chimney sweep
chimney sweep

Catapole is a cut above the other two games in the competition, and among the best games I’ve played this year. It is not necessarily a long game, but it does some serious world building. The main character, Jenker Harmlot, is a chimney sweep — apparently, one of the best, as he’s the employee of the month. He has one more chimney to clean before turning in for the evening, so he sets out on his task. Along the way, we learn a lot about him, and the society in which he lives.

Over the course of the game, we learn of some class divisions in society. There’s an above ground society, which is less and less known to the successive generations of underground workers who labor to produce power and materials for their upstairs cousins.

His assignment doesn’t go very well. His chimney sweeping partner, they guy who stays up top and lowers him down, is thrown into the chimney and sliced to pieces by fan blades. Apparently, these aren’t so much your Santa Claus type chimneys, but more the industrial kind. Who did it? Those who are intent on bringing down the class structure. They’ve specifically targeted overachieving Jenker as a message to the other workers.

After the somewhat gruesome (see, there really are grues) death of Jenker’s buddy, Markus, the game can take several courses depending on what Jenker does. The multiple endings are seamlessly integrated, and give the player a great deal of freedom is deciding what happens. Jenker can fight the resistance, he can run away, or he could even break with his mundane life, join the resistance, and end the game on the surface. Each of these is a well-written ending, although the last one feels the most satisfying.

Points are not easy to come by in this game, and I don’t think I found them all. The voice is consistent, with excellent bits of humor. Any item that is implemented is given a thorough description, although some items that are mentioned in passing are not implemented. Aside from that one criticism, though, this game gets full marks, so a nine. I think this game would have ranked amongst the top entries in the IF Comp 2009, language barrier aside.

One observation about both this game and La Chambre de Syrion: the games have some non-interactive elements, where text is revealed paragraph by paragraph, with each tap on the space bar. I remember this being very annoying in Condemned this year, but it was almost transparent in these games. I did not feel a lack of agency, even though these were essentially cut scenes. I think the difference is that the blocks of text were short: one or two lines, and not a giant text bomb. Also, this method lends itself to both establishing a sense of timing and revealing twisting plot little by little. You literally don’t see what’s coming next until you hit the space bar.

[note added in proof — originally, I had mentioned that this takes place in a society of Elves. I had written these reviews up about a week after playing all three games, and although I had my notes in front of me, I mangled it. Elves were part of Chambre de Syrion, not Catapole. I guess I had Elves on the brain, though. For some reason, I found it easy to imagine Jenker as a dark elf, like a drow. It didn’t help that I was editing Rover’s Day Out for the post-comp-comp and Hoosegow for the JiG competition at the same time. Sometimes multitasking is not a good thing. Anyhow, this was a fun game — and it won the French IF Competition for 2009. Hope to see more from all three authors next year! – Jack]

Les méchants meurent au moins deux fois

MI5 Emblem
The emblem of MI5

From the title and the author’s pseudonym (Yann Flemmard), you can guess that this is a send up in the style of James Bond. There’s even a movie teaser cut-scene that alludes to this being a particularly low-budget super-spy production. The help menu continues the theme, with a recap of your goals provided in a Mission Impossible style message that will self-destruct.

The game begins after you’ve killed the bad guy, Maurice McVile. You weren’t supposed to have killed him, but you know how these things go. Anyhow, you’re on his secret tropical island base, standing atop his medieval castle, looking down into the court yard at his dead body…. and I’m stuck. I have to admit I can’t give the game a good rating, possibly because I’m bad at puzzles, but from my perspective, there isn’t any more game that this because I can’t get to it. Given the grading scheme for the competition, which strongly weights playability, this game can’t get a good score.

At this point, I turned to the help menu, which again provides the apparently not-so-self-destructible background information, and mentions that in game hints are available, along with a full game solution.  I tried the hints, but they were of limited assistance – they told me to look around carefully and that I already had enough to move ahead. So, I tried going every direction, examining to death everything in my environment, and carrying out every action I could think of on the trap door which is buried in the grass. The hidden trap door is not so hidden (which is good, or I would not have found it), but it has been closed from the inside, and our dead nemesis in the courtyard has the remote control.

I tried again. And again. And brought my wife to play it. And tried again. Finally, I typed “solution” to see the step-by-step full solution… only to find that this prints a blank line. This was enough to make me wonder if perhaps this is not so much a game as an introduction to a game that was not completed by the time of the competition.  Presumably, given the underground theme, the right way to go is down, so I’ll keep an eye on the forums to see if anyone can suggest how to get past the trap door.

In the mean time, the game gets a three or four. The setting and voice are pretty good, but the hint system is not helpful, and solutions system fails entirely. Perhaps a post-comp release will fix these issues and flesh out the rest of the game, which looks like it would be enjoyable.

[Note added after the contest: This game placed 3rd in the competition, and was contributed by Eric Forgeot, aka Otto Grimwald on RAIF and the forums. After playing a revision of the game dated 17 Jan 2010, I revised my opinion of the game upwards somewhat, see the later review]

La Chambre de Syrion

Illustration from Der Zauberlehrling
Der Zauberlehrling

The setting of this game is a little clichéd: the sorcerer’s apprentice. I think the last game I played like this category was Berrost’s Challenge in the 2008 IF Comp. These are the games where the novice protagonist is left with (or has stolen, found, inherited, etc.) some of the master’s spells and they need to prove themselves in some way to move up a wizardly rank. Given this year’s theme of underground, the twist on this story is that the PC’s master, Syrion, had his lab underground. Theme satisfied.

The spells are a mixture of extremely specific spells (a spell for opening an unopenable bottle) and general (spells for seeing more detail in things, and for making complex things simpler). As you might imagine, the bottle-opening spell portends the appearance of an unopenable bottle in the course of the game.

The king of the spells is one that gives you more detail about items. Effectively, it is a super-examine verb, and means that some items have not just a description but a meta-description. A key turning point in the game is when the player realizes that the spell can be applied not just to visible objects, but items appearing in the details of objects. This allows the player to drill down, for instance, into the contents of a painting. This literally adds depth to descriptions, and I suppose is even metaphorically consistent with the underground theme because you can dig down.

It is not a huge game: there are essentially four rooms, three underground, and once accessible by teleporting above ground. The level of detail is inconsistent. Not every item that appears in descriptions is covered by dictionary words and descriptions, but there are no gaps in the major items. The puzzles are reasonable and do allow you to exercise all of the spells. A couple of the spells are not actually helpful, but are entertaining. I did look at the hints at one point, and they are well-written and helpful. The only down side to the hints is that you can’t exit them without revealing all of them. The best you can do is look off into the distance while hitting the space bar repeatedly.

The game has a good voice, and it is interlaced with some humor, particularly in Syrion’s descriptions of his spells, which suggests that he did not particularly like his in-laws. The goal of the game is to get out of Syrion’s lair, and when you finally do so, it feels a little like the ending fizzles. You walk out the door, and there are your friends. But the game isn’t over. What more does it want? They just stand there. Finally, you have to talk to them to trigger the ending, et voilà.

This wasn’t a stellar game in terms of theme, and I would prefer a deeper implementation, but it was fun to play and fair. Given the rubric for rating these games, I’d give it a seven or eight. Four for playability, one and half to two for writing, and again one and a half for technical implementation. If I were rating it against the IF Comp 2009 games, I would have given it a seven.

[Note added after the competition: This work placed second in the competition, and was contributed by Benjamin Roux, aka Yoruk on the forum]

French IF Competition 2009

French Minicomp 2009: The Underground
French Minicomp 2009: The Underground

So, what’s a blog without some content?

The 2009 edition of the French IF competition is now in progress. Yes, in 2010. But better late than never. This year’s theme: Underground.

There are only three games in the competition and I played through them last week. I’ve made some notes and I’ll give each of them a separate post, a practice which I’d like to follow for other IF comps, time permitting. I think I’ve figured out how to post with cut tags, but for these three games, I’m just to to make a simple post with out leading text, etc.  Considering my blog’s in English, I don’t think there is as much concern about giving away spoilers for this particular competition.

Scoring in this competition is based on a scale of ten, with general  playability and fun weighted twice as heavily as writing and technical skill. I’ll try to explain how I came up with my scoring for each.

One general remark on the competition: unlike the IF Comp, all of the authors in this one are anonymous. It’s possible to be anonymous or to use a pseudonym in IF Comp, but most people don’t. I wouldn’t mind if the IF Comp adopted this practice across the board, though, as I think it helps to level the playing field in terms of incumbents versus newbies, and also lets the player start fresh on each work, without any baggage from past encounters with authors.

The reviews are found here:

Setting up the blog

Jack posts something so as not to have to look at a blank screen.

Since 90% of what I’d like to put on the web can be easily stuck into a blog, I’ve set up this wordpress site. The drupal-based site on will remain up, and will be used for some of the heavier lifting, when I need more control over configuration, but I’m really impressed with how easy it was to install wordpress and how painless the theming is.

That’s enough for a first post. No comments until I get something capta or openID based. I don’t need a page full of viagra adds, thank you.