Game Reviews N

These reviews are in alphabetical order according to the name of the game reviewed. The index also has a few extra features. First and foremost of these is the instant gratification feature. If you see the SPAG button:

Then you can click on it to retrieve the file from, or to go to that file's directory on the archive (in the case of competition games).

The email addresses used are those submitted with the review, so naturally some of them may be out of date. All email addresses are spamblocked -- replace the name of our magazine with the traditional 'at' sign.

Table of Contents

Narcolepsy Nevermore Necrotic Drift A New Day A New Life A Night At The Museum Forever 9:05 Ninja v1.30 No Time To Squeal Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It Not Just A Game Not Just An Ordinary Ballerina Nothing More, Nothing Less


From: Jose Manuel Garcia-Patos <josemanuelinform SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #43 -- January 7, 2006 TITLE: Narcolepsy AUTHOR: Adam Cadre EMAIL: acmail SP@G DATE: December, 2003 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Glulx interpreters AVAILABILITY: freeware; IF Archive URL: 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. Glulx executable


From: Duncan Stevens <dnrb SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #23 -- December 29, 2000 TITLE: Nevermore AUTHOR: Nate Cull E-MAIL: culln SP@G DATE: 2000 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 10 Literary adaptation is an underpopulated IF genre, and Nate Cull's Nevermore is a thoughtful and well-intentioned attempt at bringing Poe's "The Raven" to the world of IF. While what emerges isn't a bad game, it's less the poem than a series of events in a similar setting with a somewhat similar mood, In other words, if you're a particular fan of the poem, you might not well not be a fan of this game. As it happens, I committed "The Raven" to memory when I was in seventh grade or so, and I still like the poem even though I've somewhat belatedly realized that it's not a very good poem. (It's been said that the popularity of Poe's poems varies inversely with their quality, and while that's not strictly true--he wrote some lousy poems that remain thoroughly obscure--the three Poe poems that are probably the best known, "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and "The Bells", are far from his best.) That is, I like it despite its repetitiveness and its tendency to use 20 words when two or three would do, simply because I like the drama of it. No one would ever call "The Highwayman" a great poem, but it's definitely a good ghost story in verse form that's well suited for being read aloud; ditto, I think, for "The Raven," and I still enjoy being able to recite it--and "The Highwayman" and others--from memory. So when I saw the initial premise of Nevermore, my first reaction was something between "Cool!" and disappointment that I hadn't gotten there first, because it was an idea I'd been kicking around (very casually). And when I saw that the game was using snippets from the poem but not binding the player to the text, I said, aha, perfect--use the poem's story, its strong point, but don't bind us to the text, which isn't its strong point. Just use the text for echo effect. It was about five moves into the game that the author's vision of the poem diverged from mine, however, and it continued to diverge more and more over the course of the game. This, in a sense, is good: had the author felt constrained not to offend fellow fans of the poem and slavishly followed the text, the result wouldn't have been much different from reading the text itself. But I had such a hard time squaring the author's vision with mine that before long I simply forgot the origin of the game and no longer associated it with my mental images of the setting as portrayed in the poem; it was just, in other words, another comp entry. This is partly because the plot of Nevermore involves elements like alchemy, pagan rituals, and lots of drugs, and it would have been an odd coincidence if both the author and I had imagined those things as part of a more fleshed-out story--but it's more that the mood differed from the mood as I imagined it. To take one among many examples, the protagonist of Nevermore takes cocaine approximately every 20 moves; if you don't, you're told that "a dull, dark weariness drifts over you," which leads to death in a few moves if not corrected with cocaine (at which point "a sense of raw alertness rushes through your nerves, setting them all on edge"). It's certainly not implausible to view the mood of the poem's subject as more generally consistent with "a dull, dark weariness" than a cocaine-fueled "raw alertness," though--I mean, it's a pretty melancholy poem--and I simply couldn't fit the protagonist of Nevermore into my preconceived image. (Well, okay, the poem's subject summons up some energy toward the end, but there's an obvious cause that isn't cocaine.) In short, the author has his own rather distinctive vision of who the protagonist is and what the poem's about, and Your Mileage May Vary. All that aside, the game works reasonably well, though it's not flawless. The cocaine habit mentioned about doesn't add much to the game, and it recurs frequently enough to be irritating after a while. The puzzles also depend on a set of books that you're required to read, while is fine except that (a) the snippets in the books are randomized, so it's possible to miss one even if you've seen all the other snippets twice or more, and (b) the snippets are written in a sort of pseudo-medieval English that takes an awful lot of work to make sense of. (Impenetrable poetry I can deal with; impenetrable puzzle-solving instructions are more of a problem.) It's also easy to push the game into unwinnable states, and though there's a WINNABLE command (which informs you whether the game is presently in such a state), I would have preferred game design that simply makes it a little harder to screw up (or, better, is more forgiving when you do screw up). The opacity of the instructions also had me stumped for a while toward the end--it turned out that I'd left out a key step in the puzzle-solving and hadn't realized it (and there aren't really contextual hints that could suggest what you might have done wrong). This is sounding more negative than I mean to be, because there were parts of Nevermore that I genuinely enjoyed. The ending, for one thing, is terrific--dark and dripping with irony. (In that respect, quite faithful to Poe himself.) Some of the action turns on flashbacks, which also struck me as genuinely Poeish--a protagonist for whom the past is more real than the present absolutely belongs in this game. The writing is strong--economical and atmospheric--and the box quotes from Edgar are nicely placed (though, curiously, the last and most dramatic part of the poem is largely absent). The personality of the protagonist even felt right--an odd mix of sentimentality and obsessiveness. Nevermore does a lot of things right, and you could argue that it did as well as any work of IF could do in adapting this particular poem; it's certainly a worthy attempt. Through no fault of the game, however, it didn't really connect with me, and I gave it a 7 in the competition. FTP FileDirectory with Inform .z5 file and walkthrough (competition version)

Necrotic Drift

From: Sam Kabo Ashwell <ska24 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #38 -- September 28, 2004 TITLE: Necrotic Drift AUTHOR: Robb Sherwin EMAIL: beaver SP@G DATE: 2004 PARSER: Hugo SUPPORTS: Hugo interpreters AVAILABILITY: IF Archive URL: VERSION: Release 1 Necrotic Drift contains all the elements you'd expect of Robb -- bittersweet schmaltz, randomised combat, human, sympathetic characters, tangential epigrammatic title, brilliant squick-out humour, big textdumps and a streak of geek a mile wide. There are plenty of references to previous Sherwin games, particularly Fallacy of Dawn and Chicks Dig Jerks. It's his biggest and most skilful game to date. Big, but linear. You have an intro section (near-isomorphic to the Fallacy of Dawn intro), then another intro, then a run-up, and *then* the game proper starts. After that, you have an endgame and an epilogue. At most significant steps, there will be a great big textdump; I don't object to these too much, but they certainly add to the game's apparent size. Nonetheless, it plays relatively quickly; most of the puzzles are pretty straightforward, and the game gives you a pretty good idea about what you should be aiming at next. (Sometimes this is a little heavy-handed, as in the bit where an ally starts clearing a barrier and suggests you look around for items that might be useful beyond said barrier; generally they're pretty good, though). Compared to previous games of Robb's, it's much more technically sturdy; not too many awfully obscure puzzles, no jagged edges a betatester should have caught, better implementation all-round. The old problems are still there, though; the one item you need to use in a room is generally strikingly prominent, scenery objects are often very flat and unresponsive. Of course, the scenery is brought alive very well in room descriptions and so on -- it just doesn't handle interactive poking around too well. One or two puzzles seemed very illogical or badly flagged up, and I underwent a lot of frustrating death at one point before seeking out hints; most were along the lines of 'you just found this item so it must be the one for the next puzzle'. I also note that Sherwin has at last developed his combat system above the 'I attack, but miss, the skeleton! The skeleton attacks and hits me!' level that so thoroughly killed A Crimson Spring, albeit only to add amusingly awkward battle-cries. Of course, since the thing is a D&D parody, formulaic combat descriptions are par for the course. I doubt it'd lose much to audiences unfamiliar with D&D, however; everything that needs to be explained is explained, and there are contextual jokes but not really any in-jokes. The game managed to convey a pretty damn good feeling of the urgency of the situation and the trepidation about moving into unknown areas. On the other hand, when the annoyingly low inventory limit forced you to scuttle back and forth looking for abandoned items at far corners of the mall, this effect was lost somewhat. (This also tended to happen during Dramatic Confrontations, which were kind of undermined by having the ability to run off and come back multiple times). There's a principle in IF theory that, in character-driven games, descriptive writing should convey as much about the character and his world as about the object described; this game goes joyously and superbly over the top with this principle. This compensates for the lack of physical detail to a great extent. The confinement and triviality of the Mall (and the intimate knowledge Duffy has of it) give us a very good idea of how narrow Duffy's horizons are. While in FoD New Haz felt like a sprawling metropolis or at least a very big town, here it feels like a claustrophobic little dead-end. The multimedia works and it doesn't work. The use of images has improved significantly; in FoD, the images were used kind of inconsistently, with some inventory items having objects and others not. In ND they're sharper and better used. There are a great many images, they contribute greatly towards setting the mood and establishing characters, and it's obvious that a monumental amount of care and effort has gone into them. Some images of characters still seems a little awkward and obviously-posed, however. Subject-matter makes things tougher, too -- even if you've got a multi-million CGI and modelling team behind you, if you're depicting the undead you've only got a one in three chance that it won't look ludicrous. Given that, much of this was pretty impressive, and where it was cheesy it was forgivable. The use of music wasn't as good. I found it kept fading out into nothing, and then when a new piece of music was triggered it'd cut in jarringly. I get the distinct impression that Robb, like quite a few other authors, is trying to use IF as a poor man's cinema; perhaps consciously so. The thing is, music is hard to get right with IF. Both are non-static media, but IF's non-static nature is interspersed with static blocks of reading time, particularly in this game. You'll get a dramatic chord and -- whoa, a zombie image! -- but you'll have read down three lines of text before the zombie *actually* jumps you. It's like watching a movie where the dialogue is properly in sync but the music is a few beats off. I think music has applications to IF, potentially, and I can see that this is more or less going in the right direction -- it's aimed at atmospheric background mood-setting stuff, and as such it's well-chosen. Those cut-ins need work, though I don't know how you'd manage that ideally. The Love Interest is, zombies aside, the real focus of the story, and it's handled well. It becomes pretty obvious that undead-fighting -- much like D&D -- is a great excuse for Duffy to ignore his relationship crisis. The relationship stuff isn't deeply original or earthshakingly moving, but it's very human. It works least well, perhaps, at the more tender moments -- much like the protagonist's life-affirming speech to the demon wherein he explains why he plays D&D. Sherwin is eminently comfortable with crafting humour, but it feels that there's less craft in the heartfelt stuff. No shame in that; writing heartfelt stuff is hard. The typical authorial error (thinking heartfelt stuff needs *less* craft because it's heartfelt) doesn't look as if it's been committed here, but I think this is an area that could do with being addressed. Modern audiences have been saturated with tacky pop-culture representations of the subject; it's a cliche minefield. Re-used phrases and sentiments seethe around it. They need to be avoided like the plague. I played in tandem with Jacqueline Lott; she objected vehemently to the unavoidable ending. The problem I have with it is that the emotional guts of the piece are kept at arm's length from the player, either entrenched in the middle of big passages of text or as involuntary actions. For Jacqueline, this was annoying because you couldn't influence the outcome; for me, it was annoying because it made me less involved with the outcome and hence cared less about it. Inevitable outcomes are fine in my book, but the bulk of an IF story (and hence its major developments) should really be interactive. Now, I loved Fallacy of Dawn to bits, and this is clearly a better game, on many many levels, than Fallacy of Dawn. (Sorry for going on and on with the comparisons, but this game invites comparisons, plies them with hors d'oeuvres and wine, and then suggests an S&M orgy to them once they're good and drunk). So why do I feel more indifferent towards Necrotic? Mostly, I think, because it's not enough of a departure. We have crudely wisecracking geeks in a grimy, dystopic future, well-employed graphics, a sassy girlfriend and a crass best buddy who follow us about... to be honest, it feels more like a liberal remake than a sequel. And y'know how remakes are never looked on as fondly even if they're technically superior? Right. From: Jeff Howell <howell.jeff SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #38 -- September 28, 2004 The first thing a potential player is likely to notice about Necrotic Drift is its size. 38MB is a huge filesize for what we've become used to thinking of as 'text adventures'. It's worth the download if you've got even reasonably fast dial-up, and anyone with broadband shouldn't even be thinking twice about it. Included in this package is a .pdf manual, presented as a copy of 'Which Witch?' magazine. It's a nice feelie, and although the language is needlessly colorful in parts, is good for a chuckle. Instructions for playing the game are included in the .pdf, and integrated nicely as part of the magazine. The game starts off fairly slowly. The opening scenes really don't mesh well with the rest of the game, and some of the dialogue and two of the main character's friends are truly unpleasant. I can see the point to some of what goes on here: it does establish some of Jarret's (the main character) personality and his situation in life. All of this is in retrospect, though. At the time, it just felt sort of forced, occasionally amusing, and largely pointless. The beginning of a game should grab a player's interest, not make them think "I'll give it a few more turns to see if anything more interesting happens." The game does pick up nicely, thankfully. The writing is superior after the slow start, and both the audio and graphical aspects, not normally seen in IF, add a great deal to the experience. At its most basic, Necrotic Drift is Survival Horror in IF style. Jarret can only take so much damage before the game ends, and there are a number of 'surprise' attacks in darkened corridors. But there's a lot more here than blasting everything in sight, primarily because standard weapons aren't in great supply. This is IF, and in IF, puzzles rule. There are specific ways to get past every obstacle, all very logical, but all requiring that the player pay very close attention. There's a lot to notice, many small details that the author has added that really add to the atmosphere of the game, and many of those are important. More than likely, you won't manage to get through on the first attempt, but that makes success that much more satisfying when it comes. None of the puzzles are all that difficult on a second attempt, if the player is paying attention, but that's not really the point of the game. The conversations and encounters drive what is, at it's heart, a story about relationships. There's as much being said here about loss, love, and friendship as there is about beasts that go bump in the night, and that's what really marks Necrotic Drift as a superior game. The plot is linear, and there seem to be some unavoidably tragic parts, but that's okay. The story is a quality one and if there's some sadness to go along with that, well, sometimes a bit of sorrow is necessary to make the happiness seem that much more valuable. FTP FileZip archive with Hugo game file, graphics, and music

A New Day

From: Duncan Stevens a.k.a. Second April <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #13 -- February 5, 1998 NAME: A New Day AUTHOR: Jonathan Fry E-MAIL: jfry SP@G DATE: 1997 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Inform interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 PLOT: Interesting but uneven (1.2) ATMOSPHERE: Er, not much (1.0) WRITING: Fairly good (1.2) GAMEPLAY: Frustrating in spots (0.8) CHARACTERS: One very good one (1.3) PUZZLES: Nothing special (0.9) MISC: Very interesting idea (1.3) OVERALL: 5.5 Jonathan Fry's A New Day is another in a fairly long list of games that were nice in theory but not a real joy to play. Though the premise is interesting and though the plot is well-designed, mostly, the challenges of A New Day felt more like annoyances, and I never really got into the game. The plot, in all its self-referential glory: you are venturing into/playing a partially completed text adventure whose author, one Jonathan Fry, has died mysteriously; you confront a sentient being named Winston who seems to be running the show inside Jonathan's computer. The "incomplete" element means that objects are there but not mentioned, and some room descriptions are entirely absent or very terse. Even if you understand what you're doing in the game -- not all that likely -- it's still hard to make any sense of what you, the player, are supposed to do next, since you don't get much direction; as is typical, you are tossed into settings and given things to do. (As has been pointed out, there is a built-in excuse here for flaws in the game -- "it's an unfinished game, dummy" -- but I assume that Mr. Fry won't take refuge in that.) There are some problems that can't be put down to the unfinished-game element, though, like a location requiring that the player SEARCH three times -- finding something on the first and third times but not on the second (and, obviously, no clue that there's something more when you search the second time). Syntax for getting a cat across a street is rather unlikely, and the solution to a puzzle involving a guard assumes considerable stupidity on the guard's part. And try as I might, I could _not_ visualize the last puzzle, nor figure out why the solution suggested by the hints was correct. One of the more interesting decisions that Mr. Fry made was to make one of the sections of the game simulate a software crash of sorts, so that the text comes out garbled -- or, I should say, @#$^ s@#$ft@#@e cr@#!sh s} th8723 the t523xt c&*@es @%@#$t ga^%23482@(*bled. I exaggerate only slightly -- a sample sentence: Spli0LAS99x Broken gla31s and dsi8 wiring de76f746t the deca##] wo_)2den49053en walls of this room. There are very few moments in IF that I have wanted to be over as quickly as I wanted this one to be over, and, unfortunately, it took a while to end, since there's a not-all-that-intuitive puzzle to solve that assumes you have VERY sharp eyes. All this gets points for verisimilitude, I guess, but giving the player a headache is not the sort of verisimilitude we're striving for, nor even the k2342nd of veris27@#^@^@#de we're str][;,ving for. A New Day is, for the most part, technically proficient; other than the unfairnesses mentioned above, there aren't many design problems, and no bugs at all as far as I could tell. Somehow, though, I didn't enjoy it; I didn't feel like the plot went anywhere, and the story felt uninvolving. Well, the plot did go somewhere, true, but it didn't precisely progress there; you're given a situation at the beginning, you do a bunch of things that don't relate directly to the situation, and then the situation changes suddenly at the end. Perhaps some hints at the final revelation -- perhaps things that you discover along the way that point to it, rather than having it all dumped on you without warning -- might help in that respect; for me, that development was a sort of "oh, really?" bit. I hadn't really been thinking about it, to be honest, as I'd been busy trying to solve unrelated puzzles. If the idea is to figure out how Fry died, it might be good to have some of the puzzles actually concern him or the setting of his death, lest the whole thing feel disconnected. (I recognize that the behavior of a certain character may be intended to point to that, but it didn't really work for me.) My, I do seem to be complaining, don't I? There are plenty of well-done things about A New Day as well. The ending feels genuinely suspenseful -- though a little mysterious, since you have very little idea of what's going on. There are multiple solutions to several puzzles, a welcome touch, though I admit I only found a few. At one point, you get bad advice from an NPC, and though normally it would feel unfair to do something like this -- when there's no obvious reason not to trust the NPC -- it works well here, I found. (At least, I was sufficiently unsure about the NPC not to take the advice.) One puzzle involving crossing a street breaks IF conventions in a thoroughly welcome way; it does something that seems like common sense but is almost never actually implemented, and I was glad that this game rewarded common sense (though, for those who have been playing IF for a while, it's actually not common sense anymore). More generally, the idea is well-thought-out and intriguing, even if I never got into the plot, and there's potential for a much longer and more- involved game where the plot might move along better. At least, it seems so to me; it seems like there's much that can be done with exploring a computer. (Find a file directory tree and chop it down. Hee hee hee.) Though this particular effort is a little short (though I shouldn't fault Mr. Fry for obeying the two-hour limit, I know), it has ideas that could make a longer game quite intriguing. Even so, there are difficulties in A New Day that, while not fatal to its playability, made it less than enjoyable for me; perhaps it's a matter of taste, but I don't claim to be sufficiently objective to transcend these things. Though this is a good effort, and Mr. Fry is clearly a good programmer, I gave this one a 6 on the competition scale. FTP FileInform file (.z5) (updated version) FTP FileInform file (.z5) (competition version)

A New Life

From: Mike Snyder <wyndo SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #43 -- January 7, 2006 TITLE: A New Life AUTHOR: Alexandre Owen MuŮz EMAIL: munizao SP@G DATE: October 1, 2005 PARSER: Inform SUPPORTS: Z-Machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware; IF Archive URL: goblin.z5 VERSION: Release 1 Once again, I have jumped ahead to a game later in my list. This time, itís because A New Life was recommended to me. If I really wonít have time to finish all the games before November 15th, I might as well take them in any order, right? Iíll probably go back to the list now. I enjoyed this game, but I found it incredibly difficult. Maybe itís 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. Iím not sure. Itís a very unique story, hinting at parallel realities and mythical races where a personís 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 ďrememberĒ command does this), or as considerations when examining scenery or talking to the gameís 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, itís 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 couldnít 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 didnít fully understand, or a pretty average game that does a great job of seeming to be a really great game I didnít fully understand. If taken without recommendation, I might have based it at 6.5 or 7.0 Ė 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 isnít liked by others. If Iím to trust in someone elseís opinion, I have to believe the game is better than it seems. And now itís 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 wasnít forced, it wasnít overdone, and it wasnít choppy. Good writing makes a game seem more real, and when the unique world seems to be the focus, thatís 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. Itís a good enough game: worth the time, but not my favorite. I recommend playing it without expecting an easy, two-hour experience. Donít rush, ease into it with exploration and experimentation (looking, remembering, asking), and youíre likely to have a great time. Zcode executable (.z5) Walkthrough

A Night At The Museum Forever

From: Magnus Olsson <mol SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #7 -- October 14, 1995 Name: A Night At The Museum Forever Parser: TADS Author: Chris Angelini Plot: Linear, rather clever Email: cangelin SP@G Atmosphere: Weak Availability: F, IF Archive Writing: Adequate Puzzles: Simple, not too original Supports: TADS ports Characters: None Difficulty: Quite simple This game has been endowed with a slightly misleading title: it does take place in a museum, but neither in one night or forever - three thousand years would be more appropriate! The museum is a strange one indeed: a temporal museum, with exhibits collected from both the past and the future. Abandoned for a thousand years, it has been ransacked and all the exhibits stolen. All the exhibits, that is, but one. A priceless diamond ring remains, and it is your mission to retrieve it, a task which is harder than it seems, since the ring's presence involves a temporal paradox. Fortunately, the museum's time machine is still in working order... Resolving the paradox and retrieving the ring isn't that difficult; in fact, the game is quite small and easy, just as the competition entries should be. Both in style and execution it's quite similar to an early Infocom game (a treasure hunt through a deserted house containing some interesting gadgets as well as more commonplace objects, all conveniently placed where you can find them). The writing is not quite up to Infocom's standards, but quite adequate; the puzzles may not be very original but are clever and logical; the plot is simple but quite clever and the time travel is handled nicely. My only big complaint about the game is its almost total lack of atmosphere. After all, you're exploring a mysterious, deserted museum where many explorers/looters before you have vanished in a temporal paradox, you're travelling thousands of years back and forward in time, and yet the author conveys almost no sense of wonder. It's almost as if the hero would say "OK, so I've resolved a temporal paradox and retrieved a priceless ring before lunch today. Maybe I should take the dog for a walk this afternoon?" In some circumstances, leaving the museum leads to sudden death. This may be motivated by the plot, and anyway you can undo. What's worse, however, is that leaving the museum under certain other circumstances will cause the game to think you want to quit, and you're just taken out of the program without even the chance to undo. This is really a Bad Thing since it's easy to take a wrong turn in the corridors - it happened several times to me. Despite these complaints, the game is quite clever and enjoyable. It nicely meets the One Rule of the contest: to be solvable in two hours, which is more than one can say for most of the more sophisticated entries. From: Gareth Rees <gdr11 SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #8 -- February 5, 1996 NAME: A Night at the Museum Forever PARSER: TADS's usual AUTHOR: Chris Angelini PLOT: None EMAIL: cangelin SP@G ATMOSPHERE: Poor AVAILABILITY: Freeware, IF Archive WRITING: Poor PUZZLES: Not very logical SUPPORTS: TADS ports CHARACTERS: None DIFFICULTY: Impossible I didn't enjoy playing this at all. Ninety percent of the game seemed to consist of tramping back and forth along the corridor in the different time zones, and the remaining ten percent was somewhat dull. No people, no interesting puzzles, no colourful background, no awe-inspiring future technology, nothing. The game seems to have not been playtested, and it raises rather more questions than it answers. Why is the McGuffin something as prosaic as a diamond ring in a game wanting for colour, when it could have been an exciting Heechee (tm) gadget with miraculous properties? Is the coal/diamond puzzle a reference to "Zork I," or is it just serendipity? And anyway, how on earth did the coal turn into a diamond when it was just buried in a hole for 2000 years? Why is there a starvation time limit when there is no food in the game? Is this just the infamous "TADS has starvation and sleep deprivation time limits unless you explicitly turn them off" bug, or is it deliberate? Why does the walkthrough think I can refer to the "glass cover" as a "case"? And so on. FTP FileTADS .gam File w/ Walkthrough (.zip)


From: Michael Macwilliam <m.macwilliam SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #20 -- March 15, 2000 TITLE: 9:05 AUTHOR: Adam Cadre E-MAIL: ac SP@G DATE: 2000 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1.00 You wake up in bed. A reassuring start and one familiar from several games. You are spared the precision manoeuvring that was required in Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy; instead, if you pick up the phone you receive a message urging you to work. It is 9:05 and you have slept longer than you intended... The game plays smoothly with no real apparent problems - something might strike you as strange when you are given a set of keys, but don't seem to be able to lock the front door on the way out, but hey, this is interactive fiction anyhow, and if we are prepared to accept endless magical transportations and interdimensional shifts in other games, then we should be able to deal with that. Also, the author's hand is clearly seen to be pushing you in a certain direction late in the game, where the line "Walk into Bowman's office without the form? Not smart." appears, even though we can easily reach that stage without having encountered the form yet. A petty point which doubtless could be dealt with in the next version - and also one that shows the high standards that IF has reached in recent years: if that's all we've go to moan about, then we aren't being badly served by the current crop of writers. Back to the game: play it once, definitely play it once, just to hear yourself say "WHAT?" when you reach the end screen. Then play it again, and investigate those nooks and crannies that you passed over the first time... things shall become apparent. Play it that second time and reach the best (?) resolution. On the basis of Cadre's earlier piece I-0 (aka Interstate Zero) I suspect that there may still be many hidden treasures (not *TREASURES*) lurking in the background though - I played that one through about eight or ten times and still missed out on at least half the fun. I don't know though - there do seem to be only two ways out of this set-up. In the end, 9:05 is a simple game which could almost be described as puzzle-less one - it does contain one puzzle which does not advertise itself as such until it is way too late. It's a game that is somewhat closer in spirit to Cadre's take on Flowers For Algernon than his other more involved Photopia or I-0. As an end note, it is interesting to see that the whole game can be cracked on the second move (if not completed on the third as was the case for Flowers). FTP FileInform .z5 file FTP FileBrief notes on 9:05, by the author FTP FilePC Executable

Ninja v1.30

From: Carolyn Magruder <carolynmagruder SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #39 -- January 7, 2005 TITLE: Ninja v1.30 AUTHOR: Paul Panks EMAIL: dunric SP@G DATE: October 2004 PARSER: Rudimentary SUPPORTS: DOS/Windows AVAILABILITY: IF Archive URL: VERSION: 1.30 Score: 1 out of 10. I started to write a rather cruel review, which started, "Why? Was there a point? If so, what was it?" Then it abruptly occurred to me that there might be a walkthrough, so I went looking for it. There wasn't one, but the associated text file cued me off to the idea that "enter shrine" might be different than "go shrine". Sure enough, it was, and I entered the shrine. Shortly afterward, I won the game. (Trust me... it doesn't take much.) So there was a point. Sort of. You start in an ungrammatical, boring room, which includes a shrine that you cannot enter and mountains that are too far away even to be examined. Aside from various peculiarities of syntax and parsing, there is one painfully obvious puzzle to be solved. I solved it. I won, or, at least, I think I did. It didn't help that the game changed its idea of what the maximum possible score was each time that I played it. I never got the maximum possible score, but the part where an object disappeared from existence after I picked it up may have something to do with it. As well as the issues that were specific to the game, the system had some issues of its own. I recommend Inform, TADS, HUGO, ADRIFT, or any other developed and well-tested system to the author. This home-grown system has to go. It kept flashing "20" on my input line past a certain point, and it had lag on my input. Bleah! I can't recommend playing this game for any reason. FTP FileDirectory with PC executable, BASIC source code, and readme

No Time To Squeal

From: Stephen Bond <bonds SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #27 -- January 4, 2002 TITLE: No Time To Squeal AUTHOR: Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa E-MAIL: beaver SP@G, mjs SP@G DATE: October 2001 PARSER: TADS standard SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (GMD) URL: VERSION: Release 1.0 When I play a Robb Sherwin game, I expect to see loads of ass-kicking dialogue and inspired, crazed imagery. So the opening of this game was quite a surprise: it all seemed strangely calm and muted, and even dangerously close to being boring. But not so close that I stopped playing immediately. As it turned out, the muted style is appropriate for the fairly sombre events of the first section. There is a lot of character-establishing text at the start, maybe too much, but it was effective in drawing me into the role. After a while I really became the PC. I wanted to make that deal, I was genuinely shocked at seeing my wife unconscious, I genuinely wanted to save the baby. That the game was able to make me feel that way shows it was doing something right. But then, after the second section, I stopped playing. Why? Maybe it's something to do with the 'you die, then restart' gimmick. After spending all that time in one character, suddenly I'm wrenched out and thrust into a new one, and I have to go through the whole process of getting to know them again. And that just seems too tiring. On the face of it, the PC-changing in this game is not too different from the PC-changing in Photopia: but in Photopia, the breaks between PCs were cleaner and more fluid than the ones here, and they happened regularly enough that I didn't feel disoriented every time the character changed. Skimming through the walkthrough, it looks like there is a lot of stuff that I missed in this game, though, so maybe I'll come back to it sometime. FTP FileDirectory with TADS .gam file and readme

Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It

From: Graeme Cree <72630.304 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #4 -- March 2, 1995 NAME: Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It GAMEPLAY: Infocom Standard AUTHOR: Jeff O'Neill PLOT: Very Good EMAIL: ? ATMOSPHERE: Excellent AVAILABILITY: LTOI 2 WRITING: Excellent PUZZLES: Very Good SUPPORTS: Infocom Ports CHARACTERS: Very Good DIFFICULTY: Standard Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It is a collection of interactive short stories, all revolving around the common theme of restoring the town of Punster, and based on the idea that you can alter the nature of reality merely by engaging in wordplay with it. The concept is difficult to explain, so some examples from the game's sample transcript may illustrate it without giving away any of the actual story. You wake up, knocking over your alarm clock and a glass of water. The only way to avoid the debris is to get up on the wrong side of the bed. Asked to mail your father's tax return, you discover you can't find it. But that scruffy guy in the corner with the IRS tee shirt, who you're told is barely male can be transmogrified with the homonym "mail". The return isn't stamped? You can fix that by Spoonerizing your father's stone lamp into a lone stamp. And so on. To prevent this from becoming incredibly confusing, each short story deals with only one specific type of wordplay. The stories can be played in any order, except for Meet the Mayor, which must come last. The parser is a bit better than the usual Infocom one. Compass directions and mapping are dispensed with entirely, as the Status Line constantly lists all the areas that you can travel directly to. As the maps are generally small (one story has only two locations), the map can be easily internalized in the player's mind. The puzzles are not the very best. The nature of such a game means that many of the puzzles will be of the "guess what the author is thinking" type. Also, since the puzzles don't necessarily build on each other, but often stand separately, you may finish a story only to be told that there were more things you could have done, and be forced to return later. However, since ALL versions of Nord & Bert have on-screen hints, there is no chance of getting permanently stuck. The real strength of the game is in its Writing and Atmosphere. The mood created is delightfully surreal, and the constant clever descriptions and responses make this one of the best "reading" text games ever produced. Text game players like to argue that well-written text produces more evocative images than graphic games do. Nord and Bert goes beyond this, not merely doing things BETTER than a graphics game could, but doing things that a graphics game could never do at all. Definitely one of Infocom's most underrated classics. FTP FileSolution (Text)

Not Just A Game

From: Duncan Stevens <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #20 -- March 15, 2000 TITLE: Not Just a Game AUTHOR: John Menichelli E-MAIL: menichel SP@G DATE: 2000 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1 The game in question in John Menichelli's Not Just a Game is the game of Go--the game is set up around a Go board of sorts, and the last few puzzles are simply Go problems transplanted directly into the game. (There's a booklet lying around for the heretofore uninitiated.) Not all the puzzles are Go-related, though; in fact, most of them are conventional IF puzzles, and many are quite clever. The result is a somewhat schizophrenic but overall fairly enjoyable game that even offers some food for thought. It seems your Go teacher has mysteriously disappeared, but she's left behind some clues. The clues lead to a sort of larger-than-life Go board, which you have to navigate, by turns using your Go knowledge and your common sense. The puzzles you encounter along the way are mostly logical, with a few exceptions, and their structure blends symmetry and asymmetry in a way appropriate for the underlying game of Go. If there are problems, they're largely motivational: most of the puzzles are premised on something akin to "here's some stuff to fiddle with, and if you fiddle with it properly, you'll have something that will eventually prove to be useful," rather than actual goal-driven reasoning. Still, Not Just a Game has a lot of company in that respect, and it's hardly a fatal flaw. There's also an interesting blend between chinoiserie/Orientalism and Western culture, in that the bulk of the puzzles that aren't directly related to Go could fit into your average house-setting or fantasy game, and there are certain objects (e.g., chewing gum) that would seem a bit out of place if the game were really striving to be culturally correct. In fact, the game itself calls attention to this contrast--the initial room description puts a Go board "between the sofa and the TV," and the description of a computer mentions that your teacher "doesn't feel comfortable around technological equipment." (Quick disclaimer: I'm not saying technology is Western. Merely that late-twentieth-century stuff like computers don't fit all that well into the chinoiserie setting, as exemplified by Sound of One Hand Clapping, or, for that matter, the endgame of Not Just a Game.) The aspect of the game that requires that you actually apply Go knowledge in more than a superficial way isn't quite as successful, unfortunately. It may be that Go just isn't easy to learn from a few entries in a booklet, but the Go problems that appear at the end of the game were difficult enough that I often didn't understand why the correct solution was correct, even after I'd found it by trial and error. This might be my mental block, but I'm not sure that applied reasoning on this level, even if it's only to learn Go, is well suited for IF--at least, barring a more thorough tutorial process than Not Just a Game provides. The final puzzle, which essentially involves scoring a completed Go game, is tedious in the extreme, moreover--once you figure out the premise of Go scoring, which isn't all that complicated, it's a matter of counting dots on a large grid. Whereas the other puzzles felt obscure, this one just feels mindless--and the game would benefit considerably, I think, if it were removed. The writing is quite good--it's rarely especially evocative (the setting is largely pretty unremarkable, after all), but it also rarely gets in the way of the game, which takes some skill in itself. There's also some humor scattered here and there, documented in an 'amusing' section. There are likewise few technical flaws or game design problems: one section involves a lot of traipsing around, which does get tiresome after a while, but at least it's straightforward traipsing. The story itself requires some disbelief-suspending, but no more than your average fantasy game, to be fair--and the only reason that the suspensions of disbelief here require a conscious effort is that the initial genre of the game isn't clear from the outset, and the setting wanders back and forth a bit between Western suburbs and, um, a vaguely Oriental setting. That may be jarring initially, but it's also rather creative, and it allows for some interesting juxtapositions. For instance, the "Five Elements of Chinese Philosophy" can be found in a poster on a refrigerator, and a baseball bat figures prominently in putting together the Go-related materials. The picture that emerges is one of cultural synthesis, in some respects: your teacher clearly is struggling to retain her own values in an unfamiliar culture, and yet you--and she, implicitly--are surrounded by the trappings of that culture, and draw on them to achieve your ends. The cultures are more complementary than conflicting, then--it's not a question of rejecting one in favor of the other. (I must say, though, that the computer with Z-abuses on it was an odd touch, even under a cultural-synthesis analysis.) In that light, then, it's not necessary to believe uncritically that, as your teacher says, Go is "a reflection of your inner self"--merely that there are many for whom the game of Go really is that important, and that it's worth examining the implications of those values. As a game, then, Not Just a Game is quite solid, if hardly extraordinary. The puzzles are good, and reasonably creative, but nothing particularly remarkable, and the Go puzzles themselves don't work particularly well. But among the subtexts are some rather unusual IF themes, unusual enough to make this one of the more interesting recent works of IF. FTP FileInform .z5 file

Not Just An Ordinary Ballerina

From: Karen Tyers <karvic SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #20 -- March 15, 2000 TITLE: Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina AUTHOR: Jim Aikin E-MAIL: jaikin SP@G DATE: 1999 PARSER: Inform standard SUPPORTS: Z-machine interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive) URL: VERSION: Release 1.02 I downloaded this game from the archive after seeing an announcement on the newsgroup and as soon as I read the introduction I knew I was in for a real treat: It's Christmas Eve. Rather late on Christmas Eve. Just this afternoon your darling 7-year-old daughter Samantha announced that fully a week ago she mailed a letter to Santa Claus asking for Sugar Toes Ballerina, the unbelievably sought-after, impossible-to-find fad doll of the decade. Unwilling to see little Sam heartbroken on Christmas morning, you frantically phoned every toy store in town. Miraculously, you found a shop that claimed to have a Sugar Toes Ballerina in stock! But that was two hours ago -- before the flat tire. Now it's getting dark, and icy weather is closing in. The address you were given, on the outskirts of town, has proven to be that of a dilapidated and disreputable-looking shopping center -- not a modern chrome-and-neon strip mall, either, but a hulking two-story structure that looks to be the ill-favored offspring of a fairy castle and a canning factory. The shopping center is tucked well back from the street among brooding skeletal trees. Other than a few dim yellowish lights that show no trace of holiday spirit, the building is shrouded in gloom, and yours is the only car in the parking lot. Although my own kids are grown up now (well, they think they are...) I can well remember the fad toys that were always (and still are) hyped at Christmas, and how kids are made to feel they are missing out if they don't have one. So, with great nostalgia I embarked on my quest for the Sugar Toes ballerina doll. The first impressions are great. The dark, apparently deserted shopping centre, hardly a sound anywhere, and freezing cold. Wandering around, I found I couldn't get very far as seemingly the power was off, and my hands were too cold to do very much. I found a security guard almost immediately but fortunately for me he was sound asleep. Unfortunately his elbow was leaning on a very interesting looking key and I couldn't obtain it straight away as he kept waking up and frogmarching me out of the building. However, there is a way to get hold of it and after much messing about I managed to do that very thing, and then found I could unlock most of the locked doors in the complex. However, that didn't solve the problem of no power, therefore no lighting. One other problem to over come initially was the series of security monitors covering the entire centre from the office where the guard is. Eventually, after much pulling out of hair, I did manage to disable them all and find a power source, so was able to explore at leisure. Perhaps leisure is not the right word here, as there are three floors to the centre, plus the roof, so I found my map sprawling over several pages. There are loads of shops and almost all of them have a unique puzzle attached to them, which in turn relates to another puzzle somewhere else. The difficulty level of the puzzles ranges from easy/medium to oblique/!**! impossible. Well not quite impossible, but some of the hardest I have come across in a very long while. A couple of them put me in mind of Steve Clay's Taxman series some years ago, but don't let that put you off. The game has an inbuilt gradual hint system so if you find you're really stuck you can use that. I have to say here that I am not sure I am in favour of the in-game hint system, as it makes it too easy to cheat if you are weak-willed. I managed to be very disciplined and only resorted to the hints three times, and given the difficulty of the game, I was quite pleased with myself. On your quest you will come across such things as a depressed elf, a homeless man, the security guard and a rather nasty, very large dog, plus one or two others. I have to say I haven't enjoyed a game as much in a very long time. It's one of those that keep pulling you back for just one more try. On more than one occasion I found myself looking at the clock to realise it was past two in the morning, and that doesn't happen very often. The writing is excellent, with very little in the way of errors. Of course, you have to allow for the difference in spelling (eg tire instead of tyre), but I have no quibble about that. The game runs smoothly, and solving one puzzle seems to lead right into another without any let up. I lost count of the number of objects to be found - 63 at the last count, and every one has at least one use. This will give you some idea of the size and complexity of the game. I haven't quite finished it yet. I have found Sugar Toes, but haven't yet managed to pay for it (I'm very honest you see). This last puzzle has me climbing the walls - I know what to do and I have the necessary items (I think), but will have to put a lot of time and effort into solving it. There appears to be no built in hints for this last one (deliberate?) so I may well email the author and ask for help..... To close I would say that this is an unmissable game, and you know me, I don't say that very often. From: Duncan Stevens <dns361 SP@G> Review appeared in SPAG #20 -- March 15, 2000 There are inherent mimesis problems in most puzzle-fest IF, since most of us do not live in a world where we need to solve logic problems or math riddles to open doors. One of the most significant mimesis problems is the objects-out-of-place syndrome--since most interesting puzzles involve objects with unusual or striking properties, the game author needs to come up with a good reason why the setting might include the objects that are vital to her chosen puzzles. Jim Aikin's Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina solves the problem in a rather creative way: the game is set in a shopping mall. Not just any shopping mall, of course; this one includes such things as a hair salon, a book bindery, and an antique store, the better to craft puzzles with, my dear. What results is about as unabashed a puzzle-fest as IF has ever seen--and while not all of the puzzles are highlights, the result is still thoroughly enjoyable. You're a parent (the game carefully avoids giving you a gender, though given the limited NPC interaction, this isn't all that remarkable a feat) searching for a doll on Christmas Eve, after the stores have closed; your 7-year- old daughter has her heart set on one Sugar Toes, and you're determined to find it. That's the premise, and it's a good one, but in truth it hardly matters whether you're after a ballerina doll or the Magic Hair Dryer of the Gods, since you can largely forget about your ostensible purpose until the very end. NJAOB is an old-style game: the puzzles are, I think it's safe to say, the raison d'etre, and your daughter and the doll provide a reasonably plausible framing device but not much more. (Perhaps that's not fair--some of the crueler obstacles you overcome could be taken as a wry comment on Christmas shopping and the primitive instincts it brings out in parents who are intent on keeping their kids up with the latest craze--but the game doesn't really do anything with that particular angle.) The result is distinctly reminiscent of Infocom's golden years in several respects; there's an initial premise, and the player is told to go forth and solve puzzles, most of which have no obvious connection to the ultimate goal, in hopes that things will work out in the end. On its terms, it works well--but as the trend in recent IF has been toward the integration of story and puzzles, NJAOB feels like something of a throwback. The puzzles--well, thereby hang quite a few tales. Most are quite clever; indeed, even those that are familiar in certain respects have original twists that help liven up the proceedings. There are some regrettable inclusions, in particular a fifteen puzzle--with a twist, to be sure, but it's still a fifteen puzzle in mechanics, and I dearly wished for a way to skip it--and several mazes, all of which have a twist of some sort, of course, but they're firmly within the maze category. Several are math-based, one (one of the first puzzles in the game) in a rather obscure way--and while some are straightforward, others come perilously close to read-the-author's-mind. On the other hand, most of the puzzles have a certain elegance--none, with the exception of a certain logic puzzle, are needlessly complicated--and a few require rather subtle lateral thinking. The layout of the game is distinctly "wide"--after the player solves the first few puzzles, dozens more are suddenly available all at once, so there are multiple puzzle-solving avenues to explore for most of the game. As with most "wide" games, however, there's an inherent frustration element--there may be many puzzles to solve, but it's distinctly possible (particularly toward the later stages of the game) that only one or two will be solvable at any particular moment, meaning that you may not have the tools to solve the problem you're currently struggling with. There's an in-game hint system that adapts nicely to your progress in the game, however, and which informs you if you're not yet ready to tackle a puzzle, so that's a saving grace. There's even one puzzle that depends on ASCII-art renderings for description-- and while the ASCII art is competently done, it feels like something of a betrayal to have largely textual IF give up on text at a key point. Moreover, as with many puzzle-fest games, the puzzles work only if you don't think about them too much--the technicians who set up the power and security systems for this shopping mall were either math Ph.D's or Games Magazine editors. Puzzle-fest IF has an inherent drawback that Ballerina addresses but doesn't entirely overcome. The problem is that the game can feel like a long slog, a series of Mensa-type puzzles without much in the way of reward along the way; if the story doesn't go anywhere when the player solves puzzles, and the only payoff is an object that's presumably useful for another puzzle somewhere, the whole exercise can turn wearisome after a while. Ballerina tries to overcome this in a rather unusual fashion: there's a subplot of sorts that periodically intrudes on the puzzle-solving in rather unexpected ways, so that now and again you're rewarded with some interesting and particularly well-described events that give your quest--well, not context as such, but something of a contrast. The subplot doesn't really withstand close scrutiny--the hows and whys are never resolved, or even touched, and some of the puzzle-solving associated with it owes more to whimsy than to sense--and yet it improves the game immeasurably, somehow; the incursion of the unexpected (and fantastic) leaves the player feeling like she's experienced something more than a doll-hunt. Suffice it to say that the story element lends the game a touch of wonder--and considering that the premise effectively requires breaking and entering on a grand scale, wonder is exactly what's needed here. The setting is vividly rendered, though the talents of a writer as gifted as this one aren't likely to be appreciated in this sort of game: there are few notable events with which to capture the player's imagination, and even the most skillful of room descriptions gets old after a hundred readings or so. The tone of the descriptions varies from sparing... The heavy structure of the shopping center stretches left and right from here. When you crane your neck the building seems almost to be leaning outward, as if it's in some danger of collapsing on top of you, or perhaps pouncing on you. Doubtless that's only a trick of the light. An arched entryway beckons to the south, above it the inscription FLOGG & GRABBY'S STUFFTOWN EST. 1974 carved in a pigeon-flecked substance that looks more like plaster than real stone. Running along the building above the arch is a covered-over exterior walkway. faintly silly: You've never seen so many lamps in your life. Floor lamps, table lamps, gooseneck lamps, chandeliers, porch lights, track lighting -- when God said, "Let there be light," whoever owns this shop said, "I can make a buck on that." The only exit is the door to the lower concourse on the east. The feel of a slightly seedy shopping mall is well conveyed, for example in the "pigeon-flecked substance" in the first description quoted above, and to the extent that the game has an overall tone, the tawdriness fits it well. Less well developed or apt is the eerie aspect, brought out in the "pouncing" bit here and in various references to shadows and gloom elsewhere; the writing is more than good enough to set a creepy scene, of course, but the tawdry-glitzy aspect and frequent lapses into goofiness (the above is hardly the only silly bit) undermine the effort. Again, though, given that the puzzles rather than the setting and story are the focus of attention here, it's hardly a major drawback. The overall feel of playing Ballerina is hard to convey concisely; there's a temptation to simply ignore the setting and view the game as a set of puzzles, given the number and variety of those puzzles. Most players are likely to initially absorb the well-described setting, but increasingly disregard it as they start tackling the puzzles, and the extent to which the tone and style of the game stays with the player consequently varies. Technically, everything works well here--admirably well, considering the size (a 500K-plus Z8 file) of the game and the vast numbers of objects. The rucksack stand-in, appropriately enough a shopping bag, isn't flawless--I spent more time than I wanted to fiddling with it, and the game doesn't provide for things like automatically taking a key out of the bag in order to unlock a door. The same problem recurs elsewhere; several places where modern-day IF veterans might expect the game to supply inferences don't make such inferences, which can be frustrating. Still, it's good enough, and most of the glitches I noticed were minor details rather than game-stoppers. The hint system is quite well done--the adaptive aspect worked perfectly--and several puzzles have reasonably logical alternative solutions. If Ballerina suffers as a game-playing experience, then, it's less because it doesn't succeed in what it set out to do than because its genre isn't in critical vogue these days, if a field as sparse as IF criticism can be said to have a vogue. The PC is largely a cipher, the story intermittent and largely without momentum, the NPCs fairly cardboard--in short, the game exists largely for the sake of the puzzles, rather than trying to create an immersive experience through the story. It's far more difficult--virtually impossible, even--to make a puzzle-centered game immersive in the same way, and in that Ballerina occasionally requires that the player draw on outside knowledge of one form or another, it doesn't really try for immersion as such. The expectations of IF players in this day and age have been shaped by so many moral ambiguities, unreliable narrators, branching plots, and the like that the puzzle-oriented nature of Ballerina may prove unsatisfying. On the whole, then, Ballerina fits its genre admirably, and the player who doesn't ask it to be more than a puzzle-fest will not be disappointed. The puzzles are difficult, but largely fair, and they boast a wealth of originality. It has some minor flaws, but it's worth checking out. FTP FileInform .z8 file

Nothing More, Nothing Less

From: Francesco Bova <fbova SP@G> Review appeared in
SPAG #25 -- June 20, 2001 NAME: Nothing More, Nothing Less AUTHOR: Gilles Duchesne EMAIL: lonecleric SP@G DATE: February, 2001 PARSER: Hugo SUPPORTS: Hugo interpreters AVAILABILITY: Freeware VERSION: 1.21 URL: Nothing More, Nothing Less (NMNL) was a late entry to the 2001 SmoochieComp by a first-time author who, in his own words, "used the SmoochieComp as an excuse to learn an IF language", so as you might expect there were some first time growing pains and perhaps a few awkward game design choices, and I hope that the author takes the following review as the constructive criticism that it is intended to be. To his credit, the author attempts a few novel game design initiatives and that's what I'll be focusing on for the first part of this review. NMNL is a fairly small game that takes place in the protagonist's (and most likely the author's) small apartment, with the usual rooms (i.e., bedroom, bathroom, living room) accounted for. There is no use of cardinal directions in the game. Movement through the apartment is simply done through the typing in of room titles. I found this fairly easy to get used to, even though I've grown accustomed to mapping out a landscape in my head with the use of cardinal directions. The room descriptions are fairly succinct, describing the basic necessities of life that surround the PC and his girlfriend, but room descriptions change depending on what challenge the PC is facing. No doubt, this is an attempt by the author to clue the player in to a certain problem by bringing current dilemmas to the foreground of the player's perception. For example, during a section of the game involving the PC's girlfriend's cat, the living room changes from this: Living Room This is the part of the apartment in which I spend most of my waking hours. This is due to three important pieces of furniture here: the large oak desk that holds my much-used computer; the TV, favorite appliance of my beloved after a long day a work; and the futon which we both like to cuddle upon. TO Living Room This is the place where my girlfriend's evil cat sleeps... when it's the least convenient, of course. From here, I can reach the kitchen, the dining room, and the hallway. Not a big deal, right? Except, there's no longer any mention of the TV, computer or futon; all objects which are still in scope but aren't described in the room's current description. In certain rooms, you have to manipulate some of these "hidden" objects to boot. When I ran into the repeated problem of trying to remember what had been in each room the only remedy was to save my position, restart the game, get a good look at what was in each room, then use that prior knowledge during my saved game. Thankfully, the game was only a few rooms big so the saving and restoring wasn't too overwhelming. Still, it was probably more trouble than it should've been. Another interesting game design choice involved progressively revealing items of importance throughout the course of the game. So, for example, a cursory look in a certain room may not reveal much of interest the first time around, but another look a few turns later may reveal something new and useful. Other reviewers of NMNL have enjoyed this feature, but I found it kind of tedious. I'm of the opinion that if something's in scope at the beginning of the game and hasn't been manipulated somehow then it should always be in scope. What ended up happening when I faced a challenge was that I'd just type in each room name, take a look around, and mysteriously bump into what I needed. Again not a big deal, but from a playing experience I could effectively turn my brain off until I stumbled into what I needed and as a result, it wasn't as much fun as it might have been. The game's focus was unfortunately a little off-kilter, too, for what is an extremely linear game. When the intro tells me my goal is to bring in a photo receipt (which incidentally, is the ultimate goal of NMNL), that's generally what I'm aiming to do, but every time I tried to exit my apartment the game would come back with an, "Oh, wait you forgot to do ". This again isn't a big deal but perhaps a smoother game design would have had one puzzle finishing then linking to the beginning of another puzzle, as opposed to segregating them. There is also a novel hint system included which spirits you away to a car being driven by the author and his girlfriend where you can ask or tell the author about a subject and get responses. Unfortunately the responses aren't terribly helpful; more descriptions about objects than a nudge in right direction. The hint system actually serves more as a backdrop for some banter between the author and his girlfriend where we learn about the author's experience concerning the city he lives in, participation in the IF community, and other more menial activities. Inadvertently most likely, the author also designed the hint system so that I, for the life of me, couldn't find my way out of it. Typing in random words finally got me to 'PLAY', which kicked me back into the game. So, to sum up so far: Some interesting game design choices, some of which were not overwhelming successes but most of which I'd certainly applaud as a good attempt at something novel. Outside of the game's infrastructure though, how does the game stack up in the prose and plot department? Well before I address those areas, I'd like to do something they taught us never to do back in IF Review school: I would like to discuss the author as opposed to the game and to start off, I'd like to make the assumption that you the protagonist are in fact the author. Where does this assumption come from? Well number one, all the responses are cast in the first person as opposed to the second and two, the familiar tone of the work when the author describes his surrounding would indicate to me that he's talking about himself. If this assumption was in fact the author's intent, then I think it's also fair to say that the author is pretty crazy about his girlfriend. The initial indications come from the banter between the author and his girlfriend during the hint system piece but the real proof comes from the fact that almost every object description is framed by how it relates to her. For example, look at the following: >examine bed It's a big a comfy bed, with plenty of space for us both. Even if my beloved wasn't living here when I bought it, I thought I should play safe... and I was right. She moves a lot during her sleep, you know? (Well, come to think of it, I don't think I want you to know.) OR >examine sink I basically need to use this sink for four things: washing my teeth, combing my hair, washing my hands and... oh, make that three things. I used to shave daily, but in the recent weeks my beloved has taken a fancy to the bearded look, and I have been willing to oblige her. Boy that's sweet; sugary, feeling-it-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach sweet. Which of course is completely acceptable for a SmoochieComp game, but would get to be a bit much for me personally were it just a normal non-thematically based release. The game is so sweet in fact, that it reads to me more like a homage to the author's girlfriend with the plot and puzzles added after the fact as simple window dressing. There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the personal nature of the piece may not be to everybody's taste. Now to really go out on a limb, considering the release date for the SmoochieComp games (February 14th), I think it may also be the case that this platform experiment turned out to be a pretty nice valentine for someone special. It could also be the case that I'm assuming way too much and we all know that when people assume: they make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me', so maybe I should stop before I get myself into too much trouble. To wrap up then: NMNL as far as a piece of first-time IF and platform experiment is pretty average and pretty much what I'd expect, to be honest, but as a publicly accessible piece that expresses love for someone special (which I believe, perhaps incorrectly, NMNL to be) NMNL is mostly a success, and one a few of us could probably take some lessons from. FTP FileHugo .hex file
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