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IFCOMP 2006 - Madam Spider's Web

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.

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