antimony (antimony) wrote,

ifcomp reviews, batch 2

I feel like perhaps I should say more on how I rate games; I've scored a bunch of these competitions before, but the last time was in 2000 or so. And I haven't played much IF from the years in between; I've missed many chapters in innovation, both technological and artistic, and so I don't always know where a competition game is doing something new and where it's doing something that was done better in 2008 but I haven't seen before. I am not worrying about that, and am scoring on whether I liked it.

Also, I have two platforms to play on: an aged Mac laptop running OS X 10.5.8 and the corresponding version of Safari, and a version 1 iPad, also running its corresponding Safari. Both can be bogged down by very basic websites, and both are a little flaky. I've been playing most of the web games on the iPad while commuting on the T, and the interpreter games at home after I write down notes on the web games. (I have, at the point, played almost all the web games, but actually editing my notes hasn't caught up.) (And the numbering sequence of these reviews reflects the original shuffle list I had; if I was at home I played the next interpreter game on it, but I was playing web games as I felt like it.)

5: The Contortionist
[web-based with an action menu, played online on iPad]

I played this one out of my original shuffle order, at a coffee shop on my iPad without my list. Browser-based, with a classic-style menu parser -- very old-school early graphical-adventure style, but without the graphics. The first puzzle-oriented rather than story-oriented game I played this comp, which probably benefitted it. The story was a thin veneer of paint-by-numbers dystopia that didn't even quite match the setting; if the protagonist is in a work gang, why try to escape from the barracks rather than elsewhere? Etc.

The fellow prisoners were well-done for one-note NPCs, though, and it was enough story to drag me into it even though timed puzzles are one of my least favorite IF puzzle genres.

Tech-wise, while I don't know if this was Twine or another big system under the hood or a roll-your-own parser, it was a nice implementation of a SCUMM-style option menu. I did run into at least one unintentional dead end, and a few places where either I didn't get the option I expected without a little fussy manuevering, or my character did something completely unexpected (but fitting the verb I'd chosen, just not what I thought I was trying).

It could use a save/load option (or an infinite undo stack, but that's generally harder, programming-wise), because I got tired of redoing the same series of clicks over and over -- I wanted to do the initial round of things (getting the razor, setting up the bed, etc) and then save and figure out the exact vent sequence, where GAME OVERs were frequent. I think if it'd had a save-load I'd have finished it in the time I had to play.

But a very good game for playing on an iPad. And the "plan" gentle hint mechanism worked well. (Plus it has had an update since I played it, which claims to have fixed the bug I found.)

Tense, timed, classic, tiny.

6: Fifteen Minutes
[inform, played in Spatterlight]
And we go from classic timed puzzles to even more classic time-travel timed puzzle with a straight-up traditional parser.

I felt sort of bad about this being my favorite so far, with the various discussions about the nature of IF that have been going on; I missed a lot of the conversation and am just dipping back into the genre. But this game isn't relying on nostalgia, it's well written. Sure, it's a one-puzzle set-piece, and it isn't perfect, but it's focused.

I ran into zero bugs, hooray! A bit of guess-the-noun in places, but no bugs.

The only issue was that it didn't give me enough feedback to figure out what I'd done wrong. I figured out most of the basics, made a set of notes mapping out what to do, and tried to see if I could manage the first major step. Kept getting it wrong somehow, with nothing pointing me towards what to fix. Either the ability to examine/look around for one step before GAME OVER or a word or two in the bad-ending message would have helped a lot. I didn't want to go looking at the hints when I knew I was close. Finally did get the first big step (being vague to avoid spoilers) right, but was unsure what I'd gotten wrong before as I thought I'd tried exactly that at least once before.

I did run into another block like that very late -- I managed to get 10/13 points, but not the full score. And then I had taken my two hours and felt like I was playing guessing games with the last bit, so hit up the walkthrough -- yes, I could have solved it with a little trial-and-error, but the game was otherwise so clean that it was disappointing to have to guess a bit. I might have missed a bit of clear seemingly-flavortext somewhere, but given the constraints I wasn't sure where to go back and look for it.

Stable, clever, cute, underclued.

8: The Urge
[Twine, played on my iPad]

I NOPE'd out of this one partway through because of the subject matter. (Serial killers, which is not so much of a spoiler as it's right in your face from the beginning.) I do feel I played enough to rate it, and rate it highly, but I don't want to play any more of it ever.

One thing that linear IF does well over a traditional short-story is to make the player have one particular type of agency: the power to keep going, or not. I chose to exercise mine. I couldn't keep clicking, as if by stopping I'd be saving the lives of actual virtual victims, which is silly. It's not as gory as I expected it to be at first, but that almost makes it more disturbing, as murdering becomes commonplace.

It did some great things with Twine effects; timed text changes as the PC thinks about things, etc. And not in a gimmicky way, although if every Twine story were doing it I'd get tired of it quickly. Tightly written, but melding a genre I dislike (rom-com-hijinks) with one I find really abhorrent (serial killing) and ending up in a sort of black comedy I just can't deal with. If that's your thing, though, it's well-done.

Death, banality, Walmart.

At this point I got tired of doing the cutesy summaries, plus the next group included some games that felt like the author's first IF, and being snarky about the shortcomings of a first game isn't something I want to do, because all of them had something good about them and I'd like to see their authors keep writing.

Though the next game wasn't one of them; in fact, it wasn't the first game from this author in this competition.

9: Zest
[Twine, played online]

Oddly, the previous game by one of the same authors (The Urge) worked extremely well on my aging, cranky iPad, while this one didn't. Both were doing fairly fancy things with Twine effects, but The Urge worked and Zest didn't. Oh well. I don't actually expect games to all work on the poor thing so it isn't a knock against it.

This was also well-implemented, and unlike The Urge the material didn't offend. (Stoner comedy and resource management! The former I'm neutral on and the latter I often like.) I wish I liked the result better than I did.

There was a lot of really slow timed text (and a bunch that flashed past so fast it was impossible to catch at first), and it made replaying sequences get tedious fast, which is a problem when a game is designed for multiple replays and where it seems to semi-randomize a small list of vignettes. I kept doing other things waiting for it to finish tl;dring, especially through the PC's BFF's interminable stories. Which the protagonist probably was doing too, but unlike him I had no interest in getting high while playing to pass the time.

I did play through for multiple endings, liked the achievement system for finding endings (I love this mechanic in games in general), and if it hadn't been so tiresome to wait through sequences, I probably would have gone for all of them. After I got one twice, though, I decided I was done.

10: Unform
[twine, played on iPad]

This was one of the ones that felt like it could be the author's first game; if so, it's not a bad first game; it's very derivative, but that's how a lot of people start out.

However, as a game devoid of context: I have seen this game done before, and done much better. Psychological prison horror, hackneyed and not really having any puzzles or particularly inventive prose to give it interest. And very short, too. (I realize this is like that joke about the food being bad...and such small portions!) But it was -- there was nothing there, and then it infodumped an ending on me and was over before it had a chance to get going.

23: Raik
[Twine, played on iPad]

The author's notes clearly state that this is sort of a riposte to Depression Quest, which I played briefly just after it came out. I think Raik stands on its own just fine, but it does have some distinct similarities. Beyond being made with Twine.

And one distinct difference --you can choose between playing in Scots dialect and standard English, plus both languages are used for a gameplay mechanic I won't spoil. I do feel like maybe it was two different games squashed together (and not for the reason you're thinking if you played it). The gameplay mechanic in question could have been entirely done in standard English, perhaps with two narrative styles but no dialect.

Or you could have a game in Scots. I don't know that much about Scots -- I hadn't realized it was quite as different from standard English as it is, and spent a bit on Wikipedia and elsewhere learning about it after playing, which was fascinating. (Especially as my American dialect has some Scots-Irish immigrant influence, and I some Scots-Irish background.) Education about Scots was clearly intended; it wasn't just using it as accented window-dressing. But it did still feel like a game being pulled in two directions -- one about anxiety and one about a cultural heritage, and I'm not sure being one game benefitted either.

I'm also not sure it succeeded for me as an anxiety-sim; I think perhaps it was too short, and with the language barrier I wasn't catching everything, especially due to playing it on a mobile platform where it was a pain to try to copy-paste into a dictionary. By the time I'd figured out what was going on, it was over. I played it several times, getting multiple good and bad endings, but it continued to feel a little abrupt each time.

Then again, I don't have the kind of anxiety being depicted, so maybe it is perfectly accurate.

34: Missive
[twine, played on iPad]

This was a clever premise, and a nice use of the CYOA format. The blurb did not sound appealing; the game itself sucked me right in. The protagonist's ex gives him a birthday gift she'd ordered before he was an ex; it comes with a mystery. Plus he is still hung up on her, and she on him; the interpersonal aspects felt very realistic, in that awkward post-break-up way without being overblown rom-com.

I found the puzzles impossible to get into the right mindset to solve while playing on a crowded train, but I'm not sure the game even needs them. I think I'll come back to it after the competition (and not on the iPad) rather than hitting up the hints. You can fail the puzzles and still have a good playing experience, which is a really nice touch for a CYOA puzzle game.

7: And yet it moves
[inform, played in Spatterlight]

This screams "first IF" game. An oddly-implemented money system that is completely unnecessary, arbitrary goals, parser setup issues (you can't examine anything in the plural!), etc. It does have a much more creative setting than many first games, even if it doesn't do much with it, and some decent dialog and NPCs near the beginning. Like with Unform, I hope the author keeps writing, even if this particular game isn't much fun.

Next up: The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer, Tea Ceremony, Transparent, AlethiCorp, Arqon, Icepunk, Excelsior.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment wherever you prefer.
Tags: ifcomp 2014, reviews and reactions

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