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IFCOMP 2008 Reviews - Full Journal

Introduction to Mike Snyder’s IF-COMP 2008 Review Journal (09/30/2008)

     The annual Interactive Fiction Competition is almost upon us. I had hoped to enter this year, but once again, “stuff” prevented it. Last year, it was a crazy work schedule. This year it was a semi-crazy work schedule plus newborn twins -- and to be completely honest, maybe a tinge of laziness too.

     I am revising my scoring system in a major way this year. In prior years, my system was an attempt to describe what kind of game would be a “10” or a “9” or an “8”... all the way down to “1”. I probably could have omitted the descriptions and just used intuition to rank each entry, to the same effect. I’m going for a more structured and less ambiguous ranking system this year, where each game is scored points in multiple categories. It’s still a little verbose, but with luck, it will make voting easier.

     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 (whenever possible), and in the order played. They’ll form a sort of “judge’s journal” as a result. I’ll also run transcripts for games that support it. These will be available to each author for his or her own game, upon request.

My 2008 IFComp Scoring System:

Free Point (F): (0=Unplayable, 1=Playable)
0 points if the game is not playable (disqualified before playing, obscure platform, crashes on start-up, etc). 1 point if it’s playable enough to be judged and voted.

Technical / Implementation (T): (0=Bad, 1=Fair/Good, 2=Great)
0 points if the game is buggy, poorly tested, broken, or implemented only at a basic level (just the minimum to support the core of the game). 1 point if the game works well enough to demonstrate technical competency, doesn’t seem to be just a “bare-bones” implementation, and works without exhibiting numerous problems or major frustrations. 2 points if the game excels on a technical level, where the game feels more alive and real because it’s responsive, well-coded, well-designed, and does a great job at handling most commands.

Puzzles / Interactivity (P): (0=Bad, 1=Fair/Good, 2=Great)
0 points if the game lacks interactivity at even a good CYOA level, or if there is little to no point to this aspect of the game. 1 point if the puzzles are okay but could be better (maybe they’re average or below, too lacking in originality, poorly-clued or unfair, too simple, or in a game without puzzles, if the interaction is only moderately meaningful or interesting). 2 points if the puzzles are interesting, original, and fairly clued (or, in a puzzle-less game, for great and perhaps novel interactivity).

Story / Purpose (S): (0=Bad, 1=Fair/Good, 2=Great)
0 points if the game has no plot, a throw-away plot (“generic knight searches for the generic Wonder Sword and does generic stuff while battling generic RPG monsters” for instance), or no discernable purpose. 1 point if the plot is worthwhile and entertaining (but not necessarily all that it might be), or if the story isn’t the point, if the game’s “purpose” works as intended. 2 points if the story is engaging and imaginative, fresh, unexpected, and well-told (or in a game purposely lacking a story, if something highly worthwhile takes its place).

Writing: (W) (0=Bad, 1=Fair/Good, 2=Great)
0 points if the text is poorly composed, unintentionally choppy, or grammatically error-ridden in an accidental way. 1 point if the writing succeeds with little to no problem, but doesn’t inspire or seems to lack imagination. 2 points if the writing is immersive, expressive, vivid, entertaining, exciting, fresh -- in short, really worth reading.

Reviewer Bonus (B): (0=No Bonus, 1=Bonus)
In prior years, this took the form of half- or full-point skews to the score or a plus/minus designation to the score. This year, a bonus point will be given for the same reasons. It may be given to a great effort from a first-time participant, or for “something” particularly enjoyable that doesn’t necessarily factor into the rest of the score. It may be given when “2” just isn’t high enough for some aspect of the previous four categories. It will probably also be given to my favorite of the competition, especially since it’s the only way a game can garner a “10” using this system.

Composite (SCORE): (1=Horrible … 6=Average … 10=Excellent)
The above points are added to create the composite, resulting in a score from 1 to 10. Games which can’t even be given the Free Point are not ranked or voted.

     Example: F:1 + T:2 + P:1 + S:1 + W:2 + B:0 = SCORE: 7

Game #1: Afflicted
Author: Doug Egan
Played On: October 1st (1 hour 35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:2 + P:1 + S:1 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 8

     Game’s Blurb:
     This isn't the safest neighborhood. A young woman was abducted near here only recently. But as a city sanitarian you are obligated to complete your annual inspection of the local dive.

     You break mimesis to pay your respects to Will Crowther.

     The first game in every IFComp is always the toughest to score and review. My enthusiasm from the prior year has given way to other responsibilities, and (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve fallen into the bad habit of playing little to no Interactive Fiction in the spanning months. I tend to feel a little out of sorts with the first game, uncertain whether I’m being too critical or not critical enough. This year is even tougher, because I’ve adopted a new rating system that may keep my votes bottom-heavy if I’m too stingy with and protective of the 2’s.

     This is demonstrated perfectly by Doug Egan’s Afflicted. The writing is fine. The story is fine. The puzzles are fine (although they don’t extend much further than basic exploration and observation). It’s a technically sound game. But if no aspect of the game is “great,” it can be no higher than a “5” (or a “6” if given the bonus point) by my new scoring system. So, what really merits a categorical 2? Excellence? Or just anything that feels a step above mediocre?

     It’s obvious that the game’s core theme is intentionally hidden by the author, and I won’t spoil it here. That it becomes increasingly grim and disturbing should be enough to set the tone. At times, though, what’s probably meant to be macabre seems a little silly. It succeeds most of the time, and does offer up some gruesome imagery, but every once in a while it just seems more odd than shocking. (I’ve never, for instance, encountered any game in which the protagonist can experience the aftertaste of urine.)

     Before it goes full-on weird, it does a great job of putting the player in the role of a restaurant health and safety inspector. The premise seemed dull at the outset, but before long I was smirking and happily noting every violation I could come across – and actively seeking them out, no less. This is pretty important, because the story begins to open up as you encounter more violations and as you start to suspect the truth of things.

     The story’s biggest flaw is that it seems to rely on the player to carry on with the same sense of duty as the protagonist. That’s fine at first, but it’s hard to believe that any sane and rational-minded human being would carry on with his little notepad to the extent that this protagonist must. If there’s a legitimate reason beyond just an inflated sense of “being thorough,” it doesn’t come across in the story. I was already ready to bail out, yet the game insisted that I hadn’t yet completed my duty. To hell with duty. I’d have bolted to my car the moment the ice in the sink melted.

     The story’s second biggest flaw is that certain losing endings should probably go a little differently. In particular, it’s possible to get arrested. But, it’s possible to get arrested while carrying things that should raise a few eyebrows (or at least some kind of explanation in the ending). It’s not so much that the core story is on rails (I don’t mind this in most games), but there are a number of implausible circumstances (why isn’t the PC pursued down the hall, for instance) even discounting the supernatural.

     It’s a solid implementation, for the most part. I was pleased (especially early on) that many optional (and non-obvious) actions were anticipated by the author. The game was clearly tested and polished prior to release. I only encountered two sticking points, but they were pretty important sticking points.

     In the first, I couldn’t figure out how to make use of something found in a first aid kit. The pressure mounts, and each turn counts, yet I fumbled with the right verb or action to make it work. It turns out that some simple (and even obvious) phrasings work fine, but what I tried wasn’t outrageous or anything. I imagined the PC fumbling around the way I was, so it kind of worked for the story, but probably not as the author intended. In the second case, I tried to reassemble something the wrong way, to no obvious affect. I was missing, hmm… “joining” pieces, so to speak, but was left with the feeling that this just wasn’t something the game supported and I was on the wrong track. Later, thankfully, I tried again with better results. An opportunity was missed there, though, to clue the player and give a little hope for later.

     The protagonist can accumulate an inventory of generally useless stuff -- things encountered while noting violations, primarily. I hesitate to call them “red herrings” because they may be pieces of alternate puzzle solutions, but in my play-through (and selected re-plays) I never found uses. This leaves them feeling like red herrings, even if that’s not the case.

     There is one thing in particular the protagonist must do to advance the story, yet it’s something I suspect most players will try to avoid on subsequent play-throughs (or even UNDO to before it), yet I couldn’t find an alternative. I think there probably is an alternative, but I didn’t find it. Something obvious (using one of the items in inventory) didn’t work for me. And the game didn’t really give a good reason why it wouldn’t.

     All in all, I came away with the impression of a good, competently constructed game. I’m scoring it an optimistic “2” on writing -- its strongest quality -- although I expect even better from some of those I’ve yet to play. All other categories get a solid “1” (including the bonus point, just in case I’m being too tough on this year’s first entry), for a composite score of “7.”

     Update: After playing far too many poorly-tested, broken games after this one, I have bumped the implementation score up to “2” for a composite score of “8.”

Game #2: Riverside
Authors: Jeremy Crockett and Victor Janmey (Drew, Jeremy, and Vic)
Played On: October 4th (55 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:0 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 3

     It took three people to write Riverside? Really?

     The game starts promisingly enough, with a brief but provocative “wish” sequence, followed by some sort of mystery based around a friend’s murder. The writing is adequate (if a bit lengthy in spots), and it does a good job of building high expectations for the story proper. Although sparsely implemented (descriptions are painted on in many cases, and scenery doesn’t exist as objects in the game world), nothing suggests that Riverside will turn out to be the lead-in for... for what?

     It’s a joke entry, most likely. Last year’s competition was surprisingly lacking in these, yet I fear this year (if upcoming titles and blurbs are any indication) may see an abundance of them. In some ways, it almost feels like the beginning of a serious entry that became a joke simply because the authors wanted to submit it but couldn’t come close to finishing in time. Unless they explain, that’s anybody’s guess.

     In short, there isn’t much to see or do here. A couple of introductory scenes offer enough interactivity to feel convincingly serious, but then it ends in the most jarring and cavalier of ways just before things should start to ramp up. It’s not just that it’s an abrupt ending; it’s that the ending thumbs its proverbial nose at the player, abandons continuity, lapses into what seems to be mockery, and does little but offer insight into some further absurdity that was there all along (a hidden verb, which can be used twice in the first scene and once in the second, but is oddly missing from the last section).

     So what’s Riverside, exactly? The authors’ idea of a joke, I guess. It’s certainly not a game that’s worth playing or recommending. It’s time wasted -- time that could have been spent playing and reviewing the next entry.

     As for scoring, I’ve given it a “1” for writing (excluding the crazy bit at the very end, which is like that on purpose but to no fathomable reason) and a “1” for puzzles (they amount to little but looking and moving around, but it’s a very small fraction above what I’d consider a zero). It gets, of course, the base point, but all else is zero. That’s a generous “3” from me. I don’t think the authors were after a high ranking anyway.

Game #3: Snack Time! (An Interactive Break for a Bite)
Authors: “Hardy the Bulldog” and Renee Choba
Played On: October 5th (35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:2 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 6

     Game’s Blurb:
     Can you help one hungry bulldog in his quest to find something good to eat? He would like that. A lot.

     Snack Time! is a cute, super-short diversion. It’s maybe too short, even by IFComp standards. The concept (PC is an animal), while done before in previous competitions, could stand for a little meatier treatment. The game is everything it sets out to be, which is to say it’s not incredibly ambitious.

     Being told from Hardy’s viewpoint, things are described in very general terms. A couch is “the long soft thing.” An oven and a refrigerator are “a thing that gets hot” and “a box that stays cold,” respectively. The television is “the box of light.” It’s all put into context, though. What these things really are is obvious from the text, and the game accepts the appropriate English names just fine. Parts of the text can be a little hard to visualize on a first pass (and even a little clunky to read), but it’s effective overall.

     Plus, it’s all smooth enough until the end. Putting yourself in Hardy’s place isn’t hard, and the game recognizes the kinds of actions typical of dogs. This makes some actions that would be non-intiutive in any other game (jumping up on a something, biting something, begging, etc) fair as elements of the game’s relatively lightweight puzzles. It’s also pretty good about recognizing unimportant actions. Hardy is prevented from doing the more aggressive things in reaching his goal, but the game usually understands them.

     In giving Snack Time! the highest mark for Implementation, I’ve had to judge the game’s responsiveness separate from the difficult bit at the end (which, in scoring, factors more into the puzzles than the implementation). Each achievement is worth ten points (of a perfect fifty). The final two achievements (gained simultaneously at the end, where the second is optional) were harder to come by. Part of the reason is that a very strong clue for what Hardy must do at the end is seemingly seen only if you don’t move a certain item before “Pet” has a chance to encounter it. If you leave it alone, wake “Pet” and wait a couple turns, something happens that’s a strong and important clue for the endgame.

     Without that clue, however, it’s pretty difficult to know what to do without stumbling on the answer by accident. For me, it meant checking the hints. I only found that it was clued on a second play-through, and that was by failing to move the item in question. Something is missing there at the end. As the final puzzle -- the final few turns -- it makes sense that the difficulty would rise. The problem, though, is twofold. One, something that should conceivably work (simply taking what you want), doesn’t. That would have been a great spot to give even a vague hint, but the chance was missed. Two, an unfortunate choice in wording can lead one to believe that a specific action (one perhaps even independent of the rest of the game) must be required at just the right moment. The final ten points might be clued in the 40-point ending, but it seems unlikely most players will pick up on the one little bit that might be the clue.

     But it’s cute. And it’s not a bad game by any means. It’s just short, not very ambitious, and potentially hard to crack at the end. It rates a “6” using my self-imposed judging rules, and that puts it right about “average.”

     Renee entered the IFComp in 2005 with History Repeating, another short and sort-of nondescript average kind of game. I’d like to see something longer and more ambitious from this author in the future; something more substantial story-wise.

Game #4: Project Delta: The Course
Author: Emilian Kowalewski
Played On: October 5th (15 minutes)
Platform: Custom (Node-X CYOA Interpreter for Windows)

F:1 + T:1 + P:0 + S:0 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 4

     Game’s Blurb:
     The Course is a short prequel to Project Delta, a CYOA-style text adventure inspired by Area 51 conspiracy theories, set in its own universe and scripted in "Node-X", a game system developed by the author himself.

     Maybe this is the year of the far-too-short game?

     Project Delta: The Course weighs in at just 15 minutes, and part of that comes from experimenting with the various built-in color themes. This is little more than a tech demo for Emilian’s new console-mode CYOA system, Node-X.

     Most of the effort -- well, nearly all of the effort -- went into the development of Node-X rather than the game that’s meant to showcase it. It’s fitting, then, that this review is going to focus primarily on Node-X (and mostly in the form of suggestions). The story, billed as a prequel to a larger upcoming Node-X game, does nothing to distinguish itself or captivate players. An amnesiac military woman is given a very short demonstration of the Node-X interface by a generic military man. It’s not even as entertaining as the introductory interface training in a video game, although presumably it serves the same purpose. Really, there is nothing here. No story. A generic setting. It might get a player interested in Node-X, but nobody is likely to play The Course and develop anticipation or hunger for the as-of-yet unreleased The Assignment.

     So, I’ll focus on the Node-X engine.

     It’s odd that the author chose a console-mode presentation. I suppose there’s nothing here that makes it a bad choice -- only, if it has to be PC-only, a Windows-based or web-based interface would provide more future flexibility. At the risk of self-promotion, I developed something sort of similar to this (CYOA with game saving, inventory, system commands like “examine”, and more) using DHTML and JavaScript. I’ve never released it (it needs a little work, anyway), but since it supports multimedia and works on many platforms, it seems like a better direction to take for a CYOA engine.

     From The Course, it seems the author intends for it to be more for menu-based IF than CYOA. (Mine, incidentally, is the same way. You could do traditional CYOA, but the advanced feature set also lends itself to more traditional IF where there are puzzles and inventory and fewer wildly branching CYOA-style plot lines.) Still, the more IF-like your CYOA becomes, the less justification I can see in a text-only console-mode PC-only implementation.

     Node-X needs a transcript feature, with annotation. My “transcript” for Project Delta: The Course is just a few notes taken in NOTEPAD while playing. This is handy not just for IFComp judges, but for eventual beta-testers of Node-X games. A running transcript, which a player can turn on or off and add comments while playing, would be a nice (and useful) addition.

     An UNDO feature would be nice. My own CYOA engine (sorry, sorry -- it may be bad form to keep referencing it, but it’s my basis for comparison) has this, and it’s just a matter of remembering the previous state (in this case, probably inventory) and returning to the prior page (or “node”).

     An open specification for the game’s binary format (*.NX1) might be a good idea. It would probably be something others could use in creating non-Windows interpreters, and (maybe) even work into multi-format interpreters like Gargoyle or Spatterlight. It will take something like this to gain a wider acceptance within the IF community (assuming that’s even a goal -- and it may be, given that this was submitted to the IFComp).

     I noticed a tendency in The Course to show extra blank options sometimes. I’m not sure what that was all about. A bug? Intentional, as a means of showing that there aren’t any more options? I’m just not sure. It seemed like a bug.

     It’s unfortunate that The Course isn’t an interesting game. The IFComp is a good way to get exposure in the IF Community, and a more worthwhile game could really have been a showcase for Node-X. I’m left with mixed feelings about the interpreter. On the one hand, it does seem to work fine (although in a far less sophisticated way than even the least popular of IF development languages). The author has probably worked as hard on this game as any other of this year’s participants (albeit on the engine, not the game). On the other hand, the “game” itself would be worthless no matter the platform.

     So, what I’ve opted to do is give 1 Technical point (for Node-X itself), 1 Writing point (this is generous -- the writing isn’t horrible, but there are frequent problems and it’s just not very interesting), the free point, and -- both as encouragement to consider my suggestions and because I still have a soft spot for the optimism shown by home-brew authors -- the bonus point. That’s a composite score of “4,” and that’s (sad though it may be) about double what I expect the game’s competition average to be.

Game #5: Ananachronist (A puzzle in four dimensions)
Author: Joseph Strom
Played On: October 5th and 6th (2 hours)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 5

     Game’s Blurb:
     Have you ever wondered about lack of universe-destroying temporal paradoxes? The anthropic principle just not a good enough explanation for you? Here's a short game about how difficult it is to keep the universe non-existence free.

     Assuming that an “anachronist” is somebody who deals with “anachronisms,” there’s an extra “an” at the beginning of this game’s title. Then again, maybe that’s intentional.

     But maybe not. The text is full of little typos of the kind made when the writer is typing in a hurry (check out my forum and newsgroup posts; it’s the exact same thing). If the game wasn’t proofread then it probably wasn’t tested. And if it wasn’t tested, then there is a good chance that what the author sees as obvious and fair will turn out to be obscure and unfair. Beta-testing accomplishes more than just weeding out the bugs. It lets you find out -- before it’s too late -- how actual players are going to interact with your game.

     Ananachronist is probably trying to be a game like All Things Devours or Mobius (or even Orevore Courier with its multiple vantage points that require some trial-and-error), but it never comes together. I’m tempted to say that it never quite comes together, but in many ways it’s not even close. The story bit at the very beginning is interesting, but it serves the unfortunate duty of hiding the player’s goal behind some confusing purple prose. The introduction isn’t bad, but it causes a paradox of its own. It’s only possible to make sense of it after you’ve figured out what your goal is, but you can’t figure out your goal unless you know what the introduction is all about.

     For quite a while, I made modest progress exploring the game’s three different “overlapping” zones. “Exploring” is about all I managed to do, though. I had skipped the tips in the included “readme.txt” for fear of spoilers, but in looking back, I doubt I would ever have tried some of the things it suggested I try. The game gave me no reason to suspect that the three zones could be influenced by each other in those ways. If it did, I completely missed it. It’s probably something the player is supposed to “figure out,” but there has to be some kind of basis for discovering the rules of the game world.

     This is a big enough problem, but Ananachronist has more. When the game does tell you what to do (searching for something in the computer, for instance), it doesn’t actually accept the phrasing it suggests (you must “look up” things in the computer instead). An item that is supposed to work in “line of sight” with a panel actually works only if you “wave” it (and that’s not even something the text suggested). Keep in mind that all the while, the player really has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing. There are miscellaneous things to interact with, but it’s nearly impossible to deduce why you’re interacting with them, what it’s supposed to achieve, or how it all fits together.

     Worse, there is a bit of a problem with consistency that makes even trial-and-error difficult. Take, for instance, the following exchange:

     >touch canvas
     You feel nothing unexpected.

     >open canvas
     You push the flaps aside but they fall back in place. Nothing stops you from just walking through them however.

     >pull canvas
     The canvas simply disintegrates at your touch.

     This would be a minor complaint, except that getting the canvas to disintegrate turns out to be important. But, who’d have thought to even try it, given that it behaved in completely ordinary ways in response to ordinary actions? The game’s entire design proves again and again that the author has everything worked out in a perfectly reasonable way, but he just wasn’t able to translate it into a fair and fun experience for other people.

     One action that the player must perform many times -- putting things on the pedestal -- could benefit from more simplicity. It might have been re-worked as a much shorter action, for instance. It could also be implied that the player intends to remove the current item before placing the next, without requiring that the player do so explicitly.

     Despite the numerous problems -- unclued and misclued puzzles, a lack of discernable goals, unimplemented scenery objects, counter-intuitive actions, and even a few run-time parser errors involving attempts to open and unlock things -- I had high expectations that it was all going to pay off at the end. I finished the game on autopilot (i.e., a restart, and then a cut-and-paste of the game’s walkthrough commands), but it ends with nothing; no explanation, no big congratulations, no clever tying-together of everything that came before. If the journey is the reward, it never even took the scenic route.

     This is a tough one to score. Categories are a toss-up between 0 and 1 (but never 1 and 2). With testing, revision, better clues and a real ending, it could become a pretty playable game. It needs more, though. Even if, as the author says, everything else has been sacrificed for the sake of this one puzzle (and that’s not even accurate; it’s a series of puzzles just like any adventure game), it’s not interesting enough as-is.

     It has what could be a good core concept, but it’s marred by too many problems in the implementation. Rated on what it is, with the benefit of the doubt given for what it could be, I’m rating it a “1” in every category (without the bonus). That’s a composite score of “5.” My gut says “4,” but I’m sticking with my rating system.

Game #6: Opening Night
Author: David Batterham
Played On: October 7th (1 hour 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:2 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     You stepped off the streetcar moments ago, halting before the grand facade of the Marquis Theatre. You have come to see your idol, the Broadway star Miranda Lily, performing in all her dizzying glory.

     This is a pretty good game. I feel guilty for not simply leaving it at that, because much of what I’m going to discuss here would seem to contradict it.

     (A long rant criticizing my own scoring system snipped from here.)

     Opening Night is told in three acts, although they aren’t identified as such. The story moves seamlessly from what I think of as a traditional “adventure game,” into a middle where it becomes evident the author is up to something more than he seemed to be at the beginning, and finally to an on-rails bit with revelations and explanations. This type of story is probably going to feel clichéd to other judges, which is a shame because even though it’s been done in IF, it hasn’t been done to death. In fact, of several possibilities that occurred to me in the middle and toward the end, this particular twist didn’t cross my mind -- and I’ve done this twist (sort of). So, for me, it worked.

     Information the author provided states that it’s not supposed to be heavy on puzzles, but I still found the first act (and to a lesser extent, the second act) entertaining as a puzzle game. I got stuck in the second act trying to cross a large gap in the floor, and had to be more observant and revisit a prior location (as the hints suggested) to find the solution. That took so long to solve that the pacing -- especially since this was at a point where players will want to make quicker progress to find out what’s really going on -- came to a halt. This may not be a sticking point for other players, though. It might even be the first thing that comes to mind.

     (Another long rant, this time on pacing in IF, snipped from here.)

     Tonally, Opening Night isn’t consistent. It starts out as sort of a would-be romance. Then it’s kind of creepy in spots. One particular scene with the trappings of a slapstick comedy seems ill-placed in a game that later turns serious, introspective, and a little depressing. Should we pity the protagonist? Should we find the situation amusing? It’s hard to do both.

     If left at that, it would probably feel accidental and shoddy. Opening Night tells a story, though, that continues to bounce around in my head well after the last turn was taken. It’s comedy and tragedy -- the masks of theatre -- both fighting for dominance but separated by two distinct plot layers. The comedic layer is optimistic, light-hearted, and pleasant. The tragic layer is grim and mildly disturbing.

     On a technical level, it’s a moderately solid game. I noted a few minor problems in my transcript, but nothing game-halting. The puzzle with the trash can could have been smoother, allowing either for the two-step action that seemed logical or for a slightly different solution. A bit of painted-on text tells me I “might” be able to reach a window even after I’ve gone through and come back. Things that would seem movable are described as “fixed in place.” You can’t always refer to things in the game in the same way the game does (i.e., “x hole” works, but “x jagged hole” does not). Very near the end, it’s possible to go north into what’s probably an accidental, undescribed room. At one point, you can no longer go south even though nothing in the game explains why.

     A few plot points are definite head-scratchers. If the door leading out of the storage room is blocked by so much theatre clutter (props, costumes, etc), then how could anybody have left except by the same way I entered? It could be explained away given the ending, but it’s more likely the door was blocked simply because the player couldn’t be allowed to get into the theatre some other way. For that matter, I thought I might find passable clothes among the costumes, but the game never discounted the possibility directly. It just kind of ignored my attempts to find a better suit among the clothes on the racks.

     Be warned: The next paragraph can be considered a plot spoiler.

     Another head-scratcher presents itself after the ending, in regards to the protagonist being a young adult in 1917. If you pay attention to the ambient goings-on outside the theater near the end of the game, you’ll probably see what I mean. I guess it’s possible, but it begs the question of just how active the PC really was (and even could have been) during the game’s events. Given that you can’t actually reach the fire escape later in the game, maybe the answer is “not very” (except for some crawling).

     On individual merits, Opening Night succeeds as a story worth playing. I liked the relatively simple puzzles too, even though one left me stuck for quite a while. It’s solid enough to avoid major technical problems, and obviously had adequate beta-testing. That just leaves the writing.

     Nothing is “wrong” with the writing, per se. It’s good, solid adventure game text, unmarred by the kinds of jump-out-at-you mistakes often seen in IFComp games. Still, certain bits just felt a little off, as though the author was struggling for synonyms and came up blank. These are phrases like “filling it equally full” and “corridor ends in a dead end” and “brilliantly bright.” Simple re-wording -- for instance, “corridor dead-ends” -- might have done the trick. That’s an amateur’s opinion, but when even an amateur picks up on those things, it might be worth checking.

     My gut, as scoring goes, says “8.” The game isn’t perfect, but it won me over. The problem is, only the story scores a 2 out of 2 and even with the bonus point, that’s a “7.” This might be one I vote higher than the review score. Unless too many of its upcoming competitors raise the bar, Opening Night deserves a spot in the top ten.

Game #7: Trein
Author: Leena Kowser Ganguli
Played On: October 9th (1 hour)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:0 + P:0 + S:1 + W:0 + B:1 = SCORE: 3

     Game’s Blurb:
     Trouble has been brewing in Trein Hill. The people stopped playing their taxes and all is silence. What's worse, there's rumors of disappearances and even rebellion! It is up to you to find out what is happening in that isolated territory.

     Trein is set in a feudal-fantasy world, where you (as the King’s representative) must investigate and report back on the situation in the kingdom’s town of Trein Hill. The game takes place over modest geography in the town and the town’s castle.

     I could spend this entire review quoting specific problems in the game’s text, but I’ll keep it to a minimum. That’s too crass a treatment for what’s obviously a well-intentioned game from an inexperienced new IF author. Even though I wear my critical “reviewer” hat, I’ve developed a fondness for these games with overly ambitious stories uncontained by their bare-bones implementation. This kind of game shows up in every IFComp. A convincing argument can be made that the IFComp shouldn’t be a test bed for beginners’ efforts, but that’s the way it goes and that’s part of its charm.

     Too many factors work against Trein, despite the author’s good intentions. It’s implemented in a way that says “this is my first game” (or, at least, “this is my first game in Inform 7”). Various quirks include at least one room description that doesn’t show up in verbose mode, painted-on descriptions, inappropriate object-specific articles, capitalization problems due to directly-listed capitalized object names, occasional formatting problems, and many objects mentioned in the text that are simply unimplemented in any other way. It’s clearly written by someone with a beginner’s grasp of programming in an IF language.

     The game also adheres to the long-outmoded tradition of listing “important stuff you see here” as a separate paragraph following the room description, where today these things are generally worked into the text or restricted to just the stuff the player has previously picked up.

     The text itself could compensate a little for all this, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. The beginning is strong, but even the game’s blurb has a typo (“playing” instead of “paying”). It should have been proofread by somebody other than the author, which isn’t to say the author is blameless for not doing her own proofreading as well. Sometimes, a letter is missing from a word or a word is missing from a sentence, as though the author was in a hurry to get everything down but lacked the time to polish it. Other problems include capitalization issues which probably can’t be blamed on object names (compass directions are often capitalized, and even nouns embedded in descriptions often are), some confusing descriptions (especially when the author describes the relations between rooms and their exits), and just some poorly-worded passages in general.

     The puzzles are pretty easy. They’re even clued in heavy-handed ways, where the answer isn’t just hinted but actually suggested by the text. They’re little more than finding an item, and maybe using it to get the next. The only spot most experienced players might get stuck is an implementation issue, where you must put something “on” something else even though “in” seems just as obvious. The game is full of unintentional red herrings, yet these never pose a problem because the important stuff is even more prominent.

     The story really wants to be detailed and epic, but the rest of the game holds it back. It has an intriguing opening, well-placed pieces of backstory, and some hints of a more thought-out game world. It never approaches its potential, though. The story is just good enough to earn the game’s only “1” in a 2-point category, but it could be much more than it is. A tapestry seemed to hint at the solution for an upcoming confrontation, but it was a promise unfulfilled. The game doesn’t culminate in any sort of conflict, climax, or endgame. It has a nice little revelation near the end, but it comes as just another step in a story that doesn’t ever rise or fall in other ways. Even the protagonist, who should be a pretty interesting character, never quite is.

     Outside the context of the competition, it isn’t a game I can recommend unless it sees a lot more work in all areas. But, as an IFComp entry, I did enjoy the time I spent with it. I appreciate what the author was trying to do, but even given the bonus point, it only scores a “3.” I’d like to see more from this author in the future, though -- especially after she gets a better handle on programming with Inform and can spend more time with proofreading and beta-testing.

Game #8: Everybody Dies
Author: Jim Monroe
Played On: October 10th (50 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:2 + P:1 + S:2 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 9

     Game’s Blurb:
     Ever see a shopping cart in a river? Ever wonder how it got there? And who has to fish it out? In a suburb of Toronto, three grocery store employees discover the answers to these questions... with disastrous consequences.

     Magic doesn't work in the suburbs.

     It’s nice to play a game where such a brief title tells you exactly what happens.

     The game opens with the F-bomb. I don’t know what it is with me and profanity when it comes to interactive fiction, but it usually seems to bug me. I’m not usually bothered by it in movies, and it’s not like I don’t curse when the need arises. Is it something about seeing it written that rubs me the wrong way? Is it that I think of IF as something that should rise above resorting to “colorful” language? I don’t see why that should be the case, when it fits the story and the characters. Everybody Dies makes no apologies in its frequent use of profanity and lesser cringe-worthy slang.

     It works in this game, and that’s an import distinction. If you write about a slacking metalhead and an Indian kid confronted by a mentally unstable racist hate-monger -- in a first-person stream of consciousness sort of way, no less -- it wouldn’t seem nearly as convincing with sanitized dialogue. Imagine the story with more family-friendly characters, and it just doesn’t seem as interesting.

     The game avoids elaborate descriptions in favor of characterization. Instead of spending paragraphs on esthetically pleasing but more character-neutral facts about the location and scenery -- the traditional way, if you will -- most of the writing in Everybody Dies focuses on how each of the three playable characters reacts to it. I know that a first-person narrative in IF feels like an unnecessary detachment to some players, but here it’s done the right way. It’s not a matter of just changing “you” to “I” and leaving all else the same. The author takes advantage by giving the protagonists feelings and opinions that aren’t nearly as effortless when “you” are the PC.

     Take, for instance, this bit:

     “I can't take my eyes away. I tell myself that it would make an amazingly brutal tat or even an album cover but I also feel like I'm gonna hurl. And then I see the little fish, the one inside, open its eye.”

     According to one not-so-great Wil Wheaton movie, fish don’t blink, but that’s beside the point. Traditional second-person IF works best when you describe things to the player in a way that gets him to feel or think what you want him to feel or think. The more you tell a player what he’s feeling or thinking, the more he’s likely to fight it. First-person IF, as this game demonstrates, works best when the author does exactly the opposite. First-person IF that thinks it’s second-person IF is the problem. Everybody Dies forces a greater disconnect between the player and the protagonists -- that’s true. But here, it works to the game’s advantage.

     The writing is flawless, or very near so. The different personalities of the three protagonists come across well in the writing. It’s descriptive enough to paint a mental picture (which is often more a curse than a blessing), but it’s more about the situation than the setting. I came away very impressed with how smoothly the author told an entertaining short story.

     Because much of the game is dialogue and internal monologue, fewer “things” present themselves for interaction. It’s implemented quite well, but in retrospect feels almost like a magic trick. The author says plenty that’s important to the story (including flashes of memories), but without introducing many immediate nouns. This reduces puzzles to their simplest form (and I’ll get to that in a moment), but what’s there is given adequate attention to detail. If you see a toilet, for instance, the game does anticipate that you might want to flush it.

     This interaction, though, doesn’t push any boundaries. The game has a clever bit where the current PC can interact with one or both previous ones, but it’s only required a couple of times. Even when it’s not required to advance the story, the game still does a great job of supporting optional uses. The puzzles are as tightly integrated into the story as you’re likely to see in a work of IF -- exactly as they should be -- but with the side effect of making them really easy. Even when progression isn’t just a matter of moving from room to room or WAIT-ing, the puzzles are one-command processes that are usually obvious because it’s exactly what the protagonist would do (or is prompted to do) in that situation. This makes the only two-point category in which I can’t give the top mark. That’s not to say the puzzles should be more complicated or difficult. That clearly wasn’t the author’s goal. Only -- hmm. I would have liked more chances in the later segments to make use of the prior PCs, and it all could be a little longer without risking a strain to its novel design.

     My only real complaint about the implementation is that with so much of it requiring very short commands, it becomes a mild annoyance when far longer ones are required. I’ve never been a big fan of the “person, do this” directive command style. The game tells you when it becomes necessary the first time (thank you, game), but I had problems typing “graham” consistently. Maybe short names like “Ed” and “Jo” would have done the trick. The endgame also requires lengthier commands, which can be a bit of a pain if you’re figuring it out through trial-and-error.

     I haven’t mentioned the game’s artwork yet, but it deserves a paragraph. (In a text-only glulx interpreter, would the “void” scenes show up as an unexplained series of nothing, though? I wonder.) The style is cartoon-like, reminding me of the artwork in Flash-based animation. All three protagonists are represented, as well as a multi-part cartoon about three oddly clever fish. It’s very well done. It fits the game perfectly, and it earns Everybody Dies a kudatory (sorry if that’s a made-up word) bonus point.

     But what is it with those fish? Does it symbolize more than just a working-together theme? Is there some unspoken subplot with the fish? It stands to reason that the fish somehow represent the protagonists, but it’s a connection I can’t quite make. I think I’ll go check a few other reviews after this, where somebody has probably already explained it all.

     Jim Monroe’s only previous work of IF (according to the IF Wiki) was Punk Points from IFComp 2000, which placed 22nd but was a finalist for the “Best NPCs” XYZZY Award. It’s one I haven’t played. I have no doubt, though, that Everybody Dies will see a much higher finish this year, perhaps even in the top five. It gets a “9” from me.

Game #9: LAIR of the CyberCow
Author: Harry Wilson (IFComp info page) or Conrad Cook (game’s >about)
Played On: October 11th (1 hour 55 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 3.9)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 4

     Game’s Blurb:
     One of the few games in the neglected Farm Noir genre, LAIR of the CyberCow takes a stylishly chilling, ambivalently moral look at the social themes of our times -- or, does it? Play it now: don't wait for the movie. (Requires ADRIFT 3.9)

     That kind of humor will get you nowhere.

     One can tell from the blurb that LAIR is going to have problems. One can tell that it’s going for absurdity and humor, but that it’s likely to be more amusing to the author than to anybody else.

     Sadly, that does seem to be the case with LAIR. It’s a complete game, showing obvious effort and moderate attention to detail; don’t mistake it for a joke entry. But at the same time, it falls flat in many ways. The humor doesn’t work well when it’s being drowned by implementation problems. (However, I do find it more amusing in the transcript, and I can see better what the author had in mind.) The absurdity is downplayed to the extent that it sometimes feels as though the story is supposed to be taken seriously. Some puzzles work and some don’t, and it’s possible to make the game unwinnable in several ways. The writing is sometimes okay, but often suffers from clunky phrasings. In general, it fails to describe things well enough to be satisfying and believable (sometimes, you won’t even know more about a thing after you’ve examined it because the description is too vague).

     Among its biggest problems is that it’s easily broken. I found two place -- at least two -- where the game can be rendered unwinnable. I tried to hit the fairy, and when the game assumed I meant to use the plans, the fairy just sort of disappeared. I restored an earlier save. Later, near the end, I got stuck riding in something that never did reach the top of where it was supposed to be going. Nothing happened, until after several turns when I “woke up” back in the house, went down the well, and could no longer leave. Again, I had to restore a prior save.

     Better beta-testing should have rooted out these kinds of problems. Even when not completely broken, things are made more difficult by inconsistent daemon messages (“daemons” being automatic tasks that run within the game, usually independent of the player’s actions). A message announces the fairy’s arrival or departure only if you’re not doing something else, making it more difficult to track her down. Sometimes when night turned to day, the game didn’t tell me (which made it odd when it turned to night again). “Moving” and “lifting” one large object with another doesn’t work (and even seems to suggest it’s not possible), yet “prying” and “flipping” it works.

     Whenever Adrift 3.9 (or, perhaps, this game in particular) would impress me with something cleverly implemented (“get all from couch” works, for instance), it would almost immediately disappoint me on some other technical point (“undo” says it works, but only seems capable of sending you one turn back, despite multiple uses). It still runs the gamut of issues inherent to the Adrift parser, but on the whole this didn’t pose as big a problem as it has in other Adrift games I’ve played...

     ...With one notable exception. I’ll spoil this puzzle (and believe me, you’re better off for it) with quotes from my transcript:

     >look under couch
     The couch is a pale green velvety plaid, suitable for most purposes. One of these modern, lightweight deals.

     >move couch
     Moving the couch reveals a cleverly-hidden trapdoor!

     Those commands didn’t come consecutively. After not finding the trapdoor to begin with (because the game ignored “under”) I spent many long and fruitless minutes doing other stuff. At one point, when I felt I was stuck beyond all hope, I peeked at the walkthrough. I was supposed to push the couch. Well, silly me. There was nothing special about the couch; no clue, except that it was described as “lightweight.” In a better game (as callous as this may sound), the author would have anticipated that if a player were to look under the couch, it would make sense to reveal the existence of the trapdoor.

     Often, the game just didn’t give enough information. It took a while to discover that Vluurinik was actually a fairy, and I only realized it after the game started referring to her as one. A puzzle involving her capture is made almost unsolvable (without a peek at the hints), not only because there’s no indication of what she wants, but because getting what she likes requires a suspicious leap in logic. (Cover your eyes here, if you want to avoid another puzzle spoiler.) If you want me to milk the cow, don’t make me think the cow is hostile. And, while you’re at it, remind me that cows have nipples when I look at it, instead of telling me it’s a totally customized, unique kind of cow. Milking it becomes the last thing I’d ever think of! This puzzle was kind of clued in the bowl’s description, but only to the extent that I thought I might need to find some cereal. I never connected the dots from cereal to milk, and milk to cow. But maybe that’s my fault.

     The plot never commits itself to being ridiculous, yet neither is it serious. This makes the internal logic hard to figure out. Many situations crop up that seem fitting of the silly scenario, yet have all the trappings of an accident. For instance, you can’t carry a huge metal cross up a ladder for obvious reasons, yet you can climb up and down a rope with it. The PC sticks his toe in the bell’s crack, but presumably is wearing shoes throughout the adventure (this could, I think, just be a case of ambiguous wording). You can wake up back at the cottage without ever explicitly going there. No explanation is given as to why the cottage consists of only a living room. It’s possible to pick up an object without realizing it, because the “you pick it up” message, reworded as simply “still hot!”, convinced me that I wasn’t able to pick it up.

     The author sometimes uses a dramatic pause as a means of delaying bits of information. The game actually freezes for a few seconds, and as far as I found, you can only wait until the text continues. It seems overused, but to be honest, I’m not sure even a single use was necessary. Allowing a keypress to move forward would have been nice.

     Yet all this, and I still liked it. I can’t recommend it, but it has a charm that makes it palpable in the context of the competition. I’m voting it a “4.” I’m probably creating my own cliché here, but I would like to see more from this author in the future. Key thing, though: beta-testing. Play the top games from prior competitions, too, and read plenty of reviews (both for the top games, and for the lower-ranking ones). Most IF authors who keep at it do better and better with practice. Next year, raise the bar.

Game #10: Nerd Quest
Author: RagtimeNerd / Gabor de Mooij
Played On: October 12th (25 minutes)
Platform: MechaniQue (Java)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:0 + W:0 + B:0 = SCORE: 2

     Game’s Blurb:
     This is a snack-sized adventure game written in my own hobby programming language MechaniQue. I will make it available as a web page so you don't have to install anything (see walkthrough for details and URL).

     Man oh man. Oh man.

     Nerd Quest is written in “MechaniQue,” a programming language invented by the game’s author, which is itself written in Java. I could get it to run on my work laptop, but I didn’t want to play on my work laptop today, so I installed the Java 6 runtime environment from Sun. That worked. I set my DOS-mode window to 9999 lines of scrollback (intending a makeshift cut-and-paste transcript at the end), and plunged forward into the wacky world of Nerd Quest.

     First impression: It needs line breaks. I should get a blank line before each command prompt, if nothing else. It’s really hard to read as is.

     Second impression: Man oh man oh man this is bad. B-aaaaaaaa-d. The author is evidently a capable Java programmer, but he’s clueless about today’s interactive fiction. I have a hunch that the author remembers text adventures from the 80’s, but mostly played hobby efforts (that was the case for me as well, when I got back into IF authorship a decade ago). So, going strictly on rose-colored memories as to how they worked, the author set forth in writing his own Java-based IF engine, and a game to showcase it. The end result: I feel as though I’ve been operated-on by a surgeon whose only qualifications are the purchase of a scalpel and some VHS recordings of ER and Grey’s Anatomy.

     The previous home-brewed game I played in this year’s IFComp suffered from the same failure in ambition. The author has written a custom game engine, but has showcased it with the least interesting game possible. Worse, the game highlights the system’s numerous weaknesses, without proving it has any strengths. In truth, I have no idea what to make of the MechaniQue game engine. Is it capable of SAVE and UNDO, but the author just didn’t use the abilities in this particular game? Does it support a transcript feature? Does it have any kind of world modeling, so that it can understand in-game objects that relate to each other (containers, platforms, etc.)?

     My guess is “no” on all accounts, because the parsing in Nerd Quest is entirely context-sensitive. The game tells me I need a key to unlock one door (incidentally, there appears to be no such key in the game), yet it doesn’t even understand the same command issued for a door in a different room. It gives no hint that its parser is doing anything more than keyword matching (and this is easy to recognize -- every one of my own home-brewed text adventures worked the same way), meaning that anything the game doesn’t expect gets the same “not possible” response.

     It even lacks the simple niceties of other IF systems. The author wasn’t aware that “x” is a shortcut for “examine,” or even that “examine” should be an alternate for “look at.” Each command prompt is prefaced with the open-ended question “what are you going to do?” as though it’s actually capable of understanding the variety of things I might want to do. As far as I can tell, output is dumped directly to the screen (instead of to an output management routine), making it necessary for the author to format appropriate line breaks as part of the output. Even this he fails to do in sensible ways, since words are sometimes broken between lines, and some lines end far shorter than is required in an 80-column display.

     If the author had written Nerd Quest in another IF language -- Hugo, for instance -- it might have the shortcuts and conventions of today’s IF. It wouldn’t, however, be much better as a game. It’s the epitome of 80’s amateur IF, where the author has thought up a simple setting and a couple simple puzzles to go with it, but nothing more. It has a story, but it shows all the forethought of a daydream. Nothing suggests to me that the author didn’t just think up the whole thing while booting up his computer to write it.

     You are an IT geek, tasked with server maintenance. You have a new girlfriend, but you can’t make the date unless you can escape the locked server room. Fixing the server and letting your date know you’re running behind (you have a cell phone, after all) isn’t an option. Nevermind that spiking the boss’s coffee and skipping out on work is going to get you fired (or, at the very least, seriously reprimanded) tomorrow. Then again, being locked in an overheated room you’re not supposed to leave gives you a decent case for criminal charges against your manager.

     The author has done just the bare minimum (and every time I say that, I think of Mike Judge talking about “pieces of flair” in Office Space) to allow a player to get from the server room, through the offices, to freedom. Almost nothing is described. Everything simply “exists” in the game’s world. For instance, I found a “beamer” in the conference room. “Does he mean to say that a BMW -- the automobile -- is here in the conference room?” I asked myself. “Well, let’s find out,” I replied to myself.

     Conference room, ground floor.
     Here are a large table, a PC and a beamer.
     To the south is a door.
     >look at beamer
     An expensive beamer.

     The game has a handful of very simple puzzles, dealing primarily with finding stuff. The only real stretch -- spiking the manager’s coffee -- was solvable without the walkthrough. That particular puzzle completely ignores the obvious solution (involving no additional props), and makes me an expert in something I (as this protagonist) have probably never even done before, but okay.

     Even for a home-brewed system, implementation is pretty poor. In addition to the lack of a consistent world model (making command recognition a veritable crap shoot), it isn’t well constructed. If you try to “talk to manager” in the same room as the manager, you’ll actually call him on the phone. Synonyms are lacking, like “door” for “trapdoor.” The “pantry” sure sounds like a kitchen to me. Problems in the text -- like missing punctuation, missing articles, “achive” instead of “achieve”) -- were aplenty. In the conference room, certain commands directed at objects other than the computer keep assuming I mean the computer.

     It’s a better game than the first home-brewed effort (a CYOA) that I played for this competition, but I’m scoring it lower. It loses the point for writing (Nerd Quest is as minimal as you can get without resorting to descriptions like “you are a in a room. An item is here.”) It even loses the bonus point for thwarting my efforts to get a transcript. My hope of grabbing the entire scrollback was dashed when the game window exited on its own after my final move. Really, it doesn’t even have a proper ending. I leave the building. That’s all. Presumably, this “Debby” was worth the effort.

     So, with the one free point and a point for puzzles that at least give the player something to do, Nerd Quest gets a mere “2” from me. My advice to the author -- if he’s open to advice -- is to play the top games from the past few competitions for eye-opening insight into what’s possible (and expected of IF) these days. Also, read this page at the IFComp website, which gives a simple overview of typical IF interactions.

     Also, re-think your parsing system so that its world model is more object-oriented (you’re using Java; presumably you’re familiar with this). As an example, you should never need to code command recognition for every door the player encounters. Give all “door” objects an “openable” attribute, let your parser figure out which object in the game world the player means when he types “door” (i.e., your “door” object will need noun and adjective properties), and then check to see if the object is “openable” or not. If not, say “that isn’t something you can open.” If so, check if it’s currently “opened.” Allow the author to override the default messages and even “handle” requests to “open” (where “this particular door” is the object), and you’re set. That’s the direction I suggest for your MechaniQue game engine.

     An alternative is to download the free compiler for any of the existing IF languages. If you want to write interactive fiction -- no matter how much you enjoy the construction and tinkering allowed by writing your own system -- you’ll be much better off. I know this from firsthand experience.

Game #11: Search for the Ultimate Weapon
Author: Sharilynn
Played On: October 12th (55 minutes)
Platform: SUDS (Windows)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 4

     Game’s Blurb:

     The interactive fiction is very loosely based on the story of Wu Mei, a legendary Kung Fu nun during the Qing Dynasty in China. She is said to be the founder of various Chinese martial arts such as Wu Mei Pai and Wing Chun Kuen.

     This game is broken.

     If you don’t believe me, try this alternate walkthrough, which completely bypasses every puzzle in the game:


     Then, for fun, instead of exiting or restarting as the game suggests, just keep playing. Seriously. It will work, at least in the competition version of Search for the Ultimate Weapon.

     Strictly speaking, SUDS (the IF development system used for this game) isn’t a home-brew. The game doesn’t get its own SUDS folder in the IFComp installation, but the author of the game (unless I’m mistaken) isn’t the author of SUDS. Plus, SUDS has been around a while. At least, I think it has. It’s one I’ve heard of before, although I admit this is the first SUDS game I’ve ever played.

     What’s surprising, then, is that it has all the trappings of a home-brew. It has no UNDO. X doesn’t work for “examine.” Z doesn’t work for “wait.” Its transcript window is really just a list of prior commands. It doesn’t even echo your actual command into the game window, but rather shows a parsed version of it. The auto-complete function (until turned off) actually makes the game harder to play.

     It looks pretty professional on the surface. It’s like a flashier version of Quest, with multiple themes, colorful icons, and a default user interface that’s probably a big attraction to the uninitiated. Keywords are highlighted and clickable. Items and scenery are listed to the side as additional point-and-click spots. It has an always-on clickable compass rose, and a map that’s reminiscent of Adrift. Once the initial pizzazz wears off, though, even the “hardcode” mode (which removes the icons, the compass, and the item lists) isn’t enough to make it a comfortable experience. It still shows dialogue and certain events in pop-up windows, and despite bumping up the game text size to my liking, I found no way to increase the size of the input prompt. I found no way to turn off the clickable keyword highlighting, either.

     It’s a shame the game is so broken and difficult to use (I’ll get to some specifics in a moment, primarily for the author’s benefit). The author was obviously going for something poignant; something with a moral; something with heart. It’s supposed to be Zen and tranquil. It’s supposed to be enlightening.

     Exits unknown to the author allow the player to jump from the beginning into later segments (even the end -- see my walkthrough earlier in the review). The “ultimate weapon” is sometimes called the “ultimate one” (even in the title graphic), almost as though the author renamed it partway through and forgot to update everything. I liked each of the three or four custom color schemes representing the times of day (especially the burgundy-on-sky-blue “day”), but the game speeds through the days so quickly that it’s almost seizure-inducing. Plus, certain system actions (like looking at the “welcome” dialogue) unintentionally force it back to a white-on-blue default. Descriptions are painted on (for instance, the rope is always under the table, even if it’s in your inventory). The dialogue pop-up is actually counter-intuitive to the game’s first puzzle, since when out of dialogue options the first time, one is likely to think the conversation can’t be continued. It asks questions without accepting the answer (>kill prince; “With what?”; >knife; “You don’t know how to knife.”). The text doesn’t pause when it dumps more lines than will fit in the window, requiring some scrollback-hunting to find the beginning of what was missed. The text wasn’t adequately proofread.

     It has its positives, but not enough to make up for all that’s broken. The map image (not the SUDS built-in map, but one provided by the author later in the game), and the image of the metal box are nice touches. The author tried to use puzzles with a purpose, and a story that means something. It could be a much better game than it is -- with work -- because it has the foundation of something much more worthwhile.

     I’m scoring Search for the Ultimate Weapon a “4.” That’s with one point for writing, one for puzzles, one for the story, and the “free” point. It gets no point for technical implementation, nor did anything earn it a bonus.

     It looks like this is Sharilynn’s first game, and whether or not that’s really the case, I hope this and other potentially unfavorable reviews don’t discourage her from trying again. It can’t be said often or loudly enough that beta-testing is vital. I think those directional exploits would have been caught right away. I won’t try to encourage you to switch from your IF system of choice, but I will say that a flashy presentation is no substitute for solid parsing.

Game #12: Cry Wolf
Author: Clare Parker
Played On: October 13th (2 hours 45 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:2 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     You are awoken, startled by a sound in the night. Still bleary from dreams, you turn on the light to chase away the shadows. But there, beyond the safety of your room, something moves in the darkness. It is long past midnight, and a wolf is at your door.

     This will be a hard one to discuss without plot spoilers, but I’ll try to keep it vague.

     Cry Wolf starts out in a pretty large house, in the sense that there are nine or ten different locations, each populated by the kinds of things you’d expect to find there (kitchen stuff, bedroom stuff, bathroom stuff, living room stuff, office stuff, and so forth). It seems at first that this will make up the entire game. That’s not a bad thing; a multi-part puzzle involving the safe tending of an injured wolf would make a nice two-hour game. In fact, this opening act took long enough for me to get through that I fully expected a winning ending after I’d done my part.

     And then the game goes on.

     The second act (as categorized by the walkthrough), too, could have been the last. It definitely takes the story in a new direction, but by then, there was no great mystery as to what was going on. If the game had ended there, I can see no notable loose ends to tie up. The problem is that the protagonist, one Peter Marcus (a veterinarian), has the unfortunate disability of being unable to put two and two together. While I, as the player, am wondering if he’s really that dense, he’s constrained by the real-world rationalities of a real-world person. It’s hard to translate that into a story without making the protagonist seem incapable of exercising simple logic. Of course, Peter Marcus has no idea he’s a character in an adventure game, where anything is possible.

     The third act, too, would have been a fitting conclusion to the game. Things get weirder, but in a way that’s consistent with the story and perfectly reasonable given deductions that any player is likely to make. By the fourth act, though, it’s evident the author intends to carry the story to its furthest possible conclusion, and this is confirmed in the fifth and final act. Revelations made in the fourth act almost seem superfluous, because it pulls back the shroud of mystique surrounding a plot that was really only a mystery to Peter Marcus. In effect, everything revealed by Marissa is just extra shading on an already-recognizable sketch.

     This works more heavily against the story than one might think. The fourth act is supposed to be a pivotal point, where Peter comes to grips with certain facts, begins to reconcile this with his own views of the world, becomes conflicted by exactly what he’s feeling, yet is truly amazed by the possibilities. This would be incredible if in some way it was possible to get the player to really put himself in Peter’s place. I never felt it, though. The author wrote it well enough, and maybe it was just the late hour at which I played, but I just wasn’t able to share the protagonist’s wide-eyed wonder, doubt, enthusiasm, affection, confliction -- any of it. Unfortunately, that made slogging through the dialogue more of a chore than it was probably intended to be.

     Even with these problems, Cry Wolf has a very memorable story, and some of the most memorable scenes I’ve experienced in IF. I’ve never played a game quite like this. The experience is often marred by convoluted puzzles that don’t work smoothly at all, but the cumulative effect of the story ends up being a very positive one.

     The game has minor bugs, other more serious implementation problems, and puzzles that often fall apart due to just a general lack of user-friendliness. The story is imaginative and entertaining enough to make pushing through the problems worth it, but it’s a shame that the author’s ambition didn’t translate into a more solid game.

     I’m about to describe some of the implementation problems I found, so skip over it unless you’re the author or you care about bugs.

     To (presumably) compensate for the difficulty in typing the long names of five different kinds of medicine, the author channels “get bottle” into a multiple-choice menu. However, one of them doesn’t work, and I still found myself referring to them by name for other commands. At one point, I’m supposed to get dressed, but “clothes” always assumes Celia’s clothes, and that won’t work. The answer is to simply “get dressed,” without actually being in possession of your own clothes. The game refers to the girl as “Marissa” well before she has been introduced to the PC. “Read books” in the office gives a blank response. Looking “in” the bag puts the article “a” before every listed item -- even the plural ones (for instance, “a gauze bandages”). A painted cabinet “hides” the television, even when it’s open. “Get all” in most places attempts to purloin every implemented item in the room, portable or otherwise. You can look at Marissa while parked, and the game assumes you’re still driving. The office at the clinic has exits to the south and southeast, but they’re the same exit. During a surgery, the game obstinately refused to assume I meant to use the scalpel for making an incision, unless I said so explicitly, despite it being the only thing in my hand. Using some of the objects in the game -- the phone, for instance -- was clunky due to command-grammar rules that failed to cover some obvious possibilities.

     The author did a good job of giving descriptions to most of the things mentioned in the text (avoiding the dreaded “you don’t see that here” problem), but put so much extraneous “stuff” in the game world (to better flesh it out, probably) that most of it is only implemented for examining.

     In the fourth act, I chose what I thought to be agreeable, polite questions among those offered; yet I broke the game. Marissa was finally ready to talk -- she said so -- but any attempt to talk to her just repeated the same thing with no dialogue choices at all. At that point, I had to reload a prior save and play forward again. The second time, with only minor changes to my dialogue choices, it worked fine.

     I said in the review for a prior game that the PC was able to expertly perform a task that he probably had no prior experience in (incidentally, this was the act of using a bamboo stick as a blow-gun to shoot a pill into a coffee cup, presumably from across the room). Well, Cry Wolf does the opposite. It makes the PC seem like a complete imbecile at a task that should be relatively straightforward for a veterinarian, by making the player micromanage the entire procedure without any guidance. Fortunately, I’ve played a little of Trauma Center and I’ve actually been in the room where this procedure was performed (twice), and that was good enough to let my intuition guide the way. The bigger challenge for me in this puzzle was that the gloves and mask were hidden away! I figured it out after restoring a prior save and watching what my associate did, but prior to that I would have sworn the game was broken because I was fumbling around like Jerry Lewis in a black-and-white comedy, yet nobody in the room seemed to care. A friendly “hey dummy, check the cabinet that’s easily overlooked with everything else that’s here” after a few turns might have helped. Better yet, my assistant could have had everything ready for me. I checked the built-in hints while stuck there, but its unhelpful advice on the subject was simply that I needed gloves and a mask -- something I already knew from trying to pick up the scalpel without them.

     That was by no means my only problem with a puzzle, but it stands out most because I spent so long fumbling around in a scene that was supposed to be urgent. Scissors (with one rounded point, but presumably a sharp one too) couldn’t cut the plastic wrap on a package of meat. I had to find a newsletter to look up details about the medicine, when a presumably working computer (with access to Google, perhaps) was also available. I had trouble doing what I needed to do with the steaks, because it wasn’t clear that I needed to do a couple of other things first in preparation. A puzzle involving making and serving coffee seemed kind of glitchy, but again, I think this can be chalked up to inadequate game grammar (even approaching “guess the verb” territory). In many cases, the game just didn’t give enough feedback to explain why something that should have worked didn’t work.

     Long text dumps (and there were a few) didn’t bother me. In the end, the story really won me over, despite problems in the implementation.

     I was honor-bound to set (and not change) my vote before playing beyond two hours, but that’s difficult to justify with my scoring guidelines. I’m comfortable giving the game a “2” for writing, and after some mental back-and-forth about the story, I’m also scoring a “2” there. The puzzles and the implementation, however, don’t fare as well. The puzzles need work, but earn a “1,” while the implementation just seemed broken and frustrating at times. Obvious effort went into the game, but a review of my transcript shows way too much frustration with it on a technical level. I’m giving it no point for implementation, but it gets the bonus point for being unlike anything I’ve played before (in a favorable way). That means my review score is one point less than the vote -- in short, a “7.”

Game #13: The Absolute Worst IF Game in History
Author: Dean Menezes
Played On: October 14th (10 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:0 + P:0 + S:0 + W:0 + B:0 = SCORE: 1

     Game’s Subtitle:
     An Interactive thingy

     I was seriously tempted not to bother with a review of this game. I was also tempted to vote it a “10” just to (maybe) deny the author his obviously sought-after last place finish, but I figure the hordes of 1’s wouldn’t be affected much by a lone, dishonest 10.

     But, surprisingly, I do have a little to say about the “game.”

     At first glance, it seems as though the author has tried to dump every outmoded IF design cliché of yesteryear into this joke entry... but he hasn’t. Random death? Check. Random winning? Not an IF cliché, but check. The “twisty little passages” nod to Colossal Cave? Yep. A maze that’s not actually mapped geographically? Sure thing. Long, made-up fantasy words? You bet. All library defaults used, including “as good-looking as ever” for >X ME? Uh huh.

     But where’s the hunger daemon? Why doesn’t >XYZZY teleport me to another location? Where’s the painted-on room description? Where’s the unimplemented scenery? >UNDO actually works. It’s not so much the absolute worst IF game ever, as it is the absolute worst IF parody game ever.

     I’m not encouraging the author to try harder to disappoint next year; far from it. But neither am I encouraging him to submit a real entry next time. My guess is that he’s after a last-place finish and some witty thrashings from angry reviewers. But... meh. I actually expected that it might do a better job of pretending as though something interesting was just around the next corner, if only I’d keep at it, much the way 2006’s Sisyphus -- a far more successful joke entry -- did.

     It’s a “1” from me. Was there ever a doubt?

Game #14: Freedom
Author: Anonymous
Played On: October 15th (15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:0 + S:0 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 3

     Game’s Blurb:
     An ordinary day in the life of an ordinary person.

     A hostile silence greets your words.

     Freedom took ten minutes from start to finish, and much of that was spent just poking at the implementation for review purposes. An additional five minutes were spent playing through a second time to check out a couple of questions I had about the implementation. It’s a very short game.

     The game has a purpose; or at least, it says it does. It’s not mentioned in the blurb (although the blurb does support the premise -- kind of), and it’s not mentioned at the end. It’s explained only in the >about text. I don’t know how I would have reacted to the game if I had known its purpose prior to playing, but in a way, I’m glad I didn’t. This gave me the opportunity to find out if the game really succeeds in doing what the author intended. I do think the author’s note should have appeared at the end, though, since many players are likely to miss it. I would include it in this review, but it feels too much like a spoiler. If you haven’t played yet, but intend to despite the game’s low score, be sure to type ABOUT after you’ve completed the game once.

     Without knowing what the author had in mind, Freedom seemed like a very simple, very short, very boring non-game. That’s a good indication that it doesn’t work to get the point across. I didn’t even suspect that there might be a purpose to the game, and that it was meant to simulate a condition of importance to the author. At no time did I feel the way the game was supposed to make me feel. There is a chance it’s just a joke game (and I’m just a sucker for believing the premise), but going on the assumption that it was a completely honest attempt to do what the author states in his (or her?) note, it failed.

     This in itself is a bitter irony of the kind that seems manufactured to be bitterly ironic. Maybe it is -- a joke entry, I mean. If it is, this one was cleverly executed. If it’s not (and this assumption will make up the remainder of this review), then I hope my comments come across as constructive and encouraging rather than condescending and rude.

     The problem with the game’s premise is that it’s indiscernible from the goings-on in any typical work of interactive fiction. As an example that shouldn’t spoil this particular premise, imagine a game where you pick up a rug. Maybe you can use the rug to hide a painting inside (found at a home décor store, maybe). Along the way, you’ll need to pick up loose change intended as a tip from a restaurant table, a paperback book left unattended by a sunbather, and a pair of sunglasses. Assume, too, that I hadn’t already told you that all of it was supposed to fit together somehow, and this was all just “stuff” that happened in the game. Now, if I told you that this was a game that’s meant to demonstrate what it feels like to suffer from kleptomania, would you answer back that you had easily deduced that already from the game?

     Well, maybe. If it was really well written, fleshed out, offered insight into the protagonist’s state of mind, and didn’t feel like just any typical adventure game, maybe you would. If I told you the premise before you played, maybe you would recognize the theme along the way. But, if this game progressed just like any other, maybe with a slant towards the old-school design philosophy of building puzzles out of things the player must find and nab for personal use, then its actual purpose would probably come as a surprise.

     Freedom isn’t old-school, full of puzzles, or anything of the sort. Really, it’s just a boring little errand quest. Its implementation is pretty basic, but it never feels broken or frustrating. You can look at a few things, but you’re usually just redirected back to the goal at hand. It has no story, and it doesn’t seem ambitious enough. It’s written okay, but in a simple way that seems to want to be boring. Without the author’s note to give insight into why the game exists, it probably wouldn’t even merit more than a paragraph or two of softened diatribe.

     To achieve what the author intended, the game needs shading. It shouldn’t be written in such a neutral way. Without context, different people can interpret these events in different ways. It all seemed pretty normal to me. Using my own point of reference, I didn’t experience these events in the way the author intended. Part of that may be because it’s not really happening, but a bigger part is that the game gives very little insight into the protagonist’s state of mind. I’ve said in other reviews that it’s not a good idea (especially in a second-person narrative) to “tell” the player what he’s thinking and feeling, but something needed to have been put here in its place. Maybe the apartment should have been described with more warmth and comfort, while other places should have been cold and suspicious. Would that be an exaggeration of what the author attempted to simulate, though? I don’t know. I do know, however, that there must be far more to this than was present in the game, which says to me that the author didn’t construct it in a way that gets the point across.

     Freedom gets the free point, a point for its implementation (modest, but seemingly bug-free and -- except for maybe one part in the grocery store -- smooth), and a point for the writing. For puzzles and interaction, I did not give a point. Likewise, the story (in this game, its “purpose”) gets no point -- not because it was it was a bad idea, but because it didn’t come close to accomplishing what the author intended. That’s a composite score of “3.”

     If this was a joke entry, it was expertly done. The only improvement might have been if the author’s note came at the end of it, instead of in the “about” text. If it wasn’t a joke, it needed a far more convincing narrative to get the point across.

Game #15: A Date With Death
Author: David Whyld
Played On: October 16th and 17th (2 hours 45 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 4.0)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 6

     Game’s Blurb:
     It's not easy being king. Especially when you're the king of a nation constantly at war with, well, everyone. And when the Grim Reaper comes knocking on your door, you wonder if being king is really worth all this hassle...

     You find yourself disappointed that the author couldn't think of a witty response to be made to the xyzzy command.

     ”Plugh!” you cry, to which someone stops by just long enough to wittily respond with “put a plugh in it!” before departing swiftly.

     A Date With Death is the first game in this year’s IFComp that I simply cannot finish through to the “final” ending. (Strictly speaking, that’s not true; one game wasn’t finished by the authors and therefore ends abruptly, and another -- a more obvious joke entry -- apparently has some super-convoluted way out of its maze.) A Date With Death has plenty of plot beyond the point where I became hopelessly stuck, but I would either (A) have to think of some solution unmentioned in the hints, which hasn’t yet occurred to me, or (B) start over and hope that this isn’t an event that happens every time.

     I stopped in the game’s 6:00 hour (although I think this can vary), where I get teleported back to The Seat of Rulership, confronted by the Angel of Death, and left with seemingly no way out of an imminent demise a few turns later. I found the glove (little good it does me), but carry nothing else in my inventory. I can summon a servant, but can get him to do absolutely nothing except fetch High Chancellor Verenor (who refuses to come). I have a guard, but he’s transfixed and unhelpful.

     As a result, this will be a review of only part of A Date With Death. I made it through maybe half, but based on my weak score out of 100, maybe far less. I’m disappointed that the game doesn’t include a walkthrough, and that the built-in one is found only through a super-secret command that I was unable (despite many attempts) to guess. Reviews based on only part of a game tend to bother me, but with so many more yet to play in this IFComp and the days rapidly falling off the calendar, my only other reasonable alternative was not to review it at all. At least it’s not a review based on only a few minutes of play, where the reviewer gave up out of boredom or crankiness -- not to call anybody else out on that.

     If a player is thorough, several minutes of introductory material must be read prior to entering the first command. This is one of the most text-heavy works of IF I’ve played, where even the room descriptions are supplemented with paragraphs of narration. This is often the result of game events, because a lot is happening in A Date With Death.

     The story is a familiar one. The protagonist -- in this case, the king of some realm -- must cheat or con his way out of death in what will probably turn out to be a battle of wits with the Grim Reaper (I say “probably” because I couldn’t complete the game). The twist is that death has proven temporary for this king in the past, in a realm where his cruel but loyal and adoring advisor has a means of resurrecting the dead. A Date With Death is the third in a trilogy, but I found the storyline easy to follow and the important events of the prior games well covered without having played the first two.

     The game’s humor succeeds most of the time, but two particular bits left me cold. One of the king’s bodyguards has a bad case of gas. Call me crazy, but fart jokes seem like the low-hanging fruit of comedy (and, incidentally, at a level of humor that’s likely to be inversely proportional to the reader’s age). Also, the Chancellor’s penchant for having the king’s subjects brutally beaten or senselessly murdered crops up again and again and AGAIN, to the point that I began to feel horrible for the plight suffered upon these innocent people. It was kind of funny at first, but when you really start to think about it, it’s pretty depressing.

     I like the way the story is told otherwise. Even though it’s plenty to read, it’s usually fun to read. A few typos are jarring (and of the kind that should have been noticed in beta-testing) and a few sentences seem awkwardly worded, but the game reads well enough most of the time. My biggest complaint, at least as a reaction while playing, is that the text-to-command ratio seems a little high. I would have liked to spend a little more time doing and a little less time reading. Even as-is, it might have mimicked bite-sized segments by using a blank line between paragraphs. I see this often in games, and even finagled Hugo into doing the same thing in my last IFComp entry. It seems to work well.

     I didn’t encounter many bugs. One odd thing is that Ibben the servant will run away when the Angel of Death appears, but if you summon him afterwards, he seems to be completely unaware of the danger. Thugg is said to already be in the throne room when you’re “teleported” there, yet he arrives from elsewhere on the next turn. They all seem like pretty minor issues, and don’t appear to break the game.

     The game is typical of what I’ve come to expect from David Whyld. It’s interesting, with a sort of dark, cynical humor to it. The characters -- or caricatures -- seem familiar in their stereotypical and “one trick” behavior. It’s usually fun, but maybe too easy to get stuck at a point that prevents further progress. I’ve rated it a “1” in every category (including the bonus, mainly because I feel guilty for not putting even more time into trying to get unstuck) for a composite score of “6.” That was my gut reaction at the two-hour mark (hence, my vote) as well.

     David Whyld is one of the most prolific among Adrift authors -- well, among all writers of IF, actually. I haven’t played many games from his back catalog, but of the few I have, there seems to be a... sort of sameness, for lack of a better word. I’m not claiming I could tell you a game was written by David Whyld simply by playing it, but he does seem to gravitate towards the same kind of twisted humor. That’s not necessarily a complaint. There is a “sameness” to Star Trek and Star Wars books (of course), or in the picaresque plots of Jack Vance (incidentally, the one author I consider my “favorite” among several I enjoy incredibly). And that’s not meant to be a comparison -- merely an observation. My round-about point is, I think this might be holding David back. Something different, unexpected, and in a vein far different than A Date With Death could prove worthwhile too.

Game #16: Violet
Author: Jeremy Freese
Played On: October 18th (2 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:2 + P:2 + S:2 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 10

     Game’s Blurb:
     Calm down. All you have to do is write a thousand words and everything will be fine. And you have all day, except it's already noon.

     That time on the sixth floor of the library:
     "Violet, that was-- that was--"
     "How did you do that?"
     "Any sufficiently awesome girlfriend is indistinguishable from magic."

     If this is Jeremy Freese’s first game, he’s a fount of previously untapped brilliance. Violet harnesses the structure of and the talent shown in last year’s one-room IFComp third-place finisher, Lord Bellwater’s Secret. While there are little indications that Freese may in fact be Sam Gordon (how the walkthrough is presented, the game packaged as .zblorb, etc), it’s certainly not decisive evidence. As of this writing, it’s just as likely that Jeremy Freese has knocked the ball out of the proverbial ballpark on his first effort.

     And having fifteen beta-testers didn’t hurt his odds.

     (Update: Sam has set the record straight by stating that he had nothing to do with Violet and that he’s not Jeremy.)

     Violet takes place in a single room: the protagonist’s office. In this kind of design, everything the player needs to complete the adventure is (usually) within reach. The room is given “zones” -- by the desk, by the door, in the corner, by the bookshelf -- but it’s not necessary to move explicitly from place to place. An element of some puzzles does involve pushing something into these zones, but the game is smart about bringing things back when needed and describing the implicit actions of the protagonist.

     That’s just one of the many ways in which Violet is silky smooth. The author has anticipated obvious and non-obvious actions (and he probably owes a debt to a few of his testers for this), making sure that most of the time the game knows the appropriate way to react if the action is tried on any object in the game. I only found a couple very small bugs, and the worst of these were a blank response to >throw square at pen, and some lag in displaying my inventory. That’s it. In nearly every other way, the game is perfectly solid.

     If Jeremy Freese isn’t Sam Gordon, the two should become friends. Violet uses exactly the same kind of plot pacing devices. The player isn’t required to read a thousand lines of exposition all at once, about anything and everything, which is what one might expect of a poorly designed one-room game. Instead, the author first gives the basic essentials -- the cabinet, the desk, the door, and a little more. Each top-level “thing” is the gateway to second-tier objects and scenery, and so on, for however deep is necessary. The deeper the player digs, the more of the backstory is handed out.

     The game even makes assumptions (which are usually accurate) about why the player is attempting certain things, which can be used as subtle clues or as redirection back to more important tasks. Often, this takes the form of a blanket assumption that you’re just trying random stuff to avoid the protagonist’s primary task, but I really had the impression that the author had thought things through to such a large extent that anything I tried was already anticipated. As illusions go, it was a convincing one.

     Some of the puzzles seemed to border on impossible, yet everything was solvable right at two hours without the hints or the walkthrough. This is an even more impressive trick. Not only were the puzzles satisfying without being too easy, but two hours was exactly time enough to also poke around the game’s edges looking for flaws, trying things that didn’t even seem to relate to the tasks at hand. I like doing this in interactive fiction, especially when I intend to score the game and write a review. This could be freakish coincidence, but I’d rather think (especially given how well written the entire game is) that Jeremy obsessively tweaked the difficulty to get it just right. For me, it was just right: the pacing, the difficulty, the kinds of puzzles -- all of it.

     The brilliance of the game’s puzzle design isn’t that they’re new puzzles, or puzzles with clever twists. It’s that the author managed to minimize the potential usefulness of any one thing, while allowing multiple uses where appropriate. The author doesn’t give the player a hammer, and then only implement one single thing you can break with it, denying attempts to break everything else. If it can reasonably be attempted, the game usually lets you attempt it, with perfectly rational explanations as to why it doesn’t work as you had hoped. (Incidentally, there are no hammers in Violet.) This is done by paying attention to the size, shape, and other properties of things. Although it doesn’t feel contrived or intentional at the time, it’s obvious that the construction of these puzzles was most likely a long, thought-out process. Every solution that introduces a new object can potentially mislead the player, or present too easy a solution to some other puzzle, which in itself could be overlooked by the author. Yet here, everything is perfectly placed, and nothing (that I found) was overlooked. The game is consistent and expertly crafted.

     Violet also employs a twist on the second person narrative, and the relationship between the narrator and the protagonist. I doubt this is something new, but in my limited experience, no other game I can recall does exactly this. (In my pre-results review draft at intfiction.org, the next paragraph will get the hidden spoiler treatment.)

     The narrator is the protagonist’s mental representation of his own girlfriend. He does this seemingly not due to any level of insanity, but because he needs that directive force to accomplish the very task that will drive his actual girlfriend away if it can’t be completed. So, when the game says “you” it’s the protagonist imagining his girlfriend commenting to him (essentially, the whole game), but “I” becomes valid as well, since that’s the make-believe girlfriend commenting about herself. Narrators have been given an identity in second person IF before, but has this narrator ever been the protagonist’s inner voice cast in the role of his own girlfriend? It would be memorable enough even if it didn’t work, but more so because it does. She comes across as sensible and likeable, and the extent to which her patience has been stretched seems completely believable. Her personality is just as developed as the protagonist’s, if not more so.

     The story is nothing groundbreaking, but it has emotional moments, funny moments, and various moments of “ah! I get it!” Along the way, the importance of those promised “one thousand words” becomes more and more clear. At the beginning of the game, I found myself trying to do the very thing the protagonist intended to avoid -- looking at stuff, trying to move things, listening to the conversation in the hall and checking out the spectacle in the park beyond the window -- generally, goofing off and wasting time. I didn’t want to avoid these distractions, because they were fun. Little by little, exactly as required by the story, I began to sympathize. I began to focus my efforts. I began to cheer for the protagonist, hoping that this entire effort would end in his favor. It’s possible that I did this more for the narrator’s benefit than the protagonist’s, but this is one of the few games I’ve felt compelled to complete not just for my benefit (as a player who wants to win), but for these make-believe characters as well.

     I think many good things will be said about Violet, and in ways better expressed than this. Just in browsing various blogs for other reviews of the games I’ve already completed, it has been impossible to avoid mentions of this one. I scroll down or avert my eyes to the best of my ability, but couldn’t help getting the preconception that this was going to be a good one. (Really, guys -- I think we collectively need to agree on some way of preventing cross-pollination of game chatter next year, at least until the end of the voting period.)

     I’m scoring it a “9” (which is perfect in every category), but if it holds its place as my favorite for the rest of the competition, I’m going to add the bonus point and vote it a “10”. Strictly speaking, I logged two hours and five minutes in the game. However, five minutes is a good estimate of how long I spent distracted on other matters (tabbed out for email, answering the phone, or whatever). This could easily turn out to be the winner of IFComp 2008. It’s at least a shoe-in for the top three.

     The only real negative I have -- saved until the very end -- is that the whole “one room” design thing may feel less original if something just like this pops up again next year. That’s not to say it isn’t a good design; only that it could begin to feel more like a gimmick if the trend goes on.

     (Update: As my favorite of the competition, I did add the bonus point to my vote, for a top score of “10.” And this was the 2008 IFComp winner. Congrats!)

Game #17: April in Paris
Author: Jim Aikin
Played On: October 20th (1 hour 15 minutes)
Platform: TADS 3

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:2 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     On the first day of your dream vacation, you encounter an exasperating social difficulty. (Game file contains complete hints and walkthrough. Zip file includes pdf map.)

     April in Paris is a game that should be more fun than it is. The writing is pleasantly error-free, or very near to it. It has a few simple puzzles that seem to set the pacing pretty well. It’s technically competent, with just a few quirks (although one is a moderately serious bug) that aren’t bad enough to destroy faith in the game’s implementation. It should be really enjoyable.

     Why, then, this lukewarm response? Part may be to do with the truly excellent entry I played just prior to this (don’t click that link if you don’t yet want opinions on IFComp ’08 entries you might not have played). That’s a very tough act to follow. Recognizing my bias, I have given April in Paris the reviewer bonus point -- just in case I’m being too critical.

     In the two days I’ve put off writing this review, I’ve given some thought to why April in Paris didn’t captivate me the way it could have. My biggest problem was with the game’s geography. It’s essentially three rooms, but the main one has been subdivided into six room-like zones. The included .PDF map makes this layout clearer, but I didn’t check it until afterwards for fear of spoilers. The game uses a TADS 3 extension for handling movement within a single room (I think that’s right; in response to my transcript, Jim offered a little insight into the game’s construction).

     I was initially confused by the layout, but even when I understood it, I was constantly unclear on who and what was where. Since this main area is open, the player can see what’s happening all around. The waiter is said to move around, but often between other zones. Things are described as they pertain to these six zones (near the south end of the railing, north end of the interior area, etc). The game is good about implicitly moving the player (for instance, an attempt to sit at your table will return you to the proper zone automatically), but the cumulative result -- for me -- was constant confusion.

     Scrapping the zone concept and sticking to a room-based approach might have worked. I think I understand why the game doesn’t, though, and it’s for realism. It wouldn’t make sense to be oblivious to the goings-on just a few feet north of where you stand, when it’s essentially an open area. A better solution might have been the “one room” concept. Except for the runaway dog (which could be adapted), it might have been possible to condense the game’s main area into a single room, making accommodations for the ways this might affect the puzzles. Referring to the map might have helped too, but it still would have been a little awkward to mentally manage what was happening where.

     The young woman, who seemed to be a central piece in the story, felt strangely flat. Two-dimensional characters are common enough in IF -- it’s even the norm -- and it’s not usually a problem (especially in puzzle games). This game is more story-centric, though, so I would have expected more characterization -- especially for this character. Maybe I didn’t talk to her enough. As the game progressed, she just seemed more and more like a puzzle piece, or maybe a prop. Initially, I didn’t even trust her. The lesser characters were fine. Even the waiter, with his obstinate attitude, seemed believable and developed enough to fit the needs of the story. Only the young woman seemed to need a more important role than she was given.

     Of the game’s title and blurb, and in an attempt to “guess” at what each of the thirty-five IFComp 2008 entries might be like, I made the following prediction:

     “Sounds artsy. Cultured. Over my head, perhaps... My expectations are high.”

     I expected that I might have to involve my wife (with her minor in French) in figuring out some of the dialogue. I expected something that would evoke strong images of this foreign city -- not necessarily a thinly veiled virtual tour as in 2004’s Blue Sky, but something that would spark the imagination and make me yearn for a vacation. I expected something grand and exciting, maybe.

     It’s clear that April in Paris wasn’t meant to be any of that. Even though the fault is mine for expecting that it might be, the game still has untapped potential. Somebody at a nearby table kept shouting “Extraordinary cuisine!” I would have expected to hear other kinds of random chatter, and a larger variety of random happenings in general. Even restricted to a single scene (the café), the game might have taken more opportunities to expound upon what it feels like to be a tourist in Paris. Ultimately, the story didn’t seem interesting enough, the puzzles had me pitying the poor hungry fellow for all that he had to endure just to get a good meal (rather than actively enjoying the effort), and confusion with the café’s geography left me as frustrated as the protagonist himself.

     It’s not a bad game by any means. It’s even a welcome change from the poorly-written, untested ones that make up a large number of the entries each year. I understand that Jim may be planning to release an updated version after the competition. That’s not likely to impact the underlying framework or the game’s modest story, but it would probably be a more recommendable version nonetheless. The competition version is still worth a play-through, if no update is released. I have scored it a “7,” which includes full points for writing and the reviewer bonus point.

Game #18: Red Moon
Author: Jonathan Hay
Played On: October 25th (45 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:0 + S:1 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 5

     Not even powerful, ancient magicks will save you now.

     Jonathan’s Hay’s Red Moon has an auspicious start. The protagonist and his almost comatose sister are hiding in a dark, decrepit one-room hut as something unimaginably dangerous lurks outside. Fear and paranoia even turn shadows and darkened shapes inside into would-be evils. They have nowhere to run. The menace could be upon them at any moment. A chance to call for help is rendered impossible. For the first few minutes, the game does everything right in setting the stage for an impressive survival horror experience.

     And then… it fizzles. The threat becomes less and less real as nothing happens. The protagonist takes a moment to reminisce about a photo, which doesn’t fit with the urgency of the situation. Limited things in this one room exhaust themselves of useful interaction early on, so it’s easy to feel stuck. Suspense gives way to frustration and boredom. Ultimately, I began to wonder if the story might have worked better without dropping the player into immediate danger that goes unfulfilled. By then, of course, the game had lost its initially strong grip on me.

     This may have been the point. With no new ideas, I began to try the old ones. I noticed odd things. Then again. Definitely, something strange is going on. It’s counter-intuitive, but clued just well enough to work. Since this is the game’s only puzzle I’ll not spoil it, but I think a little frustration is probably a prerequisite to taking the necessary actions.

     The author has implemented five different things that can end the game, so it’s more likely the player will stumble on at least one of them. My first win was one of the four alternates. The hints tip off the “main” solution, and the others are also in the included walkthrough. All five are essentially the same conclusion, with only minor differences in what leads up to it.

     I don’t know if this is the story the author set out to tell, or if (as mentioned in notes from his walkthrough) his mere three days of development time just sort of forced it. As a three-day project, and as the author’s first work of IF, it’s impressive. The implementation is decent given the limited surroundings, and even some unexpected surprises come in the form of responses to actions I didn’t expect to work. The writing is okay (with a few bits that seem awkwardly worded), and it’s at least a complete game. It’s just not a very long game, and it’s complete only in the sense that the author didn’t just leave loose ends hanging.

     I’m not sure that should be taken as praise, though. The game it started out to be would have been far more interesting. If it had kept its opening momentum, gone creepier, kept its pacing, developed the protagonist, given his sister a real role in the story... then who knows. Even keeping the game’s final revelation (which, if I guess correctly, will be a subject of contention with many of the judges), the author had plenty of room to develop this theme in a longer game.

     This is a very good first effort, and an amazing one given such a short development time. It just doesn’t stand up well against its better competition. I’ve scored it one point for its implementation, one for the story, one for writing, and the free point. That’s a vote of “4.” No, scratch that. Red Moon earns the bonus point as well. It’s a noteworthy effort by a first-time author, so that’s a bonus for encouragement. I’d like to see what he does with three weeks, three months, or even longer. If Jonathan Hay makes an appearance in IFComp 2009, I’ll expect it to be a better, meatier work.

Game #19: wHen mAchines aTtack (A Technological Horror)
Author: Mark Jones
Played On: October 26th and 27th (6 hours 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:2 + W:0 + B:1 = SCORE: 6

     WMA (or maybe HAT, given the odd capitalization of its title) is the second game (or at least the second IFComp entry) by
Mark Jones, the author of last year’s Press [Escape] To Save. Although his second effort is marred by many of the same problems found in his first, it is an improvement overall.

     For some reason -- and despite the game’s subtitle -- I expected more whimsy than horror. The title suggests a parody of When Animals Attack (or something similar), yet WMA isn’t going for humor. It starts out strange, gets creepy, then creepier, and progresses through various scenes of the macabre and horrific. Despite its plethora* of problems, I found WMA oddly riveting and not quite the chore to slog though that might be typical of a game with these issues. It has a style and gusto that, while seriously undermined by its broken writing and non-intuitive geography, I was able to appreciate for what it intended to be.

     Of last year’s P[E]TS, I said that “The writing has an odd appeal, but it’s full of technical problems of various kinds…” The same is true for wHen mAchines aTtack. “Your” and “you’re” are sometimes used correctly, but often interchanged. (Tip: pronouns aren’t made possessive with the use of an apostrophe. “Your” means “belonging to you” just like “its” means “belonging to it,” while “you’re” is a contraction of “you are” and “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.”) The text is riddled with grammatical problems -- missing words (“seems to refrigerator” is missing the “be a” that would make it “seems to be a refrigerator”), incorrect word usage (“fowl” when the author meant “foul,” and how does singing “ease the attention?”), typos (“down with” instead of “done with” for instance), and even inconsistencies in the game’s own made-up words (sometimes “integratron” but sometimes “integatron”). Rarely a paragraph goes by without several glaring problems of the kind that could have been caught if somebody other than the author had proofread the text.

     Even when the writing isn’t too technically flawed, it often feels rough-edged, too simple in form, or difficult to mentally parse. Sentences like these stand out in a negative way:

     “A drinking fountain is present on this side of the room, next to a closet door which is to the south of it, directly east of you.”

     “The receptionist talks some more.”

     “And because you said something, that also must have made Wong afraid of something.”

     “Resting on the shelves seem to be tons and tons of glass containers.”

     “The jars and the myriad of them makes your bones feel brittle and makes the atmosphere in this room seem really dense, in addition to being very eerie.”

     “You breathe a slight sigh of relief, although you aren't completely.”

     “You look around to see if anyone is in the current location and run off to the northeast.”

     It isn’t always easy to look past these problems, but some of the imagery conjured up succeeds surprisingly well when you do. The author has created a truly creepy scenario, although too often he resorts to telling the player just how unsettled he or she is supposed to feel by a given scene. This all makes for a strange balance. The story is often gripping, yet it fights for dominance against the poor way in which it’s written. It does lapse into accidental camp sometimes (especially when the author cranks up the weirdness knob to a level that’s way over the top), but the drive to see more is what kept me motivated for the more than six hours it took to complete.

     The author does a better job describing actions and interactions than in describing some of the game’s locations. The factory’s main area, comprised of several open “rooms,” was particularly difficult to picture. For instance:

North Side of Large Room
This is the northern edge of the very large room and is part of a side hallway that leads west towards the western edge of the room and east towards the eastern edge of the room.

Looming overhead, the presence of the catwalk platform covers your head in light shadows.

Dozens of manufacturing machines of various sizes fill the area in the of this room all over, in addition to a fairly large machine that blocks a main portion of your view.

A railing separates the machinery area from the rest of the room, and runs the length of the area in a square.

     The problem is often that the author has envisioned the scene from a certain angle or vantage point, without successfully relaying that information to the player. Sometimes, things are described as being just “in front of” you when a direction might have been better. Or, directions are used, but in misleading or confusing ways. This made navigation incredibly difficult until I took pen to paper to make a map.

     This, too, was a challenge. Sometimes, the author describes things to the east that are actually to the west, or vice-versa. Worse, room exits aren’t consistent. In many areas, coming back from an adjacent room isn’t as simple as just reversing the direction (in other words, when you go southwest, you can’t always return by going northeast). Some of it is evidently accidental, but sometimes it’s the author’s attempt to create what he probably feels to be a realistic geography. As an example, the player’s position in one particular hallway is probably its center. That puts the door to the player room southwest of that position. When inside the room, however, the door is due east. It makes sense rationally, but it relies on the player understanding that movement from room to room isn’t always a straight path. This is common throughout the entire game, and in areas where the relationship between the adjacent rooms isn’t even obvious.

     The next paragraph, detailing various other technical problems, will probably prove boring to everyone but the game’s authors. Feel free to skip ahead.

     Other problems are manifold. Some descriptions are painted on (for instance, the rope is always described in relation to the bathtub where it’s originally found). Vital objects are sometimes unmentioned in room descriptions (the game expects interaction with a “panel” at one point, but uses the word “pad” in the text; “machinery” is necessary at one point, but isn’t mentioned in the text). It’s possible to “examine” the note with the locker combination, but “read” fails. An exit south, back into the reception area, is blocked by a concern over what the receptionist might think about shirking your duty, even after such concerns are meaningless. In fact, it’s possible to get stuck there later in the game after re-entering the building. It’s possible to get completely stuck in other ways too, especially later in the game (for instance, a quirk with the fire pit left me in white smoke with no options), requiring multiple UNDO’s or a RELOAD. When the tension ramps up, the player is said to check the exits (to make sure the proverbial coast is clear), yet this pre-movement message continues for the duration of the game, well beyond the point where it no longer makes sense. The robot’s eyes “sink in” even though he has no eyes. Certain events are triggered only by taking a non-intuitive action, without additional prompts or clues or triggers (one example comes early on, when it’s necessary to be wearing a suit that some players will probably have already done an “UNDO” out of when its seemingly detrimental properties are clear; another comes later, where the only way to get through a door is to examine a box, thereby triggering a countdown that actually only counts down while you take additional turns in the same room). Doorways that don’t exist are described in the cave. A creature continues to act fully alive a turn or two after he’s rendered dead on the floor. Things dropped in a dream aren’t automatically returned to inventory. I even encountered engine-level “programming errors” at two points (attempting to go west when already at the cafeteria counter, and again when trying to put an eyeball on a sensor).

     At one point, the author is so anxious to develop a large chunk of the story that he resorts to a text-dump that is nineteen pages long.

     The game’s early puzzles are usually simple and straightforward. I really enjoyed figuring out how to use the protagonist’s assigned machine, for instance. The beginning seems more focuses, and the player is usually given goals (a definite improvement over last year’s entry). However, as the game progresses, the puzzles are increasingly obscured by bad design decisions and implementation problems that make them difficult or impossible to solve without hints. The hints helped in most of these cases, although a time or two they didn’t cover the situation. A walkthrough was also included with the competition version. I didn’t use it while playing, but it does appear complete.

     This is a game that’s likely to rank very low in the competition, although it has a shot at an upper-middle position if other judges agree that it somehow manages to be a little more than the sum of its parts. It’s a game that snubs its nose at the “two hour” target, though, which it would probably blow by even in a perfect play-through that required the player to merely read its text. At two hours, I hadn’t encountered some of the game’s more obscure puzzles and progress-halting bugs. I voted it a “6” -- which is justified by my self-imposed scoring guidelines by adding the bonus point (for being more than the sum of its parts). It’s a game for IFComp completists, but it needs extensive work to be recommendable in any other context.

     Like last year -- and as with all of this year’s entries that support it -- I kept transcripts (with comments) of the entire play-through. These are available to authors upon request. They’re no substitute for beta-testing (testing is supposed to happen before the competition), but they might be useful for a post-competition update. My advice remains unchanged: have several people play-test your game (and keep transcripts) in two or three phases after you think you’re finished with it. Add to this, however, a more serious adherence to the “two hour” rule. Some judges may be tempted vote a game down when it goes on and on and on in a competition where many other games have to be worked in before the deadline as well.


     *My apologies to Jefe and El Guapo.

Game #20: Piracy 2.0
Author: Sean Huxter
Played On: November 1st (2 hours 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     Admiral Copeland entrusted you with a mission to bring a pirate to trial. En-route the pirate's band attacks, boards your ship and kills your crew, throwing you into the brig. But you're not going to let that stop you from completing your mission are you?



     Sean Huxter’s inspiration comes from Infocom classics. I always feel like a bit of an IF poseur when I admit this, but I never played an Infocom game. Well, technically I’ve played a few minutes of Zork, a few minutes of HHGG, a few minutes of Nord & Bert, and a few minutes from a couple others from the Comedy Collection. This wasn’t when those games were originally released. The extent of my classic-era IF experience comes at the tail end, in the form of hobbyist, amateur, fan games.

     Piracy 2.0 feels a bit like Splashdown from IFComp 2004, in form and setting. It too, if I recall correctly, was heavily influenced by the works of Infocom. I gather from the game’s >ABOUT text that the author is new to the interactive fiction community, and may not have played many past IFComp entries (or other works of hobbyist IF since the demise of Infocom) as a more recent base of reference. Some of the game’s design decisions take an old-school approach, but it’s thankfully a playable and moderately solid work. I think this is probably because today’s IF continues to be influenced by those early works, even though many aspects have changed to accommodate the tendencies of today’s players to be less forgiving of brutally difficult games.

     Sean’s game isn’t brutally difficult, but it does feature some elements of those old-school designs that make it borderline frustrating in places. Although the blurb is ambiguous, these are space pirates (rather than the high seas kind), and a very simple combat mechanism gives the player a finite amount of health before death. I didn’t realize it at first, but the encounters and hit/miss chances appear to be random. This makes >UNDO your friend. (Randomness -- especially randomized combat -- is one of those old-school features that has fallen out of favor.) It’s possible to recover health at a point later in the game (useful if you haven’t been using >UNDO), but this appears to offer a limited number of uses. Around then (at least for me), the pirates stopped attacking, so it wasn’t as rough as it could have been. The combat, too, doesn’t really fall into complex RPG territory, so it shouldn’t be daunting to most IF enthusiasts.

     One of the biggest problems I noticed in the design (especially the later parts) was that it became easy to block off success in several ways. That’s not inherently bad, as long as the player is clear on what action was taken several turns back to cause the losing ending. At a minimum, the player should be clued into what might have been done differently to avoid failure. Certain actions cause a ten-turn countdown, and that works well. Other actions, though, are less obvious. As I worked toward finding the “best” ending, I had trouble figuring out if I was supposed to have waited to turn on the distress signal, or waited to lay in a new course, or if I should have started one of the countdowns at a certain point before or after either of those things. Ultimately, it feels like I stumbled into the 100-point ending by pure luck, rather than by fully solving the game’s endgame puzzles.

     Speaking of score, the game seems confused on whether or not it even has a score. During the game:

     Life has no score. However, you have used 151 moves. And your health report: The cold feeling in your fingers is almost gone. You have two wounds.

     But after the game, I scored 80 points (and later, the full 100):

     “In that game you scored 100 out of a possible 100, in 540 turns.”

     It’s also confused on the first officer’s name (and gender). A crew roster calls “her” Lisa McGregor, yet this doesn’t mesh with later statements:

     “This is a letter from your First Officer to his wife on Bromax.”
     “Ah. Yes. Matt Blake's letter to his wife, Stephanie.”

     Several locations have a computer console and a monitor, offering the player a variety of command abbreviations. For most of the game I used the prompted form of “type code on keypad.” This was okay -- they’re very short codes. Later, though, I realized the author had implemented these codes as stand-alone commands, which really helped alleviate the tedium of interacting with the various computer consoles.

     The game is pretty solid, with “bugs” that are generally very minor. I noticed a missing blank line once or twice, an extra blank line once or twice, and even a missing response for >put battery in panel. Later in the game, some sort of meta-text was shown at the end of the room description for the Main Bridge, stating “ceres.state not between 1 and 8.”

     Even though what’s implemented is pretty solid, I noticed a number of cases where the author should have implemented more. Sometimes, this took the form of the dreaded “guess-the-verb” problem. In one particularly difficult instance (and this is a puzzle spoiler -- be warned), I wanted to replace a gun’s dead battery with a fresh one. After some frustrating back-and-forth with the parser, I first solved it by dropping the new battery in one room, moving to a different room so I would be able to extract the gun’s depleted battery, then going back to retrieve the good battery so I could make use of it. Afterwards, I poked around a little more until I figured out what was happening. The game wasn’t asking for disambiguation for “battery,” probably expecting me to use its adjective also (or instead). To make matters worse, it wasn’t possible to refer to the gun at all when removing it, and in fact, “remove” wouldn’t even work.

     My transcript illustrates this frustration nicely:

     >x pistol
     This is a standard issue laser pistol. It's pitted and scratched. Typical of weapons owed by space pirates. A scratched battery is in the grip. There is a small red light flashing on the grip.

     >put battery in pistol
     (the shiny battery in the pistol)
     There is no room for a second battery in the pistol.

     >get battery from pistol
     That seems to be a part of the pistol.

     >get battery
     (the shiny battery)
     You already have that.

     >remove battery from pistol
     That seems to be a part of the pistol.

     >remove battery
     (the shiny battery)
     You're not wearing that.

     >get scratched battery from pistol
     That seems to be a part of the pistol.

     >get scratched battery
     You take the scratched battery from the pistol.

     The game was clearly tested, but maybe not by anyone familiar with the common failings of interactive fiction. The response to >X ME is the default “As good-looking as ever.” The game has toilets, but “flush” isn’t a verb (nit-picky I know, but of quite a few IFComp games this year with toilets, I only recall two -- so far -- where >flush toilet is understood). The writing on a piece of paper can be examined, but >read paper responds with “that's not readable.”

     The text, fortunately, fares better. It isn’t flashy or awe-inspiring, but it’s descriptive enough without being excessive, free of spelling and grammatical errors (I noticed none, at any rate) and a pleasant read after too many poorly written IFComp entries. This is the only of my scoring categories in which I have awarded the game top points.

     Of the plot -- the game’s story -- I have mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s interesting enough, and I’m a sucker for science fiction. I tend to enjoy exploring space ships in text adventures. On the other hand, it really doesn’t introduce anything new. The author was wise to abandon the humor of his Piracy 1.0 (described in the >ABOUT information) in favor of a more serious tone, but the game plays out with only minor surprises. It didn’t feel like a fresh idea, or even a fresh telling of a stale idea. Parts of it may be Trek-inspired (a bridge section that can be separated from the rest of the ship in times of emergency conjures up mental images of the Enterprise D, for instance).

     The puzzles work pretty well, yet they often seem at odds with the story. The protagonist -- the ship’s captain -- should be supremely familiar with all aspects of his ship. I would expect him (or her – if I’m right, the captain is gender-neutral to make it easier for all players to assume the role) to know exactly what computer commands are available, how those systems work, and the dangers to be faced in certain areas. Yet most of the time, the protagonist is only as informed as the player, which requires reading instructions and experimenting with options. This might have been solved if the protagonist was just a lesser crew member, but being the captain does serve to explain why you were initially spared (plus, it feels less clichéd than a typical generic-crewman adventure). Given the puzzles, it’s impossible to make a player feel like an all-knowing ship’s captain from the start, but something might have been done to get more mileage out of the premise. Maybe a stronger personality for the PC would have helped make him (or her) a more convincing captain.

     On the subject of plot-point head-scratchers, why do the pirates come and go randomly? This gives Piracy 2.0 more the feel of a video game, and that may not be what the author intended. I would have expected the pirates to become a little more organized, and with their obviously impressive numbers perhaps stake out every location instead of roaming around. And did anyone else notice that the 100-point ending (unless I missed an alternate path) is obtained in a way that effectively disposes of the only loyal, surviving crewman? (To be fair to Sean, I did the same thing in a prior game, although here it almost feels accidental.) I also thought there might be a final face-to-face confrontation with the pirate leader, but this only transpired as a remote communication (but again, maybe I missed an alternate path).

     A link in the >ABOUT text points to this website, where the author has provided a title image, a map of the ship’s interior, and a “blueprint” of the ship itself. It’s all very nice work, and I’m surprised it wasn’t included with the game. In keeping with the Infocom tradition, an actual feelie (the purple DataCube) is even available at a modest price (and this would make an appropriate listing for feelies.org).

     Piracy 2.0 is a solid, recommendable game overall. It even gets the bonus point, but for what’s probably one of the most random, trivial reasons imaginable. In the author’s notes, he identifies himself as a fan of Doctor Who. Coincidentally, I’m Netflixing my way through the recovered (and the never-lost) back episodes of the first seven Doctors, after fond memories of watching the Tom Baker (fourth Doctor) episodes as a kid (and the ninth/tenth doctor episodes now – Season Three in particular had a few really excellent episodes). Also, I too wrote games for the TRS-80 CoCo (most still available here), and these two things combined get a bonus point (for a composite score of “7”) that’s just as random as the pirate crew in Piracy 2.0.

Game #21: Recess At Last (An Interactive Restlessness)
Author: Gerald Aungst
Played On: November 2nd (55 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:0 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 3

     Game’s Blurb:
     After endless months of indoor recess, an eager student's plan to try out his brand new sneakers is thwarted by one missing assignment.

     I don’t know how Recess At Last went wrong. The in-game credits give thanks to several IF community regulars, yet anecdotal evidence suggests that either none of those people were given a chance to actually test the game, or the author didn’t have an opportunity to make sufficient changes based on their findings.

     But let’s back up. It’s a very simple story. Recess At Last is aimed at players in the protagonist’s age group. A fourth grader wants to try out his brand new shoes during recess after many days of indoor confinement due to bad weather. The teacher expects his homework, though, and the young protagonist can’t find it. He must locate the missing page or redo it, before the recess period ends.

     I’ve noticed a recent rise in the demand for IF targeted to (or at least suitable for) children -- or else it’s simply something that has finally appeared on my radar because my own kids might become interested in IF when they’re older. This is the kind of game that might make a good choice or recommendation... if it wasn’t such a beating to play through.

     The author seems well-intentioned, and he put obvious effort into Recess At Last. Despite these efforts, the game is riddled with design and implementation problems.

     Before I launch into those things, though, the story itself deserves some discussion. Successful children’s literature (and the same is true of movies) will have aspects that may appeal to adults as well. In my experience, these stories tend to be fantastical in nature. Even “slice of life” stories (for children) tend to have exaggerated premises or unreal aspects. For instance, one of my three-year-old daughter’s favorite books, Pinkalicious, features a little girl who turns pink after eating too many pink cupcakes. (She’s also a big fan of Dr. Seuss books.) If these elements are missing, the story could still be something exciting or foreign in nature: stories about life in another country, for instance, or stories that feature things the young reader (or in my daughter’s case, the listener) may never have the opportunity to experience. It’s a perfect time to spark their imaginations.

     The story in Recess At Last is a double whammy. I can’t imagine it being of interest to most adults. Those days are far behind us, and a homework simulator doesn’t rekindle that youthful spirit. For reasons unknown to me, it has been easier to fill the text-rendered shoes of a vampire, or a detective, or a spaceman, or even an animal than to step into the role of a fourth-grader who has to turn in his homework so he can go out to recess. Nothing is remotely fun about that. The kicker is that I’m not sure this would be fun for fourth-graders either, hence the double whammy.

     Let’s move on to its implementation.

     The more complicated the actions required of the player, the more robust and comprehensive the command grammar should be. One of the easiest ways for any work of IF to fail is by requiring non-standard actions and then recognizing only a very small range of possible ways the player might express those actions. Many hours of development can be sunk into working out all these possibilities (and adding more as a result of beta-testing), but it’s important to do so or the game will suffer.

     As a generic example, imagine a game where a puzzle involves tying a string to a heavy medallion and then hanging it from a hook to trigger some sort of trap door. If the game only allows the player to TIE the medallion to the string, then HANG the string on the hook, it’s going to be a serious sticking point for players. That’s traditionally called “guess the verb”, and it’s among the biggest reasons IF isn’t taken seriously by many who have tried it in the past. Suppose the player first wants to ATTACH the string to the hook, and then LOOP the string through the medallion. If your game triggers on the action of hanging an already-weighted string to the hook -- and especially if your grammar definitions are lacking -- you’ve just given the player a legitimate reason to complain.

     These problems plague Recess At Last. In one example, the game doesn’t know how to parse an intended target from the “write” verb. I’m guessing this was a little tricky to code, but even so, it’s not what the player is likely to expect. Paper was on my desk, which is where I would expect it to be before attempting to write on it. Yet:

     >write on paper
     In your best cursive handwriting, you write "On paper" on your blue jeans.

     >get paper

     >write on the paper
     In your best cursive handwriting, you write "On the paper" on the clean sheet of paper.

     Even more guess-the-verby was this:

     >x buzzer
     A small gray box with a small button and speaker so that visitors can buzz in to the office to be let in.

     >press button
     It is fixed in place.

     >push buzzer
     It is fixed in place.

     You still have the same two options. Wait, or try the buzzer.

     >try buzzer
     You press the buzzer and wait nervously for the secretary to answer.

     Incidentally, >buzz in also works, but >buzz buzzer doesn’t.

     The game’s design and implementation problems aren’t limited simply to actions that aren’t nearly as smooth as they need to be. A piece of paper is described as blank, even after you’ve written on it. After telling the teacher I didn’t need another copy of the worksheet, she told me to ask again if I changed my mind, yet I wasn’t allowed to bother her again for it after that. I didn’t realize I needed to mention the library to the teacher to get permission to leave the room, probably because I’ve forgotten that such things are mandatory in the fourth grade (thereby sticking me there in the classroom until I checked the hints). It wasn’t clear that the protagonist’s brother wasn’t in gym class; until I played a second time using the walkthrough and took an action where it’s mentioned that the brother is sick at home, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t refer to or see him in the gym. Attempting to open the letter from mom gives a misleading response, and this sort of sabotaged my understanding of what the envelope was for. >search binder says the binder is empty, even though it’s not. Sam continues to look for his worksheet, even after he finds it (in fact, he doesn’t even express interest in it after I borrow it and attempt to give it back).

     The game sometimes even refuses to honor actions it understands:

     >x unfinished worksheet
     I only understood you as far as wanting to examine Sam's unfinished Henry Hudson project.

     The problems seem to continue ad nauseam, but the most frustrating of all is some sort of engine error that happens every single turn after playing for a short while:

     *** Run-time problem P12: Too many activities are going on at once.

     I have no idea what activities are going on, because from where I sat, nothing much was happening. I tried updating WinGlulxe, but no joy. Even starting over didn’t do the trick, as the problem simply started in a different place. Yet this didn’t appear to interfere with gameplay, other than the unfortunate side effect of separating my input on a different line than the > (prompt symbol).

     After a time, I relied heavily on the built-in hints. After completing the game one way, I checked the walkthrough and was pleased to find that both of the possible objectives for turning in the completed worksheet were valid solutions.

     So no, I don’t know how Recess At Last went wrong. The writing seems error-free and appropriate for the target audience, and the puzzles (although made more difficult by implementation problems) are interesting enough to give the game merit outside its bland plot. The game even has a nice title graphic. In most other ways, though, it falls flat. The author could have imagined a story far more interesting than this. More testing (especially by people more familiar with the workings of interactive fiction) would certainly have helped make this story smoother and more playable than it is. It probably still wouldn’t appeal to an older audience, but it might be something kids could enjoy more.

     I have scored Recess At Last one point for the writing, one point for the puzzles, and the base “free” point. Anything more -- especially since I feel more guilty than usual at the amount of criticism I’ve heaped onto this game -- would be dishonest. That’s a score and vote of “3.” Although that’s not an encouraging score, I do hope that the author stays interested and motivated enough to play and write more interactive fiction.

Game #22: The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom
Author: Anssi Räisänen
Played On: November 4th (1 hour 5 minutes)
Platform: ALAN 3

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 6

     One of the things I like most about Ngah Angah is that it knows exactly what it is, and it doesn’t mess around in getting straight to the point. It’s covered by a simple love story, where the protagonist has finally tracked his sweetheart to a secret, secluded school where magic and illusion reign. He must complete three challenges before gaining entry to the school, and this is his only concern. These three challenges are all that stand between him and his true love.

     The story, however, isn’t the point. The author has crafted three simple challenges -- puzzles -- and the player’s goal is to solve each of them. The first is sort of a logic puzzle, although the other two just require deduction. Actually, that’s not quite right. None of the puzzles are clued (although the first puzzle is itself a clue), so deduction doesn’t quite factor into it. To solve the puzzles, it’s necessary to be observant, and simply try unlikely things with the limited resources at hand. This ends up being a great deal of trial and error, especially in the second scene where an unintentional red herring can lead the player astray. An astute (or lucky) player might breeze through them in a matter of minutes. For me, it took about one hour to solve the game.

     Somehow, I had more fun in solving these puzzles than is befitting of their limited complexity. The scope is so small that it was never a matter of managing too many pieces at once. In a way, it’s like a treasure hunt, where the objective is to figure out the one action necessary to solve or survive the encounter. Although the first puzzle is more logic-based than the other two, all three were interesting enough to keep me motivated despite numerous failures. Even though I liked the puzzles, I felt they could have been more involved, perhaps requiring more steps to solve.

     Implementation problems were generally minor, and fit into two categories: game problems, and (presumably) ALAN problems. For the former, there were a few pieces of scenery unimplemented, a problem or two with plural nouns (try to >eat the butterflies, for example), a default (and often inaccurate message) when trying to push things with the staff, and a few more. None of these seemed to interfere with gameplay, or detract from it in a major way. (An exception may be in the scene at the end, where it's necessary to perform an action that must be phrased in a very particular way, with shorter versions rejected for no obvious reason.)

     However, bugs or quirks in the ALAN runner (the one included with the IFComp interpreter set -- a GLK implementation, I believe) were problematic. The runner wouldn’t remember my font settings between sessions. Transcript comments that stretched beyond the line’s end caused the interpreter to crash and exit. The strangest (and most frustrating) of these problems was an issue with restoring a prior save, where certain things or events weren’t correctly initialized. For instance, the three men in cloaks are completely missing from the second room if reloading there after an exit or restart, making the game impossible to solve. The examiner doesn’t appear in the third room if restoring there. It’s as though certain aspects of the game aren’t saved and restored the way they should be. Fortunately, the game is so short that starting over is no big deal.

     The second two scenes reverse death with a “resurrecting” message. Although it’s disconcerting at first, I really appreciated it after a while, especially in the second scene, which ends on a three-turn timer. It seems like an odd decision not to have done the same thing in the first room as well, even though death isn’t a common occurrence then.

     A graphic image necessary for solving the first puzzle doesn’t show up when reading a note that’s supposed to display it. At first, I didn’t know why no text was shown for the note. After a while -- and after remembering that an image was included in the game’s directory -- I figured out what was happening. Apparently, this is another quirk in ALAN (or the GLK Windows ALAN runner). The author is aware, and the >HELP text directs the player to view the image outside the game environment in that event. However, I didn’t check the built-in help until I had completed the game.

     This is tangent to the review, but it’s good advice anyway. Don’t hide important pre-game facts behind a hint or help command that some players won’t try for fear of spoilers. I generally stay away from >HELP unless I’m stuck and looking for hints. I would rather see this kind of information in a readme.txt (which usually implies “no spoilers”), or as a separate command in the game that’s suggested to the player in a way that explicitly says it’s important and spoiler-free.

     The Ngah Angah School of Forbidden Wisdom gets one point in every category. I’ve also awarded the bonus point, because I had more fun with the game’s narrowly focused puzzles than might be implied from the score. That’s a composite score of “6” -- about average -- making for a good (if unassuming), recommendable game.

Game #23: Buried In Shoes
Author: Kazuki Mishima
Played On: November 4th (20 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:2 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 6

     Game’s Blurb:
     Everything is about the question.

     I’ve missed those quote boxes at the front of Zcode games. Whatever happened to those? They seem to have fallen out of favor.

     The next time somebody asks “what exactly is a puzzleless work of IF,” I’m going to point to Buried In Shoes. It may not be the best of its kind, but it really exemplifies the concept. It’s more than just the pressing of keys to advance the text, yet it’s still essentially a series of obvious actions used in the place of puzzles. Some optional actions are supported, but without any significant impact to the story. Players are given a small amount of freedom to temporarily hop off the story’s rails, with the reward being a little bit more information about the story and the setting.

     The story (it’s not so much a “game”) is short and surreal. After taking the slow, scenic route to the end at only fifteen minutes, I played through twice more (which took about five minutes total). It’s successfully ambiguous at first, posing multiple possibilities and allowing the player to speculate about the symbolism. Although the story doesn’t… well, “name names” so to speak… it becomes increasingly clear what’s going on as it progresses. This is confirmed by part of the >about text.

     Although I’ve scored the story a “2” (top points for the category on my scoring system for this year), it didn’t fully win me over or come with the emotional impact it might have. I may be alone in thinking this, but it seems the story wasn’t developed enough. It ends too soon after it begins, and with the whole thing feeling so hazy and rushed, it was hard to connect on the level that this particular story deserved. That doesn’t seem to be a direct result of the way it was constructed, or that the author told it in a surreal way. In fact, I found it sufficiently immersive. Maybe the author just intended it more as a reminder, without actually trying for an emotional punch.

     It’s implemented well enough on a technical level, but given the small scope, it doesn’t have to do much. I didn’t note any problems (although I did notice that “states” is spelled “staes” on a page of the >about info). The writing succeeds in being surreal, and it manages to say plenty using few words. These two aspects of the game earn 1’s -- not necessarily because of identifiable shortcomings that hold them back from 2’s, but because neither seems ambitious or developed enough to be labeled “great.”

     As the first game I’ve played in this year’s competition that lacks puzzles, it’s the first test of my scoring definition for interaction in place of puzzles. This too earns it a “1” after much thought, for a composite score of “6.” It’s an interesting story -- perhaps an interesting experiment in storytelling -- but it seems too short to draw the player in fully, and not ambitious enough to make a lasting mark among similar works of IF. It’s worth a play, though, being perfectly solid and undemanding of both a player’s time and his or her puzzle-solving abilities.

Game #24: Berrost’s Challenge
Author: Mark Hatfield
Played On: November 5th, 6th and 7th (6 hours)
Platform: TADS 2

F:1 + T:1 + P:2 + S:1 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     Just an old-school text adventure with a tip of the cap to Infocom's Enchanter series.

     That spell hasn't been invented yet.

     Berrost’s Challenge is part of a dying breed. There was a time when a game with hunger and sleep daemons, instant death, limited UNDO ability, inventory weight limits, irreversible no-win paths, and tough puzzles would have been the safe choice. Nowadays, though, even the puzzle-fests steer clear of fantasy settings and magic systems. If today’s IF shows a trend, it’s toward storytelling. This tends to sacrifice what were once the traditional aspects of “text adventures” -- namely, everything that makes the game difficult for a player to complete.

     This makes Berrost’s Challenge a shock to the system. This kind of game isn’t dead, but in the context of the annual competition, it seems to be more and more unusual. That’s not to say the IFComp is devoid of puzzle-fests, but much of the time those puzzles aren’t interesting, or they’re completely unsolvable, or the game is so seriously broken that the puzzles simply don’t work. Berrost’s Challenge has problems, yes -- including problems with the very concept of some of its puzzles -- but it comes really close to working just as the author hoped.

     What holds the game back from greatness (as a text adventure, I mean -- its story is just a contrivance for its myriad puzzles) is a lack of polish. The puzzles themselves stay just on the near side of solvable. The game features some of the best clueing I’ve seen. It’s often subtle, sometimes not, but usually just the thing to spin a player’s mind-gears in the direction it takes to think of a likely solution. The game manages to hint at when it’s necessary to look under something, search something, even listen to something -- all non-obvious things to try otherwise -- without clubbing the player with a “do this, you dummy” message. I haven’t felt such satisfaction in solving puzzles since... since I don’t remember. With most games, this requires mind-reading at one extreme, and simply doing what’s fairly obvious at the other.

     It’s that lack of polish, though, that comes close to ruining things. Guess-the-verb is a way of life for the nameless acolyte in Berrost’s Challenge. This held me back more than the puzzles themselves, which had me alternating my mood between “that was really awesome!” and “oh, you jerk, I tried that already!” Could it not be implied that >PUT X IN Y is the player’s attempt to DIP X IN Y? Could “getting” berries not imply that I intend to “pick” them?

     This is a more specific example:

     >enter well
     I don't know how to enter the old well.

     >climb into well
     I don't recognize that sentence.

     If you want to jump in the well just say so.

     >jump in well
     You climb onto the stone wall and jump into the well. I hope you know what you're doing.

     And this:

     >stand on barrel
     I don't know how to stand on the barrel.

     >climb barrel
     I don't know how to climb the barrel.

     >enter barrel
     I don't know how to enter the barrel.

     >get on barrel
     You hastily place your belongings in a pile on the ground then, sloshing water all over the floor, you hoist yourself up and into the barrel.

     And this, which I feel comfortable spoiling since it’s not exactly the solution to any puzzle:

     >put thumb in grease
     You can't dip your thumb into the tin of axle grease.

     >put grease on thumb
     You smear some of the grease on your thumb.

     Most times, these problems weren’t enough to hold me back from success. I see two reasons for that. One, in recognizing the author’s tendency to only implement a limited number of phrasings for an action, I was more likely to keep trying variations to an action that seemed to be obvious or clued, until I had exhausted every realistic phrasing I could think of. Two, there are five different “sets” of puzzles to work on from the start, so being stuck on one means I could go work on another; and in the process of doing that, I often hit on something I hadn’t previously tried for one of the others. Amazingly, this meant I was rarely stuck for long.

     As each scroll is found and its spell learned, this pool of puzzles shrinks. At the same time, though, this provides a potential “cheat” for one of the other puzzles. For instance, if a player beats Silas in thumbwrestling but can’t best him in a real wrestling match (which is required, in order to get the key to a locked chest), then the Scroll of Knock will do the trick (assuming the player already has it). Other scrolls empower the player in other ways. An incentive not to cheat comes in the form of a loss in “wit” (score) points. Using magic -- even once -- means it’s impossible to complete the game with a full 100 points.

     This aspect of the game will probably get mixed results. On the one hand, it’s nice to be given a way to bypass certain problematic puzzles. But on the other, the game’s biggest draw is the puzzles, and the urge to complete them all with full points. It’s easier to cheat by merely looking at the included hints. It’s also a shame that a game about learning and using magic actually precludes the use of it, in the effort to achieve full points. Although I digress, it would have been interesting to see what kinds of puzzles the author might have designed if aiming for the player to actually solve them in strictly magical ways.

     Even though I was rarely stuck for long, I finally reached an end to the good luck in the game’s final puzzle. I say “final,” but all the pieces were in place for me to have solved it much earlier, only I hadn’t figured it out. This one involved the previously mentioned thumbwrestling match. Everything before this, I solved without hints and without magic. This one stuck me partly due to guess-the-verb, and partly due to accidental red herrings. I had convinced myself that I needed to change the tint of something brown so that it was more flesh-colored. To that end, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out a way to grind light-colored things with the golem’s grindstone -- a piece of paper, a clam shell – but to no avail. Only then did I finally check the hints. I felt defeated enough (while kicking myself for misinterpreting the clue) to check the hints one more time on the next part of the puzzle. And then I wanted to kick the author, because I had tried that very thing -- but I had tried to “put” something on the NPC, rather than “throw” it at him.

     If Guess-the-Verb has a partner in crime, its name is Red Herring. Sometimes, the game purposely doesn’t allow an action that is just as reasonable as some other action. The solution to the thumbwrestling match is a great example of this, since it requires extra steps that wouldn’t reasonably be necessary if attempting to do the same thing in the real world. The grindstone poses another problem. It screams “use me to grind something up!” yet as far as I found, such actions are impossible. In fact, most of the game’s puzzles are open enough, and among such a large set of scenery and props, that the author has had to intentionally disallow certain solutions just to keep a high challenge level. Yet he failed to recognize (or had no time to implement) some obvious ways in which these objects might be made to work together.

     And I’d like to think that if I really wanted to kill a bird (sorry, PETA) I could do so with any of the blunt objects lying around (a rock, a board, a scrap of metal -- especially when it flies to a spot where it’s all but trapped already) without having to jump through the unusual hoops required by this particular puzzle.

     The game’s sleep and hunger puzzles are an oddity. A command is provided to turn them off, but I didn’t, since I wanted to experience the game exactly as the author intended. However, they prove pointless. As puzzles, they’re a nightmare until you figure out what to do, and then an annoyance when you have to keep doing them. It amounts to finding a “flooglemid” (which can be found over and over), and then using it at the only place where food and rest costs a single coin. That’s it. I never let things go far enough to find out what happens if you don’t replenish your concentration (which in itself seemed useless, as I wasn’t casting magic). It just seemed unnecessary.

     The inventory limit is less problematic. I found the village square to be an ideal dumping ground for everything, and it wasn’t too big an inconvenience to swap things out as needed. Still, I’m not sure this was really necessary aside from added realism, and it too can be increased by use of the game’s irreversible >curmudgeon command. It appears that a “clamshell” (is this not actually the shell of a small clam?) can hold various things to maybe help a player work around the inventory limit, but this item is hidden (some players won’t even find it), and I never tested out the theory beyond just noticing that large items would fit inside it.

     I pity the player who doesn’t keep multiple, frequent save files in Berrost’s Challenge. It’s possible to put the game into an unwinnable state in a variety of ways, and often so far back that even frequent abuse of the Flashback spell (the game’s score-subtracting >UNDO alternative) is a longshot. For instance, the spice-grinding golem will give up his broom for a few turns. The exact mechanics of this aren’t clear at first, so it’s possible to swipe the broom and head back to town. The moment you return, however, you’re golem-fodder. If there is a way to get back into the spice mill after more than a few turns have passed, I never found it. In theory, a player could spend hundreds of turns outside doing other stuff everywhere else. However, the broom is required (spoiler here) for a puzzle in the mill’s loft, so you’re effectively prevented from completing the game.

     Aside from puzzle-related problems, the game has a few other bugs. When the captain is asleep on his cot, he’s still described as doing stuff as though he’s at the top of the guardtower. This is just one of several actions that are “painted on,” by which I mean the same thing always happens in response to an action, without regard to the current state of the game. The response to “paint me” is the same as the response for any NPC (the same, too, if the NPC is sleeping). Anything put on the ledge assumes the berries. Anything put on your thumb assumes the grease. You can lose your thumb (implemented as a hidden object, apparently) when the game auto-drops all your stuff upon entering (excuse me – “getting into”) the barrel, and you can’t get it back. You can get out of the mine cart while it’s still moving, yet you don’t actually get out. The author misuses “its” and “it’s” in places.

     Why, then, with so many problems, did I enjoy this game so much? It definitely harkens back to the olden days (the 1980’s), where this was the kind of IF I played. Despite the likelihood of many alternate “real life” solutions, the in-game ones are interesting as adventure game puzzles. The thing with the bird (which I mentioned earlier) was actually one of my favorites.

     I expect reactions to be mixed, but generally negative (although I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I’m wrong). The game is too long for the IFComp, but at least it’s not lacking in ambition (a complaint I’ve had of several prior entries). The puzzles are challenging enough to prove impossible for less experienced players (and, given guess-the-verb issues, even some experienced ones). The story exists just to justify the puzzles. Various other annoyances ensure that many players will lose patience before ever getting into the puzzle-solving flow. I have scored all categories a “1,” except puzzles, which get a “2” (top points). I’ve given the bonus, because it stands out as more fun than some other games that attempt to do the same thing, for a composite score of “7.”

     It needs some polish. If the author invested some time in expanding the command grammar especially, it would be highly recommendable to puzzle game enthusiasts. It’s moderately recommendable now, for players who are willing to suffer through a few implementation problems for the sake of some cleverly conceived text adventuring.

Game #25: Magic
Author: Geoff Fortytwo
Played On: November 9th (2 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: TADS 3

F:1 + T:2 + P:1 + S:1 + W:2 + B:0 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     A story of the dangers that magicians can face.

     Everyone enjoys the XYZZY spell. Sadly, children are rarely willing to travel from their birthday parties to a debris filled room on the other side of the world in order to see it in action.

     You invoke the grand spell PLUGH and with a poof you are instantly transported to exactly where you were! For some reason this spell never gets a positive reaction at parties.

     It’s hard to know just what to make of Geoff Fortytwo’s Magic. It’s dark humor, mixed with the absurd, sprinkled with some disturbing imagery (such as the rotting corpse of a dead mime). It begins with little more than expressions of insecurity shown by a children’s party magician (apparently suffering from low self-esteem), but gradually gets more and more weird as wild rabbits attack in a run-down city, a cult of bunny-worshipers help and hinder progress, and real magic becomes a tool for the protagonist to use.

     The game offers adequate short-term goals, but doesn’t present the player with a primary objective until very near the end. Much of the game is spent just interacting with what’s around, hoping something good will come of it. These small steps peter out after a while, when there are no more hats to find or wounds to bandage. It becomes a matter of working backwards from what appears to be the primary goal: getting a hand grenade. Even this becomes a “do it because it’s there” objective, since it’s not clear why the protagonist would need such a thing until the very end.

     The game is solid. As far as I could tell, it was bug-free. I didn’t notice any guess-the-verb issues or other rough spots in the implementation. It’s also written pretty well, without noticeable spelling or grammatical problems. This alone puts it a step above much of what was entered in this year’s competition. So, that leaves the story and the puzzles.

     I already described the story: dark humor, absurd, a little disturbing in spots. It’s interesting and original, but it seems to meander a little without offering a clear point. For most of the game, it’s just a scenario in which the protagonist does stuff. Usually, when a protagonist does stuff, it’s for a reason. Here, it seems too unfocused. It’s not the typical problem of puzzles taking the place of a story, because the game is obviously trying to tell one. It’s just a hard thing to pinpoint or explain in brief, because it ends up not feeling like a story in the traditional sense.

     The puzzles hint at brilliance, but suffer from poor cluing. The protagonist learns a magic trick that plays a part in several puzzles, but it’s never quite consistent in what it does. Of course, that's not necessarily a negative -- it gives variety, after all. It transforms one thing into another, based on a comparison of the two. It allows the protagonist to look like certain NPC’s, but not every NPC. Sometimes it turns one thing into the other thing. Sometimes it gives one thing the properties of another, using the other thing as a sort of metaphoric inspiration. At least once, the transformation involves wordplay. It’s gimmicky but slick, and not something I’ve seen in IF before.

     (The next paragraph contains probable puzzle spoilers.)

     Poor hinting makes some of the puzzles next to impossible. Halfway through, I took to the built-in hints and relied heavily on them for the remainder of the game. The protagonist is expected to do certain non-obvious things that aren’t prompted or motivated in any way. It’s probably possible to stumble on them with enough trial and error, but I often felt that I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what to do without the hints. Part of the problem is that the game allows the player to beat his or her head against a dead end, without making an effort to redirect the player back to other areas. It’s necessary to solve certain puzzles before others, but it’s often unclear how that works because the player has no idea what reward will be found. For instance, a player is likely to get stuck trying to pilfer a coin from a collection plate, completely unaware that elsewhere in the game is a coin you’re supposed to find and put into the plate. In another example (the hamster wheel), a vital piece of it is hidden two objects deep, and is only discovered in a disambiguation question.

     Magic scores a “7” even without the bonus point, due to its solid implementation and well-edited writing. It’s an interesting game, but the puzzles are brought down by a lack of adequate hinting. The story, too, could be more focused than it is. Still, this is one of the more enjoyable works of IF in this year’s competition, and I recommend it.

Game #26: The Hall of the Fount of Artois
Author: Simon Ellis
Played On: November 10th (1 hour 50 minutes)
Platform: Custom (Microsoft Visual C++)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:0 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 3

     Game’s Subtitle:
     An interactive distraction.

     Game’s Blurb:
     Pierre Artois, the scion of the Artois, lies spellbound and immobile in a room in his family's home. You have one night in which to break an evil curse and restore the hopes and future of the ancient family!

     Oooooooh. That’s the wheezing, deflating, pitiful groan of somebody who expected more of Artois but instead got a typical homebrew with all the typical problems. It even offers up some atypical ones, such as a “game restore” feature that crashes the game.

     I honestly think I would have made it much further if I had not misinterpreted the description of the upstairs landing. I thought the hall ran west and then curved back to the northeast from there. Instead, west and northeast were two of the directions available from the landing. This meant I never found some important objects needed to get me past the point where I was stuck, which was roughly halfway through the game. I may just have missed that one. I’m positive, though, that “south” wasn’t mentioned as an exit from the corner of the lane beyond the terrace, yet a player must go that way as well.

     Eventually, I restarted and followed the walkthrough exactly. This proved problematic as well, since using the built-in restart (“quit” and then answer “yes” to restart) doesn’t reset the protagonist’s inventory weight. I had to actually close the game and open it again so that I could pick stuff up a short ways into the game.

     The game does a better job of recognizing that a verb is a verb and a noun is an object in the game than many custom-made efforts I’ve seen, but only barely. It still suffers from “you can’t do that” messages that are often too ambiguous. It’s not always clear if the game doesn’t recognize a verb, if it only doesn’t recognize it in that context, or if it doesn’t recognize it because no indirect object was specified (>pick lock is a good example of that). It has no undo, no scrollback buffer (an aspect of the compiler used), an always-terse mode that can’t be switched to verbose (made worse because room inventory is hidden as well), no >x in place of >examine, almost no implemented scenery unless it’s in the list of “green” text following the room description, no “it” or “them” to re-reference the last object, too few verb and noun synonyms, and no transcript feature.

     Items described as “open” cannot be closed. Actions described in the text -- shaking the bell, for instance -- aren’t actually supported. It has some kind of underground cellar maze. Some objects (such as the “torch”) aren’t described well enough to help a player understand why they aren’t working. Any direction but south from the grounds north of the lane gives an “ok” message but nothing else happens. Rooms described as being elegantly furnished have no explicitly mentioned scenery at all, and for all practical purposes are completely empty. Most rooms exist only to house a single object, and some rooms seem to have nothing of importance at all.

     It seems the protagonist has requested that everything and everyone be removed prior to his arrival. Really. No joke. That’s what’s going on, according to the letter in the curse-breaker’s inventory.

     Above all, the player is dumped into the first room of the Artois mansion with absolutely no clue as to what’s happening. That would be forgivable for a few turns if the game at least offered an immediate goal (or if it was assured every player would read the game’s IFComp blurb in advance). Eventually, a player will check his or her inventory and find that letter -- the one that explains the mission (find and “heal” Pierre Artois). This might have worked for me if I had found the room where Pierre was located, but unfortunately it was in that area upstairs that I mistakenly thought didn’t exist. Even knowing the goal and finding a book that explains curse-breaking isn’t quite enough. For that matter, what qualifications does this guy have if he came in without any clue as to how to break the curse he was hired to break?

     The puzzles aren’t presented in a way where the primary goal is in sight, but one thing stands in the way, yet something else stands in the way of that, and so forth. It’s like that, yes, but it’s completely opaque to the player. You can only ever see the puzzles at hand, so a leap of faith is required to assume that this odd, fiddly thing will ultimately lead you in the direction of the next puzzle, and eventually to a cure for Pierre’s cursed state. It’s hard to say how well this would have worked over the course of the game. I wasn’t inclined to play this one beyond its allotted two hours, so when it became clear I wouldn’t get through it in time, I typed commands robotically from the walkthrough without paying much attention to the puzzles that were being breezed through as a result.

     It offers very little in the way of originality, and even seems to scrape the proverbial barrel bottom in later segments for inspiration. For instance, an oddly placed Sphinx impedes progress, and its riddle is the one we’re all painfully familiar with already. Shortly before, a dragon wants gold coins (although I’m not sure why).

     Here’s a tip to future authors. If you give me a sledgehammer, hit and break had darned well better be recognized as verbs, and in more places than just the single room where smashing something is actually allowed.

     What’s more fun than playing this game? Singing “It’s the Hall of the Fount of Artois” to the beat of the Michael Jackson lyric “Mama se, mama sa, mama coo sa.” It’s eerie how well it works, as long as you don’t pronounce “Artois” the French way. What’s more fun than that? Inventing your own ending, where you dig up the bag of gold coins and simply leave the manor as a rich, rich man.

     I scored it a “3” -- one point for the writing (which really isn’t bad), one for the puzzles (which do have their moments), and the “free” point. I gave no points for the implementation or the story. It has nothing to make it recommendable, except perhaps a joke involving the “bladed agricultural implement.” Even that only serves to prove that the author is aware of how rigidly constructed his game is.

     It’s clear that the author simply isn’t familiar enough with interactive fiction. He probably based Artois on his fond memories of it, without realizing the alternatives to home-brewed games. Although this review is more critical and less forgiving than most, I hope it doesn’t discourage the author from giving it another shot. But by all means, check out the far better and more successful games out there today, especially the higher-ranking ones from this competition. You’ll be surprised at just how much you missed when it came to implementing and designing Artois.

Game #27: The Lighthouse
Authors: Eric Hickman & Nathan Chung
Played On: November 11th (5 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:0 + P:0 + S:0 + W:0 + B:1 = SCORE: 2

     Game’s Blurb:
     The Lighthouse is a small game in where your main foucus is to turn on the light in the Havenworth lighthouse. This game is very short and also is my very first game!

     I feel so bad for the game’s authors that I’ve added the bonus point to the free point, just so I wouldn’t have to put The Lighthouse on the same level as The Absolute Worst IF Game in History. This isn’t really even a game. It’s a collection of grammatical errors, locks and obvious keys, a button, and a profound lack of experience with both Inform and Interactive Fiction in general. It doesn’t feel like a joke entry, which makes it all the more disappointing.

Game #28: Bobby T. Minion in 'Escape from the Underworld'
Author: Karl Beecher
Played On: November 11th and 12th (1 hour 40 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:2 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 6

     Game’s Blurb:
     Take control of Bobby T. Minion, the demon who has had a change of heart, and help him escape from the Underworld, the place to where torturing the souls of the damned has been outsourced.

     I’ve had a week-long virus that is unfortunately kicking my butt something fierce. In the interest of at least finishing one more review while I’m lucid, this will be a brief one.

     The story is good, although it feels a little less than original (and I’m still not sure how suddenly the entire underworld knew this one little minion was on his way out near the end). The writing is okay too, but seemed to stumble occasionally with odd wording choices.

     Puzzles are the strongest feature of Escape from the Underworld, but they’re not as smooth as they might be due to implementation problems. Soldering the wire and using the phone are two of the biggest offenders. The author forces guess-the-verb situations, which means “solving” the puzzle is only half the battle.

     All in all, I like Escape from the Underworld. I couldn’t think of a good reason to give the bonus point, but with a “2” for puzzles and a “1” in the other categories, that’s a solid “6”. The author has apparently envisioned more games in this series, and I’d like to see where Bobby T. Minion goes from here.

Game #29: A Martian Odyssey
Author: Horatiu Romosan
(Based on a story by Stanley G. Weinbaum)
Played On: November 15th (1 hour 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 5

     Game’s Blurb:
     A science fiction text adventure of space exploration and interpersonal communication

     You are D. Jarvis, chemist of the famous crew, the Ares expedition, first human beings to set foot on the mysterious neighbor of the earth, the planet Mars.

     Players without sound -- or with their computer’s volume turned down -- will wonder why this game’s primary file weighs in at fifty megabytes. Several strange melodies (ambient “soundscapes” by composer Thom Brennan) play throughout the game, apparently embedded in the glulx game file.

     After completing A Martian Odyssey, I intended to base my review around several observations. The story seems to take place in an alternate history, where somebody named “Doheny” invented atomic power, somebody named “Cardoza” was the first visitor to the moon, and decades of NASA studies are disputed by its very premise, which is that our neighbor in space, Mars, is teeming with alien life and structures that would be easily identifiable by today’s long-range observation. I was going to applaud the author’s statistical research (although I didn’t verify the numbers shown). I was going to mention that the series of encounters reminded me quite a bit of vintage sci-fi (Hal Clement, perhaps). I was going to point out, maybe, that this would have made a good story back when everything under the sun really hadn’t been written, and when humanity had a more shrouded and mysterious perception of our own solar system. I was even going to suggest that “Dick” and “Putz” are less than flattering names.

     However, A Martian Odyssey doesn’t just sound like something that should already exist. It does exist. Despite a collection of old sci-fi novels and anthologies numbering in the thousands, I was completely unfamiliar with Stanley G. Weinbaum. The story, originally published in an issue of Wonder Stories in 1934, is not protected by copyright and can be downloaded here. (Update: Ha! I do have this. It’s the first story in the 1970 Science Fiction Hall of Fame paperback, edited by Robert Silverberg.)

     So, this review shifts to different points: does this static-to-interactive conversion work here, and does it succeed as interactive fiction in its own right?

     I haven’t read the complete story (although it’s short enough, I probably will) -- I’ve merely skimmed it. But it’s clear that the events on Mars are related by Jarvis to the others after the adventure has ended. In his game, Romosan sticks with the traditional second-person imperative. This makes it more a typical exploration adventure, rather than the frequently interrupted telling to wide-eyed disbelievers that Weinbaum intended it to be.

     Romosan takes inspiration from the story for the game’s few puzzles, but they’re often so poorly clued that the walkthrough becomes a player’s only salvation.

     This, from the original story...

     “Anyway, I rigged up a harness from some seat straps, and put the water tank on my back, took a cartridge belt and revolver, and some iron rations, and started out.”

     ...becomes a puzzle in which I attempted, with increasing levels of frustration, to somehow disconnect and untie the tank from my suit, since the game was adamant that I could not leave with it “connected” or still “tied to” me. I had overlooked the straps in the seat, disregarding them as unnecessary scenery. Even when the thought occurred to me that I might leave with the tank, I found no good way to harness it to my suit. This could have worked, but it needed better clueing.

     And this...

     “...and then I noticed the smoke eddying and swirling past us, and sure enough, there was the entrance!”

     ...becomes an exercise in mind-reading, where a player must deduce that >follow smoke is a viable course of action. This may be solvable just by moving in the same direction as the smoke, but when I tried that at first, the smoke seemed to disappear from the room descriptions.

     Romosan allows players to stray from Weinbaum’s story in a few instances. It’s possible to kill Tweel as early as the first meeting, for instance. I did not play forward to see how that works out, but I suspect there are no circumstances that would force a no-win situation as a result. It’s even possible to die, which certainly wouldn’t have meshed with an after-the-fact telling. This justifies the leap to interactivity, sure -- but at the risk of becoming a different story. This is one of the many debatable points in static-to-interactive conversions. Even if it’s good to allow freedom and flexibility, the game probably should have taken steps to encourage more communication between Jarvis and Tweel earlier in the story. It wasn’t until much later that I even tried, and only then learning it had a name.

     A few implementation problems give the game a not-so-polished feel. Missing blank lines and extra blank lines throw off the layout in places. A “programming error” dealing with distance, when viewing the controls in the downed rocket, seemed the sort of thing that would have been noticed in beta-testing (and for that matter, some of the numbers keep changing). Guess-the-verb was problematic (an instance springing readily to mind is when >enter mine wasn’t the correct action but >down was). Going west from the mine links back to the wrong location (and incidentally, this allows the player to encounter a waving Putz again, even though it’s just painted onto the room text). Too few “things” in the game world (scenery, mainly) are implemented even for basic examination.

     As interactive fiction, A Martian Odyssey doesn’t succeed in the same way its source material does. Underclued puzzles and minor implementation problems aside, it just feels too sparse. Weinbaum got away with it because his Jarvis was skimming over the dull and focusing on the exciting. Told in a traditional text adventure way, though, a player needs more than just one-liners to describe the thrill and grandeur of standing on a different planet for the first time. Do the following passages inspire awe? Not really.

     Crash site
     A barren desert stretches as far as you can see. Only the crashed rocket breaks the surrounding monotony.

     You start cussing the fellows for not picking you up.

     Thyle II
     A desert of soft sand with nothing to see.

     You cuss Karl's cranky motor.

     On the edge of a canal on Thyle II
     Just a dry, green ditch about four hundred feet wide, and straight as a railroad on its own company map.

     As you step into the canal, the green lawn surrounding you moves out of the way!

     Okay, well, maybe that last line.

     Everything just comes across as too bland and rushed-through in the game. That’s not to say A Martian Odyssey the short story couldn’t work as interactive fiction. Only that, in this reviewer’s opinion, it didn’t here. I’ve given it a “1” (half-points) in every category, which scores it a “5” out of 10. I considered the bonus point as well (the ambient music, while not the author’s, was appropriately moody), but didn’t after noticing that my score distribution was pretty “6”-heavy already.

     A minor gripe, saved as an afterthought, is that it isn’t possible to bring Tweel along at the end. The game seemed to hint that it should be, so I spent some time replaying the last few moves hoping to accomplish something more. The end, however, plays out just like the Weinbaum original, so it stands to reason this wasn’t meant to be.

Game #30: Nightfall
Author: Eric Eve
Played On: November 15th (2 hour 30 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:2 + P:2 + S:2 + W:2 + B:0 = SCORE: 9

     Game’s Blurb:
     The Enemy is expected to arrive at any moment. Staying behind is either the stupidest or the bravest thing you've ever done. Only one thing - or one person - could have made you stay. So now there's nothing for it but to find her before it's too late.

     There's no orange smoke and no magical translation; if you want to go somewhere you'll just have to walk.

     I didn’t get the chance to review Nightfall before the results were announced, but I played (literally right up to the voting deadline) in time to cast a vote. Its second-place finish is exactly what I expected, so seeing the results doesn’t seem like much of a pre-review spoiler.

     Since I played through Nightfall the night of November 15th, the game’s urgency came across far better than it might have otherwise. At the start, though, I checked the map and my first words muttered were “oh (f-word).” The map is enormous, and I’m accustomed to Eric’s games being large, thought-provoking, puzzle-filled enterprises that take far longer than two hours to complete. I suppose if I expected any different this time, it was wishful thinking.

     However, the game has a pace that almost carries the player along. The >go to (location) ability is a life-saver, coupled with the provided map. The game plays out as the protagonist follows a series of clues, looking for her (a girl he’s crushed on for many years) before an unknown “enemy” invades the city or conquers it or destroys it or something. Every moment could be the last, and the urgency comes across well in the story despite all the side endeavors and memories.

     Amazingly, I completed the game at about two hours, albeit with a losing ending. Of my complaints about the game (all of which are fairly nit-picky), this is the first. This losing ending felt like a fitting, albeit tragic winning ending. My first reaction was that this was exactly what was supposed to happen. It was only after casting the vote and playing past the voting deadline that I began to retrace steps, follow up on additional clues, and ultimately check the walkthrough.

     I haven’t yet gone through the game again from the walkthrough, but I did manage a winning ending just by re-loading at the endgame and taking a suggestion from the walkthrough. Actually, the game diverges enough even at that late stage that it’s possible to get a couple of winning endings (one of which even leaves the nature of “things” a mystery to the protagonist).

     Nightfall is a perfect example of kinder, gentler, modern-day interactive fiction that still manages to offer a challenge. It’s user-friendly beyond a point I’ve seen in most other games, not just in its auto-navigation but in its near-perfect >think clueing, its automatic handling of mundane tasks (unlocking doors if you have the key, for instance), and some puzzles that can be avoided entirely.

     Some of it, I just didn’t understand (although it might become more clear with the longer route offered in the walkthrough). Why were some of the status-listed directions in all-caps, and some not? I thought it might have something to do with “her” name (I’ve assumed the last name after learning the first), but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why couldn’t the protagonist think of her as anything but “her” until the end? And this is more a nit-pick than a plot head-scratcher, but if the protagonist wasn’t athletic enough to climb a light pole, how could he trek the city (presumably miles and many miles of walking) over the course of the story (which can run long) without tiring? Adrenaline? Love?

     Despite what sometimes feels like hand-holding (I’ll call it good pacing), it has a story that should keep most players nail-biting and seat-edge-sitting for its duration. Few other games have made me want to know what is happening to this degree, where the premise of a city under evacuation comes across as perfectly plausible and immersive. It’s interspersed with memories of “her” (which can be a little annoying, but only a little -- and a big part of the point of the game), but most of the game is focused on the task at hand. Very little gets in the way of being swept along with the game’s flow.

     With little time to reflect, I voted the game a “9.” Upon reflection, that’s top points in every category (the writing, the implementation, the puzzles, the story -- it’s all top-notch), but without the bonus point. It comes close to being the best of this year’s competition, and with its large geography and epic plotline, is actually the antithesis of the game that just nudges it out.

     Well done, and a must-play.

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