IF Competition 2008 Review #4: Dracula’s Underground Crypt

Name: Dracula’s Underground Crypt
Author: Alex Whitington
Review Date: 21 Oct 2008
Parser: Z-Code
Availability: IFComp 2008 Entrant
URL: http://www.ifcomp.org/
Version: Competition Version

Plot: 3/10 – An attempt was made, but it wasn’t very long or overly complicated.
Atmosphere: 2/10 – Tried to be quite funny but ended up falling flat.
Writing:  5/10 – Not much to say either way.
Game play:  2/10 – Attempts to be open ended.  Hard to say whether he managed it or not.
Characters:  4/10 – Professor was somewhat interesting.  Main character was amusingly stupid.
Puzzles: 3/10 – A bit of a pain, but internally consistent.  Lost points for a guess-the-verb.
Overall:  4/10 – A good effort marred by obvious bugs and so-so humour.

Full Review (Warning: Spoilers)

First up, there is obviously some sort of story behind a google account name eggheadcheesybird.  I always enjoy odd usernames, well done.   In some ways however, that was the funniest part of this evening.

The professor was characterised very well and was quite unlikeable as was no doubt intended.  I particularly enjoyed the diary, it put everything into perspective.  I didn’t find a way to kill the professor unfortunately, I was hoping i’d be able to throw the flesh eating bookworms at him (also mildly amusing), but it would let me.  Or stake him.

There were a few bugs.  The biggest one was that the professor kept talking and moving and doing things when he was in a different room than the character, and you could lift the pillow and search things whilst the professor was sitting on it.

There was a walkthrough built in that was nearly less than useless.  I needed it to get to the underground chamber, given that the statues didnt seem to be mentioned in descriptions anywhere, but even knowing what I had to do in there (get a rubbing of the coffin lid) it still led to a painful guess the verb puzzle in which my character beat himself to death several times with charcoal and paper.

The ressurection pages combined with the coffin message suggest you can resserect the female vampire and yet dripping blood in the urn fails to work and I was completely unable to find any of the interesting endings.  On the whole, an interesting try marred by poor execution and overambitiousness.  It may have been better to ignore the open ended idea and at least implement -one- full path that was interesting. 

I didn’t feel much urge to replay it, open ended or not.

Four out of Ten.

IF Competition 2008 Review #3: Cry Wolf

Name: Cry Wolf
Author: Clare Parker
Review Date: 13 Oct 2008
Parser: Glulx
Availability: IFComp 2008 Entrant
URL: http://www.ifcomp.org/
Version: Competition Version

Plot: 7/10 – Started cliche, but the middle was quiet original and entertaining.
Atmosphere: 4/10 – House and town was generic anywhereville.  The expected tense tone only lasted the first night, the rest was interesting, but not overly atmospheric.
Writing:  5/10 – Writing was not great in parts, particularly in the beginning, but got much better into the end game.
Game play:  5/10 – Good noun implementation for the most part, interesting actions and interactions.
Characters:  6/10 – Andrew and Marissa were quite well defined and interesting.  Main char was watery and whiney.
Puzzles: 5/10 – I’ve never before played a game where you actually perform an operation on a dog.
Overall:  6/10 – There is quality story here that could do with a bit more of a polish, but has a lot to offer.

Full Review (Warning: Spoilers)

This is the first of the games i’ve tried so far this competition that I can truly say I enjoyed, wholeheartedly.  It wasn’t perfect, or anything even close – it caught me in a bit of a picky mood i’m afraid.  In anycase, I was irritated right from the start by the intro which really dropped the ball as far as writing quality goes.  It was terse when it should have been setting the scene.  I found this particularly odd given the attention shown to detail – like a reasonable covert art submission which is something you don’t often see in ifcomp games.  I think this may have been an oversight as it got far smoother later in the game.

Good attention was paid to the environment, which is something I always look for early on in a game.  Searching the early rooms in the game just about every noun was implemented with something.  Not always perfectly, some things that stick out are you can open and search the dresser without getting out of bed, if you take Celia’s clothes out you can examing the dresser and see it overflowing with your clothes, then search it and be told it is empty.  Also, if you have searched the room and taken celia’s clothes (or even merely opened the dresser) then you cannot take your own clothes and get dressed, something that can be quite confusing.  One other thing about the first room, I think far too many things in the room directly mention Celia and how she’s gone now.  Sure its backstory and goes to state of mind, and obviously he misses her very much, but it belaboured the point a bit I feel.  By the time the character crawled out of bed I was well and truly sick of Celia and thought he was probably lucky to be rid of her.

A few other small things stand out.  At one point attempting to read a book points out that it’s too late, rather than points out that there is a giant wolf on you porch making that ill-advised.  Also, lets be honest.  How dense does the main character have to be – it’s a full moon, it’s a wolf in the middle of town who you splint, and you wake up with a naked woman in your bed, with splint, and…. what? Not even the inkling, crazy as it is?

That leads into the operation scene and the following interactions where the main character is told about Merissa being a werewolf which further points to the immeasurable denseness of the main character.  There are almost shades of Lovecraft in this story as the character’s mind is described and being close to snapping – a very Lovecraftian twist that but unfortunately inexpertly described.  When the operation is complete and the babies are described, definately the highlight of the game and quite original, and the main character’s perspective… shifts… this is quite well written.  However the panic he experiences when talking to Marissa and she claims to be a werewolf was unrealistic, flat and inappropriate.  Lovecraftian panic and madness is brought on by -seeing- things, experiencing things impossible and beyond the norm.  Not simply being told things, it’s easy to laugh off and disbelieve simple words.  Not to mention that the idea of her being a werewolf shouldn’t have been quite -that- much of a shock really, not after the moon, the split, the half-wolf-half-human puppies.  It’s not like there wasn’t warning that something strange was coming up now was it.

The ending was fairly obvious in the lead up and I must admit I played towards being furry at the finish.  I didn’t go back for any of the other endings, but it tied up the plot nicely and the character interactions were interesting.  I’ve always liked character conversations driving plot branches as a gameplay mechanic, but as i’ve mentioned before i’ve always preferred story to puzzles.

On the whole a decent little game that, with a little polish, could be quite recommendable.  Well done Clare.

IF Competition 2008 Review #2: Ananachronist

Name: Ananachronist
Author: Joseph Strom
Review Date: 7 Oct 2008
Parser: Z-Code
Availability: IFComp 2008 Entrant
URL: http://www.ifcomp.org/
Version: Competition Version

Plot: 2/10 – There wasn’t a great deal of story – only a little backstory – but it was interesting.
Atmosphere: 2/10 – All of the worlds felt very similar, like empty abandoned movie sets serving only as a bland puzzle backdrop.
Writing:  2/10 – Few grammatical errors, fairly solid if rather monotonous writing.
Game play:  2/10 – Puzzle itself was nicely conceived and executed fairly smoothly but there were many missing nouns.
Characters:  0/10 – Except for the lightly sketched main character, there were none.
Puzzles: 5/10 – Game was designed as one single, nicely conceived puzzle that was executed fairly smoothly.
Overall:  3/10 – A good idea marred by boring execution.

Full Review (Warning: Spoilers)

The words used in my short summaries above really say most of what I have to say about this title.  “Bland”, “Monotonous”, “Boring” are all great adjectives to describe it.  Which is a shame as it had a fair amount of potential in its small and polished frame.

To begin, this game was never going to get huge marks from me.  As i’ve said before, I am a story gamer.  I love stories and thats the thing I love most about interactive fiction.  Ananachronist has the seeds of a particularly interesting story in it, which I think was the biggest disappointment for me.  The setting is actually quite interesting; a sort of blend between science fiction and fantasy.  Time travel in this world is achieved primarily through some sort of magic but the time travel itself would introduce the society capable of it to a wide variety of technological achievements.  Add to this the fact that the magic -looks- like technology, with the portal conneted to a glowing pedestal and a magic rune tracer that held shades of Star Trek tricorders, and you have some fertile soil for a deep, involved interesting setting and story.

Unfortunately as anyone who has ever visited a farm, particularly in a drought, will know, a patch of dirt with nothing growing in it looks like any other patch of dirt you’ve ever looked at.  Thats what it feels was made of this nicely conceived setting that was just begging for a rollicking tale of action, adventure and time-tampering.  Sod all.

I think i’m also a bit disappointed by the mixing up of ideas here as well, you see this isn’t actually about time travel at all.  In order for the a story to be about time travel it doesn’t just require the different locations to have different technological settings, as we have here, but actualy temporal dislocation.  That is to say, these places need to be seperated by a period of time, not just feel.  This isn’t used in this game at all.  For an example of a way to use this kind of mechanic, imagine being able to travel to the same place but at two different times seperated by say two hundred years.  You go to the first time period and plant an apple seed, then you go forward in time two hundred years and pick apples from the tree that has been growing since you planted it two hundred years earlier.  

This scenario really doesn’t mesh well with the philosophy of me travel, but it’s interesting and was used to good effect in games such as “Day of the Tentacle” by Lucasarts.  That is the sort of thing I expected from a time travel puzzle game.

What we actually get in this puzzle is more of a “interlinked dimensions” game, rather than actual time travel.  We are given three different compounds, each of which are set in a different technological era but are otherwise close to identical, featuring different versions of similar buildings in the same places in each era – so a stable becomes a garage and that sort of thing.  These dimensions are linked in such a way that changes you make in one are reflected in the others.  Rip a curtain used for privacy in the low tech version and the door will be destroyed in the later tech version.  Pick up a screwdriver in on world and drop it somewhere and the corresponding tool in the other tech world will have been moved.

This quite an interesting mechanic for a puzzle game and is used to great advantage, but it is not what is being advertised.  It bears no relation to any sort of temporal puzzle.  If you destroy a curtain in a building one hundred years ago, that bears no resemblance to the state of a door now.  Why would moving a shield a couple of feet cause a weird tube 400 years later to be left somewhere different?  There is no logical connection here – it is all for the sake of the puzzle.  There is nothing wrong with that of course, but I felt my expectations were let down somewhat.

Which leads us to the puzzle itself.  Any game of this sort is going to be compared, without fail, to the classic of the type – Lock and Key.  In this comparison, unfortunately, Ananachronist falls short.  This has little to do with the puzzle itself.  Like I said it was well conceived and thought out, and despite the contextual inconsistences I mentioned the logic of the world was consistant and fair.  The problem occurs in the fact that it is as boring as an accountants convention on the uses and abuses of the number zero.

What made Lock and Key come alive even for me, a story gamer, was the context in which the puzzle took place.  It was exciting even when you lost to see how your traps would be defeated and how the observers would react.  You would set up the pieces for your puzzle and watch a narrative unfold around them to explain how you did, and it made it fun and interesting.  Ananachronist has none of this.  The story ends the second the game starts, there is no explanation for why these ensorcelled objects should take you to these particular places, no explanation for what evil spells have been put on them, no explanation of where these places are, when they are, or even, and this I think is quite important, -where all the people are!-.

The places feel bland and exist for no reason other than to serve the puzzle.  They are movie sets, not actual places, and no world exists apart from the faceless player character and the task assigned to him.  The backstory is completely unexplored and every opportunity to make this game interesting seems to have be purposefully ignored.

The real tragedy here is that the puzzle mechanic was clever and well thought out and if placed into context could easily have made this game a contender.  Even without NPC’s – if, for example, the game author is allergic to them – you could weave an interesting story about these spookily similar places seperated by time and connected by three otherwise innocuous objects.  Think about how Babel managed to draw us in to a story that occurred well before we arrived; through the judicious use of journals, computer entries and lets not forget -MAGIC- we could easily have puzzled our way through the game, solving the dimensional puzzle while simulataneously learning about this evil wizard, his plot for destroying the universe, why these three places were important and why these timepieces were enchanted.

It was a game that could have been great, unfortunately it feels rushed.  It seems like the author had a great idea for a puzzle, rushed to implement it, then couldn’t be bothered putting any more effort in so released it half done.  This feeling is amplified by the only major gameplay issue I found and that was missing nouns.  Quite often in the game things were described and never implemented, so if you went to examine them further they didn’t actually exist.  This is a small gripe, but one that could have been easily fixed with a cursory reading of place descriptions and a little extra implementation.  The rest of the game was robust and bug free as best I could tell.

I really hope Joseph gives IF another shot because there is obvious coding aptitude shown here, clean if somewhat uninspired writing, and a definite imagination waiting to be unleashed.  I think, and quietly hope, that we will see bigger and better in his next release.

Until then, 3/10 is as high as I can go, for a game that – implemented well or not – bored me so.

IF Competition 2008: Interlude

I’ve noticed a trend over the years, that seems particularly prominent this year, and that is of people who eschew the various virtual machine systems in favour of creating their own game complete with parser/interpreter all wrapped up in an exe and ready to go.

I can see the appeal behind this myself.  I’m a professional programmer and I wouldn’t have gotten into the industry if I didn’t love to tinker with software and play about with different algorithms.  I’ve written small parsers and compilers as well at different points, and always loved genetic art algorithms and other strange and not particularly useful quirks of software.

That said, if you want to mess about with parsers and such feel free, there’s no-where written that you have to use Inform, Tads, Adrift or any of the others to write a game. 

You might want to reconsider releasing them in the IFComp however. 

For a start, lets examine the motivations behind it.  If all you want to do is play about, there’s no need to release them at all.  This is unlikely, because everyone who has created something, regardless of the initial reason, is likely to want some sort of feedback.  If you do it to the newsgroup, outside of the competition itself, I think you are likely to receive a warmer reception.

These custom-built packages, to me, say nothing greater than “look at me, I’m so fantastic I can build a parser”.  I’ve never yet seen one that, in flexibility and power, match up to Tads or Inform, or even come close to their stability, and they can only run on the platform they are compiled on – unlike the popular virtualised game files which will run anywhere there is an interpreter, which is to say everywhere.

All of that says to me – utter waste of time.  You have reinvented the wheel, made it square, limited the places in which it can work, and then put it on a silver platter and sit back awaiting accolades that you really don’t deserve.  I don’t even bother playing them anymore.

There is no reason, nor any justification, for a return to the parser-embedded-in-the-game format for interactive fiction.  No-one wants or needs it.  That’s not to say there’s no room for competitors to the incumbent formats but if that is your goal you need to meet them on their own ground, match their stability and feature-set and surpass it – a lofty objective.

There are also serious downsides to rolling your own system; the dangers presented if things should go wrong.  This rant has been prompted, in quite a few ways, by what I read on this thread:


Emilian, one of the codes who decided the best way to go was to roll his own solution, is attempting to release an upgrade to his game whilst the competition is still going.  This is, of course, seriously against the rules and he got quite belligerant when he was told this – and with good reason.  In his mind he has not edited the game itself, he has fixed a bug in his interpreter, and packed it with a different packer.

Unfortunately i’d say he is mistaken on the first point.  If you write your own parser and interpreter and release it as one big package then the interpreter is part of the game!  You cannot make the same distinction to your own work, that between parser and game file, that is attributed to the widely available frameworks simply because that is the way you programmed them.  They are being distributed as a single package, no one already has “coolXXX interpreter” installed seperately and they are not downloading the game as a bytecode seperately.  For all intents and purposes, the two are one and the same.

The second issue is even more disturbing and perhaps the biggest indictment against the vanity that seems prevalent in these reinventing the wheel attempts – Emelian didn’t mention it until it became clear that people were not very open to the idea of installing a new version mid-contest but it appears that the packer he used to compress the size of the executeable was called “MEW”, which it turns out may have the unfortunate habit of adding trojans to anything packed with it.

I can understand why Emilian might not want to come out and say anyone who has downloaded the competition pack and installed his game might now be infected with a virus that he has sent out.  It’s not likely to do your reputation or goodwill any favours, and in a small community like this that is really the only currency available. 

He is showing naivity with his comments though “It’s your risk! Don’t blame me afterwards!”.  Don’t be foolish Emilian, simply saying that will not make it so.  People trust the IFComp and rightly so, and your actions have brought that into danger now.  It is not anyone’s fault but your own that you used that packer and that you felt the inexplicable urge to create your own system rather than use one of the well known, and presumeably virus free, alternatives like the majority of the other contestants.

You felt the need to be different to the others; and in this you have certainly succeeded.  Caveat Emptor does not apply and personally, I think you should be warning people far louder than you seem to be right now.

In closing.  Unless you think you can do a better job than Inform, Tads, Adrift and the others, rolling your own parser seems little more than vanity.  If you do do it, purely for the fun, thats fine – but be very very careful and don’t expect to be lauded as a genius.  It was new tech thirty years ago, not today.

IF Competition 2008 Review #1: The Absolute Worst IF Game In History

Name: The Absolute Worst IF Game in History
Author: Dean Menezes
Review Date: 6 Oct 2008
Parser: Z-Code
Availability: IFComp 2008 Entrant
URL: http://www.ifcomp.org/
Version: Competition Version

Plot: 0/10 – Get through a maze to get a treasure.  That literally is the entirety of the plot, given to you in one line at the start of the game.
Atmosphere: 0/10 – There is only one repeated location, described classically – “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”.
Writing:  1/10 – There were no glaring errors.  Probably not a great achievement given there was only about 20 words used in total.
Game play:  0/10 – Just… no.
Characters:  0/10 – None other than a generic main character with no description.
Puzzles: 0/10 – An apparently completely random, description-less twisty passage maze.  Game ends abruptly with no warning.
Overall:  0/10 – I only wish I could give it a lower score.

Full Review (Warning: Spoilers)

I really was asking for trouble when I added this game to the list wasn’t I.  As I said in the introduction post, I really couldn’t resist the title, and even though I was going in expecting a terrible game – I was still disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, the title makes no promise it doesn’t live up to.  This is a truly bad.. thing.  I hesitate to even call it a game.  I have a question for the community at large – what exactly is the appeal of the “this is a horrible game” genre of games that crop up from time to time.  This is the second year I’ve sat down to review the IFComp and the second time that the first game off the block is this type of self-referential ‘bad’ game. (The first was PTGood, which scored a respectable dead last in IFComp06.  Don’t look for it.)

The reason I keep picking these up is simple.  They should be funny.  Really and truly they should, there is a place for satire in every art form and the Interactive Fiction community has existed long enough for many many tropes, cliches and mistakes to become common knowledge and indeed cultural jokes – the maze of twisty passages being one such example.  Satire mocking an art-form is, at the heart, indicative of a rich and thriving artistic foundation and should be cause for celebration; instead, I despair each time I pick up one of these games.

How is it that after so many tries, with so much talent in this community, we have so far been unable to master this particular art?  With the Emily Shorts and Adam Cadres expanding the boundaries of what we can accomplish, why does a simple satire fall short?  This game is short, pointless and utterly boring.  It -is- what it set out to be, a bad game, simply because it is utterly unmemorable.  It took all of 2 minutes to play, which I suspect was a minute longer than it took to program, and simply reproduced a stupid maze puzzle that was a tiny, though memorable, portion of a classic of the genre.

The game itself wasn’t even that bad.  PTGood at least was that, so utterly horrible that even the parser seemed broken – and with the blurb associated with it there was an irony almost beautiful in the sheer bile it evinced.  This game just offends with is sheer blandness.

I do look forward to the day I pick up one of these so called “Bad games” and find what I am actually looking to find, that elusive thing that keeps me coming back to them like a masochist nuzzling the whipping post.  A true satire – a good game that is merely pretending to be a bad one.

For that is the point at the heart of this art-form.  No matter what direction it takes, with the toys, annoyances and artistic experiments, we can’t forget where we started.  These were, and are, games; and games are meant to be entertaining.

The Absolute Worst IF Game in History is not entertaining, and I have done myself a disservice wasting so much time and words on it. Do yourself a favour and think of it nevermore.

Interactive Fiction Competition 2008!

Well, it’s that time again, and once more I’m planning on reviewing as many of the IFComp games this year as I possibly can.  Experience has shown I’ve got very little chance of making it through all of them, free time being something of a luxury at the moment, still – the few reviews I managed last year proved to be reasonably popular so I definitely have to give it my best shot.

We’ll start by taking a quick look over the field competitors and note the stand outs in this year’s competition.  I must admit, given that i’m likely not to get through them all i’m not going for a random approach – rather, i’m going to pick the ones that sound like i’ll enjoy them more.  This will work out well, because they’re also the ones i’ll undoubtedly be the most disappointed in if they don’t live up to their blurb – which will make the reviews far more entertaining.

As I go through them, i’ll link to the reviews from this post so you can simply watch this space if you want to follow along.  I’ll also post links to RGIF, to keep things simple.

So, state of the field:

The Absolute Worst IF Game in History

Well… no blurb at all.  Appears to be written in Z-code, and I can’t say i’m familiar with Dean Menezes, the author.  Still, you can’t go past a challenge like that.  The question is, will it be a funny poke at the genre’s foibles, or absolutely mind-numbingly painful that will be a struggle to play through.

Really, either option would be a win given the title, so the only way this title can fail would be with a mediocre, rather than a bad effort.  Way to set the bar low!

A science fiction time travel setting and a name I can’t pronounce. Sounds like win.  I’ve always had an interest in the philosophical theories of time travel and studied them at university, so this is one i’m looking forward to playing.

Cry Wolf
A wolf at the door after midnight.  Reading this I felt shades of Lovecraft and I must heed the call.  Ftaghn.

A Date With Death
It has a king, the grim reaper and the blurb suggests a fantasy setting.  I’ll be giving this one a look and hoping that it has the grim reaper as a literal character and doesn’t just mean “You’re dying.”.  It perked my interested, which is all a blurb has to do.

Dracula’s Underground Crypt
I like comedy and I like vampires.  I also like the turnabout Alex has tried to use, albeit somewhat unsucessfully, in his blurb.  “He’s note who you’re playing as” is full of contractions and just feels awkward as a sentance, though the intention is quite good and funny.  Perhaps better would be something like “This is not his story”, make it simpler and shorter.  I’m not expecting great things from this one, but I hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Escape From The Underworld
A demon with a change of heart… someone kitschy, but I like the idea of outsourced torturing so the setting sounds somewhat original.  Could be good!

LAIR of the CyberCow
Farm Noir… chilling, ambivalently moral look at social thems of our times… cyber cow?  How could you pass this one by without stopping in for a look?  With such an intriguing blurb, it has a lot to live up to.

A Martian Odyssey
The blurb is flat and sounds like generic space adventure A.  However, I do like space adventures, I havn’t seen Mars as a setting for a game in quite a while, and “chemist” is an interesting choice of hero.  I wonder if it’s just colour, or if it’ll matter.  Anything that makes you wonder in a blurb is likely to draw people in.

Piracy 2.0
As I said, I like science fiction, however given the way the blurb is written i’m not expecting a great deal from this one.  The story sounds somewhat cliche and giving the whole story in capsule like that doesn’t leave me wondering anything – not even if the main character will succeed.  The blurb gives me no reason to care, so this will be another one I will be hoping will surprise me.

Well, thats my pick of some of the most interesting sounding blurb, please note this is no indictment of the other games.  If I have time i’ll go beyond these, but lets face it – i’ll be impressed if I manage this many.

Many of the ones I havn’t noted here had no blurb at all, so no real way to gauge how interesting it sounds.  Also, I have particular tastes in style and genre, and I generally play for the story and not the puzzles – so i’ll go science fiction before say, Everybody Dies which sounds, from the blurb, like a deep, thoughtful literary excursion into fathomless depression.  I’d rather play a nice sci-fi, even one that isn’t very good – at least it’ll make a fun review.

I should also point at that some of my favorite interactive fiction of all time are A Mind Forever Voyaging, Babel, Anchorhead, Vespers and The Lurking Horror.  Take from that what you will, but I like stories.  Puzzles, unless they are particularly clever, are never enough for me.  (Lock and Key springs to mind, that was quite fun.)

Well, thats that, hopefully i’ll be back before too long with the first review.  Feel free to comment and join in the litany. 

A final note, I have never completed writing a piece of interactive fiction, though I’ve tooled around in the languages a bit, and i’ve no patience for teaching.  Obviously I am a natural choice as a critic.