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[Comp04] Joshua H's reviews

by Joshua Houk

Posted 15 November 2004 to

2004 IF Competition Reviews

by Joshua Houk
First-time readers should be warned that this is a first-time reviewer.
Release 1 / Serial Number 041115 / Informed - not bloody likely.

This is my first year at writing reviews (and indeed, my first attempt at judging, save for playing/ranking the 2003 games post-comp), and looking below, there's a lot of things that I would change. I'd be a little more patient with the games. I wouldn't be as snarky. I wouldn't write words like "mimesis". In any case, hopefully these reviews - as short as they are - are enjoyable, either in an "oh yeah, nailed that one" way, or in a "dear lord, could this be even more pathetic?" sort of way. I promise to do better next year. Honest.

I don't have any rigorous system of assigning scores to games. I picked numbers that felt right at the time, then adjusted things if games in a score bracket were clearly outmatched (or clearly superior). I can say post-rating that an 8 or above is a game that I would definitely recommend to everyone, a 7 is recommended with caveats, and for a 6 I'd say there's probably something worth checking out in a game that I felt didn't really live up to expectations. Anything with a 5 or below, meh. I don't find it necessary to give out a "10" to at least one game in the competition, but a quirk that I share with my better half is to invariably assert that the most recent film we've seen is "the best movie ever." So, I'm a little prone to hyperbole. Then again, all those movies were nearly perfect, so all the games that I give a perfect score to are, I think, deserving of the score.

I played a total of 37 games - the 36 eligible entrants plus one that was later disqualified. However, you won't see that many full reviews. I saved my meager critical abilities for the top ten or so. This is bound to be somewhat disappointing, but hey, next year will be better. Honest. So, the reviews that follow are the games that scored a 7 or above, along with some notes on a few of the 6's, and a sentence each for lower games. I apologize for any disappointment, but to make up for it I've included various and sundry "awards" that should spice things up.

Web version @


Blue Chairs
by Chris Klimas

This was the second game on the randomly-ordered list drawn up by comp04.z5, and the next 34 entries were just playing catch-up. This subtle evocation of memory and loss ends up being, ironically, a punch to the gut. (And it's not for naught that the "soundtrack" includes part of the score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Although the game is certainly not a rip-off of the film, there's certainly a thread of kinship.) The writing is top-notch, and although the puzzles aren't particularly challenging, they're very well-integrated with the plot. There really isn't much that I could say that wouldn't ruin the game for folks, and besides, I never was good at writing reviews for stuff I love. Spiel des Jahres. (10)

Luminous Horizon
by Paul O'Brian

Not having played the earlier two games in the Earth and Sky series, I was a little bit concerned that I might spend these two hours (actually c. 90 minutes) somewhat dazed and confused. Helpfully, the author has seen fit to include a comic feelie that brings everyone up to speed. Nice touch.

The game itself? Frequently hilarious, quite innovative, and dang if I didn't like it despite my loathing for anything concerning spandex. Two siblings, Austin and Emily, have these superspiffy suits with superspiffy powers, and their mission is to find out what the heck happened to their scientist parents. Appropriately, the text is peppered with cartoonish KAPOWs and light comedy. However, you might not expect the world to be so detailed; it's hard finding something that isn't described or implemented. There's a very luxurious feel to LH, and it's one that others would do well to imitate.

The character-switching is probably what makes the game. The implementation here is rather seamless, and it's rampant fun. My only criticisms regard the puzzles in conjunction with this; sometimes I felt that this made things just a touch too easy (and when I say it's easy...), and at one certain point I expected to have to switch characters - but doing this just ended up in one of the most unproductive 15 minutes of my life trying too hard on a puzzle that ended up being much easier. But, this is minor stuff (and my own actions are my own fault); Luminous Horizon is completely enjoyable. (9)

by Tomasz Pudlo

Not surprisingly, this game is based, to an extent, on Hamlet. However, not many people would expect Hamlet to be a pudgy 12-year old with difficulties concentrating on his Torah studies. Nor would they expect the sheer cruel banality of his father's ghost. Nor would they expect Yorick... oh, I'll shut up now.

Well, just one more thing: They certainly wouldn't expect the pure genius of the writing in this game, and certainly not one which is (apparently) an in-joke of the highest proportions, one that takes its target and then runs away with it. Far, far away. The words are just so darn evocative. You'd expect that, as florid as the writing is, you'd hit a false note every five minutes or so. No such luck; the writing is terribly internally consistent (save perhaps for the ending, which seems a tad rushed, and maybe a bit disappointing - it makes a point that is questionable at best). When you'd expect it to falter, it kicks things up a notch. The only negative here would be that sometimes the words are just too fecund, and there's a strong likelihood of passing over essential details. There's so much to chew on here that when I had originally assigned this an 8 and found that I couldn't get this one out of my mind, it was a simple matter to add on a point for memorability. (9)

Square Circle
by Eric Eve

I had spent the first 45 minutes playing this lazily moving along, self-assured that the first puzzle was certainly the only thing in the game. After completing it... oops.

Regardless of the resulting rush to finish, I was pretty struck by the story and general puzzle construction. The first puzzle - as tough and as frustrating as it is - is ingenious, and the endgame manages to deliver on the promise. Unfortunately, things do drag about in the middle; maybe there are a few too many puzzles-for-the-sake-of-puzzles, maybe the writing is on a lower level than the bookends. The enjoyability and the story more than make up for these possible faults. Definitely a worthy entry. (8)

by Rexx Magnus

Elegant, short description of the mythical origin of Daoism. The puzzles are sublime, the writing appropriately terse. There's a fine sense that the mechanics of the game capture the essence of the religion, and that's a very tricky thing to pull off. That it does with so few flaws is an amazing feat. (8)

by Paul J. Furio

Despite the time daemon - just unfair in a competition entry, really - this gets things done right. I wasn't completely impressed by the parts here - the NPC gets annoying after a few turns, the story is certainly not new, and the computer interface could use some clarity - but as a whole, this is a pretty tight game with no real issues. It's a fun romp with good writing, pacing, and polish. (8)

All Things Devours
by half sick of shadows

Wow. This is simple. Plant a bomb to destroy some scientific thingamajig, and call it a night. But then...

Pretty cute, and engaging as well. There's some lovely construction here which I enjoyed. The main puzzle will do a good job of flexing your brain, but won't have you quit in frustration either.

On the bad side, there were errors, both game-crashing ones that you will run into (argh!) and ones in implementation, ranging from clumsy door opening to picking up the wrong object. Still, the rough edges didn't prevent me from getting a good kick out of this. (7)

Notes on the Sixes

Who Created That Monster?: Oh dear god. Trite, boring, and don't ever make a mission where the PC attempts to find out what the player already knows. No ****ing impetus whatsoever. The humor is quite forced (save for 'xyzzy'—I must admit I liked that) and stilted, and much time was spent doing a lot of running around (and in ordinal directions no less - a pet peeve of mine) doing pretty uninteresting things. Still, there were a couple spots in the endgame that made me give some grudging respect. I can't really recommend this game, and it's about as subtle as a car bomb, but...

Blink: The thing about story-based IF is that you have to have good writing to go along with the story. If you don't, then the whole house of cards comes crashing down. There were some nice bits here - the characterization implicit in the paintings and the garden - but unfortunately the rest of the game doesn't even come close to following up on that promise.

Bellclap: Again, much promise, but a couple of the puzzles are completely unfathomable. It's rather sparse, but frequently funny, and the "guiding voice" is a really nice touch that could be expanded upon. However, despite the positives, it requires too much guesswork for so little payoff.

Identity: Not really much to draw me into this. The game has a very classic feel (which is a nice way of saying "why the hell did I crash a spaceship just to meet up with a yak?"), and some of the design choices are questionable (a non-functional laser, annoying exits, a village that you "don't want to bother"), but the puzzles do have a nice simple logic to them - it's just not my thing.

Notes on everything else

Stack Overflow had some interesting puzzles but the setting was a yawner. The Orion Agenda's NPC should be shot; she's apparently never learned the meaning of "teamwork." The Big Scoop was about as engaging as the Cliffs Notes for a dime store detective novel. Chronicle Play Torn showed promise, only to fall apart in every way after the halfway point. Typo - yes, it did have one or two. A Day in the Life of a Super Hero was frequently quite hilarious... and just about as frequently frustrating due to major design problems. Goose, Egg, Badger, well, corralling livestock is not my thing.

Blue Sky makes a good excuse for ditching travel groups; if only the author felt the same way. Sting of the Wasp was interesting until the fourth catty remark, when it just became tiresome. Magocracy is marginal IF, and somewhat underwhelming. Kurusu City has the elements of a good story and setting, marred by inane dialogue like "Wow, you're so curvy!" Murder at the Aero Club is just about the most non-mysterious mystery I could imagine, and apparently most of the NPCs felt the same way.

If only Trading Punches went the Gamlet route; instead, you retaliate for the death of your father by serving drinks, reading gaudy infodumps, serving more drinks, reading more infodumps, and, yes, serving more drinks - all set to a particularly annoying soundtrack. The Great Xavio was irritating from the start and then lost me when the walkthrough's initial action is to do something that was completely unclued by the game. A Light's Tale is the anti-Mingsheng - over-wordy proselytizing that is neither elegant nor simple. Zero manages put some keen wit and an interesting premise in the service of a "find random x object and put in y" game that I couldn't care less about. Zero One was the game that I could never recall the specifics (nay, the generalities!) of, and that says enough right there. Redeye is just clumsy and coarse.

Ruined Robots was an instance of the author not caring, leaving me to wonder why I should. I Must Play, and I did, and I wish I didn't have to. The Realm had a couple good bits amidst some really appalling ones.

Order, on the other hand, had a somewhat interesting conceit, marred by trivial gameplay, chased by the most unforgivable sin: the Essential Object(s) Not Referred To In The Descriptions. Getting Back to Sleep did indeed cure my insomnia. PTBAD 3 was. And, finally, Ninja v1.30 is just unforgivable.


Best Game to Start In a Cryotube: Splashdown

Most Annoying NPC: Dr. Todd, in The Great Xavio (Runners-up: Spider, in Splashdown. Rebecca, in The Orion Agenda.)

The Birdman of Alcatraz Award

Zero, for the following: "Fowl men with swords and lanterns hunching through your caverns, examining, touching, destroying and taking!"

The Mimesis-breaking, Third Degree Award: Murder at the Aero Club, for the following crimes:

* The PC is unable to interview a key NPC because "[h]e seems so busy, it'd be a shame to bother him."
* An NPC who makes only one reply to anything asked of him.
* There is a body of a man who has been dead for over eight hours outside a building, everyone is drinking, or flying, or otherwise not being concerned that there's a rotting corpse right in front of the club.
* Numerous unimplemented objects and scenery.
* The PC has to make "a grueling 8-hour drive from the nearest city" to... an airport!!!

The Best Implemented Game Which Is Actually Poorly Implemented: Ruined Robots, which ruins some great multimedia (really, the water sounds are to die for) by many unfinished items and areas.

The Movie Quote That Most Accurately Describes a Game, Qualitatively and Thematically: "After about five minutes of this movie, you're gonna wish you had ten beers." - from Ghost World, applied to Trading Punches

Truth in Advertising Award: PTBAD 3

The Requisite Game With Unwarranted Attitude: A Light's Tale, with its many examples of contempt for the player.

The Sadly Irritating Award: The otherwise quite witty A Day in the Life of a Super Hero, which flubs up with the following exchanges (among others):

>talk to parrot

A fusty smell pervades your apartment. It's probably a mixture of you never getting around to cleaning it and that time the Slug Monster was here to kill you.


>wear costume

You can't wear your super hero costume.


"Oh, right. I saw her in the tavern a while back. Looked like she was sizing some bloke up."

"Well to do gentleman he was as well," says the other lady of the night. "I've have gone for him myself only he don't like remarkably ugly women."

"Yes, well," says the first lady. "You go in there and see if the fellow's alright, will you? Go ask Erik about her and you'll get no hassle from the bouncers."

You thank the lady.


The moment you set foot inside the tavern, the bouncers (who were waiting just inside the doorway), seize you by the throat and hurl you back outside again.


(subdivided in order of preference)

10: Blue Chairs

9: Luminous Horizon, Gamlet

8: Square Circle, Mingsheng, Splashdown

7: All Things Devours

6: Who Created That Monster?, Blink, Bellclap, Identity

5: Stack Overflow, The Orion Agenda, The Big Scoop, Chronicle Play Torn, Typo, A Day in the Life of a Super Hero, Goose, Egg, Badger

4: Blue Sky, Sting of the Wasp, Magocracy, Kurusu City, Murder at the Aero Club

3: Trading Punches, The Great Xavio, A Light's Tale, Zero, Zero One, Redeye

2: Ruined Robots, I Must Play, The Realm

1: Order, Getting Back to Sleep, PTBAD 3, Ninja v1.30

Mean: 4.61 * Median: 5

This article copyright © 2004, Joshua Houk

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