James's comp06 reviews (1-6)

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James Mitchelhill

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Nov 16, 2006, 1:46:42 AM11/16/06
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So, I'll be posting my reviews of the games in chunks to see if that spaces
out discussion at all. I'll go in the order of the competition ratings
until I get bored. I didn't find this year to be particularly great and
scored an ungodly number of games with a 1. My highest score this year was
an 8.


_Floatpoint_ by Emily Short
Play time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Status: Finished
Score: 7

(I'm aware some interpreters screwed up with this game - I was using
winGlulxe)

Well known IF authors entering the comp under their own names is something
of a rarity. Emily Short is probably the closest thing we have to an IF
celebrity and naturally, this leads to a certain degree of expectation when
her IFComp entry comes up next in your randomly ordered selection. While I
wouldn't do anything so crass as let that bias my score, I did make sure
that I had a couple of hours where I was fully awake and free from
distractions to play _Floatpoint_.

In _Floatpoint_ you play an ambassador to a colony on another planet. The
SF setting is well fleshed-out within the confines of the game.
Unsurprisingly, the prose has a definite style to it, which conveys the
details nicely. Things are pleasantly alien. The story is engaging, there
are no real puzzles to speak of, and it becomes clear fairly early on that
there are going to be multiple endings.

Unlike some other Emily Short games, there is no interactive conversation
at all. The closest we get to actually speaking to another person is
essentially a cut scene, although there's also an interplantery email
system which allows you to reply to messages that you receive.

The early part of the game is mostly concerned with finding objects. This
isn't difficult, but is set up to encourage exploration. This works well to
draw the player into the game. This is made even easier by several nice
features that are implemented to keep the player from getting bored. The
first of these is the objectives list, which is accessible through an
intelligently repurposed SCORE system. The player always has something to
do. There are also GO TO and FIND verbs implemented, which take you either
to a room or an object you've seen before. These work well, and stop the
player wandering around through rooms they've already seen. Short's worked
hard to ensure the player doesn't get bored and it pays off.

The task list isn't exhaustive though, and players are rewarded for
exploring outside its boundaries.

Unfortunately, _Floatpoint_ isn't as polished as could be hoped. There are
a number of bugs, some more surprising than others. These range from
forgivable underimplementation:


>x case
Designed for a viewer with an Earth-average eye level, which is to say,
several inches lower than is ideal. It contains only a pink card.

>read card
The display case isn't open.

>x card
The pink card appears to say cure/serum fatal-sickness primitive borrowed
-- research center room 58 -- card-that-grants-access.


...all the way up to really weird bugs like this:


Beside the lab desk is a female scientist, perhaps in her teens.

She greets you with a stream of words you don't understand, and bows deep.

She greets you with a stream of words you don't understand, and bows deep.

She greets you with a stream of words you don't understand, and bows deep.

She greets you with a stream of words you don't understand, and bows deep.

She greets you with a stream of words you don't understand, and bows deep.

She greets you with a stream of words you don't understand, and bows deep.
>--> The scene change machinery is stuck.


I also found myself getting rather confused at how to read some journals on
a data disk that I found, in classic guess-the-verb hideousness. I tried:

>x disk
>read it
>computer, read disk
>scan disk
>scan data
>x files
>x logs
>x journals
>read journals
>turn computer on
>x computer
>search disk
>look up journals

...before finally hitting on:

>look up journal

Although these bugs are a little distracting (especially the one involving
the scene change machinery!), none are show-stopping, and the substance of
the game shines through. _Floatpoint_ is a very entertaining game -
certainly entertaining enough for me to spend time trying out all the
different endings - and I look forward to the post-comp bugfix release. I
don't want to heap yet more praise on Short - I'm sure she gets enough of
that as it is (along with the riches, fame and celebrity lifestyle that
comes with being a famous IF author, of course), but Floatpoint must be
noted as another success, and a worthy addition to Short's canon.

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

_The Primrose Path_ by Nolan Bonvouloir
Play time: 1 hour
Status: Unfinished
Score: 3

If I had to come up with a single word to describe this game, that word
would be "tedious". Fortunately as a reviewer, I can invest a whole lot
more words into describing exactly how and why _The Primrose Path_ offered
me nothing but tedium. And there is a bit to talk about because it's a game
that's fairly inventive in its choices. This doesn't make them good
choices, but at least the author made some.

The most striking feature is obviously the first person present tense.
Without the immediacy of "you", this alienates the player from the PC. This
can be used to great effect in some games, but was not, as far as I could
see, in this one. Even worse is the contrived way that the author deals
with the Player-PC relationship:

> X ME
But I can't see you. Do you even have a body? Or were you trying to get me
to examine myself?

The real problems aren't with player/PC relationships or the tense of the
thing, they're in how incredibly dull the story is. These characters, the
PC least of all, are not interesting people. A skillful author can make the
everyday profound. Bonvouloir adds a hefty dose of the fantastic to these
dull characters' lives - but comes out with nothing but dullness. The
discourse is not the realism that I imagine the author thinks it is. It's
on the level of womens' magazine fiction, with the added disadvantage of
lasting a lot longer than a coffee break.

And the "CONTEMPLATE" command annoys me, too. This might not be a universal
hatred, but I have a real dislike for placing information outside of the
story. It's cheap and lazy. Information should be part of the story.
Ideally, it should be shown rather than told. It's not quite as bad as the
explanatory infodump that some authors place in the introduction, but it
strikes me as a bad technique.

Worst of all though, is the promise the author makes when they tell the
player about the ALERT command, which will explicitly advise the player
when they reach a point in the story where seemingly innocent moves may
make some of the happier endings inaccessible. I reached a point in the
story where I had no idea that I was spiralling towards a losing ending. So
I didn't save. Then I lost. So I undid my last move, only to find that by
this point it was all too late.

I didn't bother restarting. I had no appetite to relive the tedium another
time.

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

_The Elysium Enigma_ by Eric Eve
Play time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Status: Finished with hints
Score: 8

Ah, Eric Eve, after a very poor start to the competition you rescue me with
an excellent and compelling game. My thanks to you, sir!

From the menus at the start to the... well, the menus at the end, this is a
production that gleams with quality. The bit in between the two sets of
menus isn't too bad either. From the start we're firmly in science-fiction
territory, but that doesn't stop Eve telling a good story. The trappings
may be SF, but the heart of the story is, unusually for IF, about people.
The setting - a technologically backward planet - and the focus on
socio-political aspects reminded me a little of Orson Scott Card.

The backstory is integrated into the plot excellently. The slight infodump
at the start, when reading our orders, provides just enough information for
the player to know what kind of story's coming up. Afterwards, it's up to
the player to slowly build their knowledge of the game's universe. After
completing the game, Eve does succumb to the temptation to provide us with
more detail on his universe, but that's forgivable. More importantly, by
this point the player should have plenty of reasons to want more
information.

The implementation is nearly flawless. There's a few instances of the weird
disambiguation that I'm coming to know TADS3 for, but nothing too
distracting. However, _The Elysium Enigma_ gets kudos for properly handling
my usual illogical "jump" command.

Oh yes - the "JUMP" command. I always type "JUMP" as one of my first moves.
Most games will get it seriously wrong and it's always nice to find my
attempts to break the game thwarted, or illustrative to see them fulfilled.
JUMP's a weird command. It's present in almost all games, but unlike most
commands, the response is dependent purely upon location and other contexts
and it's easy for authors to forget about. Here's how _The Elysium Enigma_
responds:

"That’s not a good idea here; headroom is rather limited and your pilot
would think you extremely eccentric."

Beautiful.

This is what I mean by deep implementation. It's never going to affect the
plot and only crazed fools like me will ever bother to do it, but the
author has considered it. The whole game seems to have this much thought
put into it. Everything is well described in clear language. The prose is
suited to its task and, while it's not going to win literary awards, it's
at least equal to any good SF novel.

Conversation is handled well and makes up a fairly large proportion of the
game. A lot of this comes free with the authoring system (TADS3), but
that's not to take anything away from the author - it's an excellent tool
used to produce an immersive playing experience. The amount of work Eve's
put in is clearly evident. Only occasionally did the game not implement a
response I was hoping for and the conversations flow smoothly. Which brings
us to Leela, the main NPC (out of a total of three) that the player
encounters. I'll be surprised if she's not up for an XYZZY award.

A couple of flaws prevent me from awarding a 10, though. The player almost
inevitibly guesses the ending way before the PC does, after which it's
mostly an (enjoyable) gathering of plot tokens to get to the big finish.
One puzzle struck me as rather unfair. Not to spoil anything, but it's the
one involving a mirror, which took me a while to work out even after
reading the hints.

Oh, and, "The river contains an inflated rubber raft." may not be the best
phrasing ever.

But, like I say, this is a very well put together game. It's probably too
early for me to hazard guesses at the eventual results of the competition,
but I'll be suprised if it's outside the top three. And it certainly
deserves to be there.

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

_The Travelling Swordsman_ by Anonymous
Play time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Status: Finished with walkthrough
Score: 6

Ah, a decent game. After struggling through many, many bad games, it's nice
to find a well put together game that doesn't offend me with its awfulness.
_The Travelling Swordsman_ isn't a great game, but it does what it does
well. As the title suggests, it's a fantastic tale of derring-do, a nice
little puzzler with a rough, but still discernable story attached.

I turned to the walkthrough for various bits, but that's because I'm lazy.
The puzzles seem to be mostly fair, if not hugely imaginitive. The prose is
solid, if not sparkling, but does manage to give a nice sense of adventure
to the whole affair. The chapter title graphics give some flavour, which is
what title graphics should do.

I never found it very exciting, but it's not really my thing. The epilogue
sucks - it was all in a kid's imagination. It's a lazy cliché, nothing
more. Nevertheless, _The Travelling Swordsman_ is reasonably enjoyable and
is one of the few games so far this comp, where I don't feel like demanding
the time I spent playing it back.

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

[no review for _Moon Shaped_ - I scored it a 4]

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

_Delightful Wallpaper_ by Edgar O. Weyrd
Play time: 30 minutes
Status: Finished with walkthrough
Score: 2

Well, _Delightful Wallpaper_'s sure going to get the prize for most
experimental work. So experimental, in fact, that I found it completely
unplayable. The game takes place in a mansion and, more bizarrely the
second half of it takes place in the future simple tense.

I'll not engage in futile guesses of who Edgar O. Weyrd really is, but I
have some idea.

It's difficult to rate a game that I didn't understand. Sure, some games
make me wonder what the hell the author was thinking, but at least I
understand what they wanted to achieve. With _Delightful Wallpaper_ I'm
left baffled at what the author wanted to do. I can hardly judge the
author's success at acheiveing their objectives if I don't have a clue what
those objectives were.

The first half of the game is essentially a huge puzzle. The PC wanders
around a house while doors open and close. The objective here is to explore
the house, which is made difficult as some doors are shut and the mechanism
for opening them is not immediately apparent. I wandered. I observed. I
gave up. Looking at the walkthrough didn't exactly help. For this part of
the game, it's essentially a list of directions, often looping around on
themselves. This may well be an ingenious puzzle, but I don't find solving
such things very interesting. Oh - the PC is intangibale and doesn't
interact with the physical world.

By the time I got to the second half, which concerns actions by people
which are yet to happen, I had given up on understanding what was going on.
It appears the PC is some kind of spirit involved in setting up various
deaths and murders. It was never very clear why the PC was doing this, for
what purpose, or, indeed, what reward the player was meant to get from
doing so.


--
James Mitchelhill
ja...@disorderfeed.net
http://disorderfeed.net

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