Incidentally, there are spoilers here, so if you haven't played
all the games be careful.
First off, I'd just like to say that this year's competition was
a tremendous improvement on last year's. Last year, the
competition had a surprisingly large number of entries from
people who didn't seem to realize that they needed to put their
best work forward. Many games had obvious bugs. Many were plagued
by poor spelling and grammar. Some of them were strings of genre
cliches, with little original thought.
Apparently people learned from last year, because there wasn't a
single game that seemed less than competent to me. A couple could
have used some proofreading, sure. But it looks like some genuine
care was put into each game, even the ones I didn't think were
all that great. As a player, I'd like to thank this year's
authors for that.
A graph, just for the hell of it:
One note: I'm comparing these games to each other rather than to
all IF in existance, so there are probably some games out there
that are better than the tens, and some that are worse than the
One other note: I don't mention the authors by name, because I
want to just focus on the games themselves. It might make the
occasional critical remark more palatable.
On to the specific games:
Muse: An Autumn Romance: 9 out of 10.
I was pretty lucky that the front end gave me this game first
this year. Last year, the fist game I tried was "Aunt Nancy's
House," which I was able to play for only about thirty seconds
before growing bored. I think that first impression colored my
perceptions of that year's competition, making it seem a bit less
interesting than it was. Granted, there were an amazing number of
genuinely awful games, but I don't think I would have been quite
as disappointed by Comp97 if my first game had been "The Edifice"
or "Sunset Over Savannah."
That's why I was so pleased with "Muse." No painfully obvious
bugs. No unimaginative Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy world. No
meaningless, boring meandering through everyday events. No bad
writing. "Muse" is a solid, well-written character study of a
sort we haven't seen too often in this medium.
We learn a lot about Stephen Dawson in the course of the game.
He's sort of a more lovable J. Alfred Prufrock--a man who's never
been in love, never had any great passions in his life, but who
is a kind and decent individual nonetheless. It feels like this
brief encounter with two initially depressed young people is the
most signifigant thing to happen in his life, and the end was
genuinely affecting--a bit sad, but also optimistic. I came away
from "Muse" with a good feeling about the competition this year.
And I wasn't disappointed.
Four in One: 5 out of 10.
I was impressed with this one when I started, but it got old
First, the good points: The setting is great, and so is the
concept. The idea seems to have been to create a "Kissing the
Buddha's Feet" nuthouse-type game. The inclusion of the Marx
Brothers was a really neat idea, and it's obvious the author put
quite a bit of research into the game (always a good idea, no
matter what you're writing about).
However, I found "Four in One" more frustrating than funny. There
really seems to be only one puzzle here--how to get all the
character in the same place at the same time. And it's not a very
interesting puzzle, partly because the characters--who seem
intended to be the focus of the game--are so dull. Descriptions
are mostly limited to one line explaining the character's job,
and few characters seem to have more than a perfunctory
personality. The dialogue sometimes seems wooden; for example,
when asked about the Marx brothers, Scotty answers in
biographical notes rather than any normal human conversational
form. It felt less like dealing with a studio full of eccentric
individuals than like pushing around a studio full of puzzle
This wouldn't be so bad if the author had included a walkthrough
so that I could skip over this bit, but he seemed to feel that
one was not necessary. The only hint included was for later in
the game, when everyone was finally on the set. As a result, I
gave up on "Four in One" without seeing the end.
The Arrival: 7 out of 10.
"The Arrival" is apparently the first HTML TADS game, and this
fact initially resulted in some annoyance. Currently, HTML TADS
is only playable under Windows. Despite this, the author did not
include an alternate format for the pictures to allow players to
view them on other systems. I think this would have been a good
idea, even though the pictures would not have been integrated
into the game. It's possible that the same problem holds true for
the sounds, which were not included in the COMP98 file, but which
were instead placed on a website. I'll never know, though,
because I never managed to download them. (And I'm not using an
out-of-date computer or modem.)
After all that, it turned out that the pictures and sounds
weren't necessary parts of the game after all, which makes me
wonder why they were there.
Once I was past these problems, "The Arrival" actually turned out
to be a pretty funny game. The two incompetent aliens were
hilarious; they brought to mind the aliens who show up in the
Halloween episodes of "The Simpsons," or the Stupid Rat Creatures
from the comic book _Bone_. Unfortunately, towards the end of the
game they turned into valley girls for no readily apparent
reason; it almost seems like the game went through some revisions
that were never completed properly. Up until that point, though,
they're the funniest thing in this year's competition.
One minor complaint: The hint system confused the hell out of me.
I couldn't tell how to get back to the game at first, and I
frequently found myself exiting the system with no idea how I had
Mother Loose: 6 out of 10.
"Mother Loose" was quite nice, especially considering that many
of the ideas apparently came from a six-year-old. Humpty Dumpty
was especially well done.
The ending was a little too saccharine for me. This probably
isn't really my kind of story, so I won't comment much.
One problem: What was the deal with Mary's house? Apparently she
wanted to hear a knock-knock joke, but there were no clues as to
what, specifically, she was looking for, and the hint system was
no help at all.
Human Resources Stories: 3 out of 10.
"Human Resources Stories" is an extremely odd entry. I can't
quite figure out what the author was trying to do. It initially
seems to be intended as some sort of novelty program based around
office humor. However, it wasn't particularly funny. Granted,
most "office humor" isn't at all funny. (The Dilbert wannabes of
the world have a lot to answer for.) But "HRS" doesn't even seem
intended to be humorous. Once you've gotten into the actual test,
it appears to be a serious attempt at employee evaluation, which
is a weird thing to enter in an interactive fiction competition.
And it's aimed at a specialized audience; most of the people
playing it are unlikely to be able to answer the first two
Despite the fact that I was basically guessing the answers to a
few questions, and had to restart several times, I quickly got
all the way to the end. There just isn't much to this program.
It's one of those "play it once and toss it off your hard drive"
novelties, like SimStapler.
In fact, the most notable and interesting parts of this entry
have nothing to do with the main game. One of these parts is a
long rant about an incompetent manager at the author's workplace
which pops up if you type "xyzzy." The other is the Read Me file,
in which the author states, "I believe that I do this project to
get beyond ordinary thinking." He also claims that some of the
questions require "profound thinking," and says that "If
everybody is busy doing story IF, I'd do puzzle IF," as though
that's somehow iconoclastic. I can't decide whether he's joking.
Incidentally, I think this is the same guy who did "Cask" last
year. If so, his writing has vastly improved.
Lightiania: 3 out of 10.
I get the impression that English is this author's second
language. He *really* needed someone to proofread this thing. Not
only are there quite a few spelling errors, but the vocabulary is
rather eccentric. The ladder leading up to the spacecraft is
sometimes called a "bridge." The protagonist sits on a
"thinking-stub." A control panel is "square-formed." The hull of
the spacecraft needs to be "intact, and not embossed." The book
explaining the spacecraft's mode of travel is incomprehensible.
And examining the devices in your house produces this memorable
These devices do a lot of things. Clean your stove and fridge
(but not under your bed though. Some turn toasts, others make
futuristic noises and look cool. The meaning is not allways
that they should be usefull, but they are fun to build. Okay?
The plot is that you're some sort of brilliant inventor, and when
a spaceship lands on your thinking-stub, you decide to fix it and
fly off into space. You live in a house with one big room, lit by
a reddish-orange lamp, and an attic. Your toilet is out in the
back yard. (What do the neighbors think of this? The most
disappointing part of the game is that we never find out.) You
keep a radiator crated up in your attic. On this radiator you
store old gum which you sometimes chew months later, if you
happen to need it to fix an alien spacecraft.
There didn't seem to be any notable bugs in this game. Everything
other than the writing worked smoothly. I actually enjoyed it a
lot more than my rating seems to indicate, but not always
necessarily for the reasons the author intended.
Enlightenment: 6 out of 10.
When I saw this was yet another Zork knockoff, I was convinced
that it was going to be hideously bad. I was wrong.
The reason "Enlightenment" worked is that it wasn't a straight
pastiche (which would have had to be utterly brilliant to work).
It was a simple, one-room in-joke that cleverly reversed one of
the conventions of the old "some guy wandering around in a cave"
That said, an in-joke can't really compete with a real game,
which is why this score isn't higher. But it's a really, really
good in-joke, which manages to conjure up a convincing
Little Blue Men: 10 out of 10.
I'm not sure what to say about "Little Blue Men," because it's
always easiest for me to pin down what I didn't like about a
work; the things that make me react positively are always more
nebulous and harder to pin down. And there was virtually nothing
I disliked about this game.
This game did a great job of establishing its central character.
Although he (I'm pretty sure he was a he even though I can't
recall any definitive indicators as to his gender, which shows
how strong my mental image of him was) is marvellously well
defined, the game never feels like it is trying to shove the
characterization down the throat of the player. You're free to do
whatever you want, and the central character's personality can
develop in different directions as a result. (Except at the very
end; I'll get to that in a minute.) In the longest story, you
develop your supressed rage into a kind of brutal, psychotic
cunning, but you can also come to terms with your situation, or
self-destruct, or retreat into a drug-induced stupor. And there's
actually no one best path; two people could come to the same
ending and disagree about whether they'd "won."
"Little Blue Men" is the most unsettling IF game I've seen. At
first it looks like it's going to be something along the lines of
"Dilbert goes bananas," but the setting develops into something
rather frightening. I think this is the best horror-genre IF
written to date. Although the author is apparently ambivalent
about the final scene of the longest path, I think it's quite
appropriate. It reminds me of a rather dark Phillip K. Dick
novel. One complaint I have about it is that you aren't allowed
to attack the naked fat guy; this action would have provided an
additional alternate ending, which would suggest that the central
figure has become trapped in an infinite loop of violence.
The author provides a postscript with some questions about IF
conventions that came up while he was working on the game. It
should be interesting to see if any discussion about them picks
[Irrelevant tangent alert.]
One question in particular intrigued me. The author asks whether
the goals of the player's character need necessarily coincide
with the goals of the player. I've been wondering about how a
game might handle a character who was actively opposed to the
player directing him/her. Perhaps the character might
deliberately misinterpret the commands given to him whenever
possible. I don't know what to do with this idea, and I'll
never use it, but if anyone else wants to take it, feel free.
Research Dig: 4 out of 10.
"Research Dig" is a competent work, but falls short due to
vagueness and a lack of interactivity.
This game is a story about an archaeology student who is sent to
look into an archaeological find in a graveyard. This could be
the basis for an interesting story. In "Research Dig," however,
most of this story occurs during the two long text pieces at the
beginning and end of the game. All the central character does to
move the plot along is unlock a shed, pry open a crypt, and pull
a stone out of a wall. There are a couple of places where you
deduce things--that a dig site has been tampered with, and that a
symbol on the floor of a large hall represents some sort of vague
evil power--but you don't have to work for this information, and
no explaination is given as to how you know these things. Once
you have the stone, a trip back to the graveyard results in a
text section in which you are hit on the head with a hammer, only
to be rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of an extremely
precocious eight-year-old girl named Louise.
Louise is a lot smarter than your character. She can see the
invisible dwarves who show up at the end for no apparent reason.
She also knows how to circumvent a child-proof barrier of the
sort that is put across stairways to keep young children out,
which completely baffles your character. For some reason, you
can't even step over it. I wasted several minutes on this thing.
The background to the story is quite vague. Apparently it
involves invisible dwarves, the four classical elements, rune
stones, and an evil plot hatched by your contact at the
graveyard, but how these things fit together is unclear. Louise
promises to explain it all at the end, saying that it's "a long
story," but the game ends before she gets the chance.
Very few of the objects mentioned in the game are implemented. If
it doesn't have a paragraph to itself, you can assume it's not
there. I know how easy it is to forget about these things--I left
out far too many pieces of scenery in an early version of a game
I recently started working on again--but the level of vagueness
in "Research Dig" is a little too high for what ought to be a
finished game. The things that do exist seem perfunctory; the
most notable example is the handbook, which you can look things
up in but which seems not to contain any information on anything.
On the plus side, this game didn't seem to have any bugs, and the
writing was reasonably competent with only a few slips. But it
needs a little more work before it will be genuinely interesting.
Purple: 6 out of 10.
"Purple" is an interesting post-apocalyptic scenario. The first
moments outside of the "phoenix nest" are disorienting; the
author manages to give the future world a convincingly alien
A couple of times during the game I ran into "read the author's
mind" moments. I wasn't entirely sure how I was supposed to know
that I needed to get rid of everything, including clothes, to use
the nest. Later on, I was completely baffled by the action
necessary to revive Karl. If there were any clues provided as to
why this was supposed to work, they went right over my head.
Karl's personality was skillfully conveyed in the room
descriptions and the observations of the central character. Karl
himself probably needed a little more work. He should have been
blocked from entering the tunnels you dig late in the game; on
two occasions I managed to lose him down there. Also, he
shouldn't be able to decide to wander off on his own after being
told to follow the player.
The end seemed to imply that the author is planning a sequel. I'm
looking forward to it.
Cattus Atrox: 4 out of 10.
"Cattus Atrox" looked like it was going to be pretty interesting
at first. Unfortunately, there's nothing to do but run from Karl
and his lions through a maze of practically identical streets and
eventually get eaten. At least if there is, I couldn't find it.
Some hints would be nice.
Very few objects are implemented, and the characters are
extremely limited. Karl and Susan (who you can call on the phone,
although she doesn't seem interested in talking) have no reaction
to almost anything you say or do, although it seems like Karl is
more interactive than he actually is because he has several
random generic responses.
Karl, of course, is a completely different Karl from the one who
appears in "Purple." Well, I hope he is. It was kind of weird
playing these two games back to back, what with the two Karls and
[Note: Later on, the author uploaded a walkthrough to the
if-archive. The rest of these remarks were written after using
the walkthrough to see the entire game.]
Okay. I've just played through "Cattus Atrox," and I have a
How was I supposed to guess that there was a sewer grating I
could get into?
Also, how was I supposed to know that I could "ASK SUSAN FOR
HELP" when "SUSAN, HELP" resulted in a message saying she had
better things to do? Actually, that's two questions. Sorry.
This is a pretty bad case of "guess what I'm thinking," and I
haven't really been moved to reconsider my rating.
Interestingly enough, Karl had some extra lines this time that I
hadn't seen previously. Do they only come up if you do exactly
what the author expects you to do?
I wasn't as impressed by the full story as I was with the
beginning. It seemed like it was horrific for the sake of being
horrific, with no underlying meaning or purpose.
Downtown Tokyo. Present Day.: 7 out of 10.
Short, but with plenty of amusement value. Fooling around with
helicopters is fun. And what other game allows you to drop zoo
animals on Tokyo?
I liked controlling two characters at the same time. I'd like to
see some more experimentation with this concept.
In the Spotlight: 2 out of 10.
A bit pointless. "In the Spotlight" isn't a story, just a puzzle.
And the puzzle apparently isn't even original.
According to the credits, this is a port of a game the author
first programmed back in the early eighties. I would have
preferred to see something new.
Informatory: 6 out of 10.
An Inform tutorial. The helmet that reveals the source code
behind various objects was a neat idea, and a much more
interesting way of demonstrating a programming language than the
methods used in "Lists and Lists." Then again, "Lists" didn't
require the player to follow along in a textbook, while
"Informatory" is designed to be used in conjunction with the
Designer's Manual, so I suppose there are tradeoffs. Good idea,
in any case.
Photopia: 10 out of 10.
"Photopia" is one of the most intriguing games in this year's
competition. It's the story of the life and death of a teenaged
girl, seen from the viewpoints of a number of different people in
her life. But there's something interestingly ambiguous going on
under the surface.
Between the scenes from Alley's life, we listen in on the bedtime
story she tells to her young friend Wendy on the last night of
her life. (The story scenes are enhanced by their presentation as
colored text on a black background; it's surprising how much this
simple trick adds to the game. Another neat trick: The story fits
seamlessly into the game because it works just like interactive
fiction, with Wendy supplying her actions and Alley describing
the results in second person.) It eventually turns out that
aspects of the story may be more than they seem; the inspiration
for Alley's tale is the strange series of dreams she's been
The dreams involve a Queen who looks an awful lot like Alley. She
rules over lands that she claims to have dreamed of as a child,
but which are now dead. She also tells Alley that she remembers
their conversation "from the other direction"...
Is Alley recieving a premonition of her death? A foretaste of
some cruel afterlife? "Photopia" lets this remain mysterious.
What seems more certain is that the dreams are metaphorical. From
what we see of her, Alley seems to show a great deal of promise.
Her death in a car crash caused by two drunken frat boys kills
her dreams and aspirations. There is, however, a hopeful note
within the story. There's a suggestion that Alley has awoken the
same kind of curiosity and inquisativeness in Wendy that her
father tried to instill in her. Perhaps Alley's influence will
one day inspire Wendy to do the great things that she now can't.
There's another parallel here in the bedtime story, in which
Wendy manages to make something grow in the Queen's dead world.
It should be noted that this game doesn't seem to be interactive
in the sense that most IF is, with multiple possible endings. You
can change the details of events, but the major outcome will
always be the same. Rather, the interactivity comes from the fact
that you take the part of the people in her life, making the
situation more immediate. Unlike, say, "In the End" (a similarly
structured game in which you would always come to the same ending
but the path could differ) the technique works here, mostly
because "Photopia" is a better story.
Part of the bedtime story--namely, the maze--was a bit unfair. At
this point, there was no indication that it was possible to fly.
Still, it seems like a small complaint considering the quality of
the game, and at least there was a hint available.
Where Evil Dwells: 5 out of 10.
"Where Evil Dwells" didn't provoke much of a reaction from me,
either positive or negative. The author did a pretty good job of
creating a horror scenario. The journals worked really well.
The atmosphere was harmed by the humorous bits that were grafted
on to the game. Sometimes humor can help to enhance horror or
suspense by providing contrast. Here, it just undercut the
Again, there were a number of unimplemented objects in this game.
It looks like objects that aren't there are this year's biggest
Spacestation: 1 out of 10.
An implementation of a dull sample transcript from an Infocom
game. It looks like the author got permission and everything, but
I still have to ask: Why was this entered in the competition?
It doesn't bother me that someone is adapting old Infocom sample
transcripts. It also wouldn't bother me if someone submitted a
game based around something long out of copyright, if they
brought plenty of their own ideas to the work. It does bother me
that this was entered in a competition. Personally, I have an
Inform port of "Space Aliens Laughed at my Cardigan" sitting on
my hard drive, but you don't see me submitting it.
Trapped in a One-Room Dilly: 5 out of 10.
The programming was excellent, but the game itself seemed a bit
pointless. What I'd really like to see from this author is
something like "Erden," her entry last year, done with more focus
and a stronger story.
The colors proved to be a problem for me when I tried playing
this game on a color-supporting interpreter. For some reason, the
text was white on a white background. Fortunately, MaxZip doesn't
support color, so I could play it either way.
Acid Whiplash: 5 out of 10.
A game which investigates the eternal mystery that is Rybread
Celsius. He's still a mystery, because the "walkthru" command
didn't work. Or maybe it wasn't supposed to work. I don't know.
Anyway, I couldn't figure out how to finish the game.
Usually I hate crappy games, and if this was any other author I'd
suggest that "Acid Whiplash" should never have been entered. But
this is Rybread. He does crappy so well, and so entertainingly.
And he does it on purpose, too, which is a lot harder than doing
it by accident. Just remember kids: Rybread is a professional.
Don't try this at home yourselves!
There were a lot of unimplemented objects again, which was a
shame, because with more objects the game could have been even
weirder. Oh well.
The Ritual of Purification: 8 out of 10.
I have to admit that I don't entirely know what this one was
about. Still, whatever it was seemed pretty cathartic for the
central character. The writing was good, and I didn't encounter
any bugs. I enjoyed it.
Fifteen: 1 out of 10.
Hoo boy. I hardly know what to say about this one. I'd like to
say at least something nice, but the only thing I can think of is
that it was competent, and there weren't any bugs.
I'd say that the writing was bad, but that's not strictly true,
because there was no writing. Each location is simly a name, like
"Kitchen" or "Alley," and a list of exits. There are practically
no objects. The few objects that exist have practically nothing
special about them. The most interesting object is the TV, which
you can turn on to see a soap opera. The minimal descriptions are
ocasionally incoherent. Of the kitten, for example, the game has
this to say: "She's wearing SILVER collar!"
There is one character, named Charlie. He barely exists.
There is no plot. All you do is wander around, occasionally
picking up an object, solving a puzzle, or unlocking a door.
After you've picked up all the "treasures," you set them on your
kitchen table to win.
It was only about thirty seconds before the unrelenting tedium of
"Fifteen" sent me running to the walkthrough, which I used to
finish the game.
Oh, and there's a maze.
The Plant: 7 out of 10.
This is an amusing, clever, and well-written game. Unfortunately,
for whatever reason, I can't think of anything in particular I
want to say about it. It's not that I think it's bad, or that it
doesn't deserve attention. It's very good. I'm just drawing a
The City: 5 out of 10.
First of all, I would like to say this: Disabling the "SAVE"
command is a bad idea. It doesn't matter what you're trying to
do. It doesn't make your game more realistic. It doesn't make it
more artistic. It doesn't turn your game into an "experience."
It's just annoying. In the world of non-interactive fiction,
there are these things called "bookmarks." Using a bookmark, you
can put a book down for a while and come back to the same place
without having to read it all over again from the start. Why
shouldn't IF have a similar feature?
That said, much of "The City" is pretty good. I found the creepy,
sterile, surreal environment compelling, and the trick with the
videotapes was unnerving. The characters, though enigmatic, were
I was ultimately a little disappointed with the ending, however.
It seemed like nothing meaningful had happened. Andrew Plotkin's
"So Far," another surrealist game, is a good comparison; although
the events in "So Far" are never really explained, it leaves the
player with the feeling that something has been resolved for the
viewpoint character, and that some emotional development has
occurred. I didn't get that feeling from "The City;" it just
seemed to stop in the middle of nowhere. I'd like to see another
release of this game with a SAVE function and more substance.
Well, that's it. Anyone still awake?
Whoa! Before you jump into any conclusion, it's FICTION. It's not MY real
life. Perhaps some poor programmer is in that situation, but I'm in a good
situation (which is why, I guess, I find the story funny). I have a wonderful
manager. So before you mistake this for rants, let me say that this is not a
rant. It's a fictional story.
>Incidentally, I think this is the same guy who did "Cask" last
>year. If so, his writing has vastly improved.
I owe this vast improvement to my betatesters, especially Jonadab and Brad
O'Donnell. I would like to publicly commend them at this time. Any
faults with HRS are my own. Thank you.
IFC0.1 --C -P++ --A --r -i++
Wrong. There was such an indication, a few turns after you dropped the suit.
It's easy to miss though, if someone's not paying attention. I got stuck
there, then restored the game before the maza and paid extra attention. Then
it was easy.
> M. Wesley Osam wrote in message ...
> >Incidentally, there are spoilers here, so if you haven't played
> >all the games be careful.
> >-- [Photopia]
> >Part of the bedtime story--namely, the maze--was a bit unfair. At
> >this point, there was no indication that it was possible to fly.
> >Still, it seems like a small complaint considering the quality of
> >the game, and at least there was a hint available.
> Wrong. There was such an indication, a few turns after you dropped the suit.
> It's easy to miss though, if someone's not paying attention. I got stuck
> there, then restored the game before the maza and paid extra attention. Then
> it was easy.
I thought that was a *great* clue. Because it revealed more about the
story than about the puzzle, although it was completely sufficient for the
That was one of the three kow-tows, although I forget the others now.
"And Aholibamah bare Jeush, and Jaalam, and Korah: these were the
You're right. I certainly don't care. [snirk (;]
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