Saucers of Mud

February 4, 2010

JayIsGames Interactive Fiction Escape Comp: Some Brief Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 7:34 pm

[More reviews here.]

Everyone knows about JayIsGames’s escape-themed interactive fiction competition, right? [That page makes sounds for a few seconds.] At least, everyone who is into the whole IF thing? It seems like it might be important to IF — it has the potential to introduce it to new people, both as players and writers. And the games tend to be short, and are playable online, both of which are I think extremely important to the casual player. (They’re important to me, anyway.)

I haven’t seen any reviews online, so there are some below the fold. The reviews should be brief, and any big spoilers will be encoded in I will occasionally mention that there is a puzzle involving an object, and say something about its solution, but usually it should be pretty obvious that there’s such a puzzle (for instance, when there’s an object that you can almost take). So, no spoiler spaces.

I’ve been playing the games in the random order generated by the comp page, and will review them in that order. (And post the first eleven reviews in this post as I write them, with more here.) And they actually haven’t taken that long — maybe four or five total hours play for ten games so far, and probably more than half of that on one game. I abandoned a couple pretty quickly (and may return to them). It took me a while to remember that I can ask for hints, and even longer to notice that there’s a walkthrough button for every game. Also, many of the games are being updated as the contest continues — often in response to complaints like mine! — and my review reflects the version of the game I played, rather than the one currently on the site. I mean, it has to.

A few general thoughts:

Some of the authors are clearly first-time authors, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time before the competitions. There was some discussion around the IFComp about being more welcoming to authors, and I’m going to try. In particular, I think it’s worth being forgiving about technical flaws that don’t interfere with gameplay too much, but also in pointing out flaws that do. I’ve enjoyed a couple of games despite the lack of polish. It also means I might be grumpier to people I know to be established authors. But hopefully not too grumpy.

Also, some bugs seem to happen because of the online interpreters — the Parchment illegal object disambiguation bug popped up at least once, and one author said he couldn’t reproduce my bug on his machine (but fixed it anyway). This is not a criticism of the online interpreters! They are the greatest thing since sliced bread. And I’m really happy to see that Parchment now has scroll bars [or, it seems like Jay added them to some, but perhaps not all, of the windows]. (Actually, I prefer to slice my own bread, but that doesn’t detract from the greatness of online interpreters.)

People are going to be playing online, which means less save-and-restore (Parchment allows one save file, which you have to bookmark the URL to recover; I couldn’t get Leaflet’s save-and-restore to work on my computer). This means I’m going to be particularly grumpy about timed death puzzles. Though I’m usually particularly grumpy about timed death puzzles anyway.

It’s interesting to see what some of the issues faced by new players and new authors. For new players, it seems like the biggest issue is not being able to find exactly the kind of syntax a game expects. For new authors, it seems like a big issue is often… figuring out what things people might try and changing the responses so they point toward something helpful. This isn’t necessarily the best mix. (More thoughts on that in the next paragraph.) Other common issues are inconvenient disambiguations, which seems like it’s probably a fairly fiddly thing to fix, and elements that don’t work well when the game isn’t gone through in the order the author expects (for instance, item descriptions that presuppose that the item is where you found it the first time). Those issues even arose in games by experienced authors. Designing and setting flags is hard.

Because new players often have problems with guessing the verb, and that often arises because they just aren’t familiar with the expected syntax, I think that a good way to make an introductory game would be to use a keyword-driven system, like Walker and Silhouette. But that wouldn’t necessarily help people make the transition to more traditional IF… so maybe something to do would be to accept the keyword and then print the command that it stands in for. As in:
You see a table
(examine table)
There is an inscription carved in the table. On the table is a pen.
(take pen)
(read inscription)
It says…

Perhaps someone should sponsor a comp for games like this.

Also, I think people tended to go for puzzly games in this comp, even with the artier games — but remember, Small Worlds won the competition before this. Art games can do well in these competitions. (Admittedly, Small Worlds was really good.)

Future advice for everyone: Get your game tested! Especially for new authors, it’ll be worth seeing how people try to interact with the game; you’ll be surprised at how people try to do what you basically had in mind, but using words you didn’t plan for.

Last thought: I’ve never actually written a game myself, so you might want to ignore everything I say about coding.

Reviewed so far: The Blueprint, Roofed (sort of), Ka, I Expect You To Die, Lurid Dreams, Hoosegow, The Usher, The Cube, An Open Field, Dual Transform, Monday, 16:30. More here.

“The Blueprint,” by Thaidaree.
OK, the first thing you need to do is get control over your prose. The opening text dump has tense shifts — or maybe it’s that it has a lot of dialogue without quotation marks. Also, you have to give us more of a hook into your puzzles; the default responses really aren’t helping here. If you’re going to start us in the dark in shackles with a ton of objects in our inventory, there should be some kind of way to examine the objects that gives us a clue how to proceed, and you should probably automatically redirect “examine” to “feel,” and implement descriptions for feel. Also, don’t tell me “It is pitch dark, and you can’t see a thing” when I try to examine the one thing the room description tells me I can see.
…basically, maybe beginning authors shouldn’t start with light puzzles. I didn’t get past that.

“Roofed,” by Jim Munroe.
Oh dear. Massive unfairness ensues. I really shouldn’t have forgotten about the help function.
So yeah, I solved one puzzle and then gave up, basically because I kept encountering what seemed like “Ye can’t get the flask” problems; I had a board, and from the description it seemed like I might be able to use the board to climb to the top of the stairwell entrance, but I couldn’t figure out how to put it down; in fact, I couldn’t figure out how to do anything useful with it, and my problems seemed to be with syntax. Anyway, I was already finding the character of the brother kind of annoying; kind of surprisingly to me, because Jim Munroe can write awesome characters. But in this case he seemed to cycle through a fairly small number of every-turn behaviors, which got on my nerves quickly when I was wandering around trying to figure out what to do. I mean, he’s supposed to be getting on the PC’s nerves, but this was too much. I also wonder whether it’s a good idea to have him serve as the help function, since he’s otherwise characterized as a total dumbass. Though in-game help is nice. [UPDATE: I should add that the atmosphere and world-building is very strong, and it’s not too much of a surprise to learn that the game is a spin-off of a movie. Which sounds like one to see. I really should get back to this one, though I have kind of a lot to do this weekend.]

“Ka,” by Dan Efran. YOU MUST PLAY THIS IN FLASH! I started in Parchment, without scroll bars, and an early puzzle was unsolvable because something crucial in the middle of a text dump wound up offscreen. I can’t even make my usual quip about text dumps that are long enough for something to wind up offscreen (quip: they’re too long), because this one is justified. Though still kind of a pain to deal with.
…and wow, this game turned out to be quite a lot longer than I thought at first. And if you don’t do things in the right order, you can wind up in a scene where the walkthrough for that part of the game doesn’t work. Since the help function is generic, I’m stuck. (rot13ed: V fnat ybfg zrzbevrf orsber fvatvat yrggvat zr pbzr guebhtu naq tbvat bhg cnfg gur gjb fgnghrf bs zlfrys. Gura, bapr V jnf va gur zrzbel, V pbhyqa’g tvir nalbar gur pebbx be gur synvy — be znlor vg’f gung V qvq fbzrguvat ryfr va gur zrzbel.) So, design lesson: Don’t do that. Which is to say, be prepared for players doing things when you dont expect them.

[UPDATE: Never mind — see the comments. The walkthrough suggests some commands that are supposed to fail, and I hadn’t realized that I was still supposed to be in the middle of that scene. So the new moral is, if you’re going to include some commands that fail in your walkthrough — and it’s a good idea, since you want people to see the parts that clue them into the commands that succeed — make sure the walkthrough communicates very clearly that the command fails, so a player who hasn’t been following it exactly doesn’t get frustrated and quit before trying the command that succeeds. Also, I think the given solution involves a verb that I wouldn’t have thought to use. Nonstandard verbs have to be hinted pretty well, because 90% of the time a given nonstandard verb won’t work in a game, even when the corresponding action should — try “chat with [NPC]” or “hop onto desk” sometime — which means that players won’t even think to try these verbs unless there’s a good indication that they should. At least, I won’t. I kind of suck at IF anyway. Also, Dan’s uploaded a new version which may fix some of my complaints.]

Also, in the early part of the game, there were a few too many generic “You can’t do that” messages; the early puzzles could’ve got a little more texture if the failure messages had hinted at why they were failing. They weren’t hard, once I fixed the scrolling problem, but they could’ve had more oomph (and even be made a little more difficult) with more individual messages. Oh, and it’s a good idea to include the exits in the room descriptions, because if the player does some stuff in the room they may forget what direction they went to get in there.

“I Expect You To Die,” by Anthony Schuster. A very sad work about our helplessness in the face of our loved ones’ mortality. Either that, or it’s a silly spy-in-a-deathrap game. (BTW, Shirley Bassey pwns every other Bond soundtrack singer.) This one quite charmed me, even with the rickets and bugs (many of which the author is fixing as we go along). In fact, it charmed me from the beginning, with the announcement that whenever you do die the game will reset to the beginning of the previous puzzle. That’s a good way to handle death in online games and maybe even in general, at least in light-hearted fare. The first move or two gives you a solved puzzle, which is nice too. The puzzles aren’t profound or anything, but it’s a nice snacky game, with a nice twist or two, although the ending has a little of the comic sadism that is perhaps a it too common in IF.
The flaws are mostly of the kind I mentioned in the intro: It can get buggy if the player does something in an unexpected order, and sometimes items are supposed to disappear or appear from the inventory and don’t. This particularly plays out in the map, whose lack of compass directions is relatively benign at the beginning but gets annoying later. Probably better just to put them in the location descriptions.

“Lurid Dreams,” by Torgrim Mellum Stene. I liked this a lot. It reminded me of Mark Jones’s work (or what I’ve read about it), which I mean as a compliment. The prose’s tone jumps around a little, which means it doesn’t quite attain the psychological depth it might be aiming for — but I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to write anything nearly as good in Norwegian. And in fact, the play sometimes gets goofy in a macabre enough way that the uneven tone seems natural.
It starts off with some guess-the-verby sequences, but the restricted scope of action and feeling of frustration it gives you is actually well justified because of the position the PC is in. And before long the gameplay gets wonderfully weird, yet still intuitive. The control is kind of awkward here, but it’s OK. Also, nice use of screen effects. The warm glow lasted long enough that I didn’t even mind when I eventually got stuck in a timed death puzzle that (partly due to a clumsy maneuver) I wound up being unable to undo. (As you may have noticed, timed death puzzles are about my biggest IF peeve.)
We need more games with this much character. You should play it.

“Hoosegow,” by Ben Collins-Sussman and Jack Welch. An antic Western, as you’ve probably guessed. (The word comes from the Spanish “juzgado.” Thank you, victory text.) A much different game from their IF-Comp winner, Rover’s Day Out, which I loved; that’s a story-based game that spends a lot of time leading you through what’s going on, this is a marathon puzzlefest. Many of the jokes are funny — I liked your fellow-prisoner’s rants, and Muddy’s reaction to the religious pamphlet — and Muddy’s characteristic actions worked better for me than the similar NPC actions in “Roofed.”
Some of the puzzles frustrated me, though; sometimes fairly natural solutions were disabled in order to set up the elaborate thing the authors had in mind (for instance, you can’t throw anything anywhere, and there’s one object that can only be dropped in a specific place, though I think some of the text indicates that it would fulfill its function if you could drop it somewhere else). I think the authors might not have intended it to be quite as much of a marathon as it was for me; I killed a lot of time with a bug where I was half on a supporter — the game thought I was on the supporter, but I didn’t have the rights and privileges that accrue being on the supporter, nor could I actually get back on. (“GET OFF SUPPORTER” fixed it. Related to this, see the comment in “The Usher” about repeating chains of commands.) Also, I suspended play when I was actually almost done.* Still, the couple times that I consulted the hints or walkthrough, I didn’t really think “I should’ve thought of that.” Though some of the puzzles were quite nice; I especially liked the way the can of beans puzzle was hinted.

Overall this is a good puzzlefest game — that just isn’t really my style. And I should mention that some puzzles seem to have multiple solutions, which is always nice. If a puzzly game with in funny Westernese sounds like your cup of tea, it probably is. (However: Screw the Confederacy.)

*Zhqql arrqrq vax, naq V gubhtug V unq gb znxr gur vax zlfrys, juvpu V jnf gelvat gb qb ol purjvat gur gbonppb naq fcvggvat vg vagb na nccebcevngr pbagnvare, jura nyy V unq gb qb jnf tvir n oreel gb Zhqql. (V unq nyfb gevrq guvatf yvxr “fdhvfu oreel.”) Gur vagevpnpl bs fbzr bs gur bgure chmmyrf unq yrq zr gb rkcrpg fbzrguvat pbzcyvpngrq urer. Naljnl, vs gur nhgubef jnag fhttrfgvbaf, V guvax fcvggvat gur gbonppb vagb gur rzcgl orna pna fubhyq nyfb jbex; gur reebe zrffntr fubhyqa’g ernyyl nccyl nsgre Zhqql unf rngra gur ornaf.

“The Usher,” by Branden Rishel and Daphne Gabrieli. Kind of the same plot as “Ka,” but this establishes a jokey tone from the beginning, which is reassuring in a game where it seems like the task is to kill all the NPCs and yourself. The jokes aren’t always actually funny, but even “may her transition to the afterlife be smooth, like a laxative” serves the purpose of lightening what might be a horribly tense atmosphere. [UPDATE: Anyway, that one made Jenni snicker, and she’s funnier than I am. Jokes: Mileage varies!] And the puzzles are largely well-designed; at the beginning it seemed like there was a lot to deal with, but once you’ve examined everything the way forward is pretty clear. I hit the hints a few times, but each time I thought I should’ve solved the problem myself. (Ernyyl, ol abj lbh’q guvax V’q xabj gb fgneg ol gnxvat vairagbel.) Once I was a little panicked by the apparent timed death puzzle, but really the puzzle was justified here. A very solid game, especially for what seem to be new authors.

I had one guess-the-verb complaint which I believe has been fixed — when the game text says “[blank] is out of reach, but you could probably throw [blank] to it from here,” “Throw [blank] to [blank]” really should work. Since it’s been fixed, I’m really bringing it up to mention a peeve — the default mapping of “throw” to dropping is bad thing, which should probably always be overridden. A player who types “throw” usually doesn’t want to just drop the object.

There’s also a puzzle that eventually resets itself every few turns, though I eventually did something that meant I didn’t have to type quite as many commands to do it again. Still, I think this is a design issue that pops up in “Hoosegow” as well as many other games; it’s a little dull to type in the same chain of commands several times in order to achieve the same effect. For instance, if you have a puzzle that involves dropping water balloons out the window, and the player might have to try it several times, don’t make the player trek back and forth across several rooms every time they want a new balloon; either put the balloon supply close to the window, or let them carry a bunch of balloons at once. (This bears no resemblance to the puzzle I’m complaining about.)

Really big spoiler: Npghnyyl, vg xvaq bs frrzf yvxr lbh qb jvaq hc xvyyvat lbhefrys naq nyy gur ACPf.

“The Cube,” by Eleanor Gang and Simon Smart. A light-hearted entry (it says so itself) that’s clearly an IF debut, but again not without its charm. The puzzles are pretty straightforward, but nothing wrong with that. The scanner’s reactions were pretty funny (though occasionally the PC’s reactions to the reactions deadened the jokes a bit).
Item descriptions tended to presuppose that the item was in its original location, which didn’t affect gameplay but is something to work on for future projects. There was one item that was described as being settable, but for which “set x to y” didn’t work — but the list of verbs that was included told me what to do. So including the list of verbs was a very good idea.
Really, the game won my heart with the explanation of why there wasn’t an indigo side to the cube. I’ve always felt that indigo was just there to fill out the acronym. Anyway, was anyone ever named “Biv” before Bell Biv Devoe?

“An Open Field,” by Chris Daniels. This actually has a game-unbreaking bug; at several points it’s too easy to progress by “take all.” Some of the puzzles are not clued enough, though, so that kind of balances out. A design point that at least one other game had; when you need X to do Y, it’s good to allow “Do Y” to work automatically once you have X, but it’s almost always a good idea to implement “Do X with Y” in some way. Preferably in lots of ways. This is (presumably) one of the hard parts of design, figuring out how the player will try convey the basic thing you have in mind.
Anyway, I can’t recommend the game to players, but it’s trying to do something interesting, and the author (who said he had to rush the game a little) should definitely keep going. But test the game to see how people are trying to interact with it! Solutions are clearer to you than they are to the player, because you thought ofthem.

“Dual Transform,” by Nigel Smith. Smooth. My favorite of the competition so far. An innovative system of interaction, puzzles that work well with the game’s peculiar logic, effective writing and implementation, and just a very tightly constructed game. I got stuck at a couple of points — once because I thought that I had made the game unwinnable, and once because the clue for what to do at the fgbar pvepyr seemed a touch oversubtle. In fact, it seemed very IFfy. It’s hard to believe that this is a first effort — one might almost suspect that the author is a pseudonymous IF veteran.

“Monday, 16:30,” by Alexander “Mordred” Andonov. A lot to like about this game. It’s got a compass-less navigation system that works surprisingly smoothly — in a large office, you can see things in other locations, and when you interact with them the game automatically sends you where you ought to go. A very nice break with a weird (but convenient) IF convention; the only problem is that the game tends not to print the location description after you arrive. The puzzles work nicely enough that I was able to solve them — this is not an inconsiderable compliment — and the in-game hint system, well, damn. It’s pretty guess-the-word-y, but it gives you enough information if you can’t guess it, and it saves you having to guess words later. (Actually, I think it might not just be a hint system; it may unlock some stuff that can’t be otherwise unlocked. Or maybe I missed clues. It’s been known to happen)

But: The game left me pretty cold. For one thing, the girl the PC desires is described mostly as really amazingly good-looking. It’d be nice if there was some way to convey her personality before the game is almost over. The interactions with the co-workers were also a little offputting — a PC who doesn’t like anyone else isn’t that likable. But the biggest problem was the list of Escape the Room cliches. It’s not just that I like escape-the-room games, it’s that listing the cliches makes it seem as though you’re mocking your own game. Lampshade Hanging takes a light touch. (Well, I’m not sure that that’s how to describe this.)

Still, impressive technical accomplishments especially for an apparent debut, a solidly constructed game, and those who are more simpatico with the tone may find the tone more simpatico. Also, “futharkally” was pretty funny. [UPDATE: You know, the more I think about this, the more I realize that my complaint is “I didn’t really like the jokes.” So YMMV. You should probably play it.]


  1. […] I probably won’t get to all of them during the play period, but I thought I’d try out a few. Brief, non-spoilery thoughts on “Fragile Shells,” “I Expect You To Die,” and “Golden Shadow” follow the cut; if you’re interested in more, longer, and much funnier reviews, Jenni Polodna is also covering this comp, as is Matt W. […]

    Pingback by JIG Comp games « Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling — February 7, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

  2. Hi, I want to fix that illegal object bug in Parchment, but don’t have much info on it currently. Do you know what causes it, or how the author fixed it in their game?

    Comment by Dannii Willis — February 8, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

  3. Aaah, I’m sorry, I didn’t record which game had the illegal object bug in it. (The bug that the author couldn’t reproduce was a different one, and I think I was playing that game in Leaflet rather than Parchment anyway.) I know that the “illegal object” bug sometimes arises when you’ve typed something for which the game expects a second noun — for instance, in Byzantine Perspective when you type “fix goggles” (which Inform thinks means “attach goggles”) you get
    “What do you want to fix goggles ?” You might be able to ask the author for her source code if that helps.

    Hope this wasn’t just rehashing what you know already.

    Comment by matt w — February 8, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

  4. […] matt w @ 12:12 am First batch of reviews, and more of an explanation of what’s going on, here. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that, even though the contest explicitly encouraged […]

    Pingback by More JayIsGames Interactive Fiction Comp Reviews « Saucers of Mud — February 9, 2010 @ 12:12 am

  5. Hi, I’m Dan Efran, the author of ‘Ka’.

    First, thanks for playing my game!

    Next, I’d really appreciate it if you could email me with further details about exactly where you found undescribed exits, generic responses, and similar glitches. I’m preparing an update to the game right now, and I’d like to fix every glitch I can find.

    (I’m not sure I can do much about the scrolling – most interpreter software will pause in such situations, and/or have scroll bars. Parchment seems a bit inadequate to me in that regard. Personally I prefer to download the game files and play offline. I agree with you that long text passages are generally undesirable…and that it’s justified here, though still awkward.)

    Now, you complained about doing things in the wrong sequence and getting stuck. I don’t think it’s possible to do that in this game. Judging by your rot13 explanation, you did *not* wedge the game by doing things out of order. You just hadn’t solved that puzzle yet!

    What I guess you didn’t realize – I should have made it clearer – is that not every action in the walkthrough is going to “succeed”. Some of those actions are supposed to reveal non-generic “you can’t” responses that can help you figure out more of the situation for yourself, rather than to make concrete progress with every turn. (Nor does the walkthrough reveal the only possible solution path: that puzzle, in particular, can be solved in more ways than the one shown.)

    If you stopped playing at the point you describe in rot13, you only saw about half of the game: arguably the less interesting half. Perhaps you should give it another try.

    Comment by Dan Efran — February 10, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  6. Hi Dan, thanks for commenting! Sorry that I don’t have time for anything really long now — big stack o’ work — but I understand that you put a lot of work into the game (even more than I thought, now that I’ve looked at the walkthrough and seen how much more there was) and it’s frustrating to have me make an erroneous criticism. I’ll update my review when I get a chance but I seem to be logged into my more official blog at the moment.

    The generic responses I was thinking of were something like “You can’t get out of the glass coffin” rather than “The glass pushes back against you” or something like that. Even then, it wasn’t as big a problem as I thought at first, because my real problem was that the scroll had cut off the middle couple of spells, including the one I needed to get out of the glass coffin. (Yours was one of the games I tried the first time before noticing the walkthrough button, so I actually wound up replaying it as I was writing the review — not the ideal conditions, I’m afraid.)

    I hope to give the game another try, but there are also a lot of games I haven’t tried at all yet, so time could be an issue!

    Comment by Matt Weiner — February 11, 2010 @ 9:38 am

  7. Release 2 of Ka is now online, with numerous small improvements. Enjoy!

    Comment by Dan Efran — February 12, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  8. […] Part 3 Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 10:58 pm Tags: Interactive Fiction @SoM First two batches of reviews, and the games are all […]

    Pingback by JayIsGames IF Comp Reviews, Part 3 « Saucers of Mud — February 21, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

  9. […] games are here, and the winners are announced here. My reviews of all the games are in three posts: one, two, […]

    Pingback by JayIsGames IF Comp Wrapup « Saucers of Mud — February 23, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  10. Hey Matt, with Zarf’s help I’ve just fixed the illegal object number bug. I don’t know if Jay will update it, but it works on Thanks for the reminder to chase this down!

    Comment by Dannii Willis — February 26, 2010 @ 5:37 am

  11. Awesome. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate Parchment (and the other online interpreters). If not for online play I wouldn’t have started playing IF at all, and I definitely wouldn’t play as much as I do. (For some reason I just don’t like downloading the files as much as playing online, even though by now I guess I have to consider myself a full-fledged IF player.)

    Comment by matt w — February 26, 2010 @ 9:31 am

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