OUTGOING EDITORIAL Back in 2005, Paul O'Brian asked me if I would like to take over from him and become the next editor of SPAG. This was, to say the least, surprising because my contributions to the IF community at that time didn't add up to much: a few SPAG reviews, a few newsgroup discussions, and a Z-Machine interpreter that was still a bit buggy and not quite ready for prime time. I was of course honored to have been asked, and couldn't say no in spite of lots of good, practical reasons to do so, like the fact that I was already juggling a full university course load and a full-time job.
Saying yes was the right decision. I've had the opportunity to get to know many interesting people, at least a few of whom I can now call my friends. (One of them even came to my wedding -- thanks, Felix!) And in addition to the usual reviews that are so important to players and, most of all, authors, I've been lucky enough to publish some pieces that I think are a lasting contribution to the historical legacy of IF, such as the series on IF in non-English-speaking countries, or the coverage of PAX East 2010 and the heyday of the Phoenix games at Cambridge, both of which appeared in my last issue as sole editor, one of which I'm particularly proud.
Because, as I announced a couple of months ago, I'm stepping down and passing the baton to someone else just as Paul passed it to me. SPAG has been a great experience and has helped me to grow both personally and professionally, but it's time. I find I no longer quite have the passion that I used to for the day-to-day coverage of each new game, nor the energy to hunt down articles and reviews. Just chalk it up to burn out, and to a life whose priorities have changed a lot since 2005.
So, without further ado, I'd like to introduce David Monath! You may know David from some thoughtful and thorough reviews he has written for recent issues of SPAG. He has experience as an editor, which is more than I could say for myself when I started this gig, big ideas for where to take SPAG in the future, and the technical chops to make those ideas happen. I'm thrilled that he's accepted the job, and have no doubt that he'll be both a good steward as well as an innovator for however long he chooses to continue in the role. This fine issue is already 90% his work, so rest assured that you're in good hands and that SPAG has a long and bright future still ahead of it. To those reviewers and writers who supported me so brilliantly during my time as editor: please do the same for David. He's worthy of your efforts.
As for me, I'll be around. I've just finished writing a book that many SPAG readers may find of interest, and have plans to begin another on January 1 which may interest even more of you. I'll still continue to update and maintain my Filfre interpreter. (Yes, a new version that no longer chokes on The Blind House and that displays the macron characters in Aotearoa correctly is coming just as soon as I can package it up for distribution.) And I still want to do that sequel to The King of Shreds and Patches, and still plan to keep my voice in the IF community as both an occasional beta-tester and a reviewer and contributor to SPAG. And I have one or two other IF-related projects in the offing which may or may not come to fruition.
But enough about me. I'm now going to turn this over to David Monath, the fifth editor of SPAG, to let him introduce himself. See you all around, and thanks for five great years!
INCOMING EDITORIAL The spirit of the interactive fiction community is a sense of giving. At its inception, and again for the last twenty-plus years, the joy, the return, for those involved has been the delight, the wonder, and the passion it inspires in others. Interactive fiction is blessed beyond measure by the caliber of those at its forefront; it's impossible to imagine IF today without Graham Nelson, Eric Eve, Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, and so many others. Aside from tools like Inform, TADS, Git, and Frotz, Jim Aiken's Inform 7 Handbook is a labor of love, as is the time and sweat put in by every author, playtester, reviewer, database and web site administrator, and every contributor to raif or rgif. As a group, we are marked by fellowship in its fullest sense, and so often by the volunteer professionalism of people like Jimmy Maher. Jimmy has kept with honor, and made great advances with, a tradition many of us remember for the last, well, up to 16 years. He has consistently written insightful and colorful reviews, conducted riveting interviews with authors and developers, done the heavy lifting and been the backbone of SPAG. Having read SPAG during his entire tenure and worked with him for the last couple years, I can testify to the vital role his guidance, mentorship, temperance, and responsibility played in ensuring SPAG's success and value to the community.
Jimmy, it's been great! So, not to put it too delicately, my most important task at this juncture is to not screw it up. =)
Jimmy's overseen a great deal of modernization, including updating the web site, moving to HTML, taking advantage of RSS, etc., and there is much more he already had planned, and a few things I'd like to figure out how to pull off. Any changes we see, however, will be evolutionary, not revolutionary in nature. The fundamentals of SPAG aren't broken, and as such can't and shouldn't be "fixed." Something which bears particular note is the depth of contribution -- seeing the team of volunteers from the editorial perspective is impressive, sobering, and thrilling all at once. I know how excited I always was when I saw Jimmy's e-mail bearing the request for content. What I didn't see then, but now have, is the wave of responses and enthusiasm come rushing back in from all my fellow contributors. I couldn't be happier or more confident to work with any group of people than the down-to-earth, motivated volunteers we have. Thanks for making this so much easier than it could have been!
On the other hand, and fair warning after the gargantuan splendor of last issue's SPAG, SPAG #59 is what one might refer to as a more intimate SPAG, and is of necessity (but only temporarily!) pared down. Even as Jimmy has decided to rightfully rebalance family and other endeavors, many of the rest of the team as well, especially those in both the workforce and the throes of academia, have found the timing particularly challenging. However, while this issue will be minus some content largely owing to a widespread sense that the weeks before final exams are not ideal for additional writing and scheduling, it is chock full of reviews and we look forward to figuratively sitting down with Aaron Reed, author of Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, the IFComp winners and Jimmy in the near future, and much more news and community coverage!
It's traditional to introduce oneself, so to get it out of the way, and on to meatier topics, greetings! I am, as has been established by Jimmy above, David Monath. I live on the East coast of the United States near Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and much of my day job consists of editing research papers on a variety of scientific topics, from oncology to physics. Tragically, being an editor doesn't insulate me from making typos or grammatical mistakes, but it does mean I feel crushing emotional trauma when I do, so one of my all-time favorite inventions, after air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and computers, is Gmail Labs' "Undo Send" feature. Bless you, mysterious Google employee Yuzo F., for your service.
One of my first memories from the early eighties, and I might have been all of six years old, is of my Dad bringing a terminal home from work, setting it up on the kitchen table, and dialing in to the mainframe at his office so we could play Colossal Cave. (I can easily vouch for the time period, since the kitchen wallpaper was an unholy plaid consisting of brown, orange, white and yellow, a scourge which has been largely wiped from our plane of existence.) That's right, back in the days when connecting to the internet involved phone numbers, and eventually, made sounds like the Spanish Inquisition torturing short wave radios in a cereal box.
Those glowing green letters were MAGIC, and every time I open up a new work of IF, I might as well be six years old again, crawling around cave tunnels with my Dad and trying to get him to explain what a "Plugh" was. There's a tendency as we get older to lose our sense of immersive joy and fascination, something which is to a degree inevitable as we acquire an ever larger experiential basis for comparison, but it's not an absolute, and it can be fought. My wife, an elementary school teacher whose activities routinely include not only her master's education, but reading P.G. Wodehouse out loud on car trips and playing her way through two decades of old-school adventure games with me on our date nights, is one such mitigating force. Interactive fiction, in many cases, is another.
Last issue, Jimmy passionately dissected Roger Ebert's rather infamous assertion, which for the sake of brevity I will boil down to an almost unfair simplification, that games are incapable of being art because he (Ebert) is unaware of any games which sufficiently fulfill his criteria for both concepts. It's ludicrous that one would have to defend the artistic nature of something which by its very essence entails, to borrow from Wikipedia, "deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect," and from Britannica Online, "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared by others." Ebert might as well say that no child can ever grow up to create art, because, after all, the little of it he's seen on the refrigerator doesn't particularly suit him.
That even so early and relatively simple a work as Colossal Cave can produce a transcendent emotional and intellectual experience, shared between creator and consumer, and between father and son, and which enriches their cultural history, doesn't so much present a case for the acceptance of IF as art as it does illustrate that it is already so. That time we spent dialed in to his work computers (giant, Forbidden Planet-style machines, I assure you) was only the first of an entire childhood and adolescence of such experiences, and with works of progressively more sophisticated plot and characterization.
The freedom and illusion of unlimited interaction with characters in IF in some ways leads, and in the future will more commonly lead, to an inherently superior empathetic response in the player compared to other, more static forms of art. Traditional fiction, while open to reader speculation as to characters' motivations and inner thoughts, often doesn't require it. We are instead told outright what characters are thinking, why they feel that way, and what the other characters and even we should think of it in response. Clearly some traditional authors, like Ernest Hemmingway, have gone and mastered the principles of innuendo and empathy long ago, and can serve as an aspirational model as IF matures. In such a literarily and socially developed game (of which many, many works of IF represent various shades thereof), the player, rather than turning pages waiting for the protagonist to say the right thing, must place him or herself in the character's position and think and feel as they do in order to deepen their relationship or decipher intent.
The question is raised as to whether games with a stronger emphasis on this type of interaction may actually increase the player's social awareness outside of the game, effectively serving as a tutorial of socialization given sufficiently well-implemented characters. Perhaps there are implications for individuals along the autism spectrum?
Well, that's a sampling of where some of my thoughts lie at present on interactive fiction, and there wasn't even any discussion of efforts to foster IF on mobile platforms, or competing models to re-commercialize the IF industry, or the development of formal game design education . . .
So, in the coming weeks and months, I'll be looking to personally connect with many of those who have worked with Jimmy in the past, or who have new insight and experiences to share. I'll do my best to reach out to you myself, but the most effective way to ensure you're included is to shoot me an e-mail and introduce yourself -- I'd love to hear from you!
Huge thanks again to everyone who pitched in, and feel free to e-mail me with questions, comments, criticism and musings at davidm.spag SP@G gmail.com.
IFComp 2010 Reviews
Well done, Matt Wigdahl, for winning first place with the downright fun and psuedo-educational Aotearoa! Kudos as well to C.E.J. Pacian, and the team of Colin Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine, for their respective second and third-place finishes with Rogue of the Multiverse and One Eye Open. We hope to have plenty of insight from them in the next issue on creating immersive and plausible game environments, generating emotional response in the player, and the continued development of emerging parser interface conventions, when we settle down with them for a few genteel words over an age- and season-appropriate libation of their choice.
As an additional note for next time, we're looking to fill a few reviewing gaps in our IFComp 2010 library, so if you've played Death Off the Cuff, Ninja's Fate, Gris et Jaune, or The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game, and would like to share your observations and opnion with the IF community, that'll help round out our coverage.
The first three reviews below are the three IFComp winners, all of which happened to be reviewed by Irfon-Kim Ahmad (who I'm really sure, 99%, maybe 90-95% . . . well, at least 80% certain does not have the telepathic ability to control the largely-randomized assignment process). Thanks so much to all the other IFComp contributors who made it a pleasure to read their reviews, with their unique observations and personalities: Dark Star, Juhana, Marius, and Sarah, and since he wouldn't otherwise be mentioned, Paul Lee for his time spent with of Andrew Plotkin's Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home. I'm not sure I could provide a blanket recommendation for the use of the word "Heliopause" in a titular capacity, but if anyone was going to prove its feasibility, thank goodness it was Mr. Plotkin.
Aotearoa, were it a movie, would likely be classified as an "action adventure" (I don't know if you're even allowed to use the word "action" to describe interactive fiction in the current video game landscape), set in an alternate history Aotearoa (the Maori name for the greater Zealand continent, long since submerged) based on the Maori people of New Zealand, but where dinosaurs, isolated on the island, continue to exist to this day.
The setting sounds like a children's adventure film, and indeed, in tone this game feels to me most like the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I read as a child. It's billed as having been developed to be family-friendly and appeal to a broad range of ages, but I think that its theme and writing will appeal best to young players. That's not to say that it's simplistic, by any means. The storytelling is rich and engaging, but the chosen themes and approach are carefully crafted to be accessible in a way that recalls the earnestness of those stories, if not their somewhat uneven prose.
It's almost impossible not to refer to Aotearoa as an innovative game, given the number of "new" features it brings to the table. What the author's actually done is exactly what many people coach prospective IF authors to do -- made extensive use of the library of existing extensions, and spent the development time bringing them together seamlessly. Aside from the Standard Rules, issuing a Transcript command knocks out a list of eighteen different extensions being used. Where you may assume that this makes the game a cumbersome featurefest, they're well-chosen, well-employed and well-integrated, and the result is something that feels very smoothly like the next step in the evolution of IF gameplay. Many of these could be called mere conveniences; pressing enter by itself for 'look' and typing an object name by itself to examine it are fantastic convenience shortcuts that I got used to very quickly and will miss in other games, as is listing the exits with appropriate highlighting to indicate where you have and haven't been in the status bar. Some, such as the ability to name any animal you find with a name of your choice, seem tailor made to increase engagement and enjoyment for young players while stepping around obvious points of frustration such as correctly typing complicated dinosaur names repeatedly. There are some seams, and I noticed especially that as the game progressed I would hit more small glitches, but in general, all of these plus the dedication to very fleshed-out prose make for a fantastic gaming experience.
A technical marvel then (if an evolutionary rather than revolutionary one), but is it a great story? I won't say that it's the most compelling of stories. As mentioned above, it is very much a children's adventure story. Also, and sadly, it ends rather abruptly and in a manner that suggests that perhaps the author originally planned a much larger game but decided to cut it short for competition entry. If so, I would love for the project to be picked up and written to completion. The epilogue especially would be much more compelling if arrived at through solid gameplay. It is, however, an enjoyable enough story and it never feels like a tossed-in framework on which to hang a bunch of game technology at all. In addition, the extensive references to Maori mythology and culture and some charming NPCs filled with well-written conversation give the story moments of surprising depth. The plot is constructed to prevent the player from being overwhelmed, by often confining them in a small area with a single puzzle at hand, but that often made me feel significantly railroaded. Whether this is a necessary nod to serving a wide audience, I'm not sure, but it's the only part of the plotting which felt heavy-handed.
Having covered the technology and the prose, we're left with the puzzles, and this is a distinctly puzzle-oriented game. This is I think where the game most fell down for me. I played on the Introductory difficulty level with the Polite cruelty level -- the easiest setting -- with tutorials enabled (mostly because I wanted to check out the implementation, which is nice). Even given all of that, I found many of the puzzle solutions obtuse to the point where I might accuse some of them of requiring author-telepathy. They can certainly be solved by the ages-old method of just trying to perform every possible action with every possible object you have, but in many cases there's no good reason to believe that what you finally have to do would have any relevance at all, and this sometimes even in cases where multiple solutions were possible. I also ran into a really large degree of "hunt the verb" and frustration over viable solutions that weren't implemented, items and actions that felt obvious to me but weren't defined and generally found that the puzzles were where the rough edges of the game showed the most. Given the extremely welcoming and next-generation feel of the rest of the game, these felt strangely anachronistic, and kept making me think that this is where a younger player would get frustrated and stop playing. Occasionally the solutions did make me think, "well, that's refreshingly out of the box thinking," but not in a way that makes me think that I would have ever gotten it on my own without reading the solution. All of this said, the game has an extensive cascading hints system, so a player willing to approach the hints need never be stuck.
All in all, Aotearoa is a great game that I'd love to see fleshed out a bit more toward the end, and which could perhaps excel with further refinement of the design directly surrounding the puzzles. It's certainly very worth playing as an experienced player, to see all the little changes and how they come together to create a much more polished gameplay feel as a whole, and would also make a good introductory game for a young player who wasn't afraid to look up some hints from time to time.
I should note here that this is my first spin through playing a TADS game. I played it in QTads version 2.0.1 on Max OS X. There was one major glitch in the game, which was that at occasional points during one specific region of the game, the display would jump to a random point in the transcript and although the game would still be playing, scrolling down to see the "current" text did not work. Simply saving my game, then re-opening the story file and restoring my saved game did work as a workaround for this issue. I don't know whether the game or QTads or a combination of the two caused the issue, since I've never tried another TADS game on this system, although the fact that it happened in only one region of the game leads me to believe that the game was at least involved. The other major thing about this being my first TADS game is that I'm unaware of any of the things that I'll comment on are conventions or common practice among TADS games or not.
Okay, preamble aside, Rogue of the Multiverse is, as the title would lead you to believe, a somewhat whimsical pulp space opera with maybe a side of noir set in an enjoyable science fiction universe inhabited by colourful alien races. Structurally, it fulfils that promise fairly well, with a main plot line that should satisfy fans of the genre. It's a very light game that provides an entertaining enough story for a brief spin at playing. It also plays quite quickly and doesn't wear out its welcome. I think I spent about 30 minutes to get through the game from start to finish with a satisfactory ending.
Part of that is that the game is short, but a lot of it is that the game is very linear and doesn't really contain any puzzles. You're more or less railroaded through it, although the scenario is written in such a way that the railroading feels like part of the situation and not overly egregious. There is a segment of the game which is randomly generated and fairly basic which felt like the core gameplay mechanic on display here, and it was more fun than it really should have been. Fans of the old "explore random worlds, collect minerals and artifacts" gameplay of late 80s games such as Star Flight II will find this section pleasingly nostalgic, if somewhat rudimentary. I would have loved to see these sections really fleshed out quite a bit more, and adding structure, puzzles, challenges and some really stealthy thieving to that part of the game could do a lot to move this game from something fairly superficial and somewhat lack-lustre to something really enjoyable. On the other hand, keeping the random generation and adding in those elements would be quite challenging, and the random nature seems to be necessary to support certain elements of the plot.
If I have a technical gripe with this game at all, it's that the primary movement system is confusing because of its inconsistency. The game tracks which way you're facing and gives you options like "forward, back, right, left, in, out." The arbitrary nature of "in" and "out," which you wind up using quite a lot, makes it a little hard to build a mental map in your head, but more egregiously, the way the other directions change depending on the direction your character is facing makes it difficult to quickly zip through the sections you have to move around in over and over again. Certainly it only takes a fraction of a second to look at the layout and determine which way you're going this time, but moving around the complex would be a lot easier if you could tap in the directions without even really thinking about it. It's a minor gripe, but one that did hamper the gameplay and highlight how repetitive some sections are.
Artistically, the big fault of the game is simply that there's nowhere near enough prose. What's there isn't horrible, but most of it is entirely functional and doesn't give a great sense of style of the game. Some of the purely optional flavour text, like the contents of the various books you can buy, are a lot of fun and show that the author is capable of dashing off some enjoyable blurbs. I would have liked to have seen more in the primary game text. Playing up to the pulp and/or noir styles could certainly have improved the overall playing vibe of the game, especially in the sections where the game has implemented completely optional behaviour that nonetheless fits with the genre's sensibilities, which I was pleased was often the case.
In the end, it's hard to recommend this game even as light entertainment, although there's nothing really wrong with it. It just doesn't play up its strengths nearly as much as it should have. Its linearity and lack of challenge could both be excused easily if there was more to the story itself, and this wouldn't even have to involve changing the structure of the game at all. On the other hand, if being the rogue was fleshed out into more of a standalone game, then the rest of the gameplay would basically serve as a fun conduit to that element. But with both the writing and the rogue game sparse to the point of being placeholders, there's not much to offer here, which is a little sad in that for what it was, I liked this game more than I would have expected. I'd love to see a more fleshed out version 2!
As a final note, the author's inclusion of a PDF page from a newspaper as a "feelie" was a nice touch. The tripod graphic from War of the Worlds was a bit obvious and gave the publication a bit of a slapdash feel, and the alien names push a little past the whimsical into the cheesy, but still, it's a nice bit of flavour to flesh out the world and setting.
From the moment the game prompted me, in its opening text, with the description, "The familiar black office chair sits invitingly nearby," I responded with what seemed like an obvious, "sit," and I was rewarded with the response, "(the windowless door) There's no keyhole on this side," I knew that One Eye Open was going to be a bit of a bumpy ride.
One Eye Open is a psychological horror game very similar in overall tone and content to the Silent Hill series of console survival horror games. Although your life is not threatened as immediately and constantly as in those games, it's very gory and there are many unpleasant ways to die. It is also very buggy.
The majority of the bugs are cosmetic -- inappropriate responses (especially error responses), item descriptions for movable objects that refer to other items in the objects' original location even after they've been moved, exit descriptions when you try to move in an invalid direction that tell you that the only exit is in another invalid direction, etc. However, a few of them are more serious and frustrating. Despite the duty I normally feel to completely play any game that I plan to review, I very nearly stopped playing when, amidst all the horror and paranormal activity, I was utterly blocked in the game for at least an hour because I couldn't find the correct sentence to command the character to make coffee (something which the game directly prompts you to do at that point). Even more egregiously, I spent at least a couple of hours at one point wandering aimlessly, unable to find any way to progress in the game, only to finally consult the walkthrough and discover that I had to explore a series of rooms that there is no way I would have every known were there because the description of the area I had to pass through to get to them doesn't mention their exit whatsoever. (Exits are, in fact, routinely not mentioned anywhere in the game text, but most of the time you can infer them.) And a certain amount of the game depends on using custom commands specific to the game that I'm not sure I'd say were sufficiently hinted that I would expect most people to know to use them without consulting the in-game hints. If there's a non-bug, design-based complaint to level, it's that too many rooms were designed to require tedious disambiguation, where the gameplay could have been improved greatly by adding a few rooms such that you'd less often have to specify which of a few similar objects you meant to reference.
And yet I played through this game from beginning to not just one, but multiple endings (jumping back to previous saves to explore different paths), and I played it not as my duty as a reviewer, but deeply and with great interest. That's not to simply wave away the impact of what I've said above, but to say that despite all of it, this is still a compelling, perhaps even a great game (provided that you're okay with the horrific nature of the story being told). In fact, of all the games I played for the competition in which this game appeared, including many that were more polished and tested or contained more exciting new approaches (I played this immediately after Aotearoa, and boy did I ever miss its press-enter-for-'look'), this was the game that I found myself playing most for my own enjoyment, thinking about when I was off doing other things, and looking forward to returning to, the game where I played with the music off and the lights low so that I could better focus on my immersion, without distractions.
In fact, part of why I was so frustrated by the bugs there were, and part of why I felt a need to talk about the specific bugs that tormented me most, was because they so damaged the fantastic ability of this game to draw you in and bury you in its narrative. When it played along well, it was like getting lost in a great mystery or thriller, finding little tidbits of the story and watching everything slowly slot together with ever-mounting fascination. And the end-game still leaves me with the feeling that I've only scratched the surface of the possible endings. (I found several ways to die, and two named non-failure endings, but I can see myself going back to poke at it and see what more there is -- there's an NPC in particular who intrigues me and makes me think there must be more there.)
And that's where this game really excels -- the sense of something more lurking beneath the surface at all times, even as you gradually piece together what seems like an increasingly full picture of the events it chronicles. That is, incidentally, the primary style of gameplay -- One Eye Open is very heavy on exploration and discovery, and very light on puzzles. Most of the puzzles will seem simple enough that skilled players may not even register them as puzzles at all. I don't think that that detracts from the gameplay at all. If anything, it focuses the game well on its strengths.
If you are at all queasy about very (sometimes gratuitously) gory text, then I wound advise you to avoid the game. It warns you right off the bat that it's graphic and not intended for young readers. It's not the kind of imagery that I think is so compelling that you'll have nightmares or find it following you around, but if you generally want your game to be positive, funny, heroic, lighthearted, etc., you're just probably not going to get much out of game that spends so many of its words describing horrors. However, if you find psychological horror compelling, then One Eye Open is definitely worth checking out. Don't hesitate to use both the in-game hints and the special commands available to you -- they're often necessary to know where to focus your attentions. And if you play revision 1, definitely take the time to try all of the available movement directions, whether they're mentioned or not. (I also found that mapping and keeping a file of notes helped me in this game.) But aside from those complaints, and with the genre caveats, I think that One Eye Open was a fantastic story and a fantastic play. I'd love to see a polished version 2 to this game which I could recommend more unequivocally.
R is written for the Adventure PDA and comes with a PC executable. The Adventure PDA is a Windows Mobile PDA interpreter for Scott Adams games, shipping with a few like Adventureland and Voodoo Castle. I think that the interpreter was written by the author of this game, but when I went to check out his website my virus detection picked up a Trojan on the home page. I saw the same thing in Comp08 when clicking on an executable caused my computer to send out 90 malware e-mails. The author didnít even do it on purpose, but itís the tools he used that were corrupt. Should I even play this game?
Too late, I already did, and I quickly found out that itís built on the Adventure International engine using a two-word parser. But, unlike playing some of the old Scott Adams games there are no graphics for R or any of the games this interpreter plays. The screen is small on the PC, so room items located in the top margin can easily be overlooked. This might be resolved by playing on a PDA, the intended target of the app.
Struggling with the two-word parser becomes really frustrating, and I would suggest that the author take a cue from Leadlight and include a list of all the available verbs in the game. Since the early 80s certain verbs have fallen out of use. But, once you make it to the island the game seems to lose any kind of direction that it had, and the author expects you to make logical leaps with no clue how to connect the dots. In the end you wander around collecting a lot of stuff, but with no idea of what to do with it. Direction is everything.
This type of structure is very limiting, and the two-word parser works against itself. Simple becomes impossible in this interpreter, and you have to ask yourself what type of advantages a language will give you. This one is out of date, and I'm only going to bang my head against it for so long before giving up. If you loved Scott Adams games way back in the 1980s then you might enjoy this one. But I didn't. So I donít.
The better of this year's two "Bible Retold" games by far. So why does this win out over Lost Sheep?
o Better writing. Snarky, thick-with-lampshading modernizations of historical stories are everywhere and a somewhat obvious choice, but I still giggled at lines like "He alphabetises his star charts, never leaves anything out on the desk and has a colour-coordinated wardrobe." I also giggled at the rules of the pawn shop and at the sheer amount of wacky things you can buy. This is how you do juicy right. One suggestion, though -- there's a bit of a problem with burying punchlines. If your character makes a funny, you don't have to write the other characters' reaction. They're not as funny.
o Better puzzles. Swiping myrrh from some poor priest -- and you're one of the three wise men! They're supposed to be all solemn and holy! -- is much more fun than chasing some sheep around. Forget the prodigal thing already! And they're admirably well-clued, too. I'm a bit of a puzzle idiot, but I never felt either hopelessly lost or spoon-fed.
o Better presentation. There are spiffy graphics! And a spiffy map! And spiffy coding touches like letting you group all those containers! I'm not saying to award points for style over substance -- but in IF, where having these things at all requires a fair amount of investment in your work, one usually suggests the other.
At the core of Oxygen lies an interesting moral dilemma hindered by the somewhat finicky and non-intuitive controls. It took me two tries and some outside hints to get a grasp of how the system works. This might've been intended as a puzzle, but ended up as tedious. There was some interesting stuff to keep the replays worthwhile, through radio chatter and an injured crew member to talk to. What I really liked was how the different endings all felt like viable choices, so there wasn't really something that felt like the right solution.
East Grove Hills has raised some amount of discussion during the comp. The game is strangely conflicted: On the one hand the story is extremely linear, but the linearity seems to serve some purpose that I can't quite grasp. It seems to make some sort of statement, but it remains unclear what that statement is. It hides nothing but goes deeper than its perceived appearance.
The story is about a teenager with serious self-esteem issues. The game is very short (I played through it in 20 minutes) and keeps the player on a tight leash the whole time. It's not an unpleasant experience even though the story is built around a massive tragedy, but the tragedy seems to be mostly there to provide a frame on which the story is built.
The best description of EGH would be that it is like the bastard child of Rameses and Photopia. As a whole it doesn't quite rise up to the level of either of those games, but it does present food for thought. The only puzzle the game has is figuring out what it's really about and I haven't solved that one yet.
Heated: another "my apartment" game, whatís there to say? I wish the author had watched Get Lamp. He would at least have an idea of how the community is going to receive a game like this. So you start off waking up in bed with the alarm going off as the noise begins to grate on your nerves. You better turn that damn thing off before your blood pressure hits the roof.
The goal here is to get to work early with the clock ticking away in the background. Because itís timed, I found myself restarting quite a bit until I had unlocked the beginning and then I started saving often. As you go through the game doing certain things will raise your Heat (anger level), while others will cool it off. It sounds like a neat concept, but I didnít really see it in action with all the restarting I did. On paper it looks like a great idea, but in practice people will do everything to get around it.
The gameís tech is solid; itís built on I7, but it did come back with some strange responses at times, a problem Iíve noticed with the latest version of Inform, and some of the verbs are limited on certain puzzles.
I also found a LOOK INSIDE bug. Under the gameís notes it says that looking and examining take no in-game time. But, looking inside stuff does. I question who actually tested this game. No one is credited.
And there you go, a my apartment game thatís going to go over like a lead balloon. Iím sure the author thought he was being original, and that people would think his game is neat, but instead it appears he has probably played through very few modern era games and is unfamiliar with the community's expectations.
This is a story about communism. The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game is also about communism, sort of. That, I suppose, makes Gigantomania its coincidental serious counterpart. There's no Groucho Marx here, but serious explorations of real-world Stalinism (the title refers to some of Stalin's philosophy) and the dystopia it produced. It's more akin to Buried In Shoes from 2008, except in my view executed better.
A lot of it, in fact, is executed really well. The characters you play tend toward stock at times, but never gratingly so. Conversations with your friends -- er, sorry, *comrades* -- can turn into witch-hunts at the simplest slip-up. If only people could lawnmower through those conversations in real life. The final scene, where you're dropped into Stalin's mind, is particularly compelling and not uninteractive, no matter what people say.
If anything, Gigantomania falters most when its game underpinnings are most stark. This includes bugs -- "I'm too tired and hungry to consider __________" isn't the best default failure message, as it makes actions like putting on a ring seem ridiculous -- but it also includes mechanics. Take the Farmville-style agriculture in the beginning. It isn't really how farming works, but more importantly, I don't feel oppressed or tired, just bored. The author *could* be making an analogy, tedious mechanics ==> tedious life, but it's still pretty tedious to play out. Worth getting through, though.
Originality's not something Divis Mortis has going for it. It's a zombie game in a comp full of zombie games; it's basically an abandoned-facility setting, and it's remarkably similar to a 2008 comp entry, Rick Dague's Lucubrator. The openings both have you wake up with amnesia in a creepy hospital room, and the central premise is the same in both. (In Divis Mortis it's a major plot twist at the end, so I'll get to that later.)
That said, Divis Mortis is the much better work, certainly in the top two zombie works this year. Most of it is pretty solid and workmanlike. A couple minor bugs, a couple places where it's a bit too obvious that the only things you can search in detail are the ones the designer put objects in, but otherwise solid. A few reviewers criticized the writing for being too flippant, but I didn't find much problem with it. It was confident, if nothing else, in its tone.
There is, however, a curious lack of zombies. Yes, you'll come across several stationary ones, and there are a few random encounters, but the active tension doesn't come from the potential of being attacked. Compare this, for instance, with Ian Finley's Babel, another abandoned-facility game. Both use atmospheric daemon messages to build suspense. But where Babel threatens the power going out at the lab -- something pretty endemic to its setting -- Divis Mortis reminds you that you're hungry and you have a headache. These made me dread the upcoming hunger puzzle (thankfully, you can't die from it) but more importantly, I'm surrounded by zombies! My stomach is not priority number one or even five.
This isn't the only time the pacing seemed off. Toward the end (SPOILERS THROUGH TO CONCLUSION!), there's a whole wodge of plot. You acquire a love interest whom you must save (refreshingly, it's not a woman, but a man; this should not be refreshing) in the final few turns. You also find out that you were a zombie all along.
So about that twist. It too has been done before -- the enforced lack of mirrors, for instance, is straight out of Delusions -- enough times to get a TV Tropes entry ("Tomato In The Mirror," unless they've changed this one's name too.) To the author's credit, it is foreshadowed, at least in that you can gleefully chomp down on the first corpse you find if you're so inclined or predicted the twist right away. It could have been handled a lot worse, and I don't have any complaints about the twist per se.
My complaints, rather, come with the ending text. It's got a few cheesy lines -- "I am an infected who has been to madness and back and I can save them all" is fairly inexcusable -- but more importantly, it emulates Mite in that it touches on fascinating new themes we never get to see elsewhere. In a few short paragraphs, we hear about zombie politics, zombie racism, even zombie nonprofits. I'm not a connoisseur of zombie lit, so probably it's been done somewhere else -- but that's fascinating! I would play a game about a zombie nonprofit. It's exactly what people mean when they call for original settings/premises in IF. The author of Divis Mortis clearly has programming and puzzle-design chops. She's also got some cool ideas -- why not go for those?
If you play only one game from this year's comp I would heartily recommend The Warbler's Nest, with some slight reservations. The genre that would describe it the closest would probably be "psychological thriller."
As is the usual case, the game starts with little to no information and gradually tells the player what's going on. The clever part is that at some point your perception of the setting changes to something completely else, and it's not a Shyamalanian "Look! A twist!" but the player comes to the chilling conclusion gradually. The restrained style of writing supports the big picture perfectly.
The story is not without problems, though. The pacing could need some work. The biggest issue is that the game expects a fairly linear progression of stuff to do to advance the plot, but it's not very effective at telling the player what it expects. The story would benefit from letting the player in on the background much earlier than it does. In fact, at some points the game waits for the player to do the expected thing and only then shows the flashback that gives the motivation to do the said action.
Apart from the pacing issues the game is atmospheric and well written. Definitely worth playing.
Flight of the Hummingbird is a comedic superhero action adventure, in which you play a second-string (last-string?) superhero sent in a pinch to take care of a villain threatening world safety and security.
The "about" text for Flight of the Hummingbird states that the game was originally the author's repository for trying out solutions to IF programming problems, and unfortunately I couldn't help but feel that it really showed. While there is the odd fun puzzle or two in the game, for the most part the puzzles pack a combination of ease, arbitrariness and dependence upon new commands that really feels like they exist more as a way to test those commands than to engage and challenge the player. In other senses, the game feels incomplete, especially after informing you that there is a page listing out all the special commands available in the game, which turns out to be empty. Some commands do appear there after you've found them, but having a help file detailing commands you've already found gives you little reason to ever refer to it, and since only a couple of commands ever do appear there by the end of the game, all easily enough remembered,it makes you wonder if the author intended more.
Gameplay aside, the writing is for the most part cute and works well within the genre of the game. In some ways, the writing makes me wish the game itself were better, because I think I could enjoy a game set within this world, with the same tongue-in-cheek writing style and treatment of high villainy as a corporate endeavour with all of the attendant management requirements. The plot falls short of expectations, however, with the beginning feeling even more arbitrary than acknowledged within the text (especially as some key objects are never described, forcing you to infer their existence initially and their location eventually), and the end coming extremely abruptly, right when you're poised for a great climactic puzzle. In the interim, almost all the puzzles are solved similarly, and while the unimplemented objects and verb guessing aren't as rife as in many competition games, they're still present enough to cause some hitches along the way that are more frustrating than challenging. One thing that really harms the gameplay quite a bit is that the titular flying mechanic is initially poorly hinted and even once it's been figured out, it continues to be problematic and frustrating. Since it's a key element of your character's ability set and you use it over and over again, I think that, while an interesting IF experiment, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of setting the player up for a fun game. Hummingbird includes several different movement systems over the course of the same game -- something I've never liked and at least one of which was highly reminiscent of the irksome "mini-games" used to pad-out some console RPGs.
There are things about this game that I really liked. I did enjoy the setting, some of the puzzles felt satisfying to solve, and there are many fun moments in the writing. I think most of its shortcomings extend from the basic act of trying to turn an IF coding experiment into a game. I'd like to see a more polished approach to either this story or another set in the same world from this author, focused more on providing entertaining gameplay than showcasing whiz-bang IF gimmicks.
There are several ways to write dialogue. You can take the verbatim approach, leaving in the slang clutter and word craft that people use in real life, or you can be more stylized, sacrificing a bit of realism to streamline your scene.
Then there's this:
"My paintings have been INFECTED! What's going on? We've got to do something!"
Bearing absolutely zero resemblance to anything somebody would ever say in real life, this piece of dialogue serves one purpose: to shoo all that boring conversation out of the way as quickly as possible and get on with things. Each sentence could have been plucked out of the same stock bins -- melodramatic shock, brief confusion, resolve -- that countless other writers have picked clean. What's missing is any sense that Eleanor is genuinely devastated.
Eleanor, by the way, is the PC's wife, not that you'd be able to tell if the author hadn't told you. She has a daemon routine, but that's about it. You can't ask her about anything, because the parser returns that most enigmatic of error messages: "You must supply a noun." You can't use TALK, because she'll brush you off for one reason or another. All the beginner's IF guides tell you to give your NPCs things to do so they don't stand stock still until prodded at. This is good advice. It's good that the author followed it. But it isn't enough. As unrealistic as it is for NPCs to do nothing on their own, it's just as bad for them to ignore all your fumbles at interaction. Here, it produces an oddly cold effect -- Eleanor's your beloved wife, but it doesn't seem as if you like each other much.
Fortunately, she isn't a very large part of the story. If only what's left was up to par. The premise of Pen and Paint is that your wife's paintings are linked to the books you write, and something has gone horribly, infectingly wrong that you must fix by diving into your stories. The problem is, although your house is lovingly implemented (Eleanor aside) with all sorts of objects you want to pick up and play with, your stories are not. Most of them might as well be skeletons: a few locations, held together by only the barest, most rote objects and implementation. It's like one of those old super-compressed IF works from the 1980s, but without the hard memory limitation that provided an excuse. It's even more glaring when the things that aren't described are the things that are supposed to let you advance.
This would be discouraging enough on its own, but remember that premise: that you're a writer, and these are the books you write. So where's the imagination? Where's the vividness? Where's the stuff that makes stories worth writing? It's like you're wandering through the barren Cliffs Notes of your library. No wonder Eleanor's so unenthused.
In Lost Sheep you play the role of a shepherd who has lost one of his flock. Naturally, you run off to
look for him (why the other 99 stay in place must be a miracle), and while finding him might be easy, heís a little hard to get your hands on. The game is broken into two sections, the first being centered around exploration while the second becomes linear, not encouraging much experimentation.
This is a small game that uses a limited number of rooms. Itís supposed to be a light-hearted adaptation
of the parable, but the writing lacks any kind of passion and I didn't find it funny. Getting a laugh out of someone is hard, and this game is no Lost Pig. The other problem is with the puzzles. They arenít clued at all. There arenít a lot of them, but they bottleneck the game.
Well, thereís not much here, but the game is stable and everything works. It can stand up to a good
thrashing, meaning it was tested pretty well, but the overall thing feels like a coding exercise, where
someone tries programming IF for the first time but doesnít put in the work to make a really good game. Whatís there is solid, but nothing to sink your teeth into. Itís just too thin.
If your game isn't finished, and you know it, don't submit it. Now, I'm sure The Chronicler has some nice ideas, but it's just so dull. It's mentioned that you're examining the base because you lost contact, but you never find anyone, or any sign of them. Instead you have hallways, light fixtures, power generators, and a somewhat fiddly and illogical time travel mechanism. And it's just so bleak and uninteresting. I'm sure this could be a good game one day, albeit with some major work.
In 1254 to Asgard you are a janitor who has to fix a leak in the roof during a rain storm. As you might guess from the title, something goes wrong and you're off exploring the afterlife.
After going through the initially accessible rooms and following the adventurer's rule of taking everything not nailed down I ended up getting a "more" prompt when taking inventory. The amount of stuff to carry around is just huge. You'd think that it'd be easy to fix a roof with some of those items, but I never did manage to find out the magic combination that would work. Finally I ended up drinking bleach in frustration which surprisingly did get the story going (although that probably isn't the canonical solution).
The game feels like a standard puzzle game that puts strange weight on certain typical features of the type. You have a ton of stuff in your inventory, but the game accepts only one or possibly a very small set of solutions. There's an annoying aspect of not telling the player what the player character would reasonably know (if you start the game with a key in your inventory there's no reason at all not to tell where the key fits if the player character knows it). The puzzle solutions feel quite arbitrary at times. There's a constant doubt of what your goals are and what the game expects you to do.
It seems like there's a good game here that's trying to get out but doesn't have the proper means to express itself. I played the comp-imposed 2 hours and didn't get to the end. During that time the story didn't really get properly going.
On a related note, I'm not that keen on reading walkthroughs that are filled with unnecessary actions that may elicit a witty answer, or in this case actions that give the library response. When I hit the walkthrough I'm at the point where I want the puzzle solutions without the list of amusing things to try mixed in between. Somehow the verbose walkthrough mirrors the whole game -- there's just too much unnecessary stuff in there.
The game has its good moments and some witty responses to a large array of commands. I would certainly like to play a revised version of the game, preferably something that would make it more clear what your goals are and with more alternative solutions to puzzles so that the story would have more room to breathe.
So this is the enigmatic puzzle game of the comp. I'll state my bias up front: these are not my thing. I tend to prefer story over puzzles, and I'm a bit of an idiot about solving them, anyway. So take the remainder of this review with a grain of salt.
But what on earth is going on here? First you're in a subway station. Then you're in a morass of not-quite-Euclidean rooms, a lot of which seem suspiciously similar. It's not a maze, but it made me just as uneasy as if it were. There were some objects I found, a few minor puzzles I think I solved, a couple glyphs, and a machine I was supposed to put them in to make things happen. Nothing happened; the objects were gone. This is how pathetic my mind gets when it flounders through these things. So I turned to the hints, which helped a bit. Then I turned to the walkthrough, which helped a bit more. And then it was two hours, I wasn't anywhere near completion, and I still had no idea what was going on.
From reading other reviews after the fact, that all was some kind of wordplay puzzle. (That's what the glyphs were for! I think.) I like wordplay puzzles. They might even be my forte. But I had no idea this was the mode I was supposed to be operating under. With something like last year's Earl Grey for instance, it's a different story; I know the premise, so I can think that way. As it stands, though, I muddled through my hours of Under, In Erebus in fiddle-with-stuff-until-things-happen mode. It wasn't very satisfying, and I doubt it's the experience the author intended. But it's the one I got.
The Blind House is a dark game where you find yourself staying at an old friendís house that you called on in the dead of night. The game hints at a sinister back story. The player is given a chance to explore the house the next morning, but wandering around looking for clues only opens up more questions that are never resolved. Itís an interesting story, but with too many loose ends.
The game captures a creepy atmosphere where something has gone wrong, something that has shaken you so badly you find settling down to sleep hard. And even though the introduction says this isnít a puzzle game, youíll still have to find a few keys, locate small objects, and search for clues to unlock this story. Looking at everything is really important, and thereís even a THINK ABOUT