IFComp 2009 review: Eruption by Richard Bos

The author of Eruption spends quite a lot of words explaining his motivations to enter the comp. Apparently he figures that either there is the usual amount of crap submitted so that his game places somewhere in the middle, or there are a lot of good games so his game places at the bottom. While some amount of realism is healthy, you can't help but wonder if the game would have reached higher if the aim hadn't been so low.

The gameplay consists of object hunting in a tropical island (for some reason at first I assumed it was the Pompeii and expected Roman soldiers and pilums and stuff). It's pretty straightforward with little plot, but at least there's a background and even a feelie, so it's not completely bland.

I had troubles figuring out what the exits were at many of the locations. I think this is because there were too many directions mentioned in the descriptions so I had to really read and understand what they meant. For example, see what happens if I highlight all the directions in this room description:

This beach lies between two large outcrops of rock - foothills of the volcano to the west - and the sea to the east. In the rock to the southwest is your cave; the north-western ridge stretches all the way to your north, where a shack stands on a promontory. The Island Path runs from the south, around the foothills, to the northwest across a cut in the rock. There is also a path north up the cape, and a staircase ascending the volcano

That's a lot of directions in one paragraph (plus a mention that up is also a direction) and it's very difficult to pick them out from there. In addition the map is full of one-way paths and paths that change direction (so if you go west, then east, you don't end up where you started), so the topography is much more complicated than it should be considering how relatively few locations it has.

There was one puzzle I struggled with because I completely misunderstood an item's description (you would think that if you lug around a cloth that has a pair of oars wrapped in it you would notice that there's something inside the cloth). Otherwise it was quite straightforward and easy -- not complete crap, but not exactly shining either. Just like the author intended.

IFComp 2009 review: The Ascot by Duncan Bowsman

To me the problem with CYOA is that the range of options that the author can choose as choices at any point during the game is huge. There's only a small subset of all the options players might want to do that can be presented as an option. (In contrast, IF with a parser allows at least trying anything within the verb-noun(-second noun) structure, even if the freedom of action is often or always just an illusion.) This is what often annoys me -- I might want to try doing something, but it's not offered as a choice. I get the feeling that there's something wrong with the game design since there's no clear reason to why the thing I want to do isn't given as a choice.

Then there's The Ascot. The only choices at any point are YES or NO. The rules have changed: the set of every conceivable action has been reduced to two, and both of them are always available for the player to choose. This is like the CYOA equivalent of haiku poetry. In contrast to "regular" CYOA described above I'm not wanting anything more because nothing else is included in the overarching rules of the game.

So, I'm not a big fan of CYOA but I'm a big fan of CYOA haiku. Even better, the Ascot has the same kind of off the wall humor that I'm quite fond of. How can you say no when someone asks, "Wujalykan ASCOT?"

IFComp 2009 review: Resonance by Matthew Scarpino

The author credits last year's Nightfall for inspiration. Since the author himself mentions the link, I'll just continue from there.

Resonance is very close to being more than just inspired by Nightfall -- it's at the border of being Nightfall retold (or reimagined if you will). If you look at Nightfall's defining properties, you'll find almost all of them in from Resonance. Just to mention a couple: You have a "sandbox" city you can explore. There are many non-essential locations where you can unveil more of the story and the background. There's a map included. Both have "mad scientist" plots with similar story arcs. I was constantly reminded of Nightfall while playing Resonance, although that's not necessarily a bad thing considering that I liked Nightfall the best of all the last year's comp games.

My final point is that like its inspiration, Resonance has the city's streets devoid of people and a reasonable explanation within the story to why this is. The thing is that Resonance doesn't actually need empty streets. The story and puzzles would work just as well without. I suspect the city is empty mostly because that's how it is with Nightfall.

The main problems of Resonance are pacing and NPC credibility. Things are happening at a breakneck speed at points, with little involvement from the player. To finish the game you mainly have to go to different places, do some obvious tasks, solve a couple of riddles (what is it with riddles this year?) and watch the events unfold. Most of the time I had barely any feeling of actually being involved of anything that was happening. I was just a spectator instead of active partaker.

There are, I suspect, several reasons to feeling detached to the PC's actions, the main reasons being the fast pace of what was happening and the lack of intention on my part. Typing a command would bring the plot forward a relatively long way and to a direction that would not have been my intention. To give an example, not exactly from this game but to give some explanation to what I'm trying to say, if I type SIT ON CHAIR I would not expect the PC then automatically having a cup of tea and exchanging a few words with aunt Mabel about the weather.

The other big problem I had was with the actions of some NPCs that required a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief. Especially the scene with the police officers was a bit hard to imagine as actually happening.

Ok, so that was the bad news. The good news is that Resonance is not a bad game at all. The story is a delicious noir-scifi-action mashup that resists the temptation of taking any of its aspects too far. It's actually fun going around the city, meeting people and advancing the script. While not without some serious flaws, Resonance is still the best game I've played so far in the comp.

IFComp 2009 reviews: Spelunker's Quest, Condemned, Gleaming the Verb

Time for a batch of comp entries about which I didn't have much anything to say. Here they are with just brief notes instead of full reviews.

Spelunker's Quest by Tom Murrin

Spelunker's Quest is a straightforward cave crawler with some low-fantasy elements. Puzzles consist mostly of searching scenery to reveal items and it's easy to get into a non-undoable dead end. If you like Zorkian cave exploring games this is very suitable for satisfying that need.

Condemned by A Delusioned Teenager

Here's one with a sad and meaningful story. It's stupendously overwritten, sentence after another going on with metaphors and adjectives before finally coming around and shooting itself in the face, but still much better than the author's first game two years ago. Technically it's very solid and if the author's prose continues to improve at this rate we'll have some real masterpieces coming up in a few years.

Gleaming the Verb by Kevin Jackson-Mead

Gleaming the Verb is much like a certain other game in this comp in that it's just a collection of word puzzles. It's not interactive fiction by any other measure than that it has a parser.

IFComp 2009 review: Beta Tester by Darren Ingram

The setting makes Beta Tester basically a Portal clone without a clever physics gimmick. (There are portals, though, which makes the comparison even more obvious.)

In a twist of true Alanis Morissette irony Beta Tester is apparently not beta tested. Either it never occurred to the author of Beta Tester to beta test his game called Beta Tester, which is just sad, or he thought it would be really funny in an ironic way to not do that, which just isn't. Or he actually had it tested, but not enough and didn't bother to credit the testers, which is just as bad.

I might be a bit obsessive about the subject, so things like this make me bleed from the ears. That lowers the scores for you, Beta Tester.

Ignoring that the game is not that bad, actually. The writing is mostly proficient and there's some real content here. Even though the initial puzzle seems to toss any predictable causality off the window, it's fun to poke at it and I did solve it eventually. The two hour comp limit ran out shortly afterwards so I'm not sure how long the game actually is.

There's something going on with the narrator voice that I couldn't quite grasp onto. Is it talking to the player character or the player? It's hard to tell when the parts that look like that are talking to the player character are mixed with the default messages that are talking to the player.

IFComp 2009 review: Trap Cave by Emilian Kowalewski

To me it seems like a bad idea to submit a CYOA to the IFComp. It's a competition for interactive fiction, as in text games with a parser. People expect a parser, and a CYOA will be judged against games with a parser. It's like bringing an orange to the annual apple fair. Even if you had the best orange in the world it would still fail people's expectations set to the standards based on apples.

It seems like a really bad idea to submit a CYOA to promote your new CYOA authoring system. How is getting terrible reviews and placing last or next-to-last going to promote the system? "Now even you can write games like the classics from the bottom tier of IFComp!"

Now that we're talking about bad ideas, the author of Trap Cave had the worst idea ever. He submitted a CYOA that's half English and half German. Or maybe half English and 1.5 German, since there's an all-German version and a half-translated English version included.

I haven't played every game yet but I'd be extremely surprised if this placed higher than 20th place. What was the grand plan behind all this? Hoping that those who don't know German would just skip this and not rate it? That seems unlikely, given that then there wouldn't be the half-English version included at all. Was the idea that people would get some grasp of the story from those parts that they could read? Or is it just a highly elaborate trolling attempt?

The most likely explanation I can find is that the author has submitted for review not a game but an authoring system. It's easy to get blinded to what the players will perceive when the author has worked on it from a completely different perspective. The author sees the code and the workings of the system (especially when a new authoring system is also made in the progress), but the background is competely opaque to players. They judge what they play, oblivious or uncaring of how it works under the hood. The authoring system might be super good but you can't judge a system based on the games it produces. You can make excellent games with crappy authoring systems and vice versa.

As to the game itself, well, enh. It's basic cave exploring with little to no story attached. The german version renders umlauts and estsets wrong and I couldn't find a way to change the character set. I found a locked door from one end of a tunnel and a key from the other end, but there wasn't an option for turning back after I had picked up the key. There's no walkthrough included so I can't check but it looks broken.

All I can say to the author is this: good luck with the authoring system you're building. I bet it'll be a hit with the CYOA crowd, but you're looking for your audience from the wrong place. My hunch is that energy spent on the IFComp is something that could be more fruitful if directed to other areas.

IFComp 2009 review: Grounded in Space by Matt Wigdahl

In this game you're a teenager living on an asteroid with your family when you behave so badly that your parents send you alone in space for a potentially deadly mission. (Life sure is tough for children in space.)

The game starts with a lot of things to read. The intro is faux-interactive: the scene progresses no matter what you command. (I always get frustrated when I can't think of anything else to do than Z to keep the text coming.) This continues later when you have to learn how the technology works by reading chunks of text.

There's one unfortunate puzzle that just doesn't work as text. It involves moving mirrors in a grid using x and y coordinates and changing the mirrors' orientation, and it's truly a chore. It's a variation of an age-old puzzle that I could have easily solved on paper, but with a cludgy interface like this it just doesn't work.

There's a lot of build-up and learning how the space ship works and then... it ends. I guess the game does a good job giving the illusion of a world that exists far beyond what the player has access to, but that illusion breaks violently when the you have won -message comes on the screen when things have just begun to get interesting. The relatively large amount of work the player has to invest in learning the game world doesn't ultimately pay off when that knowledge isn't put to good use.

To my surprise I noticed that during the epilogue I was reading the lines of a NPC in heavy US southern accent in my head. Then it hit me -- this is not a space opera, it's a space western! It has it all - ranchers, herding, duels, vast and lonely frontiers...

None of these quibbles are to say that I didn't like the game. I really did. All in all the good background saves a lot and the prose is excellent but the abrupt ending and some puzzles unfitting to the medium keep Grounded in Space from truly shining.

IFComp 2009 review: The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man by Hannes Schueller

The "believable" adventures of an invisible man? Maybe that just shows a good sense of irony. The game works on its own little logic and trying to grasp it ranges from hard to impossible. At one point the otherwise invisible player character can get a disguise and walk around wrapped in bandages, but the NPCs don't seem to react in any way to him nevertheless and some even ignore him as if he were still invisible. This is where any remaining believability just disappears.

The walkthrough says I can't go into the pub dressed as a patient because none of the patients have any money. I bet that's why the "room for wealthy patients" was empty in the hospital. It's not a good sign when the walkthrough is the only place where you can find the reason why the game world behaves as it does.

The puzzles are really obscure - there's often only one solution that's not very well hinted. The final puzzle involves doing something to an item that's not mentioned in the room description or anywhere else. I'm not seeing any way someone would guess the solution to that, even if the walkthrough talks about it being a "cliché".

The premise would have had so much potential the game just barely scrapes and throws the rest away. You have to be alone to carry things or to do something to the environment to keep people from freaking out or noticing you. A lot of opportunities for cool puzzles with this setting.

Locksmith's Shop

[..]

>buy lockpicks

Nothing is on sale.

>give paycheck to locksmith

(the locksmith)
The locksmith doesn't seem interested.

The locksmith has a very peculiar business model there.

I tried to pick up a puppy, but the game thought I tried to take the sun. Easy mistake to make, no doubt.

You can see a luxurious bed (on which is a bedsheet) and a cabinet (closed) here.

>x bedsheet

The bedsheet is tied to nothing.

I wonder what the bedsheet will be used for?

>n

You can't, since the door is in the way.

Repeated a million times. What is this, the 1980s?

Almost every location description lacks the direction where the player first entered the room. You can't assume the players always remember from which direction they came in for the first time.

After an anti-climactic ending I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth. The main character is repulsive and the game assumes that either the players share his sadistic tendencies or that they are willing to roleplay the part. That's not how it works -- I'm not that keen on inflicting pain on a puppy to get my revenge on a guy I know nothing about and who is with all likelihood much more likable person than the player character.

Many games suffer from thin or non-existent characterizations. At least here the main character has some personality, even if it is so repugnant that it makes playing the game a nauseating experience.