Merk's IFComp 2009 Playlist and Spoiler-Protected Comments

[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]

I haven’t played this game, but I’m pretty sure the answer you’re looking for is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aqua_regia.

[spoiler]Yep, that fits!

So I probably overstated things when I said nobody would be able to solve it. The 1st and 3rd letters seem obvious enough, the 4th and 5th can be deduced if you’re in the right frame of mind, and the 2nd – Royal Water – might be obvious to some or at least guessable based on what appears to be a missing vowel in the resulting word.

I guess I’m just not a fan of riddles. I was stumped by riddles in the game I beta-tested this year as well. I think puzzles in IF work best when what they are (puzzles) is less obvious. In this case, it might have been more fun to have some story-based reason for figuring out each letter individually (where the individual components of the riddle present themselves as some object-manipulation puzzle rather than a riddle), and then piece it all together at the end.

It’s just more interesting to find a large bucket, fill it with rocks so that a pulley system is lowered, stand on the other end to reach a switch, use a long pole to grab at something that opens up elsewhere in the room (but only there while the switch is flipped, which un-flips if you get off the contraption), and so on. Just a random example. It would feel like you’re doing something and accomplishing something. Letting the protagonist be active, rather than being presented with a brain-bender you have to just solve, is just more interesting and feels like solving the game, rather than solving a puzzle that you know in advance is a puzzle.[/spoiler]

[size=150]Interface - By Ben Vegiard[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
What happens when your favorite Uncle, a successful electronics company owner, has you try out his latest invention? Of course, something goes amiss and you must struggle to set it all right or suffer the consequences. Deliberately “Old School” romp.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
Sounds like a fun, puzzle-y romp. The blurb makes me think some sort of time travel might be involved (or maybe that’s a by-product of the blurb giving me mental images of Back of the Future – but with Doc Brown cast in the role of your favorite uncle and considered “successful” by others). I just hope the author is taking what was fun about “old school” adventures while adapting it to modern conveniences and player-friendly design. High hopes for this one.

Review Summary:
Nothing new or remarkable here, but Interface is a short, well-made puzzle game that lets players experience life as a poorly-made robot.

Played: 10/7/2009 for 1 hour and 25 minutes.
Score: 7 (Average)
Transcript: here

The author’s concept from a quarter-century ago translates respectably into a playable and fun little romp. Trapped inside the mind of a robot (I’d say “body” but it’s your mind that moved, plus this way it makes not one but two of my predictions true), the protagonist must escape from an evil scientist’s house and if possible, transfer back into his (or her) original human body.

Okay, the scientist isn’t necessarily evil. Mischievous, maybe? Not even that – just careless and inconsiderate, as is the wont of any scientist capable of creating this kind of technology, I suppose. Anyway, the game has a few well-clued (if not over-clued) puzzles that integrate nicely with the story. Some alternate solutions for at least part of it exist, and with credits that list multiple beta-testers, it’s easy to see how the extra input has helped the game rise above its roots in juvenile fandom.

The implementation is quite good, barring a number of typos and minor flaws here and there. I’d like to think these were introduced very late in development, else any of the cited testers would likely have spotted them. However, this is a perfect example of how a fairly straightforward and ordinary game can be polished up to make a playable and fun experience recommendable to any fan of puzzle-y IF.

Although “7” translates to “Average” (because I’m using the Game Informer scale this year), it’s easily above average when compared to similar games by first-time authors. I enjoyed the puzzles, and only got stuck once (and on something that wasn’t unfair, so I fault myself for that). It doesn’t raise the bar or try new things, but it succeeds in being exactly what it claims.[/spoiler]

[size=150]Star Hunter - By Chris Kenworthy[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
Explore amazing ruins. Seek out mysterious treasures. Risk all you own in trade at the Android Bazaar - to find the priceless lying Bear of Deneb.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
I forgot to write this prior to playing. I suppose it sounded like a game that’s right up my alley, in terms of epic space opera and 80’s-style cheesy b-movie sci-fi.

Review Summary:
A lengthy, generic collection and trading quest set to a sci-fi backdrop, with numerous ways to make the game unknowingly unwinnable. It requires some insight that only the author himself has – or the walkthrough – to successfully reach the end.

Played: 10/7/2009 and 10/8/2009 for 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Transcript: here

Star Hunter puts the generic fantasy object collection quest in a sci-fi setting, but its only distinguishing factor is how much effort the author has put into making sure that solving it unassisted is a feat of impossibility. Difficult is one thing. This is another.

Varied are the actions a player can take which put the game into an unwinnable state. It’s hard to know which instances are bugs (early in the game, for instance, the ship got stuck in hyperspace), and which are intentional (such as when the walkthrough – but not the game itself – warns that it’s possible to be stuck if you send the mine lift down without you). My first inclination was to use the walkthrough to un-stick myself, and I found that I’d made a bad trade at the Android Bazaar, which left me without the right chip or tape I’d need to reach the next world’s beam-down point. The game does absolutely nothing to prevent this, or even discourage it. Worse, nothing happens, leaving only the most pessimistic of players to deduce that they’ve probably exhausted whatever options might be available to make further progress possible.

The walkthrough shows that it’s possible to get more information from the various androids about the various items up for sale, but this wasn’t obvious to me until then, and it’s completely optional. I would expect the typical player to get stuck early on (even if not encountering any of the game-altering bugs, such as when the black android’s bowl of goodies completely vanished from the game), and the atypical player to give up far before completing the game. It’s very ambitious for an IFComp entry, where even a restart and a strictly-by-the-walkthrough play attempt will take thirty to forty five minutes.

Potential is there, sure. But at its heart, the game is little more than a collection quest. Find treasure to trade for different (I hesitate to say “better”) treasure, to reach new places, to find new thingies, to trade up again, and so forth. Exploration could be its own reward in a setup like this, but the locations aren’t very interactive (often existing with no purpose other than to provide extended geography, or to be home for an object that can be picked up), and generally without very vivid descriptions.

The underlying flaw here is that the player can find so many things (and red herrings seem to abound), and it’s not clear at all what might be important later, or what might be okay to trade. I found that putting everything I have on the table and then attempting to buy something from an android is a quick way to cheat the process (the android will pick what he wants as payment, if anything), but this leads to confusion and is a good way to lose an item that’s needed for purchasing something more important from a different android. And yes – that seems to leave you stuck, with no way to advance, yet still being allowed to roam around as though the possibility of figuring out what to do next was still an option.

One good thing about Star Hunter is that it’s a reminder of all the things not to do in a work of interactive fiction. Many of these things, I’ve learned the hard way, yet it’s still good to reinforce it from time to time. When a series of actions must be repeated over and over (as is the case with setting a new course and beaming down to a new location in this game), I’m going to slap my own hand if I even think about forcing the player to repeat that same series without some kind of short-cut (or even a re-design to put Transport and Navigation in the same room).

Another is that it does have bits of well-done humor here and there. I remember smiling at a few parts, which served to raise it a notch above Totally Generic.

Star Hunter is a tough game to score. I considered numbers in the 3 to 5 range, and at two hours (still busily keying in commands from the walkthrough at that point) rated it a “5.” That’s frozen as my vote, but on further consideration, I took off a point for the review score. The ending in no way justifies the work involved in playing the game itself, and so much here is just not implemented (such as, spoiler alert, being able to sit in the chair to find the big thing under the cushion that’s only identified if you search the chair). A “4” according to Game Informer is “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.” That’s an apt summary of Star Hunter.

The game needed beta testers, but I’m not convinced it had any. This is a tricky thing, though, because there isn’t a whole lot of impact a beta tester could have had on a game like this. It could be more polished, and possibly without some of the game-killing bugs, but it would still be a too-long collection quest requiring that players have precognition or infinite patience to play. Many, many revisions would be required to morph Star Hunter into a more player-friendly, playable experience. As it stands, I can’t recommend it outside the context of the IFComp.[/spoiler]

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

Game’s Blurb:
None provided.

I’m going to go ahead and post my thoughts on Matt Scarpino’s Resonance. This is a game I had an opportunity to play and test prior to the competition, and so this is just a collection of thoughts and opinions rather than a review.

Wait… what did I just say?

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
N/A. I beta-tested this game.

Played: N/A.
Score: N/A.
Transcript: N/A.

No review here; just a few comments.

I’m impressed by the effort Matt has put into his first game. It manages to avoid the “my first game” look and feel that typically plagues the work of newcomers to the form. Part of this may be due to beta-testing already done before I was involved, and if so, kudos to Katzy! Regardless, good job Matt!

My biggest reservations about Resonance were, unfortunately, things that aren’t easily changed (especially so close to the submission deadline). If I had been playing for the first time, as a competition judge or as a peer with an eye on the Miss Congeniality vote, these are a few things I probably would have noted:

* Movement between cars and buildings always felt kind of clunky in the beta. Matt explained a right way of doing it in the instructions included under >about, but I worry that many players won’t check it for fear of spoilers. It seemed that putting the buildings in a cardinal direction – or even removing the story point that required using a car at all – might have helped.

* At one point it is (or was) possible to get stuck answering a series of three riddles. Stuck may be too strong a word, given that built-in hints will do the trick, but some players may choose to tough it out for too long and then dock the game because hints were the only way out. Just before the competition started, I believe Matt was able to improve this, but I haven’t gone back through to see how well the changes work.

* Players may wonder whether the story is supposed to be taken seriously or not. It’s somewhere between believably restrained and over-the-top (aside from the path of the “dancing man,” which few – if any – players are likely to find without the walkthrough).

* The protagonist’s brother, Steve, behaves like a tutorial (and perhaps as a voice for the game) through parts of the beginning, and I thought there might be a way to integrate this into the gameplay a little more.

* Unless it differs in the final version, beating the evil genius involves entering his office and talking to him. No endgame puzzle; nothing more to solve. It seemed anticlimactic. I was happy with how the ending itself was improved in later betas, and it’s possible that the work leading up to this will make up for the lack of interaction in the final confrontation with the bad guy.

* Even though conversation was simplified to just a single word (“talk” or “t”), I found times when it seemed more intuitive to actually specify the name of the person (for example, >talk to steve in the presence of others), but the game didn’t support this. I thought it would have been easy to support both ways (the original non-person version would make an assumption, as intended), and wonder how the single-word version alone will work out for judges.

* The story – the whole setup, really – just has a “been there, done that” kind of feel to it. I can’t point to specific examples, but I worry that more experienced players are going to find it a little too generic. It’s always hard for me to objectively judge the quality of a game when I’ve played a buggier, earlier version of it, and this year I’m not going to try.

I hope Resonance is well-received by judges and finds a place in the upper rankings, but I have a feeling I probably wasn’t able to help soon enough or thoroughly enough to have a large enough impact in areas where it matters – the story, the overall construction and navigation, and so forth. Still, I have a feeling it’s going to rank between 5th and 8th, given that there are 24 contenders this year, and that’s not bad.[/spoiler]

[size=150]Condemned - By a Delusioned Teenager[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
None provided.

(Score and review contained with expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
Oh, man. I should have left well enough alone. Getting inspiration from what some other judges are doing, I decided to check the credits/about text first, to see if any beta-testers were listed – not because I intend to skip untested games as a matter of policy, but just as a curiosity. The author’s email address, while hip-ified, leads me to believe he’s the same author who entered with some very strange but strangely compelling entries twice before. I would have liked to have known if I’d have guessed it just by playing, but now I’ll never know for sure.

Review Summary:
Dark, introspective and frequently uncomfortable, Condemned is a memorable and well-coded game of a style far removed from lighter, more common “text adventure” fare. Long non-interactive bits may be a turn-off for many, but the story and the vivid way in which it’s told go a long ways in making up for it.

Played: 10/8/2009 for 2 hours and 55 minutes.
Score: 8 (Very Good)
Transcript: here

I don’t think I would have guessed. Later sections are reminiscent of the author’s previous works, but not to the extent that I would have placed it.

Dark themes and troubling scenes are at work in Condemned. An early scene manages to convey a real sense of suspense and dread; a later one, sadness and regret. Mixed in are long runs of non-interactivity (it becomes more and more on-rails as the story progresses), and some really troubling imagery that will make many players wish to be any other PC but this one.

The first half feels more polished and restrained than the second, although all of it shows a more experienced command of IF authorship. Most scenery is implemented at least for examination, and the author has also accommodated a satisfying number of recognized (but optional) actions as well. What few puzzles there are seem simple and solvable, never really getting in the way of the story. If anything, I might have liked a few more puzzles or at least ways to interact, as a good portion of the game involves either repeat-talking or repeat-waiting. Being able to influence the story is probably a wish most players will have as well, but sadly, events must unfold as ordained.

I saw no mention of beta-testers (and indeed, there are a few small problems here and there – typically typos), but it feels tested nonetheless.

Little about the story itself needs said in this review, but I will say that it leaves the happy-fun comfort zone to which many players (including myself) are probably more accustomed and comfortable with. It has an almost autobiographical feel to it, or an insider’s perspective on the themes involved – which I truly hope is not the case. It blends very believable real bits with symbolism. It’s surreal yet immersive most of the time, and conveys a real sense that the author takes the story just as seriously as he intends that players should.

In later segments, though, it does dip towards inadvertent, uneasy, over-the-top cheesiness. It also goes on longer than might be expected, seemingly dragging the story out beyond the point where most real emotion has already been elicited from the player. In the author’s earlier games, reading oddly-worded descriptions and interactions was a source of accidental amusement, and there is far less of that here. Some of the dialogue shows hints of the same sort of pattern, and some of the vivid but oddly-constructed passages come close to breaking the overall effect, but on the whole the author shows far more restraint this time around. The story is helped by these occasional unusual turns of phrase, rather than being sabotaged by them as may have been the case in the author’s prior work.

It’s not a game for youngsters, and I can’t speak as to how well the surreal aspects of the story speak for the angst of a traumatized teenager, but I can appreciate the work that has gone into Condemned. It gives a person much to mull over well after the ending (which lends itself to discussion as well), and that’s something that puts a game like this in a class apart from tamer fare. As uncomfortable as parts of this game may be, I enjoyed it for giving a perspective far removed from my own, and I recommend it especially to anybody with an inclination towards IF of a more introspective and darker nature.[/spoiler]

I’m not listening.

Ha ha.

Yeah, but you’re the guy who not only solved what I felt was the biggest offender at work in that particular game – enjoyed it, even – you also worked out the math and distilled the logic behind the puzzle! In all liklihood, there would be no talking you out of anything, no matter how mentally unprepared some of us might be to play through the result.

[spoiler]You know that I’m actually working on a game that is nothing but a series of puzzles? Its called The Art of Fugue, and it’s in open alpha.

Luckily, the game does not involve linear algebra.[/spoiler]

Nope! I didn’t. But good luck!!

[size=150]Eruption - A tectonic excitement By Richard Bos[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
You have just woken up, in a cave, with a hangover, and something is rumbling. And it isn’t your stomach.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
Aside from two mini-comp entries (says ifwiki.org) back in 2000 (which I haven’t played), it doesn’t appear that Richard Bos has done much IF authorship. The name is very familiar, though. A regular in the IF newsgroups, I think (but I can’t check past posts at the moment). Something tugs on my memory that maybe Richard is one of the more outspoken posters, with some strong opinions that sometimes do but often don’t coincide with whatever topic he’s responding to. This is all very vague, though, and since I can’t remember any topics of mutual participation, my guess is he wouldn’t know me either. As for the game, not much comes to me just from the title and the blub. Seems like it might be a little generic, but with flavor.

Review Summary:
A very short game set on a now-deserted island; well-coded and amply polished, but lacking in substance and ambition.

Played: 10/9/2009 for 35 minutes.
Score: 6 (Limited Appeal)
Transcript: here

The game’s >about text helps explain the series of events and the reasons behind Richard’s submission in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition. In part, with so many bad games showing up every year, a very short but well-polished and competently-coded game stands to rank highly, even if it’s not a stand-out work, lacks innovation, and features only the simplest of stories.

It’s an interesting point, and one I think Richard is very likely to prove. Eruption is perfectly fine. It’s focused and well-implemented. It’s the kind of game new authors should take a cue from: not an expansive map, a few easy one- or two-part puzzles, no outmoded design annoyances, attention to detail, no grand ambitions in terms of story or design. It stays centered on a small, manageable game world, allowing the author to implement more optional actions and responses to various verb/noun combinations that usually go missing in more ambitious games. Most would-be IF authors (or game designers) would be wise to start by coding an Eruption before planning that epic ten-hour opus.

Eruption is the tale of a man – presumably a man, but I suppose it isn’t said – with a hangover and the inevitable touch of amnesia that goes along with it, on an island, with a growing sense of concern. It’s an easy story to figure out, even before things in the game begin to click for the protagonist. It’s very short, very easy (aside from some possible confusion with the interconnections between locations), and nicely polished. The writing isn’t overly verbose, yet it paints a believable picture of this small island in the tropics.

It’s difficult not to rank it a “7” (average – particularly in terms of it being a decent game from beginning to end, and that it’s nothing even casual players haven’t seen before), but it’s so short and so simple (even if what’s here is expertly done) that a “6” seems more applicable. By the scale I’m using, this means “limited appeal" (“although there may be fans of games receiving this score, many will be left yearning for a more rewarding game experience.” – stolen from Game Informer). Although many IFComp judges are by now accustomed to poor and mediocre games outnumbering the worthwhile and exceptional ones, I think even the author would agree that Eruption is only a snack-sized diversion en route to more substantial works.[/spoiler]

[size=150]Beta Tester - By Darren Ingram[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
The goal is discovery. The fun is walking around and doing and seeing, with an emphasis on games and puzzles.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
Hmm. Blurb isn’t very exciting or imaginative. Also, my usual routine of playing, then reviewing, then reading other reviews has led to my seeing unfortunate (and extremely unfavorable) mentions of this game in the review of another game, over at Conrad Cook’s blog. Granted, Conrad’s evaluation of the game I intended to read about is far from in line with my own, so there may be good to come of Beta-Tester too. I guess the safer thing for me would be to finish the Comp before reading any comp chatter… since I can’t “un-see” other people’s opinions, and I can’t keep from adjusting my own expectations as a result.

Review Summary:
A trek through a virtual reality of disjointed scenes and slapstick humor, Beta Tester succeeds in some ways but fails in others. Not unreservedly recommendable, but it does have enough “good” in it to entertain.

Played: 10/9/2009 for 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Score: 5 (Passable)
Transcript: here

I can’t know this for sure, but I’m reasonably certain Beta Tester isn’t a joke entry. It’s a game with jokes, but that’s not the same thing. Every part of the game shows obvious effort, and not of the “I’m going to make these poor judging fools suffer” variety. Unless I’m way off the mark – admittedly, a possibility no matter the situation – the author is attempting to entertain his audience, not punish us.

I’m no stranger to games that use unreal elements to justify the coding of any mismatched whim that comes to mind, and that seems to be what Darren has done in Beta Tester. It’s slapstick and zaniness and goofball comedy that may be drawing its inspiration from Monty Python and others. So, through the entirety of Beta Tester I couldn’t help but ponder the question, “why isn’t this working more effectively here?” Was it because this sort of humor just doesn’t translate well into interactive fiction? Was it the author’s delivery, or the ever-present knowledge that this is the work of a hobbyist? Have I just outgrown this sort of thing, or (shudder) developed a calloused sense of humor?

A large part of this may just be something a little more obvious. Absurd humor is at its best when it’s unexpected, placed within an otherwise ordinary setting. This is something of which Monty Python – based on my very-far-from-expert knowledge of their sketch comedy – seemed to excel. When the whole game is a mishmash of random and purposely-unreal themes, the humor just doesn’t stand out as much.

That’s not to say Beta Tester doesn’t have its moments. The good parts just seem too familiar, as if I’ve heard the same jokes or seen the same slapstick. The game itself lacks focus, meandering from scene to disconnected scene with no apparent purpose – no plot, but plenty of self-referential bits. It tends to overuse the Super Duper Proper Naming Gimmick, and the dramatic “pause” – used everywhere – gets annoying as early as the opening scene.

The first puzzle – the one required just to progress further into the game – is more complicated and obscure than those that follow, but in the end I was pleased with how almost everything was solvable without hints. The exception, for me, was one point where “asking” is necessary, even though “talk to” had been completely unsupported. By then, I had the impression that the only communication I could instigate with an NPC involved automatic events based on entering the room, sitting down, or taking some other text-triggering action.

The implementation isn’t perfect. It’s not even great. But neither is it bad, on the whole. Aside from some blank responses and quite a few missed opportunities to support optional (but often obvious) actions, it all seemed solid enough not to draw too much attention to the rough parts.

The game does open up into the “walking around and doing and seeing” promised by the blurb, although the first parts make that seem like an empty promise. A two-player dice game called “First To 100” is something I had never seen before. I don’t know if it’s the author’s own invention or if he found it elsewhere (Google brings up unrelated results), but it was pretty clever nonetheless. It’s part luck, part guts, and easy to learn. It felt pretty clunky as implemented in the game (maybe this is something that needs a more graphical approach), but the game itself could be adapted for more than two participants, and perhaps enjoyed more with real dice. The author’s variation on Rock Paper Scissors was interesting too, but at the core, unchanged. I kept wishing for Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock (chuckle if you get that).

Lacking a story (this is just a setting used as a vehicle for the things the author himself finds humorous), and lacking an ending (although that’s not strictly true, since after a point it’s up to the player to trigger the ending, wrapping things up as though a typical game’s final goal had been met), it’s not easily recommendable. But if you’re in a wacky, laugh-for-any-reason kind of mood, and if you just want to tinker around in a disjointed world of nonsense, give Beta Tester a go. There are worse ways to kill an hour.[/spoiler]

If anybody’s curious, I haven’t been forgetting to update my checklist and post new reviews. I’ve just stalled out over the past few days. Part work, part Half-Life 2, part laziness. But I hope to get back into the swing of playing and reveiwing soon. I’d hate not to finish, especially with fewer entries this year.

[size=150]GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! - By Dave Horlick[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
None provided.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
If ever a game needed a blurb, it’s this one. Infinite possibilities for ridiculous humor have been shamelessly squandered here. I get that the hyphen in “GATOR-ON” must be there to aid “proper” pronunciation of a proper name (some sort of alligator superhero in the Everglades, I would guess), but I can’t help putting it into other contexts. “GATOR-ON, Wayne! GATOR-ON, Garth!” Or maybe “be… excellent to each other. And… GATOR-ON, DUDE!” I’ve been looking forward to this one, and I hope it’s everything I expect.

Review Summary:
Painfully flawed, descriptively sparse, seriously buggy in places, and completely unable to contain the ambition of its own plot.

Played: 10/15/2009 for 55 minutes.
Score: 3 (Painful)
Transcript: here

Here’s a game that could be fun: extreme environmentalism meets Voltron. What happens when a special group of like-minded eco-friendly guys and gals form an eco-crime-fighting mecha-team? Silly, zany adventures (but with a positive message) ensue!

It’s only the intro to a game, really – and that’s the least of its problems. The fun doesn’t really start until the end (where the author’s grand idea begins to show itself). The entire experience is marred by bugs and huge design flaws. The first “scene” has what could be a cool puzzle, but it requires a huge landscape to work, and these locations often share the same brief, uninspired descriptions. Worse, solving the puzzle requires doing something that then makes it difficult (and, if my first attempt is indicative, potentially impossible) to find the target location again. The whole first section is done in such a way that it’s always painfully obvious that this is just a bunch of room objects linked together and given some basic descriptions. A player needs to sink comfortably into the game world, not be constantly reminded that it’s just some game code cobbled together.

Further scenes show promise, but they’re empty and no more descriptive than the first part. The huge geography of the wetlands is trimmed down to a single room in each of the final two scenes, but this only amplifies the degree to which the implementation is lacking. It’s easy to break the game in the final scene, especially for players trying to figure out what to do next but not following along as the author must have intended.

It’s easy to see what the author had in mind, but it needed so much more time and effort to really pull off with any success. The unusual “plot” is the only thing keeping this game a notch above rating a “2” (broken), but it’s a marginal distinction – and, at the risk of sounding harsh, a generous one as well.

If it was possible to take the game apart, fix what’s broken, and put it back together again, here is what I would suggest. Make the first part more focused, and with a much much smaller area. Use this to introduce the main character more than is currently done, but don’t make the player trek miles and miles across the wetland. Give the player a goal (which seems lacking currently). Then expand the middle scene to really get the player into the “feel” of this GATOR-ON team. Implement the hideout, and give the player things to do. By the time the final scene happens, the player should already be familiar with the mechs, the other team members, and so on. That way, focus can be put on the battle itself. Then polish, polish, polish, get additional beta-testers familiar with IF, and polish some more.[/spoiler]

[size=150]The Duel That Spanned the Ages - By Oliver Ullmann[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
A frantic struggle for survival in hard vacuum.

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
Well, the title sounds like fantasy and the blurb sounds like science fiction. Either would be fine. As I browse blogs for reviews of games I’ve already reviewed, I haven’t stumbled on any opinion-spoilers for this one, so it’s a completely blank slate. However, I also haven’t stumbled on any extremely positive opinion-spoilers for any game (for instance, I couldn’t help but hear good things about last year’s Violet), which seems unlikely since all of them have been amply covered by an ample number of reviewers by now. Are there no stand-out 10’s this year? Or are reviewers doing a better job this year of spoiler-protecting their reviews? I’ve reached the halfway point, and three or four of those yet to come have encouraging titles or blurbs (or authors), so all hope is not yet lost. And this might very well be the one.

Review Summary:
A stand-out, imaginative opener to a new sci-fi IF trilogy, featuring fair but challenging puzzles and an epic storyline.

Played: 10/15/2009 for 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Score: 9 (Superb)
Transcript: here

Where the annual IF competition is concerned, it’s tough to be a sci-fi fan; almost as tough, I would think, as being a fantasy fan. It’s easy to butcher these genres without adding anything new. It’s even easier to throw a dozen familiar ideas together (sans plot) and call it a story. I guess the same could be said of any genre, but I probably notice it most in the one I would otherwise enjoy most.

Elements of The Duel are familiar in many ways. At different points, I was reminded of various things – Half-Life 2, Metroid, Halo, and the New Jedi Order series of books set many years after the movies, among others. Some would call this derivative (at this point, what isn’t?), but I felt this was more the hint of inspiration rather than duplication. As a whole, it felt original. It was also entertaining on a story level. The game features a more thought-out world and back-story than seems typical for IFComp sci-fi, and it’s one where I’m actually looking forward to the sequels.

The game takes place in several scenes, but doesn’t sacrifice puzzles in its effort to tell a story. It’s an appropriately-sized puzzle-fest, and the puzzles are logical, well-placed, and fitting of the story. I found them to be well balanced and fair, although I did get stuck enough twice that I needed hints. The first time, I hadn’t paid enough attention to something in my inventory (part of the armor), and the second, I had misunderstood the relationship between me, a ladder and a four-meter gap (I thought the gap was above the ladder leading down, not across the floor with the ladder on the other side).

In the included help text, the author admits that the game has ways to get stuck. I think, though, that he overestimates the ability of a typical player to recognize these places ahead of time and avoid them. For instance, I found one situation where I needed to remove my armor, but I forgot to put it back on before wandering off. I ended up trapped in a different room where instant death awaited me the moment I tried to leave (because I had no armor). It also seems possible to run out of ammo (even for the automatic turret, which thankfully offers a solution to what could otherwise become tedious random attacks), but I was able to finish with ammo to spare, never putting that theory to the test. It lends a sense of urgency and consequence to the game, though. The interesting story and the well-crafted puzzles are enough to make up for being nasty (possibly cruel) on the Cruelty Scale.

A few minor technical issues – typos and possibly a bug involving the turret – are the only implementation problems that stand out. This is a very polished and well-tested game. I was impressed with the number of supported, anticipated actions. Much of it moves along at an exciting pace. The text is descriptive and entertaining. Add to that good puzzles and an intriguing story, and episode one of The Duel that Spanned the Ages is a standout entry that should fare well in IFComp 2009.[/spoiler]

[size=150]Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort - By Tiberius Thingamus[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
In this adventure, findeth ye olde treasures from within yon castle. Maketh friends as ye o’ercome meddlesome goblins! Outwitteth ye riddling gnome! Resizeth ye belts & belt-like things! Can ye getteth all o’ ye treasures & defeateth ye evil wizard?

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
I wonder if the author has heard of Thy Dungeonman? Is this going to be a serious attempt at humor, a parody of a parody, or just a joke entry? It seems like I’ve stumbled on mentions of this game looking for other reviews (and at this point, it seems impossible to avoid), but I don’t remember any of it being favorable. I guess I’m starting this one with very low expectations.

Review Summary:
Although it could be a very decent (if generic) puzzle-fest, the purposely clunky way in which it lampoons Old English parody text makes it too much a chore to read and play. It’s also a bit on the long side for an IFComp entry.

Played: 10/19/2009 for 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Score: 6 (Limited Appeal)
Transcript: here

I didn’t play this through to completion, and so I don’t feel qualified to fully review it. From the looks of things, I finished maybe half of it, into an underground portion where I made some progress but had to start relying more and more on the built-in hint (the book of wisdom) and even the walkthrough. Even with a “speedy” version of the walkthrough available and fifteen minutes to spare, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

The disappointing thing is that nothing is wrong with a good old-fashioned fantasy puzzle-fest. It’s certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, but I kind of like games that are put together the way this one is. It has things to find, puzzles to solve, areas blocked off until further progress is made, a throw-away plot that’s at least interesting enough to justify the puzzles and draw it all together. It’s even competently coded, and didn’t exhibit many of the quirks I’ve come to associate with Adrift games. Part of this may be because I played entirely using Scare (in Gargoyle), but a bigger part is probably that the author has done a pretty good job writing a solid, working game.

So what went wrong?

It must be-ith all yon faux-Olde-English-ization of thy every sentence or sentence-like thing. Makeseth it hard t’ readeth or something of some sort.

I don’t often feel awful for being less impressed by a game than it probably deserves, but here, I do. The author put so much effort into this. It’s not hastily thrown together. It’s not buggy and simple. Sure, it’s a generic puzzle fantasy treasure collection quest, but it could have been a good one, akin to The Colour Pink. It’s as though the author sabotaged his own work, thoroughly and irreversibly. The protagonist comes across as a complete moron, and not in the loveable Lost Pig sort of way (which is even worse, because the player is described as being the protagonist).

As absurd and familiar as the game’s premise may be, it also shows cleverness and originality. For instance, the spiral section (w, n, e, s, repeat) with rooms all rhyming with “bakery” was sort of charming. A room description spewing P-words must have been difficult to construct, but ultimately it’s just hard to comprehend and a chore to visualize. I felt the gnome’s riddles were a little easier to solve (possibly because I was using the book of wisdom and hadn’t yet realized it was actually a cheat) than however many entries so far this year have had riddles, but the one requiring Wikipedia sort of broke the illusion.

That’s about all the non-reviewery-type things I have to say. I’ve rated it a “5” – passable – which means this on the Game Informer scale: “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.” While the writing style is very much integrated into the experience, I don’t know if the game would have been worlds better without it, or if it would have been just another generic puzzly fantasy treasure hunt. I’m disappointed (in myself, if not the game) for giving up before completing it. Still, it must say something meaningful when even a person who has suffered through far worse in this and other IFComps would choose to quit.

Update: Upon further reflection, I’m bumping the score up to a “6.” Enough good is here, and (whether liked or disliked) the text style is thorough and never lets up, that it deserves more credit than I initially gave. It is a recommendable game (especially if played at leisure, without feeling the pressure of a two-hour voting limit), although it’s not going to be the right choice for everyone.[/spoiler]

[size=150]The Hangover - By Red conine[/size]

Game’s Blurb:
The Hangover is the story of you. You awake in your apartment with an unknown women and your bank informing you that you changed your name last night. The goal? Get the approval form in triplicate to get the name on your debit card changed!

(Score and review contained within expandable spoiler):

[spoiler]Preconceptions:
I’m starting out without a very positive impression of this one. The blurb’s first sentence is awkward and unnecessary. Waking up in your apartment has become an IF cliché. I awaken with “an unknown women” – an is singular but women is plural, so this is evidently a typo. Why would my bank be calling me about something that only happened last night, and how would they even know? Shouldn’t I be the one to initiate a call to my bank? And in what country is it standard practice for a man to change his name after getting married? Or was it changed for some other reason, and the strange woman in my apartment is just misleading me? Also, I don’t have Adrift 3.9 on this laptop, and I don’t see it on the Adrift downloads page. I guess I’ll try with Gargoyle first.

Review Summary:
Untested, unedited, and in many ways unplayable, The Hangover has some issues with unrecognized commands that are at best extreme guess-the-verb situations, and at worst game-killing flaws.

Played: 10/23/2009 for 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Score: 2 (Broken)
Transcript: here

By now, I’m guessing that every joke about The Hangover has been cracked and every flaw has been criticized in other reviews. Assuming the game isn’t bad intentionally, I suspect the author is very young and very inexperienced. Even the game’s core themes – before it all degenerates into absurdity – show a perplexing lack of understanding about the subject matter involved.

The writing is painful. It could be improved to just “bland” with some work, but as it stands, every apostrophe-less contraction, misspelled word (even the short ones), and formatting or punctuation problem stands out like Sinbad in a bikini.

It also allows players to proceed without vital inventory items, with no way back, and without any justification plot-wise. In my first play-through, upon getting stuck in a padded cell, I thought that was simply the game’s proverbial punch line. The walkthrough said otherwise, but no amount of creative command entry helped me figure out how to give or trade a specific item to a specific person. Of course, I was able to continue (even skipping over a later spot where the walkthrough said I would need that missing item), but I had another “give” problem at the end. I suppose the walkthrough explains the ending, but it would have been nice to see it in-game.

It’s put together with a sort of creative bravado, showing that the author had fun writing it. It’s broken, though, and implemented only at a very basic level where most scenery is absent, room exits sometimes contradict the room text, information is “painted-on” in the room description, and important facts are sometimes missing altogether. It would be easy to call this a “typical” first effort, but it’s well below even that. The Hangover is an unplayable mess.

I’m not one to encourage giving up, though. Advise to the author: Play more IF, read more articles and reviews about this and prior competitions, think like a player even as you’re writing, find testers, and don’t let the first draft be your only draft in your future efforts. You’ll find it far more satisfying when players are able to see and comment on the good points in your game, rather than labeling it a total dud.[/spoiler]

Well, I didn’t get to them all this year – including the three that ended up being the top three finishers. I’m especially disappointed about that. Anyway, at some point soon I’ll get these formatted and copied over to SidneyMerk.com. I’m not sure how soon, though.