My scoring system is very simple: I ask myself "How much did I enjoy playing this game?" There is no question of whether a game deserves to win, or whether my scoring is biased. If I enjoyed it, points. If I didn't enjoy it, no points. Any particular aspects of the game (writing, puzzles, characters, spelling, bugs) are included in the overall score only -- and exactly -- to the extent that they affected my enjoyment.
Also, I played all the games as they were uploaded at the contest beginning. I ignored later releases of games and walkthroughs and hints. Sorry; there is a deadline, and meeting it is part of the contest conditions.
I played every TADS and Inform game. If this seems unfair to Hugo and Alan, so be it; I play games at home, and at home I have Macs. A comfortable play environment is part of the game, as it were. (Note that I make no apology for being unfair to PC executables.)
The scores are normalized, so that I give a 10 to the game I enjoyed the most and a 1 to the games I enjoyed the least. As in past years, I wound up grouping them into the good, the bad, and the ugly -- more specifically, the good (9-8), the pretty good (7-5), the not-so-good (4-3), and the ugly (2-1). The score of 10 is reserved for my single favorite.
Here are the scores. I've added "+" for some finer distinctions, and even finer distinctions can be seen in the exact ordering of equal-scoring games. Of course, when I mailed in my votes, I dropped the "+" marks and ordering didn't count. But the distinctions are there.
Now, my comments. Hear this also: these are neither reviews nor explanations of my votes. These are brief comments on what I thought was good or bad about each game. Sometimes I spend more time on the good; sometimes on the bad. It's whatever caught my interest. You may consider me to be speaking to the author -- describing bits which can be improved, or which made the game for me, or which ruined it. I may comment on the worst thing about a good game, or the best thing about a bad game. So don't expect the tenor of my comments to match the score I give.
It is not my job to be encouraging or polite. If you want to hear pleasant lies about your game, please read somebody else's post.
The comments are given in the order that I played the games. You may notice a slight trend; the last few games got pretty low scores, and I make some comments like "I don't have much patience" and "I'm not in the mood". Is that unfair? It's not entirely clear. I do want to judge each game on its own merits. And my enthusiasm did decline from its initial feverish pitch as time went on. And I didn't use Comp98 to determine my playing order.
On the other hand, I took a one-move peek at every game in advance; and I tended to play them in the order that they caught my interest. So the order was, to some extent, based on a snap judgement of the opening scene, which is part of the merit of the game. And there was a lot of randomness anyway -- it was hardly a deterministic process. So I decided to let the scores stand. (Besides, the fourth-to-last game I played got an 8+ score, so I couldn't have been that prejudiced.)
This was fun for about two-thirds of the game. I even enjoyed the toggling-lights puzzle -- partially because it was at least a little variant from the usual, and partially because this was the first game I played. (If I see another one, there may be trouble.)
But, as you can tell from my faint praise, it got old. Two-thirds through would have been a good time for some hints early in the game to come together -- foreshadowing -- or something. Cast things in a new light. This didn't particularly happen.
I wound up going to the hints for the last several puzzles. Some things were said only in one place, or not emphasized, and I never followed up on them. A few actions were rather unobvious as well. I wasn't engaged enough to examine everything three times looking for inconsistencies. Sorry. I did enjoy the game, honest. But a puzzle box has to be astonishingly evil and twisted to hold my attention for a full game.
The implementation was somewhat sparse. The kind of thing where when you type "sit", you sit down for a second and then stand up again -- a message, rather than full implementation. This is legitimate, of course, but it's more common in realistic sequences where the game wants to keep you directed within a large range of real-world actions. I don't think it fits in with a puzzle-mechanism game, where you want to try to manipulate everything.
On the other hand, I liked the response to "jump". Heh.
This works quite well, in spite of -- or more likely because of -- its simplicity. There aren't many things to do (no objects, just a handful of spells that you come across) so I didn't get stuck trying to find actions, even when the action was a little obscure. It really is feasible to try everything, in other words.
The spelling is shaky and the language is rather goofy and overblown. (I felt like I was reading amateur death metal lyrics. The author quoted Poe in the section epigrams, and it's so hard to stand next to Poe...) But the idea got across anyway.
I'm sort of ambivalent about the story... on one hand, I like the idea of this self-contained vision, with no frame of "the real world". On another hand, there isn't quite enough forward momentum in the beginning. The first part of the game is going down a checklist, effectively. The spells you pick up figure in the second half, which has a reasonably solid progression.
A few other characters, mostly single-action IF mannequins. There is one which I enjoyed interacting with, though.
I am truly impressed. I would not have believed that a functional program could be so completely chaotic. I have no idea how to get through most of the game; fortunately, this didn't stop me.
Of course you can't do anything with it.
You're sent out with little explanation to find some mysterious artifact someone dug up. That's it. As you explore, you find a small part of a strange underground realm... only, as I said, the game ends just when I thought it was starting to go somewhere.
There's a storyline, but it only shows up in fragments at the beginning and end. Mind you, this wouldn't be so disappointing if the game hadn't started to go somewhere. It does, really. There's stuff underground; enough to hint that interesting things are happening. Then they don't. Oh well.
The implementation is careless (missing rtrue statements, inconsistent capitalization in room names, object names which include the article -- "a a key"). These are all fixable with a bit more Inform experience.
By the way, one complaint which is not specific to this game: if you're writing an Inform game, do not put linebreaks or extra lines of text in your "Constant Story" line! That constant should contain only the name of your game as a string, nothing else. Why? Because the verbose/brief verbs print the Story constant followed by "...is now in verbose mode." Or whatever. It looks really silly if there are extra linebreaks there.
The gimmick is reminiscent of "Zero Sum Game": you've just finished a long dungeon crawl. Now there's just one damn troll between you and the exit.
The pre-history of the game is the funniest part, as it shows up in various offhand comments... try "places", "objects", or "full score". Or the false hints. Brilliant. Brilliant, I say.
Anyway, I won't give away the schtick, but you have to get rid of all your previously-acquired stuff to win. (Very reminiscent of "ZSG", yes, but it's really an entirely different gag. Don't get all hepped up about the resemblance.)
Now, as to the game itself, I had a lot of trouble playing it. There are lots and lots of things to fiddle with, which is good, but I actually underestimated just how much you can fiddle. I suppose I shouldn't complain (since I had the opposite problem with "Dilly") but I did have to hit the hints a lot. But not all the time. Plenty of things I got myself. Ok.
Anyway, I'll forgive hard puzzles for the cleverness.
One quibble... The line "noli illegitimati carborundum" is "don't let the bastards wear you down." Wear down. Like carborundum sandpaper. It's not a very good joke, but there it is. Don't screw it up.
Note: opcode errors.
Also, whenever you look or take inventory, the pronouns are all reset. There's a library option to not do this. It is my tireless mission to make every single Inform author use it. I'm sure you're already tired of hearing about it. But it's particularly bad this time, because when you take inventory, "it" is set to "the breach of copyright" -- damn confusing.
The author says "I would have liked the game to be a lot more complex but ran out of time." That about sums it up. This could be really nifty if the author extends the game with the same charm and style as its source had.
I think it's an absurdist look at the world of IF authorship. The theme is "Learning Inform". As such, it's full of references to Graham Nelson, earlier Inform games, Infocom, the Inform Designer's Manual, my "Lists and Lists", and so on. The author does a good job of slipping in sly digs. Maybe the barbs about Inform design cut a little too deep... well, who am I to say. :)
There isn't really a coherent thread to this game, but this is more than compensated for by the crazy ideas the author has thrown in. Let me be clear: the hint system is the best hint system ever. My head hasn't hurt this much since I played the old Apple 2 game "The Prisoner". No, this isn't as good as that. "The Prisoner" kept the lunacy up much longer. But this thing rings the bell but good a couple of times. For a start, it comes close to being the Quine Sentence of Inform. If you don't know what I mean, just try it.
No story -- sure, it's all scenery and metatextual gags -- but so what? I liked it.
So, you're in your office, doing your work, and you're trying to stay cool. If I say another thing about the plot it'll be too much. It goes on from there, that's all.
Now, the author also comments hopefully about the ending, which some might see as a bit of a drag. He wants to talk about the motivation of the protagonist as contrasted with the motivation of the player. I'd say it's simpler than that; some stories are a downer, that's all. It's a good ending because it makes you go "Gnaaaaah!" It does that very well. The only other ending I can think of involves being promoted, if you see what I mean, and that wouldn't be quite as visceral. So let it stand.
There are only three puzzles, of which one is (surprise) the fifteen puzzle. I'm afraid whatever tolerance I had for Old Standards was exhausted after the light-toggler in "Dilly"; fortunately, the author provides a cheat. The second puzzle (a kitten up a tree) is reasonable. The third is a good puzzle idea, except it's built in a maze. The maze is exactly as interesting to look at as the rest of the game. It's easy to map, but come on.
This isn't a disaster. It's about two good ideas from some not-yet-written game, and they don't stand up on their own. On the other hand, it didn't get boring either; the extreme brevity slid me through to the end before I threw it against a wall. That may not sound like much praise :-) but I mean it: when there are only three bits, and two of them work ok, that's above average.
But room descriptions are still considered good.
There are a lot of nice touches in the writing; particularly the help text, and the description of the (very simple) scenery around you. I bet I can distinguish the ideas the author came up with at age 13 from the ones he added for this Inform version.
The implementation, even more unfortunately, isn't very good; as I've said, a puzzle-box game needs rich mechanics. Saying that "push string" doesn't work unless you're holding it is the sort of non-physical restriction that can't work in a game like this. And there's no clue in the initial description that the strings are hanging from the ceiling, even though this is the whole point of the game.
For that matter, the entire physical basis of the game is questionable. A very long string, dangling from far overhead, doesn't restrict your movement when you're holding on to it. The angle is too small to pull it out of reach. The standard description of this problem is two strings hanging from a room ceiling, nearly their own length apart.
Basically, lots of points for the idea, I still like the no-context presentation, but it's undermined by technicalities.
I try to be encouraging about these things. This isn't mind-numbingly awful, in the manner of the mind-numbingly awful IF games we all know and make fun of. It just doesn't do much.
This one was a joy to read. The four NPCs (two aliens and two parents) cheerfully play off stereotypes, with enough zing to keep me chuckling through the storyline. (Help, I'm trapped in a sea of ReviewerLang. Er, sorry. It was a lot of fun, though.)
The puzzles are satisfactory, although somehow I didn't click with several of them, so I wound up relying heavily on hints. In particular, the problem of getting Mom and Dad out of the way seemed totally opaque. It relies on doing one thing which has no effect for several turns; and then another which I accidentally did at the very start of the game, making things unwinnable (with an instant game-over when I entered the living room, in fact.) I could probably have gotten this with a great deal of experimentation, but I wasn't inspired to experiment. Similarly, in another room I missed a hiding place, which left me no obvious way to proceed. I'm hesitant to say these are the game's fault, but nonetheless they didn't work out for me.
In spite of this, I solved the last few puzzles myself (the ones I did experiment with) and bought the game to, as they say, a satisfactory conclusion.
It begins with a station wagon pacing you on a dark, foggy night. This is a good start, actually; the thing creeps alongside you as you walk home, betraying no sign of what's inside. It lets you get nearly all the way, too.
Then it stops, blocking you from your house, and... a man and six lions get out. This is my first problem; in fact, my first two problems. I don't think you can get six lions in a station wagon without a blender. Ok, that's a quibble. But the lions just aren't very scary. Maybe our culture has desensitized us with "noble hunter" images, but even so, when you look around and the game says "...You also see a lion, a lioness, and four lion cubs," it's not doing enough to get the mood across.
So you spend some time running from lions. This picks up the pace again, as you wander around a claustrophobic maze of streets. (Although there are some odd hitches -- for example, until you take your first step away from the car, you can wait as long as you want with no response from the lions or their owner.)
So you finally get in contact with someone who will help. You go back to a friend's house... and then the game pretty much ends. The place of safety turns out to be the lions' den, pardon me for grounding my own metaphor, and you're drugged. (Without even the grace of typing "drink liquid" yourself; the game just tells you you've done it.) You can't move.
So you spend the last twenty moves typing "wait" and watching some people be gratuitously exhibitionistic and then kill you. I must regard this as a failure of pacing. There isn't much explanation, either, except that for a hint that you were... hard to work with at the office?
It's hard to avoid comparing this with the Laurell Hamilton "Anita Blake" novels, which have included some hellishly charged scenes of sex, violence, and leopards. (Were-leopards, in fact.) Those worked because of the prose, the clear evocation of the emotional currents behind the events, and the fact that Anita wasn't a passive victim. (Was, in fact, active enough to eventually make mincemeat of the were-leopard and anyone else that annoyed her. I realize that Cattus Atrox was never intended to have a happy ending. But it should have an involving ending; that's the strength of interactive fiction, we generally agree.)
The tone of the game is effective, however, despite its familiarity. Lights going out, things being snatched behind your back, and tendrils in the dark.
There's an uncomfortable current of silliness which doesn't really fit in. Yes, I said gonzo humor and horror go well together, but it's horror bubbling up under satire that I was thinking above, not Gilligan's Island jokes in a haunted house. It can probably be made to work, but it'll take a lot more fine-tuning.
The other problem is the implementation, which is sparse to the point of being hostile. A lot more of the world should be examinable, particularly since your character is a private investigator and ought to be poking into things. Instead, most of the things mentioned in room descriptions are absent, which gives a certain airbrushed-against-a-backdrop-darkly feeling to the whole affair. The puzzle design is rough as well; I used the hints a lot, and then I bypassed a puzzle near the end without even noticing it was there.
One interesting note is the split-level narrative. You're in a movie theater, watching the protagonist perform. (And this whole situation is described by a not-entirely-invisible narrator, who talks, for example, about "our hero". So we actually have first, second, and third-person narration going on here -- heh.) I like the effect, but it's probably good that it's such a short game; the gimmick would get old fast.
(And yes, I still feel that it's more distancing than the "standard" second-person IF narration. Particularly in the first scene, where you don't have much real control over the hero's actions.)
Plus, it's got illustrations. What more can a gamer need?
I'm not even sure how to describe it; the story has a whole tangle of threads, marching backwards to tie into a painfully precise knot at the beginning. I keep going back to try different things, to see what might connect -- in case it does.
We have -- no, I shouldn't even list the subjects of discourse. Works better as a surprise. I was pleased that "IF authorship" was in there, though. :)
(Footnote: dammit, I just realized: the "bug" I thought I found early in the game is in fact deliberate. The game has now rated a bout of vicious swearing in addition to the three kow-tows I gave it during play.)
The plot is quite tightly constrained; you can't go far wrong. Choices tend to be alternate ways of getting to the next scene, rather than divergences in the plot. Even the puzzles provide solutions for themselves if you don't look for any. This works just fine, since the point of the game is the narrative. (I'm a little surprised at how well the optional-puzzle thing works -- but then this didn't happen to me much when I was playing. I ran into it when I was going back to try things.)
The scenes are supposed to be differentiated by color, but I played in MaxZip (which doesn't support that) and there were display bugs when I tried it in Zip Infinity. I'm not terribly enthused by the gimmick; yes, it adds atmosphere, but the color combinations are harder to read than my preferred text setup. (The purple-on-black combo would drive me nuts if there was more than a page or two of it.)
Zarf says "three kow-tows and a bout of swearing."
I also spent a lot of the game frustrated, because the puzzles are mostly obscure. This is one of those games where you absolutely have to examine, look under, and search absolutely everything; and the Unnkulia flashback is out of sorts with the for-children style. I spent a lot of time in the hints, discovering the things I should have looked at.
I prefer a game to be more forthcoming about focus -- the art of directing my attention to where you want it. Hm. I should write an essay about this.
Also, the puzzle implementation was ragged enough to be annoying. Some things don't work until the author wants them to work.
On the other hand (so, did I improve this review by saving the good comments for last?) the writing is rich and well-suited to the mood; the author has put in plenty of effort to make a responsive environment. Not just game objects, either. The parser often delegates one of the NPCs in the vicinity to make comments to you, which I thought was great. And so on.
Having to use the walkthrough for this game pretty much ruins the point. Oh well. I wish I could objectively tell you how I would have liked if I hadn't played LBM first.
The game is solid in about every respect. The puzzles are interesting, and reasonably well integrated. Once you grant a plant-ful (plus a warehouse or two) of wacky machines, the rest is easy; and most of it involves real-world, intuitively meaningful physics. There was a certain feeling that the puzzles dominated, in the sense that absolutely everything in the game was related to one puzzle or another. Not out of place, although a few things were a bit strained, but you knew you were going to get back to every object before the end.
I solved everything without checking the walkthrough, although with a couple of nudges from the boss, the walking hint-nudger. (He gives suggestions when you seem to be stuck. I'm not sure of the code behind this, but it seems to work, because I never got a hint when I wasn't stuck.)
The player is skillfully guided through the plot. You witness expository scenes as you explore, always in the distance (so you can't interfere) and perfectly believable as things that would be happening around the plant. (The map and plot are carefully shaped to each other to make this work. Some puzzles also become solvable only after you've seen certain scenes, keeping the plot synched up, and this is also well-integrated.) Complicated puzzle-solutions don't have to be repeated, as there's usually a way back once you've gotten to an area. In fact, the last time I saw this kind of broad yet well-guided exploration game, I was praising Riven. Kudos.
(Footnote: In describing "Mother Loose", I used the term "Unnkulian" to describe a game where you have to look behind, under, and through everything without motivation or focus. Obviously that doesn't describe this game. Don't mind me, I rarely keep grudges for more than ten years. :)
The underlying storyline is reasonable; no surprises, but good pacing up to a climactic scene. Clever foreshadowing (mmm, stormy night.) The writing is okay, though maybe a bit mechanical also -- the descriptions were fine, but the hundred-foot-high rooms didn't feel any larger than the ventilation ducts, if you see what I mean. It wasn't a big problem; the dark stormy road was vivid enough.
No characters as such. Your boss is essentially static, tagging around behind you and emitting a small range of meaningless actions, with just a few flashes of actually being interesting. There's a dog, who's fine as far as dogs go, which isn't that far. Heh.
The descriptions are good. I like the sense of an alternate, or future, history; unknown politics followed by a desolate world full of obscure (albeit mostly purple) rules. On the other hand, the English isn't very good, which isn't the author's fault but still interferes.
Weirdly, the NPCs feel pretty good, even through the general weakness of the programming. They move around and do stuff and react to their environment.
Yes, the NPCs are copious and they recite the appropriate in-character dialogue. Yes, it's frighteningly well-researched. But I couldn't make anything happen. By luck, as far as I could tell, I got one take started. ("Boom in shot!") Then I spent the rest of the game following Harpo around.
The problem is, even with all this work, the characters react pretty mechanically. Chico won't follow you unless the other three are; Groucho probably won't unless two are; Zeppo usually follows you; and that means you have to chase Harpo. Which does't work. If there are more subtleties in the behavior than that, I couldn't predict them enough to exploit them. So I couldn't win.
I didn't bother finishing this game. I got a bit stuck very early, went into the hints, and read through them all in lieu of playing. So I know more or less how it goes, but not how it gets there.
I can, however, comment on technical issues. The prose is excellent, of course. The choice of first-person, past-tense narrative... I'm glad someone finally did it, because now I can say that I've tried it and I don't like the effect. I've always felt it would be distancing, and it was distancing.
This is not the problem of being told what I'm feeling; I like that technique when it appears in a standard second-person-present game. It's purely a syntactic problem. If there was a game switch to flip all the syntax around, I would have used it, and the problem would have gone away. Unfortunately, while such syntax-changing is trivial from the writer's point of view, it's a pain in the butt to actually type in all the changes. As I'm sure the author knows from having done it once.
The human-interaction problem was reasonably deftly avoided, if I read the hints aright, but not entirely gone. One puzzle amounted to a guess-the-verb problem, simply because a perfectly sensible request didn't fit into the ask-tell-order model of most IF. It's hard to think of answers when you don't know the range of possible actions. That was only in one place, however, and the rest looked like it would have been fairly solvable.
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