Greg Boettcher's IF Comp 2016 reviews

I’m getting a late start at this, but I’ve decided to play the IF Comp games this year, as many as I can manage. Kind of exciting for me, as I haven’t done so since 2008!

Scores below may be subject to change depending on what I later decide I think of the games as a whole. But I probably won’t change them much.

16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds

[spoiler]A nice mix between hypertext fiction and a CYOA interactive story with inventory-based puzzles. I liked the simple elegance of the interface, which lured me in and offered instant playability despite the fact that I’m not especially used to this type of game. As for the story, it is what it says it is. It’s a challenge to defeat a vampire at McDonald’s, with many possible routes to victory, some easy but not trivially easy, others less obvious. It annoyed me that the game didn’t offer an “undo” or “save game” feature, although mercifully it does remember certain tedious actions from previous playthroughs and not force you to repeat them. But anyway, if you’re looking for a nice, polished, bite-sized* interactive story, I would recommend this one.

P.S. Is it just me? I didn’t find the kitchen that was suggested in one of the game’s hints.

  • [Insert Chicken McNuggets joke here]

Score: 7[/spoiler]

Black Rock City

[spoiler]I played this game in part because the description said “You’re at Burning Man, with six choices to make before the world goes white. Choose wisely. Or wildly. The dust storm won’t care.”

Once I started playing, I was initially intrigued by the way you interact with the game. Each time you get a chance to make a choice, you can drag an option to a word in the preceding text, usually dragging a verb to a noun to indicate your choice.

I became less intrigued when I realized this really just meant there were usually just two choices at any given time.* And, while some of the endings were more interesting and satisfying than others, I felt the outcomes were as much a product of happenstance as the choices I made. Once I got the impression that my choices didn’t matter much, and that I didn’t necessarily have a mission to accomplish, I got less interested.

  • At one point I noticed that the game description says “six choices to make” and “sixty-four endings,” which suggests that all the choices are binary, and this turned me off a bit. However, at times, the game does offer you more than two choices at a time.

Score: 4.[/spoiler]

Take Over the World - Or at Least Cleveland

[spoiler]This game begins by proposing you have to take over the world. Okay, I’ll run with that. But then it says your next choice is to decide which Cleveland location should serve as your secret lair, without giving you any information that would help in making a decision. You can choose, then undo if you don’t like the illustration you see, but that is awkward and threw me off.

Once I got past this, I made some choices and managed to get to a successful ending rather quickly, but I didn’t feel engaged. Somebody else was driving the train; I just got a chance to switch the track occasionally, and that wasn’t enough for me.

I can see that some effort went into this game, with illustrations and such, but I just didn’t decide to invest a lot of time into this one.

Score: 3.[/spoiler]

Stone Harbor

[spoiler]I feel more conflicted about this game than any other game in the competition that I’ve played so far. It has an interesting premise, compelling characters, a good setting, and all the details that make for a good crime story. And it did all this without giving me anything much to complain about in the way of cliches, in a genre – murder mystery – that I tend to dislike on account of cliches. In short, as a piece of static fiction, this was good work.

However, when I viewed this based on my expectations for an interactive fiction competition, I was disappointed. I did not discover any instances where you could make choices that changed the outcome of the game, at least not during the game’s first half, which is the main part that I had time to play. The interaction consisted of reading a few paragraphs, then clicking on some key word, usually in the final paragraph, to continue the story. Based on the expectations that I have for an interactive fiction competition, this was not enough to keep me engaged.

It’s a shame, because the premise of this game is insteresting, and some people are going to like this game* if their expectations are different than mine. The premise is, you are an Atlantic City fortune-teller, the kind who knows he is deceiving people, when suddenly a detective approaches you with crime scene evidence that immediately triggers your first true psychic experience and leads you down the path of solving a murder mystery.

  • I guess I really need to get out of the habit of saying “game.” Fine, it is an interactive story.

Score: 5.[/spoiler]

Hill Ridge Lost & Found

[spoiler]In this game, you play an old coot who’s lived his whole life in some western prairie locale that I couldn’t quite place. After an introductory cut scene, your character decides to go off to search for an old friend that he hasn’t seen for fifty years.

There are some odd aspects of the setting. While the rural prairie would normally summon up images of America’s past, there is a fictional animal called a “vorair,” fictional plants called “jiller vines,” and a fictional contraption called a “vo-ball” which suggested to me this is actually set in the future.

The author was going for local color and a sense of place. I liked some of the details, like the mesquite trees, but I thought at times he went overboard with his attempt at western language, trying too hard with words like “skedaddle.”

This game has a feature that is unusual and is worth mentioning. If you reach a point where you don’t know what your goal is, type “talk to me.” In some cases it’s hard to see how you can win the game otherwise.

Not all of the puzzles were as satisfying or as well-clued as I wanted, and the game was not as polished as it should have been. (After you push the bicycle out of a room, it’s still mentioned in that room’s description. I felt the lamp lever should respond to verbs like push and pull, not just “swing.”)

However, I managed to get through to the “nighttime” part of the game, and there was some satisfaction in that.

Score: 5.[/spoiler]

The Mouse

[spoiler]Nothing about the title or description of this game drew me in, and yet by the time I was done playing this game, I cared more about its characters than those of any other game thus far. So far, it’s the game I would recommend most highly.

I started out being confused – which was appropriate, as the protagonist was confused as well, not realizing where she was at the moment she woke up. But I was confused about different things. It took me a while to realize that the protagonist was a young woman who was staying the night at a house of an older friend in order to stay away from her college dorm room and her roommate, whom she fears.

For much of the time you spend playing the game, you are trying to figure out what is going on between the protagonist and her roommate. I didn’t like the fact that, depending on your choices, it is possible to complete the game without figuring that out, and yet the game still offers you endgame choices that seem to assume you’ve figured it out.

I’m not sure what to say to conclude this review, other than that I suggest you try playing this game and see what you think.

(Note to author: This is a totally minor cosmetic point, but it jumped out at me on every page of the game. When hovering over words that represented interactive choices, I didn’t want to see them get bigger. I liked the underline, but not the fact that the text got bigger. Does that make sense, or am I just weird?)

Score: 8.[/spoiler]

The Skull Embroidery

Warning: Do not play the version of this game that is available in the “download all the games” 221.9 MB file If you do, you may find yourself unable to save and load games in The Skull Embroidery. When I tried the same thing using the download just for the individual game, I got the updated version of the game and found that saving works for me with that version. This could be a Windows-specific problem, as I used

[spoiler]The interface of this game consists of typing mostly one-letter commands, such as (i)nspect, (g)rab, and (w)ait. And definitely also (a)ttack, since this is a game with much stat-based combat. In fact, no sooner do you begin the game than you are forced to fight a giant beetle, which annoyed me for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t find the fight particularly easy or fun (combat in parser-based games is not usually fun in my opinion). Second, I wasn’t given the option to (t)ravel away, despite the clear existence of a path leading north, even though that is exactly what I would have preferred to do rather than face a giant beetle unarmed.

After the fight, you learn a bit more of your story. You were flying through the air on your steed – a giant bat – when some sorcery caused the bat to fall to its death. You were also injured in the fall, and your injury seems to have given you amnesia. An old man appears and offers you help you. Apparently your goal is to discover who you are and who tried to kill you.

In my original version of this review, I said I couldn’t recommend this game. But that was before I found out I was playing a bugged version of the game that doesn’t let you save or restore (see above on how to avoid this bug). Now my thought is, if this description sounds interesting, feel free to play. It might be worth a whirl. On the other hand, I’m not sure how many people in 2016 find it fun to play games with parser-based combat gameplay. Not me, really. As a result, during my original playthough, I went just far enough to get to the old man’s house and decided to stop there.

(P.S. Note to author: I think I found a bug that lets you get unlimited food. Just talk to the old man and ask him to roast your insect meat. I was able to do this seven times and counting without using up my non-roasted insect meat. But, since I wasn’t playing the latest version of the game, I don’t know if this feedback is going to help.)

Score: 3[/spoiler]

Labyrinth of Loci

[spoiler]Let’s get the worst aspect of this game out of the way: it rudely closes without warning if you accidentally hit the Escape button. Also, it does not let you save. For some reason these factors did not make me immediately stop playing the game.

The game is a surreal trip through a series of doorways, and behind every door is a surreal scene, offering you something to experience, take, grapple with, fight, or escape. It is hard to say more than that without giving examples, many of which would be spoilers. That’s a shame, because I found the rooms to be evocative, unpredictable, occasionally a little frightening, and always interesting.

The problem is that I didn’t get much sense of making progress. By the time I stopped playing, I felt like I had probably visited about ten rooms, and I had no idea how many more there were to visit.

Another thing is, you are told nothing about your character at all. At the beginning, you get a chance to specify things about yourself, and those things affect your gameplay options, but they don’t lend the kind of characterization that sometimes keeps me motivated as a player. This could just be me, I guess; other people might not find this a negative.

I might have tried harder to complete the game, after I’d played two hours and assigned a score, but the lack of a save game feature made me opt not to do this.

I’ve been pretty blunt about what I didn’t like about this game, but I would still recommend you give it a try if a surreal trip through a series of fantastical rooms sounds interesting. I would have liked to see how it ends.

Score: 5[/spoiler]

Hey Greg,

Thanks for the feedback about Skill Embroidery. I believe we talked over email, but not about the infinite food bug. I’m sure that was a bug in the original version, but is now fixed.

I appreciate your taking the time to review and understand the 3 rating based on your both your experience and your preferences.

The kitchen becomes available after a certain time.

Jeron, hi, agreed, I would have bumped the score by 1-2 points or perhaps even more if I had found the version of the game that allowed me to load/save.