A Blue Like No Other, by Dan Cox

“A Blue Like No Other” shows a frustrated writer’s creativity trying to break through as she deals with the mundane text of writing an online grammar primer.

Gameplay: The game is presented as an online course in English grammar. The player progresses by clicking on certain words in the sample text in each chapter. Those texts begin as simple filler, but the guide’s author builds an elaborate fantasy story in subsequent chapters. Those words to find mostly relate to the chapter’s lesson in some way (e.g., they’re prepositions in the chapter on prepositions), but that conceit is dropped by the last chapter, where the sample text is unnecessarily long, and the words to find are arbitrary. The game also contains a series of email conversations expressing scorn from the primer’s editor about the writer’s inability to produce simple text.

It could be a strong setup, but there’s little for the player to do. The text isn’t interesting to read; finding the given words in the text is simultaneously tedious and trivial; and there’s no deeper story or characterization of the writer or editors to explore. 4/10.

Mechanics: There’s little interactivity in the game, and two of the chapters are repeated. (Maybe that’s supposed to indicate how little investment the sample text writer had in her work, but it’s still annoying to the player.) The idea behind it isn’t bad, but actually playing the game doesn’t add much to its premise. 3/10.

Presentation: Neither the desultory sample text nor the in-game writer’s more verbose stories are particularly compelling to read. There are some misspellings in the text (“unlikily”, “seclection”) that I don’t think can be attributed to the in-game writer’s inattentiveness. Clicking on certain words in a single body of text is not interesting for the player; answering reading comprehension questions from more frequent but shorter texts (with the setup, for example, of having the sample text’s author aggressively soliciting feedback on her work), or even just going through grammar exercises that require a bit of thought, would make the experience more satisfying. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re a frustrated writer.

Score: 3

Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: The Text Adventure, by Pippin Barr

It’s difficult to nail down exactly what “interactive fiction” entails. A few games, most famously “Rameses” and “Depression Quest,” have played with the “interactive” part of deliberately limiting the player’s ability to interact with the game. “Ancient Greek Punishment” is a parser-based game based on a creative variation of that idea.

Gameplay: The first half of the game plays like standard interactive fiction: You are a spirit at the river Styx, trying to board Charon’s ferry. Once you do so, you play through a series of vignettes depicting scenes in Greek mythology and philosophy. Neither the puzzles in the first section nor the plots in the second section are particularly invovled or difficult, and the game flows smoothly. 5/10.

Mechanics: The Styx section of the game consists of a few short, straightforward puzzles. The more unusual part of the game is its second section and its limits on interactivity. It’s difficult to elaborate on that section without introducing spoilers, but it’s clever and done well. The game is short enough that those limits aren’t tedious. 5/10.

Presentation: Descriptions are terse, and the focus of the game is on the plot rather than characters or setting. As an aid to the player, useful items or verbs are highlighted. (In most games, that would be a distraction; this game is short and simple enough for it not to cause any problems.) The scoring systems in some of the sections are clever and unusual, particularly that of the last vignette. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re interested in Greek mythology.

Score: 5

Eye Contact, by Thomas McMullan

“Eye Contact” is a simple choice-based game in which the player is shown the eyes of a character as the narrator has a conversation with her.

Gameplay: The conversation is played out through a short series of choices, and the player can literally see how the character reacts to them. There’s little interactivity to the game, and the conversation ends without any major relevations or narrative conclusion. The game could be interesting as a demonstration of how much information in a conversation (as opposed to a prepared, written text) is conveyed through eye contact and body language, or even something similar to the Kuleshov effect, but I didn’t find that it raised any compelling questions for me. 3/10.

Mechanics: There are few branching points in the conversation, and I didn’t notice any major differences in playing the game twice with different choices. There’s not much for the reader to do besides gauge the emotions of the other character based on the dialogue and her expression. 2/10.

Presentation: The conversation in the game is short and mundane. The interlocutor’s emotions vary significantly over it, but it doesn’t have any significance otherwise; there’s no narrative to unravel or character study to undertake. It feels like a dialogue in an exercise from an acting class, rather than something more genuine. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re interested in how an actor would react to interactive fiction.

Score: 3

Truck Quest, by Donald Conrad and Peter M.J. Gross

I’m just old enough to have fond memories of the “Oregon Trail” computer game. “Truck Quest” is a choice-based game that has a broadly similar feel to it but very different gameplay.

Gameplay: The protagonist of the game is a trucker who runs deliveries to pay off an exponentially increasing series of loans to secure his truck. As he learns more about exactly what he’s gotten into, he meets three NPCs who are willing to help him in the course of fulfilling their own political goals. Helping each of those characters nudges the political orientation of the game’s nation in a different direction as the main plot unfolds, and the game’s endings change depending on where that state eventually lands. It’s a simple, well-executed concept that’s fun to play out. 6/10.

Mechanics: The fundamental mechanic in the game is choosing which of a menu of jobs to take, including some that can bolster relations with certain NPCs. The latter category of jobs also affect the overall political orientation of the country (e.g., being favorable to big business). As the game progresses, the player gains the ability to perform increasingly lucrative jobs to pay off his increasingly large debt. It’s a compelling motivation to continue developing relationships with the NPCs and advance the plot, but the means of doing so is simply choosing a job and an approach to it (e.g., recklessly or safely) from a list. Even the ostensibly most hazardous approach seems to have a very high chance of succeess, though, and there’s nothing distinguishing the jobs besides the source offering them. The game isn’t long enough for me to get bored with that mechanic, but I was a bit disappointed by the lack of a deeper game to accompany the narrative. 5/10.

Presentation: The text descriptions and NPC conversations throughout the game are interesting and funny, and the low-res aesthetic of the graphics of the game suit it. Its political message avoids being ham-fisted, and the player is given a bit of freedom in exploring it. The game’s tone is consistent throughout, making the escalation of the problems faced by the protagonist seem natural rather than jarring. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like business simulations to have an underlying narrative.

Score: 6

IFComp 2019

Reviewing all the games from last year’s competition was a lot of fun, so I’m planning to do so again this year. There aren’t any reviews yet, of course, but I plan to starting posting again when the games are released on 1 October.

Concluding Remarks

That’s it for the 2018 IFComp reviews. My sincere thanks to all the authors; I realize that making an interactive-fiction game is a huge time sink that can often seem unrewarding. The interactive-fiction community is not a particularly friendly place, even if the people in it are, and I wanted to write something here that avoided the dismissiveness and unnecessary unpleasantness I’ve seen in some (certainly not all) other reviews. There’s room here for a huge variety of games, and we need a larger body of reviewers to avoid narrowly focusing attention in what’s already a small, niche community to only those games with the currently trendy intrepreters, styles, and themes. The only way to do that is to generate more reviews, so here’s my small contribution.

That having been said, what sort of game do I personally like? Here’s a histogram of the overall ratings:

overall-scores.png

There are only six out of the 76 rated games that I gave a 9 or 10 to. They’re all longer works with prominent puzzles and a light, comedic tone, so that’s a good first approximation to my preferred type of game. For a more detailed look, I’ve marked each game in four categories:

  • Parser games rely on parsing text commands, while choice games use a more intuitive but less flexible interface: Choosing a decision among a list of alternatives, dragging actions over keywords in the text to invoke them, etc.
  • Standard systems are ones that have been used for a while by a large audience (by IF standards); the most prominent example is Inform. A custom system is one that was developed recently and isn’t commonly used used, or one developed (by the author or someone else) with custom features for one particular game.
  • A serious game is a dramatic one that has the goal of affecting the player emotionally. A light one has a less serious tone and is more concerned with the gameplay itself. (Light games are not necessarily comedic; the Zork games fall into that category, for example.)
  • A long game more than an hour to complete without a walkthrough; a short game takes less.

(Of course, these labels are somewhat arbitrary and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.) With the large number of games in the competition, we can test whether there are significant differences in my evaluations of the categories above.

  • Parser games have a mean score 0.38 higher than that of choice games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.50.
  • Standard-system games have a mean score 0.42 higher than that of custom-system games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.44.
  • Light games have a mean score 0.61 higher than that of serious games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.25.
  • Long games have a mean score 1.42 higher than that of short games, corresponding to a p-value of 0.0023.

(The analysis above uses Welch’s t-test, and the p-values given correspond to the null hypothesis that each pair of populations has the same mean score.) It thus looks like I might have bit of a preference for light parser-based games on standard systems, but I definitely give higher scores to long games than short ones. If you want a high score in my reviews next year, the safest bet is to write a lightly comedic puzzlefest in Inform that takes over an hour to play. Don’t forget to add in a raven or some intense math for a free bonus point.

Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night, by Mike Carletta

In the last IFComp, I submitted a game based about two comic-book supervillains’ attempted capers. “Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of the Night” is a game also in that some pulp comic-book genre, but it’s a very different game. I was pesronally especially interested in it particularly as a constrast with my own game, but it’s a clever, charming game I’d happily recommend to anyone.

Gameplay: The protagonist is a superhero trying to stop a Martian supervillain. (The comics here are space opera ones; neither character has superpowers, and ray guns and doomsday machines are prominent.) The game is fundamentally a puzzlefest, albeit one with substantial flavor and good writing, that has three main puzzles that must be solved in succession. The relatively small map focuses attention on the well-designed puzzles, and the game doesn’t feel rushed or unfocused. 9/10.

Mechanics: There are three puzzles to the game: a standard adventure-style inventory and set-piece puzzle; a puzzle that’s almost a logic problem; and a puzzle involving understanding the color mechanic in the game. The idea of a “black-and-white” text-adventure in the latter is brilliant, and the puzzle surrounding it is creative. All three puzzles are of reasonable difficulty, and they have a few separate subparts. To alleviate frustration, the author provides in-game hints and a walkthrough.

The only problem I had with the mechanics is that it’s unfair in one particular part: A certain puzzle requires using information from previous fatal attempts to solve it. It’s not a mechanical problem, given the length of the game and the presence of save files and the undo command, but it’s hard to call it completely satisfactory. Adding a warning about the upcoming puzzle (e.g., a map) would eliminate the problem. 9/10.

Presentation: The writing captures the golden-age comic-book sensibility well, and it’s short enough that it can keep up its over-the-top style without overstaying its welcome. The characters are stock ones, but the pacing of the game prevents them from being shallow or repetitive. It’s hard to dislike a game involving a bit of math, references to “Ulysses,”, and comic-book superheroes and supervillains. 9/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like multi-part puzzles involving systems to play around with.

Score: 9

The Mouse Who Woke Up for Christmas, by Luke A. Jones

“The Mouse Who Woke Up for Christmas” is a long parser-based game about a mouse trying to prepare for the holiday. In order to get everything ready in time, he has to scour his surroundings for the appropriate items he needs.

Gameplay: The game takes place in a large world containing more items and puzzles than most competition entries. It’s an impressive scope, though it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where to go next without a walkthrough. The protagonist meets a variety of animal NPCs, but most of them are single-note characters used for only one puzzle. Still, it’s fun to wander around a human’s backyard as a mouse, and the puzzles are more invovled than just using one item on another. 5/10.

Mechanics: The game is a puzzlefest, and it would be difficult to solve the puzzles without a walkthrough. Some of the puzzles involve considerable leaps in logic, like the one involving tying a crow’s skull to a metal bar to make a “crowbar.” The openness of the world often makes it hard to progress, since it’s unclear where the player’s attention should be focused. 6/10.

Presentation: Although I enjoyed the descriptions of the backyard from a mouse’s perspective, the text had numerous typos (e.g., “You’re not tryying to tell me what to do”) and lots of missing punctuation. There was also several instances of what look like coding errors in responses, as in WAKE CAT -> “You can’t wake up;wake her.” The tone of the game of inconsistent, and it’s unclear in places what the author had in mind.

The story starts out with a pyjama-clad mouse putting his daughter to bed before Christmas, which suggests that it’s going to be a twee story for children. Shortly thereafter, the mouse encounters a pigeon using profanity. (I have no problem with profanity itself; it’s the switch in tone that’s jarring.) After that, there’s a snail whose description mentions that he’s not fully implemented yet, and the player can have him eat a source code listing to give him a more thorough description. That combination of storybook animals, profanity, and meta-jokes about coding is an odd one, and the game feels like a crazy quilt of tone rather than setting.
4/10.

Tilt: One of the characters is a corvid (specifically, a magpie) who’s involved in a few puzzles. +1.

You might be interested in this game if: You want to a play game a puzzlefest that has a large number of puzzles but still has a compact world.

Score: 5

Space Punk Moon Tour, by J_J

“Space Punk Moon Tour” is a parser-based program game involving a teenager’s space flight to see a band she likes.

Gameplay: There’s a wide variety of objects and characters to interact with in the game, although most of them are not useful to the story and merely provide flavor. The protagonist has clear goals, but the puzzles and NPC interactions involved in pursuing those goals are sometimes opaque. Combined with the guess-the-verb problems, I found it difficult to make progress in the game. 5/10.

Mechanics: It’s often unclear how to proceed in the game, with some of the puzzles being a bit unmotivated. The protagonist can’t leave her house until she’s packed, but the game never indicates exactly what she’s missing; it turns out that she wants to take her cat with her. She can’t leave the subway until she accomplishes a certain task, but what that task is never revealed until she stumbles into it; it turns out that a friend of hers is standing barefoot nearby, and she needs to give him a pair of her boots. She needs to befriend a clerk in order to get a special dispensation for her cat, but there aren’t many clues about what he would like; it turns out that one of the books she’s carrying is on a subject he’s interested in. I may have missed something obvious, but the convenient in-game hint system (operating under the conceit of texting a friend of the protagonist’s for help) didn’t reveal any such clues either. 4/10.

Presentation: The setting is one in the near future with some cyperpunk elements, especially its aesthetics, added. It’s familiar enough to be realistic without being overly familiar, and it helps the story develop. I ran into a few guess-the-verb issues while playing the game, particularly in trying to take the sleeping pills. (TAKE, EAT, CONSUME, and USE all failed; the acceptable syntax I eventually found was POP PILL WITH WATER.) The author provides illustrations for the game to accompany the text. It’s also worth noting that the site the game is hosted on is flaky (through no fault of the author’s), and I had trouble getting far into the game. Take the author’s advice and play it offline. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like cyberpunk-flavored games.

Score: 5

The Broken Bottle, by Josh Irvin and the Affinity Forge team

“The Broken Bottle” is a medium-length choice-based game about children who have to fend for themselves on an adventure.

Gameplay: Gameplay consists of making decisions at certain points in the text, but there are only about a half-dozen such decisions over the course of the game, and it didn’t appear (from two playthroughs) that the choices substantially affected the plot. The game is beautifully illustrated, though, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the presentations. There’s not much interactivity in the game, but it might work better as simply a static illustrated short story, or even something like the multimedia storybooks popular in the 90s. 3/10.

Mechanics: The game tracks a bit of state, but there’s not much for the player to do. Aside from a few minor variations and flavortext, the decisions have little impact on the linear story. 3/10.

Presentation: Although the game is not very interactive, it features a beautiful interface and illustrations. The text is not quite strong enough to sustain my interest in it as an interactive story, but it could work as an illustrated children’s book. It’s also noteworthy that the story features magical and fantasy elements that are more original the standard generic-medieval ones. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You miss reading illustrated children’s books as an adult.

Score: 4