My Thoughts on the Competition Games

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Jan 2, 1998, 3:00:00 AM1/2/98

Well, I see everyone's posting their reviews, so I'll go ahead with mine
(these can also be found on my web pages at As last year, I'm
focusing on the upper half, so I don't have to pan anyone. Enjoy, and feel
free to comment. And if you're the author of any of these, pat yourself on the
back ;-)



My Favorites From the 1997 IF Competition

Below are some descriptions/reviews of what I felt to be the better
games in this year's competition: those rated 10, 9, 8, 7, and the
upper part of the 6's (i.e., I left out the 6 that was a decent enough
game but totally failed to inspire me). Note that, due to a sudden
crimp in my free time (read: new job) during the last month of voting,
I never got around to judging 9 of the games (though I've sampled all
but the Hugo and AGT games), so if yours isn't listed here, it may yet be.

* Babel, by Ian Finley (10)
Of all the games in the competition, Babel and Savannah were by
far my favorites. It took quite a bit of thought before I
finally settled on giving Babel precedence: it was tempting to
rate them both at 10. But Babel came out on top in a few ways,
some more my own bias than an objective comparison: its plot
and characters are richly detailed, it uses a Delusions-like
self-discovery motif that I like, and the puzzles flow at just
the right level of difficulty for me--as soon as I thought
"well, I'm finally stuck", a light bulb would flash on giving
me the bit of insight I needed to squeeze through the next

Savannah is something that probably wouldn't have succeeded in
any other medium, though within the IF medium it's a
masterpiece. Babel, on the other hand, could have easily been a
novel or a movie (though probably not presented in the same
retrospective, flashback-driven way) for the richness of its
plot development. I can't say much about the story, since the
primary point of the game is gradually retrieving your memories
out of total forgetfulness, and you start out knowing nothing.
But I can say it's been written with the skill of a published
author. The only drawback, besides a few annoying parsing bugs,
is the ending, but I can't fault the author for that too
much--Babel is not exactly the sort of game that lends itself
to a pat and comforting end.

* Sunset Over Savannah, by Ivan Cockrum (9)
Savannah was my second favorite game this year, one bursting
with creativity and polish, not to mention very well
playtested. I ran into only a handful of minor bugs throughout.
The premise: you're thinking about quitting your job and
pursuing your own interests, but can't quite convince yourself
to go through with it. As you explore the beach, the ocean, and
the pavilion, you find experiences that inspire you out of the
rut and restore your faith in the magic hidden in everyday
things. It calls itself an "existential" vacation, and even
though it doesn't reflect the philosophy one usually thinks of
as existential, the word seems to describe it well--its
casually surreal scenarios that the author doesn't go to a
great deal of effort to explain or justify. It has some
elements similar to "So Far" (i.e. placing emphasis on the
character's environment and emotional state, which are often
connected), but is a very different, somewhat gentler sort of
game. It's impossible to die or to put the game into an
unwinnable state, something that takes alot more work than one
might think. It's a *difficult* game, with multi-step puzzles
that can take time to successfully complete, but the player
need not worry about being penalized for experimentation. The
game is loaded with prose, alot of it unneeded for the final
solution. I had alot of fun with it, and it literally took my
breath away in a few scenes.

* Glowgrass, by Nate Cull (8)
This is a surprisingly well-done little game (I had overlooked
it at first, thinking from its introduction that it was just
another genre explore-the-ancient-ruins adventure) that takes
bonus points for meaningful brevity--it's not often a game this
brief manages to have so much significance. I won't give away
much, since the pleasure of playing it is largely found in
discovery. The parser can be annoyingly primitive (i.e. "throw
x" works, but "throw x at y" doesn't work, even though y is
what you want to hit), but the story and atmosphere are very
well done. And the game's ending, while not exactly bursting
with cheerfulness, was a pleasant relief after playing through

* Edifice, by Lucian Smith (8)
Edifice is an allegory of sorts about the evolution from ape to
man, and the major steps we went through during the journey.
The edifice has three levels, each of which leads to a
different world with you at a particular turning point in
evolution. The game has a certain stark simplicity about it,
one which is perhaps suited to the allegorical nature and to
the primitive mind of the character you are playing. I might
have scored it around 5 or 6 for overall gameplay, but it won
my heart with an extremely clever and well-implemented set of
linguistic puzzles on level 2--one of my favorite types of
puzzles, and one I don't encounter nearly often enough. The
level of immersion in level 1 is also very good--the grassland
is portrayed in rich detail, using all 5 senses rather than
just sight and giving a feeling of vast open space. These
details made me feel quite forgiving about the game's drawbacks
in other areas.

* VirtuaTech, by David Glasser (8)
This is a cute, nicely polished game (along with Savannah, the
two most well playtested games in the competition I think) set
in the same sort of futuristic milieu as _The Legend Lives_,
though considerably less serious. The idea is simply to get
your report printed out and get it to class on
time--unfortunately, nagging little problems like the power
outage and the bug in your word processing software get in the
way. I have to admit, my liking of this game was kind of biased
by the pointed humor about monolith software companies (e.g.,
the quick reference card that says nothing but "Use VirtuaTech
online help" for every subject), which being a computer geek
myself I can quite relate to.

* Zero Sum Game, by Cody Sandifer (7)
Every time I start thinking all the original ideas in IF have
been used up, a game like this comes along. You've pillaged,
plundered, looted, and generally done all of those fun things
traditional adventurers get to do, and now, at your mother's
insistence, you have to go right back out and undo it all! (you
can type "full score" to find out the things you need to fix).
I found this the funniest game in the competition, though
VirtuaTech came close, and though it's humor was at times a bit
too sick for my tastes. The biggest drawback is the difficulty
level, which I found somewhat unreasonable: you could put the
game in an unsolvable state by attempting perfectly reasonable
things, or by not doing the right thing at just the right time,
or by taking too long to solve a puzzle. Worse, the warning
system that is supposed to tell you when you are about to put
the game into such a state, doesn't seem to work. I was also a
bit miffed by the game's flaky behavior under DOS, even using
the DOS protected run-time with plenty of free memory. Towards
the end of the game it became completely unplayable in DOS,
lagging, locking up, and causing GO32 to spew out errors, and I
had to finish it by logging into a unix box over the net.

* Zombie!, by Scott W. Starkey (6)
This game has a story behind it that is hardly a first for
competition entries: a great idea and lots of imagination
ruined by inadequate playtesting. Infact, the playtesting seems
to be practically nonexistent: I'm left wondering how many
times the author has played his own game through. It plays like
a grade-B-minus horror movie come to life, careful not to take
itself too seriously--dark and stormy nights, disembodied
talking heads, slavering zombies, mad scientists, it's all in
there, but it would be alot more fun if there weren't logic
holes, daemon bugs (how can the head look around at the room if
he's in your closed backpack? how can the assistant come get
you from the next room if you've gone back upstairs? why
doesn't the scientist show any reaction when a horde of zombies
wanders out of the storage room?), and the like strewn
throughout. After a major fix-up job, I would probably give it
at least an 8, depending on the ending (which I didn't get to
see, having lost patience about 3/4 of the way through).

* Friday Afternoon, by Mischa Schweitzer (6)
Dilbert comes to IF! The idea in this one is simply to finish
everything you need to do at the office, in time to make your
date and prove to the world that you have a life. Annoying
co-workers, forgotten passwords, etc., become stumbling blocks
along the way. There's nothing particularly remarkable about
it, in plot or design, but I had fun with it: again, I'm
biased. Dilbert-genre humor has always tickled me.

* A Bear's Night Out, by David Dyte (6)
Although this was a fairly average game as far as puzzles and
design go, it got bonus points for the cute novelty of its
theme (do the words "if you go out in the woods tonight you're
in for a big surprise..." mean anything to you?) and for the
careful attention to detail in places: in particular, the way
the author thought out exactly what you could and couldn't do
if you were about the size of a teddy bear. It gave a nice
sense of immersion in the role and enhanced the game's
whimsical charm.

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