Comp Reviews Are Here Again

I am, as usual, late to the party but unable to resist adding my two cents. In fairness, I did start writing these reviews right after the comp began, but the month of October really got away from me (how is it two-thirds over already?). Anyway, on to the reviews!

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder

[spoiler]In this game, you are the human first mate to a rodent pirate captain, trying to gather up some of the treasure you’ve plundered before your ship sinks. “Collect loot, get points” games used to be a staple of text adventures in the days when they were still called text adventures, but I don’t see a lot of them these days. Unlike most of the older games in the genre, though, this game doesn’t require a lot of puzzle-solving in order to get the loot–a few items, particularly more valuable ones, have a few basic steps that need to be taken before you can get them, but in most cases grabbing a particular object is no harder than typing “get [object].” The real challenge is figuring out what’s most valuable and how to prioritize your actions in order to maximize the money that you get, which can only be done across multiple playthroughs. Replaying didn’t feel like a chore, though; the game moves very quickly due to the limited number of turns afforded by the rising water, and the humor and charm don’t wear thin too quickly, at least as long as there are new things to find and thus new content to be had. I imagine it would get less interesting once you manage to wring every bit of text out of the game, but I didn’t keep going quite that long.

The implementation seemed good and gameplay was smooth, although I didn’t try anything too crazy. I also liked the nautical vocabulary definition function–it’s never necessary for gameplay or reading comprehension reasons to know what all the funny words mean, but it’s a nice bonus.[/spoiler]

Verdict: A fairly lightweight game, but a well-constructed and fun one.


[spoiler]Games constructed around a single wordplay-related mechanic seem to be Andrew Schultz’s stock-in-trade, and Threediopolis is no exception. However, whereas last year’s Shuffling Around was pretty straightforward about what you needed to do to solve the puzzles, the biggest challenge in Threediopolis is figuring out what the main gameplay mechanic is. I understand the decision to do this, but it really front-loads the player frustration, which is dangerous–I was this close to throwing my hands up and quitting without having really seen any of the game’s content when the proverbial lightbulb finally went on.

Once past that hurdle, the game is good, solid fun–the puzzles are still challenging once you know what the mechanic is, which is not always the case with games of this type, and there’s a nice scaling of difficulty between the shorter words, which you can generally figure out in a flash of inspiration, and the longer words, where you may have to resort to breaking out a pencil and some scratch paper and writing down possible letter combinations. I did, anyway.

The humorous techno-dystopian flavor adds some charm, but the messages get a little repetitive if you spend as much time aimlessly wandering as I did. That may not be the game’s problem, though. Additionally, the flavor text you get after solving a puzzle sometimes felt a bit phoned-in and bland, which did detract a bit from the game for me–solving the puzzles is its own reward, of course, but I’d also like to get something a little more interesting when, for example, I find one of Ed Dunn’s friends than the same message I’ve seen five times already with a different name in it. I did like some of the game’s responses to words that were not puzzle solutions, but fit the parameters–those were nice little easter eggs.

The ending of the game has this same problem, writ large. You solve all the puzzles, you return to your employer, and the game just kind of… stops. I know it’s not a story-heavy game and I wasn’t expecting a huge cutscene, so to speak, but having what amounts to “You show Ed Dunn all the stuff you’ve done and he says ‘Good job,’ the end” felt really anticlimactic.[/spoiler]

Verdict: A rocky beginning and a lackluster ending, but what comes in between is very entertaining.


[spoiler]This game combines a Cold War-throwback nuclear nightmare with alchemy and Gnostic theology, which is a pretty disparate collection of elements. That in itself is not a bad thing, but I felt that Solarium never quite made me feel like they were all working together in service of an overarching theme. The Cold War bits seemed to be exploring something about war and nuclear weapons and personal responsibility for atrocities (although, to be honest, there was nothing there that I haven’t seen in more “normal” Cold War fiction many times before), and the Gnostic bits were saying something about faith and its dangers, but it just didn’t quite come together. In the end it mostly seemed muddled and a bit try-hard.

The game does have a more personal, emotional aspect in the narrator’s search for a lost love who was also involved in the government project that led to the nuclear apocalypse, but I was never very emotionally invested in it. I think that partly it’s because so much of my attention was taken up by trying to figure out what was going on with all the alchemy and possession and global thermonuclear war, and partly it’s because I found the writing style a bit distancing. Which was probably an intentional stylistic choice, but when the search for said lost love is the driving force of the story, the detached style is a bit of a drawback.

The interactive aspect mostly consists of “click link, learn that you don’t have the item needed to progress with that link, go back, click a different link until you find one that you can do,” which is not a bad thing but also not especially great, but towards the end there are a few meaningful choices that lead to different endings, and I appreciated that. Also, I’m not really used to having to talk about aesthetics in my IF reviews, but I should note that Solarium’s images and text design worked well to contribute to the overall stark and oppressive atmosphere.[/spoiler]

Verdict: It’s not a bad game by any means, but it’s trying to do a few too many things at once and it just didn’t work for me.

Bell Park, Youth Detective

[spoiler]Bell Park is a light spoof of kid-detective stories. The twelve-year-old eponymous heroine has apparently solved a few small mysteries (things more on the order of Encyclopedia Brown than Nancy Drew, I get the impression) and is now thrown headlong into a murder case, courtesy of a tech conference organizer who doesn’t want to jeopardize his event by calling the police in. The game repeatedly shows that she’s in over her head and not really equipped to deal with anything worse than someone’s missing lunch money, but she still does play a key role in solving the mystery, presumably because she’s the protagonist.

The cast of characters are all appropriately over-the-top and ridiculous–I particularly enjoyed the pretentious futurist droning on about the Singularity being nigh; I’ve read a few things that could have been written by him. The plot eventually takes a sudden left turn into actual science fiction, which in a serious murder mystery would have felt like cheating, but Bell Park is silly enough that it works.

The worst I can say for Bell Park is that it could have used a more thorough proof-read; it’s littered with minor typos and grammatical errors that distracted me, nitpicker that I am, from the rest of the story. That said, while it was funny and enjoyable, I didn’t quite love it; I have a hard time, though, putting my finger on what it was that left me cold. In the end it might just have been a little too arch for my tastes.[/spoiler]

Verdict: Good fun at the expense of kid detective tropes and weird tech industry types, though it could have stood just a tad more polishing.

That’s about all I have time for at the moment, but more reviews are certainly forthcoming at some unspecified later date. Possibly next month, at the rate I’m going.

Robin & Orchid

[spoiler]Robin & Orchid presents itself at first as a ghost story, with a bunch of puzzles centered around finding proof of a paranormal presence during a sleepover in a church. The ghost hunt portion of the game is entertaining, with a fairly lighthearted tone and a collection of puzzles that can be tackled in a variety of orders. Most of the puzzles made sense to me, although I did have to resort to the hint-cat a few times and to the walkthrough once. Both of these worked quite well–the adaptable walkthrough was especially handy–although I confess at one point I was under the impression that I had to lure the hint-cat to me with canned tuna. (It was a bit of a relief to realize that all I actually had to do was type “hint,” although I was also sort of disappointed that you couldn’t actually feed the tuna to the cat.)

Eventually, however, it’s revealed that the ghost business is all a charade in the service of some bit of teen (preteen?) interpersonal drama, which Robin was not told because Orchid thinks she’s too much of a goody-two-shoes to go along with the deception. Essentially, the crux of the game is the revelation that Orchid is not a very nice person. This didn’t pack quite as much of a punch as it could have, though, since we see very little of Orchid in the game, and we don’t know much about what Robin thinks of her before that revelation. I would have liked to get a better feel for their relationship. Are they friends (or did Robin believe they were, at least)? Are they simply school-paper colleagues? Is Robin especially surprised to learn that Orchid has been tricking her? Does she feel betrayed? Hurt? Angry? I know player characters tend to be a bit more open to interpretation, but when the climax of the game revolves around, well, interpersonal drama, the protagonist’s sort of muted reaction makes it hard for me as a player to engage with the game very much.

And while we’re talking about things I wish I knew about Robin, I was curious about the handful of comments about her brief attempt to join the church youth group the other characters belong to and her apparent discomfort with the church, but that seemed to lead nowhere in particular. Although in fairness, there might have been more information in the extensive notes that Robin’s friend gives her at the start of the game. I didn’t really look at them much beyond what was necessary to progress in the game, since I find the “look up random topic, hope that it’s there” method a bit frustrating. But in terms of what was shown in the non-optional content, Robin was a bit more of a cipher than I would have liked her to be.

I’m harping on the negative here a bit, and I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy the game. It was fun and charming and well-implemented, and the setting has a lot of character in its own right. (I did wonder, as someone whose religious background is (a) minimal and (b) not Christian, whether I might have gotten a little more out of the game if the church and the experiences surrounding it had been more familiar to me, but on the whole I didn’t think it took away from my enjoyment that much.) I liked it quite a lot, which is why it frustrated me that the ending fell a bit flat.[/spoiler]

Verdict: Fun, polished game, but a bit lacking in emotional punch.


[spoiler]On a technical level, Moquette is quite well-executed. Making a working model of the London Underground (or at least the main part of it) must take a certain amount of effort, for starters, and the use of text effects to create atmosphere was very effective. The slow-building creepiness in general worked pretty well, I thought, though the build was a little too slow for my tastes.

I confess, though, that as far as content goes, I didn’t enjoy Moquette at all. There are, not to put too fine a point on it, a ton of fictional works, IF and otherwise, focusing on how hard it is to be a middle-class guy with a boring white-collar job, and it takes a lot to make that kind of story interesting to me now. As it was, I didn’t feel that Moquette had much new to say on the subject, even with the weird metafictional angle that it took on at the end. And, again, there was a lot of tedium to go through before the little flickers of surreality even started showing up, and then a lot more before matters really came to a head–which may have been the point, but I’ve always thought that intentionally boring your audience is a tough thing to do well and in most cases should probably be avoided. The minimal interactivity is probably also thematic, but doesn’t help make things any more interesting. What it comes down to, I guess, is that I’ll put up with a certain amount of intentional boredom and thematic lack of meaningful choices if it’s in service of a work that’s interesting or thought-provoking overall, but not for yet another iteration of how soul-sucking it is to be a cog in the corporate machine.[/spoiler]

Verdict: Well-done technical and aesthetic aspects unfortunately in service of a story that’s not all that interesting.


Note: I see Mazredugin has been updated twice over the course of the comp. I don’t remember exactly when I played it, but it was definitely before the more recent update.

[spoiler]I didn’t finish Mazredugin, nor did I give it the full two hours. Here’s why:

The game has four possible PCs, each of which must overcome an individual challenge and then work with the other three to solve another puzzle. There might be something after that part, but I don’t know because I never got that far. I started the game with one of these PCs and completed the individual challenge decently well. There were some Guess-the-Verb and disambiguation-related difficulties that didn’t bode well for the game, but it was, at least, tolerable. Then I moved on to the next section of the game.

The first thing I noticed in the working-together section was that for a game that relies a lot on delegation, it doesn’t make it terribly easy to ask people to do things. If I want Person to verb the noun, my first instinct would be to say “Person, verb noun,” but apparently that’s too bossy and as such not allowed. In some cases, what finally worked was to say “verb noun” and then Person would do it for me, and in others what worked was “ask Person about noun,” although it was often unclear afterwards whether Person had actually verbed the noun or just talked about something that might have been related to maybe verbing the noun.

Then I reached a point where I thought I’d done everything I needed to do in order to make the game progress, but it failed to do so. Frustrated, I checked the walkthrough, which told me to… do exactly what I’d already done. I tried a few more things, but it rapidly became clear that I’d hit a bug somewhere.

So I started over with another character, got to the teamwork puzzle, hit the walkthrough right away this time, and… still had the same problem. I did everything the walkthrough said I needed to do to solve the puzzle, and the game refused to acknowledge this.

I gave the game one last try with a third character, got to the teamwork puzzle, tried to follow the walkthrough, got nothing, asked for a hint just in case, and got a response along the lines of “Oops, something’s happened that shouldn’t have, you’ll have to try the walkthrough!” Which of course I had already done. At that point my patience had completely run out, and I quit.

I could talk about the writing and characterization, which were also not as strong as they could have been, but really my frustration with the extreme bugginess of the game overshadows my reactions to everything else about it.

I’ll be blunt: I don’t think this game was remotely comp-ready. It’s an ambitious idea, and with a few more rounds of beta-testing it could be a fun game. The Boys’ Own Adventure thing is not really my cup of tea, but I’d still play and probably enjoy a post-comp release with the glaring technical issues tidied up. But as it stood when I played it, it was in absolutely no state for public release.[/spoiler]

Verdict: Sort of the opposite of Moquette, actually: an interesting idea, messily executed.

Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life

[spoiler]Tex Bonaventure is a combination of throwback old-school adventure game and Indiana Jones pastiche. That alone is probably enough to put some people off, but I quite enjoyed it at first. The writing is funny (I particularly enjoyed the line near the beginning about the Everglades being 99% swamp and apparently 1% hidden temples), and the puzzles seemed less sadistic than those of the classic games that inspired them (and when they did get a little obtuse, the hint system was extensive and clear). The biggest problem I had was that a number of puzzles involved examining the walls, floor, or ceiling of the room (which then usually revealed a previously-unmentioned feature of said wall/floor/ceiling, which would then need to be examined itself). I’m not accustomed to that being a useful thing to do in parser IF, so I don’t tend to do it unless the writer draws my attention to the walls/floor/ceiling very clearly, which wasn’t quite happening here.

But that quibble aside, I was, as I said, enjoying it. Then two things happened:

First, I learned that it was possible to get the game stuck in an unwinnable state without realizing it right away, meaning that I had to start the game over. This is not an aspect of old-school adventure gaming that I have much nostalgia for (and I would be surprised if very many people did).

Then, right after getting past the point at which I’d gotten stuck in my previous playthrough, I hit a bug: after solving a puzzle to make it possible to open a door, I typed “open door” and got a “yay you opened the door!” message and a five-point increase in my score. Figuring that this meant the door was, well, open, I tried to go through it, only to have the game tell me that the door was in fact closed. I typed “open door” a couple more times, receiving the same message and the same five-point increase each time, and then quit the game without saving. (I may have used up all my bug-related patience on Mazredugin.)

Only after this did it occur to me to check the walkthrough, which said the command needed there was “whip door.” So maybe that would’ve worked properly (I wasn’t going to play the game a third time to check), but “open door” is the most obvious command and doesn’t give an “oh no, you opened the door but it immediately slammed shut again!” error message or anything, so that’s still a pretty bad bug.

So that one-two punch of the unwinnable state and the apparently game-breaking bug burned through a lot of the goodwill the game had previously earned from me, and will definitely have an effect on my comp voting. That said, I do still look forward to the game being re-released without these issues so that I can finally play it to the end.[/spoiler]

Verdict: Mostly good fun that is funny, but some design elements have fallen out of favor in modern IF for a reason, and one very glaring bug messes the whole thing up.

Saving John

[spoiler]Saving John aims to be a serious exploration of one man’s psyche as he decides, essentially, whether or not to let himself be rescued from a suicide attempt. The problem with this is that Saving John seems to have gotten more of its ideas of psychology and mental illness from the movies than from either experience or research. Dissassociative Identity Disorder (or “split personalities”) is, for starters, a pretty cinematic diagnosis; it makes for great stories, but in real life it’s rare and in fact I am given to understand that there’s debate over whether it occurs naturally at all or whether it’s unintentionally induced by therapists. That aside, to the extent that it does exist, I don’t believe that it works the way that John’s illness does here, where he both has episodes in which he acts as the other personality and does things that he doesn’t later remember and hallucinates the other personalities as separate people with whom he interacts, believing them to be real people. I may be wrong, because I’m not an expert on any mental illnesses that I don’t personally have, but this seems like a conflation of DID and schizophrenia. I can’t call to mind at the moment any other specific elements that seemed off to me (that’s the downside of writing your reviews a week or two after playing the game, I guess), but really the whole thing seemed more cinematic than realistic.

I’m not completely opposed to fudging realism a little to make a better story, in general. I liked Fight Club as much as the next person. But when the mental illness is the entire story, when it is the point rather than an element being used in service of horror or societal criticism or what have you, I really feel like said story ought to be grounded in psychological realism. Saving John was not, and that made the whole thing fall flat for me.[/spoiler]

Verdict: For a psychological game, it could have used a better grip on psychology.


[spoiler]I admit, I don’t much care for moral-dilemma games. Or rather, I have no issue with games which contain moral dilemmas arising organically from the plot, but games which are nothing but a string of almost context-free Ethics 101 thought experiments are not my jam. So 9Lives wouldn’t be up my alley in any case, and I’m not the best judge of whether the concept is something that would be interesting if the execution were better. But I think I can say with some semblance of objectivity that the execution was not very good.

I do hate to rag on the game, because it was apparently a group project for an English class–much like last year’s Valkyrie, which I refused to review on those grounds. But I’ve thought it over in the meantime and come to the conclusion that they were probably not required to submit their game to the comp, and by doing so they’ve opened themselves up to a certain amount of criticism.

Most of the problems come down to 9Lives being a beginners’ game full of beginners’ mistakes–underimplementation, technical issues, a general lack of comfort with Inform 7. The game’s biggest issue, though, was that none of the dilemmas were really, well, dilemmas. It was more the kind of black-and-white decision-making you see in RPGs with morality meters, which is all very well if you’re mostly in it to slay dragons or shoot aliens, but disappointing if the moral choices are the main point of the game. In every situation, there are two choices, clearly telegraphed as the Good Person Choice and the Bad Person Choice (“Will you give these life-saving injections to a camp full of sick refugee children, or leave the kids to die and give the goods to the Illuminati so that you may join their number?”). For the player, there are no especially negative consequences to taking the Good Person Choice or positive consequences to taking the Bad Person Choice. For the character there are–the good choice is generally selfless if not outright self-sacrificing, while the bad choice leads to self-preservation and sometimes personal gain–but the characters are so thinly-characterized and their appearances in the story so brief that empathy for them is unlikely to induce the player to take the Bad Person Choice. Basically, there’s no reason to ever kick the metaphorical puppy except for a metagamey desire to see what happens if you decide to be a total dick.

So that’s where 9Lives really falls down, I think–even if all the bugs were ironed out, the lack of nuance would probably still be off-putting to people who are into games about making tough choices. Last year’s The Test is READY tackled this concept much better, I thought.[/spoiler]

Verdict: For a game about moral choices, it could have used a little more moral ambiguity. And fewer technical issues, of course, but that part will come with time if the writers keep on working with Inform.


[spoiler]Though I have no issue with Twine as a tool, the Twine community seems to have given rise to, or at least greatly increased the popularity of, a certain style of fiction that I can’t really get on with. I don’t know quite how to characterize it besides “surreal and aggressively unpleasant,” but it’s very distinctive. I do mostly like Porpentine’s writing, but everything else in this vein has been really off-putting to me, and Vulse is no exception.

I don’t know what’s going on in Vulse. I’m not especially interested in finding out what’s going on in Vulse, because it’s just such an unpleasant place to spend time in. The best way I can think of to put it was that there was nothing there that I could hold onto, nothing in either the writing or the content that was likeable or interesting enough to keep me going past the one non-ending that I got.

Credit where it’s due, though, “vulse” is a great viscerally disgusting-sounding nonsense word. And I am at least amused to see that the grand tradition of My Crappy Apartment games lives on, in some form, in the Twine world.[/spoiler]

Verdict: So far outside my area of interest that I find it hard to judge whether it’s even good at being whatever it’s trying to be.

Dad vs. Unicorn

[spoiler]Dad vs. Unicorn is less surreal than Vulse (which is saying something for a game with a unicorn in it), but no less unpleasant, alas. The dad’s an unfeeling jerk and the son is bland and passive; the unicorn’s a sadistic bully, but by the time he kills one or the other of them it’s just a relief to be done with that storyline. Again, I’m not sure if I can judge whether it was a well-executed game according to what it was trying to do, but personally I didn’t like it.

One thing I did think was interesting, though, was the ambiguity of the son’s age–some passages imply him to be an adult and some suggest he’s still a child. That worked for me because I find that visiting your parents as an adult can feel like entering a weird child/adult limbo state, where you and your parents end up falling into patterns that you’ve been repeating ever since you actually were a child. (I hasten to add that my relationship with my parents is much better than the one portrayed in the game–but even so, my dad and I have been having some of the same arguments over and over since I was thirteen.) I’m not actually sure whether that was what was intended, but that was how I read it, at least.[/spoiler]

Verdict: Also not my style, also hard to judge.


[spoiler]This entry in the ever-popular “person in the afterlife remembering how they died” subgenre has some striking imagery, helped along by its use of color, and the way the world took shape around the PC as she remembered more things was a nice twist on your typical formless void. That said, though, Further is so gentle as to lack any real tension, and I never got much of a sense of what unfinished business was holding the PC back from Moving On ™.

I mean, yes, “you lived a long and happy life with a great career and family and died in your bed at an old age” does make a change from your usual Satanist cult murders and anarchist subway bombings, but there’s a reason why remembering-how-you-died games usually focus on people who had troubled lives and/or violent and mysterious deaths, and that’s because happy fulfilled people who accomplished their goals and died in their beds are a whole lot harder to make interesting. It’s a basic tenet of writing that a story needs conflict, and Further doesn’t really seem to have any. So while I enjoyed it at first, by the end I was a bit bored with it.

(On a quick side note, not sure if anyone’s mentioned this yet, but at the end with all the colored doors, their names print as, e.g., “a the blue door,” which is a bit of a distracting bug.)[/spoiler]

Verdict: Pretty, but kind of vacant (and I’m not talking about lack of implementation).

Autumn’s Daughter

[spoiler]Ironically, this game about how constrained and limiting a Pakistani woman’s life is has more meaningful choices and different endings than most other works of hypertext fiction I’ve encountered in this comp. Of course, very few of the choices allow the PC to escape an arranged marriage to an abusive older man–mostly they just affect how she reacts to this fate–but I did appreciate the branching paths and the fact that there is at least one good ending. It would be easy for a game like this to turn into something where the PC’s life is unrelenting misery no matter what, so having a ray of hope for improvement of her circumstances is nice.

That said, though, the writing here was somewhat sparse–lots of summary, very little scene–and I thought this undercut what Autumn’s Daughter was trying to do a bit. On an intellectual level I was horrified by what was happening to the protagonist, but everything was glossed over so quickly that on a more visceral level I never quite connected with it. The writing isn’t bad, by any means. It’s competent on a technical level and there are things it does well–I particularly appreciated the way it worked in explanations of cultural details that would be familiar to the PC but not necessarily to the audience without it feeling like an “As you know, Bob…” info-dump. But I wish the game overall had had a little more show and less tell.[/spoiler]

Verdict: A polished and very replayable work with an admirable cause behind it, but I wish it had gone into a little more detail.