[Comp00] Critical Mess: Reviews of the Competition Games (LONG)

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Steven Howard

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Nov 16, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/16/00
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Brief impressions of Comp2K games

Spoilers lie ahead, though not very big ones. Consider yourself
warned.

Platform notes:

I use OS/2, so I didn't play either of the Adrift games or "Quest,"
all of which are 32-bit Windows programs. I couldn't get "Unnkulia X"
or "Futz Mutz" to run, although the other TADS games gave me no
problems under the latest DOS runtime. "And the Waves Choke the Wind"
doesn't like any OS/2 interpreters. I couldn't find a Hugo
interpreter that would run "A Crimson Spring" on my system. I played
and rated 46 of the 53 games this year.

Rating method:

My ratings are totally subjective, and are based on how much I enjoyed
the game. In previous years, I did not "normalize" my scores and I
think the highest rating I ever gave out was an 8. This year I did go
through my scores again after playing all the games, "promoting" the
one I liked best to 10 and adjusting a few others so that their
relative scores better reflected my opinion of their relative merits.

These are the games I played, in the order I played them:

"OTOS (On the Other Side)" by Lumpi. This is different, anyway. It's
more of a toy than a game or a work of interactive fiction. The basic
idea is that the program displays the sorts of things that someone
playing a game would type ("n", "inventory", "eat monkey", etc.) and
the player types in the response that the program would normally
provide. The program's "input" is generated according to a somewhat
complex scripting language, along with object names provided by the
player at run time. It seems to work okay (although the text is
awfully random: "give monkey to monkey", "jump e then get
lederhosen") but there's nothing to _do_ with it. You basically just
sit and type in weird object names and snide comments until the
"player" types "quit." Rating: 2.

"Guess the Verb" by Leonard Richardson. Guess what verb will come up
on the wheel and you win a lame prize. Guess wrong and you play a
little mini-adventure where the verb that did come up ("disembark",
for example) is needed to win. The writing style is light-hearted and
very funny in places. (Be sure to type "amusing" after you win and
check out the "forthcoming work" by the same author.) Some of the
jokes are based on older IF games like Adventure and Enchanter. The
puzzles are quite easy; the only ones that stumped me were actually
mapping bugs -- one room description lists an exit to the south that's
really to the southwest and in one location which you enter by going
southeast the exit is to the northeast. Rating: 8.

"Kaged" by Ian Finley. A government clerk is swept up in strange
events in a totalitarian society. This Kafkaesque nightmare reminded
me of Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL, or maybe a non-comedy version of the
role-playing game PARANOIA. It might be too linear in places,
although I'd say that some linearity is necessary. It's part of the
point of the genre that the protagonist is caught up in events over
which he has no control. A couple of the puzzles are a bit odd --
luckily the oddest one has an alternate solution. The main story
weakness is that none of the different explanations the character is
offered for what's going on make very much sense. I'd have preferred
either no explanation at all, or a more straightforward "banality of
evil" type of explanation where everything turns out to be perfectly
"logical" within the twisted, soulless "logic" of the bureaucracy.
Rating: 10.

A word here about multimedia. I played this game using the DOS
runtime (because apparently nobody's bothered to port TADS to OS/2
since a couple of versions ago), so all I saw of it were white letters
on a black blackground. I wasn't able to view the included pictures
or hear the included music, and frankly I'm glad. I know what the
characters look like. I understand the protagonist's confusion,
alienation, and desperation. I can't imagine pictures or music
improving the game in any way. Quite the opposite in fact.

"Threading the Labyrinth" by Kevin F. Doughty. Subtitled "An
experimental reflection on meaning and intent," this did nothing for
me at all. It took me about ten minutes to read all the text, none of
which was very interesting, or had much to say about meaning, intent,
or anything else, really. Rating: 2.

"Escape from Crulistan" by Alan Smithee. While running this 16-bit
Windows program, apparently written in Visual Basic, I didn't see
anything that couldn't have been done just as well (if not better) in
Inform or TADS. And then it crashed with a General Protection Fault.
Okay, that's something you can only do in a 16-bit Windows program. I
still would have preferred Inform or TADS. Before crashing, I was
pretty well stuck, without much to do. What I did see was just dull
-- you're in jail in a stereotypical Middle Eastern country with a
jokey name, run by a stereotypical "crazy Arab" with a jokey name.
Rating: 1.

"Asendent" by Sourdoh Farenheit and Kelvin Flatbread. As should be
obvious from the title and the byline, this is a Rybread Celsius
parody. Nearly every word is spelled wrong; there are very few
objects, and those that do exist are sparsely implemented. It's even
compiled with debugging mode on. Everybody knows Rybread's . . .
idiosyncracies, and it doesn't take much cleverness or insight to
point them out. Intentional bugs are no funnier and no less
irritating than the accidental kind. Rating: 1.

"The Trip" by Cameron Wilkin. Loser takes drugs, hallucinates, thinks
about stuff. This game failed to capture my interest, either with its
unappealing main character, his pathetic life, his creepy friends, or
his odd philosophy. (Turns out greed, lust, and responsibility (!)
are Bad Things and that science makes people unhappy.) My enjoyment
was further diminished by the numerous spelling, grammar, and typing
errors ("lable" for "label", "you're" for "your", "be cause" for
"because," etc.). On the plus side, the programming seems pretty
solid and the hints file says there are lots of optional puzzles,
which is something I like to see. Rating: 4.

"VOID: CORPORATION" by Jonathan Lim. I really don't like cyberpunk,
and I really don't like the AGT parser. The game does present a
fairly rich world, with lots of stuff about different colored pills
and different colored genetic cultures, virtual reality booths (the
wandering monsters . . . er, enemy agents . . . can apparently follow
you into virtual reality), different companies, and so on. Not much
of it is really germane to the character's mission, which he mostly
accomplishes by picking up a few items that are just lying around,
taking them somewhere else, and putting them into a slot. Makes you
wonder why the client hired this guy, when everything needed to do the
job was just lying around in or near the client's own building.

The game also features a lot of unintentional humor . . .

">TALK TO MAN"

"That isn't animate"

. . . parser oddness . . .

">SHOOT AGENT"

"You attack the agent with your bare hands, but it
evades your attack."

">SHOOT AGENT WITH GUN"

"You kill the agent; it vanishes in a cloud of red smoke"

. . . and surrealism:

">SHOOT AGENT WITH GUN"

"(Getting the gun first)"
"You pick up the fmi agent."
"You kill the agent; it vanishes in a cloud of red smoke"

Rating: 3.

"At Wit's End" by Mike J. Sousa. The author describes this as "a case
study of Murphy's Law in action" and he's not kidding. In the course
of this game our hero, professional baseball player Jake Garrett:
hits the winning home run to send the Boston Red Sox to the World
Series, gets injured in the ensuing celebration, survives a crash in
the ambulance on the way to the hospital, survives the forest fire
caused by the crash, surprises a pair of burglars who then kidnap him,
escapes from them in a boat, and is set adrift in a storm. At that
point my two hours were up and there seemed no end in sight. From the
walkthrough, on which I had been relying heavily, I saw that Jake only
had another couple of Frying Pan/Fire transitions coming up. I
appreciated the fact that the author trusts the player enough to
refrain from pointing out how absurd Jake's travails are. All of the
action is played perfectly deadpan, except for the "scoring" system
which assigns a different emotion ("Anxious", "Pessimistic", "Elated",
etc.) to each new plot development. I experienced some slight parser
difficulty with the rope and bottles puzzle, but otherwise the
programming is solid and I didn't notice any spelling or grammatical
errors. Rating: 7.

"Desert Heat (a romance of sorts)" by Papillon. This Arabian Nights
fantasy is done "Choose Your Own Adventure"/multiple-choice style,
rather than employing a standard parser. You read a big block of
text, then choose from a list of two, three or four options, and keep
doing this until you come to an ending. As is true of most works in
this style, there are a lot of loops, shallow branches, and false
choices that serve to funnel the story into a single path. The story
itself isn't bad, and some of the writing is quite good. I was put
off by the interface, though. I never felt like I was interacting
with the story. Rating: 5.

"Transfer" by Tod Levi. It seems that every year there's a game set
in a research lab. This one's got all the features you'd expect --
untrustworthy coworkers, a nifty machine to play with (you can
transfer your mind into the bodies of animals or other people, hence
the title), and lots of sneaking around and gathering information.
The on-line hints are pretty good, if incomplete, and they're tied
into the scoring system. Basically, you don't get full points for
solving a puzzle if you used the hints. I think I've seen this
before. I'm not sure what the point is, especially since it's so
easily circumvented. (Save, hint, restore). The writing and coding
both seem strong; I don't recall any glaring errors or bugs. Rating:
8.

"Stupid Kittens" by Pollyana Huffington. Okay, now this is what a
Rybread Celsius homage should look like. You're a cat, and you get
killed, and you meet God and Buddha and Albert Einstein and an angel
who looks like Jennifer Love Hewitt, the parser lies to you and swears
at you and absolutely nothing makes any sense at all. Rating: 2.

"What-IF?" by David Ledgard. What IF indeed? This is not a game,
and it's not interactive fiction. It's a collection of seven essays,
which mostly read like high school history papers with way too much
cribbing from the encyclopedia. Unlike "Threading the Labyrinth" and
"Desert Heat," this game includes the standard library, so you can
pick the essays up, smell them, taste them, and so on. Rating: 1.

"Rameses: A Tale of Heroes" by Stephen Bond. This
slice-of-life/teen-angst story set in a British boarding school is
almost completely non-interactive. It's all written in the first
person, and the main character is rarely actually motivated enough to
do anything you tell him to. The game uses the "Photopia"
conversation system, where you type "talk to X" and then are presented
with a menu of things to say. In "Rameses," when your boorish
roommate makes some comment and you want to fire off a snappy comeback
you type "talk to Gordon" and get a menu of 3 or 4 insults and
put-downs. Whatever you pick, the game responds with some variation
of "That's what I'd like to say, but I won't." This is fairly
effective at capturing the mindset of the narrator, but it wears thin
after you realize that he'll never say _anything_ to Gordon. Later
scenes do allow the character to talk to people, although there's not
always much distinction between the choices. There's some very good
writing here, although the ending (and there may be more than one, so
I should say the ending I saw) seemed a bit forced. Ultimately, the
lack of interactivity led me to the conclusion that there was probably
a better venue for this story than an Inform program. Rating: 6.

"The Best Man" by Rob Menke. This puzzle-heavy game is basically "Die
Hard" on a train. There's lots of learning-by-dying (and at one point
the game gets snarky if the player goes through a door without
"discovering" it first). The puzzles are pretty hard, and the hints
run out before the game does. There's a time limt, an inventory
limit, and some areas that you can't pass through while carrying
anything in your hands. On the plus side, the game comes with neat
PDF handouts and I only came across one serious bug: at one point I
had a "quantity of acid" object and an "empty acid bottle" object with
no way to get the former back into the latter. Rating: 5.

"The End Means Escape" by D.O. I'm not sure if there's any point to
this game of wacky, minimalist surrealism. The first scene, talking
to the inanimate objects, is effective and kind of fun. The remaining
scenes are less robust, and quickly dissolve into author telepathy
puzzles. Rating: 3.

"YAGWAD" by Digby McWiggle. The title stands for "Yes, Another Game
with a Dragon," making this the first game I've played this year set
in the once-standard "pseudo-medieval fantasy with gratuitous
anachronisms" genre. After a confusing prologue (is it a dream, or a
story someone's telling in the bar, or what?) we're off on a random
puzzlefest as the player sets out to rescue a princess from a dragon,
then learns that All Is Not As It Seems. I ran into a few bugs. At
the start, you're caught in a press of peasants swarming toward the
castle. After you hear the king's speech, the same rush of humanity
propels you away from the castle and back to where you started. But
from then on, the peasants are still described as swarming _toward_
the castle. At one point, two bugs actually cancel each other out:
The commands given in the hints (or the walkthrough, I forget which,
but one of them was wrong) to retrieve the monk's diary don't work --
but it doesn't matter, since you can read it without taking it.
Rating: 4.

"Letters from Home" by Roger Firth. This is somewhat reminiscent of
Graham Nelson's "Curses" as well as Nelson's observation that an IF
game is "a narrative at war with a crossword." As in Curses, you
wander around an English house, collecting items that turn into other
items. However, the objects are transformed not through magic or some
physical process, but into letters of the alphabet (based on their
names -- so a cup of tea becomes the letter "T"). One puzzle requires
you to solve a simple quadratic equation, a couple of others require
either a crossword-lover's vocabulary or brute force. Several times,
the player must take something that is either intangible or clearly
out of reach. In the end, you can use the letters to solve a
crossword puzzle and get some sort of reward, I imagine. The game's
time limit ran out before I had half the objects I needed and I didn't
have time to play it again just to see the ending. The game does let
you keep playing after the time limit has passed, which is good, I
guess. A couple of things really annoyed me: the game sometimes
forces you to put objects down when you leave a room. ("As you exit,
you leave the grommet behind.") I'm not sure whether this was intended
to let the player know that certain objects were no longer needed, or
what, but it bugged me. Especially at one point, when I couldn't
leave a room with something I really thought I needed elsewhere. As
it turns out I was wrong, but I thought the "you leave it behind"
thing was a puzzle. Secondly, there's inconsistency in the coding of
"scenery" type objects. Sometimes you get a "that's just scenery"
type of message, but other times (the various items mentioned in the
description of the clutter on the desk, for example) they're simply
not implemented, and you get a "you can't see any such thing" type of
message. The game also features a few "inside jokes", including
references to "Aunt Jemima" (which just makes Americans think of maple
syrup, you know), a vase of "mimesis" flowers and a pair of
disembodied voices with familiar names who talk to you about the
various items you need to pick up. In a nice gesture of
trans-Atlantic friendship, there is a command to switch the crossword
clues from the British (or "cryptic") style to the American style.
Rating: 6.

"Aftermath" by Graham Somerville. In this grim war story, a soldier
left for dead strives to do something to commemorate those killed in
the battle. I wanted to like this more than I did. The atrocious
spelling ("abdomin," "canon" for "cannon", etc.) and clumsy writing
("For as you do, you notice the source of all the blood that was
covering the man, and that is now covering you, is the decapitation of
his head.") really put me off. There's also an object lesson here in
why you sometimes need to modify the standard grammar, even for verbs
that aren't used in your game. If I'm trapped in a pile of dead
bodies with a clear space above me and try to escape by typing "jump",
there are better responses than "Wheeee!" Rating: 4.

"Shade" by Ampe R. Sand. The description of this game in Comp00 is "A
one-room game set in your apartment." It's not quite as bad as that
makes it sound, but it's not particularly good either. There's
apparently more to the game than what I saw, but when a game presents
me with a problem, and I solve it, and the game neither ends nor
presents me with another problem to solve, I don't know what to do.
Rating: 3.

"Jarod's Journey" by Tim Emmerich. And once again I'm grateful that I
can only play TADS games in text mode. It's hard for me to rate this
game, since I'm so clearly not its target audience, being both a
non-Christian and over the age of 12. This is a Bible school lesson
dressed up as IF, set in First Century Judea -- a time when they had
backpacks but didn't know how to wear them. Our hero, presented
(almost always) in the third person and present tense, is Jarod, who
is in the unlikely position of being the Jewish son of a centurion who
was present at Christ's crucifixion. An angel instructs Jarod to
travel to three different cities to learn more about God. When he
leaves each city, there's a little multiple choice quiz to see if the
player has learned the Lesson for that scene, and it's not implemented
particularly well: "If you think God wanted Jarod to learn <X> go
North; If you think God wanted Jarod to learn <Y>, go South; etc."
The questions are phrased in such a leading manner that the correct
answers are obvious, to the extent that "Jarod's Journey" might have
the shortest winning walkthrough of any game this year: nine moves,
by my count. The game spends a lot of time dictating reactions to the
player and telling him/her what to do next. This ranges from the
overuse of exclamation marks to sentences like "Jarod should go to the
market and buy the provisions he needs for his journey." Sometimes
the overwriting borders on the humorous; for example, where you or I
might smell the fish market, Jarod's "olfactory senses alert [him] to
[its] presence." Ra ting: 2.

"Punk Points" by Jim Munroe. A student at a (Canadian?) Catholic
boys' school in the mid-80s tries to fit in with the punk crowd. You
score "punk points" for being especiallly rebellious, and lose them
for wimping out or acting like a poser. You can win with fewer than
the maximum points, and at one point it seems like you have to lose
some points to get more later. The writing captures the suburban punk
milieu fairly well. It's more superficial than "Rameses," the other
high school angst game this year, but it works better as a game. The
code for mixing the chemicals in the science lab could be tightened up
quite a bit. "Pour x into y" shouldn't tell me "the x can't contain
things", especially when "examine x" says "it's a container of x."
Rating: 7.

"Nevermore: An Interactive Gothic" by Nate Cull. This is an
adaptation of Poe's "The Raven," in the same general tradition as the
various "Vincent Price pines away at his dead wife's portrait" movies.
Standing next to Poe is a daunting task, but "Nevermore" holds up
fairly well. The writing is effectively gloomy and melodramatic. But
then there are all these puzzles. You're expected to deduce and
implement an alchemical formula based on fragmentary notes in half a
dozen "quaint and curious volume[s] of forgotten lore." The passages
are as vague and contradictory as real occult books, and there's no
way to read a specific passage. You just type "read <book>" and the
game gives you a random paragraph. There doesn't seem to be any way
to tell when you've read all the relevant material from a particular
book, nor any way to tell which material is relevant. This may not be
as difficult as I'm making it sound, but I found it overwhelming and
quickly resorted to the hints, then the walkthrough. There's a new
twist on the eating/drinking/sleeping time limit: you have to take
cocaine every few turns or you sink into a deep depression, go to
sleep, and die. This irritated me as much as these things always do.
Enough already. Finally, I was disappointed that I couldn't talk to
the raven. Rating: 6.

"Dinner with Andre" by Liza Daly. Okay, you're not Wallace Shawn, and
you're not having dinner with Andre Gregory. In fact, you're not
having dinner with Andre anybody. Andre's the waiter (although you
don't find that out until the end) and you're a woman on a date where
absolutely everything goes wrong. A short, cute game with one neat
puzzle (the "waiter maze") and a couple of minor but irritating bugs
(typing "look" gets the response "What do you want to look behind?"
Um, nothing.) Rating: 6.

"Enlisted" by G. D. Berry. Good old-fashioned space opera. Gets off
to a rocky start with a guess the verb puzzle. (You can't "join
force", "sign up", "enlist", or even say "Recruiter, yes" when he asks
if you're there to sign up. You have to "ask recruiter about
enlisting.") The next section avoids a similar problem by having the
recruiter explicitly tell you to type 'complete form.' There are a
couple of other places where the game more or less tells you what the
next command should be. This is way, way too long for a competition
game. It might take two hours just to read the walkthrough. You have
to "wait" through lots of multi-screen info dumps, and much of the
writing is on the awkward side. The game seems technically sound. I
didn't find any bugs in the two hours I played with this, but then I
was mostly either waiting, wandering around the mostly empty
spaceship, or doing just what the game told me to do. The notes say
that the different choices the player makes in the opening scene
affect the storyline. While I didn't actually play the game more than
once to find out how major the changes are, I still call that a good
thing. Unfortunately, nothing else about the game really impressed
me. Rating: 4.

"Breaking the Code" by Anonymous. This isn't a game, it isn't a
story, it isn't ANYTHING except an arguably legal way to present some
C code that purports to break the DVD encryption scheme. Maybe it
works. I don't care. Rating: 1, only because I can't give negative
scores.

"Infil-Traitor" by Anonymous. (This is probably a different Anonymous
than the last one.) Unfortunately, the story of how this game
(written in 1982) came to be entered into the competition is far more
interesting than the game itself, a Cold War spy story which seems
buggy to me even for a game of its vintage. I don't have particularly
high expectations for a game from this era, but I don't think I should
be able to "examine" any object in the game whether I'm in the same
room with it or not. Finally, a couple of notes about anonymity: If
you want to enter a game into the competition anonymously, don't put
your name in the source code and then release the source code with the
game. And if the original author doesn't want his name on it, you
probably shouldn't include a scan of the original manual cover with
the author's name. Rating: 2.

"The Big Mama" by Brendan Barnwell. The introduction to this game is
longer than the game itself. After a huge, rambling infodump about
your last break up, you wander around on the beach and try to chat up
girls. Oh, and it turns out I lied earlier. "The Big Mama" has an
even shorter successful walkthrough than "Jarod's Journey": three
moves, if you don't count hitting return to get past all the intro
screens or picking items from a menu as "moves." There seem to be a
lot of different endings. The game tells you "This is ending #X. The
actual number of endings is a secret." I'm tempted to say there are
at least 34, since that's the highest ending number I saw, but then
the lowest number I saw was 28. Suffice it to say that there are at
least four endings. Rating: 6.

"Castle Amnos: The First Legend" by John Evans. The second
"pseudo-medieval fantasy with gratuitous anachronisms" game I've
encountered so far gives me no reason to reevaluate my opinion on the
genre. You're kidnapped by a wizard who's going to perform some kind
of experiment on you. The wizard catches you trying to escape and
turns you loose to wander around in the castle. Presumably there's a
reason for this, and a reason why the guards allow you to roam
unmolested throughout the castle (with one or two exceptions), but
won't let you leave. I never found those reasons, because the game is
too long for the competition. I'm sure I didn't see half of it in the
two hours I played. I did see a lot of empty rooms, a lot of
unimplemented scenery objects, a couple of unresponsive NPCs, and one
nasty disambiguation loop ("Which do you mean, the door or the wooden
door?"). Rating: 4.

"Return to Zork: Another Story" by Stefano Canali. First of all,
I've never been a huge Zork fan. Prior to this, the last Zork game I
played was "Zork II." I'll leave it to others to judge the Zorkiness
of this game. The setting and puzzles seem random to me. A
lighthouse next to a river in a desert? The writing is okay, although
it's obvious that English is not the author's first language and there
are a number of non-idiomatic uses that an English-fluent betatester
should have caught. Rating: 3.

"Prodly the Puffin" by Wilber Nooseworthy and Incontinent Pineapple
Van Buren. The battle for the crown of Rybread Celsius rages on.
This is an odd little game full of non sequiturs and sophomoric humor,
but it's also a playable game. I didn't find any bugs, the writing is
clean, and some of the jokes are pretty funny. For example, there's
an unselectable item in the help menu captioned "How do I report a bug
in the menu system?" Rating: 5.

"Planet of the Infinite Minds" by Alfredo Garcia. Librarians,
gypsies, and leprechauns, oh my. This is a rambling, free-wheeling
romp through time, space and imaginary landscapes as the protagonist
learns he may be a member of an ancient magical race of "infinite
minds." The adaptive hints are well done (and pretty much necessary
unless you have a lot more patience with really obscure puzzles than I
do), but sometimes a hint would stay in the menu after I'd solved its
associated puzzle. A brief scatological turn toward the end of the
game seemed out of place. The characters have "funny" names that
really aren't (one of them is called "BetteDavisEye", another is "Dr.
CleftValet"), and there are a few too many multi-screen info dumps.
The writing is mostly good, if a bit wordy at times. I didn't
encounter any memorable bugs. Rating: 7. [Really Minor Nitpick:
It's not a "chaise lounge", it's a "chaise longue". It's French for
"long chair."]

"The Masque of the Last Faeries" by Ian R. Ball. Intrigue and hidden
identities at a masquerade ball. Be prepared to type "z" through all
the long rhymed speeches. The game tries to pull a fast one at the
end, by revealing that the player doesn't know a piece of information
that the character does know, and that the player was led to a false
conclusion based on NPC dialogue. This fails to impress me. In the
end, nothing about the plot is explained, although all the plot holes
and dangling threads are summarized in a little rhyme, indicating that
the author is aware of them. Odd bug: a couple of rooms print their
"you can't go that way" messages even when you've left the room the
right way. One guess-the-verb puzzle: one of the first things you
have to do is to answer a riddle another character poses. "Riddler,
grommet" doesn't work, nor do "Say grommet to Riddler", "Answer
grommet", "Guess grommet", or just plain "Grommet." You have to "Tell
Riddler about grommet." One command given in the hints doesn't seem
to work. Rating: 3.

"Metamorphoses" by Emily Short. You're a servant to some kind of
wizard who sends you to explore a strange clockwork tower and retrieve
five Platonic solids. The tower is equipped with a pair of devices
you can use to transform various items into the tools you need. I was
very impressed with the robustness of this game. You can put almost
every item into one or the other of the machines and the new item
behaves as you'd expect. The game allows for different solutions to
the various puzzles and includes at least two (and probably more)
different endings. I only encountered one bug: if you drop the
octahedron or put it into the box, you can't pick it up again.
Rating: 9.

"Withdrawal Symptoms" by Niclas Carlsson. There's nothing
particularly wrong with this game, in which you're trying to get
access to your late aunt's safe deposit box, but there's not much
right with it, either. There's just not much to it. The writing
could be improved by cutting about half of the adverbs and adjectives
and all of the uses of the passive voice. Rating: 5.

"Got ID?" by Marc Valhara. Teenager tries to buy beer. Not a bad
premise, and the writing is good, but the puzzles just seem arbitrary
and weird. Not only is your inventory limited, but there's a whole
underground section of the map that you can't leave while carrying
anything. Since items found above ground are needed for puzzles in
the underground section, which you won't know until you've been
underground, this is a game where you have to restart a lot. I don't
know if this is true, but it feels like you have to do everything in
exactly the right order. I just don't have the patience. Rating: 4.

"Masquerade" by Kathleen M. Fischer. In Nineteenth Century America, a
young woman struggles to save her father's business. The writing is
excellent, and the world is quite well-drawn, with vivid descriptions
of people, places and things. There are several different endings and
it's possible to "win" with fewer than the maximum points. (In other
games, I'd just have said that there were optional puzzles, but that's
not really appropriate here. They're not puzzles; you just get points
for doing neat stuff.) The only thing I didn't like was the extremely
curtailed NPC interaction. The only way to talk to someone is "talk
to X". The game then provides both sides of the conversation. On the
one hand, this preserves the feeling of the story (because the author
doesn't have to handle the player asking NPCs about unimportant or
inappropriate topics) and reinforces the character of the protagonist
by showing us her exact words. On the other hand, I also felt that it
distanced me from the story in places. I was just typing "g" to page
through the pre-scripted dialog. Rating: 8.

"Ad Verbum" by Nick Montfort. This year's answer to "Nord and Bert":
a game where what to do is obvious and the puzzle is how to say it.
Each room in the game has a particular semantic rule: for example,
some rooms only recognize commands where all the words start with a
particular letter of the alphabet. The coding is really impressive:
all the game's text, including error messages, obeys the rule for the
current room, and the author has allowed for lots of synonyms. There
are one or two puzzles that don't involve wordplay, and they feel
almost out of place. Play this game with a thesaurus handy. Rating:
9.

"My Angel" by Jon Ingold. Persecuted telepaths on the run. The game
features a "novel" mode in which the user types commands into the
status window and the game text just scrolls by in the main window,
sometimes without even a line break. You don't have to play in this
mode, which I found very off-putting, so I didn't. In "normal" mode,
there's no status line, but at least you don't have to keep rereading
the whole screen after every command. Playing in "normal" mode, I was
put off by the vague setting and the overly florid writing. Maybe
I've just played too much "mainstream" IF, but without separate
"rooms", I didn't have any sense of place. I applaud the author's
willingness to experiment with IF forms, but this experiment totally
failed for me. Rating: 3.

"Comp00ter Game" by Austin Thorvald. This is a parody of the "My
First Stupid Game" genre. It's a lot like the Rybread Celsius parody
we had earlier, except that it simulates a much more prosaically
incompetent game. Sadly it's just not funny. Rating: 1.

"Being Andrew Plotkin" by Celie Paradis. This is a parody of the
movie BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, except that you discover a door into
Andrew Plotkin's head. The writing is funny, but as a game I found it
too linear. The multiple viewpoint characters are handled nicely,
especially in the way the room descriptions change for each character.
I ran into a bit of parsing/disambiguation difficulty with the files
and file cabinets, but no serious bugs. Rating: 7.

"1-2-3. . ." by Chris Mudd. In this bland serial killer story the
player alternates between being the serial killer and the detective
assigned to find him. The settings are minimally implemented. Police
detectives are usually familiar with their own police station, for
example, so the player shouldn't have to type directions at random to
get around. Room descriptions in several places include stage
directions: every time you "look" in the doctor's office you discover
a note on the desk. There are several NPCs, but they only respond to
very specific questions. If you ask them about something else, they
say "Don't you want to ask me about <x>?" I don't find the idea of
being a serial killer particularly entertaining, nor did I gain any
great insight into the criminal mind or anything else. Rating: 1.

"The Djinni Chronicles" by J.D. Berry. This game consists of three
scenarios, in each of which the player is a different kind of djinni:
the Aladdin-wish-granting kind, the whirlwind-of-destruction kind, and
the mirror from "Snow White." I hadn't been aware that the mirror in
"Snow White" was a djinni, but there you go. The writing (in the
first person, past tense) suits the setting and character well, but I
never really got into it. Rating: 5.

"The Clock" by Cleopatra Kozlowski. Adventures in housesitting:
you're stuck in your friend's clock tower when the clock stops
working. I didn't get very far with this. It all seems
straightforward enough, but after doing all the obvious things (and a
few not-so-obvious ones), I never even scored one point. There are a
couple of time limits (both you and your friend's giant cat need to
eat periodically) and time seems to pass ridiculously fast. (I think
each turn is five minutes, so that an hour passes every twenty turns.)
This needed better testing. For example, the description of the
living room mentions a "table with a phone and television" as well as
a book lying on the table. If you "examine" the table, it contains a
computer and a phone. If you "search" it, you see the book. If you
"look on table", you don't see anything. Rating: 4.

"Happy Ever After" by Robert M. Camisa. Alchemy and time travel in an
empty museum. This was clearly rushed to meet the competition
deadline. Elementary bugs abound: If the gate is closed, it "bars
the way north" even if you're on the north side of it. You can enter
the secret lab without opening the door(s). There are at least two
incidents of "east" and "west" being reversed in room descriptions.
You'll never see the portrait of the heroine unless you've read the
source code and know where it is, but when you meet her, you're told
she looks just like the picture. The writing feels just as rushed,
with simple typing errors ("tombostones", "potin") and inconsistencies
-- the heroine's last name changes, as does the date of her death,
which is variously given as 1750, 1775, "five hundred years ago", and
"two hundred and fifty years ago." (Which last would of course make
it 1750, assuming the game is set in 2000). Rating: 3.

"The Pickpocket" by Alex Weldon. As a merchant in an odd, vaguely
Middle Eastern, city, you must retrieve your wallet from a pickpocket.
I didn't get very far with this, so I never found out if the irony of
the various illegal and immoral actions the player commits to avenge a
petty theft is intentional. Rating: 4.

========
Steven Howard
mrb...@earthlink.net
http://home.earthlink.net/~mrblore

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