Merk's IFComp 2009 Playlist and Spoiler-Protected Comments

We’ve done this the last couple of years, and I’ve enjoyed it. And I think some of the participating authors who lurk are interested in knowing when new chat about their game might show up.

I’m talking about play lists. List out the all the games in the order you intend to play (I use the random voting list) and X off each one after playing. In years past we all stuck to a single topic and re-edited our own post each time we wanted to update the list. There were only a handful of us doing it, though, and unless anybody objects, how about this year anybody taking part just creates their own separate Play List topic? Handle it however you want! :slight_smile:

I’ll start with my random list. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll be posting full reviews this year (this seems to become more and more time-consuming with each passing year), or if I’ll write them but wait to post until after the competition, or what. At a minimum, I might respond to this topic after playing each game with a sentence or two in a “spoiler” tag.

[X] zork, buried chaos - By bloodbath
[X] Trap Cave - By Emilian Kowalewski
[X] Gleaming the Verb - By Kevin Jackson-Mead
[X] Resonance - By Matt Scarpino
[X] Earl Grey - By Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish
[X] The Grand Quest - An interactive struggle By Owen Parish
[X] Interface - By Ben Vegiard
[X] Star Hunter - By Chris K.
[X] Condemned - By a Delusioned Teenager
[X] Eruption - A tectonic excitement By Richard Bos
[X] Beta Tester - By Darren Ingram
[X] GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! - By Dave Horlick
[X] The Duel That Spanned the Ages - By Oliver Ullmann
[X] Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort - By Tiberius Thingamus
[X] The Hangover - By Red conine
[ ] The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man - By Hannes Schueller
[ ] Grounded In Space - An Inadvertent Adventure By Matt Wigdahl
[ ] Spelunker’s Quest - By Tom Murrin
[ ] Broken Legs - By Sarah Morayati
[ ] Byzantine Perspective - A Straightforward Burglary By Lea
[ ] The Duel in the Snow - A Tale of Old Russia By Utkonos
[ ] The Ascot - A Shake 'n Nod Adventure By Duncan Bowsman
[ ] Rover’s Day Out - By Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman
[ ] Snowquest - A Curious Tale By Eric Eve

Huh, the comp site gave me the exact same list. I wonder if there’s something wrong with the site’s randomizer?

Someone else also has this random list, so presumably there’s a randomizer issue. You might want to re-randomize if you haven’t started and want your own order.

Yes, there’s a bug in the site’s random-order generator. I’m going to see if I can fix it.

OK, I updated the RNG and it should be working now. It has the side-effect of creating a new list per person, but I think that’s OK this early on in the comp.

Thanks! I’ll check mine and re-shuffle my play list accordingly.

Sorry to be a pest, but now I’m not seeing the option to switch between Alphabetical and Random. Looks like there’s a button missing… ?

The button will not show up unless you are logged in.

Oooh. Right-o. Thanks.

Interestingly, the game that was previously first is now last on my random list.

I’m still trying to decide if I want to write long reviews as in years past. My intention was to limit my comments to just a couple sentences, but already I’ve found little restraint when it comes to writing more. My first review, coming up, is short by comparison, but still longer than intended.

I’m simplifying my scoring criteria this year. I’m ripping off Game Informer Magazine’s guidelines this year. No more evaluating story separate from puzzles separate from implementation separate from whatever in the score – just the review (if needed).

Here’s what I’m using:

10: Outstanding. A truly elite title that is nearly perfect in every way. This score is given out rarely and indicates a game that cannot be missed.

9: Superb. Just shy of gaming nirvana, this score is a high recommendation because the game reviewed is head-and-shoulders above the competition.

8: Very Good. Innovative, but perhaps not the right choice for everyone. This score indicates that there are many good things to be had, but arguably so.

7: Average. The game’s features may work, but are nothing that even casual players haven’t seen before. A decent game from beginning to end.

6: Limited Appeal. Although there may be fans of games receiving this score, many will be left yearning for a more rewarding game experience.

5: Passable. It may be obvious that the game has lots of potential, but its most engaging features could be undeniably flawed or not integrated into the experience.

4: Bad. While some things may work as planned, the majority of this title either malfunctions to varying degrees or it is so dull that the game falls short as a whole.

3: Painful. If there is anything that’s redeeming in a game of this caliber, it’s buried beneath agonizing gameplay and uneven execution in its features and theme.

2: Broken. Basically unplayable. This game is so insufficient in execution that any value would be derived in extremely small quantities, if at all.

1: Horrifying. Here, they usually put in joke to show an example of something that would merit a 1 in some other context. Most recent example: Worse than a movie written by Michael Bay and directed by Kevin Smith.

[size=150]zork, buried chaos - By bloodbath[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
You were exploring the underground empire when there was an earthquake and it caved in! You have to escape!

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

The title being in all lowercase seems lazy and accidental. My hunch is that attention to detail isn’t this author’s strong suit. Also, I’m not usually a fan of fanfic – in this case, fanIF. In fact, I wonder about the legalities of releasing a game under the “Zork” name. I can buy that the title might not be trademarked now (if it ever was), but what of the copyright issues? Maybe the author will address that at the start of the game.

Review Summary:
A sloppily-constructed homage to Zork, which is broken in many ways.

Played: 10/3/2009 for 40 minutes.
Score: 2 (Broken)
Transcript: here

If anything, the game is worse than expected. I get the impression that the author did try, but the implementation is so sparse, and without any sort of hook or payoff, that I can’t recommend the game even as a must-play oddity. Descriptions are lacking, but where present offer almost no information. Nothing sparks the imagination. Red herrings abound – a map that you can’t actually use, for instance. You are allowed to pick up things that shouldn’t be portable. Actions that should work require specific phrasings. Weapons are just props. It’s easy to get stuck (multiple places) because something you need to progress might not be in your inventory yet. I could go on, but why?

I was able to solve much of it without the walkthrough. Upon winning, I tried a run-through using the walkthrough exclusively, and it appears to be broken at one spot toward the end. No matter – it’s at least useful enough to help anyone reach the end, provided said “anyone” is willing to suffer through boring, uninspired gameplay.

Story? None to speak of.

It’s substantial enough to raise it above a 1 (which would indicate “horrifying” – I’m reserving this for games that have almost no content at all and possibly no way to win), but just barely. Nor can I justify a 3, which would indicate that at least some small part of it might have been well-executed.

It’s also a disappointing way to start the competition.[/spoiler]

[size=150] Trap Cave - By Emilian Kowalewski [/size]

Game’s Blurb:
First complete fantasy adventure in english and german for my advanced MC & CYOA system Node-X (V1.1, Generation 1). Short demo for writing your own Node-X games included, as well as Win32 and Linux executables of interpreter. Enjoy!

(My comments, while spoiler-free, are in the expandable spoiler below):

Emilian visits the forum from time to time, and he entered a Node-X sample game in last year’s IFComp, so I sort of know what to expect. I hope it’s more substantial than last year’s entry. I took at peek at the first room prior to playing, when all the games were released, and am a little worried that parts of it may not be fully translated to English.

Played: 10/3/2009 for maybe 2 minutes.
Score: Unrated
Transcript: Not Supported

Review Summary:

I can’t rate this. I guess I was expecting a mostly-English game with a few stray bits of German left untranslated, but as far as I can tell, it’s the other way around. The first “room” and the CYOA-style menu options are in English, but as far as I can tell, every description and “room” afterwards isn’t. Despite the possible German origins of my last name, I don’t speak (nor read) it.

What I saw seemed okay, with the exception of a West/East option in which West was “W” and East was “O”. An artifact of the partial translation, maybe? Don’t know.

So really, I can’t review or rate this. Well, given more than two hours (and depending on the length of the game), I suppose I could cut-and-paste the text into AltaVista’s BabelFish, but I’m afraid the resulting score would be lower than deserved due to the circumstances by which I managed to play.

With luck, Emilian will find 10 or more German-speaking judges, so that Trap Cave is ranked in the results.[/spoiler]

[spoiler]Yeah, I’d say that’s a translation thing, since “east” is “Ost” in German (and “west” is “West”).

Unfortunately, my German isn’t good enough for me to be able to judge this either.

I also had a lot of trouble getting it to run at all. I’m an Ubuntu user, so I tried the Linux binary, but it couldn’t find the game files. It seemed to be over-writing the paths in the “nodex.ini” file, so it always ended up looking for the game files in the wrong place. In the end I fixed the “nodex.ini” file manually and used Wine to run the Windows binary.[/spoiler]

[size=150] Gleaming the Verb - By Kevin Jackson-Mead[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
None provided.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

Here’s a game that’s fully aware of what it is, and intends to use one of IF’s most commonly-noted deficiencies as its strength and premise. Wait, that’s gleaming, not gleaning? Wordplay within wordplay? A pun, perhaps? Well, we shall see. It could also just be a joke entry – something of which recent years’ IFComps have been surprisingly short.

Review Summary:
A short experiment in delivering word puzzles through interactive fiction, but lacking in excitement and not really integrated into any sort of story.

Played: 10/3/2009 for 50 minutes.
Score: 3 (Painful)
Transcript: here

Gleaming the Verb is an IF wrapper for a multi-part letter-manipulation puzzle. Unfortunately, that’s all it is. Even though the specifics of the puzzle necessarily change as the game progresses, I never felt it was a very interesting puzzle.

On the positive side, the author wisely chose not to drag out the game beyond the point where even the most dedicated player would probably call it quits. Also, given the title and the oddly worded opener, getting started by recognizing the first part of the puzzle should be easy for most players. I only stumbled (but for quite a while – eventually consulting the walkthrough) at one step.

It’s possible that the author intended this as a serious entry, but with so little here, it seems unlikely. My theory, misguided though it may be, is that the author found himself with only a day or two left before the competition deadline, no game, and an idea for a quick word puzzle. It works, and nothing seems broken per se, but it’s a game with a very narrow focus and limited appeal.

If the game had some way to repeat the most recent phrase, I never found it. This may be more confusing near the beginning, where players may not have caught onto the gimmick yet and too many unnecessary attempts to take other actions cause the phrase to scroll off the screen. Given that every other potential distraction has been removed from the game, though (including the PC’s clothing), this isn’t a major complaint.

What could have been interesting is the same type of puzzle – the same concept – integrated more closely with traditional interactive fiction and a less superficial story. I appreciate what effort is shown here, but I also hope the author produces something more substantial in the future.[/spoiler]

Ah. I suspected something like that. Thanks for the info!

[size=150]Resonance - By Matt Scarpino[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
None provided.

I beta-tested this one, so I’ll wait to post the comments/review I’ve written until later in the competition (or afterwards).

[size=150]Earl Grey - By Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
A game about a tea party, a monarchy, and the unpredictability of language.

(Score and review contained with expandable spoiler):

It’s impossible for me to hear “earl grey” and not think of Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s probably because I’m not a fan of tea in general, and have never developed any other associations for the term. Although a tea party and a monarchy don’t seem, on the surface, to be the kind of thing I’d usually enjoy, the “unpredictability of language” part intrigues me. My favorite author (Jack Vance, for the curious) has done interesting things involving language, misunderstandings, and humor derived from cultural differences. I hope this is what I’ll find in Earl Grey.

Review Summary:
A worthy and well-crafted game, Earl Grey successfully integrates word puzzles into the game and builds an absurd but entertaining story around it all.

Played: 10/05/2009 and 10/06/2009 for 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Score: 8 (Very Good)
Transcript: here

This is not at all what I expected, but ironically, it’s an answer to one of my complaints about the prior game. Here, word puzzles are far more interesting, and closely integrated with the story. It reminds me of the “Letter-Man” cartoons in the old PBS children’s series The Electric Company, which I really enjoyed back then.

In essence, the game’s conceit is that everything is made up of words, and that by adding or removing a single letter, the “thing” the word represents can change into some completely different thing. For example, add an “e” to “can” and now you have a cane. Transformations aren’t limited just to nouns. It’s possible to change a specific aspect of something by altering its adjectives. The complete absurdity of this is put to great use in Earl Grey, and it’s bound to stand out as one of the more innovative and memorable games of this year’s competition.

As an added gimmick, the protagonist’s internal monologue – his or her thoughts regarding pretty much everything going on – appears as text immediately below the input prompt in Glulxe (it’s even better in Gargoyle, appearing at the bottom of the display like a footnote). This tends to be clever and entertaining, offering personality to the PC but in a more detached way. It also helps players realize that the PC’s thought process itself isn’t subject to in-game manipulation.

The biggest problem with the game – the only notable problem with the game, really – is that when stuck, there is nothing to prevent (or even strongly discourage) brute force attempts to simply manipulate every word in every sentence. The authors combat this in three ways, but I’m not sure it’s enough. One, the change has to make grammatical sense in the context of the sentence. Two, valid manipulations that would break the story are usually understood but rejected with a reason as to why the PC won’t try it. Three, many of the target words are under one or two levels of description, so it’s necessary to be observant rather than just mine the room description for accepted commands.

As clever as all this is, I found it difficult to solve without help from the walkthrough. A little more brute force attempts might have helped, with the exception of one point later in the game where the rules change a little and it doesn’t seem clear (or, it didn’t to me) that a new type of magic has been introduced (as opposed to just a new malleable object). It very well may be balanced at the perfect level of difficulty, but I suspect the experience will vary from player to play more than is typical for traditional IF.

The game boasts a large number of beta-testers, and the polish shows. It’s easy to recommend Earl Grey, and I can see it ranking highly in the IFComp results, with a chance at nomination for the “Best Use of Medium” XYZZY award. After all, you must have text to accomplish this kind of word-manipulation puzzle, and the authors did an outstanding job of making this an entertaining story in its own right. It ends with a bit of a head-scratcher of an ending, but the journey was its own proverbial reward.

Maybe for Earl Grey 2 – Clever Sequel Title Goes Here we can have multi-part puzzles, in which letters must be added, removed, and then rearranged within the same starting word. Then again, my poor head would probably explode.[/spoiler]

[size=150]The Grand Quest - An interactive struggle By Owen Parish[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
You’ve spent the best part of your life as a man dreaming of the goblet. You seek it. While you’ve had a job, a family, your thoughts were always looking forward, dwelling on The Grand Quest.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

Not much on this. I’m kind of neutral. Title seems a little generic, yet sets itself up for an epic adventure that probably can’t be achieved in a mere two hours.

Review Summary:
Primarily a series of logic puzzles that range from stale and trite to tedious and obscure.

Played: 10/6/2009 for 1 hour and 5 minutes.
Score: 4 (Bad)
Transcript: here

I was very tempted to rate this game a point higher, but here’s why I didn’t. A “5” is passable, with obvious potential. Although I’m certain the author himself has potential, he put it into a generic story that features some tired stock puzzles, some non-puzzles, an agonizing exercise in tedium (the two-card puzzle, about as exciting as the Towers of Hanoi, where even following the instructions outlined in the walkthrough requires far too many steps), and an opening riddle that is probably original yet probably can’t be solved by anyone. Even a well-known key-and-keyhole puzzle is made difficult by misdirecting the player toward a red herring instead.

Aside from some missing scenery and some questionable design decisions (these can leave a player stranded in a room without any automatic ending or indication of even being stuck, with only a magic word as your way out), the implementation is otherwise solid. It’s just not an interesting game in light of what can be done in interactive fiction.

As long as I’m doling out advice, I’d suggest to the author (and anybody else thinking of writing a game that’s just a series of puzzle/riddle rooms), don’t. You’re going about it backwards. Sometimes it’s okay to invent a really clever, original puzzle or game mechanic and build a game around it, but much of what’s here isn’t original and leans more towards deception rather than cleverness. Spend more time on the fiction first. Think of a story – the kind of thing that might interest you if you were just sitting down to read a book. Think of a plot. Think of highs and lows and conflicts, and think about giving the player something to play, read, and enjoy. Then figure out what kinds of puzzles make the most sense in the context of the story you intend to tell.

To those with an itching for pure puzzles – those of you who enjoy opening a book of logic puzzles or solving riddles one by one – you very well may find much to like in The Grand Quest. Be warned, though. Here, they range from the stale and trite to the tedious and obscure.

I applaud the effort if not the result, and hope that the author steps it up for next year.[/spoiler]

[spoiler]I did solve 4/5ths of it and guessed the last one:

My first is at the end of the worst of all places. => I’m not that sure of this, but the last letter of HELL is L.
My second is at the beginning of royal water. => No idea. I used brute force after I had solved the others (it’s A). Does anyone know what this means?
My third is a worker or monarch, in a fortress of sixes. => Bees (B) have workers and queens and their nests are build of hexagon-shaped cells (6 sides).
My fourth is before the drink in art. => In the word “art” R is before T (“tea”)
My fifth is after the water in cat. => A is after C (“sea”) in “cat”.[/spoiler]

[spoiler]Ah. Well, I was pretty certain on the 1st and 3rd. It was the other three that left me baffled. After looking at the walkthrough, I deduced that the “water in cat” was the letter “C” (sea), but hadn’t realized “T” was “tea” – I was thinking a lowercase “t” looked like a glass/drink of some sort. Ha ha.

I did read a review from somebody saying they did solve this (I’ve not been reading reviews until I’ve done my own), and it involved Googling “Royal Water.” So maybe the answer is online.[/spoiler]