Contest Capsules [SPOILERS ETC.]

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Roger Giner-Sorolla

Nov 26, 1996, 3:00:00 AM11/26/96

All right, all right, here are my takes on the contest entries. Don't
read the reviews unless you've sent in your votes, etc., or your eyeballs
will turn into gooseberries.


Well folks, here are my ratings and highly opinionated capsule reviews
of those 1996 IF competition games that I could play on the Mac.
The rating system, 3 P's and 2 I's, reflects my own priorities for the
contest, including a "last lousy point" for substantial innovation in the
"Prose" (3 pts) is for writing competence and style; "Plot" (2 pts) is
for how satisfying the story aspects of the game are; "Puzzles" (2 pts)
is for the quality and originality of the ways in which obstacles are
vanquished and situations are investigated; "Interactivity" (2 pts)
refers to how well the game handles alternate puzzle solutions,
reasonable non-solution actions, and general curiosity about the
environment; "Innovation" (1 pt) rewards departures from the typical
forms, conventions, or subject matter of existing IF games.


As this distribution of ratings shows, I liked this year's crop of
games. Given the large number of them, the best were better than last
year's, but the worst were much, much worse. My three runners-up
included two entries embodying a fiction, rather than game, approach to
IF; but the third was a well-done slapstick game I had lots of fun
playing, and my favorite turned out to be a work that combined game
elements and serious fiction writing exceptionally well. As for the
shoddy ones, I gave a booby-prize extra point to the two that amused me most.

In the order I played them in, then, here they are.


The Meteor, The Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet
In two words: Zork Tradition
Playing time: 2 hrs.
Finished? Nowhere near, even using hints.
Prose(3):3 Plot(2):1.5 Puzzles(2):1.5 Interactivity(2):1.5 Innovation(1):0
Score: 7.5 (8)
Comments: Very well-written and droll Zork Universe caper, with several
twists on the originals. Puzzles are good, but should admit more
alternate syntax and solutions (ex.: throw sherbet works but not pour;
you can't stand on the trunk to reach that out-of-the-way object). More
exploration- than plot-driven.

In two words: Very Educational
Playing time: 45 min.
Finished? Nope.
Prose(3):2.5 Plot(2):0 Puzzles(2):2 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation(1):1
Score: 6.5 (7)
Comments: An innovative use of Inform to teach another programming
language, Scheme. The "puzzles" (problems) are very well-done, at least
the first two that I got through, and the implementation of Scheme is a
tour de force. It would have been better if the puzzles had been made
into more of a story, though; and if it had been more of a progressive
tutorial, instead of throwing the whole manual at you and giving you

In The End
In two words: Puzzleless, Depressing
Playing time: 2 hrs.
Finished? I think, but finishing isn't the point.
Prose(3):3 Plot(2):1 "Puzzles"(2):2 Interactivity(2):2 Innovation(1):1
Score: 9
Comments: Very innovative interactive story that avoids the pitfalls of
"tree fiction." No puzzles per se; curiosity is a sufficient motivator
to keep playing and re-playing. Lots of other adventure-game conventions
dumped for the sake of realism. Excellent writing and characterization,
but the plot is a bit of an existentialist cop-out.

In two words: Standalone Endgame
Playing time: 30 minutes, no hints.
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):2 Plot(2):1 Puzzles(2):0.5 Interactivity(2):1.5 Innovation(1):0
Score: 5
Comments: A scenario with great moral and emotional implications that
really should be the end of a much longer game, instead pops up at the
end of an easy, engaging dungeon crawl in the dark. Climax without
crescendo, in a standard fantasy-quest setting.

Moon Maiden
In two words: Gothic Haunting
Playing time: 2 hours, several hints.
Finished? Almost.
Prose(3):2.5 Plot(2):1.5 Puzzles(2):1.5 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation(1):0
Score: 6.5 (7)
Comments: Furniture-heavy haunted-house adventure in auld Scotland, with
many familiar gothic elements. Puzzle types also familiar to long-time
adventurers, but varied. Some puzzles are picky solution-wise, and some
surprises are "cruel" and unclued. Nice use of time, magic, moonlight.

Alien Abduction
In two words: Twilight Zone
Playing time: 1 hour, extensive use of hints.
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):2.5 Plot(2):1.5 Puzzles(2):0.5 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation(1):0
Score: 5.5 (6)
Comments: Abducted by pesky aliens and forced to solve their puzzles, you
must find how to defeat them and escape. Story is strong, perhaps too
strong -- much of what you have to do requires guessing the author's
intent or using odd syntax, and the contraption puzzles just make no
sense. Several bugs, decent Appalachian setting, unsatisfying surprise

In two words: Oh Dear
Playing time: 15 minutes, solution used.
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):0.5 Plot(2):0.5 Puzzles(2):0 Interactivity(2):0.5 Innovation(1):0
Score: 1.5 + 1 = 2.5 (3)
Unintentionally bizarre fantasy. Puzzles: two, both unfair, one very
easy. Lots of features that don't really make sense; prose that aims
high but collapses in a mess of spelling, grammar, usage, typing and
syntax errors. One bonus point awarded for being enjoyably flawed.
Quote: "As the water attempts its cruel defication of your body, it meats
its enemy."

Kissing the Buddha's Feet
In two words: Collegiate Fun
Playing time: 1 hour, with some help from solution.
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):3 Plot(2):1.5 Puzzles(2):2 Interactivity(2):2 Innovation(1):0
Score: 8.5 (9)
Slapstick scramble: silence distractions and eject annoying guests from
your off-campus apartment so roomie can study. Very humorous writing,
situations, and snappy interpreter comebacks. Puzzles are clever and
comically frustrating. Many Easter eggs, including full-fledged trivia
game. Mentions "mimesis." One minor gripe: a couple of obvious
solutions to the TV cord are ignored.

In two words: Excruciatingly Silly
Playing time: 30 minutes, hints needed
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):2 Plot(2):0 Puzzles(2):0.5 Interactivity(2):0.5 Innovation(2):0
Score: 3
Absurdist, goofball adventure. Are the puzzles unfair or just arbitrary
and bizarre? Well, some clues are given, but they require a very peculiar
mindset indeed. Didn't have much fun playing this, in spite of the gonzo

In two words: Simple Prelude
Playing time: 20 minutes, no hints
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):2 Plot(2):1 Puzzles(2):1 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation(2):0
Score: 5
Prelude to a fantasy quest: collect what you need in and around town to
start adventuring. Puzzles are very easy and pat; Windhall-like village
could be better fleshed out interactively. Good intro to IF for kids,

Wearing the Claw
In two words: Fantasy Quest
Playing time: 45 minutes, no hints
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):2 Plot(2):1.5 Puzzles(2):1 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation(2):0
Score: 5.5 (6)
Surprisingly easy save-the-village fantasy game, but with decent plot and
theme. Interesting curse, lots and lots of red herrings, a few simple
puzzles (though not the most logical, sometimes).

Don't Be Late
In two words: That's It?
Playing time: 15 minutes, no hints
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3):2 Plot(2):1.5 Puzzles(2):0 Interactivity(2):0 Innovation: 0.5
Score: 4
Cute everyday-life game with mildly inventive twist ending. Extremely
short, puzzles are much too common-sense, race against time isn't even
close. Annoying ALAN parser.

Rippled Flesh
In two words: Barringer Lives!
Playing time: A near eternity
Finished? Yes, but nowhere near maximum score.
Prose(3):0.5 Plot(2):0 Puzzles(2):0 Interactivity(2):0 Innovation: 0
Score: 0.5 (1)
Pointless horror-house crawl with no visible puzzles: just a series of
intractable features that have a hard time even fitting in the
stream-of-consciousness "plot". Writing is overblown and studded with
malapropisms. Not as manageable or amusing as "Liquid," so no bonus
point, sorry.

In two words: Comical Caper
Playing time: 45 minutes
Finished? Yes
Prose(3):2.5 Plot(2):2 Puzzles(2):1.5 Interactivity(2):1.5 Innovation: 0
Score: 7.5 (8)
Lighthearted tall tale pitting California pizza boy against the mob.
Snappy tone, madcap plot and simple but satisfying puzzles all complement
each other very nicely. With a few bugs removed, would make excellent
introduction to IF for teens and adults.

In two words: The Winner
Playing time: 2 hours, several hints
Finished? No
Prose(3):3 Plot(2):2 Puzzles(2):2 Interactivity(2):2 Innovation: 1
Score: 10
Extremely well-written, complex, and strongly implemented IF about future
virtual reality experiments. Many innovative and amusing features:
game-within-game, "Suspended"-like sensory mucking, hilarious TV show
parody. Difficult but fair, emphasizing problem- rather than
puzzle-solving in a well-stocked laboratory environment.

(Note: Playing this beyond two hours, I was less impressed with some of
the endgame puzzles, and the finicky, buggy nature of the 'finding
self-awareness' bit. Still at least a 9, though.)

In Two Words: Puzzle Parade
Playing time: 2 hours, one hint
Finished? Yes, just barely.
Prose(3): 2.5 Plot(2):1 Puzzles(2):2 Interactivity(2): 1.5 Innovation:0
Score: 7
Trapped at home with phobias; overcoming them depends on "Curses"-style
daydreams containing puzzles that are well thought out and implemented,
if only tangentially related to the plot. Not an amazing game, but solid
and satisfying.

Of Forms Unknown
In Two Words: Machine Shop
Playing time: 1 1/2 hours, some hints
Finished? Yes.
Prose(3): 2.5 Plot(2):0 Puzzles(2):1 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation:0
Score: 4.5 (5)
Travel through various lonely dimensions, solving mechanical conundrums.
Admittedly inspired by "So Far"; has some of the original's sense of
place, but lacks its variety and thematic structure. Some puzzles are
not well visualized, with seemingly arbitrary solutions and finicky syntax.

Piece of Mind
In Two Words: First Person
Playing time: 1 hour, lots of hints needed
Finished? No; aggravation plus incomplete walkthru
Prose(3): 1.5 Plot(2):0 Puzzles(2):0.5 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation:0.5
Score: 3.5 (4)
Off-the-cuff game inspired by author's apartment. Experiments with
first-person narrative, but sticks too close to the author's perspective
and whims. Capricious puzzles and changes of scene; many bugs, spelling
mistakes, and annoying /011 inserts.

In Two Words: Dog's Life
Playing time: 30 minutes, one hint
Finished? Yes
Prose(3): 2.5 Plot(2):0.5 Puzzles(2):1 Interactivity(2):1 Innovation:0.5
Score: 5.5 (6)
You're a dog, find the bone you buried somewhere in the back yard. Good
implementation of canine protagonist, two decent puzzles, but an
unsatisfying, capricious end to the game.

House of the Stalker
In Two Words: Sadist's Delight
Playing time: 30 minutes, hints necessary
Finished? Yes
Prose(3): 1 Plot(2):0 Puzzles(2):0 Interactivity(2):0 Innovation:0
Score: 1 + 1 = 2
How NOT to design a game: filled with inscrutable guess-the-verb and
read-author's-mind situations, one wrong move and you die. Borrowed
compass-rose and computer-game gimmicks do not compensate for flat
writing and basic unscariness. The *real* fun is finding all the
continuity gaps in the story; hence, bonus point. Quote: "Welcome to the
house of the stalker, little one!"

In Two Words: Moral Dilemmas
Playing time: 1 hour, no hints
Finished? Yes
Prose(3):2.5 Plot(2):2 "Puzzles"(2):2 Interactivity(2):1.5 Innovation:1
Score: 9
Afterlife scenario revisiting three crucial life decisions, with sundry
supernatural figures urging different actions. Very interesting moral
points made through multiple endings. Intelligently written, with some
typos; stretches of non-interactive prose drag on at times, but
interactive segments handled well, with just enough challenge in figuring
out actions to give the illusion of being there.

Small World
In Two Words: Lilliputian Whimsy
Playing time: 2 hours, several hints
Finished? Yes
Prose(3):2.5 Plot(2):1 Puzzles(2):1 Interactivity(2):1.5 Innovation:0.5
Score: 6.5 (7)
Trapped like the Little Prince on an eight-foot-wide planet, you must
solve silly puzzles of cosmic proportions to get it turning again.
Captivating setting with very interesting situations, but many
sudden-death endings; some carry rather clumsy warnings, others do not.
Puzzles are amusing but often not well explained.

Roger Giner-Sorolla University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA Dept. of Psychology (Social)
"Please, your Majesty," said the Knave, "I didn't write it, and they can't
prove I did: there's no name signed at the end."
"If you didn't sign it," said the King, "that only makes the matter worse.
You /must/ have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name
like an honest man." -- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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