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IFCOMP 2007 Reviews - Full Journal

Introduction to Mike Snyder’s IF-COMP 2007 Review Journal (10/01/2007)

     I’m not an entrant, so these will be my real votes. Unless I play past two hours and have to fix a particular score then, I may adjust the final scores at the end (in case I need to skew up or down in relation to later scores). If I do, I probably won’t dwell on it by making a distinction between the original “intended” score and the final score. I’ll just post what final score I gave.

     A plus or a minus by the score will indicate a bias (see my scoring definitions).

     Only 29 entries? I wondered if it was going to be down based on what I felt was a general lack of excitement in the community this year. Whatever the cause, there are fewer games for 2007 than I’ve seen in quite a while. Undoubtedly I’ll find a few gems among them. As always, I hope to have fun with the games, whatever the quality.

     I hope my reviews benefit the authors, while making for a good read in general. As in prior years, I’ll try to write each one directly after playing when possible, and in the order played. They’ll form a sort of “judge’s journal” as a result. I’ll also run transcripts (where possible). These will be available to each author for his or her own game, upon request.

These define my scoring system for the 2007 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” should 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 or premise 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 is probably 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 -- or has really failed in a particular single area.

     ** 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: Varkana (A discreet pursuit in Arg Varkana)
By Maryam Gousheh-Forgeot (writing as “Farahnaaz”)
Played On: October 1st (2 hours 40 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Merk’s Score: 7+

     Game’s Blurb:
     An Interactive Fiction with a fantasy/sci-fi theme, with focus on the story.

     There, some kebab. You pick it up.
     The kebab glows a little. Other than that, nothing happens.
     >x kebab
     A morsel of tasty roast meat wrapped in bread.
     >eat kebab
     You eat the kebab. It was quite good.

     IFComp 2007 starts out well for me, with a fairly strong game from first-time entrant Maryam Gousheh-Forgeot. Varkana tells the story of a girl initially negligent in her duties, who begins to suspect that something isn’t right with a delegation of ambassadors from a distant land. Farahnaaz’s own town, the fortified Arg Varkana, is a beautiful place set in a land with a rich and detailed backstory. Through the course of an otherwise typical morning for her, a small mystery unfolds around Farahnaaz.

     Varkana has promise. I was skeptical at the start, when unfamiliar names and situations were shot rapid-fire from the first scene. It seemed overwhelming at first, but it made much more sense when I took the liberty of a second read-through after saving my progress a little further into the story. The author has put plenty of thought into the history of this fantasy world, but it isn’t easy to convey that level of backstory in a short game without overwhelming the player. This is a particularly difficult balance in a fantasy-themed game, because too little deviation from established norms makes it generic, while too much makes it hard to comprehend. What Varkana seems to promise is that this backstory -- and the scenario unfolding around Farahnaaz on such a nice morning -- will be central to the game’s conclusion.

     At the end (and with an attempt to avoid spoilers here), I’m not sure it came together that way. It’s almost as though a better story got misplaced along the way, somewhere between the promising beginning and the oddly disjointed ending. Farahnaaz, seemingly central to the story and certainly responsible for pushing the plot forward most of the way, encounters a turn of events (I’ll call it a “change in her condition”) that changes the perspective. The most complete ending (as it’s called in the walkthrough) introduces a wealth of backstory that wasn’t evident at all in the story proper. This includes an unlikely shift not only in the PC’s attitude toward the antagonist, but in the characterization of the antagonist as well.

     It wasn’t necessarily that these twists were unsatisfying (although that may be true to a small degree). I just read through the final text wondering how this was the conclusion to the game I had started playing. The rich backstory and the events of the day are usurped by revelations that really only depend on the earlier parts as backstory. I had hoped -- and the game’s promise seemed to be -- that this was all going to come together in an enlightening and clever way at the end. I’m not sure that it did.

     Still, the town of Arg Varkana is a beautiful, pleasant place to explore. The well-envisioned world and the well-developed backstory are perfect for an adventure like this. Most of the puzzles seem suited to the story, being neither difficult nor obscure. The writing is a pleasant mix of vivid descriptions and the right balance between brevity and verboseness (with some exceptions), although some obvious technical errors in the writing seemed more unintentional than stylistic.

     Where in prior years (as an entrant myself) I couldn’t vote, this year I’m honor-bound by the two-hour rule. I hit the mark during a particularly frustrating point in the game, where it’s possible to lose without knowing quite why (and without having what you need to avoid losing). I had already encountered a few other minor issues by then, but nothing major. I reviewed my own scoring guidelines and decided on an “8”.

     That’s the vote I’ll submit, and I played to completion afterwards. For all that’s good about Varkana, though, it suffers from a few technical problems that might have been resolved with a bit more time (and still could be, in a post-comp re-release).

     For instance, there seems to be one particular purpose for the art stand in the bazaar. It’s for a solution to a puzzle I solved in a different way (this is mentioned in the game’s walkthrough), but aside from that one purpose, it’s under-implemented to the point that I thought the game might be broken in a way that was keeping me from moving forward. It turns out I was wrong, but an exchange like this is still a frustration:

     >x stand
     Lots of art supplies for sale. You just love examining all those tools and equipment.
     >buy supplies
     Nothing is on sale.

     Examining the tools and the equipment results in the same message, and nothing is actually for sale (unless you hit on the one thing you can buy -- and it’s not paper).

     This exchange also had me wondering if the game was broken:

     >ask kids about paper
     Which do you mean, the simple, the bookshelves, papers, the paper or the papers?

     The work-around for the quirk mentioned in the game’s readme.txt doesn’t help, so I began to wonder if there was a disambiguation problem that would ultimately prevent me from getting what I needed. Fortunately, I found it elsewhere (and kicked myself for not remembering about it), but it was still a shame to find implementation bugs in an otherwise well-designed game.

     There were a few typos and grammatical issues (as mentioned earlier), including one typo early on where the NPC “Nivanen” was referred to as “Ninaven”. The exits from some rooms weren’t described, but this seemed limited to rooms where the missing exit was the direction from which you arrived. An in-game map was a nice touch later on (making navigation much easier), but I hesitated to use it at first for fear of getting spoilers just based on the layout or location names. All in all, it could just use some polishing.

     What bothered me most, though, wasn’t the minor bugs, small errors in the text, or even the plot switch-up near and at the end. It was the dead-end point during a key confrontation, and later, a puzzle that seemed out of place given the smooth flow of puzzles up to that point.

     In the case of former, it is possible to arrive in a no-win situation. The walkthrough, I found out later, advises you to “undo” out of the no-win, but I didn’t get a strong sense that the game was telling me enough to know I lacked something required to proceed. I thought about it and figured out what I needed to try (without the walkthrough), but I could easily have saved over my prior games or exited/restarted where “undo” would have become impossible. It may be hypocritical to criticize this, since my own Distress does this more than once, but in Varkana it seemed like a complete break from the game’s established flow. The game was generally forgiving prior to that (you could die by doing stupid stuff, but never inside a dead end this way), yet this was a situation where failure came a few turns later and in a way that’s impossible to avoid if you haven’t previously prepared for it.

     A little later, it’s necessary to command an NPC to take action. For this, I did use the walkthrough. I’m not sure I would have figured it out otherwise, because the game hadn’t introduced NPC directives earlier. Requiring a command like “John, climb the tree” (just as an example -- and a command like “tell John to climb the tree” works in this spot as well) isn’t unfair, but it probably should have been introduced earlier to establish it as a weapon in the player’s puzzle-solving arsenal. Re-reading the transcript, I can see that it was clued, but it seemed entirely to do with the NPC’s appreciation for the item in question and nothing to do with the NPC’s willingness to help. For that matter, the directive might have been unnecessary. This was an action the NPC, intending to help the PC, would probably have taken after obtaining the required item without even needing the PC to point it out (especially if this particular NPC wanted the item in order to help out).

     I found, too, that you can drop important items in the dark room, which you can’t retrieve. This is a minor issue, since players won’t ordinarily drop important items anywhere, but it can create potential no-win situations.

     The score for my review set is a point lower than the official vote I will cast for Varkana. This “unofficial” score is based on the rest of the game (played past two hours), and with more thought given to how it lines up with my scoring criteria. It’s a pretty strong entry with a few problems. I can recommend it even as-is. With a positive skew for such a detailed backstory in an enjoyable fantasy setting, it gets a “7+” from me.

Game #2: Eduard the Seminarist
By Heiko Theißen
Played On: October 3rd (1 hour 10 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 3+

     Game’s Blurb:
     An episode from a poet's years as a theological seminarist almost two centuries ago.

     I wish I could begin by describing what Eduard the Seminarist is actually about, but I can’t. Among its many flaws, the game suffers from an all-encompassing lack of purpose. From the start, it just isn’t clear what you’re supposed to be doing. A note found under the bed (which you’re likely to miss entirely unless the urge to look there hits you, and it didn’t me until I checked the walkthrough after bumbling around the seminary for a while despite doing the same type of thing in my own 1999 entry, which I really should apologize for -- but I digress) does give a sort of general goal. That’s it. At no other point, as far as I can tell, does the game attempt to help you along at all.

     What’s probably just a rushed entry by an inexperienced new IF author sometimes feels as though it’s equal parts laziness and willful attempts to withhold vital clues. The author would probably benefit more from my transcript than from a lengthy list of such instances here, but they include things like missing exits in room descriptions, important objects that aren’t mentioned in the room at all, a lack of backstory or explanation as to what it means to be a theological seminarist, no positive reinforcement when the player does something right, no penalty or even a friendly warning when the player messes up, too-sparse implementation of almost everything, and more. This doesn’t just make it a difficult game to beat. It makes it a difficult game to play.

     Puzzles are worked into the story well enough, and most do seem well-placed. Even so, I never felt as though the game offered enough guidance. This is partly because I was able to play a ways into it without ever finding the note. Even with a note, I never really understood the things that the PC would have known, and these are things vital for me as the player to help the PC make it to his meeting. These are things like understanding why the guards would block the street, what things I could afford to lose to the guards, why some actions might help or hinder my progress later, and so forth.

     And then, it’s just buggy in general. Not only can you get stuck by closing off the solution to puzzles, you can actually get stuck in objects. I was stuck, somehow, inside a door, and later, on a river. These weren’t rooms. These were just game objects or scenery I inadvertently “entered” (as an object in the game program myself) in a way not intended by the author. Very near the end, realizing that I needed something from the seminary that I had no way to go back (as far as I was able to determine) and retrieve, I just played through from a restart using the included command transcript.

     The game is apparently based on a book by (or about) 19th-century German poet Eduard Mörike. A possibly anachronistic reference in the game suggests it (as does the game’s file name), although far too little detail made it into the game if so. It may be that this book, or this poem, or this particular episode in Eduard’s life is interesting in another form. Eduard the Seminarist, as a game, offers little to encourage an understanding of the source material, let alone enthusiasm for it.

     I understand a degree of mystery and discovery, but the PC must have kept most of it to himself. Even when I did make progress, I never really felt that the story had moved forward. The PC was entirely generic in a game that probably centers around a person that had more personality and character in real life. All the detail that the author must have known while writing the game just never made it into the game.

     The writing is fine (and more of it might have made the game really come alive). It’s the coding and design that really fails here. Maybe that’s due to a lack of time, or a lack of experience (with Inform 6 in particular, or programming in general).

     The bulk of this review is negative, yes, but I do believe the author has talent. This game would require more work to fix than has already gone into creating the competition version, but I don’t mean to discourage the attempt. I hope this (among other reviews that are likely to be equally critical) doesn’t discourage the author from trying again. I considered a score of “4”, but decided on “3” given the ease with which the game can break. I’ve added an unofficial “plus” to my score, because it does have a certain charm despite its numerous flaws.

Game #3: A Fine Day for Reaping
By James Webb (writing as “revgiblet”)
Played On: October 4th (2 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 4)
Merk’s Score: 7-

     Game’s Blurb:
     It's not all fun being the Grim Reaper. It's your job to usher five awkward souls into the netherworld or the universe stops existing. No pressure. Take control of The Man in Black and find out if even Death can get a credit card...

     A Fine Day for Reaping has the witty appeal that was lacking in the entry I played just prior to this. For a game about Death, it feels much warmer and more alive -- and that’s a good thing. The Grim Reaper is well done (and what is it that’s so comical about a well-written lisp? I imagined him as sounding like a cross between a cheesy Mike Tyson impersonation and Sylvester the cartoon cat). At a glance in the Reaper Man novel, I think revgiblet is right. His Death is different than Terry Pratchett’s, seeming a bit like William Sadler in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Anyway, I was pleased at how nicely the author crafted a PC with real character.

     This is a puzzle-fest of the sort I like best. Each objective has two or three alternate solutions (and it’s evident that there are alternate solutions just in the way things are constructed, which is nice). Some solutions cross paths, making it likely that a player will find clues to solving an objective in the course of solving a different one entirely. I like this quite a bit, although the easiest of the solutions are probably the ones most players will find. This can leave the others to feel a bit like red herrings, unless you’ve connected the proverbial dots to realize certain things are no longer relevant. I managed to complete the game without peeking at the walkthrough, although not within the two-hour IFComp time limit.

     And so, it was necessary that I decide on a score from a partial playthrough. My official vote is “7”, which thankfully lines up with my review score. I’m finding that I really dislike the two-hour rule, though. There is such a big risk in getting it wrong, but it would be unfair to the review to stop entirely just to avoid deciding on a vote, or to rush through and not get a feel for how the game should play out. I’m a little bothered by reviews based on a few minutes of play that have been extrapolated to the game in its entirety. Those reviewers may just be more astute than I, but I find it difficult to write authoritatively about a game when I haven’t explored more of it. Getting to the end can make a difference.

     It makes a difference in A Fine Day for Reaping. Even though the writing suffers from minor problems (the usual suspects like misplaced or missing commas and typos in general, but also an intentional but slightly jarring switch in tense during cut-scenes) it’s by and large quite nice in this game. The author has a style (maybe a bit metaphor-heavy) -- whether original or borrowed, I can’t say -- that really makes for fun reading. That’s probably why I was more bothered that I had trouble pausing multi-page text dumps (a setting in Adrift that, for whatever reason, didn’t want to stay) than I was that the game has so many lengthy non-interactive bits. None of it was dry. None of it felt unnecessary.

     That’s also why I was so pleased with how revgiblet handled the ending. It’s a lot to read, but it makes the payoff for almost three hours of play much better than the “congrats - you won” kind of ending I had expected. Different solutions lead to different wrap-ups at the end (according to the walkthrough -- although I have not played through again to see those endings, they’re bound to be equally worthwhile).

     As much as I enjoyed what revgiblet has done here, a number of problems hold it back from being the truly great game it might have been. Almost all of them are implementation problems. The design itself is fine, with predominantly logical puzzles (or at least illogical ones that make sense in context) and pretty good pacing where it’s hard to get stuck for long.

     The exception, as far as the design is concerned, is the twelve-hour in-game time limit. I never felt that it really added anything to the game. I’m not sure how many turns this works out to be, but it’s plenty. For a game on a time limit, it’s probably too long. To be fair, players will realize this from the beginning, and probably plan their saves (and multiple saves) accordingly. The problem for me was that the game didn’t need a sense of urgency. The time limit was made long enough so that exploration and sight-seeing doesn’t have to be cut down too much, but if you’re not forcing a sense of urgency, then why have a time limit at all? In my play-through, I ran out of turns close to the end of my last objective. It’s a nice little non-winning ending, but it just didn’t add anything to the experience.

     Other problems are strictly bugs in the implementation. For example:

     Jimiyu Wangai's empty body is lying on the ground.
     >x table
     You look at the table.
     "Don't worry," says Jimiyu, "It's perfectly sturdy."

     Now, Death can talk to the dead, but in this case, poor Jimiyu had been reaped and departed. The “x table” reply had to have been hard-coded on the assumption that players would only be looking at the table while Jimiyu was still alive. I found this kind of thing in some other places as well, where static descriptions (for instance, not being able to approach one NPC’s bed due to a protective spell, even though the spell was already gone) didn’t take into consideration the changes in the state of the story.

     “In” and “out,” as standard commands in IF, didn’t work in places where they might have been appropriate. Some of the more specific actions were a little guess-the-verb-y (I had trouble figuring out how to take something from the “lucky dip” without finally resorting to “use dip,” for instance). There is no special way of entering a year into the machine (you just type the number as though it was a stand-alone verb, but it only responds with something other than an unrecognized command message if you enter a year that the game knows), which does make it a little confusing. These kinds of small frustrations happen frequently in A Fine Day for Reaping, but it probably just needs more testing and polishing.

     Then, there is a strange screen-clearing problem at work. I’m not entirely convinced Adrift is to fault for this, since it appears that room descriptions that shouldn’t even be printed yet are shown just prior to the clearing of the display (and there is no forced pause, even with Adrift pausing turned on). This may be a bug isolated to this game. It seems I’ve been able to pause before forced screen-clears in Adrift games before.

     The “help” built into A Fine Day for Reaping works more like 2005’s Beyond than most other IF games. You’re whisked away to a whole new location, which is a good thing for any player to try as part of the overall experience. Once there, you don’t actually have to get hints (I found it a little under-developed, anyway, where some of what I wanted help with didn’t quite lead to answers).

     The “7” I scored it at two hours fits with the game as a whole, thankfully. It does have problems, but it’s an imaginative and fun story, and a worthwhile, recommendable game. I’ve tacked on a “minus” because of the frustrations with pausing and screen-clearing, but the score itself is unchanged.

Game #4: My Name is Jack Mills
By Juhana Leinonen
Played On: October 5th (1 hour 55 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     An Interactive Pulp Fiction

     Wrong game, pal.

     For me, the term pulp fiction carries two connotations. I think of something that’s probably entertaining but without substance; something hastily written, perhaps, as pulp fiction from the early twentieth century might have been; something that’s essentially throw-away literature. I also think of Quentin Tarantino’s excellent Pulp Fiction movie, which epitomizes some of the common, recognizable themes from pulp fiction while managing not to be hastily contrived throw-away entertainment.

     My Name is Jack Mills has a promising start. It’s set in the present (although the game carefully avoids telling the year), in a sufficiently generic city. Jack’s friend (a professor) has been jailed for assault. Jack rushes to help, and finds out that a certain item (a coin, described by the professor as being “a valuable historical artifact”) was stolen from him. Jack agrees to track down the thief (the professor already tried, which led to the assault charge) and recover the artifact. In Jack’s own words “this was going to become a long night.”

     It’s effectively IF noir, rife with crime, unlikable characters, and seemingly complicated women. Jack switches to an internal monologue in transitional scenes. He’s perfectly out of place no matter where he goes, yet he’s never out of sorts. It’s all exactly what one might expect from a story like this, and maybe that’s the problem. As nicely as it emulates the idea of pulp fiction, My Name is Jack Mills never seems to build onto that promising start. It’s exactly what it appears to be, with no real twist, no innovation, and nothing that injects it with that “wow” factor seen in contemporary pulp-inspired stories like Tarantino’s. It demonstrates (even emphasizes) that the bulk of what appears in the annual IFComp is throw-away IF. It’s good for a couple hours of entertainment, but ultimately forgettable and buried under the accolades that will befall the competition’s better entries.

     That’s a shame, because Juhana Leinonen has put obvious effort (undoubtedly countless hours of proverbial blood, sweat, and tears) into My Name is Jack Mills. Some parts of the implementation really shine: the use of smell throughout; the clever way a partially covered page on the officer’s desk is shown; the ease with which Jack can navigate to points of interest around the city. Other parts, though, suffer: many instances of “you can’t see any such thing” for objects which the text has told me I do see (this seems to become more common as the game progresses); a problem with disambiguating “woman” in the restaurant; minor quirks (like a missing line break and an invalid response trying to drive to the park); and even a big game-killing bug when attempting to leave Emmy’s table at the restaurant (a long series of “block” errors shown after a variable stack overflow error).

     (Potential spoilers in the next paragraph.)

     It might be intentional (and I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never been a big fan of the gritty detective pulp genre), but the story is full of head-scratching plot holes and unanswered questions. What was so important about the Roman coin? If Julian, a very wealthy man, would trade the coin for an Egyptian mask that goes for $650 in auction, why wouldn’t he have simply bought it for himself? And if that’s the fair trade value he has assigned to the coin, why bother to steal it to begin with? It has some significance, else the professor wouldn’t make such a fuss. If Julian knew what the importance was, then why be willing to trade it? Might he have been planning a double-cross? It seems doubtful, given that you can win the game by making the trade.

     My Name is Jack Mills has at least two different endings -- probably three or more. (Ed: Source code is included, and I see that there are actually five or six different possible endings off the two main branches.) They’re based on decisions made around half way through the game. Well, not decisions so much as two different leads (or methods) for recovering the stolen coin. A series of puzzles (some with more than one solution) pave the way. It’s possible to close off certain solutions by earlier actions, and it’s unlikely the player will know this has happened. At least one of the winning endings is supposed to be open no matter what happens, and I found this to be true when I played.

     One ending I would have liked to see, however, involved waiting for the bad guy to arrive at a place where he just never did. After a different ending reached without assistance, I turned to the walkthrough for more. It makes an allowance for this no-show situation, but doesn’t really explain what I might have done earlier that caused it. It apparently involves a chase scene, and that might have been fun.

     I said earlier that the story has no twist. That’s not entirely true. It’s never clear during the story just who Jack Mills is, until the end. With more than one possible answer, though, it’s more gimmick than twist. It works, and it makes for a nice wrap-up, but it might have been nicer if the whole story had been in support of a single, more interesting conclusion.

     The writing is okay -- pretty good, even. The author does break some pretty firm grammatical rules, though. It may be for effect (I’m frequently guilty of relaxed writing myself), but I can’t think of any instance where a true comma splice makes sense.

     It’s just... hmm. It feels like film noir in Jack’s internal monologues, but it’s pretty ordinary otherwise. The author does work similarly clever bits into the general game, but not to the degree I expected. It’s as though the author was tackling a form of writing that exceeds his (or her?) proficiency. Back when this sort of pulp fiction was common, it may have come naturally to writers. Now, it probably needs a higher degree of exaggeration to really stress the point that this is supposed to be pulp fiction.

     It’s worth playing. It could definitely be improved, but I can still recommend it as-is. It’s a respectable “7” based on my judging criteria. It might have been a “6”, but I didn’t feel the puzzles were poorly-clued and I did like the tone and feel of the story. I’d like to see more in the future from this author.

Game #5: Gathered In Darkness
By Michael Millsap (writing as “Dr. Froth”)
Played On: October 7th (4 hours 20 minutes)
Platform: Quest (Version 4)
Merk’s Score: 5

     Game’s Blurb:
     An eccentric genetic engineer, a forgotten evil God, a strange and sinister religious order, a powerful bloodline, a beautiful woman, a tropical paradise, horror, terror, fear, death, and one hell of a case of mistaken identity…

     I had the misfortune of experiencing constant computer problems while playing Gathered In Darkness. I don’t think it’s the game’s fault (and it’s certainly not if nobody else experienced the same), but about ten times my computer either froze, or froze and went to a black screen, or spontaneously rebooted during play. Something is off with my computer (maybe bad RAM), but I’m used to problems like this maybe a couple times a week -- not ten times in an afternoon. My guess is that Quest is doing some heavy-duty things in memory (I discuss slow save games a little later) that simply made my existing hardware problem worse. This is all wild guessing, though.

     The result is that I personally experienced some of the madness that is inherent to the Cthulhu mythos. The game doesn’t bill itself as Cthulhu-inspired, but it becomes evident as the story progresses. I haven’t read H. P. Lovecraft, but (for what it’s worth) I’ve played a few hours of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG (with D20 rules). It was familiar enough that I probably could have placed it even without an in-game reference to Cthulhu (it’s in the second or third chapter).

     Gathered In Darkness was cut by the author from nine chapters to three, for the IFComp. Even missing its other two-thirds, it’s long enough that a two-hour play-through without hints is unlikely, even for the most skilled of IF gamers. It isn’t just the puzzles. The game is full of lengthy bits of backstory (diary entries, museum pieces, book excerpts, and so forth) that just take time to read and digest. It’s all in support of a creepy survival horror escape story that’s easy to become immersed in.

     Or rather, it could be. Unedited writing may spoil the mood for many players. On the one hand, we are given dark and chilling descriptions of unthinkable horrors the likes of which might be found visually in the Silent Hill series. This is certainly for a mature audience, not your eight-year-old daughters. But at the same time these descriptions are riddled with misspellings, words missing from sentences, comma-splices, a lack of apostrophes where they belong in possessive nouns, and other grammatical mistakes. Accurate writing is a good thing in general, but it’s especially important when you want the text to seem believable and immersive. To succeed, you really have to convince the reader that you are in full control. It shouldn’t be obvious that it’s just some guy’s horrific but poorly-edited imagination.

     Aside from these problems in the writing, Gathered In Darkness isn’t too buggy. There are problems, but I don’t remember thinking (and my transcripts don’t suggest) that the game was seriously broken in any way. The oddities below (among others) weren’t nearly as distracting as the frequent and glaring problems in the writing itself.

     I found no alternative to the “use” verb in some cases. There were wrong exits listed in some rooms. Some descriptions didn’t change to accommodate new information when they should have. The parser threw away important prepositions like “in” from commands except where it was specifically expected. As a command, “x self” works but “x me” does not. Some instances of guess-the-verb were an annoyance, but not a major one. (What I mean is that it’s usually evident that “some specific action” is appropriate, and I always seemed to hit on the right thing after two or three tries rather than give up thinking I was on the wrong track.) A skylight on the second floor of a three-story building was probably a mistake in the game’s consistency.

     Consistency problems might be because the author has been working on the game for so long (according to some in-game info). In one scene, the author forgets which NPC is which. There, a woman who died early in the game reappears accidentally later on, but it’s caught and the right name is used as the scene continues. Then, in the room’s short description afterwards, she is listed with the wrong name again. This could be intentional if perhaps the author was going for an Eternal Darkness sort of insanity effect for the player, but I doubt it.

     This is the first Quest-based game I’ve played, ever. In some ways, I’m impressed with the system. It seems like a capable competitor for Adrift, and the author has demonstrated that it’s suitable for longer adventures. Even aside from the lock-ups (which I don’t actually blame on anything but my stupid, stubborn PC), there were oddities. I’m lost without running a full transcript, and it took a while to figure out that in Quest you can only enable that by launching the main runner (not a game file directly). Even then, it doesn’t flush all output to the file immediately (as though it’s working on a buffer). I liked that I could change the font size and colors (I opted to stick with the author’s intended color scheme of red on black, but I enlarged the font since I sit back a ways from my monitor), but that only applies to the main output window. I was stuck with a teeny-tiny input line, which I couldn’t read for accuracy at that distance. The stuff on the sidebar remained in a default font (small) as well.

     And then, there was something odd going on with saving and loading games. The longer I played and the more saves I made, the longer it took to save and load. There were times in the third chapter when it took (I kid you not) over sixty seconds to actually save and return control to the game. Late in the game, one save even took two minutes. Loading went a little quicker, but even it became painfully slow. These are small files in the 16- to 60-K range. Oddly enough, the file size did grow the longer I played and re-saved. Is a save a complete re-play of commands from the game’s start or something? Surely not.

     But what of the game’s story? I found it intriguing enough that I remained interested the whole way through. It’s sufficiently shocking in spots, as tales of evil, demonic cults are wont to be. A mystery surrounds the converted resort complex, its staff, and the recent gathering of guests.

     (Be warned -- possible plot spoilers in the next two paragraphs.)

     Suspension of disbelief is vital, of course, but some parts of the plot do seem to fall on the wrong side of coherency. For example, while others are brutally murdered and left scattered (or sometimes hidden) around the hotel, the PC suffers an attack that is best described as a malicious inject-and-run with a slow-acting poison. After that, he is left to roam around (and casually escape confinement) in search of an antidote.

     Security is complicated by code-only doors, special keys, and secret locks that require very specialized skills to open, yet the PC gets through easily with the right skills and the general incompetence of those who are probably supposed to keep these things out of his hands. In retrospect, that’s not all bad. It reminds me of Silent Hill, and it’s not out of place in a story like this. Still, I think it’s possible to improve upon these tropes of IF, or even replace them with something better.

     With only three chapters of a nine-chapter tale, it’s possible (even probable) that the author has a really good reason for these things. Answers may come with the rest of the story. The author plans to release the complete game after the IFComp has ended.

     Locked doors and secret passages are only a part of the puzzles that weave the story together. I found a lot to like in the game’s puzzles. The macabre nature of the story lends itself to a few that really stand out as well-placed and original. It’s not often that a game can find an important use for a mixture of shredded skin and genetic solvent. I never found the puzzles too difficult to manage, except sometimes when it came to finding or noticing certain concealed things. (In Gathered In Darkness, it pays to look around in all boxes, under beds, and on shelves.) Also, because each chapter isn’t entirely self-contained, some things that were intended for later chapters were just red herrings in the game’s truncated version.

     I did like Gathered In Darkness, but it’s hard to recommend in its present state. The writing needs serious editing throughout, and the various quirks could be ironed out if the game was beta-tested to a larger extent (assuming it went through any testing at all). If chapters four through nine are the same, it would make for a recommendable game if polished up and released in full. At two hours, I scored it a “5”. That’s “below average” on my scoring criteria, but still a game I enjoyed. That vote stands as my review score as well, after completing the competition version.

Game #6: Orevore Courier
By Brian Rapp
Played On: October 9th (1 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 8+

     Game’s Blurb:
     The ship's Security Officer is responsible for ensuring that the fantastically valuable cargo is safely delivered. To perform this task, she can rely only on her wits and a big red Destruct button.

     The security console sparks suddenly, as if by magic.

     An angry voice warns you that "security considerations do not permit the use of magical incantations aboard this ship. This notice will not be repeated."

     A stentorian voice booms, "ZERO TORA ECHO DESTRUCT HOT!" and everything explodes.

           *** The ship has been destroyed ***

     If Orevore Courier isn’t a pun on “au revoir, courier,” it really ought to be. Given the verb/noun gimmick in Brian Rapp’s previous entry (2004’s well-written Goose, Egg, Badger), I think it’s possible.

     An isolated security officer (you) remains seated at a control console while all havoc breaks loose in the other areas of a small courier space craft. In Orevore Courier you push buttons, turn dials, view surveillance, and attempt to influence the events that threaten to destroy the ship (and you along with it). The standards of IF are gone here -- no directional movement, very little use for inventory, very few actions that aren’t related to operating the console -- but it still feels like traditional IF. That’s probably because standard commands are still recognized. They’re simply rejected in legitimate, in-story ways.

     The story is delightfully absurd. It asks the question “who would win in a battle of wits and instinct when the participants are the ship’s crew, pirates, zombies, and a dangerous metal-munching blob that must be kept cool to be kept docile?” Another game might have asked this in a grim, even grisly Alien-esque setting, but not Orevore Courier. I mean... c’mon! Zombies! Pirates! A brain-like blob! You can’t expect complete seriousness from a build-up like that.

     This is a game in the “big puzzle box” genre (if such a thing exists). Players are given a few tools to work with (in this case, the abilities of the control console). Players learn the rules of the puzzle (in this case, how the controls are used and what can be done to influence others). Pieces move around with their own agendas and must be influenced (in this case, the aforementioned zombies, pirates, crew and “orevore” creature, all in an indirect fashion). If you enjoyed All Things Devours, Delightful Wallpaper, or Mobius, you may be delighted with Orevore Courier.

     The game includes separate files -- graphics -- containing a map of the ship’s layout and a diagram of the control console. The latter is nice, but I found the former to be absolutely essential. Fearing spoilers, I didn’t check them right away. I should have. I just never got a clear picture from the text exactly how the rooms are connected. I would strongly recommend printing both images, just to keep handy while playing. They’re not spoilers. They’re key facts about the puzzle you’re working with.

     It’s a very interesting and well-constructed puzzle (being the game as a whole). However, I think it’s probably far harder than the author anticipated. In other learn-by-dying games, you can generally make a little more progress on each play-through, because each death or failure points you toward taking the right actions the next time. I think that’s why All Things Devours works so well.

     The construction is different in Orevore Courier. You only need to manage a small number of controls and a small number of rooms, but in general you will only get clues if you happen to be viewing the right room on the right turn. This results in far more trial-and-error (and far more restarts) than might be expected otherwise. The trick is to figure out what’s going on everywhere. Even that’s not so daunting, except that the same things won’t necessarily happen on each play-through if you’ve successfully influenced the various “pieces” (people) in the game that time around. So, it’s possible to play for several turns and then make a single change to the course of further events that has to be reproduced on each successive play-through (or frozen as a jumping-off point via a saved game) if you intend to explore the possibilities that might branch from there.

     I did moderately well at this for an hour and a half. In retrospect, I probably should have been working harder to figure out goals. For instance, if I don’t want the pirates to break into the freezer, what actions should I take in time to stop them? If I want to protect the pirates from the zombies (else I end up with more zombies), how should I accomplish that and still keep the orevore safe? I don’t think I ever quite figured out what my goals should be. It’s all very open. Things that can’t lead to victory are allowed because you’re given the freedom to do anything allowed by the control console. In a way, this also makes it a little like a sandbox game -- albeit a sandbox that ends your life after a dozen or two turns.

     After I felt that fun was leaning towards frustration, I checked the walkthrough and played entirely from there. I found that I had some things right and some things wrong, but it really reinforced my conclusion that success really depends on being (excuse the cliché) in the right place at the right time. Randomness, thankfully, doesn’t play a part in this. It’s still maddeningly difficult, and (unless you are far more brilliant than I will ever be) impossible to solve in a meager two hours.

     The writing is effective and seemingly flawless. It’s also admirably bug-free, except for a single quirk where Ghee seems to be dead in the docking bay and finagling his way out of the engine room at the same time. Actions, which do become repetitive, are aided not only by abbreviated button names, but by button names as complete actions. For instance, you can enter “push docking button” but you’re less taxed by simply typing “dock.”

     In many ways, my own voting guidelines are rubbish. I’ve tried to describe what makes a game deserving of a given score by outlining what I look for in a good game. One like Orevore Courier can hardly be faulted for featuring a story without any real depth when it’s supposed to be a puzzle box, not thought-provoking literature. These guidelines are supposed to keep me on track, so that all entries are judged fairly against all others. I’ll stick with it until I come up with a better plan (maybe for next year), but it’s probably making me too critical of the entries I play. What matters most is simply how worth playing a game may be. If it’s supposed to be fun, then is it fun?

     Orevore Courier may be a godsend to those who enjoy complex brain teasers. Those who look for epic and serious stories without the difficulty of puzzles along the way may find little to enjoy here. I think I’m in the middle. I liked what Brian Rapp has done here, and I appreciate that obvious effort has gone into constructing a small-scale but consistent and branching logistics puzzle. At the same time, it might have taken me ages to solve on my own, and it ultimately began to feel like too much brain-work for me. I’ve rated it fairly highly, as an “8” with a “plus” for such cool subject matter. If current trends hold true, and with just twenty-eight other games to compete against, I expect Orevore Courier to find an easy spot in the top ten.

Game #7: In The Mind Of The Master
By David Whyld
Played On: October 11th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 4)
Merk’s Score: 8-

     "Xyzzy," said the Master.
     At once, an item was added to his inventory.

     The Master was carrying:
        _the Master's garments {worn}
        _a purple pingabalong

     "Xyzzy," said the Master.
     At once, an item was removed from his inventory.

     "Xyzzy," said the Master.
     At once... nothing happened.

     I have to wonder if David Whyld does anything other than write Interactive Fiction. It would be an easy notion to dismiss if his games were generic and churned out over the course of an otherwise uneventful weekend, but they’re not. In The Mind Of The Master is another fine example of what David can do with his platform of choice (Adrift), and it’s a worthy addition to his ever-growing list of authored titles.

     In The Mind Of The Master begins with a hasty escape. A mystery surrounds the identity of the titular PC, and it’s played up as the main focus of the story. He makes his getaway disguised as one of three characters, as chosen by the player. This hints at who the Master might be. As more than just an amateur impressionist, The Master dons the selected costume and assumes the persona of the chosen character. Stage actor? Professional magician? Criminal fugitive? Discovering the truth is the hook.

     The middle parts begin to hint at possibilities that can only be explained by the supernatural or metaphysical. More than once, he is mistaken for someone else. It could be that these people just see through his disguise, but even The Master himself begins to doubt that it’s quite as simple as that. It’s as though he lacks all the facts about his own identity. I was reminded of the scene in Fight Club where “Jack” follows a trail of clues to a bar where his cohort Tyler Durden had been the night before. The bartender is somber and respectful, somehow mistaking Jack for Tyler. Disguise and impersonation just aren’t enough to explain it away.

     With that kind of build-up, it’s easy to expect a big payoff at the end. But -- and I don’t know quite how to describe this without blatant spoilers -- there’s sort of a catch-22. To win, you must take a specific action in the final scene (David even warns of this, in the introductory text). If you haven’t figured out what The Master is capable of, hoping it will be revealed near the ending, then you don’t know what winning action is necessary. So you can’t win. But if you have figured it out, then there is no twist or revelation at all. You must have already known it in order to win. I had to get it from the hints, because I just hadn’t figured it out. It’s hinted near the beginning, but (a) it’s not something every player is guaranteed to see, (b) it’s near hints to many other possibilities as well, which come during that first scene, and (c) is distanced enough from the end that even if you take notice of it, it might not trigger whatever spark of imagination allows a player to extrapolate actions from clues.

     I had expected a different construction entirely, that late in the game. Because there are three initial disguises, and because there is some sort of specific action at the end, and because some sort of repetitive, do-over theme was present and foreshadowed, I convinced myself that the trick was to play twice more (once as each of the other two characters). After one time through, it doesn’t feel like a very long game, so this kind of thing made sense. I think you can learn a little more by playing again with different options, but it’s not necessary that you do. All paths lead back to the same scenes. It seems constructed this way not to necessitate re-plays as a means of solving that final puzzle, but simply to give players a wider range of choices and to make re-plays worth the effort.

     What I thought was going on -- and what would probably make an interesting short game in its own right -- was that some import clue from a three-piece puzzle would be identified by playing once as each of the available characters. It would be necessary for the player to combine the one thing learned from each in order to deduce that final action. The order of play wouldn’t matter, and a complete re-start (as opposed to having the game “put” you back at the beginning) wouldn’t hurt things. Once you reached the end for the third time, you would simply know what to do.

     Perhaps because it didn’t work that way, or perhaps because there remains a mystery behind The Master’s true identity even at the end, I wasn’t completely satisfied by the story. I really bought into the premise, though, and they say the journey is its own reward. I had fun, even though I wish David hadn’t opted to leave it open for theories. I would have liked to know for sure just what was going on in The Master’s past.

     Then, a few things that never made it fully into the game (more detailed notes available at the game’s end explain this) added to the mystery without ever sharing in the conclusion. For instance, the guy who picks up The Master (in the guise of a Gentleman) in a limo was intended to be part of another sub-plot. Who runs the Chamber, and what’s their agenda? Until I read the walkthrough, I hadn’t even realized the Chamber and the Montalban were related (I thought I had been taken elsewhere). This was supposed to be a bigger, more epic game. It’s probably good that the point is explained in the author’s notes, otherwise it would be easy for a player to think he or she simply missed finding those answers during the course of the game.

     The story is written in third person past tense. In other words, “you see a tree” is expressed as “he saw a tree.” Maybe it’s to force a disconnection between player and PC. Maybe it’s to support that these are events that have already happened. Or, maybe it’s just to set the game apart from its peers. Whatever the reason, I’m not sure it was necessary. While it affords the author an ability to cast emotions and memories onto the PC which the player may not share, it suffers from a few unintentional lapses into the more traditional present tense.

     The writing has a few other minor problems (misspellings, odd and obvious typos, etc.) in a few random spots. I noticed very minor bugs and implementation issues too, but nothing substantial enough to dwell upon. It really moves along at a nice pace overall, avoiding many of the parsing and implementation problems that are the bane of other Adrift games.

     Part of this is certainly the author’s skill with so many games under his belt, but on reflection, it’s more than that. At times, the story felt as though it was on rails. It usually wasn’t (at least, not to the degree one might expect from the term “on rails”), but almost any stray action will redirect the player back, making it clear that this other location or this specific distraction doesn’t merit further attention. Beyond that, the text is written in a way that somehow provides vivid enough mental images without offering an abundance of “stuff” to interact with. So, there’s less for the author to have to implement, and less for the player to concern himself or herself with.

     The puzzles are pretty light fare, except for one particular sticking point outside the Montalban (in disguise as a thief), and of course at the very end. Most of the puzzles are probably just plot-pacing devices. The more difficult sequences to manage -- conversations -- are done through multiple-choice dialogue menus.

     In The Mind Of The Master is a pretty strong entry. Its weakest point, however, is that it poses too many questions that remain unanswered and left up to the player’s imagination at the end. In a story-centric game, I think players deserve a little more. Unless it’s the lead-in for a sequel, it should probably be a lot more. Otherwise, the entire premise -- the driving question that propels a player to take such interest in discovering an answer -- seems like an unfulfilled promise.

     At two hours, I rated the game an “8”. That’s also the score I’ve kept for the review, although it gets an unfortunate “minus” for building a mystery that isn’t quite resolved. It could use a little more polish, but it’s still a deserving and recommendable entry.

Game #8: Ghost of the Fireflies
By Paul Panks (writing as “Dunric” aka “The Master of Spunk”)
Played On: October 13th (1 hour 55 minutes)
Platform: PowerBASIC (Compiled MS-DOS Executable)
Merk’s Score: 3-

     Game’s Blurb:
     Ghost of the Fireflies follows the hilarious (mis)adventures of Raiythius, a hellhound bent on mischief, whose main goal appears to be tormenting the main character (played by you, of course).

     Ghost of the Fireflies begins with a hardy chiding. You’re likely to have missed it if, like me, you pressed “enter” after hitting “n” to skip the instructions. The question is followed by a two- or three-second pause, but any keypress after “n” will skip right over it. I saw it the first time because I did read through the instructions. Anyway, if you’re interested in being scolded with the use of words such as “weirdo” and “stupid,” just press “n” to skip the instructions but press no other key until “HELP FOR THE LAZY” appears as the heading.

     The instructions seem to spoil what might be a pretty big plot twist, but that was evidently intentional. It goes on to say that multi-phrase commands such as “get lantern and go west” will work (it’s “designed to shut up the naysayers”) even though the aforementioned chiding says it won’t work (because it’s stupid for a player to do that). The game doesn’t appear to support multiple commands on the same line, incidentally.

     It saddens me to see Paul Panks again and again invest his effort and creativity in games people just can’t play. Writing text adventures is obviously important to him, yet his insistence on doing it the same way time and again despite well-intentioned advice from numerous sources has grown from stubbornness into... I don’t know... obsession, maybe. What he doesn’t see -- refuses to see, perhaps -- is that he could write these “old school” RPG/Adventures in something more suited to interactive fiction, even if this is the kind of game he wants to write. In Hugo, for instance, he could intentionally re-write the grammar to support only two-word command phrasing (it would be pretty easy) with three-letter abbreviations for verbs and all object nouns. I think this would be silly, but it would allow for the same game without the technical issues that exist as a result of these poorly-coded game/engine hybrids.

     For all of Paul’s experience with BASIC, the game’s included source code shows that he’s still doing it pretty much the way we did in the 1980’s, before “sub” and “function” were introduced in more powerful dialects. What Paul does with spaghetti-gosubs and various branching goto’s should be done with well-planned subs and functions. Errors abort the program, instead of being handled with “on error” code. Almost all variable names are two characters long, even though that’s a throwback to earlier BASIC dialects which would only understand the first two letters of a variable name. PowerBASIC supports all of these things. Interactive Fiction has advanced. BASIC has even advanced. Paul Panks hasn’t.

     And it’s buggy -- very, very buggy. For a time, I thought it was impossible to load a saved game because as soon as I would answer “y” at the appropriate point, it would display a directory listing of my saved games followed by a fatal error that ends the program. What I realized is that I was pressing “enter” after “y” -- just like I had done when asked about instructions. In BASIC, it’s an “inkey” instead of “input.” The result is that the game thought I intended to load a save with a blank name. Instead of validating this, or even handling it with “on error” code, the game just relies on you to press “y” and then nothing else until the list comes up. Then, you must type just the name of a real, existing save. Stray from that and the game dies.

     Skip the next long paragraph to avoid a list of bugs I found just in a partial play-through.

     Other bugs are numerous. As announced at the IFComp website, you can’t buy anything at the store because the game never believes you have any money. I corresponded with Dunric and he sent me an update (I intended to use it to see the rest of the game, although I can’t base my score on it), but even that version seems to have some problems in the same area. “Examining” things (among other potentially useful and necessary actions) frequently results in blank responses. You can find a fern shield, but (believe it or don’t) an Ice Dragon is what actually ends up in your inventory (this, I noticed, was fixed by the update). In early battles, if you attempt to use an item (from the battle menu), you’re seemingly stuck. It wants an item number in response, but the list is empty, and there is no “0” or “nevermind” option. I had to just “ctrl+break” then “enter” to force my way out of the game entirely. In dealing with Bruce Lee you can sell things you don’t even have, and unknown nouns usually result in Bruce thinking you’re selling the Ice Dragon. There was a strange quirk where nothing would happen when I tried to listen to the band’s music, but later it worked. Some bad line wrapping in a few places results in words that are split from the end of one display line to the beginning of the next.

     Here’s the one that had me throwing my hands up in exasperation:

     Raiythius arrives.
     >talk to raiythius
     The object doesn't understand you. Only Raiythius or C/C++ programmers (employing the latest 633K 5P34K) can decipher your nano-blabber.

     Paul implemented “X” for “examine” (which is nice, even given the introductory lecture on why it shouldn’t have been necessary). He even added an “alias” command to create shortcuts to two-word actions. The top of the display shows function-key shortcuts to several verbs. A text map is available in-game. The problem is that these are the advanced features Paul has included to prove that he’s growing as an IF author. The game structure itself is still antiquated and obsolete.

     The beginning, for instance, is a CYOA-style prologue with a couple of prompts (and not command prompts -- you are expected to type “go west” and it’s not routed through general parsing). That wouldn’t be an issue except that you can’t skip it on later play-throughs, and you can’t load a saved game until you move through it into the game proper.

     I really tried to get past these things and put effort into playing a game Paul has put such effort (even if misguided) into writing. It’s just... an exercise in frustration. It’s a shame, because some of what Paul writes hints at brilliance. The rest, sadly, is an incomprehensible mesh of disparate ideas that don’t seem surreal or inviting, just confusing and strange. It ranges from beautiful imagery and well-imagined originality to exhausted elements rehashed from his prior games and toilet humor. The PC is a huge female beetle (spelled “beatle” in the game) accompanied by a comically sadistic hellhound who isn’t quite as funny as Paul thinks he is. This female beetle, it seems, can not only elicit friendly flirting from a concubine bartender, but she can engage in “romantic intercourse” with yet another woman (some opium-smoking guild master). As awkward as much of the story seems, I think it might have made an interesting and surreal adventure if not marred by so darned many technical issues.

     The ending is equally strange. I couldn’t get to it the intended way (is the game truly unwinnable?) so I looked in the source code afterwards. At the risk of spoiling the conclusion to a story somebody out there may wish to play, it involves an NPC called Dunric who commits seppuku (a specific suicide of Japanese origin) with a knife. What precedes it is the PC’s apology for the suffering Dunric has endured, and Dunric’s calm answer that “the competition” will never change him. This is surely just a figurative flight of fancy for the author (I sincerely hope that it is), but if there is any correlation between Dunric the NPC and Dunric the author, it’s a chilling way to end a story -- any story.

     It would be easy to vote the game a “1”. Most judges will. I think if anything is good about a game, it deserves at least a “2”. I’ve gone up from there, though, based almost entirely on the effort that went into the game, not the result. Plus, there are a few well-written and visceral passages that make it clear Paul had something big in mind for Ghost of the Fireflies. I’ve rated it a “3”, but with a “minus” for being so technically unsound and generally a pain to actually play. I can’t recommend it, and it’s probably going to rank at or near the bottom in the final results.

     To wrap up, I would recommend (again) to Paul that he pick up Inform, or TADS, or even Adrift. Please don’t be so adamantly against learning something new and taking on a new challenge. I’d like to think we’ve always been on friendly terms. I’ve offered suggestions, sent information about bugs, written reviews far lengthier and more open-minded than most, not dismissed your games based on by-line alone, avoided (I think) the Panks-bashing that sometimes felt like a daily routine, and even beta-tested one of your games. So, please consider this the friendly, well-intentioned advice it’s meant to be. Just consider it. Your games would benefit by it. I really believe this.

Game #9: Beneath: a Transformation
By Graham Lowther
Played On: October 14th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 5-

     Game’s Blurb:
     An adventure based on Robert E. Howard's "Worms of the Earth".

     Ordinarily, I like these creepy, pseudo-surreal settings. That part of the game comes across very well. The writing is fine. I don’t remember any errors or mistakes of the kind that have plagued most of the other entries to this point. It’s simple but effective, allowing for easy immersion. But... hmm. The game itself isn’t quite so smooth.

     In Beneath, you are a nameless, unknown reader with a library copy of Howard’s Worms of the Earth (apparently an anthology of short stories). Fact and fantasy blend, as it becomes clear that you (in the role of the PC) must be living in the world described by the very collection you’re reading. I played this late on a stormy night, which added to the mood, but not enough to cover up some serious design problems.

     Hard puzzles aren’t inherently bad. They usually provide a higher challenge rating than I’m comfortable with, but I can usually recognize them as fair and solvable after the fact. The puzzles in Beneath (which, incidentally, had me thinking of 2005’s Beyond on title alone, despite dissimilarity otherwise) aren’t hard -- they’re obscure. It’s easy to make a little progress through the first parts of the game, but then it becomes nearly (if not completely) impossible. Success often depends on knowing or guessing things that seem entirely unclued and counter-intuitive. Some assistance is provided in the form of in-game hints that the game is in an unwinnable state, but the hints seem too sparse to cover all the ways the game might become unwinnable. Plus, it’s never really clear why the game is unwinnable, or what might be done to prevent it.

     The following is an example (and a possible puzzle spoiler) right from the game. The PC can buy an owl, which flies away upon exiting the pet store. This turns out to be a good thing, but it’s described as not really mattering (probably so players won’t think it was a mistake). But, because nothing happened, I didn’t even bother with the owl when re-playing later. Further in, a certain item can be found and dropped as bait of sorts for this owl. The puzzle relies not only on having released the owl earlier, but in somehow deducing that it would be interested in this item. Even if you do figure that out, it’s ultimately pure coincidence story-wise that the owl helps you escape a pursuer while going after this particular item. It’s just not the kind of thing a player could plan for and work out a correct solution. That’s just one example among several.

     Guess-the-command problems only make it worse. The game is far too picky on what it will understand. It’s possible to take the right action but in a slightly wrong way, and never quite know that you almost had it right. I don’t think an author has to account for everything a player is prone to try, but the more variations to an action that may exist, the more coverage that particular action should get. One spot that merits a mention involves a newspaper and a paper bag. The game doesn’t ask for disambiguation on “paper” -- it just seems to assume the bag every time, and often without making it clear that the action you are trying for the newspaper doesn’t work because it was actually routed to the bag instead. (I was close to kicking that darned dog, and it wasn’t the poor thing’s fault after all.)

     This issue was spread across the game as a whole, but the “buy” action is another easy example. Buying anything is particularly troublesome, as the game expects this to be handled in a specific (and frustration-inducing) way. Instead of pooling my money and allowing me to “buy” things by name, I must identify the purchase amount by bill or coin name, “pay” it to the merchant or clerk, and then ask about the thing I intend to buy. Nobody makes change, so to spend your dollar (for instance) you need to find the one thing that’s priced at $1. At one point, this involved multiple levels of “ask” (another instance of something I couldn’t have solved without help, considering that this particular NPC seemed pretty unresponsive to a variety of things I had already tried to ask) in order to negotiate the price down. This isn’t because you can’t afford the asking price, but because the author has matched one buyable item to one or two specific coins in your inventory.

     Some of the design problems could be the standard author-knows-but-player-doesn’t kind of thing that tends to work its way into interactive fiction when based on some existing work of fiction. I haven’t read the source material, but if these puzzles are also based on elements of the Robert E. Howard stories, maybe the author just failed or forgot to make them meaningful for the uninitiated. Others have written veritable essays on the importance of thinking like a player, and it’s just as important when adapting a story that may be unfamiliar to that player.

     An inventory management limitation was another sticking point for me. I think that if you’re going to do this in a game, you really have to make it smooth and automated. “Look in bag” should imply that I intend to open it. I should be able to take coins from the bag and pay a merchant without hitting an inventory limitation just because the game intends to put it in top-level inventory before handing it off. The bag, for that matter, could have been given a larger capacity.

     Here’s a general tip for future IF authors. Keep things believable even when the story you’re telling is pure fantasy. Requiring that your PC order food and sit down where the lighting is just right in order to read from a book is somewhat unnecessary. There are two reasons this puzzle actually works in Beneath (the PC intends to read for quite a while so being comfortable makes sense, and the pieces/clues are in place to make it a solvable puzzle), but later it’s as though he can’t bring himself to read even a single page unless he finds the perfect light. If the town was that dark, it really wasn’t portrayed well enough in the game, and if this was just a device to separate plot sections (as it appears to be), then it might have been handled in another way.

     I stopped at two hours, voted the game an optimistic “6” (hoping that the parts I hadn’t yet seen would justify it), and then ran through from the beginning with the walkthrough at hand. This is the author’s first game (according to the “about” text in-game), and as such, it’s not too bad. It has the potential to be a pretty good game, but it’s not solvable in two hours (if at all) given what feels to me to be a poor design with clunky command-guessing and puzzles that rely on precognition. My review score drops a point after seeing that these issues seem to persist to the end. I have scored it a “5-” (the minus being awarded for bogging down an interesting story with puzzle that can’t realistically be solved without the assistance of the walkthrough).

Game #10: Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground)
By “Admiral Jota” (writing as “Grunk”)
Played On: October 15th & 16th (2 hours 55 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 10

     Game’s Blurb:
     Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget.

     Now Grunk need find pig.

     Grunk not know that word. Sound like magic, though.

     (Plugh and Plover offer the same response.)

     I have been looking forward to Lost Pig on premise alone, while hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be a joke (or in-joke) entry in the vein of Pass The Banana. I’m happy to say that familiarity with Grunk’s illustrious career in the military (see Grunk’s blog here) isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying Lost Pig. It’s funny, but it isn’t a joke entry.

     Lost Pig is told from the decidedly simple perspective of the main character, an orc named Grunk. A new player might mistake Grunk’s broken English and seemingly unambitious goal as laziness on the author’s part. After only a few minutes of play, however, it becomes pleasingly obvious how much effort has gone into creating Grunk’s world.

     It’s easy to spot the problems in a game (any random game, I mean). A player will probably recognize when he or she has encountered some bit of difficulty, be it rampant mistakes in the writing, puzzles that are unfair and impossible to solve, verbs that require a mental checklist of synonyms to deduce, objects that can’t be referenced by the important words that describe them, humor that falls short (or attempts at drama that just seem silly), useless or superfluous locations, bugs that kill (or injure) the game, or any of a countless list of other detractors. It’s not so easy to notice when a game is doing almost none of those things. Most things work so smoothly in Lost Pig that Grunk’s choppy narration is the only thing that really stands out at first. It’s consistent, humorous, well-written and completely intentional, but it tends to draw attention away from how incredibly smooth the game plays. It’s easy to sink into it after a little while, and then the game’s nearly flawless design really shows through.

     Lost Pig could be the proverbial poster child for all that’s right in puzzle-game design. Commands don’t rely on one or two specific verbs or phrasings. Puzzles have alternate solutions, making it harder to get stuck looking for one specific but obscure solution. Items work together and are often used for multiple purposes. The game doesn’t span a maze of rooms, opting instead for a minimum area with more than one purpose to each (this also avoids the tedium of traversing wide and confusing geography for puzzles that rely on elements found in different places). Puzzles are clued well and often in multiple ways (ranging from vague to somewhat obvious), making it more likely that a player will pick up on at least one of the hints while still feeling pretty clever when figuring out the solution. A potentially repetitive action (getting another brick) is made simple after Grunk takes note of the process. Grunk’s design philosophy was apparently “I need to write an interesting puzzle game told from a unique perspective, and with challenging but fair puzzles, all while doing everything I can do to keep players focused on playing without the tedium of meta-game frustrations like verb-guessing, spotty implementation, and bugs in the coding.” Grunk... mission accomplished.

     Detail is everywhere. The pig watches what Grunk does, and it even has a mischievous little personality. The gnome is a talker (in good English), and can comment on more topics than might be found in ten similarly-sized games combined. Grunk is hapless but well-intentioned. Scenery is well-implemented. Disallowed actions are well-covered. Dialogue and interactions are well-written and witty. Library (or parser) messages have been reworked to help serve as additional narration for Grunk. Items can be wet or dry, dirty or clean, attractive or repellant, and it all fits together in one consistent world model where any item can potentially influence another.

     This wouldn’t feel like a Sidney Merk Review without a bug report as well, but I tell you, it’s a stretch. I noticed two or three minor mistakes in the text (discounting Grunk’s intentionally-fractured narration). Some kind of command disambiguation issue is at work in the statue room, where items in Grunk’s inventory are sometimes mistaken for similar items depicted in the paintings. And... hmm. That’s all, I think.

     I could have won the game in exactly two hours (and without hints), except that I misunderstood a solution to one late-game puzzle. Once I learned that I didn’t need a specific item to solve the puzzle (just something that would work the same way), I struggled a little to find something else suited to this task. One particular idea (involving wet pants and a hat) seemed like an ideal solution that I just couldn’t make work. This puzzle was really my only sticking point in Lost Pig, and a great case can be made that this was my mistake rather than the game’s.

     Lost Pig is easily the strongest entry I’ve played so far this year, and probably one of the most fun, well-constructed puzzle games of any IFComp I’ve reviewed before. It lavishes the player with a detailed, always-smooth adventure, yet remains a simple puzzlefest with likable characters and a challenge that feels just right. I voted it a “9” at two hours, with a “plus” for such an outstanding level of detail. Even unsure of the potential goodness to come from the remainder of my IFComp play list, I can imagine Lost Pig landing a well-deserved spot in the top five (perhaps even top three). It could even manage the top honor if voters are willing to trade the more traditional serious, story-heavy pick for something on the sillier side this year.

     Note: I bumped the game up to “10” as my marginal favorite of this year’s IFComp, after completing all other eligible entries. However, having played past two hours, I can’t increase my vote (which remains at “9”).

Game #11: The Immortal
By Rob Anthony (writing as “Just Rob”)
Played On: October 17th & 18th (2 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 4+

     Game’s Blurb:
     An interactive sci-fi mystery.

     I once read somewhere that the opening scene in Men In Black is perfect, because it summarizes the story without spoiling it. The camera follows the flight of a bug as it weaves and dodges danger, only to go splatt at the end. Since then, I’ve begun to pay more attention to opening scenes, whether from a movie, a book, a video game, or interactive fiction.

     What struck me first about The Immortal is how much it says in its first few paragraphs without ever actually seeming to say anything. At the first command prompt, I think I furrowed my brow and muttered “what was that?” I suppose it’s not easy to write about abstractions, but a good opening of this sort should give players something to latch onto and remember later. The intro to The Immortal goes for surrealism without quite achieving it. The ending doesn’t cast it in a new light, because it’s pretty clear what is happening all along.

     I’m either becoming too picky, or I’m forgetting how many seriously broken games are submitted each year. The alternative is that this is the Year of the Untested Game. I know it can be hard sometimes to interest people in playing a potentially buggy, unpolished game (and beyond that, to actually run transcripts and report back what they’ve found, and even beyond that, to actually fix what’s wrong), but believe me, it’s vital. Nobody writes a perfect game. This is true whether you’re a first-time author or an author with dozens of games to your credit. As a dare, check the credits and/or documentation for the top five or ten games in every IFComp. I bet you’ll find at least three testers credited (if not more) for most of them. So decide. Do you want half a dozen potential judges to see a bad version of your game and not be able to vote on it at all, or do you want a hundred and twenty actual judges to see the same version and vote low? I’m stressing the point, I know, but testing is vital. You can’t know how well your game will hold up to real scrutiny unless you have it tested. Most of your recruits should be very familiar with interactive fiction, with a novice or two thrown in for good measure.

     This is why it’s so disappointing to find a game that might have been magnitudes better with testing and revision, as is the case with The Immortal. It has a fairly interesting, imaginative plot. It’s about the right size for the IFComp. Some interesting ideas are involved, where science fiction meets myth and fantasy.

     But boy is it broken.

     It has problems upon problems, in nearly every category that a game can have problems: misspellings and typos; comma splices; wrong word usage (opaque is the opposite of transparent); objects without sufficient noun aliases; actions that are triggered by other unrelated actions; actions that trigger always, even when it’s no longer appropriate or not appropriate in the present location; actions suggested in the text merely for effect, without any verb to support it if actually attempted by a player; enterable things that can’t be entered unless you use the “in” verb; seemingly important inventory items that can’t be used in any obvious way, anywhere in the game (I’m looking at you, samurai sword); poor world state management, where descriptions are hard-coded without respect to major changes that might invalidate what the descriptions say; disambiguation problems (just try looking at the book on the “dias” while already holding another book); unsupported “optional” actions associated with likely objects (a sofa “isn’t something you can sit down on”); instant and unclued death of the “take this seemingly innocuous action and you die” sort (thank goodness for “undo”); items picked up by the PC without explicitly saying so. At least it has no quirky inventory limit, maze or hunger daemon. I guess that’s something.

     Two specific issues do merit a separate mention. First, in at least two places (talking to the soul that follows you around, and entering the eastern hallway) you can continue to rack up score points well beyond the game’s 11-point maximum. Also, when I came close to the two-hour judging limit and switched over to the walkthrough, I found two mistakes. In one spot, it directs you to go “up” to leave the library, when you really must return to the antechamber (northwest) first. Also, you are directed to use the “enter” verb near the end, but only “in” appears to work. This is true in other places as well, but here it was specifically mentioned in the walkthrough. (Thank goodness the available exits are listed in the status bar.)

     The puzzles in The Immortal don’t seem particularly original or clever (generally requiring a specific single-use item for a matching task), but they’re not really difficult either. Rather, I don’t think they were intended to be difficult. Your job as a player is made harder by the many bugs in the game. I found it possible to work around the problems and still make a good deal of progress without help. I might even have reached the end without the walkthrough, except that I reached a point where I hadn’t realized what I could do to avoid death in trying to move past a large “thought bubble.” I might have figured it out, except that my confidence in the game was so shaken by all the problems encountered to that point that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t made the game unwinnable in some way. Up to that point, even with the problems, I had made steady progress. The game is playable. It just requires looking past the multitude of problems that continue to suggest otherwise.

     It’s even fun, to a degree. Although my time was divided between enjoying the game on its own terms and commenting on its various problems in the transcripts, I still came away liking the game. It’s an ambitious game attempting to tell an even more ambitious story. The author seems to lack the experience to pull it off right now, but it could be improved. The ending seems set for a sequel, although I got the impression too that the author might have had more planned for the game that he just lacked the time to finish. Whether improving The Immortal or writing a new game entirely, I would recommend to Rob that he keep at it. Too many IF authors seem to stop at one or two games, before ever becoming better at it.

     The Immortal feels a lot like A Light’s Tale and On Optimism, two previous IFComp entries by Zach Flynn (entered as “VBNZ” and “Tim Lane,” respectively). Nothing really suggests that Rob Anthony is a pseudonym, but if it is, then that would be my guess. Even if the similarities in style and the types of problems encountered are coincidental (as most likely they are), it’s enough to say that if you liked those games, then you might enjoy The Immortal as well. I had enough fun to make it worth the effort, but it’s not really a recommendable game in its present state. It fits in at “4” on my scale, with a “plus” for the weird but interesting sci-fi setting.

Game #12: Wish
By Edward Floren
Played On: October 20th (35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 7-

     A pixie comes scurrying up to you, takes one look, offers a quizzical expression, then disappears

     I have surprisingly little to say about Wish, an entry by Edward Floren, who placed 29th in IFComp 2002 with a game called Screen. In Wish, you are nine-year-old Sarah, on a brief adventure with hints of Alice in Wonderland about it. The events leading up to Sarah’s adventure are told as cut-scenes during the transitional segments of her journey.

     This is a game many players will complete in half an hour. That’s short, even by IFComp standards. So, while it’s technically a pretty solid game (I found no bugs, and only a few minor rough spots in the text here and there), there just isn’t much to it. It’s a little guess-the-verb-y in spots, but not so much that proper phrasing doesn’t present itself after a couple attempts. The puzzles are about as simple as puzzles come, serving mainly just to give Sarah something to do in her adventure.

     Wish might be a good starter game for kids, or a game kids could enjoy with the help of a parent. It has emotion that, while not particularly forced or anything, would probably strike a chord more with a younger player (or perhaps with a younger player’s grandfather) than with the typical IFComp judge slogging his way through twenty-nine entries.

     As to the story, I can make a few comments (with potential spoilers). I’m not sure what symbolism was involved here. Maybe the recurring “diamond” shape is meant to match the tree’s star? The ending explains what Sarah is doing during the game, but only sort of. What was the significance of these particular encounters? In light of the ending (and the “advice” given Sarah by her mother), how were these things supposed to have helped? Are they part of something bigger -- something the author believed players would understand at the end? For that matter, it seems to me like a bad idea to give that advice to Sarah (at least worded as it was), when she was already struck with misguided self-blame over what happened earlier. Was there, then, more to the story than meets the eye?

     I have a feeling this is one game most judges won’t feel too strongly about, one way or the other. On one hand, it’s more polished and it plays more smoothly than some of the larger, more ambitious games in the competition. It tells a simple and touching (if slightly predictable) story. On the other hand, it is pretty short, and while effort has certainly gone into its creation, it’s probably not to the extent seen in many of the other entries. It doesn’t deserve a low rating, but at the same time, it’s difficult to rate it on par with longer, more developed entries (another example of how my rating criteria fall short). That’s why I’ve scored (and voted) it a “7”, with a “minus” for brevity.

Game #13: The Lost Dimension
By C. Yong
Played On: October 21st (4 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: C# or VB.NET (Compiled .NET Executable)
Merk’s Score: 5+

     Game’s Blurb:
     The lost dimension tries to present the conventional text adventure game in a non-conventional way. It is hoped that this whole new GUI approach would attract those who normally don't play text adventure game as well.

     If one were to watch the first hour of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, play Simple Adventure by Paul Panks (or any other poorly-conceived text-based combat RPG), get a little drunk, and then program a game in .NET, it would very likely turn out a bit like The Lost Dimension.

     The story in The Lost Dimension (and really, it’s not all that lost; it’s just like every other strange monster-infested real-world-becomes-fantasy-land setting we’ve seen) is that all passengers on a plane have disappeared, except for the initially-sleeping main character. The plane lands (and subsequently disappears), leaving the protagonist to fend for himself (well, the “snore” audio is decidedly male) against various crazed beasties that ordinarily wouldn’t all belong in the same story. All the while, he must hunt for five magnetic stones (could be “relics of power” in any other game) as the key to escaping this strange realm.

     In spite of its many problems, I liked this game. I have to say that first, before I launch into a lengthy discussion on everything that’s wrong with it. This is another game with a custom-made Windows-only engine, but it takes a different approach than the typical home-brewed IFComp entry. It features a point-and-click interface that’s intended to entice players for whom typing is a turn-off.

     The author claims that The Lost Dimension can be played completely via keyboard or with the mouse, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work right strictly by typing in a conventional way. Unrecognized commands (such as “x me”) don’t result in anything but a warning tone. Verbs recognized by the game (such as “look”) bring up a pick list before you even finish typing, making it impossible to enter complete commands. Some actions (such as those listed sometimes in the “special options/actions” section) don’t seem to be recognized as text input at all. (Edit: I see that you can reference special actions at the command prompt by number, just not with any verb or command phrasing.) If, however, you play the game strictly by its point-and-click interface, it works reasonably well. Granted, it takes a little while to become comfortable with an all-click interface for a text adventure game, but it’s easy to manage after only a little while.

     The game’s greatest weakness is that it throws away the power and flexibility of a real command text parser without replacing it with something equally robust (such as visually appealing graphics with point-and-click hot-spots). At any point in the game, every possible action for every potential object is pre-calculated. This allows the game to list all possible actions, or to populate pick-lists when selecting an action that requires an object. Thankfully, it does play more like a point-and-click graphic adventure game than a CYOA-style game, and that at least keeps the feel of interactive fiction intact.

     As the game progresses, the interface does begin to feel more natural. I can see what the author intended by it, even though I suspect most IFComp judges won’t agree. It’s really not a bad engine. To really shine, though, I think it needs work in a few areas.

     It should automatically resize to fit your resolution (instead of downsizing your resolution to fit the game). The trick here (if I can be so bold as to make the suggestion) is to call a generic routine on the INIT for each and every form element. If you’ve based the default layout on 800x600, simply calculate the actual screen size (possibly as a global on startup, or any time the form itself is resized) and change the position and size of the control based on the adjustment of its default size and position. You can resize fonts the same way (although a custom user-initiated font selection is probably a better idea).

     The command prompt, when input is so restricted anyway, is probably better left out entirely. A transcript feature would be nice. An “undo” feature is sorely missed, and the single-file save game ability (based on the name you supply when starting the game) would have posed a problem if I hadn’t realized you can just copy or rename the saved files outside of the program to manage as many different saves as you like. Knowing (instead of guessing at) weapon and armor stats would have been nice, considering your main character stats are on display anyway. Auto-mapping would be nice. Items in the “special options/actions” list are infrequent enough that I sometimes overlooked them until later. Somehow drawing the player’s attention to that area, when options are shown, would be helpful. The color scheme is pretty chaotic, and would do well with some toning-down.

     It could also use a better, more original game to showcase itself. A big flaw I see in home-brewed entries like this is that plenty of effort went into making the engine, but not enough effort went into writing an interesting game. It’s as if the game is secondary, being cobbled together from random elements to form a nonsensical and generic story. It shouldn’t be that way. This engine could be used to create something far more interesting, original and worthwhile.

     The game is also plagued with typos, misspellings and wild grammatical failings. English seems to be a second language for C. Yong, and while it’s a nice effort if so, it’s still difficult to be enthusiastic about what’s basically very simple, generic writing. Room descriptions are short and rely more on the player’s imagination to fill in the gaps than any real visualization of what the author has supplied. Responses to most commands are brief and choppy.

     My notes hold a few unintentionally amusing quotes:

     "Any physical beings including you cannot pass through it."
     "Stone Ape attacks with its Stones but MISS !"
     "The room is covered by various pale paintings of agony-looking human faces."
     "The Little green alien is slained."

     Being a little gun-shy of broken battle systems in home-brewed IFComp entries before, I was leery at first of the RPG elements in The Lost Dimension. I think it’s probably possible to waste the healing “holy water” (available in limited supplies) and the limited-use attack items (like guns and grenades), leaving your character too weak to progress in battle, but that didn’t happen to me until the final (and optional) fight. It actually worked pretty well for me, with well-balanced experience points, hit-points, leveling-up and stat-building that reminded me of what I like about simple combat in RPG’s. Once I noticed the “next” button at the top of the combat progress window (which can be clicked over and over to speed things up), I really started to enjoy the various fights I encountered.

     Still, the combat left me with a few concerns. First, it’s always in seven rounds. The “monster” always goes first (as far as I noticed), meaning it will get four attacks to your three. If the battle isn’t over, the seven rounds can be repeated with another attack (meaning your opponent gets an extra hit for each round of seven). Monsters in some rounds even attempt multiple hits to my one. The balance and fairness seems okay, though, so maybe this was done to maintain a challenge. Also, some “monsters” didn’t really seem like monsters to me. Why am I fighting a mule? Maybe it was a Dire Mule? Or did the author just run out of wacky ideas for monster types?

     Aside from poor writing, nothing major is wrong with The Lost Dimension in the way of bugs. It never crashed on me... uh... except at the very beginning. This was due to an older version of the Microsoft “MDAC_TYP” library on my PC. I figured it out from the .NET exception report, downloaded and installed version 2.6 from Microsoft, and then it ran fine. Non-techie types are likely to be stuck if the same thing happens, though (hint: be sure you’ve installed .NET 2.0 and updated to MDAC 2.6).

     A few general bugs in the game logic could be ironed out with an updated release. It is possible to cross the river to the west from a dead-end area (it’s obviously unintentional, because you can’t cross to the east). A loose brick in a tunnel is either described in a room one west of where it actually exists, or it’s implemented one room east of where it’s described. Sometimes, a big hit in battle will lower your HP to less than zero (and without an “unconscious” range as might be seen in D&D, it doesn’t really fit here). Some of the text at the bottom of the winning end-game pop-up was covered and hidden. Some doors that can be opened will only stay open when broken. I’m sure I noticed others, but without a transcript I only have my quickly-written notes to consult.

     The game features MIDI for music and WAV for sound effects. It fits the game’s style, but sometimes the specific selections seem to be poor choices. For example, the level-up music is a lullaby. The sound effect played when putting on armor or refilling a gun sounds like a bug being squashed. One of the battle victory themes is some classical piece I can’t quite place (but probably should -- it’s very familiar -- and the easily-recognized “Ode to Joy” bit from Beethoven’s 9th is there in the MIDI folder as a monster theme, even though it doesn’t seem to actually play in the game).

     The game isn’t just monster combat, throw-away storyline, and public domain sound files. It’s also a string of simple puzzles that generally require just “looking” at the right thing and then using what you find there at the appropriate location. I wasn’t really bothered that it didn’t feature a deeper implementation than this. The game kept me entertained for just over four hours (stopping at two to cast my vote), and somehow I never got stuck. That’s surprising, when a couple of the things I passed easily should have been far less obvious (such as, spoiler here, digging inside the hut). Maybe I just got lucky. This is one of several instances where I wonder if the puzzle was clued well enough, if at all. I think the limited choices inherent to the game’s interface probably made these things more solvable than they otherwise might have been.

     It isn’t necessary to map the first section (on the plane), but the game really opens up afterwards. I did well enough with a hand-drawn map (otherwise I’m sure I’d have gotten lost easily), but the author includes nice graphical maps in the game’s “solutions” folder. They don’t show hidden rooms, however. Any player looking to solve 100% of the game is wise to mark a hand-drawn map anyway.

     So yes. Somehow, I did like this game. I finished with 88% (although without defeating the monster in the northern cave due to low health), and that feels like enough of the “extras” to really get a feel for the game as a whole. Still, it’s a tough game to recommend to players in general. It will probably appeal to anybody who likes similarly styled games (such as those written by Paul Panks). Point-and-click fans who want the novelty of something entirely text-based might enjoy it. Or, if you’re an IFComp completist with a job in .NET development (like me), you might enjoy it. I’ve been as generous with the score as I can (a “5” with a “plus” for the unique and surprisingly non-broken engine), but I can’t bump it up any higher without conflicting with games that really are more polished and more fun. On my scale, that’s still a “below average - plus.”

Game #14: Deadline Enchanter
By Alan DeNiro (Writing as “Anonymous”)
Played On: October 21st (1 hour 10 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (ZCode)
Merk’s Score: 8

     “This is where I end and you begin. That, at least, is what I want to think. I don't know you. Perhaps one day I will. But this Implementation--rather, its copies--are my seeds blowing to the wind. The palm-parsers, their oak gears whirring, will be pressed into hands long after I finish this.”

     So begins Deadline Enchanter, an anonymously-entered game that falls 14th on my randomly-selected IFComp 2007 play list. As with the others to this point, I have played and will review it without the comments or opinions of others. That’s intentional. I want to vote based on how each game affected me personally, without the influence of knowing how others were affected. I’ll hunt for opinions afterwards.

     This is tough for a game like Deadline Enchanter, because it’s either incredibly brilliant or it’s trying hard to seem brilliant. An author can play games with perspective, be it a switch in person or tense or a twist on the narrator-PC-player relationship. Anonymous goes for the latter here, in a very self-referential game-within-a-game. What starts out with confusing narration begins to make more sense later. It seems offputting and disconnected in principle, but it works here. I felt more involved and immersed in the story than is usual for me.

     Really, it’s a story in the guise of a game -- and a seemingly linear one at that. That’s intentional. The puzzles would be impossible, except that the narrator doles out a walkthrough, requiring that the player simply follow along and take a few additional unprompted but obvious actions along the way. That’s intentional too. It lacks a deep implementation of the game world and generally doesn’t reward straying from the intended path (unless I’ve missed something, which is possible even though it seems unlikely). But yes, that too is intentional. In these ways, it is a brilliant approach to game design. The few typos I found might be intentional. Minor implementation issues (such as “violence isn’t the answer to this one” when indeed it is, just with a different verb) might be intentional. Anything can be deemed intentional when the author assigns his or her creation as the rushed work of the game’s narrator -- an NPC.

     So let’s take it as a story told in this medium without ever meaning to be difficult or hindered by puzzles. It’s not a story about writing games. It’s a story that is a game. Hmm. That sounds like nonsense. As I said, though, it’s very self-referential. As a gimmick in IF, it seems like an original one. (I’m sure to be proven wrong with examples, but it’s original in my experience.)

     It’s also highly imaginative, where coffee has become magic powder and Earth shares its resources with alien visitors (or perhaps alien invaders). I went in expecting it to be a tongue-in-cheek hybrid of two Infocom classics (neither of which, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve ever played), or maybe an honest homage to the same two games. From a quick read at Wikipedia, I don’t gather that the plot of Deadline Enchanter mirrors or merges those games. Rather, it seems that the game’s title is in support of its self-referential nature. Even the built-in help and version information stays in character.

     The narrator is interesting, opinionated and emotional. That’s good, given that the focus of Deadline Enchanter is the narration. A favorite example from near the start:

     “Northwest is Ghazal Street and east is the ruins of an Al-Mart. You don't really need to go to the latter but I thought I'd point it out. Because it was a hellhole and it's better ruined.”

     Is it a good game? It’s definitely a good story, where “what’s going on” begins to make more sense as the narrator guides you through it. I emphasize “you” because it could be said that the player really is the PC in Deadline Enchanter. Or is the player a hidden middle-man, with you playing as the player? That probably makes more sense. I think this is the kind of question that will spark discussion among players, especially after the competition ends. It could end up with a pretty high standard deviation in votes, being a game that will probably “wow” some while leaving others cold and confused.

     Deadline Enchanter is pretty short. Five or ten minutes of my time were spent afterwards, checking to see what would happen at what appears to be the game’s only decision point (and it seems to lead to a slightly altered ending). The hour it took to complete was partially spent fighting against what the game wanted me to do. If there are divergent paths or extra content, it all eluded me. In retrospect, the game can probably be completed from start to finish in only a few minutes.

     That leaves me in a quandary. It’s an imaginative and entertaining story told in a unique way. It’s an engaging mystery of circumstances built up around a pretty cool sci-fi scenario. At the same time, it’s pretty short, offering a sparse implementation (even if intentional). The detail has gone into the narration and the setting envisioned by the author in “simulating” the game’s world on behalf of the narrator, rather than in actually simulating the game’s world. It’s perfectly reasonable that it should be this way, yet it does let the author off the hook for any flaws that aren’t directly related to the telling of the story on his or her own terms. This makes it a tough game to rank -- for me, at least.

     So, I have to go with my gut. It’s a very good story, recommendable for the unique way in which it’s told. My score is “8”, without any bias to give it a plus or minus.

     Now, to go see what others are saying, and possibly learn just how far off I am with this seemingly ill-informed analysis...

Game #15: Lord Bellwater’s Secret
By Sam Gordon
Played On: October 23rd (1 hour 35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (ZCode)
Merk’s Score: 9

     The word "xyzzy" comes into your head for no apparent reason. You cannot quite place it. Perhaps it is the title of a book that you've seen somewhere.

     (Edit: There is a little more to XYZZY at work here -- which I learned of later from another discussion -- but I’m not going to spoil it.)

     Lord Bellwater’s Secret opens like a good mansion crawler (I have a fondness for those, maybe because a few of my earliest IF experiences were set in large puzzle-filled mansions of mystery), but it’s essentially a one-room game. Technically it’s two rooms, but the other is just an extension of Bellwater’s study. Bert Smith (you), a groom in the service of the late Lord Horace Bellwater (and by extension, his heir James Bellwater), has entered the study in secret to search for the answers to his sweetheart’s recent and reportedly accidental death.

     One nice thing about this sort of design is that everything a player requires is within immediate reach. Sure, locked rooms are traded for hidden compartments and the implementation of “areas” within the room (usually approached automatically and without any impact on the story or the puzzles -- with an exception or two) is a nice touch, but it’s reassuring to know that it’s never necessary to figure out where a given item will be needed. If it’s needed at all, then this is where it will be. It’s a perfect set-up for a puzzle game, because it’s more difficult to overlook or fail to investigate important items. The moment I began to wonder “okay, now what?” I just looked around a little more and came up with an answer.

     That’s not to say it simplifies the puzzles. It just leaves most navigational duties out of the equation. The bulk of Lord Bellwater’s Secret involves finding clues and evidence by examining what’s around. That’s simple on the surface, but a few puzzles do ensure that the story is revealed in a pretty much logical and meaningful way. Hitting on certain elements too soon (such as the hidden parchment -- I didn’t find it early, but it would have been possible with blind luck or dogged determination) don’t necessarily spoil later bits, because it usually takes an understanding gained by further investigation to be of any use. Even though the puzzles aren’t complex, they do offer a few “ah-ha!” moments (such as solving the safe’s combination).

     It’s all nicely implemented as well. Looking up certain entries in either of the two in-game sources seems cumbersome at first, but it’s clearly described and it works well (I envy the grammar flexibility of Inform that allows for this). Some potentially complicated actions (such as using the safe’s dial or reading from specific books among the 1200 shelved) are explained and made easy.

     Ah, the books. It employs a slick little gimmick that’s not even apparent until a second or third play-through. It seems to hold up for quite a while, but whether it resorts to a generic response at some point, I can only guess. It might rely on a player to simply tire of the exercise at some point (which I did), but then again, maybe all 1200 titles really are there to be seen.

     The story is notable in that it allows (even expects) players to make assumptions and guesses early on, which turn out to be wrong. This didn’t feel like a “twist” except in later reflection, but I suppose it is.

     The downside for me is that the game begins and ends as a murder mystery, but the middle redirects the player into a big question of inheritance and motive. At the end, I expected a neat and complete resolution to that plot line, rather than the primary one. In fact -- and in a bit of irony -- I finished the game with what appears to be the best ending at one hour and fifteen minutes (after two variations on a “losing” ending), yet struggled for another twenty minutes looking for something more. Part of that is because I missed (or wasn’t convinced) that the ending really was punishing the guilty party. Another part is that the whole issue of inheritance is only in support of the twisty plot, not the point of the game as a whole.

     Lord Bellwater’s Secret is pretty well polished, but a few minor issues did sneak into the competition version. Several typos (“Sott” instead of “Scott” is one example) are noted in my transcript. Trying to “look inside” (implying the bag but not specifying it) gives no response at all. Automatic in-room movement (recognizing different areas of the room as different zones, just to add the realism of saying something like “you move away from X, toward the Y”) works pretty well, but does seem to fail in at least one case (entering the fireplace and then going out the window). And for that matter, the author covers too few of the possible actions a player might attempt for actually climbing out the window. One of the losing endings somehow glitches into a run-on with the winning ending. If the murder’s proper name is shown on the confession, is the other just a nickname? If so, then why switch back to the nickname during the ending? None of these things were too big a distraction. They just merit a little more attention in a post-comp version (if the author intends one).

     Somebody will probably call this game derivative. Somebody will probably point out that it introduces nothing new, and that it embraces the overused themes one might associate with a story about wealth and corruption in 19th-century London. Somebody will probably complain that the truth -- the ultimate result of Bert’s investigation -- reinforces a cliché that is better left in the past. Somebody might even consider these to be the game’s weaknesses.

     On the last point, I wholeheartedly disagree. The trick to enjoyable, worthwhile IF isn’t always that it must break new ground, discard recognizable story elements, or strive to set itself apart from similar “generic” stories told in other mediums (such as a movie or a book). Enjoyable IF can take something recognizable and perhaps overdone in other mediums and do it really well as interactive fiction, where this overdone thing is possibly underrepresented in IF. This is why Lord Bellwater’s Secret is among my so-far favorites of this year’s IFComp entries.

     As such, I’ve ranked it a “9” -- and that equates to “outstanding” on my list of judging criteria. It’s a well-crafted, puzzle-filled, seemingly predictable tale of clandestine clue-hunting, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.

Game #16: Reconciling Mother
By Glenn Engstrand (writing as “Plone Glenn”)
Played On: October 25th (5 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: TADS (Version 3)
Merk’s Score: 4+

     Game’s Blurb:
     Have you ever been in a conversation with people that you just met or barely knew and what seemed like an innocent exchange at the time became threatening on reflection?

     Nothing I can write about Reconciling Mother will come close to capturing what it’s like to play Plone Glenn’s IFComp 2007 entry. This is one of the strangest yet most memorable works of interactive fiction I have ever played. If I were to rate it strictly on unabashed bizarreness, it’d be a sure “10”.

     It’s a shame, then, that it’s so poorly constructed, confusing, and frequently incoherent. It’s trippy, but not convincingly surreal. It’s as though the author took concepts from half a dozen potential game ideas and put them all together into one, perhaps forgetting what the game was supposed to be about along the way.

     There are suggestions and references as to his inspirational sources (certain books and movies, ranging from science fiction to philosophical to just plain odd), and trying to emulate or pay homage to those sources may have led to this hodgepodge of ideas. Is it an investigative spy story? Is it a huge maze? Is it about time travel, or is it about space exploration? Is it a dream world? Is it about insanity? Is it a fantasy, or is it a creepy horror story? Is it about self-discovery? Is it just a vehicle for a few soft-core porn or fetish love scenes (which can be pretty unexpected at first -- some of this game isn’t workplace-safe)? Is it a mansion crawler? Is it strictly about experiencing a series of bizarre, disconnected scenes? Are the NPC interactions the point of it? Is it merely a hunt-and-gather game? I guess it’s whatever you think it is.

     This kind of thing isn’t new. My own early TRS80 text adventures from the late 1980’s (including a few I planned but never wrote) are full of wacky, disjointed concepts. This comes from being blown away by the idea of what’s possible in interactive fiction, without the ability to temper it with rational thinking and good design. This seems like it could be a pretty common pitfall for new authors, especially those who look strictly to the games of the 1980’s for inspiration.

     Two things make Reconciling Mother noteworthy, where other similarly-styled games are easier forgotten. First, the author backs up these seemingly random elements with descriptive and sometimes evocative writing. It’s flawed in some ways, but it beats the more traditional minimalist approach of “You are in a big cavern. Go east? You’re in a desert. Now what? North? A purple jungle of floating orbs. You see a blue orb. Get orb? Ah, a robot from Mars steps on you.” It’s like that on a fundamental level, but with the meat of descriptive (if sometimes too lengthy) text to cover its skeleton.

     Second, you just don’t see games like this as much these days. (Well, I don’t, at any rate.) Today, we design and judge by a different (I hesitate to say better) standard. Perhaps more evolved is the right word. Stories make sense and games have a purpose and meaning. Because Reconciling Mother seems to lack any clear plot (and the one offered at first sure seems to get lost along the way), it’s a throwback to an earlier time.

     The game can be won in only seventeen moves, consisting entirely of directional commands. I suspect there is a much longer alternate route, but it might require more than just movement (although I doubt it -- I haven’t tested it out). However, the game’s map is massive (especially given the IFComp’s focus on games of a shorter length), having at least 150 rooms (but probably more, given that one repeated section is really an alternative of the original). Getting through it without making a map would have been difficult or impossible for me.

     It has the appearance of puzzles, but even these seem to just require directional movement. One particular bit that’s built up as a challenge involves escaping a dungeon labyrinth area (it’s not really a maze) by tricking a dragon, traversing a volcano, boarding an airship, reaching an island, and having a nap. However, this really just requires moving. It’s solvable by accident (and in the normal course of exploration) without ever realizing it’s supposed to be a challenge. What seemed difficult at the time, upon reflection, wasn’t. The hard part (but also awkwardly fun) was just in making my own map.

     The only gameplay elements at work besides directional movement seem to be picking up items found around the game world and showing or giving them to various NPC’s. Some respond specifically to certain types of items, and every once in a while it’s pretty impressive how much effort the author has taken to write short scenes for the recognized combinations of “item” and “NPC”. It’s nowhere near complete (usually the NPC isn’t interested), but there is enough possibility involved that some fun can be derived just in amassing a large collection and then taking it around to show.

     “Giving” an item to an NPC can be repeated too, because the item never actually leaves your inventory. That may be a bug, but I found it helpful in holding onto items that could trigger reactions from more than one NPC. Oddly, no dialogue is presented in quotation marks, so it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the dialogue from the rest of the text. I got accustomed to it after a while, but it leaves me wondering if maybe the author just hadn’t figured out how to quote dialogue in his TADS source code (which, I’m guessing, probably appears within quote-enclosed text already).

     Oh, and it does use hearing and smell in a few places. This doesn’t seem to impact the game or even be a requirement to advance, but it’s interesting that the author did include these actions in several areas.

     The implementation is otherwise sparse, static, and generally just doesn’t support the text. Very little of what’s mentioned in a room is actually implemented as an in-game item, which leads to many “you don’t see that here” or “you don’t need to use that word in this game” kinds of messages. Actions suggested (even instructed) by the text are almost never allowed by the game (it usually just requires “entering” the right location or “looking” at the right item, to trigger the necessary action automatically). What’s said about an item sometimes includes an action (the colored disks are perfect examples), and the action relies on being in a room that you may have already left (the IF Clichés list at the IFWiki calls this being “painted on”). Items that are listed as being “here” after the room description are sometimes described as being “discovered” (as if the item wasn’t already mentioned) when picked up. Some actions described in room descriptions (or references in conversations or in other item descriptions) mention specific items or locations you haven’t even found yet, indicating that the author intended the story to be experienced in a specific way -- yet he left the map so open to exploration that it’s likely it won’t be. The built-in hints cover only a few periodic game points, and the included walkthrough is just a short list of suggestions. Disambiguation is avoided not in a logical way, but by simply not implementing conflicting reference words for most items that are described with a word that has already been given to some other item (meaning you often have to refer to a thing by its adjective instead of its noun).

     Dead-end locations are actually endings that don’t end the game. This could be intentional, but it doesn’t seem to be. I think the author is so inexperienced with TADS that he must have had difficulty really implementing anything more complex than moving around, picking things up, and showing them to characters. So, a fatal drop down a broken cave floor or a too-high waterfall puts you in a location with an “ending” room description and no possible exit. Even what appears to be the “winning” ending works the same way. A good deal of time could be wasted here just by trying to “get out” of the ending (which is impossible except for an “undo” or a “restore”).

     I haven’t touched much yet on the writing. I don’t have much else to say about it that I haven’t already (it being descriptive and sometimes evocative). Some passages felt very familiar (no dying person ever wished he’d spent more time at work, for instance), but not enough that I can place the source. Some parts are odd but comprehensible, while a few bits become nonsensical phrase-building of the sort you might expect in the lyrics to Beck’s “Loser.” A few segments are long (and without any paragraph breaks), making it tough to read. In fact, some of what appeared to be supplemental filler bits I skimmed in spite of myself.

     It also has a few minor misspellings and general mistakes. This includes suspicious word choice, where the meaning might not actually fit the context of the sentence (a class had to “convene” during a discussion, but it’s implied that this means they left in a hurry -- maybe they had to go convene elsewhere; a six-sided pyramid is described as having an octagonal base, which is either impossible for me to visualize, or perhaps intended to have eight sides).

     I lack the first-hand experience, but I imagine Reconciling Mother is a little like how it must feel to be addicted to narcotics. When the game began to get painful (in the “I should quit while I’m ahead” sort of way), I found myself playing a little further, just to map out that next new area, or just to see what eye-widening madness I might encounter next, or sometimes just to figure out what I needed to show or give to any of a number of female NPC’s to loosen their libidos. There is also a driving power to the question “what’s the point of it all” even though it’s being countered with “what point? Can’t you see there is no point?” This is about the only thing that makes Reconciling Mother recommendable in any way. It can be a very memorable experience, even while an all-around poorly constructed game.

     I think I saw most of the game, but I’m sure I didn’t try giving and showing every collected item to every NPC (which would require some back-tracking). I’m of a serious mind to write a walkthrough (with maps) for Reconciling Mother, but then again, I do have more than a dozen other IFComp entries yet to play. It might be more revealing if the author would provide a complete walkthrough himself. I’d certainly be interested in finding out what things I missed, and whether there really is a meaning or a point to the game that simply eluded me.

     I’ve rated it a “4” (with the same vote cast at exactly two hours of play), but if any game deserves a “plus” for weirdness, it’s Reconciling Mother. I often suggest that authors of poorly implemented games consider a post-comp update, but that’s just not practical for a game like this. In fact, polishing it up would take away some of the charm, such as it is. If it had been implemented with the detail a game of this size needs, it might be a fifty-hour game, not a five-hour one. So, for what it’s worth, it’s just fine as-is.

Game #17: Jealousy Duel X
By Alex Camelio
Played On: October 27th (2 hours 0 minutes)
Platform: Macromedia Flash 5 (Windows Executable)
Merk’s Score: 6+

     Game’s Blurb:
     Available for both PC and Mac.

     The lovelorn yet mischievous college kid in me (although nearly fifteen years removed) really wants to like the premise behind Jealousy Duel X, in which the main character intends to humble his ex-girlfriend by collecting more phone numbers in one night than she has collected since their break-up. Some very... err... implausible situations arise for him as a result. His quest is an exaggerated and often hard-to-crack series of encounters with a variety of women, culminating in -- if all goes well -- another phone number.

     The game is written in Flash, and might be web page embeddable. It has that web game feel to it, anyway. I like that it resizes perfectly to fit whatever window size I want (I believe Flash handles this inherently), without requiring a web connection or browser window.

     Even though the presentation is pretty smooth and it’s a well-constructed game in general, I still have reservations. I’m not too bothered that it lacks text input, going for more of a CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure) style of clickable option buttons. My biggest frustration was that it has no “save” and no “undo” ability. If you make a mistake -- even a single accidental misstep after an hour of play -- your only choice is to give up or start over. “Undo” could probably have been programmed into it, although it’s possible “save” could only have existed in memory (I don’t know Flash’s file writing limitations, if any). Even those abilities would have made the game more playable and more solvable than it is now.

     In some ways, the puzzles are simple. You simply make choices from those listed, and sometimes use inventory items. In other ways, they’re maddeningly difficult. Often, only some of the choices are “right,” while the others only serve to close off paths necessary for success in obtaining the current (or even some other) girl’s number. It’s usually forgiving, with the ability to pick different options after messing up the first time -- but not always. It’s also not always clear that something you’ve done has closed off something vital to later success.

     I didn’t realize at first that I could even use items in inventory (aside from the cell phone), but this plays an important role in several situations. Since it’s not always clear what the protagonist must do to finagle a phone number from the various vixens, it involves a lot of trial-and-error (which is hard to justify when mistakes mean starting over or being blocked from solving the puzzle entirely). Some things that feel like mistakes really aren’t, and vice-versa. It’s not that it requires reading the author’s mind, or that it’s poorly clued everywhere. It just feels like a good deal of luck and experimentation are necessary. That doesn’t mesh well with a game that doesn’t let you “save” or “undo.”

     The right answers aren’t always the intuitive ones (if they were, it might lack challenge altogether). What this means, though, in a game with no “save” and no “undo” is that when you start over, it’s easy to make the same mistakes all over again, and forget exactly what correct courses of action you took last time before messing up. This makes losing a non-trivial thing, yet you can lose in unexpected ways after investing time in getting things just right. For instance, in one of my attempted play-throughs I was invited to the park apparently in response to an online personal ad. I went, and was comically murdered. This lost a good deal of progress for me, and required a re-start. It seems that the invitation only comes later in the game, so if it were to appear again, I probably wouldn’t go at all (in any attempt to make further progress there), for fear of once again losing all the progress I had made to that point.

     It’s like that in several spots (including the mine and the mugger). Even when I didn’t lose, I often found myself at a severe disadvantage (for instance, penniless and with only a single health point). To solve the game entirely unassisted (especially for all twelve phone numbers -- apparently a minimal winning ending is available with at least nine), I think extensive note-taking is required. This is the antithesis of a “casual” web game, though, which is what Jealousy Duel X appears to be on the surface.

     I didn’t solve it unassisted. Thankfully, the author made available a walkthrough (or rather, tips on various segments of the game) shortly before it came up on my random list. I solved it with eleven of the twelve numbers making heavy use of it, although I could not get the bar Blonde’s number due to status deficiencies (only one hit point, and no money). I think I could have sold a couple of unnecessary numbers gained along the way to the telemarketer (he appeared at a new area later in the game), but I somehow got rid of him. At the time, I was afraid that the $50 offer would take away all my phone numbers -- including the important ones. I don’t know for sure, though, since once I got rid of him, I could never figure out how to get him back.

     Graphics are one of the game’s best aspects. They’re well done, and they fit the game perfectly. This is the biggest reason why I’ve ranked Jealousy Duel X as I have, and not a couple of points lower. They’re a lot like the illustrations in classic-era graphic adventures, capturing the expressions of the various characters. The main character is never shown (unless in the photograph I never found), so it’s not quite the same feel as, for instance, Leisure Suit Larry, where the protagonist can develop his own personality without it being attributed directly to the player.

     The story, as I mentioned to start, is full of improbabilities -- and comic stereotypes. A pregnant woman (who doesn’t look very pregnant) is giving birth in the same room where you’re taken (to be bandaged) at the local hospital. A breastfeeding mommy will dump her brute of a husband at the local coffee shop if you make a stand. The “ex” is insensitive and shallow. The bartender and the local hooker are equally insightful. Annoy the pimp, and he’ll flip you the bird. Some of it merits a smile or a chuckle, although some just feels forced or perhaps funny to the college kid that isn’t me anymore. I admit, though, when the study group girl with curlers in her hair and what looks like Barney Rubble stubble on her face is described as having “a Donkey Kong smile,” I did laugh just a little.

     This is another game that’s difficult to recommend to fans of traditional interactive fiction. Moreover, it’s difficult to recommend to CYOA fans (where you could at least “go back” to a different page) or web game fans (where games are more casual and can be replayed fairly easily). It’s the only game I’ve stopped playing at two hours this year -- and not because it was so short that I saw everything or so broken that I couldn’t. Really, I just lost interest in starting all the way over from the beginning (even with the walkthrough to point me in the right direction), knowing that one little mistake could leave me unable to get the twelve-number win once more.

     I have scored it a “6” (which is “average”) on my voting scale. The author has, at least, justified the custom engine with a slick point-and-click interface and some nice visuals. That’s worth an added “plus,” although it also factors into the vote. If the same game had been written without graphics but with the same limited interaction, it would easily have scored a couple points lower.

Game #18: An Act of Murder
By Christopher Huang (Writing as “Hugh Dunnett”)
Played On: October 29th (3 hours 30 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 9-

     Impossibly, the fiddler-shaped weather vane up on the top of the house twists around and begins to actually scratch out a pleasant, simple tune on its little fiddle. As you stare up at it in astonishment, you completely fail to notice the hordes of stampeding Cossacks which trample you to death as they roar off on their way to yet another pogrom.

         *** You have died ***

     (Edit: The author tells me there are other XYZZY responses in other areas -- which makes sense, now that I think about it -- but I haven’t gone back to try it yet.)

     Be warned. While I don’t intend this review to be particularly spoiler-filled (even disregarding that the game is constructed in a way to minimize the effect of spoilers), I do discuss the plot and the design mechanics a little later.

     Here’s a fairly well-polished entry from “Hugh Dunnett” (also the protagonist’s name). You play the part of an Inspector with the Dundreary City Police. A wealthy investor for an upcoming stage musical (“Twisty Passages” -- clever), one Frederic Sheppard, has “fallen” from the window of his study, and it’s up to the Inspector to uncover clues and interview the witnesses in an attempt to identify the culprit.

     The opening seems sort of confusing, although I have a hunch the author probably wrote it this way for the opposite effect. Initially, Dunnett is hurried along by one of the witnesses (a relative of the murdered Sheppard), through several rooms and with brief introductions to a couple of the other suspects. He is then handed off to the victim’s accountant (one of the two men who found the body), who leads the way to the murder scene. It conveys a sense of urgency and was probably intended to introduce important points in a logical way. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, but by the time I made it down to examine the body, I forgot who I had met and the layout of the rooms I had just passed through to get there.

     Luckily, the confusion is short-lived. The Inspector carries a notebook in which he makes note of clues, statements, and suspicious activities. I kept additional notes of my own (including a map -- although the game covers only a small area), and this helped as well. Only five suspects are present in the house, and that helps keep the mystery compact and solvable. Before long, I felt as “in charge” as the Inspector himself should have been, and that’s when the game really started to shine.

     An Act of Murder requires some specific detective-like behavior. In retrospect, it’s all very logical, but it’s possible the author has given players a little too much credit in figuring it out. I checked the beginning just to see if the Chief had briefed me on what to do, but it seems very general and pretty open. Specifically, it’s important to ask suspects for their alibi, and about the murder. Asking about the dead body isn’t the same as asking about the murder (which, in effect, takes the guest’s statement), so it took a while (and possibly the hints) before I realized I should be doing these things. I believe this is probably because I had come to think I could only quiz the suspects about physical objects -- clues, which are also important. So, even though it’s logical in retrospect, some clear direction might have helped.

     The same goes for reading entries in the notebook. “Read about...” and “Look up...” do make sense (in fact, I’ve done this in other games, including another similarly-themed IFComp entry this year), but without a nudge or some in-game instructions, it took a while before I realized these notes could be reviewed individually as well.

     It’s a well-constructed game, but a few minor bugs are noted in my transcripts (yes, this is the nit-picky section). Duffy is supposed to arrive at 2:00 AM, but in my first play-through, it was well after 4:00 (and even then, only after I called). That did give me more time to investigate, but once before when I tried calling him directly, I was told by someone else that he was already on his way. That was a couple hours before the second call, in which Duffy himself answered and said he would be there in five minutes. I had some difficulty with the walking stick, in a guess-the-verb sort of way. Climbing the rocks at the beach will lead Hugh up, instead of northwest. Asking suspects about “me” gives a quirky response.

     Here’s an amusing and obscure one, tried on a whim:

     >ask body about me
     Frederic Sheppard glances over at yourself and lowers his voice. You get nothing but a dead silence.

     These are all minor issues. An Act of Murder shows obvious polish and attention to detail. In a competition against many games that are poorly tested and haphazardly implemented, An Act of Murder stands out even more.

     The author has given the player a mystery to solve, not just a collection quest disguised as a mystery. This is why I found my own note-taking to be of more help than the in-game notebook. There are logistics to work out, motives to prove or disprove, and yes, clues to gather. This comes closer to the feel of solving a mystery than other games I’ve played (although, admittedly, this isn’t my favorite genre), because the PC doesn’t clue the player in on his reasoning. It’s up to the player to put the pieces together and work out a solution and that’s how a mystery game should be. Chief Inspector Duffy does offer additional insight near the end (and this can sometimes come from a brute-force presentation of gathered evidence), but I think the author rightfully expects that if you’ve gathered the right evidence and perhaps summoned Duffy, you’ve worked it out for yourself already.

     The game begins with randomized plot elements. This isn’t obvious from a single play-through (even though the author warns of it from the beginning), so it doesn’t take anything away from the experience. I’m not sure if this was done to provide a higher replay value, or simply to thwart spoilers and potential walkthroughs, but I’d probably have been equally happy with a single “right” answer.

     Calling them “randomized plot elements” may be misleading. I played through twice (with a different result the second time -- and I made it through much quicker after the first). It seems that each of the five suspects is given both a motive and a counter-motive. Some can be cleared because their stories coincide during the potential murder window (and if the author includes a dual-murderer scenario or a suicide scenario, I didn’t see it), and some can be cleared because they’re given a strong counter-motive for wanting Frederic to live. The timetable of events is adjusted as well (I restarted a couple more times just to see that in action).

     The only reason this seems to escape the Clue movie cliché is that only one suspect can be the murderer on any given play-through. Unless more complicated endings do exist, it’s impossible to gather all necessary evidence, reach the end, and still be left with more than one suspect that fits all clues. It stands up well to a single play-through. It’s interesting a second time as well (especially with the existence of new counter-motives and the absence of key counter-motives found the first time). I suspect that after a couple times, however, it would probably begin to feel more and more game-like.

     This kind of design has an impact on what’s possible story-wise. It means that either the author has written five different stories (potentially) in the same scenario, or else it’s written in a way that downplays the story so that these adjustments are kept credible. Here, it seems like more of the latter. It’s an interesting mystery, but it co-exists with other variations to the same mystery. The story doesn’t seem to suffer as a result, but I suspect it might have been even better if it focused on a single “right” possibility.

     Mystery seems like a really tough genre, though. It’s probably just as possible to write one that’s unsolvable as it is to write one that’s solvable only half-way through on a strong hunch. An Act of Murder is a mystery that works, even though the details are variable. It’s one of the strongest entries I’ve yet to play this year, and is bound to be a high-ranker in the IFComp results.

     Interaction among characters is pretty minimal during the game, but they do make a few comments about each other. It’s fitting and sometimes enlightening, but it lacks a strong “punch” (I’m thinking of Sting of the Wasp here). The writing is effective but not flowery, with a good flow that doesn’t draw attention to itself (and that probably comes from being well proofed -- a quality sadly lacking in some other entries this year).

     In addition to five (potential) winning endings, five additional “losing” endings (in which Dunnett can play the fool by accusing the wrong suspect) are a nice touch. Also, one odd but funny bit stands out, primarily because it seems like a pun that would be clever if only I knew what it meant:

     >x painting
     It's Askew.

     >move painting
     You straighten the painting as best you can, but it's still Askew.

     I voted the game a reserved “8” at two hours (after voting a little too highly on a couple other games that ran longer), but it’s too well-constructed and fun not to rate a point higher. So, my non-vote review score is “9-” The “minus” is mainly for sorting purposes (I enjoyed my other two 9’s just a tiny bit more), a few very minor issues, and a lack of initial guidance on interview techniques. I highly recommend An Act of Murder, and I expect it to finish well in the competition.

Game #19: Ferrous Ring
By Carma Ferris (Pseudonym?)
Played On: October 30th & 31st (2 hours 10 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Glulx)
Merk’s Score: 7+

     A word suddenly pops up in my mind. Xyzzy. Where have I heard that before? Something computer-related. Ah, I remember Leynard showing me some old text-only computer game - that's where I saw it. It was a very primitive game - from last century - and possibly one of the earliest ever made... I doubt that any computer games have been made in the whole of 2030.

     This is likely to be the longest of my IFComp reviews this year.

     The annual Interactive Fiction Competition is an interesting thing. It’s paradoxically a perfect way to get new game ideas out there for consumption by the IF community (and others who come around specifically to play and vote), while also being an arena that’s a little intolerant of wild departures in how IF works. I think many would probably disagree -- after all, games like Photopia made a lasting mark by being different -- but the line between “failure” and “success” seems in no way wide, and it’s placed as to disproportionately favor failure. To take even one risk in an IFComp entry can mean disaster. You are (a hypothetical “you,” I mean), after all, in a competition. To succeed among a crowd that likes IF because it’s familiar, you probably need to really nail your convention-twist of choice.

     Enter Ferrous Ring, an entry by Carma Ferris (a pseudonym, maybe?) that incorporates a number of unique design enhancements into what’s already a twist on the traditional IF narrative style. The author is aware of the risks (saying as much in the included “readme” file), but only the first point (about new features) is likely to be a sticking point to those who like their IF in a more traditional way. I don’t think the ideas are too ambitious to have been a part of the same game, as the author suggests. Rather, I just think she (or he?) underestimated what an impact the first point has on the enjoyment of the other two.

     I’ll consider these goals individually, one at a time.

     Goal 1: “As a technology demonstration: it contains some features that should be of interest to the IF community, including a menu system and a solution to the 'guess the verb' problem.”

     Ferrous Ring includes a number of new features, specific implementations of similar features found elsewhere, and other non-traditional design choices. I’ll subdivide this section to discuss each of them.

     Walkthrough mode. The game has an ability to supply the next command necessary in solving the game (right on the command prompt -- the player must merely press enter). This can be requested as a one-shot hint, or as a walkthrough “mode” in which each command is pre-filled in sequence (requiring that the player just press enter each time the prompt comes up pre-filled, to complete the game entirely). Of all the enhancements, this felt the slickest to me. It did fail on me a time or two (once in particular, it told me to do something with a rope I had previously dropped). I used one-shot hints this way a few times in my initial play-through, then went back through it once entirely on autopilot.

     Noun mode. This, apparently, is the author’s solution to guess-the-verb problems (as mentioned in the “readme” file). It’s called “nominal interaction” inside the game, and it means that players can type just object names (sometimes paired with other object names, to use two things together), and the game will determine what’s the most likely and rational “action” to take as a result (with “examine” being the most likely first action for a given object). The author describes it as analogous to graphical adventure games, in which you “pick” an object, always in pretty much a “use” or “examine” context. I used this a few times -- not because I intended to play the game this way, but as an occasional crutch when I just couldn’t quite figure out what to do next (and sometimes, just as a sort of shorthand).

     Here’s a simple example of nominal interaction in action:

     The computer is probably the most valuable thing here. Normally I just can't live without it... but it looks like I'm going to have to. It makes me sad to think of leaving it here, where undoubtedly it will get stolen within the day.

     I reboot from a flash drive and format the hard drive securely. Good.

     It always seemed to work, but often I didn’t really have a specific action in mind. I just wanted to see what the game assumed I would do with the referenced object. I think I actually solved (or partially-solved) a few puzzles this way. This is a lot like how point-and-click graphic adventures work, but it still felt awkward in a text environment. That’s probably why the author also included...

     Menu mode. This extends the “noun” concept by splitting the screen vertically. A wide column on the left becomes a clickable text menu of items in scope, with an ability to combine (or “use” items together). I didn’t use this much. It felt clunky at first, and there was a definite -- though relatively brief -- delay in response time. Some longer “use” options were too wide to fit in the column (due to my choice font and window size, I suppose), chopping off all but the first two letters of the second item name in some cases. When dialogue appears (using a similar menu) or a pause prompt is displayed, the game jumps back to full-width mode, and then splits again afterwards. It seems a little odd, but presumably necessary given what’s probably some tricky behind-the-scenes coding.

     I think I might have adapted to this, if played through entirely in menu mode. Another of the text-based IFComp entries works this way (strictly point-and-click menu options), and I did okay there. It seems competently designed and in the few times I did use it (including a partial re-play just to evaluate it), it works okay. Some shading or border for the sidebar (menu) might have helped. I did notice a couple of quirky results (such as the word “auto” appearing in a “you can’t do that” sort of response once).

     It just seemed... I don’t know... unnecessary, maybe. Graphic point-and-click adventures use this because they don’t have text and a command parser. While a large amount of work has doubtlessly gone into its design, I wonder at how useful it will really be to IF development in general (especially considering that many are moving away from Inform 6, toward Inform 7). I suspect that most IFComp judges won’t use menu mode, making it a near non-issue score-wise.

     Movement. Until a player-assigned section in the park (which is pretty slick), directions aren’t important. At least, they’re not supposed to be. This is a point I really struggled with. While you’re supposed to be able to move around simply by “going” there, I had a tough time figuring out where I could go. This is made easier in menu mode (where these options are listed), or by typing exits (where movement options are explicitly stated), but in trying to stay with the flow of the narrative, I felt that it was often unclear -- especially near the beginning -- just what my options were. This really felt clunky to me, and I found myself consciously wishing the author hadn’t opted to do it this way.

     Parser messages. Unrecognized or unsupported commands are replaced with a few specific error messages, instead of the more traditional “I don’t recognize that verb” or “I don’t see that here” sort of responses. This is supposed to fit the narrative -- and it does -- but much like directional movement, I found myself wishing for the standard way. At times, it was confusing and misleading.

     Take this example, from mid-way through the game:

     >enter house
     I'm not sure if any of these buildings are still used at any time, but with that bulldozer around I don't really want to try and get in them.

     >enter bulldozer
     I am suddenly struck by the compulsion to... do something. But my thoughts wash over it - drown it.

     First, it’s implied that the bulldozer is here (I’m at the “Impoverished Street” now). Then, I’m prevented from entering it (and this is the sticking point) with a message that I’ve seen dozens of times before in response to unrecognized commands. The problem wasn’t that it’s impossible to enter the bulldozer. It’s that -- for whatever reason -- the bulldozer had wandered off at the moment (or something -- I never was quite clear on this, even reviewing my transcript later). I was surprised, then, when I felt stuck on a particular puzzle, that the built-in hint had me do this:

     >enter bulldozer
     I wonder... if I can control it...
     I get into the bulldozer.

     Actually, it suggested the noun-only version (>bulldozer), but it’s the same result. This also makes me wonder if the customized parser responses are as much in support of the “noun mode” and the “walkthrough mode” as they are a narrative device. At any rate, I didn’t feel that this improved the experience, and probably served to make the game less playable and less solvable than it might have been otherwise.

     Conversation menu. This isn’t a new idea, and it works okay, but it did seem a little quirky. As previously mentioned, menu mode switches off temporarily while a conversation menu is up. Also, it appears directly at the bottom without a blank line above it, making it sort of “run on” with any text above it. It’s the same one used by the built-in help/about menu, and the ESC (escape) key doesn’t exit from it. I found that that the “Q” hotkey works, but this wasn’t immediately intuitive.

     Incidentally, clicking with the mouse doesn’t seem to work on conversation menus. So, while the game can be put into menu mode for mouse users, it still requires keyboard use whenever a conversation starts.

     Even though Ferrous Ring can be played without enabling or using most of these enhancements (noun mode, walkthrough mode, and menu mode in particular), it still feels sort of clunky. Directional movement and parser messages are a big part of that.

     Goal 2: “To make some (hopefully) thought-provoking, philosophical points.”

     I admit that I’m not entirely clear on what philosophical points the author intended to make. The story hints at issues of racism, tolerance, and the division of social classes (and I’ll get to this more when I talk about the story), but beyond that, I’m not sure. There is, maybe, a subtext dealing with the “rightness” of crime (both when the criminals do it for self-gain at the expense of others, and when they are left with no other choice for survival), but that might not be what the author had in mind.

     Goal 3: “And to tell a story.”

     I would have been perfectly content to experience this story in a more traditional way. I don’t mean the switch from second-person narrative to first-person (which seems to happen once or twice in every IFComp anyway -- seems okay to me), but rather, the other design decisions that kept getting in the way. I found it difficult to become immersed in the story (which I otherwise might have) due to the awkwardness of directional movement and the unhelpfulness of the parser messages.

     The story is where Ferrous Ring really shines. It’s set in what seems at first to be a post-apocalyptic society, but upon reflection seems to be something much more subtle. I may not have it all, and what I do have could be wrong, but it seems to be a society split along vague racial lines, and perhaps dealing with some sort of drastic climate changes. The “haves” have gone underground for safety, leaving the “have nots” above-ground, in squalor, and without the resources to survive comfortably. The world is rife with crime, poverty, suffering and terrorism, while those in shelter (never seen in-game) are safe and secure.

     The protagonist, “Erskine Ring,” keeps a few details from the player. This is done in the interest of setting up a mysterious “what’s going on here?” kind of setting, and it seems convincing enough that it works. Some of why Ring feels so strongly about following a clue left on his video recorder is explained at the end, but it still concludes with unanswered questions. If this wasn’t supposed to remain a mystery, then I missed some important bits along the way. I had a strong impression that I was supposed to understand something -- perhaps even in the specific wording used -- but I just didn’t. If it’s intentionally open to interpretation and speculation, I’m curious as to what others make of it.

     The game doesn’t have many complicated puzzles, although two do stand out. The first, involving the previously-mentioned bulldozer, might have been solvable if I hadn’t believed the bulldozer was off limits.

     The second is pretty clever (involving a special message found in a book), but somehow I just kept skirting the actual solution. At the risk of spoiling it for others, it involves finding a single passage when the clue seems to suggest three separate passages that should be located and treated as one. Maybe the clue doesn’t suggest this, but it relies on a leap in logic that I just never made (because, well, you have to make this leap in order to hit on the clue that lets you figure out how to solve the puzzle). It might have been smoother in menu mode (where maybe the right command was prompted -- I didn’t check), and walkthrough mode definitely worked, but I regretted being unable to solve it unassisted. There is sort of a clue when working with numbers that are too high, but it never inspired me to make the right connection.

     In addition to the first person narrative, room descriptions end with a list of things good and bad. This aspect of the story is also prominent in the game’s included cover art, but not only couldn’t I figure out why it was presented in this fashion, I never entirely understood how the protagonist could categorize these things so easily either. Much of it is obvious as I review my transcripts, but it’s a very intentional thing for the author to have included. It may have some deeper importance that simply eluded me.

     The protagonist also had a tendency to do things contrary to my instructions. At one point, I asked him to go north, which he did after attempting to follow his own map in a different direction. Another time, I asked him to take a specific tram, and he did, but only by accident after attempting to take a different one. In these instances, it’s as though direct control of the PC was temporarily suspended, so that my command controlled his destiny rather than his intentions. That’s not a bad thing. It seems to fit in with the story.

     A few fairly minor bugs (or quirks) are to be found in the competition version. When I retraced my path back through the park, there is a section where the game told me to go one way, and then back the other way again, over and over, seemingly without a purpose. Scavengers aren’t recognized as something animate. In limiting my directional movement, I noticed one place that gave two possibly conflicting messages. An important item was listed in a disambiguation message before I had actually found it (enabling me to realize it was there for the first time). In general, there just seemed to be several quirks probably related to supporting noun mode and menu mode in a game where normal IF commands are also accepted.

     The author has put tremendous effort into the game, especially considering that it includes a custom game engine within the standard engine. Despite the quirks, it’s well-implemented, and the various enhancements do fit together nicely. A nice level of detail is present, where most things (objects and scenery) seem implemented at least for examining. Even though it feels awkward at times, it’s still well-constructed.

     I’m anxious to learn how others have responded to Ferrous Ring. It takes a number of risks that seem good in theory, but don’t really improve the experience (and in some ways, detract from it). The story is just the kind that might have wowed me with a smoother, more traditional implementation. I voted it a “7” at two hours (and this was near to the end), and that’s the score I’ve kept for the review (with a “plus” for a very interesting story). It might be two or three points higher if only it worked more smoothly. I like the game, and I recommend it -- but its biggest risk is that it may bother or annoy some players.

     All things considered, it’s one of the most interesting and memorable games I’ve played in this year’s competition.

Game #20: A Matter of Importance
By Valentine Kopteltsev (writing as “Nestor I. McNaugh”)
Played On: November 1st (2 hours 35 minutes)
Platform: TADS (Version 2)
Merk’s Score: 8

     Game’s Blurb: All significant modern capitals have been made the most dishonourable way.

     You recall a couple of your (now imprisoned) buddies who were relying on magic spells too much when splitting from the place of crime, and reconsider.

     Why is it that this title had me thinking of that recent Al Gore environmental documentary? Titles have a way of suggesting a theme, and I had a hunch this one would be a politically-charged semi-interactive essay. Even the game’s blurb (which turns out to be part of a translated quote from a book by early twentieth-century soviet authors Ilf and Petrov -- yes, that’s from Wikipedia) seemed to suggest political themes.

     While Ilf and Petrov’s Bender is a con man, McNaugh’s unnamed protagonist is a member of a modern Thieving Guild. I say “modern” to distinguish between contemporary themes and those more commonly associated with a Thieving Guild (medieval and/or fantasy), but it’s not too modern. People still amass large collections of VCR movies in McNaugh’s world, so it’s probably set a good ten or fifteen years ago.

     McNaugh’s satire isn’t politically-charged, and it’s not an essay. Rather, it’s a traditional puzzle-filled game inspired by a particular IF trope that ties into the title and forms much of the basis for the protagonist’s interactions with his environment. The author explains this in optional notes at the end of the game. That’s good, because until reading the explanation, this all felt a little quirky but not necessarily meaningful. If anything, it seemed perfectly reasonable given the PC’s dedication to the task at hand. I think the author had to trade off some of his concept in favor of playability. Really, it’s hard to imagine enjoying a game with a lot more of this particular gimmick. The level of exaggeration seems about right, even though it probably loses some of the intended effect.

     Some awkward phrasing was evident in many places, but it’s well-written (and perhaps well-tested) considering that the author isn’t a native speaker of English (so says the “credits” section). Usually, it was a variation on the same couple of quirky wording choices: using “got” where it doesn’t belong (“...had got no choice...” should be “...had no choice...”) and an awkward juxtaposition of words that differs from the norm (like “...every your move...” instead of “...your every move...” and “...only would lead you away...” instead of “...would only lead you away...”). It flows well otherwise, aside from a few minor mistakes here and there (“portersickens” should have a space in the middle; “more busy” should be “busier”; “just buy bying” is a mistake). This is all very nit-picky, and could easily be corrected in a post-competition update.

     Some puzzles seem more logic-driven than clue-driven. Several times, I needed to stop for a moment and think beyond what the game was telling me. That worked sometimes, but not others, and even required taking a moment to really pay attention to what the game was saying. The first instance comes in crossing the busy street. I solved it without hints, but it took several minutes of being stuck with limited options, trying to think just how I should go about tackling the problem. Somehow, I envisioned the PC stepping out, hand raised, to “stop traffic.” Other phrasings may work, and although this didn’t solve the puzzle, it did give me a pretty nice hint that allowed me to.

     At other times, it didn’t go so well. I ended up in a football kick-and-block competition with some kid I wanted to get rid of. Even with very limited options (you can’t leave the challenge after starting it, as far as I found), I didn’t solve it without hints. The author had the right idea in continuing to draw attention to the solution (or, at least, to the “thing” you use to solve it), but without the hints, I hadn’t realized that a distraction was in order (even though this is hinted as well, in that the boy is trying to distract you). And even then, this was a pretty obscure and specific distraction to create, so I would have needed the hints anyway.

     Getting the ball is a puzzle I had sort of solved -- I just overlooked one pretty obvious part of it (and this is probably more my fault than the game’s). The rest was pretty smooth, until I needed to make a quick escape near the end. This was definitely my fault, because I knew what to do (I got the Home Alone idea even before seeing it in the hints). I had just forgotten about (or overlooked) another room in the store. That was a particular shame, because it meant a pretty tense and urgent situation became a seemingly endless standoff with me scouring the store for a list of titles that didn’t even exist. The police repeat themselves, but it was entertaining (and maybe another nod to Ilf and Petrov).

     Others may get through those parts with less effort, although I think at least one or two puzzles are bound to trip up most players. At one point, I thought maybe the author expected the hints to be a necessary part in solving the game, and that it would somehow factor into the game’s twist or purpose. The kid even comments on this, after I succeeded in distracting him. Thinking back, nothing seems unfair or entirely unclued, so I don’t think the author intended that the hints would have to factor into things. The author has even put “guess the action” puzzles into a very limited scope, meaning you have fewer things to consider in the spot where they’re required.

     They’re probably perfect for skilled players that have good intuition and an ability to think outside the proverbial box. In loading a prior save to check on something that had me confused in my first play-through, I found that getting into the store actually has an alternate (and perhaps easier solution). Do other puzzles? It’s possible. Even though it seems too hard a game at times, it should yield to persistence, observation, and deduction -- usually.

     I was impressed with how the author, in several instances, crafted very logical reasons why very logical puzzle solutions wouldn’t work. It’s not quite the same thing as including those puzzle solutions, but I can agree with the decision not to remove the challenge altogether (which some obvious answers might have done). For example:

     >give money to boy
     You consider giving the boy some cash and tell him to go, but realize the brat would just get curious, hide somewhere and secretly watch you. No, such attempt of bribing only would make matters worse.

     I came away really liking A Matter of Importance. It’s an uncomplicated story that delivers a bit of IF-specific satire, and it ends with a nice little twist. The author uses some lengthy “suggested commands” CYOA-like near the end, perhaps as a way of avoiding more complicated interaction, but I didn’t mind this. It ends with a small puzzle, it’s told in an entertaining way, and even the time spent stuck wasn’t a big frustration. I recommend the game (including its built-in hints), and I’ve rated it an “8” on my scale of judging criteria.

Game #21: Slap That Fish
By Peter Nepstad
Played On: November 3rd (4 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: TADS (Version 2)
Merk’s Score: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     This time, those fishy bastards are finally going to get what's coming to them.

     You invoke the magic word of prayer your grandfather once taught you. But nothing happens. Some secrets are lost, from generation to generation.

     From the game’s blurb and a quick peek earlier, I was looking forward to Slap That Fish on the pure absurdity of its premise. My fear was that this might turn out to be a joke entry -- one intentionally bad, hastily written, playable in only a few minutes, and perhaps entered to intentionally garner a low ranking. It seems like every year’s IFComp sees at least one (often several). Being so far along in my random play list without finding an insincere entry yet, I thought maybe this would be the one.

     At first, it seems to be. On the surface, it’s an RPG where you, as the title suggests, simply slap a series of suspiciously behaving fish. Actually, four main actions (kick, punch, slap, and backhand) are used to dispatch each of the “fishy bastards” in what’s essentially a one-room, back-alley brawl. Although it’s funny in its absurdity, it begins with repetitive commands and not much challenge. New players are likely to think “okay, is this it?” As each challenger takes the place of his fallen aquatic comrade, it becomes a matter of figuring out which attack works (because, for instance, slapping a tuna won’t hurt it). Still, it’s just a series of attacks and recoveries, over and over and over and...

     Then, at a point where one might wonder if this is really the same Peter Nepstad who wrote the respected work of commercial IF, 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, the formula changes. You still slap fish. You still meet another in the series of challengers. However, puzzles begin to take shape. Things to interact with appear. Tricking the fish and making use of previously defeated fish become important aspects in advancing to the next fight.

     Moreover, a story begins to take shape. Where no story was evident before, clues are given as to what’s really going on. This is potentially misleading (and that may be the point), but it brought me from thinking the game was completely silly and pointless, to thinking maybe the PC had been traumatized on several past occasions, and this was either a bad dream or a hypnotherapy session.

     By the last three battles, what started out to be a simple and repetitive RPG has become a puzzle game, with a backstory and a purpose. It’s still absurd, but this demonstrates that it’s not a joke entry. Fish are far harder to defeat, requiring more trickery, skill, and actions outside the established arsenal of melee commands. The strangest twist of all is that it seems to have no twist. The story is exactly as it appears.

     At the end of an initial play-through, though, I was still left feeling that the game required too much repetition. It’s also pretty difficult to think creatively, because the game often references things that seem important (the “thing” on the head of the anglerfish, for instance, as well as tails and fins on most of the fish), which can’t actually be referenced at all. This limits potentially creative combat.

     It also suffers from a few specific and hard-to-guess actions (I’ll discuss this below). These aren’t always guess-the-verb situations, because figuring out the action itself is the hard part (not the specific phrasing of it).

     A few places do seem a little guess-the-verby too, though. Here is one relatively spoiler-free example:

     ...The force of its fall causes a brick to dislodge, revealing a dark opening. ...

     >look in opening
     It is too dark to see inside.

     >enter opening
     The opening is much too small for you to enter.

     >put hand in opening
     You can't put your hands anywhere.

     >x opening
     There is a small opening in the brick wall where a brick has been dislodged, large enough to reach into, but to dark to see inside.

     >reach into opening
     You reach into the dark opening. It is a narrow fit. Feeling around, the first thing you find is...

     The “search” verb works too, but it’s possible to dismiss the attempt when told that you can’t put your hands anywhere. I managed to get through the entire game with only two (I think) peeks at the walkthrough (which, really, is a series of hints with spoiler space). First, I needed help in defeating the shark in the second half of the battle (having figured out the cool first half myself). Then, I couldn’t figure out how to get an item I knew I needed from the delivery boy. This turns out to be very guess-the-verby, and it’s even something I was thrown by -- with the same complaint -- in the first game I played from this year’s IFComp.

     I found a few typos (and noted them in my transcript), but it’s pretty well written otherwise. Usually, the text consists of silly but often-clever one-liners in response to fighting and defeating each fish.

     In addition to minor problems in the text, I did find a few bugs. The biggest involves reading a tablet (probably before the author intended for it to have been read) and then performing the first action listed. During a battle, a strange TADS parser error message and error number are shown, and the actual text is truncated. Also (and to avoid a spoiler, I can’t be specific), using a certain item in a certain way always references the trout first, well after the trout is defeated and gone. I’m sure I noticed a few other minor quirks, but not many. It sometimes felt unpolished due to unimplemented scenery (or “fish parts”) and some guess-the-verb commands, but it turns out to be solidly constructed.

     I completed the game (with those couple of hints from the walkthrough) in one hour and twenty minutes. This allowed me not to freeze my vote as I would when going beyond two hours (as required in the IFComp rules). I stepped away thinking it involved too much guesswork, tedious repetition, and mindless combat. I stepped away for a while, though, and then came back intending to spend another forty minutes looking for the “perfect” 20-point score solution to each fish.

     If I hadn’t, I probably would have rated it lower. What I found, though, is that Slap That Fish is a puzzle RPG. It can be played the brute-force way (and most players are likely to do this -- I know I did), but there is a challenge in defeating each fish quickly and with a minimum of combat. It requires figuring out a certain attack combo (necessary in several of the fights), optimizing your moves, using “extra” turns (some fish can still give a full 20 points even if you “waste” a couple of turns) to preemptively rest for the next battle, and more. What seemed haphazard and poorly conceived on the first play-through seems incredibly clever on a second. It requires replays, multiple saves (because when you get it right, you might not want to start over entirely when trying another approach), and some note jotting of what works or doesn’t (how much stamina was spent versus damage dealt, and how many turns are spent resting or taking any non-attack actions which also heal stamina). It’s in many ways much more fun as a mind game.

     Finally, I completed it with 239 points of a maximum 240. The ending didn’t change (and I only scored 92 points the first time), so working through the game on a more challenging level seems to be its own reward. Surely something changes with 240 points, but it will take a player more clever than I to figure out the ideal solution.

     The game works on both levels -- defeating each fish individually and with less finesse (fewer points) and as a tightly-timed series of puzzles forming a single greater challenge. The first way is sort of a prerequisite (in understanding what’s ahead and how the game is constructed) to the second way, though, and the first way isn’t incredibly exciting. It’s a pleasant farce, but it’s a little rough in the spots where specific phrasings or unclued actions are required.

     I think it will be mistaken as a joke entry, especially by any judge who doesn’t recognize the author’s name. And who knows? Maybe it is, and the author just doesn’t know how to write a game that’s purposely bad without making it pretty good in the process. I ranked it a “7”, and considered either a “minus” for the frustration and repetition of the first play-through or a “plus” for the fiendishly challenging second. Ultimately, I haven’t added either to the review score.

     It’s not deeply moving or epic in scope. It’s just an absurdly farcical puzzle game, which can be played for higher points to provide a greater challenge. I recommend it as such.

     Note: I have posted my 239-point walkthrough here.

Game #22: Packrat
By Bill Powell
Played On: November 4th and 5th (1 hour 50 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 5-

     Game’s Blurb:
     They call you Packrat, but who're they sending to wake the Princess? Not only has the faraway Prince failed to deliver, but it's just come out that a hefty royal loan has had twenty years to accrue in default, and the repo giants are on their way.

     Bill Powell entered the IFComp last year with a two-part game (MANALIVE 1 and 2) that, despite many problems, I still enjoyed. I expected this year’s entry to be more fun, well-designed, and a good deal more polished.

     It could be more fun, but some poorly-clued puzzles (maybe based on a faulty design philosophy) and a variety of quirks and bugs keep it from shining. In the built-in help, the author says:

     “I've done my best to make it impossible for you to make the game unwinnable without knowing it, but any decent game will require a fair amount of browsing, searching, and generally non-intuitive actions, just for thoroughness.”

     It’s the part about non-intuitive actions that seems misguided. To build a puzzle out of non-intuitive actions, the player has to be shown a problem begging for a solution. The player must see a challenge, and then be able to deduce the non-intuitive action based on clues he or she has already seen or can find elsewhere. It’s not enough to just hide a puzzle behind a non-intuitive action, because a player will almost never stumble on it if unaware the puzzle even exists.

     This would be easiest to explain by spoiling the specific instance to which I refer, but I’ll do this with a hypothetical (though similar) example. Suppose the player finds a large carpet, among various other items, inside a house at the top of a mountain. Exploring the house seems to be the goal, although it’s necessary to traverse a mountain path with a steeply sloping side to get there. The carpet is unremarkable, and it even seems a little odd (maybe even a bug) that the player is allowed to pick up an item so large. The path outside with the sloping drop-off is equally unremarkable, except perhaps that it’s described as being too dangerous. If a persistent player keeps trying to go south (down off the path), it’s discouraged but eventually allowed with an unhappy ending. Now... suppose that there is something down there, out of view and in no way clued (but which the player needs to find), and the solution is to go back outside, drop the carpet, and ride it down the steep slope.

     To make a puzzle like this work, the author should (a) mention that something interesting seems to be down there, (b) hint that the player would slip and fall if trying to walk down the steep slope, and (c) mention something when obtaining the carpet, perhaps to the effect that it looks thick and sturdy. I’m not even sure that’s enough, but it’s a start.

     In another area (which I will spoil, because it’s not really a puzzle), a staircase leads up from an underground laundry into a scullery above. In the scullery, the staircase is mentioned, plus an exit to the east. If you examine the staircase, an unhelpful, snarky, theme-breaking message likens you to MacGyver but doesn’t also mention that the staircase goes up as well as back down into the laundry room. Because the exit isn’t mentioned anywhere, I never even tried going up.

     Beyond this, it has numerous other problems. Disambiguation (especially in an area with many doors) seems to be an issue. Synonyms are lacking in many places (such as when the “rubble” is frequently referred to as “debris,” yet “debris” isn’t recognized as a noun). Many objects aren’t implemented at all, even in areas where there really isn’t much else to see but those one or two objects. When going west in the dungeon hallway, it’s impossible to return to the east (the same room just keeps popping up, as if “east” references the same room). You can pick up the cook and add him to your inventory. “Get all” cycles through pretty much every implemented object. Some objects can be referenced sometimes but not others (such as “get” by itself implying “(the finery)”, yet you can’t say “get finery” without an error). Certain messages are static, as though they were intended to be seen in a specific room but are actually visible elsewhere as well. Others simply describe the state of something even after it’s no longer true (trying to go south after defeating the dragon is an example). Some things in a room aren’t mentioned at all (such as the sink in the scullery, unless “cell” was a typo). You can even put the gargantuan cake inside Packrat’s pack.

     It also has a game-halting bug which crashes WinFrotz (and possibly other interpreters -- I didn’t check). This has to do with tying the rope to two things at once, and then trying to interact with it (to untie, tie to something else, pick up, etc). Actually, I’m foggy on the specifics, but it happened twice, leaving me gun-shy about using the rope in any manner not explicitly described in the walkthrough. It’s also possible to tie the rope to something, drop the thing, leave the room with the rope, roam the castle, and never drag the tied thing along. Yet technically it’s still tied to the object you left behind. It looks like the author only checks for that in the one instance where you’re supposed to tie the rope to an immobile object.

     Most of these issues are obvious, and would be found by anybody poking around without going strictly by the walkthrough. It’s a shame that, unless I’ve missed my guess, nobody had an opportunity to test the game other than the author himself. It really shows a lack of polish, and that makes an otherwise nice little game difficult to enjoy.

     The writing is fine. If there were problems, I overlooked them in light of the more pressing technical issues. The story is fine too, although the interesting “packrat” theme just seems to give a name to what’s already the typical adventure game hero mindset. It’s used in character-building and in some backstory bits, but it never really seemed to factor into the medieval fantasy fairy tale except as an explanation as to why (and maybe how) the protagonist picks up everything he encounters. It has an auto-purloin mode that I missed until I checked the walkthrough (because it requires doing something that seems completely counter-productive and repeatedly discouraged at the very beginning), but this seemed more annoying than useful. I reloaded a prior save and continued without it.

     With more polish and better-clued puzzles, it would be a very short game. Without it, though, it’s all but unsolvable without the walkthrough. Since I’m judging the latter rather than the former, the most optimistic interpretation of my scoring criteria puts it at “5” -- below average. For my review set, I’ve added a “minus” to that. That’s for the evident lack of testing and some needlessly obscure, unclued areas. I’m positive the author can do better than this. Much of the game hints at better things, but a lack of testing is Packrat’s downfall.

Game #23: The Chinese Room
By Joey Jones and Harry Giles
Played On: November 7th, 8th, 9th (7 hours 20 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Merk’s Score: 7+

     Game’s Blurb:
     A comic romp through the surreal world of philosophy thought experiments, vanquishing invisible pink unicorns, roistering with great thinkers, and battling the all-powerful Evil Demon. Suitable for beginners and experienced philosophers alike.

     A hollow voice says, "There are no obligatory Adventure references in this game."
     There is a long pause.
     "Oh, bugger."

     The Chinese Room really broke my stride. It required a couple hours a day over the course of three days to complete, and even that was split into multiple sessions. The authors realize it’s too long for the competition, but they submitted it anyway. I wonder at why it wasn’t saved for the Spring Thing or just released independently, but with long games showing up every year anyway (often from authors who may not even be aware that most players can’t finish in time), it’s nice that Jones and Giles were at least upfront about it in the “essentials” section of the game’s info menu.

     It begins (no surprise) in a “Chinese Room” -- a construct of philosophy in which the question is posed “if you could accurately answer any question in Chinese with Chinese -- not with an understanding of meaning, but strictly based on rules and pattern recognition -- would you still know the Chinese language?” The problem for me was that answering this question seemed to be the focus. I spent half an hour (maybe more) trying to make progress in what seemed to be a one-room game, only to realize eventually that I had gained a means of escaping from the room.

     And then, upon escape, it actually begins. The PC, in this world where philosophical “thought experiments” have come to life, makes his (or her -- I’m not sure it’s ever established, although I did get the impression the PC is male) way through a fantasyland of logic and illogic. Without this clear and intentional design inspiration, the game might seem no different than any other wacky mesh of unlikely and unreal scenarios. But with it, The Chinese Room stands out for its really interesting concept.

     The authors have thrown in more than two-dozen of these “thought experiments” (and other elements of or nods to philosophy in general), ranging in design from window dressing to multi-part puzzles. Many of the biggest names in philosophy are also on hand. Often, these scenarios don’t fit together, except for the purpose of solving one to get some specific item that helps solve another. The game’s geography is just right (about 30 rooms, if I’ve counted correctly). This allows the disparate pieces some breathing room.

     It’s never really necessary to solve the experiments -- just the puzzles they represent. This often involves cheating or creatively redefining the premise in a given situation, or focusing on what key flaw other philosophers have identified in a particular hypothetical situation and then exploiting it.

     My fear was that this would prove insurmountably difficult for me, given my non-existent background in philosophy. Three things keep that from being true. One, many of these situations are pretty familiar. Two, the built-in THINK ABOUT command works a little like a footnote system, in that it expands upon and explains certain concepts without being blatant spoilers. Everything the authors have included that might possibly go unrecognized by or be confusing to players is cleverly explained there. Three, the puzzles are solved in ordinary ways: giving things to people, picking the right conversation topics, figuring out what to use how and where. I never felt that the answers eluded me because of a lack of understanding in terms of philosophical knowledge. The authors have succeeded brilliantly in that goal.

     Still, it’s hard, even though clues work well when they’re seen. The authors have done a good job of making sure that the hints to complete any puzzle are there to be found within the game, but sometimes an obvious answer is forgotten when the clue was seen quite a bit earlier (using the book of Plato is an example, at least in my play-through). It also takes a high level of thoroughness, making this a game that’s likely to require long periods of “being stuck” in search of one particular thing completely overlooked earlier. This can happen several times (and in fact did, as I played). It’s not a bad way to challenge a player, but it’s definitely harder to accept in a game being played against a deadline.

     Not every point of difficulty is due to a lack of observation. In addition to some bugs (including at least one major issue that seems to make the game unwinnable), a few things related to the game’s design can be problematic.

     One is the inventory limit. The PC can hold only three items at one time without a sack, but the sack is easy to miss until later in the game (despite being obtainable at a much earlier point). Another is the lack of clear room exits in some locations (such as northeast from the beach). In another area, a particular NPC needs “something” to change his color, yet the game isn’t clear that it will have to be more than one thing. This NPC takes what’s offered, but he doesn’t yield, raising the suspicion that the thing taken is better retrieved with an UNDO -- especially when in at least one case you can’t obtain other similar items which could in theory also prove useful if you don’t bring the thing back to trade. A maze which doesn’t really seem to be a maze has no obvious exit, but it’s simply a cut-scene when carrying the right item. The problem is that a player could get stuck in there (unless I missed a way out -- Ed: Woops. I did. It’s mentioned on the sign before entering), and without a well-planned prior save be forced to start again. A lack of verbs/commands in a few places (no PAINT for instance, and no LIGHT unless you specify the “with what” part -- more examples are easy to come by) make it a little less smooth than it might otherwise have been.

     At two hours, I hadn’t encountered many bugs (maybe a few minor ones, and some errors in the text), or even most of the issues mentioned above. I was more impressed at that point, and voted two points higher than the score I would eventually decide on for the review (and that’s the greatest disparity between my vote score and my review score yet). As I continued, though, a few things -- bugs of various sizes -- did become more evident.

     Scenery is given a particular response to GET, PULL, PUSH, and MOVE (“Philosophers are not yet supermen.”). That makes sense for houses, large objects, and scenery in general. However, this response is out of place when the thing is small and independent (such as a stack of cards). Near the start, reading the poster again (after learning Chinese) puts an object back in its starting state, even if you have taken it already. If you drop a phial of dye in the barbershop, you aren’t allowed to pick it back up in order to exchange it for another. A “Run-time problem P10” happens with most conversation topics when talking to the tree. The game doesn’t seem to recognize “x keys” even though you can interact with the “bunch of keys” in other ways. In some situations, descriptions are painted on (such as when attempting to talk to Mary after she’s already prone). A few other minor bugs are evident in my transcripts as well.

     The biggest problem involved dropping a particular item. I did this due to the inventory limit (later solved when I obtained the sack), and later, when I realized I would need to return this particular item to exchange for another, I couldn’t find it. Fortunately, one other thing that wasn’t listed in the room after being dropped there could be picked up (and luckily I dropped everything in the same location, so I knew it had to be there), but this one thing kept giving me the “not supermen” response, as if it had been added as scenery. I could look at it, even though it wasn’t listed in the room. But I couldn’t pick it up. This meant I had to reload a prior save (a 38-point save, when I had progressed to 71 points). This was one of my biggest disappointments in the game. I almost didn’t reload, though. This was many hours into it already, and it was entertaining and well written enough otherwise to merit another chance.

     The authors have injected the game with detail, but it still falls to a default message a little too often. It’s a funny twist on the “you don’t see that here” message, but it’s less amusing after the fiftieth time:

     “That's either not here, or carelessly undescribed by the fickle creators of this world.”

     Some odd quirks make it into the writing. They’re like typos in the traditional sense. Letters are sometimes simply missing from the front of words -- like “he” when it should be “the” or “ey” when it should be “they” -- almost like a search-and-replace gone horribly wrong.

     Otherwise, the writing flows well. It’s descriptive, funny, and seems to express a silly philosophical wit. In several games this year, I’ve felt the writing was “fine.” That’s not a criticism; I just didn’t have much to say about it. But The Chinese Room is a pleasure to read. Even when some bits are pretty long (especially some THINK ABOUT text), I nearly never felt the urge to skim or lose focus.

     The authors provided a separate walkthrough available at a URL referenced in the HELP menu, and I found this to be essential to completing the game in its present state. Aside for the bug that forced me to replay a section, the game doesn’t seem broken in any big way. It’s pretty well constructed, but the cumulative effect of many smaller issues and the difficulty level of the game in general had me peeking at these hints in several cases. Although they discourage its use, I’m pleased it was available. With some bug fixes and a little more attention to some minor rough spots, and without the pressure of the IFComp voting deadline, I think the game could prove challenging but solvable without the walkthrough.

     I did make several hours of progress before resorting to the walkthrough. Once I did, though, I found that I had overlooked or forgotten just one key element of several puzzles in a row. It was like a chain reaction, where each thing enabled me to complete the next, and so forth. I completed the middle section thinking it wouldn’t have been so stupefying with just a little more polish.

     A built-in hint system is easy to miss, and I only found it late in the game. It would have been available earlier, but like many of the puzzles, it does require thoroughness to discover. I didn’t use this much, since I was far enough along and already committed to using the walkthrough when stuck. I did notice, however, that the action taken to “request” a hint is possible not just in the location where the hints are supposed to be (it requires interacting with a specific piece of scenery), but elsewhere in the game as well (and seemingly by accident).

     In light of the game as a whole, I have scored it a “7+”. It’s an impressive work that should prove challenging to fans of puzzle-heavy games, although it’s made unintentionally difficult by a variety of smaller bugs and at least one bigger game-killing issue. I had enough fun with it to stay interested and entertained for the more than seven hours it required of me.

Game #24: Fox, Fowl and Feed
By Chris Conroy
Played On: November 10th (35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 7-

     Game’s Blurb:
     An IF interpretation of a classic puzzle.

     A hollow voice says, "I pity the fool who uses lame magic words."

     A hollow voice sighs, "Especially that one."

     The shortest game of this year’s IFComp (rivaled only by Wish) follows what is probably the longest on my random play list. In Fox, Fowl and Feed, an interactive realization of a well known but simple logic puzzle, players must transport the three titular things one at a time in a rowboat across a river.

     I can imagine it being a little tougher to anyone who hasn’t already solved this particular logic puzzle, but it smartly introduces twists to the traditional answer. The first is that the rowboat isn’t initially ready to make the first trip. That’s easily solved. The second is that the first thing taken across won’t stay there (and here, I must have smiled and nodded to myself, realizing that it wouldn’t be quite so simple after all). The solution to this isn’t hard to guess, and it requires remembering what you did to get the boat ready. This is a good primer for the rest of it, because no part of solving the game is as simple as the logic puzzle on which it is based. It requires working with much of what’s around in creative ways.

     Perhaps the most surprising thing about a game this short is that it does have bugs. Well, it has a couple of inconsequential but odd ones. The game attempts to drop scenery objects as though you’re holding them, if the rope is tied to one and you drop the rope. I also tripped over a strange quirk where picking up the fox says “taken” even though the fox remains on the ground.

     Although not bugs per se, I noticed a few areas that might merit attention in a post-comp update. When sitting in the boat, what’s there is listed after the room description as being “in” the boat. What’s outside is listed simply as being “here.” When outside the boat, what’s in it isn’t listed at all -- just what’s on the ground. That’s okay and intuitive as described, except when sitting in the boat and nothing is there, it’s easy to forget that what is listed is actually not in the boat. It also seems that the game assumes you intend to drag an object behind the boat (“you won't be able to maneuver properly”) even if it’s inside the boat (although it’s possible I’m just not visualizing what the author intended). I also saw no reason that the river needed to be three locations wide (one might have worked just as well), but maybe the author has worked it into some of the timing. I would like to be able to “tie x to y” (where neither “x” nor “y” is a rope), and since I’m holding the rope, have the game imply that this is what I intend to use.

     The game is cleverly written, where the PC’s role as a delivery driver and the destination itself give flavor to its simple story. It’s short, yes; but it’s fun to play and read the whole way through. It doesn’t strictly fit the definition of a “7” on my voting scale, but since it’s not nearly as ambitious as games that take full advantage of the allotted two hour time limit, it’s hard to justify a higher score than this. It’s a well written, well designed, fun little puzzle game. I recommend it highly, as a short but entertaining diversion.

Game #25: My Mind’s Mishmash
By Robert Street
Played On: October 11th (3 hours 35 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 4)
Merk’s Score: 8+

     Game’s Blurb:
     A mishmash of robots, psychic powers and "ghosts" in a game of action and survival.

     Robert Street burst onto the IF scene in 2004 (as “Rafgon”) with a short Zcode game for Dave Bernazzani’s C32 Competition -- a game called Turning Point, which I had the pleasure of beta testing. Since then, Robert has switched to Adrift (his The Potter and the Mould took second place in the 2006 Spring Thing competition), except for one excellent Zcode game (The Colour Pink), which placed highly in the 2005 IFComp.

     I’ve come to expect good things from Robert, and on most levels, My Mind’s Mishmash doesn’t disappoint. It begins in the last episode of a five-part story-within-a-story, before jumping back to the start after the episode concludes. This opener, however, is confusing and somewhat difficult to visualize. This might be intentional, and it’s at least solvable without a great understanding of what’s going on.

     The story centers on “surviveor” (short for “survive or die”), whom the game describes as “a precocious schoolkid who plans to survive again today.” The PC’s story is layered over the larger backdrop of a corporate-run world, in which the workers of a mining operation find themselves in conflict with another global organization. As interlopers, “surviveor” and his nemesis “memoryblam” (lowercase on purpose) become mixed up in the conflict (and in a coming war against aliens invaders). With a ghost-like ability to become invisible (a clever construction of the world they inhabit), the two kids move about largely undetected.

     This “ghost cap” plays a part in several of the game’s puzzles. When invisible, “surviveor” can’t interact with much of anything. When visible, however, he’s quickly caught (if anybody is nearby to notice). As he searches for an exit from the complex (hoping to avoid his arch enemy in the process), the backdrop story moves forward or backwards by way of a “node ripper” device. It’s a bit like time travel, but to say more would be to say too much.

     The game’s puzzles fit well with the story. Most are logical, although I struggled with a few of them. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the explosives (I needed a hint), but it made perfect sense after I saw the answer. In another spot (while suspended on a grating above an invisible “memoryblam” and an alien), I had the right idea but just didn’t perform the proper action. Another spot, involving the use of a “cold suit,” was made difficult because I attempted to control the thing with buttons and levers instead of a more direct imperative (I suspect better cluing might have been the key there). Most notably (and disappointingly), the endgame requires visualizing the area on top of a hill in order to take an unclued and unprompted action. My mental image was evidently off, because I needed another of the built-in hints here as well.

     The game has many puzzles, though, and most work pretty well. Even though the hints helped in those few instances, I never felt a reliance on them. Even after asking for help, I was able to progress quite a ways on my own until the next too-tough spot. What hurt most was just my inability to visualize several areas of the game. I don’t know if this was the writer’s fault or my own, but I haven’t had such difficulties in most of the other games this year.

     Something about Robert’s writing has always struck me as a little off, but I never can pinpoint exactly what it is. In prior games, it seemed to be long or confusing sentences, or maybe problems with punctuation. In My Mind’s Mishmash, nothing stands out as wrong per se. It’s just... lacking in color? Dry? Matter-of-fact without any warmth or excitement? His stories aren’t dull. His games are fun. He has a way with world-building and puzzles. But... something about the writing just makes it all less effective than it should be. I never noticed much technically wrong with this one -- just a few minor mistakes here and there -- but something about it keeps it from evoking the intended excitement of thrilling chases, epic battles, and awe-inspiring scenery.

     Although the game is well constructed in general (with a few bugs -- I’ll talk briefly about those coming up), two particular non-standard design decisions struck me as odd. First, rooms (or locations) aren’t given titles. Initially, this made map-keeping a little more difficult, but since room titles do appear on Adrift’s built-in auto-map, this might only be a problem for players with a non-standard Adrift runner. Also, the game never enters an “ending” state. This one could have something to do with the premise itself, but if so, I wasn’t quite convinced (and it seems to me that it would work just as well with a traditional ending routine). In essence, even when the game ends (or reaches an earlier losing ending), Adrift is still taking commands as if nothing happened. Granted, you can’t do much of anything (you’re given suggestions to reload, restart, or undo), but the traditional “game over” condition is oddly absent.

     It certainly feels polished in most areas, but a few bugs (or areas for improvement) are present in the competition version. Disambiguation difficulties prevent referencing a “node” when carrying the node ripper. The two sections of the complex are termed “northwest” and “southeast” at one point, even though on the map they appear to be “northeast” and “southwest.” I’m told to test out a mine cart even after I already have. The laptop can’t be called “computer.” The ghost cap prevents me from talking to “memoryblam,” even though he can talk to me. A few other small quirks are noted in my transcripts, but this one stands out as a disappointing bit of irony:

     memoryblam is blocking the northern exit and he raises his gun in your direction. Running away might be a good option now.

     >run away
     Why would you want to run?

     memoryblam shoots you before you can do anything else. You have not survived...

     None of these issues keep the game from being enjoyable and recommendable, although a post-competition update would be ideal.

     By the end, most of the two blended stories make sense. There is, however, a bit of a mystery shrouding “surviveor’s” world. The answers may lie in subtle clues encountered along the way -- a bit about homework, a bit about the scarcity of books, a bit about privacy, and the nature of My Mind’s Mishmash in general -- but I never quite worked it all out. I get the gist of it, and the game makes it clear what’s going on. That’s enough to enjoy the story, but I still wondered a little about the world not seen.

     I voted it a “9” at two hours, but a few more difficulties later in the game bring the “review” score down one point. A “plus” for some cool in-game gadgets, fun puzzles, and a really intriguing sci-fi premise make it an “8+” on my judging scale.

Game #26: Press [Escape] to Save
By Mark Jones
Played On: October 12th (1 hour 30 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 4

     Game’s Blurb:
     Not even that command works. or A story demonstrating society.

     Press [Escape] to Save is Mark’s first work of interactive fiction, marred by many of the problems first-time authors encounter. The author describes it as an experiment, in order to help him get a feel for game design. He offers that his future games will be better, although this suggestion trails off in a suspicious ellipsis, making me think he’s not entirely convinced he’ll write another game (but I could be mistaken). Entries by first-time IF authors have done quite well in the IFComp over the years, but many fall short -- as does this one. It’s usually foreboding when an author writes in terms of regret before the game has really even gotten underway.

     The story seems to be an attempt at surrealism. Although I’m finding this harder to buy into as I play more similarly-styled games, it’s still interesting in its own right. The PC and a bunkmate are rescued from prison by a strangely glowing “person,” taken to this person’s residence (converted from an old base on Mars), and sent on a mission into the “mind dimension” to disrupt an ad hoc siphon on the pool of knowledge. The game starts out with minimal (if any) puzzles, seeming to be strictly story-based. Once the actual mission starts, however, things get more complicated.

     Because the author is interested in design, much of this review will focus on that -- starting with what’s good. The story is pretty original, although at its heart it’s just “go on a strange quest for a strange person.” A built-in ASCII map to the “mind dimension” is a nice bonus, and it makes that area more manageable than it might otherwise have been. It’s also appropriately IFComp-sized.

     One thing I particularly like about well-designed IF is attention to detail. If something is mentioned in a room description, I want to be able to interact with it -- at least by examining, but preferably by whatever action the particular thing suggests of itself. “You don’t need to refer to that” is passable but not ideal. “You don’t see that here” is much worse. I like a degree of freedom to push at the boundaries. If an NPC asks me to follow him north and the room has two other exits, I will probably try not following just to get a better feel for how well the author has anticipated this. This is more common when I play to vote and review (I don’t do nearly as much of this in other kinds of games I play), but an author should always assume a player might try these things accidentally if nothing else. When I refer to a good or bad level of implementation, this is usually my measuring stick.

     P[E]TS basically fails here. Straying from the railroaded path (not that some railroading is necessarily bad -- it just needs to be handled well) sometimes results in blank responses. The only drawer I noticed to be implemented at all is the one drawer where an important item is hidden. All others simply don’t exist in the game world, despite their appearance in room descriptions. Scenery objects are rarely implemented at all, making it easy to know what’s simply not important but hindering believability and confidence in the game world in the process. Plus, it’s too easy to dismiss everything the author hasn’t explicitly drawn attention to, when the increasingly anticipated response is that you can’t see any such thing.

     Developing a rich game world that doesn’t confuse a player with non-essentials is tricky, I know -- but I don’t think the answer is simply to leave those things entirely unimplemented. Every game response is an opportunity to provide back-story and characterization. Every unimportant item is a chance to redirect a player’s attention back to what is important. One trick is to keep descriptions of unimportant scenery fairly short (otherwise it seems important enough to have merited a long description), and to avoid introducing new information in the process. It’s not necessary to describe the intricacies of a shower curtain if the shower curtain isn’t important. By keeping it brief and not mentioning extras that you might also have to implement for added realism (that it’s attached by rings to a long rod, for instance), players are less likely to mistake unimportant items as something more. At the same time, they’re rewarded with a richer, more believable experience. It’s a balance that happens more in the writing than in the design: draw attention toward what’s important and away from what isn’t. Help the player stay focused, but reward (in small ways) his or her attempts to push the limits of your game world.

     Actions suggested by what happens in the text don’t often work in P[E]TS. I tried to scream when an NPC did (just to see what would happen), but it’s not a recognized command. “Rest” isn’t a synonym for “sleep”; the game suggests the former but only understands the latter.

     Knowing the conventions of IF in general and the default grammar of your chosen development language helps. Several times in P[E]TS I was met with inaccurate or misleading responses, not because the author intended it that way but because he simply forgot about (or wasn’t aware of) the default messages.

     An example:

     Hoping that this a dream you climb up nimbly to the top bunk and decide to rest...

     State of Uncosciousness
     No light. No sound. No pictures. No people. Nothing.

     >wake up
     The dreadful truth is, this is not a dream.

     If intentional, the response to “wake up” might be telling. But it isn’t. Essentially, the PC does seem to be dreaming at that point. The author just didn’t anticipate that a player would attempt to wake up, and Inform’s default handling takes over.

     Another, given that the PC is in jail and can’t possibly feel self-confident and chipper:

     >x me
     As good-looking as ever.

     That’s perhaps nit-picky, given that many IF authors forget about “x me” (I’ve done it too). Here’s another example, in locations with water (or when carrying water):

     >drink water
     There's nothing suitable to drink here.

     Perhaps not, given what the water represents, but this doesn’t seem to be intentional. It’s just Inform letting me know that nothing has actually been implement as water. The game also lets you shoot yourself with the gun, but of course nothing untoward results from it.

     Suspension of disbelief must be helped along, especially in a story that requires an abundance of it. This requires a high degree of consistency in the story and the model of the world. P[E]TS seems accidentally inconsistent in several areas. For instance, a key that is initially described as “the weirdest key you ever saw” has an “examine” response that likens it to a magnetic hotel key card. That’s certainly not the weirdest key I’ve ever seen (or can imagine). The body of a decapitated person begins talking later in the game (the key here: no head equals no vocal cords), without even a hint as to how. The PC’s bunkmate is referred to as a “creature” (try talking to him when he’s asleep) without any indication as to why. Noises are described as a matter of routine in some places, but when you “listen,” you hear nothing (except the noises that repeat right after the default message is printed). The “person” is a super-genius, yet his dialogue doesn’t differ in any way (even to suggest a degree of mental superiority). In the “mind dimension,” an exit to the northwest is backtracked by going south (instead of southeast). That might fit with the curvature of the tunnels (or something), but it wasn’t really described in the game.

     After the fairly forward-moving first part, some tricky puzzles (most to do with good timing of actions) had me relying on the walkthrough. I was also stuck because I just didn’t know what my goals were. I remembered that I was supposed to shut down the pump somehow, but I had forgotten the rest of it. At the time, and because I had forgotten, it seemed that I just hadn’t been given guidance at all. It’s there alright, but it’s explained earlier in the game and never reinforced or reintroduced in any way later.

     If this is a story about society (as the author indicates), then I probably missed the point. As best I can tell, knowledge is power and power corrupts. But that’s reaching.

     The writing has an odd appeal, but it’s full of technical problems of various kinds (repeated words, missing words, misspellings, and uncategorized mistakes in general). What stands out more than these problems, however, are the odd choices in words or phrasing from time to time. This makes some of the story unintentionally amusing. It probably loses a little out of context, but here are a few of my favorites:

     The walls are painted with beige wallpaper.
     The room inherits features of regular master bedrooms;
     "Um, we can't start the mission without the key", you say in a common-sense tone.
     You sense a sinister presence in the atmosphere.
     "This is the sad example! Let me explain myself."

     How do you paint wallpaper on? Was this bedroom named as the beneficiary in the wills of several “regular” master bedrooms? What does a common-sense tone sound like? Just how well can this PC sense things in the atmosphere? And hey, I want the happy example! I’m stretching, I know, but these are the kinds of thoughts that popped into my head. The author probably wasn’t going for a comedic tone, but poor word choice can cause unintentional humor. I had an impression -- as wrong as this may very well be -- that the author is either very young or a non-native speaker of English (and maybe both).

     In addition to all that I’ve discussed are several honest to goodness bugs. The game begins in a fixed-width font, and I assumed this to be intentional -- for a particular effect. After viewing the map, however, it switches back to a normal proportional font. What I realized is that the entire game up to that point was fixed-width because fixed-width text in the intro simply failed to set it back. It’s possible to talk to people even though there are no topics to list. When not specifying the key in “unlock door” commands, the game always assumes the “sklorfel” -- even though it can’t unlock anything. Some responses are entirely blank. The game shows too many blank lines in some places, and no blank lines (where needed) elsewhere. Three of the same “programming error” messages are shown in a row when turning on the sink in the bathroom.

     As bugs go, these are minor. It’s just that the combined effect of all these things -- iffy writing, sparse implementation, inconsistencies and bugs -- result in a game that isn’t nearly up to the standards set by most of its competition. As much effort as the author put into it, and as much fun as it could be, I suspect it will still rank near the bottom in the final results. Even though I can find enough good in Press [Escape] to Save to keep it out of the “very bad” category in my increasingly obsolete* scoring guidelines, it’s still only a “4”.

     To the author: If you’re interested, email me for my transcript, which points out several things in a bit more detail. And keep at it. If you like writing IF, keep writing IF. I believe that your future games will improve.

     * In years past, I’m sure I wasn’t nearly so critical. A paragraph could summarize what I “look for” in a game at each score level. But these guidelines -- kept with minor revisions for this year but in serious need of abandonment in future competitions -- assume that most aspects of a game are on an equal level. In other words, for a game to be great, it should have a great story, great puzzles (if there are puzzles), great writing, a great concept... and more. If a game is average, then the story will be average, the puzzles will be tricky and sometimes unclued, the writing will have some problems... etc. In reality, that’s not always how it goes. A game with a wonderful story can have bad puzzles. A game with great writing can be based on a lousy concept. Getting down into the details of how each area fares without regard to the others might give me a more legitimate score, but I simply haven’t decided what kind of judging criteria I should adopt in future competitions. I need something to be sure each game is judged fairly and to the same standards as every other, but I haven’t yet decided what this should be.

Game #27: Adventure XT
By Paul Panks (writing as “dunric”)
Played On: October 13th (2 hours 0 minutes)
Platform: PowerBASIC (Compiled MS-DOS Executable)
Merk’s Score: 2

     Game’s Blurb:
     Adventure XT is an adventure set in the fabled land of Blarg.

     I didn’t play Adventure XT exactly how Paul Panks intended it to be played. With his previous entry this year (Ghost of the Fireflies), I had tried to recompile it in QB 4.5 so that I could add a transcript ability to the game. That one proved too big to even load in the QB environment, and I never got it working with the demo version of PowerBASIC either (it disables loading and saving of program source, and trying to paste the source into the editor proved to be a mess). Adventure XT is a little smaller, though, and I was able to load and recompile it in QB.

     I made two minor changes. First, I changed the color scheme to gray-on-blue. The green-on-green style that’s hard-coded into the program was none too easy on the eyes. Second, I found verb definitions in a data section near the end, and I changed “examine” to “x”. If I had needed to type “examine” throughout the game, I’d have been very disappointed.

     Then, with QuickBASIC 4.5, I recompiled it. This had the added benefit of handling standard output the right way (where PowerBASIC, for whatever reason, builds its own I/O without regard to traditional DOS stdout). This allowed me to run the game as “ADVXT.EXE > OUT.TXT” which redirects all output to a log file called “out.txt” instead of the screen. If that sounds like jargon, it’s basically a way that I could run a transcript of actual game output, where the game otherwise has no transcript ability at all. It’s a crutch, I know, but I like to record and annotate a transcript as I play IF, since it helps me review everything that happens later.

     But, with output to a file instead of the screen, I needed one more piece. Using a trial version of “Hoo WinTail” (a pretty slick Windows program that works like the Linux “tail -f” command, but with some bells and whistles), I could monitor the log file in real time, shrink the game window itself to just a single line (for input) positioned under the WinTail window, and play the game much like the Adrift and Quest layouts provide. (Incidentally, this made my gray-on-blue customization unnecessary.) I set WinTail’s refresh rate to one-tenth of a second, turned off the separating red-line option that is otherwise shown before each new section, increased the font size, and voila. I had a game to play that’s still everything it was to begin with, but in a more accessible way.

     That’s probably the most fun I had with the entire game.

     Each game Paul Panks writes seems to be the reinvention of his prior games. This is true enough in the reuse and reorganization of familiar story elements (dragons, swords, flat characters that call you “knave” a little too frequently), but even the program seems to be written from scratch. In one game, Paul will support “x” for “examine.” In the next, he won’t. In one game, the response to unrecognized commands is meaningless. In the next (as is the case here, thankfully), the game is able to compare input against known verbs and nouns and at least tell the player which one was unrecognized. Paul seems to have no standard, no re-usable code, no design methodology -- just a twenty-years-outdated point of reference and a penchant for rewriting essentially the same game in different ways.

     Ghost of the Fireflies was broken, but it had a much more interesting story and some trippy, descriptive writing. Adventure XT is almost entirely generic, with room descriptions that scarcely cover the basics, let alone evoke a sense of wonder and excitement. Jesus of Nazareth (perhaps the best and most playable game Paul has written in these past few years) had a sense of style and purpose -- a creative energy that is completely lacking in Adventure XT. Complete sections of this game seem to serve no purpose, consisting merely of similarly-described but empty locations (the burnt forest comes to mind).

     Paul’s goal -- and I’m guessing here, as the game wasn’t accompanied by any of the author’s traditional notes or commentaries -- seems to have been to create a game that’s simple to play and accessible to all. It really doesn’t have puzzles. At most, it’s necessary to find certain items that allow progress. Having a rope, for instance, allows one to climb trees (the “up” direction then works). Having a lantern (with oil) allows one to travel in dark areas. Picking up items is about the extent of it.

     One interesting addition to inventory management (which, most likely, won’t make an appearance in Paul’s next few games since each one is written from scratch) is the container concept. A knapsack, and later a backpack, can be used to hold items that would otherwise exceed the inventory limit. I found this to work reasonably well, although this kind of thing is already inherent to IF programming languages.

     But this is about as deep as the implementation goes. Only creatures and items can be examined. No scenery is implemented -- if you need to interact with it in any way, it will be listed following the room description. Water is implemented as a separate item, so even though you need the bottle to get water, the bottle actually remains empty and the water just kind of “floats” there in your inventory. For that matter, the water is described as both drinkable and undrinkable, depending on what you look at. Only one verb is allowed for any command, because they’re in a rigid and numbered list. It also seems that only one noun is valid for any given item as well (seemingly for the same reason), so that “knapsack” can never be referred to simply as “sack.” You can only drink water from the fountain in the village. Another fountain, found later, has water but the game doesn’t seem to realize it. You can’t put oil in the lantern, because it too just sort of floats in your inventory (possibly in a flask, but I’m not entirely sure -- it just says “oil”) to enable the lantern to work.

     A thirst countdown is generously lengthy, but still needless. The game doesn’t even try to discourage the slaughter of innocent NPC’s. Everybody is fair game, it seems, and there is nothing in the way of characterization (except maybe for the Smurfs -- and I’m coming to that) for any of them. Swap the name of one with the name of another, and you’d probably never know the difference. Turn-based combat works okay here, but you can’t cancel it or run away (if you can, I missed it), and it’s the same thing Paul has done in every other game. Opponents are sometimes said to have “massacred you into small fragments,” yet you live on with plenty of HP to spare. “Get food and wine” says “ok” even though it really only understood “get food” (I only tried this because Ghost of the Fireflies told me it would work, but it didn’t, so I thought maybe Paul got the two games confused when writing the instructions).

     What Smurfs are doing in Adventure XT, I can’t possibly fathom. It’s as though Paul woke up one day, forgot what game he was writing, watched an episode on TV, laughed a bit, and then designed a whole section where you pass by Papa Smurf and Brainy Smurf on the way to Gargamel’s castle to “steal” Azrael the cat so that Handy Smurf can use him as a rug and provide the master-weapon required to defeat the actual boss, Mordimar. (Edit: The inclusion of Smurfs has led to Adventure XT being disqualified from this year’s competition.)

     I made a map as I went along. This is necessary to avoid getting lost in the game’s large maze-like geography. I noticed later that an ASCII map is embedded in the source code, but as far as I can tell, no verb in the entire game will display it.

     I don’t really have much else to say about Adventure XT. I’m probably being more critical and less compassionate for this one than any of Paul’s prior games. This could be because I’m nearly to the end of my random play list and I’ve grown a little cranky. Or, it might just be that Adventure XT is a disappointment on every level. I’ve scored it a “2” (not a “1”), basically because it’s simple (with mapping) and playable but not much else. At least some effort has gone into it, but it still feels like the product of a Random Idea Generator that simply cranked out an arbitrary setting to comprise a large number of empty locations. I won’t say Paul phoned this one in, but it’s by no means his best or most creative work.

Game #28: Across the Stars
By “Dark Star” & Peter Mattsson
Played On: October 14th & 15th (5 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 9+

     Game’s Blurb:
     The Xulthe'en Empire recruited you for duty. But this enlistment will take you Across The Stars.

     You think you hear a fizzle and a pop, but ever since coming back from zero gravity training you've been hearing strange sounds every now and then.

     (Plugh and Plover offer the same response.)

     Wow. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect that the last game on my random play list would rival my former favorite for “top game” this year. It’s nice to end the competition on such a high note, with such a great (if oversized) entry.

     The biggest criticism I have of Across the Stars is that the authors forgot this was a competition for short Interactive Fiction -- or maybe they just ignored that. It’s not the longest game I played in this year’s IFComp, but I do wish future entrants would tighten things up and aim for a game that can be completed in two hours. I think the only way to finish Across the Stars in two hours is to use the walkthrough or “InvisiClues” extensively.

     The game comes with feelies: a “sample” transcript that makes for a good introductory primer for the IF command line (plus good back-story in general); a .PDF file containing a ship map, sign-up papers and so forth; a simulated blog (HTML pages) that make for interesting pre-game reading (without really spoiling anything or having any real bearing on the playable story); a printable crewman’s ID badge; a “synopsis.txt” file; desktop wallpaper graphics; a spoilery map of later game areas; “InvisiClues” in a separate zcode executable. I spent twenty-five minutes before making a single in-game move just reading through these things (except the full map and the “InvisiClues,” since I didn’t want spoilers). That’s a sizable bite taken out of the two-hour voting limit, but it definitely gives the game a more serious, professional quality.

     In Across the Stars you are a new crewman on a deep space vessel, part of the Xulthe'en Armada. The authors have developed an interesting back-story for this future galaxy, where humanity prospers after meeting an alien race known as the “Zal'tacs” some twenty thousand years prior to the start of the game.

     Assuming this is measured in Earth years (it’s never suggested otherwise, and this comes from “synopsis.txt”), that’s an amazingly long period of time (could just as easily be a million bazillion gazillion years). What I mean is that twenty thousand years should have changed everything. It shouldn’t feel like Star Trek, which is believably set just three or four hundred years from now. This is a peeve more than a complaint, but you can’t have humanity trade technology with aliens, thereby kick-starting us to a new era of enlightenment, and then still have things work pretty much the way they do now (plus space ships) after twenty thousand years of elapsed history.

     When I think about future settings, I use the past as a point of reference. Given the state of technology and society 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago -- 1000 years ago -- at what likely point in the future could this eventuality come? Consider, too, that science and technology improve more rapidly now than in centuries past. How long does it take for empires to form and fall? How long before the past is forgotten, made all but irrelevant by twenty thousand years of new history? Even two thousand years is stretching it (just consider the state of humanity two thousand years in our past -- the year 7 AD).

     Anyway, that’s just a small peeve. It’s really all about this one adventure. Across the Stars is a puzzle-heavy game. The back-story gives it flavor, but nothing much from the introductory material makes it into the game. This is a shame, since it might have been interesting to meet Lucius Winterson, or to find that Mary Ann, Zed or the PC’s missing dad make surprise appearances later on. Malice Prime might be a nice place to visit...

     The puzzles, though, are what really make this game. As hard as the game seems at times, it works. Aside from using the “THINK” command a few times (which basically just confirmed whether or not the goal I thought I should be working towards was really the same one the game wanted me to focus on), I only needed the “InvisiClues” (hints) in one spot -- never the map, never the walkthrough. This one spot was late in the game, where I needed to figure out how to get past four spirits. I didn’t even need the hints to help with that -- I just needed to find out that I had missed a room due to overlooking the importance of a depression in a wall at the end of one hallway. That’s it.

     It’s hard to predict how well the game’s puzzles will work for others, but I found them just bordering on too hard without quite going beyond. This makes the reward -- the feeling of satisfaction after solving them -- all the better. At times, when a seemingly wild idea worked, I would “UNDO” just to see if I could determine whether success was only a fortunate fluke. Usually, I found that the game supported a larger number of alternate commands and phrasings, where having the right idea but coming up with a wrong way to express it was less likely. This smoothness failed me sometimes (most notably near the end, when I tried to pry a panel open to no avail, until I just realizing I could just “open” it without added effort), but not often.

     The game is richly implemented, where scenery actually works and things referenced in descriptions of scenery are implemented. It just gets deeper from there. This too failed me sometimes, but not often. This is probably how I found every important but hidden thing (except for the wall depression, which I mentioned already). Because there was so much to see, I looked everywhere. In a way, this is one of the keys to solving Across the Stars: be thorough and look everywhere.

     I also found myself doing the right things in the right places (aside from a little stumbling around during some timed sections that lead to death near the start), seemingly as if I could read the authors’ minds, even when these things didn’t seem suggested in the text. (STOP HERE and skip to the next paragraph to avoid puzzle spoilers.) These are things like throwing the torch at both monsters, pouring coffee on a malfunctioning machine, pushing a crate, lowering myself into a pit on a grappling hook, and setting the detonator at just the right place. Most likely, these things were clued, whether subtly or by way of being similar to actions that were encountered earlier. Whatever the reason, Across the Stars has some of the most satisfying yet solvable puzzles of any entry this year.

     Across the Stars also has one of the coolest tricks for PC gender determination I’ve seen. Instead of making the PC gender-neutral by way of having no name or a gender-neutral name, the PC’s name is found misprinted on an ID badge. The badge says “An Darington,” but maybe it’s supposed to be “Ann” or “Dan” or something else. Later, the player is allowed to choose between two sexually provocative NPC’s -- one male, the other female -- and this sets the gender of a different NPC that can join the mission shortly after.

     My transcripts have a few nit-picky comments about the game, but not many. Some are to do with implementation. When drink buttons and food buttons are labeled differently, why is it necessary to specify which machine the specific button you’re pushing exists on, as part of the command? There is a bug here, too, since the tea and water buttons seem to assume I mean coffee every time. The cleaning robot had potential that was never used. I also noted very few minor typos.

     Others are to do with possible plot holes. (STOP HERE and skip to the next paragraph to avoid story spoilers.) If everybody else was simply beamed off the ship by pirates, how was the PC spared? Also, why were there signs of a struggle? If that’s not what happened, and the crew really was taken by force, then the first question still lacks an answer, and it raises another: How is it that the pirates only arrive (seemingly for the first time) a few turns later, after everybody else is already gone? On the planet, if there is a limit to the creature’s illusion-inducing range (as there seems to be), why did the cave look like a temple from so far away? Why does the other Captain seem so incapable of taking action and making decisions, leaving everything up to an untried and untested cadet? If pirates don’t attack in this section of space (the OmniTrans says so), then why did they attack? Is it to do with the mysterious crates (one at the beginning, the other at the end)? If so, what’s in them? Why was the PC’s Captain given a transmission regarding an imminent collision marked for his eyes only? Isn’t this the kind of thing -- even if it involved pirates -- that some other crew members should be made aware of as well? It’s possible these things do have answers -- even answers within the game -- but if so, I missed it.

     If I could ask for anything more of Across the Stars it would be for a little more originality. Of the two creatures on the planet, one seems a little like Star Wars’ Sarlac pit and the other seems a little like a creature from Dune (even sharing the same name). Both are a little too similar to each other. Space pirates are standard stuff, too. It just feels like well-trodden territory, even in areas where it may not be.

     Some of the game is optional. It’s possible to overlook or bypass some areas and challenges, particularly on the planet, for a lower score. Somehow I found almost everything in my first play-through, earning 145 points of a possible 150. A tip in the end-game “AMUSING” list helped me find the final 5. The ending remains the same with 100 points, 145, or all 150, so I’m surprised that some sections can be bypassed or overlooked. This includes some of the game’s most interesting puzzles, so it seems like an odd decision to make it optional and fail to reward players with a different ending.

     Maybe because I’m a sucker for Trek-like sci-fi (despite my longing for something less derivative), or maybe because I found the puzzles challenging without being too obscure, or maybe because it was so well polished, I realized even at two hours that I really liked Across the Stars. I voted it a “9”. I considered a “10” at the end (as my unofficial review score), and it was a tough decision to keep my prior frontrunner in first place. Ultimately, as nicely done as Across the Stars is, my other favorite wins out with successful humor, a novel plot, and a well-crafted PC that never breaks character. Still, Across the Stars gets a “9+” from me, and that bumps the two games I had pegged for second and third place down one notch each.

     Every year, I seem to thoroughly enjoy one game that receives lukewarm responses elsewhere. Across the Stars might be the under-appreciated gem of IFComp 2007. I hope it ranks in the top five. I’ll be disappointed if it’s not in the top 10.

Wrap-Up to Mike Snyder’s IF-COMP 2007 Review Journal (11/16/2007)

     I had intended to write this before the results were announced, but I didn’t quite make it. Even with fewer games this year (the initial 29 were reduced to 27 after two disqualifications), I just beat the voting deadline. Just barely.

     I went through periods of crankiness this year, but overall I had a blast (as usual). My scores don’t seem to suggest that quality was down this year, but in some ways it feels that way. I don’t think that’s it, though. I just think that with all things being equal, fewer games means fewer great games.

     I’m pleased that my top four favorites (in a different order) are the top four finishers. I’m also impressed by the Adrift entries more this time than in years past. It’s a shame there were no Hugo entries, and I’m disappointed I didn’t have the time to enter one this year.

     At several points in the past six weeks, I’ve regretted sticking with the same scoring criteria I’ve used before. Looking back to last year, I see that I had intended to revamp it for 2007 -- but I forgot. One problem is that it tries to describe everything I look for in games at different levels, which really can never be complete. Another is that it usually assumes all aspects (writing, story, puzzles, design, polish, whatever) are equal in a given game. Sometimes, that’s just not the case. I don’t know what kind of criteria I’ll use next year. It might be attribute-based. Then again, I might just simplify it and vote instinctively, although I do prefer some sort of guideline so I know I’m being equally fair to all games.

     This year saw a change in the rules, where judges are no longer asked to hold off on reviews and discussions (posted in public places) until after the competition. Even so, it seems there wasn’t much discussion. Reviews were a little easier to find, and some reader comments followed some blog or forum posts, but there was no chatter in the newsgroup and not much in those other places. Maybe the rule change will take a year or two to sink in, or maybe (like me) most judges just wanted to play and vote without looking at others’ opinions first.

     Nobody entered a “joke” game this year. That was a (pleasant) surprise.

     First time authors (and even repeat entrants) shouldn’t underestimate the importance of beta-testing. Some bad games that might have been good (and some good games that might have been great) were brought down because of problems that could have been eliminated with more (even just some) testing. That’s true every year, but it bears repeating.

     I have also posted my reviews (or earlier drafts) to the Interactive Fiction Forum at www.intfiction.org. IFComp comments, disagreements, discussions and other reviews are welcome!

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