Phlegm by Jason Dyer as Adjacent Drooler [Comp96]

IFDB page: Phlegm
Final placement: 17th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

A thoroughly whacked-out romp through realms of surrealism only barely touched on by Nord and Bert, Phlegm is pretty low on logic, but quite high on goofy gags. Perhaps its funniest moment comes in its opening screen, where it bills itself as “An Interactive Interactive”; it’s the kind of joke that’s only funny the first time, but since it is the first time, it worked for me. Also, in spite of the author’s assurance that it is impossible to make a mistake that renders the game unwinnable, I managed to do it, and I wasn’t even trying! (For the record, it’s because I put the toy elephant in the cart and then torched it with the flame-thrower.) Phlegm wasn’t really hilarious, but it provided a number of smiles, and even its puzzles were logical in an illogical kind of way. In many ways, the game is like its opening joke — lots of fun at the moment, but not anything you’d ever want to repeat.

Prose: Lots of cleverly funny little touches, from Leo the lemming whispering “Rosebud…” to the “Lil’ Terrorist brand Flame-thrower.” The prose was generally lots of fun to read, even if at times the silliness became a wee bit more irritating than amusing.

Difficulty: Well, I found myself looking at the hints quite a lot, but I’m not sure whether that’s because the puzzles were simply difficult, or difficult to take seriously. For some reason, I found myself unwilling to agonize about how to handle the guitar-playing lunatic, and wanted to look at the hints in order to see more of the jokes, since a game like Phlegm suffers quite drastically from a reduction in pace. So I suppose you could say it was a difficult game, but then again I’m glad I approached it the way I did — a plotless work like this one begs to be finished rather than battered.

Technical (coding): The coding was on the whole quite strong. I only found one weak spot, which was the fact that I discovered that I could carry the powder as long as I was holding the grail — it didn’t need to actually be inside the grail. Somehow I don’t think this is what the author intended.

Technical (writing): The writing was pleasantly error-free, which made the humor much more accessible and easy to digest.

Plot: Well, I couldn’t really say there was much of a plot, but on the plus side I don’t think much of an attempt was made at one either. So the game was plotless (aside from the very most basic “get-the-treasure” motivation), but it didn’t suffer all that much from being so.

Puzzles: Some of the puzzles were quite funny, and extremely reminiscent of Nord and Bert, especially those involving the needle. Then again, some others (the flame-thrower, for example), failed to be a lot of fun in their irrationality. In general, though, I’d call the puzzles successful in what I deduce to be their aim — parodying typical IF problem (the references to Balances were especially funny) and providing nutty goals in an off-kilter universe.


Maiden Of The Moonlight by Brian P. Dean [Comp96]

IFDB page: Maiden of the Moonlight
Final placement: 7th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This is a game that has a great deal going for it, but unfortunately has a few downfalls as well. First, the positives: the accompanying text file does an excellent job of setting the scene, and the prose is atmospheric and shadowy enough to produce some genuine chills from the experience of exploring the haunted manor. I enjoyed piecing the story together from the text fragments found in various places in the manse, and felt a genuine interest in how the story was going to turn out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out in the two hours allotted, and therein lie some of the problems. Some of the puzzles are quite unfair, the most grievous offender being a room which delivers the equivalent of instant death — destruction without warning of the player’s light source, and no mechanism provided for stumbling about in the dark. That same light source must be used with painstaking care, or it sputters out frustratingly early, and the author provides no alternative (or at least, none that I could find.) This was especially maddening so soon after seeing how well Aayela manipulated the same trope. Maiden is both exciting and irritating — it promises drama and intrigue, but many of the obstacles to be overcome along the way are simply brute force barriers, with none of the subtlety of the best interactive fiction.

Prose: The author’s prose does a very nice job of conveying the desolate, decrepit mansion. Descriptions of rooms, objects, and the moonlight peeking into various locations were all quite literate and strong. Also, the Baron’s notes gave his voice a credible Victorian timbre — of course, the Baron was supposed to have lived in the 17th century, so maybe that isn’t such a good thing.

Difficulty: Well, some parts of the work were quite easy to get through, and the pace flowed through them quite smoothly. However, they were stopped dead by the light source puzzles, which made a first-run solution of the game basically impossible.

Technical (coding): Everything was quite smoothly coded. I can’t think of any problems I encountered.

Technical (writing): I’m writing this review a few days after last having played the game, so my memory may be faulty on this count, but I don’t recall any faulty grammar or spelling.

Plot: As I mentioned above, I found Maiden‘s unraveling plot quite engrossing, which made it all the more frustrating to have to be continually restarting the game after my lamp sputtered out. Still, I’m looking forward to returning to the game after the judging period ends in order to find out how I can break the Baron’s curse over his daughter and her paramour.

Puzzles: Addressed in “difficulty”; some were very straightforward, and others were quite impossible. One which I found particularly thorny was the problem of the spikes atop the iron fence. The way I had envisioned the fence was with tall, sharp spikes, while the solution to the puzzle was more suited to something along the lines of barbed wire. Perhaps a more vivid description here would alleviate the problem.

OVERALL — An 8.3

The Curse Of Eldor by Stuart Allen [Comp96]

IFDB page: Curse Of Eldor
Final placement: 21st place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, this is a case of what could have been. What could have made for a fun, enjoyable game was brought down by a few fatal flaws: buggy coding, poor writing, and some clichéd settings and puzzles. I gave up on the game after about an hour, looked for the walkthrough and couldn’t find it. (I’m assuming there was one and I’m just too blind to figure out where it was. However, I didn’t appreciate the fact that the help info said to type “HELP” and then the topic I needed help with, but didn’t ever seem to respond to that command structure) Looking at the source code, I see there was a councillor who gives me the details of my mission — unfortunately, this councillor never showed up when I ran the game. Also, while I commend the author for writing an engine that comes as close as it does to emulating Infocom, it was missing some key features, such as “verbose”. Fix up the code, proof the writing, and you could have yourself a playable game. Unfortunately, the version that was entered in the competition is no such animal.

Prose: Once in a while the prose would reach a level where I enjoyed reading it. All too often, though, it was simply one trite cliché after another (A dragon regards you sleepily, the men are gathered around the roaring fire, etc.) The other problem with the prose was its uneven level of detail. Some things in room descriptions were described at length — some other obvious features (a twelve foot pit, for example) were not described at all. Also, some simple errors (a room description which tells of an exit leading east when the exit really leads west) lead me to believe that the game was not well beta-tested.

Difficulty: Well, considering that from the outset something I needed to complete the game was hidden by buggy coding, I’d rate the difficulty right at “impossible.”

Technical (coding): As I’ve said, quite spotty. Not to take away from the author’s accomplishment of creating a free-standing text adventure engine — this is obviously quite respectable. However, it’s not all that respectable if it doesn’t work. Example bugs are (of course) the councillor, the “help” command that doesn’t help, and the fact that basic commands like “verbose” and “again” are unavailable.

Technical (writing): Unfortunately, the writing was littered with quite a few errors, especially spelling errors and simple grammar errors. For example, lots of it’s/its errors, which is a pet peeve of mine. Clearly this work was not proofread (at least, I hope it wasn’t proofread!).

Plot: I found it too difficult to get past the bugs to find the development of anything I could reasonably call a plot.

Puzzles: Once again, the real puzzle was figuring out where the bugs are in the game’s code. From looking at the source code, the puzzles I looked at were fairly well-worn (picking a lock with a wire, making an animal sneeze). However, to be fair I didn’t come across all that many puzzles on my own, so there may be some better ones that I missed. Gee, a walkthrough or hints would have helped!


Lists And Lists by Andrew Plotkin [Comp96]

IFDB page: Lists and Lists
Final placement: 11th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, Andrew Plotkin is nothing if not inventive. The implementor of Z-Machine Tetris brings us another novelty — a programming language and interpreter set up entirely within the z-machine run-time. Andrew’s Scheme implementation is interesting and even, to a point, fun. I definitely look forward to sitting down with it for a longer period of time and working at learning what it has to teach. (I never thought a text adventure could help me build my resume!) However, after a certain point the problems stopped being fun and started being work — I’m already working at learning two languages; learning a third is definitely worthwhile, but not my idea of leisure time. And thus I discover a criteria I didn’t even know I had for the competition entries — I want them to be an escape from work, rather than (pun intended) “Return to Work”

Prose: Very little of it, but of course it conforms to the high Plotkin standard of quality.

Difficulty: I found Lists to be quite difficult going, but then I’m just working on learning C++ and Inform now, so Scheme was a bit of a leap in abstraction for me. The feeling was reminiscent of just beginning to learn UNIX after years of working on DOS (and, to a lesser extent, Macs and Windows).

Technical (coding): Andrew is the god of Inform coding. All hail Andrew.

Technical (writing): Well, of course the main place this came up was in the online manual for the language, which naturally had no errors in spelling or grammar, and in fact was written in a fun jocular style.

Plot: No. No, not really at all.

Puzzles: Well the problems were definitely puzzling, and certainly not your standard Interactive Fiction type of puzzle, either. Lists certainly gives a mental workout, but then again so does Calculus I.


Punkirita Quest One: Liquid by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp96]

IFDB page: Punkirita Quest 1: Liquid
Final placement: 25th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, this is without question the worst writing I’ve ever seen in a piece of interactive fiction. The only thing I can think is that the author is 1) not a native English speaker and 2) incapable of or unwilling to find a fluent speaker to proof his work. The result is a piece of work which is only barely understandable. The piece also had a number of other weaknesses including incomprehensible in-jokes, a confusing magic system which drives the game’s sole puzzle, and the fact that the majority of the world’s features are unexplained except in the solution file.

Prose: The mangled grammar and spelling in the writing are so severe in this game that they are nearly inseparable from the content. The author’s inability to write clearly in English obscures whatever good ideas he may have. This is a work that could only have been published on the Internet — any medium in which editors keep the gate for published work would have sent this prose back for major revision — even a spell-check would have done a world of good.

Difficulty: The most difficult thing was discerning meaning from the tortured writing. After that, the greatest difficulty arose from deciphering the logic behind the game’s baffling magic system and world rules. I went for the hint file right away, but I confess I didn’t try very hard on the puzzle before doing so; at that point I felt quite sure that the writing was bad enough that it would block my ability to figure things out on my own.

Technical (coding): The game was small enough that not much coding would have been required. There were very few objects to interact with each other. In the portions I played, the coding was creditable. (One exception was the fact that the game referred to footnotes without providing them — there should have been a response to the verb “footnote” or “note” which explains that the notes are to be found in the solution file.)

Technical (writing): As I said earlier, the only word is atrocious. Unbelievably poor spelling and grammar — so bad that it made the work almost totally incomprehensible. Apparently the author either didn’t have a spell checker or an English dictionary available, or had them available but didn’t care to use them.

Plot: From what I could make out, the plot was fairly minimal. However, there may have been more than I could figure out from the writing.

Puzzles The only real puzzle didn’t make any sense to me, but then again that could also have been the writing. The solution requires a knowledge of the “glow” power of the hero (which apparently generates not only light but heat as well) which may have been conveyed by the text in a part I skipped over as unreadable.


Kissing The Buddha’s Feet by Leon Lin as Anonymous [Comp96]

IFDB page: Kissing The Buddha’s Feet
Final placement: 5th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I first started this game I had that familiar “Oh no, not another one of these” feeling. But the more I played Buddha, the better I liked it. Nine times out of ten, college humor comes off as sophomoric in-jokes liberally mixed with gross-outs — this time was the tenth. Several moments in the game almost made me laugh out loud, and I related very well (perhaps a bit too well) to the game’s main character. This game also makes hilarious use of TADS‘ capability for dynamic object creation, as the cellophane, snack food wrappers, and crumpled up notepapers continue to pile around the hero’s ears. The characters were stereotypes, but they were written so well that they evoked the reality behind the generalization rather than the typical flatness of a stock type. Finally, a good word for the puzzles — not only were they clever, interlaced, and often the type to give one the “aha!” feeling as the pieces suddenly fall perfectly into place, they were also very well integrated into the story, and cleverly supported by the premise. The genre of Kissing The Buddha’s Feet may be clichéd, but it’s the kind of game that reminds one why people attempt the college genre in the first place.

Prose: Only once in a while did the use of ridiculous levels of exaggeration slip into the annoying; much more often it was pitched just at that level where one can enjoy the joke without endangering the suspension of disbelief. The writing is lively and its level of detail greatly increases the game’s immersiveness.

Difficulty: The game’s difficulty was just right for me. I never felt so stuck that the pleasure of working on the puzzles ceased to become fun — but it was always a little work to figure those puzzles out. I also enjoyed the feeling of never quite knowing when a puzzle would be solved, and the fact that as soon as you took care of one problem another one, gopherlike, would pop up somewhere else.

Technical (coding): Some really masterful strokes, such as all the wrappers and papers that pile up around the house. Most commands well anticipated, and in fact I look forward to returning to the game after the competition has ended and trying all of the “amusing” pieces. Only once in a great while was a logical action not anticipated in the coding (examples are putting the towel back on its rack and trying to unplug the TV while wearing the catcher’s mitt.)

Technical (writing): Grammar and spelling were both well in hand. The anonymous author is obviously a skilled writer, and I look forward eagerly to his or her next game.

Plot: Well, there wasn’t really much of a story to go through, but I never felt the lack of it. In short, the premise was clever and substantial enough to make me feel as though I really was living through a hilarious night of hell, even though I was really just solving puzzles one after another.

Puzzles: Though it’s hard to pick a favorite, I think this was the best aspect of Buddha. As I mentioned earlier, the puzzles were clever, pitched at just the right level of difficulty, and very well integrated into the overall plot. Some favorites are how to put Bob out of commission and then neutralize his snoring, as well as the problem of Alice and her radio.

OVERALL — a 9.4

In The End by Joe Mason [Comp96]

IFDB page: In The End
Final placement: 15th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Hmmm. The first character I’ve been totally unable to identify with — the author shows us an interesting world with friendship, intellectual interest, potential for love, and incredible technological comfort, and wants us to believe that the foremost desire one could have in this world is for suicide. I just can’t buy into the idea of convenience creating a lethal level of ennui, if indeed this is the reason for the main character’s suicidal urges. I’m reaching, because no good reason is given. In fact, nobody in the story even seems particularly (or at least specifically) unhappy, and several characters (the shopkeeper and bartender come to mind) seem genuinely to enjoy their lives and feel fulfilled. So what is this character’s problem? I suggest that his problem is the story’s problem — an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic without any of the logic or backstory that give real drama its tension and emotional weight.

Prose: Often rough, but often rather touching. The world whose picture the author paints has some very charming aspects, and the prose brings this across nicely. Unfortunately, the skill with which this is accomplished serves only to further undercut the notion that your goal in this world should be to leave it.

Difficulty: Well, a goal-oriented word like “difficulty” is a bit of a mismatch for a game like this which has no way to win. How difficult is it to finish the story? Why, not at all. One only has to wait 7 turns, step outside, and type “kill me” and that’s all, folks. The concept of “difficulty” doesn’t really seem to apply to this story though — what’s really difficult is figuring out why the goal is what it is…

Technical (coding): This is where In the End really shines. Its interface (with its lack of compass directions) worked quite spectacularly (for me, anyway), giving the world a wonderful real-life feel. I never realized how much compass directions undercut the simulation aspect of IF until they were removed — after all, who goes around thinking about which direction they’re bearing? (Except, perhaps, for spelunkers 🙂 ) I was also impressed with many of the responses that had been anticipated for NPCs (WOMAN, TELL ME YOUR NAME was especially appreciated), though some could still have used some polishing (SHOPKEEPER, TELL ME ABOUT HOPSON elicited no response, but SHOPKEEPER, TELL ME ABOUT MR brought about the correct reaction). And I apologize for continuing to harp on this point, but when the interface is exciting and the world seems to offer so many possibilities, the dead last (no pun intended) thing I wanted to do was commit suicide.

Technical (writing): The initial box quote jarred me, because I’m used to seeing “whimper” spelled with an “h”. However, I’m not near my copy of Eliot right now to see if it’s simply a transcription of one of the poet’s intentional alterations, so I’ll call that one neutral. Other than that, the writing seemed quite technically proficient.

Plot: A frustrating one, and although it’s true that such a device is new to interactive fiction, it felt gimmicky and hollow, so its absence up until now is quite justified, to my way of thinking. And beyond the final goal of the game, there really is no plot. I even checked the walkthrough just to make sure I wasn’t actually doing something stupid and overlooking or short-circuiting a plot that was waiting to be discovered. No such luck. I just keep thinking, what a pity.

Puzzles: Well, this was “puzzle-less IF” alright. But then again, it also had no plot. So its lack of puzzles was logical, but did nothing to improve the work.


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 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.


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.


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