What follows is a set of reviews covering every game entered into the 2008 IF Competition.  Along with the usual untested and less than serious efforts, there are plenty of good efforts to be found (albeit, for whatever reason, perhaps not so many as in some previous years).  My favorite game this year, and the recipient of my only 10, was Eric Eve's Nightfall.  I also hugely appreciated Opening Night, sufficient to award it my only 9.  Several strong efforts were worthy of 8's, and even more of 7's.  I'd say that everything I judged a 7 or better is worth playing for the casual IF fan, and everything I gave a 6 or better is worth playing for the hardcore.

I'm writing this a couple of days before the judging period closes.  My prediction is that Violet wins the Comp, with Nightfall finishing second.  After that I hesitate to predict, although I think I could say pretty accurately which games will make the top ten if not which positions they will occupy.  I don't see an obvious Golden Banana of Discord candidate, but I'll go out on a limb and guess Red Moon.

I haven't deliberately set out to extensively spoil the games, but when I felt it necessary I'm afraid I've done my fair share of it.  For the most part, I do so in complaining about bad plots and puzzle designs rather than satisfying ones, so this may not bother you too much.  While I certainly don't think anything I write here would bother me if read before playing a given game, I can't of course gurantee that this will hold true 100% for everyone.  I've certainly indulged in a lot more spoliage than I would in, say, a SPAG or IFDB review.  Consider yourself warned.

A final note to authors: I ran a transcript in every game that allowed me that option, and I'd be more than happy to send you the one from your game if you think it would be of use.  Just drop me a line.

And so, my reviews of the Competition 2008 entrants, presented in the (random) order I played them.  Hope you enjoy and perhaps find them helpful.

The Absolute Worst IF Game in History
Afflicted
Anachronist
April in Paris
Berrost's Challenge
Buried in Shoes
Channel Surfing
Cry Wolf
A Date with Death
Dracula's Underground Crypt
Escape from the Underworld
Everybody Dies
Freedom
Grief
The Hall of the Fount of Artois
Lair of the Cyber-Cow
The Lighthouse
The Lucubrator
Magic
A Martian Odyssey
The Missing Piece
Nerd Quest
The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom
Nightfall
Opening Night
Piracy 2.0
Project Delta: The Course
Recess at Last
Red Moon
Riverside
The Search for the Ultimate Weapon
Snack Time!
Trein
Violet
When Machines Attack

Magic

I'm sure there are plenty of worse games in this year's group with which I could have begun my judging; then again, I hope there are plenty that are much better than this somewhat middling effort.  You play an inept, stage fright-afflicted stand up magician who finds herself with something of a rabbit problem.  In an obvious homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, killer bunnies are attacking your hometown, and even your own stage bunny, Rupert, has joined the bloodthirsty band.  Eventually -- after a lot of directionless wandering and solving puzzles because they are there -- it becomes clear that your mission is to defeat this fluffy plague using rather violent methods.

Now, I would be all for declaring a thousand-year moratorium on references to Monty Python and the Holy Grail in nerd culture.  That said, the writing here wasn't a problem for me.  There are a lot of jokes, and by no means do they all hit the mark, but the whole is written in a light, easygoing style that goes down smoothly enough, and that makes a nice contrast to the usual Comp humor approach of pounding the jokes home with a jackhammer.  Granted, Mr. Fortytwo doesn't seem to like rabbits very much, but neither do I.  Is there a more stupid and useless creature than a rabbit, when you get down to it?

So, then, Magic was poised at some point to be a nice little light-hearted puzzler, not innovative in the least but also not unpleasant at all.  During its first half, I was feeling quite kindly disposed toward it: the puzzles were fun to solve, the writing was worthy of the occasional giggle, etc.  Alas, things went downhill sharply in the second half, as the puzzles got increasingly obtuse, obscure, and eventually just bizarre.  The final puzzle requires you to throw a grenade into the killer rabbits' lair -- told you this one was violent -- along with some mothballs; these latter to send the rabbits into a sneezing fit and keep them from tossing the live grenade back out at you.  To win, you must PUT MOTHBALLS ON GRENADE, and then toss the whole contraption into the hole.   It's a mystery to me what holds a bunch of mothballs onto the surface of the grenade.  And no, tossing the mothballs and the grenade in one by one, or even together in the same turn, doesn't work.  PUT MOTHBALLS ON GRENADE is the one and only solution.  Even the game's most memorable puzzle element, a "magic trick" that allows you to transform objects into other objects in a way reminiscent of Savior Faire, eventually becomes so logically and even intuitively inconsistent that it just turns into random guesswork.

Magic obviously received some testing.  There are no egregious bugs, and everything basically works as it should.  The author did not bother to look beyond the most surface flaws, however; nor did he make the effort to give his game that extra bit of attention that separates an amateur-quality effort from a professional.  As is depressingly common, he made no effort to harness the power of TADS 3.  There is nothing here that couldn't have been done just as easily in ADRIFT or even AGT.  

Spurious and duplicate messages pop up regularly.  The author is content to let the generic TADS 3 library messages do his communication virtually everywhere.  At one point you need a light source, which you acquire by burning a pack of playing cards one by one -- one by one because each card will only burn for a few turns before going out.  This is by far the most fiddly, annoying puzzle in the game, but there are problems even beyond the questionable design decision of implementing it in the first place.  When you set fire to a card, you are given no indication at all that it is either burning or providing light.  The game's response is exactly the same as those it gives when you burn various other objects which simply disappear rather than staying around for a few turns as a light source.  Only by check your inventory or examining the now burning card can you figure out what you've actually accomplished.  It's the sort of thing that makes an annoying puzzle infuriating, and is only the worst offender among quite a few.

To close out my little litany of complaints, let me just say that Mr. Fortytwo should have put more effort into thinking of a memorable title for his game.  The title Magic is so generic that it isn't going to impress or interest anyone.  On the plus side, though, he does know how to write concisely, clearly, and unpretentiously, and even how to turn the occasional clever phrase.  Another couple of weeks invested in this game -- one for more testing and one for applying that final layer of polishing and cleaning up of some of the puzzles -- could have made a mediocre game into a pretty good one.

Score: 5 out of 10.

Everybody Dies

When I first fired this one up and was greeted with a barrage of profanity, I thought I was in for this Comp's inevitable Misunderstood Teenage Angst entry.  Thankfully, though, further exploration revealed it to not be that at all, but rather a well-written and cleverly structured story that has you juggling among three beautifully characterized personae who all work at the same depressing suburban grocery store.  There's Graham, a loser metal head who is destined to work in jobs just like this his whole life; Ranni, a somewhat awkward Indian kid trying to reconcile his heritage and religion with his desire to fit in with his peers; and Lisa, the "good girl" who has already landed a supervisor's position at the store but whose perky, responsible veneer hides a vein of insecurity just as deep as those of the other two characters.  We've all known -- or been -- all three of these people.

That's not to say, however, that this piece is an ultra-serious character study.  It's quite humorous and silly, really, with its little hints of tragedy just poking in occasionally from the margins.  In the course of this rather short game, two of the aforementioned characters die in violent ways -- thus its name.  Never fear, though; you have the opportunity to make everything okay again through a dose of good old magical realism and a little time travel.  By the end of the game, all three characters are co-existing in the same mind -- don't ask how or why, that's never really explained.  In a few places you must use the "talents" of one particular individual to progress.  The rest of the time you can just enjoy the personality conflicts on your way to averting two needless deaths.

And that's about it, really.  It's quite a short and simple game, implemented just as deeply as it absolutely needs to be.  It's also linear as can be.  For all that, though, I liked it a lot.  While it's by no means technically sophisticated, it has perhaps the longest list of testers I've ever seen for a Comp game, and their work shows.  There's nary a bug or typo to be found here.  

The use of first-person perspective really helps immerse the player.  Often the characters offer their memories or impressions of the various locations in addition to physical details.  As an example, here's Graham's description of the river that runs outside the store:

Clearing in the Woods
Everything's got a wet blanket of snow on it but I can make out the log we usually sat on, the little hole where we'd burn shit, and feel the crinkle of an empty under my Kodiak. It's been a couple years since I came out here -- fuck, must have been two years ago, 'cause Ricky left for school that fall. We were celebrating my first Cutters pay cheque with our friend Jack Daniels and we ran into the cart in the dark and we decided to push it over the bridge into the river.

I was like, it'll be awesome, it'll be my get-out-of-jail free card. Like if it's a great day I can always say I saw one of our carts in the river. My ace in the hole.

Ricky was like, your ass has a hole? Why you telling me that? Faaaaag.

The river's louder than the cars down here, just to the east.

Effective as they are, the one real technical complaint I can levy actually involves these descriptions.  You see, those little personal anecdotes keep appearing every time you LOOK or (if you turn VERBOSE mode on, as I always do) reenter the locations.  I could also complain about the one slightly unfair "puzzle" that is solved -- shades of Hitchhiker's here -- by demanding twice that a character attempt a certain action.  The rest of the puzzles are dead easy, but that's not such a problem in a game like this, which is clearly focusing on other things.  

I have to give special credit to the illustrations, of which there are a surprising number done in a very nice comic book style.  They suit the game perfectly, really adding to an already very nice experience.  I'd have liked to have understood What Was Really Going On with all this psyche-hopping and time traveling, and I'd have liked to have seen a bit more thematic unity to the two essentially random and disconnected deaths around which the story revolves, but I nevertheless had a lovely time with this one.  The pragmatist in me says it deserves a 7, but my heart wants to give it an 8.  Well, follow your heart, they always say... the only major downside to this little gem is that the Misunderstood Teenage Angst entry is apparently still to come.

Score: 8 out of 10.

Lair of the Cyber-Cow

ADRIFT games always seem to find new ways to welcome and delight me.  Upon firing this one up with my dutifully upgraded ADRIFT runner -- upgraded since I've learned the hard way in previous Comps that ADRIFT does not do proper version-checking of its stories, but rather just runs stories produced with newer versions of the system incorrectly -- I was informed that it was made with ADRIFT version 3.90, and could not be run with the version 4.00 Runner I was using.  Sigh.  Is it that hard to make your system backward compatible with itself?  Even Microsoft manages that (for the most part).  I was told to use a "Converter" to make this story 4.00 compatible, but since I assume I have to pay for that particular tool I instead just downloaded an old Runner from 2001 and got down to the business of playing.

The game I found wasn't really worth the effort.  This one is written and coded on about a Scott Adams level of sophistication.  Its plot involves a cyber-cow (?) which is apparently terrorizing a childhood friend of yours.  You thus return to your old house -- which contains one room, one sofa,  one bowl, and one flashlight; apparently your family are quite the ascetics -- to save the day.  

I didn't get too far into this one.  The endless parser frustrations, nonintuive puzzles, and hopelessly bland writing and setting put me off pretty quickly.  The game has such egregious guess-the-verb issues that some of its hints run along the lines of "What is the specific command to...", for those who have figured out what to do but haven't figured out the magical combination of words to make the game understand their intentions.  Cyber-Cow isn't loaded with bugs or typos like many that I score poorly in the Comp.  It's just so primitive, and so bland, and so weighted down with the worst traits of old-school text adventures that it held absolutely no interest for me.

Score: 3 out of 10.

The Absolute Worst IF Game in History

This year's Deliberately Bad entry is a real disappointment, without even the slight cleverness of Sisyphus or the PTBAD games.  It's just an endless maze in which you wander about until the game abruptly (and randomly) ends in either victory or death.  The opening text, in which you are told that you seek the "scarabŠus of floccinaucinihilipilification," is worth a smile, but there's not enough here to be worth even a point from this judge.  In the absence of any Paul Panks entries this year, The Absolute Worst IF Game in History should at least be able to claim the mantle of worst game of this Comp.  That's something, I guess.

Score: 1 out of 10.

A Martian Odyssey

The first thing that strikes you about this one is the music soundtrack that plays throughout; it's excellent, a collection of gorgeous semi-ambient pieces beautifully evocative of exploring a new planet.  The music is so good, in fact, that I was certain that the game to which it is harnessed must be equally fine.  Even the ominously minimalist introductory text failed to daunt me; the author must just be holding his cards close to the vest to start things off.  Boy, was I in for a disappointment.  This one, music notwithstanding, is quite a mess.

You play an astronaut exploring an inhabited version of Mars.  A few minutes in, your rocket crashes to the Martian surface, and your goal becomes to complete a long trek on foot and return to your base camp.  The game is based on a pulp-era short story by Stanley Weinbaum, one which I vaguely remember reading many years ago, during my own personal Golden Age of Science Fiction.  Like most literary adaptations, it doesn't work particularly well, as the author does not give his player any options other than to slavishly reproduce the linear plot of the story.  Should you not know or -- as in my case -- not remember said plot, you are obviously going to have some problems getting through this one.

But that's only the beginning of the problems here.  The text is ridiculously sparse, to the point that whole swathes of alien landscape are described in single five-word sentence fragments that made me check to see if I had somehow turned on SUPERBRIEF mode.  This bareness is a mystery to me; Weinbaum's story is regarded as something of a classic in its sensawunda genre, and must surely have offered plenty of choice passages that this game's author could have cut and pasted into his own work.  Yet you must wander over dozens of these empty, under-described locations that exist for no apparent reason.  And then there are the endless technical frustrations.  Some sample interactions might give some of this one's flavor:

>x laser
A portable laser emitter for cutting rock samples.
It is currently operating in continuous waveform mode, outputting a weak beam of constant amplitude and frequency.
It can be switched to giant pulse formation mode.

>change laser to giant pulse mode
That's not a verb I recognise.

>switch laser to giant pulse mode
I only understood you as far as wanting to switch the handheld laser.

>switch laser
You switch the handheld laser.

>shoot straps with laser
I only understood you as far as wanting to shoot the straps.

>shoot straps
The straps slide on the floor as you cut them away from the seat.

>get straps
Taken.

>tie straps to tank
You would achieve nothing by this.

>get tank
You grab the one-eighth of a ton container and raise it with surprising ease. It must weigh less than a hundred pounds in Martian gravity, but still heavy enough to make your arms tired.
You rig up a harness from the straps and put the tank on your back.

More fun interactions:

>drop sack
Dropped.

>enter sack
You put the hydrogen tank on the floor and get into your sleeping bag.

>close sack
You close the thermoskin.

>sleep
You aren't feeling especially drowsy.

>z
You spend the night sleeping under the Martian sky.

Also, why do I have to walk across the desert at all?  I'm talking to my commander over my spacesuit's radio at the start of the game.  Why can't I just call him and ask him to come pick me up with the other rocket?

So, yeah.  Great music means this one gets a 3 instead of a 2.  Shame about the rest of the game.  Thom Brennan ought to be a very angry man.  His music deserves much, much better.

Score: 3 out of 10.

Cry Wolf

After playing the previous few painfully spartan games, this one came as a relief.  Here we have a fully fleshed-out environment, some very nicely drawn characters, and confident, solid writing in service of an engaging plot.  In short, a game that's aware of the last 25 years or so of IF's evolution.  

I trust I won't be giving too much away by saying that this is a werewolf story.  It's a werewolf story with a twist, though, whose mythology does not have the creatures as monstrous, evil killers, but as something more morally ambiguous, albeit still disturbing.  You play a somewhat depressed, withdrawn veterinarian -- not only has your girlfriend just left you, but your dog just died to boot -- who is drawn into the lycanthrope world gradually by the same thing that draws men into many other dangerous situations: a girl you think is pretty hot.  The story unspools with nice, gradual pacing over the course of this longish -- I'd estimate about four hours to fully complete -- game.  Some of the story's details are, even for fantasy fiction, a bit far-fetched -- such as the idea that a werewolf in wolf form can mate with a dog and produce half-human, half-doggie "children" -- but its more ridiculous aspects come to the fore more when you go back to think about it, as I am doing now, than when you are actually playing.

I want to make special note of what a good job Ms. Parker does of characterizing the PC.  You begin the game in his house, and have the opportunity to wander about and peek into all the nooks and crannies therein before events really begin to sweep you along in earnest.  Now, this does admittedly raise some questions about that oft-discussed relationship between player and avatar, but it is a great way to familiarize the player with the role he will be enacting for the rest of the game.  What better way to come to really know someone than by looking through his house?  The PC does become a bit frustrating later on, when he obstinately refuses to recognize that he is dealing with the supernatural until absolutely pounded over the head with the truth, but perhaps I would not be as quick to leap to conclusions either if confronted with such events in the real world rather than in the world of  IF, where a story that doesn't feature monsters, magic spells, or ray guns stands out as unique.

The plot is very linear in its broad outline, but for the most part manages to never leave you feeling helpless.  There are always things to look at and poke into, and while the menu-based conversations all seem to lead to the same place, there are enough ways to get there that you don't feel too constrained.  The more I play and think about IF, the more I think that this sort of linearity is perfectly okay with me.  You are given a real choice about the outcome of the game -- a huge choice, actually.  I didn't want to do what I suspected the game wanted me to do, and yet was pleasantly surprised to see it accept my choice.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised until I realized that the choice I had made was bugged, and had left me unable to progress.  That brings me to the downsides of this one, which are considerable.  Ms. Parker mentions in her notes that she was working on the game right up until the Comp deadline.  I also saw no mention of testers, with the exception of her boyfriend.  Both of these factors show up in the game.  There are little glitches and problems everywhere, most minor but some major.  In addition to my problems at the end of the game, I also got trapped into one other scene when I apparently approached its conversation options in the wrong way and reached a dead end, stuck staring over the kitchen table at my love interest but unable to get her to talk to me about the issue -- rather important to our relationship -- of her being a wolf at least one night each month.

There is also a lack of attention to little niceties that could have made play so much smoother if they had been addressed.  For instance, I spent quite a lot of time trying to ASK and TELL the first character I met about things, only to be told that she didn't reply.  Assuming she was simply uncommunicative, I tried other things for quite a long time until I finally realized that I needed to TALK TO her.  A note to the player when she attempts to use ASK or TELL or similar telling her that she should use TALK TO instead would have been hugely appreciated.  These are the sorts of little touches that separate the really top tier, Comp-winning IF titles from games like this, that have so much going for them but lack that extra month or two of care and polish.

While the outlines of the plot are strong and flow logically, the details of the execution change from the first to the second half of the game.  The first half expects you to solve a steady flow of puzzles to keep things moving; by the second half, these ludic elements are largely abandoned for lots of conversation and straightforward plot dumps.  Again, this to me points to a rushed construction, to just trying to get to the high points in time for the Comp.  The game also takes over on occasion for some long textual cut-scenes, often in response to a seemingly innocuous command on the player's part.  While I didn't find these overly annoying, largely perhaps because they are generally quite well-written, the ever-present tension between object-level and plot-level interactivity really shows up when, say, filling your house guest's coffee cup results in you filling yours as well, asking her if she wants cream or sugar, giving her the coffee when she responds in the negative, sitting down across from her, and initiating a conversation.  On the other hand, I'm not sure how to avoid doing this sort of thing occasionally in a strongly-plotted work like this one.

It says something that I feel so well-disposed toward a game that forced me to RESTORE once due to a bug, and that refused to grant me my chosen ending due to another bug.  I'm going to give it a 7 in recognition of its considerable strengths, but I wish I could give it an 8 or even 9.  Unfortunately, its many technical flaws make that impossible for me.  I will say, though, that if ever a game deserved to be cleaned up, properly tested, and given a post-Comp release, this is it.  It's quite possible I will remember this game longer and more fondly after the Comp than I will others to which I give a higher score.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Project Delta: The Course

It's hard to know quite how to judge this one.  As a game, it's no great shakes: ridiculously short and not interesting in the slightest.  In just a few screens of text it betrays quite a bit of awkward writing, and its militaristic theme is not anything I am particularly drawn to. However, as Mr. Kowaleski informs us in no uncertain terms, this entry is really intended not as a compelling playing experience in itself but rather as a demonstration of an authoring system for the creation of Choose Your Own Adventure-style games that he is working on.

Like most IF players, I'm not a big fan of menu-based games for the most part.  However, Mr. Kowaleski has added a lot of features that at least offer the potential for a bit more complexity than the norm.  The game system keeps track of objects that you carry, and you can even go to a special inventory screen where you can shuffle possessions about on your person and even use objects with one another.  I imagine it would be possible to recreate 1980s gamebooks like the Final Fantasy and Lone Wolf lines with this system, if you wished.  As someone who actually enjoyed The Lost Dimension from last year's Comp, I don't think this system is completely without potential.

I am a bit baffled by the author's decision to do all this in DOS, however.  Even leaving aside the portability issues, I'm not sure how many people are interested in playing a game on a clunky old DOS screen.  Mr. Kowaleski should have written his system in PHP or something similar, which would have allowed the games to be deployed on the web and would open up the possibility of including graphics here and there.  Appearance matters, as the IF community has (perhaps belatedly) come to realize in recent years.  This thing looks like an antique, and most people will reject it for that reason alone.  Also, having to constantly navigate between the story and inventory screens would I think turn into a particular pain, and one (again) that could have been averted with a more up to date presentation with room for more information on each screen.

I'm going to give this a 4, not out of any particular rancor toward it but just because there isn't enough game here for me to give it anything better.  It is, however, plain that considerable work has gone into the system's design.  I'd just encourage the author to improve his presentation if possible.  Otherwise "Node-X" is likely to find its place on the IF-Archive as just another odd-ball design system that no has ever actually used.

Score: 4 out of 10.

Berrost's Challenge

Here we have an old-school puzzlefest done pretty much right.  This one has minimal plot, minimal descriptions, minimal NPC interaction, and even hunger and sleep timers and inventory limits for God's sake!  And yet, I had a hell of a lot of fun with it.  You play a wizard's apprentice who has been presented with a final challenge to meet before earning your own wizard's stripes.  You must discover five magic spell scrolls that have been hidden about a little village -- and that's pretty much it as far as plot goes.  List of clues in hand, you go forth to Solve Puzzles.

Said puzzles are not exactly easy, but generally fair.  I had to turn to the walkthrough only once, when, having acquired four of the scrolls, I just couldn't seem to make any progress on the last.  I'm happy to say that my reaction upon learning what to do was anger at myself rather than the game.  I had even thought of the correct solution, but rejected it for some reason without really following up on it.  Perhaps my brain had been overly taxed by the almost four hours I had already spent solving this one's other puzzles.

For all its old-school approach, the game tempers its cruelty just enough that it never becomes infuriating.  So, you are limited in what you can carry -- but it's always fairly clear what you really need to have with you to work on any given puzzle.  There are hunger and sleep timers -- but if you run out of money and just cannot manage to eat and/or sleep, the consequences really aren't all that dire.  And the game world is large enough that it will probably require mapping -- but the author has been careful to lay the village out on a logical grid  that makes that fairly easy, and even tells you the grid's dimensions and your starting location in it in his game notes.  The end result emphasizes the fun aspects of the old-school text adventure experience while minimizing the more infuriating aspects.  Thus, while I wouldn't want to have to do so for every game, I rather enjoyed pulling out the old graph paper again and putting on my old-school lateral thinking cap.

Still, and while literary value is not of course what this one is about at all, the author does need to work on his writing.  A fairly minimalist approach, especially in a game like this, is not always the end of the world, and is often preferable to huge flowery mounds of Bad Writing.  Every author, however, should know the difference between "its" and "it's"; nor is it really acceptable to simply cut and paste the same sentence from room description to room description.  

While there were obviously no grammar police on the testing team, the game was fairly well tested otherwise.  I did run into one ugly and annoying bug at the end: the game suddenly and inexplicably started refusing to recognize my thumb.  (Your thumb is critical to solving one particular puzzle; no, I wasn't just trying to manipulate body parts for the hell of it.)  The author's decision to not allow me to take multiple objects at a time also annoyed, especially as I could see no good reason for it.

I also have one big design complaint.  As already mentioned, the goal of the game is to collect spell scrolls.  As you acquire these, you can (naturally enough, being a wizard-in-training) read them to learn the spells they contain.  You can then use these spells to help you in your efforts to acquire more scrolls.  Great, right?  Yes -- except that using magic causes your score to decrease.  The optimal solutions to the puzzles all use mundane methods.  But using crazy spells to solve puzzles is just a lot of fun, which is why the Enchanter trilogy of games are still among Infocom's most beloved, and why God knows how many games since have worked the same territory.  And being that I am studying to be a wizard... well, it just seemed a shame to me not to be able to use my talents without being penalized, even though the author does deserve credit for supplying multiple solutions.

But, anyway... some quite good puzzle design makes this one a lot of fun, and even though the writing has some problems it manages to convey a nice light-hearted feel that makes it hard for me to judge it too harshly.  It's not a masterpiece, but it is well worth the time of puzzle fans.  And the ending even sets things up for a sequel.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Opening Night

You are a naive young man who has come to Broadway to witness a performance by your idol, the beautiful and soulful Miranda Lily.  The time is 1917, just prior to the United States getting involved in the bloody, tragic mess that was World War I.  Or is it?  As the story progresses, you begin to shift back and forth in time, moving from 1917 to the present as you travel from place to place.  The reasons for this eventually become clear: you are an old man, a veteran of World War I, who has come to the ruins of the theater where you saw Ms. Lily on one magical night in 1917, just before you were drafted and sent to fight in the trenches of France.  You are here to try to remember your last night of innocence.

It's an emotion-laden story, which always brings perils for any writer, whether she is working in interactive or static fiction.  I'm pleased, therefore, to say that Mr. Batterham handles the challenge beautifully.  With broad strokes and just enough deft touches, he's gives us the feel first of that glittering night in 1917, and then the atmosphere inside the run-down wreck of the theater today.  The little touches bring authenticity.  Here's the theater lobby in 1917:

The foyer of the Marquis Theatre is opulently decorated and brilliantly bright, thanks to the electric chandeliers and the head-high light fixtures which adorn almost every surface.

Notice that the chandeliers are described as "electric."  In this day of fire codes, we assume that as a matter of course; in 1917, when electricity was still relatively new, public safety was not quite so regulated, and a different aesthetic was in place, the adjective has significance as something the PC would take note of.

Of course, the writing could be even better.  (The writing in anything can always be better, as everyone who's ever written and rewritten knows.)  The PC seemed a bit flat and emotionless at times in the early stages of the story, without quite the sense of wonder one would expect from a working class young man invading these high society spaces.  Mr. Batterham's decision to name the play you go to see Twisty Little Passages lands like a resounding thud in the midst of a gossamer dance; winky little IF in-jokes could hardly be more inappropriate to this one.  And the work's own title is a bit bland and unevocative.

There are also some implementation faults that could be addressed in a post-Comp version.  A gaping hole in the floor is a particular offender:

>x hole
The gaping hole runs between the foyer and the vestibule. It is too wide to step across or jump safely. The other patrons in the foyer seem to be completely ignoring it, almost as if it wasn't there.

>enter hole
That's not something you can enter.

>touch hole
You feel nothing unexpected.

>look in hole
There is nothing on the hole.

>pour water in hole
That's not a verb I recognise.

>put water in hole
That can't contain things.

Such niggling flaws are worth a raised eyebrow, but didn't do anything to diminish the emotional power of this piece for me.  The PC's own sense of tragedy, that of the beautiful and doomed Miranda Lily, and that of President Wilson's whole "war end to all wars" are woven together into an end result that packed quite a whollop for me.  It's quite possible that I will like this much more than the average judge; I'm a sucker for stories of nostalgia and tragedy.  Trying to write more about it would be like trying to describe a favorite song; I simply don't have the words to do it.  And so I'll just give this a 9 and move on, thinking as I do so what a great place IF is getting to that it can give us works like this.

Score: 9 out of 10.

Trein

The opening of this one is promising enough, introducing a quite well-realized fantasy setting while also describing your own role within it, as a sort of investigator for the king of the land looking into reports of looming rebellion in the village of Trein.  As soon as I entered my first command and was greeted with an ugly comma splice, however, things began to go off the rails quickly.  There's the germ of a nice little game in here, but this one needs a whole lot of work to become even a moderately acceptable effort.

The writing is a mess, a veritable catalog of amateur sins: comma splices, "its/it's" errors, misplaced modifiers, inappropriate word choices, etc.  Just for good measure, Ms. Ganguli has garnished this stew with some very strange capitalization choices: virtually every significant noun, proper or not, is capitalized -- which would be great if only she were writing in German.  Obviously one of two things is happening here: either Ms. Ganguli simply couldn't be bothered to even glance at her text after typing it out, or she lacks an adequate knowledge of the fundamentals of English grammar, perhaps because English is not her native language.  I have more sympathy for one of these situations than the other, but one way or another her writing has to get much better if she wants to write acceptable IF.  The introductory text, oddly enough, is basically correct, indicating that she either had someone else read it and correct her mistakes, or that she both was capable of doing so and in fact did so herself.  Whichever was the case, it's a pity the rest of the game didn't get similar care.

There are also programming issues aplenty here.  Ms. Ganguli appears to know about neither Inform 7's Scenery property nor its Initial Description property, with the result that every single object in the game is blandly listed at the end of the description of the room that contains it, even if it was already described in the description's body:

Tavern
The only reason the Tavern looks "cheerful" is due to the fireplace casting a warm, merry glow within. Despite that, it fails to bring any warmth to the eyes of the people within.  The Barkeep is working at a table, looking downcast. She occasionally casts a nervous glance at the person sitting closest to the fireplace. That man seems to be drunk. Neither of them seem to notice you.

 There are another three men in one corner, talking amongst themselves. They appear to be this Town's Guards. They look at you and then turn their attention back to whatever is presently occupying them. They do not seem to be the type that would appreciate being interrupted.

You can see a Large Table (on which are a Potato Bag, a Vegetables Bag and an Empty Mug), a Stew Pot (in which is a Grain), a Tavern Bench (on which are a Barkeep and a Drunkard), a Tall Guard, a Scarred Guard and an Older Guard here.

No, I don't know what is going with the stew that consists of a single Grain [sic] either.

When it comes to her game design, Ms. Ganguli errs in the opposite way from the beginning IF writer norm.  Her puzzles are not, as is usually the case, too difficult; they are rather too easy.  The game literally tells you exactly what you need to do each step of the way, leaving you to simply enter the commands to bring things along step by step to their rote conclusion.  On the plus side, she does provide for one alternate path through the game, but getting to it requires you to do something rather breathtakingly stupid.  The most intriguing part of the introductory text, about the village's festival of the dead which is taking place this very night, is meanwhile left completely unexamined and unexplored -- Chekhov's gun on the mantelpiece writ large.

Ms. Ganguli is by no means without potential as an IF author; her world shows real imagination and vision.  However, to get there she needs to refocus on the fundamentals of English grammar, reacquaint herself with Inform 7 in a more rigorous way, and think more seriously about the general design of her work.   A few testers would also be a nice touch.

Score: 3 out of 10.

Riverside

Plenty of games annoy me over the course of the Comp.  It's pretty rare, though, that any actually leave me angry at their author(s).  This one manages that neat trick.

Things don't start off too badly.  You begin at the funeral of an old friend of yours, a friend who was recently murdered while jogging home from work.  Walking from the grave, you have an encounter with a Mysterious Stranger in a big black car, and have your suspicions renewed that your friend was not just the victim of a random roadside robbery.  You return home, where you spend a bit of time in your apartment, see your girlfriend, and follow up on a clue or two, and then it's off to the town of Riverside to investigate the man from the funeral.

The game is no great shakes at this point: the writing, although far from the worst I've seen in this Comp, has plenty of rough patches; the plot is completely railroaded; and there are some strange gameplay choices.  At one point you are expected to call the police to follow up on a lead.  After searching all over the apartment for a phone, I realized that I was expected to type USE PHONE, even though none was in evidence.  (The game does at least tell you at the beginning that the verb USE is implemented and necessary; that's something, I guess.)  Still, I was genuinely interested in the plot, formulaic as it was, and thought the characters were relatively well drawn, at least by typical untested amateurish Competition entry standards.

And then I boarded the train for Riverside, and was greeted with this:

You get on the train but then you remember that you're pregzorz with teh baby, so u get off but teh baby drink all the blood. it wuz teh baby all along. his name was riverside!!!11one!1eleven (also you should try ragequitting)


    *** PLEASE PRACTICE SAFE SEX. ***


Ha.  Ha.  Ha.  But I did dutifully "try ragequitting," as instructed.  It leads to thunderously unfunny attempts at humor like this:

>ragequit
Why does everyone have a good car but you? It's just not fair. You work hard. You work really hard. You decide that if you can't have a pretty car, no one else can. You pull a grenade launcher from your back pocket and, with a truly epic laugh, start destroying everything around you. You let the screams of your victims wash over you as the flames rise ever higher.

    *** You have gone batshit insane. ***

I don't know quite what it is about all this that rubs me so wrong.  Perhaps it's just the adolescence of it all, like those two overweight, loud, obscene, insecure teenagers in the corner of my university's common area that I get a sort of contact embarrassment from every time I walk past.  Perhaps it's the sheer disrespect to the people who are taking the time to judge and offer feedback on "Drew, Jeremy, and Vic's" game.  It's one thing to submit a deliberately bad game that advertises itself as such from the beginning.  (Said games are never as funny or clever as their creators' seem to think they are, but whatever.)  To do this, though, is just obnoxious.  

Or maybe I'm just getting old and curmudgeonly.  Anyway, this one gets a 2, and should feel lucky to get that.  Kids today.

Score: 2 out of 10.

Violet

This game does something with the avatar / narrator relationship which I can't recall ever seeing before.  You play a procrastinating graduate student who desperately needs to complete his dissertation.  You need to do this not only for the obvious reasons -- career, money, the indignity of being perpetually in school while all your friends long ago got real jobs, etc. -- but also because your girlfriend has told you she is going to leave you if you don't get on with it and get finished so that the two of you can start the next stage of your life together.  She has sent you to your office as the game begins, giving you the choice of either writing 1000 words or of having her fly back to Australia and out of your life forever tomorrow.  And here's the twist I mentioned: the whole game is narrated to you by said girlfriend, the eponymous Violet.  It's certainly a clever conceit, and one that works pretty well.  As you play, you learn more and more details about your and Violet's personalities, your relationship, and how exactly you came to this impasse, mostly through Violet's comments upon the various items in your office and upon your actions.  

Aside from this very notable wrinkle, Violet is an extremely well-implemented one-room puzzle game.  Winning requires, obviously, that you find a way to write those thousand words. Willpower not being your forte, you must eliminate a whole host of distractions: the temptations of the Internet, the temptation to eavesdrop on the conversation of your ex-girlfriend in the office next door, that book on your shelf that you haven't yet read and feel you must before you can get started actually writing, etc.  Gameplay, then, comes down to a sort of modern version  of the famous Hitchhiker's Babel Fish puzzle.  You eliminate distractions one by one through extremely convoluted means, until at last you can find no possible reason to procrastinate any more.

Violet is at first glance very much of the "IF as casual game" aesthetic that has emerged in just the last few years, of a piece with games like Suveh Nux, Child's Play, and even to some extent last year's Comp winner Lost Pig.  These games offer simple, light-hearted plots onto which are fashioned the "juicy" style of gameplay that Emily Short wrote about somewhat recently in her blog.  They very much encourage their players to experiment with actions, offering coherent, often humorous responses to even the craziest.  They also share a certain similarity of tone: humorous but never offensive; difficult to solve as puzzleboxes but at the same time never overly demanding of their players' emotions or time.  They are well-written but light; were I a Marxist I'd be tempted to call them the quintessential bourgeois games.  While I appreciate the craft and effort that go into games of this ilk, craft that makes them in some ways among the most impressive works of IF being created today, the overall aesthetic is just not my favorite.  They are impressive games that just don't really hit my sweet spot.

I was ready for a while to dump Violet into this category, motivated not only by its style of play and general tone but also by the sheer mundaneness of its subject matter, especially in light of my own life.  (Playing the role of a procrastinating graduate student struggling to complete his dissertation is, shall we say, not exactly a big stretch for me.)  And then, as my frustration mounted with the puzzles, I began to loathe the weak-willed sponge of a man that is the PC and to get almost equally irritated with Violet's own jocular, oh-so-Aussie tone, which descended in my mind from fresh and charming to overbearingly twee as my time with the game went on.  In the end, though, Violet rose again in my estimation, first by delivering some dribs of real emotion and tension amidst the drabs of light humor, and then by offering an ending which is actually moving and inspiring.  There's also an interesting theoretical wrinkle to consider here.  You come to realize at the end that the voice you've been talking to throughout the game was not the real Violet, but rather your own notion of what she would be saying if she were there, a voice that -- thanks to your own sense of shame over your procrastinations -- is much harsher with you than the real Violet.  You also come to understand what is really behind the PC's incorrigible laziness.  I liked Violet and the PC -- and the game itself -- much more at the end of the game than I did in its middle.

But I still have complaints about the gameplay.  These puzzles are hard -- really, really hard, and hard in a very frustrating way.  I spent the full two-hour judging period just overcoming the game's first significant challenge.  Faced with beating my head against what I assumed would be at least a handful of similarly difficult challenges, I went to the walkthrough out of sheer exhaustion.  I'm glad I did, as I don't think I ever would have solved a couple of these.  

The game's design makes solving each puzzle rather unrewarding.  In a conventional adventure, a difficult puzzle solved usually means more rooms to explore, or some sort of significant narrative development.  Here, it just means that you get to be thwarted in your efforts to write by something else.  Sure, you're making progress, but it doesn't feel like terribly rewarding progress.  And the thing is, the puzzles don't need to be this hard.  All of the game's strengths -- the try anything to see what happens playfulness, the amusing narrator, the endless little gags and clever asides, and ultimately the resolution of the PC's romantic and career crisis -- would have stood just as well with more straightforward, clearly clued puzzles.  In fact, they would have stood in sharper relief, unobscured by the player's frustration with the brick-wall difficulty of the puzzles.  Yes, the game has hints, and they're very well done, but no one likes to solve a game by reading the hints.  A fighting chance of the player getting there on his own would leave him better served.

But even if I am a bit disappointed with the puzzle design, the amount of care that went into this is rather breathtaking.  It's by far the most technically impressive game I've played so far in this Comp, does something genuinely new with the player / narrator relationship, and stands out for the sheer quality of its writing.  I suspect this one will challenge for the #1 slot overall, and while it's a bit too frustrating for me to give it that honor on my personal scorecard, I'm nevertheless very impressed.

Score: 8 out of 10.

The Hall of the Fount of Artois

Every year's Competition gives us a few time-capsule games, games that are blissfully unaware of the past two and a half decades of IF evolution.  Artois is one of this year's batch.  It's written from scratch in BASIC, just the way the old-school kids used to do it, and features all the old-school text adventure standbys: a large and complicated map, plenty of darkness problems, a timer, some guess the verb fun, inventory limits, and, inevitably, a maze.  It seems you have been asked to free the old Artois family mansion from a curse.  And so you begin at 7:00 PM, with exactly twelve hours to explore, solve puzzles, and hopefully accomplish your mission.

By the rather underwhelming standards of its sub-category, Artois is not a complete disaster.  While the writing has a few problems here and there, it's downright verbose and descriptive by old-school standards, and manages to conjure a believable-enough facsimile of an old Victorian-style mansion.  Every manipulatable object in each room is listed separately at the end of the room's description, which might not make the best aesthetic impression but does at least save you from trying to fiddle with a bunch of unimplemented scenery to see what is actually needed and what is just for decoration.  While there are plenty of things in its world that don't make much sense (why can I see in some outdoor rooms and in others find it too dark?), I didn't find any aggressively obscure or ridiculous puzzles in my hour or so with the game, although I certainly can't promise they aren't there.

By the standards of modern IF, however, this one is loaded with problems.  The parser, as is typical of these home-brewed efforts, is not really a proper parser at all, but more of a simple pattern-matcher, as I found when I typed LOOK UNDER SCONCE and was greeted with a room description.  There is no SCRIPT command, no VERBOSE, not even the abbreviation X for EXAMINE.  (No surprise there, I guess -- Infocom first implemented X around 1986, long after this author apparently stopped playing text adventures.)  Some good news: there is a SAVE command.  Some bad news: the RESTORE command doesn't work, at least on my Windows XP machine.  The game locks up and finally, after consuming several hundred megabytes (!) of memory, crashes.

Like many of us, I played plenty of games like this back in the day, and I tried to give this one a good-faith try, if only for nostalgia's sake.  The lack of a working RESTORE command in this game with a time limit and at least one learning by death puzzle, though, taxed my willpower, and when I found the "greatest maze in England" I just couldn't continue.

Score: 3 out of 10.

Anachronist

Anachronist is a single elaborate time-travel puzzle with minimal story attached.  You play, as far as I understand, a time patrol agent of sorts who has been tasked with repairing the damage to the time stream done by a recently apprehended "chronomage."  The background is very sketchy at best, and its clarity is not helped by the way it mixes fantasy and science fiction tropes with abandon.  I nevertheless had high hopes for this, remembering as fondly as I do All Things Devours from a Comp of a few years ago.  What I found was a game that does indeed have some clever ideas and lots of potential, but that is undone by an all too depressingly common litany of problems.

The game has you traveling between three different locations -- or, rather, three different eras of the same location.  I think.  As I already mentioned, What is Really Going On here is not exactly crystal clear.  However, I can say that changes made in one era / world affect the others.  Why this should be, I don't know, but it does allow for plenty of neat interactions and "A-ha!" moments.  Unfortunately, I was as confused about what I was trying to accomplish as I was by the game's setting.  All the introductory text says about the subject is:

The diviner calls out, "I have three targets, none of them meshed with the primary time stream."

"You're in luck," you mentor adds, "no special work, just smash them apart and we can all go home."

Huh?  Eventually I came to understand, purely by accident and in fact due to a bug in the game, that I was supposed to destroy three objects, each one connected to one of the worlds -- so connected in fact that it is your means of travel to that world.  The problem here is that things -- sometimes non-portable things -- in other worlds are needed to destroy each of these special objects.  Thus you must figure out not only what to do, but also figure out a plan of action that doesn't lock you out of victory prematurely, by closing you out of worlds you still need to visit.  It's horrendously cruel, but I'm willing to accept that sort of thing in a tough-as-nails puzzler like one.

Where this one goes off the rails, other than in not giving you sufficient directions about what you are trying to accomplish, is in the testing and polishing department.  Or rather perhaps I should just say that it received no testing or polishing.  Thanks I assume to Inform 7's built-in spell checker, everything is spelled right, but there are other sorts of little typos everywhere.  And they are the least of the flaws here.  There's a lot of guess-the-verb to play in this one.  Here's the fun I had trying to look up a company's name in a computer:

>x desk
Tendrils of a translucent material rise from the floor and converge in a flat surface you might be able to call a desk.  Rows of glowing characters are arranged as a keyboard across the front of the desk.  Immediately above them is an opaque area with the words "Enter search term" printed at the top.

>type Cycraft
That's not a verb I recognise.

>x keyboard
You can't see any such thing.

>enter Cycraft
That's not something you can enter.

>Cycraft
That's not a verb I recognise.

>write Cycraft
That's not a verb I recognise.

>enter "Cycraft"
You can't see any such thing.

>use keyboard
That's not a verb I recognise.

Eventually I figured out that I should be using the construction LOOK UP CYCRAFT IN COMPUTER.

In addition to some far too obscure puzzles to go along with some really good ones, there are plenty of bugs here as well.  Bugs are particularly deadly to a game like this.  In a game like, say, Cry Wolf, they're annoying, but can to some extent be worked around or otherwise overlooked in the interest of experiencing the story.  In a game like this, though, which is essentially a complex mechanical simulation for the player to poke at, come to understand, and finally manipulate to her advantage, they undermine the player's trust in the integrity of that simulation.  Every surprising response leaves you asking whether you've just discovered an important new piece of information about the game world, or whether you've just discovered another bug.  If you can't trust a game like this, you can't really play it at all.  Even the contextual hints are bugged.  The game started telling me I was all finished and should return to base when I had only destroyed one of the necessary three objects.

This is one of those games that just leaves me shaking my head and wondering why people refuse to take the time to recruit a few testers to shake out their games before submitting them.  This could have been a favorite of mine.  Instead it's just another neat idea whose author lacked the patience and attention to detail to develop it properly.  And really, we have far too many games like that already.

Score: 4 out of 10.

Grief

On the first  playthrough, Grief seems to be a simulation of a thoroughly boring day in the life of a thoroughly typical person.  You wake up, wake your child Thomas, prepare him his breakfast, and take him to school.  Then it's off to your workplace.  After working all day at your thoroughly mundane job, you pick Thomas up from school.  Then, just as you are asking yourself the point of all this, you have a car accident on the way home with Thomas.  You survive; Thomas does not.  And so you play again, attempting to vary your routine this time so that Thomas is not with you at the fatal moment.  But he only dies another way.  And so you try again.  And again.

Finally, you succeed.  You think.  Just at the moment of triumph, you are greeted with this:

You made it! You got through the entire day without leaving Thomas out of your sight while you worked. And now everything is going to be ok. Thank god that horrible thing was just a dream.

Just a dream...

Not A Dream
The dreadful truth is, this is not a dream. There really was an accident on the way back from school. Thomas really is dead. No matter how much you try to forget it. No matter how much you wonder what you could have done differently, the past stubbornly refuses to change.

And so the game lives up to its title.

The game does a good job of dramatizing the second-guessing that goes on on the way to accepting something as horrific as the death of a child.  (Or so I assume.  I have never, thankfully, experienced anything so traumatic in my own life.)  I particularly liked the way it connected the mechanisms of IF with the PC's own situation:

You wish you could restore the past and undo your actions. But the past refuses to change.

How many of us haven't wished we could RESTORE to some point an hour, a week, or a year ago?

Just as it is, the game packs a decent emotional wallop.  However, it could have been a much stronger effort if its writing was better fleshed-out and if it had a deeper, more robust environment.  There just needs to be a lot more here for us to really invest ourselves in the characters.  Thomas, the emotional centerpiece of the game, is little more than a passive automaton capable of carrying out a few basic commands.  At times the game even becomes unintentionally funny when little Thomas seems determined to find some way to kill himself.   The only time we see any real personality in him is when he is realizing his death wish.

The game is well-tested; bugs and typos are not (thank God in light of some of the games I've recently played) a problem here.  But I would have liked to see ambition in its writing and its coding to match the originality of its premise and style of play.  As is, it's a very formally interesting work that doesn't quite have the visceral impact it should.  Nevertheless, it's well worth playing, and provides plenty of food for thought -- about IF theory and even perhaps about grief and its acceptance.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Freedom

I'm starting to think I'm not playing games from the main Competition at all, but rather from some sort of mini-comp for games about boring days in the lives of boring people.  This one plays quite similarly to Grief, except that the tasks you must carry out are if possible even more mundane.  You have a handy to-list that tells you what they are: buy groceries, check to see if a book you ordered came in at the local bookstore, and finally attend a meeting at the local college.  All of the areas you will visit in doing this are "described" in two or three bland lines mostly concerned with listing the exits.  Still, you might think at this point that you are in for a light-hearted slice of life satire, in which purchasing groceries requires solving a mountain of puzzles.  Alas, no.  Purchasing groceries in this game entails walking to the minimally described grocery store and typing GET GROCERIES.  The other tasks are no more interesting.

At the end of the game, at the college meeting, you meet a girl.  Here the author really stretches himself, providing this dazzling description:

A young woman, probably in college. She has brown hair up in a ponytail and she wears glasses. She seems to be glancing around at the other people with an expression of worry.

Okay, it may not seem so dazzling.  In comparison to the rest of the game, though, this is Shakespeare.  Sadly but unsurprisingly, the girl is completely unresponsive to any sort of interaction -- almost.  Out of frustration, I eventually tried to kiss her, whereupon I inexplicably won the game.  (Actually, the game changed my action to HUGGING even though I typed KISS, but anyway...)

The author provides a note explaining "some of the reasoning behind the game."  Thinking this had to be good, I dutifully had a look.  Well, it seems that the game is "intended to recreate the experience of suffering from a social anxiety disorder."  That's a very noble idea, and sounds like a great application for IF.  Unfortunately, I'm at a complete loss as to where my social anxiety is in this game.  In fact, considering that I play a character who goes up to strange women and starts groping them, I'd say I must be, if not precisely socially well-adjusted, at least not particularly anxious about interacting with others.  Does the girl suffer from social anxiety disorder, and that is why she needs my support?  That makes a bit more sense, leaving aside that going up her and wrapping my arms around her might not necessarily be read by everyone as supportive.  Still, the author's note specifically says that I am the one with the problem.  Maybe this meeting I go to is for people with social anxiety disorder?

From the complete non-sequiter of a title to the arbitrary final "puzzle" to the author's fixation on normal grocery checkout lines versus express lines versus automated lines, this is one strange entry.  I'm actually wondering whether it might be from the fellow on the newsgroups who pops up occasionally with a post about Quarterstaff or his social schedule for the season.  I don't know whether that guy is a joke or genuinely mentally ill.  Similarly, I don't know whether this game is a joke or an honest (albeit spectacularly failed) attempt at exploring its subject.  I do know, however, that it's neither fun nor informative.

Score: 2 out of 10.

Channel Surfing

Wow.  This is one nihilistic little number here.  You play a "volunteer" for a research experiment into a new type of television, in which the previously passive viewer can enter into and participate in the shows he watches.  The game is divided into three sections.  In the first, you participate in a cheesy game show; in the second, in a Survivor knock-off.  And then things get weirder in the final part, which lets you play an American Presidential candidate at a news conference.  You can choose from policy positions obviously representing those of John McCain and Barack Obama.  Your choices don't really matter in the end, though, because in this game's world view McCain is a blathering idiot and Obama a snake-oil salesman.  I initially found this section very interesting -- until I found out that regardless of your policies the  evil corporations that sucked you into this experiment end up taking over the world and enslaving the population into electronic entertainment subjugation.  There's lots of wasted potential in this section alone.  (Wouldn't it be neat if instead of saying "Good looking as ever" when you examine yourself you instead gradually morphed into either McCain or Obama?)

The author mentions having been partially inspired by the Sam and Max games, and this does indeed have a lot of their satirical flavor.  The NPCs have a sort of manic cartoon energy, mouthing totally inappropriate answers to questions you didn't ask and generally behaving with a sort of over-caffeinated, semi-psychotic intensity.  Also like Sam and Max, the game throws lots and lots of jokes at the wall in the hope that at least some will stick.  And some do indeed, although reality television and American politics - particularly of the Republican stripe -- almost satirize themselves.  (I'm reminded here of Saturday Night Live just pasting Sarah Palin's own words verbatim into their comedy skit.)

While I enjoyed this one intermittently, it's got some problems that diminish it quite a bit.  You will spend probably ninety percent of your playing time navigating through conversation menus with the various NPCs.  Again like Sam and Max, these folks sometimes go off into long asides that have nothing to do with the situation at hand.  Your tolerance for these will likely depend on how funny you find them to be.  My own opinion is mixed.  Sometimes I appreciated the humor, but just as often it just felt like the game was trying too hard.  Regardless, more to actually do would have been very welcome.

Four testers are credited, but the game also still needs some technical polishing.  There is some parser fun to deal with:

>shoot julian with taser
I didn't understand that sentence.

>hit julian with taser
I only understood you as far as wanting to hit Julian.

>shoot julian
I didn't understand that sentence.

>touch julian with gun
I only understood you as far as wanting to touch Julian.

>shoot julian with gun
I didn't understand that sentence.

>tase julian
You fish the taser out of your pocket and quickly zap him in the arm. He starts twitching and falls to the ground, letting out a guttural groan.

Lots of shortcuts and synonyms are likewise neglected -- you can refer to a television remote control as REMOTE, but not as CONTROL.  There's also no attention paid to context within the conversation menus.  For instance, you can at one point go around asking everyone for some money even though you have no idea why you need money at that point.  The scenes around you, meanwhile, are dismayingly static.  Even on the game show, host, fellow contestants, and audience stay in a state of suspended animation until you do something to trigger them.  This stands in marked contrast to the kinetic energy the characters exude as soon as you start to talk to them.

To its credit, the game makes a statement about the modern world rather than taking the "safe" approach of most comedic IF.  Or rather, it makes a confused jumble of statements, involving (for a start) bad television, the phoniness of American politics, the passivity of the masses (particularly the American masses), and the increasing power of multi-national corporations.  Heady, important stuff all, but in a one-hour game inspired by a cartoon it's a bit much to tackle.  Unsurprisingly, none of its disparate messages manage to clearly resonate once finished playing.  The overall tone of trendy, heartless pessimism also wasn't quite to my taste, even as some of the individual gags made me giggle.

Score: 6 out of 10.
 
Recess at Last

This is a very likable little game about a school-day in the life of a fourth-grader.  It seems that you have misplaced your homework assignment, with the result that your teacher has barred you from recess on this, the first really nice spring day after a long, dark winter.  You must clear your name in time to join your mates out on the playground.

It's the sort of premise that could descend into sickly sweetness all too readily, but Mr. Aungst does a great job of avoiding that pitfall through some excellent, specific writing and a refusal to deal in cliches.  Perhaps this is down to Mr. Aungst being a teacher himself, and thus understanding children not as little bundles of sweetness or bitterness but as fully developed human beings.  The game's opening quote is apropos: "The only people who think children are carefree are the ones who've forgotten their own childhood. "  Which is not to say that the game is a dark exploration of the human psyche either.  It's very much a light-hearted bit of fun, but one with an exceptionally well-characterized PC who is neither a little demon nor an angel.  He's just a smart, responsible, likable kid who, like most kids, would rather play with his friends outdoors on a nice day than sit inside a classroom.  The other characters and the environment are similarly unique, full-bodied, and realistic.

Recess ended much more quickly than I had expected it to.  I had only solved a few puzzles when suddenly, boom... Recess at last!  This even though I had not made any use at all of most of the people and locations I had found in my initial exploration of the school.  Looking at the hints and walkthrough, I see that there are apparently several ways of completing the game.  It's a noble idea, I suppose, but I never quite saw a great reason to do this sort of thing.  Multiple solutions to individual puzzles are great if said solutions all make sense in context, but building a story with so many paths, all of which display only a fraction of the game's total content, strikes me as a bit of a waste of labor that might be more justifiable if IF were created by teams of authors and played by many more people.  As it is, we get so little good IF that I would like to have the chance to see everything when I play through a given story.  Granted, I could play again and choose another path, but that sort of thing never really did it for me.  When I see the ending text of a game, I just tend to feel like I'm done with it.

Aside from my (perhaps idiosyncratic) design complaints, this one has some other significant problems.  Mr. Aungst has made use of Eric Eve's excellent Inform 7 conversation extensions, but not used them properly.  TALKING TO a character merely displays the message that "you have nothing in mind to discuss with them."  After seeing this for person after person in the game, I assumed that I simply was not allowed to speak to NPCs.  It turns out, though, that conversations are important, and that you must just play a game of guess the topic to get through them.  One particularly egregious offender absorbed a pretty large percentage of my total time with the game.  Further, the in-game hints offered no help for my situation.  I eventually had to turn to the walkthrough.

A smattering of typos and some other minor technical glitches also show that this one could have used a bit more testing and polishing.  Still, and while it didn't quite come together for me into a completely satisfying game, I quite appreciated the author's prose, along with his wit and his heart.  It's always great to see a game from a new author with real talent.  I hope he'll take the lessons learned from this modest beginning to gift us with more and hopefully more ambitious works in the future.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Search for the Ultimate Weapon

Do you know those Asian kung fu movies -- or parodies of Asian kung fu movies -- in which the dialog is horribly translated, horribly acted and dubbed, and often doesn't make much sense at all?  Well, playing this game is a bit like watching one of those movies.  The nicest thing I can say about it is that it almost attains "so bad it's good" status, in an "all your base are belong to us" sort of way.

You play an historical Chinese figure, a woman named Wu Mei who will eventually go on to found a new school of martial arts.  At the moment, though, you are concerned about finding an "ultimate weapon" with which to take revenge on a prince who has murdered your family.  Perhaps I can convey some of the flavor of this one by saying that its title is completely earnest, meant with no irony whatsoever.  I am quite certain that the entire game is written in the same spirit.  This means that although the martial arts master you talk to speaks exactly like Yoda, this is either pure coincidence or accidental pop culture channeling.  Which makes it ten times more funny than it would be if it was intended as an ironic bit of fun, of course.

So, then, finding this weapon involves visiting a monastery and learning from the monks there.  The master there gives you a couple of puzzles to solve, and after doing so you learn -- no surprise here -- that the ultimate weapon was within you all the time, yadda yadda yadda.  At the end you get to demonstrate your new wisdom by -- no surprise here -- electing not to give into your hate and kill the prince.

So that's the (bad) plot.  But that's only the beginning of the problems here.  I have the impression that the writer is not a native English speaker, as revealed by his frequent strange and inappropriate choices of words.  He has all kinds of problems with tense, veering from past to present not just from paragraph to paragraph or even sentence to sentence, but within individual sentences.  The game is also badly bugged.  When I talked to Yoda for the first time, he gave me the first of two tasks I had to carry out to gain his assistance.  In my general messing-about, I accidentally completed the second task before completing the first or even being informed what the second task was.  Sure enough, when I returned to Yoda he announced that I had completed my tests and was now ready to receive enlightenment.  His big insight was that the guards at the evil prince's palace take a nap every afternoon.  This leads to two questions: 1) Couldn't I have figure this out for myself, just by observing things a bit?  2) Didn't anybody at the palace ever think that nap-time for guards might be a Bad Idea?

Other things are just as weird.  The game has a day / night cycle.  Okay, fair enough -- except that by my calculations each turn must use at least an hour of real time.  Taking my inventory requires an hour; looking at an object requires an hour; etc.  Perhaps I am just so hugely enlightened that I give myself over to these simple tasks so completely as to lose an hour at them -- but that doesn't explain why walking from the isolated monastery to the palace of the prince absorbs the exact same amount of time as looking at the hoodie I'm wearing.  (No, I didn't know that people wore hoodies in ancient China either.)

This game was created using a system called SUDS.  It's hard to judge the system fairly when playing a game written by such an inept author, but I nevertheless wasn't much impressed.  SUDS plays fairly similarly to Quest -- all manipulatable objects appear in menus which you can select with the mouse.  Verbs are given icons at the top of the screen.  Luckily, it's possible to play the old-fashioned way as well.  I found the entire presentation rather garish, but some of that may be down to the game author's choices: each phase of the day reveals a more unreadable color combination than the last, and the text inexplicably doubles in size occasionally for no reason I could see.  On the other hand, the interpreter does not do MOREing, and the parser is (alas, predictably enough) atrocious.

I'll give SUDS a more thorough critique, however, when I find a more competent game written with it.  I've complained enough here as it is.

Score: 2 out of 10.

When Machines Attack

Mark Jones wrote Press [Escape] to Save for last year's Comp.  To put things charitably, it wasn't very good.  In fact, it finished in position 24 out of 27 games.  Personally, I gave it a 2.  Undaunted, Mr. Jones is back this year with another entry.  I wish I could say that he has learned his lessons and delivered a stronger game this time.  Alas, no.  When Machines Attack has perhaps a more understandable plot than the completely incoherent Press [Escape] to Save, but it's still a mess.

You play an engineer who has just been hired by Planetron Defense Laboratories to work on a top-secret project: the Starscraper Spacecraft.  This job is a bit of a commitment -- literally; you must live at the workplace.  The first real warning sign -- apart from the smattering of grammatical errors in the introduction -- comes when the game tells you that you were expected to get to your new workplace / home before 3:00 PM, and are now twenty minutes late.  So it's 3:20 now, right?  Well, no, it's actually 4:30.  Anyway, the receptionist shows you around the workplace and introduces you to a few people, and then sets you to work.  (They apparently don't much stand on ceremony at this place.)  I assume based on the game's title that the machines at the factory will at some point attack, but I didn't get that far.  I quit after I was left standing at my machine waiting for someone to repair it (a task it seems he never finishes), with no idea what to do next.  Looking at the walkthrough, it all looks dangerously arbitrary, and (in common with Mr. Jones's entry from last year) seems to involve an awful lot of WAITing.

Why did I quit so quickly?  Oh, let me count the reasons.  As mentioned, you play an engineer hired to work at a laboratory.  Unfortunately, Mr. Jones seems to know what neither the word "engineer" nor the word "laboratory" mean.  In actuality, you do the job of a line worker, not an engineer, and you work at a factory, not a laboratory.  And why would you, "a man in his late forties with a pretty strong background in, simply put, spaceship manufacturing and engineering," take a job operating a machine at what amounts to a forced labor camp?  As soon as I was told that the work day lasts every day from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM, I wanted to tell the receptionist that I quit.  Of course, that wasn't an option.

For all its problems, this game, like last year's entry, does have a certain charm just for its sheer innocent, utterly incompetent enthusiasm.  That it was written in good faith I have no doubt, and it's really quite ambitious -- judging from the length of the walkthrough, it's something of an epic.  And yet, once again, it's well-nigh unplayable.  Much as I rail against poor writing, I've enjoyed -- sometimes greatly -- games that weren't exactly, shall we say, Strunk and White approved, such as Gathered in Darkness from last year.  When you fail to meet minimal standards of playability due to bugs and terrible design choices, though, that's something else entirely.  I wanted to be able to give this game at least a slightly better score than Press [Escape] to Save, but I just can't.  Mr. Jones apparently learned nothing from last year's experience.  Once again, he didn't bother to recruit beta-testers; once again he requires his players to to read his mind in order to make progress; once again he used a confusing world map that makes the whole game feel like one big maze.  I'd love to give him a better review and a better score, but he's got to give me something to work with.  Maybe next year.

Score: 2 out of 10.

April in Paris

Ah, professionalism.  It's a sadly unusual quality to find in an amateur competition like this one, but when it comes along it makes one realize all the more how much it's been missed.  This entry is by Jim Aikin, who is not only a veteran IF author but also a professional writer of many years.  Both facets of his experience show, in a polished game that is rendered in muscular, confident prose that knows exactly what it is doing and where it is going.

The game casts you as an American tourist in Paris on the first day of your vacation.  You are sitting at a sidewalk cafe, and getting snubbed by the waiter in quintessential Parisian fashion.  Eventually a lost (and very attractive) fellow American woman enters the picture.  What develops is a light-hearted comedy caper somewhat reminiscent of Aaron Reed's fairly recent but already classic Gourmet.

One aspect of the gameplay did really irritate me.  It's important at one point to find an object that a previous customer has left behind at his table.  When passing by, the table is described like this in the area description: "One of the tables here is unoccupied."  Now, if we assume that a room description should display things that you might immediately notice in taking a casual glance around a room, shouldn't I notice when stepping into the vicinity of this table that it is not just unoccupied but in fact recently abandoned and not yet cleared?

That was the only place where I really got stuck.  I otherwise found the difficulty pitched just about right, neither trivial nor unfair.  There was a bit too much of the "solving puzzles accidentally just by doing stuff syndrome," however.  My avatar often had a good idea what he was trying to do, but I did not.  The conversations were also a huge disappointment, being very simplistic and repetitive and -- oh, how tired I am of writing this -- utterly neutering perhaps the most impressive feature of the very impressive TADS 3.

The atmosphere here is excellent, helped by the already mentioned excellent writing.  A few little niggles made me suspect, however, that Mr. Aikin has not actually been in Paris recently.  Francs, a currency not used by France in almost a decade, are mentioned at one point (although, oddly enough, euros are more prominently mentioned in another); and the toilet is referred to by the Americanism "restroom."

Finally, and at the risk of seeming a total fuddy-duddy, there is an element of the game that really bothered me.  It seems that the snobby waiter who is your arch-nemesis has left his ex-wife with six children to feed, and is now dodging her to avoid paying his child support.  You take advantage of this fact to finally get served.  All of this is presented as a fluffy bit of fun, like everything in the game -- but it's not something I can bring myself to laugh off.  I have no doubt that Mr. Aikin did not really mean to offend, but (in common with some of his more heated and discordant comments in the newsgroups) it just struck a wrong note, one stronger and much more sour than I think Jim ever intended.

But readers should recognize that even this fails to spoil a really quite nice entry.  It's well-written, polished, and of just about perfect length and complexity for the Comp.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Snack Time!

In this game you play a lovable if not terribly bright character who sees the world in a, shall we say, idiosyncratic way, and uses his own unique approach to the English language in describing it.  This description might have you thinking of a certain prominent entry from last year's Comp, and in fact it's a similarity that I found a bit too close for comfort.  But first things first:

You play a bulldog named Hardy who, in common with dogs everywhere, is focused on his next meal.  If you are going to eat, though, you must get your sleeping owner up off the couch and into the kitchen -- or, as you call it, the Food Room.  Similarly, the bathroom is the Water Room; the bedroom the Sleeping Room; and the living room the Sitting Room.  Everything is described in this same sort of doggie language:

Sitting Room
This is the room where you sit a lot. Well, you sleep here sometimes too. But there is a different room that is just for sleeping, and it is to the north. There's another room to the west. It's the room with the food. That is a good room.

Even though this is the sitting room you can't sit on everything. There are a lot of "no"s here, like the thing you can't scratch, and the tall thing and the four-legged thing that isn't alive but that stands still with the box of light on its back.

Your pet is here, all stretched out on the long soft thing and snoring.

While much of this is as cute and clever as you could possibly ask, that "pet," your designation for your owner, didn't really work for me.  Calling someone your "pet" implies a dependent relationship to you that your owner simply doesn't have.  The doggie language also breaks down completely in a few places; before the end of the game you have referred knowingly to "leftovers" and "sandwiches."

The danger of copying so closely a game as beloved as Lost Pig is that your own effort will almost inevitably pale in comparison.  That's exactly the fate that befalls Snack Time!  It's fun, it's charming, and it's even engaging enough.  But I've met Lost Pig, and this is no Lost Pig.  For one thing, there's just not enough here.  It's all very sparse, really, and good for no more than a half-hour or so of play.  Nor does it greatly reward playful experimentation, in spite of a rather underwhelming list of "Amusing Things to Try" that becomes available when you finish the game.  Further, there's little narrative development here: you wander about the house until you find a way to get yourself fed, and that's pretty much it.  Unlike earlier animal's eye games such as Ralph and A Day for Soft Food, the PC learns no lessons, grows not at all.

Indeed, my biggest complaint here is with the game's slightness.  It's fun, but there's not enough meat here to make it memorable beyond the judging period of this Comp.  On the other hand, though, I enjoyed myself while I was playing, encountered only the smallest of technical problems, and was never annoyed.  That's well worth a decent score, if not a superlative one.

Score: 6 out of 10.

The Lighthouse

Here we have yet another somewhat... ahem... less than serious entry.  Your goal is to turn on the light in a lighthouse.  Doesn't exactly sound like a promising premise, but fun games (and great literature) have been made from less.  Unfortunately, this is neither a fun game nor great literature.  It has very little of anything: no descriptions (even the rooms are left completely undescribed); no puzzles; no humor; no charm.  In the five minutes it take to play, you retrieve a couple of keys from obvious places, open a couple of doors, and, yes, turn on the light.  And that's it.  The most amazing thing about this masterpiece is that it took two people to write it.

Score: 1 out of 10.

Buried in Shoes

When I saw the name Buried in Shoes as the next entry on my play list, I assumed it would be a light-hearted slice-of-life piece about shopping or the like.  Boy, was I wrong.  It takes real chutzpah to write a game about the Holocaust.  I don't think I would dare attempt it.  How can one hope to come to terms with the central tragedy of the last tragic century through a still primitive storytelling medium like IF?  I would be deathly afraid of trivializing my subject -- and this is indeed the syndrome this game suffers from at least partially.

Mr. Mishima does make a wise choice in not approaching his subject straight-on.  He understands that an old photograph of a lost family member can have more impact than piles of decaying corpses.  Thus, you don't play a concentration camp inmate struggling to survive another day, or anything equally horrid and realistic.  Instead, the game is an elliptical approach -- or, more accurately, series of approaches.  You begin as a little boy in a Holocaust museum viewing an exhibit of shoes that were stolen from concentration camp inmates.  From there, you become another little boy, a Jewish boy living fifty or so years ago.  A series of dream images follow, showing how you and your family gradually lose your rights, your business, your freedom, and finally each other.  The problem, though, is that it's all so sketchy, and so underimplemented, that none of it has the emotional impact it could or should.  Too many authors when writing a self-consciously meaningful or "artsy" game like this one seem to think their literary aspirations excuse them from the good old hard work of implementing, implementing, implementing and testing, testing, testing.

In the end, then, some nice writing ("Cold. It is so cold. Where is Father? You can only go west, into the angry, plummeting sun.") goes largely wasted.  I applaud the author for his bravery in taking on such a subject, and his heart is certainly in the right place -- but good intentions alone do not a satisfying work of art make.  Even Shakespeare had to sweat a bit for his art.

Score: 4 out 10.

Afflicted

In this one you play a city health inspector checking out a restaurant that is a bit of a sanitary disaster.  You have a handy little notepad with you to keep track of your observations, and in lieu of a score the status line instead displays the restaurant's current rating.  It's a fun, neat little premise for a game -- and then the game pulls a bait and switch on you and becomes something else entirely after you discover that the restaurant is home to a vampire or two.  Luckily, playing a vampire slayer is even more exciting than playing a health inspector.

This is not a game for the squeamish.  Both stages of its story allow plenty of opportunity for stomach-churning descriptions, descriptions which Mr. Egan seems to positively delight in doling out.  The overall tone is a bit odd, but not in a bad way.  I can perhaps best describe it as a sort of B horror movie atmosphere.  On one level, the story is fairly obviously absurd, the gore way over the top, and the whole thing rather laugh-worthy; on the other, there is something genuinely creepy about the whole thing.  This is obviously not such an easy balance to strike in an all-text medium, but Mr. Egan pulls it off beautifully.

Technically, the game is equally solid, and it's just about the perfect length and complexity for the Comp.  In fact, I have only one real complaint: at the end of the game you are trapped in the restaurant with a vampire who has decided to put you on his lunch menu.  A pretty horrifying prospect, right?  Well, yes, it should be, but the game largely undercuts the tension by making said vampire dismayingly passive.  He doesn't chase you or anything, just says that eventually he's going to get around to eating you, and doesn't that suck for you?  The problem here is not in the writing, which remains uniformly excellent, but in the actual mechanics of the storyworld.  Why the hell doesn't he chase me, and at least force me to lock a door in his face or something?  This bit reminded me of a Myst-style slideshow graphic adventure I played recently. It was trying to portray a dynamic chase scene, and failing miserably due to the constraints of its playing style and interface.  We should be able to do much, much better than this in IF.

So that's my big gripe, and it's one that cost this game a point or so in its final score.  Nevertheless, it's an excellent piece of work which showcases some fine writing and even offers some interesting alternate endings.  I have one regret and one consolation.  The regret is that I played this the day after Halloween; the consolation is that I haven't yet played Mr. Egan's other game, which won the Spring Thing this year.  If it's as good as this one, that should be a treat.

Well, my wife has two other complaints: she says that bile and urine are not the same color, and that if your hand was cut off you would not initially feel any pain.  Medical students just think they know everything, eh?

Score: 8 out of 10.

Dracula's Underground Crypt

So, my second vampire game in a row.  That's not so surprising in a world where the fiendish little bloodsuckers feature in several television series at any given time, not to mention innumerable books, movies, etc.  What is surprising is that both of these games manage to avoid overly cliched depictions, find their own voice, and be both very different and very entertaining.  While Afflicted indulged in a chilling sort of dark humor, Dracula's Underground Crypt is pure camp.

You play the assistant to Professor von Klausberger, vampire hunter extraordinare.  This might be a nice position to have, if not for the fact that the Professor is an pompous jerk who treats you like dirt and has no concern whatsoever for your well-being.  The two of you have discovered the ultimate vampire hunter's prize, the lair of Dracula himself.  Naturally, the Professor expects you to do all the work of finding a way down into Dracula's crypt and dealing with the undead horror while he complains from a safe distance to your rear and prepares to grab all the glory should you succeed.

Make no mistake: this is a very, very funny game, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments.  The author's fresh-faced brand of humor reminded me a bit of A Fine Day for Reaping, one of my favorites from last year's Comp.  Mr. Whitington has a great time satirizing Gothic horror and adventure game cliches:

The shelves contain, not surprisingly, a number of books; such as a copy of  "How To Look Good Stake'd", an issue of "V-Cut" and an interesting looking read simply titled "This Book Is A Secret Trigger Which Activates A Secret Passage Leading To Dracula's Secret Underground Crypt"
 "Vhy are you taking zo long to vind a zimple prinze ov all evil?" asks The Professor, you don't have an answer..

A particularly fun bit is the Professor's accent, a stew of Central and Eastern European that cannot be pinned down to any one place.  You eventually discover that the Professor even writes in his diary in this bizarre accent.  You'll die frequently in the game, sometimes in unanticipated, unfair ways, but even the deaths are so funny that you won't much mind.

But... take a look at that quote above one more time.  See the semi-colon where a comma should be?  The missing final period after the first sentence?  The missing line-break between paragraphs?  The run-on second sentence?  The two periods that end the second sentence (perhaps making up for the missing period after the first)?  Well, suffice to say that this tiny excerpt is not even among the game's worst offenders.  Grammatically, the game is a complete, sloppy mess, of (at best) very rough first draft quality.  This detracts in a big way from the author's very real cleverness.  As usual in these cases, I don't know whether the author doesn't know how to write proper English or simply didn't bother, but in either case the end result is unacceptable.  If the former, that's a real shame, because he has wit to spare.

The game opens with some text essentially apologizing for the buggy game that is to follow.  That's never a good sign, and unsurprisingly the game more than lives up to its authors forebodings.  It's a complete bugfest.  The author's comments indicate that he is aware of this, and yet entered it into the Comp anyway.  Um, why?  There's the Spring Thing next year; there's next year's Comp; there's even the revolutionary idea of just releasing the game independent of any competition.  Why spoil the impact of such a clever, humorous game by knowingly releasing it so obviously  half-baked?

But release it he did, and so he'll have to suffer the consequences.  I won't run through a detailed litany of bugs here because they are everywhere, and because the author's own comments indicate he is already aware of many of them.  Some games, among them many that do well in the Comp, I respect but can't really warm to.  Others I objectively realize are deeply flawed but want to score higher than I can for their writing or just their authors' sense of spirit.   This game falls into this latter category.  While I can't give it a particularly good score, I will out of sheer affection give it a better score than the objective side of me says it deserves.  I do hope Mr. Whitington will partially redeem himself by producing the bug-fixed, polished version he promises in his comments -- in other words, the only version that should ever have seen the light of day.

Score: 5 out of 10.

The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom

You have come to the Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom (say that three times fast), a sort of magical college / seminary, to seek out your girlfriend who has disappeared inside.  To enter the campus proper, you must prove your worthiness by solving a series of three puzzles.  And so, puzzle hat firmly in place, we're off!

It's not exactly a staggeringly original premise for a game, but clever puzzles are never a bad thing.  It's also gratifying, particularly in this rather sub-standard year, to find a game that is properly written and bug-free.  In the end, though, I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as I had hoped, and that's down to the puzzles.  Simply put, they're just too trivial.  Or, rather, the second and third are; the first has some reasonable depth to it and was fairly entertaining.  The third puzzle was the worst offender.  Literally the first thing my wife shouted out to try worked.  Now, my wife is of course a brilliant woman, but classics these puzzles definitely are not.

The story initially seems to exist just to provide a reason to solve the puzzles, but once said puzzles are solved you are treated to a surprisingly lengthy denouement with your girlfriend which is sweet enough but rather out of character with what has come before.  And that's about all there is to say about this one.  It's polished, but very, very slight.

Oh, I should mention that this is the first Alan game I've played in a very long time, and the first version 3 Alan game I've ever played.  The system seemed pretty solid, in spite a few parser issues that signaled that, while far nicer for the player to work with than ADRIFT, it isn't yet up to the Inform or TADS level of sophistication.  The one picture in the game didn't display on my Windows interpreter, but I just printed out the .jpg file.  I'll withhold further judgment on the system until it's a) out of the alpha stage and b) I've played a much more substantial game.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Escape from the Underworld

In this one you play a low-ranking devil who has gotten a bit tired of all the scouring and torturing that goes on in Hell.  You've decided to make your escape up to the world of light.

I wasn't too impressed with the opening of this, and didn't have much hope for it in light of the dismayingly minimalist descriptions and its minuscule file size.  A strange thing began to happen as I played on, though -- I discovered quite a nicely crafted little adventure game, not innovative or even overly memorable, but entertaining enough.  Its puzzles are well done in their not too taxing way.  While the implementation is rather sketchy, basically just sticking with the stock Inform 6 parser and library, the parser issues are not too horrific.  Even the writing seemed to get better as time went on, and the game even offered up some lines that made me laugh out loud:

You overhear one of the demon administrators gossiping.

"... Hey Timothy, great news! The guy who invented the Microsoft Office paper clip will be cast down here on Friday. I can't wait to get to work on *that* guy!"

The game was well on its way to a 7, until I got to the end.  There, the little implementation and parsing problems caught up with me in a big way.  You are expected to do a bit of soldering to solve a little problem with the elevator that is going to finally get you to the surface.  I dutifully assembled my aluminum can ringpull (in place of solder) and my red-hot poker (in place of a soldering iron), placed the ringpull on the wire that needed soldering, and tried to go to work:

>solder wire with poker
I don't think that will solder.

>burn wire with poker
This dangerous act would achieve little.

>touch wire with poker
I only understood you as far as wanting to touch the piece of wire.

>attach wire
You would achieve nothing by this.

>put poker on circuit
With the hot poker acting as a soldering iron, you press the tip against the ringpull. Being made of tin it has a suitably low melting-point, and turns into a glob instantly, sticking the loose end of the wire in place on the circuit.

That last command I finally entered after looking at the walkthrough.  Now, besides the obvious parsing problems, there's a more subtle issue here.  Authors, please don't implement a custom verb like SOLDER if you aren't actually going to allow your player to make use of that verb to, you know, solder something.

So, that bit really annoyed me and cost the game a point or so.  But its good qualities remain, and make it worthy of a qualified recommendation.  The author even promises us a sequel at the end, which I would enjoy playing if he's willing to just pay a bit more attention to technical details and testing.

Score: 6 out of 10.

Piracy 2.0

It seems like I've been spending a lot of my IF playing time trying to escape from space pirate attacks lately; there were two of them in last year's Comp, and now another one this year.  Much as I'm generally down for a little space opera action, it's hard for me not to consider this game a bit derivative of  the others that have come before -- even if it was originally written twenty or more years ago, and so technically can't be derivative of them at all.  (This does make me think of the Comp rule that a game cannot be a new version of a previously released work, but in light of the two-decade gap I think we can all agree to let it go.)

In fact, I'm very happy this game is in the Comp, because it's quite a well-crafted piece of work which shows evidence of a lot of effort.  The setting gleefully and unashamedly rips off Star Trek, right down to the spaceship that is capable of separating into two sections during emergencies.  It's still a lot of fun, though, and implemented with plenty of care and thought.  Little touches abound, such as the nicely done PDF deckplans of your ship and the personnel files describing each of your dozen crew-members.  Since your crew is for the most part now dead, these files even manage to add a poignant touch to the generally exuberant sci-fi tone here.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  You are captain of a Federation -- excuse me, United Worlds -- starships called the Orion.  Your ship was ordered to transport an infamous pirate to the starbase where he is to be tried.  En route, some of the pirate's compatriots attacked your ship and killed just about everyone -- except you, who they've kept as a prize prisoner.  As play begins, you are in your own ship's brig.  Your goal is thus to thwart the space pirates and regain control of your ship -- or, failing that, to blow it up so that the United Worlds do not suffer the embarrassment of having one of their ships of the line become a pirate ship.

What follows is quite impressive.  Your ship's systems are implemented in considerable detail, and you will have to make use of many of them -- once you escape the brig, of course -- to accomplish your goals.  There are numerous ways to "win," some resulting in more complete victories than others, and also plenty of red herrings.  It's all described in robust, direct language; while Mr. Huxter is no language virtuoso, he's no worse than the average Star Trek novelist I'd say, and that's really all that is needed here.

But as (almost) always, there were some things here that didn't sit too well with me.  One aspect of the story made no real sense to me.  After a certain point the pirates apparently realize that you have escaped from your cell -- apparently, because there is never a moment where you hear an alarm being raised or anything.  Worse, upon realizing you are an escapee, the pirates do essentially nothing to get you back in custody again, other than to taunt you occasionally over the ship's intercom.  You are free to wander up to the ship's (deserted) bridge, through its (deserted) secondary bridge, through its (deserted) engine room, etc.  The questions thus become: 1) where the hell are these pirates (well, one does occasionally pop up at random and have to be shot, but otherwise they are nowhere to be found); and 2) who the hell is flying the ship?  You can actually go to the secondary bridge to initiate the first stage of "hull separation," go to the main bridge and complete the task, and finally fly off in the top half of the spaceship without the pirates doing anything to stop you.  At least at this point they finally start shooting at you with the other half of the ship... but geez.  These must be the most incompetent space pirates ever, and this element really drags the game's otherwise nicely done dramatic aspect down.  

Secondly, as frequently happens with these heavily technology-focused games, the whole thing becomes a bit too fiddly.  There are lots of possible outcomes to the story, and lots of ways of getting to these outcomes, for all of which Mr. Huxter is to be commended.  However, getting an acceptable ending requires a bit more learning by death than I'm really comfortable with, which serves (again) to diminish the game's sense of dramatic excitement by turning it into a big puzzlebox rather than a compelling narrative.  What was interesting and exciting the first time through just becomes boring the fifth or sixth, and the fussy commands needed to actually manipulate all this technology start to really annoy.  After failing a few times, I finally turned to the walkthrough, more out of a sense of ennui than out of a conviction that I really couldn't solve this thing.

There are some other glitches and inconsistencies that point to a game that could have used just a bit more polishing.  (You are told by the ship's computer that the bridge will not be gassed if you choose to release sleeping gas through the ship, which is not true; some of the ending texts don't quite jibe with what has actually happened in your particular playthrough, etc.)  It's hardly a disaster in this department, though, and given its considerable complexity I won't fault it too badly.  It's got a lot to offer, really, and bears that unmistakable stamp of real care and quality.  My opinion of it is perhaps somewhat tempered by Across the Stars from last year's Comp, which pretty much covered the same conceptual territory as this one but did it just a little bit better.  Still, I hope that Piracy 2.0 will do relatively well in this Comp in its own right, and I hope that Mr. Huxter will learn a lesson or two here and continue to write IF for us in the future.

Score: 7 out of 10.

Nerd Quest

Oh, my.  Even by normal home-brew standards this game sucks.  Let me catalog the sins.  Terrible "parser" that not only doesn't understand X but also doesn't even understand EXAMINE: check.  (LOOK AT is the correct command.)  Parser that cannot even understand upper case letters, for God's sake: check.  Ridiculously sparse descriptions that still manage to be ungrammatical and full of misspellings: check.  Arbitrary "puzzles" that involve the beating of the head against the terrible parser to try to find a word it will understand: check.  Crazy number of files and huge disk space consumption for a game that makes Scott Adams's worst look good: check.

On top of these typical home-brew failings, this game also manages to be obnoxious in other, more unique ways.  You are a system administrator who must deal with a crashed Windows system, which allows for plenty of hilarious, nerdly-superior moments like its references to "Windoze."  (I would submit that one should not trumpet one's Linux pride when one cannot even spell the word "penguin," but, hey that's just me.)  It's like the worst stereotypes of Slash Dot circa 2000.  (Or maybe Slash Dot is still like this.  I haven't read it since approximately then.)

Anyway, this game left me feeling like I wanted to take the role of the "stupid but aggressive bodybuilder" and beat the living shit out of its protagonist.  But, again, that's just me.

Score: 1 out of 10.

Nightfall

Us reviewers can be so predictable sometimes, even to ourselves.  When I first scanned over the games entered into this Comp and the authors who wrote them, this was the one I was most immediately interested in playing for the simple reason that Eric Eve is my favorite currently working author of IF.  Nightfall fell near the end of my randomized playing schedule, and all through playing through its predecessors I kept hoping something would wow me sufficiently to be worthy of a ten.  A few came close, but it never quite happened.  Failing that, I was almost hoping that Nightfall would not be quite on the level of Mr. Eve's previous efforts, and would itself not be worthy of my ten.  That didn't happen either.  And so here I am, having awarded exactly two tens in three years of judging Comps -- and both of them have gone to Eric Eve.  I think I've officially descended into hopeless fanboyism.

As Nightfall begins, your city -- an anonymous English town set right here in our own time and universe -- is being evacuated due to the approach of some unknown Enemy.  You decide at the last moment to stay behind when you realize that a mysterious woman you've had a crush on for years has also decided not to flee.  You have the vague hope of saving her from some ugly fate by convincing her to come to her senses -- and, of course, being a typical male, of parleying your newfound collateral into the relationship you've been pining for all these years.

The game takes place entirely within the darkened, deserted confines of your city over the course of a single evening.  The only other people left are some police officers who are combing the streets for stragglers like you, along with a drunkard or two with nowhere else to go and, presumably, the woman you're here to "rescue."  It's an eerie, tense play.  You don't know just when this Enemy is supposed to arrive, or even what its true nature might be.  Mr. Eve plays the tension up with the expected but effective series of mysterious sounds, sightings of distant unknown figures, mysterious lights on the horizon, etc.  As you learn more, your sense of unease does not decrease but rather the opposite.

In fact, Mr. Eve has done a beautiful job of capturing the paranoia of post-September 11 Anglo society.  I hesitate to go too far in describing in what direction the plot eventually goes -- I'm much more reluctant to spoil superb games like this one than bad ones -- but when you find an armed nuclear device in a van sitting in the center of town, the experience is genuinely chilling.  All of the media speculations about dirty bombs and so forth come home in spades -- and when they do it's a much scarier experience to face than the vampires and werewolves and other supernatural "horrors" that inhabit the other games in the Comp.

At the heart of the game is your relationship with this mysterious and beautiful woman you have been so obsessed with for so long.  This sort of thing isn't exactly new territory for Mr. Eve, mysterious and beautiful potential femme-fatales having become something of a staple in his work.  However, the relationship does develop differently here than does the relationship in The Elysium Enigma.  You have very little direct contact with the woman this time around.  Rather than through conversation, here you must piece together your judgments about the woman through a series of memories that are triggered by visiting various places in the city and through clues you find that shed light on her personality and motives.  You and the woman have a long history this time around, and thus much of what you are doing here is discovering backstory that the actual protagonist is already aware of, at least at some level.  Now, at one level this is a decided step down in storytelling ambition.  It's no bold assertion to say that in general we rely too much upon discovering backstory, as opposed to making a story of your own, to make our IF narratives compelling.  (It's also no secret why that is, of course, interactive storytelling in general being so  damn hard.)  Mr. Eve makes it work really, really well here, however, and for once it feels like this was simply the best way to tell the story he was trying to tell, as opposed to being a shortcut put in place for technical reasons.  In other words, the foreground story of discoveries here is the one he is really interested in, as opposed to just  looking for a device to convey the backstory in an interactive medium.

The game design works equally well.  The game is by no means puzzleless -- there are in fact plenty of challenges to overcome.  None are huge stumpers, however, and there are multiple solutions all over the place.  Say you find a window which you want to use to enter a locked building, but that is set into the wall just above your head.  As you would expect, there are various objects you can find about the city that might allow you to get inside.  When something should work for solving a problem like that, it does, or you are at least provided with a plausible reason why it does not.  Further, you by no means have to solve and find everything to complete the game.  In fact, you'd have a very hard time doing so on the first playthrough.  When you finish the game, Mr. Eve even gives you a helpful list of things to try next time to piece together more of the story.  Thankfully, though, going everywhere and solving everything is not necessary to get the gist of the situation and get a perfectly satisfactory ending.

Can I complain about anything here?  Oh, of course.  One or two puzzles are a bit two "text-adventurey," particularly the one involving a certain wino who will not let you pass until you, you guessed it, give him something to drink.  The whole thing in general is so polished and well-tested, though, that it lives up to the standards of Mr. Eve's previous work easily.  I may be predictable, but I must say that this is a superb piece of work, and qualifies easily as my game of the Comp for 2008.

Score: 10 out of 10.

The Missing Piece

Mr. Young also entered one of his "GUI text adventure games" into last year's Comp.  It didn't fair too well.  In fact, I think I was just about the only judge to give that game a decent review and award it a decent score; I gave it a (very generous) 7, largely because I found its randomized combat engine and whole style of gameplay oddly fun and refreshingly unique.  This game is largely more of the same, but it didn't work nearly as well for me this time around.  Perhaps its familiarity bred a bit more contempt, but there are also a lot of problems here that I don't remember in last year's entry.

Like The Lost Generation, The Missing Piece is really more text-based RPG than GUI text adventure.  You will spend the vast majority of your time here fighting monsters.  That's not the end of the world, and in fact (as last year) could even be a nice change of pace.  And yet, while The Lost Generation was compact and surprisingly well designed in its way, this entry is much larger and much more frustrating, thanks to lots of very tough monsters spread about its expansive map.  Or perhaps I should say it should be more frustrating.  I very quickly discovered that I could waltz through every single combat due to what I assume is a bug.  In one of the first rooms I found a hand grenade.  I should be able to throw this exactly one time, right?  Well, I actually found that I could use it over and over again.  Couple this with the convenient fact that monsters only strike back at you if you engage them in melee combat, and you've got a painless ticket through the whole game.  The combat engine is thus broken on at least two levels -- and thank God it is, because I can't imagine trying to work my way through this thing "fairly."  It took me far more than the two-hour Comp standard even "cheating" my way through every combat.

I still hate to come down on this too heavily because it's obvious that a lot of work has gone into this GUI interface.  I just wish it all worked to provide a more compelling playing experience.  Combat, even if you aren't exploiting its bugs and idiosyncrasies, is essentially a matter of watching a lot of "dice rolls" scroll by.  Although there is quite a variety of monsters to fight, none have any real special attacks or require any unique strategy.  Fighting a black dragon is not really any different or more interesting than fighting a bat.  The dragon just gets to attack more every round, and does more damage with each hit.  And some of these combats can go on for a long time.  There needs to be an element of strategy and player (as opposed to avatar) agency to make this compelling.

There are some text adventure puzzles about, but the GUI interface really saps any fun out of them as well.  An example: at one point you find a bottomless pit that blocks progress from one side of a cavern to the other.  Luckily, there is a column on your side of the cavern (don't ask why; I don't know, and neither I suspect does Mr. Young.)  In a parser-based adventure, you might EXAMINE the column, whereupon you would see that it is cracked near its base.  Then you might have the idea of PUSHing it.  In this game, though, PUSH COLUMN simply appears in the "SPECIAL ACTIONS" window of the interface as soon as you enter the room.  Click that, even though you may have no idea what you are doing or why, and boom!  Puzzle solved!  What fun is that?

The writing here is perhaps a bit better than last year's, but still loaded with signs that the author is not completely fluent in English.  The story, meanwhile, it even more bizarre and incoherent than last year.  I thought for a while it was perhaps a religious allegory of sorts, but now I'm really not sure what it was supposed to be.  While these "qualities" gave last year's entry an odd sort of charm for me, this year they just seemed annoying.  In spite of all its faults, though, I did finish this one, and that's more than I can say for quite a few other games in this Comp.  I still think the interface has potential, but I'm disappointed to see that Mr. Young has made no real progress with it since last year, and at least in terms of his game design has perhaps taken a step or two back.  In light of that, and with the novelty factor no longer working to its advantage, a 4 is about the best I can do this year.

Score: 4 out of 10.

A Date with Death

Here we have an ADRIFT game in which Death (a.k.a. the Grim Reaper) is a prominent character.  Remind you of a certain title from last year's Comp?  Well, this game actually has nothing else to do with that one, but it's got quite a bit to offer in its own right.  This is the third game in a trilogy of which I haven't played the first two, but it stands up well enough in its own right, and never left me feeling at a disadvantage for my lack of experience with its prequels.  You play a king who has in earlier games apparently been killed and resurrected.  Death is, therefore, rather pissed, and tells you at the beginning of this game that he is coming for you at midnight tonight to settle accounts once and for all.  You have twelve hours to arrange your defense and attempt to cheat the Reaper one more time.

I've reviewed a handful of games by David Whyld now, and always seem to end up writing essentially the same thing.  Some of his games are better, some are worse, but all essentially share the same flaws: a lack of close proof-reading and general attention to detail, a lack of testing that results in a steady drip of bugs and glitches, and a lack of clarity about where he is really taking his designs.  This game is one of his better ones I'm thankful to say, but it still suffers from all of the above to a greater or lesser degree.  One the one hand Mr. Whyld's unwillingness to really polish his work means that he will always remain a prolific second-tier IF author rather than one of the best, even though he is a very engaging, clever, and funny writer; on the other hand, though, he seems comfortable with his place in the community, entering and doing decently well (but not extremely well) in just about every Comp that comes along.  None of us are getting rich off this stuff, so far be it from me to make judgments about his priorities.

But all that aside, I quite enjoyed this game for a while.  It shows signs of having been inspired by The Black Adder, and perhaps just a bit by Adam Cadre's classic IF Varicella.  Although you are a tyrant, you are a rather inept tyrant, largely the pawn of the proverbial power behind the throne, one High Chancellor Verenor.  Verenor is the game's principal source of comic relief, being an outrageously bloodthirsty sort of fellow whose first thought when confronted with any problem generally involves lots of hangings and beheadings.  You'll spend a lot of time with Verenor as you play, because not only must you try to arrange your defenses against Death's coming, but you must always deal with the daily business of running a kingdom.  Running a kingdom seems to principally involve lots and lots of meetings with lots and lots of strange and often unpleasant people -- which is perhaps not that far from the truth, now that I think of it.

These meetings involve lots of menu-based conversations with some very funny creations, such as Admiral Sally, the military officer who acts suspiciously like a woman.  This stuff is all very silly, of course, but all very good fun.  As the game wears on, though, the laughs begin to fade.  There are lots and lots of these meetings, and they all present absolute piles of text to read through, with only the occasional opportunity for interaction that doesn't seem to make any difference in the course the story takes anyway.  Soon the jokes are not so funny anymore -- particularly the endlessly repeated motif of Verenor's over the top viciousness -- and the call to go to yet another meeting elicits more of a sign of exhaustion than a smile of anticipation.  Meanwhile, there's not really that much to do when not in a meeting.  The palace's very small map can be easily explored within an hour or two of in-game time, and after that I'm not really clear what the game actually expects of its player.  I did find a book detailing defenses that I could supposedly use to cheat Death, but few of these seemed to directly apply to anything I found in the storyworld.  

Eventually, I quit out of exhaustion with the whole thing, being totally uncertain what I should be doing and simply unable to face another round of endless meetings.  In fact, I'm not even sure I should have been attending these meetings, as one chapter in the book could be construed as meaning that I shouldn't... and yet, Mr. Whyld clearly put so much effort into them that it's hard to believe I was truly meant to skip them.  So, in the end, the game failed to orient me to what was expected of me, and in that light can only be considered a failure when considered as a whole.  In spite of that, some of its isolated parts are impressive enough.  If it had had a tighter design and just a few meetings containing the humorous high points of what we now have, I'd be singing a very different tune right now.  Even as it is, I did have enough fun that I'm not going to ding it too badly.  Mark it down as another decent but sloppy effort from an author who specializes in them, and give it an above average but not stellar score.  Business as usual.

Oh, and although I planned not to say anything about the grammar problems that are sprinkled throughout this one, those being the same grammar problems you'll find any of Mr. Whyld's other games, one thing bugged me enough to mention.  The past tense of "hang" in the sense of an execution is "hanged," not "hung."  Sorry, that one's a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

Score: 6 out of 10.

The Lucubrator

What a thoroughly disagreeable little game.  You play a sort of latter-day Frankenstein's monster -- albeit a female this time, just to make things extra creepy -- who has just awoken as the game begins.  Your objective is, well, to kill, which the author enjoys describing in extremely graphic ways.  

I really wish that poor taste was the only charge I could levy at this one, but that's only the beginning of its sins.  The first "puzzle" is ridiculous.  You wake up in a morgue, strapped to an autopsy table.  (Why our modern Frankenstein has chosen to reanimate you in a hospital morgue is a question I can't answer.)  You can't do much of anything, being bound hand and foot to the table.  You do however spot the shadows of figures moving back and forth behind the window of the room's door.  Obviously you are expected to get their attention, but how?  You can't move; nor shout, as your lungs no longer function.  After trying everything I could conceive of for 50 turns or so, in the process getting plenty of non sequiters and other evidence of the shoddy implementation, I turned to the walkthrough and learned that I had to WAVE.  What?  How can I wave sufficient to be seen through a window when my wrists and ankles are all bound to the table?

Suffice to say it doesn't get any better.  I played pretty much from the walkthrough after that, and I'm glad I did.  This is a "read the author's mind" game.  Most actions result only in the standard Inform library response unless done at the exact moment the author has planned for you to do them.  Didn't it ever occur to him that "Violence is not the answer to this one" might not be an appropriate response in a game the whole objective of which is to do as much violence as possible?  And then there's the writing, which is littered with flaws: shifts between past and present tense, shifts from first to second person, a "unique" approach to sentence structure, etc.  Throw in the lovingly described violence and the author's seeming to relish that it is a naked zombie woman you represent and... uh.  I don't want to talk about it any more.

Score: 2 out of 10.

Red Moon

This is a very experimental little piece in which you are not what you first appear to be.  The overall feel oozes Lovecraft, and it's quite a well done homage all in all, at least as far as the actual writing goes.  You begin and end the game in a tiny hut; outside are nameless horrors which in, true Lovecraftian fashion, can only be hinted and never fully described.  But even within the hut all is not what it seems.  With enough examining and poking about you come to realize that your reality is shifting in odd, dreamlike (or perhaps nightmarish) ways.

At points the game does manage to evoke a genuinely creepy mood, but in the end it never really amounts to anything.  When the big reveal of who and what you actually are comes, it's more anticlimactic than anything else, particularly because to get there you are almost guaranteed to have to use the hint file extensively, and nothing pulls you out of an immersive narrative faster than scurrying to the hint file.  If you type WAKE (one of the first things I tried), you are told that "you're not in a dream."  Okay, fair enough.  Well, it turns out that the only way of reaching the optimal ending is to continue to type WAKE again and again.  Why on earth would anybody do this?  The sub-optimal endings all require a similar process -- try to break a mirror again and again, try to open the same door again and again, etc.  Perhaps, just perhaps, this gimmick might be acceptable if the weirdness that was happening was immediately obvious upon trying an action for a second time.  But to require that you obstinately type WAIT six times to get anywhere?  That's just ridiculous.

The author notes in his readme file that "you may want to hit me after you realize the solution."  He also spends some time apologizing for his game, and notes that he had just three days to complete the game.  Authors, when you are putting notes like this in your readme file it may be time to step back and ask yourself whether your game is really ready for the Comp.  Submitting a sketchy entry because you "wanted more people to play it" is not fair to the judges who are approaching your game in good faith.  This game is creepy, it is relatively well written, but it is not a satisfying play, whether you were looking for "traditional puzzles" or not.  Try to give us something a bit more substantial next time, okay?

Score: 4 out of 10.