Once again, to my infinite glee, another Interactive Fiction Competition has arrived. This is my second year judging the competition, and this year's reviews will follow the same basic format as last year's. As before, the reviews are listed in the random order in which I played the games in order to keep some consistency of narrative.
If you have any questions or comments, I can be contacted, as always, at email@example.com.
by Jessica Knoch
Your dog has been abducted by aliens and you're off to find him in an underground maze. Apart from the slightly strange lead-in to the plot, this is a very typical "find the items and solve the puzzles" kind of adventure. I found it rather enjoyable if not especially exceptional. The puzzles were the right difficulty level and feature multiple solutions in some cases (I only used hints twice, and both times I was being dense and missing obvious clues). While there were a few bugs, none were game-stopping, and I expect that they'll be fixed sooner or later (I'm about to report them after writing this review). This could have been more clever and amusing, I suppose, but it's nice as it is -- a good, light first game, solved in about an hour.
Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me!
by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold
This is a collaboration by two popular authors whose work tends to impress other people rather more than it does me. As with past adventures, I can see why people would be impressed by this -- it has some interesting puzzles and situations, and it's often quite entertaining. It doesn't quite work for me as a whole, though; the plot didn't entirely make sense (as usual), the characters were dull cliches (more than usual), and the ending was kind of abrupt. It's a fun diversion, but it's not solid enough to deserve too high a ranking in the final results.
by Howard A. Sherman
Ahh, Bastard Operator from Hell. That brings back some memories -- I recall the stories (about a cruel and evil system administrator) being distributed over FidoNet back in my pre-Internet bulletin-board-running days. It never lived up to its humor potential for me, but I still have a fondness for it since it was part of the pop culture of a brief but interesting era of digital communication. Apparently, despite the fact that it seems like a relic of a past time to me, it's still going strong, and now it also has an IF game based on it. The game is fairly true to the original silly stories as I remember them, and just like its source material, it doesn't live up to its potential. It's not as funny as it could be, and its gameplay is seriously flawed. Some objects are implemented rather inadequately, NPCs are mostly unresponsive (too bad, 'cause tormenting them would be fun), few actions are well-clued, and it's too easy to advance prematurely, missing lots of points in the process. When I played, I very quickly solved an obscure puzzle (to my great pride), which advanced me to the endgame sequence before I was ready for it. I then trudged along to the final room and got stuck there because I had missed several actions. Not good game design! I felt rather indignant when I finally gave up and read the walkthrough and discovered that there was really no reasonable way (apart from through luck) that I could have done any better. This could (and should) have been much better.
by Jeff Rissman
This game has a simple premise: you're on a ship that's been attacked by aliens, and you need to get out. The implementation and writing are both more than adequate, but the game really failed to hold my attention. The plot and details aren't compelling enough, and the gameplay features too many relics from the bad old days, most notably death by starvation and tedious mazes. After getting stuck a few too many times, I turned to the walkthrough. After using the walkthrough for a little while, I got bored and gave up entirely. Maybe I missed a really thrilling finale, but I doubt it.
by Mihalis Georgostathis
Last year, the Quest system didn't make a very good impression on me. This thing isn't helping. After a grammatically questionable opening scene, you're dropped into an apartment and told that you have to take a shower. But I couldn't figure out how to. "Take shower" didn't work, nor did "bathe," "clean self," "use shower," "undress," or any number of other things. Eventually, I figured out that the required command was "go to shower," and I was rewarded with "You enter the shower and poor [sic] some cold water on you to wake up." Oh dear. Considering that even the best of superhero games have trouble holding my attention sometimes, I didn't hang around too long trying to finish this thing, especially since there's no walkthrough.
by Todd Watson
This is undoubtedly the best game I've yet encountered using the Adrift interpreter. This is probably largely due to the fact that the game is a highly linear story-oriented adventure of the Photopia variety, and as such, it doesn't require a terribly sophisticated parser. It's extremely helpful, though, that the author is a good writer. Although there's some pointless twiddling around with doors and folders at the beginning of the story, it is fairly engaging throughout. I hesitate to give the game wholehearted praise, as the plot and structure sometimes lack originality and I'm a bit uncomfortable with some aspects of the message that the author seems to be trying to send, but I can't help but respect this as a solid effort.
by Edward Floren
This started out promisingly, looking to be a pleasant bit of childhood nostalgia, and I suppose that is what it was... but there wasn't enough of it for it to seem especially meaningful. There are a few flashbacks, a couple of uninspired puzzles based on old TV shows, and then it's all over, leaving the reader feeling less than entirely satisfied. A nice try, but not a great success.
by Frecesco Bova
This adventure is apparently the middle part of a trilogy, the first part of which I've never encountered and the conclusion of which I now look forward to. Although it's not perfect (there are some under-implemented objects and slightly unclear puzzles), it's a well-above-average fantasy adventure with a detailed background, some interesting scenarios and a surprising vein of darkness. The attractive PDF-format maps that accompany the adventure serve little purpose but are a nice touch. This isn't likely to be my favorite game of the year, but I suspect it will stick with me longer than most of the competition entries.
The Granite Book
by James Mitchelhill
I suspect we have a love it or hate it kind of game here. The writing is nice, but the game is so abstract and surreal that it raises a lot more questions than it answers. Some people may find this thoroughly enjoyable, but being the literal-minded person that I am, I was ultimately a bit frustrated. At least it was short!
by Steve Evans
This is yet another story-oriented game in which the reader learns about the life of the in-game character by living through various scenes from various times. While there's a pleasant, sort of nostalgic feeling to games of this sort, I think the genre is getting a little creaky. I admit that I enjoyed the game and found the writing to be good, but interaction was minimal and the story's impact just wasn't as strong as it might have been had I read it before the many similar games that have come out since Photopia. A nice effort, but not quite different enough to satisfy me, and definitely not for players interested solely in puzzle-solving.
by Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn
This game is based around a fairly amusing premise: an adventure game has just ended, and you're the janitor that has to clean things up. Unfortunately, I don't think this is an especially appropriate entry for this competition. The game is large and lengthy and full of puzzles, and with the two-hour time limit looming over me, I just couldn't get in the right mood to try and finish it. I think if I had played it under other circumstances I would have found it quite enjoyable, but just now it seemed too open-ended and complicated to focus on.
by Joao Mendes
Like the earlier Photograph, this is an interactive adaptation of a short story written years earlier by the author. The game is extremely short, and though its story has some nice touches, it isn't anything spectacular. The real problem here is the element of interactivity -- there isn't any. You just have to guess what you have to do to further advance the story, and this is rarely anything obvious or meaningful and sometimes is even something that, when you did it earlier, had no effect. With a bit of beta testing, this might have been improved, but as it is, it's rather seriously flawed.
Coffee Quest II
by Dog Solitude
Well, this game has a lot in common with BOFH: it's set in an office, it's full of non-obvious actions to perform, and it's not especially funny. You might (note that I say might, not will) chuckle once or twice, but the overall air of mediocrity makes it barely worth the effort of playing. I'm not sure how this compares or relates to Coffee Quest I (if such a thing actually exists), and I'm not sure that I especially care.
by Alan and Ian Mead
This game feels awfully unfinished to me. There's a huge map, a bunch of dinosaurs wandering around, and a contract requiring you to get all kinds of prehistoric DNA, but the actual game consists of performing about five actions and then it's all over. There's also an unfinished air to the text, with words and even entire descriptions missing here and there. Maybe if this had actually been completed it would have been a fun game (though I suspect it would have required too much mapping even then); as it is, it's a pointless waste of time.
Hell: A Comedy of Errors
by John Evans
This is a great change of pace, and the most original entry I've encountered so far in this year's competition (though admittedly it does sort of resemble Adam Cadre's recent Lock & Key). You're a demon, and you get to build your own customized underworld in which to torture the souls of the damned! What more do you want? It has a high replay value, lots of things to customize, and best of all, KILLER PENGUINS! Hooray! Admittedly, there are some bugs, and I couldn't quite figure out the optimal strategy for soul-torturing, but this is a great creation which shows much improvement over the author's previous entry, Elements.
The PK Girl
by Robert Goodwin
Wow, the second interesting Adrift game in a row. Note that I say "interesting," not "good." I hesitate to praise this too much, as it has some serious flaws, but it is at least interesting. The game is obviously anime/manga-inspired, as evidenced by its artwork and its rather obnoxious portrayal of women. What makes it interesting is that it supplements its fairly linear (and often buggy and awkwardly written) narrative with a sort of dating game (something fairly common in the world of anime/manga-inspired software). Depending on your actions, you score different numbers of points with the game's different female characters, and this apparently can cause special endings to occur. I find something inherently creepy in this whole scoring system, but at the same time I appreciate the way it makes the game a little more textured than it would otherwise have been. Of course, I don't know firsthand about these multiple endings; I didn't manage to finish the game once, let alone multiple times. Still, while this is by no means a great work, some of the ideas used in it could lead to great things if they were applied a bit differently to a less shallow story.
Four Mile Island
by Thomas Russo
Well, this is an interesting one -- allegedly an old Apple II BASIC program written for a never-published magazine in the early eighties and just now brought to light through the competition. Obviously, it doesn't feature a very sophisticated parser, and the text is rather terse. It's a fairly enjoyable game, though, especially if you're nostalgic about the days when computer magazines were fun.
A Party to Murder
by David D. Good
Another decent Adrift game; I'm shocked. I still don't like the interpreter very much, but it's good to see that people are putting it to decent use. This is a mystery game of sorts using a flashback mechanism reminiscent of (but simpler than) the one found in the Zarf classic Spider & Web. The game has its flaws, and it would have really benefit from a hint system instead of a full walkthrough, but I think that mystery fans could have some fun with this.
by Martin Bays
Ahh, excellent. A collection of three short stories, each (as the title suggests) featuring different constraints. This is definitely the best and most original piece I've played so far, but it should be noted that I'm a sucker for experimentation, and there's a fair amount of that here. This is not perfect (there's a major bug with a minor part of one of the stories, and some of the stories are better than others), but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
by Terrence V. Koch
This is a century-spanning adventure/drama in the vein of Highlander. The story is fairly well-constructed and potentially powerful, but alas it just doesn't work. The writing is too dry, the characters are too flat, and, worst of all, the implementation is awful. The game is almost totally linear, ending badly if you fail to follow the track correctly and featuring many long sequences where there's nothing to do but wait and watch things unfold. There are some pointless mazes, lots of unimplemented objects, and a general feeling of straitjacketedness. This could have been quite good, but it didn't make it.
by Temari Seikaiha
I have mixed feelings about this one. It's pretty well-written, but the subject matter (a mix of wandering around a cat-filled house and some Greek mythology) is tired. The implementation is pretty thorough, but the puzzles are unintuitive and contrived. It is somewhat nonlinear and has multiple endings, but it's not really plot-oriented. As puzzlefests go, I've seen better and I've seen worse, but regardless this didn't interest me too much.
Out of the Study
by Anssi Raisanen
This is apparently a big one-room puzzle. Unfortunately, it doesn't have hints or a walkthrough, so I quickly lost hope and interest. If it's like the author's entry last year, it's probably reasonably solvable but not interesting enough to labor through without a little helpful push now and then.
This game was withdrawn from the competition, so I never played it.
The Case of Samuel Gregor
by Stephen Hilderbrand
I really failed to enjoy this one. It may have been some sort of complex psychological espionage historical thingie, or it may have been a quick gag game; I couldn't quite tell. It was sparsely implemented, had totally illogical puzzles, and its walkthrough was ultimately inadequate to even get me to the end, so I never quite figured out what was going on. Maybe there was something clever happening here, but the work didn't seem complete enough for me to appreciate it.
Color and Number
by Steven Kollmansberger
This is a pure puzzle-fest with a minimalist plot; unfortunately, I don't have the patience for this sort of thing, especially when I have zillions of games to get through and very little time. Puzzle lovers will probably enjoy it, though -- it looks like there's a lot to experiment with and discover. Too bad there wasn't a compelling enough story to motivate me to bother with it all.
by Johan Berntsson
This is an enjoyable Lovecraft-inspired story. It's well-written and true to its source material, and it features good NPC design, logical puzzles, and a generally good implementation. I did encounter one major bug -- by performing some actions in a sequence the author obviously didn't anticipate, I caused a continuity problem -- but this didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the adventure. A good quick horror tale, best appreciated if you're familiar with at least a few Lovecraft stories.
by Steven Darnold
This entry was disqualified from the competition before I had a chance to play it, so I skipped it in the interest of saving precious time.
by Rob Shaw-Fuller
This is a well-written and interesting cyberpunk tale, but also a flawed one. It starts engagingly, but as it unfolds, it is slowed down by too many instances where you have to read the author's mind in order to advance, and it ultimately leads to a rushed and disappointing conclusion (several, actually, as the game has multiple endings). I had high hopes for a while, but it ultimately felt more like an introduction or demo than it felt like a real game. Perhaps there will be more someday....
by Joseph Grzesiak
This is a story-oriented entry dealing with domestic violence. I'm not sure what I think about it, exactly; the author is clearly sincere about wanting to deal with the issue in a sensitive manner, and the game flows quite smoothly. At the same time, it doesn't have as much emotional impact as it could have, and the player's options, both in action and in conversation, are rather limited. It's a decent debut entry, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.
by John Eriksson
I found this to be a pretty entertaining puzzle-oriented game. As usual for this sort of thing, the story isn't too compelling, but the puzzles were reasonably designed and the implementation pretty solid. This isn't anything you'll hold fond memories of for years, but it's a good distraction for an hour or two.
by Tyson Ibele
This game is worth playing if only for its wonderfully silly opening sequence. Although it loses comic momentum as it goes on, it has enough laughs toward the beginning to make it worth playing at least halfway through. The game is also rather cleverly implemented so that when you play it the first time, it feels more detailed and flexible than it actually is. Good sleight of hand on the author's part. This could have been better, but I found it to be one of the more entertaining entries so far.
by Mike Eckardt
How annoying. A game simple enough for me to win without the help of a walkthrough, and yet a fatal error prevents me from completing it. There seems to be a bug of some sort in the inventory system here, because once I reached a critical juncture, I was unable to proceed because I was told the item I needed to wear was too heavy to pick up, even when I was empty-handed. The walkthrough confirms that I should have been able to do this. If the game had worked right, I would have described it as a cute little sci-fi puzzle game with some satisfying sound and visual effects. As it is, it's something of a disappointment, though with any luck, the author will fix it eventually.
Another Earth, Another Sky
by Lee Kirby
This is a sequel to last year's Earth and Sky, and a most welcome one. I'm glad to see that my fears that the story would be left hanging forever were unwarranted. This is actually a significant improvement over the last episode, and that's quite a compliment considering that the previous adventure was good to begin with. Here we've got well-integrated graphics thanks to the use of Glulx instead of straight Z-Code, plus good character interaction, lots of player options, some genuinely humorous moments (try kissing the squid!), and a large but satisfying puzzle to solve before the next cliffhanger eventually arrives. The next part of this series is reason enough to anticipate next year's competition, and this entry definitely deserves a high ranking in the final results!
The Moonlit Tower
by Yoon Ha Lee
This adventure, a debut interactive effort by a published fantasy author, is a somewhat abstract tale that reminded me a bit of an Asian-toned version of Emily Short's Metamorphoses (though this doesn't contain nearly so much complex programming as that work). The game manages to create its own atmosphere and frequently makes interesting use of language, but I didn't understand the story fully enough to really enjoy it. I'm not sure who needs to make more effort, myself or the author, but under the time and energy constraints inherent in trying to get through all the comp entries in a limited time, it didn't quite come together for me even though I successfully finished it.
Not Much Time
by Tyson Ibele
This is a respectable debut that falls into the "quick and simple puzzle fest" category. Like most of its kin, it's not especially original or exciting, but passes the time pleasantly enough.
This is a completely abstract, very short puzzle. I solved it in two and a half minutes, making it the shortest experience so far in the competition. I am unthrilled, yet strangely satisfied.
When Help Collides
by J. D. Berry
This is a pretty impressive entry -- several games in one, some funny, some dramatic, some simulationist. It's not perfect, being a little obscure at times and with some sections being better than others, but it's got fun and laughs and variety, and it easily makes my top ten for the comp, maybe even my top five.
Scary House Amulet!
This game is exceedingly silly and full of gratuitous bold text. While it is really pretty much pointless, it has some silly puzzles and made me giggle from time to time.
Sun and Moon
by David Brain
This is definitely an interesting change of pace -- the game lives on the web, with different puzzles on different sites and clues leading from one to another. I confess that I didn't get too far because the story failed to intrigue me enough to motivate extended maze-traversal or crossword-solving, but I still think this is a great idea, and I would have investigated further if not for the time restrictions of the competition. Of course, the big problem with a game spread all over the net is its ephemeral nature; over time, domain name registrations will expire, free services will disappear, and the whole thing will fade away unless the author aggressively keeps it alive. Play it while you can!
Ramón and Jonathan
by Daniele A. Gewurz
This short game ended my judging of the comp entries on a fairly disappointing note. I was hopelessly lost when left to my own devices, and although the walkthrough got me to the end, it didn't enlighten me as to what was supposed to be going on. Maybe I'm missing something obvious, but it all seemed pretty vague to me.
It's rather strange. I think that this year was well above average in terms of quality, yet I found it thoroughly disappointing. Most games were pretty solidly written and designed, yet very few pushed into new territory, and none induced the raw emotional reactions that have attracted me to interactive fiction ever since I discovered Photopia. Maybe I'm being unfair, since my schedule was so busy this year that I was kind of in a rush to finish each game. Still, very few games made me wish I had more time to explore them further. Already most have faded from my memory. I'm seriously considering ignoring the comp next year; all the time I spent doing this could have been better employed elsewhere. Oh well. For what it's worth, my nomination for deserving comp winner is Another Earth, Another Sky, the only entry which I felt deserved a rating of 10. We'll see what happens when the final results are in.