Mathbrush's IFComp 2023 Reviews (Latest: Milliways)

Thanks so much for the review @mathbrush, and the immense amount of help you gave me through the entire project. I swear those computers have given me so much heartache, I’m tempted to never have a computer in a game again :sweat_smile:

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Barcarolle in Yellow

I beta tested this game.

This game is a game with multiple layers of storytelling. In it, you are an actress speaking with the police, telling a story about a film that is set within a film, all played by you, the player, as a game…but is all of that true? Layers shift and change.

This is a giallo story, but due to my inexperience with much of Italian cinema I took it to be a ‘slasher film’. As a meta slasher film, it shares a lot in common with movies like Scream or Wes Craven’s new nightmare, or to games like the recent IFComp game Blood Island. The only real difference between this genre and those is that this game has a lot more reference to nudity and sexuality, but that’s a common difference between American and European cinema. While I tend to avoid erotic games, the nudity and sexuality in this game never felt erotic; if anything, it was just a way to incite more fear and helplessness.

You play as an actress who leaves one movie set to go to another. Along the way, a mysterious figure stalks and harasses you, and can kill you. But is that just part of the film, too?

I received ending 1, which seemed like an apt ending for the game. Overall, just like another game that I mentioned to its author, this game reminds me quite a bit of opera. Its symbolism reminds me of things like Don Giovanni, with the statue dragging him to hell, or Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, where all actions are symbolic.

The game does have several implementation issues though, which I share a large part in, as I tested it. I’ll send specifics to the author, but there are a lot of places where things fire out of order or synonyms are missed. I certainly could have aided with that better!

But I suppose it’s a bit of a missed opportunity; due to the occasionally sketchy implementation, I had to religiously follow the walkthrough. This could have been presented as a ‘script’ feelie (similar to and mirroring the in-game script), adding another layer to the game. But I suppose a new release of the game could also bring the errors in line, which would raise the game to a 9 or 10 in my mind.

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Thank you for your thoughtful review of Paintball Wizard, and for all the helpful feedback you offered during testing.

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Magor Investigates

I beta tested this game.

The Alaric Blackmoon games have a long and storied history going back I think decades.

Most of the ones that I have played have been written in Adrift. They are written in traditional fantasy style; as books, they would have fit fine as a TSR series along with Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance.

The games are usually quite long, often with action sequences, and several of them use similar set pieces (like the castle in this game, which features in several other games).

This one is a stripped down and smaller version. There is just a simple goal: to explore the genealogy of the main characters.

I’ve seen others saying this game felt a little too small; I could see that, but I feel like it’s more polished than a lot of the other Blackmoon games. The only issue I found was with some leaves, where I had some both in my hand and in a cup, but that’s not necessarily bad, as I could have taken only part of it out.

Genealogy is a requirement in my religion and one I enjoy, so I liked this lower-stakes storyline. It can be very fun to track down an ancestor and find distant cousins.

Overall, this is a nice introduction to the series, and can get people use to the style of the other games (like magic, the way the Axe works, etc.)

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Prince Quisborne the Feckless

I beta tested this game.

I’m pretty sure this is the largest TADS game ever made and one of the top 2 largest parser games (with Flexible Survival, the furry game, being larger). It has a map and puzzle list rivaling games like Cragne Manor, and actions frequently generate over a page of text, often multiple pages when dramatic events happen.

The story is that you have been assigned to make the young prince Quisborne into a man, basically, instead of the wishy-washy pampered prince he is. To do that, you need to explore the world, chase down dark secrets, and help out a great deal of people.

I tested this game, although I used a walkthrough for much of it. I also replayed part of it before this review, which I’ll come back to later.

I think a great deal of IF taste comes down to the first game you played that hooked you in. For me (and a few others, like Mike Spivey), our first big game was Curses. For people like Robin Johnson, those games were (I believe) Scott Adams. For people like Zarf, Infocom and Myst were big influences; for Garry Francis and others, type-in games and illustrated adventures were big.

Each of these influences leave a mark on us. For me, I like dry humor, exploration with a lot of varied experiences and consistent backstory, literary aspirations, etc. Robin Johnson took principles from Scott Adams games (and others) to make his successful parser hybrid games. Zarf made several amazing games that drew on Myst’s complex mechanical puzzles (especially So Far), and so on.

John Ziegler has cited the Unnkulia games as an inspiration. These were early TADS games, perhaps the biggest/most popular amateur text games that were released while Infocom was dying and before Inform came out. They feature games with lots of gags and names that were puns or jokes. They have a lot of background banter, and feature large outdoor areas with woods, taverns, etc. They have puzzles involving looking behind scenery things or repeating actions, lots of diagonal directions, etc. I replayed a bit of the first Unnkulia game before writing this review and these things stuck out to me.

I find a lot of similar elements in Prince Quisborne. We have an expansive world map that involves a lot of beautiful nature and sweeping expanses. We have puzzles that involve looking behind scenery things or trying actions multiple times. We have many names involving puns or jokes. We have maps with organic, diagonal directions. We have a plethora of taverns. We have the use of TADS. Some of these are stretches, of course, but I really feel like a lot of authors (including me) are perpetually chasing that feeling of the games that drew them into IF.

The craft is, in my opinion, much higher in this game than in Unnkulia. The poems are well-written, the puzzles can be exceptional, and so on.

When I first played, I got overwhelmed by the large amount of text. I ended up having to follow the walkthrough and couldn’t figure out how anyone could navigate the tons of text, many room exits, tons of open quests, etc.

I replayed today, and I got to 75 points in 4 hours, out of 300. I got 50 of those points without hints, which was nice, but I really got stuck on the chess puzzle, which I had never solved on my own before. I also needed hints crossing the ferry, and I got some ‘solve’ help with some logic puzzles because I had already played through them twice (but some I did anyway because I like them).

I found it so much easier this time. What I did was, the first time I played, I read all the text carefully. All the pages and pages of backstory, the little jokes and character building moments of the game.

But this time, I just ignored it all. I just went through and saw the puzzle structure. I spacebarred through all the text and looked twice at each room to get the shorter room description.

With this simpler version, the map coalesced. I realized how much of it was closed off, and the rest was strongly guided. I was able to do a lot more of the puzzles this way.

However, it only made sense to do this because I had read the text once before. Without the text, some puzzles won’t make sense.

Fortunately, I found the NUDGE system really helpful. It helped me know what to focus on, and cut down on the time I was lost so much. It didn’t even feel like cheating; honestly, playing the whole game doing NUDGE a lot may not be a bad idea.

The other reason it’s good to read all the text is because it provides its own experience, its own plot and storyline, much of which is wholly unconnected with gameplay. It tells a story of a young man who grows wiser and older. Many reviews have found parts of this offputting, and I did too at first, as the character seemed so wishywashy. But the later parts of the game really pay off with all of that intro character framing.

I spoke about tastes earlier. Some of the puzzle style isn’t to my taste in terms of difficulty. I have some habits in my own games I do specifically to avoid things I find frustrating in others. I lay out almost all of my rooms in rectangular grids and make sure to clearly label exits, because I don’t like hidden exits; I try to keep my text short and make it clear what matters in each room; I like to make it so that all important text occurs at the end of paragraphs; if a puzzle requires multiple items, I try to keep them together in physical proximity or provide clear markings showing they belong somewhere else (which is something I like about Curses, and something Cragne Manor does in a way); and so on. Quisborne violates almost all of my personal rules, and this makes it, in my opinion, even longer and more difficult than a game of its size would otherwise be.

But I had fun replaying the first 4th of the game tonight, doing it in my weird way of having already read all the text and used a walkthrough and now stumbling through with occasional hints. I don’t think that’s how the game was intended to be played. But I like it a lot. There are a select few other big polished parser games out there and many of them have not gotten the attention of smaller games; I recently have been replaying all IFDB games with 100+ ratings, and the only real ‘mega’ game on there is Blue Lacuna, which is the easiest giant game. Curses is on there, which is pretty big. But the other games, like Mulldoon Legacy, Finding Martin, Inside Woman, Lydia’s Heart, Worlds Apart, Cragne Manor, etc. tend to get few but high ratings. So will Prince Quisborne become popular and well liked by many, or just become the treasured love a few? Even the Unnkulia games which inspired John sit at less than 10 ratings on IFDB each. But I am a fan of this game, love the craft that went into it, and believe it fulfilled the author’s goals of making some exquisite.

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Thanks a lot for your insights, Brian! And HUGE thanks for all your beta testing!
Small note:

The carpenter continues to throw chalk at the barrel if you don’t get it the first time. Also, even if you never see the text about him throwing it, you can still look behind barrel (which was a standard TADS verb, though I’ve learned that it isn’t in Inform) or search the debris (mentioned in the barrel description), both of which I thought were pretty standard adventuring routines…
It’s also possible to give him the flyer for the massage in Squarchminster (because he rubs his aching back sometimes) and you end up getting the chalk that way too :slight_smile:

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I will edit that part of the review!

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Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I beta tested this game a couple of times, although I only did a part at a time and never completed it, while on the other hand the author did a lot of testing for me, so I definitely owe him a lot!

This game is wildly ambitious in its concept: take the work of Douglas Adams (one of the best humorists of all time) and the work of Infocom (one of the best group of IF writers of all time) and write a sequel to their works with a lot of original synthesis and do it all in ZIL (one of the less-known IF languages) and make it roughly comparable in scope to the original (within an order of magnitude).

Oh, and do it as your first game.

To produce anything in this scenario would be a feat. I think that the end result is much more than ‘anything’.

You start this game right where the old one leaves off, on the planet of Magrathea, with the other ship members from the Heart of Gold. Your end goal is…hmm, I’m not quite sure. Explore? In the end it involves a lot of exploring Milliways and trying to gain access to a fancy ship.

In the meantime, the game is centered on a hub-spoke structure, with a central ‘darkness’ room imitating the first game, where different senses lead to different areas.

The game is intentionally hard. In another thread, the author laid down the following rules:

  • NPCs are hard to get right, include less of them but make them worth it.
  • Story comes after puzzles. That’s how my cookie crumbles.
  • DEFINITELY make the game cruel. It’s more interesting that way.
  • Randomisation? Obviously! Otherwise it becomes a follow-the-walkthrough-if-you-get-stuck kind of game with no brain involved. I usually end up becoming that kind of person.

This game features all of these things, although it actually has several NPCs. The game is quite cruel, and has many randomised codes and things that make a straightforward walkthrough impossible. Just about every area has some kind of randomization, from randomized exits in a small maze to a game of hide and seek with a randomized shapeshifter.

The most frequent way this shows up is the darkness thing. I never figured it out while beta testing, just flailing around until I got out of the darkness, and then with the walkthrough playing today I realized that you have to wait a bit first and then perform the appropriate action, but was frustrated when I kept getting sent to the same area over and over (due to randomization). I finally realized that you can just ‘wait’ until you get the area you want.

For me what shines the most are the settings and the big set-piece puzzles. The settings include Milliway’s itself, Dirk Gently’s office, and other areas from Adams’ writing. The game of hide and seek I mentioned earlier was a lot of fun, as were some of the interactions around disguising yourself and walking around Milliways.

There is some trouble; my game very frequently crashed, often after examining something, when using the Gargoyle interpreter. I took some notes at first but it was so frequent that I just started saving a lot. I’m sure it’s something ZIL related, as I have almost never had Inform games crash. It could be due to window size or something. Edit: No one else seems to be reporting this, so I believe it may be an interpreter issue.

Other than that, the main thing I would have liked more of was a guided conversation system that suggested things to talk about.

Overall, this is much better than it could have been. I remember someone entered a text port of one of the graphical Infocom adventures into IFcomp many years ago and it was a real slog to get through. Pretty much most of the unofficial sequels to Infocom games I’ve played have been bland, outside of some highlights like Scroll Thief. So to see a game that is vibrant with interesting puzzles and which follow in the first games footsteps in many ways is quite impressive. I don’t think it achieves the heights of the first game in terms of polish or writing, but that’s like saying that my work as a mathematician didn’t achieve the heights of Newton or Gauss. This game aimed high, and so I’m impressed where it landed. I look forward to any future work.

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Thanks for the very kind review! All bugs seem to be fixed but… I don’t know how to fix the crashes. (We’re your crashes found during testing, or…? Because I don’t remember when examining them.)

The weirdest thing is I can never replicate them! So I’m not sure how I would fix it.

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I just looked and other people didn’t mention crashes in their reviews, so I think it’s my interpreter. I’ll edit my review to say that!

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The crashes could be caused by stack overflows. I see Gargoyle is using bocfel, which has options for setting the stacks, maybe those will help.

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It actually says Stack Overflow each time. That sounds really helpful!

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A little late in response, but I found it interesting the features you noted about Unnkulian games that also appear in my game. Because those games were the bulk of what I knew before I began making my own game, I didn’t realize the traits you mentioned were specific to those games but not necessarily to the bulk of other parser games of the era. So in short, I didn’t even realize, myself, perhaps how much my game had been influenced by those games, until I read your exposé.
For the record, now that I am no longer 13 years old, I realize that the Unnkulians contain some corny humor, but I think there’s also some decently amusing stuff as well, and the rest of it I can’t help seeing through my nostalgia glasses.
Also for the record, there was no intention to mimic or shadow or reproduce the Unnkulians in Prince Quisborne… you were the first one to
clue me in that the content in the above quote made them parallel each other specifically.

I realize my puzzles don’t conform to your laws! And I’m sorry for that; but I will say, I intended the main puzzles to be fairly challenging. I like my puzzles to be less signposted than perhaps the majority would, as long as the solution can be fairly arrived at by observation and logic. I tried to mix in some easy and medium puzzles with the harder ones to help keep up a feeling of accomplishment for the player. But I can’t fully apologize that there’s some harder stuff in there :slight_smile:

Thanks for the kind words, and for spending so much time with it!

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My laws for what I write are very different for what I like to play. I liked you puzzles. I especially had fun with the chess puzzle on replay, and the binary addition one. Thanks for your response!

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Now that the comp is over I can thank you properly. It seems a little extraneous because you are one of the greatest reviewers in the world and unfailingly warm-hearted and generous too. But it’s possible you sometimes forget how incredibly valuable you are and how appreciated your reviews are, so… thank you.

And I fixed the dangling thread thingy, so double thanks for bringing that up in a way that made sense to me.

Can I chuck your name in the credits? And, what name should I use?

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I appreciate that! I’d be happy to be in the credits, and I like being Mathbrush (or Brian Rushton (Mathbrush)), because there are a lot of Brian Rushtons.

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It’s worse. You’re in my new sci-fi comedy. Here’s an excerpt.

Chapter 4

You’re alone on a super yacht. Where are Mitzi and Zulin? Who knows. But you have the crystal. What are its functions? Also, are the aliens tracking you? And where’s your Volvo?

After searching around you discover strangely there is no captain nor any crew aboard. However, you do encounter a passenger called Brian Rushton. A bearded fellow with glasses who talks like he knows everything. He claims to be an expert in extra-terrestrials. He knows all about alien invasions. Apparently he was invaded once. And he wasn’t happy about it.

Up on deck, Rushton hands you a Pina Colada which you sip in the sunshine, watching the calm waves rolling by.

Rushton tells you, "This is the life! Sailing the open seas, exploring. It’s the real thing. You know, I have a relaxed attitude to it all now. Aliens are ours friends. They aren’t such a bad lot really. In fact, most of my best friends are aliens.

Nowadays I’ve taken up fishing. It’s a good life and relaxing. I just can’t be bothered with fighting alien battles anymore."

A smartly dressed blonde woman enters. It’s Mitzi! She smiles but you keep quiet. How did she know you’re here and where are you really?

Mitzi tells you she’s Rushton’s PA.
“He’s not so bad in small doses, obsessed with pointless things like fishing and computer games.”

Mitzi tells you, you’ve been mind-jacked and you’re not really on this yacht at all, nice though it is. Actually, you’re in Zob’s laboratory with probes stuck in your body. Oh, and that Pina Colada you’re drinking is actually cat pee. It’s Zob’s way of getting you back for the Civet coffee trick!

The twisted fiend!

You ask Mitzi if Rushton is real;
She tells you, “Sure! He’s a disembodied brain, Zob keeps him in a tank for amusement. Sometimes he throws in some fish food to see what happens.”

Rushton, as he really is, back in Zob’s Lab:

You appear to be completely stuffed. Or perhaps even, a stuffed crust! No functional crystal, a fake yacht, a bogus Rushton and an AI Mitzi, even if she means well.

But wait! If Rushton is actually a brain in a tank, he’s nevertheless a connection to the outside world. You’re going to have to work on him.

Rushton is furious, “A brain in a tank! That fiend Zob! You just wait 'til I catch up with him - the miserable fat, green alien bastard!” Rushton is livid. He’s obviously not so keen on things when he’s the fish!

Rushton tells you he can abort the simulation by thinking of something illegal, and it will hurt. But in return you have to promise to rescue his brain from Zob’s lab.

Ok, but where are you going to put it?

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This is painfully accurate. I’ll have to share this with Mitzi to get her reaction :brain: :beach_umbrella:

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I’m not sure what I anticipated after the words:

But it certainly wasn’t that. Congrats for surprising me.

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