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Notes on IF Competition 2009 games

My notes on the IF Comp 09 games.

I'm not publishing my scores this year. I start thinking I have to justify them after the fact, and I don't think anyone really cares about the scores of an individual judge anyway. I'd rather assign them immediately after playing, then forget about them when writing about the games later.

I will instead simply tell you what to play. You should play Rover's Day Out, which is excellent comedy sci-fi and my winner. You should play Broken Legs because it is a lot of fun even if you don't get far with the puzzles. You should play Snowquest and then explain it to me.

If you want a good but small puzzle game you should play Byzantine Perspective.

To hold your own in dinner-party conversations about this year's comp, you will need to have played those and also Earl Grey, which is unusual and clever, but which I found hard to enjoy.

Play The Duel That Spanned the Ages for sci-fi with good gameplay, but ignore the writing.

You might also play The Duel In The Snow, for the setting and humour.

Well, thanks to all the authors and organisers, and on to the games.

Serious spoilers are done like this: it was the monkey. (That should look like a black box and the text should appear when you hover your mouse over it. If it doesn't, it means my stylesheet doesn't work on your browser, or you're using your own stylesheet on purpose.)


Initial assessment: only 24 games? Hmm. Three quests and two duels. I don't think I object to duelling, but I'm not so sure about questing.

Eruption - Richard Bos

It's good to find ourselves in a sea-cliff cave, instead of the usual limestone or geologically unexplained variety.

This game comes dangerously close to apologizing for being in the comp, which always irritates me. It's better than the usual sort of apology, at least.

Small game - I won it in twenty minutes.

Some of the background detail you don't find unless you search in the same place more than once. Although it's a fairly logical place to search more than once, I suppose. Seems odd to hide away the background detail, but certainly gets credit for having some. And a feelie too.

On the other hand, by the end of the game I'm not sure if it's a fantasy world or the real world. If it's the real world I don't know what century it is.

Let's see: fish oil lamps, and I carry around a knife but no money, and we still take the volcano goddess seriously. Then sailing boat, but maybe the other boats were motor boats. A padlocked iron shack, and me and my friend are both literate and he has writing materials. A scroll.

None of this is necessarily inconsistent, quite. Probably I'm caring too much about a trivial game, anyway.

Gleaming the Verb - Kevin Jackson-Mead

I feel like an idiot for not being able to solve the first puzzle, so in revenge I will explain at length why this game is rubbish.

It breaks into two parts. First, working out what you are supposed to be doing, which I failed at. This isn't done fairly: if the protagonist is not actually trying to perform the actions, then "asdf cube" and "kiss cube" should have the same response as "get cube". They don't.

Handy tip for authors: if you find yourself deliberately replacing responses to make them less interesting than the Inform defaults, you're doing something wrong.

And: you're supposed to read the cube and it gives you this clue about reading, but then read is just a synonym for examine?

It's bad that there doesn't seem to be any way to see the important text again, except by scrolling back.

Then the second part, once you know what you are doing: this isn't interactive fiction. It might as well just say "and here are some more puzzles in a similar vein", and list them.

Forgetting about how they fail to work as interactive fiction, what are the puzzles like on their own terms? Still not much good. I don't mind word puzzles - I like crosswords, for example. But this is more like a wordsearch than a crossword. The search space of stuff you can do with letters is moderately big, and tedious to search. How do I know you haven't introduced caesar shifts or something?

The Duel in the Snow - Utkonos

Starts badly, with a dream sequence. There's nothing worse than realising that you're going to have to type "wake" and it's going to work. I don't like dream sequences in books and films either.

Pedantry: it was called centigrade, not Celsius, until 1948 (says wikipedia).

Nobody looks at an analogue clock and thinks "the time of day is 4:58am", except maybe when they are waiting for a 4:59 train.

Don't say "You are very thirsty" every damn move.

In the flashback, I don't like the way it has responses in the past tense but descriptions in the present. Or is it only "error" responses that are in the past? Either way, it looks a bit strange:

  >play cards
  You had no desire to join the game last night, but just stood there looking on.

  Kropkin is telling an anecdote. [...]

Hilarious line, but I think I have to spoiler it: 'Gronovskij looks at the stuffed owl clutched in your hand sneeringly, as if to say: "Why the devil would anybody bring a stuffed owl to a duel?"'

I have never been shot, but I'm not convinced that a pistol bullet hits you with "the force of an express train". I also don't think we should fall over with "a crash", since we're falling on to snow.

"Earning you the rank of dead" is good.

Short game, found both endings within an hour.

The poetry is funny, shame to hide it away like that.

I wanted to use the trick that's in a short story, maybe Chesterton, where you pretend to have been shot then wait until your enemy approaches you and shoot him as he bends over you to see where he hit you. Although I think the guy in that might have had one or both of the seconds as accomplices.

Wouldn't a hip flask be as good as an owl? If I'd tried to use that first, maybe I'd never have worked out the solution.

I'm left wondering what the story is. Do I deserve to have been shot in a duel, or not?

"You are still alive, and your honour is intact." Arguable, since I was deliberately cheating, but perhaps it just means my honour in the eyes of the world.

I'm also left wondering how I manage to conceal the hole in my overcoat from Gronovskij and his second. Even if I do, isn't the convention that blood must be drawn for honour to be satisfied? Perhaps not, if we both fire and miss, then agree to call it off. But that still makes the ending seem a little too early.

What about the pretext for the duel, anyway? Do we really fight a duel because I punch him, after he insulted me? So was he deliberately trying to get into a duel with me? Of which the only explanation could be that it's him Natasha went off with - but if she's already left me, why bother?

Wanted to like this game more, but it's railroady and somewhat unsatisfying. But I like the setting and the humour.

Star Hunter - Chris K.

Why can't I open a bureau? I'm sure I've seen an unopenable bureau somewhere before in IF. Does it mean something else in American?

Sudden random capitalisation: "You can see a Circuit board (in which is an Electronic gate) and a Buzzer control here."

  >x gate
  This tiny metal lever can be closed to make contact along an electronic relay.

So is this gate really a gate, or is it a switch, or is it a relay?

  >wear bracelet
  You can't wear that!


  Atlantis cockpit
  This is the location from which flight control and communications
  tasks can be performed. Exit is west

  You can see a Main viewscreen, a Flight console and a shallow receptacle here.

  >x main viewscreen
  You can't see any such thing.

You have to put a chip "in" the circuit board - you can't put it "on" the circuit board.

What is an "L-junction"? Apparently it is what we English-speakers call a "corner". Tricky philosophical question - is a junction with less than three exits still a junction?

Puzzles are unfair, as far as I can tell. There's a gizmo which appears to work in one place but not in others, for no obvious reason.

zork, buried chaos - bloodbath

Oh dear - I don't think I've seen a spelling mistake in the version information before: "sereal number 099518".

An excerpt will tell you everything about this game:

  red room
  You are in a red room. There's not much special here except for a
  button on the wall.

  A button is on the wall.

  >press button
  You hit the button and the floor collapses! You see stairs leading up.


  You can't go that way.

I could quote more stupidities and a lot of spelling mistakes, but I think you get the idea. It's all like that.

The walkthrough doesn't work. I think the game might be unfinishable.

The "maze" is the feeblest I've ever encountered. It has three rooms, and you solve it by trying all the directions from each room until you find the one which doesn't say "You can't go that way."

I suppose this was probably written by a kid so I should be encouragingly patronising instead of brutally critical. Well, young bloodbath, not bad for a first try. Don't let it bother you too much when bastard judges like me give you low scores. That's life in the cutthroat world of competitive interactive fiction, and you gotta learn to take it.

The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man - Hannes Schueller

The first room description has a lot too much generated text in it:

  You can see a computer, a whiteboard, a workbench (on which are a
  test tube (in which is an invisibility potion), a badge and a pen)
  and a wardrobe (closed) here.

This isn't very good:

  >get up
  You'll have to get off the toilet first.

  >get off
  You'll have to get off the toilet first.

  >get off toilet
  You get off the toilet.

Mistakes like "a office" and "Stairs a leading down."

But this sort of thing sums up what I don't like about this game:

  >kiss secretary
  (the secretary)
  Keep your mind on the game.

Not just that it has a default response, but that you barely get to do anything interesting while invisible. Kissing secretaries, and indeed everyone else, ought to be just the start of the amusements and chaos-causing which an invisible protagonist could indulge in. But in this game he never does, and it seems a waste of a good gimmick.

Good points - a characterized PC, I suppose. And the envelope puzzle was clever.

Byzantine Perspective - Lea

This is a pleasant and well-presented single-puzzle game, but I can't give it a huge amount of credit because there is so little to it.

More games please, this author.

Earl Grey - Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish

I got off to a bad start here. Nothing I tried in the first scene would work.There seemed to be a lot of transformations missing. Why can't I make a table into a tablet? Why can't I make a teal service? Why can't I give the teapot a pout? Why can't I make a multitude of exotic, inspiring cents? Why can't I make a lowing blue portal? Why can't I make fragrant ants?

Once I had tried all these and never got anything except a default response, I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing at all.

Later on in the game the coverage seemed to improve a bit, with more wrong guesses having responses.

But I just can't do the puzzles. I either see them right off or I read the paragraph dozens of times and still don't see them. Which is why I used the walkthrough a lot.

Maybe this could have been better as a smaller game. There didn't really need to be more than two NPCs, and if there were fewer locations but you could change more in them, maybe it would seem more coherent.

The craftsmanship is good, but it isn't great as a story and I don't get on with the puzzles. It's clever, it's well-written, but it's not fun enough and I have to call it an interesting failure.

More games please, these authors.

Trap Cave - Emilian Kowalewski

Couldn't get it to work on Linux. No instructions?

Why bother entering a so-called English version, half of which is in German?

I should give this one point for wasting my time, but since I haven't actually played it I suppose I have to leave it unrated.

The Ascot - Duncan Bowsman

I had to look up what an ascot is. Apparently it's "a cravat with wide square ends; secured with an ornamental pin".

Reloading a game doesn't tell you where you are. If you type "look" it complains.

Short. One "puzzle", such as it is. Stupid and pointless CYOA.

Beta Tester - Darren Ingram

The first room is a bit cluttered.

I put a tube in a slot and it responds with "Upon sliding the ring into the clasp". Huh?

  >dee, hello
  What do you want Matron Dee to hello?

Having to press a key after every damn sentence is annoying.

Why suddenly a lower case room name?

"unlock door with key" responds with no text.

"Wearing a green blouse and pants, this woman's hair is what's most noticeable." Yes, that would make anyone's hair noticeable.

"a dark wood parquay"

  You also see a slide attached to one side of the box that descends south into the darkness.

  You can't go that way.

Yup, so the writing and coding isn't up to much. I'm refraining from making a snarky reference to the game's title.

This game has too much zany, with very little funny.

The gags in IF should be in the responses to things the player does. They shouldn't be in the room descriptions, much. They definitely shouldn't be in the cutscenes. (There you go, the most dubious generalization of these reviews, but it might be approximately true.)

The Duel That Spanned the Ages - Oliver Ullmann

Ugh, episode 1. I don't think I like comp entries being episode 1.

Also I want to spoonerize the title into "The Duel that Aged the Spanners" or possibly "The Spaniel That Jewelled The Ages". You have to admit that would be a pretty sweet title for a game.

Anyway. Episode 1 is the Age of Machines? Shouldn't we start with the Age of Rocks or the Age of Pointy Sticks? Because what's episode 2, the Age of Digital Cyberbeings? Meh, maybe it's going to work backwards.

The introduction seems overblown:

  They say the birth or death of a star is an important event; a
  spectacular show. Then something like the space battle that rages
  above Geryon 5 must certainly be less than a side note in galactic
  history; the plasma explosions less than a single spark in an
  eternal New Year's Eve.

Lower-case room names just don't look right to me.

This isn't good:

  This crater is far too small to be a result of the shuttle
  crash. Its floor is partially covered by a black metallic smear.

  In the small crater is a black metallic smear.

Nor this:

  >open trapdoor
  You can't see any such thing.

  >open trap door
  You open the trap door.

Nor this:

  >put rocket in launcher
  Which do you mean, the single rocket or the rocket launcher?

The prose is pretty rotten, and the implementation has some holes, but nothing too bad. I enjoyed playing this one. It's a rare case in the comp: a game being more fun than you'd think from the introduction.

Resonance - Matt Scarpino

I said this last year: don't call your game "An Interactive Fiction" just because that's the Inform default. If you don't have a subtitle, don't have a subtitle.

Why is the introduction hidden in a menu?

The conversation menus are odd. They don't get renumbered if you have used up a topic or if it just isn't available, which means you can meet someone for the first time and get a menu with options numbered 3 and 0.

Why can't I talk to Sally?

The game gives me broken instructions:

  (To buy an item, enter its name or use 'buy,' as in 'buy item')

  >buy pie tin
  Nothing is on sale.

  >buy empty pie tin
  Nothing is on sale.

  >empty pie tin
  (10 dollars removed from your account)

It drags in some riddles in a painfully contrived way.

I don't think I've ever seen a white hearse in this country.

A hard-boiled game like this should never respond with "Violence isn't the answer to this one", even when it isn't.

It refers to "whoever stole Sonia" when I know exactly who stole Sonia.

Odd tone. Hard to tell if this is supposed to be serious or not. It has stupid riddles, implausible hairdresser talk, a parody villain who says "AHAHA", etc. But in between these it's completely straight.

Broken Legs - Sarah Morayati

Should be able to refer to the kid as "girl".

I'm a bit confused when the game says "Just find it already" and I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be looking for.

Saw a couple of typos: "surprisedl" and "lovestowards".

Anyway, I definitely recommend this game. Detailed and funny.

It does seem difficult. I was hung up for a long time because I didn't do the action that was required to advance the plot, thinking it would be a mistake. That was a bit unlucky, but even after that I would have struggled without the walkthrough. There is some tight timing which I think would have taken a lot of trial-and-error to work out. Don't let this put you off playing it - just be prepared to cheat if you are impatient like me.

Spelunker's Quest - Tom Murrin

Another "An Interactive Fiction".

It is a learn-by-dying game. Not in a good way.

It's confusing to position things in compass-point corners. If I scan a room description quickly and see phrases like "eastern portion of the cavern" or "southwest corner", I tend to try and go in those directions.

It's a bit unlikely that I can't hear dynamite go off in an adjacent room.

Quoted because I can't resist an excessively pedantic nitpick:

  After plummeting for a couple of seconds, you land upon a rock floor!
  You have landed well and have not been injured.

A two-second fall implies a 20 metre drop and a landing at 20m/s, which is 45 miles per hour. Pretty lucky not to be injured, then. Never mind, I suppose I can let "a couple of seconds" pass as artistic licence.

  >hit torch with axe
  You can only do that to something animate.

Strange setting. The protagonist is supposed to be a real-life caver in Brazil, but then it has goblins and swords and suchlike.

Interface - Ben Vegiard

Strange capitalisation: "You recall returning to Consciousness".

Various broken punctuation and bad plurals ("a keys") and bad spelling. There's even a mystery object called a "property tage" which I think is supposed to be "property tags".

Can't "put towel in pool" - it has to be "put towel on pool".

Gilby seems to ignore me most of the time, which doesn't make much sense.

Implementation is messy, writing is too. At least it is fairly thorough about responses to actions (though not responses to examining).

The Hangover - Red conine

This one is not just "An Interactive Fiction" but "An Interactive Fiction Computer Game". Good to have that made clear. I could easily have mistaken it for a lettuce or a hatstand.

Third game where I've woken up with a hangover. The amount of binge drinking going on in this year's competition is worrying.

Oh man:

  Your Bedroom
  You have a horrid hangover and no asprin in the apartment. This is
  your bedroom. Your ill-loking bed takes up most of the space. You
  have a closet and a bath robe on the floor. you should really take
  your robe and put it on. Its a good place to store things. To the
  east is your bathroom and to your west is the rest of your
  apartment.  Also here is your bathrobe.

And don't miss the "women":

  Your Living Room
  You living room wich also is your kitchen and dining room and just
  about everything else besides a bathroom. You have a kicthen counter
  and a fridge. There seems to be a table with three chairs. You have
  a TV and a couch as well... and a women is sleeping on the
  couch. How the hell did someone like you pull that off? She must
  have been drunk and by your headache so were you. To the north is
  the exit. To the east is Your Bedroom.  The women is here.

  x woman
  Nothing special.

  x women
  The mysterious women on your couch. She seems to be in a very deep slumber

  wake women
  I don't understand what you want to do with Women.


  give dollar bill to deby
  Deby doesn't seem interested in the two dollar bill.

  give deby dollar bill
  Deby gives you the french fries and then goes back to ignoring
  you. The french fries are very greasy. Grats my friend, you should
  probably eat them before they get anything else greasy.

You get the idea. It gets worse though. You have to wait while on the bus. But "z" just says "Time passes..." - it only works if you type "wait"!

Walkthrough gets the directions wrong. And now fails to work at all.

Grounded In Space - Matt Wigdahl

Bad sign:

  >look through window
  You find nothing of interest.

I'm having to guess phrasings a bit.

The game says "you may ask the computer for "help" to receive a detailed, non-inclusive list of available information topics." But then:

  >ask computer for help
  It's not really here, you know.

It has to be "computer, help". And then the first topic in the list is "System Overview", but asking about it doesn't work.

I think it's a mistake to try and describe a finicky geometrical puzzle in text, especially when it means having to go to tenths of a degree. (And why "1350 tenths of a degree" anyway? Just say 135.0 degrees.)

I also think it's a mistake to introduce a love interest so near to the end of the game. She should have been brought into the plot earlier or not at all.

I don't understand what the "station" is that the walkthrough refers to. Maybe I missed it somewhere.

The Grand Quest - Owen Parish

Looks like an irrelevant backstory around a bunch of disconnected puzzles.

  It's difficult to tell at a glance how large this room is, due to
  the presence of a surprising number of bookshelves, all filled with
  dusty tomes.

  There are a couple of reading chairs facing each other in the centre of the room.

  The north gate slams shut.

  >x chairs
  You can't see any such thing.

  >get books
  That's hardly portable.

  >get book
  That's hardly portable.

Can't refer to a crossbow as "bow". Can't sit on stools.

Come on, you can't have a whistle and not implement "blow whistle".

Stupid puzzles. Nothing implemented.

Condemned - a Delusioned Teenager

Delusioned? Is that a clever combination of "delusional" and "disillusioned"?

No, it turns out this game has a splendidly creative attitude to vocabulary, coining "momently", "censorshiping", "feignly", "unresolvment", "torrentiously", and (my favourite) "vertigoistic".

The game is trying to be serious, but I'm continually distracted by the unintentionally hilarious writing. Allow me to quote:

"scarcity of objects is the main feature of this room"

"It seems that due to the weight of the rock, these ropes are experiencing the most tension out of all the other ropes."

"A cold numbness pressures your head"

"death-ridden deepness"

"this rocky driveway shadowed by your house and surrounded by green yard is the place where you are currently standing in the middle of"

"whenever he talks he always exposes all his teeth including his long tongue"

I thought this might best room name ever written:

"Standing on the Corner of Charles Road and Residence Lane, With your Bicycles"

...until I got to the room called:

"Standing in front of your sitting Mom"

Now suddenly the game has become Yoda: "Poor and helpless she is going to be for as long as she lives."

One more, then I'll stop - really you should have the whole build-up to get the full force of this one, but anyway:

  On her hands--wet, moist, and salivated--is...

  a small brain.

So. There's a lot of reading for not much doing. The game isn't exactly awful, and assuming the author actually is a teenager, they clearly aren't dumb and they should keep writing games - but just stop trying to write so damn fancy.

Then again, it's just possible this whole game is a parody, in which case it is sheer genius.

Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort - Tiberius Thingamus

A title with an exclamation mark is usually a bad sign, and a title with an exclamation mark in the middle is probably a worse one. The awful ye olde speake in the blurb is likewise repellent.

Oh god. It is all like that.

I've seen lots of games with grammatical errors before. This is the first I've seen that was entirely composed of grammatical errors.

This is the third millenium, not the second.

Badly implemented from the start, where you have to climb a tree and "climb tree" doesn't work. Played through with the walkthrough and it doesn't appear to improve much.

GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! - Dave Horlick

If I'm supposed to be a friend to wetlands it would be nice to be told something about them:

  What commonly gets called a "swamp" is actually the most
  extraordinary ecosystem on the planet. Water and grass extend as far
  you can see, filled with an incredible variety of birds and fish and
  turtles and (of course!) alligators.  You can see the loop road to
  the west.

  >x water
  You can't see any such thing.

  >x grass
  You can't see any such thing.

  >x alligators
  Serious gray reptiles of impressive size.

  >x birds
  You can't see any such thing.

  >x fish
  You can't see any such thing.

  >x turtles
  You can't see any such thing.

Even the alligators don't do anything. If this is "the most extraordinary ecosystem on the planet" I can't imagine how dull an ordinary ecosystem is.

To solve a puzzle you have to give the bag to the crow, but if you try to give something else equally plausible you get "You can only do that to something animate". Bad bad bad.

This is a rather splendid way to guide the player subtly towards a likely action: "You are seized with the pronounced inclination to form a crackling mace."

"Violence isn't the answer to this one" is printed as part of the response to the winning move.

This is another game with an odd mixture of tones. You can't take it seriously, but at the same time it doesn't seem to be going for laughs.

Rover's Day Out - Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman

Dream sequences again, but I won't object in this case because they are comic instead of symbolic, and in any case they stop immediately.

The puzzles weren't too hard. There's a sequence which is probably timed but if so it is pretty generous - I thrashed about wildly and eventually managed to do a few of the right things, and that was enough to let me win.

I don't have many notes on this game, but I totally recommend it. Excellent and very funny.

In theory I am slightly disapproving of games that Mess About With The Damn Meta-Levels. I'm not exactly sure why - maybe because it is done too often, or because I'm suspicious of games with gimmicks. But since this game is enjoyable in practice, it is silly to complain.

Snowquest - Eric Eve

It's good to have a perilous quest that feels properly life-threatening - and because of the environment, not because of dragons and evil wizards and so forth.

I was reminded of books by Ursula le Guin - she often has people going on difficult journeys of this sort.

A dream sequence again, grrr. At least you aren't supposed to solve this one by typing "wake".

The puzzles worked well enough for me. I solved them all but not too quickly. Maybe I could have done with more nudging towards correct solutions when I tried to file the bone on the wrong rocks and perhaps when I tried to break or take the skeleton, but I solved them anyway.

So this game was pretty good and I recommend playing it, although I liked the first half better than the second.

To discuss how it ends I'll need spoilers:

I'm not sure what all the different levels mean. Is it just a coincidence that Wolf was suggesting to me that my plane was going to crash, and it really will crash if I try to fly it? Or was I seeing into a possible future? Or has he seen the weather report?

I'm also not sure if he has suggested that I will crash and then the quest part was my own mind elaborating on top of that suggestion, or if the quest part has more significance somehow.

At a simpler level, why didn't he just take the parcel while I was hypnotized and wander off with it? Does he really need to kill me too? Why - because I could give a description of him? He seems to be taking a big chance that I won't look inside the parcel in the meantime, unless perhaps he has hypnotized me not to.

I won't be surprised if some of these answers can be worked out, at least to some extent. Maybe I need another playthrough, but for now I'm just a little unsatisfied by the ending.