IFComp ’06 Impressions

What I don’t like about The Primrose Path: that TOUCH PAINTING gives you “cold and unyielding”; ENTER PAINTING and your hand goes “clean through.” That the redwoods in Blink have spread beyond Germany. That you’re encouraged to CONTEMPLATE. That CONTEMPLATE RING gives you “Oh, lord. It’s a long story, but the upshot is that both Leo and I remain unmarried.” That after taking pains, beyond that response, to create a wedge between you the player and Matilda the protagonist — even requiring you to use that wedge to pole vault over the common wisdom of every other game in existence and soar through the air in a giant leap of intuition, landing in an empty room and taking an item whose presence isn’t acknowledged — that after the game’s climax, where Matilda succeeds in throwing off your influence entirely, she is proposed marriage by Leo and it’s back to you for the answer.

I don’t think you can have it both ways. But this is a game about time travel, living portraits, and alternate worlds, where there are no consequences that can’t be undone with the right magical device — a game whose message seems to be yes, you really can.

In The Elysium Enigma, your orders are simple: get in, make contact, get out. I was kind of amazed that the game lets you follow them — wasn’t I supposed to become intrigued, get involved, save the day?

As it turns out, there are a number of enigmas on Elysium. What is it about this planet that requires you to tread so carefully? What’s behind these UFO sightings? Why is your outpost under surveillance? But the game poses none of these questions at the outset. Rather, it’s up to the player to discover whether there’s anything here worth discovering.

The Traveling Swordsman’s implementation is tops; basically anything you can think of to type will either work or tell you why not or what else you might try. It is the only piece of IF I can remember where fighting is not horribly painful. If anything, it’s a little too patient, too forgiving. You don’t get the sense that anything’s at stake. I’d sooner recommend the rough but gripping Unauthorized Termination — a murder mystery set in a dystopia whose rules are so strict you don’t want to try whatever pops in your head.

Moon-Shaped, with its disparate fairy tale fragments, has some seriously creepy vibes, like Chancellor but more so, and the speckled mushroom from Ruins caps it off. But because I didn’t think to WEAR the locket, I missed all the cut scenes and flashbacks and hints about the staff and the monocle and after a few minutes of swearing at the (to me) unhelpful hints, I gave up, restarted, and played back the walkthrough.

Maybe the story really comes together as you experience it; I don't know. But read through after the fact, it didn’t grab me the way I was grabbed by those opening scenes.

In the second part of Legion, your planet-sized consciousness is funneled into the corridors of a generic mining outpost. There, between puzzly gadgets, pronoun confusion, and the generic memories of a generic space cadet, I became trapped in a room called “The Compass” and had to restart. Ouch on all counts.

My least favorite part was having to wander around the outpost awakening memories in my host. Symbiosis may well be the point of the game — for the memories change depending on how you act — but getting players to care about a flesh-and-blood character is even more difficult than putting them in an alien intelligence.

Mobius has a couple great moments — when you realize what’s happening and when you figure out what you have to do to stop it — but isn’t as much fun as All Things Devours. All Things takes place over three floors, involves sneaking around, and alludes to a wider world; the action in Mobius is confined to one room.

Unauthorized Termination’s strongest feature is its alien setting, conveyed in part by the forbidding reference material that’s unnecessary except to reinforce the notion that everything you see and do is so utterly foreign you’ll need the manual to even make sense of it. How are you to solve a murder in a world where the normal adventuring instincts — “owning, carrying, or use of weapons,” “obtaining property,” “amassing wealth” — are punishable by termination?

The aircraft landing puzzle at the end of Star City was hardly the piece de resistance, but I so enjoyed the city itself that I probably could have forgiven a maze. (Oh, that’s right. There was a maze.) Anyway, while it’s true that more could have been done — in the city, with the city — this was the first game I played that I could stand to see win.

Tower of the Elephant fails to improve on the original story. It takes away much of the combat — perhaps wisely, as it would have been difficult to implement fairly (though see Traveling Swordsman for a counter-example) — but it doesn’t really add anything in return:

A great round jewel, clear as crimson crystal, rests on a gold and ivory altar.


A great round jewel, clear as crimson crystal.

And the TADS-style conversation system is cool, but not when it’s used to turn the coherent monologue of the original story into a kind of maze.

The cast of Aunts and Butlers: meat-head policeman, gun-toting God-and-country American, backwards northerner what can’t speak right, yappy poodle — if you’re not already laughing, Aunts and Butlers is probably not for you.

I’m against serialized comp entries, cut-scene-heavy sci-fi epics, and learn-by-dying. Aside from all that, Xen wasn’t bad.

I find myself copying things out of Labyrinth to work on them elsewhere. I can’t meaningfully copy (or map) the rotating 3D rooms — but I’d like to, because they don’t work well in a text game either.

Playing Requiem, I felt unable to walk away from a bad situation: both player and protagonist are baited, captured, and repeatedly tortured.

You’d think Carmen Devine — a game set deep in northern China featuring werewolves, a ruined village, ominous stone markers, and the bloody remains of a brotherhood of monks — would be more diverting. But there’s too much empty space, and not enough to do. So much of what’s mentioned never comes into play. Red herrings are one thing, but I felt like I should have at least been able to talk to the leader of the wolf pack about MARKERS, VAMPIRES, MATE, SYMBOLS, LILIES, CLIFF, CAVE, ROCKS, CHIPS, SPIRIT . . .

In Polendina, the parser is revealed to be your abusive father. It then comes to light that you are actually a robot, the man’s second attempt at a son he could love. But in a game this lazily sketched, not only are those revelations unable to redeem the experience, they seem equally as half-hearted.

I assumed the writing in Neon Nirvana was intentionally overcooked, the better to reflect its genre, but the writing in Pathfinder is worse. Its concluding sentence:

For it is one thing to know the paths you can take, and as the winter sky will agree, it is another to take the road less traveled by, for that can make all the difference.

Can’t stop laughing? Play The Apocalypse Clock and be cured.

Ballymun Adventure is a plotless, lifeless scavenger hunt through a deserted building full of locked and numbered rooms whose keys are concealed in wastebaskets, desk drawers, and plant pots. Pass.

With Lawn of Love, Hill carries on the tradition of superficial errors and easy targets (hunger puzzles, mazes, its/it’s, no walkthrough) that shelter the underlying game from criticism. Lawn of Love is shorter and less objectionable than previous titles, even funny in places, so in order to maintain his streak of low scores, he ups the ante by omitting exits, making the game unnavigable.

Beam was interesting in that I’d never played a Quest game before, and by “interesting” I mean I have uninstalled Quest.

Enter the Dark has a spelling error in the first sentence. Actually there are errors in almost every sentence and they’re beginning to inhibit comprehension. I like the console sensibility hinted at in the walkthrough — weapons, bosses, the whole “underground chemical lab” thing — but the game itself falls short.

Fetter’s Grim is an attempt to top Jesus of Nazareth by an author who clearly has no idea what about that game was good. It fails on every level. Green Falls is a little bit better, i.e., still pretty awful. And Simple Adventure is an alternate version of Green Falls that trades the arbitrary for the trivial. One hopes that next year, when Panks enters another game as three separate entries, each one will be disqualified by the existence of the other two.

I imagine Sisyphus the source code is succinct and funny; Sisyphus the game-world sucks.