Today is November 7th. It’s 11:30pm, Colorado time. I’m writing this review on my creaky but trusty 386 laptop, the television on in front of me (muted) so that I can continue to keep tabs on the US presidential election, which is still in a dead heat after seesawing all night long. It was, to say the least, a bad day to play Castle Amnos. Not that I didn’t have the time — I played my first hour over my lunch break at work, then did another hour after the commute home, dinner, watching election returns, and being at least somewhat present in my marriage (oh yeah, that). Then a quick shower to clear my head, and I’m ready to review.
With most comp games, this time investment would have been sufficient. Not with this one, though. For one thing, Castle Amnos is big. I didn’t expect this, since the game file size is 122K, but that’ll teach me to rely on file sizes — turns out you can squeeze in quite a few rooms, objects, and puzzles when you implement hardly any first-level nouns, code minimal responses for reasonable object actions, and only give your NPCs the bare minimum necessary for them to participate in their puzzles. Consequently, even when I reached the end of my two hours, I had no sense of closure at all — I doubt I’d even seen a third of the game.
What’s more, there are several mazelike sections in the game, and a few others where the geography is quite non-intuitive. I had made maps of these during my first-hour session, but I forgot and left them at work, and I’d be damned if I was going to draw them again. I have a pretty good memory for IF geography, so this didn’t cripple me in my second hour, but it did slow me down. I wonder how many comp judges’ experience is like mine: fragmented, squeezed in at the edges of our lives. I wonder how many others felt frustrated at playing a game that clearly didn’t fit into those small spaces we can create for it.
This is my 42nd game of this comp, and usually by this point I’m ready to name a trend for the year. Last year it was non-interactive games. The year before that, one-room games. This year, though there are some rather surprising similarities — two games prominently featuring peyote (?), several pointless joke games, far too many starvation puzzles — I’m not sure I can put my finger on one overall trend among the games for the entire comp, except that their index of quality has tended to be higher. I have, however, noticed a personal trend: I’m getting more and more impatient with games that, in my opinion, don’t belong in the IF competition.
Mostly, these are games that are so large, it’s really unlikely that most players will see anything like a majority of the game in two hours’ playing time. It’s discouraging to make a sincere effort to play a huge number of games in a six-week timespan, only to discover that several of those games simply cannot be played to any satisfactory conclusion in the two hours allotted. It makes me want to just avoid playing anything over a certain file size, but even that strategy would fail: My Angel is almost twice the size of this game, but it’s easily finishable in two hours. Amnos, on the other hand, is anything but.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but I will say this: Authors, I implore you. Please think carefully about whether your game can be played in two hours. If, realistically, it cannot, I urge you not to enter it in the competition. I know about the feedback problem — people are working on it. In the meantime, isn’t it better to have your game played all the way through by 50 appreciative people than to have its first 25% played, then the whole thing dropped, by 200 people who are terribly pressed for time?
Okay, I realize that I’ve gotten on my comp soapbox and delivered very little useful feedback about the game itself. To remedy that: Castle Amnos appears to have some very interesting ideas at its core. I found sections, and resonances, that intrigued me a lot. I obviously wasn’t able to get far enough in the game to get any sort of resolution on what had been set up, so I don’t know if the payoff fulfills the promise of that setup, but if it does, I think it’ll be an interesting game.
It is, however, hampered by several problematic design decisions which are a bit of a throwback to the earlier days of IF. There’s a more or less pointless inventory limit, which forces you to keep all your objects in one central location and trundle back and forth between it and whatever puzzle you happen to be working on. There is a room somewhat reminiscent of the Round Room in Zork II, only about twice as aggravating because you have to perform an action before the randomizer will run again each time, and it opens on fewer options, making repetition more necessary. It appears to be somewhat circumnavigable, but only somewhat. Then again, who knows whether there isn’t some later section of the game that makes that room behave in a deterministic fashion? Certainly not me.
In addition to these problems, there are (as I mentioned earlier) several mazelike sections of the game. To me, that kind of thing is just no fun. Mileage, I’m sure, varies. All this is not to say that it’s a bad game. It is implemented minimally, but competently. I don’t think I found any major bugs, though the game’s fascination with non-standard geography and randomness sometimes made it difficult to tell what was a bug and what wasn’t. The prose, like the code, is sparse but error-free. Perhaps, if I was able to play it all the way through, I’d even think that Amnos is a really good game, or at least a draft of something on the way to becoming a really good game. With what I was able to see, though, all I was able to tell was that its entry as a competition game impaired my ability to enjoy it.