Peter's IFComp 2008 Thoughts and Reviews

Thanks for setting this board up. While I enjoyed reading reviews of the games during the comp last year when I was a competitor, the two places I didn’t much care for seeing them was at rec.arts and int-fiction. They were just too hard to avoid, there. This board, though, I felt was better, with reviews segregated from the rest of the boards and out of the way.

So, I thought I’d post some thoughts here as I play. Comments are welcome of course.


Berrost’s Challenge
Dracula’s Underground Crypt
The Absolute Worst IF Game in History
Escape from the Underworld
April in Paris
Riverside (page 2)
A Martian Odyssey
Red Moon
The Lucubrator
Buried in Shoes
Lighthouse (page 3)

First thoughts: Only one TADS 2 game? Oh, its breaking my heart. Not just because I love TADS 2, but because it suggests I may never see the day when someone writes a proper HTML-TADS interpreter for Mac OS X.

So, Mark Hatfield, here’s to you. Thanks for representing.

And as it happens, I found Mark’s TADS 2 work Berrost’s Challenge an enjoyable diversion. I liked the strong and consistent authorial voice, and from a technical perspective the game deals with a wide variety of difficult substances like grease, sludge, grains, and water, without trouble – certainly they behaved in the expected manner, and did what I wanted them to, without much stress on the parser. Implementing body parts usually always ends in tears, too, but in my casual play session never stumbled onto any errors or weird responses about my thumb, which plays such an integral part in the game.

The story is light, breezy fantasy. In many respects the game reminded me of YAGWAD, from a previous comp, which I also enjoyed for many of the same reasons.

I played right up to the two hour mark, but if anything I think the game is too short. Your job is to collect scrolls, and “graduate” from your wizard studies. When the mission is accomplished at the end, Berrost finally intimates that there is something larger going on that needs your wizardly attention. This struck me as just right, but then we don’t get to play that part, instead, “that is another story.”

One of the concepts I really like in Berrost’s Challenge is that there are always two ways to solve a puzzle: one with magic, and one without. The downside of this though is that the way this difference is framed makes it not very fun: if you solve the puzzle using magic, you don’t earn as many points. So what we are left with is a magic-based game that doesn’t want you to use any magic. I would have enjoyed it more if I was encouraged to use magic the first time around then perhaps given an “expert mode”, in which you could try to play again without the use of magic. In the event, I collected scrolls, but never used them, which is a crime when there could have been some spellcasting going on (and the Enchanter series was always my favorite).

Best Puzzle: teamsters workbench/mining cart.

So, only one TADS 2 game, but it is well implemented, nicely written, and entertaining, and hints at larger ambitions.

– Peter

Dracula’s Underground Crypt by Alex Whitington and The Absolute Worst IF Game in History by Dean Menezes

I thought the title of Dracula’s Underground Crypt was redundant – but after a moment I started to like it because it made me think of other places Dracula’s Crypt might be, places odd enough that you might really need to specify: “Dracula’s Suburban Crypt”, or “Dracula’s Rib Shack Crypt”. Maybe a comedy. And sure enough, it is, though the author’s disclaimer at the beginning of the game was sufficient to discourage me from playing it. Essentially Alex lets the prospective player know that, though his life was previously dull enough to allow time to dabble in IF, he is too busy now to finish it or beta test it, and he leaves it to others like myself who presumably have nothing better to do in our lives than play untested, practically-disowned games. In this, Alex is mistaken.

Likewise, Dean Menezes gives us fair warning for his game, by the title alone, The Absolute Worst IF Game in History.

As authors, we sometimes are the worst judges of our own work. Sometimes we think it is better than Jesus, when really we’ve not yet even caused Shem to break a sweat. Other times, we think it is probably rubbish, but we might just be depressed because of factors outside of the game itself, parts that might have had to come out, parts that as it turns out players won’t notice or even care existed.

I guess what I’m saying is, your game may or may not be awful, but why not let your players decide? If you don’t have confidence in your work, why should anyone else? Your games might be good, they might not be, but because of your approach, I doubt many people will bother to find out.

– Peter

I actually played through Dracula’s Underground Crypt; on the whole I enjoyed it, but it did give me undue heartache (you know, had things like overcomplicated room descriptions, important items missing from the room description, bugs involving an npc, serious guess-the-verb issues). The author gave out his email address in the game and said people should tell him about bugs there; perhaps I’ll take him up on his offer.

Although it seems to me that this entry was created with the direct intention of being awful, rather than being named for the author’s lack of confidence.

I wonder how TAWIFGIH compares to some of the Clueless Bob Newbie stuff.

Good to hear it was enjoyable. I’m always up for a Dracula story myself, so although he’s lost me in terms of the comp version, I’d be more than happy to try out a post-comp bug fix version.

Escape from the Underworld by Karl Beecher

Hell is a bureaucracy. Sure its an overdone idea, but that doesn’t mean that wandering around in it and playing in it isn’t fun. I kept thinking Terry Pratchett, but not sure if that’s right. I also kept thinking of the British TV show The Mighty Boosh, particularly the classic episode in which Howard dies and is sent to Monkey Hell by accident. It’s hilarious, but maybe the Boosh is an acquired taste.

In any case, Escape is strong in terms of story and writing. All the inspirational posters in Hell were a joy to read, and I loved the call center (Because of course, there is a call center in Hell). Other times, though, I felt a certain dissonance between the levity of the game and the subject, probably due to the fact that you play a low-level torturer, and current US government policy to approve and sanction torture. On the whole, though, it is clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and enjoyable in that spirit.

Where the game struggles is in the implementation. The problem is the solutions to various puzzles were implemented, but nothing around the solutions was, so unless you know exactly what to type or do, it is impossible to solve.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

At one point, the receptionist hints that she’d like a cigar. Fair enough. But there isn’t a trace of any cigars anywhere to be found. It turns out if you ask the mechanic about a cigar [ASK MECHANIC ABOUT CIGAR], he will offer one to you in exchange for a drink or something. But here’s the problem: if you ask any of the characters about anything else that is not currently in their room, the game responds: I don’t see that here (or something like that). So after a little testing, the game has taught me to NOT ask anyone about objects that are not directly visible. You can ask everyone about each other, though. But again, if you ASK MECHANIC ABOUT RECEPTIONIST, their shared love of cigars doesn’t enter in to his response. Also when examining the room, the mechanic, and so on, at no time does the game suggest he might be carrying cigars. In other words, there is absolutely no reason that I could find that I would ask the mechanic about cigars. Except that I read it in the walkthough.

The above is just an example; the trouble is, it is the rule, not the exception, and every single puzzle is problematic in the same way. There are a lot of standard responses that should have been modified, too, such as the standard “Violence isn’t the answer to this one” type message whenever you attack someone.

I enjoyed the writing, the story, the environment, as far as I got. The game just isn’t finished yet. The entire game needs another pass or two by the author to fill in all the implementation gaps, then it needs to go out to an enthusiastic beta tester or two to tighten it further. Right now, it feels like the outline for a really fun game, rather than the game itself.

Best Puzzle: Catching the little hellmouse and putting its soul in a bottle. A simple puzzle, but atmospheric.

It seemed like there might be a bug that prevents you from finishing, at least, I couldn’t call the receptionist, no matter how often I typed in her number.

– Peter

I had the same problem and couldn’t finish even following the walkthru. I got the vague impression in a few places that tasks had to be accomplished in a particular order to trigger certain things necessary to advance the action. Having said that, I enjoyed the game. Quite funny and original in parts. I liked the “hot” receptionist. And I wasn’t too peeved at not being able to finish, looking at the final puzzle I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have figured it out even if I were confined to Hades for eternity.

Hello, just popping in to say I’m posting my thoughts/notes/rants while playing this years’ games on my blog, at, and my girlfriend Jenni is doing the same at Cheers!


April in Paris by Jim Aikin

Looking for a game that I could assume to be solidly implemented, I went for Jim’s latest game April in Paris next. I betatested one of his previous games, LAST RESORT, until I thought it was perfect, perhaps not coincidentally, Jim decided not long after to scrap the game entirely and re-write it as LYDIA’S HEART. Well, I quite liked it the way it was, but what the heck.

In any case: April in Paris. Clearly thoroughly tested. Lots of difficult exchanges handled effectively with natural vocabulary. So for example,

If you want to invite a person to lunch, you do not have to type ASK WOMAN ABOUT LUNCH INVITATION or something similarly awkward, you can just INVITE APRIL or INVITE HER TO LUNCH.

April in Paris takes place in a Parisian cafe, in which you are trying to get the attention of the waiter, which must be accomplished through a series of conversations and fetch tasks. The cafe is implemented in a neat way, its sort of one big room, and all the people in it are visible and can be talked to, but it is also divided up into multiple areas that must be traveled to. It all looks like it is taking advantage of one of those new features of TADS 3 I read about. It is an interesting effect, though still I don’t know if it is really an improvement over implementing the cafe as multiple discreet rooms. Certainly it was disorienting at first, and took some time to get used to. Interacting with a person who is not in your sub-area causes you to move to the person’s sub area, which is confusing until you notice it happening. And early in the game I tried to kiss the girl you meet and found myself standing outside the restaurant on the sidewalk with no way back in (until I understood the mechanic and tried the same with the waiter, thus moving me back into the restaurant). Bugs like this are the type of thing that survive a beta test and in no way detract from the game.

April in Paris is well crafted. Once again, it is clear that Jim has put care and attentiveness into both the writing and the implementation. There is only one thing I don’t like about the game, and that is the subject matter. Really, waiting at a cafe while a waiter ignores you happens in real life, and is no fun in real life, so why would I want to play the situation? This game is most successful when it distracts me from the central premise, and least when I am reminded once again of what I’m supposed to be doing. Me, I would have left the cafe ages ago. There are plenty of wonderful restaurants in Paris, and its not worth wasting time in one that isn’t. Unless it was a front for a secret, ancient American death cult. Hmmm…yes, LYDIA IN PARIS, I see it now…

Best puzzle: Figuring out how to get April inside the cafe.

Riverside by a bunch of people

Perhaps the ambitions of the authors exceeded their ability to such a degree that they finally had to angrily abandon their effort. It sort of felt like a child trying to put together a Lego kit then smashing it to pieces instead in frustration.

The game opens with a promising funeral scene, but it turns out nothing much in the scene is implemented: you can’t interact with your fellow mourners, nor any of the surroundings (tombstones, etc). In fact for the most part the only verb implemented was EXAMINE.

Then the story proceeds to a dull and similarly un-implemented apartment scene. I thought I would be unable to finish the game (despite the walkthrough), but luckily Emily Short’s review came in with the save for the one sentence you need: READ ALBUM.

Not that it mattered, as shortly thereafter the game self destructs in a fit of pique.

– Peter

A Martian Odyssey by “Horatio”

When your title conjures up Bowie songs and Bradbury stories, boy, you’d better have it all together.

This game doesn’t, unfortunately. But it does have an “old school” vibe that is not entirely unwelcome, and the spare descriptive style serves to showcase the alien landscape and keeps its “otherness” mostly unknown. You want to find out more about the things you see and creatures you meet, but basically the game is too simple and won’t let you, so you only have an imperfect idea of what you are looking at most of the time. While this effect is not likely intentional, nevertheless I think it is workable. We are no where near Bradbury, here, but the game does have the creative energy of the old pulps, and could if more successful suggest a work by, say, A. Merritt. The alien creatures are tremendously imaginative.

(My favorite:the pyramid monster.)

I was also happy to see that the spare descriptions were researched in terms of naming some areas of the Martian landscape. In some ways, a lot of care went into this game.

But as with many of the other games I’ve played in the comp so far, the implementation is too simple and ultimately fails. Not enough synonyms, not enough thought for all the ways a person might try to accomplish a task, guess-the-verb as the only way forward. And puzzles are generally of two types: either I knew what I needed to do but could not come up with the phrasing to make it work, or I didn’t know, and couldn’t know without authorial mind-reading.

And then it ends, when the game was still just a series of vignettes. The game just might have been able to overcome its severe implementation problems if it had an overarching premise of more grandeur than simply: I crashed, I’m walking back to get picked up.

– Peter

Red Moon by Jonathan Hay

It’s a one room game. Not much to do, nor much going on. There are no puzzles, other than to figure out that you must repeat a command over and over again before getting the desired result. Sometimes the response to the command changes, sometimes it doesn’t. The “world” described in the single room doesn’t make much sense: an old wooden shack with…a computer? With a little refinement, this could be an interesting opener to a longer game. As it stands it tries for a short, clever EC - Comics type ending but it lacks punch.

– Peter

Violet by Jeremy Freese

Every once in a while a game comes along and creates a character so stunningly vivid and fully realized that you feel you know and love them. Last year’s comp brought us the player character Grunk in Lost Pig. This year, it’s Violet, the player character’s girlfriend, who does not even appear in this one room game but who inhabits the authorial voice of the game. Every response generated through your interaction is told to you by Violet – not, she reminds us, Actual Me Violet, but close enough. I think I’m in love.

OK, I admit it: I went across the hall once – just once! – when Julia was talking about being a contortionist, but I did Undo, so I hope Violet forgives me, one more time.

The story is simple: you need to write your dissertation, you keep getting distracted by things. And the story, such that it is, is one I pretty much deeply hate: any game having to do with college life generally makes me want to floss with barbed wire. So what makes this boring, lame, annoying storyline palatable is basically the fact that it is fucking brilliantly imagined, written, and implemented.

One issue for the bug-fix release:

:I can plug EARS, but not EAR. Needed the hints to get past that one.

Best Puzzle:

The blinds thingy. Or, maybe the internet connection. I don’t know, they were all pretty good.

Jeremy: Seriously, this game is truly great. Thank you for raising the bar. Please write more.

Jeremy, one more thing: But really, not about college again. Please.

– Peter

Violet, have to agree with you - what a fantastic game. By far the best I’ve played at this Comp, and I’ve played more than half of them already. I’d go and say it is better than a lot of games that have won previous year’s comps.

You’re not giving me much incentive to keep playing games, here! Still, looking at your remaining list, I think there are still some possibilities of finding a peer. But my guess is we’re looking through the rest to find all the runners-up. Violet is a game that I will study, when this comp is over, and marvel at. Not in terms of the puzzles, particularly, or the awful setting, but in the sustained narrative voice, the over-writing of the stock answers, done completely seamlessly. Remarkable stuff.

– Peter

The Lucubrator by Rick Dague

I got a feeling of deja-vu when firing up THE LUCUBRATOR. Because when I first discovered the TADS development system, and started fiddling with it, I decided I would write a game that started with you lying on a slab in a morgue (I don’t recall the exact year, but TADS was still shareware at this time). I wrote a few rooms, slapped a toe tag on the body, and a lab with a lab rat. The idea was you would eat the rat, thus discovering your zombie-like craving for flesh.

And then, I left the country for work for a while and didn’t have a computer for a couple years. When I got back into writing IF, I was well over zombies and thankfully the incomplete game exists only in my memory.

Or it did, until I started playing The Lucubrator. It’s like Rick ate a part of my brain!

Though the central premise is the same, this actual real and released game deviates quite quickly from my imagined plot. For one thing, I didn’t think to insert some sort of gay love triangle into my zombie plot, as is the case here, I guess. The story is unclear. In fact I never really understood why the gay couple was making zombies, except perhaps because adoption was not lawful in their state of residence. Does it have something to do with lucubrators? I’m trying, here.

The puzzles are all impossible. They generally have to do with killing people who are trying to kill you. So what you have is a timed puzzle, in which only one way to kill your opponent is allowed. This is the text adventure equivalent of the old Dragon’s Lair arcade game, in which you are only allowed a single flick of the joystick in the proper direction to live; flicking it the wrong way results in death.

I sort of feel like zombies have reached the end of their useful shelf-life (again). Admittedly, SHAUN OF THE DEAD was pretty funny, but otherwise, that’s it. And how VIOLET got away with both being on a college campus AND having zombies…well, let’s just make it the exception that proves the rule.

– Peter

Buried in Shoes by Kazuki Mishima

The other day a friend and I were discussing the books we were reading. I was reading War, Evil, and the End of History by Bernard-Henri Levy, which was interesting but generally I was still glad I just grabbed it from the library. She was reading The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman. The title (and author) made me curious, but then I was curious no more when told that it was about the Nazi occupation of Poland. It may or may not be a good story, but I realized at that moment that really, I don’t ever need to read another Holocaust story again. I’ve read it, seen the documentaries, watched the movies. I can recite the statistics. I’ve read Michael Shermer’s book about crazy people who deny the Holocaust even happened and why they do that. So no matter how good that book is, I just can’t get up any interest in reading it. Because it is mining a subject that has been endlessly explored, while many other stories simply remain untold. (Similarly, I also can’t watch even one more Italian mafia film or TV show, even if it is called the Sopranos.)

So, Buried in Shoes is another Holocaust story. I enjoyed the shifting perspectives, but I didn’t learn enough in each perspective to really make them worthwhile. Also I would have liked to enter the perspective of the Hitler Youth as well, so that we may understand them more, and pity or hate them (or both) because of it.

No puzzles. The ending was abrupt. The game paints a picture, is evocative in its text, but is too short to fully immerse the player, and altogether lacking in learning moments even though the story is about learning, and forgiveness. Despite the creative and interesting title, Buried in Shoes ultimately does not deepen my understanding of the Holocaust, nor does it further the discussion. In the end, it’s just another story that I wish was about something else.

– Peter

It’s also the opening to Shadowrun on the SNES - one of my all time favourite beginnings for a game. I totally mean to do it myself at some point.

(My apologies if someone else pointed this out in comments somewhere; I looked, but couldn’t see that they had, but I’m new to this forum. Anyway…)

I had a very similar issue with Escape from the Underworld, but in the case of the cigar I actually got that puzzle without a hint. It’s as overtly clued, really, as the receptionist hinting that she wants a cigarette or cigar: the maintenance guy’s description states that he ‘looks hot and sweaty and reeks of cigars.’ I actually asked him about cigars before I even realized that would be a solution to a puzzle.

On the whole, though, as I stated in my review, I found that solutions to puzzles were generally hidden in secondary- and tertiary-level descriptions, but the vast majority of objects were implemented so shallowly that I’d stopped looking too deeply at anything early on in the game.