I Must Play by Geoff Fortytwo [Comp04]

IFDB page: I Must Play
Final placement: 14th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Once upon a time, that time being 1997, C.E. Forman wrote a comp game called Sylenius Mysterium. It was set at night, in a near-deserted mall, with an arcade and a game store. The teenage PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a particular arcade game. When he plays it, he suddenly finds himself inside the game! Now, seven years later, we’ve got I Must Play. This game is set at night, in a near-deserted arcade. The 8-year-old PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a room full of arcade games. When he plays them, he suddenly finds himself inside the games!

Happily, the project of I Must Play is a bit less literal-minded than that of Sylenius Mysterium. While the latter was built around a real-time prose implementation of a side-scrolling arcade game, requiring the player to type commands like JUMP as obstacles approached, IMP instead creates prose versions of classic arcade games, in a similar manner to some of the games in the IF Arcade project from 2001. Still, the parallels are startling. Given that one of the things Forman blew his top about before leaving the IF community was Babel‘s alleged resemblance to his own game Delusions, I can only imagine how he’d have reacted to IMP.

In any case, the prose arcade environments in IMP serve as simple puzzles, leading to a slightly more complicated endgame, one which is also an arcade re-creation but which uses a few connected simple puzzles rather than just one. These are well-done for what they are, and while I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the writing, neither was I annoyed. I had a fine time with the game until I hit a particular puzzle, one which placed the PC in a political environment. To avoid the spoiler, I’ll just say that in order to win this puzzle, I had to do something that is anathema to my beliefs. I did it, but it turned me off immensely, and I cruised through the rest of the game without engagement.

Yes, I know it’s just a game. Yes, I’m aware that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and may not have been trying to advance a political agenda. Yes, I’m sure that I’m reacting more strongly than I would have if my blood pressure hadn’t just been raised by the presidential debates. Still, what’s true for me is that I felt herded by the game into a reprehensible action. This has happened in good IF before — a classic example is in Trinity — but in those instances, the action is meant to be symbolic, to lend power to the themes of the story. In IMP, the action seems to be more or less an arbitrary puzzle-piece, serving no thematic or emotional purpose. It felt starkly out of place in what otherwise seemed to be a fairly lighthearted endeavor, rather like getting a relaxing massage and then having the masseuse suddenly wrench your little finger backwards for no apparent reason.

Part of what felt offensive to me about the scene was its terribly simplistic nature. I don’t mind art that takes positions opposite to my own nearly so much when those positions seem to be thoughtful and well-argued, or at the very least entertaining and/or funny. What I got in IMP was a gross oversimplification, a caricature really, of both the issue in question and of politics in general, one that lacked any redeeming humor, flair, or cleverness. Now, I will say that I remembered partway through the puzzle that the game’s perspective character is an 8-year-old, and when I kept that in mind, the simplistic presentation bothered me a whole lot less. However, there are some parts of that puzzle that feel dumbed-down even for a third-grader, and other parts that felt too politically opinionated for a child.

The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth. In short, the game had me, and then — via a short series of aggravating scenes and statements — it lost me. I’m sure that won’t be true for everybody. People who share the beliefs portrayed in that scene will have a much easier time navigating it (though I imagine that even some of them will still be less than pleased with its primitive formulations), and some people who share my beliefs will be dispassionate enough about them that the scene won’t bother them. It’s not that the game is super-fantastic aside from that, but until it rubbed me the wrong way, it was a pleasant enough diversion. For me, though, even though I finished IMP, I didn’t end up getting a lot of pleasure out of it.

Rating: 7.3

[Postscript from 2021: This review ended up rather controversial, despite the many qualifiers I placed around my reaction. “It’s a friggin game, for pete’s sake” was the emblematic response. So I wrote a subsequent post explaining my response to the issue at hand in much more detail. The issue was gun control, and although I didn’t love being embroiled in a debate about my review, I did enjoy that the subthread got called “I Must Gunplay.”]

Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me! by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold [Comp02]

IFDB page: Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me
Final placement: 2nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, hallelujah. All through last year’s comp, I kept waiting for a game to come along that I loved enough, and found few enough flaws in, that I could rate it 9.5 or above. It never happened. While there were some excellent games last year, none of them felt to me like they’d entered that rarefied air occupied by past games like Shade, Babel, or Delusions. This year, after going through 25 games, the same thing was happening. Until now.

Despite its somewhat unpromising title, TDMAMOOM is a fantastic game through and through. How do I love this game? Let me count the ways. Okay, first, there’s the writing. Frankly, I could spend the entire review talking just about the writing, it’s so great, so I’ll restrict myself to just a few examples picked more or less arbitrarily. There are numerous instances of excellent foreshadowing, whether of themes or puzzles — in the former case, they add great pleasure on re-reading, and in the latter case they operate as a delightfully subtle but effective hint system. The room descriptions are masterfully done, drawing from an endless well of cleverness to make the typical exit listing sound fresh and interesting. Best of all, the writing in this game is just flat-out funny, sometimes howlingly so. Just one example of many — looking at a palm scanner after you’ve switched bodies with an NPC:

>x panel
Flat black glass, a panel that uses all manner of fancy beams to read
over your palm-print and check you are who you think you are.
Unfortunately, it's not clever enough to realise you now think you
are someone that you actually aren't. Or you think you are someone
who you're not, but really are. Or something like that. Anyway, it's
a pig-ignorant machine.

I love it when an IF game makes me laugh out loud, and that happened frequently in this game.

Then there’s the coding. This coding is good. Really good. A raft of nonstandard verbs get recognized and handled. There are a variety of special commands provided, such as “R” or “REVIEW”, which repeats the room description without using any game time. Descriptions of rooms, objects and events alter themselves in various subtle and blatant ways, depending on what’s come before. Timed events, even events where a huge amount is happening at once, run smoothly along their tracks with nary a glitch. There’s a very fine adaptive hint system, quite sensitive to situation and even possessing a self-destruct capability that removes the blatant walkthrough answers after the comp period has ended. Library messages adapt seamlessly to the PC’s situation and point-of-view.

Oh, and how could I forget the special effects? TDMAMOOM takes control of the interpreter to create a beautiful Infocom/Inform-style look-and-feel; people who don’t care for the general appearance of TADS games should definitely try this one. The game even features a little bit of sound, throwing in a system beep at an appropriate time.

Working with the coding and the writing to propel this game to greatness, the story is killer, a wild thrill ride through surprises small and large. Like its predecessors Delusions and Babel, TDMAMOOM takes place in that most favored of IF locales, an isolated scientific research station. I won’t even get into the plot here, because players should experience it for themselves with as few spoilers as possible up front, except to say that it all fits together very nicely, and every time I had doubts, the game anticipated them and tied up the loose ends.

Along with all this, just a quick word about the puzzles: many of them are not only inventive but pitched at just the right level of difficulty, providing several of those wonderful “aha!” moments for me. Some of them are rather complicated, but they’re always scrupulously fair. I ended up turning to the hints so that I could see more of the game before time ran out, but I think if I’d had the time available, this game’s puzzles would have rewarded me for spending it.

So we’re talking about a pretty phenomenal game, here. In fact, almost depressingly so, given that I’m an entrant this year and TDMAMOOM is miles better than my game. It’s not perfect, mind. I found a few spelling and grammar errors, and there were times I wished for clearer descriptions of events and objects. But those flaws are minor and cosmetic, and they do nothing to change the fact that this is a damn good game. Bravo.

Rating: 9.8

Transfer by Tod Levi [Comp00]

IFDB page: Transfer
Final placement: 5th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

What is it about isolated research complexes? Is it that their combination of solitude and high-tech niftiness is particularly well-suited to IF? Do their deeply buried labs and living quarters provide plenty of fodder for interesting room descriptions while furnishing a very logical justification for a paucity of objects? Does something about all that Big Science that inevitably goes catastrophically awry appeal to writers in a computer game genre that is generally thought to be long since technically outmoded? Whatever the reason behind their mystique, isolated research complexes have appeared in every IF competition since C.E. Forman blazed the trail with his 1996 comp game Delusions, a game so good that perhaps it can take credit on its own for inspiring the trend. From Babel to Unholy Grail to Four Seconds, it’s just not an IF competition without a game about an isolated research complex where Dangerous Experiments go Horribly Wrong. Despite its rather pedestrian title, Transfer is a captivating thriller in exactly this mode.

The game’s central conceit is a machine that allows “Entity Transfer” — an exchange of minds between animals and humans. Naturally, the genius Professor who built this machine has been mysteriously put out of commission, and you as the PC can’t be sure who to trust among the various colleagues and security agents who roam the complex in the wake of this disaster. The game never makes your quest explicit, but it’s clear enough that you are charged with clearing up the mystery and flushing out the culprit behind this obvious Foul Play. The transfer machine allows the author to once again exercise the skills that he demonstrated in last year’s cat-perspective game A Day For Soft Food, this time thrusting the PC into a whole menagerie of animal points-of-view — this device is not only lots of fun, it serves as a vehicle for some very clever and original (if at times somewhat implausible) puzzles. These puzzles are also quite well integrated into the game’s plot, a plot which I found quite gripping.

In fact, the strength of the story serves ironically to highlight the game’s major flaw, which is the unrealistic behavior of its NPCs. These NPCs are well-characterized, but implemented much too shallowly. I know this because I was so into the story that I found it extremely frustrating when I wasn’t able to progress in the plot even after telling an NPC about some stunningly important clue, or showing them some highly significant objects I’d acquired. In fact, there are times in Transfer when something obviously alarming is going on, but the NPCs ignore it completely, going robotically about their daily rounds despite my best efforts to draw their attention. Because the rest of the work was so involving, the characters’ unresponsiveness became a real point of frustration for me. Other than this weakness, the game appears to be quite well-tested — I found only a couple of small, isolated bugs and spelling errors, and on the flip side noticed several spots where the game’s code revealed outstanding craftsmanship in its handling of subtle details. I wasn’t able to finish the game in the two hours allotted judging time, but assuming I survive the process of grading another 50 games, I eagerly anticipate returning to reach the ending of Transfer — if the rest of the game is any indication, the payoff should be worthwhile indeed.

Rating: 8.8

Four Seconds by Jason Reigstad [Comp99]

IFDB page: Four Seconds
Final placement: 15th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Maybe I’m just getting cranky, but I really feel that this year’s competition games are a lot buggier, on average, than in previous years. It’s drained some of the fun out of the competition for me — I’ve begun to dread starting a new entry rather than eagerly anticipate it. For each unknown game, I start to wonder whether it will be just another bugfest that I’ll sincerely try to play for 30 minutes to an hour, getting more and more frustrated with its constant errors before turning to the walkthrough. That’s not normally my approach, but this year’s games have changed my usual attitude.

Four Seconds is a case in point. It is very, very buggy, and heavily burdened with grammar and spelling errors as well. If you don’t use the walkthrough, you will find lots of bugs. In fact, there are even a few bugs in the walkthrough itself. If you type “info” or “about” in the game, you’ll find an apology from the author for the bugginess of the game. This is something for which I have zero patience. If you know your game is buggy, fix it. Fix it before you ask people to play it. Don’t waste my time.

It’s baffling to me that buggy games like this get entered, especially considering the fact that this year Lucian Smith and Liza Daly went to the trouble of actually setting up a betatesters clearinghouse on the web. Testers were available, so why weren’t they used? All I can conclude is that the authors who submitted buggy games just don’t care that much about the players’ experience. This disregard leaves the player little motivation to care about the game’s rating, and it gives me as a reviewer very little motivation to put any time or energy into giving useful feedback. In addition, playing a game so crammed with bugs feels like another version of non-interactivity, since there’s almost nothing to see outside the bounds of the path dictated by the walkthrough.

So here’s the deal with Four Seconds: it’s not worth the download. Not only is its plot a b-movie rehash of much better games (mayhem at an isolated science complex a la Delusions or Babel), but it’s pretty much unplayable. Tons of commands get no response at all from the parser. Many more get responses that make no sense. Those pieces of prose that do emerge, whether arrived at by use of the walkthrough or just dumb luck, lack the most basic proofreading. I spent an hour of my life that could have gone to something much more fulfilling on playing Four Seconds. I wish I had spent 59 minutes and 56 seconds less.

Rating: 2.7

Glowgrass by Nate Cull [Comp97]

IFDB page: Glowgrass
Final placement: 3rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Glowgrass is a fine piece of interactive science fiction in the tradition of Planetfall. Once again, you play a character whose ship has failed, touching down amid the well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilization. You explore these ruins, piecing together strange technology and small clues which lead you to the discovery of how a deadly plague wiped out the race which once dominated the planet. Of course, there are differences along with the similarities. Rather than an Ensign Seventh Class, you play a “xenohistorian”, and the ruins you are exploring belong to the Ancients, who are apparently (it’s a little unclear) not a separate race from your own, but rather your people’s ancestors. Also, Glowgrass is a much more serious game, with none of the silliness and whimsy of Planetfall. Finally, it is, as befits a competition game, much shorter, and therefore its ending is rather unsatisfying, leaving off just when it feels like the real game should begin. I won’t give away anything about this ending, but it pulls a little surprise which casts the assumptions of the rest of the game into doubt. I’m hopeful that Glowgrass is a preview of a longer adventure, so that the secret revealed at the ending can be explained and explored to its full extent.

Another important way in which Glowgrass distinguishes itself from Planetfall is that its postapocalyptic exploration is clearly focused on our own world. Various clues scattered throughout the game make it clear that the player character is exploring the ruins of old Earth. However, the old Earth explored by the character is not our present-day world, but rather a speculative extrapolation of a future 60 or so years from now. Thus Glowgrass becomes a small puzzle-box of possible futures, one fitting inside the other, and each one interesting in its own way. Cull does a very nice job of extrapolating technologies, both for the “Ancient” future and the far future, using small touches to demonstrate the character’s far-future understanding colliding with a researched past (which is our future.) If my description is confusing, it’s only because I’m not doing as good a job as Cull does of making the overlapping eras perfectly clear.

Glowgrass also concerns itself with an imagination of virtual reality. The number of IF games which involve some type of VR or simulated reality (Delusions, AMFV, Mind Electric, etc.) leads me to believe that our medium is particularly suited to exploring the possibilities of VR. It makes sense, considering that IF partakes of some element of simulation, that it demonstrates a particular facility for making itself a simulation of a simulation. Glowgrass pushes the envelope a bit by making its only NPC a virtual reality construct, thus neatly avoiding the problems of sentience, competence, and individual action — the character can’t go anywhere or do much of anything except talk, and her knowledge is limited by her programming: a perfect IF character. Glowgrass is a well-written game with a pleasantly creepy aura, a pleasurable way to spend a couple of hours and hopefully a prelude to more quality work.

Prose: The prose in Glowgrass was quite effective. In particular, the author made good use of the opportunities afforded by the player’s first entry into a particular location. For example, in one part of the game you find an “Ancient” skycar, and the game effectively capitalizes on the natural first reaction to finding such a vehicle: “Looking at the skycar, you feel a surge of hope. Despite the vehicle’s age, it seems intact. Maybe, if you could somehow get it to work…” However, having evoked and emphasized that reaction, the game quickly quashes it: “The thought dies as quickly as it came. Stupid idea. You have no idea how to fly the thing, and who knows what parts are missing?” Prose techniques like this build a very convincing player character, and help the game to succeed in creating an immersive fictional experience.

Plot: I’ve covered the basics of the plot above, so I’ll just use this space to say that the plot is not what it seems, and that I found the ending rather frustrating. In the last few sentences of the game, the author rearranges and twists your perceptions of the setting and the characters, but just as the secret is unfolding, the game ends. I’m hopeful that this game will one day serve as a prologue to a more thorough exploration of Glowgrass‘ absorbing world. In short: I want more!

Puzzles: According to the author, Glowgrass is “a story, not a puzzle game,” so the puzzles are intended to serve as natural propulsion for the storyline. In the main, they work quite well in this regard. Really the only area where I had trouble was in figuring out a piece of technology whose description was (I felt) a little too vague to suggest the use intended by the author. Once I consulted the walkthrough and found my way past this obstacle, the game flowed quite smoothly. Thus, if that part of the game (which I consider more a faltering of the prose than a puzzle) were polished a bit, Glowgrass‘ narrative flow would be very well served indeed by its puzzles.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Glowgrass.

Technical (coding): The game’s coding was quite well done, with some very nice touches (I appreciated a response to “Who am I?”). There were only a few areas where the illusion broke down a bit too far, the main one being the “sculpture” which you can “SIT” on but not “ENTER”.


Travels In The Land Of Erden by Laura A. Knauth [Comp97]

IFDB page: Travels in the Land of Erden
Final placement: 14th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erden is a sprawling, ambitious game which probably does not belong in the competition. This isn’t to imply that the game is without merit; on the contrary, it seems to have the potential to become an enjoyable fantasy excursion. However, the game is huge — I played for two hours and I didn’t even visit every location, let alone solve many puzzles. Moreover, Erden could use another few rounds of testing; I found several coding bugs and a plethora of grammar and spelling errors. In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to this game is thorough testing and proofing, then release in the spring of 1998, when we’ve all recovered from our competition hangover and hunger for substantial new adventures.

I can see why there’s a temptation to submit longer games to the competition. For one thing, there seems to be ongoing debate about the meaning of the “two-hour” rule: is it that your game can be any size but will simply be judged after two hours of play, or does it mean that your game should be winnable in two hours? And if it’s the latter, what do we mean with an imprecise term like “winnable?” Hell, with a walkthrough and a good headwind even Curses is winnable in two hours — that doesn’t make it a two hour game! Then also there’s the fact that historically, the games that have won or placed high in the competition (Weather, Sherbet, Delusions… the list goes on) have strained or outright flouted the two-hour convention. According to Whizzard, the idea behind the rule is to prevent new authors from having to be intimidated by the prospect of going up against a Jigsaw or Christminster, an epic game with a huge scope, and I think that this rule still has value, despite the beating it’s taken over the years. I tend to be of the opinion that the ideal size for a competition game is something that I (an experienced IF player, but no great shakes as a puzzle solver) can see 90-100% of in a two-hour sitting. I designed Wearing the Claw this way, and I appreciate competition games that do the same. However, the way it’s worked out in practice is that the large-scope games still slip in — perhaps not epics, but much more than vignettes, and they often succeed. And perhaps that’s for the best; after all, in a competition like this one (where the works are labors of love and the financial stakes are rather low) it’s better to have fewer rules and more flexibility, thus to encourage more entrants.

Still, what Erden demonstrates is that there is another advantage of keeping your competition entry small: focus. I don’t have an accurate idea of how big Erden is (since I didn’t see the whole thing, probably not even half of it, in my two hours), but it seems to me that if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted. In addition, she’d have had the opportunity to implement a taut and crystalline design structure, which is beneficial to any game writer. I think that after serious and detailed revision, Erden could be a fantasy odyssey on a par with Path To Fortune; at the moment, however, it is neither that nor a particularly thrilling competition entry.

Prose: The prose in Erden is often awkward, and can be difficult to read. Misplaced modifiers, unmarked appositives, and endless strings of prepositional phrases abound. The author also seems to have a particular dislike for commas, stringing clause after clause breathlessly together. I often reached the end of a sentence and found myself wondering how it had started. There are times in which this turgid prose style makes for some nice effects, as it gives a baroque feel to some of the game’s ornate artifacts. Other times, it’s just confusing. Overall, Erden could be made a much more evocative game with the help of some serious editing.

Plot: One interesting aspect of Erden‘s plot is that it feels much more “in medias res” than most interactive fiction. You enter the mysterious fantasy land after the dragon has already been vanquished. Of course, there are other quests to be undertaken, but the absence of the dragon helps to give the milieu a satisfying sense of history. That being said, I’m not sure that I gleaned much more about the plot. Certainly the retrieval of a mystical ruby is your main goal, and several subquests pop up along the way, some of which I didn’t even begin before my two hours ran out. However, what the meaning of the ruby is, or whether the plot offers any twists, turns, or even character development of any kind is still opaque to me.

Puzzles: I spent enough time traversing the land that I’m not sure I even encountered any puzzles. There’s apparently a lantern to be obtained, but the parameters of doing so were so broad that I have no idea how long it would have taken to succeed. I collected several objects whose use was not immediately apparent, but I’m not sure if they ever come in handy or not. There was one area of the game that seemed pretty clearly to hide a gateway to underground caverns, but once I thought I had found the answer to opening the gate, the parser was stubbornly unresponsive to my ideas. So I have no idea whether what I was seeing was an unsolved puzzle or a red herring. What’s more, the game lacked a scoring system so I wasn’t ever sure when I had done something important, but let me put it this way: I didn’t feel like I had done anything clever. Because of all this, I can’t venture much of an opinion about the puzzles in the game.

Technical (writing): There were dozens of writing errors in the game. Beyond the awkward, overloaded prose there were any number of misspellings and misplaced modifiers.

Technical (coding): Erden suffered from many niggling coding errors, especially missing or added new_lines. Some important scenery objects are missing (for example, the game describes huge hieroglyphics carved into a cliffside, the examination of which returns “You can’t see any such thing.”). Like the writing, the coding would benefit from an attentive overhaul.


About my 1997 IF Competition reviews

Playing and reviewing every game from the 1996 competition was a bit of a journey for me. At first, I was checking them out with an eye toward assessing the competitors to my own entry. That faded pretty quickly after I played Delusions, which was so much better than Wearing The Claw that I gave up all hope of winning then and there.

Delusions remained my favorite game of all the entries that year. It just blew me away. Once I played it and wrote about it, I knew that I wanted to share what I’d written, and in the spirit of fairness I committed to playing and writing about all the games. (The spirit of fairness did not extend so far as to rewriting the notes-y reviews I’d already completed. The deadline was a tough one.)

Some of my other favorites came toward the end of that queue, including Tapestry, Small World, and the ponderously named eventual comp winner The Meteor, The Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. I had started playing these games to check out my competition, but I finished them in love with the competition. Sure, there were clunkers, and some outright painful experiences, but for a kid enchanted by Infocom, there was also this bouquet of brilliant new Infocom-like games, and even more thrilling, some games that opened up territory that Infocom had never touched.

So well before the 1997 comp, I was excited to play all the games, and write much more definitive reviews of each one from the outset. I settled on a format of three paragraphs, plus a similar breakdown to what I’d provided in ’96 — sections on prose, plot, puzzles, and technical prowess for both writing and coding. I discarded “difficulty” as a category, because it had proven irrelevant for so many of the Comp96 games.

Well, I bit off a little more than I could chew. By the time I got to the end of the judging period for all 34 comp games (10 more than I’d reviewed the previous year!), that format had beaten me up pretty well. But again, out of a sense of fairness, I didn’t want to alter it midway through the journey. I knew, though, that I’d need to take a more scaled-down approach in the future. I also grappled a lot with how to handle spoilers in my Comp97 reviews. I kept finding myself wanting to reinforce my points with specific evidence from the games, but doing so meant spoiling puzzles or plot.

As I revamp these reviews for >INVENTORY, I’ve taken out some spoiler tags that seem overly cautious to me now, but I’ve left quite a few in. Where there’s danger of spoiling major plot or puzzle points, I either provide a warning in red declaring “spoilers from here on out” or some equivalent, or I blank out the text of the spoiler and put red begin and end tags on it. Where I do this, you can highlight the text to see the spoiler. Fair warning, though: if you’re using a screen reader to read these posts, such color trickery obviously won’t work, so you’ll need to rely on the “spoilers begin” and “spoilers end” tags. Apologies for this — I got better over the years.

1997 was also the first year of the cool comp randomizer, meaning that rather than playing the game in filename order, I played them in an entirely random order. As always, I’ll post the reviews in the order that I played the games, since I often find myself referring back to previous reviews in the course of writing new ones. Finally, I apparently found it necessary to post an apology for my occasional irascibility, alongside some further explications of my opinions about unfinished games and cliched settings.

For the 1997 IF Competition games, I’ll provide:

  • IFDB page
  • Final comp placement
  • 3 paragraphs of overall discussion
  • Assessments of the following attributes:
    • Prose
    • Technical achievement, split into writing and coding subcategories
    • Plot
    • Puzzles
  • Overall score

I originally posted my reviews for the 1997 IF Competition games on January 1, 1998.

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.


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.