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IFCOMP 2006 Reviews - Full Journal

Introduction to Mike Snyder’s IF-COMP 2006 Review Journal
Written on 10/07/2006. Scoring sections revised on 10/10/2006.

     This year, I started late. Here it is a full week after the games were released, and I have only played the first from my randomized “comp06.z5” list. One game was retracted and another is mine, so I have forty-one games remaining.

     I always try to find something good – something I enjoy – even in the bad games. My unofficial rankings are often higher than those of the real judges. I may categorize a game as “very good” where others consider it below average. I may score a game as “outstanding” where others find it merely passable. I can enjoy a game that’s technically bad, and even recommend an entry with bugs (especially if the author releases a post-comp update). I don’t know how true that will be this year, since my tastes change the more I write and play IF, but it has been true in the past.

     [RANT] I play interactive fiction because it’s fun. Playing and reviewing this many games may seem like a chore at times, but it really shouldn’t. These are the creations of real people, not emotionless robots. The feedback (especially when it’s brutally negative and lacks tact) can be a major slam to hopeful entrants. Let the score we assign be our stamp of approval (or disapproval). In reviews of amateur, hobbyist games, we need not be so callous and cavalier. Perhaps a review can be honest and critical without merely slapping the faces of these authors. This is the philosophy I try to use when I review interactive fiction. [/RANT]

     These reviews will form a kind of player's journal, since I'll write each one immediately (if possible) after playing the game. My reviews may contain spoilers. I’ll try not to do it, and I’ll try to explain things without giving away a puzzle or the story, but if I can’t, I can’t. Just keep this in mind when reading my reviews. Also, the number beside each review is the order in which it was played, not its order by rankings (although they will be re-listed in rankings order on the review list page.

     I will use a variation of the same ranking system that has keep me on track when reviewing prior competitions. In those prior competitions, I would assign a base score that could sometimes fall a half-point between two rankings (when I couldn’t decide whether it was “good” enough to bump up or “bad” enough to bump down). This year, I will be more decisive. All games will be scored a flat 1 through 10, without this half-point confusion.

     For previous competitions I also added “skew” points to some scores. These were a half or full point (sometimes more) up or down from the base score. This was always noted and explained, but it may have been confusing that a game with a 7.5 (base) + 1.0 (skew) was technically between 7 and 8 on my scale, but in getting an 8.5 by my personal bias, it wasn’t actually between an 8 and a 9 on my scale. See? Confusing. Since my preferences are inherent to the scoring system, I’m also dropping skew points this year. As a replacement to the flexibility I intended to achieve with skews, I’ll use plus and minus this year. This is where I’ll put any additional bias, so that it won’t wreck the correlation between score and definition.

     Some reviews may list specific problems (bugs, typos, uncategorized quirks) in the competition version of the game, which may not be true in versions updated and released after the competition. I do this partly as feedback to the authors (not all of whom I can/should contact directly), partly as points for other IF authors on the kinds of things that can go wrong, and partly as an explanation or justification for the score.

     As I'm not strictly bound by the 2-hour rule (I can’t submit votes), I may play longer, and I may revise my scores after giving more thought to the game later. However, I hope to keep such activity under control, since in future years I may be a judge instead of an author. This could be good practice for that.

These define my scoring system for the 2006 IFComp:

     ** 10 (incredible) – A game that makes me say "wow, that was incredible." It doesn't even have to be a perfect, flawless game (if it is, all the better) -- it just needs to be one that strikes a perfect chord with me -- a great story, maybe, with characters I believe in; a plot that is inspired; a miniature epic, maybe; something unique, something that astounds me, something that I really connect with.

     ** 9 (outstanding) – Again, maybe not a perfect game, but one where the problems weren't a distraction. Great story, great plot pace; a setting I found especially appealing; fun to play, fun to read, well-clued puzzles. This may also be a game where the author has made great use of his or her story, game structure, and characters. There may be very little (or no) technical difference between a “9” and a “10” on my scale. The difference is probably based on that “wow” factor, where a “9” is great but lacks some kind of emotional connection that would bring a “10” to life.

     ** 8 (very good) – One I enjoyed, but thought "it might have been even better if..." This might also be an outstanding game that just didn't hit me right; a genre I don't personally favor, for instance, but I was still able to appreciate the quality of the work. It's still a game I enjoyed playing. An “8” will have good writing, and if it has puzzles, they’ll be good and clued fairly. Generally, I will have no big complaints about an “8”, except maybe that the story, game structure, or characters may not have been used to their full potential.

     ** 7 (good) – A game worthy of the competition, but it could use some polishing. My hope is that most of what I play won't fall below this mark. This is a game I liked, but with noticeable typos, obvious omissions, suspicious puzzles, sparsely-implemented scenery, maybe a few bugs… just things to be improved upon for an updated release. This could also be a game that still seemed to fall short of its potential, even if the prior things (puzzles, scenery, etc) weren’t very problematic. This would be a game where these problems didn't really detract much from the experience for me, although I would expect the ratings of other reviewers to be less forgiving. This could also be a game that might have been a “6” or even a “5”, except that the story seemed unexpectedly good, making up for the more serious problems.

     ** 6 (average) – A game with a few more problems. Maybe this means more typos than usual, some bugs in the game that might either render it unfinishable or begin to detract from the experience, not enough implementation of the scenery, or quirks that just seem misplaced or unintentional. This could also be a game where frustrating, badly-clued, or overly-complicated puzzles bring down a score that might otherwise have been better due to the game’s other strengths. Some instances of any of these things can still make it into a higher ranking for me (even a “10”, if it’s the right game), but this score would imply that the game seemed a little rushed, unpolished, or unbalanced.

     ** 5 (below average) – This would be a game with quite a number of problems, or one I found frustrating to play. It could still be a game that I ultimately liked, just one that would put my entire ranking criteria under suspicion if I were to rate it higher. This would be a game that has potential – the author is on the right track – it just needs more work. It has probably failed in more than one area – puzzles, writing, story, etc.

     ** 4 (poor) – This game would be one in which I felt quite a bit of frustration, either with too many problems in the writing, the programming, the puzzles, the setting, or all of the above. This is a game in which I started to lose interest, began to cringe quite a bit, or just really disliked the obscurity of the puzzles (or the bad writing or uninspired plot). This is probably a game that felt more amateur as opposed to merely rushed and unpolished.

     ** 3 (very bad) – This would be a more extreme case of what a “4” represents. This is a game where it could be difficult or impossible to finish due to the problems; major bugs, glaring mistakes in the text; maybe even blatant attempts to make the player mad (without any indication that the emotion is helpful to the story). This is where it becomes more difficult to pick out the redeeming qualities in the game, because it isn’t much fun to play.

     ** 2 (horrible) – At this stage, I’ve found very little in your game to be excited about. It will have some kind of quality that sets it above a “1”, but only by a small margin. Maybe something you wrote was especially clever, or I found the setting to be interesting even if the entire implementation was not. I will consider this just a step above “unplayable.”

     ** 1 (unplayable) – I don’t mean that I can’t run it at all, because it wouldn’t be fair for me to rank a game I can’t even try. However, even though I can run it, I might as well have played with mud for two hours. I can find nothing of interest in the game, no reason or justification to bump it up to a “2” - basically, I strongly dislike the game.

     A plus by any score indicates a positive bias. Maybe it featured some plot twist I really liked, or a character I enjoyed, or clever writing that couldn’t really be factored into the score. A minus indicates a negative bias. Maybe it was intentionally insulting, or I expected more from the author, or it was in a genre I really dislike. Unlike previous years, these skews won’t affect the numerical score, but may shift games with the same score up or down within their own group.

Game #1: Moon-Shaped (by Jason Ermer)
Played: October 5th-6th (2 hours 45 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 8+

     Game’s Blurb:

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognize.

     Jason Ermer claims this as his first completed work of interactive fiction, and it’s a great first effort. Moon Shaped was a perfect game to launch my play-list, and with luck, a good sign of the quality I might expect from this year’s IFComp.

     Most of my yearly IF-playing comes from the IFComp. In the interim, it’s easy to forget how engrossing and powerful an interactive world can be. Moon-Shaped was successful in drawing me into the moonlit night, through the countryside and to grandmother’s house with a basket of goodies, as little Rosalind in her red cape.

     Yes, it’s that story. As spoilers go, that’s a given. It’s clear from the beginning. Equally clear, though, is that Moon-Shaped is a darker telling, hinting that there is more to the tale. Ermer borrows from the Brothers Grimm again, crossing plots with another famous children’s story. Then, he mixes in an element of Russian folklore. It never seems forced. The way it fits together is clever and inspired, giving importance not only to Rosalind’s lineage, but also to the more fantastic and grisly elements of the stories that are stale and unquestioned in a traditional fairytale telling.

     It works because in all likelihood you are familiar with the source material. You know the basic plots, you know what’s involved, and you know how these stories end. This makes it easier for the author to introduce some twists along the way, without making it too obvious too soon. It was only after taking a day-long break half-way through (I started playing too late the first night) that I started to mull over the story thus far. What I suspected proved true by the end, and a bit more.

     On the technical side, the problems in Moon-Shaped are few and generally minor. You can put the story into what is probably an unwinnable state from the start (in the competition version, anyway), although it’s by taking an action that is obviously contrary to how the story must go. It’s also an obscure thing to try, and something that is otherwise prevented – you can leave home without the basket of goodies if you put it all on the table. In a few cases, the text assumes a condition that isn’t true (the bucket attached to the roof of the well, even after you lower it). I noticed very few typos (few being more than none), but otherwise, it’s a well-written work.

     All in all, I was very impressed with the detail in Moon-Shaped. Ermer missed a few chances to include bonus actions, but not to the point that it feels under-implemented. The bigger problem is with the clueing of some puzzles, and to a lesser degree, with the recognition of synonymous actions.

     Of the former (clueing problems), entering the cave was particularly troublesome. There is a clue, but it’s easily missed in one of the visions Rosalind encounters. I went to the hints, and it’s the kind of puzzle that may force most other players there as well.

     Of the latter (unsupported actions), I had the right idea for opening the grandfather clock. I even knew the specifics to make it work. I gave up after a few failed attempts, only to later learn (via the hints) that what I tried was right. In one case, I had been told “I don’t understand that sentence” where additional feedback along the lines of “please be more specific” would have helped. In the other, reasonable equivalent actions might have worked, but didn’t.

     That’s not true of every puzzle, though. most work very well, with perfect clueing that still leaves a sense of accomplishment afterwards. Opening the locket was a favorite moment. Finding the cage (and taking candy from it) was another. Most of the puzzles are fair and rewarding.

     The ending branches in eight ways (they’re numbered), but they’re separated by only two or three moves at the end. Nothing that happens earlier seems to affect this, although some of the endings may be impossible if you didn’t bring a certain item or two. I had it all, so I worked out the eight possibilities in only a few minutes.

     This is a step above choose-your-own-ending, but just barely. I would have preferred a single longer ending, but it was nice to find all of them easily. It seemed a little like a collectible card game, but it was fun.

     Maybe because it was the first game on my list, or maybe as a credit to an engaging, well-told story, it has stuck with me through the additional day it has taken to start the review. When a work of IF is memorable in a good way, the author has succeeded. I hope Moon-Shaped won’t be a one-time offering from Jason Ermer. With such a strong, well-written entry, I expect him to place highly in the competition.

     I ranked Moon-Shaped as an “8” on my scale. Some of the puzzles didn’t seem well-clued, but it didn’t seem severe enough to drop the score. Because it was an entertaining and well-written start to the competition, it gets a plus.

Game #2: MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness Part I: Enigma (by Bill Powell)
Played: October 8th (3 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 5

     Game’s Blurb:
     London, 1912. When you invade a bored boarding house and proceed to climb the garden tree, stage an impromptu concert, and propose to a stranger, your fellow lodgers assume you're eccentric, rather than insane. Until you show them your revolver.

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognise.

     I originally planned to play MANALIVE Part 1 and Part 2 together, then write a single review. After all, it is one story split in two.

     My plan has changed.

     To start, I didn’t know the first part would take well over three hours to complete. I also expected the quality between Part 1 and Part 2 to remain the same, but now, I don’t want to take this for granted (or rather, I don’t want to assume the second part will suffer from the same problems found in the first). Part 2, being Powell’s second game, may be more polished. It was entered separately, and I would like to review it separately, on its own merits. I may still play and review the second part next (it would ordinarily come much lower on my random list), but the reviews won’t be combined.

     Not long ago, I had a discussion with David Fisher on the Interactive Fiction Forum (http://www.intfiction.org/forum) about adapting static fiction to interactive fiction. The discussion centered around Star Wars, where many players would know the source material very well, and either be tempted to test the boundaries of the story or simply glide along the rails. To introduce interaction, the author must take liberties with the story, introducing pieces that were off-screen, so to speak. MANALIVE proves that an interesting story can make interesting IF, but it also suffers from design and coding flaws that prevent it from being a really successful conversion.

     Because this is the second game on my list and the first was also an adaptation, I will take a moment to draw comparisons. While Moon-Shaped borrows from static literature at a basic level, it doesn’t appear to duplicate the text verbatim (text that is probably written a hundred different ways in as many versions). MANALIVE is less adaptation and more conversion, to the point that the G. K. Chesterton story (previously unknown to me, but included with the game in a separate text file) makes up much (most?) of the text in Powell’s interactive version.

     This makes it a hard game to judge. What’s good in MANALIVE is writing that can probably be attributed to the Chesterton original (published in 1912 and not under copyright at this time). Powell has necessarily added to this with the introduction of puzzles, parser responses, etc, but until (and if) I read the source material, it’s hard to tell one from the other. As an adaptation, I don’t fault Powell. He is evidently a huge Chesterton fan, and it makes sense to preserve the flow and wit of the original. Still, if you strip away what isn’t directly adapted from the source, you’re left with a frame that seems unstable and under-implemented.

     It’s a game plagued with bugs. These range from mere distractions (like missing line breaks) to text that is out of sync with the state of the game (I’ll list a few, momentary), to situations where the game is seemingly frozen in an unwinnable state. Because this is a story Powell already knows, I suspect it’s a matter of writing with proverbial blinders on. If the game was tested by anyone but the author, it doesn’t show in the end product. Testers without an existing knowledge of the source material would have been ideal.

     This isn’t to downplay what really is a worthy achievement: turning static fiction into interactive fiction. The hours spent taking the text and bringing it into Inform, coding the rules and the relations, piecing it back together in a sensible way – the effort shows. Still, this is undermined by the implementation problems, and that’s unfortunate given the effort Powell has shown.

     When the text describes something that doesn’t reflect the state of the game, it becomes hard to trust anything that happens. This is common in MANALIVE Part 1. Near the beginning, I am described as having climbed a tree I never actually climbed. Then when I do, I’m described as climbing back down upon taking an action that is probably supposed to happen while up there (although I had already climbed down). I had my belongings with me on the roof (which may have been a bug in itself), yet the other fellows brought these same supplies up with them. When Diana is in the kitchen, her description claims she is still out in the garden (which was earlier). She can also be asked about supper again, even though it’s the morning of a new day. Hunt appears at the back door at one point, even though I had just passed her outside.

     These discrepancies are overshadowed by the more serious problems. I’m sure the causes are simple and easily corrected, but the result is still bad. An interesting action is suggested by the text (in regards to an NPC), near the start of the second chapter. If you take this action, the story skips not only the rest of chapter 2, but all of chapter 3. You arrive in a state that is clearly meant to happen later. I believed this might be intentional (although it seemed unlikely), until I realized from the walkthrough that the same NPC should be there afterwards, yet she isn’t. This also skips a few things that may very well matter from chapter 4 onward.

     The strangest thing I encountered, though, was in trying to talk with Inglewood at a point the walkthrough said I must. He would not respond, which meant I could not advance, which meant the plot was stuck there. I restored an earlier save, went through a little differently (but for the same results), and then it worked.

     This leads to another problem in the conversion from static to interactive. The author knows what must happen for the plot to advance, but we as players don’t – unless, of course, you are already familiar with the G. K. Chesterton story. It may be reasonable to Powell for players to enter rooms that were previously off-limits or try to cheer up an NPC when the motivation is lacking in the text, but without clues (good ones), we as the players may overlook it. The “special verb” puzzles didn’t seem as big a problem (they were hinted in the text, and seemed reasonable enough), but there were times when I just wasn’t sure I was supposed to be doing something. The hinting may be there, but if so, it’s a shade or two too subtle at times. For example, it is necessary to unpack your belongings (not just leave them behind) before the plot will proceed at one point. This is easily accomplished, but without some motivation, easily missed.

     Much of the game also felt under-implemented, as though Innocent Smith was an actor on a stage rather than a participant with real freedoms. I don’t necessarily mean freedom of action (which is generally okay in this game, but I’ll get to that), but freedom to poke at and play with the props. In a stage play, this would only serve to remind the audience that it’s a cardboard world, with scenery that is easily toppled. So it is in MANALIVE Part 1. The story is rich in detail, but most of it is either “not seen” when referenced, or “not important” to the story.

     Then there are the small things. Your score drops to zero in some losing endings. It would be nice if the chalk was assumed (since it’s all that fits) when drawing. I have transcripts that point out more, available to the author upon request.

     Where Powell strays from the source material, as far as I can tell, it leads to a losing ending. Early on, you can end the story by not retrieving your hat. You can die from poisonous spores (more or less), a little later. You can also take an action near the end that seems to be what the story expects of you, thereby ending before Part 1 is supposed to. These are interesting endings (and easily reversed with an UNDO or two), showing that that story does stray from the source material. It just isn’t in a way that can allow the real story to proceed.

     The walkthrough reminded me of one I saw in the 2004 IFComp, for a game called Ruined Robots. It was a list of commands (including the mistakes), as though recording had been enabled but not edited for accuracy later.

     This is a strong first draft. The competition deadline probably smacked Powell the way it always does for most of us, but with more time, more revision, and more testing, MANALIVE Part 1 could probably have been what he intended it to be.

     In its present state, it’s a “5” on my scale. It’s a bit above my definition of “poor” (due more to Chesterton’s story than to Powell’s implementation), but it still seems a little below average. I liked it well enough, but the problems did become a distraction. I hope for a better experience in MANALIVE Part 2.

Game #3: MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness Part 2: Explanation (by Bill Powell)
Played: October 8th (1 hour 30 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 6+

     Game’s Blurb:
     Having attempted murder in your landlady's front garden in Edwardian London, you receive a private trial in the dining room. Enemies expose your wretched past: burglary, desertion, polygamy, murder...but you remember these incidents a bit differently...

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognise.

     Despite a level of implementation that actually seems worse than the first half, MANALIVE Part 2 is less frustrating and more fun. It was much lower on my random play-list, but I bumped it up so that I could finish the story of “Innocent Smith” the same day I played and reviewed its beginning.

     Initially, it’s frustrating. The game is coded in such a way that nothing works. My all-caps notation in the transcript might have been real yelling if my baby wasn’t asleep and my wife wasn’t nearby. The beginning text was like film on a pond – I could poke at any part of it, but nothing was underneath. The most amazing part is that I even took the three paper shapes, yet nothing happened. When I went to the hints, I really wanted to scream. The answer – completely unprompted as far as I can tell – was to touch each of them. Didn’t I already?

     Ordinarily, this might be unforgivable. How many judges will give up then, and never play further? Some? Many? Most? I didn’t give up, and I’m glad I got to see the rest of the story. As it all unfolded, though, it was easy to see how the details in the G. K. Chesterton story were completely overlooked in Powell’s interactive implementation.

     You can’t rake the lawn, even though you find the rake. You can’t swim in the sea, because there isn’t enough water. When the story refers to “liquer”, you get a valid response only by referring to it as “brandy” (as it appears in your inventory). When rowdies blocked the way, the game told me I saw no such thing. In fact, not seeing things that were plainly described (even seemingly clued) in the text was a common hurdle through all of MANALIVE Part 2.

     The game succeeds only because the source material is interesting. Also, it’s presented in a way that works better than the first half, by letting Smith leave the boarding house in his memories. Equally welcomed – and probably Powell’s own creations – are the losing endings. They allow Smith to remember these incidents the wrong way, which causes him to truly go mad. I liked this. The hints were a necessity (not merely a luxury) in spots, but it was shorter and more focused than the first half.

     G. K. Chesterton’s “Manalive” was, according to Powell, published in 1912. It’s interesting that it reminded me of newer works. Most notably, the scene with Eames carries with it the same message Tyler Durden gave to the clerk in Fight Club: take nothing for granted, and live tomorrow as though your life might have ended today. The ending, too, had hints of Stranger in a Strange Land, in that there are better ways to treat people, and better ways to live life. In this case, it’s a vague connection, but one that hit me nonetheless.

     Even so, this is a credit to Chesterton – not (unfortunately) Bill Powell.

     In Part 1, I had very little sense of who Smith really was. To some degree, that’s probably intentional. It didn’t occur to me, though, until playing Part 2 that Smith seemed to have no purpose, no real characterization aside from the vaguely eccentric, and no real motivation for doing anything in the first part. This is resolved by the end of the second part, and I can see why Powell picked this for adaptation. It’s a good story, and one that’s worth telling. It just suffers from a weak and lackluster implementation.

     I have given MANALIVE Part 2 a “6” (which is “average” by my scoring definitions). Implementation is weak, but fewer things go wrong and nothing seemed to break the game entirely. It also gets a plus, because Chesterton’s story did make for an entertaining read. Eventually (maybe after I have played and reviewed all the other entries), I would like to read the original. It’s probably a story I would like.

     I also encourage Bill Powell to polish up both halves of MANALIVE the game. Don’t rush it. Go back and add in the detail that’s lacking. Really bring the story to life, have it tested by several people, revise, and re-test. Then re-release this game, letting your implementation shine like the story itself. You might even merge the halves, by compiling to GLULX instead of ZCODE (excuse me if it’s not quite so simple – I’m not an expert on Inform development, but I believe you can avoid the Zcode size limit when you target this alternate model – it might even be possible just by going to .Z8 instead of .Z5). This could really be an incredible game, but it needs a lot more work.

Game #4: Unauthorized Termination (by Richard Otter)
Played: October 9th-10th (2 hours 55 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (version 4)
Unofficial Score: 7+

     Game’s Blurb:
     You are a senior investigator with the police force of what is basically a totalitarian state. On a world where nearly all forms of crime are punishable by execution, you have been called on to investigate someone who has been unlawfully killed.

     XYZZY Response:
     [Press ENTER for cheat mode]
     A small voice says, "I'm sorry, but on Morbian the command xyzzy is meaningless."

     The introductory background material for Unauthorized Termination is both intriguing and daunting.

     On one hand, I enjoy worlds that adhere to a carefully planned model. As a citizen of Morbian, you should know about various body types, creation centers, crime and punishment (laws), fuel consumption and recharging, the usage (or meaning) of general terms, religion (the origin legend), series types, teleportation, and units of measured time. It really shows the thought and detail put into creating the Morbian society.

     On the other hand, if it’s really important to know all of it, how would my memory and comprehension serve me? It’s easy to review each bit in-game using special single-word commands, although “creation” displays the same text as “body”, and “fuel” is listed twice. I struggled, at times, as I confused a body type for a proper name, or forgot that the series number has nothing to do with the creation center.

     Ideally, this information might have been relayed in pieces (with the ability to review any part that was already shown). For a short game, I can see the difficulty in that. In a longer one, a better idea might have been simple puzzles through the beginning that introduce the recharging, and then the importance of laws, and then maybe the creation info, and perhaps the body types, models, and series types after that.

     By the end, though – and this is important for first-time players – it does make sense. Perhaps my mistake was in trying to understand it all from the start. I expected that some of this knowledge might work its way into puzzles. Maybe it would be important to know that “action x” could not have been caused by a certain functioner because this particular functioner has wheels instead of legs. Or, maybe my understanding of laws 4361 and 6610 would ensure (at some point) that I didn’t enter into a situation that would lead to my own termination. It didn’t work out that way, which may be good or bad. Borrowing two more hands, it either saved me from tricky logical deduction on one, or was a missed opportunity on the other.

     Epsilon-Beta handles the deductive reasoning. As a player, I only had to follow the clues. It’s not a difficult game, despite what may seem to be an overwhelming amount of world-defining exposition. I used the walkthrough once or twice, but I might have avoided it with a bit more persistence.

     What I came to realize is that learning how Morbian works is a big part of the game’s appeal. The story is fine (relentless cop defies boss to solve the case and save the day), but putting this in a uniquely odd society – where the emphasis is as much on the backstory as what’s happening currently – made the game more interesting than it might otherwise have been.

     The writing is okay, although some typos show up here and there. The style fits with the utilitarian setting. My biggest complaint (for which I’ll forego any other discussion of the writing in Unauthorized Termination) is with Richard Otter’s use of commas.

     The comma is a tricky little thing. In essence, it separates phrases and tells a reader where to take a mental pause. Commas have rules (as do other kinds of punctuation), and these rules don’t come easy to some of us. Even with my little pocket references for grammar and the rules of writing, I don’t always get it right. What stands out about Richard Otter’s writing, though, is that he really really doesn’t get it right. Commas sometimes take the place of periods (the so-called “comma splice”):

     “Little is known of those early times, some even doubt the existence of the 'first one', but most agree…”

     The fix? Let the bit before the first comma be a single sentence. Sometimes, it’s only a matter of the comma being a word or two out of place:

     “The circular id badge which, is both an id and security pass, reads…”

     The fix? Move the first comma after the word “badge”, since this is where the embedded clause begins. At other places in the text, a comma is sometimes used unnecessarily:

     “With a barrel shaped body it has four, multiple jointed legs and two arms.”

     The fix? I’m tempted to say remove it entirely, but it’s probably needed after the word “body” (before the remainder of the sentence). It’s the “multiple jointed legs” bit that throws it off. Read it as “four multi-jointed legs” instead. See the difference? It’s easy to over-analyze a sentence, but this might instead be written as:

     “It has four multi-jointed legs, two arms, and a barrel-shaped body.”

     I mention all of this (and at such length) because reading certain passages in Unauthorized Termination felt like walking with a shoelace untied. I kept tripping over these instances of comma misuse (especially during the first hour), and it would take a bit of mental stumbling to get back on firm footing.

     At the end, I was left with a few questions over plots points that seemed... unresolved. I hesitate to call them plots holes, because I could very well have missed a clue or misunderstood what was happening. When Epsilon-Beta reviews teleporter logs that have been erased, new entries (for E-B’s own usage) aren’t shown. The tracer finds one terminated functioner outside (distinguishing between him and the fake), yet later the tracer reports the whereabouts of the impostor instead. How do things go from the interrogator to the shelf in Zeta-Theta’s domicile, seemingly without Zeta-Theta ever leaving the Examination Center? What was the purpose of the Center for Distraction? Was recharging really necessary? It was easy enough, and appropriate spots are everywhere, but (a) these guys really need batteries that get them through the day, and (b) because it was so easy, it seemed like an unnecessary limit.

     As for bugs, I noticed only a few. I had a tough time getting the game to disambiguate badges, because replying with just the shape (as seems logical) didn’t do the trick. It usually required the entire description, in order to tell one badge from another. At one point, one of the teleporter options (from the Center for Distraction to E-B’s domicile) wouldn’t work, even though it was listed. The game just kept saying that it didn’t know how to achieve that (which seems to be a generic response for unrecognized commands). Near the end, it was still possible to read a piece of paper that had been taken away from me.

     The game worked well, with its numeric and sometimes alphabetic command shortcuts. It was easy to view laws, interact with the communicator, and teleport from place to place. When I got stuck, it was at times when I didn’t think to go back to a place I had already been – a place where I had already seen and done what needed to be, yet something different (and necessary to advance the story) happens on the way back. Overall, the puzzles are clued well. That, and they seem simple enough to keep the pace moving.

     Oh – one other thing. It’s a world ruled by robots. That’s worth a plus, and Unauthorized Termination gets an unofficial “7” from me.

Game #5: Floatpoint (by Emily Short)
Played: October 10th (3 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Unofficial Score: 9

     Game’s Blurb:
     Note: Floatpoint requires a Glulx interpreter; I recommend Spatterlight on MacOS X or Gargoyle on Windows/Unix.

     XYZZY Response:
     I didn’t understand that sentence.

     Having never played a game by Emily Short but knowing her high standing in the interactive fiction community, I started Floatpoint like a down-and-out boxer hoping to spot the weaknesses in a reputably superior opponent.

     It’s not the best way to start a review. In general, though, it feels like I’ve played every entry so far this year as though I’m beta-testing it. This may have been intensified for Floatpoint because I consciously played it as a concerned competitor would. Does it fail in any area that may count against it? Are there bugs that judges may notice? Is it hard to follow, and does the plot show obvious problems?

     These are good questions when evaluating a game, but I wasn’t only evaluating it for review. If I could find fault in Floatpoint, could I draw any conclusions from it? Would it be under as much scrutiny from other judges, whose expectations may be equally high? If problems do exist but they’re ignored by most reviewers, would it mean anything? If the same problems are found and criticized in other games by those same reviewers, what would that imply?

     In the end, it was all just wasted speculation. I found a few bugs and minor quirks (I’ll discuss these a bit later), but nothing of major significance. Floatpoint isn’t a perfect game, but I haven’t ever played one that was. At times, I wondered “how would I have found this thing?” or “what if I hadn’t thought to do that?” What’s amazing is that I did find or do just what I needed, every time, and that can’t be coincidence. It’s proof that it all worked. At no time (prior to my search for additional endings) did I feel stuck or lost or in need of guidance that could only come from the hints.

     Of the writing and the story, I may have expected something esoteric and poetic. Really, I don’t know what I expected. Floatpoint is a game like any other, and it was neither hard to follow nor over my head. The story is filled with interesting ideas that are expressed imaginatively, just as good IF should be.

     It was exactly the kind of science fiction I enjoy most. David Moskin is Earth's newest ambassador to Aleheart Colony, founded on a cold and remote planet. Earth has a reason to hope for the return of its long-separated and genetically-altered descendants, just as the citizens of Aleheart have a reason to abandon a world where a worsening climate threatens their future survival. The story begins with this much, but the details are worked into the story as David finds his way to the embassy and begins a day of familiarizing himself with the populace and their customs. He also prepares for the duty that is expected of him by the Aleheart ambassador, and this is where he learns that something so seemingly simple might make all the difference in their future relations.

     In the static fiction I enjoy most (books by Jack Vance, C. J. Cherryh, and others), what I find really fascinating are the strange customs of alien cultures – especially those cultures derived from an Earth origin. Vance commonly uses colors, appearance, and gestures as key features in describing the interactions and taboos of an alien culture. For instance, yellow clothing might indicate contempt for the elderly, or maybe jewelry can’t be worn during the day without inviting the taunts of children. I find that Vance uses this in an intentionally amusing way, but it also works in a more serious story like Floatpoint. This is important to the story (especially to the decisions that lead to a number of possible endings), and I would have liked to see even more of it.

     The game is structured so that players can see the sights of Aleheart Colony – the planet’s ring, the enormous glacier, the neglected buildings of old town – before the story moves into more enclosed places. It seems that more may have been planned for these outside areas, but maybe it was only meant as a scenic introduction.

     Each character has his or her personal viewpoint and agenda. It stands to reason that they should, but it sometimes doesn’t play out that way in other games. Different characters may offer conflicting advice, and the story involves learning what it all means and making informed decisions at the end.

     Until the end, I believed there to be only one possible “right” choice. I really only focused on how I might decide which NPC to believe, thinking that one way would work while the others would lead to failure. What I found is that all ways lead to different degrees of failure and success, but most result in an ending scene that could easily have been the only ending. After the first, though, there is no doubt others must be possible. It’s just a matter of combining the two different choices, before following through to the end. Somewhere in the process, though, I forgot to consider what the combinations might represent. It became just a matter of working out the possibilities, and then seeing what would happen as a result. That seems like the natural result of this kind of ending, but it may not have been what Emily intended.

     A few things (the little man, for instance) seemed to hint that there might be other endings that are a little more difficult to find, or which don’t directly follow the gift-giving ceremony. I’m curious to find out more from other players, after voting ends.

     Floatpoint includes some special features that, while not entirely unseen in other games, are pretty rare in the IF I have played before. A “MAP” command gives a list of locations already visited, which is then useful for the “GO TO” command. Glulxe pauses for a second or longer for the latter (especially when the destination is a good distance from where you start), but the path taken is described and it beats walking there location by location. I found this more useful in Floatpoint than I recall it being in the only other game I’ve seen it done (Return to Ditch Day by Michael Roberts). A “THINK” command shows David’s mental checklist, which works much the same way a list of objectives does in a mission-oriented video game. This list is updated and displayed automatically as needed, unless you disable it.

     As to bugs and quirks, I noticed a few. If not for my intentional prodding, it would be an even shorter list. Some of these are definitely bugs, while others could just be a partial misunderstanding of the game’s structure on my part. As I said in the introduction I wrote before starting the process of reviewing this year’s IFComp, it should be noted that these are my observations of the competition version. These problems may not exist in later updates (if any), released after the competition.

     I could “get disk from slot” but “get disk from computer” wouldn’t work. Equipment mentioned in the lab could not be referenced. When I found a yellow paper and referred to it as “paper”, the parser believed I meant the receipt I had already found. Garbage didn’t allow “trash” as a synonym. Putting anything into the chute in the private lab gives a blank response (although the item does go away). It seems that “hug” (as a verb) was treated the same way as “kiss”. Liam speaks tentative English, but I never was quite sure why David assumed he would be unable to understand a reply. A couple times, Liam didn’t wait for my answer (immediately after asking a question). The game described Pamela as leaving Aleheart’s edge (and I couldn’t “see any such thing” when referring to her), even though the text described her doing things that would imply she was still there. I couldn’t retrieve the personal float unit after accidentally leaving it behind in the private lab, since I was no longer authorized to enter. One of the things on David’s mental checklist seemed to remain near the end, even though it should have been marked off. In the writing, I noticed a missing word here, an extra line there, but nothing less trivial.

     The strangest bug – and one I wasn’t even sure was a bug, at first – happened when I entered the private lab. The line “She greets you with a stream of words you don’t understand, and bows deep” was repeated a half-dozen times, followed by “--> The scene change machinery is stuck”, and then the whole pattern again. At first, I thought it meant the scientist was a projection or illusion that had become stuck – like a skipping record. After every turn, though, the same sequence was repeated. Somehow, I thought to get off the personal float unit (which is how I accidentally left it behind), and then the “stuck scenery” would stop until I got back on. I don’t know how the two things were connected, but they seemed to be.

     Even that one is minor, in that it has no bearing on actual gameplay. What I learned from my heightened scrutiny is that Floatpoint shows a level of polish that most IFComp games won’t. It’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s a game that’s difficult to dislike on any point. If you are already a fan of Emily Short’s work, you will probably find it faultless. If you are looking to prove it unworthy of this year’s top spot, you will find faults. Any other entry, though, when examined in the same way, will be no different.

     The “floatpoint” theme was worked into the story in several noticeable ways. The floatpoint “objects” were obvious, but maybe it also applies to the icebergs (which do float, right?), the doodad that measures three statistics to multiple decimal places, and maybe even the gift-giving decisions (the final and pivotal point in the story).

     It’s a great game, and even at such an early point in playing through this year’s entries, I suspect it will win. The pessimist in me says that an equally good or slightly better game won’t have the advantage that Emily’s popularity lends to Floatpoint. The optimist in me says that judges aren’t fools, and Floatpoint is as deserving of the top honor as any other entry is likely to be.

     It’s a clear “9” on my scale, which is functionally the same as a “10” except that a “10” will have hit me in an unexpected and more emotional way. Floatpoint will be the game to beat this year.

Game #6: Labyrinth (by Sami Preuninger)
Played: October 12th-13th (3 hours 10 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 4

     Game’s Blurb:
     Puzzle-heavy game set in an Escherian environment. The zip file contains a hints file in addition to the z8 file and the walkthrough. The hints file provides gentle nudges only, without explicit instructions.

     XYZZY Response:
     Sorry, but that isn't one of the magic words.

     If ever a work of IF needed graphics, this is it.

     They wouldn’t even need to be fancy. Each room in Labyrinth is an unfurnished 30x30-foot cube, with each wall a different color. Archways lead between rooms, but they are sometimes on the floor or ceiling, upside down on the walls, or in other awkward orientations that don’t make sense until the entire room is turned. Perhaps proving that I have poor spatial imagination, I found it difficult to “see” each room. It did get easier later (probably due to familiarity), but it requires re-reading the same room description with subtle differences over and over.

     My first thought was of the movie Cube. The lead-in seemed to suggest it. A stranger in the next room seemed to confirm it. Cube-shaped rooms, colored walls, openings into identical rooms... it all added up. This had me expecting deadly traps and surprises that just never happened. It’s as though the similarities were completely accidental. Was this inspired by Cube at all? By the end, it seems unlikely.

     I have taken a three-day break between playing Labyrinth and writing this review. This is exactly what I said I wouldn’t do (where possible) in my Introduction. I have also tried to reconcile the frustration I felt in playing Labyrinth with my claim that I’m a less harsh reviewer who focuses on what’s good in a game. If anything, I feel as if I’m being too nit-picky, looking for bugs and problems in every entry instead of playing with the wide-eyed (if naïve) excitement of prior years.

     So, before I launch into a lengthy section on bugs and other problems in the game itself, I want to discuss for a moment what’s good in Sami’s entry. First, the maze isn’t as large as I expected. As far as I can tell, there are eight rooms arranged in a 2x2x2 cube. The one recurring puzzle that brings it all together is that you can only exit through archways that are properly positioned on a north, south, east, or west wall. This requires learning magic words that rotate the entire maze, so that what was formerly straight up and out of reach (for instance) is now west and accessible. Even though I struggled to visualize the layout of each room, this alone is a pretty interesting puzzle. Associating a scent with each room – (do the scents have any meaning or symbolism to the PC, or are they arbitrary?) – was better than the alternatives (leaving items behind as markers, or perhaps designations like “room #1” and “room #2”).

     This, however, is where I would have changed things. Instead of eight boring, empty, identical rooms, how about eight frozen scenes from the PC’s life instead? Perhaps an upside-down wedding day, and a childhood memory turned on its side? Not only would it have elevated Labyrinth from being a puzzle game for the puzzles’ sake, but it would have been more interesting to read than the same six-colored empty room over and over. The archways could connect related scenes, so that it becomes a trip through the PC’s more influential memories. A clichéd premise? Maybe. I’d still prefer it. This might have been more difficult to render successfully in text, but I think it’s possible.

     Aside from the straightforward trappings of IF (directional movement, combining two items to make something new, finding a key that unlocks a door), most of the puzzles in Labyrinth are stupefying. They are math and logic brain-teasers, really. If you like logic problems, you may like that Labyrinth is essentially a container for three or four of them. I’m sure I’ve seen “nim” somewhere before, yet I tried for forty-five minutes to solve it on my own. Once I read the answer in the walkthrough, it clicked. I spent that long (or more) on the ten-statement logic puzzle before looking in the walkthrough. I didn’t even try breaking the cipher (coded message), although there was a time when I used to really enjoy them.

     Maybe my frustration comes from learning that I lack the deductive skills and reasoning power to solve those puzzles on my own. I won’t be sad to never see another traditional logic puzzle in a work of IF again, although this could be the perfect warm-up game for those of you with Mensa-quality brains.

     Even admitting to my deductive failings, I find that Labyrinth has a shocking number of implementation problems for what’s essentially a very small game. I would have liked to see single-letter abbreviations for the magic words, since they are used so frequently. The six walls of different colors seem important, yet they are inconsistently implemented. Usually, you “can’t see any such thing” when examining them. One of the walls is important, but the game had conditioned me to believe the walls couldn’t be referenced in any situation. In one specific instance, for one specific verb, it works. Making the amulet could have gone a little smoother (“attach” and “link” from one object to the other might have worked). The old man tells you to ask for a rematch if you want, but “ask man for rematch” assumes that “rematch” is an object that doesn’t exist. I found the interface for the “nim” game a little clunky (why couldn’t “get” have worked, or better yet, just a single number representing how many counters?) and talking to the old man could have been smoother (I wanted to say “yes” or “no” but you have to direct this to the old man). How did I know north from south inside the cube? Why didn’t Melanie have more of a reaction to the strange surroundings? If you try to “get counters” in the second room, you are notified fifty-one times that they seem to belong to the old man.

     Labyrinth fits my definition of a “poor” game (a “4” on my scale), even though I think that’s an unfair label in this case. I found it frustrating, but others may find the puzzles challenging and the room connections easy to visualize.

Game #7: The Initial State (by Matt Barton)
Played: October 17th (3 hours 10 minutes)
Platform: Unknown – Possibly Microsoft C++ (MS-DOS Executable)
Unofficial Score: 7-

     Game’s Blurb:
     Initial State is a deeply psychological text adventure set in deep space. You play as an amnesiac who finds himself stranded aboard an immense ship drifting through space. The game is also a literary exercise in the "unreliable narrator" tradition.

     XYZZY Response:
     I don't follow you. Type HELP if you're confused.

     If, by chance, you have already played The Initial State, you are probably goggling at the “7” I rated this game. I suspect most judges won’t finish it, and of those, most won’t play past the first few minutes. It will get 1’s and 2’s and a few 3’s from judges. It will probably rank near the bottom of IFComp 2006 (although, if past trends hold true, at least four games will likely rank lower).

     After playing Labyrinth four days ago, I wanted to take a break before playing and reviewing the next IFComp entry (even though I’m woefully behind as it is). Among other reasons, I just felt as if I’m being too critical. My short reviews of IFComp 1999 – during my initial period of renewed interest in interactive fiction – are more in line with how I wish I could play and review IF now. It was fun then. It was almost impossible to disappoint me, even in a below-average game. I was still writing IF in QuickBASIC, and I saw things from that side. I was accustomed to home-brewed engines, I wasn’t completely spoiled on the conveniences of IF shortcuts, and I could become immersed even in games that might annoy me today.

     So, when I set out to play the next entry on my randomized list today, I wanted to relax more, play for fun, and try to focus less on the technical failings (if any). Luck dealt me the ideal game for such an attempt. It’s a home-brewed game played in a DOS window, lacking even the courtesies some other home-brewed games provide (a “save” feature, an “undo”, “x” as an abbreviation for “examine”, no status bar, etc). A week ago – or a week from now – I might have rated it much much lower.

     In my ranking explanations for a “7”, I make this claim:

     This could also be a game that might have been a “6” or even a “5”, except that the story seemed unexpectedly good, making up for the more serious problems.

     I did find the story in The Initial State unexpectedly good. The game’s blurb, however, is a little scary. Amnesia and an unreliable narrator? Yikes! Somehow, though, it works. The narration didn’t seem all that unreliable to me, but the amnesia bit was certainly there. I enjoyed piecing together the backstory, little by little, exploring and finding various notes, clues, and crew journals (video, audio, and written). If the story hadn’t seemed so interesting, and if I hadn’t started out trying to focus more on the story and less on technical flaws, the lack of hints and a walkthrough might have convinced me to give up before two hours – let alone three.

     There are three things I figured out, which really helped. First, even though the game has no transcript feature (nowadays I somehow feel lost if I don’t run a log), it was easy to set the properties on the DOS window to maintain 9,999 lines of scrollback (more than enough to complete the game). This could then be cut-and-pasted into a transcript. Second, the game’s data files, while lacking a file extension, are just plain-text. If you open the “verbs” file in NotePad (for instance), you can add synonyms for the verbs already listed (most useful to allow “x” as a shortcut for “examine”). Third, you can scrap complicated actions that involve using an object with an indirect object (xobject). All such cases, unless I missed something, can be accomplished with “USE (object) ON (xobject).” Instead of “point remote at screen” you will “use remote on screen”. Instead of “unlock chest with key” you will “use key on chest”. If you imagine it as the text representation of an old-school graphic adventure (pick the inventory item and then use it “on” something in the room), this simplistic approach is probably an easier pill to swallow.

     The Initial State would have been far better if it wasn’t held back by these and other limitations. The lack of an out-of-the-box “X” verb alone (especially when it was so easy to add) tells me that the author may have little to no experience with modern interactive fiction.

     That said, I hope Matt Barton does write more IF (perhaps in one of the programming languages designed for it). The writing is full of odd analogies that sometimes prompt a cringe or two (and not for the reasons Matt probably intended), but overall I found that it fits the story. There are some really clever, creative bits among it all, and the text in general is descriptive and interesting from start to finish.

     If ignoring the lack of the niceties found in other interactive fiction (something that will be impossible for most judges, I accept), The Initial State still has a few problems with its own construction. It seems to want to accept answers to “be more specific” questions, but it didn’t quite seem to work. For instance:


     What do you want to use the remote control on?


     Even if I could screen the screen, I wouldn’t.

     It doesn’t trim accidental leading spaces from command prompts, such that “look at couch” will work but “_look at couch” will not. It lacks obvious verbs like “read”, which would have been easy as an alias for “examine”. Sometimes, there were blank responses to commands (notably when trying to “break” certain things, but in other cases too). I saw a few minor typos, one spelling error stood out (not bad, really), and one case of “it’s” where the author meant “its”. At the end, there appear to be some end tags missing in at least one of the pseudo-XML data files, allowing you to completely skip a couple final puzzles (those that would otherwise require the scalpel and the club). Some noun synonyms (for objects) are there, but not enough to help in all areas.

     The hardest thing to overcome in playing The Initial State, though, is how commands have been filtered into such a tiny list of things that will actually be understood by the game. The game advises you to type HELP if you are confused, but you’re likely to snap back that the game itself is confused. At least knowing that the game just uses “GET”, “LOOK” and “N/S/E/W” (plus the all-purpose “USE X ON Y”) turned it from unplayable to very easy to complete for me.

     I was really impressed by the story. I think I saw most of it (a peek at the data files shows that I only missed a couple clues along the way), and I think I have most of it figured out. I never understood what the one- and two-word messages were meant to show. Can anyone tell me? Also, was the ending a clue that something else may have been happening, or is it as straightforward as it seemed?

     On the surface, The Initial State may appear to be just like every other “unfortunate loner (sometimes with amnesia) escapes an abandoned (and/or doomed) space ship” game we’ve seen in past competitions. This one is something different. It has a backstory that I really felt moved to learn more about. I had a real sense that the game was written to tell this story, where in some others it’s more like a story was contrived merely to justify writing a game set on an abandoned (and/or doomed) space ship.

     I enjoyed the time I spent playing The Initial State. Looking at it for its own merits as an interactive story, and without allowing its crude custom engine to be the dominant factor in that, I score it a “7” on my scale. It gets a minus, though, for those technical limitations that played a lesser role in the base score.

Game #8: Simple Adventure (by Paul Panks)
Played: October 18th (35 minutes)
Platform: QuickBASIC (MS-DOS Executable)
Unofficial Score: 2

     Game’s Blurb:
     Simple Adventure is a basic Scott Adams-like adventure game written for the 12th annual interactive fiction contest. The goal is to slay the ice dragon.

     XYZZY Response:
     I don't understand the verb 'xyzzy'.

     If I were rude, I would describe Simple Adventure as Simply Abysmal.

     I think the game’s blurb lies. This bit from the introduction makes me think this so-called “ice dragon” is actually a Sith Lord in disguise:

     ...an evil dragon turned the good creatures of the forest towards the dark side...

     I’m tempted to let the following exchanges (showing that you can’t really trust what the game tells you) summarize my review, but I have a bit more to say afterwards.

     Here’s one:

     You are standing inside a darkened toolshed. There are a few items of interest lining the shelves here.
     >examine shelves
     You notice nothing unusual about the shelves.

     And another:

     >use lantern
     You can't use that here.
     >buy oil
     >use lantern
     Pzzzzt! The lantern flickers on!

     And how about this, in regards to a tree:

     ...It looks climbable.
     >climb tree
     I don't understand the verb 'climb'.

     I won the game quicker than I expected, because most of it is superfluous. With a minimum of effort, you can take the troll’s broadsword and defeat the dragon quite easily. You just need the lantern, the oil, and the rope (for going “up” the tree). Pick up a helmet along the way, be sure to wear it (and wield the sword), and you’re golden. On my first run, I remained pretty healthy during the battle. On my second attempt (because I expected something more), I even started the fight with fewer hitpoints. When I dropped to 0, I was able to keep fighting and gain some HP back. Although you can fight anything that’s alive (monsters yes, but also the villager, the clerk, and a bard), it doesn’t seem necessary. You don’t even need the armor from the shop (and even if you kill the clerk, you can’t steal it).

     It’s the same problem in some of the other games Paul has written. The combat system seems important to the game, yet it doesn’t work as intended. I probably needed to kill all the lesser monsters, level up (maybe a couple times), earn enough gold to buy the armor, collect the other pieces of defense (helmet, shield, etc) and then take on the Sith (er… I mean ice) dragon.

     It’s almost a non-game: no story, no creativity, no substance. The included text file states that Paul intended it to be a programming tutorial for would-be authors of text adventures. Without debating why would-be authors of text adventures would be wise not to follow this pattern, the game itself didn’t have to be dull and unoriginal.

     Paul is immune to well-intentioned advice. Each of his games seem written without the benefit of the code he has already created, yet the same styles, themes, and dragons find their way into them again and again. He is stuck in the 1980’s, writing IF exactly the way I used to (and that’s not a compliment). He doesn’t improve, and the quality and implementation of each game, while low in general, varies wildly from game to game. Hasn’t he implemented “x” as the shortcut for “examine” in the past? This one doesn’t, and it assumes any “look” (even when specifying an object to look at) should show the room description instead.

     After being pleasantly impressed with the weirdly original Jesus of Nazareth in last year’s competition, I hoped for more. I am giving this one a “2” because, quite frankly, I didn’t enjoy it at all. This comes directly after I ranked another DOS-based game (The Initial State) much higher. Perhaps Paul has succeeded either in snapping me back to reality, or in reminding me how hard it is to maintain that kind of high-minded optimism.

     Well, Fetter’s Grim and Green Falls are both interesting titles. I’ll save further commentary for those, a little later in my randomly-generated play-list.

Game #9: The Bible Retold: The Bread and the Fishes (by Justin Morgan and “Celestianpower”)
Played: October 25th (2 hours 20 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     A light-hearted adaptation of the classic Bible story, The Feeding the Five Thousand. Not for the fundamentalist!

     XYZZY Response:
     Did you really expect something to happen? Collossal Cave Adventure won't be written for many years yet.

     This is shaping up to be a year in which I don’t play and review all the IFComp games. I’ve made it through this, the ninth game, and am only now getting around to the review (five days later). Seventeen more days before the voting ends means... I may not make it. With my current work schedule, I probably can’t make it.

     The first installment in the Bible Retold series (they’re planning another) is pretty interesting. It’s full of anachronisms, religious humor (sort of), and playful depictions of biblical events. I use the word “playful” because this retelling seems to be in good fun. It could be really offensive to those of a staunch Christians faith, if viewed as something that merely mocks the Bible.

     The beginning part is pretty smooth, but rushed development starts to show part-way and through to the end. The bugs are nothing a good post-comp update can’t fix (I’m going to skip the bug report for this review), but a couple of the puzzles left me confused.

     One requires looking up Bible verses and following instructions there. Somehow, I just never made the connection. I had assumed that one area in the game was a sort of model for part of a book in the Bible, and I remembered the notice at the beginning to either have a Bible handy or be prepared to look it up online. It just didn’t occur to me that I was in a puzzle that might only be solved by doing exactly that. I thought the Bible references would be handy for understanding the story itself, not for solving the puzzles, which may be how I failed to make that connection. I got the solution from the walkthrough.

     The other has to do with the geography of Mark’s Village. It’s one of those puzzles that probably seemed like a great idea to the author. During it, I kept flashing back to the cups puzzle at the pavilion in my own Trading Punches (2004). This elaborate system has been worked out, and it’s a pretty easy system to use, but it’s just not fun to repeat the same actions over and over, trying to figure out how to make it line up just right. I can’t say much more without giving a spoiler, but it involves Mark’s personal chariot and the intervals between houses.

     In terms of review size, I’m afraid I’m going to shortchange The Bible Retold. After five days, and even with my transcripts, I don’t find much else to comment on. I did like the writing, and the conversation between Yonah and Mark is interesting. It’s a good game of puzzles, but the competition release lacks polish. That’s why I’m scoring it a “7” on my scale. I expect good things as the series continues.

Game #10: Madam Spider’s Web (by Sara Dee)
Played: October 31st and November 1st (1 hour 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 9-

     Game’s Blurb:

     XYZZY Response #1:
     A piercing pain suddenly stabs at your temples. Then there are the voices, fading in and out like a radio with bad reception:
     Terrible... see her... blood... I know... so cold...
     As quickly as they came, they are gone.

     XYZZY Response #2:
     The whispering voices have returned. Your head feels like it is practically splitting in two.
     Can't believe... deploy... children wondering... don't know...
     Then nothing.

     Because I’m just about resigned to the fact that I won’t be able to play and review every IFComp entry this year, I’m starting to skip ahead to the games I want to play (each for various reasons), rather than the ones next on my random list. I skipped two games (if I have time, I’ll come back to them) to play Madam Spider’s Web.

     Even by IFComp standards, it’s a short game. I was able to finish the game in an hour, for an ending that I expected to begin another segment. The final screen-clear and the announcement of “the end” took me off guard. I spent another fifteen minutes afterwards, checking the walkthrough and replaying some earlier bits. There are multiple endings, but I saw (I think) only two of them.

     I’m conflicted about the game’s brevity. In a way, I think the competition should probably encourage games of this size. IFComp authors (and I’ve been guilty of this as well) tend to stuff as much into a game as possible, forcing players to see it at an artificial pace (using hints or a walkthrough), so that the entry feels substantial enough to stand well outside the competition. A game like Madam Spider’s Web, which comes in short with time left for replays, ends up feeling too brief when compared to other entries.

     This is probably true every year. In the case of Madam Spider’s Web, my basic reaction is that it would be excellent for a competition that calls for one hour of play. As a one-hour game, it’s superb. As a two-hour game, it just “feels” too short. It has to compete with equally good games that are longer, and those games are able to offer more puzzles, a bigger plot, and in a sense, a better experience. I don’t think it should be that way, otherwise this seems like a competition for longer games instead of short ones, but that’s my gut feeling after playing.

     The game does an excellent job at clueing the puzzles. I only felt stuck once, briefly, and then found my way again. I get the impression that Madam Spider’s Web might have been a longer game originally. Granted, this would be “stuck” time, but if beta testing and further refinements helped to resolve the sticking points, the result is a game that keeps a perfect pace but takes less time to complete.

     I hadn’t guessed the specifics of the ending, but very early on it made sense that things weren’t exactly as they seemed. This forced me to pay more attention to the details than I otherwise might have. I get the importance of the unconventional piano sounds, and I even see the connection between the three keys used to play them and another element of the ending. In a way, that’s the crux of the story, where what the “song” represents leads the PC straight to what the three keys together show. I get the “web” (it’s pretty clear in a bit of the story right before the end), and maybe the bug in a bag.

     Even so, I’m not sure I’ve connected everything from the house with clues at the end. Without delving into clearer spoilers, though, I can’t say much else about that. I like the story, and I think its only real flaw is that there just wasn’t enough of it.

     There were very few (and very minor) problems – so minor that calling them “problems” almost seems unfair. These are things like an extra blank line at a spot that’s inconsistent with the rest of the style, failure to accept “key” when answering a “with what?” question (typing the full command worked), etc. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even say “etc”. Those are the only two things that come to mind, even skimming through my transcripts.

     It’s a solid and detailed game. I don’t remember anything that “wasn’t there” or that I “didn’t need to refer to” when mentioned in a room or another object’s description. I could have missed something, but it looks like Sara was very thorough in implementing Madam Spider’s house. The game has a good way of drawing attention to important things and away from unimportant ones, without resorting to announcing the difference (in most cases, anyway – I did notice a spot or two where something is said to be important, but it still fits).

     It’s a simple but important trick to keep most players from dwelling too long on scenery. Just repeat what information has already been given. If you describe a shower curtain as “a beige vinyl curtain” in the room description (an example from this game), and this isn’t important except for a single action suggested in the text, then writing a long description that provides additional information might fool players into believing there is some further importance. It also means more adjectives, more nouns, possibly extra component objects to either implement or leave implementation holes by their absence.

     Instead of describing the shower curtain as (for instance) having silver rings, pretty patterns, maybe some creases or folds, water stains, and a new (or maybe an old) smell – all of which would have fleshed out the description in a more literary way – the “look at” description simply rephrases what was already said about it. No new information and no elaborate description for an object that exists for a singularly clear purpose means less work for the author and fewer avenues for players to become sidetracked. “A bland beige curtain circles the bathtub.”

     I really enjoyed Madam Spider’s Web, and initially my description of an “8” seems appropriate. It might have been better if it had lasted longer. I think my rankings are tougher this year than last. I gave Tough Beans an unofficial “9” last year, but I think I like Madam Spider’s Web better. The comments in my transcripts lack complaints, and are instead notes like “cool” and “I like that” and “very clever”.

     So, I’m scoring Madam Spider’s Web as a “9” on my scale. It picks up a “minus” due entirely to its brevity, but that’s not enough to stick with the “8” I had originally considered. Even on the short side, this is likely to be one of the best, most well-written games in this year’s competition.

Game #11: The Elysium Enigma (by Eric Eve)
Played: November 1st-2nd (4 hours 20 minutes)
Platform: TADS 3
Unofficial Score: 9+

     Game’s Blurb:
     It was meant to be a routine visit on behalf of the imperial government, just to remind the settlers that the Empire hadn't forgotten them. But maybe there's more going on on Elysium than your orders bargained for.

     XYZZY Response:
     It’s a thousand years too late for such nonsense.

     I skipped two more games to play The Elysium Enigma next. Admitting it almost feels like confessing that I cheated on a test or something. What I like about a randomized list is that it will usually provide a good pacing between good games and bad ones. Now, with the remaining days ticking away, I’m targeting the games I think I’ll enjoy – the ones that probably have the best chance of ranking highly in the competition. This is based on the author’s prior work, and also the recommendations I’ve already seen about this year’s batch.

     In other words, I’m doing something I’d rather avoid: messing with the natural flow of the competition experience. It also means that some of the games I skip might lack a review from me entirely (at my presently slow place), and this also seems unfair. In a way, I’ve already grouped the remainder of the games into two piles: entries I really want to play before the results are announced, and everything else. This makes me question my own objectivity. Next year, I hope to be in a better position to play and review every game in its random order.

     This is the longest IFComp entry I’ve played so far this year. Game length is very subjective, though – especially in a puzzle-rich setting like this one. It’s interesting that my review just prior to this, for Madam Spider’s Web, gave a brief discussion on how an IFComp entry can be too short.

     I wanted to play without hints. Ultimately, I did use hints (a few times) to finish, because a portion of the more than four hours I spent playing The Elysium Enigma involved feeling stuck. This is why a four-hour game for me could be a two-hour or maybe a six-hour game for somebody else. Some players will undoubtedly miss clues and need a nudge, while others – when everything works out just right – will hit on the solutions more easily. Something I’ve said about past games in past competitions, which is true of The Elysium Enigma, is that it would be better played without the pressure of a looming competition deadline – and without the expectation that it can be completed in roughly two hours.

     As long as I make some progress without staying stuck for too long, this kind of head-scratching what-am-I-missing kind of puzzle-filled game is exactly what I like best. I think EE gets it almost right. I did stumble upon a few spots where I was on the right track, but gave up after a confusing exchange with the game.

     Trying to use the raft is a good example (SPOILERS in the rest of this paragraph). I put it in the water, and then tried to go west. The game said I needed something to paddle with. I tried to paddle with the thing that would later prove effective (“paddle with object”). The game asked me what I wanted to paddle with it. I answered “river”. The game said that’s not something I needed to paddle. A bit later, I tried getting into the raft and then going west, and was once again told that I needed something to paddle with. I didn’t try paddling with that object again, because I had already tried it after being told the same thing earlier. I had come to the conclusion that paddling must be automatic (“you need something to paddle with”) if I obtained a suitable paddle and tried to go west. After looking at the walkthrough, seeing that I was right all along, I gave it another go. This time, getting into the boat first and then doing “paddle with object”, it worked. It makes sense why, but because the game originally told me to paddle without also saying “oh, but get into the boat first, dummy”, I was stuck in a darn-it-that-should-have-worked way.

     I could scour my transcripts and dig for a few other quirks to point out, but it’s such a polished and well-written game that this would be like complaining that a leopard’s spots aren’t dark enough. I do think some of the puzzles were a bit too tough for my meager abilities (man, I really thought a “p” mirrored would be a “9” – this is along the same lines as the raft paddle confusion). At least now, I don’t feel like I’m purposely playing as a beta-tester would. The Elysium Enigma, and Madam Spider’s Web before it, are bringing the IFComp magic back for me.

     Although this is heavily a game about puzzles, the story is not to be overlooked. Eric was wise in waiting to discuss his ongoing static fiction (on which EE is based) until the end. This is set in a future already conceived and apparently written about to a large extent, and that’s probably why it feels less “instantly contrived”. I would like to see more IF set in this same future, and I’m even curious now about Eric’s novels.

     My biggest complaint about the story – my only complaint about the story – is that I’m a good deal smarter than Andrew Holt. At least, I’d like to think so. While I was trying my hardest to make him understand what I had figured out hundreds of turns earlier, he was only gradually coming to realize that something wasn’t quite right. I had actually decided that my theory – to which every clue thus far seemed to point – would prove wrong in a surprising twist. I was looking forward to such a twist, thinking “okay, if he pulls this off, purposely letting me believe one thing and then he switches for another, this is definitely a 10”. What I assumed almost from the first hint of it turned out to be the twist, making it seem as if there had been no twist at all.

     Despite this, it’s still a fun ride. The Elysium Enigma is an outstanding, polished, well-written game, and that’s easily a “9” on my scale. I’ve added a “plus” in appreciation for a story that actually lets a naked woman follow me around a forest, although this is unlikely to impress most of the female IFComp judges.

Game #12: Delightful Wallpaper (by Andrew Plotkin)
Played: November 3rd (3 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 10-
     Game’s Blurb (Subtitle):
     A Cozy Mansion Mystery in the Making.

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognize.

     Despite my prediction in this year’s introduction, most of my reviews prior to Delightful Wallpaper have been written after hours or days of reflection (unlike prior years, when I almost always did write immediately). I have conflicting thoughts about this game, and I figured it would be best to get it all down now, rather than slowly sort it out over the next few days.

     Word might spread, prior to the voting deadline, about who probably wrote Delightful Wallpaper (Andrew Plotkin, if Stephen Bond’s guess is right). Going on the assumption that he is this game’s author (Edgar O. Weyrd is a pseudonym of the most obvious kind), I don’t think he intended to win the competition. I think he intended to write a game that is initially dismissed, then builds a buzz after the mask comes off, leading to more post-comp chatter than most other games (save perhaps Legion, for similar reasons) is likely to get. This will lead to debate, which leads to enlightenment, which leads to many XYZZY award nominations (which it wins), and ultimately to a slot among the works of IF most frequently referenced and revered in future years.

     This will be quite an achievement for a game that essentially deconstructs the standards of “physical” access to the game world, removing the need to implement anything that involves the direct manipulation of objects. What I mean is, in Delightful Wallpaper you have no need to move things, talk to people, get things (until later, and then they’re not exactly “things”), etc.

     This isn’t a complaint. If anything, it’s shockingly clever. The first part of the game (I’ll talk about the second part in a bit – it’s almost like two separate games are stacked one on the other so that they occupy the same area) can be completed just by moving around from room to room. This sounds easy; it’s anything but. The Weyrd house is filled with one-way doors, doors and panels that are opened or closed depending on where you came from (and from which direction), platforms that raise or lower to access new rooms (again, depending on your prior movements), and a tower that turns after similar movements.

     I’m far more conflicted on the first part than the second. The first part seemed too hard. I solved some of it (half – maybe a bit more) without the walkthrough, but after a while I had to concede defeat. I made a map (with little arrows to show movements and little notes to show results), but it just wasn’t enough.

     The PC in Delightful Wallpaper carries a notepad. This is the game’s way of helping sort it all out. It works pretty well, although a couple times the notes showed an observation made by the PC which I had neglected to notice myself. Even with my map and the automatic notepad, I just reached a point where I realized the entire system was too complicated for me to solve in anything near to a reasonable manner. I became more worried that missteps would seal off avenues that would then require repeated “do-over” moves, making it impossible to know if I had originally been on the right course or not.

     I could have been seeing it as more difficult than it actually was, but this first part seemed too complex for my poor little brain. At one point early on, “a rattle and clank, somewhere to the southeast” helped me figure out which piece of the puzzle had changed. After that, though, I couldn’t figure out what was happening where. Maybe the source was too far from the destination, making it impossible for the PC to detect. Regardless, I became confused enough that what had started out as incredibly interesting began to lose all appeal. When I realized frustration had won out over fascination, I went to the walkthrough.

     The walkthrough for the first part (I didn’t use it for the second part) was hard to follow. Hints instead of a per-command list might have helped. It’s probably because I stopped to read the descriptions of rooms I hadn’t quite reached on my own, thereby losing my place in the walkthrough. Finally, after some restarts, I did make it to what the walkthrough identified as the second section of the game.

     This is where my internal wow-o-meter gradually spiked. The second part of Delightful Wallpaper takes a different approach to building one large puzzle from the indirect manipulation of the game world (although, I suppose in a way the things you do in the second section are just a different kind of direct manipulation). The first part did it with an elaborate house-turned-puzzle-box, but the second part... I don’t even know how to describe the second part. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

     Like in the first part, it took a while for me to figure out what was going on, and longer still to start making things happen. Some of it is written in future tense. Characters are in multiple locations, seemingly frozen in a single task that seems contradictory between their various appearances. When it clicked for me, though, it was really cool. What I’ve realized is that this game is memorable. This game does something that seems so completely original, it will leave a lasting impression.

     The notepad then takes on the task of helping to sort out the fates of these seven characters. Partial clues become clever rhymes one by one. It seems as though there may be alternate solutions here, but I tried to stick with the ones that kept each outcome most similar to the original clue.

     In retrospect, I’m not sure how I figured it all out without using the walkthrough in the second part. It seemed hard, but just within the boundaries of what my poor little brain could manage. When the last of them were finished, I felt satisfied in a morbid sort of way.

     And so, I’m left to reconcile what seems like an overly complicated first part that is as frustrating as it is clever, with an amazing second part that is enviably unique and entirely worthwhile. Not just that; I’m also left with something a little like a Schrodinger’s cat dilemma, where I can’t be sure I’d have had the same experience if I had believed Delightful Wallpaper to be written by a newbie. I hope my conclusions would have been the same. It’s clear that this game was written by an experienced IF author, and by this point very few should be that familiar with Inform 7. It succeeds not with a twist ending or the use of a gimmick, but by being unique in its entirety.

     I have to go with my gut, and rank Delightful Wallpaper a “10”. It’s a game I’ll remember well after this and future competitions have ended. Its funny title belies the experience it provides, but it may be remembered as one of the surprise gems of IFComp 2006. Oh – and I’m adding a “minus” to the score, as a dent against the frustration it forced upon me in that first part. Otherwise, it’s an excellent game.

Game #13: PTGOOD 8*10^23 (by Sartre Malvolio)
Played: November 4th (15 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (version 4)
Unofficial Score: 2-

     Game’s Blurb:
     In this uncut version that YOU DID NOT SEE IN THEATRES, you'll laugh your arse off at Xorax's evil stupidity, and get to play the role of his murderer. The most meanspirited IF parody to date! DOWN WITH PTBAD!

     XYZZY Response:
     I’m sorry, but XYZZY doesn’t do anything special in this game!

     It’s a “PT” that it’s not GOOD. Har har!!!

     This seemed like a good time to balance out my list. This was by no means one of the games I felt compelled to play (assuming I won’t be able to play every entry in time), but after a great run of selective reviewing, I think I need a couple shorter “bad” entries to prepare me for more. My reasoning is that I’ve played three great games in a row. Especially after the mind-blowing originality of Delightful Wallpaper, I needed a reality check so that maybe I’ll appreciate more good games to come as opposed to finding them somehow flat by comparison.

     I knew that Slan Xorax (er… Johnathan Berman? Sartre Malvolio?) wouldn’t let me down. PTGOOD 8*10^23 is one of the four I skipped earlier on my random list, and it’s predictably dismal. The file size alone (less than 2k) was a good indication that almost nothing would be implemented. The twist here is that you are on a mission to murder Xorax for creating the exact kind of game that this one is.

     I would rather see a twist where Xorax writes a good game (and sorry, no, the title doesn’t count). It’s starting to feel like a joke that has gone on for too long.

     I know you have to sign up within a month of the competition deadline, and that the last week or two require game information to be entered at the IFComp website. I think Xorax must handle this in two phases. First, I think he signs up and enters some silly title and blurb for a game he hasn’t created. Then, on the last day before the deadline, he throws together something unavoidably dire in a half-hearted frenzy to beat the clock. It doesn’t matter what. It’s the authorial equivalent of splashing paint against a canvas, then smearing it a little with your thumb. Whatever rooms and objects and actions work their way into the game, complete or otherwise, that’s his entry.

     That’s why I don’t feel bad when I mock the effort, as I might for a bad game in which the author actually did intend for something better. It sort of feels like a backhanded gift, from Slan Xorax to me: “I give to you the IF equivalent of a clogged toilet. Plunge away as you see fit.”

     Inky’s review tipped me to the existence of a window in the first room. I spent a little while trying to escape through it, but the gimmick is that it only has to be opened for an exit elsewhere to suddenly start working (and it didn’t before). This, surprisingly, makes the game winnable. It’s as underwhelming as I expected, but at least I got something back for my fifteen minutes of bewilderment.

     PTGOOD is far less surreal than the two prior PTBAD entries, but this is neither good nor bad. It doesn’t feel as though Xorax has taken great strides to write a bad game. It just seems like the obvious result of slapping together a joke game at the last minute. I’d like to give it a “1”, but since it can be finished and I really felt no great hatred for it, I give it a “2”. As a joke entry, it can go no higher without reaching into an area that would indicate more effort. It gets a “minus”, though, for mundane suckage.

Game #14: Sisyphus (by Theo Koutz)
Played: November 4th (20 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 3

     Game’s Blurb:
     You are Sisyphus, a Greek king who is being punished in the underworld by being forced to push a huge boulder up a hill for all eternity. Can you figure out a way to weasel out of your predicament, escape from Hades, and get your job as king back?

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognise.

     Hmm. Just... hmmmm.

     I chose this game next (I only needed to skip one more on my randomly-ordered list), because it has already been identified in other reviews as a joke game. I’ve tried to just skim for scores (so as to maybe minimize the influence of these other opinions), but when the reviews of Sisyphus are only a line or two, that’s not easy.

     Still, I hoped to find something more here – something the others overlooked. I have failed in that, and I can only agree with them. I see three possibilities, though, instead of just two. It’s either a joke game, or a larger game that fails in its very first puzzle so as to appear as nothing but a joke game, or it’s neither. In that case, maybe it’s exactly what it appears to be. Maybe it’s intended to show the endless futility Sisyphus endures as his punishment in Hades, by hinting that Sisyphus believes himself clever enough to escape from just another unfortunate encounter.

     In my brief quest to answer the question posed by the game’s blurb, I tried a number of actions. Most don’t work or give default responses, but a few pay off. Since none of this seems “spoilery” in a game that goes nowhere, here is most of what I found to work: x hill, search hill, x me, die, x boulder, look under boulder, push boulder, pull boulder, wait, pray, get boulder, n/s/e/w/etc, help.

     I also tried looking to the story of Sisyphus (I searched the internet) for the details I lack in my prior understanding of this Greek myth. Plenty leads up to Sisyphus and the boulder, but nothing comes after it. Sisyphus doesn’t weasel out of his predicament. This is his final, everlasting punishment, and as such, it suggests no way out.

     I want to believe, even now, that maybe Theo Koutz (an alias, I think) has built a bigger game that just hides behind a hard-to-guess introductory puzzle. I think it’s unlikely, though. Even though not much is implemented, what is here seems solid and well-written to the point that it would be an unbelievable lapse in judgement for the author to have designed this in such an unhelpful way. Also, the actions that might hint at alternatives don’t, instead suggesting that Sisyphus resume his toil. Doing this (even dozens of times) offers no variation. It’s all worded in such a way that the task seems unavoidable and inescapable, yet the idea of escape lingers.

     It could be a “1”, and it might be a “2”, but to me, it has a peculiar charm. It’s a little like looking for buried pirate’s treasure where thousands have failed before you. It’s almost certainly as pointless as it seems, yet the possibility that the author has devised some way for Sisyphus to escape is a tough idea to shake. Eventually, somebody will probably decompile the .Z8 file (if such a thing is possible, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t be) to find out for sure.

     My theory, as absurd as it might be, is that this is a joke, but a very particular one. I think the author hopes to make a point in wasting our time. Maybe we keep hunting for an escape that doesn’t exist, or we write scathing reviews. Either way, the joke’s on us. I think the author knows the community, and Sisyphus is his middle finger. If so, I don’t mind that. It’s not an enjoyable game, but I’m not offended. It’s oddly fascinating, but still just a “3” on my scale.

     I hope the author, whoever he may be, claims it after the competition.

Game #15: Aunts and Butlers (by Robin Johnson)
Played: November 5th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: DHTML/JavaScript (browser-based)
Unofficial Score: 8

     Game’s Blurb:
     It's 1920s England, you're a near-bankrupt minor aristocrat, and your only elderly heirless aunt is coming to tea. A PG Wodehouse-inspired farce of bad Manors, good fortunes, and mysterious servants.

     XYZZY Response:
     Is that some sort of telegraphic cypher?

     What a strange, fun game.

     Criticism of home-brewed text adventure games is pretty predictable, maybe because the comfort and quality is no match for games written with the IF systems we’re more familiar with. I used to think these were petty complaints – back when I too wrote IF the home-brewed way. After all, each game is unique. Quality should be about the game itself, not the standards and extras and minor conveniences mostly attributed to the engine. That was my belief for quite a while.

     It was, as stands to reason, wrong. It’s as difficult to play interactive fiction that fails to allow “x” (for “examine”) or “undo” or “save” or any of the parsing power that shows an understanding beyond two-word phrases, as it would be to play a first-person shooter in which four unrelated buttons had to be pressed at once to effect a jump. It might work. It might even come to feel less clunky over time, but it would show that the game designers have paid no attention to how other first-person shooters are built. If the design serves no purpose, and could just have easily been built in a familiar and intuitive manner, it won’t be well-received by experienced gamers.

     Now, when I see home-brewed games that are built on the outdated models that gave rise to amateur-made adventure games of the 80’s (my own CoCo text adventures among them), I cringe. When I see games that are perhaps inspired by commercial-quality IF of years gone by, but which lack a full understanding of their design beyond just a basic “they have rooms and things to pick up and simple but obscure puzzles” I shake my head. It loses quality, like a photocopy of a photocopy. Where current IF development systems are able to model a more realistic game world, home-brewed games usually feel flat. They are crude pencil sketchings in a gallery of colorful canvas.

     So, when one comes along that manages to avoid most of the oft-seen failings, as Aunts and Butlers does, it’s a nice surprise. The implementation isn’t perfect (later, I’ll talk about that), but it’s good enough that only a few minutes of play were enough for me to sink smoothly into the story. The technical problems in Aunts and Butlers (not, as it has been mistakenly called on a couple forums I’ve stumbled upon, “Aunts and Cousins”) are usually the kinds of things that could turn up in any game. They aren’t a result of the game engine being custom-made.

     The story starts out in a normal way, and then introduces a mysterious butler who appears and vanishes when you almost make mistakes. It seems, at first, that it’s just a weird kind of “you can’t do that” message. It felt out of place, really. I didn’t have a sense that this stranger was really appearing, but at the same time, it didn’t even seem like something Ampersand (the PC) was just imagining. It just seemed like a strange response gimmick.

     Then it gets weirder with an accidental murder, a foolish police sergeant, and a butler that becomes more than just a system message. It gets weirder still when Ampersand opens the entrance to a world ruled by servants – essentially an underground hub that serves as access to seemingly unrelated one- and two-room areas. A tip: look at things that can show your reflection, when in these “other” areas. Interesting!

     The game worked well for me until the very end. In almost two hours, I made it to 99% completed. It’s the perfect way for an IFComp game to go – just the right length, crazy puzzles that don’t require telepathy, and a story that’s interesting enough to justify building a game around it. At the end, though, nothing happened. I ran out of things to do at 99%, and the game didn’t point me anywhere. The walkthrough said I should leave the flat and look at a specific object that I hadn’t actually encountered. This didn’t work, so I looked at the JavaScript source code. I found the right spot, which showed that I was supposed to have done something with the love-letter. I couldn’t figure it out, until I looked earlier in the walkthrough. It makes sense in retrospect, and the IOU even hinted at the answer. I might have followed through with the love-letter just as the walkthrough shows, and if I had, the game would have gone perfectly.

     Luckily, I wasn’t blocked off from going back to the part I missed, and I completed the game afterwards. The ending seemed a little buggy (103% and the unexpected repeat of a prior “game over” ending I had encountered earlier), but worth finishing nonetheless.

     Except for the problem with the ending, the bugs in Aunts and Butlers weren’t a big distraction to me. Most are minor. When later asking the butler about Alf, he gives a response that’s not longer applicable. You can leave clothing in the flat, making it impossible to return (maybe the butler should have warned me against it). You can re-enter one location, even after it has reportedly exploded. Too many extra blank lines at the end of the text area were sometimes shown. I could find no way to turn verbose mode off, after turning it on (maybe I overlooked something). There was a strange anachronism with the cousin (not to be confused with intentional anachronisms later), where the game used the more modern slang “like” instead of “says” – plus McDonalds is mentioned in the 1920’s setting.

     The successful JavaScript engine, and the way Aunts and Butlers as a game is designed, show that the author is familiar with IF. I didn’t notice anything that might be the IF equivalent of pressing four different buttons to jump. “Undo” is there. “X” works. The game can be saved to or loaded from browser cookies. The parsing works well enough to avoid frustrations, due in part to a good synonym list for object nouns.

     It’s good, but I’d like to see a few improvements. I usually sit away from my monitor, so I like to crank up the font size. Aunts and Butlers doesn’t allow a selectable font size. It offers very little scrollback (maybe for speed concerns), but I’d like to see more – maybe a pop-up window with the scrollback. A little more space between the bottom of the text and the command prompt – maybe a single blank line – would have been nice. A GUI-based load/save (to avoid having to remember the names of cookies, or maybe with system-named cookies shown as save slots) would be handy (I can use a javascript command in the address bar to figure out what I named them, provided there are only two or three of them). You can only “undo” a single turn, which could maybe be extended if the entire game state (the same data that goes into a cookie, maybe) was held as elements of an array. (I didn’t look at this in the source, so I’m not sure how it’s recorded.) Late in the game, something with the text area went wrong, and for a few turns I could see HTML “color=#660000” formatting at the top. At one point, “put coat on typist” showed that the engine was throwing out words, because the game assumed I meant for Ampersand to wear it himself. The parsing and grammar matching feels a lot like Adrift’s.

     I had fun with Aunts and Butlers, and it’s all the more impressive for being a home-brew that works. It’s an “8” on my scale. It gets a “plus” (for proving that traditional IF can work in HTML), but a “minus” for bringing me to 99% and then sticking me without a clue. The modifiers cancel each other.

Game #16: The Primrose Path (by Nolan Bonvouloir)
Played: November 5th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 9

     Game’s Blurb:
     You've led a fairly uneventful life, perhaps; certainly you never planned on having to save your best friend's life. Now, it's up to you to unearth the secrets he's been concealing from you, perhaps learning a thing or two about yourself in the process...

     XYZZY Response:
     What utter nonsense.

     What a strange, fun game.

     Wait – I’ve already used that line.

     The Primrose Path is a little like Caleb’s Colors (a short story by Neal Shusterman) and a little like The Butterfly Effect (in which Ashton Kutcher atypically fails to annoy). It’s also a bit ironic (if scary) that I used a metaphor about paintings in a gallery in my previous review.

     I might have been able to pour more raw emotion into this review last night, right after completing the game, but it was already after midnight then. It’s half a day later now. I’m convinced it’s a “9” on my scale, but everything I want to say about it seems like criticism. The Primrose Path was actually the last game on my randomized list, but at this point I’m jumping around the way this story’s Matilda must.

     I’ll get the complaints out of the way first.

     There were a few minor grammatical errors, which seemed conspicuous in text that is otherwise well-polished. The two I noted in my transcript are due to an extra “in” and an “of” that, had they been omitted, would have resolved it. I think Leo calls Matilda Irene by mistake once. At a point, SW into Matilda’s bathroom stopped working (without any message as to why), and an attempt to unlock the door gave no response at all. Extra blank lines and missing ones later in the game threw off the presentation, but only a little. Up to the pivotal point in Matilda’s living room, the game had a smooth flow and a good pace; but afterwards, where different endings began to grab at the plot, I felt a need to dig in game-like. I ended up using the built-in walkthrough to try for the ideal ending.

     Matilda is aware of her conscience (at least, that’s my best guess) as something of a foreign influence. This is why “x me” doesn’t work (try “x you”) like it does in most other games. I never was sure what the author intended there. Was it supposed to be an IF-world way of explaining the player-versus-PC relationship? It’s a bit more than that, since later in the game it became a battle of wills between Matilda and me. There is even a point when Matilda takes over, winning the battle for a moment. This was unexpected, but really cool.

     Most of the story makes sense. It was only a little surreal, if that. Toward the end, though – toward the multiple endings – I started to get a little confused on what was happening and why. The bracelet, the ring, and the pocket watch seem to accomplish the same things. At one point, Leo explains the difference between the ring and the stone ankh-shaped key. Were the gem-colored keys just ordinary keys? Why was a completely separate key necessary for the gallery, and where is the gallery? I get the impression that it was all supposed to make sense, but I didn’t quite get it.

     The endings range from an abrupt “you will never know what happened” early on (when I spent time exploring instead of acting), to a split decision that leads to a win for Matilda and Leo or Matilda alone. I encountered a cyclic ending (very interesting, and it sheds light on the beginning), and one involving a very old painting of Irene’s sister. One allows Matilda to turn from the entire ordeal and run away. These are described in terms of who wins or loses: I win, I lose, you win, he wins, we win. If Nolan’s message is that our fate can be changed (as trite as that may sound), I think these choices work.

     The puzzles aren’t complicated, and most aren’t especially hard. My problem with the parts I couldn’t solve, though, are that they sometimes require an understanding of “what’s going on” that didn’t always come easy for me. In the simplest example, there is a point where I was stuck on a roof, unaware that I could reach in through the holes and gaps. More generally, things became confusing after more paintings were found and a sense of urgency was introduced. I don’t know how much of this is the game’s failure to reiterate the important things, and how much is just my inability to fully follow along.

     Slight problems with polish and puzzles aside, it’s just a wonderful game. It’s a story that kept me guessing and immersed well past my bedtime. Although Delightful Wallpaper remains my top pick, this is definitely one of the great experiences of IFComp 2006.

     What a year. Maybe my perceptions are skewed because I’m going for the games others have already recommended, but this just seems like an amazing IFComp. The caliber of competition this year is unbelievable. As an entrant myself, I’ll be happy (and perhaps lucky) just to place in the top 10.

Game #17: Mobius (by J. D. Clemens)
Played: November 6th (1 hour 40 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     Another mission. Just when you had settled in for a nap.

     XYZZY Response (varies, but is initially):
     Nothing obvious happens.

     Note: I’ve tried to be vague where possible in this review, but I do talk about some specifics at times. To avoid spoilers, you may want to play the game first and then read my review.

     Having just played Mobius, I haven’t reflected on it long enough to figure out just what went wrong. I liked it well enough, but I somehow expected to enjoy it a lot more. At first, I really did. When the first cycle happened, and I realized exactly what the gimmick was (I had read that it was a time-travel game, but I’ve tried to be careful in avoiding specifics), I was really into it.

     It’s a little like All Things Devours (at least what I can remember of it – that was two years ago), but the point here isn’t to avoid paradoxical encounters. Instead, you use them. I guess the way time works in Mobius actually prevents a paradox, so it’s not really that. The idea – and I hope this isn’t a big spoiler – is that anything you interact with in the last cycle becomes insubstantial in the next. This makes it impossible, for instance, to hide an object that your past self is going to take a couple turns later, but it also allows access to certain things that would otherwise have been blocked or hidden from your present self.

     So, exactly how does this go wrong? Several things (the wrench, the aspirin, and the rations patty come to mind) can be used in certain ways, but otherwise turn out to be red herrings (as far as I can tell – and the walkthrough doesn’t say otherwise). In a game where every move matters and failure means a do-over, red herrings seem out of place. Not enough feedback from the game is another part of it. It does try, though. The beginning of new cycles give hints, but the later one didn’t seem helpful enough for me to figure out why what I had done wasn’t good enough. There is a way to open the shield which prevents it from being closed again, and maybe a clue to discourage that on the next cycle might have helped. I was very close to the solution, but I just couldn’t mentally connect all the pieces in a way that would work.

     So, I resorted to the walkthrough, to arrive at the point where the cycle starts with the reactor stabilized. I could see that this was nearly the end, but I wanted to at least solve the last bit on my own.

     If I had continued with the walkthrough, as most players very well might, I wouldn’t have had any further problems. Instead, I managed to ruin the “damper” without realizing it, making it impossible to use again, which was (as far as I can tell) supposed to have been the trigger for the rest of my team to arrive. So, I piddled around for a few turns, uncertain what to do next (but not really aware that something was supposed to happen), and finally went back to the walkthrough. It’s a good thing I had saved just before that.

     Even getting the ending seemed a little disappointing. It makes me think maybe there is a better ending. I haven’t tried the walkthrough from start to finish, but a glance doesn’t show anything special or obvious that I missed earlier.

     I went back through the last part, though, just to see if maybe I did miss something. At first (and I couldn’t reproduce it later), answering “restore” to the endgame message (as was a choice in the prompt) gave a strange message about specialist Thorne and the stowing of his tools (sounds crazy, but I have a transcript to prove it). I had to restart and then reload. I found that the game described me as being knocked unconscious by touching the reactor (probably a throwback to the prior part), yet I could keep going as if nothing was wrong. Some of the things I could do earlier (such as removing the TDU) would no longer work due to “mission protocol” that hadn’t been a problem before. Even before the last bit, it was strange that trying to talk to my past resulted in “your hand merely passes through your previous self” twice in a row.

     The game isn’t broken in any way that an hour or two of touch-up wouldn’t resolve. Like All Things Devours, the game has to remember everything your past self did, so it can be repeated on the next cycle. This works almost flawlessly (I did see one quirk once, but it didn’t seem to matter). It’s evident that a lot of time went into designing the main portion of Mobius, and the problems I did encounter seem small compared to all that does work right.

     You do the same actions over and over on the road to understanding how everything works, but with ten turns (at most) before the next cycle, it never feels like a large amount of work wasted. Making good use of SAVE and UNDO was a big help, though. I was hesitant to overuse “undo” at first, because I wasn’t sure if some attempts or failures would be necessary for later success.

     Mobius has only a superficial story. It wasn’t really a problem, since the point is the time-loop puzzle, but a little more story at the beginning at the end might have been nice.

     The beginning seemed to borrow phrases right out of Star Trek (“temporal anomalies” and “multi-phasic radiation” being most obvious). You report to the transport pad, the TDU seems like a tri-corder that you wear over your eyes, and the “drop team” could have just as well been an “away team”. Clemens even uses the word “trek” near the beginning, which is just suspicious enough to make me think the similarities are no accident. The only thing truly un-trek-like is the openly condescending attitude of Sergeant Jacobson.

     Even though Mobius was in some ways a disappointment, it’s still a good game overall. It’s a solid “7” (meaning “good”) on my scale, and could have edged up a bit if the competition version was more polished and a little better clued where the main puzzle is involved. My transcript is available to the author upon request.

Game #18: Game Producer! (by Jason Bergman)
Played: November 7th (1 hour 20 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 8

     Game’s Blurb:
     You're a producer at AXL Games. Today is the day your game goes gold, but you've overslept! Rush to the office, get your developers paid, coordinate QA and marketing efforts and do it all before time runs out!

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognise.

     Even without recommendations, Game Producer! is one I have been looking forward to since I saw its blurb on the IFComp info page. When I first started programming as a hobby, way back in – yikes, nearly two decades ago – I wanted to work for a game developer. The NES was king, and my dream job was to work as a programmer for Nintendo. I’ve gone on to work as a programmer (and I can relate to nutty deadlines, crunch-time overtime, and the quirky workings of other departments), but not in the video game industry. Game development is still just a hobby.

     Game Producer! is a caricature of resource and crisis management on the last day before a new video game is supposed to go into production. It doesn’t require an insider’s knowledge, though. The puzzles are exaggerated too, making it familiar territory. You are the producer. Your choices (aka, your ability to solve as many puzzles as possible before the time runs out) highly affect the game’s success after release.

     It’s a pretty generous time limit. This, according to the “game_guide.txt”, is all that changes when you make a difficulty selection near the beginning. That’s good, because it was a question I struggled with (I didn’t read the guide until afterwards). I didn’t want the puzzles to be too easy, but I didn’t want them to be too hard (which might have indicated a lack of good in-game clueing). It seems that the puzzle difficulty doesn’t change, and since it’s just right as-is, that was fine for me.

     It helps to remember not only what the Big Man tells you, but also which tasks you’ve already completed. This can be a little confusing on a second play-through. I would have liked to see an in-game notepad, where the PC automatically records (and checks things off) a “to-do” list. This might have made the game a little too easy, and maybe it was a conscious decision by the author not to do that. I played through twice, needing the first time just to get familiar with the puzzles and how to solve them. The second play-through lead me to what’s probably the ideal ending (you can’t beat 99.2% on GameRankings.com – it’s a site I use frequently), and two million copies sold ain’t bad! I did use strategic saving and undoing, but I think that’s natural when playing against a ticking clock. (If only that would work for real deadlines.)

     The included “game_guide.txt” (not a walkthrough – those are included, but I didn’t need to peek at all to finish) is charming. It discusses the design of Game Producer!, and then goes into a FAQ-like section about some specifics. It’s a little spoilery, though, and probably best read after playing.

     The game seems pretty bug-free, but a few quirks manage to be scuffs in the polish. Too many line-breaks and missing ones here and there seem to be what I’m noticing most in this year’s IFComp entries. I know it’s just a formatting thing, but it throws off the flow. “X me” gives the default “as good-looking as ever” response. A few pieces of missing scenery can be found – things described in a room but not actually present in the game. Something on your keychain only appears if you look at the keychain, even though it was presumably there all along.

     The game seems to have just one ending, but the details change depending on how much was accomplished before the deadline (and even then, a bit of randomness plays a part). Although it might not be a popular opinion among IF players, I think I prefer a single ending. Maybe it defeats the point of interactive fiction, but I really like to know that I’ve finished the game as it was meant to be seen. The differences really give Game Producer! quite a few variations to this single ending, but it’s still just one ending. I think the point isn’t whether the game was a success or a failure, but whether the player is satisfied with the result. As is pointed out in every ending, you still get paid, and the next project is right around the corner.

     Game Producer! has a nice structure and puzzle design from an author who obviously knows how to design with the player in mind. An “8” on my scale is “very good”, and that’s an apt summary of Game Producer!

Game #19: Lawn of Love (by Santoonie Corporation)
Played: November 8th (55 minutes)
Platform: TADS 2
Unofficial Score: 4+

     Game’s Blurb:
     Santoonie Corporation's first ever romantic adventure.

     XYZZY Response:
     Party Trick: Go into bathroom with a mirror. Close door, turn out all lights, let eyes get used to dark. Hold arm out and touch mirror, at the same time turning on the lights for 2 seconds. Turn off light, drop arm to your side, while continueing to stare at mirror without moving or blinking your eyes. Your arm will still be in the air! Freaky.

     Expirament with giving the finger or making funny faces.

     ~ A.P. Hill

     Santoonie games have a certain style: the font sizing, the use of color and inline graphics where you wouldn’t really expect a visual, three parts (preface, prologue, introduction) to begin each story, lengthy legal notes, unedited writing, and offbeat game responses that are probably a huge source of amusement to those involved in the development. None of this makes a Santoonie game a good game, but I find something compelling – maybe in a guilty pleasure sort of way – about each one.

     In my third experience with a Santoonie-made game, I’m also starting to see that it just can’t be reviewed in a traditional way. Some reviewers take hold of what they like, and they rate all games against that. For instance, if a reviewer really likes comedy and puzzles and expects that all games should be funny and puzzley, then great games may get low marks if they fail to impress on that level (even if the game was never intended to be puzzley or comedic). Other reviewers (and in my opinion, more fairly) try to evaluate whether or not each game succeeds at what it was trying to be. In the case of a game trying and succeeding at being bad, though, does it deserve high marks? How does it compare to bad games that weren’t trying to be bad, or games that succeed, but at being good?

     Santoonie games are great (and let’s not take that out of context) at appearing to be failed attempts to write good games. It’s bound to be confusing to first-time judges (see my reviews of Zero and Amissville 2), because Lawn of Love almost seems like a serious attempt. It doesn’t flaunt its shoddiness like PTGOOD. It doesn’t seem purposely infuriating like Sisyphus. And, unlike the typical Panks entry, it doesn’t merely rehash the same wacky elements found in the author’s prior games. Santoonie keeps the joke going by never admitting that it is a joke. By every appearance, Lawn of Love is a well-intentioned game that just happens to be really bad, and this is where they succeed.

     Granted, I don’t think it took any special effort to get there. It’s not so bad that it’s good. The poor quality is the legitimate result of a lack of effort. They just do it with a certain flair that makes it worthwhile to play, even if only in the context of the IFComp.

     I’ll mention the more interesting bugs a little later (especially the ones that make this classic Santoonie form), but I’ll skip most of the rest. It just seems pointless to list the multitude of little bugs and glitches and problems in the writing that have become trademark Santoonie anyway. The game can be won, and in under an hour.

     Actually, the game can be won in only a few seconds. The thing you must do at the very end (to complete the game) can be done on your very first turn. I tried. It works. Getting to the end the long way was a little tricky, because it requires going against the grain of almost every other work of IF that has ever let you stumble into an area where everything is dark. It tells you that you can’t see without your lighter, yet (a) the exit no longer works and (b) you can’t actually find the lighter. The trick is to ignore this, and stumble along in the darkness. This leads to the climactic encounter, which happens not on the “lawn of love”, but in a dark and abandoned building.

     Did I mention that Todd and his love interest are both fourteen?

     The bugs in Lawn of Love might as well be called “features”. Room exits are haphazardly listed, and going the wrong way (at least in HTML TADS) will give a blank description followed by a standard Windows “bong” sound. Throwing anything at the button assumes you mean to throw the spear. Undo at the very end allows you to keep racking up points, well over the maximum of 100 that the game claims. The description of the field (and maybe other locations) doesn’t change, even though the girl is gone. A hunger daemon assures that you’ll die (after a generous number of turns, at least) if you don’t eat something – luckily, food is easy to find near the beginning. Comma misuse and spelling errors are rampant. So is unimplemented scenery.

     As to the story, the “about” text puts it best: “Romance is not our style, we prefer to tackle girls, so we tried a genre outside our realm of comprehension.” It’s no surprise that Lawn of Love lacks romance entirely, going from “find the elusive beauty” to “wowza, I just scored” in a single turn. The ending is a bit of a twist, though. It even leaves room for interpretation.

     As Santoonie games go, it seems like a fine effort. The puzzles barely count (I guess this is more of a story-based game), it features proud Santoonie humor, and it’s short. I give it a “4” – and a “plus” for not making me mad.

Game #20: Star City (by Mark Sachs)
Played: November 8th (1 hour 45 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 8-

     Game’s Blurb:
     The looming future. An Earth recovering from alien occupation. A mysterious object is approaching our put-upon planet and it's up to one explorer to discover its secrets.

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognise.

     Star City is really really good – until its beast of an endgame puzzle.

     The setting reminded me of Rendezvous With Rama (or maybe one of the sequels), by Arthur C. Clarke. Star City is a huge cylindrical space ship, possibly of alien origin, that awaits the arrival of a lone explorer. The biggest mystery is solved shortly after boarding, only to be replaced by more questions. Why does it exist? How did it come to be so close to Earth? Is the PC really alone aboard it?

     Exploring Star City, even though it’s not a very long game, was great. The quick trip through the center of it elicited great mental images. The city itself was drab and uniform with block after block of inaccessible buildings, but the game had already established an interesting layout. I thought of it as a maze at first, but there are no dead ends. Except at either end of the cylinder, you can go in any direction. Others may dislike this, but with a destination presented after only a brief bit of exploration, it worked for me just as the author probably intended.

     I noticed no problems in the writing, and I noted only a few minor complaints through most of the game: a missing synonym here, seemingly unimplemented scenery there. This didn’t seem too common, though. The construction of the game felt solid, even responding to a few things I wouldn’t have expected it to. My overwhelming thought through most of it was “this is really good” and “what a great game.”

     But then... that endgame. What happened? I think the author probably wanted something with a bigger challenge than the rest of the game (which wasn’t hard, but did feel rewarding enough to make it worthwhile), and something with a greater sense of urgency. The challenge is there. The urgency is there. The last part just wasn’t fun.

     I struggled with the first part of the endgame (made harder in that you die after only a few turns, and UNDO doesn’t work twice in a row), but managed to get settled in. The part with the restraints was particularly nasty, requiring guess-the-verb and guess-the-noun, although it was in a “forgot to use synonyms” kind of way, not a “this is a special magic action” way. I made a new save there (good thing, too), and hoped that I was just a turn or two away from the ending.

     It would have been nice if the game had ended there, or if the author had reconsidered the endgame puzzle to come. Instead, it’s a matter of controlling a small out-of-control escape craft manually, while trying to figure out how to make it go and turn. I somehow missed an important first step, so my first few attempts weren’t working for reasons I couldn’t figure out. It’s something I should have seen, but overlooked. For the first time since I started, I had to peek at the walkthrough. Knowing then what I missed (and what the game failed to let me know I missed), I survived a little longer, only to meet death after death as I tried to figure out the controls.

     Actually, the controls are easy to figure out. A convenient in-game manual explains it. The problem was that I had no idea what kinds of maneuvers I should be attempting, to keep from crashing. The walkthrough helped, but it was expressed in such a general way that I still struggled through a few more deaths before getting everything to work just right. When the winning ending came, I should have been smiling at what a great game I had just completed. Instead, I was grumbling to myself about the inane endgame puzzle.

     Score distribution seemed a little off. At one point, I was awarded a whopping sixty points (out of a hundred) at once. The full hundred is awarded before the endgame, leaving no more to earn for all the work involved in actually winning.

     About the plot. Since the Gloss seem to exist only as backstory, what was their importance? How could they have overlooked the Star City during their decades-long occupation of Earth? How did the builders of Star City, at the time it was constructed, come by the technology necessary to create such a thing? How is it that the orbit was about to decay just as it was discovered? How was it that a recording, presumably looped for so many decades, broke mere moments after it finally found an audience?

     Most of the game is great. I think this could have been a “9” – one of the outstanding games of IFComp 2006 – with a little more substance to the main part of the game and a less frustrating endgame. As it is, the rough endgame only counts enough against everything good that leads up to it, that I put it at “8” on my scale. I’ve added a “minus” for the numerous deaths I suffered at the hands of that ill-conceived design, but it’s still a game I really enjoyed.

Game #21: Tentellian Island - Professor's Request (by Zack Wood aka Waru)
Played: November 13th (50 minutes)
Platform: Java
Unofficial Score: 3+

     Game’s Blurb:
     With nothing but a note from the Professor in hand, your are sent to an unusual Island to obtain a special artifact. You'll need to be creative and clever to solve the puzzles and unlock all four endings.

     XYZZY Response:
     That doesn't make sense.

     Hmmm. I decided to play Tentellian Island next, because I realized it would run on my laptop (the Java VM is installed on my home PC, but for whatever reason, it wouldn’t run). I figured it would be short – and it is. I figured it would be a disappointing home-brew – and it is. I figured I would have more bad to say than good – and I do.

     This was the author’s Java class project, if I understand correctly. As is, it’s a little buggy. As IF, it suffers from most of the classic home-brew failings (I would say “all” except that “x” for examine does work).

     The game gives blank responses to “swim” (except in one spot), and actually locks up when trying to cut things with the knife (not always, but enough to make me stop doing it on later attempts). It has no save/restore and no undo, making these kinds of issues fatal (instead of just really annoying). It appears that you can lose the crystal by using it in the wrong place, but maybe the author has worked around that with an alternate solution – seems unlikely, but I grant that it’s possible. Object and verb synonyms are almost non-existent and very little in the way of scenery is implemented. The command prompt is a blank line. The puzzles are of the magical “because it doesn’t have to make sense” variety, reminding me a lot of my own cruddy earlier text adventures (I liked the “emotor” puzzle in the auditorium, though). Directions are capitalized mid-sentence. The game works in a terse mode (revisited rooms require a “look” to see), but I couldn’t get “verbose” to work. The message “that doesn’t make sense” is given where it’s not appropriate, such as walking in invalid directions. It has no transcript feature, but thankfully the available scroll-back held it all and could be copied.

     The story is a simple but nonsensical “find the mysterious relic” hunt – not an instant black mark, but not very compelling in this case. It starts with you standing on a dock, after the vessel you arrived on has sailed beyond the horizon. That’s a nice start, but why did I hang out alone on the dock of a seemingly abandoned island prior to the start of the game, just watching the boat sail away? If I think hard enough – harder than the author did, I believe – I could imagine that the PC didn’t want to begin the quest until the people on the boat could no longer see him. It’s more difficult to think of plausible reasons for everything else that happens.

     The game claims to have four endings – which very well may be true – but I could only find one. The ending I did find seems like a winner (it looks like I make it away alive), but it goes on to say I didn’t survive.

     Because I think this will be a game most people never finish (whether by giving up in frustration, or by the obscurity of the puzzles), I’ve included a walkthrough below. It will lead to the one ending I found. I feel a little guilty about putting a walkthrough inside a review, but it feels like the right thing to do in this case. The part in parenthesis is optional, because I found no use for the knife. Perhaps it’s for one of the other endings?

     s. s. s. e. x plants. get key. w. w. s. get pendant. n. e. s. s. s. s. (w. swim. dive. get knife. u. e. e.) s. e. get crystal. w. s. get bulb. n. n. n. look. get emotor. s. s. s. break crystal. s. w. laugh. s. s. cry. n. n. e. e. yell. s. s. dance. n. w. unlock box. get gem-hat. wear gem-hat.

     And there you have it. It’s one of those custom-made games that feel like a copy of a copy of a badly written original. The author must know the basics of interactive fiction, but nothing about what would make a game fun and worthwhile to play. It’s generic.

     I think the author tried his hardest, and the included info makes me think he had a great time writing Tentellian Island. If it’s the Java he enjoys, I recommend using it for a different kind of game. If it’s the Interactive Fiction instead, then try using a language made for it – Inform, Tads, Hugo, etc. Today, there is very little (if any) reason to invent your own, unless you are very familiar with what’s already being done and your engine will take IF authorship even further. If you like programming more than IF authoring, you might create your own custom interpreter (in Java, even) for any of those without the need to invent a new one-shot IF engine from scratch.

     It’s a “3” on my scale, but I give it a “plus” for... being winnable, I guess, and for not making me type “look at” everything. It has a certain charm, but not enough to mask how crude it all is. It’s a low-end IFComp game, good for the “full experience” of the competition but not recommendable outside of it.

Game #22: Legion (by Jason Devlin)
Played: Late September (beta-testing)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 9

     Game’s Blurb:
     She will not triumph. We are strong. We are legion.

     XYZZY Response:
     We aren’t familiar with that action.

     Usually, when I review an IFComp game I beta-tested, I try to re-play the competition version first. I save them until the end, so that time and other games have put a little distance between then and now.

     I managed to play just over half of this year’s entries. It’s evening of the last day now, and I don’t have time to play Legion again before writing its review. So, this is based on my memories of the beta version almost two months ago, and on my beta transcripts. This will be a short review.

     Like Delightful Wallpaper, Jason’s entry was entered under a pseudonym. I have a feeling these two games will dominate the post-comp chatter. Both are very good, but I think people have more faith in a game written by an author with prior success. I believe voters will stand by their decisions, but will perhaps wonder if maybe they missed the point or misunderstood the story. I’m almost positive that I would have been very skeptical of Legion, had I assumed “Ian Anderson” to be a first-time author. I’m just as sure, though, that it would still have won me over by the end.

     That start of Legion is a little jarring. First-person plural takes some getting used to. It’s clear that something weird is going on, but not much else is clear at all. The story is told from an alien point of view. The beginning requires that the player develop an understanding of some unusual interactions. If Legion fails for anyone, this first part is where it’s likely to happen. It’s easy to believe that nothing will make sense through the rest of the story.

     Learning and experimenting appealed to me, but as the unusual PC’s understanding of the changes to its environment grew, so did my interest. More than once, while hunting for game bugs (of which there were very few – likely fewer still in the competition version), I felt a tinge of envy and admiration. Legion is a risky experiment that works. It’s unlike either of Jason’s prior games.

     By the end (although you can blow up the planet very early on and learn nothing), everything makes sense. When discoveries are made, the PC is able to understand the world in new ways. This becomes more familiar and more comfortable. Still, I found the later parts as challenging as the beginning. The multiple endings are worth seeing, but I needed hints to get there. It’s not that the puzzles are hard -- it’s just not always easy to figure out what the PC is capable of.

     Legion deserves a high ranking. I hope that judges who “didn’t get it” during the competition will try again afterwards. On my scale, it’s a “9” – an outstanding adventure.

Game #23: The Traveling Swordsman (by Mike Snyder -- Me!)
Played: N/A
Platform: Hugo
Unofficial Score: N/A

     Game’s Blurb:
     You are the traveling swordsman; the strong and silent stranger; the wandering vanquisher of villainy. Damsels swoon for you. Good men respect and envy you. Scoundrels learn to fear you. Even so, you are but a rumor throughout the land.

     XYZZY Response:
     You can't hear the hollow voice.
     (note - it changes in the epilogue)

     I wanted to write a few short notes about TTS before the results were announced, but I didn't quite make it. I'll probably put something here later... soon... something. I kept a development journal through its entire creation, and I might pick some good bits from that to post here.

     Anyway, I wrote this one. I won't review it, but I may discuss what I think other reviewers got right, and what they got wrong. Maybe "wrong" is too strong a word. TTS is the result of more than two months of hard work -- I mean hours and hours daily (when possible) and nightly. Of course I'd feel the urge to defend it. :)

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