2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1

(in the order I played them)

SCARY HOUSE AMULET! by Ricardo Dague as Shrimpenstein

This game's title captures its tone, right down to the exclamation point. The only way it could be better is if it incorporated some bold text and called itself "Scary House Amulet!" or some such, because about every seventh word in this game is bolded. At first, I thought this emphasis was serving an interface purpose, highlighting those nouns and verbs that the game implements. I thought that this was a very cool idea -- one quickly gets used to the bold text, and the emphasis could help to avoid lots of those annoying "You can't see any such thing" messages that pop up for unimplemented nouns. As it turned out, however, the game wasn't doing any such thing, and was instead sprinkling bold text throughout itself like salt onto french fries, as well as ending nearly every single sentence in at least one exclamation point. In addition, SHA occasionally gets extremely adjective-happy, as in this sentence: "It leads into an evil, scary, putrid dark stillness which makes the hair on your neck prickle!" As a satire of horror, this mock-gothic tone ended up working for me, and I laughed out loud several times during the game. Probably my favorite response, after finding a hole in the ground:
   >look in hole
   You find nothing... but evil!
The humor of the writing went some way towards compensating for the game's many irritating design choices, most of which were lifted directly from the Zork playbook. There's a light source puzzle. There's a sequence where something comes swooping in and transports the PC to another location. And there are not one but two mazes. Granted, none of these obstacles are made particularly diabolical, but they give the game's design a fairly tired feel. It doesn't help matters that pretty much all the other puzzles are of the "use x on y" variety, with x and y more or less unrelated to each other, prompting the player to just go through every object in her inventory until finding the one that happens to be right for the obstacle she faces. Even the puzzles that don't fit this pattern don't appear to have any particular logic behind them.

Still, this is not a shoddily crafted game. I found no bugs, and hardly any spelling or grammar errors. It's got a clean, functional adaptive hint system, a thorough implementation of first-level nouns, and although the game credits no beta testers, it has a polished feel. It's even got some great verbs added for fun:

   The bat shrieks, "You must fear me! Fear me!"

   >fear bat
   You do fear the horrible bat!
There were a couple of areas where the writing felt a bit adolescent (particularly in its excoriation of Pepsi), but generally the over-the-top horror bit was pulled off with cleverness and panache. So at the end I was left scratching my head, and not just because the ending doesn't really make any sense. Why would such a skilled implementor create this game, with its aggressively clichéd setting and puzzles, and no particular virtue except its entertaining writing? I don't know. I laughed many times while I played SHA, but now that it's over, I still feel like I didn't get the joke.

Rating: 6.4

FORT AEGEA by Francesco Bova

I have more thoughts about Fort Aegea than I'll be able to fit into these few paragraphs, and I'm a little concerned about it. See, I think this game's shortcomings may be more interesting than its successes, but if I spend more time talking about flaws than strengths, I may give the mistaken impression that I didn't enjoy it. So let me clear that up right now: I liked Fort Aegea quite a bit. Most of the game is really fun -- it has several good puzzles and action sequences, a nice propulsive plot, and some surprising and well-drawn details. In addition, the game employs spellcasting, which is a kick -- there are lots of moments that measure up to anything in Enchanter, and the spells have the added virtue of being particularly well-suited to the character and thus helping to further define her. The game felt quite well-tested and proofread to me -- I found a few syntactical errors here and there, and maybe one or two bugs, but on the other side there are a number of rather complicated effects that the game produces with admirable smoothness. Oh, and lest I forget, Fort Aegea has some of the most gorgeous feelies I've ever seen with an amateur game, hand-drawn maps that positively exude Tolkien. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this game to anyone who enjoys Dungeons-and-Dragons-influenced fantasy IF, especially games in the Enchanter vein.

Very well then, now that that's out of the way, I want to look more closely at a few things that tarnish this game's shine. First, let's talk about that D&D influence. I've been on a yearlong Bioware jag, so the D&D rules are fresh in my mind, and this game hews so closely to them that it may as well have a Wizards Of The Coast logo in its banner. The main character is a druid, with spells like "Entangle" and "Warp Wood", who cannot use edged weapons but carries a mace and plate armor into battle. The game explains the philosophy of her order as one that strove to be "one with the world and viewed good and evil, and law and chaos as balancing forces of nature which were necessary for the continuation of all things." For anyone familiar with AD&D rules, this material will ring a churchful of bells. This, in itself, is not a terrible thing, though it feels a bit boilerplate, as if the story's characters don't really live and breathe in their own fictional universe but are cookie-cut from prefab templates. Where things really break down is when the characters start speaking as if they themselves are D&D players:

   "He's the fabled Green Dragon, and he's not been seen or heard from
   in over a century! What we know of him we've gathered from the Great
   Book of the Dragons and here are the specifics: He's vicious and he
   has a ferocious breath weapon; one that unfortunately we don't have a
   defence for."
It strains the limits of my belief to think that a person who actually coexists with dragons would talk about their "breath weapons" -- it's just a little too close to saying something like "take a look at this fine sword -- it's +2!". In addition, there are linguistic anachronisms sprinkled throughout the text, such as the adventuring expedition that a history book characterizes as a "public relations nightmare."

The net effect of these choices is to drain the scenario of fictional credibility. Every D&D reference, every anachronism makes the game feel less like a story and more like an exercise -- instead of drawing us into its world, Fort Aegea keeps reminding us of ours. Instead of breaking, mimesis simply stretches thinner and thinner until it's nearly transparent. Here's another way that happens: for much of the game's plot, the PC's objective is to stay alive until nightfall, while being hunted. In the course of trying to do this, she finds several spots that would make outstanding hiding places, where one could easily wait out a day, emerging victorious after the sun sets. Unfortunately, the game doesn't allow any actual time to pass while the PC sits in these places, no matter how many times the player may type "z." I know, because I tried. It was one of the slowest mimesis breaks ever -- the more I saw the "Time passes" message, the more convinced I became that no time was passing. Once I knew that I needed to conform to the game's puzzly expectations in order to complete the scenario, my emotional involvement evaporated -- probably a good thing given that several horrible, unstoppable events occur in the course of play. Fort Aegea has a great deal of fun to offer as a game, but as a story, I found it a pretty inhospitable place.

Rating: 8.5

MOONBASE by Mike Eckardt as QA Dude

I think that comp games are a little like blind dates. For two hours or until the game ends, whichever comes first, I'm in a temporary relationship where I'm trying to evaluate every signal, from the smallest to the largest, in order to figure out how I feel. First impressions are particularly important, because the experience is going to be over shortly after the first impression gets formed. Ooh, sound clips -- that's interesting. Hmm, its/it's error in the fourth sentence -- that's not good. Then again, looks like some effort was put into the help system, at least according to the oddly-passive sentence reading "General help may be asked for using the HELP command." Wonder how our first conversation will go?
   I said that help may be asked for... not that it would be

   I don't want to help you.

   It would be nice if there was help available. But there isn't.

   Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to do this without help?


   Very well then. [A few paragraphs of very generic "how to play IF"
   info follows, though anyone who doesn't already know this information
   will almost certainly never reach it.]
Oh, my. Looks like I'm in for an unpleasant evening. When Moonbase isn't being adversarial, it mostly seems just sloppy and disinterested. There are plenty of spelling and grammar errors. The writing is flat and utilitarian, making wondrous experiences like teleportation and lunar exploration seem as humdrum as going to the corner store. Sometimes it seems like the game can hardly be bothered to describe anything at all:
   This appears to be the base workshop. Various machine tools are here,
   but none that would help you. The foyer is to the south, and there is
   a door the the north.
Between the absence of anything at all to actually set the scene, the offhand dismissal of what scant setting exists, and the general rushed feel ("the the north?"), much of the writing feels like a conversation with someone who wishes he were somewhere else. Then there's the instant death room and undescribed exit. The game-killing bug that sometimes prevents the PC from picking up a vital item, complaining that "Your load is too heavy" even when you're empty-handed. The room whose description disappears completely after the first visit. The walkthrough that barely corresponds with the actual game. It's a forest of red flags out there.

Oh sure, there are some nice touches. The sounds are well-done, understated, and enhance the action admirably. There's a nifty background-color change upon stepping out onto the lunar surface. It talks a little about its interests, mentioning a MOO apparently hosted by the Artemis Project. (This place was populated by a number of friendly people when I briefly stuck my nose in.) But really, what about my needs? This relationship isn't going to work unless we're both making an effort, you know. Where's the fun? Where's the immersion? Where's the verve? A halfhearted collection of bland puzzles doesn't make for much of a date, especially when they're riddled with bugs and prose that sounds like it's on Quaaludes. Actually, since these comp games are publicly rated and reviewed, maybe they're not so much like an ordinary blind date, but instead like one of those terrible TV shows where people go out on a date and then come back later to analyze it in excruciating detail in front of an audience. In that case, Chuck, as you've probably already determined... this was not a love connection.

Rating: 5.0

IDENTITY THIEF by Rob Shaw-Fuller

A couple of years ago, there was a comp game called VOID:CORPORATION, which proclaimed itself to be cyberpunk. Unfortunately, as I said in my review, what it did instead was "just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes", and was consequently pretty weak. Only a few days ago, I heard from the author of that game, who had just found my review and thanked me for writing it, so V:C was on my mind when I saw Identity Thief describe itself in Comp02 as "a cyberpunk interaction." Happily, this game exceeds its predecessor by a long stretch. Rather than being thinly disguised versions of Tolkien or Zork, Identity Thief's characters, settings, objects, and plot arise organically from a much more science-fictional premise, a premise nicely limned in the game's optional introductory material. The prose maintains a very fine level throughout, sometimes even hitting rather sublime and poetic metaphors. The gadgets, such as implanted hands with "memory plastic" that can store palmprints of anyone whose hand you clasp, are delightful and have a great "wow factor." What's more, the story starts out with an arresting setup, moves quickly into a high pitch of urgency, and then keeps going into stranger and stranger territory.

I was particularly taken with what I suppose you might call the game's second half. [I'll try to be pretty vague here, but some of what follows could be construed as mild spoilage.] The first half involves completing a particular task, and indeed the first pleasant surprise is that there's still more game to go when that task is completed -- I fully expected the story to end, but instead I was asked to do the next logical thing, given what had happened up to that point. As that second scenario progressed, I felt more and more uneasy, suspecting that some big whammy was coming my way, but I didn't try to get away. I didn't even want to try to get away, because I knew that wasn't what the character would do, even though the character himself was probably sharing my apprehensions. Through its excellent writing and careful plotting, the game had cemented such a solid emotional connection between the PC and myself that I never flipped into the more "gamelike" state of mind that would attempt to obtain the most favorable outcome no matter how its methods might jar against the character or the story. This sort of split consciousness is essential to dramatic irony, and is exceedingly difficult to achieve in IF. Identity Thief achieved it, at least for me, and deserves a great deal of praise for that.

Where the game falls apart, though, is in its depth of implementation. The first part of the game has the PC hunting for a particular object, but a great many reasonable commands related to such a hunt were met with the response "You have better things to do." This is unsatisfying not just because it thwarts my attempts to solve the puzzle, but because it's patently false -- the PC's highest priority ought to be to carry out just such actions. Another area where the implementation seems particularly threadbare is in its major NPC. This NPC, when questioned with the right word, rarely fails to offer large quantities of information, much of it critical to the plot. However, those words can be difficult to determine, and to pretty much every other topic, the NPC responds, "I do not understand your question." And while that statement may be perfectly true, it is not sufficient. As a result of these problems of shallowness, Identity Thief feels like it's one or two drafts away from being finished -- bugs and prose errors are rather rare (though not entirely absent), but the game could still benefit greatly from a beta-testing session that addressed not only things the tester finds that don't work properly, but also things the tester tries that don't prompt a unique response. Identity Thief is already a good game, but as yet it lacks the polish to be anything more.

Rating: 8.8

BLADE SENTINEL by Mihalis Georgostathis

On the plus side, this is a superhero game. I like superheroes. On the minus side, well, everything else. Quest is just about the same as it was the last time I played a Quest game, which was last year. I talked about its shortcomings in my review of Comp01's Lovesong, so I won't rehash that.

I will, however, complain about the fact that apparently Quest savegame files have the directory path of the original game file hardcoded into them. Consequently, when I played the first half of Blade Sentinel on my lunch hour at work and then took the save file with me to finish the game at home, the restore failed miserably, since it was looking for my work machine's directory structure.

So I loaded the savegame file into a text editor, found the directory path and changed it, and managed to do my restore, only to discover that Quest is terminally broken under Windows XP, showing no input line. You would think that the "handful-of-verbs, mouse-interface" problem might cancel out the "no input line" problem, but apparently only most of the game's verbs are available via mouseclick. Two or three must be typed in, which is tough to do without an input line. So I took it to my WinME machine, got it working, and discovered that the game is fatally bugged and unfinishable. So that makes rating it easy. Oh, and the English is really, really terrible.

Rating: 1.0


I read stuff in the IF Comp that I just don't read anywhere else, and this game is a perfect example. You start out, apparently, as a junk-food obsessed child, whose mission in life is to find and eat candy. Then suddenly, a horde of screaming authority figures pops up. After a short, dreamlike sequence, you end up in an island prison, where everything is dark, rusted, and filthy. A stranger wanders in, offers an implement of violence, and wanders out again. Your escape process includes expedients ranging from the obvious (a message in a bottle) to the rather surprising (self-mutilation and brutal murder). Then some puzzly stuff, more dreamlike unreality, more screaming authority figures, more obvious escape techniques, more grime, an enormous phallus, an overwhelming ocean, and eventual success tinged with isolation. In short, it's quite a bit like wandering around inside the id of a mentally and emotionally stunted paranoid psychopath.

If this effect served some artistic purpose, or indeed if it even seemed intentional, there might be a lot to admire about it. Alas, this is not the case with Concrete Paradise. Instead, the game feels like a stream-of-consciousness exercise, in which the PC is placed in one stock situation after another, whose solutions range from the extremely obvious to the head-scratchingly odd. There are a lot of telegraphed puzzles, by which I mean that the game tells you early on how to escape a particular situation, and then when you are in that situation, you escape it with the recommended method. Other puzzles involve waiting around doing nothing in particular until the game solves the puzzle for you. The storyline veers wildly from innocent childhood hijinks to some very dark stuff indeed, but never seems to have any overarching plan or direction in mind.

Most of the time, games with this sort of schizophrenic, unconscious tone tend to be riddled with errors, and this game is no exception. The "about" text makes an emphatic point about how the game has been tested on a variety of TADS interpreters, but one wonders whether that time might have been better spent ferreting out the numerous spelling and grammar errors, not to mention the programming bugs. Guess-the-verb problems abound, along with actions that prompt no response, actions that can be done repeatedly without cumulative effect, and other classics. Even if none of these technical problems were present, though, this still wouldn't be a good game. A good candidate for psychoanalysis, maybe, but not a good game.

Rating: 3.6

TERRIBLE LIZARDS by Alan and Ian Mead

As an author, you take a big risk when you name your file "terrible.gam". Already, the poor game has a pretty big stigma to live down, and if it doesn't, you've given your reviewers a really easy shot at it. Not that I would take such a shot, of course, heh heh. It's really tempting, though, when the game's help text claims that it was "written for a seven year old", and my first encounter with it goes like this:
   >x bot
   Which bot do you mean, your Bot, or the Black Bot?

   >x my bot
   I don't know the word "my".

   >x bot
   Which bot do you mean, your Bot, or the Black Bot?

   I don't know the word "mine".

   >x your bot
   I don't know the word "your".

   >x bot
   Which bot do you mean, your Bot, or the Black Bot?

   You don't see any white bot here.

   >[so what would the 7-year-old do here?]
   I don't understand the punctuation "[".
So okay, there are some implementation problems. Let's give it more of a chance. At least there's a pretty clear scavenger-hunt plot about running around prehistory gathering dinosaur eggs, so how about we start exploring the map? Wow, what a huge map. Wow, these descriptions are really short and monotonous -- seems like each description gets used for at least three rooms. Oh, and what about this?
      You're on a high plataeu near a sparkling bay. Near to where you 
   are, there is a trail heading down a steep hillside to the 
   southwest and the plataeu extends to the north and west. In the 
   distance to the west, you see a herd of pachycephalosaurs.
      Your Bot is here.

   You can't go that way.

   Bot says, "Are you sure you've done this before?"
I might ask you the same question, terrible.gam. Here's a tip: if the room description indicates an exit in a particular direction, it's a good idea to allow travel in that direction. Also: plateau.

Okay, I'm getting fed up, but let's try some more. Man, there are a lot of prose errors in here. Ooh, it's/its error -- my eternal nemesis. Hey, check out this room description: "[description]". Oh come on now. How could anybody think this game is finished? Here's another tip: don't submit your unfinished game to the competition. It's considered extremely rude. Okay, screw this -- I'm turning to the walkthrough. Hey, wait. This walkthrough... I'm going through it... I've finished it... and it has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH GATHERING DINOSAUR EGGS!

Okay, the hell with it, I'm taking the shot: terrible.gam, you are the most aptly named file in the competition. Maybe the most aptly named IF file ever. Well, at least since annoy.z5.

Rating: 2.3

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Paul O's 2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002