[COMP02] Reviews

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Mike Russo

Nov 16, 2002, 9:45:57 AM11/16/02
So, I wrote up some reviews of the games in this year's comp. Kind of
self-evident, I suppose, but I feel like I should have an introduction of
some kind, to forestall the obvious questions - "Who the heck are you?",
"Why should I care what you say?", and "What are your biases so I know what
to disregard?" spring to mind as a good place to start.

First one's easy. I'm a bit of a newcomer to IF; I played a few of the
Infocom games back in the day, but never got terribly into them. My
introduction to modern IF came from a random message-board posting I read 2
and a half years ago that mentioned Photopia in a discussion about
games-as-art. My curiosity was piqued, I downloaded, and was of course
blown away. When that year's competition rolled around, I checked out some
of the entries, but schoolwork prevented me from really digging in; ditto
for the next year. I spent some time fooling around with Inform, managing
to bang out a three-room game in which butter would melt in warm rooms and
nothing interesting happened, but never really stuck with it, again mostly
due to time constraints. So when I wound up having a fair bit of free time
this year, I thought it'd be fun to play through all of the games and
actually take part in the judging, and from there a short step to writing

As for why anybody should care. well, that's a trickier one. As I
mentioned, I'm no IF maven, so much of what I say is probably fairly dull
and obvious, but hopefully there are some nuggets of useful feedback or good
ideas mixed in among the dross. If nothing else, the sheer length of what I
wrote should imply that it's not all terrible. Mostly, I wrote these up out
of self-indulgence and a desire to exercise my critical faculties a bit.
Possibly they're somewhat enjoyable to read, although that might be a

To make any sense of what I've written, it's probably necessary to know what
I like and dislike in IF; I suppose I could have tried harder to erase my
own preferences from my reviews, but besides not being much fun, I think
such an approach would have introduced subtler biases (given that I'd often
be second-guessing myself), and at any rate I tend to subscribe to the
theory that art involves the observer as much as the artist, making any
attempt to deconvolve myself from the reviewing process misguided at best.
Given that I was roped into IF through Photopia, it's probably no surprise
that I tend to prefer story and character driven pieces to straightforward
puzzle-fests. I don't do well with mazes, and I don't usually enjoy
abstract puzzles, especially those involving levers. I don't believe I have
a distinct preference between player characters with distinct personalities
and player characters who are merely vehicles for the player. I like darker
and more realistic settings better than lighthearted ones, but I'm not
averse to the occasional touch of whimsy. A random list of my favorite
works of IF would probably contain Photopia, Spider and Web, Heroes, My
Angel, and Nevermore. Static fiction-wise, I dig Nabokov, Rushdie, Chabon,
Updike, Eco, and a host of others.

Hopefully that's a good enough intro; just a few more quick notes before the
meat of things. The reviews are in the same order I played them, using the
randomizer. I'm not a gigantic fan of numerical ratings, so most of these
numbers should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Looking back over
everything, I have a suspicion that games I played later tended to fare
worse, but I'm not sure how that could be corrected. I made an effort to
not use the male pronoun as a universal, but a few mistakes might have
slipped by. Finally, if anything I've written comes off as harsh or
discouraging to an author, let me apologize profusely; all of the games
provided me with something interesting and entertaining to play and think
and write about, and the effort put into each of them is worthy of respect.
Some of my harshest criticism is reserved for the games I liked quite a lot.
Please, if anything I say comes across as negative or mean-spirited, ignore
it as quickly as possible.

Moonbase: The fiction here came off like a cross between Doom and Aliens. I
enjoy both of those properties, but I was put off by just how derivative the
game was - come on, was it really necessary to have the player don a
power-loader to fight the creature? More damningly, though, I found that
the cliched, video-gamey setup - lone troubleshooter sent to remote station
overrun by aliens/demons/zombies - prevented me from really investing in the
story. The ray gun in the initial room suggested that the whole thing might
be a send-up of sci-fi tropes, but the rest of the game was played straight.
Unfortunately, the writing, while competent modulo a few typos, never
conveyed the mood of dread so important to pulling off a story of this
nature. Keeping the creature cooped up in one room made things simpler, but
turned it a simple game mechanic instead of a real threat. On the plus
side, there were ample clues for the puzzles, the bonus puzzles - finding
the eggs, watching the video - fleshed out the story nicely, and I didn't
run into any bugs. In the end, I found Moonbase solid, playable, and
unspectacular; it didn't make any huge mistakes, but it didn't surprise or
impress, either. 6

Not Much Time: NMT is an unabashed puzzle-fest; not much plot, not much
motivation, but plenty of object manipulation and scavenger hunting, with an
inventory limit to keep things interesting. As mentioned above, this isn't
my favorite style of game, but NMT is affable enough - there's a gentle
sense of humor to the whole thing, and there's enough whimsy to keep the
plot, such as it is, from appearing too ridiculous. I did have a few peeves
with implementation, however. The only way to detect that there's anything
untoward about the pillow requires the player to LIE ON PILLOW; while the
examine description does provide a subtle nudge in this direction, repeated
PILLOW CASE, and TAKE CASE all fail to reveal that there's a book hidden
inside the case. That's not the end of things though - one can't get the
diary by trying to TAKE OBJECT or REMOVE PILLOW FROM CASE, but only by
SEARCHING PILLOW CASE. Putting aside the guess-the-word problems, I think
that not revealing important information about an object through the examine
command is playing false with the player; if there's some other sense that
needs to be involved, or if there's additional information the character
needs to have before they can finish the puzzle, fine, but examining a
pillow should tell you if there's a book poking out of it! In a game as
densely packed with both red-herring takeable objects and scenery objects as
this one, you shouldn't expect a player to lie on a pillow just because it
looks comfy, especially if there's Not Much Time. All in all, though, the
puzzles were generally logical and well-clued, and the writing was enjoyable
if not stellar. Still, there's nothing here that left a lasting impression
on me, except for that damn pillowcase. 6

Out of the Study: Despite the fact that I did not come even close to finding
the important papers, let alone escape the room, I enjoyed this one quite a
bit. The plot isn't anything to write home about, but it sets up the
adventure quite well - immediately, you know who you are and what your goal
is. The one room is very well detailed, as it should be, and there's enough
stuff to look at and play with (and enough different numbers scattered
around!) that it's hard to feel completely stumped. I always had enough
smaller goals to work on (catching that fly, for starters, and finding the
missing photo) that I didn't really mind that I failed utterly. The writing
is workmanlike, although I think the author missed the opportunity to tinge
descriptions with the viewpoint of a professional thief. The voice comes
through in a few places, but the proceedings are generally presented pretty
baldly. Not a terrible thing, but it would have been fun to have the player
character comment on the embarrassment of being trapped and forced to rifle
through lots of bug paraphernalia to escape. 7

Terrible Lizards: According to the help, this game was designed with seven
year olds in mind. Maybe they found the puzzles here intuitive, but I
certainly didn't. Giving Dunn the knife was simple enough, but after that,
there was no guidance to speak of. The contract implies you need to hunt
dinosaur DNA, but there doesn't seem to be a way to accomplish this. It
seems reasonable to assume that you need to restore power to your bot, but
there's no way of knowing what that entails. There's a maze of empty
locations. You need to use the grenade on a specific thing to be able to
win, but you can easily waste it. Finally, for a game set on prehistoric
earth called Terrible Lizards, there are disappointingly few dinosaurs in
evidence. I found a Tyrannosaur (which I promptly tried to kill with the
grenade, failing to hurt it or gather a DNA sample as well as putting the
game in an unwinnable state), and there were some Pterosaurs in the sky, but
the creatures most relevant to the puzzles are a man-eating plant and a cave
fish. Annoying puzzles, lots of pointless locations, inadequate
communication of goals, and not enough dinosaurs mean I did not have a good
time with this one. 4

Jane: I found myself nonplussed by this game's concept, and that feeling
stuck me through the time I played. Jane is a Photopia-alike about domestic
violence. It's a meaty subject, rife with dramatic possibility, but I found
many of the game elements undercut the story significantly. While Photopia
used shifting viewpoints, conversation trees, and a linear plot to brilliant
effect, Jane's use of the same techniques just feels forced. My
conversational decisions never seemed to make a difference, large or small,
to the plot, and I wasn't able to figure out a good reason why the author
decided to switch player characters every once in a while. Pacing also
seemed too rapid; there was never enough time to thoroughly explore the
house, for example, and events and conversations seemed to flow by
regardless of player input. I can see what the author was going for - by
presenting the story as IF, he's trying to implicate the player in domestic
violence, as victim, perpetrator, and observer, challenging those roles and
exploring how the cycle perpetuates and worsens. But the characters never
come off as anything but stereotypes, and the constantly changing viewpoints
and static plot keep the player at a distance. A bold idea, but the
execution just didn't live up to it. 6

Unraveling God: Another story-heavy game with conversation trees. I found
myself liking this one at first, but grew steadily disenchanted. The
initial image of a soul in Hell dreading his release is compelling, pregnant
with narrative possibility. The conversation about God early on is exactly
what I think games like this are good at - there's a predetermined path to
take (well, give or take the choice at the end), but the player gets to
define the experience for themselves and choose what themes and ideas are
important. After these early highlights, however, the flaws start to show
through. Unfortunately, the writing wasn't that great in two key places.
The Time article and indeed nearly all of the writing about science made me
wince; the attempt to make it reasonably plausible by including bits of real
physics backfired miserably. The author would have been better off just
glossing over the details in the best soft sci-fi tradition. I really
started groaning once we got to Hell, though. The devil as a guy in cowboy
boots named Lou? Oi. He came off more as a used car salesman than as
anything truly evil, and without that key bit of characterization, the
climax just didn't gel for me. It didn't help that the torments of the
damned felt a little lackluster too - an eternity of a centaur poking me
with a stick? Well, it sucks, but in a matter-of-fact kind of way. On a
deeper level, the game couldn't decide if it was about Things Man Was Not
Meant to Know and humans aspiring to godhood or about pride, guilt and
weakness. If there were a bit more interactivity - if, for example, you
could choose to call 911 immediately after the accident - this could be a
place where player choice would deepen the experience, as the player could
determine what it's all about, really, and why Gabe is being tortured. But
without that degree of player agency, the story seems thematically confused.
In this type of puzzleless IF, good writing and a compelling plot are
paramount; sadly, Unraveling God doesn't quite deliver on a promising
set-up. 5

Fort Aegea: Fort Aegea has a very bad opening. After getting the standard
intro, you're nudged towards some books containing information on the game's
setting and the protagonist's abilities. Unfortunately, there was quite a
bit of this stuff to slog through, the prose was marred by typos and some
awkward writing, and a few of the details (the section detailing weapon
restrictions for Druids, in particular) reminded me of nothing but a bad D&D
sourcebook. Turns out I was pleasantly surprised. Fort Aegea has its
problems, certainly, and it does use many tired old fantasy tropes, but it
also boasts some taut pacing and a refreshingly dark mood. After the
lackluster introduction, the game took off and didn't slow down until the
end, and while the writing quality never really improved, my fears that Fort
Aegea would be unoriginal and sophomoric were quickly laid to rest. The
high concept - survive a deadly game of hide and seek (or is that cat and
mouse?) - is compelling, and the need to stay on the run ratchets up the
tension nicely. Unfortunately, this meant that I was grasping for the
walkthrough rather sooner than I'd have liked. While the author did an
admirable job of making the dragon a cunning, deadly foe, I wonder if it
would have been possible to make the game less reliant on the die-and-reload
school of puzzle solving. With a few exceptions, the puzzles were
adequately clued, but I rarely had enough time to examine every object or
try to communicate with NPCs before time caught up with me. The spells were
an interesting idea and implemented well, although I did run into a few
situations where casting warp wood would solve the puzzle while casting
entangle would not - their effects were often quite similar, and which one
was "correct" to use seemed to change with circumstance without logical
consistency. Still, that's a minor quibble, and while there were the usual
parser issues which made dealing with NPCs frustrating, for the most part I
felt like I was struggling with the dragon rather than the game. There's
not much plot to speak of, but what could have been played as a standard
high-fantasy romp comes off as something darker; true, the NPCs dying left
and right does get a bit monotonous after the third or fourth encounter, and
the ending dialogue was both stentorian and preachy, but discovering that
the baby I was trying to save had been killed was an effective and
surprising moment. I found Fort Aegea to have some notable strengths - an
original concept, a sense of urgency, and an unexpectedly sophisticated
theme - as well as some major flaws - a bland introduction, a punishing
pace, and unimpressive writing. Still, it's an ambitious game whose
missteps are all the more disappointing because the high points are quite
good. 7

Photograph: The author candidly admits in the ABOUT text that Photograph
underwent a difficult transformation in changing from static fiction to IF,
and unfortunately in many places the scars of that operation are all too
visible. The puzzles seem out of place, the characters are not as
thoroughly drawn as they should be, and some of the thematic elements don't
quite connect. With all that said, the writing is good in many places, the
player character's personality is established very quickly and believably,
and despite any behind-the-scenes kludging, the game is technically solid.
My first impressions were quite positive - the realistic setting was a
pleasant change of pace, and the use of CONSIDER seemed to echo THINK ABOUT
in the excellent My Angel. The first flashback, however, was a
disappointment. Clearly, Melanie is meant to be a pivotal character, and
the main character's regret over the end of their relationship is the
driving force of the story. It was unfortunate, then, that as a player I
didn't feel the same connection, and the often cliched and cringe-inducing
dialogue didn't help matters. The later sections involving Nadia and the
Egyptian imagery didn't seem to connect to the main story very well,
plot-wise or thematically, and the ending was a bit too O Henryish for my
tastes. From a gameplay perspective, the flashbacks were interesting, and
provided a good sense of the main character's history and personal
evolution, but given the tone of the story, it felt odd to me that they were
in some cases used in "time-travel" puzzles. Since the game initially felt
puzzleless, it was arresting to run into a few later in the game, and they
felt tacked on to cater to the IF medium. Either doing away with them
completely or fleshing them out more fully (and introducing them earlier!)
would have given the player a better idea of what to expect. Ultimately,
both the game and the story felt a little too scattered - reducing the plot
and thematic elements to the most important ones and focusing the gameplay a
bit more would have resulted in a much tighter work, better suited to the
strengths of IF. Still, due to its attempt to do something a bit different
with IF and the generally strong writing, I wound up enjoying Photograph
more than this review might suggest. 8

Color and Number: The introduction for this game got me really excited -
playing a cult investigation specialist called to look into a mass suicide
at a secret temple sounded like a lot of fun, in a Gabriel Knight sort of
way. I should have paid closer attention to the title; Color and Number
quickly drops all pretense at plot to present a series of abstract puzzles,
based, predictably enough, on the equation of colors with numbers. I am not
the target audience for this game - I never played Myst, and I quit Riven
when I started to get an inkling of exactly how complicated the thing was -
but I rolled up my sleeves and decided to do the best I could. Needless to
say, I didn't last long - not only are numbers assigned to colors, the names
of the numbers have been rendered into a cipher, whose underlying logic
stymied me (after reviewing some of my notes, I think the naming system is
base 5 and it all makes a bit more sense; perhaps I was having a dull day).
I managed to solve one puzzle through experimentation, but quickly resorted
to a walkthrough. I stopped following it when I got to the part that's
randomized every game. People who are into this type of game will probably
enjoy it - the color/number/language system is interesting and applied in a
number of different ways in fiendishly complicated puzzles. But it's not
really my cup of tea. 5

MythTale: MythTale is an entertaining romp through Greek myth, but it
suffers from being too much of a potpourri. The different vignettes are
introduced cleverly enough, and each myth presents a fun little puzzle to
solve that's well integrated into the story - I particularly enjoyed Theseus
' approach to problem solving. The book of Greek myth that the player can
consult, however, was both less useful and less informative than it could
have been. Having it go into too much detail would have spoiled the
puzzles, but I think the author erred on the side of providing too little
information, which was disappointing in a game centered on presenting Greek
myth to people who might be unfamiliar with it. I found the puzzles in the
frame to be less natural than those in the vignettes - dealing with the cats
was good fun, but a few of the pages were hidden in a very contrived way,
and the puzzle that involved drawing a number to open a device, while
clever, was inadequately clued and illogical. Finally, the endgame sequence
had an interesting mechanic and presented the player with many options, but
failed to convey much of a sense of empathy with the player character. The
finale, in fact, has nothing to do with the meat of the game - as far as I
could tell, no narrative or thematic elements from either the vignettes or
the frame recurred - and this blunts any sense of momentum or closure
considerably. Ultimately, MythTale had many clever moments which hung
together far too loosely, making for a fun but somewhat incoherent
experience that felt more lightweight than it should have. 7

Ramon and Jonathan: I get the impression that English is not this author's
first language, so I was prepared to overlook problems in the writing.
Unfortunately, the occasional awkward phrase is the least of this game's
flaws. The player is placed into a timed situation, with no real clue who
he is (if, indeed, he is a he), what his motivations are, what he's
watching, and what he's expected to do. After getting mowed down by guards
more times than I care to recount, I resorted to typing in the walkthrough;
after seeing the ending, I did get a slightly better idea of what I had just
done and why I did it, but the single abstruse puzzle and narrative
confusion make this an unsatisfying experience. Hopefully the author will
go on to better things, and all credit to him or her for implementing some
fairly complicated behavior - NPC interaction, timed events, and so on - but
as it stands, Ramon and Jonathan was one of the weakest comp entries. 2

Blade Sentinel: I really liked the fact that you start out the game with a
"blur" in your inventory, representing your hangover, which vanishes after
you shower. Unfortunately, that was the high point of the game for me.
Blade Sentinel seems to be another game by a non-native speaker, but it
manages to avoid some of the problems that plague Ramon and Jonathan; while
it does take a distressing amount of time before the player learns the
identity or even the sex of the player character, the story is drawn in
broad strokes and it's always clear what the next objective is. It hardly
presents a novel twist on the super-hero origin story, but the plot does hit
all the mandatory notes, introducing the character, her motivation, her
powers, and an antagonist. However, there seemed to be quite a few problems
in implementation. The hilt that's the source of the main character's
powers seems to jump in and out of inventory a whole bunch, the conversation
with the coworker is repeatable even when it's evening and saying "Good
morning" no longer makes any sense, and of the two thugs guarding a
particular door early on, one seems to be implemented as a person while the
other is only an object. I can't comment on anything further on than that,
as I never managed to get past those two thugs in an hour of playtime - it
seemed clear that one was supposed to sneak past them or lure them into an
ambush, but after yelling from the alley, trying to hide in the shadows, and
attempting to throw the dumpster at the guards, I exhausted my creativity.
The frustrating puzzle and technical issues made Blade Sentinel a bit of a
chore to play, and the war-horse of a plot didn't help matters much. 3

Sun and Moon: A year or so ago, Electronic Arts launched an online game
called Majestic; the premise was that players stumbled across some kind of
conspiracy, and gathered clues by visiting web pages and talking to
chat-bots. Sun and Moon is very much in the same mold, although it
thankfully refrains from many of Majestic's excesses, which included leaving
threatening messages on player's answering machines and presenting clues in
awful full-motion video. Rather, Sun and Moon presents a traditional work
of IF, involving such genre staples as a scavenger hunt and navigating a
maze, without the intermediary of a parser. Instead, everything is spread
across half a dozen web pages, with a few prompts for passwords the only
time any typing is required. As an attempt to push the boundaries of the
medium, it works quite well, although, having run into the idea before, I
didn't feel the same sense of novelty the author apparently did. Judged
merely on the content of the game and not its format, however, Sun and Moon
is less than original. There's a maze with a twist, a crossword puzzle, and
a word-game; these three puzzles make up the bulk of the game. Now, I tend
to dislike mazes and crosswords, and the word-game, which requires the
player to guess a name based on a sentence (e.g. a testament makes me =
William), had me gnashing my teeth in frustration. Granted, there were
clever twists to the puzzles - the maze and the crossword ultimately give
you two passwords, but you don't actually need to make it to the end of the
maze or solve the crossword to figure them out. I gladly took the easy way
out and did only the minimum required to finish the crossword (which
basically consisted of looking up lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest), and
felt an overwhelming sense of relief at not having to slog through the name
word-game, which it turns out was optional. The most enjoyable gameplay
moment I had was jumping around in the maze until I found the end by typing
URLs in directly rather than following the links. With that said, it's my
own fault I didn't enjoy the game much - for players with different
sensibilities, Sun and Moon provides some devious fun in an original
package. But a maze by any other name has me scrambling for the walkthrough
just as quick. 5

Tookie's Song: Another lighthearted romp, Tookie's Song boasts a whimsical
premise and some clever puzzles. Being run through an intelligence test in
order to rescue your dog isn't the most compelling of plots, but it does
provide a good excuse to get a cat-alien drunk. Most of the puzzles in the
game have intuitive, well clued solutions, the aliens are fun to chat with,
and the array of alcoholic drinks one can order is truly impressive. The
only technical quibble worthy of mention is that one math puzzle should
accept "10" as a synonym for "ten"; I rechecked my figures twice before I
realized what was going on! It's hard to hold a single parser issue against
a game whose other puzzles include making soup for a hungry cat, answering
an old chestnut of a riddle, and winning an impressively-implemented game of
bowling. The artificial setting and silly plot work well with the puzzles
to create an overall playful mood, but I do prefer my IF more story-driven
and darker; nothing in the game really wound up sticking with me. Tookie's
Song is a candy-bar of a game; sweet and enjoyable, but ultimately I was
left wanting something more substantial. 6

Janitor: Marrying a post-modern premise with far more than its fair share of
clever ideas, and topping everything off with a surprise twist ending,
Janitor is easily one of the best games in this year's comp. Creeping
around a Zork-style adventure game, disassembling the props and
re-scattering the treasures, is a neat enough idea in itself, but the author
throws in a shy talking mop, a mimesis on/off switch, ubiquitous pop-culture
references, and even lets you play through the game once you're done
cleaning up. Add in a secondary scoring system that keeps track of how many
lightbulbs you've replaced and floors you've mopped up, and Janitor is truly
an embarrassment of riches. A few things are less than perfect; the player
should really be allowed to clean up the corpse, and without the hint file,
I doubt I would have stumbled across the twist ending. But these few nits
do little to detract from a game which fairly oozes cleverness, and
implements more than a few non-standard features (reverse scoring! An
adventure that's playable backwards and forwards! Dynamically variable
mimesis!) without the slightest technical hiccup. Janitor mixes great
gameplay with an incisively funny story, and ends up a superb game. 9

Identity Thief: The kind of dystopic world this game depicts works best when
the setting is dark and gritty, with no moral absolutes and a sense that it'
s every rat for himself. Still, it's hard to identify with the main
character when the game begins with him standing over the corpse of a
remarkably non-corrupt female Senator who he has just murdered, and the
first action the walkthrough suggests is to strip her clothes off. Granted,
once I got past all that, I found Identity Thief to boast some
well-implemented gadgets and a good first puzzle to ease the player into
using them, and to the author's credit, the writing nails the cyberpunk
genre cold. The plot is a worn old thing - hired hand unwittingly discovers
exactly what he was paid to steal - and while it hits the appropriate
highlights, it unfortunately seems to lose focus and coherence as the game
progresses. The big revelation at the end never quite clicked with me, and
the few puzzles make the game go by rather quickly. The taut, darkly
compelling opening was the high point of Identity Thief, and though the rest
of the game fails to live up to its promise, it's well-written and certainly
worth a look. 7

Rent-A-Spy: A throwaway plot provides just enough justification to play
James Bond in another lightweight confection of a game. The puzzles take
center stage here, and are generally a mixed bag; delaying and sneaking into
a truck in the opening made for an enjoyable introduction, and the classic
hide-yourself-in-a-body-bag trick was used to good effect, but poor
description on the metal detector made it unclear that one could throw metal
items around it (and the implementation allowed only "THROW <object> OVER
METAL DETECTOR" to work), and I found the guess-the-password puzzle obscure
enough to necessitate a look at the walkthrough. Rent-A-Spy, like Moonbase
and Color and Number, is another solid game with a pretext of a plot that I
wasn't able to muster up much enthusiasm for. 5

The Moonlit Tower: I wound admiring this game more than enjoying it. The
prose is beautiful and evocative; unfortunately it doesn't serve the
sometimes-baffling puzzles all that well. Clearly, the various puzzles were
meant to provide some sense of thematic progression when solved, but the
dreamlike writing often had me confused, uncertain what was solid and what
was metaphor. The piecemeal flashbacks were compelling, but often seemed
fragmentary and disconnected from the game proper. When the game worked for
me, it worked beautifully - the fractured shadows and the ache in the
characters face point to wearing the mask in a marvelous, intuitive way.
But many of the other puzzles felt more like a chore, requiring far too much
directionless fiddling. For a first work of IF, the implementation seemed
quite robust, though I do wish the author had had mercy enough to allow
"flower" as a synonym for "chrysanthemum." Although The Moonlit Tower goes
far on the strength of its gorgeous, luminous prose, but disappointingly,
some opaque puzzle design keeps it from being truly great. 6

A Party to Murder: The opening of A Party to Murder sets up the premise
quite ably; the player knows who he is, what his motivations are, and what's
at stake in the game. Lots of suspects and plenty of secrets complete the
set-up for a classic whodunit. But a few questionable design decisions make
what should be an entertaining detective story an exercise in frustration.
First, the cast is probably too large; writing interesting, convincing
characters is hard enough in IF, and having half a dozen people wandering
around the house proves taxing for the player as well as the author. None
of the characters seem to have much interesting to say, and I quickly gave
up on interrogating anyone in much detail, given their predilection for
leaving rooms mid-conversation. It doesn't help that they seem to serve
merely as window-dressing; as far as I could tell, the party guests didn't
provide any clues or help solve any of the puzzles. It's also quite
possible to get stuck in an unwinnable state early on; if the player does
too much exploring, the game ends immediately after the discovery of the
body. Penalizing the player for engaging in typical nosy IF behavior is
fair enough, but the author plays foul by not supplying any warning that
suspicious activity will be punished. It doesn't help that this failure
ending as much as reveals who the murderer is; since it seems likely that
most players will see it before restarting and starting the investigation in
earnest, it not only acts as an annoying roadblock, it undercuts the mystery
aspect of the game. The final puzzle is also bizarre and illogical - unless
I'm missing something, the player must return books scattered around the
house to their proper bookcases, after which an NPC will change her mind
about giving an object to the player. I didn't notice any prompting in the
NPC's conversation that indicates she had any interest in the books at all,
to say nothing of how she knows the player's completed the puzzle when she
doesn't leave the bedroom. And shelving books certainly doesn't strike me
as a particularly detective-like activity! A Party to Murder has a lot of
promise, but these design missteps weaken it significantly - a leaner, more
focused game with better player guidance would have succeeded admirably with
much the same plot and premise. 5

Coffee Quest II: What should have been a pleasant romp through a
Dilbertesque workplace is marred by inadequate goal-communication and some
obscure puzzle design. I would have probably rated this game two points
higher if the introduction had included a sentence telling me that the
executives in the boardroom to the north had good coffee; it would have
provided a sense of direction that the game as-is sorely lacks. While I
found the first part of the game reasonably enjoyable, once I actually
bought a can of coffee from the vending machine, my experience went steadily
downhill. Given the game's premise, I had thought getting the coffee was
the whole point, and when the rug got pulled out from under me, I didn't
have a good sense of what to do next. In retrospect, the overall design is
fairly clever - run a gauntlet of other employees and scare off the
executives to steal their coffee - but this mechanic should have been clear
from the start. While there were a few fun puzzles (putting together the
package comes to mind), a few of them wound up being illogical (paying a
vending machine with some kind of medallion? Surely there's an actual
quarter lying around somewhere in the office) or just plain obscure: perhaps
I'm the victim of an Anglicism, but I have no idea what a gonk is, and
stuffing one in my ear certainly never would have occurred to me. But
really, these problems are minor compared the frustrated, rudderless
floundering that made up the second half of my experience with the game. 4

Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me!: Having enjoyed My Angel and All
Roads immensely, I was looking forward to playing this quite a bit, despite
having no clue what kind of experience the mouthful of a title promised.
Unfortunately, Monk-Fish never really clicked for me. Being thrust into a
scientific experiment gone wrong and attempting to sort out what exactly
happened should have made for an entertaining story, but unlike Ingold's
previous games, where self-discovery was an integral and enjoyable part of
the experience, the confusion I felt in Monk-Fish was mostly artificial.
What was the research station working on? Why was it underwater? Why was
the station completely deserted up until the point when the experiment began
again? These aren't the kind of existential questions I was expecting to
mull over, amounting more to trivia than anything else. Perhaps the most
compelling element of the set-up (being trapped in the corpse of a bitter
enemy) isn't played as horrifically as it should have been, and the game
quickly jumps into a string of solid but uninspired puzzles. Although
mostly well-clued, a few stand out as exercises in frustration, most notably
trying to figure out what the metal detector was and how to work it. The
"twist", when it came, was fun, but didn't strike me as particularly
surprising or meaningful. My disappointment with Monk-Fish is almost
certainly due to unreasonable expectations, and it certainly is a solid
enough game in its own right. But though it does provide a good mix of
story and puzzles, it's not original or compelling enough to be more than a
solid, unpretentious adventure. 6

The Case of Samuel Gregor: I think the author wanted to use this work of IF
to explore themes of personal identity and madness. Unfortunately (I seem
to be using that word a lot in some of these reviews), the game never really
becomes anything coherent. It starts out simply enough, even if the premise
is a bit bizarre (I'm not quite sure why a shrink would be expected to be
able to find a missing man). The writing does a good job of authentically
conveying the time and place, and the taxi system allows for the exploration
of a good number of interesting locations. But after some conventional
puzzle-solving, things get Weird. The player-character switches without
warning. Time seems to reverse, but perhaps it doesn't. This kind of
dream-logic can be used to brilliant effect in IF, but it's at odds with the
sense of grounded realism that permeates the writing style. To add to Case'
s woes, there are two noteworthily bad design decisions; first, the game is
on a timer, although you have no way of knowing that until close to the end,
and if the player dawdles too much, the game is unwinnable (and doesn't even
seem to have the courtesy to end and inform the player as much). Second,
one of the final puzzles involves getting some traveling papers stamped.
The appropriate office is in the palace, and to get in, the player needs to
get past a guard. But showing the guard the paper or telling him why you
need to get in doesn't work; it appears that the only solution is to
impersonate some kind of official and bluff your way past. Granted, the
main character is being hunted, but there's no indication that the guard
knows anything about that; the impression I was left with was that every
person who wanted to leave the city, no matter how respectable, was forced
to resort to trickery to get past this obstinate guard. These design flaws,
coupled with the confusing plot developments, leave me somewhat in the lurch
when it comes to Case; I'm unsure if I just didn't get it, or if indeed
there's nothing deeper there to get. 4

Another Earth, Another Sky: The second game in the Earth and Sky series was
another one of the games I was looking forward to playing in this year's
comp, and it delivered about what I expected: an entertaining romp which
perfectly captures why super-heroes are so fun. The "sound effects" are
dead-on, and while Earth's powers are less interesting than his sister's,
the game does a wonderful job of communicating exactly what he can do to the
player, and there are still plenty of opportunities to apply them in
creative ways. Still, I found part 2 a bit less entertaining than the
previous entry. The plot does suffer a bit from being the second in a
series, since the characters aren't as fresh, and while there are some
revelations, things don't get resolved very neatly. There wasn't as much
interaction between the siblings this time out, as Emily gets separated from
the player character early on, reducing the banter and teamwork that I
enjoyed so much in the first installment. Lastly, while the puzzles are
well-clued and tightly integrated, exploring a deserted planet by myself
didn't feel quite as heroic as last year's origin story and monster mash.
While real, these quibbles are minor at best, and I'm eagerly awaiting part
3. 8

Evacuate: I'm unsure if it had anything to do with the order I played the
games in, but nearly everything about Evacuate irritated the heck about me.
The set-up is clean and clear - OK, I'm on a space-liner, and need to
escape - but things quickly went downhill from there. The first inkling
that this was going to be a chore was when I looked at the map in my cabin,
and didn't get an idea of where the life-boats were. Without a clear sense
of direction, I tend to get cranky - I'll wander around and solve puzzles,
but I won't be happy about it. And the puzzles only exacerbated my
frustration. There's a retinal scanner you can fool with a photograph, in a
stunning leap of illogic. There's a maze you need to navigate, with the
twist that every step you take turns you around. You can make it through by
getting a compass and using it to orient yourself, but rather than allowing
you to use the cardinal directions once you've used the compass, the game
still forces you to use forward, left, etc. If my character knows which way
north is, I should be able to type in north, damnit! I finally starved to
death while attempting to negotiate with a window-washing robot. When I was
in high school, I was on the wrestling team, and would routinely go three
days without food or water while working out hard for two hours a day.
Player characters who die after not eating for 15 minutes are thus a
particular peeve of mine, and after checking in the walkthrough and finding
that the only available food was a sandwich locked in a briefcase, I quit.
There are some good points to Evacuate - the luxury cruise liner setting is
well described and combines high technology with old fashioned charm. But
the aggravating puzzle design gave me a monster headache. At least there
didn't seem to be inventory limits. 3

Hell 0: My first thought on loading Hell 0 (or Hell: A Comedy of Errors; I'm
using Hell 0 because it's much more compact to type) was that this could be
a lot of fun; a satirical look at the afterlife has loads of potential. My
hopes flagged when I saw that the ABOUT screen had a pointer to a BUGS page,
which admitted that the game didn't receive nearly enough testing.
Thankfully, the only real technical issue I ran into was a cryptic error
message when trying to dig out from the sphere room, and the character
creation process that starts the game out is entertaining, with options to
choose gender, wings, and which Deadly Sin is closest to your black heart.
But if the technical flaws aren't as bad as I'd feared, there are
mountainous design and interface issues which dwarf them. Hell 0 is a
strategy game with an IF interface. It's certainly an interesting idea, and
I enjoyed fooling around with it for the first five minutes. Then the
problems begin to rear their ugly heads. There's not much to the gameplay
after you've done the first bit - create a room, grab a soul, maybe buy a
torment, and throw the soul in. Check to see if the soul is generating
maximal penance, and if not, start tweaking things until s/he does. It
doesn't seem like much changes as the game goes by, and the player winds up
going through the same process too many times. Also, there's no real
feedback that I found to determine what torments would work well on a soul;
some need to be thrown in a fiery lake, others placed just in sight of
heaven, and some only feel properly repentant if there's an accountant
involved. It's a fun mechanic, but without any way of examining a
particular soul's flaws, the player is reduced to rote trial-and-error.
Most damningly (if you'll allow the pun), the IF interface is completely
unsuited to this kind of game. Moving torments around and torturing souls
is far too complicated, navigating is a pain, and for some unfathomable
reason, there's a limit on inventory size, so you're forced to juggle souls,
tortures, gems, and more. The game quickly turned into an exercise in
frustration as I banged my head against the limits of what the parser would
allow me to do. The premise is interesting, and the gameplay could have
been entertaining, but this game was really screaming out for a GUI of some
kind, and given the sparse nature of the story, there's no real motivation
to optimize your tortures to increase your score. 4

The Temple: Hoary as the genre is, I'm a big fan of Lovecraftian horror, and
The Temple manages to nail the obscure sense of existential menace that
makes it work; the city it depicts feels almost like a living thing, aged,
decrepit, and full of hate, although the descriptions do provide a few
moments of unintentional hilarity (the "irregular-sized basalt blocks of
irregular size" spring to mind). Though there are no elements that are
specific to the Cthulhu Mythos that I could detect, the dream-world setup
echoes the best of Lovecraft's work, and while Charles' longing for his lost
love seems more out of Poe than anything else, it certainly adds a welcome
complexity to the theme; there's hope as well as despair, which makes the
ultimately positive ending fit the story better than it would in a straight
Lovecraft pastiche. I enjoyed the puzzles and felt them to be generally
well-integrated, although that could reflect my own bias in favor of messing
around with rituals. I did need to consult the walkthrough at one point,
since knowing how much Lovecraft liked cats, I hadn't thought of throwing
things at the one in the game, but for the most part there were enough clues
to know both what to do next and why it was important, a welcome change of
pace from some of the earlier games. The inclusion of an NPC in the same
situation as the player was a nice touch, permitting a few fun puzzles that
required teamwork, and cleverly allowing the author to play up the horror of
the situation without being forced to manipulate the player too
heavy-handedly. I did run into one fairly significant design bug - Charles
helped dig me out of a cave-in after I opened up a portal and sent him back
to his own time! - but aside from that, the game was quite solid. It's true
that The Temple isn't fleshed out as completely as it could have been -
leaving plenty to the reader's imagination is a critical part of Lovecraft's
style, but it still would have been nice to know more about the presence
trapped in the vial, or have a better idea about where the cultists
generally got their victims - and the puzzles generally feel lightweight -
boiling two powders together isn't quite as eldritch a ritual as I'd have
liked. But it succeeds quite well at evoking and sticking to a mood, and
presenting gameplay that fits that mood admirably. 7

Concrete Paradise: What starts out as a low-key slice of life game quickly
turns into something else in Concrete Paradise. Once the rug is pulled out,
the game settles into presenting a prison-break in a world where dream-logic
is supreme. The first puzzle has the player writing a message in a bottle
and getting nearly instant results, and seems to act as a gentle
introduction to the way the game works; unfortunately, the next requires the
brutal stabbing of a guard, a complete reversal from the whimsical tone of
the introduction. The rest of the game suffers from this schizophrenia; one
moment the player is unlocking doors by saying a magic word, the next s/he's
fleeing guards taking potshots with high-powered rifles. I enjoyed the more
lighthearted puzzles a fair bit, but the streak of meanness running through
the game put me off, and a rather brutal time limit at the end made what
should have been a simple task (inflate raft, get in, paddle) an exercise in
repeated failure. There isn't anything particularly special or noteworthy
about Concrete Paradise; it's competently written and technically stable,
but I finally found it uninteresting. 4

Koan: I'm a Buddhist and pretty into Zen, so I was anticipating playing this
one on the strength of the title alone. The intro blurb does a good job of
explaining what needs to be done and how; it also kicks out a rather obscure
error message. There were a few other technical niggles - most notably, the
pot is fractured before it actually falls - but given that there's no story
or sense of immersion in Koan, they weren't as jarring as they'd be in a
different kind of game. Solving the puzzle took about ten minutes, mostly
because "take fracture" returns an obnoxious message about how difficult
that would be, while "put fracture on slab" wins the game. The so-called
"Zen moment" left me fairly cold; it struck me more as a post-modern moment
than anything else, and a fairly lame one at that. It was nice that there
were three or four ways of getting the broken pot down, I guess. 3

Four Mile Island: While the conceit of a "lost' BASIC text adventure is kind
of fun (although somewhat transparent; wasn't there one of these two or
three years ago that was real?), I don't think I'm quite the target
audience, since my memories of "old school" text adventures consist mainly
of cursing at the damn stupid parser. Still, for all the homage, Four Mile
Island is painless enough to play, and implements a moving NPC in a
reasonably plausible way. The set-up is of course over the top, and the
first few puzzles are pedestrian enough to the point of monotony (fixing a
rad-suit with duct tape, finding a safe combo on a desk). The final puzzle,
however, was quite well done, presenting a Gordian knot that requiring a
clever bit of lateral thinking to solve. Ultimately, though, there's not a
whole lot memorable about Four Mile Island beyond its premise; mostly
cliched puzzles and workhorse prose do conjure up the 80's remarkably well,
but a hint of nostalgia isn't enough to carry the game on its own. 5

Eric's Gift: I really like the setting the author conjures up in this game;
it reminds me of The Longest Journey, with a vision of the near-future that'
s noticeably different from the present but not dystopian, utopian, or
implausible. But I never found myself as interested by the characters in
this story-driven game based on a short story. After the somewhat contrived
opening (how many people invite complete strangers for dinner because they
knew the guy who used to live in their apartment?) a series of conversations
take center stage; there are no puzzles worthy of the name, and indeed the
plot seems to move forward with a minimum of player prompting. Linearity in
this sort of game isn't a terrible thing, but Eric's Gift suffers from never
convincing the player that anything s/he does really matters to the story,
either in the overall plot or even in smaller, thematic ways, which makes it
hard to invest very much in the game. And while convincing dialogue is a
terribly difficult thing to pull off in IF, the conversations in Eric's Gift
left me feeling like the dullest prat imaginable. I can ask the woman about
herself, ask her about me, ask her about job, ask her about weather, and
that's about all I could think of. As a result, I was unsure what
connection the player character was supposed to feel for Capella and Eric,
and how they felt about him. The player character and Capella wind up
married, but the game doesn't fill in enough blanks; do they turn to each
other because of their shared memory of Eric? Simple loneliness? It's
never clear, nor even ambivalent in an interesting way - it simply happens,
and the ending lacks emotional punch as a result. Really, there's little
this story gains by being IF, and what it loses in characterization and
depth severely undercut its effectiveness; while it could well work
wonderfully as static fiction, it's unremarkable and somewhat bland as IF. 4

Screen: Screen starts out strong, as the player character reminisces about
his childhood; the writing is evocative, and does an excellent job of
conveying the innocence and possibility that are long gone from his adult
life. Mr. Field is introduced, vaguely, as a real but distant presence, and
I was looking forward to getting more of this story. To say I was
disappointed when the game literally turned into an episode of Gilligan's
Island is a gigantic understatement. The Batman episode was slightly more
appealing to me, but it was hard to enjoy when I felt the game had left me
so badly in the lurch. The two vignettes are faithful recreations of their
respective TV shows, and the puzzles make good use of their respective
logic, but their frivolity clashes so fundamentally with the outside story
that both the frame and the vignettes are severely undercut by being forced
to live together in the same game. The satisfying sense of closure the
player character alludes to in the end passed me by completely; I was left
with the bitter taste of wasted potential. The author can write very well,
and the puzzles in the vignette bespeak good design ability as well, but
Screen is conceptually flawed to the highest possible degree. I'm anxious
to see what the author does next, but this one, as far as I'm concerned, was
a wash. 4

Augustine: The README disclaimer that Augustine isn't actually based on
Highlander but is in many ways quite similar left me with mixed feelings;
while the idea of immortal beings running around trying to cut each other's
heads off is quite a bit of goofy fun, it doesn't seem conducive to
interesting storytelling. The opening sequence didn't help matters much, as
the secret origin of the player character bears a startling resemblance to
that of Conan. While the character motivation and the attack on the demonic
warlord's castle are pure cheese, they are presented with a modicum of
historical verisimilitude, and once past this prologue, the game starts to
hit its stride. Placing the immortal beings in Florida in the 17th and 19th
centuries is at least original, and the author deepens the characterization
of the player's nemesis in some interesting ways. Puzzles are generally
low-key, the sword-fighting is entertaining, and the game does a good job of
prompting the player so that the numerous conversations aren't too
frustrating. The pacing, unfortunately, leaves something to be desired, and
the writing doesn't always convey what the author wants it to. After the
opening, the player explores St. Augustine and goes on a ghost tour which,
while interesting, reduces interactivity to following a group around and
listening to a guide. The stories are interesting enough, but there are
perhaps too many of them, and this sequence dragged a bit. When the tour is
finished, the player is reduced to wasting time waiting for a second
boat-tour to begin; once on the boat, however, there are two flashback
vignettes quite close together. As a result, the action-focused opener
bleeds into an overly-long sequence of information dumping, while the two
flashbacks and the present-day finale being placed in such proximity
undermines their dramatic effect. A better approach might have been to
scatter the vignettes through the first walking tour, to make the
information given in the tour more personally interesting to the player and
getting the game into a kind of rhythm it currently lacks. Finally, the
while it seemed clear that the city's ghosts were meant to mirror those
tormenting the main character, this theme doesn't quite emerge to the extent
it could have. Part of this is the pacing, as the main character ruminates
on a large number of ghosts in quick succession as part of the tour, and the
impact is undercut still further because the player hasn't really invested
in the character to this point. A few of the stories seemed to have been
stretched to fit into the game's mythos (the Welsh pirate queen, for
example, doesn't appear to add much to the story or gameplay), and the
writing is competent but presents the ghost stories in the same
matter-of-fact way as the rest of the story, rendering them not very
haunting. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by how story and character
driven Augustine is, but found the narrative flaws decreased my enjoyment
significantly. 7

When Help Collides: I really wanted to like this game after perusing the
readme and feelies. I was expecting a quirky, post-modern gem along the
same lines as Janitor. What I got struck me as a godawful mess, the IF
equivalent of being trapped in a comic book written by Grant Morrison, maybe
The Filth or Invisibles. After repeated playthroughs of the opening, I
started to understand the premise and my goals, but could not for the life
of me figure out how to actually provide useful help to the petitioners.
One quick trip to the walkthrough later, and I find out I need to exit the
help ship. OK, and now I'm riding on a wagon which is somehow the
conscience of a necromancer with low self-esteem, faced with a Byzantine
control console and an unforgiving time limit? After some aimless fiddling,
I went back to the walkthrough, and got to the end, which gave me a password
for an IF version of a fantasy RPG. The RPG sequence seemed thankfully
logical, and played with the description/input structure of IF in a fun way.
The puzzles were straight-ahead, and the necessity of consulting the "help"
to finish was a neat trick and pointed to some kind of thematic unity with
the previous section. But I didn't wind up getting a password at the end of
this one; I'm unsure if I just wasn't clever enough, or if something went
wrong. At any rate, I plugged in the code for the Old West game, and
promptly found myself lost and confused again, in a world that seemed equal
parts Jonah Hex and Jim Jarmusch's Deadman. There was something about
Navajo heritage and possibly uranium or something, but it pretty much sailed
straight over my head. After "finishing" this vignette by liberally
consulting the walkthrough, I thought about trying out the Geisha one, but a
quick peek ahead in the help file dissuaded me: "Random elements make a
walkthrough impossible" and "Hint: use a spreadsheet" were just too much for
me to handle at this point. There might be something brilliant here -
certainly the programming is first rate, and there are more ideas flying
past than I could keep track of - and I'm simply too dull to get it; I have
images of Andy Kaufman chortling with glee as he explains his idea of
screwing with the vertical hold on the broadcast signal of his TV special.
But the sheer confusion that reigned left me unable to figure out what sort
of link connected the vignettes, or what the point was, anyway. In this
review, I've invoked a fair number of comparisons to works in other formats,
whose surrealism and innovation I admire and enjoy, but When Help Collides
never clicked with me, and without any sense of how this riot of experience
could be integrated and appreciated, all I really got out of it was a
headache. 4

Scary House Amulet: I didn't feel like there was much to this one. A few
puzzles, a forest maze, motivated by the flimsiest possible story. Lots of
bold and exclamation points. This late in the comp, I was probably
unmotivated to spend too much time or effort with something so unremarkable,
so I resorted to the walkthrough pretty quickly when I got stuck (turns out
I hadn't explored the maze thoroughly enough). There's combat, which is
cool, I guess. And the writing was fun, in a Scooby-Doo sort of way. The
puzzles were inoffensive, although the logic of the one involving the can of
Pepsi kind of escaped me. All in all, I just couldn't get that excited by
Scary House Amulet; if I had to sum it up in a word, that word would be
"meh." 4

Constraints: My favorite game of the comp, hands down. Presented as a
series of vignettes, each with a central idea revolving around (funnily
enough) constraint and paralysis, the game uses the IF format to masterful
effect in exploring different aspects of the central problem; in format and
theme, it recalls Joyce's Dubliners, and amazingly enough fails to suffer
from the comparison. Inevitably, the parser that one uses to interact with
a gameworld is limited to a certain set of responses, and while this
limitation is usually seen as a hurdle to be overcome in creating a
wide-open simulation, Constraints employs it as a devastating tool, drawing
the player's attention to how little control they really have. The high
concept behind Constraints is wonderful, but what really makes this game
work, and work brilliantly, is the depth in each of the vignettes. The
first two could have easily become exercises in boredom, as the player
guides a character who cannot affect his/her/its environment in any real
way. But the range of actions the game recognizes - in the falling
scenario, obvious things like listening or flying, but also screaming and
thinking - allows the player to push against the edges of the box, able to
feel and perceive, but ultimately unable to act. The second vignette
one-ups the first, as a similar (but ironically reversed) sense of impotence
is presented against a rich background. A story is unwinding before the
player's eyes, but no matter how much the viewpoint character wishes to
become part of the narrative, it negates any attempt the character makes to
impose itself. The sequence acts as a clever statement on IF in general,
and the nested narratives - the story is about two lovers discussing a
play - adds a complementary sense of post-modern vertigo, underscoring that
it is not only the player character who is powerless to assume the author's
role, but the player as well. The third scenario is perhaps the most
conventional bit of IF in the work, but again, expectations are subverted.
There are no external directives or obstacles; the player character takes it
upon himself to do something, and then neatly prevents himself from acting
at all. Again, what could have been an exercise in frustration is rendered
compelling through a painstakingly deep simulation, which allows the player
to attempt perhaps a dozen different acts of protest. While those who
disagree with the character's beliefs and politics might find the scenario a
chore, it nonetheless functions as a compelling examination of a single
character's personality, an element in a larger work that highlights
self-imposed paralysis, a discussion about the role of the individual in the
modern world, and a fun bit of puzzling. The final bit of Constraints is a
non-game; the player is presented with a Nethack-style dungeon, with an
impressive array of possible actions listed along the side of the screen.
But there's nothing to listen to, nothing to pick up, no map to read, no
wand to fire, no food to eat. All there is, is the dungeon, corridor after
featureless corridor, with an occasional staircase down to a lower level.
Indeed, the staircases are the most brilliant part of the design - after
some experimentation, I found that the stairs down would only appear after
about 90 percent of the map has been explored. The very act of exploring,
of pushing against the surrounding darkness, itself creates another level of
dungeon below, expanding the unexplored regions and keeping the player
farther from the goal of reaching the end. The sheer emptiness of the
dungeon acts as a sort of goad - the player races from level to level, sure
that there must be something around the next corner, some end in sight, some
point to it all. But the only possible action, as in the third scenario, is
the non-action of quitting the game. I seem to be on the same wavelength as
the author, which probably aided my enjoyment of the game; in fact, I
finished reading House of Leaves (which the author credits as an inspiration
for the design of the final maze section) only hours before playing the
game! But by any measure, Constraints is a masterpiece, fearless and
innovative, meriting comparison to the best static fiction in its brilliant
integration of format and substance into a elegant whole. I'm quite
literally running out of superlatives; this is perhaps the best thing I've
seen anyone do with IF. 10

The Granite Book: Some evocative writing, an original setting, and a
fascinating player character make The Granite Book stand out from the ranks
of "lost in strange pseudo-fantasy world" IF. The puzzles tend to rely on a
symbolic logic, which I enjoyed coming to grips with, and were generally
neither too difficult nor trivial. Trying to discover who and what the
player character is, and attempting to make sense of his complex and
conflicting motivations, was another high point. The story does suffer from
a bit of looseness, and there's no real closure or explanation at the end,
severely limiting its appeal - without some clue as to the nature of the
mystery, the game left me somewhat unfulfilled. There were a few design
niggles - I didn't realize that I had to type READ BOOK more than once to
finish the first section - but overall, The Granite Book is a solid effort.
It provides a compelling set-up, but unfortunately fails to resolve or even
fully address the questions it raises in a satisfying way. 7

The PK Girl: This anime-inspired game takes a story-driven IF and mixes in a
dating sim and whole mess of world interactivity. The amount of depth here
is impressive; there's something like half a dozen girls you can woo, a
bunch of nonessential locations that evolve as the game goes by, and a truly
amazing number of objects you can find and play with. The central plot is
nothing to write home about - cute girls with psychic powers stalked by a
mysterious conspiracy - and dating sims in general strike me as somewhere
between creepy and pathetic, but where PK Girl really shines is in the
incredible amount of stuff you can do. I wound up picking up an ice-cube
tray early in the game; later on, I managed to fill it with water, stick it
in a freezer, pop out the finished cubes, and started to make a frozen
dessert with it. There was no obvious puzzle associated with it, although I
'm sure there was a use for it, perhaps in currying favor with one of the
girls. That level of interactivity is present throughout the game; you can
help a character cook dinner, for example, or help comb another's hair. The
sheer wealth of different objects to play and experiment with, some useful
to the plot, some not, really makes the game feel more interactive and
engaging than much story-driven IF, to say nothing of the average dating
sim, which typically relies on simplistic multiple-choice gameplay. I'm not
a particular fan of this genre, which hurt its appeal a bit, but for a
player with different sensibilities, PK Girl could well be the most
enjoyable game in the comp, with enough replayability and depth to have a
long lifetime beyond the judging deadline. 8

BOFH: I've read a bit of the Bastard Operator From Hell stuff, and enjoyed
it, but there's something quixotic about translating it into IF form; the
thing that makes the BOFH stories so much fun is the wildly creative sadism
the main character manages to inflict, and the constraints of IF (and,
presumably, the generally affable player-base) make such inspired
misanthropy difficult to showcase. The game does capture the narrative
voice of the BOFH quite well, but unfortunately, the puzzles don't quite do
the concept justice. Pulling a fire-alarm is a grade-school prank, but the
player resorts to it twice in the confines of a fairly short game.
Additionally, while one of the puzzles is well-motivated, carrying around a
great hulking hammer and smashing in lockers for no immediate reason didn't
really strike me as particularly true to the property. The late-game scene
switch to Las Vegas doesn't seem to have much purpose, either, and there
doesn't wind up being any real narrative progression. What's left is a
collection of, to be honest, fairly uninspired puzzles that hardly expand
the horizons of bastardy. 5

And that's the end of my little novella. Overall, there were lots of titles
that I enjoyed, few that I really disliked, and the standout games struck me
as truly excellent. Big thanks the organizers and all the authors for their
hard work, and I'm looking forward to the next one!

Graham Holden

Nov 18, 2002, 6:54:31 AM11/18/02
On Sat, 16 Nov 2002 14:45:57 GMT, "Mike Russo" <ru...@its.caltech.edu>

<reviews snipped>

>Rent-A-Spy: A throwaway plot provides just enough justification to play
>James Bond in another lightweight confection of a game. The puzzles take
>center stage here, and are generally a mixed bag; delaying and sneaking into
>a truck in the opening made for an enjoyable introduction, and the classic
>hide-yourself-in-a-body-bag trick was used to good effect, but poor
>description on the metal detector made it unclear that one could throw metal
>items around it (and the implementation allowed only "THROW <object> OVER
>METAL DETECTOR" to work),

For no particular reason (I'm not the author, and while I quite liked
the game it wasn't my favourite) I feel compelled to reply to this.
The command "X DETECTOR" gives "... It's just as wide as the corridor
and almost as high..." from which THROW <object> OVER DETECTOR"
followed naturally to me, and I wouldn't expect trying to throw
anything AROUND the detector to work.


Graham Holden

g DASH holden AT dircon DOT co DOT uk
(to reply by email, replace DOT, DASH and AT as appropriate).

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