Saucers of Mud

February 21, 2010

JayIsGames IF Comp Reviews, Part 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 10:58 pm

First two batches of reviews, and the games are all here.

One note about these games; I find that my experience playing them is sometimes less stressful because I know the authors are often first-timers, and so I don’t necessarily feel that it’s my fault when I don’t get something. Perhaps related to this, I’ve been a little grumpier in this comp with more established IF authors; it should be understood that I’m grading on a curve. Also, it’s just an immense comfort to know that there’s a walkthrough right there.

Also, I think this comp may be an excellent introduction for first-time authors, because it lets you get instant feedback and revise as you go along. Jenni’s experience with “An Open Field” seems to me like it might have been better than mine, because a bug or two may have been fixed. (Or maybe she just didn’t get stuck and try “take all.”) What I’m saying is, it seems hard to beta-test your game, and if everyone knows that they’re kind of going to be helping the authors beta-test, maybe it’ll help ease authors in. This is related to the whole issue of whether IF people are too unwelcoming to first-time authors, which I really do mean to write about sometime.

Something not to add: JayIsGames’ captcha of doom. If you don’t enter the captcha in time, you wind up having to refresh the whole page, which in this case quit me out of the game I was playing and scrambled my whole playing order. So I’m not even sure I’m reviewing all the right games here. Also, I’m probably going to go out of order soon anyway, so I can play some of the games that look good and are now right at the end of my queue.

Oh, and I think the secret theme of this competition is cats. But then, I think the secret theme of everything is cats.

Reviews after the jump; as usual, any big spoilers encoded in rot13. Reviewed so far: “Terminal,” “The Manor at Whitby,” “Drama Queen 7: Mother Knows Best,” “The Zeroeth Dimension,” “Virtuality,” “Fragile Shells,” “Golden Shadow,” “Escape in the Dark,” “Escape into Fiction,” and “Party Foul” (sort of). Feeble excuses for not reviewing Also reviews of “Paint” and “Basic Train-ing.”

“Terminal,” by C. Everett. This got off to a bad start when the objects in the initial room had default descriptions; and while the initial room isn’t important, the lack of programming polish later led me to hit a wall in gameplay when one crucial item wasn’t mentioned in a relevant description (though there was a clue that indicated there was something there, it was hard to tell what), and another didn’t have enough synonyms implemented — both requiring some pretty severe noun-guessing. (I mean: there were tanks there, but neither the word “tank” or “tanks” got me what I needed.) There was some nice weaving in of back story, though in the end I wasn’t quite convinced that the world was as richly imagined as that of “Into the Open Sky” — there I’m convinced that the author has something in mind for some of the less explained details, here I think it might just be enigmatic. A couple of nicely done bits, though, which require spoilering: V yvxrq gung gurer jrer (cerggl pyrneyl sebz rneyl ba) gjb qvssrerag cnguf gb gur raq, and the descriptions you get as you jnxr hc gb lbhe arj obql were suprisingly effective.

I had a plot question, though: Jul qvq Pngurevar fgrny gur tveyvr znt? V’q haqrefgnaq vs fur arrqrq n zbqry gb jbex sebz va pbafgehpgvat gur obql, ohg gur tnzr znxrf vg cerggl pyrne gung fur, hz, nyernql unq n cresrpgyl nqrdhngr bar jvgu ure. Perhaps this is made clear if you play through and explore more thoroughly than I did.

“The Manor at Whitby,” by L.E. Hall. This game definitely does some things right and well, but for once I thought a lack of IF polish hurt it even though it didn’t particularly obstruct the gameplay. The writing is pretty good (with one quirk I’ll mention), and I particularly liked the old creepy legends you can read through at the beginning, partly because they sound like actual old creepy legends. However, every room description follows the form “[Paragraph describing the room.] You can see [some stuff] here.” And if something is mentioned in the description but not in the stuff, it’s almost never implemented. This is traditional old-school style, and of course after the second “You can’t see any such thing” you learn not to try to interact with the unimplemented stuff; but in a game that’s going for atmospheric effect rather than for puzzliness, the lack of implementation breaks the spell.

NPCs have a similar problem — most seem to be there for one or two purposes, and then just stand there issuing default responses to everything else. This seemed like a missed opportunity especially with the butler. A butler who mechanically says the same thing in response to whatever you try to do could be effectively creepy. But you’d have to choose that thing carefully.

OK, that last paragraph was basically a complaint that I couldn’t find a way to pet the cat.

Good stuff in the writing and the setting, though (with one quirk: Gender-neutrality can be a good thing, and I have no general problem with singular “they,”, but here it’s damn confusing). There’s also one very nice puzzle that is a lot more like the sort of puzzle that you find in escape the room games than IF in general — since escape the room games are visual, they have more ways of communicating information, and that effect was simulated very nicely here. I didn’t solve the puzzle, though. I also seem to have blown the ending without even realizing it, and am left somewhat unsure of exactly what the backstory is. Anyway, with more implementation this could be very nice.

“Drama Queen 7: Mother Knows Best” by Hermdog. I started off prejudiced against this — the title made me think I wouldn’t like the jokes. And the writing was shaky enough to be distracting. The first puzzle was well-hinted and had an appropriately gross solution, but then there’s a timed puzzle… whose goal is kind of counter-clued (although it’s early enough that try-and-die is acceptable)… whose implementation is sketchy (ubj gur url pna ur farnx hc oruvaq zr naq uvg zr juvyr V’z rknzvavat gur wnpxrg ur’f jrnevat? V zhfg or n ernyyl onq fcl)… and whose solution turns out to be a verb guess. Now, I’m in no position to complain, since I wasn’t even trying to do the actually quite logical thing that I was supposed to be trying to do, but if I had been trying to do it, I would’ve been put off by the default failure messages for my attempts to do it using standard IF verbs before I hit on the non-standard verb I had to use. I’ll repeat myself: In most games a given non-standard verb won’t be implemented, so the player isn’t likely to try the non-standard verb you’re thinking of unless you’ve hinted it pretty well, particularly in response to other ways of doing the same thing. (Which actually did work for the non-standard verbs in the first puzzle.)

I also wasn’t particularly fond of the jokes, though as ever that’s subjective.

“The Zeroeth Dimension,” by Team Abstract Cloud, and “Virtuality,” by Mark. Reviewing these together because, while they differ in many ways, they both share an overall feel, and that feel is of complete insanity. Really, I’m not sure exactly what is going on — no, I’m not even sure approximately what is going on — but I actually got pretty far in both these games, and they have a certain charm which might not survive if their flaws were fixed. When an author writes “A dangerous, *tedious* game awaits you!” (that’s from the blurb for “Virtuality”) you know that they’re not quite on the same wavelength as you may be.

“Virtuality” seems less buggy (which is good) and like it has a lot more things implemented (which is good) and much longer (which is not necessarily good). I almost finished “TZD,” but stalled out because (I think) I had not done something to some of the objects I was asked for, which I don’t think I was asked to do. “Virtuality” I did something that I knew was going to kill me, but didn’t realize it would kill me beyond the reach of “undo” (it’s a timed puzzle, but one you’re warned about and for which the solution should seem pretty obvious) — but I guess this is an indication that my tolerance had run out. Still, there are a reasonable amount of amusing things going on, and actually a fair amount of depth — there seem to be multiple ways through. I also think, from looking at the walkthrough, that I may have put the game in an unwinnable state — V phg gur jver gb xvyy Obool, naq gura V nccneragyl sryg thvygl sbe zheqrevat uvz, naq pbhyqa’g trg vagb gur iveghny ernyvgl juvpu frrzf gb or arprffnel sbe zbfg bs gur raqvatf. Rkprcg V qvqa’g npghnyyl srry thvygl nobhg zheqrevat uvz. Vs gurer jnf rire na ACP jub jnagrq zheqrevat, vg jnf guvf bar. (The walkthrough, BTW, is as crazy as the rest of the game.)

Oh, and “Virtuality” has a puzzle in which you have to navigate around an old-school DOS interface. Props for implementation, but I did not enjoy this puzzle. That would be the sort of thing I was playing games in order to not do, if it were not the sort of thing that I had started using Macs 25 years ago in order to not do. It’s like, I’ve made jokes about how you could make a game of concentration where you had a huge pile of socks and the goal was to find two socks in that pile that matched, but I would not actually play that game. I’d just sort my socks instead.

“Survive,” by Baltasar. This is kind of not a game. There is really an astonishing amount of cutscenage, and about four or five commands that actually do something other than advance the cutscene, at least two of which involve verb-guessing. Unfortunately, the author’s command of English really isn’t good enough to get away with this much noninteractive text.

“Fragile Shells,” by Stephen Granade. This was as solid and enjoyable as I expected from an IF stalwart. (Which is why I played it out of order.) Very well written, the backstory wasn’t earth-shaking but it was dropped in nicely, the puzzles were fair (I had to hit the hints once for a classic escape-the-room reason: I’d neglected to examine something) and pretty cool, and the aforementioned hints were exemplary, at least the ones I saw. It was always clear what your goal was, even if not quite how to get there. All in all, exactly what you’d expect one of these games to be like, if written by someone who really knows what he’s doing. The only thing that surprised me was that there wasn’t a suggestion of AMUSING things to do.

But did Suze remind anyone else of Peep Show?

“Golden Shadow,” by The Technomancer. That was… short. There were a couple of implementation hiccups, as in a description of a (nonessential) object that says it’s on the floor even after you’ve picked it up. (Though looking at the version history, this seems to have arisen as a result of fixing a similar issue with that object. Polishing this stuff is hard.) Anyway, the puzzles are straightforward and fair, and one is pretty clever, but there isn’t a whole lot to this. Also, why is the image for this game green? I’d expect it to be golden.

“Escape in the Dark,” by Owen Parish. A misnomer — you get the light on pretty quickly. This game has some pretty clever puzzle ideas and is nicely written — I especially liked the atmospheric rain effects — but I got sent to the walkthrough by a couple of guess-the-implementation problems. I had quite a bit of trouble interacting with the movement across the hall, and then, ye gods, the throwing. The thing is, because Inform implements “throw” as a default synonym for “drop,” unless you specifically implement a bunch of different prepositions for “Throw x [preposition] y,” players who use the wrong preposition will get “I only understood you as far as wanting to throw x,” and then when they throw x they’ll just drop it. And then they may decide that the solution to the problem isn’t to throw x at all. (I’ve already complained about this, which perhaps indicates that it’s a common issue.) Anyway, the solution is probably to implement a bunch of different prepositions, at least to tell the player which one to try.

The basic interaction that you use to solve most of the puzzles is pretty neat, though. And it seemed like a lot more stuff was implemented than in the author’s IF Comp game. So good show there. (This is also a pretty short game.)

“Escape into Fiction,” by M27. This was… not bad, actually. The writing isn’t the smoothest, and there are some description issues — there are a lot of bookshelves that are described as having, say, a set of encyclopedias on them, but when you search or examine them they’re empty (because you can’t actually interact with the encyclopedias). And there are rooms full of bookshelves that lead to pretty repetitive descriptions of the “You see here a…” sort. However, and this is big, the disambiguation worked smoothly enough, and when you type “lighted candle” it automatically lights the unlit candle instead of making you jump through hoops. There were a couple of puzzles whose solutions were a little tetchy (as in, made me hit the walkthrough), basically depending on making you look everywhere for objects; in particular, there’s one case where you have a problem, and when you find an object it’s described as “You could solve your problem with this object!” — where it would probably be better to hint it when you encounter the problem, by saying, “Gee, if you had this object you might be able to solve this problem.” Except not so stupidly. I didn’t even solve the problem once I had the object, but that’s because I was dumb and didn’t read the text carefully enough. And overall it was engaging enough.

Also, for a game that describes itself as lightweight, the ending was actually rather sad. (I don’t really understand why the action that gets you the good ending does get you the good ending.)

“Party Foul,” by Brooks Reeves. This is, like everyone said, a good game. Excellent, true-to-life situation — you’re at a party and you want to leave, but you have to pry yourself, your husband, your baking dish, and your coat away before you can — and the characters were nicely if broadly drawn. I especially liked the host’s commentary from behind the bar. I had some trouble finding the right topic to ask people about in order to get me a clue for the next puzzle, but that’s a problem I often have with ask/tell conversation systems. Kind of ironic, because I have an idea for an overly ambitious party game in which you’d be doing a lot of asking people about other people and topics — it’d be a roguelike, where a lot of the play would consist in tactically maneuvering yourself across a crowded room, and talking with other people would be the ID system.

Anyway, I hit a huge block in the middle of this game — described in comments, I thought it was a bug, but it turns out that there was something I could’ve done to get things going again, which I humbly submit was not entirely my fault for missing. (I have sent the author an unsolicited suggestion for how to clue it more, because I love helping people. You, humble reader, should zip up your jacket.) I could’ve found the solution by trying everything until I found the only action that did anything at all, and in fact a couple of other games (“Lurid Dreams” and “Critical Breach”) used that device very effectively — but unlike in those games, my roadblock here came at a moment of triumph, so the feeling of banging your head against a puzzle wasn’t as effective (and I think wasn’t intended).

Still, good game, and one I’d like to come back to, but I have to give an incomplete — literally, for me.

“Paint” by Paul VanKoughnett. The writing in the opening text seemed remarkably good, and like a lot of the world had been imagined. Ditto for the first room description. I didn’t see any more of the game, because I decided I was a little burned out on IF right now. Sorry! I did wind up coming back to this — it was really short. The writing was impressive, as full of character as “Broken Legs,” and from the author’s comments on the competition page he was up to something very interesting, where the PC’s goals pull against the narrator’s goals, and the player had to decide between them. Much of that did come across; you got the sense of the desecration of the paintings and museum, even though it was in a good cause. And the worldbuilding was particularly solid for such a short game.

However, the author’s Inform chops didn’t live up to his writing and ambition. There was a fair amount of static descriptions — the main room description stays the same even though it mentions an event as having just happened, and other elements in it get moved around, and there are objects whose description seems to presuppose they’re in the original location even after you take them. [Playing around a bit more, if you go off the main path things can get seriously wonky, though that wonkiness seems to get you the alternative endings. And ooh, plot twist!] And the few puzzles there weren’t well hinted: Va gur cngu tvira va gur jnyxguebhtu, gur bayl erny chmmyr vf gb tvir gur unzzre n arj unaqyr. Ohg jura V gevrq gb nggnpu gur ebq gb gur unzzreurnq, sbe frevbhf celvat cbjre, V tbg fbzrguvat yvxr “Lbh’q arrq fbzrguvat gb nggnpu vg jvgu.” Juvpu znqr zr guvax gur chmmyr jnf gb svaq fbzrguvat gb nggnpu vg jvgu, naq yrsg zr zbaxrlvat jvgu gur qencrf. Va snpg, gurer jnf fbzrguvat ryfr gung nggnpurq gb gur unzzreurnq jvgu ab arrq bs na rkgen snfgrare — gur pyhr frrzf gb or gung vg’f n “unaqyr,” ohg gur pbagrkg znxrf vg fbhaq yvxr n qbbe unaqyr. Naq nppbeqvat gb gur qvfphffvba, lbh pna trg na nygreangr raqvat ol uvqvat gur cnvagvat va gur qenvacvcr, ohg gur qenvacvcr qvqa’g rira frrz gb or vzcyrzragrq. About that last, I think one of the author’s bugfixes may have broken that object.

However — I look forward to anything else this author writes, or even perhaps this game expanded into part of a larger whole. The alternate endings idea is neat, and it’s OK to have the game be so short if the idea is to make you choose your ending — strip it down to the essentials. IF chops seem like they should be relatively easy to pick up, and a better-functioning game from this author should be something special. (I didn’t find the choice that hard, but then again I had the same experience with Floatpoint — I was like, “Vaccine! Gimme!” Perhaps I didn’t explore enough to find out why I shouldn’t be; that was one of the first IF games I played.)

“Basic Train-ing” by bpsp. So, obviously this one I didn’t even start. I’m mildly prejudiced against it because of the hyphen, but that hardly seems fair. [UPDATE: Ok, having looked at the beginning of Jenni’s review, this is actually pretty funny. UPDATE 2: OK, awesome premise, clever puzzles, but kind of buggy in spots — more stuff should be implemented, and definitely more synonyms. If the answer to a puzzle is “Open x with y,” “open x” should NEVER get you “That’s not something you can open.” Or was it “unlock”? Anyway, definitely keep this up — a cool game that is hobbled by implementation problems can become a cool game if you fix the implementation problems. And actually the main gameplay mechanism was very neat.

Also, kitty.]


  1. Regarding Virtuality: Vs lbh gnxr gur zvpebpuvc bhg bs gur iveghny ernyvgl znpuvar naq qb V sbetrg jung vaibyivat gur pbzchgre naq gur QBF cebzcg naq gur avpr ynql, lbh pna unpx vg gb pbfg abguvat, ynfg ybatre, naq abg erdhver Obool gb jbex. I wasn’t thrilled about using DOS again, but at least I was used to it.

    Comment by Jenni — February 22, 2010 @ 3:39 am

  2. Ah. I think the game was unwinnable, then, because I’d already oybja gur pbzchgre hc before doing all what like you said; that was how I’d died. In fact I don’t think I’d encountered any avpr ynql at all. Anyway, while it was amusing for a while how totally cracked-out the game was — and it’s not totally fair to compare it to the Zeroeth Dimension, which really seemed like “You Are a Chef!” except maybe not on purpose, where “Virtuality” did a lot of kind of complicated stuf — as I say, while it was amusing for a while, when I realized I had killed myself and couldn’t undo, I was relieved.

    Actually, I kind of have the same feeling about the comp being officially over. A little IFed out, here. Like, I started up “Paint” and thought “The writing at the beginning is really good. I want to read my Diana Wynne Jones book now.” I might just write up my review for “Party Foul” (it seemed really good, except Noorl naq Eba arire tbg gur qnza yvtugf onpx ba naq V’z jnaqrevat va gur qnexarff sberire, and I think that’s a bug) and, I guess, write up a summary post, and call it a month.

    Comment by matt w — February 22, 2010 @ 7:23 am

  3. Ah, it turns out my “Party Foul” problem was not a bug, I just hadn’t done something that’s required to get the game back on track, and my cursory scan of the walkthrough didn’t reveal it.

    My Diana Wynne Jones book was pretty decent, although definitely not up with her best.

    Comment by matt w — February 22, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

  4. Which Diana Wynne Jones book? I just finished the Chrestomanci Chronicles. She’s one of my faves.

    Comment by Jenni — February 23, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  5. House of Many Ways, billed as the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, though so is Castle in the Air (which I haven’t read). Anyway, she does the usual DWJ trick of not having it be “Further adventures of Howl and Sophie” but having them show up as characters in someone else’s story. Though it is kind of like HMC, in a not-quite-as-good way.

    The Chrestomanci Chronicles are really good too — I especially think Witch Week is a masterpiece in a “transcends YA lit” way. Have you taken the which DWJ character are you? quiz, which doesn’t seem to be working now? I was Catriona Sykes from Archer’s Goon, which was pretty pleasing to me, though I think I’m a lot more like Howard really. (Just now I typed “Catriona Strang” instead, who is some kind of language poet.)

    Anyway, if you like DWJ, you should read this, which is my best post ever.

    Comment by matt w — February 23, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  6. Oh, and I totally lied — I played Paint after all. It turns out that I was not as burned out on IF as I was on adding up the scores for the extremely large number of tests that I had graded, particularly once it became apparent that if I tried to finish adding them up before the next class I’d be up past the point when I can actually add.

    Comment by matt w — February 23, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  7. […] JayIsGames IF Comp Wrapup Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 5:46 pm The games are here, and the winners are announced here. My reviews of all the games are in three posts: one, two, three. […]

    Pingback by JayIsGames IF Comp Wrapup « Saucers of Mud — February 23, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

  8. I liked Castle in the Air well enough. Haven’t read House of Many Ways. Eight Days of Luke is still my favorite. And crapstones is a good word.

    Comment by Jenni — February 25, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  9. […] was also pleased by how my game was reviewed. Gruelove, Matt W., and the always-hilarious Jenni Polodna all had positive things to say about it. Jenni even gives a […]

    Pingback by I Have Many Facets, Like an Onion | Live Granades — February 20, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

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