Charming, by Kaylah Facey

One of my favorite genres of interactive fiction is puzzlefests with light humor in a fantasy setting. I was therefore happy to see “Charming” on the list and, as expected, had fun playing it.

Gameplay: The gameplay focuses on solving puzzles rather than exploration; the world map is quite small. It’s a compact game that concentrates on a few things that it does very well, rather than being more diffuse. The author provides a walkthrough, and the protagonist’s familiar provides in-game hints. (The walkthrough also mentions some optional content that I didn’t have a chance to explore myself.) 7/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are mostly straightforward applications of the magic spells, which are interesting to explore. The magic spells are Infocom-style actions rather than part of a more complex system (as in “Junior Arithmancer”, in which some “spells” can be used as modifiers for other ones) or a more complex mechanic (as in “Savoir-Faire”, where the magic system is simple but has a wide variety of different applications), but they work well for the puzzles in the game. 7/10.

Presentation: The protagonist and her familiar are likable and strongly characterized. To explain the magic the protagonist runs across, in-game reference books go into the details of the spells, and it’s clear how the set pieces in the puzzles behave. I did encounter a minor guess-the-verb issue with the opening puzzle, whose solution I realized well before I figured out the right way of accomplishing it in the game. That didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game, though, and I didn’t run across any other substantial problems with the syntax or text. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoy light puzzle-based games with likable characters.

Score: 7

Six Silver Bullets, by William Dooling

In addition to math and interactive fiction, I also spend a significant fraction of my time playing board games. One particular genre of game in the rotation is the RPG-like adventure game like “Arkham Horror” or “Mansions of Madness”, in which characters traverse a map and have scripted encounters using their stats and whatever items or abilities they’ve found in their previous exploration. “Six Silver Bullets” is a game in that spirit, with the encounters mostly concerning enemy agents the protagonist encounters.

Gameplay: The protagonist is some sort of secret agent or assassin with amensia. As he wanders around game space, he frequently encounters other agents, who may be friendly or hostile. It’s unclear which on first meeting them, though he starts out with a few hints about particular agents. Although the game is ostensibly parser-based, there are a few explicit options given at each encounter. Because of its randomness, size, and amensiac plot, the game can be a bit confusing. There’s an undo feature to reduce frustration at the randomness of encounters, but it’s often unclear how to proceed in the game. 5/10.

Mechanics: Although there are others in the game, its core is the set of encounters with other agents. Those events are randomized, though the player is often given indications about how difficult the rolls will be for the various outcome. The gameplay feels a bit opaque as a result, especially with the difficulties in figuring what the player should be doing in the game. One particularly interesting mechanic is the set of titular bullets, each of which lands an automatic kill against an agent when used. 4/10.

Presentation: The terse, clipped style of the game suits its protagonist, even if it’s a bit overdone. The agents’ descriptions appear to be randomized, but that doesn’t detract from the game. Fundamentally, it feels like a board game, with randomly generated missions, randomized outcomes for encounters, and some basic state for the world. It’s a novel style of play I haven’t seen much in interactive fiction. (It’s particularly compelling to me because of the main drawbacks of games like “Arkham Horror” is its long play time, which a single-player computerized version neatly avoids.) 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoy games like “Arkham Horror.”

Score: 5

Anno 1700, by Finn Rosenløv

“Anno 1700” is a long parser-based game about a student who takes a summer job at a hotel. After discovering a pirate hideout nearby, she explores the cave and uncovers its history.

Gameplay: The game starts out with a well-written prologue and a few opening scenes at the hotel. The bulk of it, though, concerns her exploration of the pirate cave. Unlike most adventure games, this one isn’t focused entirely on the actual exploration itself; instead, it shows the protagonist’s attempts to find a way into the hideout, to recover artifacts from it, to talk with other people about the cave and its artifacts, and to reconcile its history with the present. In short, it’s about more than traversing the cave itself, a welcome change from most adventure games in this genre. 7/10.

Mechanics: Most of the game is spent exploring the hotel and the area around it using standard adventuring techniques: finding secret passages, obtaining keys and useful tools, picking locks with bits of wire, etc. A large part of the game is just finding the secret passages needed to navigate through the map, rather than the more involved puzzles in other games, and the game focuses on the experience of exploring a mysterious place as an amateur adventurer without any special tools. The first few puzzles in the game seem similar to each other, but they become more interesting once the player reaches the cannon sequence, which is more involved than the other puzzles but not particularly difficult. Although it was clear at each stage of that puzzle what I wanted the protagonist to do, it was occasionally unclear how to get her to do it. 6/10.

Presentation: The setting evokes the pirate theme throughout the long cave exploration sequence and flashback, but the contrast between those parts of the game and the initial hotel exploration emphasizes the adventurousness of the former. Both the protagonist and the NPCs that appear briefly are characterized well, especially given that the emphasis of the game is on exploration and problem-solving rather than conversation. The fantasy element of the flashback is a bit odd compared against the realism of the rest of the game, but the mechanic it allows is interesting enough to suspend disbelief for that section. There are a few guess-the-verb issues: for example, UNLOCK ROOM is not understood, but UNLOCK [room] 101 is. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoyed “Plundered Hearts” or “Cutthroats.”

Score: 7

The master of the land, by Pseudavid

In “The master of the land,” the protagonist attends an aristocratic ball with the goal of obtaining a favor from one of the dignitaries there. As the night progress, she becomes involved in more court intrigue and further complications.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, but the player can roam freely around the map. Events transpire at each location according to the time and previous choices, and the player is free to pursue or ignore plots as they develop. This freedom is a bit overwhemling, and that’s the point; the protagonist is being pulled in multiple directions by her plot, and the game is about trying to accomplish the tasks quickly and efficiently. At the very least, it successfully creates the sense of anxious plotting that one would feel at a high-stakes political event. The events themselves vary from personal plots (e.g., getting a special dispensation to wear trousers rather than a dress) to more epic ones. That variety, along with the need to prioritize them, makes the game interesting. Even though the setting only comprises a few locations, the stream of new plots and new characters keeps the game interesting for the duration. That duration is also longer than I initially expected. I only had time to play through the game once, but there’s so much material in the game that it merits several replays after the competition is over. 8/10.

Mechanics: The game is a simple choice-based one, but it has quite a bit of state, and the actions taken significantly affect the plot. The player has much more freedom than in most choice-based games, and the world is more believable as a result; playing the game truly feels like interacting with an environment, rather than walking along a decision tree. The options at a given location depend on the character’s quests, the in-game time, and the characters around the ball. The game is filled with meaningful interactivity, yet the choices available are always clear and well-defined. 9/10.

Presentation: The setting and tone of the game evoke a strong sense of 17th or 18th century European aristocracy, but without tying it to any particular country. (The use of “canton” suggests Switzerland, but I didn’t see any other details that would point toward that specific of a location). It’s definitely not a generic fantasy setting, and there are enough real-world details mixed in with invented details to make the setting recognizable but creative. The conversations in the game are enjoyable to read, and even characters the protagonist meets only briefly have clear personalities. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like games about political intrigue.

Score: 8

The King of the World, by G. A. Millsteed

“The King of the World” is a short choice-based game involving a quest for magical artifacts in a fantasy land.

Gameplay: The game comprises three main sections of approximately equal length. The first is an introductory chapter with exactly one choice. The second involves a series of decisions about leading an army, with some basic stats (supplies, morale, and time) that are raised and lowered by the choices. If the stats are high enough by the end of the chapter, you win; otherwise, you lose and have to reset the section. The third chapter is a maze to navigate. After those three chapters, there’s also a section describing the result of the quest. The game feels a bit generic in setting and plot, but changing the mechanics in each chapter is a creative touch 4/10.

Mechanics: The first chapter has very little interactivity, and the second one involves making choices to keep stats as high as possible, with little branching in the text. The third chapter’s maze is tedious, especially given the lack of the usual tools for trudging through them: provided maps, automappers, the ability to drop items to distinguish rooms, etc. There’s nothing at all rewarding to the player in solving a maze. 3/10.

Presentation: The setting, plot, and characters are stock ones from fantasy, and the idea of the quest in the game is a familiar one. The long stretches of static text in the opening and the terse descriptions of the maze in the last full chapter detract from the prose. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like games that involve a succession of different mechanics, like mini-games.

Score: 3

The Addicott Manor, by Intudia

“The Addicott Manor” is a choice-based horror story about exploring a haunted mansion.

Gameplay: After a short introduction, the game consists of exploring the manor through a series of simple decision points. There are numerous dead ends and red herrings, though, with few clues beforehand. The gameplay is similar to that of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book or games like Shadowgate, though, with trial-and-error play required to progress. As in those games, part of the appeal is in reading through the different death scenes; even if it’s hard to predict which options will be safe, those scenes are interesting, and there’s no significant penalty for dying. (Some of the other, non-fatal traps do have lingering consequences, though.) 5/10.

Mechanics: The game does involve a bit of state, most notably in some of the manor’s traps disabling or remove certain items in your inventory. It’s largely about exploration, though, and surviving despite the random traps and obstacles that befall the protagonist. 4/10.

Presentation: The options at a decision point were often (especially toward the beginning of the game) just listed in running text, rather than being displayed more prominently or even just in a separate list. At least on my browser, the last option button was flushed right while the others were on the left. There were some typos and odd phrasing in the text (“Are there any jewelry in the manor?”). I didn’t find the game particularly scary or disturbing, despite some of the death scenes, but it wasn’t played for laughs either. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You fondly remember gothic or horror “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.

Score: 4

Cannery Vale, by Keanhid Connor

One of the techniques I use to avoid writer’s block is taking a short nap to clear my thoughts (or, more often, just to catch up on sleep). The protagonist in “Cannery Vale” does the same as he tries to finish his upcoming horror novel, exploring the novel in his dreams and making the revisions those dreams suggest on waking up.

Gameplay: Most of the gameplay involves exploring the plot of the story, running into an impasse or death, and then fixing the problem after waking up. It’s an interesting, literary take on the programming mechanic a few other games in this competition (e.g., “I.A.G. Alpha”) feature, and there are many opportunities to tweak the game beyond what’s in the shortest solution path. The setting is substantial, and the game has a much larger scope than it may first appear. It might be a bit too open-ended, given its scope, but exploring the novel and outside world are genuinely interesting. 8/10.

Mechanics: The game is choice-based, with the occasional text input or other check box instead of the usual list of alternatives. Its central mechanic is clever, though it’s occasionally unclear how to progress (without checking the walkthrough provided, at least) and what the exact mechanics surrounding the novel segment are. The interface for customizing the novel is set up well, and it’s enjoyable to see those changes later reflected in it. 7/10.

Presentation: The game is atmospheric, and the NPCs in the novel are believable characters. The game’s protagonist is not as well-developed, although the novel’s protagonist is as strong as any of its other characters. The author put considerable effort into providing rich details in the game, and the text and interface are constructed well. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve tried to write a novel and had writer’s block.

Score: 8

Bullhockey, by B. F. Lindsay

“Bullhockey” is a sprawling parser-based game in which the protagonist attemtps to retrieve his clothes after they’re scattered around town by his girlfriend.

Gameplay: The puzzles generally involve helping the town’s residents to obtain useful inventory items. The game is a realistic, slice-of-life style one, and thus most the puzzles involve inventory and set pieces, rather than more exotic mechanics (e.g., magic systems, complicated machines, etc.) While I’m usually a fan of longer games, the scope of this one hurts it. It’s a scavenger hunt game (i.e., one in which the aim is to collect a variety of treasures or other useful items, rather than some specific plot-relevant goal), and the blandness of the goal and setting make it difficult to sustain interest in the game over the long series of puzzles. The size of the setting also makes navigation a bit frustrating at time, which cuts into my enjoyment of the game. 6/10.

Mechanics: Some of the puzzles are a bit opaque, recalling some of the more esoteric puzzles in the Infocom games. This level of mild unfairness suits the game’s puzzle-hunt genre, but a hint system or some more clues within the game itself would be useful. The puzzles are also largely unmotivated, with useful objects are scavenger hunt items rewarded for solving apparently unrelated puzzles. As annoyed as I am at reviewers who sneer at games focused on puzzles rather than narrative, I would have enjoyed the game more if it had strong characters or plots to motivate its puzzles. 5/10.

Presentation: The protagonist’s characterization is stronger than most puzzle-based games’, and it’s effectively shown in his dealings with the town’s residents. It’s not a particularly sympathetic one, but it does add a bit of color to the puzzles. The text is solid overall, but it’s a bit lackluster given the length of the game. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a puzzle-based game that’s longer than most others in the competition.

Score: 5

Lux, by Agnieszka Trzaska

“Lux” is a long choice-based game in which the protagonist explores a space station after a devastating incident there. She was blinded in that incident, but the station’s AI helps her navigate the environment and describes what she encounters.

Gameplay: The space station is vast, and much of the game is spent simply exploring it rather than solving puzzles or conversing with the AI. The game convincingly shows how damaged the station is and how isolated the protagonist is without overemphasizing it, and it thus makes the conversations with the AI more compelling. There’s a steady stream of puzzles to solve and numerous optional areas and scenes to explore, but the most interesting part of the game is figuring out what happened, what is happening, and whether the protagonist should trust the AI. (Despite the clues in the game that it wouldn’t be the optimal ending, I finished the game with the normal ending. The walkthrough indicates that getting the better one involves taking several particular actions throughout the game. That’s a more satisfying way of handling multiple endings than just adding a single choice at the end, but unfortunately I don’t have time to replay the entire game.) 8/10.

Mechanics: Even though the game is choice-based, it has a large map, keeps a substantial state, and contains classic adventure-style puzzles. The player collects various items around the station and can later use them to affect the setting. Selecting an item in the inventory screen readies it, and doing so may open up new options (often nested within multiple layers of options) in a room. The puzzles aren’t particularly difficult, but they provide motivation for exploring the station and reward paying attention to the setting. 7/10.

Presentation: The interaction between the protagonist and the station AI was a bit dry, though I’m not sure whether that was intentional. Regardless, it’s an interesting change from the more common overly helpful or gleely malevolent AIs that are common in games. Those interactions fill in the personality of the AI, although the protagonist isn’t as strongly characterized. The game also distinguishes the actions the protagonist can take from converations she can initiate with the AI by color in the menu, which is a nice touch.

I was, however, significantly bothered by the delays in the text in all the conversations and room descriptions. “Lux” is long and has a lot of text, and it was frustrating to have to wait several seconds after reading part of a description for the next paragraph to appear. There are several long cutscenes toward the end of the game, and I walked away from my computer for a while to let them play out. There’s no benefit to adding the delays, and it’s intensely frustrating to the player. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoyed “Stationfall” and the Portal series.

Score: 7

Diddlebucker!, by J. Michael

I still have affectionate memories of the old Infocom games, which were my first introduction to interactive fiction. Unlike other games in this competition that try to modernize that style of game, “Diddlebucker!” is a faithful recreation of it.

Gameplay: The gameplay strongly resembles that of Infocomp’s “Hollywood Hijinx”: exploring a realistic, modern setting and solving inventory and set-piece puzzles to win a large cash prize. There’s enough of a plot to keep the game interesting without distracting from the puzzles, and they include riddles and some NPC interaction to break up the inventory ones. 7/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are fair overall, but the difficulty curve is a bit uneven in the earlier (post-introduction) part of the game. A few of the inventory puzzles are more difficult than average; on the other hand, there are a couple of puzzles about finding the right item in a list based on clues (e.g., which variety of coffee to pick up or which presidential memorbilia to give to a collector) that are much easier than average. No particular puzzle stands out to me as being amazingly clever or inventive, but none stands out as being particularly obscure or derivative either. 7/10.

Presentation: The game captured the feeling of a playing a scavenger hunt, which, as someone who occasionally plays puzzle hunts and similar competitions, I recognized and appreciated. There isn’t a lot of NPC interaction, but it’s more than most puzzle-heavy works like this one have. The game is parser-based, and interacting was it was smooth aside from a few minor guess-the-verb issues with the lighter. (I’m also unsure why TRAVEL TO [place] is’t recognized; instead, the correct syntax is just TRAVEL, which brings up a prompt for you to type in the destination.) Glimpses of competing teams with late-80s gimmicks gave the game a bit of flavor, but they’re frequent enough that the joke wears thin quickly. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You liked “Hollywood Hijinx.”

Score: 7