Comp99 reviews from a lamer (spoilers for Photopia)

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Jake Wildstrom

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Nov 17, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/17/99
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Admission: I was lame and didn't review very many games. I was even lamer and
didn't send my votes in. Nonetheless, in case anybody cares, my spin on the few
I did play:

1: "Pass the Banana" 3

Just a stupid in-joke based on the flaming head discussion in r*if, I suppose.
Not really notable in any way, as far as I'm concerned. Writeen just fine for
what it is, I suppose, which is to say, not much. THere was at least one error
(or at least I think it was an error) causing spurious numerical output in the
random actions.

2: "Bliss" 5

Certainly an interesting entry.with a clearly thought out design. I would have
liked to rate it higher but definite weaknesses keep me from doing so; in
particular, from a purely mechanical perspective, the puzzles seemed a bit
obscure (maybe it's just me), and synonym and object handling's a little weak.
Trying to climb out the window was a guess-the-verb, and for unknowable reasons
I couldn't take an apple from the stack ("take apples" worked, but "take apple"
didn't). If I'm overly critical, it's because I like the game from a concept
standpoint and hate to see it ruined by petty details.

Now, to the meat--the plot. My problem is, it's awfully unbalanced. When I read
the opening screen, I said "if this is a regular dungeon crawl, there's a
problem ", because the intro text was so _very_ over-the-top, in the ultra-
cliched way that makes the anti-dragon league wince. The problem was, for a
while it seemed like it really _was_ that bad--the first dizziness scene was
uninformative, the second only if you pay attention. It made more sense the
second time through, which is often the case. I started suspecting that the
author was ignorant of both physics and biology when the bear died so easily
(there are wonderful reports out there of heavily armed groups of people
getting mauled by a single bear--granted, grizzlies aren't quite as tough as
polar bears, which are really _very_ dangerous, but nonetheless they can stand
a fair amount), which is explained later but has no verisimillitude in the
narrative. If you're trying for that effect, congratulations. But IMO, if I'm
going to be a psychopath, I'd like to at least be a plausible psychopath who
knows impossibility when he sees it. Also, the timeline's a linttle skewed--the
whole abusive-father bit in the middle, aside from being a fairly stale routine
confused me timelinewise. Is thids a flashback or another delusion? Did I just
run away from home or from a mental hospital? I get conflicting answers based
on this segment, and I don't see what it adds.

Anyways, I've spent enough time bitching about what I didn't like. How about
what I found better: the design conceit. The theme of fantasy vs. reality was
fairly heavily done, and succesfully, in Spider & Web, and along different
lines in Delusions. I'm afraid I'd have to call "Bliss" flawed, but not
irreperably so, and just because a theme's been done is no reason not to
expound on it. THe PC as an essentially reprehensibly character in this
scenario opens worlds of possiblility. Make good use of them.

3: "Strangers in the Night" 4

This game is well-intentioned and reasonably well-crafed (more on the
programming later) but the tone just didn't get me. I've never much
liked vampire stories, so no accounting for taste I guess. That said, the game
was pretty simplistic and the plot didn't do much to hold it up in the absence
of good puzzles. Granted, there may have been a good puzzle associated with the
ffth victim (who I never found), but getting people alone seemed awfully easy
and non-interactive. That, to me, is the game's fatal weakness--it's all tone,
without much in the way of plot or puzzles to carry it. From a technical
perspective, there are a couple quirks, not major, which I'd rather no air in
public, but which indicate shoddy beta-testing.

On a personal note, I found some characterizations highly offensive. Why is the
math geek such a mindless schlub and the lib. arts major so highly desirable.
I don't want to be bitten by a vampire, but I resent being considered not
worthy of being bitten :-(. That, and most of the math geeks I know don't even
like Pauly Shore. I just sense a pretty evil discrimination here. We're really
pretty fun once you get to know us.

4: "A Moment of Hope" 3

Well-thought-out at least, but way to linear for me to enjoy. I really didn't
feel any sense of interactivity. It was Photopia with nothing to say. Added to
the fact that Photopia at least let me do stupid stuff and made up for it in
ways that made sense (e.g. letting Alley drown, forgetting to pick up the
shovel), while "Moment" never let me do what _I_ wanted to do. Damnit, if I
want to send the first draft of the letter, I should! Even if it does make me
look like a jerk! That, and that I found it really hard to care what happened
to the protagonist, mainly because of my distrust in web services. Using them
as a pivotal plot element was a real turn-off.

5: "Exhibition" 7

This was, for me at least, a really interesting project. Multiple points of
view and/or multiple protagonists has been done (Photopia, Suspended), but the
liesurely feel of this one was real nice. The only thing I didn't like was that
there wasn't much to do _besides_ look at the pictures. The few non-picture
objects in the story are non-interactive (none of the characters can ever
get caviar or champagne, right?). The idea is sound, but a little more stuff
to play with might not hurt.


6: "Chaos" 6

Well written and fairly funny (not my kind of humor, but decent anyway). The
puzzles are reasonably well written, and the third-person aspect is
well-integrated. This game is only spoiled by a couple little bugs--for
instance, it's possible to get an infinite number of points, Chaos can leave
the airlock, and the pet-bot guess-the-verb puzzle would be happier if, for
instance, "TIGHTEN" was recognized as a verb. A lot of little things, really,
but it's the little things that make up the big picture. Also a lot of useful
synonyms and nouns are unimplemented, and that's a big gripe of mine.

7: "Chicks Dig Jerks" 2

I'm sure I'll get some flak for saying this, but Photopia may be the worst
thing to happen to IF. Predictably after Photopia's victory in last year's
comp, we're getting an awful lot of games with perspective jumps & ultralinear
narratives (Chix, Bliss, Hope). This one, of course, even borrows Photopia's
conversation engine, but fails to inform us of this, so trying to "ASK KEEGAN
ABOUT CHICKS", for instance, yields unhelpful responses. Lots of other
wierdness too. Nothing that happens after I enter the graveyard makes an ounce
of sense. I wander around aimlessly, and suddenly it tells me about a
"shitwank" ready to kill me, but I can't interact with him at all, and after he
kills Keegan he disappears completely. Screwy. Anyways, this has all the
elements I liked least about Photopia stylistically, none of the redeeming
virtues, and one pointless puzzle.

8: "Halothane" 8

I really found this an impressive offering. Self-referential IF has a nasty
tendency to be in-jokey or at least in-crowdy (e.g. Sins against Mimesis, A
New Day, Informatory). While "Halothane" is stuffed with in-jokes, they tend to
be understated and not really vital to gameplay. In fact, you don't need to
know much about IF to play, yet clearly there's a lot of self reference (one
of the characters even refers to Non-Interactive Fiction) and a fascinatng
premise, that characters in an abandoned work live on in a dying world. I found
playing Halothane to be very satisfying and the puzzles generally
straightforward.

So for the minor bitches: Like "Hope", you're railroaded on occasion into
being required to perform an action which you may or may not want to do. There
are only two, however, and unlike "Hope" it gives you feedback on
not-in-character actions (the only glaring point is the manuscript destruction
scene; the sleep scene is forgivable as straightforward physical exhaustion).
In the showdown with Sweeney, it would be nice if "talk to microphone" or
"yell into microphone" were implemented. In fact, "yell" in general would be
nice (I really wanted to do it when I was tied up in the back seat of the car).
Also, I don't see why talking into the bug from a room other than Sweeney's
lair wouldn't kill him (besides that it would overstep the rather well-done
showdown).

+--First Church of Briantology--Order of the Holy Quaternion--+
| A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into |
| theorems. -Paul Erdos |
+-------------------------------------------------------------+
| Jake Wildstrom |
+-------------------------------------------------------------+

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