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 “The Duel That Spanned the Ages,” which can be downloaded here or played online here or here, if you’ve got the right plug-ins. Though you might want to read the first sentence of my review before clicking the first link, plus the Parchment links for the game files have been wonky lately.
So, in my review of Snowquest, I mentioned that Parchment can’t display more text than will fit in your browser window at once. The Duel That Spanned the Ages opened with a text dump that scrolled right past my browser window. Excessive text dumps are usually a bad thing in IF, I think. Even if there’s some fantastic prose involved, it’s probably a good idea to break the dump up with a couple of space-bar presses. A reasonable maximum length is probably the amount of text that Parchment can display at once in my browser window.
I’m in no position to carp at verbosity! And the writing was perfectly fine, if perhaps a bit overblown — but not quite good enough to sustain a textdump of that length. (Perhaps when we can see it as the intro to a complete series rather than a comp game it’ll seem a little less out of proportion.) The game alternates your character’s perspective with occasional third-person cutscenes, where other characters talk in hushed tones about what your character is up to. (It doesn’t say they’re hushed, but they sound hushed. I guess that’s one way the game gets points for evocativeness.) But the cutscenes didn’t engage me. They were a bit too obviously enigmatic; I think the initial weird events would probably have given me enough impulse to wonder what was going on without these scenes.
About the gameplay: It’s an IF version of a first-person shooter. FPSs are not Emily’s sort of thing. I believe they are Victor’s. They are not my sort of thing, in the way that flying airplanes wasn’t Beethoven’s sort of thing; I don’t have the technology and I wouldn’t know what to do with it. The only game console I’ve ever owned was an Atari 2600, unless Pong counts. So, together with a couple of irritants that are detailed below the spoiler space, the game didn’t really get a fair shot from me. [UPDATE: And on further play I like it better.]
Because, carping aside, this is a solid game. Things are where they’re supposed to be, the puzzles (except for one) that I found were well-clued (even if a lot of them tended to be “shoot something” — maybe I do know what to do with an FPS), and there was clearly a lot of care put into this. There were also some funny bits (examine your badge). I also suspect that I drifted away from the game just as it started to get really interesting [UPDATE: in fact, this was the case], and there may have been an element of teaching you to play involved in the early puzzles. In fact, I’m going back to play it after reading a partial transcript, because I have an idea of how to solve one of the puzzles I’ve seen. Still, it wasn’t my favorite.
I must confess that, when we got to the first puzzley bit after the initial not-super-interactive scenes, my first thought was “A maze?” And then “A shootout in a maze?” This was unfair — the mazey bit is small enough, and the navigational system helpful enough, that there wasn’t any of the interminable wandering around that makes mazes suck. On the other hand, the descriptions of the exits seemed to disappear from the description just as I started to really need them, in the shootout. I think there was a conscious decision to shorten the descriptions to capture the breathless excitement of the fight, but in practice it meant I had to type “look” a lot.
Irritant #1: The new message for “jump” is clever; however, that message should not appear when I’m standing next to an open hatch in a spaceship that’s hurtling toward the ground. In that context “jump” means “jump OUT,” dammit! Fortunately this happened well before the clock ran out on the puzzle.
Irritant #2: The solution for the puzzle after the crash was pretty annoying (good hints, though). It’s probably OK that the thing you have to do is buried in the description of something else; except it’s something the PC would think of immediately, even if the player didn’t; perhaps the player’s lack of knowledge mimics the PC’s oxygen shortage? Also, at this point there was a change in the status bar which made me think that the particular solution wasn’t available.
The tragic thing is, although I am playing it again, I think I’ve exceeded the two-hour limit and am not allowed to judge it based on what happens. So, again, I didn’t quite give it a fair shot. Worth checking out, anyway. [UPDATE: Yes, it’s a lot more fun now. Oddly enough, because of the more traditional IF use-this-to-trigger-that puzzles. Also I think reading Merk’s transcript helped me past a part that I would’ve found annoying. But I wouldn’t have returned to it if other reviewers hadn’t talked me up. So; thanks to the other reviewers; and to the author, you might want to tweak the puzzle listed as Irritant 2, to avoid washing out the likes of me early in your game.]
[FINAL UPDATE: And the last text dumps were in fact pretty effective, except that I think the last one scrolled off even in Java. Well done in the end, and sorry I didn’t finish it all in two hours. Having got to the end, I think the last third-person scene would be much more effective without the previous ones.]
[UPDATE: If I shoot a robot spider off my leg, shouldn’t it smash into a floor rather than a wall? Perhaps I lifted my leg for a better shot.]