Monday, October 13, 2008

[IF Competition] Snack Time!

I have already played 13 games in the IF Comp, but I've only written about 6 of them--so it's definitely time to crank out some more not-quite-reviews.

Lest the opportunity for small talk given to me by the necessity of filling this space with more or less meaningless sentences go to waste, I will now tell you that this competition will always be linked in my mind to the music of Meatloaf. I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a week or so ago, and now I'm putting on Meatloaf songs whenever I start playing IF. My reviews will probably suffer.

Here we go, talking about Snack Time! by Hardy the Bulldog & Renee Choba.

What is good?
  • This is a very polished effort. Not only is the interaction smooth and painless, the author has also anticipated all kinds of funny actions.
  • The game has its own voice, being told from the perspective of a puppy. This makes what would otherwise be a very standard puzzler much more distinctive.
  • The puzzle - for it really is just a single puzzle - is well-clued, not too hard but not ridiculously easy either. I'm not sure I would have found the ideal ending by myself, but the sub-ideal ending is within even my meager puzzle-solving reach.
What could be better?
  • Nothing, really. The game is more or less perfect.
  • Of course, that doesn't mean that is it great, greatness and perfection being two distinctly different (and perhaps mutually exclusive) attributes. What Snack Time! lacks is ambition; and it lacks it in copious amounts.
Post-competition release?

Perhaps, if any bugs are found. And by the way, can I say that this game would lend itself well to being made free software? Implementing some additional funny things that the protagonist can do seems like something that many people might like to do.

My main hope is that the author(s) will tackle a bigger project next time. That could be something to watch out for.

Friday, October 10, 2008

[IF Competition] A Martian Odyssey

I have already played 11 games in the IF Comp, but I've only written about 5 of them--so it's definitely time to crank out some more not-quite-reviews.

Lest the opportunity for small talk given to me by the necessity of filling this space with more or less meaningless sentences go to waste, I will now tell you that this competition will always be linked in my mind to the music of Meatloaf. I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a week or so ago, and now I'm putting on Meatloaf songs whenever I start playing IF. My reviews will probably suffer.

Here we go, talking about A Martian Odyssey by Horatio.

What is good?
  • Alien landscapes are good! Overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination, and I'll forgive you many things.
  • Basing your work of IF on an existing story can be good as well. This territory hasn't been explored that well, and I welcome further exploration.
What could be better?
  • I said "overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination", and that is exactly what I meant. You are taking me to Mars. You are presenting bizarre things. So the very least that you need is (a) interesting descriptions, and (b) deep implementation. Make sure that investigating Mars is as much fun as it could possibly be! This is something that the game doesn't get right at all. If you describe your locations like this:
    Mare Chronium, West (in the auxiliary rocket)
    Another gray plain.
    then you are not making me care about exploring the world. You are doing the exact opposite. Or take something like this:
    Thyle II (in the auxiliary rocket)
    Another orange desert. Twenty miles into it, you cross a canal.

    >x canal
    You can't see any such thing.
    You are taking all the fun out of the premise by not describing enough and not implementing enough. So that it my main advise: give us interesting description. Give us a deep implementation. Let us fiddle around with what we encounter in as many ways as you can think up. Then, you will have nailed the fun of exploring an alien landscape, and everything else will just be an added bonus.
  • Better testing is also sorely needed. Something like this just shouldn't happen:
    >sleep
    You aren't feeling especially drowsy.

    >z
    You spend the night sleeping under the Martian sky.
    This is a relatively mild form of a problem that crops up much more often: the player is supposed to magically know the command he needs to type in order to proceed. Getting through the final parts of the game is just impossible without the walkthrough. ("follow smoke" was an especially unobvious command, but there are many more.) We need more guidance, and we need a bigger range of actions to actually work.
  • The previous two points will, I think, be found in most reviews of this game. Exploration needs to be more fun, and it needs to be made easier and more intuitive. What I'm going to say next is probably more a matter of taste.
  • If you adapt a story to IF, please choose a good story. I started reading Weinbaum's original, and I gave it up after about 25%. It is dull, badly written and uninspiring; those faults will unfortunately also be present in the derivative work. Now many will disagree with me. Apparently, a 1970 poll among SF writers put this story as the second best SF story ever written. According to Asimov, "With this single story, Weinbaum was instantly recognized as the world's best living science fiction writer, and at once almost every writer in the field tried to imitate him."

    I don't understand these judgements. In 1920, fourteen years before Weinbaum published his story, David Lindsay published his A Voyage to Acrturus. The idea is similar: a guy goes to another planet in a rocket, wanders around, and sees all kinds of strange things. But whereas Weinbaum's story is (from what I've seen) badly written and inconsequential, Lindsay's book is brilliant, deep and thought-provoking. I think an adaption of Lindsay would have more chance of succeeding than an adaption of Weinbaum. (And didn't Asimov read Lindsay, and if so, why not?)
Post-competition release?

Well, yes, if the author wishes to invest the time needed to really flesh out the world. By doing that, I think it is possible to transform this game from boring to fun. But it certainly is going to be quite some work.

Monday, October 06, 2008

[IF Competition] Project Delta

This is a spoilery post about Project Delta by Emilian Kowalewski. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark. So:

What is good?
  • As far as there is a game, it seems relatively well implemented.
What could be better?
  • If you want to show off your new IF-authoring system, you can do two things. First possibility: you write a game in in that blows people away, or at least shows that one can create good, solid games with your system. Second possibility: you write about your authoring system, in the hope that knowledgable people will be impressed by the technical details. What you do not do is write something that barely qualifies as the introduction to a game, tack on a discussion of what you are going to implement in future versions of your development system, and then release it to a competition where it will be judged on its merits as a game. That is a bad idea. From now on, people will associate your system with this barely-a-game.
  • Please, please do not give us an executable. It takes a lot of trust for people to run an executable from someone they do not know. (And it seems that this time, our trust might have been misplaced?) Of course, programs that run in a virtual machine can be malicious too, but at least you'd have to find a security flaw in the VM first, which is much harder to do.
  • Please, please do not give us an executable. Executables only run on the OS for which they have been compiled. I am not happy when I have to reboot my computer in order to start up Windows, just to play your game; and I at least have Windows installed, whereas many others do not. (And no, Project Delta does not run under Wine.)
  • Talking about Windows, I seem to remember reading that this game was written in Free Pascal? That should compile to Linux as well, so why didn't you provide us with a *nix executable?
  • Talking about Windows some more, is there anything more ugly than the terminal that still comes with my Windows XP? (I hope they have improved it in Windows Vista, but I somehow doubt it.) A terminal is a great tool, but is obviously one that Microsoft doesn't want to spend five minutes of their time on. You can't even resize it. And it has the ugliest font since... MS-DOS? It is MS-DOS, isn't it?
Post-competition release?

Uhm, no. Make an authoring system first, and then a game of which you can be proud. There is no use sending some half-baked, incredibly small, proto-game into the world. It just doesn't do anyone any good.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

[IF Competition] Channel Surfing

This is a spoilery post about Channel Surfing by Mike Vollmer. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark. So:


What is good?

This game has a lot of ambition, and then some. It is a scathing criticism of television in general and stupid game shows in particular. It offers a cynical view on politics. And if that is not enough, it embeds this in a science fiction story about new technologies and a future dystopia in which we all become "hollow men". I like ambition.

What could be better?


  • Quite a lot, unfortunately. This game aims very high, but doesn't reach the heights it aims for. More about that later. But the game also fails to get the basics of good design in place: adequate implementation of objects, synonyms, and actions. That really is a shame. Let's see some examples.
    >x me
    As good-looking as ever.
    Changing the default responses to actions like "x me", "sing", and so on goes a long way to convince me that you have taken the time to polish your game.
    >kick tv
    >
    The attack action gives no output in this game. Removing the standard message and not putting anything in its place is not good.
    >sit
    What do you want to sit on?

    >chair
    That's not something you can sit down on.
    Try to think of actions that people will probably try with the objects you have implemented. Sitting on a chair is not such a strange idea; I'm not the only one who is going to try doing that.
    >push remote
    You feel nothing unexpected.

    >use it
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >surf channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >change channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >choose channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >x remote
    A television remote control. It appears to be brand new, but the plastic seems a bit cheap and flimsy.

    >pull remote
    Nothing obvious happens.

    >change channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >change channel to 16
    The light from the television grows brighter, and you squeeze your eyes shut.
    This is what we call a "guess the verb" problem. (I was only able to solve it by looking at the hints.) The game only accepts highly specific input. As a game designer, you should try to anticipate different commands your players might try and make sure that all of them work. (Getting the ice on the fire was even worse than changing the channel. There "put ice on fire" and "throw ice on fire" don't work, and you have to type "dump ice on fire"--a locution that I'm sure nobody will hit on without consulting the hints.)
    Also, please implement the nouns that you mention in your room. The world is sparse enough as it is; please implement the few things that you put into it. If there is turkey somewhere, let me "examine turkey", and "eat turkey", and so on.

  • The theme of the game is ambitious, as I've said. But the presentation doesn't work. There is, of course, a serious question about why people watch television programs that cause their brains to leak out of their ears. But that question is precisely not illuminated by having me play through television shows that are both extremely stupid and very badly produced. The shows within Channel Surfing would never be watched, so seeing them in action tells me nothing about why people watch TV. In order to succeed here, you (the author) would have to succeed at seducing me (the player) to actually want to play these shows, while at the same time (or at least at some point within the game) allowing me to look through them at the emptiness behind. This is a tough challenge, but it's one Channel Surfing doesn't even attempt to meet.
  • More or less the same thing can be said about the theme of politics and the power of large corporations over our lives and minds. These are important issues, that must be explored through art. So kudos for that. But, you cannot explore these issues by taking them to a completely black-and-white extreme and asking me to feel indignation at the stupidity of people who vote for this kind of (non-existent, fictional, made up by you and not true to life) politician, or the evil and greed of this kind of (non-existent, fictional, made up by you and not true to life) businessman. You make everything too extreme, and that is why it no longer convinces.
  • So in short, my advice is to tone down the sarcasm, the indignation, and so on. You need to get some realism into your world (and that includes painting it in shades of grey, or at the very least attempting to understand people who watch Big Brother and vote for George W. Bush instead of claiming that they are idiots whose existence can hardly be explained). Without realism, the confrontation with the issues cannot take place.
Post-competition release?

Certainly. I demand at the very least a version where all the basic, technical issues I have spoken of are solved. This game has obviously been a lot of work; so it should be worth it invest a couple of more hours to solve the "guess the verb" problems, implement the missing actions and the missing nouns, and so on.

It would be a massive amount of work to make everything more believable and really connect with the issues--but even that might be worth it. The game has potential. If you don't want to go that way, please keep my remarks in mind when you make your next game.

Friday, October 03, 2008

[IF Competition] Nerd Quest

This is a spoilery post about Nerd Quest by RagtimeNerd. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark.

What is good?
  • It's written in Java, which means it is cross-platform compatible. And indeed: it runs perfectly on my Linux installation. Even better: it runs within my terminal of choice!
What could be better?
  • The game. If you want to write your own IF engine, be my guest; but know that you compete against TADS and Inform. If your engine isn't at least nearly as good, people will dislike your game. This engine is not nearly as good; in fact, it is really bad. Hardly anything is understood. The output is ugly. And the game that showcases this engine seemed to be trivial and sparse.
Post-competition release?

No. This author should either spend a lot more time on writing his engine and writing a game to go with it, or (s)he should migrate to Inform or TADS or another existing system and then spend a lot more time on writing a game.

[IF Competition] Recess At Last

This is a spoilery post about Recess at Last by Gerald Aungst. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark.

What is good?
  • The implementation is clean, bug free, responsive. This makes the play experience smooth and pleasurable.
  • There are some good hints within the game, and I always had a clear goal.
What could be better?
  • What did the author want to accomplish with this game? The story is trivial; by itself, it cannot keep us interested. Other things that might pique our interest are mostly absent.
  • I suspect that the author wrote a game that taps into his own nostalgia, since it features people and locations based on those he knew as a child. But for us outsiders, such nostalgia is absent. The setting, the characters and the story are bland if they do not come pre-infused with meaning; consequently, the game is rather boring to play. I fear that this piece was a lot of fun to make, but that this fun doesn't translate well to others.
Post-competition release?

Maybe. My main complaint cannot be addressed through anything less than a complete revision, and I'm not sure that is a good idea. I would advise the author to take a more player-centric approach for his next game, and make the leading design question: What will keep the player interested in my game?

Such a question can have many answers (the unfolding of a gripping story, solving devious puzzles, having to make difficult choices, interacting with interesting NPCs, and so on); but it should have at least one clear answer that informs design at every step.

The author certainly has enough technical and writing competence to make a good game, so if he follows this advice, I eagerly await his next work.

[IF Competition] Afflicted

Let us talk about the games in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. Instead of proclaiming judgement over the games and giving them a mark for all to see, I am planning to write reactions in the form of constructive criticism and advice to the authors. Hopefully, that will be more useful. (Specific bugs will be emailed directly to the author.)

All these posts will contain spoilers - consider yourself warned.

(Emily Short gave me the idea of changing the settings of my blog so that it will only send a couple of sentences, rather than the whole spoilery post, to sites like Planet IF. So if you are wondering why it's changed: that's why.)

Without further ado, here are my comments on Afflicted by Doug Egan.


What is good?
  • Afflicted is an example of a kind of game that is slowly becoming the "standard", replacing the old puzzler. It is not quite puzzleless, not in the sense that Photopia and The Baron are puzzleless (i.e., written with the explicit goal of never having the player get stuck), but it doesn't really contain any puzzles either (it is also not written with the explicit goal of putting challenges in the way of the player). In addition, it is strong on story, and leads to several different endings based on what the player character does during the game, endings which cannot necessarily be ranked as better or worse. I like this overall concept.
  • What I found particularly effective was the juxtaposition of two kinds of horror: a pedestrian horror at the uncleanliness of the restaurant, and a more dramatic horror at severed limbs, vampires and gore. The underlying psychology is quite alike, and I thought the game was strengthened by its inclusion of lots of pedestrian horror.
  • The routine of checking out everything and noting all the filthy things was a nice way of getting me to explore the entire place with a sense of purpose. It solved the familiar problem of making it plausible that the PC would explore the haunted mansion.
  • There were a lot of endings, and they clearly followed from what you did in the final turns. It was interesting to explore the space of possibilities.
What could be better?
  • The presentation of information on the screen could be done a bit better. There are some locations, especially the first location in the restaurant, where you get a lot of information in seperate sentences with blank lines between them. This is ugly, and also unnecessary; most of the information could be put in the room description proper.
  • The story doesn't make a lot of sense. Why would a vampire grow weak when he has diabetes? Why doesn't Nikolai kill his opponent with the letter opener or some other weapon? (He is surely in the position to do so at will.) Why doesn't Nikolai stop me from entering? Why does he hide the body parts near the dance floor, instead of burning them and then draining the ashes through the plughole? What kind of health inspector am I, that I go on with my researches after I find a severed hand, and even after I lose my own hand?
  • The story could have used more depth. Perhaps Angela should have featured more prominently, to give the game more human interest? Or maybe we could have had some meditations on living a life of predation? Anything that would have raised this tale from mere horror to something with a meaning would have been welcome. After all, vampires offer many possibilities. Jeff Koke once wrote (in the introduction to the GURPS version of Vampire: The Masquerade):
    Vampires feed our morbid curiosity and trick us into thinking we are observing something alien, when we are truly watching ourselves. Vampires mirror the state of humanity. They are at once beautiful and hideous, vibrant and unliving, powerful and dependent. They are cursed to stare their own evil in the face every single day, despising their thirst for blood, begging for the freedom of death, until the sheer weight of their immortality forces them to rise above their darkness and reach a state of humanity that is more than we can possibly hope to achieve.
    That's just one interpretation of the theme, of course, but it serves to illustrate that there are many opportunities here for meaningful storytelling.

Post-competition release?

Certainly; the game is good enough that it deserves a new release with some of the bugs and cosmetic errors ironed out. However, I think that my main points of criticism cannot be addressed in this way: changing the story to make it both believable and compelling would mean rewriting most of the game. These points are perhaps better kept in mind for the author's next game.