoint more often than it delivers. I was quite happy when I changed the dress and the apple, but was left with handfuls of red herrings on most other occasions.

The second morphing device enlarges or shrinks items. This is fun and well implemented, or so it seems, until I found myself running downstairs, adjusting the size of something, running back upstairs, finding it still to be the wrong size, and repeating until I got it right. I suppose more clues in the text as to the size that was needed would have cleared up this bit of extra frustration.

There are red herrings: the cages in the "Zoo of Marvels" kept me occupied for a while. Before I learned what the two keys in the game were used for, I tried them on the cages at all sizes.

There was a certain level of detail to the game, a consistent level of grain. For example, you could look at certain paintings, see another level of depth through a lens, and look further at certain new items revealed that way. Examining yet another level of detail beyond that was met with a generic error message: the game didn't know the vocabulary. It's one of those cases where I wanted the parser to at least acknowledge the words with "You don't need to refer to that in the course of this game."

Similarly, I was aching for synonyms, especially when it came to icosahedrons and dodecahedrons. Maybe there were some, but my first attempts to abbreviate these words were rebuffed, so I ended up diligently typing them all out every time. Not that there was anything to do with these objects once collected, which I assumed would happen.

The scroll you get tells you that you can use it to "fly as swift as thought, along the paths of light." There are a few rooms that have vivid descriptions of light beams, but no flight was possible. The game didn't even know the verb "FLY", which was disappointing. Perhaps there was a way to do this, and I did not figure out how.

I found myself at one point holding all five perfect solids and wondering what I needed to do to end the game, or as I thought at the time, how to proceed to the endgame. I went to the walkthrough, and found out that the game was over and I needed to enter the mirror on the south shore. I was somewhat surprised at that; earlier attempts to do that were denied with a rather curious message, one that led me to believe that it wasn't going to work, at least not without some sort of direct solution. There was nothing in the description of the mirror after collecting all of the solids that suggested a change had taken place, and that "ENTER MIRROR" was now going to be effective.

On the quality of the prose and the earnestness of the imaginings (whatever that means), I feel I must rank this game highly; however, on the basis of its niggling frustrations and blind alleys, I cannot give it a perfect score.


RAMESES: A Tale of Heroes
by Stephen Bond

Here's a bit of writing with some teeth to it. Openly profane in its introductory text, it turns out to be appropriate in context. As things progress, the profanity seems (to me) less gratuitous and more realistic to the vocabulary of the narrator, a frustrated teenager surrounded by people he can't stand.

One of the minor themes of the story is free will. An author-controlled bit of IF, the story doesn't allow you to do much but follow along as it unfolds. Conversation choices don't have any impact on the way the story goes or, at another level, on the ability of the narrator to exert his own will regardless of what the player asks the narrator to do.

The characters are drawn with fast strokes, and they come across with a certain amount of life and weight. I, the player, was more sympathetic to several of the NPCs than the narrator seemed to be. When Wayne was tormenting Paddy about his artwork, I kept trying to alternately tell Wayne to cut it out and to say positive things to Paddy. I was unable to change the way the scene played out, and the narrator guiltily tried to explain that he had a clear conscience about his inaction.

I fell for something that was a not-too-subtle set-up. The narrator's depression seemed to be indicating suicidal thoughts. I ended up at the end of a quay looking out over the embracing water. My impetus was to see if I could avoid having the narrator do himself in, but I wasn't sure I'd be allowed to do that, given the game's tight narrative control. I had another thought that maybe all of the talk about free will was bringing me to a place in the game where I could actually make a decision for the better. Deciding to play it both ways, I saved the game and tried to jump into the water, only to be playfully rebuffed by the narrator, who wondered what I could possibly be thinking. It was at this point that the story won my sympathies; it's cheering to be told, "Hey, slow down -- just because I think things are rotten doesn't mean I want to kill myself!" There's somehow a vein of probity at the core of this outwardly pessimistic tale, and a gutsiness that I respect.


  *** SHADE ***
by Ampe R. Sand (Andrew Plotkin)

Ooh. A wicked little one-room set piece by Mr. Plotkin, Shade reads as both an answer to Adam Cadre's 9:05 and as a return to one of the themes of Spider and Web -- an untrustworthy narrator, a schism between what the player knows is going on and the reality going on just beyond that veil.

I recognized this game as Mr. Plotkin's handiwork from its opening text. He had confided to me that he was, in fact, entering a game in this year's Comp, so I had been playing Inform games with the aim of finding which one it was. I was looking for a certain stylistic trait to his writing, and there it was, from paragraph one:

Odd, how the light just makes your apartment gloomier. Pre-dawn
darkness pools in the corners and around the tops of walls. Your
desk lamp glares yellow, but the shadows only draw your eyes and
deepen.

And again in this following sentence:

A broad mirror tries to make the place seem twice its size;
it halfway works.

What I'm keying on, here (notwithstanding the use of the semi-colon), is the use of active verbs with inanimate objects. I tried to throw a few of these into Being Andrew Plotkin just to raise the general level of Zarfiness in the writing. Here, the darkness "pools", the lamp "glares", the shadows "draw", the mirror "tries". There are stronger examples in other works of Plotkin, but it was my first clue. I mention this only because I'm trying to remind myself to write an essay comparing the writing styles of Mr. Plotkin and Mr. Cadre.

The usual level of craftmanship is evident here, but what marks this exercise in the one-room IF scenario is its sense of pacing and timing. We get the slow reveal of the sand, a revelation that accelerates along a nice curve. I did have about forty empty moves in there, typing "LOOK" over and over, searching the room description for a noun I hadn't investigated recently. It took ages for the cupboard to finally spill over.

Around this time, there's another fake-out; one that led me to believe that I (the player) might be experiencing a more deliberate form of hallucination (i.e., I was tripping at the Death Valley Om) than the rather creepy reality ultimately described. The narrator acts with some glee; rather than being frightened, the melting and crumbling of various things into white sand seems to fascinate and delight. Ooh, what else can I touch and see turn to sand? Whee! Or rather, brrr.

A night or two after I played Shade, I found myself thinking about it. There is a level of mastery at work here in the pace of the dissolving illusions. It mimics the erosion of a chunk of dried sand as you play with it in your hands, of a sand castle crumbling from a solid into loose grains. I was so quick to read the pseudonym as a whole word, "ampersand," that I missed the word "Sand" sitting there plainly, broadcasting the visual theme to come.

The only thing stopping me from giving a 10 out of 10 to this game is its crushing bleakness. I wish Zarf would cheer up his writing every now and then. He does have a sense of humor and a sense of whimsy; in his IF writing, he often ends up pulling down an opaque windowshade to cover them. Let's get some light in here, and crack the window to maybe let in a refreshing breeze now and then.


WHAT-IF?
by David Ledgard

I don't have a problem with competition entries that do something different. This entry is simply a menu of seven history texts. As I suppose many players did, I read the first one somewhat thoroughly, and then skimmed more and more until I was barely reading a few words of the last.

I don't feel the need to punish people who submit entries like this instead of games. I don't give zeroes for that. The highest I could reasonably rate something like this is a 5, if it does everything it sets out to do, if (like this one) it is up-front about it, and if it doesn't have pretenses of being something else. However, I do take off for spelling, especially in a case like this. The game also admits to falling short on what it set out to do: the author mentions that ten histories were intended but time ran out. It probably would have been better not to tell us this.


YAGWAD: Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!
by Digby McWiggle

Although I am a sucker for animated ascii art, such as appears on the title screen of this game, I ended up not giving YAGWAD much of a chance. It fell victim to a bias of mine: I don't like having to map Comp games. Any game with so many rooms, and so many objects, and so many exits in so many directions, will overload my mental capacity and make me grumpy. After the prologue, I wandered out of town into the forest. From there, it went in all directions and there were objects and creatures everywhere, too many to know where to start, or what to do with what. At that point, I gave up. It's too much trouble to go through for another game with a dragon.

I guess my point is, the game seems to branch out into an expanse worthy of a full-sized game right away; to me, the better Comp games establish their boundaries quickly so that you don't waste time wandering around. The last thing I'm interested in doing when I play a Comp game is wandering around aimlessly, groping with my hands out like a blind man, hoping I touch a wall so that I can orient myself.

It is entirely possible that YAGWAD narrows down to something manageable a few turns past where I stopped. It's still valid feedback to say that I lost interest before I got there. Digby McWiggle got it right with his Tokyo monster movie game in Comp98, but he missed with this entry.

I note in passing that, had a walkthrough been included, I would have grabbed it and played through the game instead of stopping when I did.