IFComp ’04 Impressions

In the order I played ’em:

Mingsheng

In the game’s central puzzle, I’m asked to study the natural world and from its example to find a new path. It’s my character, however, who does so, after an unrelated event sets him thinking about the solution. When I steer him back to the impassible barrier, he passes it for me, and from then on the two of us are slightly at odds.

Die Vollkommene Masse

This one’s hard to describe — a diplomatic scavenger hunt? a surreal dating sim? some kind of dark fantasy? — but easy to fault. My list of grievances was almost two hours long when the miraculous occurred: I beat the game. I, if not the single worst player in the world at least among the bottom twenty, had somehow received full marks from a game whose own documentation proclaimed its “mind-numbing difficulty.”

I feel like I’ve taken a bribe.

The Orion Agenda

Your character, though not an amnesiac, is essentially a blank slate: no mentioned friends among the corps, no particular goals or hang-ups, no real history. So when the story puts you in the middle of this philosophical dilemma — do we apply our knowledge or allow nature to take its course? — I assumed it was one of those classical sci-fi stories where the characters are only a gateway to the ideas. But that wouldn’t explain the rather pointless brush with Rebecca near the end, or that scene in the beginning with “her, her, it ends with her” — um, Rebecca? My equally vacuous partner? Apparently so, and in not getting her to fall in love with me, I had achieved the “bad” ending.

Getting Back to Sleep

I guess programming a new system is kind of like designing a maze — fun, for the author, but frustrating for everyone else. Without L, I, QUIT, RESTART, UNDO, or VERBOSE, I mostly felt lost, and being able to DROP things was small consolation.

Ninja v1.30

To be honest I like the idea of the comp as a Wario Ware-type extravaganza of rapid-fire mini-games, each of them simplistic but in their sequence and proximity much greater than had they stood on their own. V1.3, we salute you.

All Things Devours

At one point I had three copies of myself — one rummaging around for a ribbon cable, one sneaking to the top of the stairs, one hiding breathless in a closet — and I thought, you know, the comp is a very good thing.

Identity

At last, a game that understands the pure joy of electrical engineering.

Well, alright. It wasn’t so bad. And where some games treat amnesia as a kind of rug to be pulled out from under you at the most dramatic moment, Identity spares you the plot twists, even the ones that might explain why, if you’ve been traveling through space and are marooned on an alien world, the natives speak your language.

Kurusu City

The hint file, too coy by half, made clear to me, finally, the abject hopelessness of existence. I’d have told Miki to kill herself had the city’s robots been any less eager to do it for us.

I Must Play

The controversial deleted scene:

> GO EAST
> JUMP ON CREATURE
> HIT BLOCK
> TAKE MUSHROOM
> GO EAST
> ENTER PIPE

I Must Play throws you so quickly into its puzzles that you miss out on the lure and mystery of the deserted arcade. In Sylenius Mysterium, by contrast, you didn’t know what was going to happen and you weren’t shown specific games — hence the disappointment was forestalled — until much later.

Plus it’s tough on the player to be dropped into all these new worlds. As instantly recognizable as the originals may be, it takes time to get acclimated to their textual representations, and by that time the payoff — “Oh! It’s Mario!” — seems a bit lean.

Blink

Let me get this straight: Vietnam was bad; World War 2 was good — no, wait — bad; and children are precious and wise. If the game was trying to be a shot in the arm, I’ve long since been inoculated.

Although on further reflection I’m not completely immune. Day to day life at the Walsh residence, assuming it’s not round-the-clock epiphanies, must be pretty heavy. Having to care for your crippled son and his bright little boy is uncomfortably easy to imagine.

PTBAD 3

Successfully pointless.

Gamlet

I couldn’t find a burial site for poor Yorick. I tried putting him back in his cage, throwing him over the balcony, dropping him down a shaft, hiding him behind the sausages in the pantry, and laying him to rest among the ashes of the fireplace. Then with only ten minutes left I discovered the walkthrough, and realized too late there were whole areas I should’ve been exploring if only I’d been more thorough. Alas.

Gamlet may not be overly admired for its tailpiece — “that I have duped you into playing this really quite ridiculous game is truly my masterstroke ... isn’t it clever? anyone?” — but to the buy/rent/avoid crowd, I say try the thing. It’s decent, it’s indecent, and despite the profusion of lines like this

Smoothly, like a sail pushed by wind, you enter the bedroom.

most of it is not too painfully overwrought.

Zero

I swept up the dishes, cleaned the king’s bedclothes, and searched everywhere for the out-of-place. In fact I burned so many calories cleaning that, famished, I died, leaving one more distended corpse for the next unlucky clansman.

Luminous Horizon

Not having played the originals, I didn’t expect Luminous Horizon would be so realistic. Battles were hard and confusing, and our nemesis hadn’t scattered useful items throughout his secret base. I didn’t even have to TAKE anything to win. What fun are super powers if I can’t use them for petty crime?

Typo

From the intro I expected a Shrapnel-type masterpiece where the typo correction got steadily creepier as you solved a series of puzzles, but no: there was only one puzzle, revolving around a machine whose multitude of parts were similar enough that, never mind the initially nifty typo correction, you had to constantly feed the parser very explicit lines like FLIP BLUE SWITCH and OPEN COMPARTMENT 2 rather than, say, FLIP BLUE or OPEN 2, and on top of this the only way to solve the puzzle was by slavishly looking up everything in the manual — and not LOOK UP 2 but rather CONSULT BOOK ON COMPARTMENT 2 — and when you finally do solve it, the interactivity ends and only then does the fun start. A couple paragraphs later, “You Win.”

Chronicle Play Torn

Ah, the familiar GET X (you can’t) GET X (stop trying) GET X (it comes loose!) USE X puzzle.

I guess I’m not on the same wavelength as the author here, or maybe my puzzle-solving abilities have been fried via overexposure. At one point I have to swim to the bottom of a pool and presumably cross into the netherworld. The problem is I can’t take any of my possessions unless they’re sealed in a trunk. Except it’s pitch dark; what about my lantern? Am I to put a burning lantern into a trunk, seal the trunk, swim a few fathoms, and have it all come out intact? Instead, I’m able to leave the trunk open on the edge of the pool — for the game won’t allow me to ruin my items by bringing them into the water — and then, once immersed, take the open trunk to no detrimental effect. In that way, I swim onward in perfect lamplight. This puts PTBAD 3 to shame.

The game doesn’t cease to amaze. It’s horror, I finally realize, and the not-always-intentionally creepy language only heightens the effect. If the author releases his promised post-comp version, it’ll probably be worth checking out. I was going to try to finish now, because the likelihood of (a) the author releasing a substantially improved version and (b) me taking notice of it and (c) me carving out the time to play it specifically, rather than Anchorhead or Wishbringer or any of the other noteworthy games I’ve neglected — well, it multiplies out to about zero.

But I think it’s worth waiting for. The environments here, even for lack of important connectors like “you can go north to the tower,” are the most distinctive of the comp thus far. At one point you’re on a cliff overlooking the ruins of a city and then, some time later, you can actually go down and visit it; indeed it’s what you’ve been drawn to from the beginning. Along the way, the author exploits one of the cornerstones of horror: the absence of people despite evidence everywhere that they’re just around the corner. Then there’s the deserted art gallery, where you’re casually browsing through paintings when you catch a glimpse of a grisly flayed animal. After you pull back your gaze you can’t find it again. And I haven’t even mentioned the flies, the carvings, the mysterious plant life . . .

The point is this: somewhere along the way I was converted from bemused tourist to concerned participant, which is an accomplishment few entries this year have managed. I just wish the game were more, well, playable.

Zero One

> EXAMINE HELMET

The inside of the helmet is covered in blood and fragments of skull and brain, and just looking at it makes you retch . . .

The helmet looks like it would provide good head protection if worn.

Yeah, that’s what the last guy thought.

Blue Sky

An Interactive Tourist Trap

Your character’s one goal here is to reunite with his tour group. Whereas I kept wondering, like Pee Wee at the Alamo, when we were gonna see the basement.

Bellclap

You’re a peculiar sort of god, one without (a) omniscience or even (b) a clear conception of your own powers. In a longer game like Actraiser, you learn over time what your powers are and how best to apply them, but in a puzzle this small there’s not much opportunity. After floundering for nearly an hour, I gave up. I couldn’t find any means to make fire, I couldn’t make the man eat raw meat to save his life, and I couldn’t seem to bring his attention to the hatch I discovered on the ceiling. When I consulted the walkthrough, I was shocked at the solution; it seemed impossibly arbitrary. I guess that’s divinity for you.

The Big Scoop

Unexceptional murder mystery. The real mystery, to me, was why I was wearing a blouse in the opening scene if my name was Peter “All Man” Ullman.

I did eventually figure it out.

A Light’s Tale

If Rybread had found Jesus and written Punkirita Quest 2, it might have turned out like this. The game takes mimesis, rips its spine out, strings it across a ukulele, and plucks out “Stairway to Heaven.” It reminds me of Kingdom Hearts, actually. And I don’t know how else to describe it.

(For all that, it’s not some fantastically weird freak-out you need to experience for yourself. To the contrary it’s neither enlightening nor particularly enjoyable. There are spelling and grammar mistakes, there are guess-the-verb troubles, there are even recurring TADS errors. You will need the walkthrough. But it’s bad in a different enough way that to dismiss it outright would be premature.)

The Great Xavio

Searched desperately for the in-game hints, couldn’t find them, and a bit later solved the mystery anyway. Then I looked at the walkthrough and found a totally different route through the game. Bravo.

Stack Overflow

To enjoy this you’d have to be seriously hardcore, and I’m not even close.

A Day in the Life of a Super Hero

I don’t know what it is with superhero games. I can understand them, I can respect them, I just can’t seem to enjoy them.

It doesn’t help that I’m not familiar with Adrift. The parser, for example, appears to understand L UNDER BED, mapping it to X BED, which discouraged me from further exploration. In fact what you need to type is an explicit LOOK UNDER BED. To discount the entire game on these grounds is admittedly unfair — before this competition I didn’t even realize you could abbreviate LOOK UNDER to L UNDER, and a few games later I’m already complaining that Day in the Life doesn’t let you — but I no longer have the patience for this sort of thing. If more of the jokes connected I’d have more of an incentive to continue.

Redeye

This one felt like it was conceived, planned, and written in the space of two hours. I thought it was great. It could’ve been a pulp classic if the puzzles were sturdier and the plot more serpentine, but a lot of the elements are already in place: the put-upon protagonist, the unabashed vulgarity, the basic simplicity of the world. If there’s a sequel I’ll be first in line.

Who Created That Monster?

On November 2, I voted for the first time ever. I walked home from the fire station proud of myself; I felt like I had done my part for once.

On November 3, someone said Bush had prevailed and my heart sank. I logged on to find it not completely true; the only real development had been an announcement by an aide that they were certain they had won. Arrogance, that was all. When it was finally substantiated, I was shocked. Awed. How was it that this kind of certainty — that the election will be ours, that taking Iraq was necessary, that we are chosen by God to perform his will — was not struck down but rewarded?

On November 3 emotions were high.

It is now November 4, and this is what’s next in the competition:

Baghdad, 2026. The work of the Allies here is nearly complete, and so is your work as a journalist. Major institutions have been rebuilt and the historical record set straight — almost. There is but one unanswered question. Few dare even ask it.

And that question, now that I’ve played it, is: eh? I mean, I get it, I guess. It’s timely, it’s subtle, it has the courage to unmask Luxembourg. But to stretch all that across such a dull game seems like a disservice. To be funny and chastening at the same time is hard enough without throwing a parser into the mix. In the micro-genre of satires that start in a McDonald’s, The Cabal remains king.

Magocracy

The time I would normally waste playing regular video games is now being wasted on the competition. Perhaps that’s why, despite the hit points and D6s and whatnot, I was more inclined to give this one a chance.

Good: There’s more to the story than the intro reveals, and it unfolds nicely as you come across various documents. It’s more “interpersonal intrigue” than “plot,” which is always appreciated.

Bad: The actual characters, when you encounter them, are robots through and through. There’s no meaningful interaction short of combat.

Good: The spells are interesting. The fireflies you can summon provide both light and assistance in battle, and the castle is cleverly designed so that, once you learn the animation spell, in many rooms there actually are things for you to animate.

Bad: The combat itself isn’t much fun. Either you’re following people who’ve forgotten you’re trying to kill them, or you’re chasing someone back and forth, or you’re wandering into the wrong room only to get wiped out by a critical hit. Ultimately I’m not convinced that the command line is the best interface to the saving throws going on behind the scenes.

Good: Dodongos?

Blue Chairs

I don’t want to spoil anything here, so my options are limited. I can’t tell you what it is

I can’t tell you what I liked (the starry ASCII hallucinations; Carcassonne and the supermarket puzzle), and I can’t tell you what I didn’t like (the White House sequence; stumbling around in the dark performing the solution to the supermarket puzzle).

I can say I was all but glued to the screen for the length of it, and I can also say it’s maddening to know there are other endings that may make a few things clearer. Hopefully people will write big long reviews of this; it deserves ’em.

Goose, Egg, Badger

If I ever wrote one of these things, I wouldn’t trust myself to include an AMUSING list. In the wrong hands it’s like going on about how clever you are or, just as bad, explaining your own jokes. Badger’s list made me think, “wow, that was possible?” Really well constructed. It resides a bit too comfortably for my taste in the “puzzles!” school of design, and there are a few things I would never have thought to try without the hints (as they say, violence is occasionally the answer), but hopefully there’s an audience for this sort of thing because the care that went into it is apparent.

Ruined Robots

I think this game could be improved by:

Order

When confronted with an obstacle, the usual adventurer’s response is, “what item have I seen that could help me get through this?” Order, on the other hand, wants you to ask, simply, “how can I get through this?” Please, it says, don’t limit yourself to the sparsely-furnished game world; really think about how you might solve the problem.

This is a wonderful approach, in theory, but the obvious downside — that, outside the box, there’s an infinity of possible solutions — is never addressed. When my first attempt to get out of the antechamber at the beginning (CREATE LADDER) met with failure, my shoulders fell and I sat back, disengaged from the start. My other complaint, with Order in particular, is that so many of the problems here involve combat; most of the time it’s not “how can I get out of this mysterious windmill” but rather “how do I kill this rock monster.”

And I don’t know about anyone else, but when I learn from the now proudly traditional “known bugs” list that UNLOCK DOOR gives a weird unintentional response, that’s the first thing I try to do.

Square Circle

Nothing to do with pro wrestling, it starts out as a straightforward prison break not unlike Leaves, which speaking of pro wrestling did give you the satisfaction of smashing a chair over a guard’s back. Here the satisfaction involves geometry and philosophy and conversation.

I may have made the game unwinnable by not taking the book with me. I have nothing with which to distract the receptionist, but I can’t seem to return to my cell. Oops. And I don’t have time to start over, either. I don’t mind not being able to finish, say, Ruined Robots, because I can’t see the experience changing drastically, but this — whose beginning I wasn’t too keen on, whose mid-game I resented because I assumed things would end after drawing the circle, whose scope I’m finally beginning to appreciate — I can only see improving as it goes on. I guess I’ll have to wait to find out.


I did go back and play through to the end, and indeed it’s more substantial than I initially gave it credit for. The title shape is more than a contrived math puzzle, or perhaps I should say there’s a reason for its contrivance. The box full of other smaller boxes is not merely so the author can have fun at your expense. The contract, confusing at first, is perfectly worded in retrospect.

Best was the well-drawn wilderness, particularly vivid in contrast with the drab starting locations. It reminded me of She’s Got a Thing but was even more effective, I thought, because it was clear (pig fabulously placed) that it was not your element, that there was something alien about it. You’re a lost fugitive in a random stretch of countryside for which there is no guidebook. Not to mention the old dude in the hut was considerably less creepy.

Nonetheless I don’t think I would’ve scored the game much higher. Perhaps because, like Orion, it is over-ambitious in that it attempts to make a statement about society, about people, without saying hardly anything about actual people.

Murder at the Aero Club

After meeting Square Circle’s Phryjid and Day in the Life’s Shutityebrat, I barely even flinch at a guy named Haagen Das.

This is probably the best “hey, everybody, here’s my apartment” game I’ve played in a while. For one, it does not take place in an apartment, and for another, you get to flick a cigarette into a puddle of fuel. I want to be able to do that in every game.

The Realm

A light-hearted fantasy quest that doesn’t linger on the plot or the setting or the characters or anything that’s not of immediate service to the puzzles. Talking to the deaf old armorer, in particular, was great fun. The game in general might not go over too well — what with the castle, the dragon, the king — but for me it was just my speed.

Except for the secret society of giant chipmunks who revere hamster urine; that was a bit strange.

Splashdown

Wires, bulkheads, cryo-bays, elevators, gualauglauga;hglugh

I’m not a big fan of the “writer’s workshop” review where you tell the author what they might’ve done better, but this robot needs to be spayed:

Sting of the Wasp

This is what I wanted out of Magocracy. I don’t mean the country club setting, but rather the emphasis on blackmail, sabotage, and misdirection as opposed to physical combat. I just hope the point of the game isn’t “haha, rich people are petty and shallow.”

(Maybe it’s me, but the opening scene wasn’t remotely pornographic. Not that I’m, uh, complaining. I just wonder about all the people who would take offense — who are they, and how do they feel about pretty much every other game in the competition? Goose, Egg, Badger? Promotes cruelty to animals. Order? Depicts pagan rituals. Ruined Robots? Encourages suicide . . .)

Trading Punches

As a story, this leans in the right direction. Basically it’s about one guy and his family, particularly his brother and their rivalry, mirrored across several decades (or “ten-cycles” as the game lamely calls them) by the larger societal conflict between the two races. The writing sometimes dwells too heavily on the setting, but it’s passable.

As a game, however, it’s pretty hard to take. Consider this excerpt from the walkthrough:

give pink to fesha
give white to thyras
drink from gray
fill thyras's with tan
drink from green
fill thyras's with brown
drink from blue
w
fill tan in colada bowl
fill brown in colada bowl
fill gray in punch bowl
fill green in punch bowl
fill blue in punch bowl
e
fill fesha's from blue
pour gray into thyras's
drink from tan
pour green into thyras's
drink from brown
give tan to elora

There’s more, but hopefully that illustrates well enough what I’m trying to say: I would’ve liked to be able to interact at a higher level here.

Also, like Splashdown, the game commits the criminal offense of putting its best sequence — in both cases, the underwater exploration scene — last, and by then I was following the walkthrough to the letter.


I caught the results a couple days later. I had given the winner, Luminous Horizon, a lower numerical rating (4) than the last place entry, Ninja (5).

Yes, that invalidates everything I will ever say.

I noticed with some embarrassment that I was the only person to give the well-received Splashdown (seventh place) a one. What can I say? I have horrible taste and no nostalgia whatsoever for the Infocom days. Hopefully that didn’t affect it much. The Great Xavio, on the other hand, didn’t do nearly as well (eleventh) as I would’ve liked.

As for the winner’s circle, I was stunned that All Things hadn’t come out on top. Not that it had a poor showing (third place, behind Blue Chairs), it’s just that it was the only game that succeeded, without qualification, as a game. Only to be surpassed, in a competition meant to encourage newcomers, by a sometimes frustrating turn from an established author who’d won the thing previously. It didn’t seem right.

And the worst part? I’m seriously thinking of writing one of these myself. I have no clue how to start, no idea what it should be about, and only a vague conception of how truly draining the process is. All I can promise, should I actually go through with it, is that I’ll try to work in some yen signs.