Beneath: A Transformation

And so Comp 07 begins for me with this modest little effort.  One knows as soon as one fires this one up that it's not going to contend for, well, much of anything, but it still seemed to have the potential to entertain me in a modest little text adventurey way.  Its story -- what there is of it -- is based upon several short stories by Robert E. Howard of Conan fame.  I'm a nondescript fellow who has just been kicked out of the library at closing time, and now I can't find anyplace to read the book I was in the middle of.  Well, anyway, that's about as close as the game gets to providing you with a coherent motivation for the things you are about to do.

So, then, the game involves wandering around town solving a bunch of arbitrary little puzzles just because they are there.  Further, and I know this is going to drive many people nuts, it is ridiculously easy to make the game unwinnable.  The only way to get through this one is to restart and restore again and again, gradually piecing together not only what needs to be done but, more importantly in a way, the exact order to do everything in so that all of the plot piece will fall into place just so.  The author does at least warn his players about his design choice, so I did go into it with fair warning.  In the end it wasn't this choice that put me off the game.  I don't generally mind a game where restarting and restoring is necessary if it is  reasonable in size, reasonably solvable, and clearly signposted as such by the author.

The thing is, though, a game like this, with little going for it in the realm of plot, character, setting, or innovation, must rise and fall on the strength of its puzzles and its funness as a purely gamelike experience.  And this one starts to fall down in those areas pretty quickly.  I got stuck before getting too far at all and turned to the walkthrough, where I learned that I had to successfully play a game of "guess the conversation topic" to continue.  So I duly started plugging away again, and duly got stuck again.  The problem this time was with the implementation, not the design.  At least, I think that throwing something in a crack should be the same as throwing something through a crack.  After this, I pretty much just played from the walkthrough, but even doing this I had some problems solving one more fairly ridiculous puzzle.

For all that, there was some effort put into this game.  The writing, while hardly memorable and decidedly minimalist, is clear and grammatical and everything is basically spelled right.  The implementation, as noted above, has some problems -- notably astmospheric movement messages that appear even when you try to move in invalid directions and a strange rope that can be viewed from every room in the game when placed in a certain position -- but I'm sure I will see much, much worse before the Comp is over.  

But tellingly, there is no mention in the credits of beta-testers.  A handful of testers could have told the author about the design problems that make his game almost impossible to solve unaided and spotted the various little technical glitches that bring the game down.  Why do so many authors fail to take this last, critical step?  Even if all of its problems were fixed, this would hardly be an outstanding effort, but it could have scored a couple of points better easily enough and left its first-time author with better feelings for beginning a second, hopefully more ambitious effort.  

Still, nondescript as this game is, it is the first game I've played in which the player's ultimate goal is to become a worm.  That has to count for something.

Score: 4 out of 10.

Slap that Fish!

I had quite a lot of fun with this one in spite of its having quite a few problems.  The premise is certainly unique, being a Progress Quest sort of send-up of the typical computer RPG.  You play a fellow who has a serious -- really serious -- objection to fish.  The entire game is a series of combats with deadlier and deadlier finned enemies that take place in a typical city alleyway.  How can you fight fish when the alley is not -- or at least doesn't appear to be -- underwater?  Beats the hell out of me.  You learn to stop asking such questions soon enough and just go with it.

There are actually two levels on which to play the game.  First of all, you will likely just be trying to win each of the combats, and not particularly concerned about what you look like doing it.  During the first half of the game, this is trivially easy, merely a matter of punching, slapping, backhanding, and kicking your enemies in whatever order feels most appropriate and most fun.  It is so easy, in fact, that I was starting to thinking the game was nothing but an elaborate joke for a while.  During the second half of the game, though, straightforward hand-to-hand violence is usually not the answer, in spite of the fact that you do get to "level up" and become stronger a couple of times.  If one tries to punch a shark, after all, one can generally expect to lose one's arm no matter how strong one is.  Winning at this stage requires a bit more creative thinking and puzzle-solving.

After each battle, you are scored based on how quickly, elegantly, and efficiently you dispatched your opponent.  Herein comes the other level of challenge.  My first time through the game my score was not very good, and so I diligently started over to try to maximize my score.  I only got about halfway through this time, though, as I could not figure out how efficiently dispatch the tuna, and couldn't work up the motivation to continue with that ugly blot on my record.

So, yes, I had fun with this, and it deserves lots of credit for originality and for a certain cheerful insanity, even though I found the whole premise and writing perhaps not so hilarious as its author seemed to wish it to be.  There are lots of cracks showing in the implementation, though, which make it impossible for me to give this a really good score.  All sorts of scenery and fishy parts are unimplemented.  Stuff like this crops up again and again:

>x shark
The shark adjusts its monocle to get a better look at you. You can hear its stomach rumbling, in anticipation of its next meal.

>x monocle
I don't know the word "monocle".

What makes this even more frustrating is that there are places where you do have to target particular parts of a fish.  Thus winning the game literally requires that you constantly beat your head against its limitations, looking for that one actually implemented thing that you need to solve a puzzle.  It's the sort of thing that was par for the course once, of course, but not quite what I want to still be seeing in 2007.

There are also outright bugs to found, including a couple of nasty TADS library programming faults.  So it's a somewhat rough and unpolished experience, but still good fun, and absolutely screaming for the good cleaning-up that would turn it into an emminently recommendable little trifle.

Score: 6 out of 10.

A Matter of Importance

I beta-tested this game for Valentine, so I obviously cannot vote on it.  I'm going to go ahead and write a review, though, along with assigning it the score I would have given.

The premise has me playing the part of a thief who is about to get kicked out of the guild due to poor performance of his thiefly duties.  Out of this comes a fairly straightforward little adventure, albeit with some fairly subversive meta-commentary on the IF genre itself to spice things up.  Although Valentine doesn't explicitly explain this part until the game is over, it's probably the most interesting aspect of the piece, so I'm going to spoil it here.

Valentine does not like what he calls "decoration items," by which he means those scenery objects that exist for flavor but cannot be interacted with in any meaningful way, only examined.  It's a prejudice I don't share at all, as it seems to me there are only two ways to avoid them: to meticulously implement every possible interaction the player might choose to make with everything (impossible), or to simply leave everything but puzzle objects umimplemented (ugly).  Therefore "decoration items" are the least bad solution, it seems to me, although I don't generally appreciate simple dismissive messages for them like "That's not important."  Even after testing the game, I'm not quite sure if it is messages like this or the whole concept of scenery objects in general that Valentine objects to, and therefore don't quite know how to take the satirical aspect of the game.

But anyway, the satire works this way: Every single item in these long, intricate room descriptions is examinable, but everything that is not necessary for actually solving the game has something to the effect of "but that's not important" tacked to the end of its (often very detailed) description.  The satire doesn't really work for me, I think for two reasons.  First, I don't really have any great objection to the thing that Valentine is satirizing; and secondly exactly what Valentine is doing never became really clear to me until I read his end notes.  Before that, I just thought the game had a really weird, repetitive way of describing its world. 

But once we move away from the meta-commentary, what do we have?  Well, we have a playable enough text adventure with a number of very clever, fun puzzles and a couple of extremely dodgy ones.  The completely out of left field solution to the soccer puzzle is the worst offender.  I didn't get this when testing, and still wouldn't have gotten it this time around if I hadn't remembered what to do.  (I didn't even realize my shoes were implemented, since they don't show up in my inventory or my self-description).  The guess-the-verb bit that comes when crossing the road will probably drive some people crazy as well, although I actually got this one very quickly and kind of enjoyed it.

The writing is certainly vivid enough, although rather exhausting at times in its sheer depth of descriptive detail .  Maybe it's supposed to be so as part of the satire?  I cleaned up a lot of the prose when testing, but the occasional odd word choice or sentence structure still betrays that the game was written by a non-native English speaker, especially toward the end when I must have been getting worn out making corrections and fell down a bit on the job.  The exhaustion factor is counteracted by the occasional very funny bit, however.  My girlfriend is still laughing at the footnote describing the soccer... I mean, football.

Score: 6 out of 10.

A Fine Day for Reaping

Mr. Webb's entry in the previous Competition, The Sisters, was one of my unsung favorites.  This year's entry is very different from that game, showing impressive versality.  Once again I am very impressed by the writing and design, but let down a bit more this time but that certain lack of professional polish that seems to be par for the course with ADRIFT games.

The game has you playing a version of Death (a.k.a. the Grim Reaper) inspired by the portrayal of same in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.  I haven't read that depiction -- I bounced hard off a couple of Discworld novels that did not feature Death years ago, and can't work up the interest to return to the series -- but I can say that in game form it is very, very funny.  This author can write!  It's a pleasure to play a genuinely funny game, and one that doesn't come along as often as you might think.  Most jokey IF tends to feel labored to me.  Death in this game is a bit of a loser, really, with a pronounced lisp and a decided lack of self-confidence, but he's only the tip of the proverbial comedy iceberg.  There are many, many funny situations and turns of phrase that made me smile often and laugh out loud at least occasionally, engendering enough good will in me to let me overlook -- or at least not punish too badly -- plenty of faults.

As Death, you have been instructed by the Powers That Be to reap five unfortunate souls who have proven reluctent to leave their bodies behind.  (Death in this milieu is, it seems, is a kind of second-level troubleshooting service, dealing only with those souls who prove problematic and presumably cannot be reaped by lower minions.)  These souls are located all over the world, but easily enough reached through the use of Horse, your (you guessed it) skeletal steed.  The game design is really quite clever, much more intricate than the typical effort.  The scenes of all of these passings -- plus your home in some non-corpreal dimension and a few others you may discover as you play along -- interrelate with one another.  Items from one are often required to solve puzzles in another, etc.  Further, the problems surrounding each soul can be solved in two or three different ways, all of them generally clever and satisfying.  The end result is an impressive example of open, non-linear gameplay.  It wouldn't work quite so well in a more serious game, of course, but here it's a real treat.

All is not sunshine and roses, though.  There are constant little annoyances, mostly arising from ADRIFT itself.  All of the standard complaints can be made.  There's the garish, ugly interpreter, of course, that can't even get MORE prompting right on my machine.  (Why does the one significant commercial IF development system have the most amateurish interpreter?)  And then there's the terrible parser, which I'm not even sure is worthy of the name.  The author wrestles actively with some of this, leading to ugly solutions like this to the problem of using an elevator:

Type either 0,1,2 or 3 depending on whether you want to go to the lobby, first or second floor or simply exit the lift at the floor you are already on.

Apparantly something like "push first button" is too much for the ADRIFT parser.  In other places Mr. Webb has come up with some quite clever, intricate puzzles, but the game solves them for you in response to the simplest beginning on your part, as they were apparantly just too difficult to properly implement in ADRIFT.  This sort of thing really leaches a lot of fun out of a game.

And then there is a certain sloppiness here that cannot (gasp!) be blamed on ADRIFT.  Lots of typos, run-ons, etc., that could have been corrected with a bit more proof-reading, and some significant bugs and glitches as well.  I found I could solve the Paris problem at least twice due to the game's not recognizing that the soul had already been reaped.  And then there is stuff like this everywhere:

Room 247 (Paris)

You are in a hotel room in a luxurious Parisian hotel.  The decor is of the usual standard expected by those who have plenty of money but no class.  Gold trim and regal, red wallpaper with extravagant, crystal light fittings and a white smoke alarm that looks out of place.  The floor is polished oak, or some other kind of luxury wood.  There is a four-poster double bed against the far wall.  Everything is very wet from the sprinkler, and the chalk-line has been erased.

Exits: East

Agathe Laurent's corpse lies on the bed.

examine bed

A large, soft bed.  It's probably very, very bad for your back.  Agathe Laurent beckons you over, grinning.

The annoyances and problems in this one never overwhelmed my enjoyment, though, and for that reason I'm going to give it a pretty good score in spite of everything.  It kept me entertained and interested throughout, which I suppose is the most important thing.  Mr. Webb has a rare gift for both writing and design.  I hope he will continue to create IF at the least, and maybe even choose to use a more robust development system at some point.

Score: 7 out of 10

Adventure XT

And so I come to the first of Paul Panks' three (!) entries.  As usual, I don't quite know what to say about this one that I haven't already said in previous reviews of his work.  Mr. Panks basically (ha!) writes the same game over and over again with only the most minor variations.  Once again you start in a village tavern about to begin a quest to free the surrounding land from the oppression of some evil wizard or other.  Once again you do that by wandering over a huge landscape that contains a whole lot of nothing, fighting monsters in simplistic randomized combat when you aren't fighting with the atrocious two-word parser.  Once again the parts of the game that are supposed to be funny, such as (I presume) the Smurf encampment aren't, but much else unintentionally is.  Take this:

Light Forest
You have reached a particularly dark section of the forest, more secluded than
the rest.

Or this:

In a Small Cottage
You are standing inside a large cottage within the forest.

I'm not sure even "large cottage" is a good description of the place, actually, because it turns out to have a long, long hallway full of rooms inside that doesn't really match my notion of a cottage of any description.  But hey, who am I to quibble in the face of other delights like water I can carry around using only my bare hands?

I'll give this a two just because it can't be easy to write an adventure game in BASIC and have it turn out even this well.  (The obvious corollary, of course, being "why the hell would you want to?")  

Score: 2 out of 10.

Fox, Fowl, and Feed

This whole game is a single set-piece puzzle which has you, as a delivery man, trying to transport a fox, a duck, and some feed across a river using only an old rowboat.  You can only carry one item across at a time, which is where the difficulty lies.  I'll let the game explain further:

* Do not leave the fox alone with the duck. Foxes think ducks are tasty!
* Do not leave the duck alone with the grain. Ducks are always hungry...
* Only one item may be transported at a time in any non-company vehicle (e.g., rowboat).

Anyone who has played any quantity of IF at all can see exactly where this is going.  Still, it's a clever little idea in its way, and has the potential to make a nice diversion.

If it wasn't hopelessly, completely bugged, that is.  I solved the game in about five minutes simply by dropping the pesky duck into the middle of the river -- something I assume from reading the hints I am not supposed to be able to do -- and picking it up again once the fox and sack of grain were safely across.  The hints say that the fox is supposed to get upset when placed in the boat, leading to problems, but that didn't happen to me either.

The writing is literate enough, and there's even some nicely done online hints, so some effort went into this.  I'm guessing this was just an instance of a last-minute change gumming up the works, or maybe it just really needed more than one beta-tester.  Anyway, I'll give it a 3 because it was mildly amusing even in its bugged state and because it wasn't a bad idea for a game.  Shame about the execution.

Score: 3 out of 10.


This is a sweet enough little story about a young girl who enters a dream-world at a moment of crisis in her life.  You travel through this landscape, solving simple puzzles as you go, while occasional "cut scenes" gradually reveal the backstory in the real world.  It's not a bad effort, and its heart is certainly in the right place, but I have to say that I didn't find much here very compelling either.  The scenery of the dream is described in a rather minimalistic fashion that doesn't allow for much sense of wonder, and the story felt like something I had heard a million times before, albeit often more evocatively told.

From a technical point of view, nothing is really wrong here.  The game seems well-tested, the prose is grammatical, and everything seems to work as it should.  I do have issues with one of the puzzles, though.  I figured out pretty quickly that I needed to construct a kite, but was unable to figure out a way to use the gel to glue the thing together in spite of trying every phrasing imaginable.  It turns out I had to rub the gel on myself, at which point I accidentally drip some onto my half-constructed kite.  I must drip a whole lot on there, actually, as it is somehow enough to hold the whole contraption together.  Not only is this frustrating in itself, but it also robs the player of the satisfaction of solving the puzzle herself by making the whole thing random and accidental.

This is the worst offender, but it does point to some of what is wrong with this game.  It's not bad, but it doesn't quite manage to be good either.  No effort has been made to customize the stock Inform 6 parser, meaning that things must often be phrased somewhat awkwardly, or just in the One True Way the author anticipated.  Yes, it's bug-free, but the author didn't do anything to take that extra step to make this a polished, non-frustrating experience.  A little more ambition -- in the story, the writing, and the absolutely linear design -- would have gone a long way with me.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Deadline Enchanter

Most of the time, these reviews are pretty easy to write.  Every once in a while, though, I come upon a game like this, and I don't quite know what to say.  This is one of the most inscrutable works of IF I have ever played, and that's saying something.  What's it about, you ask?  Well, that's just it... I'm not quite sure.  You start out wandering through a city that is apparantly suffering under some sort of occupation or oppression, but it's all described so obliquely -- and by such a discursive, chatty narrator -- that I can't tell much more than that.  I'm really not even sure if I'm human or alien.

It's not that getting through the game is the slightest bit difficult.  It's comically easy, in fact.  You find lying about the locations you visit lists of commands to enter, literally in-game walkthroughs.  Follow these to the letter, and you're golden.  Should you be masochist enough to try to ignore these and puzzle your way through independently, you will quickly realize this to be impossible.  Many essential elements are not described at all in the room descriptions.  You can only know that an exit, for instance, is in a certain direction by following the walkthroughs.

So the problem is not playing the game.  The problem is figuring out what the hell you've just played when all is said and done.  There seems to be quite an intricate narrative in its author's head, involving at least three governments -- or cults, or races, or aliens -- at odds with one another.  Although the game is absolutely linear, you switch locations and points of view at a bewildering rate, and there is something of a moral choice at the end -- if a choice (offered by the narrator) between turning off the game and continuing to play can really be considered an in-game choice, that is.  The other problem with this moral choice is that I didn't understand its ramifications -- no surprise there, I didn't understand much of anything -- and by this time I was way too annoyed by the pretentiously chatty narrator to really care anyway.

Speaking of pretension, I feel like in order to be a proper, sophisticated reviewer I should be throwing around some of it right now, talking about how this game "subverts our expectations of IF" and making sure to throw in some good postmodern buzzwords.  I just don't have the heart for it, though.  I didn't understand this game, nor did I like it very much.  I think I'll just leave it at that.  I'm not against "difficult" works per se, but a difficult work has to interest me enough in some way -- in form, in setting, in character, or in plot -- to make me want to plumb its depths.  This one never did.  The gameplay is completely linear and uninteresting, and nothing about the background in which it takes place grabbed my interest at all.  The game does indulge in some clever wordplay with the parser and other staples of IF that is almost funny, but nothing else about it made me care.  I'm not going to give it a terrible score because I can tell that a lot of work and thought went into this.  I'll give it a nice, neutral five then subtract one for irritating me on such a frequent basis.  Possible Golden Banana of Discord material here, I think.

Score: 4 out of 10.

My Mind's Mishmash

This game takes place in an online multi-player VR game of the (I assume) near future.  Within this VR takes place quite an intricate story, involving five preternaturally gifted teenagers who have been conscripted due to their native psychic abilities to fight an Alien Menace.  Think Endor's Game happening within a smaller and more tightly scripted World of Warcraft, in ten or twenty years time.  Now, you are yourself a teenager in the real world with the rather annoying handle of Surviveor (don't ask), who is a player within this game.  Initially you are playing the role of one of the five chosen teenagers, but soon other events -- or, more specifically, the nefarious actions of your arch-enemy Memoryblam -- leave you running about the simulation as a sort of ghost.  You must find your way through five "episodes" of the game by locating an exit node in each that will allow access to the next level.  And of course you must fend off the harrasments of Memoryblam, and eventually defeat him before making your final escape.  Got out all that?  If not, don't worry about it.  Suffice to say that if you fail, all will be lost.  Or at least your homework will when your computer crashes.

In spite of having short tolerance for snotty teenage gamers, I have to recognize that it's a clever and intricate scenario, well thought through for the most part.  There are problems here, though, that make it impossible for me to love or even like it too much.

First of all, it's written with ADRIFT, and the usual parser problems with that system crop up right from the first scene, in which you are fighting, still "in character" as this point, inside a sort of robotic combat suit.  (Shades of Starship Troopers.  Mr. Street has certainly covered all of the classic science fiction bases with this one.)  This suit is equipped with a suitably cool variety of weaponry.  It's not much fun to play with, however, when stuff like this starts happening:

shoot traitor with psychic disruptor
You activate the machine guns, aiming them towards the traitor's suit. You scatter your fire to try to catch the quickly dodging suit. Some bullets hit the mark, but the armour is too strong. You eventually stop to conserve bullets and consider your next tactic.

In case you were wondering: yes, the psychic disruptor and the machine guns are two completely different weapons.  It's stuff like this that leads me to call the ADRIFT "parser" more of a simple pattern matcher than anything really worthy of the term.  This sort of stupidity continues throughout the game, leaving you with that constant uncomfortable feeling of wondering whether you are truly on the wrong track or the game just doesn't understand what you are trying to do because you haven't hit on the One True Word Combination.  Some very tricky puzzles, and ADRIFT's unfortunate tendency to lie to you about what it can really understand by giving innocuous responses to things that should result in "I don't understand you" error messages, really excacberate the problem.

But this game has problems that go beyond ADRIFT.  While the intricacy of the world it constructs is admirable, there are a few puzzles I found dodgy and underclued, bordering on unfair if not completely crossing the line.  That's a shame, as there are plenty of others that are genuinely engaging and fun to solve.  Another big problem is the writing.  It's clear and grammatical and all that, but it reads like an adventure game filtered through the sensibility of Rain Man.  Everything is described well enough, but it's just so dry that it quickly becomes a chore to get through this quite lengthy game.  If the author can't get any more excited than this about his own game, why should I?

The logic of your ability to interact with the gameworld also seems to break down in a few places, unless I am misunderstanding something.  You wear something called a ghost cap throughout most of the game, which makes you invisible to computer-controlled inhabitants of the world but also prevents you from directly interacting with your physical surroundings.  Many of the puzzles thus involve taking off the ghost cap at just the right moment to accomplish what you need to while not being spotted and killed.  For the most part, this works well enough, but in some places later in the game you can do some decidedly active things while wearing the cap.  This leads to an even further level of confusion, as you are never quite sure what you really can and cannot do while wearing the cap.

This game reflects a lot of work, but it has too many problems to let me give it a good score.

Score: 5 out of 10.

Reconciling Mother

This is a very ambitious effort in some ways, but falls completely apart due to a multitude of design and implementation problems.  You play a secret agent of some sort who has been sent to visit Miskatonic University to investigate... something.  I'm not quite sure what, because I frankly didn't finish it.  I'm going to assume from the name of the university that Lovecraftian elements crop up at some point.  If I had to guess, I would say that the big reveal here will show the game to be an exploration of the player's own psychic landscape in the tradition of Losing Your Grip.

And my Lord, what a landscape!  The game drops you into the middle of an enormous map and leaves you to explore, not providing any more direction at all.  The breadth of the implementation may be sprawling, but the depth is shockingly shallow.  Absolutely nothing in the many, many rooms is implemented except for those objects that appear by themselves at the end of the room descriptions.  The author seems to have willfully ignored the most basic techniques for making a polished game, which is made even more maddening by the fact that he is working with TADS 3, easily the most powerful IF development system ever created.  How bad is it?  Well, there is only one way to refer to virtually all objects in the game, and it's not always the most intuitive way you can imagine.  For instance, the "yellow disk" you encounter can only be referred to as "yellow".  Neither "yellow disk" nor "disk" are acceptable.

The writing is not bad here, but the whole is a strange combination of too little (as described above) and too much.  When something actually is described, it's often done with a long, dense paragraph that is exhausting to read.  Combine this with the sprawling map and complete lack of any direction to guide your explorations and the whole quickly becomes mind-numbing.  I dutifully played for two hours, but at the end of that time I still didn't have a clue what was really going on and couldn't really bring myself to care.  Upon discovering seven films on Ganymede -- don't ask how I got there -- each with its own bloated, aimless description to view upon popping it into the player, I gave up in sheer exhaustion without having solved, or even found, a single puzzle or even visiting most of the locations on the map.  Much, much more needs to be done to hook the player and to provide him with some structure for just what he is trying to accomplish.  Aimless wandering in the hope that a plot will break out somewhere just won't cut it.

Score: 3 out of 10.

Across the Stars

At last I come to the first game of Competition 2007 that well and truly rocks.  It's been a long time coming this year, but it was worth the wait.  This one is a delight to play, and does just about everything right, beginning with an elaborate set of feelies worthy of Infocom themselves.  In fact, this is very much an Infocom homage, particularly to their science fiction games.  Never fear, though, it consistently chooses the right aspects to recreate, and isn't afraid to embrace modernity in other areas.  While it may pay tribute to Planetfall, you won't find any hunger timers in this one, folks.  Nor will you find it short of imagination of its own.

The game begins when you, a decidedly junior crewmember in the space armada of the Xulthe'en Empire, awake to find your ship under attack from space pirates.  It takes place over two extended acts.  In the first, you are simply trying to find a way to survive the pirates who have overrun your ship and killed everyone but you from her crew; in the second, which is longer and even better, you are trying to survive the desert planet to which you have "escaped."  Although the game is rife with comic touches, it never becomes a pure screwball comedy a la most of Steve Meretzky's games.  The feel is rather unabashedly golden age science fictional.  It's no secret by this point that I grew up with this stuff and love it dearly, so this game was right up my alley even if it hadn't been executed so well.

But it is executed so well.  It gets that delicate art of puzzle design just about perfect.  I was frequently forced to stop and think, but only got stumped to the point of resorting to the (very well done, like everything here) hints one time... and then found that my stumpedness was my own fault, resulting from a failure to examine my surroundings closely enough.  There is challenge here, but it is never insurmountable.  For me, the difficulty was pitched perfectly, making the game challenging but never hair-pullingly so.  Even the game's geography just works.  It's fairly extensive by modern standards, covering over 45 rooms, but is revealed gradually and fits together so intuitively that mapmaking is unnecessary.  There is no directionless wandering here, as you always know pretty well what you need to do.

The game has been very well tested, in two phases by a collection of about a dozen names, and it shows.  I did encounter the (very) occasional typo, and one or two little glitches, but really on a game this large that's nothing to complain about.  Another thing I have to make note of is the bundle of little extra touches the game provides for nothing more than fleshing out its world, such as a searchable encyclopedia full of information about its setting, most of which has no direct bearing on events at hand.  It's simply there, free for you to explore to whatever extent you are interested as a palatte-cleanser between solving puzzles.

Afer considerable thought, I'm going to give this a nine rather a ten because it doesn't really push the boundaries of IF in any way and also because in all truth it's much too long for the Competition.  (I can't bring myself to really punish it for that, but I suspect others may not be so kind.  It took me about five hours to finish.  I didn't mind a bit, but still...)  I am, though, thrilled to be able to write my first unabashedly positive (gushing, even) review of a Competition 2007 game at last.  This one is a delight.  And there's lots of room for sequels, so here's hoping...

Score: 9 out of 10.

Ghost of the Fireflies

A couple of the choicer bits:

In anger, Camphora reincarnated as the ghost of
a firefly, an magnificant breed of beatles known
as the Lampyridae.

More magnificant than John, Paul, George, and Ringo???

You are carrying
   A Large Ice Dragon, breathing fire paradoxically (dragon).
   A Large Ice Dragon, breathing fire paradoxically (dragon).
   A Large Ice Dragon, breathing fire paradoxically (dragon).

I gave up on this one pretty quickly after the sword I thought I was carrying inexplicably turned into the above three ice dragons, and I found myself locked in a combat I could not escape with a bushido.  I kept trying to run away, and the game kept telling me I was successful, but the fight never seemed to end.

This game raises the bar for Mr. Panks by being pointlessly gory and needlessly offensive in addition to all of the usual Panksian problems:

In the ancient forest, Atsuta Jingu
The bloodied, mangled body of Jesus of Nazareth sits by the road here, stabbing
himself with thorns from his blood-soaked crown. 'Why? Yeshua! WHHHYYYYY??!!'
he moans bitterly. You pay him no mind, for he is a fool, lost in the shadows
of a forlorn world. The forest stretches for miles to the east, shimmering in
the hallowed darkness with a kind of perverted, magical ecstacy.

It looks like Mr. Panks orginally intended for this game to have started in a different location, then changed things at the last minute, because all of the room descriptions seem to assume you are coming from the opposite direction.  Of course, having room descriptions that assume you are coming from any direction at all is a problem in itself, but baby steps, right?  And then there is the bizarre non-interactive introduction, which makes no sense at all.  (Well, it's not completely non-interactive.  You do get to type "go west" a couple of times.  Only "go west," mind you.  Anything else the game refuses.)

I could run through a laundry list of errors and gaffes, but what's the point?  I will just note to Mr. Panks that introducing his game with a page-long screed against the people who will score him might not be a wise strategy for doing well in the Comp.  Oh, and one more thing: my girlfriend notes that this is the first game she's seen in which the magic system involves preparing a fruit salad.

Score: 1 out of 10.

The Lost Dimension

This game does just about everything possible to prejudice judges against itself.  Not only is it Windows only, but it's Windows 2000 or later only and requires that one have the .NET framework installed.  On top of all this, it requires itself to be installed as an application to be played.  And once started, it reveals a very non-conventional interface, gameplay that revolves around randomized combat, and endless problems with spelling and grammar.  For all of these reasons, I confidently expect it to place well below the middle in the Competition, due to those who give it a knee-jerk one when they realize they cannot run it (or are unwilling to do what is required to do so) as well as those who give it a knee-jerk one based on a two minute first impression of play.

For all the hype it continually receives, I have never had occasion to actually install the .NET framework before.  I do try to play everything, though, so I dutifully completed the 20 MB download and tedious install, not expecting very much from the game when I finally got to play.  But something happened on the way to giving this a bad score... I found it is actually pretty fun.

You play a fellow who is whisked away to a strange island when his commercial flight is passing over the Bermua Triangle.  Your goal is to escape the island, which involves exploring, solving simple puzzles, and fighting hosts of monsters.  As you progress through the game, you find better weaponry, improve your statistics, and go up in level, all of which allows you to fight ever tougher monsters.  That's pretty standard stuff, of course, but thousands of computerized RPGs bear witness to the fact that it can still be pretty satisfying stuff, albeit in a different way from that of conventional IF.

The plot and setting are so silly to be unworthy of discussion, but the interface works surprisingly well.  You can type in commands should you wish to do so, but the game was clearly designed to be played using the mouse.  Its screen is divided into several areas: one displaying a description of your current location, one scrolling updates about events in the game, one a list of items carried, one your current abilities and other statistics, one items in the room you might interact with, and one a menu of compass directions and verbs.  By limiting the interface like this, the author has managed to avoid the biggest problem that comes with rolling your own IF: writing the parser.

So, yes, the premise is silly, and the writing is absolutely atrocious, featuring terrible spelling, strange diction, and wild swinging between present and past tense, sometimes within the same sentence.. The author is either a non-native English speaker, the poster child for the failings of the American educational system, or else wrote every line of text in the game while slightly tired and / or drunk and then never glanced at it again.  I'm going to guess the first, because some of the writing is just bizarre, such as the game's proclivity for referring to you as "it."

Because this game emphasises its ludic over its narrative aspects so much, however, the writing didn't really bother me that much.  And while the plot is absurd, the game is structured well enough to make it fun and satisfying to work through.  I can't deny it... I simply had fun with this one.  And I was impressed enough by the interface that the IF author within me awoke and started wondering just what it might be possible to create with a more sophisticated version of this basic engine.  It's nice to see something a little bit different in IF that works.  While this game is no more than a slight entertainment, the ideas and basic design behind it have considerable potential.

Score: 7 out of 10.

In the Mind of the Master

Sometimes I fear my reviews of David Whyld's games will become as repetitive as my reviews of Paul Panks's games.  (Now, there's a comparision both are bound to hate!)  While Whyld's games are certainly not as unplayably bad as Panks's, they are similar in that they continually suffer from the same set of problems that cost them a shot at a decent placing in the Comp year after year.  These problems (for Mr. Whyld only) come down to a sort of general sloppiness, an inability to or disinterest in really proofreading, bug-swatting, and polishing.  In the interest of not beating a dead horse, I'm just going to say here that Master is completely typical of Whyld's work in this respect, and that it probably cost him at least a point -- possibly two -- in the final score I will give him.

And that's a shame, because in many ways this is an interesting effort.  I wouldn't say it's a successful effort, but it is a very interesting failure, the sort of thing that can sometimes coax from me a higher score than a bog-standard game that does everything right, albeit safely.  The player takes the role of the eponymous Master, a shadowy fellow who can slip into disguises and almost become the person represented.  He makes his living using this talent, although the specifics of how he does so are left rather vague.  (More on that later.)  The game begins at a moment of crisis: the Master has just learned that some bad characters are coming to his little apartment to kill him, and must make his escape.  To do so, he can choose to don one of three disguises: a gentleman's attire, a postal worker's uniform, or a policeman's uniform.

This is where things get interesting.  The majority of the game is very open and non-linear.  A variety of scenes will be presented to the player depending on what disguise he chooses and what choices he makes after that.  I doubt that a player could see more than half of the possibilities on any given playthrough, if that.  All of these threads finally come back together in a single end-game, assuming the player survives to get there, of course.  (This end-game, by the way, is marked by an egregious guess the verb puzzle that Whyld claimed in his notes would be obvious, but that never even occurred to me until I read the hints.  C'est la vie.)

I'm usually very interested in non-linear or multi-plotted IF, but this example didn't really work for me.  I think my problems might come down to the fact that there is no moral dimension to the choices you are forced to make.  Picking a disguise is essentially a random choice, and everything that follows from there is in the same vein.  I'm never being asked to engage with anything that I (or my character) really care about.  The background of the story, the What's Really Going On, is so vague and amorphous that it's hard to feel any real stake in the choices the Master makes.  And for all of the kaledicscopic variation possible in the first two-thirds of the game, you always end up at the same place, with everything you've done before being essentially irrelevant.  The choices you make are merely procedural choices.  Once I realized this, I became much less interested in replaying the game to explore those other options.  From the standpoint of an author, I'm not sure whether offering such a non-linear plot to the player makes any sense if you aren't willing to also let her affect the greater outcome of the game and really explore the story from a higher level.  It just seems a good way to do about three times as much work for the same end result.  (Offering multiple solutions to puzzles when said solutions are all logical and fit in naturally is a very different thing, of course, and one of which I heartily approve.)

The writing is engaging, although (as noted above) somewhat sloppy.  One gets the sense that Mr. Whyld is perfectly capable of writing smoother, more polished prose; he just doesn't take the time to do so.  The game is played in third person past tense -- except for when the occasional bit of second person present tense sneaks in accidentally, that is -- but I'm not sure if this really adds anything to the game.  Sometimes it comes across as unintentionally comical, in fact.  Mr. Whyld frankly admits in his copious notes that he doesn't himself know just who the Master really is or what he is up to in the game.  He wants to spin this as a positive, but to me it just represents a story getting out of its author's own control.  An author shouldn't have to ask his players to do the work of deciding What Is Really Going On for him.  Making her puzzle out the big picture is fine, but there should be a big picture to puzzle out, as opposed to a bunch of random data-points.  Not that this is an uncommon problem... I think many of Andrew Plotkin's games suffer from exactly the same thing, so Mr. Whyld is in good company I'd say.  Minority opinion and all that, of course... I'm just not a post-modern kind of guy.

Overall, this is an interesting, even brave, effort that didn't really work for me.  Props for chutzpah, though.

Score: 6 out of 10.


This is a vividly imagined little effort that I quite enjoyed in spite of some problems.  It's a fantasy story, taking place in a world that reminded me a bit of  the young adult trilogy of novels (and classic computer game) Below the Root.  You play Farahnaaz -- lots of crazy names in this one, folks -- a library employee and repairer of books in the backwater city-state of Arg Varkana.  As the game begins, a diplomatic delegation has just arrived from another, apparantly larger and more developed region for trade negotiations of some sort.  Your mentor has request that you repair and keep hidden away a mysterious book of poetry that the Ashtartans -- those are the visitors -- want very much to get their hands on for some reason. 

As the names may demonstrate, the author has clearly put a lot of work into her setting, and it comes across very well.  In fact, it's by far the best thing about this one.  She hasn't settled for a collection of typical fantasy tropes, but rather designed a world that feels alive and believable, and that represents a surprising combination of fantasic and technological elements.  For instance, various people fly into Arg Varkana's airfield using both winged creatures and mechanical flying machines, depending on their cultural predilictions.

The gameplay is not bad, but less impressive than the setting, being a collection of fairly typical text adventure puzzles which are mostly satisfying enough to solve but not compelling or innovative in any way.  However, things really break down a bit in the area of NPC conversation.  I got hopelessly stuck at one point and had to turn to the hints, whereupon I learned that I had been trying to ask the right question all along, but had not chosen the One True Keyword.  Further, all of the NPCs are so unresponsive that finding the few things you can talk to them about quickly becomes an exercise in frustration.  Something like Eric Eve's Inform 7 conversation extensions would have improved this game greatly.

I was also a little annoyed by my complete lack of agency in the game's plot.  Toward the end of the game you are forced to switch sides, as it were, and help the individual who starts out as the adversary to steal the book and escape.  I saw absolutely no reason to do this, and so was continually trying to find a way to turn the tables on him and capture him.  I was rather shocked when I realized I was neither expected nor allowed to do this.

Still, this is a pretty solid effort overall.  The writing is fine, as are the technical aspects of the game.  (Well, I saw the occasional glitch in each, but nothing major.)  The few original illustrations that pop up here and there are also nicely done and a do great job of adding to the setting and atmosphere.  This one frustrated me a bit at times, but overall it's a solid piece of work and a promising first effort from a new author.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Gathered in Darkness

Toward the end of this game you realize that it uses the Lovecraft mileu, but it never even tries to evoke the feeling of that writer. Instead, it is something even less subtle than Lovecraft: a B-movie style splatterfest horror game, with perhaps the highest ratio of dismembered bodies to rooms that I have ever seen in an IF game.   In fact, it's so over the top with the gore and cheese that it's downright campy.  The evil villian is named Dr. Skinn and his henchman Lector, for crying out loud!  I know this story won't be to everyone's taste, but I took it in what I hope was the spirit intended and just enjoyed the ride.  In spite of the problems I'm about to detail, I had a lot of real fun with this one.

Unfortunately, though, it does have problems -- major problems that left me unable to reward it with a really good score even though I wanted to.  First of all, this game was built with Quest, which is far from my favorite IF system as a player.  Quest purports to provide you with a list of objects in the current room that you can manipulate, but at least in this game this doesn't really work.  Immediately visible objects that you can pick up are listed, but many other objects which you can and, indeed, must interact with are not.  The parser, meanwhile, is so bad that you quickly find yourself wishing you could just play the whole thing by pointing and clicking.  Although I was a bit annoyed by all this, it wasn't the main problem.  Once you learn the big quirk of Quest -- the necessity to fall back on the normally useless verb "use" anytime you want to do anything remotely complicated -- games created in the system, or at least this game, play fairly smoothly.

A bigger problem is the writing.  Well, in a sense it's not bad writing at all.  The author has done really quite a nice job of vividly describing things while slathering great gobs of B-movie goodness all over everything.  In another sense, though, the writing is terrible.  There are endless problems with diction and grammar, and maloprops and plain old misspellings are literally in just about every sentence.  There are some real howlers here: "cheese grader" in place of "cheese grater" was perhaps my favorite.  I never had the impression that the author was stupid, nor did I ever -- with just a bare few exceptions -- ever have trouble understanding what he was trying to say.  In a sense, then, the writing works in spite of itself, but nevertheless really needs a huge amount of cleaning up.  Just a simple spell-checking would be a huge start.

The other big issue I have involves the room descriptions.  When you enter a room for the first time, the game gives you a nice description of everything, as you would expect.  (And the author has gone to great lengths to implement every single scenery object therein, for which he deserves commendation.)  When you return to a room, though, you get just a shortened description.  Let me demonstrate.  Here is a description of a room the first time you enter:

Empty Cell
This cell is empty and immaculate.  You are sure that it has not been used in quite some time.  Even the waste bucket seems empty and clean.  The corridor is north.

And here is the same room after you have been there before:

Empty Cell
This cell is empty and immaculate.  You are sure that it has not been used in quite some time.  The corridor is north.

Let's say you realize that you need a bucket.  You remember having seen one around, but you can't quite remember just where.  Well, there is absolutely no way to know a bucket is in that room once the first room description scrolls off your screen.  Even typing "LOOK" just shows the "you have already been here" version again.  Compounding this problem is the fact that this is quite a lengthy game.  The Competition version is just the first third of the full epic that the author plans to release as soon as the Comp is complete, yet it is already one of the longest games I have played this year.  Imagine in Chapter 7 or 8 of that full version having to return to an early room to get something or -- even more likely -- having to manipulate some vital piece of equipment.  You can't remember just where it was, and the damn game won't tell you!  It's really a terrible problem, one that bit me a couple times just in playing through this preview.

This game is rife with ambition and a unique atmosphere we don't see too often in IF, and in spite of its many problems it's just good fun.  It was also a very smart move on the author's part to enter just this preview into the Comp, rather than pissing me off with a huge work I couldn't possibly finish.  I would however suggest to the author that he hold off on releasing the full version for a few more months to spell-check and proof-read it (or find someone else to do so), and to fix that horrible room description problem.  After spending eighteen months working on this, a few more months to get it right won't kill him.  If he does that, I will be eager to play the full version.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Lord Bellwater's Secret

This game takes place in London in 1863.  You play a groom in the household of the newly installed Lord Bellwater: newly installed because his father, whom you served for years, has just passed away and left the estate to his only son.  Or so the son would have the world believe... all may not be as it seems with the inheritance.  Such things are the least of your problems, though.  Your big concern is with the tragic fate of your sweetheart, the housemaid Elsie, who tumbled to her death out of a third-floor window just a few days ago.  The entire game takes place in a single night and, for the most part, a single room, as you explore Lord Bellwater's study for clues about what prompted Elsie's fall from the window therein.  There are no aliens, no magic, and no evil beings from beyond to be found in this one, just a good old everyday human mystery, and that makes for a nice change of pace.

So then, your goals -- and the game itself's ambitions -- are quite modest.  The game plays out over two stages: first, you must gather evidence to piece together What is Really Going Here; and then, the inevitable disturbance occurs which alerts the rest of the household to your presencet, and you must make your escape by, shall we say, unorthodox methods.

The game makes a great point of tracking and informing you of your position within the room.  For instance, when you examine the desk after  looking at the bookshelves you first see this:

You turn from the bookshelves and walk over to the desk.

I expected this to be relevant to the game at some point, but it never happened.  I still don't really see the point of all this effort, as I don't know that it really added anything to the vesmilitude of the piece.

That choice was kind of odd, but another thing really irritated me and cost the game at least a point from my final score.  You see, there's a window in the room -- obviously, as this is the location from which Elsie was murdered or committed suicide.  Getting through this window is unfortunately very problematic for you (as I suppose it was in another sense for Elsie).  I tried "enter window," "go through window," "jump out window," "jump through window," and several other variations on the concept.  When the game stubbornly refused to understand my intent, and when I couldn't figure out any other way to progress, I turned to the hints, where I learned I should have been simpy typing "e."  Authors need to do better than that in 2007.  I'm not interested in wrestling the parser as well as the puzzles into submission anymore.

This glitch is odd, because in every other respect everything works so well.  The writing is fine, the setting well-realized and refreshing, and all other technical aspects perfectly solid.  While the window issue diminished my enjoyment somewhat, I still had a very nice time with this one solving its few puzzles and its mystery.  I did not find the winning ending is entirely satisfying, and I tried for a bit to get a better until turning to the hints and realizing that was the best I could do.  But then life, like this game, isn't perfect; but it can, also like this game, work out well enough.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Vampyre Cross

Mr. Panks is a man of many moods -- or many personalities.  This game is by the Angry Young Panks:

The game no doubt still has errors, but I don't feel like re-compiling the shit, going back to Star Commander, re-compiling, etc.  Fuck it.

This is undoubtedly a biased review, but I don't feel like re-writing the same shit I wrote last year again, when this game ran on MS-DOS instead of a Commodore 64 emulator and was called Fetter's Grim.  Fuck it.

Score: 1 out of 10.

Jealousy Duel X

Here we have the second of this year's two oddball Windows entries that are really not traditional IF at all.  This is a Flash-based effort that presents its simple story using static graphics and text mixed with a point and click CYOA-style interface.  It seems that your girlfriend has just broken up with you, and you -- enlightened, mature modern man that you are -- have decided to win her back by collecting as many female phone numbers as you can to show her how much other women want you, and thereby bring her back to your side in a fit of jealousy.  Far be it from me to give dating advice, but it seems like a dodgy plan.

It's obvious that quite a lot of effort went into this.  The graphics are nicely drawn, the text is fine, and the interface is unique.  As a slice of college-age life, there are lots of jokes to be found here about the war between the sexes, partying, Internet pornography, dorm life, etc.  I'm not in that demographic anymore, but certainly wouldn't object to reminescing and laughing about those days.  Unfortunately, though, I just could not warm up to it at all.  It's yet another of those games that isn't nearly as funny as it wants to be.  The humor is safe college humor by numbers that we've all seen a million times before.  It's come across as a safer, water-downed, less funny Leisure Suit Larry.  (And that's saying something, as I never even found Leisure Suit Larry particularly funny.)

The game design, meanwhile, has some huge problems.  The only possible way to win this one is to fail and restart over and over again.  You see, getting each woman's phone number requires first learning about her likes and dislikes, but that generally can only be done by failing with her once or twice.  Since there's no save function here, you have to repeat the entire game again and again, getting a little further each time.  This is the very definition of Not Fun.  I managed to collect four numbers before I just couldn't go on anymore.  Upon delivering them to my ex, she gave a lukewarm response along the lines of, "that's not very impressive, but it was sweet [???] of you to try," at which point my character had a sudden change of heart and / or outbreak of maturity, and decided to try to win her back on his own terms.  That was kind of nice, I guess, although I think that had I collected more numbers my girl would have leaped back into my arms and maturing would have been unnecessary on my part.  How's that for a life lesson?

This game isn't aggressively bad, but it just left me bored.  Perhaps others will find it hilarious.  I just found it pointless and tedious and not worth the effort that went into creating it.

Score: 4 out of 10.


Mr. Powell's submission to last year competition was a single game divided into two parts, based upon a novel by G.K. Chesterton.  It was an impressive effort in some ways, but ultimately undone by a series of puzzles that were impossible if one hadn't read the lengthy novel that served as the source.  I was happy to see him enter again this year, this time with an original effort that shouldn't be subject to similar problems.  Imagine my surprise, then, upon discovering here yet another pile of completely inscrutable puzzles.  I'll be very shocked if anyone manages to get anywhere with this one without playing straight from the walkthrough.

And that's a shame, because the bad puzzles undue some amusing writing in service of a clever central conceit.  The plot is a variation on Sleeping Beauty.  You are visiting a castle in which all of the inhabitants have been asleep for many years on a mission to wake the princess (and presumably the rest of the castle as well if you can find the time).  The wrinkle, though, is that you are the eponymous pack rat, a hopeless collector of junk and knick-knacks who starts the game with such things as a collection of doorknobs shoved into his pack.  This serves as a running gag throughout the game, as your compulsion leads you constantly to involuntarily try to hoist staircases, loaded chests, and dining room tables in addition to many more managable items.  It's a nice variation on the old kleptomaniac adventurer routine that dates back at least to Enchanter.

The game isn't a bug-fest, but the implementation is decidedly sketchy, with many items in the room descriptions left unimplemented and some items you must interact with -- such as the moat under the castle drawbridge -- not included in room descriptions, their existence left for you to infer from context I suppose.  Also present are some real oddities, such as several doors in the southern dining area that are left undescribed but that show up when you try to go in certain directions from there.  I spent a lot of time fiddling with those -- or, rather, fighting with a buggy parser to get my disambiguated meaning across -- to no avail.  Combine this with the cruel puzzle design and you are left with a game that I found virtually impossible to make progress in.

What this game, like so many others in this competition and others, really needed was some beta-tasting to shake out the game design.  Many of the puzzles would be clever and satisfying enough if you were given an extra nudge or two about what you should be doing, and if the implementation was fleshed out a little better.  As it stands, though, it's hard to recommend this to any but the masochistic.

Score: 3 out of 10.

Ferrous Ring

I've been disappointed with many games this year for their lack of ambition.  This one, though, has the opposite problem.  Not only has its author deployed a whole new interface for IF, she has also attempted to tell quite a complicated story using same.  The author did indicate in her accompanying notes that she knew herself to be biting off a lot, so perhaps much of this review will not be a surprise to her.  It doesn't all or even mostly work, but the ends results are certainly interesting.  I'm going to talk about each facet of the game in turn, beginning with that new interface.

Actually, I should say new interfaces, for there are several ways to play.  First of all, you can play the game like any other work of IF.  If that doesn't float your boat, you can play by simply typing the names of nouns from the game's text in at the prompt.  The game will then choose what it judges to be the most appropriate action to take using that noun.  This means that all nouns are supposed to be examined the first time you type them.  After that, the game's choice gets more complicated, but generally the most obvious action will be performed; takeable objects will be taken, doors opened, etc.  Finally, you can play the game in "menu mode," simply clicking on lists of interactable objects which appear in a separate window to perform the "most obvious action" upon them.  You can also move around the landscape using this window and combine objects with other objects in classic graphic adventure fashion.

Indeed, the author's overarching goal seems to be to make IF play more like graphic adventures.  I'm not really sure I see a need for this myself.  If you prefer the graphic adventure interface I tend to feel like maybe you should just, well, play graphic adventures instead of IF.  There's even a thriving freeware scene making them, and I'm told some of them are quite good if you don't mind retro-graphics and a strong fixation on creating games like Sierra and Lucasarts's classics rather than innovating.  Using an interface like this for IF, though, just robs the form of the strong sense of control and possibility on the part of the player which is one of its greatest strengths without really adding anything I found hugely compelling.  I guess your opinion on the subject will depend on whether you feel the parser is a drawback or a strength in IF.  I am firmly in the latter camp; Ms. Ferris -- yes, I know this must be a pseudonym, but we'll go with it -- seems just as firmly in the former.  In her notes she states what a difficult problem recognizing natural language is.  It is, of course, but it's one that is solved well enough for the purposes of command entry in IF.  Only poorly designed games ever leave me fighting with the parser these days, and that's been the case for many years.  Nor do I accept her assertion that learning to interact with the parser is a difficult task.  I think the average person can easily have it down in an hour, which is trivial compared to the time it takes to learn to work everything in something like, say, Warcraft 3.  I don't think it's the parser that puts people off IF so much as the idea of reading.

Since a major purpose of this game was obviously to demonstrate this new interface, I nevertheless played through it using menu mode except for those few occasions when the game seemed willfully determined not to understand what I was trying to do.  It works fairly well, but there are a fair number of rough spots that mark it as a first attempt.  Although the game claims an item will always be examined the first time you click on it, it didn't seem to do this quite consistently.  I was often not sure whether clicking on a door would take me through it or merely look at it, for instance.  Losing the ability to specify explictedly what I wanted to do also led me to feel less in control and more like an onlooker.  (I have the same complaint with today's breed of "one-click" graphic adventures, for what it's worth.)  The interface for using an item with another is rather cumbersome, requiring you to cycle past each item in your inventory until you come to the one you want.  It wasn't horrible in this game, but in a huge puzzlefest with a large inventory it would be a nightmare.  Also, the text of the choices in the menu window occasionally spills completely off the window.  In a couple of cases I had to click randomly on links that looked promising due to an inability to see what each actually what each actually said in full.  Finally, the game uses a menu based system for conversation, but your dialogue choices are not clickable.  Thus youare  forced to move back and forth between mousable menus and menus requiring the good old arrow keys and enter technique.  Needlessly inconsistent.

But what of the game around which all this wrapped?  Well, it's a rather confusing dystopian scenario that didn't quite irritate with its willful obscurity as much as Wish, but did come close at times.  Your character knows more than you in this one, which doesn't work terribly well in that you the player are often not quite sure just what you the character is trying to accomplish, leading to considerable cognitive dissonance.  I had to use the hints on several occasions to make progress.  The solutions to my conumdrums seemed rather hopelessly obscure to me, but I'm not going to ding this game as heavily for that sort of thing as I normally do.  I was trying to adapt to this new interface so as to give it a fair shake, and I may not have been at my best as a player just because my comfort level with how the interface really worked was not there.  I can say that the story is very railroaded, however, and that the ending is fairly inscrutable.  I never quite had the impression (as with Wish) that the author was just being pretentious for the sake of it, but I did find some of the writing rather fussy and precious.  Some I also found almost evocative, however.  It's a mixed bag, like everything here.

 Actually, a literary game like this strikes me as a poor fit for this interface.  There are only a few opportunities to make use of its "object combination" capabilities, for instance, because the game tends to be more about looking around and talking to people than actually, well, manipulating objects.  The author might have done better to roll her interface out with a more traditional objects and puzzles game.

Is the interface worthwhile?  I think it might be, although it needs some more work.  I tend to think that a simple menu of verbs and objects could accomplish things just as well, though, and not run such a risk of making IF no longer feel like IF.  Still,  I'll give it credit as an interesting work in progress, and also credit the game itself as a well-imagined effort, albeit one that didn't really excite me that much.

By the way, is there any way to get out of the ABOUT menu without restarting the whole game?  I certainly couldn't find one.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Lost Pig

This is a fine effort.  You play an orc named Grunk in search of a lost pig from the farm at which he works.  It's not exactly a complex plot, but then you don't exactly play a complex character either.

Grunk is the best element in a game that has plenty of strengths.  He is characterized to the hilt.  Not only the main text but absolutely every standard libray message has been rewritten into Grunk's pidgeon English, which must represent a considerable amount of effort.  When described, it's the sort of thing that sounds like it would quickly become annoying, but it never does here.  Grunk is such a charmer, and the whole game is so continually cute and laugh out loud funny, that it's a delight.  This is, in fact, easily the funniest game I've played this year, with an innocent charm worthy of its main character.

But the game has plenty of other strengths.  Just about everything you might attempt has been anticipated and provided for.  There are absolutely no parser frustrations here, and sometimes the extent of the parser's undestanding shocked me.  Any game that can understand REACH IN CRACK WITH POLE has earned itself considerable respect in my book.

There is also a very impressively implemented NPC.  No, I don't mean the pig, although he's pretty entertaining in himself.  I mean the gnome magician, who has absolutely oodles of things to say about all sorts of topics.  While talking with you, he putters about in his workshop happily, always doing something interesting and amusing.  Conversation takes place using a simplified version of the TADS 3 "ask / tell but with suggested topics" system, and it works really well.

I did get a little bit frustrated toward the end of the game, when I just could not make any more progress and had to turn to the hints.  I wouldn't say any of the puzzles are blatantly unfair, but I think another clue or two to the solutions of some wouldn't have been amiss.  And then there was a particularly cruel red herring about a magic word that kept me distracted from working on the real solution for a while.  I found these difficult puzzles somewhat at odds with the general tone of the game.  How on earth could Grunk, not the proverbial sharpest knife in the drawer, solve these?  I wonder if it might have been possible to work in more solutions that made Grunk -- guided by the player -- seemingly blunder into the solution  through luck or strength.

Still, even if the structure of the whole design isn't an unmitigated success for me,  there are many, many pieces that delighted me.  This easily stands as one of the best of the Comp, and I know who I will be voting for at next year's XYZZY awards for best PC.

Score: 8 out of 10.

Eduard the Seminarist

I really didn't get the premise of this one at all until I did some research post-playing on Wikipedia.  You play a seminarist who has agreed to meet two of his friends at a gazebo in the middle of the night to do some poetry reading.  The game is all about sneaking out of your dormitary and getting to the meeting.  Only after the fact did I learn that the conspirators in the game are figures in German Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century, and that these clandestine meetings were previously written about by Hermann Hesse in a short story.  Since I know very little about German literature, any greater resonance that should lie behind all of these events is entirely lost on me.  I can see, though, that when evaluated strictly on its merits as a text adventure this game has a lot of problems.

This game was written by a native German speaker whose command of fluid English seems a bit shaky, but he manages to avoid embarrasing himself for the most part by keeping all of his text very minimalist, although the occasional odd word choice pops up, such as the "cupboard" in which you keep your clothing.  But this game's problems go beyond just the language.

The geography is simply bizarre, for one thing.  Your room is on the ground floor of the dormitory, yet you need a rope to escape through the window.  I infer from contextual clues that your window must be at least forty above the ground, yet you can walk right out the front door located on the same floor.  Was M.C. Escher designing German seminaries in the nineteenth century?

The occasional critical object is left completely out of a room description.  For instance, your room contains not only your bed but also that of your roommate Wilhelm, who until the end of the game is mentioned exactly once, as the other addressee (along with you) on a cryptic note.  From this you are supposed to infer not only that Wilhelm is your roommate but that his bed is in the room ready to be used to solve a crucial puzzle.  Nobody is going to solve this one without hints.

It's also full of bugs.  For instance, at one point I found myself suddenly inserted into a barren place called The On the Neckar.  Trying to do anything from here resulted in, "You'll have to get out of the On the Neckar first."  Gee, thanks.  Restore time.  The parser is also terribly finicky.  THROW ROPE OUT WINDOW doesn't work; THROW ROPE OUT OF WINDOW does.  And did I mention the knowledge from past lives problems?  Well, even those puzzles that are solvable require saving and restoring once or twice to figure them out.

I'm a literary kind of guy, and so normally sympathetic to games with a literary theme.  This is just a mess though.  Some of it is probably getting lost in the translation, so to speak, from German to English language and culture, but that's only the beginning of this one's problems.

Score: 3 out of 10.
Orevore Courier

This is a very original effort with lots of good ideas.  You are the security officer aboard a three-man orevore courier spaceship.  The orevore is an alien creature  that eats rocks, which makes it rather valuable to mining colonies.  (I'm thinking of the beastie from the old Star Trek "Devil in the Dark" episode, and I suspect Mr. Rapp was too.)  Basically, your job as security officer is to blow up the ship should anyone attack it and try to steal the orevore.  You are kept sealed within a single room of the ship; no roaming about for you.  The whole game is thus played through the controls on your security council, of which the author has thoughtfully provided a diagram along with a map of the ship as feelies.  When a mysterious asteroid smashes into your ship and turns your pilot into a brain-eating zombie at the same time as a group of pirates attack, one course of action is of course to follow orders and blow up the ship and yourself along with it.  A better solution, though, might be to find a way to defeat your enemies without taking yourself out in the process.  

It's a darn good idea, and very well implemented in some ways.  I'm always happy to see IF that does something completely different, that doesn't involve wandering around gathering up a collection of objects.  There is a lot to see here, and all of the actors generally respond believably to your actions as you manipulate the situation.  Your options are, however, very limited.  In addition to observing the various areas of the ship, you can lock and unlock doors, record and play back scenes, and control the temperature both in the crew areas of the ship and in the freezer where the hibernating orevore is kept.  By keeping your scope of action so limited, and doubtless aided by Inform 7's strength, Mr. Rapp was able to describe just about every possible configuration of the action as it unfolds.

Really, though, this versmilitude just made me wish the game was more dynamic.  It's actually not as simulational as I first suspected; instead being at heart an elaborate set-piece puzzle that can only be solved one way.  Worse, it's a very fiddly puzzle that can only be solved through arbitrarily exact timing.  After beating my head against it for nearly two hours, I turned to the walkthrough and discovered that I was totally on the right track but had not timed everything in the perfect way that the game demands.  It's a fairly brutal game in that respect, giving you little information or feedback to work with.  The hopelessly vague hints it provides didn't really help me much either.  I had to use the walkthrough to get through.

A while ago while watching the movie Panic Room I mentioned to my girlfriend what a great piece of IF could be made from that concept.  This game very much reminded me of that, but it just doesn't take its concept far enough for me.  I wish it felt more like a dyanamic evolving story rather than just a big puzzlebox.  But perhaps I'm unfair to criticize it too much for what it isn't, for there is much that is impressive here.  Did I mention it's well-written, almost bug-free, and takes place in a very well-imagined setting?  Well, all three are true, and the author even manages to get off a few genuinely funny lines.  I was perhaps just a bit disappointed because the setup left me expecting even more.

Score: 6 out of 10.

The Immortal

Oh, my.  This one really needed to spend some more time in the oven.  Where to start?

Well, I guess I can start as usual by talking about the plot.  You once were a hard-boiled private eye, but you have just died violently, although the reasons for your murder are left, to be kind, rather sketchy.  So now you are in some sort of surreal extra-dimensional military complex.  In the course of exploring same, you will find that you are a soldier in some sort of cross-dimensional war between Mother Nature and Death -- not the Death from A Fine Day for Reaping, unfortunately, but a female Death (possibly the first such I have ever seen.)  Why?  Well, it never really becomes much clearer than that, although it does become apparant that you should be taking Mother Nature's side in the battle -- not that I could find a good reason to do so.

The whole game is littered with sloppy and ungrammatical writing, reality check blunders, and bugs galore.  An example of the first: I am told on one occasion that I am filled with "anger and rage."  Examples of the second: you cover your mouth and eyes in the midst of a sandstorm despite the fact that you are wearing a spacesuit; you spot footprints on the sandy ground even as said sandstorm is wildly blowing the drifts around; etc., etc.  Then there are the bugs, such as the fact that I was able to score 62 out of 11 points because the game keeps awarding you points over and over for the same action.  I could go through a whole laundry list here, but suffice to say that more aspects of this game are broken than actually work.

The author has also managed to break the Inform parser in strange ways.  For instance, at one point you have to give some fish bones to a certain creature -- don't ask -- in order to get him to give you something in return.  GIVE FISH works; GIVE BONES does not, in spite of the fact that everywhere else the game happily understands either as referring to the fish bones.  I have this terrible fear that the author has defined a new Inform 7 action called "giving fish" or something, and said to "understand 'give fish' as giving fish," and it breaks my geeky little programmer heart to think about it.

Speaking of parsers, did I mention the guess the verb fun?  Yes, it's everywhere here.  Many actions can only be carried out by using one exact, tricky phrasing, and said phrasing is not always terrible intuitive.  For instance, if you want to crush a gemstone you should type USE STONE.

I usually try to include some positives in my reviews even of half-baked games, but there isn't much I can point to here beyond a certain Ed Wood-ian quality of awfulness that almost makes it kind of fun at times.  I laughed harder at this game than at a few that were trying to be funny.  But, seriously, if the author is reading: you need to treat your work with much more care; to think about it and actually, you know, read what you have written after the fact to make sure it isn't ridiculous; and then you need to test, test, test, and seek input from others, and...  Anyway, submitting something like this to the Competition is in the end just a waste of my time and yours.  But you do get one point for making me laugh, so maybe not a total waste...

Score: 2 out of 10.

An Act of Murder

This is one of the most unique and impressive efforts of this year's Comp.  It's a mystery story in which you play a young police inspector dispatched by his commanding officer to a fresh murder scene.  It seems that a wealthy theatre impresario has just been killed in his own house.  Five guests were staying with him at the time; one of them must have done the deed.  Your job, then, is to establish the who, why, and how of the case before your commander returns in a few hours.

One of the most interesting things about the game is its randomness.  You see, when a new game begins one of the five suspects is randomly determined to be the murderer, and the story and evidence are adjusted accordingly and, I'm happy to say, quite seamlessly.  Not only does this give the player a strong motivation for replaying, which is of course unusual in this genre, but it also indirectly ensures that there are plenty of red herrings lying about that might be important in another iteration but mean nothing in yours.  For instance, I found a fireplace poker and a couple of guns in the story I had that were irrelevant to my plot; I suspect that in one of the other plots these are murder weapons.  This helps keep things from seeming too neat and tidy.  What's a classic murder mystery without red herrings, after all?  In a way, though, the randomness can also hinder replayability, as on restarting there is no way to ensure you won't get a mystery you have already solved.  I think a better choice might have been to do something like the old Infocom game Moonmist did -- simply ask the player to choose a color from a menu, or something similar.  That way I could replay the game five times, being ensured of a different experience on each.

All of the technical aspects of this one work fine; or rather perhaps I should say as intended, as I did get rather frustrated with trying to translate the investigation that was taking place in my mind into commands that would advance the story.  There is a certain amount of random "guess the topic" action required to get anything useful out of the various suspects, and conversations, while well-written, never really felt believable.  This is classic IF vending machine conversation; drop your topic in and hope you get something useful out.  This game might have benefited from using a more advanced conversation system, such as the framework Eric Eve has created for Inform 7, to try to bring a bit more life and believability to your investigation, although I don't think for a moment even that would be a magic bullet to solve all the conceptual issues involved in doing what the author is attempting here.

For what it's worth, I also thought one conventional puzzle in the game -- the one involving the tide table -- was insufficiently clued.  I never would have gotten that one without using the hints.  Actually, I failed utterly to solve the murder my first time around.  My girlfriend finally figured it out on a second playthrough.  I think it might actually work better the second time around, when you know what you basically have to do and understand the game's limitations a bit better.

In some ways, then, this is a mixed bag, but the fact is that what this game is trying to do is damn difficult.  Some of the problems it wrestles with are quite possibly unsolvable with our current level of IF development technology.  I give the author a lot of credit for attempting something so brave and unusual in lieu of another collection of object puzzles.  The fact is that many of the things that frustrated me I can't suggest a workable solution for.

The writing is top-notch, and the 1920s or 1930s setting well imagined.  There is nary a typo or bug to be found anywhere.   For this combined with its level of innovation and technical achievement, I'm happy to place it with the elite games of this year's Comp.

Score: 8 out of 10.

Press [Escape] to Save

Why do the most buggy, amateurish games always seem to be surreal pieces straining toward some sort of half-assed symbolic importance that only their authors will ever understand?  Yes, this one stands as a sort of companion piece to The Immortal, having a similar tone and being riddled with the same collection of problems.  You play a prisoner who has just been condemned to hang for a crime he (naturally) didn't commit.  Luckily, an otherworldly being -- charmingly described throughout the game as simply the "person" -- soon comes along to whisk you and your cellmate away to yet another surreal land to perform a task of Cosmic Significance.  It must be Cosmically Significant, because it seems utterly incoherent to us in the real world.  Something about stopping up plumbing through which knowledge flows into the world, because God knows what the world really needs is a lot less education.  How else can we gurantee more games like this?  I kind of wish I could find the pipe through which Surrealistic IF Works of Deep Meaning flow into the world and stop them up, come to think of it.

Some of the design choices in this one are completely bizarre.  You start in a bare cell in which there is absolutely nothing to look at or do once you exhaust the few conversation topics available for use with your cellmate.  And then, after bouncing off the walls for 10 or 20 turns looking for something to, you know, do, you fall asleep by literally collapsing onto the floor from a standing position.  When you sleep in this game, you enter another room called Unconsciousness, in which there is -- yes, this is becoming a theme -- absolutely nothing to see or do.  Ten or twelve Zs later, you awake.  Perhaps the author is trying to convey the tedium of prison life?  Could it really be more tedious than this game?  You have to enter one command right at the beginning, but after that can get through the next 50 moves by typing absolutely nothing but Z with no ill effects.

So then you end up in the extra-dimensional living quarters of "person," where you get to spend a lot more time waiting around and trying to manipulate lots and lots of unimplemented scenery  Then, after spending some more time in Unconsciousness, the game proper really begins.  The only non-essential scenery in the whole complex that the author bothered to implement are the various bathroom fixtures, which perhaps says something, although I'd rather not think about quite what.

I gave up pretty soon after beginning my quest proper, when I checked the walkthrough and found that I was in for quite a lengthy ordeal if I continued.  Too many bugs, typos, Inform library error messages, grammatical mistakes, and generally putrid writing were threatening to suck the will to live right out of me.  The author says that this game is an "experiment."  Well, I think I can safely declare it a failed experiment.  I never want to discourage anyone from writing IF, but I will say that much more and better work will be required if he hopes to ever achieve even an average Comp score.

My favorite line from this literay masterpiece: "This room is the guest bedroom, the room which guests use."  But believe me, there are many strong contenders.

Score: 2 out of 10.

The Chinese Room

Coming right at the end of my list of games as it did, with the deadline for voting fast approaching, this monster caused me a certain amount of stress.  (Yes, I know I am supposed to judge after just two hours, and probably should have just given this a score based on first impressions and moved on, but I really like to finish those games that are worth finishing during the Comp.)  I'm glad I stuck it out and got through it, though, in spite of having to rearrange my real life schedule somewhat to do so.  It's a genuinely great game, and although I can't quite give it a 10 it does just edge out Across the Stars to qualify as my game of the Comp... assuming the last game, which I'm just about to play, doesn't turn out to be a mind-blower, of course.

This is another wake up and find yourself in a surrealistic world game, but this time by two authors who actually know what they are doing and can write.  You are a philosophy student who indulges in some heavy post-exam day drinking, and wakes up from her stupor in said magical land.  There's a nice wrinkle to the formula, though: since you are a philosophy student, all of the characters, situations, and puzzles you encounter are drawn from real philosophers and their ideas.  It's great.  I made my way through the game nodding in smug recoginition with some things -- the bits about Nietzsche, Marx, and Plato especially -- and spent a fair amount of time scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn something about those I didn't understand.  (I knew nothing about the Invisible Pink Unicorn, for instance... and that was worth playing the game in itself.)  The game led me to learn about some things I didn't understand in a painless and fun way.

I can see many people viewing a game about philosophical theory with a certain amount of trepidation.  Never fear.  While it does illustrate many concepts, the actual puzzles are not horribly taxing at all.  Most rely on conventional -- sometimes absurd, but conventional -- manipulation of objects, with no elaborate setpieces of the sort you might expect to see in a game with this theme.  This one is very solvable with a bit of patience and thought.  I finished it without making use of any external sources, although I did use the game's clever in-world hint system to get vague clues on a few occasions.

I want to take special note of the writing, which is very, very good.  Two very funny guys wrote this, and clever turns of phrase are everywhere.  I might if pressed complain that there was a bit too much clever notice taken of the fact that you are in an adventure game -- i.e., you frequently have the option of saying something like, "let me guess, another obscure quest for a seemingly useless object to solve another obscure puzzle somewhere else," -- but I can't say that even that irritated me at all.

I was quite ready to give this a ten at one point, but as I continued to play I began to find enough bugs and glitches to make that impossible to justify.  Nothing is really major, but it does start to add up.  There are minor typos that appear on a fairly consistent basis, and a disconcerting tendency to replace apostrophes with quotation marks.  (I know why that happens, of course, being a fellow Inform 7 developer, but still can't excuse it.)  The sack that you find to cart things around in doesn't always work quite right; there's some weird behavior with a few objects in that you are allowed to drop them but then cannot pick them up or even see them again; a disambiguation issue or two to work around; etc.

Much as I enjoyed this game, I don't expect it to win the Comp.  It's way, way too long, and many people I suspect will mark it down harshly for that.  Perhaps I should penalize it as well, but I had such a great time with it, and God knows we don't get enough games of even medium length these days, and... well, I can't bring myself to mark it down for its ambition.  It's also very traditional in its basic construction -- another reason some might not rate it as highly as me -- but it succeeds within its chosen paradigm brilliantly.

Score: 9 out of 10.

My Name is Jack Mills

And so IF Comp 2007 ends for me with this modest little effort.  You play a private eye who has been summoned by a professor he is acquanted with to recover an ancient Roman coin.  The game advertises itself as inspired by the pulps, but its setting seemed a bit odd for this.  It seems to be set in contemporary times, not the 1930s era you might expect.  Be that as it may, the adventure that ensues is entertaining enough, if very short and not at all challenging.

Around its midway point is a plot branch.  Depending on a critical choice, you will conclude the adventure in one of two completely different ways.  I initially had the impression that the plot could diverge in many more ways, and was actually a bit disappointed to learn that it was a matter of a simple binary branch.

In the end, this is the sort of game that just doesn't inspire long-winded reviews.  It does what it does with complete competence: the writing is fine, with the proper two-fisted feel; there are no bugs or glitches that I saw, and only a few outright typos; and it did nothing to frustrate or irritate me.  On the other hand, it did nothing to really excite or inspire me either.  It's the sort of game that will fade from the memory completely about a month after playing it.  Taken as a first-time effort from a new author, though, it's very encouraging, displaying plenty of writing ability and a sensible approach to game design.  Now it's time to set the old goals a bit higher next time and use this experience to craft something with a bit more ambition.

Taken for what it is, though, it's a perfectly fine little game and not a bad way to ring out the Comp.

Score: 7 out of 10.