IFComp 2009 review: Earl Grey by Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish

Here's a novel idea. The gist of Earl Grey is that you have a magic bag that can take letters from words or place them in other words, thus creating new words. The trick that makes this more than just a game of Scrabble is that when the words change, so does the world -- if you take the r from a horse, it actually turns into the garden tool. (Wouldn't it be great if, say, Wikipedia worked this way?)

Changing words and watching the world change with them is just as fun as you might imagine. (If you can't imagine how much fun it would be, this might not be the game for you.) What's also great is that the story has an actual structure: first you learn how to use your newfound skills, then you go about using them, and then there's the big confrontation and the finale.

There are two main flaws that I can see First, the masses of text are just too big to pick up the words to change, especially when there's practically no limitations to what the words you can manipulate are. You could change nouns, adjectives, verbs or anything else. You have to process each word you encounter. This is manageable at the beginning when you can only take away letters or add them, but when it gets to anagrams it became just too overwhelming for me.

The other main problem is that how the game reacts to player actions is fairly random. You can't foresee the situation after your move. This means that you can't devise a plan to solve the puzzles. All you do is scan the text for words that could be manipulated. There's no room for strategy, just tactics.

The word changing mechanics is fun and I would certainly want to play more. The ending is quite open so that leaves room for hopes that the authors are planning a sequel.

IFComp 2009 review: The Duel in the Snow by Utkonos

The Duel in the Snow is a story of a man whose life is not going that well. His wife has left him and he's about to leave for a duel with an able marksman.

In addition to the rather straightforward story of the eponymous duel, there are some extra layers hidden in the game. To find out what is really going on you have to do some extra work, which gives the game some replayability.

The different endings branch in a rather unconventional way. If you miss the action that leads to the "good" ending (which ends the game right there) you get the "losing" ending that has one extra scene. Apparently this losing branch gives clues to finding out all the nuances of the main story.

The game has some of the most suiting default responses in the comp and overall it's very well programmed. I didn't run into a single bug and I don't remember seeing any strange responses either.

I did have some slight confusion over my goals at the beginning. The game said I was thirsty and apparently there was no water in the entire house (when finding an everyday object is your goal in life but you can't find one anywhere, you know you're in an adventure game).

The best aspect of the game for me was the mood building that was supported by the solid implementation and responses suitable to the setting. Although the game is quite short it doesn't really matter because the story would not need any more. In fact, the "death scene" could also be cut or moved someplace else without much impact to the story.

IFComp 2009: Yon Astounding Castle, Broken Legs, The Hangover

A couple of games not rated or stopped playing after a while.

Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort by Tiberius Thingamus

Even though the puzzles and gameplay here weren't that bad, after a while I just couldn't go on because reading ye fauxe olde Englishe became too taxing. Thy Dungeonman did it well; Yon Astounding Castle overdid it.

Broken Legs by Sarah Morayati

Broken Legs presented an interesting dilemma. On the other hand, I did not personally enjoy the game very much. In essence it's an optimizing game: play, replay, do something different, see how the situation improves a tiny bit, replay, continue until you have the exact, complex solution. I don't care for this kind of games at all. It didn't help that Broken Legs had such a repulsive main character.

Then again it wouldn't feel right rating it purely based on personal enjoyment because it is polished, deep, and clever piece of work. The score that it objectively deserves is much higher than what the subjective score in my case would be. So finally after thinking about it for some time I decided to take the easy way out and just not rate it at all.

The Hangover by Red conine

The ADRIFT runner said that I had the wrong version and would have had to update the story file with some tool. Reading other people's reviews didn't exactly make me want to jump through hoops to get the game running so The Hangover will officially be the only game in this comp that I didn't play.

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.

IntroComp 2009 reviews

IFComp is still going on, but I've had these IntroComp reviews sitting on my hard disk long enough. So here they are.


Gossip has a really nice setting (playing a "journalist" of a trash magazine) that had me hooked right away. Playing further lead to a small disappointment compared to the expectations, but I would very much like to play either a reworked intro or preferrably a solid full game.

I didn't finish this one. I got as far as a cocktail party with a large amount of guests where I had to gather gossip about them. I didn't count but there were more than ten NPC's present. Talking with the waiter got me some tips on what to talk about with whom, but then that source ran out and it started to look like I would have had to write down the names of everyone and methodically go through everyone asking them about everyone else there. There were just too many of them and not enough personal interest in the characters for this to be anything else than a chore, so I gave up there.

There were some technical problems. I had a camera but i couldn't PHOTOGRAPH or TAKE A PHOTO. Some guesswork finally lead to TAKE PHOTO. Also the game suggested that there would have been a puzzle involved in catching the person I was supposed to photograph, but somehow I skipped that part by just walking into the location of the target.

There's no plotline or conflict or any motivation for the player character other than her profession. The game is not as much a game or a story but a gossip journalism simulation, but to work as such it should have the gameplay and puzzles significantly smoothed out.


Obituary tells the story of a woman who dies. The story doesn't end there; she ends up in some afterworldly place (Hell? The limbo? Back to Earth as a ghost?).

The game advances through cutscenes and the story is clearly the main point. The parser is there just so that the player could give the right command that triggers the next cutscene.

I got stuck once so bad that I had to look at the walkthrough. Turned out that you had to examine a thing twice to notice an important item, but the game never hinted at this and there was no reason or motivation for the player to do it. Contrived puzzles are often the result when the author wants to tell a story but thinks that "IF has to have puzzles". If the game is about the story, don't force puzzles in if they don't come naturally.

The player character has a nice amount of roughness and distinct personality. It's a good start for building the full game, and this is the intro I voted with the highest score.


Selves: Interactive Emo Poetry (ok that's not the real tagline but it should be) is thematically similar to Obituary but has the angst turned up five notches. And yes, you can cut your own wrists.

The unnamed player character seems to have caused a death of this woman whose body is conveniently lying next to a shovel. So far the goal can be easily guessed. Since you can't DIG with the shovel, some verb guessing leads to BURY BODY. Then the player is transported to an empty room (empty... like your soul) where you can CUT YOURSELF, but other than easing your existential pain with cliches I couldn't find anything more to do. Surprisingly CRY or DYE HAIR BLACK didn't work. Too bad this was the only game this year that didn't come with a walkthrough.

For some reason games and other fiction like this often create the mood by being vague throughout and purposefully avoiding giving any useful information to the reader. This is not the only way to create the mood the author is probably after, and Obituary demonstrates this with being much more powerful in building the mood using different techniques. It was bad luck for Selves that it was released together with Obituary. The comparison is inevitable and Obituary is the obvious winner.