Posted 21 November 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
How & What I Played
I wasn't going to write reviews. I couldn't vote this year because I was an entrant (a very strange feeling not being able to vote, btw). But I finally decided that since authors need feedback, I would.
I give the scores I would have awarded if I had voted. I kept my four Ps that I have used in previous comps in mind: Prose, Plot, Programming, and Puzzles. But since I couldn't vote I didn't actually use them. Instead this time, I split my reviews into: General Comments, Quibbles, and Praise -- the yin and yang.
Due to real life stuff, I started playing later, several weeks into the comp. So that meant that often I resorted to walkthrus. I usually prefer not to do that.
Keys to These Reviews
A few reviews contain mini-spoilers.
If I had been voting this year, I would have awarded no nines.
Note that I do not summarize the plots of the games.
My reviews are also more critiques than they are reviews.
I found the idea of writing twenty-seven reviews simply too daunting. So I have two levels of reviews. Those with one asterisk I reviewed in a little more depth. Those with two I review in only a few lines, because initially I wasn't going to review them at all (due to time limitations). But, on second thought, I figured I could muster up a few lines for each.
* - Games reviewed with a little more depth have one asterisk.
** - Games reviewed with only a few lines have two asterisks.
Also, because I finished these up later after many reviews were already out, I did not read that many other reviews (except those of Carma, of course). I didn't want my original reaction/opinion diluted or tainted.
How I View the 1-10 Scoring System
10 = Excellent (I award one 10 to one game, the one I want to win)
9 = almost excellent, usually as good as or almost as good as the one I want to win, but hey, I had to pick one
8 = very, very good and/or a solid, playable game
7 = very good and/or it amused me
6 = good and/or I enjoyed playing most of it, but something was missing
5 = average and/or I didn't enjoy playing it
4 = below average and/or I didn't particularly want to play it
3 = poor and/or I was not amused or I couldn't play it
2 = very poor and/or I was definitely not amused or I really couldn't play it
1 = very, very poor and/or I was offended or I refused to play it
Since I talk so much about cueing puzzles in these reviews I should discuss what I mean.
Cueing is different than clueing. A cue is a line in a play indicating to an actor it is now time to say their lines or emerge on the stage. With IF, it is a line of text in a game indicating that an object or a puzzle is waiting just off-stage ready to emerge. Or a puzzle solution has already said or will soon say its lines.
Clueing is providing enough pieces of accumulated information so that they can finally be put together to solve a puzzle.
In my opinion, most Modern IF games do the second much better than the first.
Games Played & Ratings
To get it out of the way -- my top pick was Beetmonger.
Listings are Alphabetical.
1 an apple from nowhere **
7 All Roads *
10 Beetmonger *
5 Best of Three *
6 Coast House **
6 Crusade **
1 Doomed **
7 Earth & Sky *
5 Fine Tuned *
7 Fusillade *
5 Gostak *
6 Grayscale *
8 Heroes *
6 Isolato Incident *
5 Journey From an Islet **
2 Jump **
1 Newcomer **
7 Night Guest **
7 No Time To Squeal **
8 Prized Possession *
4 Schroedinger's Cat **
5 Shattered Memory **
4 Silicon Castles **
3 Stick It To The Man **
4 Stiffy Makane *
5 Stranded *
8 Vicious Cycles **
an apple from nowhere - 1 **
Sex with a kid -- enough said.
Praise: Absolutely none.
All Roads - 7 *
Huh? Again, huh? Well, the prose was very good, the atmosphere was definitely atmospheric, but I never figured out what in the hot-underground- afterlife went on. After I played it I was left more confused than I was WHILE I played it. That's a neat trick. Questions unanswered: Who were the rebels? What/who were they rebelling against and what did they want? What tie did Francesca have to them? What was the dark? What was sliding? Who was I? Who was I not? hat was the relationship between the assassin and the target? And the ring?
This gets above average points because of the well-crafted prose and because it keep me interested from beginning to end. But sometime I expected a resolution and I never got one. I later heard others' theories about what it meant, but they did not ring any bells with me. They did not describe the game I played. Misleading the player is a legitimate game technique, but only, I feel, when the player is finally enlightened. As with "fuzziness" in science-fiction, vagueness is really no substitute for clear conceptualization. (see Fusillade)
Quibbles: The water tap. Why would an 18th-century inn have piped running water with a faucet? Not to mention that the tap was not mentioned in the descriptions. Without a walkthru I would never have found it, because it would not even have occurred to me that it was there.
Praise: This does have believable arching dark/light Gothic spaces that are effectively described. I especially liked the fluttering birds, and the lower angle perspective of looking up at the guard's legs (so many forget to do that).
Beetmonger - 10 *
When I encountered this I thought, "This is a solid game." In every comp I find one or two games (see Heroes) that I feel that about. I suppose that does not sound like high praise, but it is. Because solid to me is: well-written with a clear plot, usually some humor, but most of all, the game world makes sense and the puzzles are well cued because they grow ergonomically out of that world. The author doesn't drop some outre puzzle on me out of the blue of his/her head, like a distant family member suddenly showing up for an unannounced visit. Instead it all hangs together coherently. So with solid games I feel a sense of trust. Trust that it won't blow up, won't be buggy, and I will be able to solve the puzzles. I find that rather a rare thing -- much rarer than it should be.
During the comp one almost has to rush to play enough games, so I didn't actually finish this, because I only reached one of two the alternative endings. So I am putting the other end on my iffy back burner for when I have more time to savor it. Someone told me they disliked the religious tone -- but it was really more of a Freemasonry riff. To miss the whimsy of this game is to miss the point. But maybe we shouldn't even mention Beetmongerism; it might not be safe.
Quibbles: Not many really, although I found the path of peace harder than I felt it should have been. But, wait a minute, isn't that always the case?
Praise: I found a few puzzles a bit tough, but nothing I wouldn't have been able to solve eventually by paying more attention to the text (I decided I was playing too quickly after using some of the walkthru). The fun of this game was that it was simply quite playable and its fake historical world made a wacky sense.
Finished: One path.
Best of Three - 5 *
I tried not to, but I found this boring. It also up blew numerous times on me even with a newer Glulxe). I never figured out why the protagonist found the guy, Grant, interesting. I wouldn't sit and ask such a pedantic, self-absorbed bore so many questions. In fact, I wanted to kick the protagonist and tell her that she was being too smile-at-the-boy-and-ask- him-questions, too draw-him-out, too Seventeen-magazine-old-fashioned. So, after a while, I had a hard time listening with any interest to his uninsightful replies. Several times I tried to switch the conversation to myself (as the protagonist) to balance it and make it more of a dialogue rather than a monologue. To give the game credit, I succeeded four to five times. But never for long, because when I did, I didn't have much to say. (Since I was supposed to be the hanging-around-a-cafe-angst-ridden one, I felt my greyed world-view deserved more illumination.)
Nevertheless, this IS an Emily Short piece so the writing is good, and the conversation mechanics were usually done well. Although the topics needed work.
Quibbles: This had too much pre-game-start backstory that was only partially revealed by the conversation, so I never knew if the protagonist still really liked Grant, or, if so, why. There was no chemistry between these characters.
Praise: Neat Graphic. The cafe details were also a nice touch.
Not finished: Due to repeated blow ups.
Coast House - 6 **
Although I felt this was an adequate wander-around-the-game-map-and-do- puzzles venture, I wasn't very interested. It needed something more unusual in the way of setting/PC or something more suspenseful in the way of action/NPCs to capture my interest. I also encountered an annoying bug near the end (after I dropped an item, I could not pick it up again) that prevented me from winning. But its usually satisfactory playability kept me going from beginning to almost-end.
Not Finished: Due to one bug.
Crusade - 6 **
These puzzles in this were much too difficult for me -- not intuitive well- cued and not well-clued. I think puzzles should be one or the other, or both. So I needed a complete walkthru, because even with hints I did not manage to finish. However, the interesting setting, unusual NPCs, and the tongue-in-cheek anti-religion, er, anti-religious-fanatic humor helped to redeem it somewhat. But I absolutely refuse to play a game with Bush in it again. :-)
Not Finished: Due to too difficult puzzles.
Doomed - 1 **
I felt this had to be written by a young person. All I have to say, is, if you continue writing IF, please, please use a proven game authoring system such as: Inform, TADS, Alan, Hugo, etc. The DOS interface/parser, with its repeating room descriptions and limited verbs, was simply... painful.
Not Finished: Due to my desire not to keep flinching and wincing.
Earth & Sky - 7 *
This was pure, unadulterated fun. But, then, I like being a superhero -- it fulfills my childhood comic book fantasies. It was also way, way too short, and had a few problems, such as some difficult and rather unintuitive puzzles.
Quibbles: This simply needs more -- a LOT more story and SOME more betatesting. How/when a superpower didn't work was not explained well. So I didn't get it, as a result, suffered. Overall, the puzzles just need a little better clueing.
Praise: The superpowers were well thought out, and the fight, nicely plotted. Since I enjoyed this, I am glad to know it was just an introduction and a larger game is on the way.
Fine Tuned - 5 *
This was so promising it was a shame it was also so buggy. It had wry humor combined with a unusually winning concept -- driving a brand new model T car in the 1900's -- but, unfortunately, there was simply no way I could win.
Quibbles: I feel the author just needs more programming experience to write a bang-up game. Most of the problems seemed to stem from not tracking changing object states (i.e. flags). For instance, I stalled and could not move forward when a NPC keep insisting that I had to deal with the mail first. Only the mail cart had already come and gone. This means the author expected the game to be played in a particular order. But authors can never count on players playing in any set sequence. Betatesting would/should have revealed the problem.
Praise: The delight of this game is the game characters' world view. What to us is old technology, is to them brand spanking new and exciting technology. So although I didn't get far, this gets points for a pleasingly original concept.
Not Finished: Due to bugs.
Fusillade - 7 *
This was well-written with interesting characters and short scenes, that however, were just long enough. But... the connecting theme was very confusing. I felt I came across quite a few games this year where the overall concept was never fully realized, because the author had not clarified it -- had not clarified it first in THEIR OWN THOUGHTS, before presenting it. So if it wasn't clear to them, how could it be clear to me? (see All Roads) Nevertheless, this had lots of interesting history, sci-fi, etc., so it kept me intrigued beginning-to-end.
Quibbles: If the author would just concentrate more on one idea next time, I think he/she could create a great game. Because the indecision about where to focus, while sort of intellectually cute, also ended up muddling the existing parts. And that waffling also transferred itself to me -- first I thought the theme was one thing (re time), then another (re notes). I was never sure.
Praise: The prose was good, with a lot of feeling, successfully connecting the player to each fleeting PC. And as big fan of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, which begins with To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I got a kick out of playing Burton in Mecca. (Another Quibble: Probably I also would have been more satisfied if the author had focused on just on one character as well -- like him. Hey, there's great game potential there. :-))
Gostak - 5 *
This may be very clever, but I simply didn't have the patience to finish it. I played for about fifteen minutes, figuring out a few verbs and seeing that they were consistent. But I doubt the author expected that many to play it to the end, so I don't feel guilty for quitting early.
Farbles: None, really, other than that at first glance, I wondered if I needed stronger reading glasses. Or 3-d ones, or something.
Hiasre: I missed the whole raif discussion that sparked this concept, so I couldn't put its realization into context.
Ott Monstituted: Due to my sincere desire not to hurt my brane.
Grayscale - 6 *
I enjoyed the game play of this quite a bit -- until the end. With few words, using minimalist Infocom-style writing, the author created a satisfactorily hushed and spooky mansion. But, although the bits of poetry artful dribbled around, added sweetener, and the female NPC, a connecting gelatin, it didn't jell.
Quibbles: After I finished, the preceding poetry seemed to have had no purpose. There was also a hidden art gallery which, while interesting, was not tied to anything. So the poetry and art, which had seemed to promise layers of deeply profound meaning, in the end, became just unimportant add- ons to a game quite winnable without them. They needed to have more use to be more meaningful.
Praise: Some of takeable objects/puzzles were imaginative and unusual.
Heroes - 8 *
I kept debating with myself as I played this, 7?, 8?, 7?, 8?. Not that it really mattered since I couldn't vote, but I ended up with an eight as much based on hearsay as gameplay. I was initially very put off by it, since I found the opening paragraphs quite confusing. They were so clipped they did not adequately lay the scene for me. Once I finally got past that and past being hung up on a few puzzles I thought I found a solid game (thought because I still encountered a few overly difficult puzzles -- see Beetmonger for solid = high praise). But I only played one role, and once I knew what the objective of the game was, I felt subsequent roles would be easier. When I did look at the walkthru, I kicked myself, "I could have/should have figured that out," because the puzzles did appear to be well-clued. Frankly, this is not a game that should be played quickly. It is one of those games that should be played over the course of day or more, like the old Infocom games, like Beetmonger. So this goes on my iffy back burner, for games I like that I want to finish when I have more time.
Quibbles: Although some of the puzzles seemed well-cued, some did not. But I think that was partly due to the fact that this game needs more play time than most -- for the player to wander around and be adequately clued.
Praise: I like it when I look in a window and the people inside see me peering in. I like it when the NPCs can see what I am carrying. Realism. So rare in IF. In a lot of games, the PC could be carting along a wheelbarrow of inventory objects and the oblivious NPCs will never notice. That alone can break mimesis.
Finished: Most of one role.
Isolato Incident - 6 *
Although this is somewhat short and not very well-written game-play-wise, it has the most unusual and haunting, ergo memorable, imagery in the comp. That is also what makes it fairly difficult to play, because to figure out how to solve the puzzles, one has to first figure out what the strange objects even are. However, this gets above average marks for the imagery, alone.
Quibbles: This also did not track object states very well. i.e. Many of the "rooms" had descriptions written for the player's first arrival which weren't appropriate for subsequent arrivals. Isolato was plagued with such misdetails, which seriously detracted from game play. But all this author really needs is more programming experience before he/she can write a truly memorable game.
Praise: I loved the clacking adders, and the sticky honey history.
Journey From Islet - 5 **
I felt this had a gentle sort of charm, but not much more. The map and puzzles were adequate, though a few were not well-cued, and game play was fine. But it was fairly short with little plot or tension -- too little to twang my interest.
Jump - 3 **
This had a plot. It had puzzles. It even had a backstory. I'll leave the negative comments to others as I've already said all the positive things I can.
Newcomer - 1 **
I think there was a passable game concept here, unfortunately only about two-five minutes of it were actually implemented. I wandered around, obviously something the author did not anticipate, and discovered some rooms without descriptions. Also only a few verbs seemed to have any application (I was told how to win, using a one-verb solution). Although the $$$ room description in one of the undeveloped areas rather amused me, it didn't... enough.
Not Finished: The game, that is.
Night Guest - 7 *
This was very well-done. It only loses points due to its shortness and lack of more interactivity. It's more a puffy dessert than a meaty meal, but the whip cream was great. When you try to direct the PC he doesn't like it and he answers back. And he's definitely got an attitude, but that is forgivable, because he also has a hangover. Some of the plot is also cut scenes of poetry. While not flowery, I felt the poetry was fine in context of a low-brow game with a guy more concerned about someone stealing his booze than with iambic pentameter.
Quibbles: Can't think of any off-hand, except those already mentioned.
Praise: The hint system was fantastic, maybe the best I have ever seen. Not only do commands in the game result with the PC responding, the hint system does too. And he's not a lot more cooperative than he was before, only just enough for them to even be considered hints. Once I discovered this I admit I played the whole thing with hints just to see what he would say. Okay, I broke down and solved one puzzle without help, but just once. Superb job.
No Time to Squeal - 7 **
I guess I don't "get" Robb Sherwin. I usually find his games intriguing but also seriously flawed in some way, often with bad programming. Also I don't think I get all his references or see what others see in his use of language. But his games are usually so weird that they can't help but be interesting. It was no different here, I was entertained from beginning to end, then left unsatisfied. A realistic start with good prose later abruptly segued into what appeared to be totally different fantasy game -- like two games cobbled together. I found the last half too strange to be in keeping with the rest, so it helped confuse the plot rather than clarify it. Also, for some reason, I kept thinking of Mindwheel. But this gets above average points for not boring me.
Prized Possession - 8 *
Excellent writing. I thought this was the best written piece in the competition. The images were evocative and the plot was clear, so I knew what was happening -- I wasn't confused. Unfortunately it also wasn't very interactive. There were only a few puzzles; most of the plot progression was based on a simple yes/no decision tree. Because it was fairly obvious which decision would continue the story and which wouldn't, I think I only made the "wrong" choice twice. But the heroine was satisfactorily spunky for her time (I admit I like playing females) and the historical details, both physical and societal, believable.
Quibbles: The lack of interactivity was disappointing, and the two puzzles or so that were included had problems -- verb and clueing problems. Also there were a few things that I felt merited a fuller explanation or background/story.
Praise: I loved the pretty but dangerous sparks -- a subtle hint to the game's theme. I am a Kathleen Fischer fan. That's it, upfront, no apologies. I just hope she keeps writing so I can keep playing her games. We females (and others who like period pieces) have really needed someone like her.
Schoedinger's Cat - 4 **
This may have been illustrating one scientific principle or another, but I wasn't really sure which or what -- even after hearing some long involved discussions about it on the if-mud. Because of my uncertainty I also couldn't observe if it that concept was well-illustrated. So I played with it for a particle, decided it was way, way over my head, then quit.
Finished: In the Toaish sense that this "game" didn't have an end, anyway.
Shattered Memory - 5 **
I agree. There are few things more hellish than waiting in a long, long line that does not seem to move forward. Although this had an interesting concept, using increasingly revealing flashback ala Momento, the timing was repeatedly off. I got no where at first, so I absolutely needed the walkthru. Even then, I actually only solved puzzles after they occurred (mentally solved). Which means they were both not well-cued and not well-clued, because once they finally fell into place, they made sense. Overall, the implementation was not up to the idea.
Silicon Castles - 4 **
I am not good at chess. I had a friend once who tried to teach me. He claimed he really wasn't very good, as he could only think 6 moves ahead. Well, I only got so I could think 1/2 or 1 move ahead, so he was a whiz to me. Finally, I took pity on his boredom and we quit the lessons. So I tried about three moves and could tell that the same embarrassing thing would happen here, I couldn't even give some IF a good game of chess. I was impressed with the programming, but had no way of knowing if my friend would have found it challenging.
Finished: By conceding early -- my one wise move.
Stick It To The Man - 3 **
What leftie wouldn't love a title like that? I was quite enjoying this until I got to the point that the game hung. The activist characters squatting in an abandoned apartment had some meat on them, their menu-driven conversation was quite realistic despite the menu, and the Greenpeace/Wobblie political concept (which I hoped would be clarified later) was unfolding nicely. Then it hung.
Not Finished: Due to game crashing, but that's better than a cop's head bashing.
Stiffy - 4 *
Er. Uh. Well, parts were funny. However, a parody doesn't really work unless one is familiar with what is being parodied. But, sorry, but I was not going to play other Stiffys just so I could appreciate this one. Not that it would made a difference, anyway. I betatested this, but I never actually finished it. And I only made it to next to the last scene two days before the competition deadline. I kept getting stuck. The last time I did was when a really disgusting graphic that-I-could-have-lived-my-entire-life-quite-happily-without-EVER-seeing showed up. So I had no desire to restore to an earlier position to do things differently, just to end up back at the same graphic before going on to win.
I also found the sexual sections unerotic and rather infantile, ergo unamusing, like bad bathroom jokes. Which, I think, are conclusions very close to the points the author was trying to make (except for the unamusing one). But I also want to be clear, that on the whole, I wasn't really offended. As an older adult, I found most of it relatively mild (excepting graphic, etc.). I was just, er... untickled. Maybe all p0rn is like a sniggering flasher, ashamedly proud of and obsessed by what he sports (which everyone else also sports), but I really have no desire to find out. So most of this game's humor, which does parody the silliness of IF porn, whizzed right pass me. Warning: When parodying a lame genre, one has to be very careful that the results don't appear equally lame.
Quibbles: This could have been made without that graphic. I fervently hope the mental image I have of it still branded into my brain, will eventually fade.
Praise: What I liked, of course, are the riffs on various raifers and that bastion of game pretentiousness, Chris Crawford. I simply howled. By the way, if you want to see them and skip other stuff you might find too gross, just play most of the holodeck section then stop (only one fairly unobjectionable photo of a nude female is included). As a footnote, interestingly, at least to me, I met Mr. Crawford at a game conference in Silicon Valley 15-17 years ago. He gave a talk about creating characters with emotions, a new thing he was developing at the time. I also spoke with him after. I was very impressed. Live and learn.
Not Finished: Due to my strong desire to purge my visual memory... ASAP.
Stranded - 5 *
Initially, I enjoyed this stranded-on-an-island game and its graphics, which were photographs of appropriate marshland and jungle. So I wandered around, looking at the scenery, and found a few objects which I assumed would be needed in later puzzles. I actually did this for quite some time, mapping the game world, and trying to figure out what I should do to survive. Then I thought, "There must be more to it then this."
So I pulled out the walkthrough and was simply appalled. There were objects hidden ALL over the game map; there were puzzles ALL over. Without the walkthrough I would have had no idea. So next I went to find the first object I had missed (re beach). I discovered there was nothing in the text to tell me that maybe I should examine the sand in more detail. Then, with a sinking feeling, I realized I would have to search and examine *everything*, because little was cued. I am past wanting to play hunt-everywhere-games like this.
Quibbles: As far as I could tell by looking at the walkthru, some objects/ puzzles had no logical reason for being on an island. Without cueing, that would make them even harder. Also, this was so jam-packed, it would have taken *much* longer than two hours to play. On top of that, I kept falling in the quick sand and having to undo because the places where I could/couldn't get out were not described differently enough (and used the same graphic). So I refused to play more, because while I like a challenge, I didn't need an exercise in frustration.
Praise: The writing, atmosphere, and concept were fine, and the photographs were great. But I would recommend that, next time, the author be a lot less ambitious. Cut down on the number of objects/puzzles by one half to two thirds and also try to cue them better. Puzzles which may seem very obvious to you (since you wrote/designed them), may be very difficult for others.
Not Finished: Due to my desire to be able to finish more than one comp game.
Vicious Cycles - 8 **
The puzzles in this intrigued me more than those in any other comp game. Tough, very tough, but once one figures out what is going on, not impossible to solve. The player goes through a repeating loop, each time finding out more information and solving more, until that loop is solved and another begins (or the player is returned to another loop which may have already begun, but not in detail). So at first I thought there was a lot of dead time, ergo plenty of time to solve things. Then the more times spent looping, I realized it was very tightly plotted. Various parts of the story are revealed this way (not all puzzle-filled). How they are introduced, one intertwining with another, one beginning before another ended, was done very effectively. The timing was excellent. Unfortunately the Luddite plot was less satisfactory. Despite that, I found this very enjoyable to play.
This article copyright © 2001, Marnie Parker