2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)

ALL THINGS DEVOURS by Toby Ord as "half sick of shadows"

I must admit, I got a little nervous when I saw this game's title, which appears at first blush to be grammatically incorrect. As it turns out, the title isn't in error -- it's excerpted from one of the riddle-poems in The Hobbit, the one that begins "This thing all things devours." I still think that it's a weak title -- the entire line would be much better -- but I was relieved to know I was in the hands of a competent writer. In fact, my fears about the entire game were groundless; it's very good. It has a plot, but by the author's own admission, ATS is much more game than story, an intricate puzzle-box, with a couple of puzzles I found very satisfying indeed. The setup is complex, requiring the same sort of lateral thinking as that featured in Sorcerer's famous time-travel puzzle. Due to its convoluted nature, the game had to be quite a chore to implement, and while its coding isn't perfect, I was impressed with how thoroughly and skillfully it covered a very wide range of permutations. Moreover, ATD does a wonderful job of automating mundane actions, the very thing I was moaning about in my review of The Great Xavio. I can't tell you how pleased I was to see something like this:
   (first opening the door to the Deutsch lab)
   (first unlocking the door to the Deutsch lab)

   The Deutsch Laboratory
Every first-level object interaction I tried was handled gracefully, and the automation even did one or two cool tricks to keep track of player knowledge. Anyway, I'm about to raise a couple of points criticizing ATD, so I want to make it clear that I really did like the game. I liked it a lot.

That being said, there are a couple of flaws I'd like to discuss. The first is that I don't think this game plays fair with the concept of the accretive PC. If you don't recognize the term, that's because I recently made it up, while reviewing Adam Cadre's Lock & Key for IF-Review. In that review, I made the case that games like Lock & Key and Varicella have a unique sort of PC, one whose knowledge and/or cunning must by acquired by the player herself in order to successfully complete the game. Primo Varicella, for instance, has a devious plan to take over the regency. At the beginning of any session with Varicella, the PC knows what this plan is, but the player may or may not. It's only through experiencing multiple iterations of the game, and thereby learning all the things that Primo already knows, that the player can hope to embody Primo successfully enough to win the game. I call this sort of PC "accretive" because the player's accreting knowledge allows the PC to become more and more himself on each playthrough, and once the player's ingenuity matches that of the PC, she can successfully complete a game. When that happens, it's as if the real story is finally revealed, and all those other failed attempts exist only in shadowy parallel universes. In my opinion, this sort of game is a brilliant refutation of the idea that IF games should be winnable without experience of "past lives." After all, if the PC's knowledge must match the player's at the outset of the game, the PC must know very little, which is why we see so many amnesiac PCs in IF. An accretive PC allows the player to catch up with the PC through the device of past lives, and as long as the PC is established as already having all the knowledge that the player is able to gain, it all works swimmingly. At first, ATD appears to be exactly this sort of game. It certainly requires quite a few iterations to win (or even to understand, really), and the PC is shown to have much more specific knowledge of the surrounding area and of her specific task than a player will on the first time through. However, partway through, something happens that the game clearly specifies as a surprise to the PC, something not included in her original plan. Consequently, she has to think on her feet in order to recover and still succeed at her goal. The only problem is, she can't reasonably do that without knowledge of past lives. A successful traversal of ATD requires not only knowledge of the circumstances and the setting, but advance knowledge of something that the game itself definitively states that the PC does not know in advance. Here, I cry foul. I'm not complaining that the game is unfair -- it does an admirable job of warning players upfront that it's going to be unfair, and I'm fine with that. However, it's constructed in such a way that its story cannot make sense. The puzzles still work, but the unbelievability of the PC's actions causes the story essentially to self-destruct.

There's another problem too, one that causes the logic of the central puzzle to fall apart. Unfortunately, it's terribly difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. About the best I can muster at the moment is that if I follow the solution as laid out in the walkthrough, it seems to me that one of the central problems presented by the game remains unsolved, though the game does not acknowledge that this is the case. Because I was crafting my puzzle solutions to avoid this unsolved state (and having a hell of a time solving the puzzle as a result), I was rather flummoxed when I finally broke down and looked at the walkthrough. It was unsatisfying to end the game feeling as if it hadn't played by its own rules. Now, as I said initially, the environment in this game is really quite complex, and it's possible (likely, even) that my objections stem from a careless or incomplete understanding of how the game is actually working. If that's the case, I look forward to withdrawing my complaints once somebody explains how I'm being dense. Even if not, the game is eminently worth playing just for its clever premise and a couple of excellent puzzles. It may play a bit fast and loose with its concept, and its ending may be a bit anticlimactic, but I highly recommend it nonetheless.

Rating: 9.0

I MUST PLAY by Geoff Fortytwo

Once upon a time, that time being 1997, C.E. Forman wrote a comp game called Sylenius Mysterium. It was set at night, in a near-deserted mall, with an arcade and a game store. The teenage PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a particular arcade game. When he plays it, he suddenly finds himself inside the game! Now, seven years later, we've got I Must Play. This game is set at night, in a near-deserted arcade. The 8-year-old PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a room full of arcade games. When he plays them, he suddenly finds himself inside the games! Happily, the project of I Must Play is a bit less literal-minded than that of Sylenius Mysterium. While the latter was built around a real-time prose implementation of a side-scrolling arcade game, requiring the player to type commands like JUMP as obstacles approached, IMP instead creates prose versions of classic arcade games, in a similar manner to some of the games in the IF Arcade project from 2001. Still, the parallels are startling. Given that one of the things Forman blew his top about before leaving the IF community was Babel's alleged resemblance to his own game Delusions, I can only imagine how he'd have reacted to IMP.

In any case, the prose arcade environments in IMP serve as simple puzzles, leading to a slightly more complicated endgame, one which is also an arcade re-creation but which uses a few connected simple puzzles rather than just one. These are well-done for what they are, and while I wasn't impressed with the quality of the writing, neither was I annoyed. I had a fine time with the game until I hit a particular puzzle, one which placed the PC in a political environment. To avoid the spoiler, I'll just say that in order to win this puzzle, I had to do something that is anathema to my beliefs. I did it, but it turned me off immensely, and I cruised through the rest of the game without engagement. Yes, I know it's just a game. Yes, I'm aware that it doesn't take itself too seriously, and may not have been trying to advance a political agenda. Yes, I'm sure that I'm reacting more strongly than I would have if my blood pressure hadn't just been raised by the presidential debates. Still, what's true for me is that I felt herded by the game into a reprehensible action. This has happened in good IF before -- a classic example is in Trinity -- but in those instances, the action is meant to be symbolic, to lend power to the themes of the story. In IMP, the action seems to be more or less an arbitrary puzzle-piece, serving no thematic or emotional purpose. It felt starkly out of place in what otherwise seemed to be a fairly lighthearted endeavor, rather like getting a relaxing massage and then having the masseuse suddenly wrench your little finger backwards for no apparent reason.

Part of what felt offensive to me about the scene was its terribly simplistic nature. I don't mind art that takes positions opposite to my own nearly so much when those positions seem to be thoughtful and well-argued, or at the very least entertaining and/or funny. What I got in IMP was a gross oversimplification, a caricature really, of both the issue in question and of politics in general, one that lacked any redeeming humor, flair, or cleverness. Now, I will say that I remembered partway through the puzzle that the game's perspective character is an 8-year-old, and when I kept that in mind, the simplistic presentation bothered me a whole lot less. However, there are some parts of that puzzle that feel dumbed-down even for a third-grader, and other parts that felt too politically opinionated for a child. The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth. In short, the game had me, and then -- via a short series of aggravating scenes and statements -- it lost me. I'm sure that won't be true for everybody. People who share the beliefs portrayed in that scene will have a much easier time navigating it (though I imagine that even some of them will still be less than pleased with its primitive formulations), and some people who share my beliefs will be dispassionate enough about them that the scene won't bother them. It's not that the game is super-fantastic aside from that, but until it rubbed me the wrong way, it was a pleasant enough diversion. For me, though, even though I finished IMP, I didn't end up getting a lot of pleasure out of it.

Rating: 7.3

KURUSU CITY by Kevin Venzke

When I noticed the Japanese (or at least Japanese-sounding) names in Kurusu City, I wondered if this was maybe one of those IF games that's heavily influenced by anime and manga, like The PK Girl from a couple of years ago. One look at the PC's identification card removed all doubt:
   >x id
   Huge eyes, rather angular features, and messy hair stare at you
   blankly from a faded image.  Text to the left and below reads:

      49 BUECHE APTS

   Age:  15 Sex:  F Hair:  BRN Height:  5'0"
A five-foot-tall, fifteen-year-old girl with huge eyes and angular features? That's anime, alright. The only piece missing was for her hair to be purple or blue or some color like that, but a purple-haired character comes along later to supply that element. Also like The PK Girl, there's a distinctly odd quality to the PC's point of view, but where in The PK Girl that element was sexism, here it's just sex. There's this weird, lascivious edge to much of the text, particularly in descriptions of the NPCs. Examine an NPC and you're likely to hear that she (they're pretty much all female) is "curvy" or is "wearing a tight pair of blue jeans." At one point while interacting with an NPC, the PC feels "rattled and uncomfortable" due to the NPC's "unbridled femininity." So the PC is an adolescent and a budding lesbian, who often thinks of others in terms of their sexuality. Fair enough, but the game doesn't stop there. At one point, I happened into an instant-death ending that involved a horrifying and completely unexpected incestuous rape. The game's ongoing fascination with the PC as a sexual subject (or object) felt rather distracting, and frequently a little creepy.

The main story winds around the game's setting, a future (or alternate) world where robots govern humanity. For instance, when the PC decides to skip school, she finds that robot enforcers have been sent to fetch her back. Her goal is to take down the robocracy once and for all, and to do so she must wander around and talk to a lot of sparsely implemented NPCs. Actually, I have no earthly idea how she's supposed to do it, because after an hour spent solving a couple of puzzles and restarting a whole lotta times, I found myself totally stuck. I turned to the hints, doling them out to myself slowly, but failed to progress further. Finally, I looked at the entire hints file (it's rot13 encoded), but still found no joy. The hints seemed to assume that I'd seen things that either I'd never seen or was too dull-witted to recognize. A scan of the newsgroups reminded me that this was the game where the author had released a better set of hints after the September 30th deadline had passed. Well, I guess I'm a bit of a comp stickler, because I think that's cheating, or at least finessing the rules. My feeling is that you're judged on what you submit as of the comp deadline. Whatever you release afterwards, whether it be hints, a patch that fixes a game-killing bug, or what have you, is not eligible for consideration, at least not by this judge. So I continued to muddle through, and with about 20 minutes remaining found something that broke the game wide open for me. Unfortunately, at that point I only had 20 minutes left, so I wasn't really able to see a huge amount of new material. My advice to struggling players is to revisit all locations frequently -- though most of them remain completely static, at least one can change significantly during your absence.

Besides helpful hints, a few other things seem missing from the game. At one point, I examined a game object and was told "(This is the comic book that was mistakenly included in your game package.)" Actually, I think what you mean there is "mistakenly not included." It may have been intended as a joke all along, a satire of Infocom's in-game feelie object messages, but if so, it's too weak to really work. There are a couple of other elements that might be intentional but come off as bugs. For instance, at one point I suddenly got a huge boost to my score and found myself with "a score of 27 points out of a possible 7." The resultant rank was "Nice Sister", which matched the action that had given me the huge score boost, but if this is a joke, it's done so confusingly that not only is it not funny, it actually seems like a mistake. I seem to have spent most of my review commenting on how strange and/or incomplete Kurusu City felt to me, so let me finish up by pointing out some well-done parts. There's a nice feature in the game's inventory code which prints out the results of an X ME before printing the inventory on the first time it's used. Subsequently, it just prints the inventory. I thought this worked so well that I'd like to see it become an IF standard. Also, there's a game-within-a-game that serves as an entertaining satire of the medium itself. There's a nice multi-stage puzzle involving gaining a credential, and I found the story interesting enough that I felt sorry when time ran out. Mostly, though, my reaction to Kurusu City was a puzzled shrug.

Rating: 7.2

A LIGHT'S TALE by Zach Flynn as "vbnz"

Well. This one has many problems. Many serious problems. Let's start with the writing. I'm guessing that this game is the work of a non-native English speaker. Something like "your mind... flys far, far away" could just be a typo, but when the game describes a dump as "full of unnumbered amounts of trash," I begin to get the strong feeling that the translating dictionary has come calling. The prose is just littered with writing errors, many of which are too simple to be blamed on translation. For instance, a death message:
   The guard calls out: "What are you doing there?" He runs over and
   sticks a bullet in your side you die.
Maybe the bizarre diction "sticks a bullet in your side" could be explained by translation, but there's no such excuse for failing to provide either a conjunction or a full stop before "you die." Also, the game is just littered with redundancy. Whether it's describing the dump as "[an] extremely dirty, messed-up dump," or calling the PC "a rather overweight chubby character" or naming an NPC "the big, large rather muscular mouse," Light's Tale hates to say once what it could say twice instead.

However, as problematic as the writing is, the coding is worse. Take that big, large mouse, for instance. He's got one of the most ungainly short names I've ever seen in an IF object:

   >give mirror to george
   The big, large rather muscular mouse who looks to be a
   pretty good mechanic, for the right price rejects the offer.
Yeah, I'm pretty sure his short name is "the big, large rather muscular mouse who looks to be a pretty good mechanic, for the right price." Implementing an object in this way demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of how an IF engine works. Sometimes there are even full stops embedded in object names. Here's another problem: the game completely chokes on any attempt to show anything to anyone. The command always results in "[TADS-1014: 'abort' statement executed]". Another pervasive issue is the game's recurring failure to mark dialogue with quotation marks, resulting in exchanges like this:
   >ask bruno about bar
   Why would I want to talk to you?
Well, because you're the parser. You've been talking to me the whole game. Oh, unless that's Bruno talking, in which case there really ought to be some quotation marks. Sorry, but that's just plain careless. Even the hints are buggy; they keep referring to somebody named "Robert", when nobody of that name resides within the game. Thank goodness for the walkthrough, or I'd have gotten absolutely nowhere with A Light's Tale.

Which, saving the worst for last, brings us to the design. Over and over, I found myself resorting to the walkthrough, a refugee from the game's bizarre assumptions. Light's Tale is certainly one of those games that assumes you're going to traverse it in the same order that the walkthrough does. Routinely, the game would refer to objects I didn't have, or kill me immediately after rewarding me for solving a puzzle. There are far too many "read the author's mind" puzzles, including a real doozy at the end. The game starts out as science fiction (the intro mentions a starship, anyway) for no apparent reason -- it would play out exactly the same way if the setting were an airplane, or a steamship, or just about anywhere, really. There are talking animals throughout the game (unless the animal descriptions were meant as metaphor, but I don't think they were), including in scenes advertised as "the real world at last." The parser keeps referring to itself as "I" and "me", and then suddenly becomes a character in the game, personifying itself as some kind of freaky supervillain. Let me tell you, it's a weird, wild ride. Some parts approach Rybread-level peculiarity. There were parts that I enjoyed, and there were many more parts that had me cursing heartily. It may be worth a trip through with the walkthrough close at hand, but not if you care about strong writing or strong coding, and even if you don't, you shouldn't really expect to understand it too well.

Rating: 4.7

NINJA V1.30 by Paul Allen Panks

You know, for all the newsgroup fuss and furor that Paul Allen Panks has created over the years with his obsessive marketing and subsequent defenses thereof, I've never actually played one of his games. I've been wishing for years that somebody would review Westfront PC for SPAG, but so far, no takers. Of course, what I've gleaned about that game is that it contains hundreds of fairly samey rooms and a bunch of randomized combat, so I can't say I'm terribly surprised not to have received a review. Heck, the SPAG standards say that reviewers must finish a game before reviewing it, so maybe somebody started in on it the first time I made the request (in 2000) and still hasn't gotten through it yet.

At any rate, Ninja v1.30 is Panks's first comp game, so I was interested to see how well he presented himself. The answer: not very well. It's bad. Really bad. For one thing, it is so primitive as to lack almost any IF conveniences. There's no "X" command, no "L" command, and no "I" command. It goes without saying that there's no SCRIPT or UNDO or anything handy like that. Despite the fact that it contains only four rooms and one puzzle (which is so heavily clued it can hardly be called a puzzle at all), to detail all its failings would be a pretty mammoth undertaking. So let me just pick a few choice ones:

Okay, enough of that. It's just really not good at all. But there is a way to enjoy it, at least for me. See, I like to think that there exists a tiny sliver of possibility that Panks is actually just a satirist with a very, very, very dry wit. I mean, really -- if IF were a Christopher Guest movie, Panks would just have to be a character. It's almost as if he's playing a character all the time in his postings, and this game works perfectly as reductio ad absurdum interactive fiction. Look at it as a parody, as perfectly straight-faced and utterly ridiculous all at once, and it may provide a moment's entertainment. Of course, that doesn't mean you'd give it a high score in the comp or anything.

Rating: 2.4


By now, my affection for superheroes is no secret. I love a good superhero game, and I love a good superhero parody. A Day In the Life Of A Super Hero is a good superhero parody, but unfortunately not a very good superhero game. Its greatest strength by far is its writing -- there were many spots that made me laugh, and many more that made me smile. Super Hero's satire isn't quite as finely honed as that found in Neil DeMause's Frenetic Five games, but it's lots of fun nevertheless. Along with the typical comedy juice available from silly supervillain names like The Gardener and The Pizza Delivery Kid, Super Hero does a lovely job at conveying a boundless gee-whiz enthusiasm on the part of the PC. Near as I can tell, the titular hero actually has no discernible superpowers, and nor do any of the supervillains -- they just adopt the exaggerated poses and outlandish names of the genre in the service of jazzing up their personalities. I also found it amusing that the game features no less than 28 ways for the hero to meet an unfortunate and ignominious defeat, and encourages you to collect 'em all, like bad-luck action figures. Moreover, Super Hero surprised me at times with its thorough coverage of unlikely verbs, and its witty responses thereto. For instance, when suspended above a crowd of people:
   spit on crowd
   That's the sort of thing super villains would do, not super heroes.
Of course, taking a scattershot approach with the jokes as it does, Super Hero misfires every so often as well. Sometimes it throws out a joke so old as to have lost all its appeal. Other times, it's guilty of running a gag into the ground -- one "bad odor" joke might be funny, but ten of them will not be. Still, judged on its writing alone, Super Hero is a rollicking good time.

Unhappily, the game's interactivity does not support its prose, and much of that is the fault of Adrift. The unmodified Adrift parser is already quite weak, but somehow in this game it seemed even worse than usual. For starters, Adrift frequently falls victim to its asinine policy of ignoring input that surrounds a keyword, resulting in gems like parsing "look behind couch" as the same command as "look at couch." But the problem seemed to come up way more than normal in this game. For instance, when the PC tries to address his animal sidekick, Smelly The Parrot:

   ask smelly about soldier
   A fusty smell pervades your apartment. It's probably a mixture of you
   never getting around to cleaning it and that time the Slug Monster
   was here to kill you.
The first time this happened, I went, "Huh?" After several tries, I finally figured out that the parser must be stupidly pulling "smell" out of that string and pretending that my command was "smell." At least, that's my theory for what it was doing, and repetition of the principle in other instances seems to bear that out. Conversely, the parser can be weirdly uptight about addressing items with their full name:
   x rag
   You see no such thing.

   x city rag
   The City Rag is the city's worst paper, one that specialises in
   writing slanderous and libellous stories...


   x muggle
   You see no such thing.

   x mrs muggle
   You've seen her sort before: old, grumpy, permanently displeased
   about something unspecified...
For a player like me, accustomed to other parsers' much more sensible approach of treating all pieces of an object's name the same, these responses are infuriating. Also infuriating is when the parser stubbornly and willfully misunderstands input:
   ask erik about singer
   "Sorry, can't talk," says the singer. "Genius at work.
But most infuriating of all is when the parser out-and-out lies, and lies in such a way as to make winning the game extremely unlikely. For example, at one point, it told me it didn't know the verb SHOW, when in fact that verb is crucial to solving one of the game's puzzles. When there are a number of free IF tools that provide much, much better parsers, my patience for substandard parsing like this is limited indeed, and this game would have been so much stronger had it not been hampered by such silly flaws.

However, sad to say, not all of Super Hero's problems can be ascribed to Adrift. For one thing, there are all kinds of bizarre typos that I can only chalk up to carelessness:

   "You mean as in give him a damn goof biffing till he clears off and
   leaves you be?" says Smelly.
A damn goof biffing? Secondly, like Whyld's Comp03 entry, this game seems quite a bit too large to complete in 2 hours, which is something I really dislike in a comp game. Of course, perhaps much of my inability to complete Super Hero stems from its aggravating tendency toward read-the-author's-mind puzzles. To blithely spoil one of these, the PC's apartment has a half-dozen pieces of furniture, and moving one of them reveals a crucial item. Nothing in the room or object description suggests that moving it or moving anything else will be useful. And so on. At bottom, Super Hero is entertaining writing trapped in excruciating code. I fervently hope that other talented IF writers can avoid this dastardly predicament.

Rating: 6.5

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Paul O's 2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2004