IFcomp 2005 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, and this year was particularly bad with respect to the number of games played due to some rather time-consuming events in my professional life; I'm lucky to have played any games at all. My apologies, and I'll try to be a better geek next year.

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:

Beyond | Cheiron | Internal Vigilance | Jesus of Nazareth | Mix Tape | Ninja II | Space Horror I 

A Glulx game by Mondi Confinanti, Roberto Grassi, and Paolo Lucchesi with graphics by Alessandro Peretti

Well, this one was certainly original.

I can't write too much without giving away a great deal, so I'll just touch on what I did and did not enjoy in the vaguest of ways. I really enjoyed the art, and felt it to be one of the strongest points of the game - part of me stuck with the piece merely to see more of Peretti's drawings, some of which were quite stunning. While perhaps none of the themes in the piece are original, the way in which they were stitched together made for a rather original storyline that prsented me with a surprise now and then; while linear and somewhat painful at times, it was intriguing enough that I played the piece through to completion, though I'm certain I went beyond two hours to do so. I liked the hint system quite a bit - it fit well within the framework of the game and gave nudges without pushing too hard. Technically speaking, I don't remember hitting any real bugs, though there was one puzzle that I had difficulty solving because I tried to use the word 'open' instead of 'move,' when both were probably appropriate.

I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more had the English been more polished. And here we go again with my eternal empathy toward foreign-language entries in the IFcomp. I hate to hold the terse, jumpy prose against the authors when they're obviously not native speakers of the language... and I'm not overtly holding it against them (I'm not taking points off for grammar and spelling, which is something I love to do). I have a great deal of respect for them for entering this comp - God knows it'll be a long time, if ever, that I decide to write a game in another language, or that if I do (it would be a lovely exercise to translate one of my games into French or Spanish) I wouldn't enter it in a comp. Hats off to them for bravery on that count. But in the end, I just couldn't enjoy it quite so much as I might have if it had been polished a bit more with respect to prose.

The only other thing I didn't enjoy was that some of the interludes seemed a bit pointless, and that they were merely inserted so as to not break a pattern that had been established within the game. The game was far too linear, but that's a difficult trap to avoid in this genre.

Overall, good work. Had the prose been a bit more polished and the conversations a little less choppy and linear, I would have given it an eight. Had the art not been so stunning and worked so well with the text, I would have given it a six. As it is, I'll give it a seven.

Rating: 7

A Glulx game by Elisabeth Polli and Sarah Clelland

Okay, first off - I really enjoyed this game. I probably played well beyond the two-hour time limit, but I was enjoying myself so much that I didn't care, and my vote/rating was pretty solid after about the first forty-five minutes of play.

Unfortunately, my prediction, written a mere five days after the beginning of the comp (i.e. long before this review can be made public), is that this one isn't going to do too well. It's just a feeling. Then again, if the rest of the IF community who plays this are like me in that they studied anatomy and forensics at university, and are presently Emergency Medical Technicians, then Cheiron quite possibly might win the comp.

Without spoiling things too much, the protagonist of the story is a medical resident who has been given the task of meeting with four patients on a given day, hopefully to diagnose them. While you cannot yourself order tests, the "real" doctor has already called for specific tests based on his or her review of each patient, and you have access to those test results (e.g. "The results of the oral glucose tolerance test with growth hormone measurement show suppression of growth hormone." - not enough to say Hello! It's obviously [insert specific illness here]!, but it's something to put you on the right track).

You can also thoroughly interview and examine the patients. This sometimes often led to disambiguation problems, though I have to admit I'm not sure how the authors could have gotten around this, and the disambiguation prompts were occasionally quite helpful in prompting you as to what to do next:

Which do you mean, the blood pressure lying down, the sitting blood pressure or the standing blood pressure?

Not that orthostatic vital signs ever came into play with any of my patients, but then I'm trying to be non-spoilery here. What I mean to say is that the disambiguation cues really helped me figure out what options were available and how to phrase what I wanted to do.

"Wait!" I hear you say. "Orthostatic?! Speak English, please." I must admit that the game is fairly technical in many respects. It was written by two doctors while they were in medical school, and while it might not have been their intent to aim this piece at others in the healthcare community (the only clue against this being that it was entered in the IFcomp), I can see how those without any knowledge of anatomy would quickly feel as if they were in over their heads.

However, that having been said, everything you need is in the help and hint menus. While I probably had an easier road than most due to better-than-average knowledge of anatomy, I'm still just an EMT, and we don't exactly diagnose serious illnesses - we just figure out as much as we can in order to keep people alive until we can get to a doctor who can. If you don't have a thorough working knowledge of disease you can do what I did - ask the patients questions, take basic vitals, inspect the person based on their chief complaint and the answers they give when interviewed, and then use Google like a mad, mad fiend. In this way, we (there were two of us playing together) were able to nail the diagnoses on all four patients.

Is it a timeless, classic work of interactive fiction that stirs the emotions, nay - your very soul - with its brilliant prose? No, it's not. But it was incredibly fun and held my interest for a very long time. For what it was meant to be, I was extremely impressed that it did quite well in achieving quite a few of its over-ambitious goals.

My complaints were surprisingly few:

  • Despite knowing what was wrong with all four patients, we couldn't for the life of us figure out how to tell someone our diagnoses. This really frustrated me, because everything else was fairly well clued in the help and hint menus.

  • If intended for a general audience, it might be nice to include some helpful phrasing to let the player know whether or not a particular result was abnormal. For instance, many people don't know the range for an acceptable pulse, respiratory rate, or blood pressure. While that wasn't an issue for me, had I not been playing with someone British I would have been forced to go look up what the normal human body temperature is in Celsius. So, instead of saying, the temperature is 37.8, it might have been more helpful to preface that by saying, she appears to be running a bit of a fever, as her temperature is 37.8.

  • Generic responses to inquiries (when, say, a question you pose to the patient is reasonable but not in this case pertinent) sometimes are inappropriate. Everyone pretty much told me that they ate exactly the same thing on an average day. Not true, but fair enough - I can understand not wanting to program unique diets for everyone in the hospital. However, when I asked a woman in her mid fifties about menstruation I was slightly suspicious when she told me her periods were fine. My suspicion was later confirmed when a patient named David told me the exact same thing.

My biggest complaint though, hands down, is that there appeared to be many, many patients in this hospital and I thought that perhaps the names and diseases of the four patients you received at the beginning of the game were randomized. I fired the game up a second time praying that this would be the case, so that I could write a wonderful review praising the games immense replay value. I think that possibility exists in a future release, based on what the authors have stated in their about text, but it's not implemented yet. Nota bene, Authors: This isn't a complaint about lack of work; rather, it's a compliment in that I was hoping that there were more people out there to prod. It's quite obvious that, while not perfect, a ton of work went into this, and it was very, very much appreciated. Thanks for the fun.

I probably have more to say about this piece - I could, for instance, point out the rather nice touches such as the human aspect of the medical student's supressed glee when they figure out something important - but this is already quite possibly the longest comp review I've ever written, so I'll stop here. At this point it's probably only the authors who are reading. If so, let me say this: if you decide you ever want to revisit this concept, I'd be happy to beta test.

Rating: 8

Internal Vigilance:
A Z-code game by Simon Christiansen

Internal Vigilance seems to be a police thriller inspired by modern events and the growing fear among many that we are losing too many of our civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.

I found the piece to be well thought out and, for the most part, well coded and tested, but I found the experience awkward and convoluted at times, and unnecessarily so. For instance, in one portion of the game, rather than having a case file in hand, you find yourself having to go up and down an elevator between your office and the basement; the prisoner you're interrogating is in the basement, but the case file is on the computer in your office, and you can't *read* the entire case file because it's so long - you have to provide individual topics to look up in the computer file. So it's a game of read as much as you can think of on the computer, then go down the hall twice and into the elevator and down to the basement and exhaust your interview options with the prisoner there and then go back in the elevator and up to your floor and down the hall twice and into your office so that you can look up the new topics you encountered during the interrogation and then maybe you'll need more information from the prisoner after reading the file and so you'll have to go back into the hall and down the hall twice and into the elevator and, well, you get the picture.

It seems as if this entry had a few beta testers and, while not perfect, was fairly well polished on a coding level, so I was surprized to find a consistent error in failing to capitalize the word 'I,' as well as other occasional grammatical errors; these were distracting and degraded my experience.

I did not play through to the end. I eventually encountered a puzzle in which I'd dropped my car keys and, despite searching my two-room (no bathroom) apartment, my car, and my clothing, I couldn't find them. I wish it were not the case, but in real life I misplace my keys inside my house almost every day, so this puzzle's 'novelty' is lost on me, I'm afraid. The hints system was no help on the issue, and, well, a gee-you-lost-your-keys-so-you-can't-go-to-work puzzle in the middle of what until now seemed to be a statement on the degradation of our civil rights seemed annoyingly inappropriate.

Rating: 5

Jesus of Nazareth (Version 1.35):
A Windows executable game by Paul Panks

You are Jesus, and you are on a scavenger hunt in order to convert followers. Literally. Here is a snippet of your conversation with Mary of Magdala:

Mary continues,'Rabbina, I am yours alone! But I am missing something very important to me. My medallion is lost. Will ye find it for me? When you have found it, bring it to me, so I may wear it around my neck for all to see. Only then can I follow you for the rest of my days!'
Jesus says,'Mary, I will find it for thee.'


Jesus says,'Damn the flesh that depends on the soul. Damn the soul that depends on the flesh.'
But Mary looked at Jesus, replying, 'Rabbi, I have lost my medallion 'round my neck. What good is the flesh if it cannot be adored with jewelry?'
While Jesus, at least in this incarnation, does not know how to heal the sick, he can engage in fights and has hit points. But then, I don't want to spoil too much for you.

In short, it was an amusing game to play, but the weak parser, lack of an undo, omission of the verb SMITE (okay, just kidding but it would have been a lovely touch), and tedium of the plot caused me to lose interest.

A good attempt and an original and quirky plot, but it just didn't hold my attention.

Rating: 4

Mix Tape:
A TADS3 game by Brett Witty

A word of caution - there are some spoilers in this review.

I wanted to like this one more than I did, but no matter which way I looked at it I came away with a rating of 7. Maybe it's my headspace right now, but this game was just a little too painful to actually enjoy, which is part of my requirement for a game to receive an eight. The first time I played it, I was in England on the verge of leaving behind my fiance without knowing when I would see him again, and wasn't in the best of moods for a depressing break-up story. So I let it sit for a bit, because I didn't feel it was fair to play it when I was emotionally-impaired. In the weeks that followed, I found myself either in such a good mood that I didn't want to spoil it by playing a depressing game, or in a bad mood that I didn't want to make worse. On the last day I had before the deadline to play comp games, I knew I owed it to the author to dig it out one last time, because from what I'd seen the piece was solid, thoroughly written... something into which Witty'd put a lot of effort.

I never was able to get into it, though. Perhaps it's that I'm not the sort of girl who keep scrapbooks. Perhaps it's that I don't believe in clinging to destructive relationships no matter what out of blind love. Perhaps it's that the main NPC, my ex-boyfriend, is a total prick and the author saw fit to not allow me to physically attack him (Peter deserved it!).

Witty's effort is evident in the game. There were a few glitches here and there, but nothing show-stopping. The writing, though a bit over-dramatic, fits the angst of the game appropriately enough. But I guess it just boils down to the fact that I couldn't relate to the way Peter mistreated Val, or the way Val clung to him despite the mistreatment, or Peter's cluelessness as to why Val didn't love him the same way he supposedly loved her. In short, it's a pretty buggered-up relationship the two of them have, and it needed to end. Had I been Val, I'd have thrown the whole book on the pyre and stomped off down the hill, but the author insisted we draw out each painful moment.

A good game, but not one I enjoyed. Not to say that every game has to be happy - some of my favorite IF games (Photograph, for instance) are about failed relationships, but for some reason I didn't relate here the way I had to other pieces in this genre.

Rating: 7

Ninja II (Version 1.0a):
A Windows executable game by Dunric

This is the second Paul Panks/Dunric game of I've played of this year's comp. After having played Jesus of Nazareth, which I gave a 4, I had some hope that his games were improving in quality. But I'm sorry to say that Ninja II is not worth playing in the least.

I like writing constructive reviews, but there's not enough to work with here to even provide constructive criticism.

Rating: 1

Space Horror #1: Prey for Your Enemies:
An HTML game by Jerald M. Cooney

I'm not exactly sure why this only runs in Windows, except that he used an installer to put the files in certain locations on the hard drive. It is my opinion that Cooney would have done better to make it accessible to everyone with a web browser, particular since the game isn't particularly heavy on multi-media (at least that I could see), but I will not judge him on this.

Others, of course, will.

Not only will they judge him on the fact that it only runs in Windows, they will also judge him on the fact that he's entered a Choose Your Own Adventure style game into the comp. A lot of people don't think that CYOAs are particularly interactive. I don't necessarily agree with that because, well, I read something and then I interacted and then I was given more information to read and then I interacted again, so I guess that's interactive enough. Perhaps not on the level I'd like, but I won't disqualify it outright (some probably will).

On to the review proper: I liked this game. It wasn't mind-blowingly awesome, but it was fun to play and I played through to several endings. For the genre I found it to be particularly well written; it felt very much like a CYOA of old, except with a bit lot more violence. The characters were cheesy as hell, but then, so was every character in every CYOA I ever read as a kid; given the rather decent prose that fell outside all the quotation marks, I chalked up the queso factor as an unfortunate necessity of CYOA-style writing. And let's face it - a game with a title like Space Horror #1: Prey for Your Enemies, in which alien "fright wolves" abduct people, is not exactly expected to be cheese-free.

So, on the whole I had a good time, but I would make a recommendation to Jerald: learn to code in one of the IF languages. I'd really like to play some interactive fiction you've written, because you've obviously got the attention to detail and polished writing to make a traditional IF game worthwhile.

Rating: 6