I’ve been playing some of the games from the 2009 IF Comp. These are text-adventure games, arty to various degrees, meant to be be judged in under two hours of play. The games can be found here. My reviews will be categorized under “IFComp.”
This is a review of “Snowquest,” which can be downloaded here or played online here, if you’ve got the right plug-ins. If you want to download these games and play them, you’ll need an interpreter. Some things about interpreters can be found here. I use Zoom for the Mac when I’m not playing online.
My reaction to this game may be a bit skewed, because the author, Eric Eve, was the only author I’d heard of in advance. (Though I’d never played any of his games.) So my expectations were high; and not uniquely mine, I’ve seen at least one other place where someone described this game as an early favorite. Which means I’m probably grading it on a harsher curve than everything else.
This game does a lot of things very right, too. It moves through a lot of different environments in an interesting way, and it’s generally well put together. The earlier, snowier sections had a very strong sense of setting. One very right thing is that it not only lists the available directions in the status bar, it lists ones you haven’t gone yet in red. This was very useful in the late mid-game, which required a lot of back-and-forthing through different locations.
You’ve probably sensed that this is all leading up to a quibble. So: I quibble about the story. The beginning parts of the game were evocative and mysterious, and then there was a twist, and then… the part after the twist seemed pretty thin. It didn’t help that I put the game down just after reaching the twist, so the post-twist part was effectively an Act II. The weighting just seemed off. Now, I’ve praised a bunch of games that didn’t have much of a sense of story, but this game seemed as though it wanted to put a lot of weight on the story, and the story couldn’t really bear it. (Eve’s about text explains that he wanted to keep the game within the limits of the Z-machine’s memory, so in order to add new things he’d have to take things out. I approve of using the Z-machine, since it means I can play online, but I think maybe he could’ve cut out some of the part before the twist to balance it better.)
Another thing — this isn’t really the game’s fault — is that Parchment, the online interpreter, doesn’t seem to be able to display more than a windowful of text at a time. If the game is telling it to print a block of text that’s more than a windowful long, it’ll lock onto the top or the bottom, not letting you scroll up and down to see what’s going on. This got to be an issue when I desperately needed the last hint for a puzzle, and there were so many hints in the sequence that the hint I needed was stuck at the bottom though the text was locked to the top. Fortunately I needed only one word, and the hint did flash on the screen for a fraction of a second, so I was able to figure it out. As I said, this isn’t really a problem with the game. Though maybe the fact that I needed to get a single word from the hint, well, is. (Note: It may have been my fault.)
Anyway: Interesting atmosphere, mostly fair puzzles, a lot of intrigue in the buildup, but the payoff felt a little empty.
If I were going to add more to the end, I’d cut the dream sequence; but a lot of it was very well done. For instance, examine the priest a couple of times; that strikes me as pretty dreamlike. (Though maybe it could’ve been toned down a bit.) Also, on a replay I noticed that the conversation with the woman is exactly the same no matter what conversation topics you choose, “ASK HER ABOUT DORITOS” or whatever; but what’s well done is, if you aren’t trolling the game, you’re very likely to choose topics that made sense. However, I wasn’t trolling the game when I tried to fly down during the dream (I figured, better to rejoin my body than head to those mountains I clearly wasn’t going to reach), and the text wasn’t awfully responsive to that. Still, I may want to write something with a dream sequence sometime, and this gives me ideas.
Oh, I’d also cut the conversation with Mundle about the book of Yashor. We don’t really need any extra motivation to get the thingy — we’re game players. We see thingies, we get them. And as Yoon-Ha Lee points out, the conversation is very infodumpy. (I do feel that her complaint, “Oh please God not a quest,” is unfair, or at least that she was warned. It does exactly what it says on the tin.)
The puzzley parts I thought were mostly very fair and well clued; one of the times I had to go to the hints, it was because I hadn’t thought very hard about what one of the bits of description in one of the locations was good for. The last bit of that sequence, though, seemed pretty guess-the-verby to me. I’m not sure how I should have known that after I had, um, done X with the Y, the next thing to do was Z it. Xing the Y should probably have been enough to trigger the next event. Idea: in a situation like that, if you’ve entered two invalid verbs with the same object, the parser should say “You wiggle the Y back and forth, pushing and pulling, until [supply verb that you were supposed to guess].” Or give you a hint. It’s at least as simulative as the game where you have to try six times before you can squeeze through the narrow opening.
The last puzzle I actually thought was quite nice, which is to say I solved it, which may be to say it was unsubtle. But there was a good “teaching you to play the game” moment here. Ah, I won’t spoil it more specifically, though you may not want to finish this paragraph. I will say that it wasn’t really the last puzzle for me, because I managed to get killed after solving it, because I didn’t pick the gun up. I was looking for something more complex to do. You don’t want me on your side in a fight.
The big choice at the end felt pretty flimsy, though, because the real-world versions of the characters were barely fleshed in. Also it wasn’t too hard to figure out who was untrustworthy, with just a little dithering. I should definitely play Eve’s more famous games, though, because he’s obviously trying to do interesting stuff, and he does so much so well that it’s easy to see his other games coming together in a way that this one didn’t, for me.