Posted 16 November 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
This is the first year I've played and rated games in the IF Comp, and the first time I've posted to the newsgroup. I played 20 Comp01 games, mostly randomized by the picker tool, and also sent feedback to the majority of their authors - and had the lovely surprise that nearly all of them responded to my emails, a couple at some length about their intentions for the games.
Many good reviews have already been written here, so I'll just comment on a few games I played where my rating differed pretty radically from the final comp scores. Hope I strike the right balance between risking spoilers and being too vague.
Fine Tuned comp score=5.50, mine=9.00
I didn't play the 1st and 2nd winners in the comp - All Roads was further down my list, and I couldn't get Moments to run right - but of the twenty I did play Fine Tuned was my clear favorite. I didn't reach the gamestopping bugs that made other judges pull its score down, though I can understand their frustration. I would love to see this game fixed, and more games like it written.
Where to begin about the things I liked? There's the Hitchhiker's Guide feel - original setting, brash intelligent humor, headlong plot, clueless hero - for one. There's the fact that lots of things I type in are provided for - something I love in a game, including responses that poke fun at me if I make silly or mechanical moves.
From the beginning there was also a kind of seamless quality to the storytelling, in major and minor ways. The story moved me along instead of just laying out a static landscape to be explored - but I felt I was taking part in it, not just viewing cutscenes; I appreciated how, for example, the driving instructions at the beginnning were integrated into the game instead of making me call up some help or about file. The puzzles were generally a good match for me, and I didn't get bogged down long enough to lose the momentum of the story (e.g., after I spent a few turns trying unsuccessfully to revive a character injured in a ditch, he regained consciousness anyway). My enjoyment also notched up considerably when I realized I was going to jump characters - and the next phase of the game, though more traditional in its explore-and-solve- puzzles structure, also had that light touch and humor and offbeat plot that made me rate this game highly.
Crusade comp score=5.11 mine=8.00
This game really worked for me - maybe in part because I hadn't ever played a Crusaders-themed game before - because it had funny and original writing, and also because it took the chance to skew off in directions I hardly ever go in IF games.
It took risks with the (religious) subject matter that I for one did not find offensive or cliched. On the contrary, I thought it was funny in the right places ("A golden goblet with jewels, which you looted from a burning home in Byzantium. It later turned out the city was converted to the true faith to begin with, and everyone was embarrassed.") and the most serious episode, where if don't get rescued you're on rails and have to die, is all too Biblical. The author probably didn't plan this but if at a certain moment in extremis you type in "God, help" the response is "That person isn't around".
Once you read the list of possible verbs in the help file, there are just enough pointers in the text to get you to try fairly eccentric commands without it being too forced. This business of giving clues to a player is subtle: there were other games I quite liked, like Beetmongers, where I just couldn't seem to get on the same wavelength as the (simpler) puzzles but in Crusade it worked. By the endgame, trying unusual commands was second nature to me, making me feel very much in character.
There was one unfair puzzle in the game, which put me in an unwinnable state because of an action that - illogically - you must take several scenes earlier, but a walkthrough was provided (I can't emphasize enough how important a walkthrough can be to a judge). And more things could've been implemented to "look" at. But on balance, this game really entertained me.
Gostak comp score=5.35 mine=8.00
I actually felt mixed about this game. On the one hand, it seems created for a pretty elite group of IF players, an exercise for insiders who already know, for example, how a standard Inform command help file reads and so can make a start on deciphering the language. And while judging I made virtually no progress in the game, something that would normally either make me feel really stupid or mad at the game.
On the other hand, I take such pleasure in this game's existence! I love this kind of finnegan's wake-style dream language where you don't just mechanically decipher individual words but also feel your way to the meaning of things based on rhythms and memories and word associations. Every time I poked and pushed at the game, I could feel a robust and consistent world there. It's the one entry in the comp that I put on my Palm Pilot so I could carry it around and keep prodding at it during breaks in the day after I finishing judging. And it's the one game that I dreamed about.
Given how elusive and suggestive the language is at the beginning of the game, I'd be really interested to know - if it's possible without spoilers - what scenes other players had in their mind's eye when they first started Gostak.
Fusillade comp score=5.50 mine=7.00
I was drawn into this game by the quality of the writing - I guess there's a theme here in what I like in an IF game - even though I don't tend to like games that push me along whether I type in what the story wants me to or not. But Fusillade's scenes and characters were well drawn (the galactic gentlemen in the quarry was one of my favorites) and many things could be examined or done (e.g., using "x" in the first battle scene filled in even more of the backstory; in Jimi's scene instead of just "wait"-ing for the ambulance to come you could smoke) so I didn't feel like I was just watching a movie. Not every episode was successful but I got hooked once I reached the scenes that hinted how the very first story was eventually going to be connected up, making the game more than just a pastiche of suggestive mini-scenes.
I also appreciated the walkthrough, which got me past a game-stopper that had to do with throwing the rocks in the quarry. And one frustration I had with the technical format of the story was that, once the game moved forward to a new episode, you couldn't scroll back anymore.
For what it's worth, I also agree with the earlier poster/reviewer who said it's a very creepy feeling from a player's point of view to be in a story-on-rails where you're a victim and no matter what you try, you can't escape your fate. The opening fight was pretty depressing because there was no way to avoid dying, and it felt horrible to be the rape victim who wouldn't run and couldn't fight (was there any way to win that one?).
Kallisti comp score=4.22 mine=2.00
I feel strongly that it's important to give a game a chance, even if it's not to my taste, and for that reason played all twenty of the games I judged for at least an hour - except Kallisti.
I imagine a beginning author needs players to look through what might be clumsy writing or grammatical mistakes or buggy programming to what see what s/he was trying to accomplish. But the writing in this game was just so excruciatingly bad that I couldn't continue.
Maybe if there'd been a walkthrough, I would've gotten further. I'm honestly amazed it scored within a point or so from games like Crusade or Gostak.
Most of the other games I scored were pretty much in line with the comp results. All in all, it was a pretty satisfying experience to participate this year, and I'm grateful to all the people who contribute their time and creativity to make these comps happen.
This article copyright © 2001, Maureen Mason