Saucers of Mud

November 12, 2011

IFComp Reviews, Part 5

The 2011 Interactive Fiction competition is on, with lots of games in lots of different systems. Interactive fiction is generally the kind of game where you read things and then type in commands to do things, though not always. People used to get eaten by grues in these games, but that’s rarer now.

Here is the list of games, many of which can be played online; for others you’ll need an interpreter (playing offline with an interpreter may improve your experience with some of the off-line playable ones).

If I played a game online, my review will include a link to the online-playable version. I’ll start with mostly spoiler-free discussions, though I will talk about general themes and the like; some spoilers may be rot13ed in the main discussion, but if I extensively discuss something spoily it’ll be at the end of the entry below a spoiler space.

In this episode: Escape from Santaland, Calm, Beet the Devil, Last Day of Summer, and It. More reviews here.

Escape from Santaland. Lost in the mall at Christmas, your keys stolen by a disgruntled elf, and the only way out is to solve puzzles. This is a solid puzzle game with a lot of polish; I remember that many commands were impressively implemented, though it’s been long enough since I played that I’ve forgotten which ones. It’s very like one of those Flash escape-the-room games; the main puzzle is very much like one of those, particularly in the style of the clues. (Nothing more on that for spoilers’ sake!) It doesn’t really have any ambitions beyond being a humorous and entertaining puzzler (in fact, it’s part of a family puzzle tradition), and that’s fine. On my first playthrough the game tut-tutted at me for walking off with an object that didn’t belong to me, which made me think there was a little moral decision about what to do with the elf, but I don’t think there is.

The only complaints are that the navigation can be a little annoying — it’s not a maze, but it feels maze-like — and that a couple of the puzzles depend overmuch on “examine this to reveal that, then examine that to find the useful object”; there was one of those involving the starting inventory that bugged me. (It may be that this would’ve been fairer if I’d spent more time around those particular things.) “The Hours” had one of those too (described here by Steven Odhner, and I think even the milder version where “x thing” works is annoying); the ones here are more realistic, because the objects in question wouldn’t be visible on a quick glace around, but there are also more things to deal with so it’s more tiring to examine everything. (Though one of two of these puzzles that sent me to the hints was something that appears all the time in escape-the-room games, and I really should’ve solved it; details below the spoiler space.)

Also, it is possible to solve the game without knowing the canonical order of the reindeer; again, details below.

Calm (not played online, because it hung up after setup in Quixe). One of those insanely ambitious games — at the beginning, you choose your character’s starting location and special skill, there’s at least one unusual mechanism (you have a certain stress level, and if it goes too high you die; if it goes too low you have to go to sleep, although maybe that’s a different mechanism). The map is huge, and eventually (on my path it took a while) you encounter some NPCs and may get the chance to change your objective. Many puzzles seem to have multiple solutions, perhaps not all available to all starting roles. It’s not a roguelike-like like Kerkerkruip, though; the map seems to be set, it’s just that what you do in it varies.

As of when I played it, this was definitely a work in progress. You can start in easy mode, but it’s not useful; what it does is blort out a huge stack of possible commands that you could try every turn, most of them not useful. There are some polish issues, like a puzzle where you have to go through the same four actions every time you go through a door, even though they don’t make sense from one side (the authors have informed me that in the new version you only have to do this once). There were some interaction issues (the wrecked cars and their windows required some tortuous syntax-guessing, and there’s an object that requires “open x with y” but says “that’s not something you can open” if you just try “open x”). Also, when I played it, there was a game-wrecking bug where a crucial item didn’t show up even after you’d taken the action that was supposed to do it, and then (while I was trying to implement an alternate solution suggested by the author) the game crashed when I tried “x me” for the first time (possibly an interpreter bug). Those things happened after I’d been playing for two hours, though, so they don’t go in the comp score.

Which is something of a review right there; even though I wasn’t nearly done, I was still playing after two hours. There’s something hypnotic about exploring the environment — appropriate, given the subject matter. Emily complained that the post-apocalyptic setting lacked specificity, but I found it evocative enough; the descriptions were brief enough not to get me bogged down in all the things that were mentioned, but full enough to give me a sense of the world. There are some funny moments; after meeting the first NPCs, my to-do list changed from something like “Find some other people” to “Find some other people who aren’t completely crazy,” and the end of the dialogue with the queen is brilliant. And I solved some problems in a way that made me feel clever. (Some people report dying a lot; it may have helped that my specialty let me avoid overheating. Or maybe I just rock. *sticks out tongue*)

So, medium recommended as is, but I look forward to what it’ll develop into.

Beet the Devil. You and an adorable puppy must enter the depths of Hell and go through a linear sequence of puzzles in order to, well, do what it says on the tin. The puzzles usually involve vegetables. A light tone, with a distinctive voice and well-drawn NPCs (they’re one-dimensional incarnations of sin, but they’re well-drawn one-dimensional incarnations of sin). The puzzles are the thing, though, and they usually involve an intuitive leap of some sort, some of which I found natural and delightful (I got the anger puzzle in about three turns) and some of which I didn’t (even after figuring out and performing the solution to the sloth puzzle — with one hint — I didn’t understand why it had worked, and having had it explained to me I’m still not sure I understand it).

More substantive complaints: The first time through I hit an unwinnable situation that I think is a bug (you take an action in room X that should have an effect in room Y, but the effect seemed not to trigger when I wasn’t in room Y. If it’s deliberate, it shouldn’t be). [UPDATE: This was bothersome in part because I had to repeat a long opening sequence, in which you explore a few rooms and examing a whole bunch of things to collect different vegetables. At the end of this sequence there's a warning if you haven't got anything, which led me to expect that I wouldn't be able to get into an unwinnable situation, though I suppose I wouldn't have felt any better about it if there hadn't been a warning.] There’s one puzzle that has the “examine everything” problem I talked about with Escape from Santaland, except less fair; there’s a crucial object in a container, but the container’s contents aren’t described when you open it. And the last puzzle… well, I had happened to see something that gave away the solution in another review, and after you die a couple of times it is clued, but in some ways it’s the apotheosis of “guess the verb.” It makes me feel a little better about a particularly evil puzzle I have planned.

I also have a theological quibble, below the spoiler space.

Last Day of Summer. Short, mostly story-based one, with a couple of puzzles. Probably the second-best short mostly story-based one of the comp, after Cold Iron. Well-written but not as evocative, and the resolution felt a bit too neat, somehow. I like Carl Muckenhoupt’s take, and am interested to hear more about the Dr. Seuss allusions.

It (not playable online). On the surface the less ambitious of the two Australian hide-and-seek games in the comp, but with something of a hidden depth. You and three other girls are playing a game with a definite loser, and the social undercurrents are more important than the game. Worth playing through a couple times (it’s very short) to see what you can do. I played through three times and stopped when I got an ending I liked, though I suspect something interesting happens if you cheat. (Which I almost did accidentally — I didn’t understand how to work the very opening of the game — but I undid when I realized what I’d done.)

It could be cooler if there was more of it, though. The hiding place isn’t randomized, so you don’t have to develop a strategy; trying and dying will tell you where to go. And I think it might be interesting to have the social dynamics be randomized a little, so you have to figure out whether the other girls are being awful, and what to do about it. That might be a much more ambitious programming project, though.

Mostly very smoothly implemented, though the syntax for finishing the hide-and-seek game was hard for me to figure out.
Escape from Santaland: The hoary escape-the-room chestnut is the one where you take the batteries from the remote and put them in the flashlight. (Though don’t those usually take different sized batteries?) As for the reindeer, there’s a command (probably “turn dial”) that lets you cycle through the canonical reindeer order, so you don’t need to know it yourself.

Beet the Devil: At the end, if you attack the devil, you are flung into Phlegethon for the sin of wrath. But isn’t attacking the devil righteous indignation rather than a sin? In the Inferno, Virgil upbraids Dante for showing compassion to the fortunetellers, and I seem to remember one of them kicking the hell out of one of the damned souls. I was going to put a link to the Dante’s Inferno videogame there, but I just can’t.

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  1. [...] doesn’t sell tickets. This society deserved to collapse.) This is what I meant when I said that the descriptions in Calm were brief enough not to bog me down. Or what I didn’t mean, [...]

    Pingback by IFComp Reviews, Part 6 « Saucers of Mud — November 13, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

  2. [...] than a timed puzzle that locked you out of a win. (For The Hours and this kind of puzzle, see the Escape from Santaland review, and more in the Beet the Devil [...]

    Pingback by IFComp Reviews, Part 8 and Last « Saucers of Mud — November 19, 2011 @ 12:09 am

  3. Thanks for the review of It! I’m glad you liked it.

    I’m working on a post-comp release of the game, and I’d like to deal with the syntax problem you mentioned. Did you keep a transcript you could send me, or do you remember what you tried to do that didn’t work? You can email me at I would really appreciate it!

    By the way, I know you’re not the only person to get a bit confused by the beginning of the game and cheat accidentally. That’s on my to-do list as well.

    Comment by Emily Boegheim — November 20, 2011 @ 2:44 am

  4. Ah, no, I did not keep a transcript. I kind of suck like that. But I ought to be able to play to that point…

    Comment by matt w — November 20, 2011 @ 8:20 am

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