[Comp03] Mike Russo's Reviews

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Mike Russo

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Nov 19, 2003, 8:56:30 PM11/19/03
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Another comp done gone, and I've written up another set of reviews (for my
reviews of last year's games, and a quick blurb on who I am and what I like,
please see http://russo.caffeinedreams.com/if.html. The ochre-on-blue links
were not, in retrospect, a good idea).

All in all, I think this year's field was perhaps slightly weaker, although
I could well be biased because of my crushing disappointment at the
conspicuous absence of the third chapter in the Earth and Sky series. My
feeling was that there were fewer experimental games than last year, which
saw nonstandard games either succeed wonderfully (Constraints, for example)
or crash marvelously (I'll refrain from naming names here for decorum's
sake; click the above link if you're interested).

While the games this year took fewer chances, unfortunately this didn't mean
that there were also fewer massive failures. No matter how bad I thought a
game was, I gave it at least a 2 if I thought its heart was in the right
place. The fact that I gave out three 1s, which doesn't even include the
game whose primary gameplay consisted of undressing a seven-year-old, is
therefore kind of depressing.

On the subject of scoring, I should point out that my scores are almost
absurdly subjective, don't follow any sort of rigorous, analytical method,
and are generally weighted towards the low end. In my mind, a 5 is a solid,
enjoyable game. I do take into account what a game is trying to accomplish
in my ratings, so a 4 could represent either true mediocrity or an ambitious
misfire.

The games are reviewed in the order that I played them, via the Comp03
randomizer. In general, I use the pronoun "him" to refer to the player;
this is done for readability and also because I am a lazy, sexist bastard.
As a special value-added bonus for reading my reviews, I've included a
section examining the political subtext of each entry. This is for
entertainment purposes only and did not reflect on my scoring.

Special thanks to Mike Sousa for suggesting that maybe one long paragraph
was not the ideal review format, so when you heave a sigh of relief upon
reaching an island of white space amid the torrent of my verbosity, direct
your gratitude at him. The last seven thousand words or so and these
introductory remarks were written in one caffeine-fueled binge on Saturday
(which later turned out to have been a pointless expenditure of effort,
since ISP woes have prevented me from posting until now. Alas), so I
apologize if the latter half comes off as disconnected, discourteous, or
deranged. If the first half comes off that way too, well, I don't have any
excuses for that.

Finally, major thanks to the organizers and authors; none of this would be
happening if it weren't for you, and I'm acutely aware of how much enjoyment
I've gotten out of playing and analyzing all of the entries. The whole
point of these reviews is to provide criticism in its useful, constructive
sense, and while I know I do lapse into pettiness in more than a few places
in what follows, feel free to bask in the knowledge that no matter how bad I
think your game is, the fact that you've completed and submitted something
puts you way ahead of me.

- Mike Russo

//

Bio: The first puzzle of the first game I played in this year's comp was
nigh-impossible to solve without peeking at the walkthrough: not exactly an
auspicious beginning. The dresser mentioned in the room's description was
nowhere to be found in-game, leading to a painful death by asphyxiation the
first few times I played. At least the player character was a leisurely,
laid-back kind of guy, taking me up on my invitation to "X TV" and then
frittering away a few minutes watching his favorite show as poison gas
slowly seeped under the door. After having recourse to the walkthrough, I
discovered that the dresser was actually an armoire. It's an honest
mistake - I'd guess that the author originally coded the thing up as an
armoire, then decided to use the marginally less esoteric "dresser" but
neglected to alter anything but the room description - but it very much gets
the game off on the wrong foot, bespeaking a sloppiness and a lack of
adequate testing.

Sadly, that sloppiness wasn't confined to the vestment container of
ambiguous nounage. It's impossible to escape the overall lack of attention
to detail, and the author's use of language made me wince more than once. I
very much doubt the compound's walls are actually "toupe," unless there's
supposed to be fake hair sprouting everywhere, the opening monologue seems
to indicate that the protagonist addresses himself in the second person (and
has no real conception of punctuation), and the perennial confusion of you'
re and your irritated my inner grammer fascist no end. Scenery was barely
implemented - carpets, supplies, counters, and shelves are mentioned in room
description but aren't susceptible to examination, and given that the
setting is Yet Another Abandoned Research Facility, the overall impression
is fairly dull. The only description we get of the Librarian's Office is
that it "looks like an ordinary Librarian's Office." Woo. After unscrewing
the card reader from the wall, the description maintained that it was still
attached. And so on - the game was functional enough, but missteps like
these made it very hard to invest in.

The puzzles, after the first, insoluble one, were all adequately clued,
although I checked the walkthrough a few times since the first puzzle had
completely shot my trust that I'd be able to think my way through the game.
Things picked up a bit once I found an NPC entourage, even if Steve did have
an unpleasant tendency to get all Gary Coleman on me ("What are you talking
about?" was by far his favorite phrase). The big reveal at the end would
have gone down more smoothly if I hadn't also simultaneously discovered that
the game had an inventory limit, preventing me from picking up the MacGuffin
and leading to terrorist-inflicted death (strangely, when the game ended
after I was shot down by the Russians, I had 90 out of 80 points. When I
reloaded and won the game correctly, I finished with the expected 80). If
the backstory had been in evidence throughout the game, and if the author
had made a second and third pass for detail and color, Bio would have been a
light, inoffensive amusement, but as-is, it's kind of a mess.

3

Political Subtext: changing "armoire" to "dresser" might be some kind of a
snub of anything French-sounding, a la "Freedom Fries". The entire
"terrorists stealing smallpox from a weapons lab" setup is topical enough,
although the discomfort I felt at the revelation that the UN was conducting
secret research on biological weapons did muddy the moral clarity a bit.
The persistent theme of janitorial empowerment could be an implicit
pro-union message.

Baluthar: The opening Ecclesiastes quote immediately got me on this game's
side. The fact that existential apathy prevented me from moving off the bed
until I found some motivation was another bright mark. In general, I think
motivating the player is a very important and oft-overlooked component of a
good opening, and Baluthar's got me to buy into the game almost immediately.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the rest of the game quite as compelling as the
first few moves. Part of this is due to the prose; it's euphonic and at
times evocative, but sometimes drowns in its own wordiness. Take this
description of the terrain around the player character's hut: "the
vegetation of the forest where you make your home is austere and shadowy, as
is typical of plants in your country." Austere and shadowy, that's good,
but that last tacked on clause takes the wind right out of the image.
Still, this is a minor complaint, and there are some intriguingly creepy
ideas on offer - the skull which reclothes itself in flesh and the ghoul
which is the grown-up form of a zombified child are off-kilter and
memorable. The dungeon beneath the well could have degenerated into
cheesiness redolent of a Hammer flick, but the author does a good job
keeping the parade of monsters distinct and horrific.

The puzzles are logical and generally quite well-integrated into the game.
While some of them are a bit rote (learning the name of the ghost, finding a
light-source), others are fairly clever, especially the one involving the
skeleton's key, where the player is never quite sure if he's doing the right
thing or something monumentally stupid. The hint system is complete and
does a good job of providing useful nudges before spoiling the whole thing.

Where Baluthar ultimately fails is in engaging the player's emotions. We're
told of the horrifying invasion from above, but we don't see the immediate
effects of their tyranny, and it thus never quite connects. Without this
goad driving the plot, Rykhard's actions appear idiotic and foolhardy - as
indeed they're meant to, but instead of sympathizing with the pain that led
him to make his choice, we're just frustrated with him. The opening sets us
up to expect a tale of existential paralysis, but once in the dungeon the
player character is disappointingly heroic. The dread god Baluthar might
weigh heavily on the minds of the player character and his son, but we never
see his glowering visage driving home the hopelessness of the situation,
which drastically reduces the effectiveness of the (thematically quite neat)
denouement. Rykhard's mind has been changed, true, but that all happened
off-screen; the player character hasn't evolved as a result of his
experiences, which undercuts the sense of closure the author is trying to
sell.

All in all, the fact that I'm nitpicking some details of prose and the
mechanics of player investment rather than bemoaning poor coding and broken
puzzles argues very much in Baluthar's favor. It's got a good opening and
some neat ideas, and while it isn't quite great, it's nonetheless a very
solid game.

7

Political Subtext: The alien invaders are clearly designed to evoke the Nazi
forces of occupation in WWII Europe; this would make the player character
and his son Polish peasants, and the undead horror whose poisonous aid must
finally be spurned is therefore the specter of Communism. The god Baluthar
obviously represents nationalism.

Risorgimento Represso: This game initially threw me for a loop; given the
intimidating title and the scholastic setting of the opening, I was
expecting a much more historical take than the one I was presented. My
initial notes involved a fair amount of griping about such anachronisms as
the use of Mendeleev's periodic table, but once I grasped what kind of game
I was in for, I had a much more pleasant time. Risorgimento is a whimsical,
well-coded adventure in the Infocom tradition, distinguished by some very
entertaining puzzles. The plot is nothing terribly involving - the player
character is a student desperately trying to make his (her?) way back to the
modern day - but that's not really the focus of this offering. Instead, it'
s the series of challenges facing the player that are responsible for
keeping the interest level high, and fortunately, they succeed at this task
quite admirably.

The author should be congratulated for removing much of the annoyance often
associated with IF: doors automatically open and unlock, for example, which
makes exploration stress-free. The environment unfolds gradually, with new
areas opening up in a logical, manageable fashion; although there are quite
a few locations, I never felt lost or unsure of what I should be working on.
Although an inventory limit is implemented, the bottomless satchel greatly
ameliorates the irritation. Really, the only complaint I had was that
reading the notebook cycled through three different passages, only one of
which was useful for a particular puzzle (although while writing this
review, I discovered that READ CHEM jumps directly to the appropriate
section, a thoughtful convenience).

NPC interaction is slim, but what there is works fairly well; one doesn't
expect the absent-minded wizard or the bored gate-guard to be very
interested in chit-chat, after all. The writing is workmanlike and seemed
almost completely error-free. I did run into one coding oddity - attempting
to pick up the iron key Ninario dropped after his abduction sometimes
returned a complaint about the difficulty of taking it home with me. Just
about every object I thought to examine was implemented, and the overall
attention to detail was satisfying; the author indicates that he spent
almost three months testing and revising, and the effort shows. Would that
more entrants had followed his lead!

The meat of the game really comes in the puzzles, and the quality is again
consistently high. The second I read the chemistry notes, I knew that I
would need to make some gunpowder, but the in-game clues were robust enough
that I didn't even need to look up atomic numbers to complete this section -
it was deep enough to be interesting but not complicated to the point of
frustration. The misadventures at the farm are another high point - when
you're standing at the top of a tree, wearing welding-goggles, a helmet, and
a bear rug, and holding a cannonball, and every step along the way made
perfect sense, that's good puzzle design, right there. While some obstacles
were a bit hard, some judicious tyromancy was usually good for a nudge in
the right direction, and many problems had more than one solution. I might
quibble with some of the implementations (a few seem rather difficult
without some outside knowledge - the Greek meaning of arktos, the presence
of methane in human waste, etc. - and it took me a long time to figure out
that AIM CANNON AT DOORS was the proper syntax), but overall the puzzles
were fair and well-clued.

The only thing holding Risorgimento back from a higher rating is the fact
that I do tend to prefer my games a bit more plot-heavy, but really, that's
merely a minor issue of personal taste. The level of care and
conscientiousness that went into this game is impressively high (look at the
list of AMUSING actions if you need any more proof!), and I hope we'll have
a sequel to look forward to next year!

8

Political Subtext: progressive technocrats struggling against a repressive
theocracy. Sounds like Iran to me!

Adventures of the President of the United States: I think I'm a bad person;
immediately upon loading the game, the first thing I did was look around for
The Button in hopes of pushing it. Sadly, there was no Button, no hotline
to Gorbachev, or any of the other toys I was looking forward to playing
with. Instead, there was an irritating, uncommunicative FBI agent and a
read-the-author's-mind puzzle. Perhaps I'm being somewhat unfair - I know
one of my blind spots while playing IF is that I fail to use the SEARCH
command as much as I ought to - but if the game responds to my every attempt
to interact with the environment by saying that I've been here lots of times
before and there's nothing at all interesting around, I'm tempted to believe
it.

Once outside, things pick up - the sheer gonzo absurdity of the US being one
single location, with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south, is pretty
appealing. The puzzles from here on out are much more easygoing (with the
exception of the final guess-the-verb puzzle, which, strangely, I solved in
only two or three turns), and it's hard to suppress a smile at the thought
of the sombrero-clad President climbing a tree and outsmarting a bear. I
admit I had a hard time adjusting to the level of abstraction - when I'm
told that the center of Russia is Red Square, does that mean that Red Square
is an object I can interact with? - but it is rather charming. Although the
prose is awkward at times (forgiveable, since English doesn't appear to be
the author's first language), there are a few laugh-out-loud funny lines:
"You don't want to go to the Middle East. Some people there might not like
you."

But really, there's not much to APUS; very few locations, pointless
speed-bump puzzles unconnected to any sort of plot, and the ending is
possibly the worst cliche in literary history. Its heart is in the right
place, and I'm tempted to nudge the score up a point or two for whimsy
alone, but unfortunately I spent way too long on that annoying first puzzle.

3

Political Subtext: Off the charts.

Caffeination: Last year's comp saw the entry of a game about a disgruntled
office worker's search for the perfect cup of coffee. The good news is that
Caffeination is a far better game than Coffee Quest II, with many locations,
multiple solutions to most puzzles, and clear communication of the player
character's goals and motivation. Unfortunately, all this effort still isn'
t enough to keep me interested in such a prosaic premise. Probably a good
chunk of the fault for this lies with me; I've never actually worked in a
cube farm, my bosses have generally been friendly and intelligent, and I
prefer tea, anyway. But when the player character fell asleep an hour into
the game due to lack of stimulation, chemical or otherwise, he was doing an
uncanny job of mimicking my thoughts on the matter.

Like the game itself, the puzzles in Caffeination should be more interesting
than they are. The author implemented several ways around nearly every
obstacle, which makes the game world feel fairly reactive. While there is a
clear line dividing the two main phases of the game (stuck inside the office
and free to roam the streets outside), within each section most tasks can be
worked on concurrently. Unfortunately, this freedom is often overwhelming -
the size of the game environment conspires with the wide-open puzzle design
to rob the player of an obvious sense of what to do next. Confronted with
the imposing line at CaffeiNation, the player can wait his turn, or try to
scare off the other customers, or sneak into the back one of two ways. with
so many possibilities, the player could use some guidance, or at least some
better clueing. On the positive end, most of the puzzles are fairly
laid-back - no instant-deaths on offer here - but the flip side of this is
that none of them are really that compelling, either.

The situation isn't helped by the overall high puzzle difficulty. There are
quite a number of red herrings, a few nonrepeatable events which will
misfire unless you prepare things exactly right, and some places where
feedback could be better (after attempting to "BREAK BULGE", the game
returns the stock response "Violence isn't the answer to this one!", when in
fact it is; the more specific "KICK BULGE" is the proper solution).

Then there's the timer. It fits the mood of the game to have the player's
energy flagging throughout the game, and to be forced to tide yourself over
with a cigarette here and a chocolate bar there, but it forms a deadly
synergy with the hard, open-ended puzzles and the expansive environment. It
's far too easy to wander about aimlessly until dropping from exhaustion,
mandating a restart.

There are certainly some high points. I didn't notice any glaring language
problems, and for a large, complicated game, there were refreshingly few
bugs - short of some minor niggles with the computer and a counter
erroneously being flagged as takeable, things were quite solid. And while
the satire generally elicited only a "meh" from me, a few lines did strike
me as quite funny, especially the joy the player takes in the fact that his
boss is probably too ugly to have much sex. Still, the game was just too
large, frustrating, and, in the final analysis, boring, to be my cup of tea.

5

Political Subtext: The author portrays a vision of office life so
unrelentingly grim and miserable, I wouldn't be surprised if he's urging
Marxist revolt.

Hercules First Labor [sic]: I knew I was in trouble when I didn't even need
to boot up the game to notice the first grammar mistake. Sadly, that
premonition of disappointment was borne out; Hercules First Labor is
terrible. The English language undergoes a mauling far worse than that
suffered by the luckless lion upon whom Hercules gets to demonstrate his
might, and what querulous enjoyment a player might glean from the game is
sucked away by a host of programming errors. There are worse games in the
comp. But not by much.

Before delving too deeply into the many, many flaws, I should note that one
would be hard-pressed to write a less evocative game. Locations are
generally introduced by the statement "I'm in a [BLANK]." Objects are
listed below the exits. Whether you're in a nondescript hotel bathroom or
the heart of a thriving Greek metropolis, this is as much description as you
get. On the plus side, this does spare you from suffering through too much
of the author's horrid prose. To catalogue the ways this game violates
proper spelling and grammar would take far more effort than I care to
expend, and even then sentences like "judging from the bite marks, the teeth
that ate this horse are HUGE" would slip through the cracks.

Gameplay is virtually nonexistent. The author seems to have implemented a
number of puzzles and then forgot to make them mandatory (you can waltz
right out of the city without bothering to jump through the hoops required
to visit the king); as a result, it's quite easy to wander around and win
the game without knowing what you're doing. There are perhaps half a dozen
takeable objects, and nearly all of them are weapons. Hunting down the lion
is breathtakingly perfunctory; once you roll the boulder in front of the
cave mouth (and you will, since it's the only useable object for miles
around), the chase consists of roaming around and hoping the lion will
randomly run into the tunnel. Of course, you can't win unless you have a
knife to skin the beast with, but you will, because getting the knife is so
pointlessly easy one wonders why the author didn't just give you the bloody
thing to start with.

And then there are the bugs. Locations aren't connected properly (unless I'
m missing the explanation for why going east twice should return me to the
field from which I came). Objects pop into existence with no rhyme or
reason. Worst of all, after completing the labor and being returned to the
frame story, it's possible to read the scroll and restart the whole ordeal
over at the beginning. And while it's not really a bug, the fact that I
needed to type "look" instead of "x" to examine things really irked me.

I'm searching for something positive to say here. The fact that the author
seems to have gotten confused and named his Greek NPCs "Marcus" and "Julius"
is kind of funny, I guess. And unlike some other games in the comp,
Hercules First Labor [sic] isn't actually hostile or abusive in any obvious
way. For those of you paying attention, this is about the very definition
of damning with faint praise.

2

Political Subtext: Let's see. the historical founder of the Rastafarian
religion is generally called the "Lion of Judah." Unfortunately, my
imagination is failing to construct a plausible context for the Greeks to be
messing with the Ethiopians. Like the rest of the game, the political
subtext is a mess.

No Room: I've not done enough mucking around in Inform to appreciate the
beauty of what the author's done here (he claims that it goes further than
the standard one-room game and is in fact close to a "zero-room" game), so I
'm forced to evaluate it using the same standards of prose and gameplay as I
would any other game. Indeed, it presents itself to the player as a fairly
standard one-room gimmick game. I have nothing against one-room gimmick
games; they can be quite fun, as Enlightenment attests.

The gimmick is that you're in a dark place. That's it. Instead of typing
"X LEMON", you need to type "FEEL LEMON." Unfortunately, No Room commits
the cardinal sin of the genre: it fails to properly utilize its gimmick. I'
m sure there's some reason why I know that one of the rods in my pocket is
copper and the other is zinc, but it undercuts the idea that I'm operating
at a sensory disadvantage. Likewise, the description of the broken
flashlight goes into what I consider too much detail; I wouldn't have gotten
a fuller description if I'd been able to see the thing. The lemon, the
rods, the flashlight - all the objects in the game, in fact - are quite
completely described by a simple touch.

Given that this is the one trick the game has in its repertoire, I was
disappointed the author didn't do more with it. No Room would have been
much more interesting if the player had to do more work to figure out what
he had. Gradually figuring out that the cylinder in his hands is a
flashlight, then discovering that while it's broken, the bulb is intact and
some wires protrude, maybe taking a nibble out of the lemon to establish
exactly what it is - all of this would have led to a gameplay experience far
more engaging than what's on tap.

There isn't much to the game's one puzzle; if you had one of those potato
clocks as a kid, you'll probably guess the solution as soon as you fully
explore your inventory. Trial and error will get you there in any case. It
's also hard to feel much of a sense of accomplishment at solving it - if
there were more red herrings, or multiple ways of powering the flashlight,
this might be a different story, but the situation is far too obviously
contrived.

Whatever its virtues from the programmer's point of view, No Room winds up
being a thoroughly unspectacular and unambitious game. It's enjoyable
enough for the five minutes that it lasts, but is unlikely to stay with you
for much longer. For all I know, this zero-room business could be the most
revolutionarily clever use of Inform ever devised; too bad the game itself
is relegated to the status of afterthought.

3

Political Subtext: The player (Florida) is floundering in the darkness of
underdevelopment, until the citrus industry presents itself as a source of
(economic) power.

The curse of ManorLand [yes, sic, again]: I believe this was about the point
where I decided that the Comp03 randomizer had it in for me. The
uncapitalized "curse" on the title screen was one warning sign; the help
text's assertion that "east" and "west" are camera-relative directions was
another (especially irritating since later the game does use camera-relative
directions like "in front of" and "behind" in descriptions without providing
the appropriate compass directions).

Then the game started, and I was overwhelmed by the prose in all its Joycean
splendor. Punctuation, spelling, and capitalization mutate according to the
author's whim instead of the petty demands of grammar. Reading sentences
like "I loved Rupert - it was my favorite show when I was little - I want to
get Buffy now - she's such a strong character" makes me feel like I'm in
Ulysses - all those hyphens, you know? - but not in a good way. The first
line of description in the game is, in fact, a run-on.

Which provides a nice segue into the first puzzle, in which your bad
12-year-old self must. actually, I didn't know what I was supposed to do.
Looks like I had tried to sneak into an R rated movie, and now I was in my
room. Apparently I was so bad they decided to take away my door, since I
sure didn't see one, leaving the window as the only egress. Of course, the
window couldn't be opened (and not in a good "the window appears to be
rusted shut; you'll need to find another way out" way. In a bad "you can't
open the window" way), but one quick mattress-throw solved that (although,
again, THROW MATTRESS returns the default "you can't do that" response; you
need the THROW MATTRESS OUT WINDOW). Upon landing, I found out that I was
running away from home; still, it would have been nice to know I was running
away before I actually ran away.

Once outside, I felt like I was hitting my stride. until I started getting
cold. Every other move I made was pre-empted by the pressing information
that I was shivering. Which is all well and good, except it's rather
frustrating to have to type "W" four or five times before it actually takes
effect. The author made a post to raif explaining how to get around this
irritating behavior, I believe, but I only saw the post well after putting
the game aside, and as I recall, the necessary objects were a good ways into
the game anyway. The fact that I needed to repeat every action multiple
times made some already frustrating tasks like unlocking doors interminable
exercises in frustration. Oh, and the player character pulls out her
sleeping bag and naps every twenty turns or so. Because that's realistic.

It's hard to muster up much enthusiasm over the random transportation to yet
another desultorily generic fantasy world, and quest for the requisite
MacGuffin, especially considering you'll be fighting the parser the whole
way (the creep/run/walk thing is a neat idea, though - too bad the
implementation is so frustrating). The puzzles generally disappoint. There
's a mine field preventing you from progressing (alright, maybe this fantasy
world isn't that generic after all), two different ropes to pick up, and a
reclusive dwarf who can only be found by typing KNOCK HUT; KNOCK ON HUT,
KNOCK ON DOOR, and KNOCK DOOR only return "don't know how to knock here", of
course. By this point I was mostly just following the walkthrough, and when
it directed me to climb a tree that wasn't even mentioned in the location's
description, I decided it was time to call it quits.

So. Bad writing. Bad plot. Terrible puzzles. Parser frustration.
Really, there isn't a level ManorLand doesn't manage to fail on. The author
mentions that he's working on a number of other pieces; I'd recommend that
he try creating a smaller, deeper game, exercise better judgement about
whether a particular feature (e.g. Real-Time Hypothermia!) really adds to
the gameplay, and get somebody else to look over his prose before releasing
anything else. ManorLand is a relatively large game, and the fact that he
completed it is a testament to the author's drive, but he really needed to
spend more time polishing the content.

2

Political Subtext: "Chosen one" reinforces the existing monarchial power
structure and frustrates the aspirations of those exiled from the body
politic by semantic fiat (in this case "pirates"). Nothing we haven't seen
before.

The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky: This game made me glad that I hadn't
ranked any of the other bad games 1. One could make a thought-provoking
game deconstructing the IF experience by creating an adversarial
relationship between the player and the parser. Lardo isn't it. If I
wanted to have abuse heaped on me by an incoherent pothead, I'd still be in
college.

1

Political Subtext: I think this might be some clever statement about hate
speech laws. Other than that, I got nothing.

Gourmet: God bless you, Aaron Reed. After the parade of irritating,
pointless, and terrible games reached its nadir in the abomination of the
previous entry, Gourmet single-handedly restored my faith in Comp03. It's
in zcode! It speaks English! The setting isn't some ill-conceived Tolkein
rip-off! The ABOUT text is helpful and comprehensible!

But really, there's a lot more to like about Gourmet than the mere fact that
it doesn't actively insult you at every turn or cause you to bang your head
in frustration over a nonstandard parser. The setting and genre are quite
original, at least in IF; while the game certainly bears some resemblance
to, say, the Fawlty Towers TV series, zany restaurant-based physical
comedies are not exactly thick on the ground in the text adventure world.
The prose does a wonderful job of revealing the player character's slowly
mounting desperation, not to mention the consistently high humor density,
from the responses to typing "DOWN" in various inappropriate places to the
overclocked (underclocked?) freezer. For the game to work as intended, it
needs to be funny, and thankfully, Gourmet is up to snuff. I did notice one
small typo - spelling renovation with two n's - but on the whole the writing
is lucid and effortless, with nary a comma splice in sight.

Thoughtful, amusing touches abound. "X ME" reports the player character's
increasing dishevelment as the evening progresses, you lose a point if you
ever remove your chef's hat, and the stove goes to 11.

The puzzles are all very well integrated into the game; I found myself
standing on top of a chair, waving a mop at an angry lobster perched
precariously on a ceiling-fan, with an unconscious lady snoring gently at
the next table over as the band played "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo", and
the process by which I got there was perfectly reasonable. The objective
for each "course" is always clear and obvious, and the puzzles actually
ramped up in difficulty as the game progressed, starting out easy but
becoming quite clever by the end. They're also refreshingly well-clued; you
get a chance to see how the pneumatic food-delivery system works before it
breaks, for example, which means you actually have some idea of what you're
supposed to be doing to fix it.

NPC interaction follows the TALK/ASK/TELL model, and the range of
conversational topics is fairly broad. The characters are caricatures, but
given the genre, that's as it should be. They're well-drawn, too - I felt
the same gratitude the player character did towards the easygoing, pleasant
fellows at table one.

If I were forced to come up with something to complain about, I suppose I
would mention that I ran into some strangeness with the pneumatic tubes when
the lobster fell and blocked one of them, but after a quick reload the
problem failed to materialize. Some unintentional hilarity ensued when I
realized that there was only one sink object, equally accessible from the
kitchen and the restroom - mostly I just enjoyed thinking about some poor
restaurant-goer being frightened out of his mind as a severed fingertip
suddenly appeared as he was washing his hands. And using SERVE TEA instead
of GIVE TEA during the main course section seemed to lead to some odd
behavior.

But really, these are all minor complaints. From the first wine-drenching
to the last mano-a-crustacean battle, Gourmet is a joy to play. It's easily
one of my favorite games of the comp, and it couldn't have come in a better
slot in the randomizer.

9

Political subtext: I'm thinking this again comes back to Iran. See, the
chef represents Truman/Eisenhower era foreign policy. The lobster comes on
prickly, although it's really only acting in self-defense (this would be the
Mossadegh nationalization of the BP facilities). The very act of
neutralizing (i.e. boiling) the lobster (i.e. Iran) is what turns it Red
(except Red here represents theocracy, not socialism).

Scavenger: Scavenger's premise will be familiar to anyone who's read or
played much in the post-apocalyptic genre, I suspect, but that doesn't
prevent it from being clear and compelling. The nuclear-blasted landscape
is ripe for exploration, and it's easy to relate to the player character's
hope of landing The Big Score. While it's obvious that a lot of thought has
gone into the setting, the author wisely chooses not to overwhelm the player
with pointless detail, paring the background down to essentials and cutting
to the meat of the game. This philosophy carries over to the game proper;
while there's a fair bit going on, the focus remains tight on solving the
puzzle of the moment.

The opening section of the game holds out the promise of nonlinearity; the
player has enough money to buy the (mandatory) GPS and one other item: a
pistol, a grenade, or some anti-radiation pills. Each one, I suspect,
allows for easy solution of one puzzle later in the game. While the game
can be completed with any or even none of them (I bought the pills, but
wound up not using them since I stumbled across a rad suit later on), this
is a nice gesture towards catering to player preferences. Once in the game,
however, puzzles tend to follow one after the next; there's always another
locked door you're trying to get through.

Indeed, while the first section of the game is quite interesting, forcing
the player to improvise some way into a raider-occupied airbase, the
progression of locked doors does start to lag a bit towards the later stages
of the game. The door-opening puzzles are generally quite diverse,
requiring the player to find security badges and codes, negotiate
radiation-soaked corridors, and dodge raiders at every turn. As the author
warns, the difficulty is rather high; it's quite easy to do the wrong thing
and get killed (in fact, I managed to inadvertently sabotage the base's
power plant; until I figured out what was going on, the constant
death-by-explosion was getting fairly irritating. Thankfully I had just
enough time to make it out once I realized what was up). Still, the game
does mostly give you fair warning, and a simple UNDO will usually remove the
danger so you can try again.

Beyond the threat of death, though, the puzzles are also difficult in and of
themselves. Again, in general they play fair, although some of them could
have been better clued. I intuited that the coyotes could be distracted
with food, but the obvious idea to THROW RATIONS TO COYOTES didn't provide
any useful feedback. I was also slightly miffed that the clever idea I had
for how to get the badge from under the desk didn't work (OPEN DRAWER, PUT
MAGNET IN DRAWER, CLOSE DRAWER, OPEN DRAWER, TAKE MAGNET, CLOSE DRAWER. The
badge would have stuck to the underside of the drawer when it was closed,
then gotten pulled out when it opened. Alright, maybe it isn't that clever
of an idea.) It doesn't help that I'm not the best puzzle-solver in the
world; I had to look up the pole-in-the-doorway trick in the walkthrough,
for example. The author notes later revealed that there's an
almost-identical puzzle in Babel, which I played through only a year or two
ago.

The writing is solid throughout, and the author has a good ear for dialogue,
with the raiders' personalities coming across quite well through only a few
lines here and there. There is profanity, but it's used to good effect.
The game does suffer from being set in a mostly-intact airbase, however; the
utilitarian corridors, offices, and maintenance areas are well-described but
not particularly engaging. The initial scenes of a devastated village were
far more interesting to me than the all-important base itself, ironically
enough.

In his notes, the author indicates that he was going for a mix of puzzles,
exploration, and atmosphere. I'm not sure he succeeded - when I think of
Scavenger, I mostly find myself thinking of the puzzles. Perhaps the other
gameplay mechanics could have been better served if the idea of "scavenging"
had been more fleshed out? Tallying up the value of all of the player's
takings - datacubes, radiation suits, and so on - instead of just focusing
on the helmet might have encouraged the player to do more poking around and
made the game feel like less of a MacGuffin hunt.

Still, Scavenger does a good job of presenting a puzzle-based game of
post-apocalyptic looting. The obstacles make sense in the context of the
story, such as it is, and the solutions are generally satisfying and
logical. Multiple endings don't do much to promote replayability, but do
make the world seem a bit more reactive. Add in the unpretentious prose and
the sharp setting, and you've got quite a solid game.

7

Political Subtext: Good old-fashioned conservative values abound in
Scavenger: it's all about a man, alone except for his weapons and his wits,
going out into the world and seizing his fortune, rags-to-riches style.

Internal Documents: I'm not sure what the fact that my first reaction upon
loading up the game and being told that my task was to audit financial
records for evidence of voter fraud was to think "oooh, cool!" says about
me. Nothing good, probably. I suspect my disappointment that the game in
fact turned out to be a light-hearted satire instead of deadly serious
political investigation was probably not shared by many other judges.
Unfortunately, my disappointment wasn't confined to the theme; Internal
Documents also suffers from some major gameplay problems.

The worst of these, to my mind, has to be the vast quantities of empty
space. As far as I could tell, there's literally nothing the player can
take, discover, or interact with in the opening section of the game that has
any bearing on the rest of the game, with the possible exception of the
restatement of the backstory the player can elicit from the bar patrons.
And yet there are paths, rivers, bridges, forests, hills, a waterfall, an
abandoned paper mill, and more to explore before one reaches the gates where
the game proper actually starts. This trend continues once inside the
house; the entire gameplay in this section involves following an NPC around
a dozen or so empty locations until he randomly enters one particular room.
Then there's the maze in the basement, which is made up of yet more
monotonously empty rooms connected by doors which must each be individually
opened. If the game had perhaps half as many locations as it currently
does, it would be much more entertaining; as is, there's simply too much
aimless meandering killing off the narrative momentum.

The few puzzles are a decidedly mixed bag. The first one, for example,
involves figuring out a way to distract some guard dogs. In the grand
tradition of adventure games since the dawn of time, I knew I had to give
them something to gnaw on, but throwing sandwiches and biscuits had no
effect. The solution is to open the briefcase so that miscellaneous papers
fly out; the dogs apparently prefer their lunch to come in convenient sheet
form. Once this irritation is dispensed with, there's the aforementioned
shadow-the-NPC "puzzle", which is terrifically monotonous, especially when
he decides to go back and forth between the third and fourth floors over and
over and over. The saving grace is the sequence in the vault (although
obtaining entry requires yet another episode of reading the author's mind;
the only clue for "OPEN ALL DOORS IN THE BASEMENT" appears to be in the HINT
text); rummaging through the computer and figuring out what to attach to the
media blastfax is actually pretty fun, and the various systems seem pretty
solidly coded.

The writing was passable, with a few funny moments (most notably the
sequence where John keeps interjecting the dogs' kill-words into
conversation). Coding was serviceable, although the turn and score counters
in the header appeared to be severely bugged. In the end, though, an
interesting premise and one neat puzzle can't redeem the tedium of which
most of the game consists. There's some promise here, but the author really
needs to tighten up his design skills.

3

Political Subtext: It's more text than subtext, really. Although the fact
that one of the phrases that sends the dogs into a frenzy is FAIR AND
BALANCED is probably a swipe at FOX News.

Rape Pillage Galore: The entirety of my notes for this "game" are as
follows: "if you loved me, you'd all kill yourselves today. 1." I'm really
not sure what to add, besides griping that this isn't really IF, only two of
those random text generators you find on the web. If I were a better person
I would leave it unrated, but I wanted the sheer visceral thrill of giving
it a bad score. Oh, and I lifted the above line from Transmetropolitan.

1

Political Subtext: Random sex and pointless violence; it's the history of
Western civilization in greatly condensed form.

Sardoria: Sardoria has perhaps the most abrupt start of any game in this
year's comp. The player finds him or herself in a dark wine cellar with no
introductory text or direction of any sort. Typing HELP is, unfortunately,
no help at all; the backstory and motivation only come out upon issuing the
command X ME. Now, I usually examine myself even before I type ABOUT, so
this wasn't really a huge problem for me, but Sardoria would have benefited
from an opening paragraph or two setting the scene. In fact, the rather
ho-hum plot would have been far more compelling if the game had started
earlier; the player could have found the enemy troops in-game, then sneaked
over the castle walls in an attempt to alert the king, which would have
added some much-needed gameplay and created a greater sense of investment
and motivation.

The game itself is a lightweight, fairly enjoyable puzzle-fest. While the
solutions are generally well clued and logical, they don't feel as if they'
ve seen much beta-testing. Once again it's quite difficult to escape the
first location without reading the author's mind (come on, you can only find
the key by TOUCHing the ceiling, not examining it?) I also found myself
struggling with the parser more often than I'd like. Early on, I knew I
needed to flip a pot over in order to climb it, but I couldn't pick it up
and put it down, I couldn't flip it, I couldn't kick it over. TURN POT is a
reasonable way of phrasing the solution, but there should have been more
synonyms implemented. The tile-pushing puzzle is entertaining enough,
although it could stand to be a bit clearer - owls can represent both night
and wisdom, after all. And so on - most of the puzzles are lighthearted and
the objectives clear, but all are let down by sloppy, incomplete
implementations (I'm pretty sure both navigation puzzles give incorrect
directions, for example).

The writing has its ups and downs, although there's nothing here I can't
forgive a non-American/English author. I found that the jeweled bird puzzle
had some wonky behavior to it - if I took too many of the trinkets, the gate
wouldn't actually unlock, but other than that things seemed fairly stable.
Sardoria is a competent, unspectacular game, is I suppose the final
judgement. With a bit more testing and a better introduction, I'd have
given it an extra two points, probably, but as is, the game is too annoying
and disconnected to really succeed.

4

Political Subtext: See ManorLand above, although here instead of "pirates"
we have the even more arbitrarily defined "enemies." Youth-as-purity is an
operative concept, contrasted with the corruption-from-within of the
(middle-aged) traitors.

Adoo's Stinky Story: It's a game. About a house. And one eighteen-year-old
's quest to cobble together a stink-bomb and keep the house from being sold.
Okay, so Proust it ain't. At least the game doesn't leave you floundering;
from the get-go, the player knows exactly what he's trying to do and why.
Unfortunately, the central task is a bog-standard scavenger hunt with
pseudo-mythological trappings, which made it hard for me to muster up much
enthusiasm.

Although the setting is, to put it baldly, completely uninteresting, the
author does liven things up by including a few roaming NPCs, some of whom
are important to solving the puzzles. The prose is workmanlike, the puzzles
aren't anything you haven't seen before (give some meat to a dog, sneak into
your brother's room, find batteries, etc.), and even the design flaws (hint:
just because you know your house has an attic doesn't mean that I also know)
are mild and relatively inoffensive. Really, I'm just about out of things
to say about Adoo's Story; it's probably the very definition of an average
game.

5

Political Subtext: So we've got somebody who no longer lives someplace
imperiously rendering said place miserable to inhabit. The aftermath of
Belgian colonialism, maybe?

Episode in the Life of an Artist: I don't know nearly enough about
psychology to comment on the clinical accuracy of Artist's portrayal of what
appears to be a mildly autistic player character, but from a narrative point
of view I found it thoroughly convincing. The constant quoting of
not-quite-apposite proverbs, the skewed perspective that allows the
protagonist to think of himself as an artist, his pattern of overreactions
and underreactions - it all hangs together remarkably well, and it's the
most interesting part of the game.

Unfortunately, while the central character is compelling and well-drawn, the
story he inhabits leaves something to be desired. The setup - worker
rendered obsolete by technological advances - has something to it, but the
follow-through is more than a little hazy. Holding corporations, grues in
the basement, loads of eggs coming in the loading dock; by the time the game
unceremoniously ended, I was as confused as our mentally-challenged
protagonist. One could argue that this is intentional, but it's less than
satisfying. There are really only one or two puzzles worthy of the name,
and they generally involve one step each, so any gratification the player
gets out of the game has to come from the plot. Perhaps there's context I'm
missing from some of the Zork games which would render everything much more
logical, but if that's the case, it's still a shame the author didn't make
the game more accessible.

Looking back at the sequence of events, the progression is clear enough -
waking up, going to work, the moment of horror when the square peg doesn't
fit in the round hole, then sneaking into the basement and destroying the
machine, and finally the escape to the surface - but each episode feels
disconnected, with only the strong narrative voice tying things together.
The ending comes out of nowhere, and doesn't provide much in the way of
closure. In fact, it doesn't seem as if there's any lasting character
development at all, which severely undercuts one of the main pleasures of
plot-driven IF. An intriguing premise and finely tuned prose just aren't
enough to carry the game, unfortunately; it feels like the author had a good
idea and then wasn't able to figure out what to do with it. At this stage
in IF development, you can get away with having either strong puzzles or a
strong story; without either, there's precious little to pull the player
along.

6

Political Subtext: Once again, we see the engines of capitalism destroying
the hopes, aspirations, and creativity of a hapless worker. Someone alert
Upton Sinclair.

A Paper Moon: Upon reading the title, I was immediately put in mind of The
Moonlit Tower, a stellar, evocative entry from last year's comp. I loaded
up the game hoping to find something of that game's lambent prose and
dreamlike setting.

Well, there are origami puzzles in both games. That's about it for
similarities.

Now that we've dealt with inaccurate player expectations, what is there to
say about Paper Moon on its own merits? Well, it presents a series of
somewhat related puzzles, each one guarding an arbitrary treasure of the
sort which has been kicking around since the dawn of time. There's a plot,
and a twist ending, but they're nothing to write home about. Speaking of
the writing, it's nothing to write home about either; I'm unsure how many
times I've used the words "serviceable" and "workmanlike" to describe a game
's prose so far in these reviews, but I'm certain it's far too many. Let's
say that the author's writing is "utilitarian", and leave it at that.

The puzzles all live up to the central theme, some better than others. The
windy, slimy maze isn't too hard to figure out, although the requisite trips
back to the bar for new matches and those damn grues make it more annoying
than I'd have preferred. The sprinkler puzzle is satisfying, and lofting
the password across the chasm on a paper airplane was probably the most fun
I had in the game. I like feeling clever. On the other hand, the fact that
wearing a random wig would magically give me the power of Samson felt
arbitrary and nonsensical, especially given the special twist ending.

Coding was generally fairly complete, with lots of scenery implemented and a
reasonable array of conversational topics at the bar. I did run into one
oversight - still under the influence of ManorLand, one of my first actions
was to throw my mattress out the window. This didn't do much to solve the
initial predicament, but worse, it also didn't reveal that there were heaps
of origami paper under the mattress.

All in all, Paper Moon was yet another solid, unpretentious puzzle-fest. I
didn't dislike it, but I can't say I really liked it either.

5

Political Subtext: Hirsute, half-naked man runs around taking everything
that isn't nailed down (including a TV!), drinking heavily, and throwing
lots of paper airplanes at people he doesn't like. This feels like it
should have something to do with Russia, but I'm not quite seeing the
particulars.

The Atomic Heart: This could have been a really good game. The set-up is
involving - you spend most of the game wondering where exactly your loyalty
lies, and under nearly constant threat of death - there are a number of
computer interface-based puzzles which could have been entertaining, and
while the story deals with some fairly standard sci-fi tropes, there's a
welcome sense of horror and desperation beneath it all. Unfortunately, all
this promise is severely weakened by inadequate motivation, some
questionable design choices, and an incredibly mulish parser.

To start with the good parts: the robot revolution is a morally complicated
thing for most of the game. While the "correct" side becomes clear towards
the end, up until that point I found my sympathies conflicted; while the
scenes of carnage wrought by the insurgent machines were terrible enough,
the fact that I was playing a glorified appliance who recently became
self-aware reinforced the idea that maybe they had a point. The other
robots seemed dangerous, of course, but the humans were also shooting
everything in sight, rendering them less than sympathetic. This sort of
ethical quandary is a pleasant change of pace from the traditional IF
conception of the protagonist as a force for all that is righteous. The
puzzles also have quite a bit of potential; the use of different interfaces
recalls A Mind Forever Voyaging, allowing the player character to control a
variety of machinery.

In practice, though, things fall down. To start with perhaps the smallest
of the game's problems, motivation is inadequate throughout. While the
initial section of the game is on railroads, once things open up, I was at a
loss to figure out why I was still sticking around. Upon moving outside and
finding the intertwined carcasses of man and machine, I wanted to run away
as quickly as I could. When that proved impossible, I poked around and
found the kid I'd been assigned to watch over - so, time to skedaddle with
the tot in tow, right? No; in fact, I needed to make my way into the
airbase, where people were hell-bent on shooting me! While the logic
becomes clear once the endgame is reached, it all comes off as rather
contrived; the only reason I was in the base was because the game wouldn't
let me go anyplace else.

The game also unfortunately doesn't start out with its best foot forward.
The initial section is frustrating and punishingly timed. When confronted
with a myriad of new commands and a nonhuman player character, my first
impulse is to tinker and experiment; unfortunately, this led to a quick
depletion of my charge. It took me several restarts before I figured out
everything I needed to do, and I still hadn't really figured out what all
the cables drooping out of my body were for. Matters aren't helped by the
inexplicable decision to cut to the framing story upon losing the game and
not tell the player that he's now in an unwinnable state - I spent a good
long time trying to get my new Air Force persona to do something useful
before I realized that I needed to reload.

Finally, the custom commands had me tearing my hair out in frustration.
Much of this was due to the fact that "ATTACH" and "CONNECT" aren't quite
implemented the same way; my first impulse was to use the former, but the
game wound up preferring the latter. Descriptions would say that cables
were connected to each other when the game wasn't actually recognizing that
they were, which led to much anguish. Then there's the Walkdozer, which you
spend a good chunk of the game piloting. Unfortunately, getting in and out
of the thing is an exercise in frustration, since the door isn't actually
implemented. In theory OPEN WALKDOZER, CLOSE WALKDOZER, EXIT WALKDOZER and
ENTER WALKDOZER should be all you need, but some synonyms would have been
nice, especially since I ran into a nasty bug where OPEN WALKDOZER would
return "which do you mean, the Valvo Walkdozer or the Valvo Walkdozer
Operating System?" All attempts at disambiguation failed, necessitating yet
another restart. It's impossible to leave the Walkdozer without unplugging
from the thing, of course, but instead of this task being elegantly handled
behind the scenes, the player is forced to go through the process manually,
and again, I hit many snags. A sample transcript:

>DROP CABLE
The GSTS interface cable is already here.

>REMOVE CABLE
(first taking the GSTS interface cable)
You're not wearing that.

>EXIT
You need to let go of the interface cable before you move.

>DROP INTERFACE CABLE
Dropped.

Oi. I also stumbled across what in retrospect was probably a bug, but which
confused me mightily at the time; going west from one of the airfield
locations dumps the player in Darkness. At first I thought I had taken too
many gunshots and had lost power, which led to much frustrated fiddling and
still another restart. In fairness, I don't think the room's description
mentioned an exit to the west, but I was trying to get from one side of the
compound to the other quickly so I was just typing "W" "[ENTER]" over and
over until I stopped.

For all my griping, I still wound up liking Atomic Heart; as I said, it's
got promise, and the final puzzle has a solution that's at once clever,
obvious, and poetic. Any game that leaves me saying "wow, so this is how
Jim Jones must have felt!" can't be all bad. Still, it could have been so
much more. I'd encourage the author to work on a post-comp release; with a
little tweaking, he could have an excellent game on his hands.

6

Political Subtext: The phrase "Uncle Tom counterrevolutionary motherfucker"
feels tailor-made for our protagonist, even if he is a robot death messiah.

The Erudition Chamber: The Erudition Chamber takes a hoary old premise - an
apprentice must complete a series of tasks to conclude his training - and
attempts to liven things up by injecting some reactivity. It mostly
succeeds, although there are a few places where improvements could have been
made.

On the face of it, the setting is the usual wizard's keep; however, the
author chose to situate it in an alternate history of our own world. This
grounding is a nice touch; although it ultimately adds little to the game, I
found myself more interested than I would have been in another generic
fantasy world. The writing shines in places - the teachings of the various
orders do a good job of simultaneously communicating a philosophy and its
applicability to IF puzzle-solving - but there are a few glitches: although
the comma splices might have been a stylistic choice, affect is confused
with effect, and there are some typos (e.g. "chisled" for "chiseled").

But the plot and the prose are definitely secondary to the puzzles, which
are really the centerpiece of this offering. There are four puzzles, and
each of them can be solved in four different ways - the path of the Artisan
is probably closest to standard IF behavior, but the paths of the Warrior
and the Alchemist both involve a more direct route, and the path of the Seer
forces one to rely on lateral thinking. Interestingly, while I almost
immediately apprehended the four routes around the first locked door, on my
first play-through I didn't realize that the other puzzles had multiple
solutions - I thought that a different choice in the first room would have
led to completely separate areas. Not looking for alternative solutions, I
wound up completing all of the puzzles in the Artisan's way; I was more than
a little surprised to be confronted with the same puzzles while consciously
trying to solve them as a Warrior! Although some of the non-Artisan
solutions are perhaps easier, I found that my natural inclination upon being
presented with levers and machines was to tinker, rather than to try to
bypass them, which might say something about how I'm trained to play IF.

If I have one major complaint, it's that the Warrior and Alchemist's paths
through most puzzles are too similar. Generally, instead of breaking things
with your axe, you burn them with fire or dissolve them with acid. The game
tries to emphasize the philosophical differences of the two approaches, but
from a gameplay perspective, there's not much to distinguish the two. I
would have preferred to have seen three distinct paths, each representing a
particular playstyle, rather than four with substantial overlap. A few of
the solutions were somewhat complicated, but I found that if I approached a
puzzle with a specific kind of solution in mind (e.g. "I am now going to
solve this via the direct use of force"), the answer would usually present
itself with little difficulty, which speaks well for the puzzle design.

There were a few minor annoyance - I got stuck on the Alchemist's solution
to the last puzzle, for example, because POUR VIAL ON GRATE wasn't an
acceptable alternative to POUR LIQUID ON GRATE - but nothing like those in
Atomic Heart, thankfully. I think there's also a misstatement in the final
scene; the Maesters talk about one last challenge to the east, but the
challenge didn't materialize in any of my playthroughs, making me wonder if
I was missing something. But these niggles do little to take away from the
flexible, robust puzzles at the center of the game; they were a pleasure to
solve and even challenged some of my assumptions about how to play IF.

8

Political Subtext: I must confess that I'm not as up on my British history
as I should be, but the fact that the other side winning the War of the
Roses leads to unquestioned English hegemony surely means something!

Slouching Towards Bedlam: Slouching Towards Bedlam involves eschatology, a
British insane asylum, a player character whose mental state is very much in
doubt, gnosticism, a memetic word-virus, steampunk, the "Second Coming" of
W.B. Yeats, the Kabbalah, and a Benthamite panopticon of the type
deconstructed by Michel Focault in his seminal work Discipline and Punish
(and I wouldn't be surprised if the authors had also read Madness and
Civilization). Let me say right out that the only way the authors could
have possibly done a better job of pandering to me would have been to
include some Buddhism. So authors, if you want a 10 from me next year, that
's your blueprint right there.

But regardless of the personal affinity I have for the subject manner, the
game is still easily one of the best in this year's comp. The authors
tackle some dense, weighty problems, and manage to wrap theological
speculation in a compelling mystery and pose an insoluble moral quandary to
boot. While there are a very few missteps, they're easily swept away by the
sheer power of the work.

Slouching Towards Bedlam opens inside the eponymous asylum, where the player
character is listening to his own voice describing the slow realization that
he is going mad. His explorations are periodically interrupted by a
(mental?) burst of strange words; at first the tendency is to tune them out,
but soon they begin to take on a terrifying significance. As he attempts to
understand what has happened to him, he finds his course unerringly
transformed into the reverse of the path a particular inmate took to Bedlam;
this perverse recapitulation is retrograde in more ways than one, for his
investigation is also the vector for an agent of infection. Soon, the
player finds himself caught in a crux: to play midwife to a new paradigm of
humanity or to safeguard the status quo, if such a thing is even possible.

The above summary doesn't do the game justice. At all. Each elements works
in concert to create a thrilling sense of momentum and discovery. There are
distinct phases, through which the player passes effortlessly. The mystery
surrounding Cleve's disposal in Bedlam segues into an investigation of the
society whose secrets he uncovered, and once the whole is apprehended, the
player gets to make a choice of monumental import. Throughout, the
razor-sharp prose keeps the player tense and engaged. The alternate London
the authors have conjured is a brittle place, where violence, communication
and becoming lurk under the surface of an ordinary street market: "its
presence . threatens to overwhelm the senses - the smell of an abattoir, the
din of a thousand voices shouting, the sight of masses of humanity talking,
shopping, selling." Or this, the first chilling line of the response to
"KILL DRIVER": "A false destination. It is as easy as that." The Logos'
interjections could have easily been ridiculous, but they are in fact alien
and obscure, as they should be.

The allusive brew of the game is thick and heady, but while some knowledge
of gnosticism and Jewish mysticism will deepen one's enjoyment, everything
one needs to fully appreciate the game is right there on the screen - an
impressive feat considering that this involves communicating certain
nonstandard ideas about the Christian Logos and the relationship between
Kabbalistic sefirot!

Remarkably, all this thematic activity doesn't occur in a puzzleless
environment. There are real obstacles to progress, and while the difficulty
level is generally low enough to allow the story to drive forward, thought
is definitely required. The tasks facing the main character range from the
mundane (fixing a radio) to the complex (operating the Panopticon and the
Bedlam archives) to the recondite (feeding a dying madman's ravings into a
mobile steampunk computer), and each manages to be well-clued and flawlessly
integrated into the whole.

The endgame is perhaps the most impressive of Slouching Towards Bedlam's
many achievements. Once the mystery is solved, the player must make a
difficult choice. While some answers are easier than others, there is no
facile "right" solution; ambiguity is inevitable. Even acting on one's
choice can be quite difficult; the Logos is a powerful entity, and arresting
its growth requires sacrifices far more terrible than merely the player
character's life: to be humanity's savior is to be a monster.

I could go on; one could fruitfully apply the techniques of structural
analysis to examine the game's pervasive twinning of progress with
regression (the player character's forward movement is often exactly the
reverse of the path taken by the madman Cleve, for example), or chase down
references to the authentic texts that lie behind the fiction, but I think I
've said enough. While I do have a few minor complaints - I thought the
TRIAGE computer was underutilized, and some NPC interactions were a bit
lightweight - I feel like an ingrate for even mentioning them. My favorite
game of the comp, hands down.

Oh, and if anyone knows how to get the Appendix A ending, could you post a
reply or send me an email with a hint as to what I should be aiming for? I'
ve found the other four, but knowing that I missed one has been eating away
at me for weeks.

10

Political Subtext: Nothing I come up with here would be half as clever as
the game itself, so I'll refrain from comment.

Shadows on the Mirror: It's been a while since I've played a completely
conversation-based game, and the comp as a whole didn't have many puzzleless
games, so Shadows on the Mirror felt like a bit of a novelty. My first
impressions weren't that positive, I must confess - I don't particularly
like knowing substantially less than the player character does, unless there
's a good reason for it, as in Slouching Towards Bedlam - and after my first
unsatisfying playthrough, I went into the help menus to see what I was
missing. In the list of beta testers, I saw a familiar name - Rebecca
Borgstrom, who I believe is the same Rebecca Borgstrom whose work I've very
much admired in such fine role-playing games as Nobilis and Exalted. This
probably proves how suggestible I am, but the positive association
immediately rubbed off on me, and I typed RESTART determined to give the
game a fair shake.

I'm glad I did, because after a number of playthroughs, I found quite a lot
to admire in Shadows on the Mirror. For a one-room, one-NPC game, there's
quite a lot of player freedom. There are several different endings, but
more importantly, the turn-to-turn experience is remarkably reactive.
Certain questions will be answered in different ways depending on the
context in which they're brought up, for example, and the conversational
threads actually change as more information is revealed, a welcome relief
from the static conversations of most IF. The use of both "ASK" and "TELL"
allows the player to pursue different strategies; when I favored the former,
the player character felt much more inquisitive and uncertain, while leaning
towards the latter made her seem assertive and confessional, and mixing the
two together did a good job of mirroring the give-and-take of normal
conversation. I can only imagine the time that must have gone into coding
all of this, but it's effort well spent. It should also be noted that the
author mercifully provided abbreviations which condense "ASK GALEN ABOUT"
and "TELL GALEN ABOUT" into one letter each; this level of concern for
ease-of-playability was greatly appreciated.

The story itself, when laid bare, isn't quite as compelling as it feels
while chasing down different strings of information and attempting to weave
them together into a coherent whole, but that's perhaps the nature of this
kind of storytelling. While Galen's identity isn't too hard to guess, the
complicated nature of the protagonist's powers made her a much more
difficult enigma to unravel. It's hard to talk about a plot per se since so
much of the narrative depends on the player's actions, and I think multiple
playthroughs are required to get anything like a satisfying experience, but
many exchanges are enjoyable in their own right, such as the discussion
about the supernatural content of the player character's dreams. I think I
figured out most of the details of the backstory, and I found two endings
which were fairly satisfying, but I still felt like there wasn't a moment
where I went "ah-ha!" and everything clicked into place, although of course
I can't be sure whether this is a fault of the game's or if simply I failed
to uncover several important pieces.

The writing is of a consistently high quality, although I do feel as if the
author is better with dialogue than description; several times I felt like
the prose was overreaching itself. For example, one of the endings contains
this paragraph: "Like an orchestra tuning itself, the discordancy resolves
into music as instruments you could never hear before take up their part.
Mysterious melodies intertwine around you, and you find yourself on the back
of steel horse galloping across a sea of mist towards rust cliffs. Galen is
behind you, and for all the music and the mist, you feel his breath warm on
your cheek as he directs your attention to a star low on the horizon." I
see what it's going for, but unfortunately I don't think it quite succeeds.
But again, while it took me some time to get into the game, there's a lot to
like here; one definitely shouldn't fault the author for being ambitious.

8

Political Subtext: A simple allegory about the pernicious nature of
grandfather clauses in the post-Reconstruction South.

Temple of Kaos: If there's one take-away impression I got from this game, it
's of meaning buried beneath layers of painful obfuscation. I appreciate
that it's difficult to write good poetry that both conveys a mood and
provides a complete picture of an environment, but I think the task was
beyond the author. Often I found the descriptions of the locations and the
results of my actions to be inadequate, and ultimately I don't think the
payoff for eschewing prose is even that high. While I admire the author's
effort to create a dreamlike world where causality, space, and self are all
fluid, in practice the game just collapses under its own weight.

The first thing one notices about the game is the poetry, which sadly all
too often descends to the level of doggerel. I know I have a preexisting
bias towards free verse, which explains some of my dislike for the rhyming
parts, at least, but still: "To be on such familiar ground great pleasure
gives/E'en though the decor by robbers past bare be stripped"? The fact
that the game occasionally lapses into prose to describe some actions just
highlights how awkward most of the game's feedback is.

Given that the puzzles operate via the logic of surrealism and that I was
often unsure of what was actually happening, it's perhaps unsurprising that
most of my experience was an exercise in frustration. The first sequence is
pretty solid; it's clear what's going on with the chests, and entering them
actually seems fairly reasonable. But things get a lot dicier later on; the
sequence in which you need to spin the disc twice before sitting on it is a
particularly egregious offender, and I was unable to find the clues
indicating that hammering through a wall would be a useful action. The
design aesthetic is an interesting one, and when it works, it's very
engaging; unfortunately, there was far too little guidance given to the
player, which led to a whole lot of floundering about.

Finally, I found the use of Ursula LeGuin's "shiftgrethor" concept rather
bewildering. My copy of Left Hand of Darkness was unfortunately lost in a
transcoastal move a year or so ago, but as I recall, the author's
description of the term as measuring prestige, face, or social authority is
essentially accurate. As such, I'm confused as to its applicability to an
environment wholly devoid of other people. From context, it seems to be
measuring the player's level of enlightenment or closeness to the god of the
temple, rather than anything social. There are a host of other terms
(grace, satori, marga, etc.) which would have done a far better job of
conveying what the author was after.

Looking over what I've just written, it's almost wholly negative. It's fair
to say that I didn't really enjoy the game; I did admire the author's
determination to try something new. While this one didn't work out, in my
opinion, I'd be very interested to see another take on some of the same
concepts, hopefully reworking the language and doing a better job of
communicating with the player.

5

Political Subtext: Your guess is as good as mine, folks. This one's
wiiiiide open.

Sweet Dreams: Well, it's a graphic adventure. I have a hard time
approaching this from the same paradigm I'm using to judge the other
entries, so I haven't ranked it. I'm not sure it's technically IF, since it
's only interactive the same way a sewing pattern is, but there are
text-parser games which are similarly linear (Adventures of the President of
the United States, to find an example in this year's crop of entries), so I'
m not sure one can exclude it on those grounds. The graphics are certainly
pretty enough. I see there are sounds included, though I didn't listen to
them (I generally have a CD on while I'm playing IF). I did run into a bug
with the dialogue where the last line would always be truncated below the
bottom edge of the window; not sure if that was an issue with my desktop
resolution or what.

The plot is cute enough, if nothing to write home about. The interface has
its idiosyncrasies (I really wish the take command would move you close
enough to pick something up if you're too far away), but the context-menus
are pretty good for this sort of thing. I thought the puzzles were
generally inoffensive and reasonable until I reached the end, which required
an irritating bit of pixel-hunting (that fireplace poker is narrow!) I
found a bug where after a certain point selecting "cancel" would "wake" the
main character up, even when she was in the real world, which made the game
unwinnable since it became impossible to return to the dream-world.

So yeah. Not much to it, other than that. If I were in the mood for a fun,
lightweight graphical adventure, this would probably do the trick. But it's
very hard to appreciate it for what it is in the context of 29 other
text-parser games (well, 28 plus RPG).

Political Subtext: I don't know about what's going on here politically, but
I'm pretty sure that one girl is into that other girl. Unfortunately, I'd
be hard-pressed to find the lesbian subtext in the other 29 games, except
maybe if you play The Recruit with a female player character.

little girl in the big world [I would put "sic" here, but I think I'm coming
off as a stodgy enough bastard already. I mean, I like ee cummings, so why
should I give this game a hard time just because it similarly disdains
capitals?]: I'm generally wary of custom-parser games, but this one seemed
like it had a fun hook - you play a rabbit who can order around a little
girl, and after perusing the instructions, I was excited about the idea of
solving some teamwork-based puzzles. Unfortunately, I only found three
tasks that provided any sort of gameplay: waking up Alice (which had at
least two solutions, which is cool, I guess), finding the missing dolls
(which involved pushing a crate and standing on it), and undressing and
redressing the eponymous little girl. I will admit, the fact that to
complete the game you need to strip a seven-year-old girl and then tell her
to put on her underwear creeped me the hell out. Some things should just be
abstracted, you know?

But really, the point is, there's really not much to this game. The parser'
s not nearly as robust as Inform's or TADS's ("TAKE" isn't a synonym for
"GET"? Come on!), there's no motivation or guidance, the two-protagonist
gimmick is underused, and did I mention that I really didn't need to see our
prepubescent protagonist naked?

2

Political Subtext: I'm sorry, my mind is still stuck being grossed out. Ew.

Cerulean Stowaway: It's a good thing I don't have mandatory score
deductions, because while this game hit many of my annoyance buttons -
inventory limits, easy-to-reach and unmarked unwinnable states, instant
death at every turn - I still wound up having a good time with it. It's not
precisely the kind of game I tend to like best (see Slouching Towards
Bedlam, above, or Constraints, from last year's comp), but it's a very good
example of how to make high stress balls-to-the-wall action work in an IF
context.

The game establishes backstory and motivation in a few quick paragraphs; the
player immediately knows what to do and why, which always pleases me. The
initial puzzles are gentle enough; the objective is clear, and the path to
that objective is likewise pretty easy to figure out, so it's just a matter
of filling in the blanks.

Then the player arrives on the ship and all hell breaks loose.

The author does a very good job of pulling the rug out from under the player
at this point, and the writing improves considerable, conveying the
requisite urgency and panic. To his credit, the descriptions of the
Ceruleans and what they do to hapless humans (including you, after making a
mistake) are in fact quite horrifying and repulsive.

I managed to do pretty well my first time out - I think I got three of the
bastards before they finally took me out. Then I actually sat down to try
to figure out how to win this sucker, which is when things started getting
annoying. I hadn't bothered taking all the useless junk from earth (I'm
sneaking on board a spaceship! Why, in the name of all that's holy, would I
bring a mop?), which doomed me to failure. So I restarted, picked up
everything I could carry, and got ready for some butt-kicking!

Except first I had to figure out how to bring it on board. As long as you'
re carrying certain bulky objects, you can't fit inside the crate you use to
sneak on board the ship. There are likewise limits to how much you can
carry at any one time. Unfortunately, my packing skills were not up to
snuff, and after ten minutes I gave up and left the pile of hamburger meat
behind (I was set on bringing it along, since I'd already seen some help
text indicating (incorrectly) that it was necessary to complete one puzzle).
I appreciate that the game is set up to reward proper planning - after
arriving on the ship, the player is meant to wander around, exploring each
location and laying traps to spring on the hostile aliens - but it was far
too easy to leave something behind and doom yourself later on.

The puzzles are quite good - there's always substantial time pressure, as
one monstrosity or another is constantly chasing after you, but liberal
saving and judicious use of the spraying wax make things slightly less
unforgiving. Nearly all of the Ceruleans can be disposed of in reasonable,
intuitive ways, although I do think the electrified floor puzzle should have
been a bit more robust; there weren't nearly enough synonyms for FLIP
BREAKER WITH MOP. My other major gripe is that it's way too tempting to use
the peanut butter to kill a random Cerulean and thus make the game
unwinnable; when the situation is encouraging you to throw everything plus
the kitchen sink at the ravening, toothy bastards nipping at your heels,
that kind of restraint is hard to come by.

The various endings also deserve special mention: although the player
character will die no matter what happens, his performance has a direct
effect on the future result of the Cerulean invasion of Earth. The closing
vignettes do a very good job of motivating the player to do better and
rewarding him for his successes. Again, unforgiving, high-lethality
puzzle-based games aren't really my bread and butter, but if you like them,
it'd be hard to do better than Cerulean Stowaway.

7

Political Subtext: The overall mood is of (justified) xenophobia,
inculcating a healthy distrust of outsiders bringing gifts from afar. One
can easily read the plight of the natives of the American continent in the
danger facing the human race, and the rapacious, cannibalistic aliens are a
not-very-sly allegory for the gold-hungry Westerners. Of course, while the
game ultimately plays out as a wish-fulfillment empowerment fantasy, history
was not so kind to the Native Americans. Perhaps they forgot to bring the
mop along, too.

Amnesia: I could write a very long review cataloguing the host of crimes
against the English language, mimesis, and sanity the author manages to
commit in the course of this twenty-minute game. But this post is already a
monster, so suffice to say that this is a terrible, terrible game that had
me clawing at my eyes at five-minute intervals. From the irritating ADD
"spirit guide" to the transparently pointless puzzles to the expansive,
monolithic atrocities perpetrated upon proper grammar and spelling, Amnesia
manages to be terrible on just about every front. Although now that I think
about it, it is remarkably low on bugs (I found a few pretty major ones, but
it could have been worse). I know I should be more forgiving; this is the
author's first work of IF, and I'm sure everybody who writes IF can recall
their terrible first efforts (in fact, I have a horrifyingly bad House of
Leaves homage languishing on my hard drive even as we speak), but there's
still no reason to inflict said terrible game on other people. Please, if
you don't have a good idea for a comp entry, don't hack one together anyway.

OK, I can't help myself: "Your spirit guide tries to dance unsucselfuly."
Seriously.

1

Political Subtext: Lone (white) man comes to an island, solves all of its
problems, then sails off into the sunset, which makes this a highly
idealized recapitulation of MacArthur's time running the Philippines.

Sophie's Adventure: This game is big. There are probably more than two
dozen NPCs, maybe twice as many locations, four or five different main
quests, with their concomitant sub-objectives, items, and solutions, and a
choice of several different travelling companions. Oh, and in addition to
your score, the game keeps track of how nice you are. Sounds great, doesn't
it?

Well, unfortunately, no, if you ask me. I thought Caffeination was too
large and open-ended, but Sophie's Adventure dwarfs that game in every way
(in fact, there are at least five dwarfs in Sophie's Adventure, while I didn
't notice a single one in Caffeination!) There's much more to do here than
there was in Internal Documents, on the plus side, but the game doesn't do
enough to give the player some direction. Risorgimento Represso provides a
good example of how a large game can do this, opening up new areas over time
and keeping each one relatively separate and self-contained. In Sophie's
Adventure, you're dumped at one corner of a large world and told to get to
it!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Sophie's Adventure is the story of an
ordinary girl who gets thrust into a fantastic world where she must help
defeat a great evil, a bone-dry premise we've already seen once in the comp
(although, to be fair, SA carries it off with far more panache than the
dreary, hypothermic ManorLand. That's the last comparison to other games in
the comp I'll make, I promise). The introduction is fairly in-depth, so
much so that I probably spent twenty minutes poking around Sophie's house
before the adventure proper actually got started. Then the dwarves showed
up, and there was an awful lot of talking (in fact, most NPCs have pretty
deep conversation trees), and next thing I knew I had to choose somebody to
come with me on my travels. Being a bit of a sucker, I picked the
aggressive dwarf with low self-esteem (get it? Low? Little joke there,
folks. bear with me, it's been a long day); this might have been a mistake,
since he certainly didn't help out with any of the later puzzles and in fact
I think he prevented me from solving at least one.

And then there's the aforementioned dumping at the corner of the world.
There is a whole lot to explore - some wilderness, some ruins, a heretic
hunter's camp, a complete town with lots of people, the beach, the
wilderness beyond the town - and a whole lot to do. The town guard outlines
three or four different ways you can get permission to travel outside the
gates, certain actions in town will cause things to change elsewhere, and I
got overwhelmed very quickly, especially considering that by the point I
realized how much there was to work on, I had little more than half an hour
left before I had to give the game a score. So I turned to the walkthrough,
which directed me into the bar I couldn't enter because my idiot dwarf
companion had previously picked a fight with the bouncer. Dishearteningly,
this was less than an eighth of a way into the walkthrough, which seems to
involve learning how to use magic, playing with various crystals, encounters
with skeletons and spaceships, and more.

I can't help but think Sophie's Adventure shouldn't have been a comp game.
Without the two-hour time limit and 29 other games crowding for my
attention, I would have been much more likely to enjoy the expansive world.
I know that a game's inclusion in the comp gives it more visibility and
increases the number of people who will play it, but the SA would have been
better-served by a standalone release, perhaps with a short teaser entered
into the comp to build interest. Now that the comp is over and I've written
up these reviews, I might go back, finish the game, and regret giving it a
relatively low score, but unfortunately there's not much else to be done.

5

Political Subtext: See ManorLand and Sardoria.

The Recruit: The Recruit is the product of the combined efforts of a Blind
Faith-style supergroup of IF designers: Mike Sousa, Jon Ingold, J.D. Berry,
and Robb Sherwin (whose name I don't actually recognize - sorry!) With that
much talent in one place, it's unsurprising that the game is rock-solid on
the code end and boasts some clean, clever puzzle design. Still, this is
one game that winds up being slightly less than the sum of its parts.

Taken individually, each of the puzzles has something to recommend it. The
Red -> Orange progression does a good job of introducing complexity to a
basic formula, the lab in the Yellow room was quite a lot of fun to play
with, bypassing the mess in the Purple room made me feel clever, and the
Green room boasted some truly inspired madcappery. Unfortunately, there's
little context or continuity holding the different environments together;
while a few puzzles do require objects or information from other rooms and
the final challenge attempts to knit together all of the previously
established threads, overall it's hard to shake the feeling that there's
something rather flavorless about the proceedings.

Part of this is due to the setup; as I understand it, the player character
(whose name and sex can change from playthrough to playthrough, but who in
an entertaining touch always sports a mohawk) is a beta tester for a
live-action puzzle company's attempts to maximize the ergodicity of their
environments. Since the whole point is to pare gameplay down to its
essentials, perhaps it's unfair to complain about a lack of narrative or
thematic progression, or any motivation besides the fifty bucks. Still, I
found myself missing the integument we call "story"; a collection of
isolate, functionalist puzzles isn't my ideal IF experience, no matter how
well designed each puzzle is. Re-reading the author's notes, it seems as if
part of the intent was to guide the player towards an examination of the
relationship between puzzles and plot, and on that front I think it
succeeds; unfortunately, it succeeded by making me think "hey, you know,
this really isn't as fun as it should be. I wonder why?"

6

Political Subtext: The Rainbow Coalition kicks ass.

Delvyn: There are many things in IF which annoy me - inventory limits,
confusing the words there, their, and they're, instant-death puzzles which
can only be solved by liberal use of the UNDO command - but there's really
only one thing I hate. That one thing is that old standby, the starvation
"puzzle." Under many circumstances, the human body can survive for at least
a week or two without food, and a relatively large number of days without
water. Given the timescales operative in most works of IF, the inclusion of
a starvation timer is usually ridiculous. But my distaste for the concept
isn't confined to its incompatibility with some fuzzily-defined idea of
"realism"; looking at things from a gameplay perspective, a global
starvation-timer encourages the player to go quickly, not bother exploring
the environment and taking in the scenery, since that will get them killed.
It's a mechanic perfectly designed to get the player to just go ahead and
type the bloody walkthrough in instead of, y'know, actually playing the
game. So if you include starvation, there'd better be a good reason. "My
entire game is about desert survival, husbanding of resources, and a
desperate race against the pitiless malice of nature" is a merely adequate
reason, for example.

Okay, rant over. But I felt I should explain the irrational surge of
detestation that raced through my body when Delvyn starved to death perhaps
three hours after eating a large pancake breakfast, three hours during which
he'd also eaten a sandwich, an apple, a pear, a cookie, and some
incompletely described "food", a surge of detestation that prevented me from
restarting the game even though I still had over an hour left in the
evaluation period.

Anyway, to get off my hobby horse here and actually talk about the game:
Delvyn is about a mildly retarded D&D elf who crawled out a cave in South
Carolina one day and took up permanent residence. The author(s?) apparently
find this concept hilarious, but I have to admit it didn't elicit much more
than a shrug from me. Part of this is probably due to the fact that the
game came so late in the comp, well after I'd already experienced the
far-superior portrayal of autism in Episode in the Life of an Artist, but
still, the setup has the feel of an in-joke. I'm sure there's some old
gaming group somewhere which thinks this is the most incisive thing ever,
but I repeat: shrug.

The game itself appears to be your standard exploration of an abandoned
house (plus the inevitable catacombs beneath). The writing is fairly
sloppy - tense disagreements abound, for example - and prose in any case
appears to be an afterthought. The entire description returned after typing
"L" in your bedroom, for example, is ">Bedroom." This is not exactly the
stuff on which dreams are made, no matter how fancy your D's and Y's are.
Oh, and while I'm carping: Hommlet is a village in Greyhawk. The word you'
re looking for is hamlet.

The first puzzle - jumping down the various ledges into the bowels of the
house - was kind of fun, but once in the basement, it was impossible to get
back to the upper levels. Then I found a pit which seemed like it could
only be passed by tying a rope to a hidden spike. I didn't have any rope in
my inventory, making one out of my clothes didn't seem to work, and then I
starved to death, as alluded to above. Faced with the prospect of doing
everything I'd just done, BUT FASTER!, didn't really appeal, especially
since there was no walkthrough or hints of any kind. Maybe Delvyn gets much
better after that pit. Somehow I doubt it.

3

Political Subtext: Positing an authentic son of the South as an alien,
indeed in some ways inhuman creature is reminiscent of the work of Faulkner,
where the stain of old sin refuses to be erased. Maybe Delvyn turns out to
be a Drow later on, which would make this all hang together really well.

Domicile: The overwhelming impression I get from Domicile is that it's not
quite finished yet. If I were to hazard a guess, I would speculate that the
author (also responsible for last year's Hell 0, if I'm not mistaken) put
forth a Herculean effort to get the game in a relatively playable state as
crunch time approached, then promptly crashed into well-deserved slumber a
few minutes after uploading his entry.

Why do I think this? Well, there's a BUGS topic, which is never a good
sign. Very little scenery is actually implemented. Mention is made of
accompanying image files which don't seem to have made it into the comp
release. "X ME" (which, as I think I've noted above, is generally the first
thing I do upon entering a game) gives the default response. Although there
's a convenient key ring for holding all the keys you'll accumulate, it
doesn't actually automate the tedious process of unlocking doors. The game
also seems to break fairly easily - once I got stuck, I turned to the
(apparently unfinished) hint system, which told me to do something I'd
already done. Theoretically I should have been able to progress, but
something that needed to happen hadn't. I tried restarting to see if that
would fix things, but this time an object I needed to examine never showed
up, and the game once more came to a screeching halt.

All of which is a real shame, because Domicile shows some promise. The
inheriting-a-spooky-house premise has been done to death, most notably by
Anchorhead, but the list of influences is just different enough (Lovecraft
of course, but also Leiber and Gaiman) to be interesting. There are some
compelling images, like the group of creatures carrying a house on their
back as they migrate slowly eastwards, and the magic system seems like it
would lend itself to a number of interesting puzzles, requiring both a spell
and a surface to inscribe it upon. Browsing through the hints, the later
areas look like they could be fairly interesting, and the house appears to
play a larger role as the game progresses. Domicile is simply screaming for
a post-comp release; it's fairly unplayable and somewhat unsatisfying now,
but with a tune-up it could be a lot of fun.

4

Political subtext: I think there might be an implicit argument here about
the dangers of pulling out of Iraq before it's in full working order.

Quintin Stone

unread,
Nov 19, 2003, 9:16:54 PM11/19/03
to
On Thu, 20 Nov 2003, Mike Russo wrote:

> Political Subtext: changing "armoire" to "dresser" might be some kind of
> a snub of anything French-sounding, a la "Freedom Fries".

I get the feeling that the original object was probably a dresser and the
author late in the game changed the name to "armoire" without altering the
room desc. This is because it would have been impossible for even the
author to run through the game as he developed without referring to it as
"armoire".

/====================================================================\
|| Quintin Stone O- > "You speak of necessary evil? One ||
|| Code Monkey < of those necessities is that if ||
|| Rebel Programmers Society > innocents must suffer, the guilty must ||
|| st...@rps.net < suffer more." -- Mackenzie Calhoun ||
|| http://www.rps.net/ > "Once Burned" by Peter David ||
\====================================================================/

Eytan Zweig

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Nov 20, 2003, 1:21:20 AM11/20/03
to
Regarding Slouching Towards Bedlam Endings:

> Oh, and if anyone knows how to get the Appendix A ending, could you post
a
> reply or send me an email with a hint as to what I should be aiming for?
I'
> ve found the other four, but knowing that I missed one has been eating
away
> at me for weeks.
>


A complete walkthrough of how to get to Appendix A follows the spoiler
space.

SPOILER


SPACE

Appendix A walkthrough:

JUMP OUT WINDOW

Eytan


Boluc Papuccuoglu

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Nov 20, 2003, 3:18:16 AM11/20/03
to
On Thu, 20 Nov 2003 01:56:30 GMT, "Mike Russo"
<ru...@caffeinedreams.com> wrote:

>Another comp done gone, and I've written up another set of reviews (for my
>reviews of last year's games, and a quick blurb on who I am and what I like,
>please see http://russo.caffeinedreams.com/if.html. The ochre-on-blue links

This has got to be my fave review of the comp, based on the political
subtext comments alone.


Andrew Krywaniuk

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Nov 20, 2003, 3:24:31 AM11/20/03
to

> Rape Pillage Galore: The entirety of my notes for this "game" are as
> follows: "if you loved me, you'd all kill yourselves today. 1."

Shouldn't that be "if you laid me, you'd slay yourself?" (Or am I just being
dense here?)

Andrew


davidw

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Nov 20, 2003, 4:38:07 AM11/20/03
to

"Mike Russo" <ru...@caffeinedreams.com> wrote in message
news:ibVub.11009$Wy4....@newsread2.news.atl.earthlink.net...

> Another comp done gone, and I've written up another set of reviews (for my
> reviews of last year's games, and a quick blurb on who I am and what I
like,
> please see http://russo.caffeinedreams.com/if.html. The ochre-on-blue
links
> were not, in retrospect, a good idea).
>
> So I turned to the walkthrough,
> which directed me into the bar I couldn't enter because my idiot dwarf
> companion had previously picked a fight with the bouncer.

Re Sophie's adventure: there seems to be quite a bit of confusion about the
game and which companion you can take with it. In fact, you can take *any*
of them with you! The game plays out differently depending in which
companion you have with you: try entering the tavern with Grolsch or Grumble
and they'll beat the bouncer up; getting into the tavern with anyone else is
more complicated because you'll need a disguise to hide how young you really
are (try hunting around the alley).

Part of the reason for the game's size is the multiple paths through it.
They all come to the same ending eventually but how you reach that ending is
entirely up to you.

Maybe in hindsight I should have added notes that told the player that
picking any of the dwarves was okay and not just the one detailed in the
walkthrough. The one in the walkthrough - Grumble - is probably easier to go
with than any of the others as you can get into the tavern with him and
defeat the monster (two of the requirements for getting through the east
gate) but no matter who you choose the game is still finishable.


Daphne Brinkerhoff

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Nov 19, 2003, 10:52:15 PM11/19/03
to

"Mike Russo" <ru...@caffeinedreams.com> wrote in message
news:ibVub.11009$Wy4....@newsread2.news.atl.earthlink.net...
> Rape Pillage Galore: The entirety of my notes for this "game" are as
> follows: "if you loved me, you'd all kill yourselves today. 1." I'm
really
> not sure what to add, besides griping that this isn't really IF, only two
of
> those random text generators you find on the web. If I were a better
person
> I would leave it unrated, but I wanted the sheer visceral thrill of giving
> it a bad score. Oh, and I lifted the above line from Transmetropolitan.
>
> 1

Thank you for the best laugh I've had in days. I'm still laughing as I type
this.

--
Daphne


Jake Wildstrom

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Nov 20, 2003, 10:11:38 AM11/20/03
to
The Prophet Andrew Krywaniuk known to the wise as askr...@hotmail.com, opened the Book of Words, and read unto the people:

Well, as Mike noted, in its current form it's a quote from issue #5 of
Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan (a comic which seems to be loved or
hated, with no middle ground).

But, yeah, works your way too.

+-------------------------------------------------------------+
| D. Jacob Wildstrom -- Math monkey and freelance thinker |
| Graduate Student, University of California at San Diego |
| "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into |
| theorems." -Alfred Renyi |
+-------------------------------------------------------------+

The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily endorsed by the
University of California or math department thereof.

A.P. Hill

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Nov 20, 2003, 11:25:55 AM11/20/03
to
delvyn: stand on spike to find another spike, and another (in essence
a ladder) or simply go 'u' at spike.
1
1
1
1
1
SPOILER above.

Ben Heaton

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Nov 21, 2003, 2:41:21 AM11/21/03
to

S
P
O
I
L
E
R

S
P
A
C
E


On Thu, 20 Nov 2003, Mike Russo wrote:

> No Room:

> Political Subtext: The player (Florida) is floundering in the darkness of
> underdevelopment, until the citrus industry presents itself as a source of
> (economic) power.


Finally, someone gets it! Did you notice the custom response to "count
absentee ballots"? What am I saying - of course you did. Thanks for
providing such a good summary of my message.

-Ben Heaton

Eytan Zweig

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Nov 22, 2003, 2:04:59 PM11/22/03
to

"Ben Heaton" <bh0...@mail.rochester.edu> wrote in message
news:Pine.GSO.4.58.03...@mail1.ats.rochester.edu...

"That's no a verb I recognize", of course, is a subtle yet pointed satire
on the supreme court's decision in the matter. Bravo!

Eytan


Anssi Saari

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Nov 23, 2003, 2:57:12 AM11/23/03
to
"Eytan Zweig" <eyt...@oook.cz> writes:

> A complete walkthrough of how to get to Appendix A follows the spoiler
> space.

What about appendix D? It's the last one I'm missing.

Eytan Zweig

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Nov 23, 2003, 3:03:32 AM11/23/03
to

"Anssi Saari" <a...@sci.fi> wrote in message
news:vg3fzgf...@pepper.modeemi.cs.tut.fi...

Ok, here's a complete walkthrough for Appendix D (which, counting by the
amount of moves necessary, is 4 times harder to get to than Appendix A):

SPOILER

SPACE


Here's how to get appendix D:

S
KILL JAMES
N
JUMP OUT WINDOW

Eytan


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