Reviews: IF Competition 2002

I didn't spend as much time or energy on IFComp as I could have, this time around. Nonetheless, 25 games played. Not bad.

No brilliant generalizations about IFComp this year. I played some stuff, I wrote some stuff. You'll see a lot of "in process" comments -- I tended to jot down notes while playing. So you can, to a certain extent, watch me play. (But not much of an extent.)

I didn't find too many games that really impressed me. (I suspect my rating system is slightly inflated relative to years past.) On the other hand, I only played 25 games, and the aforementioned lack of energy may have steered me away from the longer ones. (Which, statistically, are more likely to please me.)

Nonetheless, a handful of goodies.

Here are the scores, from highest to lowest. (I've added pluses and minuses in the interest of further discrimination, although of course only the plain integers counted in official voting.)

And the comments, in the order that I played the games.


Steven Darnold

Okay, I admit: the idea of a game written in shell scripts draws my attention before anything else.

Doesn't support "all" or "it". Doesn't support "save" or "undo". Thinks "x" means "quit". Uses a timed pause between some messages; the pause is much too long, especially the fifth time you try something.

Doesn't support any useful synonyms. Guess the verb, guess the preposition. This is not fun. I just died for the sixth time. Forget it.

[Footnote: game was later disqualified from the competition.]

The Temple

Johan Berntsson

A nice little story, somewhat marred by weak use of language.

I've been on a Lovecraft kick recently, and this game certainly has the right imagery. (In fact, a wider range of the right imagery than the usual Cthulhu-obsessed Lovecraft pastiche.) However, the prose isn't up to the same standards. It's not bad -- perfectly serviceable -- but words have to carry much of the atmosphere of Lovecraftian horror, and this game doesn't quite catch it.

I liked the NPC. He does spend a lot of time in "passive NPC" mode, but he's got a fair number of comments, and a solid part to play before the end.

The gameplay is pretty good, but object interactions are a bit thin. It was difficult to experiment with objects, because they tended not to react except in their single intended manner. Also, at one point you have to interact with an object in the next room, which is not obvious at all. I had to check hints at that point; and in one or two other situations as well.

Still, good solid work.


anonymous (Esa Peuha)

"Inform v6.14 Library 6/4"? Come to think of it, The Temple was "Inform v6.15 Library 6/2"... Come on, people, it's not like the current version is a recently-released beta. The older libraries have bugs and Z-code errors. Update!

Okay, the game. This is a one-puzzle, no-plot game: it wants me to get a pot off a pillar without breaking it. But wait, even before I touch the pot, the game says it's cracked. Bug or clue?

I shall look at the help. Oh, it's a bug. Well, that pretty much spoils the game, doesn't it? If there's only one important object, and its description is wrong, we have a problem.

A note about design theory: One clue says, "This is a computer game; The rules of reality need not apply." But that's silly. I have nothing to start from but the rules of reality. If I throw those away, I might as well start typing random strings of characters.

Now in fact, the Clever Idea of this game is pretty clever, and one could set up a scenario in which that sort of surreal manipulation is a good puzzle. This scenario, however, is not it.

The Moonlit Tower

Yoon Ha Lee

Short, very sweet. The poetic language got to be too much, at times, though.

No complaints on the richness of the world. Everything was layered, detailed, sensuous. I particularly liked the opening text, with its perfect evocation of a sound just one moment previously.

The storyline felt somewhat loose and unfocussed; it was all imagery and potential implication, no actual direction. For a game of this size, that's acceptable. Even so, a couple of times I found myself asking "What objects haven't I used?" or "What rooms haven't I searched?" rather than "What do I want to do in the story?"

Sly in-jokes aimed in my direction were appreciated. :)


"QA Dude" (Mike Eckardt)

"General help may be asked for using the HELP command." (I type HELP.) "I said that help may be asked for... not that it would be forthcoming."

Hint for game designer: don't be a dickhead.

The next command I type, examining the ray gun, also gives a smartass nonfunny response. At this point I'm close to giving up, but I'll take a deep breath and press onwards.

Author has paid no attention to capitalization or line spacing. Or apostrophes. (Unless you want to convince me that "Jeffer's" is a common surname of the future.) Or playtesting. (Did anyone else notice that you can walk around the base, then back to the foyer, and still be "on the ladder" with respect to reading the plaque?) It all feels shoddy.

Okay, finished. Small, cliched, uninteresting. Perfectly good as a TADS-learning exercise, but it doesn't stand out in a competition.

On the other hand, using the word "regolith" is admirable.

The Granite Book

James Mitchelhill

Ooh, past tense, and first-person plural. Daring. I'm into it so far.

This does an excellent job of portraying an inhuman viewpoint -- or no-longer-human (the ambiguity is part of the charm). It also manages to dispense with the notion of mapping, without becoming either a one-room wonder or too surreal to visualize. Good trick. In general, I like the balance of real and surreal, expected and alien.

However: while individual scenes are very evocative, they don't seem to come together into anything. Nothing is particularly resolved. Open-ended is great, but there has to be some sense of direction, ei? I really like what's here, but it isn't enough. I feel like I've seen two points of a tripod -- or perhaps three points of a line, which don't line up.


Jeff Rissman

This game is telling me I have to eat or I'll pass out. I am not amused. I'll restart once, but if I run into this again, I'm punting.

Security on this ship is amazingly poor. You know, the real-life technology of retinal scanning is better than this...

And why is the protagonist surprised that the hologram is intangible? Huh?

But these are minor concerns. Mostly, I find this game not very interesting -- utilitarian in scope, pedestrian in prose. The author seemed to want me to focus on the low-level mechanics of actions, rather than my actual goals. This is the part of "old-school IF" that caused people to change schools.

The maze was boring.

For the last half of the game I was playing from the walkthrough. (If I hadn't had the walkthrough, I would have given up entirely.)

This is not a terrible game. It has a story; it's got a good overall shape (the area you explore grows in all directions, not linearly). But nothing stands out as a reason to have played it.


Martin Bays

Part one: Okay, I'm falling and I can't do anything. Not sure what I'm supposed to take from this experience.

Part two: This is a better joke, at least, but it's turn seven and the joke has already gone on too long. Okay, over now.

Part three: More entertaining than the first two. (Note to author: postmod all you want, but the interactivity really is the fun part. The first two parts irritated me; this one I enjoyed.)

I didn't bother with the finale.

Well, we have a cute non-game, a cute non-game with good dialogue in the background, and a cute game. I don't know if the cute game has any point that Rameses didn't do better last year, but I do like the thematic build-up from the first two parts. (Although I would have been much more impressed if the ultimate action in part three had been "fall". Sorry, that's my unities acting up again.)

Scary House Amulet!

"Shrimpenstein" (Ricardo Dague)

First, it is very important that you understand this:

My hair is not green, my name is not Britney, and this boldface is giving me a headache.

Once I got past that (which took some effort -- I was serious about the headache) I found a competent dungeon-hunt scenario. Miniscule, admittedly. Sparsely written. With several questionable puzzles (I looked at the hints a lot) and a rather superficial sense of world-consistency. But really, this is not nearly as bad as it first appears.

If that sounds like really limp praise, then I can only advise you not to go to such lengths to make your game appear bad.

Identity Thief

Rob Shaw-Fuller

Seems to have two introductions, a long one and a short one, both of which want to be the first introduction you read. Should be sorted out.

It's a traditional little cyberpunk scenario. Really I didn't find it very satisfying. Events run on rails; you only have a couple of opportunities to make real decisions. Yes, you have cool toys, but their use is very straightforward -- obvious, not revelatory. The original problem, finding the datachip, is a nice puzzle; everything after that is fairly dull.

The storyline wants to be nifty and cyberpunk, but you never have a reason to feel involved. Stuff happens, but it happens in front of you, not to you -- that's what it feels like. Anyway, it sticks too close to the Gibson base scenario.

This game has bad guess-the-noun problems. Many commands (I noticed "ask X about Y" and "show X to Y") require a particular word, even though the object in question has several synonyms which should work. I wound up having to go to the walkthrough just to learn the correct phrasing of what I wanted to do.

On the other hand (hah), the author did make some effort to make "obvious" actions happen easily, without any low-level fiddling with details. That was great; I wish that level of care had extended to all the commands in the game.

Hell: A Comedy of Errors

John Evans

(How can the walls be "warm to the touch" if I'm "a wisp without form or substance"?)

A very simulation-oriented game -- you have a great range of action to explore. However, there doesn't seem to be an end (or even a middle). I have four souls being tortured; no more are forthcoming, and I can't get anything else to happen. Very unsatisfying.

Not enough synonyms in catalog -- "soul" or "form" should work for "souls", for example. (Or "wispy form", etc.) Many of the objects in the catalog aren't purchasable.


Edward Floren

A moment-of-lost-youth scenario, but the writing isn't really up to the job. It's not bad, but it's uninvolving and flat. Independent scenes that hit you arbitrarily and don't come together. Feels like the first half of a story.

I'd say the television scenes distract from the feel of the game. They don't add anything, and they go off the thread of your childhood. If the game had devoted that much interaction to the fort itself, and things you'd actually done, it would have been a more solid work.

The business of having to examine each item to make the next item appear -- this is annoying and pointless. The time limit in that scene is also annoying and pointless (you could have just as much tension with repeated messages, and no actual time limit).

Color and Number

Steven Kollmansberger

(Ahem. Spelled "prism".)

That was... long and boring. No, not solely long and boring. I was quite into the puzzles at the beginning. I figured out some stuff. Then I figured out more stuff. Then I got tired of figuring out more and more of the damn convoluted boring stuff. I think that was about halfway through the game. Coincidentally, that's when the puzzles stopped making much sense.

Many of the puzzles also gave me information in deliberately obfuscated form -- telling me "the second light goes off and the fifth light goes on", when actually I want to see all the lights. Playing hard-to-get with routine information is just rude. I wound up making keyboard macros for "push button. x all lights".

You'd think that a guy who could invent controlled energy fields would patent them and get filthy rich, and not bother with this fraudulent religious cult business.

But then, you'd think he'd be smarter than to run and hide in a cell which locks from the outside. "I can wait forever!" he sneers... yeah, buddy, I don't see an exit in there. Or any food. I shoulda left him.

Not that the rest of the game world makes any sense, per se, but that bit struck me as particularly incomprehensible.

When Help Collides

J. D. Berry

I don't know what "lightreading.doc" is, but it looks like a Microsoft Word document. What's the point of posting a highly-portable game file accompanied by a Microsoft Word document? Well, the readme says I don't need to read it.

Okay, I've played through the "help" section. It was a cute idea, but I really didn't feel like I had control over anything. Everything I did seemed to apply to the baby. (Was this a bug? Can't tell.) The menu-based control system is stilted. Not having fun.

Then it lets me into the "geisha" section, and I don't even want to bother. (See Constraints, above.) I play a little and I see some range of action to mess around with, but actually figuring it all out would be a lot of work, and it's not like it's an adventure game.

Bug: If you select "restore" at the initial prompt and then cancel, or get a file error, the game goes to some broken state.


Temari Seikaiha

I see you compiled with DEBUG mode. I promise not to use the debugging verbs to cheat. Well, not unless I get frustrated.

This was pretty solid all the way through (with one exception -- see below). The prose was good, and if Greek myth is a somewhat overplumbed subject, this game nonetheless used stories mostly unfamiliar to me. (Three out of five, anyhow.) The mini-scenarios were nicely minimalist, without becoming either trivial (due to obviousness) or impossible (due to lack of explorability).

I quite like the bit of business with the rusty padlock.

I do not like the bit of business with the complicated device. That simply doesn't work -- far too many possible typefaces. (Yes, I tried a couple, which didn't work, before I looked at the hints.) If the device had had a old-style seven-segment display, I would have accepted it, but not as a fifteen-pixel grid.

Tookie's Song

Jessica Knoch

(Sorry about the capitalization.)

I dunno. It's the old-style "throw in everything plus the kitchen sink" genre, and I'd rather play something that has some unity. (Cat-aliens everywhere doesn't count.) Cute, and very well implemented on the whole, but no sense of anything real.

Part of the problem is that the very first puzzle just didn't do it for me. It's a good idea, but the implementation didn't gel. I think I expected to be more aware of the objects around me. Having something go unnoticed that long didn't feel right.

Riddles require a lot more synonyms when the answers are numeric. I tried three different correct answers to the south riddle before giving up and checking the hints.

Ramon and Jonathan

Daniele A. Gewurz

Um... okay. This is so small it's barely there at all. There's basically nothing to do except follow the walkthrough. I'd say the writing doesn't hold up the underlying story idea, except there's barely any writing either.

Fort Aegea

Francesco Bova

Oh, dear, a scenario straight out of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. (If I had my old rulebooks, I could probably tell you which edition.) This is never a good sign in fiction.

However, if I ignore that aspect, I find quite a nice piece of work here.

Very hefty, solid background. A lot of this background is presented in the initial reading matter -- too much, I'd actually say. The game does a good job of presenting the important material in context; the initial brain-dump could be trimmed down.

The game is well-paced -- gentle introduction, segue to the main body, and then four branches which you can do in any order. Each branch does a good job of keeping you focussed and moving forward. You can certainly die -- some parts of the game really aren't solvable without much trial-and-error-and-death -- but I always felt that the situation was solvable, and I was always right.

The writing was just a little weaker than I might have wanted. The storyline goes through a lot of events, both tragic and triumphant; but I was never quite sure which outcomes were part of the intended storyline, and which were suboptimal solutions on my part. Mind you, I liked the storyline, including the sorrowful parts. I was just uncertain when I should be appreciating them.

Good use of verbs to facilitate what I wanted to do. Good use of a toolkit of spells. I spent a little time flailing for the right command (particularly in the timed scenes), but this was never severe enough to turn me off of the game.

The only aspect of the interface which really irritated me was the dialogue system. In some scenes, the game relied on ask/tell (and, sometimes, give and show). In others, I hit dialogue menus. This was both inconsistent and a disappointment. The ask/tell scenes really were well-done; why couldn't the other interactions have been coded to the same standard?

I know I'm categorizing menus as necessarily inferior... well, that's how I felt when playing. The menus never offered me choices that I actually wanted to say! In those scenes, and only those scenes, I felt like I was trying to play someone else's personality. (And a milksop, at that. Or is that "milksap"? :)

CoffeeQuest II

Dog Solitude

I don't know what's up with this game -- it seems to be amazingly broken. The inventory reads "You have .", the text is line-broken instead of paragraphed, it doesn't accept "q" as a synonym for "quit"... maybe this is some other IF platform cross-compiled to a TADS 2 binary?

Almost no text. Unfunny jokes. The sense of whimsy hits a few high points, but mostly there's nothing interesting here.

The author has confused Cerberus with Cerebus. On the other hand, he spelled "stationery" right, which, in the midst of this noise and waste, is a welcome ray of something or other.


Peter Seebach / Kevin Lynn

Another office building! I know, it's not their fault I just played CoffeeQuest 2, but the omen is not good.

The motivational poster is good for a laugh. Actually, after the opening text, a lot of this is good for a laugh. Yay!

Er, actually that "bucket of dirty water (which is empty)" seems to be a bug, not a subtle joke. Scratch one laugh. But still very good overall. (I love the clowns.)

Had problems with the bucket -- the game kept trying to make room in my inventory by putting the mop in the bucket, which failed. Thus, I spent the whole game juggling inventory. Bad.

Just like every other reviewer, I have to say "Been done. Twice." But I still find this iteration of the idea appealing -- mostly because of the wonderfully precise pastiche of Adventure and Zork design. It's all like elements of the classic games -- but not the same, and yet it all rings exactly true. "Poe Room" indeed.

The two-level view of reality is also nice -- I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

However, after a good start, I wound up progressively more frustrated at the end. The plot gimmick that leads into the endgame wasn't obvious to me... okay, I feel like it should have been, but it wasn't. I had to look at the hints to figure out what to next.

And the desk did not make it clear what was unlockable and what wasn't. I had to look at the hints to realize that the key was usable. (I thought I had tried it.)

And then I couldn't get the small or file drawers open at all. The hints told me nothing. If the mop was supposed to be a help system, I was never able to make it work. Stuck; frustrated; giving up... game without end.

Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out Of Me

Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold

I like the story, but the implementation is a bit awkward. Everything is just a little less convenient than I prefer -- and the actions are a little less in line with conventional IF commands. I'm not being very clear, I'm afraid. Sorry.

I was lost in "blue" for quite a while, and only got through it by accident. What was I trying to do there? I had no goal.

The plot twist is worth many points, but in hindsight does the damage to the station make sense?

Had a nasty verb-guessing round with the rod-and-plate device.

Spelling was consistently non-great.

These are quibbles. Overall a satisfying game. I did feel that it ended suddenly, though. For some reason I was expecting a whole new "chapter" as long as the first.

Sun and Moon

David Brain

I dig the format, but I'm not getting anywhere. I burned a lot of time working through the Palace of Illusion, and for no obvious reward. I could work on the crossword next, but would that get me anywhere? I don't know what to dig on for passwords. It's either staring me in the face, or I'm nowhere near it, but I have no way to tell.

Standard problem with minimally-interactive interfaces like this: no feedback.

Another Earth, Another Sky

Paul O'Brian

My first actual command misfires: "unlock cabin with key" gives a misleading error message. Sigh.

Emily says: "I am an NPC. Whirr, buzz, click." In just about so many words.

Once I got into the body of the game, I was much happier. Tidy little world, colored iconic buttons -- what's not to like? The environment was convincing, and the puzzles made sense.

The business of stuffing items into and out of your pouch was... more convenient than realistic. I mean, that's not my first instinct when plummeting towards an ocean.

The graphics were nice and minimal. That is, nice because they were minimal. The "crash" "pow" images felt unnecessarily large, but that's probably because I'm using small fonts in a window about 800x700. (The game suggests maximizing the window to 1024x768 -- really? That would produce a painfully wide text column, to my eyes. Even the 800-pixel wide window was really too wide.)

Hey! Interpreter crashed! Who's responsible for this piece of crap?

(Ha ha. Joke. No, I'm not counting that in my score.)

Eric's Gift

Joao Mendes

Mmf. The actions I'm supposed to use don't always make sense -- in the diner, I had to look at a hint. (Sure, I could have done that, but why should I think it would help?)

When you ask about a topic twice, you get a paraphrased summary the second time -- not phrased as dialogue. This is a good idea -- certainly better than repeating a canned speech -- but I'm not sure it works. Since it is a paraphrase, I feel like the NPC actually is repeating the first speech, and the game is just being vague about that fact.

Generally the game feels like it knows what I should be doing; no other tracks are tolerated. "examine tri-di" was a great opportunity to give some background about my emotional state -- even refusing to watch it would have been a good response -- but all I get is a generic "not important" message.

The story is fine -- but a bit elementary, and I don't feel like it's presented well enough to make up for the sparseness. The game doesn't get me particularly involved in it, either. I mostly looked at hints to get through it.

The Case of Samuel Gregor

Stephen Hilderbrand

I like the understated surrealism -- okay, it's a bit too understated; I wish I had a better idea when I was who. But the all-tied-together creepiness was excellent.

However, the game doesn't seem to be solvable. I had trouble figuring out what to do; and even when I tried to follow the walkthrough, I couldn't get the fedora. Oh well.

Last updated November 15, 2002.

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