[Comp99] Brief reviews of the Inform games

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Neil Brown

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Nov 16, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/16/99
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In the spirit of 'me, too!', here are my "reviewettes" of the contest games.

I was pleased to be able to be a judge for this year's contest, as I
hadn't managed it in previous months. Unfortunately, because I'm
still stuck on an Acorn platform at home, I wasn't able to run the
Dos or HTML/Javascript games, and the Acorn TADS interpreter is
getting on a bit now and doesn't run games compiled with the latest
version. I do have an ALAN interpreter around somewhere, but I don't
know where, so that left all the Inform games. (Apart from Life On
Beal Street, unsurprisingly.) I'd like to try the TADS entries if I
get the chance, at some point in the future.

My favourite of this year's entries was "Winter Wonderland". It's the
kind of game I wish I'd written myself. "Hunter, in Darkness", "Beat
the Devil" and "For A Change" are all commendable as well.

I normally consider myself to be a generous judge, but looking at my
scores the modal average appears to be 4 or 5. Is this better or
worse than previous contests? I've leave that for other people to
decide, but I suppose it means that a lot of entries I came across
were a little bit weak.

Anyway, enough of my rambling.

- - - - - - - - - - -

"Calliope"

Fairly solid but inconsequential. Technically suffers from a few
flaws (the television in particular doesn't appear to have been
implemented despite suggestions to the contrary, and the Mac can be
lifted up with the greatest of ease), and the game could do with more
synonyms. Doesn't sparkle or gel particularly, but certainly nothing
for a newbie author to be ashamed of.
Score: 4

"Hunter, in Darkness"

An effective hunting tale, with the sparse descriptions serving to
enhance the experience. The writing is, on the whole, very well done,
and there is a genuine sense of panic when the player character seems
to lose his/her sense of direction and go round and round the same
passages. The formidable prey, barely seen but often heard and smelt,
is well conceived. There are occasional lapses, however; at one
point, a fairly obvious (to me, anyway) synonym is omitted, resulting
in a guess the verb scenario in order to solve a crucial puzzle, and
some of the descriptions are a little disappointing (eg "Dull room\
This is a dull room. <etc>"). However, the latter is a small point,
as I suspect this game is meant to be played in the same frantic
manner as I played it, with little time for studying room
descriptions.
Score: 8


"Jacks or better to murder, Aces to win."

Certainly an interesting little tale, although the title is somewhat
cumbersome. The puzzles are relatively easy and don't form much of a
barrier, which I believe was intentional. Perhaps not entirely
successful, though; in some instances I felt that there was just too
much storytelling (often several screens of text in one go), which at
times felt overbearing. One of the rooms is purely decorative, and
the description almost seems to be saying 'This room isn't important;
please ignore it'. On the other hand, there were many good points,
particularly the whole quasi-religious setup.
Score: 7

"Music Education"

A little too long and rambling for my liking. For some reason I could
never quite manage to make myself a good mental map of the college
(pen and paper are a no no except with *very* big games), and
consequently found myself wandering round at random. Although the
opening text gives a broad hint as to what the aim of the game is, I
was never sure what I was meant to be doing, other than find money
for the parking meter. A few of the puzzles are, in my opinion,
unfair - particularly the whole business with the postal worker. The
walkthrough says that the character Joseph is the built-in help, and
that we should ask him for help on any particular topic; however, I
could not get even one decent answer out of him, hitting the default
reply on all attempts. Most NPCs in the game are pretty much
unresponsive as well. Maybe a little too ambitious - although, again,
a good first try for a new author.
Score: 4

"A Day for Soft Food"

An interesting game, with a definite charm of its own. The confusing
direction system, unfortunately, completely wrecked any hope of me
building a mental map, making it difficult for me to negotiate my way
round. I don't like the initial time limit, either - it seemed to
prohibit exploration and experimentation. And while some of the
puzzles are well thought out, there are others that strike me as a
little on the unfair side. I know this might sound patronising, but
the words "good attempt" seem appropriate.
Score: 6

"Life on Beal Street"

I won't touch on the 'is this IF?' argument, but I will say that I
recognise that this has some extremely good writing. And I didn't
like it.
Score: 4
[Additional note: judging by other people's review, I wasn't paying
this entry enough attention. Apparently the writing is awful. The
brief comment represents the amount of time I spent on it (a couple
of minutes at best, while watching something on TV at the same time).]

"Only After Dark"

This is a game that really needed a walkthrough to go with it, seeing
as there are several points where the player has to die attempting
things several times before stumbling on to the solution. (Yes, the
solution is logical, but so were the other things I tried, and I
wasn't to know that they would somehow fail.) The 'interactive' part
is quite disappointing - in many cases, you have to wait for things
to happen to you. On the positive side, however, I like the scenario
a lot, and the writing is good. Unfortunately I couldn't finish it -
I couldn't figure out what to do to save the day in day two - so I'll
take a point off my final score.
Score: 5

"Lomalow"

I quite like this one. I liked the way that the backstory was
revealed a little at a time, until the end. I was a little
disappointed, I must admit, that nothing actually happened at the end
and nothing was resolved - the information stopped flowing, and that
was that. (I assume it *was* the end - typing 'hint' told me that I'd
won.) The game could have done with some beta testing to catch the
bugs and spelling/grammatical errors, at which point one of the beta
testers could have helpfully pointed out that the word 'abrupt', and
any of its derivatives, were banned words for the day and that one of
the descriptions would have to be rewritten.
Score: 5

"Winter Wonderland"

Definitely my favourite so far. Winter Wonderland is a well crafted,
well written adventure of just the right size to be fulfilling while
not being overblown. The majority of puzzles are either cute, or
clever, or both, though I must admit I didn't find any mention of a
stocking in the cottage, and even after reading about it in the
hints, couldn't find any reference to it (apart from the fact that
'get stocking' worked). The use of colour and ASCII graphics is good
too. What can I say? Like the author, I love the image of the snow-
covered forest, and it is brought to life successfully here. And I
only noticed one or two minor problems (missing synonyms, mostly).
All in all, a very enjoyable experience.
Score: 10

"Thorfinn's Realm"

I didn't particularly like this one. I think it was the setting that
put me off a little, and as I got into it, things didn't really get
much better. The writing is fairly minimal and doesn't really sparkle
at any point in the game, and the jokey touches here and there (such
as the pizza) are more annoying than funny. After a while of
wandering around and solving a few minor puzzles but not apparently
getting anywhere, I began to feel that there was nothing in
particular to do, and eventually gave up trying and ran through the
game with the walkthrough. Admittedly this helped a bit; it
demonstrated a few clever puzzles and a few nice touches here and
there, but also confirmed my opinion that the game was long and
rambling - spread out over far too big an area for what it is.
Score: 4

"Beat the Devil"

Happily, my adventure fatigue at this point (this being my third game
of the day) quickly eroded as I got into this nicely-sized game.
Everything is well laid out, with the puzzles being fun and not too
challenging. The writing occasionally veers a little too close to
'jokey' but for the most part proves entertaining and amusing. I
*did* need a little help towards the end, as my second hour was
running out, but I'm sure I would have got there eventually if not
for the time limit. I only noticed one or two small little bugs, but
I was happy to overlook these and keep playing. Good fun.
Score: 9

"Guard Duty"

The mixing of a modern day element (in this case, security firms)
with a fantasy setting can be interesting and funny, but this game's
premise didn't really grab me. It could still have won me over by
presenting an involving and lively adventure, but unfortunately its
drawbacks jarr a little too much. When entering the whatsit's door
and attempting to go off in a direction the author doesn't want the
player to go, the game says that we should really follow the whatsit
for a meeting of some sort. But the whatsit didn't go anywhere, or at
least if it did, it wasn't mentioned on screen. You can end up in a
pitch black room with no warning (wouldn't the player have noticed
that it looked quite *dark* in that direction? - mind you, the
darkness appears to be quite random), and you are expected to
continue to find your way about. The author's personality quite often
intrudes upon the descriptions (somewhere in the description of a
painting is the phrase "Like I said"), and some room descriptions are
a total waste of time (eg the one near the beginning which seems to
read "This room could many things; it could be X, or Y, or Z, but
it's not. It's A."). And that's not to mention the bug that crashes
interpreters when you try to get an inventory of what you are
carrying. Ultimately, I ended up lost and wandering around, with no
idea of what I was meant to do and no sign of any characters or
anything particularly interesting. It doesn't help that in some cases
movement isn't linear, and that going in the opposite direction to
the one you've just travelled in does not always result in you going
back to your previous location. Especially when some of the problem
areas are pitch black so you can't even read the text descriptions.
If all the bugs were removed, and the writing polished, this could be
a decent game. At the moment, it's not.
Score: 3 (for effort)

"Chicks Dig Jerks"

Definitely not what I was expecting. Starting out and trying to work
out what to do is a bit of a pain (things mentioned in the
descriptions that seem fairly important or interesting are not
implemented, and directions are generally not given unless you type
in a wrong one), but once I started to get somewhere I found that I
really enjoyed this game. The text is well written (apart from the
occasional typo) and the characterisation pleasing. The puzzles are
only a minor hindrance to progress, which in this case is a good move
as the writing is quite absorbing. In one or two instances, I wasn't
sure what the author was referring to in the text, and it took me a
short while to work out what on earth a 'glock' is (the description
doesn't help), but these seem fairly minor faults. Unfortunately
there is one particularly large fault towards the end of the game,
something that appears to make the ending impossible to reach, which
is a great shame as I was looking forward to the conclusion. With the
bugs removed and certain parts polished, this could be good. As it
is, I think it's still better than average.
Score: 6

"Death To My Enemies"

Since this game is around 123k in size, and I've only seen stuff that
would take up 70k maximum[1], I can only assume that there's a hell
of a lot more to this game than I've seen. Maybe some hidden
graphical treat? The idea of the game is fairly good - you've already
had the exciting adventure, and now it's time for the big climax -
but the whole thing is small and quite wierd. That in itself could
work well, but doesn't really do much for me. It's kind of got the
the feel of the Museum of Inform, where everything is disjointed and
simply a display of a certain technique or idea. The implementation
is a bit clunky as well.
Score: 4

[1] I've since dabbled with the latest version of Inform, and it
would appear that the minimum size for Z-File games has increased
somewhat.

"Halothane"

Quite an enjoyable game. Halothane might have been hellish had the
puzzles been harder than they are, but they appear to be there to
give the player a bit of interaction and push them in the right
direction. This is a nice approach (certainly not unique to
Halothane), as it allows a fairly complex story to be told without
bogging the player down too much. Indeed, this story is complex, or
at least it is quite a challenge keeping up with what is going on as
the scenarios change fairly swiftly. Upon finding a reference to a
previous year's entry, Muse, and later a reference that reminded me
of Babel, I began to wonder if this game was attempting to patch
together the realities of several IF games. Apparently not, and I
didn't get the hidden meaning of all this either. All in all, a solid
entry.
Score: 7

"Outsided"

I have to admit that the awful title (if we're going to invent new
English words, please make them sound less awkward) and the spelling
mistakes in the preamble gave me a bad feeling about this one. I
don't like notes from the author appearing at the start either, even
if they have been put in to excuse unfair puzzles. And the first
puzzle of all is *extremely* unfair, requiring the player to die at
least once. How on earth is the player meant to know that they
possess a particular object if they are not given enough time to
check? Things went steadily downhill with the description of a female
major farting, and came to an abrupt halt when the game decided to
change the screen colour to black on black. I suppose I could have
fiddled around with the interpreter in an attempt to make the text
readable, but I decided that it wasn't worth the effort, considering.
Score: 3

"Spodgeville Murphy and The Jewelled Eye of Wossname"

One line of text in this small little game made me laugh out loud.
And that can't be bad. That aside, though, I felt that there wasn't
enough here to give this game a high score.
Score: 4

"L.U.D.I.T.E."

I gave this about five minutes, and couldn't get anywhere. Knowing
the author's reputation, I TXDed the game to see if there was
actually any point to the game and anything I could do other than
wander around the four rooms with almost nothing in them. And it
would appear that the answer to both questions is 'no'.
Score: 1

"Pass the Banana"

Hours of fun for all the family! (I'd feel guilty if I gave this game
a score that helped it beat other (serious) entries. So I give it:)
Score: 2

"For A Change"

Impressive. I found this one quite irritating when I began, not able
to make head nor tail of the strange world described in strange
language. At first I suspected that I would turn out to be a small
child whose understanding of his environment is still not developed
enough to make much sense of it. As I played I found myself getting
into it and ultimately enjoyed it a lot. It must have taken a lot of
thought to distort things in such a way, and the game is fun and not
too difficult too. A worthwhile experiment.
Score: 8

--
Neil Brown
ne...@highmount.demon.co.uk
http://www.highmount.demon.co.uk


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