On behalf of the argument in favor of including hints or walkthroughs in competition entries, I present Exhibit A, Cameron Wilkin’s Bliss. This is a game which gets quite interesting and noteworthy, but doesn’t actually do so until all the points have already been scored. Without the included hints, I doubt I would ever have gotten to the interesting stuff. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten there in two hours. There are enough bugs and non-intuitive puzzles in the game that without those hints I probably would have spent the entire two hours flailing about in the first section. With the benefit of the hint file, however, I was able to advance beyond the roadblocks presented by some suboptimal puzzles and coding, so that I could reach the surprise twist the game delivers in its endgame. The trip was definitely worth it. I won’t give away the surprise here, but I will say that those of you who went into spastic convulsions when you saw the words “dragon”, “village”, “orcs”, and “evil wizard” might, once you regain control of your bodies, want to give the game a second look. Perhaps even just go through it using the walkthrough. All is not as it seems, and the discontinuity provides an interesting perspective on fantasy IF and the fantasy genre in general.
The beginning of the game is pretty good too. You’re “the town hero”, and you’ve set out to capture a ferocious dragon that has been terrorizing your village. However, on the way to the confrontation you were ambushed by a group of orcs who have locked you in a dungeon. Now, with only a blanket and a tin cup, you must find a way to escape. Yes, it’s all quite cliché, but the game has two things going for it. One, the writing is strong enough that it manages to evoke the specificity of the setting, and even if each element of that setting is lifted from shopworn genre conventions, the gestalt still feels like it has a little freshness left. Second, the game displays distinct signs of being aware of its own conventions. For example, when conversing with one of your orc captors, this possibility is available:
>TELL ORC ABOUT ME
"Yur just one big, stoopid hero cliche, aincha? I 'spect it'll be fun
watchin' yu waste away an' die!"
Such glimmers of self-awareness bode well for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fully deliver on their promise. There are a number of bugs; they’re not glaringly obvious, and it’s clear that the game has been tested, but it’s equally clear that the game would benefit greatly from being tested some more, even if just to add some responses to common actions which might help steer the player in the right direction. In addition, there are a number of puzzles which, if they don’t quite reach the extreme of “guess-what-the-author-is-thinking”, are at least very non-intuitive. These puzzles would benefit from just a few tweaks. An alteration of the prose here, an alternate solution there — just a few changes would make a big difference.
Overall, Bliss is definitely worth playing. Even as I write this review, I’m still having realizations about various elements of the game that continue to revise my perspective, which is a distinct pleasure. Also, its writing is almost completely free of grammar or spelling errors, which is something I’ve recently stopped taking for granted. I very much hope that the author takes into account the feedback he receives from competition authors and possibly a second round of beta testers, and releases a revised version of the game which stomps the bugs, enriches the puzzles, and cleans up the formatting errors (there are a few, though not many.) Once the polish is on, Bliss will be a very strong piece of short IF.