Some Comp02 Reviews

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Edward Lacey

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Nov 16, 2002, 11:38:55 AM11/16/02
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I have not had time to review every competition entry I played, so these are
just the ones I felt I had something to say about, in the order I played
them. I shall attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum, but be aware that there
are a few.


SUN AND MOON by David Brain

Well, the plot was fairly silly. The villian's motivation was ridiculous. I
doubt many players would have had much reason for performing the winning
action. The characters must have been really stupid to choose such guessable
passwords. And I can't believe the Solwave company would have such an ugly
website.

Yet, Sun and Moon works. The web-based format gives a feeling of immersion -
the player and the protagonist are not separated by the mechanics of the
game in the way they usually are. The frequent links to websites outside the
game add very nicely to the blurring of fiction and reality. The game's maze
is, once you've figured out how the pages are numbered, very easy to cheat
at *without actually cheating, since the player character could do exactly
the same* (this was almost certainly unintended, but I still liked it). And
I admire the author's courage in entering a game that many people will
dimiss as "not really IF".

My Rating: 6


TILL DEATH MAKES A MONK-FISH OUT OF ME by Mike Sousa and John Ingold

The writing is good. The humour that manages to be dark without becoming
tasteless. The puzzles are clever, though the cleverest (the proto-French
one) is perhaps a little too complicated. The plot is excellent; I was a bit
confused about it at first, but an e-mail to one of the authors cleared up
my main problem, and I can see now that everything was explained.
Technically sound; the only real criticism I can make here is that sometimes
adding adjectives to a command (e.g. typing "airlock door" instead of
"door") can cause it not to be recognised.

My Rating: 8


TOOKIE'S SONG by Jessica Knoch

TOOKiE'S SONG [sic] is perhaps the more puzzle-based competition entrant
that I played, not purely in its density of puzzles but in the fact that the
plot exists only to provide a justification for the puzzles. Even then, the
plot only provides the PC with an overall motive, not with reasons for doing
all the things he is expected to do.

The game's first real puzzle is actually very good, being totally logical
yet requiring the player to examine the information given in a way uncommon
in IF. Sadly, the rest of the puzzles don't meet the same standard. Some
depend on answering questions posed by NPCs, and the acceptable syntax for
responses seems needlessly restrictive. More importantly, most of the
puzzles are really rather generic, and while the PC has some reason for
solving the first puzzle the game rapidly descends into "solve this puzzle
because it's here". There is some kind of explanation of this at the end,
but the ending brings its own problems. Several of the puzzles have
alternative solutions, and the quality of the player's solutions is assessed
at the end, but this makes little sense since the method of solving these
puzzles has no effect on the game until the final paragraphs. Essentially,
the player is rewarded for performing complex sequences of actions to
achieve unmotivated ends equally achievable through simpler actions, and is
patronised for his lack of intelligence if he fails to do so.

TOOKiE'S SONG is, as far as I could tell, bug-free, and technically very
proficient. For example, attempting to unlock a door selects random keys
from your inventory without repetition until the door is unlocked. The
game's other clever features include a pair of shoes that can be manipulated
as separate objects. The first of these features would be nice in some other
games, but as in this one there are only four keys and four doors, all of
which you come across immediately and which can easily be matched together,
it is pointless here. And, as there is no reason whatsoever to wear a single
shoe, I'd be impressed if anyone actually found out that they were
implemented as individual objects without reading the walkthrough. The
details of TOOKiE'S SONG show considerable work; for example, examining one
object tells you that it would hurt if dropped on your foot - and you do
actually get a unique paragraph of text describing your death if you DROP it
ON FOOT. Despite its flaws, the game has a certain charm. I just feel that
the author could make better use of her obvious talent. I hope that she
will.

My Rating: 5


MYTHTALE by Temari Seikaiha

Any game based on the mythology of Ancient Greece would have to capture some
of their grandeur in its writing to succeed, and MythTale does not
disappoint in this regard. In fact, the author goes one stage further and
contrasts the world of mythology where you battle giants and bring the dead
back to life with the real world where the worst monster to face is the
spider in the garden shed, by setting the body of the game in the house of a
modern day myth-enthusiast, with various mythological vignettes triggered as
he uncovers a set of items. The difference in the nature of the events
described is brilliantly reflected by a distinct shift in the style of the
writing (be sure to try X ME in both the real world and the myths), and
within this context passages that might seem slightly dull or overblown are
entirely justified. I don't think there's a Muse for interactive fiction,
but this is one of the competition entrants that shows we can do quite well
enough without one.

Unfortunately, how precisely the mythological vignettes relate to the main
part of the game is not at all clear. It is suggested at the start of the
game that they represent the protagonist's daydreams (and the response to
CONSULT MYTHS ABOUT ME lends support to this), but it is possible to die in
them and bring the game to an end. The endgame, in which the player is
confronted with a decision about what to do with a particular object, seems
rather detached from what precedes it; the object and the opportunities it
brings could represent the fruits of the modern character's labours, and may
call to mind an object acquired in the brief introduction, but I was left
wondering how the character I'd been playing through most of the game got on
after I left him, and the lack of an explanation of how the items he'd been
searching for had ended up where they were was disappointing.

Some other small criticisms can be made. There are a few guess-the-syntax
moments, one puzzle involves a device that I can't believe any sane person
could have designed (though most of the other puzzles are logical) and one
part of a room was incorrectly classified as plural, with the result that my
attempts to interact with IT informed me, "That's just scenery." None of
this prevents MythTale from being well worth playing, but it isn't going to
last as long as the myths it refers to.

My Rating: 6


A PARTY TO MURDER by David D. Good (aka DuoDave)

In most IF, the first command I type is X ME. When I typed that as my first
command in this game, I was given a message about how a party might be just
what I needed. Normally I'm glad when an author has written a response for
this command, but this response seemed a bit odd given that I was in an
interrogation room at the time. It turned out that most of the game would
take place, in flashback, at a party, and that the author didn't expect
people to examine the character this soon. So, not a good start. However,
when I ended up at the party, I was pleased to find that the game did
respond to KNOCK ON DOOR and LISTEN TO MUSIC, and as I explored it became
clear there were very few unimplemented nouns. This was the start of the
rapid fluctuations in opinion that would occur several times as I played A
Party to Murder.

Things soon seemed to get a bit worse again. Not being able to find the host
it had been suggested I should look for, I wandered around searching the
shelves, cupboards, etc., and I was bothered by my character's apparent
ability to wander into and search private areas and to read personal notes
and letters without anyone reacting. But as I found later after making a
certain discovery, people do actually notice what you're doing and there are
negative consequences. The author had not only been cleverer than I'd
thought, but had actually decided to punish the player whose inclination is
to LOOK IN and GET everything in sight, whether appropriate or not. And, I
reflected as I restarted, all the prying *would* be justified after this
discovery. So, this was a game that rewarded acting in accordance with the
player character's knowledge and motives, and one which I was ready at this
point to give a 7 or 8.

Then it occurred to me that the player wouldn't have any reason to go
looking in the location where the discovery is made without having done a
certain amount of prying first. The walkthrough provided with the game
suggests that the object indicating where to look is the only such item you
aren't penalised for finding and reading.

Sadly, things didn't get more logical when I'd managed to make the discovery
without losing the game. First of all, what I'd found ought to have been
shocking, but the NPCs all showed a startling lack of response when informed
about what I'd found. Granted, in a couple of cases there was a good plot
reason for them to be unsurprised, but the way most people just shrugged off
the news, or refused to believe it without looking, then went back to
whatever they were doing before seemed very unconvincing.

The author did at least anticipate that the player would try to tell NPCs
about the discovery and allow him or her to do so. I'm not sure that can be
said about much of what followed. The details of what had happened were
clear from all the evidence I'd collected, but I found I couldn't follow the
most obvious course of action, because for some reason the house I was in
lacked something that virtually every house has. So I tried to leave the
house, only to find that once I was outside the front door the only exit
available was back inside (or into the garage). In order to deal with the
evidence found, as I discovered from the walkthrough, the player is expected
to perform a completely motiveless set of actions that causes an NPC (who
can't possible have seen most of said set of actions) to allow access to a
previously unavailable item. This in turn allows access to the
aforementioned item that virtually every house has. By the time I got to
this stage, I was getting fairly annoyed.

The walkthrough suggests that there are different endings depending on how
much evidence had been collected, which is nice, but as nobody seemed to
have tried to hide any of it the police would have had to be fairly
incompetent not to find it all without my help. But more fundamentally, here
is what is wrong with A Party to Murder: the puzzles in a detective game
ought to be about finding out what has happened, not trying to divine what
the author expected you to do about it.

My Rating: A high 3


PHOTOGRAPH by Steve Evans

The impact of this game on me was such that I've put off writing this review
of it because I'm so afraid that I won't be able to do it justice.
Photograph is one of the most remarkable pieces of interactive fiction I've
played, and the fact that it is the author's first work makes it all the
more incredible.

The piece of IF this most reminded me of was Andrew Plotkin's Shade. As in
Shade, much of the action takes place inside the character's head, and it's
often far from clear where the boundary between fantasy and reality lies. As
in Shade, the player has illusory freedom but is pushed along a
predetermined, disturbing, path. And as in Shade, I had the terrible
suspicion that my character had serious problems before the character
himself showed any sign of recognising them. In fact, Photograph managed,
for me at least, to surpass Shade here. Shade's ending was unambiguously
bleak; Photograph works its way towards a vague peacefulness that I found
far more disturbing because I felt so far from at peace with what was
happening. I'm not sure if this was the response the author intended to
create, but it was certainly effective for me.

Now that "the initial euphoria has subsided" I can see that Photograph isn't
quite perfect. Some will no doubt complain that forcing the player to type
THINK ABOUT (or the single-letter abbreviation provided in this game)
constantly is not very subtle at all. One of the game's few real puzzles
depends on something of an intuitive leap that might come more easily to
some than others; if someone actually became stuck at this point for more
than a couple of minutes, the game's impact might be heavily diluted.
Photograph also depends rather too much on messages like "Now you want to do
this" and "No, you don't want to do that". To be fair, a certain degree of
this is inevitable in IF that focuses on a character's psychology; if the
character behaved precisely as the player would, there wouldn't be a lot of
point, and the player's inability to change how things play out reflects
that of the character's. But it remains that other psychological IF, such as
Shade, has made this seem slightly less artificial. And messages like "Now
you want to buy some food" are frustrating when a few of the ways in which
the player of Photograph is pointed in the right direction actually stand
out as some of the subtlest and most elegant I've seen.

But these complaints perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Photograph is
that as soon as I'd finished the game I ran TXD on it and pushed myself
through the output as quickly as I could, so I could read through every line
of text before the time I had to evaluate the game ran out. And I was still
going back to reread passages right up to the end of those two hours. I'd
taken an average of about 15 lines of Notepad notes on each of the
competition entrants I'd played up to this point. While playing Photograph,
I'd written 4 lines, all of them during the first half of the game. If I had
to rate Photograph based on how I personally responded to it while playing
it, I wouldn't be able to justify giving it less than a 10. As, however, I
want to try to assess it more objectively, I must take into account the
limits to its excellence, so a 9 (the highest mark I gave any game in the
competition) - and my sincere commendation of the author's achievement -
will have to suffice.


My Rating: A high 9


UNRAVELING GOD by Todd Watson

Unraveling God has an original plot, good characterisation, and powerful
writing. So why have I only given it four points?

Well, for one thing, the shifts in time aren't handled perfectly (for
example, it's possible to get a phone call in one time period that should
have been received in another). But what really annoyed me, though, was the
endings. It was obvious that there was a right choice and there was a wrong
choice. First, I made the right choice, and got more or less the ending I'd
expected. But the ending that followed the wrong choice was really quite
shocking - not because, as I'd expected, my decision would cause great harm,
but because it would turn out that my decision could be overruled and so had
basically been irrelevant all the time anyway. This made my wonder why the
sacrifice required for the "right choice" had been necessary at all, since
the problem it was intended to avoid could have been averted anyway. What
I'd thought was a choice between personal good and greater good became a
non-choice - whatever I choose, the world goes on as it should and my
character is damned. The whole key idea of the plot - the idea that human
science can threaten the position of God - had been totally negated.

The game had until this point managed to deal remarkably well with religious
themes without preaching, but in the end it felt as if the game was written
to promote a moral/theological argument. I don't know whether that was
really the author's intention or not. If it was, I don't intend to criticise
his views or what he was trying to do with the game. My problem is just that
it wasn't what I had expected, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth that
was reflected in my score.

My Rating: 4


ERIC'S GIFT by Joao Mendes

According to this game's ABOUT description, the "most important bits" of the
plot came to the author in a dream. To a degree, this explains some of the
stranger aspects of the game. The most problematic of these is the abrupt
ending; an epilogue is supplied, but appears tacked-on, and I suspect it was
not part of the dream.

The author has succeeded in creating a dream-like atmosphere, and this game
had the prose that I found most memorable after that of Photograph. Much
goes unexplained, such as the reasons for the importance attributed by
characters to certain things, but I found that rather than annoying me, this
only added to the atmosphere. The protagonist has made a life-changing
decision based on what seemed to me to be no more than a few coincidences,
yet the text assumes the rationality of his actions and makes them seem so
meaningful that they become acceptable. Outside the main plot, many
sentences that are slipped in hint at possibilities while providing no
answers. For example, when one character greets you, you're informed, "You
are completely blown over by her lack of fear of the total stranger that you
are to her." Leaving aside the grammatical irregularity of this sentence,
why is my character so surprised to receive a greeting that seemed to me
unremarkable? Is a world where people tend not trust each other? Does the
protagonist has a very intimidating appearance? I didn't find out. And for
once - though I can't really say why - this seemed to be a good thing.

There are hardly any real puzzles, but the actions that need to be performed
to advance the plot generally aren't particularly clear. I'm not going to
complain about this as much as I usually would, because the game is short
and I wouldn't have taken as much in during a single play if I'd been able
to rush through it. Apart from the single trivial bug I found and the
suddenness of the ending, there isn't really much here I can criticise at
all. I'm aware that I haven't done the best possible job of explaining why I
liked this game, but I seriously would recommend it to anyone who hasn't
played it yet.

My Rating: 7


THE BLADE SENTINEL by Mihalis "DarkAng3l" Georgostathis

I originally wrote a much longer and harsher version of this review, but it
occurs to me now that if someone spends his own time producing something and
offering it to the world for free, it's not really fair to take pleasure in
criticising it. I shall therefore briefly explain why gave it the rating I
did and leave it at that.

Put simply, this game has the worst parser I've ever seen. The problem isn't
just that it doesn't understand half the commands it receives, but also that
it doesn't provide any helpful feedback at all. It's only error message
seems to be "I don't understand your command. Type HELP for a list of valid
commands.". To make matters worse, this message isn't even true. In at least
one place it means only "You don't want to do that NOW."

To be fair, I ought to state I haven't played any other Quest games, so it's
hard for to tell how far the problems with this game are the fault of the
interpreter rather than the game itself. However, if this is a typical Quest
game then the author's decision to write in Quest is itself open to
criticism (particularly since Quest actually costs money). Also, I doubt
that Quest games are required to contain as many misspellings and
grammatical errors as this game does. There are also really odd bugs, such
as an object that triggers an event whenever picked up even if neither the
character nor the location referred to is anywhere nearby.

But the real problem is that the parser is so bad the game is basically
unplayable.

My Rating: 1


TERRIBLE LIZARDS by Alan and Ian Mead

>help
Sorry, but no hints are available right now. The game was written for a
seven year old... do you have one of those handy? If not you can at least
get a "walk through" by typing WALKTHRU. As a last resort, you can read the
instructions by typing INSTRUCTIONS. You could also try emailing the
authors: cubr...@yahoo.com.

>walkthru
This command prints a "walk through". That is, it gives away all the
secrets and tricks. I recommend against using this. Also, it's pretty long
so you may want to turn on scripting (with the SCRIPT command). If you
really want to continue, respond "Yes" to the question below. If you need
to turn on scripting--or have simply come to your senses--then say "No".

Do you want to see the walk through now? (Y is affirmative) >y

Terrible Lizards Walk Through
September 21, 2002

[insert walkthru]

>_

Yes, the "[insert walkthru]" above is actually the response given to that
command. And this isn't the only way in which Terrible Lizards gives the
impression of being unfinished. The aim of the game is supposedly to collect
DNA samples from dinosaurs and give them to your robot, but the SAMPLE
command given in the INSTRUCTIONS is not implemented. You're told you need
four samples, but really you only need one to finish the game. Most of the
samples you are told to collect are apparently unobtainable. One may be
acquired but cannot be put in or given to the robot. The game's objects must
all be used very specifically, and trying to use them in perfectly
reasonable alternative ways generally just produces default responses. There
are also a few outright bugs; for example, the dark rooms only appear dark
when entered, not when you LOOK while in one.

It's possible that the authors will produce a better fleshed-out version of
the game after the competition. If so, I'll be happy to play it. The game's
basic premise is original enough, and the writing appears free of errors.
Sadly, though, there doesn't seem to be enough in this version to justify
giving it a high mark.

My Rating: 3


KOAN (anonymous)

A game this simple should actually be bug-free. Try examining the pot before
getting it and you'll see that it isn't. And the message you get if you try
the winning command with a different indirect object is misleading. It gets
one point above the minimum for being short.

My Rating: 2

--

Edward Lacey
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Todd Watson

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Nov 18, 2002, 3:53:23 PM11/18/02
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Edward,

I tried twice to e-mail this to you, but the message got bounced back,
so I'm posting it here. Hope you don't mind.

Todd Watson
================================


I read your reviews on RGIF, and wanted to explain myself regarding
what I intended when writing "Unraveling God."

First of all, don't worry, I don't take exception to your review, and
thought you expressed a good, well-thought out opinion. In fact, all
of the reviews and comments I have received, with one exception, have
given me insightful feedback.

Anyway, I'm sorry the ending where you choose not to go back to hell
spoiled the game for you. I certainly see your point, and now wish I
had worded it differently. It was not my intent to imply that God was
going to step in and negate everything, letting the world continue to
operate as it always had. My thought was that a war between Heaven and
Hell actually was about to start. I only meant to infer that the PC's
ego, confidence, and desire not to go back to hell was so great that
it was only after he had committed to joining Satan that he began to
wonder whether he had chosen the winning side. I should have made that
more clear; had I done so I think it would have increased the impact
of that ending.

Incidentally, I was not promoting a particular moral message. This was
just a good little story I thought up. I'm actually pretty much an
atheist ("pretty much" means I hold out some hope that God exists, but
am not very optimistic).

Sincerely,

Todd Watson
======================================


Edward Lacey's review:

Edward Lacey

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Nov 18, 2002, 4:53:53 PM11/18/02
to
"Todd Watson" <jilla...@earthlink.net> wrote in message
news:9f66126.02111...@posting.google.com...

> I read your reviews on RGIF, and wanted to explain myself regarding
> what I intended when writing "Unraveling God."
>
> First of all, don't worry, I don't take exception to your review, and
> thought you expressed a good, well-thought out opinion. In fact, all
> of the reviews and comments I have received, with one exception, have
> given me insightful feedback.
>
> Anyway, I'm sorry the ending where you choose not to go back to hell
> spoiled the game for you.

"Spoiled the game" is putting it a bit too strongly. I had actually enjoyed
most of it up to that point, a point which I ought to have made more
strongly in my review. I thought that the characterisation was particularly
strong, and the explanations of the science involved were better-written and
far more plausible than in many games.

> I certainly see your point, and now wish I
> had worded it differently. It was not my intent to imply that God was
> going to step in and negate everything, letting the world continue to
> operate as it always had. My thought was that a war between Heaven and
> Hell actually was about to start. I only meant to infer that the PC's
> ego, confidence, and desire not to go back to hell was so great that
> it was only after he had committed to joining Satan that he began to
> wonder whether he had chosen the winning side. I should have made that
> more clear; had I done so I think it would have increased the impact
> of that ending.

And I ought not to have jumped to such a strong conclusion about what you
were trying to say based on a single paragraph. In retrospect, I think I was
unfair in allowing my opinion of the game to be affected so much by the
ending, and I ought not to have written a review that was basically an
extended gripe about a single point.

>
> Incidentally, I was not promoting a particular moral message. This was
> just a good little story I thought up. I'm actually pretty much an
> atheist ("pretty much" means I hold out some hope that God exists, but
> am not very optimistic).

Edward Lacey

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Nov 16, 2002, 5:38:55 AM11/16/02
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+ User FidoNet address: 1:396/4
From: "Edward Lacey" <edward...@btCLOSEworld.com>

My Rating: 6

My Rating: 8

My Rating: 5


MYTHTALE by Temari Seikaiha

My Rating: 6


PHOTOGRAPH by Steve Evans

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Edward Lacey

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Nov 16, 2002, 5:38:55 AM11/16/02
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+ User FidoNet address: 1:396/4
From: "Edward Lacey" <edward...@btCLOSEworld.com>

My Rating: 4

My Rating: 7

My Rating: 1

[insert walkthru]

>_

My Rating: 3


KOAN (anonymous)

My Rating: 2

--

Edward Lacey
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