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Avrom's Comp Reviews

by Avrom Faderman

Posted 15 November 2004 to

Hi all,

Well, if my clock is right, the judging period is over. Which means it's now safe to post reviews of those games I played.

Unfortunately, this was far from all of them. About three weeks ago, I discovered that I was going to have to move by the end of this month...which pretty much put an end to any judging activity on my part. I'm actually posting now not because I'm champing at the bit, but because I'm about to lose personal access to the net for a week or so as my computer and phone are moved to my new home. So...sigh. These revies cover just 15 games. The reviews are fairly long, so I'll keep it to 5 games per post.

A couple of notes about my scores and reviews:

First, the scores: I normalize my scores. This means that I give my favorite game a 10, my least favorite a 1, and distribute my scores roughly evenly throughout that scale. I could go into a long discussion of why I do this, but I won't, unless anyone is really curious. So I'll just point out that I do, and mention the consequence that a rating of 10 doesn't necessarily mean I thought the game was perfect, nor does a rating of 1 mean I thought it was utterly unredeemable. The scores should be taken in the context of this competition, and specifically of the 15 games I played.

Next, the reviews: These aren't really reviews. They're the notes I took as I was playing the games. That means that they're a mishmash of feedback for authors, impressions for potential players, and emoting for myself. I try to avoid spoilers, but I don't promise anything on this front.

The games I played, in the (random) order I played them (sorry to those whose games I didn't get to):

The Realm
Zero One
Square Circle
Blue Chairs
The Orion Agenda
Goose, Egg, Badger
All Things Devours
A Light's Tale
I Must Play
Luminous Horizon
A Day in the Life of a Super Hero

The Realm

OK, bad sign: The second sentence is a run-on. And the fifth. There's also something a bit off about the style. "Leathery armor"? Is it not, actually, leather? "Painful wince" the act of wincing actually painful? Or does the author mean "wince of pain"? These aren't great crimes, but they suggest that the game hasn't been edited; getting someone else to play this before submitting it would have been a good idea. It's a rare game that will be entirely without errors of grammar or style, but the first paragraph really should be.

"Dear Sir-To-Be." That's cute. As is the response to "x me" (although that, too, is ungrammatical).

Another minor stylistic quibble: Cut the semicolons. Even when they're used properly, there are just too many of them (often a period or ", and" would do just as well). I make this mistake myself all the time, but it's something to strive against.

Comma splices. There are enough that this isn't just a proofreading issue.

More polish: Some rooms are headline-style capped "Bugler's Tower"; some are sentence-style capped "Corridor near ground floor stairs".

Can't refer to characters with pronouns. Rather annoying, esp. with Cosengrey (although I like the puzzle itself).

If you specifically mention that a desk is "in front of the only window in the room", you can't "[not] see any window here". Even "That's just scenery" is better than "I don't see any X."

Cat puzzle: I had to use the walkthrough. Why on earth? I sort of figured out that the book had something to do with it, but I thought it was a hint. How could I have suspected that doing that would help?

Robe puzzle: Ask the man about his order. Read the first sentence very carefully. I'm afraid that totally messes up the puzzle. I also think this was a low point in the humor. This sort of humor needs to be very original not to be cheap. When in doubt, drop it.

Dragon puzzle: This needs to be better clued. There's no hint that the dragon is even intelligent. Making him curmudgeonly, complaining about your "pestering" would have helped.

Strengths: Humor (mostly), puzzles (mostly)
Weaknesses: Mechanics
Overall: Mostly, a fun (though conventional) game, though its flaws were distracting to me.
My biggest suggestion: Get your games proofread and beta-tested. If you did, get them proofread and beta-tested better.
Score: 5

Zero One of those games where I start with no idea who I am or how I got here. This can work. It can also not work. I'm reserving judgment for now, although so far there's nothing to convince me that the amnesia is well-motivated. (The trauma of the gunshot doesn't explain it—if it did, I wouldn't remember the few seconds beforehand.) We'll see.

Again, a bit of a problem with unimplemented scenery—even "That's just scenery" is better than "I can't see any casings here."

OK, one thing I just noticed, that's kind of cool: The room descriptions are dynamic. I don't just mean that they change when the room changes, I mean that there are slight, non-significant changes in wording when you look around multiple times. For some reason, that helps mimesis for me.

Language mechanics: Generally pretty good, so far, but some weird capitalization ("the Corridor", "red blood; There is"). Not a serious problem, but again, a bit more proofreading would help.

OK; weird. The parser has started addressing me like a schoolchild. If this has plot significance, it will be fine; otherwise it will be annoying.

OK, could have done without the description of my vomit. It doesn't lend anything to the atmosphere. You can't even get much atmosphere by telling me I vomited; if you want to make me feel disturbed, spend less time on the description of the actual bodily fluids and more time describing the emotional component of the experience. Let my character reel backwards in shock, let the room spin. Don't tell me I must have had carrots. That's gross, not horrifying.

There's something generally odd about the tone. Am I supposed to be scared? excited? made to laugh? On the one hand, there's a mysteriously headless guard. On the other...a wet trout? In a kitchen drawer? That's described with "As a weapon...useless"?

Er...I took a lunchbox, but it's still on the counter? This game seems to have some very skillful bits and some very lazy bits too.

The game doesn't know the word "move"? Maybe I'm just used to TADS and Inform, but that's...disappointing. Especially since you always move the portrait.

"expensively...expense...expense...expensive...expensive." Either needs a rewrite, or is a satire that I'm just not getting. Anyway, Terry sure doesn't look like the sort of person who'd have an office like this. Really, he's fairly badly drawn—all we know about him is that he's thuggish, likes expensive things, carries lead pipes about with him (even though he's a commander of some sort), and is gay...and that last part seems put in only to make us like him less, which is actually kind of offensive. All in all, weirdly contradictory. And not in a way that makes him complex, just one that makes me confused.

The instadeath in the snackroom...Yes, it was clued. Yes, I should have been paying better attention. I still don't like instadeaths, especially in games that don't support "undo".

A game this violent needs to know the word "kill".

Why do I have to specify what gun to shoot? I only have one gun.

Strengths: I really liked that dynamic room description thing. Or do all Alan games do that?
Weaknesses: Inconsistency of tone, missing verbs.
Overall: Disappointing. I think the author has some real skill, but it didn't come through.
Biggest suggestion: Don't submit a game you wrote in 5 days.
Score: 2

Square Circle

The effect of intro text is dramatic. Already, I'm inclined to like this game. It's not that the intro writing is perfect—there are a couple of little things that might have been phrased better, to increase the euphony ("how you got here" is out of place) or to avoid the very slight trace of cliche. But it's good. It says to me, "Settle in; you're in good hands." It's even good enough to allay my suspicions about Yet Another Amnesia Game. Authors take note: Even if I don't like a single thing in the rest of this game, I'll give it at least a decent rating because I'm now so positively disposed to it. Your intro is that important.

The writing seems to be holding up. But I'll note: I hope this is supposed a blackly humerous game, or the note is too over-the-top. "Suffer well, heinous felon" is either quite clever or...less clever, depending on context.

OK, the hint system is basically useless. The only hint (how to draw a square circle) is something I figured out pretty quickly anyway. I wasn't able to find the pen at first, though. Yes, it was easy to find. Yes, I feel dumb for not being able to find it. But a hint system should help even those who will feel dumb afterward.

Speaking of that main puzzle, it strikes me as a bit unfair. I was able to get it on my own, but I was a math major. I did look up "square circle" in the book, and I can see that that would provide a hint, but I can't imagine someone without some substantial math background getting this unless it also occurred to them to look up "sphere".

OK, much farther into the's pretty absorbing, actually. This is a solid game. It's true that it's much too hard to complete in 2 hours without hints, but the puzzles at least all seem logical after the fact. Except maybe the combination lock.

Again, the hint system is lacking—had to go to the walkthrough to determine how to get past the guardian. And this puzzle is generally way too sensitive—I'd done everything I needed to do, and knew what result to attain, but unless I went through the steps in the exact same order as the walkthrough, including repetitions, I could never get the guy to follow me (left as vague as possible to avoid spoilers).

BTW—the intro text loses something in retrospect...although I still think it's well-written. The tone is just plain off from the rest of the game. Much more serious, somehow. It set me up to expect a very different sort of game from the one I ended up playing.

Strengths: The writing style, most of the puzzles.
Weaknesses: Some (just a few) of the puzzles could have been better clued, plus the hint system needed work. Minor inconsistencies in tone.
Overall: Quite enjoyable. Nothing that made me sit up and say "wow," but a solid piece of work that's well worth playing.
Biggest suggestion: Work on the hint system. I have a feeling it wasn't tested (by people not using the walkthrough) as well as the game itself.
Score: 8

Blue Chairs

Again, like the intro text. It sets a mood, it pulls me in, it gives me some sense of what I'm in for (hopefully an accurate sense this time, or one where the inaccuracy is obviously deliberate).

And it just gets better. It's been a while since I last played a game (Varicella, maybe?) that had prose that I thought would stand up well as static fiction. And it's not just static fiction, this really does take full advantage of the medium of I-F. I'm still on, maybe, the tenth move, but this is very auspicious.

Dante and Beatrice. Hee.

Note for players: The game has a fair bit of profanity, and there's no real warning. It's not gratuitous or anything; it's dictated by the main character's identity and the game's context, but it's there. It doesn't bug me, but it might bug you. End public service announcement.

Wait...this has puzzles? OK. A bit unexpected, but as long as they're good.

Can't ask the guy about the book. Sort of sloppy, compared to what I've seen so far.

I think I got myself badly stuck with the beer the first time. Not nice, if that's true. But it did give me a chance to restart, which makes me think...this this is amazingly non-linear. All sorts of different paths to take (the first time, I drove my, I think I'm away from the party without it). Either that, or I'm going to discover I did have to do everything at the party and am now stuck again. So I'll either be really impressed or really ticked off.

This game takes place primarily in hallucinations. Or dreams? Or visions? At any rate, the geography is huge. Which is both impressive and disconcerting. I'm beginning to seriously doubt I'll see much of it within two hours. And so far, I'm unconvinced there's a connection, a point to it all...though it's well-written enough to make me want to keep going. By the end of this, I'll either be blown off my feet when it all comes together or incredibly disappointed when it doesn't.

OK, I'm beginning to think I get this. The whole thing (not just the names) is a weird update of the Inferno. Which really makes me wish I remembered the Inferno better...I'd probably be getting more out of this.

Um. I just finished. I think. I rescued (?) Beatrice, anyway. My path looked nothing like what's described in the walkthrough. I'm nonplussed...but I'm not sure whose fault it is. Was there some big connecting something that I missed? Or was the whole just less than the sum of its parts? Well, I've probably gone more than two hours anyway, so I'll have to wait until after the comp to try the walkthrough.

I'm going to have to go with "the whole is less than the sum of its parts". I'm taking a risk here, but I'm going to say that the reason I didn't get some of the metaphors, including the all-important ending, was that they were too obscure, not that I'm too dense. The subtitle was "a chance to change". Did I change? Is my life going to turn around? Have I really rescued Beatrice? Or her memory? Or something she symbolizes? Or... huh. It's a bit (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the main character) like being on drugs: You get the sense that something deep is going on, but you never seem to be able to quite articulate it. And then you sober up, and you get a sneaking suspicion that it was never that deep to start with.

Strengths: The writing style and the imagery. They're very, very strong. Plus, I suspect, there's amazing non-linearity here.
Weaknesses: Like I said, I think the overriding theme was either underdeveloped or too obscure. I got a good sense of who I was, but not of what happened to me or how I was supposed to change.
Overall: I still liked it. This is a game I want to come back and play more, when I have the proper amount of time to see all its bits.
Biggest suggestion: Not so much a suggestion as a question: Assuming there was something specific you were trying to say (and in a game like this there certainly should be), did any of your testers get it? If you didn't check, that would be something good to check for in the future...a game in this style needs a writing group as much as it needs traditional playtesters.
Score: 10

The Orion Agenda

Hmm...first person. I have to admit to some bias against first-person games; they feel to me like an experiment that has already been tried and found to just plain not work as well as the traditional second person. But there have certainly been some great first-person games, so I'll try to keep an open mind.

As a minor quibble, the conceit of SciCorps is kind of hackneyed. But: I'm pretty impressed that, of the first five games I've played, I've been at least moderately impressed by the polish of the writing in three of them (including this one)—and none where I found the writing appalling. This strikes me as a much better ratio than earlier comps.

On the other hand, the cliches are coming fast and furious. The away team of me and the beautiful young lieutenant about to be sent down for a "totally routine" mission...the obvious rip-off of the Prime Directive...I hope there's a twist coming up. Or that this is a satire and will start to be incredibly funny and biting.

In the village: Only one puzzle I found illogical, the Gate of God. Don't know how I was supposed to know to do that. But generally, the puzzles have made good sense so far.

One slightly annoying thing: I suspected someone (I won't say who) from the start. But I didn't get any chance to confront them, or check it out. I know that the author had a plot I needed to get through, but I should have had some chance to check on my suspicions, even if doing so led to my death.

Guess-the-syntax problem: you need to be able to

That's what I tried. I had to go to the hints to see that what was needed was
(no quotes).

Strengths: Good writing, generally logical puzzles.
Weaknesses: Too many sci-fi cliches.
Overall: Fun, despite the triteness of parts of the plot.
Biggest suggestion: Less Star Trek.
Score: 7

Goose, Egg, Badger

Once again, I'm engaged early on. The writing style is quirky, but in a good way—it's the sort of quirkiness that is obviously deliberate, and so inspires confidence in the author. It also helps me get a very good sense of who I am as a character. This, rather than reams of exposition, is the right way to do a non-cipher PC.

Oops—bit of sloppiness...Alex covers his ears whether or not he's in the room. Not a big deal, I guess. Oh, wait, no...he's here after all. But when did he follow me? That was confusing.

Not sure what I think about the whole "urge" mechanism. Also, why am I running around sorting animals when there might be an intruder on the loose?

OK, the bugs (as in insects, not errors) were weird. Am I dreaming? Are they going to be explained in some other way? Or are they just there to make a puzzle a puzzle?

My impression is going downhill, I'm afraid. Even with the hints, I'm not making a whole bunch of progress on the puzzles. I haven't been playing very long yet, so perhaps that's to be expected, but the puzzles just don't seem fun enough to keep me interested. Plus, the writing is getting sparser. Not worse, but there's less of it, so it's not able to shoulder the burden of keeping me engaged when the puzzles can't. The carry limit is also kind of annoying.

OK, I feel kind of foolish. After running around in circles for a bit (I was able to get the yak and vacuum the house, but that was about it), I went to the walkthrough. The 100-point one. I didn't use it, though—as soon as I saw it, I got a sneaking suspicion, and typed SECRETS to confirm it. Sure enough. OK, that's pretty impressive.

But wait a moment. I don't feel so foolish. There are three possibilities here:

1) We were meant to type SECRETS up front. In that case, calling it SECRETS is a bad idea; it looks like it will entirely spoil the game.
2) We were supposed to figure out the secret on our own. In which case, I've got to say, the game was totally unfair. Only one or two of the special words ("vacuum" and, maybe, "scoop") were words it would be logical to try at random, and the one-point bonuses from those two actions don't constitute enough of a baseline to aid in further experimentation. And there's no suggestion, whatsoever, that this game revolves around wordplay. I'm sorry; I refuse to feel bad about having missed this.
3) We weren't, necessarily, supposed to figure out the secret and get the bonus points—they were just an Easter egg for the truly clever. But in that case, the game has to stand or fall on its standard puzzles, and these just aren't good enough to be worth it.

It just occurred to me: Is the title supposed to be some sort of sly reference to Hofstadter? If so, what?

Strengths: A very impressive gimmick.
Weaknesses: The gimmick is easy to miss, and the rest of the game doesn't stand up well without it.
Overall: I'm torn. I would have had lots of fun, if I had gotten the joke before needing it explained. But I didn't. I'll balance the two out and give this a middling score.
Biggest suggestion: If your game is going to stand on one puzzle, you need to do something to ensure that people will have a reasonable chance of getting it. A larger baseline (as mentioned above) would help. Writing your room descriptions as you expect people to play would have helped, but admittedly, it would have been nearly impossible. Even giving some sort of hint that wordplay is relevant would have been a big help.
Score: 6

All Things Devours

I'd worry about the too-easy Tolkein reference in the title, but the blurb admits to an "all-too-familiar" paradigm and promises something new. So I'll try to keep this from biasing me.

Not much like a six-minute time limit to get the adrenaline pumping. This will work if done well (and isn't, for example, nigh-impossible).

Minor quibble: I should know exactly where my lab is. In a timed game, it makes no sense for me to have to hunt around for it. It's a minor quibble because the lab is, in fact, easy to find. But I should be able to get directions, either because they're in the room descriptions or by using a command like "Where is" or "find".

The prototype puzzle is neat. Although it's defintiely "learn by dying", as the about text warns.

Oh wow. OK, I think I see what I have to do to get through that second door. Let's give it a try. That whole "six-minute" time limit, though relevant, is only the tenth of it.

Woah. That was a lot of fun. That's usually not the sort of puzzle I like...lots of note-taking and timing. But it was original, and I actually did enjoy it—enough that I kept at it until I won (well, I had to go to the hints to get the optimal ending, but I got the second-best ending without them).

Writing? Gosh, I didn't even notice the writing. I was too involved in the puzzle. That's fine.

Actually, in retrospect, I should have had a map of the whole place...although also in retrospect, it wouldn't have been that important.

Strengths: The main puzzle—and there's really only one puzzle, although it has some sub-parts, is very impressive, very well thought-out, very complex.
Weaknesses: It is just this one puzzle. And it's kind of an efficiency puzzle (not entirely, but still), which is not, I think, the best sort. You really have to be in the mood for some tactics to get much out of this.
Overall: A very worthwhile play.
Biggest suggestion: From the intro text—"A second, more difficult, version will be released after the competition closes." You've got to be kidding. A version with with new and different stuff, sure. A version with more puzzles, OK. But one where the primary puzzle is harder than this? No way. I enjoyed this, but I wouldn't play one with a harder version of the time puzzle. There's a fine line between challenge and masochism. Oh, and lose the Tolkein. It contributes nothing.
Score: 10

A Light's Tale

The intro doesn't do it for me. The craft broke down...and this guy just appeared out of nowhere? Or was he on the craft all along? Or did he ask to be let aboard and, for some reason, I let him? And the first three sentences...repetition (of, e.g., "Fate") can work, but only for comic effect (which I don't think is intended here) or in prose that brushes up against poetry (which this doesn't). It comes off as clunky.

A minor quibble, more a note for the author: I don't think the license text at the beginning of the game makes any legal sense. You might be trying to articulate a "can distribute as-is, but no derivative works without permission" license—there are lots of these that you can copy from the web. If you want something with any force, go with that.

Hm. I'm at "The Beginning". This sort of stuff is OK for deam sequences (see Blue Chairs), but not without any sort of explanation. And who's this "me" I can follow? I had no indication there was another character in this game (except the man, but he's referred to in the third person). Yes, I know, I'm missing the point and being deliberately obtuse—this is supposed to be some sort of philosophical...something. But you have to engage me more, with plot, images, characters I care about, or, well, something, before I'll jump down metaphysical rabbit holes with you. (OK, I suppose I've answered my own question—I'm assuming that "me" is the author.) Or I suppose you can get me to agree to judge a competition, in which case I'll give you some more of my time. We'll see.

The language is...a bit off. It reminds me of the language in The Realm (although I must admit it annoys me a bit more, because it seems to take itself so seriously). The mechanics have only occasional glitches (e.g., there should be a comma in "In the corner hidden far away", unless you mean the corner is hidden), but there are also things that just aren't idiomatic. "A peculiar object, it..." seems wrong to me; not grammatically, but stylistically. I wish I could explain why better. It may just be that it implies that the objects peculiarity has explanitory force: "A picky eater, he refused all brussels sprouts" makes sense to me, because the subject's pickiness explains the refusal. But the mirror's peculiarity doesn't explain anything. (It's the other way around—the rest of the sentence explains why the mirror is peculiar). Anyway, how can I tell that the mirror has no glass on the far side? Aren't the far sides of most mirrors covered with some sort of opaque backing, like wood (if they're stand-alone), or in direct contact with a wall (otherwise)?

The parser is badgering me ("look through it! Do you think it's just there to stare at?"). Don't do that, please.

A "messed-up dump"? How do you mess up a dump? I think the author is going for a sort of poetic writing style. But a lot of people have a misconception about poetry's relation to language—they think that, when you write poetry (or prose poetry), you don't need to think very hard about what your words mean, because poetic language is "loose". It's just the opposite—in good poetic language, even more than good prose, the author has put careful consideration into every single word. If it doesn't add something to precisely what they are trying to express, out it goes (well, OK, words like "the" usually don't count here, although they can). If you're trying to create an aura of mystery, superfluous words, like "messed-up" (which isn't even very descriptive), need to go.

Why does "get mirror" seem to mean "get it"? Why couldn't I read the mirror first? And why am I a gopher? At least the author seems to have dropped the whole "deep" language thing.

"I won't let you go that way?" It's an interesting idea to have a parser own up to its limits, but I preferred the standard error message.

Where did the gopher gang go? I thought they were right behind me. And the shiny mirror seems to work just the opposite from the old one—I "look at" it to see the image in it, and looking through it yields nothing useful.

OK, I take it back. This game isn't trying to be deep. It's trying to be silly. It's succeeding. Note that silly != funny.

The most logical thing I can think of to fix the flashlight (showing it to George) gives a TADS error. Oh dear. Walkthrough time—any confidence I had that the puzzles would work out logically has evaporated. Once I don't trust the stability or logic of puzzles, you've lost me completely—I'm not going to work hard at a puzzle to find out that it's broken or illogical.

Why does the flashlight keep turning off? It doesn't tell me; all of a sudden the walkthrough says I need to turn it on again, though, even though I never turned it off.

There's all sorts of random magical stuff going on...a plant that needs fire, but holds the world together...I mean, magic is OK, but it's nice to feel like there's some rhyme or reason to it. Why is a world where gophers are second-class citizens, but one thuggish gopher terrifies everyone, and where "doors are darkness", as the hint-file says, held together by a plant that lives off fire? Held together how? And why do I still have the persistent sense that I'm supposed to find all of this allegorical and deep? can't fix glowsticks. Once they're broken, they stay broken. Unless you use magic, I guess. But since when did I know magic?

All right, I've rambled on too long already about this one.

Strengths: I've been very harsh with this game. But actually, it's not without merit. Unlike many first games (and I'm assuming that this is a first game), it acts like a real game, not a skeleton—most objects have at least basic implementation, at least sparse descriptions, etc. With all its flaws, it's not Detective territory.
Weaknesses: I've gone through these at length above. Don't try to spin an allegory if you don't know what it's an allegory for. Make sure your world has at least internal consistency. Have people playtest, not just for bugs, but to make sure your puzzles make sense to someone other than you. Don't talk down to your player, gloat at their failings, badger them, or treat them like an idiot.
Overall: I can't say I'd recommend this. If you're unconvinced, type "score". That response tells you most of what you need to know about the game. (I'm not saying games need a score. I'm saying that what they don't need is a lecture on how bad score is, especially one that ends with "so there.")
Biggest suggestion: Drop the superior attitude towards your players. I could have forgiven a lot more of the other stuff if it weren't for that.
Score: 2


Powerful subject matter. And timely, of course. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility—doing this well is going to be tough.

One of the problems with menu-based communication is that, of course, you leave yourself open to the player saying, "But I don't like any of those responses." When I first talk to Harry, part of me wants to type

or even

Of course, it's unlikely that any author in any system could code for all of these, let alone all other possibilities that spring to mind. But no option other than telling Harry that he has to go? I don't know enough about my character to know that I wouldn't tell him one of these things. Plenty of fathers did tell their sons such things, after all. No guarantee they would work, of course.

BTW, in a game with a "Priest Plot" like this (one with lots of flashbacks, where narrative order doesn't match chronological order), you can really help orient the player with "x me". Beyond telling me who I am, you can throw in a few clues to give me some idea of my current age, etc.

Minor quibble: I don't think there are redwoods anywhere but western North America. I could be wrong about this.

More major quibble: During a dream sequence, don't respond to "wake" with "The horrible truth is, this is not a dream."

Well, that was short. I understood (and, personally, tend to agree with) the message, although it's not a very complex or nuanced one. And I did find the writing affecting.

I would have liked to see, well, more. More of a chance for me to learn about my own character...I assume my son didn't really die, since no daughter is mentioned, and I have a grandson...but there must have been some Vietnam-era trauma, to explain the dream...Or if not, something else? From my conversation options, I get the idea that I had always been pretty were these things just bubbling away at the back of my mind? Did it really take my grandson's question to make me think about them at all? There's nothing wrong with a short game, but this would have benefitted so much from a little more space to breathe.

Strengths: The writing, like I said, did affect me emotionally. The job is made easier by the emotional nature of the subject, but it's still far from trivial.
Weaknesses: The game is more of an idea for a story than a story.
Overall: Worth playing, if brief and simple.
Biggest suggestion: Give us more time to come to understand the main character.
Score: 7

I Must Play

The first thing that struck me about this game was that the style seemed...breathless. Then I noticed waht it was: The average sentence is very, very short. This sort of makes sense in a game told from the perspective of, I assume, a kid of nine or so, but I'm still finding that it's actually tiring to read. (Just as it can be painful to read a lot of SHOUTING, reading this makes me feel like I've been hyperventilating.) I'll need to see how it wears on me.

Huh. An arcade full of interactive fiction? My sort of arcade. I was a bit worried that this was going to be a big Z-machine abuse, but no; it's legitimate I-F. Oh, wait. OK, it's a fairly cute conceit—a bunch of standard arcade games, reconceived as I-F. Or at least, that looks like the puce game.

And Eric is rather a trip. The humor in this game is, so far, getting my vote.

The onyx game is weirder. If I die in a game, I die in real life? Of course, I guess I can move items from game to game, so it makes a sort of strange sense.

A bench I can't sit on? That seems like lazy implementation.

And on the aqua/green games, Eric seems to have lost something too. He needs to be more...consistent in his strangeness. With the puce game, he gave this truly ridiculous speech about the game's deeper meaning, and its implications for society. With aqua/green, he just gave a dumb account of the plot. It keeps him from having a really identifiable comic character...I think having him come up with outlandish morals for each game would have been more intelligent.

Guess the verb: "Get in limo" must be a synonym for "enter limo." And "Open limo" must produce some sort of vaguely helpful response. The implementation here is way, way too sparse.

I liked the conceit of this game—a bunch of I-F versions of what it might be like to be in classic arcade games. But there was something a bit inconsistent about it. The onyx and green games weren't anything like the games they were supposed to simulate. That's not how you win the relevant games, nor is it a role that anyone other than the player ever reasonably takes in the course of those games (compare the puce game, where, even though the original aracde game gives no hint that this sort of thing is going on, it feels like a plausible backstory to a typical gaming session—by contrast, computer viruses play no role—couldn't conceivably play any role—in the game on which the green game was based).

Strengths: Some of the basic ideas—the basic idea of the game, the basic idea of Eric—are very original.
Weaknesses: The implementation of the basic ideas is very uneven. I'm not talking about programming here (although there are a number of places where more synonyms would have been very good), but rather the carrying through of the concepts (IF-like explanations of what's going on in these clasic games; a supercillious and over-analytic reviewer who can see social commentary in Tetris) to their logical conclusion.
Overall: A very promising game that didn't live up to its conception.
Biggest suggestion: An idea this good deserves more crafting. Think about what you want your characters to be—don't just decide that Eric should offer "silly" commentary on the games; come up with a particular way you want his commentary to be silly. Don't just decide you want to write games that are inspired by classic arcade games; decide exactly what you want the relationship to be. Then stick with it, all the way through the game.
Score: 5

Luminous Horizon

OK, I haven't even started the game proper, yet—I'm still at the introductory menus. But something to note: The packaging, from the feelies to the intro page to the carefully designed and worded menus, is slick. I probably shouldn't let this bias me—after all, the I-F world has traditionally placed very little emphasis on production values. But I'll be honest—it does favorably predispose me towards the game. If the author (and his illustrator), I think to myself, puts this much effort into the packaging of the game, the game itself is likely to be well-implemented, well-edited, and well-thought-out. It comes down to what I'm finding is a recurring theme in these reviews—the player's level of confidence. I'll repeat it once more: For puzzles to work, the player needs to go into them convinced that the answer will be logical, that the payoff will be real, and that the implementation won't be broken. It's not sufficient for these things to actually be the case; once the player's confidence is shaken, it's virtually impossible to get into the right frame of mind to solve the puzzle. Packaging may seem trivial, but it's yet another way (in addition to a well-written opening and establishing a track-record of logical, worthwhile, and well-implemented puzzles) to instill the needed sense of confidence.

THe multiple room descriptions are also very impressive, and indicative of a lot of thought. Yes, Infocom did this with Suspended, a long time ago...but it's still a nice technique.

This is a lot of fun. I'd go so far as to say this is what Leather Goddesses of Phobos (well, minus the soft-core porn) should have been.

The "parts" are very short. This bugged me at first, until I realized that they were really almost panels, in a comic-strip sense. Perhaps calling them that, or something similar, would work here?

Oh...the different room descriptions aren't in every room. That's kinda disappointing. In fact, I'm finding myself wishing that every single object and character had dual descriptions...although that's a lot to ask for. It's a testament to how impressed I am by the game's polish that I could even consider such a thing.

Well, that was fun. The puzzles were nothing special, and there was nothing dramatically new about the plot or writing, but it was a very enjoyable romp.

Strengths: Polish, pacing.
Weaknesses: As I said before, the puzzles weren't anything terribly new.
Overall: Still, a lot of fun. Definitely recommended.
Biggest suggestion: Not a whole lot of suggestions I can make. The puzzles weren't the high point, it's true, but I can't exactly suggest a fix for that. I guess I'll go with my earlier wish that every object in the game were multiply described, and leave it at that.
Score: 9


Good, solid intro. And an interesting idea for the PC, if sort of similar to the Djinni Chronicles.

"X ME" isn't impelemented? Huh. I mean, it's not implemented in a lot of games, but in a game where you're someone...unusual, I'd expect it.

I was able to solve the first puzzle easily, but...something was wrong. The description of the door led me to believe it was featureless, in which case what I did shouldn't have worked. I was expecting to have to blow the door up, or something similar.

Another problem: Why, exactly, should I help this guy? He summons me, locks me up to prove a point to a colleague, and as soon as I get out, he demands my help. My help killing other extra-planar lifeforms that were presumably minding their own business until these guys showed up and started stealing their energy. I want to say ">SEVRID, TAKE LONG WALK ON SHORT PIER".

Yes, yes, I know. I can always quit the game if I really have no interest in helping these guys. But I preferred the way Blue Chairs handled the situation. It warned me that not taking the drug would mean walking away from the adventure it had to provide, but it anticipated that I might want to do it anyway, and let me. I'd like at least some acknowledgment that this task might not be for everybody, especially since—if faced with a similar situation—I'd certainly decide it wasn't for me. Even better, I'd like some motivation—at least some motivation I can believe my character would accept, even if I don't—to follow through with what I need to do to continue the story.

Weird death message. Have I died, or been banished? And why tell me the game doesn't use score when I die?

Oh, OK. I'm afraid I have to take back what I said about the protagonist. The conceit that I, the player, have been sucked into the magical universe of the game, is not original.

The implementation is very sparse. The game won't react to most nouns mentioned in room descriptions (even to tell me "that's just scenery"). Even when an object is manipulable, the game doesn't accept some of the most obvious nouns to refer to it:

A pile of belongings sits forlornly in a corner. >X PILE You can't see any such thing.

...and weird teaser objects that I can't seem to get at. A stone dome with a hole in the top? The game doesn't know the word "dome"; it doesn't know the word "hole". I assume I'll need to do something with this thing, but it would be nice to be able to at least examine it directly.

The crystal puzzle was wildly unintuitive, largely because everything was so underdescribed. Steeple? What steeple? There's none mentioned in the room description. There's a dome, but the game doesn't know the word "dome". And I have no idea how the crystal is fastened in the steeple, because it isn't mentioned in the crystal's description, and the game doesn't know the word "setting". I had to go to the hints, and ended up kind of ticked off.

Strengths: The idea of being able to create all the items I needed was interesting.
Weaknesses: Way, way under-implemented.
Overall: Promising, but disappointing.
Biggest suggestion: More beta-testing. It's not that the game was actually buggy (there were a few bugs, but nothing really major), but good beta-testers would have complained about how thin the game-world is.
Score: 3

A Day in the Life of a Super Hero

The intro starts out pretty well, but "...the sudden action setting you to swinging"? What sudden action? And there's something wrong with the idiom here... "Setting you swinging," not "setting you to swinging." It seems like a really minor issue, but again—this is the intro, the first exposure the player will have to the game. It needs to be really, really polished.

That said, the writing's generally starting off reasonably strong—it has a real voice, a style that's slightly idiosynchratic but not distracting. It would do well for a good proofreading generally—I'm spotting missing commas pretty regularly—but that's easier to fix than actual bad writing.

Wait...I'm confused. I just died, but...I'm still here? Hanging from the bridge? I can't yet tell if this is a deliberate programming trick (basically, an auto-RESTART) or a plain-and-simple bug, but it was disorienting.

OK, this is a little annoying. The "Things You Should Know" section explicitly lists two formats for conversation commands: "TALK TO X" and "ASK X ABOUT Y". "ASK X FOR Y" is not among them, yet seems to be a required part of solving the first puzzle in the game. This is, in its own way, a guess-the-verb puzzle: While the command you have to type is a perfectly reasonable imperative sentence in English, it's something we've been led to expect won't work in this game.

Another positive: THe error messages are very well thought out. I haven't yet seen a single parser default in this game, which is nice, and the replacements are entertaining.

A really minor nitpick, but it's bugging me: "Superhero" is one word.

Um...I can't talk to my parrot in my appartment. It keeps on assuming I want to "SMELL", even if I refer to him as "PARROT". This may be a limitation of ADRIFT, but if that's the case, I need to strongly recommend against using ADRIFT.

A verbal tic to watch out for:

"X is the first word that springs to mind when..." "X is a good way of describing..."

It's witty the first couple of times it's used, but it gets repetitive pretty quickly.

And now the game has forgotten that it promised me I could use "TALK TO GUARD" insists I use "ASK X ABOUT Y" instead...grumble. And...huh? I can't talk to the guard at all?

OK, I'm about to give up, because of all the bugs. I can't talk to Bumble—the game, for some reason, assumes I'm trying to talk to the guards. I think it's time for the hint system.

All right...I missed an important thing from my apartment, because the hint system there was misleading. This is a game with a lot of clever writing in it, but was it tested at all?

And the only way to get from one part of the game to another is via my apartment? Why? How was I to know this?

Even with the hints, I wasn't able to finish this in the allotted time. And I couldn't find a walkthrough.

Strengths: The style, the sense of humor.
Weaknesses: Just plain undertested. Lots of weird little bugs, lots of trivial but distracting typos and grammatical errors, and an utterly unusable hint system.
Overall: What a shame. This could have been a really, really good game.
Biggest suggestion: More beta-testing. And just generally, a sense that the author had used a level of care to match his not-insignificant talent.
Score: 4


Very cute intro. Thumbs up.

Um...OK. I finished before I really had time to even formulate any thoughts. So I'll try to formulate some now.

I'm not entirely sure what the point was. The game itself was cute and well-implemented, but there just wasn't much to it. Look up parts of a machine in a manual, and figure out how to stick them together. Nothing terribly original or interesting, although nothing actively annoying either.

So I'm left with the conclusion that the point of the game was to demonstrate its gimmick, the "Psychic Typographical Error Correction System". This system is supposed to correct typos you make as you play the game. It's one of the game's jokes that it doesn't always work as designed, but I take it it's supposed to work most of the time, during most of the game.

It's an impressive bit of parser manipulation—the coding feat of trapping unknown words, looking for possible matches in the dictionary, and substituting them is fairly impressive. But I think the idea might have been that this was a new bit of technology that may actually be useful in future games, and if that's the case, it still needs a lot of polish. The system was invoked several times as I played...sometimes from deliberate misspellings, sometimes from genuine typos, sometimes because I tried to refer to an unimplemented object, or use an unknown synonym. The system missed far more frequently than it hit. I've got to say, in a "real" game (that is, one not intended to demonstrate PTECS), I'd much rather have to use "OOPS" than gamble with these guesses.

Strengths: Cute, and with some impressive programming.
Weaknesses: As a game, not detailed enough. As a programming technique, cool but not actually successful.
Overall: An interesting thought, but one that didn't quite pan out.
Biggest suggestion: Maybe the system can be fixed...either to guess more accurately, or to ask for some kind of confirmation before "correcting" typos. Possibly worth pursuing.
Score: 4


Personally, I doubt any sequel could capture the magnificent nuance and depth of the original Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die, but we'll see. (That is what this is, right? although it occurs to me that the acronym is a bit off.)

What's "stoneline"? Is this a word I don't know, or a typo in the second sentence of the game?

Oh, this is just silliness for silliness' sake. Which is OK, in limited enough context—I was joking about the original Phone Booth, of course, but I did kind of get a kick out of it. But it was, well, essentially one move long. That kind of thing doesn't wear well for more than a couple of minutes, max. Well, I promised to do this for a couple of hours or until I finish the game, so I guess I'll do that.

...or until I get hopelessly stuck, and notice that there are no hints or walkthrough.

OK, this kind of ticked me off. From the blurb: "Don't understand the point that this game is getting at? Thats ok, I don't either, and I wrote it!" Gee, thanks, dude. If you don't get the point of this game, why do you think anyone else should be interested?

Look, there are four things I could conceivably imagine the author trying to do with this game:

1. Be all surrealistic and spooky and weird. I have nothing against surrealism in a game. I liked "Blue Chairs," and that was pretty darn surrealistic and spooky and weird. But there's a difference between surrealism and nonsensicality. Surrealism has to just brush against the surface of the real. You have to be confident that the images have some connection to reality, even if it's tricky to figure out what the connections are.
2. Be all absurdist and goofy and funny. I have nothing against this, either. Douglas Adams' games were pretty absurdist and goofy, and although this occasionally led to unfair puzzles, it at least made the experience a fun read. But there's a difference between absurdism and randomness. Absurdism comes from ordinary or near-ordinary situations taken to ridiculous extremes. (There are lots of useless government ministries, so why not, Monty Python thought, a Ministry of Silly Walks?) To be unexpected in a funny way, something has to play off the expected. Just having things happen for no reason isn't particularly funny.
3. It was trying to be a one-joke game: It looks like a game, but really it's just a bunch of rooms and events randomly thrown together! Get it? Even this has its place—I admit it, Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die made me laugh, and it's a one-joke game with a pretty similar joke. But this really can't be drawn out for very long. Good one joke games (PUTPBAD, Zork: A Troll's Eye View) don't have much to them; the joke's only funny if it's in proportion to the expected effort. And they need to be original. This game doesn't do anything that a zillion Rybread Celsius games didn't do before it.
4. Submit something for the sake of submitting something—with no real effort, no real work, and no real intention of giving anyone pleasure. Don't do that. Please.

Maybe I'm being way too harsh. I don't really feel that the game was more of a waste of my time than, say, A Light's Tale. But there, I at least think the author tried. Here I'm unconvinced.

Strengths: There was nothing downright offensive in the game.
Weaknesses: Just a few random ideas someone threw together and called a game.
Overall: See "weaknesses".
Biggest suggestion: If you don't know what point you're trying to get at in a game, don't publish it.
Score: 1

This article copyright © 2004, Avrom Faderman

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