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The 23rd Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

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von Mr Creosote (04.10.2017)

As every year, I'll be playing selected games of the IF Comp. As (almost) every year, the total number of games entered is much too large to play them all. So as every year, I'll be following the same discriminatory criteria to select the ones I'll at least be trying to cover. Those being based on format.

Most notably, I cannot play anything requiring online connectivity. Second, I will not play anything running exclusively in a browser. This is simply based on vastly negative experiences with such games; the average quality of those is simply too low for me to invest a serious amount of time. This is not a statement about your game in specific. For all I know, yours could be excellent, a revelation. It's just that you selected a format which would make it necessary to wade through loads of boring crap to find the needle in the haystack and which could potentially include spyware. So please don't take it personally.

Following, my intended playlist. I will not necessarily play in this order, but rather pick based on interest sparked by title and my impression of how large the game will be based on the first few moves (i.e. whether I feel I will have sufficient time to play this one in one session). I will reorder the list as I go along so that the played games are always on top.

The Games

1958: Dancing with Fear

This game scores with its 1940s/1950s Latin American setting, shady film noir characters and tragic heroine whose story is partially revealed through flashbacks. Having been involved with small-time crooks all her life, she now finds herself in the middle of an espionage mission. The flashbacks not only introduce the characters relevant in the game's present, but also help making crucial decisions later on – and even decisions within the flashbacks make a difference. It all not only makes for good human drama, but also reflects the evolution of popular film genres, which it has been inspired by, in an intelligent way.

The flip side of the coin is some implementation weaknesses. Once or twice, I hit guess the verb issues. Generally, the world is too focused on the solution path. Objects outside of what's strictly necessary don't exist. Hardly any actions have been implemented, whether as alternatives or to further set the scene. There are no major bugs, but it remains fairly shallow.

So overall, good work, but could be improved. The structure and storytelling is strong. Building on this foundation, fleshing it all out, would be time well invested.

8 Shoes on the Shelves

Bit of a mismatch between the thematic expectation based on title and what it actually turns out to be. 8 Shoes on the Shelves has a bit of a fairy tale sound to it. Yet, the game is actually set in the trenches of WW1. Or rather, below one, as the protagonist ends up in a tunnel after artillery fire. And then, suddely, after a couple of turns, there is a Lovecraftian monster lurking to consume him? Alright…

I assume this is somebody's first attempt at writing a text adventure. As such, it makes a number of good decisions: the limited setting, the low number of objects, the serial order of actions, the clear tasks, the simple theme and plot. Keeping complexity low helps avoiding a lot of common issues.

Which is not to say no issues exist. Objects mentioned in room descriptions aren't implemented. PUSH can be applied to objects, but PULL is rejected with a default response. Logical actions like opening crates don't work. In general, too many inappropriate standard parser messages appear.

Though it's never really too annoying in this respect. The implementation is serviceable. So are "plot", atmosphere and writing. It's a decent first attempt, but hardly something I will remember long after then ten minutes it took me to play through it. Now that you know how the basics work, aim a little bit higher ;)

A Beauty Cold and Austere

This one exceeded my expectations by far. It's a game full of mathematical puzzles. Though represented in a surreal dream world inhabited by historical figures (Euclid, Archimedes…) as well as fictional characters (Sesame Street's Count). In this dream, the protagonist helps solving various mathematical problems, learning a good deal in the process so that after waking up from the drug-induced sleep, he will pass an important exam the next morning.

What struck me here, especially compared to the previous two games, is the excellent implementation. Any attempted action within the recognized vocabulary, no matter how remote, is answered with an appropriate parser response. Synonyms have also been taken care of; I never struggled finding the right way to phrase something.

Puzzle-wise, obviously at least some basic interest in maths is required. And I mean maths, not just basic calculation. Let me go off on a tangent here.

Back in the days, through all of my own school life, I had a class called "Maths". Though looking back at it, 80% of what is being taught there is actually just basic calculation rules. Learning about addition. Memorizing basic multiplication tables. And so on and so forth. In my view, this subject shouldn't even be called "Maths". Rather, maths is a system of descriptive abstraction logic at its core. The game does a pretty good job of putting this into interesting motifs and allegories.

Getting back to puzzles, however, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes, it is very strong in this regard, when to solve a problem at hand, the player has to find and observe certain concepts in the world and then bring this knowledge back to where it is needed. The game has the decency not to spell it out for the player in these cases, i.e. it won't go "Oh, look, I have found the solution to X! I need to hurry and tell Y about it to score some points!". Rather, it is up to the player to connect the dots. In other cases, however, some character will flat out ask the protagonist to calculate something for him or her. Player knowledge how to do this is required and there are nice in-game hints to be found, but nevertheless, these are the weaker puzzles.

Since I do fall into the target audience and since I also highly appreciate the world-building performed here, A Beauty Cold and Austere is a highlight in my book. Though I see it is a case of either loving or hating it purely based on subjective thematic preference.

Absence of Law

This game falls into the by now well established genre of a computer simulation. I.e. the player interacts with the command prompt of a specific machine. In this case, it is some sort of artificial intelligence with various interfaces, like cameras, which the player can use through a limited command set. As such, this is a very puzzly game. The parser voice is, as per the genre standard, is an exerted attempt at being witty.

It's a pity that my personal appreciation of this genre has somewhat waned over the years. The game is very well implemented and uses its custom command set effectively. Issues are not solved through traditional puzzles (i.e. unusual uses of objects), but rather through tinkering (i.e. examining everything from each side and giving things a good shove by default), which could be seen as a welcome change. Formally, it is a good game, but it didn't click with me thematically.

Antiquest

A short game in the escape room tradition. Do absurd stuff and watch things unfold in unexpected ways. It does what it tries to achieve, though that is not a lot. The only noteworthy technical thing is how it remembers the endings achieved within the same playing session, collecting which seems to be the main goal.

A Walk in the Park

This game states a copyright of 2001 and a compile time of 2009. Attempting to play it, it may very well be true. There are plenty of great games from 2001. Though the bulk had a design not unlike this one. The game expects its player to tinker with stuff just because it's there. There is no stated goal or purpose. There is absolutely no guidance what may be a worthwhile playing strategy to follow. Things sometimes happen without the player actually intending it – points for the comic effect of those automatic pseudo commands. Yet overall, while it is somewhat solidly made, there just isn't enough going on to make me want to finish it. Which I didn't, since I don't like playing from walkthroughs. In 2001, I certainly would have had more patience. Times change.

Eat Me

Lame in all respects. First of all, it seems it's really not meant to be played. Why, otherwise, would the game file be hidden inside an archive? Shipped alongside lots of useless directories full of useless bloat? Even the __MACOSX curse of last year is back with this one.

After finally locating the actual game file and running it, it turns out to be one of these attempts at being oh-so-zany which were popular a couple of years ago. In fact, it comes down to spotting the relevant "crazy" object in each room description and applying the EAT verb on it. Yawn!

Fake News

Built around several actual newspaper headlines of July 19th, this is the attempt to tell one guy's "crazy" story around them. Problem is it's not nearly interactive enough. There seem to be only two states the game can be in: multiple choice conversations and short phases where the player is allowed to try actual interaction, but usually either in complete vain or until he simply stumbles upon something by walking or examining alone. In either case, something will then "just happen" to move the "crazy" plot forward. Not my cup of tea.

Future Threads

An interesting play on fourth-dimensional logic. As a being capable of foresight, you have to protect a little girl from the assault of similarly powerful evildoers. You cannot directly defend her, only manipulate the surroundings to set the scene in a way to empower her to fight off the foes herself. Each relevant change to the status quo will also change the outlook to what will happen. Most of the time resulting in the same thing: the girl being attacked and overwhelmed. Several factors need to be improved before finally, there is a chance for success.

The fairly novel premise leads to strong guidance of the player. The immediate next goal can be inferred from the problem statement of the foresight. Nevertheless, the game does not become trivial. Due to the extensive implementation, many threads lead to a dead end; even trying everything in one direction may not be sufficient. So blindly following the apparent path will not eventually lead to the actual solution. Rather additional experimenation is required.

With its well balanced difficulty level and to-the-point writing, Future Threads is a highly entertaining experience.

Goodbye, Cruel Squirrel

Strange, another game with a really old copyright and compilation timestamp (2004/2005 respectively). It is a fun little game with an animal protagonist. Although in real life, I sympathize with the red squirrels and I strongly dislike them being driven out of our ecosystem by brownish-grey ones, it's easy enough to get into this game's mission to steal the acorns for the grey tribe.

As usual in this genre, the challenge arises from the limited set of the protagonist's capabilities. You're small and you cannot do a lot of things other than jumping, biting and climbing. The small world is built and described well enough to progress rapidly. Thumbs up!

Grue

Being a monster, the Zorkian Grue, you have to hunt adventurers in dark caverns and eat them. Not horrible, but the concept doesn't really carry it as far as it probably was envisaged on conception.

Haunted P

Comes with its own useless bloat interpreter and it is apparently a joke entry. Quit after three moves. I commend the move to publish it alongside its source code, though.

Inevitable

Mad scientist game… so right up my alley! Apparently, my alter ego has just invented a device to look ten minutes into the future. Only the very first test reveals he will be shot by an intruder. The game subscribes to a time philosophy where it is not inevitable what will happen, however, so there is still some opportunity to prevent it.

It's a one-room game with few usable objects and little scenery. Its one puzzle (it seems two were set up, but one dissolves into nothing) is not particularly complex or even imaginative. In fact, the game refuses to recognize several equivalent variations of the same solution, but insists on a specific one (the least interesting one, in fact). Although it can't compete with the thematically similar Future Threads, it was a fun five minutes.

Measureless to Man

Rainbow Bridge

Swigian

Temperamentum

The Cube in the Cavern

The Richard Mines

The Silver Gauntlets

The Wand

The Wizard Sniffer

Tuuli

Ultimate Escape Room IF City

VR Gambler

Word of the Day

A Castle of Thread

Escape from Terra

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