Sarah's Reviews

ifcomp2016
#1

Hi, my name is Sarah Johnson Adams and I’ve been playing IF for about six years now. I was born in the late 1980s and so missed out on a lot of the ‘classic’ games first time round but have played some of them since. My first introduction to text games was through the Quest website where I got a taste for shameless puzzlefests. I eventually discovered the wider world of contemporary interactive fiction and began playing games in Inform as well. I only began playing and judging IF Comp games three years ago so I suppose I’m a relative newcomer to the process, but I have very much enjoyed playing the entries and thought I would like to contribute some reviews this year. I’ve never written a game though I have playtested a few, including last year’s competition winner ‘Brain Guzzlers From Beyond!’.

A few disclaimers before I begin posting reviews. Firstly, while evocative story-telling, interesting concepts and vivid and varied characters are obviously very important to me, they are not my primary motivation for playing text games. What I am most interested in is the puzzle-solving aspects of a game. For this reason I tend to prefer parser games, though I try to remain open-minded. Also, because I use a screen-reader there are some games that I just can’t play or that I can’t play properly. I’ve figured out ways around playing most Twine games now but there are some formats that I still can’t access, so, obviously, that will prevent me from reviewing some of the entries. Finally, I am struggling to apply the hidden spoiler text to my posts so I will try to avoid spoilers and to keep the reviews more general.

#2

Fair by Hanon Ondricek

Having played this author’s 2015 entry, ‘The Baker of Shireton’, I was both excited and a little reticent about playing this game. 'I had found ‘The Baker of Shireton’ an novel gaming experience and was deeply impressed by the complex and innovative mechanics going on under the surface, but I also found some of the aspects of gameplay a bit overwhelming and frustrating. So, going into ‘Fair’, I was prepared for there to be something more going on than the premise and the initial stages of the game suggested and, I must admit, I was a little apprehensive about how that might derail what seemed like a fun and promising set-up for a short game. Without giving too much away, there are some surprises involved in 'Fair, if you properly search for them, however, for the most part, they add to the game’s playability and to the development of the PC and NPC’s characters and give the game significant replayability. I think I have explored most of the paths, chatted to most characters, uncovered most secrets and seen most endings now, but this game packs so much excellent detail into a relatively small area that I would not be at all surprised to discover that I had missed something important. I have still not been able to achieve a full score or figure out how to deal with the saboteurs, that final single point keeps eluding me, any hints from anyone who has found this last dollar would be greatly appreciated!

I also loved the tone of this game, it was light-hearted and gentle while still managing to include some subtle social commentary. I also appreciated the ways in which the PC and NPCs were generally given quite well-developped personalities and motivations.

I have only a couple of very minor quibbles and these are connected to the specificity of some of the commands. For example, while stood by Stephanie’s competition entry, if you want to examine or speak to Stephanie’s mother then you have to specifically type ‘woman in suit’, because the parser doesn’t simply recognise ‘woman’ or ‘mom’, even though she is the only ‘mom’ in the area. This same need for specificity occurs in a couple of other scenes and, while the parser asks you for clarification so you can figure out what to type, it can still get a bit annoying. However, these are extremely minor quibbles about what I thought was a truly excellent game. Very highly recommended!

#3

Color the Truth by Mathbrush

I am a big fan of golden age detective stories by the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I am not too keen on more modern crime novels because they tend to be gory and more focused on forensic examinations where as many of the ‘golden age’ mysteries gloss over some of the more viceral details in favour of focusing on psychology and clues. I think what I like about the old-school ‘whodunnit’ is that it is, in it’s own way, interactive fiction and encourages the reader to try and follow the clues to solve the crime before the detective does. I think this is why murder mysteries are such a popular topic for text games and why they can work so well, though implementing them well is a challenge.

‘Colour the Truth’ is set in a radio station studio in what appears to be the early 1980s. The setting is compact and well-described and the characters and their narratives intersect effectively. The setting is also well-integrated into the story and I enjoyed the way that more of the areas opened up as you spoke to more suspects.

‘Color the Truth’ removes the frustration of trying to work out what to ask the suspects by providing the player with the available topics, keeping the game moving along at a brisk pace and holding the player’s interest. I also thought the method of gathering statements and the ensuing shift of perspective was beautifully executed. This was a very clever and effective device and made this one of the most player-friendly parser murder mysteries I’ve played.

The period setting, tone and cast of characters reminded me a bit of an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’, and you don’t get much better than that. It’s just a shame that the fairly anonymous detective you play isn’t a patch on Jessica Fletcher.

I think Mathbrush did a pretty good job of establishing the characters of the suspects within the narrow constraints of this type of game. I don’t expect deep and complex character development in a whodunnit game, though the detective could have been a bit more exciting. Overall, a terrific and entertaining game with a satisfying, if slightly rushed, denouement. Highly recommended.

#4

Hi Sarah! I just wanted to let you know how to hide spoiler text, if that’s the difficulty you’re having. You can either type the spoiler tag before the text and the /spoiler tag after it, like this:

[spoiler]Your text.[/spoiler]

Or you can write your text, select it, then click the spoiler tag button in the full post editor. The button appears just below the bold, italic, and underline buttons.

Cheers!

#5

Thanks so much for that Arclight, it’s greatly appreciated! I’m going to follow your advice and try and hide this review, I hope it works out!

How to win at Rock Paper Scissors by Brian Kwak

A fun and diverting game with a neat central mechanic. Most of the challenge of the game is figuring out just how you are going to gain some much-needed ‘rock, paper, Scissors’ skills and this is a well-executed puzzle. The first character you encounter when you leave the gym will pretty much explain the process to you, from then on its just a case of waiting until the other characters you encounter make their own inadvertent moves before countering with your own deliberate ones. There were a few fairly basic puzzles that needed to be solved in order to win the game, though they did feel a little out of place to me. The zany supernatural elements were a little tiresome, but they felt more like a side joke than a major feature of the game so it was relatively easy to overlook them. I appreciated the simple and clear available verb set and also the ways in which the game offers support and hints to players in a way which helped ensure that I was never truly stuck.

Over all, this game was a lot of fun, I can’t see myself ever coming back to it for another playthrough, but the experience of playing it was largely enjoyable and entertaining. Recommended.

#6

Sorry, I just can’t seem to hide the text. I will play around with it a bit more tomorrow, apologies for this.

(matt w) #7

If you’re typing your text and then hitting the spoiler button, be sure to highlight the text before you hit the button! That way the spoiler tags appear at the beginning and end of the text.

Also, if by chance you want the spoiler button but you’re typing in the “Quick reply” box at the bottom of the page, just hit the “Full Editor” button. That will display all the formatting buttons (and won’t affect the text you’ve already typed).

(Hanon Ondricek) #8

You can also use rant and /rant (in brackets) to hide optional text. It’s intended to mask a long tirade that isn’t necessary to the thread or the post that some people might not want to wade through, but you can change what it says with putting rant=SomeTextOfYourChoice (inside the brackets)

[rant=hidden for example]The text in brackets is: rant=hidden for example[/rant]

(heartless zombie) #9

You could just make a new thread called “Sarah’s reviews (spoilers)”. You can post reviews to a spoiler thread without tagging them.

The markdown code to type for a spoiler is text to hide.
In words: left square bracket, the word spoiler, right square bracket, the text (words, sentences, paragraphs…) to hide, left square bracket, the slash symbol, the word spoiler, right square bracket.

The markdown code for rant is [rant]off topic comment to hide[/rant].

If you activate the “Reply with quote” link on a post, the quote will print the markdown code in the post if there is any.

#10

Night House by Bitter Karella

Since the first text adventures I ever played were on the Quest engine I am always happy to see a Quest game in the IF competition.

I should probably begin this review with a disclaimer about my own personal tastes. I am extraordinarily easily scared, anything even remotely spooky can leave me traumatised! For this reason I tend to avoid anything with any horror themes. However, for the purposes of judging the competition games impartially I steeled myself to play what looked set to be a distinctly creepy game, the blurb did a good job of communicating that aspect, for which I am very grateful! Anyway, I played it during the day and at a time when I wasn’t alone and with some cheerful music in the background in the hope of creating the least scary environment possible.

Anyway enough about my neuroses, I’m supposed to be talking about the game and whether or not it’s any good. ‘Night House’ starts off strong, the creepyness is in evidence from the very beginning of the game and builds effectively throughout. The tension never eases off and I felt nervous about what result each move might yield. Wandering around a deserted house and rummaging around for clues is hardly an under-explored trope in interactive fiction, but this house has more to it than meets the eye.

[spoiler]All the extra information provided by the computer, photographs, clippings, diaries and other artefacts was well-delivered and added well to the tone of the game as well as fleshing out the game world and the characters of the protagonist and her absent family. The clues to the sinister forces stalking the house were also effective, hinting at what might be going on without revealing the full horror. The creatures are even more frightening when they are snuffling and scratching around outdoors than when you finally encounter them out in the open.

I know that some players may find that the puzzles might puncture the game’s tension somewhat and slow down the story. However, as someone who adores puzzles I found it made the game more enjoyable, also, the distraction of having puzzles to solve helped me cope with the terror! I thought most of the puzzles were imaginative and well-executed. The puzzle involving the decoy was particularly good.

As a seasoned player of Quest games I am familiar and comfortable with the ‘use’ command as a synonym for everything, so I have no problem with it being the default here. The only bug I found was that, when you are in the cellar, if you type ‘use scissors on box’ instead of ‘open box with scissors’, the game generates the same text but it is only in the latter case that the game recognises that you have opened the box. It’s only a minor quibble but, if ‘use’ works for everything else then it really should work for this too, or, if it doesn’t, then the game should tell you it hasn’t worked rather than delivering a misleading response.

Overall, an extremely good game, well-written, effectively creepy and genuinely terrifying (to a scaredy-cat like me anyway!). Highly recommended.[/spoiler]

#11

Hooray, I finally seem to have managed to hide some text, thanks for all your help and sorry for being so useless at this! For some reason, the first few times I tried typing the spoiler code around the text it wouldn’t work, I still don’t know what I’m doing differently that has made it work now! Thanks for all your patience anyway!

#12

Pogoman Go! by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman

I have not personally played ‘Pokemon Go’, but my wife was briefly obsessed with it for a couple of weeks when it first appeared so I know a little about it. I can’t say that what I heard about the game made it sound terribly appealing so I was dubious about how much I would enjoy a spoof game based on it. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this whimsical and ambitious game.

[spoiler]This is a game of three parts. The first section is a tongue-in-cheek simulation of playing ‘Pokemon Go’. You wander around a large number of locations trying to find and catch the little critters and then find gyms in which you can pit your Pogomen against others. Sprinkled around the game are several ‘pogostops’ where you can stock up on supplies that make the acquirement and maintenance of your Pogomen more effective. The objective of this section of the game is to get enough points, levels and fighting trophies to gain access to the shiny tower block in the centre of town. I presume you could have continued on catching more Pogomen after this point, but I had quite frankly had enough of the fairly tedious process by then.

The second section of the game involves solving a number of weird and wacky puzzles in the tower which will help you to increase your skill level and gain access to more of the building. Your ultimate objective is to stop the progress of the giant mechanical cat which circles the top of the building. I must admit that, while the writing was good and the descriptions clever and amusing, I did feel pretty lost at this point in the game. It was not clear to me what my motivations were and, more importantly, what I was actually trying to achieve, leading to extended aimless roaming about in the hope that I’d stumble across something helpful. Given the multiplicity of areas and objects to explore at this stage, amiless wandering was very time-consuming and frustrating and took up most of my two-hour play time. I did continue playing after the two hours because I was sufficiently intrigued by what other tricks the game had up its sleeve to want to make some progress. It took a long time to solve the cat puzzle and move on to the final stage but I was very satisfied when I achieved that goal.

The final stage of the game involved a neat subversion of the gameplay from the opening section, with you becoming both the hunter and the prey as Pogomen attempt to attack you. I found my way out of this nightmarish world pretty quickly and successfully completed the game, but the closing text suggested that there may have been other endings which I missed.

The randomly generated trophies which you accidentally win throughout the game were a nice touch and the option to turn the alerts off if they were annoying you was a good idea. A great deal of work has clearly gone into this game. The writing is tight and effective and the many complicated game mechanics appeared very robust, I don’t think I came across one bug, extremely impressive given a game of this size and complexity. However, there were many puzzles in the game which made little or no sense to me. I am not sure if this is because they are related to Pokemon lore of which I am unaware or if the game was being deliberately surreal. This is not really a criticism, I was just aware that I may not having been getting the full experience from the game.[/spoiler]

All in all, an entertaining well-crafted game which I am probably not qualified to judge adequately but which I enjoyed despite not fully understanding it. Recommended.

#13

The Game of Worlds Tournament by Ade

[spoiler]Although the blurb and certain character and locations descriptions suggest that this game is set in an alien and possibly distopian world, there is not a great deal of world-building involved in this game. This is not a problem since this is a simulation of a rrole-playing card game and the sole objective of the game is to play and win as many rounds as possible, with your aim being to become the champion of the game. Knowing anything about the world or other players is not necessary to achieve this goal. What you will need is some explanation about the game mechanics. Luckily, the game is very helpful, explaining the small number of verbs necessary to play the cards and providing information on the various suits and individual cards. It took me a few rounds to truly get a hang of playing the game but once I had had a little practice I felt comfortable enough with the game to play with confidence. The game is very well-implemented, it handles the complex and ever-changing stats effectively and I came across no errors.

The card game itself was extremely well-designed andI could see it working as a table-top game in its own right. However, implementing it as a text game in which the cards which the characters play are directly affecting the miniature life forms under the players control raises some interesting ethical questions. Although I have never played a table-top or strategic card game, I understand that many of them involve some aspects of warfare and colonisation. ‘Game of Worlds’ made me think about the ethics of this type of motivation. Because, in the world of this game, you are not just playing with hypothetical statistics but with life on actual planets, giving the players god-like control. With this in mind, I often found myself reluctant to play cards which would cause widespread death and suffering, however, trying to play the game peacefully never seemed to lead to a win as your ultimate aim was to crowd out your opponents population, outnumbering and subduing them by any means possible.

All in all, this was an excellent game which proved very addictive, I ended up playing a number of rounds. It also managed to be quite thought-provoking. Highly recommended.[/spoiler]

#14

Theatre People by Michael Kielstra

[spoiler]This is a very short game which features a very compact game area and one central puzzle, though there are several steps to solving this particular problem. There is also a side quest which is optional but which gives the optimal ending. I felt that completing the game without solving the problem of your distressed leading lady felt like a failure.

Although the puzzles were fair and not too difficult, they could have been better clued in places. I did not realise that I both needed to search and examine one object since this was not a necessary action anywhere else in the game. In a game with relatively few rooms and items like this it would have been good if more attention were given to fleshing out the characters and locations. As it is the rooms feel empty and characterless and the characters appear largely static and bland, which is a shame as the odd flash of personality that shines through from the NPCs is fun and interesting. I felt that not all of the puzzles made narrative sense, though I am not as bothered by seemingly arbitrary puzzles as I imagine some players might be.

I am sorry if I have been a little critical here, despite its limitations the game ran smoothly, I did not encounter any bugs and some of the puzzles were challenging while the writing was solid and often charming.[/spoiler]

#15

Steam and Sacrilege by Phil McGrail

[spoiler]I should begin this review with a disclaimer. I am not a fan of the steampunk genre. I find 19th century history and works set in that time period particularly fascinating and I do not need armies of clockwork robots and retro-futuristic steam-powered machinery to spice it up. Having said that, since this game is mostly set in the present it managed to avoid many of the steampunk cliches which usually proliferate in works of this kind. Yes, the sinister mechanical hotel was built in the late 19th century and the opening scenes take place during that same period, when the hotel was a shiny new technological marvel, but the game is set in the present day when the hotel is a quaint relic slated for demolition, unless the protestors keen to save the historically significant building get their way.

I found the premise novel and intriguing but was somewhat frustrated by the implementation. I’m a big fan of puzzle-heavy parser games and so I’m not averse to spending some time tinkering with a game to find out what works and what doesn’t, but the objects which could be interacted with were so sparsely implemented and the ways of interacting with them so specific that it really slowed down gameplay. The first section of the game (set in the past during the hotel’s prime) was fraught with guess the verb and noun issues with synonyms very sparsely implemented. I also spent ages trying to interact with the glass panels by pushing or pressing them to no avail before picking up the paperweight and attempting to place it on them, a move which seemed needlessly clunky.

Once in the present day there is a long breakfast scene where you are essentially waiting around for something to happen before going to work. You are not told that you need to wait around and there is not much you can do in the meantime, apart from mess about with the array of, mostly useless, items on the kitchen table. The pace does pick up a bit when you get to work and events start to unfold, but I was still having trouble following the story. After wandering around for a while, stumbling into an unmarked store room which contained an object crucial to completing the game and getting lost in a maze of alleys, I ended up in the hotel. I went there, not because I had been given any clues that my husband had been taken there, but because there was nowhere else to go and it was indicated as the scene of the action. It was in attempting to gain entry to the hotel via the fire exit that ai came across what I think was the game’s most blatant case of command specificity. I had the tool necessary for unfolding the fire escape but had to check the walkthrough for the precise command required.

Once in the hotel things got better, there were still issues withhaving to wait around and trying to figure out what to do next, but the tension was far higher and the hotel’s interior was well-described. Unfortunately, by the time I entered the hotel, I had already used up most of my judging time and was forced to revert to the walkthrough so I could complete the game in time. This meant that I had a lot of unanswered questions by the time I finished to which I may have discovered answers if I had had more time to explore. I never figured out why my character’s husband was being held hostage there, what the angel of death was doing there and just what sinister forces were running this establishment. I would have loved to have read the job advert the caretaker responded to. Do you think it mentioned that his duties would include kidnapping innocent citizens, dodging homicidal robots and trying to prevent apocalyptic forces from breaking loose and destroying humankind? I certainly hope the pay was good.

It sounds like I’m being very negative here, but there were a lot of things I enjoyed about the game, The setting was interesting and effectively rendered. The writing was strong and evocative and I got the feeling there was a strong narrative running through the game which I might have uncovered had I had more time to explore the hotel more thoroughly. I think a bit more rigorous play-testing would have gone a long way to help make this game more player-friendly rather than asking players to guess the very specific actions the author had in mind. I would love to play a post-competition update of this as it shows a great deal of promise.

I have one very minor pedantic point which I have to get off my chest. I wouldn’t usually pick up on one minor spelling mistake in a large body of text, unless the game is riddled with such errors, but there was one mistake made in the description of the very first room which bothered me to such an extend that I was quite far into the game before I could quite put it behind me. Anyway, here goes. In the, evocatively and effectively described lobby of the hotel the description states that the lobby includes a reproduction of Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvius Man’. This should obviously be ‘Vitruvian Man’ or, at a pinch, ‘The proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius’ would suffice, but as far as I know ‘Vitruvius Man’ is just wrong, though an art historian may want to correct me.

Apologies for all the nit-picking in this review, I really did enjoy the game and felt it had great potential and was clearly the result of a great deal of imagination and hard work. A little more polishing and stream-lining and I feel it could easily realise that potential.[/spoiler]

#16

I was hoping to play and review more games but work has been getting in the way this month and it looks very unlikely that I will have time to get any more reviews done within the judging period. I’m afraid that’s all the reviews I will be able to post this year, even though I have played and enjoyed several other games which I have not had chance to review. I have enjoyed most of the games I have managed to play very much and have been deeply impressed, as always, by the imagination, skill and creativity that authors put into their excellent competition entries and I would like to thank all the authors once again for sharing their wonderful work. Best of luck to you all in the competition.

(Doug Orleans) #17

There is a walkthrough here: ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/c … POILER.txt

If you don’t want to fully spoil the game, here’s a small hint for getting the Last Lousy Point:

You’ll need to choose multiple exhibits to win the fair.