No Room by Ben Heaton [Comp03]

IFDB page: No Room
Final placement: 22nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

In a cheeky display of one-upsmanship (or maybe it’s one-DOWNsmanship), No Room trumps the one-room game by having no locations whatsoever. The author explains in a brief note that the PC resides in “the Inform Library itself, which is the most sense Inform could make of my game.” No rooms were harmed, or even created, in the making of this game. Consequently, the entire thing takes place in a dark, empty void, though I don’t think the location description or reactions are the Inform defaults. Thinking about how they got the way they are is making my head hurt, so I’ll stop.

The gimmick is fun, but doesn’t make for much of a game, of course. So No Room is a piece of micro-IF that basically consists of one puzzle. The puzzle is a good one, though it relied on some basic scientific knowledge that was, embarrassingly, just a bit beyond my grasp. But only a bit. Since there’s no location, the entire thing takes place in the dark, and between its darkness and its scientific-puzzle storylessness, the game feels like a cross between Aayela and In The Spotlight, except, of course, there’s no spotlight.

No Room could have used a bit more depth of implementation. Many of my ideas weren’t implemented at all, and a game this small can afford to take a great deal of care in making lots of options possible with its few items. On the other hand, the implemented parts were coded fairly well, and relying entirely on the sense of touch was an intriguing way to experience a puzzle. I was surprised to discover that a few uncommon Inform commands (like PRAY) were given special messages. Some of these messages felt desultory or over-the-top, but some (again, like PRAY) were funny. In fact, if the implementation had been a little less thin, I probably wouldn’t have found myself trying to PRAY in the first place, so maybe it was intentional…? Nah.

Rating: 6.2

Koan by Esa Peuha as Anonymous [Comp02]

IFDB page: Koan
Final placement: 35th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

In 1998, there was In The Spotlight, a tiny but enjoyable game whose entire purpose was to embody one clever puzzle. Then, last year, there was Schroedinger’s Cat, a less enjoyable (though competently produced) game whose sole reason for existence was to embody a completely baffling puzzle. Now we have Koan, a fairly irritating and badly programmed game that embodies one more-or-less nonsensical puzzle. Clearly, we’re on a downward slope here.

I don’t have any particular objection to the genre of one-puzzle games; as I said, I liked In The Spotlight well enough. However, when the entire game is a tiny environment based around one puzzle, that puzzle had better be well-implemented. As you might have guessed, this is not the case in Koan. Even setting aside the fact that most of the writing is nothing but placeholders (like the room whose description consists only of “This is the middle location in this game.”), there are several fundamental problems with the puzzle as it is coded. Example: you have to retrieve a clay pot from a high place, and there are several objects in the game that may help you retrieve it without damaging it. However, before I even saw any of those objects, the first thing I did was this:

>x pot
This clay pot has a severe fracture. Other than that, the only
noticable feature is the writing that says, "When intact, this pot
will break the stone slab."

So the pot already has a severe fracture? Kind of takes away my motivation to try not to damage it. There’s nothing around to fix it with, either, which really makes me wonder how I’m supposed to make it intact. This is not the way to do a one-puzzle game. Also: noticeable.

As for the solution, I can’t say it really made much sense to me. From the game’s title, I take it that this puzzle and its answer are supposed to represent some kind of deep spiritual truth. Now granted, I’m not a Buddhist, but I failed to find any meaning in this game beyond “Well, that was surreal.” I dunno, maybe somebody else found it profound. To paraphrase Dennis Miller: of course, that’s just my opinion — I could be unenlightened.

Rating: 3.0

About my 2002 IF Competition Reviews

2002 was the eighth year of the IF competition, and everything was pretty firmly in place. That includes the games and authors, who occupied the usual range from ugh to wow, and in fact pushed the top of that range back up above where I found it in 2001. It also includes me.

By 2002 I’d been reviewing comp games for many years, and I was very comfortable in the critic role. Without being too egotistical about it, felt like I could write reviews that would not only explain the my reaction to game and give useful feedback to the author, but at least sometimes do so in a way that would be useful for lots of aspiring authors, not just the one who wrote the game in question.

Writing all those other reviews had also made me deeply conversant with the history of the comp, which became increasingly helpful, as more and more comp games seemed to be in conversation with their predecessors. This certainly happened on the stylistic level — for example the “pure puzzle game” flavor I’d identified in previous years’ games like Colours and Ad Verbum continued in 2002 with games like Color And Number and (to a lesser extent) TOOKiE’S SONG. Koan was a tiny puzzle game in the spirit of In The Spotlight or Schroedinger’s Cat. Janitor was a cleanup game like Enlightenment and Zero Sum Game.

Dialogue with previous IF also happened at the thematic level — A Party To Murder called straight back to Suspect, Coffee Quest II to Little Blue Men, and so forth. Finally, at the most abstract level, games like Constraints clearly functioned as meta-commentary on the medium itself.

Knowing the domain as I did helped me to feel like I could be a good teacher for newer authors. But even better, closely examining my reaction to a game and explaining it to myself by writing about it, especially informed by a long history of doing so, was the very best way of being a student. The great thing about the IF comp is that it provides such a wide variety of approaches, so in getting analytical about my own responses, I can understand what works and what doesn’t work across a whole range of styles. Particularly helpful were games like The Temple, whose approach inspired my own future work.

2002 was my third time as a competition entrant, and much to my amazement, my first time as a winner. I was genuinely shocked to win the competition — I really did not think my game was the best one. (But who am I to argue with the judges? 🙂 ) My own favorite game of the 2002 comp, by a pretty wide margin, was Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me!. In my meta entry about the 2001 comp, I stupidly asserted that my not reviewing All Roads because I’d tested it was “the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner”, but of course this is not true! I didn’t do so in 2002 or 2004 either, because my games were the winners.

Besides Another Earth, Another Sky, the only games I did not review were Buried! and Castle Maze, because they were withdrawn and/or disqualified.

I posted my reviews of the 2002 IF Competition games on November 15, 2002.

Schroedinger’s Cat by James Willson [Comp01]

IFDB page: Schroedinger’s Cat
Final placement: 39th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, I’m an idiot. I don’t get it. I must confess, playing this game directly after Prized Possession is making me begin to doubt my own brain. I mean, on the last game I was pretty well able to feel like my confusion was due to the game’s shortcomings. This time, though… I have the sense that if somebody sat down with me and explained the rules behind the environment in Schroedinger’s Cat, there’s about an equal chance that I would either think “Of course! Brilliant!” or “I still don’t get it.” Either way, it doesn’t do much for my ego at the moment.

So maybe I’m not that bright. But what’s also true is that games like this just really aren’t my cup of tea. I’m not a great puzzle solver, being more attracted to IF for its ability to immerse me in a setting and a story. Consequently, when a game pretty much consists of one (pretty tough) puzzle, devoid of any particular narrative or character, and then doesn’t provide the solution to the puzzle… well, I’m sure some people would find it a pleasure and a delight, but I’m not one of them. To me, puzzles in IF are a lot more fun if they advance a story rather than just existing for their own sake. This game is utterly uninterested in portraying anything beyond the bounds of its own puzzle. For instance, there are two cats in the game, each of which is described with “A cute little [white/black] cat”, sans full stop. Not exactly a description to stir the soul. A similar game from 1998, In The Spotlight, at least gave some reprieve from its starkness by providing cute and funny responses for various commands. Schroedinger’s Cat doesn’t even provide an in-game reward for solving the puzzle — in the words of the author, “Success is measured in understanding. Once you know how the world works, you can consider yourself the victor.”

Which I guess would make me the loser. You win, tough game. But the experience wasn’t much fun for me.

Rating: 3.8

Calliope by Jason McIntosh [Comp99]

IFDB page: Calliope
Final placement: 23rd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had a sinking feeling when I read the “info” text for Calliope. Some dreaded phrases were dropped: “My prime goal in writing Calliope was to get comfortable with the Inform language…”, “…autobiographical portrait of myself confusedly hacking away at a going-nowhere Inform program…” The whole thing sounded uncomfortably like it was describing a combination of my two least favorite competition entry genres, the “I wrote this game to learn Inform” game and the “this is an IF version of my house” game. Previous entries of this nature have, on the whole, not been stellar, so after I read the description of Calliope, my expectations were decidedly low. But I guess that’s the beauty of the Low Expectation Theory, isn’t it? Because once I expected Calliope to stink, I discovered that it’s not such a bad little game after all. Sure, it’s a trifle, but that’s OK. It’s done reasonably well, is not redolent with references only the author could understand, and its idea is (I can’t believe I’m saying this) actually pretty clever. Yes, despite the fact that you begin the game sitting at your desk, in your apartment, on your chair, staring at your computer and your proposed competition entry therein, Calliope turns out to be pretty fun rather than really boring. It seems that exhaustion is approaching for you, the prospective author, and that your previous efforts whacking away at that competition entry have been rather uninspired. But the Muse (the game’s title is a whopping hint) can strike at unexpected times…

One of the things that makes the game an unexpected pleasure to play is that unlike most of its learning Inform/house simulation brethren, it is relatively free of errors in both coding and writing. The prose is nothing special, but it did give me a vivid picture of the setting, through little details like your desk showing its age “by the camouflage patterns of divers dark beverage stains covering… its cheap white Formica surface…” “Divers” looked like a typo to me, but something in the dim recesses of my brain is suggesting that it may just be a culturally specific spelling of “diverse.” Actually, what it really looks like is a Renaissance spelling, but since my wife is a grad student in Renaissance lit., the boundaries tend to blur for me. The game’s one puzzle makes sense and is well-clued, and its multiple endings are enough fun that I went back and played through all of them. Many first games feel like prologue, and Calliope is no exception. Where it differs from the pack, though, is that the prologue it provides is promising and exciting. I’d be very interested in seeing a full-length game (or even a full-length competition entry) by the author based on the ideas presented in Calliope. Heck, I wouldn’t mind seeing three such games. Jason McIntosh shows enough promise in Calliope that his next release should be highly anticipated.

Of course, none of this means that the game is worth keeping long. You’ll probably spend a few minutes noodling around, a few more solving the puzzle, and the rest of your time will go to replaying through to see the various endings. Perhaps if you’re really dedicated, you’ll try out the author’s suggestions (provided in the walkthrough) for all the various ways to lose the game. The whole thing shouldn’t take much more than a half-hour, after which Calliope goes into the recycle bin. These “short-short” games are becoming a more and more prominent competition trend. They make sure to meet the “two-hour” rule by ducking far under it — so far, in fact, that you can exhaust most of their options in a quarter of that time. The first time I remember seeing a comp entry of this ilk was Jay Goemmer’s E-MAILBOX in 1997, which consisted of about four moves and no puzzles. The trend continued in ’98 with games like In the Spotlight and Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. Now it’s so prevalent that out of the six comp games I’ve played so far, three are of the “short-short” variety. Of course, this may just be the vagaries of Comp99’s randomizer, but I suspect it goes a little deeper than that. Tiny games like this allow an author to get exposure and experience without making a huge time investment. They create an evolving example which pushes the author’s developing knowledge in an IF language, both by providing a space to try out examples and by nudging research into the manual to implement that latest and greatest idea. Perhaps most important of all, tiny IF makes for one more line in that all-important “Things I’ve finished” list. Thankfully for its audience, Calliope does it right.

Rating: 6.8

Fifteen by Ricardo Dague [Comp98]

IFDB page: Fifteen
Final placement: 25th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Is there a genie at work? No sooner did I wish (in my review of In the Spotlight) for a “storyless” game which strung together a number of logic puzzles, than along comes Fifteen. Fifteen takes its name from the traditional slide puzzle, with fifteen tiles arranged in a 4 x 4 grid, with the sixteenth spot left empty for tiles to move into. Fifteen also includes an odd-even puzzle (similar to the sentient stones in Spellbreaker) and a more traditional IF puzzle of rescuing a cat from a tree. All the puzzles are quite well-implemented, and the slide puzzle is done especially well; its interface allows for commands which string a number of moves together quickly and easily. This was much appreciated. In fact, Fifteen is almost the sort of thing I was musing about enjoying in my previous review.

Still, I finished the game feeling like I ought to be more careful what I wish for. See, Spotlight was “storyless IF” in the sense that there was really no plot, just a puzzle. However, what little prose there was in the game was richly written, and often funny. Contrast this with Fifteen, which (according to its author) takes its cue from Scott Adams’ Adventureland. Adams’ games are models of brevity, and Fifteen is just as terse, if not more. Here’s a typical room description: “Kitchen: Exits are south, east and north.” Now that’s brief. Don’t get me wrong — I recognize the nostalgia value of such an atmosphere, especially if you were raised on Scott Adams adventures, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I like to have at least a little feeling of immersion in my IF rather than unadorned puzzles. I find it very telling that even though Fifteen includes many more rooms and several more puzzles than Spotlight, the Inform file for Fifteen is actually 8K smaller than the Inform file for Spotlight. Fifteen is basically raw puzzles; it’s all the way over at the extreme end of the puzzle to story spectrum, and that’s too far for my taste.

Nonetheless, Fifteen is clearly quite well-done, for what it is. I found no bugs in the code, and what little prose there is is error-free. The puzzles, as I said, are implemented well, and the author’s ability to make me feel like I’m playing a Scott Adams game is nothing short of remarkable. But Fifteen is still not that all-puzzle game that I’m looking for — it’s too spare and empty, and because of this it fails to create the interest needed to sustain its intense puzzle-orientation.

Rating: 6.2

In The Spotlight by John Byrd [Comp98]

IFDB page: In The Spotlight
Final placement: 21st place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, this one certainly didn’t break the two-hour rule. In fact, I finished it in around eight minutes. The game consists of one puzzle, and that’s all. The puzzle is clever, and relatively well-clued, and maybe I just got lucky in figuring it out as quickly as I did. Still, I can’t imagine spending more than a half hour at this game — there just aren’t that many objects, so the number of combinations is similarly small. The author tells us that the puzzle is one he read about in Science magazine in the early 80’s. That makes sense, since the answer relies on some intuitive physics knowledge, and the puzzle is fairly satisfying to solve. I’m not sure if the red herrings were included in the magazine version, but even if they were they didn’t distract me too much from doing the right thing.

In The Spotlight is sort of the opposite of the famous (or infamous) “puzzleless IF” — it’s nothing but a puzzle. “Storyless IF.” Actually, I could see a game like this being pretty entertaining, even educational, if it strung several of these sort of situations together. Gareth Rees’ The Magic Toyshop from the 1995 competition was a bit like this, though it was more oriented towards games than puzzles, and its solutions often involved “thinking outside the box” of the game (also known as cheating in some circles.) What I’m envisioning is somewhat different. I know that there’s a tradition of “thought puzzles” like the one in Spotlight, a tradition that’s been around since before the advent of IF. I remember reading them as a kid, or working through them in various classes as mental exercises. Perhaps IF authors would do well to look to this tradition for innovative puzzles which break the usual “lock-and-key” mold. Of course, a great many of those puzzle situations (including the one in this game) are somewhat contrived, but the same thing could be said about a large percentage of IF puzzles, including many of the best. I think I’d really enjoy a game like that — sort of an interactive version of the “Fun and Games” column in the old print version of Omni magazine (I think that was the column’s name. Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, no doubt.)

In The Spotlight isn’t that game, though. It’s one lone puzzle, and thus a little difficult to rate. On the one hand, the writing and coding are both quite good; I found neither bugs nor English errors anywhere in the game. Then again, this level of excellence was sustained for a remarkably short time. Consequently, I can’t rate the game very highly — there’s just not enough there. (On the plus side, if all the rest of the competition games are this length, I just might finish them all before the deadline!)

Rating: 5.1