IFcomp 2008 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.

This is the paragraph where, each year, I find a new and creative way of apologizing for how few games I've played and then promise that 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:

Escape from the Underworld | Freedom | The Hall of the Fount of Artois
LAIR of the CYBERCOW | The Lighthouse | A Martian Odyssey
The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom | Project Delta
Riverside | Violet | When Machines Attack

Escape from the Underworld:
A Z-Code game by Karl Beecher

Hell is almost always good fodder for humorous writing. Beecher started out on the right foot in Escape from the Underworld, but I felt that the game never quite met up with its potential. The initial joke, good as it was, got old quickly; that probably wouldn't have mattered as much to me if (A) I was really into puzzles just for the sake of puzzles and (B) the underimplementation hadn't really begun to annoy me.

Please don't say there are endless motivational posters on the walls (when, by endless, you really mean five), please don't say that I can't give a man a mug of water unless I specifically call the man a "mechanic," and please don't stick my hand down a mouse hole and get my hand bit when I only asked to look in the mouse hole.

Some of the other underimplementation seemed harmless enough—just the standard missing bits of scenery so often found in the average interactive fiction release these days—except that this had an unintended effect: I stopped looking at the scenery in any great level of detail. As it turned out, a lot of the puzzles were only solvable by, say, not just looking at an object in the room, but looking at a very specific detail on that object. That's fine, but if you're going to do that as an author, then it opens up a very large can of worms. Either properly implement everything to the same degree, or don't expect people to look into secondary and tertiary levels of description. Hiding solutions in this way is the closest IF approximation I can think of to the famous graphic adventure Find The Hotspot problem.

Rating: 4

A Z-Code game by Anonymous

Initial thought: this game is called Freedom and it's by someone who didn't want to take the time to think up a clever nom de plume. Based upon these sparse facts, I am assuming that this is probably because they want to make a statement. Maybe it's a statement against the war. Maybe it's a statement for the war. Either way, I'm sort of weary about war statements, because I formed my own opinion on the war(s) years ago.

Next thought, after booting up the game: it's very simple. TOO simple. As in, I kept playing to find out if it was so simple because it was trying to LURE ME IN with its simplicity. LURE ME IN to something oh-so-clever.

The most oh-so-clever thing I ended up finding was a cross-the-road-before-the-signal-changes puzzle. I decided to quit early when, after having left my apartment and purchased groceries, I decided to go see if my book had come in at the bookstore and was informed that I "probably shouldn't be wandering in there with [my] groceries."

What kind of a country do we live in where you can't take unexaminable but no doubt sealed-against-leakage groceries into a bookstore? What kind of world do we live in where we must return home between each and every errand so as to not be thwarted by w_to [; if (groceries in player) "You probably shouldn't be wandering in there with your groceries."; return Sidewalk SW; ];??

I'll tell you what kind of world. A world in which anonymous people write boring games about freedom which might be clever if we could be bothered to play long enough to find out why they decided to write the game. A world in which there is a game about how being free means running inane errands.

NB: Now that I've posted this, it has been pointed out to me that I did indeed miss something fairly crucial. The >ABOUT text explains that the game is intended to "create the experience of suffering from social anxiety disorder." Unfortunately, the >ABOUT text was not overtly mentioned, but rather buried under the >HELP text. I never felt like I needed help in the game, so I never typed in that command, and thus never saw the game's explanation.

I'm keeping my review and score unaltered, because that was my impression on the first play-through, and it took a nudge from someone reading this review for me to revisit the game. But the point of this game, I suspect, wasn't to Win The Comp, but rather to raise awareness.

It's a shame that many people who play this will, like me, probably miss the point at first glance.

Rating: 3

The Hall of the Fount of Artois:
A Windows game by Simon Ellis

This was not my first Windows-only game of the competition. I shall state again, as I did in the review for Project Delta, that I have given up trying to figure out why people take the time to recreate the wheel. Surely this game has no requirements not already met by other IF programming languages, and surely the wealth of interpreters available for those languages would mean that your game would receive wider play.

But enough lamenting! On to the review of the game, not the author's choice of programming language. Well... except that a lot of what I need to vent about this game rests on the fact that he didn't choose a standard programming language.

The game doesn't understand some very common modern short-cuts, such as >X WHATEVER. The game has no >UNDO. There is no >VERBOSE, and the game is on a timer, and so every single time you re-enter a room you have to type >L to get a description, which blows a minute off the clock. Fortunately, commands which weren't understood (of which there were many) didn't count against your time. Unfortunately, I only played for an hour in game time, sixty turns, before accidentally stumbling into a dark space which was too dark to move about in safely. I was forced to quit. What's even more frustrating about that is that I had a flashlight in my possession but couldn't figure out how to turn the damned thing on.

What's even more frustrating still is that this author clearly can write and might have had a decent plot going on here, but I was too frustrated to hang in there to know for sure. It occurred to me, briefly, that Simon Ellis might have been trying to make some sort of point here, that you don't have to use a modern IF language to write decent IF, that good writing can shine through regardless... but then I realized that he'd failed. Please, Mr. Ellis, please. Next time, try a standard IF programming language.

As ever, I am generous (to a fault, my husband says) with my ratings, and here again I give an extra point for sneaking in references to multiple beers, even if they were lagers that I personally don't find palatable. Sadly, if there was ultimately a fountain of beer in the game, as suggested by the title, I didn't have the patience to find it. Then again, I prefer stouts and porters.

Rating: 4

An ADRIFT game by Harry Wilson

At first there was seemingly no plot except exploring our childhood home. The author was hoping to introduce the urgency of the plot by thinking that >INVENTORY would be one of my first commands. But it wasn't, for some reason. I suppose it's because my first command was >X ME, which revealed that the character is described as "A standard adventurer," and I just lost the nerve for the other standard first commands.

If you want to create a sense of urgency, you should do it in more than one way so as to not lose some players. I wasn't intrigued or curious, but the spelling and grammar were okay, so I spent a bit of time wandering around merely because it's a competition entry and I felt like I had to play it for at least a few minutes if I had any hope of actually writing any sort of review. However, that's the only reason I looked around—the setting and descriptions were similarly unremarkable. This is here, that is there, you move this direction then you move that direction.

Maybe the author had a cool plot in his head, and if so, he missed a lot of opportunities to reveal bits of it here and there as I moved around the map. He did very little to try to win my attention. Is that why people enter these sorts of games in the competition? Because they realize that if they release a game like this outside the competition people won't stick with the tedium quite so long? There was also no list of beta testers, something which always scares me.

In short, I wasn't hooked, there are 35 games to play, and I have a life beyond interactive fiction, so I can't waste time on games that aren't very enjoyable. I'm even mildly peeved that I had to download a retro release of ADRIFT just to play this, only to find that the limited bandwidth I wasted wasn't worth it.

Rating: 3

The Lighthouse:
A Z-Code game by Eric Hickman & Nathan Chung

The introductory text of The Lighthouse had some promise, at least in terms of plot: the player character has been asked to assume the responsibility of caring for a lighthouse. I adore lighthouses as a general rule, as they're frequently situated on aesthetically pleasing (though often treacherous) stretches of shoreline and possess unique (and generally quite beautiful) architecture. They're a favorite photographic subject of mine, and I've visited a great many of them. I assume that the lifestyle of a lighthouse caretaker is one quite different from my own in many respects, and I'd like to explore that a little, so I was consequently enthusiastic about the premise of the game, despite some issues I had with the opening text.

One of the issues, for instance, is that the player character's head is filed with thoughts about why Mr. Webster asked us to take care of his lighthouse, but these thoughts are sadly not explored in any detail. Then we meet Mr. Webster, who greets us warmly and calls us a dear friend before saying, "The Havenworth Lighthouse is an important task and not to be taken lightly! Anyway, I must go now. Goodday!" And then he leaves. So much for catching up with a dear friend, and so much for having someone show us around and tell us what needs to be done (especially since caring for this place is a task "not to be taken lightly"). Of course, if you're writing a game about a lighthouse because you want a convenient excuse to not have to implement NPCs, then having the only NPC in the game leave before the first prompt appears is an excellent strategy.

At any rate, the rest of the game consists of a small map of tersely described scenery, obscenely easy lock & key puzzles, and a game that's over before it's really even begun. This feels like a first attempt at coding interactive fiction, but not something of the scope and polish that should be entered in the IF Competition. Sad, as the premise held promise.

Rating: 3

A Martian Odyssey:
A Glulx game by Horatio

My (initial) initial reaction was that I wasn't enthused by the title, because it contains the word Martian, and I, as a general rule, am not big on science fiction.

However, I refuse to rate a game based solely on my lack of love for a genre. And, as ever, I hoped to review every game in the competition (a hope I possess each and every year, despite the fact that I have yet to achieve such a goal). So I set my distaste for sci-fi aside and launched the game.

My initial reaction was that the music works. It builds slowly so as not to be jarring (I have been avoiding Glulx games with music as much as possible after being traumatized by a certain Spanish interactive fiction competition which shall herein remain nameless). The music is very atmospheric—not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely the sort of music I regularly consume by the pot—and thus put me instantly at ease and set the mood for what I hoped would be a game of wondrous exploration. Sure enough, I'm a scientist being sent on a mission with orders to head south and scout about for points of interest. Hooray for ambient music and a mission to go look at stuff! I'm up for that!

Ares Landing Site (in the auxiliary rocket)
The Martian landscape stretches flat and desolate in the light of the nearer moon.

>x nearer moon
You can't see any such thing.

>x moon
Which do you mean, the Deimos or the Phobos?

>x Deimos
The small moon looks as little more than a bright star.

>x Phobos
It's about a quarter the size of the moon, darker, and shaped irregularly.

Um, a quarter the size of... what moon? My moon back on Earth?
Enh, never mind. Keep exploring...

>x rocket
A tiny rocket driven by the cranky reaction motors of the twenty-first century. The pilot's chair takes up most of the space, facing a small window. Between them are scattered several gauges and the controls for the ship's radio and cameras. A hydrogen tank and an equipment locker occupy the back of the ship.

>x locker
A small container in the wall, for surface missions.

>open container
That's not something you can open.

>open locker
Right now, you're needed more in the pilot's chair.

>sit in chair
That's not something you can sit down on.

Okay, fine. Forget all that. Let's go start our mission to head south and scout about for points of interest.

Xanthus (in the auxiliary rocket)
The surfaces changes to a sort of low plateau, nothing but desert and orange-tinted sand.
Towards the south edge, you come across a canal and few blobby formations.

>x blobby formations
You can't see any such thing.

>x formations
You can't see any such thing.

>x canal
You can't see any such thing.

>x plateau
You can't see any such thing.

So, um, yeah. So much for a pleasant session of exploring a well-implemented landscape. I didn't actually quit after that exchange, but it only went downhill from there for me, I'm afraid.

In short, enjoyed the music (for which I have awarded one extra point to my vote), but didn't care for the actual game.

Rating: 4

The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom:
An ALAN game by Anssi Räisänen

So, we have a game that's opening contains the following text:

"Please type 'help' if you need some."

What do you get when you're stuck and have already died without too much warning and you type >HELP thinking that maybe you'll receive... well... help?

You get some metadata about the game, a copyright notice, some acknowledgements to the comp organizer and various people associated with the ALAN system (but no thank you that I can see to any beta testers), and a couple of apologies for things that might not work as intended.

If you panic and type >HINT, you discover two things: that verb's either standard in ALAN or the author thought ahead and implemented something in response to >HINT, and that response, sadly, is just text that says...

Unfortunately hints are not available in this game.


Anyway, I got past the first examination, but gave up on the second. I appreciated the brief backstory and was looking forward to reuniting with Diridu, and I might have hung in there had there been a nice, gradually revealing, not-immediately-spoilery hint system, but without it, I just wasn't up for this one.

Cruel puzzle games of instadeath are not my thing, I'm afraid—even if the author is kind enough to immediately resurrect you over and over (and over (and over (ad infinitum)) again.

Rating: 4

Project Delta: The Course:
A Windows game by Emilian Kowalewski

I have given up trying to figure out why people take the time to recreate the wheel. Surely multiple existing IF languages would allow you to craft a CYOA-style game without programming your own system from the ground up, and surely the wealth of interpreters available for those languages would mean that your game would receive wider play. But here we are again, with a Windows-only game which runs in a DOS window with text which can only be minimally adjusted for legibility (text, I might add, that can't be scrolled over for copying and pasting into reviews or transcripts which might benefit the author). Sigh.

But being unable to scroll over text has never stopped me before! There is a quick excerpt I would like to share with you so badly that I have painstakingly typed it out for you:

Entry for IFComp 2008.


This is the prequel to "Project Delta: The Assignment" coming next year and first official text adventure scripted with the Node-X game system.

The Course is a demonstration of the game mechanics and sets the stage for a deeper plot involving a protagonist being part of a top secret military project taking place on fictitious locations inside Area 51.

Did that say IFComp 2008? Let me go back and check my transcription work. Yes. Yes, it did say IFComp 2008. After playing the whole game through, I was pretty sure I must have read wrong and it actually said IntroComp 2008, and they just missed the deadline.

All snarkiness aside, this was, at best, IntroComp material. Some will probably argue that it's not even IF, and while I will disagree with those people, I will say that it was a waste of our time to enter it into this competition. I'm getting fairly tired of the thought process that many people have in which they think that if they don't release their game as part of The Comp then it won't be played. This release was done to showcase the Node-X game system; it does that, and the system isn't bad, though it would be better with a GUI that played on multiple operating systems. The author might be onto something entertaining, but this wasn't the time to spring it on us.

Rating: 3

A Z-Code game by Jeremy Crockett & Victor Janmey

This one starts in a misspelled cemetary cemetery filled with (totally unimplemented!) tombstones which solemnly commemorate the fallen.

Perhaps I should not be so nitpicky, given that we're attending our best friend's funeral and a man's life has been taken from him the prime of life as the result of a senseless armed robbery. I must say, though, that I was a bit taken aback during the funeral service when the minister said, "And for the vagrant who took him from us, I pray for swift retribution. An eternal life of unfathomable pain, to equal that which he has caused our dear friend's family." Crikey. That's, um, some minister.

Anyway, after the minister was done with his public prayer for retribution, the funeral ended, people started to wander off, and I was surrounded by John's closest (and completely unimplemented) friends; friends who, like the good-looking as ever PC, still can't quite believe that John is gone from their lives. And then even they left, and I found myself with John's (surprisingly implemented) family.

You don't think that they'll be going anywhere for a while. Jeenie is squeezing her mother's hand like a scared little girl. Both are red-eyed. Jeenie's husband stands next to his wife with an arm wound around her shoulder, looking slightly out of place as he shifts back and forth awkwardly. Jeff is ashen, with quivering hands and quivering face. And Jack... And Jack... Jack isn't showing much at all, except for a stricken look. And perhaps, behind his eyes, a little fear.

Fear, eh? That sounds interesting. That sounds like there's a bit of a story there. That sounds like I need to have a talk with Jack...

You can't see any such thing.

You can't see any such thing.

You can't see any such thing.

You can't see any such thing.

>x people
You don't think that they'll be going anywhere for a while. Jeenie is squeezing her mother's hand [...]

So, um, yeah. I left the (not really actually implemented after all) family of my best friend behind and made my way to the parking lot. And, feeling stupid because I forgot where I parked my car, and feeling awkward about not really being able to offer the fake and unimplemented family of my best friend my sincere condolences, I quit the game.

Sorry. Like I've said in some other reviews this competition: there are thirty-five games, and I don't have time for substandard games that are still in beta. There was possibly a good story here, something moving, or something intriguing, or something... but if a game is this unfinished when the comp deadline rolls around, then please withdraw the entry until the following year.

I'm seriously thinking about not playing games unless they have ABOUT or CREDIT text which mentions and thanks actual beta testers from now on...

Rating: 2

A Z-Code game by Jeremy Freese

Marvelous. Thank [bother]!

Let me paint a tiny picture for you: at the moment just before I launched Violet, I'd played seven games. Seven. Out of thirty-five. For you math(s) majors out there (or readers who made it through elementary school), that's one fifth of the entries in this entire competition. And what had I rated those seven entries?

Three, four, four, four, three, and three, respectively.

I was very sooooooo overdue for a game that doesn't suck. And that game, my friends, was Violet.

I loved it. I loved everything about it. I was deeply amused from the gitgo, even though the very first thing I typed was >ABOUT (I was, in particular, delighted by the >HETERONORMATIVITY OFF command specific to this game, even if because not only is it hilarious, it complicates solving a puzzle later on in the game). I was distracted by only ONE TYPO (huzzah!). I was only let down by the author not anticipating a response to my command on perhaps two or so occasions. The grammar was wonderful. There we go—all the things that have kept every other game I've played thus far this comp from scoring higher!

But, of course, this game does a hell of a lot more. It made me solve puzzles even though I generally hate doing that (and I really enjoyed solving said puzzles). I got involved in the characters, even if at some point in the game I hated every single one of them. I have now adopted about fifty new pet names to call my husband. I have glared, frowned, smiled, laughed, screamed, and shook my fist at my laptop. Seriously. And, at least on this last note, I've watched my little toaster strudel husband go through the exact same emotional roller coaster.

Everything. From the exemplary in-game hints, to the shenanigans outside my window, to the often hilariously bad discussion outside my door, to the fantastically atrocious music, to all the little asides and the trickles of backstory, to the gut-wrenching lengths I had to go through to complete the necessary task, to the ridiculous way I looked after everything was said and done, to the cruel let down topped with a hilarious cherry of surprise at the end. All of it. Loved it all.

And this is the first game in a very long time that I'm going to rate a ten. And it's the first humorous game ever that I'm going to rate a ten. (I might have rated Lost Pig that, had I not beta tested it last year.) I guess until now I'd been of the Jimmy Maher club, and couldn't see how Emily Short could possibly disagree with the sentiment that comedy is a second-class form. But now I agree with her. So far, this is my favorite game of the competition, hands down, and if something else turns out to be better, I shall be thoroughly and completely astounded.

Rating: 10

wHen mAchines aTtack:
A Z-Code game by Mark Jones

The opening of this game reads scarily like a Choose Your Own Adventure. (The Computer Takeover, CYOA#160 by Edward Packard leaps to mind.) Partly this was due to the tone of the writing, partly it was because I felt like I'd been pushed around for twenty pages before being able to make any substantial decisions of my own. Granted, the It's Your First Day At Work And They Need to Orient You To Everything premise wasn't at all far-fetched, but I still felt like this went on too long, which detracted from the experience.

I didn't get terribly far in this game. My main issue was the writing. The first rather annoying bit is the fairly ubiquitous typographical errors, such as your David Waters, a man in his late forties or the receptionist looks up at you, than looks back down at her terminal again. I get the feeling that the author relied only on a spell checker rather than actual humans, as most of the errors I saw could easily have slipped through the cracks that way. Given that this is a game about machines attacking, perhaps this was intentional. (I suspect not, however.)

Ignoring the occasional but persistent word choice issues, the overall quality of the writing was still an issue for me. To be honest, I had trouble deciding whether or not the author was a native English speaker. On the one hand, his name is Mark Jones, but I considered the possibility that the writer had Anglicized his name so as not to stand out in the most prominent English IF competition of the year. I can't quite put my finger on any single thing to properly demonstrate why I considered this, so I'll give a few examples.

Sometimes it was the lack of diverse vocabulary, such as the use of the word 'nice' in the following room description (emphasis is my own):

At the Front Desk
Your first time looking at the inside of the highly acclaimed Planetron. Pretty nice. It smells clean, and it is nicely spaced out with nice, leather chairs on one side of the room, sitting opposite a reception desk.

Sometimes it was the lack of imagination in the descriptions:

Main Wing, North
This is the northern edge of the very large room and is part of a side hallway that leads west towards the western edge of the room and east towards the eastern edge of the room.

And then sometimes it was the clarity of the writing:

The receptionist talks some more. "In these lockers, workers who work at these facilities are required to wear lab suits. And when these workers are done working for the day, they are required to put them back in the lockers. Are you getting this?"

The workers don't work inside the lockers, that's just where they store their lab suits.

At any rate, one final example, which made me suspect that the issue might just be that the author had tried so hard, stared at this so long, that he simply started missing the errors:

And what's worse is...your twenty minutes late. Twenty minutes late to your first day working at the Planetron Defense Laboratory. [...] Anytime between 1 and 3, they said. And now it's 4:30.

Doesn't that make him an hour and a half late, rather than a mere twenty minutes?

Anyway... Ultimately, I decided the writer probably does actually speak English as his first language. I instead suspect that this is a new writer who needs a grammar snob on his beta testing team. I've gone to the length I have in pointing out errors and short comings not to be a meanie (honest!), but because I genuinely want to help Jones out. There was good potential in this game: a decent premise revealed bit by bit (though the more subtle creepiness, the details you had to discover for yourself, always worked far better than the more overtly OMFG moments in the main text). I'd like to see this author try again, but with more beta testing and a really good editor on his team next time.

As per my IFcomp Rating Methods, this should receive a 3, but Jones gets an extra point for making me double-over in laughter about the silver-brownish barf which swirled violently down the potty hole.

Rating: 4