___. .___ _ ___. / _| | \ / \ / ._| \ \ | o_/ | | | |_. .\ \ | | | o | | | | The |___/ociety for the |_|romotion of |_|_|dventure \___|ames. ISSUE #43 Edited by Jimmy Maher (maher SP@G grandecom.net) January 7, 2006 SPAG Website: http://www.sparkynet.com/spag SPAG #43 is copyright (c) 2006 by Jimmy Maher. Authors of reviews and articles retain the rights to their contributions. All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine with the traditional 'at' sign. REVIEWS IN THIS ISSUE ----------------------------------------------------- Attempted Assassination Beyond Book and Volume Building Chancellor The Colour Pink The Corn Identity Dawn of the Demon Distress Internal Vigilance The Lost Kingdom, Brainf*ck Edition Narcolepsy A New Life Phantom: Caverns of the Killer The Plague (Redux) Snatches The Snowman Sextet Space Horror I: Prey For Your Enemies Space War! ...and the PDP-1 A Sugared Pill Tough Beans Unforgotten Vespers Whom the Telling Changed EDITORIAL------------------------------------------------------------------ There has been a fair amount of discussion on the newsgroups recently about possibilities for bringing IF to a wider audience. Some want to see IF returned to commercial viability, and certainly the relative recent successes of 1893: A World's Fair Mystery and Future Boy! give such folks hope. Others are more ambivalent about IF's commercial prospects, at least for right now, but feel that there are many potential players out there who could and should be brought into the fold. For what it's worth, I count myself tentatively among the latter group. Proposals to accomplish this broadening of IF's acceptance range widely in scope and feasibility. Before adding my two cents to the debate, I want to talk briefly about what might be motivating us to have these discussions in the first place. It seems to me that there is a slight feeling of stagnation within our community. The excitement of the early nineties IF renaissance, which stemmed first from the idea of having new quality "text adventures" to play at all and was then largely fuelled by a sense of experimentation, of seeing just what this medium might be capable of once freed of the need to conform to traditional adventure game tropes, has somewhat run its course now. Our community is not unhealthy by any means, but it no longer really seems to be growing. I think some of these subjective impressions of mine are borne out when taking a look at one of our community's most cherished institutions, the annual IF Competition. The Comp peaked in 2000 and 2001 in terms of number of game entered. Each of these years sported more than 50 games. It has since shrunk to a relatively stable 35 or so entries each year. Now, this is hardly disastrous under any circumstances, and judging the overall health of the IF community by the number of entries in one competition is of course extreme folly. Further, others have pointed out that a smaller Comp is in some ways a good thing, allowing judges as it does to have a reasonable expectation of playing all or most of the games during the Competition period. There is also something of a consensus that, while the number of entries are fewer, the general quality has increased somewhat in recent years, at least in the sense of there being fewer -- although, of course, still too many -- examples of bug-ridden dreck entered. Still, perhaps you, gentle reader, will allow me the assertion -- formed from IF Comp data, my admittedly subjective personal impressions, and, yes, even the size of the average SPAG magazine issue from year to year -- that in terms of numbers the IF community peaked around 2000 or 2001, and then shrunk slightly to its present level. Now, our present situation is not a bad one. Games, and often very good games, are still getting written, exciting new developments like TADS3 are still appearing on occasion, and our community remains a more or less active and vibrant place to be. I certainly am happy to be here, and am repeatedly amazed at the generally elevated level of the discourse that goes on here. I hope that some of the shockingly well-written and thoughtful reviews you will find in this very issue speak to that. If we are a small club, we are also an exclusive club. And yet I wonder at times what an infusion of fresh blood might accomplish for IF. Now, IF is by its very nature a niche pursuit. We are never going to rival, to pick a few random examples, NFL football, Eminen, or Grand Theft Auto for popularity. It does not necessarily follow, though, that are present community of perhaps a thousand at best active players is the best we can do. Consider for a moment another quiet, cerebral hobby: crossword puzzles. Next time you find yourself trapped at an airport, spend a few minutes wandering about the terminals observing your fellow travelers. I can almost guarantee that you will find, tucked away here and here in various dark corners, individuals working crosswords. Yes, in this day of Gameboys and handheld DVD players, a certain tiny segment of the world prefers to entertain themselves with a pursuit that is if anything even more austere -- and certainly much more low-tech -- than IF. I would love to find a way to introduce some of those folks -- as well as some proportion of the much more sizable population of book lovers, and maybe even some more pencil-and-paper RPG nerds -- to this hobby of ours. These are of course niche pursuits in themselves, and yet the number of people engaged in each dwarfs us by several orders of magnitude. At this point, I want to note that my agenda here is not to bring hordes of crossword lovers on the IF scene. While I will gladly welcome anyone who is or might become interested in the medium's possibility, I would love to see a mixture of people, including a fair number with a background in literature and the humanities. In other words, storytellers. The crossword-playing " community" , assuming it can be defined as such at all, I choose only as a handy example. You are probably expecting me to propose a grand outreach program to these other intellectual (not to say nerdy) communities at this point, and are all ready to protest that this has been tried on various occasions before. For instance, IF was given quite a nice write-up in Games magazine, a journal for crossword- loving types, in 2004. That article did bring a few new faces into our newsgroups, but it hardly ignited a revolution. Why? Well, I don't think it is due to our medium being inherently too difficult for readers of that magazine. Certainly I am a great lover of IF, and even (more due to dogged experience than any intellectual brilliance on my part) fairly good at solving the games, yet many of the logical conumdrums to be found in the typical issue of Games leave me frankly baffled and thoroughly out of my depth. I think the failure of this article, and many others like it, to generate significant new community members has something to do with our own failure to put our best foot forward. Put bluntly, we make it too darn hard to get into IF. Consider what a prospective IFer who has read about our hobby in Games Magazine, the New York Times, or anywhere else is initially faced with. First of all, we have two major systems for writing games, TADS and Inform, each requiring their own interpreter download, plus several more less commonly used but no less viable alternatives. Once our newbie has figured out that she needs an interpreter, there is a good chance that she will end up attempting to navigate the IF Archive in search of said interpreter and possibly of games to play on it. The Archive's organization is... arcane at best, the sort of thing that might make sense to a techie but that can seem a hopeless mess to someone just curious about trying out a new type of game. And then, of course, it's slow. Boy, is it slow! There are of course solutions to these problems. Baf's Guide is a wonderful resource that eases the migraines that the unfiltered Archive is likely to induce in even experienced IFers. Yet Baf's Guide is not much help in getting started with an interpreter. There are a fair number of generously donated Archive mirrors that are generally much faster than their parent site. Yet the newbie probably does not know about these, and won't find out unless she takes the time to read the fine print on Baf's VERY carefully. But surely, I hear you say, anyone with the patience and intelligence to appreciate IF can overcome these comparatively minor hurdles? Of course they can, but I think this response to some extent misses a crucial point. A person who wanders into the realm of IF due to a mention in an article somewhere, or who stumbles across it during casual web surfing, is probably idly curious at best. If she is greeted with an experience that, as in our current model, manages to be simultaneously archaic in appearance and technologically daunting in practice, she will most likely just shrug her shoulders and move on to something else. Remember, she doesn't know how cool what we are doing really is, because she has no experience with it. We have to make it easier for her to get that experience and hopefully come to that realization. There is good news, though, in the form of some projects that might just ease the way for newbies and perhaps even be convenient for us oldtimers. Damian Dollahite has been working steadily on an IF Metadata Standard which could be the key piece of plumbing to allow a host of cool new automated applications. Tor Andersson has made considerable strides toward a unified suite of interpreters that have an identical look and feel for the user. Imagine these two innovations combined with an iTunes-like front end. Now the new IFer can browse through a database of games based on any criteria she chooses, with background information on each game and even reviews from resources like the one you are now reading available right there in this iTunes-IF application. When she finds something that looks interesting, she clicks a link and it is downloaded to her computer and launched, seamlessly. Sure, oldtimers like me and possibly you might spurn all of this fancy overhead. But just imagine if you could put the whole world of modern IF at an interested but daunted friend's fingertips by giving her one application to download and install? Wouldn't that be just a little bit cool? I feel like a bit of a hypocrite in advocating a sleeker, friendlier face for modern IF, simply because the SPAG web site, and the SPAG delivery model for that matter, is anything but. Thus, in an effort to put my money where my mouth is, I plan to begin to change that this year. First, I plan to begin working on a new version of the SPAG site using modern PHP-based content management that should make the site cleaner, easier to navigate, and in general much less 1995 in feel. After that I want to look into offering SPAG as HTML-formatted emails, with pure text of course remaining an option for the diehards. I have other ideas for the future, but we will leave things at that for now. If you are experienced with PHP and have the willingness and time to help with such a project, by all means contact me. Rest assured that I have no desire to turn SPAG into a bandwidth-heavy monstrosity. I just hope to create a more attractive, professional, and useful version of the community pillar you have come to know and (hopefully) love. In the meantime, while you peruse this issue -- one unusually large thanks to the generosity of all of you in our community, and absolute proof that in spite of the negativity of some of my comments this community has plenty of life in it even if the status quo never changes -- perhaps give a few minutes thought to how we might make IF more accessible to the masses who are not in the know, assuming you think this is a good idea at all. Feel free to send me your thoughts. Should I receive them, I will be happy to publish voices of agreement or dissension in SPAG's next issue. IF NEWS ------------------------------------------------------------------- IF COMPETITION RESULTS The 11th Annual IF Competition has come and gone. My congratulations and gratitude go out not just to the winners but to everyone who completed a game and entered it, regardless of its final finish. You are the folks who are truly, to paraphrase SPAG's byline, helping to keep text adventures alive. Keep reading for interviews with the three top finishers as well as reviews of the top ten games plus a few others. First, though, here are the final standings: 1 Vespers, by Jason Devlin 2 (tie) Beyond, by Mondi Confinanti 2 (tie) A New Life, by Alexandre Owen Muńz 4 Distress, by Mike Snyder 5 Tough Beans, by Sara Dee 6 The Colour Pink, by Robert Street 7 Unforgotten, by Quintin Pan 8 Snatches, by Gregory Weir 9 Chancellor, by Kevin Venzke 10 Internal Vigilance, by Simon Christiansen 11 Escape to New York, by Richard Otter 12 Mortality, by David Whyld 13 History Repeating, by Mark & Renee Choba 14 Vendetta, by James Hall (writing as Fuyu Yuki) 15 Son of a..., by C.S. Woodrow 16 Xen: The Contest, by Ian Shlasko (writing as Xentor) 17 Gilded, by A Hazard 18 Mix Tape, by Brett Witty 19 Waldo's Pie, by Michael Arnaud 20 Off the trolley, by Krisztian Kaldi 21 Psyche's Lament, by Now We Have Faces 22 The Plague (Redux), by Laurence Moore (writing as Cannibal) 23 Sabotage on the Century Cauldron, by Thomas de Graaff (writing as Thomas de Graaff) 24 On Optimism, by Zach Flynn (writing as Tim Lane) 25 Space Horror I, by Jerry 26 Cheiron, by Sarah Clelland and Elisabeth Polli 27 Neon Nirvana, by Tony Woods 28 The Sword of Malice, by Anthony Panuccio 29 Dreary Lands, by Paul Lee 30 Hello sword, by Andrea Rezzonico 31 Phantom: caverns of the killer, by Brandon Coker 32 Amissville II, by Santoonie Corporation 33 FutureGame (tm), by The FutureGame Corporation 34 Jesus of Nazareth, by Dunric (writing as dunric) 35 PTBAD6andoneeighth, by Jonathan Berman (writing as Slan Xorax) 36 Ninja II, by Dunric (writing as Dunric) IF ON DVD Jason Scott, creator of an earlier documentary about the BBS world of the 1980s, is now planning to create a film chronicling the history of IF. http://www.getlamp.com THE FRENCH IF COMP Non-English IF continues to be a growing concern. The latest evidence of that is the First Annual French IF Competition, which sported five entries this year. If you are lucky enough to have French, check out the games, and perhaps report what you find to those of use who are more linguistically challenged. http://ifiction.free.fr/concours.php THE BEST GERMAN IF OF THE YEAR On a similar note, check out these six adventures written auf Deutsch, if you are able to. http://people.freenet.de/if-album/ IF IN THE SLAMDANCE COMPETITION Two games of interest to IFers have been selected as finalists for the 2006 Slamdance Guerilla Games Competition. One is Whom the Telling Changed by our own Aaron Reed. You will find a review of this game in this very issue. The "interactive drama" Facade, also reviewed recently in SPAG, is also a finalist. Congratulations to the creators of both! http://www.slamdance.com/ games AN INTEGRATED IF PACKAGE If you have already read my editorial, you will recognize this as the sort of project that is near and dear to my heart: James Mitchelhill has created a single Windows setup package that installs interpreters for all of the major IF systems along with the appropriate Start Menu shortcuts and file associations, all with the goal of giving newbies a one download entry point into the world of IF. He requests that you try out the installation if you have time, and report back to him at james SP@G disorderfeed.net. http://disorderfeed.net/xall_demo_0.1.exe IF MAP TEMPLATES Jon Ripley has created several custom map templates for all of you IF cartogrophers out there. They are available on his web site as either .ps or . pdf files. http://jonripley.com/i-fiction/maps/ SPAG NEEDS YOU! I'm very proud to note that this edition of SPAG is the largest we have seen in quite a while. This is due to a number of factors, but the principal man to thank is Greg Boettcher, who turned his Non-Comp Review Project into something of a cooperative effort with SPAG. Much of this issue's content is due to Greg's efforts alone. If you appreciate the work he puts in for our community -- running the Spring Thing, founding the Non-Comp Review Project, and of course providing a brand new and much needed Golden Banana of Discord -- drop him a line and tell him so. In the meantime, let's see if we can't keep up the momentum and make next issue another big one. I will welcome "second opinion" reviews of any of the games profiled here, and of course there are still games deserving of a first SPAG review that haven't received one. To wit: SPAG 10 MOST WANTED LIST ======================== 1. All Hope Abandon 2. A Spot of Bother 3. 1893: A World's Fair Mystery 4. Finding Martin 5. Dracula: The First Night 6. Mystery House Taken Over games (any, some, or all!) 7. Remaining IF Comp 2005 Games 8. Threnody 9. 2k Competition Games 10. IntroComp 2005 Games NEWS FROM THE WIDER WORLD-------------------------------------------------- ULTIMA 5 LAZARUS There have been many, many projects over the years to remake one or another of the classic Ultima games. For the first time, one has actually been completed, and it looks quite good. Ultima 5 Lazarus is built on the Dungeon Siege engine, and requires that you have that game installed. Luckily, though, Dungeon Siege is quite cheap these days, and Lazarus might just be more than enough to justify its modest purchase price. http://www.planetdungeonsiege.com/ultima5/main.asp THE INDIGO PROPHECY (A.K.A. FAHRENHEIT) Modern technology has opened up the possibility for doing amazing things in interactive storytelling, but its potential has been almost completely unrealized until now. Most video games confine themselves to the cliched and simplistic, the bare minimum necessary to justify their gameplay, which usually tends to involve killing large numbers of somethings. Those graphical games which do attempt to tell a coherent story, on the other hand, are generally built around simplistic point and click gameplay, with little attention given to realistic world modelling. The Indigo Prophecy -- known to those outside America as Fahrenheit -- is different though, attempting as it does to tell an interesting story in a novel way. The game has its share of problems and frustrations, and its script, while being miles ahead of most video game writing, is hardly ready to rival the best of cinema, but it is worth checking out to get a glimpse of what the future could hold if game developers ever begin to take the storytelling possibilities of their chosen medium seriously. http://www.atari.com/indigo/ THE SPAG INTERVIEW--------------------------------------------------------- In keeping with long-standing tradition, I here present interviews with the top three finishers from this year's Competition. Roberto Grassi (one-third of the team behind Beyond) and Jason Devlin (author of Vespers) have appeared in SPAG's pages before, while the remainder are new to us. I want to congratulate all of them on their success, and thank all of them for taking the time to share a little bit about themselves and their games with SPAG's readers. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- Alexandre Owen Muńz, author of "A New Life" -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= SPAG: So, who is Alexandre Owen Muniz? Can you share a little bit about yourself with SPAG's readers? Where you live, how you spend your days, and so on? AM: I live in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. I'm either an unemployed programmer or a bum, depending on whether I find another job soon. I sing in a Renaissance ensemble. I enjoy Irish céilí and set dancing, recreational mathematics, and learning languages. SPAG: What is your personal experience with IF? Have you been playing for a long time, and if so can you share with us any games or authors that are personal favorites for you? AM: I had the Hitchhiker's Guide game when I was a kid, but I didn't get very far. After peeking at the solution to the babelfish puzzle I determined that actually playing the game (as opposed to blindly following the Invisiclues) would be an exercise in total frustration, so I gave up, on the game and on IF in general. At some point in the late '90s I found a set of comp reviews, but they only convinced me that playing the games would be much less entertaining than reading the reviews had been. I stumbled upon the newsgroups in early 2001, and was quite impressed by the reviews and discussions of the games from the 2000 comp. I had an idea for a story I wanted to tell that wouldn't work in static fiction, and I started sketching out the design of an IF game. Unfortunately, it would have required a huge number of NPCs, and I couldn't come up with any good puzzles, so I abandoned it. Then I thought that a bag of bag of holding holding would be a fun thing to put in a game, and would lead to some decent puzzles, and the outline of what became A New Life came together pretty quickly. As a player of IF, I haven't improved significantly since my experience with Hitchhiker's Guide. Puzzles that should be easy still flummox me, and I frequently give up on games before I get very far. I'm quite fond of Emily Short's games, and the fantasy worldbuilding therein. Photopia was quite emotionally affecting. Rematch is the one puzzle based game I've finished without relying heavily on hints or outside help. I've yet to finish So Far, but it inspired me to cram my game world with metaphorical connections. (This is an aspect of A New Life I have not seen discussed; I don't know if this is because players found it too obvious to comment on, or too subtle to notice!) SPAG: A New Life appears to be your first full-fledged, polished IF release. As such, your second place finish in this year's Comp is especially deserving of congratulations. I do notice you have been entering SpeedIF competitions since 2001, however. Was this valuable experience in the development of A New Life? AM: It's not so hard to do well with your first game if you put a really huge amount of time and effort into it. That said, I don't recommend that new authors write something this big as their first game. There were design flaws that I made due to my inexperience that I was stuck with long after I had learned why they were mistakes. Speed-IFs are fun, and I wish I had done more of them. I tend to be a perfectionist, and they force you to set perfectionism aside, although I have taken somewhat longer than the traditional two hours every time I've done one. But as experience goes, they're really just trifles. SPAG: A New Life appears to be the first full-length game to use Platypus in place of the standard Inform library. Can you comment on your experiences using Platypus? AM: Soon after I started coding A New Life I discovered Platypus, and it seemed to correct the most egregious design flaws in the Inform library, so I switched. What I didn't understand at the time was that Platypus was rather buggy, and that in the absence of a strong community of users, the only remedy was to fix the bugs oneself. What made this worse was that since I lacked confidence in the correctness of the library, I frequently sent myself on wild goose chases in the library code looking for bugs that were in my own code. Since it is still buggy and is no longer being maintained, I cannot recommend Platypus to new authors. This is not to say that the benefits of using Platypus were not real. I didn't realize until I went back to standard Inform for my section of The Corn Identity how bad the Inform library's handling of indirect objects is. SPAG: Did any particular fantasy books or games strongly influence A New Life? AM: My choice of goblins as a race came from every fantasy game that ever cribbed from D&D. Goblins are the one common enemy race that is too weak to be feared, but too strong to be pitied. I wanted to put the player into a world where racism is accepted as the norm, and the contempt towards goblins that is implicit in these games was a useful tool for that purpose. Certainly there's a lot in A New Life that's taken from fantasy literature, but it's mostly generic tropes that I'd be hard pressed to think of a single source for. SPAG: You have obviously put a fair amount of effort into the background world in which your game takes place. Indeed, I will go out on a limb here and say that the setting is probably the most memorable single aspect of the work. Did you create this world just for this game, or was it something you already had kicking around, so to speak? Any chance that we will see more games from you set in this same world? AM: I created it for this game. Sometimes an element of the game design would have pretty far reaching effects on the worldbuilding. ("I have a dish pointing straight up at a geosynchronous satellite, in a temperate region with normal seasons? Um, okay, so this must be a cold planet with a narrow temperate zone centered around the equator, and the seasons must be caused by orbital eccentricity rather than axial tilt. And the planet's woolly mammoth analogues, with their much greater range, would survive to become domesticated, and...") On top of the bog-standard political and cultural fantasy Europe, the flora and topography are based on that of the Pacific Northwest. The game takes place in the Cascades, the PC's hometown is somewhere around Walla Walla, and his destination is around Corvallis or Eugene. I have no plans to revisit this world. My ideas for future IF works are too vague to bear comment, but I expect that in future games I'll follow the same pattern of allowing each game's system of magical and science fictional devices to lead the worldbuilding. SPAG: I have to ask about the ability to change sexes at will that inhabitants of this world apparently possess. Where did you come up with this rather unique -- to say the least -- concept? AM: My initial conception of the PC was a nameless, gender-ambiguous adventurer. Then I decided that I wanted to delve into the PC's backstory, so that was no longer tenable, but I discovered that e was still genderless. (Pronouns are a problem. I managed to mostly avoid using gender-neutral pronouns, but there was one spot where I couldn't.) The gender system I came up with fit well with the theme of the blank slate running through the game. I wanted the sense that the PC could become absolutely anything, and I didn't want gender to get in the way of that. John Varley's Eight Worlds stories, LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness and the anime series Ranma ˝ are all antecedents that may have provided some inspiration. SPAG: How long did you spend writing A New Life? How long debugging? (Your beta testers are to be commended, by the way, as the game seems exceptionally polished.) AM: I'd disagree strongly with your assessment of the game's level of polish. An entire major branch of the game is unfinishable due to a bug, which is redeemed only by the omission of hints and clues that would help players find that branch. (Even the "main" branch of the plot is too hard to find the thread of without resorting to the walkthrough.) [Perhaps we can at least agree then that you did a good job of hiding the bugs that were present. --ed.] I started writing A New Life in the spring of 2001. I had testers start looking at the game before I was halfway done, so the writing process was not separate from debugging. Even at the end, I was scrambling to complete the game as I was fixing problems that were reported by my testers, and some parts were never seen by a tester before I submitted the game. With two hours remaining before the deadline I had to ask Rachel Portnoy (who is a very good friend and an incredibly diligent beta-tester) to complete the half-finished walkthrough I had, because my brain was too burnt out from my last minute work on the game. SPAG: Did you get a chance to play some of the other games from this year's competition? If so, any favorites? Sadly, I didn't seriously get into playing the other comp games. I looked at several games, but the only one that held my attention for very long was Chancellor, in which I frequently got stuck and had to ask for help. I can't entirely blame myself, as I thought the puzzle solutions were often unintuitive and poorly clued. But I'm a sucker for certain sorts of fantastic elements, and Chancellor delivered them pretty reliably. SPAG: Can you offer any advice to prospective future Comp entrants? AM: I think it's traditional to have a question asking for the interviewees advice to future comp authors, for which the response is always, "Beta-test thoroughly!" But my response would instead be, "Look for ways to score cheap points with judges." A library extension that puts a compass in the status bar takes almost no effort to use, but makes your game look fractionally slicker. A hint system takes only a little more work, and pays off handsomely in cheap points. A New Life was not a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but it scrounged for every cheap point it could get, and managed to tie for second with a game that, judging by the number of nines and tens received, was thought by more people to be excellent. [This is definitely the most unusual and amusing response to this rather typical SPAG interview question that I have ever seen! --ed.] SPAG: Would you like to respond to the reviews or other commentary on your game? AM: I have been accused, somewhat justly, of making up nonsense fantasy names for things. However, I must state for the record that "palapala fern" was not one of these. The name (and the game played with them) were shamelessly ripped off from the native peoples of the Puget Sound and Vancouver Island, as described in Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, (ed. Pojar, MacKinnon). =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- Mondi Confinanti (Roberto Grassi, Paolo Lucchesi, and Alessandro Peretti), authors of "Beyond" -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= SPAG: Your game is rather unusual in that it has three authors. Can each of you tell SPAG's readers a little bit about yourself? Where you live, how you spend your days, that sort of thing? PL: I'm 37 and live in Livorno (port city on Tuscany coast). I'm graduated in Computer Science but I work in naval design. I divide my time between my job and my family, so I don't have much free time. Apart from computer and computer games, my interests are reading, writing, playing table-top rpgs and boardgames and playing bass guitar. AP: I'm 26, I live and study in Torino. I've always loved fantasy and science fiction literature and role playing games, but I approached interactive fiction late (just a few years ago), and thanks to my graphic works, 'cause I'm a drawing-painting amateur too. RG: I'm 35. I live and work in Brescia as Project Manager for an ICT organization. I'm married with Paola and father of Cesare, my two years old baby. I've been recently interviewed by SPAG so I believe you could read more about me on SPAG #40. SPAG: Beyond is credited to the software house Mondi Confinanti (http://www. terradif.net/mondiconfinanti). Can you tell us a little bit about this organization? What is the group's "chartar," so to speak, and what are your long-term goals? PL: One of the tasks of MC is to coordinate the efforts of several authors, programmers and artists to create good quality IFs, with multimedia and, often, something more: experimental things, we could say. RG: Mondi Confinanti has been created with the mission to let multiple authors work together in order to share knowledge, discussions, ideas and so on. The basic idea is "Why do it alone?". I've been the promoter of the group together with Paolo Lucchesi and Alessandro Schillaci (the main author of Little Falls). Then we asked for help and the other five guys joined (Giancarlo Niccolai, Alessandro Peretti, Paolo Maroncelli and, more recently, Fabrizio Venerandi and Pierpaolo Colucci). About the 'chartar'. My tasks are mainly plot, design and music related (and let me say some sort of 'final quality assurance' and coordination), since i'm a very bad programmer. Paolo Lucchesi, Giancarlo Niccolai, Paolo Maroncelli and Alessandro Schillaci mainly deal with the programming side (and they do it very, very well, let me say) but they also do really great work on the design side. On the graphics side Alessandro and Pierpaolo provide the artwork (and sketches, in some cases). Fabrizio Venerandi will help us to improve the quality of writing. Our long-term goals are to allow for cohoperation of people writing IF, not only italian (infact, we've recently ask the collaboration for non-italian developers), and overall looking for new ways and forms of IF in order to revitalize the genre. I think that IF has still many things that deserve some improvement or, let me say, "evolution". One of them is the proper use of multimedia or a "movie-like" approach of the narration. Anyway, the topic is too vast to be treated here. Furthermore, we'd like to promote and experiment with new forms of IF (to be intended as 'games' in which narration is the most important part of the game, but interaction could be completely mouse- or voice-driven, and investigate multiplayer IF in more detail). SPAG: It is my understanding that none of you speak English as your first language, yet Beyond reads very smoothly. I would never have guessed it to be the work of non-native speakers. From one who knows how difficult just mastering the basics of a foreign language can be, congratulations on that achievement. Was Beyond written in English from the beginning, or was it written in Italian and translated at some point? Is there or will there be a separate version for Italian players? PL: Well, most of all we have to thank our beta testers, who have done a wonderful work in polishing our writing. Beyond was written in English from the beginning, and yes, there will be an Italian version. AP: At the beginning I was pushing for an Italian writing, English translation work. But then, because of the time limitations, we went for a should-be-faster English native writing. The reviewing work was really... Endless! So I missed the advantages. No, talking seriously, the programming part would have been more complicated with the translation. I think the next (Italian) version would be a little more accurate (it couldn't be different, because we three are Italian), but no significant changes will appear. RG: There will be an italian version, my estimates are around February. And, yes, Beyond was written in english from the beginning. I started coding in Adrift around January of 2004. Then Paolo took over the programming and the game was developed in Glulx. Anyway, editing and debug phases made by english players helped a lot. Particularly, I would like to thank David Welbourn for this particular aspect. SPAG: You credit Neil Gaiman as a strong influence on Beyond. As one who has read only American Gods and Good Omens from Gaiman, I perhaps speak from a position of ignorance, but I am nevertheless curious what drew you to Gaiman' s work. What work of Gaiman's would you consider to have had the strongest influence on Beyond? PL: Most of all, the "Sandman" comics; the presence called SHE is exactly Death. But other parts are indirectly influenced by Gaiman's books. AP: As I'm interested in graphic artwork, I'm very fond of the Sandman comics. They've been truly a revelation for me, developing greatly my "comics" conception. So if you ask me, I'll rate Neil's comics much more than his novels, but Paolo and Roberto like so much all of his works that they wanted to make some "quotations". RG: As Paolo said, most of all the "Sandman" comics. Some characters in Beyond have been inspired by Sandman characters. Rat Angel has been inspired by Wilkinson, the rat-in-a-trenchcoat. "Death" citation is explicit. I think that the 'mood' of the story is Gaiman-ian and the fact that a surreal and a real world intersecates (like in "Sandman"). SPAG: Your game is lovely to look at, featuring some of the best artwork I have seen in the modern IF era. What tools did you use to create such professional work? Has your artist, Alessandro, been involved in any other projects, particularly Internet projects that SPAG's readers could check out? AP: Hey, stop the compliments please! :D I'm very happy for your appreciations, but I know I have still much more technical stuff to learn (do you really think simple black-pencil drawing is easier than colour painting?). The material involved here is relatively simple: pencils and papers, a scanner, a graphic tablet, and some basic effects you can find in almost all photo-retouch programs. The trick is that I negative-drew the images (on semi-transparent paper mosto of the times) and turned them to positive after the scanning and colour changing process. For now I haven't done any more works you can find on the net, but I'm still in the Mondi Confinanti's staff. Although the final result is a little different from what I had in mind at the beginning, I'm satisfied by the result and I hope (also thanks to you and this interview) that Beyond and IFs in general will receive more attention and increase their popularity, 'cause some of them are really worth playing, as some books are really worth reading in a man's life. SPAG: As I mentioned earlier, collaborative IF efforts are comparitively rare. Judging by your excellent results, however, I have to assume that the process worked very well for you. Did you strictly divide the duties of game design, technical implentation, and artwork? Would you recommend this method of development to others, and do you have any advice to offer about organizing a collaborative effort? It certainly seems an excellent way to complete larger projects more quickly while giving folks who might otherwise find IF development daunting a chance to be involved. PL: The duties were divided between us, but not strictly. Roberto is responsible for the main concept and plot outline, but the plot details were discussed between us (as an example, at the beginning the story was placed in modern times, and in U.S.A.). Implementation details were discussed too (so we decided together to use a menu based dialog system, to switch between first and second person, to use a variable layout for graphics). Images were discussed too sometimes (we have three versions of SHE). And although I did most of programming stuff, often Roberto and Alessandro helped me coding rooms and scenery. Infact, all this made the whole creation process slower. But we ended up with something that we three really liked and, we think, something of good quality. AP: Surely it's true: duties assignment works good; but since we were just three people, we were involved in every branch of the work. Paolo and Roberto told me suggestions and comments, on drawings; they also refused some. I and Paolo reclaimed modifications on the plot (the original concept was entirely by Roberto). And my main work, at the end, was not only the graphic part, but the text reviewing too. RG: Dividing the tasks is advisable, but most of all, aside from specific tasks, it is important that someone must have the final word and decide for the group, in most critical decisions. These aspects can be applied in many fields (design, plot, technical implementation, and so on...). It is not a 'democratic' way to work, but when decisions are critical (or yes/no) and the group doesn't come to an agreement, some sort of decision is preferrable. One of the positive aspects of cooperation, on the other side, is that new and fresh ideas strengthen the plot and the design and, if someone is overloaded by 'real life' commitments, the work still goes on because it's rare that ALL of us are not free to work on IF. SPAG: How long did you spend writing and debugging Beyond? PL: Something like 18 months, I believe. Yes, it's a very, very long time. But I have very little time tp spare, and Beyond was seriously changed in the meantime. At the beginning it was a z-code game, but halfway through the process we decided to add multimedia. AP: For me... Not enough! I think it was about a year. RG: It took around 20 months, considering the first implementation in Adrift (the corridor and the first room) from January 2004 to September 2005. Debug was done concurrently with the development (the fact that the game is in 'episodes' helped a lot). I have to thank Dan Shiovitz for the help in debugging and the editing help in the first phases of the project. SPAG: I see from your website that Mondi Confinanti has another completed game, Little Falls, in the process of translation into English. Can you tell us a bit about this project? And what can you tell us about Nemesis, the all- new project that you have in the works? AP: Regarding myself, just this: In Nemesis, I should do nothing more than some artwork. Many more people are involved and for now, sadly, I don't have much time to spend on IF. RG: Little Falls was our first game and was released in Italy in June 2005. The main author is Alessandro Schillaci. I helped a bit on the writing and plot side. Enrico Simonato did the artwork. It relies heavily on the use of multimedia (particulary sounds and music but the artwork is very good, anyway). English translation is on the way and hopefully it will be released in the first months of 2006 (after a debug and editing phase). Nemesis is our main title for 2006 and my high hopes rely on that. We're in plot and design phase at the moment. It's a sci-fi ('a-la Philip Dick') story set in the very next future. We're considering some innovative solutions for layout and artwork (and, consequently, how the things can be narrated). It's the first project in which all of the staff will be involved, so i hope that we'll do a very good work. On the other side, implementation looks difficult because the plot is evolving fast and the story is turning to be "difficult to be told". Anyway, we'll see. SPAG: Did you get a chance to play some of the other games from this year's competition? If so, any favorites? PL: I didn't had time to play anything, but I found a lot of unappealing games. I played Vespers only after the comp end, and I agree with the competition results; it was very good. RG: I've had a quick look at "On Optimism", "Escape to New York", "Cheiron", "Jesus" and "Vespers". I appreciated very much the last (and i think it deserved the victory) for the mood and the setting. The beginning of the game was a bit aimless but later the game turned out to be very interesting. On the other side, I' m interested to identify which were the weak points of Beyond in order to improve the quality of our game and studying "Vespers" and "A New Life" in more detail will help us to improve our games. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- Jason Devlin, author of "Vespers" -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= SPAG: Readers of SPAG probably already have an idea of who you are, both through the introductory texts of your two games and through the SPAG interview you were gracious enough to participate in last year, so I will not bore you with too many more "getting to know you" questions. One thing I am curious about, though, is how you balance your academic studies in biology and chemistry -- does that add up to biochemistry? -- with your obvious talent as a writer and game designer, particularly in that your writing doesn't really feel like the work of a scientist. Do you ever feel pulled in two directions, or does it come naturally to you to engage in two such completely different pursuits? JD: Reading and writing science is what I do pretty much every day in my academic and working life, and while I like it, it gets tiresome: writing interactive fiction is a fun break. It's nice to be able to write something completely under my own direction. It's nice to not have to worry about harsh criticism and maintaining a GPA. Reviewers in the interactive fiction community are million times more gentle than some of my profs. As for my work not sounding like the work of a scientist, that makes sense, as my school work doesn't sound like the work of a scientist either :) . But really, I just write what I'd want to play, and I'm not really sure I'd like to play the work of a scientist. SPAG: I am always gratified when someone arrives in our community who is NOT a child of the eighties, for it reinforces my belief that this is a viable artform as opposed to an exercise in retrogaming nostalgia. It does beg the question, though: the nostalgia factor presumably being completely absent, what most draws you to write and play text adventures in 2005? JD: You're right, it isn't nostalgia that brings me to IF: I think it's probably the independence of the medium. I can write an entire game by myself (with the exception of betatesters) that other people can play and enjoy. I couldn't do that with anything else. The world is rife with static fiction, a lot of which is way better than anything I could hope to write. By writing in this community, I can be assured that people will actually play my games and possibly enjoy them out of the fact that there simply isn't that much IF produced each year. I couldn't expect that with static fiction. But in all honesty, if I could draw/design pretty graphical adventures, I'd be out of IF so quick (well, maybe not). I like IF, but I'm still drawn to games with pretty pictures. As for why I play IF, I think it's because good stories are really lacking in many games. I've played a lot of good graphical adventure games, but I could probably count the number with really great stories on my fingers. With IF, there's so much great stuff out there, that it would take me years to get through even the top 5% of games. SPAG: While I recall that Sting of the Wasp was to some extent inspired by your own friends and experiences, you yourself mentioned in your introductory notes to Vespers that you have little experience with organized religion. What drew you to the austere atmosphere of a Medieval monastary as the setting for your game? JD: Well I wanted to write a horror game with a really strong atmosphere. And something about real-world settings appeals to me a lot. I think it adds to a lot to a game if you kind of think it is possible that what goes on actually could go on in the real world. While a lot of what goes on in Saint Cuthbert's is purely fantastic, I think the fact that people in the medieval period actually believed that Saints could intercede and the Devil walked among them helps somewhat with the story's believability. Also, I've always been fascinated by religion and the way someone can live in a different world just because of it. SPAG: Did any particular works of fiction, interactive or traditional, inspire your latest effort? (I was reminded of The Name of the Rose, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and -- strange as it may sound -- Paradise Lost, for what it's worth.) JD: Vespers was originally gonna be more along the lines of slasher horror, so I was kind of going for a Five Days a Stranger/Seven Days a Skeptic (two great amatuer graphical adventures by Ben Croshaw) or Enclosure (by Femo Duo) feel. All those games have a rigid plot based structure where certain events cause the passing of time. Also, they have a mounting tally of dead bodies throughout the game which I find really spooky (and it also removes those pesky NPCs so you don't have to keep updating their conversation topics). Other than that, I can't say much influenced me consciously. Many people have mentioned In The Name of the Rose, but it's been so long since I've seen it that I can't imagine much has stuck. I think something more along the lines of Tapestry might have been more influential: choice and morality was a huge theme in it. SPAG: The setting certainly seemed very authentic and well-realized to me. Did you invest a lot of time in research to make it so? Did you envision Vespers as taking place in any historically particular time and place? JD: I did a fair bit of research before I started writing, but most of it got thrown out in the end. I probably should have thrown out even more. Calling the sitting room a locutory may add a little atmosphere, but it probably causes more confusion than anything. The plague symptoms I found really didn't add anything to what I already knew: you cough, you get sores, you get a fever etc. The part that I kind of wished I had found more on was medieval theology. Originally I had planned to make the sin counter a lot more complex with the character having to pray at each canonical hour (which is reason for the waking up to the murderer outside your door on the first night) and do all sorts of piddling stuff, but I realized it would bog things down a lot and just be ridiculous to expect people to know unless they happened to have been researching medieval sins for writing a game. Vespers actually takes place in Italy (I found the village Rovato by randomly pointing to a map of Italy), but I pretty much threw out everything to do with regional monastic conventions, so you could pretty much swap it out if you changed the NPC names. [Personally, I think that there are two approaches to the incorporation of historical detail into fiction. On the one hand, the author can try to throw it all in explicitly. On the other, he can allow his research to inform his piece without necessarly incorporating every piece of minutae into his text. See Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver trilogy for an example of the generally coma-inducing results of the former approach, and Gore Vidal's American history novels for an example of just how well the latter approach can work in the hands of a master. I would submit to you, Jason, that you may have engaged in the Vidal approach without entirely realizing it, and that perhaps all that research was not quite as wasted as you think. --ed.] SPAG: Did you find it difficult to dwell in the starkly desperate world of your game during its creation? JD: Hah. It wasn't so bad when I was writing it, but when I played it a few weeks after I had finished it, I was kind of grossed out that that kind of stuff came from me. I felt a little weird showing it to friends and family, as it is a little gruesome. I'm just glad that I came out with Sting of the Wasp before Vespers, so I didn't look too creepy and disturbed (well maybe just as creepy and disturbed, but for different reasons :) ). SPAG: Vespers has a lot to say, but unlike some "highbrow" efforts does a good job of balancing its literary ambition with the interactivity that makes our field unique. How did you go about balancing these literary elements with the gamelike elements? JD: I think the reason why the literary and gamelike elements were as balanced as they were was because it was requirement that they be. A story about choice would be pretty lame if there was no choices to make. And if those choices are immediately apparent and spelled out for you, then it loses a bit of depth. SPAG: Vespers gives the player the freedom to be evil if she so chooses. Indeed, it actively tempts the player to embark on that path. I have to say that the scene in the bell tower early in the game, when the game whispers its temptations to murder in the player's "ear," was absolutely chilling. Was it difficult to not only allow the player the freedom to either metaphorically fall or resist temptation, but even to subtly tailor room descriptions and the like to reflect the player's actions? JD: It's not so hard to allow the player the freedom as it is to ensure everything remains consistent afterwards. I would have liked to make the game more responsive to the player's actions, but it would have been too complicated. Basically, the events remain the same throughout the paths, it's the PC's perspective that changes. This is a lot easier to do (by changing descriptions) than it would be to change the consequences of the PC's actions. SPAG: IS choice really better than happiness? JD: Haha, God no! I'd much rather be happy. SPAG: Did you get a chance to play some of the other games from this year's competition? If so, any favorites? JD: I didn't play many: a half a dozen or so. I looked through the introductions to all the games and only played the games that really leapt out at me. I liked Tough Beans for its smooth implementation and good characterization of Wendy. I liked Distress also for the smoothness of play and neat story; I just wish the twist at the end had found itself more in the game proper. My favorite game by far though was Chancellor. I didn't quite get all the subtleties, but it was a brilliant game nonetheless. I'm quite disappointed it didn't place higher (which I'm almost certain is due to the lack of hints). SPAG: Your $500 prize means that you are one of very few people who got paid this year for writing IF. Will you be putting it to any particularly exciting use? JD: I had a rather drunken celebratory bash with a quarter of the winnings, spent some of it on Christmas presents, and the rest I will spend on eating something other than potatoes and discount chicken for a few months. SPAG: So what's next? I am sure I speak for all of SPAG's readers when I say that I would love to see more work from you. Any thoughts about your next project? JD: I have a couple of ideas floating around but not enough time to do them all for a while. I'll probably enter anonymously in next year's IFComp: I just don't want anything I release to go completely unnoticed and the reviews of IFComp games are great incentive. Now that I've won, I'm not concerned about placing. In fact, I don't really want to take away any high spots from anyone else. So I'm gonna do something a little more experimental: a little more odd. Something that I'm sure a lot of people will hate, but I hope it will make some kind of big impact on a few. More currently, someone approached me with an idea to adapt Vespers into a semi-different medium. I'm quite interested in doing this and am gonna take an active part in the adaptation. I don't wanna reveal too much, as it's still in the planning stages, but if this pans out, it could really be quite neat. KEY TO SCORES AND REVIEWS-------------------------------------------------- Consider the following review header: TITLE: Cutthroats AUTHOR: Infocom EMAIL: ??? DATE: September 1984 PARSER: Infocom Standard SUPPORTS: Z-code (Infocom/Inform) interpreters AVAILABILITY: LTOI 2 URL: Not available. VERSION: Release 23 When submitting reviews: Try to fill in as much of this info as you can. Authors may not review their own games. MONSTERS!: AN IF COMP 2005 REVIEW PACKAGE----------------------------------- From: Valentine Kopteltsev
Have you ever thought about how an IF game author chooses the genre her/his game's going to belong to? And why certain game themes undergo a splash of popularity in certain years? This subject is interesting on its own, and certainly worth a separate study. For now, I just like to state that there were at least five horror games entered in the last IF-Comp -- a good deal over the average of a number of previous Comps, as it seems (although I might be wrong). Two of them could have borne the subtitle "Terror from Ancient Graves", one tells a chiller-diller story taking place underground, and the remaining two entertain the player with SciFi-styled horror. Well, a good enough occasion to write a review package, the more so as it's been ages since I've written one. A SHORT PRELIMINARY NOTE ON THE SCORING SYSTEM Usually, I rate all games (including competition entries) I review for SPAG using the traditional scoreboard-style system. However, I use a different system when being a judge in the Comp - a system based entirely on how much I liked a game (I know, it's pretty subjective). Well, this isn't the first IF-Competition I participate in, but until this year, it never occured to me the ratings sometimes turn out to be different depending on the rating system I use. There are several reasons for that, but I'm not going to discuss them here. Instead, I'll just adduce both ratings (the usual SNATS and the score I've given the game as a Comp judge), accompanying them with a short comment explaining why they're different; I thought this could be interesting for the game authors. And one last diversion describing what my ratings actually mean: 1 - couldn't find anything good to say about it; 2 to 5 - seriously flawed game; 6 - solid, but nothing special ("uneven" games - like, if Photopia had a few show-stopping bugs - also fall under this category); 7 to 9 - excellent games; and, the (one and only) 10 - my favourite. And with that off my back, let's proceed to the reviews. NAME: Phantom: caverns of the killer AUTHOR: Brandon Coker EMAIL: grimslade1135 SP@G yahoo.com DATE: 2005 PARSER: Inform AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/zcode/ phantom/phantom.z5 An example of an unsuccessful attempt at the genre. You play an archeologist trying to find the burial place of a legendary Egyptian warrior. Most of the game, you just wander around, collecting artifacts for non-obvious purposes. I expected them to become more clear later, but in vain -- said artifacts didn't affect the outcome of the story in any way, only reflecting themselves in the number of points I received. Although the author demonstrated intentions to inject atmosphere into his work, and to sorta build up tension towards the finale, the results turned out to be pretty pathetic. To a no small degree, this was the fault of the writing, and the many spelling mistakes. Phantom failed entirely as a representative of the horror genre, and hardly won any points back even as a puzzlefest. Most of its puzzles could be subdivided into two categories: (fairly generic) mazes (there were three of them), and "choose the right option or die". It seems the author invested a lot of work into making up intricate clues for the second ones, and believed them to be fairly challenging. However, he overlooked the fact they could be solved by brute force (pick option -- die -- undo -- pick another option -- repeat until solved). I don't want to offend anybody, but, speaking in F1 terms, this is the Minardi of our today's race. SNATS (Score Not Affecting The Scoreboard): PLOT: Generic (0.5) ATMOSPHERE: The author did his best to maintain it, but failed (0.5) WRITING: Clumsy and full of spelling mistakes (0.3) GAMEPLAY: Pointless treasure hunt (0.6) BONUSES: None I could think of (0.0) TOTAL: 1.9 CHARACTERS: None PUZZLES: Rather unoriginal (0.2) DIFFICULTY: Nearly trivial (3 out of 10) COMP SCORE: 3 COMMENTS: OK, I encountered a few games (even) worse than Phantom, and thus had to set it off a bit. Besides, the author's intentions clearly were good, his work didn't take too much of my time, and wasn't meant to annoy me -- all that was worth an incentive in the form of an additional point. Wasn't it. NAME: The Plague (Redux) AUTHOR: Laurence Moore EMAIL: adv SP@G turntopage.com DATE: 2005 PARSER: Adrift AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/adrift/ plague/The Plague - Redux.taf NAME: Space Horror I: Prey for Your Enemies AUTHOR: Jerald M. Cooney EMAIL: jcooney_email SP@G yahoo.com DATE: 2005 PARSER: HTML-based CYOA AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/windows/ space/space.exe These two games have a lot in common. First of all, both of them represent first episodes of their respective series, implying there's going to be a continuation, and thus stipulating their stories being incomplete. Then, both works don't entrust the arduous task of frightening the player to individualists, employing whole teams of eminently qualified specialists for those purposes -- Plague benefits from the services of old trusty zombies, while Space Horror resorts to the help of no less reliable murderous aliens. Finally, both games represent carefully implemented, solid, and well- polished efforts -- especially Space Horror, which only contained very slight glitches. On the other hand, the author of Space Horror probably has had it somewhat easier, since his work is a CYOA. At this point, it must be said I don' t share the rather widespread in the IF-community bias against that kind of game. Especially if it is done as careful as Space Horror -- with several fully fleshed out plot lines, well-defined characters (although, of course, they aren't too interactive), and great illustrations. The author even managed to squeeze in a couple of puzzles -- quite a feat, considering the game format. The puzzles are logical enough, and fit well into the story. All in all, once you let this game play on its home turf and don't cry for the moon, Mr. Cooney's work leaves nothing to be desired. Plague isn't as strong at presentation and multimedia effects -- it's a text- only adventure, but it possesses its own trump cards, which allow it to stay abreast. The very first of them is the game name -- with all due respect to Mr. Cooney, the title "Space Horror" is one of the leading contenders for the top ten of the Most Generic Names Chart. Besides, Plague has a much more intense beginning that sets the pace and atmosphere for the rest of the game. In fact, the atmosphere and the setting make up about 80 percents of it. They're best described with "bloody chaos". Of course, people could have different opinions on it, depending on their personal preferences -- some players would find it disgusting, others would dismiss it as rather hackneyed -- but as for me, I did like it. The characters... Now, Stacie, our main hero, was well defined from the emotional point of view, so that I found it easy to identify with her. Although the wondrous transformation of a rather inexperienced town girl into a rough zombie slayer came kinda sudden and thus seemed somewhat unrealistic, I guess it was part of the genre... or maybe I'm just underestimating inexperienced town girls (typical case of male chauvinism;). Other characters only have been good enough for a crowd scene -- maybe they'll hit the big time in the next episode(s). Plague is by no means a puzzle-oriented game; the puzzles present are kept rather easy, and their main virtue is not hampering the story too much. They cope with this task pretty well, except for one scavenger hunt requiring careful examination of lots of scenery objects. Fortunately, the walkthrough helped me to get over this unfavourable design choice without any losses. The conclusions. It's true there's nothing groundbreaking about either of these works -- they don't even try to expand the genre boundaries, and probably reproduce every cliche existing within them. However, it's no less true both of them represent solid, competently implemented efforts, and I don't regret any minute spent playing them. I honestly hope the authors won't be put off by the relatively low ranks they got in the Comp, and release the next episodes of their respective works. SNATS (scores before the slash apply to Plague, after the slash to Space Horror): PLOT: Adequate (1.2)/"Truly" branching (1.3) ATMOSPHERE: Makes up most of the game charm (1.5)/Exciting enough (1.2) WRITING: Supports the atmosphere very well (1.3)/Supports the atmosphere very well (1.3) GAMEPLAY: Now that one comes to think of it, it was pretty standard, but when playing, I was too thrilled to notice;) (1.3)/Well... CYOA (1.2) BONUSES: Identifying with the player character (0.9)/Graphics, fake websites and other similar stuff (1.1) TOTAL: 6.2/6.1 CHARACTERS: Rather generic (0.8)/Nice, but not very interactive (1.0) PUZZLES: Not very remarkable, with at least one unfortunate design choice (0.9)/The very fact there are puzzles in a CYOA is a feat on its own (not rated) DIFFICULTY: You should have no troubles completing it (5 out of 10)/ Again, this doesn't apply to a CYOA (not rated) COMP SCORE: 6 COMMENTS: I think no comment is needed. No matter how you slice it, those are good, solid games. NAME: Snatches: An Interactive Horror Story AUTHOR: Gregory Weir EMAIL: Gregory.Weir SP@G gmail.com DATE: 2005 PARSER: Inform AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/zcode/ snatches/snatches.z5 In a number of respects, this game is so unusual I haven't been sure how to start reviewing it. Finally, I've come up with drawing an analogy with a theatre play. So, imagine a dark stage, on which, in a circle of light, a fight is going on -- a fight between the main hero and a strange, evil creature. Searchlights start to flare up in a seemingly random fashion, illuminating various spots on the stage for short periods of time. Finally, putting the single pieces of this mosaic together, the spectators get an integral picture of what's going on. And that's how Snatches is set up. It consists of several episodes from the perspective of different characters in the game (so that there're many player characters, but only one main hero), following in a random order. The narration is threaded by the aforementioned fight, cut-scenes of which occur after each episode like a refrain. This technique works very well -- to a no small extent thanks to the catchy writing (I've even considered to imitate it in my review, but finally let it be, realizing I'm not up to the task). There have been minor implementation issues regarding overlapping of, uh, let's call it "character experiences" (in the single episodes, different actors often are able to visit the same places and interact with the same objects, which sometimes can have effects unforeseen by the game author), but they are completely forgiveable. The main problem the work has is (I'm returning to our theatre parallel), after the searchlights have finished scanning the stage, and the battle has ended, the director doesn't quite have an idea what to do next, and effectively just rings down the curtain. Sure, Snatches featured several endings, but none of them seemed worthy. In my opinion, a "the evil can't be defeated" type of epilogue (in the style of the X-Files movies) suggests itself here -- but it's just what I think. Anyway, in my eyes, this is the only snag that prevented Snatches from being a major challenger for the podium. SNATS: PLOT: An appropriate ending would help it a lot (1.2) ATMOSPHERE: Satisfyingly sinister (1.5) WRITING: One of the best in this IF-Comp (1.8) GAMEPLAY: Ragged but integral (1.6) BONUSES: The unusual story-telling approach (1.3) TOTAL: 7.4 CHARACTERS: Mostly adequate (1.4) PUZZLES: Modestly stick to their last (0.6) DIFFICULTY: Trivial -- except for a couple somewhat tricky points (4 out of 10) COMP SCORE: 8 COMMENTS: The correlation between the SNATS and the Comp score is pretty good. The slight difference is caused by the fact that, when I replayed Snatches for the review, I fished out the technical issues mentioned there (somehow, they eluded me during my first play-through). NAME: Distress AUTHOR: Mike Snyder EMAIL: sidneymerk SP@G hotmail.com DATE: 2005 PARSER: Hugo AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/hugo/ distress/distress.hex Quite a time ago, I read an article in a sports newspaper comparing the two German football players, the famous Karl-Heinz Rummenige and his younger brother Michael. Well, I can't vouch for the exactness of the following quotation, because more than ten years strolled past since then; however, in the section dedicated to the brothers' manner of dribbling, it said something like, "Karl-Heinz can get past a couple of backs after gaining a good speed in an open space. Michael is an entirely different type of player -- he can make fools of four or five opponents 'on a handkerchief'". The latter can be applied to Distress: the game is tiny -- slightly more than ten rooms, most of which you run by in a rush, but it manages to unwind an intricate plot with an ending, which manages both to be immensely satisfying and to neatly tie up all loose ends. And it's not too wordy, either -- but the reticent descriptions are just long enough to create a truly creepy atmosphere. The puzzles also are set up with a minimum of items to manipulate, yet they are both challenging and logical. It's been said the game sometimes restricts the player's actions in a manner that may appear a little blatant to some people, but, to be honest, I only learned about this issue from other reviews -- the restrictions seemed perfectly reasonable for me when I was actually playing. As you may have guessed already, this is my favourite entry in this year Comp. Finally, I'd like to explain why I ranked it higher than, say, the actual winner of the contest, Vespers (a disclaimer right off -- it's not my intention to set anybody at loggerheads or to start a flame war). Vespers is a splendid, wonderful game -- but it calls heavies into play where Distress does with minimalist resources. Now, who is greater a commander -- a general capturing a town by force of a brigade after days of preparatory bombardment and carpet bombings, or a lieutenant infiltrating it with a small troop by stratagem, and managing to sabotage the garrison to an extent it can't put up a proper resistance? SNATS: PLOT: Outstanding, with an immensely satisfying ending (1.6) ATMOSPHERE: Ominous (1.7) WRITING: Masterfully terse (1.7) GAMEPLAY: Gripping (1.6) BONUSES: The ability of being expressive with minimalist means (1.2) TOTAL: 7.8 CHARACTERS: You can't converse with them -- in every other respect, they are faultless (1.4) PUZZLES: Best in this review package (1.3) DIFFICULTY: Fairly challenging (6 out of 10) COMP SCORE: 10 COMMENTS: Well, this has been my favourite game in the Comp, so I had to give it a ten. A typical case of a "normalizing effect" in scoring (I'm afraid that without this normalization, hardly any game would get more than an 8 from me for a very long time, because of Blue Chairs being entered in the previous Comp). THE IF COMP 2005 TOP TEN -------------------------------------------------- ********************************** #10 ************************************ From: Michael A Russo (review originally published on rec.games.int-fiction) TITLE: Internal Vigilance AUTHOR: Simon Christiansen EMAIL: simonchrist1729 SP@G hotmail.com DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/zcode/vigilance/ vigilance.z5 VERSION: Release 1 When writing this review, I've continually been aware that perhaps I'm taking the game more seriously than it wants to be. I work at a human rights organization directly involved with issues - U.S. detention and interrogation policy, the proper role of civil liberties in wartime - which are very close to those implicated by Eternal Vigilance. As a result, I found the premise of being put in an interrogator's shoes and turned loose fascinating, if disturbing, and was eager to explore the dynamics of security. That the game turned out to be more spy-thriller than political-thriller was thus disappointing; both main factions appear rather cartoonish, and again, the struggle is rarefied and divorced from social reality. The fate of the poor writer is somewhat problematic, but not especially so - given my job, I feel like I'm rather more sympathetic to the civil liberties side of things than are most people, so if I thought his detention and interrogation was bad policy but ultimately justifiable, I suspect most players would be even less bothered. Internal Vigilance employs the rhetoric of the ideological struggle between liberty and security, but it fails to really address the issues, and they act more to flavor the plot than drive it. This is a valid approach, certainly, and can make for an enjoyable game - but it wasn't what I was looking for. Of more moment is that the game ultimately feels superficial. All through high school, my English teachers would repeat that most annoying of mantras: show, don't tell. Internal Vigilance presents a 1984-style dystopia, but doesn't provide any details or specificity on what, exactly, the society does that's so terrible. We're told that the Union tramples on individual freedoms, but the primary example is rather problematic - the writer who's been arrested on suspicion of being involved with terrorism in fact does have a link to a terrorist faction dedicated to the overthrow of the Union, after all. Once the plot picks up speed and the player begins investigating said faction, instances of government oppression are few and far between. The interrogation methods employed by the player are generally unsavory, but not so terrible in the grand scheme of things - indeed, the game perhaps includes an implicit anti-torture message, as direct beating gets you nowhere. As a result, the proceedings feel bloodless; the central dilemma which is meant to give force to the plot lacks tension, and the ideological struggle is an abstraction without weight. All of the above is rather personal and ideological (as opposed to the rest of my reviews, the arch reader points out), which is perhaps testament to the fact that the game doesn't really have any major problems. A few sloppy mistakes appear to have slipped through - I noticed some capitalization errors in the Investigation section, and the apartment number given for the author's mother is inconsistent - but overall the plot proceeds logically, the player has a reasonable amount of choice of where to push the story, and the puzzles are clever and well-clued. Indeed, the opening interrogation is a highlight - it's a conversation puzzle which involves asking probing questions and researching background intelligence on the subject, exactly what's required in actual interrogations. I would have liked to see more options for ideological debate - throwing the fact that the anti-statist author was able to write his book because he was on welfare, for example - but the options that are there are fairly robust. And while the password puzzle is reasonable enough, it's almost unnecessary, as I came very close to guessing the phrase without any clues. The game also shows flashes of humor - the record will show that I am a sucker for X ME descriptions which work in "as good looking as ever." In the end, my objections to Internal Vigilance probably boil down to wanting something out of it that it wasn't meant to give. As a spy story with an oblique nod in the direction of current political debate, it works quite well. But the focus on bombing plots and digging up conspiracies causes the social milieu to recede, and the governmental oppression which theoretically drives the story isn't sharp or specific enough to be anything but background. One advantage of this is that the player is relatively free to decide whether the Union or the terrorists have the right of it, and act accordingly. But this moral weightlessness prevents the game from really engaging with the issues it raises. *********************************** #9 ************************************ From: Valentine Kopteltsev NAME: Chancellor AUTHOR: Kevin Venzke EMAIL: stepjak SP@G yahoo.fr DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: TADS 2 AVAILABILITY: Freeware URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/tads2/chancel/ chancel.gam Kevin Venzke is the author of Kurusu City, the entry in the previous IF-Comp that (at least as far as I'm concerned;) would have won the TADS division if the division rating still was there. Well, the reviewed work is *entirely* different; the light-hearted atmosphere of Kurusu City made way for gloominess and mysteriousness, and probably the only thing that remained unchanged was the player character being a young female. Chancellor rather brought up reminiscences of two other IF-classics: for one thing, Dave Lebling's Lurking Horror, from which it inherited parts of the setting (a deserted college building), along with a couple of characters (including a murderous janitor); for the other, Losing Your Grip by Stephen Granade that lent to it the way of telling the story in several fits, the switching of the player character between two fairly distinct worlds, as well as the extensive usage of deeply symbolic (well, maybe pseudo-symbolic) stuff. Actually, a superposition of elements from other works alone isn't a suitable tool for creating a decent game, no matter how splendid the "donors" have been. OK, OK, I probably don't have the right to say such things, because Chancellor's inheritance of certain features from other games is entirely my assumption, and the similarities mentioned earlier might be purely coincidental. Anyway, coincidence or not -- Chancellor does better than just mixing up ingredients of other games, and introduces a device personally I quite rarely (if at all) encountered in IF: it lets the two game worlds melt together. This process goes on not too quickly, but steadily, progressing with each episode: first, items from one world start appearing in the other one; then, interconnections between the worlds begin to crop up, and finally, the two worlds become one. It's been a thrilling experience indeed, which has been enhanced even more by the magnificent writing and the very comprehensive setting that implemented every object mentioned in the descriptions, and responded adequately to every action I could think of. Unfortunately, the game isn't crowned with a worthy end; rather, it shakes off all the mysterious stuff the player has encountered using a quite battered excuse. In this respect, it called to mind yet another work of IF -- this time, Rippled Flesh by Rybread Celsius, where the player, after being taken through a series of weird rooms and shown a number of scary things, receives an ending that is essentially unrelated to the game itself, along with an explanation of all the oddities he encountered (in the vein, "the bloody corpse in the bedroom was a practical joke of your second cousin once removed... and the hellish sounds coming from the hall was your dog Berny toppling over the clothes tree".) Now, Chancellor acts very similarly -- only the explanatory note isn't needed, and thus (thankfully) absent. That's a pity; while cutting the Gordian knot is a handy approach for a number of real life situations, it doesn't work half as well for entangled IF-plots. On the other hand, I can understand the author's point -- resolving the story properly probably would double the game size, thus rendering it totally unsuitable for the Comp. Still, in spite of this not minor issue, Chancellor remains a notable game, even -- I dare to say it -- a "must play". You just don't see worlds being melted together every day. (See the NOTE ON THE SCORING SYSTEM in the "Horror in the IF Comp" review package above) SNATS (Score Not Affecting The Scoreboard): PLOT: The ending spoils it somewhat (1.0) ATMOSPHERE: Galore (1.5) WRITING: Discreet but effective (1.5) GAMEPLAY: Unhurried (1.4) BONUSES: Two worlds blending together (it seems I can't stop saying that again and again;) (1.5) TOTAL: 6.9 CHARACTERS: Quite good, but not the kind I'll remember for the rest of my life (1.2) PUZZLES: Just solid (1.2) DIFFICULTY: Manageable (6 out of 10) COMP SCORE: 6 COMMENTS: Chancellor was one of the few entries in this Comp not providing any hints or a walkthrough (the stub of a hint file that was accompanying it contained clues for the prologue only). Combined with the unhurried gameplay (and it must be said that the rich setting practically pleads for not moving ahead too fast and for fiddling with the environment instead), this resulted in me getting stuck somewhere within the third fit by the end of the judging period. At that stage, there was no sign yet of the two worlds growing together -- the feature that, in my opinion, makes Chancellor outstanding. Thus, I had no other choice than to give it a rating corresponding to solid yet non-exceptional games. A simple inclusion of a walkthrough would earn it at least one extra point from me. *********************************** #8 ************************************ (See Valentine's review of Snatches as part of his "Horror in the IF Comp" review package above.) *********************************** #7 ************************************ From: Michael A Russo (review originally published on rec.games.int-fiction) TITLE: Unforgotten AUTHOR: Quintin Pan EMAIL: expiation SP@G devils.com DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/zcode/ unforgotten/unforgotten.z5 VERSION: Release 1 Clearly, I haven't sufficiently internalized the tropes of adventure gaming: I was stymied for quite a while in the opening of Unforgotten, because after being told that my friend really didn't want anyone to break into his belongings and read his diary, my reaction was to respect his privacy. More the fool I. For much of the game, Unforgotten seems primarily about sticking one's nose into other people's business - the primary action is in unraveling the secrets of the family of the player's friend. Unfortunately, the contours of the central mystery - not its solution, simply the setup - are very unclear until relatively late in the game, and the author's penchant for twists make the story more confusing than it needs to be. Underneath the continual Big Reveals, there's an interesting story, but I felt like the thriller tropes wound up getting in the way of the interesting relationships. Unforgotten's beginning is probably its weakest section; after the rather forced searching of the friend's possessions, the player is thrust into a conversation which reveals some backstory, but leaves important concepts and facts unexplained. Then without warning, the setting abruptly shifts, without the player being aware of what exactly has happened. This middle section, which contains the meat of the game, is clearer, and the player has specific goals to work towards, but just when I felt like I had my bearings, an NPC - the aforementioned friend's sister - began launching into exposition whose relevance wasn't immediately clear. Soon after, the player is thrust into two vignettes, widely separated in time and space, which are likewise fairly disorienting, and cast everything that's come before into doubt. And then there's a final big twist at the end (albeit this last one is rather heavily choreographed). I do enjoy games which are one big meta-puzzle - Jon Ingold's corpus comes to mind - but here, the twists just sort of pile up on each other, yanking the player one way then the other. Eventually whiplash - and fatigue - set in. This is too bad, because the relationships between the three main characters - the player character, his friend, and the friend's sister - are interesting, and really drive most of the action. Foregrounding them a little more, keeping the friend around for a while longer so the player can form an attachment to him, and keeping the story more focused by more aggressively framing the problem which the player is attempting to solve, would have made for a stronger, sharper, more affecting game. The wall-to-wall twists make the proceedings feel contrived, and the game doesn't allow sufficient space for the repercussions of each individual revelation to play out, which really reduces their impact. Unforgotten does do a good job of integrating puzzles into what's a fairly plot- heavy game. The initial journal-stealing sequence, for all my grumbling, is actually well-put together; depending on how exactly the player goes about it, there are a number of possible outcomes. There's a lot of fairly intuitive sneaking around, and except for that first sequence, the player usually knows precisely what he's working towards. I found one puzzle in particular to be shaky - lowering a doped pie to attack dogs on the end of a fishing rod feels far too slapsticky for the rest of the game, and LOWER PIE seemed a much more natural way of doing this than LOWER ROD - but otherwise the puzzles are well clued, even when the player doesn't necessarily know what he's meant to be doing. One sequence does remind me of a comment I made about Tough Beans, to the effect that too few games depict the player character reacting to events. There's a scene in Unforgotten where the player is controlling a little girl who, while hiding, overhears two soldiers talk about raping her mother - this strikes me as a rather traumatic event, but for all the game discloses, the girl reacts with stone-faced impassivity. I'm not lobbying for histrionics here, but any human being would be really upset in this situation, and the tension of perhaps calling attention to yourself could make for a more dramatically interesting scene. Still, Unforgotten does pay more attention to questions of character than do most games, and its narrative shortcomings are real but not fatal. Definitely worth a play. *********************************** #6 ************************************ From: Mike Snyder (review originally published on Mike's web site, http://www.sidneymerk.com.) TITLE: The Colour Pink AUTHOR: Robert Street EMAIL: robertrafgon SP@G hotmail.com DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/zcode/pink/ pink.z8 VERSION: Release 1 I love this game. This is old-fashioned puzzle goodness. You are sent to investigate the disappearance of a colony, missing from an alien planet. Eating a suspicious bird egg for no good reason other than an irresistible urge puts you into a surreal, alternate reality. I did something similar way back in the 99 competition. It was met with mixed reactions. You must be thinking Great. Another one. Everything is all random and unreal, but its all just part of the fantasy and thats supposed to make it okay. Thats one way of looking at it. Yes, this does allow for some wacky encounters in which animals (both real and mythical) talk and ask for help with personal dilemmas. The puzzles are well-clued and not very difficult (aside from a carrot-harvesting bit thats optional anyway), and most importantly, the entire game is fun. Its really fun. This is what adventure gaming is all about. I solved the game along one path (not realizing another was even possible) without hints. The various endings are picked CYOA-style (following a CYOA ending in the game I played just prior, Vendetta). I was left missing 5 points, and a few objects/areas seemed unused. So, a peek at the hints, the after-game notes, and finally the walkthrough put me onto an alternate path that not only expands the enjoyment of the game, but actually changes much of the second half, resulting in two additional endings. The first two areas are quads that require no real mapping. The next area is larger, but arranged in a pattern that looks pretty cool on paper. Another quad underwater reflects some aspects of the real world, as does the interior of the red tower. As was probably the authors intent, no single ending seems like the best or the most real, and its never quite clear how the things in the alternate land (either of them, since there are two paths) relate to the missing people or the lost inventory from the real world. The writing in The Colour Pink isnt particularly colorful or clever (although it is pink in spots), lacking complicated metaphors and dense descriptions. This keeps it unpretentious and more game-like than story-like. The focus is always on the puzzles. I have little else to say about this game, except that I highly recommend it to puzzle fans especially those who like the easy, traditional kind, where the gold key always opens the gold door and the carrot- loving rabbit is always going to give you something good if you feed him. As for the story, its not complicated, but it could be deeper than it seems. Im not sure why the pink theme was abandoned mid-way, nor why the love potion was just a segue to the fantasy world. Im basing the game at 9.0 on my scale, skewing +0.5 for an unofficial 9.5 because I had so much fun playing. *********************************** #5 ************************************ From: Mike Snyder (review originally published on Mike's web site, http://www.sidneymerk.com.) TITLE: Tough Beans AUTHOR: Sara Dee EMAIL: saradee123 SP@G gmail.com DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/zcode/toughbeans/ ToughBeans.z5 VERSION: Release 1 All in all, Tough Beans is a fine piece of work. It isnt often where a persons first game (assuming Sara Dee isnt a pseudonym) is so polished and playable. This is Sara Dees first game. I kept thinking, though, that my entry last year was Sidney Merks first game, too. Why didnt she say my first game instead? Just semantics? Moving on. Tough Beans does a better job of describing a day where everything just goes wrong than does Son of a...(another entry in this years competition). The story hints at something deeper, which remained unexplored up to my 3-point ending. Was the early elevator scene a premonition of one possible ending (mishap with the firework)? Does Wendy have a mental illness, or some kind of tumor thats causing her numbness and flashbacks, or is that just for narrative effect? What was her boyfriends motivation, beyond the obvious? The walkthrough claims there are five endings, with variations to each. Does that include the firework mishap? If not, then I found only one. I did identify a key decision early on (its pretty obvious the game tells you its a key decision, more or less). I played briefly into each, and settled on just one. The puzzles arent complicated, but they arent always easy. For puzzle experts, this is probably perfect. The clues are usually just right. I made it to the coffee shop before feeling stuck enough to peek at the walkthrough. I felt guilty here, though, because I should have noticed whats important after Rhoda broke her pen. Some of it may still walk the border between fair and unfair the form goes unnoticed, for instance, even when looking right at the spot where its found. I guess if I visualize the scene, and consider what I might see walking up to my own desk the orientation of it, and the angle of approach I guess I can see how a form might remain unnoticed until further action is taken. I guess since it did work, and I found the form, then the puzzle worked. The bugs what few there are are minor. Looking at the kitchen table reports a bowl, but searching it states nothing is on the table that kind of thing. Errors in the text are almost non-existent. The game succeeds very well as fiction, where the level of implementation is deep and the writing stands out as descriptive and emotional. Its a story about breaking cycles and standing up for yourself. Some of that is obvious from a 3-point play-through, but the scoring hints in the walkthrough make it more clear. I couldnt quite decide what the story was meant to achieve, though. Was it meant to be a poignant introspection into Wendys psyche? Should I have felt bad for her, or should I have resolved to be more assertive? Both? It wasnt easy for me to recognize decision points aside from the early one, and it wasnt easy to think like a weepy 22-year-old secretary. This game is going to hit the proverbial perfect note with some players, but I never quite connected with the PC. Fiction is less about writing main characters that are familiar to the audience thats a playground for stereotypes and more about writing main characters that will become familiar to the audience. Games with a deemphasis on the PCs identity avoid this almost entirely, except where the PCs motivations are concerned. Whether or not Wendy is familiar to the author, she probably isnt familiar to many of us. The game succeeds in making her real, but not (for me, anyway) in making her evolve. I think more can be learned in the unseen, alternate endings. Its a shame the author didnt include alternate walkthroughs, showing a ten-point ending. Im curious about what other actions I might take as Wendy, and how this will reflect on those endings. My scoring scale fits Tough Beans in somewhere between 8 and 9, so I have based it at 8.5. I think its a great game even though I couldnt connect with the protagonist, and I think its going to do very well in the competition. It deserves a +0.5 skew for great writing and a convincing game world. Unofficial score: 9.0. *********************************** #4 ************************************ (See Valentine's review of Distress as part of his "Horror in the IF Comp" review package above.) ******************************** #2 (tie) ********************************* From: Mike Snyder (review originally published on Mike's web site, http://www.sidneymerk.com.) TITLE: A New Life AUTHOR: Alexandre Owen Muńz EMAIL: munizao SP@G xprt.net DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/zcode/goblin/ goblin.z5 VERSION: Release 1 Once again, I have jumped ahead to a game later in my list. This time, its because A New Life was recommended to me. If I really wont have time to finish all the games before November 15th, I might as well take them in any order, right? Ill probably go back to the list now. I enjoyed this game, but I found it incredibly difficult. Maybe its just me and my sub-par puzzle-solving abilities, but I was only able to complete the game down the path set by the walkthrough. I was already over two hours into the game my own way, using the built-in hint system more and more, and I had exhausted all of those options. I may have been in an unwinnable state. Im not sure. Its a very unique story, hinting at parallel realities and mythical races where a persons gender can be changed from time to time. While playing, I kept wondering if the goblins were really humans and vice-versa, but this was never confirmed. A New Life has a lot going on, and much of it surfaces as memories (a remember command does this), or as considerations when examining scenery or talking to the games characters. The back-story is an epic tapestry of magic and mystery. Much of the fun comes from learning more and more about the unique world in which the game is set, and about the people who inhabit it. The biggest problem is, its sometimes (okay, often times) unclear what to do without getting pointers from the hints. Even then, it can be a little confusing. This is the kind of game that would be great outside the competition, where it might be played over the course of three or four nights without that two-hour mark looming ahead. I think it would be more rewarding taken at leisure. I spent three hours on it, and the last of that was just typing from the walkthrough. My original path might have been interesting, if I had been able to figure it out. The thing with the three bags and the two staffs was pretty clever, but even putting them to use, I never quite felt as though I had solved everything. On my own plot branch, I couldnt figure out what was important about the stars and panels, even though I could make them light up as described in the hints. This is either a really great game I just didnt fully understand, or a pretty average game that does a great job of seeming to be a really great game I didnt fully understand. If taken without recommendation, I might have based it at 6.5 or 7.0 lower because of the complicated puzzles, and the lack of clear objectives. This is the trap we fall into when judging a game we know is or isnt liked by others. If Im to trust in someone elses opinion, I have to believe the game is better than it seems. And now its my turn, to pass my opinion along to others by way of this review. The writing in A New Life is excellent. This is one of the few games where the text just flowed right. It wasnt forced, it wasnt overdone, and it wasnt choppy. Good writing makes a game seem more real, and when the unique world seems to be the focus, thats important. This is the basis for my +0.5 skew, from a base of 7.5. A New Life may fare well in the competition. Its a good enough game: worth the time, but not my favorite. I recommend playing it without expecting an easy, two-hour experience. Dont rush, ease into it with exploration and experimentation (looking, remembering, asking), and youre likely to have a great time. ******************************** #2 (tie) ********************************* From: Michael A Russo (review originally published on rec.games.int-fiction) TITLE: Beyond AUTHOR: Mondi Conifanti EMAIL: beyond SP@G terradif.net DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2005/glulx/beyond/ beyond.blb VERSION: Release 1 I recently made my way through a video game called Indigo Prophecy. Initially, it looked like a dark and brooding game of psychological horror, but about two hours from the end the wheels fell off and it devolved into, to put it charitably, batshit lunacy. What started out as a compelling examination of the intrusion of random, terrifying violence into an ordinary life, dealing as much with the emotional fallout as with the inevitable whodunit, metastasized into tripe about Mayan prophecies, Matrix-style kung-fu, Illuminati-style conspiracies, and sentient AIs. The transformation cripples the game, making it impossible to take seriously - one gets the feeling the designers wanted to pull out all the stops and reveal twist after twist, but didn't realize that the more stripped-down, impressionistic stuff at the beginning was the best part. Don't get me wrong, Beyond certainly isn't crippled by its twists to nearly the extent of Indigo Prophecy, but I did find that my enjoyment of the game steadily eroded as time went by, not so much because the writing or puzzles got less compelling as due to the fact that the slow hints led up to revelations which seemed disappointingly over-the-top. The early stages of Beyond successfully invoke world-weariness, wistfulness for what might have been, and a compelling investigative urgency, but the endgame turns into something different, more garish and obvious and inferior to the understated early sequences. The opening is very strong, introducing the central mystery and the framing device which turns it into something other than just a commonplace cop-show procedural. The authors manage to evoke real pity for the fate of the central protagonist, and the complicated way she interacts with the character who the player guides through most of the game winds up being enjoyable - trying to solve the mystery of one's own death is a compelling premise. In the first viewing of the corpse, for example, the player in his detective-guise is presented with a young victim of violence, leading to a hint of paternal feeling, while simultaneously in the child-protagonist's eyes, the body is that of a lost parent. The overlapping impressions create dynamic frisson which very much deepens the experience. The small Italian village in which the main action is set is well-drawn, and the characters quickly manage to make an impression. Indeed, the detail of the real-world vignettes make for an effective contrast with the overtly fantasy-based interludes. One could perhaps complain that these interludes occasionally suffer from being overly-precious - the Mad Joker's transformations do sometimes feel too zany for the surrounding narrative - but when they work, they're absolutely devastating. The authors managed to make a sequence of chores into the most compelling thing in the story; this luminous portrayal of a casual domesticity rendered impossible by violence is far more effective and heart-wrenching than the late-game reveals on what was going on in the shack's cellar. There is a noticeable missed opportunity in this sequence, however - when fetching well water, DRINK WATER returns a default "you're not thirsty" response. The protagonist, a child who's never been born, has never tasted water before; this would have been a perfect chance to zoom in and bring home the poignancy of lost possibilities, of the mundane experiences the protagonist will be denied. The puzzles are well-clued and unobtrusive, which is almost a shame, as the integrated hint system is elegant and enjoyable in its own right. Finding the secret door in the shack is nicely handled, and the initial investigation is more entertaining than just Xing everything in sight, as the player demonstrates that he's figured out what the murderer did by walking through the same steps. A word should be said about the accompanying artwork, which is evocative and very successful at setting a mood of obscure dark fantasy - again, especially in the opening, where everything is threatening and unfamiliar. So I did very much enjoy most of Beyond, but as alluded to at the top of the review, I found the game got decreasingly effective as it wore on. From the set-up - a young girl, murdered as her pregnancy becomes obvious - I'd assumed that the crime was essentially domestic and squalid, arising out of a relationship which never should have happened, the fruit of desperation and anger and stupidity. The murderer, I imagined, was somebody who acted out of recognizably human motives - evil, sure, but still essentially a person. The authors, however, went in a rather different direction: the killer is a Satan- worshipping priest who'd been ritually and sexually abusing two different girls of the town. This felt disappointingly over-the-top, turning the villain into a cartoon and rendering everything far too simple and pat. Besides this aesthetic objection, conjuring up the specter of ritual satanic child abuse brought to my mind the famous hoaxes,like the McMartin Preschool case, which further undermined its effectiveness. Sure, there's something horrific about discovering that your father is a demon-worshipping sexual predator, but since the character is so unrecognizable, it's essentially safe. Presenting the villain as an actual person who did something terrible for all the wrong reasons would have been far creepier, and more memorable. I'll willingly concede that choosing this particular trope isn't by any means invalid or wrong, and it certainly pops up in fictional portrayals with some regularity, but again, I think a more humanistic approach to the evil would have made for a more satisfying experience. The final real-world sequence compounds the mistake in my view - the hostage drama, replete with guns and shouting, lacks the grace and subtlety which are the game's greatest strengths. In the final sequences, understatement is deprecated in favor of spectacle and narrative pyrotechnics, but I think the detail-work of the opening is superior to the broad strokes of the endgame. Additionally, while the game is quite solid, a few mistakes did seep through - I noticed misspellings of "chamomile" and "consecrating," but these are forgivable. Likewise, in one place I saw "e" used in place of "and," presumably due to the authors' native language being Italian. There also appeared to be some inconsistencies involving the appearance of the protagonist; during the first interlude, she is supposed to look like a woman in her twenties, but looking in a mirror returns a description about her being a child in a pink dress, and X ME gives the newborn response. And in a few places, I ran into disambiguation issues. I feel churlish even mentioning these, though - as is often the case with games I enjoyed, I think I've spent most of this review harping on things I disliked, which might give the wrong impression. To state it baldly, Beyond is a good game, and has all sorts of highlights - from the moody art to the artful juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, with plenty of imaginative flourishes (the discourse on bright and dark inspirations sticks in my head as particularly clever). I think the choice of making the bad guy a *really* bad guy broke the emotional realism of the scenario, but up until that point, I got as much enjoyment from the game as from anything else in the Comp, and even looked at in aggregate, I still think it's one of the very strongest games on offer. *********************************** #1 ************************************ From: Michael A Russo (review originally published on rec.games.int-fiction) TITLE: Vespers AUTHOR: Jason Devlin EMAIL: jdevlin1984 SP@G hotmail.com DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Zcode interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/vespers.z8 VERSION: Release 1 Vespers feels a lot like Name of the Rose. I know, I promised I'd stop with the using other works of fiction to make comments, but I'm not so much drawing functional comparisons as I am pointing out topical and thematic similarities here, so according to my head it's all right. The primary reason why I bring this up isn't to do something so dreary as to accuse the author (responsible for last year's Sting of the WASP, an excellent but very different game) of lack of originality or anything like that - in IF as in every other medium, it's all about execution, and the best creators are plunder-happy magpies, ripping off ideas from wherever they can find them. I mention the Eco connection mostly to disclose that I liked Name of the Rose a lot, am a sucker for Medieval Catholic eschatology, and therefore might be biased towards Vespers due to an affinity for the subject matter and residual good-will for works which hoed much the same row. So with that out of the way, I can now start praising Vespers. It has numerous strengths, but I think the most important is how well paced it is. The introduction slopes in gradually, and while I generally like to have some idea of what I should be accomplishing from the very beginning, here the more leisurely approach worked well - knowing that plague was loose and the monastery was locked in made things more interesting than the standard wander- corridors-until-something-happens opening, and front-loading much of the exploration allowed later sequences to play out tauter, since the player knows exactly where everything is. The number of NPCs is initially a little overwhelming, but the author does a very good job of giving each of them a distinctive feature, so that the player soon remembers which is the crazy one, which is the terse, practical one, and so on. Besides, things pick up fairly quickly once the player's visited all the important areas - Cecilia's arrival kicks off a string of clear, well-motivated puzzles, and from there interaction with her serves to give the player character his next objective. The narrative doesn't just progress, though - it deepens. As time passes and the malady which has laid claim to the player character does its work, descriptions change quite strikingly, which is a very nice touch - not only does it effectively convey the character's deteriorating mental state and effectively underline the thematically central mood of decay, it also makes re- visiting already-explored areas a pleasure rather than an invitation to tedium. The player is also allowed to complete major goals along the way, which lead fluidly on to the next. The arcs of individual monks are continually resolved (usually, sad to say, this involves their death), which each add something to the larger puzzle. The game also does a good job of unlocking new areas to explore in a controlled fashion; the player is introduced to a few new locations at a time, generally already knowing what he wants to do, which helps create a fleshed-out world without unnecessary disorientation. Speaking of avoiding unnecessary disorientation, the puzzles are another strong suit of Vespers. The player knows about most of the major puzzles (finding the hidden diary, gaining access to the cellar) from the early stages of the game, which serves to alert him to any tools or clues which might help with those tasks. Smaller-scale, more immediate puzzles (the avalanche, the wolf attack), often confined to one particular area, are introduced cleanly, usually requiring some quick thinking but no items from previous scenes. The prayer system is particularly elegant, almost serving as get-out-jail-free cards - I think in every case, the player can find a solution which doesn't involve prayer, but if you're having trouble coming up with the answer, a saint's intercession will do the job, without forcing recourse to the hints file. This middle ground of providing the player with a limited number of expendable puzzle-solving tokens is very good game design, and evocative too - before bedding down on the first night, I thought the good abbot should say his nightly orisons, and was pleasantly surprised by the fact that this preemptively solved a puzzle which otherwise might have required a die-and- undo! So Vespers is already a very good game, before you get to the endgame and the rug gets pulled out. Not only is the narrative twist nicely done - it both comes out of nowhere and had me slapping my forehead for not noticing it sooner - there's also a mechanical twist, as this whole time the game has been keeping track of the sins you've committed. It would be very easy to have put the mechanic front and center and transparently informed the player when he's moved down on the degeneration track, but keeping it hidden was definitely the right call, as this way the player isn't even aware he's being judged until it's too late, and it's never obvious which particular decisions were decisive. My only objection is that I think the scale might be too unforgiving - my first time through, I got the "evil" ending, even though of course I think my transgressions were relatively minor (I'd once prayed to Cecilia, and attacked the unknown figure I'd tripped down the stairs since I wasn't sure if he was incapacitated from the fall). Still, given the setting, an unforgiving morality is definitely appropriate. Flaws? A few. The mystery of what Constantin's been up to is a major driver of the narrative, so the rather hasty reveal felt abrupt and therefore had less impact than it might have. The last scene, while a nicely calculated sucker-punch, also has about it a faint redolence of a heavy-metal album-cover. And sometimes the header quotes (which are nicely done, by the way, like the scenery descriptions starting out familiar, almost banal, but slowly growing strange and threatening as the plague progresses) wouldn't properly erase, so that bits of earlier quotes would stick around and overlap on the new ones. But that's literally all I can come up with, which is pretty impressive, given how much of a stickler I can be. My notes don't record any disambiguation issues or typos; they're basically just reminders not to forget how neat particular elements were. Overall, Vespers was my favorite game of the comp. OTHER REVIEWS ------------------------------------------------------------- From: Greg Boettcher TITLE: Attempted Assassination AUTHOR: Matt Slotnick EMAIL: mslot722 SP@G yahoo.com DATE: April 16, 2005 PARSER: Quest SUPPORTS: Quest 3.53 AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/quest/AttemptedAssassination.zip VERSION: 3.0 This was the first Quest game I've ever played, and my goodness. I have to start by telling what I've observed about the Quest system before I go on to review the actual game. *The Quest System* Some people might only barely consider Quest games to be interactive fiction. Although you can type in commands, the range of commands is extremely limited. From what I could tell, Quest is used mostly to make adventures that can be solved by using no verbs other than "look at," "examine," "take," "drop," "speak to," "give," the ever-popular "use," and the directional verbs such as "north" and "south." To input these verbs, you can type them in, but you can also input them via a graphical user interface on the right side of the game window. Also in that part of the screen there is also a list of nearly all the objects you can interact with. By clicking buttons and dragging various words, you can do 90% to 100% of everything you need to do to win a Quest game, without the need to type anything, and without the need to use any verbs not listed above. In the game I played, I only found one case where a non-standard verb was implemented. In the case of one noun, it actually does work to type "open noun." But this verb was implemented badly. If you try to "open X", where X is almost any other noun, you get the same response as if you type "asdf X". Thus, it is not very rewarding to spend much time using non-standard verbs in Quest games. There is no illusion of being able to try to do anything you can think of to type. As such, I would expect most people to almost always use the click-and-drag interface on the right-hand side of the screen. This is IF at its most rudimentary; in fact, it is barely IF at all. Aside from verb problems, there was also a tendency for noun problems, at least in the game I played. If you want to take a beach ball, for instance, "get ball" might not work; you might have to type "get beach ball." Not very impressive. As a result, the level of interaction in a Quest game is not adequate. At best, it feels like a graphical game with a clunky interface. But to me, having a trimmed-down interface without graphics is like having the thorn without the rose. And when it comes to interpreting textual input, Quest does a bad job. *Attempted Assassination* I keep thinking to myself that, to be fair, I should not ask whether Attempted Assassination is good, but whether it's good as a Quest game. On this basis, I have to ignore the game's shallow interactivity, bad parsing of verbs, bad parsing of nouns, clunky interface where almost all interactive objects are listed, etc. By Quest standards, is Attempted Assassination good? Well, the game begins when you wake up at 8:05, already late for work. You run to the car, arriving there at 8:08. There you find a note that says, "Your car will detonate at 8:08 this morning. Have a nice day!" So you hightail it out of there, seconds before the explosion. Then, later, you find out that the bomb was planted between 8:00 and about 8:02. My, but your guardian angel was quick at writing that note! Ah, the realism. In another part of the game, you chase a suspicious man, who jumps through a window. You follow him until you have him cornered. Finally he says, "I don't know of any bombing on your car. I jumped out of that window because I dropped my watch." How do you respond? You say, "Oh, sorry to have bothered you then." These cornball events might make you roll your eyes, or they might make you laugh. But even if there's some humor here, how are you supposed to enjoy it when the game is so sloppy and badly designed? The game contains rooms named "room03" and other such things; there are gruesome spelling and grammar mistakes ("no where in side" should be "nowhere in sight"); there is a car that you can' t drive, but behaves for all the world like a door; and so on. No, I can't call this game successful even by the standards of what Quest could achieve. And even if it was good as a Quest game, that would still make it pretty far from being a good game. On the other hand, this was the author's first game. The good news is, there's plenty of room for improvement. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Jose Manuel Garcia-Patos TITLE: Book and Volume AUTHOR: Nick Montfort EMAIL: nickm SP@G nickm.com DATE: November 17, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/bookvol.z5 VERSION: Release 7 It is my great pleasure to write the review of the game that brings back to the genre one of the best authors and theorists in the IF community. Book and volume, Nick Montfort's latest work, possesses two fundamental virtues: it is extraordinarily entertaining and intellectually stimulating. It also has one problem: it hides these virtues with a lot of talent. The arbitrary deaths, the large number of ways of getting stuck in an unwinnable position, and the never too clear statement of the final objective of the game play against it. I think this can be attributed to the technique employed (maybe unconsciously) by the author in the design of the game, which could be summarized as: "Trust me. In the end everything will make perfect sense". And it's true, for the game leaves, like good wines do, a great taste and a strange melancholy. Not only because the ending opens the door to multiple interpretations and passionate reflections, but also because all the crazyness that wraps it up finally finds its sense -- even though it never ceases to be just that: crazyness. I must admit, however, that I miss more literature. Nick is a brilliant writer, but he seems not to want to demonstrate it here with better descriptions of places and stuff, or more possiblities of interaction with the NPCs. I think this was a lost opportunity, because the game is so entertaining that even the most "arcade inclined" among us would have been delighted to read a little more. This deficiency reveals itself more notably if we take a look at the list of games that he recommends for those new to IF, which includes some titles that even I consider boring and too literary, like Savoir faire, by Emily Short, or Varicella, by Adam Cadre (about which Nick even wrote a very good essay years ago). I am afraid that, due to this dryness of its style, some of the people who decide to try Book and Volume will lose many of the big and little ideas, suggestions and winks that fill almost every moment and place in it. This game contains much more than meets the eye, but that's exactly the problem: the player has to look for everything by himself without any indication from the author of what he might find if he does. (One example, the title: Probably most of you know where it's taken from, but do you know where does it appear in the game?) In a game like this the author should sting the player's curiosity, but here its own mechanics kind of forbid that, at least the first few times. It is my opinion that doing that (giving more room to the player for moving, exploring, interacting) everyone would enjoy it more and they all would be taking more out of it. What were Nick's reasons for not taking this approach? My bet is that he did it out of respect for the player. Respect to his freedom to interpret the game in any way he wants to or to not interpret it at all and just play and have fun with it. So, what's the game about? That's a good question. Thanks for asking. Our role is that of a sysadmin in the city of nTopia. The game begins with a call from our boss telling us that several of our servers are down. One of the reasons why we must leave our apartment in the wee hours of the morning to reboot some stupid servers is that in a couple of days will take place a mysterious demo which we seem to be the only ones in town who haven't heard about. From this moment on, things will be getting more and more bizarre, and more and more complicated, to the point that, almost certainly, we'll end, not just once or twice, but lots of times, in a snowy white hospital where our only entertainment will be to play cards with a tall, deaf and dumb indian. Talking about indians and hospitals, I'd like to mention a detail that I think is a bug in the game, and it is that after doing (or not) certain actions, we can be sent to this pillowed white room which you can only get out of to play cards with the indian. My question is: if you can't get out of the room (according to the author's own confession), why should you spend there such a long time trying to escape or whatever? I'm sure there is an explanation for this behaviour, as it just seems illogical, but I honestly didn't see it. Another detail, that others may consider a bug, although I don't think of it to be one at all, is the measure of time. Time is very important in this game. The player, as he dies and achieves tasks (in this order), will realize that he's got a lot of free time. One of the things he must do with it is wander around, examine every spot of the city. Almost every location in the game has something interesting to offer, although it's true that you must look a little harder than usual, and, more importantly, look at the right time of day. As in any other town, not all places are open 24/7 in nTopia. From: Neil Butters Book and Volume is a sci-fi/fantasy/techno mind game that could have been much more interesting and satisfying. It may be entertaining for some but others may find it tedious. I, unfortunately, fall into the latter category as I found wandering around the city fixing computers less-than-compelling gameplay. The game is short and could probably be played in a couple of hours. It opens with you lying on your couch. Your beeper sounds and you are then sent on a series of tasks by your boss that take you into the city. As you perform the tasks weird things happen and you come to question reality. I think there is only one conclusion although maybe had I tried a few more things after finishing the tasks there might have been more to the game. The conclusion I reached was obtuse, it didnt help me to understand the game at all. It should however cause you to at least pause and think about the preceding events even if you may not come up with a satisfying explanation of the game. The game has stripped-down prose that only contains essentials. The interiors of buildings are in a few sentences at most. For example, your apartment consists of a couch and some clothes and no other rooms. The NPCs do not generally stick around to chat and those that do arent particularly helpful. This helps keep you focused on what needs to be done, and you dont spend time needlessly performing useless actions. This terse approach gave the game a cold, impersonal feel that may or may not be what the author was striving for. At times this approach was frustrating. The setting is a futuristic city with some really interesting places that I would have liked to learn more about. The airport for example is not what you would expect but when you try to examine objects you get two-word descriptions. The games puzzles consist mainly of wandering around the city doing tasks to get a job done. The tasks are not particularly difficult. There are no hints or walkthroughs but there is a map available at http://www.xs4all. nl/~rlbos/ bookvol%20feelie%20map.pdf . On the plus side the growing realization that something odd is definitely going on is well done. The conclusion fits nicely with the games feel even though it is difficult to interpret and I dont think anyone will see it coming. It may have some meaning that was lost on me. The game is technically sound and I did not find any bugs. I had no problems doing what I wanted to do and tasks that should not be difficult, ie working with your laptop, are made simple. I dont think this game will appeal to everyone. If you dont know your server from your waiter you may find the game uninteresting and a bit tedious. But if you are a techno/ sci-fi enthusiast you may appreciate some of the goings-on and the general feel of the game. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Daphne Brinkerhoff TITLE: Building AUTHOR: Mike Tulloch EMAIL: poster SP@G aurora.cotse.net DATE: July 2005 (original release) PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: freeware; IF Archive and author's website URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/building.z5 VERSION: Release 15 BUILDING: RED HERRINGS, PURPLE PROSE, AND A CORRIDOR OF BLUE LIGHT (Disclaimer: I played an older version of Building than what is currently available. So I have not mentioned bugs or typos in this review, assuming that they're probably fixed. But if I've criticized something else that's changed in the newer version, please let me know.) My friend oh-so-casually remarked, "You know that new game Building? I hear no one has beaten it yet." "I know a dare when I hear one," I said. I played it anyway. My goal was to win without hints. I didn't quite achieve that, but I still feel a sense of satisfaction. Building is a toughish game. It's not Curses-level long, or Curses-level tough, but it's no CYOA IFComp entry. If you're going to play, be prepared to spend a week or two with it. The game begins with some nightmarish visions, after which you wake up with amnesia, standing in front of a building. I don't think it's giving too much away to say that it's an office building. Building is about how office work turns people into soulless drones. Yes, we've had Little Blue Men on that subject, but in LBM your character was angry and still fighting the inevitable. Here there is just a sense of hopelessness. The story in Building is minimal. You're supposed to be figuring out who you are, but really from the beginning you know everything important about yourself except your name. It's an office building, you worked here, and it sucked (one "remember" will tell you all that). Gradually you do discover hints that your bosses might have been doing something odd, above and beyond the usual corporate evils. Generally, though, this game is more about atmosphere than story. Dark, dusty, uninhabited (mostly), a little off-kilter, with remnants of technology lying around, seemingly abandoned mid-use... If I may get all English-majory for a moment, this just reinforces the artificiality and transience of the office life that came before. At least that's how it made *me* feel, especially given the contrast between your memories and the present disrepair. Another plus: the author paid a lot of attention to implementing as many of the five senses as possible. I particularly noticed sounds in various locations (the cicadas, the generator, ghostly voices), but there are smells and textures mentioned too. This worked for me. A few people have commented on the purple prose in the game. It's a fine line between lush writing and overwriting, and I think this game has examples of both. Sometimes the author relies a little heavily on adjectives (emphasis mine): Second-floor Stairwell FLUORESCENT lights mounted at ODD angles send down DYING, ARTIFICIAL light that provides a HARSH, CLINICAL hue for the DINGY carpet and YELLOWED walls. A set of stairs descends into shadows nearby, and OPEN hallways lead east and west. Out of 39 words in this room description, 9 of them are adjectives. This felt overdone. In contrast, strong verbs make this room description work better (again, emphasis mine): Authorized Room The remnants of a COMPUTER CONTROL room, this room now provides a case study in destruction. SEVEN-FOOT HIGH cabinets lie face down, their GLASS windows shattered in BRILLIANT LIGHT-REFRACTING sprays of BROKEN glass; cables of every shape and hue lie severed from the wall as though victims of a BIZARRE type of autopsy. Computers lie caked in dust with their innards utterly removed and scattered in pieces across the floor. Dust covers even these, as though these acts occurred several generations ago. Here there are 9 adjectives again, out of 82 words, a much more reasonable proportion (IMHO). And verbs like "shattered", "severed", and "caked" strengthen the description. Although the main strength of the game is its atmosphere, it's not a story- based game, but instead is packed with puzzles. The structure is extremely loose. There's one opening puzzle (get into the building), and then the game opens up with multiple puzzles that can be completed in any order. It's almost like a treasure hunt -- once you've remembered enough, you can go on to the endgame. For the most part, the puzzles are difficult but fair, requiring intuitive leaps that are more-or-less well-clued (getting into the corridor of blue light, finding the Ruined Lobby, even getting a light source). But occasionally almost-right actions don't give any hint of the proper solution (I'm thinking here of getting the ring). There's also a plethora of red herrings. I spent quite some time trying to get into inaccessible places, interact with scenery, and look under immobile objects. I rather like red herrings -- they give a sense of a world that's not just created for these specific puzzles. However, in Building it's a little frustrating, since the game doesn't really give you a sense of what you need to be working on next at any particular time. So my advice to players is, don't assume you have to open a locked door just because it's there, or make use of some unusual room feature because no one would ever put a salsa-dancing Venus flytrap into their game if it weren't part of a puzzle. I found the inventory limit imposed by the game to be extremely irritating. There doesn't seem to be any reason for realism in a game with such a surreal setting. And I didn't find any puzzles related to the inventory limit (e.g., the kind of thing where you can only take five things with you to the next stage of the game, choose carefully). I ended up just dumping objects in a centrally located room and coming back later. I also found that sometimes the game would let me drop an object I was carrying but not pick it back up again on the next turn -- granted, a bug, but one that wouldn't happen without the inventory limit. I'd definitely consider getting rid of the limit in a future release. The limit makes things especially hard because of one recurring puzzle of sorts. I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, so I'll just say that several objects in the game are keyed to particular rooms. But it's almost always an arbitrary connection, so there's no way to know which room unless you bring the object there. As an imaginary example, you might think that a dictionary would be connected to a library, but in this game it's likely that the dictionary would instead be connected to the bathroom. This really makes the inventory limit feel constricting. You have to make sure you've carried every object into every room, but you keep having to leave objects behind and pick others up, and unless you've got a better memory than I do, it's just about impossible. As you travel through the building and its environs, you gain memories of yourself a la Babel. However, unlike in Babel, there's no way to replay a memory. Once it's gone, it's gone, and you'd better have gleaned everything the first time. You can get the game to list memories with short descriptions (an imaginary example: "Grocery shopping with Nyarlahotep"). I would have liked it if typing "REMEMBER X" with some of the key words in those descriptions (in this example, "REMEMBER GROCERY" or "REMEMBER NYARLAHOTEP") would work. That seems easier for the player than having to go back to the location of the original memory. But any mechanism for remembering would have been useful. So, do I recommend this game? My main experience in playing it wasn't enjoyment but frustration, as anyone listening could attest. "What do you mean I can't?... Oh, great, now what?... Somehow solving this didn't get me as far as I'd hoped." But that does go to show that I was engaged in the game. I wasn't bored. And it's also typical of puzzle-based games. Basically I don't regret having put in the time to play it, and I'll definitely download the author's next game. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Aaron Reed TITLE: The Corn Identity AUTHOR: The "IF Whispers" Project EMAIL: mark.musante SP@G gmail.com DATE: September 26, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/whispers.z5 VERSION: Release 1 The Corn Identity is a unique experiment in collaborative interactive fiction. Thirteen authors were each responsible for taking the previous author's source code and, without having seen the whole story, constructing a new segment before passing their code on to the next author. The concept is somewhat similar to the party game "Whispers" or "Telephone," where a phrase is passed from person to person with increasing loss of fidelity. The release notes say "It should be obvious that this idea can't be effectively applied to interactive fiction. So of course we had to give it a try." But what emerges is not the muddled mess one might expect: instead, the conspirators have created a dreamlike pastiche of corpses, puzzles, a distressingly ballooning inventory, and scenarios alternatingly disturbing and goofy. It manages, surprisingly, to be entertaining. Awakening groggy and trapped in a twenty foot steel cube, the player must explore a sequence of connected areas and solve a variety of puzzles from simple to middling-tricky, in order to unravel a mystery that seems to involve corn, murder, shadowy powers-that-be, drugs, and a lot of colorful buttons. As might be expected, the style of the game varies; in some parts you may die without warning and need past-life experience to solve puzzles, while in others you can't die at all and the puzzles are self-explanatory; some parts of the game feature well-implemented areas while others are bare-bones and empty. Interestingly, the tone of the story also varies, from deadly serious "X-Files"- like mystery to goofy self-referential comedy to political satire and back again. What's perhaps not so expected is how smoothly the game transitions between all these states. Any given moment feels self-consistent; it's only when you think back to fifteen minutes ago that you realize you're essentially playing a different game. Like a dream or a David Lynch movie, the game hustles you along through self-contained situations that flows smoothly into each other, almost succeeding in distracting you from the fact that the big picture is making less and less sense all the time. This is often annoying, as items tend to become useless as you move on to the next segment, and plot threads are introduced and discarded so frequently that the story slowly becomes a tangled mess. You never know when the game will throw you a curve ball revealing that the new author has no idea what a certain plot thread signifies, or rather, used to signify. The ending, in particular, is unsatisfying, since it fails to tie up the myriad of loose ends that the hapless final author could not even have known about. But on another level, the experience is fascinating. Something taken for granted in interactive fiction is that the game always knows more about its story than you, and your goal is to figure out what commands will convince it to give you more of its knowledge. Here, after the first few segments you honestly know more about what's going on than the author did, and the game is funniest when it acknowledges this shortcoming: >>EXAMINE MAN ... He resembles no one you know, either from your scientific life or your family life (the two of which you take great care to keep separate). In a context where the author knows nothing about the character's distant or even immediate past, and indeed has no idea what the character is even meant to be doing, this otherwise humdrum line had me grinning from ear to ear. "The Corn Identity" is by no means a great game, and by many standards may not even be a good one: it is often sparsely implemented, breaks no new ground in terms of story, structure, or content, has a poorly-hinted puzzle or two and enough dead-ends and red herrings for three games its size. For IF novices in particular, it would be an off-putting introduction to the medium. But for those familiar with the conventions of IF or the styles of the individual authors, it's an amusing, sometimes clever, and always surreal adventure. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: David Welbourn TITLE: Dawn of the Demon AUTHOR: Paul Drallos EMAIL: pdrallos SP@G tir.com DATE: May 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; Author's website; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/dotd.z5 VERSION: Release 0 Dawn of the Demon is a text adventure set in the world of Infocom's Zork about a thousand years before the founding of the Great Underground Empire and the use of G.U.E. dating. It is also a prequel for a graphical game, Zork: The Hidden Evil, which is being produced by The Zork Library (http://thezorklibrary. com). In Dawn of the Demon, you play a nameless adventurer in search of the Demon's treasure which is rumoured to be hidden somewhere in the forest south of the One River. Geographically, the game is fairly large with over 130 locations, including the cities of Pheebor and Borphee, a large forest, a maze, and a sizeable network of grue-infested tunnels. I was a bit disappointed with the cities which were portrayed blandly and with few Zorkian characteristics. Pheebor, for example, does not yet sport the aqueducts or marble spires mentioned in the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, but instead offers an understated royal palace with guards, an "acedemic-looking" library with yet another librarian sporting glasses and a hairbun, and a coffee shop which somehow isn't called Starbloits or Pheebucks. The great Arch is being built in the plaza, however, which does help connect this Pheebor to the ruins seen in Beyond Zork. Minor touches like this aside, I can't help but feel that several game locations were unused for either story or puzzle purposes. The forest, for example, does its best to have enough landmarks to distinguish one part from another, but there's still very little in there for the player to interact with. Likewise, Borphee has to have a harbour and marina because it's famous for it, but it's just filler here and plays no part in your story. For your Zork nostalgia dollar, the game both hits and misses, not unlike Star Trek: Enterprise. The hungus, easily my favourite NPC in the game, scores a bullseye by deftly combining humour, plot exposition, and a puzzle into one neat package. Instead of zorkmids, which won't be minted until about 1600 years later, we have zoons, another borrowing from Beyond Zork. There is some clever business with the grues involving how they perceive the world, but I was less happy with the portrayal of grues as a people with a primitive culture, as if they were Morlocks. A more obvious miss is an accidental mention of the Flathead mountains long before there were any Flatheads; the coffee shop and a CD-like disk are anachronistic. Some of the events in Hades might contradict what we think we know about Yoruk, who won't show up for centuries. It gets tiresome to point out unpolished prose and spelling errors, but darn it, they're in there. The game also inspired me to invent two new terms to describe particular style errors -- the "pointless porch" and the "duh-scription" -- both of which are exhibited in the following example: Outside the Pheebor Public Library You are standing outside the Pheebor Public Library. A "pointless porch" is a unnecessary location between a street and a building. And could there be a better example of a "duh-scription" than the description of the hilt below?: >x sword The broadsword has a shiney blade and a jewel-encrusted hilt. >x hilt The jewel encrusted hilt is encrusted with jewels. Even with these weaknesses, I still liked the game for its attempt to add to the Zork ouevre. I appreciated the in-game help menus which helped me through the game's major bottleneck. If you dislike mapping, there is a pdf file of maps available. Also, the game will detect if you're having trouble talking with an NPC and suggest topics to ask him or her about. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Greg Boettcher TITLE: The Lost Kingdom, Brainf*ck Edition AUTHOR: Jon Ripley EMAIL: jon SP@G jonripley.com DATE: June 12, 2005 PARSER: extremely crude SUPPORTS: brainf*ck AVAILABILITY: Freeware; Author's site URL: http://jonripley.com/i-fiction/games/LostKingdomBF.html VERSION: 0.11 I'm not sure why I like The Lost Kingdom, Brainfuck Edition. Its parser is crude in the extreme, and when you play it, you spend a lot of time mapping out mazes. That's not exactly a recipe for success. However, within the modest constraints of what this game tries to do, it is very well polished and playable. It's also rather amazing from a technical point of view, and it comes with an interesting backstory. For all of the above reasons, I think it's worth a play. The Lost Kingdom was originally entered into the 1st Annual 1 to 2K Classic Text Adventure Competition, back in 2004. It took first place out of six games, and the competition organizer, Paul Panks, called it "head and shoulders above any game thus far!" This new edition of the game is not just a new port of the game, but a considerable expansion of it. The new version has new features, better descriptions, and one or two new puzzles, in addition to the distinction of being written in an esoteric programming language. Jon Ripley claims that this game is "probably the first ever piece of interactive fiction written in an esoteric programming language and probably one of the largest non-trivial Brainfuck programs ever written." Indeed, the game is written in brainfuck, which does make it rather remarkable. Brainfuck is an esoteric programming language, a fully functional language, but one that is not at all designed to be practical, instead aiming only to be amusing to programmers due to its extreme minimalism. In Brainfuck programs, there are a maximum of eight commands, each of which are represented by a single character. (For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainfuck.) Thus, the first line of the source code of The Lost Kingdom BFe looks like this... [-][.]>+<+[>[>[-]+<-]>[<+>>[-]>>>>>>>[-]+>>>>[-]<<<<[>>>>+<<<<-]<<<<<<<[ ...and the remaining 29,000+ lines of code look rather similar. The code is thus nearly inscrutable, and so it is not hard to figure out how brainfuck got its name. Obviously, Jon Ripley found a way of machine-generating all this code, but the game is still quite a piece of work from a technical point of view. The parser in this game is more crude than any I've ever seen. In the game's documentation, that author claims that a full-blown two-word parser might have made the program run too slow on some computers, given the very sub-optimal efficiency of brainfuck. As a result, Jon Ripley has set up a system where all nouns are referred to not by a word, but by a number. Thus: You can see: a small wooden box of matches sitting on the table. (2) To pick up the matches, type "take 2". At first this seems awkward and annoying, but there is an advantage here. Every verb has a one-letter abbreviation, and you can issue commands of no more than two characters. "t2" is an easier way of picking up the matches. Once you get used to the verb abbreviations, the system has a kind of simple elegance. Nobody will extol the game for giving you a feeling of complete freedom -- you can't use more than 22 verbs -- but within its constraints, it works well. By the way, it is worth noting that this brainfuck edition of this game allows you to save, making it much preferable to the version in the 2K Comp. Likewise, the game's help menus are well-designed, as are the menus that provide the backstory. Speaking of which, the backstory is another of the game' s great virtues, one that is shared with the original version of The Lost Kingdom. Although the game itself is very simple, even crude, it is surrounded by a very interesting backstory that gives the story more depth. (And you should definitely read the entire backstory if you want to win.) You can read all this at Jon Ripley's web page for the game's 2K Comp version -- http:// jonripley.com/i-fiction/games/LostKingdom.html -- or within the game itself, by using the "!" command. There is one other technically interesting aspect of The Lost Kingdom BFe. It is actually two games in one. When you begin the game, you get a chance to play it with either "short descriptions" or "long descriptions." The "short descriptions" version closely resembles the original 2K Comp version of the game, while the "long descriptions" version has much longer and more atmospheric room descriptions, as well as one or two different puzzles. That just leaves the game itself. Well, what can I say. You pick stuff up, you manipulate the stuff with the 22 verbs, you wander into a cave, you map out a couple of mazes, you defeat the bad guy (albeit a bad guy who is unusually well- characterized in the game's backstory), that sort of thing. The game itself says, "This game is intentionally written as a classic model text adventure game." Either you can get into that, or you can't. Anyway, in short, this game is pretty bad in some ways. In other ways, however, it's very impressive. I recommend reading the backstory, and if that sounds interesting, then this game is probably worth a play. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Jose Manuel Garcia-Patos TITLE: Narcolepsy AUTHOR: Adam Cadre EMAIL: acmail SP@G adamcadre.ac DATE: December, 2003 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters AVAILABILITY: freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/glulx/narco.zip VERSION: Version 1.07 The first modern IF game that I ever played was I-0. I downloaded it because its description began with the words: Warning: sexually explicit. It actually wasn't that explicit, but I enjoyed it anyway, and I thought that its author, Adam Cadre, was someone whose career deserved to be followed. This was the year 2001, or maybe 2002. So suffice to say I wasn't making any new nor slightly original discovery. But then there was nothing. I mostly forgot about him and his works. I decided I wanted to write my own games, so I had to learn Inform well enough as to accommodate it to the ideas I had. One of these ideas was this story that I wanted to tell in this particular non-linear way. One day, while I was already struggling with the program, a friend came home and asked me what I was working on, an so I told her. She inmediately said: `That looks a lot like Photopia.' `What's that?' `It's a piece of IF written by Adam Cadre. It's pretty good, though I missed the puzzles. It's almost puzzleless.' I am the optimistic kind, so I didn't let that bring me down. `I have another idea. It's completely different. In this one the PC dies several times before completing the game. I like it because it's stretching the limits of the genre, you know, the death of the PC as the real end of the game and all that.' `Oh', she said. `Oh, what?', I asked, surprised by her lack of amazement at my talent. `That's Shrapnel.' `Shrapnel?' `Another game by Adam Cadre.' `No shit.' `No shit at all.' `Oh.' Now I'm glad I didn't tell her about my last idea: a game in which the PC assumes to be someone that he later finds out he was not. Anyway, that was the moment when I began to hate Adam. And it explains too why I haven't written any games to date. I'm still waiting for an idea he hasn't had yet. Narcolepsy is my favorite IF game. And that's because it is, in a way, the ultimate game. It's not that I think you can't do any better, I just don't believe that anyone can make something substantially different with the current development tools. Adam (with the help of his collaborators) has not pushed the limits any further on this one, he just has reached them. So, let me get this straight, are you saying that IF has reached its limits with this game? No. What I'm saying is that certain development tools are finally falling short for IF writing. Look at books. Real books from your shelves. Do you think we have reached the limits of them as a form of expression? And they've been here for more than five hundred years (in their printed form). How could IF, which has been around for barely thirty, reach its own? I think we need new development tools, and we need to base them on a new paradigm, because all those that exist today have not been made with that idea in mind. Most have been designed following this reasoning: Well, I have Inform, but Inform has this limitation I want to overcome, so I'm gonna create my own system and it will let me do what I need. But what you want or need is not the ultimate frontier of IF. It's just Inform++. We need a paradigm, something that clearly defines what IF is and is not, and I think this should be the book. The real book. Remember some of the surrealists' works, remember Finnegans Wake. (I'm not talking about Literature here, but about aesthetics, about typography, about Fine Arts applied to the communication of the written word. Why can't I as an author place the elements of a game precisely on the screen and expect that every player could see what I intended them to see and just the way I wanted to independently of the device and platform the game is run on? Is it possible to write games in Greek, or even just words in exotic alphabets? How easy it is to translate a game?) Have we got that far yet? No. And we still should add the features that come with interactivity and computing. (Can you easily change the way the parser works so it can accept, for example, input in a programming language or even in an invented one?) So how can Narcolepsy be the end of IF? It just can't. It just can't. It's all a matter of freedom. If you're writing a book, you can't make a movie, but you still can decide if you want to write poetry or a novel or an essay or a play. Or mix formats or whatever. You know what you cannot do, you know your limits, but, inside those, you must be allowed to do what you want any way you want to and to do it easily. Right? But I digress, so let's get back to the game. In it you play a narcoleptic, and this gives the whole thing a surrealistic atmosphere. When you live in dreams as much time as you do in reality, almost everything that happens to you, no matter how strange, looks like normal, because your own situation is weirder. And that's the exact sensation you get when playing Narcolepsy. That you may be the only normal person in town and all the rest be weirdos, but, at the same time, if you're the only one who's normal, that means you're the weirdo. One question: Did any of you identify with the PC? I didn't, and that made me feel a kind of double-sided estrangement: one between the PC and his world, and the other between the PC and me. But it was a good thing, because it stimulated that sense of alienation the author --I think-- wants us to experience. Quick theoretical note: Is it important to feel identified with the PCs? On the technical side, the game is outstanding (I especially like the way he creates a complete and believable world without making the interaction too complicated, as it did happen --in my humble opinion-- in Slouching Towards Bedlam, for example). Probably the best thing about it, though, is that it is fun, tons of, as all his other games; the worst being that it is dumb. That's why most people will love it while they're playing, but will easily forget about it afterwards. So what?, you might say. Yeah, I guess it all depends on what you're looking for in a game. I, for one, would like to see ideas. Something I could take home, like I did with Photopia. Games with ideas are as scarce as hen's teeth, and they are not always the most praised ones. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why it is impossible to talk about real IF criticism. Criticism's main goal is to promote discussion based on the contents of some artwork, discussion that may lead to the evolution of that form of art or even of our own lives. Something that is made only for fun can't be discussed, because it is intellectually void. You can't criticise The Da Vinci Code, because what would be the point? Would it make you wiser? Criticism is not meant as a recommendation ("Oh, I wanna go to the movies. Let's see what Roger Ebert says it's good.") just like wine is not meant to get you drunk. In its ideal form it should be read a posteriori so it could be a dialogue (or a monodialogue, as Unamuno put it) between the critic and the reader. A discussion. An enhancement of the pleasure of the game/book/movie/whatever. If there are no ideas in games, what can we say about them? Yeah, it was fun. I hope you agree. Yes, I do. Oh, great. Well, bye. Bye. Lack of ideas and lack of author's freedom. Those are the challenges the IF community (if such exists) should face in the foreseeable future. That is, if they want to call themselves artists and not just amateurs. IF is still in its teens, and we know only people like Mozart or Rimbaud have done something really valuable and mature in their teens. As for the author, I'll just say this: John Carpenter used to distinguish between two kinds of film directors: the Hitchcocks and the Hawks. His point was that in Hitchcock you can see what he's doing, you can see why he is so good; Howard Hawks, on the other hand, is just as good, but he's invisible. Adam Cadre is a Hitchcock. His brilliance is (mostly) in what you see. IF seems to be for him an intellectual game. What can I do now that hasn't been done yet? I wish he was not so brilliant, but more profound (what can I say now that hasn't been said yet?). I wish he was a Billy Wilder. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Dan Shiovitz TITLE: The Snowman Sextet (Parts 1, 2, 4, and 5) AUTHOR: Roger Carbol, Jessica Knoch, Josh Giesbrecht, and Tommy Herbert EMAIL: david.cornelson SP@G gmail.com DATE: May 26, 2005 PARSER: TADS2 and Inform SUPPORTS: TADS and Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: freeware; IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/mini-comps/segment I am totally interested in continuity in IF. I like it intra-game, like in time travel games where you get to visit a place at different times and see how it's changed; and I like it inter-game, like how in Unnkulian Unventure II you play the famous hero of Unnkulian Underworld, or how Paul O'Brian's Earth And Sky series develops a storyline over three games. The obvious next level of complexity is to try for continuity involving multiple authors. I've heard several proposals for doing this -- some kind of shared-world deal, or different authors working on a single game -- but the most complicated multi- author setup I've seen is the Snowman Sextet that David Cornelson organized earlier this year. Perhaps a little too complicated -- although the name suggests it was to be a six-part story, parts 3 and 6 never got completed. Nevertheless, there's a pretty decent story that can be pieced together from the existing four parts, so I thought I'd take a look at what's there, and see how the different games compare. The overall setup seems to be some sort of story about a family travelling up a mountain to make a snowman and coming back again. The individual games are pretty small -- usually only four or five rooms each -- with one or two puzzles. Each game advances the plot a bit and the next one picks up more or less where the previous game left off. None of the games are particularly hard; you should be able to play all four in an evening. The first part of the story, But For A Single Flake by Roger Carbol, is set in your family cabin in the mountains. It seems like Carbol may have expected the players to know the overall premise coming in, since the game never explicitly tells it (or even tells the player what their immediate goal is). On the other hand, the game is small enough that this isn't really an issue -- there're just four rooms and one puzzle -- so you can pretty much bumble through without knowing exactly what you're supposed to be doing. In fact, it's small enough room-wise that I'm surprised that the implementation isn't any deeper: your wife is in bed asleep in the first room, but you can't wake, kiss, or talk to her. On the other hand, there are a number of bits of writing that are quite snappy, and I was evilly pleased to see a response for >PUSH GRANNY. The second segment, by Jess Knoch, is set on a boat in the middle of the lake. Just starting this shows a few bumps in the segment-game idea -- the story-so- far at the beginning of the game disagrees with the previous game over whether your wife came along, and the boat's suddenly gotten a lot bigger than it was last game. This segment has the best puzzles of the four, I think: they're not too hard, but they fit the environment and I had to think about them a bit (although there's one thing that seems like a puzzle but as far as I can tell is just a red herring -- sort of a weird choice to make time for in this short a game). The writing is fairly straightforward, but Knoch definitely gives the impression of having done her homework about boats. Unfortunately, there's no game three in the series so I was unable to find out what happened next, but it wasn't too hard to pick up the plot with game four. Game four, Josh Giesbrecht's Kaboot's Story, was my favorite of the four games, and not just because the PC is a hamster. Well, ok, it's *mostly* because of that, but it's also funny and cute on its own merits. My notes for this game say "storing things in cheekpouches = awesome", and I don't think I can put it any more clearly than that. The family seems to have weird priorities if they' re more worried about building a snowman than freezing to death, but luckily the heroic hamster is here to save the day. Save the day multiple times, in fact -- I played through this game in just 22 turns and still had to shepherd the family through three crises. The puzzles themselves aren't particularly challenging but they don't slow the game down either, so there's nothing wrong with them being the way they are. I guess that's really the secret to the appeal of this game for me: it was about the same length as the other three games, but had like three times the number of events, and that made it feel extremely fast-paced and fun, especially with the cheerful writing to back it up (the thing with gangster chipmunks was totally ridiculous but also pretty funny). Game five, the fourth and final game written for this project, is Tommy Herbert's Fran and Bart Want a Snowman!. Despite the previous game being about a hamster who fights off a puma, I found this game the least plausible of the four. Possibly this was inevitable given the premise -- you have to bring the snowman back down off the mountain, and there's no real way to do that without pretending snowmen are much less likely to fall apart than they actually are. The game also feels a little overwritten most of the time, but there are a few very funny bits -- especially the ending text -- that are noteworthy. The coding, on the other hand, was uniformly solid: this felt to me like the best- implemented of the four, despite requiring the most complex commands. Unfortunately, there was no game six written, so the cliffhanger that game five ends on won't be resolved, but I'm sure it all worked out happily in the end. Overall, the Snowman Sextet is a useful look at the benefits and drawbacks of doing a multi-author series like this. The most obvious issue is, of course, that if not everyone gets their parts done you're left with holes in the story. And really, even if they do, you're still likely to have more issues keeping strict continuity from game to game -- Susan's re-/dis-appearance between games one and two, but also more subtle stuff like how the characterization of the NPCs (sulky or cheerful? quiet or loud?) changes from game to game here. Playing these also pointed out the usefulness of having a story-so-far summary at the start of each game -- I only got it in game two, but it was really nice there to re-establish the backstory as the current author understood it. On the plus side, though, I really think it's cool to have a bunch of games in the same story. The viewpoint switch on one of the games was especially nice to provide a different perspective on the story while advancing the overall plot, but even when authors didn't switch viewpoints, they still provided a unique style for their games that made the series as a whole better than any part. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Greg Boettcher TITLE: Space War!...and the PDP-1 AUTHOR: Paul Allen Panks EMAIL: dunric SP@G yahoo.com DATE: June 2005 PARSER: Simple SUPPORTS: DOS/Windows AVAILABILITY: IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/pc/pdp1.zip VERSION: 1.03B If you played the games in IF Comp 2005, you may have played Paul Allen Panks' game Ninja 2, which took last place in the comp. It begins with a dragon who is programming a PDP-1 computer and shouting "Spacewar!" If you looked at this and thought it was sort of weird and irrelevant, then you may not have realized that the "Spacewar!" remark was a reference to this game. Well, okay, it was still pointless and irrelevant. Nevertheless, just in case you're interested, it was a reference to this game. So what is this game like? Some people complain that Panks' games are all full of generic fantasy cliches. If you are among these people, then you should know that this game is not in some generic castle or dungeon, but is set solidly in the real world -- specifically, on the M.I.T. campus in the year 1962. The goal of the game is to locate a tape of the then-new computer game Spacewar and find a way ot play it on M.I.T.'s PDP-1 mainframe computer. Of course, to do that, you have to kill a dragon that inhabits M.I.T., and maybe deal with the campus werewolf too. But mind you, such combat is only the means to an end. The main purpose here is to play Spacewar. In such a way does this game depart from the usual dragon- slaying conventions of Paul Allen Panks. Oh yes, and I forgot. In this game, you are Master O'Ryoko, a "ninja of peace." Also, sometimes another ninja will come from out of nowhere to fight you. Therefore, let no one say that this game does nothing to escape from the drab, boring atmosphere often to be found in games set on college campuses. I wish I could say that this game is better implemented than many of Panks' earlier efforts, but I'm afraid I can't. Few verbs are recognized, and none of the items mentioned in room descriptions can be interacted with at all, unless they are listed individually as something "you see." Basically, if you can't take it or kill it, you can't do anything with it, with only two exceptions. This is a step down from the likes of The Golden French Fry, which Panks at least had beta-testers for. Maybe the weirdest thing about this game is the scoring system. Sometimes your score goes up or down based on your achievements, but more often it depends on verb usage. If you want to boost your score, just take something and drop it repeatedly. Each time you do, you get ten points for taking it and four more for dropping it. Taking inventory gets you two points every time, and examining anything is good for three points (even if you just type "examine asdf" or just "examine"). However, be sure not to use a verb the game doesn't know, such as "wait" or "listen" or "put," because then your score goes down by ten points. In conclusion, if you liked Ninja 2, you'll probably love Space War!... and the PDP-1. But, oh wait, based on IF Comp statistics, there is roughly a 0% chance that you liked Ninja 2. Well, anyway. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Greg Boettcher TITLE: A Sugared Pill AUTHOR: Colin Borland EMAIL: colin SP@G colinborland.com DATE: December 30, 2005 PARSER: TADS 2 SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; Author's site or IF Archive URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/pill.gam VERSION: 1.0 Although A Sugared Pill has a few flaws, its story and its puzzles were interesting enough to keep me feeling involved all the way until the end of the game. It's worth a play. As the game opens, you are walking out of a social club, when suddenly a hit man tries to kill you. This is rather unexpected, since you are more or less an everyman character (or maybe an "everywoman" character, considering your character's taste for Whitney Houston). Anyway, your first job is to prevent yourself from being killed by the hit man. After that, you will naturally want to uncover the reason for your attempted assassination. By the time you solve this mystery, you will have gone through both the upper crust and the shady underworld of modern-day Scotland, and you will be in a position to stop the plans of your would-be killer. Certain elements of this game are rather impressive. At the bottom of the game window, there is an attractive, custom-built set of icons, telling you where the exits are, and giving you shortcuts for driving, walking around, and talking to people. Also favorable is the fact that many of the puzzles are well designed and satisfying to solve, and the story is likely to hold the attention of anybody who likes mysteries. There's also quite a bit of humor in the game, poking fun at bureaucrats, executives, security guards, and other components of modern-day society. For instance: The clerk opens a desk drawer and takes out a box of staples. He then fills in the relevant form, recording that he has done this. Unfortunately, the game also has quite a number of bugs. For instance, "open car" and "close car" doesn't work, while "close car door" actually produces an error message in some cases. There are also annoying aspects of game play, such as the fact that, in more than one case, you have to look behind objects in order to win the game, even though examining those objects gives you no hint that there is anything behind them. The worst aspects of the game involve puzzles that are harder than necessary due to flawed game design. A couple of such problems are created by the game's conversation system, which is not implemented in a consistent manner, thus making things harder than they should be. You can talk to characters using a number of methods, including (1) the traditional system of "ask," "tell," and "character, command"; and (2) the command "talk to character," which sometimes brings up a list of options and sometimes doesn't. The problem is, these two systems are not interchangeable. There is a case where you need to tell a character about something, but if you use the "tell" verb, you will never accomplish this. You must instead use the "talk to" verb. Then, after you've gotten used to the idea that "talk to character" is the primary format for conversation, it later turns out that there is a puzzle you cannot solve without using the "character, command" format; the ability to give the corresponding command is not available in the "talk to" conversation menu. Due to these problems, A Sugared Pill can be quite a frustrating game, and I probably wouldn't have solved it if I hadn't emailed the author more than once. On the other hand, most of the puzzles are satisfying to solve, and the game has plenty of funny moments. What's more, the game's story may well appeal not only to mystery lovers, but also to those who are interested in the author's ideas about a few things that are wrong with modern society. As far as I'm concerned, that makes A Sugared Pill well worth playing. =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= From: Felix Plesoianu TITLE: Whom the Telling Changed AUTHOR: Aaron A. Reed EMAIL: aaron SP@G aaronareed.net DATE: March 13, 2005 PARSER: Inform Standard SUPPORTS: Z-code (Infocom/Inform) interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive and author's site URL: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/telling.z5 VERSION: Release 2 I don't normally review interactive fiction because I'm very picky, not to mention an awful puzzle solver, and I'd rather not be unfair as well. Often, I would type quit as the first and only command in a game. Especially when the work announces itself as experimental. Not this time around. Whom the Telling Changed begins so... relaxed. You're a prominent member of a shepherd tribe in the ancient times. Every full moon, everyone gathers to hear a tale of even more ancient times. Only, tonight the telling will change the fate of the tribe, and it's up to you to get it right. The tension, virtually inexistent at first, builds up in perfect gradation. You can't miss the climax, it's obvious. Right at the beginning I thought I was facing a guess-the-noun situation but the vagueness was in fact intentional. At first, I didn't know what I was supposed to do, either, but it became clear soon enough, thanks to the well- placed characters, and by that time I was already hooked, anyway. Speaking of nouns, the writing uses few but effective words, and some of them are keywords; typing one of these by itself performs the most obvious action for it at the time, usually ask about. The full command works just as well. This system showed its strength as the story proper began. My, I love conversation-based games. It's just that sometimes these are too subtle for me. Again, not this time around. I really liked how the game decided to convey important information when I didn't ask about it (here's that command again). My reactions were probably inappropriate at times, but Telling... weaved them gracefully into the story. Not that I had many reasons to react: through most of the second part, the only required command is z. Which was so much the best, as I didn't quite agree with the player character's views. Not everything's perfect, of course. At one point, I was told I speak too much, though I had been silent for most of the time (as another character later confirmed). At the peak, it finally saw the opportunity to alter the course of the story, as the author had promised, but choosing the right keyword for the desired effect required a bit of guesswork; and until the very end, I wasn't sure I actually made a difference. But the story came out the way I wanted, so I guess the game works as intended after all. Telling... is a short, but fresh and satisfactory experience. Play it to the end, read the afterword, then play it again. You'll have a big (and pleasant, I hope) surprise. I know I liked it, and I'm waiting for more games in the same vein. SUBMISSION POLICY --------------------------------------------------------- SPAG is a non-paying fanzine specializing in reviews of text adventure games, a. k.a. Interactive Fiction. This includes the classic Infocom games and similar games, but also some graphic adventures where the primary player-game communication is text based. 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