Xen: The Contest by Ian Shlasko as Xentor [Comp05]

IFDB page: Xen: The Contest
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, it took eight games, but I’ve finally hit the classic “game too big for the competition” issue. After two hours of Xen: The Contest, I had 29 points out of 63, so about halfway through the game I guess. It was enough for me to encounter the big (heavily telegraphed) plot twist, but not enough for me to understand how that twist changed the story. As usual, I’ll be reviewing the game based on what I saw of it in two hours.

What I saw, mostly, was your standard “implement a college campus” game, overflowing with stereotypes seemingly lifted from a paonply of 1980s movies, overlaid with a plot in which the PC gradually discovers he has superpowers and why. First, a word about the college stuff. I’ve had a 27-year (so far) career in higher education, moving from administrative assistant, to financial aid counselor, to Java developer, to manager and now associate director in the IT office. For a good chunk of that career, I’ve been in charge of the student portal, which has brought me in contact with nearly every part of the university, so it was with an insider’s perspective that I received the game’s treatment of the college experience.

Reader, it was not good. This game hates college. It hates the faculty. It hates the administration. It hates the students (well, the student athletes anyway.) It hates the grill chef. It hates the bookstore clerk. For crying out loud, it hates the receptionist at the student health center:

>x receptionist
Yet another minimum-wage employee who has been corrupted by the meager authority bestowed upon them, the receptionist has a permanent sneer on her face from looking down on all in her presence. In simple terms, she's a real [expletive].

(Note that the “[expletive]” is the game’s censorship, not mine.) Mind you, the PC is a freshman who has literally never walked into the University Hospital before. But for somebody who’s just showed up, boy does he have a lot of preconceived notions about everyone and everything. The snarling disdain for everything around him is evident in the majority of room and object descriptions. What’s more, there’s quite a bit of disdain set aside for the player and the basic mechanisms of IF as well. Many an object description ends with a “duh” statement, like so:

>x backpack
This is your backpack. You put things in it. Novel concept, huh?

One time, this kind of understatement can be a little bit funny. Over and over, for description after description, it communicates a resentment for even having to write descriptions at all, which causes me as a player to wonder why I’m playing this game that the author didn’t want to bother fully implementing. By the way, do you find anything in that description to suggest that the backpack would be better at extinguishing a fire than, say, a blanket? I sure hope so, because if you use the blanket to smother a fire you die, whereas the backpack is a big success!

That’s the other fundamental problem with snide non-descriptions. Not only is their tone grating, they also actively impede the play experience by failing to provide key facts that the player needs to succeed. Taken together, these qualities add up to a game that feels like a bully, calling you dumb for not knowing information that it intentionally withheld from you.

When it wasn’t making me learn stuff by dying, Xen was making me guess triggers. This is one of those games that waits for a particular command, then dumps out plot or exposition when the player enters it. These aren’t puzzles, really — most of the time the command is something like “sleep” or “sit”. When a trigger system like this is working smoothly, as it does for the majority of Xen, it can feel like traveling effortlessly through a story — just follow the very logical cues and you will make the plot happen. When it’s working badly, as it does sometimes, it can feel like wandering around in the wilderness, trying to guess the magic word that will unlock the only possible path forward. At no point does it feel like you have a choice of actions — scenes are strung together in a single linear path, and until you figure out the trigger that advances you along that path, you will make no progress in the game.

Between its truculence around describing things and its insistently single-track design, Xen: The Contest feels like a prose story whose author decided it would get more attention as an IF game. That may have been true, but it wasn’t a lot of fun for me as a reader or a player, especially given the fact that in two hours, even when resorting to the walkthrough several times to unearth a hidden trigger, I only saw about half. I suppose in a way this is the old “the food is terrible and the portions are so small” joke in action again, but I wasn’t really laughing.

Rating: 4.5

Sophie’s Adventure by David Whyld [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sophie’s Adventure
Final placement: 16th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here are some things about this game: It is cute. It is buggy. It is huge.

About “cute”: the whole thing is written from the perspective of 8-year-old Sophie, the daughter of a couple of retired magic-users, both of whom seem sunk well into strangeness now, but then again perhaps they’d look a little different through someone else’s eyes. There were many moments in the game that brought a smile or a chuckle, and much of the writing found a place between overly edgy and overly twee. Sophie has a rather hardheaded perspective, or so she seems to think anyway, and while she’s really rather spoiled, she does have some valid points about the foibles of those around her.

For instance, her mother has an inexplicable predilection for decorating in bright colors, and Sophie quite reasonably finds things like her painfully bright quilt rather difficult to stomach:

> x bed
It's hard to look at your bed with the colourful quilt lying across over it like that but you know there's nothing very interesting in it because you were lying there only a few minutes ago. You remember when you were a kid (well, a younger kid than you are now anyway) you used to worry that there was an evil gremlin that lived under the bed who would creep out after nightfall and eat you. But when you got a bit older you realised that no self-respecting gremlin would be seen anywhere near a bed with a quilt like that.

> look under bed
You look under the bed, searching for the gremlin you were convinced as
a child was under there.

Nope, no sign of him.

Writing like this lends a wonderfully strong personality to Sophie as a PC. The NPCs, too, are distinctive and interesting, and the menu-based dialogue can be a source of great amusement. On the basis of the writing (leaving out, for now, the issues of “buggy” and “huge”), I’m strongly inclined to recommend this game for kids, except for the fact that there are several parts that are outright gruesome. Sophie encounters gory battlefields, piles of corpses waiting to be burned, and dead bodies lying in pools of blood.

Now, I don’t have kids, and haven’t read children’s books for a while, so I don’t have a good sense of what are considered “appropriate” levels of gore and violence in those stories. I’m also a believer that what’s appropriate for kids isn’t so much determined by their ages as their personalities. Nevertheless, just because Sophie is 8 doesn’t mean the game would be great for any 8-year-old. Personally, I was able to ignore the gore, and so found it charming, though it would have been a lot more charming were it not so buggy and huge.

About “buggy”: Sophie’s Adventure breaks frequently, and often in the most unexpected ways. For instance, this exchange:

> n
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> north
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> go north
You move north.

I’ve had games forget to implement exits before, or forget to mention them in the exits list, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that forgets in one place to make the directional abbreviations available. I’m surprised ADRIFT even makes this possible — I can’t think how it would happen in a more robust development system. Speaking of ADRIFT, all its parser deficiencies are still hanging around like unwelcome guests: the way it pretends to understand more than it does, the way it asks questions but doesn’t listen to the answers, and the way it totally ignores prepositions (LOOK UNDER = LOOK BEHIND = LOOK IN = EXAMINE, except when it doesn’t.)

Another bizarre way that Sophie’s Adventure frequently breaks is in its menu-based conversations; once out of every 20 or so times, the game just wouldn’t understand when I’d enter a number to choose a menu option. There wasn’t any pattern to this that I could discern — the broken choices might be first, middle, or last entries in the menu. It was always very aggravating when it would happen. The game is broken in larger ways, too, or at least it seemed so to me. Several times, I’d get information that suggested a roadblock puzzle — you know, the old “you can’t go this way until you perform this task for me” routine. However, if I simply walked in the forbidden direction: success! No puzzle-solving required. This is either a bug or head-scratchingly odd design. There are also tons of typos throughout the game, some quite hilarious (“It also looks remarkably similar to Golem in Lord of the Rings.”) All in all, the game is a couple of betatesting rounds away from being ready for release, and maybe more, given that it’s probably difficult to test because it’s so huge.

About “huge”: there’s no maximum score listed in Sophie’s Adventure, so I’m not sure how many points are possible, but after two hours with it, I’d scored two points. There’s also apparently a “niceness” score, which not only never changed, but never even seemed to offer any opportunity to change. Also, even after circumventing quite a few puzzles via the bugs mentioned above, I still think I’d only seen a fraction of the game’s locations. I already gave my spiel on too-big-for-the-comp games in my review of Risorgimento Represso, and most of those points apply here as well. However, where that game felt disappointing because I hated to rush through something created with such skill and care, Sophie’s Adventure evinces sort a flip side to that problem, which is that gigantic games are much harder to get right.

I boggle at the amount of work that must have gone into this game, and so I don’t mean to badmouth it, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel it would be a much better game if it were much smaller in scope. Fewer locations, fewer puzzles, fewer things to go horribly wrong. It goes without saying that this game is totally inappropriate for the comp because of its size, but I wonder if it’s simply the wrong size full stop. I say this because frequently, object and room descriptions seemed freighted with resentment for even having to be written:

As cracks go it's not a very interesting one and you kind of wonder
why you're even taking the time to examine it.

Somehow you doubt the fate of the world relies on you examining rat

East Road
The land from here on eastwards is desolate to the point of having a
not-very-finished look to it. If anything, it looks like whoever was
given the job of designing this landscape got bored and decided to
just scribble in a few trees and bushes and leave it at that. [...]

There’s the straightforward problem with these that I don’t know whether something is interesting until I examine it, so would rather not be chastised for wasting my time, but there’s also this: when the descriptions themselves start complaining about being boring, there’s probably too much stuff in the game.

I think the best thing that could happen to Sophie’s Adventure would be if it were scaled back considerably (say to a size that is finishable in two hours), tested and proofread much more thoroughly, and entered in the comp in that tighter and stronger form. Too late for all of that now — I won’t be returning to this game after the way it aggravated me — but these lessons can be learned for future games, by this author and others.

Rating: 3.0

Risorgimento Represso by Michael Coyne [Comp03]

IFDB page: Risorgimento Represso
Final placement: 2nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first things first. It’s time to welcome a talented new author. Michael Coyne has made a great game, so well-written and well-implemented that it’s almost always a joy to play. It’s on a par with most Infocom games, and exceeds them at many points. There’s cleverness and panache to spare, and the puzzles are mostly interesting and fun. It’s not perfect, of course. There are a couple of under-implemented commands (like LOOK BEHIND), a hackneyed puzzle or two, and some jokes (like the cheese one) are pressed rather too hard. It also could use a more compelling title.

Still, on the whole, this is a satisfying and enormously fun game. Well, what I saw of it, anyway. And therein lies the problem. I spent the last review (of Domicile) bemoaning games that are entered in the competition when they’re unfinished, undertested, and unproofread. Now, of course, I’m immediately hit with the opposite problem: a game that is exquisitely finished, betatested, and error-checked, but is still inappropriate for the competition, because it does not even come close to fitting within a two hour play session. When my two hours with RR ran out, I think I was maybe a third of the way through, and that was with a lot of leaning on the hints towards the end. Sure, it was fun while I played it, but I knew almost from the beginning that there was no way I would solve it in the allotted time, and I felt annoyed and disappointed by that. In my opinion, this game is no more appropriate for the competition than was the unfinished Atomic Heart, or the excruciatingly poor Amnesia. It’s too big. It is just too big.

I’ve written out and rehearsed my objections to overlarge comp games so many times that they almost feel self-evident to me now. But I realize that my experience doesn’t match with most people’s, so for those just tuning in, here are a few of my problems with giant comp games. First of all, the comp is a high-pressure playing time. I really try to finish all the games in the judging period, and to write a substantial review after each game. Plus, I have a life, so that means that my IFComp time is squeezed in at the edges of my life — lunch hours, laptop time on the bus to and from work, or late nights after my wife has gone to bed. It’s frustrating to carve out this time and then realize that it’s still not even close to sufficient for the game I’m playing.

Secondly, there’s a more insidious problem with trying to squeeze a big game into two hours. When I had only a half-hour left and huge swaths of the game left undiscovered, I turned to the hints. I did this not because I couldn’t have solved the puzzles on my own. Maybe I could have. But not in half an hour, and I wanted to see more of the game. Turning to the hints, though, does a disservice to a game like this. Well-constructed puzzles ought to be experienced fully, relished, and a well-written world should be enjoyed at leisure rather than rushed through. Trying to play this game in two hours will ruin it for many players, players who could have enjoyed it to its fullest potential were it released outside the comp.

Moreover, how many people are likely to come back and finish the game after the comp period is over? For all the comp games I’ve meant to do that with, I’ve almost never followed through, because after the comp is a frenzy of reviewing excitement, and then come the holidays, and busy times at work, and… whoosh. The game is well off my radar by the time I actually have time to play it. Then there’s the fact that I find it difficult to give a reasonable evaluation to a game that remains mostly unseen by me — it’s like trying to review a movie after watching the trailer and the first 20 minutes. These aren’t the only reasons I don’t like huge comp games, but that’s enough for now.

Still, with all that said, can I understand why somebody, especially a first-time author, would enter their huge game in the comp, even knowing all of the attendant problems? Of course I can. The fact that RR is a comp entry perfectly illustrates the problem with the current IF scene. The annual IF Competition is simply too important, too powerful. It’s become a cynosure whose glare eclipses everything else in the IF world. I love the competition — I think that much is clear from my ongoing participation in it — but I have come to really hate the way it’s turned into a gravity well for games. If you enter your game in the competition, it’s bound to get at least a dozen reviews, be played by the majority of the community, and maybe even become a talking point in IF discussions for years to come. Widespread familiarity in the community also may give it an edge in the XYZZY voting.

If you release your game outside the comp, what happens? Usually, almost nothing. Some games get released to not even a single, solitary post in the newsgroups, let alone reviews or discussion. Even humongous, excellent games like 1893, the products of hundreds of hours of work, sometimes cause hardly a ripple. So of course tons of games get into the competition that aren’t finished, or are way too big. How else to reap in attention what you’ve sown in work? I try to remedy the situation somewhat by continuing to release SPAG and hassling people to write reviews for it, but games routinely go a year or more without a SPAG review, and some games (Bad Machine comes to mind) seem never to get reviewed at all. It’s maddening to me, and I don’t know what to do about it, but I have to say I’m at the point where I’m seriously considering no longer writing comp game reviews, turning my review energies instead to non-comp games so that they’ll at least get attention and evaluation from somebody.

For this year, though, I’m committed, which brings me to the problem of score. From what I saw of this game, I thought it was outstanding, worthy of a 9.5 or above. But I just cannot bring myself to give it that score, if for no other reason than because I don’t want games that shouldn’t be in the comp to do well, since all that will do is encourage more of them. On the other hand, can I really justify giving a low score to such an obviously high-quality product, especially when I’ve already given Scavenger, another too-big game, a high score? Well, the difference between this and Scavenger is that with Scavenger, I felt like I’d seen the majority of the game, that the major puzzles were solved or almost-solved, and that most of what remained was denouement. With RR, though, I felt like I’d eaten the appetizer but had to leave before the entree.

My compromise is this. I’ll make it clear in my review that this is a great game, worthy of any IF devotee’s attention. Play it sometime when you can really enjoy it, linger over its many pleasures, and let the puzzles percolate in your head. Play it without a time limit. Savor it like I couldn’t today. Don’t let my low score fool you — it’s eminently worth playing, but I saw a third of it, and so I’m giving it a third of the score it probably would have gotten from me had it been the right size for the comp.

Rating: 3.2

Scavenger by Quintin Stone [Comp03]

IFDB page: Scavenger
Final placement: 3rd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, here’s what’s not good about this game. First of all, the setting and characters are quite clichéd. It’s your standard-issue post-apocalyptic world (a nuclear war apocalypse, even), with bandits, scavengers, armed provisional-government thugs, and frightened orphans, all straight from Central Casting. The author mentions that the setting originated with a MUSH that then morphed into an Unreal Tournament full conversion mod, and this makes perfect sense — it feels more like an excuse for a background than a fully realized fictional world.

Secondly, there are some moments of shaky design, particularly a “learn-by-dying” puzzle that occurs near the midgame. Now, I’ll certainly acknowledge that the game includes some important details that hint toward the solution, and it could be argued that it’s possible to solve this puzzle without dying first, but to do so would still take a pretty remarkable amount of foresight, not to mention willingness to give up an item that you might need later. Finally, Scavenger isn’t a two-hour game, or at least it wasn’t for me. Maybe somebody who was a sharper puzzle-solver, or relied more on the hints, might have solved this game in two hours, but I found myself only about two-thirds of the way through once time ran out. Since I was at least past the halfway point (and perhaps further than I thought, depending on how fast the points mount up in the endgame), I’m not as indignant about it as I might be, but the fact remains that if I’m not able to finish the game within my two-hour playing slot, my playing experience ends up unsatisfying.

Right. Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what’s good about this game: everything else. With just a few exceptions, the implementation is nothing short of outstanding. Almost everything I ever wanted to examine was described, and described well, which created a great sense of immersion. Despite the fact that the basic concepts of the setting are rather hackneyed, the actual writing is strong, with exposition cleverly worked into object and room descriptions, and some very nicely judged details included. The writing not only creates a vivid sense of place, it’s also pretty much entirely free of spelling and grammar errors, with just a few typos marring the prose on occasion.

Scavenger‘s parser is similarly well-crafted. I remember several fantastic moments where I tried a non-standard verb that made sense in the situation, and the game handled it beautifully. It’s not perfect — for instance, I had a flashlight that the game wouldn’t let me point at objects — but those lapses were much more the exception than the rule, and that completeness made Scavenger a real pleasure to play. The hint system was quite good too, a context-sensitive setup that doled out gentle nudges ramping up reasonably gradually to outright solutions. The context-sensitivity failed at a couple of points, offering hints for puzzles I’d already solved, but the system came through where it counted: I always had a hint available when I needed one for the puzzle I was stuck on. Altogether, this is a very professionally implemented game. The credits list no fewer than eleven testers, and their influence shows through again and again.

Along with implementation, design was another of Scavenger‘s strengths. First of all, casting the PC as a scavenger, somebody who survives by exploring unfamiliar territory and taking everything that isn’t nailed down, is a brilliant way of working basic IF conventions into a coherent fictional concept. When encountering the game’s puzzles (most of which were quite good, sometimes involving multi-stage solutions, every step of which made sense), every action I took to solve them felt perfectly in character, which makes for a great IF experience. Objects are sometimes useful in more than one place, and conversely, places sometimes show potential to have more than one important facet — whenever a game can pull this off, its reward is a much stronger sense of realism.

In addition, the basic structure of the game includes a rewarding multiple-solution setup, involving a selection of resources during the prologue. Scavenger presents you with a store where you can buy certain items that may be useful on your journey, but you can’t buy them all. The way you solve subsequent puzzles will depend on which resources you’ve chosen, and alternate solutions are available even when you don’t have the item that facilitates the more obvious choice. The other nifty feature of this limited-resource arrangement is that the game makes sure that most of these resources must be used up fairly early (for example, a grenade that must be thrown to remove an initial barrier), thereby eliminating the combinatorial explosion that their presence would cause in later sections of the game. I think this multiple-solution design will make for great replay value, though of course I can’t say for sure since as of this writing I haven’t even managed to play through the game once.

One more design note: on several occasions, Scavenger gently shepherded me in the direction of the plot, always doing so in a way that made perfect sense for my character. Every time this happened, I smiled with appreciation. In fact I was smiling a lot during Scavenger, and my notes are full of little comments that read “VERY NICE” or something similar. It would have been improved by a few puzzle tweaks, a more original setting, and either being released outside the comp or streamlined to a more reasonable two-hour size, but I can still enthusiastically recommend it.

Rating: 9.1

About my 2003 IF Competition Reviews

For me as an author, 2003 was a frustrating year. I had entered part 1 of a trilogy into the 2001 competition, and (amazingly) won the 2002 competition with part 2. I had every intention of completing the set with a 2003 entry, and in fact even publicly announced that I would do so. By June, though, it was very clear that I wouldn’t make it. There were a few different reasons for this, from accelerated real-life demands to a ballooning project scope caused by more ambitious design goals, but nevertheless it was a very disappointing outcome to me. I had really wanted that unbroken run.

For me as a critic, 2003 had different frustrations. The IF Competition had become a massive center of gravity in the community, which meant that it sucked up all the energy and feedback, certainly for the few months it took place, and pretty much overall for the year as well. The perfect emblem of this dysfunction, to my mind, is the 2003 comp entry Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne.

RR is a fantastic game — sumptuously implemented, brilliantly designed, beautifully written. It is also a full-length game. There’s no way anybody finishes it in 2 hours, at least not outside of just charging through the walkthrough. So I played it, and loved what I saw of it, but did so in the context of six weeks where I’m trying to play and review 29 games, and cut each one off after two hours. As it became clear that RR was much bigger, I turned to hints so that I could see more of the game. I would have enjoyed it more without doing so, but it was a choice between more enjoyment or more exposure, and I wanted to be able to review the game with as broad a perspective as possible. So I sacrificed enjoying a work that its author had surely labored over creating.

I hate being placed in this position, so in my review I let the game have it with both barrels, estimating that I’d seen a third of it, so only giving it a third of the score it deserved. As it turned out, RR placed second, and in my capacity as SPAG editor I routinely interviewed the top three placing authors from the comp. I was a little abashed at doing so with Michael, having lambasted his game for its length, so I went straight at the topic in my interview:

SPAG: Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest complainers on that point, it’s only fair you should get to air your side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I’m not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn’t seem reasonable.

So there you have it. The competition pulls in games that don’t belong in it, because if you release those games outside the competition, even a month or two beforehand, you may as well not release them at all. I found this a deeply discouraging place to be. I tried to do my part in counteracting it — encouraging SPAG reviews of non-comp games, and even releasing a full-length non-comp game myself — but the immensity of the comp had gathered a momentum all its own. My banging against it affected me more than it affected the situation, I suspect.

However, while the downside of the comp’s centrality was that it gathered everything to it, the upside was that it gathered so many good things to it. The 2003 games had some fantastic experiences among them, even besides Risorgimento Represso. The winning game, Slouching Towards Bedlam, was stupendous, and made me a little bit relieved I hadn’t managed to finish part 3 of Earth and Sky for that year’s comp. Other highlights included The Recruit, Scavenger, and Episode In The Life of an Artist.

I also benefited from my history with the comp, as I got to enjoy the return of many a previous entrant. Mikko Vuorinen was back with another goofily incongruous exercise in icon-subversion, Mike Sousa brought a bunch of veteran authors into a group-writing exercise, and Stefan Blixt and John Evans returned with more half-baked entries in the line of their previous ones. Well, those last two weren’t so much fun, but best of all was the reappearance of Daniel Ravipinto, whose last game was in 1996 and who excelled once again. He brought with him a wonderful co-author named Star Foster, whose horribly untimely death in 2006 is one of the saddest stories in amateur IF.

I posted my reviews of the 2003 IF Competition games on November 16, 2003.

When Help Collides by J.D. Berry [Comp02]

IFDB page: When Help Collides
Final placement: 18th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I already knew that J.D. Berry is funny. Even setting aside his sardonic posts to the IF newsgroups, who could forget The IF Chive? For those of you who have, in fact, forgotten (or never knew), the Chive was an IF-themed version of satirical newspaper The Onion, full of wacky features like an editorial by an impassable steel door, and headlines like “IF-Comp author feels own work should have finished several places higher.” (It’s currently archived at http://www.igs.net/~tril/if/humor/chive/, and is worth checking out.) I also knew, from games like The Djinni Chronicles and Sparrow’s Song, that Berry is a skilled game author, too.

What I hadn’t yet seen was a really funny Berry game. Oh sure, there are some humorous bits in all his games, and no, I’m not forgetting Chico And I Ran — it’s just that the humor in that game was specifically targeted to song and TV show parodies, and much of it fell rather flat for me. So I hadn’t yet seen the game where I felt Berry unleashed his full comic powers… until now. When Help Collides is a strange, exuberant, wildly funny piece of work that hits the ground running and then sprints into some places that are very weird indeed. Actually, that’s not quite accurate — it’s pretty weird from the beginning.

It seems you’re the consciousness of a hint system, or something like that. People come to you for hints with various games, and you use some very simple technology at your disposal (like pressing a button labeled (H)ELP, which broadcasts the hint) to aid them. However, your easy job has recently been made less easy by the fact that your Help Ship (yeah, I’m not sure I understand either) has recently collided with a Self-Help Ship, resulting in exchanges like this:

A beautiful woman looks up and asks, "Is there a better ending that
the one I achieved?"

"Another idiotic thing women do is questioning if they could have
done better. Hello? Where were you before you got married? Did you
not ask yourself such questions? You've made your ending, and now you
have to lie in it."

or this:

A man in a 19th century suit looks up and asks, "How do I get past
the prospector?"

"Early in my career, I spent much of my time getting past people who
want to talk your ear off and waste your time. I call such people
prospectors. They have tunnel vision. They have an axe to grind. They
know exactly what they want, but they don't know exactly where to
find it, so they'll dig wherever's closest.

It was a tiring game, going out of my way to avoid these people.
Usually, my ten-mile bypass left me worse off than if I had just
talked with them.

I complained about this to my mentor.

He said, "there are going to be prospectors in everyone's life. The
trick is to make them realize early that there's no gold inside you.
Once they realize you have nothing to offer, they'll ignore you."

And then it hit me. My mentor was mocking me."

Each terrible hint is followed by the asker reacting in disgust, and leaving negative feedback for the hint system. Too much of this negative feedback can result in the hint system’s immediate demise, which lends a strong sense of urgency to the sequence. I cannot express how much I loved these bad hints. Some of them parody adventure game hints. Some of them parody self-help books, and self-help culture. Taken together, they deliciously skewer not only those two things, but IF conventions as well. Even facing the destruction of the PC, I had a difficult time actually getting motivated to fix the problem, because I found the results so extremely funny.

I’m glad I did fix it, though, because after this sequence the game becomes something entirely else. It’s rather difficult to talk about, because When Help Collides turns out to be several games in one, of which I only played one-and-a-half (in addition to the starting game puzzles). Those separate games are worthy of their own reviews, and I can’t help wondering how they would have done had they been released separately. Still, from what I saw they were thematically tied, if rather loosely so.

There is a problem, though, with the structure that presents these interconnected games. They’re quite sealed off from the initial game, so much so that in fact it isn’t obvious at all that other games even exist until the initial game ends. The feelies suggest the presence of multiple scenarios, but the method for accessing these is obscure enough that I ended up having to go to the walkthrough for it. I find it easy to imagine someone missing the boat entirely, and therefore missing out on a great deal of the fun. Something a bit more straightforward to introduce these other scenarios would have been welcome. The subgame that I finished, a parody of a Dungeons And Dragons tournament, was also very funny, and an interesting game in its own right. Like the initial game, it has some problems here and there, but is overall a lot of fun.

I seem to have written quite a bit already, and I need to wrap it up, so: lest I forget, I do have some complaints about When Help Collides. First, as I mentioned above, the method for accessing the subgames is too obscure. Second, it does that thing where it pauses waiting for a keystroke, but doesn’t tell you it’s doing so, and consequently I ended up missing a bunch of text several times because I was already typing my next command. I don’t like when games do that. Finally, it’s too big for the comp. Sort of. It’s like three or four smallish comp-sized games in one. I got a little more than halfway through in two hours. Individually, the games are an appropriate size, but together, they’re far too much for the judging time. Those quibbles aside, When Help Collides is a clever, innovative, and fiercely funny joyride.

Rating: 9.4

Evacuate by Jeff Rissman [Comp02]

IFDB page: Evacuate
Final placement: 19th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I wanted to love this game. Oh man, did I want to love this game. And there’s really a lot to love, too. It’s got a classic storyline: you’re a passenger on a luxury starship which has been attacked, and having just returned to consciousness after everyone else has evacuated, you must find your way to safety. There’s also a great feel to Evacuate, a combination of writing and implementation that evoked Infocom for me more than any game since Comp2000’s YAGWAD. Room and object descriptions are very nicely judged, and some of the puzzle clueing is just superb.

In the course of my two hours with the game, I had several moments where I would look more closely at an object, or really notice a particular word for the first time, and a crucial piece of information would click into place. That feeling is such a pleasure, on a par with those times where inspiration would hit in a flash, I would try my idea, and it would work. Evacuate provided me with both those experiences, and although there are a few spelling mistakes here and there, after my first hour with the game I was feeling buoyant, sure I would finally be able to give a game in this comp a score in the high 9s.

Then came the second hour. Early in the second hour, I discovered the starvation timer. The game kills you after 400 moves if the PC hasn’t eaten yet. I hate this. It’s pointless, unrealistic, and really adds no challenge. But if food is readily available, or if the time limit is generous enough, a starvation puzzle alone isn’t enough to kill the fun of a good game. In Evacuate, the time limit was much too short, and food isn’t available until after you’ve done a bunch of stuff, most notably navigate the maze.

Yes, the maze. As mazes were falling out of fashion in adventure games, the genre went through a period where games would still include a maze, but there would be some special gimmick that would make the maze solvable outside the normal, painstaking methods. This wasn’t a bad compromise, since it retained the nostalgia appeal of an adventure game maze, but allowed an escape from the tedium of drop-and-map maze navigation. After a while, though, even gimmicked mazes became a cliché, and they fell out of fashion too. Evacuate goes the opposite direction, adding a gimmick to its maze that actually makes the maze harder rather than easier. Yes, there’s a way around this gimmick, but even when you’ve found that, you’re still in a maze puzzle.

I didn’t enjoy this, and I especially didn’t enjoy it when there are several things to accomplish in the maze, none of which involved any food. I’d be very impressed if anyone got past the hunger timer without hints or restoring/restarting at least a half-dozen times. When I finally looked at the walkthrough, I was gobsmacked at how much of the game I still needed to get through before I could get anywhere near the food, and that brings up another problem, which isn’t really a problem with Evacuate itself but did affect my experience: for me, this just was not a two-hour game. Even without the incessant restores and restarts brought about by the hunger puzzle, there’s just too much here to squeeze into a two-hour space.

The really amazing thing is that even after Evacuate squarely hit three of my biggest comp game peeves (starvation timer, maze, too big for 2 hours), I still want to give it something around an 8. That’s a testament to how much is outstanding in this game, how many wonderful moments it offers up in exchange for its annoying characteristics. It’s so close to greatness.

Just add a few more custom responses for sensible actions (prying something with a screwdriver, using a scarf as a rope.) Just remove the hunger puzzle (it’s entirely non-essential anyway). Just, at the very least, tone down the maze to eliminate the constant randomizing elements. Just release it outside the bounds of a structure that dictates a limit on playing time. If these things happened, Evacuate could be a cracking good piece of IF. Right now, for all its wonderful qualities, it falls tantalizingly, achingly short of the mark.

Rating: 7.9

Color and Number by Steven Kollmansberger [Comp02]

IFDB page: Color and Number
Final placement: 24th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Color And Number belongs to that genre of IF I’ve begun to call “pure puzzle games” — oh sure, it’s got a shred of plot, something about investigating a cult that worships colors or something, but that’s more or less overwith before the first move, and from that point forward, you’re pretty much in a pure puzzle landscape. And yes, those puzzles are keyed to a particular theme — you guessed it: colors and numbers. True to the precedent established in Comp01 games like Elements and Colours, the game even names itself after its puzzle theme.

About twenty minutes into this thing, I knew I didn’t have a prayer of finishing it in two hours, so I played until I hit the time limit and then stopped. Thus, in fairness, I don’t know whether the story makes a strong resurgence towards the end or anything, but even if it does, this game clearly belongs to the puzzles. Those puzzles are of the sort that prompts lots of note-taking, charting the correspondences between the various pieces the game teasingly doles out. I enjoyed several of these brain-twisters — they have a mathematical elegance, and some of the best ones suggest their solutions quite organically, which is a pleasure.

Others, though, are a little more imperfect. One puzzle in particular stumped me even though I had looked at all the hints for it, and I think there are several reasons for this. First, the feedback level was too low. The puzzle involved performing a string of actions, but without close investigation, the environment betrayed no particular indication about which actions were successful or useful. It’s not that this feedback was entirely absent, but it wasn’t prominent enough for me to even notice until long after I had looked at the answers.

Secondly, the sequence has a bug in it. It’s just a TADS error (one which oddly didn’t show up in my game transcripts, so I can’t quote it) — not enough to prevent the solution from working properly, but more than enough to drain my confidence in the puzzle’s correct implementation. Between that and the lack of feedback, it’s pretty clear how I ended up looking at hints, but even after I had seen them all, and ostensibly solved the puzzle, nothing happened.

I found out, through trawling Google for hint requests, that this was because I needed to do some other actions in an entirely unrelated area. This is not good puzzle design — at the very least, solving that portion should have yielded some noticeable change so that I could understand that my attempt had in fact worked, even if it wasn’t producing any useful revelations until its counterpart pieces were in place.

Critics like me talk a lot about how difficult it is to pull off combining an arresting story with interesting puzzles, but what’s becoming clearer is that even when IF eschews story altogether and focuses solely on puzzles, it presents considerable challenges to its creator. Little prose errors and formatting issues aren’t so noticeable in a work like this (unless they severely cloud meaning), but even tiny feedback or implementation errors can be devastating. Because there’s no story to distract us from game bugs, they loom very large indeed, and as soon as one crops up, it drastically affects the dynamic between player and game. Suddenly, a struggling player ceases to believe that he’s stuck because of his own inability to solve the puzzle, and starts to suspect that game defects are making the puzzle unsolvable, because after all, if bugs crop up in one place, they can be elsewhere too.

Infocom and its contemporaries had a big advantage in this area — if you bought a game off the shelf, knowing that the resources of a full-fledged company had been used to quality test it and that it had been reviewed by major publications, you could be relatively confident that whatever bugs still might lurk within it wouldn’t be enough to prevent you from solving its puzzles. No such assurances exist for an amateur, freeware IF comp game, and consequently pure puzzle games must be fanatically assiduous about debugging and testing. That’s not an easy mark to hit.

Rating: 6.7

Moments Out Of Time by L. Ross Raszewski [Comp01]

IFDB page: Moments Out Of Time
Final placement: 2nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I found myself both rationally and irrationally annoyed with this game. Let me start with the irrational, since it’s least defensible. Near as I can tell, there is no interpreter that can utilize all the effects of which the game is capable. As an author and a member of the IF community, I understand the reason for this perfectly. The way that things seem to go is that specifications get created for interpreters, zcode formats, multimedia package formats, and suchlike, but they don’t ever tend to get implemented. Why? Because there are no games that use these extended capabilities, so what’s the rush? But of course there are no games, because why produce games with unusable features?

These gears turn each other forever, getting nowhere, and Moments Out Of Time is intended as a crowbar stuck between the gears; from that perspective I applaud it. Hopefully this game will act as a prod (well, maybe a shove) to interpreter authors, and someday there will be an interpreter that can play it. In the meantime, though, from a player’s perspective, it’s a little irritating. It’s rather like being handed a book and told “Oh, some of the pages have illustrations, but you won’t be able to see them without some special perspect-o-vision glasses. But, uh, those glasses don’t currently exist. They might someday, though!” Sure, I’ll still read the book, but it’s a drag to feel like I’m missing the full experience. I understand the reasoning, but still feel irrationally annoyed at being presented with a thing that doesn’t completely work, and that irritation probably colored my experience with the rest of the game.

Of course, there were a number of completely legitimate reasons to be annoyed with this game. For one thing, it is that judges’ bane, the Way-Too-Big Comp Game. Two hours is a completely inappropriate amount of time for evaluating this game. It took me 45 minutes just to read the various manuals and introductory materials, for heaven’s sake. Before I’d even started the game proper, I’d already used up about a third of my judging time. Then there’s the fact that the game offers a zillion different tools, but only allows a few per game session — sure, it’s great for replay value, but how much replaying am I going to do in two hours? Oh, and how about this: even after reading the massive manuals, there were still parts of the interface that were totally unexplained. Here’s a hint for anyone struggling with the conversation portion: don’t use ASK, TELL, or NPC, . Instead, just type the answer at the command line. If you don’t know the answer, type DONE. I figured this out by pure guessing, thereby using more precious time.

Also aggravating was that the game implements the square bracket (“[“) for making notes at the prompt. Okay, that’s not aggravating, that’s cool. What’s aggravating is that 1) You have to type a space after the bracket in order for the game to handle it properly, and 2) Making bracketed notes takes game time, one turn per note! This wouldn’t be so bad, except that there are a number of time limits worked into the game, so making the comment command non-meta effectively penalizes the player for using the game’s built-in notation system. Finally, despite the fact that Moments boasts an amazing amount of technical polish, it suffers in several places from what I can only call lazy implementation. You may find a book which can’t be referred to as “book”. You may be told something by the narrative voice that you couldn’t possibly know, given that it’s happening hundreds of miles away. You may find (details changed to prevent spoilage) a hidden cache in the floorboards, but when you “examine cache”, you will be told “You can’t, because the floorboards is closed.” Oh they is, is they?

Okay, enough spleen-venting. It’s just too bad, because there are the bones of an amazing game here. The plot revolves around a future time-travel agency, and the world-building evident in the details of this is just wonderful. Also, some of the things that make it inappropriate for the competition don’t necessarily make it a bad game. Quite the contrary, in fact — the number of options available makes for an incredibly rich gameworld. I kept wondering what would have happened had I chosen a different array of technology at the beginning, while still quite awed by the capabilities of what I had chosen. I feel I barely scratched the surface of the story, and the scenario was interesting enough that I’m quite curious to see all the things I missed.

The writing did a nice job at establishing a consistent tone, and provided plenty of amusing juxtapositions as the future character examines technology that is primitive to him/her. I saw the beginnings of a number of intriguing puzzles, though there’s an overwhelming array of keys and locked doors, and the game’s auto-unlock feature appeared to me to be broken.

All in all, a very worthy effort, but I wish it wasn’t a competition game. Releasing this game outside the competition would have accrued several benefits. It would have allowed more time to fix those nasty details of implementation and documentation. Players could have approached it as something they could spend a significant amount of time on, rather than having to rush through it to see as much as possible while not giving short shrift to the other 51 games awaiting their attention. And it wouldn’t have been presented for formal judging in a not-completely-functional state. Would have, would have, would have. If only real time travel were possible.

Rating: 5.6

2112 by George K. Algire as George K. George [Comp01]

IFDB page: 2112
Final placement: 24th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Unlike the other game at the IF Archive by this title, 2112 is not an adaptation of the 1976 Rush song. There are no Red Stars of the Solar Federation, no Temples of Syrinx… really, no Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian sci-fi whatsoever. Instead, this game just happens to be set in the year 2112, and casts the PC as a middle school student taking a field trip to humanity’s scientific outpost on the planet Mars.

The futuristic trappings are there, but I wouldn’t exactly call this game science fiction. Its vision of the future is more or less a straight transplantation of present-day life into a century from now, with very little extrapolation for change. The students travel to Mars in a Boeing 797, and upon reaching the planet, the PC finds a Starbucks, a Gap, even a “2113 Dodge Aries Planet Hopper.” As the author jokes in the readme, “It’s a shame they don’t offer a prize for most corporate name-dropping in a single work.” The game reserves a little sneering for the various corporate presences, but I’d hesitate to call it satirical — the swipes are rather too blunt to deserve that label. Of course, the game was so large that I didn’t reach the ending in two hours, even after I spent the second hour more or less typing commands straight from the walkthrough, so there may have been a stinger that I missed later on in there, tying the whole thing together and making some kind of point. More on the size a little later.

This not-quite-science-fiction, not-quite-satire game was also written as a Windows executable, using a homegrown parser. Every year, the IF competition seems to attract one or more of these, and I have to say, I find it rather interesting that there are enough people willing to write their own parsers and world models to actually provide a number of new creations, all with their own from-scratch code, for each and every annual IF competition. I’ve mentioned before that the urge to keep reinventing the wheel is quite a foreign one to me, and that I tend to dread these homegrown entries, as their parsers are much more likely to be problematic, snide, and annoying. Due credit, though: 2112 has one of the best homegrown parsers I’ve ever seen. Yes, it still breaks rule #1 of Paul’s Parser Manifesto: “Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.” One small favor is that its violation applies only to verbs, as in the following exchange on the occasion of finding a stuck hatch:

>pry hatch
You don't figure doing that would help you much.

Well actually, I did figure doing that would help me. That’s why I typed it. Turns out the game would have responded exactly the same way if I had typed “rpy hatch.” However, on the positive side, the parser has a very useful and ingenious way of disambiguating. For instance:

>drop note
. . . note
Which of the following do you mean? 1) the small yellow note, 2) the
pile of notebooks? Just hit 3) to forget it.

After issuing this question, the game disables all keys except 1, 2, and 3, thus preventing accidental input while preserving (through the last option) player freedom. I thought this was a great way to prevent the pernicious “Let’s try it again: Which do you mean, the note or the note?” problem. 2112 also had several fun features available, such as a customized game window, appropriate (and sometimes startling) sounds, and multicolored text. It even provided most of the features I’ve come to expect from IF, such as scripting capability and undo, though I was hesitant to use the latter because it required restarting the former.

Usually my screed on homegrown games is that nifty features don’t matter as much as a solid parser. 2112, though, has both. You’d think I’d be satisfied. Well, it turns out that reasonable game design is nearly as much of a must as a good parser, and it’s here that 2112 doesn’t quite make it. I’d played the game for about an hour and couldn’t figure out what to do next — the game was telling me I was still in the preface, despite my having explored a couple dozen rooms and solved a variety of puzzles. So I checked out the walkthrough, and guess what? I’d failed to find a vital item in the first 10 moves of the game, and there was no way to recover that item, nor to substitute its use in the puzzles that involved it. I had to restart, and let me tell you, I was gritting my teeth.

From that point, I was going straight from the walkthrough, and although I did this for a straight hour, I still wasn’t able to finish the game. What this means to me is that 2112 is in no way a two-hour game. Consequently, it dodged the pet peeve I expected it to hit (shoddy homegrown parsers) and ran smack into two others (games inappropriately large for the competition, and games that close off without warning.) Oh, I almost forgot to mention: the game suffers from a number of spelling and grammar errors, too. Make that three pet peeves. 2112 is a slick piece of work, and it didn’t need TADS or Inform in order to be as richly interactive as it needed to be. What it did need, however, was to take a few lessons from the game design ethos that the IF community has evolved alongside its development systems.

Rating: 6.6