IFcomp 2004 Thoughts

I generally don't write straight reviews when it comes to the annual IF competition. It would be more appropriate to say that I jot down my thoughts. Furthermore, I always try but never quite succeed in playing every single release each comp; the number of games is rather staggering, and despite any impressions you may get from this web site, I do have a life.

Should you be interested in how I assign the numerical ratings for each game, my methods can be found here.

Clicking on a title will download the game. If you're new to interactive fiction, I would recommend a visit to A Beginner's Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction before you download anything.

Games reviewed:

A Day In The Life Of A Super Hero | A Light's Tale | Bellclap | Blink | Blue Chairs 
Gamlet | Getting Back To Sleep | Identity | Kurusu City | EAS2: Luminous Horizon 
Magocracy | Mingsheng | Murder at the Aero Club | Ninja v1.30 | Order | PTBAD 3 
Redeye | Ruined Robots | Splashdown | Square Circle | Stack Overflow 
Sting of the Wasp | The Big Scoop | The Great Xavio | The Orion Agenda 
The Realm | Trading Punches | Typo | Zero One

A Day In The Life Of A Super Hero:
An ADRIFT game by davidw

I began writing my thoughts on this game by placing my fingers at the home row of the keyboard, staring off toward the wall, smirking, and shaking my head slowly. That's how I usually react to Whyld's games. He is a silly man, and he writes silly games. They're like extremely well-polished speed IFs: lacking in excessive plot but chock full of humor, and fun to play but good for no more than a few minutes of diversion.

I would say the game possesses an original concept, were it not for the fact that I myself wrote once a speed IF once that parallels this one in a profound way. There was, however, only one way for my character to die, and David's character supposedly has twenty-eight causes of death, so I guess he beat me hands down in that respect. Then again, my game was written in a fraction of a day and David appears to have spent some real time on this, so it's hardly a fair contest. Not that we're having a contest here. Not really.

Okay. It's not a serious game, I'm sure Whyld knows it's not a comp winner, but I'm glad he submitted it to the comp; I enjoyed it, and it came up in the queue after several very bad, very draining games, and perked me up. Based merely on the fact that I laughed several times, he gets a six, which is the bare minimum I give games that I actually enjoy on any level.

Rating: 6

A Light's Tale:
A TADS-2 game by vbnz

We start with a note to the players:

This game was programmed under the alias "vbnz". This is his game and it is freeware. The only things that are not free are the ideas in this game. If you plan on using any of these ideas for anything, free or otherwise, please contact vbnz [...]

And then we settle into the post-prologue game:

Welcome to the Beginning. From here you get have two choices: Go back, or follow me through this gopher hole and see how far, far down it goes. So, down to the ground, or up to the free land above.

Hello Matrix, who ganked it from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Hello, practically verbatim quoting. Hello, unoriginal ideas. Right out of the gate I'm sort of miffed by the aforementioned disclaimer. I need to ask this guy for permission when so far I haven't found anything original? Oh, and if you choose to go up to the 'free land above,' you die instantly. Choose freedom and get instadeath - is vbnz trying to make a statement here? Nah, I doubt it.

Okay, that's probably a little harsh. There actually was some rather original writing, such as...

A massive, massive door that maybe Popeye on super-spinach plus steroids formula could move.


Your heart beats so fast that Jeff Gordon's Car could not have kept up with it.

And then there was the quite original idea that I am being chased by a gang of angry gophers. Still, I somehow doubt I'll be e-mailing vbnz to beg for use of his intellectual property.

I won't even address the implementation problems. I won't waste any more time discussing this. I'm sure the author thought that it was a very cute and clever game, but to me it just seemed juvenile and stupid. One girl's opinion.

Rating: 3

A Z-code game by Tommy Herbert

What we have here is a one room, one puzzle game. To be more precise, a frustrating one room, one puzzle game.

The method of interacting with the game is decidedly different in this piece, as Herbert experiments with the concept of the player character as some sort of god looking down upon one of his believers. The player character as god is, in this case, not omniscient/omnipotent and receives information and gives commands via a middle man, a third party. Who or what this third party is is unknown, as returns the sentence, "He can't see me, sir. I'm more a sort of guiding voice."

This sort of interaction is difficult at first, but that's not the frustrating part - the interaction becomes more intuitive as the game progresses. What is frustrating is that my believer doesn't do everything I want him to do because he is a complete coward and despite being so devote a follower, he chooses to obey his fears rather than his Lord and Master (not that I'm bitter or anything).

Herbert's got an interesting idea here, but I don't feel this version of the game did that idea justice. There were some very annoying aspects to this piece, and I feel the need to vent. Bear with me.

It started innocently with the Guiding Voice. Whether it's subservient to the player character or not, I got a little sick of it calling me 'sir' all the time; it became annoyingly redundant. I kept wanting to say >YOU, QUIT CALLING ME SIR! But of course, that doesn't work.

Questions are sometimes presented to me, questions from the mind of my believer. But these are not always non-rhetorical, and you can never tell for certain. For instance:

He wants to know if you're angry with him, sir.

He says he's very sorry and he's willing to atone for his crime, though I suspect he doesn't know what it is.

He's waving his arms, sir. He wants to know if you can see him.

That was a rhetorical question.

And if I tell my believer that no, I'm not at all angry with him, he looks visibly relieved... but then he keeps on asking me if I'm angry with him anyway. He's not really relieved at all, and I seem to be unable to do anything to calm him down. Just one of the shortcomings that makes me not a very decent supernatural entity. I also can't create fire to warm my believers or cause it to stop raining (I really should work on being more omnipotent, I think). This lack of power is not a coding problem but rather the intention of the author, as pointed out in the help documentation. So while I didn't like it, I do understand that it was Herbert's intention for me to feel like a lame, totally powerless, kinda useless and helpless sort of god.

The real frustration I felt was partially because I found a portion of the solution to be rather unintuitive (given my own ethics and/or religious beliefs) and part of the solution unreachable (partly because I'm evidently missing something and partly because the walkthrough was not accurate/complete). Some of the issues that the game brought up to me time and time again didn't really need to be addressed, I think, but if something's going to be thrown in your face time and time again (an injury, for instance) you should be able to address such issues. If you tried to address them in sensible ways, those ways weren't implemented.

I sound as if I'm being totally negative, and so far I guess I sort of have been. But I don't want to be! As ever, I find Herbert's writing to be competent and his ideas to be creative; I just get the sense that this wasn't tested quite enough prior to the comp. I look forward to seeing more work from him (perhaps a rerelease of Bellclap, or, even better a finished version of Auden's Eden... hint, hint).

Rating: 5

A Z-code game by Ian Waddell

It's the Jane of Comp04, and my guess is that it will meet with similar results: people play IF to escape the harsh realities of the world, and the war is omnipresent on everyone's mind right now. The election came and went while we were playing and rating comp games, at times eager to do so in an attempt to forget what was happening beyond the walls of our apartments and dorm rooms and condominiums and homes. And then we hit a game like Blink and the escapism dissolved.

A short piece with one mildly annoying but eventually solvable puzzle (though I wandered around like a lost teenager in a Blair Witch Project movie for far longer than I care to admit), however this isn't so much a game as a statement about war. It's about the idealism that is so often connected to the concept of war and of the more horrid first-hand realities of war when it's desanitized and unfiltered. It's about the way war affects the lives of those whose are enlisted to fight either willingly or not and about how it affects the families of the enlisted. Perhaps most importantly it's about how some wars are unjust, and how even in seemingly just wars the enemy is not always the enemy. No war is without unjust deaths on both sides.

Based on solid coding, sound writing, and to some extent concept, ignoring the fact that the last thing I wanted to think about while playing the comp games was the war in which my country is unfortunately engaged, I'll use my criteria to rate this a six. It's really on the cusp between a five and a six, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. I didn't want to play this, and I would like to be able to say that no one needed to play this game, that everyone knows that war is a horrible, horrible thing and that they don't need to see something that uses all this recycled with a semi-new approach propaganda, but judging by current events that obviously isn't the case; half the population of the United States must think war is a pretty good thing. So while I didn't want to see this, I'm glad it was here anyway. Hopefully it made at least one person think for five seconds.

Rating: 6


Blue Chairs:
A Z-code game by Chris Klimas


This is a good one. Starts out like something out of Trainspotting and then takes a number of unexpected turns. Klimas uses some great techniques to make the player feel a part of the story, to disorient, to induce that feeling of uncertainty and worry and fear. Some of these techniques are excellent - your attempt at speaking to Beatrice on the phone was superb, as was maneuvering across the dance floor. However, a technique used just after the introduction and just prior to the ending froze up a friend's Mac, and though those bits played on my PC, not all the words were there; that needed a bit more testing. There were a few grammatical/spelling/typo errors along the way, too, but I'm not going to pick on those aspects, because this game grabbed me and kept me and I don't know how long I played, but it flew. Surreal all the way, slightly reminiscent of Mullholland Drive before all was said and done (I'll quit making book & movie references now), but original and fluid and emotional and disorienting in just the right ways.

Still not sure if I got the ending I wanted. Then again, by the end you're not entirely sure what you want.

Rating: 9


A Z-code game by Tomasz Pudlo

I'm not certain what to think of this one. Is it just unintentionally over the top, or absurd, or serious, or a bit of all three, shifting from one to the next and then back to the beginning? Overall I think it's serious, but then just when I get comfortable with that idea, someone doesn't have any pants or I have a hamster named Yorick (I wonder where he got that name 'cause oh gee you can't tell any literary influences judging by the plot oh no) who has run away and I'm wondering if he's gone feral, hunting in packs of wild hamsters, fighting other males for food, mates and dominance (rar). Sometimes it's dark and disturbing, with nightmarish visions, and then sometimes the game is absurdly amusing. And not all of it, I think, can be chalked up to the fact that the protagonist is a twelve year old boy.

It seemed as if I had a goal at first, but then the pursuit of that goal seemed rather circuitous. I got stuck, because I'm on a scavenger hunt, and the clues just aren't there. There are site-specific hints - hints that actually do change as the plot progresses, which most site specific hints I've hit thus far in the comp did not do - but they're really not sufficient. In a comp with a two hour time limit and out of concern for maintaining the pace of the story, a walkthrough or at least significantly better hints would have not have been unwelcome.

I didn't not enjoy it, but it unfortunately wasn't quite good enough to get into the category of 'pieces I enjoyed this competition.'

Rating: 5


Getting Back To Sleep:
A Win9x-only games game by IceDragon

This game utilizes a non-standard game engine. The reason, according to the author, is that he wants things to happen in real time, for events to unfold as you type. "Sounds like a decent idea, perhaps, and one I'm interested in seeing," I thought to myself. So I tried to run it, and couldn't. Over fifty frickin' megabites over dialup of downloading updates from Microsoft later, I am able to run the thing. Yay, right? Not really.

First off, the plot is rather unoriginal, though it does lend itself to this experiment of real-time IF: you wake up trapped on a doomed ship and need to find an escape pod. Don't even argue with me that it's an original concept, because I've already hit another game in this very comp with the same basic premise, except for the real-time bit.

Secondly, I'm all for people developing their own systems when the available IF languages don't do what the author wants, but (A) there are standard systems that can in this case and (B) if you're going to ignore that and make your own system anyway, make it at least as functional as what the IF community is used to or don't submit it to the competition. Writing and programming experiments should only be showcased here when they're successful. I need critique the game no more specifically than that, and to illustrate, here is the first part of my experience with Getting Back to Sleep:

<<Welcome to Live Interactive Fiction Engine>>
Welcome to Getting Back To Sleep. Please read the readme.txt file if you have not already, or type Help.
You wake up with a throbbing headache, and a sore back. Opening your eyes, you see a mop in front of you. In fact, you're sitting on the cold, hard floor of a closet that smells like chemicals. Around the shut door, the bright light sneaking through the crack bothers your eyes.
> x me
You don't see that here.
> examine me
You don't see that here.
> i
Sorry, your command was not understood.
> inventory
You have 0 points out of a possible 160. You are feeling 100% of your healthy self. You aren't holding anything.
> take all
You don't see that here.
> take mop
You pick up the floor mop.
The ship's intercom comes to life with the voice of a woman: 'Your attention please! The Exige will collide with an unknown object in precisely thirty minutes. Please evacuate the ship using the nearest escape pod. Thank you and enjoy your day.'
Escape pod? Collision? Memories of the ship and her crew slowly pour back into your mind like ice water. You had just left Alpha One, although you wonder where the ship could be now.
> open door
You open the closet door.
> exit
To restart, close and reload the game. To quit, use the Exit menu item.
> out
Sorry, your command was not understood.
> leave
Where do you want to go?
> e
You can't go to that.
> s
You can't go to that.
> w
You can't go to that.
> n
You can't go to that.
> ne
Sorry, your command was not understood.
> get up
You don't see that here.


And no, I didn't delete all the spacing to save space, it was crunched together and equally as difficult to read while playing the game.

Let me again reiterate my incessant plea: if the primary languages for IF that have been years in the making are broken, fix them with a library or some sort of contribution rather than thinking you can reinvent the wheel, better this time, in a fraction of the time that's been spent on the standard languages. Unless you're just amazingly brilliant, of course. If you're amazingly brilliant then by all means go ahead, but note that I said 'unless you are,' not, 'unless you think you are.'

Am I being mean? Maybe, but I wasted a lot of time on this game, a lot of bandwidth, a lot of frustration, and for no payoff. Buggy as hell.

Rating: 2


A Z-code game by Dave Bernazzani

Well, I didn't not like this one, but I didn't exactly like it either. The puzzles were somewhat intuitive but tedious, the plot was okay but didn't grip me in any particularly strong way. The writing and coding were competant, but nothing knocked me off my feet.

There was a yak, though. Points for a mountain yak, most certainly.

I feel like I should have something more to say, like I should somehow have some meaningful feedback for the author, who is most certainly competant, but needs to push the envelope further to create an 8+ game. And I don't really have anything else to say, except, hm... keep everything you did but give me some more drive, or a more immersive setting, or more interesting characters... this, but better.

Rating: 6


Kurusu City:
A TADS-2 game by Kevin Venzke

Well, where to start. This one starts begins with, well, a plot that's just not my thing. But it seemed to be solidly written/tested, and so I kept at it and discovered a bit of its eclectic charm.

There's some interesting attention to detail, sometimes beautiful, sometimes just silly, that I rather approved of. In the description of a building, for instance, the author writes: If you tilt your head and stand close enough, the hospital is a white brick road extending to the horizon. (Lovely.) Elsewhere, when you're thrown in jail, there's this bit: There's nothing here but some bone fragments in a corner, probably overlooked by the cleaning crew. (Hooray!) And then there were nice little touches, such as hearing the life-affirming theme from the movie "When Help Collides" while in a shop downtown. (I approved deeply of the J.D. Berry reference.)

There's a kinky undercurrent that runs throughout this game. Our character is a fifteen year old school girl who's experimented with female classmates and has a paint fetish. But it's somehow oddly non-squicky. Well, mostly. It probably would be squick-inducing were it not so hilarious.

One of my primary disappointments in the game was the lack of a built-in hint system. There was an external hint file, but it was encrypted in ROT13. Translation: a pain in the ass. I did find a cool site that decodes the text, but the copy and paste back and forth bit was just annoying as hell, and, unfortunately, even decoded the hints aren't always very helpful, and don't address all the questions/problems I had with the game. I got a little lost, felt a little listless, and didn't get things done in under two hours.

I did enjoy the game, though, in spite of all that. Random as hell in a very fun way, and I hope to see more from this author. He's either playing under a pseudonym, or this is his first game, and, if it's the latter, good show, Kevin. Write some more stuff.

Rating: 5


Luminous Horizon:
A Glulx game by Paul O'Brian

Campy fun, rather mindless entertainment (except that there are puzzles, so I suppose it's not entirely mindless). The EaS series is a favorite of many, and I can understand why; it's amusing, I do like some of the sibling snarkiness exchanged between Emily and Austin, and its over-the-top cliché-laden superhero style, replete with Batmanesque POWS! and KERBLAMS!, but aside from concluding the series and tying up loose ends (and doing so with continuity intact, which was a neat trick), I didn't feel that LH:EaS3 achieved anything terribly new or unique. It had that third in the series sequel let down; I've been liking the EaS series less and less because it's hard to top the previous installment in such a way as to have much of anything that's new. (Note to Paul: Worry not, for I feel this way about most trilogies! It's a really difficult thing to overcome.) I like O'Brian's writing, and I look forward to more from him, but I'm mostly looking forward to something new from him. I suppose that, were there not a two hour gameplay time limit, he could have just released this as a single game, but even then I think it would have dragged on a bit too long. There is such a concept as too much of a good thing; even watching all three Indiana Jones movies back to back will make anyone ready to move on to something new.

So, anyway, though it may sound bad... yay that we found our parents, yay that we saved the world, and yay that it's over. I had fun, but I'm ready to move on.

Extreme kudos go out to Paul O'Brian and J. Robinson Wheeler for the comic feelies, though - after a year's break, that was a fantastic way to remind us what had happened in the previous installments.

Rating: 7


A TADS-2 game by Scarybug

A promising start, with solid, illustrative writing, though not terribly original. I didn't get very far or play for very long, however... far too many random - totally random - events. I kept waiting for things to happen without trying to trigger anything, as recommended by the author, but nothing ever happened unless I started it, and I was really too weak to have any business starting anything. An interesting idea, though I would like to have seen more of the standard interactive fiction components included; I think having a few more of the solid bits would help mask the random rpg components to the point where it would feel more natural.

I mean, it *was* interactive fiction, but it seemed to lack something that would make these characters, this setting, these events more real. I felt like I was watching cardboard characters on a sound stage, rather than feeling immersed. I can't quite pin down why, though, and there were some well done bits in the writing, which leaves me scratching my head even more as to what it was that I wanted but this game didn't provide.

At any rate, I quit early after several tedious deaths. Perhaps I didn't give the game enough of a chance, but it felt as though nothing was going to change, that it would simply plod along without twists or surprises, randomly choosing my fate.

Rating: 5


Mingsheng: A Chinese adventure:
A Z-code game by Rexx Magnus/Deane Saunders

I appreciate this piece on a couple of different levels.

As a fellow author, I appreciate writing a piece of interactive fiction to explore a concept, to create a world in which themes can be envisioned and realized, to develop an atmosphere that nurtures the quiet that you embrace through your observance of the Tao. This isn't a game about achieving a goal so much as it's a piece about exploring the path. My guess is that Saunders wrote this as much for himself as he did for others (or perhaps more).

As a player, I appreciate the concepts that shone through in the piece, even if they weren't fully realized: beauty, nature, complement, strength through peace; though this was not a good medium for what he was trying to achieve. I'm at a loss as to what method might be better suited for the task, though... short of experiencing the story in the real world.

As someone who has spent a bit of time comparing the Tao and Buddism (though not nearly enough), and as someone who practices daily meditation, and as someone who is fascinated and inspired by the traditional (not necessarily contemporary) Chinese love of nature, as someone who spends a disproportionate amount of time thinking about and interacting with nature, I enjoyed the experience as much as I could. It's difficult to appreciate the quiet of the piece while you're running about through the woods solving puzzles.

The drive behind the plot will have meaning for some, I think, but not most. Again, however, I respect the author's reasons for writing this (though of course I'm only speculating as to his desires). This was an excellent attempt, but for some reason it just didn't grasp me in quite the way that I believe was intended. The appreciation of the subject definitely shines through, but somehow it's jumbled and confused and tarnished by the medium. It should have affected me more, and I suspect that I'm probably one of the competition players most open to the idea of a game like this.

Rating: 7


Murder at the Aero Club: An interactive murder mystery:
A Z-code game by Penny

Snrk. Arrive at half past noon, solve the murder, and make an eight hour drive back home to catch your favorite television program. That leaves me with, oh, a couple of hours or so to supposedly conduct thorough interviews, search for clues, track down the suspect, arrest them, get them to the jail and booked and drive home.

Easy, isn't it?

I doubt it will be, but I'll have a go. After all, being both a law enforcement officer and a pilot means I should really enjoy this game. (And it looks like she's not actually keeping track of what time it is in the game, nor is she going to make me go through the hassle of obtaining search warrants, so perhaps even if I take days to solve it I'll still be home on time for my program through the magic of artistic license.)

First impression: the author (is Penny Wyatt a pen name, perhaps?) is a competent writer, and has an eye for writing detail, but not for coding detail. I am led to believe this is a first attempt at interactive fiction writing by the author, and if I'm correct in that assumption, it's not too shabby. I expect comp pieces to have a little more varnish on them, but this piece doesn't do much to actually generate anger. By varnish, I mean that things like >X ME and >SEARCH CAR would have some non-default responses. An interesting reply to commands such as >HIT BRAD WITH WRENCH (prior to any plot climax) would have been wonderful. In a detective game where you're searching hard for clues, all objects mentioned in room and object descriptions should be well implemented. Sometimes the lack of implementation was merely a mild nuissance, but sometimes it was really annoying:

The pilot, Penny, is sitting in the cockpit, performing some kind of checks.
If you wanted to talk to her, now would be a good time.
The Warrior is parked here.

You can't see any such thing.

You can't see any such thing.

That's not something you can open.
The Warrior is parked here.

I did eventually figure out how to talk to Penny (>ENTER WARRIOR worked), but bits like this really detract from the game, and while I realize that a lot of beta testing is difficult (trust me, I know), it's soooo necessary for a good game.

And then there were bits that were implemented, but in a way such that the author saved herself some coding time. For example:

He seems so busy, it'd be a shame to bother him.

Okay, yeah. That makes sense. I mean, yes, flight planning is difficult, particularly for new pilots, but I think I'd probably take the liberty of interrupting him, even over a simple, silly little thing like a homicide investigation. But maybe that's just me. Or maybe it's just that it's a pain to code another conversation into the mix.

Oh, and another picky detail: a proper centerfold in an airplane mechanic's shop has a hott naked chyk draped over a Cessna, Piper, some other make of small plane, probably a twin (twin engine or twin women or perhaps both), not an expensive car. Tut, tut. Then again, in discussing this with a friend, such photographs might more difficult to come by, so I will not belabor this point.

All that aside, though, there are some neat things that helped to make up for lack of varnish.

  • Pertinent details are automatically noted down in a notebook that you keep with you, a very nice touch.

  • There's a great new verb: >J'ACCUSE!* (unfortunately, this verb turned out to be a bit of a disappointment; I thought this verb might allow for some multiple endings wherein I accuse the wrong people, but unfortunately this verb was still used in a railroaded fashion).

  • Being an officer myself, I like how I'm able to just pick up whatever I want without a pesky search warrant; so much more convenient that way, and every time this happened in the game it made me smile.

  • Some of the aspects of the aero club were written in a very realistic way that I could appreciate, having been to a few of them myself. Where things were over the top it was done out of good-natured humor, not intentional blunder. I thought the character of Penny was particularly well done.

Overall, I came away with a good impression and had a fun time. This didn't strike me as a game with replay value, and the clues were a little too straight forward (I kept thinking I surely am being led toward some wacky Scooby Doo surprise ending - It couldn't have been that person, because they're tied up and gagged behind the workshop! It's actually this person and he's wearing a very convincing rubber mask! Mwuhahaha!), but the two endings that I did hit were achieved by walking down a fun path that made me smile from time to time. Normally I would give this game a five because it lacks some things I demand in a good competition game, but the general aviation aspect and the fact that I actually did enjoy myself earn it an extra point.

* Okay, it's really >ACCUSE WHOEVER, but I just like to say >J'ACCUSE!

Rating: 6


Ninja v1.30: (no subtitle):
A Win9x-only games game by Dunric

Well, thank goodness playing this to completion only took a few minutes. I've heard a lot about Panks' games, and have dabbled a bit with his writing here and there, but this was the first game of his that I've played to completion. Let me again say, "thank goodness it only took a few minutes," and let me add, "thank goodness it was monochrome."

Very sparsely implemented with only one real puzzle, and though I achieved the goal I ended up with a score of 67 out of 88. Reading the game documentation suggests that points were taken from me due to lack of style... can I just point out how hypocritical that is?

Standard commands are not accepted except when typed longhand (I hate to quibble on this, but I've played thirty games at this point, five already today, and written reviews as I go, so my hands are rather spent). One sentence room descriptions, sometimes recycled to apply to multiple locales, are employed. There is technically a plot, but it's miniscule and lacks any sort of drive. This would be an okay speed IF, perhaps, if it contained some humor. As it was, it attempted to be something surreal and failed.

Rating: 3



An interesting and (to my knowledge) original concept: allow the protagonist to create items as needed, thereby providing the ability to solve puzzles in multiple ways without a scavenger hunt. Sounds great. Unfortunately, the game in which the author debuts this nifty little idea is not so wonderful. Set aside for a moment the fact that the plot is rather unoriginal and, let's be honest, constructed solely to demonstrate the concept of creating objects for puzzle-solving on the fly, and what you're left with is a game that seems to have been hastily constructed. It may not have been - there's a lot of clever work here - but there's some really simple stuff that made the game impossible to solve without hints, and I think that could have been caught with more beta testing. The 'credits' mention not a single tester, and I get the impression that Evans may have done all the testing himself; if that's the case, he did a damn fine job, but you need other eyes to catch the mistakes you cannot see.

I won't pick on the minor things  - the seemingly portable items fixed in place or the stones that illuminate the entire room when just a moment before I had to create a light source - but I will pick on the fact that objects necessary to complete puzzles are left unimplemented.

Here's what made me quit the game early: 'dome' and 'hole' aren't visible on the roof of the castle. 'Steeple' is, but I only got that word from resorting to the hints; the word 'steeple' is never mentioned in the room description. And certain objects mentioned in the hints also went unimplemented (you can't create a ladder to get onto the roof, despite being told you can, for instance).

I did have fun with the first few puzzles, but overall the game was either incredibly easy or so ambiguous and/or underimplemented as to be impossible without hints. An original concept (rare in a comp!), but make sure you do more testing next time, John.

Rating: 4


PTBAD 3: A Mystery:
A TADS-2 game by Xorax

Sigh. Immediately I am assaulted with inconsistent capitalization and frequent spelling errors. Perhaps if I pour some gin into this vanilla soda that I'm drinking I'll be better equipped to cope with playing this one...

There. Now, where was I? Oh yes. This is very bad game. That's where I was. It's a pretty weak attempt at surreal; even in a dream I expect things to be properly implemented and proofread, but perhaps that's just me. And the word 'Claritin' has no place in any attempt at surreality. BAD XORAX.

Rating: 2


A TADS-2 game by John Pitchers

Hm. Well, first off, I have to admit that it took me a bit of time to get started on this one. I had to read and then reread the phrase "your mouth is as dry as a nun's fanny" that was used in the very first paragraph a few times, and I'm still just not exactly certain what this implies about nuns. But eventually I decided that such a puzzle probably wasn't important to the game, and I pressed on. (Edit: my darling British boyfriend has now explained that fanny is a slang term that extends a little farther forward on the female anatomy and includes more than is generally considered to be the case by American fanny standards. I'm not sure I wanted this extra information. Anyway...)

What other lovely bits did I find? Aside from other squick-inducing text (a brown stain on the wall in a dirty restroom reads 'XYZZY,' for example), I found some bad coding. This pulled my attention from the story at hand, which is generally bad, except that I don't think this game was worth my attention in the first place. Even the poor coding induced the squick:

There's nothing in the body of Arthur.

Okay, I have to admit that (the implied cavity search? hasty autopsy?) made me chuckle. At any rate, I didn't play for very long. Obviously large things mentioned blatantly in room descriptions weren't actually there when you tried to look at them, and that's always a big turn off for me. If you're going to have puzzles that make me look around, then let me look around.

During the short time that I did spend on the game, I noted a bit of promise. Humor was disgusting but it had its moments (I admit to laughing at one of Arthur's jokes, God help me), there was an unexpected twist that was supposed to get my attention (which it did quite well), and there may be a developing plot here. The walk through promised a fun twist near the end of the game, but once I read the walk through* I found out that I had been stuck in a puzzle, even after asking for hints, because of poor implementation, I just quit. Comp games should be polished, and this was not, and therefore it lost my interest early.

I would encourage Pitchers to continue writing IF, but have things thoroughly tested before entering the competition again.

* I was annoyed that I had to type 'walkthru' to see the walk through because, well, 'thru' is not a word any more than 'ROFLMAO' is a word. I'm a purist, work with me here.

Rating: 3


Ruined Robots: World Domination, With Robots or Without Them:
A TADS-2 game by nanag_d

To quote Dick Cheney, "I'm sorry, it's hard to know where to start."

I won't waste too much time on this one, but I would like to make two comments.

First, this is a very amateurish game. We've seen other First Attempts at IF in this comp, and to say that most of those have done a significantly better job than this one would be a fantastic understatement.

Secondly, this thing is random as hell. I don't mean the actually random bits, like wandering bots, I mean that after playing this game I will probably submit a suggestion to the competition organizer that Comp05 should include the following rule: No games that have obviously been written while smoking crack cocaine will be accepted.

I point you toward this excerpt:

A robotic beaver is sitting on a rock apparently charging its batterys using solar power. The sight of yet another robot animal serve to remind you how much you miss seeing real authentic wildlife. It sounds like it is talking to itself. It seems to be saying "Why don't they ask me about something?".

The robotic beaver is a chubby fellow who seems to have recently climbed out of the pond. Robot beavers were developed to simulate the action of real beavers with risk of having trees cut down.

The beaver discusses the weather with itself.

I don't know how to listen to the robot beaver.

The beaver examines a small tree.

The birch tree isn't important.

The beaver discusses the weather with itself.

The robo-beaver says: "I am afraid I don't know anything about that. You might try asking one of the robot elves in the forest, they were developed to answer mysterious questions."

Friends don't let friends write games that include robot elves, kids.

I shouldn't be so mean, though. The very presence of a robotic beaver does deserve some extra points, where 'extra points' = 'hundredths of points.' The game started with a 0.5 and I will give it 0.09 points for the beaver. That leaves us with 0.59, which, when rounded to the nearest whole integer, gives me...

Rating: 1


A Z-code game by Paul J. Furio

My second starting-out-in-a-cryotube game of the comp, and this one's a bigger puzzlefest than the last. Some people adore puzzle games, but I'm not one of them, and this one is one great big very giant puzzle. It's sort of a twist on Suspended and Tower of Hannoi and some other game that didn't have a lot of urgent need.

With respect to 'urgent need,' I don't know why I didn't get a sense of needing to do something, because my character is constantly aware that the batteries on the ship are failing and that hundreds of lives are at stake, but I just didn't feel compelled to do much. I sort of wanted to crawl back into my cryotube and sleep toward death.

There was a cute robot, and he made me smile from time to time, but more often than not he was frustratingly unknowledgeable and brought back memories of why I hated Suspended. Stupid pseudohelpful robots.

Anyway, take my rating with a grain of salt, as I'm not into science fiction and not into extremely fiddle-with-machines puzzle games, but this one just never grabbed me. The writing and coding were okay, but descriptions were utilitarian, I had no backstory to care whether I lived or died, and I had no attachment to any of the other colonists such that I would suffer through the puzzles for them (even if the author was in Cryotube 500... nothing personal, Paul).

Rating: 5


Square Circle:
A TADS3 game by Eric Eve

This one started weak, became very strong, wobbled a bit, and then, in my opinion, fell.

We start out an amnesiac prisoner, under key for an unknown crime - a fairly lame and somewhat unoriginal initial premise, in my opinion, and my hopes for a good game fell despite the decent quality of the writing. To get out, we must draw a square circle, thought to be an impossibility, and I got the impression that this was just a logic puzzle in a one room game. But first impressions do not always reveal the true nature of things.

Soon, I forgot about the amnesia and concentrated on the unfolding plot - that I'm imprisoned in the world of the New Enlightenment. It's a story woven with a number of different materials - Immanuel Kant, Aldus Huxley, P. K. Dick... and perhaps just a touch of current events. Nothing new, perhaps, but engagingly done. The writing quite eloquently points out a number of the flaws in our present system ('parasitic' lawyers, expensive and cumbersome trials, the unreliable nature of witness testimony, convoluted criminal code, the list goes on...), but intentionally replaces it with something so outrageous that you quickly and fully embrace the idea of the judicial and penitentiary systems as most who will have access to this game know it, regardless of the flaws.

The game subsequently went from lame to thought-provoking rather quickly. My impression of the piece changed and I set about the task at hand: that square circle. And I managed to solve that one all on my own, sans hints, which pleased me greatly (I'm generally not into puzzle fests, but this particular puzzle was rather well done; all the necessary elements and nudges were present). Given what I knew at the time, I figured that I'd solved the game. I was wrong.

And perhaps if it had ended there I would have felt short-changed. All of that story building for no reason? Surely there must be more. From there, however, the game became circuitous, uncontained, undirected, and basically completely disjointed from what I'd done thus far, or at least that's how it felt. In retrospect I'm not sure what bothered me about it; the plot remained constant throughout, but the goal went from a square circle to a amorphous unknown, the map started sprawling, the tasks became tedious. The plot itself was a good one, but by the time I discovered the Big Surprise I'd been through so much that I really didn't care about it anymore.

With the (not always helpful) hints I finished in under two hours - just barely. The plot was fine, but it was laced with puzzles that I feel were beneath this piece. I also think that perhaps the first portion of the game was more thoroughly written and thought out than the rest, despite the fact that the mechanics of the writing and the actual coding stayed strong throughout.

The author is attempting to achieve the best of both interactive fiction worlds: puzzle and plot, used engagingly and simultaneously. At times Eve succeeds, at times he fails. That's not to say that I have an idea of how it could have been done better, unfortunately. I wish I knew (I'm running into a similar problem with a piece I'm working on, and will thus give this aspect of interactive fiction story crafting more thought).

Puzzle/plot theory discussions aside, it's a fairly solid game, with some particularly nice implementation. Conversations were fluid and natural, books had indices you could peruse for topics, characters seemed realistic and fleshed-out, there was humor where appropriate. Overall, I enjoyed my time with this piece, though it had some rather frustrating moments.

Rating: 7


Stack Overflow:
A Z-code game by Timofei Shatrov

Sigh. Another wacky random game who's author thinks he's being terribly clever and stylistically sophisticated through minimalist implementation.

>HIT WALL WITH CUBE (the gray wall with the featureless white cube)
Breaking walls needs special tool.

You achieve nothing by this.

That's plainly inedible.

A featureless white cube. What's more to say?

Completely unentertained thus far by the fantastically exciting (read: tedious) switchings of cassettes and losing patience, I glance at the walkthrough...

As you say magic word BLORPLE the cube magicks move you somewhere else!

Um, I have to remember the word BLORPLE? Riiight. I mean, I got the Spellbreaker reference. But, um, yeah. Single method solution puzzles that pull from a game I played when I was, oh, fifteen, is rather lame. And the 'somewhere else' that's mentioned above? A lack-luster space station, written in such a way that I am totally disinterested. I hope that was the author's intent. If it wasn't, then he should have made it, well, interesting.

Rating: 3


Sting of the Wasp:
Z-code game by Jason Devlin

Thank goodness this game gives a disclaimer at the beginning, because otherwise I probably would have closed the window before the first prompt. As it is, though, the initial scene is necessary for the plot, and though it's over-the-top it fits well with the mind, body, and soul of the player character, who is extremely well built (not merely from surgery, but also in terms of writing).

Though there was an occasional glitch (directions in the dining area next to the pro shop and the fact that 'Julia' is not a synonym for 'me' come to mind), I generally found the piece to be well coded, well thought-out, and expertly written. The locations, characters, dialogue, and internal thoughts of the protagonist all work well in crafting the setting and plot. I was drawn in, held tight, and made to laugh hard, cringe often, and worry on occasion. It's hard to feel sorry for a protagonist that has it coming, but from time to time I felt that desperate need to get to the bottom of things, figure out who'd wronged Julia, and do it all as quickly as possible.

This game is rather unforgiving (particularly near the end), requires frequent saves, and it's pretty easy to screw up everything. Then again, that's pretty appropriate given the plot, and it adds to the mood - if it were impossible to put the game in an unwinnable state, you'd putter around all day with no concern for consequences, and that simply wouldn't hold water given the situation.

In short, this was an enjoyable game. I'm fairly certain that the piece feeds on stereotypes and is far from realistic, but it's campy good fun and a polished work of interactive fiction. I approved.

Rating: 8


The Big Scoop:
A Z-code game by Johan Berntsson

It's journalism meets the steel rails!

I wanted to like this one. I tried. Mostly because I put myself in the shoes of the author and thought to myself, "Now, think about what this man has done. Could you, Jacqueline, write a game in both English and French and then have the guts to release the French version in a competition? Probably not just no, but hell no." And the English is, I must say, impeccable - but sparse. Things just didn't seem fleshed out enough to create immersion. There's a good start here, but there are a couple of major problems and a few more minor ones as well.

To say that this piece is railroaded would be the understatement of the competition. While having a conversation with an important character, I can't ask follow up questions to things she's just told me. I don't want to spoil, so I'll give you a made-up example for illustration:

"It's the monkeys! They did it!"

She says she doesn't know what you're talking about.
[Hint: You can type "topics" to get a list of things the person can talk about.]

A logical flow of topics isn't going to work, so I use the option to view the available topics, which pretty much negates the main point of using the ask/tell system (at least for me). And then the topics that are covered are... well... the conversation just seems stilted and terse and the plot still seems to be going nowhere. And so I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Finally, out of desperation, I start reexamining my inventory and *cha-ching!* examining something that I just looked at before the conversation began now triggers a major event that gets me points and makes the game progress. Now, I'm sorry, but that's lame. I know it was a heavily employed device in the very lovely and successful Syberia games, but guess what? It was annoying there, too.

Room descriptions (aside from perhaps the very first one) are really short, perhaps one or two lines, and extremely utilitarian in nature (The bedroom is painted in soft blue colours, and contains a wide bed and a wardrobe. Yep, that's it. That's all you get for a room description.). I'm not sure why - perhaps this was an attempt to use as little language as possible to avoid errors in translation; what's there is perfect, though, so I sort of doubt that's the reason. I needed more complete prose to craft the world and the characters. I never felt like I was part of the story.

So, lacking detail, the author tried to pull us in with URGENT NEED. Oh my God if you don't take action immediately something bad will happen! I get a set number of moves to figure out what to do but if I fail, I die. Suffice it to say, you should save and save often. The game includes sudden endings and, it would seem, can be made unwinnable pretty easily.

Kudos for a cross-language release, but the game itself didn't do much for me, I'm afraid.

Rating: 4


The Great Xavio: A Mystery:
A Z-code game by Reese Warner

Hm. I have to admit that I didn't play this one for very long. Well, actually, I did play it quite awhile, possibly more than a couple of hours (I tend to lose track), but didn't actually get very far. I think I scored twenty points. At any rate, this starts out a campy fun piece, and what I was able to do I did enjoy, but the game was somewhat tricky and the hint system, once you found it, wasn't really very good - for instance, hints didn't change given advances in the plot - and when you need to finish, or at least get pretty far into the game, within a two hour time frame, having a good hint system or a walkthrough is rather important (one girl's opinion).

You play the role of a graduate student who plays the role of an indentured servant. More to the point, you will do anything for Dr. Rex Excalibur Todd, your thesis advisor. Until you get that thesis done, you basically have to do his bidding and please the hell out of him. I appreciated the humor behind this; I watched all my friends in grad school piddle around for years doing outside projects for our professors whereas I blew off this kissfest and somehow managed to get my masters completed and successfully defended in two years without bribing anyone. Regardless, I appreciated this running joke throughout the game.

This is evidently at least the third adventure of Todd and Hagerston, but the author's first attempt at interactive fiction. As such, it's decent, but it lacks some of the polish that I expect from competition games. The hint system I've already mentioned. Other annoyances included doors you had to unlock every... single... frickin... time you went through them (instead of the game doing this for you automagically after the first time), or elevators that took several turns to go nine floors. Convenient synonyms that probably should have been included were omitted. Little things like that. I would mention the fact that Dr. Todd's hotel room has no bathroom, despite being on one of the executive suite floors, but that would just be overly picky.

I wish I'd gotten farther with this one. With what I saw, I feel I can rate it as a an okay game with a quirky plot and fun writing (it was the tone of the piece of which I approved the most). Solid coding, but it needs a little more work to be properly user-friendly and, subsequently, more enjoyable.

Rating: 5


The Orion Agenda:
A Z-code game by Ryan Weisenberger

Hm. This one is not really my sort of game; I'm not generally into science fiction, nor puzzlefests, but I did enjoy playing this one. The premise, while not entirely original, is interesting enough, and appealed to the anthropoligist in me. I found it to be surprisingly well implemented given the complexity of what's going on.

All that having been said, I didn't get far during the two hour play time. This is a compliment to the game and its author, and did not lower the rating in any way. Had I disliked the piece I would have resorted to the hints in an effort to blow through the game within two hours, but instead I'd like to rate this game based on what I was able to do without hints because I want to return to it later.

A solidly coded piece with amusing bits, but definitely puzzle-heavy. No earth-shakingly brilliant plot twists (at least thus far), but a fun enough diversion and a Saturday afternoon of slacking well-spent.

Rating: 7


The Realm:
A TADS-2 game by Michael Sheldon

I played this one before I played Ruined Robots. When I played Ruined Robots, I decided that there should be a no games that have obviously been written while smoking crack cocaine will be accepted rule, and The Realm only strengthens my desire for such a rule. Only in this case, I think perhaps there was more than crack involved.

Not only is this the second game to be written while under the influence of something, it's the second one I've hit that's involved a hamster. This hamster was implemented a little bit better, but it was a carnivorous hamster, and that's a new one to me. It's also at least the second game with an insanely sprawling map that is impossible to keep track of.

In short, this felt like a first attempt, or perhaps a second, and while cute, the puzzles were totally unintuitive for the most part and aside from wacky antics it was merely a Do X to Get Y to Get Z sort of game. A sequential scavenger hunt. It would have positively rocked in 1985, but the method's a bit worn by now. On a plus note, I did find the armourer puzzle to be interested and new and original, as well as cute, and so it earned some points back there.

Rating: 4


Trading Punches:
A Hugo game by Sidney Merk

I'm afraid I'm going to short change this one; it was the final game that I played. It wasn't bad, but never really engaged me, and when I was done I didn't even feel that I had enough energy to write a review or play more games. I'm not certain that it was the game's fault, it may have just been comp burn-out (twenty-nine games and twenty-eight reviews'll do that to a woman), but I did rate it a five, based on my rating criteria.

Rating: #


A Z-code game by Peter Seebach & Kevin Lynn

Hooboy. I guess there are some folks out there for whom this is the perfect sort of game - stick me in a padded room with a big machine and an ambiguous goal and let me at it!

But this is not my sort of game. At all. And it's even less so my game due to the frustration. Oh dear Lord, the frustration. Part of the game's point is that we're supposed to be testing this fantastic new machine called the Psychic Typo Error Correction System that corrects our typos. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and we're supposed to test the damn thing. And so we get bits like this:

You cross the room and approach the window. As you look out at the cityscape, your attention is drawn to a funny little pizza delivery car as it cruises slowly along the street.

[Flavorplex Psychic Typo Correction has divined that you want to "x cart"].
You can't see any such thing.

Um, but you just said there was a 'a funny little pizza delivery car.' You did. I just read it!

And then, later...

You cross the room and approach the window. As you look out at the cityscape, your attention is drawn to the annual Running of the Cats!.

Heehee. The Running of the Cats. That's funny! Let's take a closer look at that...

[Flavorplex Psychic Typo Correction has divined that you want to "x cart"].
(the cartridge labeled "standard")
This is a large plastic cartridge which appears to be sealed shut. It might remind you of an ink cartridge for a computer printer, if it weren't larger than most desktop printers. It is completely black, but for a small label that reads "standard".

No, you stupid frickin' parser. You told me there were some cats. I asked to look at the cats, not the cartridge in my hand. I did not type it wrong. GRR!

But the disambiguation problems were not limited to their sexy new typo correction thing. No, Sir.


The purpose of this massive apparatus is not immediately obvious. It has a thin insulated wire attached to one side of it, a coiled transparent tube that attaches to the machine in two different places, a pair of numbered access doors, a control panel, a two foot wide conveyor belt jutting out of one side, and a pair of hoses that emerge from the top of the machine. Mounted on a platform attached to the back of the machine are two barrels and a large square metal bin. A large pipe, possibly an exhaust chimney, emerges from one end of the machine and disappears into the ceiling. There is an empty slot on the front of the machine. The slot's rectangular, about a foot long and maybe three inches high.
The machine is currently switched on.

The purpose of this massive apparatus is not immediately obvious. It has a thin insulated wire attached to one side of it, a coiled transparent tube that attaches to the machine in two different places, a pair of numbered access doors, a control panel, a two foot wide conveyor belt jutting out of one side, and a pair of hoses that emerge from the top of the machine. Mounted on a platform attached to the back of the machine are two barrels and a large square metal bin. A large pipe, possibly an exhaust chimney, emerges from one end of the machine and disappears into the ceiling. There is an empty slot on the front of the machine. The slot's rectangular, about a foot long and maybe three inches high.
The machine is currently switched on.

Um, I asked for something more specific about this tedious machine you want me to figure out. GIVE ME SPECIFICS!

(the cartridge labeled "standard" in the machine)
You'll have to be more specific, it's a big machine!

You people just told me there's a frickin' slot there, what do you mean I have to be more specific?

You can't see any such thing.

Um... but... you said... why didn't you implement... whatever.

I have other examples, but this is getting old. I have nothing of substance to say because I was so frustrated I didn't get to anything of substance.

I suppose there are people who will say that I'm just not good at puzzles and that I just don't get it, but I'm not exactly unintelligent, and it's not exactly as if this game is anywhere close to flawless. If you're going to make people fiddle with every little bit of the machine, then you'd better damn well implement it well or I'm just going to give up.

At first I thought of giving it a vote of NR just because I'm not big on the premise, but then I kept playing because I rather enjoyed Janitor and wanted to give this one a chance. The more I played, the more the holes showed up, the more I felt compelled to actually go out on a limb with a number. That number would be four. The most frustrating four I think I've ever played.

Rating: 4


Zero One:
An ALAN game by Shed

Well, I anticipate that most people are going to hate this game, and it probably shouldn't actually have been entered in the competition. I, however, loved it. It made me laugh - genuinely so - more than any other game in this comp thus far (even more than Sting of the Wasp, I daresay).

The plot is rather minimal - it's the standard Oh There Is A Mystery Maybe A Conspiracy And I Am In Jail And Must Escape To Find The Truth! RAR! sort of storyline. There are questions that go unanswered, or, at least, they went unanswered for me despite achieving the maximum score of forty-two (I'm just that damn good. Thank you very much, folks, I'll be here all night.). He's leaving the door open for a sequel, methinks.

But let's be honest. The plot was not the strong point, not the bit that leaves you with a lasting impression; after all, it's really just one big escape from prison puzzle. No, the joy of this game is in its writing. At one point I was reading the transcript over the phone to my mother and I couldn't finish sentences due to the laughter. The writing is terse and filled with squick. Many will no doubt find it extremely juvenile, but I think I took it exactly the way the author intended, and I had a great time playing Zero One. The game is short enough that I probably shouldn't give even the tiniest of transcripts, but I must share.

> E
Security Room.
This room is where a guard would sit and oversee the building. There are a couple of empty shells on the floor.
The door that you first came through is made of metal and heavily armoured. The grey door to the east is covered in very red blood; There is a bloody mangled corpse behind the door! A helmet, once belonging to the dead man, is on the floor. There are monitor screens on the desk.

The body is wearing a blue uniform you don't recognise.
He no longer boasts a head, and there are several small holes in his chest. Evidently he is the source of all the blood.
There is a small stainless steel key attached to his belt.
You are very sick all over the floor.

> L
Security Room.
This room is where a guard would sit and oversee the building. There are a couple of empty shells on the floor.
The door that you first came through is made of metal and heavily armoured. The grey door to the east is covered in very red blood; There is a bloody mangled corpse behind the door! You have been sick on the floor (You must have eaten carrots yesterday). There are monitor screens on the desk.

There may have been a typo here or there, but nothing really stood out to me. The stilted writing was precisely part of what led to the game's charm. It was sort of the same type of guilty fun one might get from playing Commander Keen: simple, silly, fun, but you wouldn't want to really talk it up at intellectual gatherings that it's how you're spending some of your spare time.

I'd like to see some disambiguation problems, particularly with doors, worked out in the future, and a few more objects coded properly, but the author's got an eye for detail. Like, when you get sick, it shows up in the room description... and you can even scoop up the vomit and put it in your inventory. Now that's thorough.

"In the future?" you say. Yes. The end game teases with ZERO ONE is not yet finished... Expect a return! Woo! If you need a tester, Shed, let me know.

Rating: 7