1999 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4

(in the order I played them)

OUTSIDED by Chad Elliott

OK, I'm starting to get a little discouraged. Maybe Comp99 has just set me up for a really bad stretch, but I have to admit I'm starting to wonder what is going on with all these substandard games. Outsided had the misfortune of coming up in my game list after five other games that I scored as a 5 or below. It couldn't help that, so I'll try not to let it affect my judgement. However, it also had the misfortune of being loaded with spelling, grammar, and coding errors. It could have helped that, and you can bet the house it's going to affect my judgement. Take, for example, the first paragraph:
      A pretty, young woman walks quickly towards the far end of the
   resteraunt. Soon she dissapears behind two brass elevator doors. Your
   stare drops downward to the small note you had written for yourself,
   then back at your own reflection in the elevator doors. People
   momenteraly chuckle and mutter to eachother, then continue on with
   another important dinner... 
That's one sentence out of four without a spelling error. That is not a good ratio. (For those of you keeping score at home: "restaurant", "disappears", "momentarily", "each other".) I just don't understand this sort of thing. It's not as if spell-checkers are hard to find. Compile your game so that Inform outputs the game text, then run it through a spell-checker. Hell, you don't even have to get that high-tech; run a transcript of your game through a spell-checker. This is a text adventure; all we get from the program are words. When the words have basic mistakes in them, those mistakes wreck any chance we have at immersion in your game! Don't you even care about that? Aaargh! [Starting... to... rant. Must... get off... soapbox. Wipe froth from mouth. Continue with review.]

As far as I can determine, Outsided (and no, even after playing the game, I still have no idea what its title means) wants to be sort of a science-fictional high-tech thriller thing about a guy whose memories keep getting downloaded into new bodies, and some shadowy syndicate that wants to kill the bodies off. Or something like that. It wasn't really all that easy to figure out what the hell was going on most of the time. The game's use of these concepts is kind of cool, but it would be a lot cooler if it were more coherent. Many, many things just don't make a lot of sense. For example, early on in the game, the PC is given his briefcase. It's closed and locked. For some inexplicable reason, the PC doesn't know how to unlock his own briefcase. In fact, he never figures it out. The briefcase is never useful for anything. Why does he get it? Who knows? There are lots of little things like this. Save-and-restore puzzles abound. In fact, the game reminded me of many of the more maligned members of the IF Archive, such as Detective and Space Aliens Laughed At My Cardigan. It might make a good candidate for a MiSTing, but it sure isn't a good game on its own.

Aw, here I am being all harsh and I didn't even mention one of the game's main redeeming features: its author apologizes for it right up front. Before the first prompt of the game even arrives, we see this:

        A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:      
   Hi, first I would like to say 'sorry.' Good! Now that I have gotten 
   that out of the way, Please 'enjoy' the game.
I laughed when I saw that, especially following as it did on the heels of the error-riddled opening paragraphs. And I appreciated it too, I really did. But I have to say it confused me a little as well. Obviously the author knows that the game isn't up to par. So instead of releasing it with an apology, why not instead fix it, then release a good version that he wouldn't have to apologize for? I would have appreciated that a lot more.

Rating: 2.9

BLISS by Cameron Wilkin

On behalf of the argument in favor of including hints or walkthroughs in competition entries, I present Exhibit A, Cameron Wilkin's "Bliss." This is a game which gets quite interesting and noteworthy, but doesn't actually do so until all the points have already been scored. Without the included hints, I doubt I would ever have gotten to the interesting stuff. I certainly wouldn't have gotten there in two hours. There are enough bugs and non-intuitive puzzles in the game that without those hints I probably would have spent the entire two hours flailing about in the first section. With the benefit of the hint file, however, I was able to advance beyond the roadblocks presented by some suboptimal puzzles and coding, so that I could reach the surprise twist the game delivers in its endgame. The trip was definitely worth it. I won't give away the surprise here, but I will say that those of you who went into spastic convulsions when you saw the words "dragon", "village", "orcs", and "evil wizard" might, once you regain control of your bodies, want to give the game a second look. Perhaps even just go through it using the walkthrough. All is not as it seems, and the discontinuity provides an interesting perspective on fantasy IF and the fantasy genre in general.

The beginning of the game is pretty good too. You're "the town hero", and you've set out to capture a ferocious dragon that has been terrorizing your village. However, on the way to the confrontation you were ambushed by a group of orcs who have locked you in a dungeon. Now, with only a blanket and a tin cup, you must find a way to escape. Yes, it's all quite cliche, but the game has two things going for it. One, the writing is strong enough that it manages to evoke the specificity of the setting, and even if each element of that setting is lifted from shopworn genre conventions, the gestalt still feels like it has a little freshness left. Second, the game displays distinct signs of being aware of its own conventions. For example, when conversing with one of your orc captors, this possibility is available:

   "Yur just one big, stoopid hero cliche, aincha? I 'spect it'll be fun
   watchin' yu waste away an' die!"
Such glimmers of self-awareness bode well for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, it doesn't fully deliver on their promise. There are a number of bugs; they're not glaringly obvious, and it's clear that the game has been tested, but it's equally clear that the game would benefit greatly from being tested some more, even if just to add some responses to common actions which might help steer the player in the right direction. In addition, there are a number of puzzles which, if they don't quite reach the extreme of "guess-what-the-author-is-thinking", are at least very non-intuitive. These puzzles would benefit from just a few tweaks. An alteration of the prose here, an alternate solution there -- just a few changes would make a big difference.

Overall, Bliss is definitely worth playing. Even as I write this review, I'm still having realizations about various elements of the game that continue to revise my perspective, which is a distinct pleasure. Also, its writing is almost completely free of grammar or spelling errors, which is something I've recently stopped taking for granted. I very much hope that the author takes into account the feedback he receives from competition authors and possibly a second round of beta testers, and releases a revised version of the game which stomps the bugs, enriches the puzzles, and cleans up the formatting errors (there are a few, though not many.) Once the polish is on, Bliss will be a very strong piece of short IF.

Rating: 7.2


Nobody has entered the IF competition every year for all five years of its existence. Only one person has entered every year for the last four years. That's right: Rybread Celsius. When he entered with two games in 1996, he was a mere 15 years old. Now, three years later, you'd expect his work to have grown along with him. In a way, it has. Last year's Acid Whiplash was much more fun than anything he'd released before, though I suspected at the time that much of the difference was due to the presence of Cody Sandifer as co-author. L.U.D.I.T.E. confirms that suspicion. I don't mean to suggest that there haven't been some signs of improvement. This most recent game is free of misspelled words, which is quite a milestone. Actually, I should be more clear: it's free of words that don't exist. Rybread still has some trouble with homophones, as in the following sample phrase: "The room's loan feature is a big door on the eastern wall..." I tried "BORROW DOOR", but it didn't work, so I can only assume that the door is really the room's lone feature. Perhaps I should ascribe this problem to the "Ten Thousand Monkeys on Typewriters" to whom he credits the text, but after playing Pass The Banana I feel like giving the monkeys a rest.

So yeah, things are spelled right. And probably there will be some people who love this game. But me, I just don't get it. None of it really makes much sense to me, and its hallucinatory qualities only hold my interest for a few minutes. I thought at first I was just stuck on the door puzzle, and I was going to present L.U.D.I.T.E. as Exhibit B for the argument in favor of including walkthroughs or hints with comp games. Then I noticed that Rybread had left the debug feature on, so I just looked at the game's object tree to see if I was missing anything. Turns out I wasn't. I tried jumping to a couple of other objects that looked like they might be rooms, but those objects lacked description properties. So what you see is, more or less, what you get. And what you get is not much, and what there is of it is really weird.

So hats off to Rybread for his persistence. I admire that. A game like this probably doesn't take long to put together, but at least he's still out there trying, and experience has shown that he does have a fan base. As usual, I'm not part of it. Oh well -- there's always next year.

Rating: 1.6

ONLY AFTER DARK by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous

Seems like just a few reviews ago I was positing that the trend of the 1999 competition is non-interactive games, those games which give you only one choice of how to proceed, whether subtly or overtly. And now, as if only to vindicate my trendspotting ability, here comes Only After Dark. This game moves along like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift -- lurching forward, then halting, then lurching forward again. The lurches are at points where the game shoves you into the plot without giving you much choice in the matter, and the halts are when it waits for you to find the one and only way out of the situation it just forced you into. Now, to be fair, I should say that the game is a little more interactive than, say, Life on Beal Street or A Moment of Hope. It does have a parser. There are no moments (at least, not as far as I could tell, anyway) when it just flat-out ignores what you type. However, there are several scenes where the game absolutely will not let you do anything but what the rigidly linear plot calls for. Actually, this description fits almost every moment in the game -- the advancement of the plot is enforced by meeting any deviation with either an abrupt ending to the game (usually via the death of the PC) or with some variant of "You can't do that." For example, there is one scene where the PC is in jail. The plot calls for him to go to sleep. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing you can do but go to sleep. Every other attempt at action is blocked, and the game gives intermittent hints along the lines of "There's nothing else to do but go to sleep." Mess around long enough, and the game puts the PC to sleep by force. Now, my question is this: if all I was going to be allowed to do is sleep, why even give me a prompt at all? Why not just say "You're hustled into a jail cell, and although you attempt to escape, your attempts are thwarted. Deciding there's nothing to do but sleep, you settle down into the uncomfortable bed, awakening the next day to a very strange scene..." Sometimes there's a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, something along the lines of wanting the player to identify with the PC's sense of imprisonment. But when every scene plays like this, and the game forces the player into really stupid decisions because it has made no provision for alternatives, the whole story starts to feel like a prison.

The other way in which the game enforces its plot is to present the player with situations in which there is one correct move, and any other action leads to death. Again, this sort of thing has its place as a technique, and can often be effective when used wisely. However, its vulnerability is that it tempts the designer toward guess-the-verb situations and save-and-restore puzzles -- sometimes even both at once. Just as vexing is the fact that dying over and over again fails to be entertaining rather quickly. Only After Dark, sadly, neither resists the temptation nor finds a way around the boredom. Take the initial puzzle, for example. I won't give away the situation or the solution, but the structure is this: the PC's life is in danger. There's only one thing he can do to save himself. If he doesn't do that one thing he will die. You have one move to make the correct choice. The action is vaguely clued before the choice must be made, but I still ended up with a dozen death messages before I hit on the solution, simply because there is so little time to solve the puzzle. Reading the same death message ten times is pretty dull. Later on, there's a puzzle in which a certain verb must be used, and the only way I could determine to figure out what that verb ought to be was to closely scrutinize the death message that comes from using the wrong verb. This is the worst of both worlds in IF puzzles.

All this bitching probably does very little to explain why I gave Only After Dark a higher rating than some of the other non-interactive entries in this year's comp, so let me try to clear that up. First of all, the writing and coding were error-free, which I am really appreciating recently. Yes, the game may railroad you through the plot, but at least it does so correctly. Also, the subject of the game is lycanthropy, which is a fascination of mine. I really enjoyed the malleable aspect of the PC, and while this isn't the ideal werewolf game, it's a much better werewolf game than, say, Strangers In The Night was a vampire game. I thought the milieu was interesting, if a little confusing, and there were some nice little touches, like the game's occasional use of color. Perhaps the only reason it was so linear was to fit the short format of the competition. If that's so, I dearly hope that an expanded version is forthcoming. I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.

Rating: 6.3


Bless her, Laura A. Knauth just keeps getting better and better. Just about the time I was getting starved for a really good competition game, along comes Winter Wonderland, a charming and delightful piece of interactive fiction. By far the best thing about this game is its atmosphere. Winter Wonderland exudes a magical, storybook air that is enchanting without being saccharine. The heroine of the story is a young girl from a poor family who suddenly finds herself in a... well, you can probably guess what she finds herself in. A Winter Wonderland. The setting is just lovely, well-imagined and full of vivid, captivating images. A few of these images are present just for atmosphere's sake, but the majority of them are puzzle components, and many of the puzzles are clever and fun. What Winter Wonderland does so well is to combine the nifty puzzles from Trapped In A One-Room Dilly with the sense of magical landscape from Travels In The Land of Erden, and adds to the combination a thematic specificity that is all its own and that works beautifully. The links between the puzzles feel very plausible because the entire setting is very consistent, and solving the puzzles rewards the player not only by allowing advancement through the plot, but often as well by presenting another appealing image to add to the already dense atmosphere. Romping around the snowy landscape encountering sprites, fairies and dryads was a great deal of fun for me, and the intricate and ingenious ways in which they presented interlocking puzzles was a real source of pleasure as well.

There are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles, unfortunately. The game has two sections that aren't exactly mazes, but feel enough like mazes to provoke some annoyance. By the time you figure out how to solve them, you'll have done a fair piece of mapping, and while there are no "trick exits" and everything connects to everything else in a fairly logical way, just the mapping alone is enough to make the whole area seem pretty tedious. In addition, there are a number of misspellings and a few parser problems which detract from the immersiveness of the game. I've emailed the author about these, and I'm optimistic they'll be cleaned up in a future release. Even so, these flaws don't ruin Winter Wonderland, simply because it has so many strong points alongside them. In addition, for each of the mazelike areas the puzzle isn't the maze itself. In other words, the challenge of the area isn't simply to map it and find the other end -- each one contains its own puzzle, and both puzzles are intelligent and fairly well-clued. So for those of you who hate mazes, I recommend playing the game anyway. They aren't all that onerous, and if you start to get frustrated, you can consult the excellent on-line hints.

The other area where the game really shines is in its technical prowess. While it isn't a graphical game, Winter Wonderland does provide some ASCII art, much like last year's Downtown Tokyo did. The art enhances the game's atmosphere, but doesn't conceal any crucial clues. Instead, it feels similar to the pictures shown at the beginning and end of On The Farm -- images that enrich the text but are not necessary for enjoyment of the game. The author thoughtfully provides a "BARE" mode for those whose interpreters don't handle such things well. In addition to its ASCII graphics, Winter Wonderland also uses the status line in innovative ways. It's four lines high and includes score, location, and a compass rose indicating the available exits. We've seen the status line compass rose before, but I found myself using this on-screen mapping feature more than I ever have in any other game which provided it. The landscape is complicated enough that the compass rose feels like a real aid to gameplay rather than just a frivolous but useless feature. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the onscreen mapping in Beyond Zork, and felt about as useful to me. In addition, with an interpreter that handles color correctly the status line changes color subtly to enhance the atmosphere of the area the PC finds herself in. When she's by a roaring fire, the status line is yellow and orange. When she's in a moonlit snowscape, the letters are various shades of lighter and darker blues. What's more, in some snowy scenes we actually see a few snowflakes show up in the status line, another attractive touch to embroider this already charming game. Winter Wonderland feels magical and joyous, and deserves to place highly in this year's competition.

Rating: 8.7

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Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised September 2000