[comp99] My Comp Reviews -- Part 1

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Suzanne Skinner

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Nov 16, 1999, 3:00:00 AM11/16/99
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It's time again for everyone to post their comp reviews in a flurry :-) Here
are mine. Be forewarned: my patience wore thin, so my scoring was perhaps a
little harsh. I'm not sure whether the overall quality of entries actually has
dropped by 2 points, or whether I'm just cranky this year. Whatever the
reason, I found a relatively small number of good games, and a large amount of
slush, and my ratings reflect this imbalance. To avoid discouraging new IF
authors, I have not written reviews for most of the games in the 1-3
bracket. Trust me, this was for the best.

These reviews (and past ones) have their permanent home on my IF webpages:
http://www.igs.net/~tril/if/.

The list below is ordered from the best to the least -- including those to
which I gave the same number due to the constrictions of the rating system.


Name Author Rating
---- ------ ------
For a Change Dan Schmidt 10
A Day For Soft Food Tod Levi 9
Exhibition Anatoly Domokov 9
Winter Wonderland Laura A. Knauth 8
Six Stories Neil K. Guy 8
On The Farm Lenny Pitts 7
A Moment of Hope Simmon Keith 7
Erehwon Rick Litherland 6
Four Seconds Jason "Trig" Reigstad 6
Chaos Shay Caron 5
Lomalow Brendan Barnwell 5
Jacks or better to murder, J.D. Berry 4
Aces to win
Beat the Devil Robert M. Camisa 4
Calliope J. Mcintosh 4
Lunatix Mike Snyder 4
Hunter, in Darkness Dave Ahl Jr. 4
Bliss Cameron Wilkin 4
Stone Cell Middle Edge 3
Remembrance Casey Tait 3
Only After Dark Anonymous 3
Strangers in the Night Rich Pizor 3
The HeBGB Horror! Eric Mayer 3
Spodgeville Murphy and The David Fillmore 3
Jewelled Eye of Wossname
Thorfinn's Realm Robert Hall & Roy Main 3
Halothane Quentin D. Thompson 3
Outsided Chad Elliott 2
Music Education Bill Linney 2
Pass the Banana Admiral Jota 2
King Arthur's Night Out Mikko Vuorinen 2
SNOSAE R. Dale McDaniel 2
Skyranch Jack Driscoll 2
Life on Beal Street Anonymous 2
Death to My Enemies Roody Yogurt 1
L.U.D.I.T.E. Rybread Celsius 1
Chicks Dig Jerks Robb Sherwin 1
The Water Bird Athan Skelley [none]
Guard Duty Jason F. Finx [none]

-------------------------------------------------------

Spoilers lurk below.


For a Change
Author: Dan Schmidt
In a nutshell: Explore and transform a surreal landscape
Rating: 10

Wow. No, even "wow" doesn't suffice. Call me an artsy, but I'm thoroughly
enchanted by "For a Change". The writing is rich, evocative, and sweetly
surreal; the skewed language communicates its meaning slyly and is
perfectly suited to the world it describes; the protagonist experiences the
landscape with at once animistic ("a small stone, humble and true") and
mechanistic ("potential and kinetic energy lost forever") imagery that
meshes weirdly.

This gameworld is overflowing with imagination and strangeness and
alive-ness. Everything you encounter has an emotional quality and a
personality. Though occasionally the quality seems tacked on, more often
than not, it *feels* right. Plotkin without the angst :-)

The *names* alone in "For a Change" are an enchantment--"songlantern",
"handlefish", "lie opener". They're the sort of notions that normally
strike one early in the morning, just after awakening from a dream, and
then evaporate before they can be written down.

I also have to say an extra word about the tone of the story and the
storyteller. I give almost immediate bonus points to a game as gentle and
warming as "For a Change" (I had much the same reaction to "Trapped in a
One-Room Dilly" last year). With bitterness and sarcasm being all the rage
these days, it's refreshing to see someone headed in the opposite
direction.

The technical side of the game is equally well-done, with most reasonable
actions anticipated and few bugs. For the most part, the Inform default
responses have either been changed to more appropriate ones, or already
work nicely alongside the pseudo-mechanistic tone of much of the game
text. One exception is the default response when speaking to most objects
("you can only do that to something animate"). Considering the hazy
division between objects and animates in this world, that should probably
be changed.

My main criticisms involve the endgame. Firstly, as far as I can tell, it's
possible to put the game in an unwinnable state quite easily if you don't
come into the endgame holding the right object. Yes, you're warned--but
only after the fact. I had to restart because of this, as I only had one
saved game (I had long since gotten the impression that "For a Change"
wasn't an unwinnable-state kind of game). Secondly, the urgency of the last
few moves is a little jarring compared to the fairly sedate, patient tone
of the rest of the game (but this is a nitpick, I guess...contrast can be a
good thing). Thirdly, the ending itself was a bit of disappointment. I was
hoping for a somewhat longer and more evocative description of the change I
had wrought!

My favorite moments were the frightened handlefish and the description for
an empty inventory.

-------------------------------------------------------

A Day For Soft Food
Author: Tod Levi
In a nutshell: Wheeee! "Ralph" for cat-lovers!
Rating: 9

From the outset, I should admit to being a passionate, hopelessly biased
cat-lover. That said, I *love* this game! I haven't had this much fun
solving puzzles since "Enlightenment". "A Day For Soft Food" is one of
those rare games that makes puzzle-solving so enjoyable, I can't bring
myself to look at the hints even at the peak of frustration. There are
several extremely clever multiple-step puzzles in the game. None of them
are arbitrary or illogical, either in origin or in the method you use to
solve them. You're solving genuine problems, not crossword puzzles in
disguise.

Despite the fact that I spent the game doing ridiculously intelligent
things, I *felt* thoroughly cattish. The author has carefully thought out
and programmed all the things you can and can't do when you have the body
of a cat, and has implemented most reasonable catty actions (meow, hiss,
lick, groom, etc.). Not to mention that the whole goal of the game, as well
as the overall attitude and parser responses, fit well into this frame ("A
door that vast? You've got to be pulling my whiskers").

The puzzles, the attitude, the timing, the extra touches (e.g., all the
different ways you can annoy your Provider): all delightful. The
progression from day to night was well done; it set up the mood just right
for my Rival's re-appearance. The ending text was also quite satisfying, a
much-needed counterpoint to the events leading up to it.

It must be said, however, that "A Day For Soft Food" is *very* rough around
the edges. It's teeming with minor bugs, and I ran into one major bug (the
game crashes if you type "smell" while under the covers). This was enough
to lop a point off the otherwise perfect score I would have given it.
Fortunately, few of the bugs had any serious impact on gameplay.

-------------------------------------------------------

Exhibition
Author: Anatoly Domokov
In a nutshell: A story told through four slanted viewpoints
Rating: 9

"Exhibition" is a masterful work, one which engrossed me so deeply that I
holed myself up in the computer room, closed the door, and was aware of
very little else in the two hours that followed. It's a risky experiment
gone right--a completely puzzleless but deeply interactive story. The story
of an artist is told in his last exhibit, through the eyes of four
onlookers. You, the player, get the chance to experience the exhibit
through each of them. Each viewpoint shines a slanted light on the whole
picture, illuminating four overlapping circles that don't quite cover the
breadth, leaving the center in the dark. And of course, each light is
colored by its source, so that you must try to piece together the "truth"
out of all these unreliable narrators (one of the viewpoints is, IMHO, so
unreliable that it becomes a sort of black light--negate everything it
shows to find the reality).

The four onlookers themselves are as much a part of the true "exhibition"
(the exhibition which is an IF work) as is the artist. In experiencing
their viewpoints, you learn as much about them as about the paintings. In
fact, in the end, if was they who interested me the most, and not the art
or the artist. Perhaps this was intended. The game's graphics and musical
score (a very well-done and integral part of the experience, I found) are
centered around them.

Technically, "Exhibition" was very nearly flawless. There is great
attention to detail--everywhere there are things to see and hear and smell,
each detail experienced differently by the different characters. While
there are many things you can't do (this is, after all, an art gallery, not
a jungle gym, and certainly not Zork), the game almost always has a
reasonable response for whatever you try:

>kiss the painting
They'd throw me out on my ass!

There are very, very few instances of "I don't see that here" or even
"That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this
game". When you notice someone in the crowd, you can almost always refer to
them:

>look at the people
This old guy is wandering around, muttering to himself. He looks
really rich, I mean he's in this cool silver tux, but he doesn't look
like he's all there, you know?

>look at the old guy
I don't think this guy's really with it. He's looking at the
paintings and muttering to himself, like he doesn't even notice the
crowd.

I ran into a total of two bugs--not just bugs worth mentioning, but two
total bugs *period*. One involves a disambiguation problem when referring
to "woman" (when there is another woman around), and the other involves not
being able to scroll down to see the rest of a graphic the usual way
(instead, you have to hit [enter] a bunch of times--but this may well be an
HTML TADS bug).

Now, you might argue that "Exhibition" is a game with a fairly small
geography and limited range of action, which makes it somewhat easier to
get this level of mimesis. You'd be right. It would be an inhuman feat to
make a traditional IF game--where the player can, in theory, do almost
anything they want--run this smoothly. For a game like "Exhibition", it's
not an inhuman feat, but it certainly represents a lot of hard work.

Okay, I guess I should find something critical to say, seeing as I'm only
granting a 9 :-) I would have liked a larger area, and more to *do* besides
look at paintings and eavesdrop on other patrons. There may, I guess, have
been more to do, but I couldn't find it during the judging period. I wanted
to be able to talk to other patrons, to be able to get that balloon down
somehow, to...well, all sorts of things. I wanted more interaction, less
distance between me and the rest of the world. But I also realize that the
feeling of distance and alienation may have been just what the author was
going for.

-------------------------------------------------------

Winter Wonderland
Author: Laura A. Knauth
In a nutshell: Something to brighten even a grinch's heart
Rating: 8

"Winter Wonderland" is a wonderfully gentle little romp through a child's
wintertime fantasy, replete with elves and fairies and glowing lights and
mysterious old men and trees that talk. Its setting is somewhat a revival
of the pagan Winter Solstice that predates (and prefigures) our visions of
Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and the like. Since I, despite being Roman
Catholic, have some decidedly pagan sympathies (there is no conflict
between the Christ I know, and the magic of the old ways), this very much
rubbed me the right way. It made a theme that could have been trite into
one which was fresh and newly inspiring. I especially liked the old man in
the hills.

The transition between the mundane world and the fantastical one was well
done, reminiscent of "Wishbringer". In fact, the mundane-world prologue
remains one of my favorite parts of the game. NPC interactions were well
done here for the most part: I could greet, say goodbye to, and thank
various people in addition to the more conventional ways of conversing.
There was almost nothing here to break mimesis.

This changed somewhat after the transition, which brings me to the reason
why I'm only giving "Winter Wonderland" an 8 despite the last few
paragraphs of compliments. The forest and surrounding area have too much
"filler", in my opinion, and the ice floe area is especially tedious to
navigate (the exits indicator could have been made a lot more useful
here). I know some people love great, sprawling landscapes, but I would
have preferred one that was more compact and therefore more bustling with
interesting things--especially for a game of this nature. As it was, the
tedium of mapping and exploring tended to draw me back out of the
"wonderland" mindset. Should a little girl really be thinking like a
cartographer? :-]

All this said, I greatly enjoyed the high points of "Winter Wonderland",
and am looking forward to the author's future games. Laura's competition
entries seem to get better every year!

-------------------------------------------------------

Six Stories
Author: Neil K. Guy
In a nutshell: An illustrated storybook with a touch of the surreal
Rating: 8

"Six Stories" is the first full-blown use of HTML TADS I've seen, complete
with high-quality graphics (well, "illustrations" feels like a better
term), sound effects, and speech. However, these multimedia aspects are
used differently than they are in most commercial games. A combination of
effects, including subtle background textures that look like aged paper,
are used to give you the impression of being inside a storybook. There is
your own story, which you are playing out, and five others nestled inside
that, each recounted with pictures and a quiet voice like a parent reading
at a child's bedside. All come together to contribute to the one puzzle of
note (which, though it is arguably an "old chestnut", I quite enjoyed
solving).

I found the experience, though all too brief, to be thoroughly charming.
Puzzlewise, the pieces all fit together with a satisfying little
*snap*. Storywise, there are many insinuations and ambiguities and loose
ends--enough that I plan on a second play-through to get a clearer picture
of the whole. The author doesn't go out of his way to explain what any of
this means and why it's happening. This is obscurity done *right*--unlike
some other entries this year which shall remain nameless.

While "Six Stories" has a number of cosmetic bugs, as well as a gameworld
which is arguably over-detailed for a game of this size (leading to some
unwieldly disambiguations), I found no serious problems. It is one of
several games this year that disables compass directions, which normally
irritates me, but in this case, there was good reason for doing so.

The main reason I'm only giving "Six Stories" an 8 is because it ended just
as I was getting warmed up!

-------------------------------------------------------

On the Farm
Author: Lenny Pitts
In a nutshell: Get your grandparents to kiss and make up
Rating: 7

"On the Farm" is a pleasant, solidly designed game with a nice mix of story
and puzzles. It was the last game I played, and came as a large relief
after some of the slush I had been plowing through. The plot is
refreshingly simple--you're a kid visiting the farm where your grandparents
live, and they're having a spat. See if you can find a way to bring them
back together.

Along the way there are miscellaneous bits of character development, many
of which tie neatly into the puzzle-solving aspect of the game. Character
interaction is particularly well-done (and I'm not saying that just because
the author used my conversation library(*), honest ;-): you can ask about
all sorts of things and get meaningful (and often useful) responses, and
you can answer various yes/no questions that your grandparents pose.

The puzzles in "On the Farm" are all pertinent and logical--not a soup
can(**) in sight. They are fairly easy to solve using a combination of
common sense and readily-available npc advice, making this an excellent
game to offer to beginners. There is also at least one nifty easter egg to
be found by solving a slightly more difficult puzzle, and some other easier
optional things to do.

Like almost all the games this year, "On the Farm" is rough around the
edges, knocking a point off the 8 I would have liked to have given it. I
ran into a number of oversights and several guess-the-verb problems. Most
of them didn't hinder gameplay much, but this was partly because I was so
accustomed to IF conventions and knew what syntax was most likely to work.
Less experienced players may well grow frustrated, so I urge the author to
clean these up and release a new version when he gets a chance (sorry I
haven't compiled a bug list for this one....it was my 37th game and I was
pretty tired. But if the author would like one, just ask).

My only other criticism would be "more!" :-) More interaction, more
character development, more story. Not necessarily more length, but more
*depth*. In particular, I wanted to learn more about my family's
history. Of course, the fact that I was so eager to keep exploring, alone,
shows that the author has done well.

-------------------------------------------------------

A Moment of Hope
Author: Simmon Keith
In a nutshell: A fest of self-pity
Rating: 7

This seems so unfair.

There is a time and place for everything in life. Depending on mood, for
instance, my musical tastes can range all the way from Andreas Vollenweider
to Nine Inch Nails. The time at which I happened to play "A Moment of Hope"
was exactly the right time for me to get maximum enjoyment out of it.

There is absolutely nothing uplifting or inspiring about "A Moment of
Hope". Just to clear that up. It's a twisted, bitter little game. I loved
it. I was actually in a *better* mood after completing it! (I won't say any
specifics about my original mood except for one word: "Dilberted") Thus,
I'm tossing my bias-for-uplifting-games out the window and giving it a
solid 7.

Okay, I should probably give some slightly more objective reasons for the
rating. For those who are willing to buy into the pathos, "A Moment of
Hope" works. Like "Photopia", it is virtually puzzleless and devoid of
guess-the-verb situations. The story carried me along effortlessly like one
long dream-sequence (nightmare-sequence?) and kept me convinced
throughout. I loved the "redrafting your nasty e-mail" bit--gaah, have I
been there :-] I like the way you "notice" things instead of "seeing" them,
and what you notice changes as your mental state changes.

Mimesis was only scratched once--when I typed "x phone" and it worked, even
though there was no phone in the room description yet. It's a reasonable
thing to try when I have someone's phone number with me, but I think the
game should make up it's mind whether I actually notice the phone or not.

-------------------------------------------------------

Erehwon
Author: Rick Litherland
In a nutshell: A weird topological puzzle-fest
Rating: 6

It's a glorified treasure-hunt replete with mazes, cardboard npc's,
two-line descriptions, and instant deaths. But I like it anyway :-)

Despite having a nominal storyline, Erehwon is really a pure puzzle game,
and its author is shameless about requiring knowledge of past lives. Heck,
it's so inventory-puzzley, even your *emotional state* is an inventory
item! If you're looking for mimesis you've come to the wrong place. But
once you've accepted all that, the experience is actually quite fun, a trip
through a medley of topology, armchair physics, a folk song or two, and
Douglas Adams-like inspired lunacy. The uniqueness of the puzzles and the
humor were enough to win me over despite my usual bias against such
games. I'm proud of myself for having solved the haunted maze based on an
educated guess, without ever having heard of a "Hamilton Circuit".

The game is fairly well-implemented, which is another reason why I'm
scoring it more generously than I usually score treasure hunts. The npc's,
as mentioned, are talking mannequins, but that's forgivable for this
genre. Alternate syntaxes are usually programmed in (either that, or I got
lucky in guessing the right syntax almost every time), and the author
anticipates such sneaky tricks as "throw baggage" (or "put baggage in
receptacle") and disallows them with a snarky response. I ran into a few
guess-the-verb/guess-the-syntax problems, but not many. This may owe
something to the fact that Vincent Lynch was a beta-tester: he's playtested
my own game, so I can vouch for his pickiness :-)

-------------------------------------------------------

Four Seconds
Author: Jason "Trig" Reigstad
In a nutshell: a Babel-inspired game overflowing with bugs
Rating: 6

Rarely do I have a game's rating downgrade so much over the course of play.
When I started on "Four Seconds", saw the good writing, the good
programming, and the engaging storyline, I was expecting it to end up
somewhere in the 7-9 range when all was done. Sure, it was perhaps a bit
derivative of Babel, but there are worse things to imitate. By the end, it
felt like a stretch just to give it a 6. "Four Seconds" quickly dissolved
into a thick morass of bugs, typos, jarring spelling mistakes
("quarenteen"?) and guess-the-verb situations. None of the puzzles are
fundamentally flawed; all the workings for a great game are here. But the
programming, especially in the later parts of the game, is unspeakable.

Now, the author explains why the game has not been adequately tested, and
the explanation is reasonable, but there are bugs in here that it shouldn't
have taken a tester to find! Weird bugs--actors not behaving like actors
("I don't know how to give anything to Tria"), containers not behaving like
containers. And unlike, for instance, "A Day for Soft Food", which was also
somewhat buggy, these problems seriously impacted game play and puzzle
solving. For instance, when I opened the lockers, the only way to see what
was in them was to type "look" again! "look in locker" didn't work, "x
locker" didn't work, "search locker" didn't work, and the contents weren't
reported when I opened the locker.

I can think of only two reasons for bugs this weird. Either the author
knows absolutely nothing about how to properly use adv.t (this seems
doubtful, since the beginning of the game worked much better), or he put
adv.t through substantial modifications and never tested them.

By the time I got to the endgame, I was so fed up that I used the
walkthrough to get through the rest of the game. What started out a fun
experience became just a tedious one.

As I said, it feels like a stretch to bestow a 6, but because "Four
Seconds" managed to keep my interest for most of the game, I'm going to
anyway. Also, I liked the heaven/hell thing.

-------------------------------------------------------

Chaos
Author: Shay Caron
In a nutshell: A silly superhero game with a twist
Rating: 5

Okay, first, I'm going to bravely step up to the podium and admit I'm a
TADS heretic: I don't like WorldClass.

Really. I'm sorry. I liked _The Legend Lives_ because it was simply a
really neat game, but I still don't like WorldClass. I have a hard time
putting my finger on why, but the first word that comes to mind is
"artificial". The whole sense-passing thing, and the byzantine structure of
accessibility rules...eh. IF-as-storytelling is my passion;
IF-as-simulation is a school I don't adhere to.

>open box
(trying to reach the toolbox first)

He can't touch anything matching that vocabulary here.

(I'd much rather just see "He doesn't see any box here"). That aside,
"Chaos" is a solid story/puzzle game with a fun sense of humor. The amount
of text alone shows that some work was put into it, as do the footnotes,
the options system, and the various customized parser responses. Despite
all this, it didn't excite me much (though it did make me laugh a few
times), but that's probably a mixture of personal taste (not a big fan of
the comic-book genre), aversion to WorldClass, and crankiness from having
plowed through 30 games already. Unfortunately, "Chaos" intensified my
crankiness via a proliferation of bugs and guess-the-verb situations--not
an uncommon thing this year :-/ I'm not going to be a jerk and list them
all publicly (though if the author is badly in need of a detailed bug
report, I'm willing to compile and e-mail one), but here are a few of the
most egregious examples:

1. >instructions
internal error: verb has no action, doAction, or ioAction

2. >screw head onto control-bot
I don't recognize that sentence.

>screw head
Chaos says, "I don't think I'll be likely to screw the control-bot's
head any time soon."

>attach head to control-bot
Captain Chaos carefully screws the control-bot's head onto his body.
"Well, now he just needs to be calibrated and we'll have a fixed
controllable robot on our hands!"

[I don't think this is necessary to complete the game, but it's still
irksome]

3. >move tree
The control-bot says, "It would make no sense to attempt to move the
tree branch."

>get tree
The control-bot puts both hands around the branch and swiftly yanks the
branch out. (etc.)

These problems and others impacted my rating by at least a
point. Fortunately, all such problems are easily cleaned up. In its new
improved state, "Chaos" could be a good game to offer to
beginners--guess-the-verbness aside, the puzzles are all quite logical and
straightforward to solve.

P.S.: Thanks for introducing me to the "Evil Overlord List" :-)

-------------------------------------------------------

* (plug) You can download my TADS NPC interaction library, Chatter, at
http://www.igs.net/~tril/if/chatter/

** "soup cans": A puzzle with no genuine tie to the game's storyline,
or a very contrived tie -- coined by Russ Bryan in describing a 7th Guest
puzzle ("What the hell kind of villain thwarts the hero's progress with soup
cans in the kitchen pantry?"). Having to fix the bridge before you can cross
a river is not soup cans. Having to solve a Tower of Hanoi before you can
enter a room *is* (usually) soup cans.

[continued in another post]


--
tr...@igs.net http://www.igs.net/~tril/
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
"I'm sure the authors will write me and say yes, there were playtesters.
Sorry. It's a rhetorical question. What I meant to ask was, please, can I meet
the playtesters and *set them on fire*?" -- Andrew Plotkin

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