2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6

(in the order I played them)

REDEYE by John Pitchers

Okay, before I launch in, let me just say this: Redeye seems like a well-intentioned game. It's seriously burdened with problems, but it makes a reasonable attempt at story, writing, puzzles, and so forth. Moreover, it does one thing that I thought was really cool, which is to take advantage of my adventure game sensibilities for a crucial scene. The PC witnesses a shooting, and on examining the victim's body, finds a gun. Because of my ingrained "pick everything up" IF habits, I added the gun to my inventory, and then went outside... to be greeted by the police, shouting at me to drop the gun. Oh yeah. Guess it's not a good idea to pick up a gun right after a murder. Looks kinda suspicious. Of course, as it turns out, making that mistake is the only way the story can continue, which is not so good. Still, things like this help me believe that this game can be improved, and that authors can learn from its mistakes for the sake of future games. In that spirit, then, allow me a few suggestions for how to make IF better than Redeye. First of all, put some thought into presentation. The first thing this game did was assault me with an "angry fruit salad" melange, blocks of text in no less than eight different colors. I found all these colors pointless and distracting -- they add nothing to the game. Worse than this, the game set the background to black but somehow failed to set the color for the foreground text, and consequently I couldn't see what I was typing, since it was black-on-black. Even the most minimal testing would have found this problem, which leads me to believe that the colors were changed at the last minute.

Presentation is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Another pointer is to proofread your grammar and spelling, and have some people who are good with words look at it, too. In particular, learn how apostrophes work. "The suns rays" doesn't mean "the rays of the sun", it refers to multiple suns and multiple rays. "Tell her your OK" doesn't mean "tell her that you are okay", it means "tell your okay to her." "Your" means "belonging to you." "You're" is short for "you are." Learn grammar or your writing will suck. While you're at it, learn the difference between sentence fragments and complete sentences. Avoid the former, and cleave to the latter. Next: pick a voice and stick with it. Second-person voice is "you", and first-person voice is "I." Do not mix them, like so:

   You have absolutely no idea where you are or how you got here...

   Hmmm.  Where is Arthur?  I hope nothing has happened to him...

   You open your eyes. Crikey. Where in hell am I? It looks like the
   middle of the bloody desert!!
Crazy seesawing between voices like that makes no sense and is very annoying to read.

Well, that gets us through the intro. Now some tips for the game. First of all: please, please, PLEASE no hunger puzzles. They are just lame. They are especially, excruciatingly, super-duper lame when there is NO FOOD IN THE GAME! Secondly, please allow for reasonable actions. Plots on rails (and this one most certainly is one of those) are fine, but you have to find a good reason to turn down the player's actions, not just fail to implement them. If the PC witnesses a murder, many players' first instinct will be to CALL THE POLICE. "I don't know the word 'call'" is not a sufficient response to this. To avoid problems like this, have your game tested by a number of people and enhance your code in recognition of the actions they attempt. I'd have thought that one was bloody obvious, given that the comp organizer sends out emails with specific instructions to do so, but perhaps not. Also, please implement descriptions for nouns mentioned in room and object descriptions. If I'm told I can see a highway, a store, and a hotel, I want to be able to examine them. I do not want to be told that the game doesn't know those words. (Yes, that's a lot of work. Writing good games is a lot of work.) In addition, provide all the synonyms you use in your descriptions. For instance, if there's a group of bikers alternately described as a "horde" and a "crowd", X HORDE, X CROWD, and X BIKERS should all result in the same response. Implementing only one of them is.. bad. Also, this thing:

   >x urinal
   Which urinal do you mean, the toilet, or the toilet?
Please avoid that. On another note, recognize when you are cueing the player and respond accordingly. For instance:
   >x motorcycles
   The motorcycles are predominantly Harley Davidsons. Low, sleek and
   highly modified. I wouldn't touch them if I were you.

   >touch motorcycles
   Touching the harleys doesn't seem to have any effect.
That is anticlimactic and disappointing. Again, at least one tester probably would have caught this. Okay, there are certainly plenty more changes that would significantly improve the game, but that's enough for now. Redeye is quite a poor game, but it's quite a good cautionary example. If you play it, you'll probably come up with your own list of what not to do in creating IF.

Rating: 4.0

ORDER by John Evans

At this point, I feel like I could really save myself a lot of time and energy by just writing up a template for reviews of John Evans games. The basic gist of the template would be "This game has some cool ideas and a lot of potential, but it's not really finished and it seems untested, so it sucks." Then I could just fill in the blanks with some specifics about the game, and be done. Evans has submitted games to the last five IF competitions, and they've all fit this mold, so why shouldn't I just keep writing the same review over and over again? I kinda have to. I mean, I guess they're improving. The first couple (Castle Amnos and Elements) were way too big for the competition, and that problem got corrected. Unfortunately, it got corrected by switching to total unfinishability due to scores of heinous bugs. I gave a rating of 1.0 to Evans' last couple of games because they were just totally incomplete. Order isn't as bad as that. It's the right size for the comp, and it is finishable. But it is still not finished. See, if you've got a command called BUGS that lists out the bugs in the game, your game's not finished. Actually, one of the funnier parts of Order is that even the BUGS list is buggy, as some of the things listed actually do work (though plenty don't.) Also, if a crucial puzzle in your game rests on a piece of scenery that you don't mention anywhere, your game's not finished. A tester would catch that. That's, y'know, what testers are for. Use them.

Actually, beta-testing seems particularly critical for a game like Order, because the game revolves around coming up with actions quite spontaneously, and the better sample you have of what actions people are going to come up with, the better you'll be able to implement them. (Here's where I start filling in the "cool ideas" part of the template.) I love the basic concept of this game -- you're some kind of magical spirit, and you've been set a series of tasks by your summoner. So far, still pretty bland, and strongly reminiscent of J.D. Berry's The Djinni Chronicles. But the nifty twist that Order puts on things is that you have a CREATE verb at your disposal, and you must use it to solve every puzzle. So, for instance, you find yourself faced with a locked door, and must CREATE a key. Done right, this could be an amazingly powerful device, giving the game a feeling of almost limitless possibility. And indeed, there are times when Order feels like that. Of course, there are way more times that it's disappointing, and not just because I was trying crazy commands like CREATE PHASER and CREATE WETSUIT. Lots of much more reasonable attempts aren't implemented, and I can't help but think that some beta-testing would have greatly improved the game's range of options. Still, there are multiple solutions to each puzzle available from creating various objects, and that aspect of the game is really fun. Too bad the other parts are such a drag.

Oh, there is one more good part -- the hint system. These hints are nicely implemented, InvisiClues style, and it's a good thing too, because nobody is finishing this game without the hints. As I alluded earlier, there's a critical puzzle in the game's midsection that is simply not solvable without hints, because its main components aren't mentioned anywhere. Remember Bio, from Comp03, the game that starts out with gas seeping into your room and you have to get a gas mask out of an armoire, except the only place that says anything about an armoire is the walkthrough? Pretty tough puzzle, right? Well, Order takes inspiration from it with a puzzle where you must perform an action on an orb encased in a steeple. Problem is, nowhere in any room or object description are the orb and steeple mentioned. There is a dome mentioned, but like many of the scenery objects in room descriptions, it's not implemented. Actually, even for some of the objects that are implemented, the descriptions aren't exactly superb:

   You are carrying a set of white robes (being worn).

   >x robes
   A set of white robes.
Ooo, spellbinding. So okay, I've almost got my template ready. The only thing left is to figure out how to wind it up. I'm leaning towards a plea for the future: please help your cool ideas reach their fullest potential by finishing and testing your games! Please! I may have to edit that part out though, as its refusal becomes more and more certain.

Rating: 4.9

RUINED ROBOTS by Nicholas, Natasha, and Gregory Dudek

Okay, I'm not sure how to review this game without sounding like an ogre. Per the credits and a quick perusal of the web page, it looks like Ruined Robots was written by two kids and one adult, so I hardly want to come off like a big bully, but there's just no getting around the fact that this game is terrible. Being charitable, it feels like a child's drawing that's been taken off the refrigerator and entered into a competition filled with talented painters and sketch artists. In one context, it's something to be proud of, but in the other, it can't be anything but bad. I mean, there are a couple of cool features -- some of the ambient sounds are nice, and the little "common commands" toolbar could be useful to players with a different style from mine. But the crux of the game -- the writing and the coding -- is just really poor.

Detailed analysis of everything wrong with Ruined Robots would be belaboring the point, and though point-belaboring is one of my hobbies, I'll try to steer clear of it this time, and instead just mention a few ways in which this game could be improved:

Finally, if you're going to provide a walkthrough, please make sure it actually works to solve your game with. Otherwise, you'll have judges who decide that your game is totally unplayable and deserves a 1.

Rating: 1.0

SPLASHDOWN by Paul J. Furio

Apparently, malfunctioning slower-than-light starships with passengers in cryogenic sleep have replaced isolated scientific complexes as the go-to comp game setting this year. Of course, in fairness, we did have a scientific complex in All Things Devours, though it wasn't underground or in Antarctica or anything. Oh, and I guess my own entry could be considered an "isolated scientific complex" game, sort of. Still, the malfunctioning starships are making a strong showing this year. Happily, Splashdown is leagues ahead of its competitor, Getting Back To Sleep, though they both feel rather too much like Planetfall knockoffs. One refreshing difference is that at least Splashdown acknowledges its debt to Steve Meretzky, not to mention the fact that its implementation is (pardon the pun) light-years ahead of GBTS's creaky homebrew. The game even provides a nifty PDF feelie that rivals Infocom in quality. Nevertheless, there are times when Splashdown feels just too derivative, especially when it introduces a cute little robot companion who follows the PC around, spouting random funny dialogue and helping out with the occasional puzzle. Sound familiar? Besides that, there's the fact that the crux of the story really doesn't make much sense. Apparently, the ship is heading off to colonize a distant planet, but something goes wrong, so its computer picks a random colonist to reanimate, in hopes that this person can address the problem. This random colonist is the PC, natch, and if it were me, the colonists would be doomed, because I certainly didn't win the game my first time through. Isn't this an unbelievably dumb disaster plan? Why in the world wouldn't there be a designated person to reanimate in situations like this? Putting the fate of 500 (or maybe 300, depending on whether you believe the game or the hint files) people in the hands of some randomly selected dude isn't a strategy I can see even the most dunderheaded government or corporation assaying.

That complaint aside, Splashdown presents an entertaining story and a believable setting. I particularly enjoyed figuring out the reason why the ship malfunctioned, a comic situation worthy of Meretzky. There are a nice variety of puzzles, and they're blended pretty seamlessly into the story, which I greatly appreciate. Somehow, though, many of these puzzles felt rather counterintuitive to me. Looking back at my transcripts, I see a few different root causes for this problem. One issue is that the game's description of certain objects doesn't really jibe with my understanding of how those objects ought to work in real life. In particular, I don't expect a spigot to do anything useful unless I turn a faucet or turn on a pump or something, and if I do so, I expect that spigot to start spouting whether or not it has anything attached to it. These assumptions played me false as I was flailing around Splashdown's ship, trying to figure out anything to do that would make any sense at all. Another issue is that I had the sense that I was missing just a little bit of documentation. In one or two of the final puzzles, I only knew what I needed to do because the hints told me so, not because of anything in the game that gave me the clue. This may be down to a case of me being slow on the uptake, or it may be that the game makes a few too many assumptions about how familiar players are likely to be with its setting. Finally, in some situations, too few verb forms are implemented. Particularly on one of the initial puzzles, I grasped the concept of what needed to be done, and tried a few different ways of expressing it, only to be rebuffed each time. Consequently, when I saw the solution in the hints, I felt annoyed rather than relieved.

Actually, the lack of synonyms and alternate verbs plagued me outside of the puzzles as well. For instance, there are cryotubes in the game that can't be called "tubes." There is no good reason not to provide those sorts of synonyms. In addition, one section of the game requires a lot of talking to the computer, using syntax along the lines of COMPUTER, DISPLAY HELP SCREEN. You can't call the computer COMP or anything like that, and you can't just say, for example, DISPLAY HELP, or better yet, HELP. Given the number of times I had to type out commands like this, I was mighty annoyed at the lack of abbreviations after a while. On the other hand, the implementation is almost comically rich in a couple of areas, particularly the cryotubes themselves. There are 125 of these implemented, each with its own personalized nameplate. I was so gobsmacked at this that I had to examine each one, and was rewarded with occasional jokes and geeky insider references. And so the ship's systems gradually failed as I went around autistically reading nameplates, but I loved it. Despite the occasional moment of breathtaking implementation, though, Splashdown feels like it's not quite out of beta yet. There are a considerable number of typos, and sloppy formatting is rampant, especially when it comes to the robot companion's random dialogue. In addition, I encountered a few minor bugs and glitches here and there. I hope very much that the author takes reviews and feedback to heart and releases a post-comp edition of this game. With some polish, I think it could be a really fun Infocom-style ride.

Rating: 8.0

ZERO ONE by Edward Plant

Because I am a whiny malcontent who is never satisfied, I'm beginning this review with another complaint about Alan's transcripting capability, or lack thereof. Last year, I moaned about the fact that Alan doesn't offer a SCRIPT command, and therefore I was having to periodically copy and paste from the Glk scrollback window into a text editor in order to have a transcript for reference while I wrote my reviews. In response, a few friendly people informed me that if I start the Alan interpreter from the command line with a "-l" switch, it will indeed log a transcript. This, though a little annoying, is happy news. I tested the method this year, and it works! Sort of. For no reason that I can ascertain, the transcripts are saved in an extremely goofy format, with one line per turn, a line that begins with output generated by the game, then lists the name of the current room, and ends with whatever I type at the prompt. Thus, the slightly more readable parts of the transcript look like this:
   There is nothing special about the door.Cell> x walls
   'walls'? I don't know that word.Cell> n
   The door's closed.Cell> open door
   It's locked.Cell> unlock door
   You can't unlock that!Cell> knock on door
   You knock on the door.Cell> z
The less readable parts, which are predominant, occur when the game has anything substantial to say -- they stretch off into the distance or wrap (depending on the text editor) to form a busy jumble of unformatted verbiage. Also, on a more minor point, I don't get to choose the filename for the transcript, and Alan uses an inexplicably super-funky naming convention that gave my log files titles like "011100149966.log." This transcripting capability is better than nothing, but the quality is still unacceptable. Come on, Alan. Transcripting is kind of a basic IF function, going way back to the 80s. Help a critic out.

Now with that screed out of the way, on to the game. I'm afraid that I don't have many good things to say about it either. Zero One (or 01, as it likes to nickname itself) is an extremely silly game, cliche-hampered, lacking any sort of logical story, bug-ridden, and incomplete. If you were setting out to write a totally hackneyed IF game, what would be the starting location and situation of the PC? If you said "stricken with amnesia and locked in a cell," you are today's winner! That's exactly the story with the PC of 01, but unlike, say, Square Circle, which builds an honest-to-gosh story around this situation, this game is totally uninterested in revealing the PC's actual identity or the circumstances the led up to his incarceration. Oh, it makes a couple of halfhearted gestures at explanation, but these are totally insufficient to actually build any real understanding, and besides, they're totally overwhelmed by the weight of random events and situations. A good example is the kitchen drawer, in which you'll find a dead fish along with the cutlery. Why? Aw, who cares? What bits of information do exist are burdened by a juvenile fascination with weapons and gore, like the pool of blood and splattered head that awaits the PC just outside his cell, or like this, after you find a handgun (complete with make and model info) and magazine of ammo:

   > put magazine in beretta
   Lock and Load!
Bro-THER. Throw in a little queer-baiting, and you've got a game that just screams "12-year-old male."

The game is good for a few unintentional laughs, though, due both to its harebrained shadow of a plot and to its buggy implementation. A great example is the doors to the prison, which are secured by a padlock that, to the game's own surprise, can be unlocked with the first key you find (the bracketed comment is from me):

   > unlock green door
   There is a padlock on the door and you don't have a key. [Actually, I

   > unlock green door with key
   The green door is now unlocked.
Sadly, this change just makes the game channel one of the maze rooms from Zork -- going through the door will just loop you back into the current room. Oh, and I also managed to crash the interpreter entirely, though I'm not sure whether this was 01's fault or Alan's. I write comments at the prompt as I go through the game, and after a particularly long line, the interpreter itself just up and shut down, much to my surprise. Luckily, I'd just saved my game, so I didn't lose much. Actually, I wouldn't have lost much if I had just stopped right there and never opened the game again. The ending text insists that "ZERO ONE is not yet finished... Expect a return!", but given the quality level of this game, that seems more like a threat than a promise.

Rating: 2.8

IDENTITY by Dave Bernazzani

Man, what did I say about the doomed starships with the cryogenic pods? Just two reviews ago I was talking about how they're the hot new comp game setting, and now here comes another one. Crazy zeitgeist. No doubt each of these authors is bummed to have somehow locked into the concept that's freakishly dominating the comp this year, because the games are inevitably going to be compared to each other, and when there's a comparison, somebody suffers. In this case, the game doing the most suffering will certainly be Getting Back To Sleep, but between the two remaining contenders, Identity and Splashdown, the contest is much closer. They're both implemented solidly enough to be quite playable, but then again they're both plagued with numerous typos, formatting errors, and minor bugs. Neither one manages to do anything particularly original with the "crash survivor" plot, though both provide a series of relatively enjoyable (if rote) puzzles. In the end, though, I'm afraid I have to give the nod to Splashdown, because that game just seems to be a little more interested in telling a coherent story than Identity is. Splashdown's comparative richness of story and setting arises from fillips like its PDF feelie, but also from the choice of story elements like a more interesting origin for its craft's demise.

One of the weakest points of Identity is actually one of its main points: the PC's amnesia. Even setting aside the fact that the amnesiac IF PC is an exhausted cliche, there is no reason that I can see for this PC to be thus stricken. From the first 30 seconds of the game, we can piece together that the PC is a guy who was on a starship in cryogenic sleep, and that the starship has now crashed. After playing through the whole thing and encountering several scenes where the game tries to fill in more memories, what we know about the PC by the end is... that he's a guy whose starship crashed. In contrast to a game like Square Circle, where the revelation of the PC's identity puts something at stake due to the memories and knowledge about him possessed by various characters in the game's milieu, Identity's PC wanders around on a planet full of strangers who seem actively and unnaturally disinterested in who he is. His true name matters to no one, even himself, and thus concealment of it buys the story nothing. The game would have worked exactly the same way if the PC's memories had been complete and intact at the beginning of the story, and I'm not sure why the game gives him amnesia at all, except to conform to some misguided notion that all good PC's don't know who they are. Either that, or perhaps the original plan for the game included some subplot in which the character's identity mattered, a subplot that may have been cut to meet the comp deadline. In this latter case, though, the amnesia should have been excised. It wouldn't have been too hard -- just the removal of a few extra bits of prose and a retitling.

I'm more inclined to suspect that the amnesia was introduced in order to conform to a sort of 80's old-school blueprint, because the game itself feels like a direct descendent of some of the sub-Infocom work from that decade. Everything feels very mechanical, including the people and animals. For instance, there's a yak in the game, but the writing does very little to evoke anything yak-like about it, and instead it behaves somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a cat, but mostly like a yak-shaped car whose ignition key must be obtained (naturally) by solving a puzzle. This puzzle, like many of the puzzles in the game, involves observing what few things are implemented and figuring out how they might interact with each other in game-logic. Not natural logic, of course, or else the solution to the yak puzzle would have worked equally well in another puzzle with a virtually identical objective. This approach isn't my favorite -- I prefer the realism that's come in with the best IF of the last decade. Still, it's enjoyable enough for what it is, and one area in which this game deserves praise is in its handling of unexpected verbs. For instance, as an antidote to amnesia I tried REMEMBER, and was quite pleased to see that the game handles it (albeit with a default response.) Elsewhere, I found myself in a chair with some safety straps I could fasten, and smiled when SECURE STRAPS worked as expected. This game has clearly been tested, and that counts for a lot with me. Unfortunately, the testing didn't quite weed out all the bugs, both in coding and in prose mechanics, so another round is required. Identity isn't an unpleasant way to spend an hour or so, but for me it felt mostly like a missed opportunity.

Rating: 7.8

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Paul O's 2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2004