My 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition Reviews

These are my reviews of the games I played in the 1999 interactive fiction competition. I played/reviewed all the inform, alan, and tads games. The msdos ones didn't run on my unix acount, so I didn't play 'em. I did download the resources to see the multimedia tads games, though, but life isn't fair. So there you go. Anyway, I've sorted them into three categories, "highly recommended", "recommended", and "not recommended", and sorted the games alphabetically within those categories. I've put an asterisk (*) by some games that were difficult or conditionally categorized; you may want to read the review before deciding whether to play them.

Note: some of these reviews may contain minor spoilers. Unfortunately, for some games, even knowing that there is a spoiler in the review may itself be a spoiler. I don't know what to do about this short of the Magic Amnesia Stick. If you have the time and inclination, I recommend playing the games first, but if not, go ahead and read the reviews. Nothing major is spoiled.

Note2: If a game was entered by proxy or under a pseudonym, the actual author is listed afterwards in square brackets.

So, um, here are the games:

Highly Recommended Games

A Day for Soft Food (Tod Levi):
The obvious comparison to make with this game is Ralph, from the 1996 comp. There, the PC was a dog, and you got to dig and chew some things and urinate on other things (or the same things) and so on. A Day for Soft Food is like that, except you're a cat. In some ways this is intrinsically a more fun premise -- dogs are locked up in yards, while cats get to wander around, climb trees, stalk birds, and generally mess about. And as long as the game sticks to this, it's great. Unfortunately, in the endgame, Levi fails to hold to the premise that just being a cat is an interesting enough concept to base a game around. He forces a fairly unbelievable sequence that requires a fair amount of guessing the author's intentions and doesn't add all that much to the game.

The game could have been improved by simplifying the puzzles and providing more areas to walk around in. To fully appreciate a new form it's best to have a varied environment to interact with: I don't think depth of interaction is as important in this sort of game as it is in most games. With the puzzles as they are you'll probably have to resort to the hints at least a couple times, but they're clear enough that it's no big deal to do so.

Death To My Enemies (Roody Yogurt):
I'm perfectly willing to believe that no one but me will find this game funny, but I thought it was completely and utterly hilarious. It's a little buggy but not too bad, although the "puzzles" are unclued enough that you'll probably end up reading the four-line walkthrough. And that won't spoil anything, trust me.

Erehwon (Josiah Pinkfoot):
Ok, this is a rarity. The game has a maze (two mazes, in fact), and I'm not giving it a 1. I'm even recommending it. However, I do not recommend it for the comp. Why Pinkfoot thought this was a comp-sized game I can't imagine. I realize there's a certain latitude and pushing-of-boundaries permitted, but I think this one falls into the "ridiculously long" category. On the other hand, the game is definitely fun in a geeky sort of way, and it'd be worth spending time on after the comp. But the puzzles are really quite difficult and you're advised to keep the walkthrough handy.

On The Farm (Lenny Pitts):
When I say "like Sunset Over Savannah only not as good", don't get the wrong impression. This is really quite a nifty game: it's just the right size for the competition, it's got a bunch of places to wander around in, you can do random wacky things, it's got a monkey reference and an outhouse and all that good stuff. Oh, and the hints are good too, for the few times you get stuck on puzzles, and (praise the lord) they're semi-adaptive so you don't get extra spoilers.

Pitts aims for and near-perfectly captures the idea of a small kid running around getting into hijinx on his grandparents' farm. But it seems like there could have been more. Not more stuff to do, just more human feeling to the game. There's hints at some intriguing backstories that never get resolved, as far as I can tell, and it's a great pity. But definitely play the game anyway.

Six Stories (N.K. Guy):
As a TADS programmer myself, I'm pleased as punch to see another glowing advertisement for HTML-TADS. And make no mistake, it's the multimedia that drives the game. Without it, the game is fine. Not bad or anything, but basically a bite-sized one-puzzle game with a bunch of effort put into cute random responses and the little details, but not enough into the actual plot or puzzles. But with the multimedia, Six Stories is transformed into a full-out extravaganza. Hear the intro, see the snow, watch the pretty flashing lights, listen to the stories, and so on. Anyone unconvinced by Arrival last year may yet find themselves blown away by the multimedia in Six Stories this year.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)

Winter Wonderland (Laura A. Knauth):
I like every new game by Knauth more than the last. Erden was forgettable, Trapped in a One-Room Dilly playable but nothing spectacular, and Winter Wonderland is better than either. A combination of bits from fairy tales and original material blended neatly together, the game does a fine job of constructing an elegant and self-contained fairy-tale winter setting. The puzzles are about on the Dilly level: you'll get most if you try, and a few will send you to the hints. Unfortunately, the hints are't all that good. For a couple of the puzzles, I was stuck, read all the hints on the topic, and was still stuck. But don't let this dissuade you from playing the game, by any means; just be prepared to ask for help someplace.

Recommended Games

Beat The Devil (Bredon):
If you gave someone a copy of Perdition's Flames and John's Fire Witch and told them to write a game, this is more or less what would be produced. I assume, however, that the author has not actually played either, since the alternative is that they decided to do major concept-swiping and hope no one would notice. These caveats aside, it's a fun game. The puzzles are clued enought to be solvable: I hit the hints once and regretted it almost immediately, since the answer was then bleedin' obvious. There's no plot or character interaction beyond "solve these puzzles and win the game" but that's a-ok by me. If you like games with puzzles in them, take a look at this one.

Bliss (Cameron Wilkin):
Do not stop playing this game because you see the word 'orc'. Trust me. It's hard to discuss this game without spoiling anything, but I can say that it's an interesting idea but not enough is done with it. Replaying it immediately after finishing might be a good idea. I was also somewhat disappointed with the game because it missed a chance to do any real deconstruction of fantasy-world ethics. Nevertheless, it's got a walkthrough, so go ahead and play it. The puzzles aren't especially interesting but they aren't important to the game either.

Chicks Dig Jerks (Robb Sherwin):
Imagine you own half of a '57 Chevy, the result of a bizarre car accident. Now someone comes up to you with a music box, and explains you can fix your car by welding the two together. Wouldn't you be at least a little skeptical? If you can believe it, this game is roughly the equivalent. Two interesting game ideas somehow impossibly jammed together, and the changeover will leave your head spinning. This isn't exactly a bad idea, but when the end tries to draw some all-encompassing conclusion, it doesn't work, any more than your Chevy-musicbox is going to cruise down the highway. Also, the game is really very buggy, especially in the latter half, and there's one puzzle that's total guess-what-drug-the-author-was-on-when-writing-it. Save often.

Exhibition (Anatoly Domokov):
See, this would have been great if it was entered in the IF Art Show, except for the obvious wibble from entering a piece about an art show in the Art Show. But really, nothing seems to happen in this game. You poke around and look at pictures from different perspectives, and after four pictures you've more or less gotten the hang of what the narrators are like, only there's twelve pictures, not four. And the music seems to carry on the same thing, by being nice background music at first, and then it starts to sound kind of the same. That's fine in the art show when the object is to quietly wander around and play with it, but here I'd like some, you know, plot.

For A Change (Dan Schmidt):
Someone else said that this was a game they wanted to love, but only found themselves liking. It's hard to say exactly why this is. Schmidt has created a fine world indeed and it's a pleasure to wander around in, but then the puzzles are frustrating to the extreme. This is made more annoying because the hint system seems to be really bad: it never gave me help on the topics I needed and it wasn't clear which sections to read, so I ended up reading a bunch of spoilerish stuff that nevertheless didn't explain the puzzle. Furthermore, although the game was wonderfully consistent on a small scale, there are still some nagging questions left at the end. It felt too often like the author was designing by "wouldn't it be cool if?" and not "it would make sense for the world that" and for me, in a game that's set in a place deliberately different than our own, consistency is very important. So in that sense at least, For A Change was a disappointment. But play it anyway, just because it's cool.

The HeBGB Horror! (Eric Mayer):
I'm not sure why, but this game didn't thrill me as much as games of this type normally do. I am usually a big fan of games that enact some genre faithfully -- in this case, a funky punk/lovecraftian horror combo. The puzzles were fine, and there was a walkthrough anyway, and the writing was ok, not spectacular, and the parser was Alan, which is normally icky but bearable here (even though Alan doesn't support UNDO.. grr), and nothing in the game was great, just good. I guess that's my major gripe.

Hunter, in Darkness (Dave Ahl, Jr.):
A pretty little cave crawl with maybe two puzzles. And it's got a funny underlying joke that you'll catch onto fairly quickly. So it's fun. Forgettable, but fun. Special marks for a very good job at passing along the feel of really crawling through a cave, even if it gets a little melodramatic at times. Oh, and a note to the author: it's not supposed to have hands.

Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win (J.D. Berr):
See, the basic problem with trying to do a Sherlock Holmes-type game is I'm not as smart as Sherlock Holmes. So for the requisite big scene where he says "Aha, Watson! I deduce from the leaf-mould on his trousers and the slight bruise on his inner-left elbow that in fact he was the man the constable sighted outside the doctor's place that night. And that means the murderer is none other than .. Old Jim, the caretaker!" and then Jim says "Curses! And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for" etc, etc, the designer has two basic choices. One, you make the player painfully puzzle out the mystery and just skip the big deduction scene, or two, you do it as a cutscene.

Although Jacks is not really a mystery, more one of those treachery-filled caper stories, you've still got the same two choices. The protagonist is a wily guy who's risen to the top based on his skills at playing opponents off against each other and reading character at a glance, and I'm not. In this game, Berr makes the choice in favor of cutscenes. So the game is a series of you making some actions, then reading three paragraphs of deductions you make, then making some more moves, then reading three paragraphs about how you smash the conspiracy which of course you were tracking the progress of all along, and so on.

Which is not to say this isn't a fun game, because it is. The background is great: there's easily material for another couple games here. And the puzzles are kinda neat and quite appropriate. There's one guess the verb problem at the beginning that's a little annoying but otherwise the game is straightforward. It's just that, well, if the protagonist is so smart, what do you need me for?

King Arthur's Night Out (Mikko Vuorinen):
This is fun in a goofy sort of way. It's an Alan game, so it doesn't have undo. I think it's most like an IF version of Hagar the Horrible (which, if you haven't seen it, is on the web here). It's fun enough to not be a big hassle, although not really fun enought to spend a lot of time wrestling with the puzzles. Vuorinen's comp98 submission, CC was a little more interesting to play.

Life on Beal Street (Anonymous):
Although it's done as a TADS game, this is actually a choose-your-own-adventure, and the plot tree looks like this: -|-|-|- ie, at every point, if you make the wrong choice the game ends immediately; if you don't, it keeps going to another node where the same thing happens. Eventually you reach the end. So while you get a big win from not having to wonder what to do next, there's also a feeling of "ok, I can't screw this up, therefore nothing matters". On the other hand, because it goes by so fast you can check out all the outcomes and be done with it, and that's ok, it works. So again, this is pretty forgettable, but it's certainly worth putting in a little time to take a look at it.

Lomalow (Brendan Barnwell):
This is not a fun game in the same sense that a novel isn't fun to read. There are no real puzzles as such; everything you want to do can be accomplished by "ask NPC about X". So the experience is much more like reading a book. Except that it gets to be quite difficult to figure out what to ask about next (hint: you have to ask about everything. several times.), and so what it's really like is reading a book where it takes you fifteen minutes to find out how to turn each page. Then at the end of the game it goes for a big emotional payoff, and there just isn't one to be had, because you're in a bad mood from trying to figure out the right topics to ask about.

The writing in this game is interesting: it drifts back and forth between overdone, simple, and right on. I think Barnwell might be advised to try a more puzzly game next time. This was an interesting experiment but really, IF NPC interaction technology just isn't developed enough to have the kind of real conversations I think he was looking for.

A Moment of Hope (Simmon Keith):
(I have the beta-tester disclaimer here only because I saw an earlier version of the game, not because I actually provided testing).
I'm not quite sure what the attraction of horror movies is. The only one I think I've ever seen was The Blair Witch Project and while that had redeeming value for leading to The Blair Family Circus Project it still left me somewhat unclear on the concept of why you'd want to pay money to get scared. A Moment of Hope almost perfectly captures a section of the experience of being a geeky loser kicked in the teeth by life, magnified a hundred times. Being a geeky loser myself, I can relate, in a sense, to the feelings, but dear god, why would anyone want to write about it? And why would anyone want to play it? I'm quite capable of producing angst on my own, thanks.

Still, I have to give it credit in a way. Out of all the games in the competition, this one produced by far the most visceral response. So I recommend you play it, but know what you're getting into.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)

Only After Dark (Anonymous):
This game is short, composed of three scenes with about a puzzle and a half per scene, but fun. The writing comes off as a little rough but has an interesting feel to it all the same. The third scene feels a little disconnected from the first two, although it's a cool enough idea that that's forgivable.
(Disclaimer: I was a beta-tester for this game)

Outsided (Chad Elliot):
Plus a bunch of points for having an innovative story idea and more energy than half the other games put together. Minus a bunch of points for a stupid first scene. Plus a bunch of points for being a spy story because I like those. Minus a bunch of points for being completely bug-ridden and full of typos. Plus a bunch of points because a lot of the typos are funny. Anyway. This is the sort of game where you resort to the walkthrough early and often. But if Elliot gets some more practice writing puzzles and plotting coherently, I'll be pleased to see his next.

Pass the Banana (Anonymous):
This is an in-joke for a small, elite group of people. Hee hee hee. If you aren't a mud regular, you probably won't get much out of this, although you can still marvel at all the responses to classic easter eggs.

Stone Cell (Middle Edge):
This has an interesting setting and writing, but the stuff you have to do is so non-obvious that it can't realistically be gotten by anyone who's not reading the author's mind, I'm afraid. So I guess the correct thing to do is to either wait for a post-comp release with on-line hints or something, or just do what I did and take the walkthrough and feed it into the game, then read the transcript.

Strangers in the Night (Rich Pizor):
This is interesting, since it's a TADS game that could have been done just as well in AGT. The premise is simple: you're a vampire, and you wander around the streets at night looking for people to bite. There's not very much implemented so it's almost always obvious when you're in an Important area. The writing, as required by the Vampire Writer's Code, is somewhat overdone, but it's not too bad most of the time. I'm not even sure the game would have been improved by more details; if finding five people to bite is fun, finding fifty isn't more fun, it's less fun. Ditto for finding five people to bite in a 7x7 area as opposed to a 20x20 area. Anyway, this was a good game to play on the first night the games came out and I wanted something that didn't require too much thinking. If you're in the same mood some night, go for it.

The Water Bird (Athan Skelley):
A good premise (native american folklore from a particular tribe), well-researched and footnoted (even excessively so, but hey, you don't have to read the footnotes if you don't want to), and unfortunately it's buggy and incomplete enough that it can't be finished. Had it been me writing this, I would have pulled out of the comp and done it right, then announced it later, but I can understand the attraction of doing otherwise.

Not Recommended Games

Calliope (Jason McIntosh):
This is another "My First Programming Project In Inform" game. Worse yet, it's also a "This Game is About Someone Who Writes IF But Has Writer's Block" game. The author acknowledges both these faults from the start, but that doesn't make the game any more interesting to play.

Chaos (Shay Caron):
"Arr, I'm the crazy evil roboticist, welcome to my third-person viewpoint!" Except that you seem more like an ineffectual, goofy villain than anyone who'd be a threat to humanity (whereas ineffectual, goofy heros are staples of the genre and since the protagonist doesn't commit any evil or even mildly naughty acts during the game, there's no reason to have made him a villain), and the third-person viewpoint, though an interesting experiment, doesn't really work. All it does, in fact, is add a further chatty persona, the invisible narrator, who spends at least as much time talking as the nominal main character does. Which brings up the other problem with this game: verbosity. For some reason, all games written with WorldClass seem to have two-paragraph room descriptions. I'm all for being descriptive, but giving detail in a small amount of space is a valuable skill too. Combined with the dozens of random asides by the narrator, I was quickly overwhelmed with a flood of text that I didn't much care about.

Puzzle-wise the game is pretty straightforward, once you figure out what's going on. There are one or two fatal bugs, but it's a short enough game it's not a big deal to replay if you get stuck. The game would have been better if it was longer and leaner; some interesting ideas are raised (playing the villain and interacting with all those robots, especially the body-switching one) that I'd like to see explored, but here they're brought up and mostly ignored.

Four Seconds (Jason Reigstad):
This one is almost interesting enough to recommend but not quite. For the basic setup, think Babel: underground science lab, flashbacks, Trek-esque technobabble and unethical scientists dabbling in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. On the plus side, the first dozen moves of Four Seconds are really pretty cool. On the minus side, it's got some spelling errors that suggest a certain unfamiliarity with the subject of the story ("quarenteen"?) that are borne out by the later events in the game, when the game turns into a schlocky horror film. It partially redeems itself with an ending that mirrors the beginning neatly, but the middle isn't really worth wading through to get there.

Guard Duty (Jason F. Finx):
Cool premise, cool transcript in the help file, completely unplayable due to bugs. Moral: don't use beta-release Inform libraries to write your comp games, and always make sure your games are playable on a Frotz-type interpreter, or Nitfol with the warnings on.

Halothane (Quentin.D.Thompson):
This game is so incredibly long that even with the walkthrough, I passed through the stages of interested, bored, annoyed, and cranky waybefore I'd reached the end. It has ten chapters. The author claims it as a parody but it seems more like a philosophical discussion; in either case it has about a half-dozen jokes and/or insights scattered through it, but the great length of the game means there's an awful lot of blank space in between.

L.U.D.I.T.E. (Rybread Celcius):
Rybread has written better games. Unless I just got stuck early, which is possible.

Music Education (Bill Linney):
This is a fairly standard "hi, this is my school, here are some random in-jokes and people I know that I've coded into the game, here are some puzzles" sort of game. I would rate it higher but I really don't like this kind of game. Also, possibly I missed something, but I didn't see any indication that I needed to solve any puzzles. According to the intro I was trying to practice my instrument and I did that within about ten moves. Apparently, though, I had to go around and guess what all the NPCs needed and give it to them so the concert could start. Not my style.

Remembrance (Casey Tait):
Basically, this is a straightforward and fairly unexceptional game. The writing's decent but not amazing. The gimmick is that this isn't written in TADS or Inform: it's written in Javascript. You select the action you want to do from a short list at the bottom of the page, and then it pops up an error box because that was the wrong action to take at this point, and there's only one order you can go through in. Conclusion: there's a reason more people don't use Javascript for IF (although admittedly, for a new new author who has a story but doesn't want to program, it might be worth considering -- except that this game could just as well have been written in straight html files with no javascript whatsoever, stayed portable and yet been easy to write).

Spodgeville Murphy and the Jewelled Eye of Wossname (David Fillmore):
This game is worth about a laugh and a half. Luckily, it's short enough that you're still in a good mood by the time you've finished. Unfortunately, there's a little bug making it impossible to win unless you get sneaky or lucky, but it's a fairly understandable mistake.

Thorfinn's Realm (Roy Main & Robert Hall):
Here is a short summary of my problems with this game:
Here you are in the future! You see a time machine here.
You go far back into the past! Back to the days of the ancient vikings!
You see a pizza here.

This is basically one of those old-sk00l games from the 80's/early 90's where you wander around ill-defined fantasy worlds solving puzzles. It's fine if you like that sort of thing, but I don't. Especially not values of "that sort of thing" involving collecting treasures, an NPC that randomly shows up to steal those treasures (hint: UNDO), and inventory limits.

And that's all. You can go back to my home page if you want, or see my reviews from the '98 competition.