Of Forms Unknown by Chris Markwyn [Comp96]

IFDB page: Of Forms Unknown
Final placement: 20th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Potential for an interesting game totally ruined by buggy coding. The game was put together in 3 weeks, and I’m afraid it shows. The author wisely admits that the game is highly derivative of So Far — this would be fine if not for the fact that So Far actually worked, and Of Forms Unknown does not. I quit after wrestling extensively with the illogic built into the game’s coding structure and finally going to the hints, following the explicit instructions for solving a puzzle (the frame, rope, and light bar), and finding that even after following the instructions, the puzzle remained unsolved.

Prose: Struggling to reach Plotkin level. The pieces of prose which are the most successful are the ones most imitative of Plotkin. The rest is utilitarian, with the exception of the prose which makes no sense at all.

Difficulty: Impossible. The game’s buggy coding made progress impossible for me well before I got to the bug the author discussed on rec.arts.int-fiction. Of course, this means that the point at which I quit actually was a passable point, but to my mind if the walkthrough doesn’t get you where you need to be, the game is impossible.

Technical (coding): Extremely poor. From small points like the lack of a new_line after some inventory calls to rather glaring problems such as the broken frame puzzle (try tying a rope to the frame, then tying something to the rope, then walking away holding the tied object — works mighty easily!) and the fact that dropped objects all seem to become concealed somehow.

Technical (writing): No errors that leaped out at me. However, to be fair, I didn’t see the whole game.

Plot: In So Far, the lack of a coherent plot was a bit frustrating to me, but I could hold my frustration in abeyance because of the game’s many fine features. This game offers no such redemption, and suffers greatly from being an imitation springing from a cliché (the college dorm room as starting point).

Puzzles: Ranging from highly illogical to basically logical but impossible to complete. For example, lighting a dark room (whose description reads “You can’t see a thing”) by saying “turn on light” not only goes against the logic of the description (isn’t the light switch one of the things you can’t see?), but also against one of the most standard conventions of interactive fiction, which suggests that even a light switch in a dark room is inaccessible without a faint light by which to discern it. Delusions had the answer to this — Forms does not. Another example is the dials in the shaft — what is the logic behind setting them all to 0? Only the arbitrary logic of the game, such as the decision that for some reason bringing a light source into a cave through the door extinguishes that source for no good reason.

OVERALL — A 1.5

My First Stupid Game by Dan McPherson [Comp96]

IFDB page: My First Stupid Game
Final placement: 26th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Let’s see: boring, juvenile, bad coding, irritating descriptions, dumb goals. That pretty much covers it. Basically everything about the game was at a pre-adolescent level, from the obsession with Barney the dinosaur to the fact that urinating was the game’s primary objective. It’s games like this that give AGT such a rotten reputation.

Prose: The author wisely didn’t write very much, so there isn’t that much to slam. The middle-school level of diction (“piss”, “eyeballs oozing gore,” etc.) was extremely annoying.

Difficulty: Thankfully little. The less time spent in this game the better.

Technical (coding): How about a turkey sandwich you can’t call “turkey”? How about a wooden door you can’t call “wooden”? How about a snide rejection to “get all”?

Technical (writing): Remarkably, I noticed no errors. Perhaps when this writer has something to say he’ll be able to do a creditable job of it.

Plot: I can’t see any such thing.

Puzzles: The main puzzle is “Why did he enter this in the competition?” That one is pretty hard to solve. The rest were complete clichés. Feed a hungry monster. Unlock a door. Overcome the time limit with which the game started. I can’t decide which is worse.

OVERALL — A 1.6

Fear by Chuan-Tze Teo [Comp96]

IFDB page: Fear
Final placement: 6th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Another very strong Inform game. The concept here gave a new spin to the “locked-door” genre of puzzles, and it was a delicious irony that the purpose of the game was to get through metaphorical “locked doors” of emotion and reach a final climax of unlocking a physical door to get out of a house rather than into one. However, this key feature of the endgame also provided one of the game’s logical flaws — how many houses lock from the outside? The game didn’t seem to take into account the notion that someone inside a house should be able to unlock the front door without a key. SPOILERY NOTE — in the two hours allotted I did not reach the endgame. However, I had figured out from the first time the sirens approached that the key to dealing with the police was to unlock the door before they broke it down.

Prose: Quite good. Describing different kinds of fear is not an easy task, and the author acquitted himself well. The opening was gripping, and the descriptions of the objects of terror (especially the spider) were very evocative.

Difficulty: I found the game quite difficult, and rather jarring in its swings from totally plot-based puzzles (overcoming fears to pass obstacles) to extremely mechanical puzzles (the Egyptian statues, the duck.) Again the time limit and my immersion in the plot led me to the hints much more often than I would have used them in a non-competition situation. However, I can’t say I wouldn’t have used them anyway, especially with the statue puzzle.

Technical (coding): Fairly smoothly coded work. Can’t recall ever running into any coding jams, and many situations were well-anticipated. However, several were not. I mentioned my strong beef against the locked front door, which should have been coded beyond a standard response. Another example is the jammed drawer, which could not be pried with the plate but did respond to a kick (this illogic creates a bit of a “guess-the- verb” puzzle) and falls to the ground still described as “closed.”

Technical (writing): Errors were few and far between. In fact, the only error that stands out in my mind is a reference to a light hooked to “the mains power supply”, and even that may be attributable to my ignorance of electrical terminology.

Plot: The plot of Fear was basically a clever way of stringing together a number of mechanical puzzles, but it worked charmingly. Again, this review is written without knowledge of the endgame, but I anticipate a clearing of the amnesia, an alleviation of the oppressive emotional weight, and a general tying together of loose ends.

Puzzles: The puzzles were quite good, though quite difficult for me. Then again, I’m not a great puzzle solver. For me the primary appeal of interactive fiction is the emotional pleasure of experiencing a world and moving through a gripping plot rather than the more cerebral aspect of puzzle-solving. For my taste, Fear came down just a bit too heavy on the puzzles, making it a little too hard for me to move through the story.

OVERALL — An 8.8

Delusions by C.E. Forman as Anonymous [Comp96]

IFDB page: Delusions
Final placement: 3rd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Incredible game. Basically excellent in every respect — brilliant idea, (almost) flawlessly executed, great plot, well-thought-out puzzles. Just a gem in every respect. The only drawback (and I admit this is a quibble) is that the author’s notes tend to get a little irritating. The overall level of quality is stunningly high (though a bit depressing — after playing Delusions, I became certain that my entry was not going to win the competition.) The game was so good that it almost made me wonder if the anonymous author was a former Infocom implementor in disguise. I’m looking forward with great eagerness to completing the game (which I wasn’t able to get through in two hours)!

Prose: Infocom-level prose — not at classic literature level but more than sufficient to get one’s heart racing and chills mounting. The descriptions of virtual reality entrances and exits skirted the edge of histrionics but always came down on the right side. And the level of detail was a terrific kick — I especially loved the futuristic game of Jeopardy!.

Difficulty: I didn’t find the game terribly difficult, but found myself checking the hints quite a bit simply because I wanted to see as much of the game as I could in the two hours allotted. The excitement of seeing the second act unravel left me with little patience for struggling with puzzles. If I had not been in a time limit situation, I’m sure this would not have been true.

Technical (coding): One of the best coding jobs I’ve ever seen. The shifting responses to “examine” and the number of objects and possible combinations of those objects gave the world a stunningly rich level of verisimilitude.

Technical (writing): Basically flawless. I didn’t find one single grammar or spelling error.

Plot: First-rate. Extremely clever ideas masterfully revealed. The idea of Satan as a virus, the world as a VR construct, and God as a blind, black, bitter woman may be a little skewed theologically, but it made for totally engrossing IF. I look forward to the endgame with great anticipation.

Puzzles: I found Delusions to have exactly the right kind of puzzles for my taste in IF. Nothing arbitrary, nothing typical, and absolutely consistent with the described world and the advancing plot. The game proves that story-oriented IF does not have to be a cakewalk.

OVERALL — A 9.8

Don’t Be Late by Greg Ewing [Comp96]

IFDB page: Don’t Be Late
Final placement: 22nd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Very simple game — the first I’ve ever played in ALAN, so I’m not sure how much technical stuff to attribute to the language and how much to the author. Consequently, I’ll attribute all of it to the author. Starting in “your house” with “your computer” on the table strongly reminiscent of Bureaucracy, but not as interesting. Some really grievous parser omissions (I don’t know the word “get”?) Circular structure a fun gimmick, but only for a few minutes. No real puzzles to speak of, nor much of an atmosphere. In fact, there’s really not too much to do besides wrestle with the parser.

Prose: Serviceable, but nothing more. There was so little of it, it’s really hard to judge. Very little description, very few objects. A pretty sparse world. The prose that was there did its job, but nothing more.

Difficulty: Apart from parser struggles, extremely easy. The only thing resembling a “puzzle” would be incredibly easy if it wasn’t for trying to figure out the correct syntax.

Technical (coding): As mentioned, the parser was quite weak. Some extremely standard IF words not implemented. I just about quit when I realized it didn’t know the word “get.”

Technical (writing): What little prose there was showed no significant grammar or spelling errors.

Plot: This was probably the most interesting feature of the game, and it wasn’t really all that interesting. It involves an Escherian reflection — the object of the game is to play the game, and you can apparently play the “game-within-a-game” until you get really tired of it. This will probably happen pretty quickly.

Puzzles: None to speak of. With a quality parser, this game would probably have taken a good 10 minutes to solve.

OVERALL — a 4.8

Alien Abduction? by Charles Gerlach [Comp96]

IFDB page: Alien Abduction?
Final placement: 9th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Really provocative premise. Loved the Twilight Zone feel of things, and finding out more about character’s (and character’s father’s) past worked quite effectively. On the downside, some fairly significant omissions (including an axe but not implementing “chop” or “cut”, making a puzzle where a significant portion keeps responding “that’s not important” [this is the spring arm on the contraption & the axe], having the laughable response “It’s not effective to attack with the axe.”)

Prose: Generally effective, and sometimes quite chilling. A bit of awkwardness shows through at times, but never enough to jar.

Difficulty: Except for one major “guess the verb” puzzle (the springarm), this was pretty straightforward. The most difficult part for me (aside from the springarm) was figuring out to get a “real” axe first.

Technical (coding): Some errors including no response to putting things in cylinder, TADS errors on taking shapes. Much was anticipated, but some significant things were not. Could use another round of beta testing.

Technical (writing): Virtually no spelling or grammar errors jumped out. Well-proofed work.

Plot: Outstanding. With the exception of a somewhat disappointing ending (though justifiable — I just crave closure), AA gave a hint of how truly chilling suspense-oriented IF can be. The premise, the way information was slowly released, the drama & emotional intensity were really all quite strong. This was definitely the most enjoyable aspect of the game.

Puzzles: One or two quite clever (the duck), most well-oriented to moving the plot along. The “aliens testing your mental capacity” was an excellent pretense for puzzles. Hints were generally quite well-done, and with the exception of the springarm thing, puzzles were overall pretty good.

OVERALL — a 7.8

Aayela by Magnus Olsson [Comp96]

IFDB page: Aayela
Final placement: 10th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This review was written more as a series of notes than an actual review. It wasn’t until later in the process of playing the competition entries that I arrived at the style of reviewing each game in detail. My apologies to Magnus for providing such an incomplete evaluation. My main memory of Aayela was that crawling in dark is an interesting device which could make for an intense episode in a longer game (and, in fact, already has in the case of So Far.) As the bulk of this game, it made for an interesting experiment.

Prose: Often good, sometimes a bit over the top. Crawling in the dark hearing ethereal chords is unfortunately a bit reminiscent of So Far. Especially unfortunate if the design of Aayela preceded So Far.

Difficulty: Quite easy actually. An enjoyable vignette.

Technical (coding): Enjoyed being able to feel and smell. Most commands were anticipated quite well. One or two TADS error instances.

Technical (writing): One or two rather glaring mistakes (“an insisten breeze”). On the whole quite proficient.

Plot: Very simple, but serves its purpose.

Puzzles: Again quite simple, but vividly rendered.

OVERALL — a 7.5

About my 1996 IF Competition reviews

The 1995 IF Competition knocked me out. That year, the comp was split (for the first and only time) into two divisions: Inform and TADS. Both of the winning games were fantastic, and the “finishable in two hours” rule broke them out of the Infocom mold that had thus far dictated almost all amateur IF.

The Infocom canon still dominated my own mindset and outlook on IF at that time. I’ll break out phrases like “Infocom-level prose”, and reference various Infocom games to provide a frame of reference for my views on the comp games. 1996 was also the year that Activision released Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom, a CD-ROM collection of every Infocom game plus the top 6 games from the 1995 IF Competition. The fact that those amateur games could get the “official” Infocom imprimatur took my breath away. I wanted in, badly.

In 1996, I submitted my own game to the comp, Wearing The Claw. I also decided I’d play and submit scores for every game that had been entered. I did so, running through the games in alphabetical order by filename, which worked out to almost alphabetical order by game, but not quite. So that I could decide what scores to give, I took notes during gameplay, tracking how well the game measured up in categories like prose, puzzles, plot, technical achievement, and so forth.

Having seen reviews posted for the 1995 games, and hoping for a lot of feedback on my own work, I decided quickly to turn my notes into “reviews”, but as the scare quotes should tell you, they’re not exactly worthy of the name, especially the early ones. Even through the process of writing about the games, I was learning how I wanted to write about the games, which was sadly a little inequitable for the games that fell in the early part of the alphabet, and especially for the one that started with “Aa”. Sentence fragments abound, and much of what I wrote was more for myself than anyone else.

By the time I got to the final game, Tapestry, which was brilliant and ended up taking second place, I’d developed a more coherent approach. That approach would also change over the years, but at least it didn’t shortchange Daniel Ravipinto the way that it had Magnus Olsson, author of Aayela. That said, I’ve cleaned up these reviews a little, at least standardizing the punctuation and capitalization.

For the 1996 comp game reviews, I’ll provide the following:

  • IFDB page
  • Final comp placement
  • Intro sentences
  • Assessments of the following attributes:
    • Prose
    • Difficulty
    • Technical achievement, split into writing and coding subcategories
    • Plot
    • Puzzles
  • Overall score

I originally posted my reviews for the 1996 IF Competition games on December 3, 1996.

Some notes on IF Competition reviews

From 1996 to 2004, I reviewed almost every game submitted to the IF Competition. There were a few exceptions, though:

  • My own games, for obvious reasons.
  • The games for which I was a beta tester: Mother Loose and All Roads. Both of these games were excellent, but I didn’t review them since I felt like I’d influenced them.
  • The 1996 game Promoted!, which required the OS/2 operating system to run. (Though it has since been ported to Inform.)
  • The 2000 games Infil-Traitor and Happy Ever After, which had known bugs that required recompilation before the games were viable. I’m a bit persnickety about playing games in the state in which they were submitted on the deadline day, and I viewed those games as ineligible based on their initial brokenness.
  • The 2001 game Begegnung Am Fluss, which was in German.
  • Games written by newsgroup trolls (defined by me as people who have made multiple, unprovoked, personal attacks on newsgroup regulars), which I didn’t have the ability or inclination to review fairly.

Everything else, though, will be showing up here. I’m going to add every review as its own post, even though that will sometimes make for some pretty short posts, especially for reviews from the earlier years, before I came into my full superverbosity. My reason for this is that I’d like to be able to link directly to a review, rather than an anchor tag on a page full of reviews. I’m planning to add pages here that index all the games both by comp year and overall, and it will be way easier if each review is self-contained.

I’m also going to be leaning heavily on the wonderful Interactive Fiction Database, which contains a comprehensive catalog of interactive fiction works. For each game, I’ll provide a link to its IFDB page, and anytime I reference a game I’ll link to IFDB, just as I have above. I would love it if these posts can bring attention to some of the wonderful IF of the past. (Or even some of the dire IF of the past, if that’s for some reason what you fancy.)

Like much of >INVENTORY, my approach will be a bit experimental, and I expect to learn and iterate as I go. At the very least, I want to indicate which year’s comp contained the game, who wrote it, how it placed, and what score I gave it. A note about my scoring — although competition scores are always submitted as integers from 1 to 10, my own reviews add one decimal place to that score, because I often found that I wanted to express a bit more nuance. A high 7 feels different (to me) from a low 7… y’know? For the purposes of my submitted scores, I’d always round up on .5, so for example that lowest possible 7 would be 6.5, and the highest possible 7 would be 7.4. I also made it my practice to stop playing after two hours, whether I was finished or not, and base my score and review on that two-hour (or less) experience.

One last thing — from 1997 onwards, the competition game package came with a tiny little program that would provide you with a list of the games in randomized order. Like most judges, I can’t help but be influenced by the order in which I experience things, and playing the 1996 games in alphabetical order by title may have unfairly influenced some scores. Consequently, I always played the games thenceforward in a random order to eliminate that bias.

I will be posting my comp game reviews in the order I played them. As time went on, that sequence became a journey in itself, and reviews of later games would be influenced by reviews of earlier games. Never fear, the site will be searchable, and I’ll provide pages which list the games alphabetically.

Introducing >INVENTORY

I started writing reviews of interactive fiction games in 1996. I think it’s only old people who start stories with, “In those days…”, but apparently the shoe fits, so in those days, the IF community was small, cohesive, and centered in a couple of Usenet newsgroups: rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction. For those who weren’t there, newsgroups were essentially discussion forums, consisting wholly of text — posts and threads. “Arts” was about creating IF, and “games” was about playing it. (“Rec” meant “recreation” — there were various top-level hierarchies that… you know what, it doesn’t matter.)

The text-only medium of newsgroups was perfect for text adventure aficionados, and while they thrived, those groups were the fertile soil from which sprung many of the pillars that support even today’s IF scene: Inform, TADS, the IF Archive, and most importantly for my purposes, the Interactive Fiction Competition.

The comp, as it was affectionately known, started in 1995 as a way to spur the creation of more short IF — see in those days most authors were trying to ape Infocom by writing long, puzzly games that would have fit nicely onto store shelves in 1985. The comp changed that, dramatically. Kevin Wilson, founder of the comp, gave it just one rule: every game had to be winnable in under two hours. The first year saw 12 games entered. The next year: 26. And it took off from there.

Opening screen of Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather
A Change In The Weather, winner of the first IFComp, Inform division

I was on fire for IF in those days. I couldn’t get enough of the newsgroups, the games, the languages. I spent my nights immersed in learning Inform, creating little worlds and gleefully walking around in them. The competition was the perfect opportunity for me to actually finish one of these virtual puzzleboxes and send it out into the world in hopes of feedback. That first attempt was called Wearing The Claw, and while I find it rather cringey to look back on now, it did at least land in the upper half of the 1996 comp — 8th place. And boy did I get a lot of feedback on it!

In those days, you see, there was a strong culture of feedback in place, and the comp helped that culture grow explosively. Tons of people would review the comp games, and as an author, you could get a cornucopia of input that would help you understand where you went right this time and how to do better next time. It was invaluable, and I wanted to be part of it, so I reviewed every 1996 comp game.

Then I reviewed every comp game (with a few exceptions) every year all the way up through 2004, which not coincidentally was the year before my son was born. I also wrote reviews of various other IF and IF-adjacent games, and spent several years editing a text adventure webzine called SPAG.

For a couple of decades now, those reviews and writings have been housed on the personal web site I created back in the 90s with my trusty copy of HTML For Dummies. However, my crystal ball tells me that this web site’s days may be numbered. It lives on a legacy server at the University of Colorado (where I still work), and nobody is super excited about hosting old student websites from the 20th century anymore. Plus, those old reviews are absolutely festooned with dead links and ugly typography.

Enter >INVENTORY. This blog will eventually house all my writing about IF, including every comp review, every IF-Review entry, every XYZZY Awards solicited review, and everything else I can think of. >SUPERVERBOSE will remain my primary blog, and new writing about IF will go there as well as here, but >INVENTORY, as its name suggests, will house the exhaustive trove that currently lives on my old web site.

As time permits, I’ll be transferring comp reviews into this blog, where they can be searched, indexed, googled, and so forth. Once that project is done, I’ll start on all the other IFfy stuff I’ve written over the years. It’s quite possible I’ll append some of it with reflections or current thoughts as the mood strikes me.

In my first innocent post to rec.games.int-fiction, I called myself “a major devotee of IF.” While many other passions have laid their claims upon my time, that fire still smolders inside me, and I look forward eagerly to revisiting the many happy hours I spent with IF games and IF arts. As with everything I write, I hope it proves enjoyable and/or useful to somebody else out there too.