IF Comp 2013

My reviews are a little delayed this year (thanks, government shutdown for turning October and November into scheduling train wrecks) and I didn’t get to take every submission on a test drive, but the silver lining is that I can just fire off my comments without worrying about influencing anyone else’s reviews. My comments will be short, as I just jotted a few notes about each work, and now a few weeks after playing them, I tend to only remember the points that really struck me. I didn’t use my scoring rubric from previous years, but I had the same criteria in mind. I would usually rate games according to five categories on a first pass and then adjust the scores before voting based on gestalt after playing all of them. This year, I went with my initial gut rating and used the overall history of IF Comp as a baseline.

These reviews are in the random order of play, up to the point that I hit the November 15th voting deadline. Here’s the pseudo-obligatory line break for propriety and etiquette:

Captain Verdeteer’s Plunder: 8

It seems wrong to give such a linear, countdown-driven game a relatively high ranking, but gods, I found this game fun to play. There’s a playful quirkiness that makes it worthwhile to poke at corners of the game. While I realized that I was just optimizing a finite bunch of options, this game sucked me in for a couple hours of trying to do just a bit better than the time before.

Paper Bag Princess: 5

This is a cute story, but I have pretty high standards for remediation of existing works. The game is short, and just about all the action happens at the end during the dragon encounter. From the included libraries, I assumed that it would come down to some sort of dialogue-based play, but from what I saw that bit of dialogue at the end could easily have been accomplished without the overhead of a library.  I nearly quit when I ran into the maze, but that’s just a reflection of being in a grumpy mood when I played this piece. I found the conversation to be tricky and overly selective; I wasn’t adequately tuned in to the way the author was thinking to get through it without looking at the walkthrough. Maybe it would have helped if I had been more familiar with the underlying story. More generally, some sort of progressive hint system would be a big help — maybe something to considering layering on top during the post comp comp. I’d also suggest fixing the lack of updating for scenic elements, which breaks story continuity at a few points.

Tex Bonaventure: 7

I am an admittedly low-brow reviewer — I will rate something high if I enjoy it. Sometimes I’ll throw some points towards high art or technical accomplishment, but if a game isn’t interesting or if it doesn’t flow well, it will generally get a poor score from me. Tex was enjoyable to play and solidly implemented. There were some rough spots, places where the scene descriptions left me with a mental image other than what the writer had intended, and some solutions that weren’t apparent to me, but the overall experience was fun. The hint system was helpful and at points entertaining in its own right.

Further: 6

The overall flow of this story was linear and felt mechanical: a boilerplate description that is filled in as your memory returns, thickening, recollection of the room, an change of color. On other other hand, this gave some structure to what might have otherwise been a nebulous and frustrating existence. Along the same lines, the help/about revealed the situation and the goal more fully that I would have preferred, but it also exposed the “focus” verb, which was helpful. Most players peek at the help and about, but it’s not guaranteed that they do so, so there was a chance that this might not have been seen. I think it is always preferable for players to acquire game knowledge “in game”, but the author’s intention to be helpful was nonetheless appreciated. This work could be improved by putting more clueing in the game text, adding some variety and allowing for some divergence in the path through the story. I did enjoy the end of the story, which featured a puzzle based on in-game experience, a twist, and a strong final narration.

Imposter Syndrome: 6

This sense of dissociation and racing, anxious inner dialogue during public speaking is an altogether too familiar feeling, and this work faithfully elicited those feelings of pressure and pace. The background was skillfully woven into the flow of the story and the hyperlink navigation did a good job of recapitulating the sometimes wandering course of thought that occurs while giving a talk before an audience. The writing was solid and well-edited. I did not rate it higher because, like most hyperlink fiction, I pretty much ran through every available link and backed myself out each time to get from beginning to end. To me, that doesn’t feel as much like a play experience as a compulsive surfing through a set of web pages. I enjoyed the read through on the first pass, but for me there is no sense of “replayability” in this sort of piece.

Solarium: Not Rated

The first couple web pages looked nice, but I don’t have access to Internet Explorer.

Mrs. Wobbles & The Tangerine House: 5

This has nice production value, but is a demo for a framework. It looks like it will become some sort of educational software aimed primarily at reading comprehension, but may also carry some progressive social messages in the subtext. I’m not sure how effective it will be in that capacity or if features like bonus points for reading poetry passage are really going to work when this hits production, but judging this solely as an IFcomp entry, I found it well put together, but marginally entertaining, and as a partial demo, incomplete. There certainly is potential, though.

Sam and Lee go to the Bodega: 4

Just about anything can be made into entertaining IF: two dysfunctional addicts shopping for consumables in a convenience store is not a bad premise. However, I didn’t find much in this entry. They make small talk with each other, and perhaps their lack of getting anywhere is the point of this piece. At the end, when the readers take on the roll of the cashier, there isn’t much for the player to do other than nod or smile at their remarks. This one just didn’t capture my interest.

Vulse: 3

Um. Didn’t quite get this one. The fast-forward/reverse control looked interesting, but the whole piece did not make a lot of sense to me. The style was poetic and actions had consequences of some sort, but the relationship was not causal A few pictures were mixed in. Art, I suppose. Didn’t float my boat.

Who among us: 7

This murder/mystery has a good location, some interesting characters, and it seems, a relatively complex plot that ties into these characters’ pasts. The plot is familiar: somewhat shady characters find themselves conveniently isolated in the mountains and must spend the evening together while one after the other dies violently.

The author has some good ideas, but the quality of the writing varies. One suggestion would be for this author to partner up at some point, maybe after beta-testing, with a partner who could focus not on game mechanics, but on making the writing more consistent and fluid.

I have to admit I didn’t finish this game. It seems quite long, and fairly far into it, my browser window closed, taking with it the game state. Poof. I had enjoyed playing through about an hour and a half, but I could’t bring myself to replay up to that point, so this one remains unfinished for me. I may go back to it after the comp to see how it ends.

Trapped in Time: NA

I didn’t rate this one. This was a PDF-based CYOA, which seemed a little off the point of IFcomp. I am saving this one for my next long plane flight — hope it works on a Kindle.

Quest: 6

I think the site was down the first time I tried playing this, but it worked fine subsequently. I completely and totally missed the point of this on my first pass. The rhyming seemed awful, and without catching on to the core mechanic, this entry was heading for a two. I usually don’t pay attention to other reviews during the game playing period, but in this case, I knew I’d be writing mine so late that it wouldn’t really affect anything. I noticed that some other reviewers had given this a higher rating, and scanned through to see what I had missed. With that bit of hint, I went back and played through, this time enjoying the game much more. I still found the rhyming annoying, but at least I understood the constraints.

The Wizard’s Apprentice: 4

Wizards make lousy employers and even worse human resource managers. How many IF games have we seen in recent years with this theme? I presume the attraction is the player has access to but not mastery over a repertoire of spells, which delimits the puzzles to be encountered and sets up the master wizard as both teacher and adversary.

I appreciated that the rules of the game were clear: there are a limited number of spells, and you need to use all of them to succeed. Getting out of the dungeon was a classic escape scenario, with some spell casting veneer. After that, though, the game went down hill for me, as I encountered one situation after another in which I had absolutely no idea what to do. The puzzles and solutions seemed arbitrary and reading the walkthrough left me reeling with questions like, “I was supposed to do what? How would I ever in a million years have thought of doing that?”. The solutions were narrow and finicky, and not at all clued in some cases. Spotty implementation and some internal inconsistencies contributed to making the story impossible without the walkthrough. This story had beta-testing, but either they were much more on the same wavelength as the author or they must have focused on spelling/grammar fixes rather than playability.

9 Lives: 4

With light implementation and no help, hints, credits, etc., I missed the reincarnation aspect of this game on the original play through because I thought it was buggy, and that the levels were literally elevations in the skyscraper or keep.

I had an unpleasant feeling through playing this that the game was forcing me into ethical dilemmas with the point of moralizing one, often ambiguous, choice above another. In some cases, there was no good choice, but I felt penalized for making logical and I felt justifiable decisions.

On replay, it made a bit more sense, and I concluded that the game was not buggy, just a little obscure about what its message. I still didn’t like the story, but had to give it some points for being reasonably well written and edited.

Threediopolis: 5

This entire game clung for dear life to the first scene for its entire set up and motivation. After that, it’s a flat-out puzzle generator. I will say that it was clever and that I liked the mechanic, but I’d much rather have these logic games embedded in a story than as the main course. Some of the words were really obscure or strangely spelt — I had a hard enough time common words. Those comments aside, the game was well edited and programmed.

The House at the End of Rosewood Street: 7

There is something about this game that kept me at my keyboard, although the game play was 95% cranking through a daily routine of delivering newspapers and running menial errands for needy villagers.

Each game day that I delivered papers, I figured that something would change, something would be revealed, and the game did reward me with minor changes in the type of task to be done, changing news stories. Who was the strange guy at the end of the street? Who is Elisabeth? What relationship did I have to the characters in the new stories? I felt like I was a minor character in Twin Peaks, and that something big was bound to happen…

… and then the entire week seemed to reset. I continued to play through a bit in the second week, but have to admit that when I got most of the way through that week, having delivered a bajillion newspapers, and nothing changed… I quit the story. The answers may by out there, but I was not willing to bear with the repetition for that long. I realize that I had also asked players to bear with quite a bit of repetition in Rover’s Day Out, a point on which that work was justly criticized, but even I had reached my limit (and was approaching the 2 hour time limit as well) with this story.

I did enjoy the quirky characters and setting, and I bet there is gold buried under the surface of this story. It would be great if there author were able to find some way to make the rest of the story more accessible and/or short circuit some of the repetition in a post-comp tweak.

Cardew House: 3

I was not able to play this entry beyond a fatal bug which crashed my interpreter. From what I saw, I was not impressed with the level of implementation and I do not think that the story was proofread before release. It also seems to me that not a lot of thought went into the writing, with sentences like: “Step by step, the steps get closer until they stop at the top of the steps.” There is a certain alliteration, but I don’t think its intentional. Anyhow, plenty of room for improvement for a post-comp submission.

Coloratura:  10

I haven’t given any game a ten since Violet. Coloratura checked every box for me — a really well done alien main character, multiple perspectives, a strong sense of learning from experience and directing the flow of the action. I can’t imagine how much work went into polishing this game, which has essentially no distracting deficits in terms of editing or depth of implementation — this is the game that I would hold up as  example of game that really respects the player — clear instructions, reasonable implicit actions, and shortcuts for common actions. The writing is superb and just about everything I could think of doing led to some reasonable and more often entertaining response.  Fantastic!

Mazredugin: 5

Not far beneath the surface of this story is a sincere attempt to capture the state of mind of an insecure, awkward teen, and the writer gets points for conveying that consistently. However, this is a rough work, even taking notice that there are credits for testers. Some good copy editing would be helpful not so much to fix spelling errors, but to smooth over some sketchy grammar and to rework descriptive passages that come across as ambiguous, jumbled and disorganized. I found it hard to remain oriented, to keep up on what was happening, and to know where to go with each scene.

I was able to play about 2/3 through the game by following the walkthrough, but stopped out of frustration at that point. I could see where the walkthrough was going, but I think the author over-estimates the amount of information that the player would have been able to glean in game.

This was an ambitious project and given more time and a few iterations of tough-love beta-testing, this piece has potential.

The rest…

This is as far as I got by the time of vote submission. I stuck to a random play order, although I was tempted to try Ollie Ollie Oxen Free and Robin & Orchard because I was familar with authors’ previous works. These and all the other entries are still on my to do list.

One thought on “IF Comp 2013”

  1. Thanks for posting these–authors are grateful for reviews even after the comp deadlines! I know a lot of us plan for post-comp updates & detailed thoughtful comments like these help. If you find the time/motivation, I suspect other authors will be grateful for your thoughts on their games, too.

    I figured my game’s lack of story would be a huge downer for some people–this will be somewhat resolved post-release with you learning more about Ed as you solve more puzzles, but it’s still a big hole if I want general appeal. I focused more on the abstract logic, since I love that sort of thing. But I want to give the player more story if I enter again.

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