The 2011 Interactive Fiction competition is on, with lots of games in lots of different systems. Interactive fiction is generally the kind of game where you read things and then type in commands to do things, though not always. People used to get eaten by grues in these games, but that’s rarer now.
Here is the list of games, many of which can be played online; for others you’ll need an interpreter (playing offline with an interpreter may improve your experience with some of the off-line playable ones).
If I played a game online, my review will include a link to the online-playable version. I’ll start with mostly spoiler-free discussions, though I will talk about general themes and the like; some spoilers may be rot13ed in the main discussion, but if I extensively discuss something spoily it’ll be at the end of the entry below a spoiler space.
In this entry: PataNoir, Blind, and Playing Games. Previous reviews here.
PataNoir, by Simon Christiansen. A detective game, except that whenever the writing contains a simile you can interact with the simile on the literal and the figurative level. So if the description says that someone is “sharp, like a tack,” you can pick up the tack, and you can use the tack later to make something else sharp. Which is an original premise, and buckets of fun. You wind up doing a lot of surreal and illogical actions, and sometimes you do something not because you can see how it will serve your goals, but simply because you can do it. But this worked much better than the similarly surreal puzzles in Earl Grey (where you directly manipulated the words in the game’s text) because the possibility space is so much smaller. In many parts of Earl Grey, since the effects of my actions were almost entirely unpredictable, I found I had to scan every single word to see whether it could be altered in an appropriate way. In PataNoir, you only have to consider the similes in the descriptions and the figurative objects you have, so it’s much easier to think about all the things you can do and whether they might work.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have to use the hints or walkthrough (though at least once, I had just missed a simile). One issue I sometimes had is that the in-game hint system only gives hints for the room that you’re in, so if you don’t know what to do next you have to walk around to different rooms asking for hints until you get a response. (This was particularly annoying once when I didn’t actually have any outstanding puzzles; I just had to revisit a location to trigger an event.) And toward the end of the game I thought some puzzles got a bit too obscure. There were also a couple times when I had trouble getting the game to understand what I wanted it to do (examples after the spoiler space). Also, the writing isn’t quite at Pacian-like levels of awesomeness; though to some extent the similes have to stick out like a sore thumb, so you know to interact with them. (In this case, you might want to apply a metaphorical bandage to the sore thumb, which would cause the similes to recede into the background a little.)
All this is nitpicking, though. It’s an excellent game with fun puzzles, and the best joke is saved for last. Bonus points for using Detective Copernik from “Red Wind,” which isn’t Chandler’s best known work but might be his best. (Seriously, read it.) Highly recommended.
Blind, by Arman. You’re a blind woman who’s been kidnapped and needs to escape from a psycho. And, um, it means well, I guess? But it creeped me out, not in a good way. It tries to sympathize with the protagonist as a woman and a blind person, but it seems pretty clear that it’s happening from the outside. I don’t think the protagonist would mention her auburn hair, and when you find that the underwear is implemented, well, it could be a lot worse, but it’s still not empowering when the PC fails in combat (and gets killed) because fur vf hanoyr gb sbyybj guebhtu jvgu n jrncba orpnhfr ure rarzl oehfurq ure oner obbo. There were also some fiddly interactions and actions that failed for reasons that were not clear to me — spoily details below the spoiler space — and a couple default things that shouldn’t be in there. (When you open a container it “reveals” stuff; should probably say “inside I can feel…”) On the other hand, it does implement a few senses reasonably well, I finished it only using two hints, and the timed death puzzles were forgiving enough that I could get out of them with multiple UNDOs. (A nasty look is here cast at Losing Your Grip.)
Playing Games, by Pam Comfite. Another shorty short short one. There’s some relatively straightforward IF puzzling at the beginning, and then the bulk of the game consists of three similar puzzles that weren’t particularly textual but that I did enjoy. Well written and enjoyable as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go that far. I do like the idea of presenting graphical puzzles using ASCII characters, and this game did a good job of integrating that into an IF interface.
A couple of times my problem was that I expected an action to be more complicated than it was. For instance, when the people were awaiting the call to prayer, I was expecting that I’d need an instrument or something, but I just needed to type “CALL.” Which is not a syntax I’d have expected to work. A bigger problem came in getting the icicle; I knew I had to work with Wesson to get it somehow, but I had to lawnmower the hints to figure out how we could work together (“climb wesson” didn’t work).
There was also this:
>stab snakes with strand
I only understood you as far as wanting to stab the snakes.
You don’t have a knife.
The strand seems to have been cut from a roll of steel wire. It is long, thin, and sharp. It might be useful as a weapon.
>hit snakes with strand
You skewer the nearest snake with the steel strand. The snake writhes in pain and flees from the garden. The other snakes follow its example.
though in this case what I had to do was so obvious that I was confident that I could do it if I tried enough syntaxes.
Blind: This had another big moment where you have to take an action that doesn’t seem like it’d be successful — “TURN OFF GENERATOR” when examining it hadn’t revealed a switch or anything. Also, I tried to dump the psycho in the deep freeze, but pushing him and picking him up yielded unhelpful default messages. And locking the car doors and rolling up the window didn’t keep him from getting in and killing me — which, I suppose he has keys, but it seems like the game should acknowledge that I tried? I wasn’t actually too fond of the “go through every step it takes to start a car” puzzle at the end, though I guess the PC wouldn’t know what to do.