Saucers of Mud

February 9, 2010

More JayIsGames Interactive Fiction Comp Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 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 one-room games, very few of the games actually take place in one room in the IF sense; even if they take place in one enclosed space, you can usually move around from place to place in it. (Or in some cases, doing something makes you move to another room, possibly in the Realm of Imagination.) Which maybe isn’t that surprising; a game that presents you with everything at once has a combinatorial explosion problem, in that you may not know what objects to use with what objects or what problems. Breaking the game up into different locations lets you introduce new items and puzzles gradually, so the reader isn’t overwhelmed. It’s probably no coincidence that the game that’s most restricted to a single room is the one that I found to be a marathon puzzlefest (Hoosegow), though I gather that the authors didn’t plan for the player to suck as much at puzzles as I do.

Another thing I realize about myself is that I have no impulse whatsoever to type “xyzzy” into games. It doesn’t even occur to me until I read other reviews.

Anyway, reviews below, any big spoilers encoded in rot13. Reviewed so far: Zegrothenus, Containment, Heavenly, Into the Open Sky, Critical Breach, and Couch of Doom.

“Zegrothenus,” by (one man and lots of caffeine). So, like “Roofed,” this is a game that I’m not being fair to; I didn’t play it very long. Now, the version I played was unfinished; there’s one point where examining something gave a message like “Note: put in here something telling the player that maybe it would be a good idea to search this.” Which was actually very helpful, and I appreciate the impulse to submit something you’ve been working on even if it’s not quite finished at the deadline, so long as it’s playable. Still, there’s a lack of polish. In fact, though I’m usually trying to go easy on shaky writing (especially because many authors turn out not to be native English speakers), this game was one of the few where the writing gave me gameplay problems – at one point I was having inexplicable trouble with the recipe book, because on further inspection it was “a book of receipes.” Spellcheck! (Ironically, my browser’s built-in spellchecker doesn’t recognize “spellcheck.”)

But my problem was that I just didn’t feel like playing a game about mixing potions, and the game didn’t give me enough positive reinforcement in the early going to keep me going. In fact I got some negative reinforcement, when my pet seemed displeased about my having failed to do something in time, and I had no idea what it was. (The pet was one of the nice parts of the game though, especially because I was able to figure out the next thing to do with it. But in general, pets are the key to emotional engagement.) And I had pretty much mined everything at the initial location before I realized I could go anywhere else, because there weren’t any other locations mentioned in the description. On the plus side, integrating the objects into the descriptions is nice, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything important in the descriptions.

“Containment,” by Kevin Mintmeier. A nice solid game. At first the recurring messages made me think I was about to suffer a timed death — which, while it would’ve been appropriate for the setting, would also have been really damned annoying, because there’s a lot of backtracking — but it turned out that they were just a reasonably effective way of generating tension. There’s one big central puzzle, whose goal is effectively clued, and another couple of puzzles; nothing earthshaking, but fun to play. There’s a hiccup or two in the implementation, mostly that some doors have the same description from either side, but nothing game-breaking. (When I played there was another object that didn’t change its description after a crucial event, but that doesn’t actually stop you from solving anything critical, and the author says he’s fixed that.) So, yay!

“Heavenly,” by Jim Aikin. I’ve been to the Room Full of Kittens only once, and I have no desire to return? Do you know me at all?

So yeah, me and this game don’t get along. I had to hit the (as usual for Jim, excellent) hints relatively early on because of an interaction issue (the one Shane had), and — the game’s pretty short — I read through to the solution. Now, I have absolutely no problem if you want to satirize Heaven, but I’m not going to pbzznaq n obl gb xvpx n chccl. Not even in fiction.
Piffany disapproves.

“Into the Open Sky,” by Matthew Lindquist. This is an interesting one. The author deliberately made it easy, saying “I’m not great at puzzles so I focused more on exploration and the writing.” Which is a good way to go — better than being not great at puzzles so coding puzzles that are impossible to solve. Frustration factor: low. (In fact a bit too much so — in the path I played, there’s one cut scene that really could’ve been converted into more actions.) And I liked the way exploration revealed more of the scenery and backstory, without ever coalescing into a grand story. You have the sense that the author had a story in mind, but not that you have to collect every token to understand what happened. Your understanding will remain unsolved and atmospheric. The optional coda is also a nice touch.

The flaw is that the author isn’t a native English speaker, and while his English is pretty good (a hell of a lot better than my Swedish), this story puts a lot of weight on the writing. There are a fair number of errors that spellcheck can’t catch — for instance, a soldier who was “dressed in cameo and carried a large riffle,” which I didn’t know was the name for the red thing. OK, unfair, but the writing (and the diction, too — “camo” doesn’t seem right for the mood it’s setting) blunts the emotional impact that’s probably intended. Though the bit you can get if you choose the bad ending is pretty nice. Anyway, an interesting game, and worth playing around with. I’d like to see what the author can do with a co-writer.

“Critical Breach,” by Grey. The opening sequence, and one of the later sequences, are surprisingly effective; somewhat like Lurid Dreams, some very restricted actions but the restriction is justified, to a haunting effect. And these scenes are less, well, lurid. Wrapped around this is a game that has some nice puzzles (and a couple where I got stuck because I didn’t know where to look for stuff). Not quite sure what it adds up to in the end, but maybe it doesn’t need to add up to something perfect. One of the better games in the comp.

“Couch of Doom,” by Megan and Margaret Moser. I actually played this out of order, which partly is credit to its premise (also, for some reason, “Into the Open Sky” was seeming more time-consuming than it turned out to be at that moment). The version I played seemed unfinishable without the hints; there’s a point where something crucial seems to go undescribed, even when you look where it ought to be, and some sequences require very specific commands that are probably hard to discover. (The authors say they’re implementing more synonyms, but some of the actions are enough off the beaten path that that might not help — maybe a list of verbs, or some in-game hints as to the syntax required.) Fortunately the in-game hints finish by giving the conclusion, and the premise is just a winner. There aren’t many games about cheering yourself up enough that you can get up from the couch, and there should be more. The authors should keep at it — work on implementation and hinting, but keep realizing their vision.

Also, I liked the cat. You knew I would say that.


  1. […] JayIsGames Interactive Fiction Escape Comp: Some Brief Reviews Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 7:34 pm Tags: Interactive Fiction @SoM [More reviews here.] […]

    Pingback by JayIsGames Interactive Fiction Escape Comp: Some Brief Reviews « Saucers of Mud — February 9, 2010 @ 12:20 am

  2. […] 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

  3. […] 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 @ 5:46 pm

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