Reiko's Ramblings and Writings

What I'm reading and writing about lately.

Archive for November, 2013

IFComp Review: Various Web Entries (Part 2)

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Their angelical understanding
Author: porpentine

Fascinating, multilayered, and creepy. Another thoughtful poetic story from porpentine. This piece makes great use of twine to simulate something that’s close to a freeform IF, with a few sections having persistent link-based locational navigation and near-puzzles. Several sentences have slowly blinking phrases that change their contents when clicked, to allow the choice of one of several options, and the result is usually kept and echoed shortly afterward. A few times the screen flashed brightly: I don’t have any problem, but perhaps this piece should have an epilepsy warning at the beginning. Occasionally ambient music or sounds also contribute to the atmosphere of the piece.

Unfortunately, I got stuck at the “Your nemesis” part and couldn’t move past that. It didn’t look like an ending, but the nemesis link didn’t go anywhere and the page just kept refreshing. I have to start with a lower base score since I wasn’t able to finish it.

Score: 7
Scoring: base 4, +1 for excellent use of medium including sounds, +1 for complex text manipulation, +1 for poetic story

Bell Park, Youth Detective
Author: Brendan Patrick Hennessey

This was a cute little story that put a little twist on the usual sort of murder mystery with underage detective. The writing is solid enough, giving a good sense of an overconfident twelve-year-old that thinks she’s smart. It seems like she’s supposed to be smart, but she really doesn’t do anything that’s all that clever. Most of the story is just asking the main suspects mostly the same questions.

Getting to the accusation phase was kind of abrupt because you don’t actually have enough evidence to solidly accuse someone, but you still have to pick someone to accuse. That gets really awkward for an underage detective flying by the seat of her pants, but fortunately the story then takes a twist and the truth becomes clear (if not particularly believable).

Score: 5
Scoring: base 4, +1 for realistically overconfident twelve-year-old PC

Sam and Leo Go to the Bodega
Author: Richard Goodness

Maybe this would make more sense if this were a continuation of a larger story. It’s really just a vignette in the life of these two drug addicts who don’t seem to do much else besides eat and shoot up drugs. So they go to this little convenience store where you choose which things they buy in four categories, getting a tiny non-interactive memory as a result of each choice. But nothing really happens. As it says right at the beginning, this is an uneventful trip – they go, you choose what they buy, then for some reason you choose the cashier’s response to each item, and then they go home. That’s it.

Score: 3
Scoring: base 4, -1 for mundanity and shortness

Autumn’s Daughter
Author: Devolution Games

This story is very short: it’s possible to reach an ending in just a couple of choices. Yet those choices make a huge difference in the outcome for the main character, a privileged Pakistani girl who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man…unless she takes matters into her own hands. The writing is vivid, inviting replay to see how different choices affect the outcome. And the peek into another culture is refreshing and informative.

I would have liked to see more from the story, though, and a better use of the Undum platform, which is more powerful than a straight CYOA shows. No statistics are tracked; the only extra is a phrase on the sidebar describing her status, which usually only changes once an ending is reached.

Score: 5
Scoring: base 4, -1 for shortness, +1 for exotic culture, +1 for many different endings resulting from the different choices

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IFComp Review: Various Web Entries (Part 1)

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Trapped in Time
Author: Simon Christiansen

First of all, we are taking “interactive fiction” way too literally now. This is the second “game” that’s basically just a CYOA-type story, except this one is literally just a PDF. The readme even says you’re supposed to print it out. No. This competition is for games. Computer games. There’s nothing wrong with CYOA, but that’s not what I see IF as, and I can’t rate CYOA very high in an IF competition because it isn’t comparable in technical achievement to an IF game. Even something like Twine is borderline, but because it’s a javascript browser page, it has the capability of doing interesting things with text, like what porpentine has accomplished, and so it can be more easily compared to “standard” parser-based IF. But a PDF is just a story, even if it’s broken into sections. You read a certain number of them in a certain order, but it’s still only plain, unchanging text. There’s only so much you can do without the technical features of the various computer-based systems.

Now, to be fair, this story does do something innovative with the choice numberings because it’s about time travel loops. But it’s nothing that a computer-based simulation couldn’t do much more easily, and in this format, it’s more of a gimmick than a true innovation because it wouldn’t work for most kinds of stories.

Score: 4
Scoring: base 4, +1 for the innovative time travel loop, -1 for the instruction to print out the story

Machine of Death
Author: Hulk Handsome

This is advertised as a collection of three stories based on the Machine of Death concept (couldn’t it have been called something more original then?), but it’s really just one story in three sections, and I think I found one choice path in the first section that would end up skipping the second section entirely.

There’s nothing wrong with using a non-original concept if it’s with permission and done well, but this is pretty lightweight for a Machine of Death story. I’ve read most of the first two anthologies of stories, and most of them offer an intriguing look at how the Machine of Death could impact various kinds of societies or situations in various ways, if it actually existed. This story uses the concept, but doesn’t take it anywhere, so I would say even as a static short story, it wouldn’t be very good.

Adding player agency doesn’t make it any better, particularly because in none of the choice paths I found are you actually told what your death slip said, which is something that the PC would know, given that you have the option to tell someone else in the story what it said. But you as the player aren’t told! That means it can’t inform your later choices, and therefore those choices are made less meaningful.

Score: 4
Scoring: base 4

Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House
Author: Mark Marino

This is a good start, but this is not a complete story. When I got to an ending, it said: “Here ends the Preview of Mrs. Wobbles & the Tangerine House”. But see, this isn’t IntroComp. This is supposed to be for finished stories. The concept started with a magic book, so it allows for a lot of stories to be added piecemeal. Good concept, but not for this competition. The “ending” left the characters in apparently quite a bit of danger still, so it wasn’t a complete narrative arc.

That said, it’s a reasonably polished bit of interactive fiction using the Umdum platform. There are hand-drawn illustrations for many bits of the story, and it tracks how thoroughly you read and how many poems you find. Supposedly you get “poem powers” from reading poems, but I didn’t find anywhere to use anything like that, not explicitly anyway. It’s possible that it just opens up more choices, but it’s less fun if you don’t know if the “powers” are doing anything for you.

Score: 4
Scoring: base 4, +1 for polished interface with illustrations, -1 for being unfinished

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IFComp Review: Blood on the Heather / Who Among Us

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Author: T. Orisney

Format: Web

Blood on the Heather

Blood-soaked story about vampires. The main characters are shallow and greedy, so it’s not really that much fun to read unless you’re into that kind of horror. It doesn’t make use of the best features of web-based formats either: it’s literally just a choose your own adventure type story with labeled sections in a hyperlinked format that appear when they’re selected. It can’t be considered buggy since there’s no programming, but the text could have used some more editing and proofreading. I reached two death scenes and two major endings, with at least one other major ending possible.

Score: 5 (originally 4)
Scoring: base 7, +1 for detailed plot and multiple different outcomes, -1 for typos and lack of proofreading, -1 for shallow characters, -1 for lack of interaction other than CYOA, -1 for gratuitous blood

Who Among Us

Same author as the blood-soaked vampire story, but this one is more of a conventional twine-looking story, with the screen displaying only one shorter bit at a time rather than the whole story. The prose feels like it’s been written even faster than the other one, with numerous typos, awkward phrasings, wrong homonyms, spliced sentences, etc. For example: a bloody crime scene is “grisly”. “Grizzly” is a type of bear.

Most sections are written as one long paragraph even though it may contain several conversational exchanges, so it’s visually difficult to read. There’s also an odd convention of capitalizing a lot of the character occupations, like “Policeman” and even “Wife” and “Blonde”, as if these are substitute names for the characters, even after their actual names are revealed later.

The story itself is, as the blurb indicates, somewhat inspired by an Agatha Christie story in which one of a group of people is killing the rest one by one, and no one’s sure who to suspect. It’s not very interactive though; most of the links are essentially just continuations, with very few choices, and hardly any of those feel meaningful. The writing is so sloppy that it’s really hard to keep track of what’s going on, even though you’re supposed to try to keep track, because there’s a quiz at the end. No, really, the “final choice” is to choose who to shoot as the killer. That’s really the only meaningful choice, because it determines the ending.

Score: 3
Scoring: base 7, -1 for nearly unreadable prose visually, -1 for typos, lack of editing, wrong homonyms, -1 for confusing story, -1 for single choice point

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IFComp Review: Paper Bag Princess

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of one of the games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Author: Adri

Format: ZCode

This is a rather short piece, but polished well enough. The intro sequence is well-done, with a royal wedding interrupted at the last second by a dragon. The poor princess has to find clothing, a light source, and a means of distracting the dragon while she rescues her prince, in an amusing inversion of the usual helpless princess scenario. Those three things are really the only puzzles, even though at one point it looks like there might be a maze (there isn’t). There’s also a very explicit reference to the classic Adventure game.

It helps that this is a very light fairy tale so the dragon eats everyone else in the castle except for the two main characters and isn’t disposed to inflicting any sort of violence on either of them directly. Not very realistic, but it makes the story possible. It’s also not realistic to expect the dragon to expend all of his remaining energy showing off for the princess, so it’s not exactly obvious what to ask him at the end. Of course, if a bloodthirsty dragon was parked that close to the castle (that the princess could just walk there in a few hours at most), someone should have been dispatched long ago to do something about it. Obviously I’m overthinking a silly little fairy tale, but it shows that the story isn’t very deep.

Score: 5
Scoring: base 7, -1 for shortness, -1 for thin subject matter

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IFComp Review: The Wizard’s Apprentice

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of one of the games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Author: Alex Freeman

Format: TADS2

This is a short spell-based puzzle game that’s rather tricky. The first few puzzles were well-constructed, offering an apparently solid dungeon cell but rewarding careful examination. There were a few things even in that first room that didn’t seem quite as consistent, though. For instance, the bars on the door had a “rust-proof coating” but the chains used to hold prisoners didn’t.

Once I solved the key puzzle, I got the key and unlocked the door and escaped automatically. I’m all for automatically unlocking doors when I have the key, but that was kind of too much of an automatic sequence. Making the potion was another very automatic sequence, described in excruciating detail. This was probably better than having to manually go through the entire 15-step process of making it (according to the instructions), but the way it was reported was basically a wall of text instead of a summary of the end result.

The rest of the game is less polished, though. Trying to ask Gwydion about any of the spell names results in a TADS error: “TADS-1023: invalid type for built-in function” and a “You can’t” result. Besides that, he doesn’t seem to have anything interesting to say. A few exits are non-obvious, as are several actions. The list of tasks has finding the metal rod as the last one, but the game expects it to be done before the third task for some reason, and won’t let you do the third task before you do the last one.

On the other hand, returning the rod results in a great classic Adventure reference. Given that, a previously non-obvious action which I only found via the walkthrough makes more sense. And the ending scene is short but tightly plotted; it reminded me of some of the action sequences in the Earth and Sky games where one wrong move is fatal (or arguably a fate worse than death, in this case). There’s not much here, but it’s cute and probably worth playing. If you get stuck (which is likely), the walkthrough is solid.

Score: 7
Scoring: base 7, -1 for conversation and task bugs, +1 for classic references

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IFComp Review: Mazredugin

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of one of the games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Author: Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk

Format: Glulx

The opening is somewhat trippy, with some questions that seem to determine what kind of character you play as. The first puzzle failed to hold my trust in the parser, though, as the idea was to build a fire, but “build” as a verb was not recognized at all, the somewhat suggested “add [more] wood” was not recognized, and the actual wording was to put the next set of wood “on” the first set. It was a puzzle for the sake of having a puzzle, and not for the sake of actually saying much about the character or the situation. Later on, you have to tell the parser to put a large, heavy object “on” a small object that another character is holding, which I think is even less realistic.So I turned to the walkthrough early on because I couldn’t work out the first puzzle, and then the entire third puzzle (getting the ship repaired) wasn’t even mentioned in the walkthrough at all. That time I was able to work out what was needed, because each of the four characters had to do something, but there was no way to do anything directly except my own character’s task; I had to ask each of the other characters about the right things to get them to do their tasks.

The main conceit of having the player able to choose one of four characters that each plays a part in a combined puzzle was kind of interesting, particularly as a coding challenge. But as an actual story, there’s just not much point. The four characters are all incredibly shallow, and it just takes away a lot of the player’s agency. It would have been a much more interesting puzzle-game if there had been only one character that experienced all four initial puzzles, gathered the amulet, and proceeded to carry out all of the necessary tasks directly.

Also, for being a dream, it was a rather mundane sort of dream; the only unusual item was the amulet, which only one of the characters actually gets to use. All the other tasks were completely ordinary: fire-starting, sailing, etc. There’s a tiny bit at the beginning and end about the experience helped the character with learning to appreciate school more or some such, but it was really rather pointless. With the multiple characters, it ought to be good for a replay or two, but there’s just not enough there to inspire me to do so.

Score: 5
Scoring: base 7, +1 for multiple characters/viewpoints, -1 for misleading parser responses, -1 for broken walkthrough, -1 for shortness

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IFComp Review: The Cardew House

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of one of the games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Author: Andrew Brown

Format: Glulx

Right away, the blurb is an awkward confession about having trouble with Inform 7 rather than anything about the story itself, which is a red flag. Plus there is a “feelies” zip included, but all it has is the small cover picture that’s already included separately, so it’s a little misleading. Even the tiny “A Wind Blown From Paradise” had a solution file.

At first glance, the scenario itself seems to be just an old-school mansion exploration. There’s only the default description for the PC. On the other hand, lights get turned on automatically, which is nice, because they also flicker out automatically after a while, presumably for atmosphere. The descriptions are so sparse that it’s hard to build up atmosphere. For instance, there are scratches on a desk in one room that I’m able to examine, but scratches on a table in another room just result in “You can’t see any such thing.”The house is so creepy that it still manages somewhat. It just doesn’t give much payoff to the occasional creepy message. In the kitchen, for example, there’s a cupboard that shakes when you open it, but then there’s nothing in it, and no apparent further use for it. Then I got to the attic and found an instadeath that not only ended the game, it closed the game file with no option to restart or undo.

I figured there must be more to the game, so I reopened it and turned on the hints, which are more like an in-game walkthrough. Right away they told me I apparently missed an item that’s needed to take an action to find another location. Problem is, the item is supposedly in the cistern in the bathroom.

The bathroom
The bathroom has what you would expect… There is a large bath with brass taps and a smaller sink with the same fittings. There is also a toilet. A cool breeze blows in through a broken window.

x toilet
The toilet is an old fashioned toilet with a ceramic cistern and a metal handle…

x cistern
You lift the lid to see that the cistern is full of dirty looking water…

x water
You can’t see any such thing.

x handle
You can’t see any such thing.

open cistern
That’s not something you can open.

search cistern
The cistern is empty.

How could anyone find anything in the cistern with these responses? The default responses indicate there’s nothing there. Even after flushing the toilet, which would be the next exploratory action to take, assuming one feels the need to try something further with the toilet, there’s still nothing there. It’s more complicated than that – the sink or bath has to be running. But, neither the sink nor the bath can be seen as objects – only the “taps” can be. So “turn sink on” doesn’t work either. The object to get only shows up after flushing the toilet when the taps are running. Why that works I really don’t know – apparently the toilet doesn’t refill when the water is being diverted elsewhere, I guess, but I’ve never heard of that. I’ve never deliberately done that in any real bathroom, because we tend to flush, *then* go wash our hands at the sink. It’d be silly to do it the other way around. Occasionally in a hotel room someone else in the family will come in and use the toilet while I’m showering, and there’s never any problem with the toilet refilling. In other words, this puzzle is completely a “read the author’s mind” kind of puzzle.

I played a bit further and found that the diary is another sort of mild hints/backstory source, which wasn’t obvious at first because it only ever says the same thing if you read it in the room where it’s found. But it says different things in different rooms, one of which at least partly explains the toilet difficulties – apparently the house’s owner connected the plumbing up wrong. But it only makes sense after the fact. Even reading that, I still never would have thought to try all that with the toilet.

After all that, the action to take with the item from the cistern isn’t suggested at all, and the usual verb doesn’t even work. Again, only knowing the exact command from the hints will do. It seems this game must be played with the walkthrough in order to get anywhere. Same thing with the cupboard in the kitchen, which can be opened, but there’s a different, non-obvious action that must be taken.

Finally, when the mystery is revealed, it just looks like another instadeath rather than an actual ending. I looked around everywhere with hints on, and there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. There are a number of typos in the text, no reference to testers, and the whole thing could just have used a lot more work.

Score: 4
Scoring: base 7, +1 for automatic lights, -1 for instadeaths that close the window entirely, -1 for empty cistern puzzle and other parser misdirection, -1 for lack of ending, -1 for typos

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IFComp Review: A Wind Blown from Paradise

Posted by Reiko on November 1, 2013

This is a review of one of the games from the 2013 Interactive Fiction Competition. (Posted in 2014 and backdated.) Scoring criteria can be found here.

Author: N.C. Hunter Hayden

Format: Glulx

The writing is full of wind imagery, as might be expected, but falls over the edge of vivid and into overly verbose right from the start. On the other hand, some objects are described extremely tersely, perhaps to indicate that they aren’t important. It’s not really a good sign to have the default description for the PC though. Nor is it a good sign to have the main action be exactly the same, repeated in three places, with exactly the same outcome each time.It would have been far more interesting to explore three different moments of the same trip, perhaps, instead of returning always to exactly the same moment. Actually, there are multiple endings based on two possible responses to each of the three places, but it’s not obvious without reading the general help what those responses should be, because they’re non-standard phrases, even for this kind of cerebral IF. A number of typos, even in such a short piece, add to the lack of polish.
The point seemed to be a sort of melancholy flavor, the sense of being unable to capture a good time from the past, but the execution of it was jerky and repetitive.
Score: 4
Scoring: base 7, -1 for intrusive typos, -1 for shortness, -1 for repetitive actions

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