My IFComp Reviews

Edit: I’ll keep this post updated with an alphabetised list of the games I’ve reviewed, with links to individual posts.

[size=120]100,000 years by Pierre Chevalier
9Lives by Bill Balistreri, Hal Hinderliter, Sean Klabough, Luke Michalski and Morgan Sokol
Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder by Ryan Veeder (discussed further)
The Challenge by E. Aleksander Kowalewski
Dream Pieces by Iam Curio
Final Girl by Hanon Ondricek
Mazredugin by Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk
The Paper Bag Princess by Aldi
Reels by Tyler Zahnke
Robin & Orchid by Ryan Veeder and Emily Boegheim
Threediopolis by Andrew Schultz
Trapped in Time by Simon Christiansen (and again here)
The Wizard’s Apprentice by Alex Freeman[/size]

Original post: I’ve played a fair amount of IF, but this is my first IFComp. I aim to review every entry, even the untested ones. I’ll be less polite about those if they suck, though. Here’s the planned format.

[size=150]Entry Name and Author, writ large[/size]
Non-spoilery text

Spoilery text, praise, and invective, properly tagged, of course

Better than: --. Worse than: --, because marks out of ten are boring.

And here’s my first review…

[size=150]The Challenge by ViRALiTY[/size]

The title is generic, but the blurb is terrifying: A short web-based CYOA/MCA game with 3D graphics illustrations, written and designed in less than 24 hours! Not only did the author spend little time on this game: he’s proud of it.

Naturally, he credits no testers.

[spoiler]At first sight, this resembles one of those Flash games where you wake up in a locked room with retrograde amnesia, and escape by solving a series of contrived puzzles. Maybe, some day, it will be. Right now, you can stab yourself to death, or slice your way through a tarpaulin. Do the latter, and you’re thanked for playing. Which is polite, I guess, but doesn’t make up for the insolence of submitting this non-game for anyone’s consideration.

The game is built of HTML, images mostly monochrome, and three hundred words or so. Here they are, at their accidental finest: ‘You are thinking about how you possibly ended up in this basement. Maybe someone is doing a scary prank on you.’ Otherwise, it’s more world weary teen than Grunk the orc.[/spoiler]
Better than: the phone book. Worse than: the original Stiffy Makane.

Lets be fair: the phone book serves a purpose.

True, but a phone book is even less interesting, unless you’re a population geneticist.

I’m already feeling slightly guilty about this review. I played two much better games today; I’ll write about them tomorrow. I may drop the verdict gimmick, too; it’s potentially pretty vicious, and most games don’t deserve that sort of thing.

I couldn’t resist the snark, but I felt pretty mean clicking ‘submit’. I quite like the verdict gimmick, FWIW. It would be horrible to put someone off making stuff, but you really should finish something before entering a competition. Anyway, I’m sure the author will happily concede that 24 hours wasn’t quite long enough to realise the concept! [emote]:D[/emote]

Yeah, and it’s, well, pretty indiscriminate.

The original Stiffy Makane, for instance, has a core of really nasty, vicious misogyny that isn’t obvious until you reach the ending. The Challenge is pretty damn crap, but it doesn’t reach anywhere near that level of nastiness. On the other hand, its awfulness is much more boring - there are no entertainingly terrible lines to quote, and nobody’s going to be moved to write a line of parody sequels. To me it feels as though a ranking like that needs explanation even more than numerical scores do - which sort of defeats the point, I think?

All fair points. When I suggested it, I was half thinking of The Challenge, to which I wasn’t terribly well disposed, and half of The Final Girl, which is… engaged with a very formulaic and calcified genre. But even in that kind of case, it doesn’t actually work that well.

I’ll try to think of something better. Ideally, I’d like a) something that lent my reviews additional structure and b) lent itself to humour without c) mockery or snark, unless amply deserved, which I think will not be often.

[size=150]Threediopolis, by Andrew Schultz[/size]

Threediopolis is a language puzzle with a parser, set in a futuristic city with elevated walkways, the way urban planners envisaged London, back in the sixties. Your capacity for aimless wondering earns you a pocket teleporter and a job running errands, each of which is also a puzzle. They conform to common rules; the first challenge is to discover what those are.

There’s a story here, but it’s vestigial, like your tailbone.

This game credits beta testers, and it shows. It’s polished, and solid, and includes a couple of conveniences – fast movement, the teleporter – which eliminate much potential tedium. This made me happy and generally well disposed towards the author. Still, there are a lot of errands, and I had to check the list a lot. If they’d been displayed in a side panel, I might be basking right now in postludic bliss. Instead, I felt like I was doing a crossword with the grid on one side of the paper and all the clues on the other.

A niggle: when I read ‘Maybe you just have to put your head down and wander around’, my next two commands will be

put your head down


wander around;

this is probably not a good habit, but it would be nice to have it acknowledged.

[spoiler]To complete your errands, you must reach your destination by the right route. Every solution is a word, phrase or acronym containing some or all of the letters D, E, N, S, U, and W. In addition, for every errand, you get two to four clues:

  • A verbal hint;
  • The number of letters (usually);
  • The difference between the number of Us and Ds, Ns and Ss, Es and Ws;
  • Possibly, information about the solutions’ alphabetical order.

This is a lot like a crossword, which really isn’t my thing. But it was novel and, importantly, short enough that it took only a small effort of will to bring myself to finish, and I was charmed by Schultz’s efforts to make the game accessible to people of varying skill by including three optional in-game hints and playing down the importance of a complete solution. I imagine crossword fans would really enjoy this, though I can’t say so with confidence: they’re pretty much the Other, for me.

I’d like to see the core mechanic here, of places which change according to the route one takes to reach them, integrated with a story. It’s been done at least once in another medium, and it would suit parser IF, I think; location is one of the things it does well. I’m not going to penalise Threediopolis for not being the game I want to play, though. I gave it a good rating, for its craft and its solicitude, and the appreciative audience I think it has, outside my head.[/spoiler]

Here’s my review of Final Girl. Tomorrow: The Paper Bag Princess and The Wizard’s Apprentice.

[size=150]Final Girl by Hanon Ondricek[/size]

Final Girl is a structurally ambitious exploration of the slasher flick. There is, unsurprisingly, a lot of gore, and just like the movies, it can be at once altogether disgusting and utterly ridiculous. It’s a Storynexus game. In Fallen London, characters are Watchful, Dangerous, Shadowy, Persuasive; here, the only comparable stat represents the protagonist’s knack for the unorthodox application of pliers. NSFW, or possibly mealtimes.

You are the Final Girl, capable, composed and, perhaps, genre savvy enough to escape the Skull Lake Stalker, who wants to staple you. He has the usual slasher perquisites, as described by TV Tropes:

This game credits beta testers. I encountered one game-stopping bug, but the author fixed it the same day that I reported it, and I was able to continue from where I’d left off. There are some useful conveniences, like the ability to skip the opening sequence on replays, but also signs that the game may have been rushed – a few clues that seem to lead into cut content, and an unevenness in the writing, which is weakest in the early sections.

In case anyone’s unfamiliar with Storynexus, it’s a web-based platform with a simple, quality-based world model which divides content into storylets – short passages of text, each of which offers the player one or more options, and usually presented in the form of cards. These may be drawn randomly from a deck, or ‘pinned’: available as long as the player meets the right conditions. So it’s multiple choice, but the player may have many more options at a given time than would be the case in, say, a traditional CYOA or ChoiceScript game. Often, there’s a chance of failure, which may be affected by the character’s qualities.

Most of the best Storynexus games have several features in common. Vigorously realised settings, along with a sense of distance and isolation from the characters (which is sometimes an advantage, as when one’s character is seeking one last miracle in the depths of the earth and trying to draw from her bitter stock of memories the strength to keep calm and carry on amid darkness and damp and hungry topography). A limited stock of actions which are slowly renewed, as a pacing mechanism. Because they require repetition of some content, they describe events somewhat abstractly, as situations which could plausibly happen more than once. And locations have low granularity: you are in the Shuttered Palace or the city of Murshidabad, not on King William Street or beside a garden grove.

Final Girl does not do these things. In many ways, it is closer to the conventions of parser IF. You get 100 actions, and these are often refreshed, so that you won’t run out unless you really try to. The game tracks your location down to the individual room or, outside, your latitude. The prose is mostly concrete, the scenery often sketched more tersely than in Zork. In a number of ways, too, it pushes up against the technical limits of the platform.

None of which is necessarily a bad thing. Except, it turns out, the unlimited actions. Storynexus involves a lot of clicking: clicking to draw from a deck, check your inventory, play a card, make a choice, return to the main screen. There’s also a lot of hovering, because important info is hidden in the mouseover text. And Storynexus has issues with lag. I got occasional unresponsive script prompts from my browser; sometimes I had to refresh the page. These issues are much less vexing when you play for ten minutes at a time, rather than two hours.

It’s possible that Failbetter Games will do something about the mouseover text, because it’s preventing them from releasing iPhone and Android versions. But there are no plans for keyboard shortcuts, so the clickstorms will remain for the foreseeable future.

[spoiler]The problem is exacerbated by the granular locations and the use of luck challenges. You spend a lot of time moving around, looking for more substantive content. Quite often, on entering a room, it turns out that there’s nothing for you to do there, because you haven’t turned up enough corpses yet.

There are luck challenges with long odds and no serious penalties for failure; in a game with limited actions, these would involve a real trade off, but in Final Girl, it’s sound strategy to repeat them again and again, stockpiling as many inhalers, say, as you think you might need. This is degenerate gameplay, in so far as involves a choice between tactical advantage and avoidance of tedium, and it could have easily been avoided, either by introducing a penalty for failure or removing the luck element altogether.

The killer’s identity is discovered by elimination, based on the principle that those whose corpses you identify can’t also be running around with a staple gun. Some of them can be found only by drawing the right card at random from the deck, while on the right side of the lake and at the right latitude; and because of that randomness, you can only be reasonably confident you haven’t missed any if you wander about in the woods, all alone, for long periods. I didn’t find this play experience compelling, and it doesn’t strike me as a sound survival strategy, either. There’s also a chance that any given body will turn out to be mannequin, so that it’s a matter of chance whether the killer can be reliably identified on any given playthrough.

I encountered the Stalker far too frequently: more often even than I found clues. This doesn’t really work as horror, which depends less on violence than on suspense. He soon becomes a familiar and rather tedious figure, because almost every confrontation is the same. If I got a couple of blows in, he’d go away; if not, I’d roll around repeatedly until I passed the luck check, and then attempt another luck check in order to flee. (Failing this puts you back at the rolling stage again. There’s no danger anywhere in the procedure, just a lot of clicking while you try to succeed at two luck checks in a row.)

My favourite moment was when he snuck up on me while I was revving the chainsaw, partly because it was genuinely funny, and partly because after all the repetition, it was so unexpected. The game would be stronger if there were a few more setpieces, or at least some complexity to the standard encounters.

I enjoyed the flashbacks, trope-laden though they were: as a narrative reward for finding clues, they worked. I might have liked them still better if they’d been built around a smaller cast.

Final Girl is sometimes disgusting, but never horrific. There’s not enough suspense for that, and not enough attention to pacing, scenery, atmosphere. From time to time, it’s funny, but all slasher films these days are more or less parodic, and there’s not much humour left in the old tropes.

If you die, you find yourself watching the credits in a movie theatre. The reviews are terrible, and you’re invited to attempt to make the sequel better. This device has a lot of potential, but the game would have to be extensively rewritten, I think, to make it work. The problem is that the encouraged playstyle doesn’t generate a good or interesting plot for a movie, but not even an average one, not by a long way.

The the idea could be developed in several ways: as an iterative puzzle, say, like Lock & Key, Make It Good, or Varicella, where the player gathers information over the course of unsuccessful attempts, then uses it to synthesise a plan. Or it could be less puzzly and more expressive, something closer to a scripting sandbox. It could be a nuanced exploration of the genre’s tropes, or it could subvert them; it could even be a deconstruction, although these films aren’t in desperate need of those.[/spoiler]

In this post, two games for children, both of which credit beta testers. One I’d like to play with my nephew; the other, less so.

[size=150]Dream Pieces by Iam Curio[/size]

This is a short QUEST game, written almost entirely in verse. Here’s a representative sample from the very beginning. Your reaction to it will probably give a good indication of whether you’ll like this game.

[spoiler]I have two things to say about this poetry. First, it’s trying to be terribly jolly, but instead comes across as unhinged and faintly sinister, because this is a game about a child trapped alone in a claustrophobic room which should feel comforting and safe but is instead unfamiliar and subject to strange, indifferent rules. This is disturbing, like the scene in Disney’s Alice and Wonderland where Alice is lost in the woods and then something comes and sweeps away the path. Jocularity is not a possible tone.

Second, it’s awful, so much so that I still don’t know how to write about it kindly. The first draft of this review was composed in malicious skeltonics; after an inner struggle, I deleted them, because this game has resulted from significant and well intentioned effort. I’ve since made more than one attempt at helpful analysis, only to succumb to snark. For what it’s worth, I consider this a failing on my part.

I think the best I can do is briefly describe the gameplay, then make a list of suggestions in clear and actionable language.

The aim is to smash every object in the room. Some can be broken easily, with your hands. Others require tools. These are made by mixing the phonetic fragments of previously vandalised furnishings: a saw, for instance, might be made from the ‘sa’ of a toy sailboat and the ‘w’ of a pillow. Next, my suggestions.

  1. The game could be more effective about communicating the goal. I found out by reading the ABOUT text.
  2. > get clock It's out of reach like a sexy model on the beach!This simile should be removed.
  3. When you break an object, the resulting pieces leave your inventory, and must be taken before they can be used; this is also true of newly constituted objects. They should a) be placed automatically in the inventory, or b) be usable when not in the inventory, or c) be automatically acquired if a valid target of the take command when a command requires the objects it acts on to be in the inventory.
  4. At present, the interval between discovering the underlying rules and winning the game is very short. There should be more to do: ideally, a couple of slightly more advanced puzzles inserted just before you leave the room.

[size=150]The Paper Bag Princess by Adri[/size]

This is an Inform 7 game, adapted with permission from the book of the same name. Princess Elizabeth’s wedding is gatecrashed by a dragon, which carries away the groom; she goes to his rescue, inverting the familiar trope. It’s very short; it took me under ten minutes to play.

[spoiler]I have only a little to say about this, most of it good. The writing is clear, straightforward and effective, and implementation is generally strong. Almost all sensible commands get an appropriate response, and where they touch on one of the game’s few puzzles, nudge the player in the right direction. Exception: ‘ask dragon about flames’ doesn’t work, even though ‘flames’ is an accepted synonym of ‘fire’ in an earlier location. In a less well implemented game, I might have asked about fire anyway, but in this case, I resorted to the walkthrough.

I found it unfortunate that Elizabeth talks the dragon into incinerating 150 forests. Perhaps this seemed less calamitous in 1980, just as ‘bum’ presumably seemed acceptable as an insult. The game claims to be a loose adaptation and quietly replaces ‘bum’ with ‘jerk’. I’d like my nephew to learn about gender equality, but also to value the environment; It would be wonderful if this, also, could be changed.[/spoiler]I don’t think I’ll be able to review The Wizard’s Apprentice tonight. I’ll try to do so tomorrow.

[size=150]The Wizard’s Apprentice by Alex Freeman[/size]

The Wizard’s Apprentice is a TADS 2 puzzle game in which you must pass your first test of wizardry by escaping a dungeon, making soup, and retrieving the three-foot rod of your aging master. Its cruelty level is polite, its puzzles conventional: fetch quests, locked doors, items slightly out of reach. In addition to the usual verbs, you can CAST ON , or occasionally, MAKE something.

The game credits testers. I encountered a few bugs, one of them serious, but I didn’t notice any typos, although Freeman rattles sabers at the customary constraints of syntax from time to time, without quite triggering a border incident:

[spoiler]The setting is stock fantasy, with the usual appurtenances: mandrake root and eye of newt, magic mirrors and crystal balls, warty witches in thatched woodland cottages, distrait wizards with long white beards, all played straight; archetypes so tired they seem always on the verge of eternal slumber, only to be thrust back blinking before the public by some feckless stagehand for one more encore.

Mostly this just bored me, but the presentation of the witch and wizard made me irritable.

> examine Gwydion Gwydion seems to be of great age. He has a frail appearance as if his skin were made of bleached and weathered parchment. His impression of fragility, however, is dispelled as soon as one gazes into his piercing dark brown eyes.Your master is old and wise and good, seemingly frail but actually potent. The witch, though:

[code]>examine witch
She’s an ugly old hag. Her skin is green, and her nose has a big, nasty wart on it. She has matted grey hair… She gives you the creeps.

hug witch
Bleh! You’d sooner kiss a toad![/code]You’ve come to request some paprika. Naturally, she doesn’t just give it to you; you must go on a fetch quest, for a wart removal scroll. Not only is she old and ugly, disgusting and creepy, and lacking in any compensating goodness or wisdom the protagonist can discern, she’s vain, too. Except that she isn’t, really; that was just the author’s little joke. She just wants the scroll so she can derive ‘powerful spells of depravity’ and ‘cast plagues and blights’. I’m not sure why; for the lulz, I guess?

Objection: this is a puzzle game with only the thinnest veneer of story, electrolytically applied; it’s hardly surprising if it has a copper aftertaste.

Okay, I’ll talk about the puzzles. The first puzzle is to acquire your wand while chained up. It’s out of reach, on a table. The solution is to examine the floor, note the loose slab, and kick it at the table. The second challenge is to escape your chains. You do this by casting rust on them. The rust spell has no other use. In fact, you know four spells, all of them generic and of obvious application – invisibility, metal detection, freeze. You use each only once. The third puzzle involves unlocking a door where the key is in the lock on the other side. The solution is to put a paper under the door, then push the key out of the lock with your wand.

These puzzles have the same problem as the characters, story, setting. They lack imagination. Can any remotely savvy person read the opening text and spells list without immediately realising that once they get the wand, they’ll be able to rust the chains to weaken them, or indeed predicting that this will cause them to fall off, apparently without lacerating the PC or giving him tetanus?

It would be easy to do something more interesting with the rust spell. How wide is its scope? Perhaps it also corrodes other metals? If so, could it tarnish a magic mirror, or camouflage a copper roof? The key puzzle isn’t intrinsically terrible, but has been used so much that it should always be twisted in some way. There’s a nice example of this at the very beginning of Savoir Faire.

Enough of this sort of thing, and the puzzles might be interesting. But then, why not be a bit more imaginative about the characters, too? I don’t think Freeman is a misogynist, but by recycling threadbare jokes he’s written a misogynistic game. That the intent was unserious and light-hearted doesn’t matter, any more than that makes the distressed damsels, pimps and brothels in Spelunky okay.

The game has other problems, too. Here’s a list of some issues Freeman might consider fixing in a post-comp release.

  • In games with a timed puzzle, ‘look’, ‘examine’ and ‘inventory’ should generally be free actions.
  • Some puzzles are, so far as I can tell, utterly unfair. The ball-rubbing and wand-waving should be replaced, or else led up to with a trail of clues from commands which might occur to a reasonable player.
  • The puzzles lack feedback. Ideally, any reasonable act from a player should receive a response which recognises it as reasonable, and at least some of them should guide the player in the right direction. For instance, it makes sense to begin searching for the wart removal scroll among the books, rather than in the closet of the master bedroom. The game should acknowledge player’s search attempts, and indicate that the scroll doesn’t seem to be in these locations. Similarly, ‘remove chains’ should result in something more pertinent than ‘The chains are firmly attached to the wall’, which doesn’t actually address what the player has in mind, i.e. removing the chains from the PC.
  • It should be possible to enter the laboratory and make the dispel potion after the toad sequence. I assume this to be a bug: otherwise I would not have described the cruelty as polite.
  • The following text requires expunction. I quote it in full in the hope that this will make the desirability of this all the more obvious:> make dispel potion You nervously roll up your sleeves. This is the first alchemy spell you’ve ever done. You never got past doing simple incantations in your lessons from Gwydion. As you know, doing an error can result in something totally different from what you are trying to make, perhaps even something even dangerous. With that in mind, you take your first plunge into alchemy by setting the beaker, the mortar and pestle, and the bowl and spoon in front of you. You remove the pestle and hold onto it. Next you put the mandrake root in the mortar. You open the jar containing the eye of newt and put its contents into the mortar. You press the pestle against the mandrake root and the eye of newt and start grinding away. Sure enough, the mixture eventually becomes consistent as described in the book. You put the consistent mixture in the clay bowl and use the spoon to scrape the mortar to to make sure as much of it gets in the bowl as possible. You read the book carefully again for the next few instructions. You open the jar containing the nightshade juice and pour the juice into a measuring cup until you have 1 cup and then pour the juice into the beaker. You then measure 1/2 cup of toad spittle and 2 cups of water and pour them into the bowl. You get a stirring rod and stir the mixture around in the beaker until it looks nice and homogeneous. You pour the solution into the bowl and mix everything in it until you have a nice, soggy mixture. After looking back at the book briefly, you check to see if there is enough charcoal in the brazier. Then you set the bowl on top and heat the brazier. In due time, the liquid starts boiling, and you immediately turn off the brazier. You remove the bowl and then prepare for the magical moment. You anxiously get out your wand and carefully wave it over the mixture. It’s hard to see any physical changes in the mixture, but you have a feeling that something supernatural has just happened. Perhaps the alchemical properties of the mixture really have changed. You confidently put the mixture into a flask for safekeeping. Finally, you use the remaining water in the jar to wash up the jars and such and put them away.

[size=150]100,000 years by Pierre Chevalier[/size]
This is a Twine game. It takes around two minutes to play.

The sole form of interaction here consists of turning pages. The text outlines the history of one or more civilisations, in 96 words. Given those constraints, the story is of course too schematic to be interesting. The story’s sole interesting feature is its cyclic structure. Unfortunately, as a narrative it’s not nearly as good as Jorge Luis Borges’s The Circular Ruins, and as a game, it’s inferior to A Dark Room. If the author thought the structural idea was original, I can understand why they entered this piece in the Comp; but it isn’t, and the piece has nothing else to offer.

Okay, I’ve exercised, showered, cooked, eaten, caught up on XKCD. I have a cup of tea.

I just noticed I need to do laundry, but fuck that. I’m gonna write.

[size=150]Trapped in Time by Simon Christiansen[/size]

Trapped in Time is a PDF document with the blurb ‘A Science Fiction adventure where YOU are the hero!’ This sounds naive, like the author thinks this might be a selling point in an interactive fiction competition, but IFDB tells me Christiansen’s released five Inform games. So I guess it’s pop-ironic 80s nostalgia. Or, possibly, he’s just trolling.

There are no credited testers, which is reasonable, but it would have benefited from a proof reader. There are lots of verbs which don’t agree with their subjects. These errors are more disruptive than misspellings, because they make readers (or me, anyway) reparse the sentence. Misplaced commas are less annoying but more prevalent.

The document is divided into short, numbered sections, with player agency expressed in the choice of which to read next: section 32 to take the cloth, section 32 to tilt at windmills, that sort of thing. The obvious question: what does this gain from being a PDF file, rather than a Twine game? A few years ago, it would have been more portable, but now most of us, I suspect, can read IF on our phones.

[spoiler]The choice has costs. It takes time to find the right section. You’ll need to do this more than the length of the document might suggest, because the main character is caught in a temporal loop. When you acquire an item or piece of information, you may be given a rule, something like ‘To tell someone about your experience, add 33 to the number of the section in which you encounter them.’ There are enough of these that, for mental comfort, you’ll probably write them down.

These tasks, of course, would normally be automated. I didn’t enjoy them – not to the point of wrathful doggerel, this time, because Trapped in Time is tightly structured, competently written and fairly short, but enough to cheat a bit, to reduce the number of loops.

I suspect the choice of medium is grounded in the explanation of the time loop. The protagonist has acquired the ability to travel through time on a whim, and has been returning to the start of the same day for reasons apparently known only to his id.

This is pretty flippant, but as far as I can tell it really is why Christiansen made me flip back and forth and keep notes, so I’m going to take it seriously. It doesn’t hold up intellectually, and it’s a terrible reason to write a gamebook.

Time travel as presented in this game is utterly incoherent, even by the standards of adventure-of-the-week TV series. If the protagonist had knowledge of his own future experiences there’d be no plot, because he’d know how to escape the time loop. But he can somehow transition instantly from a section where he doesn’t know he’s in a time loop at all to one like this:

A similar issue arises with items. Typically, time travel stories don’t make sense because they fail to reconcile the causal structure of the time traveler’s experiences with the causal structure of the universe in which they take place. In this game the time traveler’s experiences fail to make sense, all by themselves.

As for the choice of medium, it would be pretty easy to represent free-form time travel in Twine by giving the player a big menu of links. This makes me think that the whole decision comes down to a joke about how everyone always cheated when reading gamebooks. Which isn’t particularly funny.

Even so, I found Trapped in Time reasonably engaging, and expect it to score quite highly. The prose is clear, concise, functional, and flat; adequate to the type of story Christiansen is trying to tell, and better than much of what I’ve come across so far in this competition.[/spoiler]
I’ve noticed a pattern in the lighter-themed entries. Many of the authors seem to think that it’s charming or entertaining to serve up stale tropes and regurgitated clichés. It really isn’t; they produce an excess of bile when digested, causing aggression or ennui in reviewers. In my case, both. If you must, at least put a spin on them, so the guests know it’s okay to play with the food.

In this case – which is not the worst, by far – you can save a Triceratops from a Tyrannosaurus, cheat in a jousting tournament, kill Hitler, or use advanced technology to convince a pre-modern society of your godhood.
Next up: Reels, by Tyler Zahnke.

[size=150]Reels by Tyler Zahnke[/size]

Reels is a web game. It doesn’t work in Chrome or Firefox. It does work in Internet Explorer, if you use lax security settings. The author writes: ‘According to beta testing, this game works best on Microsoft Internet Explorer, but may work on Firefox or Chrome if JavaScript (a.k.a. script) is allowed to run in the browser.’ But the game’s functionality in those browsers is not contingent on enabling JavaScript; it just doesn’t work.

[spoiler]The scenario: a government record keeper discovers his reels have been stolen. The gang responsible want to use them to create unspecified propaganda. But they’ll return them if only the record keeper will tell them the year of the first moon landing and help them with numerical base conversion.

The author describes the game as follows:

Here’s a more accurate description: a game where you determine the order in which you examine three objects in an office, before deciding whether to continue playing; affirmation leads to an ill-coded quiz. As with The Challenge, I get the sense that the author of Reels is more interested in authoring systems than actual IF; if he thinks a quiz counts as ‘advanced IF’, I don’t think he can have played much. His previous project was a similarly buggy hypertext game built with Mediawiki.

Should you complete the quiz (or just open the relevant file, like I did), you’re rewarded with this:

This isn’t much of a story, or much of a game. Honestly, it isn’t much of a quiz. A quiz might acquire value by teaching something worth knowing, or by being challenging or entertaining. None of the answers to this one are worth knowing. Finding them with a search engine is trivial, but if it weren’t, it would still be tedious. It doesn’t gain anything from being wedded to this stump of a story, and the story doesn’t gain anything from being wedded to it.[/spoiler]

I found your review of Trapped in Time enjoyable in that it showed me what this game could look like to eyes which seem pretty unfamiliar with all the things it draws on. Now listen to me, a grizzled veteran:


“… in which YOU are the hero” was stamped on the cover of every Fighting Fantasy gamebook in the day, and those are the books which pioneered the paragraph system used in Trapped in Time. Actually, the phrase is stamped on the front of the Fighting Fantasy books coming out today. So with the phrase being both current and classic, and considering the sincerity of Trapped in Time’s content in regards to the adventuresome experience it wants you to have, I don’t think there’s much irony involved.

I’d say the easter eggs are intended to be obvious, given that you’re expected to find them by manually scanning for paragraphs which obviously don’t belong to the main story. Words like ‘Hitler’ and ‘The Black Knight’ do the trick. But I also think they’re more likely to be noticed by the reader by accident during normal play, perhaps goading the kind of cheating the book jokes about at the end. Finally, it looks like these stories were chosen because they’re in keeping with the style of the flipper endings of Choose Your Own Adventure books, though with an adult angle added.

I think trope-gazing is rather a dead-end, both for the average dude on the street whose lifeforce it secretly sucks away, but even more so for critics. To say “such and such has been used X times before, therefore it is a trope, and if I can pick it off the trope list it is bad” is a series of reductionist steps which is neither particularly logical nor interesting. Almost no individual turns of a story can claim to have never been done before now, but the number of permutations and performances of stuff, whether the ingredients are familiar or unfamiliar, are potentially infinite. To me, Trapped in Time easily meets the freshness of performance test.[/spoiler]

  • Wade

Wade, that’s one of the nicest ways I’ve been called ignorant. I can’t deny, though, that I’m almost wholly unfamiliar with gamebooks.

I agree that tropes aren’t always bad. I’m not sure how I gave you the impression that I thought otherwise: I complained specifically about ‘stale’ tropes, especially when used without spin – which I hoped was a less pedantic way of saying ‘imagined afresh, rather than uncritically reproduced from antecedent works in all particulars’. Like many others, I’m tired of games with amnesiac protagonists; in my opinion, most of what is interesting about this trope has been explored exhaustively by existing works, leaving new games to partake mostly of its shortcomings – most notably, a character who begins play with no interesting relationships, goals or affiliations.

I could give many other examples – Diana Wynne Jones managed to fill a book with them, just by considering the high fantasy sub-genre – but I think that you already understand, because otherwise you wouldn’t care about ‘freshness of performance’.

[size=150]Trapped in Time, again[/size]

[spoiler]The tropes used are for the most part so stale and trite that I think it take a rather exceptional writer to do anything interesting with them in the few paragraphs Christiansen allots himself. You suggest their inclusion is justified because they may attract the reader’s attention, inducing them to cheat. But since I still think the cheating joke is utterly lame, so I don’t find this reason persuasive, and anyway, something fresher would be at least as likely to attract attention – Steingrímsson’s fire sermon; Easter Island, just before the death of the last tree; the exhibition of Commodore Perry’s miniature steam engine. (If these seem recondite, well, they reflect the idiosyncracies of my own reading; many other events would serve as well.)

If I’ve understood you, you also think Christiansen’s chosen tropes – killing Hitler, jousting, fighting a Tyrannosaurus – are suitable because they fit the style of the material he’s mimicking, or citing, or parodying. This makes me wonder about the point of the enterprise. If this is the sort of material these books include, I don’t see much point in emulating them. I continue to suspect that Trapped in Time is motivated by nostalgia, and going by internal evidence and your own remarks, it’s nostalgia for something which isn’t very good. So I don’t think it’s surprising that I, not sharing that feeling, wasn’t much impressed.

By the way, I know that Christiansen recognises that these tropes are silly; if nothing else, the purring triceratops was a dead giveaway. But to make them engaging or amusing, he’d have to do more than merely signal that recognition to the reader. Ideally, these sections would have a particularly high narrative pay-off, because the reader has to make an effort to find them amidst the rest of the material. I thought, and still think, that they’re stale and boring, and not salvaged by their flippancy.[/spoiler]Looking back at my reviews, I think most of them could have done with some redrafting; they have a lot of problems, but I’m particularly dissatisfied with their tone. Reviewing is new to me, and I’m finding it quite difficult. I’m going to try shelving my reviews for a couple of days, then editing before I post them.

I’ll write about Mazredugin next, or possibly Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder.

Ha! Well, none of us can know everything. I think I know a ton about gamebooks by now, but ironically I just received a point out from maga on my own review of Trapped in Time.

It’s probably because neither of us elaborated too much on stale, so we all just went with our own version of it like we do in these online talks. ‘Tropes’ is a bit of a trigger word for me, and my threshold for stale is high compared to a lot of people, basically because I think people call ‘trope’ and ‘cliche’ on stuff far too often - or at least with an outcome of, if they call trope, they can stop investigating with a mind that’s at least semi-open. That habit is actually the thing that bugs me, but all that matters is that they do investigate. Maybe the whole game will live all the problems of the cliche, in which case it will be fine to say so, but maybe it won’t. A good example in this comp might be ‘Further’. If I can cut and paste a bit from Emily Short’s review, where she acknowledges the cliche angle but also talks about why the game gets out of it:

“You’re a person with no memory who wakes up in a location with no characteristics” is pretty much my least favorite IF opening ever, and I’ve seen it a very large number of times at this point. Generally it fills me with the gloomy expectation that I am about to play something incomprehensible but vaguely “spiritual,” written by someone who did not think of a plot hook before starting to write. But, to be fair, “Further” gets away with it better than some, for two reasons. First, it does move on to show the player some recognizable places and events reasonably soon; and second, the disciplined structure keeps it on track, providing definite goals throughout."

I know a guy who barely touches any horror movies or games, went to tvtropes, gathered a bunch of them like a shopping list and then made a horror game based on them. Sadly, he made a really good game and I couldn’t yell at him. And then I did the sound for the game.

Keep the reviews coming as soon as you’re ready! The world needs more reviewers who are thinking about what they’re doing.

  • Wade

[size=150]Mazredugin by Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk[/size]

Mazredugin is a parser game about four boys who’re spirited away by elves and sent to summer camp, for their own good.

[spoiler]The game begins with questions about the PC’s grades, social competence, and the sort of person they least like being compared to. The first two questions determine which boy you control, and you get extra exposure to one boy according to your answer to the third.

Most of the game is taken up by three sequential puzzles which differ wholly or in part between characters. The first is solitary: you’re left in a dark place, and must make a fire, or erect a tent, or otherwise demonstrate self-reliance. Next, you meet another boy and work together to enter a ship. Then all four boys prepare the ship for a pursuit which could perhaps be a narrative climax if it wasn’t disposed of in hasty a cutscene. Finally, everyone gathers round a campfire. You’re encouraged to stoke conversation.

I think I understand what this stuff is meant to do for the characters: develop their self-esteem, engender respect for others, draw them out of their shells a little. I’m not sure, though, why we’re shown this, or what Mazredugin is trying to do for the player. What the characters learn can’t be taught by any text, interactive or otherwise; you need real people for that. Mazredugin is competing with a whole class of novel, the Bildungsroman, which shows the growth of young people as they deal with challenges arising more or less naturally in their own lives; the challenges its characters face are less engaging because they’re manufactured, and I can’t see what gain was expected in return.

This ultimately doesn’t matter much, though, because Mazredugin fails at a more basic level by mishandling its characters and puzzles.

Puzzles first. Generally, a well designed puzzle will encourage a player to engage with the world model while the interface mediates discreetly, skirting attention. To say that Mazredugin ignores this principle would be charitable; quite often, the game inverts it. Most players know quite well how to build a fire or erect a tent, but I doubt any will intuit how to convey that knowledge to the parser. Instructions must be pedantically granular and entered in an order which is always rigid and sometimes utterly bizarre. Obvious synonyms aren’t supported.

Challenges are usually made more difficult by the writing’s vagueness and lack of clarity. The ship boarding puzzle, which seems to have 12 permutations, is the worst affected. You may have to weight a rope with an amulet, which is not described as larger or heavier than one might otherwise suppose an amulet to be; or lean a log against the ship after removing rot from it by touching it with the amulet, which is magic; doing this in reverse order doesn’t work, the log silently reverting to the horizontal when fixed. The following passage is not exceptional:

The NPCs are very thinly characterised. To solve most puzzles you have to interact with them, which is the right idea. But their contributions typically involve stuff like tying a knot or applying a lighter when you tell them to; if the PC had a lighter or a basic knowledge of ropework, he wouldn’t need them at all. They never take the initiative. (‘Fred starts raving about how you figured what to do when he was clueless, and how these guys better listen to you’.) They can’t even make campfire conversation without the player’s intervention. I found them annoying, not sympathetic, and felt more like the shepherd of a herd of lemmings than a collaborator.

The underlying problem is that you can’t inspire respect or camaraderie or even enjoyment by creating situations in which other people are necessary to a successful outcome; they have to be actively involved in it. I used to work at an outdoor centre. We’d take people climbing and kayaking and mountain boarding and other such stuff, but mostly we were more invested in a different sort of session: orienteering, initiative exercises, an obstacle course for people tied together. I worked with people of varying ages, abilities, and inclinations, but I never encountered a group like the one in Mazredugin; real people just don’t behave like that. But if I’d done so, I’d have found a way to remove or reverse the group’s dependency on the PC – by blindfolding him, or making them compete, or playing games with the right asymmetry. The author could do that, and I think it would begin to give the camp setting some purpose; but it would still involve coding NPCs which behave with some amount of initiative.

There are games in which NPCs co-operate successfully with the player: Beyond Good and Evil and Half-Life 2’s episodes, certainly; perhaps Bioshock Infinite and Portal 2, which I haven’t played. Some things the first two at least have in common: the NPCs respond to their environment; they don’t have to be told what to do, but display initiative in finding ways to help the player; they comment on challenges as they develop in ways which illuminate their character. It’s very difficult to do these things. On the evidence of this game, the author’s present skills as a designer and a writer are very far from being sufficient to the task.[/spoiler]

[size=150]Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder by Ryan Veeder[/size]

Tibert is first mate to Captain Verdeterre, who is a rat. His ship has a hole in it. This may or may not be Tibert’s fault; it’s probably not important compared with, say, abandoning ship. Doing so isn’t difficult; the challenge is to assemble as valuable a collection of swag as circumstances permit.

This is the first game I’ve played by Ryan Veeder. It’s amusing, short, beta-tested, and insubstantial.

[spoiler]This is an optimisation puzzle. Items vary in value from nothing at all to hundreds of dollars; it isn’t possible to get all of them in one playthrough. They may be in out of the way locations, take several turns to acquire, or only become available once the player solves a simple puzzle. From the third turn onwards, they begin to vanish under the waters. Time is the main resource, but Tibert also has only one bullet and at least two uses for it. And to begin with, you’re operating with very limited information: Tibert lacks the casual foreknowledge of market value which seems de rigeur in mainstream games; possibly Veeder couldn’t afford the licensing fees. You only find out when your score is tallied at the end of the game. The captain has strongly held opinions, but they’re mostly wrong.

For me, there were three stages of play. I spent a few games exploring the ship, discovering the values of the items, and poking at the limits of the narrative. Then I tried out an intuitive strategy, based on my unquantified sense of which actions gave good returns for time. That got me to $1277. By this point, I’d mostly stopped reading, because I’d already encountered all the text in exploratory games. Finally, I started tweaking: I had a few spare moves, so picked up some cheap stuff; then I looked for lower value action sequences and tried to replace them. After a few iterations, I reached $1459.

I enjoyed the initial exploration. There isn’t much of a story – I’ll get to that later – but Veeder writes well, and the text was consistently entertaining. Getting my first high score was fun, too, for the two or three minutes it lasted. Optimising, though, took longer, and was mildly satisfying at best. Many reviewers weren’t moved to attempt it.

The problem, I think, is that Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder occupies unfertile ground between two types of game: ones like Kerkerkruip, go, or Dwarf Fortress, which produce emergent narratives or gameplay, and adventure games. Emergent games can surprise even players who know the rules, because their mechanisms interact in unexpected ways. Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder isn’t like that: its complexity obscures the optimal solution but doesn’t generate tactical gameplay. This means the interest of the rules is basically exhausted once the player has become familiar with them, by the end of the exploratory stage. By that point they’ll have read most of the text and reached a few endings. There isn’t much to keep them playing.

The puzzles of adventure games are built around rules, too, though they usually implement special cases rather than detailed simulations. Authors know the solutions, and have some insight into the means by which a player might discover them. They have a lot of control, and once in a while, they use it to create something very special: a puzzle which stays interesting for as long as it takes to complete, and has a solution which is not only brilliant, but also inevitable.

Veeder can’t do this because he doesn’t know the solution himself: the about text says so. That limits his ability to craft the details of the player’s experience: he’s working under some of the same constraints as makers of emergent games, with very few of their compensations.

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder does have one big advantage over most adventure games: it’s probably not possible to find it frustrating. This is partly because the rules are transparent, partly because successful outcomes are easy to achieve: I stumbled upon the second best ending on my first playthrough. But it’s also because the story isn’t gated by the puzzle. I was reminded of Lock & Key, which is much more arbitrary – you have to construct by trial and error a dungeon capable of holding a hero who can outwrestle lions and has an assortment of improbably useful objects – but also more compelling, because there’s a significant narrative payoff whenever you get closer to the solution. Veeder missed an opportunity here, I think: he can really write, but this game has minimal plot, little backstory, a pair of characters whose relationship is cheerfully simplistic. Verdeterre needs a lackey who’ll tolerate his greed, dubious people skills and erratic judgement; Tibert needs to be told what to do.

Verdeterre is not quite one-dimensional, because he can be reasonable and even tender, but he’s close. This is entertaining in its way, and would make a serviceable facade for a puzzle which held up on its own. But this one doesn’t quite manage that, and could use a story capable of bearing some of the load.[/spoiler]

SPOILERS about Verdeterre’s Plunder:

Adam, what on Earth is your solution? When I played this game for the second time, I thought I had the optimal solution all worked out … but it gets me to 836 points. (The items I have are: skull, ball, lump, violin, sextant, tapestry, handkerchief, locket, mirror, medallion, statuette, watch.) How could you possibly get 1459? I haven’t even found items worth that much!

Wait, there’s a statuette? Where is it?

My solution is roughly as follows:

read book
get ball
get skull
get doll
get lump
open box
get flag
get tapestry
get sextant
shoot cabinet
get violin
get plate
get silverware
get medallion
get dagger
get dagger
[if you don’t have the dagger, type ‘undo’ and return to the previous step]
climb bowsprit
get pearls
put pistol in sack
enter boat
I think that’s right. I don’t have an amazing memory, but the boat is a lot like a memory palace. IF could probably be used to teach mnemonics.