Monday, November 16, 2009

[IF Competition] Final Results

Well, here they are, the results of the 15th annual interactive fiction competition. Congratulations to anyone who considers himself or herself a winner!

No really big surprises here, I think, but a couple of things stand out:
  • Rover's Day Out has won, which does not surprise me, but its score is 0.6 points higher than that of the number two, which does. Apparently a lot of people were willing to forgive the game its weak points entirely.
  • GATOR-ON has placed far lower than I had expected. Surely the difference between GATOR-ON and, say, Interface should not be 2.7 points? I don't really know what has happened here.
  • ADRIFT didn't do too well: I would say that both The Ascot and Yon Astounding Castle! deserve to be a bit higher than they are; but both games have probably themselves, not their language, to blame. The Ascot hid its cleverness too well, while YAC! annoyed a lot of people with its language so that they never got to the pretty good game below.
  • What surprises me every year is how low the scores are. Why did only 8 of these games get a mark above the 6? Why is everyone giving such low scores? Turns out there is only one game I scored below average, and that one not much.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fleurs du Mal, and my RPG playing

I have decided to create a new personal website. It was more than time for that: my current website was created in 2000, and only slightly changed afterwards. It uses frames. That's right, frames. I wrote it in plain html, there is no CMS, and it was so annoying to keep up to date that I more or less stopped updating it years ago. So now I'm building a new site using the Drupal CMS. I have it more or less set up, and all I have to do is add content. (Click here for a preview. Don't link to it; the URL is going to change.)

Because of this, I am searching my hard drive, and finding unfinished products everywhere. One that impresses me is Fleur du Mal, an adaptation of Clinton R. Nixon's brilliant (and mostly free) RPG The Shadow of Yesterday. One of the best parts of TSoY is the way you gain experience. All characters have "keys" that describe for what kind of stuff that character gets experience. All keys also have a way you can buy them off, and buying them off gives you even more experience, which you will then generally use to (among other things) buy a new key. This way, the player decides what is important for her character, and also has a reason to strive for character transformation.

For instance, take the Key of the Pacifist:
  • Gain 1 XP for every adventure in which your character does not commit any violence.
  • Gain 2 XP every time your character does not commit violence even though it causes her minor harm or inconvenience.
  • Gain 5 XP every time your character does not commit violence even though it causes her great harm.
  • Buyoff: Purposefully harm another sentient creature.
Choosing this key will make you eager to find situations where pacifism will get you into trouble, and it leaves open the possibility of whether you will cling to it or not. Fantastic.

Anyway, I wrote a supplement (which I then forgot about and never tested) called Fleurs du Mal.

A decadent ruling class has dominated the people for centuries with their malevolent magics, while they chased after mental and physical gratification, played deadly games of intrigue and betrayal, and tried to forget their desperate, secret craving for love. But now society is in turmoil, for many among the commoners have suddenly developed a resistance to the manipulatory powers that made them into obedient slaves. Revolution sweeps the city and angry hordes bent on revenge have surrounded the Emperor's vast castle where high and low nobility alike have taken refuge.

Outside, men and women are struggling with their new-found sense of self-worth, while opportunists of all sorts attempt to divert the revolutionary energies into channels of their own devising. [...] Inside, fettered by habits too ingrained to set aside, the nobles still hatch their deadly plots and indulge their perverse cravings. The claustrophobic social setting, the abrupt loss of power and the constant threat of the vengeful hordes just below the windows only seem to increase the intensity of their activities: the plots become deadlier, the lusts more demanding, the pain of others less and less a concern.
Here are some of the keys.

Key of the Aloof Protector: There is an adolescent or adult person whom you would protect at all costs, because you believe he cannot fend for himself. Gain 1 XP every time you act to protect that person. Gain 2 XP every time you ensure that the person thinks of himself as weak, helpless and dependent. Gain 5XP every time you make sure the person remains dependent on you because "it is best for him". Buy-off: treat the other as an equal.

Key of the Masochist: You love to escape the responsibility of choice by submitting to the will of your master or mistress. Gain 1XP every time you are hurt or degraded by your master and accept it in good grace. Gain 2XP every time you have a difficult decision to make and your master makes it for you. Gain 5XP every time you follow a command by your master even though it obviously dangerous or detrimental to yourself to do so. Buy-off: Disregard a command and make your own choice.

Key of Morbid Fascination: You are obsessed by the idea of death, and wish to experience it as closely as possible without actually dying. Gain 1 XP every time your watch someone die. Gain 2XP whenever you kill someone or have someone killed in order to experience their final moments. Gain 5XP whenever you arrange for yourself to have a near death experience, losing all points in all your pools and being unable to refresh them for twelve hours. Buy-off: see someone you love die.

Key of Grief: You still grieve for a terrible loss you have suffered, either of someone's life or of someone's love. Gain 1XP every time your grief makes you act more humane. Gain 2XP every time your grief makes you act less humane. Gain 5XP whenever your attachment to your grief makes you forego a possibility of overcoming it. Buy-off: learn to cope with your sorrow.

You know--I want to play this stuff! But here is the problem: I'm hardly playing RPGs anymore. I did a few sessions of D&D the last year, but that is hardly an RPG of the kind I'm talking about--more a board game, in many ways.

The difference between RPGs and IF is that you can play IF on your own, so whenever you have some spare time, you can play. But RPGs need the commitment of a group of people, and it's hard to get a bunch of people all together repeatedly without too much time between the meetings. At least I find it hard.

But I need to find a solution.

Friday, October 23, 2009

[IF Competition] Final Thoughts

Okay, I am going to give you my provisional scores (provisional because I might still change my mind) and write a short recommendation for all the ones I liked. So this post will contain quasi-spoilers for many of the games, but real spoilers for none.

But first some overal remarks. I think the average quality of entries was quite high this year: some games were deeply flawed, of course, but only a few were without redeeming qualities. I seem to remember that I felt more frustration than other years as I waded through one bad entry after another.

Emily tells us that "every year people gripe about the comp, to the effect that the best games are not as good as the best games of past years", and I must admit that I don't think there was a Nightfall or a Violet among this year's entries. (Though it is possible that the frustration that those games gave me--I'm particularly looking at you, Violet, game that I loved for the narration and story but hated for the puzzles!--has somewhat faded from my memory, I do think they were fun and broke new ground at the same time, which I haven't really seen here.) Still, there were enough recommendation-worthy games to make me feel positive about this competition.

Also worth mentioning again: I loved following all the blogs. I wonder how it is for the authors, but as a judge I must say that my feeling of being part of a community has been greatly strengthened by this communal experience. And I got to post about pumpkins and Tom Lehrer. How cool is that?

Anyway, here are the provisional scores:

Not rated: The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man; Beta Tester; Star Hunter.
Rated 3: The Hangover; Trap Cave; zork, buried chaos.
Rated 5: Eruption; GATOR-On, Friend to Wetlands!; Gleaming the Verb; Spelunker's Quest.
Rated 6: The Ascot; The Grand Quest; Grounded in Space; Interface.
Rated 7: Byzantine Perspective; Condemned; The Duel in the Snow; Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort.
Rated 8: Broken Legs; Earl Grey; Resonance; Rover's Day Out; Snowquest.
Rated 9: The Duel that Spanned the Ages.

And here, for all games that scored 6 or higher, a short recommendation, in alphabetical order.

The Ascot (6): Quirky CYOA with a bizarre sense of humour. Shallow, but short enough to be enjoyable.

Broken Legs (8): Varicella in musical land. Good writing, brilliant protagonist, but the puzzles are hard and hardly clued. Potentially a very good game, given enough patience and time. Should probably have been released outside of the competition.

Byzantine Perspective (7): One-trick puzzle game. Very satisfying if you solve it on your own; obviously rather frustrating if you don't. Be sure to use the feelies provided.

Condemned (7): Deeply flawed game, in terms of gameplay, fictional integration and writing. However, is has ambition and a seriousness and willingness to grapple with dark themes that I sorely miss in most IF.

The Duel in the Snow (7): A melancholy piece that raises the question why the protagonist would strive for survival at all. Mood and detail are often more developed than story and backstory, which is a pity.

The Duel that Spanned the Ages (9): Not terribly innovative, but solid puzzle design, great pacing and violence that often is the answer create a piece of IF that those of us who also enjoy Half-life will have a very good time interacting with. Especially if you don't worry about the backstory too much.

Earl Grey (8): This game needs a lot of tweaking before it becomes as much fun as it could be, but it is already interesting because of its central puzzle mechanic, and enjoyable because of its tone and the comments in the bottom window.

The Grand Quest (6): A sequence of puzzles, most of which you will probably hate. But I had fun with the playing cards and linear algebra, so I have a weak spot for this little game.

Grounded in Space (6): Geometry puzzles are not such a hot idea in IF, and the story makes me think I wouldn't like Heinlein, but it is a pretty capable game made with enthusiasm and technical proficiency (especially that geometry puzzle which almost everybody disliked).

Interface (6): Old-school but forgiving, this little solve-puzzles-in-a-house adventure is saved from being totally forgetable by the fact that the protagonist is trapped in a robot and cannot perform some of the most basic actions.

Resonance (8): A rather bad plot and some dubious design choices (a riddling police officer?), but the constant forward motion, the humour and the multiple paths make this a very entertaining if somewhat shallow piece.

Rover's Day Out (8): Innovative piece with some good story and implementation manages to surprise and impress, but often repetitive and frustrating gameplay mars the experience.

Snowquest (8): Almost certainly doesn't achieve what it sets out to do, but story, implementation and puzzles are still solid enough to make Eric Eve's latest piece easy to recommend.

Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort (7): Utterly silly piece has estranged a lot of people by its faux-medieval English, but is actually a well-designed and forgiving puzzle romp filled to the brim with silly jokes. Very enjoyable, but not when you're in a serious mood.

And finally, some wild predictions. I predict that the top three will be Rover's Day Out, Broken Legs and The Duel that Spanned the Ages, with the duel coming third. I also predict that the golden banana of discord will be won by Yon Astounding Castle!, with Condemned as a close runner-up. Snowquest will have most votes, and Trap Cave least.

I invite anyone to make alternative predictions. Could be a fun little contest of our own. ;)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

[IF Competition] Rover's Day Out - Second Attempt

Before any spoiler space, let me say that if you play Rover's Day Out and you see longs strings of blue question marks... don't play on. Get another interpreter. In my case, the Debian package of Gargoyle did not work, and I had to use Windows Gargoyle through WINE. (Ironical, given the game's evident pro-UNIX attitude! This was not a spoiler.) Perhaps this was an issue with non-free fonts? Who knows... anyway, the game will make absolutely no sense of you do not play it with the right interpreter.

So, my second review, after player Rover's Day Out in the intended form.

Obviously, I'm going to be a lot more positive, since things made a lot more sense this time and were also less boring--since the commentary changed, at least you had something new to read. I also discovered a lot of nice touches, of which my favourite was when it turned out that "ls" and then "cd engineering" actually worked. That was awesome; now if only "nano [file name]" has been a synonym of "examine [object]"...

Still, I am deeply ambiguous about this game. Its originality, polish, technical competence, and evident enthusiasm are good, but the gameplay is incredibly frustrating.

I already vented my irritation at having to go through the motions of waking, showering, eating, feeding roger and going to the toilet not just once, or twice, but, if I counted correctly, four times. Why? That stuff isn't fun in real life (well, showering is), it is less fun in an interactive fiction, and is even less fun when I have to do it again and again. And again.

Then there is the sequence where I play Rover. This too proved an excercise in frustration, as I spent dozens of turns interacting with a female dog, getting more and more encouraging messages... but in the end, I could find no way to achieve any result. The walkthrough didn't help me here either.

Once I had brought the bone, I tuned into the Unix-interface. As I said, this was amusing; but it was also another opportunity for frustration. You have no idea how many times I have seen stuff like "You don't see that here, but you do remember...". Why is this not simply implemented as synonyms? More parser errors does not equal more fun, and in the end I found it all more disorienting than fun.

The worst part, though, was the docking sequence. I am expected to keep the invaders at bay as long as possible, by finding different ways to stop the ship from docking and to kill the droids. But five factors combine to make this, at least for me, absolutely impossible:
  1. The parser problems I already talked about. I am disoriented by my environment and cannot interact with it easily. This does not encourage me to fiddle with things and try to find solutions.
  2. I have no idea to what real actions the imagined actions translate. What happens when I press "shampoo", or when I put water in the water bowl? I have seen the descriptions, yes, but I cannot visualise what is going on and do not know if, for instance, shampoo is something that would prevent docking. No idea at all. This makes it impossible for me to judge the possible sequences of cause and effect.
  3. The game describes what is going on in the ship in technical terms that I do not know how to map onto the ship as I know it. The droid is doing all kinds of things, with all kinds of effects, but I have no idea what is going on. At best I knew where the drone was; but what was happening? Nope.
  4. There are no hints. Really, in this polished game, the authors did not provide hints. Why not?
  5. The walkthrough doesn't help here. It gives you one method for each, and for the rest you are on your own.
Result: as the game was telling me that things got worse and worse, I was in a disoriented state, with no idea what was going on and no idea what I could do about it or what I could even try to do about it. Very, very frustrating. And implementation problems didn't help here:
>put egg in bottle
That can't contain things.

>put egg in pan
You put the heavy helium sphere into the magnetic bottle.
In the end, I just typed "z" a lot until I got to the end, where you get to talk your way through what appeared to be an entirely linear conversation.

At least I managed to solve the final puzzle at the first attempt.

So, I see a lot of good things about this game. There is some real innovation going on here. The different levels are well done. The story isn't too good, but the delivery makes up for it. An impressive game.

On the other hand, I was first bored, then frustrated, then disoriented, then even more frustrated. Most of the time, I did not have a good (or even an interesting) time.

How to weigh these things against each other? I'll have to sleep on that.

[IF Competition] Rover's Day Out

I'm all out of spoiler space.

I'll google "spoiler space" and paste in whatever comes up at the first hit. Hm. Google tells me about the first hit: "Deze site kan schade toebrengen aan uw computer.", which means "This site can damage your computer." MaybeI won't click the link, then.

Tralalala. Did you people know that this is my last IF comp game this year? I've played them all. That's my very first time, and I'm proud of it. That I did it, not that this is the first time. And I couldn't have done it without all of you: it was the prospect of reading your reviews that was the prime motivation!

Okay, it's time for Rover's Day Out. Which I did not finish, since it was the most pointless and boring game I have seen in this entire competition. Well-implemented, mostly, although there were a few bugs of this variety:
> open storage cabinet
I only understood you as far as wanting to open the cabinet-proxy.
Also, pretty well-written. But why would anyone wish to write a game where I have to get up, make breakfast, feed my dog, shower, and go to the toilet, while describing all my actions in the most detailed way possible? "Feed rover" doesn't work, no, in this game you have to take one bowl, fill it with water, give it to the dog, take the other bowl, open the cabinet, put the food in the bowl, and so on. You cannot "take shower", no, you have to take off your clothes, enter the shower, press some buttons, get out, dry yourself, put on your clothes again... this makes me very irritated.

And then... you have to do it again, only this time it takes you longer because you have to do more. And then... you have to do it again!

By that time, the interminable strings of blue question marks that appear after every other command were a fair representation of my state of mind, as I was asking myself why on Earth I was persevering. So I decided not to. Rover can stay inside today.

[IF Competition] Broken Legs

Spoiler space. Spoiler space. Here is a transcript of the brilliant new game A Day in Boot Camp:
"Get up, you worthless maggots!", the drill instructor shouts.

> stand
"Forty push ups! Quick!"

> do push up
You do a push up. "Faster!"

> do push up
You do a push up. "Hey, private Weakling, am I going to see some action or what?"

> do 38 push ups
You cannot use multiple objects with that verb.

> do psuh up
"You got a typing disability, private Weakling? Here to mar the reputation of my beloved corps, are you?"
Let's move on to Broken Legs as quickly as we can.

This, my friends, is pure Varicella. We have a nasty protagonist, a wide open map, a lot of people whom we have to dispose off, sharp writing, and cruel, difficult and little clued puzzles. Saying that something is like Varicella is of course a compliment; but in the context of this competition, it is also a point of criticism.

I cannot imagine anyone completing this game in two hours. I spent quite some time exploring everything and talking to people, and I still had not the faintest idea what I was supposed to be doing. The only discovery I had made was a piece of paper hidden inside a costume, that seemed (a) absolutely useless and that (b) was taken away from me as soon as I showed it to someone and gave me a message that I had screwed up when I showed it to someone else. Uhm... okay?

I turned to the walkthrough, and saw that the first thing I had to do was get the singing girl out of the practice room. I don't why I would want that, but okay. First step in this plan was to rip the isolation of the walls. But how could I have expected that the girl would not see me doing this, when my earlier attempts at interacting with objects in the room ended up with she stopping me? Furthermore, how was I supposed to come to the conclusion that this isolation actually worked, given that in the hallway you get the message:
And reverberating through the un-soundproofed walls are the sounds of singers, both reassuringly bad and nervewrackingly talented.
and the girl in question is the only person in the whole building who is singing? Even so, taking the isolation doesn't work, since you stop halfway. The reason is that there is too much of the stuff on the floor already, and the girl would notice. So I try everything to get rid of the stuff on the floor, but it doesn't seem to have been implemented. According to the walkthrough, I need to leave, then come back, then continue taking the isolation. Why? How is the problem--that there is too much of the stuff on the floor and things will become too obvious--addressed by me going away and coming back again? And this is just the first part of this puzzle.

Now this can be a design decision. Varicella is immensely difficult because there is almost no clueing, and it is part of the design. I have never finished the game, I haven't even gotten very far into it, but I plan to revisit it sometime and I refuse to look at the walkthrough. The game is too good for that. (Savoir-Faire is another game that is fiendishly difficult but where I refuse to look at the walkthrough. However, the difficulty is of a somewhat different kind.)

Well, I also refuse to look at the walkthrough of Broken Legs. I refuse to ruin the game for myself just so I can score it better. So I'm putting this game aside for later play, and I'll score it on the basis of what little I have seen within the time alloted by the competition rules.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[IF Competition] Resonance

Today's spoiler space is a quote from Isaiah Berlin's The Roots of Romanticism, in which he talks about how romanticism severed--really for the first time in Western thought--the ideas of truth and moral goodness.
Suppose you had a conversation in the sixteenth century with somebody fighting in the great religious wars which tore Europe apart at that period, and suppose you said to a Catholic of that period, engaged in hostilities, `Of course these Protestants believe what is false; of course to believe what they believe is to court perdition; of course they are dangerous to the salvation of human souls, than which there is nothing more important; but they are so sincere, they die so readily for their cause, their integrity is so splendid, one must yield a certain meed of admiration for the moral dignity and sublimity of people who are prepared to do that.' Such a sentiment would have been unintelligible. Anyone who really knew, supposed themselves to know, the truth, say a Catholic who believed in the truths preached to him by the Church, would have known that persons able to put the whole of themselves into the theory and practice of falsehood were simply dangerous persons, and that the more sincere they were, the more dangerous, the more mad.
Of course, for a Romantic like Byron, admiring sincerity was more or less the essence of ethics.

So, I have been playing Resonance, and it was one of the most purely enjoyable experiences in this competition so far. There is a certain overall lack of polish, there are a couple of bugs, the conversations are very railroaded and the story is loaded with clichés and dubious genre conventions about the portrayal of women, yes--but I was having a good time, which makes me willing to forgive many things as long as the author promises to mend his ways. (A promise which I will for the sake of convenience consider made when I score this game.)

What's to like? The game keeps the story flowing steadily, giving you enough guidance to keep moving forward, but also giving you enough freedom to feel engaged in the story. Indeed, there are a couple of significantly different episodes than can happen in the main story line, which is impressive.

In addition, the whole game is terribly good-natured, even as it describes the most gruesome things. It is the opposite of Condemned, in this respect: in that game, eating an egg would have been a gloomy experience pointing to death and destruction; in this game, the useless death of five police officers exists side by side with tin-foil hats and garlic-yoghurt candy bars. Resonance is straight-faced but fundamentally unserious, and this makes the shallowness of the story acceptable and turns into something you can simply enjoy.

That may not be the highest possible achievement for a piece of IF, but it is certainly a fine achievement to start out with. With another round of beta-testing, this game could easily become one that can be whole-heartedly recommended to those looking for amusing, not too difficult IF.

And I would now like to give Matt Scarpino the "Special Award for Humiliating Victor Gijsbers", for making a riddle to which I not only did not know the answer, but did not even know what the word that turned out the be the answer meant.

Guess that means I have to rehearse my English vocabulary! (Audible groans throughout the audience. The Gaming Philosopher removed from seven RSS-feeds.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[IF Competition] The Duel that Spanned the Ages

I made another recipe with pumpkin yesterday. It is apparently of Cuban origins, but enough has been changed in order to meet ingredient availability that its probably no longer recognisable as such. I got it from Madhur Jaffrey's incredible vegetarian cookbook.
Cook pumpkin with white beans (I get my beans pre-cooked from a jar; if you have raw beans, cook them first, because they'll take much longer than the pumpkin) and some water. Add lemongrass when it's about half-done. (It takes maybe 20 minutes.) Pour away any left-over water once the pumpkin is done.
Meanwhile, fry garlic, an onion, a liberal sprinkling of cumin, some salt and a green paprika bell pepper. (Good that I looked that up on Wikipedia!) Add them to the pumpkin.
That's all. Serve with green salad, cheese and pita bread. You could also serve it with rice, if you prefer a less messy eating experience. I also served this with two spicy side dishes: (1) fried green peppers, garlic and onion; (2) fried red peppers, garlic and mustard seeds. For the second side dish: start with the mustard seeds and use a lid. That stuff is like popcorn. Also, when I say "peppers", I mean the thin hot things. When I say "fry", I mean using a frying pan and a little oil, not deep frying.
Now, a review of The Duel that Spanned the Ages. It's Half-life in text! And I love it.

What we have here is real action IF: after the somewhat long introduction is over, you get to run across a small meteor, cut open a space ship with a laser, shoot a mechanical zombie, run across the meteor again while a large machine is trying to kill you, jump into an ascending space craft, battle it out with the large machine, and jump out of a crashing space craft, all within ten minutes. And it's smooth, well implemented, and generally exciting. (The inclusion of a map, including "these spaces provide cover" notes, was a very wise decision on the part of the author.)

After that things slow down a bit as the number of puzzles increases. Sometimes they slow down a little too much: when I first awoke, I had no idea what to do, and only the hints got me to notice the part of my equipment that could help me. This could be made a little more obvious, perhaps.

But in general, the puzzles are good if not terribly innovative, and we get to battle mechanical spiders (headcrabs, anyone?), program automatic turrets, wear heavy armour and--yes!--open a locked door by firing a big missile at it. Years of frustrating IF experiences channelled into one act of violence => big smile.

I had some trouble with the lasers, because the frequent Half-life references made me suppose that they worked like the lasers in Half-life: I tried to throw something in their path, so the explosives would go off. Turns out these are lasers of the "I'll cut your legs off" variety. Anyway, the hints were excellent.

The game would have benefitted from increasing the excitement level a little more as we progressed. As it stands, the first minutes are full of action (as in any good action movie), then we have a more quiet episode (again, as in any good action movie), but we never return to the hectic stuff of the first minutes (unlike those good action movies). Perhaps the upper facility could be overrun by machines as the episode draws to a close? We need some actions sequences to lead up to the final boss battle.

It is obvious that subsequent episodes will have to offer more in terms of story, and a somewhat more diverse playing experience as well. Still, this is an excellent first game, and one of very few sucessful IF games in the action genre. One of the best in this competition so far.

[IF Competition] Beta Tester

Today's spoiler space: I've begun getting pages together over at IFWiki about individual blogs. I started with Renga in Blue and Illuminated Lantern, and I'll probably be doing my own next. If you want to help keeping all that great information in all these great blogs accessible (in the sense that people will be able to find it), why don't you join in the fun? My basic plan is to do the individual blogs first, and then make pages for each of the topics discussed which would link to all the specific blog posts about that topic. Anyway--a big project that I might not want to be doing alone. (Though the good thing about a project like this is that every little contribution to it is already useful in itself.)

That's probably enough?

Not that I'm going to spoil Beta Tester all that much. Another game I didn't finish and that I probably won't be voting on, since it annoyed and bored me, but in a way that makes it conceivable that there is something good going on somewhere.

You start in a room where you have to solve the ultimate unmotivated, nonsensical puzzle. And the walkthrough is hidden behind the command "walkthru", which I only found because of somebody else's blog. And there was a major guess-the-whatever problem when "put hamster in treadmill" didn't work. Turns out you have to type "put hamster on treadmill", but you know, when I hear "hamster" and "treadmill" I think of exactly the things you see when you do a Google Image Search on those words. And those are containers, not supporters. Anyway, there should have been a more helpful response here then "That cannot contain things".

Helpful is in fact not what the game is. It is snarky, nasty, attempting to humiliate you. And you know? That might be what makes this game interesting, for there might be some grand revelation related to this general nastiness. Perhaps you can enter the programming room and kill all the people who taunted you, or something. Or sue their asses.

But I'm not willing to find out, not after consulting the annoying walkthrough several times and then spending a couple of minutes playing--you'll never guess--rock, paper, scissors.

Which reminds me of a brilliant Gary Larson cartoon, but I can't find it on the net. He's pretty strict about people posting his cartoons, I seem to remember. (How terribly 20th century of you, Mr. Larson!)

So, well. No insights. Tell me if I missed something great here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

[IF Competition] Star Hunter

Here is spoiler space for the spoiler space. I'm going to answer a trivia question that I asked in the last spoiler space, so if you don't to know it, read that entry first! You know, I'll write the name in reverse, so your eyes won't betray you.

Right. The music of rerheL moT was among the first English-language music I listened to and loved--I suppose that my parents must have told me the general meaning, but most of the songs I only slowly figured out as I got older. An early favourite (undoubtedly because of the low language barrier) was The Elements, which I learnt by heart when I was nine or ten. Yes, I know that is nerdy. Okay, very nerdy. And yes, I still know it. "There's antimony, arsenic, ..."

And while we're on the topic: it occurred to me that mister rerheL's Silent E in combination with the central puzzle mechanic of one the games in this competition (and preferably some nice illustrations) would make a great educational piece of children's IF.

Okay, on to Star Hunter.

I'm not rating this game, since I stopped after a few minutes. Chris, you have made a huge game--I can see that from the walkthrough. But it doesn't work, because it doesn't get the player interested. This is a shame, because you've evidently put a lot of work into this piece, and if you had spent that effort a bit differently, it would have been much better.

You need to give the player more information. There are machines everywhere around us--what do they do? Surely the protagonist knows what they are for--its her own ship! So just tell us, and we'll feel much less abandoned to the unknown.

Implement objects. If I examine something that is described in the room description, it should be implemented and tell me something interesting. These are alien planets! They are supposed to be cool. So make them cool and fun to explore.

Also, please never forget to implement a non-standard description of the protagonist. Every IF-player will type "x me" in the first two turns, and groan when it says "As good-looking as ever."

If you want bonus points with me, implement a non-standard response to "sing". It is what I try in every game. (I have a WIP in which I spent an hour implementing "sing". And it's not about singing! Okay, that's useless, but still, a protagonist who sings a Laibach version of Barbie Girl is so much more fun than a protagonist who just sings abominably.)

Basically, the recipe is this: SHORT + DENSE + POLISHED > LONG + SPARSE + UNPOLISHED. A short game with a lot of possibilities for exploration and interaction is much more fun than a long game with sparse implementation. So redirect some of your effort to fleshing out the world and giving the player more direction (and getting beta-testers?), and your next game will be much better.

I can even imagine a future version of Star Hunter with more implementation and direction being quite favourably received.

[IF Competition] Eruption

Only six more games to go! I have seen very good things about some of them, and I am secretly saving the ones that are probably best for last. Hm, was that a spoiler about Eruption? No, of course not.

Spoiler space, spoiler space, la la la. Did I already tell you that there are at least two games in this competition that mention a platypus? One of them has the platypus marry you to someone. (I gather, from the walkthrough. I don't think anyone has actually reached that part of the game, since it is apparently unwinnable. So this is not a spoiler.) Trivia question of the day: which song compares marrying a platypus to being a certain mythological figure, and prefers marrying the platypus?

Right, on to Eruption, by Richard Bos. For all I know, he might be Dutch: he certainly has the same last name as our vice-prime minister. It means "forest".

My expectations for this game were incredibly high, because Conrad had written this:
We see here the self-portrait of a man who wanted to make a work of art, who looked into his soul for something to express, for a story to tell, and saw – (nothing).
To look inside and see nothing, that is surely at least the beginning of wisdom, and perhaps even the end point of enlightenment. Tell me about it, Richard Bos, tell me about how all is one, how the individual is merely an illusion, about how we can escape from the horrid grasp of the principium individuationis! And if you destroy the idea that art is self-expression while you're at it, that would be even better.

Unfortunately, I am not ready for enlightenment. I even refused to let myself be consumed by the volcano (which would after all only be a change of state, not real death, and if you haven't read the brilliant scene in Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before where the protagonist identifies himself with a rock melting to magma, you should do so now). Richard Bos, I know your soul is so full that it wants to overflow, I know that you read my review and cry to yourself:
They take from me: but do I yet touch their soul?
And I can only weep the bitter tears of those who are unable, through their own ignorance and vice, to take the infinite richess offered them.

I mean, either that, or this game is incredibly boring.

Richard Bos incensed a lot of people by writing:
The way I see it, one of two things can happen, and both are good for me. Either half the games entered are the usual junk, in which case my game, being small but at least well-crafted, will score roughly around the mid-point, which is good for my ego; or it will end up where it belongs, which is firmly near the bottom of the scale, but that is only likely to happen if the Competition has a very good year, without the normal collection of duds. Either way, I’m happy.
But, you know, this argument is so bad that it has to a joke. Nobody is going to get an ego boost from placing higher than a real crap game. And obviously, a lot of things can happen which are not good for Richard Bos, such as him becoming a despised figure in the community.

The way I see it, there are two possibilities. Either Richard Bos is incredibly wise, and has written the above as an exoteric text in order to drive away those who wouldn't be able to understand the esoteric message anyway. Or he has written it as a bad joke while he was tired and had to go to the toilet from drinking too much tea (which is certainly my present state). Either way, I can't get very excited about it.

Conclusion: boring game, but I've read some of the reviews with enjoyment.

Also: this competition has very few duds, actually! There are only two games I have rated lower than Eruption.

[IF Competition] GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands!

I have never been to the Everglades. In fact, the greater part of the time I spent within the borders of the United States of America was on the O'Hare International Airport near Chicago, waiting for a flight to Vancouver, so I haven't really been anywhere in the USA.

I will probably never go to the Everglades. Of course I could, if I wanted to, but why fly across the Atlantic for a vacation when there is so much to see nearer to home? I've never been to Berlin yet, it has been more than ten years since I visited Paris (not counting hours spent cursing the traffic on the Périphérique as we tried to get to other parts of France), I haven't seen Italy and Spain, I have never visited Scandinavia--and I certainly wouldn't mind revisiting London or the Alps or Bruges or many of the other places that I did visit. So the Everglades will probably forever escape my direct experience.

Which is--this should have been enough spoiler space--why playing an interactive fiction set in the Everglades sounded like a lot of fun to me.

Unfortunately, this incredible opportunity to let me experience a wonderful environment has been squandered entirely. Literally nothing is implemented, and we have to wander through dozens of identical "rooms" in order to solve puzzles that are far less interesting than learning something about the American crocodile! Just think of the opportunities for integrating photographic material here: there must be thousands of Everglades-photos on Flickr under licenses that allow their use in a free work of IF. This could have been so much fun.

Instead of that, we get Transformers. Right. Environmental issues reduced to the inaneness of a saturday-morning cartoon.

Okay, I just don't like watching big robots fighting, and have never watched those cartoons--perhaps there are excellent works within this genre. So forget the "inaneness"; it still remains a fact that in this game, environmental issues are reduced to simple combat. Not a very enlightening treatment of the subject, to say the least.

This game has disappointed me. The setting had so much potential, and the theme of environmentalism had a lot going for it as well--but instead we get a barely implemented episode of Transformers. There is technical competence here, and people who like this stuff my get some laughs out of the final sequences, but I cannot like GATOR-ON.

Looking for Beta-testers

I'm looking for beta-testers for a small game I have written. It is not, perhaps, a "real" game--more a proof on concept, a piece of conceptual art, or a move in a discussion. Think Figaro or +=3, though this piece is more extensive than either of those, and also less about design than about a socio-political issue. (Hm, IFDB has no Figaro page.)

Also, when I say "small", I mean small: I coded up the whole thing this evening, though I did some design work before that. It's a 3271-word source code.

Nevertheless, I think it should play smoothly, and if some of you want to help me with that I would be very pleased! Simply send me an email at, where you put the @-symbol between my name and that of Adam's first wife. Or you can leave a comment here with your mail-address.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

[IF Competition] zork, buried chaos

Writing up a recipe in English is very difficult for me. What on earth do you call the water in which something has been cooked? Is "brown rice" what I would call "zilvervliesrijst"? Anyway, here is an attempt at pumpkin, rice and black-eyed beans (and I leave the amounts up to you, because it doesn't much matter whether its more "beany" or more "pumpkiny" or whatever):
Ingredients: pumpkin, rice, black-eyed beans, onions, fresh red or green peppers, vegetable oil, whatever spices strike your fancy. If the black-eyed beans are raw, first cook them until they're soft. Keep the cooking water(?). Put oil in a big pot, add onions, and fry them. Add, rice, diced pumpkin, sliced peppers, beans and as much of the cooking water of the beans as you believe the rice will absorb during cooking. (If it's not enough, add extra water.) Add optional spices. Cook until the pumpkin and the rice are soft. Good with green salad.
There are those who have a certain nostalgia for Infocom games. I am not one of them. And I especially dislike Zork. I consider it an unplayable game. Of course it was historically important, but it has now become completely unenjoyable.

So when a game called zork, buried chaos is entered into the competition, I am willed with dread. However, rather than list all the things about this obviously Zork-inspired game that I dislike, I'll post some side-by-side parts of a Zork-transcript and a zork, buried chaos-transcript.

Unimplemented scenery

West of House
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
> examine field
I don’t know the word ‘field’.
zork, buried chaos:

small room
You are in a tiny room in a building. North lies a big room and a hole is in the
ground. Crates are everywhere.
> x crates
You can’t see any such thing.
Score: 1 - 1.

Useful abbreviations


> x sword
I don’t know the word ‘x’.
zork, buried chaos:

> x sword
You see nothing special about the sword.
Score: 1 - 2.

Undescribed objects

Another reviewer wrote that in Zork, the elvish sword at least had a description. Nope. It doesn't.


> examine sword
I see nothing special about the sword.
zork, buried chaos:

> x sword
You see nothing special about the sword.
Score: 2 - 3.

Spelling errors


On the table is an elongated brown sack, smelling of hot peppers.
A bottle is sitting on the table.
zork, buried chaos:

big room
You are in a huge room. Souoth is a smaller room and hallways lead east and west.
Score: 3 - 3.

Allowing undo


> undo
I don’t know the word ‘undo’.
zork, buried chaos:
> undo
[Previous turn undone.]
Score: 3 - 4.

Strange environmental messages

zork, buried chaos:
> z
Time passes.

The platform is collapsing!

> z
Time passes.

The platform is collapsing!

> z
Time passes.

The platform is collapsing!

> sing
Your singing is abominable.

The platform is collapsing!

> jump
You jump on the spot, fruitlessly.

The platform is collapsing!
Score: 4 - 4.

I conclude that zork, buried chaos is not noticably worse than the game it tries to emulate. That certainly doesn't make it good, but I assume the author has more or less achieved what he wanted. Although why anyone would want to achieve this is beyond me. Perhaps the author simply didn't play anything made since Zork and assumed (incorrectly) that this was still the state of the art?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

[IF Competition] Snowquest

This time, I'd like to use the spoiler space to present the "most insightful remark I've seen so far in an IFComp 2009 review". The award goes to Jenni of Pissy Little Sausages for the following observation:
Y’know, every time I read “Violence isn’t the answer to this one,” I am skeptical, because very often this default message is left as a failure notification in places where you’re simply using the wrong kind of violence, or on the wrong thing.
That, my friends, is hard-won IF wisdom.

Anyway, let's go on to Eric Eve's Snowquest. This too is a game that is a bit too surreal and confusing for its own good. We have reality and we have a quest, which turns out to be a metaphorical/hypnotical something, but then we also have flashbacks within the quest and a further even more metaphorical dream-sequence... hard to keep track of, even harder to fit together once you have completed the game.

I think that one of strengthening this game would be to simply cut out the interactive flashback and the dream-sequence altogether. Gameplaywise, they add nothing, and the dream especially felt too generic and too meta-metaphorical to be a worthwhile addition to the game. This would make the game hang together more tightly, which is something that would do Snowquest no harm.

It wouldn't solve the problem of the main, "real" story being completely unbelievable, of course. (An fake FBI-agent with a look-into-the-future crystal? The solution to the problem of global warming being dependent on a little piece of equipement being flown to a scientific measuring station on time? Let's not discuss the ideology of the latter plot element.) (But maybe Eric Eve wanted to give us a game where the not-real is more believable than the real, in order to confuse us further? Perhaps erasing the borders between the real and the fictional was his artistic goal?)

In other words: I'm not sold on this story, and since the story is an important element of Snowquest, I'm not sold on this game. Last year's Nightfall was much better, for instance. Nevertheless, the gameplay is as we expect it from Eve: very solid indeed. Quite traditional, but entertaining.

[IF Competition] The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man

Emily tells us that pumpkin pie is delicious. I don't know about that--I'm not even quite sure what "pie" means in the US--but I do know that the pumpkin is one of the great vegetables. And I should know about vegetables, because I'm a vegetarian. The only problem with pumpkins is that cutting them up and cleaning them is so much work. It makes me wonder why they don't sell pre-sliced pumpkin in my supermarket, even though they do sell such useless things as pre-sliced mushrooms.

Maybe we can put recipes in these spoiler spaces? Anyway, next is The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man.

Many reviewers express concern at how unsymapthetic the player character is. This didn't bother me at all; in fact, it would seem to be interesting to step into the mind of the kind of vengeful sociopath portrayed here. People with a huge inferiority complex and an unhealthy dosis of paranoia are less rare than we might hope, they are pretty scary to be in close contact with, and I believe you can make effective social/psychological horror by having us enact the plans of such a person as move through a world coloured by his own warped logic and interpretations.

This is probably not that game although I didn't get far enough to say for sure. See, I hated the puzzles. So you have to kill the creepy guy with a pizza... but why? There is no indication that killing the creepy guy will allow you to take stuff outside--when you try to move outside, the game tells you that there might be people there, not that the creepy guy will notice. There is no hint that we believe the creepy guy to have wronged us. And there is certainly no reason to believe that he would eat a mouldy pizza when we throw it through the window! That is simply not standard creepy-guy behaviour.

The second puzzle involves you somehow guessing that in this game, the mail works instantaneously. Again, there is no reason to believe this.

So at this point I lost faith in the game and stopped playing. I will probably not be scoring it.

[IF Competition] Condemned

I am now officially past the half-way mark, since this is the 13th game I review out of 24. I don't think I ever managed to review that many comp games during the comp... and let me tell you, this does have something to do with the fact that we are now allowed to publish reviews during the comp. It makes me want to play everything so I can read what all of you guys are talking about and talk about it as well. :)

That should almost be enough spoiler text, shouldn't it? So we can get on with Condemned, by the mysterious "a delusioned teenager".

Renee Choba writes:
Playing a game that wants me to literally crucify myself is not really my thing.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that playing a game that wants me to literally crucify myself is very much my thing. And indeed, the crucifixion scene impressed me, and I think with some changes (both in the scene itself and in the game in general) it could have been awesome. Just think of a play experience where it slowly dawns on the player that she is participating in the protagonist's own bizarre punishment ritual... powerful stuff, even though I can see it might not be for everyone.

It makes me think of the Goethes Erben song Fleischschuld, which has a similar theme and also goes too far for many people. (While we're on that topic, if you know German, you ought to acquaint yourself with their brilliant song Zimmer 34, also of their album Nichts bleibt wie es war. I don't know whether that video is official or fanmade, and I recommend just listening to the sound, but this video is one of the few things I can legally link to.)

Alternated with the crucifixion scenes are flashback scenes where te protagonist interactis with his little sister, his mother, and his... friends. It becomes clear very quickly that these scenes are leading to a moment when the protagonist does the enormity for which he "deserves" to be crucified, but there are plenty of plot twists here to keep it all from becoming too predictable. And not just plot twists, a lot of real and real-life darkness is contained in this story, and it is exactly what we need to give the crucifixion scenes enough reality. We start believing in it because everything in the protagonist's life is so bleak; and we believe in the fatal plot twist because it does not occur in a world of sunshine, but in a world where people are just waiting for the disaster to strike.

So what we have here is ambition, darkness, a powerful story--a lot of things that I haven't seen much of in this competition, but that I like to see very much.

Unfortunately, the game has some real problems that stop it from being as impactful as it could have been. There is the minor problem of prose, and there are the major problems of gameplay/presentation and surrealism. Let's discuss them in turn.

Again, this game is very ambitious, and it puts a lot of pressure on the stylistic resources of the author. Sometimes, he or she succeeds marvelously. The opening sentences, for instance, are among the best opening sentences of any interactive fiction:
You look up at the bicycles.  Hundreds of them hang from the ceiling.
How real, and yet how weird and threatening! Here in the Netherlands we have a lot of bicylces and a lot of canals, and that means that we also have a lot of bicylces in the canals. These are periodically dredged up, and the pile of rusted, muddy, deformed bikes that lies on the pavement after they've done that is the kind of thing I was imagining here. Good stuff.

However, at other times his/her stylistic resources fail the author, with results that range from the unfortunate:
Your eyes about to unawaringly turn and look, your left hand immediately curves onto the side of  your lowered head, blocking your view.
to the downright bizarre:
You walk a couple steps, stopping at a surprising unexpectation of your mom sitting down in a chair, her head buried in her face.
Although I love "surprising unexpectation", in a way, this kind of thing does detract from the work itself. It is hard to take a story seriously when people sit around burying their head in their face.

More problematic, though, it the general gameplay or presentation of Condemned. It contains very, very long non-interactive or hardly interactive stretches, where all you can do is wait, or talk to someone like nine times in a row. And this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the prose that follows such a "z" command is generally very long. Real infodumps. After a while you begin to wonder why you are playing a game if the author simply wanted you to read twenty pages of output in a row without any meaningful interaction.

See, the crucifixion scenes wouldn't have been as powerful if one read them rather than participating in them; and we all know that not-too interactive scenes leading to an accident can be good stuff to play through (Photopia). But the non-interactivity needs to be brief, and the text we have to read through needs to be relatively short. Otherwise, playing becomes a chore, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who was looking at the walkthrough and groaning when he saw another "talk to sister (9x)" coming along.

The second big problem is with the story itself, and specifically, with how it slowly loses focus and degenerates into symbolic and sometimes frankly incomprehensible scenes. We have doll heads, masked men, punishment cults, decapitating snow balls, burnt souls - but they only serve to confuse, not to make things more interesting or profound.

Question: what is more frightening, a self-multiplying masked man who can come into existence from nothing, or a real-life psychologically absuive (step)father? Answer: the latter.

I think the game would have gained immeasurably from a straight presentation of the accident, the state of the sister, the father's return, and the father's final acts of punishment. It would have made everything more real, it would have distanced the reader less from what was happening (which is crucial, given the artistic aims of Condemned), and it would have been frankly more frightening and more heart-rending.

Final verdict? Look, this is not a perfect game. It can be a very irritating game, as you type "z" again and again, skip through the huge amounts of text that you no longer have enough patience to read, and are finally confronted with a narrative that degenerates into an ineffective symbolism. All the same, this is a brave and ambitious game that has been created with a lot of skill and attention. Maybe not enough skill and attention given the ambitions, but still.

I'm going to give this a high mark.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

[IF Competition] Spelunker's Quest

This time, I will fill the spoiler space with an announcement.
I have received a bunch of code that solves basically all of the disambiguation and multiple actions/objects problems of The Art of Fugue! Expect to find it in the next alpha. The reason I'm telling you now is to ensure that nobody else is going to spend a sleepless night trying to figure out how to do this. :)
Which brings us right to Spelunker's Quest, a game that is exactly as old-school as the title might make you suppose.

The author is a professional programmer, and it shows: we have a very cleanly implemented game.

The author is a big fan of the old adventures like Adventure and Zork, and that shows as well: we wake up in a cave, find some treasures, kill some monsters, get ourselves into unwinnable situations, consult the hints menu... wait, did Zork have a hints menu? I don't think so. So that's one extra point for Spelunker's Quest.

I dislike Adventure and Zork; these amnesiac-trapping treasure-hunting verb-guessing unwinnable-situation-filled caves simply don't do it for me. For that reason, I can't say I liked Spelunker's Quest very much either. But it was short enough for me not to get irritated by it, and if this is the kind of game the author enjoys, well, it is at least a competently done game of its kind.

The writing could use another check, though. I don't want to hear that the torches "provide ample illumination"--it sounds very stilted--and I certainly don't want to see that same phrase repeated in several room descriptions. Also: "It empowers you with the knowledge of which direction is north." That verb seems wrong to me; "provides" would be better. Better yet: "It shows you which direction is north."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

[IF Competition] Grounded in Space

This time, the spoiler space is a quote from an essay by Michael Moorcock.
There are still a few things which bring a naive sense of shocked astonishment to me whenever I experience them -- a church service in which the rituals of Dark Age superstition are performed without any apparent sense of incongruity in the participants -- a fat Soviet bureaucrat pontificating about bourgeois decadence -- a radical singing the praises of Robert Heinlein. If I were sitting in a tube train and all the people opposite me were reading Mein Kampf with obvious enjoyment and approval it probably wouldn't disturb me much more than if they were reading Heinlein, Tolkien or Richard Adams. (Starship Stormtroopers)
On to a review of Grounded in Space.

Basically, this game has three kinds of segments, which I will discuss in turn.
  1. Mostly non-interactive "cutscenes", where all you get to do is wait as your father screams at you, the computer tells you stuff; or where you try to think of topics to discuss with the pirate and have everything rejected.
  2. Guess-the-verb sequences. Did anyone manage to fire the probe without consulting the walkthrough? Isn't "prime probe" a bit too specific, as a command, to expect me to type it? And why do I have to type "target asteroid with probe", while the game rejects the sensible "select asteroid"?
  3. A small geometry puzzle. I appreciate the coding effort behind this, but, first, a text-based medium is not a very good medium in which to pose geometry puzzles involving precise positions and angles; and second, even so the presentation could have been improved immensely. This puzzle would have been much more enjoyable if I could have actually seen the positions and general angle of the mirrors, even if its only ASCII-art; and if I could have seen the walls of the cabin in that same ASCII-art. That stuff is accessible to the protagonist, and should be accessible to me too. Because what happened now is that I typed in some random numbers, nothing gave me any information, and I gave up.
Bit of a missed opportunity here. The writing is well-done and the main puzzle is a small feat of coding; but the puzzle is not presented optimally (to say the least) and the rest of the game is too guess-the-verby and basically not gamelike or interactive or even explorable enough. And the plot doesn't really make sense.

I would call this a not-so-good game by a promising author.

Monday, October 12, 2009

[Art of Fugue] Open Alpha 2

The development of my/our puzzle game The Art of Fugue (see my earlier posts here and here) is going well, and today I would like to present the second open alpha to you. You can find the game file here, and the source here.

What is new? The fourth puzzle has been removed, as has the functionality that made it possible to solve this puzzle. However, four new puzzles have been added. The new puzzle four is some fun with mathematics. The fifth puzzle, contributed by Jimmy Maher and Dorte Lassen is about movement; I have used their code to create puzzle six. Puzzle seven is about making indistinguishable objects distinguishable.

I believe that puzzle six and seven are of a higher difficulty than puzzle one to five. Puzzle six seemed especially hard, but it is possible that I have simply missed an easier solution.

Also new is the menu system. You can now switch between puzzles through the menu. As you progress new puzzles will become unlocked. The game keeps track of which puzzles you solved, and also of how many turns it took you. It has a built-in database of best solution times, and will compare your solution with the best known solution. It can print your solution to the screen so you can mail it to me if you have improved on the best known solution!

You can still switch between all puzzles--even blocked puzzles--by typing "next puzzle" and "previous puzzle". These commands will be removed in the final release. There is also a cheat code that will unblock all puzzles: "bwv1080".

The one known bug is that you can still sometimes get parser questions, and these will break the game. This happens only when you type a verb that requires an object without an object, like "take". Please refrain from doing this while testing the game.

What do we need right now? More contributions! Follow the lead of Jimmy and Dorte and add your own puzzle to The Art of Fugue!

Ideally, we would have about 20 puzzles in the first release, which I'm planning for the last days of 2009. I think the mininum is 12 or so.

Especially welcome would be puzzles of intermediate to hard difficulty, and puzzles that make interesting use of the parser; but please send in your easy puzzles as well. (If we have too many easy puzzles, we can always try to make them harder.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

[IF Competition] Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort

Þis time, þe spoiler space is a short Inform 7 program.
"Thorns" by Victor Gijsbers

Include Unicode Character Names by Graham Nelson.

London Bridge is a room. "You have eyes for only one [unicode 254]ing: '[unicode 222]e Olde English Pubbe', right across [unicode 254]e street."

But Adrift may not have unicode support, so on to þe review of Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort.

I expected to hate þis game. Þe blurb seemed pretty bad, and þe opening screen was even worse. See, I þink you can only poke fun at someþing effectively if you understand þe þing you're poking fun at; so to make a humerous parody of old (or faux-old) English, you need to be able to write it very well. So I shuddered when I saw þis:

‘Twas writ using ye olde
for which all rights of copy & such
doth hereforeto belongeth to
Campbell Wild

Ye First Version
released upon ye
Twenty-Ninth of September in ye
Ninth Year of ye
Second Millenium
Anno Domini. 
Þere are so many mistakes! I þink "hereforeto" should be "heretofore", "doth belongeth" is evidently wrong, "Second Millenium Anno Domini" is utter nonsense, and anyway, we live in þe ninþ year of þe þird millenium. Þis game, I þought I knew, is going to be incredibly tedious.

But þen someþing unexpected happened: Yon Astounding Castle started to charm me. It told me "Typeth not of ye word help, for yon message knoweth not what it talketh about.", which was a pretty funny way of dismissing þe standard ADRIFT help text. Þe game also turned out to have a nifty "win" command.

And þen I typed "climb tree", which was obviously what I had to do, and þe game refused to understand me. So wiþ some trepidation I typed "climbeth tree", and... yes, it worked! Þat had me laughing. Okay, it's a bad joke, but at least I get to participate in þe bad joke.

It turns out þat Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort is a well-constructed and quite long dungeon romp, full of jokes þat are mostly pretty bad, but add up to someþing þat is often really funny. Þe game just keeps sending jokes at you, and at a certain point your resistance wears down and you start enjoying þem. Þe gnome who says "Gno matter, on with ye gnext gnaming riddle." becomes funny, as does "Ye be pretty sure ye building is yon hovel of some kind, for ‘tis filled with all manner of hovelry." Þen þere are þe footnotes, þe weird chain of -akeries, þe intricate machine wiþ its intricacies, and so on... noþing here is going to win a best joke contest, but again, þe overall effect is not just zany or wacky, but genuinely funny.

Þe puzzles are good (þough a few seemed too difficult, such as þe one wiþ þe magic cupboards), þe implementation is good and polished, especially for an ADRIFT game, and all in all, playing þis was a very enjoyable experience.

It is, of course, not doing anyþing interesting wiþ plot, narrative, interactivity; it is simply a treasure hunt wiþ an evil wizard added for extra special effects. It won't move you, it's not art. But if you are looking for entertainment, Yon Astounding castle! of some sort gives you a lot more þan you might expect from þe title.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

[IF Competition] Byzantine Perspective

This time, the spoiler space is an important announcement concerning the game Byzantine Perspective. It is not a spoiler. It is an anti-spoiler.
This game has not abandoned you. It is not an untested bugfest. Play on and you will understand.

Right. I mean, without that, people might pull out the hints and spoil the whole thing for themselves Some people already have.

As for a review itself, well, I don't have a lot to say about this game except that I managed to solve the puzzle on my own, and found it very satisfying to do so. Best individual puzzle so far in this competition.

There should be a post-competition version with a bit more polish, though. Things like this shouldn't happen:
> x glass
Which do you mean, the glass, the Hagia Sophia, or the mosaic?

> x tiles
Which do you mean, the mosaic, or the tiles?
Anyway, recommended.

Friday, October 09, 2009

[IF Competition] Earl Grey

This time, the spoiler space is a riddle.

QUESTION: What is wrong with a game that is called "Earl Grey", that is about a tea party and a monarchy, and that contains phrases like this one: "a riot of color with dozens of varieties you have never seen before."?

ANSWER: It combines the essence of Britain with American spelling!

REMEDY: > cast u into color
Anyway, on to the game. Earl Grey by Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish is a word-play game, like Gleaming the Verb, but of a totally different nature. In Earl Grey, you get to manipuate words by taking away letters or putting other letters in this place. "Knocking" a dame turns it into a dam, while a cane becomes a can. (But my friend Sam stays just the same. Ten bonus points for those who catch the reference.)

This is a delightful idea, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. There are simply too many words in the game that ought to be knockable, but aren't, or that ought to be castable, but aren't. This is entirely typical:

> x girl
Her plight transcends the distance between you.

> knock plight
The runebag remains inert.

I don't see why "her light transcends the distance between you" is any worse than many of the other sentences in the game. You can't knock "town" to "ton", you can't cast an "r' into "moo" to change it into a "moor", and so on.
(Imagine this printed in a seperate window, like the protagonist's thoughts in Earl Grey.) "Countless townspeople lie beneath savaged fragments of beige stonework, and you hear a young girl cry for her lost feather.", the game told me. I formulated a brilliant plan that would have saved all the women... but it did not work.
I can see how this would have been a pain to implement, but really, this game needs to be more open. We have in this magic system the perfect opportunity to reward player creativity and have multiple solutions to all puzzles, but instead, the authors have chosen to make the game very linear indeed. Only the things you must knock or cast or steep can be knocked, casted or steeped. Nothing else works.

The other benefit of more openness would have been lower puzzle difficulty. (After all, if you can solve a puzzle in multiple ways, it generally gets easier.) I had to consult the walkthrough repeatedly during this game, and I gather from other reviews that this was a typical experience.

This is partly due to the fact that puzzles of this type are simply hard if you don't clue them very clearly, but it also partly due to some bad design decision. I will give two examples.

You must turn the wary guardsman into a wry guardsman. This is fine, but unless I missed something, you only get the description "wary guardsman" when you try to knock the guardsman... something that is clearly impossible, and which you therefore would never try. That is simply bad puzzle design.

Another example is the situation where you have to save the sea lions. (Did I already say that "sea ions" is pretty lame?) You must turn the phrase "white luster of shiny rock" into "white cluster of shiny rock", so that the sea lions can get on the rocks. But surely, if I see the white luster of shine rock, there already are rocks? This solution makes no sense.

The game, then, is not open enough, and is too difficult. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself hugely, more so than with any other game in this competition so far. (Okay, I loved solving the card puzzle in The Grand Quest, but that was less because it was a brilliant puzzle than because my linear algebra skills were itching.) The writing was mostly very good. The scenes were evocative, if perhaps a tad too surreal. The implementation was very good as well. The side comments of the main character were a brilliant idea--the piece was much funnier for them, and also made more sense. In fact, most of the jokes actually worked.

But, most importantly, as far as the puzzles were solvable, they were great fun. This is interactive fiction doing one of the things that interactive fiction does best: using language in interesting new ways, doing things with it that could not be done in any other medium.

Of the eight competition games I have played so far, this is the first that might make it onto my list of "must play" games published in 2009. Not because it is perfect; it is not. But because it explores a very interesting puzzle concept in a highly competent and often enjoyable way.

Oh, and Rob and Adam? If you make a post-competition release which responds to more input and allows more solutions of the puzzles, this game might actually rise to the level of "great puzzle game".

[IF Competition] Interface

Another review, another spoiler space. Why fill it with nonsense text if I can actually tell you something interesting? Such as...
There are a lot of processes in our world that happen one way, but not the other. Mirrors break, but shards do not assemble themselves into unbroken mirrors; two colours of paint mix, but they don't unmix. Why? You may believe the answer is the second of law of thermodynamics. You are wrong! I'm serious. At this dramatic point... the spoiler space ends.

Well, this was a nice game. The author claims that it is old-school, with the idea dating back from 1984. He even calls it a "throw-back/relic".

He is wrong.

There is no random death, there are no parser issues, there is no maze, you cannot make the game unwinnable, the item descriptions are longer than three words... nothing in this game reminds me of 1984 (not that I have any clear memories of 1984, but still). Nothing, that is, except the carrying limit, but since all locations are connected it is hardly a problem.

The basic idea is that you got trapped into the body of a robot, and now the shady character who was supposed to change you back isn't all that eager to do so. You must take matters into your own hands, or rather, extensions.

This is a short and simple game, with puzzles that will not stump any more or less experienced player of IF. The writing is adequate (though it gets worse as you approach the end of the game, where you'll even find a spelling error in the name of a takable object). The implementation is fine, and the one NPC is convincing.

So, this is not a stellar game, but it is servicable. It is a lot better than anything--well, better than most things--published in 1984.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

[IF Competition] Gleaming the Verb

This time, I will review Gleaming the Verb. Spoiler space? Hm... I'm running out of ideas.
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Ok, let's go.

Either I am stupid or this game is really weird. It drops me in a room with a cube, tells me to read the cube, gives me a reply and then... nothing. Turns out that reply is a linguistic puzzle from which I must, uhm, gleam the verb, but how am I supposed to know that? I had to look up the first two commands in the walkthrough before I noticed what was going on.

And then I got stuck again. Here is the sentence I was given:


This is the verb I must gleam from it:


Why? Why is it logical to take the 4th letter of the 6th word, the 3rd letter of the 5th word, the 4th letter of the 4th word, the 2nd letter of the 3rd word, the 2nd letter of the 2nd word and the 2nd letter of the 1st word? Is there some pattern I have missed? (Something to do with odd numbers, I suppose, given that the word "odd" appears in the sentence? But I don't see it. Something with recurrence, given the word "eternal"?)

All in all, then, it took me two gleamings of the walkthrough to even understand that I was supposed to solve linguistic puzzles, and a further gleaming of the walkthrough to get through the game. Even supposing that the latter is due to my stupidity, surely the game author could have assured that the former two were unnecessary by giving me a little more guidance? This is important because there are only 6 small puzzles. If I start out by wasting two of them, there's almost nothing left! :(

I'm not going to rate this game before I understand that "adjust" puzzle, though.

[IF Competition] The Duel in the Snow - Appendix

I used ZTools to reverse engineer the story file of The Duel in the Snow, because I wanted to know whether I had missed anything important to the story. Findings below, after some spoiler space.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.

Okay, back to the game. I couldn't find any answers to the question I and others had about the story, so it seems things are not explained.

One slightly suggestive thing that I had not seen in the game:
The book is a slim volume of poetry. Natasha claimed that it was the collected works of one of her friends, an amateur poetess. Sadly, it has seen better days, for now it is all covered in blood and there is a bullet-hole through it.
Unlike in the description when the book is still whole, here we have the verb "claimed", which certainly suggests that Natasha wrote the awful stuff herself.

I was impressed by the number of phrases I had never encountered: this story has been carefully implementen. The number of anecdotes that Kropkin can tell is quite staggering!

I really wonder what command gives you this response:
This game features neither an admiral nor a harpoon gun, but there are plenty of other things to do.
One little gem that I did turn up was the following response:
Surgical techniques in Tsarist Russia aren't that far advanced, I'm afraid! You'll just have to stick with being a man.
Guess which command will give that reply to you! :)

[IF Competition] The Grand Quest - Appendix

My review of Owen Parish's The Grand Quest contained an analysis of its playing card puzzle. I couldn't stop myself from doing some more calculations, which I present here. (This post also contains a walkthrough for the card puzzle that is shorter than that in the official walkthrough. It's right at the end.)

You won't understand this discussion if you haven't read the previous post.

Which also means that it's not too bad if it turns out that I haven't provided anough spoiler space.

In my previous post, I defined the four operations A, B, C and D, and we saw that 4A + B + 5C + D was a solution of the puzzle; it is also the solution of the walkthrough. But of course, we would like to find all solutions by construction, rather than check a single given solution.

The way to go is linear algebra. The four operations form a matrix, and we can get four linear equations out of it. If the Four of Diamonds is supposed to turn into the Ace of Clubs, we get the following equations:

a - b + c + 2d = 10
a + 2b + c + 2d = 1 mod 4
-a + b +2c + d = 8
2a + b + 2c + d = 0 mod 4

I'll leave the calculations as an excercise to the reader, but we will find that d = 1 or 5, b = 1, 5, 9, ..., c = 6 - d, and a can then be gotten from the top equation. One solution is b = 1, d = 1, c = 5, a = 4, which is the solution from the walkthrough. But there is another, better solution: b = 1, d = 5, c = 1, a = 0. Only seven operations, instead of the eleven from the walkthrough! I'll write out the explicit solution below.

We can also say that the Six of Spades must become the Ace of Clubs. This gives us slightly different equations, and leads to d = 1 or 5, b = 3, 7, ..., c = 6 - d, and a is again given by the top equation. The best solution here is b = 3, d = 5, c = 1, a = 2, which are eleven steps, exactly as efficient as the solution from the walkthrough.

Explicit most efficient solution

I adopt the notation from the walkthrough.

Closed 4D, 6S -> 5C, 8C
Open 8C, 5C -> 4S, 9H
Closed 9H, 4S -> 10S, 6C
Closed 10S, 6C -> JD, 8S
Closed JD, 8S -> QC, 10C
Closed QC, 10C -> KH, QS
Closed KH, QS -> AS, AC.

[IF Competition] The Grand Quest

As in the previous post, I'll simply begin my game with saying some non-spoilery things about this game. That should keep the people on Planet IF happy.

The Grand Quest is a game by Owen Parish, whose Cacophony I recently reviewed on the IFDB. That game was radically non-linear, and gave the player very little guidance; The Grand Quest is almost its exact opposite. Here we simply have a linear series of connected rooms, and you can only progress to the next one once you have solved the puzzle.

Spoilers begin here.

The story and the setting are really just window dressing: the puzzles make or break this game. I was favourably impressed by the first puzzle: it's a kind of riddle, with some wordplay, and although you might not want a whole game based on such thoughts it was nevertheless amusing.

Unfortunately, this quality was not maintained throughout the rest of the game. Some of the puzzles barely qualified for that name, and their inclusion in the work is a mystery to me: the library puzzle, for instance, but the nightmare puzzle was even worse. Was that an attempt at emotion? If so, it utterly failed; if not, what was its role within the game?

The puzzle with the coins wasn't very good either. Nothing in the game has prepared me to explore absolutely everything, and once the sacks and even the ground under the tables didn't yield anything, I concluded that the puzzle must have a cleverer solution. Apparently not. Also, when you write:
Now, let’s see you use your head. Divide all the coins in this room into two piles of equal size, one on each table.
why is the puzzle not to make two piles of equal size, but to make two piles of equal value?

The puzzle with the key was not very original, but servicable.

Luckily, there was still one good puzzle to come: the playing cards. Quite hard, maybe not entirely satisfying, but certainly fun to wrestle with. I think I spent at least an hour getting to know the system and attempting to find a solution. For those who are interested, I'll analyse the system below.

The ending was... well, I don't know. I suppose the story was shallow enough that the game cannot be harmed by such tricks.

Analysis of the playing card puzzle

We have two cards, which we can call X and Y, with a value and a suit; and a machine, which changes the value and the suit. The result of the transformation depends on two things: whether the right box is open or closed, and the order of the cards.

Experimentation will show that the values transform according to the folowing rules:

Open: [+1, -1]
Closed: [+1, +2]

Where the first entry is the change in the value of the first card, and the second entry is the change in the value of the second card. The values are 2, 3, 4, ..., 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace, and cycling back to 2.

The suits are a little harder, but you will find the following:

[D, *] -> [C, *]
[*, D] -> [*, H]
[H, *] -> [S, *]
[*, H] -> [*, D]
[S, *] -> [D, *]
[*, S] -> [*, C]
[C, *] -> [H, *]
[*, C] -> [*, S]

This is not as arbitrary as it looks. The first card entered simply cycles one step through the row C -> H -> S -> D -> C -> ..., while the second card cycles two steps through this same row.

This means that we have four different transformations for our cards X and Y, which we can write like this:

A: [+1 (+1), -1 (+2)]    (Open, X entered first.)
B: [-1 (+2), +1 (+1)]    (Open, Y entered first.)
C: [+1 (+1), +2 (+2)]    (Closed, X entered first.)
D: [+2 (+2), +1 (+1)]    (Closed, Y entered first.)

Here, the first number designates the value of the card, while the number between brackets designates the suit of the card. Transformation A increases the value of X by 1, decreases the value of Y by 2, cycles the suit of X 1 step, and cycles the suit of Y 2 steps; and so on.

We start with the Four of Diamond and the Six of Spades. Assume that the former must be transformed into the Ace of Clubs and the latter into the Ace of Spades. (I haven't checked whether the other solution is possible as well.)

In that case, the total transformation must be [+10 (+1), +8 (+0)]. (And of course, the value between brackets is modulo 4, the other is modulo 14.)

You can simply check that 4A + 5C + B + D leads to this transformation. Perhaps the easiest way to gain this answer is by doing some linear algebra? It might be tedious, because of the modulos. I didn't try; this is the transformation from the walkthrough.

The order of the transformations does not matter. (Something that, judging from the walkthrough, the author may not have realised.) So, now you can simply type it in in any order you wish. The hardest part is remembering which cards are X and Y, because if you forget that, you are lost. :)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

[IF Competition] The Duel in the Snow

Another review in the Interactive Fiction Competition. This time, let's just fill the spoiler space with some non-spoilery comments about the game--yet another idea I simply copy from Emily Short.

The Duel in the Snow takes place in aristocratic Russia. Unsurprisingly, given its title, it is about a duel, and almost as unsurprising is the fact that you are one of the two parties in the duel.

There is some clever irony in the game: the player will have formed these expectations immediately, while the protagonist, who is also the focal character, has spent the night drinking and takes about half the game to remember about the duel. So we know what is going to happen, while he is still in the dark.

Spoilers begin here.

This game has good atmosphere: aristocratic Russia is as good a setting as any, and it is nicely evoked, given the size of this particular piece. There is the kind of melancholy, hopeless feel that one does associate with the great Russian novelists as well.

Unless I missed some opportunities to learn more, the backstory remains pretty vague: the protagonist has been left by his wife, Natasha, presumably because he is a big bore; Gronovskij has laughed at him in public because he is a cuckold; and this has infuriated our protagonist so much that he hit Gronovskij in the face. Only a duel could follow.

Servicable, certainly, but... vague. Why did Natasha really go away? What kind of guy is the protagonist? Why did Gronovskij insult him the way he did--his behaviour is incredibly tactless, not something a Russian aristocrat would normally do. Did he provoke the protagonist on purpose? The game itself does not answer, and because of that, the story is not very meaty.

The story as it plays out in the game is not spectacular eitther. You simply have to go the duel, and there you can live or die. That's it. Nobody knows what's coming next. So in terms of story, I'd say that this game is a bit of a disappointment.

There are also some problems with pacing. You can sit in the coach for a long time if you don't realise that drinking alcohol is the action that will advance the plot, and there are a couple of other points in the game with a similar structure. Some kind of drama managers would have helped here.

Then, the "puzzle". Unless I am missing something, the fact that you can survive by putting a stuffed owl in your pocket is devoid of all serious meaning in the story, and feels like a weak IF convention showing up where it does absolutely no good. Why a stuffed owl? Is it supposed to be a symbol or something? It seems pretty arbitrary, and not something that throws new light on the theme.

So, this game is not entirely successful; but that doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable. The implementation is mostly good, the atmosphere is very good, the story, if somewhat lacking, is still better than that of many games... in other words, a solid and enjoyable effort. In fact, the best competition game I played until now.

[IF Competition] The Ascot

Another IF Comp review, another spoiler space... with the final part of this Thomas Hardy poem:
The Ruined Maid (3/3)

"You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!"
"True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she.

"I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!"
"My dear a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.
That should do the trick, and we can go on to The Ascot.

I expected a game about horse racing, high society, and (perhaps) definite articles. A spiritual successor to Sting of the Wasp, maybe? Instead, I got an obscure kind of tie.

And it was cursed.

The Ascot is a CYOA-game of an especially minimalist type: you can only type "yes" and "no". Your choices have some effect on the narrative, though not overly much: many lead to premature endings, and most others only change either your inventory or whether you get a companion. There is, in other words, not much interactivity.

The story itself is not going to win any XYZZY's, but it is brought with a lot of enthusiasm. It is a hard heart that can remain wholly critical while we get to defeat an Eagle Monster by giving it a slush puppy (which is s kind of poison-coloured iced drink, isn't it?), then have our parents take away all the treasures we found.

So: enjoyable, not outstanding, perhaps a sign of better things to come.

That said, it seems that Michael Martin discovered something impressive in the game. Unfortunately, I don't know what he is talking about, but it might be worth investigating.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

[IF Competition] Trap Cave

More IF Comp reviews, more spoiler space. As promised, the second part of Thomas Hardy's:
The Ruined Maid (2/3)

-"At home in the barton you said 'thee' and 'thou,'
And 'thik oon,' and 'theäs oon,' and 't'other'; but now
Your talking quite fits 'ee for high compa-ny!"
"Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she.

"Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!"
"We never do work when we're ruined," said she.
This time, I review Trap Cave by Emilian Kowalewski.

It is a CYOA-style game, written in a new engine (Node-X) that is available for Windows and Linux. The engine seems good enough for its purposes. Some integration with the window manager might be a good idea, as it would allow for much nicer output, but I won't complain about that. Also, the author does not seem to be an entirely proficient Linux-programmer, since the game attempts to write to its own directory rather than make a hidden directory in the user's home--this led to all kinds of trouble when I tried to run it as another user. Also, it couldn't find the games... well, at least interoperability is on the agenda. I ended up running the Windows version in Wine.

The game is in German. There is also an English version, but even that is in German from almost the start. (The author claims that he didn't have time to translate it all, but the game doesn't seem to be that big. Surely translating at least the first few minutes couldn't take that much time?)

Luckily, I read German, and in fact that is why I felt compelled to try this game. Perhaps few other judges will be competent to judge it.

Is Trap Cave a good game? Unfortunately, no. You start out in a pit, and have to escape through a cave full of "traps". None of these traps are real puzzles: they are just unpredictable instant death situations. The very first sets the tone of the game: you walk into a dark tunnel, and have to choose between left and right. If you choose right... instant death! Or you find a tunnel filled with water, and once you've entered it, you can "swim on" or "go back". Whichever you choose... instant death! In fact, instant death you cannot undo! Truly the kind of retro adventure book experience I did not want to have ever again.

On top of that, the CYOA-interface, at least as used in this game, puts arbitrary and irritating restrictions on the player. Once I had entered the cave with the skeleton, I didn't get the option to go back again. Why not? No reason. There just was no choice that would take me back. In the first location, you need to examine something, but the option to examine it appears rather arbitrarily, so that I missed it and had to ask for help on the newsgroup.

With that help I got a bit further, but I once again got into a situation where nothing I did made any difference. I could walk back and forth between two locations, and I could not do anything else. Nothing. According to someone on the newsgroup, I should be able to get to new locations once I had created the torch... but no, no new options appeared. Who knows, perhaps I needed to hold the torch in my right hand, instead of in my left hand? I wouldhave loved to try it out, but I couldn't, because you're not allowed to drop the items you are holding. At least, you're not always allowed to do that. I couldn't see any logic behind it, and at this point I didn't really care anymore.

So I quit. I hope I don't have to write that in all my reviews.

The game is boring and probably buggy, and the interface was terribly annoying. Good CYOA is undoubtedly possible, but Trap Cave is not going to convert any of the skeptics--to the contrary. This game was marginally better than last year's Project Delta, by the same author and in the same system, but it's still so bad that it only damages the reputation of Node-X further.