My Comp Reviews

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Matthew A. Murray

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Nov 17, 2002, 8:46:12 AM11/17/02
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Just about every year since the first IF Comp, I've made a
resolution to play all the Comp games, but, by the end of the judging
period, had never quite made it through them. This year was going to be
different. I was going to play all the Comp games and review them all,
regardless. As I had a lot of extra time the past couple of months, there
would be no problem with this whatsoever. So, I started playing the
games...
...and stopped after 11.
This was a combination of a few factors. I've been having some
ongoing (non-IF) problems that have been sapping a lot of my energy and
emotional resources away from important things like the IF Comp, but I found
it very difficult to get too caught up in most of the Comp games this year.
There were a couple that I really enjoyed, but so many of the ones I played
(and the ones I spent just a couple of minutes looking at but couldn't force
myself to play enough to judge) just didn't energize me, so I didn't play
further.
My reviews of the 11 games I was able to play and judge are
below, in addition to my comments about one other I was not able to judge.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

BOFH by Howard Sherman
----------------------
I've been a fan of the Bastard Operator from Hell for a number
of years. A wonderful sense of style and intelligence permeates all of
Simon Travaglia's writing, and it was my feeling that the precise mixture he
achieves would be very difficult to duplicate in a game such as this. I was
proven correct. The writing in the game approximates the type of cleverness
Travaglia might use, but it doesn't go far enough. I was delighted, for
example, to see Dummy Mode turn on at one point, but it turned off all too
quickly, as though the game itself was commenting on Travaglia's use of that
technique rather than embracing it as a vital job tool the way a true
Bastard one. Then, the Bastard in the story attacks Stephen with a cattle
prod? Some of the stuff that happens in the game is very un-Bastard-like,
and it really just sucked me out of the game. Travaglia's world is slightly
different from ours, and the whole Bastard mythos is something he uses with
great care. Having a Holy Grail and a Hammer in the game don't add to that
mythos but detract from it, making the experience seem mundane in a way that
Travaglia's writing--even at its worst, really--never is. Plus, Travaglia's
writings are unabashedly British, and this game frequently seems confused as
to whether it's taking place in England or the United States. Too many
English references slip in at points they shouldn't.
So, though failing as an adaptation, how does BOFH fare as a
game on its own terms? Not very well, I'm afraid. Too many things are a
bit too slipshod in their design--needing to use the phrasing UNLOCK DOOR
WITH SWIPE CARD, for instance, when the simple commands SWIPE CARD or SLIDE
CARD THROUGH SLOT are much clearer and more intuitive is a sign of a game
not implemented well. Another is that the tech's actions in the computer
room only change with a LOOK and not with a WAIT, which is additionally
unnecessary.
But beyond the game's simple technical failings (which, if not
acceptable, are at least understandable), I'm not sure most of the actions
in some of these cases are necessarily clear even if you do know standard
Bastard operating procedure. So much of the real Bastard's humor and
insight comes from the creativity he displays in... uh... solving users'
problems. There's none of that creativity present here. The options are
too limited, and, if possible, the Bastard in the game seems unnecessarily
cruel, lacking the eloquence and intricacy that most people in the Bastard's
position--and as demonstrated in Travaglia's writings--possess. The result
is that the Bastard in the game comes across as if he is being seen from the
user's point of view, and that spoils a lot of fun.
I was also bothered by the lack of detail and completeness in
the walkthrough, made too necessary by the lack of direction within the game
itself. Howard Sherman, the game's author, recommends that people do
background reading to prepare for his game, but may I suggest that they read
Travaglia's writing INSTEAD of playing his game? It's far more entertaining
and enlightening than anything Sherman has provided here.
--- Score: 3 ---

* * *

Constraints by Martin Bays
--------------------------
My score for this game went up considerably after making some
interesting discoveries in the maze (which I'm not sure if I should reveal),
but even so, it's difficult to rate Constraints very highly.
There's a glint of something clever that could be done with this
idea, but only a glint. I generally prefer some level of interactivity in
my interactive fiction, and even the central theme of the game is to explore
the constraints and the restrictions that we face in life, there are ways
that forward motion can be found in inaction. The third of the episodes
demonstrates this--you may take many actions against the truck, but since
none of them really accomplish anything, it's the same as doing nothing.
That's far more provocative and entertaining than a freefall or waiting for
a certain line in a play to fall off a shelf. Still, even the third episode
didn't completely work for me--it was clearly enough written as it should
have been, and was stylistically so much different from everything else that
it stood out in a way other than the author might have intended.
In addition, the in-game walkthrough for the second of the
episodes, "Inanimate," is incorrect.
I appreciate Mr. Bays's attempts to do something artistic and
unusual, but he didn't go far enough for my tastes. If he can work his same
methods and ideas into a complete game (which... ahem... certain parts of
Constraints lead me to believe he can), then I am sure I will enjoy his work
more in the future.
--- Score: 5 ---

* * *

Fort Aegea by Francesco Bova
----------------------------
I was a bit worried by the opening text of the game, which did
absolutely nothing to grab me. It made me think the game was going to be
about a lot of boring bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that I would have no interest
whatsoever in experiencing.
I'm very glad I decided to play further.
Though I'm not sure I agree with Bova's choice of including so
much information in the books in the very first room of the game (especially
before any action of any sort has happened), I think they demonstrate what
Bova accomplishes above all else in Fort Aegea: Establishing an atmosphere.
The fort and its surroundings are lushly depicted, and described with enough
detail and flavor to inspire the imagination. The world and the type of
people in it became absolutely real to me while I was playing the game, and
that's a major step in a game of this nature, and usually one of the hardest
to achieve. The magic system, while perhaps a bit familiar, was well
thought out and not at all overused, as it could have been all too easily.
The maps included with the game were beautiful but unnecessary--Bova defined
his world that well for me.
I feel as though I'm a bit handicapped in discussing the story
as I'm not sure I can fully understand/appreciate the subject matter from
which, I'm assuming, it was drawn. But that didn't stop me from being
fascinated by the behavior if the villagers and the relationship they had
with the dragon. It seemed very realistic to me given the environment and
the time frame, and I had no problems with it whatsoever.
I guess I have a few more problems with Fort Aegea as a game,
though. It's a tad too episodic for my tastes, and while what happens in
each of the game's segments is involving and interesting, I feel there
needed to either be a stronger connection between the elements or stronger
divisions between them. All in all, that's a fairly minor point, and the
connections that establish themselves at the end of the game are sufficient.
I wish I had had a bit more of that to guide my progress earlier on,
however.
I noticed only one or two spelling errors during the game, and
only one small mistake in the walkthrough. They didn't really detract from
my enjoyment of the game at all, though, and I think they can be excused
given the amount of time and detail Bova has put into making the rest of the
game an enveloping experience. Lots of good work overall, and I wouldn't
mind revisiting Bova's world sometime again.
--- Score: 8 ---

* * *

Hell: A Comedy of Errors by John Evans
--------------------------------------
I'm not sure Hell: A Comedy of Errors can exactly be considered
a Z-machine abuse. But it's certainly not your typical IF game.
It reminds me most of the LucasArts game Afterlife, which was an
attempt to cash in on the SimCity/Civilization-type strategy genre. In
that, you played a God that had to deal with both the good and evil souls of
people who died. Aside from being repetitive in a way that SimCity and
Civilization never have been, Afterlife suffered from a lack of direction or
purpose, without payoffs to keep you interested.
I ran into that same problem with this game. Evans is creative,
I'll give him that--the structure of the game is fine, and even the basic
idea is good. But the execution is very poor. The grimoire doesn't provide
accurate instruction for a game this... well, not complex exactly, but
involved, maybe, and there's
very little that happens in the game to suggest when you're on the right or
wrong track in your torturing of souls. Once you get the basic idea down,
the game seems to just sort of drag on slowly, not giving you much of
anything new when you can figure out how to progress at all. It struck me
as one of those games that works best in the way it was most likely
conceived, a one or two sentence idea about something that might be fun.
But, as executed, Hell: A Comedy of Errors isn't fun, it's a vaguely
interesting premise gone awry.
A really gifted IF writer could have found a way to make this
idea work--take a look at Adam Cadre's Lock & Key for a superb example of
what type of things CAN be done with the simplest of ideas. But Evans never
took the idea for Hell: A Comedy of Errors beyond the most basic point and
wasn't able to grab my attention and get me involved or addicted to the
point where I really cared about what was going on. Maybe, with additional
work and study, Evans could make Hell: A Comedy of Errors into a more
interesting game, but it's far from that point as it currently stands.
--- Score: 4 ---

* * *

When Help Collides by J. D. Berry
---------------------------------
I'm a bit hampered here, as I can't find my notes on this game!
I was sure I had made more than I'm seeing here, but there's nothing
present. I didn't play this game for quite as long as I played some of the
others, so I'm not sure what all I can or should say. Basically, I thought
there were some interesting ideas in the game that were very poorly
implemented, and my interest was not captured... at all, really. I played
for a while, but realized that this was most likely not going to be a game I
was going to get into if I played for any considerable portion of the two
hour judging period.
I apologize for my lack of details here, so I will just present
the score I awarded it based on the time I did play (which was a while ago,
and I have little desire to revisit the game, at least in its current form).
--- Score: 4 ---

* * *

Identity Thief by Rob Shaw-Fuller
---------------------------------
I didn't know for sure I was going to love Identity Thief from
the first paragraph of the game's introductory text, but boy, it grabbed me
right away and was not keen at all on letting me go. It held my interest
from the first sentence to the last, something very few games in the Comp
(or outside of it, really) are able to do. Identity Thief is remarkably
atmospheric and gripping.
I could go on and on about the game, detailing the story and all
that, but I think that would be doing Fuller and potential players a
disservice. The more you discover and unwrap for yourself, the better.
It's one of those games that always goes more or less where you think it's
going to, but has no qualms about surprising the heck out of you in how it
gets there.
It reminds me quite a bit of the world of the Budayeen that
George Alec Effinger created for his books When Gravity Fails and A Fire in
the Sun, and which Infocom adapted into Circuit's Edge. That type of
realistically gritty, technologically advanced atmosphere permeates every
word of Fuller's text, and he uses it exquisitely, both respecting the world
he has created and assuming that the player's character understands how
everything works even though the player doesn't. But he makes it all work
in a masterful way.
One or two of the puzzles might not be clued quite as much as
necessary, but my only major quip with Identity Thief is that it's too
short. I want to see where else Fuller can take these ideas, and I want to
return to the world he created very soon. I certainly hope he will invite
us back for a return trip.
--- Score: 8 ---

* * *

Janitor by Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn
---------------------------------------
Another game for which almost all my notes have vanished.
What's happening to my organizational system?
Anyway, I remember this one a bit better than When Help
Collides, so I can babble about it slightly less. I enjoyed the opening at
first, and I was looking forward to a very clever, involving game. For me,
that never arrived. I thought the game was striving so hard to be clever
and different that it forgot to actually be something I would be interested
in playing. I liked the concept, but a concept only takes you so far--I
needed something to move me to the next level, and nothing in Janitor really
did. Even when I gave up in frustration (as, at that point, I thought I
still had many other Comp games I would end up playing), I couldn't help but
thinking I wish someone else (Emily Short, maybe?) had tried implementing a
similar concept in their game, because they might have been able to make a
real GAME out of it, rather than just an interesting exercise in what can be
done. Of course, as with When Help Collides, I didn't play this game quite
as long as I did others, so it's possible all of this was introduced a few
moves after I stopped, but I'm not sure that my overall opinion of the game
would have changed.
Regarding the included hints file, though, I would like to say
to the authors: Less is more. Clever is good, but too much clever is bad.
If people are reading the hints, it's most likely because they need help
with the game, and not because they want to be made fun of and condescended
to. The brilliance of the old Infocom InvisiClues was that they managed to
be entertaining while they were packed with information about the game (a
lot of which you might never really need). I like your tribute to the
technology of the InvisiClues system, but if you are going to include a
hints file with your game, please make sure to include the HINTS people are
opening the file to read.
--- Score: 5 ---

* * *

Koan by Anonymous
-----------------
It's telling, of course, that typing EXAMINE POT before the pot
breaks shows that the pot is fractured from the beginning of the game.
That's just way too zen for me. So zen, in fact, I don't get it.
And I don't get Koan. I don't like it, I don't understand the
point of it. Heck, I found Breaking the Code more interesting than this!
At least it had a point. But Koan is really a whole lot of nothing, hence
my score.
Plus, a word to the author (who, perhaps wisely, chose to remain
anonymous), if Warning: @get_child called with object 0(PC=8fb3) (will
ignore further occurrences) is a joke, I'm not laughing.
--- Score: 2 ---

***

Out of the Study by Anssi Raisanen
----------------------------------
I started out enjoying the level of detail Raisanen included in
the game. In the great tradition of the works of Emily Short, Out of the
Study makes masterful use of scope and conditions to decide the objects with
which you may or may not interact with. I started the game feeling like I
was in for one heck of an immersive experience.
It didn't take long for me to change my mind.
It's not fair to take points away from this game because it was
written in Alan and I had to play it on a buggy interpreter that crashed my
computer every time it was used. But the very immersion and attention to
detail that at first seemed so attractive quickly grew wearisome. Having to
sift through endless levels of detail just to learn anything about any given
item in the game does tend to become a pain after a while. Short, in games
such as Galatea, understands that less is more, and in her works, you can
almost always move the game forward in other ways. Not so here. Since
nothing really happens at all, if you can't unlock whatever secrets Raisanen
wants you to find, you're stuck. I spent a lot of time doing this--probably
at least half the allotted time limit, not counting times I had to reboot my
computer to clear up the errors the interpreter caused--but I never got
anywhere. Past a certain point, I didn't care if I did or not.
Plus, once I discovered that the level of detail the author was
providing me was considerably less than I was expected to provide in return,
the game proved far too annoying for me to continue. The chair? The
chandelier? These are apparently objects in the game, though I never would
have found them by normal means. A word to the wise: If you're coming up
with a game like this, test it more thoroughly than you think you could
possibly need to, and make sure that if a player types EXAMINE CEILING,
there is mention of a chandelier if there actually IS a chandelier in the
room that is supposed to be attached to the ceiling.
I could go on, talking about how READ PAPERS doesn't work but
EXAMINE PAPERS does, or how there's no SEARCH verb, but it's not necessary.
Maybe after a thorough bug shakedown, this game will be worthy of the sheer
amount of time players will be required to put into it, but right now, it's
a disappointing and frustrating entry in this year's Comp.
--- Score: 3 ---

* * *

Ramon and Jonathan by Daniele A. Gewurz
---------------------------------------
Coding exercise, complete game, or a hideously mangled file with
about 452k of the story missing? You be the judge.
I'm not sure what there really is to say about this game...
It's... well... different. And I suppose it's trying to tell a story of
some sort, even though I couldn't for the life of me tell you what that
story is supposed to be. And I guess it's not terribly implemented for what
it is, but... Well, I don't KNOW what it is. I just feel like there's a
huge part of it missing, and that I can't make sense of anything that
actually WAS submitted. I feel kind of bad giving it a bad score since, if
the rest of the game were there I might actually like it, but the author
entered this in the Comp, so she's asking for it.
--- Score: 2 ---

* * *

Sun and Moon by David Brain
------------
The word that most aptly sums up my feeling about Sun and Moon
is "interesting."
I think there's a lot of value in games of this type, and I
think this demonstrates a bit of the potential. I felt like the author went
to a fair amount of trouble in creating a "world" for his game, and I liked
learning more about it as I went forth. Sun and Moon's atmosphere was the
best part for me.
But as others have mentioned in their reviews, I wanted to be
let in a little more easily. I realize that any game where you have to
divine passwords is probably going to be on the tricky side, but I still
think the game could have led the player along a bit better than it did. I
seldom enjoy guessing games, but I was enjoying Sun and Moon until it
degenerated until little more than one. I quickly lost interest and never
really got back to it.
But, for the sheer value of what was present in the portion I
played, and what I feel represents a fair amount of promise for both the
parts of the game I didn't play and what I hope will be an up-and-coming
genre, I'm giving it a higher score than I might otherwise might. I hope
David Brian will continue to explore the possibilities, and come up with
something a little more accessible next time. But I do hope there will be a
next time.
--- Score: 5 ---

* * *

Jane by Joe Grzesiak
--------------------
I helped Mr. Grzesiak beta-test Jane, so I couldn't (and didn't)
judge it, but as I thought it was the most thought-provoking of the games I
played, I still wanted to talk about it a little.
I think Grzesiak takes a chance with this game that pays off.
It would be very easy to write an uplifting and spirit-renewing game of this
nature that, in the final analysis, would probably be exactly as empty and
false as its author didn't want it to be. Jane is uncompromising,
presenting generally without comment, and Grzesiak has written some
beautifully descriptive dialogue and crafted situations that worked well
from beginning to end for me. The game's last couple of scenes
demonstrated, I think, the beauty and emotion that IF is capable of
producing that so many other types of games simply can't. For me, Grzesiak
understood--better than just about any of the other authors whose games I
played this time around--what can and must be done with IF for it to be
successful.
I certainly hope he will apply what he has learned here to
future games which will allow him to further develop his unique voice. I
don't think Jane is perfect--the characters could be fleshed out a bit more
in places, and the implementation of additional verbs here and there would
increase the level of interaction and immersiveness considerably--but
there's so much of value present, it will remain for a long time a very
special game for me.

----------------------------
Matthew A. Murray
matthe...@mindspring.com
http://www.matthewmurray.net
----------------------------


Matthew A. Murray

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Nov 16, 2002, 4:46:12 PM11/16/02
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From: "Matthew A. Murray" <matthe...@mindspring.com>

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+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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Matthew A. Murray

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Nov 16, 2002, 4:46:12 PM11/16/02
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From: "Matthew A. Murray" <matthe...@mindspring.com>

ignore further occurrences) is a joke, I'm not laughing.
--- Score: 2 ---

***

--- Score: 3 ---

* * *

Ramon and Jonathan by Daniele A. Gewurz

* * *

--- Score: 5 ---

* * *

Jane by Joe Grzesiak

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