Mark Musante's Mini Reviews

For the games entered in
The 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Copyright 1999 by Mark J. Musante
All Rights Reserved.

Hello, and thanks for taking a look at my humble reviews. For the 1999 competition, I voluntered to be the vote taker, which took time away from actually reviewing all the games. I would love to go and play them all, but I realize that it's probably not in the cards. So, instead, I present to you the games that I did manage to play in the month and a half that we were given.

They are listed in the order I played them, for what that's worth. In retrospect, I was really lucky to have hit on For a Change first. During the competition, I heard lots of mutterings from many people saying how weak the entries were for this competition and, frankly, I didn't understand why they said that. After all, I had a good experience right off the mark.

In any case, I hope you like them. I've also included, for each game that I remembered to do so, a transcript of the session that I had with it in the hopes that the author would find it useful. Please let me know if you did. I want to keep this tradition up (and I encourage others to do the same).

1. For a Change, by Dan Schmidt, Serial No. 990930, Release 1
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
change.z5 [ 1 ] Inform 89.5k 10
This game has a lot to recommend. Its odd use of words and images convey, in no uncertain terms, that you the player in another world, another culture. This isn't the ordinary "you're in a world of magic", or "you're far in the future with cool science-fictiony gadgets", but an extraordinary world with words that only vaguely resemble their English counterparts.

After I finished the game, I read the author's afterword. In it he states he wanted to create a world "in which objects are described in terse [language] that assumes the player character understand the terms used". He accomplishes this goal with aplomb. His ability to twist words around, to use a similar word in place of the usual one ("inscribed" instead of "standing", for instance), to describe locations as though they were passing thoughts, stun the player's mind, and reach into his soul.

To abuse an overused cliche, you're not in Kansas any more.

Thie feeling I had was similar to that of Graham Nelson's The Tempest from a previous competition, except this was more accessible. Instead of obscuring the features of the landscape, the language instead brought them to life by forcing you to think about them in a different way. Fortunately, it didn't ask player to write in the same way that the text was written. This was good from a puzzle-solving point of view (no need to learn a new set of commands) but, from the point of view of immersing yourself within the writing, it served to set me apart. I knew I could "speak" in English and be understood, even if the game was talking to me in an otherworldly fashion.

I'm not sure that's a puzzle that an author can solve. To force the use of another language would make the game astoundingly difficult. But not having that language used at all sets the player apart from the game, strenghthening the feeling of controlling a puppet instead of living in the game's world.

The only place the game falls down is in the NPC's. I can understand a fish not being communicative (I didn't even try), but the toolman could have been a bit better. He's a great concept -- I would have liked to have been able to interact with him a bit. As far as the spinster is concerned, I got the distinct impression that it (she?) was meant to be an NPC. But I don't recall ever doing anything with it or interacting with it in a puzzle-solving or plot-advancing fashion. Perhaps this was part of the game that Dan hadn't gotten a chance to flesh out.

On the whole, I very much enjoyed it. The writing was skillfully done, and the puzzles were just about the right difficulty for a competition game. I look forward to Dan's next work.

2. Spodgeville Murphy and The Jewelled Eye of Wossname, by David Fillmore Serial No. 990927 Release 5
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
wossname.z5 [ 1 ] Inform 70k 5
Unfortunatly, this game had a flaw it it which prevented me from completing it within the requisite time. After two hours of dying, climbing, whipping, shooting, and graverobbing, I was unable to figure out how to escape from this one room wonder. There were a number of technical problems with this entry as well that manifested themselves mostly as text formatting errors.

That aside, I did, in fact, enjoy quite a bit of this game. I did chuckle a number of times as I played through it, particularly when I asked for a "full" score after one of my many deaths.

I found myself wishing the game had gone a bit more into the realm of puzzles, rather than concentrating mostly on the writing. Although Fillmore is certainly able to string words together, there's a difference between writing and interactive fiction. I felt, as often I do in a poorly-described environment, as though I was only getting part of the picture. I felt as if I had a veil over my head and was only able to glimpse bits and pieces of my environment.

I'd like to single out one sentence because it was particularly jarring. In fact, it might be the manifestation of a bug. After I figured out how to survive the room, I climbed up on the platform. The game gave me a couple of paragraphs of text once I did that, ending with "But you're already on the platform." Eh? Was it trying to do something else at that point? Did the beta testers not see this? Did Fillmore not care?

I wish I could have completed this game. I'm sure there were a few more chuckles waiting round the bend. To bad the bend was unaccessible.

3. Life on Beal Street, by Anonymous (Ian Finley) Serial No - Release [not given]
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
beal.gam None. TADS 50.9k 8

As the "About" text reads, this is not a game. Instead it presents the player with a story that changes each time through. Sure, you always are heading towards KC's house. Sure, you always reminisce about Shawn. But the memories are different.

Unlike a number of the other games I played, this entry presented me with no problem in completing it under two hours. While I hadn't exhausted the entire repertoire that the game (for lack of a better word) had given me, I did read through quite a lot of them.

There is a LOT of text here, which belies the size of the game (a mere 51k). What makes the whole game worth it is the author's skill with words. He paints a compelling story or, in fact, 780 stories, and just trying to keep track of them all was too much for my poor mind to handle.

I enjoyed saying "no". I said it over and over again, each time getting something unexpected. Some changes were subtle, others quite dramatic.

I enjoyed reading the stories. I enjoyed the ability to back up a step and try a different tack. I enjoyed the words flowing up the screen and the pictures they were painting. I enjoyed this work of interactive fiction. I'll probably play it again.

4. A Day for Soft Food by Tod Levi Serial number 990930 Release 1
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
softfood.z5 [ 1 ] Inform 125k 4

First dogs, then teddy bears, and now cats.

Yes, it can be fun to role-play an animal. But this animal (myself) was unable to fathom "A Day for Soft Food" at all. The cat I was playing need a smarter human behind it.

How do cats set traps? How do they tie string to car keys? What was that "egg" I was toting around?

The other main complaint I had was about the geography. It was all haphazard. Go west to go to a place, and you end up going south to return. North gets you to the Clearing, but west gets you back. Is this how the author belives cats think?

Even after resorting to hints, I was unable to finish this game on time. Too many times did this game ask me to read the author's mind. For one or two puzzles it, on a good day, can be excused. This game, however, had me pretty much completely stumped throughout its entirety.

I'll give it points for the writing. That was solid and well crafted. But I just couldn't enjoy the game as a whole. Far too difficult, and not enough motivation.

5. Pass the Banana by Anonymous (Admiral Jota) Serial number 990921 Release 1
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
banana.z5 [ 1 ] Inform 67.5k 1

Well, it didn't take long for me to hit my first one room wonder. True to its name, in this game you get to pass bananas.

I managed to score 9 out of 10 points, so I consulted the walkthrough to see what I missed. But the walkthrough wasn't cooperative.

Bottom line: this game is worth a chuckle if you have about 30 seconds to kill.

(Bonus point: the file size for banana.z5 is 69,105 bytes)

6. Calliope by Jason McIntosh Serial number 991001 Release 1
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
calliope.z5 [ 1 | 2 ] Inform 83k 1

Two short games in a row. I understand that the competition leads some people to overestimate the amount of time it takes to play, just as others underestimate it. However, when a game has only two or three puzzles, it's not going to take long to either (a) figure them all out or (b) give up in frustration.

Fortunately, I was able to fall into the first category this time around, although this game was little more than a test of the author's ability to use Inform. The puzzles did not amount to much and the plot, such as there was, doesn't have much to recommend.

Onward to the next.

7. Six Stories by N. K. Guy Serial number 990930-21 Version 1.0
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
six.gam [ 1 ] TADS 722k 7

Last year we got "Arrival". This year it's "Six Stories" -- a game that uses many of the features that HTML-TADS offers. Sound effects, imagry, narration, this game has all the elements to add another dimension to the traditional IF environment.

But do they? Ironically, I found that I was concentrating more on the effects than on the game itself. No, they didn't detract from the game completely. When I saw the picture of my car disabled by the side of the road, it seemed much more real to me than what I've been used to in IF. In fact, I tried one action that I'm sure I never would have had I merely been reading words on the screen. The fact that the game didn't know what hazard lights were doesn't detract in the slightet from the extremely strong feeling of being there.

Was it a game? It had a puzzle or two, and it had an interesting story (or set of stories) to tell. But the main puzzle wasn't difficult (the off-hand mention of the needle "sticking" to the stone combined with the rest of the items I was given as gifts, made the puzzle straightforward). So if the puzzles weren't that difficult, we're left with the story.

As dramatic as the opening is, the midgame is cute. Inanimate objects telling some stories from their past, and all you have to do is listen. Here's where the author's technical skills shone. The voiceovers were a great way to give each one of the characters life. The imagery, although static, added some depth to the narration. For me, the story worked.

I'd love to see what kind of game Neil can come up with when he REALLY flexes his multimedia muscles -- this game was far too short to

8. Halothane by Quentin D. Thompson Serial number 990928 Release 1
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
halo.z5 [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ] Inform 42.3k 2

This game starts out with "You know the furniture of this room ... almost as well as the contents of your pockets." So I dutifully checked my inventory and found... nothing. I know the furniture as well as nothing? Hmmm. I guess that makes sense since the player can find things unexpectedly underneath a dusty manuscript -- after all, if you knew the room as well as nothing, you oughtn't to know that there's anything under anything else, right?.

As I write these words, I have just completed the game's first puzzle: that of getting to sleep. Part of what makes a good game good (and great games great) is the designer's or designers' ability to integrate the puzzles presented to the player into the plot. Here the fan "puzzle" seems sort of tacked on.

Let me try to figure out why, by reasoning aloud. I got into bed and tried to sleep. The game's immedite response was "It's way too hot...". This was the first mention of any sort of discomfort I was feeling -- it would have been nice to know this beforehand. In fact, I think that this very item is the thing that makes the fan/sleep puzzle tacked on. It's an "oh, wait, you can't do that because the fortisan isn't on the hobsigleeder" kind of moment. You're told somthing just as you need to know it and not a moment sooner. If the game had told me it was hot right from the start, this would have felt more integrated.

The second part, of course, was finding the correct object on which to place the fan. I tried the bookcase and desk before the game let me put the fan on the chair. And then, to my surprise, it didn't ask me to move the fan nearer to the bed.

Finally I was able to get to sleep.

The reason I went into depth about this one minor obstacle is that it's a perfect, almost textbook, example of how not to add puzzles to your game. Don't tack things on just because you think of some obstacle to progress. Add a puzzle because it helps to develop the plot or advance the story.

OK, I'll stop that now. Here's the review:

This game is a bit on the longish side. By the time two hours were up, I was less than halfway through according to the point scoring system. (But who's to say that it meant I was halfway through? The points in this game seemed entirely arbitrary. Maybe it was all leading up to some ironic twist at the end, but I just wasn't getting it. At one point I earned points just for typing 'z' the requisite number of times. What kind of a reward can it be, then, getting something for essentially nothing?)

As far as the plot is concerned, you're a writer suffering from that excuse-of-excuses: writer's block. So somehow you enter your own mind, learning along the way that, in fact, your thoughts and, indeed, all writers thoughts, become reality in another dimension. OK, I can go along with that. I really liked the John Candy film "Delirious" (and, no, not just because of Emma Samms), which also had a writer entering his own creation.

But enough is enough. After the umteenth time of reading how amazed the PC is that he meets one of his own characters, it gets tiring.

There is one thing in this game that does work for me, and that's the writing. Say what I will about the rest of the game, but Thompson can turn a phrase. Although some of them might be unintentionally amusing ("tie up all the loose knots", for example), he does have a skill at stringing words together.

Unfortunately, it's not enough to salvage this game. Perhaps if I could have finished it, I wouldn't be so harsh -- maybe all those loose knots would have tied together somehow. As it is, though, this game has little going for it, and there's nothing here that is making me want to come back to complete it after the comp is over.

9. Chicks Dig Jerks by Robb Sherwin Serial number 990930 Release 1
Filename Transcript Platform Game size Rating
chix.z5 [ 1 | 2 ] Inform 141k -

Nothing like a little sex and violence to liven up your day, eh? Unfortunately, like "Wossname", this game seems to have a bug in it which prevents me from finishing. I got as far as the graveyard where an invisible person shot Keegan and commenced shooting at me if I dared to go too far west. He never hit me, but he never seemed to run out of bullets, either.

So all I can do is review the portion of the game that I played. And there isn't much game here. Sherwin has committed a slew of technical errors which detract from the presentation -- excess newlines, actions described in room text, and so on. The puzzle to get over the fence was a read-author's-mind for me. I never would have solved it without the walkthrough.

To the game's credit, the writing was quite interesting. Sherwin has created(?) an entire subculture with its own language and mannerisms. The second time I played through the game (I was hoping a different approach would avoid the bug mentioned above), I was amused by his inclusion of the word 'zorked' as a synonym for 'drunk'. The graverobbing subculture that Sherwin puts the player in the midst of felt quite real -- it almost had me wondering if the author himself was part of it all, and simply following that tried-and-truism: write what you know. Full marks for an effectively realized society.

But, lingo aside, there's not much else here that holds my interest. I fear that, even if I had been able to complete the game, I would have found the rest of it as unattractive as the beginning.

This page is part of Mark Musante's Interactive Fiction Site
All text on this page, except quotes or excerpts from the games reviewed, is Copyright 1999 by Mark J. Musante. All rights reserved.
Last update: December 1999