A few quick reviews

I’ve finished judging the comp and will post a few words about some of the entries I found particularly notable (in no particular order).

Creature Such as We

[spoiler]A thinly-veiled allegorical game about a thinly-veiled allegorical game. Cute.

The writing in this game is top-notch, especially the “activity” segments of each day where you, as a “Tour Facilitator”-type host of a moon resort, escort a team of game developers around to different locations around the base and outside on the moon. The game does a fantastic job of conveying the awe and majesty of space and thrill of exploration; these parts of the game are pure joy to play, and are certainly helped by the inspired choice of premise and setting. During these activities you are also interacting and bonding with the guests; I normally loathe dating-sim type games but I must confess that Creature Such as We does a great job of building up a plausible and organic relationship between the player character and their chosen love interest.

The moon activities are punctuated by meals (which are primarily conversations between the PC and the developers) and time spent playing the game they developed. I felt that the former fell rather flat. The first mealtime conversation addresses the deep and interesting philosophical question of whether the arbiter of the meaning of art is the artist or the viewer, but the treatment of this topic felt rushed and glib. I strongly argued for art as commodity and author as Dead, and received surprisingly little pushback from the authors themselves: surely at least one of the developers would more vigorously defend their right to define the meaning of their own work? But I do like that the game attempts to explore this theme and gracefully accommodates whatever the views of the player are.

But if the game developers are ambivalent about who gets to interpret the meaning of a game, the game itself is rather less so, as the second meal degenerates into an author tract on the evils of social inequality, violence in games, trolls in the gaming community, and how Something Must Be Done about it all. I tried occasionally to take the conversation in a different direction than along the rails that had obviously been laid down for me, and was condemned by the entire dev team in chorus. I was left wondering if I would have been allowed a more nuanced conversation had I chosen to sit down with the men instead of the women – I sure hope not. Now, to be sure, any Tour Facilitator worth his salt would have tucked into a triple helping of dessicated Tortelini before allowing themselves to get sucked in to any politically-charged conversation, and if forced to participate would have done their best to smile and nod along – so I suppose it’s not incongruous to expect the player to do the same. Still, it was disappointing and grating to see the game take such a heavy-handed approach after earlier adopting the fluidity of meaning of a game as one of its themes.

The rest of the game also weaves in plenty of subtext about isolation and privilege, but – with the exception of one particularly clumsy quip towards the end, when the base has to be evacuated – I felt the message was communicated quite gracefully and effectively.

The third type of gameplay concerns playing the subgame itself – it’s not easy depicting an FPS in a text adventure, and I must confess I found myself skimming through these parts. Perhaps if I had been more invested in the subgame-world and its plot, I would have enjoyed these segments more… certainly the best experience, though perhaps technically infeasible, would have been if the subgame had been playable as an actual FPS![/spoiler]

TLDR: One of the better entries in the comp; the game’s setting, mood, characters, and writing and all excellent. The game’s attempts at addressing deeper themes are unsubtle and forced, however, and ultimately damage its effectiveness as allegory.

Hunger Daemon

[spoiler]I must confess that I started up Hunger Daemon with quite a bit of trepidation. The cover art is OK but amateurish, and the blurb left me apprehensive that this game was going to be some monstrous amalgamation of bad-Lovecraftian-horror and bad-slice-of-life IF, both well-trodden genres.

I needn’t have worried. Two things quickly became apparent:

  1. The game is well-crafted and polished, an excellent example of how to use Inform well. Except for the ending (see below) I never had the feeling of fighting against the parser. Conversations are well-implemented, as is the built-in hint system (always a nice touch).
  2. The game is well-written, for what it is: your family are members of a demon-worshipping cult (apparently a perfectly ordinary hobby in the Midwest) and you have to salvage a dark ritual after a key artifact is stolen, thanks to your own past incompetence. This plot could easily describe a straight horror game, but the tone of the narration is extremely casual and blase, with the effect of turning the game into light-hearted humor rather than cliched horror. It’s refreshing and very effective.

The puzzles are OK. They are logical and individually well-designed, but don’t mesh together well into a cohesive game: each puzzle feels like a set piece to be solved separately from the others as you move linearly from one location to another. This criticism applies to the story as well: it feels like you are whisked along a plot driven by a chain of implausible and contrived coincidences. The Heart gets stolen because the right person just happened to stumble upon the directions for opening its container, and somehow(?) managed to track down your cult’s lair and steal it at just the right time to disrupt the ceremony. You need to distract a beetle and the only object that will serve just happens to be close at hand. You need to track down the thief and she just happens to be acquaintances of your ex-girlfriend. Etc. In a game with a finite amount of detail, it is inevitable that the majority of effort will go towards elements of the world that are relevant to the plot, but the frugality of Hunger Daemon’s implementation makes the game feel particularly small. (A notable exception is the reference tome in basement – I was surprised by how many of my searches yielded fruit.)

Hunger Daemon’s puzzle design is what I’ll call the “jigsaw puzzle” paradigm: you have a small number of moving pieces, and by the end of the game they have all fit together just so, with nothing missing and nothing spared. I prefer the “junkyard” paradigm: you have a vague idea of what you want to build, and can wander around sifting through the pieces at your disposal, but your final design will use only a portion of them and there are several possible combination of pieces that would have worked equally well as those that you chose.

I liked the ending, once I figured out the right solution. I got frustrated after a while, as my efforts to impale the heart on the horn, set the heart on fire, etc etc gave me only generic error messages. I’m not Jewish so maybe these ideas are obviously stupid to those who know how the objects function in the real world, but adding at least a few custom error messages would be a nice improvement for a post-comp release.[/spoiler]

TLDR: A light puzzle game of modest ambition, but masterfully executed; witty and quirky in a way reminiscent of Taco Fiction. My pick for the winner of the comp.