Steph C's reviews

I didn’t have a game ready for this competition, but the upside is, I get to judge! Games will be played in order of which ones manage to grab my attention.

Edit: For conveniences’ sake, I’ll put the list of all the games I’m rating so far, with my scores and brief summaries of why, below. Final ratings subject to change.

Detectiveland: 9. Fun, clever, and well-written noir adventure, artfully presented.
Fair: 9. Complex, funny simulation of one hour in the life of a science fair judge; looks great on the surface and is surprisingly deep underneath.
Night House: 8. (In spirit–I playtested this one, so I can’t actually vote for it.) Creative, creepy, and perfectly atmospheric; puzzles can get a little too obscure at times. Amazing, eerie ending.
Ariadne in Aeaea: 7. Short, fairly easy puzzle game set in ancient Greece, with a charmingly lusty, booze-soaked priestess-in-training for a protagonist.
Theatre People: 6. Short game set in a theater; very well implemented in some areas, rough in others, but puzzles aren’t too hard to solve, at least for the first ending.
The Little Lifeform that Could: 5. It’s pretty much Spore rendered in Choicescript; fast-paced and a little light, but entertaining.
Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus: 4. Unique real-world setting and basically functional, but that’s about all it has going for it; viewpoint is just a little gross in a mildly off-putting way.
You Are Standing In A Cave: 4. Cliche scenario; writing and puzzles exhibit a lot of potential, but the game in its present form is rife with technical problems.
Steam and Sacrilege: 3. Wonderful concept, strong writing, glimpses of a fascinating story–unfortunately, it’s also hopelessly broken.
Toiletworld: 2. Seems to be a troll submission.
Manlandia: 1. Not interactive in the least=bad; entire text ripped off wholesale from someone else’s novel with only minor changes=worse. Forced me to calibrate the scale so there was a level beneath ‘troll’.

First up is Fair by Hanon Ondricek.

Having played Transparent and The Baker of Shireton, I expected Fair to be an innovative, enviromentally ‘busy’ game, and that’s what I got. In Fair, you play as a self-published author who’s been invited to judge an elementary school science fair. The game world is relatively small but extremely lively, crowded with science fair contestants, their parents, and a principal who mostly just wants the fair to be over with so he can set up for community theater rehearsal. As in The Baker of Shireton, the world is full of things happening around the player.

Where Baker faltered due to the opacity of the goal (I don’t think I’m the only one who never caught on that there was more to the game than unsuccessfully baking bread), Fair shines by giving you a few possible priorities and letting you choose. You don’t have time to do everything–will you try your best to judge the finalists’ exhibits, or try hawking your book and then award the prizes at random? I played through twice, and I have a strong suspicion that there are a lot more possibilities than I found.

A few spots are a little clunky (at one point, you’re told the principal is beckoning you over, but given no indication which direction you’re supposed to move) but in general the implementation was pretty solid given how many parts are moving at once. Like last year’s Midnight Swordfight, a single playthrough is quick, but it rewards revisiting if you want to find everything. Fun and recommended!

So, if you’ve played this–

how did you rank the exhibits? I chose to award prizes in reverse order of, in my opinion, how evil they were. So the one about how climate change is fake got fifth, the Lil’ Gideon kid with the plants got fourth, the kid who beat up his brothers got third, the mouse-killing girl got second, and the cheerleader got first by default because I didn’t get a chance to talk to her my first playthrough. Though I’d argue she actually deserved to win anyway; she was the only one who took an actual scientific approach to the project and collected data, even if it didn’t end up being very useful.

Toiletworld, by Chet Rocketfrak

Here I sit, brokenhearted by a game which utterly failed to bowl me over. I only logged a few minutes before realizing there was squat to do; the author seems to have pooped out before adding most of the content, and what little he did manage to push out was pretty corny. The game is flush with mentions of toilets-within-toilets, like turduckens, and they appear in loo of any actual story, jokes, or puzzles.

In a word, it’s shitty.

You Are Standing In A Cave by Caroline Berg

You play an undefined protagonist (as good looking as ever!) who wakes up in a cave. I think this may be a first effort and while it leans a little heavily on puzzle-game cliches, there’s plenty of attention given to the writing and making sure the environments are interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it was playtested at all. You start out in a room with three passages leading out of it, but no indication of what direction anything is in or how the passages are different. Okay, let’s pick…west? Ah, apparently I just went through a secret door I wasn’t supposed to know about until much later, and the game assumes I’ve solved all the puzzles to get to this point. Oops.

You also can’t ‘look passages’–but you can ‘look passage’, and it’ll ask you which one, and finally you get a list of the differences and can look at them individually. The game, as far as I got, is full of this kind of thing–which is a shame because the writing is fine and the world has the rich flavor of mid-90s Mystiness, full of gears and symbols and mysterious whimsical machinery. I found pieces of a lot of puzzles, complete with alternate solutions (some suboptimal)–there’s a lot here and I can tell a lot of work and thought went into it. It would probably look fantastic if you read a complete transcript of play from someone who knew all the right commands in the right order, but if you deviate from what it expects, stuff gets weird quick.

The author has a lot of potential, but needs a little more technical experience (and playtesters!) to get this game into a shape where it’s not a struggle to play, at least for me.

Detectiveland, by Robin Johnson

This one has a great cover that tells you just what sort of noirish period piece to expect, and the presentation is absolutely top notch, with a deliciously atmospheric typewriter setup that fits the theme perfectly without being distracting. There are even vintage character portraits. This is the slickest and most professional looking presentation of all the games I’ve seen in the comp so far and I’d be surprised if many (if any) games outdo it in that department.
So far I’ve played one of the four cases, “The Big Pickle”, and plan to return to the game once I’ve tried out some of the other entries.

Gameplay-wise, it’s a puzzle adventure, but rather than typing into a parser, you’re given a few options to click on depending on context. I’ve seen Quest games do this sort of thing before, and it makes the game feel a little like one of the 90s’ era adventures like Day of the Tentacle or the Monkey Island series. The positive of this approach is that you don’t have to worry about syntax; the negative is that it’s harder to come up with a surprising solution to a puzzle, since all the options are presented to you right off (the ‘just try everything with everything’ problem.) Detectiveland manages to pull off some neat tricks here, though–in particular, the last puzzle of the case hit right in the sweet spot for me, not too baffling but clever enough that I felt smart when I realized the solution.

Overall: a fun and funny take on the film noir detective delivered with visual panache, very recommended!

Manlandia by Rob Chateau

I had to check this one out based on the description, which sounded like it was either going to be something like Ethan of Athos or else a horrifying screed about how society would be perfect if only there were no women. What it actually is…

Okay, first off, this is a short story, not “interactive fiction”, unless you dilute the term to the point where it also includes multipart blog posts and ebooks. It’s a short story you click on to advance to the next page. Entering it in this contest is a complete category error.

But since I read it anyway–as a short story, it’s not bad. Actually it’s pretty damn good. The author does an amazing job of capturing an early-20th century adventure story voice. It really reads like it could have come straight out an old pulp magazine of the Edgar Rice Burroughs era (except for one incongruous use of the term “grrls” which jars with the tone and setting). I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I loved that someone took this style and used it to tell a story with three heroines (not something you’d ever be likely to see in those stories). I hope the author releases this as a short story. I would be willing to bet that it was a short story and that it was chopped up to make it try and fit in this format, with the hypertext being little more than an intrusive, awkward afterthought. It’s okay to just write a regular text story that you just read!

Steam and Sacriliege by Phil McGrail.

An instantly compelling premise is failed by hopelessly broken implementation. Let’s start with the good: I LOVE the concept of taking a steampunk setting and looking forward to the present day, when all these glittering gears and robo-men are a part of history. This game suggests a steampunk haunted house, a combination of science fiction, ruin porn, and horror which would be an absolutely fantastic setting for a game. Unfortunately, this isn’t what it delivers. There seems to be exactly one correct path implemented, and stepping off it snaps the game like a dry twig–and it’s not at all clear what you’re intended to do. I only managed to get through the opening scene through exhaustive trial and error (all the while being told I couldn’t see or interact with things around me).

The present-day setting was even more decrepit. I have no information other than I have to go to work, but wandering out of the house took me into a maze of one-way passages and blank, undefined rooms. A man came to the door while I was in the kitchen. Then he came to my door again while I was wandering down main street and the same scene played out again. I went down an alley and got stuck. I bumped up against a metal door I couldn’t see. A caretaker held me captive (apparently?) I have no idea what else you’re supposed to do; there’s probably an action you can take in the kitchen that triggers the rest of the story.

This game desperately needed to do one of two things:

  1. Embrace the nature of the parser and fully implement the environments and for gods sake have playtesters.
    Players are going to be poking around, trying different things, and if the setting collapses like a souffle at the slightest touch, that’s poison.
    or 2) Use a format suited for telling a more linear story, like Choicescript. What little I saw of the story was compelling, and made me want to read more, but getting any of it out of the game was like pulling teeth.

If the idea hadn’t been so good, I probably wouldn’t care about this so much, but it was such a good idea, and I wanted this to be a good game so badly, and then it was unplayable.

Night House by Bitter Karella

The author of this one is a good friend of mine and I did some playtesting for it, so I’m coming at it from the context of 1) liking the author, 2) sharing a lot of cultural frames of references with the author, and 3) having played the game several times already and been given hints to get past places where I got stuck.

You are a child wandering around a house at night; the environment (at least at first) is the standard NPC-free house with furniture and objects, but effectively conjures up the eerieness of ordinary things in the dark when you’re young. The setting was especially effective to me because it’s set not just during childhood, but specifically my childhood, circa 1990-ish: late-eighties action figures, late-eighties game systems, floppy disk computer, Trapper Keepers. Someone older or younger wouldn’t find this as instantly relatable, but it worked for me.

Later on you encounter more explicit horror elements, and a sense of ongoing realization that something is off, not just with the house, but with you, and your assumptions about yourself.

This one is written in Quest, a rarely-used format despite its ease of use (for simple stuff, anyway) and some of its nifty features, like the automap. It also provides you with a compass rose, a list of objects, and actions you can do with those objects. I made my first couple of games using Quest and went to some trouble to turn off the suggested actions because I wanted a plain parser game, but they’re quite good at making the game accessible; you can do 90% of what you need to do in this game using only a mouse. It’s a structure Detectiveland also used to excellent effect.

The remaining 10% is where players are likely to get stuck: there are several places where you have USE things together or GIVE objects using the parser, and the game hasn’t trained you to think of that as an option. (There are some places you need to ASK, too, but you’re fairly well prompted about what you need to do.) There aren’t any actual bugs in the finished version (that I could find), but some of the puzzle solutions are pretty obscure, and since there’s no walkthrough, getting stuck is game over.

Recommended, but maybe hold off until a walkthrough is available. (Edit: which there now is!)

No wonder it has an early-20th century adventure story voice, since it’s Herland abbreviated and with genders swapped. The text is by C. P. Gilman, with some minor changes - like ‘She tried again, this time bringing out cufflinks of rhinestones, a glittering pair that should have pleased any man on earth.’ instead of ‘He tried again, this time bringing out a circlet of rhinestones, a glittering crown that should have pleased any woman on earth.’

I can’t see the point the author was trying to make.

oh, geez, so not only it is a dubious entry, the story itself is outright plagiarized. That’s just…completely bottom of the barrel. Even Toiletland, which I’m pretty sure is a troll entry, was at least the author’s original work.

Anyway, next up is Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus. This is a fairly short zombie-fighting game which is mostly just an excuse for a virtual tour of an actual video game museum in Italy. It’s translated from Italian, and the vocabulary is consistently just a little odd, but it’s never incomprehensible. Most of the puzzles involve coming up with various ways to kill the zombies blocking your path and rescue museum employees Paddy and Metalmark.

The puzzles are mostly fairly easy (thought I did have to resort to the walkthrough for one) and the environments are spare, with little to look at and interact with outside of the weapons you need. Mostly what I got out of the game was that I now know about the existence of Vigamus and their…sometimes odd choices in what’s museum-worthy (Is Lollipop Chainsaw really considered a “masterpiece”?)

herland is in the public domain, so “plagiarized” might not be the best word. i’m not clear on what the rules for IFComp are in terms of usage of public domain text. the blurb, too, isn’t original – it’s identical to the lede for the wikipedia entry, with an added reference to interactive fiction and swapped pronouns.

edit: oops oh no how do i img

Plagiarism is independent of copyright.

Well, it’s not like it’s illegal or anything, but taking a bunch of somebody else’s text, Rule 63-ing it, and releasing it as your own is pretty clear-cut plagiarism. Compare it to something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies–that also uses a ton of public domain text, but it adds new material and credits the original author on the cover.

I’m not calling for it to be kicked out, but I am going to give it the lowest possible score. It was already going to be pretty low for being not remotely interactive fiction in the first place, but I was going to give it at least a couple for the story being good. Instead I award those points to Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

I have not played or read any of the works mentioned in the last posts yet, but I feel like saying that even if Jane Austen wasn’t credited, Pride and Prejudice itself is famous enough that most people familiar with Western culture would (hopefully) understand that the “…and Zombies” is a parody/homage, rather than a fully original creation.
So I don’t think it would have been dishonest to not credit her on the cover.

On the other hand since Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Herlan aren’t famous enough to easily be recognizable, using them without acknowledging sure looks fishy.
If someone was to play Manlandia they might be led to believe that it’s an original work by the IF author, rather than a derivative.

I know I would have, so thanks to Sobol for bringing this up!

I’m not sure where the main discussion, if any, on this is going on, but the other puzzle piece of this is that it’s an explicit take on Vanessa Place’s Boycott series, which does the same thing to other feminist texts – the one linked at the end is on “The Laugh of the Medusa,” rewritten as “The Laugh of the Minotaur.”

I think the general consensus is the game lacks creativity.
Yeah, even the concept is not the author’s own.

For me, that’s enough to assume that it’s probably done in good faith in an attempt to create a work in that vein. But I strongly think the author should make it clear what he’s doing in his blurb, because at present he’s straight up getting credit for someone else’s work.

Or - erm - Evermore I hope (which is at least 50% of my own words, probably more). My hope is that because I’ve tried to make it clear in my blurb and the credits that chunks of Poe are used, it is acceptable, especially as part of the fun for fans of Poe should hopefully be trying to distinguish the author’s words from my own! Also, because it’s a real big game it should contain a similar amount of my own writing to many other entries.

But I know some readers and reviewers will have the same objections to it as they do Manlandia and fair enough! (though all of the above probably meant I was more sympathetic to Manlandia than most)

I gave Evermore a play and I think you’re fine; you state the inspiration up front and yours actually has more to the interactions that just clicking to advance the story, plus you’ve got art, typography effects, all kinds of stuff.

Ariadne in Aeaea by Victor Ojuel

This is a relatively short and simple puzzle game taking place in ancient Greece; there were a few times where I struggled to figure out what I was supposed to do next, but I never had to look at the the walkthrough. I really like games that give you a well-defined protagonist with strong motivations and flaws, rather than making you a faceless “you”-entity, and this game provides an excellent one in Ariadne, a lecherous lush who mostly wants to become a priestess so she can show up her obnoxious kid sister. In order to do that, she’s got to solve a mystery related to a mysterious lion brooch and… honestly, I actually found the mystery itself a little hard to follow, but it may be easier if you’re more familiar with the time period. Fortunately the next actions you need to take are usually hinted at fairly strongly, and the game’s robust enough to stand up to some poking around.

A few things could stand to be improved. You have to advance conversations by ‘talking to’ people repeatedly, clunkier than just pushing space to advance–since the conversations are linear anyway, why make us advance them with the parser? The hint system has some strengths–it’s neatly integrated into the story, with Ariadne talking to herself in order to straighten out what she needs to do next–but a few glaring weaknesses too. Sometimes when TALKing TO ME I got Ariadne musing that she needed to do things she’d already done, or things she shouldn’t know to do yet. (Most egregiously, she wanted to interrogate ‘the boy’, but the only evident boy couldn’t be interrogated–as it turned out, ‘the boy’ was another boy she hadn’t even met yet.)

The game is a solidly implemented and fairly quick play that runs to the easier end of the puzzle spectrum, with an appealingly debauched heroine and an original setting. It’s not one of my very top picks so far, but it’s definitely worth your time to give it a try.

Edited to add: contrast this one with last year’s One Night Stand–both feature a young woman protagonist who begins the game by waking up with a hangover after a night of casual sex, but there’s a big difference in how they’re treated. Ariadne is judged by some of the other characters, but not by the game, or by herself–you don’t get the impression she’s going to lose any sleep over not knowing these random goatherds’ names. She’s got shit to do.

The Little Lifeform That Could, by Fade Manley.

This is essentially Spore rendered as a Choicescript game: you start as a microbe, evolve through animal and tribal stages, and end up as a spacefaring species, encountering other civilizations. You can decide what characteristics you’ll have, and can play a ferocious conquerer, a peaceful diplomat, trader, etc. I played with the intent of being peaceful, rich, and scientifically advanced and was hugely successful at everything I tried; the game is more about letting you pick the experience you want to have, rather than acting as a simulation with the possibility of failure.

This isn’t the novel-length story that a lot of Choicescript games are–one playthrough takes about ten to fifteen minutes, and most of the passages are quite short and to the point. The game never quite transcended its inspiration to become more than just a text-based Spore clone to me, but it was fun enough and lacked several of Spore’s more annoying features, so I think that counts as a win. Overall: slight, but entertaining.