2003 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1

(in the order I played them)

SWEET DREAMS by Papillon

Ooh, it's always so exciting to start into a new bunch of competition games, and what a start this was! Sweet Dreams has to be one of the more surprising comp games I've ever seen, because it's not a text adventure. Instead, it's more or less in the style of early LucasArts games like Maniac Mansion or the first Monkey Island -- a fully graphical experience whose pixelated protagonist wanders around the landscape, picking up and using items, solving puzzles, and chatting with NPCs via a "TALK TO" sort of system. Over the years I've heard rumblings about work on a LucasArts type of engine for amateur games, and I'm not sure if this is the product of that effort or something Papillon did all on her own, but whatever the source, the product is fairly impressive. I thought the graphics were pretty attractive in a low-res way, the music enhanced the setting nicely (although it tended to halt and restart abruptly rather than fading out and back in when it looped), and the interface was intuitive enough that I was able to use it right away without much attention to the instructions. Aside from a couple of irritating technical glitches (about which more later), I'd be very excited indeed to see more games of this type and quality. In fact, there was one moment, when I maneuvered the PC to a bookshelf and took down a book to read, that I got a jolt to my spine, feeling magically transported to those happy days I spent playing LucasArts' Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, pulling down one hilarious joke after another from its bookshelves. That is, until I started reading the books in Sweet Dreams, which mostly tended to be something like this:
   The Human Battery: How the power of positive thinking can be put to
   work not only to cure disease but also to solve the energy crisis.
Or they were about fairies, or crystals, or the zodiac... et cetera. And there we have the factor that's going to limit the appeal of this game. The characters, plot, and setting are all feather-light and sweet verging well into treacly. It's set in an adorable little cottage, with adorable portraits of fairies and unicorns hanging on the wall, and serving as a tiny private boarding school to four adorable little girls. Actually, these girls are supposedly adolescents, but they look all of eight years old, save for the bizarre breastlike protrusions that they display in profile. The story involves giving your wonderful best friend a beautiful present for her sixteenth birthday, then making a magical journey into an enchanted land of dreams filled with colorful flowers and friendly animals and... well, some people are bound to find the whole thing just unbearably twee. I have a pretty high sugar tolerance myself, and was able to swing with the tone and enjoy it for the most part, but even I felt myself on the edge of diabetes too often. On the other hand, it would certainly make a great game for kids, so long as a couple of its major technical problems got resolved.

Primary among these problems is the main character's unfortunate tendency to get stuck while exploring narrower parts of the geography. The first time it happened, I spent a frustrating five minutes trying to get her to budge from behind the piano, until I finally realized that the secret was to try to maneuver her using the arrow keys instead of the mouse. Three directions would fail, but one would get her to run in a tiny circle, and if I interrupted this circle fast enough, I could break her out of her self-imposed cage. This running-in-circles thing is something she does a lot, usually when you're trying to maneuver her close to a boundary, and when it happens she seems more like a trapped insect than a charming little girl. These boundary difficulties exacerbated the other problem with the game engine: its insistence on the PC being right next to an object before she can interact with it. Sure, it makes perfect sense that you can't pull a book from the shelf if you're across the room from it, but I'd have much preferred it if any command to interact with an object on screen was treated as meaning "walk over to the object and then...", so that I could avoid the numerous times the game told me "You're not close enough to it." As for the rest of the game, I'd say it was above average. There were a couple of very satisfying puzzles, a couple of so-so ones, and a couple that just seemed arbitrary. The one I had the most difficult time with was one that exposes the limitations of graphical games -- it was relying on somewhat subtle color shading differences, and my laptop monitor wasn't making a clear enough distinction between them. The story was, of course, cute, and despite the rather cloying nature of the game as a whole, I ended up mostly enjoying it. Once it gets a bit more technical polish, and so long as you don't mind a very high sweetness level, Sweet Dreams will make an outstanding piece of amateur graphical IF.

Rating: 8.2

CERULEAN STOWAWAY by Roger Descheneaux

There's a list in my head of annoying, old-school features that I never want to see again in an IF game. If you've read many of my reviews, you could practically recite them by heart: Mazes. Light source timers. Hunger timers. Today, "pointless inventory management" has officially joined that list, and the game that made it official was Cerulean Stowaway. This is the game that gave me six thousand awkward and bulky things to carry, most of which would be important later in the game (though, of course, it's impossible to tell which ones until you need them and don't have them.) Then it enforced limits on both number of items ("You're carrying too much already.") and weight of items ("Your load is too heavy.") It gave me a pair of overalls with a bunch of pockets, but didn't know the word "pocket." After that, it put me in a bottleneck situation, where I couldn't get all my inventory into the small space I needed to enter, forcing me to leave some things behind. As it turns out, there were ways to make sure my inventory wasn't lost, but due to some odd choices in item description, these options were far from clear. (More about implementation issues later.) As you might have guessed, the items I left behind were both necessary and irretrievable, forcing me to restore back to a much earlier save and replay a large chunk of the game when I realized I didn't have a crucial puzzle component. Then there were the numerous times where the game put me in a time-critical situation, but wouldn't let me perform a task because of its arbitrary inventory limits, forcing me to once again restore back to an earlier save, shuffle items around, and replay the sequence. All this, apparently, in the name of realism. In the game with the alien spaceship and the unguarded U.N. construction site that apparently anybody with a bit of spare time can sneak onto and sabotage. Before very long, I was about ready to fling my six thousand items straight at the head of the next living creature I saw. Sadly, that didn't help, and once again, I found myself typing RESTORE.

This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that Stowaway is, for the most part, a pretty good game. It's an old-fashioned puzzlefest with a nameless PC and a rollercoaster adventure plot. (By the way, does anybody still think this sort of game is a dying breed? For all the carping I see on the newsgroups about how so-called "literary" IF has taken over and nobody wants to write fun games anymore, I still find myself playing several of these every year. They're not an endangered species, people.) It's got some colorful writing, a fun story, and is capable of producing genuine tension and horror at times. I guess that's why I typed RESTORE rather than QUIT. Any game that sets pointless, arbitrary limits that severely impede the player is a game that drains itself of pleasure, but all the same, I continued to grit my teeth and power through because I really wanted to see what happened next. Frequently, I was rewarded, because even the losing endings are written with verve and liberally sprinkled with interesting details. Actually, I say "even the losing endings", but I don't think I ever saw the optimal ending, which brings up one of the game's design flaws, albeit an understandable one: the hint system. Listen, I really understand the desire not to include a walkthrough, but if you do your hinting some other way, you simply must make sure that somebody who is a dope about puzzles (like me) or who is just nearing the end of a 2-hour judging period (also like me) can obtain enough information to reach the winning ending. Otherwise, you risk having a player leave your game unsatisfied... like me. Stowaway's location-based hints succeed most of the time, but even after I asked for hints in every single location (or at least, I think I did) I still ended up with 151 points out of 161 on my best playthrough. Sure, I saved humanity, but I was left feeling like I'd still failed. A word, too, about those 161 points: don't let the high point total fool you. I was mightily discouraged and alarmed to find myself an hour into the game with only 13 points out of 161, but the points mount up very rapidly indeed in the second half of the game, and so what I thought was an indicator of a much-too-large-for-the-comp game turned out to be a false alarm.

Implementation throughout Stowaway was inconsistent. Description levels tend to go pleasantly deep, especially towards the beginning of the game, and for the most part, the prose in these descriptions is utilitarian at worst, and quite enjoyable at best. On the other hand, sometimes those descriptions can be misleading or too vague. For instance, you may find a "small metal box" containing a couple of clothing accessories. Got it pictured in your mind? Good. Would a mop fit into it? Wrong! It does indeed fit. Imprecise descriptions like this haunt Stowaway in several spots, and in one area the game is guilty of burying an obvious and important feature of the landscape in one of a dozen first-level descriptions. That's the sort of thing a game should either do all the time (like last year's Out Of The Study), or not at all. There are also a couple of places where objects are implemented, but with insufficient synonyms, which can fool players into thinking the objects aren't implemented after all. Finally, I also encountered a couple of flat-out bugs, such as the time the game told me I'd managed to move part of my inventory (during one of my many inventory-management exercises) when in fact nothing of the sort had happened at all. On the plus side, I found only a couple of tiny punctuation errors (which seemed pretty clearly to be typos rather than ignorant mistakes), and no spelling or grammar errors at all. That's a big plus factor in my book. So: sharpen the descriptions, stomp the bugs, improve the hints, and for the love of God get rid of the inventory limits. Once those things happen, Cerulean Stowaway will be a really fun text adventure game. Right now, it's less than optimal, just like my unlucky character.

Rating: 7.0


Call this game "Insultatron." Its purpose is to insult you in as many ways as possible, though not with a great deal of creativity. If that sounds like fun to you, than you'll probably love the game. If not, then you're like me.

Well, actually, there's a minute or two of fun to be had. I kind of enjoyed the way the game got more and more exasperated with describing the setting, and finally just gave up on the whole thing. Also, a couple of the library default replacements were a bit funny, though most were just dumb and vile, sometimes extremely vile, so searching through for the funny ones isn't a very rewarding activity. It is a bit amusing to see the genteel Graham Nelson library responses poking through on occasion -- they sound very odd in this context.

In the end, this game is pretty dull. Actually, it's pretty dull all the way through. Also, insults don't really carry the same punch when they're misspelled. But at least the game knows it's stupid. Doesn't that count for something? Actually... no.

Rating: 1.8

SCAVENGER by Quintin Stone

Okay, here's what's not good about this game. First of all, the setting and characters are quite clichéd. It's your standard-issue post-apocalyptic world (a nuclear war apocalypse, even), with bandits, scavengers, armed provisional-government thugs, and frightened orphans, all straight from Central Casting. The author mentions that the setting originated with a MUSH that then morphed into an Unreal Tournament full conversion mod, and this makes perfect sense -- it feels more like an excuse for a background than a fully realized fictional world. Secondly, there are some moments of shaky design, particularly a "learn-by-dying" puzzle that occurs near the midgame. Now, I'll certainly acknowledge that the game includes some important details that hint toward the solution, and it could be argued that it's possible to solve this puzzle without dying first, but to do so would still take a pretty remarkable amount of foresight, not to mention willingness to give up an item that you might need later. Finally, Scavenger isn't a two-hour game, or at least it wasn't for me. Maybe somebody who was a sharper puzzle-solver, or relied more on the hints, might have solved this game in two hours, but I found myself only about two-thirds of the way through once time ran out. Since I was at least past the halfway point (and perhaps further than I thought, depending on how fast the points mount up in the endgame), I'm not as indignant about it as I might be, but the fact remains that if I'm not able to finish the game within my two-hour playing slot, my playing experience ends up unsatisfying.

Right. Now that that's out of the way, here's what's good about this game: everything else. With just a few exceptions, the implementation is nothing short of outstanding. Almost everything I ever wanted to examine was described, and described well, which created a great sense of immersion. Despite the fact that the basic concepts of the setting are rather hackneyed, the actual writing is strong, with exposition cleverly worked into object and room descriptions, and some very nicely judged details included. The writing not only creates a vivid sense of place, it's also pretty much entirely free of spelling and grammar errors, with just a few typos marring the prose on occasion. Scavenger's parser is similarly well-crafted. I remember several fantastic moments where I tried a non-standard verb that made sense in the situation, and the game handled it beautifully. It's not perfect -- for instance, I had a flashlight that the game wouldn't let me point at objects -- but those lapses were much more the exception than the rule, and that completeness made Scavenger a real pleasure to play. The hint system was quite good too, a context-sensitive setup that doled out gentle nudges ramping up reasonably gradually to outright solutions. The context-sensitivity failed at a couple of points, offering hints for puzzles I'd already solved, but the system came through where it counted: I always had a hint available when I needed one for the puzzle I was stuck on. Altogether, this is a very professionally implemented game. The credits list no fewer than eleven testers, and their influence shows through again and again.

Along with implementation, design was another of Scavenger's strengths. First of all, casting the PC as a scavenger, somebody who survives by exploring unfamiliar territory and taking everything that isn't nailed down, is a brilliant way of working basic IF conventions into a coherent fictional concept. When encountering the game's puzzles (most of which were quite good, sometimes involving multi-stage solutions, every step of which made sense), every action I took to solve them felt perfectly in character, which makes for a great IF experience. Objects are sometimes useful in more than one place, and conversely, places sometimes show potential to have more than one important facet -- whenever a game can pull this off, its reward is a much stronger sense of realism. In addition, the basic structure of the game includes a rewarding multiple-solution setup, involving a selection of resources during the prologue. Scavenger presents you with a store where you can buy certain items that may be useful on your journey, but you can't buy them all. The way you solve subsequent puzzles will depend on which resources you've chosen, and alternate solutions are available even when you don't have the item that facilitates the more obvious choice. The other nifty feature of this limited-resource arrangement is that the game makes sure that most of these resources must be used up fairly early (for example, a grenade that must be thrown to remove an initial barrier), thereby eliminating the combinatorial explosion that their presence would cause in later sections of the game. I think this multiple-solution design will make for great replay value, though of course I can't say for sure since as of this writing I haven't even managed to play through the game once. One more design note: on several occasions, Scavenger gently shepherded me in the direction of the plot, always doing so in a way that made perfect sense for my character. Every time this happened, I smiled with appreciation. In fact I was smiling a lot during Scavenger, and my notes are full of little comments that read "VERY NICE" or something similar. It would have been improved by a few puzzle tweaks, a more original setting, and either being released outside the comp or streamlined to a more reasonable two-hour size, but I can still enthusiastically recommend it.

Rating: 9.1

BALUTHAR by Chris Molloy Wischer

When looking at an IF Comp author's name, there's always the risk of being gulled by a pseudonym, but I'd be willing to bet that Chris Molloy Wischer really is a first-time author. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course -- it's just that several things about Baluthar suggest that it's the product of a less experienced creator. For one thing, GET ALL lists every object in the area, scenery or no, which is a classic rookie mistake for Inform authors. Of course, it's possible that this was an intentional choice, but even if so, it's a bit questionable. Sure, it's a handy way to see what's been implemented, and that's certainly what I used it for, but it's not exactly the most mimetic way to handle a player's request to take everything available for the taking, since it results in responses like this:
   wind: The wind resists your clumsy efforts with the mad energies of
   its eternal youth.
   your hand: Your hand is stuck to you already.
Aggravating the problem is the fact that every time GET ALL executes, the game assumes that you want to open all closed containers and take their contents too, resulting in a particular puzzle solution getting unraveled over and over again. Another basic coding pitfall in Baluthar has to do with disambiguation. There are a couple of instances where the game, presented with several choices for how to interpret a noun, chooses the least obvious or least useful option. For instance, at one point the game describes a figure whose hand is clutched in a fist. So the obvious action is EXAMINE FIST, right? Observe:
   >x fist
   (your hand)
   Your hand is very muddy.
No, not my hand! The thing that's so specifically called a fist! A little ChooseObjects or parse_name trickery would go a long way here, and that's just the sort of trickery that an inexperienced author is unlikely to have available.

As is evident from the "TAKE WIND" response above, the prose has its share of problems too, tending strongly towards the florid and even turgid. Even aside from the fact that the gross-out level stays very high throughout the game, and that every description of emotion tends to hit the drama extremely hard, there are some simple structural problems that keep the writing earthbound. For instance, a sentence weighed down by too many prepositional phrases strung together:

   A nine-foot statue of a deity scowls down at you from the top of a
   large boulder near the hut.
Instead of dancing or even stepping cleanly, the sentence puts one foot forward, then drags itself across the ground, piling on one modifier after another. Consider if instead it had read, "Atop a large boulder, a nine-foot statue scowls down at you." We don't need to know it's near the hut, because we know we're standing outside the hut -- the simple presence of the object in this location tells us it's near the hut. Save the fact that it's a deity for the statue's description, and separate the remaining prepositional phrases by moving one to the beginning of the sentence, shortening "from the top of" to "atop", and now we have a much more concise and compelling description. Another chronic problem in the prose is "adjectivitis":
   The white-lined faces of the densely-packed leaves give the
   unsettling impression of a ghostly crowd of fish bones which
   stretches endlessly around and above you.
Ack! "The [adjective noun] of the [adjective noun] give the [adjective noun] of a [adjective noun] of [adjective noun]..." This repetitive structure gives the prose a lumbering, choppy feel, no matter how vivid the words may be. Again, this sort of thing is the mark of a novice writer, whose focus is more on providing a full description than on communicating it gracefully.

So enough about that. Every author is a rookie once, and only once, and those who can learn from their mistakes and try again will inevitably produce a better game next time out. There are some things about Baluthar that showed promise. The hint system was nicely implemented, a menu-based setup that gave nudges at the right level without ever giving away too much too fast. Also, even though it had some structure and diction problems, the writing had very few grammar and spelling errors, and in fact the game in general felt like it had been tested and proofread, always something I appreciate in a competition entry. In addition, the first puzzle was intriguing in that the obstacle it presented to the PC was emotional rather than physical, and consequently the puzzle and its solution not only advanced the plot but established some basic facts about the character as well. Finally, the story itself, while a bit over-the-top and melodramatic, presents a plausible emotional arc for the main character and provides an ending with symbolism that's heavy-handed but effective. I'll be interested to see what sort of improvements occur when and if the author produces another game.

Rating: 6.7

GOURMET by Aaron A. Reed

A few years ago, I was searching around for a way to describe Liza Daly's "Dinner With Andre", and came up with "sitcom IF." That moniker seems apt enough to describe Gourmet, a game that aims for screwball humor but too often is just screwed up. Not that the problems are obvious at first -- indeed, the premise and opening scenes are delightful -- you're the harried chef and owner of a brand new restaurant on the night that a famous dining critic is to visit. Of course, everything goes wrong: your entire staff flakes out, your food supplies are woefully minimal due to late distributors, and all your fancy new equipment seems primed to malfunction. I was having a ball picturing the PC as a Kelsey Grammer type, a model of urbane sophistication whose cultured veneer gets slowly dissolved by an avalanche of calamitous and kooky circumstances. Much of the writing is witty enough to pull it off, too -- objects both animate and inanimate acquire an air of implacable comic malice, and the setting is packed with fun little details, such as the range-top knobs that the PC had custom made to go up to eleven. Characters, though one-dimensional, are nicely evoked, and the game has a neat little structure too, divided up into hors d'oeuvres, first course, and main course, just as you serve the finicky critic.

Sadly, Gourmet quickly falls victim to the same problem Dinner With Andre had, which is this: having decided that wacky problems deserve wacky solutions, the game fails to anticipate enough of the sensible (or even alternately wacky) solutions that might spring to the mind of a desperate player. It's difficult to talk about these without getting too spoilery, but here goes. Take one instance where an uncontrollable mess is happening in the kitchen. The game anticipates the first obvious recourse and stymies it. Fair enough. The next recourse might be something like blocking and cleaning the mess with a towel -- surely any kitchen has towels, right? Wrong. Not only are they not implemented, neither is the reason for their absence. Certainly I'll grant that this level of realism is a lofty and difficult goal, but much of the game turns on the tension between the realistic demands of the setting and the ridiculous circumstances created by the plot. Players who are pushed and prodded about in the name of realism have the right to expect a satisfyingly thorough implementation thereof. A more blatant example: you need to prepare a particular drink, which requires the proper vessel. Stunningly, however, your kitchen is so unequipped as to completely lack the necessary piece of tableware. In fact, there seems to be only one such item in the entire restaurant. It would be one thing if this bizarre situation was excused with some appropriately goofy explanation, but as it is we're left to feel that the game is unreasonably shepherding us into wackiness (or even just into puzzle-solving) by virtue of shoddy implementation. Part of what makes these logic gaps so intensely frustrating is that the game really does a great job of ladling on the tension -- I restarted several times because I was a nervous wreck with the feeling that too much time was elapsing while I flailed around. I don't know that there actually are any timers in the game, but it certainly feels like there are, and under that sort of pressure my patience was quite short with what felt to me like halfhearted implementation.

The bugs get worse as the game progresses, soon moving into responses that are absent or outright wrong. I turned to the hints almost right away, and every time I tried to forego them in order to increase the pleasure of the game, I felt that pleasure turning to frustration as I struggled in vain against one buggy or unimplemented section after another. It doesn't help at all that the game makes such basic errors as making your finger a key plot point, then failing to properly parse "finger", or parsing "climb" differently from "get on." In another pinnacle of frustration, the game presents you at one point with a small animal on the loose that you must find, yet greets any attempt to LOOK UNDER anything with "You expect you would find nothing of interest." Say WHAT? That is the exact opposite of what the PC would expect (and hope for) in the circumstance. Additionally, some key NPCs are much too thinly implemented, and it's perhaps a sign of my frustration that even on puzzles that offer multiple solutions, I still found myself unable to even try the ideas that seemed most obvious to me, and ended up turning to the hints in exasperation. When I got to the point where even one of the solutions offered in the hints utterly failed to work, I knew that Gourmet was a huge disappointment. The game credits no testers (in fact, I couldn't find anybody besides the author credited at all), and the lack of outside input is all too apparent. There's at least one in every comp: a game with great potential, clever writing, and fun portions that dissolves into a mind-numbing bugfest at its end, apparently the product of a rush to deadline and a lack of patience. In Comp03, Gourmet is the first game of that type I've played, and the letdown is as stinging as ever. If interactive fiction ever got reviews in People magazine, the write-up for this game would probably end with, "BOTTOM LINE: Good ingredients, but undercooked."

Rating: 6.2

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Paul O's 2003 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2003