This year I’m judging! I’m a software developer with a passion for interactive fiction. I have some experience with Inform 7 and a lot more experience writing my own platforms from scratch. My current project is a real-time, sandbox parser game but I didn’t have enough together for an entry this year. Maybe Spring thing? Until then, since I’ve been keeping notes about each game I play I figured I should join in and leave my comments in a more public setting. I’ll probably avoid providing numerical scores and stick to discussing the games qualitatively. Enjoy!
500 Apocalypses by Phantom Williams
[spoiler]I enjoyed reading the introductions largely because I was wondering where they were going. Will this turn into a plot or is this what it appears to be? The description of the Encyclopedia reminded me a lot of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which is a fond memory for me. Even when I started reading the short pieces I held out hope that this really was a game masquerading as an art project. But eventually I had to give up hope for that.
I gave this piece a better score than I probably should have just because it is enjoyable and the writing is ok. But the fundamental problem for me is that it really doesn’t count as interactive fiction. Is it fiction? Yes. Is it interactive? Technically yes. But then again, a static HTML page is also interactive. The major thing this missing is statefulness. There are no actual choices: you cannot alter the course of the experience other than by reading the items in a different order.
To play devil’s advocate, one could argue that many choice games are barely stateful and you can’t do much other than read them in various orders. To that person I’d say two things: 1. the pieces you’re describing probably aren’t very good, 2. at least they attempt to provide the illusion of choice.
I have a hard time recommending 500 Apocalypses. Some of that may be due to my own biases. I like puzzles and this game doesn’t even have causality. Also. I tend not to like strings of loosely-related vignettes. Generally they’re lazy and don’t require the commitment to overarching concept that a single piece requires. That being said, this piece does not come off as lazy. It’s just not my cup of tea.[/spoiler]
pros - Writing is ok, concept is fun, the introductions get the imagination going.
cons - It’s barely interactive fiction, the novelty wears off quickly.
overall - Thumbs down (due to not really being interactive). As static art I could give it a better score.
Billy Mays responds:
I couldn’t disagree more. The author wrote in the introduction within the game that you can send your stories to the author, and the author will insert them into the game along with everyone else’s contributions. The white circles are all of the open slots available for this. That makes this game as interactive as you could possibly get in an interactive fiction game, it also means that the player choices are probably in the millions if not higher, and the amount of ways in which you can alter your experience as a result of this key detail you missed is probably approaching infinity. It was a brilliant game design decision that you can’t even argue was lazy because of how much writing is already present which is represented by the blue circles. The writing gets better if you pace yourself with it.
Good point about the different meanings of the colored circles. But, FYI, I did explicitly say I did not think the piece was lazy. Also I was very careful about my not-interactive-enough argument. I said that it is clearly interactive but not stateful. That’s all. Perhaps my review came across as too negative. I did enjoy it. Just not my cup of tea.
You are standing in a cave…
I didn’t have an easy time playing this one. I don’t mind the silly throw-back theme at all. In fact I was looking forward to it. But the game really failed to execute. It had many technical issues (objects till there after you pick the up, getting points for doing the same thing more than once, items disappearing from inventory for no reason…). It also had some major expository issues. One particularly frustrating example is when the story is narrated to you in a way that assumes you have knowledge you don’t have. One of the unforgivable oddities is that the in the very first room the sentence “There are also three passages heading out of the cave.” is the only hint you get about which way to leave! If you poke around you’ll find more information but the first puzzle is certainly not intended to be “where’s the door?”
pros - Writing is ok. Puzzley intrigue starts early which some might like.
cons - Game is very buggy both technically and from a “this makes sense” perspective.
overall - Thumbs down. I picked this game explicitly because it looked like a geeky theme I’d like but the experience was way too rough. More playtesting would have uncovered these issues.
The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!
[spoiler]General impression: It’s polished, bugless, and enjoyable to interact with. I ran into a minor hitch trying to end my turn but going back to the rulebook clarified immediately. Half-way through the first round it got a bit dry but by the end of the round I’d already developed some ideas about strategy and was fully involved in the game. The idea of embedding a completely different game in the interactive fiction format is a fun one. I kept wondering if the game was really the card game or if something else was going to happen.
The extra bells and whistles (like images of the cards) were cool but the game was engaging enough I’d be happy to play it on a green 80x25 terminal. Some cards I found little use for. For instance the ones controlling which natural resources appeared on the planet. Perhaps studying the handbook again would have helped.
The second round the opponent didn’t have a chance. I’m very interested to see where the strategy goes. With the “multiplicative” nature of the rules, the number of turns an effect lasts is one of its most powerful features. I found doing no attacking and putting all effort into squashing the opponent’s ability to maintain a population worked well.
That strategy continued to work well in the last rounds. I actually never lost. I want to see a more difficult sequel!
Going back to my comment about wondering if the card game really was the whole game, a long IF piece with a plot wrapping Game of Worlds tournaments would be fun.[/spoiler]
pros - Writing is good. Well polished. The game-in-a-game concept is fun and well executed. The card game is fun and gets your strategizer going.
cons - it was too easy for me. The only con I can come up with is that I wish it was harder, longer, and more involved.
overall - Thumbs enthusiastically up. The format is a little bit of a novelty and having no plot makes it impossible to give it a 10. But it is very fun and well done. Awesome job.
The Skull Embroidery
[spoiler]I had some difficulty getting The Skull Embroidery to work, but I’m especially motivated to try games based on custom engines so I put in some extra effort and managed to get it running. The game was enjoyable although there was a lot of low hanging fruit for improvement. I put in a solid two hours and couldn’t beat the 2nd spider in the cave after three tries. It was a bit frustrating because I didn’t feel like I learned anything in those three tries and I had very little faith future attempts would work out better. Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe it’s intended there to be a “grinding” aspect to the game where you gather a bunch of health potions and things. But I was dying without even using up my potions. I just couldn’t do much damage with the sword.
It did have some nice features:
- Descriptions of objects changed based on your knowledge about them (e.g. the mushrooms)
- The UI was nicely done: menus would be erased and overwritten with new events leaving a clean log. Also the log was restored with the game save.
- The “status” command was critical. I really liked the “perception” section. It’s a nice innovation. You can use 0 AP and basically get a quick summary of what you should remember already. I can easily imagine this feature being useful in some other games.
And a few bugs: not all of my saves “stuck”, some random languages issues like weird articles and bad verb forms. There were quite a few more minor things but none of them were particularly distracting or impacted gameplay other than the saving problem.
Random suggestions for improvement: if there is a way to have fewer sentences say more things and require less total keypresses the game would be significantly more enjoyable. I know that’s a vague request but I found myself getting really good at skimming and just trying to button mash my way through. Also, it would have helped a tiny bit if some of the keyboard shortcuts were more traditional. For instance “i” is “inspect” whereas almost every IF piece would use “i” for “inventory” and “x” for “examine”. Obviously this is kind of a preference thing, but using “grab” instead of “take” and then “t” for “travel” instead of “go” or N,S,E,W. There were so many nonstandard choices.
I did enjoy the game but I wish I would have made it through more content in the time I played. I pretty much saw one enemy type and then one other (that I couldn’t beat) and about 10 rooms in the time I played. If it could be stream-lined a little so the action happened faster and was more natural it would be super-fun.[/spoiler]
pros - Custom engine with novel experience. Attention to detail. Encourages curiosity and poking around your environment. Fun, retro, dungeon-crawler theme. The writing was fine although it was definitely more adventure than fiction.
cons - Difficulty getting it to work. Too many button presses. Combat needed to be streamlined. Couldn’t get through much content in 2 hrs.
overall - Thumbs up for effort. Middling on execution. I enjoyed the experience and the concept. The writing was good. I was into it and really wanted to make some progress kicking spider ass. If I had the chance to play a sequel I would absolutely jump on it. If a little work was put into cleaning up the user experience and balancing the difficulty I think the author would have a really fun little one-off gem.