2014 IFComp: A Smattering of Reviews by M.E. Miller

First, a few notes about me as a player/reviewer:

When I play (read?) interactive fiction, whether it’s parser-based or CYOA-style, I’m looking for exactly the same things I want in static fiction: an intriguing premise and compelling characters. So if I fire up a game, play if for five minutes and get the impression that the game is an unabashed puzzlefest with little character development, I’m probably going to quit playing it. I won’t rate it or submit a score for it; I’ll just stop and move on to another one.

I want stories with emotional resonance—not just the intellectual satisfaction of solving a puzzle. Give me someone in the story to care about & root for, whether it’s the protagonist I’m controlling or an NPC I meet.

On the technical side of things, I’m playing entries online using Chrome on a Kindle Fire HDX. If a game doesn’t seem to behave well in that situation, I may switch to a desktop, or I may just abandon it and move on to another entry.

I don’t intend to play all the entries. I’m devoting my attention only to the ones that (to me) have interesting titles or descriptions. As the judging rules state, I will play and rate at least five.

Following Me by Tia Orisney

[spoiler]WHAT I ENJOYED: I found the writing to (generally) be above-average. Sure, there were a few errors and stretches of verbosity, but the author IMHO did a good job of creating compelling characters, detailed settings and a strong plot. I got the sense that this author really understands the craft of fiction and has experience writing static stories.

WHAT I DIDN’T ENJOY: This is the least-interactive piece of interactive fiction I’ve ever encountered.

I made choices throughout the game, but they seemed to have absolutely no effect on the overall plot. Because of that, I replayed several sections, just to explore alternate choices, and I found my actions always led to the same general events, the same three-act structure: get kidnapped, try and fail to escape, then finally escape for good. In the endgame, for example, I had several basic options: kill one of the kidnappers, knock him out or just plain run away. All three lead to exactly the same ending.

During a replay, I tried making the stupidest decisions offered to me, just to see if I could get killed. Nope.

The game offered so little freedom that, at one point, I made a choice and the game basically replied “Yeah, that’s a bad idea, so on second thought, you change your mind and choose B instead, because that’s clearly what the author wants you to do.”

I don’t understand why the author chose to use the medium of interactive fiction to tell this story. It’s (ostensibly) a Choose Your Own Adventure Style tale, which I loved as a kid. (I still have a copy of INSIDE UFO 54-40 on my bookshelf!) But the great thing about CYOA books was, my choices mattered. My decisions sent the plot in wildly different directions, sometimes getting me killed, sometimes placing me in exotic locations, etc.

In Following Me, my decisions were meaningless, other than to give me somewhat different details or outcomes in some scenes, all railroading me toward the same ending.

AND ABOUT THE PLOT: It was strong enough to keep me reading. However, it ultimately disappointed me. Considering how much barely-interactive text I had to read (it felt like a novella), I hoped for some really original, rewarding twist at the end. But the story instead turned out to be a fairly average slasher tale.[/spoiler]

Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes, by B Minus Seven

I enjoyed this one, although I don’t feel I understood all of it.

[spoiler]So I like live, improvisational, avant-garde music–the kind of music that the Shaking Ray Levi Society cultivates, curates or otherwise performs in my town. It’s the kind of music where the musicians abandon conventional notions of melody and rhythm and sometimes play their instruments in ways the manufacturers never intended. It is, at least to me, enjoyable because of the sonic textures and unusual timbres and crackling energy created in the tonal space. (People who don’t enjoy it would probably say it sounds like feral children banging away rabidly at guitars and synthesizers and drums.)

Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes reminded me of the IF equivalent of that sort of music. I enjoyed it, but on an impressionistic level, not on a logical or intellectual level. I’m not sure what was going on in a lot of the game, although I think the beginning was an homage to Bureaucracy, and I vaguely recognized some of the other game details, though I can’t place them.

This is the second piece of IF that I’ve ever encountered which appeared to have deliberate coding errors.

I enjoyed the fact that the narrative was presented in a series of tiles, and I could basically undo my choices by scrolling up, re-reading a tile I’d already seen and clicking a different hyperlink. It made the story nicely non-linear for me.

I replayed it several times, until I felt I’d discovered all there was to discover. I’m probably wrong, though; I’ve probably missed more.

I’m reading the U.S.A trilogy by Dos Passos right now, and parts of this game remind me of it–collage-like in places, with splashes of stream-of-consciousness intertwined with a more straightforward narrative.

I’m looking forward to more from this author.[/spoiler]

Enigma, by Simon Deimel

[spoiler]WHAT I ENJOYED: The premise/gameplay seems unique; I appreciate someone willing to take a chance and try something new. (As I said in the review above this, I enjoyed Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes, which was really experimental and strange. I’m all for weird new stuff.)

WHAT I DIDN’T ENJOY: The gameplay itself became EXTREMELY tedious. It’s unique and strange, but not in an entertaining way.

Basically, you can do only two things: examine objects, or think about objects/other concepts mentioned in the text.

As player, you literally can’t go anywhere, interact with anyone, pick anything up, put anything down, etc.

You look; you think about stuff; and that’s it.

In the “Info” section of the game, author himself writes:

I am sure that some people will think, “Why did he do it this way? It would be more obvious as a hypertext game.” And yes, these people are right, it would be easier to play…

Yep. I agree. It would have worked much, much better as hypertext. It’s basically the same experience as a hypertext game. For example, here is an excerpt from early on in the game:

Tim Delbrock has been your best friend since junior high school. He is your favorite fellow student. You have known each other for a long time. He is a part of your best memories. It was just a question of time until he became the boyfriend of your younger sister Gina. You really appreciated that development.

Now, if this were a hypertext work, certain words in that paragraph would be highlighted, and you’d click on them to move the story forward. Instead, none of the words are highlighted (unless you switch the game to EASY mode.) You, as the player, are expected to figure out which words or phrases in the text are significant, and then either “examine” those words or “think about them.” (It’s important to do both, BTW. Sometimes those different verbs produce different results.)

It got really tedious, really quickly.

By reading the “help” section, I learned that I could, at least, use shortcuts: I could type “t (noun)” instead of “think about (noun)” and that saved a lot of typing. However, if I hadn’t gotten frustrated with the game & read the help section, I wouldn’t have discovered that; the author clearly wants players to finish the game without getting clues from the “help” section. (Eventually, I used the walkthrough to complete it, because I wanted to see how the story would end, but I was tired of the actual gameplay’s repetitive nature. Think, examine, think, examine, think, examine, think, examine, think, examine, think, examine, think, examine, think, examine, think, examine…)

THE PREMISE: This was odd, to say the least: I’m someone holding a gun, presumably about to shoot my best friend, but suddenly I’ve developed amnesia for some reason. So I just stand motionless, looking around and thinking about stuff, trying to remember why I’m there. In a surreal comedy or avant-garde piece, the odd premise might’ve flown, but it just didn’t work for me in this game, which was a standard crime tale beyond the strangeness of the “stuck in a moment” concept.

THE PLOT: As soon as the game told me that my friend used to date my little sister, I (correctly) guessed I was shooting him because he’d done something horrible to her. As a mystery story, the plot was far too predictable.[/spoiler]


Yeah, it’s broadly the same ending, but it felt different if you decide to be more violent, in a kind of “have I become a monster” way, and breaking your oath as a medical person etc. Also, you can actually kill both of the kidnappers. That’s the most interesting ending, I think, because of how shocking your own violent actions become.

Did you find any information in your playthroughs about the kidnappers’ motives, or what the original trail of blood was all about? I found clues, but no answers.

I do agree with your review overall.[/spoiler]

[spoiler]I agree–whether or not you decide to kill the kidnappers changes the tone. I was surprised, though, that the material outcome of the story is the same in all the endings; you & your sister escape. I figured deciding to kill or not kill would affect whether you’re able to make it out alive; that the game’s author would give your actions more weight in terms of whether or not you actually made it out alive.

I don’t remember info about the kidnappers’ motives or the original trail of blood. I don’t know if that’s because it wasn’t included in the text, or if that’s because there was so much text that I just missed those points.[/spoiler]

The Urge by PaperBlurt

[spoiler]Liz England wrote an excellent review of this story at her Web site, and my reactions to the story were similar to hers. I wish the monster-in-the-woods aspect had been developed in more detail and had played a much bigger role in the narrative–that was the most intriguing part of the story for me, as opposed to the chamber-of-horrors aspect, filled with serial killer cliches.

I did really enjoy the inventive use of text/formatting, and the Leno bit made me laugh out loud.

My biggest problem with the story: not enough interactivity; not nearly enough opportunities to meaningfully affect the narrative’s course. The author, at the start of the story, was very adamant about stating that The Urge is not a game, and I appreciate that–I prefer interactive fiction that focuses on character and setting rather than on puzzles. However, there just wasn’t enough “interactive” in this interactive fiction story for me.[/spoiler]

Missive by Joey Fu

[spoiler]I’m going to start out this review by quoting PaulS’s review of the same game:

I had a similar experience as PaulS did–I had a vague idea that because many of the letters contained stilted language and odd phrasing, they must contain hidden meanings. But it wasn’t until the end of my first play-through that it clicked: the letters contained hints as to which letter to choose to read next.

And the letters/puzzles aspect of it struck me as hokey, the more I thought about it. That aspect, Lily hiding puzzle clues in her letters, implied that:

  1. Lily, when writing her letters to Henry, expected that someday, her letters would be in a big jumbled pile and someone would randomly grab one from the pile and start reading.
  2. Knowing this, she encoded near-inscrutable hints in the letter. She intended that the hints would be deciphered and would then clue the reader about which letter to read next—with the next letter containing a similar hint.
  3. If the reader understood all the hints, then he or she would read the letters in the proper order.
  4. And, apparently, reading the letters in the proper order would reveal an important secret (the solution to Henry’s murder, I assume, although I pretty much sucked at deciphering the clues so I don’t know.)

So, yeah, I didn’t solve most of the puzzles. But the fact that Lily orchestrated this complex, convoluted scheme seems proof to me that:

  1. Lily is wackadoodle and 2. She is most likely the one who killed Henry because 3. Yeah, wackadoodle.

Although the game contained many puzzles & each one had a correct solution, the biggest puzzle of the game—who killed Henry?—didn’t seem to have a correct solution (at least, in the 3 endings I reached.) I ended the game by stating who I believed killed Henry, and the game didn’t give feedback as to whether I’m right.

Frustratingly, the biggest mystery (to me, at least) of the game was: hey, who’s this mysterious dude who (somehow) knows I have the letters? I never got an answer or much of an opportunity to seek one. That was the most intriguing part of the game for me, even more interesting than the murder itself. I played the game 3 times, yet still never understood who he was or how he’d learned the letters were in my possession. (He seemed extremely concerned about me having evidence in regards to this cold case—so why did he never confront me in person?)

I expect I would have gotten more answers if I’d solved more of the puzzles, but after 3 run-throughs, I was ready to move on to another story.

This game frustrated me because, on a pure story level, it was one of the comp’s most compelling for me. I like murder mysteries. I like amateur detective stories. This was a good one. The writing itself was solid, the characters intriguing, and I really felt empathy for the protagonist and wanted to help him repair his relationship with Emily. But the convoluted puzzles and the overall 7-day time limit diminished my enjoyment. (Why did the protagonist have only 7 days to suss out the mystery? Was the time limit ever explained? Was it just arbitrary?) Those aspects were gimmicks that didn’t jibe with the more realistic, emotional stories of lost love in the present and the past.[/spoiler]

HHH.exe by Robot Parking

[spoiler]I didn’t realize this was a parody/reworking of a real game until after I’d played it & read other reviews. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it & found the writing appealing: vulgar, enthusiastic, inventive and weird and funny as shit.* I’ll probably go back and re-play it at some point to see if I missed anything. I’ll probably try to find the original Hugo’s game, as well. I have an old Windows 98 computer that still works and should run Hugos; I rebuilt the damn computer earlier this year so I could FINALLY finish Grim Fandango, which I’d started in 1999.

Anyway, HHH.exe is one of my favorite games of this year’s comp.

*Some of my favorite current TV shows are South Park, Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories, and Squidbillies, if that tells you anything about my sense of humor.[/spoiler]

That’s actually a thing I liked about the game. One could completely ignore the puzzles, and play this game like an ordinary ‘slice of life’ game, and still have a very rewarding and satisfying playing experience. I thought the depiction of the relationship between the protagonist and his ex-girlfriend, and of the protagonist himself (his behaviour, feelings and inner dialogue), was excellent. My first play-through was like this: I finished the game, and really liked it as a story. I did guess that there perhaps was some hidden meaning in (at least some) of the letters, but didn’t know that there were actual puzzles.

Or, one could treat the whole life & relationship stuff in the game as a puzzle: Get the protagonist’s life back on track – clean the apartment and make the ex-girlfriend fall in love with him/you again. This basically make the game into a single-puzzle game. Though, (re)playing the game with this goal in mind, it still doesn’t feel like ‘puzzle’ to me, perhaps because of the natural way the relationship and interaction between the two main characters is described. It’s doesn’t feel like just a ‘dating-sim puzzle’ (‘GIVE COMPLIMENT’ → ‘You get the girl!’).

Or, one could play the game as if the whole point is to solve the 6 letter puzzles and figure out who killed Henry. This is the part of the game that works least well, in my opinion. The puzzles are hard. They’re much too hard to be comfortably solved in the two-hour time limit, and will probably only appeal to puzzle lovers.

Still, trying to solve puzzles like these can be much fun, and does add something to the game. But they’re not essential, and unlike in almost all IF, you can get to a good ending without solving any of them. So they can be an optional extra, if you choose to treat them like one. But I guess it’s easy to get to end of the game, read ‘you solved 2 out of 6 puzzles’ and think ‘Oops, I completely missed the whole point of this game – I didn’t even realise there were any puzzles …’, and end up disliking the game, instead of enjoying the story part of the game.

About the actual puzzles, I think they were made too hard. I did notice a few possible clues (some conspicuous wording) even on my first play-through, and after a few more, I had a rough idea of how to solve at least some of them. But going from this to actually solving them was needlessly difficult. I did end up solving all of them (and figure out who killed Henry), but this took several hours. I think the game would be better if the puzzles were easier and better clued.

Still, this was one of my favourite games of the competition, mainly because of the solid writing and nice story. And I like games about human relationships. [emote]:)[/emote]

Just to clarify on the mystery in Missive:

You will know it if you’ve solved the mystery. (That is, the game will in fact tell you.) I don’t think it’s possible without solving 5 or 6 of the puzzles.

About Missive:


That makes sense. Unable to find a walkthrough for the game, I recently downloaded Twine itself–ya know, the tool needed to write such games–so I could extract the source code, just to see how it might end.

I’m annoyed that it violated one of the number-one rules of detective fiction: the victim killed himself.


“18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.”

I mean, come on–suicide? That’s the kind of chicanery that didn’t fly in the 1920s.


In response to huftis’s remarks–I agree, the game had solid writing, a nice story, and I liked that it focused on human relationships. And I do appreciate that it worked well as a story even without the puzzles. It does take hard work to craft a real, engaging story-type story, rather than just a puzzlefest with characters and plot added in like afterthoughts. I’m impressed by the author creating a story that worked so well on its own. The author has talent; I hope to see more from this person.[/spoiler]