[CONTEST] Here's what I think...

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C.E. Forman

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Nov 22, 1996, 3:00:00 AM11/22/96
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ATTENTION!

This post contains short discussions and evaluations of each and every
one of the 1996 I-F competition entries. If you haven't played them
all, you might want to save this post and come back to it later. These
are not in-depth analyses, but brief recordings of what I was thinking
after I'd finished each one. Further commentary will undoubtedly follow
as more players begin posting.

Keep in mind that these reviews are only my opinions, and should not be
construed as being factual in any way. My scores do NOT represent the
order in which the games will ultimately be placed. If you disagree
with me, post your own opinions. That's the whole point. I've tried
unsuccessfully to elicit e-mail discussion with several people, but
they didn't respond, so I'm posting here to recruit people who will.

If you're one of those people who don't want to discuss the entries
until the votes are in, I'd advise against reading any further. If
you're only reading this to find out which games I think are the best,
I ask you to please give them all a fair play. I have played all the
entries as much as possible, and have spent the necessary two hours (and
no more) on the ones that have the depth to merit such playing time.

My ratings are based on an even combination of technical and artistic
quality, and I tried my best to avoid basing an opinion on the genre and
general subject matter. Bugs impacted my scores slightly, but not
overly significantly, provided that the rest of the work was solid. No
scores were impacted at all by the authoring system used, but I did
detract points for failure to comply with ease-of-use features that are
generally considered mandatory today.

This year's entries vary greatly in subject matter, technical
difficulty, artistic ability, and overall quality, but I'm very pleased
to see so many of them. Even the authors whose games I rate with low
scores deserve a round of applause simply for entering. Congratulations
to everyone!

That said, here's what I thought...

[ SPOILER SPACE ]

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

"Aayela"
--------
Ah, Magnus Olsson is sneaky, using an attention-getting device similar
yet opposite to the one used by the (dull) AGT game "Zanfar". "Zanfar"
has a name that places it last in an alphabetic directory listing, so
that it's the last title a player sees, thus making it remain fresh in
his/her mind. Magnus' tactic is the opposite. He gives his game a name
that places it FIRST, in the hopes of grabbing the advantage from
players who go through all the entries in alphabetical order, thus
leaving no prior work for players to compare his entry to. Well, it
didn't work on me! I saw through your little plot, Magnus, and I made
it a point to play "Aayela" DEAD LAST, so that I could effectively
compare it to EVERYTHING!! AH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!

*Ahem.* Well.

"Aayela" is set in the land of Vyhl, visited by your character at the
end of Magnus' 1995 entry "Uncle Zebulon's Will". That said, I guess I
expected a more obvious continuation of "Zebulon", in the shoes of the
same character, uncovering more of the same mystical land while perhaps
getting a chance to meet my eccentric uncle Zeb. Instead I found myself
assuming the role of another young (expendable) unknown set off to seek
out the standard adventure-game McGuffin, in this case the Stone of
Aayela.

As in "Zebulon", Magnus' writing shines. (Does so, Gareth!) Like the
vanished Zebulon with whom a rapport was forged in "Aayela"'s prequel,
the imprisoned spirit of Aayela guides the player forward and develops
into a part of him. This is paced nicely, with the unique setting of
total darkness for much of the quest.

Unfortunately, this mars the realism created by the rest of the
writing. The room text is sometimes no more than standard cave
descriptions preceded by the words "It's completely dark." The
protagonist's sense of direction must be uncanny, to allow him to
navigate with no light by which to see his compass. There's no threat
of danger, either, until the very end, after which I was left with a
feeling of, "You mean that's IT?!"

I liked "Aayela", don't get me wrong. I simply didn't find it as clever
as Magnus' previous work, particularly when compared with so many other
outstanding entries this year.

My score: 6

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

"Alien Abduction?"
------------------
It's hard to believe that this is the very first serious game about
aliens. Oh, there have been the pulp sci-fi offerings ("LGOP", for
instance), and the typical plot-forming UFO abduction (as seen in
"Waystation", "Plague Planet", and "Lost"), but I can't recall ever
seeing a work of I-F that deals with the anomaly from a standpoint that
does justice to the phenomenon.

Overall, the story is quite linear, with a number of plot points
slightly less than intuitive. The quality of prose fluctuates. Most
disappointing is the interior of the ship, which offers simply a bland
description of how you're in a place you never expected to be, leaving
few details for the imagination to work with. Other bits, such as the
click of an automaton's eyes and the ripping of a wire from your neck,
never failed to make my skin crawl. Puzzles range from subtle (the
conversations with NPCs, which allow the aliens to adjust their illusion
of your world) to blatantly gratuitous (the colored shapes aboard the
ship, and the crystal duck in the woods) and a number of tasks which
never quite escape the "give <x> to <y>" feel. Most are enjoyable
regardless.

Particularly enjoyable is the fact that the ending leaves you uncertain
as to what really happened, hence the question mark in the game's title.
Was it really an alien encounter? Or might you have really lost your
mind? Which seems more probable? Also, it's truly creepy how the
aliens use your thoughts to build and expand the artificial reality
they've trapped you in. I congratulate the author for this inventive
work of I-F.

And I'll congratulate myself as well. I got through this whole review
without even once mentioning "The X-Files." Oop- DAMN!!

My score: 7

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

"The Curse of Eldor"
--------------------
A for-the-most-part nice old-style adventure game with the vastness
and anachronistic amalgamation of magic and technology. The atmosphere
is very Zorkish, as are the puzzles. There's a balloon, a dragon, a
retired grue, a magic potion, an eating cycle (not a problem once you
find out where the food is), some guesswork puzzles, one suicide puzzle
(Is it my imagination, or is there a lot of suicide among this year's
entries - "Eldor", "In The End", "Rippled Flesh", "Delusions"?), some
clever bits, a dash of guess-the-verb, and an overall quest for curse-
breaking artifacts that in the end really amounts to a simplified
treasure hunt. A fine example of this type of adventure, though it
offers nothing we haven't seen before.

The game engine, however, could use some work. Ambiguous verb
resolution (that is, the ability to fill in the missing command
information) doesn't work at all, there's no "UNDO", no "AGAIN", no
command recall, not even "VERBOSE" (for me, the most annoying of all).
"Eldor" has some rather glaring bugs as well. Trying to take the amulet
from the dragon is a fatal move, but restarting completes the command
successfully, eliminating a large string of puzzles. "SAVE" and
"RESTORE" also gave me some problems, placing me in a room with all the
takeable objects only to kill me off one turn later. This made me
reluctant to play through on my own, and eventually I resorted to the
walkthrough.

A major detriment is the fact that, even ignoring the "RESTORE" flaws,
the game is still thoroughly impossible without the walkthrough, unless
you're a darn good guesser. Four or five locations contain items or
characters that aren't even mentioned! In the very first room, for
instance, a historian is waiting with a note for you, but there's no
indication whatsoever of his presence! This, along with the crystal in
the locked chest, the thief in the dungeon, the goblin in the sewers
below town, all make the game a pain to finish, especially since one has
to restart the game (because of the "RESTORE" bug) each time the
walkthrough is consulted.

My score: 5

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

"Delusions"
-----------
One of the competition's weirdest, and easily the most genuinely
frightening game since "A Mind Forever Voyaging". Discovering your true
nature is very creepy and for the most part well-paced, though it bogs
down a lot in the endgame. Characters are imaginative but (except for
Morrodox) underdeveloped. Clever, bizarre, philosophical, and full of
the theory of reality vs. unreality vs. virtual reality. A layered
plot, delving into the nature of I-F itself sometimes, and tons of
hidden references to other games. Some similarities to "Alien
Abduction?" (the implants, the idea of being trapped in a simulation of
the world you know), but both entries are strong enough and different
enough to stand on their own.

Some truly hilarious bits: the Jeopardy show and some of the things you
find in the basement are destined for the list of truly great I-F
moments, and the graphical Windows-like interface is the best computer
puzzle since "CosmoServe". The game's one fatal aspect (and the only
thing that keeps me from rating it a 9) is what appears to be a bug that
keeps Dr. Shimada from talking to you during the endgame, thus making
the game unwinnable. If you encounter this fault, starting over and
playing through again fixed it for me (though I can't explain why).

Aside from this technical anomaly, its only downside is the fact that I
think the author tried to cram way too much into a two-hour game (and
even calling it a two-hour game is a big stretch). Still, it holds
together pretty well, and merits a replay or two.

Who wrote this anyway? And can anyone tell me why I can only seem to
get 49 out of 50 points?

My score: 8

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

"Don't Be Late"
---------------
This is the first ALAN game by someone other than the authors (that
I've heard of, anyway). It's a quickie, with a neat bit of self-
reference at the end. The ALAN system has some irritations (the
acceptance of the verb "TAKE", but not of "GET", for instance), but
you'll finish it in perhaps 15 minutes anyway. There's nothing
inherently wrong with it, it's just really short and really simplistic.
I'd give a higher score if it were a bit more substantial.

Hmm. Not much else to say.

My score: 3

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

"Fear"
------
An imaginative exercise in using memories and symbolic puzzle-solving
to overcome your fears of heights, sounds, spiders, and the dark. The
puzzles are, for the most part, refreshingly unique, and difficult. You
really have to envision the scenes in your mind to win. In particular,
the 4-octave chord was very ingenious. These puzzles are HARD, though,
and I ended up sneaking a peek at most of their hints in order to finish
the game within two hours.

Unlike "House of the Stalker" and "Rippled Flesh", "Fear" presents a
more psychological, self-confrontational horror, also seen in "Shades of
Gray" and this year's entries "Tapestry" and "Delusions". "Fear" isn't
quite as gripping as any of these, but it's a creepy, paranoid game with
an ending that leaves just enough to the imagination to keep the player
slightly ill at ease.

My score: 7

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

"House of the Stalker"
----------------------
After seeing the title, and considering that Halloween was just around
the corner at the time, I had really high hopes for this one.
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of clumsy phrasing, and the author
seems to be unable to decide what style to go with. A sort of snide,
smart-alecky, and sometimes downright insulting personality pervades the
text, and yet occasionally the game tries to convey a feeling of
melancholy in your character's life. The plot is corny, suggesting a
parody, but I never felt quite certain about the author's intent.

The two styles are often contradictory (in one sentence you're told how
much you miss your children, in another the game sighs about how "those
dumb kids never made their bed"), which mars the attempt at personality.
The atmosphere never feels particularly creepy, as in "Theatre", mainly
because the game constantly jokes about the psycho who's probably
downstairs right now waiting to kill you. The puzzles deal primarily
with doing the right thing to the stalker at the right time, which means
there's a lot of "guess what I'm thinking" to wade through.

Particularly irritating is the fact that, when you try to kill the
stalker before spraying him, tying him up, etc., you get the customary
"Violence isn't the answer" message. (So what IS? "Please Mr.
Soulless Psychotic Flesh-Rending Organ-Devouring Killer, can't we just
learn to co-exist"?) The stalker himself, I theorize, must have been
that guy from the music store in "Detective", since he vanishes as soon
as you kill him.

"Stalker" feels a lot like one of those AGT games where the author
didn't implement everything necessary to make the game flow smoothly,
and indeed a number of glaring signs suggests that this author didn't
completely have a grasp of Inform. These include impossible verb
resolutions, the reference to "a electric screwdriver", and several bits
lifted directly from other Inform games - the instructions from Inform's
port of "Adventureland", the compass rose from the Inform Programming
Page, and the games "Robots" and "Freefall" (though I guess that was the
point with the last two). Decreasing the score after using the hint
system is a clever idea, but unfortunately this effect can be bypassed
with the "UNDO" command.

I don't mean to sound overly harsh, but I think this one could have
been, and should have been, a LOT scarier (even if done as a parody).

My score: 3

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

"In The End"
------------
The author calls this the first attempt at puzzle-less I-F, though this
is debatable (and has been debated). Does it succeed? I'd have to say
not quite. But it tries very hard.

I think what some people overlook is the fact that, as puzzle-less I-F
is so inherently different than I-F with puzzles, two different sets of
default messages are needed. Why should you be told "You find nothing
interesting" in a game when you're not even SUPPOSED to be searching for
hidden goodies? Another response is definitely needed here, as well as
with other verbs.

Further, a couple of guess-the-syntax problems crept up while I was
playing - inside the car, "LET WOMAN IN" works, but "OPEN THE PASSENGER
DOOR" or "ROLL DOWN THE WINDOW" fail. Trying to figure out the proper
syntax constitutes a puzzle, in my opinion (and a rather annoying puzzle
at that). This breaks both the realism and the flowing of the plot, and
hence it doesn't quite appear puzzle-less.

Even the final move ("KILL ME") wasn't easy to deduce. The funeral was
certainly depressing, and I'd had some real disappointments (with Annie,
in the convenience store, etc.), but I certainly wasn't contemplating
suicide, and the author didn't make me feel the need or desire to.
Again, I had to guess at his intentions to figure out how to advance the
plot, which makes this seem like a puzzle.

One thing I did like was the imaginative method of navigating from place
to place. A compass-less game is not a unique thing in I-F, but it's
not easy to do, and I applaud the effort there. All things considered,
this was an interesting experiment, but, even ignoring the guessing
puzzles, it was also very short, and didn't quite convince me of the
feasibility of larger puzzle-less I-F games. Maybe I'll give it a whirl
myself, though.

"A" for effort, "C+" for results.

My score: 6

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

"Kissing the Buddha's Feet"
---------------------------
An instant classic. Your goal is to help roommate John study and
finally pass that psych class after 12 long semesters. John's friends
have a different agenda, though, so you must get rid of them and any
other distractions around the house.

Every single character is hilarious, from the unresponsive Carl to the
eternally drunk Bob, and even your own character exhibits a compulsive
cleanliness that rivals Howard Hughes. My personal fave: Evan, the god
of thoroughly useless trivia, who follows you around, constantly
spouting drivel on anything that strikes his fancy - a pet parrot he
once had, the origin of the game's curious title, speculations about
what the world would be like if it were like a text adventure, error
messages to improperly phrased commands, and so much more. The
characters offer a wide variety of optional interactivity to fill the
two-hour time allotment, and there's even a trivia game that provides
some side-splitting references to other text adventures.

The setting, though collegiate, is nonetheless unique. By focusing on
the personalities of John's friends, and interlacing them with some
extremely imaginative puzzles, "Kissing" avoids the pitfalls and cliches
of the college I-F genre and makes for genuine entertainment. This game
is bust-a-gut funny and very well-implemented, making it my personal
choice for first place. Many of this year's entries are very strong in
one area, but flawed in others - "Tapestry" occasionally feels too much
like hyperfiction, "Delusions" is buggy, "In the End" didn't offer me
enough story, - but this game excels in all areas. Truly fantastic. I
can't remember the last time I laughed so hard.

Wait a minute... I guess I can. It was when I played the last game by
this author. (Yes, I correctly guessed who wrote this, but at Kevin
Wilson's request I'll keep quiet for the moment.)

My score: 9

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

"The Land Beyond the Picket Fence"
----------------------------------
Here's an interesting twist on fantasy games. Rather than making you,
the protagonist, a denizen of a fantasy world, "Fence" casts you as an
outsider from the "real" world, and sends you into the fantasy to
accomplish a goal and escape. To me, this lends more appeal to the
atmosphere and makes the adventure decidedly charming.
The world itself is far more Carroll than Tolkien, and the difference
shines through (though there's nothing inherently wrong with traditional
I-F fantasy as it currently stands). The perfect length, nice prose, a
couple of clever puzzles, and a surprisingly good parser and DOS-based
game engine. It doesn't break any new ground, and it's not "Uncle
Zebulon's Will", but it carries the same spirit and it made me want to
visit the land beyond the picket fence again soon.

My score: 6

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

"Lists and Lists"
-----------------
So THIS is what Andrew Plotkin meant when he announced that his entry
this year wouldn't be interactive fiction.

He wasn't kidding. Aside from the genie who (sort of) guides you
through, there is little prose, not much interaction with an artificial
world, and even less storytelling. Players expecting another "Change
in the Weather" or "So Far" are bound to be disappointed. Instead, the
bulk of this "game" is a stripped-down interpreter for Scheme, a
streamlined derivative of LISP.

This makes for an intereating use of the Z-Machine, and a nice
complement to the likes of "Robots", "Z-Life", and Andrew's own
"Freefall", but it's really more for programmers, or persons at least
interested in the subject. I've heard from non-programmers who didn't
get much out of it, some of whom became hopelessly confused.

This is not to fault Plotkin's skills as a writer. Indeed, he has a
knack for making this sort of thing fun for players possessing the
natural aptitude for it. (Even "Inhumane", his attempt at I-F as a
14-year-old, as its moments.) Although "Lists" barely scratches the
surface of Scheme's capabilities, I was surprised by how much
functionality was crammed into such a small program, particularly with
the ease-of-use features. Even if you complete all of the sample
exercises within the two-hour time limit, there's plenty more to come
back and investigate afterwards. I'm dying to see the Inform source
code for this.

Now if only Activision would give us Infocom's ZIL compiler and docs
(ZIL being the LISP-like language used by Infocom's programmers), I
might have a real-world application for this, and a motivation to learn
more about the subjects presented here.

My score: 6 or 7, I can't decide. (Somebody help me out. (No, not YOU,
Plotkin.))

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

"Maiden of the Moonlight"
-------------------------
A haunted mansion story whose plot is revealed through object
descriptions as well as room text - sort of "Theatre" meets "Uncle
Zebulon's Will" with a dash of "Curses". Some genuine atmosphere and a
good deal of backstory despite the fact that some room descriptions are
simply lists of exits. It's a pity I didn't get to this one until after
Halloween.

Simple but clever puzzles, with the only annoyance being the very,
VERY forced method of getting the perfume bottle over the fence. (Was
this necessary?) I liked having to piece together solutions from the
writings, books, and room descriptions, though there's the occasional
guesswork. Unfortunately, there seems to be some sort of problem with
saved games. Two or three times, the game would hang when I tried to
restore, and the save file became corrupt. As the two-hour limit
approached, I used the walkthrough to see the game in its entirety.

My score: 6

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

"The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet"
---------------------------------------------------
This one's sort of "Zork", "Enchanter", and "Christminster", but sort of
not. I can't really decide for sure what to call it. Even the author
doesn't seem to be certain about what type of game this is supposed to
be. It's identified in the byline as "The Interactive Memoirs of a
Diplomat", but aside from the opening procession and the very end,
there's little to connect the game to this description. In between, the
game is a jumble of unmotivated treasure-hunting, applied spellcasting,
and spelunking.

Not that this is necessarily bad. All things considered, it's a pretty
solid historical-based fantasy, though the author's visions (as seen in
the hints) will undoubtedly be lost on many players. "Zork" and
"Enchanter" are mixed nicely into the plot, but "Sherbet" still suffers
from the problems inherent in Infocom's spell-casting games. I know
I've said this before, but having to memorize spells before casting them
is a pain. It was great in the 1980s, but like mazes, it's worn out its
welcome. If anyone else is planning on a game of this type, please
consider a system of casting magic straight from the book or scroll.

The spells themselves are sometimes derived from the "Enchanter" trilogy
- "gloth" and "azzev" ("vezza" backwards) show up - but "frotz" is
replaced by "chiaro", which took a bit of getting used to. There is lso
one very annoying parsing problem: Typing "X SPELL BOOK" instead prits
out an ambiguity-resolution query, asking which spell you mean, whil
"READ SPELL BOOK" lists your entire repertoire of magic. Trivial,
admittedly, but it turned up a lot.

The writing, however, is well-polshed and flowing, with no grammatical
errors and few typos. In fact, the prose is SO good that I forgot about
most of the above imperfections until the game was finished, when I
found myself feeling a bit empty. I guess after seeing the opening I
expected too much political intrigue, but instead received a dungeon
crawl. It IS a very entertaining one, but strangely devoid of Zorkish
elements, aside from the white house and adventurer. (Where are the
grues? The elvish sword? The Flatheads? "Hello Sailor"?)

Speaking of finishing the game, that took the full two hours, because
this is a hard one with a lot of experimental guesswork required. I
doubt it would be possible in two hours without the hints. I'm still a
point short of the full score, with no idea how to get it. Anyone?

My score: 7

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

"My First Stupid Game"
----------------------
A word of advice: Play this game sometime when you really have to pee.
As one speaking from experience, I can say that it adds a LOT.

That said, it's an absurd little game with simplistic puzzles - locks,
darkness, feeding animals, searching things - and a warped sense of
humor which I found strangely appealing. Artistic it most certainly is
not, nor is it anything more than a smattering of I-F situations with
the most bare-bones plot attached. (In what other form of writing would
an author even _think_ of hiding a BEAR in a secret room behind
someone's Sammy Haggar poster?)

It's nice to see that the alt.tv.barney.die.die.die folks are still
alive and kicking. Also, I liked the fact that the final puzzle was
optional. But... did I really have to tear up the picture of Barney
AFTER I did my business all over it? Eww.

Here's hoping the author's SECOND stupid game will be a bit less...
well, stupid.

My score: 3

[CONTINUED IN NEXT ARTICLE]

--
C.E. Forman cefo...@worldnet.att.net
Read XYZZYnews at http://www.interport.net/~eileen/design/xyzzynews.html
Vote I-F in 1996! Visit http://www.xs4all.nl/~jojo/index.html for info!
"Circle of Armageddon", Vol. 2 of "The Windhall Chronicles" -- ?????????
Classic I-F FS/T in Ye Olde Infocomme Shoppe! (Mail for current stock.)

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